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RWL/LOR: Explaining a failed fusion

November 26, 2018

The Revolutionary Workers League of Canada/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière (1977-1990): Part 2

For Part 1 of this article, see RWL/LOR: Inquest into a failed socialist fusion

By John Riddell. During the 1980s and 1990s, as neoliberal reaction tightened its grip, left-socialist activists in Canada fell into disillusion and inactivity. The traditional Communist Party broke apart; the main Maoist organizations vanished entirely. Was it this decline on the Left that doomed the Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière experiment?

The facts tell a different story. Without any doubt the broader socialist movement was in decline. Yet these were the very years in which the International Socialists (IS) emerged in Canada as a dynamic and influential far-left organization. Working people mobilized on many occasions, on both union and international issues (see “The Days of Action,” below). Internationally, the far-left group most similar to the RWL/LOR in size and historical roots, the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia, has maintained its vigour and influence to this day, despite an equally challenging political environment. (The historic DSP now forms the core of a broader formation, Socialist Alliance.)

Nor did the RWL/LOR shatter under the pressure of working-class retreat. The united leadership constituted in the early 1980s endured without an internal crisis, even as the movement declined to a shadow of its former strength.

To explain the paradox of its demise, it is helpful to consider its response to two published criticisms raised during the first months after the RWL/LOR adopted its “industrial turn” policy.

Two criticisms

The first comment, by Rhonda Sussman, a youthful Toronto socialist, warned that an “industrialization” policy “will drastically depoliticize the RWL/LOR,” transforming its members into “good labor militants instead of revolutionary unionists.”

In response, the Jim Upton of the RWL/LOR contended that any trade-unionist one-sidedness of the industrial workers would soon be overcome as workers responded the gathering capitalist offensive. “The industrial working class,” Upton wrote, “is beginning to respond to this attack. It plays an increasingly central role in the class struggle.” (Intercontinental Press, 25 January 1980)

Three months later, the RWL/LOR published the concerns of Hugh English, who warned that activity in industrial unions would be “disastrous” if it were “at the expense of an active and expanding role in the women’s movement, the lesbian and gay movements, and the public sector unions.”

Again it was Jim Upton who responded. Given the “increasingly central role being played by industrial workers in the class struggle,” he wrote, the arenas of struggle cited by English “will increasingly be won or lost depending on the degree of active support they receive from the major industrial unions.” (Intercontinental Press, 2 April 1980)

Upton’s responses make clear, as do other RWL/LOR explanations at the time, that the industrial turn was based not on existing reality but on a prediction regarding future conditions. Such a future-based orientation is impervious to the test of experience.

Retreat into isolation

Following the catastrophic destruction of the union of U.S. air traffic controllers in 1981, it became clear that labour, and industrial unions in particular, were rapidly losing ground. No radicalization took place. Indeed, the U.S. SWP concluded that what labour was undergoing was more than a “retreat,” it was a “rout.” Labour resistance in Canada was more resilient, but here too the trend was downward.

The RWL/LOR’s reaction to this negative trend was to radicalize the “industrial turn.” Holding down an industrial job became a requirement on all members. Relatively large and influential public-sector fractions, including in teachers’ unions and the radical Canadian Union of Postal Workers, were not only reduced in size but eliminated. The RWL/LOR contingent in the Canadian Auto Workers, the union spearheading labour resistance, was also liquidated as the RWL shifted forces into more oppressed union sectors such as the garment industry. Significant orientations of the RWL/LOR and its predecessors, such as critical support of the social democratic NDP and of struggles for Quebec national rights, were abandoned.

The founding organizations’ accumulated wisdom on work in trade unions was discarded, as the RWL disengaged from active work in union structures. Moreover, the RWL disavowed the heritage of its predecessors in Canada, replacing it with that of the SWP. The RWL ceased independent publishing activity, circulating only the publications of the SWP.

In 1990, the group dropped the name RWL/LOR, which had associations with Trotskyist history in Canada, and took the name Communist League (CL), the designation used by all the SWP’s international sister organizations.

In summary, the RWL/LOR leadership abdicated from the responsibility of charting its own course based on class-struggle experience in Canada and internationally and structurally integrated the group into the stronger U.S. movement.

While Upton’s second article cited some encouraging examples of RWL/LOR engagement with social movements, this activity declined and soon withered away (with the exception of defense of revolutionary Cuba). For example, the RWL/LOR was only marginally involved in the large-scale effort by trade unions and other progressive forces to defend Nicaragua against the U.S. “contra war.” When, in the 1990s, the industrial unions finally did spearhead a historic series of one-day general strikes in Ontario in the 1990s, in alliance with public sector workers and social movements, Communist League engagement was minimal.

My recollections of the CL during the Ontario Days of Action have been added as a postscript to this article.

The overall trend was toward sectarianism, disengagement from the workers’ movement, and – in recent years — a disturbing trend to see positive features in initiatives by the more extreme rightist forces in the ruling class. For a recent example, see the Communist League’s upbeat assessment of the recent victory in Ontario by rightist demagogue Doug Ford, which passes over in silence his program of attacks on labour.

Test of experience abandoned

In seeking a cause of the RWL/LOR’s remarkable sectarian transformation, one factor stands out. RWL/LOR policy after 1980 was based not on current conditions but on a prediction of a workers’ radicalization expected to occur in the near future. When the great uprising did not occur, its expected date of arrival was simply postponed. Lessons of experience thus had no authority in determining policy, which came to be based on belief rather than the test of reality.

In this respect, the RWL/LOR experience is not unique. Many sectarian socialist currents are afflicted with such a tendency to detach policy from current conditions. By displaying this consequences of this error, the story of the RWL/LOR offers a lesson with wide validity.


The Communist League in the Ontario Days of Action 1995-1998

The Days of Action represented by far the most impressive mobilization of labour in English Canada since 1946. Indeed, in terms of the breadth of rank-and-file involvement and the defiance of legal restrictions, these actions, called by the Ontario Federation of Labour, went beyond 1946 labour upsurge and recalled aspects of the 1919 Winnipeg general strike. The largest strike, in Toronto, essentially shut down the city and featured a rally of 250,000 workers.

For a detailed analysis, see “Lessons from Ontario’s City-Wide, Political Strikes of the Late 1990s,” by U.S. socialist Dan La Botz.

The Days of Action were a series of one-day general strikes and mass rallies, aiming to halt a ferocious attack on working people waged by the Conservative government of Mike Harris. This goal was not achieved, but the scope of the rightist offensive was reduced.

I will limit my comments to the response to the Days of Action by the Communist League (CL), formerly known as the RWL/LOR.

The CL branch in Toronto sent its members to take part in the rallies in late 1995 and 1996, with instructions to focus on sales of the Militant, the U.S. SWP’s newspaper. The Militant carried a number of articles reporting on the Days of Action in a manner that implied support but abstained from comment on the significance of this development or on the road forward. (See the Militant index for that period.)

About half-way through the rally sequence, I suggested to a Toronto branch meeting that the CL explicitly state its support for these actions. This was agreed. No such statement was made, but the tone of the Militant articles grew more supportive and even enthusiastic.

The articles did not reflect, and I do not recall, significant involvement by CL members in the structures established by the unions to carry out these massive mobilizations or participant reports on the bold cross-picketing that called workers out on strike. The CL did not issue any special appeals to support the campaign or to make suggestions as to its future course.

An influential wing of the Ontario labour officialdom opposed the mass protest actions, and this led to a dispute within the Ontario Federation of Labour. The tradition of the CL’s predecessors regarding such leadership fights was to support the current that was more favourable to rank-and-file involvement and agency, and that pointed to critical support of the Days of Action proponents.

The CL’s Toronto branch held a discussion on this point, and I was able to convince branch members to give critical backing in the internal debate to the Days of Action proponents. But this shift was only momentary. Soon the CL leadership responded by an attack on both leadership camps, putting an equal sign between supporters and opponents of the Days of Action in the OFL leadership.

The Days of Action campaign was a decisive test of the CL’s “turn to industry.” Eighteen years after its formulation, during a two-year period, the original prediction about industrial unions leading an uprising of all workers and social movements became reality. Like the proverbial stopped clock, the CL’s strategy was momentarily in pace with reality. Yet the Communist League was poorly placed to intervene and to win support among worker activists. The CL’s routine performance did not, however, arouse questioning in the CL ranks.

The Days of Action experience, like the CL’s evolution as a whole, indicates that the “industrial turn,” far from helping the CL gain a leading role in struggles of industrial workers, served to isolate it from the working-class movement as a whole.

A note on my role

This two-part account of the RWL is based on my recollections, supplemented by materials available at themilitant.com.

I shared responsibility for the evolution described in these posts. As Executive Secretary of the LSA/LSO, I was among the main architects of the 1977 fusion. I co-edited the RWL/LOR’s English-language newspaper during its first six months.

Subsequently, I did not hold leadership posts and had much less contact with the day-to-day leadership. I had fruitful experiences in a variety of industrial union jobs while remaining a member of the Toronto branch and Central Committee. I supported the “industrial turn” orientation.

In the 1983, my base of operations shifted to New York. After my return in 1994, I remained a Communist League member until 1998. In 2004 I was expelled from the CL supporter group for urging active engagement in the opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq.

Further Reading

The view of former Quebec-based members of the RWL/LOR who later led Gauche Socialiste is presented in two articles:

Thanks to Richard Fidler for suggesting these texts.

Brief comments on the RWL/LOR appear in Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, The Canadian War on Queers, Vancouver: UBC , 2010.

For analysis of developments in the Fourth International during the period under discussion, see Barry Sheppard, The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, volume 2, London: Resistance Books, 2012

A short account of the RWL/LOR can be found in Robert J. Alexander’s International Trotskyism 1929-1985, pp. 155-7.

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From → Canada, Organization

One Comment
  1. Ken Hiebert permalink

    There’s a lot to digest in John’s posting and in the comments.
    But there’s one factor I’d like to add.
    I believe there were people who thought we’d be better off without some of the members we had.
    I think for some people the industrial turn was made precisely to rid ourselves of “petty bourgeois elements.”
    I think the SWP leadership was uncomfortable with a diverse Canadian group where not everyone necessarily agreed with the SWP.

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