A worker’s guide to the 20th Century: Part 5

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

The first four installments of “A Worker’s Guide” discussed the epochal 1917 Russian Revolution, the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, World War II and its contradictory political aftermath, and the dynamic social movements of the 1960s and ’70s.

In this concluding section, we analyze not only the concerted assault on workingclass gains that marked the 1980s and ’90s, but also its foreseeable consequence: an international resurgence of rebellion.

Over the course of the century’s first eight decades, working people fought and bled and died to win new rights and improved conditions. But for anyone lulled by these reforms into thinking that capitalism could be tamed that it would not always have to be synonymous with cruel exploitation – the 1980s and ’90s offered a rude awakening.

In what seemed no time at all, gains achieved over several generations were torn to shreds. Labor and the liberation movements were losing ground and on the defensive.

By the mid-1990s, though, the bosses had pushed so hard that a renaissance of rebellion was inevitable. The 20th century ended as it began: with abused and oppressed people across the globe uniting to demand a different and better world.

Repression seeds fresh revolt.

The 1980s opened with the world economy mired in recession and plagued by double-digit inflation and enormous deficit spending. As a “cure,” big business went on an unparalleled offensive against working people internationally. By the end of the decade, the tremendous gap between rich and poor had widened considerably, and the term “the feminization of poverty” had been coined to describe the savage impact of this development on women.

In the U.S., the opening salvos of the assault were actually launched in the late 1970s by Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who stripped funding from public programs while bailing out corporations with workers’ taxes. Then, in 1981, Ronald Reagan struck directly at the labor movement, firing 12,000 air-traffic controllers and busting their union, PATCO.

In the following years, affirmative action, abortion, civil liberties, and gay rights all came under siege, and the government’s hypocritical and racist war on drugs sent the prison population soaring.

Internationally, the story was similar. “Thatcherism” ravaged the social safety net in England. In Australia, politicians and union misleaders concocted a “Social Accord” designed to boost profits by lowering wages. At the same time, the imperialist powers suppressed resistance outside their borders through covert operations and outright invasions from El Salvador to Iran.

The ideological accompaniment to this wave of reaction also began in the 1970s. To bury the political, collective, and anti-profiteering sensibilities of the 1960s, TV shows, pop music, and every facet of culture began to promote narcissism, the cult of the individual, and consumerism.

By the 1980s, mass movements for sex and race equality were out, and navel-gazing, self-improvement, dressing for success, and yuppiedom were in. Anti-communism, ˆ la Reagan’s “Evil Empire” remarks and redbaiting of domestic opponents, was also in vogue.

The regressions in popular consciousness were mirrored in the feminist, people of color, and lesbian/gay movements; conservative leaders, whose strategies consisted of schmoozing with Democratic Party officials and maintaining “respectability,” took center stage.

The climate was made to order for ultra-rightists. They attracted young recruits by talking tough and proposing concrete solutions to the problem of declining living standards (such as throwing all of the “undesirables” out of the job market).

But the 1980s weren’t all bad. An international movement to ban apartheid helped to topple the white supremacist government in South Africa. In China and Poland, students and workers rallied and waged huge strikes for democracy. (And, contrary to Western propaganda, most of these protesters were not anti-socialist.) Around the globe, fierce national liberation struggles continued to rage.

In the USA, ACT-UP and other groups held mass sit-ins to demand action on AIDS, feminists defended abortion clinics against fetus-fetishizing thugs, and Irangate put Reagan and George Bush on the hot seat.

And all over the world, the numbers of women workers continued to escalate. With women making up 45 percent of the U.S. labor force by 1987, it was clear that workers doubly and triply oppressed because of sex, race, national origin, and sexuality had become the majority. The heightened consciousness they brought into the workplace played a decisive role in the revitalization of the labor movement – the one arena with the power to unite all the movements and to shut the system down.

Neoliberal nightmare.

In 1991, the USSR collapsed. (Please see related story on these pages.) With the Soviet counterbalance gone, imperialism went on an international rampage.

In places like Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, and Somalia, millions of children and adults became casualties of the malnutrition and devastation wrought by “humanitarian missions” led by Uncle Sam, the UN, and NATO.

But bombing a country into the Stone Age was not the only method used to attempt to secure political and economic control of a region. The strategy of neoliberalism was the other. “Free trade” agreements such as NAFTA and GATT were established or expanded in order to lower labor and environmental standards worldwide.

The neoliberal effort to shore up capitalism, however, exacerbated the system’s basic contradictions.

At the same time the global economy was producing more goods and services than ever, real wages dropped. This created a worldwide glut of unsalable commodities. The result? One financial meltdown after another in the so-called miracle economies of Asia and Latin America, as well as a marked deepening of the crisis in Russia.

At this point in history, humankind has developed technology to the point where it would be a simple matter to ensure material comfort for every person alive. Instead, poverty, disease, and famine plague the planet – while a few multi-billionaires like Bill Gates live in remote-control castles that clean, cook, and pamper at the push of a button.

Similarly, our level of science could and should be put to work cleaning up a fouled environment – including our workplaces and urban communities – and devising sane strategies for using the earth’s resources. Instead, pollution increases, one species after another continues to vanish, and diseases like tuberculosis stage comebacks as our immune systems break down.

Reawakening of world labor.

The workingclass answer to neoliberalism has been massive revolt.

The first serious volley was returned on New Year’s Day, 1994, in Chiapas, Mexico, with the rebellion of indigenous peasants against NAFTA. The ’90s saw French truckers shut down highways to protest lower living standards; Russian miners wage intransigent strikes to demand back pay; Australian dockers mobilize against unionbusting; and Indonesian workers and students topple the dictator Suharto.

The trade pacts that allow multinational corporations to go wherever labor is cheapest have also worked against them, by giving workers a compelling reason to organize on a more united basis across borders. This was abundantly evident during the proliferation of protest against the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund that closed the millennium, notably the explosive anti-WTO rallies and street battles in Seattle.

Rising of the women.

Playing central roles in these inspiring upsurges, but rarely credited, were women.

In Cuba, las mujeres have been the best defenders of the revolution because they have gained the most from it.

In Yugoslavia, it is women who have courageously led multi-ethnic peace mobilizations in the midst of civil wars and NATO bombing campaigns.

In South Africa, as Black workers persist in demanding real justice, women have been among the most vocal critics of the government’s limited reforms.

And in the U.S., some of the period’s most significant strikes and unionization drives have been waged by women, the majority of them African Americans, Latinas, Asian Americans, and immigrants.

Women’s mass entry into the workplace, which laid the basis for the rise of international feminism, was one of the most profound social revolutions of the century. Even more so than the female Russian workers whose demands, militancy, and independence sparked revolution more than 80 years ago, women today hold the potential to inspire the rising of the entire human race.

A new world still awaits creation.

Until the 20th century, socialism was an untested theory.

That changed when Russian workers, led by the Bolshevik Party, took power in their own name in October 1917. By mid-century, huge sections of the globe were free from capitalist rule.

It’s no wonder, then, that the 1980s and ’90s sent much of the Left – including the once-vibrant Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky Ñ into a tailspin.

Not only were the workers states in Russia and Eastern Europe overturned, but China, with its sweeping “free market” reforms, appeared headed down the same road. And, as Cuba suffered from sudden isolation and the U.S. blockade, its future likewise seemed precarious.

What happened? The corporate media offered a simple explanation: communism is a failure. But that is not the real meaning of these events.

Instead, what they demonstrate is that socialist experiments cannot hold out forever in a world still dominated by “free enterprise.” To be secure and flourish in places like Russia, China, and Cuba, socialism must also replace the profit system in the major centers of imperialism. Lenin and the early Bolsheviks were definite on this point, which Trotsky elaborated in his book Permanent Revolution.

So, for now, the organization of society for the generation of private profit reigns supreme. But, sooner rather than later, a new way of life will supplant it.

Marx said that capitalism creates its own gravediggers. Never has this been truer than today; the recent period of intense globalization and technological advance has strengthened the working class in size, diversity, and consciousness. What is urgently needed now is farseeing, dedicated, and principled leadership – the kind that was provided in the early years of the Russian Revolution by the Communist International and at mid-century by the Fourth International. When such leadership arises – and, as necessity is the mother of invention, it will – workers will be well-equipped to bring into full flower, at last, a worldwide garden of peace, plenty, and unlimited potential.

Comeback of capitalism meets opposition in Russia

In 1991, after waging decades of hot and cold war against the Soviet Union, the capitalists finally won.

But it turns out that the Wall Street crowd has little to celebrate: Russia’s economic situation is disastrous and its population rebellious. Clearly, the last chapter in this story is yet to be written.

A noble experiment besieged and betrayed.

From the outset, the USSR faced terrific odds. Already reeling from the effects of World War I, the new workers state was immediately attacked by imperialist powers and forced to defend itself in civil war. Later, the scarcity, hardship, and exhaustion caused by the wartime years made it possible for Joseph Stalin to establish the repressive regime that betrayed the goals of the 1917 revolution.

Even so, with the systematic exploitation of labor for profit abolished, the Soviet Union offered a glimpse into a socialist future. It provided full employment and health care for all and rivaled the U.S. on many technological and cultural fronts.

To survive, however, it was forced to spend billions on military defense. Exacerbating this drain on the economy was a caste of Communist Party bureaucrats who, to maintain their own privilege, sold out proletarian movements around the world – a futile bid to maintain “peaceful co-existence” with the imperialists.

In the face of such extreme external pressures, combined with such profound misleadership, the USSR simply could not last indefinitely as a workers state.

The demise of the Soviet Union wreaked global havoc on the Left. Cuba lost its major trading partner, Communist Parties splintered, and even many Trotskyists succumbed to gloom and doom. They did not see that the fall of the Stalinized USSR, although a tragic workingclass defeat, also presented a fresh opportunity to win people to the ideas of real socialism.

Phoenix rising.

To date, the reinvention of capitalism in the land of the October Revolution has been a dismal failure. Its most notable fruits have been unpaid wages, soaring homelessness and prostitution, and plummeting life expectancy.

Russians are by no means passively accepting this state of affairs. In 1998, millions walked off their jobs after miners called for a nationwide general strike to demand back wages and President Boris Yeltsin’s resignation. And workers are forming committees with the aim of gaining actual control of their factories.

Women are playing a leading role in the resistance. The predominantly female teachers” union, for example, is known for spearheading broad, militant labor actions. And the Committee of Soldiers” Mothers has been an early, consistent, and bold opponent of the war in Chechnya.

The people of Russia may be down, but they are not out. The experience they have accumulated so painfully over a century of revolution and counterrevolution will help them to rise again.

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