Saturday, September 3, 2011

Labor Day Weekend

The United States has an unusually violent labor history. Granted, there was everywhere resistance to basic workers' rights from the industrial classes and their representatives in governments. Finding themselves assailed by a class, the workers felt themselves a class, and one at war. Communism emerged in response to the foment; in the Communist Manifesto, the story is one of struggle for basic rights, rights against the interests of the owners and their complacent governments: "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." This quote could be updated by replacing "the whole bourgeoisie" with "a subset of concentrated bourgeois power," keeping the rest.

European labor had some advantages. There was a history of feudal privileges, and their loss was immediately felt:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
The new extremes of oppression incited opposing feeling even in the powerful classes. Despite the many slanders they flung at the socialists, the Catholic Church recognized the cruelties of the system, and spoke against them. Other churches, especially when state sponsored, tended to be even more complacent, and would preach complacency and resignation to the classes. But there were admirable exceptions.

In the United States, there were no feudal privileges. Until the 20th century, there was room for expansion into the frontier which allowed for the continuation of agriculture. As related in Sinclair's The Jungle, the industrial jobs were filled by increasingly desperate immigrants, imported by cynical promises. Further, much of the country had been run on slave labor, and the nation still inherits those divisions. Less memorably, the other half ran on industrial wage-slavery, which used to be regarded as an evil comparable to chattel-slavery. And so despite the United States being one of the most advanced, if not the most advanced, capitalist society and having some of the worst abuses against labor, there was less organization than in Europe.

And the reaction against any labor organization that emerged was swift and brutal. Industries created private armies to break strikes and destroy organization by any means. A severe example is the Pullman strike, but the strike-breakers failed:
Next followed the final shock—the Pullman strike—and the American Railway Union again won, clear and complete. The combined corporations were paralized and helpless. At this juncture there were delivered, from wholly unexpected quarters, a swift succession of blows that blinded me for an instant and then opened wide my eyes—and in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed. This was my first practical lesson in Socialism, though wholly unaware that it was called by that name.

An army of detectives, thugs and murderers were equipped with badge and beer and bludgeon and turned loos; old hulks of cars were fired; the alarm bells tolled; the people were terrified; the most startling rumors were set afloat; the press volleyed and thundered, and over all the wires sped the news that Chicago’s white throat was in the clutch of a red mod; injunctions flew thick and fast, arrests followed, and our office and headquarters, the heart of the strike, was sacked, torn out and nailed up by the “lawful’ authorities of the federal government; and when in company with my loyal comrades I found myself in Cook county jail at Chicago with the whole press screaming conspiracy, treason and murder, and by some fateful coincidence I was given the cell occupied just previous to his execution by the assassin of Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., overlooking the spot, a few feet distant, where anarchists were hanged a few years before, I had another exceedingly practical and impressive lesson in Socialism.
That was Eugene V. Debs, the most important figure in American socialism. The US socialist movement, always small but very often successful, traces back to this strike. So too does Labor Day.

I wonder if any commemorative tributes to Debs will air on Monday. Last Labor Day, there was a grand total of four mentions of "Eugene V. Debs" in English publications, according to Lexis Nexis. All were in passing and in small editorials, and only one appeared in a major outlet (the Washington Post). Variations on searching his name do not generate new results.

"Socialism OR Socialist" gets 246 results. But few of these are from related articles, even fewer of which are from the US, and even fewer in high-impact publications. Almost all the US results are sloganistic throwaways against socialism, especially the implicit type: the prosecution of or defense against the charges of socialism lobbed at Obama, which is a favorite American pastime. The even remotely positive mentions of labor/socialist contributions here are as follows: a letter to the Digital Journal, a brief editorial mention in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (with some historical inaccuracies), and a more satisfying interview by Joan Walsh at Salon on the failure of the New Left to integrate labor.

Well, that's our closet socialist press at work. I very much doubt we'll see any careful tributes.

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