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Toward an Understanding of Working-Class Radicalization

by Frank Lovell

The first question is: what happened to the mass radicalization?

Since the 1960s much has been said and written about “the new mass radicalization,” comparing it to the labor resurgence of the 1930s that gave rise to the CIO movement and to earlier periods of social unrest.

In 1969 the twenty-third national convention of the Socialist Workers Party adopted a resolution, “The Course of U.S. Imperialism and the Revolutionary Struggle for a Socialist America,” which noted that at the beginning of the decade a new wave of radicalization had emerged. That was fifteen years ago. Every year since then, until the most recent period, the leadership of the party has tended to talk about this radicalization as if it were a more or less continuous process.

At the party’s 1970 educational conference in Oberlin, Ohio, a series of talks related the growing radicalization to the women’s liberation movement, the rise of Black nationalism, the Chicano independence struggles, student protests, and the antiwar movement. One of these talks, given by George Breitman, compared and contrasted the radicalism of that time to those of the past. Breitman cautioned against the mistaken notion that mass radicalization at any time is the same as a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation. He also cautioned against leaping to conclusions about a working-class radicalization. “The truth is that we don’t have many ways of assessing the process until it is near to maturity,” he said.

During the next five years, leading to the 1975 convention of the SWP, the party leadership became convinced that the deepening radicalization was leading to a new resurgence of the working class. This was predicated on the 1974-75 depression in the U.S. and the world crisis of the capitalist system. Nixon had imposed a wage freeze in 1971. The union movement came under attack; unemployment rose; class antagonisms sharpened. The war in Vietnam intensified and ended in defeat for the U.S. “There is a continuity in our analysis from 1969 to 1975 that should be studied and discussed,” said Jack Barnes in his report to the May plenum of the SWP National Committee, which he titled “The Radicalization of the American Working Class.”

This was a report on the draft resolution for the 1975 convention, “Prospects for Socialism in America” (published in 1976 as part of a collection of reports and related resolutions under the same title). This resolution motivated the party’s “turn to the working class,” charted “labor’s strategic line of march,” and projected “the conditions for victory” of the socialist revolution. Related resolutions and reports declared that “the radicalization has reached a qualitatively new point in terms of the consciousness of the working class,” and introduced “the perspective of cutting down the size of some of the larger branches, so that members can be released to do pioneering in new areas — both in their cities and elsewhere.”

The experiment with small branches that were expected to divide and multiply failed, the result of misjudging the extent, depth, and popular expressions of the radicalization at the time. Young people in the Black, Chicano, and white working-class neighborhoods who might be developing radical responses to the conditions of their lives were not on that account prepared to join the SWP. The branches were forced to regroup in order to maintain a political presence in major cities where the party had been established since its founding in 1938. Newly established branches in cities where the SWP had not previously existed were reinforced and survived.

In 1978, at the February plenum of the NC, the central leadership recommended a general turn to basic industry, henceforth known within the party as “the turn.” This decision was prompted by the fact that dominant sectors of the ruling class had indicated in union contract negotiations and in other ways that the kind of union-management collaboration in basic industry that had prevailed for thirty years was finished. The employers had adopted a new, tougher, anti-union labor relations policy.

This did not mean, as some SWP leaders seemed to think, that the working class would become immediately more combative or force the union bureaucracy to stand up to the employer attacks, or that the political campaigns of the SWP would be embraced by masses of radicalizing workers. None of this happened. What did happen was a series of hard-fought strikes in which the employer offensive was checked temporarily and tested.

At the World Congress of the Fourth International in 1979 SWP national secretary Jack Barnes exhorted his European co-thinkers and others to “make the turn” to basic industry. “It is there that we will meet the forces to build the Fourth International, to build workers’ parties. It is there that we will meet the young workers, the growing numbers of women workers, the workers of oppressed nationalities, the immigrant workers,” he said. “It is inside the industrial working class that revolutionary parties will get a response to our program and recruits to our movement.” All this is true, but not directly related to the stage of working-class radicalization in the U.S. or elsewhere. Barnes contended, however, that “a political radicalization of the working class — uneven and at different tempos from country to country — is on the agenda.”

The main political resolution adopted at the SWP’s thirtieth national convention that year, in August 1979, titled “Building a Revolutionary Party of Socialist Workers,” confirmed “the turn.” As then interpreted by the authors this resolution meant (in terms of where party members would be required to work and the kinds of work they would do) that “former lawyers, doctors, dentists, professors, members of the building trades, teachers, and all varieties of public employees... are either already in industry or looking...” Implicit in all this is the belief that working-class radicalization must be first expressed in the struggles of workers in basic industry, and then only through the industrial unions. From such a schematic concept it was easy (seemingly inherent in the schema) to conclude that “the working class is moving to center stage,” later to become an overworked expression in the party.

By the time of the 1980 SWP educational conference at Oberlin, the party leadership had dropped much of the talk about working-class radicalization in this country. Their main attention had shifted to “the revolutionary leadership in Cuba, and the development of new Marxist currents such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the New Jewel Movement in Grenada.” This coincided with some lost strikes and the general stepped-up anti-labor offensive of the employers. The presidential election campaign failed to spark new political interest within the working class, and it was then conceded on all sides that the anti-labor candidate Reagan might win the election.

In preparation for the 1981 national convention the SWP leader ship was engrossed in the revolutionary developments in Latin America and in its new political turn in that direction. This new turn was an adaptation to the Castroist political current, a turn away from Trotskyism, and a quiet purge of the National Committee to eliminate potential opposition there when the full sweep of the new turn became known. Consequently there was little talk at the convention about the working-class radicalization. Meetings of the industrial fractions debated their own internal organizational problems, oblivious to any problems in the union movement.

This writer submitted a series of articles in preconvention discussion on the state of the unions, the existing level of working-class radicalization, and the potential for SWP recruitment on the job and in the unions. These questions at that time were far removed from the attention of the party leadership, and were ignored.

Except for the SWP there has not been much effort since the end of the war in Vietnam to analyze and explain working-class radicalization. The Stalinists and some circles among the Social Democrats talk and write about union politics, assuming that the working class will radicalize. But they have said little about the radicalizing process. Most radicals are content to deplore the “lack of militancy” and the “political backwardness” of workers and their allies in this country. The common questions are “How can Reagan get away with the things he does?” and “Why don’t the unions fight back?” If seriously pursued these might be useful questions. Usually they are purely rhetorical.

Some radicals say the 1960s radicalization was never transmitted to any broad stratum of the working class, and certainly not to the unionized workers. It is, moreover, generally accepted in the radical movement that some ingredients of the 1960s protests were alien to working-class needs. Who needs the “new left” today when modern Marxists are trying to emulate the old left? What good is “participatory democracy” in a union caucus? Why organize demonstrations to lobby capitalist politicians when a new mass party of the working class is urgently needed? These and similar questions are bandied about in the SWP, but never openly raised or seriously discussed.

SWP leaders, who might be expected to respond, have lost interest in the radicalization of the 1960s and in trying to trace its effect on the present generation of young Blacks, women, and others in the working class and in the unions. An article in the Militant of March 9 about a meeting of the party’s national steel fraction mentions “a sober assessment of the state of thinking and radicalization among rank-and-file steelworkers.” It quotes Geoff Mirelowitz, reporter for the SWP political committee, who “explained” that the dissatisfaction and anger of steelworkers “is not the same as thinking in class terms.” Mirelowitz said, “we see no motion yet towards the development of a class-struggle leadership prepared to organize the necessary battle against the employers and their government.” He said, “the overwhelming mass of steelworkers do not yet see any alternative to the pro-capitalist policies of the officialdom.” It is no surprise then that “there is no layer of workers moving consciously to revolutionary conclusions and ready, in significant numbers, to join a revolutionary organization like the SWP.” The fact is obvious. But the conception is false. This is not an assessment of the radicalization among steelworkers.

The fallacy here is in identifying radicalization with class warfare. They are not the same. Mass radicalization is a condition of changing attitudes, shifting beliefs, rejecting previously accepted values. It is the subjective responses to social crises.

The class struggle and class warfare continue under all circumstances in capitalist society. When the class struggle is muted on the industrial front, as in the 1950s, it breaks out in different forms on other fronts. The Montgomery bus boycott began in 1955, a form of class struggle. This was also an expression of radicalization among Blacks in the South, a new determination on their part to defy Jim Crow. But failure to distinguish between radicalization and class warfare, as in this instance, is misleading. The two are not the same, and not always part of the same process. Understanding this distinction is necessary in the basic work of building a revolutionary party, and in helping to build a class-struggle left wing in the labor movement.

The present circumstances of the unions are drastically altered from those of thirty years ago, the result of the recent drive by the employers to take back concessions previously granted. This has sharpened the class struggle and provoked some long and bitter strikes. It has not, in and of itself, contributed much to the further radicalization of the working class.

Working-class radicalization is fueled by persistently high unemployment, technological changes in industrial production, the uncertainty of job replacement, lower wage rates, fear of inflation, government cutbacks of entitlement programs, high military spending, lack of educational opportunities — in short, the same economic insecurity and social unrest that prompts militant strike actions and strike-support demonstrations. But the level of radicalization is measured by the rejection of old values, the questioning of constituted authority, the search for new methods and new standards of social behavior, the desire for a complete change to something better.

This sense of insecurity and desire for change is not confined to the working class and certainly not the poverty-stricken who have never known security and have always wanted change. The middle class and some sectors of the working class — especially those industrial workers who have long enjoyed union protection and think they are “middle class” — are more unsettled at this juncture than most workers who are still trying to figure out what happened to the economy and what the promised economic recovery will bring. This does not mean that the thoughtful worker is less susceptible to a Marxist explanation of the social crisis than others who may seem more radical.

Signs of mass radicalization show up in capitalist electoral politics. In the Democratic primaries this year many voters who question the two-party system and seek something better crossed party lines in 1980 to vote for Reagan and are now supporting Hart because he promises to scrap old practices and introduce new methods. In a more severe economic and social crisis, when the ruling class begins to think that fascism can save their system from total collapse, the radicalized middle-class elements can become the shock troops of the “new movement,” as happened in Germany. In pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations the masses are radicalized and in their overwhelming majority can swing either to the side of the proletarian revolution or to the side of reaction. The outcome is determined by the will and ability of the working-class leadership to constitute a new government, not by the general radicalization of masses of people of all classes.

The radicalization of the 1960s exerted considerable influence upon working-class youth who were part of it, and through them its residue remains in the ranks of the unions today. This radicalizing process never ended. Unlike the class struggle it could have wound down and disappeared. Past periods of radicalization have ended rather abruptly. World War I ended the radicalization of what has been called the Debsian period, which began around the time the Socialist Party was organized in 1901. The radicalization of the 1930s ended suddenly with the advent of World War II. The radicalization of the 1960s was slowed down for a while after the war in Vietnam, and it changed course toward the end of the 1970s. Large segments of the working class began to radicalize during that decade. Millions of workers have been and are directly affected by the economic instability. Reports of the dissatisfaction and anger of steelworkers are accurate enough, and this dissatisfaction and anger is one of the signs of the present working-class radicalization. These workers in this country are also influenced in their thinking by the revolutionary struggles of colonial peoples in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. The uprising in Poland likewise contributes to the general sense of rebellion against authority and injustice which is felt throughout the working class.

Black workers and women are more radicalized by the conditions of their lives in recent years than other sectors of the working class, partly because of their expectations. They believe that the organized struggles of Blacks and women are viable, and they tend to reject the old idea that somehow things will get better by themselves. It is as if they were wedded to the idea of protest and struggle. They believe in “upward mobility” with a different understanding and interpretation than the phrase connoted when it was coined. They insist upon change. They seek ways to bring change about. These are the expressions of a radicalizing sector of the working class.

In a recent series of talks in Minneapolis on the state of the unions, rank-and-file control, strike strategy, the importance of independent political action, and related subjects, I expressed the opinion that even though the future of the unions appears bleak there is renewed radicalization in the ranks. I have since concluded that this opinion needs clarification and amplification. That is what accounts for this contribution to further discussion of the question. We ought to make some corrections in what has been said in the political resolutions and reports of the SWP during the past decade — beginning with the so-called turn to the working class in 1975 — to clearly distinguish between mass radicalization and organized actions by segments of the working class. If we can safely say that “there is no layer of workers moving consciously to revolutionary conclusions,” it does not therefore follow that there is no working-class radicalization. It adds nothing to our understanding of this process to be told that “the situation remains a preparatory one.”

The signs of radicalization do not include daily mass actions, nor the emergence of a ready-made “class-struggle left wing” in the unions. Antiwar demonstrations such as those last November 12 in Washington, D.C., and other cities, and the nearly half-million who demonstrated in Washington on August 27 for jobs, peace, and freedom are signs of genuine radicalization. How this will be expressed in the unions depends upon how and by whom it is organized. A left wing in the unions is not a spontaneous development, any more than strikes and strike-support actions are spontaneous. They have to be organized. The radicalization prepares the ground for the success of such actions, but they do not occur automatically out of the radicalizing process.

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