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Hugo Oehler

The I.W.W. and the Unemployment Problem

(April 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 8, 15 April 1931, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

At the beginning of the present crisis, the I.W.W. saw no need of spending much energy upon the unemployment problem. Now, having obtained a late start, they are presenting as their main slogans: “The six-hour day and five-day week” and “Bread lines or picket lines?” Leaflets, stickers and meetings are being pushed everywhere in the country that they can rally forces. While their program has a certain positive side, it is far exceeded by its negative features, which we point out not for the sake of abstract criticism alone but because they are so characteristic of the sectarian futility to which the once vigorous organization has been condemned.

In their reaction against purely parliamentary activity – as against revolutionary political action which the Stalinist bureaucrats have understood so poorly – the I.W.W. have swung in the opposite direction and are narrowing the possibilities for development by the lack of a correct analysis and program. Their poverty in Marxism, to which they acknowledge a formal adherence at times, is shown by their explanation of the cause of unemployment. In one leaflet they say: “Unemployment is caused by long hours and short wages.” In another, they say that culminative (organic or permanent) unemployment has been added because of “the industrialization of the backward countries and the increased productivity of labor chiefly through automatic machines”. Increased productivity and automatic machinery have undoubtedly played a big part in the increase of unemployment, but the so-called industrialization of the backward countries – a flashback in the I.W.W. of the notorious “de-colonization” theory – does not reflect realities. On the one hand, imperialism gives an impetus to the development of industry in the colonial countries; on the other, it strives to keep these countries in subjection and backwardness. This contradiction is one of the great sources of colonial revolution and the need for supporting them which the I.W.W. fails to acknowledge.

But even the development of the ‘backward countries is still not the determining cause of unemployment. The latter is produced by the whole system of productive relationships under capitalism, and the crises which accompany it are intensified by the fact that capitalist production has become so intertwined on a world market that over-production constantly threatens its equilibrium, produces crises, and mass unemployment.

Even if we were to obtain shorter hours and bigger pay from the capitalists we would not have eliminated unemployment. One leaflet says: “Unemployment can be cured by small hours and big pay.” The only cure for unemployment is the overthrow of the capitalist system.

The way the official party is fighting for unemployment insurance must be criticized as a mixture of parliamentary opportunism and adventurism. But to swing to the other extreme and say that a fight for unemployment insurance is wrong is equally false. By leaving this field to the reformists, opportunists and labor fakers, we allow them to corrall large masses of workers by having them appear as the only defenders of their immediate interests and needs.

In the leaflet: “Bread lines or picket lines?”, we read: “Such is our program to abolish unemployment and such are its consequences.” The I.W.W. once knew that unemployment could only be abolished by the proletarian revolution: apparently it no longer knows this elementary truth. As for a program, picket lines do not constitute one. They are the tactics to carry out a program. A correct one must resolve around the slogan for the six-hour day and five-day week without wage reductions.

Organizationally, the I.W.W. have out-Stalinized the Stalinists by organizing an “Unemployed Workers Industrial Union” (!) with membership cards. The party formed unemployment councils and tied them to the T.U.U.L., determining in advance a narrow basis for the unemployed movement which must be made up of workers with varying ideologies who will follow revolutionary leadership only on the basis of the most elementary issue. By seeking to confine the unemployment movement – and in the form of a union, at that – strictly as a tail to the sect which the I.W.W. is today, to reject in practise the need of the united front, is to commit, on a smaller scale, the same blunder as the official party leadership.

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Last updated: 15.12.2012