The Freedom Socialist published A Worker’s Guide to the 20th Century in serial form in 1999 and 2000 to produce a brief working-class perspective on the 1900s, including the mark made on the century from below.
This excerpt, edited for length and transitions, is from the section covering the 1940s and ’50s, a period of dynamic change. Global power relations shifted, the U.S. moved to a permanent war footing, and repression intensified against the labor movement and radicals. But then, as now, oppressed and exploited people continued to rise up to fight for a future worth living.
Readers can find the series here.
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 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. WWII also set the stage for the USSR to emerge as the world’s second great superpower and a potent counterweight to imperialism.
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.
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 agriculture, mechanization wiped out 15 million jobs in one generation.
In nearly all 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.
Strikes, rebellion, and revolution. Despite its unprecedented power, the U.S. elite was not to have its way so easily.
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% of the average white wage in 1939 to nearly 60% 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.
Globally, national independence movements caught fire; colonialism was swept away in countries including Syria, the Philippines, Burma, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kenya, Bolivia, Iraq, and 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.
Although the Stalinized USSR was an intermittent supporter of revolt internationally, its main role was a treacherous one.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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. Meanwhile, the U.S. invaded Korea in 1950 — an “unofficial” war to contain communism that set a precedent for future incursions.
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.)
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.