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International Socialist Review, Spring 1964


Jean Simon

Statesman or Faker?


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.2, Spring 1964, p.61.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Samuel Gompers, a biography
by Bernard Mandel
The Antioch Press, Yellow Springs, Ohio, 1963. 566 pp. $8.00.

Samuel Gompers: Labor Statesman or Labor Faker? is the provocative title of the introduction by Dr. Louis Filler of Antioch College to Bernard Mandel’s biography of Gompers.

If the book were a Madison Avenue image-creating job – either image would do – it probably could be published simultaneously in paperback and quickly go through several editions, with large advance union orders for the labor statesman image or subsidized mass newsstand distribution for the faker image.

But Bernard Mandel is an historian with standards of objectivity and respect for fact which have produced a biography that is neither a eulogy nor a hatchet job, but an important contribution to the history of the American labor movement. As such, it can be recommended to the growing number of student youth seeking basic solutions to the problems of our society, and to the question of labor’s role in social change.

The new generation of radical youth quickly relates the Marxist analysis of the contradictions of capitalism to international and domestic crises of our epoch. They readily recognize the rationality of a socialist reconstruction of society. They can see the realities of our class-divided society and the logic of the theory that it is the historic role of the working class, acting in its own interest, to reorganize the social structure on a classless basis.

But when they look for the vehicle for social change, the only mass organization of the working class they see is the organized labor movement, the AFL-CIO. They see a union movement that has no perspective for social change, provides no leadership in dealing with the major problems of civil rights, democratic rights, imperialist war, colonial revolutions, or unemployment, and that participates in none of the massive struggles that have begun.

The youth, the peace movement, the Negro masses, and the colonial peoples all ask the same question: When is American labor going to move?

To understand the labor movement it is necessary to recognize its dual role as part of the power structure of the capitalist system and at the same time the organization for the defense of the standard of living of the working class. It is necessary to examine the history of the labor movement to see that it was not always like this, that it has changed and can change.

The 40 to 50-year-old generation can remember the dynamic period of the rise of the CIO. They participated in or witnessed heroic struggles of the working class. They saw the rapid transformations in the consciousness of thousands of workers and know the potential of the class.

But the youth of today have not yet had that experience. They must go to the books to see how and why the labor movement arrived at the policies and practices which raise widespread doubts as to its capacity.

Bernard Mandel’s biography of Samuel Gompers is a valuable source for such study. As the publisher’s brochure comments:

“Samuel Gompers so reacted to and acted upon his times and his society that only an historian can adequately tell the story of his life. This Bernard Mandel has done in this definitive biography, based upon extensive research in the documents of the labor movement and presented with the detachment of the scholar who seeks to understand the man in terms of the era and the era in terms of the man who so transformed it.”

Mandel describes the internal and external struggles of the labor movement, the role of Gompers, of the Knights of Labor, of the Industrial Workers of the World, of the various socialist and communist tendencies, of the business and industrial leaders, of presidents and other government officials and agencies, of reform movements and of international political and labor leaders.

Of particular interest is his objective reporting of the conflicting views which shaped the policies of the American Federation of Labor: craft vs. industrial unionism; independent political action vs. support of capitalist candidates; support of the government war program under Wilson vs. socialist opposition; advocacy of immigration restrictions vs. international working-class solidarity; Negro segregation vs. integration; organizing the unemployed, the unskilled and the unorganized vs. “business unionism.”

The scope of Mandel’s book is limited as a biography, to the period of Gompers’ life which ended Dec. 13, 1924. The serious student of American labor history cannot stop there since it does not include the rise of the CIO, the most powerful demonstration of the capacity of the American working class to create new forms of organization, new tactics and new leaders to meet new conditions. (The forthcoming history of this period by Art Preis will help fill this gap.)

But the biography of Samuel Gompers provides an understanding of the class-collaborationist policies and practices that characterized the AFL and now the AFL-CIO, and should help students inside and outside of the labor movement – including some of the frustrated secondary union leadership – to evaluate those policies and to develop new ones better adapted to serve the needs of the working class today.

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