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Tim Wohlforth

Periodicals in Review

(Summer 1962)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.3, Summer 1962, pp.92-93.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Labor Front

Years of relative quiescence in the trade union movement have had their effect upon the radical movement in the United States. Trade union matters occupy less space in all the radical journals than they used to, and many a socialist no longer follows events in this field as he once did.

Whatever the justification may have been for this two or three years ago, we doubt if any justification can stand up today. The accumulation of problems like the speed-up, automation, unemployment and run-away shops is beginning to prepare the way for important changes within the trade union movement.

It is within this framework that we must judge two new publications devoted to trade union affairs which have recently made their debut, Union Democracy in Action (UDA) and Progressive Labor. UDA is a monthly newsletter edited by Herman W. Benson, a former frequent contributor to the now-defunct Labor Action and presently active in Socialist Party circles. Mr. Benson’s publication is an attempt, from a Social Democratic political point of view, to grapple with the problems now facing the American Labor movement. It is a knowledgeable and a very serious attempt.

As the title of his publication suggests, it is Herman Benson’s thesis that the central problem facing the trade union movement is that of internal democracy. With this as his basic starting point, Benson reports on the development of rank-and-file opposition movements within various trade unions including the Painters Union, International Association of Machinists and the Pulp, Sulfite and Paper Mill Union. Benson’s newsletter is therefore of considerable value in supplying information on this extremely important aspect of the trade union movement. Certainly the official labor press never reports such developments, except when it is called upon to smear them.

The weakness of the newsletter is the weakness of the Social Democratic approach to the trade union movement and the class struggle in general. Even when analyzing the direct economic organs of the working class itself the Social Democrats refrain from making a class analysis. They evaluate the trade union movement not from the point of view of its effectiveness in representing the interests of the workers in a struggle against the interests of the capitalist class. Rather, they apply to the trade union movement the classless abstraction of “democracy” as the only issue of import. Thus, they correctly support the struggle within the union movement for rank-and-file democracy but do not relate this struggle to the need to utilize such rank-and-file control in order to implement a trade union policy to reflect the real interests of the working class.

Even more revealing of the “classless” outlook of Benson is his attitude towards Public Review Boards. The United Automobile Worker’s “solution” to the problem of rank-and-file democracy and union corruption has been to set up a special appeals board composed of “impartial” citizens who are to decide objectively on any appeals made by the rank and file of the union. Thus the control of the union is taken out of the hands of the rank and file and put into the hands of representatives of another social class who make up this board. This gimmick of Walter Reuther’s is the purest example of Social Democratic and liberal thinking which puts its trust in a handful of “objective” prominent citizens rather than in the working class itself. To Herman Benson, as to Reuther, the Public Review Board is a panacea to cure every trade union problem. The struggle for democracy in itself in the unions is to be conducted under the supervision of these “prominent” citizens.

Mr. Benson has inadvertently given us a very good picture of just how we can expect such “prominent” citizens to act. In issue No.5, which is devoted to the New York Teachers’ strike, Benson correctly attacks the anti-union action of the new Board of Education in voting an injunction against the union. He notes that this board was “viewed as a new, liberal group to give socially enlightened leadership ...” and in fact contained several men with former connection with the labor and radical movements. These are truly “prominent” citizens suitable for one of Benson’s Review Boards. We prefer the workers.

Progressive Labor is a somewhat different kind of publication. Like UDA it contains much valuable information on the situation inside the important trade unions. Like UDA it orients its publication in the direction of the trade union movement and its most militant section. However, Progressive Labor is a publication of a political grouping. It thus is an attempt to serve both as a reporter of events in the trade union movement and as an advocate of a particular socialist program.

Progressive Labor is published by Milton Rosen and Mort Scheer who were recently expelled from the Communist Party, the Worker informs us, for being “pro-Albanian.” This, we gather, means that they are identified with the Chinese in their polemics with the Russians.

In its reporting on trade union matters and the Democratic party, Progressive Labor takes a stand substantially better than that of the Worker or the Social Democrats. Rosen and Scheer are very sharp in characterizing the liberal wing of the Democratic Party as being representative of capitalist interests. They take a strong stand against the kind of support to capitalist politicians that has become the hallmark of both the official Stalinist and Social Democratic organs in this country.

In its trade union coverage Progressive Labor clearly emphasizes the necessity of replacing the labor bureaucracy with a new militant leadership which will come out of the rank and file itself. This approach gives a freshness and incisiveness to its analysis of trade union affairs for it poses questions in precisely the class terms that Benson in his publication attempts to ignore. A sharp class approach to broad political questions, especially in the international field, could make Progressive Labor a very effective and important publication indeed.

The Trap Is Set

The radical student movement seems to be entering a new stage in its development. For the last two or three years the pure joy of open, direct expression through picket lines and demonstrations fulfilled the needs of the bulk of newly radicalized youth on the campus. After years of witchhunting and apathy on the campus a militant demonstration, no matter what it happened to be about, seemed an act fully justifying itself, regardless of its possible effectiveness in achieving its purported aim. This mood received its literary expression in the proliferation of student radical publications which also seemed to exist without clearcut goals or program – to exist for the sake of existing and permitting radical opinions to find an open expression.

Today a new, more serious note of maturity is to be found among student activists. They are increasingly concerned with the effectiveness of their activities in basically changing the structure of a society from which they feel alienated. This concern with program, with more long-range effective action, is wholly progressive and should soon find its ideological expression in more serious treatment of political and theoretical problems in the new student radical journals.

However, there are strong forces at work within the student movement which seek to channel this striving of student militants in order to negate the effectiveness of the whole movement. Thus, they answer the search for programmatic solutions by offering a program which destroys the effectiveness of the mass actions themselves. These views are now finding expression in publications coming out of both social democratic and Stalinist circles.

This, we are sorry to say, is the political role being played by liberal-Social Democratic New University News, a monthly newspaper produced by the University of Chicago group that also publishes New University Thought. For instance, the May issue of this paper gives front page backing to Mark Lane’s futile attempt to win the support of the New York City reform movement for a primary fight for the Democratic nomination in the 19th Congressional District. Elsewhere in the same issue, Jack Newfield, who also writes in Common Sense, reports on the demonstration organized in front of the Madison Square Garden rally of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom. To Newfield,

“The most vital result of the liberal counter-assault was undoubtedly the coherent vision of a new political movement given 4,000 students by Lane and Harrington (editor of the Socialist Party organ New AmericaT.W.).

“... If YAF is to be combatted, it will be done by a democratic movement with a vision, and not by clever picket signs and a few choruses of We Shall Overcome.”

This “democratic movement” of Harrington and Lane is none other than the liberal section of the capitalist Democratic Party. In the April 6 issue of New America, Max Dombrow gives his backing to the reform Democrats as “the most hopeful and meaningful political development to hit New York in decades.” A similar political line is put forward by Marvin Markman in his article on the anti-YAF demonstration, Unity for Democracy, in the April-May issue of New Horizons for Youth.

The clearest, most unabashed expression of this political line can be found in a mimeographed publication put out in New York City, Common Sense. This publication is issued by a group of students who politically straddle both the Stalinist and Social Democratic political camps. This, while in itself insignificant, is important because it presents the distilled essence of what these two tendencies hold in common – a class collaborationist approach to American political life. To the editors of Common Sense, the demonstration against the YAF was simply part of the “day-to-day process of political realignment within the Democratic Party.” Monroe Wasch, in his article Kennedy’s Fight in Congress, views this multi-millionaire politician as an independent agent whom at the moment “business agents ... have been able to dominate.” He sees the task of radicals to join with liberals in the Democratic Party so that the liberal wing of that party will “dominate” our very malleable multimillionaire President. “The Negro people, the urban working classes,” we are told, “speak through the Democratic politicians.” Therefore, Mr. Wasch urges students to “go out to work for Congressional candidates [especially left-liberal Democrats] who will work for the expulsion of the Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party.”

As we see, these people aim to direct the energies of the thousands of students who have been participating in important mass actions over the past few years into precinct work in the Democratic Party. All their youthful energy and enthusiasm is to be dissipated in a futile attempt to transform a multi-millionaire President into an opponent of the social order upon which he rests, to transform a political party intimately tied in a million ways to the ruling class in our society into a weapon against that class.

But the objective course of these students, of the Negro people, of the workers in the trade union movement is precisely in the other direction – to break out of the narrow framework of capitalist politics – to strike out on an independent road. Only to the extent that the student movement remains essentially outside the capitalist parties will it be effective in achieving its aims of a better, more just world. Those who seek to channel the students militants into the trap of capitalist politics will not succeed in transforming the capitalists and their agents into something contrary to their nature. Rather they themselves and those who follow them will be transformed into the servile tools of the powers they seek to “convince.”

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