Industrial working class at center of U.S. politics
The communist movement's response to
labor's increasing political weight
The Socialist Workers Party is celebrating its unbroken communist continuity on the occasion of the 80-year anniversary of the Militant. Marking this milestone, it has launched a nine-week $90,000 Party-Building Fund (see accompanying progress chart on the fund campaign). To promote this effort, we are running a series of articles that will highlight key chapters in the history of the fight to forge a revolutionary working-class leadership.
BY BEN JOYCE
"Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class," explains the opening section of the Communist Manifesto, the founding document of the modern communist movement. That fact remains true today and is the foundation on which communists carry out political work more than 150 years after Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote the Manifesto.
The Socialist Workers Party acts on this basis today, centering its political work within the industrial working class and its organizations. Throughout its history the SWP has fought to maintain this proletarian orientation.
In 1919, working-class militants in the U.S. Socialist Party who rejected the pro-imperialist war stance of the SP leadership and were inspired instead by the 1917 Russian Revolution founded the Communist Party in the United States, with an eye towards emulating the Russian Revolution's example in this country. During its formative years, the CP was a revolutionary organization that attracted many of the best worker militants at the time.
Counterrevolution in Soviet Union
By the mid-1920s, however, the wave of revolutionary upheavals in other countries that followed the Russian Revolution had been defeated. The worker Bolsheviks, forged in the party built by Vladimir Lenin, the central leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, were exhausted by the first world war and then the 1918-20 civil war. These objective conditions helped promote the growth of petty-bourgeois, bureaucratic layers in the Soviet government and Communist Party, led by Joseph Stalin, mainly concerned with guaranteeing their privileged positions and life style.
Stalin reversed Lenin's revolutionary internationalist course and replaced it with the narrow, nationalist perspective of the bureaucratic caste in the government and party. He imposed a change in the CPs around the world, transforming them from organizations seeking to carry out socialist revolutions to instruments of Soviet foreign policy, carrying out dictates from the Kremlin and working to pressure their own capitalist classes to accept Moscow's offer of collaboration to dampen workers' resistance.
A minority within the CPs fought to maintain a genuine Marxist course. They were eventually expelled. In the United States, they went on to form the Communist League.
The following decade brought much opportunity for the workers in the Communist League to recruit, as labor radicalized under the blows of the Great Depression. Up to this time the great mass of workers were unorganized. But beginning in 1933, millions of workers began participating in strikes and organizing drives across the country. The massive strike wave culminated in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1936, which became a social movement, pressing for government action to bring relief from depression conditions. This upsurge wrested major gains for the working class in the face of attacks from the bosses and their government.
Essential to the most important battles in the '30s was the leadership initiative of rank-and-file unionists who fought for independent working-class action. Revolutionary class-conscious leadership was decisive in some of the most successful battles, such as the Teamsters strikes in Minneapolis and subsequent organizing drive throughout the Upper Midwest, from which many of the best militants were recruited to the Communist League. (See "The 1930s Minneapolis Teamsters rebellion" in the October 20 Militant).
A series of fusions between the Communist League and other revolutionary-minded forces in the succeeding years led to the foundation of the Socialist Workers Party in 1938. U.S. imperialism's drive toward war in the late 1930s precipitated a deep political fight within the SWP. A petty-bourgeois layer within the party bent to bourgeois pressure and rejected many of the party's longstanding Marxist principles. They abandoned defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and rejected fundamental norms of party organization.
This layer split from the party in early 1940. Though the split took a large number of members, the party emerged on a stronger proletarian footing. The record of this political fight is contained in the books The Struggle for a Proletarian Party by James P. Cannon and In Defense of Marxism by Leon Trotsky.
For the next few years the party continued to focus its work in the industrial union movement. But over the course of the following decades, industrial unions receded from their central place in politics. The failure of the union officialdom to mobilize labor in broader political struggles—to organize the unorganized in the South and elsewhere, or to fight for independent working-class politics—led to stagnation in the union movement.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s the SWP concentrated its activity on the explosive social struggles by Black workers against segregation and on the openings presented by the Cuban Revolution. These were soon to be followed by the massive opposition to the war in Vietnam, the rise of the women's liberation movement, and other social and political struggles that attracted young people looking for an alternative to the capitalist system. Out of these movements many youth joined the communist movement.
Turn to industry
A turning point in working-class politics arrived with the 1974-75 economic recession, which was the deepest since 1937-38 and the first downturn since then that was worldwide in scope. This downward slide prompted the bosses and their government to qualitatively accelerate their attacks on workers' standard of living.
In light of this, the Socialist Workers Party prepared itself for the opportunities that would come with the inevitable working-class resistance that the ruling-class assaults would produce. In 1978, the SWP decided to initiate a turn to the industrial unions, organizing the big majority of its members and leaders to get jobs in industry and center their activity there and in the industrial unions. "Our turn has to do with what is changing in the American working class," states the report adopted by the party's 1979 convention. "When our kind of party has the opportunity to go to the weightiest and most powerfully organized sections of our class and do political work, we have to do it."
Since the party's turn to industry, the experience of the workers' movement has illustrated its correctness. While the sharp battles that will materialize in response to the assaults by the ruling class lie ahead, we can already see the signs of initial resistance as more and more workers seek to use union power to defend themselves from layoffs, speedup, lack of safety, and declining real wages. As the consequences of the capitalist economic and social crisis bear down harder, the most class-conscious workers will be won to the communist movement.
Why Socialist Workers Are In Industrial Unions
BY JACK BARNES
The selection below is from "The Revolutionary Perspective and Leninist Continuity in the United States," a resolution adopted by the Socialist Workers Party at a special national convention in January 1985.
These excerpts are from the first section of the resolution, which is included in the book The Changing Face of U.S. Politics: Working-Class Politics and the Trade Unions by SWP national secretary Jack Barnes. That book is copyright (c) 1994 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission.
The entire resolution is published in issue no. 4 of the magazine New International. The recently published Education for Socialists booklet Background to `The Changing Face of U.S. Politics' and `U.S. Imperialism Has Lost the Cold War' also provides further reading on the questions taken up in this resolution.
An essential part of the strategic line of march toward 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-1970s 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....
Political axis of party work in unions
The party's political work in the industrial unions takes as its starting point the world class struggle, the crisis of the international capitalist economy and imperialist world order, and their manifestations in this country. It is these forces that establish the conditions under which the struggle to defend, strengthen, and transform the unions takes place. It is only with this broader perspective - not the narrow framework of union politics - that the road can be charted toward constructing a class-struggle left wing in the labor movement, whose goal will be the transformation of the unions into instruments of revolutionary struggle against the employers and their government.
Members of the SWP in the industrial unions function on three different levels.
First, they are members of the revolutionary party. Like all party members, whether in unions or not, they are constantly seeking ways to promote knowledge about the party and its activities, to involve others in its work, and recruit them to membership. This includes everything from selling subscriptions to Perspectiva Mundial and the Militant, to strengthening the internal party committees and branch institutions, publicizing an election campaign rally or forum, and explaining the party's views on political events to those who are interested.
Second, as workers, they seek to involve other workers in political activities. They encourage their co-workers to come down to the party headquarters to attend a forum, to join a demonstration that the party is helping to organize against the war in Central America, to get involved in protests against police brutality or other racist attacks, or to read the program contained in the charter of the National Black Independent Political Party.
Third, they are union activists with a revolutionary perspective for the unions. The union fractions of the SWP strive to develop the ability to function as effective units that are integrated into the labor movement. In this sense, our fractions function collectively as union politicians. Their goal, as part of nationwide fractions, is to help forge a new union leadership, which will come forward from the ranks and will fight to unleash union power to defend the workers' interests. They operate within the union structures and realities of today, with a clear view of the revolutionary transformation that will occur tomorrow....
Based on the initial experiences of our industrial union fractions since 1978, the party has taken several new steps over the past few years to deepen the turn.
One of these new steps was adopting the goal of organizing weekly plant-gate sales of Perspectiva Mundial and the Militant as a norm of membership.
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 - those who are part of industrial union fractions and those who are not, those employed and those laid off - 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....
A second aspect of deepening the turn has been the establishment of two new industrial union fractions, in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. These new fractions advance the proletarianization of the party. The ILGWU and ACTWU are two of the largest industrial unions in the United States, and they play an important role in the labor movement in both the United States and Canada. Through our orientation to these unions, we are becoming part of a section of the working class that is composed of many recent immigrants and members of oppressed nationalities, and is generally paid wages lower than workers in other industrial unions.
A third product of the turn to industry has been the party's growing knowledge about and orientation toward the struggles and organizations of working farmers. We have begun to meet farmers who hold industrial jobs in order to make a living income and try to keep their land. Over the past few years, we have developed ties with farmers through our election campaigns and other propaganda vehicles, through participation as party members in their struggles, and also as members of industrial unions seeking ways to strengthen links of solidarity and united action between the labor movement and farmers organizations. We have expanded our contact with, and knowledge about, organizations of working farmers. And we have recruited to the party the first of a new generation of farmers who are revolutionaries.
Most recently, we have broadened our political contact with agricultural wage laborers, especially in California, Texas, and throughout the Southwest. We are increasing our political attention to farmworkers' struggles there today. The big majority of these workers are Spanish-speaking, many are immigrants, and all work for low wages and under arduous conditions.