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Meaning of Justice Douglas’s Speech to the CIO

(13 December 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 50, 13 December 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Justice William O. Douglas’s speech to the recent CIO convention was far more than the hypocritical tributes and trite generalities usually bestowed by capitalist politicians on labor audiences. It was a serious attempt by a capable leader of American bourgeois liberalism to provide a rounded and reasoned thesis for the American union leaders. This thesis formulated and justified in theoretical terms their fundamental social philosophy and perspective. That is why CIO President Philip Murray hailed Douglas’s words in such extravagant terms and why the CIO leaders plan to publish the speech and circulate it widely.

National Figures

The official union leaders in America today rest on the potentially most powerful organised force in the world, the 15 million-member trade union movement. They are conscious of themselves as national figures, wielding immense influence. They have been pushed by social developments and social forces into the sphere of ‘‘labor statesmanship,” in which they arc called upon to present solutions to the basic economic, social and political questions of this country and the World.

The need of the union bureaucracy to formulate a fundamental perspective, to justify and defend it, is made especially imperative by the direction in which the ranks of the unions have been traveling with ever more persistence. That is toward a break with capitalist politics. Although they had resisted and obstructed this movement, with all their means, some of the union bureaucrats themselves were forced before the elections to concede the need for a “new party,” even a "labor party.”

A Defense

The unexpected outcome of the elections – unexpected particularly to the union leaders – has momentarily relieved them of the pressure for a new and fundamental turn in their political policies. But it has not altered the deep underlying forces that produced this pressure. It will be felt with redoubled strength on the morrow. The union bureaucrats, capitalist-minded beneficiaries of the capitalist system, are mindful that now, more than ever before, they must defend their policies before the workers. Douglas’s speech is, in a large sense, that defense.

“Today labor stands astride a world fraught with fear,” said Douglas. “It occupies a strategic position in the affairs of nations. By reason of its new strength, it is wooed as it has never been before.”

And by virtue of this new strategic position and strength, Douglas concludes, American labor – and by that he means the leaders – “can no longer take refuge in the slogans of bygone days. It cannot indulge the luxury of complete preoccupation with traditional trade-union activities.”

No, it is the duty of America to show “how a human welfare state creates health ... show Europe that it need not be the victim of the concept of a class society ... show how a human welfare state has, managed to distribute in an increasingly equitable manner the dividends of modern technology ...” In short, American labor must be “a missionary of the American way of life” to the whole world.

“Human Welfare”

What is this “human welfare state”? It is already here, according to Douglas, in the United States of America in 1948. It is nothing less than the “classless” state achieved when the “tide of liberalism” from Bryan to Roosevelt finally succeeded in sweeping away “the remaining threats of an industrial serfdom” and “human rights – not property rights alone – became standards of industrial justice.”

Unfortunately, stated Douglas, the European workers don’t seem to understand the virtues of this “human welfare state” which Washington seeks to export through the Marshall Plan. They are downright suspicious and even hostile to it. And therefore it becomes necessary for American labor “to bridge the gap that has been growing between the United States and Europe.” If American imperialism cannot speak in its own name, “American labor carries good credentials to western Europe. Doors tightly closed to all others may open at its knock.”

The reason for this sad state of affairs in Europe, says Douglas, is that “history has woven the European fabric with a strange twist that has been omitted from our own.” Its development from feudal times “has been based on the concept of ‘class society.’ ... This was the historical condition which Marx – and those socialist writers and thinkers who both preceded and followed him – observed. This then formed the base for their economic thought.”

But “the idea of class is foreign to us in this country. We are unable to function on a class basis for the simple reason that it is no part of our tradition ... Man is born here not to class, but to opportunity.”

Douglas Thesis

In short, what Douglas presents us with is the thesis that American capitalism has solved the problems of human welfare, that it has resolved the class struggle which has torn all other capitalist countries, that it has hit upon a “democratic middle course” – capitalist to be sure – which if spread by American diplomacy, dollars and arms will initiate the “human welfare state” over the entire globe.

Let us look more closely at our model “human welfare state” here at home where we have no class struggle and where everything is distributed in an equitable manner. If there is no class struggle, what have beer these truly titanic strike struggles that have swept this country since the end of the war? Why have even the traditionally most conservative workers – railroadmen, printers, AFL longshoremen – been involved in bitter conflicts with the employers and the government? What is this “human welfare state” that still has a Taft-Hartley Law on the books; that permits the lynching of Negroes, that can’t find adequate housing for tens of millions, that swings ominously between inflation and depression that conducts Hitler-like “loyalty” purges and witchhunts against political dissenters?

This is a country where, in fact, the division between rich and poor has reached extremes never before known – a tiny and ever-narrowing class of multi-millionaires and billionaires on top and a vast mass of wage earners, proletarians – the propertyless – on the bottom. Every day sees a greater and greater concentration of wealth and economic power in the hands of an owning few, who control the basic industries, banks, railrdads, utilities, oil and mineral resources, etc.

The Depression

Even Douglas admits that before the war “the effects of the depression in the 30’s was so severe that the real earnings at that time dropped practically to the level of forty years earlier. One-fifth of our national labor force was idle. The dent in our national income was so great that it completely wiped out the gain in wage rates that had been painfully obtained since the early 1890’s.”

Douglas does not say what has happened since the end of the war, but Murray – who is so eager to spread Douglas’s thesis – stated it in cold figures in his official report to the CIO convention. You will find it on page 5 of his printed Report to the CIO under the heading: Percentage Distribution of Our National Income – 1945–1948.

The share of all employees in the national income fell from 67.6% in 1915 to 61.2% in 1948 – and this in spite of the greatest strike struggles in American labor history. Imagine how low it would have fallen had this class struggle never taken place! Corporate profits, however, rose in the same four years from 4.8% to 9.1% of the national income. Non-incorporated business profits rose from 9.2% to 11.5%. Farm-owning incomes rose from 6.8% to 8.5%.

War Budgets

But the depression, relieved only by the forced march of war economy, was a hurdle which Douglas could not evade. He leaped, but stumbled flat on his face. “Violent swings in the business cycle” under capitalism, he maintained, “are not as certain as death or taxes.” And he added, “It is indeed ironical and shocking to conclude that it is only through war that we can get maximum production and full employment.”

But that is precisely the case. The “human welfare state” has thus far escaped a terrible postwar depression solely on the basis of swollen government expenditures for armaments. Without the tens of billions being spent annually for both American militarism and “aid” to military dictatorships abroad, American capitalism would right now be in the throes of severe economic convulsions.

What in reality is the “human welfare state” we are actually bringing to Europe. Paul Hoffman, Marshall Plan administrator, told the NAM convention last week that the average per capita income in 1947 in Europe “was only $347,” but “if after four years the European average can be raised to $500, that will be the kind of recovery we are thinking about.” The “human welfare state” – maybe in four years – on an average income of less than $10 a week!

The Mirror

And Europe is the mirror of America’s future. In it we can see the whole lifespan of the capitalist system, which was born and flourished there. There too, bourgeois liberals like Douglas once abounded and spread the thesis of the “classless human welfare state” that would arise on the foundations of the profit system. There too, the reformist labor leaders and the Social-Democrats envisaged the amelioration of the class struggle, its modification and disappearance as capitalism provided an ever-growing abundance for all, But they proved wrong. And American capitalism will follow the European road, if the system is permitted to survive.

No, the Murrays and Reuthers will never sell Wall Street’s “human welfare state” to the European workers. And they will not convince the American workers either that we are already enjoying the blessings of such a state here under the domination of monopoly capitalism.

Rather, the division between wealth and poverty will grow here. The Truman Administration and bi-partisan Congress will heap new burdens on the masses through an unbridled program of militarism and war preparations. “Classless” America will experience new and greater class struggles between the workers and the capitalists over the distribution of the national income. And there Will be a vast extension of this class struggle into the political arena. In this sense above all we will embrace the “traditions” of Europe – the traditions of Marx and Marxian socialism – of class parties.

Social Forces

Against the great stream of social forces unleashed by the contradictions and crisis of American capitalism, the thesis of Douglas and the union leaders who seek to float themselves upon it will be swept under. The “human welfare state” will be – can be no other – than a Workers State under the genuinely classless system of socialism.

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