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Labor Radicalism in the 1920s and Today

by Frank Lovell

From Bulletin IDOM No. 29, April 1986

The similarities and differences between the radical movements of the 1920s and today can provide an instructive guide to the future recovery of the sick union movement. Today U.S. radicalism is atomized, disoriented, and largely isolated from organized labor. How, then, can radicals be expected to nurture the unions back to health? This was also true in 1920 and the same question applied then. The answer may be found by comparing what is happening now with what happened then.

In both times of crisis the right-wing union officialdom sought to return to the previous time of more harmonious labor-management relations, either unaware of the latent militancy within the working class or hostile to it. The response of the employing class and the government in both instances was and is open hostility to unionism. Throughout the 1920s some sectors of the working class suffered dire poverty during the era of capitalist expansion and prosperity. Today millions of working people seek ways out of their impoverishment. Many of them look to the unions for help.

Like unemployed steelworkers in the Pittsburgh area, many others have tried to form organizations to fight against industrial cutbacks. These radicalizing workers are the advance guard of the great army of dispossessed that will transform the union movement. They will become the new class-struggle left wing in the unions, as did their predecessors in the 1930s.

Signs of this development are what the radical movement must become attuned to, just as radicals of the 1920s had to understand and adjust to similar signs in the decade following World War I.

How are radicals responding?

The crisis of organized labor has caught the attention of the main working class political currents: Social Democracy, Stalinism, and revolutionary socialism. In today’s political climate the left Social Democrats—Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—must be considered part of the radical movement. The two wings of Social Democracy—DSA vs. Social Democrats USA—are presently engaged in a battle within the AFL-CIO bureaucracy over the issues of union policy. The Stalinists have made their bid to be heard. And Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, has made his contribution, pretending to represent revolutionary socialism.

The struggle within the union bureaucracy was highlighted at the 1985 AFL-CIO convention by the unprecedented public debate over U.S. foreign policy. This debate was sharpened by the existence of the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador which is made up of presidents of national unions who are also members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council. They represent a large part of the AFL-CIO’s membership. The expectation of left Social Democrats is “a great loosening of discussion” within the union movement as a result of the convention debate last fall.

At midyear the Stalinists published their “draft trade union program of the Communist Party, USA,” describing the antiunion tenor of the times and outlining their platform for a left wing within the unions which they prefer to call “Communist and other Left-Progressive leadership” (Daily World, June 27).

In late November, when the AFL-CIO convention opened, the Daily World began a 4-part series by their veteran labor analyst George Morris on the AFL-CIO document, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions.” Morris concluded his series with the observation that “making a real turn for a new direction in the labor movement requires the widest ranging discussion possible, involving above all, labor’s rank and file.”

It is a safe prediction that the discussion will continue through 1986—and beyond. Very likely there will be confrontation and exchanges of opinion before differences are resolved. A fragile alliance of Stalinists and left Social Democrats, such as developed briefly in the CIO movement in support of the Roosevelt administration after the 1936 general election, may be a future possibility. But the unstable international political situation precludes longterm predictions of this kind.

At the present stage of preparation in the fragmented radical movement it is noteworthy that the Barnes leadership in the SWP looks back to the Communist International for guidance. In December the SWP’s National Committee met in New York for three days to consider the present plight of the unions (among other developments), and to compare the situation today with that of the 1920s. Barnes was reported to have told the gathering that all the talk about “deindustrialization taking place in the United States and a shrinking of industrial jobs is false” (Militant, Dec. 27). (He hadn’t at the time had a chance to see the congressional report, released two months later, which revealed that plant closures in 1979 through 1984 had destroyed 11.5 million jobs. Nearly half of all workers displaced in this way were in manufacturing industries—auto, steel, industrial equipment, textile, and apparel.)

Barnes went on to say that in order to understand current problems it is first necessary to study the union policy of the early Communist Party in the 1920s, before the 1929 economic collapse. “Militants in the 1920s and early 1930s talked much the same as we [in the SWP] do today in the unions,” he said.

Barnes also saw some differences. He said, “Revolutionists waged a determined struggle for industrial unionism” in the early days. Now, however, there is no concrete form like industrial unions that can be proposed for the labor movement “We explain the need for a class-struggle left wing in the unions,” he said, “but that is not an organizational form. It includes tasks, a perspective for a fighting labor movement, but not a clear organizational form. We can’t draw a picture of what the class-struggle left wing will look like. It’s different than fighting for industrial unions.”

The only perspective for a fighting labor movement, as outlined by Barnes, is anti-apartheid and antiwar activity which is the scaffolding that can help vanguard workers in the preparatory building process. “We are fighting for a political and social movement,” he said, “everything else is temporary.”

What was different in the 1920s? There are plenty of lessons from the radicalism of the 1920s, but to discover them it is necessary to learn what happened. Part of the problem is that labor historians have done more to confuse the record than clarify it This is especially true of the history of the U.S. Communist Party and its connection to the Comintern. Stalinist falsification of CP history has not made the historian’s job easier.

In a recent review of the historiography on the CP, Michael Goldfield notes that most authors find different reasons for the CP’s periods of success and failure, few agree on which were the successful periods, and most hold inconsistent views. Goldfield’s essay appears in The Year Left, 1985, an American socialist yearbook, published by Verso and distributed by Schocken Books. He provides valuable insights into the CP’s early history, drawing on the writings of James P. Cannon, a founder of the CP and American Trotskyism. Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism is quoted on the authority and influence of the CP at the close of the 1920s: “The CP entered the thirties—the period of the great radical revival—as the dominating center of American radicalism. It had no serious contenders.” Goldfield says the reason is not understood by most writers. “Both the hard anti-communists and the New Left historians tend to downplay the strong indigenous roots of the CP at its origin and throughout the 1920s,” he says. “Thus, they fail to take into account the importance of work in this early period to the party’s subsequent growth.”

It should be added that the work of the early Communists in the first ten years contributed greatly to the future health and growth of the radical movement and the new CIO union movement But then the CP fell prey to Stalinism, and its harmful influences came to predominate.

Learning from Cannon

It is a pity that Cannon’s extensive writings on American communism and the labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s are not more carefully studied by young radicals who want to understand what is happening in their unions. He was more experienced as a Communist in trade union work than any of his contemporaries. He explained more clearly than anyone else the dynamics of the class struggle in the U.S. in relation to the world revolution of the twentieth century—from 1917 Russia to 1949 China to 1959 Cuba. His published writings are available from Pathfinder Press, 410 West Street, New York, NY 10014.

If more careful attention were paid to Cannon’s factual reports most of the distorted and misleading retrospective accounts of what is imagined to have happened in the 1920s and 1930s could be avoided or corrected. It is true that in the post-World War I years the CP emerged as the dominant organization in the radical movement as a result of the inspiring example of the 1917 October revolution in Russia, and the ideological influence of the Communist International under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky.

It is also true that the idea of industrial unionism was endorsed and explained by all radicals, including members of the CP. Industrial unionism was embraced and advocated by radicals from the time of prewar Debsian socialism and the founding of the IWW in 1905 until the idea finally materialized in the formation of the CIO. It is misleading to give the impression that the CP’s advocacy of industrial unionism made it exceptional in the radical movement of the period or was the central aspect of its union work.

CP Policy in the 1920s

For most of the 1920s the CP agitated around three principal slogans in the unions: defense of the Soviet Union, organize the unorganized into industrial unions, form a labor party.

The policy of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) which William Z. Foster brought with him when he joined the CP in 1921 was to work within the existing AFL craft union structure for the amalgamation of the crafts in such industries as meatpacking, steel, maritime, rail, textile, garment, etc.

Coal was organized along industrial lines by the United Mine Workers. But by the end of the 1920s most of the industry was unorganized. The activity of the Communist fractions in all unions in the most healthy period of the CP during most of the 1920s was directed against employer provocations and against collusion between employers and entrenched union bureaucrats. That’s mostly what they did in the UMW where they helped with some successes along the way to organize left-wing caucuses and united-front actions. The “save-the-union” movement which ran John Brophy for UMW president against John L. Lewis in 1926 was one of the more notable examples. The CP gained respect through its united-front policy in collaboration with other Lewis opponents at the time.

In 1928 the CP sponsored the formation of the National Miners Union, to compete with the UMW. Its form was that of an industrial union, but it did little to help organize the coal-mining industry. In fact, it contributed to the consolidation of the Lewis bureaucracy and dictatorial rule over the remnants of the UMW at the time.

The Class-Struggle Left Wing

The CP in the 1920s was mainly trying to build a class-struggle left wing, and it succeeded fairly well in some instances even though it never dislodged the entrenched bureaucrats. It built radical caucuses in the Machinists, Carpenters, Mine Workers, Boot and Shoe Workers, Seamen, Textile Workers, Pullman Porters, and others. In Garment the goal was the amalgamation of the four AFL unions into a single organization. In 1922 the TUEL established a Needle Trades section and sponsored the Yiddish newspaper Freiheit in competition with the anti-Communist Forward.

The specific forms of the class-struggle left wing was never anything “like industrial unions,” as Barnes and other uninformed radicals today guess it must have been. The basic organizational form for building the left wing within the AFL in the 1920s under CP aegis was the Trade Union Educational League.

Decline and Disarray

The best intentioned efforts to keep the unions intact in the face of the employers’ open shop drive were essentially rearguard defense actions. The union movement continued to decline in membership and influence during the decade.

The radical movement was hit by the Stalinist virus, which was not then recognized or understood. As a result, the radical movement at the end of the decade was in a similar state of disarray as today, but with a more proletarian composition.

The idealism that animated the early Communist Party was insufficient to overcome its isolation. Powerful social and economic forces were at work over which the working class of this country had no control. By the end of the decade the U.S. ruling class would discover that it, too, was unable to control the blind forces inherent in the capitalist system of production.

Cannon has described what happened to the Communists during this period: “In 1923 American capitalism, fully recovered from the economic crisis of 1921, was striding into the first stage of the long boom of the Twenties. . . . The conservative influence of the ascending prosperity on the trade-union movement, and on the great mass of American workers generally, doomed the party to virtual isolation in any case.

“The basic thesis of the Comintern, that the First World War had signalized the beginning of the dissolution and collapse of capitalism as a world system, was the commonly accepted thesis of all the party leaders. But the extent to which capitalism could profit in the new world at the expense of the old, and furiously expand while the other was declining, was not fully comprehended at the time.

“Later when this conjunctural advantage of American capitalism was recognized, it was mistaken for permanence by the majority [of the CP leadership]. This led to the conservatism of the leadership and the tacit abandonment of the revolutionary perspective in this country. This, in turn, set the stage for the conquest of the party by Stalinism, with its pie-in-the-sky theory of ’Socialism in one country’—in Russia, that is, not in the United States.”

Answers for Today

Anyone looking for answers to the problems of the modern union movement will not find them in the trade union policy of the Communist Party of 60 years ago, nor in the resolutions of the Comintern after 1923. A good deal more can be learned from specific incidents in the history of those times such as the textile strike which began in Passaic, New Jersey, in January 1926. It was led by Albert Weisbord under the direction of the CP. It went through different phases, lasting nearly 11 months. My previous article, “U.S. Unions in the 1920s and 1980s,” quoted William Z. Foster’s description of this strike, which remains the official CP version. Here another interpretation of the events is submitted which reveals the difference in those days between the CP union policy and a genuine class-struggle policy.

“This action in Passaic did indeed violate both the letter and the spirit of Fosterite trade-union policy, which the party had followed for years and which had been implicitly supported once again in Moscow,” according to Cannon, who participated in the discussions in Moscow and in strike strategy in Passaic. “The Passaic strike really put the party on the labor map. In my opinion,” said Cannon years later, “it deserves a chapter in party history all by itself. It revealed the Communists as the dynamic force in the radical labor movement and the organizing center of the unorganized workers disregarded by the AFL unions—displacing the IWW in this field.”

Cannon went on to explain the lessons of the Passaic strike. It revealed the effects of Stalinism in the Comintern and the growing conservatism of the party leadership in this country. The official trade union policy of the CP at the time, far from waging “a determined struggle for industrial unionism,” was marked by AFL fetishism and a phobia of “dual unionism.”

1928 and the ‘Third Period’

This matter of an effective trade union policy was one of the issues under debate in the party in 1928 when Cannon and others who disagreed with the Stalinist theory of “socialism in one country” were expelled as Trotskyists.

This also happened to be the year when the CP’s trade union policy underwent a drastic change, a consequence of the sharp left turn taken at the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern that year, known as the “third period.”

The so-called third period was defined as the “final period of capitalist decline.” It lasted from 1928 to 1933, a five-year nightmare. It culminated in the fascist catastrophe in Germany, to which it was a major contributing factor. After that it gave way gradually to the right swing of world Stalinism toward the “People’s Front” policy which was officially adopted at the Comintern’s Seventh (and last) World Congress in 1935.

During the five years of this truly fantastic “third period” almost everything the CP had done or stood for until then was turned into its opposite. Some apologists for the CP contend that whatever mistakes it made in this period were made in the process of building industrial unions—experience that proved valuable in the later drives to build the CIO. (These may be sources for Barnes’s confusion about the CP’s “determined struggle for industrial unions.”)

But the supreme task of the hour for the CP was to organize not industrial unions (such as those organized later into the CIO) but “revolutionary unions” (which called themselves “industrial unions”). All fear of dual unionism was brushed aside. The AFL unions were castigated as “social fascist” organizations, hated enemies of the working class. The third-period “red unions” set up by the CP were the creation of policy decisions having nothing to do with the course of the class struggle in this country. Overnight the Trade Union Educational League was transformed into the Trade Union Unity League, consisting of “revolutionary” unions for all major industries: auto, coal, garment, maritime, textile, steel, etc. This served to disorient uneducated militants who were attracted to radical sounding slogans of the CP as the Great Depression set in after the 1929 economic crash.

Radicalism in the Early 1930s

This, then, was the situation in the radical labor movement in the early 1930s. In some respects it was a barometer of the union movement, and of the condition of the working class at that juncture.

At the time the moribund AFL unions seemed not to count for much. In 1933 they stood at no more than three million members altogether, and AFL finances were in bad shape.

All the action seemed to be with the radical wing of the labor movement, and especially with the CP which tried in every way possible to impose its proclaimed monopoly of radicalism. It had the prestige and authority of the Russian revolution and the backing of the Soviet government which at that time (before the monstrous Moscow trials of the later 1930s) was very attractive to radicalizing sectors of the working class and student youth.

Even so, the CP was unable to completely intimidate and eradicate the other radical organizations and tendencies: the Socialist Party; the IWW, which intervened ineffectually in some strike situations; the Proletarian Party; the Conference for Progressive Labor Action, headed by A. J. Muste; the Communist League of America, the Trotskyist organization of expelled Communists; the Communist Party (majority group), the name taken by the Lovestone faction after its expulsion from the CP; plus numerous independent radical publications, individuals, sects, and cults.

This was a time of wide-ranging discussion and debate, having to do with the causes of the economic depression, the crisis of capitalism, and the organization of the working class. In some ways it was similar to what is happening today in the radical movement.

For those who were serious about organizing and leading the working class in the victorious revolution against capitalism two issues were paramount: the causes and consequences of the capitalist crisis, and the revolutionary party in relation to the mass organizations of the working class. And overshadowing this was what was referred to as “The Russian Question,” which in those days was movement talk to describe the decline of the Russian revolution and the rise of Stalinism.

Today Is Different

The big difference between now and the 1920s and early 1930s so far as the radical movement is concerned is that the CP no longer predominates. Over the past sixty years the Stalinist virus has been thoroughly studied and explained. We know what it is now, even if no vaccine strong enough to inoculate its potential victims yet exists.

The Stalinist bureaucracy and the Soviet government no longer attract radicalizing youth anywhere in the world. The uprising of the Polish working class is more appealing. Genuine revolutionists everywhere seek to spread the flames of revolt to the Soviet Union, with the aim of instituting the new era of socialism which was the goal of the Bolshevik revolution.

There is another important difference for radicals in this country, previously mentioned: even though the radical movement at the end of the 1920s was disoriented by Stalinism and in general disarray, it consisted mainly of working people. This is not true of the radical movement today. It consists mostly of petty-bourgeois radicals having few ties to the working class.

The revolutionary socialist tendency in the working class political movement, as represented by the Socialist Workers Party, has tried persistently for eight years to colonize party cadres and ex-students in industry with little success. These transplants have not adapted well to the foreign environment of factory life, largely because of the party leadership’s ill-conceived trade union policy which isolates the party’s industrial fractions from union activists.

We in the Fourth Internationalist Tendency believe that the revolutionary socialist program upon which the SWP was founded and which it defended until the start of the present decade is destined to attract a new levy of worker radicals and student youth. They will return the party to its original revolutionary course, or they will replace it with a new party that will again raise high the banner of Trotskyism and the Fourth International.

On balance the prospects for the radical revitalization of the U.S. labor movement are brighter now than in 1929.


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