John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle.
Means, Ends and Morality in Popular Social Movements:
An Organizer’s Casebook.
“What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield;
And what is else not to be overcome?”
Satan’s avowal in Paradise Lost by John Milton.
From the epigraph to In Dubious Battle.
Prologue: The Relevance of In Dubious Battle.
“Power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Martin Luther King.
I am writing this essay in January, 2019. We have been living in recent years through an intense period of popular social movements stemming from both the political Left and the political Right. In the United States, movements have been organized on the Left to further equal rights and social justice for women, blacks, immigrants, gays, and many other oppressed minority groups. Movements on the Right have been organized to oppose these liberal goals and to promote, instead, the power of the men, white people, and Christians who have historically dominated the country. Similar movements on the Left and Right have been organized in many other countries around the world.
The nature and extent of these popular movements make John Steinbeck’s novel In Dubious Battle particularly relevant for us today. It is a book about the means, ends and morality of organizing and engaging in popular social movements. The focus of the book is on the labor union movement of the 1930’s in the United States and, specifically, a campaign to organize migrant fruit pickers in California. But the problems that the labor union organizers face in this book differ mainly in peripherals and not in essence with those faced by movement organizers today. One such problem that is dramatized in the novel and that organizers must deal with today is whether they should try to base their movements on what could be called caring communities or hating communities, that is, whether to unite their movements based on whom their constituents care for and support or on whom they hate and oppose.
Right-wing movements are generally built on fear and hate. The anti-immigrant movements that are befouling the world today represent this tendency, exemplified by the popularity of Donald Trump among right-wingers in the United States. Trump, a rich, unreligious, libertine from New York City could not personally be more different from the lower-middle-class, middle-American, Evangelical Christians who make up the base of his support. But Trump hates the people they hate, so they love him. Among Left-wing movement organizers, there has historically been a debate about whether and to what extent theirs should be a strategy of favoring something versus opposing somebody. In Dubious Battle portrays this ongoing debate on the Left. It is a fictional case-study of an organizing campaign.
Written in 1935, In Dubious Battle has historically been overshadowed by The Grapes of Wrath, another novel about migrant fruit pickers in California which Steinbeck wrote in 1939 and which was made in 1940 into one of the best movies of all time. In Dubious Battle has, however, a distinctive and important focus on the means, ends and morality of social movement organizing that makes it particularly relevant. The book is apparently one of the ten favorite novels of President Barack Obama, who himself started out as a community organizer. It is recommended by veteran organizers for novice activists today. And the book was made into a major movie by James Franco in 2016. It’s a bad movie that gets Steinbeck’s message wrong, but at least it demonstrates the book’s ongoing relevance.
I am typing these words on January 21, which is Martin Luther King’s birthday. King was one of the greatest popular movement organizers in history, and he repeatedly engaged in the debate about means, ends and morality that is portrayed in In Dubious Battle, for example in his differences with Malcom X. That the novel is set during the 1930’s gives readers today an opportunity to examine the debate at a historical remove that might help us to explore the issues.
A Dubious Battle: The Moral of the Story.
“Don’t Mourn. Organize.” Joe Hill – an early twentieth century union organizer just before he was executed on a trumped-up murder charge.
In Dubious Battle is the story of a desperate strike by migrant fruit pickers in California during the mid-1930’s whose piece-work wage rates have just been cut from poverty level to starvation level. The book portrays the workers’ struggles to organize themselves and try to force the owners of the orchards to raise their wages. The strikers are assisted by two Communist labor organizers, Mac and Jim, and a local physician, Doc Burton. The three of them have different attitudes toward the strike and approaches to assisting the workers. The book focuses on their ideas, actions, and personal evolutions during the course of the strike.
Mac is a veteran Communist organizer who envisions the strike as part of a long-term project to help workers recognize their commonality and their potential collective strength. His goal is to create a caring community of workers who will commit to each other and to the ideal of cooperation. Jim is a recent recruit to the Communist Party and a novice organizer. He is largely motivated by hatred of capitalists who reap the benefits of other people’s labor and run roughshod over their lives, consequences that he and his family have personally experienced. Doc Burton works with Mac and Jim to care for the health of the strikers and ensure the sanitation of their encampment. He is not a Communist but he sympathizes with the plight of the workers and wants to help them.
The 1930’s were a seminal decade for labor union organizing. As part of the New Deal, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1934. The NLRA gave workers in most industries a legally protected right to organize labor unions. Employers who interfered with employees’ rights to organize, as they had regularly and violently done in the past, became subject to penalties. This didn’t stop bosses from trying to prevent unionization, and violence was still sometimes used against workers, but the NLRA spurred organizing in many industries. Agricultural workers were, however, specifically left out of the NLRA and are still left out to the present day. As such, the fruit pickers who are the subjects of In Dubious Battle were without legal protection, and their battle to organize was much tougher than that of other workers.
In the course of the book, the workers make heroic efforts to stick together against spies, strike-breakers, provocateurs, and vigilantes hired by the owners. But they are being picked off one by one by vigilante snipers, picked up by cops, blocked from getting food and, finally, forced out of their encampment. As the book is coming to a close, it looks doubtful that the workers can continue the struggle, and it seems that the strike is going to come to an inglorious end.
But then Jim is ambushed and shot dead by vigilantes. His body is carried into the strikers’ encampment by Mac. In an effort to make Jim’s death meaningful, so that Jim would not have died in vain, Mac displays the body to the workers as a means of rallying the demoralized strikers, binding Jim to them and them to the common struggle even in death. In the last words of the book, Mac proclaims “Comrades! He didn’t want nothing for himself –” And so, the dubious battle may possibly continue. And Mac’s appeal to the solidarity of the workers and their will to continue for the sake of each other is, I think, the moral of the story.
Setting the Scene: The Popular Front.
“I mean, when the world comes for your children, with the knives out, it’s your job to stand in the way.” Joe Hill.
In order to understand In Dubious Battle, you have to mentally put yourself back into the United States during the 1930’s, and you have to put out of your mind almost all of the conventional wisdom propounded in this country about Communism and the Communist Party since the late 1940’s. The main characters in In Dubious Battle are two Communists and an ally of theirs, conventionally denominated a fellow traveler. With the advent of the Cold War against the Soviet Union in the late 1940’s, Communists and so-called fellow travelers were widely damned as traitors and purveyors of satanic evil in the United States. They were excluded from participating in mainstream politics, and to be considered a Communist or fellow traveler was to be disparaged in the extreme. This was not always or everywhere the attitude toward Communists, especially during the 1930’s and early 1940’s.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Communists and their allies were leading figures in the labor movement and in the struggles of small farmers and poor people to survive. Although Communists were anathema to conservatives and big business interests and were generally condemned in the press, they were still generally accepted as within the range of political discourse in the country, albeit on the far-left side of the range.
In 1935, when Steinbeck wrote In Dubious Battle, the Communist Party of the United States declared that the best way to counter the Depression and the rise of fascism in the world was for all moderates, liberals and radicals to work together in a Popular Front. Rather than rejecting America and Americanism, Communists proclaimed that “Communism was just twentieth century Americanism” and that their forerunners were Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and other American patriots. Communists claimed they were purveyors of the American dream.
The Popular Front was a populist strategy, which is not to be confused with the chauvinist strategies that are widely misconstrued and mislabeled as populist today. When Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and other racists and chauvinists around the world claim to be populists, and are deemed as such by the mass media, they are misusing and disparaging the term. Populists have historically sought to unite people, all of the people. The assumption of genuine populists has historically been that ordinary people of all sorts – whatever their races, religions, ethnicities, or walks of life – have the most important things in common and should work with each other toward common goals.
The assumptions of the Popular Front of the 1930’s and of other people’s movements then and since have been that “when people get together and know each other as human beings,” they will cooperate with each other, and that, in the words of a Chilean popular front movement of the 1970’s, “the people united cannot be defeated.” Genuine populists see as their opponents those who would divide and conquer people based on racial, ethnic or other invidious differences. Chauvinists such as Trump and Orban seek to do just that, to divide people on an “us versus them” racial or ethnic basis. They create communities of hate rather than caring communities. That is the opposite of populism.
As a result of the Popular Front strategy of the Communists and similar populist strategies of other left-of-center political groups, there was from the late 1930’s through the mid-1940’s an upsurge of grass roots organizing of all sorts. The watchword of the period was “the people.” The goal was to organize the people into labor unions, farmers cooperatives, neighborhood clubs, political parties, theatre companies, musical groups, and other organizations of all sorts that would cultivate and pursue the common goals of ordinary people.
The influence of the Popular Front is exemplified in the popular song Ballad for Americans that was written in 1939 by two men who were either Communists or fellow travelers. Significantly, it is not always clear from the historical record who was a member of the Communist Party and who merely allied with Communists in various organizing campaigns. Once the Cold War and anti-Communist campaigns began in the late 1940’s, it made a big difference whether or not you were or had been a card-carrying Communist, but in the context of the Popular Front during the 1930’s, it did not really matter. The point of the Popular Front was to bring together like-minded activists to help organize the people. So, some activists became Party members, others merely joined in campaigns in which Communists were participants.
The song Ballad for Americans recounts American history as the struggle of an ethnically and racially diverse people to achieve ever greater liberty, equality and fraternity for all. It was first recorded by Bing Crosby, the most popular singer of the time, and later made famous by Paul Robeson, who was himself either a Communist or fellow traveler. The song proclaims that in the midst of depression and repression, the American ideal lives on because “We nobodies who are anybody believe it, we anybodies who are everybody have no doubt.” The song ends with a call for Americans to unite and fight against social and economic evils. “Out of the cheating, out of the shouting, out of the murders and lynching, it will come again. Our marching song will come again!” Ballad for Americans was highlighted at two national political party conventions in 1940, the Communist Party Convention and the Republican Party Convention.
Communists were true believers in the possibilities of a radically better society. They were also convinced that the only way to thwart the rise of fascism and overcome the Depression was through organizing the people. Communists were, in turn, willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause by standing in the forefront of organizing efforts and suffering the concussions and repercussions of being the standard bearers. Communists were particularly active in organizing the industrial unions of the 1930’s, such as those of the auto workers, steel workers, electrical workers, and other unions that made up the newly founded Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Most CIO unions included Communists in their leadership positions, and their field organizers were frequently Communists and fellow travelers.
In understanding Steinbeck’s portrayal of Mac and Jim in In Dubious Battle, one needs to take into consideration at least three things about Communism in America during the mid-1930’s. The first is that the worst about Stalin and the Communist regime in the Soviet Union was not generally known. In particular, that millions of people had died as a result of Stalin’s brutal collectivization of small farms in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s was not widely known. Stalin was also just beginning in 1935 the large-scale purge trials, executions, and incarcerations for which he is infamous, and these were not known about in full until many years later. As such Soviet Communism was not yet as universally damned as it was later, and American Communists were not seen as connected to a brutalitarian regime as they were later.
The second thing is that while the Western capitalist countries were wallowing through the Great Depression during the 1930’s, the Soviet Union was essentially unaffected by it and was undergoing massive economic growth. The Soviet Union essentially went from an underdeveloped to an industrial economy during the decade. So, whatever might have been rumored about Stalin’s repressiveness, Communism seemed able to produce the goods.
The third thing is that most outside observers and Communists themselves generally distinguished between the ideologues and politicians who occupied national leadership roles in the Party and the Communist organizers who did grass roots work. Party officials dispensed proclamations from their offices as guardians of ideological purity and political loyalty to Stalin’s regime. They were widely disparaged, even among Party members. In contrast, the Party’s union organizers and community activists were usually working men and women concerned with getting things done and bettering people’s lives, and were quite effective in doing so. They were generally respected, even by anti-Communists.
The Communist Popular Front had significant popular appeal during the 1930’s and 1940’s. It was in this context that in 1935 Steinbeck joined and participated in the League of American Writers, a group organized by Communists. He also worked during this time with Communist organizers for the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Union who provided much of the material about union organizing in the fields that he used in In Dubious Battle. Reflecting the differences between Party bureaucrats, whom Steinbeck despised, and Communist organizers, for whom Steinbeck had respect, there is no mention in In Dubious Battle by Mac, Jim, or the omniscient narrator of Stalin, the Soviet Union, Marxism, or Communist ideology.
Mac and Jim, in turn, make no attempt to proselytize the workers about Communism or get them to join the Party. Mac and Jim are merely union organizers who have become Communists seemingly because the Communist Party was taking the lead in union organizing. Their faith lies not in ideology or in the cult of a personality such as Stalin, but in the solidarity and strength of the people, and the possibilities for a better world if and when the people are properly organized.
Steinbeck paid a price for his connections with Communists and was apparently harassed because of them by the FBI and the IRS. He remained, however, a vocal supporter of the Soviet Union through the mid-1940’s. Thereafter, Steinbeck became an anti-Communist, a supporter of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and an informer for the CIA. But his book In Dubious Battle stands as a testament to Steinbeck’s participation in the Popular Front during the 1930’s along with many other non-Communist progressives. Communists, with their focus during this period on organizing people into unions and community groups, did not seem satanic as they were later portrayed during the Cold War. The Popular Front, in turn, provides the context for the debate about the means, ends and morality of community organizing that goes on in In Dubious Battle. That is why putting oneself into the shoes and mindset of a progressive during that period is a key to understanding the book and its relevance for us today.
The End is the Means: Three Ways of Countering Evil.
“There is pow’r, in a band of workingmen when they stand hand in hand.” Joe Hill.
In describing In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck said that it “has three layers. Surface story, group-psychological structure, and philosophical conclusion.” The first layer, the surface story, is the events of the strike, which are riveting and realistic. Steinbeck claimed to get his facts about strikes from “Irish and Italian Communists whose training was in the field, not in the drawing room,” thereby honoring the Communist organizers but disparaging Communist Party officials.
It is this surface story that is generally discussed in reviews of the book. Reviewers sympathetic to the Left generally see the book as a tragedy. The strikers go through hell on earth and the tragedy of the book, said one reviewer, is “the sense that all they suffered will have happened for nothing.” Reviewers on the Right have scorned the book as promoting the “fanatical machinations of red agents to foment discontent” in America. I don’t agree with either view. I think the book is neither tragic nor rabid. It is a fairly objective portrait that leaves the reader with some hope for the workers and some sense that better things might come in the long run.
The second layer, the group-psychological structure, refers to “group-man” and mass psychology theories of human behavior that were popular during the 1930’s as explanations of the rise of fascism and other mass movements. The basic idea is that groups of people are like organisms and obey organismic laws of behavior. Individual people are like cells in an organic body. These organic groups of people can be controlled by manipulative leaders and can easily become irrational mobs. The group-man theories are espoused in the book by Doc Burton, and the actions of the strikers seem sometimes to be illustrations of these theories. These theories constitute a pessimistic view of the possibilities for people organizing themselves into caring communities and are, as such, generally disputed by the more optimistic Mac.
Steinbeck apparently gleaned these group-man ideas from Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist and friend of Steinbeck. Most reviewers of the book claim that Doc Burton speaks for Steinbeck and that the moral of the story resides in these pseudo-scientific group-man theories. It is my view that while Steinbeck may have identified with Doc Burton as an outside observer of the sorts of conflicts that the book describes, and that Steinbeck seemingly approved of the group-man theories, it is the activist and optimist Mac who speaks for the book.
The third layer, the philosophy of the book, refers, I believe, to the debate among Mac, Jim, and Doc Burton over their theories about community organizing and ways to battle evil in the world. The book has been widely noted for raising “classic question of means and ends, of ego and selfishness.” Most critics have claimed that Steinbeck promotes a philosophy that “the ends justify the means,” with conservatives condemning this philosophy as callously Communistic and liberals accepting it as a necessary evil to further the cause of social justice. I don’t agree that the book promotes a view that the ends justify the means. I think that it is quite to the contrary and that Mac voices the book’s philosophy.
There are many ways of trying to rid the world of evil. One way is simply to ignore evil while doing good yourself, and essentially doing good for goodness’ sake. Dr. Burton represents this approach in the book. He helps the strikers merely because they need help. Organizations such as Doctors without Borders might represent this approach today. This strategy is ideologically and politically neutral, except to the extent it is implicitly critical of governments and societies that do not do enough to help the helpless so that charitable individuals and organizations need to take up the slack.
A second way is to attack evil head on, countering hate with hate and thereby defeating evil in combat. This way represents an unwillingness to tolerate evil and a personal need to eliminate it. Evil is taken personally and is generally personalized in us-versus-them terms. As such, this way can be characterized as doing good for one’s own sake, that is, to save one’s own soul by adamantly rejecting evil. And in this view, the ends can justify the means. Evil must be defeated no matter what the means. As Jim evolves in the book, he comes to represent this approach. Jim needs to release his anger through attacking the bad guys. The Antifa movement might represent this approach in the United States today.
A third way is to try to contain evil, and to surround and overwhelm it with good. Organizing people into cooperative groups that will eventually replace the oppressive institutions of society is both the means and the end in this approach. In this view, the end as a stopping point means nothing. Movement and the movement are everything. It is an all-for-one, one-for-all ethic that can be characterized as doing good for the sake of others. This third approach is represented in the book by Mac. Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition might be an example of this approach in recent years. And, although conventional interpretations of the book claim that Doc Burton represents the voice of Steinbeck, I think that Mac not only has the last word in the book but also the best word.
Organizing Strategies: Common Interests vs. Communal Goals.
“Keep hope alive!” Jesse Jackson.
In representing three different approaches to countering evil, the three main characters in the book also represent three different approaches to organizing people. Doc Burton represents a “let it be” approach to organizing. He believes that groups of people come together naturally and then behave according to their natures and natural laws. He is largely an observer, but also a facilitator for the side in a dispute with which he sympathizes. Mac derides Doc Burton’s approach as contradictory since he invariably ends up choosing to help the oppressed rather than their oppressors. While Doc Burton may represent Steinbeck’s social position as just an observer who wrote about what he saw, the real debate in the book is between Mac and Jim.
The book opens with Jim going into a dilapidated office to join the Communist Party. When asked by the Communist activist running the office, a man named Nilson, why he wants to join the Party, Jim says that “My whole family has been ruined by this [capitalist] system,” and that “Hell, I’ve got nothing to lose.” Jim is thereby echoing Karl Marx’s famous proclamation “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” But Nilson counters Jim by telling him that he actually has “nothing [to lose] except hatred.” “You’re going to be surprised,” he tells Jim, “when you see that you stop hating people” once you start working to help change things. At the same time, Nilson warns Jim, that when you are encouraging people to make changes, “Even the people you’re trying to help will hate you most of the time.” So, Nilson concludes, “You’ve really got to want to belong to the Party pretty badly” in order to be willing to take the abuse that comes with it.
Nilson then goes on to explain to Jim how the Party and the field organizing work: “You’ll get a chance to vote on every decision, but once the votes are in, you have to obey.” This is a process that Communists called democratic centralism. Open debate on all issues but then disciplined acceptance of the outcome. The picture that Nilson paints of Communist organizers is like that of martyrs to the cause of humanity, or maybe fallen angels in the eyes of the established authorities. It was this intense do-gooderism and absolute faith in their cause that helped make Communist organizers effective but also that Steinbeck often found off-putting about them. “I don’t like Communists,” he wrote to a friend in the mid-1930’s, “I rather imagine the apostles had the same waspish qualities and the New Testament is proof that they had the same bad manners.” But he still admired them.
Nilson then introduces Jim to Mac, whom Nilson touts as the best organizer in the state. Mac explains that organizing is not a scripted process and that you just have to go with the flow and be prepared to adlib. Mac also explains that the primary purpose of a strike is not to win. Winning is good, but more importantly “We want the men to find out how strong they are when they work together.” He describes a strike as by nature a peaceful action on the part of the strikers – merely a passive withholding of services from the boss. But it is usually the case that the bosses respond forcefully and even violently to a strike so that strikers sometimes need to defend themselves.
Mac explains that the repressive response of bosses almost always radicalizes strikers, and this helps with the organizing effort. “There is nothing like a fight to cement the men together,” he explains, so that the bosses are essentially helping to organize the workers. In any case, the primary goal of a strike is for workers to learn to care for and take care of each other, and to create a caring community among them. Even losing a strike can help build solidarity in the long run. Mac is hardnosed but essentially an optimist. He believes that a caring society will come out of caring communities. And this is the philosophy that Mac tries to implement throughout the struggles in the book, a philosophy in which organizing is the means but also the end.
When Mac and Jim get to the orchard they have been assigned to organize, Mac helps to deliver a baby. It is the sort of adlib situation that he had hoped for. In so doing, he gets as many people involved in helping with the birth as he can, getting them to bring hot water, clean towels, warm blankets, and many more things from many more people than is needed. When questioned later about this by Jim, Mac responds that “There is a hunger in men to work together” and “There’s no better way to make men part of a movement than to have them give something to it.” And the tactic worked. Participating in the birthing event brought the men together so that they were later more willing and able to trust each other in the strike.
While the wage cut set the stage for the strike, the catalyst for it was a defective ladder that had been provided by the bosses and that broke under a worker so that he fell and was seriously injured. Mac uses this event as an opportunity to try to stir the workers to strike action. His appeal is based on solidarity among the workers. He said while the bosses don’t care enough for workers to provide them with decent ladders, essentially treating the workers as fungible goods that can easily be replaced if they should be injured or die, workers should care for each other. This is the gist of Mac’s appeal throughout the book, and it generally works.
Thereafter, there are repeated instances of violence by vigilantes and local cops in the pay of the bosses against the striking workers and their supporters in the local community. In each case, Mac uses the incident to rally the workers to continue the strike, describing it as a battle for decency and dignity, and not just money. But it is a dubious battle both in terms of its outcome and some of its methods.
Early in the strike, a vigilante murders an old colleague of Mac who had just convinced a trainload of strikebreakers brought in by the bosses to join the strikers instead of scabbing. When Mac organizes a big public funeral for the colleague and uses the man’s death to rally the strikers, Jim questions whether this isn’t a disrespectful way to treat their colleague, using his death as an organizing tool. Mac admits to feeling bad about what they were doing but responds that “We got damn few things to fight with. We got to use what we can. This little guy was my friend. Y’can take it from me he’d want to get used any way we can use him.”
Questions of means, ends and morality dominate the book. When Jim seems to want fight violence with violence, Mac responds “What we got to fight with? Rocks, sticks, when the other side has guns.” So, Mac’s strategy is not to attack evil with violence, but to respond to violence with unity and sympathy, and to create a caring community of workers. Mac explains that “You win a strike in two ways, because the men put up a steady fight, and because public sentiment comes over to your side.” By remaining as unified and peaceful as possible, the public may be won over to the side of the strikers, and the bosses will be surrounded and have to surrender.
It is a strategy that requires a maximum of buy-in and discipline on the part of the strikers. For this reason, Mac emphasizes to Jim that “Leadership has to come from the men,” and not from outside organizers like themselves. A movement must be organized from the bottom-up and not the top-down. When the strike begins, Mac advises the workers to elect a leader, which they do, and then Mac advises the elected leader to have the men vote on everything, which he does. This is the workers’ strike, Mac says, and they have to make the decisions.
Mac’s strategy of organizing from the bottom-up and playing for public support is essentially that which was being used during the 1930’s and 1940’s by Ghandi in India and that was later used by Martin Luther King during the 1960’s. This strategy was widely promoted during the 1930’s and 1940’s in the United States by A.J. Muste, a well-known union organizer and later peace activist. Muste was a pacifist, which Mac is not — Mac is not averse to punching out an agent provocateur — but Muste believed in organizing from the bottom-up, which is Mac’s approach. Muste emphasized developing “shared values and the practice of solidarity.” His goal was a caring community with communal goals rather than merely common self-interests.
An alternative strategy for organizing was promoted during this period by Saul Alinsky, who has been considered by many the guru of community organizing. His book Reveille for Radicals, first published in 1946, has been a guidebook ever since for organizers. But his approach was different in many ways from that of Mac in In Dubious Battle or Muste.
Like Muste and like Mac, Alinsky declared his belief in “the people.” He claimed to have “one article of faith” which was that “if people have the power, the opportunity to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decision.” Notice, however, the qualifiers in this statement of faith in the people: “in the long run” and “most of the time.” Bottom-up democracy was for Alinsky only one among various means and not an end or a principle as it was for Muste and Mac. In a given organizing campaign, Alinsky might promote a top-down strategy in which professional organizers, like himself, or strong charismatic local leaders would control things.
Unlike Mac and Muste, who abjured organizers to avoid acting out of anger, Alinsky insisted on cultivating anger and aggression against one’s opponents. He ridiculed and “reject[ed] so-called objective decisions made without passion and anger.” Anger is more powerful than love or reason, he insisted, and anger is a key tool for organizers. He also ridiculed and rejected making decisions based on morality. For him, the end justified the means, and “it is not important if one must go through a few devious valleys and shadows in the struggle for the people’s world.” “[I]n the war against social evils,” he insisted, “there are no rules of fair play.”
Whereas Mac and Muste tried to appeal to the better angels of humankind and promoted what was in effect the Golden Rule in action, Alinsky adjured idealism, claiming that “only a fool” would preach ideals. People are selfish and materialistic, he claimed, so the organizer must make “use of greed to get good” and use “individualism and self-interest” to get cooperation. People are also narrowminded, Alinsky claimed, so that the organizer must make use of “community chauvinism,” that is, ethnic bigotry, to get people to work together. While celebrating the selflessness of organizers who don’t want anything for themselves, Alinsky was quite cynical about the people he and his colleagues were trying to help.
Although many of Alinsky’s methods were brilliant and are still followed, many organizers have rejected the amorality of his proposals on both ethical grounds and grounds of effectiveness. If organizers see themselves as selfless angels but their constituents as selfish materialists, they will not be able to create the sort of caring community that might make things better. Among Alinsky’s critics was Barack Obama, the one-time community organizer. Obama promoted a hard-headed but warm-hearted and pragmatic approach to organizing. Known as the “No Drama Obama” President, he promoted the same calm and caring approach to community organizing.
Obama described what he saw as the three keys to successful organizing. The first was seeing the problems of the community as a matter of power and “a lack of power” of the people. The best plans are nothing without the power to implement them. The second was “organizing people and money around a common vision.” Without a communal goal, an organizing effort will likely founder on the shoals of conflicting selfish self-interests. Idealism is effectively realism in community organizing. And, the third was “a broadly-based indigenous leadership – and not one or two charismatic leaders.” The people must lead themselves. In each of these points, Obama paralleled Mac in In Dubious Battle and A.J. Muste but differed from Alinsky.
Jim acts as a foil to Mac in In Dubious Battle in ways that point up the differences between the philosophies of Alinsky, on the one hand, and Muste and Obama on the other. Jim starts out as a naïve nice guy full of anger and hatred for the bosses, but who is told by Nilson, the Communist Party official, that he will lose his anger and hate as he starts working with the fruit pickers. And Jim initially does. He is euphoric to be amongst a caring community of workers. He is also initially offended by the calm and calculating approach that Mac takes toward the strike and the strikers. He thinks that Mac is callous. But then Jim encounters the vigilantes and the violence they wreak upon the strikers and is himself wounded by them. The vigilantes are hateful and portrayed in the book as communities of hate. “They like to be cruel,” Mac tells Jim. Their cooperation with each other is predicated on venom and violence against others.
Jim’s anger returns in spades and is turned not only against the vigilantes and cops but against strikers who might be weakening in their resolve. He begins to think that Mac’s calm and calculating approach is a sign of weakness, and he feels that anger and hate are the proper response to the anger and hatred of the bosses. Jim begins to voice a philosophy of ends justifying means, opining, for example, that it is good if the strikers are brutalized and hurt because it will make them fight harder. Jim becomes so hardened that he begins to scare Mac. “You’re turning into a proper son-of-a-bitch,” Mac tells him, “I hope I don’t get to hate you.”
I think that Jim’s trajectory from angelic innocent to devilish hard guy, and Mac’s horrified response to the change in Jim, reflect a rejection of the amoralistic ends-justify-the-means approach to organizing that most critics mistakenly see in the book. Speaking for the book, Mac essentially holds, instead, that moral means are the desired end.
The Movie: James Franco seemingly goes out of his way to disparage Steinbeck’s book.
“If the workers took a notion, they could stop all speeding trains, every ship upon the ocean they can tie with mighty chains.” Joe Hill.
A movie based on Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, directed by James Franco and written by Matt Rager, was released in 2017. The movie is, in my opinion, cinematically good, dramatically bad, and thematically awful. It got generally bad reviews. Most reviews focused on the movie’s incoherence, irrelevance and dramatic failings Reviewer Stephen Holden, for example, complained that the movie is full of “stale boilerplate dialogue” and is “too flatfooted and sloppy to explore the obvious parallels between then and now.” Another reviewer similarly complained that the movie “dispenses with the book’s moral and dramatic complexity.” It is pedestrian and plodding and fails to “bridge the gap between the union struggles of the Depression and those of our ever-divided moment.”
Still other reviewers complained that the movie was “monotonous in its messaging” without explaining what its message was, and that it was a “humorless dirge.” Yet another reviewer’s opinion was aptly summarized in the title of his review: “James Franco has directed some bad movies, but none as boring as ‘In Dubious Battle.’” He went on to describe the movie as “conventionally dismal” and “about as urgent as required reading.” Stephen Holden concluded his review with what he seemingly thought was the consolation that “At least it means well.”
I think that if James Franco and Matt Rager meant well in their film adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel, so much the worse for them because it is an insult to the book. The problem with it isn’t just that it is a bad movie dramatically and a hodge-podge maladaptation of the novel. Nor is the problem merely the insertion of gratuitous sex scenes that are apparently required for a Hollywood movie these days. The problem is that the movie is stupid and gratuitously insulting to Steinbeck’s thematic intentions.
As to stupidity, two things particularly stand out. First, the premise of the strike in the movie is that the fruit pickers are outraged they had been promised a wage of three dollars per day and it is being reduced to one dollar per day. This premise is repeatedly reiterated throughout the movie. Now, such a reduction in a promised daily wage would certainly be grounds for workers’ anger if they were being paid a daily wage and would make a good premise for a strike. The problem is that fruit pickers are not paid by the day.
Paying pickers by the day would be a stupid thing for orchard owners to do, and they don’t do it in real life or in the book, because there would be no incentive for workers to pick very many pieces of fruit and the worst picker would get paid the same as the best. In turn, the bosses would have to closely supervise the pickers to make sure they were working hard, as masters had to do under slavery because slaves had no incentive to work hard. Such supervision would be expensive and troublesome.
The fact is that fruit pickers are paid by the quantity of fruit they pick and were paid that way in Steinbeck’s book. The genius of the piece-work system is that workers are essentially self-supervised. They will work as hard as they can in order to make as much money as they can. Steinbeck clearly states in the novel that the workers’ grievance is that the piecework rate has been reduced, not some daily wage. How could Franco and Rager have missed this point either in reading the book or in exercising their common sense? It’s insulting to Steinbeck and to the movie’s audience.
Second, the movie portrays Mac, Jim and their fellow organizers as willing to sacrifice anything and everybody to win this strike. But there is no reason given for why this little strike in one orchard should be so important to the organizers. Steinbeck clearly explains in the book that this strike was just one in an extensive series of strikes that the organizers were promoting. They did not expect to win them all and did not think any one of the strikes was crucial to their long-term organizing goals. In fact, they opined that losing individual strikes can be almost as good as winning in the long run. But the way Franco and Rager portray the situation, you would think it was Armageddon and the fate of the world was at stake. It is just not believable.
In a significant departure from the book, the movie also does not clearly portray Mac and Jim as Communists. Whereas the book opens with Jim going to a local Party office to join the Communist Party, the movie opens with him going to a nondescript office to join Mac in an organizing campaign. The movie’s makers may have thought it would be hard to convince audiences to be sympathetic to protagonists who were Communists, but I disagree. Movies such as Reds and The Front were able to portray erstwhile Communists in a sympathetic light without looking as though they endorsed Communism. In any case, I think it would be useful to see how public opinion can change so quickly and thoroughly, as it did about Communists in the 1940’s.
We have seen such changes in the United States in recent years as, for example, with respect to sexual orientation. Just a couple of decades ago, homosexuality was widely condemned and even illegal in many places, and so-called homosexuals were disqualified from public life. That is no longer the case, and the change in attitudes toward gays, lesbians and others whose sexual orientations are other than so-called straight has been dramatic. So, it is instructive to see that attitudes can abruptly change from rejection to acceptance as in the case of sexual orientation, but also from acceptance to rejection as it was in the case of Communist political orientation.
Worse than these blunders are the havoc the movie thematically wreaks on the novel. The movie portrays Mac as a manipulative monster who is willing to sacrifice anybody and anything to win the strike. He is in cahoots with a female organizer named Edie who is not in the book. The two of them mastermind and manipulate the strike. Unlike the book, Mac and Edie make the key decisions and Mac doesn’t insist the workers make them. And the things the movie has Mac do are not believable.
So, for example, at the beginning of the movie, instead of a ladder collapsing because of the negligence and callousness of the bosses, Mac sabotages the ladder so that a worker will be seriously hurt, which creates an opportunity for Mac to manipulate the pickers into striking. Later in the strike Mac, not Jim as in the book, berates and brutalizes workers for weakening in their resolve. And whereas in the book, a crazed striker burns down an orchard owner’s empty barn and no one is injured, in the movie, the daughter of a strike leader burns down a house, killing at least one person. Mac then covers it up.
Several times during the movie, Mac and Edie set up the workers to be brutalized and shot by vigilantes and cops. At the end of the movie, as the strike is fizzling, Edie sets up Jim to be ambushed and killed by the vigilantes as a means of creating a martyr to rally the workers to continue striking. In a moment of remorse, Mac replaces Jim and is killed instead. The movie closes with Jim using Mac’s body to rally the strikers. In a postscript which runs with the credits, some discussion of union organizing under the NLRA, which is inapplicable to the fruit pickers’ situation, is irrelevantly flashed onto the screen.
In its treatment of Mac and Edie, the movie essentially equates the “ends justifies the means” approach of the bosses with that of the union organizers. They are all equally callous, brutal and murderous in the movie. This is contrary to Steinbeck’s intentions and insulting to organizers. It is also insulting to workers because the implication of the movie is that the only way one can get ordinary people to stand up for themselves is to manipulate and trick them, and to organize them into communities of hate.
Steinbeck’s book starts with the assumption that organizing against oppression is worthwhile and then moves on to questions of strategies and tactics. It essentially constitutes a debate about the means, ends and morality of organizing against oppression. Franco’s movie rejects the assumption of Steinbeck’s book and raises, instead, the question of whether it is worthwhile to organize against oppression at all, given that you will have to engage in awful activities, face horrible repercussions, and almost certainly lose anyway. The movie’s answer seems to be that resisting oppression isn’t worth it. But then Franco has the audacity to insert into the closing credits a recording of Pete Seeger, a one-time Communist and unionist himself, singing the old union song “Which side are you on?” What was Franco thinking?
The dubious in In Dubious Battle: Which side is God on?
“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Satan in Paradise Lost.
Most critics and interpreters of In Dubious Battle have problems with the title of the book and its epigraph. The epigraph, from which the title is abstracted, is excerpted from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. The poem describes Satan’s fall from Heaven in a momentous battle between his band of angels against the angels and the Son of God who remain loyal to God. Decrying God as a tyrant, Satan declares for what could be considered a republic in place of God’s monarchy, and courageously rallies his troops time after time after being repeatedly defeated by God’s forces.
Written during the 1650’s in England, just after King Charles I had been deposed and decapitated, Satan voices arguments in the poem against God’s rule that Milton had previously voiced in political tracts against the King. Satan’s arguments are persuasive, and interpreters almost universally declare Satan to be the most interesting and attractive character in the poem. As a result, first time readers of the poem, and especially college students in freshmen English literature classes, almost invariably declare in favor of Satan as the hero of the poem.
But because God is God and not merely a mortal man, and because Milton was a devout Christian as well as a political rebel, Milton held that it is one thing to rise-up against an authoritarian King and another to rebel against the authority of a righteous God. Rather than blaspheming against God’s almighty power, Milton described the poem as an attempt “to justify the ways of God to man.” So, Milton clearly could not have intended Satan to be the hero of the poem. But maybe he is anyway. William Blake, himself a poet and devout Christian, said of Milton that he was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” What about Steinbeck?
The epigraph to In Dubious Battle describes Satan recovering from another lost battle, rejoicing that although he had not yet defeated God, he had “shook his throne.” Satan’s “unconquerable will” and his “courage never to submit or yield” will carry him and his cohort on in their dubious battle. So long as they can keep up their rebellious spirits, “what is else not to be overcome?” This sentiment aptly describes the theory and practice of Mac in the book. Is Steinbeck using the epigraph to disparage Mac’s efforts as sacrilegious and unrighteous? Sacrilegious maybe, I think, but not unrighteous.
I think that Mac and Steinbeck his creator might agree with the irreverent community organizer Saul Alinsky in his celebration of Satan as “the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom.” Satan was, in Alinsky’s view, the first and most effective organizer in history. Imagine convincing a bunch of angels to rebel against God and to keep up the fight against literally all odds.
Steinbeck grew up in a conventionally Christian family but firmly rejected his religious upbringing. While attending church with his family when he was nineteen years old, he heard the minister preach that “the soul is a creature that wants [spiritual] food to its satisfaction as truly as the body” wants material sustenance. This was in 1921 in the midst of a severe economic depression featuring massive unemployment and homelessness. Upon hearing the minister’s homily, an outraged Steinbeck stood up and shouted to the congregation “Yes, you all look satisfied here, while outside the world begs for a crust of bread or a chance to earn it. Feed the body and the soul will take care of itself.” This sentiment pervades In Dubious Battle.
Steinbeck was not a college freshman when he took from Paradise Lost an epigraph for In Dubious Battle that is seemingly in praise of Satan. But I think he was taking a poke at the smug, self-righteous, economically secure Christians of his day who scorned the migrants and immigrants who could not find gainful employment during the Great Depression or who had the audacity to rise-up against bosses who exploited them. In Steinbeck’s view, voiced in the book by Mac, wealthy Americans worshipped in the religion of capitalism and Mammon was their god. Among conservatives during the 1930’s, organizing strikes against greedy capitalists was the equivalent of Satan’s rebellion against God. So be it, Steinbeck seemed to be saying.
The battle in the book was dubious both because its outcome was doubtful and because the rebels were continually faced with moral challenges in what they were doing. It was not that they were deliberately causing anyone harm, and certainly not deliberately causing harm to their own people in order to stir up rebellion as Franco’s movie would have it. It was that any rebellion risks retribution and will likely result in harm to at least some of the rebels. Was it right to encourage people to take those risks and repeatedly lose battles in the short run in the hope of winning the war for a better world in the long run? “Someday we’ll win,” Mac tells Jim at one point, “We’ve got to believe that.” That is, I think, Steinbeck’s answer to the question in this book.
 Geoffrey James. “Obama’s Picks for The Best Novels of All Time.” Inc. inc.com, 2015.
 Peter Ferenbach. “These are a few of our favorite books…” rethink. rethinkmedia.org, 12/20/16.
 Saul Alinsky. Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1969 (originally 1946), p.157.
 Quoted in Warren French. “Introduction.” In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.
 Shmoops Editorial Team. “In Dubious Battle.” Shmoop University, Inc. Shmoop.com. Accessed 1/14/19.
 Kirkus Review. “In Dubious Battle.” 10/5/11.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp. 103-105.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp. 229, 239.
 Stephen Cooper. “How John Steinbeck’s ‘In Dubious Battle’ Helps Us Navigate Social Discord.” Counter Punch Podcast, 6/21/17.
 Warren French. “Introduction.” In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.
 Peter Ferenbach. “These are a few of our favorite books…” rethink. rethinkmedia.org, 12/20/16.
 Paul Wilson. “On John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle.” Critical Mass. National Book Critics Circle, 1/11/17.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. P.105.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp.4-7.
 Quoted in Warren French. “Introduction.” In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp.21-22, 34.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. P.43
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp.70-71.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. P.12, 124, 149.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp. 107, 122.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. P.73
 Staughton Lynd. “John L. Lewis and His Critics: Some Forgotten Labor History that Still Matters Today.” Class, Race and Corporate Power, Vol.5, Issue2, Article3, 2017 P.13.
 Saul Alinsky. Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1969. Pp. XIV, 17. Staughton Lynd. “John L. Lewis and His Critics: Some Forgotten Labor History that Still Matters Today.” Class, Race and Corporate Power, Vol.5, Issue2, Article3, 2017, P.10.
 Saul Alinsky. Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1969. Pp. IX, 131, 133, 185.
 Saul Alinsky. Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1969. Pp.89-90, 92, 95, 98, 167, 169.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp. 70-71, 120.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp. 132, 135, 193-194.
 In Dubious Battle (Movie). James Franco, Director. Matt Rager, Screenplay. Momentum Pictures, 2017.
 Stephen Holden. “In Dubious Battle.” The New York Times, 2/16/17.
 Justin Chang. “James Franco takes a page from Steinbeck in the laborious drama “In Dubious Battle.” The Los Angeles Times, 2/16/17.
 Brian Tallerico. “In Dubious Battle.” RogerEbert.com, 2/17/17.
 Jude Dry. “’In Dubious Battle’ Review: A James Franco Period Protest Drama, Dubiously Made.” IndieWire.com 2/18/17.
 Ignately Vishnevetsky. “James Franco has directed some bad movies, but none as boring as ‘In Dubious Battle.’” film.avclub.com 2/15/17.
 Stephen Holden. “In Dubious Battle.” The New York Times, 2/16/17.
 John Milton. Paradise Lost. London: Penguin Classics, 2000.
 Saul Alinsky. Rules for Radicals. “Introduction.” New York: Random House, 1971.
 Quoted in Susan Shilinglaw. “About John Steinbeck.” Steinbeckinstitute.org, 2012.
 John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. P. 111.