A Concrete Program for the Unemployed

(from the Militant, Vol. III No. 31, 1 October 1930 & Vol. III No. 32, 1 November 1930, p. 6)
By Albert Weisbord

On August 14th, the Daily Worker carried an article by Jack Johnstone. The article begins: “What are workers to do when they are hungry, are being evicted from their homes, are out of a job, and can’t find anything to do? This question is one that is being asked by tens of thousands……

And what is Johnstone’s answer? in effect it is: “Come to the mass meeting in Union Square. September 1st, 12 O’clock sharp.”

But suppose the workers say, “We have demonstrated already for almost a year, before March 6th, on March 6th, on May 1st, on July 6th, on August 1st, etc. Is this all you have to offer us? Is there no practical program? What are we to do when we are hungry? When we are being evicted from our homes? When we are out of a job?”

This is surely what the workers will say. They are saying it now: March 6th—75,000, May 1st-30,000, August 1st-10,000 etc. They have been saying it with their feet!

It is up to every honest and serious Communist to understand that the Party leaders are politically bankrupt. We must unite all forces to the end that a real unemployment program is worked out and carried out. The question asked by the workers must be answered!

Unemployment to Become More Serious

The unemployment question will become more acute than ever this coming fall and winter. The world economic situation will grow worse. The home situation will grow worse. The industrial crisis will sharpen and will add to it a deepened agrarian crisis. The unemployment question must become the principal question of the day. It can become the lever for the organization of the unorganized, for the building of a Labor Party, for mobilizing the greatest mass of workers around the Communists. It is indeed that link in the chain of events which the Communists must seize to move the whole chain forward.

The Communist object in the unemployment movement must be: 1. The mobilization of the widest layers of the population, above all, of course, and mainly, of the working class. 2. The revolutionization and activization of these sections and the development of leadership from their ranks. To win the widest strata, we must connect the unemployed with the employed, and throw the family as a whole into the struggle.

The line of the Party has been just the opposite in effect—to isolate the working class from the rest of the population, to isolate the advanced workers from their reserves, to isolate the unemployed from the employed, to isolate the vanguard from the unemployed, to place the workers in an impossible fighting position.

If the difficulties of work are extraordinary, due to the mobility of unemployed labor, to the systems of intermittent and part-time work, etc., these difficulties are more than counterbalanced by far by the wonderful opportunities for work.

How shall we begin the work of actually organizing the unemployed? The first problem is the problem of reaching the unemployed masses of which the primary basic principle is that we must go to the masses and not expect them to come to us. But how is this to be done? The proletarian quarters of the city must be carefully mapped out. In a larger city there will be several such quarters, very often built around some large factory or several of them. Each quarter contains a number of blocks. The block organization must be the basic unit. Leaflets should be given out from flat to flat, from tenement to tenement, first with general propaganda on the unemployment question and then announcing a series of meetings. These meetings should be held where possible, outdoors, block by block of the whole district, being systematically covered. Through these meetings and through the systematic distribution of leaflets, all the unemployed to a given block can be registered and the main bulk organized in a block council with its own leaders and executives, meeting regularly in the block, carrying out a uniform policy and preparing for action.

How the Party Is Working

Let us stop here briefly to contrast our position with what has been done by the Party officials.

1. The first difference is that instead of a “showy” haphazard work there is systematic, responsible work. For years, for example, Amter dabbled with unemployment work in Cleveland. With what results? When the Partly reviewed its work after March 6th, it declared the situation in Cleveland disgraceful, that there was not even a council organized. Another example, was there any serious estimations of the organization problems set forth by the “organizer” Johnstone at the July 4th conference in Chicago?

2. The second difference is that we go to the masses, not await their coming to us. How were the so-called “unemployment councils” built up throughout the country by the Party? Let us take a typical case—Newark, New Jersey. There the Party is relatively small and weak. It has little money and poor guidance. (In a few months it had 4 different paid section organizers between spells of having none at all.) A few dollars are raised and spent on leaflets. A meeting is announced in their own Hall, First a hundred or so workers come, then two hundred, then four hundred and the hall is packed to the doors.

But already the workers begin to feel disappointed. At every meeting the same wordy phrases are passed out. The workers begin to ask “What are we to do when we are hungry, are being evicted from our homes, are out of a job? “Come to the next meeting!” is the answer. No practical plans are set at the meeting. Party members alone control. No one is elected on an executive. No discussion of local problems. No non-Party leaders developed. The original enthusiasm begins to cool a bit. Then comes a police raid. The few leading Party members are arrested. The attendance rapidly falls off. Detectives stand in the hall, forming a cordon through which workers one by one must pass. Police agents in the hall openly cast their shadow of terror over the meeting.

Is it any wonder that after March 6th everything melted away? Could anything be more amateurish? The workers say the Communists mean well but they are a bunch of empty-headed impractical persons who like to talk.

Let us take the Party figures on unemployment that one person is out of work for every 15 people. Newark is a city roughly of 450,000 population. This would mean at least 30,000 out of work. The Party then asked these 30,000 to come to a hall holding normally 300 people. There is no hall in Newark that could hold 30,000 people nor can the Party afford to hire any larger one than what they had. But to the workers the situation was very clear. In reality what the Party was doing was exposing its vanguard troops to the withering fire of the enemy in the most foolish manner. The workers knew that and either never came around or withdrew. Only the foolish Communist Party “leaders” did not know this. In reality the Party was keeping out thousands of workers eager to join the movement, and was condemning those who came to isolation. In reality the Party was stifling the movement!

The Basis for Unemployment Work

3. The third difference is that with us, the basis for unemployment work is the proletarian quarter of the city, not the factory gate, not the meeting “downtown”, or speeches at “bread lines".

In the proletarian quarter alone can be affected the widest mobilization of the unemployed and of the workers generally. Here is the place where the poorer sections of the petty bourgeoisie can be neutralized and in part won over. Here is the place where the relatives of the unemployed who may be working elsewhere can be drawn into the movement. Since the proletarian quarters usually surround large factories whose workers live in the neighborhood, here is where a living unity between employed and unemployed can be consummated and strikes of all the factories in the quarters most easily affected. Finally here is where the police are weakest and the workers strongest!

4. The fourth difference is that such a method as the proposed insures the development of leadership from among the workers and the activization of the non-Communist council members. In this respect the Party can show no worthwhile results whatever. But since large sections of workers, with the exception of those not yet expelled by the Party are “fascists”, “social-fascists”, or worse, what can be expected? Under the plan proposed, however, this will be changed through the small block unemployment council. Real business will be conducted by the members themselves, their own officers and executives will be elected, small dues will be paid, meetings will be held regularly, responsible work will be assigned to all, delegates will be elected to higher bodies, reports will be regularly made, policies will be initiated and understood by the rank and file, the terror of the police will be minimized, the leaders tested. In short the unemployment group becomes the real leader of its block.

We come now to the question: how is it that these simple considerations never entered the heads of the Party officials, that no such work was ever done? The answer is clear. The leaders of the Party are amateurs and worse. They never won their spurs of leadership through doing mass work in a Communist way. The few who tried mass work (like Foster et. al.) did so as so-called “fascists”, that is as CONSCIOUS AND LOYAL agents of the Gomperes in the American Federation of Labor. The Party has never really chosen its leaders. Foreign federations, factionalism, and the C.I., saw to that. Finally, the Party never was and never developed into a real Communist Party in the United States. Under the able “leadership” of past and present “leaders” such a development was impossible.


The unemployment movement must have a comprehensive and concrete program of activity, far different from that of the faker-leaders of the party, a program that will answer the question of the workers: “What are we to do when we are hungry, are being evicted from our homes, are out of a job?” How indeed shall the hungry be fed and evictions stopped? The Party shouts “Work or Wages” or “the Insurance Bill” reminding one sometimes of the English Chartists, who, misguided by the English bourgeoisie in 1832 used to shout for “The Bill! the Bill! Nothing but the Bill!”

First a few words on the slogan “Work or Wages.” Since when do Communists demand “work” from the capitalists? The “Right to Work” was never a Marxist slogan. After the proletarian revolution, the dictatorship makes it plain that every person had the DUTY to work, but before the proletarian revolution, while work means work under capitalism, work that strengthens capitalism, only A. F. of L. fakers, opportunist socialists, or worse, demand for labor “the Right to Work.” But perhaps the Party is only supplementing the “theory” in Browder’s pamphlet, “Out of a Job” that if the capitalists recognize Russia, there will be work. “Recognize Soviet Russia and get a job” goes hand in hand with the slogan “we want work!”

The new slogan “Social Insurance Bill” is a clumsy method of correcting the error in “Work or Wages” so as to throw the weight of the demand not to “work” but on “wages".

Spreading Parliamentary Illusions

It is plain to all conscious workers that the Party’s social insurance bill can never be carried out in America without a proletarian revolution. This is not made clear by the Party. The Party, by making the campaign in the way it is doing, is helping only to spread opportunist and parliamentary illusions. Besides, while the workers must raise the question of social insurance in the sharpest manner, making it also a slogan for building a labor party, a social insurance bill proposition can not give bread to the starving nor shelter to the evicted. How can we answer the question of the hungry and evicted jobless? ONLY BY ANSWERING: SELF HELP WILL GIVE YOU BREAD AND SHELTER! The proletarian revolution will do so permanently, seizure of food and shelter will do so immediately.

We must boldly say to the starving and destitute poor that the whole immediate objective of the unemployment movement is to seize the things necessary to live. The careful organization work in the proletarian quarters, the carefully prepared street demonstrations must all be with the thought firmly in mind of leading to that situation where the workers are enabled to help themselves of the things they need!

If the immediate major objective of the unemployment movement is the seizure of the necessaries of life, the entire program of the unemployed movement must be based on getting food and shelter for the jobless. The formation of Tenant Leagues must be started by the unemployment movement on a large scale. Desperate resistance of every kind must be put up to every eviction that takes place. Here we can learn a great deal from the tactics used in the Passaic, New Bedford and Gastonia strikes. The widest movement of resistance, including making it unprofitable for landlords to evict, the boycott, picketing, mass resistance, street demonstrations and strikes can be aroused on the question of eviction’s and non-payment of rent. Such movements are the best teachers for the revolution.

Hand in hand with the formation of Tenant Leagues should go the formation of cooperative restaurants—we hasten to add, not like those of the “Proletcos” in Union Square, or the “co-operative houses” in the Bronx, and not like the “soup kitchens” proposed by Party members—but real workers co-operative restaurants that will cost but very little to establish, that will sell a few simple dishes at cost (and thus help those who while not destitute have but very little money), that will help compel “contributions” from other stores and restaurants, that will help to support a movement for the extension of credit by storekeepers to workers families out of work, that will wipe out the color line most effectively etc.

The question of food and shelter involves the question of wages. The unemployment movement must be closely bound up with the movement for resistance to wage cuts and worsened conditions. The unemployment movement must help in the organization of the unorganized and in the creation of a strong Left wing to win the workers in the reactionary unions to a militant policy.

The immediate program of non-payment of rent, resistance to evictions, reduction of the cost of living, extension of credits, seizure of food, etc, as well as the fight for social insurance can be enforced only by means of street demonstrations. It is to this important question that we now turn.

Street Demonstrations

Street demonstrations and street fighting in America have an extraordinary significance. Especially at the present time, “food riots” breaking out in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, or the other large cities of the United States, would be of truly enormous international importance.

This puts upon the Communists in these cities an extraordinary responsibility to prepare, and to organize these demonstrations. Nothing more exposes the phrase-mongering of the Party bureaucrats than their “demonstrations". In phrase- “Fight the police”, in practice-put the workers in such a position that they could not fight. In phrase-"Seize the Streets”, in practice- hold a meeting in a business district in an open square, get a lot of pictures taken, buy a lot of ice cream cones and candy sold by street vendors peddling in the very midst of the crowd all through the meeting and call it a “demonstration”, etc. In New York City all main demonstrations have been held in Union Square. In Newark and most other cities they are staged before the city halls. “This politicalizes it, don’t you know.”

The Party wants to fight the police. Good. But then why not think HOW to fight the police? Do the fools leading the Party ever think of this? Let us analyze the meetings at Union Square, New York City, or City Hall Newark. 1. It is in a commercial neighborhood. 2. It is a huge open square. 3. It is far from the big factories. 4. It is far from workers’ neighborhoods. 5. The police entirely surround the meeting. Can you imagine a general calling on his troops to fight, who isolates his vanguard from his reserves and places them in a regular police trap? Maybe this was the way Browder fought Chiang Kai-Shek, eh? Poor Chiang Kai-Shek! If the leaders of the Party were stool-pigeons—to use the favorite expression of Browder—they could not betray a fighting movement better.

How then, should street demonstrations be organized?

a.) Mainly, through the block groups in proletarian neighborhoods. Here streets are often more narrow. Here, if fighting takes place, the workers have a chance. The buildings can be used advantageously. Here the fight can spread. The police can not easily surround it. The widest masses, wives, families, storekeepers, students, clerks, employed workers, etc., can be drawn in. Shops and factories can be pulled on strike and swept into the battle. In short, here the police are weakest and the workers strongest. Through the fighting squads organized by the block groups, a whole section of the city could be held.

b.) Demonstrations should be held not merely on “ritual days” mechanically set by Moscow for the whole world, but at times when there are burning local issues to meet. The evictions of families, or a local strike, or the picketing of shops that have raised prices or a similar event can very well become the starting point.

c.) But besides that, general huge demonstrations should be held, so arranged that they can result in the workers helping themselves to food! This is of paramount importance, a fact that the lovers of Union Squares and City Hall Parks entirely fail to see. Such demonstrations must be most carefully prepared.

d.) Marches from the proletarian quarters to a central point or to the City Hall in mighty disciplined formations marks naturally the highest stage of the struggle and should be held when the movement is widespread and well organized and when there is the greatest determination to meet the stiffest police attack. Under some circumstances, in some countries such a stage of the struggle may very well mean the beginning of the issuance of the slogan for Workers Control of the factories, etc.

The organization of such a movement can not be done without the creation of the widest united front of the workers. Of this the Party “leaders” with their theories of “Fascism” and “Social Fascism” are incapable. But it must be done. This is a test also for the Communist Opposition groups. Come, when will you mobilize your forces? When will you join hands on this issue? When will you issue a broad united front call? When will you begin the work the Party criminals can not do?

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Weisbord’s proposals on Unemployment
(A reply from the The Militant, Vol. III No. 34, 1 December 1930, pp. 4 & 8)

A number of inquiries concerning our position on the articles by comrade Albert Weisbord in which he advanced “A Concrete Program on the Unemployed” have been received. The article was printed as a contribution to the discussion. It does not coincide with our point of view.

We are in agreement with those points in Weisbord’s articles which deal with the concrete steps to be taken to organize the unemployed workers and their families, that is, into block committees in the proletarian quarters, into a form of tenants leagues for the purpose of resisting evictions for non-payment of rents, etc., etc. This task has been neglected by the movement up to now and must be carried out. Our divergences with Weisbord occur chiefly at the point where he sets tasks for this movement, where he estimates—by implication at least—the period of development the movement as a whole finds itself in, and where he repeats his proposals in relation to the Party and to the Lovestone faction.

It is false to state that “the whole immediate objective of the unemployment movement is to seize things necessary to live.” The acquisition of living necessities and resistance to evictions is indeed one of the principal tasks not only of the unemployed, but of their fellow-workers still at work, but not the “whole” of it. The principal problem is the mobilization of the employed and unemployed into a united movement for a struggle around three principal demands: the six hour day and five day week without wage reductions, social insurance, and immediate relief by the state and the employers. The so-called “food riots” are a by-product, and under certain conditions an aid, in the fight for these demands, and require a previous deep-going organization of the masses, the arousing of their sentiments for struggle, and establishment of safeguards against the degeneration of such a movement into petty-bourgeois-anarchist swamps. But they are far from the “whole immediate objective.”

Matters are worse with the perspectives of struggle of this movement, which involves an estimate of its state of development. Instead of a criticism of the Party or its “third period” absurdities and monstrous exaggerations in connection with the slogan for “fighting the police”, Weisbord only deepens its error. The class conscious vanguard is exceedingly small today. It is confronted by a working class virtually everywhere on the defensive, and its main problem is the organization of a defensive resistance to the onslaught of the bourgeoisie. The Party mistakes this defensive for an offensive, and half its blunders are rooted in this radically false conception.

Weisbord, however, even goes further, and arrives at the extremely ultra-Leftist conception of an impending revolutionary situation in the country. No other view can explain such terms as these, in consideration of the present relation of forces in the country: “The Party wants to fight the police. Good.” And further: “Here (in proletarian neighborhoods) the fight can spread. The police cannot easily surround it…. Shops and factories can be pulled on strike and swept into battle. In short, here the police are weakest and the workers strongest. Through the fighting squads organized by the block groups, a whole section of the city could be held.” Since cities, or sections of them, are not held merely for the holding, but because the question of seizure of power has been raised. Weisbord’s views are not only harshly out of harmony with the views of the Opposition but also with the elementary realities of the situation. Less emphasis on “fight the police” (it is clear, the workers must defend themselves ardently against police attacks and brutalities, but, certainly not in an offensive sense, with a view to “holding a whole section of the city") and more emphasis on the practical needs and interests of the movement, which correspond to its stage of development—those are urgent requirements of the moment.

Further, we disagree sharply with Weisbord’s ridicule of the proposals advanced by the Left Opposition for long-term credits to the Soviet Union as a means of ameliorating the hardships of the unemployed in capitalist countries and of the Five Year Plan in Russia. Such credits will not only permit Russia to purchase urgently needed machinery here, but, by setting a number of industries in motion and thereby providing jobs, will clearly establish the direct community of interests of the jobless workers and the proletarian state.

Finally, we are totally at variance with Weisbord’s views on relations with the Lovestone group, stated in his original declaration, and repeated in the articles in question. His insistent demand for a bloc with the Right wing vitiates all his claims of adherence to the tested standpoint of the Communist position. The fact that this demand is carried out in practice by him (bloc with Lovestone in the liquidationist “textile committee") only makes the matter worse. This proposal will continue to meet with as intransigent opposition from us as any attempt to establish it as a platform, or part of a platform, for the Marxist section of the movement.

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