On boring from within - Bert Russell

An article by Bert Russell looking at 'boring from within' strategy by radicals in the AFL and CIO and their fruitless nature. Originally appeared in The One Big Union Monthly (February 1938).

The advent of the C.I.O. on the American labor scene has been the grounds for the rebirth of scholastic arguments long thought crucified on the cross of experience and fittingly buried with the rest of the superstitions and myths of the primitive strivings of the wage workers. Aside from the possible immaculate conception of the Saviour, John L. Lewis—of his being born again after being bathed in the blood of refractory miners—the ghost which the Faithful are most ardently trying to blow life into, is the historically discredited doctrine of "Boring From Within."

Though at the danger of being burned at the stake as a materialistic heretic and non-believer in the revelations of St. Marx and his disciples, Lenin and Stalin, Hayes and Berger, Foster and Browder, a review of labor history in relation to this doctrine is in order. Experimental science of the twentieth century has more to offer us than has the jesuitical logic and dialectics of the dark ages.

As soon as the A. F. L. became the foremost labor organization of America, numerically if in no other way, the socialists set out to capture control of it to further party aims.

In 1893, they were successful in putting over in the A. F. L. convention a program including "the collective ownership by the people of all the means of production." But the following year, 1894, Gompers, opposed to the socialists, maneuvered successfully in having this rescinded. Apparently as compensation for this setback, the socialists were able to elect their candidate for president of the Federation. Gompers, however, resumed this position the following year.

This frustration, on the eve of success as it seemed, spurred the Socialist Labor Party to officially forsake the salvation of the A. F. L. and to promote the dual paper organization, the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance. A faction, however, tantalized by their near-success retained faith in changing the A. F. L. and the difference between the factions culminated in the formation of the Socialist Party, 1900, which adopted officially the policy of boring from within the A. F. L.

Socialists in the A. F. of L.

Despite their exorcism of dual unionism and wailing allegiance to the Federation, Gompers scorned the socialists and never missed a chance to give them a raking over the coals. But he was canny enough to use their support to counter-balance the growing sentiment favoring the progressive groups which formed the I. W. W. in 1905.

The socialists' influence in the A. F. L. grew. In 1911, their candidate for president of the Federation, Hayes, received 5073 votes, against Gomper's 11,974. In 1912, the socialists lead the industrial union advocates in polling 5929 votes against the 10,934 craft union votes in the convention. Their party membership grew to 110,000 and votes polled in the presidential election, 1912, were 1,000,000.

The socialist leaders became impatient. The realization of a party similar to the German Social Democrat with its party funds, its officials and well paid jobs, its power to demand some of the political patronage-dispensing authority of the regular parties, was just around the proverbial corner. There seemed to be just one fly in the ointment to their quick ascendancy with A. F. L. support. Though the political parties were asked out of the I. W. W. in 1908, many members of the I. W. W. still placed some confidence in independent workers' political action and the means such a party offered in putting across working class propaganda. These members and their sympathizers maintained membership in the S. P. or supported it in other ways. Bill Haywood was a member of the S. P. executive board. This was a touchy problem in the party's relationship with the A. F. L. and as absolute proof of their loyalty to the principles of the A. F. L. the party convention, 1912, virtually ruled out the I. W. W. members. The I. W. W. members and their sympathizers left.

With this positive evidence of their good intentions, the socialist leaders turned hat in hand to the A. F. L. officials for praise and reward. They got none. The craft union officials figured it out this way: "If the socialists don't believe in interfering with our racket by running around with those I. W. W., and they promise to be faithful to us, what is the use of giving them anything? Any gifts we have to spare we had better give to those we are not so sure of." From this time on the Socialist Party lost influence not only in the A. F. L. but as a political party.

Another Party Tries

The communists who after the war took up the boring from within methods had an even more dis-mal experience. Without the understanding bred from experience of the old socialists, steeped in the rule or ruin policy of the Moscow Messiahs, controlled entirely by intellectuals out of touch with the working class, the communists did little but confuse and disrupt. Where they did gain success in taking over the officialdom of a union they milked the treasury for party funds; or the ones elected as officials promptly forgot their former radical views, if they ever had any, and used the powers in their hands for their individual good.

Aside from the political parties, boring from within had other advocates who had less influence. Foster's Syndicalist League seems to have exhausted itself by publishing the pamphlet "SYNDICALISM." Moreover, there is little evidence that even Foster himself was affected deeply with revolutionary syndicalism in his organizing activities in the lumber, steel and packing industries. He gained a seat in the officialdom and retained it at the price of endorsing and playing ball as official ball is played.

The anarchists followed the policy of each to his own individual conception, helping, obstructing, nullifying, and duplicating the work of others. As officials of unions their actions vary greatly from their ideals. We see anarchists on the executive board of the International Ladies Garment Workers fraternizing with politicians and working hand in hand with the state drawing up codes for the government to enforce. It was not the labels of socialist, communist, anarchist, or syndicalist, with all their hysterically imagined implications, that accounted for the disappointing showing of the borers. Even those innocent of radical beliefs, those popularly referred to as liberals or progressives, failed equally as brilliantly to reform the conservative unions even the slightest. Those quaint persons, ex-wobs, ex-socialists, the ordinary run of scissorbills1, who tell us that they are working for the same things as the I. W. W. but are doing it in a "different and better way" have nothing to show for all their efforts of pushing "good men" into the office of union leadership. After seeing their heroes one by one go the way of all flesh afflicted with piecarditis and exercise of authority, it must be plain to them that they are kidding no one but themselves and might just as well wave the red flag over their march to defeat.

Why Boring Fails

Why have all these groups and individuals failed to achieve the metamorphosis of the conservative unions into revolutionary industrial unions?

Primarily because a collective bargaining agency is an institution of capitalism and can function only in this way if it is to exist. Woven of and into the fabric of the "the catch as catch can, no holds barred" competitive system it functions as do all other capitalist institutions. Likened to a capitalist bank it may be more clearly shown. The function of a bank is to arrange debts in such a way that the investors are assured a profit on their investment. Now it is possible that a philanthropist could be appointed as the official of the bank, but to carry into his every day banking operations his philanthropic ideas by loaning money without interest, or charitably cancelling debts, would inevitably lead to the destruction of the banking institution and not, as the borers from within assume, to a reform of the bank to a philanthropic institution. Aside from all doubt as to the bankers' sincerity and philanthropic integrity, the outcome is seen to be inevitable if the bank is to continue to operate.

So with the A. F. L., C. I. O., and other conservative unions. Allow for the sake of argument, radicals could be officials of the conservative unions. They could not put their radical policies into practice without destroying these capitalist collective bargaining agencies. Those who have attempted to do so with these outfits, at the expense of their functioning as collective bargaining agencies, have just sowed disruption and dissension and only by their removal or the changing of their ideas, have the organizations managed to survive. Look at the C. I. O.—A. F. L. rumpus and the weakness it has caused in the ranks of labor's collective bargaining agencies. The whole cause is, not as some would have us imagine, a fight between craft and industrial unionism, the attempt of political aspirant to make a collective bargaining agency function as something foreign to its nature, as a political vote catching machine. Political parties are not interested in building revolutionary industrial unionism but are motivated in their boring from within relations to the conservative union by one thing; namely, the necessity of obtaining a secure mooring among the working population upon which to anchor their party.

Political Party Roots

Political parties must needs have their roots in an economic group, whether that party be republican, democrat, progressive or socialist. The two old line parties are rooted in the economic groups of the vested interests. Where so-called labor political parties have attained any degree of stableness, as the Independent Labor Party in England and the Social Democrat parties in many countries of Europe, it has been only by sinking suckers into the necks of labor unions. The labor unions supply the blood and substance of these parties and only at the expense of their own health.

The labor union's role, in political party plans, is a source of campaign funds and as substantial evidence of their control of votes by which the labor politicos can bribe the old line parties for favors and some share in the political patronage of job dispensing for party lights. To gain this evidence of strength does not require building rank and file revolutionary industrial unionism. It merely requires the control of the officialdom of the labor unions. This is adequate for their political purposes. The training and education of the union members to the benefits of rank and file control and the development of their abilities to control industry for their own use, as revolutionary industrial unionists propose, is not only superfluous to the needs of a political party but is an actual menace to its aims.

The exercise of rank and file control would nullify all the benefits of gaining control of the official machine. Even where the political partisans have appeared progressive by supporting the industrial form as a substitute for the craft form of unionism it has been merely as a political slogan or to facilitate better control of the members for the party when it should arise to official ascendancy. Their cries for the industrial form of unionism can be likened to the cuckoo advocating to other birds the building of good nests so that later on the cuckoo can lay its eggs in them.

For the run down at the heels intellectuals and aspiring ex-workers, the control of the finances and votes of the labor unions would make for the realization of their dream of a third party with well-paid jobs and authority to dispense patronage to the hangers on. Revolutionary industrial unionism would only blast the hopes of this political borer from within. If there was chance of this kind of success with this tactic they would not want it.

Speech Making Leaders

Foster depended for success on the methods that the syndicalists adopted in France, of gaining control of the official positions and passing resolutions and making speeches about revolutionary syndicalism. But syndicalists prove no different from the socialists and communists after being in office for any length of time; and in the land of Foster's inspiration, France, the C. G. T. officials were equal to Gompers and the Social Democrats of Germany in following the masters' wishes in regards the World War. A resolutionary-speech-making leadership does not make a revolutionary-feat-making rank and file, nor leadership either.

The pitfall to even temporary success of the borers from within appears to be the contaminating effects of the spoils of office, the exercise of authority and high salaries. Even their venerated prophet, St. Karl, did not reveal a revolutionary nostrum for the poisonous effect of officialdom, and it remains the dragon on guard against the Knights of the Bore. Man will protect a woman from everyone but himself, it is said. The opportunist will protect the interests of the rank and file likewise.

Any influence that the political borers have attained in their activities has been while they were tacitly supporting dual unionism. The height of the socialist influence was in the '90s when the ghost of the Knights of Labor was not entirely laid to rest and up to 1912 while they were still friendly to the I. W. W. The communists have time and again tried to bolster their prestige by forming dual unions and then running them back into the A. F. L. both before and with the T. U. U. L. splurge. And even their present prestige, such as it is, is only because of the dualism of the C. I. O. Immediately the S. P. cut itself off from the I. W. W. officially its influence waned. And without doubt, on the consummation of the C. I. O.-A. F. L. peace the communists will go as flat as a pricked balloon. And they know it and will stand in the way of such a peace.

But without organization not even situations favorable to getting to first base with their political ball can be taken advantage of as has been shown conclusively in the development of the C. I. O. Even though the progressive elements and those who know what the score is, far outnumbered them; the politicians control by dint of their organization.

Whoever would influence the conservative union member must, as history shows, have organization, avoid all contact with the germs of officialdom and promote dual unionism. But even then, it still remains that a capitalist institution, whether bank or labor union, cannot become a revolutionary institution or even part of the new society. Such an attempt would destroy the institution, as the politicians are doing with the A. F. L.-C. I. ). without building anything to take over whatever functions are necessary to the working people.

The Job on Hand

Neither the banks nor collective bargaining agencies need be the objects of destructive intentions. As capitalism is destroying itself, so it is destroying the institutions that make it up. The job on hand is to build the structure of the institutions that will carry on when capitalism sinks to its doom. Therefore, it could not be a dual organization, as the C. I. O. is dual to the A. F. L., but would be of entirely different structure and aims, not attempting to duplicate the capitalist functions of conservative unions. In short, it would be the Industrial Workers of the World. The material for this purpose is at hand, the resources, the working men and women.

To destroy any of the institutions of capitalism, whether they be the A. F. L.-C. I. O. financial institutions or industrial administrative agencies, without having first built an organization structure to carry on whatever necessary functions these institutions were caring for, as well as to carry on the new responsibilities of the new conditions, is to court disaster as surely as it would be to tear down an old house before a new structure has been built in which to move. To bore from within the old structure in an attempt to build a new one is fruitless. But while in the old structure, we can build the new one by its side and the necessary arrangements can be quickly completed when the old capitalist system and its institutions, the banks, the industrial administrative agencies and collective bargaining agencies collapse in decay. "By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old."

Originally appeared in The One Big Union Monthly (February 1938)
OCR scanned and edited by Juan Conatz

  • 1. A worker who is not class conscious - juan