The Spark

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

The Socialist Workers’ Party, the Union Bureaucracy, and the Working Class

Nov 30, 1972

On the eve of World War II and in the beginning of the post-war period, the Socialist Workers Party was considered the leading organization of the world Trotskyist movement.

This privileged situation within the revolutionary movement was due to several reasons. On the one hand, the SWP leadership benefited from Leon Trotsky’s help more than any other, since he took an active part in the life of the American section and the elaboration of its policy. On the other hand, because of its size, the SWP somewhat surpassed the level of a grouplet, i.e., the situation in which the other Trotskyist groups throughout the world found themselves. Also, at a time when most Trotskyist organizations had nearly no real tie with the working class, the SWP could boast of its several hundred working class militants in its ranks, and of its modest - though not negligible - influence on some sectors of the working class.

Still, the image of the SWP is very different from what it would be in the thirties. The several hundred working class militants the SWP was able to attract have dropped out a long time ago. Now the Party thus identifying itself with most other Trotskyist tendencies is recruiting mainly among the petty bourgeois intellectuals, who, in the United States, make up the framework of the movement against war in Vietnam, or the women’s liberation movement.

In regard to that, a few statistics are persuasive.

During the 1946 SWP Convention, Farell Dobbs, one of the Party leaders, reported that “almost one half of the Party members belong to trade unions, primarily the basic industries”. A relatively large number hold posts of various kinds in the unions. Many of the new recruits are prominent trade union militants in the major industrial areas of the U.S. where a total of 41 SWP branches are now functioning...“The SWP and the Rise of the CIO” by Dan Fried, in “The Struggle for Marxism in the U.S.” by Tim Wohlforth

At that time, the size of the SWP was estimated to be about 2,000 members. Then according to Dobbs’ assertion, it means that 800 to 1,000 of those members were trade union militants in the basic industries. The convention also received reports on the Party’s activities in auto, steel, rubber, railroads and maritime. 24 years later, during the Oberlin Conference (summer, 1970) the situation looked somewhat different. Nearly 700 attended the Conference, out of which: only 115 were even affiliated with unions, only five were in the UAW, and none listed for other basic industries.1970 Socialist Activities and Educational Conference - Report, vol 1 no 30, Wohlforth, op. cit., p. 184.

Actually the unionized militants were mainly teachers, social workers and other marginal sectors on the periphery of the working class.

As for the others, almost all of them were students recruited in the movement against the war in Vietnam, a movement which has been developing on a large scale since 1965 and within which the SWP has been playing an important role.

But why did an organization, rooted in the working class, transform itself in a few years into an organization with an essentially petty bourgeois social composition, an organization which has completely abandoned the working class on the political level as well as in practical activities?

The answer to this question is to be found in the history of the SWP itself, where we learn through which process they first won over working class militants, and eventually lost them.

Features of the American Left Opposition

At the beginning, the American Left Opposition grouped in the Communist League of America (Opposition) followed an evolution similar to those of the other sections of the International Left Opposition. They fought with the CP, then were expelled and created an independent organization which up until 1933 considered itself a faction of the American Communist Party and the Communist International. After the collapse of the Comintern’s policy in Germany, the Communist League of America concentrated on creating a new Communist Party and a new International.

But in the late twenties, and early thirties, conditions were different for the American Trotskyists than for their European counterparts during the same period.

The American working class had no political experience at that time and it still doesn’t have. Neither the Socialist Party nor the Communist Party succeeded in gaining influence over a large section of the working class. In this regard, in factories and in the working class movement in general, Stalinist pressure was very weak, and attempts to isolate Trotskyists from the rest of the workers were thus doomed to failure.

The only organized force within the proletariat remained the union organization, the American Federation of Labor. But it had a relatively loose hold over the working class. First, since it rejected unskilled workers, it had control only over a rather restricted layer of skilled workers. Moreover, this union bureaucracy was crossed by various trends and it was far from being homogeneous. It was challenged in some branches by independent trade unions which split from the AFL on many different issues: criticism of its corporatism, and of its compromises, or criticism of its reluctance to openly collaborate with employers.

Such specific conditions permitted the Communist League of America at its conception, to maintain regular and fruitful relations with at least some part of the trade union movement.

What is more, the American Left Opposition benefited from the presence of militants with some experience in union and daily working class activities. Cannon was a good example. Cannon, one of the founders of the American CP, arrived at Marxism through the stage of revolutionary unionism with the IWW. Industrial Workers of the World: created in 1905 — revolutionary syndicalist approach of class struggle.

After he was expelled from the CP, he was able to attract to the movement not only Stalinist militant workers but also other workers belonging in the American radical movement, i.e. at that time the far left of the trade union movement.

This provided the American Trotskyists with the possibility to get roots in the working class movement at a time when the Trotskyist movement in many other countries was completely cut off from the workers.

Muste’s Group

Among the most radical sections of American unionism, special notice must be given to the organization called Progressive Labor Action, led by a former preacher, A.J. Muste.

In 1917, Muste participated in the great strike of Lawrence, led by the Textile Workers Union. After that, Muste sided with the far left of American unionism. For quite a while following the strike, he headed a political education school financed by some federations of the AFL. However, the school soon had to close down, for in the eyes of the AFL, the lessons being taught were far too subversive. Muste then brought together very active and combative union militants and created the beginnings of a political party, Progressive Labor Action.

In some regards, Muste, like Mother Jones, is one of the most outstanding figures of the American working class movement. When the Great Depression came, he was one of the first to propose and initiate organizations of the unemployed to prevent the dividing of the working class. His efforts resulted in the National Unemployed League which soon grew new branches in the highly industrialized Mid-West and in West Virginia. Most importantly, Muste’s group instigated the great Auto Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio, in February 1934. Muste led the strike from beginning to end, the eventual victory for the workers being due to the support of the city’s unemployed, which was strongly organized in a league.

As an efficient organizer, and a very combative militant, Muste was mostly concerned with the daily struggles, and he felt no real interest for political perspectives.

Yet, with the growing radicalization of the struggles (which was to result in the great working class upsurge of 1937 and the creation of a mass unionism within the CIO) Muste and his friends were soon led to consider the transformation of their trade unionist group into a real political party late in 1933. This is how the American Workers Party sprang up at the beginning of 1934.

Ever since the formation of the Progressive Labor Action, the American Trotskyists had always paid avid attention to the evolution of Muste and his group. It then became a primary goal of the Communist League of America to win over the hundreds of combative unionist militants behind Muste.

The attempt at absorption proved successful at the end of 1934, facilitated by the newly won fame of the American Trotskyists who in the meantime succeeded at leading two strikes in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis was at that time an open shop city, i.e., within factories, trade unions were practically considered illegal by employers. So far, all AFL attempts had somehow failed. In the city, the local Trotskyist group was composed of former CP militants well known among the workers.

They managed to organize the Teamsters in AFL Local 574, the leader of which was very close to the Trotskyists.

During the first strike, which broke out in May 1934, the employers were forced to recognize the union. The second strike, which started on July 16, 1934, was only a consequence of the previous one. The local employers, for fear that the example of the teamsters might spread over, had pressured the bosses in the trucking industry to rescind the concessions they had made a few months before.

The second strike lasted five weeks. The strikers were supported by all the workers in the city. With the help of “deputies” recruited among thugs in the pay of the bosses, the police tried to break picket lines. They failed. The second strike was also a victory.

This action allowed the American Trotskyists to gain the confidence of a large number of AWP militants, since they had proved they were more than a group limiting its activities to endless discussions.

Fusion with the AWP was effected in December, 1934, despite the CP’s attempt to bar it. Muste’s group was rapidly won over by the Communist League of America.

Moreover, it permitted the American Trotskyist movement to be strengthened by the addition of a considerable number of proletarian elements. What emerged from this fusion of the Communist League of America and the American Workers Party was the Workers Party.

But the new organization was not to live for long. Because, soon after, on Trotsky’s advice, the members of the new party entered the Socialist Party. The left wing had taken over the leadership and the SP then benefited from the American working class radicalization.

The experience within the SP proved much more fruitful for American Trotskyism than that of the similar French experience at the same time. Entrance and exit from the SP were conducted in an orderly way and the operation allowed them to win over not only the majority of the socialist youths but also many workers, especially in maritime and auto industries. Upon its creation in the end of 1938, the SWP represented an impressive new organization with a considerable number of workers.

Opportunism in Unionism

But the party very rapidly had to face the problem of the nature of the participation of their militants among the working class. As it stood, most of the workers who found themselves within the SWP had a predominantly radical trade unionist background, and had never performed and were moreover ignorant of the role of political militants within the working class. This was true for Musteites as well as ex-SP members who viewed themselves more as unionists with socialist affinities than as socialist militants having an activity within a union. Cannon’s formula when writing about the Socialist Party “which had people all over the trade union movement but had no serious party influence because the Socialist Party trade unionists never felt any obligation to the party” “History of American Trotskyism”, by James P. Cannon, p. 134, can also be applied to the SWP.

In reality, it was a hard nut to crack. Because the American working class lacks a political tradition, the most advanced workers would naturally limit their struggle within the union framework. The best example of that situation was the great workers upsurge of 1934-37 which gave rise to a powerful new union organization, the CIO, but most importantly, fell short of political culmination in a workers party.

Of course, the SWP inherited such a tradition, but it proved unable afterwards to transform the working class militants who had joined into revolutionary militants, i.e., into political militants. It never considered that its most important role was to intervene in the working class as a political organization. Most of the time, it was content to have its militants just lead faction fights within union apparatuses; a policy which progressively led to its passive adaptation to the union milieu, and consequently to the AFL bureaucracy, viewing itself as a left tendency.

With an overwhelming passivity the SWP remained perfectly alien to most of the oppressed layers of the American proletariat, in particular the black people. In this regard, Trotsky made the following remarks in April 1939: “The old organizations beginning with the AFL, are the organizations of the labor aristocracy. Our party is a part of the same milieu, not of the most exploited masses of whom the negroes are the most exploited. The fact that our party has not until now turned to the Negro question is a very disquieting symptom. If the workers’ aristocracy is the basis of opportunism, one of the sources of adaptation to capitalist society, then the most oppressed and discriminated are the most dynamic milieu of the working class. Trotsky: discussion with Johnson, April 1939, in Wohlforth, op. cit., p. 59.

But the SWP proved unable to make an appeal to the mass of less skilled workers. In 1935-36, the SWP’s passive adaptation to the union milieu, in particular to the AFL, not only separated it from the dynamic forces of the working class but also kept it from playing any role in the CIO. When the SWP later took a turn in that direction, it was eventually too late and the SWP benefited very poorly from it. Actually the rise of the CIO with the joining of millions of unskilled workers has essentially remained out-of-reach for the American Trotskyists.

Only after the Hitler-Stalin agreement, in August 1939, were new opportunities given to them to play a part within the CIO unions. Up to that point, Stalinist and progressive, i.e. pro-Roosevelt, union militants had barred the Trotskyists’ entry into the unions. But after the USSR’s alliance with Nazi Germany, the Stalinists could no longer stay in the camp supporting Roosevelt - a place where all union bureaucrats were to be found; but they also lost some of their credit among the workers under their influence.

Unfortunately, in spite of Trotsky’s warning, the Trotskyist militants were lured by the siren’s call, and they stood less and less apart from the pro-Roosevelt men. In practice, they refused to attack the pro-Roosevelt bureaucrats directly, and they abandoned any activity toward the Stalinist workers in order not to break with their new allies. Eventually that meant a total alignment with the union bureaucrats, allowing the CP to again take hold over their thousands of working class militants. Those militants, who represented the most political elements of the American working class, were totally disoriented by the Hitler-Stalin pact.

The SWP’s opportunist attitude was exposed by Trotsky. In a discussion he had with the SWP leaders in June 1940, Trotsky stated:

“The support of the progressives is not stable. It is found at the top of the union rather than as a rank-and-file current. Now with the war we will have those progressives against us. We need a stronger base in the ranks.” Trotsky: discussion, June 1940, Ibid., p. 69.

Then, on the Northwest Organizer, a union paper under complete control of the SWP, he states as follows:

“You are afraid to become compromised in the eyes of the Rooseveltian trade unionists... If you are afraid, you lose your independence and become half-Rooseveltian... Our policy is too much for the pro-Rooseveltian trade unionists. I notice in the Northwest Organizer this is true. We discussed it before, but not a word was changed, not a single word.” Ibid., p. 77.

He further added:

“But the Northwest Organizer remained unchanged. It is a photograph of our adaptation to the Rooseveltians.” Ibid., p. 79.

Trotsky explained such an attitude by the SWP’s refusal to wage “an immediate clash with the Rooseveltians not the rank and file but a clash with our allies, the machine, the conscious Rooseveltians... a clash with our own class enemies.” Ibid., p. 79.

The SWP’s adaptation to the union bureaucracy and to the Rooseveltians provided the most significant proof that the party had influence only within this bureaucracy, also that it had practically no independent base at the level of the rank and file workers. Trotsky was highly aware of this fact. When Joseph Hansen, one of the SWP leaders, asked:

“I am wondering if Comrade Trotsky considers that our party is displaying a conservative tendency in the sense that we are adapting ourselves politically to the trade union bureaucracy?”

Trotsky answered:

“To a certain degree, I believe it is so... In observing the Northwest Organizer I have observed not the slightest change during a whole period. It remained apolitical. This is a dangerous symptom. The complete neglect of work in relation to the Stalinist Party is another dangerous symptom...” Ibid., p. 62.

War and Post War

But Trotsky’s warnings to the SWP had no real effect. After Trotsky’s death, the SWP maintained the same policy. Only after the U.S. entered the war in December 1941 - with the total support of AFL and CIO bureaucrats - did the Trotskyists consider that they had to get away from the Rooseveltians, their former allies who would now redbait them.

After the war, the situation remained unchanged. The Stalinists as early as 1941 had enthusiastically joined the Holy Alliance, they had started a new honeymoon with the progressive trade unionists; they proved so zealous to ban any strike. In doing so they often surpassed most AFL and CIO leaders: they opposed strikes that union bureaucrats were forced to launch under pressure of the rank and file.

In 1945-1947, the fight broke out again between Rooseveltians and Stalinists vying for the CIO leadership. Far from championing a different policy from the others, the SWP split up into two camps: those in favor of supporting the Stalinists, and those in favor of supporting the Rooseveltians. This was particularly the case within the UAW, one of the biggest unions in the CIO and in the U.S.

Thus the UAW became the arena of a tough fight between the “progressive” Reuther faction, and the Thomas-Addes-Leonard Stalinist faction.

The SWP initially decided to support Reuther, stating that:

“The struggle against the Stalinist wing of the CIO bureaucracy was initially a fight of the real militants against the bureaucratic misrule and class collaboration policy pursued by the Stalinists. This was a necessary and progressive fight.” “Labor’s Giant Step”, by Art Preis, p. 324.

As to Reuther, regardless of his bureaucrat’s background, he was viewed as “the most progressive of the UAW leaders in 1946.” Ibid., p. 325.

But Reuther’s “progressivism”, which was a mere creation of the “Militant” soon disappeared. Very rapidly, Reuther considered his fight against Thomas-Addes-Leonard as a part of the rising witch hunt. The Trotskyist militants around Cochran in the auto unions then decided to stop supporting Reuther, in favor of the other faction. The SWP temporarily opposed this orientation but finally sided with it. Later, the SWP wrote the following:

“In the course of the power struggle (within the UAW) during 1946 and 1947 the Thomas-Addes-Leonard caucus indicated a better stand on union democracy and on other major issues, such as the Taft Hartley oath, than Reuther.” Ibid., p. 340.

Complete integration of the various trends of the union bureaucracy bring to light the fact that most SWP militant workers dropped out in the next period, and the others easily adapted themselves to the bureaucracy.

This was particularly the case with the Cochran split in 1952-1953. The split involved essentially the union militants in the auto industry in Detroit and Flint.

On this occasion, the SWP lost one of its working class strongholds. The militants who left the party but kept their offices within the unions, were among the elements who had joined the Trotskyist movement in the thirties. Cannon characterized them as old union militants, privileged with seniority, skilled workers cut off from the young unskilled rank and file which was doubtless the case. Unfortunately, this type constituted the main working class basis of the SWP.

The SWP’s opportunistic policy in relation to union bureaucracy, plus 13 years of prosperity during the war and the post-war periods, plus six years of McCarthyism, had driven the old union militants toward deeper integration into the union machine, while at the same time losing contact with the SWP. And this was not an isolated phenomenon, for in the meantime the CP was losing a great number of its militants; such was the case during the witch-hunt when they preferred to break from the party rather than jeopardize their positions in union apparatus.

When that period came to an end, the SWP, then dwindled down to 100-200 members, led an insignificant existence up to the early sixties. At that time it benefitted from the petty-bourgeois radicalization, and it would thus lose its former identity as the outstanding proletarian Trotskyist organization.

Actually the experience of the SWP is of the utmost importance for the world Trotskyist movement. The SWP’s inability to rely on the rank and file cannot be excused by simply citing specific American conditions.

A nearly exclusive emphasis made on union work at the expense of political work within factories, and a very loose control upon union militants led the SWP to passive adaptation to the union bureaucracy. Under such conditions, the American Trotskyist militants fell beneath the domination of union machines which could decide their fate at any time. In time the union section of the SWP had become a part of the union bureaucracy and eventually it collapsed in this milieu.

Still, such behavior is not typical to the SWP only. It was also that of another “proletarian” section of the Fourth International, i.e., the Belgian section, which had a similar evolution and destiny.

Today, most Trotskyist groups - or groups which stand close to Trotskyism, in almost all countries in the world, be it France, Great Britain, Bolivia, or Ceylon, adopt similar attitudes.

In the U.S., the main “working class activities” are centered around the creation of “caucuses” within the union. In the rare case in which publishing a factory paper is considered, it is never at the same time viewed as an organ for a revolutionary group, but merely as a union paper in opposition to the present leadership.

In the U.S. also, other groups tend toward setting up committees to support strikes, and reduce their activities to collecting among local union leaders declarations or petitions in favor of the strikers, for trade unionists are pleased with such an easy way to appear as progressives or oppositionists.

Here again, they commit the same error as the SWP. Eventually they also turn their backs on workers and consequently on the revolutionary program.

From: Class Struggle #4, November 1972

by Lutte Ouvrière

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