William F. Warde

American Philosophy and
the Labor Movement

(Spring 1962)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.2, Spring 1962, pp.52-55.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

“AMERICAN philosophy and the labor movement ... How odd to couple these two together!” we can imagine eminent heads in both fields exclaiming. “What can they have in common?”

It must be acknowledged that at present they make an incongruous, even ludicrous, juxtaposition. To most professors philosophy has no special connection either with politics or the working class. Almost all union leaders believe the labor movement can get along very well without any philosophy. Here, as elsewhere, extremes meet. The labor bureaucrats have as little regard for philosophy as the university mandarins have for the labor movement.

They are equally narrow-minded. Philosophy is not a purely intellectual exercise dealing with some cuckoo land or locked up in the minds of Ph.D.’s. Its ideas reflect the world outlook, the material interests and the vital aims of diverse sections of society. It has a social function; its use and influence extend beyond college courses. Philosophies serve as tools of social forces and as weapons in the conflicts of contending classes. The labor movement can no more avoid being animated by some kind of general outlook, however crude and inadequate, than professors can remain totally detached from the social struggles swirling around them.

Yet up to now American philosophy and the labor movement have remained far apart. They inhabit different domains and exert no direct influence on each other.

Is this estrangement a fixed and permanent feature of American culture? Or is it the product of special and episodic historical conditions? To answer these questions let us first examine the evolution of the mass labor movement in the United States on its theoretical side, in its two main stages: the Gompers-Green era and the subsequent period of the CIO.

Gompersism and Deweyism

One of the outstanding peculiarities of the American labor movement has been the immense disparity between its strength in industrial action and organization and its political and theoretical weakness compared to working class movements in other countries.

The American workers possess in full measure all the remarkable qualities which distinguish the American people and have been responsible for its colossal achievements. They radiate dynamic energy; they excel in the sphere of sustained labor and collective organization for the execution of given tasks; they are ingenious, free of routinism, highly cultured in modern techniques. They have displayed these capacities not only in working for their bosses but also in the struggles which have created the largest and most powerful trade union structure in the world.

These magnificent traits can be counted upon to assert themselves even more forcefully in the decades ahead and will be the source of still greater accomplishments.

At the same time the development of American labor has suffered from a pronounced unevenness. The growth of its self-awareness as a distinct social force with a world-historical mission has not kept pace with its union organization. Its creativeness in collective thinking has limped far behind its achievements through direct action. Along with its precious positive features our labor movement has inherited the meagerness and immaturity in theoretical matters rooted in the national past.

This defect was crystallized in the craft unionism of the old American Federation of Labor. The original AFL leaders deliberately turned away from any general conceptions of social development and class relations. In his autobiography Samuel Gompers tells how he consciously rejected the Marxism he knew in his younger days as unsuited to American conditions.

The AFL heads scoffed not only at the ideas of socialism but at any philosophy; such highfalutin’ matters were no business of organized labor. They lived from hand to mouth, from craft to craft, from contract to contract. The crude tenets of Gompers (“a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”; “reward your friends, punish your enemies”) grew out of and corresponded to the primitive organizational setup and class collaborationist methods of the AFL. When Adolph Strasser, co-leader with Gompers of the Cigarmakers, was asked by the Senate Committee on Education and Labor what the ultimate objectives of AFL craft unionism were, he answered:

“We have no ultimate ends. We are going on from day to day. We fight only for immediate objects, objects that can be realized in a few years.”

ALTHOUGH the AFL leaders themselves felt no need for any theory to explain the role and aims of unionism, certain professors of the John L. Commons school of sociologists, centered at the University of Wisconsin, undertook to fabricate one for them. The Commons conception of US unionism was purely pragmatic in spirit. It fully justified the prevailing practices of the Gompers officialdom; found special virtues in them, and even extended them into the indefinite future. Craft unionism, these scholars declared, was the special form of unionism suited to our distinctive national conditions; industrial unionism was unrealistic, almost un-American. Collective bargaining, craft by craft, would bring about gradual improvement in labor’s status and its recognition as an equal of capital. The narrow outlook of the AFL had much in common with the instrumentalist school of thought. Dewey’s instrumentalism is the highest form of pragmatism.

Gompersism and Deweyism were kindred products of the same period in America’s social evolution. The principal methods of instrumentalism corresponded on the top level of theory to the everyday practices and outlook of the craft union officials. To be sure, the two sprang from different social strata and did not march closely together. The one stemmed directly from the needs and views of liberal middle class intellectuals; the other came from the habits and interests of the union bureaucracy and the craft aristocracy. Although the former was more volatile and less hidebound than the latter, they converged in the nationally enclosed, opportunist, piecemeal nature of their common ideology.

This kinship has been pointed out by an especially qualified observer, Mark Starr, educational director of the AFL International Ladies Garment Workers Union:

“It would, of course, be a mistake to think that there has been a reciprocal interest and a wide conscious study of the philosophy of John Dewey in the ranks of American organized labor, or even in the workers’ education section of its activities. However, there is something in common between the economic pragmatism of Samuel Gompers and the philosophic pragmatism of John Dewey. The approach of the American Federation of Labor in working out its theories in the light of daily practice is surely experimental. As a matter of fact, just as Dewey has been accused of having no organized body of thought, so the AFL has been accused of emphasizing rule-of-thumb methods to the exclusion of any understanding of ultimate goals.” – Organized Labor and the Dewey Philosophy in John Dewey: Philosopher of Science and Freedom, edited by Sidney Hook, 1950.

The two movements were alike not only in their methods of thought but in their underlying aims. Both sought to effect improvements for the lower classes step by step within the settled framework of capitalist institutions. This program of gradual reform necessarily involved accomodation to the political and social bases of capitalism and a deference to its governing bodies. At critical turning points (wars, sharp clashes between the industrialists and the workers) this attitude of compliance culminated in capitulation to the pressures of the ruling class. Despite recurrent tiffs, grumblings of protest and threats, both the union leaders and the philosophers, guided by pragmatism, remained loyal oppositionists to the capitalist regime.

The scorn for broad generalizations in historical and social questions was most conspicuous in the Gompers section of the labor movement. But it was an inescapable phenomenon of that entire era. Its prevalence, though in different forms, at the opposite end of the labor movement testified to its deep roots in the objective conditions of American life. Eugene Debs, the revolutionary socialist who was Gompers’ life long, left-wing opponent, exemplified in his own way the low theoretical level characterist of that time. Debs made his way from trade unionism to socialism by the blows he received through personal participation in the union organizing campaigns and class battles of the 1890’s. He learned the real nature of capitalist chicanery and cruelty not so much from books as in the school of hard knocks. In this respect as in so many others, Debs was genuinely representative of the native laboring masses.

He became a thoroughgoing socialist – and a left-wing one. But, through no fault of his own, he never grew to be a Marxist leader of the highest stature. As a self-educated worker-leader in the provincial America of his day, he could not acquire the theoretical equipment, training and insight vested in the outstanding figures of the great German and Russian schools of revolutionary socialism who stood at the crossroads of the world history of their time. As his best biographer, Ray Ginger notes:

“In his entire life, he never made an important decision on the basis of theoretical study. The facts of his own life kicked him into every step; often he required more than one kick.” – The Bending Cross, p.19.

This weakness handicapped Debs at many points in his career: in the internal party controversies of the pre-war socialist movement, at the time of Wilson’s intervention into the first world war, and finally, in the developments following the Russian Revolution which required a profound theoretical readjustment in the outlook of all socialists.

Debs shared this inadequacy with most of his generation, regardless of their special tendency or affiliation. Similar deficiencies in theory and program were stamped upon the militant ranks of migratory labor and the proletarian fighters of the IWW. They were to prove a decisive factor in the disintegration of this movement after the first world war and the Russian Revolution.

Engels, who closely followed the main events in the labor movement here during the last part of the nineteenth century, often emphasized these contradictory aspects of the American character: its strength in practical affairs coupled with its feebleness in theory.

“Theoretical ignorance is the attribute of all young peoples,” he wrote his friend Sorge in the United States, “but so is the speed of development in practice. Just as in England, so all abstractions count for nothing in America until they have been brought forward by factual necessity.”

Engels expected that the harsh necessities of the class struggle and the resultant schooling of experience would in time stimulate the American workers through their vanguard to gain a clearer, more comprehensive insight into their historical destiny and enable them to overcome their traditional empiricism. Since his death in 1895, our labor movement has taken giant strides forward. But it must be said that, for all the advances made in its understanding, these have not kept pace with its organizational gains, and even less with its needs. The union movement is still, in Engels’ words, “practically ahead of the whole world and theoretically still in its swaddling clothes.”

The Era of the CIO

The founders of the CIO in the mid-1930’s discarded the craft union framework of the AFL – but they did not break with its fundamental ideology. At this great turning point the regenerated ranks of labor needed four major improvements to carry forward their battles for a better life against monopolist rule. These were: an up-to-date union structure in the basic industries; a mass political party to challenge the capitalist two-party system on a national, state and local level; a program, outlook and theory on a par with this higher stage in its own development and corresponding to this revolutionary age of transition from one social order to another; and finally, a leadership capable of applying that program in action.

Under CIO auspices American labor succeeded in realizing only the first and most pressing of these objectives. In the 1930’s and 1940’s it built powerful national unions in the key sectors of trustified industry. This has been the imperishable accomplishment of the CIO. But this higher grade of union organization was not extended and fortified by equivalent advances in the political practices, the social views or the theoretical knowledge of the union leadership.

Even though they captained a far more dynamic and highly developed movement, the general policies and ideological equipment of the top-ranking CIO leaders were little better than those of the old-line AFL bureaucrats.

John L. Lewis, the dominant figure in the formative stage of the CIO, carried over into the new movement the basic outlook he had absorbed in the old, so far as his conceptions of its role under capitalism was concerned. To be sure, sensing the stronger position of the organized working class, he demanded a bigger voice for labor within the existing system; this was symbolized by his desire to be nominated as Roosevelt’s vice-president. But neither Lewis nor his successor, Philip Murray, seriously attempted to pass beyond the precincts of the two-party setup.

We have pointed out that, after organizing basic industry, labor’s next urgent task was to cut loose from the capitalist parties and provide an independent medium for the expression of labor politics. Unlike the miner leaders Lewis and Murray, the auto workers’ president, Walter Reuther, who came to head the CIO in the 1950’s, was a direct product of the new stage in the labor movement. Originally a socialist, the younger man was familiar with a far wider range of ideas than his predecessors. Yet for all his flexibility he too has stubbornly resisted being pushed beyond the existing political limits.

the years there have been repeated calls from the ranks of the auto workers and the CIO for an independent political policy. Time and again Reuther has sidestepped any commitment to a Labor Party. The debate on this issue held at the thirteenth UAW-CIO Convention in Cleveland in 1951 affords an excellent insight into the purely pragmatic character of his reasoning.

A minority had submitted a resolution urging the speedy formation of a Labor Party by the unions in preparation for the national elections in 1952. Reuther resisted this with the following arguments:

“We are all opposed to political hacks and we are all opposed to corruption and compromise; but it is not a matter of principle that is being debated here in these two resolutions. The division is not in principle, it is in strategy, in tactics, and that is the keynote to the future development of American political power with respect to the labor movement. I say if you pass the minority resolution you will feel noble, but you will not advance the political struggle to build labor’s political power in America. Let us not be generals without an army.”

Pragmatism differs from Marxism in its attitude toward principles. Although the ordinary pragmatist does not repudiate principles in general, he holds that they must be subordinated to the pursuit of immediate practical aims. Marxism teaches that correct class principles are practically necessary to attain class ends.

Analyzing Reuther’s arguments in the light of these contrasting methods, we see that he first of all presents himself as a sturdy fellow who stands firmly upon principle. But then he denies that labor support to the political agencies of the capitalist class is a matter of principle. In reality, opposition to capitalist parties and policies is as vital a principle of working class conduct as opposition to company unions in industry.

The pragmatic Reuther claimed that nothing more was involved than purely practical considerations of strategy and tactics where, of course, objective facts, and not noble feelings, must decide the course to take. Although he claimed to be no compromiser or friend of corrupt politicians, his assessment of the prevailing situation compelled him to favor the continuation of the old policy of class collaboration and block the initiation of a Labor Party.

Thus this opponent of compromise in the abstract turned out to be the proponent of further shameful compromise with Democratic Party politics in the concrete case. While counterposing his “realism” to the “Utopian” Labor Party advocates, his opportunist maneuver displayed his contempt for principled conduct. Bureaucratic expediency, not working class principle, is his guide.

The irony is, that if Reuther had chosen the opposite course at that time, he would have gained more for labor even from the standpoint of practical politics. For the Republican Eisenhower defeated the liberal Democrat Stevenson. Had labor launched its own party in 1951-52, instead of supporting the Democrats and hanging around the anterooms of the capitalist politicians since that time, it would by now be in a stronger position even to make demands upon the older parties. Reuther’s opportunistic stand, defended on pragmatic grounds, weakened labor’s political position. The trouble with opportunism is that it results in missing so many opportunities.

By 1958 Reuther had become so conservative on this question that when AFL-CIO President George Meany rhetorically threatened the capitalist politicians with secession toward a Labor Party, Reuther repudiated the idea as un-American. If in 1951 it was merely premature, seven years later the proposal was dogmatically excluded.

The Prospects of American Labor

The merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955 opened up new possibilities of advancement for labor. So far its leaders have done little to realize them, even in the extension of union organization. They have certainly not raised the level of labor’s thought.

Today, insofar as the official labor movement can be said to have any philosophy, it is wholly pragmatic, as it was in both the AFL and CIO phases of its formation. But pragmatism is not a working class philosophy. It is essentially the theory of middle class progressivism whose basic ideas did not pass beyond the limits of reforming the structure of capitalism. American labor has yet to develop a philosophy of its own; it has borrowed whatever generalizations it needed from the spokesmen for other segments of American society. Or rather, it has neither resisted nor rejected the influences of ideologies which run counter to its fundamental interests and real historical role.

How long will American labor continue to operate without a theory of its own or with inadequate ones taken from alien sources? The answer to this question depends on its prospects in the remaining decades of this century.

Seated comfortably in their padded armchairs, the labor executives proceed as though the establishment of industrial unionism was the last major upheaval between the corporations and the workers. Actually, the struggles of the 1930’s were the first great step in a process which will have its sequel in a new upsurge of labor radicalism.

Organized labor is one of the two decisive forces in American society. The unions can maintain their present stability, and their leaders their conservatizing stranglehold, only so long as the capitalist system functions without severe shocks and serious crises. Thus the key to the future of American labor does not lie within itself but rather in the vicissitudes of US capitalism.

But US capitalism is itself subjected to the good or ill fortunes of international capitalism, of which it forms the most important part. So, in order to judge the prospects of the American working class, we must look outside the labor movement and even beyond the United States and examine the fundamental trends of world history in our time and the sweeping social changes emerging from them.

The predominant historical movement in the nineteenth century was the building up of capitalist society. Progressivism, Deweyism, Gompersism were manifestations in politics, philosophy and industry of reactions to this specific stage in the evolution of American and world capitalism. All these were products of the period when American capitalism, emerging from victory after the Civil War, was passing through its democratic, competitive, progressive youth to its reactionary monopolistic and imperialistic maturity while on the world arena capitalism climbed to the peak of its power.

AFTER the first world war and the Russian Revolution the further building of capitalism was first halted, than reversed. Its structure has been weakened by a series of revolutions which have established post-capitalist regimes in countries stretching from the Elbe River in Europe, to the Pacific Ocean, to ninety miles from home where a victorious socialist revolution pierced even the Western Hemisphere.

This world anti-capitalist revolution is the central tendency of our time. But its first phase has had a contradictory effect upon the position of US capitalism. While the system to which it belongs has been falling back on a world-historical scale, US capitalism has been gaining ground.

To be sure, these interlacing processes do not have equal weight. In the long run the advances of the American sector will not compensate for the losses suffered by the capitalist system as a whole. Not only must these in time react upon the United States and drag it down but the challenge from the Soviet bloc becomes ever greater.

The United States has been the prime beneficiary of the cataclysmic changes that have attended the first period of the transition from capitalism to socialism. It has drawn into itself all the residual vitality of the enfeebled capitalist order and become preeminent in the imperialist camp. It is this temporarily favorable aspect of the world situation for the American ruling class which has most affected the lives of the American people and been responsible for the inner stability of monopolist rule.

But there is another side to this development. If the United States has been the undisputed victor in the competition among the imperialist nations, it is also a victim of the changed world situation. The totality of capitalist power is contracting while the strength of the anti-capitalist countries and forces is expanding. By having to extend its spheres of influence and control throughout the globe along with its military commitments, capitalist America has become inextricably involved in all the convulsions of a chronically sick social system. It has to rush to the rescue of every tottering reactionary relic from Batista to Chiang Kai-shek to Franco. The Truman Doctrine, the Korean War, the Eisenhower Middle East Doctrine, the Alliance for Progress, are so many milestones along this counter-revolutionary road.

After recovering from the upset of the crash of 1929, American capitalism has managed to maintain social stability on its home grounds for two decades. However, this stability, propped up and prolonged since 1940 by an artificial prosperity based upon military expenditures and inflation, remains precarious and has still to pass its severest tests.

The drive of the US militarists and monopolists for world supremacy and their ever-deepening involvement in world affairs has far-reaching implications for the working people. The consequences of the cold war and the threat of hot ones affect all the main aspects of their lives from the tax bite on their weekly paychecks to the degree of their civil liberties. The State Department exerts intense pressure upon the labor leaders to go along with its foreign policies; they eagerly comply and force the ranks to conform. This does not in the least prevent the other arms of the capitalist government from passing and enforcing legislation injuring and endangering the unions (the Taft-Hartley and Kennedy-Landrum-Griffin Acts).

This changed situation confronts the labor movement with problems of unprecedented gravity and intricacy. However, its leaders are content to enjoy the ease of the moment without troubling themselves either about the discontents in the ranks or the perils of the future. They remain unaware that any drastic revisions are called for in their outlook or methods. They are as oblivious to dangers ahead as canoers drifting toward rapids hidden around the bend.

THE union tycoons pride themselves upon being in step with the times because they hire public relations experts, have chromium-plated offices and ride in Cadillacs. But their basic ideas about the world and the place and prospects of labor within it are as antiquated as the derby hat. Like all pragmatists, they are provincial and shortsighted. They complacently expect that trade union life will remain as it is indefinitely, and, whatever changes may be required, will be easily handled by their usual methods.

On one hand they assume that unionism will continue to roll along the same grooves as in the past. On the other hand they believe that America’s future will be shaped along essentially different lines than those revolutionary events which have already upset capitalism in other parts of the world.

It is true that American history has had its peculiarities and will continue to do so. However, these exceptional features have not been great enough in the past to spare the American people from going through two revolutions, one in the eighteenth and the other in the nineteenth century, when capitalism was on the rise in North America. Indeed, these revolutions occurred as they did precisely because of the peculiarities in America’s development.

So it appears even less likely that the present peculiarities will prevent this nation from being drawn into the revolutionary whirlpool of our age when nuclear energy, rockets and jet planes have compressed national boundaries and when economics, politics, military strategy and culture have a global character.

The labor movement needs a far better understanding of its role in American life and world affairs than it has. But it is unlikely to acquire this improved theory until another big shakeup in class relations occurs on the order of the crisis of the 1930’s which brought the CIO into being. When the ranks are again roused into militant action and the fatcats are unseated, labor will begin to cast off its mental sluggishness and absorb new ideas.

The duty of socialists is to foresee this rebirth of mass radicalism and to prepare its advent by developing and disseminating the ideas of Marxism. They are the petrels flying ahead of the coming storm.


Last updated on: 11.2.2006