- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

By Nelson Lichtenstein
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 336 pages, illus.

A quarter century ago, Daniel Bell, one of the country's leading academic intellectuals, wrote: "The death of socialism is the most tragic and unacknowledged fact of the twentieth century." That authoritative obituary hasn't fazed John Sweeney, American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) president, whose faith in socialism is undiminished. Such leadership helps explain why contemporary American labor is facing a crisis, probably insoluble, of vast proportions.
In "State of the Union: A Century of American Labor," Nelson Lichtenstein examines how trade unionism fell from its pinnacle of power during the early years of the CIO and later in the 1950s when the AFL and CIO merged. From 1948 to 1964, as the author points out, every Democratic presidential candidate launched his campaign with a Labor Day rally in Detroit's Cadillac Square. No more. Labor used to be a major news story and a major journalistic beat. It no longer is. Few newspapers today have labor reporters. American labor is now a subject left to academic intellectuals, usually social democrats, as their research beat.
Mr. Lichtenstein gives two reasons for American labor's decline: the implacable hostility of corporate management to "the power, or even the existence of trade unionism itself" and, second, "the white governing class in the American South, which had been supportive of many early New Deal initiatives, turned on the unions, with an unprecedented ferocity when the racial implications of mass unionism became apparent." One reason he does not give is that the AFL-CIO had become, thanks to onetime President Lane Kirkland and his successor, the incumbent John Sweeney, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party.
In an attempt to createa Labor Party they turned American labor over to the Democrats. At one time Kirkland was pressing the AFL-CIO unions to enter Democratic Party primaries but that was going a little too far and cooler heads prevailed.
Under Mr. Sweeney, incumbent Republican members of Congress with sterling pro-labor voting records found that at election time the AFL-CIO supported their Democrat opponents in the spirit of the Walrus and the Carpenter sobbing as they feasted on the innocent oysters. In 1992, a banner over the union headquarters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees announced "AFSCME is Clinton country." And most unions then agreed with that slogan.
The pre-merger AFL hewed to the political strategy of its founding president, Samuel Gompers, embodied in the slogan: Reward your friends and punish your enemies. Sweeneyism, however, means double-crossing friends and allies in order to promote the Democratic Party left.
A labor movement, long in thrall to the Democratic Party, is changing dramatically, a change of which Mr. Lichtenstein seems unaware. Donald Lambro, this newspaper's chief political correspondent, reported March 11: "Top union officials are breaking away from the lockstep, Democratic loyalties of the past. The Bush administration is developing a cozier relationship with the Teamsters, the Carpenters, the Services Employees International and other unions."
Teamster President James P. Hoffa has told his members and AFL-CIO officials that the unions were not created "to become ATM machines for the Democratic National Committee." Even AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal now concedes that "the labor movement is too often seen as joined at the hip with the Democratic Party, and we need to do things to bring Republicans in."
For Mr. Lichtenstein the AFL-CIO foreign policy views and actions under the leadership of George Meany and Lane Kirkland during the Cold War were pretty awful. Echoing the theme adhered to by the dominant school of American historians, Mr. Lichtenstein writes that it was "the U.S. [which] declared an ideological Cold War against the Soviets." Joseph Stalin's takeover of Central Europe and his destruction of free trade unions in those countries, if we are to believe Mr. Lichtenstein, had nothing to do with the question as to who started the Cold War.And here is a gem he submits in defense of communist-controlled labor unions after they were expelled from the CIO in 1949:
"The Communists, who were influential in unions representing about a million workers, were therefore sacrificed to the Cold War's growing requirement for political orthodoxy, both at home and abroad."
Oh yes, Mr. Lichtenstein concedes, theAmerican Communists "gave their allegiance to a brutal dictatorship but they were not simply creatures of that foreign power, no matter how many telegrams and how many rubles flowed from Moscow to their Union Square headquarters." Oh, yes, and that's why when Stalin and Adolf Hitler signed their infamous pact in August 1939 American Communists overnight went from anti-fascism to pro-fascism. Or why they opposed the Marshall Plan. Or whentheir acclaimed leader, Earl Browder, was purged in 1945 on orders from Moscow, these Communist darlings applauded his dismissal. Oh, come on.
In an essay, "Communist history as soap opera," in New York Review, the historian, Theodore Draper, wrote that "Communism, as all the world knows, with the exception of a cadre of American professors, disgraced the largely democratic tradition of socialism and strangled democracy wherever it came to power." He then asks: "What explains this perversion of socialism and democracy?" This is Mr. Draper's answer:
"It is clearly an attempt to rehabilitate communism by making it part of the larger family of socialism and democracy. No one would think of doing this favor for fascism, but communism with even more millions of victims and a much longer life span is the beneficiary of this sustained effort of historical rehabilitation in of all places American colleges and universities."
To believe in the myth of the American Communist innocence in the light of revelations from Moscow's once secret archives is an act of willful distortion of history by one who poses as a seeker after truth. So much for Mr. Lichtenstein.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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