Bankruptcy of the American Labor Movement, William Z. Foster

Published by the Trade Union Educational League


Chapter 2

Cause of the Bankruptcy

The weakness of the American labor movement, its lack of social vision and its general backwardness politically and industrially, as compared with the labor movements of other countries, has long been a matter of common knowledge. It cannot be denied or disputed, nor do real labor students try to do either. Their aim is to explain it, to find out the reasons for the paradoxical situation of the world’s most advanced capitalistic country possessing such a primitive working class movement. Two explanations for this condition, widely accepted among labor men and students generally, are (1) that the influx of so many millions of immigrants, with their innumerable racial, language, national, and religious differences, has enormously complicated the problems confronting the labor movement and hindered the work of unionization and education by bringing together a practically unorganizable mass in the industries, and (2) that the workers of America, because of the existence of the free land for so long and the opportunities presented by the unexampled industrial expansion, have been better able to make a living, and consequently have not felt the need for organization and a revolutionary spirit to such an extent as the oppressed workers of Europe. Or, in other words, that too many immigrants and too much prosperity are to blame for the extreme backwardness of Organized Labor in the United States.


Regarding the first of the explanations: Although, undoubtedly, the presence of so many nationalities in the industries makes the problem of organization more difficult, it is by no means an insurmountable obstacle. The situation is not nearly so bad as it has been painted. The “unorganizability” of the foreign-born workers is a very convenient cloak for labor leaders to cover up their inefficiency and the weaknesses of an unfit craft unionism. The fact is, the immigrant workers are distinctly organizable, often even more so than the native Americans. This has been demonstrated time and again in strikes during the past 10 years. In the big Lawrence strike of 1912 it was the immigrant workers, a score of different nationalities, who were the backbone of the great struggle. Likewise in the packing house movement of 1917-21, the whole thing centered around the foreigners, mostly Slavs. They organized the unions in the first place (the Americans quite generally refusing to come in until after a settlement had been secured), and they are the ones who made the final desperate fight. The same experience was had in the great 1918-19 organizing campaign and strike in the steel industry. Although in some mills there were as many as 54 nationalities, they joined hands readily and formed trade unions. There was much more difficulty in organizing the minority of Americans than the big majority of heterogeneous foreigners. And when the historic struggle with the steel trust came the foreign workers covered themselves with undying glory. They displayed the very highest type of labor union qualities.

The majority of the membership of the United Mine Workers of America are foreigners. Yet that is one of the very best labor organizations in this country. Indeed, one can search the world’s labor movement in vain to find a union with a more valiant record. But the best illustration of the organizability of the foreigners is to be found in the clothing trades. In that industry the unions are made up of a general conglomeration of nationalities, principally Jews, Poles, Italians, and Lithuanians. The Americans form but a small minority of the membership and almost nothing of the administration. Yet the unions, all of them, are miles in advance of the ordinary American trade union. In fact, they will compare with the average European labor bodies. Most of the criticisms of the American labor movement, outlined in Chapter I, do not apply to these organizations, made up chiefly of immigrants. They are the one bright spot in a generally dismal movement.

Again it must be said that, although somewhat complicating the problems of the labor movement, the immigrant workers cannot be seriously blamed for its present deplorable condition. Intellectually they are radical and receptive of the most advanced social programs. If they, making up the bulk of the working forces in the great industries, have not been organized industrially and politically before now it is immediately because of the utter sterility and incompetence of the Gompers regime.


To urge the comparative prosperity of the American working class as an explanation of the backwardness of our labor movement is just as futile as to blame it upon the foreigners. The fact is that exceptional prosperity, instead of being a deterrent, is a direct stimulus to labor organization and radicalism. The workers progress best, intellectually and in point of organization, under two general conditions the antipodes of each other, (1) during periods of devastating hardship, (2) in eras of so-called prosperity. When suffering extreme privation they are literally compelled to think and act, and when the pressure of the exploiter is light, during good times, they take courage and move forward of their own volition. The static periods, when very little is accomplished in either an educational or organizational way, are when times are neither very bad nor very good. Then both factors for progress, heavy pressure and stirred ambitions, operate at a minimum.

Russia and Germany, in their revolutions, gave conclusive proofs of the tremendously rapid spread of labor organization and radicalism when the workers are under terrific pressure from the exploiters, and many years’ experience all over the world has demonstrated that the labor movement also makes good progress under the very reverse conditions of “prosperity.” Australia is a classical example. That has long been a land of “good times” and “opportunity.” An abundance of cheap land has been constantly at hand, labor has always been scarce, and unemployment practically nonexistent. If there were anything to the theory that prosperity kills the militancy of the workers then certainly the Australian labor movement might be expected to be weak and insipid. But in reality it is one of the most advanced working class organizations to be found anywhere in the world, and it has been such for many years past. This is no accident or contradiction. Australian Labor is strong, not in spite of the prevailing “prosperity,” but because of it. It is exactly since opportunity is plentiful and labor scarce, which means that the employers are to some extent deprived of their powerful ally unemployment, that the workers’ fight is easier and they are encouraged to make greater and greater demands upon their exploiters. Germany, before the war, was another typical example of the working of this principle. It was by far the most prosperous country in Europe, and consequently it also had the best organized and most intelligently radical working class.

Even in the United States can be traced the benefits conferred upon Organized Labor by “opportunity” and “prosperity.”’ The West has always been the land of opportunity, the traditional place of labor shortage and high wages in this country; and likewise it has ever been the natural home of militant labor unionism and radicalism in general. It is in the East, where labor has been most plentiful, wages lowest, and opportunity scarcest for the worker of small means, that labor organization and revolutionary understanding have made slowest progress. By the same token, when hard times prevail over the country the labor unions become weak, and the workers, defeated, grow pessimistic and lose all daring and imagination. But when the hard times are succeeded by a wave of “prosperity” the workers’ cause picks up at once; the unions, victorious, grow rapidly and, having had a taste of power, they are ready for further conquests, no matter how radical. This tendency was well illustrated during the war and the boom time following it. Never were the workers more prosperous, never were wages higher, job conditions better, and working hours shorter than in this period. But the prosperity, instead of injuring the labor movement, gave it the greatest stimulus, physically and intellectually, in its history. The workers, acting as they always do under such favorable circumstances, poured into the organizations by hundreds of thousands. Then the latter, tremendously invigorated by this enormous influx of new strength and finding the capitalists’ fighting ability greatly handicapped because of the labor shortage, insisted upon concessions and conditions such as they hardly dared dream of in pre-war times. A basic radicalism developed throughout the working class, not the classic Marxian revolutionary understanding, it is true, but a closely related deep yearning and striving for more power over industry and society generally. Naturally enough also it was in 1919, when the railroad unions were at the very zenith of their power and influence, that they announced the Plumb Plan to take the railroads out of the hands of their present owners.

The workers, particularly in a backward labor movement like ours, learn by doing. It is just when they enjoy greatest power and well-being, in times of prosperity, that they are most stimulated to desire and demand more. Because this is the case, because the workers habitually take advantage of every lessening of the pressure upon them by expanding their organizations and increasing their demands, periods of abounding prosperity are periods of danger to capitalism. They are eras of genuine progress to the working class, even as are the times of unbearable hardships. The explanation that the backwardness of American Labor is due to too much prosperity will not stand up. The workers as a class do not become enervated by prosperity, they are energized by it and developed into militancy. Because American workers have been comparatively well off is a reason, not that they should have a weak labor movement, but that their organizations, political, and industrial, should be powerful, and revolutionary.


The American labor movement is in its present deplorable backward condition not because of the reactionary influence of the immigrant workers, or because of the stultifying effect of the higher standard of living prevailing in this country. This is plain when a serious study is made of the matter. Under certain circumstances both of these forces, particularly the former, may exert a hindering influence on the development of labor organization, but at most they are only minor factors. The real cause of the extraordinary condition must be sought elsewhere. And it is to be found in the fatal policy of dual unionism which has been practiced religiously for a generation by American radicals and progressives generally. Because of this policy thousands of the very best worker militants have been led to desert the mass labor organizations and to waste their efforts in vain efforts to construct ideally conceived unions designed to replace the old ones. In consequence the mass labor movement has been, for many years, systematically drained of its life-giving elements. The effect has been shatteringly destructive of every phase and manifestation of Organized Labor. Dual unionism has poisoned the very springs of progress in the American labor movement and is primarily responsible for its present sorry plight.

In order to appreciate the destructive effects of dual unionism it is necessary to understand the importance to Labor of the militant elements that have been practically cancelled by the dual union policy : Every experienced labor man knows that the vital activities of the labor movement are carried on by a small minority of live individuals, so few in number as to be almost insignificant in comparison to the organization as a whole. The great mass of the membership are sloggish and unprogressive. In an average local union of l,000 members, for example, not more than 100, or 10% of the whole, will display enough interest and intelligence even to attend the regular meetings. And of this 100 usually not more than half a dozen will take an active part in the proceedings. In other words, the actual carrying on of the real work of the labor movement depends upon a minority, which in the present state of things, does not exceed 1% of the mass.

This militant minority is of supreme importance, to every branch of the labor movement, It is the thinking and acting part of the working class, the very soul of Labor. It works out the lighting programs and takes the lead in putting them into execution. It is the source of all real progress, intellectual, spiritual, and organizational, in the workers’ ranks. It is “the little leaven that leaveneth the whole lump.” The militant minority, made famous by the Russian revolution as the “advance guard of the proletariat,” is the heart and brain and nerves of the labor movement all over the world.

The fate of all labor organization depends directly upon the effective functioning of these militant, progressive spirits among the ignorant and sluggish organized masses. In England, Germany, and other countries with strong labor movements the militants have so functioned. They have remained within the old trade unions and acted as the practical teachers; stimulators, and leaders of the masses there assembled. Consequently they have been able to communicate to these masses something of their own understanding and revolutionary fighting spirit, and to make their movements flourish and progress. But in the United States dual unionism for years destroyed this natural liason between the militants and the masses, which is indispensible to the health and vigor of Organized Labor. It withdrew the militants from the basic trade unions, and left the masses there leaderless. This destroyed the very foundations of progress and condemned every branch of the labor movement, political, industrial, co-operative, to stagnation and impotency. Dual unionism, so to speak, severed the head from the body of American Labor.


Before indicating more directly the devastating effects of dual unionism it will be well for us to glance for a moment at the historical development of that tendency in this country: Dual unionism is essentially a product of utopianism; it is the result of a striving to reach the revolutionary goal by a shortcut of ready-made, perfectionist organizations. In the early days of our labor movement, 30 to 40 years ago, it played little or no part. Then the militants, not yet having worked out the fine-spun union theories and cartwheel charts of our times, accepted the primitive mass unions of those days as their working organization. Consisting principally of Anarchists and Socialists, these early fighters took a very active part in the everyday struggles of the organized workers. They sought diligently, not to coax the workers to desert one set of supposedly unscientific unions and to join another set supposedly perfect, but to give vigor and intelligence to the fight of the primitive organizations. Without realizing it they acted in harmony with the most modern militant tactics. The result was that the workers responded to their efforts, and our trade union movement speedily took its place, as a progressive, fighting organization, right in the forefront of international Organized Labor. Though free land and opportunity were much more prevalent then than now, they were powerless to stem the radicalism of the working class.

During the ’8Os, when the revolutionists were particularly active in the old unions, the American labor movement was an inspiration to the workers of the world. The Knights of Labor were radical and aggressive. Most of the leaders were Socialists. Even Gompers paraded as a revolutionary. In 1887 he said: “While keeping in view a lofty ideal, we must advance towards it through practical steps, taken with intelligent regard for pressing needs. I believe with the most advanced thinkers as to ultimate aims, including the abolition of the wage system.” [J. R. Commons, History of Labour in the United States, Vol. II, P. 458.] The trade unions were also radical. It was not the K. of L,. as many believe, but the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions (later the A. F. of L.) that called and engineered the great general strike of 1886. This historic movement entranced the working class rebels all over Europe, not only because it was the first modern attempt to win the universal 8-hour workday, but especially because it marked the first successful application of their beloved weapon, the general strike of all trades in all localities. In after years they named as Labor’s international holiday the day, May lst, upon which the strike began. In those stirring times our labor unions stood alone in the world for militancy and fighting spirit. This the international labor movement looked upon as perfectly natural. The prevailing conception was that inasmuch as the United States (even in those early days) had the most advanced type of capitalism it was bound to have also the most advanced labor unions. The common expectancy was that this country would be the first to have a working class revolution.

Even after the unsatisfactory outcome of the great 8-hour strike and the execution of the rebel leaders, Parsons, Spies, Fisher, Engel, and Lingg in connection with the Haymarket riot, the Socialists and other radicals enjoyed great power and influence in the trade unions for several years. They were on friendly terms with the leaders of the Federation and constantly making headway with their program. Yet they had a steady fight to make with the reactionary elements. This was being carried on successfully until the appearance of Daniel DeLeon as a power among the radicals. DeLeon, with his dynamic personality and alluring program of separatism, was quickly able to put a stop to the work in the trade unions and to start the rebel movement definitely upon the road to dual unionism.


Few men have made a greater impression upon the American labor movement than Daniel DeLeon. His principal accomplishment was to work out the intellectual premises of dual unionism so effectively as to force its adoption and continuance as the industrial program of the whole revolutionary movement for a generation. He was an able writer, an eloquent speaker, a clever reasoner, and a dominant personality generally. But despite his brilliance he was essentially a sophist and a utopian. He particularly lacked a grasp of the process of evolution. He made the fundamental mistake of considering the old trade unions as static, unchangeably conservative bodies, and in concluding that the necessary Socialist unions had to be created as new organizations. He did not know that the labor movement is a growth, intellecually from conservatism to radicalism, and structurally from the craft to the industrial form. DeLeon’s industrial program of dual unionism was merely the typical utopian scheme of throwing aside the old, imperfect, evolving social organism and striving to set up in its stead the new, perfect institutions.

DeLeon came to acquire considerable prestige in the radical movement about 1888. Of a hasty, impulsive, and autocratic nature, he soon fell foul of the two great branches of the labor movement, the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor. He broke with the A. F. of L. over a skirmish which occurred in 1890 between that organization and the New York Central Labor Federation. The latter body, controlled by the Socialists, accepted the affiliation of a local branch of the Socialist Labor Party. But when its delegate Lucien Sanial, appeared at the following convention of the A. F. of L. he was denied a seat. Unquestionably Gompers was right in this controversy, for until this day labor organizations, no matter how radical, do not permit the direct affiliation of political parties. But the affair embittered the hasty DeLeon, who repudiated the A. F. of L. and turned his attention to the then decadent Knights of, Labor. In that organization, grace to his great activity and natural ability, he soon acquired substantial power. At the 1894 General Assembly of the K. of L. he joined forces with Sovereign against Grand Master Workman Powderly. Together they overthrew the latter, but the victorious Sovereign, disregarding his political bargain, refused to reward DeLeon for his assistance by appointing Lucian Sanial editor of the official national journal. This provoked DeLeon’s bitter ire, and he broke with the K. of L. These experiences, first with the A. F. of L. and then with the K. of L., convinced him that neither of these organizations were fit material wherewith to build up the Socialist labor movement he had in mind. Therefore, in the following year, 1895, he launched the Socialist Trades and, Labor Alliance, a radical organization designed to supplant the whole conservative labor movement. In the past there had been dual unions organized in opposition to the old trade unions (witness for example the American Railway Union founded by Eugene V. Debs), but the S. T. & L A. was the first of a general character and a revolutionary makeup. Its foundation clearly marked the embarkation of the radical movement upon its long-continued and disastrous program of dual unionism.

Of course, DeLeon did not draw his dual union program simply out of thin air. Naturally there were present many factors which made it seem the plausible, if not inevitable, method to follow. Despite their militancy, the trade unions of the time (while not worse than those of England, where dual unionism got no footing) were comparatively weak in numbers, stupid in their philosophy, and infested with job-hunters and reactionaries. To the rebels of those days, impatient and inexperienced as they were, it looked an unpromising task to convert these primitive groupings into Socialist organizations. It seemed much simpler to start the labor movement all over again, this time upon “scientific” principles. At that early date, because of the youth of the movement, they knew nothing of the unworkability of dual unionism. In 1895 DeLeon’s plan, now discarded as utopian, seemed logical and practical, almost an inspiration, in fact.


The Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance was still-born. It never amounted to more than a handful of militants, the masses refusing to rally to its standard. The same forces that ruin all such unions effectively checked its growth. But if the S. T. & L A. failed as an organization the idea behind it, of revolutionary dual unionism, made steady headway. More and more the radical movement, from left to right, became convinced that the trade unions were hopeless, more and more it turned its attention to dual unionism. DeLeon himself was a powerful factor in this development.

In 1899 the Socialist Labor Party split, largely because of the trade union question, and gave birth to the Socialist Party. For a time it looked as though the new body might declare definitely for the trade unions and against dual unionism. But it soon developed a powerful left wing, led by Debs, Haywood and others, who advocated dual unionism as militantly as DeLeon himself had done in the old party. In the meantime, the dualist concept had become enlarged from that of simply a separate Socialist labor movement to that of a separate Socialist labor movement with an industrial form. Revolutionary dual unionism became revolutionary dual industrial unionism. Sympathizers multiplied apace.

Soon the whole revolutionary and progressive movements became impregnated with the dual union idea. Even the right wing elements, who had previously fought against DeLeon over the matter, largely adopted it. Dual unions in single industries sprang up here and there. But it was in 1905 that the movement came to a head. The S. T. & L. .A. being hopelessly moribund, a new general dual union organization was deemed necessary, so, with a great fanfare of trumpets, the whole radical movement gathered in Chicago to launch it. There were Socialists, Socialist Laborites, Anarchists, Industrialists, and Progressives. The result of their historic convention was the Industrial Workers of the World, an organization devised to supplant the whole trade union structure and to realign the labor movement upon a new revolutionary basis.

The I. W. W. went forth the embodiment of great hopes and absorbing the efforts of the best workers in the country. But, nevertheless, it could not triumph over the obstacles ever confronting such dual organizations. The workers simply refused to quit the old trade unions that had cost them so much trouble and strife to build. After several years, therefore, the I. W. W. was quite generally recognized as a failure, and the rebel elements began to turn away from it. But the peculiar thing was its failure did not discourage the dual union idea, anymore than had the downfall of the S. T. & L. A. On the contrary, that idea grew and flourished better than ever.

Strangely enough, the longer the dual union policy was followed, the more logical it seemed, notwithstanding its failure to build any new unions of consequence. This was because of the fact that as the revolutionary elements continued their tactics of quitting the old unions the latter, suffering the loss of the best life’s blood, withered and stagnated. More and more they became the prey of standpatters and reactionaries; less and less they presented an aspect calculated to appeal to revolutionaries. Dual unionism became almost a religion among rebels. No longer would they even tolerate discussion of the proposition of working within the old unions. The Workers’ International Industrial Union, the One Big Union (both of which aimed at covering all industries) and scores of dual unions in single industries were launched later to put the beloved program into effect. Though all of them failed almost completely, still the separatist policy maintained its ground with wonderful vitality. The whole radical and progressive movement, from the extreme left to the liberals, was shot through and through with it.

This widespread devotion to dual unionism, which has never been equalled in any other country, lasted until about the middle of 1921. At that time a bright light broke upon the rebels. All of a sudden they became aware of the fallacy of withdrawing from the organized masses. The intellectual structure of dual unionism fell to the ground with a crash. With a profound change of tactics, which for swiftness has never been paralleled in world labor history, the bulk of them repudiated the separatist policy they had followed so loyally for a generation and turned their attention to developing the old trade unions into modern, aggressive labor organizations. But of this remarkable shift we will say more further along.