The Social Meaning of Labor's Politics

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 11:07

Behind the facade of a war-economy prosperity, two tremendous phenomena have occurred, both of them still unfolding: the unification of the labor movement and the struggle of the American Negro.

It would be a mistake to observe these in isolation from one another. The two big parties must enlarge their activities in their competing efforts to win these two largest segments of the population; the labor and Negro movements must, in turn, be deeply involved in these efforts.

It is easy to dismiss the significance of labor unity and its political meaning in favor of the more spectacular struggle of the Negroes all over the country, and most particularly in the South. In the long run, however, labor unity contains the potential for greater gains of the American people as a whole, white and Negro. Furthermore, the Negro struggle, as we shall show, is intertwined with that of labor, quintessentially in the area of politics.

The unity of the American labor movement today is not a return to the unified labor movement of old Samuel Gompers. In the first place, at the point of its greatest strength, the AFL of Gompers encompassed only a small fraction of the American working class. Today the union, movement, some sixteen million strong, contains the most important section of the working class in the basic industries.

Secondly, the labor movement is no longer the special preserve of a couple of million craft workers. It is the home of the massed millions of industrial workers, AFL and CIO, that form the backbone of the working class.

Unification of the two labor organizations means more than simple addition. There is a dynamic quality to the unification of the American labor movement that contains a far greater potential for struggle and influence on all levels now that both former sections have become one.


It is quite true that the ideology of the union movement is still backward. That is to say, the ideology of American unionism has not advanced very far beyond pure-and-simple unionism, and sometimes it is not even pure. The dominant ideology of this nation, the richest of all capitalisms, exerts a dominating influence over the union movement.

Bet even that is not the whole truth, for underneath the apparent placid acceptance of all the reactionary and trite "principles" of American capitalism, the labor movement by its intrinsic social nature comes into violent conflict with the ruling class and its politics. That the labor movement is not very often aware of this role it plays is not the decisive thing at this point in its development.

It has taken the labor movement some years to understand that general social and political questions affect its very life. Politics was always a dirty word in this country since it connoted wardheelers, precinct captains; city and national machines, corruption, horse-trading, plain and simple sell-outs. The elementary reaction against this kind of politics always had a healthy kernel to it.

Within the lost twenty years, however, the labor movement has come to learn, no matter how haltingly and confusedly, that politics in the large sense dominates the whole of life in a thousand and one different ways.

The labor movement has come to learn after some bitter experiences that the enormous economic gains it has made over the years in the most bitter and protracted campaigns against the financial and industrial ruling class were often lost in the wink of an eye through the instruments of reactionary politics in the form of state and national legislative and administrative bodies.

These experiences have produced an interest in politics which the labor movement never had in the days of Gompers' dominating political slogan: "Reward your friends and punish your enemies." Today labor participates in politics as it never has before. Overtones of the Gompers policy, it is true, still exist. In some areas, they are Mill quite strong. Very often labor leaders play the game of politics at its lowest possible level: horsetrading.

The important thing about labor's participation in politics now is that it is done more consciously and with political machinery created by both sections of the labor movement before they were united. With unity this participation will be heightened.

The weakness of labor's political action today is its confinement to bourgeois politics in the arena of the two major political parties. Sometimes the labor leaders make feeble "threats" of an independent political party if the labor movement is once again betrayed.


Even so, the political activity of the labor movement today is a distorted form of class politics. Right now it is expressed through the united federation's Committee on Political Education (COPE), successor to Labor's League for Political Education and the Political Action Committee, as well as through many local bodies.

In one place or another, labor has tried either to take over the machinery of the Democratic Party, with which it is most closely allied, or to directly determine the course of the party. In either case, there has been more unity in the political struggle by AFL and CIO sections than ever before in American political history. The Eisenhower administration has strengthened that unity, incomplete as it is.

It is guaranteed that the labor movement will continue to receive the same disappointments, setbacks and defeats at the hands of both parties as long as it follows its present course. Sooner or later, and we think sooner than most believe, the labor movement will learn that there is no progressive alternative for it save independent political activity through the instrument of an independent labor party.

In a more concentrated form, the Negro people will learn the same lesson, and may learn it more easily and quickly, if indeed they have not learned much of it already. The greater exploitation of the Negroes as workers and members of a different race, is catalystic in the process of class development and political differentiation among them. Negroes have now a certain consciousness of the political struggle that is a little in advance of the labor movement.


Negroes are presently engaged in one of the greatest of social struggles. The courage and intelligence of their fight puts on trial all political forces in the country. What is more, the struggle is carried on in the heart; of a reactionary South whose political weight in Washington is far beyond its social and economic importance. Politics being what they are in this country, both parties feel the threat of the Negro struggle.

The Democratic Party appears to the nation as a schizoid, "half free and half slave." The Republican Party too feels the pressure of this struggle upon itself. It desires to win back the Negro vote. At the same time it fears setting into motion an even greater movement than now exists among the most exploited people of the nation, a struggle with repercussions for the entire world.

With a long memory of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, the Negroes in their overwhelming majority supported the Republican Party for more than sixty years. This adherence was not broken until the coming of the New Deal and the Roosevelt era.

With the same solidity as characterized their support of the GOP, the Negroes supported the Democratic Party. For them, the social-reform- meaning of the New Deal transcended in importance the fact that the Southern political machine was powerful in the New Deal party.

This phase has not changed yet. But there are signs of restiveness among Negro voters with the Democratic Party. They resent the new power of the Southern reactionaries in the ruling circles of the party. They are appalled by the evident weaknesses of the outstanding spokesman of the party, Adlai Stevenson.

Aside from the liberal bloc and the all-too-occasional voice of Walter Reuther, the party is unable to make up its mind. Should it pacify its Southern wing on the grounds of practical politics, placate the Negro masses with some face- saving platform, or follow the advice of Truman and ignore the Southerners on the theory that most of them have to go along with the party and that the party can win without them?

Whether or not 1956 sees a mass defection of the Negro voter from the Democratic Party, if that party continues as it has, that defection will surely come. If, however, the Democratic Party does break with the Southerners, then it will occur because of a certain kind of independent role, more militant, more purposive, by the labor movement in the party. By then a new political stage will be reached in American politics.


The recent events, however inconclusive they appear to be at this time, reflect, in our opinion, the basic tendency in American labor politics toward independent politics and away from the 'two major capitalist parties and their ideologies. Genuine social progress in the United States depends in large measure on the completion of that development, namely, the organisation of an independent labor party.

The error of the labor leaders, big and small, in their thinking about such a labor party, is that they do not understand its social role. They conceive of the labor party not as a broad movement reflective of the people as a whole, but as a union party. In this, they merely show that their own political horizons are still limited.

Thus it is that at one and the same time they may threaten to organize an independent labor party and declare against it on the grounds that it would be too narrow since labor does not constitute an absolute numerical majority of the people.

The whole conception of the labor party, however, is based upon its universal character as the political representative of the people, not merely the organized labor movement fighting for the political enforcement of a wage rise. The latter is of relatively small importance compared to the great social problems of our day that encompass foreign policy, military policy and the economic and political problems of our times.

We don’t pretend that the question of unionization of the South and the organization of the unorganized are unimportant in view of the political obstacles to organization placed before the labor movement in many states. We only mean that these problems are part of a larger social program which can only be championed by the labor movement, and must be championed by it.

Foreign affairs, military policy, reactionary legislation, the condition of all minorities in the nation are of vital concern to all. They involve the deepest interests of all the people who are, in truth, unrepresented politically.


The powerful labor movement is the greatest force for such progress. Its millions of members represent, historically and socially speaking, the most progressive section of the American people. The struggle of the Negroes, for example, will have no final resolution except in the political development we propose.

So while it is good to record labor’s political activity and participation in American politics, it is not nearly enough. The labor movement will make: its greatest progress when its ideology passes the point of simple trade-unionism and involvement in bourgeois politics, and moves toward genuine independent political action through an independent labor party speaking for and representing the entire nation.

For us socialists, this advance by the organised workers will have a broader meaning than for the rest of the labor movement. For us it will also be an historic step on the road of too American workers' development toward socialist consciousness.

British Labor also went through this pattern: from pure-and-simple trade-unionism to political support of the Liberal Party, then to alliance with that same bourgeois party as an independently organized political force; then to the Labor Representation Committee then & the formation of the British Labor Party as a "third party"; after a while, to the- adoption by the British Labor Party of a socialist program; and finally to the emergence of the Labor Party as the strongest single party of the land—the "first party" of the people.

We are confident that the American working class will move this way too. And once it gets going, there will be no- stopping it.

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