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Paul Schapiro

An Analysis of Union Leaders’ Role

(14 March 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 11, 14 March 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

by C. Wright Mills
Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1948, 323 pp., $3.50.

The New Men of Power by C. Wright Mills, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and director of the university’s Labor Research Division of the Bureau of Applied Social Research, is a study of America’s labor leaders. In it Mills has tried to show their collective physiognomy and psychology and their relation to the unions and to the social system.

An "independent left intellectual,” to use his own terminology, Mills has evidently learned much from the ideas of Trotskyism. He sees clearly the internal contradictions of American capitalism, the looming economic crisis, the drive towards war and world domination, the permanence of the war economy and the inevitably growing militarization of America, the trend toward; the integration of the labor bureaucracy into the state apparatus, the danger of fascism if the working class is unable to carry through a social revolution in a revolutionary situation, the revolutionary potential of the American worker.

Leaders’ Dual Sides

In his depiction of the role the labor bureaucracy plays on the social scene Mills too is more or less directly influenced by Marxist analysis. His introduction graphically sketches this role and explains it in terms of how unions operate under the conditions of capitalism. He shows how the labor leader is at once a guerrilla chieftain in the class war and a parliamentarian intent on maintaining his elected post, a political boss holding power by dispensing patronage and an entrepreneur selling the labor-power of his members to the capitalists, a constant challenge to capitalism by virtue of the kind of organization which he heads and a stabilizing factor in capitalist society by virtue of his. own needs:

 All the time that he is the leader of a live and going union, the labor leader is in conflict with the powers of property ... In his timidity and fear and eagerness to stay alive in a hostile environment, he does not admit this ... but the fact remains that he is ... Yet even as the labor leader rebels, he holds back rebellion. He organizes discontent and then he sits on it, exploiting it in order to maintain a continuous organization.”

In the remainder of the book Mills presents the factual material he has gathered from various special studies and from his own research, mainly in the form of questionnaires sent to members of the bureaucracy, in the light of his analysis.

He shows the differences between the AFL and the CIO leaders (the CIO leaders are, among other things, younger and better educated); the reasons for the continued split (too much power to be Ibst by too many leaders); the differences between higher and lower bodies (lower bodies are more militant); the reasons for labor racketeering (it flourishes in small-scale industries in the service trades, where the little businessmen welcome and encourage it as the only means to form an industry-wide cartel to eliminate cut-throat competition); the social origins of the labor bureaucrat (he is a “self-made man,” mainly of American stock, the way capitalists are supposed to be according to legend but no longer are, and he has a good deal of the individualistic psychology of the “self-made man”).

Finally, Mills shows how the labor bureaucrats think: their stupefaction by the concept of labor-capital cooperation and their lack of clear awareness of the dangers and opportunities which lie ahead for labor and what it can do about them.

While offering all of these things, however, Mills’ book does not wholly live up to its promise. There is a certain lack of substance to it. The chapters are short, slick, journalistic summaries which require development and detail. One feels constantly the need for concrete illustrations and instances from the internal life of the unions that would give color and animation to Mills’ facts and figures. In trying to draw a collective portrait of America’s labor leaders Mills has succeeded only in drawing the outlines for a portrait—although, to be sure, such a sketch is not without value.

Where Hope Lies

The book ends, moreover, with a false conclusion. Mills finds hope for the unions to lie in their producing a group of “union-made intellectuals,” “men who combine solid trade union experience, preferably of militant character, with the degree of self-awareness and wider consciousness associated with the best sense of the term intellectual.” The existence of such a stratum of “union-made intellectuals” would create a team of power and ideas which would change the nature of the leadership, set the labor movement on the right track and make it “capable of carrying out the program of the left,” that is, of achieving Socialism.

“Union-made intellectuals” working by themselves without a revolutionary party cannot, however, accomplish this, Lenin long ago showed by precept and example that the vanguard of the working class must be united in a party dedicated to the socialist revolution and organized as a combat force, with the fullest democracy for arriving at decisions and the highest degree of centralization for carrying them out, if it is to lead the workers to socialism. Such a party, with its cohesiveness and discipline, is a defense against its members succumbing to the forces which sap the militancy of independent radical unionists.

Firmly integrated in the unions, it acts as a constant leaven, opposing to the bureaucrats’ ideas of class-collaboration and business unionism those of classstruggle and the class solidarity of the workers, and rallying around it all militants. And when the situation is such that the bureaucrats can no longer hold back the workers’ discontent, it harnesses that discontent to a program to change society. Such a party is the party which the Socialist Workers Party is building.

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