The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

U.S.:
Working Class Struggles and the Necessity to Build a Working Class Party

Oct 20, 2019

Earlier articles in the Class Struggle dealt with the development of the two-party system in the United States: an overview (Issue #95, February-April, 2018); the birth of the Democratic Party (Issue #96, May-June, 2018); and the birth of the Republican Party (Issue #97, August-October, 2018). The first parts of the current article give a very brief summary of a few points in these three articles. An earlier CS article about Eugene Debs discusses the period when Debs, as the spokesperson for the Socialist Party, spoke of the necessity of and possibility for the working class to throw out the capitalist system and build its own social order (Issue #83, August-October, 2016).

For the past 159 years, political life in the United States has been dominated by the same two parties, Democratic and Republican. The two parties grew up in different periods, in different parts of the country. But in both periods, the population was largely agrarian, and each of these parties at their birth seemed to speak for the small farmers who were in revolt against the system they confronted. Even from their beginnings, however, each of the parties carried out policies in the interests of different sections of the ruling class. The social force left out of these developments was the working class.

The winner-take-all electoral system eliminates any possibility for representation proportional to the votes won by different parties. Once the Democratic and Republican parties were solidly established, this system undoubtedly has played a role in blocking the development of other parties. But it is not the only explanation for the lack of a working class party today.

* * *

The Democratic Party, the first real U.S. political party in the modern sense, appeared on the scene in years of wide unrest following the revolutionary war against British control of the American continent. With the revolutionary war barely over, the farmers, who had been its main troops, rapidly found themselves pushed aside by an emerging political system that imposed taxes on them as onerous as those they had fought against the British crown to eliminate. In many parts of the just-established nation, farmers mobilized to refuse the taxes imposed by the new American power. In some parts, this refusal led to open warfare, particularly in the fights that have come to be known as “the Whiskey Rebellion.” The issue of those battles was not whiskey, as such; it was whether farmers could realize a return on their main crop, corn, which they could sell in distant markets only in the form of whiskey. It was in such circumstances that the Democratic Party appeared, raising grievances supposedly common to all landholding interests, from the poorest farmers to the wealthiest plantation owners, directing popular anger against the merchant class and banking interests centered in the Northeast, whose political representatives wanted to impose a tax on most agrarian products, including alcohol, and to establish a national bank that would control trade.

Presenting itself simply as an “agrarian” party, the Democratic Party nonetheless from its origin was the political instrument of the Southern slaveholding class. Its political leaders—from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison to Andrew Jackson to James Polk—were all slave-owners, the first three of them among the very largest. Its economic policies—especially its push for unfettered trade with England—essentially reinforced the system of plantation agriculture, which traded with England, to the detriment of the Northern merchants, who were in competition with England. The axis of Democratic Party policies was not only the legal defense of slavery in the original Southern states, but also the extension of slave-based plantation agriculture into the newer territories. And the Democrats, starting with Jefferson, led the push to take more territory for the new nation—as a way to give plantation mono-crop agriculture an escape from its increasingly worn-out land. Under the Democratic Party, the U.S. dealt for territory claimed by the French and cast an eye on Spanish claims in the Western Hemisphere. It went to war against Mexico to grab what became a big part of the Southwest. Territory occupied by the indigenous peoples—whether claimed by the U.S., by France, by Britain, by Spain or by Mexico—was taken by warfare. Jackson, who was to become president in his later years, made his mark by the violent and total “removal” of indigenous peoples from lands they had inhabited for “as long as their ancestors had remembered.”

* * *

It took another half century for the Republican Party to come on the scene, created from the remnants of other parties in the 1850s, particularly the Whigs. The Republicans presented themselves—just as the Democrats had 50 years before—as an agrarian party, speaking for the farmers with small landholdings. It was a period when farmers were once again mobilizing themselves—but this time against the encroachment of slave-based agriculture into Pennsylvania and into what was then called “the Northwest,” i.e., Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. In “bloody Kansas,” a real war was fought out, pitting small farmers against private militias sent by the slave owners—some of the same thugs who would be the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan in a few years.

In 1860, the Republicans took the presidency in a four-way race that saw the Democratic party split in half over whether slavery should be extended into “Northwestern” states, with the Democratic Party of the South favoring it, and the Democratic Party of the North opposing. In the Border States, there was an additional party, the “Constitutional Union” Party, which proposed to maintain the union, but also to maintain slavery where it was already established. Existing mainly in the North and in California, the Republican Party spoke essentially to the small farmers. With the two Democratic parties splitting their vote, the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won with less than 40% of the total vote, the smallest proportion of the popular vote for any winning presidential candidate in U.S. history.

Lincoln’s victory precipitated the Southern Democrats to leave the Union, set up the Confederacy and initiate the Civil War. The Southern slave owners had no future unless plantation agriculture could be continually extended into untapped parts of the continent. This was the paramount aim of the Southern Confederacy from the beginning, and it was made clear in the first statements issued by Confederate leaders. If the North had accepted to let the South secede, there would have been war anyway as the South continually expanded, cutting up the Northern economy into isolated chunks. Inevitably, these chunks would have been strangled.

Confronting that future, the Republican Party led the North to war. The farmers’ sons and the farmers themselves were the ones who carried out most of the fighting all through this bloody war and took the brunt of the casualties. It took more than two years for the Republicans to recognize this truth: the North could not win unless the slaves, the labor force of the plantations, the very heart of the Southern economy, were emancipated.

In fact the slaves had already begun to free themselves. For decades, individual slaves or small groups of slaves had tried to escape, many successfully. Some had revolted, almost always followed by generalized severe repression. But in the Civil War years, the slaves engaged massively and widely in what W.E.B. DuBois called the “general strike” of the slaves—that is, they stopped productive work on the plantations so that shipments of cotton fell precipitously. Some fled North or West. Many more remained behind, sabotaging the crops and animals needed by the Southern army, burning buildings. Thousands, then tens of thousands rushed to join the Northern armies. Most Northern generals sent them back, but some like Grant and Sherman understood that the slaves were the key to the battle. Faced with the choice of saving the union at the expense of giving up slavery or saving slavery at the expense of losing the union, Lincoln chose, slow step by slow step, to give up slavery.

Thus, the Republican Party in its first years appeared as the defender of small farmers and the emancipator of the slaves under Lincoln. But from the beginning, the Republicans simply assumed the economic program of the Whig Party, the party that had pushed to subsidize the growth of the railroads and, indirectly, of the metal and coal industries that fed the railroads. Republicans implemented the Whigs’ protective tariff and taxation policies that gave American industry the means to develop its profit, facing the more advanced European industry. They continued the wars—first of all, against the indigenous peoples who still inhabited important parts of the continent, but also against European nations. In this grab for more land, Republican administrations now aimed to free it up for large machine-based agriculture, mining and cattle raising—and, of course, for massive speculation. In other words, the Republican Party represented the economic interests of the entrepreneurial class which had emerged from the development of industry and the financial system.

* * *

Before the Civil War, two ruling classes with opposing economic needs had competed within the same political framework over whose interests would predominate: those of the slave-owning plantation aristocracy or of the merchant/entrepreneurial class that had begun to build coal mines, railroads and metal industries. The two parties grew up representing those competing interests, which functioned within the same capitalist marketplace. The contest was resolved—and could only have been resolved—in that most violent of political actions: war, civil war. With the victory of the North, the reins of the newly unified state were put in the hands of the industrialists and their bankers. The plantation aristocracy was appended to their rule—subsidiary to be sure, but nonetheless given a place at the table.

The class that had no political voice was the working class. This fact was made explicit in the social struggles that raged over the next 60 years.

1877: “The Year of Violence”

In March of 1877, the two parties came to an agreement that would bring the post-Civil War Reconstruction period to an end. The last federal troops, which had provided a small amount of protection for the Reconstruction governments of the poor, were removed from the South. The Ku Klux Klan, which had been born at the end of the Civil War, was reinforced. Based on armed gangs that had been sent to Kansas by the slave owners, as well as on returning Confederate officers, it was given free rein to organize and wield violence as it saw fit. The freed slaves were pushed back into a state of what was slavery in all but name: sharecropping and debt peonage, imposed by the same kind of endemic violence that had existed under slavery. Some former plantations were turned into prisons into which the most recalcitrant of the former slaves were dumped, transformed into convict labor, another form of servitude.

In that same year, 1877, in the fourth week of June, local authorities in Pennsylvania hanged 17 Irish coal miners or their supporters. They were charged with, among other things, belonging to a secret Irish terrorist organization, the so-called “Molly McGuires.” The reality is that in a burgeoning coal industry that engaged child labor, they had attempted to impose the needs of their families and their small communities on the mineowners. The viciousness and the obviously planned character of these executions, which occurred in three different counties on almost the same day, were aimed at intimidating the population throughout the coal fields. The media’s attack throughout the country on the so-called “social dregs”—those Irish, those “black Irish”—was the beginning of a real campaign of animosity stoked against immigrants over the next decades.

Finally, in that same year, 1877, less than a month later, the magnates of the new railroads set out to demonstrate their ability to impose at will the terms under which “free” labor would be employed. First one railroad, then another announced a 10% across-the-board wage cut, coming on top of an earlier 10% cut a half-year before. The wage cuts for railroad workers rolled across the country, reaching as far as California. In the midst of a bitter depression, these voracious “robber barons” expected that workers would cave in, as they had before.

Instead, there was a near-spontaneous response by railroad workers. It rapidly turned into the first nationwide strike of any group of workers, spreading from Baltimore, Maryland, to Martinsburg West Virginia, to Cumberland, Maryland, to upstate New York, through Reading, on to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cincinnati, Ohio, to Chicago, then to St. Louis, and even briefly as far west as California. In some cities, railroad workers were joined by other workers. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and St. Louis were effectively shut down in general strikes. Chicago, which had undergone a fire wiping out significant parts of the city only six years earlier, went up in flames again.

Newspapers at the time spoke of “revolution” or the “red menace” or even of the Paris Commune, which had happened just a few years earlier. In fact, this movement was somewhat like the urban insurrections of the 1960s. Provoked by military forces, public and private, which invaded the working class centers of railroad towns to attack the strikers, the workers fought back, organizing their own violence against the violence of those who attacked them. The police, state militias, Pinkertons and other private armed forces were driven back out of the working class centers of the towns. For several weeks, large parts of the country seemed on the verge of civil war.

It was a vast strike, and more than a strike, and it took more than two weeks before it began to trail off. Certainly, official violence played its role in driving back the workers. But the movement itself ultimately led into an impasse. The workers found no way to make decisions together that would have allowed them consciously to direct their own fight, no way to co-ordinate across widely spaced distances. They had no organizations to speak of, no unions, no parties—with the exception of the small Workingmen’s Party that came to offer support. Their attempts to organize themselves in the midst of the fighting came too late. But the railroad strike of 1877 showed the capacity of the working class, the power it potentially has—and that was a lesson that seeped into the workers’ neighborhoods in all these cities.

It was also a lesson the capitalist class took to heart.

Up until 1877, military forces had not been permanently stationed in American cities—a reflection of what the new American political class remembered about civilian reactions to British military forces, which had often been the spark that set off a conflagration. Even local professional police forces were still in their infancy. This was to change immediately after the railroad strike was suppressed in 1877. The military rapidly established armories, with troops attached, in the very heart of the cities. Professional police forces began to be widely established.

The year 1877 established the legal and extra-legal framework under which capital was to face its labor forces for most of the next 60 years. Republican or Democratic administrations—whichever one represented American capitalism at a particular moment—it made no difference. Strikes were met with immediate violence on a scale not seen up until then, except in the Civil War itself. Servitude continued under the form of Southern sharecropping. Fraternization between poor black and white was prevented by the ever-constant threat and use of violence. The immigrants who began to pour in were funneled into the bottom layers of the growing working class, effectively quarantined in the disease-ridden centers of Northern cities.

Labor: A Disposable, Throwaway Commodity

Capitalism, already given an enormous push by the industrial needs occasioned by the Civil War, developed full steam ahead—and with it the existence of many more cities with large workplaces and concentrations of proletarians. The output of the railroads, as well as the iron, coal and petroleum industries multiplied manyfold in just a generation. The amount of coal produced in the main production region of central Pennsylvania increased from about 2,000 tons in 1820 to a million tons in 1840 and to eight and a half million by the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. In the forty years from 1860 until 1900, the railroads increased the miles of their tracks almost seven times. Factory production, measured by its value, multiplied by four in the years from 1860 to 1899. In the 20 years up to 1919, it doubled itself, and doubled itself again and nearly doubled itself again. The robber barons accumulated wealth on top of wealth, reinforced by the corruption that pervaded all the pores of the surging capitalist economy.

The rapid expansion of industry spoke to the vicious exploitation of labor and the horrifying conditions of work and life. The railroads alone accounted for 22,000 workers either killed or maimed in just one year, 1889. The conditions of mining were such that lung diseases struck down many more people than did accidents—as accident-prone as the mines were. The cities, where many of the new factories were located, became breeding grounds for disease. Nativist propaganda blamed the immigrants. But the causes of the epidemics that laid waste to many American cities came from the way those cities were organized—or not organized. In most, there still was no centrally organized public sewerage system, to which big landlords and companies could be required to evacuate building waste lines, despite what had been known for more than half a century about sanitation and disease. With people packed closely in such districts, cholera, yellow fever, dysentery, typhoid fever and other water-borne diseases struck with horrifying regularity.

American capital maintained an enormously rapid and profitable expansion in part because it started in a territory without the encumbrances of feudal throwbacks that obstructed the development of capitalism in Europe; in part because it had the benefit of large untapped sources of raw materials and potentially productive land; in part because it had its initial massive accumulation of capital drawn from the slave trade; and in part because it had access to the surplus labor of Europe.

In the twenty years up to the Civil War, almost four million immigrants had come to America. Effectively shut off by that war and its immediate aftermath, the immigration spigot had been turned back on by 1877. Over the next 35 years, 20 million immigrants were recorded coming only through the official ports of entry. How many more came through elsewhere, no one knows. Immigration was so rapid that for a number of a years after the Civil War, there was a large surplus of “free labor,” which allowed the Northern industrialists to keep down the conditions and wages of everyone, just as the system in the South set up under the Jim Crow laws made everyone working on the land desperately poor—black or white. Capital was able to treat manual labor as a disposable, throwaway commodity.

And Yet Labor Was Becoming “A New and Distinct Class of American Society”

Ten years later, January 1887, Frederick Engels wrote the following about the development of the American working class.

“In February 1885, American public opinion was almost unanimous on this one point: that there was no working class, in the European sense of the word, in America: that consequently no class struggle between workmen and capitalists, such as tore European society to pieces, was possible in the American Republic; and that, therefore, Socialism was a thing of foreign importation which could never take root on American soil. And yet, at that moment, the coming class struggle was casting its gigantic shadow before it in the strikes of the Pennsylvania coal-miners, and of many other trades, and especially in the preparations, all over the country, for the great Eight Hours’ movement which was to come off, and did come off, in the May following....

“Before the year closed, these social convulsions began to take a definite direction. The spontaneous, instinctive movement of these vast masses of working people, over a vastly extended country, the simultaneous outburst of their common discontent with a miserable social condition, the same everywhere and due to the same causes, made them conscious of the fact that they formed a new and distinct class of American society; a class of—practically speaking—more or less hereditary wage-workers, proletarians. And with true American instinct, this consciousness led them at once to take the next step toward their deliverance: the formation of a political workingmen’s party, with a platform of its own, and with the conquest of the Capitol and the White House for its goal....

“In European countries, it took the working class years and years before they fully realized the fact that they formed a distinct and, under the existing social conditions, a permanent class of modern society; and it took years again until this class consciousness led them to form themselves into a distinct political party, independent of, and opposed to all the old political parties formed by the various sections of the ruling class. On the more favored soil of America, where no medieval ruins bar the way, where history begins with the elements of modern bourgeois society as evolved in the seventeenth century, the working class passed through these two stages within ten months.”

The decades after Engels wrote this in 1887 were marked by one fight after another, some widely known at the time and gone down into history as key battles of the American working class. The near decade-long struggle for the eight-hour day, involving workers in wide parts of the country in many industries, had culminated in 1400 strikes in the same week of early May in 1886. In 1892, steel workers at Homestead, who had been locked out, carried out a fight that turned into a gun battle on the rivers near Pittsburgh. In that same year, the general strike in New Orleans engaged the separate unions of black and white dockworkers in a common fight. The strike of Pullman workers in 1894 brought other railroad workers into a fight to support them. The strikes in Idaho and Nevada in gold mining led to the formation of the Western Federation of Miners, which also led the struggle in the Colorado mines culminating in the defeated strike at Leadville in 1896, a defeat which brought the Western Federation of Miners to leave the AFL and help form the IWW, a union that openly declared its goal to be “the abolition of the wage system.”

The IWW itself led to three important strikes after the turn of the century. The 1906 strike at General Electric in Schenectady, New York, was the first sit-down strike in this country, a factory occupation that shut down the power plant, and with that stopped all of GE’s complex employing 16,000 workers. In 1909, the strike of factory workers at the Pressed Steel car plant in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, was notable as a fight that brought strikebreakers over to the side of the strikers. The 1911 strike in the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile factories became famous later for the song associated with it: “Bread and Roses”—but also for the fact that the so-called “factory girls” could organize and fight, despite what AFL leaders believed.

And then there were all the other strikes, some of them brief, some almost incidental, but many of them more bitter, violent and combative than any whose names have come down in history. According to government estimates—which started only in 1881– there were more than 38,000 strikes in the 25 years between 1881 and 1905. There is a gap in comparable statistics, which don’t resume until 1914. But, then, over the next 13 years, there were another 30,000 strikes.

The Most Important and Most Difficult Step Is Yet to Be Taken

In 1887, after discussing the rapid steps taken by the American working class to become a “class in itself,” Engels said that this was only a beginning. “That the laboring masses should feel their community of grievances and of interests, their solidarity as a class in opposition to all other classes; that in order to give expression and effect to this feeling, they should set in motion the political machinery provided for that purpose in every free country—that is the first step only. The next step is to find the common remedy for these common grievances, and to embody it in the platform of the new labor party. And this—the most important and the most difficult step in the movement—has yet to be taken in America.

“A new party must have a distinct positive platform; a platform which may vary in details as circumstances vary and as the party itself develops, but still one upon which the party, for the time being is agreed....

“That platform, whatever may be its first shape, must develop in a direction which may be determined beforehand. The causes that brought into existence the abyss between the working class and the capitalist class are the same in America as in Europe; the means of filling up that abyss are equally the same everywhere.... It will proclaim, as the ultimate end, the conquest of political supremacy by the working class, in order to effect the direct appropriation of all means of production—land, railways, mines, machinery, etc.—by society at large, to be worked in common by all for the account and benefit of all.”

Engels said in 1887 that this was the step yet to be taken. It is still the step to be taken more than 130 years later, despite several massive movements of the working class which struggled to organize itself.

Objective and Subjective Reasons

Certainly, there were objective reasons for this failure, the most obvious one being the violence of the bourgeois state.

The battles at the turn of the century were what Sidney Lens called “the labor wars ... wars of capital and its unswerving ally, government, AGAINST labor.” To give some idea of what that meant, Lens cited a study published in Outlook magazine: in the 33 months leading up to and including 1904, 198 pickets or supporters had been killed, 1,966 wounded, 6,114 arrested. Behind capital and “its unswerving ally, government,” stood the vast array of private armies hired by the companies, as well as vigilantes of all stripes—from the KKK to the American Legion to businessmen’s associations.

John D. Rockefeller exemplified the time period. In 1914, hired guns for the Rockefeller coal mines in Ludlow, Colorado, massacred 25 people, including 11 children, most of whom were burnt alive in the tents they occupied, when miners had the audacity to strike.

Jay Gould, with the typical arrogance of his class, declared, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” Gould may have been more crass—barely—than some, but he expressed the attitude of all the Robber Barons of his time, and of the next decades.

After the massive 1918–1919 strike wave, with news of the Russian Revolution of 1917 still fresh, the government as well as vigilantes engaged in a widespread hunt for radicals. The IWW was decimated. Many of its main militants were either in prison, assassinated like Frank Little, lynched like Wesley Everest, legally executed like Joe Hill, or driven into exile, like Bill Haywood. Communists and other radicals were rounded up, charged under the Espionage Act of 1918 or the Sedition Act of 1919. Even Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for president, sat in prison. Immigrants were expelled. Two anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were put on trial in 1920 and executed in 1927 in a robbery/murder case for which their guilt clearly was manufactured from the beginning. It was part of a drumbeat campaign organized against the “influence” of “dirty foreigners.”

But, of course, the American working class is hardly the only one to have undergone severe repression. And repression alone doesn’t begin to tell the story.

There is also the subjective question of how much the different parts of the working class recognize each other as parts of a single class. The succeeding waves of immigrants coming from different countries brought in different experiences and political traditions, which in many ways could be a gain for this politically “virgin” working class. But the succeeding waves of different peoples, speaking different languages, in certain situations also facilitated the fracturing of the working class—not only culturally, but also in terms of where they were hired, therefore where they lived, and what links they had or didn’t have with each other. Certain jobs became “Irish” jobs, or “German” jobs, or Italian or Jewish or Russian, or any of the multitude of Eastern European nations that were the home countries of the many other nationalities which began to people the working class. But such fracturing went beyond job classification. In an economy that was rapidly expanding, at least for some decades, the nationality that came one decade moved slightly up the job ladder ahead of the nationality that was to come the next decade. Individual bosses rushed to play on antagonisms among the different nationality groups. Speaking of the 14 different nationalities hired into the Pressed Steel Car Company, its president bragged, “We buy labor in the cheapest market.”

The disdain for foreigners and unskilled labor was stoked by the officials of the AFL, the dominant labor organization of the time. During the 1909 strike at McKees Rocks, violence organized by the factory owner was responsible for the deaths of eight strikers and the wounding of 40 others. Commenting on the violence, Frank Morrison, secretary-treasurer of the AFL, denounced the strike, blaming it on “ignorant foreign labor, who do not speak our language and understand our institutions.”

The greatest division of all was the one that had defined the laboring people since the birth of the republic: the one that counterposed so-called “free labor” to the slaves. “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” So wrote Marx before the Civil War. And this, near its end, in 1864: “While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic; while in front of the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation.”

But this “disfigurement” did not come to an end with the official end of slavery in the immediate post-Civil-War period. Forced back into the near-slavery of sharecropping, the former slaves were kept for the next century on the bottom rung of the ladder. The early attempts of the Southern poor, black and white, to mobilize together against landholding interests ended in bloodbaths organized by the KKK. The populist movement itself came to understand that poor rural whites had common interests with poor rural blacks. But one of its main spokesmen, Tom Watson, became a purveyor of racist propaganda against blacks, Catholics and Jews in the very period the KKK was becoming dangerously active, recruiting poor whites as its shock troops.

As the poor began to move into Southern cities and then to the North, the newly arrived and desperate blacks were hired only into the most menial of occupations, where they remained, while one immigrant group after another stepped past them, resting on black shoulders to do so, assuming this mean “privilege” of the “white labor” that had come before them. Black workers were effectively kept out of industry—unless they were hired as strikebreakers. It was one more brick in the wall put up dividing white labor from black.

Marx, in discussing the situation that counterposed English labor to Irish labor, said that the antagonism exhibited by English labor for the Irish is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. The same could be said about so-called “white labor” in this country, no matter from what ethnic background it came. Unable to act toward black labor as brethren, white labor has been unable thus to “fulfill this first condition of its own social emancipation.”

Companies consciously contrived to play on this bitter division in the working class. What in 1892 had begun as a common fight of black and white dockworkers in the New Orleans general strike, ended in 1895 in a race riot specifically prepared for by the owners. Company goons organized gangs of whites to attack the black workers and drive them off the docks, and many white workers facing severe unemployment acquiesced in, or even joined the pogrom. In the 1919 steel strike, the unskilled labor force was composed of a multitude of different groups, speaking no common language. The skilled workers—for the most part native-born—disdained to join the fight when it was at its height. Black workers were barred from membership in the AFL unions. But leaders of the movement to build a union among unskilled labor in steel overlooked that, happy to be granted an official charter by the AFL to organize in steel. The steel-owners, who ordinarily refused to hire blacks, brought in black workers and Mexican workers as scabs. When the strike began to crumble, many of the nationality organizations, arguing with groups of workers for the narrow interest of their own nationality group, agitated for a return to work. “Race riots”—that is, the organized pogroms by gangs of whites against black neighborhoods and black individuals—drowned Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and other steel centers in blood.

This marked the end of the second big attempt of the working class to organize itself.

But again—and it has to be emphasized—the situation of the American working class is not unique. The working class of other countries was also beset by divisions, antagonisms, bloody pogroms. The Empire of the Russian Czars was not called the “prison house of nations” for nothing. And yet the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were able to break through that. But that depended on the “distinct, positive platform”—to use Engels’ term—developed by the Bolshevik Party, who counted on the working class to overthrow the autocracy and free all the different peoples, giving the different peoples the possibility to follow their own path.

Once Again the Working Class Flexes Its Muscles

After the repression begun in the waning moments of World War I, the working class movement rapidly receded. But by the early 1930s, in the midst of the worst economic crisis the country had ever seen, the working class began to revive. At first tentatively, then building on the actions taken by isolated groups of workers, important parts of the industrial working class began to move. These first strikes were almost always led by militants devoted to communism, to socialism. They were the only ones at ease in front of the power and determination of the working class, the only ones ready to call on workers to take their struggles as far as they were ready to go.

Four strikes in 1934 opened the door for the whole working class. Two—the Toledo autoworkers and Minneapolis truckers—were “victorious,” if measured by whether workers obtained the immediate goals they had set for themselves. Two—the Southern textile general strike and the San Francisco dockworkers’ strike—were not. But the four taken together opened the door for the whole working class. They demonstrated the enormous capacity and reserves that the working class had collected, its determination once again to make its weight felt. A large part of the working class followed through. In a little over two years’ time, GM, the citadel of American capitalism, found its factories in Flint occupied; the steel industry was seeking to cut a deal with any union officials it could in order to avoid losing control of the mills; and young women working on the counters at department stores and five-and-dime stores sat down on their job. From September 1936 to May 1937, over 1,000 different sit-down strikes were recorded, and the year 1937 saw nearly two million workers take part in 4,700 strikes. Workers began to sign up in new CIO unions that didn’t yet have an office. The unskilled workers, those whose organization American capital had steadfastly refused to recognize, now imposed their unions on capital.

Apart from whatever immediate problems had provoked the strikes, the underlying issue for so many workers was the organization of the working class itself. In the first years of building the industrial unions, what so many workers had in mind was the CIO, not the auto workers, not the steel workers, but one big union of all the workers. They expressed it in the slogans they wrote on their signs and used in their speeches. That same need, for the working class to organize together as one class, was expressed almost immediately in the number of resolutions that the new union organizations issued on the local level, calling for the formation of a workers party, a labor party, a farmer and labor party—a number of different permutations, but behind all of them was the idea that working people needed to organize as a political force, not just as a defensive force, as unions had been constrained to act.

This spoke to the fact that the unions, even newly organized as they were, were inadequate to meet the situation.

Trotsky, discussing with American militants in 1938, came back to the same kind of problem Engels had discussed fifty years before: “In the United States, the trade union movement has passed through the most stormy history in recent years. The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses.... [But] the new trade unions created by the workers came to an impasse—a blind alley.... The working class stands before an alternative. Either the trade unions will be dissolved [i.e., integrated into the machinery of the capitalist state] or they will join for political action.”

In one sense, it was the same problem as the one raised by Engels, except that it came 50 years later, when the capitalist system was already in a state of growing decay, when the possibility for reforms was long past. The necessity for the working class to organize politically had become that much sharper. But it was exactly that aim which was not pursued. Those who believed that the construction of unions was the most important task stood in the way of the working class developing its own political organization. Those who believed—and preached—the false idea that it was necessary to support Roosevelt because he had “given” workers the right to organize helped to blind workers to the possibilities their own struggles had opened up.

In fact, the apparatus of these new unions—in great measure borrowed out of the old AFL craft unions—quickly served not only to block political organization of the working class, but to block the activities of the workers even to defend themselves, as all activities became dominated by the official entrance of the U.S. into World War II. In other words, the unions as organizations representing the inherent interests of the working class were “dissolved”—to use Trotsky’s term. Led by people whose aim was not to disturb the capitalist system, much less to shake it, all they could do was to try to convince the bosses, individually, one at a time, to distribute a few crumbs out of the enormous wealth that American capital had accumulated over those decades. It was the beginning of a long and enduring “partnership” between company and union, a partnership that has lasted up to this day.

What NOW?

So here we are, more than 80 years after Trotsky raised the problem, and more than 130 years after Engels saw not only the necessity for the working class to organize itself politically, but also the possibilities that were already there for it to happen. We’re still facing the same problem. In fact, in relation to what Engels raised, we have taken some steps backwards.

But in one significant way, the situation has changed for the better. This comes out of, first of all, some fights that were made during the CIO period that had to overcome the racial division if those struggles were to have any chance. Many times that effort wasn’t made. But sometimes it was. More significantly the change derives from the massive struggle of the black population for civil rights in the 1950s—including the right to a job—culminating in the urban revolt of the 1960s. This last struggle did not do away with the racism that has come down in this country as the consequence of the system of slavery. But the urban revolts forced the capitalist class to hire black workers widely into industry, workers who had been barred from most of those jobs during all the years since the end of slavery. For the first time in any real way, black and white labor could come to know each other, uneasily certainly, with all the problems imaginable. But they can work next to each other on the same lines. And that can change a certain number of things if there are people who understand the necessity to confront the division. But, above all, during the big strike movement of the 1970s, many white workers discovered they were being pulled into struggles led by black workers, who in that period were the most determined part of the working class, the most ready to stand up to the bosses and to challenge the system.

Three times the American working class has struggled in ways that opened up the possibility for it to organize itself politically. Three times those opportunities were lost. That depended certainly to some degree on objective conditions. But it also depended on the choices socialist militants made, first of all on whether they organized their work around the necessity of the working class to become a political force in itself.

The “two-party” system has long been a trap, used repeatedly as a bludgeon to bring people who should know better into giving support to one of the two bourgeois parties, “the lesser evil,” in the foolish belief it is possible thus to avoid “a worser evil.” To think there is a “lesser evil” derives from the lack of understanding that the workers are a class whose interests are radically opposed to those of the bourgeoisie.

What’s needed today are people who share the revolutionary optimism of Eugene V. Debs. This is Debs, speaking in May 1904, in the middle of a period when the working class had suffered defeats:

“Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself, and risen again; been seized by the throat and choked and clubbed into insensibility; enjoined by courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by the regulars, traduced by the press, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated by renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested by spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches, and sold out by leaders, but notwithstanding all this and all these, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission of emancipating the workers of the world from the thraldom of the ages is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.”