From New International, Vol. VI No. 9, October 1940, pp. 179–182.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.
Although American Labor Does Not Seem to Be Playing an Independent Role in the Presidential Elections This Year, the Very Reasons Why It Supports Roosevelt as the “Lesser Evil” Have a Fatal Significance for the Future of Capitalist Politics
AT FIRST AND SECOND GLANCE, the largest and most significant social grouping in the country, the working class, does not seem to be playing an important part in the presidential election. The American Federation of Labor is truer to its pallid traditional “non-partisanism” this year than almost ever before. The Congress of Industrial Organizations, in the person of its badly isolated leader, seems to be a warrior sulking in his tent. Its electoral arm. Labor’s Non-Partisan League, is scarcely heard from and there is no one asking it to speak. The Socialist party and its candidate are making a feebler and more lamentable showing than did even the late Allan Benson in 1916. Notwithstanding its still powerful apparatus and resources, the Communist party shows no sign that it will surpass, or even repeat, the trivial performance it gave four years ago. Of the only two Labor or Farmer-Labor parties, the oldest, in Minnesota, is pretty much a ghost, and the youngest, in New York, is in the agony of a convulsing schism.
Yet, American labor was never better, more numerously and more powerfully organized than it is this year. Never was it more urgently necessary for it to enter an election under its own banner; never was it in a better position to do so. Between its two main wings, unionism counts a good seven-eight million adherents in this country, millions of them in the decisive industries of the country which were wholly or partly unorganized four years ago. The principal promises of labor’s idol of 1932 and 1936 remain unredeemed. Those pieces of progressive social legislation which did go further than the paper they were written on either are being honored less in the observance than in the breach or are on the road to suspension on the grounds of the presumed needs of national defense. Neither conscription nor the war which it precedes is popular with the majority of the American workers. Finally, the two main candidates for the presidency conduct themselves as if to emphasize that there is no important difference between them.
In face of these facts, while the entire capitalist class is far from standing on the side of Willkie, virtually the entire working class will undoubtedly vote for Roosevelt. In this sense, the class tension is pretty clear. However, it has not produced a powerful independent working class party even to the extent that such existed for decades in every European country. Quite the contrary: except for the handful of incorruptible Republicans of the Hutcheson-of-the-Carpenters type, the Stalinists, who are in a category by themselves, and the militants of the extreme left – all together, a small number – labor, both organized and unorganized, will support the Democratic candidate of capitalism.
The choice between Roosevelt and Willkie is described as one between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Not without justice. Both are stout champions of capitalism, and not in its youth or its prime, but in its period of poisonous senility. Both are friends of industry whose hearts nevertheless beat tenderly for the honest toiler in the mill and tiller of the soil. What concrete political or social legislation sponsored by Roosevelt would be repealed or altered by Willkie, the latter has thus far disdained to specify. On the capital question of the day, the war, the contenders cannot be told apart by experts. If Willkie complains that Roosevelt shouts too much in world politics and that he prefers to follow the dictum of the first Roosevelt – “Speak softly and carry a big stick” – he only reduces the difference between the two candidates on the most vital of problems to a matter of personal taste in voice controls. Otherwise, Willkie has effectively insisted that he doesn’t disagree essentially with Roosevelt, that he does, in fact, endorse one point in his accomplished or proposed program after another. The witty Congressman who predicted that Willkie would end up by endorsing also the third term for Roosevelt was almost right.
Then if there is so little difference between the two candidates, what is to account for the overwhelming majority of the workers supporting one of them? Are they so utterly blind as not to see what is so plainly before their noses? Why do they rally to Roosevelt when, if it were a matter of program, they might just as reasonably rally to Willkie?
The answer is: there is a difference between the two candidates, besides the one indicated elsewhere in this issue, a significant and important difference, and the instincts of the workers do not betray them when they discern it.
Two souls contend for supremacy in capitalist politics at all times and most particularly and even sharply nowadays. Capitalist politics is the art of maintaining class rule, the rule of the capitalist class over the working class. One answer to the problem of maintaining that rule is given by bourgeois reformism. Far from undermining the social order, it leaves It intact. It understands, however, that there are circumstances in which the social interests of the ruling class demand “sacrifices” from it in the form of concessions of one degree or another to the working class. More often than not, indeed, as a rule, these concessions are made as an anticipatory blunting of sharper demands that the workers are on the verge of achieving by methods of vigorous class struggle; or else as a partial, legal sanctioning of gains already achieved by those methods. Irksome and irritating though these concessions may be to the ruling class, it prefers to make the gesture of granting them rather than to have them – and more than them – torn from it by an irate, mobilized, battling working class.
The other answer to the problem is given by bourgeois conservatism and reaction: Concessions? What the rabble needs is a good dose of the night stick and the riot gun! And what we need is a strong government, strong enough to resist the demagogical demands of the masses, strong enough to deal summarily with subversive forces; courageous enough to retrench in governmental overhead, to reduce the social services to a minimum, if any, to relieve us of the burden of taxation; modest enough to confine itself to running the political machine of the state without interfering in matters of wages and hours and markets and management, but not so empty-treasured as not to be able to subsidize needy but worthy enterprises from time to time. And if some malcontents try to stir up trouble, let them be dealt with as rank rebellion is dealt with – by force.
Capitalist politics are either idealized or violent variations of one of these two courses. Roosevelt represents, substantially, the one; Willkie the other. So far as the latter is concerned, by virtue of his whole past record, of his present associations, and notwithstanding all his protestations, the American workers understand enough to measure him for what he is. The period is past when people voted for the “outs” only because they were tired of the “ins”. Whatever else they may feel or think, they want no return to the unforgotten days of Hoover. And they are of course right.
As for Roosevelt – here it is essentially not so much a case of his being liked more as it is of his opponent being liked much less. Roosevelt would have to be much more the vain megalomaniac he is represented as in the sub rosa stories circulated by Republican jesters in Washington to believe that his present support, especially so far as the workers are concerned, is blind and personal, that is, that it is more or less permanent regardless of what he proposes and does. It is a fact that approximately up to the time Hitler launched his Blitzkrieg in earnest, Roosevelt was steadily losing ground among the workers. The loss of ground was almost directly related to the speed with which Roosevelt was moving along the well-trodden path from bourgeois reformism to bourgeois conservatism, from the New Deal to the War Deal. The master-improvizer in the White House was losing his grip on the masses and this was not least significantly reflected in John L. Lewis’ momentary boldness. When he predicted Roosevelt’s defeat if he ran for a third term, and talked of a Labor party, and played publicly with the idea of a “grand coalition” in the coming elections of the unions, the unemployed, the Townsendites and the eminent Senator Wheeler, he was not merely trying to blackjack Roosevelt into some obscure deal, he was just giving a few shoves to what he believed to be a shaky throne.
The spectacular advances of Hitler, which disturbed every worker, gave Roosevelt a necessary opportunity to retrieve lost ground. General preoccupation with the tremendous world events enabled him to distract attention from events at home and to cover himself on the domestic front by a clever exploitation of the honest and honorable anti-fascist, anti-Hitlerite sentiment of the masses. The almost universal alarm over the prospect of a quick and crushing Axis victory enabled Roosevelt, who has pursued a vigorous anti-Axis policy, to rally again those masses of workers who see no alternative to Hitler’s triumph right now except the triumph of the democratic imperialisms.
Still, labor’s support of Roosevelt is neither totally blind nor permanent. Rather, it is ominous to the future of Roosevelt and the future of capitalist politics.
Labor supported and supports Roosevelt not because of the reforms which he kept on paper or eliminated, but because of those he granted; not, for example, because he reduced unemployment relief but because he instituted it. Labor supports Roosevelt not because he denied it the right to vote on war and not because he seeks in the coming war to establish American imperialism as the world power, but because of his verbal assaults on dictators and dictatorships (“our” dictator-friends, like Somoza, Batista and Vargas excluded, of course). It relies upon Roosevelt, but with reservations. Its reliance – that is where its mere instincts betray it, where they prove so inadequate. Its reservations – that is the point of departure for the development of that political class consciousness which is the indispensable supplement to its class instincts, that consciousness which will mark the coming of age of the American proletariat.
Skeptics – and the labor movement simply stinks with them – will dismiss this as mere wishful thinking. Yet, it is nothing of the kind. It is only necessary to look a little further than the nearest horizon, and to think through to the end.
It is hard to grasp, often it is impossible to do it until after the event, what a titanic effort is required by modern capitalism to conduct a war, what unprecedented expenditures of wealth are demanded, human wealth of course included. Although this fiercest of all wars has lasted more than a year, we have yet to see the development of its fullest force. The truly earth-shaking conflict is still ahead – the war between the United States and its imperialist challengers for world dominion. If the present stage of the war, which is only an introduction to the war to come, has meant the imposing of the burdens it has imposed, what will the next stage mean in terms of sacrifice and destruction in the social, economic and political domain? The mind that seriously tries to embrace the answer to this question must shudder at the picture that is conjured up.
All sorts of professional and amateur statesmen, to say nothing of the outright scoundrels, keep assuring us, more or less confidentially, as if they were really in a position to do so, that while there may have to be a few moderate sacrifices during the “war effort” and even a few governmental restrictions here and there, they will be more than made up for the minute the victory over totalitarianism is won. They who argue that the revolutionary Marxists do not grasp the “realities” of the second world war only prove that the realities have indeed not been grasped – by them.
For the United States to prosecute any kind of effective war against such powerful foes as Germany and Japan, or even against Germany and Italy alone, will mean an outlay in men and money and machines by comparison with which what was spent in the last world war will seem like a pittance. The burden upon society, specifically upon American society which is not without its burdens already, will simply be indescribable, and not even victory would bring early relief. Fascism, or the war against fascism, may be what you will – holy, unholy, progressive, imperialistic, necessary, avoidable – but in any case there is one thing it does not mean: the abolition of the class struggle, the conflict of class interests.
Who will carry this tremendous and constantly increasing burden? Let us even grant for a moment that the capitalist class, the bankers and the trusts, is so inspired with self-abnegation in the cause of preserving civilization, human decency and dignity, democracy and the Christian way of life that it consents to making an initial sacrifice or two in the interests of winning the war. Let us grant it for a moment even if it is idiotic. What is simply too idiotic to be granted even for the fraction of a moment is that this class will fail to insist on the working class making two or ten times as many sacrifices.
What form will these sacrifices take? There are precious few people whose reason has not entirely left them who look forward to that famous war prosperity that was “enjoyed” by labor in the last war; what is happening to the working class in every European country affected by the war prohibits the dissemination of such an illusion. The standard of living of the working people will be steadily reduced as the war continues. Wages will be cut; the working day lengthened; the modest present-day working safeguards will be flouted and even abolished. The cost of living will move in a different direction – upwards. To prevent the development of any resistance to this reduction of living standards, the organizations of the workers will either be hamstrung or totally suppressed, where they are not simply integrated fully into the total-war machine. The democratic rights of the people – their right to free speech, assembly and press – will be wiped out; we see what is already happening to them in the United States even before the country has formally entered the war. Just as surely as war makes corpses but of workers on the battlefields, so it will make corpses out of bourgeois democracy and the comparatively high standards of the American workers. Prosecution of the war – that means the triumph of totalitarianism in the United States.
That, at any rate, is the plan of the ruling class. That is the plan of the government. We mean this not necessarily in the sense that a conspiratorial group of the country’s leaders have sat down and worked this out in fine and malicious detail. That many of them have been and are thinking along these lines is indubitably true – but really beside the point. They must operate according to such a plan if the war is to be fought.
Who will preside over the “executive committee of the ruling class” as this plan is carried out if not Roosevelt? And almost in direct ratio to the steps he takes in this direction, he will lose his present support among the American workers, and lose them to the left.
This prediction is far from an imaginative product; it has already been charted with graphic accuracy in France. The masses followed the men of the People’s Front – the Blums and Daladiers – with the same enthusiasm they first showed in this country for Roosevelt, and for substantially the same reasons. The masses were dragooned into the war. But the fact that both during the war and during the period of preparing for it, the social and economic burdens were unloaded even more heavily upon the shoulders of the people, ended with the Blums and Daladiers in complete isolation and the masses in a distrustful but essentially revolutionary mood.
Under the compulsions of the war, the masses will go to the left. Where will they come to rest – in the camp of social reform, as today in England, or in the camp of social revolution? A bold forecast is undoubtedly somewhat risky.
A long period of social reformist development for the American labor movement, though not excluded, is at any rate sure to be of brief duration. What can an “effective,” that is, a mass reformist party offer or give the workers that Roosevelt did not offer and give? If memory serves, it was Norman Thomas himself who commented after the 1932 election of Roosevelt that the Democratic President had carried out in action a far more drastic program than had been demanded by the Socialist party platform itself. The statement was true and significant. Even more significant is the fact that merely to preserve, not to speak of extending the social gains of the American workers, the latter will have to engage in the sharpest and most intransigent class struggles, that is, revolutionary action. That revolutionary action, to be fruitful and consistent and victorious, must be guided by a revolutionary party.
The outcome, for the present, in France has been mentioned above. It cannot be regarded otherwise than as a tragedy. The tragedy does not lie, however, in the fact that the masses abandoned the Blums and Thorezes and Daladiers. Quite the contrary, that was a big and wise step forward. The tragedy does not lie in the fact that the masses developed a distrustful and revolutionary mood. It lies rather in the fact that they trusted so long in their “democratic” and social-democratic leaders, that they were poisoned with the pernicious doctrine of the “lesser evil”, that they did not rely on their own invincible strength, their own organization, their own program and their own revolutionary leadership. The tragedy lies in the fact that there was no revolutionary party, independent of all varieties of bourgeois and reformist politics, to utilize the revolutionary situation for the final struggle to end capitalist rule and its attendant horrors.
Contemplating this situation, one is again overwhelmed with the criminality even of those well-meaning citizens of the labor movement who today preach: Roosevelt is not all that he should be, but at least he is preferable to Willkie Tying the working class to the Roosevelts leads them to the Willkies and worse, just as Hindenburg lead them to Hitler and Blum and Daladier to Petain. There you have the logical outcome of the “practical” program of the “practical” labor politicians.
The practical program of the day is the stiff and stubborn work of preparing for tomorrow, of building the revolutionary vanguard, of holding firmly to the class independence of the workers and to the unshakeable principles of revolutionary internationalism, of Marxism. Joining the Roosevelt bandwagon means not only to prolong the agony of the dying social order, but more concretely, it means preparing surely to meet the crisis of tomorrow with empty, paralyzed hands.
The election this year has only one of two meanings: for the side which is preparing for support of the imperialist war, or for the side which is preparing the struggle against it and tor the socialist peace. Everything else flows from this or is subordinated to it. Essentially, support either to Roosevelt or to Willkie – or to Willkievelt, as a contributor calls them both in this issue – is not only a vote for the imperialist war but a vote for a blacker tomorrow. A vote for the Socialist party candidate, then? No, both because it is a dwindling sect unrepresentative of any mass of workers and because it is already ninety percent in the camp of Allied imperialism. A vote for the Communist party candidate, then? No, both because it is a large sect, very large but still a sect and because it too is in the imperialist war camp, in the camp of the Kremlin despotism and Hitler today and ready to join patriotically in the camp of the Kremlin despotism and Wall Street tomorrow if they should get together.
A vote for the small revolutionary party, then – which has no candidates? Yes, yes. A vote of confidence in it and of confidence in the revolutionary tomorrow. A vote in the form of closer solidarity with it. A vote in the form of adherence to its ranks, so that the dozens and hundreds of today may be the thousands and hundreds of thousands they must number tomorrow if the coming upsurge of the American workers is not to subside into the sands but mount victoriously until it sweeps away the pillars of exploitation and oppression and war.
Last updated on 8.7.2013