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A.J. Muste

Trade Unions and the Revolution

(August 1935)


From New International, Vol. 2 No. 5, August 1935, pp. 153–156.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


THIS ESSAY makes no claim to finality. It is an attempt to raise questions and provoke discussion rather than to provide definitive answers to the question of the role which unions and other mass economic organizations may play in the working class revolution in such a country as the United States.

Two other preliminary observations are required. In the first place, though confining ourselves here in the main to discussion of mass organizations, we are not implying some theory of “spontaneity” of the masses. It is our position that the leadership of the revolutionary Marxian party is indispensable for the success of the proletarian revolution.

In the second place, important as it is in certain respects, we are not dealing here with the question of the AF of L vs. “independent unionism”. The question we are posing is: Regardless of how this issue may be resolved, what role will unions and other mass organizations play in the revolutionary crisis?

One of the more able of the younger American historians of the labor movement has frequently made the assertion in private conversation that there would never be a proletarian revolution in a country where a strong trade union movement had been built up. He based his contention on the fact that these unions themselves become great vested interests clearly tied up with the capitalist operation of industry; that the officialdom constitutes a privileged group which develops close relations with the employing class and a psychology similar to that of the latter; that the tactic of compromise, “give and take”, progress by slow degrees, becomes ingrained and sets up a resistance against risking all on a throw of the revolutionary dice, and so on; and that these unions gain such a hold upon the workers, come to seem so indispensable, that the workers will not act independently of them even in a major crisis.

The evidence in support of a part of this contention is very strong. The way in which the unions in western Europe and the US survived the war and post-war crisis, in fact, came out of it with enhanced numbers and prestige, as well as the doggedness with which the German workers clung to the unions when these were forced to retreat and quite obviously were no longer able to offer any substantial measure of protection, much less to solve the crisis, sufficiently illustrate the hold of the unions upon the workers. Some form of inclusive organization through which to carry on the immediate struggle, offensive or defensive, on the job, the workers are bound to seek or cling to, so long as they have any opportunity to struggle at all.

It is not necessary, either, to dwell upon the conservatism which has characterized trade unionism in Germany, England and the US, for example, the enormous difficulty experienced in shaking even a little the entrenched trade union bureaucracies, etc.

Are we then forced to accept the conclusion that, on the one hand, the unions cannot be uprooted and, on the other hand, can-, not be expected to play a progressive role as the crisis deepens for the working class – that in order to protect themselves against the assaults of the employers the workers have as it were encased themselves in a suit 0f armor which in the last analysis weighs down the workers themselves, prevents them from breaking their way to liberty, keeps them rooted to the ground while the reaction showers its blows upon them?

There is indeed no escape from this conclusion – unless it is conceivable that revolutionary Marxists can take the leadership of the unions away from the trade union bureaucrats with their limited vision (even where other vices do not exist) and from the social democrats with their reformist, parliamentarian, pacifist, social-patriotic outlook. But if this possibility has come to seem remote, just barely conceivable, almost in the realm of miracle, this gives us a measure of the extent to which the Communist International (i.e., the Third) and its sections have failed to function as revolutionary Marxian organizations and of the consequent calamity they have brought upon the proletarian movement.

The “normal”, the to-be-expected course, is precisely that the influence of the revolutionists over the mass organizations should grow and presently become preponderant. As the crisis of the capitalist economy becomes deeper and more intense, the masses are set in motion. Instinctively, we might say, they fight back against the attempts to lower their standards. The struggles become more bitter. The illusion that employers and workers have mutual interests tends to break down. The state comes out more and more openly against the workers, no matter how elementary their demands. The struggle is waged on a constantly broader front. More and more workers are drawn into strike actions. “General” strikes break out in localities or industries and the strike organizations have to intervene in governmental functions, such as maintenance of supply services, of order in the strike area, etc. All this is elementary and has been observed often enough.

Such situations open the door wide for the politically developed workers and for the revolutionary party, provided that the latter has not pursued a course in the unions which has discredited it and left it isolated. The developing actions which we have referred to require energy, initiative, the will to struggle, courage, capacity to organize large-scale actions, ability to sway masses in motion, to arouse mass enthusiasm, interpret the subtle changes in mass psychology, and a political outlook on the part of the leadership. But the conventional trade union leadership is, to put it mildly, not distinguished for these qualities. They will try, but they cannot hold back the masses from struggle. As the struggle extends and sharpens, they must call for or, with as much grace as they can muster, accept aid from the radical elements or be pushed out of the picture entirely.

At this point it should prove both interesting and useful to introduce a somewhat detailed description of how this process worked out in certain dramatic episodes during the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo in 1934. It is common knowledge that this strike was on its last legs owing to the indifference of the AF of L leadership in automobiles, the inexperience and passivity of the local union leadership, etc., and that it was brought back to life by militants in the union and in the Lucas County Unemployed League under the leadership of Workers Party elements. Mass picketing and demonstrations in defiance of injunctions culminated in “the battle of Toledo” during which ten thousand Toledo workers, enraged at the brutality of special deputies, stormed the Auto-Lite plant, etc.

The revolutionists had begun to talk up the idea of a general strike of all Toledo workers to compel the Auto-Lite management to settle with the union. The idea got an instant response among the workers. The Central Labor Union, an AF of L body, less reactionary and bureaucratized than similar bodies is some of the larger cities, but not in the remotest sense “Red”, was compelled to take cognizance of the agitation. It appointed a Committee of Twenty-three to take a strike vote of the locals affiliated with the CLU, with the understanding that the organization of a general strike, if the vote were favorable, rested in the hands of the Committee. As a matter of fact, out of the one hundred or so local unions over 95 voted in favor of such a strike in support of the Auto-Lite workers, and only one against.

The vote having been taken, the disposition among the CLU officials was to do nothing definite about it. As the Auto-Lite Company dragged out the negotiations, however, the workers began to press for action. The officials then resorted to a characteristic device. They called for a big parade and mass meeting to be held on a Friday night. This would serve to let off steam. They did not dare, however, to offer the demonstration openly as a substitute for general strike action. They had to give out the impression that it was in preparation for the strike, that at the mass meeting probably a final call to strike on Monday would be announced.

The spirit of enthusiasm and militancy was running high among the workers. The local union leaders had to bend to it. A few days before the mass meeting, for example, they asked the present writer, known to be a Workers Party member, to be one of the speakers. As the demonstration day came nearer, however, the employers and the higher-ups in the AF of L put on the screws. Things must not “get out of hand” at the meeting since there must not be a general strike. There must be simply a parade with a very brief meeting at the conclusion at which three or four safe CLU officials would speak briefly and prosaically. Then the crowd would be sent home – without any mention of general strike. A few hours before the parade started, the writer was accordingly informed that he would not be called upon to speak: after the parade the crowd would be “too tired to stand and listen to speeches”.

The parade exceeded all expectations in numbers and enthusiasm. The mass meeting opened peacefully with a few remarks by the chairman of the Committee of Twenty-three. The next speaker talked in an uninspired manner. To test out the sentiment of the crowd, someone called out to the speaker who was carefully staying a thousand miles away from that subject: “What about the general strike Monday ?” The speaker played dumb. But the crowd quickly demonstrated that the general strike was the one thing in which it was interested. The question was shouted from all directions at the speaker. In a few minutes he gave up the attempt to speak. The same question greeted the chairman of the meeting as he tried to introduce the next safe and sane functionary. The crowd insisted on an answer to its question. The bureaucrats had none to give. The uproar increased. The meeting was thrown into turmoil. The bureaucrats threw up their hands in despair and walked out on their own meeting. The more astute ones perhaps conjectured that the crowd would leave too, and thus the strike issue would be downed.

That is, of course, what would have happened if there had been no experienced revolutionary mass leaders present who had the confidence of the workers, or could at least get their attention, and who knew what to do in such a situation. They were present and acted promptly. Sam Pollock, picket leader, Unemployed League official and party member, took the chair and quickly got the attention of the workers. One speaker after another got up, as per agreement, and hammered home the messages the workers needed and wanted to hear: “General Strike on Monday unless the Auto-Lite Strike is settled by then. Spread this word around over the week-end. Do not go to work on Monday, but wait for orders from the Strike Committee. Disperse quietly when this meeting is over: let no one provoke you.” While this was going on, some one came to the platform and said to me: “You fellows have all had your say. Why can’t a man who has been in the trade union movement here for 25 years have a chance?” It developed that he was the editor of the official organ of the Toledo CLU He was given his chance to speak, as I would not have been if his fellow-officials had remained in charge of the meeting!

The general strike did not take place, because on Saturday the final negotiations were started which on Monday ended in a settlement between the union and the Auto-Lite firm. Had the strike occurred, representatives of the Unemployed Leagues who would have been party members would undoubtedly have been added to the Committee of 23. Militants would have been put in charge of picketing. Known party leaders would have been drawn in for consultation and would have wielded increasing influence. An enlarged strike committee on which militant rank and filers would have predominated would have been elected in the shop meetings. As the struggle became more intense, the same thing would have happened with the strike that happened in the mass meeting – leadership would have slipped out of the hands of the bureaucrats utterly incompetent and unwilling to handle such a situation and the militants and revolutionists would have taken it up.

Furthermore, if the strike had occurred including the transportation system, the light and power plants, etc., the strike organization would have had to give orders to, interfere with, in greater or less degree replace the mayor, the police, the health authorities, the public utilities commission, etc. To the extent that it did so, it would have foreshadowed and approximated a Soviet, a workers’ council – an organ of workers’ government as against the orn gans of capitalist government. And we can think, of course, of developments such as these we have sketched occurring not in a single locality, but in an entire basic industry and over a wide territory eventually on a national scale.

It is suggested, then, not only that the unions, unemployed leagues, farmers’ organizations, may under the leadership of revolutionary Marxists be prevented from becoming bulwarks of reaction, but may as the struggle for power sharpens be transformed into or be directly instrumental in helping to form the organs of workers’ power.

It must be understood of course that this will involve the bitterest struggles for control over the mass organizations, for leadership within them. The fact that we have presented our illustration from Toledo in a simplified and abbreviated manner does not imply an underestimation of the violence of this internal struggle.

It is likely that there will be many variations in the process. In a mining region, for example, the union membership and the working population will be nearly identical. The union is the agency through which the miners habitually handle their economic, political, cultural problems. The elections for the Council of Action (Soviet) in that region may very likely take place in the miners’ union meeting. The same sort of thing may take place in a farming community which has a militant farmers’ union.

In cases where the union organization is not fully responsive to the developing situation and the moods of the workers, the shop organizations may take the initiative with the mild approval or toleration of or even in opposition to the union bureaucracy. In general, as the struggle develops and nears a climax, the masses will get into motion, take things into their own hands in the establishments. It is to be expected, however, that this rank and file participation will in general reflect itself in the union organization. The reflection is likely to be uneven. The union machinery may in many instances prove too cumbersome, the control of the officialdom too rigid, so that the workers will have to proceed independently of them, as the pace of events quickens. This would be especially likely to happen in the case of long-established organizations of the highly skilled workers. Generally speaking, however, we cannot conceive of an advance of the working class to a point where it can enter upon a struggle for power, without an advance in the economic organizations in the direction of industrial unionism, a class struggle philosophy, rank and file control, close contact with the shop and the happenings there, etc.

In connection with all this, it is important to remember that the unions become repositories of an immense amount of information about the operations of industry – technical, engineering, administrative, etc. This also makes them exceedingly important agencies in the process by which the control of the workers over industrial operations is made actual and productive of efficient operation amid the difficulties of the period when workers’ power is being consolidated.

The alternative to the general conception we have sketched is to suppose that the unions are peculiar to an earlier period in capitalist development, that they are no longer able to function in the interest of the workers in the period of capitalist decline and collapse, that, therefore, the workers must abandon them or that they will in fact be wrecked by the capitalist reaction.

We cannot accept this perspective. In the first place, as we have already suggested, the workers have demonstrated a remarkable tenacity in clinging to their unions. Whatever may happen to this or that union or any number of unions, the workers do not wish to abandon the union movement but to broaden it, increase its militancy, etc. So long as capitalism endures, organization of some kind on the job to deal with the boss is indispensable. Instinctively the masses fight to defend the unions, the right to strike, etc. If the mass economic organizations are smashed, what in practise can that mean except the establishment of Fascism?

From the other direction the question arises: If the general trend is as we have indicated, toward the broadening of the mass organizations, increase in their militancy, acceptance of Marxian leader ship, struggle on a broader scale and a higher and higher political plane, etc., then is it not likely that the unions as a whole will, so far as the industrial sections of the country are concerned, become the workers’ councils, the instruments of workers’ power? Thus the Central Labor Union, now of course with workers of all categories in its affiliated unions, becomes the Soviet of a given city and the national union federation convention, with its delegates from all industries and sections of the country, becomes the industrial part of the national congress of Soviets?

Theoretically, it seems to me, this possibility cannot be excluded. The “seizure of the factories” by the Italian workers under the direction of the General Confederation of Labor comes to mind in this connection. When a body such as the British Trade Union Congress calls or sponsors a general strike in support, for example, of the miners, the conflict almost from the first moment takes on the character of a direct clash with the state which either places the leading union body in a hopeless dilemma or leads to revolutionary steps, depending on the character and the aims of this same leading body. Other things being equal, a movement of the workers with the full sanction, under the leadership of the organization through which they have been accustomed to carry on their struggles would seem to have more promise of success – starts out with a ready-made machinery for communication, action, etc. – than a movement where this condition does not exist.

Much more attention must be given both to the analysis of this possibility and the details of seizure of power where this condition prevails, than has yet been given to the subject to this author’s knowledge.

It would be far from safe, however, to assume confidently that such a condition will exist. The trade union organization as such, while being drawn into the current of revolutionary action and in the main supporting, may not be ready or entirely fitted to conduct the movement, even assuming that the revolutionary party has the dominant influence in it. The union organization is after all primarily economic rather than political and not in the first instance equipped to deal with the larger national and international political issues. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that the pace of development in various unions may vary as I have suggested at an earlier point in this article. The revolutionary party must give a great deal of study to these questions and be prepared as the actual crisis develops to deal in accordance with the facts of the situation and the actual forces at its disposal.

For the present, we conclude with brief practical suggestions. First, the slogan “Deeper into the unions” (whether they happen to be AF of L or independent) must be applied by the party and all its committees and members much more thoroughly and enthusiastically even than heretofore. Second, in every strike situation the policy of drawing in the broadest forces – all the unions, unemployed organizations, political parties and groups – must be carried out, in order to break down trade union provincialism, politicalize the struggle, develop class consciousness, face the workers with the problems of conflict with capitalist governmental agencies, etc. Third, the greatest emphasis must be placed on drawing the employed and unemployed organizations together, forming Councils of Action on which these and also the more militant farmers’ organizations are represented, to prevent the division of the working class into employed and unemployed, to insure the broadening of all struggles and again in order to accustom the working masses as workers, and not as craftsmen, skilled or unskilled, etc., etc., to confront the employers and the state.


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