1934 was a watershed year for the U.S. workers’ movement. Five years into the Great Depression and a wave of mass strikes with popular support, notably the West Coast longshore workers, Toledo’s auto workers, Minneapolis’ Teamsters., and the national textiles workers explosion. These strikes laid the basis for the coming of the C.I.O. and the whole of the modern labor movement. Here James P. Cannon, a participant in the Minnesota struggle, looks at those events, the changes they heralded, and the possibilities they opened up.
‘The Strike Wave and the Left Wing’ by James P. Cannon from New International. Vol. 1 No. 3. September-October, 1934.
THE wide shift of the American working class to the Left, prepared by the ravages of the five year crisis, found its expression primarily in the two strike waves which swept the country since the inception of the NRA. This shift has been more or less steadily gaining in scope and tempo. All signs point to a deepening of the process of radicalization and stormier manifestations of it in the near future. The fighting energy of the insurgent workers has not been spent, nor have their immediate minimum demands been satisfied. They have not been defeated in a test of strength, but rather tricked and manoeuvred out of their first objectives. The net result is that the dissatisfaction and resentment of the workers is multiplied, the antagonism between them and the leaders who thwarted them is sharpened, and their faith in the Roosevelt administration is more violently shaken.
All this speaks for the assumption that a still mightier strike movement is in the offing and that it will clash more directly with the main agencies which have balked the great majority of the strikes: the Government and the AF of L bureaucracy. Roosevelt’s “truce” – to be arranged by conferences with small groups of those truly representative of large employers of labor and large groups of organized labor – will have far less prospect of success than the Hoover truce of 1929. The workers were passive then; they are moving now.
The second strike wave under the NRA, climaxed by the general strike of the textile workers, went far beyond the wave of 1933, involved many more workers and reflected a more earnest mood. State intervention with armed force, supplementing the mediation machinery of the NRA, became the rule rather than the exception. Violent conflicts occurred; many were killed and injured, more arrested. The cold brutality of these police and military attacks, and the courage with which they were resisted, cannot have failed to leave a deep mark in the working class mind. The experiences of these recent months have been important preconditions for a great political awakening.
The open resistance to the conservative labor bureaucracy at Minneapolis and San Francisco, and the disillusionment ensuing from the systematic treacheries in the other situations – in averting strikes that were due and in wrecking those which could not be prevented – presage a widespread revolt against the reactionary officialdom.
A remarkable feature of the 1934 strike wave has been the popular support of the strikes, manifested by the workers not directly involved, as well as by the “little fellows” of the lower middle class who have been squeezed, first by the crisis and again by the monopoly-aiding features of the NRA cure-all for the crisis. At Toledo and Milwaukee this ardent and demonstrative support of the masses played a decisive role. In Minneapolis, also, public sympathy and the solidarity of the trade unionists proved to be a tremendous reservoir of support for the famous strikes of Local 574.
Public sympathy in nearly every instance has taken an active form. The strike sympathizers picketed, paraded, fought with the scabs, police and militia. This phenomenon undoubtedly has a deep significance. It indicates a deep-seated mass dissatisfaction with things as they are and as they have been in recent times. The spontaneous movement of the masses to the side of striking workers argues for the idea that the workers can find ready allies in the lower middle class when they strike out against capital and lead the way. Fascism begins to make real headway with the aggrieved petty bourgeoisie only when they lose faith in the determination and ability of the workers to lead.
Public sympathy, including the sympathy of other workers, for strikers gave the main impetus to the sentiment for local general strike action in support of the Toledo strike, the May strike in Minneapolis, and the Milwaukee strike. The general strike became a popular slogan. It was looked upon as the certain way to victory. Finally, for the first time in fifteen years, the general strike was realized in San Francisco in sympathy with the marine workers. The disastrous outcome of this action put the damper on general strike agitation, for the time being at least, and impelled the advanced workers to a more sober and critical examination of the possibilities and limitations of general sympathetic strike action. Far from discrediting the idea of the general strike, the ’Frisco struggle revealed that such a radical weapon requires a sure hand to wield it if it is to bite deeply and effectively.
The ’Frisco experience demonstrated with cruel emphasis that the general strike by itself is no magic formula. There, it was a two-edged sword that cut more sharply against the embattled marine workers. The leadership came into the hands of the reactionary officialdom. They transformed it into a weapon against the marine workers and against the “Reds”. Having shifted the center of gravity and control from the marine unions to the general strike committee which they dominated, the reactionaries then deliberately broke the general strike and pulled the marine strike down with it. A wave of reactionary persecution followed as a matter of course. The Stalinists, who advocated the general strike as a panacea and were among the first victims of its tragic result, have not understood to this day what happened and why.
The ’Frisco debacle does not in the least prove the contention of president Green that the general strike, being a challenge to government, is bound to lose. (These dyed-in-the-wool lackeys of capital never even dream of the workers being Victorious in a contest with the capitalist government.) From this example, however, it is necessary to conclude that the general strike is not to be played with carelessly or fired into the air to see what will happen. It must be well organized and prepared. Its limitations must be understood and it must aim at definite, limited objectives. Or, if the aim is really to challenge the government, the general strike cannot be confined to one locality and there must be the conscious aim to supplement the strike with an armed struggle.
The slogan of all the labor traitors, first proclaimed by John L. Lewis in calling off the mine strike in 1919 – “You can’t fight the Government!” – is correct only in one sense: You can’t fight the Government with folded arms. In any case, serious agitation for a general strike should presuppose the possibility of removing the reactionary leadership or, at least, of being able to deprive it of a free hand by means of a well-organized Left wing. That was lacking in San Francisco. The general strike revealed in a glaring light the wide disparity between the readiness of the workers for radical and militant action and the organization of the Left wing.
The same contradiction was to be seen in the general strike of textile workers which marked the peak of the strike wave and ended too abruptly and ingloriously. This was the greatest strike in American labor history in point of numbers, and the equal of any in militancy. Called into being by the pressure of the rank and file at the convention against the resistance of the leadership, it was frankly aimed at the NRA and the whole devilish circle of governmental machination, trickery and fraud. The workers, the majority of them new to the trade union movement, fought like lions only to see the fruits of their struggle snatched from their hands, leaving them bewildered, demoralized and defeated – they knew not how.
But, for all the tragedy of the outcome, the general textile strike was distinguished by an extraordinary vitality, and some distinct features that are fraught with bright promise for the future of the textile workers and the whole working class of the country. Within the framework of one of the most decrepit and reactionary unions, hundreds of thousands of textile workers waged a memorable battle. The “new” proletariat of the South, steeped in age-long backwardness and superstition, came awake, prayed to God and then went out to fight the scabs, the gunmen and the militia. From North to South the battle line extended. The mills were shut down. The big push of the bosses to reopen the mills a few days before the strike was called off came to nothing except a demonstration of the strikers’ dominance of the situation.
With their ranks unbroken, with the universal sympathy of the workers throughout the country, with victory in their grasp – the textile strikers saw the strike called off by their own officers without a single concession from the bosses, and without having a chance to express their own wishes in the matter. And most significant of all – the key to the fatal weakness of the trade union movement today – this monstrous betrayal could be perpetrated without a sign of organized resistance. There was no force in the textile workers’ ranks to organise such resistance.
That is the general story of the second strike wave under the NRA, as of its precursor last year. The workers, awakening from a long apathy and ready for the militant struggle to regain their lost standards, have not yet found a leadership of the same temper. Minneapolis is the one magnificent exception. There a group of determined militants, armed with the most advanced political conceptions, organized the workers in the trucking industry, led them through three strikes within six months and remain today at the head of the union. It was this fusion of the native militancy of the American workers, common to practically all of the strikes of this year, with a leadership equal to its task that made the strikes of a few thousand workers of a single local union events of national, and even international, prominence; a shining example for the whole labor movement. The resources of the workers, restricted and constrained in the other strikes, were freely released and deliberately stimulated by the leadership in Minneapolis. One example, of many: the textile workers, half a million strong, had to depend on the capitalist press for information – Local 574 of Minneapolis published a daily paper of its own! What miracles will the workers in the great industries be capable of when they forge a leadership of the Minneapolis caliber!
The year, approaching its last quarter, has been rich in experience which can and will be transformed into capital for the future. The lessons, once assimilated, will ensure that the future struggles will take place on higher ground and with brighter prospects. The striking workers, and great masses seething with strike sentiment but restrained and out-manoeuvred by the leaders and the politicians of the Roosevelt Administration, have for the most part failed to gain their objectives. But they have not been really defeated; they have not been overwhelmed. The struggles, despite their severity, were only tentative. The real tests are yet to come, and the workers will face them stronger as the result of the experiences of the first nine months of 1934. .
Five years of crisis have done their work. The workers, half-starved on the job, are no longer afraid of risking the job in a strike. It has been demonstrated on a nation-wide scale that the unemployed will not scab if the trade unions establish a proper connection with them. On the contrary, the unemployed can be organized as a powerful ally of the strikers. At Toledo this was first demonstrated effectively by the initiative of the American Workers Party in organizing the unemployed for mass picketing. Taking a leaf from this experience, the Communist League members, the dynamic force in the leadership of the Minneapolis strike, adopted the same policy in regard to the unemployed, with no less telling effect. The members of the MCCW (the Minneapolis organization of the unemployed) played a big part on the heroic picket line of the strike of Local 574. One of them, John Belor, paid for it with his life. The necessity of a close union of the employed and unemployed is one of the big lessons in strike strategy to be derived from the experiences of the recent months.
The political parties and groups have been tested. The advanced, thinking workers can appraise them more accurately now on the basis of their performances in the strike wave. The balance sheet of the Stalinists is zero, symbolized by the abject capitulation of their bankrupt “Red” textile union to the UTW on the eve of the general strike. They wrought a great work of destruction; they strangled the Left wing that had been under their leadership for a decade and left the reactionaries a free field to strangle the strikes. The socialist Militants displayed a considerable activity in the strike movement, offset by a complete silence in the face of the greatest treacheries of the labor bureaucracy. They have not even begun to criticize the labor traitors, to say nothing of organizing a determined struggle against them.
The Communist League and the American Workers party, despite the limited forces at their disposal, took advantage of such opportunities as they had and demonstrated in practise, notably in Minneapolis and Toledo, that they are the bearers of the trade union policies and methods around which the Left wing of tomorrow will crystallize. The fatal weakness in the labor movement today is precisely the lack of a genuine Left wing. This Left wing can come to life only on a new basis, with a new policy that is free from every taint of reformist cowardice and degenerate Stalinism.
The mainspring of the new Left wing can only be a revolutionary Marxian party. Its creation is our foremost task.
The New International began as the theoretical organ of the Communist League of America, formed in 1928 by supporters of The International Left Opposition in the Communist Party. The CLA merged with the American Workers Party led by AJ Muste to form the Workers Party of the U.S. in Dec 1935 before intervening in the Socialist Party, at which time this magazine was suspended. After leaving the SP, the main Trotskyist forces formed the Socialist Workers Party in 1938 and resumed publication. In the split of 1940, the State Capitalist/ Bureaucratic Collectivist faction left the Party and held on to the magazine; the SWP then produced ‘The Fourth International’ as their organ of theory.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol01/no03/v01n03-sep-oct-1934-new-int.pdf