The Spark

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

The Orientation of the SWP:
The Unions Are Not the Working Class

Nov 30, 1985

In 1979, the Socialist Workers Party made a turn in the orientation of its activity, a turn toward the industrial working class.

At a time when more and more people view the industrial proletariat almost as a disappearing breed, when most people who call themselves Trotskyists purposely or otherwise blur the distinctions between this basic layer of the working class and all its more peripheral layers, or even between the working class and such petty-bourgeois layers of the population as teachers and social workers, the turn of the SWP recalled the absolute necessity for revolutionary communists to direct their basic, essential activity toward this social force. We think this orientation of the SWP is a positive thing.

Certainly, it was not an easy task to take an organization of almost 2,000 militants, drawn essentially and overwhelmingly from the petty-bourgeoisie and place it into industrial work places. And the SWP itself had problems. During this same period, the SWP saw a net drop of over half of its membership, according to its own figures: maybe in part because it was not so easy to recruit in the working class as in the petty-bourgeois milieus; maybe in part because the movements out of which the SWP had recruited were gone; maybe in part because a good many of those militants drawn from the petty-bourgeoisie were not ready to confront the rigors that the turn necessitated. Nonetheless, the SWP reaffirmed its orientation toward the industrial working class in its 1984 convention.

It is a good thing for the Trotskyist movement that the most important Trotskyist organization made such a turn in its orientation and maintained it.

Nonetheless, we have disagreements with the SWP, disagreements which seem to us substantial, over the manner in which their proletarian orientation is conceived.

Objective Circumstances – or Subjective Choices?

The Spring 1985 edition of the New International carries a resolution from the 1984 convention of the SWP. This resolution, “The Revolutionary Perspective and Leninist Continuity in the United States,” explains the way the SWP has conceived of its proletarian orientation, and it gives an account of the SWP’s current activity to implement it.

The resolution explains this turn in the following fashion:

“An essential part of the strategic line of march toward to the establishment of a workers’ and farmers’ government in the United States is the fight for the transformation of the industrial unions – the most powerful existing organizations of the working class – into revolutionary instruments of class struggle for the interests of the exploited and oppressed.

“During the long postwar period of capitalist expansion, political conditions in the United States stood in the way of effective revolutionary work by socialists in the industrial unions. The political and economic situation that opened in the mid-1970’s made it possible once again for communists to advance this fight from within the industrial unions. This dictated a sharp turn. The SWP decided to get a large and stable majority of its members into the industrial unions and to build national fractions of its members in these unions....

“The Socialist Workers Party’s proletarian orientation and perspective of the development of a class struggle left wing in the labor movement constitute a permanent strategic axis, which we seek to advance whatever the political situation may be. Under the present conditions in the United States, as in the rest of the capitalist world, the sharp turn to the industrial unions is necessary to advance this perspective.” (pg. 12)

The resolution also tries to place this turn of the SWP in the general line of the orientation laid out by the SWP at its founding conference in 1938:

“The SWP’s founding convention set the goal of proletarianizing the party. It decided on a turn to industry and the industrial unions as the foundation on which all other accomplishments would be built.

“The delegates decided that a ‘complete reorientation of our party from the membership up to the leadership and back again, is absolutely imperative and unpostponable.... We will not succeed in rooting the party in the working class,’ the political resolution adopted by that [1938] convention said, ‘much less to defend the revolutionary proletarian principles of the party from being undermined, unless the party is an overwhelmingly proletarian party, composed in its decisive majority of workers in the factories, mines, and mills.’” (pg. 77)

The current resolution explains that “The goal of the turn is a large majority of party members and leaders in industrial jobs and effectively functioning national industrial union fractions...” (pg. 13) Further, “Our goal is to achieve regular weekly contact by every party member with industrial workers, especially those in unions where we are building national fractions. This is another step toward integrating the entire party into the turn... and thus deepening our proletarian orientation. The weekly plant-gate sales are an important way to influence and recruit industrial workers, which is the only way to establish the party as a tendency in the labor movement over the long run.” (pg. 24)

In the first place, the question is raised why a revolutionary communist organization would find it necessary to make a “turn toward the working class.” Certainly, no one can fault an organization for being born outside the working class. Many revolutionary organizations had their origins outside the working class milieu. The Trotskyist movement as a whole, because of the weight of Stalinism on the working class, found itself at its beginning outside the working class. One of Trotsky’s permanent preoccupations was how to rectify that situation, despite all the difficulties in the objective situation. The 1938 resolution which the SWP refers to in face derives from Trotsky’s warnings to the SWP on the necessity for the SWP to be rooted in the working class despite all the difficulties.

But it was 40 years ago when Trotsky raised the problem. If the same problem is raised today, it must mean that the SWP did not heed that warning, that it was not able to, or that it decided not to.

But the SWP doesn’t address this issue: it simply repeats Trotsky’s warnings, warnings given when he urged the SWP to go to the working class in 1938; it justifies the fact that for 40 years it didn’t go to the working class; it explains that the long postwar period was not, due to objective circumstances, a favorable one for revolutionary work inside the working class – or more precisely, inside the trade unions.

There are several things wrong with the SWP’s reasoning. In the first place, on the factual level, it’s not at all clear that the working class – which the SWP, however, translates as the labor movement – was inhospitable to a revolutionary viewpoint during all the year of the Viet Nam war, although the union bureaucracies, of course, were. Most of the public opinion polls taken during the war show that the working class was more opposed to the war, at each period, than were the middle class layers of society, including the students. And black workers were in the streets in the 1960s, ready to engage in street battles against the armed forces of the state.

Of course, given that the revolutionaries were not in the working class during those years, we have no way of ascertaining what the reaction of the working class would have been to a revolutionary communist viewpoint. But we think the fact that the left still repeats the myth about the so-called “reactionary” working class reflects not reality but the long absence of the left from the working class, and its long-standing preoccupations with the manner in which the petty-bourgeoisie raises political problems.

But even if circumstances had been “unfavorable,” as they undoubtably were in the 1950s, the left still would have had work to do in the working class. No revolutionary party was ever constructed simply in the periods of upsurge of the working class movement. Even in the periods of deepest reaction – much deeper than those of the 1950s in the U.S. – it was possible to recruit and form cadre from the working class.

And if it hadn’t been possible to recruit, then what? A revolutionary party which represents the proletariat can be formed only by militants able to live through all the experience of the working class. If a party struggles for the leadership of the working class, if it wants to take the direction of the workers’ struggles, it must be in the working class, even in periods of reaction; in fact, above all precisely when the working class is undergoing defeats. If revolutionaries are the people who show up only on fine days, during those wonderful moments when there is an upsurge of struggle in the working class, it will be too late. Why should the workers have confidence in such fair-weather friends? Why should the workers trust those who show up to lead them only at the moment the working class has finally given itself prospects? It is in the difficult periods that revolutionaries can win the respect of the workers – by showing that we are present, that we defend our ideas, that we maintain our confidence in the possibilities of the working class, despite the difficulties; by showing the workers that their class is our class, for good or bad, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

A 25-year “Detour” into the Petty Bourgeoisie

In its 1984 resolution, the SWP raises the problem in a different fashion:

“Beginning with the end of the post World War II strike wave, the labor movement entered a period of political retreat.... The party’s political activity and campaigns became, of necessity, more and more removed from the labor movement.... Under these conditions, the party’s permanent goal of proletarianization could not be advanced by centering our work around fractions in the major industrial unions.... The basis did not exist for ongoing work in the unions by party members....

“The SWP turned toward a rise in proletarian struggle in this country, which took the form of the upsurge in the Black movement, and to the emergence of a revolutionary working-class leadership internationally through the victory and consolidation of the Cuban revolution. Our movement gained recruits as a result of the radicalization of a layer of young people who were attracted to these struggles, some of whom could be won to revolutionary perspectives....

“Over the next decade the party oriented toward the rise of Black nationalism and the Malcolm X leadership, and the explosive struggles of the Black nationality....

“We turned toward and became an integral part of the movement against the war in Viet Nam....

“The party embraced the rise of the new women’s movement and the fight for women’s rights, throwing ourselves into these battles....

“Since the new radicalization did not primarily come out of the labor movement, the new recruits to the SWP did not primarily come out of the labor movement either. Most new members during this time were students....

“Our political course enabled the SWP to meet the challenges posed by the next major turning point in U.S. politics. When the new situation marked by the 1974-75 recession reopened the main road of building a revolutionary workers’ party based in the industrial working class, the SWP was in position to advance along it. The leadership through the necessary detour had been successful. The continuity of our proletarian orientation remained intact.” (pgs. 82-84)

Even though the SWP insists it has a “permanent strategic axis” of a “proletarian orientation,” in practice it admits the necessity of “detours” from this proletarian orientation, even 25-year detours into the petty-bourgeoisie.

According to the SWP itself, it was not unfavorable conditions in the 1960s and early 1970s which kept it from the working class. It was the fact that the SWP chose to take its stand inside the petty-bourgeois movements, movements which seemed to offer it more prospects at that time. The SWP hoped to recruit enough cadre out of these flourishing movements to allow it to take a short-cut to the revolutionary party.

Did the short-cut work, even in the SWP’s own terms?

The SWP did play a role in the movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, in some cases maybe even the decisive organizational one in coalescing them. (The one important exception to this was the struggle of the black population, where no left organization, with the exception of a very minor role played by the CP, played any real role – other than that of cheerleader for the nationalists, or even for the bourgeois reformers, who were leading the black struggle – the one struggle which did reach into sections of the working class and which might have had a revolutionary potential.) As a result of its militant activity in the petty-bourgeois radical movements, the SWP did recruit.

The question is, however, whether this recruitment left the SWP truly “in a position to advance... along the main road of building a revolutionary workers’ party based in the industrial working class”; whether the “detour” had been successful, as the SWP insists.

The movements out of which the SWP recruited were petty-bourgeois in composition and aimed at just a few reforms within the framework of bourgeois society. They reflected the concerns and preoccupations of the petty-bourgeoisie. The militants formed in these movements were formed within the framework of a movement alien or even hostile to the working class. Their activity in those movements did not teach them how to direct their activity toward the working class, to learn from it, to hear its preoccupations and problems; it did not give them the way to recruit out of the working class.

During the years when the whole working class was in ferment – more so certainly than now – during the years when many ordinary black workers talked of revolution, the SWP’s militants, formed in, as well as recruited out of these petty-bourgeois movements, were not able to link up with the working class.

When Trotsky discussed with the SWP in 1938 the need to “proletarianize the party,” the criteria he proposed to establish for new petty-bourgeois militants of the organization was that they must recruit at least one worker for the organization in a period of, say, 6 months, or be dropped from full membership in the party. That is, he insisted on the necessity of petty-bourgeois recruits immediately addressing their attention to the working class.

But the students whom the SWP recruited in the 1960s and early 1970s were unable, for years even, to recruit from the working class. The SWP had gathered through its short-cut many hundreds of new militants, most of them students. But these students did not provide the bridge to the proletarian party. It was this which probably brought the SWP to make its “turn” toward the working class in such a harsh fashion. It was the inability of its militants to get links with the proletariat that raised the necessity for the SWP to send, in a kind of forced-march fashion, as many as possible of its petty-bourgeois students into the factories. At that point, in 1979, maybe it was what the SWP had to do. Maybe it was the only way for the SWP to establish some links with the working class, given the petty-bourgeois milieu which was weighing heavily on the organization. In that sense, it may have been a correct tactic to send most of the petty-bourgeois militants of the organization directly into the factories. We don’t know. But the problem is not really here.

It is in the way the SWP explains the necessity of making the turn. Today the SWP presents this 25-year detour as though it had been planned. In fact, the SWP entered into this detour because it seemed easiest. But today, when they try to correct the results, they try to make it seem like a strategy which paid many benefits rather than one which led them to a brutal kind of correction. The fact that they do not admit this was a mistake means they are apt to repeat it. Their mistaken belief that a short-cut which ignores the working class is a valid road for a revolutionary communist organization will still have currency in the future. It means that once more the SWP may direct its attention to the petty-bourgeois layers because there is more ferment there than in the working class.

Are the Unions the Only Road to the Revolutionary Party?

As we have already seen, the goal of the SWP when it made its turn was to become implanted in the unions. The SWP’s own arguments for the turn, which we have already quoted, are made in terms of conditions in the unions, not in the working class. The whole resolution presumes and explicitly states that the basic field of activity for revolutionaries is within the unions. It talks about the need for the unions to be transformed “from instruments of class collaboration with the employers and their government into instruments of revolutionary struggle for the interests of working people of city and countryside, and of all the oppressed.” (pg. 8) The resolution even talks of the need for the future revolutionary party to be built on the industrial unions.

Maybe revolutionary worker militants need to be active in the unions. We agree with that. But that’s another problem, one raised on the tactical level, and it’s not what the SWP is discussing here.

The whole emphasis of the resolution makes it clear that the SWP cannot imagine that the revolutionary party could be built up outside the unions. The SWP cannot imagine that we will get to the revolutionary party until the unions are themselves transformed into revolutionary instruments.

What are the unions today, if not bureaucratic instruments for imposing the policy of the bourgeoisie on the working class? The concessions demanded by the bosses throughout this period of crisis have been imposed through the direct intervention of the unions, most often through the pressures the unions brought to bear on the workers not to fight at all; in some cases through defeated strikes which the bureaucrats have led. In any case, their policy was no accident. It was not a matter of the bureaucracies’ having chosen inefficiently. The policies, which in one or another fashion, have led throughout this period to more concessions, are a function of the social role the bureaucrats have historically played: to discipline the working class, to channel its struggles within the framework of bourgeois society and of the interests of the capitalists.

Certainly, if the unions were to be transformed – magically, or by whatever other means – into revolutionary instruments, no one would deny that it would give an impetus to the development of the revolutionary party. However, we might ask exactly where this magical means is which is to be used to make such a transformation. Our real problem is that these bureaucratic apparatuses are not apt to be transformed before revolutionary events, or at least before a massive social struggle of the working class destroys the apparatus.

We cannot make the building up of the revolutionary party dependent on such a transformation of the unions. If we did, we would never get to the revolutionary party, or at least, we would not get to it in time.

To say that revolutionaries should carry out the essential part of their activity within the framework of the unions is to reduce their activity to very few workers, and most of these bureaucrats. Today, the mass of the workers are not active in the unions. Our problem is to reach out and be linked to, to try to recruit from among all the workers, and not just among the few who are union activists.

To say that we should carry out the essential part of our activity within the framework of the unions is also to concede, in advance, the field to the bureaucrats. If we are to compete, with them, to replace them as the leaders of the workers, it will only be because we, the revolutionaries, have won to our side, to our policy the mass of the workers. And we have little chance to do that if we stay on the bureaucrats’ own ground.

When the SWP discusses, within its resolution, the problem of competing for union office, it shows that the a priori limitation of the revolutionary militants’ activity within the framework of the unions leads them in practice to give up any competition with the bureaucrats. The SWP points up the dangers of premature confrontations with the bureaucrats – which of course are real. It insists on the need to explain to the workers that it will be through their own struggle, and not simply by electing a militant individual, even if a socialist, to union office, that the workers will change their situation. And this, too, is true. But then the SWP tries to derive from these near truisms the idea that it is not advisable in most cases for revolutionary militants to present themselves for elected union office today. This seems a little bizarre, when we see that the SWP also indicates that “participation in various union committees can, under certain conditions even today, help advance the work of guiding the ranks of the union to a class-struggle point of view through their own experience.” (pg. 22) Need we add that running in union elections ordinarily forces the revolutionary militants to counterpose their policy to that of the bureaucrats, while participating in union committees simply requires one to find a friendly bureaucrat willing to appoint someone to those committees.

In fact, it’s not a question of a “premature” confrontation. Nor is it a question of the ineffectiveness of isolated militants. It’s a question that so long as one stays only within the framework of the unions, that is without the possibility of resting on the mass of the workers, it is almost impossible to oppose the bureaucrats; it is necessary to wait on their good will to be able to play a role. It is not a question of “premature”; it is a question of “never.”

This necessity not to be imprisoned within the limits of the unions, when we confront the bureaucrats, is even more valid when it comes to the struggles of the working class. If we stay within the framework of the union, we prevent ourselves from having a chance to lead those struggles, and we prevent the workers from finding a policy and a leadership which represents their desire to take their struggles to their limits.

It is the self-activity of the workers which will transform the workers’ situation – and the unions. But it is only the revolutionaries who propose such activity to the workers. Only those who have as their goal the destruction of bourgeois society are willing to propose to the working class that it fully mobilize its forces, that it assault everything which stands in its way. Only those who are willing to have each and every struggle spill over and become not just a struggle of the working class to defend itself within the framework of the existing society, but also a struggle against that society – only the revolutionary communists will propose a policy which consistently allows the workers to transform their own situation, as well as the whole society.

The bureaucrats will not propose such a policy, and they will use their hold on the apparatus of the unions to prevent such a policy from being taken up by the union.

It is for this reason that the revolutionaries have to oppose the bureaucrats, for this reason that we have to oppose them not just on their own ground, within the framework of the unions, but in front of all the workers where we have the most chance to gain forces to our side.

The goal of revolutionaries in the middle of a struggle should not be simply the “transformation” of the unions. Our goal should be to give the workers the means to take each struggle as far as it can go, up to its limits. Our goal should be to let the workers give themselves the leadership which stands for this policy. And that means to fight for the workers to build up their own organisms to lead their owns struggles. Such organisms – strike committees, for example – are the means through which the workers can democratically control their own fight, thus giving themselves the means to take that fight as far as they are ready to take it. In no sense are such democratically controlled organisms of struggle the same thing as the existing unions. This is not to say that a union structure could not be transformed by the massive participation of the workers into an organism which allowed for the fullest participation of and control by the workers. But it’s equally true that a strike committee which allowed the workers to do the same thing could more likely evolve outside the union structure. Our preoccupation should not be with the unions. It should be with the democratic organization of the working class in struggle – inside or outside the unions.

All of this means that we have to carry on our activity, refusing to be limited by the framework of the unions – at least, we have to be ready to do so.