Muste Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

A.J. Muste

The Columbus Convention of Unemployed – An Analysis

(15 July 1933)

From Labor Action, Vol. 1 No. 8, 15 July 1933, pp. 3 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE conventions of the Ohio Unemployed League and of the National Unemployed League held at Columbus, Ohio, on July l–2nd and July 3–5th respectively, constitute a landmark iu the history of the entire working-class movement in this country. Therefore, a careful analysis of the results achieved, the difficulties encountered, the failures, the outlook for the future. is in order.

In the first place, this national convention was the most representative gathering of unemployed which has yet been held. Fifteen hundred delegates and visitors were in constant attendance The delegates represented, not themselves, but substantial functioning unemployed leagues and associations. In addition to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania. New Jersey, North Carolina, West Virginia, Missouri, California and Washington were well represented. There are close to a million members in the leagues which had delegations at Columbus, and these leagues speak and act for a much larger number not formally enrolled in their membership.

The Columbus convention was representative not only as to geographical distribution but as to background and viewpoint. Here were typical workers of the typical Middle Western industrial heart of the United States. Only a small percentage of them were attached to any of the political parties and sects which today clutter up the American working-class scene. What, then, were these workers like? What were they thinking? What did they want?

Typical American Workers

Certainly these delegates were not trained in the history and the ory of the labor movement. They were quite nationalistic in their outlook, suspicious of ‘ foriegners’’ and “outsiders” and “Communists.” They believe that this country, its constitution and its institutions are essentially alright, the only trouble is that bankers and bosses are in control and are misusing them. They insisted that the national anthem be sung and the stars and stripes displayed. There was a moment when the convention went hysterical with “patriotism” and a riot against those who were regarded as insufficiently “patriotic” was narrowly averted. (Here, however, a number of factors were at work to which reference must be made later.)

While there were at Columbus many who under certain circumstances might swell the ranks of Fascism, there is decidedly another side to the picture. The delegates were not individualists; they looked to organization and not individual advancement for their salvation. They wanted action and not talk They wanted radical action and showed no sympathy for Lovestoneites who lean backward nowadays in their attempt to keep in touch with supposedly “backward” American elements They were not hypnotized by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. They knew that they must look to themselves for bread and justice. The program they adopted and on which at the close the convention was unanimous and enthusiastic, was one of Organized Radical Action.

Out of the Columbus convention came a national organization for unemployed leagues – the National Unemployed League Organizations of unemployed are eligible to affiliation provided they admit unemployed and part-time employed regardless of race, creed, color, national origin or political affiliation; meet in public buildings (not, i.e., as secret orders); allow freedom of discussion in meetings; are not under the domination of any political party or sect; exclude businessmen and office-holders or candidates (save of working-class parties) from membership; and emphasize pressure activities against public authorities.

The N.U.L. will seek greatly to extend the organization of leagues, not merely to be a paper organization to “coordinate” existing units. The national committee has begun to plan for four regional conferences. Pacific Coast, Mississippi Valley, South Atlantic and North Atlantic in the next 90 days. These will stimulate the organization of the unemployed in their respective sections. The N.U.L. will also of course coordinate the activities of the leagues throughout, the country so far as possible, but the leagues retain their autonomy. Coordination is to come through example and leadership, not dictation.

The Movement Toward Unity

It is a matter for rejoicing that both the Ohio and the National convention voted unanimously to work for a unification convention of all unemployed organizations to be held as soon as the ground has been prepared, for the purpose of building a single unified organization of all the unemployed. It was furthermore agreed that unity cannot be achieved by fiat from above, that real unity will result from united action and struggle of the workers for concrete issues in town, county and state. Therefore, federations or joint councils of action are to be formed as rapidly as possible by leagues, councils, and other unemployed organizations.

Not only did the convention plan for unification, it was itself a symbol of the underlying unity of the unemployed movement. A fraternal delegation from the executive of the National Unemployed Councils was present, was seated without a dissenting vote and its representatives heard with attention, and approval. There was also present a fraternal delegation from the Federation of Unemployed Workers’ Leagues (the so-called Chicago Federation) on the executive of which are leading elements of the Lovestoneites, Trotskyists, Proletarian Party, etc., engaged in unemployed work. These also were heard in the convention. The result of bringing all these elements together was that the convention became the greatest forum of labor held in many years. Though to the general run of delegates details of argument and the reasons why certain groups or individuals took certain positions were obscure, they were on the whole shrewd in sizing up the situation and clung to their two main clues: We want an organization of Leagues, but it must be an organization which is our agency for unity and not for division.

While the fundamentals of the united front were clearly and unmistakably laid down, not as much progress in working out detailed plans for unity was made as might have been hoped. Discussion of the reason for this leads straight to a consideration of the role of various groups in the convention and in the unemployed movement generally.

The Communists and the Councils

In conferences between leading elements in the Conference for Progressive Labor Action and some of the Leagues on the one hand, and leading elements in the Communist Party and the Councils on the other hand, the following broad policy in the unemployed movement has been agreed upon:

  1. A single national organization of unemployed must be achieved.
  2. Meantime united action in concrete struggles must be developed as rapidly as possible In town, county and state situations, both because it is only thus from below that real unity can be achieved and because by united action the unemployed can achieve concrete results, such as preventing cuts in relief, evictions, etc.
  3. It is recognized that unity cannot be forced, the pace must be slower in some places than in others. Real unity of the masses and not paper unity is the goal While unity is being achieved, therefore, the autonomy of leagues and councils is respected.
  4. Disruption and duplication are to cease.
  5. The basis of unity is a program of militant struggle.

No one will expect that in a movement so vast as this, there will not be difficulties, misunderstandings and differences of opinion It is our observation, however, that in the main the Unemployed Councils have adhered to the program outlined It is significant that not even the bitterest critics of the Councils have pointed to a single action of theirs either at the Harrisburg convention in Pennsylvania or at the Columbus conventions which was not constructive and in good spirit. The definite pledge of the Ohio councils to support the Ohio leagues in their August 1 strike for cash payment on relief jobs, etc., and the clear statement of Amter of the Councils that they wanted to see the leagues build their own national organization as a step toward power and unity, were most important contributions toward mutual understanding and joint action.

Frank discussion and criticism are necessary, however, if the best results are to be achieved. Therefore one or two observations are in point. On their own admission the Councils have in the past made mistakes in their approach to the American masses. If they now in the initial stages of efforts at unity sometimes encounter suspicion and hostility among those masses, let them consider that this may be due to these past errors and not necessarily to lack of courage or to political error on the part of elements seeking to cooperate with them. The Daily Worker must not rush into print with charges “that reported agreements by League officials to support the Councils’ Hunger March have been broken,” as it did the other day. Harm is done even though the statement, as in this case, is corrected when it is shown that no agreement existed to be broken.

The Councils made a serious mistake in setting the date for their Ohio Hunger March at almost the same time as the Ohio U.L. convention and on very short notice asking cooperation with the Hunger March. If cooperation was wanted, the question could and should have been raised much sooner. As it was, the Hunger March just a week before the Ohio League convention interfered to some extent with the collection of food and other preparations for the convention. The O.U.L. Officials though they were overwhelmed with work in preparation for the convention and in connection with the strikes for cash payment on relief jobs in Franklin County and elsewhere, nevertheless gave what cooperation they could to the Hunger March, and sent out, against the better judgment of some of them, to the local leagues in Ohio a united front resolution to be voted on prior to the convention, and thus risked being misunderstood by their own rank and file. This attempt to force the situation, to impose a certain method of approach on League officials, was a dangerous mistake, no matter how sincere and correct the motives involved.

“Communist By-Products”

On the subject of a unification convention the Council had a simple, straightforward proposal, viz., that the arrangements be made by a Committee of five each from the National Unemployed League, the National Unemployed Councils and the so-called Chicago Federation. This proposal would undoubtedly have been adopted by the convention but for opposition from the fraternal delegates from the Chicago Federation and Lovestoneite and Trotskyist delegates in the convention itself. The convention accordingly voted to leave this matter of procedure in the hands of its national committee, which has already appointed its five representatives.

Some of the representatives of the Chicago Federation proposed that the N.U.L. join the Federation, then the Leagues and Councils being in the Federation, the latter would already be the one center of the whole unemployed movement and could call the unification convention. This proposal had a superficial appearance of being logical, but was illogical from a realistic standpoint. In the first place, the Federation has a potential rather than a real existence. Most of the big organisations which attended the Chicago convention reported at Columbus that they had not yet joined the Federation. In the second place, the Federation executive is hopelessly divided and brought no concrete proposal to the Columbus convention In the third place, the Federation committee could not assure the N.U.L. and other organisations that they would have proportional representation in the Federation.

The fact of the matter is that in effect the Federation’s executive is built up on the theory that each “political tendency” must have approximately equal representation on it. Thus Stalinites, Lovestoneites. Trotskyists. CPLA’ers, Proletarian Party, Socialists, etc., must all have their representations. A “political tendency” having 5,000 unemployed in organizations which they influence, must have about the same representation as one with 50,000 or 500,000. We regard this basis as utterly unsound. Certainly there must be no discrimination against any political group. Certainly all political groups ought heartily to support the building of a unified unemployed movement. But unemployed organizations and not political tendencies are the basis for control in the unemployed movement.

Under the circumstances it is easy to understand though not to excuse the fact that Lovestoneites and Trotskyists who have representation beyond their strength in the Federation executive should have fought bitterly, and in some cases to the point of obstructionism, for recognizing the Federation is already the one center of all unemployed organizations. Much of the discussion in the Presiding Committee and in the convention amounted simply to a jockeying for position by these groups as against the official C.P. This had no proper place in such a convention. The effect produced on the delegates was certainly not favorable to these groups.

The Role of the Socialist Party

Whatever criticisms may be made of the various groups already referred to. they made a contribution to the convention and did it in what was at least from their own standpoint an intelligible and straightforward fashion. The Socialists, on the other hand, with a few individual exceptions, played a most despicable, underhanded, disruptionist role, most of the time actually allying themselves with the moat reactionary Fascist elements in the convention! So inexcusable was their role and so plainly was this exposed to the delegates at Columbus, that the Socialist Part; must speedily repudiate the course of the party members at Columbus and change its course in the unemployed movement, if it is to retain any vestige of a claim to participation in this movement.

The S.P. is trying to control the unemployed movement or to build its own through the Continental Congress. In a letter sent out under date of May 2. 1933 by Clarence Senior. Executive Secretary of the S.P., and ordered read at all party branch meetings, the following statements are made 1) that “the Continental Congress has proved – that the S.P. is capable of leading the masses” (and there are other statements bearing our tne point that the C.C. is definitely an S.P. movement); 2) that “the continuation work of the C.C. now provides that the only nationwide organization through which non-factional unemployed organizations can function.” Just how an organization which is in one breath declared to be an S.P. organization can in the next breath be set forth as the only organization through which non-factional unemployed organizations can function, is beyond our power to comprehend. Little wonder that the Socialist Executive Secretary, after having so openly declared the Party position about taking over the unemployed movement through the Continental Congress feels that he must instill a bit of caution into his membership and tells them in this same document that “the Socialists themselves will have to watch their step, use lots of common sense – in order not to scare away those groups that are now coming our direction by trying to force them to swallow Socialism at one dose!” Slip it over on them, when they’re not looking is the slogan!

The CPLA (Labor Actionists) flatly opposes this policy of the S P. to capture the unemployed movement as being contrary to the interests of the unemployed and especially because It is inimical to unification of the unemployed movement. At the Harrisburg, Pa. unemployed convention and elsewhere we have blocked this policy. We can understand that the S.P. does not like this.

We assert, however, that the S.P., if it wishes to be considered a part of the labor movement, had no right to use the tactics which prominent S.P. members used at Columbus. Lieberman and other Socialists of the Pittsburgh (Allegheny County) delegation at Columbus, both before and during the convention, circulated a printed pamphlet purporting to set forth how the CPLA and the C.P. had “double-crossed.” the leagues at Harrisburg and warning that undoubtedly a “similar stunt” was to be tried at Columbus.

We point out: 1) That this pamphlet was unsigned, anonymous; 2) that it was not openly distributed, but circulated surreptitously, those most concerned such as Bill Truax. Arnold Johnson and other officers of the Ohio League not knowing for some time about this cowardly attempt to undermine their influence in their own organization; 3) that the pamphlet did not bear the union label; 4) that money was spent by Pittsburg Socialists to print a lot of copies of this scurrilous tract though to this date money to print the constitution of the Allegheny Co. Unemployed League has not been forth coming.

Naturally, honest delegates were plunged momentarily into the suspicion that perhaps once trusted leaders were trying to put something over on them. Naturally, also, reactionary Fascist elements and labor spies seized the opportunity to try to throw the convention into turmoil, in fact to break it up. Thus developed the brief, hysterical flag-waving episode already referred to (in which both honest and dishonest elements took part but of course with very different motives). Socialist delegates sat by during that episode and never made an attempt to rebuke or allay the mob spirit. The subsequently continued their subversive activities in that highly charged atmosphere until the candidacy of a delegate with obvious Fascist leanings for the presidency of the N.U.L. was making considerable headway and Lieberman himself said “this must be stopped,” dimly realizing at last presumably that he had gotten himself and his party into a shameful fix. Even then, however, he would not accept the opportunity offered him, for the sake of harmony, to withdraw the pamphlet and apologize for the way in which it had been circulated.

All these matters were brought before the Columbus convention in its closing session. Pauli. S.P. organizer of Ohio, was given the floor to answer. He evaded an answer to the question whether he and the S.P. repudiated such tactics, went into a speech about Germany, the Second and Third International, etc., and on his persistent refusal to answer was booed off the platform by the delegates.

In the very S.P. letter to which we have already referred occurs a warning that certain groups (meaning Communists) are barred from the Continental Congress. The S.P. does this on its favorite high ethical ground, viz., that the policy of these groups “has consistently been to rule or ruin other organizations.” We ask whether any labor organization has ever sought to “rule or ruin” by more danger oils, sneaky and despicable methods than prominent Socialists used at Columbus?

Labor Actionists and Unemployed Work

The CPLA comes out of the Columbus convention with its prestige greatly heightened and with more clearness and confidence in its own ranks. Labor Actionists were active in the convention and in preparation for it as they had been in the building of many of the local, county and state leagues. They were “put on the spot” at. Columbus and came out with an enthusiastic vindication from the rank and file of the delegates. The delegates were no fools. They made sure that the convention was theirs, and having made sure of that, freely and enthusiastically adopted Labor Actionist policies end elected numerous known Labor Actionists. along with others, to office.

The Immediate Tasks

Labor Actionists pledge the utmost support to the August 1 strike of the Ohio Unemployed League for cash payment on all relief jobs, payment at union wages and workmen’s compensation insurance for all workers on relief jobs.

We shall do our utmost to make this strike nationwide as rapidly as possible.

We shall push the movement for federal insurance against all forms of unemployment, to be paid by industry and government, not the workers.

Labor Actionists pledge their utmost support to the National Unemployed League in all its work and especially in the building up of the four great regional conventions.

We shall everywhere promote united action of all unemployed and their organizations in concrete struggles for immediate ends.

We shall continue to give every support toward bringing about a great unification convention to build a single national organization of the unemployed, for the unemployed, by the unemployed!

Muste Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 12 January 2022