Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3


The War on Labor and the Left

Patricia Cayo Sexton
The War on Labor and the Left
Westview, Oxford 1993, pp. 326, £11.95

THE United States of America is now, and has been through the whole of the twentieth century, the most powerful capitalist nation on the face of the globe. Yet the US trade union movement is in relative terms amongst the weakest of any advanced industrial state. Furthermore, the political system is dominated by what all agree are two equally bourgeois parties, and there exists no mass labour or Socialist movement at all. These facts pose a conundrum which has puzzled Socialists at home and abroad for a full two generations. Patricia Cayo Sexton, herself a one-time trade union activist, the daughter of a Detroit-based middle ranking official of the million-plus-strong auto workers’ union, the UAW, has written a splendid book which goes far towards providing an answer.

Socialism, however, has not always been at a discount in the USA. Eugene Debs’ The Appeal to Reason sold more than a million copies a week in the years before the First World War. At its peak in 1912, the Socialist Party of the USA organised 118,000 individual members, published no less than 323 different publications with a combined readership of over two million, polled 900,000 votes in that year’s Presidential election, and elected 1,200 office holders in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states. Morris Hillquit ran for Mayor of New York on an anti-war platform in August 1918, called for a negotiated peace, and polled 146,000 votes.

The Socialist Party’s unhesitating opposition to the USA’s entry into the war in 1917 brought down on its head a torrent of repression, far greater than that visited on Socialists in any other country during the First World War; Britain, France, Germany and Tsarist Russia included. A total of 2,100 people were arrested and indicted for opposing the war, and over 1,000 convicted, with over 100 of them receiving prison terms of 10 years or more. Debs, the 64 year old party leader, was sentenced in 1918 to 10 years in jail, and was not released until 1921, long after the war was over. In Britain, conscientious objectors did not receive sentences exceeding two years, whilst in the USA, 17 COs were sentenced to death, 142 to life in prison, and 345 to prison terms that averaged 16 years.

The wave of state-sponsored terror that descended upon America’s Socialists in the war and the immediate postwar years, not least in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, was one major cause of the Socialist Party’s subsequent long-term near terminal decline. Another, which to my mind the author greatly underestimates, is the havoc wreaked by the rabid civil war loosed in the ranks of the battered Socialist Party by the Comintern-inspired split, which was liberally funded by Russia and often deepened by police spies, and which led to the emergence of the Communist Party of the USA.

The USA from its inception has always been a violent society, not merely at the ‘Frontier’ in the ‘West’, but also in the interior in the ‘East’ behind the lines. The interior still remains violent today, where the rates for murder and rape and the proportion of the population in prison are the highest in the world.

In much the same way, Sexton argues that the class struggle in the USA has been from the very beginning harder fought, more brutal and more violent than in Britain and Europe. In Europe, as I document in my The Labour Movement in Europe (London 1975), even at its peak the bourgeoisie never held the state power and the judiciary in its hands alone. That power had to be shared with the remnants of the landed aristocracy, the church hierarchy, and other social elements which pre-dated the bourgeoisie on the social scene.

No such dichotomy existed in the USA. There was from the very beginning no feudal aristocracy holding all the land in a kind of monopolistic seigniorial tenure, nor, since the constitution laid down that there was to be no established religion, no theological cult of any variety exercising massive social, political and propaganda power in its own right. In these circumstances, US business exercised a predominance in the making, application and interpretation of the legal code that was quite unprecedented elsewhere. ‘In the United States’, Sexton writes, ‘employers were often not merely above the law, they were the law.‘ (p. 66) Employers in the USA have all along exercised far more direct power over the President, House and Senate, the police and the judiciary in the 50-odd states than the bourgeoisie has ever exercised in Europe over comparable governmental institutions. In a nation without any BBC, with a radio and television network entirely at the mercy of commercial capitalist advertisers, in which election broadcasts are not free, but must be paid for in millions of dollars, the domination of capitalist ideology reigns quite unchallenged. Such news as appears is trivialised and biased in the extreme. National newspapers in the main do not exist. Newspaper readership is far lower than in the UK, the level of reporting is far lower, and the diversity of opinion expressed is far more closely monitored by the media monopolies in the USA than in the UK. Through most of American history, the law courts have been quite remarkably hostile to labour, with the widespread use of the injunction hog-tying labour through most of the nineteenth and the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The organisation of mass production industry in the 1930s would have quite impossible without the election of Roosevelt as President, and the subsequent enactment of the Wagner Act and the National Labour Relations Act, which briefly tipped the balance of the law in labour’s favour. The subsequent enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act tipped the balance sharply back in favour of the employers, where it still remains. In short, labour in the USA has been forced to struggle far harder than its counterparts in Europe, only in the end to gain far less. This is an original thesis, one which Sexton documents with much detail drawn from the history of the USA over the past 200 years. The data, with which I am familiar, is in the main incontrovertible. The use which Sexton makes of the material is entirely legitimate, and to myself quite convincing.

As Sexton does not fail to point out, there are, however, a number of other exceptional features which characterised the US experience. These can be briefly listed. There is the absence in the USA of any feudal aristocracy, with the consequent easy access of the masses to universal suffrage, quite without hard-fought struggles, which was close to unique. There is the open democratic character of the US constitution, with its intricate set of checks and balances between the House of Representatives, the Senate, the President and the judiciary, and its federal character, with many important powers resting with the states and not with the federal government at all. There were also the existence through most of the twentieth century of ‘free land’ on an ‘Open Frontier’ in the ‘West’, which allegedly provided a safety valve for discontented workers in the ‘East’; and the 40 million ethnically diverse emigrants who crossed the Atlantic from Europe to the USA between 1870 and 1915, and who constituted a virtual reserve army of labour pressing down on native working-class militancy; there was also the legacy of slavery, with the resultant racist attitudes which were prone to split white and black labour into discrete and hostile groups. Finally, the very vastness of the territories of the USA made it difficult or next to impossible to build up truly national forms of working-class and Socialist organisation. Such factors Sexton freely concedes to be important. Yet they remain in her view quite insufficient to provide a global explanation of the weakness of American labour.

The extent of the war on labour and the left waged by US employers against US employees is documented at great length, and the reader will need to go to the account of particular strikes and confrontations to get the full sense of the matter. A few details concerning the casualty lists will serve to make the matter plain. In the seven years of 1890–97 an estimated 92 people were killed in major strikes, and from January 1902 to September 1904 an estimated 198 people were killed and 1,966 wounded. Over the years 1877–1968 state and federal troops intervened in labour disputes, almost invariably on behalf of the employers, on more than 160 occasions. Overall, a check of strike casualties actually reported in the national press over these same years gives a total of 700 dead and thousands more injured.

More recently, violence has declined, but some 29 people were nonetheless killed in major strikes between 1947 and 1962. By comparison, if the figure quoted by Sexton is correct, in the United Kingdom only one person has been killed in a strike since 1911. The trade union movement, in proportional terms, is far stronger even now in the UK than it has ever been in the USA. But if British unions had faced the same level of employer and state oppression as their counterparts in the USA, would they be at all as strong as they are today? One very much doubts it.

It has long been customary for para-Marxoid left-wingers in the UK, to say nothing of whole rafts of alienated left-wing middle-class intellectuals in the USA, to look with contempt upon the US unions as being led by corrupt, bureaucratic, class collaborationist ‘labour lieutenants of capital’, and their members as reactionary and racist to a man. The truly kaleidoscopic variety of US labour has thus been subsumed into some stylised stereotype based on Hoffa, the Teamsters and the Mafia, which, if the truth be told, are themselves quite alien to the reality of Hoffa himself and that of the Teamsters, and even less applicable to other unions, the wider ranks of the AFL-CIO as a whole. This hackneyed notion of a bought-over ‘labour aristocracy’, led by a corrupt and self-serving class collaborationist bureaucracy, was always too simple, and always in danger of being gravely misleading. Now that The War on Labor and the Left has appeared and dealt with these matters more thoroughly, one would like to think that we will here no more of this nonsense again.

Walter Kendall

Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011