Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Workers Headquarters

A Response


First Published: Forward Motion, March 1982.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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PUL Introduction: This is a response by the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters at the hospital to the Friends’ summation of the strike last year. We have worked together almost since we started at the hospital 2-1/2 years ago. During that time we have learned from them and developed comradely relations and respect for their work.

We had some substantial differences with them in the period leading up to the strike and feel that some of their errors are clearly contained in their written sum-up. While our general analysis of the conditions preceding the strike differed only slightly from theirs, our line on what could and should be done differed significantly.

It was in the pre-strike period, which their paper treats somewhat superficially, that the sharpest struggles were taking place amongst the rank and file over the road forward. Key lessons of politics and organization should be summed up for the rank and file activists and Marxist-Leninists. This point, along with identifying some of our differences with them in order to facilitate discussion and struggle are the reason we are presenting this report.

* * *

We feel that many of our disagreements on policy and program can be traced to the Friends’ inability to understand and apply the mass line to their work in the hospital. While our orientation was generally to base ourselves on the situation among the masses, the Friends often did not take this as their starting point. Their confusion on this point is shown in their paper. They claim that when sentiment for striking began to surface, they “took this sentiment and organized broadly for it.” While this did begin to happen, it was in opposition to the Friends’ line at this point. And while they seem to say here that this was a correct approach, a somewhat more detailed description by them of this period better exemplifies their line at the time. From their paper: “Some individuals [referring mainly to us] called for ’no contract, no work’. . . even though the end of the contract was only five days away, we had no organization or authorization to strike.”

Their line at this point, we believe, was that a strike by a section of our local (i.e., the hospital) was wrong and should be avoided. Their preconceived notion was that the only feasible strike was a citywide strike. Clearly, it would have been better for the entire bargaining unit to walk, but, as always, there was uneven development and what was called for was a concrete analysis of concrete conditions, and not trying to put a brake on the developing activity until conditions came more in line with our desires.

The fact, as they state, that “some of the technical departments were talking about immediate walkouts, department by department if necessary” should have clued the Friends that there was a significant and serious strike sentiment amongst at least a section of the workers–and they should have begun to deal with it rather than writing off this sentiment, and trying to undermine a movement toward a strike by labelling any talk of it as proposing a wildcat and therefore not worthy of discussion.

As can be seen by what actually did happen, the Friends held an incorrect line, and a misappraisal of the dynamics of the developing struggle. Their political line impeded more of the activists at the hospital from boldly agitating for a strike and kept us from being better organized when we did strike.

In “Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership” (Mao, Vol. 3, pp. 117-122), Mao deals extensively with mass line. A particularly relevant section here is p. 117:

There are two methods Communists must employ in whatever work we do. One is to combine the general with the particular; the other is to combine leadership with the masses.

In any task, if no general and widespread call is issued, the broad masses cannot be mobilized for action. But if persons in leading positions confine themselves to a general call–if they do not personally, in some of the organizations, go deeply and concretely into the work called for, make a breakthrough at some single point, gain experience and use this experience for guiding other units–then they will have no way of testing the correctness or of enriching the content of their general call, and there is the danger that nothing will come of it.

In the face of the strong sentiment the Friends opposed any general call to prepare for a strike. Then they initially opposed going deeply with the possibility of striking up front. Rather than using the poll to agitate for a strike, they said we should put forward an impartial position to see “where people really stand.” Rather than using the advanced and their sentiment to arouse others, we should just wait until the vast majority (spontaneously?) demand a strike. Their conservatism in the face of growing mass anger showed they were out of touch with the broad masses at this critical moment.

While we never used the exact formulation “no contract, no work,” that was the gist of the stand we took out to the rank and file. The fact that the contract was five days from expiration and some call of this type hadn’t been raised exposed the real vacuum of leadership at the top. We continually had to blow it out there in opposition to the leadership.

The Party should teach every comrade to love the people and listen attentively to the voice of the masses; to identify himself with the masses wherever he goes and, instead of standing above them, to immerse himself among them; and according to their present level, to awaken them or raise their political consciousness and help them gradually organize themselves voluntarily and set going all essential struggles permitted by the internal and external circumstances of the given time and place. [my emphasis] Whether the masses understand it and are ready to take action can be discovered by going into their midst and making investigations.

In contradiction to what they’ve already said, the Friends go on to sum up that the activists were slow on the uptake around rank and file organizing, and only when we began did we begin to make breakthroughs. (They can see this in retrospect, but can’t see how it relates to their line.) And they describe how the various strike committees (which grew out of the Contract Action Committee) became the political centers of the strike. They state that if they had foreseen this development sooner, these committees could have formed “weeks (instead of days) before the actual walkout.” The point to be made is that if your political line orients you toward relying on and mobilizing the masses you are more likely to develop the kind of organization necessary to meet the needs of the struggle.

One last point on this section of their paper. It says that we were wrong to agitate and organize ourselves for a strike because we didn’t have “authorization to strike.” But they also sum up that because we organized broadly with the strike sentiment the president had to back down and support the strike and that here our work took on a new, organized character. First, the Friends state their line at the time, then they describe what they see in retrospect–but there is a clear contradiction between their line and the actual development of the struggle.

Throughout their strike summation, the Friends continually display a lack of understanding of the dynamics of concretely leading people in struggle and helping develop struggle. Again from “Concerning Methods of Leadership,” p. 118:

However active the leading group may be, its activity will amount to fruitless effort by a handful of people unless combined with the activity of the masses.

On the other hand, if the masses alone are active without a strong leading group to organize their activity properly, such activity can’t be sustained for long, or carried forward in the right direction or raised to a high level. The masses in any given place are generally composed of three parts, the relatively active, the intermediate and the relatively backward. The leaders must therefore be skilled in uniting the small number of active elements around the leadership and must rely on them to raise the level of the intermediate elements and to win over the backward elements. A leading group that is genuinely in the process of mass struggle, and not in isolation from it.

When this approach was taken, a significant number of people came forward for the first time and took on crucial leadership responsibilities. The Friends’ line was mainly developed through the experience at the negotiating table, and while their participation on this body was vital to the overall effort, it should not have served as the primary source of knowledge for their line development.

They still uphold as correct their support for the “necessity” of obtaining a 75% “Yes” response to the strike poll before we could call a strike. We found ourselves in the ridiculous position of pulling out our hair because the poll only indicated about a 70% “Yes” response. We wasted invaluable organizing time scrutinizing our lists and squabbling over who was really a “Yes” and who was almost a “Yes.” Had they been more in touch with the actual situation they would have known the sentiment was clearly for a strike.

In fact, our summation at the time was that the sentiment was on the verge of turning around. People had been “polled to death.” There was a small but very dangerous sentiment amongst some of the advanced that this was a big-talk, do-nothing union and if the leadership wouldn’t put out in the face of the shit we werebeing dealt, then the hell with them. Our assessment was that if the leadership hedged much longer (which is exactly what they were proposing, and which the Friends still support) more people would have burned out and our strength would have quickly dissipated. At a time such as this, where things are developing rapidly, static formulations just don’t cut it!

While the Friends were quick to brand us as “ultra-lefts” for advocating strike preparations, their approach was to channel the growing number of activists into independent pollsters, not militant organizers. Seeing their role more as barometers than as militants led the Friends to tail the advanced and lead in form only. Without the tool of the mass line and lacking the orientation of “from the masses, to the masses” the Friends often ended up in a somewhat muddled stance–especially at high points of the struggle when conditions are changing quickly.

While the Friends do a good job of describing the problems of the Social Dems at the head of the local, they don’t realize how closely some of their work and positions resemble what they criticize. For example, in attacking the president and Co. for playing to the center forces in the hopes of pulling the left and right along, the Friends should reread their paper to see what their attitude and approach to the left forces was among the masses in the pre-strike period. If they re-think their one-sided criticisms of the techs (who in the main comprised the left forces in this period) they may see some similarities to the approach they criticize in the union leadership.

We want to emphasize that we concentrated on differences of line and orientation to facilitate discussion and debate these points. This is clearly not an all-sided analysis of all the Friends’ work at the hospital, work which in general we have a great deal of respect for. We do, however, think that given their work around the strike period and their apparent confusion in summing it up, that a much humbler and more self-critical appraisal by them was called for. This could only aid the development of all our work at the hospital.

– Wildcat