Spartacists Repudiate Class-Struggle Caucuses

Belated rationalization for abandonment of trade-union work

Bryan D. Palmer’s excellent book, Revolutionary Teamsters, on the Minneapolis general strikes of 1934, illuminates the struggle that remains to this day the high point of American Trotskyist trade-union work. The Spartacist League (SL) recently published a two-part review of the book that is, for the most part, informed and positive. It is, however, marred by the degenerated political character of the SL, whose departure from genuine Trotskyism more than 30 years ago coincided with its withdrawal in practice from revolutionary trade-union work. The review, by Emily Tanner of the Prometheus Research Library, for the first time formally repudiates the conception developed by the SL in its revolutionary period of building programmatically defined alternative leadership formations (i.e., caucuses) within the unions.

In the first part of her review (Workers Vanguard, 19 September 2014), Tanner makes the following criticism: “Notably absent from Palmer’s book, however, is any substantial discussion of the party body responsible for the work in Local 574 – the Teamster fraction of the Minneapolis CLA [Communist League of America] branch,” an omission she attributes to Palmer’s “academic” background.

Tanner defines a party fraction as “the organization of party cadre in working bodies that regularly meet, discuss how to implement party perspectives, and continually evaluate ongoing work.” The charge that the book neglects the role of the party fraction is belied by Tanner’s own acknowledgment that “Palmer places the CLA leadership … at the center of his narrative, detailing the ways in which they ‘proved undeniably more resolute and far-seeing’ and ‘more decisively in control of the events’ than the other left-wing 1934 strike leaderships.” Revolutionary Teamsters provides a wealth of information about the disciplined intervention of CLA members, including national leadership figures such as James P. Cannon, Herbert Solow, Albert Goldman and Max Shachtman. As Palmer documents, the expanded CLA leadership collective effectively provided political direction for the strike – with the active support of the president and other officers of Teamster Local 574 who were not CLA members. The CLA had an internal division of labor, in which the leading party cadre within the union and outside it worked closely together. There was no fraction separate and apart from the grouping Tanner refers to as “the CLA strike leadership team.” Her complaint that Palmer paid insufficient attention to the CLA “fraction” in the first part of the review appeared to be pointless nitpicking – a distinction without a difference.

The political significance of Tanner’s criticism becomes somewhat clearer in the second part of her review (Workers Vanguard, 3 October 2014) when she complains: “Palmer finds fault with the failure to build caucuses based on the Transitional Program.” She continues:

“Palmer echoes the line of a series of articles based on partial and now-dated research by Chris Knox that were published in early issues of Workers Vanguard. These articles were subsequently reprinted by the embittered clot of ex-Spartacists and their hangers-on calling themselves the [International] Bolshevik Tendency.”

We reprinted Knox’s articles on “Trotskyist Work in the Trade Unions” in America from the 1920s to the 1950s, which were among the very best material ever published by the Spartacist League in its revolutionary period, in our edition of the <Transitional Program in order to bring them to the attention of a broader and more contemporary audience. Tanner’s dismissive comment suggests that the Prometheus Research Library has transcended Knox’s contributions, which are now 40 years old. But, to our knowledge, neither the SL nor anyone else has produced updated research on the trade-union policy of the American adherents of the revolutionary Communist International that would call any of Knox’s conclusions into question. Instead of pointing to any such material, Tanner offers the following:

“Palmer follows the BT in fetishizing the organizational form of the trade-union caucus. But the caucus is not the fundamental vehicle for communist work in the trade unions. That role is reserved for the fraction of party members. The fraction is strategic, the caucus episodic. Whether or not to form a caucus is a tactical question, usually depending on whether or not there exist broader forces with whom the fraction can bloc on key issues in order to fight for leadership in the union.”

The caucus is a formation politically based on the Transitional Program as adapted for use in a given union, organized to fight for leadership within that sector of the workforce. This is a strategic task, not an “episodic” or tactical one. The fight for leadership will inevitably require a wide variety of tactics, including united fronts and blocs with other forces in the union, but the purpose of a caucus is not to pursue transitory bloc partners on particular issues. The caucus is a transitional organization whose purpose is to develop and expand the influence of the revolutionary party in the union – a function unrelated to the existence of any other political groupings in the union. The degree to which caucus membership coincides with membership of the party and the extent to which party members are able to operate openly will vary depending on concrete circumstances. But the caucus provides a pole to which party members in a particular union can recruit workers who are prepared to fight for a class-struggle program that includes the critical necessity of replacing capitalist rule with workers’ power.

The SL arrived at the idea of a programmatically-based caucus through the experience of practical trade-union work in the U.S. in the 1960s and early 70s, particularly in the National Maritime Union. This approach was subsequently validated by the discovery that a parallel conception had guided the trade-union work of the U.S. Communist Party prior to its Stalinization (see further work by Chris Knox in “Early Communist Work in the [U.S.] Trade Unions”).

A resolution passed in January 1974, at the first international meeting of what was to become the international Spartacist tendency, and published in the June 1974 Internal Discussion Bulletin, explicitly endorsed the caucus strategy:

“The work of communists in trade unions must aim at the construction of a class struggle group with a membership defined by participation in the group and by agreement with the program of the group; a program which is an application of the Transitional Program to the concrete trade union situation and which aims at posing the class struggle group as an alternative revolutionary leadership of the union.”

The SL’s 8 June 1974 Trade Union Memorandum, an internal document prepared by the Trade Union Commission, discussed the function of SL-supported caucuses:

“Unlike reformists and centrists, therefore, the SL seeks to organize oppositional groupings in the unions founded on the basis of the full application of the Trotskyist Transitional Program to the arena. Such caucuses are organizationally separate from the SL and limited to the unions in which they operate, yet they provide the basis for the politically unambiguous application of the SL program directly into the arenas of the class struggle.… They are thus similar in purpose to the early (1922-24) Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), trade union arm of the American [Communist Party] in the 1920’s, which was a membership organization [based] on the party’s program of transitional, class-struggle demands, including the call for ‘a workers republic.’”

The authors presumed that their readers were aware that the role of an SL fraction was to prepare the ground to launch a caucus, referring at one point to “pre-caucus fraction development” and at another to “one fraction which faces the danger of being completely wiped out through layoffs in the expected downturn, requiring a probable long delay in caucus perspectives.”

The memorandum observed that “Although recruitment [from the workforce] depends on the existence of a caucus to attract militants, it [recruitment] is a function of the fraction which furthermore must be accorded the highest priority.” In other words, recruitment to the caucus is an essential aspect of the ability to pose an alternative leadership. Within that framework, an explicit distinction was drawn between the “politically unambiguous” caucus and a coalition or united front involving politically disparate elements:

“Despite the often-times close connection between caucus building and united-front work in the unions, the caucus is not a form of the united front itself. Confusion on this point aided the Stalinist degeneration of the American CP’s trade union work in the 1920’s. The original, programmatically-based, membership conception of the TUEL was replaced with a politically watered-down, permanent ‘united front’ coalition, in which all oppositional bureaucrats were welcome.”

In 1983 we published a critique of the SL leadership’s decision to junk its caucus perspective (“Stop The Liquidation Of The Trade Union Work!”). The SL raised this issue in a 1995 polemic against us, which we reprinted with a point-by-point response in our bulletin ICL vs. IBT (see in particular point 7). In disbanding its caucuses, the SL was not making some sort of “tactical” move to further the goal of building party fractions – it was making a strategic shift away from fighting for leadership in the unions at all.

One of the few places where SL members have had some sort of political profile in the past few decades is in New York City’s Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100. But even here, where presumably they constitute some sort of fraction (albeit with no perspective of building a caucus), SL supporters have, to our knowledge, played no significant role in the internal political life of the union. In December 2005, when 33,000 members of Local 100 struck in defiance of anti-labor legislation and the union’s international leadership, an SL statement supporting the workers sidestepped any criticism of the local’s pro-capitalist leadership. This was no mere oversight, as Workers Vanguard later explained: “The [SL] leaflet did not directly attack Toussaint. Since we could not point to an alternative leadership of the strike, to do so would only have served to weaken the strike” (Workers Vanguard, 9 June 2006).

In a 10 July 2006 response (“On Criticism of Misleaders”), we observed: “This simple statement is nothing less than a repudiation of one of the most basic precepts of Trotskyism – the necessity ‘to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be.’” A policy of political prostration could only weaken the strike, as we pointed out:

“Defending [Local 100 President Roger Toussaint], and the strike, from capitalist attacks did not preclude attempting to advise the strikers, many of whom may have had illusions in Toussaint, of the possibility that their leadership might capitulate [which it did]. Alerting the more militant layers to this danger would not have weakened, but rather strengthened the strike and improved the chances of victory.”

Because SL fractions no longer “seek to organize oppositional groups in the unions” capable of posing “an alternative revolutionary leadership,” its supporters in Local 100 could only stand by passively as Toussaint and the other pro-Democratic Party bureaucrats pulled the plug on this important struggle, leaving Workers Vanguard to retroactively lament the lack of “an alternative leadership of the strike.”