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David Coolidge

Toward a New Trade-Union Program – II

Fructifying Economic Struggles by Independent Labor Politics

(September 1944)

From The New International, Vol. X No. 9, September 1944, pp. 284–288.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In my article, Toward a New Trade Union Program, published in the June New International, it was stated: “The main question is, how shall the working class secure the economic and political leadership which will provide that program necessary for promoting class-consciousness and raising the political level of the masses ... We pose the more restricted question of class-conscious political action, procedure and organization ... All of the revolts, ‘unauthorized strikes,’ grumblings and dissatisfaction on the part of the militant trade unionists today are inchoate, primitive, but ominous demands for a new program for the movement.” The purpose of this article is to elaborate these ideas.

In this connection it may be necessary to clarify what I mean by a new trade union program. I do not mean a program for transforming the unions as such into political parties or a political party. I do not mean to advocate raising the unions to a political level in the sense that they retain the name of unions but function as political organizations primarily. I do not mean a program for the “bolshevization” of the unions and a sectarian withdrawal from the struggle of the masses in the manner of “third period” Stalinism. What I do mean is to suggest a new program that will intensify and fructify the economic struggles of the trade union movement and orient the militant trade union vanguard toward independent proletarian political action and organization. The trade unions would remain trade unions functioning, however, on a higher plane. They would remain fundamentally the primary economic organizations of the working class with the difference from today that the movement or some sizable section of it would move progressively from a program of class peace to class struggle.

As the proletarians imbibe the lessons of class struggle, climb the steep ascent to class-consciousness and apply this consciousness and experience to the problems of their existence, the practical result will be: concrete political organization of the working class in the United States. It is with this political consummation that a new program and a new leadership for the labor movement must be concerned.

The Bourgeoisie and Labor Political Action

The bourgeoisie today is vitally interested in any slightest manifestation or trend in this direction. It is openly alarmed over the entry of the CIO into politics with its PAC. It has not been so disturbed over any movement of the working class since the days of the organized unemployed movement or the founding of the CIO. It is more disturbed at the impertinence of the working class toying with the idea of political action than it was at all the marching and storming of the unemployed legions. This for the reason that the bourgeoisie understands these things better than the ranks of labor and far better than the leaders of labor. The unemployed made demands on the government of the bourgeois to give them a minimum of food, clothing and shelter. Active participation in congressional and presidential elections today by organized workers, with jobs, is objectively a demand for a measure of control in government and industry. For the bourgeois, government, industry and finance are his exclusive domain. For the unemployed to storm a relief station for bread in a period of trade union disorganization and diminishing membership is one thing, but for a disciplined and well financed organization of mass production employed workers to go into congressional districts in opposition to bourgeois congressmen, or to invade the holy precincts of bourgeois political conventions is sufficient cause for the ruling class to view with alarm the state of the nation.

I am not interested right now in the policies of the CIO-PAC. That will come later. We are in disagreement with their theory and practice. What I am emphasizing now is the mere fact that even the threat of political action by the proletariat has caused mild hysteria among the bourgeoisie. Dies, of poll-tax infamy, learning of the PAC campaign fund and the intention of the CIO politicians to invade his district, decides not to run. “Rampant un-Americanism” and any and all “subversive activities” are forgotten as the great man prepares to spend the rest of his days in autobiographical pursuits. How many congressmen would have chosen not to run, how many who did run would have been defeated if labor had been in the fight with a party and ticket of its own? That’s what the bourgeois understands and that or worse is what he fears in the days to come. He knows that political action is the road to power. He is fully aware from centuries of experience that politics and political organization have practical aims and a practical goal: the acquisition of political, economic and social power by a class and the wielding of that power in the interest of a class. It is the irreconcilable and irrevocable determination of the bourgeois so to distort the mind of the working class that it never get a vision of that Promised Land.

The Class-Conscious Bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie must attempt to hold the proletariat completely inside the bastion of the bourgeois way of life because for it this is the only safe course. It fears that if it give an inch the workers will take an ell. The bourgeoisie takes itself very seriously. It is very solemn about its claims that it, and it alone, is the anointed one, chosen to decide all political, economic and social questions for the country and the world. It must impress this on the people, including the proletariat and the middle class. It succeeds in part by being solemn or by simulating solemnity and seriousness. The bourgeois never laughs at himself or indulges in raillery at his own expense. His errors and blunders may have ludicrous aspects: he may prove himself a first-rate dolt in the operation of the country’s industry or an irredeemable nincompoop in affairs of government in so far as these activities relate to the welfare of the masses of the people, but this does not deter the bourgeois from perennial affirmation of his right to own, manage and control the economy, as well as operate the state and the government.

The bourgeois knows one thing well. He knows what his class interests are and how to protect them. He may be an ass, yesterday, today or tomorrow, but he knows that so long as he can maintain the organizational, political and social integrity or unity of his class on important matters and at the same time impregnate the proletariat with the belief that the working class is incompetent and impotent, he and his class are safe.

The ruling class puts forth the claim, in one form or another, that it has the right to rule, to govern; to own, manage and control. At one time the method is blandishment and wooing of the working class, at another chicanery and conspiracy, at another use of the police power of the state, and force. The claims of the bourgeois can be made to look very impressive because his class has had an appreciable degree of success, and success can be glorified and sanctified. To aid in the process of sanctification, the bourgeois may call on the petty bourgeoisie and particularly on the educators, publicists and religious leaders. The educators provide the young and the old with judiciously selected excerpts from our past history, placing a halo on the heads of the founding fathers and emphasizing with what extreme rectitude our great men have always followed the path of democracy and fought the battle of the common people. The preachers, rabbis and priests, from their high and holy station, have played their r61e also in the glorification of the bourgeoisie and the capitalist social order. One of the chief functions of the religious leaders has been, and is today, the blessing of the armed forces, the preparation of the mortally wounded for heaven and the call on the god of battles for victory over the enemy.

As I have already indicated, the bourgeoisie is especially insistent in its determination to wield the political power. In capitalist society this is where he moves and lives and has his being. The first aim of the bourgeois who understands, that is, the enlightened bourgeois, is to obscure and conceal the real situation. In the first place, he will never admit that political power has any class meaning or content. According to him and his apologists, whereas there may be economic classes, the fact of the existence of such classes has or should have no connection with the nature of the state and the role of the government. As a rule, when the bourgeois talks about “the classes and the masses,” he is speaking in terms only of those who have money or wealth and those who do not. He attempts to make it appear that the main difference in this connection is the difference between those who have some money or wealth and those who do not. This he explains by differences of fortune or misfortune, of frugality or profligacy, of ability or the lack of ability. The embarrassing matter of inheritance is taken care of by leaving a few dollars to the butler and cook, a few thousands to a favorite charity and by designating several millions for the establishment of a “foundation.”

Political Action and Social Power

One of the aims of the bourgeois is to conceal the fact that political, social and economic power are in the hands of a small minority. Any move on the part of the proletariat to achieve political power is resented by the bourgeois because he knows that political power is indissolubly related to social and economic power. This problem of the transfer of power is very acute with the ruling class in these days of bourgeois importunity, flowing from the decline of capitalism, the harassments in connection with the maintenance of the world market, real or fancied encroachments of the New Deal bureaucracy, the breaching of bourgeois democracy by fascism and the clamor of the proletariat for easier conditions of existence.

To say that no step yet taken by the proletariat is really a step in the direction of political power concretely is beside the point. Every glance by the workers toward political action is examined by the ruling class and all its big propaganda and agitational guns are brought into action. The leaders of the ruling class know that a little learning by the proletariat is a dangerous thing, that even a sip of the Empyrean springs of political activity may result in progressively increasing demands for a larger place in the sun.

Implicit in this demand today is at least some elementary knowledge of the fact that the government is not or should not be a neutral body sitting above capital and labor and impartially adjudicating the disputes which arise between contending classes or groups. The proletariat has seen the intervention of the New Deal government: first, in the early days of its ascendancy and later during the Second Imperialist World War. In the minds of the most progressive and militant workers the demand for labor’s participation in the government was not prompted by any conscious class collaboration concepts but was a simple effort to push the government in die direction of partiality toward labor. In a very elementary way we are witnessing for the first time in the United States an awakening of the proletariat to the real role and function of government in a class society.

The bourgeoisie understand also that any beginnings toward political action by the proletariat contain springs of action leading to the use of the government by the working class for the same purposes for which government is used by the bourgeoisie: the protection of a class and the promotion of its welfare. With the advance of the political thinking of the masses the certain result would be use of the government by the proletariat to control property and the rights of property. Such development would expose and lay bare the basic evil of bourgeois democracy in its political aspects: the fact that under the cloak of capitalist democracy the capitalist ruling class exercises a dictatorship over society. As its eyes were opened, the proletariat would surely become incensed at the spectacle of a dictatorship exercised by a small minority, not by virtue of service to society but solely through a monopoly of social and economic power, and the protection of that power by the capitalist state and bourgeois government.

The Function of the State

It is true that these things are only vaguely understood by the proletariat today. It is for that reason that the trade union bureaucracy is successful in pursuing its class collaboration and class peace policies. The proletariat has not adequately grasped the concepts of class, state, government, bourgeois democracy and the general notion of capitalist society. This deficiency is the source of the objective acceptance of class collaboration by the working class. The ruling class understands these ideas and notions. The bourgeois or his professional ideologists know that historically it has been the practice of each class seeking living space and the opportunity to develop its interests and protect itself, to transform the old society into a social form suitable for the class aims it had in view. The crowning achievement of the bourgeois in the field of political theory and action is the bourgeois or capitalist state. This is the permanent and basic political organization of the bourgeoisie. Its main function is to give legal sanction to bourgeois private property and to protect the bourgeoisie in the possession of private property. It is not only what might be called tangible or concrete property such as land, buildings, machines, tools, transport and communication equipment and raw materials, that the bourgeoisie holds and owns under state sanction and protection. The bourgeoisie also claims and is awarded other less tangible rights: patent rights, the protection of business good will and above all the right to make contracts and to have those contracts enforced by the state. In this connection the bourgeoisie is quick to demand that the worker shall have the right to choose freely who his employer shall be and freedom to join or not to join a union. That is, the bourgeois demands that the worker shall be free to enter into a contract with an employer of his own choosing and free to join or not to join a union. In neither instance, the bourgeois insists, must there be any coercion. According to the protagonists of the “system of free enterprise” with its “free workers,” the laborer should have the right to sell his labor power or to withhold it. By the same token, and in a “free democracy,” according to the bourgeois, the worker should be free to join a union or not to join.

The ruling class, however, is not so “liberal” in its ideas about political action and organization by the proletariat. In the course of the decades this class has come to accept, grudgingly, it is true, economic organizations of the working class. For reasons which we do not need to go into here they agree on the whole that capitalism can live side by side with the unions. But when workers begin moving toward political organization and action as a class, that is going too far. The capitalist has no objection to being barred from membership in the workers’ economic organizations, but he will fight bitterly, and in the name of “democracy,” “Americanism” and “justice,” against being barred from the workers’ political organization. I do not mean by this that Morgan, Mellon, du Pont, Roosevelt or Dewey in person would make application for membership in a workers’ party. Probably not; but they send their representatives. These may be an obscure or prominent “liberal” congressman, a college professor, a small business man, a minor government official or a junior executive in a big business or bank. These “friends of labor” are always bearers of the ideas and notions of the bourgeoisie. Their role is to head off any real independent political direction of labor and to keep the proletarian political organization inside the framework of bourgeois politics and the bourgeois parties.

The Main Aim of Political Action

To be sure, the ruling class also wants its ideas and notions to prevail in the workers’ economic organizations. It schemes and conspires in all manner of ways to accomplish this. This has been dealt with in previous articles. But there is an extremely important difference that must be emphasized over and over. That is the fact that political organization and action has a significance far beyond that of trade union action. All political organization and action has or should have one main practical aim: to take control of the government, to transform the existing state, to achieve social power for the class which the particular political organization represents.

In the capitalist countries where the bourgeoisie already has the social power, the function of the bourgeois parties is to protect the ruling class in the retention of power. A working class organized politically would inevitably be forced into a political struggle with the bourgeoisie. The sacred property rights of the ruling class would be placed in jeopardy, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie would be revealed and the economic base of that social power and dictatorship would be exposed. Furthermore, in the course of political struggle the proletariat would learn another important lesson which the bourgeois has hidden beneath the whole mass of bourgeois-democratic mythology. That is the pregnant lesson that never in history has social power been achieved by exercising the franchise. On occasion, it has been the case that it proved impossible even to hold social power by the use of the ballot. On these occasions other means are resorted to.

The ruling class, of course, attempts at first to retain its power and rule by use of that fiction that since each adult has only one vote, rich and poor alike, and since the rich are in the minority, it is possible foe the masses of the people to get the kind of government they want by use of the franchise. There is no need therefore for the proletariat to separate itself apart and form its own political organization. If labor is displeased with Wilson it can switch to Harding. When Harding dies the saintly Coolidge emerges from coma. When Coolidge chooses not to run, and if labor’s aesthetic sense is jarred by the thought of grass growing in the streets, they may reject Smith and vote for Hoover. Should Hoover not keep his promise to provide a chicken for every pot and a car in every garage, they may try Roosevelt and the New Deal. And when the New Deal fails and the whole world becomes a vast shroud in the midst of the Second Imperialist World War, the proletariat, according to the bourgeois, still has no need for class political action and organization. Why? Because the Democratic Party is not the only political party in the country. Thanks to the “political genius of the Founding Fathers,” “the American Way of Life,” “our system of free enterprise” and the “Four Freedoms,” there is another choice: the Republican Party and Dewey.

The Sacred “Two-Party System”

The bourgeoisie is very zealous of the “two-party system” in the United States. Not only is it violently opposed to what it calls the “one-party system of Russia and Germany,” it is also against three parties or four parties. There must be precisely two parties, no more, no less.

The position of the ruling class in this matter is somewhat similar to that of the old English bourgeois blatherskite on the Church of England: “When I say religion I mean Christianity. When I say Christianity I mean protestantism. When I say protestantism I mean the Church of England.”

A disgusting and extremely reactionary illustration of this attitude by the bourgeoisie appeared in a recent New York Times editorial, from which I quote: “One great error which the Italian and German democracies shared in common was proportional representation ... Its fatal defect, as exemplified in Italy and Germany, was that it shattered the electorate and the legislature into a multitude of parties and factions of bitter extremists who would have had no real chance of getting into power under the majority-voting system and the two-party system.”

The actual meaning of what transpires in bourgeois society is not apparent to the proletariat. Hence labor is enticed into class collaboration, enmeshed in a process of tail-ending and the masses are forced into a state of political subservience, non-resistance and humility. The main reason is not the lack of militancy but of political and theoretical enlightenment. The militancy of labor remains on the crudest bread-and-butter level. No appreciable portion of the proletariat has yet grasped the distinction between social power, with the accompanying political ascendancy based on the ownership of property, wealth and the instruments of production, and formal or juridical political rights. Labor remains tied to the myth disseminated by bourgeois propagandists that one man is politically equal to another in the United States because no man has more than one vote. Certain outstanding aspects of this rather empty platitude might prove a stimulus to the thinking of the working class. For instance, it is rather interesting that any number of the bourgeoisie never bother to register and vote. It is an open secret that in city after city the heaviest per cent voting takes place in the wards bordering on the river, across the railroad tracks and in the neighborhood of the factories. It is of some significance that the bourgeoisie is quite willing to grant the proletariat and petty bourgeoisie a virtual monopoly attendance at the polls on election days. Furthermore, it might be well for the working class to stop and ponder the fact that the result of this exercise of “political equality” is state legislatures, city councils and a national Congress composed overwhelmingly of persons from the bourgeoisie and the upper petty bourgeoisie. The proletariat votes, but, unlike the king, the bourgeoisie both reigns and rules.

The State and the Government

Secondly, the proletariat has not yet grasped the distinction to be made between “the state” and “the government.” Herein, at least in part, lies the confusion which makes it possible for the bourgeoisie to go on and on with the myth of equality and non-class democracy.

I have already explained how the state exists for the protection of the ruling class and its economic interests. It is not necessary that the political organizations of the ruling class be identical in every capitalist country nor the same in one country from period to period. It is sufficient that they conform to the requirements of the bourgeoisie in any country and at any period, that such organizations be and remain in consonance with bourgeois class and property relations and the peculiar state form established by the bourgeoisie to protect and perpetuate those class and property relations.

The government is not the state. The government is the given administrative set-up. It is the function of the bourgeois government to maintain the economic status quo, to protect the social power of the bourgeoisie and to guarantee the existing class and property relations. The government achieves this end through the constitution of the country, through laws and administrative orders. What must be emphasized is that the constitution, the laws, statutes and orders follow a certain pattern. They define and delineate the nature of the state and are always compatible with the foundation principles of the state; particularly those foundation stones supporting the property and class relations.

Therefore what we call “the government” may be changed but the class and property relations remain unchanged; that is, there is no change in the nature of the existing state. Because they confuse the two or because they do not understand the difference, the proletariat seeks to resolve the economic, social and political difficulties with which it is faced by a mere change in the management. The bourgeoisie, of course, encourages this confusion and misunderstanding. This is the objective today of the defense and maintenance of the “two-party system.” The capitalist state with its class base, with its roots in the dominance of the bourgeoisie, with its instruments of class oppression, is screened by a political organizational front composed of two parties; both bourgeois in theory and practice. A shift from one of those parties to the other is therefore only a change in the administrators. The old-fashioned historians were theoretically correct objectively when they headed the chapters of their school histories: “The Administration of William McKinley,” or whoever it happened to be.

In times of social stress and strain it is not unusual for the bourgeoisie to consent to the participation of labor in the management and administration of the state. This is exemplified in England today and to a lesser degree in the United States. Labor has its representatives on some government boards, and there is a demand for a Secretary of Labor from the trade union movement. Willkie went to far as to suggest that labor be represented in all phases of government, even in fiscal affairs. These efforts always fall far short of what labor and the liberals have in mind and result in the rankest and crudest class collaboration. This is inevitable for the reason that in such instances the proletariat is attempting to manage without owning, without social power.

Capturing the Primaries

This helps explain the futility of workers trying from time to time to capture the Republican or Democratic Parties, or to win out in some Republican or Democratic primaries, or to force the endorsement of certain people known as “labor’s candidate.” Suppose labor did “capture” one of the bourgeois parties, or a bourgeois primary, or force the election of labor’s candidates. Nothing would be gained unless the candidates were from the ranks of labor and committed to a program formulated by labor and based on the class needs of the proletariat. But neither of the bourgeois parties will endorse such a “labor candidate.” That candidate would be a class enemy of the ruling class, and the bourgeoisie does not take its class enemies to its bosom. The bourgeoisie is extremely cautious and class-conscious. It will not even trust any and every defender of capitalism, as was clear in the rejection of Wallace.

Talk of capturing a bourgeois party or primary is to begin a campaign of storm and fury that could only result in labor capturing itself, if anything. The bourgeoisie can withdraw and form another party. And then labor would have to act independently or follow the bourgeois “splitters.” The bourgeoisie does not wait to have its political organizations “captured” by the proletariat. Whenever the working class shows evidence of any influence whatsoever in bourgeois parties, the most hardened among the ruling class begin the formation of new and more orthodox alignments. They campaign against those in their midst who have become too friendly with labor, they ignore their past utterances on the “two-party system” and form blocs cutting across the artificial dividing lines between the two parties. The reason that the bourgeois can and does deport himself in this manner has already been elucidated: the Republican and Democratic Parties are the political instruments of a class. They cannot serve the interests of a class. They cannot serve the interests of the proletariat, which is an alien class to the bourgeoisie. The proletariat cannot be admitted to citizenship in the bourgeois parties. To make such a demand is to attempt to exact from the ruling class social, political and economic equality which can only be the reward of that class which has social power. To demand equality from the bourgeois government is to demand that such a government forsake its class base and its class allegiance. For the proletariat, the little propertyless people, to stand before the capitalist state, before the men of property and power, and demand a place in the sun, is to demand a transformation of that state by the class which can profit only from the status quo.

This sets a real challenge before the proletariat; the challenge to organize politically, independently, with class-conscious clarity and militancy. I shall resume this series of articles in the next New International with a discussion of the more concrete aspects of the question. The last article will deal with an international program for labor.

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