Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: Changing Face Of US Politics

This book, by Jack Barnes, is apparently one of the two most important books of the 20th Century:
The struggle to build any revolutionary working-class party must be rooted in continuity with the political conquests of the communist movement won in the course of struggles from those led by Marx and Engels to the Russian and Cuban revolutions. The major lessons of two key turning points in the fight for such a party in the U.S. are codified in The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, first published in 1943, and The Changing Face of U.S. Politics: Working-Class Politics and the Trade Unions, first published in 1981.
The book is a documentary history of The Turn, an initiative the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) began in 1975, when I was still in the Party. The Turn had begun in incipient form as the Party moved away from campus work. The end of the Vietnam war made such a shift inevitable, and as a result we opened up numerous small branches in working class communities. And so it was that I spent my final years as a comrade in Chicago's Hyde Park branch.

By 1978 (with me no longer a member) the Party had sharply defined The Turn as a concerted effort to get comrades into basic industry. This implied not only a move away from campuses, but also from the public employee unions where many comrades were employed, such as AFSCME or the teachers' unions. Basic industry are those unions who have their pulse on the essential core of the economy--the steelworkers, the autoworkers, coal miners, oil, chemical & atomic workers, etc. By 1990 the Party lists nine unions in which they had substantial fractions.

To implement The Turn, comrades were urged to get jobs in basic industry if at all possible. Accordingly civil servants were asked to quit their jobs in favor of new employment on the factory floor. Comrades employed in non-union situations were likewise so pressured. While not stated in the book, my understanding is that comrades who for no good reason resisted this effort were gradually purged from the Party. This eventually led to the split with Socialist Action.

The Turn had three purposes:

  • To "proletarianize" the Party. This goal is denied in one of the early documents, but later on it becomes a major theme. Students are frequently from petty bourgeois backgrounds, a status that will lead to all sorts of trouble for a working class party.
  • To take advantage of the combined nature of the coming American revolution. While Black nationalism, feminism, and environmentalism, etc., were all important parts of the struggle, the ultimate driver of revolutionary change is the proletariat. Thus the Party saw itself participating in these other movements as members of unions rather than from campuses.
  • To position the Party such that it can be effective in the coming class battles. The documents state this in the most mealy-mouthed ways possible, for example, 
"We have entered the initial stages of a preparatory period, which will lead in coming decades to a prerevolutionary upheaval marked by revolutionary struggles of a kind that workers and farmers in the United States have not waged in more than a century."
Initial stages of a preparatory period to a pre-revolutionary upheaval? Not a very confident prediction, yet on this thin reed the Party forecasts that it will increasingly start recruiting young union members to its ranks, and hence grow the Party.

The prediction was based partly on the end of the Vietnam war and the defeat of world imperialism, but more often on what the documents refer to as the 1974-75 "depression." The Party's view was that capitalism could never recover from this economic setback, and this would force the ruling class to put increasing pressure on workers everywhere, leading to a continuing mass radicalization.

The goal (especially in later documents) was to create a cadre of worker-bolsheviks. These comrades would be unionized workers, to be sure, but they would be Party comrades first and foremost. Union work was never to take precedence over Party discipline. To enforce this, comrades were constantly being moved from job to job and from place to place. They were never allowed to develop a social or personal life separate from the Party. Critics have called this practice cult-like. I think that's too strong, but there is no question it made Party membership much harder and less effective than it had to be. After all, the first task of recruitment is establishing trust and friendship. These are earned not just in the work place, but also at the VFW Hall, the church basement, and the local bowling alley. Comrades, by never showing up at any of those venues, essentially forfeited the match.

The net result is that The Turn has been a total failure. Party membership has declined from a high of maybe two thousand to probably 300 today. Worse, comrades are now mostly retired and are in no position to engage in basic industry. Their hope of recruiting "young workers" is today completely hopeless.

And then the Party's political approach was just flat-out wrong. For example, nowhere in the book is Nixon's visit to China mentioned. Yet this was the key watershed event that has led to the collapse of the union movement. The participation of Chinese labor in global production has rendered the American industrial worker simply unimportant. The Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore was once a jewel in The Turn's crown--they had a large fraction there. Today the mill is closed and the Baltimore SWP branch no longer exists. Ed Sadlowski, in the mid 1970s, led Steelworkers Fight Back out of Chicago's SouthWorks mill. That mill is now closed, and Sadlowski's District 31 no longer exists. Party branches in such industrial centers as Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh are all gone.

There is no union in the US that today has the ability to shut down an entire industry. A General Motors strike would bankrupt GM, but there would be nary a hiccup in global auto production--there are plenty of people around the world who'd be happy to take over GM's market share. Accordingly, an autoworkers strike is essentially impossible. The industrial working class toward which the Party turned 40 years ago simply does not exist anymore.

I think the Party is finally reevaluating The Turn. One indication is the previously linked article, which casts closure on the episode in a way that makes it sound successful.
The key accomplishments in building a communist party rooted in the working class in the late 1970s, as laid out in The Changing Face of U.S. Politics, are not registered primarily in the colonization of basic industry carried out universally by the party cadre at the time, but in the political conquests recorded there.
It then goes on to announce an unusual call for a Party Convention to be held in March, 2014.

The second hint comes from an article about Ukraine.
Since then [1990s], the remnants of the ruling bureaucracies in Ukraine and the rest of the Soviet bloc have moved to reimpose capitalist exploitation on the working class. The social crisis resulting from this course is today exacerbated by the deepening crisis of capitalism on a world scale.
This is the first time I recall reading that the former Soviet Union was restoring capitalism. Up until now the Party held to the dogma of secret socialism, i.e., the countries were socialist even though their own populations were completely unaware of that fact.

These two bits of evidence lead me to believe that changes are afoot in the Socialist Workers Party.

Further Reading:

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