Max Shachtman

Two Labor Prisoners
Two Labor Leaders

Mooney’s Present Conduct Brings to Mind What Debs Stood For

(January 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 3, 21 January 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A thrill of exultation is felt upon reading reports of the magnificent and enthusiastic demonstrations organized by California’s workers to greet Tom Mooney. How imposing and invincible the proletariat looks, and is, when its battalions assemble! How easily it could sweep aside like pebbles all the obstacles in its path if it were conscious of its tremendous power and its historic goal!

Almost exactly 43 years ago, the workers poured into the streets of Chicago to welcome from prison another great labor martyr who preceded Tom Mooney.

Yet there is a difference between the two great labor leaders, Tom Mooney and Eugene V. Debs, a difference we record with regret.

When Debs, leader of the American Railway Union, went into Woodstock prison, he was a Democrat, a follower of William Jennings Bryan. When Mooney, equally a militant trade union leader, entered prison, he was a socialist, who only five years earlier had accompanied Debs around the country in the famous “Red Special” of the 1912 presidential campaign.

When Debs came out of Woodstock, he proclaimed himself a convinced socialist. Two and a half years later, on June 21, 1897, he and his comrades organized what was to become the first important independent working class party in the United States, the Social Democratic Party. “The Chicago jail sentences,” he wrote several years afterward, “were followed by six months at Woodstock and it was here that socialism gradually laid hold of me in its own irresistible fashion.”

And Tom Mooney? The reports from California say – one rubs his eyes in stunned disbelief! – that one of Mooney’s first acts upon reaching San Francisco was to register as a member of the Democratic party.

It is “high time,” wrote Debs while still in Woodstock, “that allegiance to parties who make laws for the protection of capitalists and the subjugation of labor should be abandoned and that men should be found to enact and administer laws for the equal protection of labor which creates the capital and carries forward all the industries of the world.”

Forty-three years later, when this declaration is trebly true, Mooney takes his place in the ranks of one of these capitalist parties. It is a tragic step backward for the old militant, but no class-conscious worker will follow him in taking it.

Doesn’t Tom Mooney know that the reason why American labor failed for more than 20 years to force his release from prison was that it did not act as an independent class force, was because it was tied hand and foot, because it was mentally subjugated to the two capitalist parties?

Doesn’t he remember what was written in the famous pamphlet published by his Defense Committee in 1931, Labor Leaders Betray Tom Mooney, in which the labor lieutenants of capitalism were so thoroughly exposed and excoriated for their cynical knavishness and treachery? Mooney endorsed the pamphlet which said:

“The Mooney-Billings case has always been and must always be, a vital part of the general struggle between the workers and the employers. Mooney was saved from the hangman’s noose only through the mass protests and pressure of the workers of Russia and the rest of the world.”

Does Mooney now think that the “general struggle between the workers and the employers” can be promoted under the auspices of the party of Roosevelt, Farley, Hague, Garner, Cotton Ed Smith and their ilk?

Seven years ago, Mooney approved the statement that:

“The underlying principles back of the real causes of hard times and unemployment must be carried to the people, and the hypocritical palavering and meaningless platitudes of subsidized capitalist apologists – the labor leaders – must be exposed. Liberals must become radicals and radicals must grow revolutionary as capitalism develops to its climax. Education and organization of the workers must proceed continuously, relentlessly and without fail until the collapse of capitalism gives the signal for the final forward march of the new social order.”

“Our struggle for freedom,” he reminded Billings in a letter of January 5, 1931, “is inextricably bound up with the whole question of the future of the American workers.”

That was true then, and it remains true. The future of the American workers is not bound up with the Democratic party. Its future, if it is to mean a movement forward, is bound up with its Declaration of Independence from the parties of American capitalism. Its future can be safeguarded only if it takes the road marked out by Eugene Debs 40 years ago, by all class-conscious workers before and since – and not the road now taken by Mooney. Its future lies in the formation of an independent political party – of, for and by the working class, with a fighting working class program.

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Max Shachtman
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Last updated on 29 Novemember 2015