Our Reply To The International Marxist Tendency’s Contribution To The Trade Union Discussion Conducted Within The Workers International League
In the fall of 2008, members of the Workers International League (WIL) engaged in a lengthy discussion over trade union tactics in relation to a Portland comrade whose union was in the process of negotiating a contract at a hospital. The discussion quickly polarized between the WIL national leadership on one hand and comrades in San Francisco and Portland on the other hand. In the end, the majority of the comrades in the San Francisco branch and all the Portland comrades left the WIL. Towards the close of the discussion a comrade representing leading members of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) submitted a single contribution. We will take up only his most important criticisms of our position below, which we have organized under 4 points. Unfortunately, some of his arguments contain serious distortions of our positions. And this was particularly unsettling in light of his introductory comment: “First of all, in any discussion, it is important to maintain a comradely tone and not to distort the arguments of other comrades.” He then proceeded to distort our positions. We have included his contribution at the end of our response to it. Click here.
1. The Flier
The IMT said: “The other obvious way of putting forward our ideas to a wider audience is precisely to produce a flyer. If we already have a caucus in that particular union we can use that to produce it, if not, we should produce it in our own name (the WIL).” There was no caucus, so this means the flier would have had to have been produced in the name of the WIL.
Putting out a flier in the name of the WIL was in fact one of the central points of disagreement in the discussion. We [in SF and Portland] argued that this proposal is entirely a tactical question, meaning that its appropriateness depends on the particular circumstances in question. The Portland comrade responded to this suggestion by saying, and the IMT quoted him: “Any leaflet put out in the name of the WIL, or Committee for a Strong Contract, would be seen as something coming from outside of the union, as a fringe element and would be viewed as an attack on the union. No workers would pay this any serious attention. Believe me, I know. I see every day what the workers pay attention to and what they ignore.”
This testimony by the Portland comrade was either given no credence whatsoever or was considered irrelevant by the IMT comrade and the leaders of the WIL. And although the IMT comrade was thousands of miles away, living in another country, he assumed he was in a better position to judge the appropriateness of such a flier for the workers at the hospital.
Because of the Portland comrade’s description of the situation at the hospital, we believe a flier put out in the name of the WIL could easily have ended up not only ineffective but damaging. Given the rabid anticommunism of the employers and the union bureaucrats, our comrade could have been victimized and lost his job. And by successfully persecuting our comrade, the company and its partners, the union bureaucrats, would have sent a strong message to the remaining work force to avoid communism at all costs. In other words, such a tactic could have left the union weaker than it was before. It would have left the union members under the total control and influence of the union bureaucrats.
We believe that the comrade at the hospital was in the best position to judge the question of tactics since he knew his coworkers best, yet the IMT and the WIL leadership, by completely discounting his reading of the situation, gave the impression that issuing a flier was a matter of principle, not merely a tactical question.
In an article entitled “Trade Union Problems in America,” September 23, 1933 Trotsky remarked:
Whenever they are expelling Communists from trade unions, or may begin to do so tomorrow, it is not only permissible but even obligatory not to unfurl the banner of communism prematurely but to conduct ‘anonymous’ revolutionary work.
We are living in a period in which union organizers are routinely fired. Although there does not appear to be an overt campaign to target Communists, it would be naive to think they are not equally victimized.
2. On Agitation
The IMT comrade said: “However, there are two dangers in any given situation, that of empty sectarian shouting and that of opportunist adaptation. If we do not put anything at all in writing, we are falling into the second mistake. It seems to me that in the name of conducting agitation…what is being advocated is…to not conduct any agitation!”
That statement, ironically, has the facts entirely reversed. The IMT comrade was insinuating that the Portland and SF comrades were not interested in conducting agitation. In fact, it was the WIL leadership that was not interested in conducting agitation.
Throughout the discussion, the WIL leadership was arguing exclusively in terms of producing a flier that would have raised radical demands such as 30 hours of work for 40 hours of pay, etc. The WIL leadership was fully aware that these demands would only appeal to a few workers, if any at all. Here is how a leading WIL member made the proposal:
I think it is more critical than ever for a flyer to come out addressed to the workers and the members of the local… The flyer should put forward our perspective on what the demands should be in the negotiations and how this battle can be won if the union leadership took up our strategy… However, by putting forward an alternative strategy, we at least can start a dialog with those workers who want to fight and want to win and are serious people open to our ideas. It is OK if only a few people, right now, would take the flyer and be open to discuss with us.
In a later contribution the same WIL comrade specified what demands he thought should have been raised:
Our demands should have been bold and linked to how to mobilize to win this struggle. For example, a demand like 30 for 40 is a way to mobilize unemployed to support the strike because if this demand is won, it will mean more jobs can be created.
The union, however, was in an extraordinarily weak position. Many of the jobs involved unskilled labor, opening the door to the real possibility of replacing these workers with scabs. Moreover, the workers were living paycheck-to-paycheck, making a prolonged strike extremely difficult, especially in light of the union’s very low strike fund. In this context, the demand of 30 for 40, as something to include in the union’s list of demands, would have seemed wildly unrealistic even to the most adventurous members of the union. But this was not relevant to the WIL leadership because they did not see themselves as oriented towards agitation, but only propaganda. That is, they were only interested in educating the ones and twos with the hope of recruiting them. If they had been interested in encouraging our comrade in Portland to agitate in favor of a winning struggle, then they would have had to focus on demands that would have unified the union membership. This in turn would have required carrying on a dialogue with the members so as to formulate a set of demands that would have maximized agreement within the union. Without this unity, the union cannot struggle effectively for any demands. But there were no suggestions at all in this direction by the WIL leadership. Instead, they clung tenaciously to their demand for 30 for 40.
The following statement, written by the WIL National Secretary to the Portland comrade about an article the latter was writing on the struggle at the hospital, gives an excellent glimpse into the mindset of the WIL leadership. And it explains why the WIL leadership was not interested in agitation but in conducting a propaganda campaign where no specific actions were recommended:
I think the first few proposed changes are fine. However, I and the EC continue to disagree strongly on the approach you think should be taken in this article and in the TU work in general. In practice, this will not be read by a “mass audience.” Even if it was, our responsibility is to raise these kinds of transitional demands in order to educate the most advanced workers. The fact is, we are a propaganda group we are only modestly beginning the work of agitation in some fields of activity. Our goal in these struggles at this stage is not to lead them or to have a decisive influence over the “masses” of the union, but to find the ones and twos for our own organization. We are simply not in a position to lead these struggles yet [italics added].
As can be seen by this statement, the WIL leadership was oriented exclusively at directing propaganda at the most advanced workers. There was absolutely no consideration of producing agitation directed at leading a fight. Those of us in Portland and SF, on the other hand, were oriented towards uniting the workers around the demands they had already adopted and encouraging them to wage a real strike, with militant picket lines, etc. And the comrade in Portland was in fact agitating among his coworkers about what steps the union had to take in order to wage an effective struggle.
Here is a sample of recommendations proposed by SF comrades in the trade union discussion that provides a glimpse into our approach. It offers a framework within which proper agitation could have been conducted, had the workers decided to strike. Other alternatives were mentioned if the workers decided not to strike.
The union membership must be prepared to win a strike, and this is no easy matter because very quickly the union will be up against not only the bosses but the courts and cops. The first thing that must be done, of course, is to organize a picket line. But there are two kinds of picket lines. There are the porous picket lines that the union bureaucrats love to organize where scabs walk right through them. This is one of the most demoralizing things in the world where you let scabs through the line and these people then take your job. It would be even worse if the scabs that cross the picket line start to include your own members. Rapidly the rest of your coworkers will become demoralized and wonder why they should not also cross the picket line and soon the strike is lost.
Then there is the real picket line where workers are prepared in advance and resolved not to let the scabs through. Here it is important to get all the help you can from other unions and the community. And many people will want to help out only if they think that a real struggle is being waged, as opposed to the pretend struggles of the bureaucrats. But one has to be prepared for the court injunctions that limit the numbers on the picket line. Here the bureaucrats again are eager to capitulate. If the membership is not prepared to stop the scabs from crossing the picket line, even if it means defying court injunctions, then they will lose the strike and possibly their jobs and will be completely demoralized.
So when the IMT suggests that the San Francisco and Portland comrades were unwilling to engage in agitation while the WIL leadership was promoting agitation, he got the facts exactly reversed. What is revealing is that the IMT comrade equates agitation with putting out a flier that will only resonate with a few workers, if any at all. Whereas those of us wanting to unify the workers so that they could mount an effective struggle were branded as uninterested in agitation because we did not want to put out a flier in the name of the WIL. In fact, we were arguing in favor of conducting a real strike by breaking the partnership between the labor officials and the bosses, organizing a militant picket line that would have kept the scabs out, and defying court injunctions. Neither the IMT nor the WIL leadership ever addressed how this could possibly be construed as “opportunist adaptation.”
We will conclude this point with a statement from Trotsky from the essay, “What Next?” where he is quoting an earlier document he composed:
In these clashes [with the bourgeoisie] — insofar as they involve the vital interests of the entire working class, or its majority, or this or that section — the working masses sense the need of unity in action… Any party which mechanically counterposes itself to this need… will unfailingly be condemned in the minds of the workers….
3. On Strikes and Demands
The IMT comrade said: “Comrades Bill and Ann and MV might object that they agree with this approach in general, but that this is not the right time. In fact, if you do not explain your ideas clearly and openly (in a skilful manner) precisely at a time when the workers are discussing going on strike, when are you going to do it? It seems to me that the logic of the argument put forward by these comrades is that the strike itself will raise the consciousness of the workers and that this will allow us to recruit them to the organisation. And that, on the contrary, raising our programme now would be seen as divisive, alien and a diversion from the real struggle. This is completely wrong.”
There are a number of problems with this argument.
(a) First, the IMT comrade has completely distorted our position. He suggests that we are not prepared to discuss our ideas clearly and openly when the workers are considering going out on strike. We consistently argued that we want to lead the strike by explaining how it must be conducted. This included the fact that one must start with a class struggle perspective, explain to the workers that there can be no partnership with the bosses, given the way that capitalism operates, and that one must be prepared to fight the capitalist state with its cops and court injunctions because the state is controlled by the capitalist class. We regard these examples as clearly and openly discussing our ideas.
(b) The IMT comrade said that we think the strike itself will raise consciousness. We do indeed think strikes can raise workers’ consciousness. Workers begin to act as a collective force, an experience entirely new to many of them. Acting collectively for the first time will certainly raise their consciousness since it raises their awareness of belonging to a class, it gives them a sense of the tremendous power they can wield as a group, and it engenders a sense of camaraderie among workers. Also, as the struggle proceeds, they begin to understand through their own experience that their interests stand diametrically opposed to those of the bosses. And they can observe how the state sides entirely with the bosses. However, strikes need to be led, they do not lead themselves, and it is the duty of revolutionary Marxists to make proposals that are aimed at leading these struggles in a direction so as to win these strikes.
So we do not think that strikes automatically raise workers’ consciousness. Strikes that are lost, can in fact, lower workers’ consciousness because workers can begin to think that nothing can be done to win a better life.
If anything, the IMT comrade and the WIL leadership believe that simply raising the demand of 30 for 40 will raise the consciousness of workers. In some circumstances it might be absolutely appropriate. But given the specific conditions at the hospital and the weak position of the union, we believe that such a demand was wildly inappropriate.
(c) When we argued that raising a demand like 30 for 40, which is an element of the WIL program, would be seen as divisive, it is because we knew, given what the Portland comrade said about his coworkers, and given the weak position of the union, and given our own knowledge of the level of class consciousness among U.S. workers, that the demand would resonate with virtually no one. And the WIL comrade who proposed raising this demand admitted it would only resonate with one or a few workers at most. He showed almost no interest in uniting the workers to organize a strike. Rather, as he and the WIL National Secretary put it, we need to be concerned with “putting down our markers for the future.”
Here is what Trotsky said on this question:
From the worker desirous of joining the ranks of the Communists, the party has a right to demand: you must accept our program and obey our regulations and the authority of our electoral institutions. But it is absurd and criminal to present the same a priori demand, or even a part of it, to the working masses of workers’ organizations when the matter of joint action for the sake of definite aims of struggle is broached. Thereby the very foundations of the party are undermined; for the party can fulfill its task only by maintaining correct relations with the class. Instead of issuing such a one-sided ultimatum, which irritates and insults the workers, the party should submit a definite program for joint action: that is the surest way of achieving leadership in reality.
But here is what the WIL comrade who was pushing for the demand of 30 for 40 had to say:
We must not tailor our demands to what is acceptable to the union leadership or what they make the mass of the workers think is attainable. We are targeting the more advance and serious people to win them over as members or people who will work with us in the union.
In other words, this is exactly what Trotsky said should not be done. The WIL leadership was not interested in uniting the workers by submitting a program of joint action. As the WIL National Secretary said: “But what is our main aim at this point in time? It is to recruit the ones and twos to our program.” This was said as if recruiting the ones and twos should not be attempted on the basis of uniting the union membership to wage a fight.
4. On the Significance of the Moods of the Workers
Finally, and most significantly, the IMT comrade produced a series of quotes from Trotsky, that commented on the significance of the moods of the workers in relation to formulating a revolutionary program. Here are the relevant passages:
The IMT quoted Trotsky: “What can a revolutionary party do at this moment in time? First of all, to offer a clear and honest analysis of the objective situation, of the historical tasks which derive from this situation, regardless of whether the workers are ready or not to carry them out. The aim is to raise the level of consciousness of the workers.”
And the IMT comrade continued: “and replying to the objection that: ‘Well, the programme is scientific, corresponds to the objective situation, but if the workers do not accept it, this programme will be sterile,’ Trotsky responds: ‘We must tell the workers the truth and we will win the best elements.’” And Trotsky added: “All the arguments that declare that we cannot present such a programme because it does not correspond to the level of consciousness of the workers are false.”
Finally, the IMT comrade included this quote from Trotsky: “What does ‘scientific socialism’ mean? It means that the party that incorporates this science starts, like in any science, not from the subjective wishes, inclinations or moods, but from objective facts, the concrete situation of different classes and the relationship between them. Only through this method can we establish the demands that are in accordance with the objective situation. Only from this starting point can we then adapt these demands and slogans to the concrete mood of the masses. But starting from the mood, as if it was the fundamental fact, we would not have a scientific policy, but one that would be conjunctural, demogogic and adventurist.”
And the IMT comrade concluded his quotes from Trotsky by saying, among other things: “Surely at this time, the kind of transitional demands that we can and must raise as widely as possible in every election meeting, in every concrete trade union struggle, etc., are much sharper than those that were maybe appropriate two or three years ago.”
We would like to focus on the significance of this passage in particular, but first we want to register our complete agreement with Trotsky and make a number of preliminary comments to help clarify our position.
First, we never suggested that the program of the WIL should be based on the moods of the workers, which would be patently absurd. A revolutionary program could not possibly be constructed on such a basis. The program, as Trotsky argued, must be based on objective conditions, which include above all, our revolutionary Marxist analysis of capitalism.
Second, we never argued in favor of diluting our program. In fact, we urged it be strengthened. When we joined the WIL, one plank read: “Nationalizing of the commanding heights of the economy: the top 100 banks and corporations.” We thought the number “100” was insufficient, and at our urging the plank was changed to read: “Nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy: the major banks and corporations” with the additional explanation of nationalizing the Fortune 500.
Third, we were consistent sellers of the WIL’s publication, Socialist Appeal, where the full program appeared in every issue. The paper, where our ideas were clearly explained, was our vehicle for reaching the ones and twos in order to recruit.
So our real differences with the IMT comrade revolve around two issues.
The first concerns how we are to implement our program in our day-to-day activity. It was our opinion that introducing the demand of 30 for 40 into the contract struggle of a weak union was entirely inappropriate. Here is how Trotsky discussed introducing the slogan of 30 for 40, which he referred to as Sliding Scale of Wages and Hours: “The campaign will go somewhat in this fashion: you begin agitation, say, in Minneapolis. You win one or two unions to the program. You send delegates to other towns to the respective unions.” We think this approach makes much more sense. Here, the unions collectively pursue the demand; the burden is not placed on a single, isolated weak union.
The second issue of disagreement ranks much higher in significance. In fact, we believe this issue is the underlying problem that explains all our differences. The IMT comrade and the WIL leadership in general fail to distinguish the program of a revolutionary Marxist party, which is based on an objective analysis of capitalism and history, from the program of a united front. For Trotsky, the distinction was crucial. And it should be kept in mind that he considered a trade union as a kind of united front: “the trade union is the rudimentary form of the united front” (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany).
A united front is a temporary alliance for the purpose of achieving limited or specific immediate tasks. It is an alliance aimed at action. The practical program that forms the basis of the united front is determined by agreements among workers from different political tendencies. It consists of demands that have the capacity to unite them to act. As Trotsky pointed out, these demands might be entirely modest: “… the Communist Party proves to the masses and their organizations its readiness in action to wage battle in common with them for aims, no matter how modest, so long as they lie on the road of the historical development of the proletariat” (Trotsky, “What Next?”, 1932) [italics added].
Consequently, these demands, because they are aimed at uniting workers, must resonate with the workers. In the same essay, Trotsky observed:
“The mistakes made in the policy of the united front fall into two categories. In most cases the leading organs of the Communist Party approached the reformists with an offer to join in a common struggle for radical slogans which were alien to the situation and which found no response in the masses. These proposals had the character of blank shots. The masses remained indifferent….In each of these instances only a purely formal, declamatory application of the policy of united front was inaugurated; whereas, by its very nature, it can prove fruitful only on the basis of a realistic appraisal of the situation and of the condition of the masses” [italics added].
So the program that forms the basis of the united front must be sharply distinguished from the program of the revolutionary party. The party program is based on an objective analysis of capitalism and has nothing to do with the moods of the workers. The program of the united front is based on points of agreement among different workers’ parties or groups of workers where the points, as the basis for collective action, must strike a responsive chord with the workers and so must connect with the workers needs, interests and inclinations. Again quoting Trotsky: “We are for the united front only in practical mass actions. That has absolutely nothing in common with a renunciation of our own banner, our own program, and our own candidacy in the elections.” (Writings of Leon Trotsky, Supplement,1929-33)
The IMT comrade and the WIL leadership, on the other hand, fail to make the crucial distinction between the program of a united front and the program of a revolutionary party. The IMT specifically said, as was quoted above: “Surely at this time, the kind of transitional demands [from the revolutionary program] that we can and must raise as widely as possible in every election meeting, in every concrete trade union struggle, etc., are much sharper than those that were maybe appropriate two or three years ago” [italics added]. Not recognizing the crucial distinction between the two programs, the IMT comrade, along with the WIL leadership, consider it their revolutionary obligation to raise our transitional demands, in an entirely mechanical way, in united fronts. The failure to do so, as far as they are concerned, amounts to “opportunist adaptation.”
By injecting demands into the united front that do not in any way connect with the workers, however, the IMT comrade, together with the WIL leaders, undermine the united front and therefore impede the unification of the working class. They play a dividing, not a uniting role since the demand would only have appealed to a few workers at most.
We believe the IMT comrade and the WIL leadership have a correct approach to the revolutionary program: it is based on an objective analysis of the situation confronting the working class. Their error lies in mechanically applying this program to every situation, including united front formations such as trade union struggles. But the revolutionary process is necessarily dialectical. As Trotsky said:
…[T]he policy of the united front…is imposed by the dialectics of the class struggle. No successes would be possible without temporary agreements, for the sake of fulfilling immediate tasks, among various sections, organizations, and groups of the proletariat. Strikes, trade unions, journals, parliamentary elections, street demonstrations, demand that the split be bridged in practice from time to time as the need arises… (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany)
During the revolutionary process there is a constant dialectical interplay between the revolutionary program of a Marxist party and the consciousness of the masses. The united front, which reflects the consciousness of the masses at a particular point in history, is a crucial component in this dialectical interplay. When sections of the working class are united around issues — even modest issues — that resonate with them so that they can conduct a collective struggle, their consciousness will be lifted because the struggle, if pursued consistently, will eventually bring the masses into conflict with the capitalist state. The IMT comrade and the WIL leaders, by clinging to demands that only appeal to a handful of workers, miss this important dynamic of the revolutionary struggle.
Response of the IMT to the Trade Union Discussion
September 25, 2008
JP sent me the correspondence on the discussion taking place in the US section regarding the tactics in the dispute at the Emanuel hospital in Portland.
I thing that the issues raised are important and that discussing them can serve to educate the whole of the membership of the US section in important matters like our tactics in trade union work. I have discussed these matters with Alan and Fred, in preparing this response.
First of all, in any discussion, it is important to maintain a comradely tone and not to distort the arguments of other comrades. For this reason I will try to quote from what the comrades have actually said.
In relation to the dispute at the Emanuel hospital, the discussion started over the contents of an article in Socialist Appeal. JP suggested a number of changes in the article that were going in the following direction: one, to point out positive suggestions as to how to wage the struggle in a more effective way (out-reach, leafleting, etc) and two, to raise demands that would go take the struggle a bit further (shorter working week) and to make it clear to readers what is Socialist Appeal and its role (by asking them to join us and check our website).
Some of these were accepted by MV (although he preferred a vaguer formulation of “join us”), but the inclusion of the demand for a shorter working week was rejected by him because “it would not connect” and “I think that the workers will have to go thru the experience of struggling for this as well as, most significantly, a generalized increase in the national class struggle before they will be willing to mobilize around ‘a shorter work week with no loss in pay’ in a battle centered on one hospital.” MV also argued that the article was agitational in nature and this was also an argument against adding this demand.
Then the issue came up of producing a leaflet in the name of the WIL (or an ad-hoc rank and file committee) to intervene in the dispute. MV was against producing a leaflet because the workers were looking to the leadership of the union to lead the struggle: “any leaflet put out in the name of the WIL, or Committee for a Strong Contract, would be seen as something coming from outside of the union, as a fringe element and would be viewed as an attack on the union. No workers would pay this any serious attention. Believe me, I know. I see every day what the workers pay attention to and what they ignore.” (my emphasis).
It was further argued by MV that “written material independent of the trade union leadership” should only be produced “Until union members are firmly committed to a fight and, thru the course of the struggle, begin to question how the union leadership is conducting things”.
In Bill and Ann’s contribution they discuss the possibility of issuing “a WIL flier aimed at winning the ones and twos on how to broaden the struggle with a class struggle approach, boldly presenting our ideas, even if they do not receive widespread support at the present.” In response to this they say that: “we believe that in the situation Mark described, it would have served as a diversion in relation to mobilizing the workers to put up a real fight, which, if pursued, could have opened up many more recruiting opportunities to us.”
I think both MV and Bill and Ann are wrong on this question.
MV was in the middle of a dispute. The very fact that workers are discussing the possibility of strike action raises their sights. This is not a normal every day situation, but one in which workers are forced to think, the dispute is pitting them as a collective, against the employer. This is precisely the right time for Marxists to make an intervention that goes beyond selling the paper to a small number of co-workers and having one to one conversations over the dispute.
This is precisely the time to explain our ideas to a wider audience, that is, to conduct agitation. This can be done in a number of different ways. If MV has the opportunity to speak at mass rallies, union meetings, etc, this must be obviously done. The other obvious way of putting forward our ideas to a wider audience is precisely to produce a flyer. If we already have a caucus in that particular union we can use that to produce it, if not, we should produce it in our own name (the WIL). We want to get maximum exposure at a time when workers are thinking. This is a time where, if we are skilful, we can reach a much wider audience.
What should be the contents of the flyer? First of all, if the flyer is aimed at the workers at Emanuel Hospital, it should be supportive of their demands, it should explain how these can be achieved (what methods are we proposing for the dispute) but also, it should try to raise their level of understanding of the issues at stake. This is the whole aim of transitional demands: to raise the level of understanding of the workers, starting from where their level is at, but raising it to what is needed.
As a matter of fact, MV makes a whole series of excellent points in one of his contributions: about the need for mass pickets, the need to send pickets to other hospitals, the need to build a stronger strike fund (and this is linked to the need to break with the Democrats), the need to have rank and file control over the negotiations, etc. Why can’t this be put out in the form of a leaflet, adding a few more political points at the end? This would allow MV to raise these issues to a wider audience.
I fundamentally disagree that this would be a diversion or that this would be viewed as an attack on the union. This would only be the case if these points were made in a sectarian manner. We must avoid that at all costs. We cannot give the workers ultimatums and we cannot impose demands on their struggle. But nobody has suggested that (I have read the correspondence carefully).
However, there are two dangers in any given situation, that of empty sectarian shouting and that of opportunist adaptation. If we do not put anything at all in writing, we are falling into the second mistake. It seems to me that in the name of conducting agitation (explaining a few ideas to many people) as opposed to propaganda (explaining many ideas to a small number of people), what is being advocated is … to not conduct any agitation!
This discussion is, in fact, not a new discussion.
Bill and Ann have quoted Alan Woods’ book on Bolshevism where Alan talks about the effect strikes have on the consciousness of workers involved. That is true. But it is certainly not an argument against raising our own ideas in the run up and during a strike, in the form of leaflets amongst others.
As a matter of fact the Bolshevism book dedicates a whole section to explaining the struggle of Lenin and the Russian Marxists against the Economists, a tendency that thought precisely political agitation could only be carried out after the strike movement had changed the consciousness of the workers. Here are some passages from Bolshevism:
“[From the Economist journal Rabochaya Mysl’] ‘As long as the movement was no more than a means to soothe the conscience-stricken intellectual (!) it was alien to the worker himself… the economic base of the movement was obscured by the constant attempt to remember the political ideal… The average worker stood outside the movement… The struggle for economic interests was the most stubborn struggle, the most powerful in terms of the numbers of people it was understandable to, and in terms of the heroism with which the ordinary person would defend his rights to existence. Such is the law of nature. Politics always docilely follows economics, and as a general result political shackles are snapped ‘en route’. The struggle for economic status, (?) the struggle against capital in the field of everyday vital interests and of strikes as a method of this struggle—such is the motto of the workers’ movement.'
“However, the Economists interpreted this in an entirely one-sided manner. Economic agitation and crude “activism” were elevated into a panacea. Revolutionary theory was effectively relegated to an unimportant secondary role. In this way, a correct idea was turned into its opposite, giving rise to the anti-Marxist “theory of stages”, which was later to have such a disastrous effect in the hands of the Mensheviks and Stalinists. “Political demands”, wrote the Economist Krichevsky, “which in their nature are common to all Russia, must correspond initially to the experience extracted from the economic struggle by a given stratum of workers. It is only on the grounds of this experience that it is possible and necessary to move on to political agitation.”
“These lines express very clearly the opportunist nature of Economism, which flows from the desire to find a short cut to the masses by watering down the programme of Marxism and abandoning “difficult” demands alleging that the masses are not ready for them. At bottom, this phenomenon was analogous to the politics of “small deeds” advocated by the liberal Narodniks. It fitted in perfectly with the cowardly opportunism of the Legal Marxists, who themselves really represented the left-wing of bourgeois liberalism. Implicit in the ideas of the Economists was the fear of confronting the tsarist authorities, by avoiding political demands and attempting to present the activity of the Social Democrats as a “private affair” between workers and employers on the labour front, leaving the question of the state to others. In reality, the meaning of all the arguments of the Economists was that the Social Democrats should passively adapt themselves to the narrow limits of legality or semi-legality offered to them by the tsarist state.” (my emphasis)
Later on, dealing with the sectarian and ultimatums attitude of the Russian Marxists when they Soviets first appeared, Alan explains:
“The whole question of the relationship of the Party and the mass movement can be reduced in the last analysis to the difference between the finished scientific programme of Marxism and the necessarily unfinished, incomplete and contradictory movement of the masses. Whoever is incapable of finding a bridge between these two aspects will forever be incapable of building a mass movement. Naturally, Lenin explained, the Social Democrats will fight for influence within the soviets, and attempt to win them over. But the broad base of the soviets, representing the big majority of workers, not only the advanced layers, but even the most backward layers in the factories, Social Democratic and non-party, atheists and religious, literate and illiterate, skilled and unskilled, was a big plus in the revolutionary struggle against tsarism. Lenin was confident that, out of the experience of the struggle itself, the masses would, in time, draw the necessary conclusions and come to understand the validity of the Marxist programme. The duty of the revolutionary vanguard was to “patiently explain”, and not to present ultimatums to the masses. The method of Lenin recalls the revolutionary realism of Marx who pointed out that ‘one real step forward of the movement is worth a hundred correct programmes’.”
These lines are a clear criticism of presenting ultimatums to the movement. Doing so would be wrong, and as far as I can see nobody in this discussion is suggesting that we do that (ie, that MV should go to the workers at Emanuel hospital and say “if you do not accept the programme of the WIL we will not support you). However, these lines also explain very clearly the need to build a bridge between the movement of the masses and the programme of Marxism, not just to offer support for their demands, and not just to encourage them to struggle.
Trotsky also dealt with the issue of transitional demands in some detail and precisely in discussions with the US SWP, where he found resistance to adopting the transitional demands that he was advocating. He explained how:
“There are two dangers in the elaboration of the program. The first is to remain on general abstract lines and to repeat the general slogan without real connection with the trade unions in the locality. That is the direction of sectarian abstraction. The other danger is the contrary, to adapt too much to the local conditions, to the specific conditions, to lose the general revolutionary line. I believe that in the United States the second danger is the more immediate. I remember it most especially in the matter of militarization, armed pickets, etc. Some comrades were afraid that it is not real for the workers, etc.” (Discussions with Trotsky On the Transitional Program, 1938 http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tpdiscuss.htm)
In one of the contributions to the discussion Bill and Ann strongly object to Tom when he says: “WE MUST NOT TAILOR OUR DEMANDS TO WHAT IS ACCEPTABLE TO THE UNION LEADERSHIP OR WHAT THEY MAKE THE MASS OF THE WORKERS THINK IS ATTAINABLE. We are targeting the more advance and serious people to win them over as members or people who will work with us in the union.” Bill and Ann say that this approach is “problematic” and that it would be “in essence creating divisions within the union and weakening it at the very moment they need to be most unified in order to go to war?”
I think they are also wrong in this. Yes, we must unite the workers. Yes, we must encourage them to struggle. But at the same time, we must explain how we think we should struggle, with what methods, and also, on the basis of their own experience, introduce ideas that go beyond the immediate struggle. This was precisely the method of Trotsky who said the following about the programme:
“We have repeated many times that the scientific character of our activity consists in the fact that we adapt our program not to political conjunctures or the thought or mood of the masses as this mood is today, but we adapt our program to the objective situation as it is represented by the economic class structure of society. The mentality can be backward; then the political task of the party is to bring the mentality into harmony with the objective facts, to make the workers understand the objective task. But we cannot adapt the program to the backward mentality of the workers, the mentality, the mood is a secondary factor – the prime factor is the objective situation. That is why we have heard these criticisms or these appreciations that some parts of the program do not conform to the situation.
“Everywhere I ask what should we do? Make our program fit the objective situation or the mentality of the workers? And I believe that this question must be put before every comrade who says that this program is not fit for the American situation. This program is a scientific program. It is based on an objective analysis of the objective situation. It cannot be understood by the workers as a whole.” (Discussions with Trotsky On the Transitional Program, 1938 http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tpdiscuss.htm)
Comrades Bill and Ann and MV might object that they agree with this approach in general, but that this is not the right time. In fact, if you do not explain your ideas clearly and openly (in a skilful manner) precisely at a time when the workers are discussing going on strike, when are you going to do it? It seems to me that the logic of the argument put forward by these comrades is that the strike itself will raise the consciousness of the workers and that this will allow us to recruit them to the organisation. And that, on the contrary, raising our programme now would be seen as divisive, alien and a diversion from the real struggle. This is completely wrong.
In his discussions with the US SWP, where there was strong resistance to adopt the Transitional Programme, Trotsky dealt specifically with the issue of the backwardness of the US workers. In an article entitled “The political backwardness of American workers” (May 19, 1938) he said the following (I apologise because I am translating this from my Spanish edition):
“Some comrades say that, in some of its parts, the project of the programme is not adapted to the level of consciousness, to the mood of the American workers. In relation to this we must ask ourselves if the programme has to adapt to the mentality of the American workers or to the current social and economic conditions of the country. This is the most important problem to be solved.”
And he responds:
“Our programme must pay more attention to the concrete tasks of the working class than to the backwardness of the workers. It must reflect society as it is and not the backwardness of the working class. It represents precisely a tool to overcome and eradicate such backwardness”
and he adds:
“Another problem is how to present the programme to the workers. The explanation of the current situation to the workers is rather a terminological and pedagogical task”.
“What can a revolutionary party do at this moment in time? First of all, to offer a clear and honest analysis of the objective situation, of the historical tasks which derive from this situation, regardless of whether the workers are ready or not to carry them out. The aim is to raise the level of consciousness of the workers”
and replying to the objection that: “Well, the programme is scientific, corresponds to the objective situation, but if the workers do not accept it, this programme will be sterile”, Trotsky responds: “We must tell the workers the truth and we will win the best elements”.
“All the arguments that declare that we cannot present such a programme because it does not correspond to the level of consciousness of the workers are false.”
In another article, as part of the same discussion with the leadership of the US SWP, he added:
“What does “scientific socialism mean”? It means that the party that incorporates this science starts, like in any science, not from the subjective wishes, inclinations or moods, but from objective facts, the concrete situation of different classes and the relationship between them. Only through this method can we establish the demands that are in accordance with the objective situation. Only from this starting point can we then adapt these demands and slogans to the concrete mood of the masses. But starting from the mood, as if it was the fundamental fact, we would not have a scientific policy, but one that would be conjunctural, demagogic and adventurist.”
I would also like to add a more general point. We are in the middle of the most important crisis of capitalism for 30 years, some say this is the most important downturn in the economy since 1929. Banks have been nationalised by the government to prevent them from collapsing, the government is talking about a massive bail out of the economy, tens of thousands of jobs are being destroyed and hundreds of thousands of families have either lost or risk losing their homes. The arguments about raising certain transitional demands or not, must also be seen against this background. These developments in the economy are being watched, discussed and felt directly by millions of ordinary working people with no previous experience or political interest. I have no doubt that this has already had a massive impact in the consciousness of the American working class. At this time, our ideas, if explained in a bold and skilful manner, can connect with wider layers, our audience can increase ten fold.
Lenin remarked that sometimes revolutionaries are the most conservative of people. Surely at this time, in this concrete situation, we should be bold and offer a clear explanation of the crisis of capitalism. Surely at this time, the kind of transitional demands that we can and must raise as widely as possible in every election meeting, in every concrete trade union struggle, etc, are much sharper than those that were maybe appropriate two or three years ago.
In relation to the Emanuel Hospital struggle this would have been the time for producing, not one, but a series of leaflets, detailing our position in relation to each one of the stages the struggle is at and raising the sights and the horizons of workers beyond the immediate tasks, while at the same time intervening energetically and loyally in the concrete tasks of organising the movement. The echo that we might find will possibly not be very wide at the beginning. But if we are consistent, the workers, through their own experience, will come to the conclusion that we were right all along. If our ideas are not explained from the beginning (in writing), then our explanations ex post facto will sound hollow.
Even at this time I think that a leaflet should be produced in the name of the WIL and signed by MV making a balance sheet of the dispute. Explaining what we think could have been achieved, by what methods, explaining what we think should be done now and why, and linking all this to more general ideas about the need for democracy in the unions, accountability of officials, the need for a labor party, etc. Such a leaflet should be distributed as widely as possible and, if possible, a meeting of Emanuel workers should be organised to discuss its contents. Even if only one or two of them turn up to discuss with us the lessons of the dispute, that would be a success.
Finally, Bill and Ann and to a certain extent MV have raised concerns and warnings about conducting the discussion in a comradely and democratic way, about the need to listen to everyone’s arguments, etc. This is correct as a general statement. But, having read the whole discussion, I think that this has been conducted in a democratic and comradely manner.
To begin with JP discussed with MV the contents of his article, in a comradely way and progress was made. Then, in the one point where there was no agreement, MV’s will was respected, but the EC wrote to him pointing out the differences in the approach. MV then objected to this and asked for an official discussion. This was opened.
The comrades seem to object that JP and Tom are participating in the discussion thinking that they are right, that their views correspond to the traditions of the IMT on this matter and that the views of Bill and Ann and MV do not, and that MV has made some mistakes in his intervention.
Well, if that is what JP and Tom think, why can’t they say it? If they think that any comrade has made a mistake, that his approach does not correspond to that of the IMT on this or that matter, it is their democratic right (and duty) to say so. Other comrades can then argue against this point of view. This is precisely what a democratic discussion is.
Bolshevism was also the school of hard knocks as Ted always used to say. If you see some of the terms that were used by Lenin and others in the leadership about their counterparts in the numerous discussions that took place in the Russian Marxist movement, they were pretty sharp and strong worded. And still, they had all sorts of comradely discussions over a long period of time.
I would ask to comrades not to make empty appeals to democracy. If they think that their democratic rights have been violated (their material has not been circulated to the right bodies, their articles have been suppressed with no explanation, etc), they have the right to complain in a concrete way.
From the amount of correspondence that this discussion has generated I cannot see how can anyone argue that this has not been a democratic discussion. The main point is to raise the comrades’ political level and to learn from the discussion, correcting any mistakes that have been made in order to continue to improve the work in the future.
I suggest that Trotsky’s Transitional Programme and all the additional discussions around it, which are printed in the Pathfinder edition, should be put on the agenda of the EC, the NC and all the branches.