A worker’s guide to the 20th century: Part 3

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Part 3 of a five-part series
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

The first and second installments of “A Worker’s Guide” discussed the epoch-making 1917 Russian Revolution, its betrayal by Stalinism, and the role of Trotskyism in defending its original aims and challenging the rise of fascism. In Part 3, we continue our look at how the tug-of-war between rulingclass power and workingclass aspirations shaped the century.

World War II brought deep and lasting changes to the globe. Above all, the war enabled world capital to bounce back from the Great Depression. It re-energized capitalist production, spurred technological development, and introduced ongoing military spending as a necessary feature of the profit system’s survival. U.S. dominance — economic, political, and military — was asserted as never before.

But at the same time that the war shored up capitalism, it also fortified capitalism’s opponents. WWII lent impetus to the permanent revolution described by Leon Trotsky: the simultaneous fight for democracy and socialism that is uninterrupted, unstoppable, and international.

Anti-colonial struggles received a boost. The war further eroded the status of the European Great Powers while giving the workers of subject nations military training, arms, exposure to higher standards of living abroad, and ideological ammunition from the Allied rhetoric of national self-determination and democracy.

WWII also set the stage for the USSR to emerge as the world’s second great superpower and a potent counterweight to imperialism. And it provided an opportunity for communists in France, Greece, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere to prove their leadership in the fight against fascism.

Within imperialist countries, the war made women and people of color a key part of industry and the military, breaking down sex and race barriers and raising the expectations of the most oppressed.

USA: king of the hill.

Of the WWII combatants, Uncle Sam alone emerged unscathed — and in possession of nearly half of the planet’s productive capacity.

After the war machine had swollen manufacturing and employment to meet its voracious demands, the need to rebuild postwar Europe and Japan and satisfy pent-up consumer demand guaranteed outlets for the revved-up economy. Prolonging the upturn artificially was the birth of the “military-industrial complex” and its corollary: an irreversible dependence on war or threats of war to create, control, and expand markets.

The war and the subsequent arms race sparked unprecedented progress in science, medicine, and technology. The years between 1940 and 1960 saw everything from the discovery of DNA to the development of birth control pills. In 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, the first space satellite.

Weapons research initiated the nuclear age. The U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and soon added the hydrogen bomb and the nuclear submarine to its arsenal. Throughout the 1950s, nuclear testing caused deadly contamination of land and sea.

Meanwhile, automation and fledgling computerization transformed offices and factories, intensifying productivity while replacing human laborers with machines. In U.S. agriculture, mechanization wiped out 15 million jobs in one generation.

In nearly all of these areas of change, the U.S. took the undisputed lead. It ensured its continuing superiority through a series of postwar global agreements, including the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Also buttressing the heavy hand of the USA was the Marshall Plan, which parcelled out massive U.S. reconstruction aid to countries that agreed to run their economies along proper capitalistic lines — ruling out help for the Soviet bloc.

Strikes, rebellion, and revolution.

Despite its unprecedented power, the U.S. elite was not to have its way so easily. Workers and dispossessed people around the world, who sacrificed and suffered during the Depression and war, demanded a share in the burgeoning prosperity.

In the U.S., the defense employment tide that began in 1940 nearly doubled the number of African Americans working in industry. Racist wage disparity shrunk; Black earnings leapt from a miserable 40 percent of the average white wage in 1939 to nearly 60 percent by the close of the war. But discrimination and segregation remained the status quo.

These contradictions gave rise in the early 1940s to a campaign for equality led largely by Black unionists such as A. Philip Randolph — a mobilization foreshadowing the dynamic civil rights movement that would break out in the next decade.

Organized labor had made great strides in the 1930s, especially thanks to the new, feisty Congress of Industrial Organizations, which focused on unionizing Blacks, women, and foreign-born workers.

Many of the CIO’s early organizers were Communist Party (CP) members whose progressive ideas helped to build labor’s clout. But these CP unionists were also committed to Stalin’s illusory goal of maintaining “peaceful coexistence” between the USSR and the capitalists. Once Russia joined the Allies, this meant that nothing must impede the common war effort.

Whether because of allegiance to Stalin or Roosevelt, most prominent labor leaders backed a wartime “no-strike” pledge and agreed to other capitulations that set a pattern for decades to come. But despite the accommodations made by their union officials, workers asserted themselves.

Unauthorized, wildcat strikes were common during the war, and in the mid-1940s labor simply erupted. Strikes during 1945 and 1946 involved more than eight million workers, and more strikes took place in 1946 than in any other year except 1919.

Militancy in the U.S. was just one facet of a global phenomenon. National independence movements caught fire; in rapid sequence, colonialism was swept away in countries including Syria, the Philippines, Burma, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kenya, Bolivia, Iraq, and many more.

The period was also host to the dramatic emergence of new workers states, as production for private profit was replaced by a collectivized economy in Yugoslavia, Albania, Eastern Europe, Vietnam, and China. These upheavals inspired radicals the world over who sought an alternative to the inherent anarchy, instability, waste, and injustice of capitalism.

Although the Stalinized USSR was an intermittent supporter of revolt internationally, its main role was a treacherous one. For Stalin, who dissolved the Communist International as a “goodwill gesture” to the U.S. and Britain in 1943, the advance of world socialism was secondary to the policy of peaceful coexistence.

This ordering of priorities was a sharp departure from Lenin’s “staunch adherence to the tenet of subordinating the interests of the Soviet state to world revolution.” (Ernest Mandel, Peaceful Coexistence and World Revolution.) It had disastrous consequences across the globe. In China, communists and insurgent workers and peasants paid in blood for heeding Stalin’s order to link forces with the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang party.

In Eastern Europe, Stalin imposed or encouraged communist regimes not out of principle, but to create a buffer zone of states tightly allied with the Soviet Union. Anti-USSR uprisings were the result.

Answer to revolt: Cold War and McCarthyism.

Domestically, the U.S. confronted postwar labor militancy, demands for social change, and economic problems like inflation with an onslaught against civil liberties; abroad, it met the socialist challenge with “Cold War.”

By 1946, U.S. government propaganda was representing communism as an insidious enemy that was both internal and external. Anti-Red agitation bombarded the public, progressive ideas were denounced as “communist-inspired,” and schools conducted atom bomb drills. Once a week at noon, a “civilian defense” system designed to warn of Soviet attack brought the sound of air-raid sirens to every U.S. neighborhood.

President Truman’s 1947 loyalty program required government employees to disavow Communist Party involvement. That same year, the National Security Act set up the CIA as the successor to the wartime Office of Strategic Services, and the FBI expanded.

The assault on labor was relentless. The 1947 anti-labor Taft-Hartley law mandated that a loyalty oath be signed before unionists could receive help from the National Labor Relations Board. Labor bureaucrats vowed to purge their unions of communists and sought in vain to build alliances with liberal Democrats to protect their turf from conservative Republican attack.

In 1948, 12 CP leaders were indicted under the Smith Act for “conspiracy to overthrow the government by force and violence.” The Socialist Workers Party worked to defend them, even though the CP had refused to come to the defense of the Trotskyist SWP when 29 of its leaders were imprisoned on the same charges in 1941. (James P. Cannon, Socialism on Trial.)

Liberals outstripped conservatives in trying to prove their anti-communist credentials. Intellectuals, writers, actors, and directors were condemned to be blacklisted by informers who “named names” during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s congressional witchhunts in the early 1950s.

In 1955, the CIO and AFL merged under an anti-communist leadership concerned more about respectability than class struggle. Nevertheless, “the very existence of a single labor organization of the monumental size of the merged AFL-CIO represented a tremendous historic achievement of the American working class.” (Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step.)

On the world stage, the U.S. trumpeted its willingness to use atomic weapons if provoked. Inflationary annual military spending, already booming in the late 1940s, jumped to $42 billion when the U.S. invaded Korea in 1950 — an “unofficial” war to contain communism that set a precedent for future incursions.

Seeds of a new season.

Just as capitalism’s unassailability at the end of WWII turned out to be more apparent than real, the dampening of protest and insurrection achieved by the Cold War and the witchhunts was a fragile victory.

McCarthy interviewed his last witness in 1954. One year later, Rosa Parks changed the world by sitting in the front of an Alabama bus. Five years later, Cuba redefined the “American Century” with an anti-imperialist revolution 90 miles off the U.S. coast.

While the leaders of Cuba’s revolt did not initially intend to abolish capitalism, they soon discovered that the people’s demands for democracy and land could not be met without nationalizing major industries. Each reform brought the wrath of national and foreign owners; and each victory over these bourgeois forces pushed the revolution toward socialism.

In An Introduction to the Logic of Marxism in 1963, George Novack summed up the balance sheet of revolution: “At the beginning of the twentieth century, ascending capitalism had the whole planet securely in its grip. Already in the second half of this century one-third of humanity has moved beyond it.”

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