A Worker’s Guide to the 20th Century: Part 4

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

Previous installments of “A Worker’s Guide” discussed the enduring significance of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the reversal of the Soviet Union’s course under Stalin, and World War II and the changes wrought in its wake. In this section, we tackle the near-mythological 1960s era, exploring how people all over the globe reached out to fashion their destinies with their own hands.

In 1960, everything was possible. The Black Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., which had been building since the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955, made headlines around the world with audacious sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters.

In Cuba, the new revolutionary government had nationalized sugar production and was moving forward to nationalize banking and other large industries.

And in Africa, in just this one year, the former Belgian Congo, West Africa, Senegal, the Malagasy Republic and Somalia all won independence.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, fiery eruptions challenged every form of tyranny on the globe. By the end of these decades, the volcano of protest quieted — but not before it had remolded the social landscape of the world, raising the consciousness and conditions of millions.

Making of Black revolutionaries.

With its heroic challenge to the daunting power of the U.S. state, the Civil Rights Movement acted as a catalyst for liberation struggles everywhere.

The 1960 sit-ins were followed in 1961 by courageous freedom rides that smashed the segregation of interstate travel in the South, triumphing over a concerted campaign of violence against the integrationists by the Dixie police state. The freedom rides were followed by voter registration drives that broke the electoral disenfranchisement of Southern Blacks. And mass demonstrations for civil rights included the historic 1963 March on Washington.

The demand for justice and equality for Blacks in the South captured the imaginations of Northern students who made the cause of defeating Jim Crow their own.

Tremendous victories were achieved. At the same time, however, it became clear that the system would always keep total liberation out of reach. Most fighters for Black freedom became disenchanted with prospects for reform.

Some of these disillusioned activists adopted the politics of Black cultural nationalism, a dead-end response that simply replaced institutionalized segregation with self-segregation. Some were co-opted by offers of careers in burgeoning

poverty programs, human rights departments, and the like.

But others turned to the hope of winning liberation through revolution. Leaders like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, by addressing the need for fundamental social change, radicalized not only Northern Blacks, but also women and men of all colors. (“Revolutionary Integration: Yesterday and Today,” Tom Boot.)

Students and women awaken.

The Black freedom struggle was a direct spur to the development of U.S. movements against the Vietnam War, largely centered on campus, and for women’s liberation.

In 1962, the U.S. government began providing military backup to an anti-communist puppet regime in South Vietnam. It found to its surprise that it faced powerful enemies not only in the Vietnamese people, who had fought for a century to gain independence from France, but also in politically aware young people at home.

The New Left/antiwar movement broadened and deepened over time. It sparked an international student movement, which peaked in massive campus strikes around the world in ’68, ’69 and ’70, and its focus came to embrace everything from free speech to free love.

In the U.S., the labor movement, whose leaders had been cowed by the McCarthy witchhunts, remained mostly aloof from the turmoil being stirred up by insistent youth. In France, however, massive student strikes sparked equally massive factory occupations and strikes by workers.

In both the New Left and the fight for Black rights, it was the dedication, talents, and political savvy of women organizers, largely unacknowledged, that kept the movements going.

Spurred on both by the freedom fever all around them and the sexism of their comrades in struggle, these female leaders became the instigators of an explosive new feminist activism internationally. (Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left, Sara Evans.) Their demands for everything from equal pay for comparable work to full reproductive rights and the abolition of the patriarchal family cut right at the root cause of women’s oppression: capitalism.

Birth of socialist feminism.

It was no accident that African Americans and women were the sparks, backbone, and radical vanguard for all the rebellions of the time. Most of the socialist Left, however, had a long history of orienting primarily to industrial workers — mostly white men — and were drained of political vitality by the battle to survive the McCarthy era. They failed to understand the real significance of the events igniting all around them.

But not every Marxist missed the point. In Seattle, Socialist Workers Party (SWP) theoreticians including Clara Fraser and Richard Fraser developed analyses that explained the crucial, reciprocal relationship between the fight for socialism and the liberation struggles of the most abused sectors in society.

On the one hand, they contended, the full equality of people of color and women can only be achieved through socialism, because capitalism depends utterly on the second-class, super-exploited status of these groups. And on the other hand, the fight for socialism cannot be won without the leadership of the most oppressed, because they have the greatest stake in making change.

The national leadership of the SWP, however, was hostile to these ideas and squelched discussion of them within the party.

So, in 1966, the entire Seattle branch left the SWP to form the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), the first revolutionary party to embrace both race liberation and women’s emancipation as workingclass issues of the first rank. The story of the intervention of the FSP and its sister organization, Radical Women, in the political firefights of the period is told in Socialist Feminism: The First Decade, 1966-76, by Gloria Martin.

Spiral of revolt.

By the early 1970s, the voices of virtually every oppressed group in the world were lifted to demand liberation.

In the U.S., Chicanos/as, Native Americans, Asian Americans, lesbians and gay men, prisoners, environmentalists, seniors and people with disabilities took to the streets en masse.

In Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern Ireland, and Palestine, battles for national liberation caught on fire. Revolution flared in Portugal. Indigenous people around the world, like the Aborigines in Australia, pressed for sovereignty and land rights. And despite the crushing of the anti-Stalinist uprising in Hungary by the Soviet Union in 1956, workers and intellectuals in the USSR and the Eastern bloc continued to push for democracy.

Across the globe, each battle for freedom reinforced the other.

Police state tactics to the rescue of the establishment.

The counterattack was violent and thorough.

In the U.S., the FBI and other police agencies subjected activists, especially radicals and people of color, to surveillance, infiltration, sabotage, harassment, repression, and assassination, with tacit or explicit assistance from free-lance rightwingers. The list of casualties is long: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. murdered; Assata Shakur imprisoned (only to escape to Cuba); Black Panther Party leaders slaughtered; American Indian Movement activists shot and brutalized; antiwar students cut down at Kent and Jackson State universities; and many hundreds more spied upon, terrorized, jailed, and killed.

Internationally, the story was similar.

In Bolivia in 1967, the CIA murdered Che Guevara; in Chile in 1973, it helped the military bring down the government of Salvador Allende, which was expropriating large industries; and it played a major role in destabilizing the Australian Labor Party government of Gough Whitlam, which had not only pulled the country’s troops out of Vietnam but also threatened to expose the CIA’s involvement in the overthrow of Allende.

In Mexico, the government massacred hundreds of student protesters before the 1968 Olympic games. Britain imposed a police state in Northern Ireland in 1969. The U.S., European countries, and the white minority governments of Rhodesia and South Africa intervened in African independence movements to thwart their natural development in the direction of socialism.

Economic events made the ruling classes especially desperate to put the lid on protest and revolution. Global economic expansion after World War II had brought women and people of color into the workforce in droves, upgraded the standard of living, and created a “revolution of rising expectations” — thus setting the stage for the ’60s movements. But in the early 1970s, recession brought this period to an end. And with profits endangered, the era of reforms was over.

Foreshadowing of greater days to come.

While the direct blows delivered by the system were staggering, the movements of the ’60s and ’70s suffered other fatal weaknesses: internal divisions caused by racism, sexism, and homophobia; the lack of politically healthy, mass-based socialist parties capable of providing a revolutionary program and leadership; and isolation from the labor movement, where all the parts of the working class are brought together and can effectively express their power.

The very gains made by the mass movements of the time, however, guarantee a different and more promising scenario the next time around.

Today, women, people of color, immigrants, and queers don’t have to go looking for the labor movement: they are organized labor, entrenched and vocal. Even the AFL-CIO has come to recognize that no progress can be made without paying attention to the very workers once relegated, at best, to the basement of the House of Labor. And in the social-change movements, although racism and sexism persist, activists are much more aware of their destructive impact.

Far-reaching advances were made during the 1960s and 1970s. The Vietnamese people and their allies around the world proved that U.S. imperialism could be defeated. Ordinary people developed a whole new consciousness about race, sex, and sexuality. Real and significant reforms were won by and for society’s dispossessed — at the same time that the limits of reform were exposed. And no place on the planet was untouched by the changes.

The ’60s and ’70s didn’t quite usher in the Age of Aquarius. But they did bring all the oppressed people of the world closer to each other — and thus, tangibly closer to world revolution.

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