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Arne Swabeck

The Chicago Conference

The Unemployed Gather

(July 1930)

From The Militant, Vol. III No. 27, 26 July 1930, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

CHICAGO – The Chicago unemployment convention, the first of its kind, sharply denoted, in more than one respect, the present degree of development of the unemployed movement in the United States. It was the first culmination point around this burning issue facing the working class. Called by the Trade Union Unity League, its policies became those of the official Communist Party.

While the crowded one day session brought out many healthy aspects it also glaringly showed the extremely narrow character of the movement to date. Moreover, the policies adopted will, instead of overcoming the difficulty, tend further to narrow a basis where now the broadest scope is not only essential but also possible.

Many Extravaganzas

A summary of the speeches made, all bristling with a healthy militancy, would indicate the complete absences of a serious tackling of the problem – how to set the working masses into motion against their class enemy. They were well typified by the first speaker from the floor, following the main report. This speaker, on behalf of the New York delegation, extravagantly pledged: to build the mass unemployed councils, to build the mass “revolutionary unions” – to build the mass Communist Party, etc., etc. Nor were any of the “democratic encumbrances” of “ordinary” labor gatherings apparent at this convention. All was cut ready to order, its first business being the selection of a presidium from a previously made up slate. The presidium then proceeded to select those who were to speak from the floor, as per its announcement from lists submitted in advance by district delegations. This method “gently” eliminated in advance anyone who might not hew closely to the official “line”.

On its positive side the convention had some real healthy aspects shown for example in a large Negro delegation, 153 out of a total of the announced 1,120 registered delegates. Many splendid proletarian types had answered the call and came clearly evidencing the signs of pressure of the economic crisis drawing workers toward the Left, themselves being attracted by a movement which had fearlessly taken up their battles. Otherwise the composition of the delegation showed but little sweep of the movement beyond the general periphery of the Communist Party and closely sympathetic organizations and groups. 484 delegates came from the Chicago district alone, 100 from Michigan, 73 from Minnesota, 92 from Ohio, 56 from Indiana, 53 from New York and a sprinkling from some other states. There were none of those Southern workers who had taken such splendid part in the strikes of the Carolinas.

To understand the basic cause of the present narrow limits upon a movement which has great possibilities and has otherwise displayed vitality in struggle should now be the object of serious efforts of all militants. Without that no shortcomings will be remedied. It is wrong to conclude, as the Party does, that the present situation is one of a “revolutionary upsurge of the working masses in the United States.” Riding the crest of such a wave which is artificially constructed will at best get us caught in the dip, and at the worst prepare us for serious defeat when the offensive begins. The March Sixth and other unemployment demonstrations have manifested splendid working class response, but nevertheless what is most outstanding at the present moment is a downward curve. Everywhere increased capitalist reaction: innumerable jailings of Communist and workers on strike (many delegates were arrested on the way and in Chicago); break-up of demonstrations; intensified speed-up; wage cuts, directly and indirectly; the trade unions, including the new industrial unions, losing members. With this reaction also increasing signs of workers’ resistance through small defensive strikes. There have lately been, for, example, the strikes of the southern textile workers in Elizabethton and Marion and those of the northern section in Nazareth and Aberless, Pa., and Plainfield, N.J.; the short so-called strike of the I.L.G.W.U. in New York; the strikes of the Pittsburg taxi drivers, St. Louis bus drivers and the recent strike of the Pittston anthracite miners. All these were defensive strikes and none under the leadership of the Left. Where the Left does play a role has been on a small scale in the New York cafeteria strikes and the present Flint automobile workers strike.

Such is the picture at the present moment. Within it is contained the visible outlines of the upward curve in which the resistance, as yet isolated, can become a workers’ offensive of possibly broad sweep and surely of much sharper conflicts. Each such curve requires its specific tactics. Each has possibilities of growth for the movement and the tactics of one must simultaneously be the preparation for the other.

First Tasks

At this moment the first necessity is the most elementary ground-work. Millions of workers are unemployed and only a small section set into motion. Millions are still blissfully ignorant of their future status as members of a standing army of unemployed. That is the first point to bring home. The bourgeoisie have set to work actively to divide the ranks of the unemployed workers from those having jobs and already with some success to isolate the unemployed movement in its organized expression from the working masses. Can these efforts of the bourgeoisie be effectively defeated in any way than the broadest application of the slogans for work or compensation, unemployment relief, shorter workday, credits for Russia, etc.? Obviously not. Certainly the successful carrying on of the struggle for the unemployed means to spare no efforts really to unite the working class, which cannot be done within the narrow framework of the T.U.U.L. There could hardly be any situation where correct united front policies are so essential than precisely in this one. Could the hypocrisy and deceit of the social reformists and self-styled progressives on the burning issue of unemployment be better exposed than just through a correct and genuine united front policy?

These, however, were not the matters given serious consideration at the unemployment convention. It was keyed up to a very revolutionary phraseology but forgot its elementary tasks. William F. Dunne, in his report for the T.U.U.L. correctly stressed the necessity of unification of all of the struggles of the workers. But from that came the wrong conclusion, in the program of action adopted, entirely to limit the unemployed movement within the framework of the T.U.U.L. Thus the exact opposite of unification. Each union and industrial league is to set up unemployed councils in their industry as a part of the T.U.U.L. General councils, according to the program, are not to be organized where a section of the T.U.U.L. exists. These are mechanical limits which isolate the movement and confines it to that section of the workers ready to join the “revolutionary unions”. There could be no better way of actually preventing a mass basis of struggle for the unemployed. The social reformist will thus have a free field to rally all those workers who by vain search for a job are turning away from capitalist ideology but are not yet ready to join the “revolutionary unions”. In that broad field they can continue to sow their seeds of illusions and deceit. And it is precisely also in that field where a united front struggle around the burning issue of unemployment as well as Communist activities has such rich potentialities.

The Program of Action

The program of action lists the immediate demands to be made: Work or wages, unemployment relief, no evictions, 7-hour day, free employment agencies, etc. A total of 17 demands. Unquestionably the few most pressing ones, which are also the most elementary ones, must become the outstanding slogans. It would, however, have been more correct and realistic to advance the demand for the six hour day. More realistic, if for nothing else, in view of the fact that all of the railroad unions have officially gone on record recognizing the six hour day as a necessity.

But among all these demands no room could be found for the pressing one of large scale credits from this country to the the Soviet Union to further insure her successful industrialization and build the bonds of solidarity between the working classes of both countries. The Stalinists will probably answer that the Soviet Union “does not need” such credits. But that is contrary to facts. Simeon Zuckerman, vice president of the Amtorg, reports that orders in the United States for machinery, equipment, etc. averaged $10,000,000 monthly for the first six months of the fiscal year. In April and May of this year, they fell to $3,000,000 while orders placed in Germany ran to $10,000,000 because Germany offered a full 100 per cent credit for eighteen months and on some deals for two years or more. He adds:

“A big Soviet construction program in the Urals – metallurgic plants, tractor and machine plants – were planned with the aid of American specialists who are cooperating in building. But in the present difficult period, which our leaders never attempted to deny or disguise (so!) credits play an important role. If we get better terms from Europe we must place orders in Europe instead of America.”

The Chicago unemployment convention did not take up or attempt adequately to solve the tasks which the present situation had placed upon it. Despite its narrowness, a correct policy could have made a substantial beginning toward laying the foundation for a broad genuinely united movement of the working class against the present capitalist reaction and in the struggle for the unemployed. The Left Communist Opposition must intensify its fight for such a policy.

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