Leon Koenig

Letters to the Editor

Another Opinion on the Furriers’ Situation

(March 1934)

Published: The Militant, Vol. VII No. 13, 31 March 1934, p. 2.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
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Ed. Note. – We print below another letter on the furriers’ situation with a reply appended. The first letter was published in the Militant March 17 and an editorial reply appeared in the issue of March 24. Other contributions of reasonable length will be printed regardless of the point of view of the writers.

To the Editor of The Militant:

The controversy over the furriers is still raging in the radical press, and oceans of ink will be spilled’ before this question is satisfactorily settled. Everyone acquainted with the social composition of the workers who work in this trade must often wonder why it is the furriers’ lot to be destined to become the “vanguard” of the proletarian revolution; the furriers where each and everyone dreams to become someday a manufacturer or at least an independent contractor. And this middle class element is boomed daily in the Stalinist press as the cream of the revolutionary movement.

It is a habit with many people who criticize the general policy of the T.U.U.L. to find excuses for the policy of the Stalinists in the fur-trade, because they claim to have the majority of the furriers behind them. Very similar reasons are brought forward daily by the apologists of Fascism because the Mussolinis and Hitlers too claim that they have the backing of the large majority of their people behind them, but how do they really know that this is the case, when the press, radio, and all the weapons of suppression are in the hands of the Fascist state. The fur workers are being faced daily with the same situation.

Terroristic Methods

The Stalinist Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union was able through the use of terroristic methods to intimidate the workers and monopolize the fur market, the members of the Right union have been met with riots staged by Stalinist cronies whenever they tried to bring their message to the workers, with the consequence that workers have been beaten and insulted.

The writer does not consider the A.F. of L. as a fetish, but no one will deny that the vast majority of the workers who are employed in the needle industries, are members of the A.F. of L. labor unions. Even if it were true that the N.T.W.I.U. has the majority of the furriers – and to my opinion a very disputable contention – is it the best policy for them to be isolated and detached from the general organization of workers and to resort to dual organization when they could do better work and gain more power in the general organization of workers even though the latter is conservative in some respect?

Democracy in International

With all the just criticism any one may have against the Right-wing union, no one can deny that every member can express freely his differences with the policy and leadership of the union without running the risk of being ostracized or abused by the zealots of the “United Front.” Is it possible for a member of the Left Opposition to stand up in a Stalinist controlled organization and question policies of the organization without running into danger of being sneered at or have a howling mob set against you. Many Trotzkyites received this medicine one time or another.

I surely hold no brief for the Lovestoneites, because in my opinion they possess all the bad qualities of the Stalinites and none of their good ones, being that they always try to sneak, even through the back door, into the Communist International. They always try to justify the adventurous policy of the Stalinist International. Their policy in the trade unions is always designed to maneuver with one group or another, as long as this will help them to achieve their purpose, to gain power in order to convince Stalin that they, and not the official Stalinist party, have the leadership of the American masses. And still I maintain that in the furriers situation they did the most plausible thing. Every avenue of activity in the Industrial Union was closed to them, and being a political group with a desire to function in a trade union, what else could they do but to join the A.F. of L. union, where no one is asked if he is in agreement with the latest theses of Manuilsky?

Leon Koenig

Editor’s Reply

We are glad to publish the above dissenting opinion on the complicated problem of the furriers, and other contributions to the discussion will be welcomed. Our remarks on the question are put forth as a point of view, not as an ultimatum or a law. Generally speaking, the only way to arrive at an intelligent collective judgment of trade union problems – or any other problems of the class struggle for that matter – is by free discussion, exchange of opinion and comparison of experiences. When this is prohibited or prevented we get not collective judgment but ultimatums and instructions – and disastrous blunders every time. The furriers will not get out of the blind alley into which Stalinist as well as reactionary compulsion and terrorism has driven them until they conquer the right to discuss and decide their problems freely.

Unconvincing Arguments

The argument of comrade Koenig appear to us to be unconvincing despite a number of indisputable facts which he advances. In the trade union question it is necessary to follow a principle line in order to arrive at the right conclusions in regard to tactics. If one departs from this method it leads to guesswork and contradictions in policy at every step. From this point of view it appears to us that comrade Koenig errs in his conclusions on the main points he raises.

1. The Stalinist bureaucrats resort to terrorism.

This is true, as every furrier knows and, as is always the case with such methods in the end, the terroristic tactics are employed against members of the union as well as against the rival organization. But the Stalinists are not the originators of these degenerate, anti-working class practices. As a matter of fact they are only slavishly imitating the methods of the reactionaries who ruled the International for years by methods of violence and terror. How the Left Wing Took Shape

In the struggle against the gangster regime of Kaufman & Co. the left wing originally took shape and gained the allegiance and support of the great majority of the furriers. Didn’t this experience prove quite conclusively that terrorism cannot bind the workers to a trade union machine when they are offered a better program and a better leadership?

This, in our opinion, is the nub of the question. The rank and file of furriers, hating and despising the violence of worker against worker, do not leave the Stalinist Union because they have no confidence in the treacherous leaders of the International and their Lovestoneite camp-followers. They have a good memory. They do not trust the saccharine promises of “democracy” made now so glibly and freely by the isolated fakers and their “radical” agents.

Terrorism is an abominable evil in the labor movement. Every class conscious militant worthy of the name will fight against it. But comrade Koenig is wrong when he says the furriers cling to the Stalinist Union only out of fear. If they really wanted to go over to the International, a single mass demonstration would suffice to accomplish the transformation. In the absence of such a demonstration, or even of a serious group of militants to propose it, there is no ground for the assumption that the mass of furriers want to join the International. The indications are all to the contrary. We must govern ourselves accordingly and respect the attitude of the majority in the choice of unions.

The Criterion of the Mass

Nobody will accuse the Militant of partiality for Stalinist organizations. But we do not determine our attitude toward labor organizations by likes and dislikes for the leadership and its methods. We choose a party by its program, its methods of work and the quality of its leadership, regardless of whether it has a majority or minority of the politically organized workers. For a trade union, on the other hand, an entirely different criterion is necessary. Here the mass character of the organization, not the program and leadership, is decisive.

If the masses elect to belong to a conservative union in preference to a radical one we are obliged to go with them, support their chosen organization and work within it for our ideas. By the same token, when the majority decide in. favor even of a Stalinist union – and the case of the furriers is a rare example of such a choice – we are obliged to support the Stalinist organization without relenting for one moment in our irreconcilable hostility to Stalinist ideas and methods.

Consistent Principle

The revolutionary left wing can be reconstituted in the labor movement only on the foundation of principle, and its consistent application. If one is to leave the dominant organization among the furriers because it employs violence and terrorism, and go over to a smaller organization because it is presumably more civilized and democratic, what is to be done to the building trades, the United Mine Workers, and many other similar cases? The left wing is up against gangsterism, more or less, in a great many conservative mass organizations. If that is taken as a ground for splitting, the new left wing would soon find itself isolated from the trade union movement. Such a precedent should not be set in the furriers’ situation.

The Furriers and the A.F. of L.

2. The vast majority of workers employed in the needle trades as a whole are members of A. F. of L. unions; the furriers should not be isolated from them.

As a general formula, both the facts cited and the conclusion are unassailable. But it hardly covers the concrete case. The fact that practically all the other organized workers in the needle trades are in the A.F. of L. is a powerful argument for the furriers’ union, as a union, to apply also for admission into the A.F. of L., with the same autonomy and rights as those enjoyed by the other unions. But we cannot see the wisdom of splitting the furriers for the sake of what amounts to a platonic unity of the needle trades as a whole.

Connection with the other needle unions in the A.F. of L. will have a much greater meaning when a movement is set on foot to amalgamate them all into a single organization. Tha Furriers’ Industrial Union ought to apply for an A.F. of L. charter. It ought to signify its readiness to merge with the International into a single union of the trade affiliated to the A.F. of L. But under the present conditions and relation of forces, individual militants should not jump over to the International. On the contrary, they should put forward the program of unity and fight for it inside the Stalinist union.

The idea is unassailable and the workers will respond to it. It corresponds to their vital interests and shows them a way out of the present chaos. In reacting against the perverted functionaries of Stalinism it should not be forgotten that their, followers are workers – badly deceived and often fanatical workers, but workers just the same – whose bread and butter and economic future are at stake. The revolutionary left wing has the task of gain ing the sympathy of these Stalinist workers and of re-educating and rearming them for the revolutionary struggles. That will be possible only on the condition that our own program is correct and that we fight for it consistently and tenaciously.

3. The Right wing union permits freedom of criticism and internal democracy.

This only means that it has changed its tune since it lost its membership. The record of this union is as rotten and reactionary as any that could be mentioned. The use of paid gangsters against its membership by the officialdom and their treacherous betrayals of the workers are black and bitter memories.

Sick-Bed Repentance

One should not take too seriously the sick-bed repentance of the International fakers. “When the devil is sick the devil a monk would be.” Still less should one be deceived by the radical “face” which the Lovestoneites give to the union. They are only serving as come-ons for the reactionaries. When these reactionaries – and the bosses who stand behind them – show their face it will not be a liberal or democratic one. To enjoy democracy in a mass union the workers must conquer it for themselves by struggle. The mere application for membership in the discredited International is too simple a formula.


Last updated on 8 February 2016