The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Socialist Workers Party:
A Turn Towards the Working Class
– But Not Towards the Workers

Mar 31, 1980

At its most recent World Congress in November, the USec (United Secretariat) of the Fourth International adopted a report presented by Jack Barnes, a leader of the American SWP (Socialist Workers Party). The report was on the question of a turn towards industry. A resolution contained in the report proposed that:

“...the sections of the Fourth International must make a radical turn to immediately organize a large number of our members and leaders into industry and into industrial unions.”

For us, such a proposed turn by USec could be important if it were carried out. One of the main criticisms that our international has made of the USec in the past was that it didn’t focus its organizational efforts at implanting itself in the working class.

It is preferable for us, of course, to see the USec direct activity of Trotskyist militants of the working class. But this in itself is not enough. We must also consider the questions of what that activity should be and what policy should be followed. It’s not clear how the USec will answer these questions. So it is useful to examine the experience of the SWP, for the SWP already had proposed in 1975 to carry out such a turn and in fact has done it.

Why Did the SWP Make Its Turn?

In 1975, the SWP proposed to send many of its members as it could into the factories. They explained their reasoning for the turn at this time by citing two main factors. In the SWP’s own view, first of all, objective conditions had changed. They thought the working class struggles were increasing and thus it was necessary for them to be in the working class. Secondly, the SWP said that it had recruited enough out of other milieus to be prepared for such a turn.

When the SWP made this turn, in no way did they question their previous policies, activity, recruitment and resulting organizational composition.

Yet as early as 1937, Trotsky had raised the problem of its petty-bourgeois composition to the SWP. Trotsky talked of the need for the SWP “...to change the social composition of the organization – to make it a workers organization....”

It is Barnes himself who cited this quote of Trotsky in his report. Nonetheless, Barnes also said:

“Our movement’s social composition is totally abnormal. This is a historical fact, not a criticism. In fact, far from being a criticism, it was our movement’s ability to recruit from the new generation of radicalizing youth – from the early sixties on – that today poses the possibility of making this turn.”

Apparently 40 years after Trotsky himself made his point, Barnes continues to justify as normal what Trotsky considered abnormal in a revolutionary organization.

The SWP continues to justify what it did, or more exactly, what it did not do, until the turn in 1975. That is, it neither posed the need of directing its activity towards the working class, nor even looked at the working class to see what was possible. Instead, starting in the late 1950s, it became preoccupied with a series of petty-bourgeois movements. Despite the fluctuations in size and influence, its focus remained on the petty bourgeoisie. Within this framework, its political strategy also remained the same, that of coat-tailing the various petty-bourgeois leaderships.

This period of activity within the petty-bourgeois movements began for the SWP with the Cuban Revolution of 1959. During most of the 1950s, for a variety of reasons, the SWP had been unable to find any such arena for itself. But the Cuban experience caught the imagination of a section of American youth. The SWP, then quite small, jumped on Castro’s bandwagon, more or less describing the Cuban revolution as the socialist revolution. It involved itself in support for Cuba within this country.

In the early sixties we saw the growth of the black nationalist movement. At that time, the SWP used its small resources essentially to tail after Malcolm X, as it did after Castro. Malcolm X was invited to speak at the SWP forums, he was featured in their paper, and they published his speeches. The SWP discussed Malcolm X’s “revolutionary nationalism” as if there was little difference between his perspective and theirs. They failed to put forward any independent perspective for the emerging black struggle, any revolutionary policy.

When the anti-war movement began in the 1960s, it opened up new and different possibilities for recruitment for the SWP. It was a university-based movement which became a mass movement over several years time. From the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, when the movement declined, the SWP focused its attention and organizational efforts on this movement. The SWP became very active on the campuses and did much of the behind-the-scenes organizing for the big mobilizations in New York and Washington.

The anti-war movement breathed new life into the SWP. It grew substantially, recruiting a whole generation of young people. It also became much better known as a political organization.

Yet in spite of the SWP’s own significant organizational presence, it continued the same policy as before. This time it was the liberal leadership of the anti-war movement which it courted, doing everything possible to avoid alienating them. For example, the SWP argued against using the slogan “Defeat U.S. imperialism” because they feared it would divide the movement.

With the end of the anti-war movement, the SWP looked around for a new petty-bourgeois movement. This time it turned to the women’s movement and then later to the gay liberation movement. These movements were much smaller and offered much fewer prospects. Nonetheless, as long as there was any movement among the petty-bourgeoisie, the SWP still clung to this milieu. But the opportunity was drawing to a close.

By 1974-75, these petty-bourgeois protest movements of the last 20 years had died out or were at a dead end. It was only at this point that the SWP turned its eyes to the working class. It was then that it proposed its turn.

The SWP says it made its turn because it had recruited sufficiently from the petty-bourgeois milieus and because the working class movement was growing. In reality, what we see is not so much a growth of the working class movement, as a complete lack of any petty-bourgeois movement. And, in fact, the SWP was the last of the revolutionary groups in the U.S. to make a turn towards the working class.

The Risk of Adventurism

Between 1968 and 1975, many of the smaller of the revolutionary groups including the Maoists, state capitalists and Trotskyists had sent their militants into the factories and had begun to direct at least part of their activity towards workers.

No matter what the reason for the turn, it was true that the leftist movement was trying to deal with a real problem. In the case of all the groups, including the SWP, the problem posed was the same: how a revolutionary organization can win workers. The formation of revolutionary worker militants is the main tasks of the revolutionary organizations today. The problem for the revolutionary organization is how to become implanted in the working class.

Most of the revolutionary movement chose to solve this problem by sending students or other petty-bourgeois people into the factories. But if the SWP and the others chose to send petty-bourgeois people into the factories, it couldn’t be simply because they wanted to transform a small number of students into workers. The SWP must hope that it will be able to find workers in this way, by sending students into the factories.

There are several problems with this course. In the first place, it is difficult to find people who are able and ready to carry out such a task. You must find petty-bourgeois people who are devoted to the working class, who are willing to make big changes in their lives. And the students, once inside the factory, must be able to be more politically conscious than the other workers, and at the same time become an ordinary worker like the other workers.

A revolutionary organization, and especially a small one, will be able to find only a small number of such petty-bourgeois people. The SWP itself was able only to find several hundred people. And this changes almost nothing in the balance of forces between the revolutionary movement and the working class. The problem still remains how to win a significant number of workers to the revolutionary movement so that the revolutionary organization can have an influence in the working class, or at least in part of the working class. Sending students solves nothing, for if these student-workers are able to win workers from inside the factory, they could just as easily and in fact more easily, win workers from the outside.

Sending students into the factory raises other problems, which the SWP does not seem to address.

In the first place, life in a factory is hard. It is understandable that petty-bourgeois militants might feel enthusiastic about going into a factory, if they feel they will have results in a short time. But what happens to those same people, faced with the prospect of spending their lives in the factory, and spending them there with no guarantee of success? In some cases, we will see these people decide to leave the factories. In others, we can see their impatience lead them to follow an adventurist policy. In either case, it can end up with a small revolutionary organization losing any real chance to become implanted in the working class.

We can see an example of this problem in the experience of the PL (Progressive Labor). PL, a Maoist group, was one of the first groups to send students into the factories. Once inside, they proposed to lead revolutionary actions. But what they intended and what resulted were not necessarily one and the same.

For example, at the Mack Avenue Stamping Plant in Detroit, where two of their militants worked, they were involved in sparking an action in 1973. By announcing that a sit-in was going on and then chaining themselves to a line, they mobilized a small number of militants in the plant. The action involved about 200 workers and lasted several days. It was broken by the combined efforts of the police and the UAW (United Automobile Workers) goon squad, and PL was permanently out of the plant. PL was not able to find other people to replace them or another way to do the work. PL admits in its magazine, Progressive Labor, in the 1979-80 Winter issue, that they were not able to have militants or work in Detroit auto for 6 years after the Mack strike.

So the result of their “revolutionary action” in the plant eliminated the “revolutionaries” from the working class activity in Detroit for 6 years.

The Danger of Adapting to the Bureaucracy

The other risk is to have petty-bourgeois militants end up adapting themselves to the trade union bureaucracy because the revolutionary organization is unable to exert a counter pressure from the outside. To be able to exert such a pressure is not just a question of good intentions. It is rather a reflection of what the revolutionary organization is: it must have a widespread implantation in the working class and it must have a tradition of revolutionary political work in plants. But today the leftist movement has neither. Of course, it is always necessary for the revolutionary organization to exert a pressure into the working class milieu. If the organization can’t exert this pressure, the petty-bourgeois militants can easily end up as advisors to the more militant trade union oppositionists or as people who carry out simply a unionist policy, which in the end will mean the same thing. In such a situation, the revolutionaries will become just one more reformist current in the unions, and no longer a revolutionary organization.

We can see such a tendency in the experience of the IS (International Socialists) which comes out of the Shachtman tradition. In the June 1979 issue of their magazine Changes, Mark Levitan looks retrospectively at the IS policy of sending students into the factories. He says: “For ourselves the ‘70s would be a time in which a student-based group could turn to the labor movement, enter industry, provide leadership for the rank and file movements and build, if not a revolutionary party, at least a significant socialist tendency within the working class.

“After ten years our efforts have had mixed results. On the one hand, we have moved from being a campus-based group to a group based on the trade unions.”

In other words, what the IS did was to send its militants into the plants and adapt to the unions. They have done this so effectively that in an obituary on George Meany in their monthly Labor Notes of January 24, 1980, they discuss Meany’s feeble attempts at militancy in his youth and make no mention of his 30 years as the leading spokesman in the labor movement for the American ruling class. Kirkland couldn’t have said it better. The IS has adapted so well to the union leaderships that it is hardly possible to see any difference between them.

If a real revolutionary workers party existed today, then the question would be posed differently. It could send students into the plants. Such a party, because of its implantation, because it had real roots in the working class, because of its experience and because of the pressure it could exercise on its own militants, would be in a position to carry out such a policy if it chose to. It would be able to give the kind of guidance necessary to them. It would also be able to keep them from being ultra-leftist and over-eager. It could prevent them from seeing every problem as an all-or-nothing battle. But today such a party doesn’t exist.

Advisers to the Union Leadership

The examples we gave before don’t prove anything about the SWP, of course, but they illustrate the problem. And the situation of those groups is not essentially different than that of the SWP. It is not a real revolutionary party, implanted in the working class, even if it is much larger than the other groups. It too is threatened by the same risks as the others.

The SWP has not yet had time to develop a balance sheet to the extent that the other groups have. Nonetheless, we can already see somewhat what their policy is in plants and, therefore, where their turn is leading them.

In the first place, the SWP says that the only real possibility of mobilizing the workers lies within the framework of the unions. The SWP leadership seems to believe that workers become revolutionaries only through the route of trade union activity. This approach discards all those workers who are totally disgusted by the unions today, but who are revolted by the conditions of society. And yet for their student militants, they could see that there were other possibilities. In fact, they recruited most of their petty-bourgeois militants from movements of protests such as the anti-war movement. In reality, what they are saying is that workers do not have the same possibility to be interested in political questions as do the students. And so they ask their militants to concentrate their activity within the unions.

Moreover, within the unions, they direct their activity in the direction of the trade union bureaucracy.

In the USWA (United Steel Workers of America), for example, the SWP was involved in the campaign of union oppositionist Ed Sadlowski who ran for the presidency of the union. Sadlowski was in no way a revolutionary, but only part of the left wing of the union bureaucracy. The SWP called for the election of Sadlowski as the solution to the workers’ problems. They did not look at the campaign as a way for the workers to express their discontent and as a means to organize themselves. The result was that when Sadlowski lost, both he and the SWP militants in the mills were left with little perspective to give to the workers who had been involved in the campaign.

In the pages of The Militant, we see also a more or less uncritical support to the policies and leadership of other left-wing bureaucrats such as Cesar Chavez, president of the UFW (United Farm Workers).

In the case of the Newport News Shipyard workers who have been fighting to establish their union, the SWP followed the lead of the union officials like USWA president McBride. Like these officials, the SWP doesn’t see any other way for the workers than through the legalistic one of formal recognition by the government.

In each case, the SWP’s policy is the same. It is a policy that follows the union leadership. Perhaps sometimes it is the most militant union leadership, but nonetheless, this leadership is nothing more than part of the reformist bureaucracy.

This policy of the SWP is not surprising. The problem of viewing trade union activity as the major kind of activity in the factories leads one in the direction of adapting oneself to the trade union bureaucracy. This is not a new problem for the SWP. It dates back to its early factory work in the 1930s. The problem of this kind of adaptation was discussed by Trotsky in an article which he wrote in 1940, reprinted in In Defense of Marxism. Trotsky warned:

“More than once the party will have to remind its own trade unionists that a pedagogical adaptation to the more backward layers of the proletariat must not become transformed into a political adaptation to the conservative bureaucracy of the trade unions.”

The SWP says it recognizes this problem today. It tries to answer it by proposing other activity which it presents as a supplement to its union work. It carries on campaigns around anti-nuclear power, the E.R.A., support for Nicaragua and Iran, as well as its own election activities. It asks workers to donate money, sign petitions, pass resolutions in union meetings or perhaps to go to demonstrations or meetings. It encourages workers to join with the students and other petty-bourgeois movements.

It is necessary for a revolutionary organization to make a regular propaganda and, where possible, have activities around political issues. But for the most part, the issues the SWP chooses represent its own preoccupations, the preoccupations of the universities, not the working class. And though these activities are posed as the counterbalance to the union work, in fact these activities are also carried out for the most part within the structure of the unions.

The problem for the SWP is that all of what they call their working class activity is in reality directed toward the unions; finally, what that means is that it is directed toward the union bureaucrats and not toward the masses of rank and file workers. They give political counsel to these officials while they ignore the masses of workers who are not active in the unions.

What it means in fact is that the turn towards the working class is really a turn towards the union officials and not towards the workers. The turn is a continuation of the same policy that the SWP followed in the petty-bourgeois movements. It is a strategy that consists of giving advice to the leaders. Before, the SWP gave advice to the liberal leaders of the anti-war and student and women’s movements. Now, they give advice to the “progressive” union officials or the aspiring union officials.

By doing this, they may hope to gain positions of leadership within the unions, and to use these positions to become the leadership of the working class. But this is not the way for the revolutionaries to lead the working class and its struggles. Revolutionaries know only one way to play a leading role in the working class movement. This way is to win the confidence of the workers themselves, by revolutionary militants defending openly their own revolutionary ideas and policy.

It is the workers themselves who will have to make the conscious choice to approve the policies put forth by the revolutionary movement or to reject them. And the workers can judge only if they are conscious of what their alternatives are and what the different choices will mean. They can do this only if the revolutionary movement addresses its answers to all of the workers, only if it answers both the small day-to-day problems and the bigger and more crucial political questions that face the working class.

We live in an epoch when the Trotskyist movement, for most of its organizational life, has been cut from the working class. Especially in the United States, the Trotskyist movement has been absent for decades from the working class and its struggles. It lost touch with the workers’ concerns and preoccupations. It forgot how to pose questions in working class terms.

Given all of this, certainly it is better for the Trotskyist movement, both in the U.S. and in the world, to make a turn towards the working class. It is better later than not at all. But if the turn follows the current policy, then the SWP and the USec have no chance of implanting Trotskyist ideas and the Trotskyist movement in the working class.