From International Socialism (1st series), No.88, May 1976, pp.38-39.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
In IS 85 we published an article by Nigel Harris under the title of Two Notes on a Visit to the USA. Here we print a critical comment by Glenn Wolfe, the National Secretary of the IS (USA).
Any description of the potential for socialist agitation in the USA today must begin with an understanding of the gigantic impact of the world capitalist crisis of the American working class. After decades of stability and growth and without the sort of warning of things to come that British workers experienced through the ‘stop-go’ sixties, the US economy was plunged last year into a depression of almost 1930s proportions. By early 1975 official unemployment figures accounted for one worker in every eight, real wages had been cut by over 10 per cent in three years and inflation, while beginning to ease off, was still in double figures.
It was this situation which produced the New York City crisis which was expertly analysed in Harris’s article. But in the same way as you cannot judge the impact of the British crisis from what you observe in the Inner London Boroughs, it is also impossible to get a balanced picture of the American crisis from an examination of the borough of Manhattan. For the same general crisis which crippled New York also put half a million auto workers out on the street for nearly a year. It brought a massive increase in speed-up and harassment for the truck-drivers who are the militant core of the two million-strong International Brotherhood of Teamsters. It produced a two-month unofficial strike of almost half of the country’s coal miners. In short the impact on the organised working class and service industries, and particularly on black, latin and women workers was gigantic. And even now, in the midst of the shallow, election-year recovery, the working class is facing a ruling class offensive the like of which has not been felt in generations.
Let it be absolutely clear, it is amongst the most powerful and best organised industrial workers, not as Harris advises, the fragmented and isolated municipal workers, that a serious revolutionary organisation must build. For Harris is right about one thing. The American left suffers from ‘a bitter heritage of isolation and irrelevance’. It is a heritage which must be destroyed and destroyed quickly.
The only organisation that has any record in breaking down this isolation and irrelevance by constructing a workers organisation based on actual leadership of a growing rank and file movement is the IS (USA). We got where we are because we had a conscious and successful strategy for using our limited resources in a consistent way at the points where revolutionary politics could have the greatest effect on the working class as a whole, jn auto, steel, mines, communications and transport.
But in discussing the New York situation Harris tells us that ‘... at particular moments, a handful of dedicated city workers would have created the rank and file leadership capable of precipitating a general strike ...’ Now even if this impression were correct it would still mean that the IS (USA) in trying to organise its work around this formula would be forced to flit from issue to issue, and from place to place, thus having no impact on the real struggle and essentially just collectively hoping that a ‘particular moment’ might soon arise. The truth is that such a strategy would have condemned us to the twilight world of the middle-class sect and left the IS (GB) with no serious collaborators in the most powerful capitalist country in the world.
We do not deny that revolutionaries must be involved in all workers struggles, we certainly did not ignore the New York city crisis. But to state that the crisis ‘ought to be a top priority for any group and mass workers party’ and to castigate the ‘left’ for not ‘precipitating a general strike’ is akin to not only blaming the IS (GB) at a similar period in its development, for the defeat of the 1971 postal workers strike but also suggesting that the strike was a struggle of greater importance and more impact than the 1974 miners strike which smashed the wage freeze and defeated the government.
Harris argues that in America ‘no one is prepared to gamble. Yet audacity is a pre-condition for a rank and file movement’. He is wrong, the IS (USA) is prepared to gamble. He is right, audacity is vital.
On 1 April the Master Freight Agreement covering 400,000 drivers and warehouse workers expired. This is the first, key-note contract in a round of employer/union bargaining which will set the wages and conditions for millions of workers up to 1979. The union side in these negotiations is the largest, and possibly the most corrupt, union in the world, the Teamsters. Last summer, with a handful of members and sympathisers representing almost insignificant forces in only half a dozen union branches, the IS took the lead in setting up an organisation called Teamsters for a Decent Contract (TDC) as a rank and file vehicle for organising a serious struggle on the contract. With a month still to go to the contract, and with IS members still very prominent, the TDC has chapters in almost 50 cities, it is a force in hundreds of union branches, and it has a weekly paper with a circulation of over 30,000. Despite a level of physical intimidation and political persecution that is totally unknown in countries like Britain, the TDC is beginning to put together the sort of workplace organisation that could stop the wheels of American industry turning. It has also already done the groundwork to contest the other major teamster contracts and will continue after those struggles as an ongoing rank and file movement with a broader political programme aimed at retaking the union for the members.
This has been largely an IS initiative, it is audacious and only a fool would think it is not a tremendous gamble for an organisation our size. For again Harris is right, so far there is no revolutionary organisation of ‘national significance’. The strides we have made in size, worker membership and with our newspaper do not yet amount to a significant breakthrough. But with the teamster contract we are now creating the possibility of that breakthrough. With similar work already starting around the Autumn auto contract we are also taking another step to turn that possibility into a certainty. For one thing is clear. The potential for the creation of a workers revolutionary party in the USA hasn’t been this great since the thirties.
As Harris pointed out, such a party will rely heavily on the vanguard role of black workers in the struggle. It will be a multi-racial party with a large proportion of black members and a heavy emphasis on the struggle for black liberation. And it is no accident that in making a turn to become a real force in the working class, the IS (USA) has begun to recruit significant numbers of black workers for the first time in its history.
As the struggle intensifies, this trend will deepen. The strong anti-racist emphasis of IS work, which has been recently demonstrated in the busing struggles in Louisville and Detroit, will further contribute to the eventual creation of a multi-racial workers party in the USA But no one should believe that there are any short-cuts to such a development. Racism in America has a depth and intensity which is qualitatively greater than anything which exists in Britain and which has real and damaging consequences even inside the revolutionary movement itself. Harris’s vague reference to the great potential of ex-Panthers and un-named ‘small black socialist groups’ can only be misleading and tend to develop an incorrect impression that there are easy gains to be made by revolutionaries with the correct orientation. Unfortunately, any continuation in the plants of the black movement of the sixties is very much the exception rather than the rule and certainly cannot provide the basis for a strategy to build a viable workers party.
In conclusion it must be said that the fact that this article, with all its differences with the Harris US notes, can none the less appear in the IS Journal, is symptomatic of an important development in the world revolutionary movement. On the initiative of IS (GB) we are developing an international tendency which will have a growing impact on workers struggles in many of the major countries of the world. The IS Journal is no longer solely the property of British workers. It is becoming a weapon to be used by us all. We still have a lot to learn about building and running an international movement. For some years to come, much of the burden of providing leadership and resources for this work will fall on the IS (GB). Certainly the IS (USA) has learnt a vast amount from its British comrades and we feel no shame in admitting that we will continue for many years to lean heavily on the political and practical support that the IS (GB) provides. Thankfully we are now learning lessons from the Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat (PRP) in Portugal, as well as lessons we could not have learnt from Britain, for our British comrades do not operate in the heat of a revolution.
It is also the case that not everything that is correct for Britain and Portugal is correct for the USA. For example unlike the PRP we are not part of a working class which has a high level of consciousness and considerable revolutionary sentiment. Unlike the IS (GB) we are not part of a working class with a strong tradition of social democracy and Stalinism which creates certain advantages, for revolutionaries but which can also block the development of class struggle at key points. The American working class has its own traditions, it is historically extremely volatile, it is already armed to an amazing degree, it is riddled with racism and anti-communism. The strategy of the IS (USA), while based on the same principles of International Bolshevism as the IS (GB), while based on many of the same theories that were developed by our British comrades, cannot be a pale and inappropriate reflection of the British strategy. Nor can our Canadian, Irish, Portuguese, or indeed any other international comrades, be forced into every nock and cranny of the British mould.
However it is clear, that whatever minor mistakes are being made by the British IS in carrying out its responsibilities as the leader of our international tendency, they recede to insignificance when compared to the achievements. The constant readiness of the IS (GB) to assist its fraternal organisations, its willingness to openly debate the differences which arise, the overwhelmingly positive effects of its advice on its international collaborators. All these factors demonstrate that the IS (GB) will be as successful in its international work as it has been at home. From its present position as the leader of a single international tendency it is proving itself ready, able and worthy to play a vanguard role in the creation of a new international revolutionary movement.
Last updated on 7.3.2008