The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 46 (Spring 1994).
Over the last twenty years, working-class struggles in the United States have drastically declined. The industrial battles of the late '60's and early '70's were diverted by the union bureaucracy into electoral support for the bourgeois Democrats. It is no accident that the centrist left, which inveterately hails and tails "militancy," tailed it backwards and capitulated in reverse gear.
Naturally the centrists blame the workers for the "downturn" or for the class's failure to "intersect" with middle-class saviors. The same conditions swept down on us. But tides can be overcome: alone on the far left we stood out against the current of the times. Nevertheless, we made mistakes. The LRP leadership must take responsibility for a certain retreat on the centrality of the revolutionary party.
Leon Trotsky once wrote:
[The] masses undergo their own experiences that permit them to choose and to progress along the revolutionary road, but on condition that they find a vanguard that, at every stage of the struggle, explains the situation to them, shows them the objectives to be obtained, the methods to use and the ultimate perspectives. (Writings 1933-34, p. 292.)
From the start of our existence as a political tendency, it has been our most firmly held belief that the success of the class struggle is tied to the re-creation of the revolutionary vanguard party of the proletariat. In our first days we not only reprinted Trotsky's words above; we elaborated on the idea in article after article as well as in our practice.
We knew through bitter experience that the task of building the party could not be accomplished on a layaway plan. The Leninist party cannot first be put together at the point when revolution becomes possible. The party-building organization is vital at every point in the struggle if communist class consciousness is to develop. Without that consciousness, no proletarian revolution could be successful.
This understanding was so central to our views that we called ourselves the "League for the Revolutionary Party." Yet we now realize that we have made an error in some of our propaganda on the necessity for the party -- an error which, while limited, did hamper our work. Therefore it is important for us to identify the error, understand why it was made, correct the cause as far as possible as well as the problem -- and then, so fortified, move on with our work.
Our political tendency was originally formed within the Revolutionary Socialist League, when we warned that organization that it was on the road toward betrayal of its Trotskyist program. The RSL refused to listen and instead expelled us. It betrayed. It shattered. It died.
In June of 1975, I wrote a document for the RSL internal bulletin entitled Labor Party, General Strike Proposal which was a stepping-stone to the formation of our tendency. It advocated dropping the fight for a labor party in the United States in favor of a propaganda struggle for a general strike. The RSL had not yet rid itself of the need to make the idea of creating a labor party a centerpiece of its program. This was one indication that the RSL had not abandoned all vestiges of centrism -- revolution in rhetoric, reformism in practice -- which so totally dominates all other groups claiming a Trotskyist heritage.
In the late 1930's, as well as at other times in the history of the American class struggle, the slogan of a labor party did not inevitably signify a desire for a reformist party led by union bureaucrats. At points where unionized workers are very militant but have real illusions in their counterrevolutionary reformist and liberal misleaders, the idea of raising class independence and combativity from the industrial level to the political plane can expose these bureaucrats. It can open a major road toward the creation of the mass revolutionary party, if the organized advanced workers openly champion this direction and fight against the reformists' electoral detour.
The document pointed to the mechanistic error involved in making what once was a correct tactical demand into a permanent strategy, spelling out its anti-revolutionary consequences. By the 1970's, it was already clear that whatever illusions workers still held in the union bureaucracy, they didn't include expectations of political or even industrial militancy and class independence from them. Challenges that the union tops form a labor party could expose nothing; they would rather reveal that the leftists had more illusions in the bureaucrats than did the ranks. Given the setbacks suffered by workers, what was necessary was hardly passive electoralism but a convincing and self-convincing demonstration of power, the general strike.
Additionally, the article pointed out that the general strike demand by itself did not totally solve the critical problem of the revolutionary party. It warned:
We have failed to, in the past, adequately stress the revolutionary party content we must place into the Labor Party demand. Frequently, we have seemed to pose the Labor Party as the real solution and the revolutionary organization as simply a desirable ginger group for its attainment. Obviously and crucially we must exercise care not to fall into the same trap with the General Strike demand.
Yet despite our early self-warning, we walked into the same trap. We only caught a toe or two, but given the importance we attach to the issue, it has been bad enough. Too many times for comfort, we in the LRP permitted ourselves to appear as a militant pressure group fighting for the general strike, letting that struggle overshadow our fundamental purpose for existence, party-building.
In our self-conception, in much of our general propaganda and practical activities, we unambiguously maintained the fight for the party as central. In our theoretical work we never retreated on our gains in this crucial area. This helped us overlook the fact that too often, in our trade union work and the propaganda associated with it, stress on the iron necessity to build the party was subordinated to promoting the general strike.
Let us cite only one small instance to illustrate an unfortunately more extensive misuse. The Proletarian Revolution Supplement No. 6 of Feb.-March 1986 carried an article "Transit Union Brakes Struggles." In the next-to-last paragraph it noted: "A revolutionary leadership would make an appeal to all the unions and workers in New York for a general strike against union busting and concessions." That was the only place in the article where revolutionary leadership was mentioned, and it was cited only as a group fighting for a general strike.
This particular reference to revolutionary leadership was not typical of our articles that downgraded the party. However, it was atypical only in that we more commonly referred to "revolutionary party leadership," and we often reserved the comment for the last paragraph rather than the preceding one. In other words, we just tacked it on.
So what? Why is this error so important?
For one thing, our looseness led us to overlook for too long the increasingly open and generalized anti-party positions held by the former leader of our Australian affiliate. (See Paul White Betrays Revolutionary Politics in this issue.)
But its real importance lies in the fact that our mistake touched on fundamentals: this is the epoch of capitalism's decay -- the era of revolution and counterrevolution, imperialism, world war and the transition to socialism. In this epoch, the fundamental crisis is the crisis of working-class leadership. Capitalism, with all its characteristic inhuman brutality, has created an economically interdependent world. It has matured and socialized the forces of production so that for the first time in human history the potential already exists to eliminate scarcity and therefore class society. Objectively, the most important productive force, the working class, is certainly big enough, concentrated enough and powerful enough to overthrow capitalism and take state power. And, generally speaking, throughout this century, the workers have risen up in strikes, general strikes, riots, rebellions, revolts and revolutions. We don't need a new working class, we need a new leadership.
But if the LRP really believes that, what's the difference whether we say it or not as long as we carry through on it?
Trotsky never tired of telling revolutionaries to "say what is" to the working class. A revolutionary party is the material manifestation of its program. Its program reflects its understanding of the world and how the proletariat should proceed to transform it. This understanding -- this consciousness -- has its origin in the workings of capitalist development itself. The system creates its own gravedigger, the working class. The key to socialist revolution is the development of consciousness by the workers as to their role and their mission. The truth enables the proletariat to set itself free -- above all, the truth that it needs to form its own advanced party, the embodiment of its program, consciousness and mission.
The working class is not homogeneous, and being composed of human beings, it learns much through experience. Communist class consciousness doesn't occur all at once; different layers of the class advance at different times and rates. Experience can be interpreted wrongly as well as rightly. The pro-capitalist leadership forces, rewarded by the system, are hardly unwilling to misdirect.
For example, take a situation in which a union leadership is forced into a strike it doesn't want. Fearful of going too far, it puts forward very limited demands on the company. Many workers, desperately pinching pennies, don't support the strike because the sacrifice doesn't seem worth the possible gain. The strike becomes endangered. Some militant workers accept the leadership's conclusion that the strike was too radical an idea in the first place and must be given up. Some listen to those who say the strike isn't radical enough.
The same dialogue occurs, writ large, in revolutionary situations. If the most advanced workers -- the vanguard leadership -- doesn't go through all these experiences with its fellow workers, giving communist guidance, the less advanced and backward layers will not develop to full class consciousness, and the struggle will be lost.
One or two far left tendencies (for example, the International Socialists) acknowledge the working class as the source of socialist consciousness but assert that this is an automatic or spontaneous development once the class fights. Thus, these leftists believe they do not have to stress the need for revolutionary guidance: militancy will do. In contrast, all the other so-called Trotskyist organizations today assert that the intelligentsia is the deliverer of advanced consciousness -- à la Lenin before he corrected himself. Their view also runs counter to Trotsky's repeated assertions. (See PR 29, "What Has Been Done to What Is to Be Done?".)
There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with Marx, Lenin, Trotsky or our other great teachers even on subjects where they were emphatic -- we have done so ourselves -- but then one has the obligation to acknowledge the difference, show why they were wrong and what bad consequences followed from their errors. Shamefully, none of the alleged Trotskyists do that. Hiding their differences follows from their basic view: if the workers are the battering rams but not the bearers of socialist ideas, they don't have to know the truth. It is enough that their condescending saviors know. Therefore, these groups too put forward "militancy" rather than revolutionary answers.
Militancy alone will never transcend capitalism. The working class, in the form of its ever-increasing advanced layers, must be conscious of its need and ability to overthrow the system and lay the basis for a new one.
Is the answer then to downplay the general strike?
No. The general strike is as vital for the working class today as it was yesterday. We continue to put it forward, but we must correct how we do so where we have made mistakes.
The LRP is a small group. The left is now composed of small groups; we are smaller than some, bigger than others. In the long run this is not critical. Whether or not the group's program expresses the interests of the proletariat is decisive. Only yesterday, the Communist Parties were massive compared to us.
There is a second decisive factor, reflecting the first. We are tiny compared to the mass of the working class, which doesn't yet have communist class consciousness. Unlike phony socialists, we do not adapt to the current level of militancy and limit our effective program to demands calculated to take the working class only to the next step -- after which there will be more next steps, until in the by-and-by, presto!, comes the revolution. Except that it never comes.
Aside from the manipulation and lies this method demonstrates, the idea is absurd. It is the changing character of the exploitative capitalist system that pressures the proletariat in the direction of revolution, not the goosing tactics of small groups who believe that they can maneuver the class into exploding. Talk about chutzpah!
The LRP knows that when the general strike breaks out, as it inevitably will, it will not be as a result of the working class listening to us -- unless by that time we are far bigger and in a far more commanding position than we are today. Only on very few occasions are we in a position to agitate -- to address one or two slogans to broad masses of workers in the actual expectation that they can be carried out. Rather our present task is to propagandize -- to relate a complex set of revolutionary slogans and ideas to our fellow advanced workers.
That is, we speak to a relatively small but growing layer of politically interested and radicalized workers about the necessity of building the party, its strategy for revolution and the tactics which flow from it. Capitalism generates and regenerates such layers, bigger and more influential than we are at present. These are layers that we can influence -- and, lately to a growing extent, actually are influencing. To them we explain that the crucial importance of the general strike is that it unifies the working class, demonstrates its power, raises consciousness and poses the question that the working class can and should rule in society. The general strike puts the question of revolution before the masses for decision, but it doesn't answer the question. If there is not a Leninist leadership, not only will there be no revolution but even minimal class aims will be undermined.
We seek to show not only how a revolutionary leadership would act if it were at the helm of a general strike but also how vanguard workers should communicate the need for such a mass strike to layers of their fellow workers who are moving forward. Militant workers now need a general strike because they wish to defend themselves against the capitalist attacks on their jobs, pay and unions. It is a major step toward a defense of Black and Latino workers, an answer to the system's attempt to whip up race war and divisiveness.
One crucial aspect of united working-class mass actions like the general strike is that they do not demand political agreement by the workers who participate. We can all fight together in defense of our class needs. We tell advanced workers to warn militants, as openly as we do, that if there is not revolutionary leadership created in time, the reformist leaderships will inevitably betray the strike because they do not wish even the idea of state power to be posed. They are committed to capitalism. The struggle itself will prove which is right -- the militants' present belief that their needs can be answered without overthrowing capitalism, or the communist understanding that even the most minimal defense of the working class demands revolution as the crisis of the system inexorably deepens.
In this way we fight for the general strike while emphasizing our essential task, the need for advanced workers and those who identify with their interests to join us in building the party of our class. The proletariat has suffered enough from the social engineering and lies of the middle-class "progressive" saviors.
Those who have read Proletarian Revolution carefully over the last few issues will see that we have already begun to correct our course. Recognition of our problem did not occur by accident. The rebellion in Los Angeles over the Rodney King beating pointed out in no uncertain terms that, at this time, challenging the present labor leadership to launch a general strike in response would expose nothing and be treated as a joke by fighting anti-racist workers. Such workers had to be reached by communist propaganda on why the party must be built now if a successful fight for a general strike to bring L.A. to a halt was to be made.
The other event which greatly affected us was the recent workers' upheaval in Melbourne, Australia involving thousands upon thousands of union militants. We in the LRP have participated in class battles over the years, and sometimes we achieved a modest impact. In the Melbourne events, however, our Australian comrades proved that our program, strategy and tactics not only won for us the ear of the advanced workers but confirmed in practice our fundamental outlook. These massive events forced COFI as a whole to conclude that our only important shortcoming on the streets of Melbourne was in not making the party even more central than we did.
Los Angeles, Melbourne and the renewed class battles in Europe, South Africa and elsewhere herald a new day. The working classes of the world are moving toward an enormous rising which will dwarf even the titanic strikes and revolts of the late l960's and the early 1970's, events that created our tendency in the first place. Such a prospect forces us to re-examine our world view to arm us for the coming days of decision. Making errors is no crime; it is impossible not to make errors. The crime is to ignore them and not to learn from the experience.
Our confidence in dealing with our errors comes in part from the record achieved by our program and our method. When almost every left tendency pointed to Stalinism in the USSR as powerful, the wave of the future for good or bad, we showed at the height of the Cold War how weak it was. We pointed out that it was doomed not simply to collapse but to try to rebuild its faltering statified capitalist economy by increasingly adapting to market forms like those of Western capitalism. Far in advance of the actual events, we predicted that this tendency toward privatization would not go the whole way before it stalled completely. We predicted not only the central role that the workers would play in the collapse of Stalinist states but warned that if their party was not built in time, fascism would loom large.
Likewise, we predicted that there was a far greater likelihood that the next world war would be fought among the U.S., Japan and Germany than between the U.S. and the USSR. Fifteen years ago, the middle-class left laughed at these ideas. Now many of them are commonplace.
But the idea that party-building has been reconfirmed as a central task will still inspire smirks, along with the snickers at the "outdated" idea that the task of freeing the proletariat is that of the proletariat itself. In the coming years, the class-conscious workers will deal with these Cheshire cats in the course of making their revolution. It is no accident today that as the left grows even more cynical and pessimistic, our optimism expands.