Max Shachtman

Combine the Miners’ Struggles
into a United Front!

The Stalinists Are Pursuing a Sectarian Policy
Which Keeps the Insurgent Movements Separated

(July 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 15, 18 July 1931, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the July issue of the party’s theoretical organ, The Communist, William Z. Foster writes about the Pennsylvania-Ohio coal strike in the following words: “It is too early to speak of the mistakes and shortcomings of the strike.” With this sentence, Foster achieves an involuntary frankness which must be examined before it is “too late” to speak of the principal mistake which is being made by the leadership of the tens of thousands of miners who are fighting such a magnificent battle in the Eastern coal fields.

Is Foster looking forward, as has become the custom in the official Communist movement, to such a fatal outcome of the struggle as will require that type of “self-criticism” which a contented bureaucracy has made so odious – the type of “criticism” which repeats mechanically that “our line was correct” but it “was not applied correctly” by functionary A or committee B or rank and filer C: Every recent action of the party, every struggle it has undertaken or led, has wound up with this sorry epitaph. Every important action, at whose commencement it was “too early to speak of the mistakes and shortcomings” found its tragic conclusion in the columns of the party press, filled with lamentations, with criticisms of what was wrong, with blustering apologies calculated to “place the blame” on anybody or anything, so long as the principle of the infallibility of the leadership of the day is preserved intact.

On the present occasion, far too much is at stake to allow such contemptible horse-play to pass for sagacity and leadership. The situation is rife with splendid opportunities for the militant labor movement. A combination of circumstances is at hand which has not been there for a long time past. Now more than ever is a correct course imperative. A mistake in policy is trebly and tenfold disastrous in such a big situation. That is why Foster’s whole approach to the problem of .the “possibly” wrong policies in the strike is so dangerously false. It is not too early. We must speak out now while there is still time to act.

What Is Happening in the Coal Fields?

To know what to do, we must first be clear about what is. Driven under the lash of a desperation induced by terrific suffering and accentuated by a series of wage cuts, tens of thousands of miners in Western Pennsylvania went out on strike, the working miners joined in intimate solidarity with those thrown out of work. Under the influence of their resistance, thousands of other miners from the coal fields of Eastern Ohio and Northern West Virginia have joined in the walkout. The strike is almost entirely under the leadership of the National Miners Union and the Rank and File Committee organized by it. The militancy and solidarity of the strikers – men and women, Negro and white – are in the best tradition of the glorious struggles of the American miners in the past, and are excelled only by the murderous ferocity and abominations with which the coal operators and their armed forces have answered the resistance of the workers.

But the movement guided by the N.M.U. does not complete the picture of what is happening in the American coal fields. There are at least three other distinct, active movements in other parts of the country.

In Harlan, Kentucky, thousands of miners have been out on strike for weeks. The N.M.U. and the Communists are not leading that strike and up to the present, at least, have virtually no influence upon it. The strike, as militant in every respect as the one in Pennsylvania, is led by the local organization of the United Mine Workers of America, and, from fairly reliable reports, the I.W.W. has an appreciable influence among the strikers.

In the mining section around Kanawha, West Virginia, some 23,000 miners went on strike last week in this field of bitterly fought battles and betrayals. Here too, the influence of the N.M.U. and the Communists is negligible. The strike is under the leadership of the independent Miners’ Union of West Virginia, which split away from the rotted hulk of the Lewis U.M.W. It is led by such former U.M.W. leaders as Frank Keeney, Mooney and others, and is more or less intimately associated with the Muste movement, one of whose spokesmen, Tom Tippett, is in charge of the relief at Charlestown. The grievances of the long-suffering men are those of the Pennsylvania, the Ohio, the Kentucky miners, of the miners throughout the country.

In the Southern Illinois coal field the resentment and dissatisfaction of the miners continues to make itself heard with growing insistence. Unfortunately dominated by confusion and lack of certainty as to the way out of the morass into which the coal operators and their labor agents have dragged them, they are nevertheless groping for a solution. Deeply indicative of ferment among them are the various rank and file conferences which are held for discussion and action. Both the Lewis and the Fishwick machines are so thoroughly discredited that they dare not put in appearance. For its blunders of the past and of today, the N.M.U. has little influence here as well. Worse yet, political sharpers, smooth demagogues, hungry aspirants to office, concealed henchmen of Lewis or Farrington – all rub shoulders at these conferences with the reformists of the Muste school, each seeking to capitalize upon the discontentment of the miners.

All these movements have a common root: the attempt of the coal barons to load the burdens of a sick industry upon the shoulders of the miners, and the presence of a degenerated caste of labor skates who have written for the miners a long list of treacheries and sell-outs. But despite their common root, these four movements have not made common cause. It is in this absence of unity and solidarity in action that lies the greatest obstacle to the advancement of the militant miners’ movement.

What Should the Left Wing Do?

Confronted with this rounded picture of the situation, what action should be undertaken by the Left wing and the Communists, represented in the National Miners Union? They must immediately raise the banner of unity, of the consolidation of all these movements. It is particularly in times of stress, when they are fighting – like the miners – with their backs to the wall – that the workers feel most acutely the need for unity. Divided ranks, separated movements only serve to discourage them, to lower their morale and fighting spirit. A new accretion of forces, unification with other workers’ groups the breaking down of the barriers that divide the workers and strengthen their enemies – these serve to hearten the workers, to make them feel their strength, to increase their enthusiasm, their endurance, their combativity. It is especially under present conditions that the workers look with just suspicion upon those who spurn the proposal for unity, who stand in the way of its consummation, who block its achievement by petty tricks or pettier excuses. They will deal with such foes of labor with impatient speed – providing these foes are uncovered in a manner that enables the workers to see their real color plainly.

That is why it is an absolutely unpostponable duty of the N.M.U. to take the initiative in calling for a joint conference of all these striking and rebellious groups, to take the initiative now, to strike while the iron is hot. It would be a conference of equally represented workers, convoked for the purpose of coordinating the movements, of solidifying them under one head, and – this is highly essential – of expanding the movement to other fields.

The present policy is simply to call upon the other insurgent groups “from below” to join the conference which the N.M.U. is calling. But this is a ridiculous caricature of what should be done. The other groups have no intention of dissolving themselves into the N.M.U. at the blowing of a trumpet. The conference cannot be a “clever maneuver”; it must be called for the purpose of mobilizing all the miners, regardless of their affiliations or beliefs, against the offensive of the coal operators and their agents. Such a conference can become the initial step in a move to amalgamate all the various independent and separate insurgent movements with the N.M.U. into a powerful and militant industrial union of the miners, a force to be reckoned with by the operators and in the labor movement, a powerful impetus in building the Left wing movement everywhere else.

Who will reject and sabotage such a unity conference? The agents of the operators among the miners, the false leaders, the windjammers, the proprietors of “vested interests” in the miners. The Left wing can reject it only at its own expense and at the cost of the miners. It is in the process of fighting for the unity of the workers that they will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, to judge who is right, who is for them, who is against them. The Left wing has nothing to fear from this process. Like the miners in general, it has everything to gain – providing it acts promptly and resolutely, providing it drops the futile policy of ignoring the other movements (this ostrich policy has been followed by the Daily Worker, which thinks to solve a problem by remaining silent) or of confining itself to mechanical denunciations of everything and everybody outside its ranks.

Do Not Be Deceived by Cheap Phrases

The worst thing the Left wing can do is to grow intoxicated with an inflated idea of its own strength or position. It is not leading the whole miners’ movement, but only a part of it. It can win its way to leadership if it pursues the right policy now – and not after the strike in the “self-critical” articles of the press.

The Left wing dares not he deceived by cheap phrases, by boasting, by ruinous self-contentment with the big achievement it can legitimately record now. Do not be blinded to the correct policy towards the reformist organizations by Foster’s chatter about “the growing fascization of the A.F. of L. bureaucracy” because it is doing “everything possible to hinder the strike”, Lewis and Co. have been engaged in their trade of strike-breaking before “social-fascism” was ever invented. Do not be talked into dizziness about “the highly political character” of the Pennsylvania-Ohio strike because of capitalist terrorism – “ the terror of the bosses or the state does not make a strike “political”. The strikes are desperate defensive actions of the miners which do not “require a high politicalization of the struggle” (Foster, page 597), but the immediate, genuine application of the united front policy.

Do not be deceived with empty talk about the “correctness of the line”. Foster may write for another year that “the Lawrence strike gave a first demonstration in the United States of the correctness of the R.I.L.U. line” (page 595). The Browders, in their “self-criticism” after the event will write about the same Lawrence strike, in the same issue of The Communist (page 611), that “a small measure of organizational success was secured” – which coming from the source it does, means that virtually no success was the result.

The Mistake Is Being Made Now – Correct It Now!

Will the party have to draw up its balance sheet when the coal strike is concluded with the limping, apologetic remark that “a small measure of organizational success was secured”? Will the party leaders be allowed to speak of the “mistakes and shortcomings of the strike” when it is “too late”, when it is over and the magnificent opportunity has been missed? We repeat: it would be fatal to permit such a state of affairs. The time to act correctly is now. Now is the time to correct the mistake in policy. The party is pursuing a course of conceit, of separatism, which is false and unworthy of Communists. Its leadership of the miners can not only be extended but made firm and lasting. The tens of thousands of miners in West Virginia, in Kentucky, in Illinois – and the other sections which can be won on the basis of the appeal for unity and solidarity – must not be ignored. They cannot be won simply by calling upon them to join the N.M.U. That course was tried in Illinois with miserable results. It must be cast aside before it brings the same results in the present situation.

The miners need a revolutionary leadership which is intelligently awake to the requirements of the situation. The proposals of the Left Opposition meet these requirements. They should be adopted and applied. The official party policy is wrong and does not meet the requirements. It must be rejected. The mistake is being made now. Now is the time to correct it.

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