A Political Biography of Walter Reuther:
The Record of an Opportunist
By Beatrice Hansen
Beatrice Hansen was an active revolutionary for most of her life from the age of eleven, when she joined the Socialist Party’s Young Falcons, until her death on March 9, 1969, at the age of forty-three, when she had long been a member of the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party.
The following manuscript was found among her belongings after her death. It is the text of a speech she gave at the Friday Night Socialist Forum in Detroit on October 14, 1955. Bea was then twenty-nine years old, and her interest in the autoworkers, their union, and its leadership was neither accidental nor incidental. At that time she had already been working in the auto plants for a full decade, most of it at the Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck, Michigan. She was well-known and respected in UAW Local 3 as a militant fighter for union democracy and the rights of Black and women workers.
Her association with autoworkers and the UAW was even older than that. As a child she had been raised in the General Motors town of Flint and learned at close hand about the conditions of the autoworkers during the depression, before the plants were unionized. Her older sister Genora and Genora’s husband Kermit Johnson were both members of the Socialist Party, which began to move to the left during the early years of the Depression. Equally important, the Johnsons were both leaders of the drive to organize the plants and played crucial roles in the great sit-down strike in Flint that established the UAW as a powerful force in the auto industry at the start of 1937. When most adolescents were just beginning to think about the other sex, Bea was absorbing lessons about how to organize workers and how to conduct strikes—and how to cope with union leaders who put their own interests ahead of the interests of the workers they were supposed to represent.
Bea first heard of Walter Reuther in 1936 or 1937, when he shared the political associations of the Johnsons. As he moved to the right, however, Bea and the Johnsons moved to the left—to join the newly founded Socialist Workers Party, although Bea was not accepted as a member at that time because she was still so young. Bea came to follow Reuther’s career more closely after she moved to Detroit and became an autoworker and Reuther became UAW president.
When Bea gave this talk in 1955, both the unions and the socialist movement were in bad shape, thanks to years of McCarthyism, witch-hunting, persecution of radicals and even liberals, and a spirit of conformity, apathy, or hopelessness that extended not only into the unions but prevailed even in the Black ghettos and on the campuses. An example of the atmosphere is conveyed by the fact that Bea thought it necessary to explain to her audience in 1955 that students had not always been conformist and indifferent to social problems, that they actually had been radical in the 1930s. Educators were complaining in 1955 that the students had become “the silent generation.” Bea knew that they would not remain silent forever, and then and later she gave special attention to educating and training the young people she met and worked with. As she often said, revolutions are made by young people, and the labor lieutenants of capitalism will be driven out of power along with their masters by young workers.
Bea’s speech, recalling episodes unfamiliar to most workers today, will be a weapon in the fight to regenerate or reconstruct the unions as instruments of the class struggle. It is also a tribute to revolutionaries like her who never abandoned their principles under the most adverse conditions and who transmitted those principles, their experiences, and their example of unflagging struggle against capitalist exploitation and oppression to the younger generation that had already begun to move when Bea died.
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Last March , when the United Auto Workers Union was holding its national convention and the time came for the election of the UAW president, even before the first nomination was made, even before Walter Reuther was nominated for re-election as president, the UAW public relations department began running around the convention hall with a thick document and passing it out to all the newspapermen. This document turned out to be a biographical sketch of none other than Walter Reuther. It was a long document, covering the career of Walter Reuther from the time he was a small boy right down to the present period, listing all kinds of events in his life, including the honorary degrees he had received from various universities. It was a long document, and yet, if you read it carefully, you saw that something was missing, something important, and that was his political development.
The biographical sketch proudly recorded the fact that he had been a supporter of Roosevelt in the 1936, 1940, and 1944 election campaigns and that he had also supported the Democrats in 1948 and 1952. Reading that, you would think that Walter Reuther had been a Democrat all his life. But that’s not so. Reuther was not always a Democrat, even though he seems to want people to think so. In fact, he used to be a strong opponent of the Democratic Party. But for some reason he seems to be ashamed of his past. He seems to be ashamed of the fact that he used to be a Socialist, otherwise he would have let it be at least mentioned in this official biography. Well, he may want to whitewash his past, but the facts about it are readily available, and tonight I am going to examine the facts and try to trace the real evolution of Walter Reuther—from a Socialist to a Democrat. After I do, I think you will agree with me that it’s not his past politics he should be so ashamed of, but his present politics.
Walter Reuther was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, forty-eight years ago in a family which was exceptional—exceptional because it was pro-union and pro-socialist. His grandfather was a Social Democrat, that is a socialist, in Germany, and he left that country to emigrate to the U.S. because he wanted to keep his sons from being conscripted into the Kaiser’s army.
One of his sons was Valentine Reuther, father of Walter and the one who is given credit for molding his life. Valentine Reuther was a union man all of his life and a union organizer, and for a time he was also president of the Ohio Valley AFL. Valentine Reuther was also an ardent socialist, and he ran for Congress on the Socialist Party ticket. This shows that he wasn’t a run-of-the-mill unionist. In fact, one writer says he considered himself a close friend of Eugene V. Debs, the great socialist leader. And though Valentine Reuther was an AFL leader, the national leadership of the AFL seemed to him to be narrow and petty, and his idea of the kind of leaders the labor movement needed was men like Gene Debs.
Murray Kempton’s recent book, Part of Our Time, which has one section on the Reuthers, says that “if the Reuther boys took from his house [Valentine Reuther’s house] any vision of themselves grown up, it was an image of Debs renewed, not of Gompers repeated.” By this he means that Valentine Reuther tried to teach his sons to follow the example of Gene Debs and not of AFL President Samuel Gompers. Debs of course was a union leader as well as a socialist—in fact, he was considered the most promising union leader of his time after the Pullman strike. He had been a national officer in one of the railroad brotherhoods, a soft job, but he gave it up when he found himself in disagreement with the policies of the other labor leaders. Debs gave up his soft, well-paid union post because to him principle meant more than position, and that was one of the reasons why Valentine Reuther admired him so.
When World War I came, Gene Debs refused to give up his socialist antiwar ideas, and he had the courage to express them openly. For doing that he was tried and convicted under the Espionage Act and sentenced to ten years in prison. Valentine Reuther did not let that change his opinion of Gene Debs, and he went to the penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia, where Debs was prisoner, in order to bring his greetings and solidarity. It is said that on one of those occasions Valentine Reuther brought his son Walter along with him to the penitentiary so that his son could see this great labor leader, Eugene Debs, in person and be inspired by him to follow in the same path of devotion to working-class principle.
Walter Reuther, according to Kempton, still retains a vivid memory of that visit to Debs in the penitentiary. But as we go on tonight, we shall see that that’s all he retains, a memory; because the path that Walter Reuther followed was the exact opposite of the path of Eugene Debs; because while Debs sacrificed his union posts in order not to give up his socialist ideas, Reuther threw away his socialist ideas in order not to jeopardize his union posts; and while Debs evolved from Democrat to socialist, Reuther evolved, or devolved, from Socialist to Democrat.
Nowadays the magazines and papers are loaded with articles about Reuther and his opinions on various things, large and small, and there are also a number of books that praise Reuther in different ways. The main thing that strikes you when you read these is how different Reuther’s policies and philosophy are from those of the man his father tried to get him to emulate.
Here, for example, is a quotation from Eugene Debs, picked more or less at random, but typical of what he was and what he was fighting for: “It is no part of the mission of this revolutionary working class to conciliate the capitalist class. We are organized to fight that class, and we want that class to distinctly understand it. Their newspapers understand it so well even now that they have not a single favorable comment to make upon it. The new unionism vitalized and clarified by the living present exclaims: We know better, capitalists and wage workers have antagonistic economic interests, capitalists buy and workers sell labor power, the one as cheaply and the other as dearly as possible. They are locked in a life and death struggle, there can be no identity of interests between master and slaves, between exploiters and exploited, and there can be no peace until the working class is triumphant in this struggle and the wage system is forever wiped from the earth.”
Debs was right when he said the capitalist newspapers “have not a single favorable comment” to make about him or the movement he led. They blasted and smeared and denounced and ridiculed Debs every chance they got. But those very same papers take a different attitude toward Reuther. For them he is a great labor statesman. They praise him with good cause, because he is not an enemy of their system the way Debs was but a defender of capitalism, an apologist of the wage system, and a supporter of the idea that workers are fit only to work for the wealthy owners of industry and are not fit to own and run industry and society themselves.
As Time magazine put it on June 20, after the latest contract settlements with the auto barons, Reuther “is too alert a man not to realize how much he has won for his followers within the framework of capitalism and how much the picture holds within that same framework.” Kempton, who is even more friendly to Reuther than Time magazine, says this: “Reuther and the auto barons of Detroit, who used to seem so irreconcilable, have ended up by sharing a common response to the moments of passion in their lives. They alike understand the necessity of living with things as they are.”
Yes, Reuther, like the capitalists, is satisfied to live with things substantially as they are, instead of fighting to change things fundamentally, the way Debs did. Reuther shrugged his shoulders after the Ford settlement and said, “You never get everything.” What a far cry that is from Eugene Debs, whose mission it was to educate the workers so that they would not stop fighting and would not be satisfied until they had succeeded in forever wiping the system of wage exploitation from the face of the earth!
And yet Reuther did not begin as a defender of capitalism, as we know. He dropped out of school when he was sixteen years old to become an apprentice toolmaker. On his first job in Wheeling Steel he had to work a seven-day schedule, and his protest against Sunday work led to his being fired as a troublemaker. After that he decided he’d better leave Wheeling, since he was apparently blacklisted. So in 1926, at the age of nineteen, Reuther came to Detroit. He wasn’t altogether sure of what he wanted to become at that time. According to a questionaire he filled out at the YMCA, he wrote that his ambitions were to become, one, a chicken farmer and two, a labor leader. In certain of the production agreements that Reuther has negotiated since then I feel he has combined both of his early ambitions, especially when you take into consideration the modern techniques that have been developed in egg laying.
The middle 1920s were years of prosperity in Detroit, just as they are today. It wasn’t too difficult to get jobs in the auto plants, and Reuther had no trouble in getting into Briggs on the night shift. Later he was hired at Ford as a tool-and-die craftsman, and at the age of twenty-four he became a foreman in the tool-and-die room. Reuther worked at Ford for about five years. During most of that time he apparently had little contact with the local labor movement, which was weak and small, because in the late 1920s Detroit was still an open-shop town, with the AFL craft unions being a small fringe and having little or no following among the autoworkers.
There is no telling what would have happened to Walter Reuther if the prosperity of the 1920s had been able to continue without interruption. Maybe he’d still be a foreman at Ford, maybe he would have worked his way higher up into management.
But the prosperity of that time did not continue and was followed by the biggest, worst, and longest depression in the history of this country. It not only wiped out many small businesses and drove over one-third of the working class out of their jobs, but it also had a profound impact on the thinking of millions of Americans who had previously been willing to go along with things as they were. It began to radicalize them.
Among the first to feel the effects of the new radicalism were the young people, and especially the young people in the colleges. Listening to some college students today, you get the idea that all they are concerned with are the big careers they are going to have when they get out of school. That’s all they have time to think about; they can’t be bothered with social questions or struggles. But it was different during the Depression. Most college students knew that when they got out of school they would have little chance of a career, and that they would be lucky to get any kind of job. Whether they liked it or not, they had to think about such questions as what was wrong with a society where people wanted to work but couldn’t, where the factories were shut down while people were going hungry for the products of those factories.
While working at Ford, Reuther and his younger brother Victor began to go to what is now Wayne University. The deepening of the Depression changed the climate in which they lived. They began to remember the ideas of their father and to discuss them with other students who were looking for radical answers. The Reuthers helped to organize a Social Problems Club at the university, which discussed the burning questions of the day and used to go around the city to watch and even participate in unemployed demonstrations, meetings, and picket lines. They also helped to organize a university branch of the Student League for Industrial Democracy.
Walter Reuther became the president of both these clubs and the Reuthers became known as “agitators” on the campus. The university authorities decided to set up a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps unit at Wayne, but the Reuthers, remembering how their grandfather had fled from Germany to escape militarism, opposed the ROTC plan and led a campaign on the campus against it. At one faculty meeting a professor also spoke up against ROTC; for doing this he was suspended and brought up on charges before the Detroit Board of Education. The Reuther brothers went down to the Board of Education meeting, where both of them spoke in favor of the professor. He was reinstated, and the ROTC plan was dropped.
It was around this time, in 1932 at the latest, maybe a little earlier, that Reuther joined the Socialist Party, which at that time was experiencing a considerable growth, recruiting hundreds of young workers and students who wanted to belong to a party that expressed opposition to capitalism and called for the establishment of socialism.
That year the Reuthers put on a real campaign, on and off campus, for Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party’s candidate for president. At their invitation Thomas came to Wayne and spoke before the Social Problems Club. Walter Reuther put a loudspeaker in his old car and went around the city soapboxing for Norman Thomas all through that campaign, wherever he could get anyone to listen to his attacks on the evils of Wall Street and capitalism and the need for the workers to organize politically in a party of their own and fight to take over the running of society along socialist lines. When he went home to Wheeling for a vacation in the summer, he organized meetings for Norman Thomas there. He also recruited his brother Roy into the Socialist Party and got him to go along to Detroit to join in the socialist agitation.
Here in Detroit, the Depression had hit worse than in any other city of comparable size. Out of a half million workers employed in the auto plants, only some 250,000 were employed. Whole city blocks were without heat or lights. Families were unable to pay their rent, and landlords didn’t dare to evict them, for it meant the house would be stripped of its plumbing and wires and the wood used for fuel.
Thousands were on welfare, and the city was printing scrip to pay its workers. Stores were raided every night for food, and all the old values and property laws seemed to be breaking up. During this period Emil Mazey came out of school and, unable to get a job, joined the Citizens Unemployed League. This organization had a squad of men who went around to workers’ homes turning lights and gas on after they had been turned off for nonpayment. They didn’t think they were doing anything immoral or even illegal. That gives us an idea of the political climate that existed in Detroit at that time, shows what molded Reuther’s thinking, and indicates his ideas were not at all exceptional then.
Not long after the 1932 election campaign, Walter Reuther was fired at Ford. No reason was given, so we do not know if it was because of his political activities, or because he began to be interested in an AFL organizing campaign among Ford workers, or both. Before the plants were unionized you could be fired without a reason being given.
Anyhow, he was fired, and he and his brother Victor decided in 1933 that it would be a good idea to take a trip around the world in order to see how the workers of other countries lived and worked and fought. One of the places they were determined to visit was the Soviet Union, where a successful workers’ revolution had taken place in 1917. Reuther at that time considered himself a left socialist in favor of the Russian revolution. They visited Berlin twenty-four hours after the Reichstag fire, where they saw young workers beaten by the Nazis and watched the storm troopers pull in many people much like their parents. They went on to the Soviet Union and there worked in an auto plant built by Ford. Reuther was quickly promoted to a post of leader in a labor brigade, and for his production he won bonuses and medals.
This happens to be one of the controversial parts of Reuther’s biography, one that he’s especially embarrassed to have discussed. They spent sixteen months in the Soviet Union, or most of the time they were abroad. Reuther now claims that he was shocked by the Stalinist dictatorship he saw in Russia and the terrorism against the Soviet workers. But there is no evidence of a documentary nature to support this claim. It doesn’t seem logical, if they were really so shocked, that they would have stayed for sixteen months—working in the plants, discussing with the Russian workers their problems, and writing articles for the Moscow newspapers on how to improve production and the standard of living of the workers.
Many years later the Reuthers were red-baited as sympathizers of the Soviet Union because of a letter written to a friend in Detroit by Victor Reuther in 1934. Actually there wouldn’t be anything dishonorable about the Reuthers being sympathizers of the Soviet Union at that time. But Reuther seems to think it would be, and he tries to hide and cover up and deny what he thought about the Soviet Union twenty or so years ago because now he is hostile to the Soviet Union and a supporter of the cold war against the Soviet Union and because, like all bureaucrats, he is embarrassed to let it be known that he has changed his position or was ever wrong on any question, now or in the past.
Whether or not the 1934 letter is a fake, as the Reutherites now claim, there is little doubt that at that time Reuther was pro-Soviet and even pro-Stalinist, and that it carried over after he left the Soviet Union, because he collaborated with the American Stalinists after he returned to this country, at least for several years.
When Reuther came back to the U.S. at the end of 1935 the autoworkers were already stirring and chafing at the bit for unions. Things were beginning to happen in the plants in Detroit, as well as all over the country. The year before, 1934, was one of tremendous labor struggles, spearheaded by the Auto Lite strike in Toledo, the teamsters’ strike in Minneapolis, and the longshoremen’s general strike in San Francisco. Thousands poured in and out of the AFL as they arbitrated and aborted all the workers’ grievances. Yet in 1935, with the AFL thoroughly discredited, strikes still continued to erupt all over the country in auto. By April 1935, 30,000 GM workers were out in Ohio, and the first beachhead for unionizing GM was established. The outcome of this strike finally forced the AFL to set up its committee to investigate the organizing of the industrial workers. By October 1935 John L. Lewis resigned as vice president of the AFL and created the Committee for Industrial Organization.
In this job of organizing, Lewis had to turn to those he had previously opposed—the radicals. The UAW did not come by its militant and democratic traditions accidentally. Their foundations were consciously laid in the early stages of the union by the politically radical workers who were responsible for the first successful organization in auto—the Socialists, Stalinists, and Trotskyists. They were the only ones who had the courage and the conviction to do this job. Most of the union leaders of the time were radicals of one kind or another.
Reading his biography, you might think the whole UAW was due to Walter Reuther, but actually the UAW was born because of a great upsurge of the workers, produced by the economic and political conditions of the time. Reuther played a part in this, but he was not the main figure by any means; he himself was a product of the conditions that existed rather than the man who did it all. His role in these years was progressive, but it should not be exaggerated.
Reuther got a job at General Motors Ternstedt, but in order to do this he had to assume a false name, for he was on the blacklist. The next year, 1936, when he went to the second convention of the UAW in South Bend as a delegate, his credentials were challenged and he almost wasn’t seated as a delegate because no one had ever heard the name Walter Reuther and it was claimed that nobody by that name worked at Ternstedt. The chairman of the credentials committee had to explain to the convention that Reuther was on the blacklist and why he had taken the job under an assumed name. Nobody at the convention objected to seating him then, because they knew that this kind of procedure was necessary for many militant workers who would have been shut out from the auto industry for good if they hadn’t done something to protect themselves.
This little incident shows two things: one, that Reuther was by no means the predominant figure in the early days of the UAW that some of his biographers now pretend. And second, it shows how Reuther has changed his attitude toward blacklisting and the use of falsification in applications for jobs in the auto plants. At the latest UAW convention, this year, a worker from Flint asked the union to help him because he was fired from GM on the grounds that he had falsified his application by leaving out the fact that he had gone to college for a year. Actually, the real reason for his discharge was his suspected political ideas and affiliations. The convention knew this was the real reason, and Reuther knew it too, but the convention refused to support this worker who had been victimized by the blacklist, and Reuther as chairman of the convention did nothing about it.
This second convention of the UAW in South Bend in April 1936 was a notable point in Reuther’s career because it was there that he was elected to the UAW International Executive Board for the first time, although he was not well known in the union nationally. But more important is what this convention shows us about his political views at that time—and in fact what it shows about the political views of the UAW as a whole at that time. That convention shows how politically advanced the autoworkers were, as compared with today.
Nowadays, if a resolution for a break with the old capitalist parties gets introduced into a UAW convention, it gets buried in committee and never reaches the floor. But in 1936, almost twenty years ago, a resolution calling for the formation of an independent farmer-labor party was not only introduced but passed without a single delegate getting up to oppose it. Nobody dared to get up and say, “Now is not the time,” which became Reuther’s favorite excuse for opposing a labor party later on. Reuther himself, it is plain, supported that resolution.
Later in the convention, it is true, another resolution was introduced—that the UAW should endorse and work for the election of Franklin Roosevelt in that year’s presidential election. But most of the delegates regarded this as in contradiction to the farmer-labor party resolution, and the interesting thing is that they voted this pro-Roosevelt resolution down.
Roosevelt heard about this, got worried, and put some pressure on John L. Lewis, and Lewis put pressure on the convention. Lewis told the UAW leaders through his lieutenant, Adolph Germer, that if they didn’t endorse Roosevelt, the CIO would not give them the $100,000 contribution for an auto organizing drive that had previously been promised to them. Under that pressure, the leaders of the UAW wilted and gave in. In the last five minutes of the convention the resolution endorsing Roosevelt was again brought to the floor, and this time it was rushed or railroaded through without discussion—also without enthusiasm.
Reuther, who had favored the labor party resolution and had opposed endorsing Roosevelt, had just been elected to the executive board and was just beginning on his career as a “great labor statesman.” So he decided that it was not prudent or statesmanlike to speak against the Roosevelt resolution, and he remained silent or else voted for it. Right here, in 1936, we can put our finger on the time when he had already gone opportunist, departing from the teachings and example of Eugene Debs and subordinating his politics or even changing them in order to promote his career as a great labor leader.
The question now comes up: When did Reuther leave the Socialist Party? The strange thing is that it is hard to fix the date exactly, partly because he and his biographers have done so much to cover it up. One writer, Paul F. Douglass, in the book Six Against the World, says that Reuther left the Socialist Party shortly after his return from his world tour, which would be around the end of 1935 or the early part of 1936. But as I shall show, that is false. Kempton, who is most friendly to Reuther, gives a different picture. According to Kempton, it looked pretty plain in 1936 that Roosevelt was going to sweep Detroit in that election, “even though the Reuther boys and a few out-of-step persons argued that the New Deal had given the autoworkers nothing and did what they could to get votes for Norman Thomas. But even their focus was shifting, they were too busy with the union to give as much time to Thomas as they had in 1932.”
Here we can see plainly how Reuther was beginning to twist and turn and try to do two contradictory things at the same time—going along with the UAW’s support of Roosevelt, forced by the top CIO bureaucrats, and still trying to go along with the Socialist Party’s campaign for Norman Thomas—but, as Kempton says, “too busy with the union to give as much time to Thomas as they had in 1932.” Anyhow, the UAW biographical sketch is not altogether correct when it claims Reuther supported Roosevelt in 1936.
Reuther had gotten a taste and a liking for a career as a bureaucrat. From then on, he began to slide more and more to the right, to the conservative side. The local of which Reuther was president, West Side Local 174, began to grow by leaps and bounds. Within a year Local 174 grew from less than 100 to 30,000 members. Reuther now had a position of importance to protect, and it began to be reflected in what he said and did.
At the end of the year came the decisive test for the UAW—the battle with GM. Here again it was the radicals who gave decisive leadership to the struggle. In Flint, where the battle centered, Kermit Johnson and Roy Reuther, both Socialists, and Robert Travis with the Stalinists were the chief organizers and leaders of the great sit-down that brought victory. Contrary to the legend, Walter Reuther entered the picture only toward the end of the strike and played no key role in its strategy, organization, or leadership. He gave it assistance when thousands of autoworkers were pouring into Flint at a crucial moment from Toledo and other centers, when he led a large contingent from his West Side local. But as I know, from close acquaintance with what was happening in Flint at that time, Reuther was for tossing in the sponge several times during that battle and having the men leave the plants, saying, as he does now, “you have to learn to creep before you can walk,” and “GM is a big outfit, it can’t be organized all at once,” and “we can’t win everything.”
In those days Reuther was not exceptional for militancy and political radicalism. Everyone spoke or pretended to speak the language of mass action and rank-and-file control and advanced political and social ideas. The union in which he got his start breathed mass action and democracy. How far different from the Reuther-controlled strikes of today: no membership meetings, no rank-and-file control, hardly any picketing, and usually a total blackout on news from the union during negotiations.
Yet Reuther still remained a member of the Socialist Party even at this time when he was beginning to be softened up by opportunism and more concern about keeping his job than spreading radical ideas. We know that he was still a member of the Socialist Party then because in the summer of 1937 the UAW decided, in line with its labor party position of that time, to enter a slate of candidates in the Detroit city elections. And so the UAW ran its own candidates for mayor and for several seats on the Common Council, and among the people it endorsed in that campaign for Common Council were two UAW leaders still well known today.
One of these was Richard Frankensteen, who later left the UAW and went to work for an auto company as an executive, and the second was none other than Walter Reuther, who was quoted as saying in the Detroit Times of October 6, 1937: “As an automobile worker, as an official, as a member of the Socialist Party, and as a patriotic citizen of Detroit, I pledge myself to the service of all the people of the city.”
The UAW candidates were defeated in that election, but it shows that in those days the UAW was really in favor of independent labor political action—an independent labor slate—and wouldn’t have thought of doing what it does nowadays, that is, endorsing all kinds of phony politicians on the capitalist party tickets. And it shows that as late as 1937 Reuther still was a member of the Socialist Party and still was opposed to supporting Democrats.
Around this time a fight began to develop inside the UAW. Reuther wasn’t the only one getting a taste for power. So was Homer Martin, the president of the union, who was getting to fancy himself as “the boss” of the UAW and who set out to get supreme control for himself and to bureaucratize, tame, and housebreak the democratic auto union. One of the things Martin did was to try to curb wildcat strikes in GM; he sent GM a letter offering to let it “discipline,” that is, punish and fire, workers who participated in unauthorized walkouts.
This led to a great deal of opposition to Homer Martin, who replied by calling his critics communists and socialists and firing a number of union organizers who would not go along with him, including Reuther and some of his friends. Ironically, a decade later, Reuther himself was fighting for greater so-called discipline in the plants and condemning so-called unauthorized walkouts and doing red-baiting himself against his opponents in the union.
But at that time the sentiment in the UAW was different, and Reuther had to line up with the other opponents of Homer Martin, including the Stalinists and Trotskyists, in the so-called Unity Caucus. Reuther also saw in the factional warfare a chance to get further ahead himself. He did not become president after Martin tried to take the union back to the AFL—that job was given to R.J. Thomas—but Reuther moved up and eventually became a vice president. Yet even that was not too easy. Before he could get this post, he had to give up all his connections with his radical political past. Here is how it happened:
During the factional fight with Martin in 1938, Reuther worked with the Stalinists in the Unity Caucus. But he didn’t want to be their captive, so he started a caucus of his own. Daniel Bell, in his long essay in the book, Socialism and American Life, said that Sidney Hillman and John L. Lewis, “not adverse to building balances of power, privately encouraged him [Reuther]. As a price, however, they insisted that he resign from the Socialist Party. They pointed out that Frank Murphy needed full labor support for re-election as governor of Michigan and Reuther would have to support Murphy.”
And that is a true picture of 1938. Reuther was still a member of the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party was running its own candidate for governor of Michigan and opposing the Democratic candidate, Murphy, on the ground that his election would not be in the interest of the working class.
Lewis and Hillman, collaborating with Roosevelt, wanted Murphy re-elected despite his despicable role in the Flint sit-down strike, and they wanted to get rid of all radical political tendencies in the UAW. So they offered Reuther a deal—they would, from behind the scenes, help him up the ladder of the UAW leadership, but in return Reuther would have to quit the Socialist Party and show that he was a “responsible” labor leader by going out and campaigning for Murphy in the 1938 election.
We know what Eugene Debs would have done in such a situation, if anyone had had the nerve to make such an insulting proposition to him in the first place. He would have spit in the eye of a man who offered it to him, thrown him out of his office, and then gone out and told the workers that an attempt had been made to bribe him to sell his political principles and that he was going to campaign for socialism and its candidates harder than ever before.
We know that Reuther did not act like Debs. On the contrary, Daniel Bell’s book contains copies of letters between George Edwards, then the Socialist Party caucus leader in the UAW and now a judge in Detroit, and Norman Thomas. Edwards complained, in one of these letters dated September 1938, that the members of the party in Detroit were faced with “a very difficult situation.” At that time, the Socialist Party still formally maintained a policy of electoral independence and opposition to capitalist parties and candidates. Edwards complained that their people in the UAW were being put on the spot: if they supported the Socialist Party candidate for governor, they would incur the disapproval of the CIO top bureaucrats and might lose their posts; if they supported Murphy, they would be violating their socialist principles and weakening the party. The Michigan Socialists also proposed that Walter Reuther be allowed a “friendly resignation” from the party, that is, without public notice or any attacks on him by the party.
Norman Thomas answered that he was disturbed by this proposal, which he said would “lessen our influence and prestige” and put the Socialist Party in an unpleasant position. But evidently he agreed to it anyhow. Reuther quietly resigned from the party. The Socialist Party, itself corroded by opportunism by this time, worked out what Reuther calls a “typical compromise. As union men and within the union they supported Murphy; among the Socialists they supported Socialist Party candidates. This double bookkeeping was censured by the national party, and the Michigan Socialists finally ran a candidate for governor against Murphy. Their candidate’s vote was feeble, and the party suffered.”
But Reuther was on his way up the bureaucratic ladder, and he never looked back to his past again. For him, from then on, principles were completely subordinated to posts and immediate advantages. Even the pale pink reformism of the Socialist Party was too much for him. From then on he was out to latch on to the political movement that offered the most promising and immediate rewards for himself personally. Most of the other leading Michigan Socialists, including his brothers, followed his path and deserted the SP; others, disgusted by them, also left the Socialist Party to join the Socialist Workers Party and build a genuinely principled revolutionary workers party.
Nineteen thirty-eight was the political turning point for Reuther. The rest of the story was pretty routine. Reuther now wants his past forgotten, and that’s what most of his friendly biographers help to do. One of them, Murray Kempton, goes further, however, and tries to justify Reuther’s change from Socialist to Democrat and to blame not Reuther, but others—the times, the backwardness of the workers, and so on. Kempton writes: “If Reuther’s world changed he would live with the change. And back in the summer of 1937 he recognized that circumstances were not what they had seemed [when he believed in socialism and the possibility of achieving it]…and that he must live with a new state of things.…The union was important in his life but it was not the only thing.
His institution would not change for Walter Reuther and so Walter Reuther changed for it. He began by leaving the Socialist Party quietly and without pain. He was on his way to becoming a rock of stability.
We are not here to mourn their withdrawal from the struggle for socialism. I am not crying about Walter Reuther’s renegacy; I am only trying to explain it. Because our confidence in the future is not based on the waverings or capitulations of this or that individual figure. It is based on our scientific analysis of society and our knowledge that present economic and social conditions in this country will change again and the U.S. is heading toward an even deeper, sharper, and more explosive crisis than the one of the 1930s. When that happens, it will inevitably produce a new and even bigger generation of radical workers and young people; and that generation, profiting from the lessons of the past, will pick up and carry on the struggle for socialism that has been abandoned by people like Reuther and will carry it through to a successful completion despite the opposition of people like Reuther.
From a Pathfinder Press pamphlet, August 1969, from Tamiment Library microfilm archives. Transcribed and marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
This is a shortened version of Beatrice Hansen’s “Political Biography of Walter Reuther.” The full text can be found by accessing it online at either the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism and Marxists’ Internet Archive.
It can also be found on a website called Future of the Union: A Rank-n-File Publication www.futureoftheunion.com
—The Editors of Socialist Viewpoint