Review: The American Working Class in Transition by Kim Moody - reviewed by Joel Stein

Joel Stein reviews Kim Moody's book on the American working class in transition for Root & Branch No. 1, 1970, dealing in particular with Moody's take on the unions.

Submitted by Steven. on December 5, 2021

Kim Moody has written an intelligent and comprehensive discussion of the changing structure of the American working class. His material points, particularly, to increasing government employment and concomitant state dependence of United States capitalism. One can take issue, however, with specific statements. According to Moody, for example, "the increased emphasis on education" in recent decades "is an attempt to increase the mobility of labor" (p. 9). This statement is in part true, particularly in view of the fact that

Automation is particularly applicable to clerical work and, as with production automation, tends to drastically displace the less skilled jobs without offering much potential for skill upgrading among those displaced (p. 7).

Whether education, or lack of it, determines mobility, however, is problematic. If it were otherwise, there might actually be some learning going on in the schools. In fact, requisite skills for employment are acquired in fewer than the required years of schooling. Schools function more importantly to keep youth off the streets, in controlled environments, putatively educational. That is, the state keeps occupied in school those for whom private industry has no immediate use.

In general, what Moody depicts in this work is compatible with what Paul Mattick has called the "inflationary depression" of present day Western, and particularly United States, capitalism. Whereas, according to Mattick,

in a deflationary depression, production declines because part of the producible commodities cannot be sold profitably, thus preventing the realization of profits and their transformation into additional capital; ... in an inflationary depression production continues, despite its lack of profitability, by way of credit expansion. (Marx and Keynes: The Limits of the Mixed Economy, Boston, 1969, p. 186)

Production, and employment, expand; but it is not an extension of capital, of profit-generating production. One would assume, therefore, that the growing sectors of employment would be those sectors which are least productive and most vulnerable to fluctuations of the market. That the most rapidly expanding sectors of the work force in fact have been government, service, and financial workers confirms this thesis. One can note, for example, the large percentage - 29.4 percent - of scientists and engineers working in "management, sales, service and other functions" (p. 5). Indeed, the recent recessionary trend beginning in the fall of 1969 witnessed layoffs of corporate white collar workers as well as workers in the arms economy. Although blue collar workers are also being laid off, workers in the growth sectors of the economy can be laid off in large numbers with little effect on production.

Because Kim Moody does not draw this conclusion - and perhaps does not share it - he does not deal with its implications. He believes that the problems confronting the American working class are simply more of the same. More inflation, more taxation, more deterioration of living and working conditions. Perhaps. But it is also true that due to vulnerable structure the American working class is liable to sudden and drastic dislocations and to unemployment.

Although the bulk of the pamphlet is concerned, directly or indirectly, with labor unions, no clear perspective on them emerges. All the evidence is against them. Their racism apart, the unions are exposed as institutions which oppose the workers both in particular and in general struggles. The New York Times is correct when it declares that

The leaders of labor have as great a stake as any public official in stemming the spirit of anarchy that underlies the postal revolt (March 23, 1970).

The unions sell labor peace. If they cannot sell it, they cannot remain in business.

The nearly total divorce of the international [union] leadership from the control of the membership ... lay in the structural changes that took place during the period of low membership participation from 1950 to 1955. These changes include the lengthening of the period between international conventions, increases in appointed positions ... the introduction of more difficult criteria for holding international office, and the growth of power of the staff and top leaders over the financial resources of the union. By the middle of the 1950s it was virtually impossible for anything less than a massive upheaval to displace the international leadership. Given this bureaucratic structure, the national contract became a source of power in itself, in that the international leadership had the power to decide which issues to push and which groups to placate (p. 17).

According to Moody, then, there is nothing inherent in union structure which makes bureaucracy inevitable. Rather, one must suppose that an essentially democratic structure, which was an expression of rank and file wishes, "degenerated" into a bureaucratic structure, remote from the rank and file. The cause of the "degeneration" is not clearly explained. Moody suggests certain "objective conditions" which may have been responsible for this "structural change."

To a certain degree the increased power of the international leadership grew out of the need [whose need?] to meet industry on its own terms, i.e. on the basis of concentrated, centralized national power (ibid.).

Whether or not the author approves of the increased power of the national leadership, the fact remains that despite increased industrial centralization within the last thirty years, since the formation of the CIO, there has been no change of sufficient moment in the structure of industry to demand increased centralization of unions.

The casue of the "degeneration" of the unions seems, rather, to Kim Moody, to be the "low membership participation from 1950 to 1955." The increased standard of living of the post-war period

meant that workers could well afford to let the union leaders conduct union affairs as they saw fit (p. 14).

Although the unions have worsened undeniably in the last thirty years, it is important to understand they have not changed fundamentally. Despite the degree of membership "participation" at any time, the rank and file always stood in more or less the same relation to the leadership: it was forced to accept, that is, the latter's decisions, until such time as, perhaps a new leadership could be elected, which, in turn, would make the decisions to which the membership could respond. From the beginning, "the national contract became a source of power in itself" with which the national leadership could manipulate the international union.

Moody notes that the CIO ... was born of a political deal: first section 7A of NRA and then the Wagner Act, in return for which the CIO leadership offered its political support to Roosevelt ...(p. 15).

More to the point, the purpose of the CIO was not, contrary to Moody, "the finance and coordination" of the

massive upheaval in the new mass production industries that began in the early 1930s (ibid.).

but rather the control of that movement by institutions responsible to the ruling powers. As Georges Sorel noted, in reference to the French socialists of the first decade of this century,

As long as there are no very rich and strongly centralised trade unions whose leaders are in continuous relationship with political men, so long will it be impossible to say exactly to what lengths violence [workers revolt] will go. Jaures [read Lewis, Reuther, or any other important union leader] would very much like to see such associations of workers in existence, for his prestige will disappear at once when the general public perceives that he is not in a position to moderate revolution (Reflections on Violence, New York, 1967, p. 82).

This remark describes the CIO exactly.

To be sure, the workers fought massive and militant struggles to establish the unions against the corporations. The latter wished to keep the old, paternalist forms of control which had been appropriate to an earlier day. What is at issue, however, is not the fact of a militant workers' movement, but its result. The aim of the great labor struggles of the 1930s was simply union recognition, through dues checkoff, which immediately guaranteed the divorce of the international leadership from the membership and/or through a negotiated contract, which established certain minimal standards for workers. Presumably, the workers believed that once unions were established there would be regular channels through which to settle their grievances. The issue of the hard struggle would be the easy road ahead. But there was no easy road.

To be sure, the union won definite advantages for the workers; and, particularly, as time went on, for skilled and older workers. But for the minor advantages which they won, the workers paid a much heavier price: unions became disciplinary agents of industry. After the organizing struggles of the 1930s came the World War. The unions immediately repaid their political masters many times over, organizing and disciplining the workers for the war effort. When, after the war, the massive strike wave of the 1930s was resumed, the unions succeeded in channeling the militant revolt into acceptable channels.

According to the author:

From a guarantee of basic rights, labor legislation has turned into a means of state reinforcement of industrial stability and corporation planning (p. 16).

But the Wagner Act had already "prescribed the manner in which labor is expected to behave." Again we find that no actual "transformation" has taken place, merely the worsening of an existing evil. The purpose of the government's "political deal" in the formation of the CIO was not merely to win political support for Roosevelt, but, much more importantly, to stabilize a volatile working class for corporations and state to manipulate. The unions have thus far served their purpose.

Within the general context of class harmony, the prescribed area of conflict has been wages and related issues, such as pensions and social insurance. Although bitter conflicts have frequently preceded negotiations on these issues, combat is mostly ritual. And, ultimately, the hatred of the workers is channeled into acceptable forms. Official strikes, however, are more than mere shows: corporations genuinely wish to keep wages down, and unions genuinely attempt to use strikes to gain certain minor advantages for the workers. But, when all is said and done, official strikes have been indispensable for the maintenance of class peace in the United States. The result is the stable wage contract: for corporate planners, indispensible; for workers, inadequate. (Workers must accept a result of their own "free choice," i.e., the union contract.) The fringe benefits are used as "golden chains" the term Marx once used for high wages, which bind the workers not merely to capital, but to individual capitalists, because advantage accrue when workers remain in one shop throughout their working life.

The union's self-proclaimed purpose is the protection of the workers' income. The union abhors, moreover, all issues, like working conditions, in which workers have a more or less equal interest. Wages and fringe benefits are used to divide the workers who enjoy different benefits in different categories, which are rigidly defined because of union insistence. The solidarity of labor is thus violated by the very purpose of the labor union, which reduces the worker to his wage packet. This is not to say that defense of the workers' income is not necessary. But the labor union defines this goal to be its sole concern. In the same way, the problem with reformism is not that it fights for reforms, but that it limits the struggle to the fight for reforms, reforms from which different workers benefit to different degrees. The labor union not only accepts the hierarchical structure of industry, and the atomic division of workers from one another, but also reinforces these tendencies in order to win certain advantages by defending the positions of privileged workers. No union attacks the principle of rigid job stratification and sharp pay differences. On the contrary, it builds its power base upon this division. This division is the basis in industry not only for racism but also for fragmentation of industrial consciousness among workers, each of whom is interested only in his own category.

Although it is true that

Struggle in one's immediate self-interest, by both blacks and whites, is a necessary step in unfolding this dynamic [of working class struggle] (p. 40)

in order for the struggle to advance, even these limited struggles must begin to break down those barriers implicit in the concept of "one's immediate self-interest." This means demanding not that workers give up their "white skin privilege," but that they acknowledge the necessity to raise the living standards of black, and other white, workers commensurate at least with their own. The development of a general class struggle, which breaks down the barriers between workers, locally and industrially as well as racially, is not a mere result of the sum of many militant industrial struggles. We have already had more than five years of such struggles, with increasing militancy, over such issues as wages and even job conditions. What is needed is a change of content, even in the "struggle in one's immediate self-interest," which attacks directly the stratification of workers. It is a fact, as Kim Moody admits, that the better off and white workers genuinely benefit from the degradation of the worse off and black workers. The hierarchical stratification of workers, which makes possible the racial stratification, must be attacked directly - and abolished to the extent possible. At the very least, its abolition must be a focus of the struggle. Demands for higher wages put forward in order that workers in higher job categories keep their distance from other workers should be counterposed to the greatest possible equalization of wages and general increase within that context. Until the idea that workers in different categories, serving different lengths’ of time in industry, should have different privileges and wages is undermined, particular struggles, no matter how militant, can never become a class struggle. These roadblocks must be attacked head-on. Rotation of work duties, preferred and despised, should be an aim of militant factory groups. Ending industrial hierarchy should be a focal point of individual struggles for immediate self-interest. For only then can immediate self-interest give way to class consciousness.

The labor unions are the major roadblocks to working class struggle today. The forward movement of the workers can proceed only over the discarded carcass of the unions. As the workers' movement develops, the unions, with their immense financial investment in industrial peace, will not step to the side lines to welcome the new forms appropriate to the class struggle. Rather they will protect their own interests and attempt to effect the policies for which they were designed. The illusion of the labor unions and the labor contract as instruments of the workers must be counterposed to the necessity of an entirely unofficial class struggle. The labor contract must be opposed in principle, for its very existence rests upon the illusion of harmony of interests between capital and labor. In essence the contract commits the workers to refrain from struggle provided its conditions are met. It is in turn the formal basis of the labor union, both in the minor advantages which it brings to some workers, and in the major advantage which it brings in industrial peace to the employers. Whereas the workers may actually believe, at least for a time, in the possibilities of mediation, capital always engages in direct action. That is, there is no mediation between its decisions and their effects. The workers must adopt direct action as well.

However antagonistic Kim Moody's attitude toward the unions is, it is also ambiguous.

It is clear, because of bureaucratism, the managerial nature of contract administration, and the web of state controls, that the unions cannot be the vehicle for

further development of the class struggle: That is, the unions, because they are unions, cannot be such a vehicle. Yet, he continues,

it must be recognized that rank and file rebellion, while unable to gain direct sources of power, has had an effect on the unions. The bureaucratic monolith that was the AFL-CIO had been broken with the formation of the Alliance for Labor Action by the UAW and the Teamsters.

Whereas there is no reason to believe that these unions will change in any way

the mere fact of a break of this sort changes the political atmosphere and legitimizes new kinds of movements (p. 42).

In other words, the great "contribution" of the unions is that the rank and file movements against them have created an atmosphere for the development of more rank and file movements. But nothing is said about the unions themselves, which despite minor shifts in attempts to, as Moody admits, "coopt rank and file rebellion," remain unchanged.

Even though the unions cannot be changed

the union is a natural focus for political action within the industry. Political campaigns within the union can be, in some circumstances, a means for politicizing shop struggles. In this context, and unlike most union election campaigns in the past, the union becomes more an arena for action than the goal of the campaign (p. 42).

But, in that case, even though it may be "more" something else, the goal of the campaign is still to capture the union. And, if they are serious, labor union oppositions cannot be anything but attempts to take over the union. However successful many labor union oppositions have been during the last ten years, none has changed the character of the union. Sincere oppositionists do not capture the machine, but are captured by it; whereas insincere oppositionists knew what they were after to begin with. Of course, under certain circumstances, it may be necessary to participate in and support such movements. But, in general, the goal must be to construct independent, unofficial instruments of class struggle, in opposition to the unions, which provide a means for class combat. In an actual struggle, only forms of organization which are composed entirely of the rank and file, which, at their friendliest, completely bypass the unions, can be of service. The intention of Kim Moody's campaign is apparently to raise the consciousness of the workers. It presents the problem from the point of view of the outsider who would politicize the workers. But, if the intention is, as it should be, to fight, then realistic forms of struggle must be found, not convenient ones. Campaigns to take over the unions, as Kim Moody himself admits, cannot serve the class struggle of the workers, because the unions, no matter who runs them, are antagonistic to it.

According to Moody, the linking of rank and file groups

is possible on the basis of the programmatic synthesis of national economic issues and working conditions. This is to say, linkages require politics. In general alliances with other groups in industry, or the class, can be formed around such a program and the groups unified through a common struggle against the state as well as against management and the union bureaucracy. The Wallace campaign showed that an attack on the major bourgeois parties based on issues of real [?] concern to workers can attract working class support. The West Virginia miners' strike showed that workers' self-activity directed at the state, the bosses and the union leadership can do the same, whether or not electoral action is used is a matter of tactics. The point is that the state is a focal point for struggle by groups of workers whose specified demands do not immediately appear related on the industrial level. The relationship, real enough in the economy, has to be made in a way that cuts through industrial and union (or non-union) lines, without shunting aside the specific demands. Political action, direct, industrial or electoral, offers a way to do this in the concrete realm of action (pp. 41-42).

And, further,

The vehicle for unity in struggle is program. A program that can really accomplish such an ambitious task, must speak to the real needs of the working class as they see these issues. In so far as the radical movement can contribute to the development of such a program, and that is surely its main task at this point, it must avoid the most ancient pitfall of the left, the inability to provide a transition from the reformist demands of the workers today to revolutionary program and organization.... Transitional demands [towards revolutionary struggle], such as those relating to taxes, inflation and workers control of production standards, which expose the nature of the crisis, must be counterposed to reformist demands or programs (Edward Kennedy and the 'left-wing' of the Democratic Party) or demagoguery (Wallace and racism combined with pseudo-independent [?] political action) (pp. 43-44).

Although Kim Moody expresses a fine sentiment - that is, the necessity to avoid the dangers of reformism and demagoguery - nowhere does he suggest how to do it. In contrast to the demands of reformists and demogogues Moody cites Trotsky in The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International:

A transitional program is a "bridge" which should lead from today's consciousness of wide layers of working class ... to one final conclusion: the conquest of power [?] by the proletariat (p. 43).

Thus Moody contrasts the program of the Fourth International with pre-World War I Social Democracy, (presumably the German Social Democracy although the Bolsheviks also comprised, at the time explicitly as well as implicitly, a section of pre-war Social Democracy). On the one hand, Social Democracy offered a practical, minimum, or reformist program; on the other hand, a maximum, or revolutionary program which remained pure rhetoric. But how these two programs are counterposed in reality will apparently be discussed somewhere else, for it is not discussed here.

According to the Social Democrats - and Kim Moody - "The vehicle for unity in struggle is program." Originally, Social Democracy conceived of electoral action as a tactic, one among many, and not as a means of obtaining power which, it was understood, could only be conquered by revolutionary means. The program of the German Social Democracy was also considered to be a vehicle for the national organization of labor. Whereas Kim Moody condemns the Social Democrats for carting out their revolutionary program on purely formal occasions, he does not suggest what use a workers' movement today can make of revolutionary objectives. I am not suggesting that Kim Moody is a Social Democrat; rather, that he has not succeeded in clarifying for the reader the distinction between his own revolutionary approach and that of the old labor movement, which he rejects.

In my opinion, the Wallace campaign did not suggest, as Kim Moody seems to believe, a practical policy which could in any way express the self-activity of the working class. Self-activity cannot be expressed through elections or through political parties, which is what makes them useful instruments for demogogues like Wallace. The self-activity of the workers can be expressed only through forms of struggle directly subject to their will, through the direct action of the workers themselves.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. In themselves, there are no such things as "reformist" demands or "transitional" demands. The counterposition which Kim Moody makes here is totally artificial. Rather, there are two contrasted kinds of practice: that which, at least potentially, permits the struggle to move forward to higher stages of self-activity; and that which limits the struggle, at best, to the point which it has reached, and holds it there. The problem of the Social Democracy was not primarily in its program but in its content, or practice. It was not that it fought for reforms, but that it did so through structures which determined the limits of those struggles - the hierarchic labor unions and parties which not only developed interests separate from the class needs of the proletariat but also prevented the direct assertion of the workers' struggle.

The main task of the left is not to draw up the perfect program which will unite all the various elements of the workers' struggle around the twenty-one points which will solve all the problems of the workers, but to help develop a genuinely revolutionary practice, a practice which does not simply accept the way workers understand issues today but transforms present myopia into revolutionary vision. This means developing a practical critique of the workers' struggle as it exists today, of the limitations of the various forms and objectives which it chooses and of the various conditions which it accepts. Such practical critique, stressing the genuinely self-liberating aspects of contemporary class struggle and suggesting the means of furthering them, is a central task of the left.

The reliance upon strong organization in building the CIO was only an expression of the inherent weakness, or at least the lack of self-confidence, of the workers themselves. The workers believed, or came to believe, that they could not tolerate the strain of a permanent, unofficial class struggle which would be required, at the very least, to protect their living and working conditions. They believed, or came to believe, that a strong organization which could stand on it own - dependent upon their support, independent of their permanent activity - could protect them against the employer.

But due to this separation, the union became an independent instrument opposed to the workers. Although it did win certain advantages for them, it functioned primarily to define the limits of the class struggle and to discipline the workers in accordance with the labor contract. Strong organization and totally unofficial class struggle. Totally unofficial class struggle can arrive at a temporary modus vivendi with the employer. But it can never agree to abstain from struggle. Weak organization means that organization which depends entirely upon, and is an extension of, the direct action of the workers themselves.

The unions have served their purpose, perhaps the workers had to try the easy way before they understood that they could win only when they relied upon themselves. The opposition movements which develop today do indeed depend upon the self-reliance of the workers. It is these tendencies which must be strengthened independently of the union.

Kim Moody tries to go beyond previous left approaches to labor union reform and electoral action when he suggests the need for a new political movement which will be "a synthesis of shop-economic and political organization and struggle." Such vague phrases are of little use, however, particularly because it is not certain that the new form is not simply a disguise for the old forms. The issues which Moody raises obviously cannot be resolved in the context of this paper. The discussion must be continued elsewhere.

From Root & Branch No. 1 (1970), pp. 25-29