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Books in Review

Labor’s Leaders

(November 1948)

From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 9, November 1948, pp. 287–288.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The New Men of Power: America’s Labor Leaders
by C. Wright Mills
Harcourt, Brace, N.Y., 1948, 323 pages, $3.50.

The American labor officialdom is subjected to a pitiless examination by C. Wright Mills. These several thousand men, “generals” of the “most democratic societies of their size in the world,” says Mills in his opening pages, “are the strategic actors, they lead the only organizations capable of stopping the main drift toward war and slump.” Weighing them carefully against this task, Mills finds them wanting and concludes his work with this sentence: “Never has so much depended upon men who are so ill-prepared and so little inclined to assume the responsibility.”

Having proved to the hilt that those who can and should stop the “main drift” cannot and will not do so, the author loses balance in an effort to find the way out. He becomes blinded to the very guide marks which he himself carves out and loses control over his own excellent material, ignoring conclusions which flow inescapably from his investigation. This work divides into two clearly defined aspects: Mills, posing the role of the labor leadership within the framework of the problems of contemporary society, is powerful, convincing, illuminating. But Mills outlining his own program, and we must add, sketching the purported program of the “far left” (Trotskyists), succeeds only in creating a bizarre fog. This latter part of his work is of interest mainly as a curiosity which can be overlooked without detracting from the unquestionable importance of the book.

What is the American labor leader? Mills adds much to our knowledge, documenting his investigation with facts and statistics assembled in large part from a series of questionnaires addressed to all leaders of AFL and CIO international unions and heads of city and state federations. The labor leaders are “of lowly origin.” Most of them began as wage workers, as did their fathers. However, they come not from the lowest sections of the population, the unskilled and semiskilled, but from, among the highly skilled workers, foremen, farmers, or of small businessmen. Many were workers whose ambitions were leading them out of the working class into the professions, but who became derailed into labor leadership. Mills informs us that “David Dubinsky, for instance, or Julius Hochman went into the shop with the vaguely contradictory ambition of leading the workers toward ‘emancipation’ while saving enough money to study medicine or law.” Walter Reuther could be cited as another example. He started out as a tool and die maker who worked as a leader while he attended college with the aim of becoming an engineer. He participated in the socialist student movement and with the depression and later the rise of the UAW became diverted from his engineering career back into the labor movement. The labor leaders, says Mills, “are, in an unkindly phrase, ‘petty bourgeois’ in origin.”

The union leader “organizes discontent, then he sits on it exploiting it in order to maintain a continuous organization; the labor leader is a manager of discontent.” To maintain his position he builds a machine inside the union based upon patronage (“porkchops”) but at all times he must “deliver the goods” to the rank and file. His horizon is limited to securing this or that immediate short-term gain. He supports the capitalist system but seeks within it peaceable and cooperative relations with the business class which will give him a junior partnership with the owners of industry, security for the union, and higher wages for the workers. He “stands between the company bureaucracy and the rank and file of the workers, acting as a shock absorber for both.”

Security for the union he identifies with the security of his own position which gives him power, a standard of life above that of the ranks and freedom from the monotony of industrial labor. The culmination of this stability he seeks by the regularization of the whole economy to free it of shocks and crises. He therefore accepts the “liberal rhetoric” of peaceful cohabitation of union and industry under the benevolent auspices of the liberal capitalist state. The New Deal embodied all his aspirations. Becoming its ardent champion, he helped shunt aside the political development of the labor movement.

He fears the power of industry in government and is alarmed at the possibility of fascism but has no long-range policy beyond that of a quick grasp for speedy small-time gains. He is opposed to the formation of an independent party of labor and hopes to achieve his aims within the framework of the Democratic-Republican party system. His social philosophy gives him a sense of “sobering responsibility” which pushes him further and further away from the rank and file. It is the lowest ranking leaders with the closest ties to the workers who “reflect more hope, expectation and trust” in the long-term development of the union movement.

Modern society is drifting toward war, slump and totalitarianism. Mills considers the aims, character and ideology of the labor leadership in this context. The only group apart from the “far left” which has a consistent long-term program is the so-called “sophisticated right,” that is, the most far-sighted thinkers of big business. (Stalinism in the labor movement is analyzed separately and is not considered in this connection.) Through the Marshall Plan they seek unchallenged domination of world economy in the interests of the profit makers. They plan for the militarization of society, the increasing merger of the state, industry and the military. The cost of their plans, which can culminate only in a new war which they fully expect, must be borne by the poorest sections of the population. The labor union must be either destroyed or completely integrated into the militarized state. Their immediate strategy is to reach some kind of agreement with the existing labor leadership to insure the system against a radical, socialist development of the American working class. They want to suck the labor leadership into their policy of control by the state and guarantee a pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist labor movement.

The labor leader, far from standing in the way of this program, helps to further it by his own ideology which views the state not as it actually is, the instrument of the ruling capitalist class, but as the impartial arbiter between classes. “The labor leader is walking backward into the future envisioned by the sophisticated conservatives. By his long-term pursuit of the short end, he is helping move the society of the United States into a corporate form of the garrison state.” The leaders of the CIO and AFL, despite the many differences between them, are fundamentally alike in this respect.

A powerful analysis and correct in all its essentials. But what to do? For Mills properly tries to find some mode of action corresponding to the facts. And here Mills is at his weakest.

The power of the union must be linked with the intellect: such is the author’s formula for describing the task of developing a union leadership freed of its narrow vision and capable of undertaking the tasks ahead. The key is the “union-made” intellectual, a master of every skill required by a labor organizer, a research man, an organizer, a political thinker, whose role, says Mills, “would be difficult to overestimate.” He will find labor leaders, appreciative of his knowledge and abilities, who will listen to him “if he does not frighten them.” But what shall these intellectuals teach the labor leaders? Mills does not really know ... somehow they must sound the alarm against the “main drift.” Here Mills is no longer dealing with real men acting in life with real ideas but with the straw men of his own imagination.

The specific proposal advanced by Mills, in fact his only such proposal, is the formation of an independent labor party. He takes consolation from some, of his statistics which reveal that a small percentage of labor leaders favor the “eventual” formation of such a party. Others who do not go so far are intensely concerned over the political power of industry and the possible rise of fascism. It is these men who, if they are not “frightened” by the intellectuals, offer hope.

But the problem, as Mills should certainly realize, hardly begins with the formation of a labor party. He has cogently demonstrated how the labor leadership as a social grouping fears instability and seeks peaceful class relations. A program which would propose the abandonment of collaboration with the capitalist class and its state, for the adoption of a program of class struggle aimed at the complete transformation of society, cannot but “frighten” a stratum steeped in pro-capitalist ideology. The formation of a labor party would not change the character of the present labor officialdom. Far from abandoning their social philosophy in forming a labor party, the leadership will adjust the new party to it. They will seek to restore “stability” for themselves with new political methods, and to adopt a new and more effective (for themselves) mode of collaboration with the capitalist class and its State. Mass labor parties have existed in all the nations of Europe, only to be led by men whose political philosophy was identical with that of the present American labor leadership. They proved incapable of stopping war and fascism.

The labor leadership of today, petty-bourgeois in nature, loyal to capitalism, more and more divorcing itself from the ranks (to restate Mills’ own description) cannot by its very nature become, the necessary leadership of tomorrow. This or that individual exception, however important, cannot change this fact. A new leadership drawn from among the militants, close to the rank and file, trained in class, socialist politics and unionism must replace them. The formation of a labor party and the political battles which will be thrust upon it will help raise these elements to the fore. New times – new men. Mills again helps us to understand the mechanism of making and unmaking labor leaders. “When something goes wrong in the economy, then new leaders with other ideas are likely to rise ... Democracy in the unions ... often proceeds by upsurges and revolution rather than by smoothly operating democratic machinery.” But he does not fully pose the task of changing the existing leadership nor state clearly with whom arid how he would replace it.

An early definition fixes the “far left” as the “two Trotskyist groups” but the less said about Mills’ exposition of the purported “left” program the better. Readers of The New International can judge the expert character of his detailed description of the far-left program by the following single sentence: “The American left focuses its political attention more on domestic politics than on foreign affairs.”

He does not in fact present and analyze the program of the genuine American left with the same care and objectivity as the rest of his material. We cannot and do not, of course, expect Mills to advocate our program, but we can expect that before recounting it at length and with apparent authority he acquaint himself with it and present it objectively. This neglect is all the more irritating because of the excellence of Mills’ work as a whole. It is, in spite of its shortcomings, an indispensable asset for socialist unionists.

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