J.P. Cannon

The Trade Union Question

The Left Wing Needs a New Policy
and a New Leadership

(September 1933)

Published: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 43, 16 September 1933, pp. 1 & 4.
Source: Original bound volumes of The Militant and microfilm provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
Transcription\HTML Markup:Andrew Pollack.

The American workers, stirring again on the trade union field after a long passivity and confronting a formidable and well-organized class enemy, need their own plan of battle. The class enemy has organization and a plan. That, in essence, is what the NRA really is. In the unified and comprehensive program of American imperialism against the world, the NRA is that section of the program aimed against the enemy at home, the American working class. The strike movement of the workers, on the other hand, has been elemental and spontaneous, lacking a conscious direction.

Who will assist the workers to formulate their own battle plan in their own interests? Certainly not the present leaders of the AFL and kindred labor organizations. These in reality belong to the capitalist board of strategy. In the machinery of the NRA they are filling to perfection their long-established role of labor lieutenants of the capitalist class. A plan and program for the workers in the trade unions, by means of which their struggle could be organized on a national scale, can come only from the left wing, that is, from the class-conscious section of the movement. But in the present situation, which has witnessed the beginning of a colossal wave of strike struggles, the left wing failed completely in its function. The new events, which should have been foreseen and anticipated, found it unprepared and impotent. The domination of Stalinism deprived the left wing of the possibility of influencing the new movement of the masses and of drawing new life and strength from it. The dogmatic program which had been imposed upon it was refuted in life. The leadership of bureaucratic usurpers showed itself to be bankrupt and helpless. The necessary conclusions from these happenings must be drawn without delay. The problem of reestablishing the left wing, correcting its program, and renovating its leadership is the most immediate and burning problem of the labor movement.

This is a new situation in the labor movement, which the left wing must take as the point of departure. The wave of strike struggles did not fall from the skies, nor were Roosevelt and the labor fakers the creators of it. The fearful sufferings inflicted on the masses during three and one-half crisis years; the starvation rations of the unemployed; the multiplied wage cuts and unprecedented speedup which goaded the employed workers to desperation—these were the real authors of the present strike movement. The workers’ resentment and dissatisfaction was due for an explosion, and it was reasonable to assume that it would coincide with the first signs of an economic upturn.

This was foreseen by the most perspicacious representatives of capitalism. The NRA was devised as a means of coordinating the efforts of the employers and their labor lieutenants with the government in a single scheme to arrest this movement at its first stages and to keep it within safe bounds. It is possible that the inauguration of the NRA precipitated the strike movement. But at bottom it was caused by the discontent of the workers with their unbearable conditions, and their aspirations to improve them at the first opportunity.

These causes will remain and will evoke increasingly powerful movements of the masses after the ballyhoo of the Roosevelt program has spent itself, leaving conditions substantially unchanged except insofar as they are improved by organized struggle. Bitter experience will work rapidly and mightily to free the workers from their present illusions about the purposes of the NRA. The capitalists will not voluntarily improve the lot of the slaves under the beneficent influence of the Blue Eagle. The workers will gain nothing they do not fight for. The labor agents of imperialism will not become leaders and organizers of militant struggles, but on the contrary will do all they can, now and in the future, as in the past, to sabotage and defeat them.

The left wing cannot depart for a moment from these self-evident ABC propositions. What has been happening in the way of working-class activity in the recent months is only an anticipation of things to come. It is possible, of course, and even probable, that the NRA swindle will succeed in harnessing the new movement for a time. The illusions of the masses are very great. But the higher the hopes, the more certain the disappointment and the expression of this disappointment in more resolute and determined class action. The first magnificent upsurge of the workers is, after all, only a tentative beginning, a preliminary testing of their collective strength and solidarity. It is implicit with the certainty of another movement, deeper, wider, and more militant.

The left wing must base itself on this perspective and be ready for it. That means to begin now to re-form its ranks and begin to assert its influence in the mass movement. Can this be done on the basis of the trade union policy of Stalinism? No, that is absolutely impossible. Those who try it will be deprived of all influence. On this question the decision has already been rendered by the actual developments in the labor movement. The trade union left wing which eventually rises to the magnitude of the new tasks, coordinates the militant forces on a national scale, and organizes the real struggle against the capitalists and the labor fakers will consist of those who make a complete break with the bankrupt and discredited trade union policy of Stalinism.

The tactical line which the left wing must take is clearly marked out by the actual course of the movement, and no arbitrary scheme which contradicts this course is worth a cent. The left wing must put itself in line with the main trend of the workers, assist and encourage their impulse for organization, and become itself a force to bring the workers into the unions—into the real unions, not the paper unions. And the left wing must go with them and organize the fight inside the unions against the capitalist agents in the ranks.

The left wing—that is, the real left wing, which remains true to principle and to the interests of the workers—will enter the mass unions and urge other workers to do likewise, without any illusions about the reactionary leaders and without the least AFL fetishism. Communists do not make a fetish of any trade union organizational form. In the future, as in the past, a rise of militancy in the unions will be apt to bring wholesale expulsions and splits. It is quite likely that many of the greatest battles will have to be waged independently, as “outlaw” organizations. The resurgent left wing—again, the real left wing, not sycophants and traitors masquerading as such—will remain with the masses under such conditions and not flinch from the formation of independent mass organizations.

That, however, is more a prospect of the future than a present problem. We will keep it in mind and let no labor fakers’ cry of “dual unionism” bluff us out of it. But, just as firmly, we must refuse to accept the paper unions of the Stalinists as substitutes for genuine mass organizations. Independent unions have a very slim chance in the present situation. That is not because there is any law to this effect—as the Lovestone opportunists imply—but because a force capable of organizing them is lacking and because the trend of the masses toward the conservative unions cannot and should not be counteracted. (For Marxists, independent unions are not a dogma or a fetish any more than AFL unions are.)

But not the least, and very probably the greatest, factor in the situation which excludes any widespread development of independent unions at the present time is the fact that the Stalinists, who have made a dogma of independent “class struggle” unions, have succeeded in discrediting the idea and alienating the workers who might have cooperated in building them in those industries where their existence had a certain justification and necessity. By their fictitious new trade union center, their stupid tactics, their arrogant bureaucratism, their hooligan abuse and expulsions of critics and political opponents, their subordination of the unions to the narrow clique interest of the Stalin faction, and the conversion of the decimated organizations into mere appendages of the Stalinist party—by their whole policy and regime, they have covered the idea of an independent union movement with their own disgrace.

The verdict of doom has already been pronounced on the so-called unions under their domination. As for the organized workers, they are passing them by, and the non-Stalinist members who have not been expelled are leaving them. Make no mistake about it. Unions that cannot grow now, when new strata of workers are surging forward and seeking organization, are dead beyond the possibility of resurrection. The leftwing militants who want to play a part in the new situation in the labor movement must turn their backs on the Stalinist paper unions and put a cross over the whole experiment.

The New Left Wing Program

To see the present strike wave as only the first stage of a resurgent class activity of the American workers and prepare to influence its further development; to call the workers to enter the trade unions and to go with them on this path; to struggle increasingly within the unions against the policy and leadership of the reactionaries; to break resolutely and completely with the Stalinist sectarian paper unions—these, in our opinion, are the main points of the new trade union thesis which the left wing requires.

But the new program, by itself, is not enough. The left wing also requires a new leadership. Up till now the Stalinists have dominated the movement, disorganizing and disrupting everything they could not control and silencing all critical voices with threats and expulsions. They had a monopoly in the leadership. Consequently, the responsibility for the results is also their monopoly. In the light of what happened in the past three months, on top of all that went before, it is possible now—it is absolutely necessary!—to draw the final balance of their trade union policy.

The beginning of the strike wave was the great opportunity of the test of the left wing and its leadership. Given a correct policy and a competent leadership, the left wing in the labor movement could not fail to bound forward, to expand in influence and organization at the expense of the reactionaries. It happened differently, as everybody knows. In the trade union movement in America, as in every vital problem of the working class throughout the world, Stalinism remained true to its mission as the great organizer of defeats. The conclusion which the revolutionary workers throughout the world are drawing must also be drawn here.

In the trade union question, the necessity for a complete break with the Stalinist leadership is especially obvious and imperative. And their disastrous leadership in this field is only a particularly illuminating illustration of their leadership in general.

The question brooks no delay. The liberation of the left wing of the labor movement from the strangulating grip of Stalinism is the key to the problem of planning and organizing the struggles of the American workers, of raising the elemental movement to new heights. This is today the crux of the trade union question.

Last updated on 21 October 2015