Marxist-Leninist Organizer
November, 1997

The Trade Unions Must Be Won to Marxism-Leninism!

Build a Genuine Communist Party in the United States (Part II)

The first part of this article dealt with the immediate goal in the United States of the socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, as well as calling for no support to the twin parties of capitalism, the Democrats and the Republicans. Since this first part appeared in July, we have had discussions, formal and informal, on these questions. We have encountered two main criticisms of our views. The first is that we quote excessively from the classics of Marxism-Leninism. To this charge, we not only plead guilty, but confess to doing this even more here. We see no need to "reinvent the wheel," and think that the great leaders of the international proletariat were able to make their points more clearly than we could. We would greatly appreciate it if our critics would point out anywhere that we have taken these quotes out of context, or misapplied them to the present conditions. Unfortunately, however, the majority of our critics prefer to ignore what the proletarian leaders have said. We strongly urge those of our critics who consider themselves Marxist-Leninists to take their professed ideology more seriously. We would equally urge those who are not yet Marxist-Leninists but support the revolutionary cause of the working class to put some effort into the study of this ideology. We hope this article will be of some help in this regard.

The second main criticism, related to the first, is that we carry out polemics with the views and practice of the opportunist socialists in the working class movement, especially the Communist Party and Workers World Party. To this we also plead guilty, and reply once again with a quote: "If you must unite, Marx wrote to the [German] party leaders, then enter into agreements to satisfy the practical aims of the movement, but do not allow any bargaining over principles, do not make 'concessions' in questions of theory." (Lenin, What Is To Be Done, Chapter 1, Section D). Anyone who knows our practice must acknowledge that we do not act in a sectarian manner, that we have never refused to cooperate on practical matters even with those with whom we have the greatest ideological disagreements. Moreover, in all our mass agitation, we concentrate our fire on the ruling class (though criticizing the opportunists when necessary and relevant). However, those of us who are fighting for a proletarian revolution in the United States (and not just for a fightback against capitalist attacks) must do their utmost to fight against opportunist lines and activities that deviate from this goal. It is for this reason that we carry out these polemics. Again, we strongly urge our critics to examine these positions seriously, and to take into account Lenin's warning that "the fight against imperialism is a sham and humbug unless it is inseparably bound up with the fight against opportunism." (Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Chapter X.)

We are currently witnessing the beginnings of a new revival of trade union militancy. This is evidenced by the UPS strike of August of this year, in which some 185,000 workers shut down the largest, highly profitable package shipping company for 15 days, mainly over demands in favor of the lowest paid, part-time workers. This was followed by a strike of Bay Area Rapid Transit workers in the San Francisco Bay area, which focused on the demands to eliminate the two-tier wage system. This militancy comes after some 25 years of declining real wages, and when the capitalists are worried that the unemployment rate, officially 4.9% as of September, 1997, is "too low."

This new spirit offers an opening for Marxist-Leninists to make inroads into the working class. But it is not enough to just organize workers around their immediate demands. It is our duty to inject a revolutionary socialist outlook into the class struggle. As Lenin said, "the spontaneity of the masses demands a mass of consciousness from us Social-Democrats."(1) It is the task of a genuine communist party to place itself at the head of the working class movement. As Lenin pointed out: "The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e. the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc." Further on he added that "trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working class movement from this spontaneous, trade unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social-Democracy."(2)

"At first socialism and the working-class movement existed separately in all the European countries. The workers struggled against the capitalists, they organised strikes and unions, while the socialists stood aside from the working-class movement, formulated doctrines criticising the contemporary capitalist, bourgeois system of society and demanding its replacement by another system, the higher, socialist system. The separation of the working-class movement and socialism gave rise to weakness and underdevelopment in each: the theories of the socialists, unfused with the workers= struggle, remained nothing more than utopias, good wishes that had no effect on real life; the working-class movement remained petty, fragmented, and did not acquire political significance, was not enlightened by the advanced science of its time. For this reason we see in all European countries a constantly growing urge to fuse socialism with the working-class movement in a single Social-Democratic movement. When this fusion takes place the class struggle of the workers becomes the conscious struggle of the proletariat to emancipate itself from exploitation by the propertied classes, it is evolved into a higher form of the socialist workers= movement B the independent working-class Social-Democratic party. By directing socialism towards a fusion with the working-class movement, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels did their greatest service: they created a revolutionary theory that explained the necessity for this fusion and gave socialists the task of organising the class struggle of the proletariat.@ A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social-Democracy, 1899, in Lenin=s Collected Works, Vol. 4, pp. 259-260.

The Bolsheviks pointed out that in the period of infancy of the revolutionary Marxist movement in Russia, the Marxist movement was separated from the working class movement, and this led to weaknesses in both (see box). Unfortunately, the movement in the United States has been for a comparatively long time in this period of infancy. This is largely due to the betrayal of the Communist Party (CP), whose abandonment of socialist revolution and agitation for it in the working class left us with a minuscule number of workers with a revolutionary socialist orientation. Here the main blame goes to the CP, since historically it had serious roots in the working class (see below). Our more militant "socialists," particularly Workers World Party (WWP), despite some weak ties to more active workers, never seriously took up the task of introducing socialist consciousness to the working class (again see below).

A genuine communist party must strive to bring the trade unions as close as possible to the party. This was the position that the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party always took. Lenin pointed out: "Our whole party... has now recognized that work in the trade unions must be conducted not in the spirit of trade union neutrality but in the spirit of the closest possible relations between them and the Social-Democratic Party. It also recognized that the partisanship of the trade unions must be achieved exclusively by S.-D. work within the unions, that the S.-D.s. must form solid Party cells in the unions,..." (Trade Union Neutrality, 1908, in On Trade Unions, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1970, p. 193, also in Collected Works, vol. 13.)

Let us be clear: we are by no means talking of some sort of bureaucratic take-over of leadership positions by "communists." The only way to bring the trade unions close to the party is by winning over the majority of the active workers to socialism. The Bolshevik draft resolution on trade unions, published in 1907, made this clear: "The partisanship of the trade unions must be achieved by S.-D. propaganda and organisational work within the unions and declaration of this partisanship is advisable only when a considerable majority of trade union members firmly adhere to Social-Democratic views." (See On Trade Unions, p. 494, note 92.)

Without winning the trade unions to Marxist-Leninist leadership, they will remain under bourgeois leadership. If we do not do this, we support the present bourgeois domination over the trade unions and the working class movement. Lenin points out: "The class interests of the bourgeoisie inevitably give rise to a striving to confine the unions to petty and narrow activity within the framework of the existing social order, to keep them away from any contact with socialism; and the neutrality theory is the ideological cover for these strivings of the bourgeoisie." (Trade Union Neutrality, in On Trade Unions, p. 199.)

We can already hear our opportunists responding (though they always prefer not to respond, but to ignore) with arguments declaring that trade union support of a Marxist-Leninist party will "split the unions." First, winning members must come before any such declaration, and as the Bolsheviks said above, it is not advantageous to declare this until a "considerable majority" of the workers have been won over. Also in any mass workers organization, especially trade unions, it is never the intention to mobilize only the class-conscious workers for action. In a strike, all the workers are called out, whether they are Marxist-Leninists, support the opportunist "socialists," or even support the Democratic party. Finally, no one says that the current trade union bureaucrats are "splitting the unions" when they support the capitalist Democratic party.

It must also be pointed out that the question of which party is the genuine socialist party is a separate question. Lenin dealt with this also, saying: "the question as to which party in any given country, among any given nationality, is really socialist and really the party of the working class, is a special question, which is decided not by resolutions of international congresses, but by the outcome of the struggle between the national parties." Trade Union Neutrality, in On Trade Unions, p. 199)

We must also be clear that the need to win over the trade unions to Marxism-Leninism does not lessen the need for agitation for various reforms of interest to the working class. These include not only fights for improved wages and working conditions, but the fight to organize the unorganized, for the rights of immigrant workers, to organize the South and Southwest (centers of oppression of the African-American nation and the Chicano/Mexicano nation), etc. But for Marxists, this can not and must not be separated from the general agitation for our whole program of socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin also points this out in the same article on Trade Union Neutrality: "It is said... that neutrality is necessary in order to unite all the workers who are beginning to see the need for improving their material conditions. But those who say this forget that the present stage of development of class contradictions inevitably introduces 'political differences' even into the question of how this improvement is to be secured within the bounds of contemporary society. The theory of the neutrality of the trade unions as opposed to the theory of the need for close ties between them and revolutionary Social-Democracy, inevitably leads to preference being given to methods of securing this improvement that involve a blunting of the proletarian class struggle.... the neutrality theory... puts in the foreground unity of the workers for the improvement of their conditions, and not unity for a struggle that could promote the cause of proletarian emancipation." (On Trade Unions, p. 200-201)

At this point, without a genuine Marxist-Leninist party, it is our primary task in the organizational field to win over the advanced workers and revolutionary elements from other strata to form the core of such a party. (We will discuss the question of the advanced in more detail at a later date.) It is not possible for small Marxist-Leninist groups or individuals to win over the trade unions without a nation-wide organization rooted among the advanced. We point this out at this time to make clear the tasks of a genuine party on this score.

The Class-Collaborationist Role of the Trade-Union Bureaucrats
and their Bribery through Imperialist Superprofits

We also have no illusions that the fight for genuine communist leadership of the trade union movement will be easy, especially in a country with a strong labor aristocracy based on bribery by imperialist super-profits. U.S. imperialism has always been able to bribe an upper stratum of the working class, the labor aristocracy, through the super-profits gained through the super-exploitation of dependent countries abroad and oppressed nations "at home" (the African-American nation in the Black Belt South, the Chicano/Mexicano nation in the Southwest, the colony of Puerto Rico, etc.). Lenin pointed to this bribery in all the "advanced" countries. He said: "Obviously, out of such enormous superprofits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their 'own' country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy. And the capitalists of the 'advanced' countries are bribing them; they bribe them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert. This stratum of bourgeoisified workers, or the 'labour aristocracy,' who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principal prop of the Second International, and, in our days, the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real channels of reformism and chauvinism. In the civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie they inevitably, and in no small numbers, take the side of the bourgeoisie..." (Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1970, p. 9-10; also in LCW, vol. 22, pp. 193-194.)

In Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, Lenin further details the various sections of this labor aristocracy during World War I: "the labour ministers, 'labour representatives,'... labour members of War Industries Committees, labour officials, workers belonging to the narrow craft unions, office employees, etc., etc." (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966, p. 13.) The labor aristocracy in the U.S., consisting of the trade union bureaucrats and the highest paid workers, makes up only about 8% of the working class, while the workers make up about 63% of the population.(3)

This bribery, and the influence of the labor aristocracy over the working class as a whole, was especially effective in the decades after World War II, when the U.S. held undisputed leadership over the entire imperialist camp. It was able to provide a reasonable standard of living for a significant section of the common workers (mostly among the Anglo workers), bringing them politically under the influence of the labor aristocracy. In a sense, this situation was similar to that of the English proletariat one hundred years earlier that Engels described in a letter to Marx on October 7, 1858: "The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable." (Quoted in Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, pp. 9-10.)

This situation already began to change by the mid-1970s, with the defeat of U.S. imperialism by the heroic peoples of Indochina. This time also marks the end of the rise of the standard of living of the working class, which has seen its real wages decline by over 20% since 1973. The collapse of the revisionist Soviet Union in 1991 has also seen the sharpening of rivalry among three imperialist blocs: the United States, the European Community led by Germany, and Japan. Each is trying to intensify the exploitation of "its own" working class. This has led to renewed outbreaks of resistance, as we noted at the beginning of this issue.

The Revolutionary History of the U.S. Working Class
and its Later Betrayal by the Revisionists

Despite the control of the great majority of the trade unions by bourgeois bureaucrats since World War II, the U.S. working class has a history of revolutionary trade unionism. In the early part of this century the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), despite its syndicalist views, won large sections of the working class and trade union movement to revolutionary politics. After the October Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917, many of the best elements of the IWW, including Bill Haywood, William Z. Foster and Bill Dunne, were won over to Marxism-Leninism and joined the Communist Party. During the 1930s, the CP played the leading role in organizing most of the industrial unions that formed the CIO (including auto, steel, rubber, etc.), in the process winning many workers to Marxism-Leninism.(4) In the late 1960s and early '70s, some groups in the developing revolutionary movement, especially among the oppressed nationalities, made an effort to do revolutionary work in the trade unions. The most important of this was work done by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Revolutionary Union Movements that preceded it, but also by the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization for a time, and others, including elements of the Black Panther Party who did not support the line that the lumpen are the vanguard.

Under the leadership of Browder during the late 1930s, the CP, in an incorrect application of the united front against fascism, liquidated its independent work in the trade unions, dissolving its factory nuclei and handing over the trade union leadership to more militant bureaucrats such as John L. Lewis. After World War II, the CP "reconstituted" itself as a party of "Browderism without Browder," as early anti-revisionist forces who had been expelled from the CP, such as Bill Dunne,(5) put it. The CP's main political line was summed up by the slogan of "Revive the Roosevelt Coalition." In pursuing this policy and trying to placate the more militant trade union bureaucrats, the CP even voted for an anti-communist resolution put forward in the early McCarthy period by Philip Murray, the head of the CIO. The resolution said that neither the CP nor any other party should organize in the trade unions. Of course, this never stopped the Democratic Party (or even the Republican Party) from organizing in the trade unions through the bureaucrats. Since that time, the trade union leadership has been thoroughly under the control of the bourgeoisie.

Although the CP maintained control over some of the "independent" trade unions that were purged from the CIO during the period of McCarthyite repression, their leadership more and more degenerated until it was barely distinguishable from that of the ordinary trade union bureaucrats. The CP's main role in the trade unions, as in society as a whole, has been to push for support of the capitalist Democratic Party and to "push the trade union leadership to the left."

WWP Tails the Militant Bureaucrats

As in other areas, Workers World Party (WWP) acts in the trade unions simply as a more militant version of the CP. In mass activities they make alliances with some of the more militant trade union bureaucrats (such as Jim Butler, the head of Local 420 of the maintenance workers in the city hospitals in DC 37). At joint rallies with these more militant bureaucrats, they generally refrain from agitating even for their petty-bourgeois variety of socialism. And in strikes where forces close to them had a role in the leadership (as in the New York area during the Greyhound strike of 1990), they were mainly interested in coalitions with other bureaucrats rather than in organizing the workers to resist bourgeois laws and injunctions (through blocking scabs, etc.) which would have been the only way to lead the strikes to victory.

The new, more militant mood among the workers led the AFL-CIO two years ago to replace the old, conservative, already exposed, class collaborationist leadership of Lane Kirkland and others, with a new, more militant group of bureaucrats led by John Sweeney. These bureaucrats have been forced to carry out new tactics, such as doing some organizing of unorganized workers and promising some financial support to striking workers, as Sweeney did during the UPS strike. This makes it easier for workers to carry on their struggles.

But we must have no illusions that these new bureaucrats are in any qualitatively different from the old ones. They remain tied to the Democratic Party and the government. President Clinton, Vice-President Gore and many other Democratic luminaries all spoke at the AFL-CIO convention in September. And in all the strikes, the bureaucrats have opposed mass picketing to shut down plants and block scabs. In the Detroit newspaper strike, Ron Carey, whose Teamsters were one of the unions on strike, refused to call for mass action to blockade the plants. The militant bureaucrats even delayed calling the national labor march (which mobilized some 100,000 workers, the largest labor march in decades), until after the strike was "settled" and the workers returned to work, and even then only under pressure from militant workers throughout the country and abroad. Carey has not even objected to the continuing government interference into the Teamster union's affairs, even though it is now punishing him for the victory of the UPS strike by forcing new union elections. The Sweeney group is no different in substance, not just because they are afraid to take on the bosses, but because they are tied to capitalism, they are still part of the labor aristocracy, they are still bribed by imperialist super-profits.

Workers World is certainly aware of the position of these bureaucrats, and even make some luke-warm criticism of their support for the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, they are effusive in their praise of them. For example, describing the AFL-CIO convention, they said: "President John Sweeney, Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson and other leaders set a defiant, combative tone. They promised to keep building labor's new offensive..." (Workers World, October 9, 1997, p. 6)

Let there be no doubt that WWP sees this new brand of bureaucrat as "progressive," and able to move the working class forward. In Workers World's lead article on 9/11/97, entitled Organize! by Larry Holmes and Shelley Ettinger, they say: "And if there are still labor misleaders who are so conservative, so comfortable with the boss class, so tied to the status quo that they are obstacles to this new movement, they must be pushed aside. The rest of the leadership just has to be pushed." Does WWP seriously think that Sweeney et al have ceased to be "the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real channels of reformism and chauvinism," as Lenin correctly characterized them (quoted above)?

WWP's outlook towards these bureaucrats is based on the fact that they center their own activity on the "fightback," i.e. a struggle for improvements within the bounds of capitalism. This is what lets them praise and unite with the militant bureaucrats who claim to be carrying out this struggle. Thus they quote from Sweeney's speech at the opening of the AFL-CIO convention: "Brothers and sisters, we're organizing and we have a voice - lets make it heard for good jobs and a living wage... for housing and health care, education and a secure retirement for all, for civil rights and affirmative action and the right to organize." (10/2/97, p. 1 & 5) But this could be from any Workers World speech talking about the fightback, calling for "money for jobs," etc.

Lenin, contrary to the views of WWP, pointed to the need for a full break with the labor aristocracy, which includes even the more militant bureaucrats. He said: "Unbreakable ties with the mass of the workers, the ability to agitate unceasingly among them, to participate in every strike, to respond to every demand of the masses - this is the chief thing for a Communist Party, especially in such a country as Britain, where until now (as incidentally is the case in all imperialist countries) participation in the socialist movement, and the labour movement generally, has been confined chiefly to a thin top crust of workers, the labour aristocracy, most of whom are thoroughly and hopelessly spoiled by reformism and are held back by bourgeois and imperialist prejudices. Without a struggle against this stratum, without the destruction of every trace of its prestige among the workers, without convincing the masses of the utter bourgeois corruption of this stratum, there can be no question of a serious communist workers' movement. This applies to Britain, France, America and Germany." (Letter to Sylvia Pankhurst, in Lenin On Britain, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1979, p. 361; our emphasis.)

Of course, WWP can not completely ignore the fight for socialism. But they relegate it almost to an afterthought, and certainly not something that would interrupt their praise of the bureaucrats, who are wedded to the capitalists. In the article titled Organize! to which we referred above, there is a section toward the end headed: "There must be a struggle against capitalism and for socialism," which says, for example, that "if capitalism cannot provide for the workers' needs - if the workers' needs conflict with the system - then the capitalist system has to go." They call for educating the workers for this. But educating the workers on the need for socialism can not be done without forthrightly exposing the role of the whole trade union bureaucracy.

There is no doubt that WWP fights militantly on immediate issues, from organizing workfare workers, to opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There are also members who really want to fight the capitalists, without being limited by bourgeois legality. However, WWP's outlook is that of a party of petty-bourgeois socialism. They are constantly degrading the struggle for socialism, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, to a struggle for the fightback, for reforms within the bounds of capitalism. As we have seen they have no understanding of, and in fact oppose, Marxist-Leninist policy against trade union neutrality.

Lenin showed the connection between the fight against opportunism and the fight for socialism. He said: "it is... our duty, if we wish to remain socialists, to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and the whole purport of the struggle against opportunism. By exposing the fact that the opportunists and social-chauvinists are in reality betraying and selling the interests of the masses, that they are defending the temporary privileges of a minority of the workers, that they are the vehicles of bourgeois ideas and influences, that they are really allies and agents of the bourgeoisie, we teach the masses to appreciate their true political interests, to fight for socialism and for the revolution through all the long and painful vicissitudes of imperialist wars and imperialist armistices." (Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, p. 17)


1) What Is To Be Done, Chap. II, Section C, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1973, p. 64. The Marxist party in Russia, as in other countries, called itself Social-Democratic until World War I and the October 1917 Revolution, when the opportunist leadership of the Second International supported the imperialist world war and joined in attacks on the Russian Revolution. The genuine Marxists broke with these opportunists and formed new Communist parties, which united in the Third, Communist, International (Comintern).

2) Ibid., Chap. II, Section A and Section B, p. 37 & 49.

3) Workers' Herald, Vol. 4, No. 2, October, 1983, on "Social Classes in the United States," available from Marxist-Leninist Organizer for $3.00. This is still the best work on this subject, though it needs to be updated to show changes in the classes over recent years.

4) Although we have not fully studied the history of this period, and this is not the place to go into detail on this question, it seems that the CP, even while doing its best and most active work in the trade unions in this period, had a tendency towards economism, neglecting its political tasks while concentrating on simple trade union organizing.

5) See Marxist-Leninist Organizer, Vol. 1, No. 2, "William F. Dunne and the Fight against Revisionism in the CPUSA."

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