The ‘Force of Will’ in the 1984 Longshore Boycott

In November and December 1984, the International Warehouse and Longshore Union (ILWU) in the port of San Francisco carried out a historic 11-day strike against cargo from apartheid South Africa. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the boycott the IBT held a forum in Berkeley on 13 December 2014 with featured speakers Howard Keylor and Jack Heyman, who played key roles in the boycott and in subsequent waterfront actions. Audio and text of all speeches are available here. Below is an edited version of supplementary comments from the IBT’s Tom Riley, speaking from the chair.

In The Modern Prince, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci observed that a successful outcome in any struggle depends on an ability to accurately gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing sides in order to “reveal the points of least resistance, at which the force of will can be most fruitfully applied.”

From this premise, Gramsci arrived at the following generalization:

“The decisive element in every situation is the force, permanently organized and pre-ordered over a long period, which can be advanced when one judges that the situation is favourable (and it is favourable only to the extent to which such a force exists and is full of fighting ardour); therefore the essential task is that of paying systematic and patient attention to forming and developing this force, rendering it ever more homogeneous, compact, conscious of itself.”

This quote was cited by Cliff Slaughter (a British Marxist who in the early 1960s was something of a mentor to the handful of young American revolutionaries that later founded the Spartacist League [SL]) in an essay entitled “What is Revolutionary Leadership?” In 1964 the Spartacist group included Slaughter’s essay in a pamphlet with the same title that was published here in Berkeley.

The 1984 Longshore Boycott we celebrate tonight targeted one of the “points of least resistance” in Reagan’s America to which “the force of will could be most fruitfully applied.” A major reason the action succeeded was because at that time in the Bay Area there existed a rough approximation of what Gramsci described as a politically conscious “force of will” – i.e., a group of determined people capable of providing the leadership necessary to drive the struggle forward. I am referring to the collection of former cadres of the Spartacist League who worked together and successfully negotiated a difficult set of political obstacles – one of the largest of which, particularly at the beginning, was the SL itself.

A precondition for initiating a struggle that depended on workers’ willingness to defy capitalist legality was the unusually high level of political consciousness within the ranks of Local 10 of the ILWU at that time. The selfless, class-conscious actions of the hundreds of longshoremen who carried out the boycott resonated all the way to the black trade unionists in South Africa itself. The consciousness that made this possible was the product of a series of prior political struggles. Several of these, as Howard and Jack indicated, resulted from initiatives taken by SL supporters in the Militant Caucus who, for most of a decade, had done serious political work in Local 10.

In the midst of the 11-day boycott, Howard and I spoke at a previously scheduled public forum on the “Decline of the Spartacist League.” Bob Mandel chaired it and several people here tonight spoke from the floor. The events at Pier 80 powerfully confirmed our prognosis that the organization that once made some unique contributions to the Marxist, i.e., Trotskyist, legacy, not least in the field of trade-union work, was essentially finished as a revolutionary organization. The analysis we presented at that meeting, at which the SL was offered (and declined) a 20 minute rebuttal, was later published as “The Road to Jimstown.”

What distinguished the SL’s union work in the 1970s from other ostensibly Trotskyist groups, as well as its revolutionary predecessors in James P. Cannon’s SWP [Socialist Workers Party], was the conception of building the nuclei of an alternative leadership within the unions, based on a program that linked the immediate needs and struggles of the class to the necessity to overthrow capitalism and establish workers’ rule. That program, distilled from the experiences of the Russian Revolution, was codified by Leon Trotsky in 1938 as the Transitional Program which we have published in an edition that includes articles on the best work of the SL-supported caucuses – including Jack’s Militant-Solidarity Caucus in the National Maritime Union and the Militant Caucus of the ILWU.

Our edition of the Transitional Program also includes an important series of articles on the history of revolutionary trade-union work in America from the 1920s to the 1950s. They were written by Chris Knox in the early 1970s with substantial input from James Robertson, the historic leader of the SL. The importance of these articles – which stress the centrality of the fight for leadership on the basis of a revolutionary program – is explicitly acknowledged by Bryan Palmer in his recent excellent book Revolutionary Teamsters, on the Minneapolis general strikes of 1934. In reviewing Palmer’s book, the SL took the opportunity, after 30 years, to formally repudiate the idea of building programmatically defined alternative leadership formations (i.e., caucuses) within the unions (see “Spartacists Repudiate Class-Struggle Caucuses”).

By jettisoning one of its most important contributions to the Marxist movement, the degenerate SL has at least helped clarify the political terrain, but the profound problem of embedding socialist consciousness in the working class remains. It will be solved only through the recruitment, political development and implantation of a new generation of Trotskyist cadres in the unions to do the groundwork for the creation of a mass revolutionary workers’ party. Socialist militants in the trade-union movement must seek to initiate and lead struggles over issues of immediate concern, like mobilizing against racist killer cop rampages, or doubling the minimum wage while simultaneously educating and raising the fighting spirit of the more advanced layers of the class in preparation for bigger and more significant battles in the future, which must ultimately culminate in the struggle for state power. The 1984 anti-apartheid strike provides a concrete, if small, example of how, given effective revolutionary leadership, the contemporary “class in itself” can one day be raised to the level of an internationalist “class for itself.”