"But you don't really have politics in the States, now do you." Alex heaps tomato-ginger chutney onto his plate, next to his aviyal, curried broccoli and brazed, spiced lamb. He dresses working class, has long brown hair and a full beard, and his English accent clips the words.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I bristle
slightly, an admittedly nationalist reaction from an avowed anarchist.
I'm still munching on the spicy potato samosas and tart red onion raita,
waiting for my meal to arrive.
The place: a cheap Indian restaurant in London's trendy Soho District. The time: end of December, 1974, during the IRA's London bombing campaign. The circumstances: I'm visiting friends, a socialist couple Alex and Nicole, on the English leg of my one-and-only visit to Europe. Alex spent a year in the US as an exchange student, and we'd met doing anti-Vietnam war work. We're having dinner before hitting the pubs with promises of apple scrumpy and Scottish ales.
"The Republican and Democratic parties, there's not much of a distinction in their politics." Alex waves his fork. "The differences between them would actually fit within a single European party, like some standard Liberal Party for instance."
"Agreed." I nod as the waiter moves our empty stacked bowls of rasam to lay out my food; kichadi, eggplant curry and savory sauteed chicken. "We have Democrats like George Wallace and Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller. It's nuts. You'll get no argument from me that they're really only one party."
"You don't even have a multi-party parliamentary system in the US," Nicole comments, halfway through her vegetarian dinner—a mushroom curry, cucumber yogurt salad and flavorful uppuma—having been served a good twenty minutes before us. Her black hair is violently short for the times, her cheeks are plump and her British accent is flatter, more nasal. "As dubious as electoral politics are and as much as I support the extra-parliamentary opposition, at least in western Europe we have communists and fascists in the same elections with real conservative and real labor parties, even fucking monarchists. We have real politics. All you yanks got is Democrats and Republicans."
I can't argue. Even I realize that my ritual vote for the Peace and Freedom Party is a largely symbolic act. I glance over the communal chapatis and dal brought when Alex was served. I want to talk about continental politics; about West German and Italian popular youth movements, workers' currents and armed groups. Alex and Nicole are both upper middle-class college kids who've actually lived on the continent and traveled in the Middle East, India, Africa; places I want to know more about. Nicole is game. Alex however presses his points.
"The United States is a much more conservative
country, on the whole. Our Labor Party is no longer even remotely socialist,
but they're nominally committed to basic nationalized transport and industry.
Not that nationalization is great shakes, it just indicates that the terms
of official political debate are broader on this side of the Atlantic.
It is better than your narrow, business-über-alles attitude in the
States. Roosevelt, he never nationalized anything, did he?"
"His New Deal started some public corporations I think." I say between delicious mouthfuls. "There were public works projects, and the Tennessee Valley Authority was a government agency that did regional planning and development. Social security but no, nothing nationalized."
The meal is outstanding, even though the service is haphazard. The payasam is sublime. I don't eat tastier Indian food until I visit New York some 15 years later. The dark-skinned citizens of the British Commonwealth are pouring into the white "mother country." Race riots and a neo-nazi resurgence are right around the corner, as is 18 years of Conservative Party rule, first under Maggie Thatcher and as denouement under John Major. That's 18 years of privatization, deregulation, cutting social services, breaking strikes, championing free enterprise, seeking regional free trade agreements; all the stuff we now call neo-liberalism. In May of this year, Tony Blair's Labor Party wins the British elections. Yet far from heralding some dramatic change in British domestic or foreign policy, this particular governmental shift amounts to a continuation of Tory social austerity/free trade practices, not an overturning of them. Blair consciously models himself upon Clinton and, under his influence, the Labor Party has moved to the center of British politics, endorsing free markets and denationalization. And while there is still substantial resistance to Blair's rightward march in the party's left-wing—folks like Arthur Scargill who want to return the party to its traditional trade union base and support for economic nationalization for instance—British politics are becoming more and more like America's; that is, blandly unpolitical, with the major parties vying for that surprisingly narrow "middle ground."
I now chuckle, thinking about that discussion so long ago.
The process of social change in Britain, in the US, in any country with a modest liberal/democratic tradition has nothing to do with going to the polls and voting for the politician or political party of your choice. Whether the system's "narrowly" two-party or "broadly" parliamentary makes no difference. This isn't an election year, so I don't have to counter a horde of desperately deluded Leftists recruiting for the Democratic Party as the "lesser of two evils." Rather, this observation follows up on the subjects of democracy and social power presented in previous columns, dovetailing them nicely.
Until the Great Depression, the established political culture in this country was just to the right of Atilla the Hun. In addition, socialist agitation never managed to gain much more than a foot hold in the US working class, and intellectuals pondered the causes of this "American exceptionalism." The stock market collapse in 1929 and subsequent years of economic depression changed all of this.
Roosevelt's election in 1933 ushered in the modest reforms of the New Deal and the alphabet soup of government agencies and programs we are familiar with: FDIC, NRA, CCC, WPA, TVA, FHA, etc. But the increased government intervention in economy and society to promote recovery that the New Deal represented was "leftist" only by default. In large part Roosevelt wanted to head off the organized forces of discontent spreading around the country in order to save capitalism, and the asses of the US ruling class.
The Communist Party (CP-USA) boldly soapboxed on street corners, and anti-semites like Father Coughlin broadcast openly on the radio. Populist demagogues like Louisiana governor Huey Long promoted "share the wealth" programs. Early Nazi sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh endorsed the Silver Shirts; disciplined formations of uniformed young men resembling Hitler's SS and SA. On March 6, 1930 a CP-sponsored unemployment demonstration brought out more than 50,000 in Detroit, with thousands more taking to the streets in Toledo, Flint and Pontiac. On March 7, 1932 police and Ford plant private security fired on a CP-led Hunger March, killing 4 and wounding 50 in what came to be known as the Ford Massacre. And labor unrest increased exponentially in the 1930's. Gunfire was exchanged between workers and police at the bitter Gastonia, North Carolina strike on June 7, 1929, killing the chief of police. More than 140 agricultural strikes occurred in California between 1930 and 1939. Longshoremen tied up shipping on the west coast in spring and summer of 1934 with a rank-and-file insurrection, catalyzing the San Francisco general strike from July 16 through 19, 1934 which called out some 130,000 workers and paralyzed the city. The powers-that-be assembled 500 special police and 4,5000 National Guard to quell the general strike, forcing the longshoremen to settle. The Teamsters under Trotskyist leadership won three successive, bloody strikes in Minneapolis in summer 1934. Textile workers went out on an east coast general strike as well in 1934; 325,000 in the south and 421,000 nationwide by September 18. In all, a million and half workers struck in different industries in 1934. A broad anti-war movement organized on college campuses as well. A nationwide strike against war in 1934 drew some 25,000 students whereas a strike in 1936 turned out an estimated 500,000 students. This social unrest only grew, for despite its grand aspirations, the New Deal did not pull the US out of the Great Depression. Only preparation for war managed that.
Workers within the trade unionist American Federation of Labor (AFL) started pushing to organize basic industry on an industry-wide basis in the early 1930's. Under the leadership of John Lewis, these workers formed the industrial unionist Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935, the same year the pro-union Wagner Act was enacted. Lewis agreed to use CP union organizers, and the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA-precursor to the Socialist Workers Party-SWP) also organized within the CIO, as did various other radical labor tendencies such as the IWW, Musteites, De Leonists, etc. And, at first, the CIO appeared to push forward the class struggle in the US. The inspired wave of factory occupying sit-down strikes that began in February and March of 1936 at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, and peaked with the 1936-37 UAW sit-down strikes at General Motors facilities in Flint, Michigan gained wide attention for the CIO and its unionizing campaigns. There were 48 sitdown strikes in 1936, and 477 in 1937. CIO efforts to organize steelworkers in spring 1937 resulted in four platoons of Chicago police attacking some 2,000 strikers in South Chicago, killing 10 CIO workers and wounding hundreds more in the Memorial Day massacre. When the AFL expelled the Committee for radicalism in 1938, the name was changed to the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
This massive upsurge in working class militancy that amounted to open class warfare by 1938 went far beyond the organizing efforts of the CIO however as the AFL revived, and workers outside both union federations took the Wagner Act collective bargaining provisions literally to organize unions on their own. Revolution was in the air. This agitation "at the base" continued during the "Roosevelt recession" even as the stagnant CIO floundered "at the top" from 1938-40 because of infighting, defections to the AFL and a general lack of direction. The Chicago newspaper, Maytag, Chrysler Auto, and General Motors Tool and Dyemakers' strikes demonstrated the continuation of working class combativeness during these years when capital attempted to roll back labor's meager gains. Now, had there been a rigorous reinterpretation of Lenin's "revolutionary defeatism" relevant to conditions in the pre-WWII US by a CP independent of Moscow, or by its Trotskyist "loyal opposition," things might have turned out differently. Revolutionary defeatism essentially pushes the idea of "no war but the class war" within a rebellious proletariat, directing their efforts against their real enemy, the capitalist ruling class. Yet the completely Soviet subservient CP-USA was never in any position to act in the true interests of the American working class. As for the more rank-and-file militant Trotskyists, even before the "Old Man" got the ice pick they started doing what Trotskyists do best; splitting first between Cannon and Shachtman over the "Russian Question" in 1940, and quickly, irrevocably fracturing thereafter over a dozen points of catechism. There remained the defiant US population, and in particular the insurrectionary working class, which the US bourgeoisie had determined to discipline before things turned to actual, open social revolution.
Lewis resigned from the CIO in 1940 because he
opposed endorsing Roosevelt's reelection. Phillip Murray, who favored not
only Roosevelt's reelection but also closer cooperation with Roosevelt's
administration, then became president of the CIO, the same year that the
federal Smith Act made it a crime to teach, advocate or encourage the overthrow
of the US government. The CIO and AFL both experienced a resurgence of
labor organizing and militancy in 1941 against stiff, bloody resistance
from capital. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, which
broke the 1939 Hitler/Stalin "non-aggression pact," resulted in the CP-USA
changing its anti-war political line overnight to support US war involvement
against Germany. With the US entry into the second World War in December
1941 Murray pushed a "no strike" pledge on CIO unions, bringing them in
line with the more staid AFL. Like the AFL, the CIO thus acted to discipline
militant workers' struggles within its ranks in exchange for increased
membership and recognition. In turn, Roosevelt pressured steel and other
major US industries during the war to permit the unionization of their
work forces. Needless to say, the CP vehemently supported the "no strike"
pledge, acting to police working class loyalty to the war effort during
the war years. Ultimately though, the war itself acted as the major disciplining
force for the US working class by sending off young, potentially militant
American workers to "fight fascism" in Europe and Asia, even as it revived
US capitalism in cooperation with a newly interventionist state at home.
The power of state and capital, the collaboration of Communists and union leaders, the killing machine of the war itself were all intended to contain the growing social power of the US working class.
Yet despite the "no strike" pledges, despite the CP's about-face strike breaking and outright support for the 1943 Smith Act prosecution of SWP Teamster members, despite the accusations by business and government of an unpatriotic, even treasonous failure to support the war effort, the US proletariat regained a high level of militant class struggle with an escalating wave of wildcat strikes as the war dragged on. Some but by no means all of this labor radicalism was due to Trotskyism's organized "loyal opposition" to the CP. US workers simply experienced the class realities of state-enforced war rationing, austerity and conscription on top of the political illusions of a CP intent upon protecting the Soviet Union at all costs with a line that deferred any talk of militant union action let alone working class revolution until after fascism's defeat. All the while US business experienced record profits. In 1942, there were only 2,970 work stoppages involving 840,000 workers. By 1943 the number of strikes rose to over 3,700, with 1.98 million workers participating, and another 2 million workers (7% of workforce) engaged in some 5,000 strikes in 1944. The first 9 months of 1945 saw another 2 million workers walk off the job, with the total for the year reaching 3.5 million. That's some 14,000 strikes and around 6,770,000 striking workers for the US war years.
These were overwhelmingly wildcat strikes outside of and often against the leadership of both the AFL and the CIO. They also prefigured the post-war wave of both wildcat and union-led strikes that threatened to paralyze national transportation and heavy industry. Three million workers struck in the first half of 1946. The General Motors, Pittsburgh Power and US Steel strikes stood upon nationwide strikes in coal, electrical manufacturing, and the railroads. Entire urban areas were shut down as in the Oakland General Strike of December 2-5, 1946. The CP and SWP, as well as the AFL and the CIO were all present in this strike wave, though this workers' insurgency went beyond these contending unions and vanguards. About 21% of the workforce, some 6 million workers participated in the tumultuous series of strikes and general strikes between 1945-46. The Truman Administration formally intervened between capital and organized labor to help settle certain, mostly peaceful strikes with modest gains for labor, as with the CIO-led 30-state US Steel strike. Yet Truman ultimately suppressed this strike wave by calling out the military ("workers in uniform") not only restore social order but also to run key sectors of the economy until the more rebellious elements of this strike wave could be rebridled. The contentious April 1, 1946 strike by 400,000 mine workers led by the then independent UMW was ended when the US government used the army to seize the mines to continue production. On October 4, 1946 the US Navy seized oil refineries in order to break a 20-state, mostly wildcat oil workers strike.
Where it could, the Federal government coopted the AFL and CIO with negotiated incremental reforms, increased pay and better benefits extracted from capital's war prosperity. Where it needed to, the Federal government used its power to crush the more militant union actions as well as the wider wildcat workers' movement threatening capital. Classic carrot-and-stick.
Given their cooperation with the Roosevelt administration during the war years, the leadership of both the AFL and the CIO went for the carrot, ultimately endorsing the 1947 stick; Taft-Hartley Act's infamous loyalty oaths. From 1949 through 1950, in the Cold War's increasingly hysterical climate of anti-communist paranoia but before Joe McCarthy actually got going, the CIO's national leadership under Murray used the FBI's generous covert assistance and conducted its own internal anti-communist witch hunt to expel those unions that had not "voluntarily" purged their membership of Reds. The International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) are perhaps the best known of these eleven expelled "red" unions. The CIO then went after these ousted unions with a vengeance well into the Korean War; redbaiting them, attacking them legally and sometimes physically, intimidating their members into switching affiliations, even cooperating with capital to take out radical unions and unionists. Truman attempted to continue many of Roosevelt's reformist New Deal policies with his Fair Deal, but by the time the Senate formally censured McCarthy in 1954, organized labor was put sufficiently "against the ropes" by Eisenhower's conservative, anti-union policies to see the defensive merger of the AFL and CIO by 1955.
Please notice the basic pattern. A radical, potentially revolutionary social movement arises "in the streets," creating a contending social power in civil society that demands thoroughgoing change and that threatens widespread instability if not outright overthrow of the status quo. The powers-that-be take note and, through a combination of reform, cooptation, repression and terror, society is "stabilized" at the same time its most pressing problems are temporarily ameliorated, the radical social movement is diffused and its social power dispersed. It is possible then that if the established order is too little, too late with the right combination of incremental social reforms and state repression, or if the radical social movement's contending social power increases sufficiently at the base, then social unrest and upheaval, civil war or potentially, social revolution may result.
Some variation on this pattern accounts for virtually every instance of social change in US history. Consider the "prequel"to the working class militancy of the 1930's and '40's which saw the class-war proletarian organizing of the late 1800's/early 1900's, the election of Wilson as a reform president, US entry into the first World War, the 1919-20 post-war strike wave, and the 1919-21 Palmer Raids and "Red Scare." The post-McCarthyite/HUAC non-proletarian "sequel" also fits the mold. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and early '60's gave rise to both the Black Power movement and the New Left which, with the broader anti-war movement and a more nebulous hippie "counterculture" in the mid-to-late 1960's, helped to end Jim Crow with the enactment of civil rights legislation, generated the reforms of Johnson's "Great Society," established a rebellious but ultimately marketable "youth culture," and eventually helped to end US military intervention in southeast Asia, even as FBI counterintelligence programs decimated leftist and nationalist organizations and movements. The "rise of the right" out of Goldwater's defeat in 1964 to Reagan's victory in 1980, up to the present-day neo-nazi/white supremacist and militia/patriot movements, and the FBI's interest in them, exhibits the basic characteristics of this pattern. The US ruling class, always more comfortable with center-to-right Federal government, is perfectly content to use the social power organized by the far right to shift American political culture rightward, perhaps to challenge some of the New Deal's basic tenets, even as it wields brute state power to decimate the armed ultra-right.
The above described dynamic in the US sometimes incorporates third party politics into the process. Successful third parties invariably grow out of or piggyback on social movements "in the streets." One or the other of the major, established political parties usually takes up many of the slogans, some of the program, and a few of the reforms advocated by the growing third party movement to coopt the party and absorb its constituency. Occasionally, when the US two-party system fails to adequately respond to the social forces behind a third political party, that successful third party takes the place of one of the dominant two. I'd further contend that variations on the above pattern are the way social change happens in any country with a modest democratic tradition, though I'm not now going to back up this claim with more historical exegesis.
I have bigger fish to fry.
If social change happens primarily with pressure from successful social movements in the streets, then working in the electoral arena, either for the Democratic Party or for some third party alternative as the Left poses the choices, amounts to taking an extremely roundabout way to achieve any kind of change. It makes about as much sense however as most other activities in which the Left engages; from fighting fascism instead of attacking capitalism to opposing US government intervention overseas instead of taking on the US state here at home. We don't get change by writing our Congressman, or voting for Democrats, or organizing some Labor Party as the Left insists these days. We get change by building radical social movements at the base capable of taking on the powers-that-be. Arguing that folks should spend their time and energy in constructing revolutionary social power to challenge the US ruling class's social hegemony is not merely sensible because that's how to get social change however. It's also possible that the powers-that-be will be unable to quell some future social movement with their mixture of reformism and repression. In that case the strength and resilience of the social movements in question to take on and then take down the established order is all that matters. Working at the level of radical social movements ensures that we are able take what advantage we can of revolutionary situations as they arise.
The CIO's history, in moving from the forefront of proletarian class war in 1936-37 to the bulwark of anti-communism in 1949-50, confirms that union organizing is not the essence of social power. Unions, whether trade or industrial, have a number of shortcomings that severely limit their use as revolutionary instruments of social power. First, they are particularist organizations which, while championing the workers interests particular to a given trade or industry, cannot readily express the general interests of the workers as a class. As such, unions have frequently undercut each other in a fierce competition for members, jobs and contracts. Second, the very structure and function of unions, from their self-serving, self-perpetuating bureaucracies to their roles as labor brokers, downplay the workers' long-term political demands and emphasize their short-term economic ones, invariably placing reform over revolution. Indeed, unions tend to reinforce the reduction of the worker from a complex social being to a simplistic economic creature. Third, unions more often than not act to discipline the workers to the needs of capital. When work speedups or more stringent work rules are enshrined in a union negotiated contract, or when a militant rank-and-file genuinely wildcat on their cautious, conservative union leadership, it is the union hierarchy that works to enforce the rules and bring the militant workers back in line. Finally, successful union movements quickly become institutionalized and just as quickly become a part of the corporatist governance of a capitalist society. When the capitalist economy experiences a down turn or when the capitalist state goes to war, it is the established union movement's responsibility to muster the working class to accept "belt tightening" austerity measures, or to do their "patriotic duty;" to sacrifice for the power of state and the profit of capital.
If not unions, then what? I'll get into organizing for the class war next column. I'd like to conclude this subject by returning to Nicole's comments that, compared to the stultifying political consensus produced by America's "two-party" democracy, folks in western European-style parliamentary democracies have "real politics." Society's that have powerful, working class-based social movements contending with their ruling elites for social hegemony have real politics.
The rest is smoke and mirrors.
Bibliography for this column includes, but is not limited to The CIO, 1935-1955 and American Workers, American Unions both by Robert H. Zieger, and A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Keep sending me your newsworthy items and interesting news clippings c/o MRR. You can also contact me at email@example.com.