Striker April Flowers-Lewis's family ties to the Chicago plant stretch back much further than do those of its current owner, Mondelez. Her grandmother, Rosetta Tudor, worked as a machine operator making saltine crackers for decades before retiring in the 1990s just as Flowers-Lewis was starting her career. | Roberta Wood / People's World
CHICAGO—“We’re just tired!” April Flowers-Lewis told a rally in support of striking Mondelez workers. It’s not hard to see why the folks who make the nation’s cookies and crackers are exhausted and fed up.
All through the pandemic, Flowers-Lewis, 48, and her co-workers, members of Bakery and Confectionary Workers Local 1, have been on their feet up to seven days a week, 16 hours a day baking and packing Wheat Thins, Chips Ahoy, Nutter Butter, Velveeta, and Animal Crackers here at what was the historic Nabisco plant on this city’s southwest side.
Snack consumption during the pandemic skyrocketed; the plant’s owner, multi-national corporation Mondelez, took in $5.5 billion in profits in the second quarter of 2021, according to a report in Salon. The median average employee compensation is $31,000 a year. On the other hand, CEO Dirk Van de Put received 548 times more—$17 million in total compensation in 2020.
The company’s profits are indicative of the surge in snack purchasing over the course of the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, 58% of consumers have been snacking more than they were previously, one grocer reported to NielsenIQ, a retail data platform.
To maintain the flow of profits pouring in from the increased demand, managers at Mondelez have been moving workers from traditional 9-to-5 schedules, sometimes to 12- and 16-hour shifts. However, officials have made no move to recall the hundreds of workers laid off when the company moved the plant’s Oreo production to Mexico in 2015. Mondelez, headquartered in Deerfield, Ill., has workers in the Asia Pacific region, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Latin America, and North America.
“The company just refuses to hire more workers,” says Flowers-Lewis, “They’d rather work us to death than pay the benefits for more employees.” She has worked at the former Nabisco plant for 27 years and is the first shift steward in the plant’s packing department.
Mondelez has only owned the plant since 2012, but Flowers-Lewis’s family ties go back generations. Her grandmother, Rosetta Tudor, worked as a machine operator making saltine crackers for decades before retiring in the 1990s just as Flowers-Lewis was starting her career.
First shift starts at 7:15 am and should end at 3:15 pm when workers should be able to go home, pick up their kids, grab dinner, and get a good night’s rest. But instead, the company demands the right to add a second shift and keep the worker till 11:15 pm. This could happen seven days a week, Flowers-Lewis explains.
“All you can do is go home, take a shower, grab something to eat, and fall in bed.”
Exhaustion from working like this throughout the pandemic no doubt contributed to the high numbers of illnesses and even fatalities, many workers believe. At one point, she said, it seemed like the whole Velveeta line was sick. Many sick people still came to work. “They were scared of getting fired.”
Many members of the workforce are parents. What if you don’t have a babysitter to cover for you? “That’s your problem,” Flowers Lewis explains bitterly.
Mondelez enforces a point system which assesses points for workers who can’t—or won’t—work the overtime. Points lead to disciplinary action—suspension or even firing.
She notes that the managers who enforce the attendance policy can work comfortably from home. “They don’t care!” she says.
When robots do the work, they set the pace, and workers have to keep up. It can be exhausting even when your team works together like the first shift packing group. It’s not all routine: When the box size changes, the whole crew of eight or so workers has to re-set the settings on the machinery, then work out the glitches. The crew is made up of men and women of all nationalities, she says with pride.
BCTGM workers are on strike in six facilities across the country. The union lists several ways to support the workers, including joining a picket line, donating to the strike fund, and spreading the word on social media.
The workers have been on the picket line for over three weeks. A Labor Day weekend rally really lifted their spirits, Flowers-Lewis said. Pro-union spirit is high in this community where the Nabisco plant has deep historic roots. Horns of cars passing down South Kedzie Avenue during the rally were unanimous blaring their solidarity. Even a passing funeral procession joined in the chorus. The workers bowed their heads in respect. “The deceased must have been a union man,” one striker told this reporter.
Flowers-Lewis is clear about what’s fueling the anger behind the strike: Mondelez needs to hire more people and end the forced overtime.
Roberta Wood is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wood was a steelworker in South Chicago, an officer of Steelworkers Local 65, and founding co-chair of the USWA District 31 Women's Caucus. She was previously Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party. Currently, she serves as a Senior Editor of People's World.
This article was produced by People's World.
USW Facebook page.
PITTSBURGH (PAI)—Rolling through the country from Northwestern Indiana to Tidewater Virginia and Wilmington, N.C., the Steelworkers’ “We Supply America” bus tour brought home the need to revitalize U.S. infrastructure—including its supply chain of materials like steel and cement—using U.S. union labor.
The objective: To get workers and their allies, plus community residents to call, e-mail, or otherwise urge their lawmakers, of both parties, to remember that and vote for the $978 billion 5-year infrastructure bill now pending on Capitol Hill.
“This is not a sure thing,” Steelworkers Vice President Fred Redmond warned at one stop. “We need you to press your legislators to move this bill. This is not a Rep or Dem issue, this is an American issue. We have an opportunity to make this happen, all we have to do is roll up our sleeves & get to work!”
Joined by USW local leaders, union President Tom Conway, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh—a member of Laborers Local 223—and several U.S. House members, the bus riders and their allies hammered home the message the nation’s crumbling roads, creaky bridges, elderly subways, aging airports, and century-plus railroads and tunnels need to be rebuilt now. The “hard” infrastructure bill also would wire the nation for broadband and make it affordable.
And that union workers will do so, both providing the materials and the labor.
“Our infrastructure has been neglected for too long. We need major national investment to rebuild the infrastructure here in northwest Indiana and across the country. And we need to call on our elected leaders in Congress to make that happen,” Steelworkers Local 6787 President Pete Trinidad said at the bus’s first stop, near the steel plants of Chesterton, Ind.
“I just joined the @steelworkers on the first stop of their We Supply America bus tour,” Walsh tweeted. “Through @POTUS’s once-in-a-generation infrastructure bill, we will invest in American manufacturing and build 21st-century infrastructure through good-paying union jobs.”
“We have an opportunity in this country to buy American and build American right now. We want to win the future for the U.S.,” added Walsh, who then took a side trip to a brand-new union-built high school—with union-provided materials—and met Teachers leaders there.
But it’s not just the “hard” infrastructure bill that’s pending in Congress and it’s not just that legislation USW pushed.
Biden and the House Democratic leaders, along with organized labor, are also pushing a $3.5 trillion bill that includes expanding child care, raising the pay of those workers, making paid family and sick leave permanent, increasing taxes on the rich, and vastly increasing fines for labor law-breaking, among other goals.
“We don’t only need roads & bridges,” said Roxanne Brown, USW’s Vice President At Large and Legislative Director. “We need the infrastructure of the people of this country. It’s not just the building of things, it’s the parts that go into building things. You, your families, our communities are infrastructure.”
Not just building but making American
Conway in particular stressed the importance not just of building American and buying American but of making American, especially in the supply chain. That’s also a big Biden and labor theme. The coronavirus pandemic exposed U.S. dependence on supplies from abroad—supplies that could easily be interrupted or politically manipulated by foreign governments.
“We need a national infrastructure that keeps us safe, that is modern, that keeps our supply chains stocked with the materials we need, and that keeps the country moving in the right direction,” said Conway, whose home local was 6787 in Chesterton. “As a union, we have the skilled workforce to accomplish all these goals.
“This is about so much more than fixing roads and bridges. We need an ambitious overhaul of our entire critical infrastructure from modern schools and health care facilities to state-of-the-art communications networks. Everything that USW members make and everything that we do contributes in some way to this vital project.”
The tour took the We Build America bus from Local 6787 in Chesterton to Local 525 in Newark, Ohio, where members of Locals 9118 and 1237 spoke. It then proceeded to Weirton, W. Va., home of Weirton Steel and Locals 2911 and 419M. From Weirton, the bus traveled to Danville, Va. Members of Local 831L at the Goodyear tire plant there spoke. It then traversed Virginia, to Newport News and the unionized—by Local 8888—U.S. Navy shipyard.
The bus’s southernmost stop was at a Corning plant, manned by members of Local 1025, in Wilmington, N.C., before the vehicle headed back to USW headquarters in Pittsburgh on August 20, there to host members of at least four locals, plus USW officers. The union posted videos of all the stops on YouTube.
Besides the bus, the union launched an electronic petition campaign and urged members to mass-mail postcards to lawmakers demanding they approve the two pieces of legislation. The petition is here.
Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.
This article was produced by People's World.
New ornate streetlights add charm and ambience to Knoxville, Tennessee, even as they help the city dramatically slash energy consumption and save millions of taxpayer dollars each year.
These high-tech lights last for years, require almost zero maintenance and provide better illumination than the old models, leading one grateful official to say they “raised the bar and changed the game” for a city seeking a brighter future.
The United Steelworkers (USW) launched a weeklong bus tour on August 16 to call for historic investments in America’s infrastructure and to underscore the importance of using union-made materials and products, like the lights Knoxville installed, for these much-needed rebuilding projects.
The multistate event, part of the union’s “We Supply America” campaign, included a stop at Holophane’s plant in Newark, Ohio. There’s where members of USW Locals 525T, 4T and 105T manufacture lighting products that not only illuminate Knoxville and other cities but also help to preserve vital supply chains across the economy.
“We pretty much light the world,” said Local 525T President Steve Bishoff, noting he and his coworkers also supply state highway departments, shipping terminals, sewer authorities, energy facilities and military installations, along with numerous industries in the U.S. and overseas. “All the glass is made right here.”
Bishoff strongly supports President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which would modernize the country and supercharge the economy with long-overdue investments in roads, water systems, communications networks and other infrastructure. He views the Senate’s bipartisan passage of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill on August 10 as an important step in achieving this progress and wants the House to quickly get to work on its own legislation.
However, he knows that these bold investments will deliver the maximum benefits for America’s economy and security only if union workers lead the way.
An infrastructure program with domestic procurement requirements “would bring more jobs here,” Bishoff said, noting upgrades to bridges, school buildings and other facilities would dramatically increase demand for Holophane’s products.
An influx of new workers would help the greater Newark community, he added, noting the USW’s contract provides good wages and benefits that enable his coworkers to lead middle-class lives and support local businesses.
He also has other important reasons for insisting that union workers drive the infrastructure upgrades.
Upgraded roads and other improvements will only be as strong and dependable as the materials that go into them. Union members have the skills and dedication to build infrastructure that will be safe to use and stand the test of time.
Officials in Knoxville, for example, chose lighting products made by Bishoff and his colleagues because of the reliability, brightness and safety they bring to streets, highways and other city-owned spaces.
Similarly, the Tennessee Valley Authority chose Holophane’s union-made products to ensure the efficient operation of a gas plant crucial for power needs. And the ports of Los Angeles and Seattle installed Holophane’s lighting systems to maximize safety and productivity at two of the nation’s biggest shipping terminals.
One port official in Seattle noted that the new lights turned darkness into daylight. That’s the kind of compliment Bishoff and his colleagues often hear.
“It’s kind of a long process,” Bishoff, who’s worked at the plant for 44 years, said of the mixing, curing and craftsmanship that go into their top-quality production. “It takes teamwork to do it.”
Shortages of face masks, hand sanitizer and other critical goods during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the withered state of American manufacturing and exposed gaping holes in the nation’s supply chains.
Carrying out infrastructure improvements with union-made components will help to sustain companies like Holophane, where Bishoff and his coworkers manufacture the kinds of items the nation relies on every day. But Biden’s plan will also stimulate additional manufacturing capacity throughout the economy and help to fill out supply chains, ensuring the nation never again has to rely on imported goods needed for everyday life or emergencies.
It’s essential that America maintain the capacity to produce lenses, bulbs and light fixtures for highways, tunnels, airports and shipping terminals. It’s just as critical that the U.S. be able to supply the raw materials, manufacture parts and assemble finished products for numerous other infrastructure and industrial uses.
The USW launched its “We Supply America” campaign to shine a light on the highly skilled union workers who are eager to deliver new infrastructure, a more powerful economy and stronger national security.
In addition to Newark, the bus tour includes stops at Cleveland-Cliffs steel mills in Indiana and West Virginia, a Goodyear tire factory in Virginia and Corning’s optical-fiber plant in North Carolina.
USW members like those at Cleveland-Cliffs produce the steel that America relies on not only for bridges, school buildings and drinking-water systems but also for shopping centers, athletic complexes and a vast array of consumer goods. Union workers at Goodyear and similar companies make the tires that keep passenger vehicles and tractor-trailers rolling, while also powering the cranes, graders and other heavy equipment essential for construction work.
And USW members at Corning turn glass into optical fiber that’s the brains of cutting-edge broadband systems that help to connect Americans to business and educational opportunities.
“It’s nice to be part of this,” Bishoff said of a union workforce that powers so much of the nation’s economy.
Now, America has an unprecedented opportunity to harness that skill and passion to build not only better infrastructure but also a stronger, more prosperous country.
“It would be good for everyone,” Bishoff said.
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.
Since various economics professors noticed that Marxists had been publishing articles showing, from empirical data, that the labour theory of value was right[ 5,3,4,6,1 7,2 ], they have felt the need to come up with objections. Whilst in the past the objections economists raised to the labour theory of value were purely abstract and theoretical, now they had a harder job. They now had Marxists producing actual figures which they had to cast doubt on.
The objections raised by economists then get relayed in a popularised form on blogs or social media debates. It is worth my while giving a brief rundown of the 3 favourite objections along with an explanation of why these are all groundless. We have refuted them all in the open literature but since the relevant paper is not well known here is a short informal account.
1. The objection from money
The first objection is to say that the Marxists have not demonstrated a correlation between exchange values and labour but only between wages and exchange value. This, it is argued is circular, money quantities are being used to explain value not quantities of labour.
This objection is simply false. Zachariah used Swedish I/O tables that contain data on the number of person-years used in each industry there and obtained a correlation of 96.5% between integrated labour contents and market values of industrial output.
We[2 ] used UK I/O tables which have total wage bills for each industry along with other statistics on average hourly wages for each industry to do a similar correlation between hours directly and indirectly used in each industry and market values of outputs and obtained a 96.4% correlation. So it has been demonstrated that if you start out from actual hours worked you get a very strong correlation between price and labour value.
2. The objection from social necessity
Another objection that economists raise is to say: ‘Marx said it was socially necessary labour time that determines value, but the empirical studies just take clock time not socially necessary time’. This objection shows that some economists do not understand how Marx defined socially necessary labour time:
The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary. The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time.
He is explicit that the socially necessary time that creates value is the average time that it takes to make a commodity of a given class. So the socially necessary time to produce 1Kwh of electricity is the average time used across all power plants active on the grid. Or expressed in money, the socially necessary time to produce £1 of electricity is the average time spent to produce £1 of electricity across all power plants weighted by the amount of electricity each plant produced.
Now the empirical studies use, for each industry, the total labour required to produce the output of the industry. So for the electricity, they give the total hours of labour to produce the total sales of electricity for the year. But by definition, this total is equal to the average labour content multiplied by the number of units produced. So the empirical studies are strictly and exactly using the Marxian definition of socially necessary labour in the calculations.
3. The objection from size
Another objection is that the observed correlations are a spurious side effect of industry sizes. For a third factor to be the common cause of the variation in the two vectors of interest, that third factor must itself be quantifiable. How do you measure industry size?
Is it defined in money terms?
Is it defined in employment terms?
We can intuitively see that ‘big’ industries employ more people and ‘big’ industries have a larger money output. But employment and money output are the two variables being taken as data by the empirical studies. What they are demonstrating is that the money turnover of the industry is 96% explained by the direct plus indirect employment of labour by the industry. So ‘size’ defined in either money or employment terms is not a third factor that could be causing the spurious correlation.
One could, of course, use some physical definition of size, output in Kg or land area occupied. But none of the economists has attempted to use such physical measures of size to show that weight of output or land area used is the ‘size’ that is causing the spurious correlation. Of course, as soon as you try to think of some such physical measure it becomes obvious that the task will be hopeless. There will only be a relatively weak correlation between the weights of the output of industries and their money output or employment, the same for land use.
1. Nils Fröhlich, “Labour values, prices of production and the missing equalisation tendency of profit rates: evidence from the German economy“, Cambridge Journal of Economics 37, 5 (2013), pp. 1107–1126.
2. G. Michaelson, W. P. Cockshott, and A. F. Cottrell, “Testing Marx: some new results from UK data“, Capital and Class (1995), pp. 103–129.
3. E. M. Ochoa, “Values, prices, and wage–profit curves in the US economy“, Cambridge Journal of Economics 13 (1989), pp. 413–29.
4. P. Petrovic, “The deviation of production prices from labour values: some methodology and empirical evidence“, Cambridge Journal of Economics 11 (1987), pp. 197–210.
5. A. M. Shaikh, “The empirical strength of the labour theory of value“, in Marxian Economics: A Reappraisal vol. 2, (Macmillan, 1998), pp. 225–251.
6. David Zachariah, “Testing the labour theory of value in Sweden” (2004).
7. David Zachariah, “Labour Value and Equalisation of Profit Rates“, Indian Development Review 4, 1 (2006), pp. 1–21.
Paul Cockshott is an economist and computer scientist. His best known books on economics are Towards a New Socialism, and How The World Works. In computing he has worked on cellular automata machines, database machines, video encoding and 3D TV. In economics he works on Marxist value theory and the theory of socialist economy.
This article was republished from Paul Cockshott Blog.
Smithfield workers on the line during the coronavirus pandemic. | Smithfield Foods
SIOUX FALLS, S.D.—The workers at a huge meatpacking plant here with a history of caring little about whether they lived or died during the coronavirus pandemic defeated this month the company’s attempt to continue crushing them, this time with wage and benefit rollbacks.
Worker determination to do anything and everything to protect their livelihoods became crystal clear on the night of June 7, when the members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 204 voted 99% to authorize a strike against Smithfield Foods if the company did not agree to substantial wage hikes and to cease its attempts to slash health care and other benefits.
For balking at the idea of making even more sacrifices for a company that endangered their lives and exploited them during the pandemic, they received little or no support from lawmakers, from Gov. Kristi Noem on down, who are beholden to the meatpacking industry. They received massive support, however, from the people in their own community, who turned out in car caravans to support them.
Workers at the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant register to vote on the company’s contract offer, June 3, 2021. The members overwhelmingly against it. | Stephen Groves / AP
The struggles of the people employed at the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls began to intensify sharply at the beginning of the pandemic last year. Because of company refusal to protect workers and Trump administration refusal to do anything to force the company’s hand, the plant was the epicenter of one of the first major COVID-19 outbreaks in both the meat industry and the country as a whole.
Of the 3,700 workers employed there, 1,294 were infected and four died, according to figures supplied by OSHA. In April 2020, the plant accounted for a large majority of total coronavirus infections in the state of South Dakota. The workers went home at the end of their shifts, where they then unwittingly infected members of their own families and their neighbors.
Yet the governor did nothing to protect them or the other people in her state affected by the contagion originating from the plant. In fact, Noem threw up roadblocks when the town of Sioux Falls attempted to institute its own protective measures. Localities were forbidden from doing anything to protect their residents that the state as a whole was not doing.
Yet the workers, led by their union and with strong backing from the South Dakota AFL-CIO, protested and managed to get the plant to temporarily shut down.
Smithfield’s callous disregard for the need to protect its workers resulted in a plant early this month where hundreds were still out on long-term medical leave, according to reports from Local 304A President B.J. Motley.
Despite the ruined health of many of its workers and the health problems widespread in the community because of Smithfield policy, the company announced this spring that it wanted $200-per-year increases in the out-of-pocket health care expenses paid by workers. On wages, the Smithfield pay of $17 per hour was already well below the industry standard, so a health cost hike would hit workers even harder. Workers, however, had another change in mind; they wanted the $19-per-hour wage paid at the nearby JBS meatpacking plant.
The tally showing workers’ rejection of the company’s proposals, 99% to 1%. | UFCW Local 304A
Considering everything, the UFCW made extremely reasonable requests. They basically only asked the company to rescind the demand for the extra $200 and to increase the starting wage to the same as it was at the nearby JBS plant.
The company said during the pandemic that its workers were “heroes.” The media across the country joined in on nationwide proclamations calling frontline food service workers “heroes.” Suddenly, however, as far as Smithfield was concerned, its Sioux Falls workers had lost that status. “We’re not heroes anymore, are we?” a worker with nine years at the plant, Anthony Yesker, told the Associated Press. “They should at least look at the fact that we all put our lives on the line to keep the company going,” another worker said.
It took bravery for the workers to take their strike vote. The last time workers at the Sioux Falls plant struck was back in 1987, when the company was still called Morell Meatpacking. In response to that strike, the company replaced half the workforce with scabs.
Another demand from the company this time was that the unpaid leave allowances for workers be drastically reduced. This was seen as a direct attack on the hundreds at the plant who originate from West Africa and need to periodically return home to provide relatives with much-needed money.
Only weeks after the strike authorization vote, Smithfield backed down completely on all of its demands and agreed to a starting wage of $18.75, just 25 cents below what the union had demanded. The company also agreed to a cash bonus of $520 for the workers.
It’s not a huge amount of money for people who perform the dangerous, bloody work of cutting up hogs, but it was a solid if unexpectedly fast victory for workers who never had to go on the strike they had so overwhelmingly authorized.
To help figure out why the workers were successful, People’s World talked with Kooper Caraway, the 29-year-old president of the South Dakota AFL-CIO. Caraway, known for his militant fights for worker rights, is the youngest AFL-CIO labor federation president in the nation.
South Dakota AFL-CIO President Kooper Caraway
“The fast and brave strike authorization vote was critical,” he said, “with the workers showing they were unafraid of company intimidation.”
“Then it was a matter of picking a solid group of negotiators. It is important that workers and their unions send strong people to the negotiating table. Strong negotiators who are elected by the memberships to be strong negotiators will do much better when dealing with companies. Who you have at the bargaining table matters.”
“Then it’s a matter of reaching out to the community,” Caraway said. The union movement appealed to the public in and around Sioux Falls, drawing the connection between the conditions faced by the workers and the people of the surrounding community. It worked well with huge car caravans of supporters turning out to back the workers.
Caraway said that another key to the victory was the issue of solidarity. “The labor movement here has worked for years on the issue of solidarity among workers across nationality and national lines,” he said. The plant has Latino, Native American, West African, and white workers. One of the things that happened at Caraway’s urging soon after he was elected head of the Sioux Falls Central Labor Council several years ago was the establishment of an international solidarity committee at the plant itself.
International labor solidarity was not at all high on the agenda of the old labor leadership Caraway and his backers replaced. Nor did they do much to grow the size and influence of the local labor movement itself with “organizing being limited basically to the annual Labor Day picnics,” according to Caraway.
Solidarity: Outside the plant, members of the Sioux Falls community express their support for workers inside the Smithfield plant. | AP
Caraway described what the new UFCW and labor federation leadership did at the plant. “We talked about the importance of being an active member of the union. There were discussions with workers about the need for all of the divergent groups to be united.” The unions organized the first ever Native American Day in Sioux Falls, attended and supported by all the other groups of workers and community members. “The result,” according to Caraway, “was the reduced ability of the company to divide and conquer people along lines of race and nationality.”
He also described how action was taken to protect workers from bad forces inside their unions, including in any and all positions of leadership. “We passed an amendment to our constitution,” he said, “that forbids white supremacists and fascists from holding office in any of our member unions.”
The militancy of an apparently invigorated labor movement in this part of the country, combined with unity among workers and backing from the community, seems to have yielded a much needed victory, at least for now, for the workers at the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant.
John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.
This article was republished from People's World.
Member, Communication Workers Local 14156
What are the differences between unions in capitalist countries and socialist countries? What is labor’s role in a socialist country? I first became a supporter of socialist Cuba as a labor activist in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I learned about Cuba’s unions in the course of two trips to Cuba, 27 years apart.
In 1992, I joined a group of 22 members of over a dozen U.S. unions for the U.S.-Cuba Labor Exchange’s second trip. As guests of the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC), we visited all manner of workplaces — factories, ports, agricultural projects, hospitals, clinics and schools. We met with many Cuban union members and leaders. And we had most evenings free to explore Havana!
Our visit was during the Special Period, when Cuba lost 85% of its trade as a consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist countries. Cuba had to make do with less than half its usual oil supply.
Many shortages resulted as the U.S. intensified its economic war on Cuba’s ability to sell its nickel ore, sugar cane and other agricultural products. Cubans made up shortages of some foodstuffs with what was available, in order to ensure adequate nutrition. In 1992, Cuba was selling its entire lobster catch to buy milk for first-grade children.
CTC Secretariat member Joaquin Bernal Camero told us: “You will never find a Cuban union leader asking for privatization of enterprise. We’re not going to give back the land to the former landowners or corporations. Our unions are independent, but also independent of the capitalists. We don’t take a coin from the government, and all the dues collected go back into the union work.”
Membership is voluntary, yet we found out that 97% of Cuban workers belonged to unions, which are entirely self-financed from dues. Cuban unionists enact their own laws and constitutions. The rank and file directly nominate and elect their own leaderships in a regular series of elections far outnumbering those of other countries.
We learned Cuba had free health care and free or affordable daycare, and rents were limited to 10% of income. Women had three months paid leave before giving birth, six months paid leave afterward and the right to return to their jobs. (Parental leave was later extended to fathers.)
The CTC reviews all new laws before they are enacted, and labor law has workers’ rights at its center. In a joint-venture hotel with Spain, the workers voted out three managers in a row before they got one who complied with Cuban labor law.
But in 1992 what most impressed me — coming from white-supremacist U.S. during the Rodney King Rebellion — was the deep respect the working people displayed toward each other and the kindnesses we visiting unionists experienced.
Our final workplace visit was to the H. Uppmann tobacco factory. The workers told us they worked six months, then took a month’s vacation. Windows were wide open while they worked with their hands, some singing, others smoking — I could be happy working there!
May Day, Havana, 1992
WW Photo: Stephanie Hedgecoke
Going back to Cuba
In the Special Period, Cuba increased resources and built up its biopharmaceutical and tourism industries. But in 2019 former President Donald Trump invoked Title III of the Helms Burton Act, further increasing the illegal blockade’s economic strangulation, threatening the working people.
I returned in summer 2019 with the 50th Venceremos Brigade, which travels in solidarity with the Revolution to contribute materially to it. The day after we arrived, we toured Las Terrazas in the Sierra del Rosario region, where in 1968 local villagers created a reforestation plan with support from the revolutionary government.
Within eight years, the rural people in the valley had planted 6 million trees in an area totally denuded during Spanish colonization. Over 80% of the food eaten in the biosphere is locally grown, all organic. Some 7 million indigenous trees have now been planted; biodiversity of flora and fauna has recovered. In 1985, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized the first Biosphere Reserve in Cuba.
Our guide Ida explained the impacts of global warming. Some varieties of plants have disappeared from the forest due to the heat; others are in season earlier and longer, like mangoes. The past average year-round temperature in Cuba was 75 to 77°F; in 2019 they had a new high of 103.64°F.
The next day, the Brigade sent me to work in a lime orchard to clear invasive vines choking the trees. Afterward, the local workers regaled us with a fiery recounting of historic Cuban freedom fighters on horseback, machetes in both hands, terrifying the Spanish overlords!
Later that week, several Brigadistas gathered in the camp library to hear Ismael Drullet Pérez, General Secretary of the National Union of Education, Science and Sports Workers, the largest Cuban union. Pérez said the CTC’s main mission is to represent the needs of the workers and their families before the state and society.
Ismael Drullet Pérez, General Secretary of the National Union of Education, Science and Sports Workers, Cuba’s largest union
Workers are active in the CTC at municipal, provincial and national levels. In a national survey, Cuban workers wanted the work of the CTC strengthened.
Although there was no single opinion, it was clear “all workers understood the continued need for their trade unions in the process of construction of our socialism.” Pérez emphasized, “the enemies of the Revolution lie that the CTC is under the government. But we were a union 20 years before the Revolution. The unions were strengthened with the coming of the Revolution.”
Cuban union members meet every two months to ask questions, to get answers — in each of the 19 sectoral unions, at every level. All managers are required to account for the budget, given from the government, to a general assembly of the workers. Union membership remains voluntary, with membership held by 95% of workers in the state sector and 65% of the workers in the private sector. And as we were visiting, the entire state sector had just received significant salary increases after economic studies by the CTC.
The increased blockade by the U.S. has shut down Cuba’s ability to obtain machinery parts from overseas. Pérez said, “Our factories are old; our machinery needs parts and frequently breaks down. We keep them running through the creativity of the workers solving the problems. But we won’t accept the loss of our independence, our social justice and equity. We are not paradise, and we are not hell.”
Brigadistas asked about the private sector and what role unions have with prisoners. As blockade-imposed hardships resulted in some turning to crime, Pérez said the CTC represents those who were arrested for petty crimes of corruption; “insertados” have representation to help them transition to get work.
The CTC still has final say over new laws; workers in joint ventures can still vote out hostile managers. Pérez noted, “The Labor Code of Cuba regulates all joint ventures and private employers. Problems that come from the past we reshape and eliminate. We accept the workers as they are.”
The CTC sometimes intervenes with small employers in the private sector; for example, in one case the union had to enforce labor law against gender discrimination in restaurant work. Pérez emphasized: “We are working on this issue on an inherited legacy of slavery and colonialism — hundreds of years of colonialism vs. 60 years of revolution.”
During the COVID pandemic, tourism has taken an enormous hit. Yet Cuban science workers created their own vaccines. In 1992 Bernal Camero had said that during the Revolution, “Cuban workers occupied the factories.” Cuba’s unions continue to remain key to building socialism in that Caribbean island nation.
This article was republished from Workers World.
UMWA FB page.
BROOKWOOD, Ala. (PAI)—Some 1,100 Mine Workers and their allies are standing strong against corporate refusal to make them whole as the strike the Warrior Met coal mining firm in Alabama forced them to call passed the 10-week mark in mid-June.
“We’ll be here one day longer than y’all can stand!” the union tweeted on June 15, accompanying a video from the hashtags #warriormetcoalaintgotnosoul and #UnitedWeStand.
But the workers took their fight beyond the mine itself. On June 22, led by union President Cecil Roberts, they descended on the Manhattan offices of the hedge funds who finance and back Warrior Met—and who reap the profits.
The miners, labor, and community supporters will leaflet in front of Manhattan office buildings that house BlackRock Fund Advisors, Inc., State Street Global Advisors, and Renaissance Technologies. Stuart Applebaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Workers Union and Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants president, are scheduled to picket, too, UMWA Legislative Director Phil Smith reported.
“These hedge funds are among several entities that invested in Warrior Met five years ago when the company emerged from bankruptcy,” Roberts said. “But they insisted on dramatic sacrifices from the workers to the tune of $1.1 billion. The company has enjoyed revenues amounting to another $3.4 billion since then, much of which flowed into these funds’ accounts. It’s time to share that wealth with the people who created it – the workers.”
Warrior Met, which emerged from the ruins of bankrupt Jim Walter Energy several years ago, is now profitable but forced the workers at its mines to walk. A lot of its profits came from the first, post-bankruptcy, contract it forced on workers, which included $6-per-hour pay cuts, to $22, among other givebacks.
At the time, company bosses promised the workers would be made whole once Warrior Met made money. Now it’s making money, and bosses don’t want to make the workers whole. That’s forced the UMWA members into the union’s first strike in Alabama in 40 years, after the old contract expired on April 1.
Company refusal to keep its word is important for workers anywhere, but especially in northern Alabama, which had a prior history of union solidarity and strength, an exception in the otherwise union-hating South.
While talks are ongoing, they’re not getting very far, so UMWA has reached out for both community support and labor solidarity.
Several unions, notably the United Food and Commercial Workers, sent checks to the strike fund run by the four UMWA locals which represent workers at Warrior Met‘s two mines, its central shop, and its processing plant.
The fund is not only paying miners forced to strike but bought health care coverage for them, too—an important point for coal miners exposed to the dangers of black lung disease.
And union leaders, including AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson—the two women widely assumed to be leading contenders to succeed Richard Trumka atop the labor federation when he steps down—have traveled to Brookwood, Ala., the firm’s center, to stand in solidarity, encourage the miners and march on picket lines.
“Instead of rewarding the sacrifices and work of the miners, Warrior Met is seeking even further sacrifices from them, while demonstrating perhaps some of the worst labor-management relations we’ve seen in this industry since the days of the company town and company store,” Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said when the forced strike began.
“We have always been ready to reach a fair agreement that recognizes the sacrifices our members and their families made to keep this company alive. At this point, Warrior Met is not….Despite Warrior Met’s apparent appetite for this conflict, we will prevail.”
Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.
This article was republished from People's World.
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 email@example.com. 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
This 1886 engraving was the most widely reproduced image of the Haymarket massacre. It shows Methodist pastor Samuel Fielden speaking, the bomb exploding, and the riot beginning simultaneously; in reality, Fielden had finished speaking before the explosion. | Chicago Historical Society.
CHICAGO—On the morning of Oct. 6, 1886, Albert Parsons, native of Alabama, whose brother was a general in the Civil War, rose in a Chicago courtroom to make the last speech of his life.
He was facing his doom as one of the convicted co-called “anarchists,” one of the “detested aliens” who had been seized in the police frame-up following an explosion on Chicago’s Haymarket Square during a workers’ demonstration on May 4.
Parsons spoke long and well. He was going back over his life, telling the remarkable story of how the boy who ran with the Texas trappers and Native American traders as a kid grew up to become a leader of industrial strikes and an agitator for a new social system.
“The charge is made that we are ‘foreigners,’ as though it were a crime to be born in some other country,” he said. “My ancestors had a hand in drawing up the Declaration of Independence. My great great grand-uncle lost a hand at the Battle of Bunker Hill.” His speech then took an edge of defiant bitterness. “But I have been here long enough, I think, to have the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of my country.”
Ringing up to the ceiling of the room which was to be his death chamber, the voice of this man, a printer in the shop of the Chicago Tribune and a labor organizer after the early days of the frontier, became deep with exaltation:
“I am also an internationalist. My patriotism covers more than the boundary lines of a single state; the world is my country, and all mankind my countrymen.” Parsons was speaking against a force, a conspiracy that was determined to throttle him, and he knew it. But why was the state determined to see him dead?
The 8-hour day
The demand for an 8-hour workday was sweeping over America at that time as workers demanded relief from the 12-, 14-, or even 16-hour days that were the norm. On May 1, 1886, hundreds of thousands of workers launched a general strike—the first in the history of the United States—which saw demonstrations in all the big cities greater than anything America had ever seen.
Albert Parsons | Public domain, Wikimedia Commons
But it was in Chicago where the movement reached its height. There, a small core of class-conscious organizers and agitators helped rouse a militant spirit not previously seen. 70,000 workers shut down the plants of that roaring city. At the head of the band of leaders stood the wiry and eloquent Parsons.
The campaign dragged on for several days. On May 3, there was a bloody attack by the police against strikers at the McCormack Reaper plant. Six workers had been shot in the back, with at least one killed. A mass protest meeting was called to take place the next day at the Haymarket Square.
A peaceful rally took place that evening, with speeches from Parsons and other labor leaders condemning what had happened the night before. A light rain began to fall as the meeting neared its end, and most people began to head home. Without warning, a force of some 200 police officers charged the square. A fight broke out between the cops and the crowd, and then, suddenly, a bomb was thrown. A number of police officers were killed by the explosion. Volleys of police bullets then plowed through the terrified and fleeing audience, killing at least four workers and wounding scores.
Flyer calling for a rally in the Haymarket on May 4, 1886. | Public domain, Wikimedia Commons
No one knew who threw the bomb (and historians have never discovered to this day), but it didn’t matter. The news media of the entire country raged in a red-baiting pogrom which has hardly ever been paralleled. Working-class leaders and trade unions everywhere were targeted. The strategy was to smear the 8-hour movement with the fearful stigma of “alien anarchism” and to kill it. One prominent economist, with characteristic servility, declared the idea that workers should only be on the job for eight hours to be an “irresponsible demand of lunatics aimed at the basis of civilization.” The stage was set for the Haymarket frame-up.
Parsons, along with several fellow organizers, were rounded up and charged with being an “accessory to murder.” Prosecutors eagerly followed advice given by the New York Times to “pick out the leaders and make such an example of them as would scare others into submission.” A Chicago newspaper was even more blunt, with editors writing, “The labor question has reached a point where blood-letting has become necessary.”
The trial was a classic case of intimidation, perjury, and forgery. The prosecution quickly gave up any attempt to prove that the men charged had thrown any bombs. No, the defendants were guilty of a far greater crime. They had inculcated among workers a theory of social change and spread in America the fearful idea of class consciousness.
Socialism on trial
As he faced the gallows, Parsons told the world that it was not just himself and the other defendants who were on trial, but rather the ideas of socialism and workers’ power. He declared to the judge, “Socialism is simple justice, because wealth is a social, not an individual product, and its appropriation by a few members of a society creates a privileged class, a class who monopolizes all the benefits of society by enslaving the producing class.”
Knowing history would absolve the leaders at Haymarket, Parsons spoke his last solemn words to the court: “They lie about us in order to deceive the people, but the people will not be deceived much longer. No, they will not.”
The Haymarket Memorial, a statue by Chicago sculptor Mary Brogger, remains a pilgrimage site for workers from around the world. Here, it is officially unveiled on Sept. 15, 2004, in Chicago. | Chuck Berman / AP
The Haymarket Memorial, a statue by Chicago sculptor Mary Brogger, remains a pilgrimage site for workers from around the world. Here, it is officially unveiled on Sept. 15, 2004, in Chicago. | Chuck Berman / APA carefully picked businessmen’s jury sealed their doom and garnered offers of a reward of $100,000 from a grateful “Citizens Committee” of big capitalists. On Nov. 11, 1886, Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel (the latter two weren’t even present at the rally) were hanged at the Cook County Jail, victims of a cold-blooded frame-up. Over 100,000 people followed the bier to their graves at Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery.
When the Second International, a global organization of socialist and labor parties, was founded three years later in 1889, it declared that May 1st would permanently be known as International Workers Day, in honor of the Haymarket struggle. Thus was born May Day—a global day of struggle and celebration—right here in the U.S.A.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared as “Haymarket Hangings Vain Effort to Halt American Labor,” in the Nov. 12, 1937 edition of the Daily Worker.
Milton Howard was the pen name of Milton Halpern, a correspondent for the Daily Worker (a People’s World predecessor publication). He served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II and was among those who liberated the Nazi death camp at Dachau. He was later an editor for Masses and Mainstream and was subjected to government harassment during the McCarthy period.
This article was first published by People's World.
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.