Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
Globalization and the International Working Class

The Spartacist League and the trade unions

Spartacist’s first political priority in attacking the International Committee’s analysis of globalization is to uphold the perspective of trade unionism and, in particular, the authority of the AFL-CIO in the US. This is of a piece with its defense of a national program for the working class. The trade union form of organization arose historically on the soil of the national economy and the growing power of the national state. In the most diverse circumstances, whether the unions were the creation of a mass socialist party, as in Germany in the late 1800s, or whether they emerged as purely economic organizations with political ties to the liberal bourgeoisie, as in England, they based themselves on the success of the national economy and national industry.

The politics of the unions focused on pressuring the state to protect national industry by means of tariffs, etc. This historical development gave rise to strong and ultimately dominant tendencies of national opportunism and reformism. The basic evolution of the trade unions was not only in opposition to socialist revolution, but to the class struggle itself. As the economic life of the nation states of Europe and America increasingly expanded beyond the national sphere and onto the world stage, with the emergence of imperialism, the nationalist politics of the unions became the imperialist politics of the unions.

Thus the unions’ tendency to embrace nationalism and integrate themselves into the state has very real material foundations. The development of globalized economy has undermined the viability of trade unions as nationally-based defensive organizations of the working class. This process is expressed in the decay of these organizations and their transformation into appendages of the employers and the state.

What is Spartacist’s basic argument? Globalization is not real. There has been no fundamental economic change in capitalism since the beginning of the century. There is no objective cause for the wave of defeats suffered by the labor movement over the past two decades and the general decline in wage levels, benefits and working conditions. There has been no qualitative change in the role of the official unions. Rather this process is to be explained simply by the subjective cowardice and treachery of the union leaders.

Spartacist attacks the Socialist Equality Party for insisting that the decline of the unions cannot be simply, or even primarily, ascribed to the subjective qualities of the union leaders, but that the corrupt and reactionary character of the leaders must rather be understood, in the final analysis, as the subjective expression of more fundamental objective processes.

The effort to establish the link between political processes and more essential changes and developments in the mode of production has always been the hallmark of Marxism. This scientific approach flows from the philosophical premises and world conception of historical materialism. Certainly, this was the method of the towering figures of the Marxist movement, including Marx and Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, and they applied it to the study of the evolution of the trade unions and their assessment of the limitations of this form of working class organization. This historical and materialist approach has always distinguished Marxism from revisionism.

For Lenin, the objective connection between the development of imperialism and the degeneration of Social Democracy was the central point of his entire analysis of the betrayal of the Second International.

In his preface to the 1920 edition of Imperialism, he insisted that understanding the objective basis of the betrayals of the leadership of the Second International was the key question in the political reorientation of the international proletariat.

“Unless the economic roots of this phenomenon are understood and its political and social significance is appreciated, not a step can be taken toward the solution of the practical problems of the communist movement and the impending social revolution.” [1]

Nothing less is required today. The betrayals, degeneration and collapse of all the old organizations of the working class must be grasped in connection with the economic processes that underlie them.

Spartacist rejects this Marxist approach. They refuse at any point to make a historical evaluation of the trade unions. Instead they adopt an entirely subjectivist standpoint, which is summed up in their declaration, “The decline of the American labor movement is not fundamentally caused by the objective effects of ‘globalization’ but by the defeatist and treacherous policies of the AFL-CIO misleaders.” [2]

To underscore their insistence that the official unions remain viable instruments of working class struggle, and that they simply need more militant leaders and policies, the Spartacists quote their 1984 statement entitled “Labor’s Gotta Play Hardball to Win.”

There follows a bit of fantasizing, which only demonstrates the prostration of Spartacist before the trade union bureaucracy and the essentially reformist orientation that, of necessity, accompanies their nationalist politics. They offer the example of a building strike that occurred the previous winter in New York City, where 15,000 strikebreakers were used to replace the workers. The office buildings operated more or less as usual. Workers Vanguard explains that this struggle could have had a happy ending if only the union leaders had decided to do the right thing.

Spartacist writes: “But let us imagine what would have happened if organized labor had sought to organize New York City’s working people and appealed to the dispossessed population of New York’s ghettos and barrios to actively support the heavily minority and immigrant building workers”.

In a further flight of fancy, they continue: “Dozens and hundreds of strikers and other workers, union and non-union—along with black and Hispanic youth—could have surrounded every major office building in New York City and prevented anyone from entering.”

This, supposedly, would have been sufficient to bring Wall Street to its knees. “David North to the contrary, the CEOs of American multinationals would not have responded by closing their New York headquarters and running their operations out of New Delhi or Mexico City. Rather the cops would have attacked and tried to break the picket lines, arresting militant workers and their supporters. The outcome would then have been determined by the ability of the New York City labor movement to organize effective actions backed by popular support, especially in the black and Hispanic communities.”

Then comes the climax: “A one-day transit strike, for example, might have convinced the powers that be in the world’s financial capital to impose a deal on the real estate barons favorable to the building workers.” [3]

Here we see the cringing before the bureaucracy and the petty-minded reformism that arise from the subjective and nationalist politics of the Spartacist League. It is a pathetic scenario: First, the union bureaucrats change their minds—and abandon their organic aversion to the class struggle—and mobilize the masses. They even call a transit strike. (Not an indefinite strike; just a one-day strike. Even the fantasies of the Spartacist League conform to the small change of their politics.)

This, however, is sufficient to unnerve the bankers. They change their minds and, in turn, change the minds of the building owners. The circle of subjective decision-making is completed. Everyone has changed his mind and all the problems are solved. The building workers win, and labor and capital are reconciled.

Hence, according to the Spartacist League, there is no reason why the bitter experiences of workers with the AFL-CIO should become the starting point for drawing fundamental conclusions about the class nature and political role of the official unions, or the viability of national-based forms of organization and nationalist programs in general.

The only permissible conclusion is that the AFL-CIO must somehow be made to adopt more militant tactics—bigger picket lines and more aggressive forms of pressure on the employers and the government. It is forbidden to challenge the authority of the established trade union organizations. In all their struggles, American workers must seek the sanction of the AFL-CIO.

In its 1994 perspectives document, the Spartacist League takes note of the growing disaffection of workers, especially the younger, more militant and more socialistically inclined sections, from the AFL-CIO unions. It notes further that the same younger workers who evince a concern for “broad political and social issues” have little interest in the external horse trading and internal machinations of their unions. Far from viewing as a positive development these signs of growing political interest and a striving to break the grip of the bureaucratic apparatus, Spartacists’ reaction is to drag such workers backwards and keep them in the thrall of the AFL-CIO.

They write: “Given the succession of defeated strikes from PATCO to Caterpillar, many workers, especially the younger generation, do not view their union as a potential combat organization against the boss but at best as an agency to service their particular grievances. Consequently, we are now encountering young workers interested in broad political and social questions, who are not involved or concerned with intra-union affairs. We are also encountering immigrant workers whose experience in the more class-conscious labor movements of their homelands makes them open to revolutionary politics. It is necessary to convince such workers, who may be sympathetic to a socialist perspective, that the union movement can and must be transformed into an instrument of militant struggle against the bourgeois order.”

One could hardly find a more categorical attempt to promote trade unionism as a political antidote to the growth of socialist political consciousness within the working class. This paragraph reveals the diametrically opposed social and political tendencies embodied in the Spartacist League, on the one hand, and, on the other, the International Committee and the Socialist Equality Party in the United States.

The SEP seeks to give conscious expression to the instinctive striving of the working class, in the first instance its more conscious and militant layers, to find a way out of the impasse resulting from the influence of the trade union apparatus. It seeks to reveal the connection between the failure of the AFL-CIO and the inherent limitations of trade unionism, and explain the need for the working class to take the road of political struggle, on the basis of a revolutionary, socialist and internationalist strategy. It encourages the development of a rebellion against the labor bureaucracy, and sees in the growing conflict between the working class and the AFL-CIO the basis for new, more militant and revolutionary forms of working class organization.

The Spartacist League reacts to the signs of a collision between the working class and the trade union apparatus with alarm and hostility.

It seeks to defend the apparatus and hold back the working class. It is well aware that the very workers who are hostile to the union apparatus and are looking for a more revolutionary alternative will be attracted to the political program of the Socialist Equality Party. That is why the Spartacists so deeply hate the SEP. Their antipathy for the Marxist party reflects the fear and hatred of the trade union bureaucracy itself.


Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 22, Moscow, Progress, p. 194


Workers Vanguard, January 24, 1997


Workers Vanguard, January 24, 1997