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Vol. 77/No. 42 November 25, 2013 US union organization lacked corresponding political advance (Books of the Month column) Below is an excerpt from Polemics in Marxist Philosophy, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for November. In this collection of essays George Novack explains why the materialist foundations and dialectical methods of Marxism offer the only scientific basis for working-class political action. The author of numerous titles on Marxist theory and politics, Novack joined the communist movement in the U.S. in 1933, and remained a member and leader of the Socialist Workers Party until his death in 1992. The piece is from the chapter “American Philosophy and the Labor Movement.” Copyright © 1978 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY GEORGE NOVACK “American philosophy and the labor movement…. How odd to couple these two together!” we can imagine eminent heads in both fields exclaiming. “What can they have in common?” It must be acknowledged that at present they make an incongruous, even ludicrous, juxtaposition. To most professors, philosophy has no special connection with either politics or the working class. Almost all union leaders believe the labor movement can get along very well without any philosophy. Here as elsewhere, extremes meet. The labor bureaucrats have as little regard for philosophy as the university mandarins have for the labor movement.
Is this estrangement a fixed and permanent feature of American culture? Or is it the product of special, episodic historical conditions? To answer these questions, let us first examine the evolution of the mass labor movement in the United States on its theoretical side, in its two main stages: the Gompers-Green era and the subsequent period of the CIO.
One of the outstanding peculiarities of the American labor movement has been the immense disparity between its strength in industrial action and organization, and its political and theoretical weakness compared with working class movements in other countries.
The American workers possess in full measure all the remarkable qualities which distinguish the American people generally and have been responsible for its colossal achievements. They radiate dynamic energy; they excel in sustained labor and collective organization for the execution of given tasks; they are ingenious, free of routinism, highly cultured in modern technology. They have displayed these capacities not only in working for their bosses but also in the struggles which have created the largest and most powerful trade union structure in the world. These magnificent traits can be counted upon to assert themselves even more forcefully in the decades ahead and will be the source of still greater accomplishments.
At the same time, the development of American labor has suffered from a pronounced unevenness. The growth of its self-awareness as a distinct social force with a world-historical mission has not kept pace with its union organization. Its creativeness in collective thinking has limped far behind its achievements through direct action. Along with its precious positive features our labor movement has inherited the meagerness and immaturity in theoretical matters rooted in the national past.
This defect was crystallized in the craft unionism of the old American Federation of Labor. The original AFL leaders deliberately turned away from any general conceptions of social development and class relations. In his autobiography Samuel Gompers tells how he consciously rejected the Marxism he knew in his younger days, as unsuited to American conditions.
The AFL heads scoffed not only at the ideas of socialism but at any philosophy; such highfalutin matters were no business of organized labor. They lived from hand to mouth, from craft to craft, from contract to contract. The crude tenets of Gompers (“a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”; “reward your friends, punish your enemies”) grew out of and corresponded to the primitive organizational setup and class-collaborationist methods of the AFL. When Adolph Strasser, coleader with Gompers of the Cigarmakers, was asked by the Senate Committee on Education and Labor what the ultimate objectives of AFL craft unionism were, he answered: “We have no ultimate ends. We are going on from day to day. We fight only for immediate objects — objects that can be realized in a few years.”…
The founders of the CIO in the mid-1930s discarded the craft union framework of the AFL — but they did not break with its fundamental ideology. At this great turning point the regenerated ranks of labor needed four major improvements to carry forward their battles for a better life against monopolist rule. These were: an up-to-date union structure in the basic industries; a mass political party to challenge the capitalist two-party system on a national, state, and local level; a program, outlook, and theory on a par with this higher stage in its own development and corresponding to our revolutionary age of transition from one social order to another; and finally, a leadership capable of applying that program in action.
Under CIO auspices American labor succeeded in realizing only the first and most pressing of these objectives. In the 1930s and ’40s it built powerful national unions in the key sectors of trustified industry; that has been the imperishable accomplishment of the CIO. But this higher grade of union organization was not extended and fortified by equivalent advances in the political practices, the social views, or the theoretical knowledge of the union leadership.
Even though they captained a far more dynamic and highly developed movement, the general policies and ideological equipment of the top-ranking CIO leaders were little better than those of the old-line AFL bureaucrats. Related articles: DC taxi drivers join union, fight city gov’t attacks Fight of Cambodia garment workers enters third month Gov’t backs bosses, cops fire on union demonstration Grocery workers in DC oppose cuts in benefits Bay Area transit workers ratify new contract Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home