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Labor Action, 6 February 1950


Robert Lynd

JUST PUBLISHED: Professor Robert Lynd’s Great Speech
the United Auto Workers (CIO) on –

Labor and Politics –
Democracy and Classes


From Labor Action, Vol. 14 No. 6, 6 February 1950, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The United Auto Workers (CIO) education department has just published in pamphlet form one of the most dynamic and important speeches ever made to a trade-union gathering in recent decades.

A little over a year ago, at the UAW’s education conference in Milwaukee, Professor Robert Lynd of the Columbia University sociology department, famous author of Middletown and other books, spoke on the conference theme, You Can Do It Better Democratically. As the Briggs-UAW educational director, Frank Marquart, has written in his local’s paper, it was a “bombshell”: “His speech had an electrifying effect, and from time to time he had to wait fill the enthusiastic applause died down. When he concluded his talk, the auto workers rose from their chairs to a man and gave him a thunderous ovation.”

Labor Action takes the greatest pleasure in publishing here extensive sections of this speech. A second and concluding section will be published next week. We know of no better introduction for trade-unionists to the ABC of labor and politics.

The UAW, as is noted on the flyleaf of the pamphlet, does not, of course, take responsibility for the analysis and opinions expressed by Professor Lynd. But it is to be congratulated on making the speech available in well-printed and illustrated pamphlet form. You can get copies for 10 cents each from the UAW-CIO Education Department, 28 West Warren, Detroit.


As I work with problems such as planning for full employment, I am constantly stopped by the fact that in onr democracy there is a serious gap between what it makes sense for us to do, what millions of us people want, and getting clearance to get those things done. This ought to warn us against over-confidence in using the word “democracy.”

Big business is talking a lot about democracy in its propaganda nowadays. It claims that capitalism – which it calls the “free enterprise system,” which capitalism is not – is the necessary prior basis of all our democratic freedoms. The fact that business is so busy calling capitalism and democracy two sides of the same dollar suggests to me that we had better take a good look at that democracy before we simply hitch on and say, “Let’s go, we can do it better democratically.”

A kind of democracy that is necessary to capitalism and that capitalism is willing to shout about may not be the kind of democracy labor wants.

What are the hitches in our present kind of democracy that prevent us from doing badly needed things that! nearly all of us agree ought to be done?

When we talk about the democratic way of doing things, we must distinguish between democracy that is taught our children in the schools, and, on the other hand, the tough, everyday version that includes things like the Mohawk Valley formula.

The first of these – the official version – says that all of us are-free and equal; that nobody can shove us around; that public opinion is free, and everybody can know the facts so as to make up his own mind on all the issues; that power rests with us individual citizens, not in corporations and organizations like the NAM; that we go to the polls as citizens and register our will there, and that what is registered at the polls is actually the intelligent judgment and wishes of the majority of the people; and that there is unlimited opportunity for everyone. That is democracy, according to this official Fourth of July version ...

Now, if we don’t live by this kind of school-book democracy, what is the other democracy – the tough one that is out, for instance, to “get” organized labor, as the Taft-Hartley Act aimed to do?

(1) The first thing that I want to stress is that the most fundamental social fact about the United States is that the people are divided into classes, and the walls between the classes, instead of growing less, are getting higher.

Class barriers are increasing. Business is staging a big campaign to tell us that classes don’t exist in the United States, and that if you talk about classes you are un-American. You people have seen these ads ...

There is a continuous barrage of such ads. Did you see the one showing a gray-haired old lady, who looks like the mother of any of us, asking the nice, clean brakeman on the rear-end of the caboose, “How’s our railroad doing, young man?” The text goes on to say, “That’s the beauty of America – the voice of the people is the voice that runs things.”

And then Life magazine in its splurge last summer on The Pursuit of Happiness (remember our right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence?) came up with the conclusion that happiness comes “from within” – from your guts or somewhere – and that it can’t be got by economic changes. So don’t any of you radicals start to stir up anything! ...

“Classless America”?

We are a class-stratified society and are getting more so. And no amount of talk about “labor-management cooperation” can disguise this fact.

We have had a lot of opportunity in our American past and, judged by the standards of the more closely-packed European nations, we have been pretty lucky. But the open frontier is gone; the continuous stream of cheap European labor that put a privileged floor under American-born labor is gone, too; monopoly is growing and our government can’t stop it; and here, as elsewhere in all capitalist nations, the middle class which labor has aspired to join is being thwarted and squeezed.

The picture is becoming clearer and clearer: on the one side, big industry, property and its managers; and, on the other side, labor.

When they talk to you about “classless America” and “unlimited opportunity,” tell them to go read page 55 of Monograph 1 of the Senate Temporary National Economic Committee, which says: “... it is a widely recognized fact that substantial opportunity for promotion does not exist for a large proportion of the workers [either in large corporations or in small companies] ... Most of them, therefore, must look forward to remaining more or less at their current levels, despite the havoc this may visit upon the American tradition of getting ahead,”

It is this arbitrary power to force people to live out their lives on the level at which they happen to be born that is the bone and gristle of the capitalist class system ...

So the point I am making here is that, when we talk about doing things “democratically,” we have got to bear in mind that a class society is an arbitrary system of power that works directly against democracy, and that class barriers are becoming stronger. I should be interested to know the reaction of you labor-education people to my strong belief that your educational work should be pitched in terms of making members of the UAW aware, in season and out, of the nature of classes; why classes exist; and how classes mess up and thwart the things that democracy tries to do and, in the end, render real democracy impossible.

I don’t mean to wave the bloody shirt, but the discussion of this fundamental fact about our society seems, from, what I have heard at this conference, rather startlingly lacking. Class seems to be just one of those also-rans of which a speaker here might say, if somebody jogged his memory about it, “Oh, yes, of course, there are also classes in our society, and that causes trouble, too.” But we don’t seem to be talking straight out about the important fact that our arms are pinned to our sides before we ever start when we try to do things “democratically” in a class system.

Capitalism vs. Democracy

(2) This leads into the second point I want to make about this tough workaday version of democracy we live by, namely, that we have in the United States only partial democracy.

Our nation was founded on a compromise between private business power and democratic political power, and the result has been, all down through our national life, that we have been trying to make two contradictory things work together – political democracy and economic un-democracy ...

That kind of straddle was written into the American system at its very start, and this conflict at the core of democracy needs to be dinned into every worker in every union in the country. Right now American business, as I have said, is drenching us and our children with the claim that democracy and the American enterprise system are one and the same thing, two necessary sides to the same coin.

They aren’t. Instead, .they are increasingly in. this era of big enterprise and monopoly fundamentally opposed things. And this effort by business to sell the unfree enterprise system as democracy and as necessary for democracy is one of the most dangerous propaganda “phonies” in circulation at the present time.

(3) In this hybrid system we have tried to pretend that economic and political power are separate things; that democratic power would, of course, always be top dog; and that if economic power tried to shove democracy around, democracy would always be strong enough to reach over and pin back the ears of the economy.

Actually, economic power is political power. There is only one fundamental power in industrial society, no matter what political tags you pin on the society. Don’t let anybody fool you about that.

Economic power is direct political power. And the bigger industry gets, the more integrated its technology, and the more interdependent its parts, the more dependent the whole society and its government becomes upon those who own and control that technology. This growth of industrial power at the expense of so-called independent democratic political power has been helped by our unnecessary and increasingly unworkable assumption, deep in our American traditions, that government should have as little power as possible, that “that government is best that governs least,” since government should be only a neutral umpire.

What, all this means is that, with the growth of big industry and monopoly, big business’ share in total power in the United States has grown enormously, while the democratic government’s power has lagged behind. We have now reached a point where all the palaver in Washington about breaking up monopoly and the return to competition is just so much eye-wash.

Fifty years of less and less successful trying have shown that we can’t stop monopoly. And we are not going back to free competition. State power and economic power are being merged because from now on all over the world in every industrial society, neither the state, nor the economy can operate without the other.

As state and economic powers merge, the aces are in the hands of private business. Democracy is handicapped because, from our beginning as a nation, wc have been so afraid of power that we have never developed a positive theory of democratic power as a collective instrument.

We have never faced squarely the question: If something concerns the welfare of the majority of the people, how does democracy get the power to do that thing if a powerful minority opposes it?

Thus, practically the whole resources, present and future, of science have been fenced off from democracy on the superior legal basis of private business rights. They are suppressed or doled out at the will of the owners for a price set by the owners. And as Monograph 26 of the Senate Temporary National Economic Committee, on Economic Power and Political Pressures, states, this private control over science today gives big business tremendous political power, even as against our government itself.

What’s Happening to Democracy?

(4) A fourth aspect of this only partial kind of democracy that we have appears in relation to the problem of national planning.

With the whole “works” – government and industry – flowing together, with national welfare acutely dependent upon everything working together smoothly, and with broad over-all policies and decisions having to be made at increasing speed, there is obvious need for national planning to make things mesh and hang together.

But here again liberal democracy of the kind that we have is in a jam. All our history and all our institutions have discouraged this kind of continuous collective thinking-ahead by democratic government. Liberal-democracy has no over-all collective plans for itself as a whole, except as regards such minimum things as national defense and general law and order.

And it doesn’t have these plans because our theory has been that, beyond these minimum things, we have no collective purposes, only private purposes. Welfare among us is not basically planned for, but happens as an unplanned result of everybody’s trying to get rich on his own.

As a result, our democracy doesn’t know where it is going until it looks at last year’s statistics and sees where its 60 million personal strivers went during that last year. This throws the welfare of all of us under the feet of a knock-down and drag-out battle-royal among power interests. I submit that that is a disorderly and grossly inefficient way for a democracy to try to secure continuing welfare here in the middle of the twentieth century ...

My second warning concerns the way things seem to be going with democracy in these United States of ours. As I size up the real position of democracy in the United States today, as over against the organized power of industry, the score looks to be going heavily against democracy.

We Americans have been lazy about democracy. We have taken it for granted as a kind of built-in permanent part of American life, and we have assumed that if any nation on earth did any democratic thing, we’d do it first and best. Of course, no such thing is necessarily the case.

Democracy is something that has to be worked at hard and continuously if it is to exist. It either grows or declines in a dynamic time like the present, for it can’t just stand still. So, if we want to keep what democracy we have, we have got to work at the job of building more democracy, and fast, fighting every inch of the way ...

As I look at labor’s present strategy, it seems to assume that its most appropriate move is just to ride me tail or business profits, pressing steadily for a bit more and then a bit more of the business take. The garment unions have actually wedged themselves into the position of being co-partners with the owners and managers of that industry. Industry generally seems to be encouraging some such cautious emphasis of juniorpartner collaboration by labor in its emphasis on labor-management cooperation, but it is reserving to itself the right to deal with whatever things it calls “management problems.”

Another assumption in this labor strategy of riding the tail of the profit system seems to be that things will go on indefinitely substantially as they are, with industry cashing in and with labor shaking it down time after time as the two of them ride the glory train together.

Why America Is Rich

Here I think we need to ask: What kind of theory of social change and what view of the future really make sense here in the middle of the twentieth century?

We Americans have been lucky. There is no question about it. And what we have done is to translate the fact of our luck into a confident proof of the inevitable rightness and finality of our American institutions.

Our good fortune has consisted in the facts that our nation was born at the same time as the rise of machine industry – what we call the Industrial Revolution; we had a big, rich, new continent with lots of wealth in it and few people, beckoning for us to “come and get it”; cheap European labor brought itself over here at its own cost, so that we didn’t even have to pay the freight; and this labor fed itself into our furnaces, broke the plains, rolled steel rails, and built our cities.

As a result, the rising American standard of living has been, through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, the envy of all the rest of the world. Living in that kind of a world, we got used to taking progress for granted.

We have believed that all we have to do is to keep going along, and things would get better and better. So we have assumed that the thing for labor to do is to keep inching along and eventually to promote itself into the middle class, on the theory that after a while everybody would be in the middle class and there wouldn’t be any working class anymore.

Now I don’t believe we can assume this kind of permanent progress. Even the United States doesn’t carry that kind of rabbit’s foot. And I want to stress this point hard, for it is crucial for labor.

Right now American business is having a fat time with year after year of bigger profits in its history. I don’t need to tell you auto workers that. But all over the world capitalism is in trouble. The depression of the 1930’s really hurt American business – hurts its prestige, hurt its claim to be an economy fit for a democracy, and hurt its self-confidence.

While I hate to say it, I believe big business has learned more since 1929 than has organized labor. And that means a lot in a time that has seen the rise of the CIO and strong industrial unionism of the UAW-CIO sort. But I think business has been learning more and faster about what the score is and what to do about the situation, while labor has been organizing and digging itself in largely along the old lines.

And it is what big business has been learning that ought to warn labor against taking permanent progress for granted and thinking that labor can go on permanently riding the coat-tails of business ...

So what has happened since 1933 is that big-business strategy has moved from fighting labor at the plant level and merely influencing government, to the recognition that for capitalist big business, from the middle of the twentieth century on, the aim must be to pull the teeth of both organized labor and of interference with the big-business system by government. And this was to be done by moving in on the whole democratic process, including the government, and taking over.

What Kind of Collectivism?

In respect to the handling of both organized labor and government, it is highly probable that American business leaders learned directly from what they saw their German opposite numbers do.

Big industry in Germany brought Hitler and Nazis into power in order to break the power of German labor and to free German industry from the rising burdens of regulation by a democratic government and of taxation for social legislation. German capitalism in trouble was showing the way which capitalism, in trouble all over the world, was to take.

This involved the recognition that, in the tightening pressures of the twentieth century – between nations internationally, and internally within each nation between industry and labor – the economic and political systems of a nation have got to work together. National states cannot afford anything less than maximum efficiency in their economic affairs, while national economies require strong and continuous backing from the state apparatus. For the economic and political systems to try to coerce, and thus frustrate, each other step by step has become too inefficient, unreliable and nationally dangerous.

And, once a big advanced industrial nation like Germany has shown the way to ease its pressures by linking up industry and government, the business leaders in other nations began to follow.

You and I may not like these things that our big-business leaders are learning. We may call it “un-American.” But I am telling you that this merging of economic power and state power is here to stay.

Every industrial nation is on the move toward some form of collectivism, and our only choice is “Which kind?” For us here in the United States the nineteenth-century straddle between democracy and capitalism is no longer a workable permanent choice.

I believe that the only choices we face are these: Either democracy will move in on our private economy, socialize it and run if for the purposes of democracy, or big business will move in on the democratic state, take it over, and run the whole works for the profit of big business.

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