Magazine article Monthly Review

The Road Not Taken

Magazine article Monthly Review

The Road Not Taken

Article excerpt

In a very well-known passage, Marx said, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past." Elsewhere, he said, "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." These words of wisdom provide us with a good entry point into a review of these two exceptional books.

Paul Buhle's Taking Care of Business provides chapter and verse for the second quotation. Much has been written about the rise of the "New Voice" leadership in the AFL-CIO which, in 1995, began a sort of "revolution from above" to reinvigorate a moribund labor movement. The triumvirate of John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson engendered new hopes among progressives, with their bold focus on organizing new workers, more independent politics, and coalition-building. In the context of the immediate past, these choices have been a wonderful breath of fresh air and hopefully will open the door to future renewal. To date, however, the results have been somewhat disappointing. Union density has not risen, and the new leadership has failed so far to change substantially the conservative culture dominant in most unions.

Buhle suggests that we must look at the "New Voice" leadership as intimately, if unwillingly, tied to the entire history of the U.S. labor movement. He says, "[a] central experience within labor history, and a widely acknowledged problem for today's labor movement, is the suffocating authority of the labor bureaucracy." A bureaucracy, he adds, with a "self-serving acceptance of existing social arrangements...." Buhle traces the history of the U.S. labor bureaucracy (the development of which he characterizes as "the tragedy of American labor") by carefully examining the lives of three presidents of our national labor federations. What he finds is that the "traditions of all the dead generations [Samuel Gompers, George Meany, and Lane Kirkland]" do indeed "weigh like a nightmare" on Sweeney, Trumka, and Chavez-Thompson. Yet the first three did "make their own history." They made certain choices when they could have made others, and the working people of the nation have suffered considerably as a consequence. As Buhle makes clear, the "New Voice" has its work cut out for it.

The United States differed greatly from the capitalist states of Western Europe from its inception. It had a radically democratic Constitution, which placed great emphasis on individual liberty. Skilled white workers believed that they had helped make this new nation and, therefore, should not be denied their rights as free men. They protested vigorously and organized aggressively when the consolidation of capitalism inevitably began to erode their liberties. At the same time, there were features of the new nation that confronted their organization with choices unlike those facing workers elsewhere. Foremost was the existence of slavery, and the racism this engendered within the working class - a racism used to great effect by the Democratic Party whenever it needed to woo the working-class vote. Antagonism to newly arrived immigrants was certainly connected to racism; it made it easier for skilled workers to blame immigrants for stealing their jobs (something that was seldom true) than to fault the detailed division of labor and mechanization (essential elements of the accumulation of capital) that were the true villains. Insistence by women that they had the same rights as men, the logical consequence of the rhetoric of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, caused further frictions among workers. (The same claim was made by blacks and immigrants.) The great strength of U.S. capitalism and the corollary power of the state combined not only to antagonize any labor movement, but also to provide the wherewithal to co-opt and bribe labor leaders and offer the semblance of middle-class affluence to at least a part of the working class. …

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