Illinois Miners’ Convention

(April 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 8, 15 April 1931, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

As this issue appears, the rank and file miners’ movement against the treacherous reunion of the Lewis and Fishwick cliques in the United Mine Workers of America will come to a head at a convention in St. Louis to determine the course the miners shall pursue. The movement which has as its chief driving power the desire of the miners to cut loose from the domination of the reactionary union skates, has already won the support of some of the most militant section of the Illinois mine fields, of the new independent union in West Virginia, and of sections of the coal territory in Ohio, Indiana and Kansas. Betrayed, traduced, used by their leaders as pawns in dickers with the coal operators, suffering the intense misery from the effects of the general crisis added to the specific crisis in the coal industry – the most militant elements among the miners are overcoming the spirit of demoralizing and despair. It is these elements who are at present most active in the work of laying the foundation stones for a new union movement, based on the class struggle, able and willing to defend the interests of the miners, free from the bureaucratic and reactionary incubus that has destroyed the once powerful union of the American mine workers.

The Unity of Fishwick and Lewis

The revival of the militant spirit so characteristic of the miners comes at the end of a more than one year dispute between two sections of the labor officialdom – the International office headed by John L. Lewis and the Illinois district, which split away last year and established an autonomous union uader the leadership of such discredited touts of the coal operators as Fishwick, John H. Walker. This entirely unprincipled dispute came to a conclusion “by court order”, but in reality because the union had been sapped to such an extent that the diminished resources available to both groups of the officialdom compelled them to seek refuge in each other’s arms.

Over night, Fishwick, who had denounced Lewis for every crime in the decalogue returned to the fold of this same Lewis who, in his turn, had been working tongue and pen with might and main to prove that Fishwick and his associates were scoundrels of the deepest dye. The sudden reconciliation, however, did not result in bringing the miners’ rank and file docilely under the domination of the reunited skates. Throughout Illinois, the outraged miners not only refused to pay dues to the Lewis machine but expressed strong sentiments for cutting loose from the hulk to which the U.M.W.A. has been reduced, and establishing in its place a new union. In West Virginia, a notorious scab field because of the deliberate sabotage of organization work by the Lewis clique, the new union movement has already assumed distinct form and embraces, according to various reports, from 7,000 to 9.000 members. In Kansas, for many years a stamping ground for militancy, the same sentiment prevails. To a lesser extent, Indiana and Ohio have echoed the aspirations of the Illinois miners.

The convention to be held in St. Louis on April 15, 1931, is the rallying point for this sentiment. The ircumstances and auspices surrounding its convocation furnish an illuminating comment on the relationship of forces in the mine field. The prime movers officially in the fore for this convention are the “progressives” associated with the C.P.L.A., the Muste group. Keenly aware of the spirit of revolt spreading among the miners, these professional dampeners of working class militancy, yesterday’s open and concealed adjutants of Fishwick and Co., have taken advantage of the absence of any substantial and genuinely militant leadership capable of opposing Lewis-ism and have sought to ride the wave of sound rank and file revolt. With yesterday’s loyal agents of the Fishwick apparatus like Wm. Daech and similars, joined with the professional “progressives” of Hapgood, Brophy, Stevenson and Co., who collapsed and left the miners in the lurch at every decisive moment, and continuing to use Alex Howat who allowed Fishwick and Co. to use his reputation of bygone militancy as bait with which to entice the miners into the reactionary net – with this agglomeration of pseudo- and quasi-progressives the Muste group is seeking to establish its domination of the new movement and perform its assigned function of keeping it from “going red.”

The Blunders of Stalinism

That the Muste group of reformists has thus far succeeded in a measure to put itself at the head of the rank and file movement is eloquent testimony to the decrepit state of the Communist movement, particularly in the Illinois mine fields, and to the virtually complete disappearance of the National Miners Union in that state. With the cruelest effect, yesterday’s blunders of the Stalinists have come home to roost. The bankruptcies and defeats of yesterday burden the revolutionary movement just at this particular moment, when the possibilities for a revival and consolidation are especially favorable. Yet, with the miners (above all, in Illinois) rapidly experiencing a disillusionment with the two gangs of labor leaders and ready for a new movement, the appeals of the National Miners Union are failing on deaf ears.

That is how the rank and file miners are repaying Stalinism for the stupidities and crimes of the past: for the bureaucratic, arbitrary, supercilious regime in the Left wing union which repelled those workers who sought in it a democratic instrument for advancing their interests; for the irresponsible, adventurist, ill-begotten “strike” of last year, called without consulting the miners, conducted like a putsch on a small scale, and concluded in the miserable defeat, to which its whole conception doomed it in advance; for the false, sectarian course pursued at the time of last year’s miners’ convention, which the N.M.U. boycotted against the urgent appeal of the Left Opposition to see that the Left wing was represented there to prevent its unchallenged domination by Fishwick, Farrington, Germer, Walker, Howat and Co. In discrediting itself – and this is worst of all – Stalinism has succeeded also in besmirching to a large extent the banner of Communism and the cause of the Left wing as a whole.

Heavily and disastrously as the past weighs upon the Left wing, it is yet possible to repair the evil done, providing that a new course is charted and helmsmen put at the wheel who know their business and are imbued with an awareness of their responsibilities in the movement. The miners who represent the best and most consistent of the Communists among the miners, Left Oppositionists and Left wing militants like Joe Angelo, Gerry Allard, John Watt, Ed Morgan and others, are fighting to reestablish the strength and prestige once enjoyed by our movement in Southern Illinois. And in the face of their activities, the Muste straddlers, running true to form, are trying to put every obstacle in the path of the real Left wing militants. “You men are too red. You’ll get the movement in bad.” That is how the Musteites approach the activities of the Communists whom they fear only less than they fear to arouse any fundamental conflict with the labor bureaucracy whose come-ons they are.

The active presence of the Musteites, before, during and after the St. Louis convention demands an ever increasing attentiveness on the part of the Left wing workers. The latter must be in the forefront to prevent a repetition of the black year when the “progressives” raised such vain hopes in Fishwick’s diplomatic maneuver and helped him to betray the miners. Now more than ever is a correct policy the imperative need in the situation. Such a policy has been advanced by the Left Opposition. We elaborated it in our last issue, and proposed to the party and the Left wing to adopt it. In a few words it was this: the miners have begun to revolt against their treacherous leaders of yesterday; the pseudo-progressives are seeking to capitalize the situation; the Left wing must penetrate the movement and guide it properly, towards the end of consolidating the miners on a national scale into a powerful class struggle union, embodying the new militant forces and those grouped in and about the National Miners Union.

Torn between their dislike to adopt this course of action mainly because the Left Opposition proposed it, and the pressure which the facts of life exert, the Stalinist bureaucracy is “solving” the problem in characteristic fashion. That is, it militates against the possibility of progress by paying homage to the incoherent philosophy of “social fascism”; it yields to the compulsion of events and our criticism by borrowing from our proposals; it fuses the two incompatible standpoints and leaves a loophole open for the inevitable “self-criticism”, i.e., the sport of fixing the blame for the defeat prepared by the Fosters, Bedachts and Browders upon the shoulders of the lower functionaries and the ranks.

True, such a course, or multiplicity of courses, does not add to the clarity that is so essential: it only makes confusion worse confounded and reveals the thorough bankruptcy of the Stalinist statesmen.

Confusion Instead of Policy

In the Daily Worker of April 14, the whole movement is dismissed as nothing more nor less than this: “We shall have in the mining industry a pure and simple social fascism.”

In Illinois itself, the National Miners Union of the Illinois District, whose strength begins and ends with its post office box address, has issued a leaflet which repeats the same radically blundering policy which the official party pursued last year: to boycott the new movement, to boycott the St. Louis conference, and to substitute activity in this movement with a bare, unheeded call to the miners to join the N.M.U. “Do not send delegates to Howat’s convention April 15!” it writes with double emphasis. “Organize N.M.U. locals in every mine”.

Then, to raise the confusion to untouched peaks, Foster himself proceeds to lay down the laws and to select in advance the scapegoats who are destined to be “self-criticized” for the disaster. Writing in the Daily Worker of April 9, he goes through the obligatory ritual of denouncing “Watt, Angelo and their handful of Trotskyists working under the leadership [so!] of Muste”, in order to cover up the mortifying fact that a few paragraphs later he is compelled to repudiate (not by name, of course, at least not as yet) the Illinois party members, and to borrow planks from the program of the same confounded Trotskyites (again not by name). He continues:

“The course that the miners should take at the Illinois convention [but the N.M.U. leaflet a few days before said: Do not send delegates to Howat’s convention!] is clear. First of all they should clean out Howat and his gang ... The miners must repudiate [line missing] What about the N.M.U. [words missing] miners are streaming en masse?

“Secondly, at the convention [to which the miners should not send delegates, according to the N.M.U.] the miners should take charge of their movement [not their’s, Foster; it is the movement of pure and simple social fascism] themselves. They should elect a rank and file committee to head the organization” [What organization – the N.M.U. or a new union?].

“Thirdly, the miners of the Illinois convention [again: to which the miners must send no delegates!] should then develop a united front with the National Miners Union. Such a united front, based upon the elementary demands of the miners would lead to a real solidification of the workers’ ranks and lay the basis for effective struggle.”

But that is precisely what the Left Opposition proposed over a year ago at the time of the Fishwick-Lewis split! And even more to the point: that is just what we proposed weeks ago, when the revolt was at its inception and when the party deliberately ignored it, thinking to solve the need of a policy towards it by the artifice of suppressing all news of the movement in the columns of its press! Again, it must be asked of Foster and all the other Hathaways, what happens to the more “simple” demand made by the Illinois N.M.U. that the miners join their organization outright, without the bothersome united front business?

Foster concludes his article with the significant remark: “In Illinois the N.M.U. made many serious mistakes during the strike of a year and a half ago.” Here the N.M.U. is not merely palmed off as a pseudonym for all the Fosters, who were primarily responsible for the disastrous blunders, just as they are today, but the ground is laid for repeating the disgraceful sport of shifting responsibility (a few months or weeks hence) for the party leaders’ confusionism to the shoulders of the rank and file “in Illinois”.

The Left Wing Must Act

In any case, necessary as it is, the Left wing dares not wait until the Stalinist high priests decide which of their many policies is right and who is “responsible for the wrong policy” or for the “wrong application of the right policy”. It must carry on now and strike while the iron is hot. The miners of four or five of the most important coal districts are moving ahead progressively, seeking for a way out of the swamp of misery into which the Lewises, the Fishwicks, the Howats and their associates have led them in the past. The scholarly Messiahs of the Muste university are running to the head of the column to head off the militant movement, to divert it along a by-path that leads back to the reactionary swamp. The big Stalinist artists at sleight-of-hand are jerking rabbits of all colors out of the bag. They stand now on one foot, now on the other. The Left Opposition, through its militants like Joe Angelo and others, is exerting every effort to help the miners’ movement find its way. It is attempting to rally again the Left wing and Communist fighters in the mine fields who once constituted such a powerful factor in the progress of the miners.

The St. Louis conference, regardless of its size at the moment, can be made a point of departure for a new epoch of advance, not only for the miners but for the American labor movement as a whole. Blunders now will prove trebly disastrous. Cowardice of self-constituted leaders, indecision, the policy of trafficking with the interests of the coal miners, is more than ever condemnable. The miners are marching, and the Left wing must march loyally with them, assisting them in every way, clearing the road for them, giving them courage and foresight, and investing their movement with vitality and resoluteness. If the advanced Left wing militants tread this road they will find themselves supported not only by those who in the past have fought with the revolutionary wing, not only by the Communist miners active in the movement today, but also by the bulk of the miners as a whole.

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