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The New International, January 1945



Books in Review

Wechsler on John L. Lewis


From The New International, Vol. XI No. 2, March 1945, p. 63.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


James Wechsler of PM begins his book on John L. Lewis with an apology. “This book does not purport to be a definitive biography of John L. Lewis.” It is, rather, an interim, study whose purpose can best be judged by a reading, according to the author. The reading reveals that this book is simply a smear job, carrying everything the traffic will bear. Of course, the many blunders and tragic errors of John L. Lewis during the past three decades provide ample material for this type of criticism. But sometimes an indictment speaks more eloquently of the prosecutor than of the defendant. In this case, the axiom holds true. Wechsler, looking at John L. Lewis, is a sight to behold.

Outside of Boake Carter or Fulton Lewis, Jr., has anyone else spoken with quite this contempt for the labor movement: “In his relations to outside society, the miner’s self-pity and martyr feeling are his dominant traits”? This is Wechsler’s presentation of the coal miner. Complaints about long hours, underpayment, occupational hazards, inflation! The coal miner who makes these complaints is obviously suffering from self-pity, especially in contrast to the tremendous sacrifices Mr. Wechsler, aged 29, living in Washington, D.C., is making.

If the coal miner receives such treatment from Wechsler, you can well imagine what is reserved for John L. Lewis. However, let us be fair. Wechsler does not go so far as to accuse Lewis, among other crimes, of beating his wife. Not quite. But think of the mentality which could produce the following sentence: “Many people wondered, however, whether she (Mrs. Lewis) had not been happier during the simple Iowa years than she ever was in the turbulence of Washington. She talked often and nostalgically of how she used to wash John L.’s back when he came out of the mines.” Journalistic cowards always quote “many people” when they are afraid to take responsibility for their own statement. (This is a favorite trick of the Hearst Press.) Since this statement climaxes Mr. Wechsler’s dissertation on the Lewis family life, one is. left with no recourse but to accept the obvious implication that Lewis made his wife miserable and unhappy by advancing in the labor movement! The petty bourgeois snobbery indicated in the crack about Mrs. Lewis’ domestic activity was obviously intended for the gossip circles of Washington society. The sneering attitude toward a custom that thousands of miners’ families have (since they can’t afford showers like Mr. Wechsler) emphasizes Wechsler’s real feelings toward the labor movement.

Perhaps one can understand Wechsler’s venom toward Lewis by means of an analogy. Suppose our reader heard someone discuss President Roosevelt, a class enemy, in terms of his physical incapacity. Then suppose Mrs. Roosevelt’s travels were discussed in relation to Mr. Roosevelt on that basis! The results would be nauseating. Nazi propaganda has used just those foul tactics. Wechsler, an adept imitator, it must be said, uses exactly that technique. Through Wechsler’s eye you see this picture of the Lewis family: Father, a brute; mother, unhappy and exploited; daughter, fat and with a father complex; brother, stupid. Yet the gullible reader is supposed to believe that such a macabre relationship emanating from Wechsler’s head is largely responsible for making John L. Lewis “tick.”

The entire history of the United Mine Workers and its struggles, especially during the last three years, is presented through this distorted view of Wechsler. One becomes convinced after a while that Wechsler lives in holy fear of John L. Lewis, for Lewis certainly becomes the devil incarnate. The entire labor bureaucracy is shown as quaking in its boots every time the name Lewis is mentioned. No doubt many of them fear his potentialities, and many of them are somewhat uneasy over the way he stood up against the attack to smash all labor standards, while they licked boots in Washington. But the relationship of forces within the labor movement is such as to preclude the nightmarish fear that all the rest of the labor movement has for Lewis, as portrayed by Wechsler. As a matter of fact, the one thing for which union militants everywhere admire John L. Lewis, namely his successful fight against the coal operators and the squeeze of inflation on the miners, is precisely the crime of Lewis, in Wechsler’s eyes!

Wechsler wrote this book to smear John L. Lewis because, as he openly admits, he fears Lewis in the post-war period. Lewis is pictured as something of an ogre, taking advantage of unemployment, misery and the resultant unrest, to become some kind of dictator, perhaps of fascist inclination. This is an interesting theory, worth perhaps a line or two. In the first place, does Wechsler, a profound admirer of President Roosevelt, dare tell us that a vote for the fourth term means unemployment and misery? Heresy! Wechsler would say. Trotskyism, pure and simple! If John L. Lewis is the match to set the flame for the explosion, why not remove the powder of unemployment and misery, Mr. Wechsler? Then we would have nothing to worry about from any would-be dictator, would we? But such an approach would mean a discussion of program. And Wechsler isn’t interested, for he has none. So ... smear John L. Lewis. It will certainly deceive some people! In reality, John L. Lewis has been a powerful factor in American life only during those occasions when he represented the interests of either the 400,000 coal miners or the CIO. In his days as a strong-armed bureaucrat smashing all opposition in the UMWA, he was distinctly a secondary figure in the American labor movement, and his own union shrank to less than 60,000 members. As the leader of the CIO, the greatest upsurge of American labor, he was naturally the most influential labor figure in America. In politics, Lewis, like the labor movement itself, is in a blind alley. His influence is negligible, just as the real influence of the labor movement is at present negligible, because labor is tied to the boss parties in the same way a company union is tied to management! Only insofar as Lewis defends the interests of the labor movement does he have influence of a weighty character. That was true in the past, and holds for tomorrow as well.

Books like Wechsler’s should serve to remind the union movement that there is a basic difference between criticism from within the labor movement over policy and leaders, and criticisms made by class enemies for the purpose of smashing the union movement. Most debate in the labor press falls under the first category. Westbrook Pegler is the classic example of the second category. Wechsler, one must admit, shows promise of becoming an apt pupil!

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