By Chris Knox. Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 22, 8 June 1973
Opportunists denounce the Spartacist League as “sectarian” for our insistence that only a full transitional program can properly orient the struggle in the trade unions against the union bureaucracy and against capitalism. In its 16 April Bulletin, for instance, the pseudo-Trotskyist Workers League denounces Spartacist in a frenzied front page editorial:
“Spartacist says essentially the following about the struggle in auto. Wages, line speed, job security, grievances, and the right to strike are all trade union demands. But Marxists, at least according to Spartacist, are for revolution as opposed to winning these ‘reformist’ demands. Spartacist therefore concludes that the basic demand that must be made is: ‘Communism!’ Nothing less will satisfy these ferocious blabber mouths.” [emphasis ours]
This gross distortion of our position appeared as part of a defense of the auto program of the Trade Union Alliance for a Labor Party (TUALP), the latest organizational embodiment of the WL’s program for the unions. This auto program consists solely of points on wages, job security, speedup, grievances, workers rights, overtime, pensions, health, safety and vacations. It thus totally omits not only the labor party (!), but any reference to racial or sexual discrimination, economic protectionism, war, or the question of power (the slogans of workers control and a workers government), all of which directly affect the unions in the epoch of imperialism. The WL defense rests its case with the assertion that “simple trade union demands” are “profoundly revolutionary”.
The Workers League is merely one example—and certainly not the most organizationally significant example—of the pervasive opportunism of the U.S. left today, which passively caves in to trade-union economism and workerism, i.e., the worship of the present level of the class struggle.
The Trotskyist “Transitional Program,” adopted in 1938 at the founding conference of the Fourth International, was presented by Trotsky as a program for the trade unions. It was designed to provide not “opposition” to reform demands, as the WL alleges, but a bridge between the day-to-day trade-union struggles and the revolutionary goals of the proletariat. The program included demands for a sliding scale of wages and hours to combat unemployment; for factory committees, workers control and expropriation of industry and banks; for struggle against discrimination against minorities and against imperialist war; and, most importantly, for a clear expression of the goal of working-class power: for soviets and a workers government.
Like the WL, the International Socialists claim to agree with the Transitional Program, but find the SL “sectarian” and “revolutionary posturers” for applying it to the present-day situation in the unions. The WL justifies its position that trade-union demands are “revolutionary” on the grounds of the intensity of the capitalist crisis, which it claims makes even minimal demands impossible to attain under capitalism. The IS, in contrast, defends its accommodation to economism on the grounds that the crisis isn’t intense enough: when the class struggle is at a higher level, “then” the full Transitional Program will be “relevant.” By these two mutually exclusive rationales, both groups arrive at the same position of rejection of the Transitional Program in practice! They are joined in this conclusion by the other ostensibly “Trotskyist” tendencies, each travelling its own variation on these two paths: the minuscule Spark group, the Class Struggle League and, of course, the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP, in its total abandonment of its Trotskyist heritage, has developed particularly odious “transitional” bridges to feminism, black nationalism, youth culture, etc., while ignoring, for the most part, work in the trade unions (or conducting it on the most minimal basis, avoiding all opposition to the trade-union bureaucracy).
The abandonment of the Transitional Program in practice is nothing more nor less than a return to the flawed conceptions which preceded both the Fourth and Third Internationals, i.e., to the old social-democratic conception of “minimum” and “maximum” program: the first for day-to-day issues, the second for Sunday speech-making about “socialism.” The social-democratic trade-union bureaucracy opposed any intrusion of the “maximum” program into the “real” work of the party. It is thus quite natural that for these supposed “Trotskyists” of today, the Transitional Program has taken on the character of a “maximum” program, the intrusion of which into their “real” practice would upset the opportunism which is possible only on the basis of their minimum program.
Having thus come together in opposition to the Transitional Program in practice, it is equally natural that the ostensible “Trotskyists” find themselves rubbing shoulders with the Maoists and Stalinists of all varieties, particularly the Communist Party, which long ago abandoned the program of Lenin and Trotsky for a return to a reformist practice totally consistent with its overall strategy of forming broad blocs between the labor movement and the liberal bourgeoisie (the “popular front”). Thus the United National Caucus in the auto union, a trade-unionist, bureaucratic-careerist group, is a typical catchall supported by the CP, IS and CSL particularly. Even the frenzied National Caucus of Labor Committees, which claims to reject trade unionism altogether, can be found in UNC meetings alongside CP supporters pushing the same pop frontist, liberal politics with a different organizational format. That the WL politically belongs in the UNC is clear not only from its auto program, but from its absurdly sectarian reason for avoiding endorsement: that the UNC doesn’t fight hard enough for wages!
The Spartacist League alone stands not only on the Transitional Program as formulated by Trotsky, but on its antecedents as developed by the first four congresses of the Communist International (CI) and carried out (not without errors) by CI sections during its revolutionary period through 1923. The trade-union work of the Workers (Communist) Party of the U.S., particularly through its trade-union arm, the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), provides an example of communist work in the unions with tremendous relevance for today.
At once the reformists of all varieties will exclaim, “But that was a different period, one in which revolution was seen as the order of the day by masses of workers!” The period was indeed different, but the tasks of the communists in the trade unions were not so different as the opportunists rush to assume. The Third Congress of the CI directed that:
“In the United States of North America…, the communists are confronted with the first and simplest task of creating a communist nucleus and connecting it with the working masses.”
— “Thesis on Tactics,” Theses and Resolutions adopted at the Third World Congress of the Communist International, June 22–July 12, 1921
While the level of strike activity and general class consciousness was higher, the vanguard party in the U.S. was still a very small force facing a reactionary bureaucracy in the trade unions which it had to expose and replace in order to gain the confidence and leadership of the workers.
This situation was typical throughout the CI, despite the fact that most of the European parties were much larger than the American section and therefore in a better position to gain hegemony of class leadership. Through lack of preparation, and without an experienced cadre and leadership, the Communist Parties were unable to take advantage of the massive post-war revolutionary wave, which peaked during 1919–1920 in Europe and America. Lenin wrote “Left-wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder in 1920 precisely to combat tendencies which saw the revolution as inevitable and opposed work in the unions or for partial demands as “opportunist.” The Second and Third Congresses of the CI (1920 and 1921) fought for the utilization of all arenas and all methods of struggle in order to deepen connections with the masses and combat the false leaders of the workers. By the Fourth Congress (1922) Lenin and Trotsky were continuing this effort with a proposal for the tactic of united fronts with Social Democrats and others in order to demonstrate to the workers that only the Communists were for a genuine class front against the bourgeoisie on the basis of consistent struggle for all the workers’ interests, including immediate interests. Lenin and Trotsky were prepared to force a split with all those “ultra-leftists” who still considered such a course opportunist.
The work of the TUEL in the 1922–23 period was an expression in the U.S. of the “united front” tactics Lenin and Trotsky were urging throughout the CI. These tactics were seen as necessary precisely because the revolutionary wave had ebbed, and the Communist Parties were not in a position to exercise leadership of the working class immediately. The trade-union work of the Workers (Communist) Party was undertaken on the basis of the defeat in factional struggle of the ultra-leftists who urged “dual unionism” i.e., opposition to any work in the dominant, reactionary American Federation of Labor (AFL)—and underground work on principle, thereby avoiding all contact with partial demands and the mass movement itself. (The ultra-leftists had been largely responsible for the failure to seize the opportunities of 1919–1920.)
The TUEL was not simply a creation of the W(C)P, but was taken over by it in 1922 as the result of a fusion with William Z. Foster’s group of Chicago- based trade-union militants. While the bulk of the left in the preceding epoch had been ardently dual unionist, Foster had become convinced that this strategy was sterile and in effect surrendered the fight for leadership of the organized workers to their reactionary, craft leaderships. But Foster bent the stick too far the other way, and was willing to surrender his political program in order to remain in a position to apply pressure to the Gompers bureaucracy to support his organizing drives. Thus in 1919, when called before a Senate investigating committee looking into the steel strike Foster was organizing, Foster dropped his entire political program, ardently avowing his patriotism and his selling of Liberty Bonds during the war.
From Foster’s side, the fusion with the W(C)P was based on his agreement with Lenin’s “boring from within” tactic, an explicit reversal for the U.S. Communists. Foster continued to lead the TUEL and became the head of the party’s trade-union work. Thus if anything, one would expect to find in the TUEL of this period not sectarian errors, but opportunist ones, whether because of Foster’s trade-unionist predilections or an over-zealous application of the CI’s united-front line.
In general we find neither, however, though the W(C)P did make errors which affected its trade-union work. Under the leadership of the Party, the TUEL was re-founded in 1922 squarely on the basis of the program of the CI. Despite its emphasis on the “turn to the masses” and willingness to struggle for partial demands, the CI’s program was clearly conceived of as transitional:
“The alternative offered by the Communist International in place of the minimum program of the reformists and centrists is: the struggle for the concrete need of the proletariat and demands, which, in their application, undermine the power of the bourgeoisie, organize the proletariat, for the transition to the proletarian dictatorship, even if the latter have not yet grasped the meaning of such proletarian dictatorship….
“In formulating their partial demands, the Communist Parties must take heed that these demands, based on the deeply rooted needs of the masses, are such as will organize the masses and not merely lead them into struggle. All concrete watchwords, originating in the economic needs of the workers, must be assimilated to the struggle for the control of production, which must not assume the form of a bureaucratic organization of social economy under capitalism, but of an organization fighting against capitalism through workers committees as well as through revolutionary trade unions.” [emphasis in original]
— “Thesis on Tactics”
The TUEL, while it conducted mass campaigns and made united-front alliances with sections of the trade-union bureaucracy around key individual issues, such as amalgamation of the craft unions into mass industrial unions, for recognition of Soviet Russia and for a labor party, began with its full program and propagandized for it throughout all its work.
In addition, unlike almost every trade-union caucus today—and certainly all those supported by the opportunist “Trotskyists” and other “revolutionaries”— the TUEL had a political conception of membership. In order to join, one had to have general agreement with the basic program, which was described and summarized in eight points in Foster’s Bankruptcy of the American Labor Movement (Labor Herald Library, 1922). The first point was “abolish capitalism, for a workers republic”:
“The Trade Union Educational League proposes to develop the trade unions from their present antiquated and stagnant condition into modern, powerful labor organizations, capable of waging successful warfare against capital…. Instead of advocating the prevailing shameful and demoralizing nonsense about harmonizing the interests of capital and labor, it is firing the workers’ imagination and releasing their wonderful idealism and energy by propagating the inspiring goal of abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a workers republic.”
This was intended to be a transitional formulation for “dictatorship of the proletariat,” in exactly the same way as Trotsky’s call for a “Workers and Farmers Government” in the 1938 program. Throughout the program of the CI and its sections in this period, the concept of transitional demands is manifest: obviously they were not a later “invention” of Trotsky!
The second point in the TUEL program was, “Repudiate class collaborationism, for a class struggle policy.” This was a general demand designed to sum up the entire alternate perspective to be presented to the reactionary AFL bureaucracy.
The third point was for affiliation of the unions to the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU), which was the international trade-union arm of the CI. Founded in 1922, the RILU provided an organizing pole for oppositionists in the established unions and for the many unions, often led by revolutionary syndicalists attracted to the banner of the Russian Revolution, which had been ruthlessly expelled from the established federations by Social Democrats and reformists.
The fourth point was “Support the Russian Revolution.” The revolution, of course, had split the workers movement of the entire world between those who wanted to make revolution in their own countries and those who did not. Beyond this, however, the demand had specific connotations in campaigns conducted by the TUEL for aid to alleviate the famine, diplomatic recognition, etc.
Fifth was the demand for industrial unionism, which was the key trade-union issue, since the vast bulk of the industrial workers, including a disproportionately large section of the non-English-speaking immigrants, was unorganized. This demand counterposed masses of workers to the conservative, craft-based bureaucracy.
Sixth was “Combat dual unionism,” which the TUEL was constantly forced to raise against the influence of other radicals, such as the Wobblies (IWW), who urged the abandonment of the struggle and set up dual unions every time the bureaucracy succeeded in a new outrage. The TUEL advocated an orientation toward work in the established unions even on the part of expelled locals or sections, with affiliation to RILU as a long-range alternative. The TUEL and RILU’s call for trade-union unity, however, was never the “unity” of capitulation! RILU/TUEL insisted that expelled union bodies seek readmittance, but only on the basis of their freedom to continue propagandizing for class-struggle policies. (This contrasts sharply with the trade-union reformism of the Workers League, which advocated reunification of the breakaway Social Services Employees Union [SSEU] in New York with its AFL-CIO parent on the bureaucracy’s sellout terms.)
Seventh was a demand for a shop delegate system. Shop floor representation was generally lacking in unions at the time. Finally, the eighth point was for independent working-class political action. This rapidly transformed itself into the demand for a labor party, which was then distorted by the W(C)P leadership into the campaign for the Farmer-Labor Party.
Thus the TUEL began with membership based on its full program, which was raised in all the unions in which it did work through its members and the monthly organ, Labor Herald. In addition, together with the W(C)P operating in its own name, the TUEL conducted broad campaigns around key demands such as recognition, amalgamation and a labor party, in which it entered united-front alliances with sections of the trade-union bureaucracy such as the Fitzpatrick/Nockels/Brown leadership of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL). The issues on which the TUEL made united-front alliances were key parts of the TUEL program around which masses of workers could be mobilized in opposition to the bulk of the bureaucracy. With the exception of the bloc with Fitzpatrick’s Farmer-Labor Party, they were not political compromises, but points on which sections of the bureaucracy were forced to come over to the Communists, which tended to build Communist leadership of the mass movement. Thus after a year of working on the amalgamation campaign (which Foster had gotten approved by the CFL without even bothering to consult Fitzpatrick beforehand), the W(C)P’s forces dramatically outnumbered Fitzpatrick’s at the 1923 Chicago convention of the Farmer-Labor Party. Furthermore, the issues on which the Communists made blocs tended to reinforce each other, creating a vast political gulf between the party’s allies and the rest of the trade-union bureaucracy. Thus Fitzpatrick, who supported recognition, amalgamation and a labor party, was cut off financially by the AFL bureaucracy and denounced as a Communist “dupe” by Gompers.
One serious criticism modifies this perspective, however. Despite the W(C)P’s initial call for a labor party as a “class party” with “the abolition of wage slavery, the establishment of a workers republic and a collectivist system of production” (For a Labor Party, a statement by theWorkers Party, October 1922), as its goals, the Pepper/Lovestone leadership failed to carry out this line consistently: the Farmer-Labor campaign into which they took the party was flawed. Besides approaching the program of the proposed party as though it has to be reformist, thereby capitulating in advance to the trade-union bureaucracy (see WV No. 13, November 1972), they failed to recognize the contradiction of the F-LP as a hopeless attempt to combine in one party the class interests of two classes: the working class and a section of the petty bourgeoisie. This error was compounded later, after the split with Fitzpatrick at the 1923 convention, into further errors, for which the CI had to call Pepper/Lovestone to task. Instead of simply entering Fitzpatrick’s F-LP, the Communists should have held out the single-class party issue as their condition for support, while continuing to bloc with Fitzpatrick on other issues. In addition, other, less serious criticisms can be made of the party and its trade-union work during this period, but they do not change our overall assessment of the work in 1922–23 as exemplary. If the TUEL had succeeded in taking over the AFL on the basis of its program and united-front alliances, the AFL would have been in the hands of revolutionary leadership. Further political struggle and clarification—even splits—would no doubt have been necessary, but only to prevent political retreat, not to establish the basic revolutionary beachhead.
Foster’s chief strategy for union elections was to make blocs with trade-union allies rather than simply running TUEL candidates. But support was generally made on the basis of the TUEL program. Thus Ross Knudsen, backed by TUEL for president of the Machinists union in 1922, won 30% of the votes on the basis of supporting RILU, industrial unionism and the call for a workers republic. The TUEL did not support intra-bureaucratic rivalries or careerists limiting their programs to “better” unionism. It blocked with and gave critical support to other elements only on the basis of qualitative political counterposition to the pro-capitalist bureaucracy as such.
The test of a correct united front or bloc is that the issues upon which it is based would have to be abandoned before any reintegration into the mainstream of the trade-union bureaucracy is possible. All bureaucrats, at all times, are for “trade-union democracy,” but when Fitzpatrick split with the Communists in 1923, in order to go back to Gompers, he had to reverse himself on everything he had been saying previously, opposing amalgamation, Soviet recognition and independent working-class politics. This he did with a vengeance throughout the labor movement, becoming a virulent anticommunist and aid to Gompers’ reactionary drive.
This drive gained momentum as prosperity and relative capitalist stabilization set in after 1923. The break with Fitzpatrick left the Communists without substantial allies in the labor movement. The TUEL had grown explosively, as had the W(C)P, especially during 1922, but the ranks lacked an experienced cadre to hold them together, and the party, having let the earlier wave of mass upsurge pass it by, was not firmly rooted in the workers movement. The TUEL was branded a “dual union” and virtually driven underground by the end of 1924 through a wave of expulsions of its militants from the unions.
In 1923, with the illness of Lenin and the defeat of the abortive revolution in Germany, a triumvirate of Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin took political control in the Soviet Union and began to twist the CI into an agent of the foreign policy of the new Soviet bureaucracy. This turned the trade-union work of the Communist Parties, as it did all other political questions, into footballs for unprincipled factional warfare in which renunciation of previously-held views became the standard for acceptance by the international leadership. Thus the Passaic strike of 1926, which was led by Communists, was at first backed by the Ruthenberg leadership of the party as a factional ploy directed against Foster and the TUEL, but it was dropped later by all factions when a shift in the line of the CI to the right (Stalin’s first move against the “left” leaning Zinoviev) indicated a revival of work through the TUEL rather than directly by the Communist Party.
The TUEL was continued by the CP until 1928 (when it was transformed into a “third period” dual-unionist organization). During the late 1920’s, the program of the TUEL degenerated, under the influence of the new leadership of the CI, into one which turned the united-front tactic into a strategy. As dictated by an Executive Committee of the CI (ECCI) resolution on the American question in 1927, the TUEL program was to consist of five watered down points: organize the unorganized, for trade-union democracy, amalgamation, a labor party and “an aggressive struggle against the capitalists.” The resolution called, in effect, for bringing “all progressives willing to fight against the policies of the reactionaries” into the TUEL. The dividing line between the TUEL member and the temporary ally was completely obliterated.
In order to cover up this obliteration and firm up the Stalinist conception of the left-center coalition as a permanent strategy, Foster purposefully blurred the original distinction in his later writings (Foster, American Trade Unionism, 1947). In order to do this, he relied on his earlier references to the TUEL as a united front (one of which was quoted, unfortunately without comment, in WV No. 18, April 1973). The TUEL had not been, in fact, a united front, but a membership organization of Communist trade unionists and others designed to bring the Communist program into the trade unions. It carried out united-front alliances with other elements. As such it was politically identical to trade-union caucuses supported by the Spartacist League today, though organizationally pan-union instead of limited to a particular union.
A united front, on the other hand, is a bloc on the basis of the immediate interests of the workers, designed to unite the working class as a whole against the capitalists. While the united front can take many forms (a temporary alliance, a trade union, or, at the highest stage, a soviet), in no case is it the same as, or a substitute for, the intervention of the vanguard party with its program into the workers movement. This is precisely the distinction that Foster and the Stalinist Communist Party blurred over. Foster tried to give the impression that the entire program of the TUEL had always been to bloc with “progressives” around the demands of the big campaigns, and equated the functioning of the W(C)P and TUEL in the 1922–24 period with the functioning of his earlier independent group of trade-union militants:
“The organized forces behind this big TUEL movement [1922 campaigns] took the form of a broad united front of left wingers and progressives. The Communist Party and the TUEL were the driving left-wing forces, while the progressives, chiefly the Fitzpatrick-Nockels Farmer-Labor Party group, co-operated sympathetically. It was essentially a continuation and growth of the combination that had carried through the packinghouse and steel campaigns.”
— From Bryan to Stalin, 1936
Thus Foster’s conclusion was that there was no difference between a bloc which dropped the political program in order to appease the most reactionary elements and a bloc based on a section of the program of the CI, while the full program was simultaneously carried into the unions by the TUEL itself throughout the duration of the bloc. What this meant for CP trade-union work after the Stalinist degeneration was obvious: get the best bloc you can, but bloc at any price.
The CP’s turn to dual unionism in 1928 was a betrayal which not only pulled the rug out completely from under the bulk of its trade-union work at the time, but also helped ensure that reactionary reformists—such as John L. Lewis of the UMW—would retain leadership of the labor movement through the period of organization of the mass of unskilled workers. Foster fully endorsed not only this turn but every subsequent betrayal of the CP, including the World War II no-strike pledge.
When Lewis and others organized the CIO—precisely to prevent the rise of revolutionary leadership!—an important change took place in the manner of capitalist rule and labor discipline. Strikes which earlier would have been met with police, troops, shootings and jailings were now dealt with through the mediation of the trade-union bureaucracy, which guaranteed labor discipline in return for periodic favors.
The CIO drive took trade unionism to its limits in its ability to solve outstanding social questions such as unemployment and made the need for a working-class political perspective more obviously necessary. The CIO bureaucrats and their CP allies therefore had the task of heading off and tying to the bourgeoisie the incipient political motion of the workers, which arose at this time chiefly in the form of a movement for a labor party. This they did through passing off a class-collaborationist bloc with the liberal bourgeoisie (the “popular front”) as a “working-class” strategy. The bureaucracy’s task of betrayal was completed through the subordination of the unions to the imperialist Second-World War in exchange for increased recognition by the companies and the government.
Since the basic trade-union tasks were thus accomplished under reformist leadership, the main organizational task of the revolutionists in the trade unions changed from that of providing revolutionary leadership in trade-union struggles—as the Trotskyists had exemplified in the Minneapolis strikes of 1934—to that of providing a political alternative to the reformist bureaucracy. This was recognized by Trotsky in his codification of the Transitional Program in 1938.
If this was true in the late 1930’s, now more than ever the character of the period requires a full political program in the trade unions. The important difference from earlier periods is not the subjective factors such as lower consciousness—the fruits of past defeats and betrayals—but the objective condition that trade unionism must be either the direct tool of capitalist imperialism in its new drive to discipline the work force for international competition and new wars, or the revolutionary instrument of the international proletariat. There can be no middle road between these alternatives, as Trotsky insisted in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940).
The line is drawn ever more sharply: individual unions are less and less able to cope with the problems that confront them (inflation, layoffs, national and international corporate migration, etc.), all of which are determined by the global relationship of class forces and inter-imperialist rivalries. Yet precisely because of this contradiction union leaderships are more and more dependent on outside political forces. For any trade-union leader or would be leader who bases himself on anything less than the program and struggle of the international proletariat, there is very quickly no alternative other than reliance on a section of the liberal bourgeoisie.
The only alternative to the capitulation to imperialism which this necessarily entails is the viewpoint of the international proletariat, and this is expressed only by the Transitional Program and the effort to rebuild the Trotskyist world vanguard party. Thus only a leadership based on the full Transitional Program can be fully prepared to meet all questions and turn the unions from the disciplinary agents of an ever predatory imperialism into true weapons of the working class in its international struggle against capitalism.
By Chris Knox. Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 25, 20 July 1973
The Trotskyist movement has a proud tradition of struggle for the principles of Leninism, under difficult conditions and against heavy odds. In the United States, the core of the leadership which built the original Trotskyist organization (Communist League of America 1928–34) kept up the struggle for over three decades, before the vicissitudes of the Cold War anti-communist witchhunt finally caught up with them and caused their political degeneration and departure from Bolshevism in the early 1960’s. The Spartacist League was born in the fight against the degeneration of the Trotskyist movement—in the Socialist Workers Party—and claims the tradition as its own.
This tradition includes the struggle of the Left Opposition against the bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR, the campaign for a workers united front against fascism in Germany, and the battle to build a new, Fourth International to provide an alternative proletarian leadership to the bankrupt Social Democrats and Stalinists.
As in the course of every preceding phase of the struggle for revolutionary socialism, however, it was inevitable that the Trotskyists would make mistakes. Correction of earlier mistakes, while in no way repudiating the earlier struggles and tradition, has been integral to the growth and political and theoretical armament of the movement. If one holds the early Lenin, for instance, up to the mirror of the whole body of Leninism—which incorporates the experience of the Russian Revolution and struggle to build the Communist International—one finds many errors and shortcomings. As James P. Cannon, communist leader and pioneer American Trotskyist, put it, discussing the development of the democratic-centralist vanguard party conception in 1944:
“If our party stands today on far higher ground [than] that occupied by the amorphous rebel workers’ movement prior to the First World War—and that is indubitably the case—it is not due solely to the superiority of our program, but also to the consistent application in practice of the principles and methods of Bolshevik organization. The experience of a quarter of a century has convinced us over and over again that this is the right way, the only way, to build a revolutionary party….
“In politics nothing is more stupid, more infantile than to retrace ground that had already been covered, to go back and start all over again as if nothing had happened and nothing has been learned.”
— Letters from Prison
Just as Lenin had early shortcomings which reflected the social-democratic movement he was struggling to transcend, so the American Trotskyists made mistakes which reflected, in part, the arena of the degenerating Communist Party from which they emerged, and in part the national political environment in which they functioned. The history of Trotskyist work in the trade unions in the U.S. was in the main exemplary and includes such high points as the Minneapolis Teamster strike of 1934, which was a model of mass mobilization as well as the first instance of organizing of trucking on the lines of industrial unionism; and the SWP’s struggles against the no-strike pledge and the War Labor Board in World War II. However, it also reveals consistent errors which must be studied and corrected by revolutionists today if the movement is to be armed against new dangers. While this history has yet to be fully researched and recorded, its main outlines can be critically examined
Cannon, Shachtman, Abern and the other founders of American Trotskyism were recruited to Trotsky’s Opposition suddenly, in 1928, after the issue of “Trotskyism” was considered closed in the American CP, and without having undergone the experience of a conscious struggle against the Stalinist degeneration of the party in the twenties. This degeneration had hopelessly corrupted the bulk of the leadership and cadre of the CP and demoralized, tamed or driven away most of the members. The leadership of the party was firmly in the hands of Jay Lovestone, a hated, distrusted and cynical factionalist, who controlled the party through organizational manipulation and unprincipled political adaptationism. Identified with the Bukharinite right wing internationally, the Lovestone clique was steering the party in the direction of unbridled opportunism based on pessimism. In the trade unions, Lovestone’s policy was to rely heavily on maneuvers at the top in the trade-union bureaucracy, coupled with political overtures to liberals in the form of pacifism, etc. Given the sharp decline of the AFL, this policy meant concentration on the privileged skilled trades, the small minority of the workers who were organized, and virtually no orientation to the masses of unskilled workers.
In the Stalinized Communist International (CI) of the late twenties, leadership of the national sections depended on being able to sense the winds of political change in Moscow and change one’s line in time. The rampant factionalism, soon to be replaced by monolithism, had become completely unprincipled. Thus while Lovestone’s right-wing opportunism fit his natural predilections and organizational methods, his faction was no more or less identified with any particular political program than was that of his chief opponent, William Z. Foster. Both sought power through adapting to the Comintern breezes, which had been blowing distinctly to the right since 1926, when Stalin blocked with Bukharin against Trotsky, Zinoviev and the ultra-lefts.
Cannon, although he too was influenced by the degeneration of the Communist International, as early as 1925 formed a third faction, the purpose of which was to fight for the liquidation of the programless factions and the building of a collective leadership. It was a somewhat demoralized Cannon who reluctantly attended the Sixth Congress of the CI in 1928, at which he accidently discovered a copy of Trotsky’s critique of the draft program, and became convinced of Trotsky’s analysis of the degeneration of the International as based on the interests of the national-bureaucratic elite in the USSR.
At the time of the Sixth CI Congress Cannon had formed a bloc (a temporary alliance, not a fusion of groups) with Foster’s group on the basis of the document, “The Right Danger in the American Party.” This document, like the bloc that produced it, was contradictory: it was both a principled condemnation of the gross opportunist errors of Lovestone, and a platform for an unprincipled attempt by the Fosterites to get control of the CP on the basis of what they sensed was a new left turn in the making in the Comintern.
Stalin was indeed preparing a new left turn, though he was not ready to break openly with Bukharin at the time of the Sixth Congress. As usual, the turn was forced on Stalin by circumstances which grew out of the previous line. In addition, the turn of 1928 was a plot to outflank the Left Opposition: first to expel Trotsky, then to appear to adopt his slogans. Many members of the opposition fell into the trap and capitulated to Stalin.
“The Right Danger,” later reprinted in the Trotskyists’ paper, the Militant, on which the Trotskyists continued to stand after their expulsion, reflected the signals being sent out from Moscow before the Sixth Congress, indicating the approach of the new “Third Period” turn. It attempted to use against Lovestone letters from the CI complaining about this and that, and pressure from the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU-CI trade-union arm) for more work to organize the unorganized into new unions. While correctly attacking the grossly opportunist and capitulatory blocs of Lovestone with various elements of the trade-union bureaucracy, the document tended to slip into the fallacious third period “united front from below” conception:
“The C.I. line against the United Front from the top with reactionary trade union, liberal and S.P. leaders, and for united front with the workers against them, applies with special emphasis in America.”
— Militant, 15 December 1928
While the “Right Danger” thus contained some errors reflecting the developing new Stalinist zigzag (and was furthermore limited solely to the consideration of American questions), it was in the main correct. It was principled, from Cannon’s point of view, on the need to form new unions in places where the AFL was decrepit or non-existent. While Foster was the extreme AFL-fetishist, the partisan of “boring from within,” Cannon had broken with Foster in 1926 over the Passaic strike, which he felt was an example in which a new union should have been formed under Communist leadership.
After their summary expulsion from the CP, which occurred on the basis of their views alone as soon as they solidarized with Trotsky, the Trotskyists attempted to make the most of Stalin’s adoption of their slogans and continued to expose Lovestone, who was belatedly jumping on the third period bandwagon. The Trotskyists claimed Moscow’s new slogans, “Against the Kulak! Against the Nepmen! Against the Bureaucrats!” as their own and took credit for the pressure leading to the CP’s formation of new unions in mining, textiles and needle trades. These were the areas which the Trotskyists had felt were most ripe for the open formation of new unions, in conjunction with continued oppositional work in what was left of the old AFL unions. Initial Trotskyist trade-union work centered on these unions, particularly mining in southern Illinois.
This position for new unions in areas abandoned and betrayed by the AFL bureaucrats was soon to be distorted by the Stalinists into a position of dual unions on principle, and opposition to work in the old unions. As consistently presented by the Trotskyist Opposition (both before and after it became “Trotskyist”), however, the “new unions” line conformed to both the objective situation and the CP’s ability to intervene in the situation. The AFL unions had been on a rampage of class collaborationism, destruction of militancy and expulsion of “reds” throughout most of the twenties. The thrust of this reactionary drive by the bureaucracy was explicitly against the organization of the masses of unskilled workers into industrial unions, which alone could overcome craft myopia and accomplish the organization of the bulk of the working class. The result was that the AFL unions not only refused to organize new workers, but they shrank drastically, driving away new workers and anyone who wanted to organize them in the process. By the end of the twenties, the crisis of proletarian leadership took the form of the lack of leadership to organize the unorganized.
The duty of revolutionary leadership was, in fact, to fill this gap, and smash the AFL bureaucracy in the process. This condition continued into the thirties, until finally a section of the AFL bureaucracy moved to organize the mass production industries precisely out of fear that if the AFL leadership didn’t do it, the reds would. This resulted in the setting up of the CIO which, while it entailed a bitter rivalry with the old AFL leadership, was primarily a matter of the formation of new unions for the unorganized industries rather than a case of rivals directly competing for the same workers with the old unions.
The Trotskyists proceeded from the concrete situation in each case, and advocated new unions only where the struggle to take over the old unions had clearly exhausted itself against the stone wall of bureaucratism. Mining was such a case. The rank and file in areas such as southern Illinois were so disgusted with the betrayals and utter disregard for democracy of the Lewis machine that the basis for a new union really displacing the old shell existed. Opposition leaders in the CP before 1928 had to fight Lovestone policies which were a capitulation not only to the slow moving “progressives” (Brophy, Hapgood, etc.) but to the Lewis machine itself! The formation of the National Miners Union (NMU) by the CP, in conjunction with anti-Lewis leaders, came too late and was further sabotaged by other CP errors of an adventurist character. Rank-and-file pressure caused the progressives to try again in 1932, however, and the CP went along reluctantly with setting up the Progressive Miners of America. The following correction appeared in the 3 August 1973 Workers Vanguard: “Part I of this series indicated that the Stalinists went along reluctantly with setting up the Progressive Miners of America. Actually, they only entered it later, after the final abandonment of the ‘Third Period.’”
Despite the objective conditions favoring new unions, the CP’s third period red unions were a disastrous betrayal. They were disasters because of the manner in which the CP attempted to form them: too late at first, in the case of mining and needle trades, but then increasingly too precipitously, without preparation. Strikes were called in the same manner, as an adventure on the part of a small handful, rather than on the basis of conscious preparation of the mass of the workers. Furthermore, the CP’s policy was a betrayal, because it made a principle for the whole movement out of what should have been merely a tactic for particular circumstances. While the CP claimed throughout to be for continued opposition inside the old unions, the core of third period sectarianism made this impossible. The AFL leadership, as well as the Socialist Party, Trotskyists, Musteites, and all other tendencies, were denounced as “social-fascists” and otherwise not part of the workers movement in any sense. This made the united front, in which communists bloc with non-communist working-class leaders in order to expose them and advance the struggle at the same time—an essential part of communist work in the trade unions—impossible. While destroying its handful of new unions through sectarianism and adventurism, the Stalinists thus abandoned and sabotaged work in the old unions, which left the reactionary bureaucrats in control. This not only delayed the final introduction of industrial unions on a mass scale, but ensured that when such unions were formed, reactionaries would lead them.
From the moment at which the “new unions” position of the CP began to mushroom into the full-scale sectarianism of the third period, the Trotskyists fought to expose these errors and warn of the dangers. With tremendous prescience, they warned:
“The new ‘theories’ are attempting to rationalize the AFL out of existence as a federation of unions and abstractly preclude the possibility of its future expansion and growth in an organizational sense….
“The abandonment of … struggle [in the AFL] now taking place under the cover of high-sounding ‘radicalism’ will only prevent the crystallization of an insurgent movement within the old unions and free the hands of the bureaucrats for more effective sabotage of the new unions, for these two processes are bound together. The result will be to strengthen the effectiveness of the AFL bureaucracy as a part of the capitalist war machine.”
— “Platform of the Communist Opposition,” Militant, 15 February 1929
Trotskyist opposition to the sectarianism and adventurism of the third period, like the opposition to Lovestone’s opportunism, was consciously linked to Cannon’s earlier positions in the CP. As such, it carried forth certain errors which contributed to the mistakes of the later work of the Trotskyists in the trade unions.
In addition to condemning Lovestone’s opportunism in the late twenties, the opposition groups (Foster and Cannon) condemned as sectarian his tendency to work exclusively through party fractions in the trade unions rather than building sections of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), the party’s trade-union organization. This tendency on the part of the Lovestone group dated back to the 1924–25 left turn in the CI. In the U.S., the Ruthenberg/Lovestone faction (Ruthenberg died in 1927) used this turn for factional advantage against Foster, by substituting direct party work in the unions for building the TUEL, which was Foster’s main organizational base. While Cannon had always been for a flexible policy on work in the unions, including building new unions when called for, he was also against the “narrow” conception of the TUEL, which was developed at this time, in which the latter was closely identified with the party. Instead, he was for broad unitedfront blocs, while maintaining the independence and freedom to criticize of the party:
“In 1925 the present Opposition conducted a struggle against the narrowing of the TUEL into a purely Communist body with a Communist program and for broadening it into a united front organization. This was one of the most progressive struggles in the history of the party.”
— “Platform of the Opposition”
The “Platform” of 1929 then goes on to condemn both the abandonment of united-front tactics with the onset of the third period and earlier failures of both a left and right character: failure to build broad united-front movements where possible and failure to struggle for a leading role of the party within such blocs and movements (including warning that “progressive” bloc partners will betray, etc.).
The error which was buried in this polemic was that the TUEL was designed precisely to be the vehicle to bring the main outlines of the Communist program directly into the unions. It was a membership organization based on a program, not a bloc or united front. It carried out united fronts with other forces. Since these other forces, and much of the TUEL membership itself, had melted away or been driven out of the unions by 1924, the increased identification between the TUEL and the Communist Party engineered by Ruthenberg/Lovestone seemed to Cannon to be a sectarian error: rather, the party should be using the TUEL to seek new allies. Yet Cannon advocated the same watering down of the TUEL’s political nature as did the degenerating Comintern in the late twenties. This watering down gave rise to a policy of blocs as a permanent strategy (the “left-center coalition”) from 1927 on (see WV No. 22, 8 June 1973).
Cannon’s position on trade-union work, then, called for principled united fronts and blocs around the immediate burning issues, together with vigorous party-building and maintenance of the party as an independent force, free to criticize its bloc partners, and always striving to play a leading role. Rather than being confused on the nature of the united front, which he was not, Cannon simply dismissed the TUEL, or the need for anything like the TUEL, as anything other than a vehicle for such blocs or united fronts. This left him with no conception of an organized pole for the recruitment of militants to the full party program for the trade unions, i.e., what the TUEL had been during its period of greatest success (and before the Stalinist degeneration of the CI set in). It is not surprising, then, that the Trotskyists never attempted to create anything like the TUEL, such as caucuses based on the Trotskyist Transitional Program, in the course of their trade-union work. What caucuses they did create had the character of temporary blocs, usually based on immediate, trade-union issues. This meant that the party itself, able to function openly only outside the unions, was the only organized pole for recruitment to the full program.
That the problems with this approach didn’t become manifest until much later, after the rise of the CIO, was due primarily to the nature of the period, which called above all for a united front for the organization of the unorganized into industrial unions. This called for capable revolutionary trade-union organizing, which the Trotskyists, particularly the experienced militants of Minneapolis and Cannon himself, were prepared to conduct. This perspective led the Trotskyists into some of the Stalinist dual unions, the progressives’ PMA, and leadership of the historic Minneapolis truck drivers’ strikes of 1934.
The Minneapolis strikes stand to this day as a model of revolutionary trade-union organizing. Together with the San Francisco and Toledo general strikes of the same year, the Minneapolis strikes were an important precursor to the organization of all mass production workers along industrial lines.
By Chris Knox. Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 26, 3 August 1973
Throughout the 1930’s the American Trotskyists had to work under an overwhelming organizational disadvantage compared to the Stalinists. Expelled in the late 1920’s from a Communist Party which had already undergone years of political degeneration, the Trotskyist forces at first numbered no more than 100 as opposed to the CP’s 7,000. Furthermore, after Stalin’s abrupt shift into the “Third Period” in 1929, many elements in the CP who had been sympathetic to Trotsky were superficially impressed by the new ultra-leftism and apparent adoption of some of the slogans of the Left Opposition and were induced to remain in the CP. The main initial source of Trotskyist recruitment was thus frozen off.
Despite the extreme sectarianism of the “Third Period,” the CP reversed its decline and began to grow again during the early years of the Depression. CP-initiated unemployed leagues held militant demonstrations and attracted new forces. Despite the radical disproportion of forces, however, the CP could not tolerate the political threat represented by Trotsky’s analysis and program. It immediately set out to destroy the American Trotskyists through physical gangsterism and cowardly exclusionism within the workers movement. Trotskyist meetings around the country were attacked by thugs and sometimes broken up.
“In those dog days of the movement we were shut off from all contact…. Whenever we tried to get into a workers organization we would be expelled as counter-revolutionary Trotskyists. We tried to send delegations to unemployed meetings. Our credentials would be rejected on the grounds that we were enemies of the working class. We were utterly isolated, forced in upon ourselves.”
— James P. Cannon, History of American Trotskyism
Under such circumstances, the Trotskyists did little mass work. Their first duty was to save as many of the vanguard cadre as possible for the program of the revolution. A premature turn to mass work would have in fact meant meaningless, sterile isolation—an abandonment of the Trotskyist program. Opportunities for intervention such as the Progressive Miners of America in 1932 were the exception rather than the rule.
The victory of fascism in Germany in 1933 was a monumental defeat which went unopposed by the Communist International and caused only isolated defections in its ranks. The Left Opposition concluded that the Third International had definitively gone over to support of the bourgeois order, and pronounced it dead as a potentially revolutionary force. Instead of continuing to act as a bureaucratically-expelled faction of the CI, the Trotskyists announced their intention to build a new party and a new international. This coincided with a slight economic upturn which renewed confidence among employed workers and stimulated a dramatic upturn in the class struggle. Strikes increased, and the Trotskyists fought hard to break out of their isolation. They published special editions of the Militant for big events such as the Paterson silk strike, sent their leaders on tours, and even managed to speak at some of the larger unemployed conferences, despite continued hooliganism by the CP.
The Depression heightened the crisis of proletarian leadership caused by the refusal of the bureaucratic, craft leadership of the American Federation of Labor to organize the unorganized in the 1920’s. While millions were thrown out of work and millions more forced to accept wage cuts, the AFL continued its class-collaborationist, do-nothing policy, showing no more concern over the unemployment question than the capitalist government itself. After the 1929 stock market crash, AFL-head William Green had even offered the bosses a no-strike pledge, if only they would stop wage cuts (which, of course, they did not, prompting only more inaction by Green)! Most union leaders simply counseled passive acceptance of rampant wage-slashing by the bosses while the AFL campaigned against government unemployment insurance. John L. Lewis of the Mineworkers toured the country putting down strikes against wage cuts. By 1933, AFL membership, continuing its decline, hit a low of slightly over two million, which was about half what it had been in 1920.
The Rooseveltian “New Deal” economic program (under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933—NRA) was designed to improve business by encouraging “rationalization” (promoting government-backed trustification) and raise public confidence in the system through a massive propaganda campaign. However, the strike wave beginning in early 1933 included a high proportion of unorganized industrial workers, which caused Roosevelt to cave into pressure from the AFL to include a “right to organize” clause (section 7-A of NRA). Actually representing no change in the realm of legal rights, the vague clause had the effect of both promoting company unions and building the authority of the AFL unions: in either case, it was designed to provide the bosses with an agency to contain the upsurge.
While the bosses busily set up company unions to control the workers, the AFL unions also began to expand—despite the fact that many of these unions had previously been reduced to discredited shells—because the AFL appeared to be the agency through which the benefits of the “New Deal” would filter down. The Trotskyists immediately recognized the vital implications of this trend for revolutionary work in the class struggle. “We must march with this instinctive movement and influence it from within,” wrote Cannon in the Militant (2 September 1933).
The Stalinists, meanwhile, were still maintaining their ruinous “Third Period” policy of creating dual “red” unions everywhere. The supposition had been that the unorganized masses would be organized directly by the CP, over the heads of the AFL. A mere trifle had been lacking for the realization of this plan—the mass movement. Despite some party growth, sectarian isolation of the Communists had been the general result. The established unions were showing some new life, but the Stalinists had destroyed the basis for intervention with their absurd characterization of the AFL as “social fascist” and ordered their people out. The pure sectarianism of their line is illustrated by the fact that where real, industrial unions existed independently from the AFL, but not under Stalinist control—such as the Progressive Miners in the Southern Illinois coal fields and the Amalgamated FoodWorkers in New York City—the Stalinists maintained their paper “unions” anyway, “independent” of the independents!
The Trotskyist position was in no way a change in basic policy, despite the fact that they had earlier urged the formation of new unions, independent of the AFL, in some areas. The Trotskyists carried forth the Leninist policy of seeking to reach the masses as long as they remained in the reactionary unions, without placing any confidence in the reactionary bureaucracy. The surge into the AFL was a dramatic confirmation of Lenin’s policy, and condemnation of Stalinist ultra-leftism, but, as Cannon continued:
“By this we do not at all commit ourselves to the fetishistic belief in the possibility of transforming the AF of L into a fighting instrument of the workers. We do not expect Green and Co. to organize the masses of unskilled workers…. The resurgent struggles of the masses … will probably break out of the formal bounds of the AF of L and seek expression in a new trade union movement.”
— Militant, 2 September 1933
The course of the upsurge confirmed the Trotskyists’ analysis. Massive strikes occurred, but the establishment of new mass unions along industrial lines was thwarted in strike after strike by AFL leaders. The craven betrayal of the nation-wide textile workers’ strike in 1934, for instance, confirmed the South as an open-shop haven, which condition persists to this day.
In the entire period, there were only three real victories, all led by revolutionists or professed revolutionists: Stalinists led the San Francisco waterfront strike; the Musteite American Workers Party, later to fuse with the Trotskyists, led the Toledo Auto-Lite strike; and Trotskyists led the Minneapolis truck drivers’ strikes. These strikes were successful because they established powerful new unions along industrial lines which spread throughout whole industries and regions. The organization of the bulk of the proletariat under revolutionary leadership, finally displacing the reactionary AFL leaders, clearly loomed. To head off this threat, a section of the AFL leaders later formed the CIO.
The turn to mass work did not change the sharp limitations on the Trotskyists’ forces. They could only intervene directly in those unions in which they already had supporters. One such place was the Hotel and Restaurant section of the Amalgamated Food Workers of New York, an independent union, which began an organizing drive and called a general strike of hotel workers in early 1934, before the Minneapolis strikes. One Trotskyist particularly, B. J. Field, was propelled into the strike leadership, and the Trotskyists launched vigorously into the struggle. Putting the Militant on a special, three-times-a-week basis, they called on the Stalinists to merge their small “red” union into the AFW, urged a united-front policy aimed at the AFL, warned the workers against reliance on Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” and singled out recognition of the union as the key goal.
In the middle of the strike, however, Field began to pull away from the Trotskyists’ Communist League (CLA) and showed signs of opportunism. He collaborated too closely with trade-union bureaucrats and government mediators, caved in to red-baiting launched by the bosses, and ignored his party comrades. As Cannon put it, “He disregarded the fraction of his own party in the union—which is always the sign of a man who has lost his head” (History of American Trotskyism). With the national spotlight on the “Trotskyist” strike, the CLA expelled Field and denounced his turn to “respectability” in the middle of the struggle. While opportunists howled, the Trotskyists had demonstrated the strength of their principles to serious observers: no matter how temporarily important, mass leaders were always to be subordinated to the general will of the party and its guiding principles.
If the hotel strike had been a disappointment, the Trotskyists soon had another chance to demonstrate that they could lead mass struggle. In the Minneapolis Communist League of about 40 members and sympathizers, they had a core of experienced trade unionists from the CP—with backgrounds stretching back into the pre-CP left wing of the Socialist Party and Wobblies (IWW)—headed by Ray Dunne and Carl Skoglund. Both had been delegates to the Central Labor Union (local AFL council), and had been expelled from their unions in the red purges of the 1920’s. In the CP, Dunne had been aligned with the Cannon group while Skoglund had been closer to Foster, but both (along with two of Dunne’s three brothers) were summarily expelled simply for questioning the expulsion of the leading Trotskyists. Subsequently they did pioneer work organizing the CLA in Minneapolis, and by the turn to mass work in 1933, they were ready to begin a campaign to organize an industrial truck drivers’ union which they had planned before their expulsion from the CP in 1928.
They began by recognizing that even though the AFL had failed to win a strike in Minneapolis in decades (the city was a notorious citadel of the open shop), it was necessary to work through the established unions. Orienting toward General Drivers’ Local 574, they made a bloc with a minority of the Local exec board, headed by President Bill Brown, which was willing to aid them in a militant organizing drive. Purposefully avoiding an immediate confrontation with the rest of the local bureaucracy, they planned to flood the local with newly-organized workers, cutting across craft divisions, and conduct a strike for recognition of the union by the trucking industry on an industrial basis. The question of leadership would be resolved in the process, through the test of the class struggle.
Since Dunne and Skoglund were working in the coal yards at the time, they began with a coal yard drivers’ strike in February 1934, picking the middle of winter, when it would be most effective. Through meticulous attention to detail and advance planning, they took the bosses by surprise, shutting the yards down completely and involving masses of workers in picketing. The strike won union recognition in three days.
This increased their base and authority within the union and laid the groundwork for a general strike of drivers and warehousemen throughout Minneapolis in May, which was equally well prepared, also took the bosses by surprise, and won fairly quickly. The Trotskyists insisted on the inclusion of the warehousemen (“inside workers”), since this made the union truly industrial in nature, including everyone in the companies concerned except office workers.
The bosses retaliated and provoked a third strike in July which lasted over a month. International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ President Daniel Tobin, an arch-reactionary craft unionist, aided the bosses by starting a red-baiting campaign against the strike leadership. Despite the imposition of martial law by Farmer-Labor Governor Olson and the virtual exhaustion of the strikers in a war of attrition, the third strike solidly established the union and the legitimacy of the strike leadership. The bosses didn’t dare try again to smash the former, and Tobin, though he kept trying, couldn’t drive out the latter. It took a full scale war-crisis and government prosecution for “communism” to drive the Trotskyists from the leadership in the Minneapolis Teamsters in the 1940’s. Before then, Minneapolis had become a highly-organized union town, and the Teamsters had spread throughout the Northwest. Farrell Dobbs’ campaign to organize the over-the-road drivers provided the basis for transforming the Teamsters into an industrial union.
The Stalinists immediately attempted to discredit the Trotskyists’ role in the Minneapolis strikes. William F. Dunne, an old friend of Cannon and the one Dunne brother who had become a Stalinist, was selected by the Browder leadership of the CP to prove his loyalty by doing the “job” on the Trotskyists, including his brothers. This he did with a vengeance, even going to the point of likening his three brothers in Minneapolis to “the three Marx Bros.” His articles reflected the ultra-left phase the Stalinists were only beginning to abandon. Calling the Trotskyists “a group of strikebreakers in the service of the bourgeoisie and the labor aristocracy,” Dunne characterized the Minneapolis settlements as betrayals caused by cowardice, subservience to local AFL bureaucrats and Olson, and general covering up for the “fascist” “New Deal” on the part of the Trotskyists. Dunne claimed that the Trotskyists prevented the development of a full general strike, purposefully holding back the revolutionary thrust of the masses.
In following up these criticisms on the scene, the local Stalinists were severely handicapped by their total lack of any supporters directly involved in the strike, despite the fact that District 9 of the CP, covering Minneapolis, had been the third largest in the Party in 1928. The CP had completely isolated itself from the mass movement. As it attempted to present inflammatory criticism from the outside, the Trotskyists had to oppose physical assaults by angry workers on CP supporters on more than one occasion. Despite the fact that the union had an elected rank-and-file strike committee of 100, the Stalinists demanded “rank and file control” of the strike, and representation for their paper organizations on the strike committee. Only a short time later, when the CP dropped its characterization of the “New Deal” as fascist in favor of a popular-front alliance with Roosevelt and union bureaucrats, the Minneapolis CP lined up with the reactionary Tobin as the latter attempted to smash Local 574 by setting up a paper rival, “Local 500,” and launching gangland thug attacks on 574 members.
The CP’s “Third Period” criticisms were echoed recently, with a distinctly Marcusite crackpot twist, by the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC) in its review of Dobbs’ Teamster Rebellion (New Solidarity, 31 July–4 August 1972). “Dobbs sees only the military aspects of the strikes,” says the NCLC:
“… He fails to understand that it was the role of outside forces supporting the Teamsters which was decisive—the embryonic never-realized United Front….
“The failure of the Trotskyists to adequately conceptualize the process of organizing the class-for-itself led them to constantly blunt the revolutionary dynamic of the situation.”
These proponents of substitutionalism through fraudulent “united fronts” criticize the SWP for being bogged down in “militant trade unionism,” to the point that they “aborted” the “development of a genuine mass strike movement.” Magically, the incorporation of “outsiders” (who? the CP’s paper unemployed organizations? farmers?) in the strike leadership on an equal basis with union members would have changed all this. The NCLC claims that the American Trotskyists ignored the “class-for-itself” model provided by Trotsky in his writings on the German crisis, citing (incredibly!) Trotsky’s “What Next?” (1932).
Hardly intending to renounce the qualitatively leading role of the employed proletariat as does the Labor Committee, Trotsky (who never used the “class-for-itself ” hocus-pocus schematisms of the NCLC) pointed out in “What Next?” that simple trade union strikes could accomplish nothing in the presence of mass unemployment unless the workers addressed themselves to this question, “drawing the unemployed into the struggle hand in hand with the employed.” But the American Trotskyists understood this very well. They raised the question of unemployment in the Militant, fought for a shorter work week, and counterposed the united-front tactic to the CP’s sectarianism in the unemployed movement. In Minneapolis, before the strikes, Trotskyist intervention to this effect in an unemployed conference was followed by a CP walkout.
Furthermore, the Minneapolis strikes were one of the most dramatic examples of broad-based organizing in American history. The leadership took meticulous care at all stages of the struggle to keep tabs on and mobilize support from other unions as well as women, petty bourgeois, professionals, farmers. The unemployed got particular attention. The Trotskyists successfully drew them into the strike struggle and attempted to organize them and support their struggles for better benefits and against grievances. After the strikes, a special unemployed organization, affiliated to the union, was constituted, and part of the leadership assigned to help run it. Relief benefits in Minneapolis were soon the best in the country, and the chances of unemployed workers being mobilized to scab on strikes were slim.
The strike leaders had a good sense of the mood of the workers and the relationship of class forces. If there were some aspects in which they erred slightly on the side of tactical conservatism, this was certainly not a major characteristic of their leadership. Far from “holding back” the struggle or consciousness of the workers, they advanced both to an entirely new level. Shachtman and Cannon came to Minneapolis to help put out a daily strike bulletin, the Organizer, which explained everything in terms of the basic conflict between worker and capitalist. Settlement terms were never overrated, but recognized clearly as temporary stopping points, involving necessary compromises, in the ongoing class struggle. Propaganda struggles were waged against backward attitudes, e.g., male chauvinism. The following point, written by Cannon, appeared in the Organizer for 18 August:
“We see the issue between capital and labor as an unceasing struggle between the class of exploited workers and the class of exploiting parasites. It is all a war. What decides in this war, as in all others, is power. The exploiters are organized to grind us down into the dust. We must organize our class to fight back. And the women are half of the working class. Their interests are the same as ours and they are ready to fight for them. Therefore: organize them to take part in the class battle. This is the idea behind the wonderful organization of the Ladies Auxiliary, and its effective cooperation with the union in the struggle.
“Of course, Local 574 cannot claim to be the pioneer in grasping this idea and carrying it into practice. There have been numerous examples of attempts along this line…one that did much to inspire us—belongs to the Progressive Miners of Illinois.” [emphasis in original]
— Notebook of an Agitator
At the end of the May strike, the CP claimed that the Trotskyists reneged on their call for a city-wide general strike by accepting a settlement, thereby holding back the struggle. What the Stalinists ignored was that the main goal of the struggle up to that point—recognition of the union—was achieved. To press forward arbitrarily would have left the objectives unclear and been an adventurous risk of everything that had been gained. The Stalinists wanted a general strike against Olson. But in their ultra-left haste to denounce the Farmer-Labor governor as a “fascist,” they forgot one small detail: the workers, who had voted him into power, had the illusion that he was on their side. Furthermore, he controlled the bulk of the AFL leadership through F-LP affiliation. An adventurous move at the wrong time could have isolated 574 and led to its destruction. As Trotsky pointed out in “What Next?” (merely one of many, many points the NCLC forgot to read):
“Even though Rosa Luxemburg overestimated the independent importance of the general strike in the question of power, she understood quite well that a general strike could not be declared arbitrarily, that it must be prepared for by the whole preceding course of the workers’ movement, by the policies of the party and the trade unions.” [emphasis in original]
The Trotskyists worked to expose Olson’s real role, but they knew it would take events in the class struggle to do it. When Olson moved in troops in July, the workers thought he was protecting their interests and began cooperating with the troops. The leadership knew better, and at the risk of some initial unpopularity, the Organizer worked to expel these illusions. This was necessarily a slow process of education, but Olson himself speeded it up considerably by raiding the union headquarters and throwing the strike leaders in the stockade. The Organizer could then call for a “general protest strike” without the fear of isolation of the leadership at the hands of Olson and his AFL friends. The mere call for a general strike was sufficient to get the headquarters back and the leaders out of jail.
The worst the Trotskyists can be accused of with regard to Olson in the strike events is lack of prior warning as to the role he would play, i.e., an over-adaptation at first to the backward consciousness of the workers. In their organizing drive before the May strike, the leadership built a mass meeting at which they demanded that Olson address the workers. This was correct, but building the meeting without simultaneous warnings as to Olson’s real nature as the head of a section of the capitalist state was an opportunist tactical error.
“The organizing committee also started a pressure campaign to line up Governor Olson as a speaker at the meeting. This was done for two reasons: advance publicity listing the governor as a speaker would help in getting a big turnout for the meeting; and if Olson addressed the workers, he would have to go on record in support of the union campaign.”
— Farrell Dobbs, Teamster Rebellion
Thus the organizers used Olson’s name without, at the same time, attempting to expose him as a faker; thereby they helped create some of the illusions that plagued them. This error flowed in part from a theoretical misunderstanding of the Farmer-Labor Party—a bloc of two classes—as a working-class party (this will be taken up further in Part 3). That this error was subordinate within the general thrust of the Trotskyists’ practice is indicated by the fact that they didn’t hesitate to attack Olson in the heat of the crisis, even though it went against the stream to do so.
Hardly “holding back” the struggle, the leadership held out to the point of exhaustion of the ranks. At the end, the strike had become a war of attrition, and there was a small but dangerous back-to-work trickle. Nevertheless, the main objectives were won. As Cannon pointed out to the Stalinists after the May strike, these “quack doctors whose patients always die,” (referring to the record of disastrous, Stalinist-led ultra-left “strikes”) could not point to a single example of newly-organized workers having achieved so much (Militant, 16 June 1934).
The Toledo Auto-Lite strike, which peaked after the May strike in Minneapolis, is held up as an “alternative” to Minneapolis by the NCLC on the absurd grounds that the revolutionary leaders were the heads of unemployed leagues, and had to be brought in from “outside” (New Solidarity, 16–20 October 1972). In fact, the only difference this made was that the Minneapolis strikes had better and more conscious advance planning, and afterwards the leadership, having worked inside the union from the beginning, was in a better position to thoroughly displace the craft-minded reactionaries. Both strikes used essentially the same revolutionary methods of mass struggle and achieved similar goals. The same can be said of the San Francisco waterfront strike, in which the Stalinists were involved. This strike was successful because the Stalinists opportunistically worked with leaders like Bridges who were inside the AFL longshoremen’s union, which was technically “social- fascist” at the time! The Stalinists did have a dual union on the scene, but it was essentially a useless hindrance and a potentially dangerous divisive factor. When the police raided it along with the Wobblies, arresting hundreds, the workers on strike were not moved to defend it as their own.
The NCLC complains that the Trotskyists spent too much time being militant trade unionists and thus failed to build “a significant revolutionary force in the Thirties.” Holding up ex-preacher Muste’s AmericanWorkers Party as conscious followers of Trotsky’s German writings, the NCLC “forgets” that shortly after the Minneapolis and Toledo strikes, the AWP and the CLA fused to form the Workers Party! This fusion came about because the Trotskyists correctly saw the AWP as a leftward-moving centrist force and aggressively approached it, seeking to separate the sound, proletarian elements from the rootless petty-bourgeois dilettantes and other Marcus-like garbage which the AWP had picked up in its long history of unpolitical unemployed work. It was the American Trotskyists that supplied the better Musteites with a program, not the other way around. The work of the two groups in similar strikes hastened this process. Afterwards, the fused organization worked jointly to consolidate the earlier Toledo victory in the Chevrolet transmission strike in Toledo in 1935, which they almost succeeded in spreading throughout the GM empire. (This was the first successful GM strike, and was a vital precursor to the later organization of auto.)
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, and the Trotskyists were correct to bloc on this issue and struggle to lead successful organizing campaigns. Precisely this kind of activity in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco threatened to solve the crisis of leadership in favor of the revolutionists, but the Trotskyists were too small to carry it through. The betrayals of the much larger Communist Party were responsible for the fact that when industrial workers were fully organized, reactionaries controlled their unions. The later blocs of the Stalinists with these CIO reactionaries— for the popular front with Roosevelt—has nothing at all in common with the Trotskyist united front in Minneapolis to achieve union recognition.
The Trotskyists’ mistake (besides the theoretical misconception on the nature of the F-LP two-class party) was that they lacked different tactical weapons in their arsenal for different conditions and periods. An independent, Trotskyist-led caucus, expressing a full program of transitional demands for the unions, wasn’t so important in 1934 as later, since in 1934 the Trotskyists were in a position to implement their most important demands in practice (although consciousness of the need for political caucuses might have gone hand-in-hand with greater consciousness of the need to make political warnings and criticisms in advance of the crisis, as in the case of Olson at the mass meeting). Later, however, when they weren’t in a position to provide direct leadership of the class, the Trotskyists showed inflexibility. They never betrayed the workers as did the Stalinists, but they did miss opportunities and commit some opportunist errors through a policy of blocking too frequently and almost always working through united fronts many of which lacked the clarity of the blocs to organize the unorganized of 1934. Instead of emphasizing their program, they used organizational weakness as an excuse to over-concentrate on alliances around minimum demands.
By Chris Knox. Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 27, 31 August 1973
After the formation of the Workers Party (WP) through the fusion of the Musteite American Workers Party with the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA) in 1934, the Trotskyists’ organizational course took them into the leftward-moving Socialist Party in 1936. After winning a sizeable section of the SP youth they then split off from the Social Democrats to found the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1938. During this period of upsurge, the Trotskyists grew and continued to do trade-union work and other mass work, giving the lie to Stalinist assertions that the Minneapolis strikes of 1934 were the only mass work the Trotskyists ever did. The Trotskyists led mass unemployed leagues, conducted mass defense work and worked in the unions in mining, textiles, auto, food workers, maritime, steel and teamsters, among others. Less spectacular than the Minneapolis strikes perhaps, nevertheless this work was of lasting importance and vital to the building of the revolutionary vanguard in the U.S.
The Trotskyists’ policy of broad united fronts continued to play a vital and useful role as long as the bulk of the reactionary AFL bureaucracy fought the establishment of industrial unions. The Workers Party declared its main goal to be the formation of a “national progressive movement” for militant industrial unionism (New Militant, 19 January 1935), and the Trotskyists hoped, with good reason, to win the leadership of important sections of the working class by being the most consistent fighters for this minimum but key immediate need of the working class. At the same time they did not hide their socialist politics, in contrast to the Stalinists who attempted to masquerade as simple pro-Roosevelt militants. As much as possible, the Trotskyists operated as open revolutionists. Gerry Allard, CLA member and a leader of the Progressive Miners of America in southern Illinois, addressed the miners about an approaching strike in the following terms:
“Being a Marxist, a revolutionist, it is my opinion that we should militarize the strike, revamp the Women’s Auxiliary along the original lines, augment our forces by seeking the organizational support of the powerful unemployed movement in Illinois, seek allies in the rank and file of the United Mine Workers of America, and go forward once again with the same determination that built this union. This is the road of struggle ….”
— New Militant, 30 March 1935
Allard went on to appeal to the miners to see their struggle in the broadest possible context, as the impetus for the organization of auto, steel, rubber, etc.
Following up on the work of the Musteites in the great Auto-Lite strike of 1934, the Workers Party played a key role in a strike at the Toledo Chevrolet transmission plant in 1935, being instrumental in getting GM workers in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Norwood and Atlanta to strike simultaneously. Two Trotskyists, Cochran and Beck, leaders of the Workers Party and Spartacus Youth respectively, were arrested while picketing the Flint, Michigan headquarters of Chevrolet in an attempt to spread the strike into the auto capital (New Militant, 11 May 1935).
The spreading of this strike throughout the GM empire was prevented only by the relative organizational weakness of the Trotskyists and the diligent, strike-breaking efforts of the AFL’s appointed head of the auto union, Francis Dillon. Dillon personally headed off a sympathy strike of Buick workers in Detroit and sabotaged the strike at its base in Toledo by threatening to withdraw the local’s charter and splitting the strike leadership at the key point.GMagreed to a wage increase and published a stipulation that it would meet with the union leadership, but because of Dillon’s treachery there was no signed contract. The workers went back solidly organized and undefeated, however, since the company had the militant 1934 strike in mind and had made no attempt to operate the plant with scabs. It was the firstGMstrike the company had failed to smash, and was an inspiration for the later auto sit-down strikes which built the UAW and established the CIO.
After the strike, the Workers Party published a critical assessment of the strike leadership of which it had been a part, denouncing sloppiness, lack of attention to details (such as not calling sufficient strike committee meetings) and the “fundamental error” of allowing the daily strike paper, Strike Truth, to be suppressed (New Militant, 18 May 1935). This performance was in sharp contrast to the Minneapolis truckers’ strikes the year previous, in which meticulous attention to tactical and organizational details and the hard-hitting regular strike daily had been instrumental in achieving the ultimate victory of the strike. At the same time the Trotskyists were able to recruit the most conscious workers to their organization, with the Minneapolis branch of the CLA increasing from 40 to 100 members and close sympathizers during 1934 alone. Many years later, Cannon analyzed the main weakness of the work in Toledo as the failure to consolidate lasting organizational gains. He blamed this on Muste, who was a “good mass worker” but “tended to adapt himself” to the mass movement too much for a Leninist, at the expense of developing firm nuclei “on a programmatic basis for permanent functioning” (History of American Trotskyism).
The Workers Party was still working under the disadvantage in Toledo that the revolutionary leadership of the 1934 strike had been brought in from outside the union, thereby lacking sufficiently deep roots to hold the militants together against Dillon’s maneuvering in 1935. Today the Marcusite National Caucus of Labor Committees, a group which has not the faintest idea of what it means to organize the working class, lauds precisely this weakness as the hallmark of revolutionary strategy. Their hero Muste soon thereafter abandoned the WP to return to the church. The deficiencies of the Trotskyists’ trade-union tactics were not to be found in “overrating the unions” as the NCLC crackpots would have us believe, but in the failure to organize firm class-struggle nuclei “on a programmatic basis for permanent functioning” within the unions. The struggles in Toledo gave birth to the first auto union caucus, the Progressives of UAW-Local 18384, but its program was limited to the militant unionism of the broad united fronts the Trotskyists advocated: for industrial unions, reliance on the power of the ranks as opposed to arbitration or government boards, etc. As such, it had the episodic character of a united front and lacked the clear revolutionary political distinctiveness which became crucial after the establishment of industrial unions under reformist leadership in the late 1930’s.
Another point made by Cannon in drawing the balance sheet of theWorkers Party period should be made elementary reading for the Labor Committee, which fetishizes unemployed organizing. The mass unemployed organizations inherited by the Trotskyists in their fusion with the Musteites were highly unstable:
“We reached thousands of workers through these unemployed organizations. But further experience also taught us an instructive lesson in the field of mass work too. Unemployed organizations can be built and expanded rapidly and it is quite possible for one to get illusory ideas of their stability and revolutionary potentialities. At the very best they are loose and easily scattered formations; they slip through your fingers like sand. The minute the average unemployed worker gets a job, he wants to forget the unemployed organization….”
— History of American Trotskyism
The most lasting achievement of Trotskyist trade-union work in the 1930’s was the transformation of the Teamsters from a localized, federated craft union into a large industrial union. In the 1930’s, while long-distance trucking was becoming more and more important, the Teamsters union was still limited to local drivers, divided by crafts (ice drivers, milk drivers, etc.) and dependent on local conditions. Based in their stronghold in Minneapolis, the Trotskyists spread industrial unionism throughout the Northwest through the Teamsters. An 11-state campaign led by Farrell Dobbs to organize over-the-road drivers included conquest of the all-important hub of Chicago and established the principle of the uniform area-wide contract. The campaign’s achievements were solidified through a major strike struggle centered in Omaha, Nebraska in 1938, which was won through the same skillful organization that had succeeded in Minneapolis. As in Minneapolis, the building of the party went hand-in-hand with the strike, resulting in an SWP branch in Omaha.
Especially in the mid-1930’s, the mass work of the Trotskyists was far-reaching and significant out of proportion to their size. Yet the Trotskyists knew they were not yet a real party and could not become a party leading significant sections of the masses in struggle until the centrist and reformist forces blocking the path were removed. It was for this reason that the Trotskyists entered the SP in 1936: the SP was large, included a rapidly-growing left wing (particularly in the youth) and was attracting militant workers who could be won to Trotskyism. The Trotskyists had to defeat sectarians in their own ranks, led by Oehler, who assumed that the party could be built directly, through the orientation of a propaganda group to the masses. The Cannon-led majority of the WP hardly ignored mass work. It was, in fact, an important part of the entry maneuver. While in the Socialist Party the Trotskyists established new trade-union fractions, notably in maritime (principally the Sailors Union of the Pacific) and auto, meanwhile considerably embarrassing the reformist SP leaders by their class-struggle policies. When they emerged from the SP more than doubled in size in 1938, the Trotskyists, though still small, were in a better position than ever to conduct work in the unions.
The rise of the CIO through the massive struggles of 1936–37 transformed the labor movement and altered the terms of class struggle in favor of the workers. The organized workers were in a better position to resist the onslaughts of capitalism; however, the new unions were controlled by a bureaucratic layer which shared the pro-capitalist, class-collaborationist politics of the old AFL bureaucracy. Having reluctantly presided over the militant struggles which established the CIO, these new bureaucrats desired nothing more than to establish “normal” trade-union relations with the capitalists, gain influence in capitalist politics, etc. As inter-imperialist war drew closer, the ruling class was gradually forced to temporarily lay aside its attempt to destroy the unions and accept the coalition which the bureaucracy readily offered. Thus the trade-union bureaucracy was qualitatively expanded and consolidated as the chief agency for disciplining the work force, replacing for the most part the Pinkertons and bloody strike-breaking as the principal means of capitalist rule in the hitherto unorganized mass production industries. This process was completed during the Second World War, when the ruling class allowed the completion of union organizing in key areas in exchange for full partnership of the trade-union bureaucracy in the imperialist war effort (the no-strike pledge, endorsement of the anti-labor wage controls, strike-breaking, etc.).
Besides displacing organization of the unorganized as the key immediate issue, this transformation placed the question of politics in the foreground. The industrial unions had been built, but they alone were clearly insufficient to deal with the outstanding social questions—unemployment, war, etc.—which determined the conditions under which they struggled. With the renewal of depression conditions in mid-1937–38, accompanied by increased employer resistance to union demands, opposition to Roosevelt burgeoned and mass sentiment for a labor party developed, expressed through such agencies as Labor’s Non-Partisan Political League (LNPL), the CIO political arm and the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. In order to head off this movement, the bureaucracy invented the myth of Roosevelt as a “friend of labor” and used the Stalinist Communist Party, closely integrated into the CIO bureaucracy, to pass off this warmed-over Gompers policy as a “working- class” strategy—the popular front. The CP unceremoniously dropped its earlier calls for a labor party.
The primary task of revolutionists in the labor movement had shifted, therefore, from leading the struggle for industrial unions to providing a political pole of opposition to the class-collaborationist bureaucracy. The Transitional Program (“Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”), adopted by the SWP in 1938, was written by Trotsky largely to provide the basis for such a struggle. It contained demands designed to meet the immediate felt needs and problems of the workers (wages, unemployment, working conditions, approaching war and fascism) with alternatives leading directly to a struggle against the capitalist system itself: a sliding scale of wages and hours, workers control of industry, expropriation of industry without compensation, workers militias, etc. Most importantly, the program proposed transitional organizational forms and measures designed to advance the workers’ ability to struggle for these demands and to provide the basis for the overthrow of capitalism: factory committees, soviets, arming of the proletariat and workers and farmers government (as a popular designation of the dictatorship of the proletariat).
Also in 1938, Trotsky urged his American followers to enter formations such as the LNPL and fight for a labor party based on the trade unions, armed with the Transitional Program as the political alternative to the class collaborationism of the Stalinists and trade-union bureaucrats. This reversed the Trotskyists’ earlier position of opposing the call for a labor party on the grounds that the utterly reactionary character of the Gompersite labor bureaucracy could allow the organizing of mass industrial unions directly under the leadership of the revolutionary party. This would have effectively bypassed the need for the transitional demand of a labor party. With the organization of the CIO on the basis of militant trade-union reformism, the balance of power between the revolutionaries and the labor bureaucrats was shifted in favor of the latter. But as the strike struggles achieved the original goal of union organization, and as Roosevelt’s policies led to economic downturn, the newly organized and highly combative rank and file of the CIO unions began to come into direct political conflict with their pro-Roosevelt leaders. The call for a labor party became a crucial programmatic weapon to mobilize a class-struggle opposition to the Lewis bureaucracy.
Though politically armed to meet the new situation, the American Trotskyists nevertheless failed to find a consistent form of expression for their program within the unions. While they propagandized for the Transitional Program in their press and conducted campaigns for specific demands such as workers defense guards, labor party, struggle against approaching war, etc., their day-to-day trade-union work continued on the old basis of united fronts around immediate issues. As the organization of the unions proceeded and the opposition of the bureaucracy to organizing industrial unions receded, this united-front policy turned into a bloc around simple trade-union militancy with whole sections of the non-Stalinist, “progressive” trade-union bureaucracy. Criticism of these bureaucrats tended to take the form of pushing for consistent trade-union militancy rather than building a revolutionary political alternative, so that when the “progressive” bureaucracy lined up with Roosevelt for war in 1940, an embarrassing lack of political distinction between the Trotskyists in the trade unions and these “progressives” was revealed.
The course of events in the Northwest Teamsters was a graphic example. For two years after the 1934 strikes in Minneapolis, the Tobin leadership of the Teamsters International continued to try to smash the Trotskyist leadership of Local 574, using red-baiting, gangsters and a rival local. Then a subtle shift began to occur. As the Trotskyists spread out, building support for the campaign to organize the over-the-road drivers, more and more bureaucrats became won over, including the key leader in Chicago, whose adherence went a long way toward ensuring the success of the campaign. Finally, by the time of the 1938 Omaha strike, Tobin himself began actively cooperating, even supporting the organizing drive against his old allies who still sought to preserve the local power of the Joint Councils at the expense of modernization, and appointing Farrell Dobbs International Organizer.
The 1936–37 strike struggles had finally rendered pure craft unionism obsolete even within the AFL, and old-line craft unionists began to tail the CIO both in order to enhance their organizational power and because the bourgeoisie itself was less resistant and more willing to accept organization of the workers in exchange for the use of the bureaucracy as its labor lieutenant. Throughout the entire area of Dobbs’ 11-state campaign, the only serious challenge mounted by the bosses was in Omaha.
The united front to organize the over-the-road drivers was not wrong, but the Trotskyists lacked the means to distinguish themselves politically from the bureaucracy. This could have been done through a caucus based on the Transitional Program. The Northwest Organizer was founded in 1935 as the organ of a pan-union caucus formation, the Northwest Labor Unity Conference, but the NLUC’s program was limited to militant, class-struggle union organizing, under the slogan, “All workers into the unions and all unions into the struggle.” Eventually the Northwest Organizer became the organ of the Minneapolis Teamsters Joint Council and the NLUC lapsed, since its oppositional role was liquidated. When Tobin began to line up behind the war effort, the Trotskyists in Minneapolis opposed the war and won over the Central Labor Union, but they lacked the basis for a factional struggle in the union as a whole that a political caucus orientation might have provided. Dobbs simply submitted his resignation as organizer in 1940, without waging a political fight. A few years later, Tobin finally was able to crush the Trotskyist leadership in Minneapolis, with the aid of the government’s first Smith Act anticommunist trial of the leading militants.
The bloc with “progressive” trade unionists was reflected politically in the Trotskyists’ orientation to the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, with which most of the local trade unions were affiliated. Left-leaning FLP supporters were an important component of the Trotskyists’ united front. In 1929, the excellent document, Platform of the Communist Opposition, had pointed out:
“The organization of two classes in one party, a Farmer-Labor Party, must be rejected in principle in favor of the separate organization of the workers, and the formation of a political alliance with the poor farmers under the leadership of the former. The opportunist errors of the [Communist] Party comrades in the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota and other states [in 1924] flowed inevitably from and were secondary to the basically false policy of a two-class party, in which the farmer and worker are ostensibly on an ‘equal basis,’ but where in reality the petty-bourgeois ideology of the former actually dominates.”
— Militant, 15 February 1929
Written by the American Trotskyists, this statement thus carried forth in hard political terms the criticisms made by Trotsky of the Pepper leadership of the CP in 1924. Pepper had blithely made a fundamental revision of Marxism in order to tail the radical farmers of the FLP into the third capitalist party movement of LaFollette. The Minneapolis Trotskyists, however, failed to implement this policy in their orientation to the FLP. In 1935 they critically supported the FLP candidate for mayor of Minneapolis (despite the current Workers Party position against labor party formations), and in 1938 they supported FLP Governor Benson in the primaries as well as in the general election, without in either case mentioning the need for the “separate organization of the workers.” The SWP’s September 1938 program for the FLP endorses the adherence of both mass workers’ and mass farmers’ organizations to the FLP and complains only of the inordinate power of the ward clubs, through which the Stalinists eventually wielded the dominant influence in the FLP. This necessarily blurred the SWP’s campaign for a working-class labor party based on the Transitional Program, since in their program for the FLP they were forced to emphasize demands for the petty-bourgeois farmers (loans, easing tax burdens, etc.) which watered down the working-class content of their program and was the inevitable result of the petty-bourgeois nature of the FLP as a two-class party. While not politically fatal in itself, this lack of clarity was a reflection of an accommodationist bloc with the left wing of the trade-union bureaucracy.
Furthermore, the Trotskyists compounded their inflexible united-front trade-union tactics with an overreaction to Stalinism. The 1938 SWP trade-union resolution stated categorically:
“While always expanding our program independently and maintaining our right of criticism, our Party in a certain sense supports the ‘lesser evil’ within the unions. The Stalinists are the main enemy…. We unite with all serious elements to exclude the Stalinists from control of the unions.”
— Socialist Appeal, 26 November 1938
The Stalinist CP, many times larger than the Trotskyists, was indeed a key political enemy in the unions. Having shifted to the right from a destructive policy of self-isolation during the “Third Period” (1929–35), the CP had become intimate advisers to the CIO bureaucracy and hard right-wingers in the unions, doing whatever possible to crush and expel the Trotskyists. Its main aim was to preserve links to the liberals and the collaboration of the labor movement with Roosevelt and U.S. imperialism. The CP participated directly in the bourgeoisie’s attempt to militarize the labor movement for the war. Thus in maritime, while the CP and its allies were busy weakening the 1936 West Coast longshore strike, wrecking the militant Maritime Federation of the Pacific and giving back-handed support to the government’s effort to break the seamen’s union hiring halls through the Copeland Act, the Trotskyists made a correct united front bloc with the militant but “anti-political” Lundberg leadership of the SUP [Sailors Union of the Pacific].
Nevertheless, the determination of the SWP to unite with the politically undefined “all serious elements” against the Stalinists in all cases reflected trade-union adaptationism. The SWP’s reasoning was that, unlike standard trade-union reformists, the Stalinists were the agency of an alien force outside the unions—the bureaucratic ruling elite of the Soviet Union—and therefore willing to destroy the unions to achieve their ends. This was an implicit “third campist” denial of Stalinism as a tendency within the labor movement. That the Trotskyists never drew this logical conclusion from their position and pulled back from it later did not prevent them from falling into errors as a result of it even while the CP was at its worst during the popular front period (1935–39).
The worst such error was the SWP’s “auto crisis” which peaked in January 1939. The UAW was a key battleground between Trotskyists, Stalinists and social democrats in the CIO. Wielding power with a bureaucratic heavy hand, UAW President Homer Martin, a left-leaning trade-union reformist, went so far in his battle against the Stalinists that he eventually lost all authority. To the left of the Stalinists on some issues, he was at base reactionary and made a concerted effort to smash wildcat strikes. The SWP, however, extended critical support to Martin to stop the Stalinists. The crisis came while Cannon was in Europe following the founding conference of the Fourth International in Fall 1938. The SWP Political Committee was being run by Shachtman and Burnham, who were soon to draw the full conclusions from their Stalinophobia and lead a faction out of the SWP (in 1940) denying that the Soviet Union was any kind of workers state and refusing to defend it, and likewise denying that the Stalinists were a tendency within the workers movement. With their own measure of bureaucratic highhandedness, Shachtman and Burnham tried to ram a pro-Martin policy down the throats of the auto fraction in 1938 just as Martin was leading a rump convention of the UAW out of the CIO, back into the AFL and eventually to oblivion. The bulk of the auto union dumped Martin and held its own pro-CIO convention. The SWP had to do an abrupt and embarrassing about-face entailing two issues of Socialist Appeal which contradicted each other, for which Shachtman and Burnham refused to acknowledge responsibility.
During the Hitler-Stalin Pact period (1939–41), the beginning of World War II, a general reversal of positions took place. Reflecting Stalin’s deal with Hitler and turn away from the earlier alliance with France, Britain and the U.S., the CP conducted a grudging but definite turn to the left, denouncing the “imperialist” war, alienating its liberal allies and reinvigorating its working class base. The “progressive” trade unionists with whom the Trotskyists had been blocking on trade-union issues meanwhile became central in the pro-war, patriotic lineup. As a result of this switch, in discussions between the SWP leadership and Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, all the inadequacies of the Trotskyists’ trade-union work then became manifest (see “Discussions with Trotsky,” in his Writings, 1939–40). “The Stalinists are the problem,” pointed out Cannon: “By their change in line they dealt a heavy blow. We were forging ahead when they made the switch, paralysing our work.” Despite this damaging admission, the SWP leaders were opposed to a policy of maneuver to take advantage of the new situation. Trotsky proposed critical support to the CP candidates in the 1940 elections. He had to reiterate that this was theoretically possible, since the Stalinists had made a sharp, though temporary, left turn and were just as much part of the labor movement as the equally reactionary forces in the unions with whom the Trotskyists had until then been blocking. The SWP leaders objected, saying that it would disrupt the work in the trade unions, in which what were admittedly blocs at the top with “progressives” had been necessary in order for a small force of revolutionists to come forward and begin political work in the unions. Criticizing his followers for lack of initiative, Trotsky went to the core of the problem:
“I believe we have the critical point very clear. We are in a block with the socalled progressives—not only fakers but honest rank and file. Yes, they are honest and progressive but from time to time they vote for Roosevelt—once in four years. This is decisive. You propose a trade union policy, not a Bolshevik policy. Bolshevik policies begin outside the unions…. You are afraid to become compromised in the eyes of the Rooseveltian trade-unionists.”
To the American leaders’ protestations that their forces were too small to preserve an independent course, Trotsky said, “Our real role is that of third competitor,” distinct from both Stalinists and “progressives,” stating that his proposal for maneuver “presupposes that we are an independent party.” Thus the discussions uncovered the fact that the Trotskyists’ lack of an independent political pole in the unions, distinct from episodic blocs and united fronts around immediate issues, had compromised their general ability to maneuver and their independence as a party. They had become over-identified with their bloc partners.
In his report of these discussions to the party, Cannon agreed with most of Trotsky’s points in some revealing passages, while continuing to oppose the proposal for critical support to the CP in the elections:
“…our work in the trade unions up till now has been largely a day-to-day affair based upon the daily problems and has lacked a general political orientation and perspective. This has tended to blur the distinction between us and pure and simple trade unionists. In many cases, at times, they appeared to be one with us. It was fair weather and good fellows were together…. “Then all of a sudden, this whole peaceful routine of the trade union movement is disrupted by overpowering issues of war, patriotism, the national elections, etc. And these trade unionists, who looked so good in ordinary times, are all turning up as patriots and Rooseveltians.”
— Socialist Appeal, 19 October 1940
Thus the primacy of politics in trade-union work had snuck up on the SWP and clubbed it over the head. The problem had not been caused by lack of a principled struggle for the program, nor primarily by blocs which were unprincipled in character. Criticism of bureaucratic allies in the public press had sometimes been weak, but the SWP had vigorously struggled in the public domain for its program, while raising key agitational demands in the unions. The main lack had been a consistent pole, in the unions, for the struggle for the Transitional Program and against the bureaucracy in all its manifestations, i.e., a struggle for revolutionary leadership of and in the unions. Instead of developing such caucus formations as the Progressives of the UAW and the Northwest Labor Unity Conference into political formations in opposition to the bureaucracy, as the early Communists’ Trade Union Educational League had been, the Trotskyists allowed these formations to be limited politically to the character of united fronts: episodic alliances based on immediate issues. As such, not only did they not last, but the Trotskyists themselves, in the unions, became politically identified almost exclusively through these united fronts, rather than through the struggle to build the vanguard party.
Size was not a factor, since in some ways the problem was at its worst where the Trotskyists were strongest, in the Northwest Teamsters. Rather, the SWP demonstrated a lack of flexibility of tactics and an unwillingness to upset its policy of continual blocs with “progressive” trade unionists on day-to-day issues by a hard, political drive for power based on revolutionary answers to the larger issues. But the larger issues dominated the day-to-day issues, and as imperialist world war drew closer the Trotskyists had to pay the price of isolation for their earlier failure to appear as an independent force in the unions. Unfortunately, they were unable to absorb the lessons of this period sufficiently to prevent the repetition of these characteristic errors. The Trotskyists continued, especially after World War II, to rely on a policy of united fronts on trade-union issues, rather than the construction of political formations within the unions—caucuses—to mount a comprehensive fight for a full revolutionary program.
By Chris Knox. Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 28, 14 September 1973
With the onset of World War II and the wave of jingoism which swept away their trade-unionist allies of the pre-war period, the Trotskyists were forced to retreat. They adopted a “policy of caution” in the unions, which meant virtual inaction, especially at first. Although the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was driven from its main base in the Minneapolis Teamsters through a combination of government persecution and attack by the Teamsters bureaucracy and the Stalinists, in general the “policy of caution” had the desired effect of protecting the trade-union cadre from victimization.
However, the “policy of caution” had another side to it. With the rupture of their alliances with the “progressive” trade unionists, the Trotskyists had not dropped their reliance on blocs around immediate issues in the unions. They merely recognized that with both the Stalinists and “progressives” lined up for the war, Roosevelt and the no-strike pledge, there was no section of the trade-union bureaucracy with which they could make a principled bloc. Thus their inaction was in part a recognition that any action along the lines to which they were accustomed in the trade unions would be opportunist, i.e., would necessarily entail unprincipled blocs and alliances. Any action not involving blocs and alliances with some section of the trade-union bureaucracy was virtually inconceivable.
At first, the rupture of the earlier alliances and enforced inactivity had a healthy effect, exposing the limitations of such alliances and enforcing the recognition that in trade-union work as in all other spheres of party-building, only principled political agreement assures permanence:
“There is only one thing that binds men together in times of great stress. That is agreement on great principles….
“All those comrades who think we have something, big or little, in the trade union movement should get out a magnifying glass in the next period and look at what we really have. You will find that what we have is our party fractions and the circle of sympathizers around them. That is what you can rely on…. The rule will be that the general run of pure and simple trade unionists, the nonpolitical activists, the latent patriots—they will betray us at the most decisive moment. What we will have in the unions in the hour of test will be what we build in the form of firm fractions of convinced Bolsheviks.”
— James P. Cannon, “The Stalinists and the United Front,” Socialist Appeal, 19 October 1940
As the war dragged on, however, opportunities for activity mounted as the workers chafed under the restrictions imposed upon them by their leaders in the name of the imperialist conflict. Rank-and-file rebellion, in the form of unauthorized strikes, broke out in a mounting wave starting in 1942. These led to mounting opposition to the solid, pro-war bureaucratic phalanx. For the most part, the SWP went very slow on participation in these struggles. It wasn’t until 1945 that a formal change of policy was made, although exceptions to the rule began earlier.
While seeking to preserve their precious trade-union cadre through a policy of inaction within the unions, the Trotskyists concentrated on public propaganda and agitational campaigns aimed at the unions largely from the outside, through the party press. The campaign against the war centered largely on the defense case of the Minneapolis 18—the 18 Trotskyists and leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters who were railroaded to jail under the Smith Act.
The 18 were the first victims of the Smith Act of 1940, which was the first law since the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 to make the mere advocacy of views a crime. Initiated in 1941 directly by Roosevelt (ostensibly at the request of Teamsters President Tobin), the case was an important part of the drive by the bourgeoisie, working hand-in-hand with its agents, the labor bureaucrats, to “purify” and discipline the work force for subordination to the imperialist war. The legal persecution consummated Tobin’s attempts to get rid of the Trotskyists in Minneapolis, which had coincided with the lining up of the bureaucracy for the war.
However, because of its clear and open contradiction with the stated principles of bourgeois democracy, and thus with the stated goals of the war, the Smith Act prosecution of the Trotskyists caused a rupture within the bureaucracy and became a point of opposition to the government throughout the labor movement. Publishing the testimony of the chief defendant, James P. Cannon, and the closing argument of the defense attorney, Albert Goldman, as pamphlets (Socialism On Trial and In Defense of Socialism), the SWP exploited the case heavily as a basic defense of socialist ideas and principled opposition to the imperialist war. Though they failed to prevent the destruction of the militant Minneapolis Teamsters local under the combined hammer blows of Tobin and Roosevelt, the Trotskyists’ propaganda campaign around the case had a significant impact and aided party recruiting.
The vicious treachery of the Stalinists was underlined and exposed to many by their refusal to defend the Trotskyists against this persecution by the class enemy. Despite the fact that the CP was still opposed to the entry of the U.S. into the war at the time (during the Hitler-Stalin Pact period, 1939–41), it leapt at once onto the prosecutor’s bandwagon.
“The Communist Party has always exposed, fought against and today joins the fight to exterminate the Trotskyite Fifth Column from the life of our nation.”
— Daily Worker, 16 August 1941
More than any other force on the left, it was Stalinism, through such fundamental betrayals of class principles as this, which poisoned class consciousness and undermined the fighting ability of the proletariat. Later, during the cold-war witchhunt, when the CP was the victim of the same Smith Act and bureaucratic purge, the militant workers were so disgusted with its role that they were mobilized by anti-communist bureaucrats who smashed virtually every last vestige of class-conscious opposition in the labor movement. Despite its strong position within the CIO bureaucracy in 1941, the CP was unable to prevent the CIO and many of its affiliates from denouncing the Minneapolis prosecution; in 1949, however, the CP’s betrayal of the Minneapolis defendants was held up to it by opportunists in the CIO as an excuse for not defending it against the witchhunt. The Trotskyists defended the CP in 1949, but the CP refused their help, wrecking its own defense committees in order to keep Trotskyists out.
While the conduct of the Trotskyists’ defense in the Minneapolis trial was a good defensive exposition of the ideas of socialism, it was clearly deficient in not taking an offensive thrust, in failing to turn the tables on the system and to put it on trial. The Spanish Trotskyist Grandizo Munis raised this criticism, among others, of the SWP leaders’ defense policy. Although he failed to take sufficiently into account the need for defensive formulations to protect the party’s legality, Munis correctly complained of a lack of political offensive in Cannon’s testimony.
“It was there, replying to the political accusations—struggle against the war, advocacy of violence, overthrow of the government by force—where it is necessary to have raised the tone and turned the tables, accuse the government and the bourgeoisie of a reactionary conspiracy; of permanent violence against the majority of the population, physical, economic, moral, educative violence; of launching the population into a slaughter also by means of violence in order to defend the Sixty Families.”
— “A Criticism of the Minneapolis Trial”
In his reply, Cannon correctly condemned Munis for demanding ultra-left adventurist “calls to action” instead of propaganda, but he failed to adequately answer the charge of political passivity and of a weak, defensive stance. His reply (“Political Principles and Propaganda Methods”) overemphasized the need to patiently explain revolutionary politics to a backward working class, lacking in political consciousness. After the war, when the shackles of war discipline were removed from the working class, this error was inverted in an overemphasis of the momentary upsurge in class struggle.
Most of the opportunities for intervention in the unions during the war consisted in leading rank-and-file struggles against a monolithic, pro-war bureaucracy. The exception to this pattern was Lewis and the UMW. Having broken with Roosevelt before the war because of what he felt to be insufficient favors and attention, Lewis authorized miners’ strikes in 1943 which broke the facade of the no-strike pledge. This galvanized the opposition of the rest of the bureaucracy, which feared a general outpouring of strike struggles. Not only the rabidly patriotic, pro-war CP, but other bureaucrats as well, heaped scorn on the miners, calling them “fascist.”
While the SWP was correct in its orientation toward united-front support to Lewis against the government and the bulk of the trade-union bureaucracy, the tone of this support failed to take into account the fact that Lewis was a reformist trade unionist, completely pro-capitalist, who therefore had to betray the eager following he was gathering by authorizing strikes during the war. He did this, performing what was perhaps his greatest service for capitalism, by heading off the rising tide of sentiment for a labor party. Focusing opposition to Roosevelt on himself, Lewis misled and demoralized masses of workers throughout the country by advocating a vote for the Republican, Wendell Wilkie, in the 1944 elections. Instead of warning of Lewis’ real role, the Militant appears not only supportive but genuinely uncritical during the 1943 strikes.
“[Lewis] despite his inconsistencies and failure to draw the proper conclusions … has emerged again as the outstanding leader of the union movement, towering above the Greens and Murray as though they were pygmies, and has rewon the support of the miners and the ranks of other unions.”
— Militant, 8 May 1943
Though written from the outside, and therefore unable to intervene directly, the articles on the 1943 miners’ strikes by Art Preis nevertheless reveal an unwarranted infatuation with Lewis which was evoked by the SWP’s overconcentration on blocs with left bureaucrats, to the detriment of the struggle for revolutionary leadership.
The struggle against the no-strike pledge reached its highest pitch in the United Auto Workers, which had a militant rank and file and a tradition of democratic intra-union struggle not because of the absence of bureaucracy, but because of the failure of any one bureaucratic tendency to dominate. Despite their fundamental agreement on the war and no-strike pledge, the counterposed tendencies continued to squabble among themselves as part of their endless competition for office. The wing around Reuther tried to appear to the left by opposing the excesses of the Stalinists such as the latter’s proposal for a system of war-time incentive pay to induce speed-up, but in reality was no better on the basic issue of the war.
The struggle reached a peak at the 1944 UAW-convention. Debate around the issue raged through five days of the convention. The highly political delegates were on their toes, ready for bureaucratic tricks. On the first day, they defeated by an overwhelming margin a proposal to elect new officers early in the convention and insisted that this be the last point: after positions on the issues were clear. The Reuther tendency dropped to its lowest authority during the war because of its role in saving the day for the no-strike pledge, through proposing that the pledge be retained until the issue could be decided by a membership referendum.
The convention was marked by the appearance of the Rank and File Caucus, an oppositional grouping organized primarily by local leaders in Detroit. It 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 caucus was the best grouping of its kind to emerge during the war. A similar local leadership oppositional grouping in the rubber workers’ union was criticized by the SWP for its contradictory position: while opposing the no-strike pledge and War Labor Board, it nevertheless favored the war itself (Militant, 26 August 1944).
The SWP’s work around the UAWRFC 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.
The SWP’s support, however, was not ingratiating or uncritical as was its early support to Lewis. As the caucus was forming before the convention, the SWP spoke to it in the following terms, seeking to maximize political clarity:
“This group, in the process of development and crystallization, is an extremely hopeful sign, although it still contains tendencies opposed to a fully-rounded, effective program and some who are still reluctant to sever completely their ties with all the present international leaders and power cliques.
“There is a tendency which thinks that all the auto workers’ problems will be solved simply by elimination of the no-strike pledge. They fail to take into account the fundamental problem: that the basic issues confronting the workers today can and will be solved, in the final analysis, only by political means.”
— Militant, 2 September 1944
The article went on to advocate a labor party based on the trade unions with a “fundamental program against the financial parasites and monopolists.” The caucus adopted the demand for a labor party. It led the fight against the no-strike pledge at the convention and made an impressive showing, although it failed to secure a majority in a direct vote against the pledge.
Despite encouraging developments such as this, the SWP did not formalize a general return to activity in the unions until 1945, when it made a belated turn to a perspective of “organizing left-wing forces” around opposition to the no-strike pledge, War Labor Board, and for a labor party. In 1944, a small oppositional grouping was formed in the SWP by Goldman and Morrow based on Stalinophobia and a perspective of reunification with the Shachtmanite Workers Party, which had split off in 1940. On its way out of the SWP, this grouping was able to make factional hay out of the “policy of caution.” Referring to the SWP’s inactivity, a member of this faction asked pointedly, “When workers do move on a mass scale, why should they follow anyone who did not previously supply some type of leadership?” (A. Winters, “Review of Our Trade Union Policy,” Internal Bulletin Vol. VI, No. 9, 1944).
Replying to the Goldman-Morrow group, the SWP majority specifically ruled out caucuses such as the RFC as a general model, claiming that the left wing could not be built by presenting the masses with a “ready-made” program, but only by working within the existing caucus formations. Since the RFC was led primarily by politically independent secondary UAW leaders, “existing caucus formations” could only mean a policy of entering the major bureaucratic power groupings, which is exactly what the SWP did on its return to activity after the war. Despite the comparative impotence of the trade-union bureaucracy and different nature of the tasks in the early thirties, the Minneapolis experience was cited as an example in defense of a policy that emphasized blocking with sections of the bureaucracy and avoiding the presentation of a program independent of, and counterposed to, the bureaucracy in the unions.
This was the perspective followed by the SWP in the post-war period. In the brief but extensive post-war strike wave—the most massive strike wave in U.S. labor history—the SWP emphasized its enthusiasm for the intense economic struggles and underplayed its alternatives to the bureaucracy. Against the Goldman-Morrowites, the majority explicitly defended a policy of avoiding criticism of UAW leadership policy at the beginning of the 1946 GM strike in order to maintain a common front with the bureaucracy against the company. For a small revolutionary force of only 2,000 (this figure represented rapid growth at the end of the war period) to take such an attitude toward the vast trade-union bureaucracy simply served to weaken the forces which could have built revolutionary leadership by struggling against the inevitable bureaucratic betrayals.
The relative pessimism of 1941 as to the backwardness of the working class gave way in the post-war period to the optimism of “Theses on the American Revolution,” the political resolution of the 1946 SWP convention. The “Theses” ruled out a new stabilization of capitalism and saw an unbroken development of the SWP into the vanguard party standing at the head of the revolutionary proletariat. The “Theses” underestimated not only the ability of capitalism to restabilize itself but also the relative strength of the trade-union bureaucracy and of Stalinism. Despite degeneration and decline, the CP still had 10,000 members at the end of the war.
This revolutionary optimism was not matched in the trade unions by the open preparation of revolutionary leadership through “third group” caucuses, however, but by an orientation first toward the more progressive bureaucratic reformists who were leading strike struggles or breaking with their previous allies, the discredited Stalinists. Later, as the cold war set in, the SWP broke with its allies and oriented more toward the Stalinists. As in the late thirties, these orientations tended to be based not on maximum political clarity but on the trade-union issues of the moment. Unlike the late thirties, however, the situation changed rapidly into a general purge of reds and hardening of a conservative bureaucracy, with which no blocs were possible. Furthermore the united fronts of the post-war period tended to take the form of critical support for one faction over another in union elections. Besides having a demoralizing effect on the ranks of the SWP’s trade-union cadre, the Trotskyists’ failure to present a hard, distinctive revolutionary alternative in the unions in this period thus contributed to the formation of the new bureaucratic line-up and thereby to the eventual cold-war defeats.
Again the UAW is the most important example, since in 1946 in that union the SWP had perhaps its best case for a policy of blocs. After the war, Reuther began a drive for domination of the union with a show of militancy. He led a 113-day strike against General Motors on the basis of the three-point program: open the books to public inspection, negotiations in public and wage increases without price increases. Though he made his basic support of capitalism and the “right” to profits clear, he was able to mobilize militant sentiment with this program, strike a left posture at the 1946 convention and win the presidency of the union from the Stalinist-backed R.J. Thomas.
Reuther, however, made no effort to fight for and deepen the “GM strike program” at the convention. Though he won most of his votes on the basis of this militant strike program, his real program was opposition to the CP. This appealed to militants also, of course, since the CP had been completely discredited by its thoroughly right-wing role during the war (which it had incredibly attempted to extend into the post-war period—the so-called permanent no-strike pledge—on the basis of the Soviet bureaucracy’s hopes for post-war peaceful coexistence with its capitalist allies). However, Reuther’s caucus also attracted conservative anti-communists such as the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU). The Militant exposed Reuther’s basic conservatism even on trade-union issues by pointing out that he had devised the “one-at-a-time” strategy (isolating strikes against one company at a time); that he had endorsed the introduction of the “company security” clause into the Ford contract and had capitulated to Truman’s “fact-finding” panel in the GM strike against the will of the elected negotiating body (23 March 1946). It also pointed out that his written program was no better than the Stalinist-backed Thomas-Addes caucus program “except for language and phraseology” (30 March 1946). Nevertheless, the Trotskyists critically supported his campaign for president because of the fact that the militant workers were voting for him on the basis of the GM strike program.
With skillful demagogy, Reuther had successfully coopted the militant wing of the union, including the earlier Rank and File Caucus (which had dissolved into the Reuther caucus). An approach to this militant wing which would have driven a wedge between the militants and Reuther was needed. In 1944, the SWP had argued that the time was not ripe for the independent drive of the RFC—despite the fact that these “unknowns,” only running one candidate and without any serious effort, had secured 20 percent of the vote for president at the 1944 convention (Fourth International, October 1944). Yet the SWP had not hesitated to raise programmatic demands on the RFC as it was forming, in order to make its break with the bureaucracy complete. In 1946, however, despite criticisms of Reuther, in the last analysis the SWP supported him simply on the basis of his popularity and without having made any programmatic demands whatsoever on him (such as that he break with the conservative anti-communists as a condition for support).
An independent stance might have left the SWP supporters isolated at the 1946 convention, but the establishment of such a principled pole would have helped recruit militants by the time of the next convention in 1947. Instead, the SWP simply tailed the militants—or thought it tailed the militants—once again. In the interval between the two conventions, Reuther consolidated his position on the basis of anti-communism—including support for Truman’s foreign policy—and bureaucratic reformism. At the 1947 convention, the SWP switched its support to the Thomas-Addes caucus, on the grounds that the militants were already fed up with Reuther and an attempt had to be made to halt the latter’s drive toward one-man dictatorial rule. For this bloc, there wasn’t even the pretense of a programmatic basis. Despite the shift of Reuther to the right and the phony “left” noises of Thomas-Addes and the Stalinists, however, Reuther’s complete slate was swept into office largely because of the discredited character of the previous leadership. Only after this debacle did the SWP put together an independent caucus. If such a course had been unrealistic before, after the 1947 convention it was more hopeless than ever. By that time, however, there was no other choice.
The SWP’s course in other unions was similar. In the National Maritime Union, for instance, the SWP supported Curran when he broke from his former Stalinist allies on the basis of democracy and militancy, even though he was already lining up for Truman’s foreign policy and letting the Stalinists get to the left of him on militancy. Later, the SWP had to support the Stalinists against his vicious, bureaucratic expulsions.
In 1953 the SWP was racked by a faction fight and split which in part reflected the penetration into the party of the kind of trade-union “politics” it had been pursuing in the unions. What had looked like a hopeful situation in the immediate post-war period had turned rapidly into its opposite. The betrayals and self-defeating policies of the Stalinists had combined with reformist trade-unionist illusions to allow not only the consolidation of a monolithic, conservative trade-union bureaucracy, but the successful purge of reds from the unions and the nurturing of right-wing anti-communism within the working class, which made the international cold-war drive of U.S. imperialism virtually unopposed at home.
The purge and pressure of the cold war caused a section of the SWP trade-union cadre to become disillusioned and give up on the perspective of building a vanguard party in the U.S. This defeatism was organized into a tendency by Cochran, on the basis of liquidation of virtually all public party activity in favor of a “propaganda” orientation which would have left the Cochranites, many of whom were officers in the UAW, free to make their peace with the Reutherite bureaucracy.
The Cochranites made an unprincipled combination with forces in New York around Bartell, Clarke and others who considered themselves the American representatives of the Pablo leadership of the Fourth International. Objectifying the post-war creation of deformed workers states in Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia into an inevitable, world-historic trend, the Pablo leadership proposed, in essence, that Stalinist and reformist leaderships could be forced to the left by the pressure of their mass base into creating more such states in a situation in which the imminence of World War III made the creation of independent Trotskyist parties impossible: the Trotskyist task, therefore, was to liquidate into the Stalinist and social-democratic parties. It was this essentially liquidationist perspective which brought Cochran and Clarke together into a temporary amalgam in the SWP.
While defending the twists and turns of the SWP trade-union policy, Cannon nevertheless indicated that these twists and turns might have had something to do with the degeneration of the cadre into material for Cochranite liquidationist opportunism:
“Factional struggles in the trade unions in the United States, in the primitive, prepolitical stage of their development, have been power struggles, struggles for office and place, for the personal aggrandizement of one set of fakers and the denigration and discreditment of the other side….
“Cochran’s conception of ‘power politics’ in the party; his methods of conducting a factional fight—come from this school of the labor fakers, not from ours.”
— “Some Facts About Party History and the Reasons for its Falsification,” Internal Bulletin, October 1953
The main cause of Cochranite liquidationism lay in the pressures of the cold war and witchhunt, which had, of course, been completely beyond the control of the SWP. However, Cannon’s own documents defending the party against trade-unionist combinationism and liquidationism make clear that the party’s position in the trade unions had been insufficiently distinct from “struggles for office and place,” just as it had been insufficiently distinct from blocs with progressive Rooseveltians before World War II.
In the course of pursuing a trade-union policy based almost exclusively on making blocs on the immediate trade-union issues, the SWP had gradually adapted to trade unionism and become less discriminating in whom it blocked with and why. Unlike the Stalinists and Shachtmanites, the Trotskyists maintained their class principles by refusing to make unprincipled alliances or by breaking them as soon as they became untenable. (Thus the SWP switched sides in the UAW in 1947 while the Workers Party of Shachtman pursued Reuther et. al. into the arms of the State Department.) In the final analysis, the SWP remained a principled party of revolutionary socialism by struggling against the fruits of its trade-union work internally and accepting the split of 20 percent of its membership in 1953 rather than making further concessions to trade unionism.
The policy of making united fronts in the trade-union movement around the immediate issues is not in itself incorrect. What the SWP did wrong was to see this as its exclusive policy for all periods, except those in which no blocs could be made without gross violations of principle, in which case the answer was to do nothing. In any period of normal trade-union activity, blocs can be made around immediate issues. The task of revolutionists is to forge a cadre, within the unions as well as without, armed with a program to break the unions from their role as instruments for tying the workers to capitalism and imperialism. Such a program must go beyond immediate issues and address all the key political questions facing the working class and provide answers which point to a revolutionary policy and leadership.
While the Trotskyists advanced the struggle for revolutionary leadership dramatically with the right united front at the right time, as in Minneapolis in 1934, they more often tended to undermine their own party building with an exclusive policy of blocs, some of which had little or no basis for existence from the standpoint of revolutionary politics. By presuming that it was necessary for a small force to prove itself in action against the class enemy before it could present itself independently to the workers as an alternative leadership, the Trotskyists’ united fronts tended to increasingly take the form of promoting someone else’s leadership.
The Spartacist League sees as the chief lesson from this experience not the need to reject united fronts, occasional blocs or the tactic of critical support in the trade unions, but the need to subordinate these tactics to the task of building a revolutionary political alternative to the bureaucracy within the unions. A bloc or tactic of electoral support which fails to enhance revolutionary leadership through undermining the bureaucracy as such can only build illusions in reformism. The central conclusion is that there is no substitute for the hard road of struggle to inject a political class perspective of proletarian internationalism into what is normally a narrow, nationalist and parochial arena of struggle. Especially in the initial phases of struggle when the revolutionary forces are weak, it is necessary to make an independent pole as politically distinct as possible, so that the basis for future growth is clear. To this end, the SL calls for the building of caucuses based on the revolutionary transitional program.
1 The following correction appeared in the 3 August 1973 Workers Vanguard: “Part I of this series indicated that the Stalinists went along reluctantly with setting up the Progressive Miners of America. Actually, they only entered it later, after the final abandonment of the ‘Third Period.’”