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The New International, January 1945


Notes of the Month

A National Service Act


From The New International, Vol. XI No. 1, January 1945, pp. 3–7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


It was a profound remark of Lenin’s that every “minor” crisis a capitalist state experiences discloses to us in miniature the elements and the germs of the battles which must inevitably take place on a large scale during a big crisis. In his “state of the nation” message, President Roosevelt asked Congress to place the labor force of the whole nation under the control of the government. The remarkable impudence with which this proposal has been made is matched only by the levity with which it has been discussed in labor and political circles.

A National Labor Service Act is a landmark in the life of a nation. It places the whole working population at the disposal of the government. Where a worker must work, in New Jersey or in Alabama, what wages he must receive, the conditions under which he works, authority to send whole batches of men from the Army into industry, disrupting all union standards (and conversely, to place whole groups of laborers under military discipline or under the control of the Army), official subordination of the unions to government authority, penal regulations for disobedience, these are the constituents of a National Service Act. How far a government would be able to carry them out is another matter. No laws in the world can prevent resistance by an aroused population. But the mere passing of such legislation would be already a terrible blow to the workers. It is a kind of permanent martial law in the vital and all-embracing process of production. In the fifth year of the war when the main question is: how long can Germany continue to stave off defeat, this is what the President proposes to impose upon the American people. And what is the cause? There is a shortage (of 300,000 men) in important spheres of production; the act would be used “only to the extent absolutely required by military necessities”; it would raise the morale of our armed forces; and demoralize the population of the Axis, etc., etc.

The strongest implication is made that it is the recent reverses in Europe which make such legislation a necessity. That is a manifest untruth. A year ago Roosevelt asked Congress for a similar act, on the same general ground of military necessity. Congress turned him down. Congress may or may not turn him down again, though pressure is exceedingly heavy and many are falling into line. But the insistence on the proposal raises the question of why. What motive directs the super-democrat, the friend of humanity, the hope of the progressive forces, the co-creator of the Atlantic Charter and the sole originator of the Four Freedoms? What drives him, on such flimsy grounds, to ask for such would-be totalitarian power?

It is here that we can see the nature of the American crisis and, according to Lenin, “the elements and the germs of the battles which must inevitably take place on a large scale during a big crisis.” It is here too that we can see the dire necessity of labor mobilization, industrial and political, to defend our democratic rights.

The Psychologists and Reality

The leaders of the CIO, the AFL and the Railroad Brotherhoods accuse the President of trying to meet a supposed crisis in manpower with “hysterical” methods. According to them, “the indispensable” has lost his head. These psychologists are making a mistake. The President has not lost and is not losing his head. His head was never so sound as when he proposed this bill. It is your heads which are in question, Messrs. Labor Leaders. Not today, or perhaps tomorrow, but sooner or later. A year ago, in a New Year message to the American people Philip Murray showed himself well aware of the grave problems facing the nation.

When public apathy allows ignorant, selfish and short-sighted men to get into Congress ... it makes us dread to think of what might happen if such men should be in control when the terrific problems of the war’s end arise. It was bad enough last time. This time, with a far greater war on our hands, and consequently with far greater problems of converting back to peace, such reckless courses might shake the foundations of the very democratic system we have been fighting for. We believe that the years immediately ahead are the most critical we have ever faced – “the years of decision,” when new patterns will be formed.

In its sense of the irresistible conflict the article was a notable one. There are others who see the impending conflict as clearly as Murray. One of these is President Roosevelt, and he is preparing for it. The irresistible conflict of nineteenth century America was the conflict between capitalists and slave-owners. The capitalists disciplined the slave-owners by force -the Civil War. The irresistible conflict of the twentieth century is the conflict between labor and capital. Capital must discipline labor or labor must triumph over capital. Roosevelt has hitherto disciplined the workers by fraud. By his use of the war emergency, the workers are hemmed in at every turn by boards of production, boards of labor, manpower commissions, all sanctified by the magic prefix “war.” Labor is not only shackled externally. Through the assistance of Murray, Green and the other labor bureaucrats, labor has been demoralized internally by the no-strike pledge. Also for the duration of the war. But the workers are in revolt against this pledge. The critical nature of the post-war period (”the years of decision,” according to Murray) looms ever larger as the war takes its catastrophic course. A National Service Act clamped on the working class will be the final climax of the whole fraud by which the workers have been increasingly handicapped in their power to struggle.

It is Roosevelt’s special political function to use misrepresentation. He has had some eminent predecessors. Brüning in Germany, Azaña in Spain, Blum in France all recognized the inevitability of the social crisis and the necessity of disciplining the workers in the service of capital. But their regimes rested on the support of the workers. All they could think of doing was to attempt to apply the controls themselves, whittle away steadily at the workers’ democratic rights, hamstring their organization, in the face of their growing wrath plead “the national emergency” and strike still heavier blows at them. In all this, the labor leaders assisted faithfully, their protests being but preliminary flourishes to their consistent capitulation. It is in this way that the great paladins of democracy soaped the rope for the necks of the workers and paved the way for Fascism. We are some distance from that climax as yet. We have time, but to use it properly we must read the omens of the future in the present, and take action to correspond.

Roosevelt’s Real Purpose

Roosevelt’s claim of an emergency due to military necessity can be dismissed without any lengthy argument. Members of the capitalist class itself have ridiculed this view. Even the National Association of Manufacturers (which has had for the time being enough of government regulation) announces in an official bulletin that to control a civilian labor force of 53,000,000 in order to solve a shortage of 300,000 workers would be like sending a colossal tank out to crush a mouse. The president of the NAM, Ira Mosher, has expressed himself to the same effect on high economic and social grounds. “Compulsory labor never has and never will be as productive as voluntary labor, and I believe a national service act would hurt rather than increase our war production.” This from an NAM president! Political observers say that Congress will not pass any such measure, that it is unwilling to take that responsibility before the workers. If the President must have such an act, he will have to say so openly, get his party leaders to take it to Congress and push it through. Does anyone doubt that if the expected victory was in danger, Roosevelt would not have at once (or long ago) adopted more serious measures to get his bill passed? One interview with leaders of both parties, placing before them the facts, and the capitalist state would have, mobilized all its forces to agitate the nation and put across its legislation. That is the method he is using for his “work-or-fight” bill. But for a year now he is feeling his way with the National Service Act. Some reorganization by capital is necessary for its capitalist war but nothing demanding a National Service Act. What, then, is Roosevelt after?

The head of the government prepares, first of all, a counter-offensive against the working class resistance to the restrictions imposed on it by the war machine. The no-strike pledge was in serious danger until the recent German offensive and the situation is still so uncertain that a sharp change in the international or national situation might imperil the pledge again. In addition, the workers have no confidence in Roosevelt’s 60,000,000-job program. By thousands they are leaving the war industries and seeking jobs which they hope will last after the war is over. The stench of the war itself rises. Churchill’s performance in Greece, the unwilling but at last bitter realization of what Stalin proposes to do in Poland, the naked power politics of the “big three,” all this has resulted in a wide-spread and growing disillusion. It is becoming terribly difficult to keep the workers in hand. As one labor journalist wrote the other day: “If the world’s largest union – the aircraft makers – is forced publicly to announce such action [breaking of the no-strike pledge] then anything may break loose this winter.”

Roosevelt knows all this and by his mournful wail about the necessity of a National Service Act, he hopes to counteract the growing desire of the workers to break the bonds which have held the food shortages already. From all sides in the press we get hints and warnings of the new restrictions on clothing, fuel, etc., which are on the way. It is the workers who bear these burdens. The propaganda for a National Service Act seeks to terrorize them and make them accept the additional penalties with more docility.

But a National Service Act for the necessities of the war does not necessarily end with the war. Once it is on the statute-books there is nothing to prevent it being extended for years afterwards. Roosevelt in fact proposes to tack on to it a conscription act. He knows that, difficult as it is to control the workers now, it will be ten times more difficult to do so when the war is over, or even when half the war is over, i.e., by a victory over Germany. The time to fasten the post-war chains upon the workers is now. Like Murray he is perfectly aware of what the post-war holds in store. In his budget message, he showed exactly by what measures he proposes to facilitate his conception of reconversion.

We must also see to it that our administrative machinery for the adjustment of labor disputes is ready for the strains of the reconversion period. We must apply some of our wartime lessons in labor management cooperation in working out a sound long-range policy implemented by permanent mediation machinery for the adjustment of labor disputes.

A National Service Act is wonderful mediating machinery for adjusting labor disputes – in the interests of capital. Not only for the national crisis which he foresees does Roosevelt need control of the workers. The suppression of the European workers is on the order of the day. He made that as clear as could be in the budget message. But great strikes and mass political unrest in the United States would stimulate European resistance to domination by the United States. It is for this purpose that he requires a National Service Act. He may have missed his chance this time. But he keeps plugging away. If at any time there should be a serious reverse in the war, or a national or international crisis of any kind, Roosevelt will do his utmost to imprison the workers within his National Service Act. The ground is being carefully prepared by these repeated requests which serve both an immediate and an ultimate purpose. The danger is that by the timid conciliatory character of the opposition hitherto expressed by labor he is being encouraged to press for the bill.

The Futility of the Opposition

Every minor crisis discloses the elements and germs of the bigger battles to come. Roosevelt has shown his hand. A National Service Act is aimed at labor and one would have expected a vigorous reaction from labor. The war is being sold to labor as a war for democracy. One would have thought that the labor leaders would at least have resolutely exposed this brazen fraud and warned the workers that their democratic rights were being wantonly threatened for motives which were obviously ulterior. Instead, when the news broke, Philip Murray was, according to the press, “not available for comment.” Green did a little better. He opposed it immediately but with “reluctance.” Both of them, and the Railroad Brotherhoods have based their opposition on the plea that the National Service Act is not needed, that the Administration has “mismanaged” the manpower problem, that employers are hoarding labor, etc., etc., etc. Murray finally proposed a conference of labor, management, agriculture and government to work out ways of overcoming manpower shortage. But Murray’s approach to the whole question was “affirmative.” The CIO statement explained that the CIO was not opposed to national service in principle. None of them gave the slightest sign or warning to the workers that they recognized what is at stake.

It can be urged that their support of the war compels the labor leaders to acquiesce in all the fraudulent proposals of Roosevelt. That is true, but it is only part of the truth. These laborites support capitalism and the capitalist state. At all critical moments – and a mere request for a National Service Act is a very critical moment – at all such critical moments the labor leaders, as a body, behave in much the same way. War or no war, they call upon the workers to submit themselves to the bonds which the capitalist democratic government is preparing to impose upon them in the name of the national crisis. In time of war the excuse is the danger of Fascism (abroad); in time of peace the danger of Fascism (or “reaction”) at home. To mobilize the instinctive hostility of the working class in a principled defence of its democratic rights, that is the last thing which ever comes into their minds. In their pusillanimous, shame-faced, cringing opposition to the National Service Law, Green and Murray have shown themselves to be body and soul of the Social-Democracy and the labor bureaucracy as we have seen it in crisis after crisis in Europe. Roosevelt knows that with this handicap the workers cannot powerfully express their genuine will to resist. This only makes him bolder.

The Liberals and Democratic Rights

When official labor behaves like this, it is easy to imagine the reaction of the liberals. True to the principles of liberalism all over the world, the newspaper PM, like its friends of the Post, first vacillated but on January 9, came out decisively for the policy of suspending judgment. In an editorial pompously signed “I. F. Stone, for the Editors of PM,” the following policy was laid down.

As for national service by itself, we hesitate to be dogmatic about it at a time like this, and we suspend judgment until we hear what the heads of the War and Navy Departments will have to say in their testimony on pending national service legislation. At this time, on the basis of the facts as we now know them, we fear that national service alone might prove a quack remedy.

These people, it is clear, have capitulated in advance. Roosevelt in his message quoted from a letter written jointly by the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy. They demanded national service. They said that “their considered judgment” was “supported by General Marshall and Admiral King ...” Says PM: Let us hear what they have to say. As if they have not said it already. But in a full page editorial there is not one word about what this will mean to the hard-won rights of the workers. With an insouciance that amounts almost to boredom, the New Republic brushes the problem aside.

It is hardly worth while to discuss in detail the proposal for universal service, since it seems pretty clear that it has no hope of passage ... If universal service were shown to be needed, or there was even a good probability that it was needed, the New Republic would support it without reservation. But there is no evidence that this is the case.

A man is making a second attempt on the life of a friend of mine, but he is not likely to succeed, so why discuss it? It isn’t my life anyway.

Of the same stamp is the comment of the Nation. “We should think that it would be wise at least to couple national service with action to raise sub-standard wages.” They are concerned with the workers: bribe them.

Such is the liberal conception of democracy and democratic rights. Not one of them has troubled to ask: If it is so obvious that national service is not needed, why does the President commit himself for the second year in succession to so drastic a regimentation of the labor force of the country? All the forces of the so-called left, all the progressive forces, labor leaders, bureaucrats and intellectuals show themselves ready to hand over the workers to the government. Their opposition, such as it is, is unprincipled, opportunistic, and in some cases ignorant to a degree where ignorance becomes criminal. The workers had better take note. “Labor,” and particularly “organized labor,” is always on the lips of these people. The history of Europe during the last thirty years affords one proof after another that this reaction of theirs to the threat represented by the National Service Act is not accidental. They have given us a preview of what can be expected of them in the crisis of the “years of decision.”

The Communist Party to the Rescue

Officially the Democratic Party and the Republican Party leave the matter up to President Roosevelt. However, so far they are busy trying to do as much as they dare without compromising themselves. The out and out reactionaries, however, have jumped with glee into the breach opened by the President. On the question of the draft of 4F’s, Representative Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, during hearings in the House, suggested that in the “work-or-fight measure,” there should be a provision for making strikers go back to work. Representative Colmer of Mississippi wanted all workers put under the Articles of War. Presumably this would facilitate shooting them for striking or even protesting. Knudsen wanted all defaulters sent to jail. These are the vanguard for what is called a “limited” National Service Act. But even Roosevelt’s own party has not come out in full support of the national act as proposed by the President.

There is, however, one political party in the country which knows its own mind, or rather the mind of its leader, Stalin. That is the Communist Party. It has no hesitations. Its policy is set. This policy is to chain the working-class to the Roosevelt war-machine, to suppress every capacity to struggle, every germ of militancy, in order to gain for Roosevelt the freest possible hand at home and abroad. All they ask in return is that Roosevelt support Stalin in his effort to annex Poland and dominate all of Eastern Europe. For this they are prepared to act as decoys to the American working-class. On January 8 the Daily Worker published an editorial entitled: National Service for Victory.

The country should back the President fully upon every one of his demands. There can be no question over the fundamental democratic principle that every citizen must contribute services for victory whether it is on the home front or the war front. His request for measures, legislative or otherwise, to provide the necessary nurses, to channel 4-F’s into war work and fill skilled manpower needs, should be met with the speediest dispatch.

Note here and all through the completely shameless manner in which they tackle what they know will be the objections of the workers. They merely claim that what seems to be black is really white. Thus the National Service Act becomes a “fundamental democratic principle.” This technique of the lie has been carried to a high pitch of perfection by Hitler and Stalin. It is the technique of totalitarianism. The Stalinists by their use of it show both their origins and their aims.

On January 12 Robert Minor informed readers of the Worker that the American people are the masters of the Roosevelt war-machine. Unlike some of the stupid liberals, this unspeakably corrupt old scoundrel knows very clearly what a National Service Act is and what it means:

The President’s proposals of a service act is quite the opposite of the draconic measures, legislative and otherwise, of 1917–19 and the early 1920’s. Those were directed, first, toward the chaining of labor to a war machine whose functioning and purpose was utterly alien to democracy. Secondly, they were directed toward smashing all salients of trade union organization that were then for the first time penetrating into our basic industrial life.

The situation is not the same today. Labor would be chained to no war machine by a service act of the kind proposed by Mr. Roosevelt. On the contrary, such a service act, supported by the unions, would serve the supreme interest of labor, which is to place its full strength into the war effort. The war machine today is not the master but the instrument of the whole nation, including the 80,000,000 Americans who are industrial workers and their families. Precisely because the people are the masters of the war machine, therefore the vilest and most dangerous enemies of democracy within our country are doing all in their power to weaken the war machine and to cause its defeat. The proposed service act and other recommendations of the President are not aimed at the destruction or restriction of the development of the trade unions, but are formed on the assumption that our great industrial nation, to conduct effective war, to achieve victory, must rely upon the strength and growth of the trade unions.

This is the genuine political prostitute. Every sentence is a lie and Minor knows it. But the very care he takes to meet the real arguments shows that like the wolf or the mad dog the Stalinist jumps at the throat. On January 14 Browder followed Minor. He too knows exactly what a service act would mean. “Such a law is the precondition the government requires for regulating the employers’ use of manpower, much more than it is needed for directing labor where it might not otherwise wish to go.” That is exactly what the law will do, send labor where it otherwise would not wish to go. That, says Browder boldly, is not what the law is for. Not exactly; that is what the law is for, but that would only, for Browder, be a precondition for the government’s organizing the employers’ maldistribution of manpower. The Editors of the New Masses do not write for workers. Hero-worship and rhapsody are the rouge and lipstick with which they attract their clients. “This,” they say of the President’s message, “is leadership of the very highest.” As for the workers, their is but to obey.

Though we would have preferred the inclusion of additional proposals, such as the taxation of unreasonable profits and the cost of food law which Mr. Roosevelt urged that year, we don’t think support for national service legislation should be contingent on any quid pro quo.

In other words, the workers should bow their heads, do as they are told, be sent where they do not want to go, and not ask anything in return. The Nation was willing to offer a bribe to the workers. The New Masses does not think that even that is necessary. In this reaction of the Stalinists can be discerned the elements of the shamelessness, the contemptuous brutality with which they will operate in the working class during the big battles to come.

The time is fast approaching when whoever seriously aspires to leadership in the American working class and refuses to align himself in merciless struggle against the Communist Party will thereby prove himself either a traitor or a blind fool.

Organization Is Needed

And yet if a National Service Act is not enacted in the near future it will be because the masses of the workers are opposed to it. Labor in the mass knows that the service act will, in intention, be more savage than the draconic measures passed in 1917–19 and the early 1920’s for today labor is more powerful and therefore more difficult to control. Labor knows that such an act would be aimed at crippling the unions. Labor knows that it would be chained to the war machine by such an act, and labor knows that the war-machine is not controlled by the people (that bold and venomous lie) but by Roosevelt’s appointees, big capitalists and capitalist politicians who run the War Production Board, the War Labor Board, the War Manpower Commission. Labor has suffered too much at their hands not to know them. A National Service Act would be the greatest blow labor has yet received and it has received many under the plea of the national emergency. From this recent experience, symbolical though it is, workers must learn the germs and the elements of the greater battles to come. In this significant episode and the alignment of forces which it provoked labor can see who are its friends and who are its enemies. It can see the enemies on the opposite side and the enemies, the mortal enemies, within its own ranks.

What is to be done? Labor must resist, it must make known its opposition not only to national service in general but to every step by which national service is being steadily prepared. The time to fight is now. One way to fight is to repudiate the no-strike pledge. Another way is to demand withdrawal of labor’s representatives from the War Labor Board. Still another is to demand the breaking of the Little Steel formula. It is not only a question of denouncing national service, in however limited a form. It is necessary to take an offensive, to demonstrate that labor will no longer endure the old burdens – far less tolerate the imposition of new ones either in limited or in total form. The indomitable opposition of organized labor – that is the only resistance which will check the President in this bold attempt.

The American crisis has not yet reached its acutest stage but it is moving inexorably to desperate conflict. Labor, by its instinctive hostility, may be able to hold off a complete National Service Act. But already it is clear that drastic repressive legislation is on the way. Any such act, dangerous in itself, would be but a stage in the development, a defeat for labor in the gigantic class battles inherent in this period of capitalist decline.

The enormous labor force, the concentration of tens of thousands in huge plants, the increasing socialization of production, the coming unemployment, all these pose insoluble problems for the capitalist class. During the last twelve years, in peace as well as in war, the Roosevelt government has responded to this inexorable economic movement in the only way possible to it – by creating a huge bureaucratic machinery aimed, above all, at cajoling the workers on the one hand and limiting their independent action on the other. But every step in that direction leads only to further steps, multiplying the contradictions and creating greater difficulties than those which it sought to cure.

The workers want to resist, but the huge machinery of government directed against them, aided and abetted by the labor leaders and liberals, adds to their burdens, demoralizes them, divides them, robs them of perspective and, as we have repeatedly seen in Europe, leaves them ultimately a prey to the undisguised forces of reaction. These are well aware of the insoluble nature of the crisis and will strike as soon as Roosevelt’s boards and commissions and TVA’s can no longer hold in check the pent-up waters of social catastrophe. It is only in offensive action that organized labor can know its own strength and impress the consciousness of that strength upon the unorganized millions. These, helpless before the enormous powers of coercion wielded by the government, are thereby inclined to accommodate themselves to it and thus become tools of capitalist reaction. Even among the liberal rank and file are many who need only to hear and see labor express its power to recognize where lies the only defense of democratic liberties in an economic system that has long outlived its usefulness. The most dangerous error is to see this attempt to fasten national service upon the working class as due to the necessity of war and not as a stage in the imperative necessity of capitalism to use all means to suppress the organizations of labor.

All political action hinges on the recognition of this conflict. The war is only an expression of it. Equally dangerous it is not to see in the response of political groupings to this threat the shape of things to come – unless labor offers another perspective.

We have shown in outline the forces opposed to labor and the pitiable leadership of labor’s supposed leaders and friends. These tendencies will only increase with the sharpening of the crisis. Only labor can reverse the trend and it can reverse it only by the most comprehensive action. A revolutionary party is needed, composed of the most resolute, the most far-seeing and devoted members of the working class, ceaselessly teaching and organizing for the great battles ahead, pointing out the significance of events as they take place, steeling the instinctive hostility of the workers with knowledge, organization and the will to conquer, impressing upon them the necessity of forming a mass political organization of their own in which all the political tendencies of labor and its natural allies will be represented.

Such for years now has been the policy advocated by The New International. The proposed National Service Act and the response to it have confirmed the validity of our views and the necessity of acting upon them – not after the war, not tomorrow, but now.

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