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Vol. 72/No. 43      November 3, 2008

Marxist educational weekend:
unions and fight for state power
(front page)
NEW YORK—A socialist educational weekend on “Trade Unions and the Working-Class Fight for State Power” took place here October 18-19, sponsored by the New York and Newark, New Jersey, branches of the Socialist Workers Party and the New York Young Socialists.

Participating in the classes were more than 50 workers and youth from New York and Newark, as well as Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal, and Washington, D.C. They devoted the weekend to intensive reading, study, and collective discussion of Karl Marx’s pamphlet Wages, Price and Profit and the 1866 resolution of the International Working Men’s Association on “Trade Unions: Their Past, Present, and Future.” Participants also got out to working-class neighborhoods Saturday morning to campaign for the SWP candidates in the November elections and circulate the Militant newspaper, and joined a rally to support strikers at the Stella D’Oro bakery in the Bronx.

“This socialist educational weekend is the culmination of an intensive period of collective study here in New York,” said Debbie Lazar, the education director of the New York Headquarters branch of the SWP, as she welcomed participants to the class series. At the same time socialists have been campaigning on the streets and joining fights for legalization of undocumented workers and union struggles, “we’ve carried out a systematic study of the history and continuity of the world communist movement, holding classes in New York twice weekly throughout the summer,” she said.

The socialist summer school studied the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Frederick Engels; “On the History of the Communist League” by Engels; Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Engels; The History of American Trotskyism by James P. Cannon; and issue number 14 of New International, a magazine of Marxist politics and theory. In the six months prior to the summer school, SWP and YS members, along with others interested in joining the communist movement, studied The First Ten Years of American Communism by James P. Cannon and The Third International After Lenin by Leon Trotsky.  
Refuting capitalists’ arguments
“At this time of worldwide capitalist financial crisis,” Lazar explained, “we thought it would be appropriate and necessary to go back to 1865 and study Marx’s writings on political economy. We selected Marx’s Wages, Price and Profit because it refutes the capitalists’ arguments about why the working class must sacrifice, accept wage cuts, and tighten our belts.”

“Trade Unions: Their Past, Present, and Future” was chosen for study because it “shows why unions are an absolute necessity, and also why they must champion social and political movements and fight for the emancipation of the entire working class,” Lazar said.

In the weeks leading up to the classes, a syllabus, suggested readings, and questions were circulated to all participants, to allow ample time for study prior to the weekend. Meetings were organized for those making presentations to collectively think out how best to present the material and lead the discussion.

Dan Fein, a garment worker and SWP candidate for U.S. Congress in New York’s 10th District, introduced the first of two sessions on Wages, Price and Profit. He noted that Marxist education “is not light reading.” It requires concentrated, disciplined work. Ben O’Shaughnessy, a meat packer and organizer of the Young Socialists National Steering Committee, initiated the second session on the pamphlet. After each presentation participants broke into smaller groups for discussion.

The pamphlet is based on two talks Marx gave to the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, also known as the First International, in 1865. Marx’s talk answered the argument of the employers that wage increases harm the working class—and everyone else—because they force prices to go up. Within the First International, the bosses’ line against raising wages was supported by carpenter John Weston. Presenting extensive documentation on the trends in wages and prices, Marx showed that Weston’s thesis was completely false. He then explained how the capitalist exploits the worker, paying wages that represent only a portion of the value the worker produces and pocketing the rest as surplus value.

The employers constantly seek to drive down wages and lengthen the working day to boost their rate of profit, Marx wrote. What flows from this, he said, is that the labor movement cannot simply engage in struggle after struggle to raise wages and reduce work hours. The entire wages system must be abolished, he explained. This can only be done by workers taking political power out of the employers’ hands.

The discussion on “Trade Unions: Their Past, Present, and Future” was kicked off by Sara Lobman, a garment worker and SWP candidate for U.S. Senate in New Jersey. The class studied how the First International was founded out of the rise of working-class struggles in both Europe and the United States in the 1860s. Marx drafted the document to explain how trade unions arose and the role they must play, particularly in the political arena.  
Future role of unions
The document ends on the future role of the trade unions: “Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the agricultural laborers, rendered powerless by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.”

In addition to the classes, nearly 100 people attended a Saturday evening forum on “The Working-Class Fight for Political Power: Defending Workers and Farmers as the Capitalist Crisis Deepens.” The speaker was Steve Clark, a member of the SWP National Committee.

Participants first sat down to a delicious meal prepared by volunteers. Breakfast and lunch were also served on Sunday to allow those in the classes to concentrate on their studies and continue the discussion over meal breaks.

In his talk Clark said that Wages, Price and Profit is “not a primer of Marxist economics but a political weapon” that explains why the working-class movement must be part of workers’ struggles, including those by the unions and why, at the same time, the unions cannot advance the interests of the working class without a political instrument that fights to take political power out of the hands of the capitalist exploiters.

Among those attending the forum for the first time were two welders originally from Ecuador. They had met a team of socialist campaigners that morning and decided to hear more about the communist perspective.

Clark noted that the big-business press today echoes charges against workers that are similar to the slanders the factory owners directed against the proletariat in Marx’s time. He quoted an article in the October 18 Washington Post that said the Boeing strike, “if not resolved soon, could make it difficult for the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer to weather the recession, weakening a giant of industrial America.

“Last week, the Federal Reserve said the Boeing strike contributed to the 2.8 percent decrease in industrial production in September, the steepest drop in 34 years.”

Clark said it is not true the Boeing strike is responsible for the capitalist economic crisis, any more than workers who fight for wage increases are the cause of inflation. These problems are the result of the workings of the capitalist system.

The current financial crisis of world capitalism will not be resolved in a few months or even years, Clark said. Bourgeois economists themselves predict unemployment will increase to at least the levels of the early 1980s, when the official jobless rate hit almost 10 percent.

Clark said there is no “superimperialist” solution that will resolve the crisis. But as V.I. Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, pointed out, there is no hopeless situation for the capitalist class. It simply has to remain in power. That underscores the necessity of constructing disciplined, working-class parties today, made up of cadres steeled in Marxist education and engaged in the class struggle, so that the working class will have the instruments it needs to take political power when revolutionary openings do come about.  
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