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The New International, March–April 1952

Notes of the Month ...

The Steel Seizure


From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 2, March–April 1952, pp. 52–54.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


On April 8, President Truman ordered the seizure of the American steel industry by the government. In a nation-wide radio speech ordering the seizure he excoriated the owners of the industry in terms seldom if ever used publicly before by a responsible government official against a section of the bourgeoisie. His whole speech could not have been more “radical” nor more “pro-union” if the speaker had been Philip Murray himself.

The president’s action has aroused a storm of protest from almost every section of the American bourgeoisie. They view this particular type of government intervention as extremely dangerous to themselves. Efforts have been made in the Senate to block the seizure by various parliamentary devices, and rumors of a possible impeachment have been filling the air.

Whatever the immediate consequences of the present struggle may be, one thing is clear. The seizure of the steel industry in a time when the country is not officially at war, without legislative sanction, and in the face of major opposition by the bourgeoisie points to a new political stage in the development of the permanent war economy.

By this act the administration shows that it is determined to keep production going in the basic industries at all costs. The fact that the president put the blame for the threatened strike squarely on the shoulders of the steel barons in this instance is of episodic importance. It relates to the political line which Truman proposes to the Democratic Party in the presidential campaign as the only possible one for victory. But he did not need to seize the steel industry to launch a “pro-labor, pro-the-little-people” political campaign. He had to seize it in order to prevent an interruption of steel production.

BY THIS ACTION the administration has served notice that strikes will not be tolerated in any of the basic industries. The previous railroad seizures, though having a similar motive, did not point up the full import of the new stage in the same way as the seizure of steel. Even were there no war in Korea, and even if the government had not embarked on a major rearmament program, a nation-wide railroad stoppage has many far-reaching disruptive effects on the whole economy, effects which are felt so immediately, that the railroad workers’ right to strike on a national scale has never been exercised since the disastrous strike of the Pullman workers toward the end of the last century.

Vital as the steel industry is, it could be closed down for weeks without threatening our major cities with starvation, or bringing most of the standstill. One cannot say that the rest of the productive machine to a government is “forced” to take measures to prevent a steel strike, in the same sense in which it is “forced” to see to it that the railroads keep running. What is involved here is the announcement of a new government policy.

At the moment it is the bourgeoisie which is howling, as they never howled when the railroads were seized. Their denunciation of the seizure as a step toward socialism can be dismissed with the amusement which it merits. This particular spectre is, unfortunately, a figment of their imagination. Yet the fact remains that they are threatened, but by something which has no relationship to socialism. They are menaced by an increasing restriction on their freedom of action by a state which has to concern itself with the overall and global interests of capitalist society, even if this means that the feet or even neck of this or that capitalist gets stepped on in the process.

Because of the specific circumstances surrounding this seizure, the labor movement has been complacent about it. Except for the unions directly involved, the labor leaders never became too excited about the railroad seizures, even though they were directed against a section of the labor movement. But the seizure of the steel industry is a portent of something far more ominous for labor than for capital in the United States.

Whether or not the steel workers get their increased wages (or a portion of them) is, in the context of the general problem, far from the most important factor. What is vital basically is that the right of a union to strike a basic industry has once more been suppressed in practice by purely administrative government action. In the long run, it is this fact that will continue to haunt the labor movement.

The permanent war economy involves a constantly intensifying series of restrictions on all sectors of our economic and political life. The bourgeoisie can only dream of retaining in full its old freedom of action while only labor’s hands are tied behind its back. But the difference is that for the capitalist class this means that the unrestricted freedom for profit-making is channeled within narrower limits. While for the labor movement it means a degree of restriction which threatens its very existence, which involves its transformation from an independently functioning class force to some kind of a government-controlled “labor front.”

There is a long road to travel before that point is reached. But the permanent war economy is moving us down that road. And as the most important feature of this new economic phase of capitalism in disintegration is the dominant and even supreme role of the state in all aspects of the life of society, so the major method of struggle against the trend must be political. The American labor movement is still not fully aware of its danger, and has certainly not developed the political instrument and methods necessary to meet it. The steel seizure may prove a valuable lesson in this field.

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Last updated on 14 December 2018