The year 2017, like 1917, will go down in the annals of history as one marked by radical change. Though separated by a century, activists and revolutionaries of both times fight a similar struggle, against similar influences, and in similar ways. But times have also changed, and the lessons from the last bloody century must be learned if the United States, indeed the rest of the world, is to move past its momentary and unnecessary troubles. One of the most salient lessons is that of the necessity of radicalism. Usually spoken of in disparaging terms, the history of the last 100 years shows that radicalism is, like Obi-Wan Kenobi a long time ago and far away, our only hope.
A hundred years ago, between February and November of 1917, Russia experienced not one, but two revolutions. The consequences of these revolutions, as well as the Great War that spurred them, reverberated through the next century. The war saw the entrance of the United States into Europe’s imperial competition on its own territory, something Washington famously warned against and a position that had become US policy under President James Monroe a hundred years prior. The Russian Revolution would, for the first time, present an ideological challenge to the growing hegemony of industrial capitalism. A hundred years later, this battle, albeit highly deformed by history, remains un-won despite claims to the end of history.
The destruction of Europe in the Great War, combined with the Russian Revolution, set the United States on a path that would alter its destiny and distort its promises. Inside the country, the ideological battle raged. Eugene V. Debs, the country’s most famous and beloved socialist, won almost a million votes in the presidential election of 1920 and it appeared that revolution would soon spread to Europe, and then to the United States confirmed by the swell in the ranks of the Socialist Party to over 100,000 members. Famous writers such as Upton Sinclair and Jack London and history making persons such as Helen Keller and Albert Einstein counted themselves among their ranks or as advocates. For these early twentieth century socialists, socialism was as American as apple pie.
The U.S. government did not agree, and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s Department of Justice began attacking the broader left, targeting socialists and anarchists, the majority of whom were immigrants from Europe. Through deportations, intimidation, beatings, arrests, and imprisonment (including Debs himself who received those million votes sitting in a prison cell for speaking out against the war) the government aimed to eradicate the ideas of Marx and the movements which pushed for revolutionary change. At the same time, a similar tactic of repression was instituted in Germany. The Communist revolution in 1919 (one not discussed in American high school or even college-level history classes) was drowned in blood by the German Social Democratic Party who ironically believed themselves to be the most advanced socialists in the world. Ironically, their failure in 1919 set the stage for the rise of Fascism in Europe.
At moment the Bolsheviks in Russia helped depose the Tsar in February of 1917 and came to power in October, the United States opposed them and assisted in efforts (including sending a contingent of troops to Russia) to depose the new regime. The United States stood opposite the new Soviet model and sought to establish itself as the representation of everything that is great about capitalism. This was not merely a show. While much of the wealth that America had generated in its first 150 years had been made from enslavement of other humans, wholly exploiting their labor power, what some (including the socialists) called its second revolution – the Civil War – ended that system of plantation slavery and replaced it with what the socialists would call “wage slavery.”
But those wages grew, and America had become a land of opportunity where large swaths of land, confiscated from native groups, presented possibilities that Europe could not. A new growth of industry, which created some of the greatest industrial empires known to man (such as Andrew Carnegie’s U.S. Steel or John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil) made America an industrial heartland able to outcompete Great Britain and Germany. This process was not without its trouble – development never is – and so the new industrialization of America created a new class as well, the American working class. Since capitalism is not necessarily stable, there were hiccups on this path to prosperity, and with each hiccup a new wave of industrial violence emerged (such as the Ludlow Massacre, Battle of Blair Mountain, and the Pullman Strike) until the system finally gave out on Black Tuesday in 1929.
The Great Depression would test America in a way nothing had before. Never before had the economy, riding a post-war bubble, burst so dramatically. By 1933, at the worst point in the Great Depression years, unemployment rates in the United States reached almost 25%, with more than 11 million people looking for work. It appeared to many workers that the gains made by multiple waves of immigrants to the United States that fueled its growth, had suddenly vanished. However, the ruling class of America, typified by President Herbert Hoover, had unending faith in the free market system. They had been hit hard, but were still on top and though a big shock to the system, capitalism would always recover. The tens of millions out of work disagreed, and though socialist and communist organizations had seen a dip in membership after the Palmer Raids and subsequent repression, tens of thousands joined several new parties that aimed for the next American revolution.
In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President. By no means a working class man, but a man of wealth from Hyde Park, New York, FDR proposed that the state must react to the depression. How exactly this would be accomplished remained a mystery. Given the rising power of the communist and socialist parties and organizations and their capture of many strong trade unions, FDR (along with many across the country) feared that the continuation of the Great Depression made communist revolution inevitable. Therefore, Roosevelt proposed the New Deal, which would make America into a modern welfare state – one that guaranteed more than just negative rights against interference, but positive rights of support such as unemployment compensation, social security, guaranteed healthcare, and massive public works programs. The New Deal system, and its international counterpart, the Bretton-Woods system, would create a period of economic stability and prosperity like never before. Granted, this system was sadly aided by the death and destruction of World War II. However, it did present America with a new system to compete with the rising power of the State-capitalist Soviet Union and its Gulag Archipelago.
Though the New Deal was seen as a victory for the socialist and communist groups as it showed the power of their position, so too do did the U.S. Government, and it set out not to repeat this scenario. With the rising power of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, rooting out communists (no longer considered as American as apple pie but as the ideological agent of a foreign power, i.e. the Soviet Union) was a patriotic duty, and claiming affinity to Marx – even if rejecting the authoritarianism of Stalin – was tantamount to treason. Two new campaigns, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, led by infamous Senator McCarthy, and the secret COINTEL program which would run for nearly thirty years that infiltrated to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities” of left organizations from the Communist Party and Black Panthers, to the Civil Rights movement and KKK. The success of these efforts, as well as the complicit role played by the government and media in instilling the narrative into the psychology of the country, would have made Mitchell Palmer smile.
Once the New Deal had been put in place, even conservatives agreed about its success. President Eisenhower, a republican, stated that “should any political party attempt to abolish social security unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs you would not hear of that party again in our political history.” However, this seemingly prophetic statement was nothing of the sort. By the end of the 1970s, President Nixon had abandoned the Bretton-Woods system and after four stagnant years under President Carter, a new ideology that favored just what Ike though impossible emerged, the Reagan Republican Party. For that party, the New Deal was a farce because, as President Reagan stated often, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
The Reagan Republicans ended what allegiance that party had to the New Deal and took advantage of the destruction of the radical left by the state to begin to dismantle the system it had been responsible for instituting. The growing financial industry and its new robber barons captured the Republican Party with large donations and assistance, both legal and illegal. What was illegal was soon targeted for rebuke legally, resulting in Citizens United. At the same time the distractive potential of new media, namely 24-hour television (prior to the 1980 TV stations actually turned off for the night), was able to push narratives with a such force and repetition that all other voices, formerly kept alive by party presses and local advertising, were effectively silenced, leading to what Noam Chomsky has called the manufacture of consent.
The success of this manufacturing of consent was so successful that the wealthy elite moved for more, using its wealth, power, and influence to remove the absolute allegiance to the New Deal by the Democratic Party in a few short election cycles. Ultimately, the Democratic Party, the supposed representative of labor and the working class itself pivoted to become “New Democrats” with a corporate ideology that, like their conservative cousins, serves the interest of the new financialized elite. Talks of privatizing social security and greatly removing welfare benefits has not caused the parties to be unheard from again, instead the ideas have growing support among a large cohort of propagandized Americans. Indeed, even the Democratic Party and its allies work against modern welfare state expansion such as a single payer healthcare system under this new paradigm.
Given this background, it seems that the battle is lost. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the color revolutions in Europe and Central Asia in 1989 that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, what value there was in socialism seemed lost. The Soviet Union was far from a workers’ paradise. Instead, what promise the October Revolution cast into the world had been sullied by violence and repression, handicapped by war, left to rust by stagnation and irrational elite behavior, kept paranoid by threats and useless wars, left without any moral compass by unnecessary decisions and elite hubris (though the same could be said for the Americans as well – the systems are more similar than either would surely admit). It had appeared that capitalism had won the larger war.
But that was thirty years ago, and while a generation of Americans and Russians saw each other, and the ideology the other represented, as the incarnate of evil, a new generation has been born after the end of the Cold War, where the propaganda of that time seems silly and without salience. While this generation has grown up in an environment that has seen the New Deal under attack, they have also seen the consequence of doing so – the Great Recession – the second worst crisis in modern capitalism after the crash of ’29. In the 1930s socialist and communist parties were large and well organized and therefore able to capitalize on the anger and resentment that comes from economic crisis. But when the people were forced to bailout large financial corporations because of their illegal and immoral behavior, the destruction of the left had been so complete they could not step into the ole they had 80 years before. As a result, the anger that inevitably came from the bailout was itself captured by elite interests in the form of the Tea Party movement. What little the left could muster in its resistance, Occupy Wall Street, was again subject to state violence through COINTEL-style infiltration such as mass arrests, evictions, intimidation, as well as media blackouts or disparaging misinformation stories. As a result of this continued and well organized repression, there was no Second New Deal under President Obama.
But ideas do not die when the conditions do not change, and in many ways, things have not changed much from 1917. Though there are no large American socialist and communist parties, the general ideas of socialism – the promise of a better world for everyone – remains something worthy of exploration. Indeed, among those under 30 years old socialism is more popular than capitalism. With the rise of a man who claims to be a democratic-socialist, Bernie Sanders, who despite not winning the democratic primary in 2016 remains America’s most popular politician, combined with the election of Donald Trump, one of America’s least favored presidents, the possibility for a new rise in socialist agitation is not merely the prediction of a dreamer. Indeed, on May Day, the traditional International Labor Day, of 2017 there is expected to be a large general strike not seen in the United States since the 1930s.
American history has shown that when progressive radical elements are allowed to express the revolutionary discontent, whether they be patriots, anti-federalists, abolitionists, or communists, the country moves forward, not backwards. While in the post-9/11 world radicalism has different and much more sinister definition, it is what is sorely needed today. Students and activists are showing their discontent, whether it be on the streets of Berkeley or occupied city parks, but they are without the revolutionary history that the education system refuses to teach them for fear of growing that radicalization. However, if that history is reviewed it presents a clear lesson for us to combat the problems of our modern politics – the necessity of the next American Revolution.