The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 63 (Fall 2001).

Revolutionary vs. Reformist Methods
in the Unions

For almost two decades the LRP has carried out a relentless exposure of New Directions’ reformism in the TWU. In leaflets and electoral bulletins, in the pages of RTW and PR, at countless meetings and demonstrations and on the job, we explained that ND was no real alternative to the sellout bureaucrats who ran the TWU. Our analysis nailed ND’s failure to build a strike movement over the course of several contract struggles, which all ended with sellout deals. We attacked New Directions’ approach, which replaced preparations for a strike and mass action with the promise that if they were elected, all would be well. We condemned ND’s use of the bourgeois courts against the union. We criticized many of the positions ND took on nitty-gritty issues and always related them to the big political picture.

In counterposing our revolutionary strategy for mass action, we rejected the stagist method of first replacing the old bureaucrats with a reform leadership and postponing mobilizing the ranks against the bosses. The silent socialists within ND assert that in order to be able later to raise revolutionary socialist demands, at first only seemingly acceptable reform demands are possible. This “rank-and-filist” approach means that socialists present themselves simply as militants and not as revolutionaries, telling the workers only what they believe they want to hear – and avoiding saying what they claim to believe about capitalism.

In contrast, authentic Marxists tell the truth as we see it. Fundamentally, workers can defend their interests only through socialist revolution. We have always said that in our opinion socialist revolution is the only way to put a stop to economic exploitation, racism, national and sexual chauvinism, profit-gouging, deteriorating health care and the like. And the worst is yet to come unless capitalism is overthrown.

Truth and not masquerade is the way workers become aware that revolution is the only way for us to attain a decent life. And only a working class conscious of the truth can actually make that revolution.

Class consciousness means that workers come to see that united in action they have enormous power – they can bring the entire economy to a halt and stop profit-making in its tracks. Our class becomes conscious of its true interests and the need for revolution not simply by reading textbooks but through practical action. Mass action is the only way even to defend past gains and to win new ones. Workers learn through experience, through fighting the capitalists in the living class struggle. And whatever the initial outlook of most of the participants, mass working-class action always carries the threat of a revolutionary challenge to the system.

Revolutionary Work in Local 100

Over the years, we have presented our case in direct opposition to New Directions at each critical point. In the ’80’s and ’90’s, our propaganda was distributed broadly but was aimed chiefly at reaching a very narrow layer of far-seeing workers who would be interested in revolutionary socialism. Marxists describe such a layer as the “advanced workers,” those who can become part of the initial cadres of the now-developing vanguard party. Sometimes that layer is very big, sometimes it can be quite small, depending on objective conditions and the level of class struggle. In those years, we won respect as steadfast militants and Marxists, but given the low level of struggle, our efforts to oppose the bureaucracy and expose ND had little immediate impact.

Having seen their struggles constantly betrayed by their leaderships, workers felt themselves weak and impotent, understandably fearful. Not only was the idea of socialist revolution beyond the pale, even the word “strike” had become anathema. Since struggles had subsided, so had our ability to point out revolutionary lessons in practice, not just on paper. We fought against the stream of negative consciousness and remained only a small factor in the TWU.

In contrast, at the time of the near-strike in 1999, there was an exhilarating mood of renewed militancy in Local 100. But despite our re-invigorated exposure propaganda, it became clear when the Local’s election approached that workers were looking to New Directions as the alternative to the James gang’s betrayals. We had to re-evaluate our tactics. If we stood opposed to both the James forces and ND, the developing movement of militant workers would have seen us as a barrier to getting rid of James. Yet it would have been treachery not to warn fellow workers that Toussaint & Co. would betray them.

Bolshevik Tactics

In such situations, Lenin and Trotsky elaborated the tactic of “critical support,” which the Bolsheviks used effectively to challenge the reformist Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties during the Russian Revolution of 1917. For example, in the months leading up to the revolution, the Mensheviks and SR’s held a majority in the workers’ councils (“soviets”). At the same time the reformists were in a bloc with open capitalists in the Provisional Government. The workers believed that the reformists wanted state power in order to carry out their militant-sounding program. But the Bolsheviks knew better and openly attacked these parties for being unwilling to oust the capitalists from the government and take power themselves, in the name of the working class. The Bolsheviks therefore raised the demand, “Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers!” to expose the reformist parties, promising to support them in forming a government without the capitalists.

As the Bolsheviks predicted, the Mensheviks and SR’s did not take state power into their own hands, because they did not want to break with the capitalists. Thus they stood exposed in practice. Words alone could not have done the job; the tactical demand did. The Bolsheviks went on to win the majority of workers to their banner.

A few years later, Lenin advised British communists to apply a similar tactic to their parliamentary election. The workers were in motion, trying to fight the bourgeoisie, but they still had illusions in the pro-capitalist Labour Party. He argued for critical support to Labour in the coming election, a party which he openly condemned as “counterrevolutionary.” Lenin’s well-known formula, to support Labour “as a rope supports a hanged man,” meant putting Labour in office where its treachery could more readily be tested and thus exposed.

In 1935 Trotsky gave a particularly clear explanation of the method behind the critical support tactic, when the leftish Independent Labour Party was debating whether to vote for Labour. Trotsky argued that the decision did not depend on whether this or that candidate raised particular policies that revolutionaries might agree with. Instead:

The I.L.P. must say to the workers: “The Labour Party will deceive you and betray you, but you do not believe us. Very well, we will go through the experience with you but in no case do we identify ourselves with the Labour Party program.” ... It should above all, show in practice what true critical support means. By accompanying support with the sharpest and widest criticism, by patiently explaining that such support is only for the purpose of exposing the treachery of the Labour Party leadership ... (Writings 1935-36, pp.199,201; emphasis in the original).

Trotsky often spoke of the “dialogue” which must go on in the class struggle between the revolutionary layers of the proletariat and the less advanced workers with illusions in reformist leaders. He pointed out that there was a significant difference between the reformist views of the leaders, who had a vested material interest in capitalist society, and similar views held by their followers. The views of the ranks were more transient, and their illusions could dissipate in the course of struggle through lessons drawn by the advanced layer.

Critical Support in Local 100

In this tradition, our use of critical support in the Local 100 election meant support for a militant mobilization of fighting workers, not for the policies of New Directions. It was an open attempt to win fellow workers by exposing ND in practice – a tactical change but not a fundamental shift in our struggle to counterpose revolutionary leadership to that of the reformists.

In using this tactic towards New Directions, we were fighting to prevent ND from strangling the gains won from the strike movement. This approach can be seen in RTW. In its first issue, Eric Josephson, running for union office in the Track Division, summed up our use of critical support:

In voting for ND, I solidarized with the ranks’ desire to throw out the old guard and clear the way for further struggles. In no way does this mean any let-up in my hard and consistent opposition to ND’s opportunist leadership. They are now on the hot seat. They can no longer excuse themselves from working for a militant fightback by blaming the old guard’s obstruction. Transit workers will expect results, and I intend to help keep the pressure on ND. As Track Division Vice-Chair, I will be able to do so more effectively.

Toussaint says he wants to mobilize the ranks. Fine! I support every real step to fight the bosses. But I intend to oppose and expose any backsliding, sellouts or betrayals. I’ll continue to warn my fellow workers to trust their own power and mobilization, not the pro-capitalist ND leadership.

We got rid of one bureaucratic obstacle. Now we have to prevent ND from becoming a new, entrenched bureau cracy. By placing demands on ND to defend the union and putting forward a strategy of mass action to fight the bosses, I aim to show that the real alternative to bureaucratic betrayals is to build a revolutionary leadership which puts workers’ interests before the capitalist system and fights for socialism.

Post-Election Tactics

This article signaled our intention to continue after the election to help break the illusions of the ranks in Toussaint and ND. We have been working to draw the leadership into the open by supporting every step towards fighting the bosses while criticizing the inadequacy of the leadership’s actions, their hesitancy and vacillations. We have highlighted Toussaint’s motion toward re-bureaucratization of the local. We have attacked his political class collaborationism.

The same militancy that swept New Directions into power now threatens their position. Unlike the old bureaucracy, ND is actually expected to produce something. Workers’ illusions in ND is a double-edged sword which can help expose the reformist leaders. Every time Toussaint talks about fighting the bosses or building the struggle, we intend to be there challenging him to lead a real fightback. He is still capable of zigzagging in a militant direction for a moment or two; but even then workers must watch for his inevitable capitulations. When he betrays the workers’ trust, advanced workers will be in a better position to convince the ranks to sweep him out of the way and build a revolutionary leadership.

The use of tactical weapons is not trickery. We are perfectly open about what we are doing. We always stand for class solidarity in the course of struggle. We do not drop out of the fight against the bosses because we do not like the leaders and their wavering policies. At this time in Local 100, our policy is to support the leadership when it actually fights the bosses but also to explain how it betrays that struggle. We are not blocking Toussaint from leading a fight that the members want; it is Toussaint who is already sabotaging that chance.

This tactical approach also comes out of Bolshevik experiences. Trotsky’s famous dialectical dictum, “With the masses – always; with the vacillating leaders – sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses.” He added that when they turn from their vacillating struggles (made necessary by the pressure of the masses) to hostile acts, we must relentlessly expose them. He referred to this as “the revolutionary essence” guiding the united front tactic. We can add that it guides all other tactical relationships with vacillating misleaders. These include critical support instances and our present tactical situation; at this juncture, revolutionaries simply do not have the power to force opportunist reformists into united fronts. However, there is nothing they can do to prevent us from giving them tactical support. However, the same revolutionary essence which guides our conduct during united fronts, guides us here too. We remain their unwanted “friends” and unceasing critics.

Tactics are an art as well as a science. Revolutionaries have to know when to withdraw them as well as when to use them. There is a point where circumstances change, when a particular tactic used as an attack on the betrayals of the leaders can actually become a cover for those betrayals. When that time approaches, we will openly abandon our present tactic and consider others, above all those we have learned from the history of our class in struggle.

Sectarian Abstention

A good way to illustrate the use of revolutionary tactics is to compare them with the approach of another left group in Local 100. In its press, the Spartacist League attacked our use of the critical support tactic during the TWU election.

The numerous self-proclaimed socialist groups that support the pro-court, pro-Democratic Party ND demonstrate their hostility to a class-struggle perspective. ... In a November 15 leaflet, a TWU supporter of the League for the Revolutionary Party criticized ND for being “not very militant” and even mentioned its anti-union suits, but called for support nonetheless, proclaiming: “Put New Directions to the Test.” (Workers Vanguard, Feb. 16.)

This argument illustrates two things about the Spartacists. One, they believe that critical support means political support, demanding some level of political agreement with the reformist leaders rather than an attempt to figuratively hang them, as with Lenin. Underneath their super-radical rhetoric, the Spartacists are searching for the good reformists whom they can support.

For authentic revolutionaries, it is the workers’ struggle that counts; for the Spartacists it is the degree of affinity they have with the opportunists. Trotsky pointed out that sectarians and opportunists are the flip side of the same coin; often they end up side by side in the same political bed. And that leads to our second point.

The Spartacists’ vaunted “class-struggle perspective” means little in practice other than harsh invective in their newspaper. The SL has more supporters inside Local 100 than we do. but, no one would ever know that when struggle breaks out. At key points they could have made a difference in preventing the bureaucrats from detouring the struggle. But for all the blather in their paper, insides the union they have been silent.

When we fought for a strike during the tumultuous events at the end of 1999, where were they? Did they speak for our strike motion at the mass membership meeting, let alone fight for it? No. Were they even present among the thousands of members who unanimously and enthusiastically voted for it? No one knows, because there wasn’t a peep out of them inside the hall. In common with the ND-friendly opportunists on the left whom they denounce, the sectarian Spartacists found a way to avoid fighting for a strike the members demanded.

When the local election was being fought out, once again these armchair warriors abstained; they refused to use the Leninist rope to hang the opportunists. Instead they delivered yet another lecture to the working class, giving it an ultimatum about what it must do in order to win Spartacist blessings. Trotsky again got such sectarians right: “Active intervention into the actual struggle of the masses of workers is supplanted for [them] by propagandistic abstractions of a Marxist program.”

We are particularly interested in outlining the method of revolutionaries in practice because the level of class struggle around the world is rapidly changing. The struggles in the U.S. in general and within the TWU will soon accelerate beyond where they are now. We want to explain to advanced workers what we are doing because revolutionary methods will be even more important in the coming days.

There are times when little but a propagandistic approach can be used. Various groups on the left – good, bad and indifferent – were forced into a long period of an almost-pure propaganda existence, the necessity and dangers of which both Lenin and Trotsky warned about. Now, although groups remain small and must still concentrate on propaganda addressed to the advanced workers, it is becoming possible to actively lead in struggles. No revolutionary worthy of the name can refuse to intervene and fight. But for many in the changing scene, their impulse toward opportunist abuse of such chances is all-consuming. The turn to opportunism cannot be fought by fearful sectarianism.