From Fourth International, Vol.10 No.11, December 1949, pp.323-326.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Cleveland CIO convention placed its seal on an already accomplished fact: the bureaucratic domination of the industrial union movement. The decay of democratic forms in society as a whole was transferred into the trade union organizations.
Under the banner of “democracy” a dictatorial regime was imposed on the CIO. The Stalinist opposition was tagged as “totalitarian” and expelled. That stigma, and the penalty for those so accused, does not apply to the Stalinists alone. In effect, a virtual system of thought-control has been established under the pretense of opposition to “totalitarianism.” The Stalinists were outlawed for their refusal to go along with the political program of the top CIO brass i.e. support of Truman and the Democratic Party, support of the Marshall Plan and the Atlantic Pact. What rights then remain for those who oppose the. bureaucracy on a strictly trade union basis and demand greater democracy in their unions or a more militant policy against the corporations?
Whatever ambiguity there may have been on this question was soon dispelled by the events in the National Maritime Union which followed hard on the heels of the CIO convention and bore its stamp of approval. An opposition representing close to a majority of the union membership has been driven from its elected position in the Port of New York by the rise of kangaroo courts, strong-arm methods and with the active cooperation of the shipowners and the NY Police Department. Rank and file members have been bullied, intimidated and beaten and deprived of their union books which is equivalent to loss of their livelihood as seamen. All of this is occurring in the midst of a referendum to decide controversial and hotly-contested decisions of the recent union convention.
The opposition in this case was denounced as “totalitarian” not for opposing the Marshall Plan or the influence of the Vatican but for insisting on space in The Pilot, the union’s paper, – a right that has been traditional in the Union – and for resisting the appointment of a receiver over the New York Port. The “liberals” at the CIO convention who vehemently denied that democracy was to be denied to anyone but the “Stalinist totalitarians” have been conspicuous by their silence in the struggle. If anything, Reuther and Co. have probably been secretly advising Curran on the best means to put over his coup.
What is happening in the NMU is rather a harbinger than an exceptional, isolated incident. The ruthless methods of Curran and Co. are the result of their inability to cope, with the problems of a sick industry. Shipping has fallen off drastically since the end of the war. There are almost a third” more sailors than there are jobs. And the shipowners have been exploiting this competition for jobs by steadily undermining union conditions on the ships. Behind the issue of union democracy there loomed a larger problem with two clearly defined answers: either an aggressive policy against the shipowners and the governnent or the elimination of the “surplus” seamen and the creation of a job trust with friendly relations with the shipowners and just enough jobs to go around. Curran has chosen the latter “solution.”
Every union in the country is bound to face a similar problem when the epidemic of decline spreads from one industry to another. The long-range purpose of the bureaucratic decisions of the CIO convention are aimed precisely at such an eventuality: the bureaucracy wants its hands free for the most far-reaching compromises with the corporations at the expense of the workers. Union democracy has no place in this scheme.
The triumph of bureaucratic leadership was not the result of a skillfully contrived plan drawn up long in advance and filed away until the appropriate moment arrived. Tt is the conclusion of a long process and a continuing struggle within the unions wnose outcome was determined by two principal factors: the alliance and integration of the trade union leadership with the capitalist state, and the disorientation and paralysis of the left wing by the Stalinists. We have described this process several times in the past in the columns of Fourth International. But it merits repetition, if only in capsule form, on this occasion.
As the original surge of labor radicalism, which brought the CIO into being, receded, a bureaucratic leadership attempted to fasten its grip on the various unions and the national organization as a whole. This was no easy task. A conservative tendency among the more highly skilled workers, who had profited the most from the CIO victories, was willing to lend itself to the plans of the bureaucracy. But the current of militancy was still running too strong. The odious tradition of racketeer-ridden, machine-controlled and class collaborationist AFL unionism was fresh in the workers’ minds. Every attempt to curb democratic rights met with fierce resistance. Uninterrupted factional struggles within the unions, seemingly obscure in origin and purpose, were the hallmarks of the conflict between the rank and file militants and the threat of bureaucratic dictatorship. Here and there the new labor barons succeeded. Ironically enough, outside the steel union, the tightest machines were organized in the Stalinist-controlled unions.
The outbreak of World War II decisively altered these conditions in favor of the bureaucracy: The unions, completely enmeshed with the government apparatus, lost their independence. Conflicts with the employers were regulated by agreement between the union leadership and government boards dominated by the employers. Without the right to strike, internal union democracy was rapidly becoming a fiction. The bureaucracy, armed with police powers by the government, was released from the pressure of the workers. Its actions took the form of decrees handed down from above.
This regimentation was not imposed without resistance. The revolt against the “No-Strike Pledge” assumed large and menacing proportions, particularly in the auto union and, but for the ending of the war, could have served as the basis for a new leftwing in the unions. In an indirect manner, the w:ar-time insurgency found expression in the post-war strikes which temporarily jolted the security of the bureaucracy. But only temporarily. Through its intervention, the government circumscribed the limits of the strikes, thus permitting the union leadership to stay at the helm and to prevent the rise of any independent and left-wing tendency.
The enactment of the Taft-Hartley law, in essence a moderate form of compulsory war-time arbitration, further redounded to the benefit of the union bureaucracy. Despite their vociferous protests against it, the new law quickly became a weapon in their hands against militant action by the rank and file and against radical opposition in the ranks. The preparations for the bureaucrats’ offensive was being completed.
Under cover of the propaganda barrages of the “cold war,” the union bureaucracy began its assault against democratic rights in the CIO with the aim of crushing all opposition and consolidating its own arbitrary rule. The offensive reached its climax at the CIO convention where the top leadership was invested with centralized powers unprecedented in the history of the American labor movement.
All of this was obtained at a price – a price paid by the workers in the form of deteriorating working conditions and in wages that lag far behind the cost of living. The same convention that celebrated the triumph of the Murray-Reuther-Carey machines approved the capitulation of this leadership in the fourth-round wage drive. Acheson’s presence at the CIO Convention as its keynote speaker was especially symbolic. The State Department was the real victor in the internal struggle in the CIO.
To atribute this development to the strength of reaction – and let it go at that – is to resign oneself to a passive view of history and the class struggle. The great power of the monopolists, their fusion with the government machine, the unceasing torrent of anti-communist propaganda, the extended period of employment and “prosperity” – all of these were undoubtedly important factors.
They aided the bureaucracy but they do not account for its easy victory. Why was there no genuine left wing strong enough to stem if not halt the advance of the mercenaries of the State Department?
The democratic impulse and the tradition of militancy is far from moribund in the CIO. Time and again it breaks through the bureaucratic fetters as in the revolt against Curran in the NMU and in the seething opposition of the auto workers to Reuther’s Ford contract. Paradoxically, the responsibility for the weakness of the opposition rests with the first victims of the purge – the Stalinists.
The measure of Stalinist betrayal can be gauged from the direction of the attack against them at the CIO convention. It came from the left! The Stalinists were pilloried for their strikebreaking at Montgomery-Ward during the war, for their proposal for a permanent no-strike pledge, for the miserable agreements signed by UE, for lack of democracy in their unions, for serving the interests of the Soviet foreign office rather than the American workers. Murray, Reuther, Curran, Baldanzi, Carey – the catspaws of the State Department, the menials of the Truman administration, the allies of the Catholic hierarchy – all of the arch-enemies of independent union action, and militancy and democratic methods in the unions were thus able to hide their own crimes behind the sins of the Stalinists.
The tragedy of the situation is not the ignominious defeat suffered by the Stalinists. That was well-deserved. It is in the blow received by the militant and radical wing of the CIO who now face a more powerful and entrenched bureaucracy. It is the penalty of thirteen years of Stalinist opportunism, class collaborationism and bureaucratic methods.
The Stalinist defeat at the CIO convention is the end of a long road which traverses the depression, the rise of the CIO and the Second World War. It was a period in which a great radicalization welled up in the ranks of American labor. Thousands of the best worker militants flocked to the Communist Party in search of a revolutionary answer and program to meet the degrading social crisis of American capitalism. The same development occurred in other layers of society as well, among the intellectuals, the professional groups and the students.
This dynamic force could have been the shock troops for the left wing of the new union movement and a strong revolutionary party. Instead their services were bartered by the Kremlin for the good-will of the Roosevelt administration. The history of that period might have been different if the Communist Party had been a revolutionary not a Stalinist organization. But that is a matter for speculation. The main prop of capitalism in the depression years were the New Deal reforms and the illusions they created among the masses. The services of Stalinism were not indispensable but they were extremely useful.
The CIO did not come into being like a hot-house plant. It was a turbulent, radical movement set into motion by old-line AFL leaders like Lewis, Hillman and Charles Howard of the Typographical Union but led from below by radicals and revolutionists, by militants who did not hesitate to occupy plants and fight armed encounters with the National Guard, sheriffs and deputies, to haunt their defiance at courts, mayors and governors. The top leaders of the new CIO tried to rein in the movement; to quench its rebelliousness and to put it in a reformist harness. In this endeavor the Stalinists aided mightily.
The Communist Party was not even a loyal left wing in this period. It was part and parcel of the administration forces in the unions. Its main activity was to help the top leadership curb independent actions and to prevent the formation of a left wing. Two principal methods were employed for this end. On the one hand, the Stalinists corrupted hundreds of revolutionary militants with a reformist distortion of Marxism – and with well-paying posts the CP apparatus was able to distribute. On the other hand they slandered, isolated and persecuted the dissidents and insurgents who could not be convinced or bought.
How many of those militants, following the Communist Party line of that period to its logical conclusion, have turned up in the camp of the top bureaucracy as enemies of the Stalinists! Why, after all, should the opponents of Murray and Reuther be accorded better treatment than the Communist Party had advised for the opponents of Lewis and.Hillman? The Stalinists have been struck down with a weapon they themselves fashioned – slavish obedience to “CIO policy.”
The expulsion of the Stalinists from the CIO for opposing the domestic and foreign policies of a Democratic administration was strictly in keeping with the tradition the Stalinists had helped establish. They were the loudest Roosevelt-shouters. Even Lewis’ angry criticism, that Roosevelt had connived with the Steel Barons in the smashing of the 1937 steel strike, was too severe for them.
Nor were their services confined merely to propaganda. They took the lead in breaking up all labor party movements or diverting them back into Roosevelt’s “Popular Front.” The Democratic Party and its trade union allies could thank the Stalinists for saving their organization from catastrophe in at least two important states: by perverting the American Labor Party in New York into an adjunct of the Democratic Party thus preparing its eventual fragmentation; by merging the Farmer-Labor, Party of Minnesota with the impotent Democratic machine, negating its effectiveness as an instrument of the trade unions.
The servility of the Stalinists to the foreign policy of the Roosevelt administration, their unabashed patriotism and jingoism during the war is too well known to need repetition here. This was their major consideration for fighting the left wing; for opposing an aggressive class struggle policy in the CIO, for breaking up all moves toward independent labor political action. Here too consistency is on the side of Murray and Reuther. They merely continued what the Stalinists began--at the expense of the Stalinists.
Yet there was a time, not so long ago, when all this was not so clear. Those were the balmy days of the “popular front.” The Stalinists luxuriated in the sun of “respectability.” They controlled a whole group of big CIO unions. They dominated city and state CIO councils in most of the major industrial centers. Their agents were planted in all the important policy making bodies right up to the top. Perfect harmony prevailed between them and Murray, R.J. Thomas, Curran, Quill and a host of lesser lights. They had positions in federal agencies, instate and city governments. Their fellow-travellers clogged up- ajl the pores of the intellectual and professional movement which had turned to the left during the depression of the Thirties. This, they proclaimed, was the “new dispensation,” the “American” road to socialism.
But there was nothing “new,” nothing especially “American” about this hoary form of class collaborationism and reformism. So too, it has suffered the classic fate of all opportunism, whose swollen power is built on the shifting sands of a temporary conjuncture of class relationships. Contrary to the popular misconception which conceives of a big all-inclusive reformist movement as a formidable challenge to “reaction,” opportunism grows at the expense of the revolutionary forces of the workers and not in conflict with the real interests of the bourgeoisie.
During its period of weakness the bourgeoisie and its labor lieutenants need a “revolutjonary-appearing” agency to fend off and restrain the radical and dynamic mass movement. But this period does not last indefinitely. The period of reaction always follows the period of reforms because class collaboration flies in the face of all the laws of a society torn by class contradiction. Roosevelt and Lewis, and later Murray, needed the Stalinists during the stormy day’s of the CIO – they needed them as a safety valve against the pressure of the unorganized revolutionary left wing in the country. When Stalinism had served its purpose, the bourgeoisie found a new function for them, one in which their cooperation was unnecessary. Stalinism became, the foil for the direct attack against the trade union movement as a whole. By their cooperation in this attack, Murray, Reuther and Co. expose the workers organizations to the same fate now being met by the Stalinists.
Fortunately the CP does not occupy a comparable position in this country to that of the pre-war German social democracy. Having saved Germany from revolution in 1919 and having propped up capitalism for a decade thereafter, Social Democracy prepared the road for the Nazis and itself wound up in concentration camps. The situation is not so critical in this country. Although there has been a general offensive of reaction on all fronts, although the Stalinist leaders have been sentenced to prison while their followers are driven out of the unions, there is as yet no major attempt to smash the labor movement or to institute a fascist dictatorship. The militants have time to ponder the lessons of the Stalinist debacle and so prepare themselves for the stormy struggles ahead.
The betrayals and zig-zags of the Stalinists have discredited them with broad sections of active unionists and advanced workers. But it would be the greatest mistake to think that there was something “uniquely” Stalinist about these crimes or that they could be committed only by an agency of the Kremlin. The same opportunist course is being followed today by the Reuthers, the Dubinskys, the Murrays in opposition to the “foreign agency” of the Kremlin as it was followed in the past in collaboration with the Stalinists. The dangers are far more ominous. The life of the entire, labor movement and its democratic rights are at stake, and not just those of a relatively small party. A left wing built on the solid foundation of a class struggle program and independent political action – built in opposition to the opportunists and the reformists – can not only avert this danger but open new vistas for the American working class.
The CIO convention marks the end of the road for the Stalinists. It can mark the beginning of a new road for the development of a genuine radical upsurge if these lessons are pondered and learned.
Last updated on: 17 March 2009