Trade Unions: Real and “Ideal”
Trade Unions in the New Society.
by Harold J. Laski.
Viking. 181 pp. $3.00.
The title of Mr. Laski’s latest book suggests a subject of considerable significance and one badly in need of fresh theoretical treatment. Unfortunately he fails quite completely the promise of the title. There is no solid substance to his understanding of what American trade unions are really like and his treatment of the “new society” turns out to be a standard Marxist critique of the old one. By “new society” he apparently does not mean a democratically planned economy; he refers only incidentally and infrequently to recent British experience. Nor is he really concerned with modern developments in American capitalism, and their effect upon trade unions, which have led other observers to consider the present situation significantly new. What changes Laski does acknowledge he does not permit to impede the smooth flow of his analysis.
The disturbing irregularities of the specific are easily smoothed away in the Marxian formulations Laski enjoys. By now one expects from the phrasing of that point of view a certain classical touch. Laski does not disappoint:
. . . The cases both of Mussolini and Hitler are only the major instances of our time in which business and the state power become almost interchangeable terms. . . . Granted the private ownership of the means of production, political democracy is not seldom a facade behind which the great corporations prepare a social order the character of which is not unlike that of the corporate state.
Based upon this sort of analysis of capitalism, Laski has a political strategy and program to urge upon American labor. He argues that unions by their very nature pose problems insoluble within the capitalist framework. If only in self-defense, they must harness the state power which is now usually ranged on the side of big business. It follows, then, that labor must accept a long-run social philosophy, form its own political party, and ultimately bring about the socialist reconstruction of society.
His position differs sharply from what has been the dominant approach in this country, the “job control” theory of Professor Selig Perlman and the Wisconsin School. That theory explains trade unionism as the organized expression of a “manualist mentality” which limits itself to controlling the conditions of employment at the point where jobs originate and which, when matured, eschews the abstract ideological appeals of intellectuals. The emphasis is empirical, on what trade unions have really been; Perlman has opposed any view of labor which sees it as “an abstract mass in the grip of an abstract force.” It should be added that Professor Perlman has favored a rather conservative social philosophy which one may, while accepting his analytical theory, reject on other grounds.
Laski discusses his disagreement with Perlman but never makes clear just how much of Perlman he rejects. Obviously he does not accept Perlman’s philosophy but he only hints that the theory as well is invalid. And he never explicitly challenges Perlman’s theory as a method of accounting for the behavior of American unions nor does he offer an alternative explanation of his own. In fact, Laski is little concerned with the investigation of actual trade unions; in characteristically Marxist fashion, he deals primarily with the role labor ought to play in ushering in the new society. Perlman emphasizes what labor does; Laski what it should do. Theories of the labor movement have generally been polarized into these two tendencies.
The Marxist, with his eye fixed on the distant (and immanent) goal, tends to underestimate the toughness and resiliency of things as they are. To the Marxist, American business unionism is somehow an aberration from true unionism, a temporary unwillingness to perform the role History has assigned to Labor. Laski of course does not put it so crudely, nor is he, unfortunately, so explicit. He simply ignores the problem of explaining unions as they actually are and gives himself over wholly to the task of exhortation. The more unions behave in contrary fashion to his underlying theory, the more impassioned the exhortation. But precisely because his understanding of trade unionism is fuzzy, his rhetoric is unpersuasive.
It is perhaps further evidence of Laski’s casual regard for unions in the real that he cites no work in the field published at a date later than 1936; the sizable literature of the last thirteen years seems to have escaped his notice. And surely he is on somewhat dubious ground in citing the Pullman strike (1894), the Homestead Steel Strike (1892), and the great railway strikes of 1877 as cases highly relevant to the present discussion.