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Origins of the rank and file strategy

Workers’ militancy and socialist organization often develop without much connection to each other. One Marxist approach to uniting them has come to be known as the rank and file strategy. Kim Moody, a veteran of the International Socialists, explains the roots of the strategy in the Marxist tradition and how the IS tried to put it into practice by diving into the rank and file rebellions of the 1970s.

Movements of workers’ militancy often develop with little connection to socialist organizations. Workers fight the bosses because they need to—to defend their living standards, their dignity, and their general well-being. They use whatever ideas and forms of organization are available. It helps to have a union, but workers still struggle even when the union leadership doesn’t have their back.

One thread of Marxist tradition has developed a distinctive approach to closing the gap between socialist organization and workers’ militancy—by trying to build a revolutionary socialist current in workplaces through common struggles with rank and file leaders of existing unions.

The International Socialists in the U.S. made one such attempt to close the gap. After getting a start in campus clubs in the 1960s, many IS members took union jobs in the 1970s—a time of rank and file rebellion. An expanded vision of their general approach would later become well known as the “rank and file strategy,” in part because Kim Moody, a veteran of the IS, published a pamphlet by that name in 2000.

Five years later, Moody took a critical look at the IS experience itself. That November, he spoke at a conference on the “Long 1970s” at UCLA’s Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. His speech, reprinted here, details some of the ideas and practical experience through which the rank and file strategy was adapted to the circumstances of the time. – Eds.

The rank and file union revolts that have been developing in the industrial workplaces since the early 1950s are now plainly visible. Like many of their compatriots, American workers are faced with paces, methods and conditions of work that are increasingly intolerable. Their union leaders are not sensitive to these conditions.

So wrote Stan Weir in 1967 1in a revised version of a 1966 pamphlet published by the Berkeley Independent Socialist Club, the center of a network of socialist groups that would eventually form the International Socialists in late 1969. These three sentences form what might be called the bare bones of the rank and file perspective developed by the International Socialists. Compelled by the pressure of conditions, workers act. Their leaders do not respond or even stand in the way of conflict, and rank and file rebellion brews and sometimes explodes into open conflict, not only with the boss but often with the union leaders.

Weir pointed to what was in reality only the very beginning of nearly a decade of working class upheaval. It was composed of wildcat strikes both local and national, growing official strikes to “let off steam,” the formation of rank and file caucuses, Black and Latino caucuses, the organization of the public sector, and the rise of the farm workers movement. The concept of a rank and file movement wasn’t entirely new, even to us. We had seen documentation of some of them in Herman Benson’s Union Democracy in Action, an occasional newsletter that reported on union democracy issues beginning in 19602. Weir, however, gave it a broader context. The U.S. government, on the other hand, summarized and trivialized this upheaval in a report by a government task titled Work in America, as the “Blue Collar Blues.”[footenote]Report of a Special Task Force to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Work in America, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1973, pp. 29-38.[/footnote] It was largely ignored in any practical way by most of the left.

This upsurge, of course, took place in a decade of general social unrest in which one movement succeeded or inspired another. Weir recognized this and tied together, in the language of the mid-1960s to be sure, the struggles of students, labor, and the “Negro” people. All of this made a great deal of sense to those of us who had been through one or more of these movements. The potential was that the industrial working class would provide the social weight that could carry the movements of the day beyond the limits of capitalism. The bare bones, three-sentence clue to the rank and file perspective, however, did not constitute a theory or even an analysis.

The questions raised by this way of viewing things were daunting. What deeper economic forces in capitalism were driving the conditions that sparked revolt? What was the nature of the trade union leadership that seemed to compel them to thwart class conflict rather than ride with it? If there was, indeed, a developing rank and file rebellion, what forms would it take, and could these actually push the unions toward independent class politics? Beyond supporting and, where possible, participating in these movements, what was the role of socialists in all of this?

The rank and file perspective developed by the International Socialists in the 1970s could not have been formulated in 1966. If there was an answer to the question of the deeper forces of capitalism, it would have been that the revolts of students, African Americans, Latinos, industrial workers, and public employees were driven not by the system’s crisis, but by its very prosperity. It was a prosperity for all to see, but from which many were excluded.

Along with many other changes in U.S. society, this propelled Blacks and others to rebel and demand inclusion. The student population had swelled to the point where it could feel a sense of power, along with the frustration of academia and its apologetics for the status quo. Workers knew their employers were profitable, and high levels of employment emboldened them to struggle against inhuman working conditions that seemed economically unjustified. The theory many of us in the “Third Camp” and IS tendencies held in the 1960s, the permanent war (or arms) economy, was precisely an explanation of the relative prosperity that followed World War II3. An understanding of the problems of capitalism, accurate or not, had to wait for the 1970s.

That workers would rebel against the conditions capital imposed on them was, of course, the “a” in the “abc’s” of Marxism. But what of the problem of the labor bureaucracy? What explained their behavior? The answers on offer at that time were slim or wrong. Academic sociology seemed to repackage Michels’ “Iron Law of Oligarchy” that bureaucracy in large organizations was inevitable. Often they combined that with a Weberian approval of bureaucracy. In the late 1940s, C. Wright Mills, a left Weberian at the time influenced by the Workers Party, developed the notion of the union leader as a “manager of discontent.” But this did not mean simply stopping struggle so much as managing it in different circumstances. This by no means ruled out strikes or occasional militancy.

He also saw a tendency toward bureaucracy and cooperation between union leaders and managers4. Some New Left thinkers in the 1960s went beyond Mills to develop the notion that the employers had come to value, not simply tolerate, unions for their disciplinary function, embracing the bureaucracy in a “corporatist” version of capitalism. A reading of Trotsky’s brief remarks on unionism in the late 1930s was not much help either. He had seen unionism being incorporated into the bourgeois state under the conditions of the system’s “death agony.” The only alternative was for them to become revolutionary.

This seemed to beg the question of how unions dominated in one way or another by the state could become revolutionary. What did it mean for unions to become revolutionary? In any case, American capitalism in the 1960s hardly seemed in its death agony. Similarly, Lenin’s theory of the “aristocracy of labor” didn’t seem to accord with the fact that much of the rank and file rebellion emerging in the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, and elsewhere at the time came from the better-paid sections of the class. Where then did this view of rank and file rebellion as a potential source for building a socialist movement in the U.S. come from? The journey through the sources of this political perspective is necessarily a personal one. Others will have entered the process at different points with somewhat different roots. They will also have played different roles in the group. There is no attempt here to provide the total picture of the IS experience of “the long 1970s.” Despite this, I think much of how I describe the development of the perspective will be recognizable to others who arrived at the same place in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Roots I: The Labor Bureaucracy

Aside from the Marxist classics, for many of us who came to the “Third Camp” and later IS organizations in the U.S. during the 1960s, there were at least two major traditions to draw on. The first in the U.S. was that of the old Workers Party (roughly 1940-1950) and its offspring the Independent Socialist League (roughly 1950-1959), known as the “Third Camp” tendency. The major thinker by the time we came along was Hal Draper, who continued the radical side of that tradition in the Socialist Party/YPSL (1960-64) and then through the Independent Socialist Club at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1966, at almost the same time that Stan Weir’s pamphlet was published by the ISC, they also published Draper’s Two Souls of Socialism in pamphlet form.5

Originally written in the late 1950s, it was a masterful polemic against all forms of elitist and bureaucratic socialism from the utopians to the Fabians and Stalinism. It reminded one that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.” He argued for “socialism from below” as opposed to “permeationism.” He attacked Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy as “a crude theory of inevitability.” While he didn’t say much about unions in this work, the concepts provided underpinning for a rank and file approach6. Other works I ran across at the time that strengthened this orientation included Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike and Sidney Hook’s Toward an Understanding of Karl Marx, a work that passed around ISC and later IS circles in a mimeographed pirate edition. Luxemburg, of course, took on the bureaucratic approach of the SPD toward class struggle and emphasized the “spontaneous” side of that struggle, while Hook attacked the mechanical inevitability theories of both social democracy and Stalinism. What was important here was the concept of self-activity, the active role of the working class in history and the dynamics of struggle.

Lacking any direct experience and looking around the world in the late 1960s, some of us developed a concept we called “struggle groups.” Frustrated by the conservatism of the unions as institutions, we looked to developments like the comiti di basi in Italy and called for organizations based in the workplace that would carry on the struggle outside the official union structure. After all, the subtitle of the original version of Stan Weir’s pamphlet had read, “on the job vs. official unions.” Draper responded to this drift in the organization in a series of talks he gave in 1970. A lot of the talk involved arguments for working in the unions. But he also attempted to get at the problem of the labor bureaucracy.

He attacked the academic conception of bureaucracy as lacking social context, an abstract institution or structure that stood by itself. The labor leadership could not be that, rather in the class context in which it functions the labor leadership “has a dual social function.” First it is the leadership of our class organization. But its other function is as the “channel and agency for the exercise of bourgeois influence on the working class.” “It is both at once.” This was not necessarily a new idea, but it was put clearly and differed from the more “sociological” analysis7. In 1966, influenced by Weir, I and two others wrote a proposal for that year’s SDS convention, urging SDS to orient toward the rank and file of the industrial unions. In it we wrote: “the union bureaucrats function in a different social milieu than workers. They live with the upper-middle classes, they hob-nob with leaders of industry, they visit the White House.”8 Draper’s notion of the dual role of the bureaucracy, whether original with him or not, added an important dimension to our largely sociological understanding of the labor leadership.

In this talk, Draper introduced something else that would provide us with ideas about how socialists relate to rank and file movements. That was the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL). This was, at the time, a little-studied organization in the early 1920s that pulled together a variety of existing rank and file opposition groups in several unions and turned that into a broad grassroots movement favoring industrial unionism through amalgamation of craft unions, the formation of a labor party, and union democracy as its main themes. Although initiated by William Z. Foster before he joined the Communist Party, it soon came under the control of the CP. If you were lucky enough to have an old copy of Sid Lens’, even-then out of print 1949 book, Left, Right, and Center: Conflicting Forces in American Labor, you would have known about the TUEL in some detail. If not, Draper’s description was something new.

TUEL was somewhat of a hybrid in that it did have support among some high level leaders, particularly those in the Chicago Federation of Labor, but mostly it was a genuine rank and file movement that spread rapidly across the unions in 1922-23. Its initial success was based precisely on the willingness of Foster and, at first, the CP to go with the existing opposition movements in several unions and to address existing consciousness. As Draper put it, “as a result of the policy (amalgamation and a labor party) they followed, all the ferment that existed, all those currents of opposition that flowed beneath the surface of the movement, coalesced around the TUEL.” But, sure enough, CP control was increased and the party actually merged the TUEL’s paper The Labor Herald¸ with Soviet Russia Pictorial and The Liberator and turned it into a CP front. This killed the TUEL as a real movement9. The lesson seemed clear. Socialists should help build rank and file movements and organizations, but the task is not to take them over or dominate them, but to develop a broad leadership that can sustain the movement. This was a lesson that later made the Teamsters for a Democratic Union possible.

The second tradition was that of the British International Socialists, with whom the U.S. ISC/IS had considerable contact from the mid 1960s on. The influence of the British IS was enormous. They had developed a range of theory and analysis the tiny American organization could not. Their analyses of France in 1968, Northern Ireland, the permanent arms economy, Cliff’s earlier piece on the “Economic Roots of Reformism” arguing against the aristocracy of labor thesis, and more. (The one piece of IS-UK theory less accepted in the U.S. IS was Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism.)

The IS-UK had begun serious trade union work by the mid-1960s. They were involved in the formation of the Shop Stewards Defense Committee (SSDC) in 1966. This was a broad rank and file organization in which IS stewards were active, but made no effort to control. IS leaders Tony Cliff and Colin Barker produced a pamphlet entitled Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards which was published by the London Industrial Shop Stewards Defense Committee in 1966. It argued for strengthening the workplace resistance to incomes policy through strong shop steward organization. It sold in the thousands. Published earlier in the same year as Weir’s pamphlet, it is probably no accident that Weir called for an American shop stewards movement.

Cliff and Barker’s analysis of the trade union leadership noted the increased role of union functionaries on government committees and the simultaneous “impotence of the TUC Brass” to influence government, perhaps a bow to Trotsky’s incorporation theory. They also noted “increasing bureaucracy” meaning more full-time officials serving longer terms, and the decline of the union branch (local). The analysis of the union bureaucrat was the sociological one, which would become the dominant view in British IS agitational literature. Cliff and Barker wrote, “The official’s white collar and his brief-case, together with the fact that in most cases he does not have to face election, give him quite often a feeling that he is a member not of the working class but of the middle class.”10

Incomes Policy was the first in a series of agitational pamphlets and books directed at this milieu in the fights against incomes policy, productivity deals, and austerity in the name of “social contract.” These included The Employers Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them (1970) and The Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism both by Tony Cliff. They combined analysis with practical information and proposals for action. They invariably had a critique of the leadership as well.

In general, the IS-UK or at least Cliff gave the more sociological explanation for leadership failings. In The Employers Offensive, for example, Cliff gave a structural analysis of why even “left” union leaders were seldom willing to fight productivity deals. In 1975, Cliff wrote in The Crisis, “Their trade unions are organizations for the defense of workers against the employers; but they themselves (the leaders) live completely differently and separately from the workers they represent.”11 If the theory didn’t offer anything new, the practice was impressive—until the turn toward party building around 1974-75 brought the rank and file orientation to a virtual end. Indeed, The Crisis was the first of these pamphlets to call for revolutionary organization and to suggest that IS (not quite yet the SWP) was it. The argument for the party-building approach was based on the limitations of the current struggle, the shop stewards, the Labour Party, and the CP, not on the dynamics of the struggles. This was a change with considerable implications for the U.S. IS rank and file strategy.

The most serious effort within the IS tradition to deal with the theory of the labor bureaucracy and the limits of trade unionism in general was Richard Hyman’s 1971 Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism. This influential pamphlet would be reprinted in 1973 and 1975. It was a tour de force of the ideas of Michels, Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Gramsci, Lenin, and the academic industrial relations experts on trade unionism and consciousness. A full exposition of his ideas is not possible here.

In summary, Hyman divided the views of these and others into optimistic and pessimistic, referring to the likelihood that trade union struggle would go beyond the limits of capitalism. In their most basic statements of unions and bureaucracy Michels, Lenin, Trotsky, and Gramsci fell into the pessimistic category, while Marx, Engels, and Luxemburg were more optimistic about the potential of economic struggle to produce revolutionary consciousness under certain circumstances. Despite its title, Hyman did not deal mainly with the question of the bureaucracy, but of the relationship of trade union struggle to consciousness.

In the area of the sociology of the bureaucracy he offers a valuable critique of Michels, whose ideas are the basis of most modern mainstream academic theories of trade union organization. Michels saw bureaucratization of mass workers organizations as simply inevitable. Once the union or party bureaucrat becomes settled in office, the interests of the organization as institution become primary. “Thus, from a means, organization becomes an end.” “What interest for them (the union or party officials) has now the dogma of the social revolution? Their own social revolution has already been effected.”12 Explicit in Michels is the notion of a passive rank and file, “…the majority of members are as indifferent to the organization as the majority of the electors are to parliament.”13 But, as Hyman argues, the passivity of the membership is based largely on the performance of the leadership. He quotes the American trade union expert R. F. Hoxie: “When they fail to ‘deliver the goods’ both (government and union leaders) are likely to be swept aside by a democratic uprising of the rank and file.”14 That was written in 1923 just as one of the periodic rank and file upsurges in the U.S. had taken place for all to see.

While these days sweeping the leaders aside is not always easy or even possible, in the early 1970s the “uprising of the rank and file” in one form or another was already there for us to see. Indeed, as Weir pointed out in 1966, workers had rejected the government’s wage guidelines in several industries and had challenged top leaders in most CIO unions in the mid-1960s. In the Steelworkers, Oil & Chemical Workers, Rubber Workers, and International Electrical Workers, the top leaders were “swept away.”15 The position of the labor leader is contradictory, Hyman argues. He or she is subject to both internal (members and lower officials) and external (management, government, economic) conditions. In most U.S. unions, even the most bureaucratic, the majority of local unions remain fairly democratic, and leadership experiences considerable turnover. Unions are not and cannot be the monolith that Michels pictured, nor is their incorporation into the state, or more accurately the limitations imposed by the state, a permanent feature or one-sided process.16

Picture of Richard Hyman speaking at a panel.
Richard Hyman, author of the influential 1971 pamphlet, Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism. Hyman is pictured here in 2017 speaking on “The future of work we want.” He is Professor Emeritus of Industrial Relations, London School of Economics. Photo by Marcel Crozet.

Roots II: Self-activity and consciousness

Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism presents the arguments for and against the ability of trade union struggle to develop class and socialist consciousness. The arguments Hyman presented in 1971 could be found in many sources in the late 1960s and early 1970s in IS literature, but his summary is representative enough in talking about the development of the rank and file perspective of the U.S. IS in the 1970s. As mentioned above, he looks at both the “optimistic” and “pessimistic” sides of this long-standing debate in revolutionary circles. This is dangerous territory to enter, as the debate inside and outside the IS and, of course, among the great revolutionary thinkers of the early 20th century is highly complex. What is important here is the conclusion that Hyman and most ISers drew at that time.

Marx and Engels saw the early trade unions and strikes as “the military schools of the working-men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided” and in which class consciousness develops in accordance with the intensity of struggle. As the early craft unions became bureaucratic and conservative they became more doubtful of this. When the “New Unionism” in Britain arose in the context of massive struggle after Marx’s death, Engels again became more optimistic. Most of the leading 20th century Marxist thinkers began as pessimists about unions and economic struggle. But events like 1905, the mass strike movement that began as a strike of typographers over the rates per letter, “punctuation marks included,” and became a revolutionary wave, not only inspired Luxemburg, but caused Lenin to revise his views. A mass strike wave had, indeed, turned the Russian working class toward political revolution. To say that trade union consciousness was simply bourgeois consciousness was obviously one-sided. The conclusion to be drawn, argued Hyman, was that the relationship of trade union struggle to the development of class consciousness depended on the circumstances.17

South Side Central Strike Committee poster bill.
Britain’s New Unionism of the 1880s represented a turn toward militance. This manifesto of the London Dock Strike of 1889 illustrates how the movement also sought to unite diverse trades in common action. Author unknown.

Here, the conception of struggle as “bridging the gap between activity and consciousness” becomes important. This is, of course, Trotsky’s idea expressed in the Transitional Program, but in this case not as a “program.” The bridge here is the convergence of self-activity and circumstance. This isn’t just a matter of the great titanic struggles like 1905 or upheavals like the period of 1966-1978 in the U.S.. It is also a matter of the fight over power on the job. This was Weir’s emphasis, and Hyman makes the same point in arguing about the importance of the shop stewards movement in Britain. The fight is not only over wages, the “political economy of capital” versus the “political economy of the workers,” to paraphrase Marx, but of working conditions.

As Hyman argues, “the ‘effort bargain’ implicit in every employment relationship is a permanent source of ‘political’ conflict.” It is political because it brings into question capital’s authority, not yet in the demand for “workers control,” but of the constant demand for less control over the workers. Pushing the limits farther it becomes what the British shop stewards called the “invasion, not admission” into areas of workplace control, not as an institution that is sustainable, but as a more or less permanent tug of war. For Gramsci, it was the factory councils that offered a more ‘political’ form of struggle, the “negation of industrial legality,” than the old trade unions which were hemmed in by that legality.18 The fight over wages and benefits can be rendered periodic by the contract, but the fight over conditions on the job is always there even if in minimal subterranean form. It is an “us or them,” “which side are you on” conflict. This is not to say that this conflict inevitably produces revolutionary class consciousness. That depends on the context in which it goes on, its intensity at any given time, and pre-existing levels of organization and consciousness.

Hyman’s conclusion was not what one expected. He argued19:

Pure-and-simple union activity does pose a threat to capitalist stability in certain circumstances. The “iron law of oligarchy” is subject to important constraints. Attempts to extend the process of incorporation do meet significant obstacles to success. To this extent, the “optimistic” interpretation of trade unionism cannot be rejected outright.”

In other words, on both the question of the bureaucracy and the even more important one of the interaction of self-activity and consciousness, we are left with considerable ambiguity. Indeed, at the end of his pamphlet he writes, “Hence no general theory is available to relate the struggle for material reforms to the development of consciousness.”20 What we did have from the various intellectual roots described above, however, was a framework with considerable intellectual pedigree. A debate in which most, if not all, of the great revolutionaries of the early 20th century eventually saw the potential, though not the inevitability, of radical consciousness flowing from struggle and collective self-activity. The obligation that this framework imposed on revolutionaries was to analyze the context, the conditions, and hence the potential in which trade union work would unfold.

Solidarity rally for Philadelphia sanitation workers demanding PPE and hazard pay.
The fight over working conditions “is political because it brings into question capital’s authority, not yet in the demand for ‘workers control,’ but of the constant demand for less control over the workers.” June 2020: Solidarity rally for Philadelphia sanitation workers demanding PPE and hazard pay. Photo by Joe Piette.

Roots III: Party and class

The third element of the rank and file perspective involved the relationship of trade union or other broad movement work to the building of a revolutionary organization. Or to put it differently, the relation of “party” and class. This was not the question of internal democracy, or democratic centralism, on which both the U.S. and British IS and their predecessors had long settled in opposition to bureaucratic and top-down Stalinist and Social Democratic models. Rather, it was the more difficult question of the relation of revolutionaries and their organizations, at whatever stage of development, to mass work. This, in turn, was influenced by one’s notion of just what a workers state was to be. This question has long been debated, but for the period under discussion here, the 1960s and 1970s, the most thorough attempt to take it on was Chris Harman’s essay “Party and Class,” that first appeared in International Socialism in the winter of 1968-69 and was reprinted in pamphlet form in both the Britain and the U.S.

The argument addressed both a false view of Lenin’s vanguardism common to Stalinists of various sorts and the mistake of seeing in Rosa Luxemburg’s notion of spontaneity as the alternative. The argument actually centered on the question of the relation of the party to the future organs of working class power. I won’t attempt to repeat the whole complex argument here, but the conclusion was essentially to reject the Social Democratic and, later, Stalinist view that saw the party itself, usually the one and only party, as the future organ of working class power. The form of the workers’ state, the essay argued, would be the mass organs of power created in struggle—workers’ councils. As Harman pointed out, neither Lenin nor Luxemburg recognized the significance of the soviets in the 1905 revolution. Lenin came to grasp this later. Harman wrote:21

Here it is important to see that for Lenin the party is not the embryo of the workers’ state—the Workers Council is. The working class as a whole will be involved in the organizations that constitute its state, the most backward as well as the most progressive elements.

The job of the party in the course of struggle is to raise the consciousness of the more “backward” elements of the class. “It has always to be able to react to the ‘spontaneous’ developments of the class, to attract those elements that are developing a clear consciousness as a result of these.”22 Nothing in this essay points to a party-building perspective in the short run. When it was written in 1968, the IS-UK was still a long way from seeing itself as the party. It is the long view of the relation of revolutionaries to mass struggle: Lead, influence, but don’t try to substitute for that struggle.

Photo of the Petrograd Soviet.
“[F]or Lenin the party is not the embryo of the workers’ state—the Workers Council is”—Chris Harman, 1968. Pictured here: an assembly of the Petrograd soviet in 1917. Uploaded by Kristallstadt.
While Harman wasn’t talking about trade union work, the lesson was clear, the relation of any revolutionary socialist organization, at any point in its development, was to be a part of the broad ‘spontaneous’ struggles, to lead and to learn, and to recruit those who moved toward a revolutionary view. Most in the U.S. ISC and IS already held this general view of party and class. It came from Draper and others as well as Harman. But this view also addressed the way we saw trade union work. So a 1973 IS convention document stated:

To counterpose these two tasks (the creation of a revolutionary vanguard party as part of a self-conscious working class movement; and the creation of that movement itself) and to see our role as related to only the building of a revolutionary party, is to misunderstand the relationship of that party to the class—the relationship of the leadership of the class to the masses of workers.

The proposition was not that the IS was already the leadership of the class, “Only by playing an active role today based on our program and perspectives will we be laying the basis for playing the role of conscious revolutionary leadership tomorrow.”23 Pretty vanguardist in tone, but not yet the call for “the party.”

Back in the USA

The bulk of work done by ISCers in the second half of the 1960s was in the antiwar movement and the Peace and Freedom Party. But inspired by events in Europe and the success of the British IS, the U.S. group looked increasingly to the labor movement and the rising rank and file rebellion. The proposal to “industrialize” some IS-US members came from Hal Draper in 1969. Not only was the rank and file rebellion in U.S. industry heating up, but the enormous events in France in 1968 and Italy in 1969 gave the upheaval an international character. In 1969, when the Independent Socialist Clubs became the International Socialists, a national office was set up in Detroit and people began moving there, some to work in the office, others to get jobs in the auto plants. Others moved to Gary to go into steel, Cleveland to get teamster jobs, while others found work in telecommunications, trucking and other jobs in their own cities.

Nineteen-seventy was the year of major nationwide wildcats in postal and trucking, and of a long official strike against General Motors. In that year, days lost to strikes reached their highest level since the big strike wave of 1945-46, with over 52 million days “idle.”24 In the early 1970s, in auto, steel, and teamsters there was already a history of national rank and file based opposition caucuses: the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and other local Black caucuses and the United National Caucus in auto; Teamsters United Rank and File and a series of local rank and file newspapers; and the beginnings of Steelworkers Fightback. Although IS had no members in the United Mine Workers, the rise of wildcat strikes and of the Miners for Democracy was another indication that the rank and file perspective was based in reality. In telecommunication, ISers participated in the 117-day strike against the New York Telephone subsidiary of AT&T and set up local caucuses in the CWA in New York, Louisville, and on the West Coast.25 The basic set of propositions and analyses advanced by Weir, Draper, Cliff, Hyman, and others, particularly in the British IS, seemed to hold up. We needed a deeper understanding of what lay beneath the employers offensive.

In Britain, the impact of international competition and the resulting fall in the profit rate had been apparent for some time. It was spelled out in Cliff’s 1970 book, The Employers Offensive, for example. For most of the post–World War II period, the U.S. economy had avoided such a precipitous decline. In the U.S., IS literature explained this largely as a result of the permanent arms economy and the hegemonic position of the U.S. in the world economy. A 1974 IS discussion paper by Michael Stewart used these same tools to explain the crisis of the system. But something else entered into the analysis. Stewart wrote:26

One of the main effects of the crisis has been to smash the stable relationship of “business unionism.” Reforms, no matter how minimal, become increasingly difficult to win and it is even a struggle to maintain those won in the past. The union bureaucracy vacillates, unsure of what policy to follow, and splits in it develop. Yet it remains thoroughly reformist and cowardly, and at all decisive moments will side with the employer class.

At one level this formulation is true, and the decline in real wages that began in 1972-73 appears to prove it. But it is also problematic. The implication is that, facing crisis, the old collective bargaining relations between management and the union leaders had collapsed. It was certainly strained, but the fundamental relationship between union leaders and corporate officials was not smashed, and that was and is part of the problem. It remained just what Draper said it was in 1970 and Hyman in 1971. It is the relationship itself that is the problem. Second, this sort of formulation also implies a brief time frame. Right now, in the crisis, union leaders will side with management and the ranks will fill the vacuum. But the fall in real wages would unfold over a period of many years and not be experienced as a result of leadership failure alone, but of inflation, of bigger forces. Furthermore, the era of concessions actually lay ahead. Until 1981, unions were winning first year wage increases of 9-10 percent and frequently ignoring the Carter administration’s wage guidelines. In other words, one of the problems with the contextual analysis was that the conclusions drawn from it tended to compress the time frame in which the IS was to carry out its rank and file work in the mid-1970s.

There was some reason to see the time frame as we did, because we were having a good deal of success in the work. That is, we were in the midst of several milieus of dedicated rank and file activists creating real organizations and/or participating in exciting events like the three 1973 auto plant occupations in Detroit. The idea, like the early TUEL, of creating a layer of rank and file leaders seemed to be happening, indeed, to some extent was happening. From this experience, the IS analysis took another leap borrowed from the British IS.

A speech given by Joel Geier, national chairman of the IS, in July 1974, gave the economic arguments about the impact of the crisis, including the deep recession already underway in 1974, and the idea that the union leadership wouldn’t fight, giving the example of Steelworker’s leader I.W. Able giving up the right to strike until 1980 and numerous other sell-outs—all true. From that essentially accurate picture, Geier went on to say, “It is possible for revolutionaries to lead those struggles, to start to organize to lead those struggles by organizing a rank and file movement, and to draw the connections between union militancy and socialist perspectives.” He went on the argue, “Industrial militancy produces working class leadership which is open to be convinced that the total attack produced by the long term deterioration of American capitalism requires a total answer.” And then the call for the revolutionary party.27 No one claimed in the U.S. in 1974 that the IS was the party, but the links between the rank and file upsurge and the building of IS as the way to the party and in the course becoming the leadership of the rank and file movement were being drawn closer and closer.

To draw them closer, but still maintain the view of party and class discussed above, the U.S. IS developed in 1974-75 the concept of “class struggle unionism.” This was basically a more programmatic version of the rank and file perspective that included ideas like opposition to collaborationist policy of the bureaucracy, a rank and file approach, fight against all forms of oppression, class solidarity, independent political action, that “trade unions are a school for socialism,” and connecting workers in different unions as well as the unemployed and communities. All of this was seen as “a bridge to revolutionary Marxism.”28

Nineteen seventy-four was, of course, a year that seemed to demonstrate the validity of both the analysis of the crisis and the possibility of “class struggle unionism” in some ways. In Britain, the miners’ strike brought down the government as a sort of climax after big struggles of 1972 like Saltley Gates and the Pentonville Five. Even more exciting, in Portugal a revolutionary process was unfolding. The opening of a period of genuine crisis seemed to be demonstrated by the deep recession that enveloped the capitalist world.

In Britain, the IS was already in the midst of a change in perspectives. Cliff was pushing the group toward an aggressive party-building orientation. This was not simply a matter of recruiting and growing, which they had been doing successfully for some time, including among industrial workers and shop stewards. Indeed, in April 1974, the IS played a major role in the founding conference of the National Rank and File Organizing Committee, which I attended. This was meant to be a left alternative to the CP-controlled Liaison Committee in Defense of Trade Unions. It was attended by about 600 delegates from 249 union branches, 40 combine or shop steward committees, and 19 trades councils.29 There would be another in 1974 and one in 1977 attended by 522 delegates from 251 trade union bodies.30 What was meant to be the beginning of a broader perspective of unifying rank and file efforts in various industries into a broad-based national movement much like the Minority Movement after World War I, however, turned out to be its end.

Cliff had concluded that the entire milieu of shop stewards and experienced activists on which the whole perspective had been launched with Incomes Policy, the various industry papers such a The Carworker and 15 others, and The Employers Offensive had been based was hopelessly reformist. The plan would be to launch an aggressive party-building campaign directed a younger activists not corrupted by the old habits. Cliff’s 1975 book, The Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism did not make that argument and still placed the rank and file movements and even the shop stewards at the center of the perspective. But its whole analysis that the crisis precluded reforms and that the building of a “really revolutionary socialist party” that would “counter to the twisted priorities of capitalism a socialist planned economy” was on the agenda. And IS, with its factory branches was the center of this effort.31 As Jim Higgins, who was expelled for the heresy of questioning the new emphasis on party-building and the down-playing of long-term rank and file work, wrote later, “…IS policy was predicated on a quite false perspective of an imminent general crisis of the system.”32

The U.S. IS followed suit. Nineteen seventy-five was, after all, an exciting year of IS, with several members playing a key role in the formation of Teamsters for a Decent Contract and UPSurge. While we did not project the founding of a revolutionary party in the near future, our literature reflected the notion of an ever-deepening crisis of capitalism. For example, the November 1975 pamphlet, “Taking Care of Business—The Struggle for Workers Power” stated that the changes brought about by the crisis, “…will make it possible for a small revolutionary organization—with a clear understanding of what is going on—to build itself into a mass force in the lead of important sections of the working class.” The first phase of such a projection was even given a precise time frame. The same pamphlet stated:33

In our convention resolutions we predicted a short economic recovery from the present depression that would go from start of recovery, to peak, to new bust in a period of about three years. We concluded “It is in this three year period that we will become a workers combat group in the lead of a growing rank and file movement, or be set back severely.”

The prediction was all too accurate, within three years as an organization we were “set back severely.” We lost most of the working-class members we had recruited through our “party-building” efforts as the promise of more or less rapid progress of the organization evaporated. Partly as a result of this failure and partly as a result of the intervention of the British IS, which declared itself the Socialist Workers Party in 1976, we experienced a major split in 1977 followed by a smaller one.

The unmistakable lesson to be drawn is that if the consciousness required to build a serious mass revolutionary organization depends not only on self-activity, which was itself still quite uneven, but also on circumstance as Hyman argued, then “a clear understanding of what is going on” is, indeed, central. What was “going on” was not a world systemic crisis of the proportion of the 1930s or one that would reach its depths in three years. It was a drawn-out crisis attenuated by what we now call globalization; i.e., accumulation could continue, albeit at a slower rate, despite of the falling rate of profit because it found more outlets and because the labor bureaucracy and the political parties of the working class accommodated capital as we said they would.

What the capitalist world faced in the 1970s was not collapse, but “stagflation,” the unusual combination of slower growth with high rates of inflation. And though there were rank and file movements and resistance, they were not strong enough either to stop capital’s offensive or to build the sort of organizations we were projecting. It turned out that the recession of 1973-75 was not the opening of an era of rank and file revolt on a grander scale, but the beginning of the end of that era of revolt in the U.S., though, of course, not the end of struggle. Crisis not only drives workers to struggle, as it would continue to do, it also disarms them as deep changes in the industrial structure of the nation, extensive job loss, and the changing nature of work undermine both self-confidence and organization. What all of this points to is a longer view of the relationship of self-activity, the dual nature of the union bureaucracy, the changing circumstance in which they take place, and, hence, the possibilities, though not inevitability, of advancing class consciousness. It might be added that for a small group of a few hundred to project itself into leadership of the broad class movement in a short period of time, under almost any circumstances, is delusional.

Another mistake in the analysis was the assessment of the bureaucracy, or rather what was left out of that assessment. The notion that the labor leadership would not stand up to capital or would even side with it was hardly wrong. But there was a missing dimension to the analysis. This involved both the effectiveness of the machinery that kept so many top leaders in office for so long and the fact that in many unions, certainly most of the ones we worked in, the leadership had a system of material rewards for those loyal to them. Most of these real and potential rewards involved keeping supporters (or promising to keep them) in full-time positions as international rep’s or organizers, regional officials, local leaders, and even shop floor full-timers. There were also smaller material rewards in the form of junkets to conventions and various “educational” conferences. The UAW excelled in all of this with its Administration Caucus, but many CIO unions possessed enough of these rewards (present and future) to keep a regular network of loyalists in place. This meant that the leadership didn’t simply hold its power and position by virtue of its “sociological” distance and undemocratic practices, as important as these might be, but as a result of having a loyal “cadre” running from the headquarters to the workplace. This cadre, in turn, worked the membership appealing to the conservative side of their “common sense” view of things. Thus, in addition to the insulation provided by a bureaucratic structure, most top labor leaders had a political advantage. This not only allowed the leaders to resist rank and file organization or motion at the local level, but to constantly harass and undermine it even where it won. In other words, the battle against the bureaucracy was not a simple fight between ranks and higher-ups, the “sociological” view, but a fight at every level. It is a political/ideological conflict. It isn’t that we didn’t know these things empirically, but that they were not really integrated into the perspective. For example, the 1975 pamphlet, Fighting To Win! Class Struggle Unionism, which explained our view of unionism, while introducing the ideological dimension of “business unionism,” discussed the problem of the bureaucracy purely as a fight between the rank and file and the top leaders.34

What is to be salvaged?

In 1978, the IS changed its basic perspective, abandoning party-building for a longer-range regroupment perspective. This, of course, did not rule out recruitment, but did rule out the frenetic parade of recruitment rallies, the selling of papers at plant gates, constant traveling by the leadership, and the pushing of branches to recruit. The rank and file approach was not abandoned or even seen as separate from the long range idea of building a revolutionary socialist organization, but it was realized that short-term recruitment from the working class was unlikely and that the impact of crisis was both more drawn out and complex than the earlier perspective had allowed for. It was also clear by then, despite important signs of struggle like the miners strike and steelworkers fightback of that year, that the general upsurge was over and the bureaucracy back in control in major unions, notably the UAW. One new element of the rank and file strategy argued for in 1978 was the need for a national “labor paper” that would be broad-based, class conscious, but not socialist. Part of the rationale for such a project was the observation that though the rank and file movements of the “long 1970s” had been impressive in many ways, they remained separate from one another. The IS had not been large enough to form the sort of cross-union links the British had tried and then abandoned that would have been needed to create a broader class consciousness. The paper, if it happened, was meant to play that role in a more minimal and possible way, but in the longer term sense of the new strategy. The catalyst of the idea was the 1977-78 miners strike and the solidarity work that grew up around it. This “labor paper” emerged in 1979 as Labor Notes.

The whole period from the mid-1970s to the present has seen an almost continuous parade of rank and file movements, but no general upsurge. Those from the 1980s on did not coalesce into an upheaval such as that in 1966-1978, but they did demonstrate one of the basic propositions of Marxism, namely when pushed hard enough, workers will often fight back in one way or another. At least two of the lasting products of ongoing struggle came from the IS experience of the “long seventies”: the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and Labor Notes. This was no small accomplishment. Furthermore, IS, and later, Solidarity members would play important roles in the New Directions Caucus in the UAW and the similarly named New Directions in Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union. Labor Notes would provide support for long struggles, such as the strike at Hormel in the 1980s and the lockout at Staley in the 1990s. Solidarity members would be leaders in teachers caucuses in New York, LA, and Chicago. The list could go on. In many of these situations, we saw small groups of workers get radicalized, as the theory would predict, but mostly not become interested in joining one or another tiny organization of intellectuals.

We have also been confronted with the problem of labor’s continuing decline. In the 1970s, while the proportion of the workforce in unions was declining, the numbers were still rising due largely to the organization of the public sector. Employment in auto actually reached its highest point in 1979, only after which it would decline. For the last quarter of a century, however, the decline has been in both density and absolute numbers. The industrial restructuring, new technology, and foreign competition that underlay the decline were only beginning to become significant factors in the late 1970s.

The contradictory nature of the union bureaucracy was also played out during the 1980s and 1990s. On the one hand, the most typical reaction was surrender to and cooperation with capital. The number of strikes, or of visible strikes, declined as well. The era of concessions and labor-management cooperation was on. At the same time, there were a number of long-fought strikes, most of them official. Many were undermined by the leadership, but some, such as the 1989 NYNEX strike, were well prepared and hard fought at all levels. Most notable, of course, was the 1997 UPS strike driven by the reform forces, including TDU, in that union.

The massive dislocation and corporate consolidations in so many unionized industries has been deeply disorienting to local militants. The response of much of the leadership has been to ape this consolidation through mergers and the spreading of mega-locals, really giant administrative units spanning whole states or even several states. It is probably fair to say that most unions are even more bureaucratic than in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, at the same time even administrative behemoths like SEIU 1199 and 32BJ, both of which now covered a number of states, call strikes and win. In other words, while the bureaucrats get more bureaucratic, they continue to play the dual role ascribed to them by Draper as well as the sociological role—living and working at a distance from the ranks. The recent split in the AFL-CIO is not likely to change that reality, though it may play a positive and/or negative role in other ways.35 There is no socialist future in attaching one’s self or organization to any section of the bureaucracy. To organize the unorganized and prepare for the next upsurge, U.S. unions require a basic change in the relationship of leaders to members, on the one hand, and leaders to capital, on the other. The bureaucracy’s dual nature can only be modified by making it genuinely accountable to the members, and that calls for rank and file organization. A rank and file orientation isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity.

The bare bones of the rank and file perspective remain essential truths as does the basic dual nature of the bureaucracy and the notion that consciousness, always uneven, is generated, though not solely formed, by self-activity in struggle. These provide not a general theory, but a framework. The framework itself is a little like a map of the world with only oceanic and national borders drawn. There remains the task of drawing in the mountains, rivers, seas, and plains, as well as attempting to predict the weather. Like meteorology, Marxism draws its analysis from conflicting, often unpredictable forces. The IS analysis of forces in the 1970s tended to be one-sided in terms of the crisis and the bureaucracy and, hence, of the possibilities of the time. If revolutionary socialists in the U.S. are to connect with any sections of the working class, they will need the framework—filled in with geographic detail and a good idea of which way the wind blows. The forecast is another matter.

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Kim Moody View All

Kim Moody was a founder of Labor Notes and the author of several books on US labor. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for the Study of the Production of the Built Environment of the University of Westminster in London, and a member of the National Union of Journalists. He is the author of many books, including On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War, In Solidarity: Essays on Working-Class Organization and Strategy in the United States, and Tramps & Trade Union Travelers: Internal Migration and Organized Labor in Gilded Age America, 1870-1900.