James P. Cannon

Opposition at Gillespie

League’s View Triumphs at Progressive Miners Conference

(February 1933)

Published: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 6, 11 February 1933, pp. 1 & 4.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: This work is in the under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists’ Internet Archive/Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors, translators, proofreaders etc. above.

170 delegates, more than a half of whom came from the locals of the Progressive Miners of America, assembled at the conference in Gillespie, Illinois, on January 29 in response to the call of the Gillespie Trades and Labor Council to discuss the project of a new federation of labor. The representation at the conference and the sentiments expressed by the great majority of the delegates gave a most emphatic confirmation to the estimate which the Militant had made of the new movement and of the proposal to organize a new trade union center. The conference revealed most convincingly that the organizational basis for a new general labor movement is by no means sufficient at the present time, and the project was taken oft the agenda. Instead of that, a realistic program of agitation to coordinate the work of militants inside and outside the A.F. of L. was adopted.

A Mistake Avoided

This outcome of the conference should be a matter of great satisfaction to the militants throughout the country who warmly support the new rise of the progressive miners’ movement and who feared that it might handicap itself at the beginning by a dangerous mistake. At the same time, both by its size and by its spirit, the conference refuted those conservative and sterile formalists, such as the Right wing Communists, who look upon the Progressive Miners organization as simply another unfortunate split. The conception of the Stalinists that the Progressive Miners of America is just another edition of the Lewis type of union could likewise find nothing to nourish it at the Gillespie conference.

The P.M. of A., whose locals furnished the driving force and the bulk of the delegates at the Gillespie Conference, is a movement pulsing with life. It is calling out new resources of proletarian energy and militancy, new hope and vision. In the course of epic struggles it is throwing up a cadre of new leaders from among the young miners who, if they still lack experience and ease of orientation in complicated problems, are, by that uncorrupted and unspoiled by the deadening routine, conservatism, and treachery of the old bureaucracy. Behind them is a surging militant rank and file. From all these aspects one who looks at the Gillespie conference with a clear eye can see that although it could not constitute the basis for a new labor federation, it did nevertheless, represent a significant step on the path of a regenerated labor movement, and contained forces which are destined to be a dynamic factor in advancing that movement.

The program adopted by the conference tallied very closely with that of the advanced Left wing labor elements nearly everywhere. Industrial unionism, shorter work day, unemployment insurance, trade union democracy, abolition of high wages for officials, class-struggle policies, relentless fight against labor fakers – all of these and similar demands, which are becoming the fighting program of insurgent workers in every section of the labor movement in all parts of the country, found their place also in the program of the Gillespie Conference. In this fact is to be seen the best basis for the eventual fusion of the Illinois movement with similar movements in other parts of the country into a single national formation. For various reasons this necessary unification of the scattered insurgent elements on a national scale remains to be realized. An organization, or a group of organizations, with sufficient stability and influence to attract the other scattered movements around it is one of the elements still lacking for this national concentration. The Gillespie conference and the forces represented in it could not yet serve this purpose. It could only contribute to the process. But the dynamic potentialities of a great role are there. The developments of the Progressive Miners in Illinois in the coming months may have a decisive bearing, not only the mining situation but also upon the whole Left wing and progressive labor movement of the entire country.

The Progressive Miners Organization

The importance and significance of the Giliespie conference derives primarily from the participation of the Progressive Miners of America. Not only from the top but also from the bottom, from the local unions, the fighting Illinois miners came to rub shoulders with the delegates of other trades and take counsel with them. Here is a heartening sign, one of many signs, that the P.M.A. stands higher and sees farther than the previous district formation of insurgent miners. Still going through its own first birth pangs as a union, the P.M.A. already looks beyond the borders of its own industry and seeks alliance with the workers of other trades. And the participation of the rank and file, through delegates from the local unions, shows very clearly, the genuine mass impulse behind the movement.

But if the domination of the conference by the Progressive Miners was the strength of the conference, then, in another sense of the word, it was also its weakness. The other delegations came from the small local craft unions and central bodies in the Illinois mining towns, and from Left wing groups which are still in the stage of propaganda rather than stable union organization. Such a combination can and should work out a common program of agitation. But on such a basic there can be no serious talk of a new labor federation.

The prospects of the new union represented at Gillespie are the prospects, first and foremost, of the Progressive Miners of America. If this new union survives the test of fire in the coming months, and consolidates its organization more firmly in the struggle against the operators and the UMWA, it will by that fact lay a big section of the foundations of the new unionism. If the PMA goes down in the fight and loses its organization base the new union movement will receive the heaviest blow.

In other articles the specific tasks and problems of the PMA, and its prospects for expansion into a wider field will be considered. In our opinion the Progressive Miners’ movement in Illinois occupies at the present movement the key position in the unfoldment of a new progressive sweep in the labor movement on a national scale. For that reason it deserves the closes attention of all those elements and tendencies which strive, or pretend to strive, in one way or another, to break the labor movement out of the paralyzing grip of the A.F. of L. bureaucrats. And by the same token the worth of these various tendencies in the field of trade unionism can be judged most concretely by their attitude toward the activities and problems of the PMA, and especially by the answers they give to the questions which haven’t been answered yet.

From this point of view it is interesting to note the position taken on the Gillespie Conference by the various political groups. The Socialists, the CPLA, the Lovestoneites, the Stalinists and the Left Opposition – all of them reacted to the Gillespie Conference. But the only group that gave a clear and definite answer beforehand, and had its position confirmed to the letter by the experience of the conference itself, was the Communist Left Opposition.

That wing of the S.P. which trails along with the Progressive Miners, and fattens itself parasitically on the blunders and crimes of the leadership of the official Communist party, had nothing to say, and no advice to offer, about the project of a new federation of labor before the conference. As with the formation of the PMA itself, these parasites wait to see what luck the miners have with their ventures. If a given undertaking fails they wash their hands of it; if it succeeds and sweeps a mass movement with it, they trail along and exploit it. And all the time they maintain a solidarity within one party with the Hillquits who support Lewis and all the other black reactionaries.

The CPLA, which recommends itself as the center and leader of the progressive labor movement, also showed the quality of its leadership in the matter of the Gillespie Conference. The recent issue of the Labor Age printed the call for the Gillespie Conference, with its announced intention of “formulating a new federation of labor”, without saying definitely what it thought about the project. Were the Mosteites in favor of the proposal? Or against it? Or neutral? – you will look in vain for a categoric answer in their publication before the event. And it is on just such questions that clear and categoric answers are required. The comment of the Labor Age implies a certain support for the idea of a new federation of labor to be formed at the Gillespie Conference. But the door is left open to face the other way, if things go wrong and the miners involve themselves in a serious mistake. In this attitude the Musteites ran true to form. In all their dabbling’ with the Illinois miners situation, they have never failed to show this policy of half-wayness by which they blunt the sharp edge of all the issues and muddle up the progressive movement from within. It is in the highest degree thanks to them that the Farrington-Howat betrayal was put over on the miners and the liberation movement against the Lewis bureaucracy was so long arrested and disoriented. Let the Illinois miners who retain some confidence in these pseudo-progressives, after all their experience, ask themselves why the CPLA did not take a clear position and warn them against premature and dangerous experiments with a new federation of labor. By what right can they claim to be leaders if they can’t answer such questions, and answer them at the right time?

The Stalinist Position

The position of the Stalinist delegates in the Gillespie Conference was indeed a spectacle for gods and men. A half a dozen or so delegates from TUUL groups in Chicago came to the Gillespie Conference and gave the miners another occasion to scratch their heads iu wonderment at this queer melange of contradiction and inconsistency, this combination of adventurous leaps and panicky retreats, which goes by the name of the trade union policy of Stalinism. The conduct of the Stalinist delegates at the conference was indeed a humiliating confession of bankruptcy, and a complete repudiation of everything that have done on the trade union field in the disastrous years of the “third period”.

If the trade union policy of a political group is any good it should reveal its strength precisely on such an occasion as the Gillespie Conference where workers’ organizations are seeking an answer to new questions. Isn’t that a fair test? The Left Opposition thought so, and that is why its representatives at the conference expounded there its trade union policy, not in a new edition but in the old one. Nothing that we said or did there stood in contradiction to the standpoint we have taken in the whole course of the development of the progressive labor movement in recent years. We are quite willing for the militant miners to judge the trade union policy of the Left Opposition not only in the light of what we said at the conference but also in the light of what we said before the conference.

The Stalinists came to the conference under a heavy handicap. The best militants in the miners’ organization were antagonistic to them, and for good reasons. The Stalinists fought the opposition movement in the UMWA which laid the ground for the formation of the P.M.A. They fought the PMA which represented a mass movement and set up against it the National Miners Union which did not exist in Illinois. They set the TUUL up as a new labor center in 1929 and since that time have been characterizing all unions that did not affiliate with it as “company unions”. If these policies had been confirmed as correct by the development of the movement itself, the Gillespie Conference was just the place to defend them and to make further proposals along the same lines. But there was the rub. The policies had been completely discredited in life and did not in any way fit the problem of the hour.

How did the Stalinist delegates get out of this contradiction between the whole policy of the recent years and the concrete needs of the moment? Very simply. They made a complete right-about-face on everything. And they did this without previous announcement or warning in the Party press, without any acknowledgment of previous error; and they even kept, or tried to keep, straight faces through this bizarre performance. In the conference there were not a few conscious militants who follow all developments closely and take careful note of what each group and tendency stands for. But even these seasoned people, who were glad enough to see the old ruinous policies discarded bag and baggage, regarded the spectacle with a certain amount of amusement and incredulity, as one watches a circus performer going through flip-flops and wonders how he does it.

If the party stands for the formation of a new labor movement, and if the TUUL is in fact the new labor center, as they have maintained since 1929, then why not urge the Gillespie Conference to join the TUUL? That is certainly a logical conclusion – if the policy was a correct one. But the Stalinists delegates did not even mention the TUUL. More than that, they appeared there as the most vociferous opponents of any idea of the formation of a new general labor movement at the present time. They repeated all the arguments which the Left Opposition has been making on this question, the arguments which up till yesterday had been denounced as counter-revolutionary. They went further than that. In their disorderly retreat from the discredited policy of yesterday, they arrived at such a conservative position, they argued so passionately against the danger of premature splits in the A.F. of L. unions, that they found themselves a number of times in alliance with the extreme Right wing of the conference, with those who wanted only to let well enough alone and take no further progressive steps of any kind.

If the National Miners Union is the only organization of the progressive miners, and if the PMA is only an imitation of the Lewis union – as was maintained up till yesterday – then the Gillespie conference should have been made a forum for the advancement of this idea. But this policy had likewise gone to pieces on the rocks of reality. So ... the National Miners Union was not mentioned by a single word. It is by such contradictions and zig-zags that the Stalinists have succeeded in discrediting the Communist party in the Illinois coal field and facilitating the revival of the socialist organization.

The Left Oppositionists who, by a consistently correct policy over a period of years, and by a loyal participation in the struggles, have gained a certain influence and prestige in the progressive miners movement of Illinois, have great and unique tasks before them. They have to lift up the banner of Communism which has been trampled in the mire and make the miners understand that the monstrous blunders and crimes of the recent years are not an expression of Communism but of the Stalinist perversion of it. In view of the annihilation of the Party organization in southern Illinois, they are obliged to fulfill the natural functions of the party; to conduct the direct struggle against the reformist elements for the decisive influence in the movement. They have to take upon themselves directly the initiative and the leading role in the organization of a strong Left wing which will steer the new movement firmly on the path of a class struggle policy. The destiny of the Progressive Miners movement of Illinois depends on this. And, conversely, the chances of an early revival of the Communist movement and organization among the miners, under the direct leadership of the Left Opposition, depends upon the complete identity of its own interests with the fundamental interests of the miners’ movement. The Left Oppositionists at the Gillespie conference were animated by this fundamental conception and made it the starting point of new plans and new endeavors. Great things can follow.

Last updated on 17 April 2015