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New International, November 1938


Jules Geller

Mahoney Bill and Today’s Tasks

From New International, Vol.4 No.11, November 1938, pp.344-346.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE PRESENT ARTICLE on the Mahoney Bill, by Jules Geller, was written in reply to the article by David Cowles which was published in our last issue. It has seemed to us well worth while to conduct this discussion of a problem which is not merely of some importance in itself, but has an even greater interest as symptomatic of similar issues now arising, and destined to continue to arise, with increasing frequency on the State and national scene.

We agree with comrade Geller that Cowles’ article was defective from the point of view of its agitational approach. By a too strained concern with the detailed and technical defects of the Mahoney Bill, he failed to give sufficient recognition to the undoubtedly progressive aspects of the mass response to the Bill. It is this response which dictates the agitational point of departure.

Nevertheless, we are convinced that comrade Cowles’ fundamental analysis is correct, and that Geller’s analysis is seriously at fault. In effect, comrade Geller states that revolutionists should give enthusiastic support to whatever proposals excite the adherence of the more progressive workers. His criterion is altogether subjective, and is given quite badly:

“What determines our choice in supporting or altogether rejecting such legislative measures, should be an analysis of the Bill’s general subjective effect on the workers.”

This criterion seems to us inadequate, and dangerous. In the light of it, employing every one of Geller’s arguments, we should have declared for support of Roosevelt in the 1936 elections, and of the New Deal candidates in the current elections. Or, to take another legislative measure as an example, we should have propagandized in favor of the objectively reactionary Executive Reorganization Bill.

The subjective standard is insufficient. Revolutionists can give support only where the subjective positive response from the progressive workers is linked to an objectively progressive perspective, only where the central and explicit aims are consistent with the revolutionary program. In this respect, the Mahoney Bill, along with its similarities, provides an instructive contrast to both the “war referendum” and the California Pension Plan. With the explicit aims of these latter – a democratic referendum on the issue of war, and an adequate pension for the aged – we are one hundred percent in agreement, and we therefore support these measures unambiguously. Even here, of course, our support is critical: we must explain the inadequacy of the means proposed for the achievement of the aims, and we must link the struggle for these aims to a more adequate and militant general program.

But the explicit aims of the Mahoney Bill are not at all of the same character: in part they are indeed thoroughly reactionary. It is not merely a question of “inadequacy” or “unworkability” – comrade Geller is quite right in pointing out that any program conceived in terms of a continuing capitalism is inadequate, and in criticizing comrade Cowles for over-stressing the details of the Mahoney Bill’s ineffectiveness. The Mahoney Bill, however, proposes what really amounts to a dressed up kind of “poor farm” or “work house”. Comrade Cowles showed this by explaining the meaning of its prohibitions of the entry of the products of the State institutions into the general market and its restrictions on the consumer-freedom of those working in the State institutions. Its statement that the workers shall receive the “full value of their collective product” is not, as Geller interprets it, “a slap at the profit system”, but a revival of the same Utopian demagogy which Marx submitted to so devastating an attack in his, Critique of the Gotha Program. Such plans are not at all what revolutionists have in mind when they demand the re-opening of the idle factories under workers’ control. The truth is that if we accept the illusory aims embodied in the Mahoney Bill we are not furthering the projection of the workers into struggle against capitalism but diverting them from struggle against capitalism into fruitless by-paths.

Comrade Geller points out that, whatever the Bill may say, in the minds of the workers it represents an effort to open up the idle factories and thereby reduce unemployment. It is this which indicates the specific tactics which we should pursue with respect to it We naturally agree with the sentiment for opening the factories and reducing unemployment. In discussions on the Mahoney Bill, therefore, we should first of all make clear our agreement and solidarity, and then go on to propose the major amendments which would make the Mahoney Bill a vehicle for realizing those purposes. To disregard or simply oppose the Bill would be to withdraw from the mass movement which has grown around it. To support it in any less critical sense would be to succumb to an impermissible opportunism. – The EDITORS

* * *

THE MAHONEY STATE INDUSTRIES BILL, endorsed by the legislative committee of the St. Paul Trades and Labor assembly, and referred for action at the recent convention of the Minnesota State Federation of Labor to the committee on unemployment, has aroused a lively discussion in wide circles of the labor movement

In the last issue of The New International David Cowles took up the question of revolutionary tactics toward the bill, opening a discussion that can lead to a more thorough and clear understanding of the tasks of the revolutionary movement in the present period of capitalist collapse. Cowles’ general approach to the Mahoney bill, which is aimed at giving jobs to all the unemployed by means of state-owned industries, reveals an incorrect appraisal of the bill’s political worth to the labor movement in search of a correct program.

Agitation, Our Primary Task

It follows from a revolutionary analysis of the social consequences of the desperate straits of capitalism that the primary task of a living and potent revolutionary party is to wage an intensive campaign of agitation around a program of transitional demands.

In the course of this agitation, we shall from time to time make a choice in regard to specific measures brought forward by the labor movement What determines our choice in supporting or altogether rejecting such legislative measures, should be an analysis of the bill’s general subjective effect on the workers. Can it serve as an effective agitational medium? Will discussion of the bill’s main points help to close the gap between the workers’ backward political ideology and the needs of the day and the epoch? Will action, designed to put the measure into effect bring conflict with the very foundations of capitalism?

The Mahoney Bill more than meets the test. The economic soundness of such a bill or legislative proposal is secondary. For any proposal aimed at alleviating the economic crisis in any decisive degree is incompatible with contemporary capitalism.

The criterion by which to form an opinion as to our position, therefore, is not will the bill actually work – but how will it aid or deter the progressive transition of the workers political ideology. This is the criterion which Cowles failed to apply in his criticism of the Mahoney Bill. If he had judged the bill by an analysis of its subjective effect on the workers, and not merely by a cold and formal application of economic platitudes, he would not have come to the conclusion that the bill can only act as a “boomerang”. He competently proves in his article that the bill is self-contradictory and “Utopian”. But almost every demand that arises today out of the angry and bitter ranks of the working class, and which aims at the very simple goal of a decent living for everyone is “Utopian”, unworkable and full of contradictions. For these are demands which only socialism can answer.

It is an unfortunate fact that the workers have not yet learned that socialism offers the only solution to their plight They express their discontent awkwardly and in half tones. The Mahoney State Industries Bill is one of these clumsy expressions of the workers’ determination to find a way to break through the barriers of the system which condemns them to idleness and poverty in the midst of plenty.

The Mahoney bill will no more provide jobs for the unemployed than a referendum on war will stop the next imperialist slaughter. But agitation around the bill will give voice to the workers demand for jobs, just as agitation around the question of a war referendum expresses the workers genuine anti-war feelings.

The Bill’s Place in the Labor Movement

If it is progressive to arouse the workers to a consciousness of the bankruptcy of capitalism, then support of the Mahoney Bill is progressive. Instead of applying the microscope to the bill’s most minute provisions, the labor movement in Minnesota has been testing its value in life. The bill has already afforded revolutionists an opportunity to speak on the vital questions of jobs for the unemployed, the opening of idle factories, workers control of industry, and the general stupidities of the profit system.

The Mahoney Bill cannot be intelligently studied except in the light of its impact on the minds of workers, who are in search of a solution of the economic and social situation. Sides have already been taken. The most progressive workers, the most conscious of their class role, are for the bill. The labor conservatives and the reactionaries have lined up against the bill. It has brought about this fundamental rift, because it touches upon the fundamental contradictions of our social order.

To call up the ghost of Owen in refuting this bill is to meet with contempt the efforts of an awakening working class. We cannot brand such efforts as “escapism” and find our place at the head of the masses. If there is some similarity between the schemes of Owen and the Mahoney Bill, there is also a decisive and all-important difference. And the difference is in the era, and the political and social atmosphere in which the bill has appeared.

It is no insignificant fact that the Mahoney Bill today is a live issue in the labor movement, and that “Owen’s Escapism” never managed to “escape” the milieu of the tea-table. And how do we explain the fact that two or three years ago when Mahoney introduced his bill it was dismissed as the scheme of a crackpot, and today it is discussed in dozens of unions?

The explanation of these facts is that the working class is on the move, propelled by the social crisis. When Mahoney first introduced his bill three or four years ago, he was met with uninterested tolerance by the labor movement. Workers were still mainly interested in Wages, hours and working conditions. Today they are striving to reach a higher plane. In the drawing rooms of “socialist” intellectuals, when Mahoney’s bill was first made public several years ago, it created a temporary sensation. Today these same intellectuals attack the bill as “impossible”, “dangerous”, “Utopian”.

This year the proposals embodied in the Mahoney bill have struck home to hundreds of workers, while it is “viewed with alarm” by the reactionary press, the liberals and conservative leaders of labor. Opposition to the bill is rapidly crystallizing among these forces, and its defeat and burial is possible if not probable. What was not so long ago a harmless dream is today a dangerous weapon in lining up the workers against the established order. It is the developing clarity of social antagonisms that has conditioned this turnabout of opinion.

The considerable support the bill has received in St. Paul and Minneapolis tells volumes about the workers’ growing disillusionment, their gradually developing understanding of the decay of the profit system, and their willingness to listen to new slogans, and to seek new roads to a better order. In the discussions in various unions on the Mahoney Bill the main points grasped by the progressive-minded worker are first, the proposal to supply jobs for all the unemployed, second, the opening of the dead and deserted factories, and third that these factories are to be owned and operated by the state without a profit. The above general ideas have sunk into the trade unionists’ minds.

Do we support these general demands? Of course. And we must support them as concretely proposed in the Mahoney Bill, for in the minds of workers, they are one and the same. At the same time, however, we must criticize the bill’s shortcomings. But our emphasis must not be upon its mechanical details, but upon its main objectives. No revolutionist who lives in the mass movement could hesitate a moment in making his choice.

“No amounts of wages are specified.” Cowles complains. Quite true, the bill merely states that the workers shall receive the “full value of their collective product”. This phrase is a slap at the profit system.

“The bill makes no provisions outside of an initial million dollars.” Also true. But the bill lays down the general principle that its aims are to provide jobs at productive labor for all the unemployed in Minnesota, to put idle men to work in any and all idle factories, at every kind of industry, on a non-profit basis.

There are of course qualifying phrases and shortcomings. But as a basis for education, agitation and action the bill is valuable. It goes so far as to provide for workers councils in the state-owned factories, to ensure democratic control of the factories. Many questions have been asked about this point, and in a union where a revolutionist is present, you may be sure the idea is not only supported but elaborated. For the first tune in a union, workers councils are discussed. How will they work? What is their purpose? A discussion of the Mahoney Bill on the floor of a union affords an opportunity to press for the most progressive principles. But we must give support, in order to talk and be listened to.

It is not mere coincidence that the most conservative labor bureaucrats have attached themselves to arguments against the bill very, much like the arguments presented by Cowles’ article. A trade unionist remarked to me after reading Cowles’ article that he was going to study it very closely in order to anticipate the arguments which would come from the right.

It is difficult for a labor official to come out flatly against the Mahoney Bill. Yet its general aims are dangerous and “radical”. He therefore descends to carping about the details of the bill, its language, its contradictory phrases. He prefaces all his remarks with the statement that he is one hundred percent with the objectives, the “spirit” of the bill. But he somehow keeps referring it to committee for “study” and “rewriting”. He goes through these machinations because he senses that the bill serves to arouse union members to the rotten and absurd injustice of the system of private industry.

We, however, cannot allow ourselves to subject the bill to an analysis which disregards the very effect which the conservative so correctly fears. If we follow such a path, we shall completely miss our opportunities, and our agitation will remain within the bounds of a stultified and sectarian “Marxism”.

It is the task of bolsheviks to see these expressions of the workers’ discontent in relation to the dynamic forces of the class struggle, and to recognize what affords us a medium for a progressive agitation.

We can set about proving to the satisfaction of scholars that nothing but socialism will work. But meanwhile the masses will have been set into motion by the slogans of fascism. It is our task to give the workers eyes with which to see the road. Properly utilized, the main principles of the Mahoney Bill can serve as signposts along the way.

Can a revolutionist get up in a trade union meeting and in a discussion of the Mahoney Bill proclaim stentoriously that it will not work, that it is self-contradictory? Workers to whom the main principles of the bill appeal will immediately ask the question, “Are you for it or against it? Are you for opening the idle factories or aren’t you? Are you for giving jobs to the unemployed or aren’t you? And if not why not?”

It seems obvious that a revolutionist must support the bill.

The amendments suggested by Cowles are in general correct. At the proper time they should be brought forth and agitation on the next step higher will be carried on.

In this period we must be alive and vigilant. Alive to the opportunities to bring forth our transitional slogans. The Mahoney Bill affords such an opportunity. Vigilant, lest we support measures which do not lead along a progressive road. In the period we are entering all sorts of proposals, and demagogic appeals will be circulated among the masses. We must choose very carefully the measures which have real meaning for the labor movement, and which fit into the pattern of our slogans.

The Cowles’ article supplies the vigilance. But his stress upon the details of the Mahoney Bill, and his complete unconcern with its agitational possibilities, reveals that he is not aware of the main tasks of the revolutionary movement, nor of the real meaning of social decay in the present period.

The Socialist Workers Party, particularly in Minnesota, has already taken a position on the Mahoney Bill, and that is to support it, to extract from it the best and most fundamental slogans, and by carrying on an energetic agitation around these slogans, to stand at the head of the workers movement toward a clash with the capitalist system.

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