This explanation by HW Benson of the relationship of the working class to democracy and the fight to widen, expand and defend democracy, appeared 50 years ago in the American socialist weekly Labour Action. It was a time in the USA when socialists and even liberals were under tremendous pressure from the anti-communist “McCarthyite” witch hunts. We too live in a time when democratic liberties are under attack. We must resist this attack, as Labour Action and The Militant, the two US Trotskyist papers of the time, did, alongside others.
The fate of the working class depends upon democracy, and the fate of democracy depend upon the working class. This simple truth illuminates all problems of modern politics. Where labour enjoys democracy, it will fight tenaciously to preserve it. Where it has lost democracy, its first goal becomes its restoration.
It is fashionable sometimes to say that we must choose between the “security” of totalitarianism and the “freedom” of capitalism. Nothing could be more deceptive.
For the working class, security and democracy are inseparable. When totalitarianism is imposed upon it labour loses all control over its own daily life; it is tied to the factory like a slave; it can set no limits to its own exploitation: it loses all control over its own standard of living; it is arbitrarily assigned to work where, when, and how it pleases the dictatorial ruler.
In the first days of Hitler’s rule, German trade-union officials deluded themselves that democracy could go and unions remain. They imagined that if they supinely endorsed the dictatorship and closed their eyes to the outlawing of political oppositionists, the organised union movement might continue intact. Such terrible illusions were smashed along with the whole German labour movement as the workers fell victim to the Nazi machine. But never again! The lesson was learned at an awesome price; but never will a free working class again capitulate without a struggle to totalitarianism.
The whole pyramid of social life rests upon the labour of its producers, which in modern society is the working class. In modern nations it is already the majority. But this power remains nothing unless it is organised; without organisation, it is blown about like mere dust. In the words of “Solidarity Forever”:
“It is we who ploughed the prairies,
Built the cities where they trade,
Dug the mines and made the workshops,
Endless miles of railroads laid.
Now we stand outcast and starving
‘Mid the wonders we have made,
But the union makes us strong.”
The history of the working class is one long stubborn and continuing struggle up from below to rise out of the status of work-oxen to the dignity of human beings. For this it must unite. But to organise it must have the right to meet freely; it must have the right to speak; to publish notices, newspapers; to strike; to vote; to-influence government.
In short, it must have democracy or remain enslaved.
The working class, by its very nature, must become the champion of democracy. Freedom is no luxury for it, it is a bare necessity determining the workers’ life and the fate of his family.
Wherever democracy lives, the working class organises its political parties its trade unions, its cooperatives and other institutions. In the United States, unlike almost everywhere else, the organised labour movement is confined almost exclusively to unions. Here,more than 16,000,000 men and women organise to win a better life.
Their unions publish thousands of newspapers, weekly and monthly, reaching thousands of readers.
But things are not always so simple. For at least ten years, democracy in America has been under attack by bureaucratic decree, by official and private intimidation. Free speech has been curbed and the spirit of liberty undermined. The Age of Conformity ushers in the American Party Line.
At first, organised labour went with the tide. It seemed, then, that all this was aimed merely at the Communist Party, and labour was content. Besides, the first beginnings were made under Roosevelt with the Smiith Act and under Truman with the  “loyalty” program. The unions could not allow themselves to believe that such liberal friends of theirs were chipping away at democracy.
But with time, the full outlines of the danger became clearer when the cry of “treason” was levelled even against the Democratic Party. Labour was alerted. Liberals, New-Dealers, union militants were falling victim. The settling mood of cringing subservience was endangering a labour movement which could thrive only if dissent was encouraged; not repressed.
In Flint, Michigan, several General Motors workers reputed to be Communist Party members refused to testify before a congressional committee. A group of hysterical, miseducated workers virtually threw them out of the plants. The local capitalist press applauded this act of anti-democratic violence and drew this ominous lesson: That’s the way to handle communists, it gloated, and that’s the way to handle sit-in strikers if need be!
Unions are learning how the mood of anti-democracy quickly spills over into anti-unionism. In the “loyalty” and “security” program, union activists are victimised. If “communism” is outlawed, there are hundreds of feeble-minded local politicians who remember that unionism is really “communism.” If “subversion” is to be inverted and rooted out, compliant apologists discover that unionism subverts the institutions of “free enterprise.”
The witch hunt smog stifles the spirit of unionism and a wave of revulsion against the witch hunt begins in the labour movement. Unions begin to speak out against the excesses and arbitrariness of the security program. The most socially conscious unions sound the alarm against the whole anti-democratic drift.
“The ten-year period since the end of World War Two,” reads the resolution adopted by the United Automobile Workers convention’s Resolutions Committee, “has witnessed a series of unparalleled assaults upon the Bill of Rights which threaten to undermine the basic liberties upon which our country and our labour movements have grown strong.” :
Spectacular achievements of science, classics of literature — all are made possible by the toil of millions who provide leisure for the artist, scientist, and writer. But labour makes possible more than the flowering of culture; upon its back rises the exploiting rulers and owners, a small minority that enjoy the luxuries and lush living viewed by others only in dreams.
The princes, slave-owners, kings and capitalists possess not only wealth, but what accrues to wealth — social power. By outright purchase or subtle influence, they gather up intellectuals and brains; newspapers and writers; lawyers and lawyer-politicians; teachers and clergymen; judges, prosecutors and police. They own theatres, television, buildings, meeting halls, radio, printing presses, billboards, universities, and comic-book publishing houses.
In the last analysis out of this complex of modern, nstitutions and machines emerges one concentrated summary motto: Labour must remain on the bottom; the owners must remain on top. Let the tides of empire rise and fall, come pestilence and plague, or prosperity give way to poverty, so long as the owners remain owners, they dominate society.
But the working class begins with nothing. By its labour, it makes everything possible; but it, itself, owns neither property nor power. It starts as a mass of impotent objects of exploitation. But one power it does have... Last month 3000 United Auto Workers delegates convened in Cleveland and made decisions that will guide hundreds of thousands of workers in America’s biggest industry and will affect other millions. Organised labour, with its federations and its conventions constitutes a parliament of the working class in modern society.
Organised labour stands for democracy but not in full awareness: it is often inconsistent, contradictory, or incomplete in its approach, most strikingly in its defense of the capitalist social system.
In politics, unions are satisfied with little less than full democratic rights; but in the economy they are amazingly modest. A small class of private capitalists own and monopolise America’s productive wealth. Powerful as the unions are, they only modify the fringes of capitalist power in industry. But the basic core of arbitrary rule in the economy prevails.
A group of economic dictators decide what should be produced, where, at what price, at what time. It decides whether to continue or discontinue production, how many workers to hire, and when; despite the unions, it possesses the initiative in hiring and firing, subject only to minor controls. It decides when to expand productive capacity or contract it. And all these decisions it makes with utter disregard for the needs of workers or of society, motivated by one concern: profit-making. In politics, labour demands a republic. In the economy, it prefers a limited monarchy, leaving power in the hands of the capitalist only checked and modified by labour. Unions have yet to demand the end of autocracy in industry and the establishment of full democracy.
Socialism is nothing more than the fullest expansion of democracy, its permeation of every aspect of social life, industry as well as politics. No political princes;. no economic dictators. Modern socialism began with the demand for social and economic democracy; American unionism has not yet consciously gone beyond the demand for political democracy.
The apologists for class rule insisted that political democracy would destroy society under “mob” rule and that a small privileged minority must always hold tightly to the reins of government. Now, these arguments which once seemed so imposing are rejected out of hand. But the apologists for capitalist class rule have little more to offer: the working class, they argue, cannot rule itself democratically it must be controlled and ordered by an economic elite of capitalits. It is this 20th century variation on the theme of anti-democracy that holds American labour spellbound!
Wherever the issue is simple and clear, unions are quick to oppose restrictions on civil liberties and arbitrary state controls. They fought poll taxes [tax on voting]; they reject the Taft-Hartley Law with its affidavits; they resist curbs on the right to strike; they stand against state licensing of union organisers.
Unionism flourishes only on the soil of democracy. Where productive wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small class, democracy is in danger and can be defended only by the organised resistance of — organised millions from below. It is the working class which possesses that organisation.
For a hundred years, democracy in the United States depended upon the independent farmer, the majority class in a predominately agricultural country But that era has gone. With the rise of modern industry, the formation of monopolies and the concentration of production in the hands of rich capitalists, this petty bourgeois democracy of the independent producer was defeated. For a time, American politics degenerated into a private game for [vote-herding] ward heelers, bought and paid by big money; and the courts, the legislatures, the executive offices became the blatantly subservient tools of the rich.
It was the rise of organised labour that refrubished democracy in the United States. It is true that unions are tied to capitalist politics: in reality they function as a wing of the Democratic Party in collaboration with so-called liberal bourgeois politicians. Even thus weighted down, they hove succeeded in make politics the battle ground for decisive social questions. Every office holder, every candidate reckons with the power of the organised working class.
When McCarthy was riding high, some gloomy forecasters saw this country on the threshold of fascism. Now that McCarthy has retired to the shadows, some people might fear the rise of totalitarianism without him, a “McCarthyism” without MeCarthy. In the steady accumulation of anti-democratic practices are we drifting into dictatorship? All such calculations omit what is quintessential: organised labour.
We live in a democracy, a capitalist democracy that has been whittled down and enfeebled but a kind of democracy nevertheless. The working class, organised and undefeated, stands as the limit to anti-democracy. We cannot “glide” from democracy into dictatorship. Those who would try to crush democracy must first try to crush labour. And should any such struggle begin, we are confident that labour and democracy could win.