Building a new left for a new era

July 13, 2009

Sharon Smith is a columnist and author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States and Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation. She gave this speech at the Socialism 2009 conferences in Chicago and San Francisco.

A HISTORIC moment like the one we're in right now only comes along very rarely--when the contradictions of the capitalist system are on full display for everyone to see.

To be sure, large swathes of the capitalist class still don't seem to realize this. It's still unclear, for example, whether John McCain now realizes that when he accused Barack Obama of being a socialist during the election campaign, all he did was make Obama all the more appealing, however untrue the accusation.

The same was true when Obama's not-at-all socialist budget was unveiled in February, and Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors, told the Wall Street Journal, "This budget is a forced march toward socialism, in my opinion, without trying to be dramatic about it."

And Dick Cheney, God bless him, still doesn't seem to be aware that, even though his own popularity rating had fallen to something like 12 percent by the time he left office, every time he accuses the Obama administration of aiding and abetting terrorists, it's merely another reminder to all of us as to why we're so overjoyed that Cheney no longer holds a public office in this country.

Marching for immigrant rights in Washington, D.C., on May Day 2009

Pretty much everyone by now acknowledges that this is not only the worst economic crisis, but also the worst ideological crisis for U.S. capitalism since the 1930s--when the profit system has been completely discredited in the eyes of so many millions of working-class people. For this reason alone, it's no exaggeration to say that we now face the greatest prospects for rebuilding the U.S. left since the Great Depression, on the basis of massive class consciousness and class anger.

To state the obvious, it is to our advantage that so many people under the age of 30 believe socialism is a better system than capitalism, as the Rasmussen poll showed.

And although it's certainly distressing to see the far right making gains in Europe in the recent elections, I also want to mention that when Illinois Nazis threatened to picket the Chicago Socialism conference, they could only muster a total of three people. And if that motley trio with flags is any indication, I have to put the word "picket" in quotation marks--because when one of them had to run back to the car to get something, there were more flags than there were Nazis to hold them.

So there can be little doubt that social conditions tilt far in favor of the left over the right at this particular historical juncture. To say that the far right is marginalized today is not a recipe for complacency, but rather to emphasize that there is no excuse for the left not to grow significantly in this new era, just as the socialist movement did in the 1930s.

THERE ARE, of course, lessons from the Great Depression that are tremendously useful for us as we build a new left today.

Today, we face a situation in which, six months into the Obama administration, the Feds are still throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at the same Wall Street banks that caused the housing crisis while millions of working-class Americans continue to lose their homes to foreclosure. And they are getting away with it. The main source of outrage seems to be coming only from the crazies from the Republican Party, which then only serves to exaggerate Obama's accomplishments.

For this reason, some of the lessons that are most useful for us aren't simply that the Great Depression was the single greatest era of class struggle and advance for the U.S. working class, but also what it took to get to that point.

There's often a false impression that the stock market crashed in 1929, and by 1930, the working class was on the offensive. In reality, it took some years for the class struggle to advance, and real weekly earnings fell by 20 percent in 1930 across all industries. There were, of course, some important class struggles, like the struggles of the unemployed and neighborhood fights against evictions.

But they were mostly on a small scale, did not involve struggle at the actual workplace, and maybe most importantly, were of a temporary, not long-term, nature--with a constantly revolving door of people participating. It wasn't until several years later, in 1933, that the level of strikes began to rise significantly.

It's very important to understand that conditions of mass unemployment don't immediately lead to mass resistance. On the contrary, they often lead to a sense of helplessness in the first instance--even for those workers who still have jobs, but are afraid that if they rock the boat, they'll get fired and replaced by someone from the growing ranks of the unemployed.

It isn't desperation alone that drives workers to struggle; there has to be some sense of confidence that it is possible to win--and that sense of confidence often does not occur until at least some sections of the economy begin to pick up and begin hiring again.

Even after the tide began to turn in 1934, with the three strike victories in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis, it wasn't as if, from that point on, labor was on the offensive.

Again, in reality, the three victories in the spring and summer of 1934 were immediately followed by the defeat of the textile strike up and down the East Coast, which was one of the bloodiest assaults ever suffered by the U.S. working class.

It wasn't until the victories of the sit-down strike-wave in 1936-1937--and in particular, the victory of the Flint sit-down strike that unionized General Motors (which was the equivalent of what would today be the unionization of Wal-Mart)--that you could safely say the labor movement was taking the offensive in the class struggle. That was some seven or eight years into the Great Depression.

THERE IS a clear parallel between Obama's first 100 days in office and the initial character of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in the early 1930s.

As with Obama, the election of Roosevelt in 1932 brought hope for millions of working-class families that relief was on the way. But Roosevelt didn't immediately bring the kind of change that would put food on the table for workers or keep them in their homes.

On the contrary, Roosevelt conducted a delicate balancing act. His rhetoric was very generous toward workers, but his budget was not. Only big business got significant relief in the early 1930s. It was only after the class struggle began to rise, and the labor movement began to score some real victories in 1934, that Roosevelt, faced with running for re-election, began to consider it necessary to grant the first major reforms of his administration.

In 1935, Roosevelt granted Social Security, the first acknowledgement that the government has a responsibility to provide material aid to the poor, and he also signed the Wagner Act, finally making it illegal for employers to refuse to recognize unions chosen by their employees to represent them.

In other words, there was--and is--a direct correlation between the scale of the struggle from below and the scale of the reforms that come from above.

But we also have to keep in mind that history never repeats itself exactly. Just as today's economic crisis is not and could not be an exact repeat of the Great Depression, we also should not expect history to repeat itself identically when it comes to rebuilding either the labor movement or the left.

There is no doubt that we lack certain advantages that existed in the 1930s--perhaps most importantly, the size of the left at the start of the Great Depression was far larger than what exists in the U.S. today. In addition, large sections of workers at the start of the 1930s had either themselves been trained, or had parents and grandparents who trained them, in the traditions of the class struggle, and even the left-wing traditions of the IWW or the Socialist Party.

Today, we face a situation in which the U.S. labor movement has been in a state of virtual paralysis for the last three decades, the longest period of sustained retreat in U.S. history. The vast majority of young workers today not only work in low-wage, non-union jobs--or, in reality, multiple low-wage non-union jobs--but they have been cut off from the radical traditions that built the U.S. labor movement in the first place.

That radical tradition must now be learned through reading and discussion, rather than stories handed down from one generation to the next.

BUT IN other respects, we find ourselves far in advance politically from the era of the Great Depression. The struggles against oppression that took place in the 1960s--for civil rights and Black Power, for women's liberation and for gay liberation--left a lasting imprint on U.S. society.

You can see this not only in the fact that an electoral majority elected an African American president in November, which would have been impossible even a decade or two ago, but also the fact that John McCain's campaign manager has come out in favor of same-sex marriage--and is urging the Republican Party to do the same. That speaks volumes about the changes in mass consciousness in today's world.

The vast majority of people in this country have broken with the hate-based and conservative politics that allowed the Republican Party to dominate for the last 30 years, and instead, people are embracing tolerance and social change.

What we already see is that the struggle for gay marriage is a synthesis of the fight for civil rights and a working-class demand.

The struggle for immigrant rights is a struggle for civil rights and is also a working-class movement. What we saw on May Day 2006, when millions of immigrant workers came out for a day without an immigrant, is just a glimpse of what's possible in the coming years--in building a working-class movement that stands for strong unions and also social justice.

The rise of industrial unionism in the 1930s was a qualitative advance from the limits of craft unionism. But it didn't challenge Jim Crow segregation in the South; it didn't challenge lynching, which was still the order of the day in the Deep South. It didn't even succeed at challenging the fact that the National Industrial Recovery Act allowed Southern employers to pay Black workers lower wages than white workers.

In the end, industrial unionism failed when it came to organizing the South because it failed to make the fight for unionization also a fight against white supremacy--and for that reason alone, the South has remained a non-union, low-wage noose hanging around the neck of the U.S. labor movement. Long before capital moved to the Global South to escape unions, it was able to move to the Deep South.

So if we want to address the needs of today's labor movement, we have to move forward toward social justice unionism--which makes the fight against oppression central to the class struggle.

We have seen glimpses of this already--when the Massachusetts AFL-CIO backed same-sex marriage, helping Massachusetts to become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. U.S. Labor Against War represented an important attempt toward putting the strength of organized labor behind opposition to the Iraq War.

If we begin to view the class struggle in this respect, then surely we will be able to fully appreciate why, even though the struggle for same-sex marriage does not involve a workplace struggle or a strike, winning it will mark the first victory for our class in the battles that lie in the years ahead.

And while it is true that the scale of the U.S. manufacturing base has shrunk significantly over the last few decades, that doesn't mean that new technologies have brought about a post-industrial society. We can't simply aim to replicate bygone eras, but need to learn to embrace the possibilities of the new era.

Just try to imagine a future moment when a major Fortune 500 company finds its Internet completely shut down, not, this time, by a computer virus, but by a strike of its computer technicians, who are joined on the picket line by a walkout of clerical workers, who then convince the UPS delivery drivers to go out on a sympathy strike--all of them ready to fight to the finish to win their main demand: an end to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.

Then maybe we can begin to imagine the future face of the class struggle in a history that has yet to be determined, and a new left that has yet to be built.

Further Reading

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