In 1889, Clara Zetkin wrote: “Wherever busy folk are drudging under the yoke of capitalism, the organised working men and women will demonstrate on May Day for the idea of their social emancipation.” In today’s world, the murderous claws of oppression have dug deeper into the flesh of humanity. The globalization of capital, establishment of post-Fordist economic arrangements of flexible specialization, financialization of the accumulation process and neo-colonial strangulation of the Global South have led to a barbaric situation. Amid this generalized chaos, May 1 acts as a blazing streak, inviting the wretched of the earth to reflect intensively on their own history of joy, tenacious resistance, collective courage and strong solidarity.
May Day has old roots in archaic traditions of human responses to springtime and the customary pagan celebration of nature’s beauty and fertility amid spring’s full flowering in northern temperate zones. Dating to ancient Rome, this May Day is rooted in the seasonal rhythms of Earth and ecology. It reached across the Atlantic with the European conquest of the Americas. It is a day of leisure, to be spent outdoors, wearing flowers and soaking up the wind and sun. Dancing around maypoles, people enact a sense of participation in the joys of natural renewal and growth won back from winter’s death. It was an official holiday in the British Tudor monarchy by at least the early 16th century. The bourgeois Puritan Parliaments of 1649-1660 suspended the holiday, which was put back with the reinstatement of Charles II.
Flames of Labor Militancy
With the rise of capitalism, the ideas of the “Green May Day” merged with the “Red May Day” of Communists. Workers hailed May demonstration as a herald of future struggles, but also of future victories, which must as surely come as spring follows winter. While outlining the modern history of May Day, Rosa Luxemburg stated that it was born in Australia by workers - the stonemasons of Melbourne University - who in 1856 organized a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favor of the 8-hour day. The day of this celebration was to be April 21. At first, the Australian workers intended this only for the year 1856. But this first celebration had such a potent impact on the masses, that it was decided to repeat the celebration every year.
The first to follow the example of the Australian workers were the Americans. At its national convention in Chicago, held in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) - which later became the American Federation of Labor - proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886.” The following year, the FOTLU, backed by many Knights of Labor locals, reiterated their proclamation stating that it would be supported by strikes and demonstrations.
The anthem of the Knights of Labor was the “Eight-Hour Song”:
“We want to feel the sunshine;
On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the US walked off their jobs. In Chicago, the epicenter for the 8-hour day agitators, 40,000 went out on strike. Parades, bands and tens of thousands of demonstrators in the streets exemplified the workers’ strength and unity; the protests didn’t become violent as the newspapers and authorities had predicted. More and more workers continued to walk off their jobs until the numbers swelled to nearly 100,000, yet peace prevailed. It was not until two days later, May 3, 1886, that violence broke out between police and strikers.
Lumber workers who were on strike for the 8-hour day were attending a meeting near the McCormick Reaper Works on the south side of the city, where 1,400 workers had been locked out since February and replaced by 300 scabs. When they went to confront the scabs at McCormick, the workers were attacked by some 200 police. 4 workers were killed and many others injured. The attacks continued into the following day, with police breaking up gatherings of workers.
Full of rage, a public meeting was called by some of the anarchists for the following day in Haymarket Square to discuss the police brutality. In her autobiography, Mother Jones wrote: “All about were railway tracks, dingy saloons and the dirty tenements of the poor. A half a block away was the Desplaines Street Police Station presided over by John Bonfield, a man without tact or discretion or sympathy, a most brutal believer in suppression as the method to settle industrial unrest.”
Due to bad weather and short notice, only about 3,000 of the tens of thousands of people showed up from the day before. As the meeting wound down, two detectives rushed to the main body of police, reporting that a speaker was using inflammatory language, inciting the police to march on the speakers’ wagon. As the police began to disperse the already thinning crowd, a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. No one knows who threw the bomb, but speculations varied from blaming any one of the anarchists, to an agent provocateur working for the police.
Enraged, the police fired into the crowd. The exact number of civilians killed or wounded was never determined, but an estimated 7 or 8 civilians died, and up to 40 were wounded. An officer died immediately and another 7 died in the following weeks. Later evidence indicated that only one of the police deaths could be attributed to the bomb and that all the other police fatalities had or could have had been due to their own indiscriminate gun fire. Aside from the bomb thrower, who was never identified, it was the police, not the anarchists, who perpetrated the violence.
Eight anarchists - Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg - were arrested and convicted of murder, though only three were even present at Haymarket and those three were in full view of all when the bombing occurred. The jury in their trial comprised business leaders in a gross mockery of justice. The entire world watched as these eight organizers were convicted, not for their actions, of which all of them were innocent, but for their political and social beliefs.
On November 11, 1887, after many failed appeals, Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fisher were hung to death. Lingg, in his final protest of the state’s barbarity, took his own life the night before with an explosive device in his mouth. The remaining organizers, Fielden, Neebe and Schwab, were pardoned six years later by Governor Altgeld, who publicly lambasted the judge for orchestrating a travesty of justice.
Before being executed, Spies said: “If you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement...the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in want and misery expect salvation - if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.”
The Second International, founded in 1889, took the initiative to internationalise May Day by giving it a revolutionary content. At the meeting of the Second International, a resolution was adopted to declare an international May Day. The resolution read: “A great international demonstration shall be organized for a fixed date in such a manner that the workers in all countries and in all cities shall on a specified day simultaneously address to the public authorities a demand to fix the workday at eight hours and to put into effect the other resolutions of the International Congress of Paris.”
Instead of being confined to a demand for 8-hours working day, May Day became an instance of hope and struggle. In an April 1904 pamphlet, Vladimir Lenin wrote: “May Day is coming, the day when the workers of all lands celebrate their awakening to a class-conscious life, their solidarity in the struggle against all coercion and oppression of man by man, the struggle to free the toiling millions from hunger, poverty, and humiliation. Two worlds stand facing each other in this great struggle: the world of capital and the world of labour, the world of exploitation and slavery and the world of brotherhood and freedom.”
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn said that May Day “obliterates all differences of race, creed, color, and nationality. It celebrates the brotherhood of all workers everywhere. It crosses all national boundaries, it transcends all language barriers, it ignores all religious differences. It makes sharp and clear, around the world, the impassable chasm between all workers and all exploiters. It is the day when the class struggle in its most militant significance is reaffirmed by every conscious worker.”
May Day became an international socialist symbol of what the artist and designer Walter Crane called the “dawn of labour”. A Crane artwork for May Day 1896, for example, shows an English worker offering the hand of socialist cooperation to Italian, German, French and other workers with the slogan “International solidarity of labour - the true answer to jingoism”. Crane dedicated the work to “the workers of the world”.
This May Day, it is important that we work to carry forward the noble aims of the Communist movement. No one captures these aims better than Crane. In his poem “The Worker’s Maypole”, he beautifully depicts the various threads of which May Day is composed:
“World Workers, whatever may bind ye,
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.
Midwestern Marx's Editorial Board does not necessarily endorse the views of all articles shared on the Midwestern Marx website. Our goal is to provide a healthy space for multilateral discourse on advancing the class struggle. - Editorial Board
A group of men and a boy carrying groceries during the Seattle general strike, February 7, 1919. | Museum of History and Industry, Seattle.
The Centennial of the Russian Revolution
November 7, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the world’s first socialist state. To commemorate the occasion, People’s World presents a series of articles providing wide-angled assessments of the revolution’s legacy, the Soviet Union and world communist movement which were born out of it, and the revolution’s relevance to radical politics today. Other articles in the series can be read here.
Just before Christmas, on December 21, 1917, a strange freighter pulled into Elliott Bay in Seattle. This vessel bore an unfamiliar flag—a red flag. This was a Russian ship, the Shilka, out of Vladivostok, Russia. Only a few weeks before, on November 7, a Bolshevik revolution had taken place in Russia and its leader, Vladimir Lenin, proclaimed a workers’ and farmers’ state.
The Seattle city fathers were disturbed by this sight. After all, they had just gone through a tumultuous lumber strike. Several local issues were stirring the AFL Central Labor Council. What was the purpose of this ship? Rumors circulated that it carried weapons and gold to foster a revolution in Seattle and the U.S.
The U.S. had just entered WWI, the “Great War,” back in April, and patriotic fervor was at a high pitch. And the new revolutionary government had declared peace with our German enemy. This ship could be a potential threat.
Given these fears, port authorities refused to allow the Shilka to land, and it sat stranded in the harbor. But the ever resourceful Bolshevik sailors managed to sneak ashore and make contact with the IWW and the labor movement. (Some of the socialist sailors had lived in the U.S. and spoke English.)
Eventually, the ship docked at Pier 5. Rather than guns and gold, investigators found the cargo to be beans, peas, and licorice root—destined for Baltimore. And, oh yes, some suspicious Russian vodka laced with red peppers.
By this time, of course, newspaper headlines around the country screamed about the “Bolshevik ship of mystery” and IWW plots. Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs commented, “Everything that happens nowadays that the ruling classes do not like is laid at the feet of the IWW.”
Seattle’s socialist newspaper, the Socialist Daily Call, regularly carried articles about the Shilka by journalist Anna Louise Strong. Although the AFL Central Labor Council was critical of the IWW, the Seattle Union Record also expressed concern for the Russian sailors and how they were being treated. The Central Labor Council also drafted a letter to Russian workers expressing their fraternal greetings and best wishes to all who aspired to “establish a true and free industrial democracy” in Russia. The Tacoma IWW wrote a message cheering the revolution and declaring their support for a “worldwide industrial commonwealth based on the brotherhood of man.”
Nicolai Kryukov, a Bolshevik from the sailor’s committee, met with IWW members a number of times and spoke at their meetings about the revolution and what it hoped to achieve. The members, probably led by lumberjack Roy Brown, wrote a congratulatory message to Russian workers: “To Nicholai Lenin and the Representatives of the Bolshevik Government and Through Them to the Workers of Russia.” The sailors carefully secreted the letter on their ship.
As the ship left port on January 5, a crowd of over 200 well-wishers cheered. A band played La Marseillaise—one of the anthems of the Russian workers then. The sailors also carefully secreted messages from the IWW and the Seattle Central Labor Council, to be delivered in Vladivostok.
Following the ship’s departure, there was a right-wing backlash in which the offices of the Socialist Daily Call were burned to the ground and several local radicals were arrested.
The Shilka docked in Vladivostok, and the newspaper Red Banner printed the IWW letter on March 20, 1918. The message from the Seattle Central Labor Council had been entrusted to the non-Bolshevik captain, who apparently jumped ship during refueling in Japan. Nothing more was heard from him, and the letter was lost to history.
In November 1920, Kryukov met Lenin at a conference. Lenin told him that he had read the letter and answered it. When he learned that Kryukov and his comrades had been on the ship, Lenin warmly embraced him.
Lenin had written his reply on August 26, 1918. It was a very dark and dangerous time for the Russian Revolution. Armies from the U.S., Britain, France, and Japan had invaded Russia in an attempt to crush the revolution. Insurgent generals Kolchak, Wrangel, Denikin, Yudenich, and others initiated civil war aimed at restoring the Czarist autocracy.
U.S. troops had landed in Murmansk and later, beginning in August 1918, in Vladivostok. By the end of September, there were 7,500 U.S. troops operating out of Vladivostok. About 3,000 Canadian and Australian troops were sent by Britain. Kolchak ran a hideously brutal “government” which appalled the allied troops. A Canadian soldier wrote, “However much one may deprecate the Bolshevik methods, we Canadians in Siberia could neither hear or see anything which inspire in us any confidence in the Kolchak government… There came to our ears stories of the workings of that government which savored more of Caesar Borgia that any democratic government.”
The main contingent of troops in Siberia, however, came from Japan. Estimates of the Japanese forces ran as high as 70,000 troops. It became obvious that the Japanese were interested in reclaiming Siberian lands lost in previous wars with Russia.
When the Germans signed the armistice ending WWI on November 11, 1918, U.S. and other occupying troops remained in Russia, not leaving until January 1920. The Japanese remained until 1922—and continued to occupy Sakhalin Island, which the Soviets recaptured in 1945.
But what of Lenin’s letter to the American workers?
A 1935 edition of Lenin’s “Letter to American Workers,” from International Publishers.
What Lenin desperately needed was for U.S. troops to be removed from Siberia and for aid to counterrevolutionaries to be stopped. He recognized the importance of the U.S. in the Allied Coalition—and as a future trading partner.
When Lenin finished his letter, the question became how to deliver it? Again, it was a Russian seaman who was called upon to sail to America and see that the letter was published. He was also given a secret letter to President Woodrow Wilson from Lenin, who called for peaceful and friendly relations. (Wilson never revealed the contents of this letter.)
Lenin’s letter to American workers was handed to John Reed, who had just returned from Russia, and who set about getting the letter printed in socialist newspapers far and wide.
So what did Lenin have to say in his Letter to American Workers?
First, he sought to make connections between the American Revolution of 1776 and the Russian Revolution of 1917:
“The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners, or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these “civilized” bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world.”
Lenin also commented on the U.S. Civil War:
“The American people have a revolutionary tradition which has been adopted by the best representatives of the American proletariat, who have repeatedly expressed their complete solidarity with us Bolsheviks. That tradition is the war of liberation against the British in the eighteenth century and the Civil War in the nineteenth century. In some respects, if we only take into consideration the ‘destruction’ of some branches of industry and of the national economy, America in 1870 was behind 1860. But what a pedant, what an idiot would anyone be to deny on these grounds the immense, world-historic, progressive and revolutionary significance of the American Civil War of 1863-65!
“The representatives of the bourgeoisie understand that for the sake of overthrowing Negro slavery, of overthrowing the rule of the slave owners, it was worth letting the country go through long years of civil war, through the abysmal ruin, destruction, and terror that accompany every war. But now, when we are confronted with the vastly greater task of overthrowing capitalist wage-slavery, of overthrowing the rule of the bourgeoisie—now, the representatives and defenders of the bourgeoisie, and also the reformist socialists who have been frightened by the bourgeoisie and are shunning the revolution, cannot and do not want to understand that civil war is necessary and legitimate.”
Pointing to the revolutionary and socialist traditions of American workers, he added:
“The American workers will not follow the bourgeoisie. They will be with us, for civil war against the bourgeoisie. The whole history of the world and of the American labor movement strengthens my conviction that this is so. I also recall the words of one of the most beloved leaders of the American proletariat, Eugene Debs, who wrote in the Appeal to Reason, I believe towards the end of 1915, in the article, “What Shall I Fight For” (I quoted this article at the beginning of 1916 at a public meeting of workers in Berne, Switzerland)—that he, Debs, would rather be shot than vote credits for the present criminal and reactionary war; that he, Debs, knows of only one holy and, from the proletarian standpoint, legitimate war, namely: the war against the capitalists, the war to liberate mankind from wage-slavery.”
Lenin knew, of course, that help was not on the way and that it would require a world-wide effort to guarantee the success of the Russian socialists:
“We know that help from you will probably not come soon, comrade American workers, for the revolution is developing in different countries in different forms and at different tempos (and it cannot be otherwise). We know that although the European proletarian revolution has been maturing very rapidly lately, it may, after all, not flare up within the next few weeks. We are banking on the inevitability of the world revolution, but this does not mean that we are such fools as to bank on the revolution inevitably coming on a definite and early date. We have seen two great revolutions in our country, 1905 and 1917, and we know revolutions are not made to order, or by agreement. We know that circumstances brought our Russian detachment of the socialist proletariat to the fore not because of our merits, but because of the exceptional backwardness of Russia, and that before the world revolution breaks out a number of separate revolutions may be defeated.”
Did Lenin’s article ever reach the Seattle workers? Did it somehow play a role in the General Strike of 1919? This is a yet-unsettled question, and we will leave it for another time—but one has hopes.
This article is based on a paper presented at the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.
James H. Williams is a retired professor and long-time labor and community activist living in Tacoma, Washington.
This article was first published by People's World
Comrades: A Russian Bolshevik who participated in the Revolution of 1905 and for many years afterwards lived in your country has offered to transmit this letter to you. I have grasped this opportunity joyfully for the revolutionary proletariat of America — insofar as it is the enemy of American imperialism — is destined to perform an important task at this time.
The history of modern civilized America opens with one of those really revolutionary wars of liberation of which there have been so few compared with the enormous number of wars of conquest that were caused, like the present imperialistic war, by squabbles among kings, landholders and capitalists over the division of ill-gotten lands and profits. It was a war of the American people against the English who despoiled America of its resources and held in colonial subjection, just as their "civilized" descendants are draining the lifeblood of hundreds of millions of human beings in India, Egypt and all corners and ends of the world to keep them in sub- jection.
Since that war 150 years have passed. Bourgeois civilization has born its most luxuriant fruit. By developing the productive forces of organized human labor, by utilizing machines and all the wonders of technique America has taken the first place among free and civilized nations. But at the same time America, like a few other nations, has become characteristic for the depth of the abyss that divide a handful of brutal millionaires who are stagnating in a mire of luxury, and millions of laboring starving men and women who are always staring want in the face.
Four years of imperialistic slaughter have left their trace. Irrefutably and clearly events have shown to the people that both imperialistic groups, the English as well as the German, have been playing false. The four years of war have shown in their effects the great law of capitalism in all wars ; that he who is richest and mightiest profits the most, takes the great- est share of the spoils while he who is weakest is exploited, martyred, oppressed and outraged to the utmost.
In the number of its colonial possessions, English imperial- ism has always been more powerful than any of the other countries. England has lost not a span of its "acquired" land. On the other hand it has acquired control of all German colonies in Africa, has occupied Mesopotamia and Palestine.
German imperialism was stronger because of the wonderful organization and ruthless discipline of "its" armies, but as far as colonies are concerned, is much weaker than its opponent. It has now lofet all of its colonies, but has robbed half of Europe and throttled most of the small countries and weaker peoples.. What a high conception of "liberation" on either side! How well they have defended their fatherlands, these "gentlemen" of both groups, the Anglo-French and the German cap- italists together with their lackeys, the Social-Patriots.
American plutocrats are wealthier than those of any other country partly because they are geographically more favorably situated. They have made the greatest profits. They have made all, even the weakest countries, their debtors. They have amassed gigantic fortunes during the war. And every dollar is stained with the blood that was shed by mil- lions of murdered and crippled men, shed in the high, honor- able and holy war of freedom.
Had the Anglo-French and American bourgeoisie accepted the Soviet invitation , to participate in peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, instead of leaving Russia to the mercy of brutal Germany a just peace without annexations and indemnities, a peace based upon complete equality could have been forced upon Germany, and millions of lives might have been saved. Because they hoped to reestablish the Eastern Front by once more drawing us into the whirlpool of warfare, they refused to attend peace negotiations and gave Germany a free hand to cram its shameful terms down the throat of the Russian people. It lay in the power of. the Allied countries to make the Brest-Litovsk negotiations the forerunner of a general peace. It ill becomes them to throw the blame for the Russo-German peace upon our shoulders!
The workers of the whole world, in whatever country they may live, rejoice with us and sympathize with us, applaud us for having burst the iron ring of imperialistic agreements and treaties, for having dreaded no sacrifice, however great, to free ourselves, for having established ourselves as a socialist republic, even so rent asunder and plundered by German imperial- ists, for having raised the banner of peace, the banner of Socialism over the world. What wonder that, we are hated by the capitalist class the world over. But this hatred of imperialism and the sympathy of the class-conscious workers of all countries give us assurance of the righteousness of our cause.
He is no Socialist who cannot understand that one cannot and must not hesitate to bring even that greatest of sacrifice, the sacrifice of territory, that one must be ready to accept even military defeat at the hands of imperialism in the interests of victory over the bourgeoisie, in the interests of a transfer of power to the working-class. For the sake of "their" cause, that is for the conquest of world-power, the imperialists of England and Germany have not hesitated to ruin a whole of row of nations, from Belgium and Servia to Palestine and Mesopotamia. Shall we then hesitate to act in the name of the liberation of the workers of the world from the yoke of capitalism, in the name of a general honorable peace; shall , we wait until we can find a way that entails no sacrifice ; shall we be afraid to begin the fight until an easy victory is assured ; shall we place the integrity and safety of this "fatherland" created by the bourgeoisie over the interests of the international socialist revolution?
We have been attacked for coming to terms with German militarism. Is there no difference between a pact entered upon by Socialists and a bourgeoisie (native or foreign) against the working-class, against labor, and an agreement that is made between a working-class that has overthrown its own bour- geoisie and a bourgeoisie of one side against a bourgeoisie of another nationality for the protection of the proletariat? Shall we not exploit the antagonism that exists between the various groups of the bourgeoisie. In reality every European under- stands this difference, and the American people, as I will presently show, have had a very similar experience in its own his- tory. There are agreements and agreements, fagots et fagots, as the Frenchman says.
When the robber-barons of German imperialism threw their armies into defenseless, demobilized Russia in February 1918, when Russia had staked its hopes upon the international solidarity of the proletariat before the international revolution had completely ripened, I did not hesitate for a moment to come to certain agreements with French Monarchists. The French captain Sadoul, who sympathized in words with the Bolshe- viki while in deeds he was the faithful servant of French im- perialism, brought the French officer de Lubersac to me. "I am a Monarchist. My only purpose is the overthrow of Ger- many," de Lubersac declared to me. "That is self understood (cela va sans dire)," I replied. But this by no means prevented me from coming to an understanding with de Lubersac concerning certain services that French experts in explosives were ready to render in order to hold up the German advance by the destruction of railroad lines. This is an example of the kind of agreement that every class-conscious worker must be ready to adopt, an agreement in the interest of Socialism. We shook hands with the French Monarchists although we knew that each one of us would rather have seen the other hang. But temporarily our interests were identical. To throw back the rapacious advancing German army we made use of the equally greedy interests of their opponents, thereby serving the interests of the Russian and the international socialist revolution.
In this way we furthered the cause of the working-class of Russia and of other countries; in this way we strengthened the proletariat and weakened the bourgeoisie of the world by mak- ing use of the usual and absolutely legal practice of manoever- ing, shifting and waiting for the moment the rapidly growing proletarian revolution in the more highly developed nations had ripened.
Long ago the American people used these tactics to the advantage of its revolution. When America waged its great war of liberation against the English oppressors, it likewise entered into negotiations with other oppressors, with the French and the Spaniards who at that time owned a considerable portion of what is now the United States. In its desperate struggle for freedom the American people made "agree- ments" with one group of oppressors against the other for the purpose of weakening all oppressors and strengthening those who were struggling against tyranny. The American people utilized the antagonism that existed between the English and the French, at times even fighting side by side with the armies of one group of oppressors, the French and the Spanish against the others, the English. Thus it vanquished first the English and then freed itself (partly by purchase) from the dangerous proximity of the French and Spanish possessions.
The great Russian revolutionist Tchernychewski once said: Political activity is not as smooth as the pavement of the Nevski Prospect. He is no revolutionist who would have the revolution of the proletariat only under the "condition" that it proceed smoothly and in an orderly manner, that guarantees against defeat be given beforehand, that the revolution go forward along the broad, free, straight path to victory, that there shall not be here and there the heaviest sacrifices, that we shall not have to lie in wait in besieged fortresses, shall not have to climb up along the narrowest path, the most impassible, winding, dangerous mountain roads. He is no revolution- ist, he has not yet freed himself from the pendantry of bourgeois intellectualism, he will fall back, again and again, into the camp of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.
They are little more than imitators of the bourgeoisie, these gentlemen who delight in holding up to us the "chaos" of revolution, the "destruction" of industry, the unemployment, the lack of food. Can there be anything more hypocritical than such accusations from people who greeted and supported the imperialistic war and made common cause with Kerensky when he continued the war? Is not this imperialistic war the cause of all our misfortune? The revolution that was born by the war must necessarily go on through the terrible difficulties and sufferings that war created, through this heritage of destruction and reactionary mass murder. To accuse us of "destruction" of industries and "terror" is hypocrisy or clumsy pedantry, sho*vs an incapability of understanding the most elemental fundamentals of the raging, climatic force of the class struggle, called Revolution.
In words our accusers "recognize" this kind of class struggle, in deeds they revert again and again to the middle class Utopia of "class-harmony" and the mutual "interdependence" of classes upon one another. In reality the class struggle in revolutionary times has always inevitably taken on the form of civil war, and civil war is unthinkable without the worst kind of destruction, without terror and limitations of form of democracy in the interests of the war. One must be a sickly sentimentalist not to be able to see, to understand and appreciate this necessity. Only the Tchechov type of the life- less "Man in the Box" can denounce the Revolution for this reason instead of throwing himself into the fight with the whole vehemence and decision of his soul at a moment when history demands that the highest problems of humanity be solved by struggle and war.
The best representatives of the American proletariat — those representatives who have repeatedly given expression to their full solidarity with us, the Bolsheviki, are the expression of this revolutionary tradition in the life of the American people. This tradition originated in the war of liberation against the English in the 18th and the Civil War in the 19th century. Industry and commerce in 1870 were in a much worse position than in 1860. But where can you find an American so pendantic, so absolutely idiotic who would deny the revolutionary and progressive significance of the American Civil War of 1860-1865?
The representatives of the bourgeoisie understand very well that the overthrow of slavery was well worth the three years of Civil War, the depth of destruction, devastation and terror that were its accompaniment. But these same gentlemen and the reform socialists who have allowed themselves to be cowed by the bourgeoisie and tremble at the thought of a revolution, cannot, nay will not, see the necessity and righteousness of a civil war in Russia, though it is facing a far greater task, the work of abolishing capitalist wage slavery and overthrowing the rule of the bourgeoisie.
The American working class will not follow the lead of its bourgeoisie. It will go with us against the bourgeoisie. The whole history of the American people gives me this confidence, this conviction. I recall with pride the words of one of the best loved leaders of the American proletariat, Eugene V. Debs, who said in the "Appeal to Reason" at the end of 1915, when it was still a socialist paper, in an article entitled "Why Should I Fight?" that he would rather be shot than vote for war credits to support the present criminal and reactionary war, that he knows only one war that is sanctified and justified from the standpoint of the proletariat: the war against the capital- ist class, the war for the liberation of mankind from wage slavery. I am not surprised that this fearless man was thrown into prison by the American bourgeoisie. Let them brutalize true internationalists, the real representatives of the revolutionary proletariat. The greater the bitterness and brutality they sow, the nearer is the day of the victorious proletarian revolution.
We are accused of having brought devastation upon Russia. Who is it that makes these accusations? The train-bearers of the bourgeoisie, of that same bourgeoisie that almost completely destroyed the culture of Europe, that has dragged the whole continent back to barbarism, that has brought hunger and destruction to the world. This bourgeoisie now demands that we find a different basis for our Revolution than that of destruction, that we shall not build it up upon the ruins of war, with human beings degraded and brutalized by years of war- fare. O, how human, how just is this bourgeoisie!
Its servants charge us with the use of terroristic methods. — Have the English forgotten their 1649, the French their 1793? Terror was just and justified when it was employed by the bourgeoisie for its own purposes against feudal domina- tion. But terror becomes criminal when workingmen and poverty stricken peasants dare to use it against the bourgeoisie. Terror was just and justified when it was used to put one exploiting minority in the place of another. But terror becomes horrible and criminal when it is used to abolish all ex- ploiting minorities, when it is employed in the cause of the ac- tual majority, in the cause of the proletariat and the semi-pro- letariat, of the working-class and the poor peasantry.
The bourgeoisie of international imperalism has succeeded in slaughtering 10 millions, in crippling 20 millions in its war. Should our war, the war of the oppressed and the exploited, against oppressors and exploiters cost a half or a whole million victims in all countries, the bourgeoisie would still maintain that the victims of the world war died a righteous death, that those of the civil war were sacrificed for a criminal cause.
But the proletariat, even now, in the midst of the horrors of war, is learning the great truth that all revolutions teach, the truth that has been handed down to us by our best teachers, the founders of modern Socialism. From them we have learned that a successful revolution is inconceivable unless it breaks the resistance of the exploiting class. When the work- ers and the laboring peasants took hold of the powers of state, it became our duty to quell the resistance of the exploiting class. We are proud that we have done it, that we are doing it. We only regret that we did not do it, at the beginning, with sufficient firmness and decision.
We realize that the mad resistance of the bourgeoisie against the socialist revolution in all countries is unavoidable. We know too, that with the development of this revolution, this resistance will grow. But the proletariat will break down this resistance and in the course of its struggle against the bourgeoisie the proletariat will finally become ripe for victory and power.
Let the corrupt bourgeois press trumpet every mistake that is made by our Revolution out into the world. We are not afraid of our mistakes. The beginning of the revolution has not sanctified humanity. It is not to be expected that the working classes who have been exploited and forcibly held down by the clutches of want, of ignorance and degradation for cen- turies should conduct its revolution without mistakes. The dead body of bourgeois society cannot simply be put into a coffin and buried. It rots in our midst, poisons the air we breathe, pollutes our lives, clings to the new, the fresh, the living with a thousand threads and tendrils of old customs, of death and decay.
But for every hundred of our mistakes that are heralded in- to the world by the bourgeoisie and its sycophants, there are ten thousand great deeds of heroism, greater and more heroic because they seem so simple and unpretentious, because they take place in the everyday life of the factory districts or in se- cluded villages, because they are the deeds of people who are not in the habit of proclaiming their every success to the world, who have no opportunity to do so.
But even if the contrary were true, — I know, of course, that this is not so — but even if we had committed 10,000 mistakes to every 100 wise and righteous deeds, yes, even then our re- volution would be great and invincible. And it will go down in the history of the world as unconquerable. For the first time in the history of the world not the minority, not alone the rich and the educated, but the real masses, the huge majority of the working-class itself, are building up a new world, are deciding the most difficult questions of social organization from out of their own experience.
Every mistake that is made in this work, in this honestly conscientious cooperation of ten million plain workingmen and peasants in the re-creation of their entire lives — every such mistake is worth thousands and millions of "faultless" successes of the exploiting minority, in outwitting and taking advantage of the laboring masses. For only through these mistakes can the workers and peasants learn to organize their new existence, to get along without the capitalist class. Only thus will they Be able to blaze their way, through thousands of hindrances to victorious socialism.
Mistakes are being made by our peasants who, at one stroke, in the night from October 25 to October 26, (Russian Calen- dar) 1917, did away with all private ownership of land, and are now struggling, from month to month, under the greatest difficulties, to correct their own mistakes, trying to solve in practice the most difficult problems of organizing a new so- cial state, fighting against profiteers to secure the possession of the land for the worker instead of for the speculator, to car- ry on agricultural production under a system of communist farming on a large scale.
Mistakes are being made by our workmen in their revolutionary activity, who, in a few short months, have placed prac-tically all of the larger factories and workers under state ownership, and are now learning, from day to day, under the greatest difficulties, to conduct the management of entire in- dustries, to reorganize industries already organized, to over-come the deadly resistance of laziness and middle-class reac-tion and egotism. Stone upon stone they are building the foundation for a new social community, the self-discipline of labor, the new rule of the labor organizations of the working- class over their members.
Mistakes are being made in their revolutionary activity by the Soviets which were first created in 1905 by the gigantic upheaval of the masses. The Workmen's and Peasant's Soviets are a new type of state, a new highest form of Democracy, a particular form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, a mode of conducting the business of the state without the bourgeoisie and against the bourgeoisie. For the first time democracy is placed at the service of the masses, of the workers, and ceases to be a democracy for the rich, as it is, in the last analysis, in all capitalist, yes, in all democratic republics. For the first time the masses of the people, in a nation of hundreds of millions, are fulfilling the task of realizing the dictatorship of the proletariat and the semi-proletariat, without which social- ism is not to be thought of.
Let incurable pedants, crammed full of bourgeois democrat- ic and parliamentary prejudices, shake their heads gravely over our Soviets, let them deplore the fact that we have no direct elections. These people have forgotten nothing, have learned nothing in the great upheaval of 1914-1918. The com- bination of the dictatorship of the proletariat with the new democracy of the proletariat, of civil war with the widest ap- plication of the masses to political problems, such a combina- tion cannot be achieved in a day, cannot be forced into the battered forms of formal parliamentary democratism. In the Soviet Republic there arises before us a new world, the world of Socialism. Such a world cannot be materialized as if by magic, complete in every detail, as Minerva sprang from Jupi- ter's head.
While the old bourgeoisie democratic constitutions, for in- stance, proclaimed formal equality and the right of free as- semblage, the constitution of the Soviet Republic repudiates the hypocrisy of a formal equality of all human beings. When the bourgeoisie republicans overturned feudal thrones, they did not recognize the rules of formal equality of monarchists. Since we here are concerned with the task of overthrowing the bourgeoisie, only fools or traitors will insist on the formal equality of the bourgeoisie. The right of free assemblage is not worth an iota to the workman and to the peasant when all better meeting places are in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Our Soviets have taken over all usable buildings in the cities and towns out of the hands of the rich and have placed them at the disposal of the worknien and peasants for meeting and organi- zation purposes. That is how our right of assemblage looks — for the workers. That is the meaning and content of our Soviet, of our socialist constitution.
And for this reason we are all firmly convinced that the Sov- iet Republic, whatever misfortune may still lie in store for it, is unconquerable.
It is unconquerable because every blow that comes from the powers of madly raging imperialism, every new attack by the international bourgeoisie will bring new, and hitherto unaf- fected strata of workingmen and peasants into the fight, will educate them at the cost of the greatest sacrifice, making them hard as steel, awakening a new heroism in the masses.
We know that it may take a long time before help can come from you', comrades, American Workingmen, for the develop- ment of the revolution in the different countries proceeds along various paths, with varying rapidity (how could it be otherwise!) We know fullwell that the outbreak of the Europ- ean proletarian revolution may take many weeks to come, quickly as it is ripening in these days. We are counting on the inevitability of the international revolution. But that does not mean that we count upon its coming at some definite, nearby date. We have experienced two great revolutions in our own country, that of 1905 and that of 1917, and we know that revo- lutions cannot come neither at a word of command nor accord- ing to prearranged plans. We know that circumstances alone have pushed us, the proletariat of Russia, forward, that we have reached this new stage in the social life of the world not because of our superiority but because of the peculiarly reac- tionary character of Russia. But until the outbreak of the in- ternational revolution, revolutions in individual countries may still meet with a number Of serious setbacks and overthrows.
And yet we are certain that we are invincible, for if humanity will not emerge from this imperialistic massacre broken in spirit, it will triumph. Ours was the first country to break the chains of.imperialistic warfare. We broke them with the great- est sacrifice, but they are broken. We stand outside of imper- ialistic duties and considerations, we have raised the banner of the fight for the complete overthrow of imperialism for the world.
We are in a beleaguered fortress, so long as no other interna- tional socialist revolution comes to our assistance with its ar- mies. But these armies exist, they are stronger than ours, they grow, they strive, they become more invincible the longer im- perialism with its brutalities continues. Workingmen the world over are breaking with their betrayers, with their Gompers rand their Scheidemanns. Inevitably labor is approaching communistic Bolshevistic tactics, is preparing for the prole- tarian revolution that alone is capable of preserving culture land humanity from destruction.
We are invincible, for invincible is the Proletarian Revolution.
This Letter was republished from Wikisource
The connection between the authoritarian personality and the working class began in earnest in the 1950s with cold war political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset. Lipset argued that since World War I, “working class groups have proved to be the most nationalistic and jingoistic sector of the population” [1959: 483.] His concept of authoritarianism is a mash-up Adorno’s ideas mixed with support for “extremist” groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Communist Party. Lipset argued that in the US, the working class authoritarianism poses a threat to democracy.
The question is: does the psychology of individuals in the working class explain Trump’s rise to power? A Marxist perspective reveals the flaws in this and other individual-level psychological explanations:
Upper class benevolence is a bourgeois fantasy.
Despite its obvious flaws, the psychological argument has a special appeal for members of the privileged class, who want to hold themselves blameless for the social ills around them. They believe they knew better, and they blame the working class to avoid facing up to their own culpability. Scapegoating the working class is known as the “myth of upper class benevolence.”
One classic study in race and ethnicity shows the fallacies in the myth of upper class benevolence and zeroes in on the ways the working class is often portrayed, incorrectly, as the source of white supremacy. In his book The Mississippi Chinese: Between black and white, the sociologist James Loewen interviewed hundreds of residents of the Mississippi Delta. He found upper middle class whites routinely blamed poor working class whites for any and all oppression of both African Americans and Chinese Americans. But looking closely at the facts gave Loewen a much different picture of culpability. It was the privileged planter- and business-class whose members had the power to keep Chinese- and African-Americans out of their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Working class organizations like the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and small Baptist churches were the first to welcome people of color, while upper class organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, and Episcopalians excluded them. Financial institutions acted in the interests of the privileged class and served to limit opportunities for others. Schools reserved for whites only were resource rich compared with schools that served people of color. One county in Mississippi, Loewen discovered, actually spent $45 per white pupil for every $1 per African American pupil.
Loewen rejects the widely held belief, echoed in the London Business School study mentioned earlier, that the working class, fearing economic competition, feels the most prejudice. Instead, he turns to the pioneer Marxist sociologist of race, Oliver C. Cox, who argued that to analyze racial dynamics one needs to look first at “the economic policies of the ruling class.” Cox continued, “Opposition [by the working class] to social equality has no meaning unless we can see its function in the service of the exploitative purpose of this [ruling] class.”
A working class divided by race is easier to control
A working class divided by race is easier to control and to keep unorganized than a united one, so concerted and deliberate efforts are made to encourage members of the working class to embrace authoritarian beliefs, especially white supremacy. Using corporate-funded think tanks, right-wing radio and cable television, and presidential pronouncements, the ruling class frames current events in authoritarian terms, attempting to undermine the unity of the working class and therefore weaken it. In Mississippi Loewen found that alliances between working class whites and blacks were viciously undermined and blocked by the powerful of the community. Likewise, people who challenge class oppression and racial hierarchies are singled out for condemnation and retaliation.
Newer research on intolerance shows furthermore that authoritarian beliefs are not clearly associated with membership in the working class, defined by wage dependence, low income, and job insecurity. Erasmus University sociologist Dick Houtman revisited Lipset’s theory of working class authoritarianism found that it is not class that is correlated with intolerance, but educational level and access to cultural opportunities like books, concerts, and art exhibitions. Thus another way that the ruling class tries to divide the working class is by limiting their educational opportunities. Donald Trump once famously intoned, “I love the poorly educated.” Along with his secretary of education Betsy DeVos, Trump seems intent on increasing their ranks. With working class pupils forced to attend substandard, unsafe and under-resourced schools year after year, with college costs putting post-secondary education out of reach of many, and with crippling student debt for those who do borrow for college, the ruling class aims to limit the critical thinking resources the working class needs to challenge ruling class propaganda.
For those who are in college, corporate forces have developed special interventions to encourage neoliberal and fascist accommodation. The Charles Koch Foundation, established by the head of Koch Industries, has implemented a $50 million, 32-state strategy establishing institutes, holding conferences, and funding faculty and graduate students in a concerted effort to influence policy rightward: toward denial of climate science, undermining of labor rights, and revision of history in favor of business interests. Hand in hand with these corporate forces are the white supremacist organizations that pay for speakers to visit campuses and foment hate, then cry “first amendment” when students object. Other corporate-sponsored organizations encourage students to record, expose and protest faculty who do not espouse conservative views.
In short, the psychological argument claims that authoritarian tendencies emerge from working people themselves. It’s no surprise that researchers from a business school embraced that idea, because it is what Marx and Engels refer to as a “ruling idea.” By pretending that authoritarian ideas arise organically from the working class itself, it hides the relationship between authoritarianism and the economic policies of the ruling class. In contrast, a Marxist analysis recognizes the congruence between authoritarian ideas and the economic interests of the corporate ruling class, especially its efforts to divide the working class by race, gender, citizenship status, etc. It recognizes the influence of powerful corporate forces which intentionally try to persuade workers to blame each other for their oppression, instead of the capitalists who profit from their lack of unity.
Adorno, Theodor et al. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.
Edsall, Thomas B. 2017. “The Trump Voter Paradox” The New York Times. 28 September. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/28/opinion/trump-republicans-authoritarian.html
Ferris, Robert. 2017. “Why voters might be choosing dominant, authoritarian leaders around the world.” CNBC, 12 June. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/06/12/why-voters-might-be-choosing-dominant-authoritarian-leaders-around-the-world.html
Jacobs, Tom. 2018. “Inside the minds of hardcore Trump Supporters” Pacific Standard. February 15. https://psmag.com/news/inside-the-minds-of-hardcore-trump-supporters
Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. “Democracy and Working-Class Authoritarianism.” American Sociological Review 24 (4), 482-501.
Loewen, James. 1988. The Mississippi Chinese: Between black and white. 2e. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Serwer, Adam. 2017. “The Nationalist’s Delusion.” The Atlantic. November 20.
Image: Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2015. Greg Skidmore/Creative Commons
Anita Waters is Professor Emerita of sociology at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and an organizer for the CPUSA in Ohio.
This article was first published by CPUSA.