The Lessons of Working-Class History

Against the Current, No. 57, July/August 1995

Archie Lieberman

I REMEMBER, AS a young teenager in the early 1930s during the worst Depression in U.S. history, listening to some smart asses who said the American working class was hopelessly backward and too dumb to join unions.

Within a few years the CIO revolution swept over the country. Tragically, only the Communist Party took advantage of this upsurge and established itself on a mass basis. Its defense of the Stalinist ruling class finished that movement, and struck a serious blow to socialism.

The Trotskyists tried but failed to overcome their middle-class background, to become a workers’ party in the true sense of the word — a party of real live workers living a lifetime of work in the main production centers and winning the workers to socialism. Had this been accomplished the non-Stalinist left would have survived and grown.

Into the Class Struggle

The united Trotskyist movement that came out of the Socialist Party in 1938 had about 1700 members and 500 youth. This combined membership of 2200 had the highest political level in the history of American socialism, and a youth that had no good jobs to lose or worry about.

The Communist party, which was already benefitting enormously from being early in the CIO upsurge, had grown to about 10,000.

Trotsky, who followed the American scene, was beside himself. He advocated that every member join the working class, or be associated with the working class, or be dropped to the role of sympathizer. Imagine trying to get our middle-class radicals to do that now! His position, proven tragically correct, was that the movement must proletarianize or die.

Under Trotsky’s lashing some 500 Trotskyists, 300 from the SWP and 200 from the Workers Party, did proletarianize, especially during the war years. The effect was electrifying. The charge that Trotskyism was always a failure is simply not true!

I was smack in the middle of the Trotskyist organizing. In North Jersey we won leadership over 50,000 organized workers, one of which was a giant 40,000-worker shipyard. The winning group’s program was against the war no-strike pledge, against the wage freeze (Little Steel formula), for a Labor Party, and against the previous Communist Party leadership of the local which talked about a permanent no-strike pledge.

We published 10,000 copies of the newspaper of a militant caucus, which met weekly with about 125 workers in attendance. We distributed and paid for 1000 copies of the Militant (SWP’s weekly paper), which was read by all the militants. At every party branch meeting we had worker-contacts in attendance. We grew from one member to forty and had already begun to bring to our meetings the whole progressive leadership of a 10,000-member part of the local.

We had leadership of another 10,000 workers in a group of garment, electrical and other small groups of workers in auto and other industries. We ran a candidate for Congress against a New Deal darling and got 6000 votes (more than the SWP could get in all of
New York state), all these votes coining from the work done in this industrial (North Jersey) area.

All this time we were being instructed by the SWP’s secondary Cannonite leadership (at this time Cannon, Morrow, Goldman, Dobbs and the Minneapolis comrades were all in jail, framed by Roosevelt and Teamster President Tobin) that this work was an adventure and that we stay out of mass opposition groups.

This was also the party leadership’s position on the rank-and-file movements in the UAW, where twenty-five percent of the workers were protesting, like the shipyard workers of northern New Jersey, against the no-strike pledge and wage freeze of the Little Steel formula. The combined SWP and Workers Party had about 500 in the UAW; the Socialist Party and Walter Reuther had less. We were in a good position to become a major force in the UAW.

Lost Opportunities

When the Cannonites refused to organize this struggle — not because they betrayed the workers, but because of sectarian paralysis — an opposition to the bureaucratic sectarianism rose in the SWP led by Goldman, Morrow and myself and other militants in the UAW in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

We also fought the arrant nonsense, which politically disarmed the European Trotskyists, that post-war capitalist democracy in Europe would be a “facade.” This sectarian nonsense was enforced by a bureaucratic regime (I can still see Bert Cochran, trying to sound like a tough Jim Cannon, pushing this line in the 1944 SWP convention). As we in the opposition predicted, Europe would actually take a democratic capitalist path, and revolutionaries should have been present in all the developing democratic institutions.

The Cannonites could be wrong on Europe and survive; but when they lost the chance to win the protesting workers, especially in the UAW, UE, mineworkers and other CIO unions, Trotskyism for the second time lost an important opportunity to grow. Walter Reuther and the Socialist party became the leaders instead.

Reuther was a dynamic militant leader whose raising of slogans like “Open the Books” and “wage increases without price increases” served to spread the influence of the UAW and CIO among the broad masses, who felt that organized labor fought for them.

In the late 1940s and early `50s the Workers Party and Independent Socialist League (“Shachtmanites”) played a leading role in organizing the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE), a union of 450,000 workers. We had no mass influx of ISLers, but we had a number of people who led 20,000 workers in the 100,000-member District 3 in North Jersey and New York.

This District, the largest in IUE, had been the bastion of the Communist Party; we defeated them on the grounds that we were better unionists. You would think that the whole ISL would have been mobilized to help us — but nothing was done.

Max Shachtman was already involved in the “drang nach right.” “Don’t fight the labor bureaucrats, join them.” The membership, mainly ensconced in Greenwich Village in New York and elsewhere, couldn’t be and weren’t mobilized.

The inability to proletarianize a middle-class radical membership was doubly harmful at a time when we were meeting, after the Khrushchev revelations of Stalin’s crimes, with CP workers who were attempting to block with us Shachtmanites — another activity in which I was heavily involved. The possibility of a breakthrough to these workers was enormous and real.

“There has to be a close coordination between socialist workers and their leaders. Trade union socialists cannot exist on their own, any more than a socialist political movement can exist without the workers.”

A right-moving Shachtman made this cooperation impossible. So we see from 1938 to the mid-fifties, Trotskyism did appeal to tens of thousands of workers, mainly on a trade union basis. They liked our unionism. The lessons of that rich experience suggest we will have new opportunities.

The Stalinist Roadblock

I don’t think that the average socialist appreciates the terrible disaster for the American working class that was called Stalinism. Many radicals, starting with ex-CPers and going down the line through the various Trotskyist groups, never understood the workers’ attitude toward Stalinism.

Some radicals thought Stalinism was socialism<197>dead wrong, of course. Others persisted for years in calling the Soviet Union a degenerated workers’ state, much longer than its chief defender Trotsky would have. Natasha Trotsky had told Max Shachtman, who was handling the job of giving Trotsky’s papers to Harvard University, that Trotsky had already started a new evaluation of Stalinism.

Trotsky had stated, in previous discussions, that if Stalinism survived World War II its class nature would have to be reevaluated.

Other socialists kept talking about Soviet help to colonial revolts when, in reality, this was Stalinist imperialism’s attempt to penetrate colonial markets, in the same sense that American imperialism asserts its economic dominance while ostensibly helping poor countries.

One thing about the American working class and all the workers of the world: They know a boss when they see one. They saw Stalinist oppression as worse than their own miserable bosses, mainly because in America and western Europe they had their own working-class institutions, the trade unions, to defend them.

I am reminded of a Hungarian worker, with whom I worked in a steel fabrication shop. He had gone through the 1956 Hungarian uprising and escaped to America. In his broken English he said to me, “In America the boss pushes and pushes, says `hurry up, no raise.’ In Hungary commissar push, push, push. He say `hurry up, no raise.’ Same thing!”

Workers everywhere know a boss when they have him on their backs. If only some intellectual radicals could have a real boss on their back — it might produce some brilliant observations. When the capitalist class and some misguided radicals (not too many) identify Bolshevik socialism with Stalinism, they complete the job that Stalinism did to socialism.

Toward A New Workers’ Movement

The socialist movement will not be built by convincing people in cafeteria and parlor discussions that socialism is great for all. It will be built by the next great wave of radicalism that will sweep over the working clasps and its allies — minorities, women, environmentalists, etc. — because life as we know it will become intolerable.

I am sure that many worn-out radicals (some of whom did their one-year or so stretch in the working class) will say we tried that and it failed.

I also know that resolutions like “only the working class can win power” ring hollow to many honest middle-class socialists, when they virtually never see a worker in their branch meetings let alone lead one. So many work with live radicals in the student movements, women’s rights movements etc. — all good places to work in, but having little to do with the working class.

Small groups need to concentrate their resources, in this case in the working class, or nothing happens anywhere. This work can never be secondary to any other activity or it will fail too. It is the equivalent of attacking a fortress one man at a time — it always results in disaster.

Despite some important advances, the Trotskyist movement (the old SWP and Workers Party) never really burst out into a major force. This was not because the workers were organically incapable of following left leadership: The famous “objective conditions” didn’t prevent the Communist Party, which proletarianized with a vengeance and appealed to the working class as a “socialist” movement, from establishing a serious beachhead in the American working class.

What drowned the Communist Party was the anchor of Stalinism around its neck. Some say the help the CP received from Russia was the reason it succeeded; but every Stalinist militant knew the terrible burden of selling socialism while trying to justify the crimes of Stalin.

The Trotskyists tried but their middle-class heritage sank them.

Just as sure as the sun rises and sets, the American working class will rise again. Will left socialists be there to win the support of the workers? Only if they are able to assemble a serious group of lifelong workers who can help build a large socialist movement. Capitalism will not go away, it must be removed. This is an awesome task. We must be able to do it.

ATC 57, July-August 1995