Max Eastman 1921


Written: by Max Eastman;
Source: The Liberator, April, 1921;
Transcribed: for by Mitch Abidor.

It is interesting to compare the attitudes of William D. Haywood and William Z. Foster on the mater of Revolution and the A.F. of L. Haywood says – in an interview reported on another page – that the A.F. of L. is nothing but a board of officials which strangles every sign of revolutionary life in the American labor movement.

“The A.F. of L. is the American labor movement,” says Foster, “and you don’t gain anything by shouting as though that movement were any more revolutionary than it is.”

The contrast between these two statements, and these two tones of voice, would not be so significant if Foster were the typical American trade-union leader, ignorant and proud of his ignorance of revolutionary science. Foster is a careful and devoted student of that science, trained in France and England under the influence of Pierre Monatte and Tom Mann. He is about the only widely-acknowledged spokesman of the regular trade-unions of America who speaks, as they all do on the continent of Europe, in the language of Marxist theory.

Foster is a slight, lithe, and delicately built man, who gives the impression of mental rather than physical personality. He belongs to that race which might be distinguished as the happy Irish. It is a race that assumes people to be friends until they are proven guilty as enemies. Easy-going and genial and sympathetic, I imagine his fault would be to ignore real differences rather than erect artificial ones between himself and others. And yet the attitude of opposition to unjust power and authority is native to him. His father was a Fenian, and he, crossing over to this country, became a socialist by mere natural gravitation. He was a yellow socialist – a member of the party – for eight years, he told me.

“And then I began to get redder and redder, and finally I got out of the party and joined the IWW. But I don’t think I ever had their spirit – I mean their spirit of bitter antagonism to the A.F. of L.. The A.F. of L. comprises the immense body of American trade-unions, and the activities of the trade unions are the revolution – that is the way it seems to me – and the thing that has killed the revolutionary propaganda in this country is that whoever was handing out the propaganda was always at the same time attacking the trade-unions. So that even those workers who were young enough and discontented enough to understand the whole process wouldn’t do it because it meant going back on their unions.”

“But there is more to it than that,” I said. “There is such a thing as a revolutionary form of organization. The One Big Union is not a revolutionary outcry, it is a method of work.”

Foster’s reply was that

“It isn’t any special kind of organization – it is the fact of solidarity that we want.”

And then he told me that in the Steel Strike it had been possible to unite all of twenty-four different unions under a general committee for this steel strike, and not one of them had bolted or dissented or put up any difficulty, because there was an actual solidarity of feeling among the workers in these different unions. His assertion was that to the extent that solidarity existed or was possible in the Steel Industry at that time, his Strike Committee had marshaled it and made it effective.

“And you will find that the practical means of acting together will always be found or invented, as soon as the union of purpose exists. And you don’t create that union of purpose by standing off and throwing insults and radical catchwords at the trade-unions. You will create it by going in there and showing that you are a good trade-unionist.”

After this conversation I was not surprised to find in the concluding chapter of Foster’s book on the Steel Strike, a plea to the radicals to come in and develop the established trade-union movement, instead of organizing I.W.W.s and other “idealistic” enterprises, whose programs and preambles may tell the ultimate truth about the mission of the working-class, but which for that very reason can not do the daily work of building up its power. The radicals must be taught, he says, that the “weaknesses of the trade-unions are but the weaknesses of the working-class, and that as the latter gradually improves in education and experience, the unions will correspondingly take on higher forms and clear aims.”

In short, he makes a plea for what he considers practical generalship in the place of emotional expression – or even intellectual expression of ultimate truths – upon the part of those who are working for the emancipation of labor. He thinks it was an error long ago to organize the I.W.W. and the W.I.I.U. instead of undertaking the gradual conversion of the unions of the A.F. of L.

That is a historic question, about which Bill Haywood of course flatly disagrees with him as to what the A.F. of L. is, but that is perhaps only a disagreement about a definition of a term. On the real question – what is to be done? – I can not see that their attitudes, however different in emphasis, are mutually exclusive. They both find expression in the words of Karl Radek to the American delegates at Moscow:

“Disregarding the revolutionary romanticism of the IWW,” he said, “we must support it with all our might, and help to organize the masses. But we must say to the IWW that our efforts to organize the wide masses of the unskilled must not lead to an isolation from the organizations in the A.F. of L.. In our efforts to overthrow capitalism we must use not only the new organizations, but also the old.

“You tell us that you have tried for decades to transform the A.F. of L., but that argument is hardly conclusive. As for the American Socialist party, they did join the federation – with the good intention of throwing away their weapons whenever there was danger of causing Gompers any displeasure. But as for the revolutionary elements, we must bear in mind that they put forth their efforts only at a time of peaceful development, when the workers of England and America never gave a thought to the possibility of revolution.

“As a matter of fact the A.F. of L. is now undergoing a process of transformation. It has ceased to be an immovable mass...

“If you go into the federation with the idea of destroying it, you will be destroying your own work. If in the course of the struggle it should be found necessary to destroy the A.F. of L. you will do it. But you should not assume these tactics beforehand.”

It is always well to recognize that the future contains new judgments as well as new facts. And I think these words of Karl Radek sound very wise. But my purpose in making all these quotations was merely to direct the reader’s thoughts upon a current problem. The decision is for those in practical contact with the facts.

There is in Foster’s position, however, as he outlines it in his book, an error of statement which I fell better qualified to argue about. It is the error of asserting that the trade-union movement, just as it exists, is revolutionary.

“For many years,” he says, “radicals in this country have almost universally maintained that the trade unions are fundamentally non-revolutionary; that they have no real quarrel with capitalism, but are seeking merely to modify its harshness through a policy of mild reform. They have been pictured as lacking both the intelligence to want industrial freedom and the courage to demand it.”

In opposition to this picture he asserts that the trade-unions “always act upon the policy of taking all they can get from their employers,” and that therefore it is fair to assume that as soon as they have power they will take the whole business of production from them. The slogans, “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” “The interests of Capital and Labor are identical,” etc., he declares to be “a sort of camouflage or protective coloring” instinctively adopted by the unions to conceal their revolutionary character.

“The fact that those who utter them may actually believe what they say does not change the situation a particle,” he asserts. “Most movements are blind to their own goals, anyway.”

It seems to me that Foster is here indulging in a little of that same idealistic myth-making of which he accuses the IWW. He is inviting the radicals to abandon those ideal preambles and get down to the real facts, but then he turned around and idealized the facts so that they will look as much as possible like an ideal preamble.

The trade-unions in the A.F. of L. are not revolutionary. To be revolutionary is to have a clear conception of the overthrow of capitalism and a courageous will to it. The trade-unions can, and some of them no doubt will, become revolutionary – as Haywood himself admits – and to invite the revolutionists to come in and be “good trade unionists,” in order to help them become revolutionary, is a practical suggestion as far as it goes. But to assert that they are revolutionary is only to weaken the force of the suggestion.

In short, there seems to be a little sophistical word-conjuring mixed with the practical appeal which Foster makes in his concluding chapter. And that is highly unfortunate in one who advocates a realistic and practical attitude of generalship. The task of addressing two audiences – those for whom he is a revolutionary intelligence, and those for whom he is only a trade-union organizer – is the immediate task which Foster has laid out for himself, and it demands an almost superhuman interior clarity and simplicity. And for that reason it is especially important that he should abandon this casusitical complication of ideas.