On the 60th anniversary of the coal miners' general strike:
Automation and Marxist-Humanism's birth
by Andy Phillips
I first met Raya Dunayevskaya in 1948 in Scott's Run, West Virginia, a coal mining area near Morgantown, home of West Virginia University where I was a student. Raya, then known as Forest, and C.L.R. James, then known as Johnson, were the co-leaders of the Johnson-Forest Tendency (JFT), a group in the Workers Party (WP) that had developed the political-economic position that Russia, far from being a workers' state as claimed by virtually all leftist groups, had been transformed into a state-capitalist society.
Dunayevskaya and James were there because five young members of the JFT had been inspired by Raya at the 1947 WP convention to go into the coal region to work with and recruit coal miners. The miners were then in the midst of colossal battles with not only the coal operators, but also President Truman, Congress, the courts and a hostile press and radio.
Coal miners had well earned the designation as the shock troops of U.S. labor by their struggles in the early 1930s to organize themselves in the midst of the Depression, their leadership in establishing the CIO, their strike in 1943 at the height of World War II that broke the government-imposed wage freeze when the price freeze failed, and their battles against the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. All this was done under the leadership of John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America, who was nearly idolized by all U.S. workers and especially the rank-and-file coal miners.
The five JFT members in Morgantown were a young Marxist intellectual and his wife, a precocious Chicago teenager, a Navy veteran, and an Army veteran who had lost a leg in Germany. He contrasted the attitudes of leaders of the WP, who were full of sympathy for him, to that of Raya, who challenged him to go into the coal region to be on the cusp of working class revolutionary activity. In a very real sense, the influence of all that developed concretely afterward stems from Dunayevskaya's inspiration of those five youths.
Whereas James spent his time in Morgantown at the university, Dunayevskaya wanted to go into the coal area to see how the miners lived. Affinity to workers and their families remained a characteristic throughout her entire life. I did not meet James until 1951.
At this time, coal dominated the national energy supply, providing power for locomotives, home heat, steel production, electricity and all of industry. A disruption in coal production disrupted the nation's entire economy, which is why there were huge stockpiles of coal in the U.S. and the government monitored the supply closely. In addition, labor contracts then were negotiated each year, and the coal miners had a long principled position of "No contract, no work" that often resulted in long strikes. The post-war labor strikes that swept the nation had spawned the Taft-Hartley Act, which could impose a 90-day stay on a strike if it posed a "national emergency," as a coal strike would.
Although I was a student at the university (under the GI Bill thanks to service in the Air Force), during the summer of 1947 I went to work in a faucet factory in my hometown near Morgantown, where I met the Chicago youth, who got a job there. He seemed quite knowledgeable and said he had some friends he would like me to meet. They turned out to be members of the JFT who were living cooperatively in a house in Morgantown.
After a year of intense discussions and activity with the miners, I became a member. I decided to go to work in the mines in the summer of 1949 and got a job on the afternoon shift. The coal contract expired on June 30, and everyone expected a coal strike, but Lewis adopted a new tactic--reducing work to three days a week and selective strikes, calling miners out in one part of the country while keeping them working in another. This prevented Truman from declaring a national emergency since coal stockpiles remained high, but Lewis had violated the time-honored principle of "No contract, no work."
During the summer the JFT gained several new members. Two were students who went to work in the mines, and one was in my mine. By the end of 1949 the in-again out-again tactic of Lewis created much poverty in the mine regions, as well as much frustration among the miners. This all changed in early January of 1950, when miners in northern West Virginia refused Lewis' order to return to work, held several mass meetings and took over control of the strike that spread nationwide.
This transformation in the rank and file was truly remarkable: here were men who six months earlier passionately defended Lewis and would have willingly died and gone to hell for him, but now booed loudly every time his name was mentioned at the mass meeting when they took over the strike.
Lewis, seeking to regain control, called a national strike. Truman threw the Taft-Hartley Act at Lewis and the union in February, declaring the strike illegal, which prohibited anyone from providing any assistance to the striking miners. This completely dried up the paltry aid that some charitable organizations had provided miners and their families, and prevented all help from other sympathetic national labor unions.
Dunayevskaya, who had moved to Pittsburgh, about 60 miles from Morgantown, worked closely with us during the entire course of the strike. Recognizing the urgent need for aid that the miners were now expressing, she suggested that those of us who were miners, and who had a very good relationship with area union leaders from our strike activity, request a meeting to set up a miners relief committee that would select rank-and-file representatives to go out and seek assistance for the miners.
This idea was accepted, and three militant miners went east and three west to solicit aid, with special emphasis on labor unions where there were members of the JFT. The president of the largest local union in the area, where the rebellion against Lewis had first started, volunteered his union's address for the miners relief committee. Aid poured in from throughout the country, ending with a caravan of five trailer trucks full of food and clothing from Detroit that went to five mining regions, with the last van going to Scott's Run. It was clear the miners would not be starved into submission. The strike ended the next month.
All of this, however, would be a footnote to history except for the presence of Raya Dunayevskaya. She not only had a profound and comprehensive grasp of Marxism, she was deeply involved in translating into English Lenin's Philosophic Notebooks, in which Lenin grapples with Hegelian philosophy, especially dialectics. This confluence--of Dunayevskaya, Hegel, Marx, Lenin, dialectics and the miners' thoughts and actions--became the wellspring of an entirely new era in thought and action that illuminates the problems we face today as well as the method to solve them.
A problem often encountered in discussions with workers is the language of dialectics, the abstract expressions used by Hegel (and others after him) to try to remain faithful to Hegelian philosophy. I expressed these concerns to Raya, who said it was important for philosophers to speak for themselves; however, she certainly did understand the problem and said that what was important for me was to learn the philosophical concepts and to use my own expressions in discussions with workers.
At the time that the strike began, the continuous miner was introduced by the coal operators and totally transformed the mining process as well as the relationship of the miners to production. Cutting two-thirds of the work force and imposing horrendous working conditions on the miners, the continuous miner became the precursor of what later was dubbed automation that created not only a new stage in production, but also in cognition.
As Dunayevskaya pointed out, under the impact of the continuous miner, which the miners called "a man-killer," the miners were the ones who moved the question of labor from what should be the fruits of labor (wages, benefits) to what kind of labor should humans do? In this new formulation, Dunayevskaya also saw that the whole question of the separation of mental and manual labor under capitalism was implicit.
The answer that Raya discerned revealed itself in the miners' thoughts and actions, especially as reflected in the mass meetings. These were not only demonstrations of revolutionary democracy, they revealed that the miners were putting their thoughts into action by making the decisions and carrying them out by themselves.
During this time Dunayevskaya never tired of urging the unity of theory and practice; however, she did not fully realize then that the miners were demonstrating very concretely in what they were doing that practice is a form of theory. This reached its specific philosophic articulation during the writing of the coal miners' strike pamphlet, but it reveals the revolutionary depth of what the miners were thinking and doing.
Since that momentous strike, there have been many developments objectively and subjectively. Objectively, we have careened from one crisis to another as reflected in an unending series of wars, civil unrest, huge economic dislocations and continuous labor and capital confrontations, all leading to the present situation marked by an economic meltdown and escalating world crises.
Subjectively, a new body of ideas was created by Raya Dunayevskaya that resulted in the founding of News and Letters Committees in 1955 and her articulation of a philosophy called Marxist-Humanism that analyzed those objective developments in three books: Marxism and Freedom, Philosophy and Revolution and Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation and Marx's Philosophy of Revolution.
Running like a red thread through all of her works is her laser focus on all revolutionary impulses that appeared and integrating them in her philosophy. This is perhaps most clearly seen in extending the revolutionary subjects in society to include youth, women and oppressed minorities as well as the working class and incorporating them in her organization's Constitution, along with her major theoretical works that not only deal with the past but also point to the future.
Here again we can look from today and the crises wracking society back to the miners' strike. The crises have arisen from the conditions at the point of production and the dehumanization that inevitably emerges from the division of mental and manual labor that exists under capitalism. The uniting of mental and manual labor is at the core of the question the miners raised when they asked "What kind of labor should humans do?"
It remains the crucial question today, and while the miners did not succeed in transforming their conditions at the point of production to create a new human society, their reach to the rest of U.S. labor and their own actions of taking their destiny in their own hands point to the way, the method, for all who are aspiring to achieve a human society.
It must be noted that of all the representatives sent by left organizations to the mine areas to cover the strike, one, and only one, was able to understand the historic significance of the strike, and that was Raya Dunayevskaya. As she said of her experience, "[T]he telling of it today shows that it was in our activities in that historic 1949-50 strike--where our theoretical and practical work were inseparable--that we find the roots of what became the whole body of ideas we call Marxist-Humanism which has been developed over the full 35 year period since."
Raya Dunayevskaya left us more than a legacy--as proud and important as that is. Much more significant is the challenge she left us, the challenge of being continuators, not only followers, of Marxist-Humanist philosophy and organization. The fact is that the problems disclosed in that strike have not only not been solved, they have become much more exacerbated and relevant for today.
The major cause of the huge unemployment today is automation. It has not only decimated workers in industry, it has invaded every enterprise and home in the country, eliminating the jobs of millions of workers in offices, healthcare, advertising, newspapers, magazines, shipping, transportation--in short, the scourge of automation is pandemic, leaving no country or individual unscathed. In its wake are the increasingly dehumanized conditions of labor, the pauperization of millions throughout the world and the potential ecological destruction of the earth.
Capitalists and capital have no choice. They have but one goal, that of multiplying capital, regardless of the effect on human beings. All of this Dunayevskaya projected in her work, and along with the coal miners in 1949-1950, also projected the way out of these catastrophic social crises: the activity and thought of masses taking human destiny into their own hands. We have accepted Dunayevskaya's challenge to work to create a new society.
1. Full details of the strike are set forth in the News and Letters pamphlet, A 1980's View: The Coal Miners' General Strike of 1949-50 and the Birth of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S., by Andy Phillips and Raya Dunayevskaya.
2. Coal Miners' General Strike pamphlet, p. 42.
Published by News and Letters Committees