J.R. Johnson

In the International Tradition

(January 1944)

Source: New International, Vol. X No. 1, January 1944, pp. 10–14.
Transcribed: Ted Crawford.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan for MIA (August 2015).

Tasks Ahead for American Labor

We believe that the years immediately ahead are the most critical we have faced – “the years of decision,” when new patterns will be formed.

In man’s long years there come short periods of time which profoundly influence his way of life for centuries thereafter. We are living in such a period today. – Philip Murray in The American Magazine, February 1944.

The statements quoted above come from an article recently published by Philip Murray and widely advertised in the bourgeois press. It is a sign of the times. There is obviously going on in all thinking heads an examination of the present in preparation for the pregnant future which lies ahead. In The New International of November 1943 some attempt was made in an article entitled In the American Tradition to outline the special national characteristics of the American proletariat as evinced in its history up to the organization of the CIO. The following article proposes to continue the analysis. It will attempt

  1. to trace the growth of social and class consciousness in the American proletariat from 1929 to the present day;
  2. to observe the manifestations of this growth in the programs and pronouncements of the leadership;
  3. to place this relationship and its probable development in its historical and international setting;
  4. to reaffirm some practical conclusions in the light of the above.

The most striking development of the great depression of 1929 is a profound skepticism of the future of contemporary society among large sections of the American people. It is most easily recognized in the widespread fear, if not conviction, of a tremendous and inevitable depression after the present war. The most concrete reaction of the proletariat to the breakdown in 1929 was the organization of the CIO, one of the greatest and most significant chapters in the history of labor anywhere at any period. Any estimate of the American working class in action during the coming period must base itself upon that “colossal energy” of the American masses which was the driving force of the CIO.

Labor in Europe and in the United States

The late development of mass industrial organization in the United States has both stimulated and retarded the political development of the American working class. In foreign countries the rights of labor, social legislation, etc., were the obvious result of mass pressure organized by labor leaders. In the United States, the Roosevelt government cleverly presented itself as the originator, initiator and organizer of these developments. Thus, whereas in Europe the winning of these advantages fortified the class consciousness learned in the industrial struggle, in the United States all these gains seemed to fortify the ascendancy of one political organization of the bourgeoisie over the working class. In reality this is only half the truth, and the lesser half. Organized labor in America, in so far as it supported (and still supports) Roosevelt, did so in a manner far more class-conscious than otherwise. It considered the New Deal as essentially a New Deal for the working people. To the great masses of the people, Rockefeller, Morgan and Wall Street, the “rich,” did not need any New Deal. They were getting on well enough. It was the starving third of the nation that wanted it, and however niggardly the New Deal administration might have been in fact, it handed out copiously to the workers in words.

While this inhibited the emergence of a national political party of organized labor, it has had inevitable and profound consequences in the working class. It has developed a conviction that unemployment and social suffering are no longer questions between the industrial worker and the private capitalist. The working class by and large believes that society is responsible. By society it means the government and it looks to the government to take whatever measures are necessary to repair what has become an intolerable state of affairs. How rapidly this sentiment has spread has its most eloquent testimony in the vigorous response of the bourgeoisie. The freshness, formidable militancy and confident expectations of the American proletariat gave it a power fully recognized by the state. In 1936 the highly developed political organizations and political experience of the French proletariat could force from the French bourgeoisie less than the purely industrial actions of the proletariat of America from the American bourgeoisie. The great wealth of the country, the national tradition of plenty, both of them complementary sides of the special American tradition, played and will continue to play a powerful role.

In 1939 the National Resources Board reported to the President as follows on the “basic characteristics” of the American economy:

Moreover, as people become increasingly aware of the discrepancy between rich resources and poor results in living and as the ineffectiveness in the organization of resources becomes more clear, a sense of social frustration must develop and be reflected in justified social unrest and unavoidable friction. Individual frustration builds into social frustration. And social frustration is quite as likely to work itself out in socially destructive as in socially constructive way.... The opportunity for a higher standard of living is so great, the social frustration from the failure to obtain it is so real, that other means will undoubtedly be sought if a democratic solution is not worked out. The time for finding such a solution is not unlimited.

Such was a brief but exact representation of the complex social relations in the United States of America in 1939. And all the more convincing because of the source and circumstances from which it comes.

The Influence of the War

The influence of the war has merely accentuated these developments which were already so powerful in the decade before its outbreak. And if, as is inevitable in war, their full fruition has been retarded, the result must be their outburst with renewed force at some stage in the coming period. To begin with, the war has prepared the population for a social crisis to a degree that was impossible except by the state organization of the economy. By the millions, men have been torn from their homes and passed through the military machine. By the millions, the more backward elements have been dragged from rural stagnation, women from their homes and petty bourgeois from offices, and hurled into the discipline of large-scale capitalist production. Never has there been such an uprooting in American life. The country has undergone a profound social upheaval, the greatest the proletariat has ever known.

Not only has the war disrupted normal existence to this unprecedented degree. Side by side with this it has compelled a growing consciousness among all ranks of the proletariat that production is a social process in which labor has both rights and responsibilities. In 1929, in the minds of the workers, organized labor was a small section of the population, the capitalists another, and government a third, three different entities. The breakdown of the system of “free enterprise” in 1929 resulted in a steady growth in social and class consciousness. By 1939, “free enterprise” had disguised itself as “management” in order to emphasize its social role in production. Organized labor now looked upon itself as entitled to a voice in the management of the productive process and looked to government as the responsible mediator of conflicting social claims. Already, however, by 1940, as was shown by the Reuther Plan, the UAW, one of labor’s most advanced sections, opposed itself to “management” as a candidate for the organization of production in the interests of society as a whole. The last three years have seen a truly astonishing development of the social consciousness of organized labor. This development of social consciousness has been as powerful as it is because of the special rôle of the state. Directly and indirectly the government has interfered in and controlled every aspect of economic and social life, from wages working conditions, food and clothes, to the date of the conception of children and, in the Army, even the right to marry.

After World War I the resentment of the working class against all that it had to suffer was directed more against Morgan, Wall Street and private capital than the government. In World War II the hostility and the exasperation resulting from the statification of the economy and the strain of the war have been directed as much against the government as against private capital. The course of the miners’ strike, undertaken against the full power of bourgeois society and its state during wartime, shows how deep is the current dissatisfaction among the workers with the existing state of affairs and their consciousness of the center of responsibility. The government recognized this early and has not spared its efforts to counteract the deep anti-war feeling, the skepticism which was the aftermath of World War I, and the sufferings of the people during the depression. Through its highest officials, the President and the Vice-President, it has stimulated the masses by vague but constantly reiterated promises of repayment for the sacrifices of the war by the abolition of what the workers endured in the pre-war period.

The culminating feature of the whole experience, however, while it permeates the consciousness of the great masses of the people, is as yet being held, as it were, in solution. But it will break forth with irresistible force as soon as the masses feel upon them the inevitable pressure of capitalist bankruptcy.

To the many-millioned mass already skeptical of “free enterprise,” the war effort of the state indicates that a government by planned use of the American productive system can create a society of full employment and plenty for all.

At the present moment the proletariat is in a state of sullen suspiciousness directed toward the capitalist dass in general and the Roosevelt government in particular. Like the bourgeoisie, it confidently expects that the war, at least in Europe, is near enough to its conclusion to justify intensive preparations for the post-war period. The end of this phase of the war can be the signal for the outbreak of the sharpest dass struggles. It may even be impossible for the bourgeoisie to suppress them before the actual end of hostilities in Europe. It is not impossible that a break with Roosevelt may come before the 1944 elections. Such events are quite unpredictable. The decisive question, however, is that, although contradictory currents move among the working dass, yet, as a whole, it knows what it wants and in millions, in its advanced groups, is determined to have it. It is conscious of great changes ahead in society both at home and abroad. It knows that labor is destined to play a great part in these changes. Such at least is the opinion of the present writer.

The Labor Leadership

One of the surest signs of the estimated changes in the consciousness of the American proletariat is to be found in the character of the demands now being put forward by the leadership. Let us take three of them.

William Green of the AFL has frequently expressed himself as being hostile to government interference in industry. He accepts it as a war measure but, fundamental class-collaborationist that he is, he claims that “free” political institutions must be based upon “free” enterprise. Permanent government control of industry, according to Green, means permanent government control of labor. There, Mr. Green is perfectly right within his own limitations, which are the limitations of capitalist society.

If the capitalist government organizes industry, then, modern production being what it is, it is compelled to organize labor as well. And for capitalists, the organization of labor is merely a phrase for the control, the limitation and the ultimate suppression of the rights of organized labor. The solution, obviously, is the organization of industry by the working class itself.

However, even a Green cannot be blind to the inexorable tendencies which are working themselves out in the process of production today. And on December 3, 1943, in an interview in Washington, Green recognized that the post-war reconversion program will inevitably be guided by the government. Green has discovered a new “friend of labor,” no less a person than the discredited Donald Nelson. He proposed Nelson as leader of a “top policy council” in which Congress, management, labor and farmers would be represented. Thus, even in the mind of this most backward-minded labor leader, it is perfectly clear that the old days of free enterprise are gone, for the time being, that production is a social process for which government is responsible. More important, however, is the frank recognition that labor must actually be represented in the production councils of the nation. The old maneuvering, the intrigue and the barter in the corridors of Washington which go under the name of lobbying, this is no longer sufficient. Labor must take its own place in the councils of government.

The second example that we propose to take is the post-war program of the UAW. This program bases itself on international co-operation.

Organized labor of all United Nations must co-operate to assure the application of the principles of the Atlantic Charter and to establish a worldwide system of collective security, eliminating trade barriers and establishing minimum labor standards in all lands. [1]

The immediate question is that of reconversion.

Speediest reconversion for peacetime production must be carried out with maintenance of labor standards and job protection for workers who have transferred to war work. Returning members of the armed forces must be guaranteed jobs, bonuses, education and protection for dependents.

The aim is:

Full Production and Full Employment – The government must operate monopolies and regulate other industries to guarantee full employment and production in the public interest. Small business must be rehabilitated. A gigantic construction program must be inaugurated by the federal government. Farm production must be geared to an economy of abundance, with elimination of absentee control and market insecurity.

Health, Education and Security – A nation-wide program must eradicate disease and malnutrition; education must be equally available to all; and full social security must be guaranteed from cradle to grave.

The means is the necessary climax to such a program.

Democratic planning for peacetime economy is only possible with full participation of organized labor at all levels.

Murray’s Manifesto

Infinitely more important, however, is the pronouncement recently made by Philip Murray, extracts from which stand at the head of this article. It is obviously a kind of New Year Manifesto and we reprint some of its most important passages:

... Events have convinced us that labor must become a more influential factor in the future than it has been in the past.

For the first time in American history, the forces of labor are now setting up a nation-wide organization to protect the rights of the working man, as well as the rights of the returning soldier, the farmer, the shall business man, and the so-called “common man.”

This is not a “Labor Party” or a “Third Party.” There is no present intention to form such a party.

This is something new in American politics ... We were impelled to action by the happenings of the last year or two, by a growing reactionary trend, and by the critical prospects raised by the elections in 1944 and the eventual reversion to a peacetime economy.

... When public apathy allows ignorant, selfish, and short-sighted men to get into Congress ... it makes us dread to think what might happen if such men should be in control when the terrific problems of the war’s end arise.

It was bad enough last time. This time, with a far greater war on our hands, and consequently with far greater problems of converting back to peace, such reckless courses might shake the foundations of the very democratic system we have been fighting for.

We believe that the years immediately ahead are the most critical we have ever faced – “the years of decision” – when new patterns will be formed.

Having helped to conquer tyranny abroad, the United States in peace must conquer unemployment and poverty at home. We have proved in war that this nation can produce a Niagara of armaments and materials.

Disaster comes by accident, but prosperity today comes only by planning.

In man’s long history there come short periods of time which profoundly influence his way of life for centuries thereafter. We are living in such a period today.

No one knows to what extent a democracy can plan its future in advance.

We shall draw up and present to the American people a specific set of principles for the general welfare.

One thing immediately stands out. Murray is under no illusions whatever as to the easy transition in the United States to the world of the Four Freedoms and the Century of the Common Man. He is aware, on the one hand, of the tremendous capacity for planned production in America which has been demonstrated to the masses. He is equally aware of the determination of the bourgeoisie to wreck the democratic system if need be and to maintain its power and privileges at whatever cost to the nation. A deep fear for the future can be discerned in this serious analysis addressed to the American people as a whole. Yet this labor leader omits what everyone knows to be one of the fundamental constituents of the “years of decision.” He omits all reference to the independent action of the working masses. He omits it because, like all his kind, he is afraid of it.

The ideological fig-leaf of reformism of this type is that if even the labor leadership is aware of the perils ahead, the workers are so backward that it is impossible to take the drastic measures necessary for a radical working class solution of the crisis. As we follow Murray and look into the future, the first thing to do is to destroy this illusion of “advanced” labor leaders and backward workers.

Now estimates as to the particular stage of development reached by a working class will always differ widely. Precision on such a question, difficult at all times, is particularly difficult when the working class in question has no independent political organization of its own, carrying on a specific political education and in turn acting as a barometer of working class development. But even where, as formerly for years in Europe, that difficulty did not exist, the extent to which social ideas or programs have penetrated into the minds of the workers cannot possibly be told until the workers take action, and mass action in which they feel their united strength. When the French proletariat moved into the factories in May-June, 1936, only the events themselves showed how far the workers were consciously permeated with distrust of the ruling regime, and a deep determination to insure that their demands were carried out. Yet on the surface it could appear that if only the workers saw as clearly into the future as Murray and the leaders of the UAW, then it would be possible for labor to begin, now, to make great efforts and achieve great progress on its own behalf. This is “proved” by the fact that the American working dass has not yet felt the necessity of an independent political organization of its own. Until then we must wait until the workers are more educated. In reality, such an estimate, true on the surface, is fundamentally false. The whole course of the development of labor in Europe and Asia, the history of the CIO in America shows that the labor leadership at the decisive moment is always lagging behind the working dass. We have to see this to the end.

To see into the future, however, and visualize trends of social classes and groups requires first and foremost a clear concept of the past. The American proletariat has its own national characteristics. In the previous article we tried to indicate these by a rough comparison with the development of the proletariat in Great Britain. But the American proletariat is a part of the international working class. We can see best into its future by some comparison with the growth and distinct stages of the developing proletarian struggle.

Stages of Proletarian Struggle

The international proletariat first appeared on the scene in the early Thirties of the nineteenth century, and its first great action was the French Revolution of 1848. Since that time every great individual action of the proletariat has marked a stage in the development of the proletariat as a whole. Engels has outlined this movement for us. In his introduction to Marx’s Civil War in France, he notes that the workers in 1848 themselves designated the Republic which followed Louis Philippe as the “Social Republic.” Yet, “as to what was to be understood by this ‘Social Republic,’ nobody was quite clear, not even the workmen themselves.” In 1871 came the Paris Commune. There we had much of the confusion which existed in 1848. Lenin, who followed Marx and Engels very closely, notes that “there was no workers party, there was no preparedness and no long training of the working class, which, in the mass, did not even clearly visualize its tasks and the methods of fulfilling them. There were no serious political organizations of the proletariat, no strong trade unions and co-operative societies.” On another occasion, speaking to the Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party, Lenin gave a belligerent interpretation to the original idea expressed by Engels in the above-mentioned introduction:

“The Commune was not understood by those who had created it. They created with the instinctive genius of the awakened masses, and not a single fraction of the French socialists realized what they were doing.”

Was the immediate object of the Commune a complete socialist revolution? “We can cherish no such illusions.” Lenin says that when Engels called the Commune a dictatorship of the proletariat, he had in view “only the participation, and moreover the ideological leading participation, of the representatives of the proletariat in the revolutionary government of Paris.” This lack of consciousness in its revolutionary leadership helped to ruin the Commune, apart from the objective difficulties. Yet the progress from 1848 was immense.

Europe was then quiet for nearly thirty-five years. In 1905 the Russian proletariat took the advanced position. It established the general political strike as one of the great weapons of the proletariat in its struggle against capital. From out of its own instinctive response to the objective development of capitalist production, it organized the soviets. The international significance of this for the proletariat was soon seen. When the end of World War I brought to a head the gathering crisis of capitalism all over Europe, the general political strike and the organization of the Soviets became fundamental weapons of the proletariat in revolutionary struggle. In backward China in 1925-27, we see the same phenomena. The year 1936 is a very important one in the history of proletarian struggle. The workers developed a new weapon corresponding to the high stage of the struggle with the capitalist class. In France they go into the factories and threaten to stay there until their demands are satisfied. In Spain, in Catalonia, the first thing the workers do is to take hold of the property of the bourgeoisie. Never was a proletarian revolution so violent and decisive in this respect as was the revolution in this most important province of Spain in the first seventy-two hours. Had there existed in Spain anything like a revolutionary party the proletariat would have been able to consolidate itself over large areas in Spain even more rapidly than the extraordinarily rapid revolution in Russia between February and October, 1917. What we have to note is that in America the proletariat, though far less conscious politically and far less aroused than the proletariat either in France or in Spain, used precisely the same basic method of struggle. It went into the factories. John L. Lewis, the militant labor leader, fought splendidly for the CIO. But the American working class, once it was aroused, showed itself ready to adopt the most advanced methods of proletarian struggle current at the time. At the decisive moment these apparently backward workers were far in advance of their most advanced leaders.

The lesson to be drawn from this is plain. When the American proletariat, as we confidently expect it will, does move into action, it will take steps which will correspond to the general stage of development of proletarian class struggle at the time. The Murrays, the Thomases and the Reuthers will be found at the tail of the mass movement. So it always has been. So it always will be. We agree entirely with Murray as to the fateful character of the years ahead. We only add our confidence that the American proletariat will show in the moment of action that all of its present leaders are fumbling behind it.

Reaffirmations of Practical Conclusions

Certain practical conclusions [2] can now be reaffirmed:

  1. The propaganda and agitation for a Labor Party which revolutionists will advance must serve first and foremost as a means of educating the working class to the perils of the hour, the fatefulness of the days ahead, and the need of drastic solutions to the social problems presented. Wherever the workers wish to form an independent Labor Party the revolutionists today support them and actively co-operate. But the revolutionary program for a Labor Party goes far beyond what appears to be the immediate political consciousness of millions of workers. If our previous experience proves anything, it is that the explosive forces which arc gathering in the working-class movement during the past years will drive it forward at the moment of decision far beyond the imagination of Murray and his brother bureaucrats. It can conceivable happen that the workers may face a very sharp stage of the class struggle even before an independent Labor Party is formed. A genuine mass Labor Party may be stifled, as Murray obviously intends to stifle it for 1944. The crisis may unloose a torrential movement for an independent Labor Party. Such things do not concern us here and in any case are unpredictable. But the revolutionists under all circumstances hold before the workers a program for the reconstruction of society. The American working class has not suffered the destruction of the American economy by war. It is outside the international complications of the European proletariat. It has had hammered into its head from all sides the corrupt origins and fundamental bankruptcy of fascism. It has learned a great deal both on a national and international scale from the intensive political education which war brings and the fortunate position in which it has been placed in relation to the actual conflict. It has suffered none of the drastic blows which have fallen upon the European proletariat during recent years. It is conscious that its great battles are before it. Any kind of political analysis which thinks that a bold political program is too “advanced” for the “backward” workers completely misunderstands that sharp transposition of roles between masses and the labor bureaucrats at the moment that the masses move in action. And, in the United States in 1944, to talk about “years of decision” without visualizing mass action is the escapist fantasy of a frightened bureaucrat.
  2. The second practical conclusion is the recognition of the necessity of the revolutionary Marxian party today. A Marxian party is always necessary but a frank recognition of struggle for the organization of an independent Labor Party does not in the least mean subordination of the struggle for a revolutionary party. Exactly the opposite is the case. It is clear from Murray’s article that the labor bureaucracy which he represents does not see labor’s political participation in the “years of decision,” except as giving its votes to be used at the dictates of its “leaders.” Any illusions about the labor bureaucracy on this score will be paid for at heavy cost. The labor bureaucracy is a social phenomenon with certain social and political characteristics. That it does not wish a Labor Party is not in any way surprising. Tomorrow it may or may not be of the same opinion. But if even a dynamic development of the working class should push the caste of Murray, Green and the rest of them, or others of their type, into the leadership of an independent Labor Party, then these gentlemen will do substantially what all their colleagues in Europe have been doing for the past fifty years. They will try to use the party as an instrument of class collaboration and suppression of working class militancy. The more powerful is the urge of the masses to come to grips with their oppressors, the more certainly will our labor “statesmen” maneuver to suppress the workers. The struggle, therefore, for the as yet unborn Labor Party and the struggle to make the Labor Party, if and when formed, an instrument for the organization and education of the workers, that is a task that will have to be performed against the labor bureaucracy. In order words, it is a task of the revolutionary party.

Finally, when we watch the horizons of Europe, Asia and Africa and see the vast explosions of the class struggles which impend, it becomes clear that the American working class needs its revolutionary party not only to assist it in its struggles with the quaking bureaucrats who lead it only to stifle its growing aspirations for independence. It needs such a party to help it draw the lessons of the great international class battles ahead so that these lessons can be applied to the national field.


1. All quotations are from the summary printed in Ammunition, September 1943, the educational journal of the UAW.

2. See Workers Party resolution on The Struggle for the Labor Party, The New International, December 1943.

Last updated on 13 August 2015