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George Breitman

John L. Lewis: His Stand on War,
His Role in the Unions

(6 September 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 36, 6 September 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The new united front of the Stalinists and Hillmanites against John L. Lewis confronts, every militant worker in the labor movement with the necessity of having a clear and precise attitude toward the Lewis group in the CIO. This involves an understanding not only of the position taken by Lewis on the war, but also of the role Lewis is playing in the union movement today.

The Hillman-Stalinist forces are concentrating their fire on Lewis’ action last month in signing his name to a statement on the war together with 14 leading Republican isolationists. Let us begin, therefore, by examining that “anti-war” statement.

It is an out-and-out isolationist document. It opposes “naval action” and the seizing of bases outside the Western Hemisphere, although not opposing seizures inside. It declares against military action outside the Western Hemisphere but maintains “that American lives should be sacrificed” for “independence” or to keep control of the Western Hemisphere.

This “isolationist” statement is, in short, one calculated to serve the interests of those imperialists who are satisfied for the time being to dominate the Americas. It is no accident that reactionaries like Hoover and Landon could sign their name to it.

In addition, the statement comes out against governmental aid to the Soviet Union as “unauthorized” and because the Soviet Union is not a democracy. This statement, it should be recalled, is signed by people who are not opposed to and as a matter of fact support the sending of aid to British imperialism.

Lewis Policy on the War

No class-conscious worker can support this so-called “anti-war” statement that Lewis signed, for it is neither anti-war nor pro-labor in character. The fundamental fallacies in it are:

1. It is no more progressive to support “Western Hemisphere” imperialism than it is to support the imperialists who seek world domination.

2. It is incorrect to support government aid to British imperialism in the war as a means of fighting against war.

Such support will lead inevitably to involving the United States in the war. If the aid is to get there, it means seeing that the aid is not sunk, it means sending convoys to prevent the Nazis from sinking the aid. Sending convoys means entering on the road of direct and open “shooting” conflict with Hitler, it means “incidents” which can easily be used by the warmongers for the purpose of beginning the war. One step leads to the next, and those who advocate aid to Britain today must logically call for war tomorrow. Those who really want to fight against United States entry into the war will also refuse to support aid to British imperialism today.

The Question of Aid to the USSR

3. No militant worker can consistently oppose aid to the Soviet Union.

Of course, we cannot adopt for our own, the slogan of government aid to the Soviet Union, Those who would accept responsibility for such a slogan must accept the responsibility for convoys, etc. There is no doubt that Roosevelt is glad to use aid to the Soviet Union as a means of gathering support for his war program from those sections of the working class which opposed the lend-lease bill for Britain, but want to give aid to the Soviet Union.

But the workers cannot follow Lewis in his opposition to aid to the Soviet Union. Instead they must concentrate on the only real program of aid to the USSR, workers’ independent action against he bosses and their war and for the establishment of a Workers and Farmers Government that will be a true ally of the Soviet masses.

It is clear that the policies on the war which Lewis follows in no way resemble a militant, working class opposition to imperialist war. Between his policies and the policies of the Stalinist-Hilllnanite nited front on the war there is no real choice for the workers.

Differences on Building the Unions

The Stalinists and the Hillmanites do more, however, than attack the very vulnerable position of Lewis on the war. They follow this by attacking his entire role in the union movement.

We refuse to support either the Lewis position on war or the war-mongering policies of the CP-Hillman coalition; but we must recognize that there is an important difference between them on the question of building the CIO. While the Stalinists-Hillmanites are willing to subordinate everything in the labor movement to support of Roosevelt’s: war program, Lewis stands for the building of the CIO in spite of the war and in spite of the government. When it comes to this dispute between the two groups, which is one of the key questions for labor in time of war, militant workers cannot stand with folded arms, indifferent to the, outcome.

Militants must intervene when two groups are fighting over questions that will determine the future of the CIO, the independence of the labor movement, the preservation of the gains of industrial unionism.

When Lewis condemns the use of troops to break strikes, as at the North American plant, while Hillman condones it; when Lewis attacks the anti-labor functions of the National Defense Mediation Board, while Hillman collaborates with it; when Lewis leads the attack on Congressional and administration anti-labor legislation, while Hillman behind the scenes tries to make that legislation a little more palatable; when Lewis encourages the affiliation of the militant drivers movement to the CIO, while Hillman’s associates pass resolutions against it in the local bodies they control; when in short Lewis seeks to build and spread the CIO, while Hillman tries to shackle it to the Roosevelt war machine and weaken it in the struggle against the reactionary craft-unionists headed by the AFL Executive Council, then progressive trade unionists must support Lewis against the Hillman-Stalinist bloc.

By their policy for both the unions and on the war, the Hillman-Stalinist forces occupy a wholly reactionary position. Lewis’s position on the war is wrong and misleading from beginning to end, and will have to be fought by those who understand that the isolationists are incapable of leading successful opposition to the war in the workers’ interests. But this must not blind militants to the equally undeniable fact that the Lewis forces tend to resist the government moves to hogtie the CIO and destroy its character as the progressive organizational movement of the workers in the mass industries.

Those who want: to fight against the war as well as those who want to protect and extend labor’s gains – for both of which tasks a strong independent industrial union movement is required – will unhesitatingly take their side on questions of building the unions, against the Hillman-Stalinist united front.

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