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George Clarke

J.L. Lewis Opens Drive in CIO
to “Clean House” of Stalinists

Strikes First Blow by Removing CP Clique From Strategic Posts

Lewis Crusade Spells End of the Stalinist Union-Wreckers in CIO –
Conflict Breaks on Choice of Allied or Hitler-Stalin War Camp

(24 October 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 81, 24 October 1939, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

John L. Lewis’ announcement that the CIO will clean house of “Communists” means in simple English the beginning of the end of Stalinist power in the American union movement.

The authoritative story of Louis Stark in the N.Y. Times (Oct. 17), reporting the coup of John L. Lewis in the Executive Board tersely states the plan:

“John L. Lewis is determined to rid the Congress of Industrial Organizations of all Communist influence in the next year, according to reports here today concerning the crusade which he set in motion at the meeting of the Executive Committee which followed the close of the CIO convention in San Francisco.”

Stark goes on to report the replacing of the Executive Committee of forty-two as the policy-making power within the CIO by a board of eight. The Executive Committee of forty-two members was heavy with Stalinist supporters, half or more of whom being members or fellow-travellers of the Communist Party. The new board of eight is composed of individuals openly known to be anti-Stalinists. Harry Bridges was left off the board and his power as Regional Director of the West Coast curtailed to include only the State of California. Just an entrée to the main course still to be served.

Stalinists Done For

The “crusade” will now begin in earnest. Lewis’ long experience in slugging his opposition out of business in the United Mine Workers can very well serve as a preview of the events to come in the CIO. In every International Union, city and state CIO Council, in every local union the Stalinist union officials will feel the mailed fist of the generalissimo of the CIO. They will either renounce their former affiliations and scurry like rats for cover – as most of them will – or find themselves on the outside looking in. Where they make any attempt at organized resistance, their charters will speedily find themselves in the wastebasket, or the officials and bureaucrats placed on war-time rations without benefit of the fat CIO subsidies.

The calamity is upon the Stalinists. There is neither retreat or escape for them. They are finished in the CIO.


What has brought them to this sorry pass? Why has Lewis suddenly brought his long-standing alliance with the union-wreckers to an abrupt termination?

Ever since the inception of the CIO revolutionists, radicals and progressives have warned day in, day out of the disastrous effects Stalinism would have on the most promising union movement to arise in this country for decades. These predictions and these warnings were confirmed every inch of the way. Stalinist infiltration into the SWOC helped weaken the eventually lost “Little Steel”strike. Stalinist operatives almost devitalized the great auto workers union by a debilitating faction struggle. Stalinist bureaucracy, high-handed and arbitrary action drove from the CIO the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, and the office workers in New York and San Francisco. They plunged the West Coast labor movement into bitter internecine warfare. They walked through picket lines, broke strikes, organized a fistful of paper unions, helped keep the CIO chained to a company union political policy. The Stalinists stymied in its tracks the further growth of the CIO after its initial tumultuous upsurgence.

Penetrated CIO

Lewis was not ignorant of their union-wrecking role. His information came through a thousand sources and a thousand protests. The evidence was piled mountain-high. But nothing could disturb the idyllic nuptials. The marriage was undisturbed by differences because no fundamental differences existed. And the Stalinists brought all the relatives and friends to live in the Lewis household. Lee Pressman handed down the law to recalcitrants from the sanctum of Lewis’ own office in Washington. Len de Caux doctored the news in the official CIO paper. Organizers whose only two virtues were incompetence and Stalinist affiliation were saddled on every CIO union and Stalinist office girls in every office that would take them.

In their bureaucratic and dictatorial methods, Lewis saw only a worthy continuation of his own methods. In their belly-crawling before Roosevelt, in the “democratic front against Fascism,” Lewis could only see an alliance based on common principles.

Break on War

As Stark points out, the complaints of Murray and Hillman over increasing Stalinist influence in the CIO had little effect until now. Until –

“... the recent Hitler-Stalin pact led to the sudden abandonment of the Communist fight against fascism and nazism, and affected the Communist policy in the trade unions where they were influential.”

The conflict between Lewis and the Stalinists has drawn to the sharpest point over the question of war. Not, to be sure,between a pro-war and an anti-war policy. Far, far from that. It is a conflict between two camps of war-mongers; Lewis supporting the camp of Roosevelt and his “democratic” allies and the Stalinists backing the Hitler-Stalin combination, both of them in hostile opposition to the real interests of the workers on the question of war. The issue of the war makes the divorce final and irrevocable.

Will the patriots of the Stalin-Hitler alliance resist Lewis’ purge? On what ground? On the grounds of bureaucracy, on the grounds of the invasion of local and International autonomy by Lewis and Co.? What a pitiful song for them to chant after they established themselves beyond the slightest doubt as the champions of the bureaucratic intervention of Hillman and Murray in the factional struggle in the United Automobile Workers Union. They are not likely to get much attention from the rank and file of the CIO unions, who are quite familiar with their records, on such a program. The rights of minorities, the right to hold political opinions, in a word, inner-union democracy – this is the very last program on which the Stalinist wreckers, bureaucrats and dictators can expect to get even the slightest hearing.

Union militants and progressives who will fight to the end against any manifestation of bureaucracy can have little sympathy for the Stalinist wreckers themselves. The Stalinists are reaping the harvest of the rotten seeds they have been sowing in the CIO movement. Their conflict with Lewis is in no way progressive – it is a conflict between two imperialist flags.

Compliance Certain

But this prediction may be made safely. There will be more compliance than resistance from the Stalinist union bureaucrats. Confronted with the choice between the flesh-pots of the Lewis machine and all the power and popularity of being on the right side of powerful American imperialism on the one hand and the “foreign,” “alien” G.P.U. apparatus of Joe Stalin on the other – there will be little doubt assailing the minds of the Stalinist crowd, from Bridges, Curran, Quill down to the lowliest business agent.

Lewis gave them a little word of advice, says Stark:

“He is said to have bluntly told those in the room [the executive committee meeting] that there was no room for promotion in the CIO for any one who was affiliated with or tried to carry out the Communist party’s policies. Any one hoping for a labor career, he said, should not become a member of the Communist party.”

This ukase will wreak havoc with the Stalinist forces in the CIO movement. Not only will the leaders know which side their bread is buttered on – but the supporters, members and fellow-travelers of the C.P. In the unions will fall away like chaff before the wind. All the young hopefuls, the career boys who hopped on the C.P. bandwagon to get a job, will hop off with very indecent haste, all the fellow-travelers who wanted to be on the “right side” will become the most rabid opponents of the Communist party. The air will reek with disclaimers – more people will “deny” affiliation with the Stalinists than most people ever believed belonged to them.

The decapitation of Stalinist influence in the trade unions will cleanse it of a virulent poison. The method of their elimination, the issue that provoked it, unfortunately will not strengthen militancy and democracy – it will strengthen the hand, for the time being, of the war-mongering Lewis clique. But only for the time being. The real struggle of the rank and file will rise with greater force in the days and months to come.

Class conscious militants must take care not to line up with either of these imperialist camps expressed in the struggle between the Stalinists and the Lewis bureaucracy. Their duty is clearly indicated. It is the formation of the third camp against imperialist war and its recruiting sergeants in the labor movement. The purge of the Stalinists – by all means!But class conscious workers will organize to extend this purge to the other camp as well, the Lewis-Hillman gang. And that purge can only be carried out with healthful effects for the union movement when it is carried through by democratic means which brings the rank and file into action.

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