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Tue Dec 18 09:44:45 MST 2001
Monthly Review, November 1996
Walter Reuther, Social Unionist
by Martin Glaberman
Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and
the Fate of American Labor (New York: and Chicago: Basic Books, 1995), 575
pp., $35.00, cloth.
A New York Times obituary for Sophie Reuther on February 23, 1996, declared
her husband, Victor, a co-founder of the United Auto Workers. So now the
myth that Walter Reuther founded the UAW is extended to include his
brother. Unfortunately, the new biography of Walter Reuther by Nelson
Lichtenstein will do very little to squelch the myth; this despite the fact
that the book documents Reuther's career, warts and all.
Let's begin with the title. "The most dangerous man in Detroit" is a quote
from George Rodney when he was head of the Automobile Manufacturers'
Association and his main job was to fight the propaganda wars against the
union. The statement was pure fiction. Much closer to the truth was an
editorial in the reactionary Detroit News, published on Reuther's death.
The News, which had fought Reuther throughout his career, was concerned
that the union might not find a new president who was as effective as
Reuther in controlling and disciplining rank and file auto workers.
The book is full of self-serving quotations from Reuther and others that
are accepted at face value. There is a very superficial understanding of
the auto industry, of life in the union and on the shop floor, and of the
left. The huge number of quotations and citations tends to conceal a high
degree of inaccuracy and misunderstanding. He lumps the socialist Upton
Sinclair with Huey Long and Father Coughlin as "corporate radical." (p.
113) He calls C.L.R. James a Trotskyist long after he broke with
Trotskyism. (p. 434) When the facts are hard to dispute, he invents facts.
For example, after documenting Reuther's support of the right-wing hawks in
the Democratic Party during the Vietmam War, he invents Reuther's "dovish
instincts" (p.404) as a counterweight.
Marxist Views of the Working Class
The question of the working class is an old and honored one in the Left
generally, although it has fallen on lean days. There are various points of
view about the working class which are considered Marxist. I have a
particular point of view which I consider Marxist, but I will not get into
any of the sectarian business of, "I am a better Marxist than you are.'.' A
point of view has to be valid in the ways in which it reflects reality, in
the way in which it provides useful ideas with which people can view
reality or deal with reality. It is only in that sense, and in the sense
that discussion is limited that I indicate my theoretical viewpoints. We
are not talking about any view of the working class; we are talking about
variant possibilities within a broadly left or Marxist framework.
The question has certain built-in problems. The first problem is not the
easiest one: who or what is the working class? It is clearly not a cohesive
entity. There are many contradictions and differences. There is the problem
of where to draw the line, who is in and who is out of the working class.
Apart from that, there are clearly differences in skill, in sex, in age, in
nationality, in race, in income. My basic emphasis is not in terms of the
differences, but, because in any discussion there is an inevitable tendency
to oversimplify, I think it is necessary for people to be aware of the fact
that we are not talking of a homogeneous entity. We are talking about a
very complex, contradictory, constantly changing entity, but yet one which
can justifiably be viewed as an entity. It is not simply a sum of various
kinds of people. There is such a thing as the working class, no matter how
you define it.
Although the differences and contradictions within the class have to be
recognized and dealt with, the overriding characteristic is not
homogeneity, that is too strong a word, but a consistent, even if complex,
Revolutionary Optimist: An interview with Martin Glaberman
Q. You had been part of the Young People's Socialist League and a part of
the Socialist Workers Party. In 1940 there was a split in the Socialist
Workers Party and you joined the newly formed Workers Party which was led
by Max Shachtman. Shortly after, there came together a minority tendency
with such figures as CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya. Can you explain how
I joined the Young People's Socialist League at the age of 13, which was
the earliest they would accept my membership. I came out of a socialist
family. They were very traditional, relatively conservative socialists. I
went down to the local Socialist Party headquarters joined and gradually
moved to the left as various things happened. This was in the middle of the
depression. The Trotskyists went into the socialist movement and when they
left, they got the bulk of the Young People's Socialist League. I was in
the Young People's Socialist League which by that time was part of the
In 1939 when the war broke out and the Soviet Union invaded Poland and
Finland, the traditional position or assumption of the Trotskyists was that
they would support the Soviet Union. That got to be a little bit difficult
for a very substantial minority and the split that took place was over the
question of defence of the Soviet Union. The bulk of the youth went with
Shachtman and a minority of the party. It was a minority altogether, but
part of the leadership, including James, went with Shachtman. However, once
the split had taken place and the Workers Party was organised, there was
the question of the nature of the Soviet Union. Again the traditional
position that the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers' state began to
raise questions in the party, stimulated partly by the atrocious role of
the Soviet Union in the war, the conquest, the Stalin-Hitler pact and so on.
It was in this period that the Johnson-Forest tendency began to be formed.
It consisted of CLR, Raya and a couple of others. At that time I was living
in Washington D.C. where I got my first job with the Federal government.
Strangely enough Raya was also living in Washington D.C. She began to do
research for our position on the Russian question at the Library of
Congress. She was familiar with Russian and economic questions. The
overwhelming majority of the Workers Party supported Shachtman in the
position that the Soviet Union was bureaucratic collectivist. A tiny
minority retained the view that the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers'
state, even though they supported the idea of not supporting Russia in the
war. We developed the idea of the Soviet Union as a state capitalist society.
At the first convention, we had one vote. There was a small branch in
Washington, which split 50/50. I was the delegate representing the Johnson
point of view. I had a half vote and somebody else had a half vote. That
was the Johnson-Forest tendency.
The question of Russia was always taken with a considerable degree of
theoretical seriousness. One of the points from the beginning, and what is
intriguing is that people like Paul Buhle aren't aware of it, and others
are surprised to find out, was that it was not simply a theory of the
Russian state. It was a theory of a stage in world capitalism. Some of that
wasn't developed until later and it is fully laid out in State Capitalism
and World Revolution, but that was still in the forties. That was the
start. What always intrigued me and helped to confirm the superficiality of
the Soviet union as a bureaucratic collectivist society is that it didn't
tell you anything about it except to give it a name.
Originally the view was that the Soviet Union was more progressive than
capitalism, but not as progressive as socialism or a workers' state. Then
after a while the view became that bureaucratic collectivism was equally
reactionary with capitalism and then finally with Max Shachtman's rightward
turn, (he ended up in the Democratic Party and supported the Vietnam War),
bureaucratic collectivism was more reactionary than capitalism. What kind
of theory is it if it has no relation to anything else, except it changed
every year or two with the current developments?
Against the Current
The Revolutionary Optimist: Remembering C.L.R. James
C.L.R. James, A Political Biography, by Kent Worcester.
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.), $19.95 paper.
by Martin Glaberman
C.L.R. JAMES DID not make it easy for a biographer. To track down all his
activities, and to have the intellectual and political background to deal
with Marxist theory, revolutionary history, classical and popular culture,
national independence movements and the like, is quite a task.
Paul Buhle started it with his biography C.L.R. James: The Artist as
Revolutionary, published in 1988. Kent Worcester takes it a long step
further. There are inevitable inaccuracies and, of course, problems of
interpretation. But Worcester avoids the two traps of the biographer who
has a lot of sympathy for his subject uncritical sycophancy, or the
unconscious distortions to make the subject's views conform to the
Worcester avoids both, giving James a biography that is critical and yet
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