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James Burnham

Their Government

(16 June 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 42, 16 June 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The other night I saw a Philadelphia friend of mine who is a “radical New Dealer.” He is one of the bright young men who believe, they say, in “the ultimate goal of socialism,” but as “realistic” politicians convince themselves (and try to convince others) that the practical and progressive step today is to support “Roosevelt against reaction.” He is a little discouraged lately, and he is anxious to find someone to blame for the fact that all is not so rosy as he expected six years ago.

He told me about a textile worker who lives in the house next to him. This neighbor had had a job in a Philadelphia plant for many years. The plant was unionized, and wages were comparatively good. Suddenly, last September, the company shut the Philadelphia plant, and moved its equipment to non-union, low-wage territory down South. The Philadelphia employees were left behind, without jobs or prospects of jobs.

“In November, two months later,” my friend went on, “my neighbor voted for Judge James and the whole Republican ticket.” He had got to his point, and found his scapegoat. “How are we going to get anywhere in this country,” he concluded, “when the workers are dumb enough to act like that?”

Just Who Is Stupid?

Offhand it might seem that my friend had a point. For a worker to think that he is going to solve his problems by voting the ticket of the ultra-reactionary Republican Party, after all these years, “does look at first like almost hopeless stupidity. But reflection on this little incident led me to a conclusion very different from that of my friend.

Pennsylvania had for four years been under the control of George Earle, darling of the New Deal and close intimate of Roosevelt. In last year’s Spring Primaries, the U.M.U. had run Tom Kennedy for the gubernatorial candidacy, against the Earle machine. In the Primaries campaign, which was bitterly fought, Kennedy and his supporters had denounced Earle from one end of the State to the other, and “every charge they made against the machine was justified a dozen times over. The workers, especially the C.I.O. workers, rallied to Kennedy, but he was defeated.

For some months thereafter the C.I.O. officials did nothing. Then, shortly before the election, they told the workers to vote for – the very same Earle machine which they had denounced that Spring, the same machine that had been running the State into the ground for four years, the machine under which the textile worker’s job had disappeared.

What, then, was my friend’s neighbor to decide? What possible basis did he have for accepting this new advice, contradicting everything that had been told him before, as well as his own experience? It seems to me that his decision not to vote for the Earle machine was both correct and intelligent, with no trace of stupidity but on the contrary a firm grasp of realities.

What positive was left for him to do? There was only one other party in the field, the Republican Party. He was not a syndicalist or indifferent, he wanted to exercise his rights as a citizen, and therefore the only act within his power was to vote for James and the rest of the Republicans.

Granted that his vote was directly counter to his own interests, as he perhaps understands now, with James’ signature just fixed under the new union-smashing labor act. But who was to blame here? Who was at fault that this workers’ revolt against the status quo (for that is what it amounted to) was turned into the blind rut of Republicanism? It was not his fault: he, as an individual, had no other choice.

The blame lies at the door of people like my friend, but above all of the trade-union officialdom. It is they who stultified and sterilized this textile worker’s wish and need for political expression. If, after Kennedy’s Primary defeat, they had done what every event called for – put up a union slate, a labor ticket for the elections, there is not the slightest doubt that this worker’s vote would not have reluctantly padded the Republican column.

And Who Is Lagging?

There are rising indications that throughout the country the workers themselves are ready for a new kind of politics: for working-class politics, for union tickets and a labor party. This was shown in November by the success of McLevy in Connecticut, in spite of sabotage by the Stalinists and the officials of both C.I.O. and A.F.L. It is being shown today in Minneapolis, where, in the face of a late start and the overwhelming Farmer-Labor collapse in November, the workers have impressively rallied to Eide and the rest of the unions’ ticket.

The complaint is made that the American workers do not learn, that they are politically stupid. But this complaint is ordinarily merely the excuse for passivity, opportunism or betrayal on the part of the complainer. The American workers have learned, during the last decade, a large part of the lesson. They now observe the collapse of New Dealism; and more and more of them are prepared to break not only with New Dealism but with bourgeois politics as a whole – if only they can find an alternate path. The Lewises, Greens and Browders have as a principal function to hide and block that alternate path: the path of independent working-class political action.

Conditions are again ripe, after a year or more’s hibernation, for blasting away the obstacles. A Presidential year approaches as the War Deal consolidates its hold and social reaction drives deeper. In the months ahead, the slogans for labor politics are certain to meet with an ever-widening response, if they are put forward boldly and clearly, and carried direct into the camp of the enemy.

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