Max Shachtman

Book Review

“Story of CIO”

(November 1938)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 51, 26 November 1938, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Story of the CIO
by Benjamin Stolberg
282 pages. Viking Press. New York. $2.00

Whoever missed the series of articles on the C.I.O. written by the author for the Scripps-Howard newspapers last spring, now has the opportunity to read them between book covers. But even more; for the material has not only been revised and strengthened and brought up to date, but a good deal has been added to amplify and round out the story of what Stolberg correctly calls “our most important social movement since the Civil War,” making it a work which can be enthusiastically recommended not only to the student of the labor movement, but to everyone who is actively engaged in it.

The Book-Burners Fail

When the articles first appeared, they were answered by a barrage of denunciation by every Stalinist who had even the remotest connection with the trade union movement. The official party machine was set in motion, and “letters to the editor” and resolutions and speeches attacking “Mr. Stool-berg” as a Red-baiter and professional enemy of the C.I.O. were turned out with the same “spontaneousness” that characterizes the resolutions calling for “Death to the Trotskyist-Bukharinist wreckers” which are adopted with such easy unanimity in the Soviet factories. This virulent campaign was supplemented by a perfectly ignoble pressure which the same forces sought to exert upon the publisher of the present book in order to prevent its appearance.

Fortunately, the totalitarian drive to suppress the book did not deter either the author or the publisher. Fortunately – for this is no dry academic document destined for dusty oblivion on a college bookshelf, but an exciting, vivid, well-told narrative of the struggle to build and to preserve the most important and most promising labor movement in America today. Fortunately, also, for the reputation of the author and the indubitably progressive significance of his work, because to read only a few pages is enough to dispose of the vicious canard disseminated by reactionaries – Stalinist and bourgeois, in tacit accord – that the book is an attack on the C.I.O. and industrial unionism. It is anything but that.

A Defense of the C.I.O.

If the C.I.O. ever did need defense and justification as the first great and successful mass industrial union movement, it has it, brilliantly presented, in this book. The author starts with the historical background of the American labor movement and gives us again the all-too-well-known picture of the pitiable importance of the traditional A.F. of L. policy when confronted with the problem of organizing the millions working in the key, basic, mass-production industries.

Unlike so many superficial students of the labor movement, Stolberg shows that this impotence – more accurately, unwillingness – to organize the unorganized, the infuriating atomizing of labor’s strength into obsolete craft unionism, stems from the social composition of the A.F. of L., its domination by the labor aristocracy and the petty bourgeois ideology that characterizes it.

It needed the greatest economic crisis in America and its consequences to release the powerful forces of the most proletarian sections of the working class in this country and to achieve, in the form of the C.I.O., what the isolated radical movement in the United States had urged for decades, namely the industrial union organization of the basic industries. Its very composition has endowed the C.I.O. with the robust militancy and revolutionary tactics (sit-in strikes) that distinguish it from the old A.F. of L., even though the leaders of both movements scarcely differ in their social outlook.

The same factor – and this is true regardless of the immediate prospects of unity between the two groups – makes the C.I.O. potentially the most revolutionary force ever assembled in the United States.

The bourgeoisie knows but too well the danger the C.I.O., represents for it. One of Stolberg’s most thoughtful, sober and instructive chapters, The New Vigilantism, gives us an ominous picture of how far advanced are the preparations of capitalist reaction in the fight to annihilate the C.I.O. and, for that matter, the whole labor movement. He is right, we believe, in showing that American Fascism has already passed beyond the mere embryo stage; he is keenly right, too, in his analysis of the class dynamics making for the Fascist movement (what a gratifying contrast to the windy superficialities about “democracy” offered us by Stalinism and its associated liberals!); and he substantiates his views with the story of how the Little Steel strike was broken and his account of the sinister “Mohawk Valley Formula” for strike-and-union-smashing.

The Virus That Threatens Labor

But an even acuter threat to the C.I.O. – and here again the author is dead right – lies within the organization. It is the insidious destructiveness of Stalinist reaction. Stolberg does more than merely give an unassailably documented record, in one union after the other, of the ruinous effects of Stalinism at work in the C.I.O. He gives the political explanation of it. It is precisely because they are not “Reds” that the Stalinists sap the vitality of the movement. They operate as instruments of the reactionary Soviet bureaucracy which, because of its desire for union with the American bourgeoisie, wants a docile labor movement in this country, patriotic and class collaborationist unions.

That is why, as Stolberg demonstrates, the most deliberate and systematic Red-baiters and anti-progressive elements in the C.I.O. today are the protagonists or dupes of the Stalinist line. And it might be added, that is at bottom why the C.P. has had so little difficulty with its allies and patrons of the Lewis-Hillman bureaucracy, for the political program of the latter differs in few practical aspects from that of Mr. Browder. The author’s failure to emphasize this point, resulting from his failure to make a social and political group analysis of the C.I.O. bureaucracy, leaves a bad gap in the book which deserves comment on another occasion.

The author lays no claim to a spurious and hypocritical “impartiality” in the internal fight during which Stalinism is threatening to scuttle the C.I.O. He has a viewpoint; he proclaims it and justifies it amply; and he knows that it is unambiguous enough to prohibit either Stalinist or bourgeois reaction from taking comfort in it.

Formula for Progress

“First, it must permit radical and revolutionary criticism ... [It] must not exclude any worker for his political beliefs, no matter what they are. But it must rid itself of Stalinist officials, staff members and organizers ... If the worker is made to understand that Stalinism is neither Red nor communist nor labor, and that the effort to get rid of it is not Red-baiting but on the contrary an effort to get rid of Red-baiters and union-wreckers, he will elect no Stalinists to office.”

The formula deserves hearty endorsement because it is to the best interests of the C.I.O., for today and for the future. It provides for the protection of every member’s democratic rights in prohibiting expulsion of any worker for his political views.

Any number of critical observations could be made of Stolberg’s book. Most important, perhaps, is the inadequate treatment of the C.I.O.’s political policy and activities. Less important; are some of the author’s misjudgments of individuals – Mrs. Herrick, Homer Martin, John L. Lewis, for example. Similarly, our analysis of the Lovestone group, of the fight in the auto workers’ union, of the defeat in Little Steel, would differ, as our readers know, from Stolberg’s. And we would not get along very harmoniously with him in a discussion on his odd views on “Thermidor.” But these defects, which detract from a page here and there, do not invalidate the soundness of the book as a whole. At all events, they are not the targets at which most of the shooting has been aimed in the public prints. What has been under attack, above all from the Stalinists who have more than enough cause for their hysterical fear, is quite invulnerable. Every worker who reads the book will not only easily convince himself of this fact; he will also find its contents a necessary and valuable tool in his work in the American labor movement today.

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Last updated on 11 September 2015