The Unemployed and Workers’ Struggles of the 1930’s (part II)

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In Internationalism 161 we published the first part of this two-part series on the employed and unemployed workers’ struggles of the 1930’s.  The first article examined the unemployed and workers’ struggles of the 1930’s in the context of the American workers’ movement of the time and the international defeat of the Russian Revolution and the ensuing counter-revolution.  In this article, we want to draw the lessons of the weaknesses of the 1930’s mobilizations in order to contribute to strengthening the present and future struggles of the working class, employed and unemployed, precarious or otherwise.  With this aim in mind, we want to pay particular attention to the movements of social protest, which in the U.S. have been expressed in the Occupy Movement.

   It was again during the Great Depression and the mobilizations of the unemployed and employed that the American bourgeoisie became the most unified in the recognition that collecting bargaining arrangements can secure internal discipline in the factories at a time of great and disruptive social and industrial unrest.  In spite of the fact that periodically a faction of the American ruling class seems to forget the services the unions have offered since their passage into the enemy camp and advocate the dissolution of the unions, it has always united in the face of massive class unrest.  The spontaneous work stoppages and solidarity spreading from the jobless to the employed threatened to create the conditions for a politicization of the struggles and the necessity for a political organization which the American left had avoided until then.   But by the time the IWW had disbanded in 1921, what was left of the workers’ movement in America was to prove incapable of overcoming its congenital weaknesses.  The ages-long confusion about the role of a political organization, the unitary organization of the class, and the unions cropped up again and again among revolutionaries of the time.  The Left Wing of the Socialist Party, disillusioned by the reformist and chauvinist activities of the latter, could not agree on whether the time had arrived for a decisive split with the Socialist Party and the formation of the Communist Party, or whether to wage a struggle from within the Socialist Party to win over as many delegates and members as possible.   There were also endless disputes as to who should be at the head of a newly-constituted Communist Party:  the foreign-speaking affiliations –who insisted on the priority of forming a party not on the basis of a greater membership, but rather on the basis of agreement on organization and the principles of a platform—or the English-speaking ones, who favored the policy of not splitting from the Socialist Party without winning over a majority of its delegates and members.  These disagreements are at the heart of the eventual split within the Left Wing itself and the formation of two parties:  the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party.  The former advocated a policy of compromise and cooperation with the unions and the Socialist Party, when the unions had  gone over to the camp of the ruling class already at the time of WWI.  The latter engaged in a policy of expulsions of elements of the Left Wing and cooperation with the states’ repressive apparatus against revolutionary organizations.  Therefore, the massive mobilizations of the workers and unemployed of the 1930’s took place in the context of a fragmented and politically unclear leadership, which helped doom this tremendous upsurge of class struggle to defeat.  It was again the work of sabotage by the union which, by 1937, made it possible for GM and U.S. Steel collective bargaining contracts signed to prohibit local strikes. 

The unemployed struggles of the 1930’s—their major weaknesses

 Since 1921, the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party had been trying to organize the unemployed into “Councils of Action” and in 1929 they organized many jobless people in the Unemployed Councils.   Notwithstanding their energy, dedication, and defiance, they could not seize on the tremendous agitation spreading within the ranks of the working class, employed or unemployed, to help give an organized form and an orientation for the struggles, and turn the anger and indignation into a political, revolutionary act.  The legacy of revolutionary syndicalism  played a significant role, as did the fragmentation of the political forces of the left in America.  In addition, theoretically the left had not drawn all the lessons of the change of historic period from the ascendance to the decadence of capitalism.  Failing to recognize the epoch of decadence as the epoch of war or revolution, the IWW (formed in Chicago in 1905 by Eugene Debs of the American Railway Union, Daniel De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party, and William D. (Big Bill) Haywood of the western Federation of Miners) failed to see itself as a political, revolutionary organization and instead insisted on the practice of direct action and union building.  Even after the IWW was disbanded in 1921 and most of its leaders imprisoned after the conclusion of WWI, this legacy continued to haunt the remaining left forces.  The legacy of revolutionary syndicalism was directly responsible for the illusions in the New Deal for which many a ‘radical’ later fell.   For the Communist Party’s theoretical journal, The Communist, those out of work were not a political force that could be helped to unite with the rest of the working class to advance the development of class consciousness.  Instead, they were merely the tactical key to the present state of the class struggle.  Their activities concentrated on putting pressure on the existing bourgeois bureaucracy and political forces for immediate relief, rather than focusing on the unification and autonomy of the struggles, neglecting to establish formal and organizational links among the different groups.   

    The consequences of the obsession with tactics and direct action, and the theoretical weakness about the nature of capitalism in decadence are perhaps the clearest in the program of A.J. Muste, which emphasized self-help.   Muste groups worked for the local organization of the unemployed particularly in the rural areas of West Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.  Their focus was the immediate relief of the need of the jobless.  The Muste-ite Seattle Unemployed League had 12,000 members in that city alone in 1931 and 80,000 statewide by the end of 1932.  They emphasized barter and working for farmers in exchange for produce.  When the harvest season of 1931 was over, leaving great numbers of League members again without relief, the League turned to the city of Seattle for help.  The city council appropriated half a million dollars for relief and gave it to the league to administer. In the spring of 1932 the League supported the candidacy of John F. Dore, who ran with the promise of taking fortunes away “from those who stole them from the American workers”.  Once elected, Dore took the administration of relief away from the League and threatened to use machine guns against the unemployed demonstrations.  Sensing the weaknesses in the left -- their illusions in democratic mystifications and their theoretical and organizational weaknesses—the bourgeoisie prepared its counterattack.   It organized a formidable electoral campaign at the head of which stood Roosevelt and his message of ‘sympathy’ for the dispossessed.  For the Communist and Socialist Parties of the time, and for the Muste-ites, a political movement of the working class  would represent such massive voting numbers as to compel Congress to pass fundamental radical reforms.  This belief was also shaped by the Comintern policy of 1935, which, with the rhetoric of anti-fascism, the threat that fascism posed to world communism, encouraged the Popular Front, or the alliance with the liberal and social chauvinists factions of the bourgeoisie in the context of a working class that world-wide was reeling from the defeat of the revolutionary wave.  The period of counterrevolution had opened up.   This situation was exacerbated by the lack of a theoretically and organizationally grounded political organization of the working class.  The direct result of channeling social unrest and workers and unemployed struggles onto a reformist terrain was the decline in protests and disruptions. With social peace thus acquired, social relief was quickly withdrawn, and, by 1936, when 10 million people were still unemployed, the Works Progress Administration provided just about 2.5 million jobs while direct federal relief was abolished. The mobilizations of the working class under the onslaught of the Great Depression into the electoral and union bureaucratic machinery put in place by the AFL with the blessings of section 7a of the NRA --which gave the unions a free hand in organizing the workers-- were the result of lessons the bourgeoisie had already learned about how to confront the rising unrest and anger of the working class and how to prevent it from building its own unitary and autonomous organizations.

  In the first article of this series we described the ad-hoc, spontaneous form of organization that sprouted up everywhere in response to the conditions of unemployment and impoverishment unleashed by the Great Depression.  The historic lesson of the passage of the unions into the enemy camp was a long, difficult, and painful one to learn for the workers’ movement.  It was hard to believe that the union form of organization as it existed in the XIX century, a genuine proletarian expression of the search for politicization and struggle, had lost its proletarian nature and become integrated in the state apparatus.  But so it was.  In the period of decadence, the state can no longer tolerate forms of social and political organization that challenge it.  The state has a need to channel social discontent through institutions it can trust will work in its defense, not against it.  The illusion in unions that can be ‘reformed’ to make them return to their original proletarian nature is one of the obstacles the class still has to face today, and in its future struggles.  The experience of the struggles on the 1930’s prior to their diversion onto the reformist terrain operated by the unions is one that the American workers will have to re-appropriate in the struggles to come, as they attempt to give birth and life to the only genuine forms of proletarian unitary organizations:  its councils, generated by the general assemblies and the principle of immediate revocability of delegates.

The perspectives for today- lessons from the OWS movement

  Just as in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the bourgeoisie will have to rely on the unions in order to pre-empt and derail the future working class struggle.  To do so, the ruling class needs to be prepared to occupy the social terrain by strengthening its lieutenants, the unions. Exacerbated by the factional disputes between Republicans and Democrats this is proving no easy task  (See the article on health care in the present issue of Internationalism and our articles on Wisconsin and Governor Scott Walker’s policy of ‘union busting’), but it is one that the ruling class cannot avoid.  Whether the class struggle will prove powerful enough to push the ruling class to unite at least in the face of the social threat, remains to be seen.  However, it is clear the ruling class cannot just wait around until the last moment. 

In the context of the present economic crisis, the Occupy movement erupted.  What can it learn from the lesson of the history of the workers movement in America and abroad?  How can it contribute to the political strengthening and theoretical clarification the class needs to take on the capitalist state?  The ruling class has shown its intentions toward the movements of protest with its intelligent use of the repressive apparatus:  it has withdrawn it when there was a danger that its use would further fuel the anger and the determination to resist, and made merciless and brutal use of it when it became clear no such danger existed.  However, it cannot just wish away the eruption in the streets, in the squares, in the public places of an indignation that in the eyes of the working class is totally legitimized. It has mobilized major who unions symbolically participated in the Occupy movement’s more important actions.

  But the Occupy movement itself has so far answered the questions about its role and responsibilities with ambiguity.   Like other protest movements elsewhere, it is to a large extent a response to the depth and length of the crisis, the immeasurable suffering it causes.  It expresses the anger at the arrogance and dismissive attitude of the ruling class.  The endemic nature of the economic crisis is reflected in the social composition of its participants--  mostly young unemployed and precarious workers. Often unemployment today is just one moment in an already precarious condition of existence:  precariousness among the youth is rampant, and periods of sometimes long-term unemployment have become expected and quite regular in one’s life.  In this sense, it is impossible to compare the struggles of the unemployed in the 1930’s with contemporary movements of protest.  Then, unemployment happened suddenly, massively, and in a context in which the separation from the class at the point of production and the process of production itself did not have the more or less permanent nature of contemporary society. The economic crisis can help to reveal that the wage system is not a matter of legal declarations, but a social relationship that involves opposing classes with opposing interests. However, the nature of unemployment today makes this realization more difficult. At the height of its mobilizations, especially at the time of the call for the general strike in Oakland when it attempted to forge  links of unity and solidarity with the long shore workers, and also in sporadic attempts at avoiding evictions from people’s houses, Occupy showed an embryonic understanding of the need to link up with the rest of the working class. However, it has not formulated this understanding clearly enough to either pose a serious threat to the bourgeois order or a pole of reference and clarity for the working class.  To do so, it needs to go beyond the identification of the working class as a tactical tool for the confrontations with the enemy class through direct action tactics.   Failing to understand the central role the working class has to play in the confrontations with the ruling class, Occupy opened itself up to the manipulations of the leftists and the unions.  Occupy’s early resistance against the influence and manipulations of official parties and unions was a healthy statement as to the need for autonomous organization and showed an insightful distrust of such organizations.  However, it failed to turn toward the only source of real support it can have in society, i.e., the working class because it refused to polarize its debates and discussions around the central issue of demands.  It is the formulation of demands that could have opened up the Occupy movement to a clearer understanding that its grievances are not dissimilar from those of the working class, and thus could have helped it see the need for a conscious search for solidarity.  The refusal to polarize keeps the real nature of capitalism mystified, and opens the way toward reformist ideas.

 Occupy’s insistence on the possibility of creating ‘islands of humanity and peace’ within capitalism seems to be an echo of the Muste-ites’ ideology,  linked to illusions in reformism. To go beyond the errors and confusions of the past, there must develop an understanding that the working class can build its own political organizations aiming at the seizure of power.  Occupy’s ‘borrowing’ of the ad-hoc forms of organization of the working class, i.e., its use of and reliance on the General Assemblies demonstrates the beginning of the understanding of the need for the extension of discussion and the autonomous form of organization.  This is positive and needs to be extended and deepened.  There can be no illusions in ‘reforms’ and negotiation with the enemy under the union’s control.   Indeed, as we have written elsewhere in our press,  “... we need to make the debate as open as possible, which means rejecting passive rallies and instead organizing all kinds of public meetings where everyone can speak their mind. And it can’t all be focused on one day. We are faced with a prolonged period of crisis, and therefore with a growing assault on our living and working conditions... But that emphasizes that not only do we need to find better ways to fight back here and now – we also need to develop a long term perspective. The capitalist system is on its last legs and can offer us only depression, war, and ecological disaster. But the working class can use its struggles to form itself into a real social power, to develop its political understanding of the present system, and create a different future: a global community where all production is organized for human need and not the inhuman laws of the market.”

Ana 26/5/12


Historic events: 


Crisis and unemployment