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Arne Swabeck

Problems of the Unemployed

(July 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 30 (Whole No. 126), 23 July 1932, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The unemployment crisis has become an enormous factor in beginning to develop a change of ideology and – what will flow from it – a change of political allegiance within the American working class. These trends of a change are appearing first among the unemployed section. Its course will naturally lead away from the prevailing bourgeois influence. But its direction, whether reformist or revolutionary, as far as the Immediate future is concerned, is not yet decided.

Within the unemployment movement both of these two opposites are represented. They are represented on the one hand in the Unemployment Councils initiated, organized and controlled by the official Communist party. On the other, we have such as the Unemployed Citizens’ League of Seattle and other Pacific Coast cities, the Superior Labor Unemployment Committee, the unemployment movement of the West Virginia Miners Union and the unemployment organizations of the Socialist Party.

It is not the purpose here to describe these latter organizations in their history and development, or to try to make a thorough analysis; that will be found in another article in this issue. Here it is only the purpose to develop a few points by way of comparison.

The Party Councils

The Unemployment Councils, organized by the party, took on features from its inception which ordinarily should have been to their advantage. But they also took on features, and a good many more, which seriously hindered their development. In both respects it was a matter of party policy. First of all they were founded on the idea that nothing can be obtained by the working class except through struggle and naturally they become militant in character not so much concerned with the purely practical, and usually short-lived, methods of self-help. (In this connection we are leaving out of consideration the Browderian idea of soup kitchens which was, fortunately for the party, also short-lived). The Councils had a semblance of a national scope, being initiated in the main cities throughout the country under a centralized direction. This was all to their advantage.

But one particular feature of disadvantage alone was pretty well sufficient to offset all this. The councils were not at all, in the real sense of the word, organized as united front bodies. As a matter of fact the restrictions and limitations put upon them, with the bureaucratic methods of control entirely prevented them from becoming representative of a mass movement. To this it is necessary to add the adventurist tactical policies pursued by the party and swinging from the extreme of “capturing the streets” to the opportunist method of propagating only unemployment [word missing] which constantly reduced the movement to smaller proportions. For these reasons the Unemployment Councils have marked a fairly constant downward curve despite the exceptional opportunities available.

By way of comparison we have on the other hand the unemployment organizations mentioned of which perhaps the Unemployed Citizens’ League of Seattle, Wash., is one of the best examples. Its objectives were distinctly those of “practical” reform measures. It attained considerable success in the methods of mutual self-help such as collections of food and other necessities. It also used its influence in a political way to obtain certain relief measures from the city government. Its practical advances turned it rapidly into becoming a mass movement. But it was not only in the features already cited that it represented an opposite tendency to the party controlled Unemployed Councils, that held true in almost every other respect. It is a localized movement, loosely organized with few regulations and, while remembering that it is still a comparatively new movement, its existence has so far marked an upward curve.

The Reformist Dilemma

Nevertheless this movement is about to come to its crossroads. That is above all determined by its distinctly reformist direction and the alternatives it will face at the crossroads are already clearly indicated. It has already begun to take on the political parliamentary features of indorsing so-called favorable candidates for elections. It is speaking of “establishing factories” to produce for the league members. Of course, the means of production are not expropriated that way nor will such parliamentary politics establish a workers government. So in both cases these alternatives can lead at best only to reducing the movement to either a purely reformist parliamentary party or a mutual self-help society, neither of which will afford it the possibility of playing a very serious or positive working class role.

There is, of course, still another alternative at hand, namely; for this movement to change its course and progress toward a revolutionary direction. Of that, however, there will be little likelihood unless the revolutionary, the Communist elements consciously penetrate the movement with this as the distinct objective. But to realize such an objective it would be necessary first of all for the official party policy to change, by an earnest adoption of the united front tactic in the unemployment movement. Both of these measures would go hand in hand and would be entirely in accord with the needs of the working class movement as well as the requirements of a revolutionary policy.

But these two comparisons bring to the fore also the serious question of the stage of development of the broad working class movement today. Have we reached a point at which the Communist party can assume to function as the controlling center of the whole, broad mass movement? Hardly! An unemployment mass movement in the United States is yet in its infancy and its potential political level is so far only a very elementary one. In such a situation the party must still conceive its role and function as the Left wing within a general movement. However, if this is the correct analysis, and it could hardly be contested, then that fact alone so much more reinforces the imperative necessity of the party utilizing its present strategic position of being in control of the Unemployment Councils, to endeavor seriously to build the unemployment movement on a national scale into a genuine united front movement, not only embracing the unemployment organizations mentioned, but all existing working class organizations, political trade unions and fraternal bodies.

But even these questions touch only one side of the problem. There are now special features developing within American capitalist economy, accelerated by this crisis. On the one hand there is the phenomenon of a permanent unemployed army. Its permanency is quite well recognized, and need not be further substantiated by arguments. On the other hand there are the specific measures being applied by American capitalism in an effort to get out of the crisis. The first one noticeable is the beginning toward restoring profits on existing capital, i.e., increasing the mass of profit. In this respect “Broadstreet’s” tells us some interesting examples:

Capitalist Income

“The Baltimore and Ohio ... in February 1932, nearly doubled its February 1981, net operating income despite a $2,750,000 reduction in gross. The New York Central lowered its operating ratio to 74.5, the lowest for any month since 1929, and also increased its net with a smaller gross. Altogether some 20 railroads were able to report higher incomes. Mr. W.W. Colpitts, of Coverdale & Colpitts, railroad engineers, has estimated that if railway carloadings return to but halfway between their present level and the 1929 figures, the net operating income for the roads in the United States as a whole would be greater than in 1929.”

Here we have a practical illustration of what the restoration of profits means. It represents an enormous increase in the intensity of exploitation; more profits realized with less men employed. The violent depression of the wage level is already well known, and known by actual experience to all employed workers. But by these very facts, the problems of the crisis, the problems of unemployment becomes even more distinctly problems of the working class as a whole, not at all confined to the unemployed alone. And the conclusion which we must of necesity draw therefrom will be that an unemployed movement confined to the unemployed alone is doomed to impotence and extinction. The unity of action of the employed with the unemployed must be assured.

The possibilities for this are available particularly in the stage we are now entering. Its permanent army of unemployed, its increase in intensity of exploitation and its depression of the wage level also bring the immediate and most pressing needs of the working class as a whole down to a more general, a more common level for all sections concerned. This will serve to harmonize its demands.

It is from such considerations as these that the party leadership must draw its conclusions. Its great opportunities it has so far recklessly frittered away, bureaucratically stifled all criticism and driven away again from the party ranks the many workers who came sincerely to Communism but could not agree with such methods. The party is now faced with a serious contest for influence with social reformism within the unemployment movement. The direction this movement will take, toward revolutionary objectives or merely toward reformism is still to be decided. If the party is to cast its weight in the scale for the decision and seriously bring its influence to bear, it must change its course. Not a change toward emulating the “practicalness” of the reformists but a change toward uniting the workers in struggle and bringing forward, more clearly the revolutionary objectives.

The unemployment movement must be thoroughly integrated with, the general working class movement, particularly the trade unions. It is an operative necessity that all workers’ organizations be drawn into a united front movement for the struggle growing out of the unemployment situation. Only the Communists are really capable of organizing such a united front. But for that the party must also become integrated within the general movement. It must penetrate the broad workers’ organizations, particularly the trade unions.

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