The ‘lesser evil’ in 1937: Contribution to a debate


The 2020 presidential elections are hitting the country at a moment of pandemic, economic crisis, and almost unprecedented political mobilization. The question of working-class independent political action is sharply posed to today’s mass movements, and an important debate is developing among socialists and workers’ organizations over electoral strategy. One of the more popular arguments made by those who reject unconditional independence of the working class is that socialists, unions, and movement organizations must support the “lesser-evil” electorally. Usually, this is argued begrudgingly as being a stopgap while there is no better option.  

Stephen R. Shalom, a political science professor and author at William Paterson University, goes a step further in a recent article published in Tempest magazine titled “The Greater Evil: A Response to Charlie Post and Ashley Smith.” In that article, Shalom rejects the basic Marxist principle that the motive force of history is class struggle. Instead of saying that the “lesser-evil” is simply the least bad of two poor options, Shalom puts forward the thesis that bourgeois politicians who received workers’ votes actually enabled the class struggle. He gives multiple historical examples to ostensibly prove that working people depend on “lesser-evil” landscapes to successfully win everything from strikes to revolutions. 

However, the proposition that working people benefit from supporting bourgeois politicians does not pan out in actual experience. Examining the particular claim that Shalom makes about the sit-down strikes in auto plants in Flint, Mich., in 1936-1937 helps to illustrate the distortions that “The Greater Evil” makes in order to push working people into the fold of capitalist parties.

Who makes history? Frank Murphy and the Flint sit-downs

In order to make this argument, Shalom is forced to rewrite history. A glaring and emblematic example is his claim concerning the sit-down strikes in Flint: “… success was not unrelated to the fact that lesser-evil Gov. Frank Murphy called out the National Guard not to evict the strikers, but to protect them from police and company thugs. Murphy also declined to follow a court order to expel the strikers. A month later, General Motors recognized the UAW.”

According to the logic of Shalom’s argument, if not for the good graces of Governor Murphy, the National Guard would have smashed the Flint strike through force and one of the greatest victories of the U.S. working class would have been a defeat. That Gov. Murphy, a Democrat, was seen by the labor bureaucracy as a “friend of labor” is uncontestable, but his actual performance before, during, and after the strike draws into question both that label and Shalom’s assessment of the role he played.

Murphy’s role in the strike was to defang the sit-down and give a friendly face to the auto bosses’ demands. The question of using violence against the sit-downers was definitively squashed after the Battle of Running Bulls on Jan. 12, 1937. GM had shut down the heat in the occupied plant, Fischer Body #2, and police attempted to block supporters from bringing supplies to the strikers. Striking workers broke the police line and were able to open the plant gates for supplies. The ensuing battle ended in the defeat of the well-armed police force by the GM workers’ heroic use of whatever implements were available to defend their position. The defensive victory was a major blow to the company and strengthened the union, not simply militarily but also through increased recruitment.

Following the workers’ rout of the cops and company guards, the General Motors leadership was forced to change its strategy. In his heart, Murphy may have genuinely disparaged using the National Guard, but the determination for not setting them on the strikers came not from Murphy but rather from the GM and Fischer leadership. The non-violence between Jan. 12 and the settling of the contract was an acquisition from the ferocity of the workers’ self-defense at the Battle of Running Bulls and their ongoing vigilance.

Throughout the entire affair, Gov. Murphy acted as the needle moved by the balance of forces in the struggle. Sydney Fine in his book “Sit-down” commented that after the Battle of Running Bulls, “GM officials told Murphy privately that they did not want the strikers ‘evicted by force …’ Lawrence Fisher remarked to Murphy at one point during the strike, ‘Frank, for God’s sake if the Fisher … brothers never make another nickel, don’t have bloodshed in that plant. We don’t want to have blood on our hands … just keep things going … it’ll work out.’”

Instead, he attempted to negotiate an end to the strike and with the support of the union’s opportunist leadership called for the sit-downers to leave the occupied buildings on Jan. 17. That decision was part of a bald-faced trick by the company, which was quickly exposed as negotiating with the Flint Alliance, a company union meant to break the strength of the then-radical UAW. Murphy’s push to evacuate on the 17th would have had a potentially stronger demobilizing effect than outright force because it would have meant that the union was conceding their position without a fight.

Murphy continued to mobilize the National Guard and state police until the end of the strike. While history generally remembers this as “protecting” the strikers, in actuality, the purpose was to control the strike and carry out company policy. By the strike’s conclusion on Feb. 11, there were between 3000 and 4000 guardsmen in Flint. In fact, Murphy and municipal officials were preparing to forcefully evict the strikers on Feb. 3. They were stopped in their tracks not by Murphy’s hesitating “goodwill,” but by a mass mobilization of 10,000 armed unionists and supporters from around the country.

City Manager John Barringer deputized an emergency police force of 500 community members to put down the demonstrations, but the workers warned that any attackers would be killed. GM President Knudsen sent a message to Barringer enjoining him to stand down.

Winning the strike through military means was a virtual impossibility for the auto companies. The use of force is a concentrated political action, and has political consequences. In the first place, the workers had been fraternizing with the National Guard members, who were themselves mostly young working people. Some had been strikers sent with the blessing of their co-workers. In the second place, the National Guard officers doubted their ability to successfully evict the workers, who had strong defensive fortifications. On Feb. 10, when Chrysler Plant Manager Arnold Lenz assembled a force of company police to evict strikers from Chrysler Plant #4, it was not Murphy but rather the National Guard leadership and Knudsen himself that talked him out of the plan.

Lastly, the whole strategy of the New Deal was to build faith in Democratic Party “friends of labor” as an alternative to industrial action.

Putting together the pieces

The tightrope walked by politicians like Murphy was part of a nationwide strategy to stop the CIO movement from getting out of hand. One of the largest dangers for the capitalists and union misleaders was that the Democrats would lose enough legitimacy to keep the trust of militant workers. By placing its hopes in capitalist politicians, the workers movement weakened itself and was open to betrayals it should have foreseen. This included Murphy’s using state police to evacuate less established strikes later in the year.

Ultimately, the story of the 1936-37 Flint Auto sit-downs gives the exact opposite lesson than that taken by Shalom. Murphy’s personal intervention was more or less inconsequential to the success of the strike. Instead, it acted as a means of channeling the workers back into the Democratic Party. What was needed was not a “lesser-evil” Democrat in office, but that the workers should have rejected inter-class collaboration, electoral or otherwise, altogether.

The illusions built in people like Murphy were simply the other side of a strategy that included the violent repression of the Little Steel strikes later that year. With the support of Roosevelt,  police and company militias shot at demonstrators, who were not prepared defensively due to a relative lack of organization. The worst violence occurred in Chicago, which was under the leadership of New Deal Democrats, including Mayor Edward Joseph Kelly and Governor Henry Horner.

In the aftermath of the sit-downs, the capitalist class made sure to whip its political representatives into obedience with the “little Red Scare” through Congressman Dies’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The “lesser-evils” pledged greater loyalty to the control of General Motors, Youngstown Steel, and other magnates.

Support for capitalist politicians is not the prerogative of working people. Capitalism does not and cannot rule through blind violence and repression alone. In order to stave off workers from organizing independently, the capitalists need mechanisms to foster legitimacy in their rule. That often comes through putting forth a “lesser-evil” choice, who puts a humanistic spin onto the capitalist state.

What stops the capitalists from governing through pure force is not the results of elections, but rather the whole political situation, most especially the level of organization of the working class. If it appears necessary, the “lesser-evil” politician will prove as willing as their more “hard-line” opponent to use everything from the police to fascist mobs to put down the independent initiatives of working and oppressed people.

Socialists reject the “lesser-evil” strategy. Instead, we work every day to build a new mass combat party of working people, based in the unions, with a strategy of strikes, mass mobilizations, and self-defense. Such a party needs to be uncompromising in its independence and strive to penetrate ever deeper into the working class.

Out of our struggle to create the workers’ party, the experience of historic and current betrayals by representatives of the capitalist class will allow broad layers of working and oppressed people to better understand the impossibility of continuing with this dying economic system. The struggle against the “lesser-evil” in all of its manifestations is essential for the struggle for socialist revolution.

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