From New International, Vol.2 No.10, October 1935, pp.184-189.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
From New International, Vol.2 No.10,
October 1935, pp.184-189.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
THE SIGNING of the Wagner Bill, after a three year Congressional struggle, focuses a series of problems important to American Marxists, and illuminates the present phase in the development of class conflicts in this country. Moreover, it poses once again, in a new form, puzzling aspects in the general theory of the nature and functioning of the state. Careful analysis is deserved.
It is necessary, first of all, to review certain facts:
In recent years spokesmen of the communist party seem to depend more and more upon what might be called a “theory of deceptions” to explain away difficult historical problems. With the help of this theory, the Franco-Soviet Pact and the accompanying memoranda were passed off with a gesture. The Soviet Union once more had “deceived” the bourgeoisie. Dull-witted Laval was no match for Machiavelli-Stalin. This is reminiscent of the way in which the CI deceived Chiang Kai-Shek. Or, again, the whole Labor party business is being conducted with the aid of the theory of deceptions. The masses, unwilling to follow the communist party, will be deceived into following it when it loses its own name and reappears as the leadership of a respectable mass-class party of workers and farmers. Indeed, some effort is made to use the theory to lead workers to believe that the CI is still the leader of the world revolution.
This theory comes in handy whenever there seems to be a peculiarity in the behavior of the bourgeoisie. And it is by this theory that the communist party explains bourgeois opposition to the Wagner Bill. The capitalists and their newspapers are “really” in favor of the Bill; they “pretend” to be opposed in order to make it easier to deceive the workers. In this naïve and mechanical fashion the Stalinists hope to save the face of the Marxian theory of the state; but they succeed only in making clear their own failure to understand the theory in its dynamic application.
There is a conflict, and a “real” conflict on the question of the Wagner Bill, both between sections of the bourgeoisie, and between the majority of the bourgeoisie and the Roosevelt Administration. Politics is not a masquerade, nor a melodramatic plot. Conflicts of this kind are not to be explained away in the childish terms of maneuvers and “deception”.
Since there is a real conflict, an apparent contradiction follows: the state, the instrument of the bourgeoisie, whose role it is to maintain the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, operates in this case against the will of the bourgeoisie. However, such a conflict and “contradiction” is both possible and at the same time entirely consistent with the Marxian theory of the state. Moreover, this is not a minor matter. Such conflicts, and they cannot be avoided, are a source of weakness in the bourgeoisie, and therefore of decisive importance to the workers in their struggle against the bourgeoisie as a whole. They constitute gaps in the bourgeois line of defense, thus permitting the workers to drive successful salients.
We are confronted with two different types of conflict: (1) a conflict between one section of the bourgeoisie proper (the majority, opposed to the Wagner Bill) and another (a minority, in favor of it); (2) a conflict between the bourgeoisie, speaking as a whole through its majority, and the “government” (strictly, the executive branch and a majority of the legislative branch of the government).
The first type of conflict is familiar throughout the history of capitalist society. It follows from the competitive nature of capitalist economy, from the differing stages of development of various branches of industry, from geographical distribution of raw materials (whether or not a given natural resource is found within the national boundaries), etc. These conflicts are exemplified, for example, in the high and low tariff battles in American history, the struggles over banking and monetary legislation, and the differing farm programs. The bourgeoisie does not, of course, constitute a “homogeneous” class, any more than does the proletariat. Capitalist economy functions in such a manner that all members, even the big bourgeoisie, cannot uniformly prosper. A high price for rails means more profit for the steel companies but less for the railroads. And such conflicts, taking shape in the economic battles of the market, are the objective basis for the existence of two or more bourgeois political parties, and of groups and factions within these parties contending for leadership.
These conflicts, it is true, all take place necessarily within the basic framework of the capitalist structure of society. However bitter the struggle between opposing groups becomes – and it is often extremely bitter – no side directs itself against the foundation stones of capitalism itself. The struggle revolves always within an orbit fixed by the fundamental social relations of capitalism.. It is in this sense that the class conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie differs not merely in degree but in kind from any possible intra-bourgeois conflict. And this difference in kind is exactly the point that all shades of reformism are so concerned to obscure.
Nevertheless, the intra-bourgeois conflicts should never be passed over as mere shadow-boxing. They are of the utmost importance in estimating the precise stage of historical development, and in assessing the strength of the position of the class enemy. Moreover, they disclose a great historical weakness of capitalism which gives promise to the revolutionary movement. It is not differing opinions and ideas that cause these conflicts, but the material nature of capitalist society. They are inherent in capitalism. Both nationally and internationally capitalism is by its nature divided against itself, is continuously engaged in poisoning its own nest; and in the advance of history the pressure of its inner conflicts increases always rather than lessens. The proletariat, however, though likewise far from homogeneous, is placed in a position where it is driven together, rather than further apart, by the advance of history; and socialism, the historical answer to the problems of the proletariat, requires objectively the solution of difficulties by cooperative endeavor, not by internecine struggle. Thus, potentially, the proletarian united front, correctly achieved, is far stronger, because more firmly based, than any possible bourgeois united front, which is always rotten at the material core.
To return to the Wagner Bill, the bourgeois support which the Bill receives is a real support, and is to be discovered primarily in the industries already considerably unionized by the AF of L.
To take a concrete example: the big clothing manufacturers support
the Bill strongly. Their factories are for the most part closed shops
in the hands of the ACW. They have discovered that they can work
harmoniously with Hillman – that, in fact, the troublesome personnel
difficulties, layoffs, etc., are much easier when Hillman is there to
help them. But their businesses are threatened by the non-unionized
sweatshops. They want the sweatshops either eliminated or put on the
same labor basis as their own plants. Therefore they supported the NRA
genuinely, and for all it was worth; and with the NRA dead, they turn
to the Wagner Bill.
The majority of the bourgeoisie is opposed to the Wagner Bill. In this opposition they are in conflict with the Administration and with the majority of Congress. This conflict is more interesting and much less usual than the first type. How can it be?
Often such a conflict simply announces the fact that the political relationships in the Administration and in Congress, established some years previously, no longer express the relationship of forces within the bourgeoisie. Thus such a conflict heralds an overturn in the next Presidential elections, and a re-alignment of the parties in Congress. To some extent this is true in the present instance, as is shown even more clearly in the opposition to the Utilities Holding Company Bill and the new Tax Bill. However, there is more to it than this – particularly when it is kept in mind that Roosevelt will in all probability be reflected.
When we say that in class society the state is the political instrument of class domination, we do not mean anything so simple as that US laws are written in the offices of Morgan & Co. – though that may at times be the case. Fundamentally we mean that, on the whole, the state functions in practise to uphold and if possible strengthen existing social relations, above all existing property relations; and that the state acts to suppress any serious threat to these relations. Now in certain countries at certain times the government has been in fact the personal servant of a small, closely united clique of the ruling class (e.g., bankers, railroad owners, big landlords or what not). But in large, industrially advanced nations, especially during the decline of capitalism, this is not ordinarily the case. To an increasing extent, of which Fascism is the most extreme example, the state tends to represent the interests of the big bourgeoisie as a whole, rather than the interests of any single group or clique of the bourgeoisie.
But to speak of “the big bourgeoisie as a whole” is ambiguous, since the bourgeoisie, like any other class, is composed of individual men. What this means, then, is that the state tends to represent the basic historical interests of the bourgeoisie – i.e., the maintenance of existing property relations – rather than the immediate interests (and conscious wills) of any individual capitalist or group of capitalists. This leads to somewhat surprising conclusions. Because of this role, which the state must play, the state may well be in conflict with the immediate interests and conscious wills (the conscious will, in the case of most individuals, is fixed on immediate interest) not merely of a minority of the bourgeoisie – which would be expected on any account – but even of a majority; in fact, theoretically, even of all individual members of the bourgeoisie taken as individuals. At the same time, historically, the state could nevertheless be serving the fundamental interests of “the bourgeoisie as a whole”.
There is no assurance whatever that the interests and desires of a given capitalist at a given moment will correspond with the historical interests of his class. For example: it is rumored that Ford is soon to start mass production of a Diesel engine for automobiles. Whether or not true, it is clear that the economic dislocations this would cause, when done in Ford’s “individualist” manner, might well be against the best interests of US capitalism; whereas, granted the proper technical basis, it would certainly be for the best interests of Ford. Again, it is obviously against the individual interests of entrepreneurs when their businesses are driven bankrupt by a trust; but it is often a necessary part of the development of capitalism as a whole.
More pertinently: The x steel company may rightly feel that it can handle its own labor problems by itself, with intra-company propaganda, spies, barbed wire, employee picnics, deputies and machine guns. But, since its management will reason primarily with reference to their own plants, they will underemphasize (a) the effect of such methods on labor elsewhere; (b) the problems of other industries; (c) the effect on their own workers of labor disputes not handled so “well” by other plants. Thus, the management of x company will oppose the Wagner Bill even though not only others but perhaps they themselves may, in the long run, need it.
There is no difficulty either in logic or in dialectics (which is, of course, never inconsistent with logic) in the possibility of such a situation – namely, where the interest of the whole differs from the summation of the interests of the parts. A coach in any sport knows the difference between a good team and a team made up of good players; and knows, too, that the interest of the team as such may be against the immediate interests even of every player in it.
Now, an able and healthy “government” is, in many respects, in the best position to estimate the historical interests of the dominant class as a whole. This is true because the government is not tied down to the viewpoint of any particular industry or group of industries; because, in the modern advanced nation, its activities put it into intimate contact with every industry, and, further, because it is composed of individuals skilled in the broad knowledge of social movements.
There are additional bases for conflict between the government and a majority of the bourgeoisie. Chief among them is the fact that the “state”, as concretized in a given institutional set-up and a given personnel, though always the political instrument of class domination in the historical sense above outlined, is not a “pure” instrument, even in that sense. The government, instrument with respect to the dominant class, has yet a life of its own, has its own interests as well as, and at times in opposition to, the interests of its master. True enough, the peculiar interests of the government as such cannot come into fundamental conflict with the interests of the dominant class (that is why a workers’ economy can be built only by a workers’ state, taking power over the destruction of the old state), but the conflicts can be nevertheless genuine.
Modern governments are gigantic bureaucracies, comprising hundreds of thousands of individuals. These too have a voice and a will, and do not want to lose their salaries. Modern government is itself the largest of giant modern industries. And modern administrations, in democratic nations at any rate, must be elected in order that they and their followers shall remain in office. Moreover, unless it makes widespread and constant use of open force – and perhaps not even then – a government cannot continue long in power without holding the support or at least the sufferance of a substantial majority of the population.
These conditions define special problems and interests of the government in fulfilling its role within class society. These problems and interests are more immediate and therefore more conscious for the politicians than for the active capitalists; they occupy a place, for the politicians, above and in addition to the general problems of renewing prosperity and profits. The bourgeois politician has a complicated double task, with reference to the masses: he must first of all maintain the support or sufferance of the masses for capitalism; but, secondly, he must maintain it for himself and his followers as the approved political agents of capitalism. In both divisions of his task he may well run into conflict with the majority of the bourgeoisie. In the second, sources of conflict are sufficiently obvious: the politician will want government money for his followers, the capitalist, “economy in government”; the politician will wish to reward his friends, whereas the given capitalist may have different friends; the politician will want to plan the order of his governmental acts to guarantee reelection, whereas this may interfere with the most desirable order from the standpoint of the capitalist; the politician may even wish to make a bid for a large bloc of votes (e.g., a large construction program or the TVA) when this directly injures the profits of certain capitalists.
But even in his first task, that of maintaining mass support or sufferance for capitalism, the politician may run into serious conflict with many or most capitalists – even, that is, when the politician is protecting the historical class interests of the capitalists. This results from the different perspective toward his class duty forced on the politician by his special tasks. The capitalist normally underestimates the role and importance of the masses; the politician must make the needed corrections. The typical capitalist accepts with regret the necessity for the politician. He chafes under the requirement of elaborate state machinery, expensive governmental apparatus, the time “wasted” in political machinations, the need to make occasional “concessions” to the politician or through him to the masses. The early capitalist ideal is a kind of political vacuum, where the search for profits can proceed “naturally”, without “interference”.
With increasing complaint, during the advance, maturity, and decline of capitalism, the capitalist sees the role of his politician become ever larger, and watches the monster state spread its dark wings over all the nooks and crannies of society. Unwillingly he accepts “governmental regulation”, “public ownership”, “federal control”; and, at the last, unwillingly indeed he turns to Fascism. For Fascism, historically required to uphold bourgeois society during the decline of capitalism, is nevertheless the grossest form of the conflict I have been studying. Fascism exacts material and moral sacrifices, often grievous ones, from all or almost all individual capitalists, in order to ensure the class domination of the capitalists as a whole. The fate of capitalist society is a dead end, forced upon even those who accept it, unwillingly adopted as a “judgment of history” by those who do not understand the historical process which enmeshes them.
The normal American capitalist, enjoying an upturn in profits, at present feels confident that he can handle his own workers, settle his own “labor troubles”; he is not worried over the troubles of others, and, since he is not running for office and is not trained in the ways of the masses, he underestimates such factors as “mass discontent”. Why, thinks he, should we make concessions to labor when I can handle labor without concessions? Above all, why make concessions to the AF of L, which proves its impotence every day? No Labor Boards for me. I will defeat them by lobbying in Congress, with the help of my press; and, if that fails, I will disregard their findings, and smash them in the courts.
But his political servants, in these matters, are wiser than their master. Yes, they can agree, we will “handle labor”, but what is a government for if not to handle labor in the most effective manned? If labor got the idea clearly that the state was its enemy, not its representative, where would we all be then? No, we will handle labor by tangling it up, ideologically as well as practically, in the state apparatus. And besides, we want to keep labor votes for 1936.
The AF of L? True, its bureaucracy is “impotent” so far as the
threats and thunderings go. But the AF of L has also a membership, and
the membership includes many fighting workers ready to struggle at the
drop of a hat, if given the lead. What do you rugged individualists
wish? Do you want us to discredit the AF of L officials by refusing
their “demands” and denying them a platform in Congress and the White
House? If that happened, if we showed workers openly where the
government stands with respect to labor, what then would be left for
the AF of L membership but to repudiate the ways of their leaders and
set out to gain their ends in direct class struggle? Reflect, gentlemen
capitalists: How did we break the 1934 auto strike? the general textile
strike? How have we been handling the threatened coal strike? No. Labor
laws, government boards, arbitration committees, these too have their
uses; and the National Guard is not always more effective. Section 73
is gone. For a time, then, the Wagner Bill must take its place. When
the courts throw it out, or the workers become disillusioned by it, we
will find an adequate substitute. Meanwhile, do not fear that its
nominal provisions will be enforced. We will take care that it is used
to break strikes, not to make them, that it transfers labor struggles
from plant gates to arbitration boards or the courts, that it aids the
AF of L officials in their drive against militants. And in any case,
you have your tear gas, your deputies, your injunctions, and always the
National Guard in the background.
In the January New International I pointed out that Roosevelt’s task with his new Congress, the reverse of his task with his first Congress, was the complex one of acting in effect as a brake on Congress while at the same time continuing to give the appearance of liberal leadership and “social-mindedness”. The Administration had to give the nation the form of a Leftward movement and the substance of reaction. Only so could both the economic and the political requirements of the situation be met. Roosevelt has performed his task with brilliance and with as much success as such a task could meet: his gradual loss of prestige could not have been prevented, since the gap between words and deeds must gradually become obvious, apparent in the “inconsistencies”, “changes of mind”, etc. – themselves no accidents but forced on him by the nature of his task – which the opposition now makes so much of. Roosevelt delayed the bonus in a bitter fight. In a rapid offensive he sabotaged social security plans by introducing his own pretense of a Social Security Bill – thereby retaining public “leadership” of the social security movement. He struck at relief and, more important, at wage standards, by the skillfully ballyhooed WPA program. Then, after avoiding the rocks of all genuine or half-genuine “Left” legislation, he managed to regain at least part of his “Left” prestige by a series of clever moves during the last months of the session. His championing of the Wagner Bill, the Utilities Bill, the absurd Tax Bill, permits him to keep something of his standing as the bulwark against the Tories, the banks, the industrialists, the die-hards, and the courts; and provides him with campaign issues in plenty.
In this way Roosevelt seems to have headed off the third party moves to his Left, forcing the liberals, Farmer-Laborites, Progressives, however unwillingly, to stay with him, and consolidating a reactionary opposition to his Right. This opposition he feels confident of defeating; and, unless a business upturn increases and broadens between now and November, 1936, he is justified in his confidence. It is a narrow tightrope he is walking, but for Roosevelt there is no other. There is a biting irony in the fact that on the same day (August 9) Roosevelt received his Social Security Bill, promising comfort to all, from Congress, and ordered relief cut off from the striking New York WPA workers – the form and the substance again jarred each other. But, while the masses continue to believe that their choice is between Roosevelt and the reactionary opposition to his Right, he can still afford the contradiction.
In sustaining this belief the Wagner Bill plays its essential part.
Roosevelt, so reads the Bill and so echo Green and Lewis, offers the
workers full and free unionism. If the industrialists and courts smash
the Bill, it is not Roosevelt who is to blame. Look at the record: he
fights alongside, against the common enemy.
The Wagner Bill shows, more clearly than it has been shown before, how integral a part of bourgeois class domination the AF of L bureaucracy has become. The relationship is mutual: the government is necessary to the AF of L bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy is necessary to the (present form of) government. The governmental labor machinery and the AF of L bureaucracy, operating integrally together, have become the chief means for preventing the development of independent working class activity and independent working class consciousness. This is what Roosevelt and Green understand, and what the majority of industrialists and bankers do not so clearly understand. The AF of L bureaucracy maintains its prestige only with the help of its parliamentary and semi-parliamentary activities, with the help of governmental “favors” and “concessions” – sections 73, Wagner Bills, Guffey Bills. But, equally, the government maintains its prestige with large sections of the working class only because the AF of L lends the government a pseudo-labor covering. In the links of this interrelationship lie the dangers and possibilities for both sides.
If a break occurs between the government and the bureaucracy, for whatever reason, only one result is possible: the bureaucracy, having lost the liaison upon which its leadership depends, will lose its hold on its own rank and file (whether or not it loses nominal office), and the membership will go more and more directly to independent class business, breaking with increasing rapidity, in idea and in act, from class collaboration through the government. And, likewise, the government will be faced with a working class rapidly awakening to class consciousness under the spectacle of an openly hostile state. Since these results would follow from a break, we may conclude that, until the time for Fascism is much nearer, such a break is most unlikely, no matter what the provocation.
The objective role and function of the AF of L bureaucracy in the present stage must be understood in this light.
The naive conclusion is – a new Federation of Labor. If the AF of L is as you say, then it is no good to the working class, is in fact a major enemy, and we should start a new Federation. But this naive conclusion by no means necessarily follows, and certainly does not at the present time. It is not the AF of L in the abstract, but its bureaucracy which is allied with the enemy, which is indeed in the front rank of the enemy’s forces. The government needs the bureaucracy; but the bureaucracy can do no good to the government unless it has a rank and file. Therein lies the weakness from the point of view of the bureaucracy, the government, and the government’s master. The bureaucracy cannot alienate its rank and file too widely, for it would thus prepare itself for the dust pile, being of no further use to the government. But, on the other hand, it must smother the upsurge of its rank and file, or else equally fail to serve the needs and purposes that lead the government to make use of it. In this way, the bureaucracy is caught in a squeeze pressed ever tighter by the progress of events: it is required both to keep control over its rank and file and to use that control to strangle class struggle. The deepening of the internal contradictions of American capitalism, however, poses a dilemma to the bureaucracy in carrying out this necessary double aim: to keep control, some apparent response must be made to the Leftward movement; but to use that control to smother struggle, more and more openly brutal and high-handed reactionary methods must be employed.
The interrelationship between the government and the bureaucracy,
and the dilemma faced by the bureaucracy, far from being without
possibilities, enables a conscious Left wing within the AF of L to
utilize the AF of L structure for the broadest and most intense
struggles, every one of which squeezes the bureaucracy tighter,
undermining its position and its relations with the government. Such
tactics exploit to the full what prestige the AF of L has and avoid the
“illegality”, both within and outside the labor movement, of operations
by an independent Federation. The last two years have demonstrated in
embryo the possibilities there are in this strategy; to reach maturity
an organized Left wing, itself led by members of the revolutionary
party, is required.
From many points of view, the Wagner Bill, even if it is kept in the background or crushed in the courts upon its first application, is one of the two or three most important acts of legislation of the late Congress. It is so because it characterizes so exactly the present stage of the development of the Roosevelt Administration and of the opposition to it, and because it concerns so directly the working class – much more directly than, for example, the nebulous Social Security Act.
It is not necessary to examine at length its probable working out in practise. This is sufficiently obvious. The first attempt to invoke it to gain union recognition, majority rule, or any of the other “rights” which it nominally guarantees, will be blocked in the courts. The Bill may be sustained finally, by virtue of the clause restricting its application to industries engaged in interstate commerce – though thus greatly narrowed in even nominal range – but in any case it will be effectively prevented from doing any “protecting”.
Meanwhile, Marxists must be vigilant with respect to it. An attitude of simple denunciation of the Bill as a strike-breaker is not sufficient, and would serve only to confuse union workers and to isolate the Marxists. It must be connected with the lessons of Section 7a, which might be summarized: Take anything it offers, but never depend on it; depend only on independent class activity. To the extent that this approach – an approach which says to the workers, in effect, “Act as if the ‘rights’ denied by the Wagner Bill were actually yours, but do not count on the Wagner Bill to get them for you”, rather than the simple denunciation, is made clear, two great gains are possible. First, the Left wing can force a recruiting drive of large proportions during the Autumn and Winter, a drive which the bureaucracy, unpressed, will never undertake; and, second, the workers will learn in experience, in action, the real significance of the Bill itself, a lesson that abstract analysis will never effectively teach and which will be a decisive step toward the central lesson, the lesson in the nature of the state.
In this process Marxists must be on guard, naturally, against the dangers of the Bill. Two of these are familiar, though none the less dangerous on that account; the third is a comparatively new departure and particularly difficult for that reason.
First, the Bill will of course be used to remove labor disputes from open class struggle to arbitration boards and the courts. In this it will have the support of the AF of L bureaucracy, and this must be resisted at each step.
Second, the Wagner Bill is one more notch in the general preparation for compulsory arbitration. This must always be remembered.
Third, the new departure: A late amendment to the Bill authorizes the Board or Boards set up under its provisions to determine whether a craft, plant, concern, or industry shall be taken as the unit of collective bargaining. It is hardly necessary to point out the potential dangers of this amendment. It can readily be used to aid Green in resisting the developments toward industrial unionism. It can prevent the building of industry-wide unions. It can become a most effective wedge dividing the workers in different plants of the same concern from each other, thereby permitting what in actuality would be scab settlements in single plants, and reducing the effectiveness of union locals almost to that of company unions. The settlements of the lumber strike, though not invoking the Wagner Bill itself, employed some of these methods: the agreements were made in each case with plant locals. This amendment and the principle which underlies it must be fought openly and vigorously from the start.
The passing of the Wagner Bill was neither a victory for labor, as Green hails it, nor a defeat, as the Daily Worker insists. Its significance depends on what is done with it. Properly utilized it can play its part in a notable advance.
Last updated: 12.3.2005