For Revolutionary Leadership of the Unions
We print below, edited for publication, a report to the 16th National Conference of the Spartacist League/U.S. by Central Committee member and Workers Vanguard production manager François Donau.
In this period of capitalist decay—the epoch of imperialism—none of the problems facing the working class and oppressed can be resolved within the confines of the economic struggle. Fights for higher wages and better contracts and conditions are necessary battles along the road to revolution but cannot resolve the fundamental issues facing the working class. To end the special oppression of women and black people and to liberate the workers and oppressed from their misery require a revolutionary reorganization of society. Any serious struggle to qualitatively improve the conditions of workers and the oppressed runs up against the interests of private property and the bourgeois state.
Even if reformist trade-union leaders distrust the cops and the courts, they will inevitably disarm workers locked in struggle against the class enemy, which has at its disposal a state apparatus of organized violence to defend its interests, because they do not have the Marxist understanding of the capitalist state. Every major strike confronts the repressive force of the bourgeoisie: pickets are attacked by cops; they face court injunctions; their leaders are jailed, etc. This was true of the 1981 PATCO air traffic controllers strike; it was true of the 2005 New York City transit strike that defied the Taylor Law, and it is now true of the rail workers strike, which Biden and Congress spiked. Even the organizing drives at Amazon and Starbucks are embroiled in court battles with no end in sight.
The only program that can politically arm workers for these confrontations is one based on the understanding that the capitalist state is an instrument for the suppression of the working class to ensure the domination of the exploiting class. No matter how militant labor leaders are, if their program is not to replace the capitalist state with a workers state, they will try to enlist the state against the bosses through labor legislation or “labor friendly” politicians or favorable court rulings. All these things bind workers to their exploiters. At every step, reformist trade-union leaders will fail to mobilize the kind of power necessary to take on the capitalist state and win.
While reformist trade-union leaders might distrust the Democrats, they are not clear that you can’t pressure them to act in the interests of the workers because these leaders do not have the Marxist understanding that the Democrats are political representatives of the class enemy. Without the perspective of building a revolutionary workers party politically independent of all bourgeois forces, no matter how militant labor leaders are, they will be swindled by the lies of liberal hypocrites who pose as “friends of labor,” like Bernie Sanders, and they will seek the help of these fakers. But when push comes to shove, the liberals will always side with the bourgeois order. When the pressure is on, the reformists will sacrifice the interests of the workers for fear of alienating their liberal “allies.”
A program of militant struggle cannot inoculate workers against the dead end of class collaboration. Only a leadership that fights for revolution understands that the power of the working class lies in its mass strength, solidarity and independence and will not sacrifice these for illusory alliances with representatives of the class enemy.
While reformist trade-union leaders might express platonic solidarity with other unions, the bosses will be able to pit the unions against one another because these leaders will inevitably sacrifice the interest of the class as a whole for inadequate and ephemeral gains. Unions will scab on each others’ strikes and raid each others’ members. The only perspective that can unify the working class is the fight for power, because it links the struggle for workers’ immediate interests to their historic mission as gravediggers of capitalism. This understanding can only be introduced to the working class by a revolutionary party.
There is no middle ground between reformist and revolutionary leadership. As Trotsky says in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940):
Communists Must Fight for Leadership
For 30 years, the starting point of the SL/U.S. has been that the low level of class struggle fundamentally changed the tasks of communists, and we shelved the Transitional Program. Rather than link today’s struggles to the necessity of the working class taking state power, the SL/U.S. explicitly separated the “fight to forge a new class-struggle leadership” from the future formation of a revolutionary workers party. In the “Lessons of the Battle of Longview” (WV No. 996, 17 February 2012), we say: “The road forward lies in the fight to forge a new class-struggle leadership of the unions that will wage the battles out of which a revolutionary workers party can be built” (emphasis added).
Abandoning a revolutionary perspective, the SL/U.S. pushed the program of social democracy, the historical political outlook of the “militant” trade-union secretary. It divided its program into a minimum part consisting of struggling for reform demands now and a maximum part consisting of revolutionary struggle in the indefinite future. Correspondingly, a militant reformist party would be built now, and in the future class struggle would give birth to the “revolutionary party.” This is a purely Pabloite conception, the cult of spontaneity substituting for building a Leninist party: the intervention of a vanguard is not necessary to bring revolutionary consciousness to the class, but rather this consciousness is the natural outgrowth of the economic struggle.
It sounds just like the Communist International in 1928: transitional demands when the tides are rising, but a reformist program when it ebbs. The draft program for the Sixth Comintern Congress, the one that Trotsky criticized in The Third International After Lenin (1928), argued:
The SL/U.S., like the Comintern in 1928, had no need for a bridge from the struggles of today to the conquest of power, because it was on the path to social democracy, for which revolution is good only for holiday speechifying. Without the bridge, all that remains is the impotent reformist program.
The Then and Now SL/U.S. pamphlet, the central weapon of the section for combat in the working class for nearly a decade, is pure economism. It is not a tool to raise the consciousness of the working class to communist consciousness; rather, it pushes narrow militancy. It blurs the line between trade-union economism and revolution, that is, the line between reform and revolution. As Lenin taught us, the economic struggle alone can only lead to the understanding that the interests of labor and capital are counterposed: build unions, fight the bosses and struggle for reforms. This is still bourgeois consciousness, counterposed to the revolutionary program for working-class rule. Marxism is not just the recognition of class struggle, of the irreconcilable interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie; it is the recognition of the need to establish the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
The starting point of the pamphlet is that what made a crucial difference “then,” in 1934, was that the three citywide strikes were led by “reds.” This point could have value because it raises the question of leadership. But the key question is, on what program is the leadership based? Plenty of other strikes in that period were led by the likes of John L. Lewis, who was not even a socialist. While reformist leaderships can lead victorious strikes, militancy is not enough. The entire purpose of that pamphlet should have been to counterpose the revolutionary program of the Trotskyists, who led the Minneapolis strike, to the centrism of the Musteites and the treachery of the Stalinists who led the strikes in Toledo and San Francisco, respectively. Instead, it disappears that distinction and hails all three as “class-struggle leaderships.” This is the opposite of the initial motivation by former SL/U.S. National Chairman Jim Robertson for a historical pamphlet:
The key lesson should have been the need for Trotskyist leadership. The Minneapolis struggle was consciously organized by the Trotskyists of the Communist League of America, who were able to clear a centrist obstacle to revolution by winning over the Musteites to fuse with them. In contrast, the Stalinists were, as Trotsky called them, “the great organizers of defeat,” from their “Third Period” ultraleftism to subordinating workers to the popular front around Franklin D. Roosevelt, that is, a political alliance with the liberal president, and enforcing a no-strike pledge in World War II.
Because the CIO union federation was built on a reformist basis, the outcome of the gigantic class battles of the 1930s was…a new bureaucracy that shackled the workers to the bosses, supported U.S. imperialism in WWII and thus was instrumental in establishing the hegemony of postwar U.S. imperialism. To call the Stalinists a “class-struggle leadership” is a rejection of the central lesson of the period: the unions will be either secondary instruments of imperialism or instruments of revolution.
For us, the call for a “class-struggle leadership” of the unions was historically a popularization of the call for a communist leadership. In a 1974 letter, comrades Robertson and Liz Gordon explained:
However, in the recent period, Workers Vanguard—the party press—gagged the Trotskyist program. To carry out revolutionary work in the class, militants need the direction of a party committed to fighting for power, and the purpose of the party press is to give them direction. In Lenin’s words, it is the collective propagandist, agitator and organizer.
But the program of WV pointed in a totally reformist direction. The call for a “class-struggle leadership” was used to refer to a militant, explicitly non-revolutionary leadership. The role of the SL/U.S. has not been to struggle for communist leadership now, but to “revitalize the unions” and push for more class struggle. The article “UAW Holds Off GM Bosses, But Strikers Sold Short” (WV No. 1164, 1 November 2019) argues:
WV could say, “Don’t trust the cops, Democrats or National Labor Relations Board,” but the key lesson that it does not draw is that waging class battle on that basis, which will inevitably run up against the state, is only possible under the political direction of a leadership that has a program for power. Any other leadership will either cave in or be outmaneuvered by the bourgeoisie.
The Fight for Revolutionary Integration
For the SL/U.S., pushing an economist minimum program meant abandoning revolutionary integrationism in trade-union work. The Then and Now pamphlet barely mentions black oppression because its purpose is not to win workers to the need to fight for power. If it had been, the pamphlet would have put front and center that question, which is strategic for the American socialist revolution. Instead, it pushes the idea that economic struggle alone will unite black and white workers.
Slavish to spontaneity, WV repeatedly presented the temporary unity between black and white workers sometimes achieved on the picket line as sufficient. For example, the article “Racism, Fearmongering and the Midterms” (WV No. 1144, 16 November 2018) states: “The anger and discontent of the American working class needs to be expressed in class struggle. It is through such struggle that workers can overcome the racial and other divisions fomented by the bosses.”
No! Genuine unity requires consciously uniting the struggle for black freedom with the struggle of the proletariat as inseparable parts of a program to free the black masses and all workers from the chains of capitalism. That unity can be achieved only by winning white workers to fight for black liberation, overcoming the skepticism of that possibility among black workers. A program of trade-union militancy cannot achieve that goal because it doesn’t challenge workers’ consciousness, and restricts itself to what is considered possible under capitalism.
To win white workers to fight for black liberation, they must be won to the understanding that only the destruction of capitalism can free themselves from exploitation. In turn, black workers need to be broken from the illusion that liberal integrationism or black nationalism can improve their plight. They must understand that genuine integration and equality can only be achieved by the destruction of the capitalist order.
Only a revolutionary integrationist program, the program for workers revolution, can unite black and white workers. Anything else leaves the crippling divisions in the class intact, and black workers segregated at the bottom of the workforce. In the U.S., the battles of the working class will face the bourgeoisie’s relentless divide-and-rule plots. Even the basic fight for union organization, especially in the South, is impossible without confronting black oppression head on.
This requires a struggle against liberal illusions and all forms of false consciousness and a struggle against all wings of the trade-union bureaucracy. WV was fond of citing Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party as a “tribune of the people,” but only to bastardize it in a liberal direction, transforming it into a party that would unite all the good enlightened people. But the purpose of the Leninist party is to instill in the working class and all the oppressed the conscious understanding of the need to fight for workers rule. In What Is To Be Done? (1902), Lenin wrote:
The New York City transit workforce is heavily black and Latino, and the system is so riddled with racial discrimination and inequality that workers call the disciplinary system “plantation justice.” The incumbent bureaucracy of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 is, at best, indifferent to this discrimination. It is challenged by a black nationalist caucus, Progressive Action (PA). A number of black workers look to PA to fight against the racism on the job because the union is not defending them.
The article “TWU Tops Push Through Rotten Contract” (WV No. 1168, 17 January 2020) criticizes the incumbent bureaucracy for not being militant enough, while criticizing PA for “play[ing] into the bosses’ divide-and-rule ploy.” At the same time, WV does not put forward any program to fight the oppression of black workers in that industry. For WV, the fact that black workers are fighting against their special oppression is what divides the working class. This is criminal; it alibies both the bosses and the Local 100 leadership. Furthermore, it strengthens the political hold of PA on black workers. All this is what a program of trade-union militancy means.
The role of communists is to fight for a revolutionary leadership that explicitly takes on black oppression and show how this fight will benefit the whole workforce. In contrast, the programs of both the union leadership and that of PA are dead ends that can only further the bosses’ efforts to pit workers against each other. Communists must fight against both wings of the bureaucracy represented by the incumbents and PA.
Another egregious example of what results from simple trade-union militancy was the junking of the fight against segregated International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) locals. The SL/U.S. dropped its historic call to “End all segregated locals and hiring halls in the ILA” with the spurious justification that the question was “complicated” because black workers “prefer” the segregation, fearing loss of work and being at the bottom in an integrated local. This capitulation to the racist status quo and the ILA bureaucrats, black and white, was a betrayal of our communist purpose.
Any outfit claiming to be revolutionary must fight to end the segregation of the locals, which hurts the entire union membership. It also should fight like hell to ensure that black workers don’t draw the short straw, which can only happen under a new union leadership dedicated to workers running society. Union control of hiring, reduction of the workweek with no loss in pay, opposition to state intervention in the union, an end to the racist disciplinary system, etc., must be raised in a way that addresses the special needs of black workers and benefits the workforce as a whole. This program must be raised in political combat against the bureaucrats, black and white, who support segregation.
But rather than fight for leadership on a communist program, the SL/U.S. crawled for years before “progressive” black bureaucrats like those atop ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 in the Bay Area. We built their credentials instead of striving to break workers from them, just as the Internationalist Group has done.
For Revolution in the Belly of the Imperialist Beast
The Biden administration is aggressively pursuing U.S. imperialism’s strategic interests in Ukraine, overseeing the pillage of its colonies and neocolonies in Latin America and all over the world and pushing counterrevolution in China. Unconditional opposition to imperialism is the elementary duty of a revolutionary party in the U.S.
The union bureaucrats act as direct agents of U.S. imperialism. They support Ukraine in the war and sanctions against Russia. They push anti-China protectionism and work hand in hand with the State Department. These labor traitors push a program of class collaboration, deluding workers with the lie that U.S. imperialism’s war aims and plunder abroad are in their interests.
To the contrary, workers pay the cost for the imperialists’ wars abroad, not only as cannon fodder but also with no-strike pledges and sacrifice in the name of the war efforts. “Peaceful” imperialist plunder also results in the devastation of the working class. The expansion of the imperialists’ sphere of exploitation allows them to outsource jobs and drive down conditions, whether their depredations are carried out with bombs or trade deals.
We fight for revolutionary defeatism in the war in Ukraine, and revolutionaries in the U.S. have a special responsibility to fight to overthrow the imperialist behemoth from within. A communist opposition must be built in the unions that openly challenges the bureaucrats’ support to Ukraine, i.e., the designs of the U.S. ruling class. It must also oppose and expose the “progressive” trade unionists and reformists who criticize U.S./NATO depredations while preaching a pacifist solution, i.e., “peaceful” imperialist plundering of the world. Even an antiwar union militant will be a tool of imperialism as long as they do not proceed from the need to overthrow the whole imperialist ruling class. Pushing the lie that lasting peace is possible without the destruction of capitalism means pushing workers into the arms of liberal doves, bourgeois politicians who think that an alternate policy would allow the U.S. to better plunder the world.
The “peaceful” settlement of the war in Ukraine can only prepare the next war, because the imperialist powers relentlessly struggle to redivide the world. This is the understanding that we need to win the working class over to. Even though WV raised empty slogans for “international solidarity,” its labor articles made few, if any, concrete demands against U.S. imperialism. This silence is a hallmark of economism and a capitulation to union bureaucrats like Amazon Labor Union head Chris Smalls, who avoids “divisive” issues, and the pacifist ILWU Local 10 “progressives” who are critical of U.S. imperialism in order to better chain workers to the Democratic Party popular front in the Bay Area. We need to build against them an opposition to imperialism in the unions based on a communist program for workers power.
The SL/U.S. has acted not as communists seeking to lead the class, but as militant reformist trade unionists. We are fighting to bring the program of the SL/U.S. into accordance with condition No. 9 of the 1920 “Terms of Admission into the Communist International,” which states: