Felix Morrow

Labor’s Answer to Conscription

A New Pamphlet

(17 August 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 33, 17 August 1940, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

(The following chapter is taken from a pamphlet which will be published this week, for mass distribution, to be sold at 2 cents a copy.)

Why The Government Wants Conscription

The light-minded way in which the AFL and CIO officialdom have agreed to support the conscription measure as soon as enlistments don’t work shows that the trade union movement has failed to understand the fundamental meaning of the Burke-Wadsworth conscription bill. If the workers did understand, they would never permit their leaders under any circumstances to support conscription.

Why is the conscription bill introduced at this time, and with the backing of the government, the dominant sections of the two capitalist parties, and of the capitalist class generally? Neither Lewis nor Green attempt to answer this fundamental question.

About three years ago, the present chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, then ambitiously aspiring to reach the post he now occupies, got a brilliant idea. Thought Senator Sheppard: why not enact into law some of the provisions of the M-Day plans? Forthwith, together with his friend Congressman May, he drew up and introduced the notorious Sheppard-May Bill.

Senator Sheppard “represents” Texas, thanks to the help of a poll tax law and a Jim Crow system whereby the black and many white workers and farmers have no vote. He is therefore not very sensitive to the problem of hot offending the masses. But other Senators have that problem. Finally an informal committee took Sheppard aside and told him the facts of life. He and May were arousing opposition to the M-Day plans by their crude insistence on enacting them into law at that time. Why do that when laws like that are not yet needed? Sheppard and May saw the light. They retired their bill into the background.

The moral of this story is that the hard-headed and coldblooded leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties who have now united in advocating immediate execution of the main M-Day plan, conscription, know just what they are doing. They have thought this thing through with about as much emotion as an adding machine. They need conscription now and they therefore demand a law far more frightful than that which they correctly called Sheppard and May fools for trying to get in 1937. Because then they didn’t need it and now they do.

When a demagogue like Senator Wheeler calls the conscription proposal a product of “war hysteria”, he is lying, and he knows he is lying. He knows the gentlemen who have commanded the passage of conscription, and he knows they are not hysterical; they are too calculating a crew for that. When a hypocrite like Senator Vandenberg says that- conscription is “unnecessary”, he is only throwing sand in the eyes of the masses. Unnecessary for the workers and farmers who would be the victims of conscription? Of course! But a desperate necessity for American capitalism and its political agents.

Why We Oppose the Bill

Conscription, like the gigantic arms program already voted, is called for at this time by the capitalist class because it is preparing for military aggression in the near future on a world scale.

The question whether German imperialism, having conquered Europe, can or cannot “attack” the United States has nothing to do with the real issue. The very existence of one great imperialist power in the modern world is an “attack” on the others. The United States, as an imperialist power having its foundations throughout the world, is “attacked” anywhere a rival power attempts to seize a market, a piece of territory, or a sphere of influence. The very existence of two imperialist powers in this capitalist world means that they “attack” each other and hence must settle the issue from time to time by war. That is why war is inevitable under the capitalist system.

The conscription measure is, therefore, a result of the very nature of American imperialism. John L. Lewis puts the cart before the horse when he says (in his speech at the Auto Union convention) that “by that act (conscription) our Congress is planting the seeds of destruction of democracy and is paving the way for the rise of a new imperialistic nation within the confines of the U.S.A.” No, Brother Lewis, the seeds of destruction are already planted, they were planted before the last World War, when the United States was already an imperialistic nation. Because they are imperialists by their very being, the American imperialists want conscription.

Precisely for that reason the workers must fight against conscription by the capitalists not only when it is “unnecessary” but also when it is “necessary.” Because it is never necessary for the workers. Any war undertaken by the capitalist government of the United States will be an imperialist war, undeserving of the support of the working class.

Because they fail to answer as we do the question why the capitalist class now seeks conscription, the CIO and AFL fail to put up a consistent, fundamental fight against the conscription bill.

To our analysis, Lewis might retort: “You are a Marxist, a revolutionary socialist, interested in overthrowing capitalism. I am not. Therefore we cannot agree on one approach to conscription.”

Very well, then, let us examine the conscription measure from a “Simon pure” trade union point of view. Even from that limited outlook Lewis and Green fail to criticise the Burke-Wadsworth bill deeply enough.

Why Unionists Should Oppose the Bill

Perhaps the most glaring example of the superficiality of AFL and CIO criticism of the bill is their complete failure to explain to their members the meaning of that provision in the bill which empowers the president to exempt from immediate service those men whose work in industry “is found” to justify exemption. These exemptions are to be determined “under such regulations as he may prescribe.”

Green and Lewis know exactly what that means. For the regulations in question are not a matter for future elaboration by Roosevelt; they have been in writing since 1926 when they were drawn up by the Joint Army and Navy Selective Service Committee to await just such a moment as this.

Why weren’t they put in the conscription bill, in place of the blanket power given to the president to prescribe the regulations? Because if those regulations were part of the bill, millions of workers who are now not thinking too much about the bill one way or the other, would be aroused to an understanding of what a reactionary anti-labor weapon it is.

The Joint Army and Navy Selective Service Committee drew up regulations laying down the one method of exemptions of this type Which the army and navy and those they speak for – the capitalist class as a whole – will use for any bill they vote for. Under these regulations, to enter a claim for exemption (deferment), a worker will have to submit two affidavits, one by bis immediate superior, one by the executive bead of the company by which be is employed.

These affidavits will be the sole method of determining whether that worker is or is not entitled to exemption because of his indispensability in the work he is doing. Militant trade unionists will be gotten rid of by the simple device of their employers refusing to sign their affidavits, while finks will be rewarded with affidavits. It’s the chance of a lifetime for union-busting bosses!

These regulations are known to every student, even al casual one, of the conscription system. Yet not a word about them has been said by either the AFL or CIO officials. Is it because they are afraid to scratch too deep in making their criticism of the conscription bill, since they know that these regulations are designed to be used in connection with any conscription bill, no matter how “liberal” it sounds? Yet deep they must scratch, if they are to be considered loyal to the interests of the many millions of union men for whom they speak.

We have now seen what will happen in industry, where the conscription regulations will help employers to weed out militant unionists and hold that threat as a club over the organized workers. That will be the regime in the factories ... And now let us ask a question, (Still from a “Simon pure” union standpoint) which Lewis and Green do not even bint at. What will happen to the workers who are drafted into the army? What kind of regime will they live under?

The Army’s Open Shop Regime

Lewis and Green are able to escape raising this question because most workers, unfortunately, are not thinking about this problem. These workers do not give thought to the nature of the regime in the army because they take the present nature of the army for granted. As if to say: “That’s what armies have been, are, and will be”. But they are profoundly wrong; and they must change their mind on this key question, if the working class is not to become the slave of military dictatorship and fascism.

There was a time when there were no trade unions. The open shop was all that workers knew. The boss had virtually the power of life and death over the workers. And since they had no experience of any other kind of regime in the factory, many workers did not think of the possibility of any other kind. They were in the same state of mind as most union men today are about the possibility of a different kind of regime in the armed forces. It took a vanguard of class-conscious workers to arouse the mass of workers to realize that the open shop was not an immutable law of nature. The same kind of vanguard is needed today to arouse the mass of workers to realize that the open shop in the armed forces is neither a law of nature nor the only way to train millions in the military arts.

There is, of course, an explanation why the open shop in industry has given way to the unionization of many millions of workers, while the open shop has remained in the army. Unionization of industry is not a direct and immediate threat to the power and property of the bosses. Not so long as they retain the open shop in the army. Whenever union demands become too intolerable to the bosses, they use the open shop army (which in this sense includes the police and the National Guard) to drive back the unions.

But the army could not be used for these anti-labor purposes if the officers did not have the power of life and death over the ranks of the soldiers. Only under that power can the officers drive young workers and farmers in uniforms to smash picket lines.

If simple democratic rights existed in the army – the right of the rank and file to gather and discuss, without the supervision of officers,.the right of the rank and file to publish a newspaper of their own, their right, to elect committees to present their grievances to the officers, etc. – it would become impossible for the army to be used as an anti-labor force. Just for that reason the army remains an open shop, i.e., a place where the workers have no rights at all.

If Lewis and Green were really representing the interests of the labor movement, their criticism of the conscription bill would include a denunciation of the open shop regime in the army. And this denunciation would, of course, prevent them from advocating mass enlistments into the open shop army.

If Not Conscription, Then What?

If Lewis and Green Were really leading the workers, instead of leaning on the most backward layers they can find among the workers, they would not be letting capitalist demagogues like Wheeler and Vandenberg “speak for Labor” in Congress on the conscription question. Instead they would say:

“The quarrel in Congress is a difference of opinion between two sections of the bosses over which is the best method of getting an open shop army which will be used for the benefit of the capitalists arid against the interests of the workers. We don’t take either the side of the pro-conscriptionists or the side of the ‘volunteers’. Those two alternatives are not the only ways to train the workers in the military arts.

“There is another way, one which is in the interests of Labor. And that way is through our trade unions! Just as our unions make possible our very existence, giving us the ability to lift our heads like men in the factories and to live like human beings at home, so our unions can enable us to undergo military training in the atmosphere of the union hall and not in that of the barracks. Compulsory military training? Yes! But only under the direct control of the trade unions.”

That, in short, would be a working class answer to the question of how the workers of this country should receive training in military arts.

Moreover, it provides a common ground on which all sections of the labor movement should be able to agree. We, the members of the Socialist Workers Party, have a fundamental disagreement with Lewis and Green on the war question; they will support the capitalist government of the United States in any war it undertakes, while we say that the working class should answer such a war by taking over governmental power, and then defending a Workers’ United States. But let all sections of the labor movement agree on one thing: that for all eventualities it is well for all able-bodied workers to undergo military training – under the control of the trade unions.

Labor’s Military Program

Along this line, Labor has a clear and unambiguous answer to make to the government’s demand that the masses undergo military training:

“Yes, we are for military training. We don’t want to see worker-soldiers go into battle without proper training and equipment. Nor do we want worker-soldiers in the hands of capitalist officers who have no regard for the treatment, the protection and the lives of the men under them.

“Therefore we demand federal funds for the military training of workers and worker-officers under the control of the trade unions. Does that mean we want military appropriations? Yes – but only for the establishment and equipment of workers’ training camps!

“Does this mean compulsory military training of workers? Yes – but only under the control of the trade unions!”

Last updated on 14 November 2020