From Fourth International, Vol.8 No.8, September-October 1947, pp.237-242.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The history of the American labor movement contains two pages of unusual importance. Each carries the imprint of a period of development significant not only for great advances, but also for valuable lessons to be learned. The first period embraces the stormy struggles and growth of organization and consciousness that culminate in the upheavals of the Eighties.
The second – decades later – witnessed the emergence of the CIO and the establishment of industrial unionism throughout the mass production industry. In each instance new and unprecedented heights of working class militancy and action were reached.
The first period had for its economic background the extraordinary capitalist expansion following the termination of the Civil War. Monopoly capitalism began to appear. Trust builders displayed a ruthless intolerance of labor organization. Rapidly mounting profits were protected again and again by merciless wage cuts. To crush labor resistance capitalism always had at its disposal a whole army of Pinkertons, sometimes also troops. Then along came the financial panic of 1873; a depression lasting almost five years, with not less than three million workers unemployed and destitute. And, as could be expected, the strike struggles led to serious clashes in a number of communities.
To cite only a few. In Martinsburg, W.Va., two companies of militia, supplemented by 250 federal troops, were defeated in open combat by the striking workers. In Maryland the militia was routed after having killed 10 strikers. In Pittsburgh strikers chased the militia who had to flee the city when darkness fell. In St. Louis, during a strike, a Socialist mass meeting elected an Executive Committee to protect the workmen. This committee exercised full power in the city for a week.
Workers were drawn into the unions by the hundreds and thousands. The idea of labor solidarity took on flesh and blood. Great strikes unfolded in a number of industries. One strike in the entire Gould railroad system compelled that industrial magnate to sit down and negotiate with the workers as power to power. All these events reached their culmination in 1886 in the great struggle for the 8-hour workday. Involved were some 340,000 workers. Historians have recorded this struggle as a social war with no quarter given. No labor leader could restrain the rank and file, and hardly dared do so.
In drawing a balance sheet of this period, we notice first of all the great advance of labor organization. The Knights of Labor grew to not less than 700,000 members. The AFL became established as a national federation counting some 300,000 workers. The principle of the 8-hour workday became accepted and actually established for a considerable number of trade unions.
But above all, the policy hitherto pursued by the rising monopoly capitalism of resisting labor organization with fire and sword was stopped cold in its tracks. The principle of trade unionism had to be recognized.
These were enormous advances for a young and inexperienced labor movement. But the whole point is: they were made possible only by the intervention and direct participation of the revolutionary forces that existed at the time. This, it must be said without any qualifications or doubts, is the most important lesson to be learned from the period of the Eighties.
The Socialist Labor Party had been organized in 1876. Within one year, it had at its disposal at least 24 publications, weeklies and dailies. Party leaders, in many instances, were also union leaders. The closest relationship existed between this political party of the workers and the organized trade unions. By 1881 the Marxist revolutionary tendency was definitely in ascendancy within labor’s political movement. Out of it emerged the Revolutionary Socialist Party, led by such sterling revolutionists as Albert Parsons and August Spies. Later, when capitalism returned to a ferocious assault, these two heroes of the common people, together with three others, had to pay with their lives. Victims of class justice, the memory of these men has since remained enshrined in the hearts of succeeding generations of revolutionists.
Parsons and Spies, and others with them, were not only leaders of the Revolutionary Socialist Party. They were also leaders in their own right, in the trade union movement. Disdaining concealment, they proclaimed their objectives, Marxist in content:
“Abolition of the wage system ... Destruction of existing class rule by all means, i.e., by energetic, relentless, revolutionary and international action.”
We can well afford today to leave aside the fact that in the labor union and political movement of the Eighties there was also an admixture of anarchism, whose outstanding representative was John Most. This admixture was not decisive. It rather was an expression of the prevailing spirit of direct action.
The revolutionists understood perfectly well the full implications of existing class rule. With this in mind, they proceeded to carry their aims into action by organizing armed workers defense guards. Such formations existed in several large cities actively supported, in many instances, by the unions. Witness, for example, a declaration issued at the time by the Central Labor Union of Chicago. A resolution, introduced by Spies at a meeting which preceded the strike for the 8-hour workday, was adopted “with enthusiasm,” according to the historian, J.R. Commons. Here is how this resolution concluded:
Be it Resolved, That we urgently call upon the wage-earning class to arm itself in order to be able to put forth against their exploiters such an argument -which alone can be effective: Violence. And further be it Resolved, that notwithstanding that we expect very little from the introduction of the 8-hour day, we firmly promise to assist our more backward brethren in this class struggle with all means and power at our disposal, so long as they will continue to show an open and resolute front to our common oppressors, the aristocratic vagabonds and the exploiters. Our war-cry is “Death to the foes of the human race.”
This is a superb example of the revolutionary spirit of the time.
A review of the second period under discussion brings to our attention at the very outset the very same important lesson, contained in the events of the Eighties. It is necessary to say, with equal emphasis, that the mighty advance represented by the emergence of the CIO became possible only owing to the previous preparation and intervention by the revolutionary forces.
First, in order of note, is the role played by the Communist Party before it became totally Stalinized. Later the Trotskyist movement was to make its significant contributions. And, needless to say, both parties had assimilated certain lessons from the positive as well as from the negative aspects of the IWW.
After emerging from its underground phase in the early Twenties, the CP took the initiative in organizing a trade union left wing movement. That is how the Trade Union Educational League came into being. Based on a firm policy of working within the mass movement, the TUEL achieved notable results, and achieved them in the face of great obstacles. A vicious open shop campaign had been unleashed by the employers. The trade unions were in retreat and in a state of disorganization, losing ground everywhere. Accompanying this retreat, there came an increasingly stifling bureaucratization. Yet the ideas championed by the left wing movement penetrated the very marrow of the entire union structure, helping prepare the ground for events to come.
The TUEL commenced with a campaign for amalgamating the existing trade unions into industrial unions. Here was a practical approach to the idea of organizing American labor on the basis of industrial unionism. As such it was accepted, and well received. Complete records of the response to this campaign are not available; but some of the results are known. Not less than 17 AFL State Federations accepted the idea. In convention action they went officially on record for amalgamation. Included were such industrial states as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota. Other state conventions, like that of Illinois, defeated the idea only by a narrow margin. Similarly, international union conventions went officially on record for amalgamation. Among these were the Railway Clerks, the railroad Maintainance of Way organization, the Typographical Union, the Lithographers, the Molders, the Bakery Workers, the Brewery Workers, the needle trades unions, and others.
Such results show the far reaching effects of left wing activities. The progressive character of the amalgamation slogan was recognized by friend and foe alike. From this recognition the left wing drew its strength.
In a second campaign conducted around the slogan “Organize the Unorganized,” the TUEL made rich contributions toward significant developments which were to come later on. The need for organization was obvious. Millions of workers smarted under the lash of open shop conditions in mass production industries. The open shop had gained ground, threatening the very existence of the organized trade union movement. A way out of this blind-alley could be found only in the organization of the unorganized. In this sense the TUEL blazed the trail. Out of the strikes in Passaic, N.J. and Gastonia, N.C., led by the left wing, grew the beginnings of a national textile workers union.
But the most dramatic experience and the greatest impact of this campaign came in connection with the Coal Miners Union. Nowhere had disorganization and retreat, combined with a ruthless bureaucratic rule, brought such disastrous results. To a large extent this stemmed from the efforts by the Lewis regime to consolidate its position against Lewis’ progressive opponents. And, needless to say, these efforts of Lewis were utterly reactionary.
One by one most of the important soft coal producing states were lost to the union. After the 1927-28 Pennsylvania and Ohio strike, little beyond a shell of organization remained in these states. West Virginia was in a similarly bad situation. Heroic efforts made by the “Save the Union Committee,” led by the left wing, were met with severe repressions, and finally by wholesale expulsions. Such were the circumstances which in the end compelled the left wing to attempt to organize the unorganized coal miners outside of the United Mine Workers. This, however, was merely a by-product of the fierce struggle. The split that ensued lasted only for a short while. The wounds were healed when the working class emerged from the depression.
Subsequent events show with singular clarity that the lessons of these experiences were not lost to the coal miners. Moreover, the struggles of this period made their full repercussions felt later. When the CIO drive actually began, it was the miners who spearheaded the movement.
On the labor movement as a whole, a young inexperienced Communist Party, and the left wing it created, had made a deep impression. By and large the impression was a good one. Later this became vitiated by the progressive Stalinization of the CP. Today the role within the unions of this party’s leadership is synonymous with duplicity, deception and treachery. But that is the contradiction in which these Stalinists find themselves. It does not change the CP’s early revolutionary record. Nor can its subsequent degeneration undo its progressive achievements of its early days. Without them the labor movement could not have been what it is today.
It was left to Trotskyism to restore and further strengthen these early achievements. This is the real significance of events that took place in Minneapolis during 1934, which pointed the way in a still more positive sense for the American working class. The great Minneapolis strike became not only a forerunner but also a model for struggles to come. In the process, a drivers’ union embracing six to seven thousand members was built out of virtually nothing. It won recognition from the employers. That by itself was a considerable achievement at the time. Shortly thereafter these activities were expanded, and Minneapolis was established as the most thoroughly unionized city in the United States.
These events came as an exception to what had been taking place up till then. In Minneapolis there was a fusion, as it has been aptly called, of the native militancy of workers with an authentic leadership, which raised the conscious will to struggle to new heights. That leadership was the Trotskyist leadership. Policy and leadership played the decisive role. Elsewhere the militancy surging from below had been checked and curbed by the leaders. In Minneapolis it was organized and directed by leaders who “taught the workers to fight for their rights and fought with them.”
The Minneapolis events signalled a turning point. From then on, bureaucratic restraints, in posed from above, were battered down. The flood tide of organization, illuminated so brilliantly by the great sit-down strikes, washed away all barriers. Out of it emerged an entirely new industrial union movement.
Communist Party members by the thousands took their part and performed their duty in this drive. They had not yet been fully enmeshed in the poisonous web of the zigzag policies of Stalinism. Besides, they still retained a certain degree of working class solidarity and militancy from their “Third Period” days. Among the bureaucratic trade union top layers only John L. Lewis and his small group of lieutenants saw the progressive possibilities of the industrial union campaign, and gave it leadership. To that extent they deserve due credit. But a far greater share of credit for results actually attained goes to the workers in mass production industry.
Time tables and blueprints of organization were again and again rudely upset by workers who were hellbent for organization. Burning with resentment at the capitalist failure during the depression, they streamed into the CIO from every section of the country – steel workers as well as beauty parlor operators. Their own ingenuity produced classic improvizations in methods of struggle. In the sit-down strike they discovered a means of fully concentrating their power. It heightened their confidence. And they themselves perfected the technique, so inspired, so simple, and so effective.
Here we witnessed a modest rehearsal of the future taking-over of industry by the workers. And while we should not ascribe more to this period of development than it actually signifies, its general direction is assuredly, unmistakably clear. It brought incontestable evidence of the revolutionary potential that does exist within the working masses.
Its fruit in practice was – an entirely new union movement arising in a field which had heretofore represented the lowest economic working class levels. The entry of new millions resulted not alone in new industrial unions. It also meant that the American working class had progressed from its being as the most backward to its becoming the most advanced, up-to-date, most militant and most decisive working class force in the world. All this was accomplished virtually in a single leap, with typical American speed.
Could this giant leap have been the result merely of an economic or political conjuncture? Posing such a question has a certain validity, when we remember the mighty impulse to organization imparted by the bitter experiences of the depression. No doubt, this economic conjuncture played a significant role. One need not even deny the impetus added by Roosevelt’s New Deal collective bargaining program. But, after all these factors are noted, it is still necessary to take into account the far more conscious social forces. It cannot be repeated too often that the scope, sweep, swiftness and completeness of these developments could never have been possible, failing the previous preparation and conscious intervention by the revolutionary forces – first by the Communist Party during its healthiest period and secondly by the Trotskyist movement.
We thus see that this same main lesson applies to each of these two pages of American labor history. It stands out with exceptional clarity. And it may be predicted confidently with regard to future problems that this main lesson will yet receive singular emphasis.
But, on the whole, the problems revealed in each of the foregoing two pages still remained quite elementary in character. They concerned in the main the establishment of labor union organization and of infusing it with union consciousness. Today the problems of the movement are increasingly complex. American capitalism is racing at accelerated speed toward its irrepressible social crisis. And with it the labor movement also nears its hour of decision. Either it must make a new forward leap to the very highest social level, assuming its responsibility as labor’s mass organization and taking on the fight for a new social order; or it will splinter on the treacherous shoals and reefs of crisis.
Which course the labor movement takes will depend once again, in a large measure, upon the conscious intervention of the revolutionary forces. Such intervention, to be successful, presupposes a clear understanding of the character of the labor movement today. And with that, an understanding of the crucial problems, arising out of the crisis of capitalism, with which this movement is now and will henceforth be more and more directly confronted.
Discussing these very questions Leon Trotsky made some profound contributions shortly before his untimely death. His observations on current trends, together with his conclusions drawn therefrom, touch the very heart of these problems.
In the first place, he pointed out the tendency of modern trade union organizations to draw closer to the state power. He went on to stress that since this tendency is a “common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration” of all unions, it is “intrinsic, not in this or that doctrine as such, but derives from social conditions common for all unions.”
Trotsky deduced this observation from the active interplay of economic and political relations. Monopoly capitalism is thoroughly centralized. It rests, as he correctly says, on “centralized command.” The capitalists at the head of monopoly concerns “view economic life from the very same heights as does state power; and they require at every step the collaboration of the latter.” The trade unions in the most important industries have to confront this “centralized capitalist adversary intimately bound up with state power.” From this flows their need, insofar as they remain on reformist positions, to vie for the “cooperation” of the state.
As concerns the tendency of unions to draw closer to the state power, England offers the classic example. The union bureaucracy there is an integral part of state power. But this tendency is noticeable aplenty here, too. And it is displayed just about equally by both AFL and CIO leaderships.
We need recall only the almost exclusive reliance, during the New Deal period, on Roosevelt’s collective bargaining program practiced first by AFL and later by CIO leaders as well. The war period brought a manifestation of this tendency in the “no strike pledge” to the government, kept inviolate in spite of the wage freeze. The Stalinist union bureaucrats led the pack, not shying away even from open strikebreaking. In return for their patriotic collaboration the bureaucrats hoped to be handed crumbs through the various governmental boards – naturally, within the framework of the wage freeze policy they supported.
Many other examples of this tendency to draw closer to the state power could be cited. Suffice it here to recall that it has not lessened at all in the postwar period. While John L. Lewis, backed by a militant miners’ organization, has betimes attempted to keep his hands free to fight, while retreating, at other times in face of state power, this tendency, on the whole still prevails. The leaders of both AFL and the CIO look increasingly toward governmentally elaborated wage patterns and toward governmental conciliation. An ever mounting share of their efforts is directed toward their now regularly established and rapidly growing labor lobby in Washington and at various state capitals. Examples multiply of their prostration before Congress, its committees, as well as before the White House occupant. Never to demand in the name of the mighty hosts of labor, but always to plead! This tendency is exemplified right now in the subservient execution by official union leaders of the red-baiting campaign initiated by the State Department. In the eyes of these union leaders, as Trotsky said, “the chief task lies in ‘freeing’ the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts, in pulling it over to their side.”
These leaders are ready, of course, to offer a good deal in return. And from the point of view of their social position, this is understandable. Gone are the days when union leaders accepted sacrifices and suffered persecution to build a union. Now official union posts have become avenues to a mercenary career, and a very lucrative one, at that. In addition it brings rewards of power and influence.
Any threat to their career these leaders fear not so much from the government or the capitalist employers as from a militant or rebellious rank and file. The latter they fear more than anything else, particularly now that the unions have become so large and so broad in scope. Therefore, bound as they are economically and ideologically, to the capitalist system, in which they believe and which they defend, these leaders have chosen for themselves “the position of responsibility and restraint,” as they put it in their statesmanly terms. In plain words: Always hold the rank and file in check! They thereby demonstrate to the capitalist state, as Trotsky said, how indispensable and how reliable they are. In terms of class struggle, it means illegalizing strikes or other actions of protest against capitalist exploitation, on the pain of punitive measures. Sometimes taken in collusion with the employers, these penalties often go to the extent of union expulsion or firing from the job, or both. On the whole, this tendency to draw closer to the capitalist state brings with it corresponding restrictions of trade union democracy.
It is precisely on the political field, where the question of state power is directly involved, that the trade union leadership practices its appeasement policy most openly and blandly. Their insistence on upholding the present two party system; their stubborn rejection of independent labor politics and sabotage of a Labor Party – even of the PAC – has served these very ends. All of it springs from the same motivations: Fear lest any other steps tend to increase the possibilities for greater militancy and greater independence of the rank and file. And on the other hand – increasing dependence upon and support of the political state as now constituted.
Unquestionably these were the motivations which impelled the AFL hierarchy in its unity proposal to the CIO. Emanating entirely from above, this move was obviously designed by its bumbling architects exclusively as a means of establishing a greater, more complete, and decisively reactionary control of all of labor’s forces, in order to keep the ranks more effectively within checks and bounds. In other words, the AFL hierarchy served notice of its hopes and intentions to become more indispensable and more reliable to the capitalist state. To accomplish this, it was willing to offer a junior share to the CIO leaders. But no more than that. In the negotiations, the AFL representatives would not agree in advance to preserve the principle of industrial unionism inside the united organization. Was that due solely to their deep seated craft prejudices? There was more to it than that. The AFL leaders know from experience that the industrial mass unions served to raise the whole labor movement to higher levels of militancy. They know that in these unions rank and file aspirations and revolts find far more avenues of expression, whereas the means of control are far more limited. From these and similar considerations flow their additional hopes and intentions to slice up and partition the industrial unions in a process of unification. These are some of the very real dangers involved in the AFL proposal.
However, the perfidious hopes and aspirations of reactionary leaders are one thing. Reality is something else again.
The United States is heading toward another economic and social crisis; world capitalism is in its death agony. This prospect is not conducive to establishing a more complete reactionary control over labor’s force. These same conditions, together with increasing attacks upon the unions, may stimulate an urge and a need for genuine unity. In that case, it is entirely possible, yes even likely, that an actual unification – which may be expected eventually – would instead lift militancy to new heights of radicalization within the fused organization.
In this general context, a second important observation made by Trotsky deserves particular attention. “Monopoly capitalism,” he said, “is less and less willing to reconcile itself to the independence of trade unions.” This, he continued, results from “the intensification of class contradictions within each country” as well as of antagonisms between countries, which in turn, produces “a situation in which imperialist capitalism can tolerate [i.e. up to a certain tune] a reformist bureaucracy only if the latter serves directly as a petty but active stockholder of its imperialist enterprise, of its plans and programs within the country as well as on the world arena.”
This attitude is implicit in Wall Street’s imperialist drive to conquer the world. It will become explicit when this power makes the attempt to issue out of the crisis through atomic war on the Soviet Union.
Concretely, it is expressed right now in the assault on labor – a double-barrelled assault. A virulent barrage of red-baiting coupled with the most vicious anti-labor legislation. Both pursue the same general objective and both give rise to a symmetrical set of contradictions. While the red-baiting campaign is directed in an immediate sense against the Stalinists as agents of the Kremlin, its real goal is to snuff out labor militancy. To this extent it is designed as an aid to the official union leadership. Its contradiction lies in this, that it becomes openly and visibly a cover for the legislative drive against the whole labor movement. Under this cover the Taft-Hartley Law was entered in the statute books as an initial attempt to abridge, if not to throttle entirely, the independence of the trade unions. And while a good many official leaders have given ample evidence of welcoming a certain degree of governmental regulation and control of the unions (which would assist them in their endeavors to hold the rank and file in check), this act strikes also directly at their own positions, power, and aspirations.
Why, it may be asked, why such intransigence toward those whom monopoly capitalism wants to transform into “petty but active stockholders” of its imperialist enterprise?
The answer must be sought in the contradictions of this imperialist enterprise. Capitalism in Western Europe has been compelled, owing to the acuteness of its decay, to muddle along with concessions to and compromise with a labor bureaucracy, including, at times, the Stalinist variety. American capitalism, however, has assumed single-handed the role of restoring and rehabilitating capitalism on a world scale. It has assumed the task of damming up any extention of the October Revolution. Even its present implementation, the Truman Doctrine, brings American imperialism into collision with the working class everywhere. Its far flung frontiers makes it more vulnerable. And in this situation it particularly needs a strong base, for private enterprise, i.e., for unbridled capitalist exploitation, at home, free of any entanglements, free of any serious challenges or threats.
While American capitalism may not at present, in the face of its policy of world conquest, take on the additional task of attempting to destroy all labor organizations; while it may still offer certain concessions to the labor bureaucracy – or sections thereof – in order to assure its subservience, in the final analysis, American capitalism does not rely on this bureaucracy. It relies on its own state power. Ultimately it will attempt to destroy not only the independence of the unions but the unions themselves.
The logic of capitalist struggle for survival leads inescapably to its acceptance of this ultimate variant. Let us recall the example of German capitalism which elevated fascism to power in order to prolong its own existence.
Trotsky laid special emphasis on the fact that the bureaucracy on becoming transformed into servants of the imperialist enterprise cannot in the long run save it from destruction, and offers no way out in general. After all, the well-groomed fraternity that makes up the union leadership depends on the mass organizations for its own privileges. And to be effective servants means to accept and support the whole imperialist program. But the most essential, indivisible part of that program is maintenance of the base of private enterprise, of capitalist exploitation, at home. Support of this program can therefore serve only to paralyze the workers’ struggle to maintain their standard of living and their organizations. Ultimately, support of this program must lead to the destruction of labor organizations, and with them to the destruction of the privileges of the labor bureaucracy itself.
What assurance is there, under these conditions, that the official family of union leaders, an aggregation of many tens of thousands, would remain a monolithic bulwark of reaction? Hardly any. The logic of the class struggle makes itself felt also within the unions. It causes differentiations even among the official family. And under the pressure of crisis, as well as under the pressure of the mass movement, many among the lower layers especially will be compelled to turn leftward, Marxists will know well enough how to take advantage of such possibilities.
From his general observations, already mentioned, Trotsky drew his warning against any hasty conclusions that in the imperialist epoch independent trade unions could not survive. Impossible are the independent reformist unions.
“Wholly possible,” he insisted, “are revolutionary trade unions ... which set as their task the direct overthrow of the rule of capitalism. In the epoch of imperialist decay the trade unions can be really independent only to the extent that they are conscious of being, in action, the organs of proletarian revolution.”
This key conclusion offers also the key to the stupendous problems that will arise in the coming economic and social crisis.
The imperialist epoch produces ever sharper social contradictions. Objective conditions leave no room for any serious or lasting reforms; wage increases are wiped out by the rising cost of living. During crisis and unemployment working conditions once gained begin to crumble. The standard of living declines; economic security disappears.
However, this does not mean to say that the mass unions have no function or become inevitably paralyzed when the strike weapon is limited to closing down of factories. It means simply that in a crisis the character and methods of their struggle must of necessity change. The struggle itself enters a higher level; it enters a more distinctly political level. The traditional weapons must henceforward be supplemented by political means and methods. And the latter, in turn, will be directed toward more definitely political and social aims and objectives.
Precisely the highly advanced technology in the United States assigns a role of special importance to the trade union movement. Political development of the American working class has remained sadly delayed. In fact, workers’ political parties in this country never did become mass parties. Union organization has leaped far ahead to occupy a unique position of enormous social weight. An extraordinarily high degree of union consciousness has been attained. That leap has prepared the trade union movement for a far greater role in the future. It will not play that role, however, without the intervention, influence, and leadership of the revolutionary party. There will most likely be a synthesis of the development of both these forces.
Under pressure of crisis the trade union movement will advance swiftly toward a new political stage. A mass labor party can be expected to become a reality, regardless of opposition from politically bankrupt bureaucrats. But because this stage is so long overdue, when it is actually realized, so much more dynamic and explosive will be its effects. So much more surely will the labor party reflect the revolutionary tendency of the working masses. It will be a leap forward like the emergence of the CIO, but on a qualitatively different and far higher level. It will provide an enlarged field for the struggle for the complete independence of trade unions vis à vis the capitalist state. And, incidentally, it will also offer a broader arena for operation to the revolutionary forces. Under such conditions a labor party will “not represent a detour into reformist stagnation ... it will rather represent a preliminary stage in the radicalization of the American workers.”
Under the pressure of social crisis the trade union movement will also become more conscious of the social implications of its powerful position. It will be compelled to struggle for more than merely maintaining wage scales or reducing the hours of work. It will do that, no doubt; but it will be compelled to do more. It must take on the fight for social and economic security for the working class. Obviously, this will not be attainable so long as the factories stand idle. What realistic alternative can then appear, in connection with the problem of setting the wheels of production in motion, other than production for use instead of for profit? How can this be achieved without the demand for workers’ control of production? In sum and substance, the trade union movement, for its own independent survival, must take on the fight for the socialist reorganization of society.
Both of these demands – the demand for a labor party and for workers’ control of production – are part of our Transitional Program. And in this sense, as Trotsky said, the program of transitional demands “is not only the program for the activity of the party but in its fundamental features it is the program for the activity of the trade unions.”
We can rest assured, that from now on questions of program and policy will play an increasingly decisive role in trade union struggles. So will the question of leadership. Crises submit leaderships to the supreme test. And as we witnessed in the revival of organization following the last depression, the main core of the AFL hierarchy failed miserably and utterly. Hence the CIO arose outside the AFL. The emergence of the CIO created a leadership which was adequate for the objective at that stage. But that is the most that can be said in its favor. Subsequent development revealed this leadership as not of a much higher caliber than the tops in the old Federation, either politically, or in any other sense. And this, despite the unprecedented qualitative change that took place in the organized labor movement as a whole.
Basically, it should be noted, it is the fearsome Stalinist degeneration of the CP, which in its early and healthy days had done so much to prepare the ground for the advent of the CIO, that now accounts why the leadership of the latter has remained so mediocre and so subservient to American imperialism as it is today.
Moreover, the trade union leadership as a whole, with only a few exceptions, has remained consistently in a conservative and reactionary groove. To the above-cited points of program – the labor party and workers’ control of production, along with the other demands flowing therefrom – this leadership is bitterly hostile. It is still unalterably committed to the “free enterprise” system of capitalist exploitation. The rank and file, on the other hand, have shown new manifestations in the postwar period of their leftward trend. They proved their readiness to assault the great corporations in order to wrest from them a greater share of the enormous profits of exploitation. Labor demonstrated then and there that it does not hold private property rights of exploitation as sacred or inviolate.
A struggle between the conservative leaders and the leftward-tending ranks is bound to intensify with the further sharpening of social contradictions. And it is right here that the conscious intervention of the revolutionary party counts the most. An enormous advantage has already been provided by our program of transitional demands. Broadly speaking, this is the starting point for the building of a left wing and for the creation of a new trade union leadership. For only under the political leadership of the revolutionary party will the trade unions be able to remain genuinely independent. Only in this way can they become conscious of being, in action, the organs of proletarian revolution.
Last updated: 8.6.2005