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RWL: Inquest into a failed socialist fusion

November 19, 2018

The Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue Ouvrière Révolutionnaire (1977-1990), Part 1

For Part 2 of this article, see “The RWL/LOR: Explaining a failed fusion.”

By John Riddell: Forty years ago, four significant far-left groups in Canada came together to form the Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue Ouvrière Révolutionnaire (RWL/LOR). At the time the RWL/LOR showed promise of becoming the dominant political group in the country to the left of the New Democratic Party. However, the fusion ended badly – in splits, the loss to socialism of most of the participating activists, and the withering away of the RWL/LOR itself.

Bernard Rioux has published an outstanding account of this experience as viewed from Quebec. Apart from that, little has been written on the RWL/LOR. A recent comment to this blog by Robert McMaster recalls inadequacies of leadership in this experience. In the hopes of encouraging further comment on this half-forgotten experience, I will review some basic facts, present my impressions, and consider the lessons.

The four organizations that united in 1977 were all affiliated to the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI) (see note below). Driven apart in 1972-73 by a factional dispute in the world movement, they had grown closer in the years that followed, and by 1977 the international dispute was edging toward resolution.

The participating groups were:

  • The League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière (LSA/LSO), the historic section of the FI in the Canadian State.
  • The Revolutionary Marxist Group (RMG), a sympathizing group of the FI in English Canada.
  • The Group Marxiste Révolutionnaire (GMR), an FI sympathizing group in Quebec.
  • The Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes, an autonomous group with ties to the LSA/LSO.

Many documents of these groups are available at the Socialist History Project.

Taken together, the groups included close to 500 members and supporters, about evenly divided between LSA/LSO/YS and RMG/GMR. The groups deployed significant resources: four newspapers, a chain of headquarters (complete with meeting space and book rooms), a book-distribution agency, more than a dozen full-time staffers, and a stable and debt-free financial structure.

These resources were of course insignificant compared with those available to the social democratic NDP (New Democratic Party). On the far left, however, Trotskyism in Canada was a significant force, and it could hope to gain immensely in attractiveness through the fusion. The new group could reasonably hope to overtake its larger Maoist rivals (Workers’ Communist Party and En Lutte), which in fact collapsed during the half-decade that followed.

The omens for the new movement seemed encouraging. A December 1977 article by Brett Smiley and myself, prominent figures respectively in the RMG and LSA/LSO, noted the gloomy outlook for the capitalist class, as Canada’s economy fell into decline. Canada’s federal government was increasingly in conflict with the trade unions, which had held a Canada-wide one-day protest strike the previous year. The Party Québécois had taken office on a program of Quebec sovereignty, at a time when growing sectors of the pan-Canadian union movement were supporting Quebec’s right to self-determination.

Brett and I could also have mentioned the rising militancy of indigenous peoples, which had been analyzed by the LSA/LSO in Richard Fidler’s pamphlet on this topic.

Missing: an action plan

When the RWL/LOR was founded late in 1977, its founders’ agreement on a broad statement of strategic perspectives was not complemented by a plan for unified campaigns. The fusion had been hurried along unduly by a shared concern to encourage defactionalization in the Trotskyist world movement. The founding convention decided that – initially, at least – all the work areas of the component groups would be maintained, pending the emergence of a unifying project.

All the pre-RWL groupings dissolved at the fusion, and – at least initially — the new group was homogeneous. A major effort was launched to created a unified bi-national centre in Montreal, whose leaders would have bilingual competency. This goal was soon achieved.

Still, the bi-national leadership was slow to gel, and the lack of a common action plan induced the membership to lapse back into previous habits and alignments. To many members, the RWLLOR seemed a combination more of weaknesses than of strengths, or, as some members joked at the time, not so much a fusion as a “CONfusion.” The initial post-fusion surge of recruits lagged; the membership figures started to dip; financial strains forced cutbacks in spending.

Division over Quebec

Early in 1978, before establishment of a new bi-national centre, an internal debate opened up in the RWL/LOR on the Quebec national question, in which some leaders from the ex-LSA/LSO criticized the ex-GMR leaders for making excessive concessions to Quebec nationalism. The critics made some cogent points, but, even so, this development was a danger sign.

Policy toward the militant Quebec workers’ movement and Quebec nationalism was viewed by RWL/LOR members as the decisive question in the class struggle in the Canadian state. The RWL/LOR had achieved unanimous agreement on the two overriding issues in Quebec that had divided the LSA/LSO from the GMR: the call for an independent socialist Quebec and for building a mass workers’ party in Quebec based on the trade unions (a “labour party”). This united position, codified in a July 1978 article in Lutte Ouvrière (the RWL/LOR’s Quebec newspaper) provided a solid foundation on which the disagreements that would inevitably arise could be debated in a harmonious framework.

But in my view three aspects of the debate were troubling.

  1. The timing: The disagreement was placed before the membership before the unified leadership had accumulated common experience working together in Quebec.
  2. The geography: Criticism directed at the Quebecois leaders for adapting to Quebec nationalism was coming mainly from comrades based in English Canada, reproducing a geographical polarization that had caused Canadian socialism much grief over its history.
  3. SWP involvement: At leadership meetings, representatives of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) took part in the debate on the side of the critics. This development compromised the U.S. movement’s role as a non-partisan supporter of unity in the RWL/LOR and heightened tensions in Canada. The SWP’s partisan role in RWL/LOR leadership discussions, which spread to issues beyond Quebec nationalism, was a sharp break from previous practice.A year later, in 1979, the SWP reoriented toward building its own international current critical of the Fourth International majority leadership — an action that had a divisive influence among RWL/LOR members.

The SWP had collaborated closely with the LSA/LSO over many decades. Anxious not to misuse its moral authority in the Trotskyist world movement, the much larger U.S. party had acted toward its sister movement in Canada with great reserve. Relations had long been coordinated through discussions between the respective central leaders. The LSA/LSO did not ask for advice on policy in Canada and, as a rule, did not receive any.

That changed during the preparation of the RWL/LOR fusion, in which the SWP acted on behalf of the Fourth International as a whole in pressing for the merger. The SWP stepped up its involvement after the fusion. True enough, the new RWL leadership was often at sixes and sevens and seemed to need all the help it could get. Still, a new pattern was taking shape of increasing RWL/LOR integration at the leadership level into the SWP.

The ‘turn to industry’

The more than 100 RWL/LOR members who took part in the SWP’s annual conference in Oberlin, Ohio, in August 1978 found the U.S. party deeply engaged in a process of shifting the majority of its members into jobs in unionized industry. Many RWL/LOR leaders became convinced that this “industrial turn” was needed in Canada as well. Their SWP friends offered lots of encouragement. Moreover, there were indeed good reasons to believe that some initiative of this sort was needed:

  1. The union movement in Canada had experienced an extended upsurge since 1966, which embraced industrial as well as public-sector workers, and which led to significant labour political engagement in both Quebec and English Canada.
  2. The wave of student and youth radicalization, the main force building the socialist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, was visibly ebbing, thus increasing the relative weight of trade unions in left-wing activity.
  3. A downturn in the world capitalist economy in the 1970s had impelled Canada’s ruling class to attack trade-union rights.
  4. There were radical stirrings in Canada’s main industrial unions, Steel and Auto. In addition, the most left-wing trade union in Canada, the postal workers, was industrial in nature. The Canadian Labour Congress held a mass one-day anti-government strike in 1976, with a million participants, and was to repeat this action in 1981.
  5. Precedents for fruitful work in industrial unions existed in the RWL/LOR’s founding organizations. A debate on this question was unlikely to reproduce the pre-fusion cleavages.
  6. As things were, the RWL/LOR was visibly floundering, declining in membership, as rival internal groupings emerged roughly along the lines of the old pre-fusion rivalries.
  7. The United Secretariat of the Fourth International, whose authority was respected by all RWL/LOR members, was giving sympathetic consideration to implementing the “industrial turn” globally, and the International did, in fact, endorse this line in 1979. Meanwhile, the SWP provided both an example and a source of advice regarding “the turn.”

Following the August 1978 conference in Ohio, a group of RWL/LOR leaders, mostly from the old LSA-LSO, began an educational effort within the group to win a majority for the “turn to industry.” The RWL/LOR members divided, pro and con. But the fracture took place along new lines, and a significant number of leaders for the ex-RMG and ex-GMR joined the “Tendency for a Proletarian Turn.” As the year ended, the RWL/LOR Central Committee voted unanimously to “qualitatively increase the number of RWL/LOR members in key industrial unions.”

During two years that followed, the RWL/LOR experienced a second and more durable fusion, this time at the leadership level. A united central leadership emerged, working together in Montreal, with roughly equal components from the RMG, GMR, LSA, and LSO. All participants could function competently in French. The majority of RWL/LOR members were soon successfully implanted in Canada’s main industrial unions.

In 1982-83 the SWP dropped the designation “Trotskyist” and drove out dissidents who disagreed with this innovation. Unsurprisingly, this development had a strong echo in Canada. The majority of members accepted the SWP’s shift. In 1980, however, a dissident group left the RWL/LOR in Quebec, which formed Gauche Socialiste in 1983. That same year, another group, in English Canada, launched the Alliance for Socialist Action, later named Socialist Challenge. A minority in the latter group created Socialist Action in 1994, which finds inspiration in the heritage of the old LSA/LSO and helps animate the NDP Socialist Caucus. Socialist Challenge merged into the New Socialists in 1999. Gauche Socialiste went on to play a significant and constructive role in the creation of a new left party, Quebec Solidaire.

By 1983, around half of the original RWL/LOR membership had left, and only a small minority remained from the old RMG and GMR. It was apparent that the expected worker radicalization, which provided the rationale for the “industrial turn,” was not taking place. This was a blow, but it could readily be made good. The RWL had the unity, experience, and cohesion needed to make radical adjustments.

Indeed, there were doubts about the “turn” even in the SWP. In 1983, the SWP National Secretary, Jack Barnes, remarked in my presence that if the SWP did not start recruiting from industry within a year, the industrial turn would have to be reconsidered.

No industrial recruitment followed, no correction was made, and the need for reconsideration never came up again either in the SWP or the RWL/LOR. Meanwhile, the RWL/LOR slid into a protracted decline, which led to its near-disappearance as a force within in the socialist movement in Canada and Quebec.

The second part of this article will consider the causes of this collapse.

A Note on the Fourth International

The Fourth International: World Party of Socialist Revolution, was founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938 with the goal of preserving the legacy of the Communist International under Lenin (the “Third International”) and applying it in the global revolutionary process.

Despite the difficulties of maintaining unity of small forces scattered around the globe, the Fourth International succeeded in 1963 of uniting the vast majority of Trotskyist forces under the leadership of the United Secretariat, to which all the RWL/LOR’s components adhered.

Some rival currents also claimed to represent the Fourth International, using a variety of distinctive names.

The Fourth International (United Secretariat) grew significantly during the 15 years that followed. The U.S. SWP, although not formally affiliated to the FI for legal reasons, collaborated with it closely. A factional struggle between forced led by the U.S. SWP, on the one hand, and a number of European parties, on the other, was resolved at a 1979 World Congress. However, disagreements flared up again very quickly, with the SWP again leading the minority viewpoint. The SWP and its supporters, including the CL in Canada, quit the Fourth International in 1990.




From → Canada, Organization

  1. Rob Lyons permalink

    “Thanks for this John. I like the others look forward to the second part.

    I do take issue with your recollections vis a vis the SWP leadership interventions. In the period leading up to the original split which really occurred at the 1973 convention in Toronto, the work of Joe Hansen was visably evident ; stopping the convention and then unilaterally declaring the opposition RCT a faction. The hand of Mandel and Maitan, while less obvious, were there as well.

    There is an element to the whole process which I believe needs emphasis, and that is the political immaturity of most of the leaderships of the unifying groups. We were young, without the stabilizing hands of experienced leaders interested in an authentic process of reunification based on the overall political context of the existing class struggle and the changing demographics of the membership cadre, moving from students to workplaces based on their chosen career paths, not an artificial implantation cocooned in the slogan of becoming Worker-Bolsheviks.”

    The above comment was originally posted on FB and as befits the media, was by necessity overly short and synthetic. To explicate further:

    1. The notion of political immaturity is not a personal reflection on any individual short coming, but an analysis of a very complex process involving hundreds of people which had never been faced by either of the leaderships of the LSA/LSO/YS (which I had been an organizer for) or the RMG/GMR (of which I became a member). It is precisely in a process like this that the greatest care needed to be taken to make all cadre feel “at home” so to speak.

    The experienced hands(George Novak and Ernest Mandel) failed us in this process, not because of any inability (at least theoretically) to do so, but because of the over determining dynamics of the international factional situation on the one hand, and the internal dynamics underway within the SWP, as John points out.

    2. The international factional situation was a symptom of a much deeper problem: the failure of the United Secretariate to build a truly functioning international leadership because of the eclectic and empericist theoretical functioning on the part of its best known leaders; Mandel, Maitan, Krivine; Rousett et al. The zigs-zags of line which led to s series of splits in 1953 and 1973 were never examined for the underlying methodollogical problems, and this was reflected to the way in which the Pablo-Mandel leadership organized the splits in national sections (in the French section in 1953 and in the Canadian section -and others- in 1973.) In essence, it produced weak political leaders who were unable to rise above their factional concerns, or to oppose the SWP’s proposal for an “international turn to industry”, or to confront the Barnes creeping coup within the SWP. Their factional manuverings had poisioned their reputations too badly to do so.

    I also appreciate your linking today’s Socialist Action with the legacy of the LSA/LSO. Some of us are now the greybeards who will be dealing with the process of building a revolutionary workers international with the PTS (Socialist Workers Party) of Argentina and its co-thinkers in Latin America and Europe, as well as strengthening ties to the organizations adhering to the Platform for a Revolutionary International. That will be the test of our political maturity.

  2. Bob, thanks for expanding so thoughtfully on your Facebook comments. You have shifted attention to the 1973 LSA/LSO convention, which was probably the last chance to head off a split between the majority of LSA/LSO forces and those who joined the GMR and RMG.

    The decisive factor was the situation in the International.

    At the time, it seemed clear that the minority aligned with Mandel, Krivine, etc. in Europe – that is, the RCT who were in agreement with the United Secretariat majority — were convinced that a split in the International was imminent and unavoidable, and were acting to position themselves for recognition as the new Canadian section.

    What was the thinking in that minority? It would be helpful to hear something from one of its leaders. I am not aware of any participant’s account of the RMG experience by a participant.

    What was needed to turn that situation around in 1973 was a united intervention at the convention by a United Secretariat delegation including the SWP and an authoritative comrade from Europe. I still think that could have forestalled the split.

  3. Gary Kinsman permalink

    Dear John:

    Thanks for this. My recollections as a member of the YS and then the RMG and the RWL is rather different. I was a member of Tendency Z in the RWL which fought for the integration of lesbian/gay liberation into the organization. When it was clear the RWL was refusing to discuss our position a number of us left the RWL on March 8, 1980. There are some documents relating to this on the Left History site linked to an interview Deborah Brock did with me called “Workers of the World Caress.” One piece of writing I have done that relates to some of this on the lesbian/gay liberation questions and the fusion. Please see Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, The Canadian War on Queers, National Security as Sexual Regulation, UBC Press, 2010, pp. 280-286.

    In solidarity,

    Gary Kinsman

    • Robert McMaster permalink

      Tendency Z emerged out of the Toronto Branch Working Group. I had great respect for Gary Kinsman. He and his comrades were doing very good work. They did practical things like work with real people around real issues, in the street, so to speak. Though they were no slouches at the theory end of matters. The Turn to Industry was designed to make the RWL an unwelcome place for them. It worked. Sadly

      • Dear Robert: Great to hear from you. Yes many of the Toronto people involved in the Toronto Branch Working Group became members of Tendency Z but the Tendency also included members in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal and other places and they were different political formations. The way the turn to industry was applied seemed designed to drive us our of the organization and Tendency Z was denounced by supporters of the ‘industrial turn’ as “petite-bourgeois life-stylists” and the gay/lesbian movements were marginalized as “peripheral” and “lacking in social weight.”

        In solidarity,

        Gary Kinsman

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