James P. Cannon

The Militant

November 30, 1929

The New Unions and the Communists

Written: 1929
First Publshed: The Militant, New York, Volume 2, No. 18, November 30, 1929.
Source: Original bound volumes of The Militant and microfilm provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
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In the correspondence from the Illinois coal fields there is room for serious thought. These informative and authoritative letters from the fields of battle—models of proletarian journalism giving a fresh meaning to the term workers’ correspondence—cast a searching light upon a disease in the new union movement which threatens its existence.

This sickness consists—to speak plainly—in the importing of the labor fakers’ arts into the new unions under the fraudulent banner of “Communist leadership.” To the shame of Communism this rotten business held the stage under the Communist. Party auspices at the district conference of the National Miners Union at Belleville, Illinois. And the scene enacted there was only a replica, made cruder by enlargement, of the routine game being played in all the new unions and which is evoking in all of them the inevitable revolt.

This strangulation and disruption of promising movements for the organization of the workers in important industries is becoming an old story. For a long time the situation among the marine workers has been crying aloud for industrial organization. Experienced and capable militants are not lacking for the job-men who have been through the mill, who enjoy the confidence of the seamen and know how to organize them. But, thanks to the Foster wrecking crew, the marine workers’ organization has its being largely in the bombastic headlines and lying news stories of the Daily Worker. The position of the Auto Workers Union was recorded in a letter from Detroit printed in a recent issue of The Militant. The party bosses have “captured” this union, captured it and locked it up in the party office where the auto slaves will never find it.

The Needle Trades Industrial Union, which had the most favorable chances of all, is today only a pale shadow of what it might have been. And the National Textile Workers Union—the football of party factionalism since its ill-starred birth—lies paralyzed while the party experts debate and golden opportunities go by. The new union movement as a whole, inoculated with the Foster medicine, is reeling like a victim of poison moonshine.

What is the matter?

Like the left-wing organizations in all spheres of labor activity, this great potential movement of new unionism is registering the ruinous effects of the internal crisis of the Communist Party. The appointed party leaders carry over into the mass organizations the same foul practices which signalize their rule in the party. They set as their first task the control of the new unions, and they effect this control by methods that insult proletarian intelligence as they offend proletarian morality.

Unearned and’ appointed leadership has no faith in itself. It prefers mechanical control of half-dead organizations to the struggle for influence in living movements. Foster and Company want leadership in the new unions ensured and guaranteed in advance by mechanical measures. Ninety percent of their “mass work” and 99 percent of the funds at their disposal are devoted to this barren accomplishment. The result is an absolutely artificial selection of the leading bodies of the new unions and a stifling of their inner life.

Everything is cut and dried in these unions. There is little for the members to do at the meetings except listen to long-winded speeches. There is nothing for them to decide—everything is decided for them in advance. Intelligent nonparty workers are systematically squeezed out through the application of the asinine formula—which follows the doctrine of the “third period” as pestilence follows famine—that everybody who is not a Communist is a traitor. Every party quarrel is immediately transferred into the union, and one who gets crossways with the party regime immediately becomes a target for slander and frame-up, as is now the case with John Watt, president of the National Miners Union.

The reckless gambling with the workers’ movement which marked the career of the Lovestone faction as the American representatives of Stalinism, has been elaborated in previous documents—documents which Foster signed jointly with us. The conduct of the present party bureaucracy, headed by Foster, who learned from Gompers, is distinguished from that of Lovestone only by a vaster clumsiness and a profounder ignorance.

The methods of the Foster overseers are in conflict with the needs and interests of the new unions and with the impulses in their deepest ranks toward a genuine workers’ movement. The explosion at the Belleville convention of the miners—where 40 percent or more of the delegates bolted—is an alarming reminder of this conflict. We see in the miners’ union—and not only in the miners’—the portentous appearance of a lineup of honest rank-and-file elements against the party; or, rather, of the party against the rank-and-file militants—for the party martinets are the aggressors in the whole evil circumstance and are responsible for it.

This revolt from below against neofakerism tricked out in counterfeited communist badges, which broke out in the miners’ union and which smolders in others, is a sign of internal health and strength. The question whether it will remain a negative protest or become a positive force for the regeneration of the movement is a burning one. Indeed, matters have come to such a pass that the part to be played by the new unions in the stormy days ahead hinges upon that question.

The answer lies in the first place with the politically conscious forces of the communist vanguard, who alone are capable of grasping the problem in its manifold aspects and of organizing the struggle to cope with it.

Without the intervention of the most conscious and uncorrupted elements in the Communist ranks to right the situation, the left wing will pay for the sins of the party mismanagement with a recrudescence of syndicalism. Signs of this already are not lacking.

For this struggle we have no new or magic formulas, and none are needed. The teachings of Leninism on the work of communists in the trade unions, as laid down by the fundamental documents of the Communist International, are a sufficient guide. It is time to study them again, to make them part of the consciousness of the revolutionary workers, and to set them up against the monstrous perversions practiced today in the name of communism.

The new unions are at a fork in the road. One way—the way of the party bureaucrats—leads to degeneration and collapse; the other, to a period of expansion and healthy growth, for which all conditions are favorable. In the interest of the latter it is of vital importance now for the members and supporters of the Communist League to bring into the foreground some fundamental conceptions, to make a sharper and more aggressive fight for them in the unions, and to organize the conscious militants inside and outside the party for this fight. The issue must be brought into the open before the workers. The Foster fakers will howl about our exposure of the shameful game they are playing at the expense of the movement. Let them howl. And see that stronger blows are dealt against them.

The organization of the workers for the elementary struggle is the primary revolutionary task, and the building of the new unions the most important medium for its execution. The revolutionaries will fulfill their historic task only to the extent that they understand the proper relations between the masses and the vanguard and create an internal regime in the unions which attracts and holds the masses.

This means a struggle to make the new unions democratic organizations in reality, and not merely in hypocritical declarations. They must function as self-sufficient bodies, freely determining their own course, working out their own rules and selecting their own leaders. The right of expression for various divergent political views and tendencies must be firmly established. The workers who are banded together there for a common struggle against their exploiters must be able to feel that they are in their own house, not the tolerated guests of the party. The meetings, conferences, and conventions of the new unions must have a formal and binding character.

Only so can the new unions develop into genuine mass organizations; and unless they become such they are doomed. They must aim to include in their ranks not simply Communists and a fringe of sympathizers, but the masses, without whose participation the unions have no power. Not only the politically conscious, but the politically indifferent, the backward, even the reactionary (who are the vast majority) must find a place in the unions. Formal proclamations on this score are plentiful but mean nothing. What is necessary is a deliberate course in this direction.

The leading forces in the new unions ought to represent a united front of the Communists with the progressives. The shallow-minded phrasemongers imagine that the formation of new unions disposes of the vexing problem of progressives. A greater absurdity is hardly conceivable. There is not a single organization of workers which expands beyond the paper bounds of a party auxiliary—that is to say, of a duplicate of the party membership—where a united front with the progressives is not a categorical condition for growth and development. In America there are only a few thousand scattered Communists among millions of politically indifferent and reactionary workers. The key to the unity and consolidation of the new unions, to the problem of leadership and the expansion of revolutionary influence, is combination of the revolutionary with the progressminded workers. Without this, it is impossible under the present conditions to organize new unions on a mass basis. Pig-headed insistence on a Communist monopoly of the directing organs does not—as experience has amply demonstrated—result in Communist leadership of the masses. It simply results in the exclusion of the masses from the union.

The mechanical-control sickness must be eliminated if the new unions are to live. There is nothing revolutionary in the dogma that Communists should control the unions by arbitrary and bureaucratic means. The French Communist Party was severely condemned for this very nonsense at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, when Lenin and Trotsky were at the helm. It is the refuge of feeble people who are afraid of the rough-and-tumble fight for influence and leadership. In its effect it is sectarian and reactionary. It has become a fetter on the development of a workers’ mass movement—the primary revolutionary task—and a source of discredit to Communism.

Communist leadership of the masses is one of the prerequisites for the revolutionary victory of the proletariat. But, conversely, the organization of the “million masses”—to use De Leon’s classic phrase—is likewise a preliminary necessity to the constitution of a genuine class movement on the road to a struggle for power. It is only in this process that the revolutionary leadership can expand. Tactics and methods at this stage of events ought properly to be judged by how they help or hinder this work of organizing the masses. And by this standard, the “mechanical control” idea stands condemned.

Leadership of the masses cannot be “captured” without their knowledge or consent. Communist influence, which precedes and evolves into leadership, can be based only on service to the broad workers’ movement which the workers understand and approve. Serious and consistent work for the building of the new unions in preparation for the great, impending struggles will do more than anything else at the present time to promote the influence of the Communists. Clear the way for this work.