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Arne Swabeck

The Struggle in the Coal Fields

(February 1929)

From The Militant, Vol. II No. 3, 1 February 1929, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The most momentous struggle on a mass scale, of the recent period in American labor history, is undoubtedly the battle of the mine fields.

Here was a crucial situation with splendid possibilities demanding a clear policy and decisive action. Despite the formidable obstacles in the way and our limited forces, the opportunities have never been better for building a new union of a militant type, for developing a broad left wing movement and with it extend the mass influence and leadership of the Workers (Communist) Party. The leadership of the Party in this fight increased manifold its responsibility to the miners in particular and to the working class in general.

How has this responsibility been met?

The Party leadership, represented by the Pepper-Lovestone group, has failed criminally, and still is failing to respond to the imperative needs of the situation and to take advantage of the existing possibilities. The extent of the failures of the past are already brought out in bold relief by subsequent events. The whole course of the Party leadership has been sharply characterized by its general unscrupulous adventurist conception which looks upon workers in mass struggles only as objects of manoeuvre, not as class brothers in arms. Coupled with that went its conservative, opportunist outlook, – the greatest menace to the vigor and vitality of such movements.

The left wing had practically disappeared as an organized expression at the beginning of the national strike, April 1927. But the miners went out determined to beat back the attacks and the fields were seething with undercurrents of revolt against the whole treacherous policy of the Lewis machine. A clear duty faced the Party – to step forward and organize the left wing for a militant struggle against the operators and the Lewis machine. This policy was proposed by the opposition but shamefully rejected. In May 1927 the opposition brought to the Political Committee a series of motions outlining various steps to build the left wing, to sharpen the clash with the bureaucrats and to culminate in an open conference. Likened to the “horrors” of “dual unionism” and even “armed insurrection” it was rejected by the majority. The proposals for organization of relief activities, while accepted on paper, never became effective until many months after.

The Miners’ Fighting Spirit

The evidences of the fighting readiness of the miners piled up everywhere, but not until February 1928 did the Party leadership give up its resistance and accept the policy of organizing a broad left wing, and urge the calling of the April first conference to engage in an open clash with the treacherous union bureaucracy. It was compelled by the sheer force of events. Yet the District Organizers in the two most important coal fields of the Pittsburgh and Chicago districts ingrained in the Pepper-Lovestone right wing ideology, still resisted the measures for an open conference and an open clash, to the last. However, the correctness of the policy, for which the opposition had fought so long and bitterly against the resistance of the Party leadership, was proven by the subsequent events. Once the first steps were taken they immediately let loose the tremendous latent forces which became openly crystallized in the gigantic “Save the Union” movement.

The continued resistance to a correct policy had cost the movement dearly and the consequences were serious. Firstly in failure to give any leadership at the early stage of the struggle; in lack of necessary organizational preparations; in failure to render more decisive assistance to and more effectively participate in the Pennsylvania and Ohio strike; and finally in lack of a sufficiently early and clear perspective. The left wing therefore stumbled along with, in many respects, inadequate preparations for the tempo of the movement. It thus could not carry the fight effectively to the unorganized fields until the Pennsylvania and Ohio strike became almost exhausted. When forced to act quickly for the April 16 strike of the unorganized fields, the preparatory organizational measures were entirely lacking. To this must be added the ferocious persecution and terror against the movement by the Lewis machine, the operators and the state authorities.

The Party leadership did not seem able to grasp a full perspective of an open split with the bureaucrats and the building of a new union. While it acquiesced it never changed its conservative outlook. Even at the time of the convention call leading Pittsburgh comrades, steeped in this never changing outlook, opposed the calling for a new union.

The Pepper-Lovestone Party leadership gave its major attention to gaining factional positions in the new union to the detriment of its future success. Utterly unfit to lead a serious battle in the class struggle, incapable of grappling with its real problems, so often bound up in small sordid details, this group turned its attention to securing factional control which resulted in seriously narrowing the leadership of the new unions. Highly qualified and experienced comrades, already accepted as leaders by the miners’ movement, were deliberately isolated for no other reason than factional group interests.

Gambling with the Workers’ Interests

In this real test of mass struggle the Party leadership has shown its impotency and unscrupulous gambling with workers’ interests. Even toward the Party union fraction a factional policy was maintained throughout. Following a correct attitude the Party leadership would have, decided upon a general line of policy for the fraction to carry out in the convention. In addition it would have elected a qualified and experienced C.E.C. committee to constantly advise with the fraction. Such, however, was by no means the case. On the contrary, the Pepper-Lovestone leadership appointed a committee with a majority of its faction agents entirely devoid of experience and authority in trade union work. This committee assumed complete authority for all decisions, made all appointments for steering committee and candidates for office. Its decisions were binding, the members of the fraction merely taking orders and having no part whatever in making decisions.

The danger of such procedure can very well be visualized. First, it gives no opportunity to really develop the leadership of the fraction within the union. Secondly, it fails to fully utilize the experience of the comrades, the fraction members, who have been engaged in the actual battle. Thirdly, and most important of all, it destroys any basis for real Party democracy which can be founded only on the most intimate contact between higher bodies and the rank and file members, utilize the experiences and mass contact of the latter through joint deliberations and give them full opportunity for expression and criticism as the best guarantee for maintaining correct policies. This narrow factional line has not been relinquished to this date.

Such is the record of gambling with a mighty left wing struggle and a movement of splendid potentialities. The Party and the miners’ movement have paid dearly for it. The crest of the first mighty wave has passed. The battle is now less dramatic but demands tenacious, painstaking work in building of the new union, so it may begin to assume leadership in local struggles for better conditions for the miners. The present Party leadership evinces no interest whatever and gives no support at all. While looking for objects for manoeuvres it has no faith in the mass struggles of the workers. Its attitude is largely determined by its own petty-bourgeois social background and concept. It has been and still is on trial before the American proletariat, particularly as expressed in this struggle. Only a correct revolutionary policy can stand this judgment.

The National Miners Union is based squarely upon recognition of the principles of the class struggle, the only possible orientation for a militant union in the present imperialist era. The Party leadership in its present “self-criticism” is making much ado about the “failure” of some of the comrades, including the writer, to adopt the wording “class struggle” for the constitution preamble. But one of my proposals for constitution submitted to the committee in charge, and contained in Minutes of Aug. 28, reads: “The declaration of principle shall be unequivocally based upon recognition of the class struggle.”

The National Miners Union has been born out of the struggle in the coal fields. The operators are as determined as ever upon their strategy to smash all working class organization. In solid alliance with them are the fakers of the old union machine and the governmental institutions of court injunctions, jailings and police terror. Great are thus the forces opposing the new union. The last few years have been marked by the continuous surrender and betrayal policy of the old union bureaucracy. To effect the change from surrender to militant struggle and real organization is the great task of the National Miners Union. To accomplish this it must have the full support of the left wing everywhere and that support must be mobilized by the Party.

The New Union Must Lead Struggles

While a beginning has been made and a splendid record set by the left wing this union cannot grow in a vacuum of secret existence or semi-legality. It must step out and lead the struggles of the miners. With the proper Party support and active preparations conditions are favorable for a campaign of organization in the unorganized fields of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Conditions are favorable for its leadership in re-establishing union activities and union conditions in the former strike area of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Further struggles are impending in the Anthracite. The rank and file of Illinois and Indiana have shown great discontent and rebellion against the company union conditions imposed by the fakers who still maintain job control. They are looking toward the National Miners Union to give leadership. It must and can become a real force in the struggle for emancipation of the workers from capitalist exploitation.

This is an imperative task of the Party for which the objective possibilities are favorable. The absolute prerequisites for success in this task are a decisive change in the attitude of the Party and a reorganization of its leadership which will ruthlessly throw aside the adventurist faction mongers.

Mistakes can be corrected only when properly recognized and fully understood. This becomes a much more important maxim when viewing the attitude of the Party leadership towards the orientation upon a general policy of building new unions of the unorganized working masses. An orientation demanding ever more concrete action with the further completion of the general rationalization process of American capitalism. One recalls the timely criticism of Comrade Lozovsky last Spring, castigating our failure to see these unorganized masses, a scathing indictment of the official Party policy of manoeuvring on top while ignoring the militant mass potentialities. This was met with stubborn resistance from the C.E.C. majority; also Comrade Foster made this mistake. But not content with this the C.E.C. majority by its vote at the May plenum actually rejected the thesis of the R.I.L.U. World Congress demanding an orientation by our Party toward building of new unions of the unorganized masses. In reply to this Comrade Cannon wrote in the July Communist on the Trade Union Question:

“The obstacles in the path of organizing the workers in the basic industries of America are truly enormous, and the present forces at our disposal are small. There is no need to minimize the difficulties, they will multiply and confront us at every turn. The state power of capitalism will obstruct the new union movement with the fiercest persecution; and the workers will soon find that they are not done with the treacheries of the labor fakers when they seek to form new unions.

“Between the decision to organize the unorganized masses and the actual formation and consolidation of new unions lies a long and stony road. But history has laid out that task for the Communist Party and the left wing, and we must begin the work in earnest.”

This line was correct then and remains correct today.

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