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Justice for Tyre Nichols! Solidarity against police murder!

Mon, 01/30/2023 - 17:47

The horrifying video released Friday showing five Memphis police officers severely beating a defenseless and compliant Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, on January 7 has once again exposed the brutal racism of police murder.

We at Tempest stand with his family and the communities impacted by his death. We are in solidarity with the ongoing movement for Black Lives against racist killer cops.

Nichols’ murder comes in the wake of a record year of police killings. The Guardian reports that in 2022, law enforcement killed at least 1,176 people—roughly 100 people per month. Most of those killings—more than 70 percent—occurred during routine, non-threatening police encounters. In more than 30 percent of cases, the person killed was fleeing for their life—as was the case with Nichols. While making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, Black people constituted 24 percent of those killed by police. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people.

Like every person murdered by police, however, Tyre Nichols was much more than another name, more than another statistic. He was a father to a four-year-old son and a FedEx worker. His mother, Row Vaughn Wells, was extremely close to her son. He had moved from Sacramento to Memphis to be near her, they shared a home there with his stepfather, and he had a tattoo of her name on his arm. He enjoyed skateboarding and photography. (You can find some of his work here.) NPR published a video—a beautiful and heartbreaking counterpoint to the police video—of Nichols riding a skateboard in the sunshine, jumping stairs, curbs, and walls while making elaborate turns.

On the night of January 7, police pulled Nichols over and dragged him violently from his car. All five police officers at the scene weighed over 200 pounds in comparison to Nichols, who, despite his considerable height of 6’3”, weighed less than 150 pounds. (He was living with Crohn’s disease.) Nichols fled on foot toward his mother’s house after the police Tasered him. Police caught him and threw him to the ground even as he protested that he was complying with their orders to lie down. Crying for his mother, he was kicked, punched, and beaten with a baton until he was bleeding, immobile, and in shock.

Emergency workers were slow to arrive. The New York Times reports that medics stood by passively and even walked away as Nichols writhed in pain for six minutes and 40 seconds. 23 minutes passed before a stretcher arrived on the scene. Nichols died in the hospital three days later.

“It just never stops. There was a movement and uproar across the globe, and we’re still having more killings.”

Protests have erupted across the country, in Memphis, Milwaukee, Oakland, Phoenix, Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, York, Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, and elsewhere. Everywhere, protesters have raised signs and chants calling not only for an end to police killings but also for the defunding and abolition of the police.

Ironically—but not surprisingly—police in riot gear faced off Friday night with protestors in Los Angeles. They were honoring not only Nichols but also Keenan Anderson, who was murdered this month after L.A. police pinned him to the ground and Tasered him at least six times over a period of 42 seconds.

The five officers who murdered Tyre Nichols have been fired and charged with second-degree murder, along with six other felonies, and a sixth officer has also been suspended. The emergency medical workers who delayed care for Nichols have been suspended.

The cops who beat Tyre Nichols were members of a predatory strike team called Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods, or SCORPION, which has since been dismantled. Such task forces, modeled on the 1970s STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) unit in Detroit, are deployed to intensify the crackdown on Black people and the poor to assuage the anxieties of business owners and justify inequality.

All of the officers who beat Tyre Nichols are Black, which might explain the rapidity with which they were dismissed and charged and the sudden disbanding of the task force. One can imagine that, if the officers had been white, they might not have faced such sudden—or any—punishment.

The situation is not one in which a few “bad cops” are out of control. SCORPION was created on the initiative of police chief Cerlyn Davis, who instructed the unit to crack down even on minor offenses and ramp up “all-out” policing in poor neighborhoods.

Even when police forces are racially diverse, they still fulfill the functions of surveilling, targeting, and killing of Black people. The scapegoating and murder of Black men by police buttresses an inhumane set of priorities by which police funding increases while resources for public welfare are cut. The brutal racism of policing in U.S. cities justifies inequality and austerity as we enter a likely economic recession.

Protesting the murder of George Floyd. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The 2020 murder of George Floyd led to mass uprisings for racial justice and against police murder. Yet, with the backing of pro-cop Democratic mayors, police budgets across the country have increased, including in Los Angeles, where the police department funding has increased by $250 million since 2020. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams is pushing to reduce city spending by three percent in 2023 and 4.75 percent in 2024 and 2025. Adams’ plan would shrink the expansion of free preschool programs across the city in order to save $284 million in fiscal years 2025 and 2026.

Amid the local protests in Memphis following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Democratic mayor Jim Strickland released a statement on June 10 that read in part, “I’m opposed to defunding our police department. I believe cutting funding from the Memphis Police Department is unwise. And frankly, it’s out of touch with the majority of city residents.” In 2017, the Memphis police budget was 38 percent of the total city budget; a year after George Floyd’s murder, it was 40 percent.

This inhumane set of priorities is evident in another instance of police murder. On January 18, police shot and killed a nonviolent protester in Atlanta, Georgia, queer environmentalist Manuel “Tortuguita” Esteban Paez Terán. Terán and other activists were challenging what is being called “Cop City,” officials plan to build a 90-million-dollar police training center there, destroying 85 acres of forest.

This is the context of the police murder of Tyre Nichols, who died on January 10. Just ten days later, President Biden made the following tellingly reactionary comments:

When it comes to public safety—when it comes to public safety, we know the answer is not to defund the police. It’s to retrain some police. It’s to make sure we know exactly what’s happening. But it’s not to defund the police. They need more funding, and they need ancillary help as well.

Calling for more police funding, Biden has proposed an “American Rescue Plan” that includes $350 billion to local and state governments “to make communities safer.” In a sickening move, Biden invited Nichols’ family to the State of the Union Address.

This “plan” and Biden’s remarks are affronts to justice and decency. The police murder of Tyre Nichols—and that of Keenan Anderson and the hundreds of other Black people killed by the police—requires a renewed uprising against racist police murders. Bianca Austin, aunt of police victim Breonna Taylor, expressed this urgency: “It just never stops. There was a movement and uproar across the globe, and we’re still having more killings.”

None of the issues raised by the 2020 rebellion against police murder has been resolved. Derecka Parnell, writing for the Guardian, notes that the beating of Tyre Nichols happened even when reforms like body cameras were in place.

There is an urgent need for ongoing protests raising the demand to defund—and, ultimately, abolish—the police. In response to the video of police beating Nichols, a Portland activist posted a message reading, “EVERY SINGLE MURDER caused by police should ignite within us a rage that is unstoppable. This will ignite a whole new uprising. And it should.”

You can support Nichols’ family by donating to the Tyre Nichols Memorial Fund.

Featured Image Credit:Photo by Beck1999 modified by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

This recession is an ambush

Sun, 01/29/2023 - 15:21

The U.S. labor movement made important steps forward in 2022, with inspiring campaigns and a level of strike activity that continues to rise, along with the formation of new unions.

The numbers don’t add up to a strike wave, but many big companies are grappling with high-profile union campaigns with important strikes continuing to be waged.

These developments have alarmed the establishment, but perhaps more alarming have been the actions of the non-organized working class. Low-wage workers continue to flex their muscles with a confidence that is connected to their high demand in the labor market. But instead of organizing new unions, many are simply leaving for higher wages elsewhere, where an epidemic of “job switching” has challenged the dominance of employers over their workers.

The combined effect of organized and unorganized workers has put corporations on the defensive for the first time in forty years. These companies spent decades creating a capitalist hellscape for employees, but the chickens have come home to roost in the form of new unions, job switching, or dropping out of the workforce entirely.

The capitalists have declared a crisis

The U.S. establishment clearly understands it is facing a serious labor crisis, not only because of the above reasons but a deeper problem: a massive labor shortage. The issue is multifaceted, though a key driver is demographic shifts, where the baby boom generation is retiring but is not being replaced by the birth rates of younger generations. An economic report on workplace trends predicts that between 2026 and 2036 the U.S. workforce will shrink by 3.2 percent.

Fewer workers overall means that each worker is worth more, and a labor market that favors workers is a national emergency for corporations, since higher wages mean lower profits—and profit is the motor force of capitalism.

Photo by Mike Mozart.

Across the country, “help wanted” signs have become permanent features even as the de facto minimum wage has soared beyond $15 in many cities, while $15 is increasingly becoming codified into law across the country.

Of course, if companies had less hellish work environments—or better benefits packages— they’d have no problems attracting workers, but this is precisely the problem, and corporations have a solution.

The plan isn’t to create a more worker-friendly U.S. capitalism. Quite the contrary. The plan is to do what the establishment has done for forty years, only this time with more brutality. It appears the big employers are ready to do whatever it takes to re-discipline the working class into submission, to accept an even lower standard of living with an even more soul-crushing work life.

Many tactics are being used to boost the labor force, all intended to drive down wages:
slashing unemployment benefits, clamoring for more immigrants, cutting of other safety net programs, etc., but the fundamental problem—wages—is being targeted directly by the highest levels of government with bipartisan support.

An increasing chorus of establishment voices is demanding that wages be driven down, which are now being blamed for inflation in general. This is despite the operation of several other major drivers of inflation, such as supply-chain disruptions (many of them related to the pandemic), as well as shortages of energy, food, and fertilizer (in part due to Russia’s war on Ukraine). Despite the fact that these problems are basic and obvious, the establishment seems to think that attacking wages is the solution. Bloomberg sheepishly commented that “There’s a perverse element to cheering for weaker wage growth, which is generally associated with a soft labor market and higher unemployment.”

The combined effect of organized and unorganized workers has put corporations on the defensive for the first time in forty years.

The former director of Obama’s National Economic Council, Larry Summers, has been hawkish in his very public campaigning for the Federal Reserve to drop the niceties and attack wages. In a recent candid interview, Summers bragged that the Fed had finally adopted his viewpoint, saying: “My view continues to be you don’t get inflation down to 2 percent without getting wage inflation substantially down, and you don’t get wage inflation substantially down without meaningful slack [unemployment] in the labor market…”

Summers added that the Fed finally recognizes that developments in the labor market should be the “super-core measure of inflation.”

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has been obsessed with the labor market for nearly a year, with a focus on driving down wages via higher unemployment. His solution to the pro-worker, “overheated labor market” is to trigger a recession, which he is doing by driving up interest rates.

In a recent speech to the establishment-hardened Brookings Institute, Powell focused exclusively on inflation’s connection to the labor market, where he made clear that to attack inflation meant that wages must be lowered. Using his always-technocratic language, Powell was still clear about his intentions: “Because wages make up the largest cost in delivering these services, the labor market holds the key to understanding inflation in this [service sector] category.” The service sector is the biggest sector of the U.S. economy.

The coming recession means class war

Jerome Powell has compared his actions on several occasions to former Fed Chairman Paul Volker, who famously triggered a major recession that Reagan used to attack unions. By using Volker as his inspiration, Powell is also implying that there is an important political component needed to accompany the Fed’s actions to assist in lowering wages—union busting.

The Federal Reserve doesn’t lower wages automatically, but shifts the labor market to offer more favorable terrain for employers to conduct anti-worker operations. Just like Reagan used Volker’s high interest rates to bludgeon unions—as part of Reagan’s “fight against inflation”—a very similar situation has emerged today, with Biden doing his best Reagan impression.

The anti-union offensive has already begun, with 2022 showcasing a wave of union-busting unseen since the Reagan era. Many large corporations—most notably Amazon and Starbucks—brazenly broke labor laws with zero real consequences. Democrats and Republicans alike have looked the other way during this crime spree, which corporations have correctly interpreted to mean they have a blank check to bust unions.

Photo by Joe Piette.

The Left and the broader labor movement have been slow to react to the significance of this union busting, which promises to accelerate in conditions of recession. If labor doesn’t become more aggressive soon, 2023 will be a historic year of conquest for corporations.

The now-emerging recession promises to have big impacts on the important union contract negotiations set to happen across the country, where workers’ desires to catch up with inflation will collide with the corporations’ obsession to keep their labor costs low during recessionary conditions.

These contracts will thus be hard fought. Many won’t be winnable using non-militant methods, because larger political and economic forces have united in an open conspiracy against organized labor.

For example, the key moment of 2022 that foreshadowed the joint actions of employers and the government against workers—aside from political inaction during a union-busting wave—was the defeat of the rail workers’ strike, which had tremendous implications for the threats facing unions in the recession.

The significance of the rail worker betrayal

The potential rail strike was a major political test for both the establishment and the labor movement. The outcome was a key victory for the establishment.

Labor’s defeat was significant for many reasons, all amplified by the timing: the Fed pushing the economy into recession; employers experiencing a labor shortage; the actions of organized and unorganized workers facing an intensified employer assault—class relations were verging on the precipice.

The end result is that corporations have momentum on their side when entering a recession while the labor movement grapples with a demoralizing defeat that has repercussions for other unions. Part of this demoralization is a lack of a solution going forward; there was no big rallying cry when labor “discovered” that the Democratic President and Democrats in Congress were union busters—and now there is no inspiring community campaign or political direction as the labor movement enters recession conditions, surrounded by bipartisan union busters.

The rail strike betrayal by key labor and Left leaders was also significant, as weakness invites aggression, which can only encourage Corporate America’s recession attack plan.

This may seem dramatic to some, but national union conflicts reverberate and are thus watched closely. Many minimized the PATCO union defeat initially—since Reagan had only attacked one union—but the Fed-created economic context ensured that PATCO was a starting pistol for corporate aggressiveness, who had been chomping at the bit.

Similarly, the defeat of the rail workers occurred in the context of the bipartisan support for the Fed’s goal of lowering wages and, like PATCO, a broader desire of Corporate America to readjust labor relations into a more profitable dynamic amid a labor shortage.

Today’s establishment is dramatically shifting its economic policies away from the long period of cheap money that began after the 2008 Great Recession. The Fed’s new direction means that the era of cheap money has ended, but the ruling class refuses to accept that the era of cheap labor is over. For forty years, U.S. corporations have profited from cheap labor, and they plan to fight like hell to keep it.

If the rail workers had won a national strike, it would have inspired millions of workers to do the same at a key moment. It seems the corporations understood the importance of this more than many labor leaders.

Union leaders crumpled during the rail fight

The rail strike betrayal by key labor and Left leaders was also significant, as weakness invites aggression, which can only encourage Corporate America’s recession attack plan.

The union leaders of the various railway unions obviously failed their members, since they signed onto a horrible tentative agreement—that the workers rejected—and later surrendered the battle without firing a shot. The broader labor movement also failed miserably.

For example, the head of the AFL-CIO, Liz Shuler, said nothing about the Democrat’s strikebreaking. Most other top union leaders were equally silent, perhaps hoping their cowardice might spare them the Democrats’ ax.

Hours after Biden signed the strikebreaking law, he entered an IBEW local [electrician’s union] for a photo op. Instead of being spat on, he was given a standing ovation.

Teamster President Sean O’Brien has been equally awful (two rail unions are affiliated with the Teamsters). Known for his militant speeches, O’Brien’s toughness in the rail strike seemed limited to militant lobbying. But after Congress voted to prevent the strike, O’Brien threw in the towel and pressured other rail workers to do the same. According to Joe Allen’s excellent article: “O’Brien and [Vice President] Zuckerman welcomed the presidential intervention and then told their two affiliated rail unions to accept the shitty deal. O’Brien personally attended the Teamsters BLET [rail workers] convention and told the delegates to stop whining and talking to outsiders.”

[Teamster President] O’Brien’s wimpy role in the rail strike implies that UPS workers will need rank and file pressure to make any potential strike winnable.

O’Brien issued no rallying cry for the rail workers and had nothing negative to say about the Democrats’ strikebreaking, choosing instead to focus his fire on the Republicans (though Democrats last year controlled Congress and the presidency). O’Brien has since spoken positively of the Biden administration. Apparently there are no hard feelings.

The actions of the Teamster leadership should be a warning to the Teamster workers at UPS, who are bargaining a national contract this year, which many predict may erupt into a strike similar to the famous 1997 UPS strike. O’Brien’s wimpy role in the rail strike implies that UPS workers will need rank and file pressure to make any potential strike winnable.

Ultimately, the betrayal of the rail workers proved that key union leaders are completely incapable of dealing with quickly-moving events. The recession is a trap set for the labor movement, and union leaders have signaled that they’re ready to blindly march their members into it.

Repairing labor’s Achilles heel

Union leaders flunked their rail test because of weak spines and bad politics: The close ties between the top layer of the union bureaucracy and the Democrats led to the betrayal of the rail workers, which has caused broader demoralization in the labor movement.

In an article about the rail workers, Cosmonaut wrote:

Rather than utilizing solidarity and strike, the natural weapon of the working class, rail union leadership had instead put their faith in the President and the Democratic Party to deliver a good contract. This faith was bolstered by the broader leadership of the trade union movement who chose not to mobilize mass action in solidarity with railroad workers, but instead to push illusions in the sick leave measure passing.

Having any faith in Biden was beyond naive, but such political stupidity shows no signs of stopping, especially since labor leaders have apparently learned nothing from the fiasco, ensuring that similar tragedies will unfold in the near future.

A similar political crisis is happening to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose core political strategy is based on working within the union-busting Democratic Party.
DSA’s already-faltering political vision has been shattered by the rail worker incident, since even DSA-member elected politicians lined up to break the strike.

Budget deficits on the city and state level will again result in attacks on healthcare, pensions, and wages.

DSA is consequently facing aimlessness at a time real strategy is demanded. The organization simply cannot go on like this without internal fracturing, which has seemingly already begun. If the upcoming DSA convention cannot make an enormous course correction, remaining Leftists will strongly consider heading toward the exit.

The strikebreaking showed that the Democratic Party is united in its anti-unionism after years of shifting allegiances away from labor in favor of the wealthy. This anti-labor unity quickly trickles down to Democratic governors and mayors, who are preparing their own anti-union attacks as part of their recession plans: Budget deficits on the city and state level will again result in attacks on healthcare, pensions, and wages.

Public sector unions remain the labor movement’s strongest section, but many have been internally weakened by the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which shrank the budget of many unions. The coming recession will be a key stress test for these unions, some of which will likely buckle under the pressure while others will be strengthened by militantly defending themselves.

The above political dynamic has once again inspired calls on the Left for an independent labor-based workers’ party. This obvious solution has created a counter-chorus from the liberal-left who are determined to stifle this solution.

The first step in creating a workers’ party is for the Left to unite around demanding that it be created, and to continuously agitate and organize around this demand, rather than agreeing “in theory” about a workers’ party while “in practice” staying welded to the Democrats.

The establishment has a plan for this recession; the labor movement needs a plan, too.

To test the labor party waters, an initial conference of progressive unions and activists could be organized to discuss the political need and strategy towards realizing a labor party. If such a conference is well attended and enthusiastic, the participants would be encouraged to take the next steps.

Steps toward building a workers’ party need to be taken in conjunction with creating an action plan against inflation and recession, where unions and community groups come together to mobilize in favor of a program capable of defending and expanding working class power in a time of crisis. A good example of such a campaign is “Enough is Enough” in Britain, which calls for real wage increases and for taxing the rich to provide adequate food, energy, and housing. Such a campaign could have broad appeal, and those who also advocate forming an independent workers’ party could gain some hearing within it. If an action campaign can win some successes through workers’ own efforts, it could boost their confidence to join a Left call for political independence from the Democrats.

In order to survive the emerging phase of recession and anti-unionism, labor leaders must discuss what’s at stake with their members. As it stands now the recession will be a shock to millions of workers even though the Fed has been planning it for well over a year.

The establishment has a plan for this recession; the labor movement needs a plan, too. If the broader working class is punished by the recession without a loud and visible labor movement campaigning for pro-worker, socialist solutions, we will inevitably get anti-worker, capitalist solutions to an economic crisis that is only just beginning.

Featured Image Credit: Alachua County; modifed by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Making sense of the Ukraine war

Thu, 01/26/2023 - 23:34

Several years ago, I was sitting in a Lower Manhattan café with a friend, the journalist Arun Gupta, lamenting the state of the Left and how so many ostensible leftists had become little more than cheerleaders for reactionary politics. While downing mediocre coffee and an overpriced salad bar lunch, I listened as Arun made an incisive observation: “In the U.S., the Left has never been close to power. But even powerless, the Left has had influence through correct political analysis. The Left has shaped politics by being right.” And as I thought about it, Arun had a great point. Whether it was the labor movement, civil rights movement, the anti–Vietnam-War movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, or the anti-nukes movement, all were propelled into the mainstream of U.S. political life by the Left.

And so there is a tradition that we on the Left in the United States—the diseased heart of the imperial “West”—have an obligation to uphold. Our job is not to cosplay as Little Kissingers studying the global chessboard and basing our political views on the positioning of non-Western pieces. Instead, our responsibility is to discern what is real and to defend and propagate that truth in the service of internationalism and liberation from capitalist and imperialist oppression.

Our job is to help others understand violence: who is perpetrating aggression, who is victimized, and how we can stop it. Our job is to make sense of the senseless.

With that principle in mind, the new book War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict by Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J. S. Davies (of the antiwar group CODEPINK) fails on every level. It offers a myopic view of Russia’s war in Ukraine that sees the entirety of the conflict through the lens of U.S.-NATO aggression without making even a perfunctory attempt to engage with the many other critical aspects of the war: oligarch rivalries, capital accumulation, imperial revanchism, anti-communism, resource extraction, and more.

The book makes no effort to understand Ukrainian perspectives beyond casting the entire society as nameless and faceless pawns of U.S. imperialism. Similarly, the authors don’t bother to engage with any Russian perspectives—except those of Vladimir Putin—let alone provide a materialist analysis of Russian society, economy, or political institutions. It makes little mention of the events leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, save for those that involve NATO, omitting Russia’s military intervention in Kazakhstan in January 2022 to crush a worker uprising. The authors studiously avoid even a superficial analysis of the nature of the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, how the situation came to be, or the players involved.

In fact, Benjamin and Davies ignore all the critical elements of this ghastly and criminal war apart from the wrongs of the United States and NATO. And even with respect to NATO, the authors fail to capture the complexity of its role since the end of the Soviet Union, carefully sidestepping the inconvenient examples of NATO-Russia collaboration.

It is distressing to see leaders of one of the most prominent antiwar organizations in the United States, in effect, upholding Putin’s left flank, offering up hollow condemnations of the Kremlin while using its propaganda to badly misinform the public about the nature of a war that has already shaken the global capitalist system and has the potential to end human civilization.

With that in mind, I offer this review for those interested in a serious analysis of the war and its attendant complexities, one that jettisons the fundamentally flawed framework of Benjamin and Davies and instead maintains an internationalist, anti-colonial, and authentic anti-imperialist perspective.

A Critical Look at U.S./NATO-Russia Relations

Benjamin and Davies are at their strongest when highlighting the vicious U.S.-NATO war machine, which sends arms and soldiers across the planet for military exercises, military interventions, and, of course, profits. The book provides an adequate, though uneven, introduction to the insidious role of NATO throughout the post-Soviet period, including most importantly highlighting how the U.S.-led military alliance expanded to include much of the former Soviet bloc. However, as with everything in this book, the analysis is partial and ignores many of the critical elements of the NATO-Russia relationship.

Reading Benjamin and Davies one could easily reach the conclusion that Russia and NATO have been locked in a conflict since at least 2007, if not 1991, as NATO crept its way to Russia’s border, thus presenting Russia with an “existential threat.” That aligns them with Putin, who has made the same point countless times, including in his oft-quoted 2007 speech in Munich. Conveniently, however, both Benjamin and Davies, like Putin, ignore the fact that Russia was a critical NATO partner for much of the last 20 years.

Benjamin and Davies, like Putin, ignore the fact that Russia was a critical NATO partner for much of the last 20 years

Take, for instance, the fact that Russia hosted a NATO base inside its borders for many years, and that it was a critical linchpin of NATO’s imperial infrastructure allowing the U.S. and its “NATO allies and partners” to rain death and destruction on Afghanistan for twenty-plus years. Sounds a bit odd for a country that allegedly views NATO as an existential threat. In fact, as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute noted, “Russia was the second largest supplier of major arms to the Afghan armed forces in the period [2001–2020], accounting for 14 per cent of imports, by volume. All of these deliveries took place between 2002 and 2014.”

Let us recall that Russia steadfastly refused to use its UN Security Council veto to prevent the NATO-led destruction of Libya, an egregious war crime carried out by the United States, United Kingdom, France, and other powers. At the time, Russia had no significant qualms with NATO’s crime against humanity, with then-President Dmitry Medvedev—a placeholder for Putin due to constitutional term limits—saying that Russia did not veto Resolution 1973, which authorized the intervention, “for the simple reason that [Russia does] not consider the resolution in question wrong. [The resolution] reflects [Russia’s] understanding of events in Libya too, but not completely.” So much for “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” school of realpolitik.

Map from 2012 showing NATO’s logistical supply routes, including the Northern Distribution Networks through Russia, during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Graphic from Third Way Think Tank.

And, in perhaps the most distasteful of ironies, Benjamin and Davies, like some segments of the Left, allow Putin’s iteration of Bush-era neoconservative imperialism to go entirely unnoticed. How hard would it have been to point out, as I did in CounterPunch within the first two weeks of the war, that Putin was following the Bush-Cheney playbook? A little Azov Bandera Nazis in place of al-Qaeda terrorists, a few Ukrainian biolabs and a non-existent nuclear weapons program in place of “Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction,” make a nice little neocon war.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Putin in his now infamous speech just before officially ordering the invasion:

If Ukraine acquires weapons of mass destruction, the situation in the world and in Europe will drastically change, especially for us, for Russia. We cannot but react to this real danger, all the more so since, let me repeat, Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country.

Like a cheaply made Russian knockoff of a carcinogenic Western consumer product, Putin attempts to replicate the worst of U.S. imperialism and adapt it to his own needs. While such cynicism is to be expected from the undisputed leader of the global far right, the credulity of some on the Left, including Benjamin and Davies, toward Putin’s words is unacceptable.

About that Putin Speech…

It is interesting to note that Benjamin and Davies quote liberally from numerous Putin speeches, including the now infamous February 21, 2022, address to the Russian people in which he formally announced the invasion. And yet the authors studiously ignore all of it save for the bits about NATO. I wonder why?

Could it be because in the same speech, Putin made very clear that the war was about righting a historic wrong perpetrated by the dastardly Vladimir Lenin and those insidious Bolsheviks with their crazy ideas about the right of nations to self-determination? Could it be because Putin quite openly declares the conflict to be neocolonial in nature? Don’t believe me. Here’s Putin:

I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space. … Since time immemorial, the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. … So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. …

This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russi—by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought…When it comes to the historical destiny of Russia and its peoples, Lenin’s principles of state development were not just a mistake; they were worse than a mistake, as the saying goes. This became patently clear after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991… Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.”

And today the “grateful progeny” has overturned monuments to Lenin in Ukraine. They call it decommunization. You want decommunization? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunization would mean for Ukraine.

What Putin’s address reveals, and what Benjamin and Davies go to great lengths to ignore, is the fact that this war is, at its root, an imperial, revanchist, neocolonial war. From regarding much of Ukraine as “historically Russian land” to identifying it with Orthodox Christianity, Putin is quite openly declaring that Ukraine does not, in fact, have a right to exist. Or, to the extent that it does, it is exclusively Catholic, Western Ukraine, with the rest of the country belonging to Russia and Orthodoxy.

What do you call a war that has as its explicit goal the erasure of an entire nation? Supremacist? Genocidal? Colonial? Take your pick. Benjamin and Davies prefer to call it “self-defense.” Or to just not comment at all.

What Putin’s [February 21, 2022] address reveals, and what Benjamin and Davies go to great lengths to ignore, is the fact that this war is, at its root, an imperial, revanchist, neocolonial war…Putin is quite openly declaring that Ukraine does not, in fact, have a right to exist.

Seen from this perspective, perhaps we can finally “make sense” of Russia’s “senseless” criminal attacks on civilian infrastructure, such as Ukraine’s energy system, which Amnesty International, along with every other human rights body, describes as war crimes. Similarly, one can understand why Putin seems so cavalier about holding Europe’s biggest nuclear plant hostage, risking a catastrophic nuclear accident, since it would most acutely affect Ukrainians, who don’t really matter anyway. Likewise, we now can understand the attacks on Ukraine’s cultural institutions, including art and science museums, because a nation that has no right to exist surely has no right to its own unique culture. For Putin, Ukrainian culture is a figment of the Bolshevik imagination. (I’ve written about this erasure of Ukrainian identity elsewhere.) And, naturally, a people who do not exist have no rights.

Benjamin/Davies and Putin Agree: Ukrainians (Mostly) Don’t Exist

One of the most stunningly asinine aspects of the book is the fact that it completely ignores Ukrainian society, Ukrainian voices, and Ukrainian perspectives. There is a grand total of one Ukrainian activist cited in the book, despite the fact that every day on both traditional and social media there are countless Ukrainians from all political persuasions active on every front of this war.

The sole Ukrainian voice belongs to Yurii Sheliazhenko, a pacifist and war resister. While one can certainly respect a person’s decision to be a pacifist, it raises the question of why this was the only voice included in the book.

Benjamin and Davies could certainly have spoken with the comrades of Maksym Boutkevytch, the antifascist, anarchist, and human rights defender who co-founded the “Without Borders” project, and who since June has been a prisoner of the Russians, who dishonestly claim he’s a “Nazi.” Benjamin and Davies would have had no difficulty speaking with Taras Bilous, a Ukrainian socialist historian, editor of Commons: Journal of Social Criticism, and an activist with the left-wing Social Movement. Or Dmytro Mrachnyk, a political activist, journalist, and tattoo artist turned soldier who participated in the liberation of Kharkiv and who has seen frontline combat since the Russian invasion began. Or journalist turned soldier Yevgeny Leshan. Or, until this past Fall, Yuriy Samoilenko, the head of the antifascist football hooligan crew Hoods Hoods Klan, who became an officer in the Ukrainian Army and was killed in combat. Or members of the Solidarity Collectives, which has organized medical aid and foreign medical volunteers in places on the frontlines like Bakhmut where the reality of Russian aggression is inescapable.

So, what’s the difference between those Ukrainians listed above (and many others not mentioned) and Benjamin and Davies’ preferred Ukrainian voice? Resistance. For Benjamin and Davies, the only Ukrainian worth talking to is one who does not resist Russia’s aggression.

Russia is Putin, Putin is Russia

Another inexcusable omission in the book is the complete absence of any Russian voices and analysis of Russian society and domestic issues that may have motivated Putin’s invasion. One gets the impression from Benjamin and Davies that Russia can be reduced to Putin and his ideas about the West, the world, and Russia’s place within it. How else is one to interpret the complete lack of any Russian perspectives? The authors mention in passing the repression by the Putin regime, the suppression and outright criminalization of independent media, and other measures taken by the Kremlin, but conveniently they do not seek analysis from Russian experts.

Had they bothered to do so, they would have discovered a wide range of factors complicating the simple, myopic Russia vs. NATO narrative that is the lifeblood of the book. For instance, they could have spoken with renowned historian, sociologist, and author Boris Kagarlitsky, whom I interviewed in September 2022 about the political, economic, and social factors behind the invasion. Benjamin and Davies might have been surprised to hear Kagarlitsky explain that, while it’s self-evident that NATO expansion was imperialist, it’s also true that much of the U.S. motivation was rooted not in targeting Russia but in absorbing the post-Soviet militaries of Eastern Europe into NATO (along with their hardware) in order to use them in far-flung operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Poland and Ukraine rank fourth and fifth in combat deaths in Iraq, for example.

As Kagarlitsky noted, “The eastward expansion of NATO was part of Western imperialist policies…but up to at least 2014 it had very little to do with Russia. It was much more about Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and maybe China to some extent.” Kagarlitsky explains:

[NATO expansion] is one side of the coin. And the other side is Russian sub-imperialism. Russian elites accumulated enormous quantities of hard currency throughout the Putin era, and this is a very typical crisis of overaccumulation as described by Rosa Luxemburg… the Russian elite accumulated much more capital than it could use and invest inside its own country…this accumulation by both the state and private sector was enormous and led to a specific type of expansionism because Russian corporations were interested in taking over companies, and especially resources, of former Soviet Republics; Ukraine was of special interest but also Moldova, Kazakhstan, etc. And here you have a classic capitalist-imperialist conflict between competitors [as] Western capital and corporations were moving into the same markets.

Perhaps such an analysis might have proven useful in making sense of this senseless conflict?

The “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk: A Fairy Tale

In what is a running theme of War in Ukraine, the authors spend many pages detailing the events of 2014 and the establishment of the “People’s Republics” without ever asking any of the key questions: Who created them? How? What is daily life like there?
Indeed, an uninitiated reader would be hard-pressed to identify anything about the “People’s Republics” from the book other than some vague explanation about “anti-coup” uprisings that led to their creation. Benjamin and Davies write:

On April 7 [2014], anti-coup protesters in Donetsk stormed a government building, declared the formation of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and announced a referendum on independence from Ukraine to take place on May 11. Luhansk followed suit on April 27, declaring the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and announcing a referendum for the same day as Donetsk.

And that’s it. What Benjamin and Davies omit is that nearly all significant early leaders of the “People’s Republics” were Russian-backed intelligence operatives and/or fascists with deep connections to the Russian state and fascist tendencies within it. For brevity, we’ll highlight just a few.

Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov), a Russian FSB (Federal Security Service) colonel, was an early leader of one of the primary paramilitaries involved in fomenting the conflict in Donbas. Girkin admitted as much himself when he brazenly boasted about creating the war, stating, “If our unit had not crossed the border, everything would have ended as it did in Kharkiv and in Odesa.” One would think that a book written by leaders of a prominent antiwar organization would perhaps have included such relevant information about how the war actually began.

Pavel Gubarev rose to prominence in the early days of protests in Donetsk, leading anti-Maidan rallies, the seizure of government buildings, and eventually appointing himself the first “People’s Governor.” Gubarev spent formative years as a member of Russian Nation Unity (RNE), a far-right, neo-Nazi group where he participated in training camps, and internalized a Russian imperial revanchist politics aligned with Alexander Dugin, the influential Russian fascist ideologue and political operator. Konstantin Skorkin, a Russian journalist specializing in Ukrainian politics, noted that Gubarev is understood to have been connected to, and financed by, Russian fascist oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, who is both Dugin’s patron and was named in a federal indictment as one of the “main sources of financing for Russians promoting separatism in Crimea.”

Malofeyev, Dugin, and Gubarev are all unreconstructed imperial revanchists who see the Russian-fomented war in Donbas as an opportunity to re-establish “Novorossiya,” the Russian imperial name for the region. Dugin himself is on record saying that the goal in Donbas was not incorporation into the Russian Federation but “restoration of the old Russian Empire.”

Andrey Purgin is another of the early instigators of the conflict. He founded the “Donetsk Republic” in 2005 in direct response to the Orange Revolution of 2004, which brought the pro-western Viktor Yuschenko to power. Like Gubarev, Purgin was also connected to Dugin and Malofeyev, with activists of his organization having been trained in Dugin’s International Eurasian Movement camps. Also, like Gubarev, Purgin was sidelined by the end of 2014 in favor of more reliable United Russia party apparatchiks like Alexander Zakharchenko (succeeded by current Donetsk warlord Denis Pushilin).

But aside from the “activists” on the ground doing Russia’s bidding in fomenting the war on Donbas, there was also pro-Russian neo-Nazi infiltration of the region that helped spark what became called a “civil war.” Among those groups were the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), described by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation as

An extreme-right, white supremacist militant organization based in St. Petersburg, Russia [which] promotes ethnic Russian nationalism, advocates the restoration of Russia’s tsarist regime, and seeks to fuel white supremacy extremism in the West. RIM maintains contacts with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups across Europe and the United States…Members of RIM’s armed wing, the Imperial Legion, have fought alongside pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and been involved in conflicts in Libya and Syria. In addition to its ultra-nationalist beliefs, RIM is known for its anti-Semitic and anti-Ukrainian views.

RIM was joined by Task Force Rusich, a Russian neo-Nazi mercenary outfit understood to be a cadre of the infamous Wagner Group. Task Force Rusich was especially brutal in summer 2014 when it was deployed to Donbas at the peak of the fighting that year.

I could go on and on naming all the individuals, groups, and oligarchs that are never even mentioned in a book purporting to make sense of a senseless war, but this is not a full catalog of all the players or the innumerable human rights abuses occurring in Donbas every day. Rather, it is an attempt to ask a fundamental question of both Benjamin and Davies as well as others parroting Russia’s talking points about Donbas: Why didn’t they bother to study the war before forming their political position on the issue?

Similarly, why didn’t Benjamin and Davies examine the financial flows to and from Donbas? Had they done so they might have discovered a company called VneshTorgServis, which is headed by a Putin ally and former governor of Irkutsk region, Vladimir Pashkov. The company was established to take control of seized Ukrainian factories and funnel the revenues, resources, and capital goods into the pockets of Kremlin-connected insiders. Some of the factories seized by Russia’s proxies and turned into money-makers for Russia’s oligarchs and elite include Donetsksteel Iron and Steel Works, Yenakiieve and Makiivka Iron and Steel Works, Yenakiieve Coke and Chemicals Plant, Yasinovka Coke Plant, Makiivkoks, and Khartsyzsk Tube Works.

Why Understanding the War Matters So Much

Were this a simple disagreement among U.S. leftists, I would never have bothered to critique this book. But how we understand the nature of this war directly informs how we develop a sound leftist position on it and how we rebuild our international movement.

Reading Benjamin and Davies leaves one with the simple, straightforward analysis, dominant in some corners of the Left, that this is an easily understood proxy war between NATO and Russia. Seen through this distorted lens, one could understand why some on the Left call for an end to the war via “peace negotiations” (and dismembering of Ukraine) and oppose sending vital weapons to those fighting the Russian invaders.

[O]pposing Ukraine’s right to defend itself and eject its invaders is an abandonment of every principle of internationalism, solidarity, and anti-colonial and, anti-imperialist politics.

However, a serious examination of the war and its many dimensions leads to the very different conclusion that Ukraine has been invaded by an aggressive sub-imperial state, which also happens to be the traditional colonial power in the region, and that resistance to such aggression is not only justified, but a prerequisite for the survival of the people of Ukraine and the defense of their right to self-determination. In fact, such an analysis leads to the logical conclusion that opposing Ukraine’s right to defend itself and eject its invaders is an abandonment of every principle of internationalism, solidarity, and anti-colonial and anti-imperialist politics.

Some Concluding Thoughts

While I don’t know Davies, it is truly a shame to see Benjamin, whose work I’ve often found valuable and whom I’ve hosted on my podcast, degrade herself with such an embarrassing distortion of an extremely complex and exceedingly dangerous war.

Benjamin and Davies, like Noam Chomsky and Katrina vanden Heuvel (who contributed the preface to this book), are correct that the threat of nuclear war still looms over everything happening in Ukraine, and everyone globally should be concerned about that. They are also correct that U.S.-NATO imperialism is critical to understanding the invasion. Unfortunately, the book they’ve produced misinforms more than it informs and distorts more than it clarifies.

Benjamin and Davies have done a tremendous disservice to the people of Ukraine resisting an invasion, the people of Russia living under (especially those resisting) a criminal regime, and the international Left as a whole. And in so doing, they provide left cover for Putin’s war machine. Echoing Gupta, even if the Left in the United States lacks effective power at the moment, we must at the very least provide a serious analysis, based on historical truths as well as current political realities. Anything less fails all those suffering under the guns of imperial aggressors—in this case, the forces led by Vladimir Putin.

Featured Image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Cop murder on the production line

Tue, 01/24/2023 - 06:46

Chiewelthap Mariar, a 26-year old Sudanese immigrant meatpacking worker at the Seaboard Foods plant in Guymon, Oklahoma, was murdered on the evening of January 9 by local police while at his job. He was tased and shot while at his workstation, and management kept the line running up until his death. The next day, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) announced that they were investigating this “officer-involved shooting” and released a statement with their understanding of the events. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) District Union Local 2 called for a federal investigation into the death of Mariar.

Specific details of the incident remain cloudy. According to the OSBI, Guymon police answered a call at 8:19 pm on January 9 “in reference to an agitated and disgruntled employee.” It’s unclear why Seaboard management called the police in this matter. According to Kristen Kinsella, a former Seaboard employee who spoke to me for this story, witnesses say that Mariar was showing signs of needing psychological help that day. But there are no set procedures for dealing with psychological issues among employees, and Kinsella told me that management has a track record of ignoring complaints of workers’ behavior. Moreover, according to David Alvarez, a maintenance worker who was at the plant that day, Mariar’s mother works at the same factory and was not notified of anything amiss until his body was at the hospital.

Alvarez tells me that Mariar had been fired by a supervisor but had been told by HR to complete his shift. He apparently bumped into the supervisor, whom Alvarez calls “a real cocky guy,” in the hallway, which led to his calling the cops. Whatever happened, when the police arrived, they confronted Mariar at his workstation. It’s very rare in most companies for law enforcement to be called directly to the shop floor, and Kinsella tells me that this has only happened when an employee has been incapacitated or is putting another employee in serious danger. There are no reports that he was threatening anyone at the time.

The OSBI reports that the situation escalated once Mariar “produced a knife and began advancing on officers.” At this point, “officers attempted to de-escalate the situation before eventually deploying a taser. The taser was unsuccessful and Mariar continued advancing on officers at which point an officer fired his service weapon striking Mariar.” Mariar was then “transported to the hospital where he was pronounced deceased.”

According to Alvarez, who took a video of the event, the knife in question was a band cutter, an extremely common tool in meatpacking plants. While a band cutter can be used as a weapon, it is hard to understand why police felt the need to tase Mariar, why that wasn’t sufficient, and why they then resorted to deadly force. In Alvarez’s video, the cops do not appear to be de-escalating, while Mariar appears distressed but not threatening. The OSBI statement claims he was “pronounced deceased” at the hospital, but Alvarez says that he was dead on the plant floor. Mariar’s union, UFCW District Union Local 2, has called for “an immediate federal investigation” of what it calls a “horrific incident by Guymon City Police.” In the union’s statement, its president Martin Rosas says that “the local police did not take sufficient measures to protect [its] members and this worker- brandishing their weapons and ultimately taking the life of a 26-year-old young man who had his whole life before him.”

Mariar’s mother works at the same factory and was not notified of anything amiss until his body was at the hospital.

Many stories have been written about how immigration, mainly driven by meatpacking jobs, has transformed small towns across the Midwest and Great Plains since the 1980s. But while a city like Guymon, which is more than 70 percent non-white and 33 percent foreign-born according to latest census data, is no longer a rarity in the region, immigrants have found it hard to change the underlying power structure. Guymon’s city council is majority white, and Oklahoma is 64 percent white overall. A 2020 article in the Texas Tribune profiling nearby Dumas, Texas, puts it bluntly: “Political and social wealth remain largely centered in a white power structure deeply settled in the southern Great Plains.”

This power structure has often brought with it extreme racism, most notably in the case of former U.S. Representative and white nationalist Steve King. This racism was, in fact, found in Guymon back in 2020 by The Oklahoman, which reported that many residents blamed a spike in COVID to “the people at the plant” due to their “crowded housing,” poor hygiene, and lack of social distancing. An Associated Press report from the same time period quoted South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, and Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack as expressing similar sentiments.

Meanwhile, the actual conditions at meatpacking plants were dire. In Guymon alone, six workers died of COVID, and UFCW District Union Local 2 filed an OSHA complaint after finding workers “crowded together nearly shoulder to shoulder,” and eating meals together in crowded cafeterias with no social distancing. Kinsella told me that, during the height of COVID, Seaboard Foods instituted bonuses for perfect attendance, basically encouraging workers to come to work sick. And while over 40 percent of the plant had tested positive for COVID by Spring of 2021, only one percent of those cases were reported to OSHA.

Investigate Midwest found a rampant neglect and underreporting of workplace injuries at Seaboard Foods in a report from Fall 2021. Among the many current and former employees interviewed for the article was Melissa Bailey, an immigrant from Jamaica. Bailey complained of widespread racism at the plant, detailing incidents such as being accused of stealing from the cafeteria and being told to dig through the trash to recover a cracked face shield she had thrown away. This treatment extended to supervisors, she alleged, including one who called her a “troublemaker” for slipping and falling, and another who called her illiterate.

According to Kinsella, racism against Black workers is widespread among Seaboard supervisors. The company regularly brings in Black workers from Mississippi, whom she heard being referred to as “lazy, or aggressive,” or unwilling to work. Whenever problems arose on the line, Black workers were targeted for blame first. Kinsella says that, during her time as a steward, workers from Mississippi would regularly complain to her about this and she personally witnessed instances where a Black worker was singled out for blame among a whole group of workers doing something improperly. Alvarez says that the supervisor who fired Mariar and called the police on him “sure does target the Black community.”

Chiewelthap Mariar represents another name in the countless number of African immigrants killed by the police in recent years.

It is this track record of racism and negligence around COVID, workplace injuries, and mental health that leads Kinsella to place the primary blame for Mariar’s death upon the company. Alvarez likewise blames Seaboard for its poor training of supervisors, who are given free rein in the plant.

Seaboard is definitely acting like it has something to hide. In Alvarez’s video, there are employees visibly working during the incident. In fact, Alvarez tells me, after the shooting the company put plastic sheeting over the crime scene and told the workers to continue until the end of the shift. Before they did this, though, supervisors gathered the workers who had witnessed the shooting and told them that Mariar had been threatening the police with a knife. The next day, Seaboard Foods had all witnesses sign prefilled statements. When Alvarez refused to, objecting to the statement claiming Mariar had a knife, the company fired him. While there are other workers who witnessed the incident, and there were many videos floating around on Snapchat locally the night of the shooting, none are talking. And although there are security cameras all over the plant floor, Alvarez tells me a supervisor he is friendly with claims that they were erased the next day.

Like Deng Manyoun, Patrick Lyola, Kokou Christopher Fiafonou, and many others, Chiewelthap Mariar represents another name in the countless number of African immigrants killed by the police in recent years. One can add to this the outrageous COVID death toll of the primarily immigrant meatpacking workforce, as well as the industry’s long track record of negligence around workplace injuries. Mariar was only 26 years old and had left Sudan to build a better life for himself and his family. His death leaves another shameful mark upon this country.

Featured Image credit: video by David Alvarez via Twitter; modified by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Resisting war and repression in Putin’s Russia

Sun, 01/22/2023 - 17:22

Ashley Smith: Russian activists have called for international days of action from January 19 through 24, 2023 to demand the release of political prisoners jailed by Putin’s regime. Who are some of the prisoners and why have they been incarcerated?

Ivan Ovsyannikov: There is more political repression today than I can remember.  According to the human rights project OVD-info, over 20,000 people were detained at protests last year (eight times more than in 2020). Four hundred anti-war activists face criminal charges; 120 of them are in prison or under house arrest. Therefore, when we mention some of the names of political prisoners, this is not an exhaustive list, but only selected examples, chosen largely at random.

Those that the Russian Socialist Movement (RSM) mentioned in its call for solidarity represent a section of the left-wing community, which (like Russian civil society as a whole) is being systematically destroyed by the authorities. Arrested in April, Kirill Ukraintsev is a well-known leftist video blogger and leader of the Kurier trade union, which defends the interests of one of the most precarious groups of workers – delivery workers.

The formal reason for his arrest was his participation in peaceful protests of workers prohibited by the authorities. The real reason is the attempts (fortunately, so far unsuccessful) to break the resistance of the couriers and send a signal to the trade union movement that strikes during the war are unacceptable.

Democratic socialist Mikhail Lobanov is probably the best-known opposition politician still in Russia. In 2021, Lobanov—a mathematician and trade union activist—rose to prominence with a landslide victory in Moscow’s Duma elections (which was stolen by scandalous vote-rigging). Last year, Lobanov organized an electoral platform called Nomination, which supported anti-war urban activists during municipal elections in the capital.

Since then, Lobanov was arrested several times over his position, the last time shortly before the new year. During his time in jail, he was beaten. A few days ago, Lobanov was released, but we fear for his fate. In the Russian context, these arrests send a clear signal—”leave the country, or you will go to jail for a long time.”

Alexandra Skochilenko is a St. Petersburg artist and feminist who was arrested in the spring for replacing price tags in shops with anti-war leaflets. Now she faces a long prison term for “spreading false information about the army.” Skochilenko is a symbol of peaceful protest, which in today’s Russia has become almost as dangerous as militant actions, such as arson of military registration and enlistment offices.

The defendants in the so-called “Tyumen case” are several anarchists accused by the authorities of preparing terrorist attacks. According to investigators, the young people were going to blow up military registration and enlistment offices, police stations, and railroad tracks that transport weapons to Ukraine. There is no real evidence of this, except for testimony obtained under torture. The Tyumen case is just one example of government acts of repression against young anarchists in different cities of the country in recent years (e.g., the Network case, the case of the Kan teenagers, and many others).

We have chosen to highlight these cases in part because far less is known about left-wing Russian political prisoners in the world than figures such as Alexei Navalny (whom we, of course, also demand be released). Among other things, we hope that information about this repression will compel leftists abroad to take a firmer stand against Putin’s regime and its war in Ukraine.

AS: You yourself recently fled the country to avoid political persecution. What are the conditions like for political dissent? How have people managed to continue organizing in these conditions?

IO: I would like to say that the protest movement in Russia is growing despite all the repression, but, unfortunately, this is not the case. Before the war, protesting was already extremely risky, but activists could feel relatively safe as long as they didn’t break the unspoken rules (which were constantly tightened). Today you can be arrested or fired for any, even veiled, criticism of the war or other manifestation of disloyalty.

Sometimes there is no real reason for this. For example, many St. Petersburg feminists (in particular, my wife, Valeria) were detained for several days on suspicion of “telephone terrorism.” This charge was completely invented by the police to isolate potential protesters on the eve of important anniversaries for the regime. For example, Valeria was arrested a couple of days before Putin’s birthday.

Even with non-political protests (for example, in defense of city squares or labor rights), today most are in the form of appeals to the authorities, because it has become impossible to go out into the streets—no matter the issue or slogan. Any act of dissent will be crushed.

However, the resistance continues, although we have not seen street rallies in recent months. Anti-war activists run Telegram channels, distribute leaflets, make graffiti, and help political prisoners. Some trade unionists continue to organize and even carry out collective action. For example, in December, the Kurier trade union staged an impressive inter-regional strike. Individual daredevils set fire to military registration and enlistment offices. Over the past year, there were about a hundred such cases.

[T]he resistance continues, although we have not seen street rallies in recent months. Anti-war activists run Telegram channels, distribute leaflets, make graffiti, and help political prisoners. Some trade unionists continue to organize and even carry out collective action.

AS: Putin’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine has failed badly. To salvage the situation he has shuffled generals, launched state terrorist attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine, and attempted to consolidate his hold on eastern and southeastern Ukraine. There are indications that he will launch an offensive, possibly from Belorussia, in another attempt to take the country. What is Putin’s strategy now?

IO: I am not a military expert. In addition, after February 24, the rationality of Putin and his entourage, their ability to think strategically, is not very apparent. Nevertheless, I am sure that in the coming months we will see another escalation of hostilities, a new series of attacks against civilians, and a new wave of mobilizations in Russia.

Putin cannot turn back. A military defeat would almost certainly mean the collapse of his regime. Ukraine will never agree to the seizure of its territories, and (if Western countries supply it with enough weapons) it has every chance to win them back. Therefore, there is little hope of any retreat or concessions by Putin, which would be  preconditions for any negotiated settlement.

AS: Putin recently mobilized hundreds of thousands to bolster his occupying forces in Ukraine. What impact did that mobilization have on people and political consciousness? Will he mobilize more people either to maintain the occupation or launch a new offensive? What impact would another mobilization have on people’s attitudes toward the war?

IO: As I said, a new wave of mobilization will almost certainly come. As for public sentiments, it is difficult to speak about them with certainty. Polls, especially those that ask people directly about their attitudes toward the war, are misleading. As a rule, Russians are afraid to talk to researchers about “the special military operation” or Putin. The vast majority refuse to communicate with interviewers, others avoid politically sensitive topics, and still, others lie. After the announcement of mobilization, many young men simply did not pick up the phone from an unfamiliar number.

According to polling companies independent of the state, about 30 percent of Russians can be classified as opponents of the war, and about 50 percent as supporters. However, it is not entirely clear what these figures mean. Many who supported the war, yearn for an early peace on any terms. Many of those who are anti-war have given up and stopped doing anything.

I believe that after February, Russian society is in shock, confusion, depression, and depoliticization (which the Putin regime has supported for decades). These conditions hinder self-organization even more effectively than fear of reprisals.

Society’s response to mobilization was all sorts of forms of individual sabotage. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the country in October-November, most to neighboring countries such as Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey that did not require visas for entry. Many of those who do not have this opportunity hide in the countryside and have left their home address to live with friends or acquaintances.

Those who have been mobilized quite often rebel, demanding better material support or sufficient training periods. Although these protests are not anti-war, they are likely to undermine army discipline and, under certain conditions, can turn into something more. It is difficult to say anything definite about the number of deserters and “refuseniks,” since only a small part of such cases gets into the media. However, there are many such stories.

Does all this testify to the growth of political consciousness? Honestly, it is difficult to say.

AS: What are economic and political conditions like for people in Russia today? Are these conditions changing people’s consciousness about the war? How solid is Putin’s popular base?

IO: Conditions are bad for increasing numbers of people. Inflation, a shortage of certain imported goods, the exit of many Western companies, and the general decline in the Russian economy due to sanctions have had an enormous impact. It is especially difficult for the families of those mobilized. They have lost their loved ones and breadwinners. However, the mobilization and mass exodus of specialists somewhat relieved the situation in the labor market. Jobs have increased, especially in the military industry.

I do not believe that a worsening economic situation will lead to an uprising on its own. Russians adapt well to crises. The “hungry [19]90s,” when the population survived at the expense of handicrafts and summer cottages, demonstrated this.

However, with the combination of defeats at the front, an increase in the death toll, and splits at the top of the regime and among oligarchs, a revolutionary situation could develop. That is exactly what happened in the 1980s, when the unpopular war in Afghanistan, economic problems, and Gorbachev’s belated reforms led to the collapse of the USSR.

AS: What are the prospects for the resistance against Putin in Russia as well as in Belarus?

IO: I think, as has happened more than once in Russian history, military defeat will be a catalyst for change. If it happens, the process can develop according to Lenin’s classic formula: the ruling class cannot rule in the old way, and the working classes cannot  live in the old way. The splits and conflicts among the elites will be combined with the rise of the protest movement and, probably, separatist actions in the national republics. I am sure that Lukashenko’s regime will fall on the same day when power in Russia is shaken.

AS: What positions should the international Left adopt on Russia’s imperialist war, NATO, and Ukraine?

The international Left must realize that Putin’s victory would be a victory for far-right political forces and regimes around the world. Contrary to the opinion of those “pacifists” who oppose military assistance to Ukraine, giving in to the aggressor would lead to the normalization of territorial seizures and new wars of aggression around the world.

IO: NATO, of course, is evil. But it should be remembered that in this case, Putin’s Russia, not NATO, is the aggressor. The international Left must realize that Putin’s victory would be a victory for far-right political forces and regimes around the world. Contrary to the opinion of those “pacifists” who oppose military assistance to Ukraine, giving in to the aggressor would lead to the normalization of territorial seizures and new wars of aggression around the world.

In addition, Putin’s victory would mean the perpetuation of slavery for the peoples of Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and other post-Soviet countries in the orbit of Russian imperialism. It would also preserve the barbaric model of oligarchic capitalism based on record social inequality, corruption, and hydrocarbon trade that we have in Russia.

In analyzing the situation, the Left must draw on the tradition of anti-fascist solidarity in the fight against tyranny. This means uncompromising support for Ukraine, as well as the Belarusian and Russian liberation movements.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Racism has no borders

Thu, 01/19/2023 - 23:30

The uprising sparked by the 2020 police murder of George Floyd inspired calls for racial justice around the world. Internationally, protesters stood in solidarity against police brutality and anti-Black racism in the U.S., as well as highlighting systemic racism in their own countries.

On August 30, 2021, Roger Wilhelm, a 37-year-old Black man–known to friends and family as “Nzoy”–was killed by police in Morges, Switzerland. Nzoy was having a psychological episode when he got off a train in an unfamiliar city, prompting someone to call the police. The police claimed that Nzoy had approached them with a knife, but eyewitnesses contradicted their account, saying that Nzoy may have been holding a rock. Meanwhile, video of the incident showed that four officers confronted Nzoy as he was praying, drew their guns, and shot him three times. The police then handcuffed Nzoy as he lay on the ground; they did nothing for four minutes until a passerby called an ambulance.

Members of Nzoy’s family, along with activists in Switzerland, organized protests in Zurich, Lausanne, and other parts of Switzerland in the aftermath of the killing and on the anniversary of Nzoy’s death last year, using the hashtag #Justice4Nzoy. These demonstrations have also drawn attention to the problem of police brutality and racism in Switzerland more broadly: as of April 2022, Nzoy was the fourth Black man in five years to be killed by police in the Swiss canton of Vaud, where Morges is located.

Tempest members William Gifis and Haley Pessin talked to Evelyn Wilhelm, who is Nzoy’s sister and runs the campaign to win justice for her brother.

How you can help:

Please donate to the Justice 4 Nzoy GoFundMe page to help Nzoy’s family cover legal costs and other fees associated with the investigation into his death.

You can also visit https://justice4nzoy.org/ and follow @justice4nzoy on Instagram for updates on the campaign.

(Content warning: The interview quotes racists’ use of the “n-word.”)

Haley Pessin

: Can you start by telling us a little bit about Nzoy? Tell us a bit about your brother.

Evelyn Wilhelm

: My brother was a loving person. He loved people, he was outgoing, happy, and friendly to everybody. He always had a smile on his face. He was
a very loving character.

HP

: What I saw on the campaign website and Instagram is that music and his religion were very important to him.

EW

: Yes. He was very blessed with talent, playing with words. He loved music, hip-hop was his passion, especially Tupac was his hero. And yes, he was a strong believer. He gained his faith from believing in God.

HP

: I know this is difficult, but could you tell us about the time after your brother was killed by police on August 30, 2021? Is there anything important you think that people should know about what happened?

EW

: He was there on the railway. He prayed. He was not feeling well. He had a crisis. I think he was feeling very, very bad because he took the train to Geneva.
He said, “I have family in Geneva. I want to go to Geneva. I want to meet some people.” And then, on the next train back to Zurich, he got off in Morges. He also had friends in Lausanne, which is just a little closer to Zurich. It wouldn’t have happened there. It’s more of a multicultural place. I can’t tell you why he got off in Morges–an hour later, two hours later, he would’ve been in Zurich, where people could have understood him, where he had friends, where he could go to, where he could cry.

His mentor is a priest and he could go there and get help in any kind of way. Why did he get off in Morges? We don’t know, but he must have been very, very disturbed.

HP

: And my understanding is that the police were called by a rail worker because he was on the tracks.

EW

: Yes, he was hiding on the rails between trains. He was hiding, finding his peace. and he was praying.

The rail workers called the police and told them that a disturbed man was there on the railway. And they came and killed him.

HP

: I also remember you told us that there was a discrepancy between the police report, which said that they had immediately assisted your brother after he was shot, but in fact, that was not true.

EW

: In their first major press release, they said that they had immediately helped him after they shot him. But then in the videos, one saw that they didn’t help him; they handcuffed him after they shot him. And then they kind of controlled him as if he had a weapon, with their feet.

That process took four minutes. They didn’t do anything. Four minutes. After one minute, the woman police officer handcuffed him, and then four minutes later, a random person who was a nurse on their way home came and gave him a heart (cardiac) massage.

And then they started to move him. They moved his body with their feet.

HP

: Wow, that’s so dehumanizing.

EW

: Totally. No respect for anything. At that time, my brother was dying. I can’t tell you how it was to see that the first time. It was like when they shoot an animal.

Protestors carry a large banner at a demonstration in Geneva, Switzerland last year calling on “Stopping Police Violence” in both French and German with the names of four Black men (Herve, Lamine, Mike, and Nzoy) who have been killed in recent years by Swiss police. Photo Credit: Justice4Nzoy.

HP

: You also told us that when the police finally did call in to say that they’d killed someone, the very first thing they said was that they killed “a man of color.” That was all they said.

EW

: Yes. This police officer called the police. He said, in French, that he had shot “un homme de couleur,” a man of color. They didn’t say where he was injured or if he was still breathing. Just, “un homme de couleur.”

And then afterward in their court hearings, they said, oh, they’re color blind. I mean, this is just laughable. And the prosecutor asked this police officer, did you say that? And the police officer said, “I don’t know any more.” And he got away with it!

William Gifis

: It is my understanding that In Europe, police do not normally carry guns. Is it normal for the police to carry guns in Switzerland?

EW

: No. In some areas, or some cantons, they have different laws. For example in Zurich where we lived, they have tasers. In the canton where my brother was killed, they had dum-dums, those bullets that explode in the body, which makes medical efforts to rescue you very difficult.

HP

: You’ve shared that your brother was aware of the danger of the police and concerned enough that he would always carry his Swiss passport with him.

EW

: Racial profiling is a huge issue. He always made sure his passport was in good order. I remember that when it was expiring, he was totally nervous. He went on Sunday to the emergency place where you can get a passport quickly, which costs much more. So he always had a current passport in his pocket, always.

Afterward, the press said that he was a Swiss citizen, proven by his passport.

His dad is Swiss and his mom is South African. After apartheid, you could actually apply for a South African passport, which he never did. He always kept his Swiss passport. He was born in Switzerland.
There was a time when he was stopped by a police officer in Zurich and then he showed his passport and the police officer there said, “Oh! I’m sure you stole your passport.” So that was always kind of an issue.

HP

: And because the police questioned the validity of his citizenship, he was concerned enough to carry the passport. Is that something that a lot of men in Switzerland, men of color or people of color, do?

EW

: Yes. After the death of my brother, I realized that lots of Black men in Switzerland have this problem.

In women’s cases, it’s more the sexualization of Black women, which comes up, like “Oh, you are exotic” or assuming you’re a sex worker. For men, it’s always this kind of criminalization: You’re a drug dealer, a thief. They are afraid of Black men.

WG

: Even an act of praying is perceived differently when it’s a Black man praying versus a white man praying.

EW

: Exactly. And everybody realized that he was not in good shape mentally. And then the police officers came running with their guns in their hands, trapping him. I mean, already that says everything about the situation when it comes to Black men.

HP

: Can you tell us what the reaction was in Switzerland following your brother’s death?

EW

: I must say the reaction of the people was very, very poor. Nothing. Of course, we immediately said that if he had been white he would still be alive. Which is a clear fact. Look at all of those examples. They did not even try to save him. He was dying right there on the rail. Morges has a hospital. Why didn’t he die at the hospital, as a human?

He died right there in front of everybody. Yes, another Black person died and Switzerland is kind of covering itself and no one took an interest.

HP

: So it wasn’t seen widely as an instance of racism in Switzerland?

EW

: No. No.

If he had been white he would still be alive. Which is a clear fact. Look at all of those examples. They did not even try to save him. He was dying right there on the rail. Morges has a hospital. Why didn’t he die at the hospital, as a human?

WG

: And this was the fourth person of color who has been killed by police in the last five years in Switzerland.

EW

: Yes, exactly. Four. Four in the last five years. Switzerland doesn’t see that they have a structural racism problem.

They deny it from top to bottom. ”Ah, no, no, it’s not like that.” But how much more can you say? The police called the ambulance saying it was a man of color without mentioning how he got hurt. I mean, this is proof enough. I thought that people would be touched and say they don’t want to have police officers like that. Somehow they just swallowed it.

There was a protest [shortly after Nzoy’s death], but it was small.

WG

: In the U.S., local media will often operate as public spokespeople for the police. Whatever the story is, they’ll basically rerun the police’s story as if it’s an article of fact in the news. What has the reaction of the press and elected officials been like?

EW

: So there was one article in the press that called this a suicide by cop, that he wanted to kill himself that way, which is [absurd]. And they discussed the police having tasers, not guns. They recommended that the police officer be given mental help and hoped he is not hurt. And we lost our loved one. No, sorry. No, sorry. They said, the police were the victims and my brother was the murderer. And it was the other way around. He did not kill or attack anyone.

HP

: In the U.S. there’s a pretty big conversation happening about the intersection of mental health and police racism, because here, people who are mentally ill are significantly more likely to be killed by the police. And the issue is, who do you call when you’re having a mental health crisis?

EW

: I guess it’s the same thing in Switzerland as in the U.S. You call the police, and that’s a very, very big mistake. You have to call an ambulance. The police are not taught to deal with mental illness. They don’t have this education. It is interesting that last weekend I went to a forum and met a paramedic assistant who said they were trained to deal with those kinds of issues. She said they were trained to calm people down.

Society has to learn that when someone is in trouble not to call the police. The role of the police is not to save somebody. The paramedic assistant said that if they had gotten there first, “your brother would still be alive, because we know how to calm people down.

If the police come, the situation gets out of control. When facing people with mental illness they start to panic. Then things get out of control. So we have to educate people: Don’t ever call the police first. Call the paramedics first, and they will decide if they need the police to calm the person down or not. Never, ever call the police.

WG

: I can just speak from personal experience, as someone with mental illness myself, that when I’m having a bad day or having panic attacks or anxiety, to be confronted by the police in that situation is the completely worst thing possible at that moment. And people with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of a crime than they are to be a perpetrator of a crime.And as Haley stated earlier are more likely to be killed by the police. And so insisting that we should call the police only reinforces that people with mental illness are a threat, that we are dangerous.

EW

: You can just have a bad day, but that’s not a crime. You didn’t do anything. So why do the police have to be called in this kind of scenario? As a society, we have to rethink the role of the police. It hasn’t changed. It’s always the Wild West. And although society is changing, the institution of the police is not changing.

 

A protestor holding a sign in English asking an important question at a demonstration in Lausanne, Switzerland last spring. Photo credit: Justice4Nzoy.

HP

: I want to switch gears a little bit. You said that the response has not been what you wanted it to be or what it should have been, but there is a Justice for Nzoy campaign. I wondered if you could speak to who’s involved in that. What groups have been active and what is the campaign demanding in terms of justice for your brother?

EW

: Justice in Switzerland is a little bit difficult because the police and the prosecutors are working in the same space. So to get justice is a very long fight. In three other cases that are still open, it has taken ten years. It goes mostly to the European Supreme Court and that can take ten years.

In my brother’s case, you see that the police officer didn’t help him for four minutes after they shot him, which was a criminal act.

And the prosecutor denied it and called witnesses who said, “We couldn’t do anything.” The police and the prosecutors are working very closely together, so for us, for the victims, the families, it’s very, very hard to get justice.

If you go to those courts it is a money question. And the more money you have the farther you can go. Otherwise, you have to wait. The Nzoy campaign has to show that this Swiss system is functioning, and that we actually have to work on that. It’s not about justice; it’s about who has the money to survive these ten years. We are now at one-and-a-half years. This is not easy.

As a family, you think, with justice, you can heal. But this is not actually what happens. I heard about other families in Europe, for example, there is one case of a police killing when they held the victim’s body for an autopsy for six months. For six months. How then can you move on?

When it comes to police violence, clocks are moving slower and differently. But there are organizations in Zurich and Geneva who are fighting for justice for Nzoy. We are building it up to last for the next ten years.

HP

: Can you just explain a little more about the ten years?

EW

: We don’t know that for sure. It’s just the experience of the other cases. For example, there is the case of Herve Mandundu [a 27-year-old Black man who also suffered from mental health issues] in Bex, Switzerland. We have the same lawyer. He died, and his case has already been going on for four years. And then it went to court. He was shot in his house. He was a young boy shot in his house. He had been experimenting with drugs in his own house, and the police came and shot him. He was a boy. The police came and shot him and one of the officers got a better job. This case is at four years.

Cases start in the Supreme Court and then go to three other courts: the supreme court, the superior court, and then go to three other courts in Switzerland. And then you have the last chance of the European court. This process from beginning to end takes 10 years because the prosecutor and police are working so closely together. Otherwise, it would be three. I think that after three years we will go to court and they will say it was self-defense. The police officer can go. Of course, we can’t accept this. We’ll take it to the next step. And this way will take us ten years.

HP

: And to be able to go to each level, you need to be able to pay for it.

EW

: Exactly. Exactly. That’s the point.

If you are on the top level, Swiss law says that because you had two chances to prove that the courts were right, you now have to pay for everything yourself. And if you don’t have money, you get the lawyer paid by the state, and so on. But past a certain level, you have to pay all by yourself.

For example, the prosecutor is bringing up experts like the head of police HR who excused the police because of their training, so of course it’s not in our favor. We don’t see it like that. So we have to bring our own experts and for these experts, we have to pay. We have to raise a lot of money in order to hire these experts.

WG

: And, of course, the wealthier you are, the less likely you are to be killed by the police. It’s poor families that are the ones who carry this burden.

EW

: Yes. And there are other families living in Africa. They are foreigners. How will they have the chance to build a campaign?

We are privileged because I know how it works. I’m living here, but for my other half of the family in Africa, how could they do that?

WG

: And you can speak the languages and you were educated in Switzerland.

EW

: Exactly.

The process happens in the French part of Switzerland, and we are living in the German part of Switzerland. Already we have language barriers. The whole process is in French.
You would have to study French in school for years. It’s not your mother tongue and then you have to follow this all. It’s a different language. It’s not required in schools.

HP

: So there are all of these barriers.

EW

: Exactly. It was the same thing when the police came onto the scene, my brother was speaking to them in English. One worker said that he was speaking a language nobody understood. He told the railroad worker, “Go away, leave me alone.” He was speaking English. So he was pushed into that corner of, “He’s a foreigner. We don’t understand him.”

When it comes to police violence, clocks are moving slower and differently. But there are organizations in Zurich and Geneva who are fighting for justice for Nzoy. We are building it up to last for the next ten years.

WG

: And has there been any kind of push or conversation about reforming the system or getting a more independent investigative process?

EW

: No. Well, there is an organization called Border Forensics, and this is something very, very new. They do their own investigation on the case. We just know nothing beyond what the media has, and the information we get is very poor. And, as I said, the prosecutor is not interested in getting more video material or whatever because he wants to close the case. It was six o’clock in the evening and people were filming the scene with their cell phones.

And the media as well. I contacted the media, for example, 20 Minutes Romandie [a French-Language news outlet]. They have video material that is not in the file of the prosecutor. And I wanted it, and they said they couldn’t give it to me because they have to protect their sources.

So the media has more material than the case itself. They wouldn’t give it to me. They kind of put pressure on me. 20 Minutes Romandie then said that we could discuss it further if I gave an interview. It was a high-pressure situation. But then they did kind of a trailer overviewing the year, and the shooting of my brother was in that. They used it, but they can’t give it to me as a family member to see what happened.
HP: I wanted to ask you about some of the protests, because there have been some very important protests. And I think, importantly, they’ve been in different parts of Switzerland, in the French-speaking part, in the German-speaking part. And one of the moments that I thought was very powerful last year was a video where there was this big crowd and everyone took a knee for four minutes to represent the time that police left Nzoy without medical assistance.

This was very similar to some of the massive protests we saw in the U.S. around George Floyd, and even before that. Do you see connections happening between these racial justice protests internationally? Are you finding ways to build solidarity?

EW

: Yes, I think we are on the way to building solidarity. I think that it’s different for the U.S. When it comes to what’s happening in Europe, it takes a long while until it gets outside of Europe. We are not used to those kinds of protests, and somehow maybe we still have to learn how to protest. George Floyd’s story was all over and we protested.

The protests here are smaller. And it was always easier to point to others outside of Europe than to look at what happened in Europe itself and, kind of, clean our own carpets first.

WG

: To that broader point, Switzerland has developed an international reputation as this kind of neutral, impartial country when it comes to international relations. The end of wars is negotiated in Switzerland. Treaties on human rights are negotiated in Switzerland. Rules of war are negotiated there. How does it square with a recent UN report that pointed to what you have been discussing about their structural racism? How does that square with the reputation that Switzerland has built internationally?

EW

: Exactly. This is something that Switzerland doesn’t want to have, which they totally deny. Officially, they say that there are just a few cases when it comes to racism, but, it’s not a few cases. Racial profiling, racism in Switzerland, is really a huge, huge topic when it comes to people who are affected by it.

We are affected on a daily basis, and Switzerland denies that. They say that we are too sensitive. We are crazy. We are just a small group who experienced that. They say that we have to integrate more. How can you integrate more if you are born here, speak the language, and have a job?

There is a limit to integration, but they are always putting it this way: You have to integrate more, and you have to be more accepting of society. It’s your fault. You experience racism in Switzerland, and it’s your fault.

HP

: One thing that makes me think of is, whenever there’s a police killing, when we talk about police racism, that’s usually the tip of the iceberg in terms of how racist the society is. Can you talk a little bit about the laws in Switzerland around hate speech and racism?

EW

: It’s ridiculous. I was affected by racism in my working space. I wanted to report it. And they said, “Listen, you can’t report it because it was private.” It was in a working environment. Actually, it was a U.S. company I was working for, and I could only report it to the company. I could not go to the police because they won’t take it as racial harassment if it’s not in public. If somebody on the street, let’s say on the railway station, shouts at me, then I can go to the police if I am a victim and say, that happened to me. Otherwise, there is no chance. It has to be public and there have to have witnesses.

On the first of August, it’s like the 4th of July in the U.S., Swiss Nationality Day. And there, I went to the spot where Switzerland actually was built. It was a nightmare. There’s a friend of mine, a Black woman. She’s from Kenya originally, but has been in Switzerland for 13 years. And she sang there. And I heard—I don’t know, but I was traumatized afterward—I don’t know how many times I heard “nigger” there. “There’s so many niggers. So many niggers.”

Of course, she invited all her friends. People commented, “So many niggers in this place. We never saw niggers there, niggers there.” And this was public, during the day. It’s just normal.

And then we have a lot of traditional things. We have a sweet called Mohrenköpfe. And this word is the German name for “nigger.” So you have these sweets called, “Nigger Heads,” and people were protesting. Black people were protesting: “No, this is racism.” And the traditionalists came to say, “No, this is culture. We have to keep it.”

So when it comes to racism in Europe, it’s a very, very difficult topic. To say, “Oh, okay, we had those colonized issues and statements, and now we have to change.” It’s always like, “I know this is our culture, but it’s not the culture to be a racist in the next generation.” We can learn from that. But there as well, especially, Switzerland is very, very picky when it comes to changing the names of streets named for colonial generals. “It’s a culture we have to keep.” Whatever it is.

This is something that Switzerland doesn’t want to have, which they totally deny. Officially, they say that there are just a few cases when it comes to racism, but, it’s not a few cases. Racial profiling, racism in Switzerland, is really a huge, huge topic when it comes to people who are affected by it.

WG

: Are there people in Switzerland who deflect charges of racism saying it’s not as bad as it is in other countries like the United States? That kind of deflection exists, too, in the United States, where people in the north will say it’s better in the north than it is in the southern United States or it’s better in the city.

EW

: Exactly. They kind of push racism out of their life. “It’s not so bad in our area, and I’m not racist.” But they are still using those kinds of terms. They are going to the shops and ordering more of what we call “chocolate apes.”

And they always say, yeah, if you are integrating yourself, then you don’t have a problem with racism. And this is just not true. You have a problem with racism every time, even though I speak Swiss German fluently. Every time I enter a room with people who don’t know me, they start to speak high German because they think I’m not fluent in the language.

So it’s like English slang, I speak fluent slang because I was born here and raised here, and then you speak to me in English like a school child. And this happens to me in every place, every day.

Also, when it comes to racism, people don’t help each other. You know, they don’t say, ah, I saw that and this is not how it should go. They just walk away and you are alone there. And probably they think, oh, if she would’ve been more integrated, she wouldn’t have that problem. They always find an excuse.

HP

: I have one more question on that. This is a very long process. What do you think it will take to start to build that solidarity so that you can continue this campaign and keep it in the public eye? And what do you think it will take to win, and how can people outside of Switzerland support this campaign?

EW

: Honestly, I think we will win when we have the money. If we have the cash, I think then we have a chance to win, then we have a chance to fight. We can get experts and so on. It’s a money thing.

To keep the campaign going, I have no idea, to be honest. I think about how I can keep the topic visible for ten years. We are living as well in a fast world. News from yesterday is not anymore. For the moment, Nzoy’s case is the last of a person in Switzerland who died out of police violence.

When will be the next one? Those kinds of questions really, really worry me when I think about the future, or, how can I win justice for my brother. Those kinds of questions already worry me. How can I do this?

For sure it’s helpful to have eyes from outside of Switzerland to watch what we do. Switzerland usually does things when it gets uncomfortable for them; then they start to clean up their things. The pressure has to come from outside Switzerland.

Nzoy poses for a picture wearing a shirt of his musical hero, U.S. born rapper Tupac Shakur (also known as 2Pac and Makaveli). Photo credit: Justice4Nzoy.

WG

: Discuss the position this puts you in. It’s almost like a full-time job to have to advocate for justice, to raise money, and so on. How does it allow you to take the time you need to grieve the loss of your brother?

EW

: I don’t have any time for that. I ask myself, how long can I keep this up? I could not afford to take time off of work. I really had to work. And yes, we had those demonstrations, and money came in, and now it’s actually that we are in a little bit of a position where we have some cash. Now it comes back to me. It’s the second year and it goes on and nothing happens.

Now somehow I feel more sadness and ask myself the question, how should I do that? But if I don’t know what happened to my brother, how can I mourn? How can I let it go? How can I accept that he’s dead? How?

These are difficult questions for me, for his friends, and for his family. When we fight for justice, when we get justice, we can heal. And now somehow I feel we will not get the justice we want. Or in ten years.

And the state portrays the police officer as a victim. He’s getting support from doctors. He has to overcome this tragic day. But we don’t get that. We are left alone and we have to deal alone with how we manage to get over this.

HP

: Are you in touch with the other family members who’ve lost people?

EW

: No. No. This kind of network does not exist. Why? I don’t know, maybe it’s the struggle to keep your daily life, just to survive. It doesn’t allow you to build this network. We don’t have this kind of network here. But, for example, in France, they have it, they work together, they support their families, and so on. Here, absolutely not.

It’s very sad, because you don’t know how to go, where to go. You have no idea. I have built this experience, we have built this experience. I hope it won’t be needed, but we would tell the next family, the first half year is–you can’t breathe. You can’t. You can’t. It’s a shock.

It’s still a shock even now, but after half a year, you start breathing again. You start kind of feeling yourself again, where you are, how you were before. I never thought I would have to bury my younger brother. This was his job. Okay? I’m the older one, so it would’ve never crossed my mind. Never, ever. And then I had to decide how to bury him. Oh, no, no, no. And to make decisions about the case, what lawyer, da, da, da. This was just a nightmare. We made many mistakes by not knowing, because nobody said we have to do it this way or that way.

What I can say now is while I’m talking to others who have the same experience of police brutality, it’s just everywhere the same. I can just, you know, take out and change the names, right? But how they act and react in every country is the same. So, George Floyd in Switzerland would’ve been treated the same way as in the U.S., and the media would have been the same way.

It’s nothing specific to any country. It’s just all over the same, how they deal with the situations. If I had known that, I could have moved maybe better. I don’t know.

We were left alone. And now after one year, actually, we can say we are gathering a network of support from people around, who I really appreciate, who help, who will say the fight will go on; it doesn’t have to end if I have a heart attack tomorrow that nobody will fight for Nzoy again.

It has to be a community issue. The community has to say, Hey, we don’t want to have that. We don’t want to live in a world where police kill Black people, especially Black men. This is pure and simple. Stop killing Black people. And this Afro-phobic society. This, we can’t change alone. White people have to as well say, let them live. It’s the only thing we want.

We have to fight this and stand for this together. It’s wherever we are. We just have to hold hands and fight this together. It has gone on too long.

Why can’t we have a secure life? Racism in general has to be fought as a unity. We can change everything. Why can’t we change racism? We can heal cancer. Why can’t we heal this cancer?

HP

: I think what you said about the international piece is really important. The more we can make this work internationally, the stronger we will be. Because you’re right: Police racism is everywhere. It’s a global problem. If you come to Switzerland and you have a bad day and you are in Morges, it could have happened to you as well, right?

WG

: Yes. You don’t get to leave your Blackness behind in your home country.

EW

: But this is a thing that we have to discuss as well, globally. In the U.S., a whole country of many people, there are also threats. And what does that do to you, knowing that? My brother felt hunted. He said, listen, they want to kill me. They want to kill me. And they did. And his reaction to it was just self-defense.

He was hunted by the police because of how he looked. Of course, it wasn’t in his imagination in the end. Actually, it was true. It wasn’t a fantasy. It was reality, as well.

He had a bad day, a very bad day, but his feeling about what was going on was real.

HP

: Because the threat that he was afraid of was actually a legitimate threat. Even for people who have not gone through what you are going through, and I can’t imagine what that is like, I think that for every Black person, if you have family members, especially like me with my younger Black cousins, my fear is always that this could happen to them, right?

That’s why we fight so hard, because we know so clearly this could be any of us. It feels like it’s someone we know.

EW

: My brother always wanted to come to the U.S. He was like, I want to go to California. I said, no, you are not going there. In the last few months, he asked, let me have my holidays in California. And I was like, no, no, you stay here. Here, you are safe. It’s your hometown. You are not going anywhere. The government told us, you are safe here.

It’s not like they told us it would be. You know, for example, when the murder of George Floyd happened, in Switzerland, the reaction was, we are so happy that we don’t have that here.

And by the time George Floyd died, we already had three victims in the same canton, but nobody was crying about those victims. Everybody was going to the street about George Floyd and the American story, which was tragic. But what happened here, was pushed away. The media pushed it away as well. And the media can be really, really powerful in how cases go.

WG

: I think it’s important for white people to listen first to the story you are sharing. Generally, white people take two approaches. We either are racist and don’t care, or we care and we feel like we need to fix it ourselves, and we need to solve it on behalf of you, on behalf of Black people. There’s a kind of white savior mentality that can exist. That in its own right works in its own way in kind of dehumanizing and lowering you, and lowering people of color, making them less equal.

EW

: I think solidarity is most important. White people should reflect on themselves and their own racism.

A lot of white people think, oh, well, I’m not racist at all. But in their daily reactions and actions, they have racist behavior. To reflect on and see that, I think that’s the next step, which somehow has to come. It’s a reflection thing, maybe also a training thing.

My brother always said, during the night, I have problems walking alone as a man. And I said, no, but you are so humble. But then he said, yeah, but you know me. He felt that white people were afraid of him, especially in the dark. Maybe people have to be trained not to be afraid of Black people in the dark.

This is a social issue, for which we all have to work together. This is something that we have to somehow do as a society. This has to be about feelings, about how you feel about other people. And this feeling has to somehow change.

How you can help:

Please donate to the Justice 4 Nzoy GoFundMe page to help Nzoy’s family cover legal costs and other fees associated with the investigation into his death.

You can also visit https://justice4nzoy.org/ and follow @justice4nzoy on Instagram for updates on the campaign.

Featured Image credit: Justice for Nzoy; modified by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Report from the Front: Rally in Pilsen

Thu, 01/19/2023 - 23:14

On January 14 I attended a rally to tax Amazon in my Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen. The rally was sponsored by 25th Ward alderperson Byron Sigcho-Lopez, one of the DSA electeds, and Socialist Alternative. At the last minute, the rally was expanded to include supporters of food vendors in Pilsen and Little Village, a neighboring Latino community, who have been repeatedly preyed upon by criminal gangs in the early morning hours.

Byron plans to introduce his Tax Amazon ordinance in the Chicago City Council on January 18. According to Socialist Alternative, the tax would target “Chicago’s biggest businesses and is estimated to raise more than half a billion dollars a year to fund public education, permanently-affordable social housing, violence prevention programs, and mental health programs.” It is modeled on Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative’s successful tax initiative in Seattle a few years ago.

Poster for the tax-Amazon campaign advertising an earlier rally with Chicago Alderman Byron Sichgo-Lopez and Seattle Councilperson Kshama Sawant. Photo from Alderman Byron Sigcho Lopez for the 25th Ward via Facebook.

About 100 people attended the rally and march that followed. A few things stood out. Many of the people who came to the rally, including media workers, came to primarily support the vendors. A much smaller number showed up to support the Tax Amazon initiative. While most people who spoke were vendors and supporters, a few, including Byron and Socialist Alternative’s Stephen Thompson, spoke about the Amazon Tax.

In this election year in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and all fifty alderpersons are up for reelection. Whether the Tax Amazon ordinance will make it through committee and be put up to vote remains to be seen. Crime and taxes are huge issues right now. Property tax increases have hit working-class homeowners very hard, especially in Pilsen and Little Village. Pilsen has been transformed by gentrification for two decades now, and the property tax increases are likely to force many long-term residents to sell and move.

Byron was elected in 2019 in a small but important wave of election victories in several Chicago wards. Dubbed “Red Chicago,” it led to the formation of a largely dysfunctional Socialist Caucus and an accommodation to the Democratic political establishment in city politics, as I discussed in a previous article for Tempest. Byron’s record is better than most of the DSA electeds but not completely solid. He voted, for example, to retain the current threshold for issuing speeding tickets that disproportionately penalizes Black and Latino drivers.

Socialist Alternative has had a long working relationship with Byron. Sawant, for example, publicly endorsed Byron for reelection and spoke at one of his fundraisers. Byron also publicly welcomed Socialist Alternative’s endorsement, a rarity among DSA electeds. The Socialist Alternative branch had about twenty people at the rally. It struck me as a pretty healthy branch from this one encounter, but they have taken some positions, particularly in the Chicago Teachers Union that were wrong, like supporting the REAL Caucus in the last union election.

Byron has earned powerful political enemies, including Lightfoot, who targeted him in a screaming match in the City Council last year over the casino vote. He is also opposed by Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the mayoral candidate and sitting congressman embroiled in an embarrassing crypto-currency scandal with con artist Sam Bankman-Fried. Byron had faced two challengers: Aida Flores, who pretty clearly is fronting for real estate interests, anti-teacher union foundations, and waste management companies, and Danny Montes, a Chicago Fire Department EMT, who has struck me as a Trump-like candidate. Fire Department politics in Chicago is a nightmare. Montes dropped out of the race on January 14th and endorsed Flores.

Caption: Flyer for the January 14, 2023 rally. Photo courtesy of the author.

Byron, a long time community activist with the Pilsen Alliance, victory in the election 2019 with 29 percent of the vote, was greatly helped by the self-immolation of his predecessor, Danny Solis, whose biggest crime in the eyes of most alderpersons was wearing a wire for the Fed for two years. It’s unclear who is going to win the ward election, but Byron has done a pretty good job at putting himself on the right side of the most issues—much to the annoyance of the Chicago police. Several off-duty Chicago cops went undercover to one of Byron’s community meetings last year, and heckled a longtime neighborhood activist who spoke about police violence.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Revolution means smashing the state

Tue, 01/17/2023 - 23:56

Far from being a radical slogan out of touch with reality, the notion of the need to “smash the state” represents the realistic starting point for thinking about the task of the transition to socialism.

The state

What is a state? A state is an organized body of people with a “monopoly on certain crucial social functions,” namely making social rules and enforcing them through “legitimate” violence.1Colin Barker, “What Do We Mean By . . .? The State,” Socialist Worker Review, no. 74 (March 1985): 25, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/barker-c/1985/03/state.htm.It is a combination of a bureaucracy—departments of state, treasury, interior—and armed forces like the military, FBI, CIA, Border Patrol, local police, and prisons. In most capitalist states, a minute proportion of these individuals are elected by society at large. That portion of the state—Congress and the president in the United States—is often called the government. Although those individuals who are voted in do play a role, steering and making adjustments to the course of the activity, policy, diplomacy, and business of the state, the purpose and destination themselves are built into the state’s very fabric.

The modern capitalist state, as described in a famous line from The Communist Manifesto, is “but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” But what are those common affairs? Primarily, these include ensuring the smooth functioning of capital accumulation for the capitalist class of any given country. And at the core of this capacity for management of capitalist order is a “special body of armed men,” to use an oft-quoted phrase of Lenin’s.2See V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, marxists.org. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/These two elements: the monopoly on overwhelming violence (and importantly, the threat thereof) and the “management of capitalist interests” are the operating principles of the capitalist state in general.

The class character of the state

It is important to note that the “committee” referred to by Marx and Engels is not a literal committee of the ruling capitalists.3The closest thing to an exception to this is that of the Chinese party-state.To say this is not to minimize the massive influence that the capitalist class exerts—the system runs on their campaign contributions, lobbying, and the revolving door of actual members of the ruling class who often serve as state managers. But even so, it can’t be said that the state is a simple tool or instrument that is immediately directed by all the billionaires with their top hats and twirly mustaches sitting around a table in a darkened room. Such a conception is what is called the “instrumentalist theory of the state,” and some crude Marxist analyses make this error.

The instrumentalist theory—as pointed out by radical sociologist Fred Block—misses two key features of the state.4Fred Block, “The Ruling Class Does Not Rule,” Jacobin, April 24 2020, https://jacobin.com/2020/04/ruling-class-capitalist-state-reform-theory. The first is that even though it does serve as a tool for class rule, it must appear as if it doesn’t. The fact that the bourgeois state “appears” as a neutral intermediary between social groups and classes allows it to play an important ideological function. ​​The “neutral” appearance of the capitalist state is rooted in capitalist social relations. Because in most circumstances force (aside from threat of starvation) isn’t needed to compel workers to go to work and produce, political power is institutionally separate from the “private sphere” of exploitation. Instead, it takes the form of a “public” and “impersonal” power, standing above classes defined in production. 5As Lenin writes in State and Revolution: “​​Engels elucidates the concept of the ‘power’ which is called the state, a power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it.”

But secondly, and more importantly, the general interests of capital are not always shared or known by the capitalists themselves. Capitalists as a class are not class conscious. Jeff Bezos, for example, is guided by his own best interest in making the most profit from his little slice of the economic pie, and this shapes his inability to know the best interest of the system as a whole.

As capitalism is system-driven by the processes of exchanges on the market, capitalists are in competition with each other. Competition between them proceeds simultaneously alongside the strong solidarity they have with each other when their collective interests are threatened by the working class. It is why Marx and Engels referred to them as a “hostile band of brothers.”6See Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: Volume 1, State and Bureaucracy (London: Monthly Review Press, 1977), 321–24 on why “the exuberance of internal hostilities makes it difficult for any individual capitalist to be trusted as executor for the class as a whole.”That collaboration and necessary competition is dramatically sharper in the case of imperialism—competition between capitalists of different states.

Because of the competitive and crisis-prone nature of capitalism, sometimes the state may have to act against the private interest of this or that capitalist with policies like price controls, restrictions on exports and the like, or even to aid the working class to quell class conflict (as in the case of implementing the New Deal out of fear of insurrection), or to ensure social reproduction (like making sure that there is a supply of workers able to carry out work).7See Sean Larson, “All Good Social Change Comes from Mass Disruption,” Rampant, April 30, 2021, https://rampantmag.com/2021/04/all-good-social-change-comes-from-mass-disruption/; and Kim Moody, “Worker Insurgency and the New Deal,” Tempest, December 20, 2022, https://www.tempestmag.org/2022/12/worker-insurgency-and-the-new-deal/.

“The fact that the bourgeois state “appears” as a neutral intermediary between social groups and classes allows it to play an important ideological function.” Photo by OZinOH.

To the extent that the capitalist class does become consciously a class “for itself,” it’s often as it’s organized by the state. Capitalists organize themselves as a class with the aid of idea-generating para-state institutions like parties, think tanks, and NGOs; non-state institutions like universities or elite media also contribute.8Examples would include the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and so on.In the U.S. context, the two major parties each have a share in the U.S. state, for policy forming purposes, they’re integrated with the capitalist class directly through lobbying, social connections, and financial flows. Parties are thus amalgamators of sectional interests, horse-traders among those interests, and practical reconcilers of internal conflicts for the class. As parties go, the two U.S. parties are not strongly differentiated by their policies, but the parties (or party fractions, like the neo-cons of the 1990s and 2000s) are available to become vehicles for policy alternatives when the ruling class needs such alternatives.

As such, the state is the organized means by which the capitalist class formulates and pursues its interests as a class, including by arbitrating conflicts within the class. In still other words: the state is the way that members of the ruling class gain collective agency as a class.

State managers play a central role in this expression. Yet they may also develop their own special interests. Some reformists use this critique of crude instrumentalism to suggest that since there are divisions in a capitalist class, and since the state is not simply their tool, working people can simply grab hold of the state and use it for our purposes to carry out a socialist transition. I will return to this point, but one thing to note is that this position just replicates the view of the state as an instrument, this time to be wielded from our side, as opposed to the structural analysis that shows why the state necessarily functions to serve capitalists’ interests.9Block, “Ruling Class Does Not Rule.”

States rely on tax revenue and borrowing to pay for their functioning and functionaries. Both of these depend on a growing economy, profitability, and a business climate that promotes investment.10See, for example, Robert Brenner, “The Problem of Reformism,” Against the Current, no 43 (March/April 1993).Without the accumulation of profit by a national business class, tax revenue is harder to come by and the potential for borrowing from private capitalist financial institutions is at risk. In the cutthroat world of the market where capitalists are in competition, and competition breeds crisis, an institution like the state, with a degree of independence, works to facilitate a “market order” that keeps business going amid the chaos.11Mark Neocleous, Critical Theory of Police Power (London: Verso, 2021), 165.

The state is the organized means by which the capitalist class formulates and pursues its interests as a class, including by arbitrating conflicts within the class.

State managers are conscious of their mandate to foster the expanded reproduction of national capital: national bank chairs, treasury secretaries, career undersecretaries of all sorts, and many elected officials know what their job is, and they know that they can be replaced if they fail.

That role for the state becomes all the more pronounced during inevitable periods of economic crisis. When capitalism is in a bust cycle, the job of state managers is to work to restart the capitalist economic engine and facilitate capitalist investment, as this is what largely determines the overall level of economic activity.12Block, “Ruling Class Does Not Rule.”In almost all circumstances, therefore, the state has to make pro-business decisions—which often carry with them austerity for the working class. No direct stimulus will make capitalists invest, expand, hire or start new ventures. Even with the most extreme measures, such as the quantitative easing that moves interest rates into the negative, the state remains dependent upon the subjective decisions of those who own capital.

The need of state managers to create a favorable business climate means that it is reliant on capitalist investment, making the threat of capital flight a weapon in the hands of a dissatisfied capitalist class. This continual threat especially haunts attempts at reform or nationalization of the economy because capital can literally take their money and assets and leave the country. The economic shockwaves thereby caused can be paralyzing for any social democratic reform project. 13One example of this was the reformist social democratic program in France under Mitterand in the early 1980s. See Jonah Birch, “The Many Lives of François Mitterrand,” Jacobin, August 19, 2015, https://jacobin.com/2015/08/francois-mitterrand-socialist-party-common-program-communist-pcf-1981-elections-austerity.

The chaotic competition of capitalism scales out beyond national borders into the realm of relations among different states.As Colin Barker noted: “The world of capitalism is characterized, not by the superimposition of ‘a state’ but rather by a condition of political ‘anarchy’. Only anarchy is not here linked with a condition of statelessness, but by a condition of having many states.” 14Colin Barker, “States in Capitalism: Reflections on Value, Force, Many States and Other Problems,” revolutionary reflections, June 2019, 38, https://www.rs21.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Value_Force-Colin_Barker.pdf.Capitalists of different states interrelate and interact through trade, commerce, and international supply lines as well as through competition for markets, natural resources, and geopolitical position. On this international stage, states function outwardly to create a favorable business climate and jockey for position for their national capitalist class. The system of capitalism does not just create “the state” but a system of multiple states. “There will be many capitalist states,” wrote Neil Davidson, “as long as there are many capitals . . . The trajectory of geoeconomic competition ultimately ends in geopolitical rivalry.”15Neil Davidson, Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 245.And with geopolitical rivalry come the forces of imperialism, armed forces, and war that lurk behind the tentative bonds of diplomacy.

States thus serve capital by working to maintain an orderly market and positive climate for business, using any means necessary to do so. They pursue this project outwardly on behalf of their national capitalist class against other states, and inwardly against challenges or disruptions by their own subjects. 16Barker, States in Capitalism, 37.

The repressive character of the state

For the state, creating and maintaining “market order” essentially requires an organization of violent force. The fact that it reserves for itself the monopoly of “legitimate” force is the primary anchor for its position of authority. Even though states have taken on more pervasive roles and institutional layers since the times of the writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, the centrality of the capitalist state’s repressive or policing function remains unchanged.

The contemporary state certainly has more layers of bureaucracy and complexity than earlier iterations. Additionally, the state has taken on some welfare functions added in the postwar period. These changes were due largely to the anomaly of the postwar economic boom that remains unparalleled in the history of capitalism, which allowed the state more leeway to cede gains to workers.17See Kim Moody, “The Making of Business Unionism,” in In Solidarity: Essays on Working Class Organization (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).Even with these changes, however, the existential feature of contemporary capitalist states is still the special bodies of armed men.

A dual aircraft carrier strike group of the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet in 2016. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan Burke.

Today, 2 million people in the United States are locked behind bars, constituting the largest number of incarcerated people in the world—both numerically and as a proportion of national population. Over a thousand people are murdered by the police every year, with many thousands more brutalized. There were only twelve days in 2022 when the cops didn’t kill someone, the deadliest year on record for police violence. 18Samuel Sinyangwe, “Mapping Police Violence,” December 31, 2022, https://mappingpoliceviolence.us; Sam Levin, “‘It never stops’: killings by U.S. police reach record high in 2022,” Guardian, January 6, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jan/06/us-police-killings-record-number-2022.

And of course, the carceral violence this country imposes is racialized to its core, with anti-Black racism being a central operating and targeting mechanism. Concentration camps along the borders lock up over forty thousand individuals fleeing circumstances in their country that are often related to American political and economic meddling, dividing families and facilitating endemic cases of sexual assault. Any notion of personal privacy is obsolete as the National Security Agency can access almost all our data, and the growing interconnection between Big Tech and the state only secures this stranglehold.19Jack Poulson, “Reports of a Silicon Valley/Military Divide Have Been Greatly Exaggerated,” Tech Inquiry, July 7, 2020, https://techinquiry.org/SiliconValley-Military/.The police state acts beyond the border. The U.S. is currently operating in 40 percent of the world’s countries, maintains military bases in seventy countries, and stations combat troops in fourteen countries, with another seven being bombed by planes and drones and waging economic war via sanctions on another handful of countries.20For more on the dimensions of U.S. military globalization, see Jonathan Ellis and brian bean, “Rebuilding the Anti-Imperialist Movement in a New Era,” Rampant, March 17, 2021, https://rampantmag.com/2021/03/rebuilding-the-anti-imperialist-movement-in-a-new-era/.

The centrality of this violence to the state apparatus is demonstrated concretely in numbers of personnel and money. The budgets—which of course come from workers’ tax dollars—on both the federal and local level still devote huge amounts of cash for “armed men.” On the federal level, over half of all discretionary spending goes to the Department of Defense. On the local level, roughly a third of most major municipal budgets are devoted to police. Over 80 billion dollars are spent annually on prisons nationally, and in Cook County, the budget for “public safety” amounts to 1.4 billion dollars, or 17 percent of the total budget, the second largest budget item.

A conservative estimate (not including civilian contractors) puts 52 percent of total federal employees as members of a body of armed men.

Relative personnel sizes further illustrate what this really means for the state. The Department of Labor, for example, has 17,000 employees, while the Department of Education has 4,000 employees. In comparison there are 12,000 congressional lobbyists. To consider another esteemed national institution, Applebees has 75,000 employees nationally. Meanwhile, out of a nonmilitary federal workforce is 2 million, and 700,000 (35 percent) of those are civilians working for the Department of Defense.21“Civilian Personnel in the DoD,” Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Washington, DC, https://diversity.defense.gov/Portals/51/Documents/Resources/Docs/Civilian%20Employment/Civilian%20Employment.pdf.When you add military personnel, the U.S. Department of Defense is the largest employer in the world, with 3.2 million people on its payroll.22Henry Taylor, “Who Is the World’s Largest Employer? The Answer Might Not Be What You Expect,” World Economic Forum, June 17, 2015, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/06/worlds-10-biggest-employers/.There are also 37,000 employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons; 60,000 members of the Border Patrol; and 89,000 in the FBI, CIA, and NSA. A conservative estimate (not including civilian contractors) puts 52 percent of total federal employees as members of a body of armed men. In Chicago, roughly 40 percent of the city’s employees are cops.

From raw numbers alone, the description of the state as a special body of armed men still figures centrally. Even while its repressive violence is sometimes less visible in more stable capitalist democracies, the monopoly of violent force to ensure its rule remains present and vital. The state is not a neutral social tool, but a special organization that developed historically for one sole purpose: to facilitate profit for the capitalist class and violently defend them against any challenge by working people. As described by Marx, it is a “national war engine of capital against labor.”23Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htmSo let’s talk about its destruction.

What does it mean to “smash the state”?

The phrase was popularized by Lenin’s work State and Revolution, but it comes from Marx and the lessons that he and Engels gleaned from the Paris Commune. In 1871 the workers of Paris, in the midst of a massive political crisis and war, rose up and took control of the city and engaged in an experiment of democratic self-rule for roughly three months. Rather than laying hold of the preexisting political structures, they replaced them with radically re-created structures from below in attempts not just to change the governmental personnel but to remake society anew.

As the events of Paris were unfolding, Marx wrote in a letter to a comrade that what was “essential for real peoples’ revolution” was not “to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another but to smash it.”24Karl Marx to Dr. Kugelmann, April 12–17, 1871, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_04_12.htm, italics in the original. The German word he used was zerbrechen, which means to shatter completely.Marx wrote elsewhere that the most useful thing the state could do would be to commit suicide.25Karl Marx, “Critical Notes on the Article: The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian” August 7 1844, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/08/07.htmEngels opined that he looked forward to the day when the state would sit in the museum of antiquity next to other historically obsolete tools.26Freidrich Engels, The Origin of Family Private Property and the State, marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch09.htm.Both were quite clear that the transformation to a socialist society would require the abolition of the capitalist state.

The most fundamental reason why such a far-reaching conclusion is necessary is the fact that socialism—a system that organizes society for each according to their needs and by each according to their ability—is a democratic project. Indeed, it is the only possible actual democracy.

Under capitalist democracy, politics is almost completely divorced from daily life. Some of us have the right to vote in federal and local electoral races, but we do so in an atomized form, via secret ballot and in most cases disconnected from political discussion or actual collective decision-making. And of course even this vote is rigged via voter disenfranchisement that excludes 4.6 million people or 1 out of every 19 African Americans, a matrix of voter suppression measures, gerrymandering, restrictions of the two-party system, and an electoral college built during the era of slavery the machinations of which have resulted in two out of the last four presidents being elected without the majority of votes.27Christopher Uggen, Ryan Larson, Sarah Shannon, and Robert Stewart, “Locked Out 2022: Estimates of People Denied Voting Rights,” Sentencing Project, October 25, 2022, https://www.sentencingproject.org/reports/locked-out-2022-estimates-of-people-denied-voting-rights/; Kevin Morris, Coryn Grange, Zoe Merriman, “The Impact of Restrictive Voting Legislation,” Brennan Center for Justice, April 5, 2022, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/impact-restrictive-voting-legislation; “Democracy Defended,” Thurgood Marshall Institute, September 2, 2021, https://www.naacpldf.org/democracy-defended/; “Alexander Keyssar, “We Still Need to Abolish the Electoral College,” interview by Chris Maisano, Jacobin, October 13, 2020, https://jacobin.com/2020/10/electoral-college-abolish-keyssar-trump-election.In a system where the candidate who spent the most money wins congressional elections 93 percent of the time, and where the predominance of funding comes from wealthy individual donors and corporate PACS, the horizon of choice is established by the rich and powerful well before some of us have the opportunity to check a box or not.28“Did Money Win?” OpenSecrets, April 1, 2021, https://www.opensecrets.org/elections-overview/winning-vs-spending; Karl Evers-Hillstrom, “Most expensive ever: 2020 election cost $14.4 billion,” OpenSecrets, February 11, 2021, https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/02/2020-cycle-cost-14p4-billion-doubling-16/.

Then, even if we vote someone into office, we have no real mandate over their activity. On the federal level there is no way to recall someone and exert control. This is commonly countered by the notion of “holding politicians accountable” after their election. But in even a basic democracy, you shouldn’t have to pressure someone to do the thing that you voted for them to do. A politician’s “influence” or their relative susceptibility to pressure are the central conceptual coordinates of cleverer-than-thou electoral strategists, but these only show how undemocratic and unrepresentative our present “democracy” really is. The trail of broken promises and the conventional wisdom that views politicians as being unreliable is based on the concrete fact that politicians can do whatever they choose to do once in office. A political perspective premised on lobbying someone to do what they ostensibly have been put in office to do already accepts that the role of the people is only to provide pressure, rather than to democratically control the direction of society.

Members of the Paris Commune pose on a barricade on March 18, 1871. Photo from Paris Museum Collections.

Moreover, the majority of elections are for the legislature, which handles the general case of laws. However, the business of states is concerned not with generalities but specifics. Congress may pass a law that sets broad policy goals for environmental regulation, which is then entrusted to narrow enforcement by an unaccountable, underfunded department of state managers. All the details of what the state managers of the different departments do is divorced from what any of us have to say about how different aspects of our society should look.

The same is true of the decisions of the numerous summits convened all around the world that make major international decisions about war, trade, economic policy, and, crucially, climate catastrophe. All of these summits and G8-9-10-11-12 meetings make huge geopolitical decisions with massive ramifications for working people. These all occur without even the pretense of democratic accountability. On top of that, the vast majority of the state, including the repressive apparatuses of the army, police, and much of the carceral system, is not elected, and we have next to no control over them.29Not that we want control of the police however. The illusion of “community control” of the police is a highly fraught demand that is at odds with the project of abolition. See Woods Ervin, Ricardo Levins Morales, Zola Richardson, and Jonathan Stegall, “The Fantasy of Community Control of the Police,” Forge, February 4, 2021, https://forgeorganizing.org/article/fantasy-community-control-police.Lastly, but most importantly, in the place where most of us spend the majority of our waking time—at work—we have absolutely no democracy. We have no control over our workplaces or working conditions, though maybe, if you are lucky enough to have a fighting union, you can negotiate over the terms of your exploitation.

Having democratic control over our world, our labor, and the fruits thereof requires a completely different type of social organization than the one historically constructed and reproduced by capitalism. The capitalist state in the form of bourgeois democracy—which is the form in most of the dominant capitalist countries—was considered by Marx and company as the “most stable form of government for capitalism” precisely because of the illusion of democratic control. Straight-up military dictatorships are expensive to maintain and historically are notoriously brittle, as there is little ideological cover that can serve as a buffer of class anger against state violence and inequality. Additionally, dictatorial forms of the capitalist state (military rule, Bonapartist civilian dictatorships, fascism) require the capitalist class to give up their direct representation in the state and hand the running of the state institutions to forces without “organic” ties to capital. Given these facts, Lenin’s words still ring true:

Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited.30Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/.

The fact that capitalist “democracy” is more democratic than feudalism or dictatorship doesn’t mean that the democracy afforded can deliver liberation.

Abolition as creative destruction

In the dominant capitalist countries, some semblance of democratic control provides cover for a more fundamental lack of control in our lives. It is the product of the state’s function, which is not a manifestation of the “will of the people,” as liberals articulate, but a special organization designed to instill market order and to manage class antagonism—defuse it if possible, crush resistance if not. “Resistance,” to quote Amílcar Cabral, is “to destroy something, in order to build something new.” 31Quoted in Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and Everything Else) (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022), 85.

The “breaking apart” of the state is an act that is not purely destructive. “Abolition,” as Ruth Wilson Gilmore tells us, “is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” 32Towards Abolition, https://www.towardsabolition.com. We get to these life-affirming institutions by replacing the state and its charade of representative democracy with organs of direct democracy and self-government. Self-government is the antithesis of the capitalist state’s violent rule over and above working people’s communities on behalf of capital. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote that “the most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events.” The entry of the masses of people into their own self-government means breaking open the channels that previously constrained their choice and self-determination.

One recent example of the creative process of breaking apart previous channels of control is that of the resistance committees in Sudan. In the midst of a immense wave of protest, general strikes, sit-ins (qiada), and civil disobedience that eventually overthrew the twenty-six-year rule of president Omar al-Bashir, neighborhood-based committees formed to organize, plan, and support the daily protests against the security apparatus of the Sudanese state.33While technically the first appearance of the resistance committees was during 2013 protests in Khartoum against reduction of wheat subsidies, their widespread formation and adoption occurred in 2019. See Magdi El Gizouli, “Mobilization and Resistance in Sudan’s Uprising,” Rift Valley Institute, January 2020, https://riftvalley.net/sites/default/files/publication-documents/Mobilization%20and%20resistance%20in%20Sudan%27s%20uprising%20by%20Magdi%20el%20Gizouli%20-%20RVI%20X-Border%20Briefing%20%282020%29_0.pdf.During this time of social instability, the resistance committees also played a role in the disbursement of aid and supplies.

After the fall of Bashir and the beginning of a fragile power-sharing agreement between the military and the civilian opposition, the resistance committees took a more prominent political role and “evolved into the voice of the ignored masses and organized repeated protests” that culminated in successful resistance to the military’s attempted coup of the civilian government in October 2021.34Muzan Alneel, “Resistance Committees: The Specters Organizing Sudan’s Resistance,” Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, November 26, 2021, https://timep.org/explainers/resistance-committees-the-specters-organizing-sudans-protests/.

Self-government is the antithesis of the capitalist state’s violent rule over and above working people’s communities on behalf of capital.

Then, in the winter and spring of 2022, the resistance committees convened a period of discussion where these organizations—formed to provide logistical and organizational support to a wave of protest—took on the creation of a series of political charters. Under the slogan of “No negotiations, no partnership, and no legitimacy for the military,” several political visions were outlined for what a new civilian state would look like in what Sudanese activist-scholar Muzan Alneel calls a “roadmap of a government built-from-below.”35Muzan Alneel, “The Charters of Sudan’s Political Landscape,” Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, April 26, 2022, https://timep.org/commentary/analysis/the-charters-of-sudans-political-landscape/.In July 2022, the head of the military announced that the military would turn over executive functions to the civilian forces and resistance committees. While Sudan’s revolutionaries are rightfully skeptical of this actually happening and have opposed the subsequent “deals” made by the military, the general trajectory of the processes in which ordinary people “directly interfere” in historical events through experiments of self-government are reflected in the still ongoing events in Sudan.36Marc Lynch, “Sudan’s Street Confronts a New Transition Deal,” Abu Aardvark’s MENA Academy, December 21, 2022, https://abuaardvark.substack.com/p/sudans-street-confronts-a-new-transition?utm_source=post-email-title&publication_id=866290&post_id=92098436&isFreemail=true&utm_medium=email.

Direct control from below looks very different from a repurposing of the current state. The capitalist state is premised on divorcing power and politics from the masses. To win socialism we need to bring all power to (and thus from) the masses. We don’t need the “right people” in the Department of Education dictating school policy, we need teachers in democratic control of their schools. We don’t need “union-friendly” bureaucrats in control of the Department of Labor, we need worker control of production. We don’t need community control of the police, we need police abolished, jails leveled, and borders opened. This may seem like a chaotic process, but it is actually one that requires a great deal of organization, collective confidence, and combativity of our class, and that is precisely why the action of breaking apart is tremendously creative.

To be clear, no one is saying smash the public schools, or abolish the post office, tear up the roads and social security. But we are saying these and the rest of society can be freed up from the constraints of the old state; they can receive a greater breath of life by being directly and democratically managed by workers themselves.

Members of a Spanish militia give a revolutionary salute in Barcelona, July 1936. Photo by David Seymur.

We see snippets of this creativity arise in periods of mass struggle, seen in protest tactics and organizational forms such as the mutual aid that sprung up during the pandemic and the protest waves that surged forward in 2020. The councils and assemblies that have bloomed in public life during mass struggle can be and have been the forms that manage society.37Donny Gluckstein, “The Workers Council Movement in Western Europe,” International Socialism Journal 2, no. 18 (Winter 1983): 1–29.There have been scores of examples in history of mass struggles around immediate demands blossoming into experiments in councils and committees or organs of mass control of society, such as in Russia in 1917; Germany, 1918–23; Spain, 1936–37; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; Poland, 1980–81; France, 1968; Chile, 1970–73; Portugal, 1974–75; Iran, 1979–80; the popular assemblies of Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006, in the revolutionary squares of the Arab Spring in 2011, and elsewhere.

We know that ordinary people are capable of organizing to meet our own needs because working people are already doing it in their workplaces and in their communities. Imagine if our mutual aid groups, strike councils, seized workplaces, neighborhood committees, and popular assemblies were organized on such a scale that they could take up the functioning of all of society. Reaching that powerful height—a situation sometimes described as “dual power”—brings the question of power, or “who actually rules,” onto the table. But dual power itself is not the goal, the goal is to be organized enough to resolve the question of power by smashing and replacing the state. That kind of organization can only be built through mass participation in lived struggle. The political education provided by collective action—politically, theoretically, and ideologically—is crucial. For masses of ordinary people, wrote Lenin, “only struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.”38Lenin, Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/jan/09.htm.Struggle is the preparation for self-rule.

While this revolutionary shift may not be on the immediate agenda and thus currently involves a degree of abstraction, we must be clear that our side taking power will always put us up against the state, making revolution required and necessary. The capitalist state will be a key hurdle, and its abolition is the precondition for enacting a socialist transition from below.

Against utopian incrementalism

There is a recently revived tendency of thought in the socialist movement, which I will call utopian incrementalism, that argues against the possibility and desirability of confronting the state. The premise of this position is that socialism is constructed by doing the following: First, we build movements for reforms with far-reaching appeal in the hope that we are building broad support for socialism. Usually these reforms are designed around some kind of legislation, often written by an NGO or lobbyist organization, to try to get it passed through Congress. But in order to get those reforms passed, sympathetic legislators are required. The best versions of this position are clear about building a mass movement, but the mass movement, the activity of people in struggle, is seen merely as a useful tool to apply pressure through demonstrations and the like on the politicians who would try to get the legislation passed. In this line of thinking, democratic self-organization and mass militancy have to be contained in favor of such pressure movements. They become bureaucratized and always stay within the limits of legality for fear of alienating their allied elected officials. Accordingly, shortcuts like running candidates in capitalist political parties are often utilized. The point of a mass movement, in this conception, is reduced to a pressure campaign to get socialist politicians elected, which advocates of this position see as an end in itself, a “win” of the movement that comes to replace the material changes that were initially the goal.

The councils and assemblies that have bloomed in public life during mass struggle can be and have been the forms that manage society.

The goal here is to incrementally accumulate electoral victories in order to win a majority in Congress (maybe the presidency, too, but this is unclear).39The question of Bernie Sanders and an overestimation of his chance of winning the U.S. presidency raised this question to the advocates of this position. One example is Meagan Day, “Here’s What Bernie Could Do in Power,” Jacobin, February 25, 2019, https://jacobin.com/2019/02/wielding-the-imperial-presidency, which was initially—and embarrassingly—titled “Wielding the Imperial Presidency.”Then the socialist movement perhaps can try to make moves to nationalize key industries. The worst of these positions believes a fantasy story that socialist laws can be passed that change the institutional structure of capitalism, and that out of respect for the legality of the state, the army and the police would remain loyal to the socialist-run state. The capitalists are outfoxed by our clever strategy and, voilá, we have something they call socialism. Usually they are content with just some nationalization and a modicum of central planning.40These positions have many advocates, from the “evolutionary socialism” expounded by early twentieth-century German socialist Eduard Bernstein (the target of one of Rosa Luxemburg’s most famous works) to that currently advocated by Bernie Sanders, the market socialism of David Schweikart, the “new socialism” of Michael Harrington, and Bhaskar Sunkara’s speculative-fiction depiction of the transition to socialism in his book The Socialist Manifesto, to name several examples.This is a pure reformism, in that it believes that the capitalist mode of production can be fixed from within.

The more savvy of these positions are those articulated by someone like the early twentieth-century German socialist Karl Kautsky and repeated by some of those who, fairly dogmatically, hold these positions today. There is usually some acknowledgment that there will be some kind of attempt by the capitalist class to stop this hypothetical socialist majority government. People like Kautsky sometimes allude to a sort of “final test of strength” or “decisive battle” that presumably is exemplified by a mass defense against a capitalist-led coup of this hypothetical socialist majority government. For them, this “final test” is always ill-defined. Revolution is not on the agenda anytime soon they say, so let’s not talk about it.

Marx and Engels were clear in rejecting this parliamentary road to socialism. To quote just one example from Engels: “I have never said the socialist party will become the majority and then proceed to take power. On the contrary, I have expressly said that the odds are ten to one that our rulers, well before that point arrives, will use violence against us, and this would shift us from the terrain of majority to the terrain of revolution.”41Frederick Engels, “Reply to the Honourable Giovanni Bovio,” marxists.org, https://marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1892/02/critica-sociale.htm., emphasis mine.

Chilean workers march to support Salvador Allende for president in 1973. Photo from Library of Congress.

There are two main critiques of this more savvy approach to the parliamentary road to power. The first is about its gradualism, and the second is on the question of revolution. As I described before, the functioning of the state relies on taxes and investment, which means that the question of crisis also figures into the struggle for reforms. When capitalism is booming, reforms are easier to apply, but when capitalism is in an economic downturn, immense pressure is exerted to roll back reforms in attempts to stimulate capitalist investment. This puts the hypothetical majority-socialist government in a tremendous bind: do they restrain and demobilize their supporters’ hopes and demands as they strike and protest in order to preserve the reforms, or do they promote further radicalization and thus provoke direct confrontation with the capitalist class? The track record of this type of experiment in using the state in this way is extremely poor. Past attempts have always taken the restraint option, as the direct confrontation would entail rupture of the state. A few of the many examples:

Chile in 1973: Socialist Salvador Allende won election to the presidency and laid out the Chilean Road to Socialism, a program of reforms, nationalizing the copper mines, increasing wages, and decreasing unemployment. But he pledged to keep the state intact and brought the military, including a general named Augusto Pinochet into his government. Attempted nationalizations were met with strong resistance from capital. Despite the fact that the working class was militant and organized, a U.S.-backed coup by Pinochet smashed the government and resulted in mass executions of leftists, including Allende.

France in 1981: François Mitterand once said: “Reform or revolution? I want to say . . . yes, revolution. And I would immediately point out … the daily struggle for structural reforms can be revolutionary in nature.” Mitterand won the 1981 elections based on a unity of the Socialist Party and the French Communist Party. Workers were jubilant and partied in the streets with joy. Mitterand outlawed the death penalty, nationalized major industries, and nationalized 36 banks so that 90 percent of all deposits were held in nationalized banks. However, amid regional economic crisis, he was confronted by having to hold up unprofitable industries and while capitalist class put on pressure by refusing to invest. Just one year later he rolled back most of what he accomplished and began to administer austerity. By 1984, the neofascist National Front party went from being marginal to polling as high as the Communists.42The National Front party is now currently called National Rally (Rassemblement National).

Sweden: Sweden had a left-wing socialist government—led by the Social-Democratic Workers Party (SAP)—from 1932 until 1976, and a left majority in parliament for all but nine years between 1932 and 2006. For the first three decades of the twentieth century, the Swedish working class went on strike more than that in any other European country.43So much so that for the rest of Europe, to have “the Swedish disease” meant that workers “struck too much.”By 1975 however, the tentative balance that the SAP had created with employers and workers began to tilt toward the employers, and the SAP lost power. While Sweden definitely has a higher living standard than the U.S., since the 1980s conditions have degraded because of neoliberalism and SAP’s program of class collaboration and pursuit of labor peace. 44Chris Giddings, “Sweden’s ‘radical’ Meidner plan was a defeat of the workers,” Red Flag, November 19, 2019, https://redflag.org.au/node/6962.Workers in Sweden, as of 2019, went on strike less than almost every other country in the world.45“Why Are Strikes So Rare in Sweden,” localse, January 25, 2019, https://www.thelocal.se/20190125/why-are-strikes-so-rare-in-sweden/. As a result, a neo-Nazi party, the Swedish Democrats, won 20 percent of the vote in the national elections of September 2022 (the second largest share of votes by any party).

Greece in 2015: Syriza, a radical left coalition party that included some revolutionaries, won a majority in parliament fueled by a mass movement from below against the austerity measures imposed by the European Union.46In 2015 Syriza won 149 out of 300 seats and formed a coalition partnership for government with a smaller party named ANEL.Despite having a majority in parliament, an overwhelming referendum, and massive demonstrations for rejecting the austerity plan (called the Memorandum), Syriza capitulated to international finance and the Eurozone and carried out austerity—the very thing they had initially campaigned against.47Anemona Hartocollis, “Emphatic ‘No’ Prompts Greek Pride and Revelry,” New York Times, July 5, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/06/world/europe/greeks-emphatic-no-and-a-rebuke-over-austerity.html.In 2019 they lost elections and were replaced by the conservative New Democracy Party.

In short, the dilemma, to quote British socialist Ian Birchall, is that “to challenge the pursuit of profit makes reform impossible; but to leave profit unchallenged means that no significant progress can be made towards equality.”48Ian Birchall, Bailing Out the System: Reformist Socialism in Western Europe: 1944–1985 (London: Bookmarks, 1986), 23.

This challenge is underscored in the context of capital flight, one of the methods that capitalists use to exert pressure on reformists’ measures that directly challenge profit. In order to literally stop capital from fleeing, measures like nationalization of banks and forcible expropriation have to be escalated. This raises the stakes and makes a direct confrontation more likely than common social democratic measures like taxing the rich, but the logic of even small-scale reformism moves necessarily toward taking these measures.

The alternative to this conundrum would be to take steps to upend capitalist social relations, and that means upending private property. That path is not one that can be carried out within the bounds of a legality created and enforced by the capitalist state. Even if a reformist government sought to redistribute goods and resources more equitably, the state in the capitalist context has been formed by, is based upon, and reproduces capitalist social relations. The problem of capitalism is not a problem of distribution but of the social relation of private property held by the few forcing the many to trade their labor on the market in order to not starve. This is why there is a limit to nationalization through the legal courses of the state and why so many attempts to carry it out are met with either capital flight (they just take their money and leave or wait it out) or violent coups, in which the state is dissolved or taken over by forces friendlier to the capitalists.

Whither revolution?

The utopian incrementalists sequester the question of revolution as somehow being less relevant because it does not appear to be on the immediate agenda. This is either naïve, in that they underestimate its eventual crucial importance, or dishonest, in that they actually don’t think revolution is possible or desirable. Tyler Zimmer, in an article responding to this very assertion by Vivek Chibber, argues:

If a goal [like revolution] is simply not worth pursuing, then it’s hardly worth debating which strategies might best enable us to achieve it. Likewise, if a goal—however desirable it might be in itself—is impossible to achieve, or at any rate so far-fetched as to be totally unrealistic even in the long run, it’s unworthy of serious consideration now or in the future. But, on the other hand, if a goal [like revolution] is desirable and feasible in the long run, but impossible to achieve in the short run, it seems extremely unwise to push it to the side and dismiss it as irrelevant to those organizing in the here and now.49Tyler Zimmer, “Is a Revolutionary Rupture with Capitalism Possible?” New Politics, Summer 2019, https://newpol.org/issue_post/is-a-revolutionary-rupture-with-capitalism-possible/; Vivek Chibber, “Our Road to Power,” Jacobin, December 5, 2017, https://jacobin.com/2017/12/our-road-to-power.

It is not just unwise to avoid this question, but disastrous. Counterrevolution has been a predictable historical reaction in any country where a left-wing movement has made serious inroads toward reshaping the economy and against existing political power structures. State bodies like the CIA and the military brass are not neutral actors, and the bounds of “legality” will not protect movements and individuals from a counterrevolutionary backlash intent on defending the fundamental interests of capitalism. The sheer size and development of the contemporary states’ military wings mean that any socialist project will confront massive challenges to being realized. But to shrink from the challenges because they are too large does nothing to actually prepare for overcoming obstacles we know are an inevitable response to successfully implementing a project of liberation.

Fortunately, that daunting obstacle is not something we must confront alone, as we are. No guerrilla-style armed struggle has any hope of success in a military campaign against the repressive state in this country right now, and that is not what revolution will rely on. Instead, any revolutionary process involves masses of people, and the source of the movement’s power is its ability to shut down society through workplace strikes, street mobilizations, and protecting ourselves and our communities. Defending the gains made by a socialist or abolitionist movement, our own side’s institutions and communities, will also mean self-defense against ruling-class backlash and targeted repression. Counterrevolution will not be defeated without destroying the means for counterrevolution to be carried out. Doing that means breaking apart the state, the repressive apparatuses, and seizing the means of production. Those tasks can only be “called socialist revolution and it cannot be accompanied by any respect for private property or servility to bourgeois legality.”50Ernest Mandel, From Stalinism to Eurocommunism: The Bitter Fruits of ‘Socialism in One Country’ (London: Verso, 1978), 195.

“Defending the gains made by a socialist or abolitionist movement, our own side’s institutions and communities, will also mean self-defense against ruling class backlash and targeted repression.” Photo by Nationaal Archief.

If we are serious about building life outside of capitalism, we cannot avoid the tough questions. We have to take responsibility for the future of the movement. If we are building a socialist movement—and an organization of revolutionaries—politically and organizationally unprepared for the moments of backlash or of the highest level of the class struggle, then we are setting up a generational effort for certain failure.

Being prepared for these heights of struggle has profound implications for our tasks in the here and now and how we conduct ourselves in the immediate struggle for reforms. Do we organize on the premise that gradual changes in the state structure are the path to winning socialism? Or do we see the need to organize in opposition to the state—even if we put forward socialist candidates to be a megaphone of social movements—anticipating moments of crisis, sparks of outrage and antagonism that can develop into windows of opportunity? A revolutionary strategy would attempt to always and everywhere “kindle the conflagration,” understanding that the best terrain for waging the class struggle is not in the marble sanctums of parliaments but in the disruptive, sometimes illegal activity of strikes, mass demonstrations, uprisings, and civil disobedience.51Daniel Bensaïd, “‘Leaps, Leaps, Leaps’: Lenin and Politics,” International Socialism 2, no. 95 (July 2002), https://www.marxists.org/archive/bensaid/2002/07/leaps.htm. As Italian communists Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Toggliati put it in the 1920s, our organizing should:

link every demand to a revolutionary objective; make use of every partial struggle to teach the masses the need for general action and for insurrection against the reactionary rule of capital; and seek to ensure that every struggle of a limited character is prepared and led in such a way as to be able to lead to the mobilization of the proletariat, and not to their dispersal.52Quoted in Neil Davidson, “The Actuality of Revolution,” in Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age, ed. Colin Barker, Gareth Dale, and Neil Davidson (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), 325.

The meaning of this approach becomes even more clear when examining arguments against the need to overcome capitalist states.

The reality of revolution

A common charge made by utopian incrementalists is that bourgeois democracy has legitimacy for the vast majority of working people.53It’s worth pointing out that the same arguments have been made for a long time. In reading the literature, from the writings of Kautsky from the early twentieth century, to that of the Eurocommunists of the ’70s and ’80s like Santiago Carrillo and Enrico Berlinguer, related thinkers like Poulantzas, and the contemporary adherents. There is little novelty to these arguments, even though they are often presented as undogmatic realism.Parliaments, they argue, are gains won by working class people and thus should be defended.54Eric Blanc for one, has argued this several places. See Eric Blanc and Charles Post, “Which Way to Socialism,” Jacobin, July 21, 2019, https://jacobin.com/2019/07/socialism-revolution-electoral-politics-mass-action; and Kshama Sawant and Eric Blanc, “What Is the Relevance of the Russian Revolution Today? A Debate,” July 27, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64UjVAoWwGs.The first thing to say about this is that it is a wild historical inaccuracy.55Neil Davidson’s monumental work How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? demonstrates very clearly how the general tendency of the bourgeois revolutions that instituted parliaments could be described as “revolutions from above.” Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012).Universal suffrage—the right to vote (as limited as it still is) was a demand won by the working class, but parliaments were not. Parliaments predate capitalism. They existed as bodies to give representation to feudal lords in relation to the monarchy. What the capitalist revolutions, including those “from above,” achieved was parliamentary supremacy over the monarchy in key countries. In this context parliaments were designed to secure rule by the bourgeoisie or even implemented as pressure valves from above out of fears of rebellion from below.

Counterrevolution will not be defeated without destroying the means for counterrevolution to be carried out. Doing that means breaking apart the state, the repressive apparatuses, and seizing the means of production.

It is also the case that the degree of legitimacy is often overstated. The notion that “the bourgeois state is legitimate in the eyes of the working class” is not so simple an assertion as it is made out to be by its contemporary advocates. While individuals like Vivek Chibber state as fact that the state has “infinitely greater legitimacy” [emphasis mine] now than a century before, and Eric Blanc simply asserts without explanation this self-same premise.56Chibber, “Our Road to Power”; Blanc and Post, “Which Way to Socialism?”This central assumption of their argument distorts by simplifying the contradictory reality of working-class consciousness. While it is the case that the majority of working people are not determined socialists ready for revolution, to characterize their views of the system as approving or bestowing “legitimacy” misses the anger and polarization of the political present. To see this, we need only look at the approval rating of Congress, which in a Gallup poll from July of last year was at 7 percent. The same Gallup poll found that the average confidence levels in all political institutions were at a historic low.57Jeffery M. Jones, “Confidence in U.S. Institutions Down; Average at New Low,” Gallup, July 5, 2022, https://news.gallup.com/poll/394283/confidence-institutions-down-average-new-low.aspx.Voter turnout, the clearest marker of participation in democratic institutions, is consistently less than half of the population.

Most of those polled approved of the destruction of this Minneapolis police station in 2020. Photo by Lorie Shaull.

Heralding the supposed legitimacy of democratic institutions looks even more strange when we look at the scale of anger displayed frequently and visibly. Globally 2019 witnessed a massive wave of demonstrations of an antigovernment character, from Sudan to Hong Kong, Colombia, Chile, Algeria, and Haiti. The number of antigovernment demonstrations around the world in the 2010s increased annually by 12 percent. 58Christian Stirling Haig, Katherine Schmidt, Samuel Brannen, “The Age of Mass Protests: Understanding an Escalating Global Trend,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/age-mass-protests-understanding-escalating-global-trend.The surging wave finally found expression in the antiracist rebellion in the U.S. after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020. While the protests raged, a Newsweek poll found that a majority of Americans were in favor of the burning down of a Minneapolis police station.59Matthew Impelli, “54 Percent of Americans Think Burning Down Minneapolis Police Precinct Was Justified After George Floyd’s Death,”Newsweek, June 3, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/54-americans-think-burning-down-minneapolis-police-precinct-was-justified-after-george-floyds-1508452.

At the time the approval rating of that insurrectionary act was more favorable than either presidential candidate of the two capitalist parties.60“How Popular Is Donald Trump?” FiveThirtyEight, https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/; “Joe Biden: Favorable/Unfavorable,” RealClear Politics, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/joe_biden_favorableunfavorable-6677.html.Several comprehensive studies of trends in worldwide social movements from 2006 to 2020 found that global protests have steadily increased and have, by size and frequency, eclipsed past historical waves of protest in the postwar period.61Haig, Schmidt, and Brannen, “Age of Mass Protests”; Isabel Ortiz, Sara Burke, Mohamed Berrada, Hernán Saenz Cortés, World Protests: A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2022), https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/978-3-030-88513-7.pdf.

Additionally, since 2016 the demands of the protests have moved from single-issue demands to, as Ortiz, Burke, Berrada, and Cortés conclude, “‘omnibus protests,’ (protesting on multiple issues) against the political and economic system. Polls world-wide reflect dissatisfaction with democracies and lack of trust in governments.”

Compare this with Eric Blanc’s argument that: “The overwhelming historic experience is that, whether we like it or not, working people will try to use the existing institutions of political democracy under capitalism to further their interests and to transform society.”62Blanc and Post, “Which Way to Socialism?”It is nonsense to argue that the global trend in massive demonstrations, of marches of millions, pushing back police, building barricades, of self-sacrificing riot, hurling back rocks and tear gas canisters in self-defense, and braving nights of smoke and fire can be described as “using the existing institutions of political democracy.”

Rather, working-class consciousness is contradictory: the politics of reformism are still dominant even while people are also dissatisfied, disgruntled, and raging against it. In this equation, the legitimacy of reformism and the state is not a fixed reality to be catered to, but a challenge to be overcome.

In this context it is crucial we ask how we as revolutionaries approach the work of building movements. Do we stoke support for liberal democracy and the status quo and reinforce the legitimacy of the system, or do we try to fuel the fire of intense dissatisfaction and say, “Yes the system is rotten, it cannot save you, and it has to be abolished.” These are different tasks because, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, they are actually “different goals.”63“That is why people who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal.”Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution? Marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/ch08.htm.

The need for revolution is not a dogmatic line or something we can convince people of by standing on a corner and shouting about it. It is a historical fact, and it is a process. People change their mind first and foremost by participating in struggle, and also by having revolutionaries in struggle patiently connecting the immediate task of the day to the final need for socialist revolution. Neither spontaneous protest nor revolutionary propaganda will advance a revolutionary movement in the absence of the other.

Revolution in Sudan, April 10, 2019. Photo by Esam Idris.

Working people are capable and deserving of being more than just passive props for the political aspirations of candidates in the same old capitalist system. We can take up the struggle ourselves, in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and in the streets. We can make decisions collectively and democratically based not on profitability, but on what we need and the future we decide to create. There is an old adage attributed to Lenin, that goes: “There are decades when nothing happens, but then there are weeks when decades happen.” As the Sudanese comrade and revolutionary Muzan Alneel said recently, when speaking of experiences in the contemporary Sudanese revolution, “These aren’t just pretty words, this actually happens.”64Remarks made at “Revolution and Counterrevolution in Sudan,” panel at Socialism Conference 2022, September 3, 2022.

Our hope lies unshakably in the tremendous creativity of people in struggle. What seemed impossible yesterday can rapidly shift to be considered what is necessary today. Nowhere is this process more crucial than in the question of capitalist states. The historically grounded need to smash the state to achieve liberation cannot be reduced to an intellectual abstraction or a chic radical shibboleth. Smashing the state is, rather, the only realistic approach of a serious revolutionary project. The existence of the capitalist state “is incompatible with the development of socialism,” as Colin Barker pointed out. 65Barker, “What Do We Mean By . . .”To prepare a revolutionary socialist movement to be fit for its historic task, we need clarity among the militant workers, activists, and rebels involved in the fights of today. Sharp political crises, struggle, and revolutionary situations are inevitable under capitalism; our side’s victory is not. The possibility for a liberated future will only be built from the rubble of capitalist states.

Special thanks to Sean Larson, Charlie Post, and David Whitehouse for reading and providing insightful suggestions on this article.

Featured Image credit: Nevena Pilipovic-Wengler.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Giving credit to the wrong class

Sun, 01/15/2023 - 19:33

In his response to my critique in Tempest of his argument about the role of NIRA Section 7(a) as “spurring” the upsurge in strikes in 1933, Eric Blanc writes, “Kim Moody’s new long polemic…can’t explain why workers struggles began to focus on union recognition after the gov passed 7(a) recognizing the right to organize.” While my “long polemic” did note the large number of recognition strikes in 1933–1934, it didn’t explain their rise separately because they have historically followed the trend of strikes in general and been a regular feature of worker upsurges for decades, as I will show below. To put it simply, recognition strikes were nothing new in the immediate post-7(a) period. My basic argument about the upsurge of 1933, shown in Table I of my Tempest article, was that the strike wave of that year actually began to take shape before 7(a) was passed in June and that it was encouraged by an upswing in the economy in early 1933, the prior accumulation of organizing experience and radical rank and file leadership (the militant minority) of the previous three years, and to a lesser extent, once 7(a) was passed, by the brief though unmeasurable psychological effect of Section 7(a) on the attitudes of workers and union leaders.

The authors of the Brookings study of National Recovery Administration (NRA) labor boards, for example, reported the following rise in strike activity in early 1933, which they seemed to think was significant:

In January 1933 the number of man-days lost in disputes rose rapidly to a total of 240,912 an increase of some 500 per cent over December. In February there was a recession but in March the figure advanced sharply again to 445,771. This advance may have been due to the spurt in production and prices which began shortly after the bank holiday. The number and severity of industrial disputes continued to increase in April (535,039 man-days lost) and May (603,723 man-days lost).66Lewis Lorwin and Arthur Wubnig, Labor Relations Boards: The Regulation of Collective Bargaining under the National Industrial Recovery Act (Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1935), 89.

After that it fell slightly in June and then rose rapidly in July with the ink on 7(a) hardly dry. This study also attributed the July upsurge in large part to the “business boomlet” of that time.2Lorwin and Wubnig, Labor Relations Boards, 88–90.

Furthermore, there was a strong continuity between pre- and post-7(a) strikes. As Michael Goldfield writes about pre-7(a) organizing, “[B]efore FDR signed the NIRA on June 16, 1933, organization was virtually complete in many areas in both the garment and coal industries.”3 Michael Goldfield, The Southern Key: Class, Race & Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 65–66.Garment workers and miners alone accounted for 55 percent of all strikes in 1933. Recognition was a major issue in both industries, so pre-7(a) organizing by these groups was responsible for a significant proportion of recognition strikes.4“Labor Disputes, 1919-1933,” no author, Monthly Labor Review 39, no. 1 (July 1934), 76–77; Florence Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 1880–1936 (Washington: United States Department of Labor, 1938), 139, 152. The July strikes and strikers were also concentrated in garment (including hosiery) and mining. In other words, the jump in strikes in July was to a significant degree a continuation of the pre-7(a) organizing drives and strikes in garment and coal mining already underway in early 1933.

One reason the “focus on union recognition” cannot be explained in the way Blanc would like is that this focus was not new or unique to the upsurge of 1933.

Later in 1933 auto workers would continue the unbroken line of mass strikes in what Nelson Lichtenstein described as “the Depression-era auto insurgency” that began in January at Briggs and in February at Murray Body and Hudson, followed by further strikes at White Motors, Willys-Overland (Jeep), and Chevrolet, all before 7(a) in early 1933.5Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 33. In short, there was a great deal of continuity in strikes, almost certainly including those for recognition, before and after 7(a) became law.

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics stats do not include the reason for striking in the monthly figures, so I can’t “prove” that all of those early 1933 strikes were specifically for recognition, though “organizing” drives are by definition about union recognition and in those days usually required strikes. The general flow of recognition strikes as part of the overall pattern of strikes since at least the turn of the twentieth century also indicates that recognition strikes rose and fell along with the general level of strikes.

Recognition strikes were not new in 1933

One reason the “focus on union recognition” cannot be explained in the way Blanc would like is that this focus was not new or unique to the upsurge of 1933. Union recognition had by then been a regular goal of strikes and a feature of strike waves for three decades or more. Blanc’s graph showing the rise in the number of workers striking for union recognition begins in 1922. Had he extended it to the beginning of the century to give us a more complete picture of union recognition strikes, it would have shown that they were a regular feature of class conflict and that increases in strikes for recognition were typical of the two major strike waves of that period: 1901–1905 and 1916–1919. The graph below shows the course of strikes for union recognition from 1900–1935, the last year of the NRA. Statistics for recognition strikes are not available from 1906–1913, hence the break.

By 1933, union recognition “had been a regular goal of strikes and a feature of strike waves for three decades or more.” (Statistics for recognition strikes not available from 1906–1913.) Source: Florence Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 1880–1936 (Washington: United States Department of Labor, 1938), 33, 38–61. Image by the author.

During the first great twentieth century upsurge of strikes and union organization in 1901–1905, the number of recognition strikes followed the upward trend in strikes and rose from 414 in 1900 to 1,200 by 1903, more in 1903 than in any year during the life of the NRA and 7(a). Altogether, there were more strikes for union recognition at its height in 1901–1903 (2,577) than during the lifespan of the NRA in 1933–1935 (2,363).6Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 33. In 1901–03 there was no legislation remotely favorable to unions or even a liberal administration in Washington to get the credit for “spurring” such action. Due to employer opposition, workers had to strike to win recognition in order to bargain over the underlying issues. Florence Peterson wrote of the 1901–05 strike wave in her 1938 Department of Labor study of strikes since 1880 (noting their increased importance): “Strikes increased with the return of industrial prosperity and the expansion of labor organizations in 1899 and the first years of the twentieth century. Many of these, as was to be expected after a long period of wage reductions, were for wage increases, although union recognition became an increasingly important issue. About as many workers were involved in union recognition strikes between 1901 and 1905 as were involved in wage disputes.”7Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 23.

In response to this insurgency the metal trades employers launched the “Open Shop” crusade in manufacturing as early as 1903 to counter the trend toward collective bargaining, and the number of strikes, including those for recognition, fell, as the graph shows.8David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 269–75.

The massive 1916–1919 strike wave also saw an increase in strikes for union recognition. Altogether, there were 2,973 strikes in this period that included union recognition as a major goal. During the brief eight-month life of the National War Labor Board in 1918, with its 7(a)-style language, the number of union recognition strikes actually dropped from 799 to 584 as the government encouraged “peaceful” collective bargaining with American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions and discouraged strikes for the sake of war production—all a preview and an example for those who designed the NRA and 7(a). The strike wave continued after the war with the return to normal “private enterprise” and without 7(a)-style “permission” in 1919. Union recognition strikes reached a high of 869 in that year, more than in either 1933 or 1934, before falling with the economic slump of 1920 and the state repression that accompanied it.9Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 39.

In 1919, a coalition of 24 AFL unions struck for union recognition from U.S. Steel Corporation. Here a speaker addresses steelworkers in Gary, Indiana. Photo by National Photo Company Collection.

Furthermore, as Blanc’s graph for the number of strikers and mine for the number of strikes indicate, even with the low level of strikes after 1922 those for union recognition remained a fairly steady proportion of all strikes. Then with the upswing in industrial production beginning in 1925, such strikes began to increase significantly from 206 in 1926 to 382 in 1929, rising to 36 percent of all strikes, a higher proportion than in 1933. Their growth was halted only as the Great Depression took hold in 1930, and their number fell for the next three years.10Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 60–61. Had the economy not slumped that year, it is likely the trend toward union recognition strikes and collective bargaining would have continued and grown well before 7(a) or even the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act, which contained the same language. By 1933, 7(a)-style language was already old news. Union recognition was well established in a number of industries and trades, some since the 1890s, despite employer opposition, and the right to strike for recognition long official AFL policy. So, what also explains the “focus on union recognition” in 1933 is that this was already a well-established goal of workers in seeking collective bargaining and the actions they took to win it, which increased when the conditions for striking improved, as they did in 1901, 1916, and early 1933.

Dynamics of recognition strikes under NRA

The overall dynamics of worker activity under the NRA imply a causation to the direction in strike activity that is the opposite of Blanc’s assertion that “[t]he evidence is overwhelming, however, that Section 7(a) played a major role in boosting and shaping the era’s labor insurgencies” (emphasis added). Aside from the obvious fact that 7(a) did not shape the major gain for worker organization of the era, industrial unionism, neither did it shape the direction of strikes even for union recognition. Quite the opposite. The number and proportion of strikes for union recognition rose from 1933 to 1934 precisely as the “psychological effect” of 7(a) faded, even according to the Brookings study; the relatively small number of workers participating in labor board elections dropped by over half under the newly created (but pre-1935) National Labor Relations Board;11Leverett S. Lyon et al., The National Recovery Administration: An Analysis and Appraisal (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1935), 491. The numbers are: strikes for recognition 582 in 1933 (31.9 percent of all strikes) to 835 (45.9 percent) in 1934; workers in labor board elections: 103,714 in 1933 and 45,000 in 1934. From Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 59–61.and the disillusionment with 7(a) spread, with workers calling the NRA the “National Run Around” and its official symbol, the Blue Eagle, the “Blue Buzzard.”

The major Brookings study of the NRA described the experience and attitudes that drove the workers’ loss of “their earlier faith in the NRA” by early 1934, when, the authors wrote, “There was a growing resentment in labor ranks against continued unemployment, inadequate weekly earnings, increasing discrimination on the part of employers against union workers, and the growth of company unions.”12Lyon et al, The National Recovery Administration, 491. These were the actual experiences of the first few months of 7(a) and the NRA. Striking for union recognition or anything else was a necessity imposed by persistent employer opposition and the Roosevelt administration’s and the NRA’s priority of promoting business stability and recovery (profitability) as the means to economic growth.

Striking for union recognition or anything else was a necessity imposed by persistent employer opposition and the Roosevelt administration’s and the NRA’s priority of promoting business stability and recovery (profitability).

So, in contrast to Blanc, I interpreted the increase of strikes specifically for union recognition—which, as I showed, far outstripped the use of NRA labor board representation elections—as a sign of workers’ distrust of or frustration with the NRA and the institutions set up under it to implement 7(a). Section 7(a), after all, was merely a set of words to be implemented under the NRA codes, and its psychological impact was relatively brief.13Lyon et al, The National Recovery Administration, 491.The implementation of 7(a) came primarily through the NRA’s code administration and labor boards. Almost without exception, the codes administered by the NRA were completely dominated by employers. I gave the examples of the NRA’s pro-employer impact of the codes on unions in auto, textiles, and shipbuilding. In addition, a significant number of those who struck in the first six months after NRA was passed in 1933 did so against the codes in their industry: 95,000 garment workers, 55,000 silk workers, 70,000 coal miners.14Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1964), 16.In these cases, the NRA implementation of 7(a) inspired strikes, but not in the way Blanc attributes it.

The labor boards were hardly any better. For one thing, employers routinely ignored and disobeyed board decisions in favor of bargaining and the law, generally with no consequences. For another, as the Brookings’ study of the NRA’s labor boards argued, 7(a) “did not require recognition of existing trade unions…as exclusive agencies for collective bargaining…[,] outlaw company unions,” or “compel employers to come to terms with employee representatives.” “The Board’s main efforts were,” the authors concluded, “to settle strikes,” not to encourage them.15Lorwin and Wubnig, Labor Relations Boards, 449, 87–88, 123.In fact, faced with increasing strikes in July, the National Labor Board was first set up in August 1933 to “allay this unrest and to bring about a state of industrial relations favorable to the success of the re-employment
campaign.”16Lorwin and Wubnig, Labor Relations Boards, 87–88 So, when the economic conditions improved, as they did in 1934, workers struck for recognition rather than use the NRA national or regional labor boards. Furthermore, as the Brookings study of the NRA as a whole concluded, “The NRA thus threw its weight against labor in the balance of bargaining power between capital and labor.”17Lyon, National Recovery Administration, 465–68.This, too, provided a strong motivation to strike.

As “disillusionment with 7(a) spread … workers [called] the NRA the ‘National Run Around’ and its official symbol, the Blue Eagle, the ‘Blue Buzzard.’” Image from Library of Congress.

Just as it had been in the past, it was necessary to strike during the life of the NRA and 7(a) more often than not to win recognition and collective bargaining. That, along with the underlying issues, favorable economic conditions, development of grassroots leadership, and long-time practice of striking for recognition, explains why these strikes in particular continued to increase while the use of NRA boards declined after the initial psychological effect wore off. Under the NRA, striking was still typically the only way to force real negotiations for a contract on recalcitrant employers, as opposed to “talks” or mediation with no conclusion, because the NRA boards did not have the power to force employers to reach an agreement with a union. Arbitration was voluntary and almost always came as a result of a strike.

The driving conditions of work behind the general upsurge in 1933—wages, hours, and, above all, speed-up—were the major “spur” to action for industrial workers. Fighting for union recognition was the means to force bargaining and win binding agreements over these issues. The ups and downs of the economy enabled or discouraged direct action. The fight for union recognition and collective bargaining, like industrial unionism, was the creation of organized workers themselves long before 7(a) and the NRA. To attribute this aspect of collective worker creativity and agency to a piece of vaguely worded legislation and its largely pro-employer institutions is to give credit to the wrong class.

Featured Image credit: Artwork by Nevena Pilipovic-Wengler.

Categories: D2. Socialism

The legacy of occupation and the fight for a democratic Iraq

Thu, 01/12/2023 - 12:28

This interview, though conducted earlier in the fall, provides important insights and updates on Iraqi politics and the ongoing challenges to the sectarian political system put in place by the U.S. occupiers, a system whose overthrow appears to be essential to the establishment of basic democratic rights in Iraq.

The interview is full of information about recent struggles in Iraq and references to the contemporary history, not all of which will be familiar to U.S. readers. For those who are interested in this recent history, here is a partial list of articles and videos: from the fall of 2014, Ashley Smith writes on the fruits of war and occupation, “Crisis in Iraq”; from early 2019, Phil Marfleet analyzes the massive protest movement in the summer of 2018, Iraq: what happened next?“; the Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists published “Solidarity with Iraq popular protests” following the October (2019) uprising; two items from January 2020 assess the ongoing rebellion in Iraq and the region: Joseph Daher’s piece “The popular demonstrations continue!” and the video of a symposium Understanding the Iraqi protests featuring Dr. Zahra Ali; from July 2021 and with a broader overview on the prior ten years of history, Danny Postel’s piece “The other regional counter-revolution: Iran’s role in the shifting political landscape of the Middle East” includes Iran’s role in Iraq’s sectarian politics; lastly, from this past August, Socialist Worker UK published “Thousands occupy Iraqi parliament as political crisis intensifies,” which covers the parliamentary occupation and reviewed the role of Muqtada Al Sadr.

brian bean: Over the past several weeks, supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr have carried out a number of protests and sit-ins of the Iraqi parliament related to an ongoing political crisis and the inability to form a new government since the November 2021 parliamentary elections. These protests are a far-cry from the popular mass rebellion seen in Iraq’s cities–the largest of which being the sit-in in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square–in 2019-2020 that forced out 3 governments in 10 weeks and during which, at times, the Sadrists played a reactionary role. What is your perspective on what is currently going on?

Workers Against Sectarianism: While Muqtada al-Sadr is an opportunist who always tries to exploit religious sentiments and popular anger against the regime for his own interests, the truth is that he is an essential part of the sectarian system in Iraq. He has been an active participant in the political process since the U.S. occupation. In every Iraqi election post-occupation, Muqtada al-Sadr has had a lion’s share of votes.

In every popular uprising Muqtada al-Sadr has played an opportunist role. He raised the demands of the demonstrators in 2001, played the role of a secularist in 2015, and played the role of a patriot in 2019. But in fact, he wants to exploit the masses in order to pressure the regime and rule the entire country, as he says in his tweets that Iraq is “the Iraq of the Sadrists.”

Today, he acts the role of a great father, a reformer, and a patriotic person who defends Iraq and the people of Iraq and defends minorities, but the truth is: Muqtada al-Sadr established his militia with the support of Iran and committed major crimes in the years 2003-2008 against minorities and the Sunni sect. He has been accused of mass murder and sectarian cleansing of Sunnism, Christians, Yazidis, and the Sabians religion.

Today, Muqtada al-Sadr wants to monopolize power and take advantage of popular anger against the regime. The Iraqi people know who Muqtada al-Sadr is and what he represents. Unfortunately, as there are no serious alternatives, we are forced to cling to any possible hope here or there. Al-Sadr is trying to strengthen the Arab-American axis through his relationship with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in order to stand against his strong competitors: the Popular Mobilization Forces (the armed wing of Iran).Muqtada al-Sadr is trying to stand by Al-Kazemi as long as possible in order to conclude greater agreements with the Saudi and American regime, including agreements related to electricity, security and intelligence agreements, as he wants to reduce dependence on Iran. He wants the regional Arab states to enter Iraq through al-Sadr’s gate, in order to weaken Iranian influence and strengthen Arab influence through him only, thus securing a monopoly on power.

The events transpiring in Iraq today are due to the impact of the October uprising on the Islamic parties and the sectarian system. The October uprising created a deep rift in the body of the sectarian system of Iraq and created constant tension between the parties as differences rose to a level they had not previously reached. It is important to note that Iraq has been without a government since 2018, when the election results resulted in an unelected personal victory that came through political consensus among Islamic parties. Al-Jamair has not participated in any elections since 2003, according to our view, but the participation rates in each election did not exceed 20 percent, especially the 2018 elections. It was expected that an uprising would occur in 2019 and it happened.

Since then, Iraq has been governed by a weak interim government and snap elections almost every year. This deepens people’s feelings of the illegitimacy of the government and popular anger is constantly increasing. The results of the early elections at the beginning of 2022 did not bring anything new. Rather, they were worse. The turnout was weak, popular anger high, and the result was very sad. and it surpasses Muqtada al-Sadr. The one who forms the government in Iraq is not the winner of the elections, but rather the person who can form the majority in the Iraqi parliament after the elections. Muqtada al-Sadr tried to agree with some Sunni politicians and some Kurds, but he did not succeed. This was due to the lack of trust and the difference in sectarian political projects between the parties.

The Coordination Framework, the rival party bloc to Muqtada al-Sadr, did the same, but it was also unsuccessful. Simply put, the system has come to an end, sectarian and national problems have deepened, and the parties can no longer answer people’s needs.

As a result, Muqtada al-Sadr decided to resign from Parliament in order to put pressure on the authority to hold other early elections according to his personal terms, but the Coordination Framework had the legal right to form a government as the second winner in the elections. Muqtada al-Sadr did not study this step well and as a result decided to storm Parliament by force in order to prevent a parliamentary session and therefore there would be no new prime minister.

Muqtada al-Sadr does not want to leave parliament until after new elections are held, where he alone wins according to his conditions. This is illogical, no matter how much he claims that he is a patriot and a reformer. Popular confidence in Muqtada al-Sadr here does not exist.

Poster from the 2019 October uprising. Image by Alameenq.

bb: Can you reflect on the October protest movement and what the current state of Iraqi politics is at this political juncture. The covid lockdown had a massive effect in shutting down the major sit-ins. With the crisis still being unresolved, what is the state of the popular forces and that of the Iraqi Left? Who are the major organizations on the Left and what political role are they playing?

WAS: The situation is very sad. The forces of the October uprising were split between those who became participants in the political process and those choose to remain an opponent of the political process. The participants in the political process made a fatal error because the regime tore them apart from the inside. Most of the deputies resigned from the extension movement because they entered a corrupt, complex and highly sectarian system in which they had no experience. As for the opponents, they have continued to organize themselves, but they have also lost some hope and confidence in changing this system, and therefore are becoming weak. However there is still hope for them in establishing a unified movement that can overcome other political forces.

The new forces lack political experience, political vision, and lack organizational experience. Here it is important to mention that the system is deeply rooted in society such that you cannot get a job without being part of a sectarian party, you cannot feel safe without being part of a militia, etc. This means that the sectarian system is materially linked to people like Muqtada al-Sadr, and this makes it difficult for the new forces to be independent from the sectarian system, and sometimes people are forced to cooperate with militias in order to survive in Iraq.

As for the forces of the Left, there is in fact no way to explain the meaning of “the Left” in Iraq now. I cannot say that the new movements are leftist because they themselves don’t know what that means.

There are only two communist parties in Iraq, the first—the Iraqi Communist Party—is 80 years old and the other—the Worker-Communist Party—is 25 years old, and they have absolutely no influence, their numbers do not exceed five thousand, and they have not yet been part of the Iraqi political struggle.

[T]here is in fact no way to explain the meaning of “the Left” in Iraq now. I cannot say that the new movements are leftist because they themselves don’t know what that means.

bb: In this context can you talk about Workers Against Sectarianism? What are your political origins, current activity, and political perspectives?

WAS: We are an Iraqi leftist group that seeks to expose and provide information on sectarianism, and we also seek to dismantle sectarianism in Iraqi society by working within residential neighborhoods. We provide the community with non-sectarian and non-nationalist analysis and answers to the political problems that occur, thus we provide a left-wing feminist progressive political discourse to the residential neighborhoods as an alternative to the sectarian discourse that dominates.

This work would strengthen society and make it independent of the influence of parties. We are also working to protect individuals who have ideas different from the ideas of the national or sectarian system, by providing a safe environment for them to meet, discuss, and form social relationships that are not based on sectarian or racial grounds.We have meetings within the residential neighborhoods in order to discuss and develop our ideas with the community in order to achieve these goals.

As for exposing sectarianism, we have a website and social networking sites, and we speak English in order to inform as many people as possible about this system. One of our most important campaigns is our narrative, which talks about our views on events and history. We have a video campaign called Street Life in which we shed light on the failure of the state and the sectarian system to provide essential services and other activities.

Politically, we believe that Iraq is on the verge of change, but we have to be part of it. This change will go through stages, difficult and unfortunately, perhaps bloody. This change will never happen easily. There are parties that own the religious faith, own militias, external support, and own weapons, and they are not at all ready to exclude themselves from the political process. In return, we are trying to be a force by building networks within Iraqi society and by building relationships with new local parties, organizations, and individuals as well, in order to share political analyzes and warn against being part of the partisan conflict and civil war that is currently taking place.

We are also trying to build networks with parties, organizations and international journalists, Left or progressive, in order to be strengthened in Iraq. But this is difficult. The international Left is weak, and solidarity with Iraq is unfortunately not very strong. Nevertheless, we can do a lot if the new forces are given the opportunity and support.

bb: Can you talk about the impact of both U.S. imperialism and Iranian influence on Iraqi politics?

WAS: This question is very difficult, and any answer will be superficial. In general, American influence in Iraq is essential to form any government. The approval of America must be obtained before one becomes the prime minister of Iraq, otherwise it won’t last a year in power. America has destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq and turned Iraq from a producer country to a consumer and rentier country. We sell Iraqi oil to the world and the money goes to the U.S. Federal Bank first and then goes to Iraq. Simply put, Iraq is completely and absolutely under the authority of the U.S. occupation. The idea of ​​the sectarian system and Islamic parties and Islamic militias is America’s design in Iraq, as enshrined in the constitution written and voted on in the presence of Paul Bremer. The Islamic parties were brought to Iraq by Paul Bremer and these parties and their militias were funded by the same person. All Islamic parties know the value and strength of America in Iraq, and so they do not take any step without America’s approval first.

On the other hand, Iran believes that it owns Iraq and Iraqis, and believes that the religious bond that exists between the two countries is what will allow it to implement its dream in the Middle East. Iran dreams of creating an ISIS state with a brutal Shiite sectarian state version in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. In order for Iran to be a great imperialist country, it must first realize this dream. It must obtain nuclear weapons, finance and train the region with militias, support terrorism and Islamic extremism, give weapons, strengthen corruption, etc.

The idea of ​​the sectarian system and Islamic parties and Islamic militias is America’s design in Iraq, as enshrined in the constitution written and voted on in the presence of Paul Bremer.

Iraq is Iran’s national security. Iraq is key for Iran’s control of the Middle East and its wealth, and for Iran to become a regional superpower.

Some leftists in the world believe that Iran is the defender of freedom in the Middle East. It is pathetic for them to think that. Iran is a criminal ISIS state that has financed militias and committed countless crimes against innocent civilians, it is an extremist Islamic regime that only cares about its personal interest and its power in the region in order to be part of the global capitalist system.

Iran has nearly a million sectarian criminal soldiers in Iraq under its command. Iran has provided the legal and financial cover for these through the Popular Mobilization Institution, this institution is financed by the Iraqi government but subject to pure Iranian control. No one can stand in the way of Iran, as it plays a part in all social and governmental issues, and it protects the Shiite parties loyal to it in Iraq. Therefore, Iran and America in the end agree on the same goal in Iraq.

During the Obama era, America gave Iraq to Iran on a silver platter, and this led to a lot of corruption, destruction, and violence in Iraq. The matter was different when Trump came to Iraq.

The Iraqis rejoiced at Trump’s coming to power, because they felt that Trump represented a threat to Iran, and that Iran’s role would end in Iraq. We were so desperate. If Iran was interested in Iraq being stable, as it claims, it would have acted differently, but the truth is that Iran only cares about its interests and the perpetuation of this sectarian Sunni-Shiite conflict in order to extend its authority in the Middle East and realize a dream of establishing a Shiite sectarian Islamic state.

The Iraqi people wish for freedom, peace and democracy, but where is the political will that seeks to achieve this? There is no international or regional will for this, not even among the local Islamic parties.

Featured Image credit: Photo from Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Public sector power: Building rank & file organization under Mayor Eric Adams

Sun, 01/08/2023 - 17:51

Mayor Eric Adams administration—following a tradition of neoliberal governance going back to the ‘70s—is spearheading two major assaults on the living standards of city workers and retirees: A scheme to privatize healthcare for retirees, and ongoing contract fights involving virtually all the city’s public-sector unions. Successfully fighting back will mean rebuilding a strong militant minority of rank-and-file union activists: one capable of leading large numbers of coworkers in direct action against the city, and one that can relate to the city’s broader working class. To help figure out how we get there, Tempest is hosting a discussion between leading rank-and-file activists from DC37, the UFT, NYSNA, and the cross-union retiree organizing committee.

When: Wednesday, January 11, 2023 at 7:00 p.m. EST

Where:
LGBT Center, 208 West 13th Street, New York, New York 10011

Speakers:

Robert Cuffy, DC 37 Progressives
Bobby Greenberg, Cross-Union Retirees Organizing Committee
Sean Petty, NYSNA Bargaining Team Member
Olivia Swisher, Movement of Rank and File Educators UFT

While we strongly encourage people to attend in person, there will be a remote option available via bit.ly/public_sector_power

Categories: D2. Socialism

UK workers strike back

Sun, 01/08/2023 - 17:35

The strike wave currently taking place in the United Kingdom (UK) is of generational significance. This past year witnessed the highest level of strikes in the country since 1989. Groups of workers who have not struck for decades have taken action. The wave has spread beyond the British labor movement’s remaining strongholds in the public sector and privatized public services such as transport and the postal service, and into private sector workplaces—including, in an echo of a major development in the U.S. labor movement, Amazon warehouses.

The wave has involved railway workers, including on the London Underground, bus drivers, postal workers, telecoms workers, civil servants, ambulance workers, nurses, education workers in colleges and universities, charity workers, dockers, trial lawyers, food production workers, oil refinery workers, and many more. Yet more groups of workers, including teachers and support staff in primary and secondary education, junior doctors, and firefighters, will conclude industrial action ballots early in 2023 and could join the wave.

For anyone who has grown up since the defeats suffered by the trade union movement at the hands of Thatcherism in the 1980s, the current wave represents the re-emergence of organized labor as a visible social force. For socialists in the labor movement, those of us whose political worldview is structured around the belief that the working class is the primary agent of social change, the struggles in which we are now participating and hoping to help to victory are also an opportunity to educate a new generation of activists in that worldview.

For decades, trade unions have retreated into various forms of service provision, emphasizing individual representation and “protection,” presenting themselves as insurance providers, and developing an essentially transactional relationship with their members. The strike wave can transform that and begin to rebuild a conception of union membership as a weapon in workers’ hands rather than a service we are purchasing.

Most, although not all, of the current strikes center around demands for higher pay. Some, like the disputes on the railway and in Royal Mail, are also defensive struggles against attempts by employers to cut thousands of jobs and radically restructure working arrangements. The immediate backdrop, which has given the strike wave much of its social impulsion, is skyrocketing inflation and living costs that have seen the value of workers’ wages plummet, even as top bosses’ pay has gone up, and the rich have continued to increase their wealth.

A further key context is the experiences of workers, especially those in frontline services, during the pandemic. Workers such as nurses, postal workers, transport workers and others were lauded as heroes for working through the health emergency, and have been rewarded for our efforts with below-inflation pay increases (i.e., pay cuts) and bosses using the pandemic as a springboard for restructuring and reductions in staffing levels.

Picketing British health care workers. Photo by Roger Blackwell.

The wider historical backdrop is a decade-plus period of wage stagnation that, according to the think tank Resolution Foundation, has cost workers around £15,000. On current trends, real wages are not expected to return to pre-2008 levels until 2027. A Financial Times analyst has called the strike wave “the inevitable result of a decade of Tory austerity,” including underfunding of the National Health Service that has seen services decline and health workers’ pay fall. This is the capitalist normality that the strike wave seeks to challenge: the orthodox assumption that economic crises should be “paid for” by workers via wage depression and cuts to jobs and services.

For all its immense hope and potential, as a first resurgence of sustained workers’ struggle in decades, starting from a low organizational base (the trade union movement in Britain is around half the size it was at its peak in 1979), the wave also contains faltering and missteps. Although the wave has seen the reappearance of the indefinite strike as a tactic, many union leaders have argued for a view of disputes as “a marathon, not a sprint” that require a “steady hand.”

They have preferred, at least initially, sporadic strikes of 24 or 48 hours, often with weeks in between rounds of action. But where workers have made gains in the current wave, it has not been through this more cautious approach, but through sustained, harder-hitting action, including indefinite strikes, which have seen bus drivers and dockers win substantial pay increases.

Each strike contains a debate, more or less explicit depending on conditions in a given industry and union, about its direction and strategy. Some unions that initially pursued strategies of sporadic strikes have been forced to intensify their action. The Communication Workers Union in its dispute with Royal Mail and my own union, RMT, in disputes on the national railway, both escalated strikes in December and January. This was, in part, a response to employers’ own militancy in pursuing programs of job cuts and attacks on terms and conditions even after the unions called off rounds of planned strikes to allow for “intensive negotiations” to take place.

In the University and College Union’s strike in Higher Education, tension between a radical approach proposed by a section of rank and file members and a more cautious one favored by the bureaucracy has come into the open, with the union’s general secretary maneuvering to undermine the vote by its Higher Education Executive Committee to call an indefinite strike.

Union officials and leaders are undoubtedly sincere in their desire to make gains from the strikes…[but t]heir cautiousness makes gains less likely, and there is an urgent need to develop rank and file workers’ confidence and conception of themselves as conscious organizers of their own strikes, rather than loyal foot soldiers for a strategy determined by someone else.

On the whole, however, the present dynamic is not one of a consciously and consistently militant rank and file being constrained by a conservative bureaucracy determined to sell out or sabotage disputes. Union officials and leaders are undoubtedly sincere in their desire to make gains from the strikes, even if some are reticent to make specific, concrete demands, preferring to give themselves “room to maneuver” in negotiations. Their cautiousness makes gains less likely, and there is an urgent need to develop rank and file workers’ confidence and conception of themselves as conscious organizers of their own strikes, rather than loyal foot soldiers for a strategy determined by someone else.

Previous eruptions of worker militancy in Britain, such as the strike waves of the 1970s, were characterized by high levels of independent rank and file organization. That is an element almost entirely missing now. Rank and file confidence receded in the wake of the major defeats of the 1980s, and Thatcherism consolidated its victories over the labor movement by developing a restrictive legislative regime which made rank-and-file action more difficult.

The bureaucratic and administrative hurdles over which unions are required to jump to call legal strikes have the effect of entrenching the internal power of union bureaucracies. Many of the current national strikes are substantially top-down affairs, with the strategy almost entirely determined by union leaderships, with the mass membership’s role being to dutifully carry those strategies out rather than to direct them.

Changing that implies, in the first instance, a struggle for democratic reform within unions, to establish structures such as rank and file strike committees. If we cannot persuade our workmates that our own unions are something we can actively, democratically control, then the claim that workers could democratically control the running of society will always seem like an impossible horizon.

Tory governments have typically responded to waves of workers’ action by tightening the legal shackles placed on the right to strike. The present government, and its chaotic predecessors, is no exception. It plans to introduce new laws imposing minimum service levels in a variety of sectors. The new laws would also give employers the power to compel workers designated as part of the minimum service complement to work, on pain of dismissal.

Various senior Tories, including former Prime Minister Liz Truss, have made comprehensive proposals for further restrictions in other industries. Union leaders have spoken stirringly about mobilizing “fierce resistance” should new laws be imposed, but the labor movement has done little to organize against the threats in advance. Assertive campaigning will be needed if we are to stand any chance of heading the laws off, or of developing the confidence to defy them if they are implemented.

If we cannot persuade our workmates that our own unions are something we can actively, democratically control, then the claim that workers could democratically control the running of society will always seem like an impossible horizon.

Throughout the wave, the sheer volume of strikes has meant that workers in different industries have inevitably struck on the same days. Union activists attend and support each other’s picket lines; union leaders speak at other unions’ strike rallies. More comprehensive, conscious coordination has been harder to achieve, sometimes even between striking unions in the same industry. For example, in the dispute on the railways, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), the craft union representing train drivers pursues, as far as it can, a policy of striking separately from the RMT, the larger industrial union representing all grades of rail workers.

Nevertheless, there is now burgeoning discussion about the possibility of a coordinated strike in early February. Such a strike would be a significant development, the closest thing Britain has seen to a general strike for nearly a century. But it must avoid a repeat of the last coordinated mass strike in Britain, a 2011 walkout against cuts to public sector workers’ pensions, which functioned as a set-piece protest rather than a launchpad for more sustained action that could actually force concessions from employers.

Throughout the strike wave, the Labour Party, the only immediate governmental alternative to the Tories and a party founded by and based on organized labor, has, at best, dithered. It has called for negotiations to resolve the issues, and said it backs the right to strike, without supporting strikers’ demands. At worst, leading figures in the party have positioned themselves against the strikes, maintaining a long and ignoble tradition of Labour leaderships siding against workers’ action.

Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing leadership from 2015-2019 used warmer words about trade union action, but did little to actively organize the energies it inspired into any effort to revive struggles on the industrial terrain, to make Labour into “the party of strikes.” Indeed, it did little to actively organize those energies into much at all beyond electoral work. Since the ascension to power of a leadership that is, in Labour Party terms, right-wing, much of that energy has dissipated in despair. Labour leader Keir Starmer has sought to prevent shadow ministers from attending picket lines and dismissed one for doing so.

The question of whether socialist activity within Labour is desirable, or even possible, remains a point of contention within the far left in Britain. And a broader, equally perennial, debate on the relationship between industrial organization and politics continues within the wider labor movement, with some advocating union disaffiliation from Labour, or at least a deprioritising of activity within it. Three unions — the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), the Bakers, Food, and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU), and ASLEF — have held votes on Labour affiliation in the past 18 months (although none since the strike wave began in earnest), with BFAWU disaffiliating and FBU and ASLEF voting to remain affiliated.

My own view is that Labour and its union link remain a key terrain of struggle, and sustained self-assertion by Labour-affiliated unions within party structures to demand the party backs strikes could lead to a transformative ferment. A failure to consistently contest the political terrain is part of what limited the upsurges of the 1970s, meaning the primary beneficiaries of the potential for social transformation opened up by those strikes were centrist Labour governments that pursued the economic policies that presaged neoliberalism and laid the foundations for Thatcherism.

Without an active confrontation within Labour, aimed at contesting and seeking to shape the programme of the next Labour government, Keir Starmer will be the prime political beneficiary of the strike wave in the same way Harold Wilson and James Callaghan were in their time.

Although some union leaders have stressed current disputes as “industrial relations matters,” emphasizing them as primarily economic struggles over immediate workplace issues such as pay, the strike wave has had an inevitably political character from the very start. At root, it poses questions of social inequality, questions of how public services such as health care, transport, and education are organized and funded, and, ultimately, the fundamental question of whether the logic of the bosses’ bottom line should hegemonize economic and social life. These are questions that cannot be resolved solely around the union bargaining table; addressing them requires political action and social transformation.

On the railway, the government subsidizes and compensates private train companies to offset revenue lost via strikes. The strikes must therefore address the question of how the industry is organized and run, and seek to impel a wider movement for real social ownership of public transport. Similarly, in the NHS, which now faces its “worst ever crisis”, an upsurge in political mobilization to demand the full renationalization and proper funding of healthcare must accompany and fuse with NHS workers’ strikes.

Strikes in Britain must be based on a “trade dispute” between unions and employers, a legal requirement designed to outlaw strikes for explicitly political demands and limit them to narrower workplace issues. Nevertheless, the strike wave can clearly be seen as a movement for reshaping British society. Sometimes, union leaders have articulated that relatively explicitly (ironically, sometimes the same union leaders who, on other occasions, insist on the strikes as “industrial relations matters”), explaining their members’ strikes not only in the immediate context of conditions in their industry but in the wider social context of wage stagnation and falling living standards faced by all workers. That way of contextualizing the strikes could also, if developed, test the limits of the legal prohibition on strikes in solidarity with other workers.

For socialists and other radicals active in the strike wave—in our own workplaces and unions, and in our wider political work—our first duty is to fight every battle through to its conclusion and seek to help it win.

For socialists and other radicals active in the strike wave—in our own workplaces and unions, and in our wider political work—our first duty is to fight every battle through to its conclusion and seek to help it win. But it is also up to us to help develop the rank and file organization that can underpin a sustained revival of democratic, class-struggle trade unionism, and, wherever possible, to expand the horizons of the strike wave towards a confrontation with the rule of profit, and the struggle for working-class political, economic, and social power.

That horizon remains far off, and the current wave may recede before anything like it is reached. But the prospects and opportunities for building towards it are better than they have been for a generation. Socialists in the labor movement must do whatever we can to realize those opportunities.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Midnightblueowl. Modified by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Neocolonial wastelands

Fri, 01/06/2023 - 17:26

In the late 1970s, residents of the working-class neighborhood of Love Canal, New York experienced a number of mysterious illnesses. In addition to abnormally high rates of birth defects and miscarriages, inhabitants were afflicted with epilepsy, asthma, migraines, and nephrosis.

Investigations revealed that in 1942, the Hooker Chemical Company began using part of the canal as a chemical waste dump. Eleven years later, the company capped the 16-acre hazardous waste landfill and sold the property to the Niagara Falls School Board, leaving approximately 21,000 tons of chemicals in the area. Consecutive wet winters in the late 1970s raised the water table, causing the chemicals to leach into neighborhood basements, yards, and playgrounds.

Disasters like those in upstate New York and elsewhere greatly increased the cost of waste disposal in industrialized countries. Yet rather than ban or even reduce such wastes, producing nations began exporting them to developing countries in debt and in need of income. Over the past fifty years, western nations have sent their (mostly petroleum-based plastic) waste to Africa, the South Pacific, Latin America, the Caribbean, East and Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. A pattern has emerged in which popular pressures eventually force governments to reduce or eliminate the importation of foreign waste. Exporters respond by seeking new sites to cheaply offload ever-increasing mountains of plastic, paper, and other materials.

Since 2016, Turkey has been the primary recipient of Europe’s waste. A 2021 investigation by Greenpeace revealed how European countries, led by the UK, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, have shipped millions of tons of waste to Turkey every year while Turkey’s capacity to recycle its own trash remained largely unchanged. In addition to the Turkish state’s inability to safely dispose of legally imported waste, illegally dumped garbage is burned or left in farmlands, near water bodies, or in open areas.

Rather than being phased out, the plastics industry continues to grow while the vast majority of waste goes unrecycled. International agreements, regional political alliances, and domestic bans may mitigate some of the worst impacts of the waste export industry. Ultimately, however, eliminating neocolonial trash dumping will require more radical solutions.

Exporting Waste

The cost of dumping hazardous waste in U.S. landfills was approximately $15 per ton in 1980. Thanks to catastrophes like Love Canal, by the end of the decade the price had skyrocketed to $250. In Africa, by contrast, waste could be unloaded for as little as $2.50 per ton, leading mainstream economists to see major benefits in the global waste trade. In a confidential memo from 1991, World Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers claimed that “countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted,” and that the Bank should encourage “more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [least developed countries].”

Africans thought differently, and popular protests quickly forced producers to look elsewhere to offload their waste. Predictably, the global movement of waste resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of toxic dumping “incidents.” In 1986, for example, a garbage barge dumped 14,000 tons of incinerator ash from Philadelphia on a Haitian beach after circling the oceans in search of a location to dump its toxic cargo. Two years later leaking drums from two Italian companies released carcinogenic Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos fibers into Koko, Nigeria. Corroded and leaking barrels (or no barrels at all) allowed toxic waste to leach into soils and water systems in sites throughout the world, a process made easier in hot and humid tropical countries.

Despite efforts to greenwash its public image, the AKP government is notoriously dismissive of ecological concerns and hostile to environmental activists and journalists.

Most toxic waste dumping incidents occurred after the 1989 Basel Convention, a UN-led agreement that aimed to establish a global regulatory framework for waste management. A fundamental problem with the convention was that waste producers could simply refuse to ratify any attempt to ban the international trade entirely, as was desired by alliances in Africa, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean. Basel’s regulations, which took effect in 1992, were riddled with weak mechanisms of enforcement, vague definitions of “hazardous waste” and “environmentally sound,” and numerous other loopholes. One common way to circumvent regulations was simply to label waste “recycling,” though exporters were well-aware their waste would end up in landfills or bodies of water.

In the 1990s waste trade bans were implemented in parts of Africa, Central America, and the Mediterranean despite severe opposition from the world’s biggest producers—the U.S., UK, Germany, Japan, Australia, and Canada. Producers pivoted to Asia, and by the turn of the twenty-first century, China was the main importer of Western waste. In 2017, China imported seven million tons of plastic rubbish from Europe, the U.S., and Japan, as well as twenty-seven million tons of waste paper.

The arrival of unrecyclable soiled and contaminated materials that overwhelmed processing facilities pushed the Chinese government to act. At the beginning of 2018, a new “National Sword” policy banned the importation of most plastics and other materials to China. As a result, by early 2019 the country’s plastic imports had plummeted 99 percent, with the importation of mixed paper dropping by a third.

A chart from Greenpeace in 2019 shows that the monthly exports of plastic waste to China went from over 600,000 tonnes a month in 2016 to less than 30,000 by 2018 following the implementation of China’s “National Sword Policy.” Image Credit: Heinrich-Böll Stiftung.

While good news for the environment and the people living in China, trash piled up in parts of the wealthy West and exporting nations again scoured the globe for new buyers. Recyclers in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia initially accepted much of the waste formerly destined for China, but were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of foreign trash arriving at their processors. In July 2018, Thailand announced it would ban all foreign plastic waste in 2021; Vietnam plans to follow suit in 2025.

In a grotesque irony (and unsurprising display of stupidity), when Donald Trump signed legislation in 2018 renewing the federal marine debris program, he attacked Asia for fouling the world’s oceans. In the same year that the U.S. exported 1.07 million tons of plastic—most of it sent to Asian countries with weak waste management systems—Trump whined that it was “very unfair” that the U.S. had to remove waste floating across the Pacific to the West Coast. Malaysia’s environment minister Yeo Bee Yin responded: “I hate seeing my country as the dumpsite for the developed world.” No country, she stated, “should be the dumping site for the developed world.”

Turkey Ascendant

Though a signatory to the Basel Convention, in the 1980s and 1990s a post-coup and neoliberalizing Turkish state displayed little interest in the environment. In the early 2000s, however, with the new Justice and Development Party (AKP) government aiming to join the European Union, the state worked to harmonize its policies with Europe’s Waste Framework Directive. This resulted in the 2016 “National Action Plan for Waste Management 2023,” which sought to provide for the disposal of 35 percent of Turkey’s waste through recycling and 65 percent through regular storage by 2023.

According to an official statement in late 2021 (after the Greenpeace report and duly reported by pro-government press), Turkey’s recycling rate rose from 13 percent in 2010 to 22.4 percent. This is still considerably shy of the objectives set out in the National Action Plan, and there is good reason to doubt government figures. Despite efforts to greenwash its public image, the AKP government is notoriously dismissive of ecological concerns and hostile to environmental activists and journalists. The build-up of marine mucilage (colloquially known as “sea snot”)–mucus and other microorganisms resulting from pollution and climate change in the Marmara Sea–constituted another, more visible environmental scandal for the Turkish government in 2021. In terms of waste management, Greenpeace estimates a recycling rate in Turkey as low as 12 percent–about the same as that of a decade ago.

Turkey’s dramatic economic growth in the early twenty-first century was rooted in carbon-intensive and state-subsidized sectors like fossil fuels, mining, and construction. Official ambitions for development—aided by a nationalist ideology of revived Turkish power—often overshadowed concerns over environmental impacts. Turkey was the last G20 nation to ratify the Paris Climate Agreement (in October 2021)—which it approved in exchange for being classified as a developing rather than developed nation, leaving it with fewer responsibilities and more time to reduce emissions.

Not long after the publication of the ambitious National Action Plan in 2016, Turkey became the world’s primary destination for European waste. Although it first began importing waste in 2004, Turkey’s explosive rise after 2017 was a direct result of China’s National Sword policy. By 2020, nearly a quarter of the waste exported by EU countries—approximately 31.7 million tons—was now being sent to Turkey. This was twenty times more than the amount sent in 2016, totaling 241 truckloads of plastic waste sent to the country on a daily basis. In the same year, the U.K. sent 200,000 tons, or 30 shipping containers, of plastic packaging waste to Turkey every day.

Overcoming corporate power and its inevitably destructive effects will require coordinated activism at local, national, and international levels … [and the] democratization of our economies—and therefore the appropriation of major industries and their nationalization in the interests of people and the planet.

Greenpeace investigators examined five waste dumping sites in Adana, a province on the southern Mediterranean coast. Soil samples revealed levels of carcinogenic dioxin-furans 400,000 times higher than in uncontaminated soil; the number of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) was 30,000 times higher. Investigators also found 18 different types of metals, metalloids, and Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the samples. The toxic chemicals are a result of the illegal burning of plastic waste and mix into the soil, water, air, and the food chain. The Adana dumpsites, it should be noted, are located in important agricultural, livestock, and irrigation areas.

Less than two weeks after the release of the Greenpeace report, in late May of 2021, the Turkish government announced it would end imports of polyethylene. In contrast to other countries, where popular pressure typically moved governments to act, it seemed the Greenpeace report forced the AKP’s hand. In early July, however, the state reversed the ban after the intervention of PAGEV, a Turkish plastics industry association. The Ministry of Commerce announced that polyethylene was moved back into the category of “controlled” rather than banned imports.

One year after the investigation, foreign waste continued to plague Adana. Recycling plants had failed to clean the eighteen areas where plastic waste had been found despite promises to do so. The U.K., meanwhile, continues to illegally dump thousands of tons of waste in Turkey while company executives attack journalists for investigating whether the waste is being properly disposed of. Unfortunately, in the midst of a continuing economic crisis and national elections slated for the summer of 2023, the environment and waste scandal have failed to register as key concerns for the Turkish opposition.

Record-breaking temperatures, fires, floods, and catastrophic droughts across much of the world in 2022 have shown the undeniable reality of the climate emergency. While global warming constitutes the primary threat to the planet, the waste that is an inevitable byproduct of capitalist production should not be overlooked. A recent OECD report estimates that the amount of plastic waste produced globally will triple by 2060, with around half ending up in landfills and less than a fifth recycled.

Currently, about 44 million tons of plastic leak into the environment every year, with plastics in the world’s lakes, rivers, and oceans expected to triple along with expanded production. In addition to the menace of plastic is the growing mountains of e-waste (discarded electronic equipment like phones, tablets, and computers), the exportation of which brings dangerous chemicals like lead, mercury, and flame retardants to poor communities in the developing world.

In June of last year, a small group of individuals are seen collecting large amounts of plastic waste on a beach in Ghana. Photo Credit: Fquasie.

There are some glimmers of hope. Amendments to the Basel Convention in 2019 more clearly define plastic wastes and impose trade restrictions on non-party members. The prohibition against parties trading certain plastic wastes and scraps with non-parties will, it is hoped, stop producers like the U.S. (a non-party) from sending waste to signatories like Mexico and Canada. And in March of 2022, representatives of 175 nations endorsed a UN Environment Assembly resolution in Nairobi to end plastic pollution by international agreement by 2024.

Despite justified accusations of NIMBY-ism against exporting countries, people in the industrialized West are not indifferent to the pernicious effects of plastic production and waste dumping. A recent YouGov poll shows that 86 percent of the British public is concerned about the amount of plastic waste produced in the U.K., and 81 percent think the government should do more to deal with the issue. A strong majority—62 percent—support the government stopping waste exports to other countries. A February 2022 poll from the ocean advocacy organization Oceana revealed that 81 percent of U.S. voters support local and national policies that would reduce the use of single-use plastics, with 78 percent agreeing that the U.S. has a responsibility to reduce its contribution to the global plastic problem.

Ultimately, however, the perpetual drive for profits and growth that fuels capitalism must be addressed if fundamental change is to occur. Like the fossil fuel lobby, the plastics industry has in recent years shoveled enormous amounts of money into government coffers in the U.S. and Europe to combat popular efforts to reduce plastic use. Overcoming corporate power and its inevitably destructive effects will require coordinated activism at local, national, and international levels. It will also require no less than the democratization of our economies—and therefore the appropriation of major industries and their nationalization in the interests of people and the planet.

Featured Image credit: Photo by Global Jet via Flikr; modified by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

To remember is to fight!

Thu, 01/05/2023 - 20:25

Against imperial aggression in Ukraine and political terror in Russia!

For over a decade, Russian antifascists have commemorated January 19 as their day of solidarity. This is the date when, in 2009, in the center of Moscow, the human rights and leftist activist Stanislav Markelov and the journalist and anarchist Anastasia Baburova were gunned down by neo-Nazis.

The murder of Markelov and Baburova became the culmination of the ultra-right terror of the 2000s, which killed hundreds of migrants and dozens of anti-fascists. For many years, while it was still possible, Russian activists held antifascist demonstrations and rallies on January 19 under the slogan “To remember is to fight!”

Today, when the Putin regime has invaded Ukraine and unleashed unprecedented repression against its own citizens who oppose the war, the date of January 19 takes on a new meaning. Back then the danger was posed by neo-Nazi groups, often acting with the connivance of the authorities.

Vladimir Putin is waging war not only against the Ukrainian people, but also against the Russian civil society resisting aggression. The brutal repressions hit, among other things, the left-wing movement: socialists, anarchists, feminists, and labor unionists.

Today, the ideology and practice of right-wing radicals have become the ideology and practice of the Russian regime itself, which is rapidly turning fascist over the course of its invasion of Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin is waging war not only against the Ukrainian people, but also against the Russian civil society resisting aggression. The brutal repressions hit, among other things, the left-wing movement: socialists, anarchists, feminists, and labor unionists.

Before the New Year, the most famous left–wing politician in Russia, the democratic socialist Mikhail Lobanov was arrested and beaten.. The platform “Nomination” he created united the anti-war opposition in the municipal elections in Moscow in September 2022.

Kirill Ukraintsev, the leader of the Courier labor union and a well-known left-wing video blogger, has been in custody since April. The reason for the arrest were the protests and strikes the couriers organized as they sought to improve their working conditions.

A feminist, artist and anti-war activist Alexandra Skochilenko, who distributed anti-war symbols, faces a long prison term.

Six Anarchists – Kirill Brik, Deniz Aydin, Yuri Neznamov, Nikita Oleinik, Roman Paklin, Daniil Chertykov – were arrested in the so-called “Tyumen case.” They were brutally tortured, seeking confessions in the preparation of sabotage.

Daria Polyudova, an activist of the Left Resistance group, was recently sentenced to nine (!) years in prison for “calls to extremism.” Leftist journalist Igor Kuznetsov has been in prison for a year now, accused of “extremism” for his anti-war and anti-Putin views.

This is a far from exhaustive list of Russian leftists recently imprisoned or persecuted for their beliefs. As Russian activists forced to leave Russia for political reasons, we ask our foreign comrades and all those who care to support the antifascist action on January 19 under the slogans:

No to Putin’s war, fascism and dictatorship!
Freedom to all Russian political prisoners!
Solidarity with Russian antifascists!
To remember is to fight!

We ask you to send us information about any solidarity actions during the week of January 19-24 – pickets, open meetings, online discussions, and even personal photos with posters – by e-mail at: rsdzoom@proton.me.

Featured Image credit: Photo by Evan Demers; modified by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Class independence and the broad parties

Wed, 01/04/2023 - 23:03

In an essay published at Left Voice recently, Nathaniel Flakin takes up the broad left party concept, ultimately arguing (as the title suggests) that they “are a dead end.” It’s hardly the first time this argument has come up in Left Voice, but what’s different about this piece is that it’s branded as “a debate with Tempest.” The piece is constructed, first and foremost, as a polemic against Tempest. This would be perfectly fine, but it is customary to at least inform the other party if you wish to have a genuine debate. All the same, this does provide an opportunity to take up substantial questions about theory, strategy, and tactics, and discuss where we disagree and where that may be exaggerated for effect.

Where is the smoking gun?

Flakin’s article begins with its view of the problem: There’s a large audience for socialism in the United States right now, but there is no independent socialist party and “[t]he largest socialist organization in the United States, the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America], campaigns for and runs candidates as part of a capitalist and imperialist party.” The piece does not elaborate on this set-up, these three points (audience, absence, DSA being bad) are given off the cuff with no references or footnotes.

It moves from there onto the broad Left party question, and more specifically Tempest’s approach to these broad party experiences. Flakin quotes one sentence from Tempest comrade Natalia Tylim: “We think it’s a mistake to reject with a single stroke the broad party experiences.” It then focuses on the transcript of a talk given by another Tempest member, “For [Aaron] Amaral, a ‘wholesale rejection’ of ‘broad-party experiments over the last couple of decades’ can only lead to ‘sterile propagandism.’”

As a tactic, Flakin selectively quotes less than one full sentence to “gotcha!” Amaral’s position, whereas the quote in full reads,

There is often a wholesale rejection of the varied socialist attempts to build broader formations, without taking account of the specific dynamics in different countries, the different approaches which marked these experiments, and the different stakes that came into play at different moments. While I agree that one clear lesson from these experiments is that revolutionaries need to maintain their own organized current in such Left formations, the idea that broader organized formations are per se, everywhere and always, out of bounds is a mistake and often held in common by this third trend.

Neither Tylim nor Amaral make categorical arguments demanding support for broad Left parties, as Flakin suggests. So, he attributes a position to Tempest with no evidence. He writes, “A ‘broad left party’ is ultimately a euphemism: It means a party uniting reformists and revolutionaries.” Except that this isn’t our position, and Flakin must know that. This is evident by the fact that members of Tempest say almost nothing in the article that is ostensibly a debate with us. If there were a smoking gun, you’d think that Flakin would have found it.

And while there is a substantial portion of Flakin’s article devoted to SYRIZA and Podemos as evidence of why we should categorically reject broad formations, the immediate aim is the relationship of revolutionaries to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
The impression one would get reading this article with no other knowledge is that Tempest cheerleads the DSA, and this is because of our mistaken fidelity to broad Left parties. Flakin lays out what the purported difference between Tempest and Left Voice when he writes:

If a neoreformist party is able to politicize and enthuse many thousands of young people, we — of course — agree that revolutionaries need to engage with them. This means fighting together for the rights of working-class and oppressed people, alongside members and even leaders of neoreformist parties. But this kind of unity in action does not require us to sign up for parties whose stated goal is to administer the capitalist state … We can say that the balance sheet of broad Left parties has been dismal. Socialists should break with this failed strategy. We should not advocate unity with reformists in the form of broad Left parties.

What I find particularly odd about this characterization is first, Tempest’s criticism of DSA is widely known, so much so that the “boss caucus” majority of DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) believed that we were somehow behind every act of opposition the leadership faced (if only!). I do not see where Flakin could get the impression from our numerous articles on DSA (many of which have been cited by Left Voice writers in their pieces on DSA) that we are uncritical proponents of the organization.

But more to the point, members of Left Voice were also members of DSA—they just left the organization much sooner. Tatianna Cozzarelli, for instance, toured some DSA-adjacent podcasts circa 2018 and frequently introduced herself as being a member of the DSA. It would appear to contradict Flakin’s argument that revolutionaries should never become members of these formations. If anything, it seems that Left Voice made a similar calculation as Tempest comrades that it could be potentially useful to be part of DSA to win this new layer of socialists to revolutionary politics. Left Voice may have had a different set of criteria for when membership in DSA no longer served that aim. It would be useful to hear Left Voice’s account of when and why they made a change in policy.

Terms of a debate: independence

If Flakin’s article is mostly shadowboxing an imaginary opponent, and in practice the Tempest and Left Voice approaches to the DSA have been fairly similar, then what are we really debating? This comes down to class independence and its relationship to the development of a mass, revolutionary socialist Left. The question of broad parties is related but subsidiary to that understanding.

Flakin represents the Left Voice position as one that draws a stark line: “We should not advocate unity with reformists in the form of broad left parties.” The conclusion Flakin draws categorically rejecting “broad parties” appears to be based on a particular conception of class independence and its relationship to reformism. It’s admittedly a little hard to pin down because Flakin never defines “reformism.”

[Flakin suggests] that revolutionaries just need to raise the red flag and rally the class to it, even before the class itself has won political independence from the bourgeoisie … The model they propose seeks to export the experience of the FIT-U in Argentina, without regard to completely different conditions in the United States.

Reformism is presented as a monolith that is essentially the same everywhere at any time; it is presented as primarily an ideological phenomenon, intent on administering the capitalist state. This oversimplifies how objective relations produce reformist politics, which I’ll discuss more below. But leaving that aside, the above definition really doesn’t accurately describe parties like Podemos and others. Flakin presents it this way to prepare his arguments: first, that reformism is the primary obstacle to socialism, and second, that class independence is synonymous with a revolutionary socialist program.

What Flakin is basically suggesting is that revolutionaries just need to raise the red flag and rally the class to it, even before the class itself has won political independence from the bourgeoisie. And because of this, Left Voice opposes or abstains from other efforts at independence that are not explicitly revolutionary. The model they propose seeks to export the experience of the FIT-U in Argentina, without regard to completely different conditions in the United States. This is the real sticking point.

Political independence and socialism

So, the debate here is about class independence. And if we put it like that, this isn’t really a new line of argument. For one, many of the so-called broad parties have been around since the 1980s. But more generally this has been a recurring point of contention in the Marxist tradition.

Marx insisted that socialism had to be the real movement of the class and would develop in the course of struggle. Independence of the class, however strange it might appear at first, was critical in the development of class consciousness and the adoption of socialist aims en masse. He did not propose this in clean stages, although he emphasized that class consciousness developed rapidly when independence had been established. To try to get out in front of the class without basic independence would lead to sectist substitutionism. Soma Marik explains,

Marx’s concept of party building thus envisaged two alternative models. One was the creation of a broad-based labor party where independence was to be the minimum basis of unity. The other was that of a communist party to be built up when a significant section of the working class became aware of the necessity of communism and began adopting programmatic goals accordingly.1Marik, Soma. Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2018, p. 83.

Engels made this point more directly in a letter to Friedrich Sorge, when he advised about relating to sections of the workers movement internationally who were in the sway of ideas and organizations that were not Marxist:

The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organization of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party … That the first programme of this party is still confused and highly deficient … these are inevitable evils but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement—no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement—in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves.

Participation in these formations was necessary for communists, Engels argued, because it would provide them with an important leadership position when the movement developed and inevitably split.

This view remained even after the question of reformism had come to the fore after the First World War and the split from the Second International. Lenin, in Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, starts by arguing that the experience of the Bolsheviks in Russia cannot simply be exported to other countries, and in following a Marxist method each country needs to take the general revolutionary aim and learn to apply it to the specific countries one operates in.

He spends the chapter on Britain confronting a position by Sylvia Pankhurst, when she puts out formulations that sounds quite similar to the arguments Flakin makes for Left Voice: “The Communist Party must not compromise … The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of reformism inviolate, its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution.”

Lenin responds by saying that the working class in Britain had not yet had the experience of these types of reformist leaders, which is a vital class experience for the class to arrive at the necessity for revolution.

Communists should participate in parliamentary action, and they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdens defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone.

I’m with Lenin. His perspective saw the realization of political independence as splitting the bourgeois representatives and thus creating more favorable political conditions for revolutionaries when their adversaries were divided. Lenin was unable to comment on whether British communists should join the Labour Party directly because he did not have enough information to determine if that would be tactically advantageous. He does not rule it out as a matter of principle. Likewise, participation in governments is not for the purpose of administering the capitalist state, but instead demonstrating the insufficiency of the existing order to deliver for the working class in the real struggles that would occur. Together this would build support for the communists on the road to revolution.

Perspectives on broad parties

What do we make of broad parties then? Tempest comrade Charlie Post provides an orientation to these, especially in the post-World War II period:

[T]he active disorganization of the “militant minority” or “workers’ vanguard”—the mass layer of worker leaders who struggled and organized independently of the forces of official reformism put limits on the ability of small groups of revolutionaries to transform their organizations into even small mass parties in the 1960s and 1970s. Combined with the collapse of both social-democracy and the Communist Parties as effective forces of reform, no less revolution, segments of the labor and social movements sought alternative forms of political representation and organization. This is the social-material basis for the emergence of these “broad left” parties, with all of their contradictions and limitations. Put another way, these “broad left” parties are responses to material changes and will emerge and grow independently of the subjective desires of the revolutionary left.

This departs from a classical Trotskyist position (which essentially sees the Stalinists and social democrats as the false leaders of the class to be supplanted by the true, Trotskyist class leaders) and shifts to an analysis of development of the class and the conditions that brought about the more recent broad parties. Broad parties then can appeal to a larger audience than revolutionaries could reach on their own and could embark on a new project of class independence.

The success and failures of these experiments have huge variations. This has to be understood in a context where we have very few examples of socialist parties that have made real, lasting breakthroughs. Because let’s be honest, we have a whole lot of defeats. The degree to which workers’ organizations have frayed in the last half century, and the ability of the bourgeoisie to reincorporate the base of the old institutional Left into existing political parties, has created an uneven experience for those embarking on the broad party project. 2Post, Charles. “What Is Left of Leninism? New European Parties in Historical Perspective.” Essay. In Socialist Register 2013: The Question of Strategy. Pontypool, Wales: The Merlin Press, 2013. The specifics of their programs and constituent forces depends on the context of each country.

Where we in Tempest really disagree with Left Voice comrades is that we don’t view the results of different projects in different countries at different times in the last forty years as foregone conclusions because of their organizational form.

Anticapitalistas launched Podemos and grew its audience and cadres, though ultimately the Iglesias group won control of the party. Bloco Esquerda in Portugal formed in response to a major defeat for abortion rights. The common cause between Fourth Internationalists, Maoists, and Left social democrats was that there was a functional role their unity could play in contesting elections. Bloco has been able to serve as an important political formation in response to austerity and unemployment, organizing precarious workers.

The Ligue Communist Revolutionnaire (LCR) attempted to form a broader party, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), but could not convince other forces, such as the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrier or the “left socialists,” to join them when they launched in 2009. The LCR dissolved itself to form the NPA and they ended up with a smaller “broad” formation than they started with as the LCR. Many LCR comrades deserted and went to the Front de Gauche, led by Mélenchon in competition with the NPA before he created La France Insoumise. The NPA was isolated, and its problem now is less that of combating opportunism than it is getting beyond sectarian in-fighting. Oddly, Left Voice describes this positively. The NPA is one example that has been important for Tempest: We should not liquidate revolutionary organization as we participate in broad formations.

The electoral efforts around Corbyn, Mélenchon, and Sanders don’t really conform to the broad party concept. None of these were launched by the far left, and the Sanders and Corbyn experiences have been much more constrained by their party affiliations. The appearance of these campaigns disoriented the far left of the mid 2010’s and accelerated crises in many revolutionary organizations, in no small part because revolutionaries had no guides for how to deal with a “democratic socialism” that grew rapidly.

Where we in Tempest really disagree with Left Voice comrades is that we don’t view the results of different projects in different countries at different times in the last forty years as foregone conclusions because of their organizational form. We openly criticize the DSA, and many of us now view that project as having run its course. But it presented an opportunity to advance the cause of political independence and train a militant layer, however imperfectly. At least until 2019, DSA was the place where tens of thousands of new activists were flocking to, initially with aspirations to break from the Democratic Party and to organize working-class people. Those are goals we should welcome, and for a time there was a possibility that DSA could develop in a direction that was suited for the purpose. It took a kind of counter-revolution in the organization, which Tempest played a role in fighting ideologically and organizationally, to restore DSA back to its historic realignment position.

When they have momentum, when they house emerging struggles, [broad party] formations have potential to further class organization and independence, which revolutionaries depend on for the viability of our project … The presence of “reformism” should not be the singular deterrent from participation in any formation.

To say in hindsight that all these projects were simply failures can be used to dismiss anything. It creates an inevitability that fails to recognize the interests that competed as a process unfolded. And we gain no guide to action for the real mess of history when it happens.

Conclusions

Our position in Tempest is not that “broad parties are good” as the inversion of Left Voice’s “broad parties are bad.” We’re open to formations depending on the circumstances. Many of the “broad parties” appeared because of the deterioration of working-class organization and the capitulation of the old institutional Left (communist and social democratic parties).

When they have momentum, when they house emerging struggles, these formations have potential to further class organization and independence, which revolutionaries depend on for the viability of our project. But they can just as easily lose that potential, by being captured by opportunists (as in Podemos and arguably in DSA) or by being a hothouse of Left groups with no wider appeal.

The presence of “reformism” should not be the singular deterrent from participation in any formation. Reformism is the worldview of a distinct social layer that acts as a mediator between labor and capital – elected officials, the trade union bureaucracy, and movement organizations. The logic of reformism is about preserving existing institutions and reforms through legal/electoral means, even while most of those gains were won through extra-parliamentary mass movements. Revolutionaries, who also fight for reforms, may share similar goals with reformists, but the immediate differences will be our perspectives and our approaches to winning reforms.

Robert Brenner, in The Problem of Reformism, argues,

[I[f we want to attract people to a revolutionary-socialist banner and away from reformism, it will not generally be through outbidding reformists in terms of program. It will be through our theory—our understanding of the world —and, most important, through our method, our practice. What distinguishes reformism on a day-to-day basis is its political method and its theory, not its program.

This requires that we understand where reformism comes from and the forms it may take, and then understand how it operates and its limitations. Amaral’s statement, “the idea that organized formations are per se, everywhere and always, out of bounds is a mistake,” is an appeal to take seriously the conditions we operate in. This follows Lenin, who states,

The task is to learn to apply the general and basic principles of Communism to the peculiar relations between classes and parties, to the peculiar features of the objective development towards Communism which are characteristic of each country and which must be studied, discovered, divined.

In Tempest, we don’t view “Leninism” as an organizational form or program to emulate. That mythology hardly represents the actuality of Bolshevik practice or Lenin’s views, but comes from Zinoviev in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.

When we bring this back to the United States, the Left Voice perspective is making exactly the kinds of impatient mistakes that Marxists have warned against for generations by demanding a form of political independence that wants to skip the real development of the class. When you pose this against DSA, which has consolidated in opposition to class independence and carries little social weight, it’s an easy punching bag. But if, say, trade unions made actual movement towards an independent political party, rejecting support of and participation in this labor party because its reformist would be disastrously short sighted. “The great thing,” Engels reminds us, “is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist…will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.”

Featured Image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

The Denmark Vesey rebellion (part 1)

Sun, 01/01/2023 - 23:14

In the spring of 1822, a group of Africans and African Americans, most of them enslaved, planned a revolt centered in Charleston, South Carolina. They would start by assassinating key officials and breaking into weapons depots. They would probably set fire to the city. They would kill as many whites as they needed to, either to escape en masse on commandeered ships to Haiti or perhaps to set Charleston up as an armed stronghold of freedom. In some accounts, those who committed to the fight numbered in the thousands. They were found out before they could strike the first blows.

The conspiracy is identified with the name of Denmark Vesey, who may have been its mastermind as his prosecutors claimed, but it’s possible that the leadership was shared among a more collective group. Most of what we do know about the plot comes from two self-serving accounts published by white officials responsible for putting down the conspiracy, plus a fairly extensive but flawed set of court records full of accounts by Black witnesses who knew they were under threat of execution and testified in closed sessions, sometimes following solitary confinement and other torture. Thirty-five were hanged.

The elements of an insurrection are really the elements of everyday life reconfigured by conscious collective will and imagination.

A number of competent historians have raised questions about how much of the conspiracy was real. A few have doubted whether it happened at all. They hypothesize that white panic, perhaps coupled with the ambition and factionalism of white authorities, accounts for the whole sequence of events. It’s worth taking such doubts seriously, especially in light of more familiar cases of racist false accusations and coerced confessions such as the Central Park Five and the Death Row Ten, not to mention the baseless and contagious panics that occasionally did grip the southern white population. Nevertheless, the more I’ve looked at the evidence, the more I’m convinced that enslaved Blacks and their free allies were indeed organizing to carry out a major uprising. I’ll take up the skeptics’ views in Part 2 when I discuss the response of the white authorities.

This article, Part 1, will focus on some features of Black life in the Carolina low country that contributed to the capacity for revolt—and to the capacity for preparing an extensive one. The elements of an insurrection are really the elements of everyday life reconfigured by conscious collective will and imagination. By starting with these social raw materials of revolt I’ll be giving a partial answer to skeptics who say that the alleged plot was too far-fetched to be real. It’s also just a good way to begin explaining what happened.

But first, it would be useful to set the 1822 conspiracy in the context of some other attempts at collective armed resistance in the decades before and after this uprising.

Four conspiracies of the era

The most famous North American slave revolt of the nineteenth century is the one led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. It’s probably the most famous now because it was the most notorious then, killing as it did the most white people, nearly 60. Despite its fame, Turner’s revolt is a bit of an outlier among the major conspiracies of the period because it was confined to a fairly isolated rural area. Other attempted revolts in previous decades aimed to connect enslaved agricultural workers with Black residents of significant port cities.

In 1800, Gabriel and his comrades organized an army composed mostly of field workers to seize Richmond, Virginia. Richmond had fewer than 10,000 residents, but it was the state capital and an origin point for boats carrying tobacco and other goods down the James River. In 1811, the “German Coast” uprising in Louisiana started from sugar plantations along the Mississippi that were twenty miles upstream from New Orleans, the revolt’s intended destination. In 1822, the Vesey conspiracy originated in Charleston, but the plan of action called for coordinated attacks by urban and rural participants.

Turner’s relative isolation meant that his uprising, once launched, had time to develop and draw in new fighters before white authorities could respond in force. He began his attacks on plantation houses with just six other men. It was a full 36 hours before the first significant white counterattack, according to Herbert Aptheker’s classic American Negro Slave Revolts. By then, the rebels numbered more than fifty, but that was not enough to match the white militia that eventually arrived.

The Nat Turner rebellion is “probably the most famous now because it was the most notorious then, killing as it did the most white people.” Engraving from Authentic and impartial narrative of the tragical scene which was witnessed in Southampton County. [New York], 1831. Digital image from Library of Congress.The areas around cities were better guarded than Southampton. Violent repression would come within hours or even minutes, not days, after an uprising began. Near the city, therefore, the core of a conspiracy would need to grow into the dozens and engage hundreds of followers before striking its first blows.

The need for broad involvement, however, made conspiracies vulnerable to discovery and betrayal. In fact, two out of three of the major urban-related revolts of the period did not even get properly launched. Gabriel’s was delayed by atrocious weather, and by the day after the deluge, the signs of the plot had become so clear that the authorities began sweeping arrests. The Vesey conspiracy, perhaps the most extensive and complex of them all, was exposed, too, just before it was supposed to begin.

Plantations, port cities, and Black threads of connection

Considered at its most abstract, southern slavery was a system that used gangs of captive workers to produce bulk farm products for export: tobacco, indigo, rice, sugar, cotton, and the like. The captor class could not reap profit from their plantations without port cities that connected them to buyers around the Atlantic and the Caribbean.

The plantation system needed the cities, but at the same time, the slaveowners strove to keep the two social spaces separate. They believed that field workers would be “ruined”—and perhaps primed for revolt—by exposure to the city’s cosmopolitan atmosphere and to free Black people, a group that was significant in many port cities but virtually nonexistent in the countryside. Even so, the very operation of the slave system created many interpersonal connections between rural and urban Black people that were hard to police. These connections helped make extensive conspiracies possible, or at least conceivable.

One type of connection arose from the slave masters’ dependence on trusted servants. Many masters commuted between their plantations and houses that they kept in Charleston, accompanied by select groups of enslaved Black people. In fact, absentee management of plantations was so common that Charleston was often the masters’ primary residence. Because of this, some Black commuters could develop extensive relationships among Black people in both town and country.

Frank was one of these servants. He belonged to Ann Wragg Ferguson, but he worked for her son James. James ran a plantation more than 30 miles outside of town in St. John’s, a parish to the northeast of the city. On occasion, Frank would drive the carriage when James traveled to various points in town and country. Ann lived on Liberty Street in Charleston, not far from the house of the free Black carpenter Denmark Vesey, who lived on Bull Street. Frank knew Vesey, maybe by reputation, by running into him in the neighborhood, or through common church membership.

In the conspiracy trials that began in June 1822, Frank said that Vesey asked him earlier in the year to recruit plantation workers to join an armed takeover of the city. After Frank testified, another witness said that Frank claimed to have “collected four plantations of Negroes” for the uprising. For what it’s worth, his boss, James, wrote to the court of his opinion that “the intended insurrection” was “well known through the neighborhood,” given “my knowledge of the means ordinarily used by negroes in communicating intelligence from one plantation to another.” Because Frank was a cooperating witness, he avoided execution and was expelled from the United States.

Quarters for captive workers were typically placed in a way that showed off the extent of the owner’s “holdings” to white visitors. This is the entrance road to McLeod Plantation on James Island near Charleston, with the quarters on the right. Photo by the author.

A second thread of connection was through friends and family. South Carolina’s captive workers had been considered since 1740 as chattel, a legal status akin to property in livestock. Accordingly, slave masters were allowed to separate people who were intimately connected, either by selling them off or splitting them up onto different properties. Separation could add to their isolation, but it could also create new connections between town and country, because friends and families who still lived close enough to each other would find ways to visit.

Rolla belonged to one such network. He was an enslaved domestic worker for South Carolina’s governor, Thomas Bennett, who owned rice and lumber mills in Charleston and kept fifty more enslaved workers. The mills were on the Ashley River at the west end of Bull Street, near Vesey’s house. Rolla and Vesey knew each other, perhaps at first because Vesey, as a carpenter, would have been a regular customer of Bennett’s sawmill. Rolla’s family connection to the country came through his wife. Amaritta was owned by a different master who had a rice plantation on John’s Island, which extends several miles south down the coast from Charleston. Her brother Sambo worked on the plantation, and she was in touch.

By Sambo’s own testimony, Rolla recruited him in May 1822 to join the uprising. It’s not clear whether Sambo himself became a recruiter of others on the island. He denied it in court, but of course it was in his interest to do so. Sambo wasn’t punished. In contrast, the prosecutors styled Rolla as a principal organizer for the rebellion.

Another suspected principal, Peter Poyas, also had family in the country. He was born on a plantation upstream from Charleston on the Cooper River, but he worked in town as a ship’s carpenter. Peter’s master, who owned a shipyard in Charleston, may have selected Peter as a teenager to be an apprentice shipwright; once trained, skilled workers could enlarge their owners’ profits. According to another man’s confession in court, Peter had a brother still on the plantation that he engaged as a recruiter for the uprising.

Frank, Rolla, and Peter had personal links to the countryside, but thousands of Black people of the region had a broader, cultural connection that reflected their African roots. Gullah (also known as Gullah-Geechee) is a creole language developed by enslaved Africans in the coastal complex of “sea islands” that stretches from the Carolinas into Georgia and north Florida. While the base of the language is English (with significant shifts in pronunciation), Gullah is full of West African elements. So is the material culture of the Gullahs, which is known for multiple uses of gourds (including the banjo), for woven sweetgrass items (such as baskets), and for a cuisine built around rice—a staple of much of West Africa that enslaved people introduced to the white landowners in the early eighteenth century.

Gullah Jack was a Charleston carpenter born in Africa. He was known as a conjuror or a doctor, a small man with big whiskers who carried a bag of charms and claimed that no white person could harm him. He apparently built a significant following, particularly among Black people living in the countryside. Frank Ferguson testified that Jack reported recruiting in Goose Creek and Dorchester, two adjacent areas that were upriver and inland from the city.

Mass connections between town and country

Plantation owners needed ports to connect them to remote buyers, but there was a second economic circuit that connected the port cities more intimately and constantly to the countryside. The cities needed to be fed. It was possible to import cured or pickled fish and meat, and some fresh items did come to Charleston by ship, such as oranges from Florida and pineapples and pistachios from the Caribbean. Local production, however, was the only option for fresh beef, pork, seafood, and game, poultry and eggs, and fresh vegetables. The city’s firewood was also a local product. Meeting the constant need for fresh food, especially in an age before refrigeration, required regular interaction among hundreds or thousands of people from both town and country.

The areas within a few days’ travel to cities were thus interconnected by far more than the threads that tied individuals by family or acquaintance. The domestic reproductive economy formed a dense, dynamic web. What’s more, in a time before railroads—the first rail line to Charleston wasn’t functional until 1831—the connections weren’t remote or anonymous. They were local and personal.

Some of the city’s necessary provisions were provided by white small farmers known as yeomen. They were the most numerous white people in the countryside, and they formed the rank and file of the nighttime slave patrols. Many low country yeomen owned slaves, and most of the rest were working toward the day they could. They were distinguished from the “planter” aristocracy—who, of course, did no planting themselves—by actually doing farm work with their wives and children, alongside any enslaved workers they kept. They were also distinguished by owning relatively small and poor plots of land. They practiced a “safety-first” subsistence agriculture and sold their edible products when they had a surplus. If they planted a cash crop, it would likely be cotton.

Captive Black people in the countryside outnumbered the yeomen class, and they were concentrated on the bigger plantations, especially in South Carolina’s coastal districts, where the Black population was 79 percent of the total in 1820. The coastal districts, of course, were the ones near the port cities. These facts, along with the production priorities of the yeomen, suggest that the vast bulk of fuel and fresh food provided to Charleston was produced by enslaved people who lived on the bigger plantations.

Plantations were “sales-first” regimes, so the main job of field workers was to produce cotton and rice for the owners’ profit. They were also set to work growing their own rations: flint corn principally, but also potatoes and beans. Though it may be hard to believe, the owners would then expect gratitude for “providing” this crude diet, along with the coarse clothing that was specified by law as appropriate for slaves.

Despite this double burden of forced labor, captive workers across the South were not done working. As historian Betty Wood put it:

Sheer necessity dictated that if they were to raise their living standards above bare subsistence they would have to find ways of augmenting the minimal amounts of food and clothing distributed by their owners. Inevitably this would mean having to spend some of their own time working to support themselves.

This 1938 photo of a rice field in Berkeley Country (northeast of Charleston) shows the persistent effect that captive laborers had on the landscape. Digital image from Library of Congress.

There were many things they could not grow or make themselves, so it was common across the South for enslaved people to trade what they made—whether baskets or barrels—or what they grew in their own garden plots.

The Carolina-Georgia low country had a unique labor regime that allowed the most industrious workers more time and space to work for themselves than elsewhere. The difference wouldn’t be evident when work was heaviest, as during harvests; at such times, workers on low country plantations worked as other southern enslaved Black people did, in gangs driven under the lash from morning to night. These were the times when they were most likely to hide out in the woods for a while or to set something on fire. Most of the time, however, the “task system” prevailed, under which a worker would have their own time to do as they pleased once they had completed a day’s “task.”

This regime may have originated in the earliest days of colonization when West African captives brought their knowledge of rice culture to the low country. The work might begin with clearing some part of the native cypress swamps, which were infested with alligators, venomous snakes, and infectious mosquitoes. Then they would reshape the landscape with systems of trenches, dikes, and sluice gates in order to flood or to drain the fields at appropriate times in the growing season.

In a rice swamp (as these rice paddies were called), a day’s work or a “task” would be to turn up one-quarter acre of land at the beginning of the season or to hoe the weeds in a half-acre later on. Other plantation jobs were also broken into daily tasks. Splitting one hundred rails, for example, was counted as one task. Where cotton was the crop, low country plantations also applied the task system.

The system encouraged efficient work with little need for supervision, since most workers would be eager to finish the “master’s time” and begin their own. Not everybody went on to work for themselves, but many did. Their own fields were not just “garden plots.”

Jeremiah Evarts observed [in a 1822 diary entry] that the slaves in Chatham County, Georgia [surrounding Savannah], had “as much land as they can till for their own use.” [After emancipation, the] freedmen’s recollections from all over the lowcountry support this statement: A number of ex-slaves reckoned that they had more than ten acres under cultivation, while four or five acres was the norm.

Some raised free-range cattle and hogs, which would cover even more ground, and others specialized in raising horses for sale.Some of the produce of the country went to market over the roads, either carried on people’s heads, as in Africa, or on horse-drawn trucks called drays. But roads were “few and poor,” as one historian noted. The common way to transport things was by water: “Most of the low-country plantations were on or near navigable streams and had their own boats.”

Some people bartered or sold their produce directly to traders—both white and Black—who brought their boats to the plantations. Many others took their goods to town themselves by boat. Enslaved people in town also had access to boats for their own use. Gullah Jack owned a canoe that he used on his trips to recruit for the rebel army. Rolla Bennett borrowed a boat for the same purpose.

1861 map with Charleston in the center. The red circle encloses areas up to 20 miles away—about one day’s walk to town. The shaded areas are swampy. Digital image from Library of Congress, modified by the author.

One reason for traveling to town was to seek out the best prices and the best variety of goods to buy. But Sundays were also a major social event—the main market day in town, which coincided with the fieldworkers’ day off. Black people from the countryside would mix with Black and Brown city folk, all dressed in their finest. They would come to see and be seen, to make connections and make mischief, and to hear the latest news.

In this way, the universal desire of the captor class to keep rural Black people isolated on the farms was thwarted weekly by the necessity of provisioning the city—and by the farmworkers’ own determination to get there. The official report of the 1822 conspiracy trials make it clear that some plantation slaves knew their way around town, because some found their way to Denmark Vesey’s house for at least one night meeting.

No one tried to estimate the size of the weekly in-migration to Charleston until news of the conspiracy broke. Then the city’s chief executive, counting only those coming by boat, found that “upwards of five hundred entered the city on one Sunday.” This was during the trials and a general tightening of security, which made “negroes … rather fearful of coming into town.” Charleston’s regular population was just under 25,000 in 1820.

Even on uneventful Sundays, Charleston called out two police bodies to deal with the crowds. One was the City Guard, a force wearing blue jackets that was otherwise on duty only at night. They were issued muskets with bayonets. Twenty patrolled in squads around the city all day on Sundays (as they did nightly), “and in addition, patrols of a sergeant and four men were sent to three different markets at six o’clock every Sunday morning.” The other force was under the command of the city marshal. “On Sundays,” one historian of policing writes, “he and his deputy were to take two constables, or more, and patrol the city morning and afternoon, particularly to observe and suppress indecent or riotous behavior and to enter any place that liquor was sold.”

In this time before the invention of modern police with round-the-clock patrols, Charleston was by far the most heavily policed major city in the United States, and, not coincidentally, the only one where the majority of people was enslaved. The City Guard’s main work was to enforce laws that applied only to people of color. There was one city guardsman for every 238 residents, or one for every 141 people of color. For comparison, today’s Washington, D.C., with its many police forces, is the most heavily policed U.S. city with one cop of some variety for every 154 people.

Land in between: Charleston Neck and Bulkley’s farm

Between the inland plantations and the city lay Charleston Neck, where Black South Carolinians enjoyed perhaps their greatest freedom from white surveillance.

The city of Charleston, surrounded on three sides by water, stood at the southern tip of a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Its city limit was at Boundary Street (today’s Calhoun Street), and the land north of there was Charleston Neck, a place that had become a “low-income suburb” early in the city’s history. Many residents of the Neck were enslaved people living on their own. Although this practice, called “living out,” was illegal without written permission from their masters, many got permission, and the law was loosely enforced, anyway. There were always landlords, as there were sellers of alcohol, who were more concerned with a Black person’s ability to pay than they were with the legality of the transaction.

1849 Map of Charleston and part of Charleston Neck showing streets named in the article. Boundary Street is marked with a star. Image by Wellington Williams.

Those who “lived out” earned the money to pay their rent by “hiring out” for wage labor or by working on their own account. The most common personal enterprise for enslaved women was to buy and sell in the markets, and men most commonly hired out as porters, a broad category that included day laborers, carters, and draymen. In many places in the South, enslaved people had to hand over their entire wage to their owner—something that Frederick Douglass complained about in discussing his work in the shipyards of Baltimore. In Charleston, however, masters found they could gain a steady income by charging some of their slaves a flat fee to find their own work. In the 1820s, annual profits from such arrangements were about 10 percent of the market value of the enslaved worker. These workers could pocket the difference between the fee they paid their masters and the wage they earned.

This practice of “self-hire” was also illegal, but it was convenient for the masters to avoid the effort of finding paid jobs for their captive workers. City and state officials might be keen to pass laws to restrict Black freedom of movement, Black freedom of association, or Black economic enterprise, but at the same time they were reluctant to enforce laws that interfered with the freedom of the slaveowners to use their human property as they wished. Members of the captor class shared an ideology that favored a minimal state power that served mainly to preserve their own status as patriarchs of private, profit-driven despotisms. Where the state was developed more extensively, as in the case of the City Guard, it was in service to this aim.

Although Charleston Neck was growing much faster than Charleston itself, the area was only lightly patrolled. It was outside the city’s jurisdiction, and the city council failed to raise the funds for a force there on the model of the City Guard. Instead, there was a volunteer branch of the state militia known as the Neck Rangers. The Rangers seemed to function less efficiently than either the rural slave patrols or the City Guard. White petitioners complained that the “dense and numerous” population made the area unsafe for travelers and “particularly … [for] the waggoners of the upper country, who are often molested and robbed.” The area was full, they said, of “disorderly houses, unruly negroes and wicked and depraved persons of every class.”

In this time before the invention of modern police with round-the-clock patrols, Charleston was by far the most heavily policed major city in the United States, and, not coincidentally, the only one where the majority of people was enslaved.

The “disorderly houses” included the homes of free people of color who served drinks to enslaved guests. They also included taverns and stores that served liquor to a multiracial clientele, which likely attracted members of the diverse crews from ships that arrived daily in port. In fact, some of those who sold liquor to customers regardless of color were shopkeepers whose night-and-weekend job was with the City Guard. The Neck was a good place to meet secretly. “Peter Poyas had private conferences with many negroes in the suburbs of the Town,” one comrade confessed later.

Farther up Charleston Neck, the residential areas faded into farmland, an area so close to town that plantation owners could visit by day and sleep every night in Charleston, leaving their property under the charge of a trusted slave. Bulkley’s farm was two and a half miles from the city along the Cooper River, accessible by road, or, for those who wanted to avoid detection, by boat. Billy was the enslaved Gullah left in charge, and the farm became a prime nighttime meeting space for the rebel conspirators.

Gullah Jack met his rural followers there. Vesey was “in the habit of going to Bulkley’s farm,” said one witness, and others confirmed his presence. In April, Billy later told the court, Peter Poyas and four others came to the farm in the afternoon and “sung and prayed until day light.” Another comrade confessed that he attended a meeting there with “upwards of thirty persons present.”

Jack was later accused of engaging a Gullah blacksmith to make pike-heads to be fitted to poles acquired by another Gullah recruit; they were to be stored at Bulkley’s farm for the use of country comrades when the time came. The area would apparently serve as a staging ground for these comrades before the assault on the city. Frank Ferguson was said to have “told Vesey … he would go and bring down the people [from the country] and lodge them near town in the woods,” presumably near the farm.

Monday Gell and the news

Enslaved people in the South were eager to keep up with the news, and most of it was passed on by word of mouth. The testimony of 1822 reveals that Black conversations often began with “What news?” an appropriate greeting for people who were aware that whites were trying to keep them in the dark. Just as their captors tried to isolate farmworkers from what they could learn and who they could meet in the city, they tried to separate the oral world from the wider perspective of the literate one. In response, those who couldn’t read sought out those who could; the readers bridged the divide between the two social worlds. This was true even in the city, where slave literacy was the most common.

One of the prisoners of 1822 explained why he was a frequent visitor at Monday Gell’s shop on Meeting Street: “When I went to Monday’s, it was to hear what was going on … as what was going on was printed in all the papers so that black as well as white might read it.” Gell apparently kept newspapers on hand that visitors could pick up and read themselves.

Monday Gell was an expert harness maker. He may have learned the craft in Africa, in the region that’s now Nigeria. His first language was Igbo, but he spoke English well, and he could read and write “with great and equal facility.” Monday was enslaved, but he was so successful at his trade that he had a home of his own in addition to his workshop. The legislature had repeatedly prohibited enslaved artisans from setting up their own shops, in part because it undercut the welfare of white artisans. The repeated passage of such laws attests to the slaveholders’ routine practice of ignoring them.

Gell’s house was next door to Gullah Jack’s, and witnesses said the two were close associates. Monday was one of the central figures in the conspiracy, and his shop seems to have been the daytime hub for those involved to connect with each other. He admitted to the court that “every day there were numbers in my shop on this business.”

The newspapers were written for white consumption, of course, so they carried regular classified ads with descriptions of escaped captives. According to the 1820 census, Charleston was 56 percent Black and Brown (also known as mulatto)—14,127 people of color to 10,652 whites. Thus the city and the Neck offered some anonymity for runaways.

Classified ads offering rewards for escaped captive workers: Charleston Courier, March 8, 1822. Digital clip by the author.

The papers also carried accounts of torture and murder of enslaved Black people—and of white impunity. These could serve as agitational material for rebel recruiters. One correspondent to the Charleston Courier in 1818 was sure that crimes by whites had increased in recent years and wrote, “There are persons in the parish in which I reside, who, within a year have killed negro slaves by severe whipping and other barbarous treatment—have stolen horses, cattle and hogs, and committed forgery; and are now running at large and unapprehended.” A year later the Courier reported a “jury of Inquest … on the body of a female Negro Slave” that concluded she was murdered “by her owner, Christiana Hornsby.”

The state’s “Negro Code,” in force with various amendments since 1740, declared that a master’s murder of their slave was punishable with just a fine. On another page, the code detailed several property crimes which, if committed by a person of color, would result in execution. Not until 1821 did a white person’s murder of a slave become a capital offense.

The stories in the papers confirmed how bad things could get at their worst, but everyday Black life was full of humiliation, violence, and the threat of violence by whites. One rebel comrade said that Gell induced him to join by emphasizing how they were “in servitude, kicked and cuffed and abused, &c. &c.” The Negro Code allowed Black people the right to use violence to protect their masters but not in defense of themselves. A later statute specified: “If a slave was found off the plantation and refused to submit to investigation, any white had the right to kill him summarily.”

Discussions in Gell’s shop also took up national news. The Congressional debates in 1819–1820 over the admission of Missouri as a slave state still reverberated among Charleston’s Black population two years later, in part because press accounts had covered (and condemned) the vehement opposition of some northern legislators. Both Monday Gell and Denmark Vesey seem to have misrepresented the debate, however, saying that Congress had set everybody free, but South Carolina was not complying. They may have been confused themselves, or they may simply have been stoking the will to fight among the more credulous of their followers.

As an artisan (or “mechanic”), Monday Gell would have worn a brass badge similar to this. Captive workers who worked outside their owners’ supervision in Charleston were required to register every year with the city—and to purchase and wear numbered badges stating their occupation. This particular badge confirms that at least 108 mechanics were registered in 1801.

The papers also carried notices about Haiti, the Black republic on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola that had finally become independent in 1804 after 13 years of revolt. Charleston had taken in refugees from the revolution, so a section of the Black population possessed some direct knowledge of the place to back up what was in the papers. The most frequent mentions of Haiti in 1822 were in the columns of shipping news, which detailed regular arrivals and departures to and from Haiti. Sailors just in from Haiti could offer Black Charlestonians up-to-date information about the place.

In February of that year, Haiti invaded and annexed the Spanish side of Hispaniola (Santo Domingo). President Jean-Pierre Boyer was apparently trying to make Haiti more secure against attack from Spain and France. Charleston papers focused on the points that were important to white readers. The Charleston Mercury’s brief February 14 account of the invasion concluded: “The Island is now entirely in the power of the colored people.” On April 2, the Mercury ran a dispatch that read, in full:

Arrivals from Santo Domingo bring accounts of the whole of the slave population of Spanish Santo Domingo having been emancipated. Nothing less could have been expected from the political change which so lately took place in that territory. It is in perfect conformity with the constitution of Hayti.

Monday Gell testified later that Saby Gaillard, a free Black carpenter, dropped by his shop to find out whether Monday had read the paper he had given him about “the battle that Boyer had in St. Domingo”—perhaps the same report as above. Saby said that “if he had as many men he would do the same too, as he could whip ten white men himself.”

Haitian militancy served as more than an example to emulate. Close readers of the dispatches from the Haiti war, such as Gell and Vesey, seem to have concluded that Boyer might be willing to devote military resources to emancipating slaves outside of Hispaniola. The Charleston organizers apparently wrote at least one letter to Boyer seeking his assistance in their uprising, to be passed on by sailors on trips to Haiti, though it is unclear whether these messages were delivered or how they might have been received.

Escape to Haiti was also part of the discussion. Haiti had publicly offered citizenship to Black and Indigenous immigrants since 1816. For Boyer, either course—direct military intervention or welcoming in rebels from South Carolina—would invite a confrontation with the superior forces of the United States. In the worst case, the U.S. government might press a war aimed at re-enslavement of the island’s Black people. Even an embargo or blockade would cause dire consequences for the impoverished Black republic.

The trial record contains no evidence that Charleston rebels talked about the constraints on what Boyer could do. In their secret discussions, Haiti figured as inspiration, as possible military ally, and possible destination.

Some of the regular visitors to Monday Gell’s shop were customers, of course, including draymen who needed him to work on harnesses for their horses. One of these was William Garner, whose role among the conspirators, according to Gell and another witness, was to organize a mounted contingent for the insurrection.

Vesey as a recruiter

Denmark Vesey himself was an avid reader, often for the purpose of exhorting others to rise up for their own freedom. He is known especially for his study of the Bible, but he also followed U.S. and international politics. One convicted comrade confessed:

He was in the habit of reading to me all the passages in the newspapers that related to St. Domingo [Haiti], and apparently every pamphlet he could lay his hands on, that had any connection with slavery. He one day brought me a speech which he told me had been delivered in Congress by a Mr. King on the subject of slavery; he told me this Mr. King was the black man’s friend.

Two of New York Senator Rufus King’s speeches on the Missouri question were available in pamphlet form, and this may have been what Vesey was reading. The rhetorical point of bringing up King was the same as in mentioning possible military assistance from Haiti: Others will help us, but not until we strike the first blows ourselves. Another witness quoted Vesey to precisely that effect: “St. Domingo and Africa will assist us to get our liberty if we will only make the motion first.” Along the same lines, Vesey then asked him,

[I]f I remembered the fable of Hercules and the Waggoner whose waggon was stalled, and he began to pray [to Hercules], and Hercules said, you fool put your shoulders to the wheel, whip up the horses and your waggon will be pulled out: that if we did not put our hand to the work and deliver ourselves we should never come out of slavery.

A white clergyman’s remarks offer one more example of the way that Denmark Vesey recruited comrades by challenging them to stand up for themselves. The clergyman, who was unsympathetic to the rebellion, recounted what Bacchus Hammet told him about an evening meeting at Vesey’s house:

Vesey sat him [Bacchus] along side of him … He asked him seven queries such as—“Did His master use him Well—Yes he believed so, Did He eat the same as His master, Yes sometimes not always as well as his master—Did his master not sleep on a soft bed, Yes. Did he Bacchus sleep on a soft a Bed as his master—No—Who made his master—God—Who made you—God—And then ar’nt you as good as your master if God made him & you, ar’nt you as free, Yes, Then why don’t you join and fight your master. Does your master use you well, Yes I believe so, Does he whip you when you do wrong, Yes sometimes, Then why don’t you as you are as free as your master, turn about and fight for yourself. Upon this delusive reasoning he joined. [Emphasis and stray quotation mark in original.]

On other occasions, Vesey appealed to solidarity with less-fortunate Black people. In his testimony against Vesey, Frank Ferguson describes an encounter before he was convinced to join: “Vesey said the negroes were living such an abominable life, they ought to rise. I said I was living well—he said though I was, others were not and that ’twas such fools as I, that were in the way and would not help them, and that after all things were well he would mark me.”

Vesey knew that race-conscious solidarity was not automatic, so his appeal to Frank’s conscience concludes with a threat of the sort that a union activist might make to a potential strikebreaker.

In the last weeks before the projected date of the insurrection, Vesey stopped working at carpentry “and employed himself exclusively in enlisting men,” according to Monday Gell.

Denmark Vesey and the city

At 55 years old, an advanced age for the era, Denmark Vesey was the oldest of the principal organizers. He also had a comparatively wide range of experience. Born enslaved, possibly on St. Thomas, he spent some time as a boy in pre-revolutionary Haiti. Then he served for several years on board the ship of Captain Joseph Vesey as his personal assistant. The captain was in the Caribbean slave trade, so the boy visited many ports. Joseph named him Telemaque after the son of Odysseus. Black English speakers apparently turned the name into Denmark.

The two settled in Charleston in the 1780s, and Joseph started a business as a ship’s chandler, a multi-purpose supplier, with Denmark as his assistant. In his work with Joseph, he became literate and numerate, and he was fluent in French. In the 1790s, Denmark married his first wife, Beck, and they had at least one child, Sandy, who later joined the rebel conspiracy. Then, in late 1799, Denmark won $1,500 in Charleston’s East Bay lottery, and Joseph agreed to his self-purchase for $600. Once free, he would eventually become a carpenter.

He may have tried to buy the freedom of his wife and son, but if so, he failed. This meant he could not live in the same household with them. After parting with Beck sometime later, Denmark went on to marry two other enslaved women and to have more children. His second wife and her children remained enslaved. His third wife, Susan, was born enslaved but was later freed, perhaps at the time of their marriage in the 1810s. In 1820, the state legislature claimed the exclusive right to free individual slaves, thus outlawing private manumissions of the sort that had freed Denmark and likely freed Susan.

The … point of bringing up [anti-slavery Senator Rufus] King was the same as in mentioning possible military assistance from Haiti: Others will help us, but not until we strike the first blows ourselves.

Denmark Vesey’s background made him an anomaly among the city’s free people of color, because his original and persisting interaction and identification were with the enslaved. Among the city’s 1,475 free people of color, a large portion was mulatto and free from birth. They were products of sex between white males and captive females, some from encounters as far back as a century before. The most sentimental among the fathers had freed their Brown children and set some of them up in business. Free people of color were thus riven by color castes—Denmark was Black and recently freed—but they were also divided by class. Some free people of color were rich from real estate speculation, others through trade, and one was the city’s best-known hotelier. Some kept enslaved people themselves, and at least one even rode patrol with the Neck Rangers.

Enslaved people living in the city were not divided by such major class distinctions, but there were still layers. People’s occupations ranged from personal servants (such as Rolla Bennett and Frank Ferguson), to hired-out laborers who cherished their independence (such as the drayman William Garner), to artisans who were the most independent of all (such as the carpenter Gullah Jack Pritchard, the shipwright Peter Poyas, and the harness maker Monday Gell). The women who traded in the markets must also have cherished their independence. In Part 2, I will take up the invisibility of women in the records of the revolt.

Drawing of a Charleston street, circa 1812, by John Rubens Smith, 1775-1849. In the foreground is a dray. Across the street, there seems to be a figure of someone carrying a load on their head. Image from Library of Congress.

Historian Eugene Genovese remarks on the role played by these social layers of the men in slave revolts throughout the hemisphere:

The magnitude of the task facing slaves who chose insurrection suggests the importance of leaders with considerable knowledge of political events in general; of the divisions among whites; of military prospects and exigencies; of terrain; of the psychology of their people; of ways to get arms and trained fighters; of everything. Mechanics, craftsmen, preachers, drivers, even house slaves played a big role in the great slave revolts. Both rebel leaders and supreme accommodationists came from the same ranks, for they were men of wider experience than ordinary field hands and had talents they could turn in either direction.

Clandestine organizers in the city needed fine capacities of discernment to tell which way a prospective recruit might turn. Vesey’s experience certainly helped. Peter Poyas also expressed a concrete way of evaluating a person’s loyalties. As a former comrade put it, Peter “said … take care and don’t mention it to those waiting men who receive presents of old coats &c. from their masters or they’ll betray us, I will speak to them.”

Genovese lists drivers among the “middling” layers between the masters and the fieldworkers. These plantation foremen had a popular reputation for brutality, and some lived up to it. Nevertheless, they were workers who understood how the whole farm worked, and the masters chose them for their ability to motivate and lead the fieldworkers. As such, they had to be trusted to some extent by both the masters and their fellow slaves. One of the primary leaders of the German Coast uprising in Louisiana was a driver, and the driver on James Ferguson’s plantation was involved with the rebellion. Billy Bulkley may also have been a driver.

Drivers became leaders on the plantations in the course of their work, but the relatively atomized life of enslaved Black people in the city presented fewer opportunities for the development of formal leadership or sustained collective action. Life in the churches provided an exception. In the white-led Baptist and Methodist churches where Black Charlestonians were concentrated in the 1810s, the church members of color were divided into classes that were led by free people of color or enslaved Black people. Historian Bernard Powers notes in Black Charlestonians: “It was the responsibility of the class leaders, where possible, to visit their charges weekly and attend to their spiritual and moral needs.” Powers continues, “In 1818 … 4,367 blacks seceded from the Methodist Church and formed the African Church, which was affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church in Philadelphia. The secession involved over three-fourths of all the city’s black Methodists.”

The new church fostered leadership and collective self-help by people of color from top to bottom. Although several white ministers endorsed the founding of the church, white authorities and many citizens viewed it with fear and suspicion. The city raided the church in 1818 and arrested 140. Large gatherings of people of color had long been illegal in South Carolina. The AME Church survived this and other harassment, however, and came to be known simply as the African Church. Its members included enslaved and free Black people and free mulattoes.

Given its circumstances, the church could not develop an abolitionist theology officially, but some African Methodists did precisely that on their own. One was Denmark Vesey. Another was David Walker, a free Black man from North Carolina who moved to Boston and published the influential 1830 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Walker and Vesey both mixed together the republican faith of The Declaration of Independence—that God created all men equal with a natural right to liberty—with interpretations of scripture that justified rising up with violence to escape bondage. It’s possible that Walker belonged to Charleston’s African Church at the time of the 1822 conspiracy or in the years just before it.

Many of those accused in 1822 belonged to the church, including Monday Gell, Rolla Bennett, and Gullah Jack. Jack’s practice of sorcery evoked “contempt and disgust” in the white Christians who later sat in judgment of him, but his beliefs were no bar to membership in the Afro-Christian AME of Charleston. Two others who were identified by the court as organizers of the rebellion were class leaders: Ned Bennett (like Rolla, a captive worker for the governor) and Peter Poyas.

Quarters for captive workers in the city, dwarfed by a massive three-story house. White people’s houses faced the street, and enslaved people’s quarters were built behind (the reverse of typical plantation layout). The choice of brick for slave housing was a fire precaution, because that’s where the cooking got done. Photo by the author.

In spring 1822, Vesey hosted regular evening meetings at his Bull Street house that drew together other principals, other comrades in the rebellion, and potential recruits. Although these meetings took up some of the practical work of preparing the uprising, they also focused on motivation, recruitment, and induction—which included swearing an oath not to reveal the planned revolt. Witnesses said that the meetings began with readings of Biblical passages that Vesey thought were most relevant to their project.

One of the passages was from the Book of Joshua, which contains the tale of the Israelites’ destruction of Jericho and the slaughter of its inhabitants. Having made their escape from captivity in Egypt, the Israelites were subduing the land of Canaan. Even though God had promised them the land, they still had to take it for themselves to fulfill his will. The passage casts mass violence in a righteous light, but in choosing it, Vesey may also have intended to cast Black people as an oppressed collective—a people comparable to the Israelites.

What’s more, the reading would have additional resonance because of the way it compared to the strategy that Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines eventually devised to win the long war for freedom: Start killing the whites until they are all dead or forced out. At one meeting Vesey hosted, he made the Haitian connection explicit, according to a comrade: “Denmark Vesey said, he thought it was for our safety not to spare one white skin alive, for this was the plan they pursued in St. Domingo” (emphasis in original).

Another passage Vesey shared was Zechariah 14:1–3, which prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem, including the killing of one-half of the city and God’s intervention to allow the other half to escape. The previous chapter makes clear that God thought Jerusalem needed to be cleansed of sin and refined, like a precious metal, through fire. Here Jerusalem may stand for Charleston and Haiti for the destination of the escapees. It’s not clear, however, whether the sinful half includes just the white portion of the city or their Black collaborators, too.

One of Vesey’s Bible readings that related directly to slavery was Exodus 21:16: “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.”

The readings add up to more than a simple message of violence in support of a righteous cause. Those who attended Vesey’s meetings didn’t need to be told that if they rose up and failed, they would die. It was kill or be killed. The comparisons to the Israelites and to the Haitians could help comrades frame in their minds the shape, significance, and magnitude of their project.

Rhythms

The insurrection was set for July 14. Denmark Vesey probably knew that it would be the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution, but the timing of the revolt was really chosen because it was then that several cycles of white power were set to bottom out all at once.

The first cycle, or rhythm, involved an annual white migration to avoid coming down with the deadly form of malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum. The rice swamps were breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and malaria had been endemic to South Carolina since the early years of colonization. White families left the plantations, but they didn’t all go to Charleston. “It was agreed,” said one witness, “to rise [up] in Julyas at that time the white people go to the North and to Sullivan’s Island and the City would then be thin of men” (emphasis in original).

Sullivan’s Island, on the outer reaches of Charleston Bay, was surrounded by circulating saltwater with frequent breezes, so mosquitoes were not a problem. At the time, people did not know that mosquitoes were a vector of the disease, but they did associate malaria with areas of stagnant fresh water. Those who didn’t go to the exclusive Sullivan’s Island enclave or make the trip to super-rich northern resort towns like Newport, Rhode Island sought the “dry sandy soil of the Pine-barrens, and on their heights breathe health and life,” according to a visitor in 1836. One such resort was Pineville, situated about sixty miles north of Charleston. In July, therefore, white men would not just be “thin” in the city but virtually absent from the larger plantations near Charleston.

The yeomen class could not afford to migrate. Some were stuck near swampy areas, but many of their estates were on the poor—but elevated—“sand-hill” or pine barren land between the rivers. Mosquitoes would not be such a problem there. In any case, the departure of the rich would not fully deplete the rural slave patrols.

People of African descent, who were forced to stay at work in the country, had partial immunity to malaria if they were heterozygous for the sickle-cell gene. The rates of debilitation and death, however, could still be staggering. Data from just before the Civil War reveal malaria mortality rates that were nearly the same for infected Blacks and whites.

The insurrection was set for July 14. Denmark Vesey probably knew that it would be the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille … but the timing … was really chosen because it was then that several cycles of white power were set to bottom out all at once.

A second major life rhythm played out over a time scale of years or decades. There were periods when restrictions on Black activity were relaxed, followed by periods of crisis, panic, and crackdown. Even where the law specified precisely what Black people could not do, much of the law was, in effect, a prescription for what white people privately should prohibit. In peaceful times, if something was to the profit advantage or the convenience of the slaveowners, the law would be a dead letter.

Innumerable routine practices were both critically important and illegal. In theory, enslaved people had no property rights to anything they produced, but without those rights in practice, rural Black people would have had no incentive to produce consumption goods in their “own time” for exchange in the city. Enslaved people were forbidden to buy goods for resale, but this freedom is what made the Sunday markets work and kept the city fed. Black control of boats was just as essential to the reproductive economy, but that, too, was illegal (except for licensed fishermen), as was the raising of livestock for sale.

While these routines were essential, they also underpinned a confident Black collective life that threatened, at times, to breach white control on a major scale. Until those moments, however, there were times when the enforcement of many laws would be lax, as it was in spring 1822. For example, the City Guard was issued muskets with bayonets, but right before the crisis broke in June, they were apparently carrying bludgeons instead of muskets, and their bayonets were sheathed.

The third key rhythm was the alternation of day and night. The plan called for the rebels of the coastal districts to converge on Charleston by boat at midnight. Slave patrols would be out, but with the plantation masters absent, the patrols would be overwhelmingly composed of yeomen, who were concentrated upriver, not in the coastal districts.

The last major social rhythm was weekly. July 14 would be a Sunday, market day, when hundreds of country workers streamed into town. Rebels could blend in. The rhythms of the city marshal and the City Guard were built around the need to control the Sunday crowds. In the evening, when the Black visitors usually left, the marshal and his deputies would go off duty.

For their own part, the City Guards would have begun their duty by performing their regular Saturday night patrol, which started at the city’s curfew time for people of color. Then they were to keep patrolling during the day on Sunday. Even with squads rotating and taking breaks in the guardhouse as they were directed, they would no doubt be exhausted by Sunday night. The city ordinance specifying their duty declared that they were supposed to serve yet another shift after Sunday curfew. Nevertheless, all of the court witnesses who mentioned the guard’s schedule—and the court officials themselves—said that the City Guard would go off duty before midnight on Sunday.

The rebels among Sunday’s visitors could arrange to stay after curfew in Black people’s houses in the city or the Neck. To jump into action at midnight, they would just need to step outdoors. Others would come down from the country and await the moment farther up the Neck at Bulkley’s farm. The white people who remained on the farms were unlikely to miss these field workers until Monday morning, and by then it would be too late to do anything. In the morning, the fight for the city could be well advanced, and people in the country might wake to see the sun rise through a big plume of smoke over Charleston.

A footnoted version of this article will appear at Works in Theory.

Featured image credit: Artwork by Nevena Pilipovic-Wengler.

Categories: D2. Socialism

“Do not forsake me, comrade”

Sat, 12/31/2022 - 18:36

The film High Noon, written by Carl Foreman, produced by Stanley Kramer, and directed by Fred Zinneman, turned 70 this past year and is considered one of the finest western films of all time. The catchy, Tex Ritter-sung theme song is included on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 most significant American movie songs and the Western Writers of America’s list of 100 best western songs. The 1952 film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning four for Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Original Song, and Best Score and winning the WGA award for Best Screenplay. High Noon is listed second on the AFI’s list of top ten westerns. In the years following the film’s release, it became a favorite of U.S. Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton, who reportedly screened the film seventeen times in the White House. However, despite this current unanimous acclaim, the story of High Noon is inseparable from one of the most trying times for the U.S. Left.

On its surface, High Noon tells a pared-down, archetypal western story. Will Kane (Gary Cooper), is a town marshall in the town of Hadleyville, set to retire with his Quaker bride Amy (Grace Kelly). However, before Will and Amy can leave they receive word that Frank Miller, a vicious killer Will put away five years prior, has been pardoned and is on his way to Hadleyville. Will vows to stay and defend the town from Miller and his gang, while also attempting to find deputies who will help him in the fight.

Unfortunately for Kane, his pleas are rebuffed by virtually everyone in town, for a variety of reasons. The Justice of the Peace is scared of Miller, the old marshall is arthritic and can’t hold a pistol, and the current deputy resents Kane because he was turned down for a promotion. The film’s climactic scene is not the gunfight, but a church service, when Will interrupts to appeal to Hadleyville’s solidarity. At first, everyone is with Will but this dynamic quickly turns,what finally sways everyone is an appeal to their economic self-interests: Northern financiers are looking to invest in Hadleyville and a gunfight on the streets will deter their investments. Kane will have to face Miller’s gang alone. Even Amy has turned her back on Will, as violence conflicts with her Quaker beliefs.

In the exciting gunfight that follows, Will triumphs over the killers, with Amy’s assistance after she realizes that pacifism is not a practical policy. When Amy and Will leave the town, he throws his marshal star in the dust to show his disdain for Hadleyville’s cowardice.

High Noon was written by screenwriter Carl Foreman…he refused to name names before [HUAC] as a matter of principle… and was blacklisted by all of Hollywood’s major studios.

High Noon was written by screenwriter Carl Foreman, who would become a victim of Hollywood’s anti-Communist blacklist. Even though Foreman had left the Communist Party by the time of his questioning by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he refused to name names before the committee as a matter of principle. This led to the dissolution of his partnership with producer Stanley Kramer, who felt that working with Foreman would be bad for his career. Kramer would find success as the director of “message movies” like Judgement at Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. As a result of Foreman’s refusal to name names, he was considered an “uncooperative witness” and was blacklisted by all of Hollywood’s major studios.

Foreman intended Hadleyville to stand in for Hollywood, with Miller standing in for HUAC, saying:

“There are scenes in the film that are taken from life. The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had…And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and comes back with his gun and asks, where are the others? Cooper says there are no others…I became the Gary Cooper character.”

Foreman was not the only member of the film’s cast and crew to experience problems as a result of HUAC. Howland Chamberlain, who plays the hotel desk clerk would not appear in another film until more than twenty-five years later, in 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer, as a result of his blacklisting. Lloyd Bridges was blacklisted briefly due to his membership in the Actor’s Laboratory Theater until he agreed to cooperate with HUAC. Actress Virginia Farmer, who played Mrs. Lewis, was blacklisted and never worked again after the film. Floyd Crosby, the film’s cinematographer, found it difficult to get mainstream work despite his acclaimed work on High Noon and Crosby spent most of the rest of his career working on B-movies (low-budget films) like Attack of the Crab Monsters and the Screaming Skull.

Gary Cooper was an odd choice to star in a left-wing message film, despite being the subject of a bizarre FBI investigation over a pro-communist speech he was said to have given. Actors with more progressive political leanings like Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck had turned down the role of Will Kane. Cooper had strongly opposed Franklin Roosevelt in both the 1940 and 1944 elections, even paying for a 1944 radio broadcast in which he assailed the New Deal for borrowing “foreign notions.” Cooper was a friendly witness at a 1947 HUAC committee meeting where he stated that he turned down roles in films “tinged with communist ideas.” He was also a member (along with the likes of Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, and John Wayne), of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) which was an organization dedicated to rooting out perceived communist infiltration in Hollywood. Despite this, Cooper was an opponent of blacklisting and gave Carl Foreman words of support when the screenwriter had to testify before HUAC as an “unfriendly witness.”

Despite the failure of most of the Left and liberal press to see it, the allegory in High Noon is actually fairly obvious… a reflection of [an earlier era of]  anti-fascist activism in Hollywood…

The Left did not know what to make of High Noon. The International Socialist League was split. In a November 24, 1952 review in Labor Action,  reviewer Hal Draper (under the pen name Phillip Coben) defends the film against charges that it is “anti-democratic” but also states “it is doubtful that High Noon was made with as conscious a social message” as other Hollywood movies. Draper found the film to be a robust defense of individual integrity and determination. However, in a letter written for the December 8, 1952 edition of Labor Action, the writer, Bob Bone, condemned the movie as “insidious war propaganda.” The April 26, 1952 review of the film in the Nation called High Noon a “perfectly fouled up western,” without commenting on the political subtext. The Communist Party USA’s Daily Worker stated the movie displayed “the usual amount of cynicism and misanthropy. The high point of the film, with Gary Cooper stalking down the street in intense loneliness, is a classic restatement of the anti-human theme of nearly all cowboy and detective yarns.” The Soviet Union’s Pravda opined that High Noon was a film “in which the idea of the insignificance of the people and masses and grandeur of the individual found its complete incarnation.” The New York-based Partisan Review mocked this view by saying “A hundred years after the Manifesto, the specter haunting Europe is-Gary Cooper!” Film critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times did get the intended message, writing that the courage of Will Kane “could give a fine lesson to the people in Hollywood today.”

Despite the failure of most of the Left and liberal press to see it, the allegory in High Noon is actually fairly obvious. Will Kane’s earlier defeat of Miller is a reflection of anti-fascist activism in Hollywood through things like propaganda films and fundraisers. In his book Gunfighter Nation, Richard Slotkin writes,

“Miller’s return is a metaphorical way of identifying McCarthyism with Fascism: the same people who in an earlier and less prosperous time had risen up to defeat the enemy have now grown too comfortable or complacent to risk their lives and fortunes for the public good.”

The townsfolk who refuse to fight are representative of Hollywood liberals like Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart who turned their backs on the victims of the blacklist. The film also attacks the institutions of organized religion and big business as being unwilling and unable to stand up to the resurgence of fascism. In the film’s famous church debate, support for economic growth and “progress” are arguments used against standing up to the villains. Katy Jurado’s saloon owner Helen Ramirez is also an important part of this allegory. Ramirez experiences racism on the part of the town and owns her business as a silent partner with a white man who is the official owner. She also flees Hadleyville due to Miller’s return, a sign of the persistence of racism despite the defeat of fascism.

The Right, however, latched onto High Noon’s intentions immediately. The American Legion Magazine singled out the movie for derision since its cast and crew included “Communist-collaborators.” The review in the Hollywood Citizen-News claimed that “the weakness of the ‘good citizens’ of the town, which are underlined repeatedly are just the kind of thing which brings forth cries of communist propaganda in motion pictures.” MPA President John Wayne led a campaign against the film and Gary Cooper’s business partnership with Carl Foreman. Wayne even went to Foreman’s house and threatened him in order to convince the screenwriter to return to HUAC and name names. Foreman instead left the country and found work in the U.K. on films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and the Guns of Navarone. Years later, John Wayne maintained his hatred for the film calling it “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen.” This was in the same 1971 Playboy interview in which he stated his support for white supremacy. Wayne maintained that he’d “never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country.” There was also a concerted campaign against High Noon in the lead-up to the Academy Awards. Luigi Luraschi, an executive at Paramount, Academy member, and Central Intelligence Agency asset, wrote a letter to his contact taking credit for ensuring that High Noon lost the award for Best Picture. Perhaps not coincidentally, the winner that year was the Greatest Show on Earth, directed by MPA member, blacklist supporter, and staunch anti-communist Cecil B. DeMille.

Seventy years later, the question is how we on the Left should remember High Noon. The Left of the past did not like the film because they felt it was anti-democratic to depict the forces of good in the minority. But unfortunately, sometimes we fighters for democracy, equality, and socialism do find ourselves in the minority. The voices against segregation, the War in Vietnam, and homophobia once found themselves in the minority also, but they fought on regardless. We should carry on in that spirit as we fight our battles for a better world, and as we return to the cinema.

Featured Image Credit: Image by bratispixl; modified by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

The contradictions of internationalism from above

Wed, 12/28/2022 - 22:08

In May 2022, Socialist Forum and Reform & Revolution both published issues about internationalism and anti-imperialism. The articles cover a wide range of views and are helpful in understanding the current state of internationalist debate on the U.S. left today. However, while thoughtful and passionate, the contradictions in the arguments presented by proponents of internationalism from above also stood out in three areas: underestimation of the strategic possibilities of confronting U.S. empire, mischaracterization of U.S. socialists’ relative power, and a fundamentally idealist worldview of top-down internationalism.

A more promising road forward for effective confrontation with the U.S. empire lies in disruptive collective power and coalition power. Targeting imperialism directly at key nodes of international capital can lead to both effective confrontation with empire and build greater mass movements through organizing alongside the transnational diasporic communities most deeply impacted by imperialism.

Top-down internationalists misunderstand the U.S. empire’s vulnerabilities and thus the possibilities for strategic campaigns in the imperial core. They emphasize that an international strategy for U.S. socialists should remain laser-focused on the U.S. government’s actions, at the expense of focusing on the crimes of other oppressive regimes, because we, as socialists in the imperial core, only have so many resources and those resources are best spent opposing U.S. imperialism. As Ron J argued, “What can socialists who live in the U.S. really do and accomplish? ….  Would any sort of U.S. action be helpful for the people of Syria no matter what we think about this conflict? …. [W]e have to act and organize, and just like how we tackle other issues we must also learn to prioritize.”

It’s true: We do have limited resources.  And it’s true, we must utilize our capacities strategically, as with all campaigns. But there are a number of practical, strategic pathways to target the U.S. empire—some better than others. Implicit in the top-down argument is that what we are capable of doing and accomplishing internationally is limited to how we can oppose—and thus influence—the U.S. government. But while opposing the U.S. government’s individual imperialist policies can be a good use of resources—as in working toward lifting the embargo on Cuba—influencing the policies of the most powerful empire in world history can be significantly less effective than strategically targeting the flow of the international capital that props up imperial control worldwide, including by targeting sub-imperial states. The difference is the contrast between relying on influencing existing powers-that-be over disruptive power that forces their hand to capitulate to mass movements. Instead of pursuing NGO-like interest group strategies of top-down reform, we can confront the empire directly instead of indirectly. We can target the critical nodes of international capital.

International capital and U.S. empire

There are a number of ways that practical campaigns targeting international capital flows can work, and each will be specific to local conditions. Money should be the focal point of internationalist efforts that connect to local struggles. The Wet’suwet’en Nation targeted the Coastal GasLink Pipeline in early January 2020 by blockading key railways across Canada: “nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of goods sat idle for several weeks in February, disrupting supply chains for weeks, slowly bleeding the Canadian economy. It was the only language the settler state understood: money.”

Further examples of successful anti-imperialist campaigns that targeted international capital include the efforts of People of Red Mountain and Kayapó Mekrãgnoti, the defeat of developers in Sunset Park, and the end of the deadly exchange in Durham. People of Red Mountain have targeted Lithium Nevada in its race for lithium to fuel electric cars at the expense of Indigenous people and tribal land by occupying Thacker Pass, where the mining companies seek to drill. These land defenders protect their sacred land through disruptive and coalition power while also directly hindering the flow of capital to fund the green capitalist projects of the Biden Administration, which will lead to increased U.S. imperialism where pockets of lithium exist, like at Salar de Ayuni in Bolivia.

As Promise Li pointed out, in Brazil, Kayapó Mekrãgnoti protesters are blockading Brazilian commodities’ shipping routes that “critically [interrupt] the interests of Brazilian agribusiness companies, Chinese funders, and US corporations,”’ while New York community members successfully fought off Industrial Park, a project of violence through gentrification of Sunset Park funded by U.S. municipal government and Chinese transnational capital.

And in Durham, North Carolina, Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) abolitionist organizers successfully cut off the deadly exchange of U.S. and Israeli police and made Durham the first city in the United States to ban the police from international exchanges with the enforcers of apartheid. The importance is not the tactics used to confront empire, but rather the focus of strategic action. In all of these instances, organizers targeted capital in material ways in physical locations that led to tangible results.

Targeting imperialism directly at key nodes of international capital can lead to both effective confrontation with empire and build greater mass movements through organizing alongside the transnational diasporic communities most deeply impacted by imperialism.

These targets of capital flows that make up the bedrock of the U.S. empire are examples of more effective international solidarity than the top-down approach offers. They are vital and powerful displays of internationalist work done in our communities in the United States. They are well within the limits of our capacity as chapters and locals and organizations.

Further, as in Sunset Park and in Durham, there are opportunities in these actions from below that hit the U.S. empire where it hurts, targeting not only U.S. capital, but the facilitators of U.S. capital worldwide, regardless of what side of the revolving door of inter-imperial conflict they may fall on. The Chinese party-state, as a neoliberal archetype of authoritarian capitalism, particularly since the rise of Deng Xiaoping and consolidation of power by the neoliberal wing of the Chinese Communist Party after the 1989 crushing of workers, is one such actor targeted at Sunset Park. In Durham, meanwhile, ending the deadly exchange targeted Israel,  the Zionist project that acts as the linchpin of U.S. imperialism in the region through its ongoing Nakba and apartheid regime over Palestinians. Just as capital is all-pervasive, so are these nodal points in our local areas that can facilitate international capital directly.

Coalitions with transnational communities

There is another benefit to targeting the U.S. empire by disrupting capital flows that sustain it: building mass movements alongside transnational communities. As I’ve written before, the top-down internationalist approach, which at best ignores the harm caused by other regimes and at worst greenlights genocide, burns bridges with transnational workers who suffer abominable conditions under U.S. empire, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Tibetan, and Cambodian communities. The peoples of all of these countries have suffered due to the long reach of U.S. empire through unequal treaties and outright invasions and bomb dropping, but reducing their lived experiences to the extent of direct U.S. intervention underestimates the power of U.S. empire’s nebulous modern form.

Ignoring the ways in which other states exact harm upon transnational communities in the interests of capital makes building connections with these communities considerably harder. Focusing exclusively on the U.S. government’s actions diminishes the lived experiences of immigrant workers whose transnational relationships with empire influence their politics and encourages a form of condescension toward workers with different experiences than the non-immigrant U.S. left.

Vincent Wong argued in Midnight Sun Magazine that “migrant communities do not have the privilege of thinking only about what happens in one place and centring their local enemies in every situation,” yet doing anything but practicing strategic myopia at the expense of solidarity is dismissed as a non-starter by the partisans of internationalism from above. Many transnational organizers are dismissed wholesale as “social imperialists” by more disingenuous critics purely for strategizing ways to target multiple agents of U.S. imperialism.

Ignoring the ways in which other states exact harm upon transnational communities in the interests of capital makes building connections with these communities considerably harder.

The implicit condescension of internationalism from above toward many transnational socialists is exactly why Yuliya Yurchenko, a Ukrainian socialist who exhaustively chronicled the impacts of empire on Ukraine in her book Ukraine and the Empire of Capital: From Marketisation to Armed Conflict, sarcastically derided what Sam Heft-Luthy referred to as the DSA “majority position” as “educating the infidels with their theory gospel.” Internationalism from above acts in parallel to Orientalism, implicitly posing “us” as different from “them.” That binary both rejects workers outside of the Western Hemisphere as part of our movement, since they fall into the category of “them,” and excludes comrades with transnational roots from the umbrella of “us.”

Some migrant organizers have referred to the top-down condescension as a “double trauma” imposed on transnational socialists. As Vincent Wong wrote, “leftist migrants who have suffered at the hands of regimes not aligned with the West often experience a double trauma of nationalist exclusion…. the direct cruelty of borders and the racism, nationalism, and xenophobia of the states that those borders delimit, but also the indirect cruelty of voices erased and agency denied, when those migrants’ fights against oppression and injustice at ‘home’ do not single-mindedly centre the perceived ‘main enemy.’” This double trauma is hardly useful for building a mass movement of the multiracial working class. It neither integrates nor brings into movement comrades with experience in international struggle or experience facing imperialist violence.

As a socialist organization in the imperial core, it is absolutely imperative that we organize with transnational communities to confront U.S. imperialism. Thus, it’s essential that we avoid the condescension that internationalism from above can evoke within many transnational communities.

Enabling global struggle

Internationalism from above also greatly underestimates our relative power as socialists in the United States. Mirah W. argues that by “lending our voices to what is already a chorus of criticism,” socialists may “manufacture consent, not just for actual war but also for other forms of intervention and hybrid war.” There is certainly the danger of manufactured consent that requires caution, but there are extremely important factors as to why the U.S. left solidarity with worker struggles around the world matters— our platforms. We, as socialists in the imperial core, write and organize in the context of core power. We are far from powerless, despite our relative lack of strength as a movement in the face of the U.S. state. We must take on a vital role in doing our best to leverage all of our capacities – from our platforms to events to translation projects – to support struggles against class rule and thus the empire abroad.

Socialist exchange is absolutely necessary for us as socialists in disparate areas to learn from one another in combating class rule. Ukrainians encountered Syrian left thinkers like Leila Al-Shami and Yassin al-Haj Saleh who spoke directly to experiences confronting Russian imperialism by reading those thinkers’ works in English. Learning from those socialists in other countries confronting the same imperial power was invaluable for their own political education and developing strategic campaigns for resisting Russian state violence. We, as internationalists, must pursue a program that supports translation projects, challenges linguistic imperialism by learning other languages, and building shared communications is essential to challenging border rule and engaging in global struggle.

By not acknowledging the importance of our potential role in supporting socialist exchange at a global level, internationalism from above neglects an important facet of the U.S. empire and its domination over global communications. Willfully hampering mutual learning by socialists across borders far from the imperial core is certainly not the intention of proponents of the top-down approach, but is a consequence nonetheless.

Materialism, not idealism

While the top-down internationalist position is most certainly well-intentioned, it is still steeped in a fundamentally idealistic worldview—not a materialist one. In the words of Yuliya Yurchenko, we need to “do what historical materialists are supposed to do and look at the material to develop [our] bloody theory.” Materialism emphasizes the need to learn theory from material conditions on the ground.

Instead of a materialist lens, internationalism from above tends to view states that present themselves as socialist through an idealist lens. They believe parties with socialist origins are “actually existing” socialist projects but do little to consult and grapple with material conditions that arise following the seizure of the state by left-wing forces. The triumph of left-wing ideas replaces a materialist understanding of contemporary history with a commitment to dusty and outdated theory based in another era’s context treated like scripture. Yesterday becomes the only lens through which to understand today.

One example of the ways in which top-down internationalists tend to remain married to past theoretical models is the renewed use of the term “social imperialist” to refer to many transnational socialists and proponents of internationalism from below, as if socialists interested in organizing against national bourgeoisies using state apparatuses against the masses in the twenty-first century all are equivalent to the Social Democratic Party of Germany from the First World War. Ironically, the same top-down internationalists who have recently found the term “social imperialist” are unlikely to cite the term’s more common usage—the Maoist description of the Soviet Union as a “social imperialist” power. That Maoist use of the term rejects the commonly held understanding of a unified anti-US camp that characterizes internationalism from above.

To be fair, the confrontation with genuine manifestations of social imperialism is absolutely necessary. In this, top-down internationalist comrades are correct in their assessment. Jamaal Bowman, who has supported funding for the Iron Dome and the Zionist project more broadly, can be accurately described as social imperialist. But equating all ideological tendencies that do not conform to the top-down perspective automatically as social democrats is an intentionally obtuse attack on other socialist tendencies within the movement. Anarchists, libertarian socialists, and revolutionary socialists share a commitment to anti-imperialism; they simply understand effective anti-imperialism differently. Top-down critics may argue that the impact of internationalism from below and voting for Iron Dome funding is identical, but that is false. In fact, bottom-up internationalists wrote the 2019 resolution for DSA to not endorse Joe Biden in the event of a Bernie Sanders loss and were among the first to call for Jamaal Bowman’s expulsion from DSA for his Iron Dome vote in 2021.

Putin and al-Assad greet each other at a state visit in May 2018. Photo by Kremlin.ru. Left national bourgeoisies

Ignoring material conditions that can inform internationalist campaigns allows for the talking points of states that utilize socialist slogans to become the only permitted analysis of those states. That prevents us from demystifying that terrain and hinders our efforts to develop an anti-imperialist program informed by material conditions.

Even those who claim to stand for a more “nuanced” position implicitly endorse the top-down perspective, as Sam Heft-Luthy did in Spring 2022 calling China one of the “current socialist parties holding state power.” There is no reason to believe that to be the case any longer, particularly in the context of U.S. imperialism and its channeling through capital flows that characterize much of the imperial apparatus today. Parties that capture state power are susceptible to power dynamics and can develop over time to be hostile to working-class interests. They are not immune to elite capture. They can be seized internally by opportunists or bourgeois factions hostile to workers, particularly in one-party states where the only room for pluralism exists inside the ostensibly workers’ party itself, if then. Reformers and revisionists don’t vanish; they work from inside the party.

By accepting state talking points as factual realities without paying attention to material conditions, socialists ignore that threat of elite capture and thus the potential for left-wing party structures to become facilitators of empire. Many workers’ parties fell prey to U.S. capital as they pursued austerity policies, the neoliberalization that facilitates U.S. capital flows. The so-called Third Way factions that consumed the labor parties of Western Europe and the neoliberal Abiy Ahmed who took over and then ushered in the end of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to exact genocide in Tigray are examples of how socialist parties can become facilitators of global capital and thus realize the dreams of U.S. empire.

Other regional socialist tendencies have historically developed more as nationalisms that seized the popular rhetoric of socialism rather than resembled socialism, like much of the Arab socialism common during the mid-twentieth century. The term “socialism” in these cases becomes a rhetorical strategy rather than commitment to a liberated future.

Since left-wing parties are not immune to elite capture, many will possess factions that are willing to transform the party brought to power by mass politics into national bourgeoisies whose “vocation is not to transform the nation but prosaically serve as a conveyor belt for capitalism,” as Frantz Fanon wrote. He added that “the national bourgeoisie, with no misgivings and with great pride, revels in the role of agent in its dealings with the Western bourgeoisie.” The iron rule that left-wing parties can be subject to elite capture will remain true as long as the power apparatus known as the state is permitted to exist.

In the current era, both right and left  national bourgeoisies facilitate international capital and thus empire. Both can and do serve as conveyor belts for capitalism, concentrating wealth in the hands of elites and facilitating the expansion of capital that serves U.S. interests, rather than the masses.

The Syrian-led Baath Party, the Chinese Communist Party, and the PAIS Alliance under Rafael Correa in Ecuador are cases in point of left national bourgeoisies precisely because they serve as conveyor belts for capitalism. The Syrian-led Baath Party, beginning with neoliberalization started by Hafez al-Assad and privatizing projects like “economic pluralism” and accelerating during the 2000 Damascus Spring under Bashar al-Assad, transformed itself into a facilitator of international capital. That means that, contrary to Ron J and Mirah W’s arguments on Syria, the Assad family does deserve our attention if we wish to fight U.S. imperialism (or, for that matter, if we care about Palestinian liberation).

The People’s Republic of China is another case in point. Although established as a socialist party, the Chinese Communist Party developed into an authoritarian capitalist party run by neoliberal leaders who, among other things, invest in Reaganomic trickle-down new supply-side economics and exploration of Neo-Confucian rubrics for maintaining rule and legitimacy in power. If we wish to “remain humble at all times and realize that we are the ones who should be learning from existing socialists and anti-imperialist revolutions around the world, to help aid our own process of change,” as Mirah W urges us, then we should consult with the socialist thinker whose thought undergirded the Chinese Revolution. Lu Xun wrote in “Confucius in Modern China” (1935) that “Confucius owes his exalted position in China to the wielders of power. He is the sage of the wielders of power or those who would be wielders of power; it has nothing to do with the mass of common people.”

By accepting state talking points as factual realities without paying attention to material conditions, socialists ignore that threat of elite capture and thus the potential for left-wing party structures to become facilitators of empire.

Finally, the PAIS Alliance’s rise to power in Ecuador and betrayal of its organized Indigenous mass base to favor extractive interests matches the profile of a socialist party’s elite capture. As described by Andrea Sempértegui of the anti-extractive organizing collective Comunálisis, the Indigenous movement provided the mass base that enabled the rise of Correa’s left-wing government in Ecuador. Those organizers then faced the question of how to relate to Correa’s government when it sided with developers and supported extractive industry with ties to international capital.

Socialists in the imperial core faced our own question: how do we show international solidarity with the struggle in Ecuador? Internationalism from above essentially provided only one roadmap: express “critical support” for the Correa government, show no open solidarity with the Indigenous movement, and magically influence the U.S. government to keep its hands off Ecuador.

The only time that internationalism from above allows for critiquing left-wing leaders seems to be when left-wing governments themselves critique other countries’ violations of human rights, as when Chile’s newly minted leader Gabriel Boric decried the anti-worker Iranian and Nicaraguan governments at the United Nations. Ironically, shortly after socialists in the imperial core criticized Boric, the Iranian working class rose up against the regime, particularly in the oil and gas industry that propels the Iranian government’s engagement with international capital.

Practical steps to defeating empire

The failure to fully realize the potential for strategic campaigns targeting the U.S. empire, the misunderstanding of the power we possess as socialists in the imperial core, and the fundamentally idealistic worldview are all contradictions in the top-down internationalist viewpoint. The perspective may be represented by eloquent writers and dedicated organizers, and held by a majority of the current DSA International Committee, but the perspective doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Internationalism from above raises many important issues that deserve reconsideration if we seek to actually develop strategic campaigns that are anti-imperialist in nature. We have political disagreements, yes, but all too often passion becomes factionalism. I am not interested in factionalism. I am interested in what works, what creates movement, what equips us with strategy to build power.

Ultimately, building power by targeting the nodes of international capital that support the imperialist system is a strategic direction with revolutionary potential. But regardless of the specific strategy, internationalism should lead to actual organizing, not just bring us more statements read mostly within the online left milieu.

Internationalism from below is an effective way forward. We have the capacity to build strong anti-imperialist campaigns based on material conditions and driven by a strategic analysis and targeting of nodes of international capital. We can target U.S. imperialism in our backyards by finding the nodes of international capital in our local communities. We can practice anti-imperialism that both more effectively confronts the U.S. empire through disruptive power and builds coalition power alongside transnational communities to bring us closer to ending the empire itself. The road to the end of global class rule is paved with the cobblestones of grassroots, bottom-up campaigns of internationalism from below.

Featured Image Credit: Photo from U.S. National Archives; modified by Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Commanders of nature

Tue, 12/27/2022 - 21:45

See, slick and glistening,
sculpted to wood,
rounded bodies
together pressing,
a rustling topiary of birds forming
an aviary of cruelty,
a gruesome monument
to the commanders
of nature.

Finches and budgies.
Egret and owl.
Parrot and eagle.
Osprey and macaw.

Flash of crimson cardinal wing.
Who would sing?
Who could sing?

A common chicken is pulling
on one leg, shaking,
tightening the tiny noose pegging
her to the very end,
the loop a tourniquet quietly cutting
into the leg, a red stain seeping
into white feathers.

In the dark,
the snowy owl
turns his head away.

And then:
The now one-footed hen falls off the trellis
like pulling a zipper
and one by one the birds attempt liftoff
all still tied to each other, straining
against the grim order
of opulence.

What sacrifice! What love for the flock!
Noble creature, she finds herself
tugged aloft by falcon and goose,
crane and vulture, great bustard and greater rhea, kites
who take to the air trailing
the one-legged chicken dangling
like a charm.

The sun rises on an odd formation winging
neither north nor south, just flying, pulling,
together in both sacrifice and need,
bound both in resistance and in flight,

the parrots muttering and the ravens cawing and the hawks screeching and the songbirds all together calling:

Free! Free!

And the chicken, bleeding, thinks: Yes.
This is what it means to be free.

Featured Image Credit: Artwork by Nevena Pilipovic-Wengler

Categories: D2. Socialism

Worker insurgency and the New Deal

Mon, 12/19/2022 - 21:00

Eric Blanc has written a series of articles on Substack arguing that the role of the state and electoral politics via a major capitalist party are central to working-class self-activity, upsurges, and union growth.1Eric Blanc, “Liberals Get the New Deal Wrong: Why Voting Is Not Enough,” Labor Politics (Substack), July 5, 2022, https://laborpolitics.substack.com/p/liberals-get-the-new-deal-wrong; Eric Blanc, “Can Laws Spur Labor Militancy? A New Look at the New Deal,” Labor Politics (Substack), July 12, 2022, https://laborpolitics.substack.com/p/can-laws-spur-labor-militancy; Eric Blanc, “Revisiting the Wagner Act and Its Causes: Why Insurgency and Politics Both Matter,” Labor Politics (Substack), July 28, 2022, https://laborpolitics.substack.com/p/revisiting-the-wagner-act-and-its; Eric Blanc, “Should Labor Support Democrats? Rethinking the Lessons of the 1930s,” Labor Politics (Substack), August 4, 2022, https://laborpolitics.substack.com/p/should-labor-support-democrats.This series focuses on the New Deal and its role in “spurring” the strike movements of the mid-1930s, labor’s political development, and what these might mean for socialists today. The issues raised in his representation of working-class action and its causes and results in that period involve not only the proposed role of electoral politics or government policy in the labor upsurge of the New Deal, but also bring into question the very nature of working-class self-activity and agency and its relationship with the “facts” of history.

Did 7(a) spur and shape a workers’ upsurge?

Much of Blanc’s argument in the first two parts of his series centers on the role of the National Industrial Recovery Act’s (NIRA) Section 7(a), which stated workers “shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing,” in “spurring” the 1933 upsurge in strikes.2National Archives, National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/national-industrial-recovery-act.In Blanc’s second installment, he writes, cautiously at first, “[T]he point here is not that policy and governmental changes on their own spurred a labor upsurge… Internal struggles and organizing initiatives from below did matter” (emphasis in original). He then goes on to claim, however, “The evidence is overwhelming, however, that Section 7(a) played a major role in boosting and shaping the era’s labor insurgencies” (emphasis added). So, worker self-activity mattered, but 7(a) not only spurred action but shaped it, as well.

No one would deny that government actions and policies impact the class struggle, or even, in this case, that the coming of the Roosevelt administration after more than a decade of conservative Republican rule and three years of neglect in the face of the Great Depression itself brought a sense of hope and even of new possibilities for action. If Blanc is trying to argue that the New Deal state was involved in and had an impact on working-class and union affairs, there would be little to argue about except the motivations and outcomes. But he seems to be arguing much more than that. Despite the qualifying introduction, the idea that 7(a) shaped the labor insurgency of the mid-1930s is quite a claim for a policy that proposed no particular form of “representation,” had no effective enforcement mechanism, with influence limited to a “psychological effect” by most accounts, and, as I will argue below, with an initial impact (whatever one thinks it was) that faded rapidly.

Despite a handful of testimonials to 7(a)’s initial psychological effect and a widespread faith in its impact among liberal historians, the argument for 7(a) as a major cause in “shaping the era’s labor insurgencies” simply doesn’t hold up in the face of the timing of events. For one thing, the July-September upsurge in strikes that is supposed to be the result of 7(a)’s passage in June didn’t last long—certainly not for an “era.” As the major Brookings’ study of the NRA (the National Recovery Administration, the administrative body of the NIRA) reports, “From November 1933 to March 1934 the strike movement subsided somewhat and union growth went forward at a slower rate.”3Leverett S. Lyon et al, The National Recovery Administration: An Analysis and Appraisal (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 1935), 477, 490.In fact, the number of workers who initiated strikes dropped like a lead balloon by 71 percent in October, 1933, after only three months, even more severely and before the frequent “seasonal” winter decline that usually started in November in those days.4Florence Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 1880–1936, Bulletin No. 651, Bureau of Labor Statistics(Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1938), 45–46.The major reason for this was the return of economic recession: the index for manufacturing dropped 13 points in August, soon followed by declines in the indexes for the number of employed workers and total hours worked. 5Witt Bowden, “Labor in Depression and Recovery, 1929–1937” Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 45, No. 5 (November 1937), 1054.In other words, economic reality trumped policy promise and 7(a) lost its attributed “psychological effect” after less than four months.

If psychological inspiration from or government action around 7(a) were really the force behind those engaging in the broader fight for union recognition over this “era,” we would expect more workers to make use of the NRA’s National Labor Board (NLB) representation election procedures, which were established in August, rather than risking a strike in such turbulent times. But the opposite is the case. During the board’s entire existence, from August 1933 through July 1934, just 103,714 workers participated in an NLB election, with 71,931 voting for union representation. During the economic upswing from July 1934 to January 1935, when elections were run by the new and improved National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), only 45,000 workers cast ballots in a representation election. In comparison, 2,624,253 workers struck in 1933 and 1934, 1,227,639 of them specifically for union recognition or a closed shop.6Emily Clark Brown, “Selections of Employees’ Representatives,” Monthly Labor Review Vol. 40, No. 1 (January 1935), 1–5; George Shaw Wheeler, “Employee Elections Conducted by the National Labor Relations Board,” Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 40, No.5 (May 1935), 1150; Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 63.

This imbalance between strikes for recognition and government-sponsored elections meant to head off or settle strikes stemmed in part from the different meaning of recognition for government administrators and rank-and-file workers. For the administrators of the NRA boards or the later 1935 NLRB, as well as for many top union leaders, recognition via elections introduced institutionalized and orderly collective bargaining between union and company officials with an emphasis on wages. In contrast, as Mike Davis noted, rank-and-file workers “fought for two demands that would be central in most early New Deal strikes: company recognition of rank-and-file-controlled shop committees, and the limitation of the authority of foremen and line supervisors.”7Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class (London: Verso, 1986), 52.Strikes, frequently led by rank-and-file radicals and/or skilled workers were not only a means of winning these, but of building and demonstrating the workplace power of the class.

Furthermore, the jump in strike action in July-September didn’t come out of nowhere. As Table I below shows, the number of strikes accelerated in early 1933 before the NIRA and 7(a), which passed in June and was really in place only around July, if then. Prior to this there were several big high-profile strikes in auto in early 1933, mostly led by radicals before June, which created momentum.8Sidney Fine, Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936–1937 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020), 117–18; Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 33.As socialist leader A. J. Muste noted of the time, “Early in 1933 Hell began to pop. Strike followed strike with bewildering rapidity.”9Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO (New York: Pioneer Press, 1964), 12Furthermore, some groups of workers organized themselves successfully in 1933 before 7(a) was passed. Despite Blanc’s attempt to disparage their work, Michael Goldfield and Cody R. Melcher have documented in detail the thousands of coal miners who organized prior to the NRA and 7(a) without the aid of United Mine Workers of America staff organizers, much less the government.10Michael Goldfield and Cody R. Melcher, “The Myth of Section 7(a): Worker Militancy, Progressive Labor Legislation, and the Coal Miners,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 16, No. 4 (December 2019), 49–65.

More important than the number of strikes is the number of strikers and days on strike, which give us a better idea of the development of the active element of the class in this moment. As Table I shows, from February to June, before 7(a) could have had even a psychological effect, the number of workers who initiated strikes in each month grew by seven times, while the days on strike increased by a factor of eight. Altogether more than a quarter of a million workers initiated strike action between February and June. This is low compared to what was to come, but high compared to what preceded it, and moving upward.

The economic context also mattered. The biggest increase in strikes and strikers, of course, did come in July as 7(a) became policy. But was it simply this statement of limited intent or even some union leaders’s attempts to use it to encourage workers to join a union that brought more workers out on strike, or did actual material conditions have an impact? From March through July 1933 the economy recovered rapidly and the manufacturing production index grew by over two-thirds from 92 to 154. Leverette Lyon, in a major 1935 Brookings Institution study of the NRA, argued it was the “psychological effect of Section 7(a)” that was most important in explaining this new upsurge. Nevertheless, he also noted, “The new stirrings in the world of organized labor could be explained in part by the combination of accumulated grievances and the economic stimulus of the ‘business boomlet’ of May-June 1933” just before the NRA and 7(a) became law.11Lyon, et al., National Recovery Administration, 466, 489; Bowden, “Labor in Depression,” 1054.

Florence Peterson, in her massive 1938 BLS study of strikes in that period, also gives joint responsibility to economic recovery. She wrote, “The first year of recovery and the impetus for increased labor activity ensuing from the National Industrial Recovery Act doubled the number of strikes in 1933.” Lewis L. Lorwin and Arthur Wubnig in their 1935 Brookings study of labor boards also cite the “business boomlet” as a cause of increased strikes. One of Roosevelt’s most admiring biographers credited the economy rather than the president’s program: “As business improved during 1933, workers flocked into unions.” Thus, along with the previous experience of the active layer of the class, the underlying economic conditions were clearly a major factor in spurring the upsurge—and then its collapse.12T.Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 63; Lewis L. Lorwin and Arthur Wubnig, Labor Relations Boards: The Regulation of Collective Bargaining under the National Industrial Recovery Act (Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1935), 89–90; James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, Inc, 1956), 43; William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940 (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963), 65.

Furthermore, Lyon says even of the 1933 July-September upswing in strikes that it was “intense, often quite spontaneous.” 13 Lyon et al., National Recovery Administration, 489, 495–496; Burns, Roosevelt, 43; Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 43.Spontaneity, of course, is the explanation for rank-and-file worker self-activity and agency that is often not visible (or believable) to mainstream academics and experts, along with the lack of identifiable, known officials. Would this upswing in strikes have occurred or been as pronounced at that time if there had been no economic recovery or prior working-class experience? As Mike Davis pointed out, the 1933 upsurge “owed nothing to the benevolent hand of John L. Lewis and other official leaders.” Most of the strikes of 1933 were led by “unofficial vanguards” of Communists and other radicals, on the one hand, and skilled workers with “neo-syndicalist craft traditions,” on the other—with the two sometimes overlapping.14Davis, Prisoners, 52–59.Even if we don’t dismiss the initial psychological effect of Section 7(a) altogether, we can see that a significant change in the economic situation, the developing experience, and the demonstration effect of earlier strikes encouraged more workers to seek redress of grievances and protection through organization and strikes on their own—“spontaneously” it seems.

What in the estimate of the Brookings’ NRA study came after 1933—as the economy picked up and strike levels rose again in 1934—is even more significant for the worker-agency, “bottom-up” view, on the one hand, and the diminished power of 7(a) and the NRA, on the other:

“A new wave of strikes and a new upswing of union organizing began in March 1934, reaching a peak in the summer months. There was a new element in the situation which differentiated the movement of 1934 from that of the year before. By the spring of 1934 the labor groups had lost some of their earlier faith in the NRA and even in the NLB as agencies that might be helpful to their cause. There was a growing resentment in labor ranks against continued unemployment, inadequate weekly earnings, increasing discrimination on the part of employers against union workers, and the growth of company unions. The new temper made itself felt in a change of leadership in some unions, in greater pressure upon older leadership for more aggressive action, and in an outburst of labor militancy.”15Lyon et al., National Recovery Administration, 491.

The Brookings description of the 1934 strike wave is an academically cautious representation of the upsurge in which mass strikes led by leftists—notably the San Francisco longshore, Minneapolis Teamsters, and Toledo auto workers—were central. In addition, the 3,000-member strike of Philadelphia/Camden shipyard workers was led by Socialist Party members. All of these strikes also involved community and public mobilizations, often of the unemployed, and actions to pressure local and federal governments, as well as employers. By 1934, major sections of the class now had a larger experienced “militant minority” that was often led by Communist, Trotskyist, Musteite, left Socialist, and other radical leaders and workers to help direct and broaden the struggles. Few, if any, engaged in Democratic electoral politics at that time. Along with earlier strikes by mine, auto, and rubber workers, in particular, this direction included the move toward industrial unionism. To put it another way, because of underlying grievances, material conditions, prior experience, and the growth of a militant minority in many industries from the early 1930s onward, political class formation had advanced significantly by this time and workers were shaping the upsurge themselves—largely bypassing the NLB/NLRB and without any significant mainstream electoral involvement.

The positive effect of 7(a) not only faded rapidly but also did not have the outcome often attributed to it. U.S. union membership actually declined during the first year of NRA 7(a) from 3,050,000 in 1932 to 2,689,000 in 1933, a loss of 361,000 members—despite an upturn in the economy. No wonder workers lost faith in 7(a) and the NLB/NLRB and began calling the NRA the “National Run Around.” In 1934, the second year of 7(a), with workers better organized and led and more workers striking, they recouped the lost membership which rose to 3,088,000 by 399,000 members. This was accomplished overwhelmingly by the strike wave of 1934, in which a total of 762,367 workers struck specifically for recognition, compared to the 45,000 who took part in NLRB elections, many of whom had themselves been on strike.16Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 63–75; BLS, Handbook of Labor Statistics 1972, Bulletin 1735 (Washington DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1972), 333.

Who benefited most from the NRA?

The National Industrial Recovery Act was drafted in May, 1933 at the insistence of President Franklin Roosevelt as a means of stabilizing the economy and restarting growth, not to promote unions. The NIRA structure was based largely on proposals from businessmen like Gerard Swope of GE and Henry Harriman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, influenced by the First World War experience with War Industry Boards. Section 7(a) was added mainly as a result of pressure from union leaders and was copied from the 1932 Norris-La Guardia Act. By August, the labor boards were formed to handle the growing number of strikes. The reason for this addition was not that the government foresaw another 1919-style strike wave at that time, but, as Irving Bernstein argues, “The government feared that these stoppages would impede the recovery of business” which was the major object of the NRA.17Irving Bernstein, The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 31–32, 172–73; Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 56–58; James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt, 171–81.In their 1935 Brookings study of NRA labor boards, Lorwin and Wubnig drew the same conclusion about the need for stability, stating that, as a result, “The Board’s main efforts were to settle strikes.”18Lorwin and Wubnig, Labor Relations Boards, 87–88, 123.

Indeed, the NRA’s new national and regional labor boards intervened frequently where there were effective strikes in 1933–34 with the intent of ending them. That included the mass strikes in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis in 1934. For example, as the Minneapolis Teamster strike continued in August 1934, the federal mediator who demanded that the union make concessions to end their strike said, “[T]he strike must be settled: Washington insists.” 19Bryan Palmer, Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strike of 1934 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 207–08.The workers rejected the demand for concessions and went on to force the employers to make the concessions instead, winning a significant victory for industrial unionism. The first successful industrial union of the period outside the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America (IUMSWA), which formed in 1933 at New York Ship in the Port of Philadelphia/Camden. As in the other 1934 strikes, the shipyard workers union included socialists in its grassroots leadership. Its 3,000 members struck for over a month that year, completely closing the shipyard and halting Navy ship production. As historian David Palmer summarized the shipbuilding workers’ experience with the NRA, “As early as summer 1933, New York Ship trade unionists learned that they could not rely on either the NRA’s IRC [Industrial Relations Committee] or the NLB to help them win their demands.” The 1934 strike, especially given the importance of Navy contracts, and a union-led public pressure campaign directed at the Department of the Navy won significant gains.20David Palmer, Organizing the Shipyards: Union Strategy in Three Ports, 1933–1945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 7, 22, 40–52.

National Recovery Act logo. Image from the Library of Congress.

The NRA did not favor unions over employers, which is one reason that its actual impact was limited to a brief psychological effect. In order to stabilize the economy and establish “codes” for industry, it promised access to the right of self-organization to both sides in the capital-labor relation and encouraged cooperation between the two. Section 1 of the act promised “to provide for the general welfare by promoting the organization of industry for the purpose of cooperative action among trade groups, to induce and maintain united action of labor and management under adequate governmental sanctions and supervision.”21National Archive, Transcript, “National Industrial Recovery Act,” n.p.This represented an asymmetric class compromise in which industry received immunity from antitrust laws while workers were given only a vague right to seek representation. Pre-existing trade associations and other well-established business organizations, as well as companies themselves, gave capital a distinct advantage in establishing and dominating industry codes. Where union representation existed in the “code” administration, it was almost invariably with an AFL bureaucrat hostile to industrial unionism, as in the shipyards22Palmer, Shipyards, 22.

It was actually capital, therefore, that gained greater leverage under the NRA, both in terms of industry codes they dominated and, as we will see below, in the form of company unions. Without restraints on the power of capital, it could hardly be otherwise, given the highly unequal power of capital and labor in the employment relationship. Specifically, as the Brookings’ study of the labor boards concluded, 7(a) “did not require recognition of existing trade unions…as exclusive agencies for collective bargaining,” “outlaw company unions,” or “compel employers to come to terms with employee representatives.”23Lorwin and Wubnig, Labor Relations Boards, 449.Even more damning, as Brookings’ Leverette Lyon wrote, the top NRA administrators and lawyers “fostered the self-organization of employers for collective action, while trying to be ‘neutral’ towards organized labor. The NRA thus threw its weight against labor in the balance of bargaining power between capital and labor.”24Lyon et al., National Recovery Administration, 465.

One result of this pro-employer bias was that, from 1932 to 1934, company unions grew from 1,263,194 to between 2,5000,000 to 3,000,000 by Lyon’s estimate, at least doubling. Over that same period, the unions, on the other hand, gained a net increase of just 38,000 members. The employers resisted union recognition and genuine bargaining, understanding perfectly “that 7(a) did not exclude company unions as agencies for collective bargaining” and acted accordingly.25Daniel Nelson, “The Company Union Movement, 1900–1937: A Re-examination,” The Business History Review, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Autumn 1982), 338; Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook, 333; Lyon et al., National Recovery Administration, 465–66, 523–24.That, as Blanc points out, some union members were dragged into these company unions only underlines the imbalance of the law and its administration.

The NRA’s pro-employer bias was illustrated in the case of the all-important Automobile Labor Board. After Roosevelt himself intervened in March 1934, as Bernstein wrote, “The auto companies won a total victory on the application of 7(a) to their industry.”26Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 184.That ruling, in turn, paved the way for the more complex but even worse NRA setup in the southern textile industry, which was completely dominated by capital and its allies, with the complicity of Washington. Janet Iron’s detailed account of this history describes a workforce that was at first grateful to Roosevelt, the NRA, and 7(a) but rapidly became disillusioned and angry with both the NLB and the board set up to administer the industry code. After reviewing its major rulings to allegedly protect workers attempting to organize, she concludes that the “entire board structure was a charade.”

The textile workers strike, the biggest in 1934, went down to defeat as a result of the United Textile Workers’ leaders’ dependence on the NRA set up, fear of more militant tactics, and reluctance to seek broader alliances. In what Irons called a “revealing epitaph” to the lost strike, Francis Gorman, who was in charge of much of the strike, wrote in 1936,

“Many of us did not understand what we do now: that the government protects the strong, not the weak, and that it operates under pressure and yields to that group which is strong enough to assert itself over the other…. We know now that we are naïve to depend on the forces of Government to protect us.”

To counteract the power of capital, he called for an independent labor party and in the unions “rank and file democracy and collective leadership.”27Janet Irons, Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 63–96, 163–64.All a little late in the game.

What about those Minneapolis Trotskyists of Teamster Local 574? Did they, in fact, depend on the government and 7(a) or was it their mass strikes that led to the organization of an industrial union? Blanc cites strike leader and author Farrell Dobbs as saying the declaration of 7(a) “helped along the process of unionization.” The rest of this sentence, however, is crucial: “even though the workers were to find themselves mistaken in their belief that the capitalist government would actually protect their rights.”28Blanc, “Can Laws,” citing Ferrell Dobbs, Teamster Rebellion (New York: Monad Press, 1972), 71–72, 90. The quote Blanc cites is actually on page 51.Which is just what, as we have seen, happened. This whole quote referred to their organizing in 1933 when, as Dobbs also wrote, the NRA was “newly adopted,” that is, in that brief moment when 7(a) seemed to have some psychological force. The organizing the Minneapolis Trotskyists had been engaged in since 1930 finally led to a strike of coal drivers in February 1934 that forced gains from the employers and eventually led to a regional labor board election they won by 77 percent. The strike, that is, led the board to organize the election. By May, Local 574 had surpassed its craft origins as coal drivers and “some two to three thousand workers in the broad trucking sector were sporting Local 574 buttons.”29Palmer, Revolutionary Teamsters, 58–60.Later in the year, it would have about 7,000 members due to its intense organizing and mass strike. The struggle had intensified in 1934—as the Brookings study itself indicated more broadly concerning the “new element in the situation which differentiated the movement of 1934 from that of the year before.”30Lyon et al, National Recovery Administration, 491.

Dobbs later writes of Local 574’s leadership’s attitude toward government policy, “Under pressures of such a fierce struggle, maneuvers detrimental to the union could be expected from the Labor Board and from Governor Olsen.” And, indeed, Local 574 and its Trotskyist leaders engaged in numerous tactics in relation to the Farmer-Labor Party and Governor Floyd Olsen, the regional labor board, and the NLRB. The union and its revolutionary leaders stuck by their demands and their militant actions—even when the Farmer-Labor governor imposed military law and arrested many of Local 574’s leaders and activists. What they avoided was a descent into electoral politicking that would have made them dependent on Governor Olsen and his administration and diverted the struggle at that time.

Furthermore, when Dobbs reflects on how the “workers’ illusions about capitalist democracy” played out, it was not the rights under 7(a) or the electoral process that the rank-and-file seized, but that of self-defense in the form of clubs in order to fight the police and deputy sheriffs “club against club.” This they did successfully in May until the governor was forced to call in the employers and the labor board to work out a truce—almost entirely on the union’s terms. In fact, the historic July-August Teamster strike of 1934 led to an NLRB representation election, putting its revolutionary leaders in the minority that used this procedure, and ended in arbitration, which was strictly voluntary under the NRA.31Dobbs, Teamster Rebellion, 71–72, 80–91, 180–82So, while Local 574 took advantage of these NRA institutions, to the workers and leaders alike this was seen as a victory due to a long and hard-fought mass struggle that had forced the employers and the government to accept this outcome. The government itself had no legal power to bring the employers to this outcome.

In the July strike, the strikers forced the hand of the employers, the governor, and the federal mediators and achieved a material result in higher living standards and permanent union organization. The settlement was not a complete and total victory, but it laid the basis for the growth of Local 574 on an industrial basis. Clearly, workers’ agency was at the center of the Minneapolis Teamster story. One has only to read Teamster Rebellion or Bryan Palmer’s Revolutionary Teamsters concerning the conditions and demands of workers, the early organizing that began years before the 1934 strike, the role of revolutionary leaders, the incredible strike preparations and execution, and the shaping of Local 574 from a craft to an industrial union to see clearly that neither the will to strike, the organization to win it, nor the industrial character of the union were dependent on 7(a) or the NRA more generally. Instead, the material needs and growing consciousness of the workers themselves, their revolutionary leaders, and the strategy and tactics they developed to win—that is, worker agency—were decisive.

Front page of The Organizer, August 22, 1934. Image from Minnesota Digital Library. Minneapolis Trotskyist electoral practice

The Minneapolis Trotskyists’ electoral practice in the mid-1930s followed the building of Local 574 into a strong industrial union and was both limited and contradictory. The Trotskyist Communist League of America rejected working through the Democratic Party on principle. It also did not participate in the nationwide labor party movement of 1935–36 on the (misguided) grounds that the period contained revolutionary possibilities that would bypass (or be blocked by) a reformist labor party. Yet, in 1935 the Minneapolis Trotskyists adopted a policy of “critical support” for Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party candidates. The actual involvement of Local 574’s Trotskyist leaders in electoral politics began with supporting the Farmer-Labor Party’s candidate for mayor of Minneapolis in 1935. In 1936, during their “entry” into the Socialist Party, they backed Norman Thomas for president and ran Trotskyist Teamster activist V. R. Dunne for state office on the Socialist Party ticket, while at the same time offering “a highly qualified endorsement” of the Farmer-Labor Party as the “political party to which labor unions are affiliated.”32Kristoffer Smemo, “The Politics of Labor Militancy in Minneapolis, 1934–1938,” Masters Thesis 1911, 2014, University of Massachusetts, 54, 83; Farrell Dobbs, Teamster Politics (New York: Monad Press, 1975), 57, 61–71, 74, 81–82.

By the time of the 1934 strikes, the beginnings of the move from craft to industrial unionism…were the work of the workers and their grassroots leaders themselves. All of the left-led strikes of 1934 had this industrial rather than craft character. There was nothing in the law or government policy of the early New Deal to encourage these outcomes.

Blanc’s contention concerning 7(a) and the NRA, however, isn’t just that they had some initial psychological impact, but, to repeat, “that Section 7(a) played a major role in boosting and shaping the era’s labor insurgency” (emphasis added)33Blanc, “Can Laws.”This is a far bigger proposition than saying that 7(a) inspired some workers, many of whom were already in motion, to strike or organize when it first became law. Even if we give 7(a) some credit for this, along with the upturn in the economy and the workers’ own prior organization and experience, by mid-1933 neither 7(a) nor the NRA generally played a role in shaping the direction and forms of unionism of that moment, much less for the era.

By the time of the 1934 strikes, the beginnings of the move from craft to industrial unionism and the democratic and grassroots nature of most of the new emerging efforts to unionize were the work of the workers and their grassroots leaders themselves. All of the Left-led strikes of 1934 had this industrial rather than craft character. There was nothing in the law or government policy of the early New Deal to encourage these outcomes. All of this took place before the major New Deal legislation of 1935 that produced Social Security, the Works Progress Administration, the NLRA, and more stringent industry regulation.

Electoral reality: pre-1936

The whole point of Blanc’s exercise is to convince us that electoral politics via the Democratic Party are necessary to the success of any worker upsurge, including presumably the uptick in organizing now going on in the United States, and even for “working-class politics.” Putting aside Blanc’s overly rosy picture of the New Deal, this idea has little basis in reality. Beyond primitive lobbying or the involvement of some unions in local politics, electoral action via the Democratic Party by organized labor or the Left at that time was inconsequential prior to 1936.

In 1932 organized labor was weak, politically divided, and devoid of an electoral strategy or organization. As Blanc notes, neither the AFL nor the Mine Workers even endorsed Roosevelt. At the same time, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the International Ladies Garment Workers backed Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party candidate. The Communist and Socialist Parties both ran independent campaigns in opposition to the two major parties. Disgust with the Republicans by the 1932 election certainly gave the Democrats a big majority in Congress, as well as the presidency. As historian Irving Bernstein wrote in his account of the 1932 election, however, “The labor unions as organizations made virtually no contribution to Roosevelt’s victory.” As a consequence, “Roosevelt owed the labor movement nothing for his victory.”34Bernstein, The Lean Years: A History of the American Workers, 1920–1933 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 511–12.

The capitalist politicians who carried the National Industrial Recovery Act through Congress in 1933 were a coalition of urban machine operatives, Dixiecrats, liberals, mostly from the Northeast like the Tammany Hall Democrat Robert Wagner, or patrician reformers like Roosevelt in legislative alliance with a significant number of liberal Republicans. Roosevelt and the Democrats won the Eastern and Southern European “ethnic” (mostly Catholic) urban working-class vote. However, that vote was not organized or delivered by the weak and politically insular AFL unions, the garment unions, conservative railroad brotherhoods, or even the more aggressive miners, who were, in any case, not urban-based, much less led by the political Left. It is not tenable to argue or imply that 7(a) or the early New Deal generally were in any way an example of effective organized electoral action by labor or the Left. They were largely the result of the response of politicians to both the Depression itself and the rising social discontent of the previous three years (see below). Nor did electoral action play a role in the mass strikes of the early New Deal or the movement toward industrial unionism.

The whole point of Blanc’s exercise is to convince us that electoral politics via the Democratic Party are necessary to the success of any worker upsurge … Putting aside Blanc’s overly rosy picture of the New Deal, this idea has little basis in reality.

The rise of the Democrats first in Congress and then to the presidency, which led to the political realignment that emerged in 1932, was largely the result of a demographic shift long in the making. By the 1920s much of the population moved from farm to city and, as political scientist Samuel Lubell emphasized, millions of the children of immigrants came of voting age, which made the urban white “ethnic” working-class vote a major factor in elections. It was this process that made the Democrats a majority party and reinforced the Democratic state and local parties and machines over this period as they expanded their “ethnic” base beyond the Irish. In the 1928 presidential election Democrat Al Smith, who was Catholic, won the urban vote for the Democrats for the first time, while more non-Southern Democrats were sent to Congress—a precursor of 1932. While the 1920s were the heyday of the old machines, the New Deal presented some new opportunities in terms of federal relief and jobs for these and newer urban machines with a now broader base as Roosevelt sought to increase and sustain his majority.35Samuel Lubell, The Future of American Politics, 2nd ed. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956), 29–54; Steven P. Erie, Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840–1985 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 107–39; Leuchtenburg, Franklin Roosevelt, 116–17; Burns, Roosevelt, 218–20; Bernstein, Lean Years, 508–13.Organized labor, on the other hand, was weak and depleted.

Roosevelt won by a large majority in 1932, but with a low voter turnout of 52.6 percent. This was, nevertheless, accompanied by huge gains for the Democrats in Congress in 1932 (97 more in the House and 12 in the Senate) in reaction to the depression and Republican policies. This was followed by more gains in 1934 (six more in the House and ten in the Senate). The Democrats’ gains in 1934 were unusual for a midterm election, when the president’s party typically loses seats in Congress. No doubt the 1934 election was in part a referendum on Roosevelt, but as one of the few full-length studies of midterm elections put it, the 1934 election was seen as “not just an endorsement of Roosevelt but as a plea for even greater reformism.”36Andrew Busch, Horses in Midstream: U.S. Midterm Elections and Their Consequences, 1894–1998 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999), 138–44; Eric Lief Davin, “The Very Last Hurrah? The Defeat of the Labor Party Idea, 1934–1936,” in Staughton Lynd, ed., “We Are All Leaders”: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 121–22.This, in turn, reinforces Goldfield’s assessment, cited by Blanc, that the results of the 1934 midterm election were “in good part reflected in the Depression-inspired demands and attitudes of the vast majority of the population.” 37Goldfield, quoted in Eric Blanc, “Revisiting the Wagner Act.”

The idea that Roosevelt was leading a pro-labor crusade is far from reality. Prior to 1936, the working-class vote came through traditional channels. As a leading study of urban machines put it, rather than being some left-pro-labor crusade,

“Roosevelt’s patronage treatment of the big-city Irish bosses demonstrated his reluctance to promote an ideological revolution within the Democratic Party. Rather than a long-term strategy of turning the states into New Deal bastions, FDR was more interested in short-term electoral results.”38Erie, Rainbow’s End, 139; Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Part 2 (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1975), 1071; United States House of Representatives, Party Divisions of the House of Representatives, 1789 to Present, https://history.house.gov/Instiution/Party-Divisions/.

James MacGregor Burns, one of Roosevelt’s major biographers, was even more explicit: “He did not conceive of himself as the leader of a majority on the Left, as a party leader building a new alignment of political power.” Rather he was a “political broker” whose goals “could be achieved by coaxing and conciliating leaders of major interest groups into a great national partnership.” Thus, “the politics of broker leadership brought short-term political gains at the expense, perhaps, of long-term advances.”39Burns, Roosevelt, 197–98.Beginning in 1935, the allocation of WPA jobs via selected urban machines would become key in further building his majority in 1936. Only later, as opposition to the New Deal grew after the 1936 election, even among Democrats, would FDR attempt to combat his internal conservative opposition—and with little success.

In 1934, the Left and at least a significant sector of union activists still pursued independent political action. The Socialist and Communist parties still ran candidates against the major parties. The leftist leaders of the militant strikes of 1934 did not support Democrats, much less mobilize their members to do so. The garment unions had not yet converted to the Democrats. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), as a committee inside the AFL, was not formed until the fall of 1935. Indeed, despite all the strikes and the moves toward industrial unionism in 1934, none of the major new industrial unions had yet been formed, organized labor as a whole was fragmented, and union membership, though it grew that year, was still below that of the mid-1920s and scarcely above that of 1932. Roosevelt, in turn, showed little interest in courting the unions or advancing unionism in 1934. On the contrary, as we have seen, his interest was in creating stability in part by curbing the strike movement via the NRA and its labor boards and industry codes.40Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics Part 2, 1071; Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 218, 400–02; Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook, 333; Lorwin and Wubnig, Labor Relations Boards, 87–90; Preis, Giant Step, passim

With a recovery in 1934, the number of strikes and strikers nevertheless exploded by spring of that year and increased again in the spring of 1935, undermining the whole NRA edifice in practice. Despite the efforts of the labor boards, the administration had no workable means of stemming the tide of rebellion or addressing the growing demand for further reforms in the face of the deepening social crisis. Then, on “Black Monday,” May 27, 1935, the Supreme Court ruled the NIRA unconstitutional. This left the government with no labor policy at all in the face of rising strike activity by May and, more importantly, no framework for sustaining the recovery. The strike wave, the increased role of radicals, and this crisis—more than the positive election results or the enthusiasm of a few New Deal “brain trusters”—forced the administration and Congress to act and address the growing demands for more radical measures. Roosevelt halted the adjournment of Congress and began what is known as the Second New Deal or Second Hundred Days, which went far beyond the first two years of his administration, creating Social Security and the WPA, as well as new permanent industry regulations, and, learning from the weaknesses of the NIRA, establishing the Wagner Act, which was signed into law in July 1935.41Mike Goldfield, “Worker Insurgency, Radical Organization, and New Deal Labor Legislation,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (December 1989),1270–82; Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 150–51; Burns, Roosevelt, 218–20; Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 639; Davin, “Last Hurrah?” 117–71; Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 45–46.

Electoral reality: 1936 and beyond

The 1936 election was the first in which the CIO unions played a significant role—only after most of the New Deal legislation we are familiar with had already been passed. In April 1936, the CIO leadership formed Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL), specifically to mobilize the union vote for Roosevelt, backed mostly by the CIO unions and funded primarily by the United Mine Workers. One aspect of the new LNPL was, as Art Preis put it, “to be a bridge back from independent political action for hundreds of thousands of unionists who then customarily voted Socialist or Communist or were clamoring at the time for a labor party.”42Preis, Labor’s Giant Step, 47; Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 449; Davin, “Last Hurrah?” 117–71; Robert Zieger, The CIO 1935–1955 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 39; Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 449–50.As we will see below, despite Blanc’s effort to dismiss it, there was in fact a widespread movement for a labor party in 1935–36. The LNPL even created the American Labor Party in New York State to capture the garment workers’ traditional Socialist vote, as Bernstein also noted.43Mike Goldfield, “Worker Insurgency, Radical Organization, and New Deal Labor Legislation,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (December 1989),1270–82; Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 150–51; Burns, Roosevelt, 218–20; Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 639; Davin, “Last Hurrah?” 117–71; Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 45–46.

While the LNPL represented the first such national electoral mobilization by unions and contributed to the majority won by Roosevelt and the further gains by Democrats in Congress, most of the newer industrial unions were still numerically and organizationally weak at the time of the November 1936 election. In fact, voter turnout was not particularly high at 56.9 percent. As Robert Zieger pointed out in his history of the CIO, “In an election in which Roosevelt captured 60 percent of the two-party vote and 523 electoral votes, even labor’s contribution could hardly have been decisive.”44Zieger, The CIO, 40; Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 449–50.Roosevelt could count.

Then, beginning in early 1937, the situation changed radically as strikes exploded and union membership took its biggest leap in the decade from 4,164,000 in 1936 to 7,218,000.45Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook, 333.This “giant step” was not a result of the NLRA being declared constitutional in May 1937 or of the NLRB in general, as Blanc implies when he writes that “[t]he new pro-labor National Labor Relations Board played a pivotal role in aiding workers’ militant unionization efforts.”46Eric Blanc, “Should Labor Support Democrats?”In fact, nearly two-thirds of the 1,860,621 million workers who struck altogether in 1937 did so between January and May, before the NLRA had any legitimacy or conducted a significant number of elections.47Peterson, Strikes in 1937, 3.Furthermore, of the just over 3 million new union members in 1937, only 389,657 workers, or 13 percent, voted in an NLRB representation election in that year, compared to the 1.2 million who struck for recognition.48Emily Marks and Mary Bartlett, “Employee Elections Conducted by National Labor Relations Board,” Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 47, No. 1 (July 1938), 33; Florence Peterson, Analysis of Strikes in 1937 (Washington DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1938), 15.In addition, countless other workers benefited from those strikes, such as those who won voluntary recognition at U.S. Steel in the wake of the General Motors sit-down strike, when U.S. Steel boss Myron Taylor, aware of the turbulent United Auto Workers (UAW) victory and in the face of a growing Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee’s drive, calculated that a company victory over a strike would not be worth the “terrible cost in lives, in ill-will, in business, and in property,” as Bernstein reported.49Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 467.

The limits to which the new NLRB aided worker organization were dramatically demonstrated in the 1937 Textile Workers’ Organizing Committee (TWOC) drive to organize southern textile workers. The hope of employer cooperation and reliance on the “pro-labor” NLRB and its elections pushed by New Deal enthusiast and TWOC chief Sidney Hillman rather than worker action and militancy in the crucial 1937 drive led to defeat in southern textiles as mill owners ignored or resisted NLRB rulings, the NLRB processes and court challenges dragged out, and the federal government took no direct action on behalf of the workers. As one of the major historians of the TWOC campaign put it, “The TWOC campaign in southern cotton textiles in 1937 and after and its use of the Wagner Act dramatically demonstrated that federal legislation was not a substitute for union power and that legislation by itself did nothing to create union power.”50James A. Hodges, New Deal Labor Policy and the Southern Cotton Textile Industry, 1933–1941 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), 161–68. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 621.By 1939, a mere seven percent of the South’s 350,000 cotton mill workers had been organized.

It was above all the victory of the General Motors sit-down strikers in February 1937 that sparked the upsurge of strikes from March through May 1937 and, in turn, led to rapid union growth. The UAW sit-down strikers at GM in Flint, Michigan, who initiated this upsurge rejected the use of the NLRB out of hand—both because they were certain GM would ignore NLRB rulings and because they were unsure they could win an election. They chose direct action in the form of sit-down strikes (plant occupations) to galvanize the workforce instead. As a result, UAW membership grew from 88,000 in February to 254,000 by April, before the NLRA was declared constitutional, and without resort to the NLRB. After GM recognized the UAW in February, the number of workers initiating strikes in all industries rose from 99,335 in February to 290,324 in March, 321,572 in April, and 325,499 in May, after which the number of strikers declined. The number of sit-down strikers rose from 31,236 in February to 167,210 in March–all before the NLRA was declared constitutional or a significant number of workers took advantage of its election procedures.51Fine, Sit-Down, 329–31; Peterson, Strikes in 1937, 3, 181–82, 327.

Furthermore, the whole post-reelection FDR/New Deal/CIO honeymoon didn’t last long. In June 1937, only three months after the beginning of his second term and about four after the UAW-GM settlement, Roosevelt, exasperated by the intransigence (class struggle) of both sides in the “Little Steel” strikes, but apparently unmoved by the sea of blood the employers and their police had unleashed on the strikers, publicly declared, “A plague on both your houses.”52Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 496.This was a particularly sharp slap in the face to labor, since the CIO leaders had mobilized voters for Roosevelt in the steel towns. As Zieger writes, from the point of view of the CIO leaders, “The election victory permitted the CIO to redirect its attention to the steel campaign,” only to have FDR denounce the union as well as the steel companies.53Zieger, The CIO, 40.

In August, an even more tangible assault on the working-class took hold when FDR began drastically cutting relief and job programs to reduce the federal deficit and plunged the economy into “The Roosevelt Recession.”54Preis, Labor’s Giant Step, 72–73.Successful organizing all but ground to a halt, while NLRB representation elections that were supposed to aid “workers’ militant unionization efforts” slowed to a crawl, with 282,470 workers casting ballots in those elections “won by some form of labor organization” from July 1937 to June 1938 (the NLRB’s fiscal year), declining to 138,032 from July 1938 to June 1939. 55National Labor Relations Board. Third Annual Report, Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1938 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1939), 50; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Activities of the National Labor Relations Board, 1938–39,” Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 50, No. 3 (March 1940), 616.By 1938, CIO membership stagnated and then actually fell by 1940, even before the mineworkers pulled out in 1941, and despite an uptick in the economy.56Peterson, Strikes in 1937, 3; BLS, Handbook, 332.

With the CIO bureaucracy locked into the Democratic coalition and administration with the support of the Communist Party and its union leaders, and the economy in recession, it would take the wartime recovery to boost union membership significantly. The major policy “reward” for labor’s electoral support in 1936 was a slap in the face and the economic consequences of the “Roosevelt Recession,” which were a great deal more than “psychological.” Just what positive political lesson are we supposed to draw from this dismal picture?

New York rally of the American Labor Party in support of F.D.R. for the 1940 elections. Photo from the collection of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, photographer unknown. How working-class rebellion took shape

The long-term upsurge in strikes and organization that took a sharp turn in mid-1933 and lasted, with ups and downs through mid-1937, did not appear magically out of nowhere. Like all such spikes in the class struggle, it had a pre-history that made it possible. Prior to Roosevelt’s election in 1932 and the early New Deal, many of the first signs of working-class rebellion and organization in response to the Great Depression took the form of increased disruptive developments, such as unemployed organizations that grew to 350,000 to 400,000 members, their mass demonstrations, grocery store “mob lootings,” forced eviction reversals, hunger marches, farmers’ “strikes” and “holidays,” the veterans’ “Bonus March,” and, as we will see below, strikes. The radical-led unemployed organizations not only provided support for strikes in the early and mid-1930s, but also directly built the militant minority when unemployed activists returned to work as the economy picked up.57Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 41–95; Michael Goldfield, The Southern Key: Class, Race and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 88–98; Bernstein, Lean Years, 416–55.

These sometimes violent and frequently disruptive forms of workers’ struggle against the desperate conditions of unemployment, housing evictions, inadequate public relief, and employer speed-up and wage-cutting of the early Great Depression provided accumulated experience, leadership, and development within the working-class, much of it led by radical organizations that would also play key roles in the rise of industrial unionism.58For further details on the role of the Left, see Sidney Lens, Left, Right and Center: Conflicting Forces in American Labor (Hinsdale, IL: Henry Regnery Company, 1949), 252–66; Goldfield, Southern Key, 87–106.That is the process of rebuilding the internal grassroots networks, organization, and leadership of the class that had been largely destroyed in the wake of the defeat of the 1919–22 strike wave, the “Red Scares” that accompanied this and the recurrent recessions of the 1920s.

The long-term upsurge in strikes and organization that took a sharp turn in mid-1933 and lasted with ups and downs through mid-1937 did not appear magically out of nowhere. Like all such spikes in the class struggle it had a pre-history that made it possible.

As the Washington Star reported of the class nature of the veterans’ bonus marchers who were sweeping across the country in the spring of 1932, seizing trains and disrupting daily life in one city after another, “They are truck drivers and blacksmiths, steel workers and coal miners, stenographers and common laborers. They are black and white.”59Bernstein, Lean Years, 438–39.And, as we also know, many of these various pre-New Deal actions, events, and organizations were led by political leftists and organizations. In short, this was worker self-activity, providing organized experience and the beginnings of the formation of a militant minority based partly among communists and socialists of various types with experience in these early organized struggles. Even at the depth of the Depression in 1931–32, strike activity resumed an upward trend after falling by every measure from 1923 to 1930. Blanc fails to see the continuity in these earlier movements and the rise of strikes.

Table II shows the decline and rise of strikes, strikers, and (where statistics are available) days on strike from the post–World War I upsurge in 1919 through 1932, prior to the business and strike upswing in 1933. It was undoubtedly this huge 1919–22 strike wave—described in of the major Brookings’ study of the NRA as “the greatest industrial battle witnessed in American history”—that the authors had in mind when they wrote that no “machinery for handling labor disputes” was initially included in the NIRA by its drafters because, to them, as Blanc cites, “acute labor strife … seemed remote.” The authors of the report also wrote off such an upsurge because they thought “labor would have little to strike for, since the codes would fix maximum hours and minimum wages, abolish child labor, and improve working conditions generally.”60Lorwin and Wubnig, Labor Relations Boards, 15–16, 87.They could hardly have been more wrong on both counts.

After the number of strikes and strikers hit their low point in 1930, at the depth of the Depression and prior to the New Deal, the number of strikers rose again, approaching the level of the mid-1920s under the worst economic and political conditions of the era. The number of days on strike rose much faster, suggesting that the strikes of this period were prolonged and often lost. Many were in opposition to wage cuts and speed-up. Nevertheless, a few hundred thousand workers, sometimes led by leftists, dared to defy their bosses and gained experience in collective action in the form of strikes, many in industries that would figure in the next upswing in struggle. Notable among these strikers were the coal miners, who would play a key role in the future of industrial unionism and whose wildcat and often Communist- or radical-led strikes swept across Kentucky and West Virginia, the central competitive coalfields, and Pennsylvania in 1931 and 1932.61Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Part 1 (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1975), 178; Bernstein, Lean Years, 377–89; Michael Goldfield, Southern Key, 61–63.All of these developments came prior to the election of Roosevelt, the early New Deal, and Section 7(a) of the NIRA, which commonly receive so much credit for the upsurge of the second half of 1933.

There are, of course, no statistics on the development of a “militant minority” or its politically left-wing core. But we can get a rough idea of the growth of this radical core from that of the working-class-oriented Left of the era. According to figures compiled by Goldfield, the Communist Party, which played a central role in all the developments from 1930 through the upsurge of 1936–37, grew from 7,500 members in 1930 to 24,500 in 1934, by the time of the major strikes, and then to some 42,000 or so in 1936, at the beginning of the major upsurge that led to the growth of the CIO. 62Goldfield, Southern Key, 352.
The Socialist Party grew from an estimated 9,840 in 1930 to about 19,000 in 1935.63Marxists.org, “The Socialist Party of America, 1897–1946,” https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/eam/spa/socialistparty.html.Its members played leading roles in the early strikes and organization in auto and shipyards, as well as the older established needle trades.

The smaller Trotskyist Communist League of America and the Musteite American Workers Party, both of which formed in this period, played key roles in a number of strikes from at least early 1933.64Preis, Labor’s Giant Step, 19–37; Blanc dismisses the role of the Left of the early 1930s because it was smaller than that of 1919. This is an ahistorical analysis since that of the 1919–22 period was essentially destroyed. He is comparing the end of a period of struggle with the beginning of another one. Eric Blanc, “Revisiting the Wagner Act.”Members of all these groups had also been active in the early organization of the unemployed and other community-based struggles mentioned above. It was often these various radicals who provided the links between the earlier forms of struggle and the strike wave that began in 1933.

In other words, by the time of the mid-1933 upturn in strikes Blanc attributes to 7(a), there were already hundreds of thousands of workers with organizing experience and a sizable political core to the militant minority participating in an increase in strikes and organizing. It were these developments, above all, that laid the groundwork for the worker upsurge of the New Deal era and made it the giant, if partial, step forward, mainly in the form of the CIO.

The inevitability of hindsight vs. the imperative of political choices

In his fourth installment, Blanc goes further still in “proving” that the possibility of a mass socialist movement, a labor party, or any type of new independent Left political action or organization in the New Deal era was zero. In a fact-filled narrative, Blanc argues that whatever sentiment there might have been for independent political action, it simply did not (and could not) take hold. Perhaps inadvertently, he also shows that all the efforts by the insurgent CIO unions through semi-independent “party surrogate” type organizations in several states failed to dislodge the Democratic conservative “regulars” or move the Democratic Party to the left. Not even the belated efforts of Roosevelt himself—the most powerful president to date and the pioneer of the modern federal executive and “imperial presidency,” who used his huge Congressional majority to bring the Supreme Court to heel—could defeat his own party’s conservative wing in party primaries or undo their growing alliance with right-wing Republicans.65Burns, Roosevelt, 358–80

The culprit of all this political inertia, it seems to Blanc, was not the Democrats themselves or even organized capital, but the “political system,” public opinion, and the electorate. Poll after poll at the time, Blanc reveals, showed the public didn’t like strikes or industrial unions, while the ultimate poll, the first-past-the-post election system from primary to president, supposedly showed the urban working-class masses to be solid regular Democrats to the end—even though only a little more than half of all those eligible to vote did so in presidential elections and less than half in the midterms. In short, Blanc has argued that nothing other than what happened, just as it happened, was possible. Or to put it another way, what did happen was inevitable.

On the question of a labor party, which you would expect him to be sympathetic to, Blanc quotes Eric Davin’s conclusion, “There were and are almost insurmountable cultural, psychological, and structural obstacles built into the U.S. political system that argue against the success of any third party—labor or otherwise.” This generic assessment would seem to preclude independent working-class politics as much today as back then. But, even aside from the modifier “almost,” Davin goes on in the next sentence to say, “Still, in the face of these systemic hurdles, in the mid-thirties major sections of both the leadership and rank and file of organized labor struggled to fulfill the ancient dream of a labor party.”66Davin, “Last Hurrah?” 124.Confronting “systemic hurdles,” after all, is what socialists do.

Davin’s study, in fact, reveals a nationwide movement for a labor party based in “major sections” of organized labor in the wake of the huge strike wave of 1934. As he notes, “Every major center of industrial unrest in 1934, from Toledo to San Francisco, witnessed labor party activity in 1935.” According to an earlier study by Davin with Staughton Lynd, twenty-three cities actually saw labor parties launched and candidates fielded, with some winning office, while ten central labor councils in other cities voted in favor of one. So did the state labor federations of Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Jersey. Their case study of Berlin, New Hampshire, shows that the labor party there elected city councilors and/or mayors into the early 1940s. By 1936, the labor party movement spread to at least 22 states, with varying degrees of strength. Most of the major industrial unions except the miners voted for a labor party at their conventions in 1935, while at that year’s AFL convention, the Textile Workers’ resolution for a labor party lost by a narrow delegate vote of 104 to 108, though the opposing delegates represented the larger older unions and potentially more roll call votes. At its 1936 convention the United Mine Workers’ delegates, in defiance of John Lewis, passed a labor party resolution. So did those at the UAW convention that year—although Lewis browbeat the UAW delegates into also endorsing Roosevelt.67Davin, “Last Hurrah?,” 123–33; Eric Lief Davin and Staughton Lynd, Picket Line and Ballot Box: The Forgotten Legacy of the Labor Party Movement, 1932–1936 (Pittsburgh: Davin Books, 2018), 12, 37; Goldfield, Southern Key, 68.There was, in other words, an independent class-based political dynamic taking shape as class conflict intensified.

It was the collective political choice by the industrial union leaders to draw their members into electoral politics in an organized manner via a party of capital that had no membership and no democratic structures through which to affect its policies that set the course for which the U.S. working-class has paid dearly ever since.

Furthermore, Davin argues that at that time, “The loyalty of organized labor and the new urban working-class voter to FDR and the Democrats was therefore not a foregone conclusion and had to be won after intense, continuing, and delicate internal struggle.”68Davin, “Last Hurrah?” 123. Emphasis in original.That the leaders of the CIO recognized this problem is clear from the nature of the way in which they sought to win the workers’ loyalty to FDR and the Democrats and thwart the labor party movement through the formation of Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL) in April 1936. It was, as Davin argues, this labor party activity that encouraged the specific formation of an organization like the LNPL and why “top CIO leaders were so deliberately vague about the eventual political trajectory of Labor’s Non-Partisan League—into putative independent political action along the lines of New York’s American Labor Party or into an enduring alliance with the Democratic Party.”69Davin, “Last Hurrah?” 123; Bernstein, Turbulent Years, 449.Even the Minneapolis Trotskyists and Leon Trotsky himself expressed confusion as to what LNPL represented and how to relate to it as late as 1938.70See Leon Trotsky on the Labor Party in the United States (New York: Merit Publishers, 1969).

Given the political direction and outcome of LNPL and its bureaucratic nature, it is hard to see why this would be a model for today. In any case, wouldn’t it have been the political imperative of the socialists of that time, who did not have the benefit of hindsight, to fight for the loyalty of the workers to independent working-class politics even in the limited form of a labor party? There was, after all, a sizable movement for such politics and an intense political struggle over this question. For the socialist activist in 1935–36, it was a matter of “Which side are you on?” in that internal struggle.

Yes, in retrospect, it all happened the way it happened and the gains made by the working class were what they were and no more. But history and class struggle are full of contradiction and contingency, as well as both obstacles and openings at various times. As Mike Davis put it elegantly in terms of assessing the “CIO’s conflicting possibilities and determinancies,” one has to focus on the “tension between the received conditions of its emergence and the new terrains opened up by the creative impudence of struggle.”71Davis, Prisoners, 53–54.Furthermore, the working class is not a single mass that moves neatly in unison. Some groups are more deeply affected by material and political conditions, some move before others, some have more leverage, pulling or pushing broader groups into motion, some never move. How to approach this reality involves analysis, debate, conflict, organizations, strategy and tactics. For socialists, politics includes the science and art of finding and using every opening in the changing situation and fluctuations of consciousness, even of a minority, to advance the organization, power, and consciousness of the working class. All those who fight for social change inevitably face complex forces and barriers and a future they cannot predict. We can and must analyze the various political and economic trends and counter trends, balance of class forces, and conditions, but we can never be sure the course of action we propose will succeed. The alternative to action, however, is paralysis and surrender to the status quo.

What lesson are we supposed to draw from the fact that the majority of the public didn’t like strikes or industrial unions—who, in fact, according to those polls Blanc cites, preferred craft unions? Obviously, Blanc would not argue that those socialists and workers who fought for industrial unionism in 1934 shouldn’t have done so because majority opinion was against them. Change always starts with the views and actions of a minority. Millions of workers in the 1930s won new industrial unions but failed either to create an independent working-class party or to move the Democratic Party and the Roosevelt administration to the left, or even to prevent its move to the right after 1936. So, it is hard to tell just what political lessons we are to draw from Blanc’s rethinking of the New Deal. Go with the flow?

In a different vein, Blanc seems to offer us some contemporary political choices: “Pro-union Democratic politics is better than neoliberal centrism or Republicanism, but independent working-class politics is far better still.” 72Blanc, “Can Laws.”Actually, “independent working-class politics” and organization aren’t simply “far better.” They are fundamentally different in their class content, political independence, democratic organization, grassroots base, and orientation toward increasing working-class power and undermining and eventually eliminating capitalist power. There can be a range and variety of working-class policies, but there isn’t some conventional poli-sci continuum from right to left along which to choose working-class politics. We can’t simply work our way incrementally from the merely “better” liberal capitalist politics to the “far better” working-class politics. There are class lines. Ruptures to be made. The choice is a qualitative one.

Since the qualitative choice of working-class politics appears (too?) difficult today, Blanc opts for the “better” one of “Pro-union Democratic politics.” Yet, whatever one thinks the reasons for this were, it was precisely the submergence of the rising labor movement of the mid-1930s into the “better” New Deal Democratic Party that was forged in 1936 and deepened thereafter that explains why there is, as Blanc reminds us, an “absence of a mass working-class politics” in the United States. This situation didn’t come out of nowhere. It involved political choices, organization, and struggle—not the tyranny of public opinion or some inevitable outcomes of the U.S. political system that left organized labor and the working-class in the United States as a junior partner (soon turned poor relative) without a political force of its own.

It was the collective political choice by the industrial union leaders to draw their members into electoral politics in an organized manner–via a party of capital that had no membership and no democratic structures through which to affect its policies–that set the course for which the U.S. working-class has paid dearly ever since. Despite the fact that, measured by political outcomes, it was not very successful, it has been a choice that the majority of union leaders and even many on the Left have made over and over and that too many seem determined to make again. Yes, in retrospect, it seems “almost” certain those union leaders were going to win that fight, given the small size and divisions within (and defections from) the Left, the loyalty many members felt to their union once the decision was made, the ideology and increasingly top-down practice of the CIO leadership, and the widespread but by no means universal popularity of FDR and the major Second New Deal reforms. But which side would Blanc have been on?

Electoralism has been a major factor in depoliticizing the working class in the United States. Yet, in the name of something “better” and the alleged impossibility of anything else, we are once again urged to follow this well-trodden, bankrupt electoral path to political class subordination.

It was also this electoral “alliance” and the governments it produced that contributed to or furthered the bureaucratization of the major new unions beginning in the late 1930s and throughout the Second World War, in particular, well before McCarthyism or the Cold War.73 For the wartime experience, see Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).That, too, was a struggle in which the top leaders had the advantage but in which socialists had to choose sides—and not all chose the right one. Since then, it is the same dependent electoral “strategy” that has enabled the long decline of the unions in the face of employer opposition. It is this mainstream electoral politicking that, along with the inequality within the working class and continuous disorienting changes in the economy, has aided the dilution of class consciousness, encouraged the illusion of “middle-class” status, and made it impossible for union leaders to prevent huge numbers of their own members from voting Republican (including for Donald Trump).

In other words, this version of electoralism has been a major factor in depoliticizing the working class in the United States. Yet, in the name of something “better” and the alleged impossibility of anything else, we are once again urged to follow this well-trodden, bankrupt electoral path to political class subordination. Who was it who quoted Mark Twain as saying, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme”?74Blanc, “Liberals.”

Categories: D2. Socialism

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