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Ernest Erber

Closed Shop

Two Conceptions of Democracy Are Tested
in Closed Shop Fight

(10 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 10, 10 March 1947, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Out of all the anti-labor bills introduced in the present Republican-controlled Congress, the one given the green light for speediest action is Senator Ball’s bill to outlaw the closed shop.

It is not as yet entirely clear what considerations of strategy led the Republican chiefs to choose the closed shop as the first target in their anti-labor offensive. Doubtless, however, one of the reasons is the tremendous opportunity for demagogy which the closed shop issue permits the reactionaries. From constant defenders of the rights of stockholders and property owners, the Republicans suddenly emerge as the champions of the “right to work.”

(The last Republican Congress, under Hoover in 1936, had precious little to say about the “right to work” of some twelve million unemployed!)

The propaganda about the “right to work” makes a deep impression upon middle class people, especially small employers, business men, farmers with hired help, etc. The “little man,” himself a victim of the mighty capitalist monopolies, lends a ready ear to Republican spellbinders who launch forth about the “undemocratic” and “tyrannous” character of the closed shop, above all when they wring the last drop of emotion out of the appeal on behalf of the “individual worker who is crushed between the forces of capital and the forces of organized labor.” The small employer who responds to this line of propaganda envisions himself as a crusader on behalf of “freedom” and “democracy.”

We have no basis for doubting his devotion to “freedom” and “democracy.” We are forced, however, to observe that there must be more than one concept of “freedom” and “democracy” since the union man who fights to defend the closed shop is equally convinced that his is a struggle on behalf of “freedom” and “democracy.”

Class Concept of Democracy

This controversy over the closed shop, if carefully followed and intelligently understood, lays bare what Marxists refer to as the class concept of democracy. It reveals the basic conflict between the fullest expression of the ideals of freedom and democracy and the economic interests of the capitalist class. It proves that freedom and democracy in the freest and most democratic of capitalist nations can only operate in a restricted, hemmed-in and crippled manner; that it must conform to the economic interests of the dominant class and must be shaped by their needs. That is why Marxists refer to it as capitalist democracy (or bourgeois democracy).

It is permitted to operate in a meeting hall or a polling place on election day, but it is not permitted to be carried into a plant and applied to the foundations of social existence, the planning, control and management of production. In the latter sphere, the capitalist is an absolute monarch. Here “freedom” and “democracy” are viewed as the very enemies of civilization and the fuehrer-prinzip (principle of the leader), the hierarchy of superintendents, assistant superintendents, foremen, and sub-foremen, all appointed and commanded from the top down and all other concepts of dictatorial organization are extolled as the very fountainhead of wisdom.

A few years ago, Cecil de Mille, millionaire movie magnate who has recently had his hands full in Hollywood defending the “sacred rights of management” against his striking employees, appeared before a Senate committee to testify on behalf of the Ball bill. Following his fervent appeals for legislation to outlaw the closed shop, he proceeded to New York where he delivered the main address to the public school children in a commemoration of the Bill of Rights. He advised the children to hold our liberties as a sacred trust, above all else. He said that the key to the superiority of our political system lay in one word, freedom. He told them that their fathers could publicly say what they think of any government official and go to bed without fear that a knock at the door means the secret police coming to take them away. But de Mille’s passionate oratory on behalf of “freedom” reached its highest pitch when he proclaimed, in a thinly-disguised reference to the closed shop, that it was the right of every man to work when, how and where he sees fit, without interference or coercion.

The Capitalist View of Freedom

If we are to assume that de Mille’s defense of “freedom” and “democracy” is not compounded of pure cynicism, we have here a typical example of how the most liberal of capitalists see the issue of “freedom” and “democracy” solely through the windows of their class whenever these concepts touch upon the basic economic questions, which, of course, are the fundamental questions of our day and the ones around which the class struggle revolves.

We have no doubt that de Mille is sincerely glad that he. does not live in a country ruled by the secret police. Nor need we assume that he fears only a GPU. Like most German capitalists, the average American capitalist has no special longing for life under a Gestapo, either. The experiences of a capitalist like de Mille, who has been confronted by a militant union organization seeking to win a little economic freedom and democracy for its members, have bred a fear of the business agent, the walking delegate and the union organizer that equals, if it does not eclipse, his fear of the secret police of the totalitarian state.

“Liberty” and “democracy” are fine concepts to de Mille which he would not only like to enjoy himself but is willing to extend to every one. But when his employees give expression to their devotion to these fine concepts by organizing to establish some democratic control over such important economic questions as hiring and firing, these fine concepts suddenly lose all appeal for de Mille and he sees In them only the “tyranny of organized labor” and the “coercion of the minority by the majority.”

“Freedom” means to de Mille the “freedom” to run his enterprise as he sees fit. After all what rights have the employees to band together and tell de Mille that he can hire and fire only with union approval? Is this not a dictatorial restriction of his “freedom”? So it is. As long as we live in a society divided into classes, as long as we have exploiters and exploited, as long as we have those who live by owning the means of production and those who live by operating them, so long will it be impossible to speak of “freedom” and “democracy” as if it meant the same thing to everyone.

A Confusing Concept

The concepts of “freedom” and “democracy” are causing a lot of confusion these days. Due to the example of Stalinist Russia and to the incalculable harm done to the concept of Socialism by Stalinist propaganda, a notion has gained currency which poses the Marxist concept of democracy in a way that is thoroughly alien to the views of the founders of scientific Socialism. The spokesmen of capitalism, especially such ideologists as Hayek, state that the essence of democracy is political democracy and that the latter is only possible as long as there is private ownership of industry. State ownership of the economy and political democracy are incompatible according to their view.

On the other hand, the Stalinists, and more openly the Stalinist apologists like Henry Wallace, state that the essence of the “Russian system” is economic democracy. They state that the essential importance of economic democracy makes it possible to sacrifice political freedom and democracy. The latter, they say, has importance only for intellectuals and such, while, the masses want bread and are consequently interested only in their participation in economic life. We will not here argue with Hayek that political democracy under capitalism gives way to fascism nor point out in detail that there is as little economic democracy in Russia as there is political democracy.

The point we want to make is that Socialism is impossible if political and economic democracy are separated. There can be no Socialism if one or the other is absent. Nor is one form of democracy possible in the long run without the other. The pernicious concept that the workers state, as the first step in building the Socialist society, marks a curtailment of freedom and democracy in favor of something called “economic democracy” must be everywhere labelled for what it is – a Stalinist notion. Socialism will conquer through breaking down all barriers which have been erected by capitalism against the penetration of democratic organization into the economic life. The nationalization of economy is not the essence of Socialism. It is merely the necessary form in which democracy in economy finds its expression. But to express itself in economy, it must simultaneously exist politically.

We will return to this theme in a later article in which we will examine in detail the manner in which the closed shop is related to the penetration of economy by the workers’ concept of freedom and democracy.

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