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Arne Swabeck

The New Progressive Movement

(August 1929)

From The Militant, Vol. II No. 12, 1 August 1929, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Conference for Progressive Labor Action (Muste Group) has emerged as a definite trade union opposition with an elaborate program and a proposed membership basis of groups and individuals.

The program of the C.P.L.A. contains points worth noting, as for instance:

Unquestionably this program and its militant terminology to a large extent reflects the pressure of genuine left wing policies and activities of the past. It is a progressive program, most of its points being identical with those sponsored by the T.U.E.L. This new movement is a direct outgrowth of the increasing class pressure upon the workers in trustified industry and is one expression of working class radicalization. The almost complete disappearance of an organized left wing has facilitated the emergence of the C.P.L.A. at this time. These are facts of the greatest significance. They demand attention and a correct attitude from the Communists.

In industry everywhere the pressure upon the workers is increasing. More speed-up, more machinery, more uncertainty of employment. The present faint gropings of the workers for a way out will, in the course of its natural process, turn into more definite channels. The unorganized, unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the basic industries, who here and there begin to stir, are becoming ready material for organization. Those in the unions will be compelled to seek new policies, new methods, which will go beyond the obsolete craft barriers and challenge reaction.

New Spirit in Old Unions

Simultaneously the reactionary trade union leadership is marching ever more into the open as the agents of capitalism. In union administration and strategy the policy of the employers is becoming more dominant. Actually to prevent organization of the unorganized is now the main concern of these flunkeys. Yet to conclude that the A.F. of L. and kindred unions are passing out of existence would be entirely wrong; or even to deny the possibility of a certain growth. The lower functionaries who are closer to the rank and file and more subject to its pressure will feel themselves compelled to move for expansion. The Chicago Federation of Labor is a case in point.

Recently by resolution a committee was established to carry on organization to further increase the union ranks. While this committee is composed of paid officials from the affiliated local unions bringing with them all the conservative craft prejudices, the action itself, is nevertheless a response to pressure of conditions. Lately also on several occasions almost unanimous sentiment for the building of a labor party and discarding the A.F. of L. time worn political policy has been voiced at meetings in quite militant terms.

Our limited experiences have already quite clearly established the fact that the building of new unions in basic industries is conditioned upon the waging of the most militant struggle and facing the most ferocious persecutions. This is vividly brought out in the Southern textile mills. Would it then be reasonable to expect that the workers who become ready for organization will in mass numbers entirely discard the existing unions which have a tradition behind them? Hardly. On the Pennsylvania railroad, for instance, the unions are now – in agreement with the bosses – organizing the shop crafts.

Surely in the present objective conditions there are many favorable possibilities for the growth and development of a broad progressive movement. To deny this is tantamount to denying the present beginning of radicalization of the workers, which, although not yet of large ramifications, will ever more express itself both among the unorganized workers in basic industry and among those in the trade unions. On the whole, the ideology of the American workers is yet the one inculcated by capitalism. To expect that they should at once tear themselves loose from all capitalist influences and completely accept communist leadership will be a mere expectation having no foundation in facts. To pursue a policy based on the supposition that these working masses are waiting for the Communists to assume the direct lead – which the Party endeavors to establish by mechanical measures – without traveling the road of intermediary steps, can only lead to disaster and isolation.

Beginning of Revolt

The signs indicating the present trend of the workers, even including the formation of the C.P.L.A., show the beginning of revolt against the growing reaction of the officialdom. A definite class ideology by no means exists as yet. Our task is still the one of struggling for a class movement of the American workers. This of course presupposes the compact organization of a left wing capable of developing and broad[en]ing its influence in the course of struggle, exposing the reformists aspiring to leadership and prov[words missing] methods of the left wing.

The C.P.L.A. in its organizing conference, made an attack upon the Communists. This was done partly to preserve their own appearance of respectability, but mainly to solidify the influence of their own reformist position. To the workers, however, the one thing must remain decisive that any group proposing to organize a progressive movement to the exclusion of the Communists will neither be able nor have the slightest intention of actually leading the workers in revolt against the reactionary policies of the A.F. of L. bureaucracy, much less against American imperialism. Their aim is, rather, to keep all such developing movements within “safe, legal” channels and prevent the actual and necessary revolt.

Left Wing Tactics

Yet it would be entirely to narrow and un-Marxian a view to identify the progressive movement which this period will develop merely by these aspiring leaders, even though they may be the very ones instrumental in unloosing the forces of great potentialities. Such is the destiny of the new progressive movement: it must either turn into more definite, more left, more revolutionary channels and discard its reformist leaders or become merely a shield for reaction and disappear in a merger with it.

The official attitude so far taken by the “new trade union line” of the Party in refusing to recognize the forces these elements represent and the coming movement they express in its first stage, in simply lumping them all with the A.F. of L. bureaucrats in one hodge podge, has nothing to do with Communist tactics. The present moment calls for the united front tactic with an independent policy and merciless exposure of the reformists, fakers and betrayers; a constant pressure to make the present grandiosely proclaimed program a program of realities, carried into life in the movement; constant pressure for more definite left wing and revolutionary policies. In this process the reformist leaders will be discarded and the left wing will prove its worth as the only force able to bring these policies to their correct conclusion.

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