James P. Cannon

Labor Action

San Francisco—December 12, 1936

The Color of Arsenic - and Just as Poisonous

[Below is an article written by SWP leader James P. Cannon for the West Coast socialist newspaper Labor Action.—Editor]

IT is common knowledge among informed union men on the water front that a factional clique operating in the maritime unions exerts an influence in committees and other delegated bodies out of all proportion to its real strength in the membership. The name of this clique is the Communist Party-and that is no secret either.

But what is puzzling and confusing quite a few maritime unionists, who understand communism as extreme radicalism, is the increasingly evident fact that the Communist Party is putting forward and trying to put over a line of policy in the unions which Sam Gompers would have attacked from the left. These misnamed radicals appear more and more in close alliance with people who are notorious for their conservatism in theory and practice, today and yesterday. At the same time, despite the indubitable militancy and class-struggle spirit of the rank and file, the most militant and progressive elements in the unions and in the leadership find themselves victims of well-organized and all-too-often successful “campaigns”.

They are undermined, slandered, shoved aside and jockeyed out of positions by this new conservative combination engineered by the Communist Party. And, since people are important mainly as symbols and representatives of policies and programs, it must be understood that the attempt to “gang up” on the genuine militants has something behind it. What is really involved is a deliberate purpose to switch the maritime unions from the line of class struggle militancy to thee line of class collaboration -- that is, conciliation with the bosses and craven subordination to the government.

Of course, these ideas and these attempts are not new. What is new is the organizer and director of the enterprise, the erstwhile radical, and even revolutionary, Communist Party. There was a time when the Communist Party was called radical and revolutionary with a certain justice; and that was to the credit of the party. But this description is decidedly out of date. Things have changed since Stalin began to imprison and kill the revolutionary Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union and to rely on pacts with capitalist governments abroad. The wisest capitalists caught the drift of things long ago. Ignorant “red-baiters” who still attack the Communists, are entirely out of date. Red is not their color any more.

To give the devil his due, it must be acknowledged that the Stalinite Communists are experts in their line. They are almost as good at “capturing” unsuspecting organizations as they are at wrecking them. Almost, but not quite; for when it comes to wrecking unions under their control their batting average up to date is 1,000 percent -- a home run, or at least a two-base hit every time they came to bat. If anyone tries to refute this by saying: “The Communists control such-and-such a union and it isn’t ruined yet”-my statement still stands. Just give them time. Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day.

The Stalinist technique in “taking over” a union is not confined to manipulation at the top, although that is their long suit, especially since they have taken a position in the right wing of the labor movement and the left wing of liberalism. Like the cynical gentry who play the people for suckers in the prize fight and wrestling rackets, they take care of all the angles. All experienced confidence men, fixers and bunco steerers proceed according to one central theory enunciated by the illustrious Barnum: A sucker is born every minute. But the successful disciples of Barnum all know that it is not enough to cheat the people; the thing is to make them like it. This is the function of ballyhoo or, if you prefer, propaganda.

In addition to the numerous organs of general circulation published by the Communist Party and its stooge organizations, the business of misrepresenting, falsifying and befuddling the situation in the maritime unions requires special publications. These are the Maritime Worker and the Beacon -- the mimeographed green sheets, of the color and also the quality of arsenic.

They are supposed to be deucedly clever, using the intimate, you-and-me, hello pal! style of approach which every confidence man has adopted since the first gold brick was sold to the first farmer. The latest issue of the green Beacon undertakes to sell the strikers the idea of voluntarily moving “perishable” cargo, and if that isn’t a gold brick the man who bought Brooklyn Bridge at a bargain made a shrewd business deal. The arguments of the green Beacon on this point are revealing and instructive, both as to the real policy of the communo-democrats and their estimate of the intelligence and class understanding of the strikers.

You may have the old-fashioned idea that strikes are for the purpose of stopping the production or distribution of the commodities or services affected, until the bosses feel the pressure enough to accede to the demands of the union. But you don’t know the trade-union policy that emanates from 121 Haight Street and spreads out over the waterfront like a San Francisco fog. Here is the real dope from the Beacon: “A working class housewife goes to the store and asks for a certain article. She is informed that due to the strike she cannot get it. She goes home and reads in the paper that the strikers are permitting perishable cargo to rot aboard the ships. You can see what effect this has on the average family.”

Isn’t that argument clear, pal? You are probably one of those dumb clucks who would think that a shortage of “certain articles” shows the strike is effective and is all to the good. But you are all wrong, and you probably have “syndicalist tendencies” besides. The central aim of “strike strategy” is to win over the well-known “public” and to see that nobody is inconvenienced, for doesn’t everybody belong to the public?

Look what saps the Minneapolis teamsters were to call a coal strike in the dead of a bitter winter, making exemptions only for hospitals. True, they won the strike in three days by taking such unfair advantage. But at what a cost! The “public” will never think the same of them again. And think of the political immaturity of streetcar men in the past who have gone on strike and obliged the public to walk or take a jitney bus. “You can see what effect this has on the average family.”

If you answer that in every effective streetcar strike on record the “average family” has proudly refused to ride streetcars during a strike, and that quite a few of them have cheerfully tossed cobble stones at the scab motormen, the green sheet has another argument for you.

The Beacon points out that if “perishable” cargo is not moved forthwith the shipowners “can act very indignant and demand that the unions furnish ’safety crews’ to keep the perishables from rotting.” And, “what could be more demoralizing than ’safety crews’ working day in and day out behind the picketlines.”

Of course, if the shipowners “demand” that the unions furnish safety crews there is nothing to do but accede to the demand forthwith. Do you think this is a class struggle you are conducting? The bosses may get real sore some of these days and “demand” that all the strikers go back to work without any more stalling around. You will have to agree that that would be very “demoralizing”.

And, here is another argument from the Beacon if you are still not convinced: “It’s not impossible for a federal marshal to deputize some men for this work, or have the coast guards and marines unload the perishables.” There’s an angle, pal, which you probably never thought of. You wouldn’t think of interfering with deputy marshals going through your picket lines, would you? And you surely wouldn’t object if the coast guard and marines stepped in to do strikebreaking work.

The green Beacon is just suggesting this angle to you. Better think it over. The Beacon says finally: “The smart thing to do is to get rid of this issue.” You surely want to be smart, don’t you?

Keep cool, pal. Keep your head. Don’t fly off the handle and talk about the class struggle and the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s Communist Party. The class struggle is out of date, Lenin is dead and so is his party, and this is not 1917, my boy.

Take a shot of arsenic and pull yourself together.