Socialism was put at the center of U.S. politics by the campaign of Bernie Sanders, which confirmed again what people who protest for a living wage or stand up against police racism have been saying for years: The capitalist system isn’t working, and we need an alternative.
At this summer’s Socialism 2016 conference in Chicago, Sharon Smith and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor were the main speakers at an evening plenary session on “The Fight for a Socialist Future.” Here, we publish the speech by Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States and Women and Socialism: Class, Race and Capital, edited for publication, in which she talks about the hidden history of socialist organizing in the U.S. and the lessons that history holds for today. SW also featured Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s speech here., author of
I HAVE a message for all those naysayers who are absolutely certain that the U.S. could never go socialist because the working class is too–fill in the blank here–a) bought off; b) materialistic; c) apathetic; d) self-absorbed; e) pro-capitalist; f) consumeristic; g) reactionary; h) ignorant; or i) stupid to ever join a socialist movement.
To all those naysayers, I feel compelled to say, “We told you so.” And the supporting evidence for this statement can be summed up in two words: Sanders supporters.
Yes, the millions of youth who have flocked to Bernie Sanders and declared themselves to be socialists–that is, committed to confronting the colossal degree of inequality that capitalism produces–have proven that America could indeed go socialist if today’s younger generation has anything to say about it.
This generation–which is saddled with debt and faces living standards lower than their parents, with a future of a series of low-paying jobs–has demonstrated to all that this country, just like all others in the world, is divided into classes, in which the vast majority of people suffer because of capitalism: A system that is driven only by the insatiable quest for profits on the part of a tiny capitalist class, without the slightest regard for human need or for the workers who produce their profits.
But the young socialists of today want to fight all forms of inequality and oppression. Large majorities are against the continued oppression of women and LGBTQ people and against racism. They mobilized in large numbers in support of Black Lives Matter and against the oppression of LGBTQ people, including after the horrific murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando just a couple of weeks ago.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the youth of today are giving us exactly the kind of hope for the future that has been missing for quite a long time in the socialist movement. This last year is the first time in many decades that a self-described socialist presidential candidate has won mass support in this country–and that is an enormous tipping point for our side.
Having said that, I want to emphasize that we older folks also have an indispensable role to play in the fight for socialism because a socialist organization acts as the collective memory of the working class. Knowing our history allows us to gain from the experience of those who have fought before us–so we can learn from the victories as well as the defeats of the past.
Without that knowledge of history, we will find ourselves reinventing the wheel every time we begin a new struggle, repeating past mistakes and having to learn old lessons all over again, suffering unnecessary defeats instead of advancing the fight for socialism.
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KARL MARX and Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”–meaning that class struggle on a massive scale ultimately creates the conditions for socialist revolution.
But the truth is that a ruling class offensive against the working class has been going on for 40 years now–and make no mistake, it’s a bipartisan project, with the aim of lowering working-class living standards and destroying working-class organizations. While the mainstream media tells us that it’s great progress when the Democrats and Republicans work together, exactly the opposite is true: Bipartisanship means that their side is completely united against our side, which is never good news for us.
The one-sided class war of the last 40 years means that today’s generation of young radicals knows only a lifetime of declining living standards, defeat and setback, with very few victories in between.
There has never been such an extended period of working-class retreat and defeat in the history of U.S. capitalism as what we have experienced these last 40 years–this is true. But we need to understand that, as terrible as it has been to go through it, the last 40 years is the exception rather than the rule.
Capitalism created two objectively antagonistic classes in society, the exploiters and the exploited, the capitalists and the working class. Unfortunately, many people even on the left have written off the potential of the working class to fight for socialism because it hasn’t happened in so long. This makes our history even more important to learn and understand.
The working class in this country actually has a long-standing tradition of radicalism. Anarchists, socialists and other radicals played a leading role in nearly every major strike in our history until the radical movement was destroyed by McCarthyism. During the anti-communist witch hunt in the 1950s, Communist Party members Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed just to make an example out of them, and literally thousands of radicals and union militants, from Hollywood actors to the United Auto Workers, were persecuted, prosecuted, fired from their jobs, blacklisted and sent to prison for their beliefs.
This was a conscious assault on the part of the U.S. ruling class that succeeded at physically removing the radical tradition from inside the working class. Since that time, through no fault of its own, the socialist movement has been exiled to the margins of the class that it champions. Until now, that is.
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THE HISTORY of the socialist movement and the class struggle in the U.S. is barely mentioned in history classes at school–not because the teachers refuse to teach it, but because their lesson plans are scripted from on high by those who have an interest in maintaining the capitalist system. They don’t want us to know about it in case it gives us any ideas about doing something similar.
In reality, the U.S. working class possesses a tradition that has, at certain key points, led the world working class in its heroism and combativity. The U.S. working class movement launched the struggle for the eight-hour workday back in the 1880s, and Chicago was the site of the very first May Day. That holiday is named after the Haymarket Martyrs and celebrated in countries all over the world every May 1. The U.S. is one of the few places where May Day is not celebrated.
The U.S. is also the home of the New York City garment workers’ struggle of 1909 involving 20,000 women workers, all of them immigrants who spoke a dozen different languages and yet managed to unite and strike against sweatshop conditions. That struggle launched the first International Women’s Day, celebrated as a socialist holiday the world over–again, seemingly, everywhere but here.
Most people don’t know it, but hundreds of thousands of working-class people built a grassroots antiwar movement against the First World War in this country–in spite of the fact that the government passed a law called the Espionage Act making it a crime to speak out against the war.
Groups of workers and poor farmers organized and passed declarations like this one by the Oklahoma Socialists society in December 1914: “If war is declared, the Socialists of Oklahoma shall refuse to enlist; but if forced to enter military service to murder fellow workers, we shall choose to die fighting the enemies of humanity in our ranks rather than to perish fighting our fellow workers.”
The U.S. is also the home of the sit-down strikes of the 1930s that built the industrial unions. This was not only the highest point of working-class struggle in U.S. history with the strike wave that built the CIO unions, but it also brought together thousands and thousands of Black and white workers, who stood shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy, on picket lines and in sit-down strikes, on demonstrations to free the Scottsboro Boys–nine young Black men put on death row in Alabama on trumped-up rape charges.
In other words, in the 1930s, thousands of white workers consciously came over to the fight against racism for the first time in U.S. history.
And far from taking a backseat to men in the class struggle during the 1930s, women workers built unions in their own right, and played a leading role in some of the most important strikes that took place.
During the Flint sit-down strike of 1937, when the mostly male workforce occupied the plant to demand a union, socialist women organized the Flint Women’s Emergency Brigade, which was far from a typical women’s auxiliary that limited itself to cooking food for the strikers. On the contrary, the women armed themselves with objects that looked remarkably like baseball bats to fight–and beat–the police and National Guard. That is the power of the class struggle when it reaches massive proportions.
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THE 1930s was also an era of political radicalization inside the working class. And workers who were in the forefront of the class struggle began to break with the Democratic Party–seeing through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s posturing as the spokesman for the downtrodden, when in reality he stood solidly on the side of saving capitalism during the Great Depression.
Instead, those workers leading key industrial struggles called for a working-class party of their own. The United Auto Workers (UAW) convention of 1935 actually voted down a resolution supporting Roosevelt for president, and instead voted overwhelmingly to launch a national farm-labor party as a left-wing alternative. They only backed down after the CIO leadership threatened to take away their strike funds if they didn’t support Roosevelt.
In fact, at any given time prior to the McCarthy witch hunts, thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of working-class people belonged to a radical political party.
The Socialist Party in the early 1900s reached a membership of 120,000, and their candidate for president, the revolutionary socialist Eugene Debs, got almost a million votes when he ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket in 1912.
It has also been estimated that roughly 1 million workers passed in and out of the Communist Party in the 1930s and ’40s. The party reached 80,000 members at its height, with a membership that was 9 percent Black. And remember that this was still a time when Jim Crow segregation and lynching were the order of the day, showing the possibility for building a multiracial movement in the U.S. today.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the U.S. was the home of a wildcat strike wave that built rank-and-file workers movements like the Miners for Democracy, the Teamsters for a Decent Contract and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, known as DRUM.
DRUM and other movements like it were significant because they were organizations of Black workers that took on not only the racism of the auto companies, but racism inside the UAW. And they drew in a sizeable number of white workers who walked out of their factories in solidarity with Black workers, in a fight explicitly against racism.
In the 1960s, not only was the U.S. the home of the women’s liberation movement and the Black Power movement that inspired people all over the world to fight against oppression, but the U.S. also gave birth to the gay liberation movement, after the Stonewall Rebellion that also touched off gay liberation movements around the world.
In more recent history, on May 1, 2006, May Day or International Workers’ Day, was celebrated on U.S. soil with mass working-class demonstrations appropriately led by immigrants, who have always played a key role in the U.S. radical working-class tradition. The movement’s most powerful slogan, “a day without immigrants,” showed that its strategy of social struggle was tied explicitly to the power of workers to withhold their labor.
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WHETHER OR not you plan to hold your nose and vote for Hillary Clinton, or plan to vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party, or just abstain from the whole voting process this year, we all actually have a more important choice to make at this point.
The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg put the choice that we face as that between “socialism or barbarism,” because we’ll either end up with one or the other.
And I’d say we’re getting pretty close to barbarism when refugees are drowning by the hundreds at a time to escape civil war, and then getting stopped and detained once they reach Europe; when UNICEF just predicted that 69 million children will die of starvation and disease by 2030, and half of these children who will die are from Sub-Saharan Africa; when prisons are teeming with poor people and people of color, and yet General Motors executives knowingly killed at least 125 people with faulty airbags then tried to cover it up–yet no one has yet suggested that any of them spend even a minute in jail.
And if you think things can’t get any worse, I guarantee you that it can. History tells us that.
But the same conditions that fuel the potential for the growth of the right also create the potential for the growth of the left. This is the only way to understand the massive support for both Donald Trump and also for Bernie Sanders.
The question is not now and never has been if but when workers in the U.S. will begin to fight back once again–and not if but when it will become possible to build a political party based on the principles of socialism.
We also need to recognize that the working class today is composed of many races, sexualities and gender identities, and is capable of propelling issues of racism and other forms of oppression to the center of the class struggle in ways that would have been unimaginable in the past.
I want to end by saying to those of us here who have survived all or part of the last 40 years: Thank you for not wavering from your belief in the power of the working class to change society. And to those of you who are new to the socialist movement, who are unjaded and full of optimism, and will undoubtedly carry on the struggle: Thank you for giving us hope for the future of all humanity.