The Working Class: Bulwark of Democracy

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 4:06

The fate of the working class depends upon democracy, and the fate of democracy depends upon the working class. This simple truth illuminates all problems of modern politics. Where labor enjoys democracy, it will fight tenaciously to preserve it. Where it has lost democracy, its first goal becomes its restoration.

It is fashionable sometimes to say that we must choose between the "security" of totalitarianism and the "freedom" of capitalism. Nothing could be more deceptive. For the working class, security and democracy are inseparable. When totalitarianism is imposed upon it, labor loses all control over its own daily life; it is tied to the factory like a slave; it can set no limits to its own exploitation; it loses all control over its own standard of living; it is arbitrarily assigned to work where, when, and how it pleases the dictatorial ruler.

In the first days of Hitler's rule, German trade-union officials deluded themselves that democracy could go and unions remain. They imagined that if they supinely endorsed the dictatorship and closed their eyes to the outlawing of political oppositionists, the organized union movement might continue intact. Such terrible illusions were smashed along with the whole German labor movement as the workers fell victim to the Nazi machine.

But never again! The lesson was learned at an awesome price; but never will a free working class again capitulate without a struggle to totalitarianism. The whole pyramid of social life rests upon the labor of its producers, which in modern society is the working class. Lasting works of art, great musical compositions, spectacular achievements of science, classics of literature - all are made possible by the toil of millions who provide leisure for the artist, scientist, and writer. But labor makes possible more than the flowering of culture; upon its back rises the exploiting rulers and owners, a small minority that enjoy the luxuries and lush living viewed by others only in dreams.

Property Confers Power

The princes, slave-owners, kings and capitalists possess not only wealth, but what accrues to wealth - social power. By outright purchase or subtle influence, they gather up intellectuals and brains; newspapers and writers; lawyers and lawyer-politicians; teachers and clergymen; judges, prosecutors and police. They own closets full of theatres, televisions, buildings, meeting halls, radio, printing presses, billboards, universities, and comic-book publishing houses.

In the last analysis out of this complex of men, institutions and machines emerges one concentrated summary motto: Labor must remain on the bottom; the owners must remain on top. Let the tides of empire rise and fall, come pestilence and plague, or prosperity give way to poverty, so long as the owners remain owners, they dominate society.

But the working class begins with nothing. By its labor, it makes everything possible; but it, itself, owns neither property nor power. It starts as a mass of impotent objects of exploitation. But one power it does possess: the power of numbers. In modern nations, it is already the majority. But this power remains nothing unless it is organized; without organization, it is blown about like mere dust. In the words of "Solidarity Forever":

"It is we who plowed the prairies,
Built the cities where they trade,
Dug the mines and made the workshops,
Endless miles of railroads laid.
Now we stand outcast and starving
Mid the wonders we have made,
But the union makes us strong."

The history of the working class is one long stubborn and continuing struggle up from below to rise out of the status of work-oxen to the dignity of human being. For this it must unite. But to organize it must have the right to meet freely; it must have the right to speak; to publish notices, newspapers; to strike; to vote; to influence government. In short, it must have democracy or remain enslaved. The working class, by its very nature, must become the champion of democracy. Freedom is no luxury for it, it is a bare necessity determining the workers' life and the fate of his family.

Labor Must Have Democracy

Wherever democracy lives, the working class organizes its political parties, its trade unions, its cooperatives and other institutions. In the United States, unlike almost everywhere else, the organized labor movement is confined almost exclusively to unions. Here, more than 16,000,000 men and women organize to win a better life; their unions publish thousands of newspapers, weekly and monthly, reaching millions of readers. Thousands of workers meet in their union balls every month to "discuss the affairs of their unions, their conditions of labor, their role as citizens, if their delegates assemble by the thousands to make decisions that can affect not only matters of trade and job but the course of govern-
ment, foreign policy, war and peace. Last month, 3000 United Auto Workers delegates convened in Cleveland and made decisions that will guide hundreds of thousands of workers in America's biggest industry and will affect other millions. Organized labor, with its federations and its conventions constitutes a parliament of the working class in modern society.

Organized labor stands for democracy but not in full awareness: it is often inconsistent, contradictory, or in-
complete in its approach, most strikingly in its defense of the capitalist social system. In politics, unions are satisfied with little less than full democratic rights; but in the economy they are amazingly modest. A small class of private capitalists own and monopolize America's productive wealth. Powerful as the unions are, they only modify the fringes
of capitalist power in industry. But the basic core of arbitrary rule in the economy prevails.

Economic Dictators Decide

A group of economic dictators decide what should be produced, where, at what price, at what time. It decides whether to continue or discontinue production; how many workers to hire, and when; despite the unions, it possesses the initiative in hiring and firing, subject only to minor controls. It decides when to expand productive capacity or contract it. And all these decisions it makes with utter disregard for the needs of workers or of society, motivated by one concern: profit-making.

In politics, labor demands a republic. In the economy, it prefers a limited monarchy, leaving power in the hands of king-capitalist only checked and modified by labor. Unions have yet to demand the end of autocracy in industry and the establishment of full democracy. Socialism is nothing more than the tallest expansion of democracy. Its permeation of every aspect of social life, industry as well as politics. No political princes; no economic dictators. Modern socialism begins with the demand for social and economic democracy; American unionism has not yet consciously gone beyond the demand for political democracy.

The apologists for class rule insisted that political democracy would destroy society under "mob" rule and that a small privileged minority must always hold tightly to the reins of government. Now, these arguments which once seemed so imposing are rejected out of hand. But the apologists for capitalist class rule have little more to offer: the working class, they argue, cannot rule itself democratically; it must be controlled and ordered by an economic elite of owner-capitalists. It is this 20th-century variation on the theme of anti-democracy that holds American labor spellbound!

Wherever the issue is simple and clear, unions are quick to oppose restrictions on civil liberties and arbitrary state controls. They fought poll taxes; they reject the Taft-Hartley Law with its affidavits; they resist Curbs on the right to strike; they stand against state licensing of union organizers; but things are not always so simple. For at least ten years, democracy in America has been eroding. By law, by bureaucratic decree, by official and private intimidation, free speech has been curbed and the spirit of liberty undermined. The Age of Conformity ushers in the American Party Line.

With the Tide

At first, organized labor went with the tide. It seemed, then, that all this was aimed merely at the Communist Party, and labor was content. Besides, the first beginnings were made under Roosevelt with the Smith Act and under Truman with the "loyalty" program. The unions could not allow themselves to believe that such liberal friends of theirs were chipping away at democracy.

But with time, the full outlines of the danger became clearer; when the cry of "treason" was leveled even against the Democratic Party, labor was alerted. Liberals, New-Dealers, union militants were falling victim. The settling mood of cringing subservience was endangering a labor movement which could thrive only if dissent was encouraged, not repressed. In Flint, Michigan, several General Motors workers reputed to be Communist Party members refused to testify before a congressional committee. A group of hysterical, miseducated workers virtually threw them out of the plants. The local capitalist press applauded this act of anti-democratic violence and drew this ominous lesson: That's the way to handle communists, it gloated, and that's the way to handle sit-in strikers if need be!

Unions are learning how the mood of anti-democracy quickly spills over info anti-unionism. In the "loyalty" and "security" program, union activists are victimized. If "communism" is outlawed, there are hundreds of feeble-minded local politicians who remember that unionism is really "communism." If "subversion" is to be invented and rooted out, compliant corporation apologists discover that unionism subverts the institutions of "free enterprise."

Sound the Alarm

The witchhunt smog stifles the spirit of unionism and a wave of revulsion against the witchhunt begins in the labor movement. Unions begin to speak out against the excesses and arbitrariness of the security program. The most socially conscious unions sound the alarm against the whole anti-democratic drift. "The ten-year period since the end of World War II," reads the resolution adopted by the UAW convention's Resolutions Committee, "has witnessed a series of un-
paralleled assaults upon the Bill of Rights which threaten to undermine the basic liberties upon which our country and our labor movements have grown strong."

Unionism flourishes only on the soil of democracy. Where productive wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small class, democracy is in danger and can be defended only by the organized resistance of organized millions from below. It is the working class which possesses that organization.

For a hundred years, democracy in ther United States depended upon the independent farmer, the majority class in a predominantly agricultural country. But that era has gone, With the rise of modern industry, the formation of monopolies and the concentration of production in the hands of rich capitalists, this petty-bourgeois democracy of the independent producer was defeated. For a time, American politics degenerated into a private game for wardheelers, bought and paid by big money; and the courts, the legislatures, the executive offices became the blatantly subservient tools of the rich.

Power of the Working Class

It was the rise of organized labor that refurbished democracy in the United States. It is true that unions remain tied to capitalist politics; in actuality they function as a wing of the Democratic Party in collaboration with so-called liberal bourgeois politicians. Even thus weighted down, they have succeeded in making politics the battle-ground for decisive social questions. Every office-holder, every candidate reckons with the power of the organized working class. When McCarthy was riding high, some gloomy forecasters saw this country on the threshold of fascism. Now that McCarthy has retired to the shadows, some people might fear the rise of totalitarianism without him, a "McCarthyism" without McCarthy. In the steady accumulation of anti-democratic practices are we drifting into dictatorship?

All such calculations omit what is quintessential: organized labor. We live in a democracy, a capitalist democracy that has been whittled down and enfeebled, but a kind of democracy nevertheless. The working class, powerfully organized and undefeated, stands as the limit to anti-democracy. We cannot "glide" from democracy into dictatorship. Those who would try to crush democracy must first try to crush labor. And should any such struggle begin, we are confident that labor and democracy would win.