Labor and Totalitarianism


By MATTHEW WOLL, Vice-President, American Federation of Labor Delivered at Radio Station WEVD, July 18, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. 5, pp. 671-672

WHEN the World War closed in 1918 there was a great wave of democracy which spread all over the face of both Europe and the rest of the world. Within the past fifteen of the last twenty years democracy has been challenged again and again by a dictatorship which is on the march. Today it is dictatorship which appears to be triumphant in many parts of the world and democracy which is in retreat.

Nearly all of continental Europe, excepting France, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries have fallen away from liberalism and democracy.

England, France and the United States alone remain as the bulwarks of democracy. Not since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, a meeting of European Statesmen after Waterloo, struggling for the abatement of forces loosed by the French Revolution and the subsequent reaction, has there been such a crucial time in the determination of political forms and trends as the present.

But what has changed the democratic trend in the world? Oddly enough, it was a war fought to "make the world safe for democracy." The necessity for unified command, the importance of unified control and dictatorial powers to wage a war left all of the countries with a yearning for peace and democracy and yet a habit of dictatorship. Moreover, the very destitution and disillusionment which followed in the wake of the Great War gave rise to a vast revolutionary ferment in the world.

The story, insofar as Russia is concerned, is a thrice told tale of the revolution, of the brief effort of Kerensky to set up his liberal democracy, his overthrow by Lenin and Trotsky, and the setting up of the Soviet Republic. We are fully familiar with the efforts of the Third Internationale to capture the trade unions in the democracies for revolutionary purposes and of the temporary abandonment of the program for world revolution. Of the first and second Five Year Plans we have learned a good deal. The crimes of the Bolshevist rulers have been reported and denounced many times, but not often enough. Under guise of social enlightenment, the era of cruel oppressive Zaarism has been reestablished.

So far as the general economic well-being of the workers in Soviet Russia is concerned, whatever military might they have achieved, whatever security has been gained, it has come out of the fabric of the people. Living and working conditions are deplorable. The Russian masses are suffering beyond description so that a monopolistic state and its bureaucracy may live and fatten on the toil of its oppressed people. So far as civil liberties are concerned, they are as much a dead letter in Soviet Russia by all reports as they are in any of the other fascist powers.

Insofar as Italy is concerned, it is immaterial that Mussolini was an active Socialist before the War and an organizer of various working class movements, with a flair for journalism and propaganda. He sensed the discontent of the people as well as the denial to Italy of what he called "a place in the sun." As he reminded his followers again and again, "We won the war and lost the peace." Exploiting this feeling of discontent and utilizing the unemployed war veterans and the youth as the nucleus of his Black Shirts, he started his famous March on Rome to seize the reins of government. Opposition was ruthlessly and mercilessly eliminated. To the more common methods of terrorism even murder was added. Dictatorship was enthroned and all opposition of whatever kind was eliminated.

The result has been the complete suppression of labor and a general lowering of wages and living standards, together with a high cost of all kinds of goods and services. Labor in a way is not only suppressed but must follow whatever is the will of the dictator. The youth of Italy, dressed in black shirts, is sent on foreign adventures. Its blood is spilled on the soil of Africa and Spain. Italian children grow up in an atmosphere of military medievalism. The universal teaching of youth is to hate and despise anyone who does not regard brute force as a solution for the ills of mankind. Conditions in Italy are deplorable.

The story of the rise of the Nazis in Germany is one of the striking and unhappy chapters in the recent history of Europe. Faced with widespread unemployment, with a feeling of growing discouragement as a result of the humiliating defeat on the field of battle, Adolf Hitler rose to power as a desperate hope of a disillusioned and disheartened people. By his denouncement of the Peace Treaty, by the repudiation of all reparations, and a full program of rearmament for Germany, he appealed to the German people by all the artful methods known to modern propaganda. By a ruthless program of demagoguery and religious and racial intolerance, by appeals to the business community, Hitler promised that he would bring Germany back again to its place as one of the mighty powers of Europe. The story of his rapid rise to power is now a familiar story. The record of the burning of the Reichstag, the establishment of the Department of Propaganda, the purges, the persecutions are all part of the immediate past.

It was to be expected that any party which rode into power by the exercise of such anti-constitutional and illegal means should develop methods which themselves not only did violence to the respect for other opinions, but for other racial groups. Thus the violent anti-semitic persecutions and the effort to drive Jews from every phase of social, political, and economic life in Germany was a method calculated to amplify this spirit of both intolerance and illegality. Moreover, the process of assassination and persecution—following as it did in the tradition of the revolutionary philosophy, disclosed as few things could the inner nature of that process of government.

What has the new German empire given to the German people? Victimized by petty tyrants, watched day and night, herded into concentration camps and sent by the hundreds to the executioner's chopping block, the citizenry of a once great nation has been reduced to utter moral and material shambles. They have found employment in a vicious and self-defeating armament race, but at what a price! Today, six years after the establishment of the Hitler regime, the eight-hour working day has been replaced by one of ten, eleven and more hours. Wages have constantly declined and are lower than in 1933, in spite of the increase in working hours and the return to the hated piece work system. Prices of necessities are going higher and higher. Deductions fortaxes, Nazi funds and other arbitrary levies amount to nearly 30 per cent of the weekly wage.

Today the German people live under constant fear of persecution with shortage of foodstuffs and goods felt by all. Were it not for the brutal Nazi regime, for the concentration camp and overcrowded prisons, for the threat of violent death hanging over their heads, for the absolute lack of impartial and humane justice, the German people and their conquered Austrians and Czechoslovakians would not have tolerated the situation so long.

It is this concept of the state which not only does violence to a long tradition that had developed within Germany but it does violence to the whole tradition of our western civilization, which sets up distinctions between the right of the individual and the right of the state.

Under the philosophy of totalitarianism, basic freedoms which we count as a part of the precious heritage of western civilization have been systematically suppressed. Among the first to go was the freedom of the press. In the second place, public meetings have been completely abolished save as they are conducted by the ruling power. The independence of the courts is completely eliminated. Individuals may be imprisoned for an indefinite period of time without bringing them to trial and essentially the law itself must correspond with the will and interest of the totalitarian state and as expressed by the ruling political party.

Then, too, religion is viewed as a menace to dictatorship. Totalitarianism not only rejects the divine character of man and the primary loyalty of man to his God, but it also asserts that the control and moral instruction of the citizen is primarily the function of the state.

Totalitarianism frankly and openly holds democracy as a form of government in contempt.

Under such developments a democratic people must survey this alternative to its own method of life and give the answer. It must look about itself and take heed lest it be drawn into the maelstrom.

Even if we can remain aloof from the dictatorial form of government, the economic practices of the dictatorships affect us through competitive channels of trade and otherwise.

Low wage workers in Japan, Germany, Russia, Italy and elsewhere produce vast quantities of goods under huge State-controlled corporations which embrace whole national industries. Such products are often dumped in all parts of the world without much regard to cost of production in order to pay for war materials. American workers in such industries as textiles, glass and porcelain ware, shoes, toys, etc. are driven from employment or are forced to lower wage levels. Whole industries often come under pressure of sudden and crippling competition from these totalitarian State sources, because the latter finding a sudden shift in trade necessary from considerations of war material supplies, may ship abroad vast but well determined tonnages of products made under special conditions of cheap and regimented labor.

It is for these reasons that the democratic countries, including our own, cannot remain passive in face of dictatorial State powers wielded for nationalistic purposes in other countries.

They establish restrictions, quotas and other less open strictures against our trade, but we permit undermining of our own economy with impunity. Not only that, but by our passive attitude we permit them to play their highly conscious games of nationalism, militarism and conquest without recourse. If democracy is not finally rendered untenable in such a world, we can only thank blind and unconscious forces working out their destiny without our conscious cooperation.

Today Nazi Germany and Fascisty Italy have joined hands with Militaristic Japan in a so-called Rome-Berlin-Tokyo-Axis. This constitutes at once not only a menace to the peace of the world but a threat to the existence of free labor movements in all countries which either adjoin those countries or whose economic life is dominated by them.

In the few recent years that have elapsed, we have seen not only the fruitage of this philosophy and combination, but we have seen somewhat more clearly the real direction of the Nazi philosophy. The rape of Austria, the destruction of Czechoslovakia, and the mockery of Munich have all tended to make clear the inner purposes of the Nazi government. There is something very similar in the Nazi handling of international affairs to the typical gangster's method of holding up an innocent and unarmed individual with a gun. Being a revolutionary movement in the sphere of foreign policy as well as in that of home policy, it aims at the destruction of the existing order and desires a redistribution of the world between Germany and the other dynamic powers. Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy and Militaristic Japan are not without such a dream.

And who knows or can predict what future relationship may come into being between Communist Russia, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Militaristic Japan or any one of them?

Such, in a word, is the development of totalitarianism, and such, in a word, is the dynamic purpose which animates the leaders of Totalitarianism.

Need one ask the question as to whether or not such a philosophy is a challenge to the free labor movement? There is not in any part of this philosophy nor in any of its methods anything that can be said to be congruous with the aims and policies of the trade union movement. Rather it is the complete opposite. For labor has long since recognized that freedom of speech, freedom of assemblage are the conditions precedent to the existence of a trade union movement. Labor can suffer opposition, it can endure privation, it can even suffer under a certain type of exploitation, if it has the right of protest. But deprive labor of the right to any kind of effective protest against any or all measures of injustice, deny it the right of assembly or access to the newspapers, and it is gravely imperiled. Moreover, labor has long since realized that freedom of conscience as well as of economic enterprise is necessary for any kind of effective functioning of the trade union. Establish compulsory arbitration, set by arbitrary means the hours of work and wages, curb both the right to strike and the right to protest, and the organization of labor operates within a narrowly contracted limit.

Moreover, labor believes in the brotherhood of all who work, without reference to race, creed or color. It believes in a family of nations in which all who work have the opportunity of making their contribution to the commonweal. It is because of that that labor is unalterably opposed to the philosophy and methods of the totalitarian ideal.

For the man in the street, as one examines the totalitarian state and judged by the results of their policy and their program, one may say—and is impelled to say without the slightest hesitation—that it means death not only to the trade union movement but death to freedom, death to the right of religious conscience, death to education and science; indeed, to those very aspects of our life which we count as among its most precious possessions. When labor opposes the totalitarian state and all that it stands for, it does so out of some knowledge of the effect of totalitarianism on the labor movement. And it does so also out of some appreciation of its nihilistic tendencies and its destruction of the very foundation of western civilization.