James P. Cannon

The Communists and the “Progressives”

Written: 1929
First Published: The Militant, New York, Volume 2, No. 5, March 1, 1929
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Andrew Pollack.
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On the heels of the recent convention of the American Federation of Labor, which outdid all others in reaction, there have appeared a number of manifestations of a new “progressive” movement which call for the most serious consideration of the communist and left-wing workers.

The most important of these manifestations is the manifesto printed in the February number of Labor Age. This manifesto outlines a platform of sixteen points which is only a slightly modified restatement of the practical platform of the left-wing militants in the labor movement. It includes the organization of the workers in the basic industries into industrial unions, trade union democracy, the five-day week, independent political action, social insurance, and most of the other standard demands of the left wing. Action of a certain sort has accompanied this attempt to formulate the platform of the new progressives.

The conflict between the Brookwood Labor College and the AFL Executive Council, which has opened fire on it, is one phase. On March 2, these apostles of trade union reform unfurled their banner at a polite luncheon in New York City under the auspices of the League for Industrial Democracy, an auxiliary of the Socialist Party headed by Norman Thomas. Also should be mentioned the crusade which the Socialist New Leader has been conducting against the [National] Civic Federation policies of Matthew Woll. In all these developments the trend toward a crystallization of a respectable body of progressive opinion within the labor movement can be plainly seen.

The sponsors of the movement are the group around Labor Age and the Brookwood Labor College—Muste, Budenz, and others, including quite a few, such as Brophy and Hapgood, who have had relations with the Communists in united-front movements in the past; a considerable number of trade union officials around the country; and the Socialists, who have fought side by side with the AFL bureaucrats against us. Hillquit, Thomas, Oneal, and Company are devoting much attention to the movement and are aiming for the hegemony of it. It would be erroneous, however, to regard the movement as simply the creation of the Socialist Party. Its basis appears to be much broader and, if it continues to develop, will very probably include a much wider circle.

These events are not accidental. They reflect in the first place the unmistakable growth of discontent of wide sections of the workers and their impulse to struggle against the present state of affairs. They are a reaction to the position of the ruling officialdom, which grows ever more brazenly reactionary, smothering these sentiments of the workers and giving them no expression. The virtual abandonment of the old unions by the Communists, who have stood at the head of most of the opposition movements in the past five years, facilitates the emergence of the reformist group and affords the Socialists an opportunity to regain some of their lost positions. The new movement is a challenge to the Communists for the leadership of the coming fights.

These progressives are weathercocks, who reflect certain winds blowing in the labor movement. Their emergence now, with demands which connote militancy, is an indicator of the radicalization of the workers growing within the old unions as well as in the ranks of the unorganized masses. Their role, objectively speaking, is to express this radicalization in words, to harness it in action, and to head it off from any real collision with the capitalists and the AFL machine. And their field for this function is by no means confined to the old unions. A strongly organized bloc of these elements in the AFL can also exercise a great influence on the struggles of the unorganized.

The question whether they will succeed in stultifying the promising movements of the proximate future or whether the very movements of the workers they express and, to a certain extent, help to create are developed in the direction of real class battles, depends very much upon the activities and tactics of the Communists. Communist tactics will have a tremendous bearing on the outcome of the impending struggles of the workers. And one of the most decisive aspects of these tactics is the question of our attitude toward the progressives and the movement which they indubitably express.

International experience will be useful to us in this question, but it cannot provide us with a ready-made formula. Nothing approximating an analogy to the situation and stage of development of the American labor movement exists in any of the European countries. The fight there is between the Communists and the Social Democrats for the leadership of the masses. This is so in America only in the needle trades, a small sector not representative of the whole labor movement. The struggle here is for the creation of a class movement of the workers and the expansion of Communist influence within it. And this, of course, is also a struggle against reformism of all kinds.

The events of the past few years have not altered this basic perspective. Our fundamental tactical line, modified in the light of experience, with the errors and distortions corrected, still holds good. Contrary opinions only substitute wishes for realities. We are not done with the progressives. On the contrary, the question of our attitude towards them and relations with them will take on a tenfold greater significance in the coming period of mass struggles than in the period behind us.

Let us look back at our established tactics on this question. Numerous resolutions, unanimously adopted by the party, as well as resolutions of the CI on the American question, could be quoted. All of these resolutions emphasized the tactic of the united front with progressive elements, and in practice we followed this line.

Such tactics, fundamentally correct, were the key to much of our progress in the trade unions. There were attempts to liquidate them, but these attempts were defeated by a sharp party struggle in 1925 and by the intervention of the Comintern.

In applying this tactic of the united front, the party made many errors. The bloc with Brennan in anthracite, for example, was formed under conditions which actually rehabilitated this discredited faker and failed to build the Communist influence. The noncritical attitude toward Brophy, Hapgood, etc., worked against the militancy of the fight in the miners’ union and the firmness and cohesion of the left wing. Some of the maneuvers in the needle trades were more disgraceful back-room bargains with fakers than communist actions to mobilize the masses. But to react against such distortions with the abandonment of the united-front tactic, is like cutting off one’s head to cure a toothache. This, it seems, is what is now being proposed, if we are to judge by the party comment on the new progressive manifestations.

The old tactic of united front with criticism and an independent policy is to be replaced by the tactic of straight-out denunciation and completely independent struggle, according to the comment on the new progressives which has appeared in Labor Unity and the Daily Worker. This looks simpler and easier, but how will it work out? It is not without significance that the same comrades who wanted to pull the party onto this track in 1925 come forward now as the spokesmen of the new revelation. Now, as then, they see the progressive leaders only as individuals and roundly denounce them as fakers. They fail now, as before, to see the movement of workers they express and, to a certain extent, represent. And that is the most important and decisive thing for the Communists.

Earl Browder, back from the Far East in a very revolutionary mood, makes short shrift of these new progressives in the Daily Worker of February 25, 26, and 27, 1929. He recites their past treacheries, vacillations, and cowardice with such indignation as to make one wonder what he expected of them. Such conduct is the inevitable result of reformist policy. That is why the revolutionary Marxists formed the Communist Party. The question is not what the reformists will do when the fight grows hot—that should be known in advance—but how can the Communists best develop the struggles of the workers and expand their influence. It is from this standpoint that we must evaluate our past experience with the progressives and draw conclusions for the future.

Proceeding in this way, we have to take issue with Browder’s deductions. He says:

“We will no longer waste our energies and time in disastrous attempts to work with these fake progressives.... We will never again put forward such a `progressive’ as Brophy as leader for the tens of thousands of revolutionary miners who have nothing but contempt for such spineless quitters” (our emphasis).

What pompous nonsense! What disregard of the facts of the protracted struggle to build the left wing among the miners! What a ridiculous attempt to punish the party for his own illusions and disappointments about the progressives.

Did we get our influence among the miners and eventually gain the leadership of a great mass movement in 1928 by having nothing to do with progressives? Quite the contrary. At the beginning of 1926 the left wing in the miners’ union was demoralized and the party was isolated. It was the bloc with Brophy and other progressives which gave us access to the masses of miners, who at that time were not “revolutionary miners who have nothing but contempt for such spineless quitters,” but admirers of these same Brophys. It was the prestige of Brophy and others, and the confidence the miners had in them primarily, that gave the movement its wide basis at the start.

It was only later, as the struggle grew sharper, that our direct influence grew and the true character of the Brophys was revealed to the miners and they became alienated from them. Our mistakes, particularly our failure to criticize Brophy and others, hampered this process, but in spite of that, the united front yielded rich results and proved its validity by them. And that is precisely the value of the united-front tactic: it mobilizes the workers for struggle and strengthens the Communists as against the reformists. However, to say that the “tens of thousands of miners” even now are “revolutionary” is somewhat of an exaggeration.

The Communists must learn from the experiences in the miners’ struggle and draw the conclusions, not to reject the tactic of the united front, but to correct the errors in its application and employ it widely in the future in all fields.

Another stronghold of the new sectarianism remains. It is the theory that the shifting of the center of gravity in our trade union work to the formation of new unions—an absolutely necessary shift—does away with the troublesome problems of the progressives.

“We are entering upon a new course . . . ,”says Browder, “the course of independent struggle, independent leadership, independent organization, inside and outside the existing trade unions.” But are all the influential leaders we encounter in this new field to be pure Communists and left-wingers, who will not disappoint us? Anybody who thinks so is working to build another Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance and not a mass labor movement of the progressive sections of the workers.

And it is just this theory that is beginning to confront the new union movement as a real menace. The current practice of monopolizing the control of the new unions in a mechanical way, of arbitrarily excluding relations and compromises with influential leaders who reflect the hazy development of masses of workers—this practice will be fatal for the movement. It disregards the stage of development, the relation of forces, and all the realities of the situation.