The Transitional Approach to Socialist Labor Organizing

vs. Support for Rank and File Insurgencies

By Thomas Smith

–Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor

In the light of Einstein’s definition, my Duty to Warn impels me to speculate publicly that several old friends and teachers of mine–Pabloite-Breitmanists[1] who once inhabited the once-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party-U.S., must be out of their minds. For they are supporting “several factions within the DSA [who] are urging a so-called ‘rank-and-file strategy’, long associated with Labor Notes,…”[2]

“[Insanity is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”–Albert Einstein.

Traveling Ever Rightward…into the DSA?!

Wandering in to the DSA from the (#Metoo-induced) wreck of the ISO, the last “socialist” life-raft to which they so recently and desperately clung, in their watery sojourn from the SWP, through the FIC or the FIT, through Solidarity, these old friends of mine (whom I met when I was traveling leftward through some of these very same organizations) have come to what they think is a courageous decision. Whatever they feel about the Bern, (supporting him, as does Comrade Le Blanc, or questioning the whole strategy of the DSA supporting Democrats in general–as does Comrade Post), they are not about to give up that sacred old Labor Notes principle of supporting rank and file trade union movements in order to “democratize the unions.” As I have often heard them say (taking their cue from Lenin’s Economist opponent, Martynov), “we can’t impose our socialist political ideology upon the workers! That’s dogmatic! All we should do, all we need to do, is to support workers in their already ongoing struggles.” So they are rallying around this position, as expressed by their newfound friend and longtime DSA member, Eric Blanc: a self-declared Kautskyan, anti-Leninist.

As Nancy Hanover, who reviewed Blanc’s book Red State Revolt recently in the wsws.org, (The DSA Shows Its Hostility to Socialism, 8/10/2019) quotes and paraphrases Blanc’s (opportunist) approach to union-organizing:

Blanc’s lengthy chapter “The Militant Minority” is touted as providing the key to the red state victories. In pitching the DSA’s services to the union apparatus, Red State Revolt notes, “[C]ontrary to red-baiting stereotypes about nefarious radical infiltrators …they [DSA members] had no intention of secretly manipulating public employees to impose a ‘socialist agenda.’ … Socialists in West Virginia and across the country were not aiming to divert the working-class struggle; they were just trying to help it win. In fact, Comer and O’Neal both bent over backward to make sure that the movement ‘stayed organic,’ as they like to say.”

Old Wine in New Bottles

The only trouble with this putatively courageous tenacity, is that it has nothing to do with Leninism. And aside from that, it just doesn’t work.

The “progressive,” rank and file union movements these people have been supporting for decades, just so happen to be tied in to support for the Democratic Party. Once in control of the union bureaucratic apparatus, they have collaborated with the U.S. government’s efforts to weaken the unions (Ron Carey’s collaboration with the government, supported by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union: TDU[3]) and imposed austerity (The Caucus of Rank and File Educators, CORE). The ulterior motive, and in the past, the inevitable result, is something like Kishore describes it (once we substitute, as we always must when reading anything from the anti-union wsws.org site/SEP, “these ‘progressive’ trade union bureaucrats’…organizational domination”: “The aim of this strategy is to build “left” factions within the trade unions to bolster their organizational domination over the working class while also opening up lucrative positions within the union apparatus.”[4]

A Case in Point: the “Progressive” PSC-New Caucus

My own union, the Professional Staff Congress, suffered just such a regime change, decades ago: from the conservative Shankerite CUNY Unity Caucus, to the “progressive,” New-Left-oriented New Caucus. In fact, the only significant gain for the majority of faculty–adjunct faculty like me–has been the providence of health insurance for those consistently teaching at least two courses per semester during the school year. But this was instituted, not by the NC, but by the CUC, under the pressure of a (failed) breakaway attempt by adjuncts, The Part-Timers Union, in the 1980s. The two Caucuses have had pretty much the same problems: Both have been bureaucratic, and neither have paid much more than lip service to the needs of the majority of the workforce they claimed to represent: the adjunct professors.

To sum up the problems with the NC, we have the words of GC-DSC Adjunct Project leader Sean M. Kennedy,

in my view, [NC] is the single biggest problem with the PSC: its leadership maintains a vise grip on all decision-making, and they deploy a potent brew of fear-mongering, bullying, divide and rule, disenfranchisement, procedural obstacles, and a twisted form of self-centered bourgeois “solidarity” to tamp down any threat to their hegemony, while their supporters, who are legion, get to pat themselves on the back for being progressive or, dare I say it, radical.

The Latest “Progressive” Slate at PSC-CUNY: the Academic Diversity Bureaucrats-in-Embryo of CUNY “Struggle”

At the Graduate Center at CUNY, a group calling itself “CUNY Struggle” formed among grad student adjuncts, dedicated pretty much to the same goal: to challenge the New Caucus’s bureaucratism and insensitivity to the plight of adjuncts, that the New Caucus had once championed against the Shankerites of the CUNY Unity Caucus (CUC).

However, as Kennedy, who became chair of the Grad Center slate during PSC elections, until he dropped out in protest, Struggle came to commit themselves to a realpolitik policy of just winning the PSC-elections, and not really exposing and challenging the dirty tricks of the NC. Thus, in Kennedy’s eyes, they became indistinguishable, ethically and organizationally (i.e., bureaucratically) from the New Caucus:

It seemed to me that winning became paramount, no matter the cost: the exact same force constraining the New Caucus slate.

Because winning the election was an uphill battle and, if it happened, a small, albeit significant, crack in the New Caucus’s power. But that crack, if achieved, would’ve had to expand through rigorous horizontal organizing with members of the bargaining unit at the GC and across CUNY. If we’d won, we wouldn’t de facto have the power to effect broad change.

And this realpolitik led, according to Kennedy, quite naturally

to the second major compromise of the principal decision-makers of the CUNY Struggle slate: there was no horizontal organizing or decentralized decision-making in the internal campaign process. Decisions—especially the week the proverbial shit hit the fan—were being determined by how many people voiced assent over email to a given idea quickly enough, what struck me as rapid-fire majority rule: the opposite of collectivity, in which everyone has a chance to participate in decision-making and co-direct a multifarious strategy representative of everyone’s skills and viewpoints.

Kennedy notes that

Moreover, the top-down, no-discussion decision-making style of the principal decision-makers of the CUNY Struggle slate is exactly the decision-making style of both the current New Caucus GC chapter leadership, running for another term in office, and the union-wide New Caucus leadership. When I realized that, I realized that it didn’t make a difference who won the GC chapter election, because the status quo would remain.[5]

Kennedy is not committed to a transitional, but rather, an anti-Leninist, “horizontal” approach. He doesn’t seem to see the contradictions here. Horizontalism rejects all leaders or structure, but this is exactly the disastrous, anarchist attitude that Jo Freeman critiques as “tyrannical” in her classic essay (“The Tyranny of Structurelessness”[6]). Freeman would understand perfectly how the “horizontal” structurelessness of CUNY Struggle has permitted CS’s ‘principal decision-makers”–its founding patriarch, and his cronies–to call all the shots, because there is no formal hierarchy or structure, democratically elected, by which to check their authoritarian power, or even to discuss these decisions critically and democratically.

In his academic writing, just like my Pabloite friends, Kennedy has promoted “underdog political insurgencies.” That there might be another causal connection between this approach, and the failures of such insurgencies to really end up changing anything, he seems, like the other, Pabloite, Leftists I’ve previously mentioned, also, never to grasp.

But his statement that somewhere along the line, CUNY “Struggle” stopped struggling, and started being top down in their decision-making process, rings true, and is typical of so many such “rank and file” efforts. Those who oppose union bureaucrats, in this manner, end up becoming bureaucrats, or at least, bureaucrats-in-training.

In his essay, Kennedy refers eight times mysteriously to the “principal decision-makers” of CS. He does not explain why he himself, though he was the chair of the slate, was not included among these “decision-makers.” Given our recent, traumatic, McCarthyite experience with CS, discussed in Revolution, April 2019, in the editorial, “How They Rammed Through Anti-Red Ban,”[7] it is not difficult to figure out about whom he is writing, and how and why they marginalized him, as they do all dissenters.

#Metoo Witchhunts, and Ritual P-C Insults

One similarity of CS to the NC not discussed by Kennedy, is their own “bad faith” penchant for using ostensibly “progressive,” identity politics positions to legitimate their bureaucratism. This omission is not surprising, since Kennedy himself seems to be invested in IP (for example, he writes that in joining the CS slate, he overrode one of his most cherished political principals: because the slate was mostly white!). Since CS is part of the “woke” generation, their IP self-sanctimonious groupthink is even more extreme than is the case for the NC. CS’s support for the unfounded #Metoo campaign against WBAI show producer Leonard Lopate is a case in point.

I procured an interview for the $7KOS on WBAI’s Leonard Lopate at Large show. At first, CS members were all in favor, patting me on the proverbial back for getting the radio spot–until one of them discovered to the others that Lopate had been the victim of a #Metoo witchhunt at both his former place of employment, WNYC–from which he was fired without due process–and now from fellow WBAI producers. For me, the issue was simple. This was an employee who had been fired by a boss, without due process.Of course, I reviewed the charges and realized they were baseless, and said so on the 7KOS list. According to Lopate, he was fired from WNYC for the sin of being “too old.”: WNYC management used unsubstantiated charges to effect this age-ist dismissal. He deserved our defense, therefore, and support–not the blacklist that some, “feminist” WBAI producers were promoting. But after that, I could get only one member of CS, a Marxist, to go along with me (I had originally not planned to go myself). And the attitude expressed to me via email by one of the CS leaders–ironically enough, the same CS leader who first accused us dissidents of “bad faith” merely for opposing CS–was that (this is admittedly a subjective paraphrase, reading between her extremely patronizing lines, despite the quotation marks) “we have decided that Leonard Lopate is a #Metoo non-person–therefore you are not going either. Find another media venue.” I of course informed her, gently, politely, but quite firmly, that I don’t respect blacklists nor take orders from her or anybody else from the #Metoo movement.

I also experienced the ill effects of identity politics at $7KOS Campaign meetings, where CS members engaged in  ritual, boorish, half-serious denunciations of “straight white males” as the source of all social problems,and otherwise let it be known that we were not welcome, in large numbers, anyway,and that we should feel guilty for being born this way (or for being born, at all).[8] Such expressions clearly,are not really designed to expand the movement for adjunct rights–their expression likely as not will turn off and alienate anyone, whatever their gender or skin-color, who has any sort of rational thinking process or desire for workers solidarity. The mindless, authoritarian, “bad faith” nature of these insults becomes apparent when one considers that the same people who make them, or laugh supportively at them, uncritically support two (straight, white male, btw) CS leaders (one of whom is the founding patriarch) who, as the Revolution article relates, are vociferous fans of British nationalist skinhead band, “Cock-Sparrer,” whose fans have beaten up immigrants. These CS leaders themselves have employed the anti-communist lyrics of one of Cock Sparrer’s songs against the protests of immigrant students and workers, aligned with the internationalist group, against their anti-red ban. But of course, being “woke” means you never have to say you’re sorry, think for yourself, strive for moral consistency, or confront your contradictions: particularly when you take out your aggressions against those annoying reds and immigrants!

CS’s practice of routine red baiting is part and parcel of this identity politics, which arose historically on the basis of post-structuralism. At its heart, P-S had as its goal the dispelling of any hope in the prospect of working class socialist revolution. It was sponsored by the CIA,[9] and it was embraced by petit bourgeois “Left” intellectuals, paradoxically, at the height of the May 1968 events in France, when it seemed likely that such a revolution could actually happen. This greatly puzzled, as well as disturbed, my late doctoral advisor, Marshall Berman, in his introduction to his All that is Solid Melts into Air. But it’s not that hard to figure out, provided one employs class analysis (not one of my beloved advisor’s strong suits, sadly). Support for PS by these intellectuals came out of the natural fear of the petty bourgeois Left that working class revolution might actually happen, and thus, within the new socialist workers state that they might have created, socially demote the middle class. As David North relates,[10]

When the working class went on strike, its intervention overwhelmed the petty-bourgeois movement, which faded into insignificance. Overnight, the revolutionary potential of the working class was demonstrated. However, it remained [safely] under the leadership of the

[petit-bourgeois-led]

Communist Party. But the experience had a traumatic effect on broad sections of French intellectuals. They recoiled in fear. They asked themselves, “What are we, for God’s sakes, playing at? A few protests here and there… okay. But the overthrow of capitalism? The dictatorship of the proletariat? Mon Dieu, heaven forbid!” In May-June 1968, the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia looked over the abyss, and they were terrified. Their brush with revolution set into motion a sharp movement to the right.

The same, albeit largely unconscious, fears probably motivate the snobbish, petit-bourgeois, ivory tower-oriented leaders of CS, as they have attempted to sabotage one working class-struggle-oriented proposal of ours (the conference, and now, our proposal for a march and rally embracing the NYC working class), after another

It’s not mere coincidence that Kennedy notes a similarity in discourse between the CS’s “principal decision-makers”’ defense to Kennedy of their decision not to rock the boat during the elections, and the 2016 identity-politics-based presidential campaign of Hilary Clinton,which blamed any and all social problems on “deplorable” working class whites, in order to divert attention from the culpability for these problems of the ruling class, to whom Clinton, it was revealed by Wikileaks, was utterly devoted.

Rather than being genuinely “progressive,” identity politics is a new form of the old Protestant religion. Where the old form, as Weber, Tawney, and Fromm opined, was the ideological and social-psychological basis for the rise of the industrial bourgeoisie and its expanded, and more intensely exploitative, scheme of industrial production, this new form is the basis, upon which the professional petit-bourgeoisie, from which CS members emerged, or hope to attain status within, hope to competitively claim new privileges and higher income for themselves, against their fellows, within their own “15%” upper middle class socio-economic strata, Thus, and more basically, it is the glue that binds together the hegemonic bloc made by the more neo-liberal, military-intelligence wing of the ruling class (including Democratic Party politicians like Clinton), with this professional upper middle class.[11]

As Laura Kipnis (Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, 2017) has noted, more specific to academia, IP has become the basis for quite a cottage industry: the development of a very well heeled “diversity” bureaucracy on the campus, specializing in the #Metoo-style erosion of the elementary right of due process, and the destruction of the academic careers of students and faculty, as they rake in enormous salaries. Is it far-fetched to consider, in the light of their consistently undemocratic behavior and IP ideology, the possibility that CUNY Struggle’s “principal decision-makers” have their sights set on such lucrative bureaucratic positions? Failing that, how about a juicy full time professorship, “investigating scientifically” what’s wrong with the discourse of straight white (working class) males? Clearly, these people know which side of the bread will eventually be buttered, as long as they tow the #Metoo/IP line. That’s their future cash cow!

Why Not Assert Our Position Boldly? For Fear of Being Perceived as the Angry Socialist People?

What has gotten us nowhere in the U.S. socialist labor movement, is the usual approach, of Pabloites, Shachmanites, Cliffites, Social Democrats, etc. They sanctimoniously enshrine their pessimism as humility, calling upon us all merely to tail-end the reformist movements that already exist. Their approach merely adapts to the present backwardness of the working class, Instead of getting out in front to lead, they cheerlead from the sidelines. Squandering our opportunities, they say to those workers who are open to further development, “way to go, we’re right behind your more ‘progressive’ perspective, your support for existing “progressive” trade union bureaucrats (to whom we ourselves will chum-up, at Labor Notes conferences, or even join as trade union officials as well as caucus members, a la some ex-ISO leaders). But without our contribution, our leadership, this is easily channeled by the capitalist state apparatus into harmless electoral diversions such as “feel the Bern.” Just so, sooner or later, to varying degrees, groups like the ISO, SAlt, Solidarity, etc. as well as, of course, DSA (Paul Le Blanc is only the latest in a long line of such renegades) fall into the same snares.

This approach is often portrayed as democratic, and respectful. In fact it is just the opposite. It is patronizing, manipulative, demagogic, and irresponsible (and deep down, workers know this about these soft-pedalers!) to merely pander to what already exists in the minds of even the most advanced workers, when much more is required of them as well as of us. We should not merely throw up our hands at the present low, pro-capitalist, pro-Democratic Party level of consciousness, even among some of the most militant workers, and use those hands merely to wave our “support” during the present, ongoing crisis. While such an approach might appear to be one of humility and selflessness, it is actually an adaptation to the eternal, selfish hunger of bureaucrats for a compliant, docile workforce whose present intellectual backwardness and/or stagnation they can always count on for passive support come election time. This is the quintessence of what Lenin called “objectivism,” and what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith”: using the present-day “facticity” of the low level of working class consciousness, as an excuse to abrogate our duty to act upon and further our collective “transcendence”: our critical intellect, and our freedom. 

This approach is touted by neo-Kautskyans like Blanc, and the neo-Luxemburgists like Le Blanc, as an antidote to the “tyrannical” approach toward labor organizing of V.I. Lenin. “Socialist consciousness,” we here, “is the result of a dialectical process, in which the masses must participate.”

“Yes,” we reply, “but are not intellectuals and leaders, also involved in this process: especially in that part of the process which creates the necessary organization and tactics for victory?” The central fallacy of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, according to Walter Held, in his review of Paul Froelich’s biography of Rosa for the Fourth International (“Once Again Lenin and Luxemburg,” June 1940), was to forget this not so insignificant factor in the process.

The organization and the tactics are created not by the process but by those people who achieve an understanding of the process by means of Marxist theory and who subordinate themselves to the process through the elaboration of a plan based upon their understanding.

Held shows that it was their failure to understand this that led to the demise of Luxemburg and Liebknecht; while his correct understanding, let to the success of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

The unofficial religion of the capitalist world, America especially–anti-communism–(with which “CUNY Struggle” is thoroughly imbued) is responsible for this approach. In the mind of anyone who situates himself on the Left, it creates, I believe, the sort of “double consciousness” discussed by W.E.B. Dubois with reference to African Americans. In terms of fellow social psychologist G.H. Mead, our “I’ sees our socialist views as perfectly legitimate, indeed, the salvation of humanity and the planet. But the stereotype we receive from anti-communism, poisons our “me,” portraying, even to ourselves, as hell bent on shoving our newspapers and our dogmatic views down other, more “normal” people’s throats. Thus the shying away, the bashfulness, so prevalent on the putative Left, from merely asserting ourselves and our views to the workers.

What is required of us instead is that we attempt to democratically lead and educate workers toward a further development of revolutionary socialist consciousness and commitment.  As intellectuals and activists, our task is not to shirk such responsibilities, out of false humility. To paraphrase Hillel the Elder: If not by us, then by whom? If not now, when? If not here, where?

If we, as members of the middle class, as the “traditional–bourgeois–intellectuals,” as Kautsky, Lenin, and Gramsci would refer to us, have knowledge, organizational skills, and privileges that workers right now do not enjoy, how can it be any of our business not to share this knowledge and use these skills and privileges, not for ourselves selfishly, as so many of our confreres do, but instead to help“organic” intellectuals among the workers themselves, develop, alongside us, their own revolutionary socialist consciousness, power, and agency? To do otherwise, is to deny to the workers their inheritance: our obligation to them to lead and educate them. What is wrong with Marx and Engels’ classic instruction to intellectuals such as ourselves, in the Communist Manifesto, to “supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress”?!

This is not, as the anti-communists of the es-ISO, Solidarity, DSA, Jacobin, CUNY Struggle, et alia, charge, some diabolical imposition of dogma, but instead, a dialogical, egalitarian and responsible approach, sharing our knowledge and our experience with workers, teaching them and learning from them, absolutely necessary to the task put before all of us by history.

We do so by embracing the concepts, formulated by Lenin and Trotsky of a transitional approach, with their transitional program, put forward by transitional organizations,

The Transitional Approach

The transitional approach takes seriously, rather than ignores, the fundamental insight, first developed, ironically enough, by Blanc’s idol Karl Kautsky and Lenin,[12] and then Antonio Gramsci, and a host of others, that the working class tends by itself to accept a bourgeois, economistic (or in Gramsci’s terms, “economo-corporate,” in Jean-Paul Sartre’s, “serial”), reformist, trade-union mentality. As Lenin argued in What is to be Done, the bourgeoisie have had centuries to perfect their ideological hegemony, (as Gramsci might say) and impose it upon the working class, through what Gramsci called the State and Civil Society, and what Althusser, and Poulantzas called its “ideological” (schools, bourgeois parties and electoral system, religious institutions, mass media) and “coercive” (police, the army) apparati, both staffed and supported by the “Progressive” corporate-professional as well as the old-”shopkeeper” petit-bourgeoisie.

The very anarchic, market-competitive structure of capitalist society encourages a mindset that says “I/we don’t need solidarity with our fellow workers to fight for socialism. We need to compete with other workers (especially if they happen to have a different skin color than us) to get what we want, as we “pressure” the bosses and their government for reforms, which benefit us, and to hell with the rest of the working class.”

This mentality divides and paralyzes workers. It makes us eminently co-optable by trade union bureaucrats and the bosses themselves. Thus we Leninists understand the need to reject the ideology of broad-based, lowest common denominator ideological “unity,” and the strategy of so many “rank and file” union movements, to water down their program to the point it becomes mere opposition to the existing bureaucratic leadership–a “throw the rascals out” mentality, creating a scenario where one set of reformist, collaborationist union bureaucrats is merely replaced by another–rather than a principled socialist revolutionary program.

In place of this reformist bourgeois approach, Leninists argue for organizations and programs that build up, preserve, and promote socialist consciousness. We must see these organizations and programs in the way that Gramsci, and Trotsky, saw them: as “bulwarks” that have tremendous value for both defense against the cultural and ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie, and as points from which offensive drives of revolutionary socialist education and mobilization, of counterhegemony, within and without the trade unions may be launched against this bourgeois hegemony.[13] But when we let just anybody into our rank and file caucus, with any vaguely anti-boss, anti-bureaucratic mentality–before educating them and getting their commitment to a revolutionary socialist program: then we surrender our positions, within what Gramsci called the “war of position,” to the bourgeoisie and their petit  bourgeois bureaucratic allies.

The transitional program, presented by Trotsky in 1938, is in opposition to both a reformist approach, and a doctrinaire approach, to raising the level of working class consciousness to become revolutionary. The reformists will encourage workers in their current belief that, with a little tinkering, the capitalist system can be reformed to meet their needs. The doctrinaire will demand that the workers make the revolution, or, in the case of the SEP, “form rank and file strike committees,” immediately–without much reference to their needs, or why a revolution is needed to meet their needs, or how they are going to form these committees “independently” of not just the trade union bureaucrats, but the unions themselves..

But the revolutionary, armed with a transitional program, bases her call for revolution on the needs felt by the workers, and shows the workers that the only way to meet their needs is through revolutionary work, centered on the trade unions. While the capitalist state may attempt to meet these needs via reforms–all to the good: temporarily!–this cannot last long. As with the WPA’s full employment program in the New Deal during the 1930s Great Depression, for example, these reforms will be half-hearted, and the capitalists will take back their reforms as soon as they can, or at the latest, as in the last several decades, when a renewed economic crisis, and workers complacency, encourages them to take old reforms back and subject the workers to renewed austerity.

The “rank and file” movements in the unions are solidly reformist, and usually tied to the Demcratic Party. Ultra-left groups, such as the SEP, will have nothing to do with the unions. But the transitional organization is opposed to both. Like its Leninist vanguard party parent, the TO must preserve its revolutionary principles, if it is to serve as both a defensive and offensive “bulwark” in the war of position against the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. It is usually initiated by a communist party, yet does not insist that members join that party. And the party must not control, but merely and democratically guide, the TO.[14] The basic membership requirement, however, is that members be communists, and subscribe to a communist,anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist program, committed to the time honored principle of working class independence. Thus, instead of becoming an appendage of the bosses, the bosses’ party(ies), or the bosses’ government, the TO will act as a pole of attraction AWAY from bourgeois ideology for other workers, who have not yet come over to communism, but become interested due to the fighting propaganda of the TO.

This transitional approach was pioneered in the U.S. by the Communist Party, when it was still Leninist, by the creation, by William Z. Foster (who later became a Stalinist) of the Trade Union Education League. While it began, according to Charles Walker, with only “a few dozen activists,” and yet the movement mushroomed overnight, and formed a powerful force for union organizing against the bosses’ repression.

Walker, of the Pabloite-Breitmanist group Socialist Action, even as he praises the TUEL as a model for communist organizing, effectively writes it off as obsolete, and argues instead for a “united front of militant trade unionists”–which sounds like the loose coalition of “rank and file” movements endorsed by DSA’s Blanc, Labor Notes, etc.. His reasoning? Vague, at best, “The events that shaped the 1920’s and led to the organization of TUEL are not the events that unionists face today.”[15]

In other words, because the trade union movement today is not facing the violent repression it did in the 1920s, we can’t use Leninism for our approach, because it won’t appeal to workers, who are not desperate enough yet to sign up for socialist consciousness just yet! Instead, somehow, we should indulge them and chum up to them. Yea, like that’s going to work! This is not a rational argument: it is a rationalization for opportunism, which has given rise only to one “New” layer of “progressive” bureaucrats, with their “New,” but just as “organic” relationship to the bosses and the Democratic Party, after another.

The transitional approach was also the basis for Trotskyists, particularly in the Midwest, building the unions and the general strikes that brought them into being. In large part, parties who call themselves socialist have forgotten this legacy, or if they remember it, excuse themselves from promoting this approach on the basis of a pessimism, like that of Walker, about the working class which justifies soft pedaling a revolutionary program. But we need to revive it.

Further reading

See the internationalist organization’s Trotskyism and the Trade Union Struggle, at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/internationalist/pamphlets/Trot-&-Tade-Union-Strug-OptV5.pdf


[1] Michel Pablo became the nominal head of the nominal Fourth International after Leon Trotsky died. He proposed to liquidate the FI into the Stalinist movement, which he claimed (ridiculous now in hindsight) would last for centuries. His position was for a time rejected by James Cannon, leader of the SWP, but after Cannon became demoralized, it was adopted by the SWP.

George Breitman was a member of the SWP who led a successful fight to transform the SWP into a romanticizing cheerleading squad for black nationalism. He was opposed by a minority led by Richard Fraser, who fought for what they called “revolutionary integrationism.”   Cannon’s initial, and Fraser’s permanent, resistance to Pablo and Breitman’s positions were the basis for the emergence of the Revolutionary Tendency within the SWP in the early 1960s, which then became the Spartacus League.

[2] Joseph Kishore, “The Democratic Party politics of the ‘Democratic Socialists of America’,” wsws.org, August 2nd, 2019, at https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/08/02/dsac-a02.html.

[3] Tom Mackaman, “What is the Teamsters for a Democratic Union,” September 8, 2018, wsws.org, at https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/09/08/team-s08.html

[4] Kishore, ibid. Contrary to Kishore and the SEP, led by non-union printing-press-owner millionaire David North, while union bureaucrats are often in conspiracy against their own worker-members, unions per se are not. They belong to us: not the bureaucrats. Instead of rejecting unions, we need to adopt an approach by which we can wield them.

[5] Sean M. Kennedy, “Dirty Tricks: The GC Chapter Election” April 4, 2017, at https://seanmkennedy.commons.gc.cuny.edu/tag/cuny-struggle/.

[6] See her essay here at https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

[7] See “How They Rammed Through Anti-Red Ban,” Revolution, April 2019, at http://www.internationalist.org/cuny-struggle-anti-red-ban-1905.html

[8] What might be puzzling about this is that many of the leaders of CS, as Kennedy points out, are themselves straight white males (Kennedy sees this, in “woke” fashion, as a detritment that he nevertheless originally ignored).. But as Brendan O’Neill of sp!ked argues, “woke” is an elitist, snobbish identity embraced by middle class straights/whites/ males whose essence is an “enlightened” guilt about being so. Thus they differentiate themselves from the majority of straights/whites/male, (who just so happen to be working class) who are of course deemed by the “woke,” essentially racist, sexist, and homophobic.

[9] See Gabriel Rockhill, “The CIA Reads French Theory: ON the Dismantling of the Cultural Left,” at http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/the-cia-reads-french-theory-on-the-intellectual-labor-of-dismantling-the-cultural-left/

[10] David North’s, The Theoretical and Historical Origins of the Pseudo-Left, http://www.srwolf.com/reports/OriginsofPseudoLeft.pdf.

[11] See “The #Metoo campaign versus the presumption of innocence,” by Eric London, October 5, 2018, wsws, at https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/10/05/inno-o05.html

[12] But while, despite this insight, Kautskyand the SPD leaders stuck with the old dead end of a loose, come-one-come-all approach to party, and trade union organization–eventually handing over significant decision making prerogatives to the German trade union bureaucrats–Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able, because of their unique experience under the autocratic repression under the Tsar, were able to develop the organizational implications of Kautsky’s concept, into the concepts of vanguardism, democratic centralism, and the transitional approach to workers organization by the vanguard party.

[13] See the left voice pamphlet, Gramsci and Trotsky: Strategy for the Revolution in the West by Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello, 2016. Information about the pamphlet can be found at https://www.leftvoice.org/trotsky-and-gramsci-on-revolutionary-strategy.

[14] Under the hammer blows of bourgeois, trade union ideology, if a majority of the TO’s members wander significantly from the initial, communist program, and attempt to revise it significantly, the party members have the option of leaving and forming a new TO with whatever members of the old TO still subscribe to the old, communist program.

[15] Charles Walker, “Lessons from the Trade Union Education League,” Socialist Action, July 24, 2011. https://socialistaction.org/2011/07/24/lessons-from-the-trade-union-educational-league/

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