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

A crude apology for bureaucracy

Not only do the Spartacists echo the reformist and nationalist politics of the trade union officialdom, they quite consciously seek to defend the bureaucratic apparatus against the growing anger of the rank and file. They give voice to the bureaucracy’s fear that the Marxist movement will gain an ever-wider hearing among disaffected workers. One characteristic passage in the Spartacists’ polemic reflects the consternation of the more conscious representatives of the trade union bureaucracy.

Spartacist complains: “On the one side, they [the ICFI] denounce the unions as ‘failed organizations,’ thereby seeking to appeal to workers fed up with the bureaucracy’s endless sellouts and angry and frustrated over falling living standards. On the other side, they try to make themselves look good by posing as sympathetic to workers engaged in struggle.” [1]

In the end, Spartacist’s attack on the ICFI reveals itself to be a rather long-winded attempt to justify the crudest of apologetics for the trade union bureaucracy. In the course of their articles, they rally behind the United Auto Workers bureaucracy and denounce The International Workers Bulletin for characterizing UAW President Stephen Yokich and the local UAW leaders as the real scabs in the union’s surrender to Caterpillar in December of 1995. They attack the British section of the ICFI for exposing the bogus “international solidarity campaign” mounted by Stalinist shop stewards and union bureaucrats to cover their betrayal of the Liverpool dockers. And they fawn on Arthur Scargill, the pro-Stalinist leader of the British National Union of Mineworkers, who played the central role in the defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, and has since presided over the decimation of the union, from 183,000 members to less than 10,000 today.

Finally, they denounce the Workers League, the forerunner of the Socialist Equality Party in the US, for refusing to line up behind the AFL-CIO’s chauvinist campaign in 1993-94 against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Workers League opposed the NAFTA agreement, characterizing it as an imperialist scheme to completely subordinate the Mexican economy to the needs of the US transnationals and Wall Street financial institutions. But the Workers League gave no support to the AFL-CIO’s anti-NAFTA crusade, which was based on economic nationalism and the promotion of right-wing demagogues like Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan. As the Workers League explained, the campaign of the AFL-CIO expressed the interests of neither American nor Mexican workers, but rather the reactionary standpoint of the trade union bureaucracy and more backward sections of capitalist industry, which feel threatened by the increasing globalization of the economy. Instead, the Workers League advanced the perspective of a united struggle of American, Canadian and Mexican workers against the North American bourgeoisie.

In The International Workers Bulletin of September 20, 1993, we wrote:

“American workers must join forces with workers in Mexico and Canada to combat the North American-wide organization of capital expressed in the North American Free Trade Agreement. Workers throughout North America must join forces with workers in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe in the struggle against transnational corporations that operate on every continent...

“Joint action among the workers of the US, Canada and Mexico, many of them employed by the same multinational corporations, requires first of all an insurrection against the official labor organizations, the AFL-CIO, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Mexican CTM, and the establishment of direct links and coordination among the workers in all three countries, ranging from common strike action to broader, united political struggles.”

The Spartacist League singles out this article for attack. Significantly, it concentrates its fire on the opening sentence:

“American workers must not line up behind either side in the capitalist debate over NAFTA, but must adopt an independent class standpoint which is based on the genuine, i.e., international, interests of the working class.”

Spartacist dismisses the notion of a working class opposition to NAFTA which is independent of the AFL-CIO and opposed to its chauvinist politics as “neutrality” toward US imperialist domination of Mexico. In other words, no working class struggle is conceivable—or permissible—outside of the framework of the trade union apparatus. This, of course, is precisely the standpoint of the labor bureaucracy and its sponsors in the bourgeoisie.

In Spartacist’s denunciation of the independent standpoint of the working class and the perspective of internationalism is concentrated the twin pillars of its politics: nationalism and support for the trade union bureaucracy.

One final aspect of Spartacist’s promotion of trade unionism and the AFL-CIO bureaucracy merits consideration. In common with all of the other middle-class organizations that emerged from the student protest milieu of the 1960s, it exhibits a curious evolution in relation to the AFL-CIO. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the unions, despite their reactionary leadership and political orientation, still retained a significant element of the shop floor militancy inherited from the past, the Spartacist League, and the radical “left” in general, virtually ignored the struggles inside the labor movement.

The late 1960s and early ‘70s, in particular, saw a series of massive strikes and insurgent movements inside the factories and work locations. In the aftermath of Nixon’s wage freeze of August 1971, strikes broke out in auto, on the docks and in other industries, and rank-and-file opposition to union participation on Nixon’s wage panel began to assume nationwide proportions, eventually forcing AFL-CIO President George Meany to leave the board.

But the general attitude of Spartacist and the rest of the middle-class “left” was to denounce the industrial working class as racist, and characterize the unions as “white job trusts.” At a time, therefore, when the working class inside the unions was being politically radicalized and moving in opposition to the bureaucracy, and the latter was in deep crisis, the Spartacist League took the position that to place political demands on the unions was to support Meany and the bureaucracy.

They bitterly attacked the Workers League for raising the demand that the unions break from the Democratic Party and establish a labor party based on a socialist program. For its part, the Workers League fought for this demand in the unions as a means of exposing the bureaucracy and educating workers on the need to establish their political independence. In 1971, 1972 and 1973 the Workers League held well-attended conferences of workers and young people to develop the fight for an independent party of the working class based on socialist policies. Spartacist adapted itself to the McGovern campaign and those layers within the petty-bourgeois protest movement that were backing the South Dakota Democrat.

But as the degeneration of the unions assumed an increasingly finished form, Spartacist became ever more infatuated with the AFL-CIO. Precisely at the point where the bureaucracy had extinguished the last traces of rank-and-file control and embraced the program of corporatism, and the moribund character of the unions was expressed both in their shrinking dues base and their systematic betrayal of workers’ struggles, Spartacist and the rest of the middle-class ex-radicals became the most stalwart defenders of the hegemony of the AFL-CIO over the working class.

This convergence of the trade union bureaucracy and the “ radical left” expresses the movement of class forces, i.e., the coming together of specific petty-bourgeois layers in opposition to an independent movement of the working class.


Workers Vanguard, January 24, 1997