Max Shachtman

Max Shachtman Reviews the Howe-Widick Book –

A Socialist Portrait of
Reuther and the UAW

(26 September 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 39, 26 September 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed &anp; marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Books about the American labor movement generally fall into one of three categories.

There are, first, those that are written with a pathological hatred of the labor movement as the prime cause of social disturbance and economic disorder. To their authors, the labor unions are nothing more than the vices to be found within them, by which they usually mean those aspects of unionism which simply ape or reflect the viciousness of capitalist society itself. They are as a rule interesting not because of what they reveal about the trade unions but of the police mentality they reveal in the authors’ approach to a social question. The library of any laborrelations office of a modern corporation has an ample stock of this literature on its shelves.

Then there are those written by court biographers who have already been employed by a union officialdom or who hope to be. The union and its achievements, above all in the realm of respectability and what is called public responsibility, are rhapsodically described, often with grotesque errors that disclose the quick ignorance of the author and always with the heavy-handed suggestion that the union owes its progress and present grandeur all but entirely to the quick-wittedness, compassion for fellowman, honesty and statesmanship of its well-paid leader, whose righthand man carefully coached the author or censored his manuscript. Examples of this kind of work can be found on the modest library shelf of more than one union president.

Finally there are academic studies of all kinds. Many of them are exceedingly valuable for their documentary material and the thoughts which the occasionally penetrating observations of the author stimulate in the reader. But they usually suffer from the position and outlook of the author, which are much more of a handicap than is generally supposed. They are most often written from the far outside, like a man describing a battle through a low-power telescope. And just as often the author, confusing the necessity of objectivity with the impossibility of impartiality, is preoccupied with focusing the reader’s eye on his – the author’s – own detachment, on the extreme pains he takes to add a cancelling-out “on-the-other-hand” to every “on-the-one-hand.” The result is like a flat diagram of an ant-heap instead of a three-dimensional portrayal of the living, fighting, human social movement that every labor union represents. Or, to the extent that such authors approach the problems of organized labor as a social movement, their criterion is altogether misleading. When they ask, “How does it, or how can it, discharge its social responsibilities?” (this is the theme of 90 per cent of these academic studies), the term is meant as responsibilities to and within a society with whose foundations and structure the very nature of the trade-union movement compels it to come into incessant conflict.

A Welcome Book

Worthwhile exceptions from these categories of books are rare. The most welcome, timely and valuable exception in years is the new book, The UAW and Walter Reuther, by Irving Howe and B.J. Widick (Random House, $3.00).

This is not a book written by malicious opponents of the labor movement or by frozen-fingered “impartial” investigators who write about its problems the way a hermit talks about the problems of life. It is not written by maudlin or condescending “friends” of labor, either. Both authors have been active militants of the working-class socialist movement all their conscious lives, and one of them, Widick, is not only a reputable militant in the Detroit Chrysler Local of the UAW today, but knows the CIO, as a member of it, from the first days of its birth in such storm centers as Akron and Flint.

To them the UAW is not something on a glass slide under a microscope, or the target of a narrow and narrowminded factional polemic. Their treatment of it shows that a thorough socialist understanding of an organization like the UAW has only stimulated their sympathetic objectivity and their ardor in championing it; and that the sympathy and ardor they feel has only sharpened their ability to analyze it with a critical independence of opinion.

These lines do not propose to serve as a “review” of the Howe-Widick book if that means giving a synopsis or summary of its contents. It cannot really be done and it would not be desirable if it could be. No “review” can serve as a substitute for reading the book itself. Its economical but active style brings to warm life the great and significant movement which is the UAW and the men, the nameless and the prominent, who compose it; it brings to life both the exciting struggles that the UAW has conducted and the conflicts that have taken place in its midst; it brings to life the simple and complex problems it has faced before and faces today.

The praise it has already received in the public press is more than merited. If the official UAW press has not yet commented on it, as it must, we want to believe that the delay is accidental and not due to any embarrassment in dealing with a book which shows no embarrassment in dealing with the UAW. In any case, every reader of the book will agree that it is impossible for anyone in or around the labor movement, including the best-informed members and leaders of the UAW itself, henceforth to speak or think intelligently about the UAW, which is at once so typical and so untypical of the American labor movement, unless he has read this work which is to date the most important history, defense, criticism and balance-sheet of the organization.

The authors do not draw up a final balance-sheet which would, as it were, close the books on the UAW or on its leadership. They emphasize that the balance-sheet is tentative, provisional. In this they are incontestably right.

Labor Vanguard

The course, let alone the future, of the UAW is far from determined or fixed. “We are the vanguard in America,” said Walter Reuther two years ago, “we are the architects of the future.” So far as the second part of this proud declaration is concerned, it still remains to be verified. The first part is unquestionably true. In the history of the American labor movement – if we speak of the labor unions as distinct from the labor political movement – the position of vanguard has shifted from one group of workers to another. It was once the distinction of cigarmakers and brewery workers, then in turn of the railwaymen’s, of the metal miners’, of the needle-trades workers’ unions. In almost all cases in the past, the vanguard unions were avowedly and emphatically socialist, their leaderships openly associated with the socialist political movement, their opposition to Gompersism open and even defiant.

Not one of these old unions or those that have succeeded them is today even formally committed to the aim and principles of socialism.

Neither is the UAW. Yet it occupies, in the labor movement as in the United States today, the position of the vanguard union, the left wing of organized labor, its most advanced and powerful sector. It should go without saying that in many respects the American union movement of today is far superior to that which existed before the First World War: take only the fact that today it has in its ranks millions of workers in the basic, mass-production industries who were never organized on such a scale before, and the correspondingly tremendous economic and political weight they exert. In other respects, however, the labor movement of today, even the CIO, even the UAW in the CIO, is still far, far behind the progressive unions of the first two decades of the century, notably with respect to the all-important question of independent political action.

What Kind of Vanguard?

The comparison should serve as an indication of how far the American labor movement has still to move and as a warning against any smugness about an organization like the UAW. It SHOULD be regarded and treated as the vanguard – but only in the United States and only in the American labor movement as it is today.

The UAW and its present leadership as the vanguard, the left wing, of the labor movement? Decidedly “No!” in comparison with leaders and unions of the past, like: Haywood and St. John of the Western Federation of Miners and the IWW or Debs of the American Railway Union or even the early leaders and unions of the Eastern needle trades, but just as decidedly “Yes!” in comparison. with all the Greens of the AFL and the Railroad Brotherhoods, Dubinsky of Ladies Garment, Murray of Steel, Lewis of UMW and certainly of the popularly misnamed “left” represented by anti-labor totalitarian Stalinism. For those who still have doubts about this, Howe and Widick supply conclusive documentation and argument.

As to how far the UAW will go as “architects of the future,” and what future they will lead in constructing, that depends in different ways upon the militants in the ranks and upon the present leadership under Reuther. No one in years has drawn so clearly-etched, so faithful and objective, so rounded a portrait of an American labor leader as the authors draw of Reuther, who quite appropriately occupies a substantial part of the book. We can speak of a broad left wing of progressive current in the American labor movement, in view of the still very limited size and influence of a socialist left wing and above all in contrast to the still broader conservative and pure-and-simple trade-unionist wing of the movement. Of this broad left wing, Reuther is the most prominent leader and spokesman.

Our authors call Reuther an “unfinished personality,” and they indicate the sense in which they employ the term. It might be just as well to speak of an immature labor leader who passively reflects the immaturity of the left wing and even lags behind the ranks and more often than not, in spite of what he may think of his views being “too far advanced” for them.

If we check back on all the plans and proposals and programs presented so spectacularly by Reuther in the past ten years – the book refers to all of them – what really stands out is their inconclusiveness, the rapidity with which they found a dustgathering place on the shelves. The criticism of Reuther is not that he does not carry out a socialist labor policy with socialist methods; that could be expected from a Debs but not from Reuther. What Reuther has failed to persist in, to carry out with vigor and consistency, is the policy or program he HIMSELF has sponsored.

Reuther’s Weakness

In no important case was this due to lack of support, even enthusiastic support, that could be mobilized in the ranks of this mighty organization (and even outside of it). In virtually every case, however, to carry out the policy required a bold drive to independent political action and in every case Reuther has shrunk back from it.

To cite only a few instances, that was the case with Reuther’s own “equality of sacrifice” program during the war, with Reuther’s own GM Program after the war, with his own denunciation of Truman as “hopelessly inadequate” which he followed by a humiliating endorsement of Truman, with his own pledge to work for a “new political alignment” in the United States.

In some AFL official whose ideas of politics does not go very far beyond getting a traffic ticket fixed by the local Democratic boss, everything is understandable. In Reuther and his associates in the leadership who also know better, it is inexcusable.

Reuther does not suffer, as some conservative critics contend, from audacity and too much political or social ambitiousness; he suffers from political timidity. He represents directly about a million workers who today acknowledge him as their leader unchallenged by any other clamant; he enjoys authority and prestige, outside his own organization, on a national and even international scale. Loaded for bear, he goes duckhunting.

In England, to take only one of the countries of Europe, labor leaders who are his inferior in many respects are content with nothing less than occupying the commanding political positions in the nation, positions to which they laid open claim for years before winning them. Reuther is content with losing in Washington what is won on the picket line, as they like to say in the UAW, and then voting to return to Washington the “hopelessly inadequate” candidate of a political party which could barely get to first base without the support of the organized millions who follow leaders like Reuther in the labor movement.

What Is “Unfinished”

What is for the present “unfinished” about Reuther – to use the authors’ term again – is not that he has not appeared as a labor leader of the caliber and quality of a Debs, but simply that he has not been able to decide to break with capitalist politics even to the extent of the reformist labor leaders of almost every other modern country in the world. And anything less than the declaration of political independence of the working class, which the UAW is in the indicated position to initiate – not to impose on the rest of the labor movement but to initiate – all talk about “architects of the future” will remain in the realm of convention rhetoric.

The exceptional collection of militants who give the UAW its real distinction have succeeded more than once in prodding reluctant leaders along the right road and in raising new leaders out of their ranks to supplement or even replace inadequate leaders. Reuther’s own rise to leadership is evidence of this. It is these militants who are indeed the vanguard. The book of Howe and Widick is rightly dedicated to them. It is an invaluable and indispensable contribution to their own rededication to the fulfillment of the tasks of the future and of today.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 21 August 2021