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Ben Hall

Books in Review

A View of Labor

(September 1951)

From The New International, Vol. XVII, No. 5, September–October, pp. 302–304.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A Philosophy of Labor
by Frank Tannenbaum
Alfred A. Knopf. 199 pp. $2.75

As tendencies toward bureaucratism in society deepen, the labor movement commands attention as a powerful counterforce. Through their unions, workers begin to control and direct their own labor. In this respect, unions become the very antithesis of totalitarian control from above and the whole structure of modern democracy depends upon them. Tannenbaum’s little book deserves to be read because it deals interestingly, if quaintly, with this theme and recognizes the labor movement as the chief defender of democracy in our times. But more than this cannot be said. The author sympathizes with unions and their aims, in a general sort of way, but his analysis of their significance ignores the weighty facts of their development.

This work, entitled A Philosophy of Labor, promises far more than it gives. The labor movement is not and never has been confined exclusively to the union movement. Yet, the author reaches conclusions solely from an examination of the latter. And not of the union movement as it has evolved in all the main industrial centers of the world but almost entirely of the unions in the United States. Even narrower becomes the focus of his analysis which concentrates upon only one phase of the history of the American union movement, a phase which it is already outgrowing, the period dominated by the old American Federation of Labor. His philosophy, therefore, is a strained attempt to universalize the limited experience of the working class in one country at one time into a general law.

“Trade unionism is the conservative movement of our times,” he begins, “it is the counter-revolution. Unwittingly, it has turned its back upon most of the political and economic ideas that have nourished western Europe and the United States during the last two centuries. In practice, though not in words, it denies the heritage that stems from the French Revolution and from English liberalism. It is also a complete repudiation of Marxism.”

To illuminate and clarify this thought, he argues that the trade union repudiates “individualism” and rests upon the “group.” “The values implicit in trade unionism are those of an older day, antedating the grating modern political slogans. It is an unwitting effort to return to values derived from the past: security, justice, freedom, and faith.” With this, he launches a chapter of pedantic divagations into the ancient and medieval history of the guild, presumably the embodiment of these older values, in the course of which we are fascinated by assorted tid-bids of encyclopedic information: there were guilds in China at least a thousand years ago; they were known as officium or ministerium in Latin, metier or jurande in French, arte in Italian, etc., for six languages. This tedious section concludes somewhat abruptly and startlingly, “The role of the new union which, it should be emphasized, is not derived from the guild, was to prove profoundly different because the economy itself had greatly changed.” His interest is so unwaveringly focused at the point where the union movement did not begin, its real origins and history is skimmed over in scattered fragments or lost in vague speculative generalities about the reaction against “individualism.” His analysis does not clarify the influence of the past upon the present nor illuminate the connection between them but simply superimposes the past helter-skelter upon the present. With the same capricious historical methodology one could just as easily “demonstrate” that the trade unions in revolt against “individualism” submerge the individual in the mass and thereby “unwittingly” subvert human liberty.

The modern labor movement begins as a reaction against the failure to achieve the great ideals of the French Revolution within capitalist society. Not only political democracy but social democracy, or economic democracy, or industrial democracy. Not only political equality but social equality. With such watchwords, the labor movement everywhere appeared not as a movement for a return to the past but as a crusade for effectuating what had been promised but not achieved. Even in the United States, the labor movement was inspired by the liberating ideals emanating from France and embodied in the Declaration of Independence which provided its rallying1 slogans in the early eighteenth century.

But it is probably futile to quarrel with the author’s insistence upon the “conservative” and “counterrevolutionary” character of union activity. He seems more concerned here with startling his readers than effecting a real judgment. We read 130 pages later, “The ends aimed at (by unions) are not revolutionary in intent but they are revolutionary in effect.” It is obvious that the words “revolutionary” and “counter-revolutionary” are being juggled to death.

“Trade unionism is a repudiation of Marxism,” says Tannenbaum, “because its ends are moral rather than economic.” This vulgarization of Marxism as dehumanized economics is no worse than his other references to Marxism, all the fruit of a harmless ignorance. Marxists have never understood the importance of unions ; they simply seek to manipulate them for their own devious purposes ... so goes the writer. Naturally, he confuses Marxism and socialism with Stalinism. But this misconception has gained such currency and is so blithely accepted by all who would slur together the socialist movement for human freedom with Stalinist totalitarianism that one hesitates to haggle over the point merely because it happens to be an impermissible distortion.

But an author who is so convinced that the union movement is the very antithesis of socialism might be expected to examine some of the most obvious facts of their reciprocal history. In the major countries of Europe, the labor movement begins not as a trade union movement but as a socialist movement. In kindness to Tannenbaum’s philosophy, this ought never to have happened, but it is true. The decisive sectors of the European trade union movement were initiated and led by socialists. In Russia, where the unions assumed significance after the revolution, Marxists viewed them as the very institutions of the working class which would ultimately take over control of all industry. In the Marxist view, the task of the labor movement is nothing less than the reorganization of society under the real control of the working class. The trade unions are called upon to mobilize the working class in the daily struggles against exploitation, to train the workers in the skills of controlling production, to participate in the great crusade for a new society, to participate in the actual management and control of industry under a workers’ government. One may reject these objectives. But it would be hard to prove that they signify an underestimation of the role of unions.

While Marxists speculated in unrealizable fantasies, says Tannenbaum, the unions’

“... very lack of ideas made it strong and enabled it to concentrate upon immediate ends without wasting its energies in a futile pursuit of Utopia. The trade- union movement could go on for generation after generation despite many failures, gradually accommodating itself to a changing industrial environment. It could do that without challenging the political or moral ideas current at the time, all the while slowly shaping new institutions, habits, and loyalties. It has gathered power within the community until it has suddenly dawned upon men that a new force – not an idea, but a new force – has come into being. This force is changing the structure of our economy and redistributing power in our society.”

The author thinks he has uncovered the innate tendencies of the union movement but he only describes the American labor movement as it completes the first quarter of the twentieth century and even that without regard to the rise and decline of its socialistic wing. One glance at continental Europe is enough to warn against generalizing. When its labor movement under the leadership of conservative social-democracy did in fact restrict itself to limited aims to the sacrifice of long term goals, when it remained a “power” without rallying the people to a new “idea,” it suffered shattering defeat and momentary obliteration at the hands of fascism. Tannenbaum simply ignores this whole experience. Applied to the United States, his thesis hardly stands up any better for it arrives about twenty-five years too late. With the advent of the CIO, the American labor movement discovers that its old-fashioned simple unionism, the bread-and- butter concentration upon immediate, tangible, non-political tasks is no longer adequate. It is compelled to enter politics and to try to wield the power of government in its own behalf. As it grows in power, precisely because it gains recognition as a decisive social force, it is impelled to develop an “ideology,” a general social program an “ideal.” Although this program still remains committed to capitalism, it has moved many steps away from pure and simple unionism.

Socialists propose that the union movement go further. Not because they deny any significance to unions except as instruments of socialism (that is what Tannenbaum contends) but because the pro-capitalist policies of the unions tend to check, restrain, devitalize the struggles of the working class, make it difficult to protect and strengthen the union movement itself, and render it incapable of a consistent and aggressive defense of the interests of all the common people.

If this seems like asking too much, we note that Tannenbaum himself assigns the union movement a heavy responsibility. “In the end, either the organic groups now in unions will destroy the authoritarian government state or the government will end by stifling the industries and ultimately disintegrating.” The alternatives he poses are: either the unions and democracy or the state and totalitarianism. But who is to control the state? If the labor movement can bring democracy into industry, why not into the state? Tannenbaum offers no reply to questions which he does not even raise.

Shall the labor movement take the lead in reorganizing modern society? The author cannot make up his mind. “Every activity of organized labor is a denial of both the philosophy and practice of a free market economy.” If the unions are in fact the only alternative to totalitarianism and if they tend to wipe out our present market economy then it would seem demonstrated that the labor movement is the bearer of a new form of society, a free, democratic, non-capitalist society. It is just this that Marxists believe and they suggest that the unions pursue this goal consciously and consistently instead of stumbling toward it. Tannenbaum succeeds in escaping from this conclusion only by escaping from his own “philosophy of labor.”

“In spite of its many shortcomings, it is not the industrial society of the Western World that is on trial. That has now been tried for over a hundred and fifty years and has given men a greater body of material goods than was ever enjoyed by the mass of men anywhere. What is on trial is the new system (Statism) that would replace it on grounds of higher efficiency and greater moral perfection.”

What then, becomes of the unwitting striving of unions toward something new?

For a man who accuses socialists of utopianism, Tannenbaum shows a remarkable ability to invent a novel solution to the problems of humanity. Or, if not so very novel, it remains pure invention. “What is presumed [by Tannenbaum] in this development is that the union will gradually take on the role of the modern corporation by buying into it and that ownership will cease to be fluid and impersonal.” And in the closing words of the book, “The corporation and the union will ultimately merge in common ownership and cease to be a house divided. It is only thus that a common identity may once again come to rule the lives of men and endow each one with rights and duties recognized by all.” And thus, as the classes blend in harmony each with its recognized and unchallenged role and rights, the state may be ignored and totalitarianism avoided.

However, instead of merging with the big corporations, unions are compelled to continue their struggles against them. Instead of by-passing the state, unions find they must intensify political action. Instead of ignoring the government, unions find their struggles and demands inextricably intertwined with it.

The interesting aspects of Tannenbaum’s book remain. Here is an anti-“statist,” an anti-socialist, who sees the fate of democracy resting with the labor movement. Regardless of how he circles into this conclusion, his testimony remains.

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Last updated: 18 February 2018