From 1877-1914 – Keeping the Working Class Under Control
Victory for the North in 1865 meant a victory for industrial capitalism. During the decades following the Civil War, industry expanded rapidly across the continent with the help of government subsidies, trade protection against foreign industry and development of transportation, particularly the railroad. The agricultural goods of the South were no longer shipped for manufacture in English factories. The resources of the South were at the disposal of Northern industry. American industrialists began to look for foreign markets to sell their goods. The Democrats became the loyal opposition to the Republican policies of industrial development and imperialism, and they continued to try to control the working class.
Most industrial capitalists supported the Republican Party, which favored tariffs, internal development, and imperial wars – everything that could protect and extend their markets. The Democratic Party was able to represent another group of American capitalists engaged in overseas trading, banking, and railroads along with the traditional Southern elite. These capitalists, the Bourbon Democrats as they were known, opposed the Republicans because of the tariffs, high taxes, and imperial wars – everything that might upset or slow down the day to day functioning of the market. They represented a different leadership team in case a majority of the capitalists wanted to change its strategy.
Many American farmers could not afford agricultural machinery and compete in the market. They were forced to sell their farms to the larger landowners and moved to the cities, becoming workers in the rapidly expanding industrial sector. Alongside the American workers, many immigrants – people from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, China and other countries – began to work in the factories, mines and on the railroads.
The cities swelled with this influx of population made up of both immigrants and natives. From 1860 to 1914 New York grew from 150,000 people to four million. Chicago went from 110,000 people to two million, and Philadelphia went from 650,000 people to one and a half million people. This created a large working class made up of both immigrants and native-born Americans.
The Democrats controlled these new communities of industrial workers through the growth of their “political machines.” The political machines traded votes for favors. If you wanted your garbage taken out, your streets swept, you had to pay with your vote. If you wanted a job or a house in a particular neighborhood, you had to make a deal with the local political boss. The Democratic machines in cities like Chicago, Boston and New York made sure that workers voted for the Democratic Party, or else they would make it difficult to receive housing and basic municipal services.
The Democrats played their most important role in responding to the challenge that the working class posed to the capitalists. With the growth of capitalist industry came the resistance of workers to their exploitation. Capitalism has an inherent tendency to break down in what are called crises of overproduction – when profits and investments by the capitalists sometimes result in production being much greater than what can actually be sold. This causes the whole system to come to a grinding halt. When goods are overproduced, people are thrown out of work and have no wages to buy the goods they produced. This traps the economy in a vicious cycle of layoffs and decreasing buying power. These periodic depressions meant hunger, insecurity, and misery for many workers.
The year 1873 marked the beginning of a deep economic depression. By 1877, the workers and farmers of the North were in rebellion. The owners of the railroads attempted to use the depression to reduce railway workers’ wages. This touched off a huge railroad workers’ strike. It was the biggest coordinated action that workers in the U.S. had ever taken till then – the Great Upheaval of 1877. The strike crossed the country from coast to coast at the speed of the railroad, pulling railway workers and other sections of the working class into action. The strike shut down whole cities as more workers joined. The Northern industrialists called on the Republican government to suppress the rebellious workers. The state repression against the strike was brutal. Federal troops, fresh from the South, were sent to suppress workers and re-assert the control of the bosses. Cities full of striking workers were besieged by government troops. One hundred people were killed in clashes with the police and army and a thousand were jailed.
The railway corporations backed down on the wage-cuts, but the government built up military defenses against the workers to protect the capitalists against future strikes. National Guard barracks or armories were built in the major cities with fortified positions to fire on the workers. The strike shook American capitalists to the core.
Now that the workers had shown their power on a national scale it was essential for the capitalists, both North and South, to divert workers energies away from mass organizing. During the 1880s, Democrats even criticized the Republicans for being the tools of big business. The Democrats were a minority in Congress and didn’t hold the presidency, so they could blame the problems on the Republicans and seem like an alternative.
Many workers saw through the policies of the Democrats. Since the Great Upheaval of 1877, workers had begun organizing on a more political basis in their own interests. The Socialist Party of the U.S. was formed in 1901 from a number of smaller revolutionary groups. Revolutionary workers had also begun to form radical unions, especially amongst unskilled immigrants and the poorer layers of the working class. The most important development was the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), founded in 1905 with the goal of organizing workers, not just for better wages and conditions but also for revolution. The IWW was an industrial union embracing all workers in any given industry regardless of their skill, race, or gender. By 1912 it had an estimated 50,000 industrial workers organized in its ranks, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Between the Socialist Party and the IWW, a significant section of the working class was becoming conscious of its own interests.
World War I: The Democrats’ War for Imperialism
The economic expansion happening within the U.S. was also taking place in the economies of Europe. The European capitalist states were engaged in a world-scale competition for resources and markets. Each country expanded its military forces to protect its domain and increase its influence. Eventually the competition for control resulted in an open military conflict, World War I. Germany clashed with France and England as it made attempts to get into the markets of China and to acquire the raw materials of Africa. Germany and its allies went to war against France and Britain and their ally Russia. Before long much of Europe was in flames.
The American capitalists in 1912 initially preferred to stay out of the conflict in Europe. They were content to sell goods to both sides and watch their European competitors rip each other apart. The ruling class was anti-war because it could profit from its so-called “neutrality”. The Republicans took a more pro-war stance, and so the seemingly anti-war stance of the Democrats resonated with the population, who did not want to be dragged into the war. Most Americans saw World War I as a purely European affair – nothing Americans should be a part of. Democratic Party candidate for President Woodrow Wilson spoke against the entrance of the United States into World War I. He won a majority of the vote and was elected.
Wilson began his Presidency with the support of an anti-war public opinion and substantial portions of the capitalist class who didn’t want to risk entering into a war. By 1917, however, even the most cautious American capitalists had seen that the war in Europe would decide the future control of the world’s resources. The United States had also entered yet another economic crisis, with industry overproducing and markets over-saturated with goods. Spending tax-dollars on war production offered a way out of the economic crisis. Wilson and other politicians began making the case that the U.S. would enter the war to “make the world safe for democracy.” The Democratic Party shifted its policy. In 1918, even though Wilson was elected on an anti-war platform, he took the United States into World War I.
Millions of Americans actively opposed the war and mass demonstrations were held in the major cities. The revolutionaries had anticipated this change would occur and were at the center of organizing against the war. The Wilson administration met the anti-war movement with severe repression. The repression was directed at all dissent, making it a crime to criticize the war. Anyone involved in the revolutionary movement or associated with it was persecuted. Anti-war activists, Socialists, and anarchists were jailed. Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs ran for office opposing the war while he was in jail. More than two hundred revolutionaries were deported to Russia.
The repression struck major blows against the workers movement. In 1917, however, a new element was added to world politics. There was a workers’ revolution in Russia. American workers involved in the Socialist Party and the IWW looked to the example of Russia for a way to fight on a political level with the goal of finally overthrowing the capitalists, their political parties and their state. Despite the intense repression, the most militant socialists and IWW activists started to group themselves together and by 1919 the U.S. Communist Party was formed. This party gathered some of the best organizers from the workers’ movement. It represented a political voice which had the potential to finally break the hold that the Democrats had on the working class and the poor of the United States.
50,000 Americans Dead in World War I
World War I raged across Europe until Germany and its allies were finally defeated in 1918. The United States came out of World War I with an advantage over Europe – the war had not taken place on its territory. Despite that advantage, 50,000 Americans had died and a whole generation had experienced the horrors of war.
Economically the war had improved the economy for the capitalists. They had profited from selling weapons and resources to both sides during the war, and had benefited from wartime spending. The value of stockholders’ investments increased by 16.4 percent. Workers conditions remained poor in comparison. Wages in manufacturing only went up 1.4 percent. Deaths on the job averaged 25,000 per year and 100,000 were permanently disabled by accidents. During this time, workers, many of them demobilized soldiers, organized major strikes from Seattle to the Carolinas. The newly formed Communist Party was actively organizing workers, especially in the South, where the labor movement hadn’t reached before.
The Great Depression: Roosevelt and the Democrats Save Capitalism
The year 1929 saw the onset of a major crisis in the economy, the Great Depression. The capitalist system, based on accelerating production, again reached a barrier as markets overflowed with products. The economy crashed and millions were thrown out of work. People faced unemployment and hunger amidst enormous wealth. The breakdown of the system led to a great revolt by U.S. workers in the 1930s and 1940s. The political representatives of the capitalists, both Democrats and Republicans, were confronted with the challenge of both restarting the economy and keeping the population from challenging the capitalist system.
On the world scale, another threat to the system was looming in the form of another World War. Germany was re-arming and rebuilding its industry. German capitalism, with Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in control, threatened to make another grab for territory and challenge Europe and the U.S. for a place in the world market. Likewise the Japanese capitalists were rapidly developing industry and military ambition, threatening to become a regional power in Asia. The lines were being drawn between capitalist countries for another worldwide conflict over the world’s resources. To secure a place for U.S. capitalism and imperialism, the capitalists in the U.S. would need to mobilize the population of the U.S. to fight.
The Great Depression hit with the Republicans still in office. The situation called for drastic measures and the Democrats were ideally placed to criticize the Republicans for their non-intervention in the U.S. economy and in the world. The Democrats ran Franklin D. Roosevelt as their candidate in 1932. Roosevelt was a wealthy Senator from New York who had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt was recast as a man of the people, ready to save the nation from greed and corruption. He campaigned under the slogan, “the New Deal,” promising a change from previous administrations. The New Deal signaled a major change in the way the Democratic Party presented itself. It proposed major government spending in order to restart the economy, and instead of resisting the growing workers’ movement, it proposed some reforms to pull workers out of severe poverty and unemployment. People responded to Roosevelt’s appeal with overwhelming support in the elections.
People weren’t just sitting and waiting for a savior to come rescue them. Workers started organizing and acting to meet their needs directly. People seized food from stores and warehouses to feed the hungry. Unemployed councils were organized all over the country with membership in the tens of thousands under the leadership of the Communist Party. Unemployed councils would block evictions, pressure authorities to keep workers’ gas and water turned on when they were late on the bills, and they fought discrimination against African Americans and immigrants. In Seattle, fishermen caught fish and traded for firewood cut from the forests. Doctors, nurses, barbers, and seamstresses traded their skills for goods, and essentially showed that the only thing that wasn’t working in society was an economy based on profit making.
In 1934, the working class launched a series of strikes involving a million and a half workers in San Francisco, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Toledo, Ohio. The three big strikes inspired workers all over the country. The workers’ struggles forced Roosevelt and the Democrats to write legislation that appeared to respond to the demands of the movement. Roosevelt passed the Wagner Act of 1935 that set up the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Under the Wagner Act workers had the right to form unions and enter into collective bargaining through the NLRB. The bosses didn’t want to have to deal with the unions and preferred to have the government mediate if the unions couldn’t be stopped outright. The NLRB was easier to control than striking workers feeling their power.
In 1936, a new sort of strike swept the country – the “sit-down” strike. The sit-downs were started by workers in Akron rubber plants who went on strike, but rather than leaving the factory, sat down at their machines and refused to leave. The workers essentially could hold the factory hostage in a sit-down making it impossible for the bosses to restart production with replacement workers (known as scabs). The largest sit-down strike took place from 1936-1937 at the GM plant in Flint Michigan. For 44 days the workers of Flint occupied the plants, shutting down the GM empire. After Flint, strikes flared across the country in record numbers. The strikes were so enormous that the Democratic Party and Roosevelt stepped in and set up mediation with the unions in order to get the workers to call off their strikes.
The strike waves weren’t only a revolt against the bosses and their Great Depression. The workers were also revolting against the old structure of craft unions. Skilled workers had been organized since 1886 in the American Federation of Labor. The AFL avoided strikes and relied on the highly marketable skills of its membership to bargain for wages and rights. But the AFL saw the power of the strike wave and put together an industrial organizing committee headed by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers to organize new industrial unions. Lewis took this committee and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). It embraced all workers regardless of their level of skill or their race. This was the new union structure, industrial unionism, which the thousands of newly organized and militant workers claimed as their own. Organizers from the Communist Party played an important role in building the new CIO unions. Everywhere workers were winning contracts, building unions, and joining the CIO.
The CIO was built by the militancy of the workers, but it soon became a structure that could also contain them. The CIO began to tighten control of its membership, discouraging strikes and militancy. Lewis issued a statement to the bosses saying, “A CIO contract is adequate protection against sit-downs, lie-downs, or any other kind of strike.”
There was no mass organization that could give the workers a different perspective. The Communist Party might have been able to organize a real opposition to the policies of Lewis and the CIO. It was by far the most important political organization in the working class. However, it had been dramatically affected by events in Russia. The Russian Revolution was a workers’ revolution, but it had taken place in a poor underdeveloped country. The revolutionaries had assumed that the Russian example would spark other revolutions in the industrialized countries of Europe. Workers all over Europe made a number of revolutionary attempts but none succeeded. The exhausted Russian working class received no help and fell away from power. A layer of bureaucrats, led by Joseph Stalin, was left holding power. This grouping used its power to defend the narrow national interests of Russia as opposed to extending the revolution, and it began to increasingly take privileges of power and wealth for itself. Everywhere in the world, Stalin and his forces transformed the Communist parties into tools of Russian foreign policy.
In the U.S., as in many countries, the bureaucracy took control of the Communist Party and transformed it from a party of workers’ revolution to a tool of the bureaucracy. In 1935, the Communist Party came out in full support of the Democrats and Roosevelt because it hoped to make an alliance with the U.S. against the growing threat of Germany. The Communist Party had led many of the key fights of the workers from the beginning of the strike wave. However, the Communist Party’s policy of support for Lewis, Roosevelt and the Democrats during the period of the 1930s meant that there was no organized opposition to the Democrats’ policies of co-opting the workers’ struggle.
In 1939, World War II began when Germany sent its armies into neighboring Poland. France and Britain responded by declaring war. The Democrats under Roosevelt took up where Woodrow Wilson had left off and argued for using U.S. military might to secure influence in the world and protect American imperialism. The U.S. capitalists were already concerned about the rise of Japan and its invasion of China in 1937. Roosevelt pushed for a direct military intervention in Europe against Germany, and in Asia against Japan. In 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The direct attack on U.S. territory gave Roosevelt the means to rally the population for war.
In Europe, the entry of the U.S. along with the resistance of the Russian population to the German invasion defeated the German forces. After the war, the representatives of the victors, Stalin for Russia, Roosevelt for the U.S, and Winston Churchill for Britain, met at Yalta in the Ukraine to carve up the world markets. Russia was allowed to impose its control over Eastern Europe and the eastern part of Germany. The U.S. and Britain made agreements to divide the resource-rich areas in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The territories that Britain had dominated came under the control of the U.S. For example, Saudi Arabia received aid from the U.S. and in return, the ARAMCO (short for Arabian American Oil Company) oil corporation received the right to exploit the oil of the region. This began the U.S. support for the Saudi regime, a brutal religious monarchy that wouldn’t last a week if the U.S. weren’t supplying it with money, weapons, and the occasional military intervention.
Roosevelt also used World War II to pull the U.S. economy out of its tailspin. Roosevelt ordered a wage freeze for workers while U.S. industry expanded rapidly to meet the needs of the war. Union bureaucrats agreed to accept a “No-Strike” pledge supposedly to aid in the war effort. Where the workers refused to abide by the pledge, police and National Guard forces were called out. Before troops ever landed in Japan or Europe, Roosevelt ordered federal troops to crush strikes by workers in the U.S. And at the wars end, The Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947 allowing the government to more easily forbid and break-up strikes.
Overall American capitalism boomed with the opening of enormous military markets and guaranteed profits bought and paid for by the state. At the height of wartime production, military contracts represented 34 percent of the GDP. The war economy set up in World War II has been maintained ever since, with an average of $278 billion spent on the military per year since World War II. It is by maintaining a “permanent war economy” that capitalism in the U.S. has maintained a level of guaranteed profits without which it would be equally stuck in the same cycle of crises that caused the Great Depression.
The middle of the 20th century saw a major change in the social structure of the country. The racism that kept African Americans as second-class citizens was being shaken from the top and from below. A reform of the racist system was becoming necessary for the capitalists themselves. The industrial boom of the 1940s opened up new opportunities for African Americans to escape the racist South. During World War II, many African Americans moved out of the South to the industrial centers of the North and West to work in the war economy. The U.S. was criticized for its racism on the world scale, especially by the Soviet Union. The U.S. tried to appear as a beacon of freedom and democracy in the world, especially where it attempted to extend its influence in Africa and Asia. The terrorized and disenfranchised Southern African American population was an embarrassment. Under Roosevelt, local Democratic Party politicians in the South maintained their racist order, but nationally the Party began promising reforms. The Democrats’ promises and the new opportunities opening up resonated with African Americans’ hopes, and, where African Americans could vote, they began to vote for the Democrats. Meanwhile, racism directed at Japanese Americans reached brutal proportions. During the war, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 forcing 100,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps.
In addition, with these new hopes for change came the beginnings of resistance. In 1941, the Sleeping-Car Porters Union, led by A. Philip Randolph, threatened a massive march of African Americans on Washington to address this racism. In 1943, Harlem exploded in riots protesting substandard housing and job discrimination. This response to racism was hardly what the Democrats had in mind when they aimed to reform the system of segregation in the South.
Roosevelt died in 1945 while still in office. The presidency passed to his Vice President Harry S. Truman. The Democrats after Roosevelt were faced with a new set of challenges. They needed to maintain the wartime economic boom and secure the post-war world for exploitation by American corporations and also contain the rising tide of the Civil Rights Movement.
The New Deal and Roosevelt are talked about today in glowing terms. Roosevelt is remembered as a savior of the working class. But it was the working class who fought for and won some concessions. Politicians and pundits will say that what we need is another Roosevelt and another New Deal. Roosevelt’s goal however was to save the system and secure the U.S. a leading role in the world against the other major capitalist powers.
Harry S. Truman, the First Cold War President
President Truman maintained the imperialist policies established under Roosevelt. He also oversaw the end of World War II and began the Cold War, a struggle against the Soviet Union but also against domestic opposition and independence movements in the rest of the world.
During the final stages of World War II, Truman ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The most horrible weapons known to humanity instantly killed 200,000 civilians. It was well known prior to the bombings that the Japanese were going to surrender, but Truman wanted to use the bomb to show the rest of the world that the U.S. was willing to use devastating force to keep control of the world’s resources.
After World War II, Europe was weakened and the Soviet Union and the U.S. were left as the two major powers in the world. Even though the Soviet Union had degenerated, it still represented a force which stood outside of the bounds of capitalism. In spite of the betrayal of the working class by the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Soviet Union was at the very least a check against imperialism. The 40 years after World War II were marked by the struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War. After World War II, nationalist movements erupted in the former colonial countries of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, aimed at achieving national independence from the old colonial regimes. The Soviet Union supported them, hoping to weaken the imperialist countries by depriving them of access to markets and raw materials. The U.S. supported the old European colonial powers or intervened directly in countries like Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan to control the population but also to fight the Soviet Union.
Domestically the Cold War was used as a means to attack the unions and the workers. The Communist Party was painted as a grave internal threat even though the working class and its organizations had supported Roosevelt and the War, and had done everything they could to shackle the workers to the Democratic Party with the help of the union bureaucracy. In 1949 over 140 leaders of the Communist Party were jailed under the Smith Act. The leading figure in these Cold War witch-hunts was Wisconsin Senator, Joseph McCarthy. Under McCarthy, the unions were purged of anyone who had ever been linked to the Communists or radical politics. Communists and radicals of all stripes were forced out of the same unions that they had played a major role in building. Thousands of workers were put on blacklists circulated amongst employers, which made it impossible for them to find work.
By 1949, the foreign policies of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were almost identical. The difference between the parties was a matter of presentation and the illusions that the parties could draw on to get people’s support. The Roosevelt era, however, left the Democrats with a pro-worker image (even though some Southern Democrats remained thoroughly committed to racist segregation). The Republicans appeared to be tougher on Communism.
The Cold War gave the Republicans a means to win the election of 1949 and reclaim the presidency. Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican candidate, used Cold War rhetoric to criticize the Democratic Party for being weak in defending Americans against the Soviet Union. The Democrats wouldn’t return to the presidency until 1961.