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The New International, March 1935


Dennis Brown

Labor Historian

From New International, Vol. II No. 2, March 1935, pp. 76–77.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


By John R. Commons
201 pp. New York. The Macmillan Company. $3

John R. Commons is the outstanding American labor scholar of his generation – a generation noteworthy in our labor movement for the rise and domination of the Gompers-Green regime in the American Federation of Labor. As the academic counterpart of Gompersism, his theory of the relations between labor and capital is an elaboration of the official philosophy of the American Federation of Labor: collective bargaining and simon-pure craft unionism, bureaucratically controlled. Commons has recently given us his complete theory of the collective action of conflicting interests in his magnum opus, Institutional Economics. Myself is an autobiographical account of his participation in such activities, which he offers as an explanation of the genesis of his ideas.

It is impossible in a short review to deal adequately with Commons’ economic theory. Essentially it recognizes conflicting economic interests (fundamentally labor and capital) as the kernel of the problem. It proposes a solution through a collectivization of these interests and the adoption without arbitration of a peaceful agreement between them, based on a mutual recognition of the relation of forces. It rests on a volitional psychology, and a centralization of authority in the respective collectives and requires accordingly that trade union leaders gain “possession” of the union (through deprivation of local strike rights, through the withholding of national funds, etc.). In brief, the theory says: don’t fight it out – write it out!

Commons conceived his theory from the observations he made at a joint conference of miners and their employers in 1901 which he named “Constitutional Government in Industry”. He gave the theory its first test when he participated in the National Civic Federation as liaison man between labor leaders and the Federation. During his long career as professor of economics and labor historian at Wisconsin University, he served periodically in many local and national governmental capacities. Most often he was a conciliator. He became a force in Wisconsin politics, supporting LaFollette until the latter opposed the war, and aided in an advisory capacity the reorganization of the government of Milwaukee after the socialist victory in 1911. He drafted many laws, civil service, public utility, and industrial. The last several years of his public life were spent in conciliating conflicts between capitalist groups. All these activities he regards as demonstrations of his theory of the collective agreement.

On the theoretical side the position does not provide an argument for the fact that even if the collective agreement were widely practised, the objective relation between profits and wages, with consequent accumulation of capital, would remain to destroy this equilibrium. On the practical side, it never has worked, a point conceded in Commons’ expressed pessimism. Intangible elements such as the potential value of an agitational program to bring pressure on the government during a strike, to rally the unemployed for mass picketing and the general proletarian and petty bourgeois public for a boycott, etc., make an actual test of strength necessary as the basis even for a temporary agreement. The historical fact is that practically all powerful unions have been established and sustained by actual strikes. The miners’ conference which Commons observed existed only by virtue of the fact that the miners had established their union a few years previously by a strike.

The undemocratic centralization of authority requisite to the position, is a negation of the true collective. The leader does not represent a collective when the collective is rebelling. Dictatorial leadership leads to bureaucracy. Bureaucracy develops its own needs, as apart from the collective, and the agreements it makes are influenced by these needs. An internal conflict is thereby set up in the collective. The “possession” of unions by their leaders, which Commons encouraged and used as a necessary part of his Civic Federation activity, encouraged the already growing bureaucracy in the American Federation of Labor. In an attempt to fill these cracks in his position Commons brands militant trade union leaders as “hot-heads” or “intellectuals”. Exclusion of the latter, however, excludes himself and the recommendation. To explain the influence of the “hotheads”, he is forced into a contempt for the masses in the trade unions. “I based it [his theory] on leaders, bosses and conquerors of the Malthusian more or less stupid and passionate masses.” The collective dissolves into an aggregation, volition into coercion.

The rise of the AF of L gave, in the past, a degree of plausibility to Commons’ theory. Trade unions in light industry, involving only skilled labor, and organized on craft lines during a period of budding imperialism and expanding capitalism, found it possible to make moderate progress with a minimum of struggle. “Good” employers came into existence ready to buy off the aristocracy of labor, while the masses of unskilled in light industry, and most of the workers in heavy industry remained unorganized and defenseless against unchecked exploitation. Today in the period of declining capitalism none of these factors exists, and the theory, as theory, retains only a historical interest as a byproduct of the halcyon days. In practise, however, without its historical economic base, it becomes entirely reactionary. Conciliation today is strikebreaking, as in steel and autos.

Commons’ life has not been without social effect. He is one of the few outstanding American intellectuals who have devoted their lives to participation in the labor movement. Unlike Ely, De Leon, Hillquit and others, he has not been identified actively as a partisan of the labor movement In action he has always been a conciliator. His positive value to the labor movement lies in his scholarly productions. A pioneer in the field of American labor history, he is responsible, together with Professor Ely, for having assembled the best collection of labor literature in the country at Madison, the essence of which was published in 1908 in ten volumes, The Documentary History of American Industrial Society. Later he edited and contributed to those most informative volumes, The History of Labor in the United States, the standard work in the field for the period covered. His other writings, beginning in 1894, are voluminous. He has earned the title of dean of American labor historians. His students have become a movement – the Commons school of labor writers – and they have a majority in the field. Over thirty of them are in the “brain trust” at Washington today. As he says of himself, “I am not a person, I am a syndicate.”

This autobiography is the history of an important school of liberal thought in America from the days of its enthusiastic Republican origin in the Civil War, through years of petty bourgeois resentment at the ruthless growth of monopoly and hope for the growth of a trade union balance, to a contemporary pessimism before the onrush of Fascism.

His last word on his life work is a pessimistic confession of failure. “I concede to my radical friends that my trade union philosophy has always made me a conservative. It is not revolutions and strikes that we want, but collective bargaining on something like an organized equilibrium of equality. This I take it, was the social philosophy of Samuel Gompers. It seems to me the only way to save us from Communism, Fascism or Nazism. Yet my employer friends are opposed to it, or seeking to control it. I think they are leading us to Fascism.” The great conciliator surrenders before the advance of reaction.

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Last updated on 26 February 2016