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Fourth International, September 1946


Review of the Month

Meaning of the Present Lull in the Class Struggle in America


From Fourth International, September 1946, Vol.7 No.9, pp.259-261.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


Three Phases Of The Struggle

The titanic struggle between capital and labor which began in America with the ending of the war has now entered a new phase. The first phase, as recorded in the pages of Fourth International, started with the drive of Big Business to slash wages, lower drastically the workers’ standard of living, and housebreak the trade unions. Despite the weak, dilatory and hesitant policies of the top union leaders, the CIO unions proved able to unleash a battering counter-attack. By their extraordinary solidarity and staying power they succeeded not only in hurling back the offensive of the plutocrats, but also smashed through to a significant even if only partial victory. Thus ended the first phase of the post-war strike wave in the United States.

The money-masters of America were bewildered and frightened by this unexpected turn of events. They had not fully comprehended the situation nor gauged accurately the relationship of forces between capital and labor. Having failed to reach their objectives, they proceeded unthinkingly to goad Truman and his entourage of small-town bankers, politicians and bureaucrats to launch in the name of the government itself a second offensive against labor.

For this second test of strength they selected the two big railroad unions, led by old-line, arch-conservative officials – unions which were, moreover, isolated from, and at odds with, the other eleven railroad workers’ organizations. The plan of action was carefully drawn and launched with the fanfare of a military expedition. To the accompaniment of rolling drums Truman stepped forth before a joint session of Congress. Looking as grim-visaged and determined as it is possible for this little salesman to look, he called for draconian laws to place the working class under military rule. But the strategists of capitalism had not only miscalculated: they had miscalculated by a mile. They were compelled to beat an ignominious retreat. Not because their actions provoked a new offensive by labor, but because it now dawned on them that they could not go through with their plan without seriously upsetting the existing political balance. They sprang back in fright when they saw that they would be setting in motion a sanguinary struggle between the classes on a nation-wide scale, a struggle for which they were totally unprepared. Thus the second offensive against labor petered out, almost as soon as it had been launched.

Contrasts in Class-Consciousness

From all this it is clear that the capitalist class, far from being infallible, makes serious mistakes. Its decisive superiority over labor consists in this: It has a class-conscious leadership which is devoted heart and soul to its rule. As a consequence, it is able to correct its tactical mistakes and make the necessary shifts and adjustments in the course of the struggle. The trade union leadership, by contrast, is led by capitalist-minded officials who have no over-all class program or aims and who therefore cannot and do not learn from their mistakes. This is the main reason why the American plutocracy is able to perpetrate atrocious tactical blunders, as they did in the recent struggles, and emerge from them more or less unscathed with their class rule unimpaired. It is a patent fact that the capitalist-minded leadership of the American labor movement constitutes the most important bulwark of capitalist class rule.

With the end of the second anti-labor offensive, the working class was thrust into a new situation – what we may call the third phase of the post-war struggle. The plutocracy is now mounting a new offensive, but doing it in a far more skillful and deceptive manner. This offensive is far more difficult to repulse. Unlike the previous offensives, it is not of the bold, head-on variety, but rather an attack from the flanks, carefully camouflaged.

As a first step, the capitalist class has smashed all the remaining legislative obstacles to inflation. It has installed in the new OPA board, which is to “decontrol” prices, its own trusted agents. Given the existing market conditions, the country is heading for wild inflation. Through spiraling prices the living standards of the masses are being as surely and as drastically lowered as if the workers had take a big cut in wages.

The Fascists Are Becoming Active

Secondly, the capitalist class has cautiously begun to subsidize and organize extra-legal fascist gangs. The capitalists realized in the last strike wave, to their chagrin, that the war veterans were now on the side of labor, and that they possessed no power of their own that could smash labor’s ranks in battle. They are now trying to make good this deficiency, but are moving with great caution. Thus far the fascist gangsters have made no direct attacks on the established trade union organizations. The Ku Klux Klan and the Vigilantes have made the Negroes their first target. They have been encouraged in their murderous forays by the Jim Crow attitude of many of the white workers – an attitude which, as we have pointed out many times, constitutes the Achilles heel of labor. Another most significant incident was the recent attempt to burn down the headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party in Detroit. It is plain that the capitalists, as a beginning, are directing their fascist attacks against the most isolated sections of the labor movement – the Negro people and the revolutionists. Later they expect to pass over to assaults on the mass organizations of the workers.

In our study of the great strike wave, which appeared in the May 1946 issue of Fourth International, we wrote:

The trade union struggle is passing over into a social struggle …. the objectives demand that the trade unions now discard the old, outworn hit-and-run tactics and narrow trade union aims which were of value when the unions were weak and their objectives small and now adopt a broad social program and strategy that the times demand ... The growing number of left-wingers in the key mass production industries have the task of convincing the broad ranks that the labor movement must now become a social movement if it is to survive and prosper.

The present two-pronged attack on the labor movement puts this problem squarely before the ranks of labor. The first strike wave already demonstrated that it is impossible any longer to wage pure and simple economic strikes in America’s major industries. The capitalists are united as a class, they are wealthier than ever before, and they have passed tax laws which enable them to hold out against strikes for lengthy periods. The unions, on the other hand, are so powerful and ramified that national strikes virtually halt the economic life of the country, and the government immediately intervenes in such struggles – against the workers. The present capitalist offensive reinforces the conclusion that the unions must build a political party of labor to fight for the class interests of the workers on the political arena, a party armed with a program of action and struggle, if the American labor movement is not to be wrecked and destroyed like the powerful German labor movement 13 years ago. We see now how the two major threats to labor – inflation and fascism – transcend the narrow limits of traditional trade unionism and necessitate a program of social action, the essential instrumentality of which is a political party. It is true that the historic struggle between labor and capital in America is still in its earliest stages. But that is precisely the time to organize properly and adopt a plan of action – when the fight is first beginning.

Bureaucrats Running True To Form

The invariable reaction of the AFL and CIO leaders, when confronted with serious problems or dangers, is to duck, or attempt to divert the workers’ dissatisfaction into harmless channels. Green and Murray and their colleagues are running true to form in the present critical period. Meeting in the midst of the worst inflationary spiral since the beginning of the war, the CIO Executive Board had not a word to say about fighting for fresh wage increases to meet the skyrocketing cost of living. Shying away from the real fight, they are attempting to sidetrack the workers into futile, utopian “buyers’ strikes.” The top CIO officials have resurrected Roosevelt’s demagogic slogan of a “roll-back of prices.” The latest issue of the CIO’s Economic Outlook goes so far as to adopt the infamous assertion of the capitalists that wage increases are responsible for price increases. For the present, therefore, the workers should eschew the wage struggle and concentrate on trying to control prices – by means of a buyers’ strike! William Green, speaking over a nation-wide radio hook-up, even had the impudence to call upon the workers to “fight” inflation by “increasing production now.”

Matching this conservatism and timidity in the economic sphere, the top union leaders have adopted no real measures and are leading no actions to combat the fascist danger, even though the present wave of Negro lynchings and Ku Klux Klan terror directly menaces the organization drives of the CIO and AFL in the south. They oppose real independent political action by the workers and are hostile to the building of a labor party. The CIO officials cling to their bankrupt policy of seeking out and electing “good“ men from the two capitalist parties. The AFL leaders, for their part, are too smug and complacent even to bother about the problem. The terrible and tragic lesson of Germany is lost on them.

That the conservative and cowardly policy of the trade union bureaucracy has not aroused a storm of angry protest among the workers is due to this: the rank and file hesitate right now to embark on major strike struggles. The workers suffered heavy losses of earnings in the recent strikes. Their war-time savings are exhausted. It has become common for strikes to last four, five and six months (I.J. Case and Allis Chalmers in Wisconsin, Phelps-Dodge in Elizabeth, N.J., Fisher Body in Cleveland, Ohio. etc., etc.). The workers sense the fact that strikes are more and more becoming savage, unrelenting class battles. They hesitate to go into the streets again until they have regained some of their financial staying power, and until they can feel that the results will be worth the sacrifice.

The immediate period ahead is thus one of preparation for the next phase of struggle – a phase which will and must unfold on higher, wider ground than the last, a phase in which the goals set will justify great sacrifices and thus inspire the working class with unconquerable determination to win through to victory.

Fighting Program Being Advanced

In the forefront of labor’s struggle, educating the trade union militants and raising their political level, stand the Trotskyists.

They are centering their educational work on key proposals:

  1. Reopen all union contracts and demand that they include an escalator clause: the sliding scale of wages. Summon a national conference of labor, to include the AFL, CIO and Railroad Brotherhoods, to adopt a fighting program of action to combat the rising cost of living, etc.
  2. For militant action against the fascist terror gangs. Proceed to form workers’ defense guards and flying squads to repulse and smash the hired thugs of Big Business.
  3. For independent working class political action through the formation of a labor party based on the trade unions.

The Trotskyist stand out in the mass movement today as the only political tendency which has a realistic and consistent program to meet the present crisis and overcome the dangers that threaten labor. Their message of militancy stands in the sharpest contrast to the deceptive chattering of both the Reutherites and the Stalinists, who have now joined with Murray in his utopian campaign for a “buyers’ strike.” Not one of the CIO unions under Stalinist control has taken the lead in pressing for the reopening of wage contracts. Even the medicine-men of the Shachtmanite Workers Party have joined the ugly chorus which seeks to drown out the demand for militant struggle for wage demands by gewgaws and noisemakers in the form of “price roll-back” campaigns, buyers’ strikes and postcards to Congressmen.

The present lull in the class struggle will prove to be short-lived. The workers are girding themselves for the next round of battle. As the price squeeze becomes more unbearable, the ranks will again give the signal for action. Brushing aside all bureaucratic hindrances they will man the picket lines in the fight for wage increases. Once strikes begin, they can easily develop into a national conflagration, greater in scope and much fiercer than the last strike wave.

The more effectively the Trotskyist program becomes rooted in the union ranks, the clearer and more correct will be the aims of the next struggle, the more they will inspire the workers to miracles of militant action and sacrifice, the greater will be the promise of victory.

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Last updated on 10.2.2009