Max Shachtman

Labor and Strikes in Wartime

(April 1941)

From New International, Vol. VII No. 3 (Whole No. 52), April 1941 pp. 38–40;
Transcribed & Marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan (December 2012).

THE PRESIDENT HAS ASSURED the country that the current “strike wave” is insignificant in scope, in the number of workers involved and man-hours lost. Provided with statistical data from the Department of Labor, Roosevelt declared that not more than one-fourth of one per cent of the workers in the country had gone on strike and that, consequently, there was no particular need for apprehension, especially in so far as the execution of the war industries’ production schedule is concerned.

On the face of it, it would seem true that any movement in which only one worker in four hundred was involved might be important but hardly sensational. Considered from the standpoint of one interested exclusively in the question of how much war materials can be produced under given conditions, and how quickly it can be done, a disinterested analyst could not attribute the slowness in realizing the production schedule, as Dwight Mac-Donald points out elsewhere in this issue, to the strikes that have taken place. Not even if a higher estimate of the strikes is made than the one contained in Miss Perkins’ modest figure; not even if allowance is made for the fact that a suspension of operations in a small but crucial plant may slow down or knock out one or more larger plants.

Signs in Conflict

Yet, the acceptance by the press of Miss Perkins’ figure and Mr. Roosevelt’s reassuring comments, does not mesh very smoothly with the growing perturbation of the editorial writers. It is not reflected in the fact that the presumably unimportant strike wave shoulders even the most dramatic news from Europe out of prominent headline position. It does not correspond to the precipitate appointment of an eleven-man special national mediation board by the same reassuring President. It harmonizes badly with the growing clamor for anti-strike legislation; the rising anti-red hysteria (including the savage sentences imposed upon Browder and other Stalinists for what were, at most, trifling technical irregularities) ; the crowding of state legislatures with all varieties of bills to restrict or suspend democratic rights; and the urgently insistent pleas made on all hands to the various states to establish home guards, now that the National Guard has been mobilized, in order to deal with “possible labor disturbances.” Finally and most important, the uncritical acceptance of the President’s soothing syrup betrays a woeful inability to understand – rather, a desire to prevent others from understanding – the dynamics of the development of American labor’s position in the present war situation. The development is not revealed, but obscured, by the mere statistics of strike activities. It can be traced only by digging a little below the surface of appearances.

How explain the fact that the patriotic American working class should even consider going out on strike in a “defense” industry, even if the fraction of the total that decides on such a step is as tiny as Miss Perkins’ figure would indicate? How explain the fact that an increasing number of workers, with the President’s plea for sacrifices repeated on every radio station and from every newspaper column, is either going out on strike or favorably considering such action? How explain the fact that the ruling class has started taking such elaborate strike-breaking measures, if the “wave” is of such minor importance?

The patriotism of the American workers today, in their vast majority, is beyond dispute. There is no doubt, either, that most of them are for a pretty substantial program of “national defense,” and that they would fight militantly enough in a war with an enemy of the United States, regardless of the real nature and aims of the war, or more exactly, precisely out of ignorance of its nature and aims. But between their patriotism in 1941 and their patriotism in 1917, there is an important difference. Whereas in the last war their patriotism bore an overwhelmingly national character, in the present war it bears a distinctly class character – not in all consciousness, to be sure; spotted and overlaid with reactionary aspects, of course; but nevertheless unmistakable in its essential tendency.

It is not Germany as a nation that the American workers have in mind, nor Italy; it is fascism that they hate and fear and are ready to combat. The brown-shirted terrorists have missed no opportunity in the past ten years to convince even the most internationally-disinterested working class in the world that their aim is the extirpation of the labor movement and, along with it, all those democratic rights which labor has managed to acquire in the course of more than a century of unintermittent struggle. Even at the chauvinistic peak (precisely there!) the American worker in 1917 would have found it pretty difficult to present himself with a concrete picture of what a world dominated by the Hohenzollerns would look like and what it would mean to him. He would have to be a pretty dullwitted sort not to be able to give such an answer about a world dominated by fascism.

To a Special Patriotism – a Special Pacifism

At the same time, however, the patriotism of the worker, so unlike that of the financial and industrial barons and the government bureaucracy, is inseparably supplemented by an equally singular pacifism. The majority of the workers are in favor of aid to England inasmuch as they want to see Hitler defeated in the war. Yet, they are at least as firmly in favor of the United States keeping out of the war. However public opinion has fluctuated on a whole series of questions, on the point of American participation in the war there has been and there still is a fairly uniform and overwhelming majority in opposition. The workers’ patriotism is a reluctant one, cold to the beating of the war drums. It is a suspicious patriotism – and the element of suspicion in it is represented by “pacifism,” by their consistent antagonism to all suggestions that the United States enter the war.

The American workers have not yet forgotten the Great Deception of the last World War. They are suspicious of every attempt at a return performance. With the lesson of 1914–1918 not yet obliterated from their consciousness, and with the significance of the most clamorous sponsors for a second American entry too palpable to be lost on them, they resist mutely – for there is still no force able to articulate and guide their resistance – the efforts made to turn them chauvinistic. While they protest that their patriotism is not inferior to anyone else’s, and that they are as much for a well-organized “national defense” as the bourgeoisie, they refuse to give in to the government’s appeals for class suicide. If fascism is to be smashed because it means super-intensified exploitation and oppression of labor, then the workers want none of it introduced here in the name of opposition to it. If fascism is execrable because it means the suppression of all democratic rights, it does not become more attractive when the same trend is manifested here in the name of democracy.

After more than a year and a half of experience with the war period in England and the United States, it is clearly necessary to introduce a modification into our analysis, a limited but necessary modification. Before the war broke out, we ridiculed the myth that it would be a war for democracy and against fascism. Nothing has happened to require a change in our position on this score. We added, however, that those democratic countries which entered the war against the totalitarian powers would themselves be converted speedily into totalitarian regimes so that before the war had proceeded for very long there would not even be an important trace of political difference between the belligerents. So far as the tendency of the imperialist democracies in the war is concerned, our analysis has been confirmed to the hilt. However, as to the tempo at which this tendency is developing, a modification is necessary. Neither England nor the United States has yet been “fascized.” Not only has neither country produced a substantial fascist movement, but it has not even reorganized its economy and politics on a totalitarian basis to anything like the degree that marks the process in Germany, or even Italy. In a word, our analysis failed to lay sufficient stress upon the strength of the counteracting tendency which has slowed down the tempo of development of the totalitarian tendency: a vigorous, undefeated and undemoralized labor movement. It exists in England; it is even stronger in the United States, at least in several important respects.

How real this counteracting tendency is, how strong and above all how great its potential strength is, may be seen from the first series of strikes. Roosevelt may console himself or others with the picayune statistics of the Labor Department. At bottom, he knows better. That is why a series of flanking movements have been launched to circumvent the imminent spread of the strikes – although the truly American-Cossack police brutality against the striking workers in Bethlehem, Chicago and Richmond can hardly be called “flank movements.” The ruling class realizes that the statistic of “one-fourth of one per cent” does not tell the real story. It is the basic mood of the workers that is involved, and whether it takes the form of strikes, or threats of strikes, or even only a more truculent and imperious attitude than the workers have showed for years past, the mood is characteristic of the entire working class in one degree or another.

Patriotic? For “national defense”? Yes, that they are. But at the same time, they are workers thinking in class terms and acting along class lines. They are developing the momentum for a sensational national movement which it will take all the cunning and strength of the ruling class to prevent from exceeding the sweep and depth of the birth-of-the C.I.O. and the sit-in strike movements of a few years ago.

Five Impulsions to Struggle

All the perfervid pleas for “national unity” and “sacrifice from everybody” are insufficient to blot out of the workers’ minds the following five considerations:

First: For more than a decade there was a crisis and mass unemployment, during which the standard of living of the working class went way below the “prosperity” days. Now is as good if not better a time as any to make up as much as possible for those dreadful days. An especially good time because unemployment is being reduced by the war boom, the army of potential strikebreakers is small, workers are in great and urgent demand, they are indispensable (the bourgeoisie reminds the workers of that every day!). The boom, following the crisis, far from dulling the militancy of the workers, sharpens it.

Second: In dealing with the bankers and industrialists, the government has shown a spirit of cooperation and accommodation which is matched only by the deplorable lack of idealism of the former. No worker can fail to have noted that Washington has yielded in virtually every respect to the demands of the manufacturers and financiers. No worker can fail to have noted some of the results, particularly in the form of steeply rising profits. What is more natural and inevitable than that the workers should demand an increasing, even if still ever so modest, share in the new “prosperity”? Every new announcement of growing company profits is worth ten union organizers’ speeches in favor of unionism and demands for better working conditions.

Third: The cost of living has not yet risen to great heights, it is true, but the trend is clearly indicated. The worker and his family already feel it at the meat market, at the grocery, at the clothing store, at the landlord’s payment window. The still modest demands of the workers – of only a small section of the workers, to begin with – are only an initial attempt to have their wages keep pace with the rising cost of living, to prevent that rise from outstripping their income too far. The employers will either give a little more “voluntarily” or it will be taken from them in struggles that will make what has happened look like a kindergarten rehearsal.

Fourth: Not many people are deceived about the real nature of the war boom in American economy. One must be pretty thoughtless and shortsighted not to reflect: How long will it last? What will things look like when it is over, when it collapses? Here too the memories of the last war serve the workers well. Their conviction that the war boom is artificial, precarious, temporary, impels them to “make the most of it” while it lasts. That is why we see the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon of workers eagerly accepting longer shifts and overtime. It is not the spurious idealism of a spurious patriotism that makes them willing to stay at their machines! It is their desire to accumulate as much as possible against the black days of collapse ahead. What an annihilating indictment of modern capitalism is implied by this rush to work longer and longer! Only, the inhuman pace cannot long be maintained. The workers’ legitimate fear of tomorrow’s insecurity will soon be translated into demands for a shorter workday, spreading the shifts among the millions still unemployed, and a higher rate of pay.

Fifth, and really summing up the previous four: Everybody is keenly conscious of the colossal war burden that is being heaped up. The last war was almost a little pinochle game in comparison. Yesterday it was hundreds of millions; today it is already billions; tomorrow tens of billions will be involved. Who will bear this terrifying burden, and the body-blows of inflation implicit in it? The class struggle which the warmongers, including those in the labor movement, hope to suffocate under the blanket of “national unity,” will break out sharply and repeatedly in the form of a contest between the classes over which one of them shall bear what portion of the burden. The fight for higher profits and lower taxes represents the attempt of the bourgeoisie to unload the whole burden on the workers and the middle class; the fight of the workers for higher wages and against indirect taxation represents the attempt of the workers to shift the burden to the shoulders of the ruling class. Miss Perkins’ strike statistics will look like mud before this fight is over.

Indeed, it has only begun. The attempt to suppress it violently in advance or to smother it with Judas-kisses, will, given the mood and needs of the American workers, be easier in the trying than in the succeeding. Success requires more brutal blows than the American bourgeoisie will be able to deliver in the next few months, at the very least, and a far more poisonous dose of imperialist patriotism and class collaboration than they have yet shot into the veins of the working class.

The American bourgeoisie is strong and brutal and shrewd; it still has great wealth and resources. But is it resourceful enough to satisfy the growing appetite of the workers? Or is it strong enough to curb that appetite? Not in our opinion. The least that one must say is that it would most certainly be premature to declare American labor licked!

The signs point to struggles ahead. Wartime may prove to be the biggest wartime the American proletariat has ever had in its fight against the enemy at home!


Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 27.12.2012