The following article was first published in Socialist Voice No. 5 (Fall 1977).
The far left in the United States can be so routinely dismissed as a serious political factor today that few commentators even bother to take the trouble. Even socialists underestimate their own significance. History should teach those whose task it is to understand and change the world that the “obvious” is frequently far from the reality. George Bernard Shaw remarked that youth was unfortunately wasted upon the young. Be that as it may; it is certain that history is wasted upon historians and Marxists who make no fruitful use of it.
The fact that far leftists are frequently unconscious of their own role reflects the backward consciousness of the working class in general. Rarely has the gap between subjective understanding and the objective situation been as wide as it is today. This situation is far from static. The terrific pressures stemming from the objective crisis of capitalism are inexorably pushing the working class into greater struggles which are undermining its conservative world view. When consciousness approaches reality, because of the very hugeness of the gap in the past it will produce a more titanic and sudden explosion than seems possible now. Given the historic combativity of workers in the U.S., there is every reason to believe that the consequences may well surpass the totally unpredicted but most massive general strike in history, the French events of 1968. They too were a product of a social terrain featuring a huge chasm between objective reality and subjective understanding.
When such events occur the far left will be thrust toward the center of the stage. Its role will be as decisive as it will be unexpected. That left will not emerge as a virginal force but as a historically conditioned product of its own past which includes our present. What the left will do in the decisive times ahead is being substantially affected by the activities and ideas of the small but feverishly alive far left groups today. It is critical to investigate what these groups are doing, thinking, learning -- and teaching -- today in order to understand and affect what the left will do tomorrow. Far left policies in the trade unions must be central to our examination, since the unions are the most powerfully organized section of the working class and are therefore a key to the unfolding class struggle.
The foremost fact of life which has faced the far left for many a year has been its isolation from the working class.
Marxists are isolated from the masses when the level of the class struggle is low. This in turn generates a correspondingly low state of political consciousness, wherein the mass of workers rejects the possibility of socialist revolution and seeks solutions, benefits and reforms only within the confines of capitalism. Backward consciousness is not some relative locational point on a line continuum from backward through neutral to progressive. There are two fundamental and irreconcilable choices in modern society, capitalism and socialism. Backward consciousness means bourgeois consciousness, the acceptance of capitalism. (Within the working class this generally finds its most palatable expression or version in some form of petty-bourgeois reformism or Stalinism.) The working class learns consciousness of its real position in society through actual struggle and not through static education. It learns which ideological solution is correct through testing the clashing views and finding the proofs in practice. Working class consciousness involves an understanding of objective realities of capitalism as a system: the severity of its crisis and its consequent weaknesses, and the huge potential strength and capability of the proletariat to overcome the bourgeoisie and establish its own state.
We have noted the wide gap at present between the working class’ subjective appraisal of the world and the objective reality of a crisis-ridden capitalism. The isolation of the left reflects this gap; the working class is still prisoner to bourgeois ideology. Bolsheviks offer their leadership, their program, their party as the advanced consciousness forged over the years by the working class itself. It is their task to lead and participate in the process which brings increasing sections of the class to Marxist consciousness, so that preponderant enough strength is achieved for the revolution. Thus they must tell the truth to the working class and illuminate each struggle so that backward consciousness is destroyed.
Trotsky posed the task as follows:
What can a revolutionary party do in this situation? In the first line give a clear and honest picture of the objective situation, of the historic tasks which flow from this situation irrespective as to whether or not the workers are today ripe for this. Our tasks don’t depend on the mentality of the workers. The task is to develop the mentality of the workers. That is what the program should formulate and present before the advanced workers. Some will say: good, the program is a scientific program; it corresponds to the objective situation, but if the workers won’t accept this program it will be sterile. Possibly. But this signifies only that the workers will be crushed since the crisis can’t be solved any other way but by the socialist revolution.... We must tell the workers the truth, then we will win the best elements. (Discussion on the Transitional Program, May 19, 1938.)
The most prominent far left groups define the question of their relationship to the working class far differently from the way we have sketched. To many of the leftists, isolation means not the gap between the present consciousness of the working class and Marxist consciousness but the chasm between the present views of the proletariat and the vagaries of their own group. When they see the slightest motion within the class, they scurry to meet the ideas which seem to shape it at least halfway. In the course of tailing the current levels of consciousness they quickly jettison various aspects of the Marxist world view which they had previously maintained. The views of the workers at large (or for some, the militant workers at large) are the “real world” and Marxist overviews become “hollow abstractions.” Theory becomes not an understanding of reality and methods of struggle but a rationalization for adapting to the current level of workers’ consciousness.
While the strand of subjectively revolutionary workers and the left organizations is quite small and does not have a decisive impact upon events, it does have significance even in the present circumstances. In a variety of strikes, oppositional struggles and demonstrations, various far left groups play a real role. Frequently, when a “broad” or “grass-roots” group or event emerges it becomes a source of pride to the initiates to identify the particular leftist group moving under the facade. Not every such occurrence is manipulated by a left group, but it is quite common. Not every oppositional and “rank and file” group in the unions has such elements, but it can be said that a thin pinkish line does run through quite a number of them. It is not accidental, nor is it due to security questions, that these groups parade under political banners far more “minimal” than their own formal programs. It is because the politics of most of the left groups have moved so far to the right that they are tailing, or have already become a part of, the left wing of the very union bureaucracy that bears much of the responsibility for the present backward consciousness of the working class.
The sporadic upheavals of the past decade are only the tip of the iceberg. Occurring under the pressure of the accelerating crisis, they reveal the fundamental dissatisfaction and hostility felt by the workers toward the traditional leadership of organized labor in the U.S. Under this pressure, a wing of the bureaucracy has been slowly pushed to the left in order to maintain its position. To this purpose they attempt to pre-empt and deflect the workers when the motion is slow, or to capture and tame them when the movement has begun to jell.
The labor bureaucracy in the U.S. plays a role similar (but not identical) to that of the reformist socialists in Europe. It is no accident that a vacillating, capitulatory, but noticeable left wing of the social democracy has begun to crystallize in the Old World under the impact of the rising workers’ struggle. It is a pale reflection of the centrist wings which developed to ensnare the workers’ upsurges during the thirties. The left bureaucrats in the U.S. represent an even more squalid version of this same phenomenon. Their lower level of left pretension is due to the more pro-bourgeois consciousness and the lower level of struggle in this country.
The prominent far left groups in the U.S. are not equivalent to the vaguely left liberal and closet socialist types who decorate the present scene of big-time labor statesmanship. They are the genuine variety of centrists. That is, they conceal their solidly reformist practice beneath revolutionary rhetoric and traditions.
The left bureaucrats and the centrists, however, are moving rapidly toward each other on a convergence course. Both are dedicated to attracting the layers of militant workers who are beginning to go into motion. At this point the far leftists generally appeal to the small number of workers who already seek far-reaching and even communist solutions in order to catch them up in the same old reformist promises. The left bureaucrats seek out the less political militants. But the two currents, the left bureaucrats and the far leftists, are by their nature quite open to interpenetration, for they represent in the last analysis differing wings of the petty-bourgeois incubus within the proletariat. Therefore our analysis of the centrists begins with an assessment of the bureaucracy.
The present bureaucracy, including all of its wings, is extremely conservative; it has succeeded in presiding over the turning of the most strongly organized and powerful union movement in the world into a force which has capitulated at every turn. This bureaucracy entrenched itself through the Cold War defeat of both the Communist Party forces and the more genuinely left forces in the working class in the late 1940’s. The post-World War II prosperity of the imperialist nations, the U.S. above all, enabled the union bureaucrats to consolidate and deepen their power, positions and perquisites. There was enough fat on the system to enable the union leaders to “produce” on the bread and butter issues and use this to contain the workers. This was no act of nobility: the militancy of the workers was responsible for the gains, for massive strikes took place frequently during the period of prosperity. Too frequently for the labor bureaucracy; behind the gains, they were busy giving up the unions’ independence from management and the state which had been won by the workers in the past. Government agencies and the courts now regulate every function of the unions, and in this new web the bureaucracy feels far more secure.
Trotsky wrote about the increasing incorporation of the unions into the state apparatus during the depression of the 1930’s. This world-wide trend, characteristic of the centralization drive of this epoch of state monopoly capitalism, continued during and after World War II. The AFL-CIO in the United States has certainly been no exception to this rule.
The post-war boom is now well over, having given way to a deepening crisis which maintains itself through both recessions and short-lived upturns. The labor bureaucracy, which depends for its very existence on the selling and disciplining of labor power, is faced with the need to protect capitalist profits in order to defend the system itself. It has accepted the bosses’ dictum that the workers must pay for the crisis, although it seeks to hold on to some of the eroding gains for its immediate base in the aristocracy of labor: craftsmen, semiprofessionals, high seniority workers, and members of relatively privileged racial, ethnic and sexual groups. In order to defend these crumbs the bureaucracy permits mass layoffs, speed-up and other attacks on the working class as a whole.
The labor bureaucrats today place their hopes in a vain attempt to jockey the bourgeois state into supporting their small requests at the expense of the corporations. The political arena is something the working class cannot avoid, since the immediate demands of the workers can no longer be answered without recourse to politics, and industrial struggles are almost immediately brought into the realm of government agencies. The bureaucracy is happy to keep politics central -- and thereby to downplay industrial action -- as long as “politics” means only the reform proposals and the reformist politicians of the Democratic Party. As well, it has attempted to divert the anger, militancy and frustration of the ranks into safe electoral campaigns for the likes of Jimmy Carter.
The massive labor effort behind Carter’s candidacy has hardly led to pro-labor policies: witness Carter’s pitiful minimum wage bill and his scarcely concealed contempt for other programs favored by the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO recently identified itself with Carter’s proposed changes in labor law to speed up union recognition efforts. If adopted, these provisions will have the most minimal impact, but it is for this that the union bureaucrats surrendered their already feeble struggle against “right-to-work” laws. Such victories are hardly distinguishable from defeats. They are the result of the bureaucracy’s unwillingness to mount any challenge to the bourgeoisie that might renew the confidence of the working class.
Workers have been bitter and angry over unemployment, inflation, bad contracts, evaporation of pension funds, collapse of the cities and all of the effects of the continuing crisis. They think very little of the labor bureaucracy, but in practice they follow it in the most profound sense; that is, they have not put forward any serious alternative leadership and policies. Consequently the working class has been mired in cynicism and has been relatively quiescent and fearful in the face of the crisis.
This has been a general pattern to which important exceptions exist, and there are signs of a real change. The past year saw a strike wave: the Teamsters experienced their first nationwide strike; the Rubber Workers had a three-month long strike; the UAW strike at Ford upset earlier predictions of strike-free bargaining in auto. The misleaders of these unions felt compelled to call strikes in order to contain the ranks. In addition, in the United Mine Workers, after nearly two million man-days of wildcat strikes in 1976, over 120,000 miners wildcatted earlier this year in a political strike against the pro-boss role of the courts in mining cases and against the sellouts of the union leadership. Wildcat strikes, political demonstrations and even battle conditions have prevailed in large areas of the mining states.
The volatile potential of the working class in the face of the capitalist crisis is recognized in a different way by the bureaucracy as well. The bureaucracy sees (and desires) no alternative to capitalism. It represents the outlook of the upper stratum of aristocratic workers we have mentioned who consider that they have a real material stake in the system, and it is supported as well by those who expect to fulfill their hopes of rising into that layer. Accordingly, these layers have a vested interest in defending industry’s profits, which they see as the only way decent wages can be maintained, at least for the aristocracy of workers. They don't want to kill “the goose that lays the golden eggs” by contract demands inconsistent with a high profit level.
The bureaucracy is well aware of the strength of the working class. The Teamsters’ leadership, for example, knows that it can with one blow cut off the transportation of goods throughout the United States. All the major industries are unionized and can be brought to a standstill. It is precisely when the ranks’ anger rises and conditions get worse that the bureaucracy has tried harder to limit strikes, localize the workers’ response and divide the class in order to communicate feelings of weakness. They fear “anarchy” in the plants. It is not by accident that the UAW in recent years mobilized huge goon squads to deal with handfuls of radicals, well knowing the potential for an explosion, should a large section of workers see through the cynicism imposed upon them and sense the possibility of victories.
In the past few years, a left wing of the bureaucracy has been forced to distinguish itself under two interrelated pressures. One is the mounting anger of the ranks, which cannot be prevented from getting out of hand by the traditional methods of the more compromised labor statesmen. Secondly, the bureaucrats’ very existence depends upon the workers’ defending at least some of their past gains. The lengths that the conservatives have gone to in surrendering every weapon and tying the unions into the web of the state cuts down on the bureaucrats’ own maneuvering room. Why should management need them and why should the workers fight for them if they simply become agencies for disciplining the workers, unmitigated by any face-saving sops? The most conservative bureaucrat will find an occasion to blame the ranks for their unwillingness to fight, which is in reality a reluctance to be betrayed again.
However, the difference between right and left wings exists more in potential than in present reality. Its victory over the ranks in the past allows the bureaucracy as a whole to remain so conservative. For example, the well-publicized AFL-CIO campaign to organize the Southern textile industry is touted as an indication of labor officialdom’s new progressiveness, but it amounts only to a wretched plea for liberals to boycott J.P. Stevens products while it does nothing to encourage militant activity on the part of the textile workers themselves. Organizing the South, like every significant union program, demands a political strategy as well as an industrial action. Neither left nor right bureaucrats are willing to stand for even a minimally militant industrial course, much less for a political program that would do the job, for it requires a break with Carter and the Democratic Party and would have revolutionary consequences (see the article Revolutionary Perspectives for Southern Labor in Socialist Voice No. 3).
Some of the left bureaucrats like to indicate off the record that they are far less enamored of the Democratic Party than is the Meany wing. But every significant union action that they might put forward, like the organizing of the South, requires a political solution, and this is why left bureaucrats draw back. They may continue to vacillate, but they must inevitably cave in to the right wing. In the last analysis, there is no middle ground between surrendering to the bourgeois state and constructing the revolutionary party. Faced with these choices, the left bureaucrats return to nest upon their golden eggs, which in this epoch are inevitably rotten.
We will use the recent events in the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) to illustrate both the situation in the unions and the role of the left (or more exactly, that portion of the left which claims a Trotskyist tradition). Similar questions are raised by the more recent re-election of Arnold Miller in the United Mine Workers; our choice of the Steelworkers as our primary illustration stems not from any assessment that this union is of greater importance, but simply because it attracted greater work and attention from a large part of the left.
The two important events that have occurred in the Steelworkers this year were the election of a new slate of national officers and the signing of a new contract with the major steel companies. In February, Lloyd McBride defeated “insurgent” candidate Ed Sadlowski for the presidency of the union. This election was followed by the new contract, negotiated in early April. The union negotiators included McBride and were headed by I.W. Abel, at that time president of the union.
It is a sad commentary on our times that we must say with a sigh of relief that the rank and file were not smashed by the adoption of the contract. However, it would only be a pollyanna who could claim that the contract wasn’t a sellout. The wage increase provided is hardly more than the 3 percent yearly increase now guaranteed by the Experimental Negotiating Agreement (ENA), Abel’s “achievement” which bans national strikes in steel until 1980 (and according to his pledge, even through the 1980 contract negotiations). In addition, the “job security” ballyhoo which the union leadership raised prior to the contract revealed itself to be merely an increase of Supplemental Unemployment Benefits (SUB) payments from 52 weeks to 104 weeks -- and that only for workers with 20 years or more of continuous service. (Autoworkers can tell the steelworkers all about SUB benefits and similar promises that run dry long before many workers get to use them during periods of mounting layoffs.) Finally, the contract committed the USWA to extend the productivity agreements which benefit only the bosses.
The contract was initially rejected by the local union presidents of the basic steel locals by a vote of 148 to 143. The Abel-McBride forces regrouped, and with the second vote the contract was accepted, 193 to 99. The rank and file did not vote at all, having no right to ratify contracts in the USWA.
Sadlowski and his supporters were credited as the force behind the initial rejection. In a sense this was true. The first ballot rejection reflected the fact that basic steel is the heart of the opposition in the union. (Non-steel units which don’t directly figure in the big contracts compose the majority of the USWA locals.) Sadlowski, like every oppositionist in the past, had his strength in basic steel, and he carried a majority of basic steel locals in the election while losing elsewhere. Local steel presidents who were pro-Sadlowski did form the base for the first ballot rejection.
But the rejection was for the record only. Sadlowski and his lieutenants had to pose as militants because they had no other option. But they led no charge and didn’t sound even a tinny bugle; they folded their tents right after that one little display. They got away as cheaply as they could in the face of a membership which was obviously bitterly angry over the ENA, the “normal” leadership betrayals and their beautiful new contract hatchet job.
Sadlowski’s action was perfectly in keeping with his campaign and his record in the union. Even this was not unique in the USWA. Abel himself was once an “insurgent” and a spokesman for the “rank and file,” having come to power in the USWA by campaigning against the David McDonald leadership’s “tuxedo unionism.” Today he is an outstanding right winger. He led what was once a major CIO union into Meany’s craft-dominated section of the movement. He has led no national strikes; he “won” the Experimental Negotiating Agreement mentioned above (designed to convince the steel companies not to stockpile materials under the threat of a strike during contract negotiations and thereby lay off workers afterwards); recently, “at the invitation of U.S. Steel,” he has appeared in advertisements promoting greater productivity on the part of workers.
Having reached mandatory retirement age, Abel handpicked his successor, McBride, who is pledged to carry out similar policies. In essence, these policies are aimed at protecting an outmoded and internationally uncompetitive steel industry and thereby to safeguard the bureaucrats’ aristocratic labor base by tying it to productivity and capitalism’s profit needs at the expense of other workers. Abel and McBride seek to transform the industrial steel union into a craft-like, shielded union, protectionist to the core. The Steelworkers example illustrates a general trend that is transforming the mass unions formed by the CIO upsurge into societies for the preservation of the labor aristocracy at the expense of the more exploited sections of the proletariat.
The USWA leadership has been temporarily successful in traveling along this path. As for the workers, some substantive wage gains were won in the past but were always disproportionately dispensed to the skilled workers in the union. And massive layoffs, the highest since World War II, have occurred despite Abel’s “concern” for job security. It is in this situation that Sadlowski rose to prominence. He did not appear overnight, but worked his way up over a period of time in the Chicago-Gary area. He rose to be a shop steward, a griever, a local president, and then a union staffer (appointed by Abel), while becoming identified as an anti-war liberal in the late 1960’s. It was his victory for the directorship of District 31, the USWA’s largest, that put him into the spotlight in the union. Sadlowski actually lost the first rigged election, but he was able to get the National Labor Relations Board to intervene and oversee a re-run, which he won easily.
Sadlowski used his highly placed connections to get the new election. Most prominent was Joseph Rauh, former chief of Americans for Democratic Action. This Washington lawyer has considerable influence in the labor department and liberal establishment. A long time anti-communist, Rauh has also always been a strong advocate of intervention by the bourgeois state in the unions.
Sadlowski’s campaign against McBride was an attempt to revive a union with both clout and some safety valves to allow the ranks to blow off steam. Sadlowski led no organized movement among steelworkers; despite the considerable anger, there was no organization or uprising of any size. In response to the pressure of the crisis, Sadlowski was attempting to forestall a movement of potentially dangerous proportions rather than riding the back of an existing one. This determined the nature of the entire campaign.
Thus the “outside” character of the campaign was significant. A nest of liberal politicians, industrialists, professors and professional do-gooders jumped onto the bandwagon. People like Ralph Nader, economist John Kenneth Galbraith and Victor Reuther of liberal-labor UAW fame raised money, organized meetings and arranged cocktail parties in behalf of Sadlowski’s candidacy.
In fact, Sadlowski’s support became a major issue in the campaign. McBride & Co., posturing as militants, charged that liberals were pulling Sadlowski’s strings. This charge struck paydirt. Liberal pundits may deprecate their class consciousness, yet workers on the production line are quite well aware that the cocktail party set has interests different from their own. (The administration team, of course, was just as class collaborationist; their orientation has been to more conservative sections of the bourgeoisie.) The anti-outsider rhetoric also included a heavy dose of red-baiting against Sadlowski and the left groups who supported him. But the insincerity of the “outsider” charge was proved by the fact that both sides sought to outdo each other in going to the bosses’ courts for assistance; each side, for example, demanded NLRB supervision of the election.
Hand in hand with Sadlowski’s reliance on the liberals was his avoidance of a real mobilization of the rank and file. His Steelworkers Fight Back campaign structure organized workers enough to make his candidacy known and get the votes. But not much more. As one campaign coordinator commented: “There is some misconception among leftists that Steelworkers Fight Back is a rank and file organization.... It’s essentially a network of contacts assembled for the purpose of electing candidates to union office.” (Guardian, February 23, 1977).
In fact, Steelworkers Fight Back was merely an update of Steelworkers for Sadlowski, his organizing tool for the 1974 District 31 election. Some rank and filers have gone through its mill, but it is essentially composed of local union officials, out-bureaucrats and members of various left groups. What apparatus exists is furnished by the leftists, while effective control lies with Sadlowski and his closest associates.
As director of District 31, Sadlowski did have the potential leverage to at least attempt to organize a militant movement. (The fact that he had inherited a staff largely made up of Abelites put limitations on his power, but it really doesn’t explain his poor record.) He steered clear of involvement with potentially explosive situations, and consistently avoided any mobilization of the ranks which could have triggered an explosion -- something Sadlowski was actively seeking to prevent. Sadlowski’s politics were to pose himself as the great benefactor and deliverer, not to encourage the involvement, consciousness and activity of the workers.
Sadlowski of course appealed to the ranks for votes. But the section of the union whose interests he was attempting to promote was a segment of the staff and the local leadership in basic steel. In fact, most of the professional staff apparatus supported McBride. But, as we noted earlier, a developing layer of the bureaucracy is beginning to see that its positions and privileges depend upon the union retaining some measure of independence from the companies, as well as the need to deflect a rank and file upsurge. Sadlowski thus made a fervent appeal during the campaign to the staff and related strata of local officials, despite the hatred for the apparatus on the part of militant rank and filers. Three of the four members of Sadlowski’s slate were staff members, including treasurer candidate Andrew Kmec, the president of the staff union and a notorious one-time McDonald hack.
Sadlowski’s election program was of a piece with the rest of his campaign. His campaign pitch was a vague revival of militant industrial unionism. While in itself this represents no fundamental solution for workers, Sadlowski’s more specific perspectives did not even approach the limits of reformist militancy. Union democracy was the linchpin of his platform, including a membership referendum on the ENA and the right to vote on contracts. These are improvements over current practices, no doubt, especially in a union that has been bureaucratic since its inception. But Sadlowski in fact counterposed “democracy” to militancy. Rather than leading a forthright opposition to the crippling ENA and fighting for the elementary right to strike, Sadlowski backed off and suggested that “the ranks should decide” -- in 1980. Sadlowski’s espousal of “democracy” counterposed to militancy reflects his desire to create a safety valve to allow the pressure to ease and to prevent the top being blown off by mass action. Sadlowski’s conception of “union democracy” is actually something known in labor reformist circles as “institutionalization.” It means channeling and disciplining mass action and sentiment into highly structured forms in order to stifle it. “Institutionalization” is simple bureaucratization “with a human face.”
Sadlowski’s performance did not prevent leftists from supporting his candidacy and singing his praises even afterwards. The Communist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Revolutionary Communist Party, and International Socialists were among his admirers. We will deal in detail later with the left’s approach to the campaign. What is noteworthy here is that Sadlowski needed the left to provide the organization and rank and file outreach and left cover that he and his liberal friends did not have. He could get away with this tactic because he was fairly certain that these groups had neither the strength nor the desire to buck him and attempt to organize a mass movement. Sadlowski deftly maneuvered with the left: while declaring himself an opponent of red-baiting, he stressed its damage to his campaign and thereby restricted the maneuvering room of his left supporters. He whispered to the leftists that he was really a socialist but couldn’t dwell on it in public. His ability to talk out of both sides of his mouth rivaled Jimmy Carter’s: in one arena he came out as a “socialist in the sense of Eugene Debs”; in another he was a “god-fearing capitalist.”
In many respects, Sadlowski’s campaign was similar to Arnold Miller’s in the United Mine Workers in 1972. Both were “insurgent” campaigns backed by the Joseph Rauh type of liberal do-gooders. But there were important differences. Miller’s campaign was a response to a genuine movement of workers threatening to explode. The Miners for Democracy (MFD) was the loose organization formed by several powerful movements which grew up in the mine fields. It was definitely not a revolutionary grouping but a heterogeneous formation which Miller and Rauh tried to tie to the liberal establishment and to the perspective of further state intervention in the union. But the MFD had a volatile grass roots base of active miners, black lung victims and rank and file leaders, which in the context of the hot fight against the murderous right-wing Boyle regime posed the threat of getting out of hand. It was for this reason that one of Miller’s first acts upon assuming the UMW presidency was to disband the MFD. Thus Miller’s struggle for power in the UMW represented an attempt by liberal-reform bureaucrats to corral and mislead a mass workers’ upsurge. Sadlowski’s campaign aimed to prevent an MFD-type movement (or what the bureaucrats fear the most, a revolutionary alternative) from occurring.
There are even closer similarities between the Sadlowski campaign and the recent three-way contest in the Mine Workers between Miller, Harry Patrick and Leroy Patterson. Patrick, once Miller’s running mate in the Miners For Democracy campaign, attempted to repeat Miller’s “rank and file” victory now that Miller had lost his image as a reformer. But there was no longer a movement for either Patrick or Miller to ride, since the Miller team had succeeded in destroying it in the absence of an alternative leadership that the ranks could have confidence in. Far from reflecting the extensive wildcat movement that occurred during the election campaign, Patrick attempted to undercut it; the Miller and Patrick of 1972 would have attempted to ride the crest of the wildcat movement in order to bring it down. Thus Patrick’s effort had more in common with Sadlowski’s than it did with the 1972 upsurge.
Revolutionaries do not stand aloof from even the limited struggles of our class; we seek to intervene where we can, in order to fight alongside our fellow workers and help prove in the course of struggle the material necessity for socialism as the only way they can achieve their interests. Our central task is to build the instrument necessary to accomplish the goal, the revolutionary party, which must be forged by the working class in the course of its struggle and which represents its most advanced consciousness. This vanguard party is based upon the program reflecting the real interests of the proletariat, which are fundamentally the same for all workers in all industries and in all countries. Because the interests of the proletariat and those of the capitalists are fundamentally opposite, the revolutionary party and its program are the polar opposites of any bourgeois program. This is true for bourgeois reformist programs as well as overtly hostile ones, since reformist programs are based on the material interests of the bureaucratic and aristocratic layers, not the mass of workers. Like Trotsky, we pursue “a struggle to turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labor aristocracy.”
Thus when Leninists intervene in struggles, we do not view the world as a series of poor, better, and best reformist leaders who are coming closer and closer to socialism. Even when reformists back political demands that seem to be the same as those of revolutionaries, we point out that the reformist leaderships' content is exactly the opposite of what revolutionaries mean and what the masses need. For example, to “build the union” to the bureaucracy means to build an instrument for strengthening the power of the bureaucracy, against the workers as well as the capitalists. It means to cement ties with the bourgeois state in order to appeal for its favors. For Marxists, the only way to build the union is to break these ties, and this can he done only by a revolutionary party.
The most important example is the demand for “unity.” Reformists understand its importance for workers and therefore always try to proclaim the unity of the class, but for bourgeois-limited goals, and frequently with “unity” extended to a section of the bourgeoisie itself. The warning to the militants is inevitably, “Don’t go too far or you’ll make us lose our best friends,” the bourgeois liberals. This lowest common denominator approach does not often build the widest unity possible, because it leaves out the bulk of dispossessed workers whose needs are not met by minimal demands. In the steel election, for example, the vote turnout was lower than expected, given the intensity of the campaign. Thousands of steelworkers who might have supported an insurgent struggle remained cynical and did not vote for Sadlowski: if there wasn’t much difference in what the two candidates promised, what was the point in risking jobs and income on what seemed to be the more militant actions Sadlowski would get them involved in?
One central device used by Leninists when they are not the decisive force in the proletariat, but still seek to win large sectors away from liberal reformist leaderships, is the united front. (We have discussed the united front in detail in Socialist Voice No. 4.) Its task is to create unity in struggle. If the reformists refuse to accept it they stand exposed before the workers as unwilling to unify in the fight. If they do enter the united front because of the pressure of their base, the revolutionaries, retaining always the right to criticize, are able to expose their attempts to curtail the workers’ fight in the interests of maintaining capitalism.
The variant of the united front which is necessary when the revolutionary forces are minuscule in comparison to the mass organizations of the class is what is called “critical support.” This means voting for a given misleadership in a tactical struggle, while exposing its vacillations and hesitations and warning of its ultimate betrayals because of its fundamental loyalty to capitalism. It is one of the many tools designed to “split the base from the top,” to win the workers from their misleaderships to the revolutionary leadership. Leadership is the most critical question of our epoch, as Trotsky never failed to point out. Like the united front, its use depends upon the direction and struggle of at least sections of the masses and not the political program of the leadership.
For example, revolutionaries gave critical support to Arnold Miller during the 1972 campaign against Tony Boyle. This was not because Miller really represented the interests of the workers (he did not), but because the victory over Boyle was a step forward that opened up the struggle in the miners’ union. Miller represented a reformist leadership which reflected a live, fighting movement of miners insofar as was necessary to derail it. Revolutionaries were obliged to side with the ranks against the Boyle machine, identifying with their aspirations and their struggle and gaining their ear in order to expose Miller for what he was, a labor lieutenant in the service of capitalism. Only through the tactic of critical support could revolutionaries prove to the most advanced miners that Miller’s reformist program was incapable of fulfilling the miners’ needs and that he would inevitably betray even that program because of his primary commitment to capitalism.
As this example shows, critical support means support of the independent struggles of the workers and an attack on the non-revolutionary leaderships of those struggles. Trotsky also made this clear in his discussions with the SWP leaders on June 12-15, 1940, when he advocated critical support to the Presidential candidacy of Communist Party candidate Earl Browder. “They (the CPers), of course, would say, we don’t want your support. We should answer, we don’t support you, but the workers who support you. We warn them but go through the experience with them. These leaders will betray you.” In Lenin’s pungent phrase (from Left-Wing Communism), critical support is like the support that a rope gives a hanged man. It holds him up for exposure before the masses and destroys him.
Critical support is a selective tactic, however, used under particular circumstances. Support to Sadlowski, no matter how “critical,” served an opposite role from support to Miller in 1972. It taught that the lesser evil Sadlowski, rather than the increasingly conscious class struggle by the masses of workers, was responsible for progressive change in the union. Nor was it possible to use the Sadlowski movement to open the union up to rank and file initiative and revolutionary influence -- since no such movement existed. In essence, the “critical support” tactic promoted cynicism, the notion that the workers can’t act for themselves but must rely on “the man on the white horse.” This ended up reinforcing Sadlowski’s strategy and message rather than serving as a basis for defeating what influence he did have over militant workers.
Thus the support that leftists gave to Sadlowski was not “critical support” at all. The tactic can be used to win the masses from their leaders only when they are in a struggle, when there is an actual movement of a section of the working class. In the absence of such movement, any kind of support to a non-revolutionary leadership (no matter how “critical,” that is, no matter what additions or criticisms are raised) must become support for the pro-bourgeois program and direction of the bureaucrat in question. Such a subordination of the revolutionary program to the reformist programs of the labor bureaucrats, however left, is impermissible for revolutionaries. But that is just what the bulk of the left has been doing or is preparing to do.
One of the most prominent groups supporting Sadlowski was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), possibly the largest organization the in the U.S. to the left of the Communist Party. It is the most obvious example of a petty-bourgeois transplant into the working class. Even at the ebb of the New Left, the SWP avoided entering the workers’ movement, always citing a second coming of the middle class radicalization as its perspective (and rarely has a perspective proved so totally wrong). The SWP has recently made its “turn to the working class,” away from its submersion in the non-working class petty-bourgeois milieu and into the kindred petty-bourgeois layers of the proletariat. It is now attempting to peddle in the unions the same type of right-wing politics it brought to the student movement in the 1960’s -- and here the disaster can be many times greater.
The flavor of the SWP’s turn may be tasted in an article by Frank Lovell, director of SWP union activities, who gave some elementary school lessons to his newly “industrialized” comrades in a 1972 internal bulletin: “Whenever workers get into a fight with the boss, when the union calls a strike, we should help out in every way possible. Join the fight.” This to the membership of a purportedly proletarian party! Lovell also made it a point that “Usually the best job is the one you can qualify for that pays the most money.” Exactly the same idea as that of the local union officials aspiring to get out of the factory and onto the paid staff. The two world views mesh neatly, and the Sadlowski campaign confirms this.
In a recent article in the Militant (April 22, 1977), the SWP laid out its current strategy for labor work, asserting that only reformist politics and struggles are possible now: “Large numbers of workers can be brought, in stages, toward adoption of a class-struggle program required to defend their interests if the left-wing forces in their midst proceed with the necessary patience and astuteness.” More explicitly, the Militant set out the following guidelines:
It would be unwise, for instance, to begin with efforts to vote incumbent officials out of office so that correct policies might be instituted forthwith by a new leadership.... Since arguments in favor of new policies would seem rather remote to many workers upon first hearing them, the reactionaries could easily fog the issues.
If the rebel forces proceed, instead, by pressing at the outset for official adoption, or at least tolerance, of policies that will enable the workers to fight off the capitalist assault on their living standards, better results can be obtained.
As things get worse under the present officers, broadening layers of the membership will become more open-minded toward new ideas and methods of action. Awareness will grow that organized labor is on the wrong track programmatically. Pressures will mount for a major shift in line. When the incumbents fail to respond adequately, more and more workers will come to recognize that the leadership personnel must be changed, and they will be ready to act accordingly.
At this point, a shake-up in the leadership will have become possible. Does this mean a revolutionary leadership based in the rank and file? Hardly. Rather, the ranks become a left pressure on the lower echelons of the bureaucracy. As the SWP sees it: “Instead of the bureaucracy splitting the workers to maintain its sway, the workers will be able to split the bureaucracy in their fight for rank and file control over the unions.” Eventually, they claim, the revolutionary stage will come to pass. Right now it is a question of support to left reformists as opposed to right reformists.
The SWP believes that revolutionaries must not provide revolutionary guidance in the working class. Instead they advocate clever tactical maneuvers to help goose the workers along a series of reformist stages. The workers will automatically come to revolutionary conclusions merely by fighting for reform and democratic demands. This approach is consistent with the politics of the SWP in general. The antiwar marches led by the SWP and its liberal allies were “objectively anti-imperialist” even though anti-imperialism was not part of their program; according to the SWP, bourgeois spokesmen like Mayor John Lindsay and Senator Vance Hartke who were featured attractions at the anti-war demonstrations could not possibly have been representing what they considered to be the best interests of their class in urging that imperialism cut its losses in Vietnam. Similarly, the SWP calls for a black political party but rejects specifying that it be a workers’ party. The reasoning is that since blacks are working class in their majority, such a party will be “objectively” a workers’ party.
In the trade unions, the SWP advocates a stage of “class struggle unionism.” This rubric is deliberately meant to blur the content of the program the SWP raises. It enables the SWP to tie itself to the left bureaucrats under the conviction that the movement will “objectively” become socialist. In reality, by not fighting the bourgeois ideology and program of the bureaucrats, the SWP manages to place its faith not in the workers but in leaders like Sadlowski.
The SWP’s own “class struggle program” includes a series of democratic and reform demands which the SWP undoubtedly believes are “transitional” and very socialistic -- but it doesn’t trouble to inform the workers of this fact. It is of a piece with Sadlowski’s whispered statements that he is a socialist. Both seek to put one over on the workers. Behind the leaders publicized “socialism” is the “objective process” which transforms class struggle into revolutionary struggle and reformism into Marxism. But all the revolutionary justifications and promised future stages are only a cover for support to reformism in practice. That is centrism in a nutshell.
Unlike revolutionaries, whose critical support to a campaign must point out what’s wrong with the reformist candidate whom the workers are following, the SWP orients toward the leaders and seeks to bolster their status and deepen their influence. As one SWPer put it, “It’s not like the other places around the country where it’s our comrades who are doing most of the work and shouldering most of the responsibility. In Cleveland the prominent leaders of the Sadlowski campaign are seen to have a lot of authority in the district, and that’s what is needed. That’s what we want them to have.” (Edited official transcript of the Steelworkers workshop at the SWP Convention, August 1976, page 5.)
Because the SWP saw the campaign as a necessary step, it did everything to avoid rocking the boat. It published a pamphlet, The Fight for Union Democracy in Steel, which discussed the campaign without a single critical word on Sadlowski. The Militant from time to time carried a few wrist-slapping “criticisms” which weren’t meant to be taken seriously. The minutes of the Steelworkers panel at the SWP convention contain no criticisms except such allusions as “he’s still kind of vague on a number of programmatic points.” But the SWP is even vaguer. There is not a word, when it comes to any serious internal evaluation, on differences such as Sadlowski’s support for the Democratic Party. The tone tends toward rapture: “There’s no objective reason that we can tell, that anybody’s come up with, why the revolt first took place in the Chicago-Gary region.... The big difference was a man named Ed Sadlowski.”
Or: “...what he’s brought into the union is the radical tradition. He prides himself as a labor historian and he tried to educate the people who work with him on labor history. First and foremost he’s a good trade unionist. He believes in things like solidarity, don’t cross picket lines, strike if you have to, you try to be militant, and you rely on the rank and file.” With ideas like that he could even qualify for Lovell’s job in the SWP.
The SWP had one problem with its approach, however: it was not the only pawn on the board. In the thirties, the CP was able to provide John L. Lewis with both an organized base and an apparatus strong enough to keep the workers in line if they started to move too far or too militantly. In the seventies, the many splintered character of the centrists is harmful to the left bureaucrats in that it hampers their campaigns for votes but helpful in that it reduces the danger of a firm radical presence. Unable to wield hegemonic power over the left, the SWP made up in groveling what it lacked in clout. Here is another contribution from the Steelworkers workshop: “I have one opponent in my local -- an ISer. He’s so infamous that a Fight Back team that was touring around the country spoke about how bad this guy is. And they’ve never met him. This Steelworkers Fight Back team had four local presidents on it, young local presidents. They said this is an example of how not to work in the union.”
The local union officials paternalistically explain how “revolutionaries” should conduct their work with proper decorum, and the SWP laps it up. SWPers are proud to be so much more reasonable, loyal and likable than the less housebroken leftists.
Such an open orientation to the local bureaucracy compels the SWP to make a significant strategic differentiation from the other centrist groups. The others hide behind “rank and file caucuses,” an approach that deliberately conceals the politics they seek to counter the bureaucracy with, but nevertheless makes it difficult to appeal to lower echelon bureaucrats. Therefore the SWP polemicizes against rank-and-file-ism, as at the convention:
These groups that call themselves the rank and file -- I don’t care whether they’re IS, or CP, or whatever -- are dangerous. I’ll tell you why. Unionists do not call themselves the rank and file. They usually call themselves the local. The local’s going to do this. Or the union’s going to do this. They don’t see this distinction between themselves and the union.
But which “unionists” are those who call themselves “the local” and do not distinguish between themselves and the union? Not the most militant workers, who frequently go too far in their frustration with the bureaucracy and view the union itself with hostility. The SWP’s “unionists” are in fact the union officials, especially the younger generation of local presidents and executive board members to whom the SWP is directing its attentions. They are the clue to Sadlowski’s base and the SWP’s uncritical support. While individuals among them are undoubtedly loyal to the working class, as a social layer their aspiration is to rise in the union structure and frequently to get onto the union staff. Sadlowski’s campaign was oriented to such staff members and aspirants, who sought a militant cover because of the ranks’ attitude in the basic steel mills, and who were worried about the weakening of the union structure as it surrenders more and more to industry and the state. The SWP, as a petty bourgeois-based force coming in from outside the working class, has latched onto a slice of this layer and identified its interests with it. It provides this layer with a left cover. It is no wonder that the SWPers see their politics as the objective or automatic left extension of left bureaucratic reformism. They are right.
The International Socialists (IS), one of the groups pilloried by the SWP for its rank-and-file-ism, had become notorious on the left for its “shop floor” approach to politics. It reasoned that socialism was a long way off and that therefore a reasonable left group had to relate to the current level of working class consciousness. But there are many levels of consciousness within the variegated working class. The IS, reflecting its origins in the layer of militant activists in the campus struggles of yore, identified with (and in many cases joined) the layer of shop floor militants and shop stewards in the factories.
In a conservative and slow-moving labor movement, shop floor militants are frequently in an ambivalent position between the pressures of the ranks and their aspirations to reach more powerful positions. The most militant elements, with whom the IS identified, were hostile to the Internationals and the entrenched bureaucracies. Nevertheless, despite its implantation in the production sections of the unions generally, the IS also maintained ties with local officials of an oppositional bent among the skilled workers, as with the United National Caucus of the UAW.
The level of consciousness of the IS’s friends among the shop floor militants and lower-level out-bureaucrats is extremely parochial. In tailing and reinforcing this consciousness, the IS stuck closely to local plant issues over which militancy might be galvanized. Like the SWP, the IS also had its “objective process,” not arising from the dynamic of the left bureaucrats but rather from the dynamic of militancy itself. If the workers could be cajoled into militancy, then the role of the IS was to bring the various plant groups together and provide organizational vehicles for them, rank and file caucuses and ultimately a vanguard party. These organizations were to be characterized by “democracy” and, above all, the absence of offending programs beyond the first stage of militancy.
The IS’s politics -- its program -- therefore became a constantly shifting maze of short-term democratic and reform demands designed to reflect and connect with the current consciousness of the militant workers. In 1975 the IS adopted a “mass work” line which its leading body, the EC, explained this way: “We aim to limit and focus our demands as much as we can while still remaining effective.” For a time in 1975 and 1976, the IS was able to ride with a number of rank and file groups like RAFT (Rank and File Team) in steel and Teamsters for a Decent Contract (TDC). But the minimal program line tended to undermine the very need for an avowedly socialist organization like the IS.
At the IS’s 1976 Convention, there was an internal struggle over which layer to appeal to. A minority, leaders of the IS Teamster work, proposed orienting toward “worker activists” who were already leaders of rank and file groups. They admitted that the majority of people in the rank and file caucuses were trade union reformists, but urged recruiting the leaders who were “often more committed to reformist ideas” than were the workers who followed them. The leaders could be convinced that the IS’s revolutionary strategy would lead to bigger rank and file groups through even more limited and focused demands. “We have to demonstrate that our strategy is the only one that can consistently advance and broaden the rank and file movement and that our strategy is based on socialist principles (no commitment to profit, etc.).” Socialism is sold as a means to build the broad first stage of rank and file militancy. (Quotations from the internal document Moving the IS Forward: Reply to the EC.)
One section of the IS majority gave a very significant reply. “While we must collaborate with these people, they cannot and will not form the raw material of the emerging revolutionary movement.” Why not? They have “a basic lack of confidence in the ability of workers to assert themselves and control anything.... To the extent that rank and file leaders have a base, it is almost inevitably a conservative pressure. These leaders tend to lead workers who they perceive are more conservative and passive than themselves.” (Quotations from the document A Contribution to the Political Discussion.) That is, the ISers agree with the rank and file leaders in blaming the workers for the conservatism of their leaders. This is a cynical tendency which we will come across again.
While the leadership’s position prevailed, the alliances did not. Sure enough, many of the “worker activists” with reformist politics and aspirations took off for greener pastures, like PROD (Professional Drivers Council) in the Teamsters, where their common minimum-level program seemed to have more substance: actual bureaucrats, staffers and even lawyers. Having rested its aspirations on its links to the base, the IS received a rude shock. And then Sadlowski came along.
The IS was somewhat more critical of Sadlowski’s weak-kneed fight against McBride than was the SWP. This did not prevent an IS conference during the campaign from voting down a resolution to establish an independent presence. IS agreed to submerge itself entirely within Sadlowski’s organization (“In each mill, it should be our perspective to fold our existing work into the fightback movement,” said the National Steel Committee of the IS), and, like the SWP, the IS was frequently indistinguishable from Steelworkers Fight Back.
In fact, the IS actively sought to make itself indistinguishable, especially on the political level. “Nor was there any credible way to pose ourselves as an ‘independent’ force supporting Sadlowski because we lacked the forces to build the campaign independently. Therefore the only way to insist on our ‘independence’ would have been to do so programmatically, and we could only have done this by dividing ourselves off from the campaign in a sectarian manner.” (I.S. in the Sadlowski Campaign, an “Evaluation” dated March 1977 by the National Steel Fraction Steering Committee, pages 4-5.)
The IS was almost as steadfast as the SWP in rejecting, under the heading of critical support, any political criticism of its bedfellows. The above Evaluation went on: “While we are critical of Sadlowski, our criticisms would not begin from the view that our main task was exposure -- counterposing ourselves and our program to Sadlowski and his.” Like the SWP, the IS believes that differentiating itself politically from the left reformists is “sectarian.” Thus they continually undermine their own reason for existence while insisting on building their separate organizations. Given their political identities, they are being sectarian in maintaining separate groups from Sadlowski’s.
The IS had never distinguished itself politically from its previous allies, whom it thought of as trade union reformists, and it would not do so with its new, more powerful, associates. For the same reason that the IS’s previous allies had frequently moved to the right and attached themselves to willing staffers and out-bureaucrats, the IS did so now. The IS learned the same lesson, that of “a basic lack of confidence in the ability of the workers to control anything.” Seeing little interest among the workers in shop floor blind alleys, the IS is in the process of moving towards the same strata of the labor aristocracy and bureaucracy that the SWP is already devoting itself to.
However, the IS transition from the weak layer of militant stewards and long-term oppositionists to the more stable and more powerful left bureaucracy is still somewhat ambivalent. While the SWP would like to build Sadlowski’s Fight Back organization into a more massive one, the IS still conceives of it as a route to more genuine rank and file groups, and the IS is critical of Sadlowski for not contributing to this. The IS is more conscious of the need to incorporate the shop floor militants into the left bureaucracy’s operation than is the SWP, which is satisfied with its “young local presidents.”
The IS was quite disappointed not only with the results of the election but also with the lack of workers’ involvement in Steelworkers Fight Back. But despite the internal criticism of Sadlowski, they lay the blame on ... the workers! “In balance, it was the low level of rank and file self-activity, more than even the bureaucratic conservatism generated by Sadlowski’s reformism, that limited the dynamism of the campaign (though of course the two are not independent variables).”
“Though of course...” indeed! The IS, which could not politically distinguish itself from Sadlowski’s “bureaucratic conservatism,” which chose to “fold our existing work into” Sadlowski’s organization, which never thought to warn the working class in the pages of its newspaper that Sadlowski was bureaucratic, conservative, or even just a “reformist,” has the gall to say that the inactivity of the workers was more to blame than Sadlowski. By accepting Sadlowski’s “bureaucratic conservatism” and not fighting against it, the IS contributed to it and to the workers’ disillusionment in their own capacity to fight back.
If the IS believes that Sadlowski generated bureaucratic conservatism, it spent the entire campaign simply lying to the working class, reinforcing the cynical lessons the workers have absorbed as a result of the defeats inflicted by the labor lieutenants of capital, from left to right. Like the SWP, the IS’s real solidarity in the working class is with a layer of the bureaucracy. That’s whose interests, quite different materially from those of the mass of workers, the IS defended by its policy of silence on Sadlowski’s faults. Whereas the SWP is developing a stable base in the labor aristocracy and bureaucracy and is therefore clearly a right centrist group verging on outright reformism, the IS’s ambivalence (now verging more in the same direction as the SWP) marks it as more typically centrist -- but no less misleading for the working class.
The shift in the IS’s labor orientation (together with other factors which lie outside the scope of this article) generated a split in the IS at its 1977 convention. The new group is now called the International Socialist Organization (ISO): its opposition inside the IS was accelerated by its unwillingness to abandon the old rank and file strategy. In its document on the Sadlowski campaign, the minority opposition indicted the IS leadership as follows:
- We are abandoning our orientation to the shop floor and to the militant minority and shifting our orientation to other lefties, out bureaucrats, or to an ‘average steelworker’ that only exists on paper.
- We are abandoning our orientation to change from the bottom up, and beginning to claim that the union can be significantly changed from the top down.
- We now claim that the immediate problem blocking the formation of a rank and file movement is the absence of effective leadership (ours), rather than a problem of steelworkers’ consciousness, i.e. steelworkers are not convinced of the necessity of fighting.
As for the last point, the minority does the IS an injustice, as we have seen, for the IS leadership also blames the steelworkers for the lack of progress in the union. (Neither observes that the workers were quite justified in not flocking to Sadlowski’s standard; why should hard-pressed workers take the risk of “fighting” when he offered little more than Abel and devoted his candidacy to deterring any movement from being created?)
But the other ISO criticisms of the IS are correct. The IS did shift from its rank and file approach to “other lefties” and bureaucrats; the “other lefties” refers to the several other groups which vied with the IS inside Steelworkers Fight Back. And the orientation to the “average steelworker” simply means that the IS, in moving beyond militant shop floor consciousness, had begun to accept Sadlowski’s attempt to win the ranks on a less advanced program than even that of the shop floor militants. After all, these militants are generally in flat opposition to the Experimental Negotiating Agreement, over which Sadlowski equivocated. By surrendering its own organization to Fight Back, the IS eroded even its own rank-and-file-ist, but still reformist, criticism. Such is the logic of stagism.
The ISO in its own right is hardly an improvement over the petty-bourgeois labor-aristocratic politics of the IS. The “top down” critique which it makes of the IS is correct and applies to its own position, the old rank-and-file-ism of the IS, as well. For there is no particular politics of the rank and file. The ranks’ consciousness is often a mixture of conservative and rebellious ideas co-existing in contradictory fashion. Those members of the ranks who are organized by the self-proclaimed rank-and-file-ists are provided with an amorphous program and “anti-elitist” spokesmen, who interpret the ranks’ will through their own unacknowledged class outlook and hide their own supposedly socialist politics. The rank-and-file-ists thereby vocalize (tail) the demands of a section of non-revolutionary, therefore pro-capitalist, workers. The ISO demonstrates, like the IS before it, that what this comes down to is placing the blame for the lack of heightened class struggle upon the workers rather than the bureaucrats. No wonder the ISO has discouraged its members from joining the industrial working class and has decided upon a greater orientation toward white collar and middle class arenas. The industrial workers, after all, are the ones responsible for the conservatism of the IS.
The ISO also abjures running in union elections as a fruitless effort -- after all, look what Sadlowski and Arnold Miller led to. Their objection is not that Sadlowski and Miller are agents of bourgeois politics inside the working class; for the ISO, the lesson to be drawn is to return to the parochialism of shop floor-limited militancy. Whereas the SWP tries to work with a bureaucratic layer that has a national or at least union-wide awareness and therefore argues, however timidly, for its reformist labor party as an alternative to the Democrats, the IS and ISO put forward only a hopelessly limited industrial struggle and say little or nothing about political solutions. Theirs is the more syndicalist form of reformism in its centrist clothes.
Some of the left groups found Sadlowski’s campaign too timid to swallow and withheld support. Their non-support, in several cases, meant no rejection of the stagist method but only the realization that Sadlowski’s version of the reformist stage was insufficiently left.
One such grouping is the Revolutionary Socialist League and its small group of supporters in the USWA, the Revolutionary Steelworkers Caucus. The RSL-RSC has been a vocal opponent of Sadlowski and has correctly cited Sadlowski’s hesitations over taking on the ENA and the lack of a fighting rank and file movement around him as important considerations in withholding support. The RSL-RSC did find it appropriate, however, to attempt to write a program for Sadlowski even while declaring its opposition. A September 1976 leaflet of Revolutionary Steelworker offered Sadlowski the following advice:
Sadlowski’s program for the election should revolve around three basic points:
- Tear up the ENA -- so that steelworkers can begin to regain some of the lost ground from the last two contracts,
- For the democratic right to vote on all contracts -- this to ensure that the contract is the one that steelworkers understand and want, and
- Build a national strike -- all other program planks mean nothing unless we talk about how to get them, and the strike is the only way that the ENA will be defeated. This is a program that is concrete and attainable if steelworkers start now to build support for it.
While it is absolutely correct and necessary to pose demands upon bureaucrats as a method of exposing their hesitations and capitulations to the bosses, this is different from writing reformist election programs for reformist candidates. The counseling of Sadlowski is connected to the RSL’s increasing substitution of narrow industrial militancy for a political, revolutionary intervention. The RSC’s program for Sadlowski meshed precisely with the “concrete and attainable” demands of reformist shop floor militants who were turned off by Sadlowski because he wouldn’t fight against the ENA and build for a strike. And it equally reflected this layer’s cynicism towards the rank and file and its ability to comprehend politics.
According to the RSL-RSC’s new rank-and-file-ism, the main problem with Sadlowski is that he wasn’t a good enough militant. This is false, and the workers must be told the truth: no mere militant program can solve their problems; their direction must be that of a political solution leading to state power. If this direction is not taken, all the democratic gains and reforms promised by the reformists (but not delivered) will be lost -- and more.
The RSL’s militant-sounding industrial work is but a slightly more left version of the old IS and present ISO style. Like the IS, the RSL calls for a revolutionary party but now weds it to a prior stage of rank and file democracy and trade union reforms. Like the ISO, which rejects elections and argues instead for “organizing,” the RSL’s slogan in the steel election was not merely opposition to Sadlowski and McBride but boycott: “Don’t Vote -- Organize.” They counterposed “organizing” to elections. In contrast, revolutionaries had the obligation to use the election and workers’ attention to it to demonstrate and organize for a revolutionary solution. We openly indicate that it is a shame we couldn’t field an alternative revolutionary candidate. Boycotting elections only tells the workers that it is useless to fight over the broader political and industrial issues. (The RSL has committed similar errors for similar reasons over elections for government offices; see, for example, the Letter to Jamaica in this issue.)
The RSL increasingly employs a stagist model for the struggles of workers -- today trade union militancy, and rank and file movements, tomorrow revolutionary program and leadership. This approach can only help build a base now for a future left bureaucracy. After all, if the “realistic” solutions are trade union militancy rather than revolution, then what is a more appropriate leadership than one based on a non-revolutionary trade union militant program, i.e. a left-reformist leadership? The RSL-RSC argued that “unless Sadlowski starts to organize now for the contract negotiations, he proves to be just another bureaucratic politician.” Sadlowski proved to be just that. But the rise in the class struggle will push aspiring misleaders to the fore with programs more militant than Sadlowski’s, along the lines of the RSL’s advice -- and even further to the left, because the RSL’s program of industrial reformism is far too mild to exhaust the rhetorical capacity of left bureaucrats when under pressure.
Unlike the IS, which recognized that its forces were far too weak to build an alternative to Sadlowski based upon a roughly similar political line, the even weaker RSL was unwilling to bury itself inside his apparatus because it conceives of itself as the further-left champion in the future. The RSL’s method paves the way for the coming of the “good” reformist; its implicit policy of conditioned non-support to Sadlowski will lead the organization either to capitulate to a better hero when he arrives or to substitute for him as his identical political twin. The RSL has moved into an adaptation to the consciousness of the very layer that the IS is deserting in its rightward drift, and it too will be caught up in the same tides. Four years ago the RSL broke from the IS tradition but it is now only in an earlier stage in the process of degeneration. This position makes it more left rhetorically, but also more vacillating and more overtly cynical.
The Spartacist League (SL) is another group that refused to support either candidate in the election. In doing this, the SL maintained that virtually no difference existed between McBride and Sadlowski, an assessment that was simply incorrect in light of the differing alignment of forces behind the two candidates. The real meaning of this assertion is brought out in the Spartacists’ criterion for using the tactic of critical support, as described, for example, in Workers Vanguard, January 28, 1977:
Leninists are in principle prepared to consider critical support to a candidate running in an election within the labor movement (e.g. for union office) only if on issues fundamental to the campaign he breaks programmatically from the class collaboration shared by all wings of the bureaucracy. Should such a candidate later refuse to carry out the class-struggle course he promised, the communist pole which extended him critical support is in a position to demand the implementation of the programmatic points he has betrayed and thus win over his base of militant workers.
In the absence of a programmatic break from class collaborationism, however, ‘critical support’ only serves as an excuse to tail popular bureaucrats....
The SL will, and has, extended critical support in union elections to elements which campaign on a program which breaks from reformism on key issues, but which may be incomplete, confused or even incorrect on other issues.
The SL is obviously correct in pointing out that Sadlowski has not taken a revolutionary position on any important question. But in reality only the revolutionary leadership represents a break from class collaborationism, only the revolutionary program is “fundamentally different” from that of Abel and the other reformists. Any non-revolutionary leadership, no matter how militant, fundamentally stands for class collaborationism. The SL position implies, however, that there exist reformists whose programs are merely “incomplete” or confused in certain ways; the appropriate form of “critical support” that follows would be to make their programs “complete.” As the class struggle heats up and forces certain bureaucratic strata to the left, the result of the SL’s policy will be to make it the left cover for that layer of the bureaucracy whose program will satisfy the SL’s non-Marxist criterion. Like the RSL, the SL is building the base for this future left bureaucracy.
Two examples of the Spartacists’ criterion will prove the point; both are taken from a series of newspaper articles by Chris Knox on Trotskyist work in the trade unions, considered by the SL to be authoritative.
The period of the 1933-1934 upsurge required exactly the kind of trade-union tactics Cannon advocated: a broad but principled united-front bloc around the key burning issues. In 1934, organization of the unorganized was such an issue. It clearly separated those willing to follow revolutionary leadership from the vast bulk of the trade-union bureaucracy of the time....
It was of course correct for the Trotskyists to join in the mass unionization drive of the mid-1930’s. But it is a vast and dangerous distortion to claim that only revolutionaries (and their followers) were in favor of organizing the unorganized, and to imply that such an issue was a break with class collaboration. On the contrary, the rising rebellion of industrial workers combined with the troubles of the miners’ union led John L. Lewis, head of the UMWA, to ride the workers’ upsurge with a new program of collaboration with the ruling class. Lewis maintained his ties both with bourgeois politicians and with leading capitalists; he sought to help regulate capitalism by using industrial unionism to eliminate “cutthroat competition,” the enemy of the finance capitalists. Critical support to Lewis in the struggle of the workers against the recalcitrant AFL bureaucrats was a necessary tactic; it did not imply that Lewis was following revolutionary leadership or that he was “breaking from reformism on key issues.”
The second example refers to the Rank and File Caucus in the auto workers’ union in 1944. This Caucus, with a leadership of secondary bureaucrats, arose under the pressure of the ranks’ anger at the passivity enforced by the union leadership during World War II.
The SWP’s work around the UAW RFC was also a high point in Trotskyist trade-union work. Though representing only a partial break from trade-union reformism by secondary bureaucrats, the RFC was qualitatively to the left of the bureaucracy as a whole. Its program represented a break with the key points upon which the imperialist bourgeoisie relied in its dependence on the trade unions to keep the workers tied to the imperialist aims of the state. The SWP was correct to enter and build this caucus, since pursuance of its program was bound to enhance revolutionary leadership. (Workers Vanguard, September 14, 1973.)
Again, it was correct to work in the Rank and File Caucus because of the mass upsurge which it reflected, but not for the reason the SL gives. Its program in Knox’s version was “based on four points: end the no-strike pledge, labor leaders off the government War Labor Board, for an independent labor party and smash the 'Little Steel' formula (i.e., break the freeze on wage raises).” This was a fine reformist program but not one whose pursuance “was bound to enhance revolutionary leadership.” Such a formulation is merely a left version of the SWP’s notion that consistent democracy, consistent black nationalism, etc., leads objectively and inexorably to socialism.
Knox goes on to point out that the SWP’s support of the Rank and File Caucus was “not ingratiating or uncritical” and that the SWP urged the Caucus to call for a labor party “with a ‘fundamental program against the financial parasites and monopolists.’” Knox praises the SWP because it “had not hesitated to raise programmatic demands on the RFC as it was forming, in order to make its break with the bureaucracy complete.” But programmatic counterposition to the RFC’s left reformism was necessary for revolutionaries. Raising programmatic demands is a tactic for doing this, not for making “complete” its program or even its break with the entrenched bureaucracy. Revolutionaries solidarize with the ranks’ aspirations, not with the “incomplete” (read left reformist) program of their leaders. In giving critical support to the RFC’s program rather than to the struggle that gave rise to it the SL, like the current SWP, IS et al, is providing a socialist cover to left bureaucrats.
In the case of the UMW today, the SL challenges the left tendencies who supported Arnold Miller in 1972 (the SL, using its criteria, did not) to defend their position, on the grounds that Miller in office has proved to be rotten and that the militant miners now recognize this. Indeed, the groups who gave Miller political support with some criticisms refrain from answering. Their application of the same method as that of the Spartacist League -- the degree of political agreement -- proved wrong. But the real question is what was done by the left to help expose the Miller leadership in such a way that the working class could draw revolutionary lessons? The SL examined Miller’s program rather than the upsurge of the miners which had thrust Miller forward, and abstained. What was necessary was an intervention through the critical support tactic to align with the fighting workers without failing to point to Miller’s inevitable betrayal; that was the method advocated by the Revolutionary Tendency in the IS, the political forerunner of the League for the Revolutionary Party.
The Spartacist League does not intervene in such a way as to split the militant workers in motion from their reformist leaders. It makes no distinction between the two. Its equation of Sadlowski and McBride is similar; there was a difference between the two bureaucrats in that Sadlowski’s campaign was a response to the steel workers’ feelings of hostility to Abel’s policies. Since there was no active movement, revolutionaries did not have to intervene with the critical support tactic to sever the base from the leadership. But the SL’s reason for not intervening with the critical support tactic was something different: not the direction and activity of the mass of militant workers, but the policies of the reformist leaders on top. Sadlowski simply wasn’t as good as John L. Lewis or the secondary bureaucrats of 1944.
The Spartacist League apparently conceives the reformists and revolutionaries as part of the same spectrum. Sadlowski is barely to the left of Abel and McBride; then there are the John L. Lewises further to the left needing programmatic completions and corrections. And over on the far left stands the SL. But the “qualitative break” in the spectrum stands not between reformists and revolutionaries, but between bad and good reformists, the “good” being those whose program “breaks from reformism on key issues.” This notion that the petty-bourgeois agents of capital within the workers movement can have a near-revolutionary program is part and parcel of the Spartacist belief (dealt with in the previous issue of Socialist Voice) that the achievement of socialism is a function of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia and its correct program. It bespeaks the same cynicism towards the workers, in a further left disguise, that is openly paraded by other petty-bourgeois leftists in the working class.
It may be difficult to accept our opinion that the divided and squabbling centrist groupings of today will provide the base for the left bureaucrats of the future and will even occupy some of the bureaucratic niches themselves. We therefore point out that many labor officials of the present and past, including not-so-left ones, developed out of the organizations of the radical left, and that many of the conceptions of these centrists of the past which led them into their later bureaucratic careers are the same ones that motivate the centrists of today. The “left” has been the graduate school of some of the worst labor fakers in the business. Those who do not understand their own history are doomed to repeat it.
In addition to the many early leaders of the AFL who were originally ardent socialists, one of the best known examples is that of the numerous CIO organizers in the 1930’s who were either former Marxists or currently members of left parties, especially the CP. Some of these were working class people who came to Marxist consciousness; others were revolutionaries who were “colonized” into the factories and trade unions by the organizations they belonged to. Because of their Marxist convictions, such individuals provided the leftward momentum and the willingness to organize the masses that the business unionists and bureaucratic timeservers could not muster. However, the historic capitulations of the left organizations in the United States meant that the programs of many of the most dedicated left cadres led to one or another form of tailing the reformists.
In the thirties, the union bureaucrat most admired on the left was the Mine Workers’ John L. Lewis, who for his part was willing to hire large numbers of CPers and other radicals as organizers. Lewis refused to worry about the danger of their revolutionary influence on the workers; he is supposed to have quipped, “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” The radicals viewed Lewis and other leftist bureaucrats as allies with whom they could work for the current stage of struggle as a prelude to the future revolutionary stage (not an unfamiliar conception today). But their method of alliance was programmatic agreement, not programmatic counterposition based on common struggles. Consequently, they fooled the workers as well as themselves.
Today both the right and left wings of the labor bureaucracy are filled with ex-radicals, including many who still consider themselves to be socialist. Former CPers are legion in the union bureaucracy, but of more significance for the pseudo-Trotskyist groups of today is the lesser-known layer of ex-Trotskyists which is even expanding its influence within the bureaucracy. A whole cluster of right-wing leaders and advisers grouped around Albert Shanker and George Meany, as well as “left-wingers” like many of the labor officials attached to Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, can trace their political ancestry directly to the centrist tendency of the 1940’s led by Max Shachtman. This grouping, originally the Workers Party (WP) and later the Independent Socialist League, broke from the Fourth International in 1940 and gradually learned to water down its program to mesh with the democratic and trade unionist struggles of the moment. They thereby found themselves in the camp of a really militant reformist, Walter Reuther. (We have published a fuller analysis of the Shachtmanites in the article The Struggle for the Revolutionary Party in Socialist Voice No. 1.)
The centrist groupings are the left wing of the reformist current of Sadlowski, Miller-Patrick, Winpisinger, Gotbaum et al which is now developing in response to the rising unrest in the ranks. Their different degrees of militancy, their different conditions for support or non-support to the bureaucrats, are merely the different price tags and dates which they place upon their notices of future betrayals. Some will ask for more and wait for the mass struggle to push the official leaders a few more steps to the left. Others will hurry to get their capitulations in on time to win a spot on the ground floor.
Just as the bureaucracy is a social layer representing the material interests of the labor aristocracy, the centrists are becoming the political spokesmen for a series of layers and atomized groupings, termed by Lenin the “new middle classes,” which blend into the bourgeoisie at one end of the social scale and interpenetrate the proletariat at the other. With the erosion of capitalist prosperity the material support for the lower rungs of the new middle classes is disintegrating. Semi-professionals are plunged into the proletariat or below; even the labor aristocracy suffers losses or the constant threat of losses. The basis for stable reformist (and Stalinist) politics thereby erodes as well, and by the same token the centrists’ “time” is approaching. The centrists will still promise a return to a reformist “stage,” on which the fantasy-farce of renewed bourgeois democracy will be played. The multitudinous differences among the centrist groups, at times so mystifying and discouraging, reflect their allegiance to different sectors and interests within the new middle classes and especially the infiltrations of these layers into the proletariat.
The rising class struggle will have other effects besides bringing out the betrayals of the centrist leaderships. Just as there is a continuing contradiction between the base and the leadership in the unions, even when they espouse the same nominal politics, so there is a contradiction between base and leadership within the centrist organizations. The ranks join these groups believing them to be Marxist and revolutionary, but the groups are products of the historic defeats of the working class and are now divorced from a fighting, politically conscious proletariat.
The ranks, however, have ties beyond those of the centrist leaderships, with the ranks of the working class, and they both adapt to and reflect this base. In the present, the right-wing drift of the unions means that the base of the various left groups will frequently appear to be to the right of their leaders (just as this often appears to be the case in the unions). Many are. But far more, as the period changes and the power of working class struggles now incubating ceases to be a wish and an abstraction and moves toward a mass reality they will come over to the side of the revolution. That is, they will recognize the inadequacy of reformist programs, however militant and “rank-and-file-ist,” and will seek out the actual revolutionary program. With the material basis for the workers’ acceptance of the bureaucrats’ programs disintegrating, the same objective conditions that point to a changing mass working class consciousness will have an impact on the ranks of the far left groups. Despite the disheartening betrayals of the centrists, the political lines are all being tested and the revolutionary aspirations for a proletarian solution will be able to come to fruition.