Part 3: The Workers Fight Back

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In the third and final part we hear about how revolutionaries led the charge for industrial unionism, which precipitated the formation of the CIO and the massive strike wave of 1937. The New Deal ran out of steam, leading to further decline, before the world entered into the imperialist slaughter of WW2.

Labour resurgent

After four years of workers keeping their heads down and being held back by the AFL bureaucracy, signs of life in the labour movement began to re-emerge in 1934. It is not an accident that this occurred during a period of recovery after the steep crash of 1929-1933. 

Trotsky explained that there is not a linear relationship between economic conditions and class struggle. Slump does not necessarily mean class war, and boom does not always mean class peace. A slump can demoralize workers, who are afraid of losing their jobs. This can be exacerbated especially following a defeat or if there is poor leadership. During the slump workers learn lessons about the true nature of capitalism, but they do not always have the confidence to put them into action until the economy improves.

Another important aspect of the strikes of 1934 was that they were led by revolutionaries. Three main struggles blew apart the previous silence. First, the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, led by the American Workers Party. Second, the West Coast longshoremen strike, led by the CPUSA. And third, the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike was led by the American Trotskyists.

These three strikes used industrial methods to organize all the workers and not just elite craft workers. They were largely victorious and managed to win union recognition and other gains. It is significant that at this very moment Minneapolis is writing another important chapter in working class history with the insurrectionary uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd.

Founding of the CIO

The 1934, strikes were organized via AFL unions using industrial methods. This sparked a conflict at the 1935 convention of the American Federation of Labor. A resolution stating that “in the great mass production industries … industrial organization is the only solution” was defeated, prompting the split away of eight unions and the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (later known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations, CIO).

The CIO reflected the pressure from below to fight back and reject class collaboration. However, it was still led by old bureaucrats from the AFL who supported FDR and the Democrats. The CIO’s first president John L. Lewis was actually complicit in expelling communists from the mineworkers’ union in 1928. But under the CIO he actively encouraged communists to join as organizers. When questioned about this he replied, “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?”

In 1936, the CIO led an important struggle, the Flint sit-down strike. The United Automobile Workers (UAW) had made several failed attempts to organize the auto industry but were faced down by armed guards on the door of the factories. In Flint Michigan in 1936 they adopted a new tactic to organize General Motors. Instead of forming picket lines outside the factory, they “sat down” inside the plant and occupied the machinery! How are scabs going to run the machines with strikers right next to them? How are cops going to attack the picketers when they are barricaded inside the property? 

Police tried to enter but were pushed back under a hail of hinges, bottles and bolts. After 44 days, the Flint strike was victorious. This led to a wave of unionization in the auto sector. Within a year, UAW membership had grown from 30,000 to 500,000. This goes to show that there is no power that can defeat the united working class. No repression, no cop, can stop the workers if they are willing to fight.

The victory in Flint spread north of the border in 1937. The UAW used the momentum to organize the GM plant in Oshawa, Ontario. The Liberal premier of Ontario Mitch Hepburn denounced the industrial organizing drive as an American Communist plot! Hepburn vowed that industrial unionism would never come to Canada, and formed a special band of strikebreaking thugs who became known as “Sons-of-Mitches”. 

The Oshawa workers did not organize a sit-down strike like Flint, but after two weeks on a picket line they were victorious. Industrial unionism had broken into Canada. This victory set the stage for significant advances for the working class and the development of the post-war social contract.

Tragically, 80 years later, after a series of concessions by their union leadership, GM closed its Oshawa plant. The workers moved to wildcat and occupy, but the union bureaucracy did everything possible to divert the movement into ineffective negotiations. The birthplace of industrial unionism in Canada has been destroyed. 

Again, it is important to understand that areas that appear progressive can become reactionary, and reactionary areas can move forward. In the post-war period most like to think of Canada as more progressive than the USA, but prior to World War II the exact opposite was true. Canada was settled by the reactionaries defeated in the American Revolution, and English Canada was dominated by reactionary Protestantism and the Orange Order. Communism and trade unionism were seen as an American disease! The Canadian ruling class wished to keep the workforce unorganized, ignorant – and cheap.

The working-class movement is internationalist or it is nothing. Without the example and assistance of American communist UAW organizers, industrial unionization would not have come to Canada and in turn laid the basis of the Canadian welfare state. Sometimes we hear the American left bemoaning how much better things are in Canada, but which country currently has the highest level of struggle? The fantastic movement against racism is the best answer to all the cynics and sceptics. As the Bible says, the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. 

1937: year of struggle

The gathering storm of working-class discontent with Depression conditions unleashed its fury in 1937. There were 4,740 strikes, with 1,860,621 strikers, encompassing 20% of organized workers. These struggles often involved armed conflicts with scabs, fascists and cops. It was the greatest year of strikes in U.S. history up to that date. 

However, an important element was missing, the subjective factor. The Communist parties in the U.S. and Canada had a fantastic advance in their healthy period in the 1920s. When they were founded in 1919 and 1921 they were small and inexperienced. But with the education of the Comintern led by Lenin and Trotsky they absorbed great lessons. The third congress of the Comintern was known as the school of revolutionary strategy. During this time Lenin wrote “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder and the young Communist parties learned the importance of the united front when in a minority. Thousands of cadres were educated in the 1920s and a firm foundation was built in preparation for a return to mass revolutionary struggles.

But this firm foundation of Marxism and Leninism was blown apart by the Stalinist degeneration of the Third International. The founding leaders of the Communist movement, like James Cannon in the USA and Maurice Spector in Canada, were expelled for “Trotskyism”. A general purge of experienced militants occurred and the ranks of the party were seriously depleted. Then the Communist parties adopted the sectarian “Third Period” policy of rejecting the united front and attacking socialists as fascists. 

In the years after 1917 the best fighters for the working class flocked to the clean banner of the Communist International. Supporters of the One Big Union in Canada and the Industrial Workers of the World went over en masse. IWW leader Big Bill Haywood joined the CP and to this day his ashes are interred in the Kremlin Wall. But during the Third Period many were repelled by the Stalinists. Therefore, during the 1930s the Communist parties were relegated to a secondary role. 

The Third Period insanity allowed other forces to fill the vacuum: the CCF in Canada, and the CIO in the USA. The leaders of the CIO, who supported FDR and the Democrats, were allowed to act as hunters holding the communist dogs on a leash. Later under McCarthyism, the CIO bureaucracy again moved to kick out the communist dogs, and turned to the right to reunite with the AFL. The Stalinists also did a policy somersault, switching from ultra-leftism to extreme opportunism in the “Popular Front” period. They even supported Mitch Hepburn’s Ontario Liberals against the CCF, despite fighting him a few years previously in the Oshawa strike. 

The American Trotskyists made impressive advances from a few hundred to more than 1,000. They led the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike, and subsequently united with the American Workers Party that led the Toledo Auto-Lite strike. But they were too small to take advantage of the revolutionary potential of the period. 

Instead of the Teamster Rebellion occurring just in Minneapolis, imagine similar movements led by committed revolutionaries in every major city in the U.S. and Canada. Instead of the heroic defeat of the On-to-Ottawa Trek, imagine if the movement of the unemployed had been linked with organized workers. Instead of the pro-Democrat bureaucrats of the CIO leading the 1937 strike wave, imagine this struggle being generalized by a healthy mass communist party untouched by Stalinist degeneration. If not for the degeneration of the Comintern, the conditions of the 1930s were ripe for the development of mass revolutionary parties capable of contending for power.

New Deal failure

The New Deal handouts to big business restored profits from 1934 to 1937, but it was a fictitious growth that could not be sustained when the corporate welfare was withdrawn.

Maurice Spector explained:

“The short-lived New Deal recovery proved an illusion. The Roosevelt Administration spent $20,000,000,000 trying to pull capitalism up by its bootstraps.

“‘It has actually spent more money in five years,’ moans the New York Times, ‘than was spent in the aggregate by all the administrations that have governed this country from the days of George Washington to the days of Woodrow Wilson … Yet the business of the country has been subnormal three-fourths of the time.’

“‘The fact of the matter is that there never was any recovery in the sense of an expansion of capital. There was a restoration of profits and a temporary stabilization at a lower level… But when government expenditures were cut in the hope of balancing the budget, the upswing stopped dead. Private capital failed to ‘take up the slack’… when the Roosevelt recession set in, production was still ten per cent short of the 1929 level.” 

Roosevelt had tried to save capitalism from the executioner, but he had only won a temporary reprieve at the cost of doubling the national debt. Keynesian “pump priming” ended up being all pump and no prime. Unemployment jumped back up from 15% in 1936 to 20% in 1938. Industrial production plunged 37%, echoing the 1929-33 fall. 

The above reality is a lesson to all those who wish to pick the New Deal out of the dustbin of history. New New Deals are merely an old and failed method of trying to save capitalism. The question of ownership of the productive forces cannot be avoided. Either the means of production are privately owned by the capitalists and the crisis of the profit motive continues, or they are taken over by the working class to implement socialist planning for human need. 

Lessons of the Great Depression

It was not the New Deal that ended the Great Depression, it was the Second World War. Initially, debt-fuelled war production gave a stimulus to industry while the unemployed were given a regular paycheque in the army.

After the war, the extreme crisis of overproduction exacerbated by protectionism was resolved for a period. Instead of overproduction, in Europe there was underproduction as industry had been smashed by waves of bombing. Post-war reconstruction funded by aid from the U.S. Marshall Plan boosted growth rates all the way to 1958. The dominance of U.S. imperialism led to a beating down of protectionist tariff barriers and a massive growth of world trade. 

Ted Grant explained the preconditions for the post-war boom in his classic essay Will There Be a Slump? But it should not be forgotten that, in order to get out of the Depression, the capitalists had to kill 55 million people, and came close to exterminating the human race in a nuclear holocaust. Ted Grant also explained that the conditions that allowed for the post-war growth would turn to their opposite and a new Depression would be prepared. Today, Ted Grant’s predictions have been proven 100% correct.

We look to the past to understand the present and the future. The Great Depression saw the failure of free market capitalism, and New Deal Keynesianism. It saw workers struggling to survive, and learning how to fight back. It saw the rise of new movements, and the death of old ones. 

But no historical analogy is absolute, no precedent is directly predictive. In truth, there is no precedent for our current capitalist crisis of overproduction, exacerbated by debt, and triggered by a pandemic. Mass consciousness does not just perceive the situation in 2020, but is conditioned by the previous period. After the 2008 slump people had already begun to reject capitalism and support socialism. There was a global wave of uprisings in the fall of 2019. And now the mass movement has spread to the belly of the beast of capitalism, the USA. 

We have certain advantages and disadvantages compared with the revolutionaries of the pre-war period. Our numbers are small compared with the Communist parties, and there is less experience of working-class struggle and socialism amongst the masses. However, in the USA and Canada, the forces of the International Marxist Tendency are stronger than those of the American and Canadian Trotskyists in 1929. We also do not have to contend with the degenerated monolith of Stalinism that repelled workers and youth, and led the movement to defeat after defeat. 

We have the clean banner of socialist revolution, and the ideas of Marxism to offer a way out to the workers of the world. In ideas we have the overwhelming advantage over our forebears of being able to learn from their victories and learn from their mistakes. We stand on the shoulders of giants. 

We do not know how the ruling class will get out of the current crisis, and the bourgeois do not know either. Last time they killed millions. We do not want to find out how many they are willing to kill to save private property and the profit motive.

We appeal to all who are disgusted by the racism of the capitalist state, the fact that the bosses are prepared to sacrifice poor and racialized workers to make profits in the pandemic; and to those who will not lie down in the face of a new Depression. We appeal to you to join the International Marxist Tendency to learn the lessons of past struggles, like the struggles of the 1930s, so we can put those lessons into practice in bringing down this rotten system. Now is the time when revolutionary ideas can become mass ideas in the population. But those ideas need an organization to promote them. We are entering the period when historic victories are possible. We have no time to lose.