[Author’s note: The piece below was submitted to my union newspaper and was rejected for length. Most pieces indeed are about 1,000 words, and this is about 8,000. I suggested serialization, and the editor said that I would have to reduce it to two or three stand-alone pieces. I said that that would ruin the narrative. She replied by saying that that it why she was requesting my help. Was it length or content which got this rejected? you decide.]
A Brief History of the Class War, from the Plow to Right-to-Work
by Dave Fryett, Atlantic Base
Antonio Gramsci: The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions, without becoming disillusioned.
I much enjoyed Linda Averil’s recent article about the so-called right-to-work crusade now slithering across the country. Never has any piece of legislation been more badly named. Like any marketing effort, its title is designed to mislead, to camouflage its real purpose. This struggle is not unique, however, not by a long shot, it is merely the latest battle in the age-old class war. Sadly, and through not fault of our own, most working people are largely unaware of the forces arrayed against us, and the never-ending campaign of those who prosper from our labors to keep us poor and divided. With this in mind, I thought that some historical context to the right-to-work “movement” might be of value.
Some of what will follow will be new to many of the ATU siblinghood, and will conflict with what you have heard and been taught in school. Before beginning there is a story I like to tell which illustrates the extent to which the ruling class is willing to deceive us. It involves the British poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
While at Oxford University, Shelley penned a controversial essay entitled “The Necessity of Atheism.” There’s no need to describe its contents, the title tells you all you need to know. He made copies and posted it all over campus. He then challenged the dean, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, among others, to debate him on the issue. Oxford was, at least in name, a religious school, and Shelley was expelled for blasphemy.
Thereafter Shelley makes a name for himself as a poet and develops a worldwide following. He dies quite young in a bizarre boating accident.
Oxford now has some egg on its face as Shelley is widely read and much revered. A statue was commissioned by the University which depicts the poet with an open bible in his left hand while his face and right hand point up to the heavens. His face bears a pious, reverent look. At the bottom of the statue is a plaque which states that Shelley “attended” Oxford and “left” in such-and-such year etc., no mention of his expulsion. Shelley became required reading for literature students at the University but none of the controversial writings were permitted in the curriculum.
The statue is a grotesque fraud. Eventually, enough people complained and it was removed and sent to the hamlet where he was born. There it was re-erected in the center of town. As far as I know, it is still there.
Shelley was too radical so his legacy was sanitized, rendered acceptable and non-threatening. This is just one deception among thousands. The point is that when you went to school and learned about American history (or anything else), you didn’t get Shelley, you got statue. One of George Washington’s contemporaries once said of him that “When you shake hands with George, you had better count your fingers afterwards.” Indeed, Washington was engaged in quite a number of shady business deals, including swindling his own soldiers in a land-grant scheme. This you will never read in schoolbooks or see on the History Channel; you don’t get the real Washington, instead you get statuary, and lots of it.
Charles Thomson was the recording secretary of the Continental Congress. Decades later he was offered a good sum to write a tell-all book. He declined, saying:
“No, I ought not, for I should contradict all the histories of the great events of the Revolution, and show by my account of men, motives, and measures, that we are wholly indebted to the agency of Providence for its successful issue. Let the world admire the supposed wisdom and valor of our ‘great’ men. Perhaps they may adopt the qualities that have been ascribed to them, and thus good may be done. I shall not undeceive future generations.”
The real history of the American Revolution is as inspiring as it is interesting, which is why it has to be suppressed. There was a real revolution here, not just a change of leadership at the top but a genuine, democratic uprising. The words anarchism, socialism, communism, syndicalism etc., didn’t yet exist, but something very much akin took place with the breakdown of colonial rule. People gathered in commoners’ assemblies around “liberty trees” in town centers and collectively determined how land would be used, laws made and enforced, money spent etc., with no power above them to interdict their decisions. They were free! (Try to imagine what that must be like.) Once the war was won, a counterrevolutionary junta, otherwise known as the Founding Fathers, centered around Washington, Madison etc., reestablished plutocracy (rule by the rich). This they did by means of the federal government and their much-modified Constitution, before which we have ever since been compelled to bow in holy adoration. Various groups around the country, usually led by former Revolutionary War soldiers, armed themselves and rebelled against the new government which was imperiling their hard-won freedom (Shay’s Rebellion, Fries’ Rebellion, the Regulators, to name the largest). Sadly, all were successfully put down. Now securely in power, Washington and cohort began dispersing commoners’ assemblies and chopping down liberty trees. Real democracy had been vanquished, and rule from above restored.
Liberty trees became an international symbol of democracy and are depicted on some foreign currencies and stamps, yet most Americans no nothing of this history. All we know are the statues. So I ask you, dear ATU siblings, please keep an open mind because, unlike Thomson, I do intend to undeceive you.
Some basic social theory: Political power devolves from economic power. The rich control the government, it doesn’t control the rich. Money is power, and if you want to rule, you must direct the labor of the people over whom you wish to reign. The ruling classes–ancient, modern and contemporary–govern primarily by force, and that requires wealth with which to pay the enforcers. This in turn requires that surplus value, as economists refer to it, be extorted from the people doing the actual labor. In other words, only part of the wealth produced by labor is retained by the laborers, the rest, the surplus value, is siphoned off by elites who thus are now in a position to pay warriors etc. who in turn then protect that surplus from potential invaders and suppress revolt from below.
How this is actually done has changed dramatically in the last few centuries. Some economists divide history into three periods: the classical period, feudalism, and capitalism. Others make no distinction between the first two, but all agree that capitalism is something new and unique.
A quick and dirty review of economic history: At one point every one lived in hunter-gatherer societies, sparsely scattered over most of the non-polar regions of the planet. An ice age reduced the habitable areas considerably, and during this period populations were compressed along the world’s great waterways. Increased competition made food scarce. It was then that the greatest invention of all time occurred–the plow. Nothing before or since has ever made such an enormous impact on our lives. This, of course, is the birth of agriculture (and with it classical/feudal civilization). Millenia later, there are still a few hunter-gatherer societies left, but not many. Gathering was ended and agriculture begun.
Previously, hunter-gatherers could only harvest enough food for themselves, but the plow produced the first surplus. Much good came from this development, but there were negatives. Once a surplus had been attained, a warrior caste developed in parallel to protect it. The age of conquest had begun, and we are still living in it. Hunter-gatherers fought other tribes and clans over arable land, access to water etc., but the plow created economic classes and thus gave rise to hierarchy and oppression. Inevitably, an elite controlled the surplus and hence that society. It became the ruling class, and the history of the ancient empires is the history of competition and conflict for control over the most lucrative lands (i.e. the ones which created the most surplus or the most important).
Another unfortunate bequest of the plow is slavery.  A team of 100 hunter-gatherers could only produce about enough to feed themselves, but 100 agricultural slaves can produce enough for many, many more. Previously, when hunter-gatherers killed or captured rivals, they would eat them. They were, after all, protein. After agriculture commenced, captured enemies could be put to work in the fields where they would continue to produce surplus until they died. Eventually, elites came to enslave portions of their own populations. This relationship between the ownership class (those who extracted surplus value) and labor (those who produced it) would form the basis of classical/feudal society, and, consequently, its politics.
So under feudalism, the ruling class owned the product of labor because it owned the laborers. There always were groups of “free” peasants from whom surplus value would be expropriated by tax and/or tribute. Historians refer to these as imperio-tributary regimes, a fancy term which just means that the laborers were not owned, but instead were coerced to hand over product and/or a portion of the proceeds from its sale. In some places these free villages became known as “communes” and, as they were largely left to run their own affairs, forged remarkably democratic traditions. The idea emerged among radical thinkers that the whole world should be run as the self-governing communes. This is the origin of the term “communism.”
Feudal politics were steeply hierarchical because they needed to be. Money was made by the ownership of soil and the laborers who tilled it. You made more money by conquest of more soil. Thus neighboring landowners were potential targets but also hazards. Peace was the limit of meaningful cooperation as neither party had anything to gain from collaboration (this would change with the advent of capitalism). Thus feudal politics began and ended with loyalty to the strongest warlord (i.e. the king or queen); the earls were vassals (underlings, servants) of the monarch, the dukes in turn were vassals of the earls and so on. The government itself was constructed along military lines as in times of war earls would have higher rank than dukes and counts etc.
Feudalism lasted for thousands of blood-soaked years until it gave way to capitalism. The feudal method of production–bonded labor and tax/tribute extraction–was ill-suited to industrial production and would soon disappear. It is ironic and noteworthy that the very thing which created classical/feudal civilization, the plow, also launched the process of technological development which would occasion its demise–even if it did take several thousand years!
The central problem was that bonded labor didn’t work well in an industrial setting. Slaves had a vested interest in the harvest as they would receive a portion of it for their own sustenance. In these new “manufactories,” as they were then called, they had no interest in the product, and were not motivated to be productive. This was a vexing problem for the owners, as there was so much money to be made, particularly as the discovery of the Americas created the opportunity for unprecedented profits. Eventually, they began to support “free labor.”
There had long been abolitionist movements in America, Europe, and Africa, but these were suppressed by those who were profiting, directly or indirectly, from the trade in slaves. Now some of these very same people were advocating emancipation. It is one of history’s great ironies that it was the British, who profited most from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, who would, under force of arms, march into Africa and put an end to the age-old slave trade once and for all. Not, it must be remembered, because they had “seen the light,” as they shamelessly claimed, but rather that England was rapidly developing into a thoroughly industrial society whose elites no longer benefited from the antiquated slave model of production. Slaves were manumitted (the legal term for emancipation) for the benefit not of the slave but of the ruling class.
Before continuing, we should define capitalism. An owner of a workplace hires workers and pays them a fixed wage. The product of that labor is then sold on the market for more than it cost to produce it (wages plus the cost of materials etc.) which produces a profit (surplus value). Another word for profit is capital, hence the term capitalism. To the subject of why capitalism arose much ink and paper has been sacrificed. It suffices for our purpose merely to note that arise it did. It is necessary, however, to discuss the where and how.
Capitalism takes root in England. There had been precursors of it in China and India, but it was quickly suppressed there as the feudal powers quite rightly saw it as a threat. Developments in agricultural techniques in the north and west of Britain resulted in greatly increased yields, and now fewer people were required to produce sufficient food to feed the population. The British ruling class desired to employ some of this surplus labor in industrial production. But how to get them to work in the factories where hours were mercilessly long, pay minimal, and working conditions appalling?
Indeed life was bleak for the first workers. Consider this: If you turned twenty in the year 1820, the odds were in your favor that you live to turn sixty provided you were not a factory worker. If on the other hand you did work in a factory, the odds were against you living long enough to see your thirtieth birthday! Agricultural workers could only work as long as the sun shone, industrial workers labored at the pace of machines, and for sixteen hours a day.
In the race to industrialize, the British aristocracy had several advantages. First and foremost, they had enormous reserves of cheap energy in the form of coal. Additionally, the British serfs had managed to free themselves, over time, as a result of the great Peasant Revolt of 1381. This meant that the laborers didn’t have to be pried from the clutches of hostile nobles who, in Russia for example, had to be bought off before they would part with their “property.” Consequently, at the dawn of the industrial age, the British ruling class had abundant food and energy. The problem remained how to get these peasants off the land where living was comparably easy and into the factories where it was anything but.
This is a highly controversial subject, so what follows is a straightforward account of what happened, sticking to facts and avoiding interpretation.
The English government issued a series of decrees called the Enclosure Acts. These mandated the building of stone fences on the common lands upon which the peasants grew crops and pastured animals. These fences parceled the land into small lots, and made them off limits for peasants. Thus the free peasants could no longer support themselves in the traditional way, nor could they pay taxes. The lots were then auctioned off, and were quickly bought up by nobles. The government then made laws which criminalized poverty–loitering, vagrancy, vagabondage etc. You now needed something called a “job.” The dispossessed could do no other but to go to work in the manufactories. These were followed by laws which prohibited hunting and fishing in certain places which made living off the land even more difficult. so many broke these “poaching” laws that a prison system was built, the first of its kind. For these “criminals” who were still resisting industrial work, judges would offer them a chance to agree to a term of slavery in the New World with the going rate being half the prison term. In one famous case, a peasant agreed to ten years of slavery in Virginia in lieu of twenty in prison. His crime? Pauperism (no money). That’s right, twenty years for being broke.
The peasants now ensnared, all that remained was to break the only form of organized, independent labor which then existed–the guilds, which they did with the Statute of Artificers, which put strict limits on wages. The deed was done.
Thus did capitalism take hold in England. Resistance, however, was fierce. In the 1600s, there were over 100 armed rebellions. That’s more than one a year! None succeeded. Capitalism spread throughout the world faster in some places than the old world could retreat. Under feudalism the owner/aristocrat owned the slave and thus the surplus, now the owner owns the factory, machines and tools needed for production and thus owns the surplus. The worker must go hat in hand to some capitalist to sell his/her labor for considerably less than it is worth, and then thank the employer for the opportunity to be exploited! The capitalist class war began immediately, and has never abated.
The first great industrial labor leader was the Scotsman, Robert Owen. His Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (usually just called GNC) was the first to try to unionize workers from different trades. The GNC was quite successful, so much so that it began to provide funding for workers’ co-opertatives. Owen even went so far as to call for an eight-hour workday, this at a time when other labor leaders were still trying to get twelve. The power and popularity of the GNC did not escape the attention of the British government. They pioneered the all-too-familiar union-busting strategy now favored by the ruling classes everywhere: several GNC leaders were killed in skirmishes with soldiers in which the victims were identified by the authorities as the instigators of the violence; others were put on trial for “mutiny” (trade unions are unpatriotic, it’s your duty to suffer if it’s good for the country) and for engaging in “secret oaths” (trade unionists are devious, furtive characters–what are they really up to?). The government then passed a series of anti-Combination Laws (by combination they meant trade unions) which, in effect, outlawed labor organizing. At one point when working class agitation was high, a new Act prohibited the meeting of more than three people without the permission off the local magistrate. This new law was quickly amended as it was closing down public houses (pubs) which led in turn to even more protests.
The labor movement in England had been successfully halted, and capitalism rolled on.
This capitalist reorganization of society led, as inevitably it must, to profound political changes. Once commodities are produced, they need ever expanding markets. Consequently, the capitalist class of one nation, unlike their feudal predecessors, needs to cooperate with their counterparts in other countries and establish rules for exchange (trade agreements). Moreover, the domestic production of a given commodity may require materials which must be imported. Additionally, now that the population is largely market dependent, producers of a given commodity might charge so much for the product that it might deplete people’s buying power to such an extent that they couldn’t afford another capitalist’s product. And then there are one’s competitors within a given industry. There have to be some rules, and perhaps more importantly, some referees. The modern, capitalist nation-state was emerged to meet that need. We now have so-called democratic republics, wherein power is shared among the ruling class. This new political organization manages the elite’s affairs–makes sure capitalism’s trains run on time, keep important shipping lanes open, resolves intra-class conflicts, and, most importantly, puts down all resistance to the hegemony of capital.
Keeping the working class down has not been an easy task. The moment we working people say “enough,” it’s over for the capitalists. Consequently, keeping us a “bewildered herd” is priority number one, and when that doesn’t work, as sometimes it doesn’t, and we have stopped complying and left our workplaces for the streets, then comes violent repression.
The question is why do we put up with this? We work our lives away while capitalists, who do no useful social labor, profit at our expense. Why do we tolerate this abuse? Once we say “no more,” then it is over. How is it that they keep us accepting a socio-economic system which values us as a shark does a seal? This is a perplexing issue for those of us who imagine a democratic world beyond predatory economics, and one which has occupied the thoughts of the leading figures of 20th century philosophy. In my view, the man quoted at top, Antonio Gramsci, has made the greatest contribution to this discussion. He was an Italian socialist imprisoned by Mussolini. The prosecutor paid him a great compliment at trial saying that his was the mind that the fascists needed to shut down. The judge then sentenced him to twenty years of solitary confinement. Now with political activity impossible, and lots of time on his hands, he turned that mind to the subject of political consciousness. His prison notebooks, while a difficult read, contain the best analysis of this issue I have ever encountered. Why do we obey? It is more, Gramsci insists, than just the immediate hardships we will experience if we resist–joblessness, homelessness, violent repression etc.–rather, we, at least to some degree, consent to this subordination because we have been made to see it as natural, or somehow necessary and beneficial. How this is done is his main focus. Gramsci’s piercing insights need not occupy us here, but no summary of the history of the class war is complete without some mention of this critical issue.
This centuries-old, anti-capitalist movement first championed by Owen, which travels under the umbrella term of socialism, takes as its core principle worker control at the point of production. In other words, the people who make stuff own that stuff. This eliminates surplus value (i.e. the skim extracted by land and/or factory owners, not surplus product) and with it will go economic classes and then, finally, democracy will be possible–perhaps not assured, but at least possible.
Socialism, as it was conceived by its adherents in the early 19th century, was not taken very seriously by international capital. The working class could never organize itself to challenge our power! And if it did it could not successfully run its own affairs let alone industrial society. Then a remarkable event took place: Due to the France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, a power vacuum developed in Paris and the working class took over. This is known as the Paris Commune of 1871. Paris was then the largest city in the world (or second depending on which historian you read) and the capitalists had lost control of it. The Communards began implementing anti-capitalist measures. This in turn inspired other cities around the world (including St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Baltimore) to rebel. Suddenly for international capital, socialism (working class power) was all too real, and they soon overcame their intra-class disputes and united to crush the Communards. Tens of thousands were slaughtered. In America, President Hayes called out the army to put down the St. Louis Commune. This first international working class rebellion was over, but it had provided inspiration for laborers everywhere, and grave concern for the ruling class.
As noted above, capitalism needs ever expanding markets. With the working class defeated, the various national capitalist classes resumed wrangling with each other over lucrative colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas. This mushroomed into open hostilities in the colonies and then finally into World War 1. But socialism had taken hold among the international working class and revolutions broke out here and there. Socialists had seized power in Russia, Hungary, and parts of Germany. The capitalist governments in Italy, France and Spain were teetering. The capitalist powers then met in Versailles to end the war before they were swept from power. The minutes of their then secret meetings, leave no room for doubt as to what they feared. British prime minister, Lloyd George, says “The existing order [capitalism] is under threat from one end of Europe to the other. We must have peace if we are to survive.” He means, of course, peace between the capitalist states, not peace with the working class, and by survival he means as a ruling class. President Wilson: “We are in a race against Bolshevism, and the whole world is on fire.”
Indeed it was, and the Versailles Treaty was designed to douse those flames. A socialist government now presided in Russia, a country with enormous material resources to put at the disposal of the international working class. However one might feel about the Bolshevik brand of socialism, their presence in Moscow was a nightmare for international capital. The world was different now, the domestic and international politics of the capitalist nation-states reacted accordingly. The first thing the capitalists did was to provide all manner of support, overt and clandestine, to those capitalist regimes then under assault from their respective working classes. They managed to reverse the revolution in Hungary, and, despite long odds, prevented one in Germany. This was an enormous strategic victory for capitalism as Germany was the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. The Russian Revolution was bad enough, but it was still largely an agrarian society. The combined capacity of industrial Germany and resource-rich Russia would rival that of the capitalist world. The defeat of the German working class left Russia isolated and vulnerable. No less than fourteen capitalist nations, including the U.S. (American Expeditionary Force), attacked in an effort to topple the Bolsheviks. But the Russian peasants and workers, now finally free of tsarism and capitalism, united in absolutely heroic fashion and managed to repel the invaders and save their revolution. The first assault on socialism in Russia had failed, a larger one was to follow.
Perhaps the most important advance the capitalist powers made at Versailles was the concoction of a counter-socialist campaign–fascism. We now have their private speeches and correspondence in which they fashioned a “movement” which would mimic socialism in important ways (the Nazis called themselves “National Socialists” ) but compete with it: Socialism is anti-nationalist, fascism is nationalist; socialism is anti-racist, fascism is racist, anti-Semitic etc. This movement would be, and was, controlled by capitalists. Fascist organizations then sprang up all over Europe funded covertly by American and European capital. In those countries, like Italy and Germany, where the so-called liberal democratic governments were faltering and threatening to give way to socialism, fascism was brought forth and hurled against them. The first fascist seizure of power was in Italy, where former socialist, Benito Mussolini, in the name of the working class, launched his March on Rome, promising to abolish the upper house of the Italian parliament, the Senate, and replace it with workers’ councils. (Once in power he did eliminate the senate, but replaced with business cartels composed of the very capitalists he had been condemning in the speeches he gave along the March.) What is not widely known is that the March was politically advised and in part directed by the U.S. government in the person of Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who remained in Versailles for the purpose long after the Treaty had been finalized. These covert operations represent the birth of the official American espionage and intelligence services. It would become a family business as Lansing’s nephews, John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, would succeed him and direct their activities for decades. This apparatus would be used domestically to repress trade unions, Black liberation movements, socialist parties and anything else that endangered capitalist rule.
Speaking of statuary, Lansing worked for Woodrow Wilson. Enough clay here to keep a potter busy for months! Perhaps no other person in American history has had his legacy distorted more than Wilson, and with good reason. He is remembered for his campaign to “make the world safe for democracy” (and by democracy he means its opposite–capitalism) but he was anything but a democrat. His foreign policy was as aggressively anti-democratic as it could be! As we have seen, he is one of the Founding Fathers of fascism, and wherever there were popular uprisings–Haiti, Russia, Mexico, Cuba–Wilson sent in the troops. During his subsequent re-election campaign, Wilson boasted that the invasion of Mexico “kept us out of war.” (You can’t make this stuff up!) His domestic policies were even worse: He rolled back the meager civil rights gains made by African-Americans; imprisoned anti-war activists including Eugene Victor Debs (who got ten years for reading the Constitution in front of an army recruiting office); and Wilson brutally repressed the woman’s movement, even defending the incarceration of suffragettes.
Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, launched intensive raids of suspected “subversives,” and conducted mass deportations during the “red scare” years. Untold numbers were unlawfully rounded up by the government. There are countless still “unsolved” missing persons cases dating to that period. Leading labor activists like Big Bill Haywood, Marie Equi, Carlo Tresca, Sacco and Vanzetti, Mollie Steimer, Frank Little, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and a host of Black activists were put on trial on trumped up charges, followed and harassed wherever they went, deported without trial, and a number were lynched.
The Wilson years were the most repressive in American history, yet we keep hearing about his deep commitment to democracy. It’s all hogwash, all statue. With the advent of socialism in Russia and the very real threat it posed to global capitalism, the “liberal” Wilson created the policies and institutions of political repression at home. Shortly after the February Revolution in Russia wherein the tsar was toppled and an interim government put in place, Congress passes the Espionage Act of 1917. After the October Revolution in Russia which brought a socialist party to power, in January we get the Sedition Act of 1918, which outlawed “disloyal” language against the United States government. This criminalized free speech. Wilson a great democrat?
His chief lieutenant, Robert Lansing, tapped a young bureaucrat, J. Edgar Hoover, to head up the newly formed Bureau of Investigation (Later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation). From its inception it has infiltrated and undermined trade unions, environmental and civil rights activists, and leftist political parties, very often flouting the law. #BlackLivesMatter is a fine example of how the government can neutralize popular movements: Buy off those you can, if necessary kill those you can’t buy, and herd the rest into meaningless, idiotic reforms. Chief Ferguson organizer, Darren Seals, was shot, transferred into a car and then set on fire. At least two other Ferguson activists have suffered the same shooting-torching fate. The authorities blame these killings on gangs but one has to wonder why Black gangsters would want to kill Seals and the others. Meanwhile, around the country #BlackLivesMatter activists are being offered jobs, scholarships, grant money etc. in an effort to buy them off, and now we have the new #BlackLivesMatter debit card. Quite a nice touch, that, not only has the movement been thoroughly sabotaged, it has been rendered profitable as its members are being encouraged to shop their way to emancipation! Somebody at the Bureau is going to get a promotion!
The story of the FBI is one of shocking criminality and lethal violence, and the repression continues to this day. The Bureau’s own files amply attest to this. It is ground zero of the class war in the United States.
“Yes,” you say, “there were terrible abuses in the past, but the government doesn’t do anything like that anymore.” Tell that to Darren Seals! Or should I say to his survivors. I’m reminded of the famous retort by Judi Bari, an Earth First! leader: While still in the hospital recovering from a near-fatal car bomb, she was urged by a journalist not to worry because the FBI was now on the case and would find the man who tried to kill her. “When they do,” she quipped, “I hope they fire him.”
The Wilson years represent the pivot point wherein the U.S. government restructures itself to conduct repression (which it calls “counter-insurgency”) in reaction to the gains made by the international socialist movement during and after WW1. Wilson also introduced the Federal Reserve Bank and federal income tax (which had previously been ruled unconstitutional), these too can be seen in this light.
How did capitalism come to America? In 1807, President Jefferson signs the Embargo Act. The Napoleonic wars were raging in Europe and both the British and French were violating American neutrality and the Brits were actually impressing American seaman. The Act forbade American merchants from conducting business with either side as Jefferson feared that it would cause divisions within the country which might bring the war to the New World. This created a problem for the merchants of New York and New England. Prior to this point the whole of American commerce was centered upon the production of sugar and cotton. The planter class in the South produced the commodities, and the merchants of the Northeast brokered their sale and handled shipping as well as the importation of materials needed for production–one big happy family (save for the slaves who produced this wealth!). However the wealthy merchants now had nobody to sell to as their major customers were off limits due to the Embargo Act. As weeks turned into months and years, many decided to invest in the manufacture of those materials which had previously been imported and the first factories were built and the first wage laborers recruited. Capitalism had arrived.
It is impossible to talk about the history of labor in the United States without talking about racism.
The strategy of the multi-layered working class goes back to the 16th century, at least that is attested (a term favored by historians which simply means that some type of documentation exists in support of an hypothesis). I imagine that it is much older than that. The idea is to give laborers in the lower strata something to aspire to–a better standard of living if they make it into a higher level–short of rebellion. And it gives people in the higher levels something to fear–dropping into the lower levels–if they are not productive enough. In American slavery, this is represented by the division between field slave (lower level) and house slave (upper). The point of this competitive system was to keep slaves in line by mutual antagonism within the laboring class. In the late 17th century this division got racialized.
Sadly, while slavery didn’t survive industrialization, its ugliest feature, racism, did. I doubt that the plutocrats who constructed racism understood how effective a weapon of class war it would be as it has been the bane of the American labor movement ever since. Tragically, there have been few examples in our history where state-sponsored racism has been overcome and interracial solidarity achieved. And those movements which have been effective in organizing across racial lines have been subjected to ferocious repression. FBI files reveal that they feared the rise of a “Black Messiah” who would galvanize his/her own people and attract a large White following. Life expectancy for Black leaders, foreign and domestic, who did garner substantial interracial support (Walter Rodney, MLK, Fred Hampton etc.) has been short indeed! Perhaps the best illustration of how determined your government is to prevent interracial working class solidarity is an FBI memo regarding the Black activist, Larry Pinkney. It states: “Pinkney is a threat to our national security because he brings White and Black people together.” That, my dear ATU siblings, is not a memo written to J. Edgar Hoover, but one written by J. Edgar Hoover. One might well ask how anybody who unites people within a given country could possibly be a threat, let alone a security threat, to that country. Of course s/he couldn’t be, it’s absurd, so then what is s/he a threat to? To ask such a question is to answer it. Which brings us back to the growth of capitalism in America.
As noted above, capitalism needs ever expanding markets, which requires freer (if not exactly free) trade, and now needed international markets. In the South, the old slave-labor method still prevailed which benefited from subsidies and protective tariffs. The two economies, capitalist and feudal, began to diverge almost immediately as they cannot coexist for long. Initially at least, the planter class was the stronger and continued to control the government. As time went on, the capitalists grew richer and began to rival the planters in political power, and won legislative reforms at their expense. This led to arguments and occasionally fist fights in Congress, and eventually blossomed into the Civil War. The North won, and, now with an unobstructed path, the capitalist mode of production spread throughout the country. And with it the working class grew.
With it spread labor unrest. Its domestic rival now defeated and an entire continent to plunder, American capital had little reason to concern itself with the privation it imposed on the people who produced its wealth. In the 19th century, American workers suffered the highest on-the-job death rate in the world. Life expectancy for American miners was a full decade less than for their European counterparts. It was almost as bad for American railway workers. As capitalism spread throughout the world it displaced millions from the soil which once sustained them and drove them to the New World in search of employment or, if lucky, a plot of land to call their own. This created a glut of cheap immigrant labor which the ascendant capitalist class was only too happy to exploit. They could work their employees to death, and there would be replacement workers lined up at the door the next day. Jay Gould, a railroad magnate, was once asked if he was concerned about working class revolt given the inhuman conditions American workers had to endure. He replied “The work class? [heck] no, I’ll hire one half of the work class to shoot the other half.”
And they did. The history of the class war in America is a particularly gory one, but the details need not concern us here.
With Europe pacified and all the revolutions west of Russia defeated, American and European capitalists began funding German re-armament. Yes, that’s right, the Nazis could not have come to power nor built the largest war machine then in existence without substantial help from American capital, including Henry Ford, the du Ponts (General Motors), and many, many more. The Bank of England stunned the financial world when it announced it was going off the gold standard. This gave German currency quite a boost. The Nazis met with the Rockefellers in Achnacarry, Scotland, and got a commitment from Standard Oil for those petroleum products without which they could not wage war. Prescott Bush was arrested for trading with the enemy, a treasonable offense. So he was tried and imprisoned, right? Not exactly! After the war he became a senator and his son and grandson became presidents. He was actually doing more than trading with the enemy, his company, the Hamburg Lines (Now called Hapag Lloyd), was providing maritime intelligence to the Nazis. Allen Dulles maintained back channel communications with the Nazis throughout the war, and was instrumental in aiding prominent Nazis to escape at its conclusion. Many of these came to work for American intelligence services.
So what did the Nazis do with all that support it was receiving from international capital? First, it helped to crush the then unfolding anarchist revolution in Spain while the Western powers adopted a non-interference policy. It also invaded Austria one day before a plebiscite in which a socialist government was expected to win in a landslide. Then it put down the risen working class in France by invasion, an intervention which was supported by the French ruling class who feared a recurrence of the Paris Commune of 1871. Then it sent the largest military force the world had ever seen east through Poland and on to attack the then only socialist government in the world, the USSR. In my view, the Bolsheviks, with their party dictatorship and one-person control of industry, were socialist in name only, nevertheless, it was an enemy of capitalism. It had to go. The Nazis battered the Soviets for three years while the USSR’s capitalist “allies,” The UK and U.S. stayed out of the conflict and offered but token support. Only after the battle of Stalingrad, when it became clear the Nazis would be defeated, did the western Allies put boots on the ground in war-torn Europe, and then only in a desperate attempt to keep the Russian Army from overrunning the entire continent.
Surprisingly, the Soviets survived the war, and emerged strengthened from it. Thus began the Cold War. Around the capitalist world measures were taken to suppress the working class and its advocates. In Spain, Iran, and Korea (to name but a few) mass executions of socialists, trade unionists etc. occurred. (It seems like every day mass graves are unearthed in Spain and Korea.) In the United States, “witch-hunting” accompanied by a relentless anti-communist propaganda campaign led to anti-worker legislation–always under the guise of being pro-worker–like the Bracero Program and the Taft-Hartley Act.
The West did everything in its power to stop the spread of anti-capitalism, whichever form it took. It waged a covert war to undermine the Soviet government, which, in the end, was successful. Bolshevism created a bureaucratic elite which quickly condensed into a new ruling class. It was not so far a step for them to see capitalism as being in their interests. The same thing has happened in “Red” China where, since the death of Mao, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has brutally suppressed all opposition to the restoration of capitalism.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Western capitalist states have aggressively moved to roll back the gains made by organized labor over the centuries, and the right-to-work campaign is a part of that effort. In the U.S., the presidents from the two major capitalist parties–Reagan, Clinton, the Bushes, Obama–have enthusiastically signed legislation which eliminated much of the New Deal program (pitifully inadequate though it was) which placed restraints on employers and gave retirement and other benefits to working people. The capitalists are winning the class war in a big way these days, but don’t be discouraged! Centuries ago everybody believed in feudalism, now hardly anybody does. Some day everybody will feel the same way about capitalism. Take heart, your emancipation approaches, even if it is not yet visible on the horizon. Capitalism has been around for only a few centuries and it has not had a moment’s peace. In order to gain power, the capitalists had to enlist the support of working people to defeat feudalism, and once the genie of revolution is loosed, she can’t be put back in the bottle. Since the plow, elites have organized and reorganized society from above, molding it to their interests. One day, we the working people, the immense majority, will rise up and reshape society from below, and in the interests of all. And on that day everyone will share equally in life’s burdens and pleasures. May it come soon.
In 1819, a workers’ rally was held in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, England. The organizers expected a few thousand to turn out. As speaker followed speaker, the crowd grew and grew until it reached an estimated 50,000. The city’s capitalist class became so alarmed that they sent word to military authorities imploring them to intervene and to arrest the organizers. The cavalry arrived, but the crowd refused to give way. Finally, the order was given to charge and the horsemen hacked and slashed their way into the gathering killing scores and injuring hundreds. Hearing of the “Peterloo Massacre,” Shelley wrote a poem called “The Masque of Anarchy,” which was banned at Oxford for 130 years. It concludes:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!
 The ownership of laborers has taken many forms–slavery, serfdom, peonage, indentured servitude, villeinage–but for the sake of convenience I’ll refer to all of it as slavery.
 If you are reading this then you are descended from cannibals. The anthropologists are quite insistent that we all are. Just get over it…
 There is a great account of this uprising by British socialist, Paul Foot on Youtube. It’s very entertaining as Foot is quite funny
 There is an excellent series of documentaries produced by Metanoia on this topic. The first part is called Plutocracy, Political Repression in the United States. The second is Plutocracy II, Solidarity Forever. These are on-line and are worth the time if you are interested.