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Walter Jason

Books in Review

A Service to Labor

(January 1950)

From The New International, Vol. XVI No. 1, January–February 1950, pp. 59–60.
Transcribed & marked up by
Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Left, Right and Center
by Sidney Lens
445 pp. Henry Regnery Co. $4.00

Somewhat belatedly we should like to comment on one of the few worthwhile labor books published in 1949. Sidney Lens’ analysis of the conflicting forces in American labor is a genuine contribution to any serious understanding of America’s trade unions.

Lens’ penetrating observations of business unionism, his critique of CIO class collaboration, his devastating exposé of Stalinism’s reactionary labor role, have not sold the book, but have doomed it to almost total disregard in the labor movement. It is true, of course, that Ammunition, the UAW-CIO monthly publication, did review it favorably, but that was an exceptional incident, even for the UAW-CIO, some of whose leaders have since learned to fear if not respect the power of ideas in books.

Among the many popular misconceptions which Lens destroys is one relating to racketeering in the union movement. Lens takes some of the notorious cases of recent years such as the Willie Bioff-Hollywood movie czars’ agreement, and penetrates to the basic roots of this scandalous condition which is treated in the daily newspapers as if it were a sin confined solely to unionism. “The source of racketeers in the labor movement, then, is obvious,” Lens concludes his chapter on Racketeers and Their Allies. “Such men could hardly last five minutes without direct connivance of an employer or of a city political machine or both. They couldn’t stay in business for a moment unless they could provide additional profits for unscrupulous employers or benefits for a political machine.”

In rather compressed style, and thus perhaps unavoidably doing a certain injustice to the period, Lens sketches the history of radical movements in the labor movement, giving appropriate credit to the socialists and Wobblies of other days. But it is difficult to believe that on second thought Lens would write so sloppy a sentence, in dealing with the Stalin-Trotsky struggle, as this one: “The difference between Trotsky and Stalin as day to day politicians at that time (1923–27) can probably be summarized by the fact that, whereas Stalin knew how to agree with anything ‘in principle,’ and then cut the heart out of it in practice, Trotsky, who fought viciously on matters of principle, yielded like a lamb in most matters of practice.” Fortunately, the book as a whole avoids such insupportable assertions.

So little seems to be known today of the mass struggles which preceded the emergence of the CIO that Lens’ section on the Turning Point and the New Deal deserves to be very widely read. It simply isn’t true that the Stalinists led the big pre-CIO fights and that John L. Lewis and Franklin D. Roosevelt organized the CIO. The facts are there to see, and Lens presents them. However, we must quarrel with one important political opinion which Lens states in evaluating that turbulent epoch in labor history. “The sands of time were running low for those elements in the AFL leadership who recognized that the Green policy was incapable of checking the advance of radicalism. After three years of turmoil, growth, strikes and confusion, the Committee for Industrial Organization was formed in 1935 precisely for that purpose.” This is more than mere over-simplification. It gives a lop-sided viewpoint on the historic importance of the CIO – and underestimates John L. Lewis nearly as much as a shoddy work like Saul Alinsky’s John L. Lewis overestimates him. But this is an old quarrel between Lens and ourselves, and it should not be permitted to detract from the overall value of his book.

We think a real service to the labor movement would be done if a nation-wide discussion in union circles could be started on Lens’ ideas for the labor movement. These proposals are:

  1. amalgamation of the craft unions into an industrial structure;
  2. unity of the AFL, CIO, railroad Brotherhoods, independent unions, etc.;
  3. establishment of flexible councils of workers elected from related plants, related industries, or related geographical points;
  4. rearming the city central bodies in both the AFL and CIO with the autonomous rights at least to conduct local organizational campaigns and give active guidance in local strikes;
  5. creation of unions for the unemployed – both on relief and work projects – with the united federation of labor;
  6. formation of an educational alliance of progressive, socialist, and semi-socialist elements within the unions, whether AFL, CIO or independent, as a counterweight to both Stalinism and business unionism.

This last point we think particularly important.

As an active man, an unaffiliated radical, and an author, Lens has done his share to contribute ideas toward a further advance of the union movement. His book consequently merits serious attention.

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