Louis N Proyect
lnp3 at columbia.edu
Sat Feb 24 04:17:04 MST 1996
Louis says that "to assume that the industrial unions would
be the place where all major political struggles took place
was an act of faith bordering on madness." But this assumption
was not made by Barnes or the SWP.
The industrial workplaces and unions are our arena to
build support for the fight against nuclear power and weapons, for
ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, against racial discrimination,
and around the other major political issues confronting our
class. This is the central arena for all our party campaigns.
When a party chooses an arena to wage a fight in, the assumption must be
made that this is an arena from which an effective fight can be waged. When,
for example, the Vietnam antiwar movement began to develop, the central
arena for the SWP became the campuses, not basic industry.
When you deploy thousands of people into coal-mines, steel-mills,
garment-shops, etc., you do this not on the basis of some abstract notion
that the working-class is the historical agent of socialist
transformation or some other such phrase plucked from the Communist
Manifesto. There has to be signs of motion if you are in the business of
Now as it turns out, the industrial unions were not a particulary effective
arena to carry out struggles against nuclear power and weapons, for
example, were they? To say so indicates total ignorance about the class
struggle in the US at that period in history.
The anti-nuclear movement was one of the most important mass movements of the
1970s, but neither the industrial unions nor rank and file workers in
basic industry were key constituents of this movement. In fact, the
anti-nuclear movement was just something that the SWP commented on from the
sidelines while the movement was built by human beings with less "pure"
class composition and union affiliations.
If the auto-plants, for example, had become hotbeds of anti-nuclear
activity in the 1970s, then the dozens of NY SWP members working in
places like Linden, New Jersey would have been able to do productive
political work on the job and through the unions.
That was the whole idea.
However, Barnes miscalculated. He saw the 1970s through the prism of the
1930s when the industrial unions were, in effect, like the campuses of
the 1960s: hotbeds of political activity. The unions are simply the
places where the wages and working-conditions of workers can be defended.
Also, in an abstract sense, the industrial unions are places where workers
can bring enormous power to bear on broader political issues. If, for
example, the longshoremen in the 1960s had simply refused to load war
material destined for Vietnam, the war would have ended in an instant.
This led young radicals with a rather schematic and romantic concept of
Marxism to take jobs as longshoremen in the 1960s. As it turned out, the
longshoremen were not conspicuously against the war, no matter how much of
a leftist presence there was in this union in the 1930s.
So Barnes made the same kind of error as the unsophisticated student
radicals of the 1960s who "colonized" the unions but never became an
important force in US politics. The SWP in its turn to industry joined a
previous generation of student radicals but hoped that the 1970s were
finally the right time and the right place to be in the industrial unions.
But timing is everything in politics. When you belong to a party that
puts enormous demands on your time and energy, you have to have
expectations that your contributions will pay off. SWP members in the
1970s and 1980s who took jobs in coal-mines, steel-mills, etc. have been
isolated from movements such as the anti-nuclear movement. They also have
not been able to win workers to their cause.
When the Bolsheviks had an orientation to the workers in basic industry
in Russia at the turn of the century, this was a correct orientation. It
fostered their growth. In the 1980s and 1990s, it has the opposite
effect. It leads to shrinkage. Perhaps Barnes has a more dialectical
concept of revolutionary politics than the rest of us. By reducing the
size of the SWP, he is making it more powerful. "Fewer but stronger" or
something like that.
The sad truth is that the SWP has turned into a minor sect in US
politics. It has no influence in the unions or in the sectors it
abandoned. It is basically a publishing house and a cadre that sells the
books that are published there. It has not recruited any significant
number of workers to its ranks in the 25 years or so it has
been colonizing industry. A worker's party that can't attract workers?
What would Marx have made of that?
When struggles take place over burning political issues such as
imperialist war in Central America or the Gulf region, the movement is
led by others since the SWP has neither the strength nor the political
understanding of how to lead such movements. It simply comments on these
confrontations through the pages of the Militant, which now has a
circulation about the same size of rival Trotskyite sects.
The only way you can hold a sinking ship like this together is through
peer pressure, or to put it in less generous terms, cult psychology.
People in their forties and fifties have been part of this demoralizing
business for their entire adult lives and have no life outside the SWP. They
remain in because they have neither the will nor the opportunity to make
a life outside this barren sect.
The SWP was once an interesting group that attracted first-rate minds and
many people who had an ability to lead. Now it is a shell, a husk, a
dried-up remains of a party. All of the blood and living energy has flowed
out of it. It might attract someone like Jim Miller who, as far as I can
tell, has a rather bookish understanding of politics and who may be
attracted to the idea of "worker-bolshevism" and all that sort of thing.
(I myself have always been repelled by empty phrase mongering such as this.)
But when real workers involved in life-and-death struggles with the brutal
American capitalist class have the need to defend themselves on the
political as well as the economic arena, they will have to look elsewhere.
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