by Bill Onasch
When I was a shop steward I got to listen to many excuses for being late. Now it’s my turn. I blame being a day later than usual with the WIR on Daylight Savings Time. If you find this credible perhaps I could interest you in a good deal on a 1999 Ford Contour.
Can It Happen Here?
In my senior year in high school I was so impressed with the movie Elmer Gantry that I decided to read the book—and that led to reading all the novels of the prolific Sinclair Lewis including his lesser known It Can’t Happen Here.
Written in 1935 and set in the near future, it was a cautionary tale about the danger of fascism coming to power in America. After a “populist” politician combining elements of Hitler and Huey Long won a three-way contest for President he used para-military forces to establish a repressive “Corpo-State.” Many fled to Canada where they organized a New Underground. That’s as much of the plot as I will reveal.
I was reminded of this book I read more than a half-century ago in following the headlines about the bizarre and disturbing campaign of Donald J Trump. His vague political positions are no more—perhaps even less–reactionary than his far-right competitors for the Republican nomination. They are all for flat tax, austerity, union busting, clinic closing, deportations, religious exemptions for businesses that don’t want LGBT customers–and every other in your face attack on us their think tanks can devise.
But Trump’s signature racist and xenophobic demagogy has now added elements of violence against protest–even suggesting that hecklers be removed on a stretcher. Reminiscent of the sieg heil salute to Hitler at the Nuremberg Rally, Trump now asks his audience to raise hands high to pledge fealty to him in coming victory.
And the most frequent question of U.S. users for Google is how to emigrate to Canada.
Even though there was a significant fascist movement in the USA it didn’t “happen here” in the 1930s. The workers movement grew even faster and stronger, often led by socialists and Communists. Especially the CIO unions took great care to combat racism and sexism within their ranks. When FDR skillfully assembled an informal coalition of not only unions, Black activists, and some left groups but also with segregationists and more than a few anti-Semites, the dominant sectors of the ruling class saw no need to give a piece of the action to fascist thugs.
It’s not likely to “happen here” now either. After a well publicized beating of a lone Black protester in North Carolina, Trump’s advance team made a serious tactical mistake– scheduling a rally on an urban campus in Chicago. Demonstrators forced the cancellation of that event. The following night in Kansas City, Trump was interrupted numerous times by hecklers inside and outside, mounted cops twice sprayed pepper gas to disperse a throng of hundreds of protesters waiting to confront the Trumpites as they left the Midland Theater.
The media has devoted much less attention to the rallies of Bernie Sanders. It’s estimated that Trump’s Saturday night Kansas City rally drew maybe 3,000. The previous week, a weekday afternoon rally for Bernie in my home town attracted 7,500.
As much as I have enjoyed numerous visits to Canada I don’t expect to ask for asylum there. The richest ruling class in history has no need for a fascist solution at this time. They were already concerned that the Republican party was stirring up more trouble than their extremism was worth. For them, a GOP led by their class brother Trump is bad news indeed.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remain vigilant. We should follow Trump’s advice—whenever we get hit we should hit back harder twice. We will not be intimidated by a blow-hard megalomaniac who dreams of putting the Trump brand on a Corpo-State.
Old Lessons Like Vintage Wine—Time to Serve
In the last WIR, commenting on an interesting opinion piece in the Guardian, Why Are There Suddenly Millions of Socialists in America?, I again advocated socialists should work for a labor party. I promised to write about the views of America’s most prominent socialist on that question.
I will borrow from a talk I presented at a Midwest Socialist Educational Conference three years ago that was published by Labor Standard, American Socialists and the Labor Party Question From Debs to Mazzocchi. I am not an historian but I do try to learn from history and share my take with others. As a member of one of the smaller socialist groups commenting on the views of other groups I tried to follow the lead of C Wright Mills: “I aim to be objective; I do not claim to be detached.”
Eugene V Debs was first and always a trade unionist. For that he is still revered by rail workers today. But he also recognized the need for workers to organize politically. Like so many union leaders then and now, he began as a Democrat and was elected to the Indiana legislature—a part-time gig–on the donkey party ticket.
His regular day job included trying to unite the fragmented rail craft unions in common action. This eventually was briefly achieved through a coalition, the American Railway Union. When that new body in 1894 effectively shut down all the railroads in support of Pullman sleeping car workers in suburban Chicago judges immediately ordered them back to work. The union ignored the injunctions and Pullman and the carriers turned to labor’s Democrat “friend” in the White House for help–and the bosses were not disappointed.
Grover Cleveland promptly sent thousands of Federal marshals and 12,000 U.S. Army troops to break the strike. Thirty strikers were killed and 57 wounded. Even though defended by the legendary Clarence Darrow, Debs and ten others were sentenced to six months at the prison in Woodstock, Illinois.
During Debs’ incarceration Victor Berger, a German-speaking Jewish immigrant who later became the first socialist to be elected to Congress, came down from Milwaukee several times to visit him—and to introduce Debs to Marxist literature. Debs was an immediate convert and a quick study. He brought along with him a number of rail unionists to help Berger establish the Social Democratic Party. They won over even broader forces, including Dr Antoinette Kornikow, a pioneer in birth control, from the Socialist Labor Party to launch the Socialist Party of America in 1901.
The high point of socialist influence in the USA was during the first sixteen years of the SPA. At its peak there were 118,000 dues paying members. The party even had some modest electoral success—2 members of Congress, numerous state legislators, over 100 Mayors, and a bunch of lesser local offices. Debs ran for President five times, winning six percent of the vote in 1912—and nearly a million votes in 1920 when he was again in prison, sent there for his opposition to the First World War by orders from another Democrat “friend” Woodrow Wilson. These statistics for the new party are even more impressive considering that the U.S. population was then less than half of today’s.
But Debs also firmly believed that the Socialist Party had to be involved in all areas of class struggle—not just elections. He had long advocated industrial unions, embracing all workers in a workplace, and all workplaces in an industry, as far superior to the prevailing fragmentation in craft unions.
He participated in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905 with enthusiasm, as did many other socialists. In its earliest years the IWW won some impressive organizing and strike victories. But relations between the socialists and the syndicalists—who believed only in direct action and opposed most other political activity—were strained to say the least. Factional splits, and especially brutal persecution by both government and murderous vigilantes during World War I, reduced the effort for One Big Union to a small vanguard. They are still in business today and do some good work organizing low wage workers in some areas.
Even during the peak of the party’s success, Debs favored working to launch a broader labor party, such as socialists had done in Britain. It was by no means the first time that was suggested for the USA. As the historian Eric Blanc noted,
“As early as 1886, German Marxist Frederick Engels had declared that the formation of a Labor Party ‘with no matter how inadequate a provisional platform, provided it be a truly working-class platform — that is the next great step to be accomplished in America’ and advised the Socialist Labor Party to advocate and work within a Labor Party.”
The SLP ignored the advice and wound up becoming an isolated sect. Debs saw a labor party not as a substitute for the SPA but a broadening of working class solidarity in to the political arena to involve those not ready to embrace the full socialist program. After he was freed from prison by a pardon from a Republican President, Debs devoted much of his final writings to the labor party question.
From 1919-24 a number of state and local labor, or farmer-labor parties sprung up around the country. In Minnesota, the Farmer-Labor Party became dominant and the Democrats were reduced to minor third party status until a war-time shot-gun marriage of the two in 1944. To this day the Minnesota Democrats dba Democratic Farmer-Labor Party.
In the early 1920s, there were several conferences exploring the feasibility of fielding a labor party candidate in the 1924 presidential election. They were initiated by an impressive group of unions including a coalition of rail craft unions and the Chicago Federation of Labor. Debs followed these developments closely and commented often.
He wrote before one of them,
“If a genuine labor party is organized at Chicago I shall not expect the platform to go the limit of radical demands but shall be satisfied with a reasonable statement of labor’s rights and interests as well as its duties and responsibilities, doubting not that with the progress of the party its platform will in due time embrace every essential feature of the working class program for deliverance from industrial servitude.”
Unfortunately, this diverse movement got hijacked by “Fighting Bob” La Follette, senior patriarch of a Wisconsin Republican dynasty, who ran as a Progressive. It was neither socialist nor class based and it was the end of a promising opportunity.
Senator Bernie Sanders identifies with Debs. Most of the impressive Labor for Bernie probably do as well. But all proportions guarded, Bernie’s Political Revolution more closely resembles Fighting Bob. The main difference is that La Follette ran a third party line protest while Bernie is committed to the Democrats.
While technology has changed, class relations in society remain essentially the same since Engels and Debs advocated a labor party in the USA. It’s still the next indicated step for the American working class—and certainly deserves consideration by those “millions of new socialists.”
* The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, “Several hundred retired union workers and their families rallied Saturday at the State Capitol in St. Paul to denounce proposed deep cuts to Teamsters pensions. Trustees of the giant Central States fund want to reduce the pensions of nearly 275,000 people nationwide by an average of 34 percent. The proposal would affect more than 15,000 Minnesota retirees. The protesters, many of them retired truckers and their families, denounced the cuts via song, chant and speech, waving U.S. flags and placards.”
* From a March 10 blog post on In These Times, “Activists from across Chicago gathered in downtown Chicago last night at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple to demonstrate a united front in the face of continuing budget cuts and austerity measures proposed by state and city officials and a potentially impending strike of the Chicago Teachers Union. Organized by the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, a group of community activists dedicated to supporting the union, many sitting in the pews wore the CTU’s bright red t-shirts. But onstage, representatives from transit workers union ATU 308, AFSCME Council 31, the Black Youth Project (BYP) 100, University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100 and the Chicago Student Union joined CTU President Karen Lewis in calling for solidarity across unions and non-union groups.” An unspecified CTU mass action is in the works for April 1 which would coincide with the Labor Notes Conference.
* The British Telegraph reporting on demonstrations against the French government’s labor “reforms” that include chiseling away at the 35-hour work week, “Unions claimed that half a million people took to the streets around the country, while the government put the figure at quarter of a million. Protests were mainly peaceful, although there were skirmishes with police in the southeastern city of Lyon. More than a million people have signed a petition against the proposed bill, which would loosen France’s notoriously rigid labour laws to make it easier to fire employees, also capping the amount companies have to pay out in working tribunal disputes.”
Just as I was preparing to post this very long and tardy WIR I received a podcast of remarks by Mark Dudzic, former Labor Party national organizer, currently coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer, as broadcast on WDEV’s Equal Time Radio. It’s titled Sanders, Labor for Bernie & Steps Toward a Party of Our Own and runs about 25 minutes. I’m sure I will have some comments on it next time. In the meantime you can access Mark’s message here. And thanks to my friend Traven at Equal Time for passing it along.
That’s all for this week.
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