Spontaneity and the trap of Laborism

A member of the expelled minority of the Committee for a Workers International section in the USA slams the leadership of Peter Taaffe and Lynn Walsh

Comrades [in the CWI] will have received over the past week the material from the 10,000-strong wildcat strike of the carpenters in California. Big business recognised the importance of the strike, as it was covered on all the TV networks in their news programmes. The strikers elected as their leader John R, recently expelled member of the CWI and long-time carpenters’ union activist. John R also appeared on the TV networks. Another expelled CWI member and member of the carpenters’ union, RR, also played a leading role and was written up in the San Francisco Chronicle. And the former Oakland branch of the CWI was involved in the leadership of the strike throughout.

I would like to relate the success of the intervention, and our ability to make such an intervention, to the political struggles in the CWI which led to our expulsion.

One of the first issues of debate in the US section of the CWI was over the perspectives for the development of spontaneous struggles and the orientation of the section. We, the minority, argued that the spontaneous struggles would not go through the Labor Party; that they would express themselves in the unions, single-issue campaigns and neighbourhood organisations.

We explained that the leadership of the LP, which is a wing of the trade union leadership, would hog-tie this party and prevent it from becoming an arena of struggle which would attract the spontaneous movements. We argued that we should be part of the LP and take up a struggle within it for an alternative programme and policy to that of the leaders, but that we must be careful to avoid being trapped in LP work while the main struggles went on outside. We argued in particular that we should maintain and if possible step up the work of trying to build oppositions in the unions. To this approach was counterposed the position of the majority and the IS [international secretariat].

This was to concentrate the resources in the LP. The idea was that if the organisation worked correctly the LP leadership could be convinced to build a real, genuine mass-based party which would run candidates. All resources and policies were to be oriented to this end. Struggles that arose outside were to be pulled into the LP. Where such struggles threatened to bring the majority into conflict with the leadership of the LP then they were to be ignored or opposed.

Union work was to be dominated by this LP orientation and tactic. The programme of the organisation was watered down to make the organisation and the approach more acceptable to the LP/trade union leaders. Criticism of the role of the LP/trade union leaders was muted for the same reason. The opposition group we had begun to develop around the AFSCME Activist journal in the main public sector union AFSCME was destroyed by the majority. The minority had to be kicked out of the organisation to allow the section to proceed with this wrong orientation and this opportunist trend. We, the minority, were “workerist sectarians”, according to the majority.

Another area of debate which began to develop as the faction struggle unfolded were the perspectives for the economy. The expelled minority argued that the CWI - and we are all responsible to some extent for this - had underestimated the strength of the growth cycle in the 1990s. We argued that we had underestimated the growth and effect of new technology and underestimated also the degree to which US capitalism had managed to increase the rate of profit in the 1990s at the expense of the working class and from this increased investment. The majority with the backing of the IS refused to face up to these realities.

The IS have been basing themselves on the idea that there has been a depressionary period since 1973 and that the crash will soon come. How utterly inadequate this analysis has been. It has left the organisation disarmed in front of the actual development of events. Of course we do not deny the crisis of the capitalist system. But this is not sufficient to orient an organisation. The twists and turns of the cycles are very important and can shipwreck an organisation if not understood.

We, the minority, discussed the stronger than expected growth cycle. We recognised the boom in construction and the near full employment there and how this had increased the confidence of the workers and their anger that they were not getting their share. This allowed us to be prepared for and to lead the wildcat strike, something we could not have done if we had held the perspectives (if they can be called that) of the CWI: that is, that the depression has been here since 1973-75 and the crash will come any time now.

A proper recognition of the stronger than expected economic growth cycle also allowed us to conclude that any movement towards political independence on the part of the workers would find the going slower if it would exist at all. And as a result the LP development would be weakened.

After our expulsion from the CWI we still tried to maintain our presence in the LP. This was not easy because of the infrequent meetings and the domination of the LP by a wing of the AFL-CIO officialdom and their left supporters. Our main work was building our base in the unions where we had comrades, especially in the California Bay area. Along with this we sought to defend ourselves on the international front and demand our rights in the CWI’s process of appeals. Contrary to the hopes and openly expressed view of the IS, we have not disappeared.

Carrying out tactics that we would have considered inappropriate 20 or 30 years ago, but are no longer so, given the gap that has opened up between the membership and the union leadership, we played a leading role in the invasion of the carpenters’ regional council meeting. We moved from there when the mood was clear to lead the wildcat strike, and with the hard core of 150-plus activists that emerged, and with the backing of thousands of workers in the strike and the respecting of the picket lines by the other trades, we led this major battle.

We should not go too far in estimating our role. Our actual forces on the ground were very small. We need now to move to win and consolidate a layer of the activists for the battles that lie ahead. But with the authority of the wildcat behind us the task of building an opposition in the union with its own journal is now underway. And messages of support and congratulations are still coming from across the USA and Canada. A major step forward has been taken.

This success is a vindication of the perspectives and the orientation of the minority. We maintained our principled position within the unions, we recognised the construction boom and we saw the gap between the union leaders and the ranks; we saw the mood of anger as the boom continued and wages and conditions worsened, and we were prepared to take decisive and militant action.

Meanwhile the majority found themselves trapped in LP work. Inside the LP they are now on the right of all the left tendencies in that moribund organisation. The policies of the majority and their orientation has made it impossible for them to participate in the real movements of the working class other than as cheerleaders. This is exactly as we predicted.

Consider their position in relation to this strike. They should have taken up this wildcat strike in the LP, discussing it there and advocating support for it and criticising the union leadership for its opposition, for its role of refusing to recognise and to lead the strike, for its physical attack on the membership who went into the regional council meeting, for its threatening of the strikers with the cops, for calling the homes of strikers and threatening their families, for red-baiting the leaders of the strike, etc, etc. But to do so would lead immediately to a huge battle with the LP/trade union leaders. And the position of the majority is that they can convince the LP/trade union leaders to actually build a real LP and to this end they do not want confrontation with these leaders, especially on trade union issues, as these issues are guaranteed to evoke a ferocious and hostile response.

So this leads to the present position of the US section of the CWI. Their friendly relations with the LP/trade union bureaucracy and their left supporters come first, so the wildcat strikers must be sacrificed. After all a movement that is hostile to the policies of the AFL-CIO leadership cannot be brought into the LP by the majority. This is the same process that led to our expulsion. There also friendly relations with the LP/trade union leaders and their left supporters came first. And this resulted in the conclusion that the minority had to be expelled because we would not go along with this opportunism.

Comrades will be familiar with the old detective story where the fact that the dog did not bark was seen as crucial evidence. We have the same situation here. The US section of the CWI did not participate in any shape or form in the carpenters’ wildcat strike. The branch that the IS recruited in the California Bay area were not seen at any time during the struggle. Other left groups were on the picket lines with their papers. We, the minority, were in the leadership. But the CWI? Nowhere to be found. There were meetings every morning of the strike of hundreds of the hard-core activists/pickets; there were sites with workers walking off all over the North California area; there were the mobile picket squads going from site to site; but nowhere, nowhere did the CWI appear.

What is the significance of this evidence that the CWI did not bark or - to make it concrete - did not intervene? The significance is that what we are seeing now is the inevitable result of the false analysis and the opportunist policies of the majority, backed up by the CWI leadership. In another brilliant first for IS representative LW [Lynn Walsh], with the full support of the IS, the branch which has led this major wildcat was expelled and replaced with a branch which could not even get itself to the picket lines.

The CWI is in the process of break-up and political degeneration. We argued that our expulsion was part of a process which was rooted in the wrong perspectives of the past decade and a half and the inability of the internal life of the organisation, and especially the inability of the leadership of the organisation to face up to this and correct our perspectives, change the internal life and reorient the organisation. Unless the IS is challenged and a genuine open discussion and debate opened up in the CWI, then this downward spiral of crisis and disintegration will continue.

Nothing short of a complete shake-up in the CWI will allow this process to be cut across. The election of an IS prepared to face up to past mistakes and to genuinely seek the input of the membership is essential. Such an IS would also have to be convinced of the need for a real collective leadership and would have to accept that the IEC [international executive committee] is a more authoritative body than the IS. And it now seems clear that the location of the IS should be moved from London, where it is based, in a country which has suffered from some of the worst defeats of the working class over the past two decades. From this a genuine invitation to all those who have been expelled or who have resigned to participate in the discussions to re-orientate the organisation should be made.

To the IEC members we ask the following question: where will the process of decline, break-up and political degeneration end unless there is an open debate and discussion inside the organisation? The majority of the expulsions and resignations that have taken place would not have happened if there was an open debate and struggle, and an atmosphere for such within the CWI. We know of members of the IEC who are very concerned about what is going on, who do not accept the arguments of the IS, but who go along with them. This is a terrible policy. By keeping quiet and refusing to speak up they aid the process of resignation and expulsion. The IS sees it can get away with expulsions and so considers more, and those who resign do so mainly because they can see no significant opposition coming from the IEC.

Finally a word on the CWI and its perspectives for growth and development in the USA and Canada. Its two or three members in Canada have been prodded by the IS into attacking and slandering the organisation and leadership of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. And OCAP is one of the most respected, if not the most respected, fighting organisation in that country in the eyes of the activists. How is this little grouplet going to grow when its relations to OCAP are so unprincipled? The answer is that it will not.

Here now in the USA the carpenters’ wildcat will be seen by the activists who know of it as the way to proceed. And here the CWI section is locked into a dirty slander campaign for the past years against the minority comrades who played the main leading role in this strike. The CWI’s future in North America has become increasingly problematic in the past few weeks.

Imagine what could have been. The CWI could have put up a principled struggle in the LP and recruited the best members to its ranks. The opposition work in AFSCME, the largest public sector union in the USA, could have continued to develop and, given the terrible crisis in that union, especially in New York, AFSCME Activist could have by now put down serious roots and been the recognised opposition. Along with these successes the CWI would now have been on the threshold of leading another opposition force in another union, this time the most important of the construction unions. This would have left the CWI as the most important left group in the country.

And in Canada, instead of the collapse of the organisation, the exciting progress that was being made before the expulsions could have been built upon; and now, with the carpenters’ union breakthrough, the membership of that union in Canada could have been opened up to the organisation.

There is no other conclusion to be drawn. The IS, led by its representative, LW, has done very serious damage to the developing of a genuine Marxist base in North America. The minority comrades are carrying on this work and will be an important part of the healthy international of the future.


(for the expelled members of the CWI in North America)