Hugo Oehler Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Hugo Oehler

Review and Criticism

The Communists in the South

(July 1930)

From The Militant, Vol. III No. 26, 12 July 1930, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The T.U.U.L. drive in the South, starting in 1929 at the very inception of the “new turn” in the Communist Party has not yet been analyzed. Our articles on the South have dealt with tasks and later with shortcomings and “self criticism” but none have followed this to a logical conclusion and explained the basic causes of these shortcomings. With the majority of the American workers unorganized, the building of new unions is on the order of the day but this is not separate and apart from our work in reactionary unions to unite the broadest forces possible against the labor fakers, reformists and sectarians. Such a correct relationship of these forces to expose the reactionaries existed in several of our past campaigns as exemplified by Passaic and the Colorado coal strikes, both cases isolating the A.F.L. fakers and gaining trade union support. In the first case the gain was nationally for the Communist leadership and in the second case mainly in Colorado and Wyoming by Communist forces for the I.W.W. leadership.

Only by the correct disposition of our forces in the reactionary trade unions and the new unions will it be possible for us to defeat the treacherous bureaucrats and build our influence in the labor movement. Let us review the Gastonia struggle and the southern campaign to find the causes of our mistakes.

In the economic development of capitalist society ever so often culminating points are reached when the psychological reaction of the workers to those changes making for greater oppression one form or the other are transformed into class ideology of a rudimentary nature. This change due to the material transformation can be accelerated and definite organizational results obtained providing the vanguard of the workers, the Communist Party, is able to apply tactics and strategy based on a Marxian program for the concrete situation to crystallize the developing ideology to an organized class consciousness.

The stage of economic transformation in the West when the I.W.W. continued the traditions of the Western Federation, where the vanguard applied tactics with considerable success giving them a crystallizing of this changing ideology and an organizational base. The transformation in the South in the last several years is similar to the change in the West in the period spoken of, except (to our advantage) we are in a different stage of historical development. In the West at that period the vanguard was able to organize a considerable base but up to the present the vanguard has yet to accomplish this first task in the South.

A review of our activity in the South will throw light upon our success and failure that we may not repeat these blunders again. To begin with we must point out that our Southern campaign up to the present can register the following positive points:

  1. We have brought for the first time in this section, the class issue into the struggle to advancing the workers’ conditions.
  2. Through our Gastonia Campaign (only considering the Southern end of the campaign) we have agitationally though not organizationally, gained the wide support of American-born workers and cropper farmers to our broad struggle in spite of the rabid anti-Red campaign of the bosses.
  3. We have proven agitationally to a wide section of the Negro masses, Southern and Northern, that the Communists are the leaders in the struggle of the Negro masses.
  4. To a fair degree we consolidated the unity of black and white workers at each step of the struggle and were consequently considered by these workers as the “best fighters” and known to the bosses and their henchman as the “worse enemies.”

Since revolutionists don’t need self-praise (nor the present official Party campaign of mechanical self-criticism) we will deal with the problem of how the class [issues could] have been brought into the [struggle.]

In the beginning of our Southern work, before our forces were sent South the condition of the Gastonia area was in a state of tension without important open class conflicts. This period was a culminating point in the transformation of the new industrial South, dominating old forms of control and changing the “hill people” into machine automatons on a large scale.

Especially in the Textile section of the Southern industries was there a critical stage. A steady Southward shift of the cotton spinning section and an acute international textile crisis accelerated competition between the North and the South. On the other hand modern mills with machines of enormous output had to be kept moving if the rate of profit was to be kept up. These contradictory forces resulted in intensifying the stretch-out system, in wage reductions, worse company town conditions and general lowering of the standard of living with wide-spread unemployment, pellagra and chain gang victims. Men, women and children of American born stock were being driven into open revolt and organization against these conditions.

In this period when the Party should have sent forces South the Cannon-Foster group was fighting to correct the official American Party leadership, who had been given leadership on a platter by the Stalin-Bucharin regime. The Pepper-Lovestone group considered that this industrialization was to create a reservoir of reaction and that no work could be carried on now. The R.I.L.U. was the first to clamor for the new line that was soon to follow in the international movement but instead of a correction of the Right mistakes in relation to our trade union work and the United Front tactics a mechanical swing to the Left was taken.

After months of fooling away time comrade Beal was sent South in February 1929 inadequately supported one way or the other. In fact from that period up until the October 13th conference and today the decisive voting majority at the Center of the Communist Party did not know what it was all about and was often a brake instead of a help. The mechanical shift at the top in these hectic days for the Lovestoneites was no remedy, because such is never a remedy for anything except bureaucratic consolidation. Beal’s glowing reports of what really could be done in the South and the A.F.L. activity opened the eyes of more forces at the Center, some to reality but most of them to the possibilities of dashing spectacular “victories”.

More forces were sent South and the pivot point of activity was properly selected as Gastonia, the cotton spinning center with the Loray Mill as the pace setter. This pre-strike stake with the intense activity of a small force was entirely new to Southern conditions, but several comrades with Beal did excellent work under the circumstances.

The leading committee was committed to a “rolling, wave theory” which in practice relied too much on the spontaneity of the masses and spectacular dramatization and not sufficiently on preliminary organizational activity.

The A.F.L had already started their second drive since the war in the Southern textile field and were “coming in and taking over revolts of the workers” in Elizabethton, Greenville, Lexington, Ware Shoals, Marion, etc., trying to get any kind of agreement with the bosses, selling out and leaving if it became too hot, as they did in Ware Shoals and other places. The driving force of this campaign were the Musteites who as a new development at this stage stood in between the reactionaries and the best progressives who in the immediate past had supported the Left wing led by the Communists.

Our mechanical interpretation of the policy of building new unions and the rejection of the United Front policy as a swing away from the Right blunders of the past in the united front action put a taboo on all kinds of united fronts, if not in words then in deeds.

This resulted in our refusal to utilize throughout the country all possible forces, so badly needed in that concrete situation, against a powerful enemy that was concentrating all forces against us.

In the Loray Mill, where the National Textile Workers Union was concentrating its forces the company had increased the stretch-out and systematically, department by department, was reducing the workers’ wages. Five thousand workers was the full time capacity of the mill. Before the union was ready for the counter-attack the Manville Jencks, owners of Loray started discharging union members.

This precipitated the strike and over 2,500 quit work. This was inopportune for the union, for a little more time would have found them better situated. Mass picketing followed. A great number of these workers were in a strike for the first time and were new trade union recruits which meant that more emphasis should have been put on preliminary organisation work.

This premature forced break could have been overcome by the tried and tested tactic so well used in the Lawrence 1912 strike and many times since. The tactic of going from department to department at the inception of the strike in an organized planned manner – Strike! – Strike! and pulling switches, etc. This was not done. The failure at the start to close the mill pre-determined the tempo of the positive force and choked the lighting spirit of the workers on strike making a breach with those in the plant and enabling the bosses to play these two forces against each other to our disadvantage. Naturally, workers in the nearby mills did not gain the necessary inspiration from the strike, especially considering the training of these workers in any kind of class struggles.

(To Be Continued)

Hugo Oehler Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 22.10.2012