On the CP-USA and the Unions

— Ernie Haberkern

LIKE MOST OF the New Left "revisionist" historians of the American Communist Party his article refers to, Charlie Post in his essay "The Popular Front: Rethinking CPUSA History" (ATC #63, July-August 1996) fails to address the most serious criticism of that experience.

Most of the "revisionists" concentrate their attention on the important, but secondary, issue of the party’s dependence on the Soviet Union: Was it merely an "agent" of the Soviet Union or was it a genuine expression of American radicalism whose top leadership’s reliance on Moscow frustrated the work of the rankandfil?

But shouldn’t the real question be: What was the CP’s relation to the American working class and its organized expression, the trade unions?

A given Communist party’s degree of dependence on, or independence of, Stalin’s regime was a function, in most cases, of its relative strength at home. After all, Tito, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro and others less well known showed themselves perfectly capable of acting independently of Moscow and even in opposition to it. After 1963, only William Buckley’s National Review continued to maintain that the sparring between Russia and China was all a ruse designed to deceive naive liberals. (I wonder if Bill still thinks that? He certainly never publicly admitted he was mistaken.)

Yet each of those movements, before and after they came to power proved to be implacable opponents of any independent working class organization. One of my objections to the glib use of the word "totalitarian" as a substitute for political thought is that Communist governments were, and are, capable, when the occasion demands it, of very flexible policies when dealing with intellectual or nationalist oppositions or even, in the case of Poland, with the Catholic church.

Novelists, poets, clergymen and pornographers, all, at one time or another in different regimes, at different times, to different degrees, were tolerated. But independent trade unions with the right to strikenever. And this mutual antagonism also characterized the relationship of the Communist Parties to the organized labor movement in countries where they were far removed from power.

It is true that the American CP was one of the most dependent on the Russian regime. And I think Post’s dismissal of the work of Theodore Draper (and of Harvey Klehr) on this subject is too glib. After all, historical methodology isn’t, or shouldn’t be, similar to that common in labor arbitration—one party takes this position, the other party takes the opposite position, let’s "split the difference" and call it fair.

There are facts to be considered. Nelson Lichtenstein’s description in Labor’s War at Home, of the maneuvering of the Party in the aeronautical industry around the time of the HitlerStalin Pact, tells pretty much the same story as Draper and Klehr. And James Weinstein’s discussion of the CP and the unions in the early 20s does not differ substantially from Draper’s. Yet neither Lichtenstein nor Weinstein can be dismissed as a neoconservative or cold war liberal.

Nor can the Party’s institutional behavior be explained away by blaming it all on "the top leadership." If the rankandfile members were as outraged by this behavior as they should have been, as others were, why not get rid of the leadership? Or break with the Party? No, the dependence on Stalin was their choice as well. They weren’t conned into it by "bad leaders".

But what really defined the CP as an institution, whatever the heart burnings of individuals, is not why they did what they did, but that they did it. In both the "Third Period" and "Popular Front" experiments the Party, as a whole, revealed a cavalier disregard for fundamental class loyalty that bewildered and repelled working class militants. The worst bureaucrats never used them this way.

CP versus the Unions

What Post misses in the American Communist Party’s sudden flip from the dualunionism of the "Third Period" to the proNewDealism of a few years later is what was common to both. In both cases, the unions as class institutions were an obstacle to be overcome.

In the "Third Period" (late 1920s-early 1930s), partyrun "revolutionary unions" were to be front organizations aimed at turning at least a section of the working class and underclassboth increasingly desperate in Depression Americainto shock troops for the Communist Party.

Organized working class institutions were an obstacle to that. Part of the reason for the party’s concentration on the unemployed layer is that, as a sector of the class without its own organizations, it was more susceptible to this kind of manipulation.

A few years later, when the Party sought to build its front organizations as the best support for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition of all rightthinking people, it was again the unions, with their own agenda, their own organization, their own political culture, who were the obstacle.

The right wing of the labor movement didn’t need the CP and its fronts because people like Sidney Hillman had a more direct route to Roosevelt. Those CIO union bureaucrats, like John L. Lewis, who distrusted Roosevelt, partly because of their political conservatism and partly because of their sound class instincts, were increasingly estranged from the CP. And those trade unionists, especially those a step or two removed from the "commanding heights," who were radicalized by the explosions of the ’30s, continued to pursue their own agenda whatever they felt about Roosevelt.

The CP modus operandi degenerated into a search for "good" bureaucrats, ones who would help them build their "rankandfile" caucus in return for their support for whatever policygood, bad or indifferenttheir friends in high places wanted. There was usually a hint of blackmail involved in the operation since a CP run caucus could always threaten disruption if its interests were threatened. It all blew up in 1949 when many of the leading redbaiters were people who had been "good" bureaucrats but were not willing to pay the high price of maintaining an alliance with the CP in the Cold War period.

"United Front From Below"

I think that one of the reasons Post fails to understand this is that his own position itself echoes a pure "Third Period" theory (minus the cynicism which often characterized CPers like Foster, of course). The key passage that makes this clear is this one:

The "united front" strategy [of the Comintern during the Lenin years] rested on the understanding that workingclass radicalism and power only emerge from militant mass struggles against the employers and the state. Only through direct confrontations with capital in the workplace and communities do workers develop the power to win improved wages and working conditions ...

The Comintern viewed socialdemocratic leaders, parliamentary politicians and officials of unions as an obstacle, not only to revolutionary struggle but even to effective struggle for reform because of their particular social position. The fate of full time union officials, party functionaries and parliamentary politicians is independent of the fate of workers on the shop floor or the people in communities they profess to represent. [Post, ATC 63; 24]

This is the theory underpinning "the united front from below" against "the socialfascists," which led the German CP to disaster. Trotsky, in his brilliant polemic against this nonsense, emphasized above all that it was based on complete ignorance of what reformism was all about.

But we don’t need to look at Germany. Post himself, in passing, points to two incidents which demonstrate why he is wrong. Which is probably why he treats them only in passing.

In 1943 the United Mine Workers shut down a crucial industry in the middle of a world war. It was a massive strike that broke the back of the social patriotic politics then dominating the labor movement. After the miners strike the "No Strike Pledge" was for all intents and purposes a dead letter.

Who led that strike? Post doesn’t mention any names. He mentions the strike itself, a major turning point in the history of the labor movement, only in a clause. (Not even a whole sentence.) The CP didn’t play any role in this strike except, as Post explains, to denounce it as "proNazi.

The dissident Trotskyists and left socialists in and around the Workers Party, who did play an important part in the movement to resist the no strike pledge in the automotive, electrical and maritime unions, played no role here. And, as far as I know, neither did any other left wing group.

The strike was led, the social patriotism of the CIO leadership smashed, by John L. Lewis and his machine, enthusiastically supported by the miners. How does that square with Post’s characterization of the role played by reformism in the trade unions?

The second instance Post touches on is the strike wave of 1946, whose most important episode was the overwhelmingly successful GM strike. Another historical turning point. Who led that strike? Walter Reuther, whom Post mentions only as one who "postured as a militant defender of worker’s immediate economic interests against the Communists...".

But the undisputed facts are that Reuther did lead that strike and the Communists opposed it. Post also takes a swipe at the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists who in fact were very active in the movement against the no strike pledge—all the while being baited as "Nazis" by the CP.

The Union Bureaucracy’s Role

From a Marxist pont of view the reformist trade union officialdom is an absolutely crucial tool of the labor movement. It is an indispensable buffer between the employer, the larger society and the union.

Only in moments of extreme crisis, in a revolutionary situation, does the trade union bureaucracy play the role Post assigns to it always and everywhere. The anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, the "Wobblies") understood the reason for this very well. They refused to sign contracts because that meant you recognized the authority of the employer as owner, however circumscribed that authority might be. That meant that the trade union leadership (at the bottom as well as the top) had to discipline the members and enforce the contract.

Anyone in that position would have to do this too (readers of ATC included), even if you are only a local official or a shop steward. Of course, there are good leaders whose principal weapon is political persuasion, and bad leaders who resort to bribery and muscle. You will, presumably, belong to the first category when you are required to take some responsibility in a real fight.

The alternative is the one chosen by the IWW in the classic Lawrence strike of 1912. Theodore Draper gives an interesting account of that strike, which illustrates the consequences. After leading a militant strike of mostly female, mostly immigrant workers, the IWW won. Management offered to negotiate. Since the IWW refused to do that on principle, they turned to the AFL, which set up locals that would bargain with management.

Since the AFL had had little to do with the strikers and the strikers had had even less to do with the AFL, the locals fell apart. But the IWW preserved its revolutionary integrity.

The political dialectic illustrated by the Lawrence strike helps explain one of the interesting phenomena in the history of radicals in the labor movement: the frequency with which people who start out with theories of the labor bureaucracy like that of Charlie Post’s essay end up as advisors to and apologists for "good" bureaucrats. If you get seriously involved in unions and run into a competent and honest official who doesn’t fit your caricature of a "labor bureaucrat," you are easily taken in.

In fact, since even not so good bureaucrats, like John L. Lewis, are often driven by the need to defend the organization that is the source of their power and income against the employer or the state, radicals often end up fronting for them. This pressure becomes stronger the more seriously involved in a union radicals become. The gap between their fantasy of a rankandfile in a state of permanent insurrection and reality becomes too strong and they are easily wooed.

There is no clearer example of this dialectic than the left’s current obsequious adulation of a Democratic Party hack like John J. Sweeney simply because he is willing to talk to radicals.

The Crucial Duality

To put this in more theoretical terms: As a buffer the trade union officialdom, especially its top layers, not only defends the rights of the employer against those demands of the members that can’t be met at a given time; it also, and at the same time, defends the gains won by previous struggles.

The inability to see this duality accounts for the instability of radicals in the trade unions. But this duality also accounts for the real significance of union democracy. It is not a mechanism for replacing "bad leaders" with "good leaders," it is a way of organizing the counter pressure to the pressure the bureaucratgood or badis under from the outside.

Thus union democracy is not a temporary device to be used by "outs" who wa but a permanent function. And since most labor leaders are not "labor lieutenants of capital" in a simple minded sense, most of the time union militants, whether or not organized as a caucus, whether or not conscious radicals, function as a loyal opposition.

Rarely do serious trade union militants have to choose between denouncing the "sellout bureaucrats" or fawning on the "saviors" of the movement. In any case, at all times, radicals ought to be among those trade unionists who act as independent watchdogs, a counterweight to the formal or informal "caucus" that invariably
forms around the leadership of the union.

The attraction of Post’s reproduction of "Third Period" theory is easily understood if you look at it in the context of the historical development of New Left views on trade unions and the working class. The New Left began with a clear position best expressed in C. Wright Mills "Letter to the New Left" of 1960: Not only unions, but workers as a class, were no longer agents of social change. They had been bought off. Capitalism had solved its economic problem.

The bearers of change now were disaffected intellectuals (however you define that term). They would lead a left recruited from all classes and held together by a common intellectual and moral commitment.

After nearly forty years of trying to build such a crossclass alliance of all rightthinking people, the left is as isolated from the American people as it has ever been. Pat Buchanan articulates the grievances of more working class Americans than we do.

The trade unions, however, while far reduced in strength and influence from their heyday of the late ’40s, still posses millions of members, tens of thousands of activists, a considerable cadre of trained and dedicated professional staff, and lots of bucks. What is more important the trade union movement is an organized movement, something the New Left never could produce. In the recent elections it was only the labor movement that intervened at all effectively in the political debate.

It is natural in these circumstances that the left should begin to look again to the labor movement as "an agent of change." For all the talk of the left "jump starting" an inert labor movement, it is an enervated and dispirited left that is looking to the labor movement as a source of rejuvenation.

But no one has really thought this through. Unions are once again "agents of change." But it is "we" who will use "them" as agents— to carry o agenda, however illdefined that agenda may be. That’s why, again today, the experience of the American CP is strikingly relevant.

In the course of its development, the CP played a significant role in the labor movement in two periods, the Trade Union Education League (TUEL) in the early-mid 1920s and the CP in the early CIO (where they worked closely with Lewis). There are very valuable lessons to be learned from both experiences. Neither has yet found its definitive historian.

Both of these developments, however, ended badly. In both cases, the period of collaboration was one in which the trajectory of the CP and the trajectory of the unions crossed at a point. Since the trajectories were at an angle to one another the CP left no lasting effect on the American labor movement.

If the left ever expects to build a political movement based on the working class in this country, it will have to begin to look at the organized movement as a class institution with a life of its own and not just as a projection of our fantasies.

ATC 68, May-June 1997