Union Leaders and the Left (RE: Laying Bets: W Will Win

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at yale.edu
Tue Aug 15 13:17:42 PDT 2000

On Tue, 15 Aug 2000, Doug Henwood wrote:

> >Unfortunately, most people on this list seem to have more respect for the
> >opinions of unelected columnists from THE NATION than for the elected
> >leaders of working class organizations on whether there are important
> >class differences between the parties.
> Hoffa now qualifies as a leader of the working class? Was he that a
> couple of months ago when he was buddying up with Buchanan?

Doing what a lot of working class folks have done - flirting with an alliance with Buchanan and his populist xenophobia. Being a working class leader does not mean a person does not make bad choices. God knows, Hoffa is hardly my favorite leader in that respect.

But there is little question that, however tainted, Hoffa has stood for election among working class folks and is seen as the designated leader of a large chunk of them. Unfortunately, those NATION columnists given their positions by a handful of editors (backed by a slightly larger group of unelected board members) are taken more seriously on their opinion of working class issues than those union leaders elected by millions of workers.

Not that such union leaders are always right, but it is supreme arrogance for so-called leftists to blithely ignore their opinions about the class choices facing us at election time, especially when those leaders' choices are mirrored in the polling choices of the rank-and-file. Seymour Martin Lipset has his new book out "It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States" which along with some of the standard american exceptionalism arguments, apparently also argues that what distinguished the US was a socialist movement that refused, except for brief periods, to critically engage with and compromise with the labor movement. This saved it from the political compromises and intellectual flabbiness of European social democracy (even DSA is much more leftwing than most parties there), but at the expense of achieving power within working class organizations or having its policies passed, even in the more bastardized versions of European social democracy. I don't like Lipset's politics (since he is essentially glad socialism failed here) but I think his analysis is at least partially on target.

The standard left response is to blame US labor leaders themselves for being uniquely conservative (as they blame the Dems and anyone else who ignores their opinions expressed in magazines and leaflets). But historically it is as reasonable to note that the constant oppositional position of many leftists just cut them off from progressive labor allies that might have realigned the labor movement at different periods.

In the 19th century, one of the primary spokesmen for Marxism early on was Daniel DeLeon, as rigid and dogmatic an ideologue as ever lived. Maybe Gompers would have inevitably shifted the AFL to the right, but the rigidity of DeLeon and others leftists around the labor movement helped divide and weaken progressive labor then. The CP in the 20s and early 30s would follow a similar rigidity although their turn to a popular front engagementin the mid-30s with progressives in the labor movement would help spur the major progressive labor upswing in our history, along with our most progressive political swing in our politics.

Unfortunately, after WWII the CP turned once again to a more sectarian line and broke with the rest of the CIO over a number of issues, most notably the 1948 third party run of Henry Wallace. This helped shift power in the CIO to the more conservative elements who then collapsed the organization into the AFL.

I just have never understood how leftists can speak so often in the name of the working class while ignoring and belittling the opinions of leaders elected by those same people?

-- Nathan Newman

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list