by Lew Rosenbaum
On this day, April 22, 2020, perhaps millions of people are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day. In 1969 then Senator Gaylord Nelson, an environmentalist, called for a national day of teach-ins on the environment for the spring of the following year. He proposed April 22 as a day when most students would be most likely to participate. An advertising man suggested that “Earth Day” might be a more broadly appealing name than a day of teach-ins. And so “Earth Day” was born. Nelson himself repudiated the idea that the choice of April 22 was a communist plot. The John Birch Society, among others, had insinuated that the choice of April 22 was driven by the fact that date in 1970 coincided with the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Ilich Ulianov’s (Lenin) birthday. Nelson quipped that the Birch Society knew more about Lenin than he did; nevertheless, young people of 1970 knew more about Lenin than he did too.
At the time of the first Earth Day I was 27 and had come rather late to reading the works of the great Bolshevik. Just a few years later, talking with my niece Ronni, a high school activist organizer working on Earth Day, I asked with a wry smile whether she knew that April 22 was also Lenin’s birthday. She replied, with the characteristic twinkle in her eye, that was why the date was chosen.
So maybe both stories are true. Maybe Lenin’s birthday had nothing to do with the choice of April 22; maybe it had everything to do with that choice. A Talmudic fight about that is really not the point. The point is the perseverance of Lenin’s influence, even though now, in 2020, when everyone is talking about the 50th Earth Day, little attention is being paid to Lenin’s 150th birthday, which is today. Here is evidence of that perseverance: “Lenin in Urdu: His Every Word Became Poetry.” This is one of a number of essays intended to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. It is a short review essay of writers in Urdu who have celebrated Lenin. People who saw him as the embodiment of revolution. In no small part is this due to the fact that, after the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917, Lenin was the main force within the Russian Communist Party who understood and fought for at first a minority position: that what was then called the “national question” was the main form that the fight for socialism was taking, the liberation of the colonial countries from imperialism.
Well of course Lenin is remembered in many more places than in the Urdu language. Bertolt Brecht wrote numerous poems that refer to Lenin. One that is a bridge from the peoples of the East is this one:
The Carpet Weavers of Kuyan-Bulak Honour Lenin
Often he was honoured and profusely
The Comrade Lenin. Busts there are and statues.
Cities were named after him and children.
Speeches are made in numerous languages
Rallies there are and demonstrations
From Shanghai to Chicago, in honour of Lenin.
But thus they honoured him
The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak
A small village in southern Turkistan:
Twenty carpet weavers stand there in the evening
Shivering with fever, in front of their humble loom.
Fever runs riot: the railway station
Teeming with buzzing mosquitoes – a thick cloud
Arising from the swamp behind the old camel cemetery.
But the train, which
Once in two weeks brings water and smoke, brings
Also the news one day
That the day for honouring Lenin lies ahead
And so decide the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Carpet weavers, poor folk
That for the Comrade Lenin also in their village
A gypsum bust would be installed.
But as the money is collected for the bust
All of them stand
Trembling with fever and contribute
Their hard earned kopecks with wobbling hands.
And the Red Army soldier Stepa Jamal, who
Carefully counts and meticulously watches,
Sees the readiness, to honour Lenin, and is filled with joy.
But he also sees the uncertain hands.
And all of a sudden he makes a proposal
To buy petroleum with the money collected for the bust
In order to pour it on the swamp behind the camel cemetery
From where the mosquitoes come, which
Cause the fever
Thus to combat the fever in Kuyan-Bulak, and indeed
To honour the late, but
Not to be forgotten
This was agreed to. On the day of paying respect to
Lenin they carried
Their battered buckets, filled with black petroleum
One behind the other
Over there and spread it on the swamp.
So they benefited themselves, in paying homage to Lenin and
Paid homage to him, in that they benefited themselves and had
Therefore understood him well.
We have heard how the Kuyan-Bulak folk
Paid their respect to Lenin. As now in the evening
The petroleum had been bought and discharged over the swamp
Stood up a man in the assembly, and he demanded
That a commemoration stone be erected at the railway Station
Reporting these events, containing
The altered plan and the exchange
Instead of Lenin’s bust the fever eradicating petroleum barrel,
And all this in honour of Lenin
And they did that too
And mounted the slab.
(Note: Kuyan-Bulak is the railway station of Ferghana in Uzbekistan. The Slab had the text: ‘In this place there should have been a memorial to Lenin, but instead of the memorial, petroleum was brought and poured over the swamp. Thus Kuyan-Bulak, in memory of Lenin and in his Name smothered malaria’. Translator.)
The Jamaica Peace Council, an organization of Jamaicans at home and abroad, published in April 2019 this poem by Langston Hughes:
Lenin walks around the world.
Frontiers cannot bar him.
Neither barracks nor barricades impede.
Nor does barbed wire scar him.
Lenin walks around the world.
Black, brown, and white receive him.
Language is no barrier.
The strangest tongues believe him.
Lenin walks around the world.
The sun sets like a scar.
Between the darkness and the dawn
There rises a red star.
As explanation, the author on the site writes:
The poem uses the figure of Vladimir Lenin as a stand-in for the march of social equality across the world, the hope of racial and economic harmony in the world.
Though Hughes didn’t identify as a communist and claimed to have never read Marxist texts at his congressional trial led by the infamous “Red Scare” Senator Joseph McCarthy, his poem describes an awakening in the world among oppressed people of the world for justice.
And of course there is the series of four poems, written from 1920 to 1924, by Vladimir
Mayakovsky that celebrated the life of Lenin and commemorated his death. “The time has come,” Mayakovsky wrote:
the story of Lenin
because the grief
is on the wane,
the bitter anguish
of that moment
weighed and fathomed pain.
spread Lenin’s slogans in your whirl!
Not for us
to drown in tears
There’s no one
than Lenin in the world,
surest of our weapons.
Poetry, then, is a way into understanding the international reverence for V. I. Lenin, and why he might have been on the minds of the young people in 1970, as perhaps they enjoyed a private joke behind the scenes at the expense of their elders who serendipitously chose April 22, 1970 to launch Earth Day.
Chances are, though, they didn’t know who Lenin really was. They probably didn’t know that he was a Latin scholar, and that his first introduction to revolutionary writing was through the Russian novelist Chernyshevsky. They probably had never read the essays he wrote about Tolstoy, a novelist whose writing he loved, but whose worship of Russian mysticism he detested: He could never understand how the revolutionary and the reactionary could coexist in one man. He read widely in Russian literature (Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Gogol). All of this and more was reviewed in The Guardian (“How Lenin’s Love of Literature Shaped the Revolution”) in 2017, as a way into looking at Lenin’s contribution to the Russian revolution and to the thinking of revolutionaries generally.
Lenin spent two decades building the foundation for the revolutionary organization capable of toppling the czar and establishing socialism in Russia. At numerous points in that two decades he found himself in the minority among the revolutionaries. Often he found himself in a small organization of exiles. What he did in that twenty years was write furiously. He wrote about the kind of tasks that were necessary (revolutionaries did not agree on those tasks; they did not agree on what forces in society were revolutionary; they did not agree on what role they should play as World War I got underway). He wrote about the ideological, organizational, and tactical building blocks necessary for the kind of political party he thought was necessary. Some of these contributed some ideas particular to the revolutionary situation in Russia, ideas that he began to formulate when exiled early in his career to Siberia; when he researched and wrote a book that chronicled the Development of Capitalism in Russia. Here he maintained that despite the minuscule size of the Russian industrial working class, capitalism was already developing in Russia. Despite the general consensus that the Russian peasants were a monolithic class, Lenin described the stratification of peasantry into a wealthy section, a middle section, and the great mass of the peasantry at the level of an agricultural working class and serf.
He wrote the fourth book about the foundation of the necessary political party in 1908, and it was published in Russia in 1909. Here he defended the philosophical principles or world view of dialectical and historical materialism (Materialism and Empiriocriticism). It’s really in this book that he expounds on his idea of Marxism as a method as well as a theory and a doctrine.
Lenin in Russia in 1897 to 1917 faced a situation unlike in Germany, England, or the United States. In those other countries the industrial revolution was well underway, appeared even complete. Russia was in the beginning throes of the industrial revolution, much of the country enthralled to the big banks of Europe. Lenin needed to devise a theory of the Russian revolution. He did that in his description of the relationship of the various classes in Russia, the role of the working class and the peasantry, and the development of the national question in the Russian empire and beyond. He did that by describing the objective reality the revolutionary classes faced and the role of the revolutionary organizations. What is most significant about Lenin is his capacity to describe the reality he faced and the new ideas necessary for the new situation of his time and place. He was a scientist.
What can we learn from Lenin’s experience on his 150th birthday? In the 1970s, when I read Lenin I read him as the ideologue that I was. What is to be Done?, State and Revolution, Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder, and Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism were the four books of my Talmud. I do not intend here to dismiss them as unimportant. No, there are important lessons to be learned from all of them. But the way we read them is important, especially when we realize we are no longer dealing with a revolution in the midst of industrialization. The great Russian political revolution was part of the 19th to 20th century economic industrial revolution. In fact, the ensuing liberation struggles of the colonies, the struggles that Lenin foresaw as the great movement of the 20th century, pulled those peoples into the orbit of industry and a connection to the capitalist world order, either through a bourgeois or a socialist revolution. But that era is over.
A new economic revolution is underway. And there are new Lenins walking the streets of our world, applying their understanding of the real world to develop a theory of today’s revolutionary times. In 1917 — and from 1917 through the 1960s and the first Earth Day — history has witnessed the completion of the replacement of agricultural private property by industrial-financial private property. Today we are witnessing the demise of capitalism that exists on the exploitation of labor. That seems counterintuitive, when we see people living in the streets and workers unable to buy the basic necessities of life. But the robotization of contemporary life points to the end of wage labor. If labor is excluded from the production of the means of survival, then there is no longer a way to measure the value in exchange of the means of survival. As long as money is the means of exchange, those expelled from the employer-employee relationship have no way to purchase the means of survival. The Lenin’s of our day must be developing a theory of the revolution of the end of the market and the end of private property under new conditions, when the way to resolve the problems we face must mean distribution without money.
On this Earth Day and this 150th birthday of Lenin, it’s time to recognize that the inspiration that Lenin gave to the poets in Urdu, the Russian poets, to Langston Hughes is real and deserving of reverence. We need to cultivate the Lenins of our times. Without discounting his numerous contributions, what we need to revere is Lenin’s scientific outlook and his willingness to find new solutions to solve new problems.
[People’s Tribune correspondent and independent scholar Chris Mahin writes about history so that we can learn from it. The fight against slavery has a lot to teach us today about the property relations under which we live. The article challenges us to think about what being “moderate” in today’s world means. LR]
BY CHRIS MAHIN
He spoke to a packed chamber, in 100-degree heat, for three hours and 11 minutes, barely using his few notes. Afterward, a leader of the fight against slavery declared that the oration had transformed the man who delivered it from a lion into a spaniel. One of the country’s most talented writers composed a famous poem likening him to Satan. A prominent New England minister compared him to Benedict Arnold.
This month marks the anniversary of the day that U.S. Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts gave his notorious “Seventh of March” speech in the U.S. Senate. On March 7, 1850, Webster used his considerable eloquence to support the “Compromise of 1850,” a series of measures designed to appease the slaveholding South. The events of 1850 are worth examining because that political crisis has much to teach us about how the fight against unjust property relations unfolds – and who can be trusted in such crises (and who can’t).
The crisis of 1850 had been brewing for a long time. While the United States was founded on slavery, by the middle 1800s, the population and economic capacity of the free North was surpassing that of the slaveholding South. The defenders of the slave system desperately needed to expand slavery into the West. When the settlers of California petitioned Congress for admission into the Union late in 1849, the stage was set for a showdown. Admitting California to the Union as a free state would tip the balance of power in Congress in favor of the free states. To prevent that, representatives of the slave states threatened to secede from the Union.
In response, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay crafted a series of proposed laws. While described as a “compromise,” they were heavily weighted in the South’s favor. California would be admitted into the Union as a free state, but slavery would not be banned in the rest of the vast territory seized from Mexico in the war of 1846-1848. While the slave trade would be banned in the District of Columbia, slavery itself would remain legal there. The “compromise” also included a new, stronger Fugitive Slave Act requiring the free states to send runaway slaves back to slavery.
Clay’s “compromise” outraged not just those people who advocated the immediate abolition of slavery throughout the United States, but also those who accepted slavery in
the South but were opposed to slavery being spread elsewhere. Daniel Webster had been on record since 1837 as opposing the extension of slavery into the territories. Yet, on March 7, 1850, he vigorously supported Clay’s proposals. Webster argued that preserving the Union was more important than anything else.
Webster’s speech split the country. Shortly after the speech, the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator published an eight-column analysis refuting Webster’s arguments. Within days of the Massachusetts senator’s appearance on the Senate floor, a mass meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston condemned Webster’s speech as “unworthy of a wise statesman and a good man,” and resolved that “Constitution or no Constitution, law or no law, we will not allow a fugitive slave to be taken from the state of Massachusetts.”
In his speech, Webster had denounced the abolitionists, referring to them contemptuously as “these agitating people,” and declaring that they had contributed “nothing good or valuable.”
“At the same time,” he declared – with great condescension – “I believe thousands of their members to be honest and good men. … They have excited feelings; … they do not see what else they can do than to contribute to an Abolition press, or to an Abolition society, or to pay an Abolition lecturer.”
Webster specifically condemned the abolitionists for fighting to convince people that the question of slavery was a moral question. He argued that by posing the slavery question that way, the abolitionists treated morality as if it had the certainty of mathematics and made compromise impossible.
By the end of September 1850, all the different pieces of the “Compromise of 1850” had been passed by the U.S. Congress – but civil war was only postponed, not averted. The new Fugitive Slave Law allowed slave catchers easier access to their prey – even in Boston, the city where the killing of a runaway slave by British troops had begun the American Revolution.
For 10 years after the compromise which was supposed to settle the slavery question in the United States “forever,” the abolitionists hammered home their message about the immorality of slavery. It was not Webster’s willingness to compromise his principles that helped push history forward; it was the abolitionists’ unwillingness to compromise theirs. Today, the world needs revolutionaries willing to be as uncompromising as the advocates of the immediate abolition of slavery were in the 19th century, and willing to proclaim their message as forthrightly as those abolitionists did.[
As we fight an unjust set of property relations today, we should strive to use the revolutionary press and the speaker’s platform as skillfully as the abolitionists did then. Like the abolitionists, we should be bold and insist on describing the existence of massive wealth alongside massive poverty as a moral question – because it is one. If we do that, we will pay the best tribute that can possibly be paid to those “agitating people” of the 19th century with their abolition presses and lecturers and societies, people who – Daniel Webster notwithstanding – contributed something very good and valuable to society indeed.
[This article originally appeared in the March 2000 edition of the People’s Tribune. We encourage reproduction of articles from the People’s Tribune, so long as you credit the source. Copyright © 2019 People’s Tribune. Visit us at http://peoplestribune.org.
Please donate whatever you can! We are supported by reader donations. We get no grants, have no paid staff and have no advertisements. Donate via PayPal at peoplestribune.org or send to PT, PO Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654-3524.]
[I’m glad to be able to reprint Chris Mahin’s essay, written for a labor union periodical some years ago, on this the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For one thing, it celebrates the struggles for which he gave his life as a struggle of a class for its emancipation. For another, how can we see the demand of the Black sanitation workers (“I Am A Man”) and not think of the contemporary “Black Lives Matter.” — LR]
50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King
April 4, 1968: Dr. King is killed defending labor’s rights
BY CHRIS MAHIN
April 4 is one of the saddest days of the year. On that day in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. While many events are held each year to honor Dr. King’s memory, too often people forget – or have never learned — why he was in Memphis that spring. Dr. King went to Memphis to help striking sanitation workers – and paid for his stand with his life. That makes April 4 an important anniversary not only in African American history (and in U.S. history in general), but in the history of the labor movement as well.
On February 12, 1968, hundreds of Memphis sanitation workers went on strike. At the time, they were making less than $1 an hour and were eligible for welfare. They decided that they had had enough of poor wages, terrible working conditions, and a viciously anti-union mayor.
The workers were members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The strike was the culmination of years of mistreatment. The workers worked 12 hours a day carrying garbage with busted, leaking pails. Some of the pails were infested with flies and maggots, and the workers had no place to wash up in the yard when they had to leave the trucks. Some of the workers had no running water when they returned home after work. The workers had no real benefits of any kind.
This dire situation came to a crisis point on Feb. 1, 1968, when the accidental activation of a packer blade in the back of a garbage truck fatally crushed workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker.
Almost 1,400 sanitation workers joined the strike. They shut the city down.
The workers and their supporters marched daily to pressure the mayor and the city council to recognize the sanitation unit under AFSCME Local 1733. The men wore signs which read “I AM a Man,” a slogan that was eventually recognized around the world.
Tension grew in the city as Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb called the strike illegal and threatened to hire new workers unless the strikers returned to work. On February 14, the mayor issued a back-to-work ultimatum for 7 a.m. on Feb. 15. The police escorted the few garbage trucks in operation. Negotiations broke off. The newspapers began to report that more than 10,000 tons of garbage was piling up.
It was in that tense environment that AFSCME organizers appealed to Dr. King to come to Memphis to speak to the workers. Initially, King was reluctant. He was immersed in work preparing for the Poor People’s Campaign. This was a huge undertaking, an effort to bring poor people of all ethnicities to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968 to protest poverty. But when AFSCME organizer Jesse Epps pointed out that the fight of the sanitation workers in Memphis was part of the same struggle as the Poor People’s Campaign, King agreed.
Once in Memphis, King immediately grasped the importance of what was unfolding there. On his first visit to the city, March 18, he spoke to a crowd of 17,000 people, and called for a citywide march.
On Thursday, March 28, King led a march from the Clayborn Temple, the strike’s headquarters. The march was interrupted by window breaking at the back of the demonstration. The police moved into the crowd, using nightsticks, Mace, tear gas – and guns. A 16-year-old, Larry Payne, was shot dead. The police arrested 280 people, and reported about 60 injuries. The state legislature authorized a 7 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in.
On Friday, March 29, some 300 sanitation workers and ministers marched peacefully and silently from Clayborn Temple to City Hall – escorted by five armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, three huge military trucks, and dozens of National Guardsmen with their bayonets fixed.
In the last days of March, King cancelled a planned trip to Africa and made preparations to lead a peaceful march in Memphis. Organizers working on preparations for the Poor People’s Campaign in other cities were directed to leave those cities and come to Memphis, for it was clear that the Poor People’s Campaign could not be won without winning the fight in Memphis.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King returned to Memphis. That evening, he gave an extraordinary speech to hundreds of people at Mason Temple. The speech has gone down in history as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Anyone who reads it today will notice that it is an eloquent statement of support for the sanitation workers. (That night, King called them “thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering.”) But it is also a farewell speech, the oration of a man who knew he might not have long to live, and who was searching his soul to make sense of his life, and his place in history.
In the speech, King emphatically rejected the calls not to march again because of an injunction:
“[S]omewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right!”
At the end of his remarks he referred indirectly to the underhanded attempts by racists, the FBI, and other forces to sabotage his leadership and destroy the movement, declaring:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like everybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Less than 24 hours after uttering those words, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Urban rebellions broke out in more than 60 cities. In response to pressure from all over the country, the federal government sent Labor Department officials to Memphis to mediate a settlement to the strike.
On Tuesday, April 16, AFSCME leaders announced that an agreement had been reached. The agreement included union recognition, better pay, and benefits. The strikers voted to accept the agreement.
It was a bittersweet end to a long battle. The strike ended in victory, but at a terrible cost, the death of one of the foremost symbols of the fight for justice in that (or any) era. AFSCME’s victory in Memphis inspired other workers in Memphis to join unions, and other employees throughout the South to join AFSCME. The Poor People’s Campaign which Dr. King had been working on when he went to Memphis did take place later in the tumultuous year 1968. As King had hoped, it brought together poor people of all ethnicities to demonstrate in Washington, D.C. – African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and whites.
Given Dr. King’s role in the Memphis sanitation strike and the tremendous community support that the strikers received, perhaps the month of April ought to be a time to remember that not all labor leaders have an official position with a union — and that labor comes in all colors, and includes both employed and unemployed people. If we hold on to those lessons, we will honor what was won with such great sacrifice in Memphis in April 1968.
# # #
The Battle of Lawrence, 1912:
Textile workers’ victory contains lessons for today
BY CHRIS MAHIN
“We want bread – and roses!”
“Bayonets cannot weave cloth!”
“Better to starve fighting than to starve working!”
More than a century ago, thousands of men, women, and children shouted those slogans – in many different languages – in the bitter cold of a Massachusetts winter.
On January 12, 1912, thousands of workers walked out of the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts and began a strike which lasted until March 24, 1912. At its height, the strike involved 23,000 workers.
Located in the Merrimack River Valley, about 30 miles north of Boston, Lawrence was a city of 86,000 people in 1912, and a great textile center. It outranked all other cities in the production of woolen and worsted goods. The woolen and cotton mills of the city employed over 40,000 workers – about one-half of Lawrence’s population over the age of 14.
Most of the Lawrence textile workers were unskilled. Within a one-mile radius of the mill district, there lived 25 different nationalities, speaking 50 languages. By 1912, Italians, Poles, Russians, Syrians, and Lithuanians had replaced native-born Americans and western Europeans as the predominant groups in the mills. The largest single ethnic group in the city was Italian.
At the time of the strike, 44.6 percent of the textile workers in Lawrence were women. More than 10 percent of the mill workers were under the age of 18.
Despite a heavy tariff protecting the woolen industry, the wages and living standards of textile workers had declined steadily since 1905. The introduction of a two-loom system in the woolen industry and a corresponding speed-up in the cotton industry led to lay-offs, unemployment, and wage reductions. A federal government report showed that for a week in late November 1911, some 22,000 textile employees, including foremen, supervisors, and office workers, averaged about $8.76 for a full week’s work. This wage was totally inadequate, despite the fact that the average work week was 56 hours, and 21.6 percent of the workers worked more hours than that.
To make things worse, the cost of living was higher in Lawrence than in the rest of New England. The city was also one of the most congested in the United States, with many workers crowded into foul tenements.
The daily diet of most of the mill workers consisted of bread, molasses, and beans. Serving meat with a meal was very rare, often reserved for holidays. The inevitable result of all this was an unhealthy work force. Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh, a Lawrence physician, wrote: “A considerable number of the boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work. … [T]hirty-six out of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die before or by the time they are 25.”
The immediate cause of the strike was a cut in pay for all workers which took place after a new state law went into effect on January 1, 1912. The law reduced the number of hours that women and children could work from 56 to 54. The mill owners simply sped up the machines to guarantee they would get the same amount of production as before, and then cut the workers’ hours and wages.
On Thursday, January 11, 1912, some 1,750 weavers left their looms in the Everett Cotton Mill when they learned that they had received less money. They were joined by 100 spinners from the Arlington Mills. When the Italian workers of the Washington Mill left their jobs on the morning of Friday, January 12, the Battle of Lawrence was in full swing. By Saturday night, January 13, some 20,000 textile workers had left their machines. By Monday night, January 15, Lawrence had been transformed into an armed camp, with the police and militia guarding the mills through the night.
The Lawrence strike began as a spontaneous outburst, but the strikers quickly realized that they needed to organize themselves. At a mass meeting held on the afternoon of the strike’s first day, they voted to send a telegram to Joe Ettor, a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, asking him to come to Lawrence to aid the strike. Ettor arrived in Lawrence the very next day, accompanied by his friend Arturo Giovannitti, the editor of “Il Proletario” and secretary of the Italian Socialist Federation.
Although only 27 years old, Joseph J. (“Smiling Joe”) Ettor was an experienced, militant leader of the IWW. He had worked with Western miners and migrant workers, and with the immigrant workers of the Eastern steel mills and shoe factories. Ettor could speak English, Italian, and Polish fluently, and could understand Hungarian and Yiddish.
Under Ettor’s leadership, the strikers set up a highly structured but democratic form of organization in which every nationality of worker involved in the strike was represented. This structure played a decisive role in guaranteeing the strike’s outcome. A general strike committee was organized and a network of soup kitchens and food distribution stations were set up. The strikers voted to demand a 15 percent increase in wages, a 54-hour week, double time for overtime, and the abolition of the premium and bonus systems.
Despite the fact that the city and state authorities imposed a virtual state of martial law on Lawrence, the strikers remained undaunted. They pioneered innovative tactics, such as moving picket lines (in which thousands of workers marched through the mill district in an endless chain with signs or armbands reading “Don’t be a scab!”); mass marches on sidewalks; and sending thousands of people to browse in stores without buying anything. They organized numerous parades to keep their own spirits up and keep their cause in the public eye.
The agents of the mill owners struck back. When the police and militia tried to halt a parade of about 1,000 strikers on January 29, a bystander, Annie LoPezzo, was shot dead.
Despite the fact that neither Ettor nor Giovannitti had been present at the demonstration, they were both arrested the next day. They were charged with being accessories before the fact to the murder because they had supposedly incited the “riot” which led to the shooting. That same day, an 18-year-old Syrian striker, John Ramy, was killed by a bayonet thrust into his back as he attempted to flee from advancing soldiers.
In early February, the strikers began sending their children out of the city to live temporarily with strike supporters. The city authorities vowed to stop this practice, and on February 24, a group of mothers and their children were clubbed and beaten at the train station by cops. This act horrified the country, and swung the general public over to the side of the strikers.
Concerned that the growing outrage over the conditions in Lawrence might lead to public support for lowering the woolen tariff, the mill owners began to look for a way to end the strike. First the largest employer, the American Woolen Company, came to an agreement. Then the others followed. The workers won most of their demands. By March 24, the strike was officially declared over and the general strike committee disbanded. It was a tremendous victory – but not the end of the battle.
On September 30, 1912, the murder trial of Ettor and Giovannitti began. It lasted 58 days. The defendants were kept in metal cages in the courtroom while the trial was in session. The prosecution accused Ettor and Giovannitti of inciting the strikers to violence and murder. Witnesses proved that the two were speaking to a meeting of workers several miles from the place where Annie LoPezzo was shot. Across the United States and the world, concerned people expressed outrage at the prosecution’s attempt to punish two leaders for their ideas.
Before the end of the trial, Ettor and Giovannitti asked for permission to address the court. Ettor challenged the jurors, declaring that if they were going to sentence Giovannitti and himself to death, the verdict should find them guilty of their real offense – their beliefs.
“What are my social views? I may be wrong but I contend that all the wealth in this country is the product of labor and that it belongs to labor. My views are the same as Giovannitti’s. We will give all that there is in us that the workers may organize and in due time emancipate themselves, that the mills and workshops may become their property and for their benefit. If we are set at liberty these shall be our views. If you believe that we should not go out, and that view will place the responsibility full upon us, I ask you one favor, that Ettor and Giovannitti because of their ideas became murderers, and that in your verdict you will say plainly, we shall die for it. … I neither offer apology nor ask for a favor. I ask for justice.”
Giovannitti made an impassioned speech to the jury, the first time he had ever spoken publicly in English. His eloquence drew tears from the most jaded reporters present.
On November 25, the jury found the defendants not guilty. Pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom.
There is something especially poignant about the Battle of Lawrence – and something especially important about learning its lessons. The Lawrence textile strike took place at a time when the mill owners lacked maneuvering room because they had to maintain public support for a high tariff on woolens. That was certainly a factor in the workers’ victory. So was the fact that the textile workers comprised such a large percentage of the population of Lawrence. But those factors do not change the reality that the victory at Lawrence was won by the bravery and intelligence of the workers themselves.
The victory at Lawrence disproved the vicious lie being circulated at the time by the leaders of the American Federation of Labor that immigrant workers could not be organized. It showed that immigrant workers and women workers would not only support strikes – if given the chance, they would gladly lead them, and lead them well. The strikers in Lawrence won their demands because they never let themselves be divided on ethnic or gender lines, because they were militant (and creative) in their tactics, and because they found a way to appeal to the conscience of the general public.
One other feature of the Battle of Lawrence made it especially significant. It’s summed up in the famous slogan of the strike – “We want bread – and roses!” The textile workers who braved the Massachusetts winter in 1912 wanted more than a wage increase. They were inspired by a vision of a new society, one where the workers themselves ruled. In this society, every human being would have “bread” – a decent standard of living. They would also have “roses” – the chance to learn, to have access to art, music, and culture; a society which would allow the flowering of everyone’s talents, the full development of every human being.
On this anniversary of the Lawrence textile strike, we should take courage from the bravery of the strikers, learn from their clever tactics, and dare to think as far ahead as they did. The Lawrence strikers believed deeply in the idea expressed so well in one of the verses in the labor song “Solidarity Forever.” That verse confidently proclaims, “We can build a new world from the ashes of the old.” Despite all the misery we see in the present, a new world is possible. The cynics of today are as wrong to deny the possibility of qualitative change as the AFL leaders in 1912 were to deny the possibility of organizing immigrant workers. If all of us act with as much foresight and courage as did those who fought so well in Lawrence in 1912, the vision of those strikers can become reality, and we can win a world with both bread and roses for everyone.
# # #
The First National Hunger March confronts the U.S. Congress
In 1931, the unemployed sang “The Internationale” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol
BY CHRIS MAHIN
They traveled in automobiles so dilapidated they were nicknamed “tin lizzies.” They had only gunny sacks and blankets to protect them from the extreme cold. There were 1,670 of them, but each was a delegate representing many others. They had come to confront
the U.S. Congress, to insist that it give aid, not charity, to the unemployed.
December marks the anniversary of the First National Hunger March, which arrived in Washington, D.C. on December 6, 1931, and marched to the U.S. Capitol and the White House the next day.
When the Great Depression began, there was no such thing as unemployment compensation or welfare. What little help the poor received, they obtained from private charities, mainly religious ones. Employers took advantage of workers’ desperation to slash wages – sometimes as much as 10-20 percent. A wave of evictions took place.
The call for the march demanded: (1) unemployment insurance; (2) the seven-hour workday with no cut in pay; (3) a federal work program paying union wages; (4) an end to racial discrimination, and an end to deportations of immigrant workers; (5) support
for the demands of the veterans and poor farmers; and (6) that all funds being built up for making war be used instead to help the unemployed – and be administered by the Unemployed Councils.
The National Hunger March was carefully organized. The first step was a series of actions at the state level. In April 1931, five columns of unemployed marchers started out from different points in Ohio. They met in Columbus. Despite a heavy rain, 3,000 people came out to greet them. During the last week in May, four columns of marchers started out from different parts of Michigan. As they marched, large gatherings of workers greeted the contingents in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Pontiac, Wayland, and Detroit. Some 15,000 people were present when the columns met in Lansing, the state capital. These protests were followed by hunger marches in at least 40 other cities.
While the state-level marches were meticulously organized, the national march to Washington was planned with military precision. The caravan was not a mass procession of the jobless; it was strictly limited in size.
Here is how historian Franklin Folsom described the huge logistical challenge facing the march’s organizers:
“Plans called for the formation of four separate columns, all of which would meet in Washington on December 6 to be on hand for the opening of Congress the next day. On December 1, Column 1 was to leave Boston and Column 2 would leave Buffalo. On November 30, Column 3 would leave Chicago and Column 4 would leave St. Louis. Delegates from the West Coast would leave cities there on November 23 and would join columns in either Chicago or St. Louis. …
“It was no simple matter to get 1,670 delegates transported, fed, clothed, and sheltered – all on a strict schedule. Each delegate wore an armband reading, ‘National Hunger March, December 7, 1931.’ Each truck, which typically carried ten delegates, elected a captain, and each column of trucks elected a guiding committee and a leader. In every truck there was a map telling exactly the route to be followed, and with each column went a scout car, sometimes pushing ahead to look for difficulties and sometimes following behind to watch for breakdowns. Each column also had a medical aid squad and a mechanic.”
En route, the National Hunger March had to deal with local authorities who were often very hostile, and had to respond to a media campaign designed to discredit the march. In Hammond, Indiana, the police tried to stop a rally called to support the march, but the crowd was so large and militant that the police gave up. The New York Times claimed that the marchers would be “furnished with rifles.” This was completely untrue, and even the Secret Service felt compelled to dispute the claim.
When the marchers entered Washington, there were as many cops lining the streets as there were marchers. Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley had ordered all soldiers at nearby Fort Myer to be ready for active service. Two companies of Marines had been called up. Nearly 1,000 additional Marines were brought from Virginia to the Marine barracks in Washington. Four hundred police officers were also brought in from Eastern cities to bolster the Washington, D.C. police force.
On the morning of December 7, the marchers met at John Marshall Place. On their picket signs were slogans such as: “We demand unemployment insurance equal to full wages”; “Down with charity slop; we demand cash relief”; “Milk for our children”; “We American workers refuse to starve”; “Not a cent for war — All funds for the unemployed.”
At John Marshall Place, Washington’s commissioner of police, Pelham Glassford, sped around on a bicycle, dressed in civilian clothes and smoking a long-stemmed pipe. He had deliberately laid out the longest routes for the marchers to march, to tire them out.
Two rows of policemen — about 1,000 officers in all — stood along the line of march. More than 400 additional police officers were stationed at the Capitol. There, the marchers were forced to move into a roped-off area where they were a wide distance from the thousands of people who had come to watch them. Machine guns were pointed at the marchers. The police officers present were armed with sawed-off shotguns and tear-gas guns. (One journalist reported that there were also hand grenade launchers.) An ambulance stood by.
Vice President Charles Curtis had decreed that the marchers could not enter the Capitol grounds with signs that criticized the president or Congress or that were offensive. But since the authorities had not issued any regulations about music, the marchers’ band struck up the battle song of the world’s working class, “The Internationale.” On the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the anthem’s words rang out:
Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise, ye wretched of the earth,
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world’s in birth.
The march’s organizers had wanted to send committees of delegates on to the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate to present their demands, but marchers were not admitted to either the Republican-controlled Senate or the Democratic House. (In fact, on the Senate side of the Capitol, the delegates had to present their demands to the sergeant at arms while they were standing at a basement door.)
From the Capitol, the demonstrators proceeded to the White House. The White House grounds were swarming with police officers. Ambulances and patrol wagons were stationed nearby. President Hoover was inside the White House when the delegates from the Hunger March called, but he refused to see the marchers.
Unable to secure meetings with members of Congress, the hunger marchers headed home. At each place along the return route that the caravan stopped, mass meetings were held, with marchers reporting on what had happened when they tried to speak to the president and the members of Congress. While some newspapers sneeringly described the marchers’ return to their original assembly points as a “retreat,” that term was not accurate; the marchers proceeded back to their starting points exactly as planned.
Determined, militant, and impressively organized, the National Hunger March of December 1931 re-asserted the right of the American people to go en masse to the capital city to petition for change. It showed unemployed workers that they could organize themselves. It forced Depression-era America to admit that the hunger stalking the land could not be ended simply with charity. It compelled the federal authorities to face the fact that to end the massive poverty in the country, the economy was going to have to be restructured in some way.
Within a year, another Hunger March had taken place. This time, the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives had no choice but to meet with marchers. Later, the first Unemployment Insurance Bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Ernest Lundeen from Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party. Ultimately, the first system of federal Social Security, including a national unemployment compensation law, was enacted early in the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The National Hunger March (and the preparatory marches which took place before the
main march to Washington occurred) had far-reaching effects. They helped spur on the fight not only of unemployed workers, but of employed workers as well. A state-level hunger march that took place in Pennsylvania before the national march helped inspire 40,000 miners in Pennsylvania to go on strike. Local hunger marches in Ohio stimulated efforts to organize steel workers into a union.
The Hunger March of 1931 helped pave the way for the establishment of a social contract in the United States. Today, that social contract has been torn to pieces by developments in the economy. But even as different as the world is today from what it was in 1931, there is still much to learn from the First Hunger March. The delegates and captains of that protest understood that nothing would change until people spoke up. They understood that pressure had to be put on Congress (even the part of it controlled by the Democrats). They deliberately timed their protest to coincide with the opening of a session of Congress.
The more news that comes out about Congress, the more timely the demands of the Hunger March of 1931 seem to be. That’s especially true of the demand to stop all deportations of immigrant workers, and the demand that all the money being set aside for war preparations be used instead to help the unemployed. Clearly, our predecessors in the fight against hunger were on to something!
# # #
[This article originated in the pages of Rally Comrades! vol. 19. It makes sense to look at this on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution to learn the lessons for today.]
Communism: Practical resolution to immediate problems
Socialism is becoming more popular in America. According to an April 9, 2009 poll by Rasmussen Reports, only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism. The same poll found that younger Americans are most favorably inclined with 33% of adults under 30 preferring socialism. Americans today are changing their minds about socialism and capitalism, but without a clear understanding of what socialism is.
At a moment in history when the transition from industrial to electronic production is forcing global economic and social reorganization, understanding the difference between capitalism, socialism and communism helps us envision a future society that meets the needs of all and a strategy to achieve it.
After decades in which socialism has been painted as evil, lawless, and totalitarian to forestall criticism of capitalism as an economic system, people’s minds have been opened by the turmoil of the economic crisis and the government’s bailout of the banks, not the people.
The ruling class has discredited alternative economic systems – socialism and communism – as unpatriotic or impossible by equating socialism and communism with dictatorship while treating capitalism and democracy as one and the same. In fact, both democracy and dictatorship are forms of political systems. Capitalism, socialism and communism are economic systems.
Socialism an economic system
Economic systems are the set of relations between people and classes in social production, essentially who owns the means of production and how the product is distributed.
Under the economic system of capitalism, the capitalist class owns the means of production (factories, transport, etc.) as private property – in contrast to public property (like schools and fire stations), or personal property (like homes and cars). The basic law of capitalism – competition in the production of commodities to maximize profits – results in poverty, war, colonial exploitation, monopolies, and crisis.
Capitalists hire workers to produce commodities, which are socially produced, but privately owned by the capitalists, and then sold for profit. The state provides an infrastructure to assist the capitalist class in maximizing profit and towards this end provides some basic necessities (such as schools, unemployment insurance, and social security) to maintain a workforce and ward off starvation, social chaos, and revolution.
Under the economic system of socialism, the means of production are not in the private hands of the capitalists, but are socially owned by the state or by cooperatives. Production is planned by the state with the goal of satisfying the constantly rising requirements of society through expanding production.
Under socialism, the product is distributed to those who work either directly in the form of payment for work or socially through public goods and services and the development of public industry. Money and exchange based on the value of commodities – which is the essence of capitalist production – continue to operate in some spheres and influence economic planning.
Under the economic system of communism, the means of production are publicly owned and capable of producing abundance sufficient to meet the needs of all of society. The use of money disappears because commodities are no longer produced for a market, but for distribution on the basis of need.
Socialism a stage
At every stage in the history of society, the development of the means of production make possible certain kinds of economic systems. The basic implements of animal husbandry and seasonal planting of crops made possible the economic system of slavery. The steam engine, factories, and ocean-going ships opened up the era of industrial production, which made possible the economic systems of socialism and capitalism.
The socialist movement was born in the period of transition from agriculture to industry as serfs and peasants were driven off the land to seek survival as wage-slaves in the miserable conditions of the earliest factories. In many countries political parties of the working class organized and led this new class in a political battle for power to control the state and their own destiny.
The Bolshevik Party of Russia was the clearest example of this struggle for socialism. It succeeded in leading the Russian proletariat to victory against the Tsar and the new capitalist class to win state power for the working people of Russia in 1917. This political victory enabled the Russian working class to establish socialism. After taking power they faced the challenge of wrenching a backward, agrarian economy out of semi-feudalism and building a domestic industry in the aftermath of WWI and the destruction of WWII. Socialism in the Soviet Union – and other socialist countries – was understood to be the first stage toward communism.
In the era of industrial production, the vision of a world without exploitation, hunger and war galvanized the working class movement for communism, but industrial production was unable to create the material conditions required for a communist economic system. The idea of communism preceded the possibility.
Today, in this era of electronic production, the reverse is true. Now, the material conditions for communism exist, but the ideas are lagging behind.
Communism possible today
The introduction of electronics into production has created the conditions for this abundance and thus Soviet style socialism of the 20th Century is no longer necessary or possible. In the 21st century, the global capitalist system has reached a stage where goods can be produced with little or no labor. The global capitalist system is no longer growing and expanding and is in a deep crisis as a result. The transition from industrial capitalism to electronic production is forcing global economic and social reorganization.
A level of production has been achieved through electronics that makes communism possible. This is the turning point at which we stand today.
Humanity today faces the choice: will we do away with private property and build a future for all or will a system of private property be preserved at the expense of human beings and the planet? Electronics is reducing a class that was once an essential element of industrial production to redundancy. Attempts to do no more than blunt the worst effects of capitalism may be well-meaning, but they divert energy from the tasks ahead.
More and more Americans are joining the ranks of those dispossessed by capitalism world-wide. A class that has nothing to gain from private ownership of the means of production has to take the reins of power and construct an economic system that can sustain a better world. The struggle today is not the struggle of the last century to expand industrial production. Nor is it the social-democratic struggle to increase the crumbs that fall from the table of the world’s billionaires. Though people may have different ideas about and different ways of describing it, at this moment in history, the essence of every struggle for a better life is objectively the struggle for communism. Communism is not just an idea, but the practical resolution to immediate problems. Nationalization of health care is a matter of survival for millions. The people of Detroit must take over the water corporations or go without water in their homes. Either we control the corporations or they control us.
In the U.S., the working class is skilled and educated. It has one of the highest levels of production in the world. It has two centuries of experience in the world’s first democratic republic. It is the inheritor of the American Revolution, a civil war that ended slavery, and broad movements for labor and civil rights. With the political power to transition private to public property, American creativity, efficiency and “can-do” spirit will make short work of the transition to an economic system in which the abundance we produce is held in common and benefits all.
Ali Hangan writes:
I hope you are enjoying your Summer. I recently visited my son. He is working in Fortuna, CA. A small rural outpost, located off Highway 101 in Humboldt County, dotted with strip malls and sparse retail establishments. Without a car and few places to shop, I assumed he would have a chance to save a substantial amount of money. He revealed he had spent his entire first two paychecks, but managed to save his money from the last couple of checks he received. Feeling relieved that he had saved some of his money, I asked him how he was able to shop so much without a car? His reply, “I ordered everything from Amazon.”
My conversation with my son illustrates the extent e-commerce’s is taking over the retail space. Any consumer can access a global bazaar of products and services from any location in the world from a smartphone. Secondly, towns with small populations are at a disadvantage in the new age of e-commerce in keeping retail jobs. The more labor intensive retail activities, such as filling orders and stocking shelves, are being situated closer to urban markets to shorten the supply chain to cut cost and maximize efficiency. Another aspect of the process is demographics: My 19-year-old son, like many in his generation, view the smartphone as the first step to engaging the retail environment.
Beyond the shrinking of jobs, e-commerce is impacting broader sectors of the economy related to retail. For instance, commercial real estate and holder’s of commercial debt (i.e. banking) can expect a loss of market value and return on investment, due to the decline of brick and mortar storefronts. Moreover, cities that have long relied on retail taxes to pay for city services, finance capital improvement bonds, and maintain public employee pensions, will confront fierce headwinds to meet their financial obligations as tax revenue withers away.
In sum, the digital revolution cannot be viewed as industry specific, but a broad restructuring of the economy and daily life. The articles that follow illustrate the ebb and flow of the decline of brick and mortar retail, in light of e-commerce, throughout rural and suburban America.
New York Times
In Towns Already Hit by Steel Mill Closings, a New Casualty: Retail Jobs
Thousands of workers face unemployment as retailers struggle to adapt to online shopping. But even as e-commerce grows, it isn’t absorbing these workers.
By RACHEL ABRAMS and ROBERT GEBELOFFJUNE 25, 2017
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Dawn Nasewicz comes from a family of steelworkers, with jobs that once dominated the local economy. She found her niche in retail.
She manages a store, Ooh La La, that sells prom dresses and embroidered jeans at a local mall. But just as the jobs making automobile springs and rail anchors disappeared, local retail jobs are now vanishing.
“I need my income,” said Ms. Nasewicz, who was told that her store will close as early as
August. “I’m 53. I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
Ms. Nasewicz is another retail casualty, one of tens of thousands of workers facing unemployment nationwide as the industry struggles to adapt to online shopping.
Small cities in the Midwest and Northeast are particularly vulnerable. When major industries left town, retail accounted for a growing share of the job market in places like Johnstown, Decatur, Ill., and Saginaw, Mich. Now, the work force is getting hit a second time, and there is little to fall back on.
Moreover, [read full story here]
* * * * * *
Forbes magazine/ Bloomberg News
Amazon Robots Poised to Revamp How Whole Foods Runs Warehouses
The retailer could bring its distribution technology to the grocery chain
Spencer Soper and Alex Sherman
June 26, 2017, 4:00 AM PDT
When Amazon.com Inc.’s $13.7 billion bid to buy Whole Foods was announced, John Mackey, the grocer’s chief executive officer, addressed employees, gushing about Amazon’s technological innovation.
“We will be joining a company that’s visionary,” Mackey said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “I think we’re gonna get a lot of those innovations in our stores. I think we’re gonna see a lot of technology. I think you’re gonna see Whole Foods Market evolve in leaps and bounds.”
A major question about the acquisition is what Amazon’s technology will mean for those Whole Foods’ workers. Will it make their jobs obsolete?
In negotiations, Amazon spent a lot of time analyzing Whole Foods’ distribution technology, pointing to a possible way in which the company sees the most immediate opportunities to reduce costs, said a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the issue was private. Amazon, through a spokesman, declined to comment, as did Whole Foods.
Experts say the most immediate changes would likely be in warehouses that customers never see. That suggests the jobs that could be affected the earliest would be in the warehouses, where products from suppliers await transport to store shelves, said Gary Hawkins, CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail and Technology, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps retailers and brands innovate. As Amazon looks to automate distribution, cashiers will be safe– for now.
“The easiest place for Amazon to bring its expertise to bear is in the warehouses, because that’s where Amazon really excels,” Hawkins said. “If they can reduce costs, they can show that on the store shelves and move Whole Foods away from the Whole Paycheck image.”
Amazon sees automation as a key strategic advantage in its overall grocery strategy, [read full article here]
The Canary in the Cage: Black Families and the White Working Class
by Ali Hangan
The black population’s history is one of tragedy and triumph. On the one hand, the population has suffered over 400 years of slavery and entrenched segregation. On the other hand, the Civil Rights movement is considered an American success story. The Civil Rights movement opened up a renewed sense of optimism for the future of the black working class and other oppressed groups. But in the late 1970’s and 80’s, that spirit of optimism began to wane.
American industry confronted with increased competition from abroad, cut costs by outsourcing work and adopting automation. A large swath of black workers in the cities that were once employed became unemployed and ultimately became unemployable. Those families that could move left to the suburbs leaving the remaining population on urban islands with few economic opportunities.
The lack of economic opportunities in the urban black communities provided a fertile ground for a drug economy. Crack cocaine and the culture associated with the drug began to spread at epidemic levels throughout the nation. In the wake of the crack epidemic more intensified policing policies arose in response. The purpose of these policies was not to stop crack per se, but rather to prevent its spread among the more politically organized suburban communities. The tactics to carry out these new policies became the genesis of increased militarization of the police.
The enhanced police tactics entered into the national consciousness by black Hip Hop artists. In 1985, Toddy Tee produced “Battleram” about the LAPD armored vehicle used to smash in crack houses. In 1988, the song “Fuck the Police” by NWA told the story of police intimidation of young black males. And in 1990, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy called upon black communities to defend themselves against the police.
While these songs brought a consciousness to the Gestapo tactics being used to police black communities, it paradoxically renewed old stereotypes about urban black males. With the music industry’s new marketing of music through videos in the 1980’s, they streamed images of black males as gang members into households across the country. This perception of a “black Armageddon” on MTV shifted public opinion toward support of a more comprehensive strategy to police urban black communities.
The new strategy fell under the auspices of the Federal drug enforcement policy, which became known as the “War on Drugs.” The War on Drugs began during the Nixon Administration in 1971. It was a Federal campaign for the prohibition of drugs and enhanced military intervention, with the stated aim being to reduce the illegal drug trade. In 1982, Vice President George H. W. Bush led a push for the involvement of the CIA and U.S. military in drug interdiction efforts. In 1989, under now, President George H. W. Bush, he authorized the creation of a Federal Drug Czar to oversee the war on drugs. Later, raised to a cabinet-level position by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Currently, the Federal Government spends 51 billion annually on the war on drugs. [citation]
The War on drugs has had a devastating effect on the black population:
“The US Department of Justice (DOJ) reports 2.2 million people are in our nation’s jails and prisons and another 4.5 million people are on probation or parole in the US, totaling 6.8 million people, one of every 35 adults. We are far and away the world leader in putting our own people in jail. Most of the people inside are poor and Black.” —- 40 Reasons Our Jails and Prisons Are Full of Black and Poor People, Common Dreams, June 2nd, 2015
“The War on Drugs targets Black people. Drug arrests are a big source of bodies and business for the criminal legal system. Half the arrests these days are for drugs and half of those are for marijuana. Despite the fact that Black and white people use marijuana at the same rates, a Black person is 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person. The ACLU found that in some states Black people were six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. For all drug arrests between 1980 and 2000 the U.S. Black drug arrest rate rose dramatically from 6.5 to 29.1 per 1,000 persons; during the same period, the white drug arrest rate barely increased from 3.5 to 4.6 per 1,000 persons. ” [Ibid]
The same process that I have attempted to describe amongst the black population is reaching into much broader sections of the working class. Since the economic crash of 2008, capitalism has transitioned into a new stage of development. The increased demands on American companies to compete in the “Just in time” global economy has compelled each to be more flexible adopting more advanced automation and robots. The results have been increased productivity but at the expense of middle-income and unionized jobs impacting many white workers.
The latest wave of economic restructuring has had strong parallels to the process that began in the urban black communities in the 1980’s. This process of decay amongst the white working class has manifested in two visible ways:
1) The surge in the use of meth among the white population.
2) The groundswell of support by the white working class of Donald Trump’s proposals to scale back protectionist policies.
The first two articles that follow focus on the black population but, should be viewed more broadly as a canary in the cage for the entire American working class. In other words, the declining social conditions of the black population provides us with a window into the future for the entire working class as a whole. The flip side is this: As more sections of the working class become equally impoverished it creates a practical basis to move beyond silly notions of race to unify workers politically around a broader class struggle for their common economic survival.
What do you think?
Excerpt from The incredible crushing despair of the white working class:
“Carol Graham, a happiness researcher at the Brookings Institution, recently analyzed Gallup’s data on life satisfaction and found that when it comes to their outlook on the future, the most desperate groups are poor and near-poor whites.
Gallup asks people to rate their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst possible life they could be living and 10 is the best. Crucially, they also ask people to imagine what their lives will look like five years in the future.
Among the poor, whites are the demographic group least likely to imagine a better future for themselves, Graham found. Poor Hispanics were about 30 percent more likely to imagine a better future than poor whites. The difference for poor blacks was even larger: They were nearly three times as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites.”
“Part of the optimism gap is indeed because of “a shrinking pie of good jobs for low-skill/blue collar workers,” Graham said in an email. “Whites used to have real advantages (some via discrimination) that they no longer have … they are looking at downward mobility or threats of it, while poor blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to parents who were worse off than they.”
And paradoxically, while some inequalities between races are shrinking, other inequalities within races are growing. Across all races, for instance, the wealthy are gobbling up an ever-growing share of the income pie and leaving less behind for everyone else.”
The incredible crushing despair of the white working class
— “The heights by great men [and women] reached and kept were not attained in sudden flight but, they while their companions slept, they were toiling upwards in the night.” —- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
This is the beginning of Black History Month, February 1, 2016, and I think it’s appropriate to quote from Nelson Peery’s The Future Is Up To Us:
WHY IS AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY THE HEART OF AMERICAN HISTORY?
To suggest such an analysis is bound to make the majority of eyebrows arch upward. African Americans have always been looked upon and treated as if they were at best on the periphery of our coun- try’s history. Their being marginalized in the social and economic sense reinforces this outlook. Nevertheless any serious inquiry into history will show that the control, manipulation and exploitation of the African American was at the heart of every major and most of the minor decisions of state prior to the Civil War, and a good many of them afterwards.
Let’s start at the beginning. For a number of ideological and political reasons, the American colonies resisted African slavery, pre- ferring to populate the New World with European indentured ser- vants. In the Caribbean, the plantation and slave system was being fine-tuned. There, unheard-of fortunes were accumulated on the basis of the most reckless expenditure of human life known to history. A goodly portion of the colonies’ economic intercourse was servicing the slave system of the Caribbean. The colonies were never discon- nected from African slavery. It was not some inopportune landing of a Spanish ship carrying twenty African captives that inaugurated
African slavery in the colonies. As the capitalist system evolved from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantations, capitalism became firmly planted in the colonies and slavery was its inevitable result. Every colony had slavery, and none of the colonies, north or south, could have accumulated and economically moved forward without the brutal working to death of the slave.
Rudimentary capitalist agriculture—that is agriculture for the market, rather than consumption—never reckoned with ecology or preservation of the land. This is especially true of cotton culture. The solution was the constant westward motion for virgin land. I often laugh at these falsifiers of history who wave the flag and talk about the westward move of liberty. In fact, it was the westward move of slavery. Two examples that come to mind are the removal of the five
“civilized” (i.e., slave-holding) Indian tribes from their native lands to the Oklahoma Territory. The “Trail of Tears” is an indelible moral condemnation of U.S. state policy for the expansion of slavery. The Indians suffered terribly on that journey. Can you imagine the con- dition of their African slaves?
The other instance was the annexation of Texas and later the war against Mexico and the ripping-off of half her national territory. There was no other reason for this expansionism but the promulga- tion of slavery. The westward march of liberty is a joke.
Most people understand that the Civil War was fought over the African Americans’ condition as slaves. Few realize that Wilson probably would not have been elected if Blacks were able to vote. Certainly, Roosevelt would not have won his third term without a solid African American vote. This goes for Truman and a number of presidents who changed the political direction of the country.
Take a look at the body of law developed around the control of labor. Every single one of these oppressive laws had their foun- dation in the control of the African American. If we go beyond the written law it is easily seen that the control of a disjointed working class was achieved through uniting the white worker and capitalist to exclude the African American.
In the realm of culture, if it weren’t for the African Americans we would still be dancing the minuet. At the heart of American cul- ture beats the culture of the African American people. They would not have created this culture if not for the isolation, brutality and segregation that lies at the heart of the African Americans as a people. Eleanor Roosevelt put it quite well when she said that apart from the culture of the Indian, the culture of the African American is the only American culture. Clearly everything else was an ethnic culture brought over from the old world. The other aspect is, it is becom- ing a world culture. Every time I’ve gone abroad, I’ve been shocked by the breadth of the assimilation of this culture into French, British, Egyptian—what have you—popular culture.
So when we say that the African Americans are at the heart of American history, we don’t mean to imply that they were in control of that history. The sad fact is that up until the integration period, con- trolling and manipulating the Black ten percent was the way to con- trol the white majority. This is the only way we can make sense of a history that gives the world the most exalted visions along with the most brutal and callous exploitation and destruction of human life.