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Max Nomad, Aspects of Revolt, 1959.


Ever since the inauguration of the industrial era, anti-capitalist radicalism, whether democratic or totalitarian, Marxist or non-Marxist, revolutionary or reformist, an-archist or "statist, " syndicalist or parliamentarian, haspersistently remained an Old World phenomenon. In fact, not only a phenomenon but a political force of the first magnitude, to mention only the Labor Party of Great Britain, the Socialist Party of Germany, and the Communist parties of France, Italy and the Soviet orbit.

It is only in the United States that anticapitalist radicalism never constituted a real threat either to the social system or to the traditional political parties upholding it. The native American workers' sales resistance to socialist ideas of the various schools has been time and again explained by a multiplicity of circumstances none of which were duplicated in the countries of Europe. There was the"frontier" which during the last century enabled the more energetic worker to strike out for himself. There is the vaunted "fluidity of classes, " greatly exaggerated, to besure, for it holds only for a very small proportion of wage and salary earners. There was the reluctance of the natives to accept any ideas preached by immigrants. And the comparatively high standard of living was not a fertile ground for a propaganda whose greatest appeal was class hatred. Hand in hand with this went the ever growing opulence of the trade union leaders who were no more eager to challenge the status quo than are the ministers of an established religion to suffer martyrdom for their faith.

There is some truth in all of these arguments. But they alone do not add up to a satisfactory explanation. To get at it, it is necessary to cast a glance at certain aspects of the socialist and labor movement of most European countries.

The parties embodying that movement became consolidated during the second half of the last century. As they grew, conflicts within the leadership -- between the intellectuals and professionals, on the one hand, and the self-taught ex-workers, on the other -- occasionally resulted in theoretical discussions throwing a revealing light on the origins of socialist anticapitalism.

Around the turn of the century, Karl Kautsky, outstanding theorist of orthodox (Western) Marxism, on the one hand, and Lenin, the Teacher's deviating "continuator, " on the other, advanced an idea whose full impact and implications they themselves were either unable or unwilling to realize. They both declared that in the struggle against their employers the manual workers, left to themselves, were unable to rise above the trade union concept of higher wages and shorter hours, and that the socialist or anti-capitalist feature of the modern labor movement was imparted to the latter by intellectuals coming from the middle classes.1

Kautsky made this point as a defense gesture against the German socialist trade union leaders, mostly ex-workers, who had begun to assume an attitude of independence and even arrogant superiority with regard to the intellectuals and professionals dominating the political activities of the socialist movement.

Lenin, on the other hand, used that argument in his plea for the importance of the political propaganda carried on by "professional revolutionists" as against that group of Russian Socialists -- they were dubbed "Economists" -- who saw in the exclusive emphasis upon the workers' "economic" struggle for higher wages and shorter hours the way of arousing the masses against the tsarist regime.(The "Economists" argued that the repressive measures adopted by that regime against striking workers would invariably bring home to the latter the idea that a bread-and-butter struggle is possible only under a system of political liberty which does not prohibit the organization of trade unions.)

In Lenin's case, too, the argument that the workers could not see beyond trade-unionist bread-and-butter demands2 was undoubtedly a conscious or unconscious defense mechanism of a socialist intellectual against the potential predominance of trade union leaders in the socialist movementof post-tsarist Russia, should the impact of the bread-and-butter mass struggles bring about the downfall of the oldsystem.

Seen from this angle, that is, from the point of view that the manual workers by themselves could not rise to the concept of negating the capitalist system, the indifference of American labor towards socialist ideas might, paradoxically, appear as the logical or normal thing, as compared with the "abnormal" situation in all other countries in which socialist or communist tendencies have been intimately connected with the trade union movement.

That "abnormal" association of European labor unionism with socialism had its roots in the complexities of the early phase of capitalism on the Continent. During that phase vast numbers of intellectual workers, coming from the lover middle classes, suffered all the disadvantages of propertyless, underpaid or unemployed stepsons of the bourgeoisie. No wonder many of these declasses conceived the idea -- as old as the conflict between the "haves" and the impecunious "knows" -- of dispossessing the property owners and converting their wealth into "public" property, managed -- so they claimed and believed -- in the interestsof the people by the propertyless owners of education.3

That was their "maximum program." Before it couldbe attained they needed political democracy, i.e., political liberty that would enable them to participate in their country's political life and to carry on propaganda for their ultimate aim. (In an earlier period of their activities someof the anticapitalist intellectuals believed in the necessity of a revolutionary dictatorship before democracy could be established). To attain their objectives they needed the mass support of the workers. To secure that support, they helped them in organizing their trade unions and in carrying on their struggle for higher wages and shorter hours. Thus they forged that bond of gratitude between manual workers and radical intellectuals which found its expression in theformation of socialist mass parties whose backbone was the socialist-controlled trade union movement.


The conditions which in the last century led in Europeto a close association of manual workers and radical intellectuals advocating various brands of socialism, did not exist in America. At the outset of the industrial era, the United States, unlike the European countries, had no reserve of underpaid and dissatisfied intellectual workers. Men with education were in great demand. They constituted part of the more or less prosperous middle classes. Hence there was no basis for the spread of anti-capitalist ideas among their ranks. (There were of course individual declasses among the educated, but they did not constitute a mass phenomenon as in most European countries.)

Consequently, there was no incentive for them to help the workers in the organization of their unions, to champion their cause and thus win their confidence as in the case of the radical intellectuals in Europe when they launched the Socialist parties. Political democracy, still absent or very incomplete in Europe, was a fact in America; so there was no point in wooing the workers for a struggle in behalf of political liberty, or for more democracy.

The native American workers, left to themselves, that is, not assisted by a non-existent rebellious declasse intelligentsia, organized their trade unions on a purely non-political, non-ideological basis. They owed the improvements in their standard of living exclusively to their unions which they had built up all by themselves. So there was no bond of gratitude linking their struggles with any radical ideology or with its advocates, as was the case in Europe, where Spain presents a typical instance of this process. For there the Anarchists, though extinct as a movement in all other countries, have maintained their unbroken influence upon the labor movement for the simple reason that it was the followers of Bakunin who had helped the workers in organizing the first labor unions. Hence, whatever socialist or other radical indoctrination (during the 1880s is was to a certain extent anarchism) there was among the organized workers in the United States, was to be found mainly among the then very numerous foreign-born who had already been partly indoctrinated on the other side. It must not be forgotten that before the turn of the century German-speaking workers -- most of them Socialists -- constituted a very large percentage of America's skilled labor. It is they who either by their numbers or by their influence -- they were the only immigrants whom the English-speaking native workers accepted almost as equals -- represented for many years quite a vocal opposition to the trade unionism pure and simple advocated by Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor.

To be sure, there was the short interlude of a native radical movement, known as the I. W. W. (IndustrialWorkers of the World), which reflected the influence of Marxist, syndicalist and anarchist concepts. However, the fact that its life span did not exceed fifteen years -- roughly between 1905 and 1920 -- and that it is practically forgotten now, confirms the assumption that the general pattern of the American labor movement was not radical. Moreover, the I.W.W. was anything but a real mass movement.4 Its membership, which never exceeded 150, 000, constituted a sort of temperamental and heroic elite among the great mass of unskilled workers to whom the doors of the A.F.L. craft unions were closed. Nearly two decades after the I.W.W.'s demise its aim of organizing the millions of the unskilled was eventually achieved by the C.I.O. which, however, after a turbulent beginning, shed its very mild radicalism and became just as respectableas, and fit to merge with, the A.F.L.

Around the turn of the century the foreign-born element among the organized workers constituted the mass basis, as it were, for those educated malcontents from the lower middle classes who hoped to duplicate, on American soil, what their political coreligionists had accomplished in Germany: to organize a powerful Socialist party with a large representation in Congress and with the labor unions underits control.

Their hopes were doomed to come to naught. Neither the inspired oratory of Eugene V. Debs, originally a conservative trade union leader whom the brutal suppression of strikes in the early 1890s had pushed into the leftist camp, nor the political acumen of Morris Hillquit, a lawyer of genius, was a match for Samuel Gompers, the presidentof the American Federation of Labor, who was determined to maintain the labor movement as a privileged hunting ground for former workers like himself. Once a Socialist himself, he knew, whenever he felt that it was expedient, how to use radical class struggle phrases and slogans which were likely to impress his audience, and how to steal the pro-labor thunder from the socialist would-be politicians. So he wrote that "the trade unions, pure and simple, are the natural organizations of the wage workers to secure their present material and practical improvement and to achieve their final emancipation, "5(emphasis added) which was practically identical with the basic idea of the ultra-leftist Syndicalists, except that personally Gompers was skeptical about what is called "final emancipation." He would declare that he "believe[d] with the most advanced thinkers as to the ultimate ends, including the abolition of the wage system, "6 (emphasis added) which was good old socialism, though again it is doubtful whether he actually meant it, for his entire career testified to the fact that he accepted the capitalist system provided it paid fair wages to organized workers. And the preamble to the Constitution of his own organization, the American Federation of Labor, contained such Marxist-sounding passages as the one which said that "a struggle is going on in all nationsof the civilized world, a struggle between the capitalist and the laborer, which grows in intensity from year to year" -- a passage, by the way, which in 1955, i.e., more than seventy years later, did not reappear in the Constitution of the unified A.F.L. and C.I.O.

At the. same time Gompers knew how to arouse theworkers' suspicion against those whom he accused of using the labor movement as a stepping stone for furthering their political careers and of "luring the workmen from the immediate struggles to the hopes for the future."7 To these idle hopes for a distant socialist future he opposed the very realistic slogan of "more and always more" which may have been his way of expressing his disbelief in the possibility of an ideal commonwealth and his conviction that the workers would always have to struggle against their employers regardless of whether the employer wasa private corporation or a Socialist State.

Yet for all his diatribes against the socialist intellectuals and politicians, which sounded as if he had been familiar with Bakunin's prophetic blast against the future rule ofMarxist politicians and office-holders, 8 Gompers himself could hardly be called a champion of the working class as a whole. For his American Federation of Labor was an organization of craft unions interested chiefly in what was called its members' "job monopoly"; an organization which kept its doors tightly closed to the great mass of the unskilled and the semi-skilled.

The Socialists were decidedly out of luck. Ignored by the organized native workers who, as mentioned before, had already built their unions before the educated declasses or malcontent intellectuals had made their appearance on theAmerican political horizon; held in check by Samuel Gompers' subtle propaganda which inoculated the native workers against radical ideologies; weakened by the gradual drying up of the influx of indoctrinated immigrants from the more advanced countries of the European continentand by the growing indifference of the once indoctrinated foreign-born skilled workers who would gradually turn "native" and, like these, prefer the concrete fleshpots of the capitalist present to the abstract delicacies of the socialist future; and meeting with hardly any response from the new immigrants, illiterate or semi-literate uprooted peasants completely under the sway of their clergymen -- the Socialist Party never became a political force. The highest number of votes which it received was approximately one million, in 1912.

The hopes which the Socialists entertained after that success, modest as it was, as compared with the ballots cast for the two regular parties, were completely dashed by three cataclysmic events: the first World War (1914-1918), the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the Depression of the 1930s. The refusal of the American Socialist Party to embrace the cause of the Western Allies and to condemn the German Socialist Party whose majority had identified itself with the Kaiser's government, estranged from it many intellectuals of Anglo-Saxon descent. The Bolshevik Revolution resulted in a split, with the majority of party members joining the Communists. And finally the Depression of the 1930s, which resulted in the inauguration of the New Deal and the realization of all the reforms which had once been the stock in trade of the Socialists, left their party hopelessly holding the bag, with the Democrats firmly established as the poor men's party. Reduced to the dimensions of a microscopic sect, the Party garnered hardly more than two thousand votes in the Presidential electionsof 1956.

While cutting the ground from under the Socialists, the Depression offered two great opportunities to the Communists. Writers whose books would not sell or whose manuscripts were rejected, college graduates who could find no positions, professors who saw their jobs threatened, students faced by an uncertain future -- they all began to lose faith in the permanency of the capitalist system and to look te the Colossus of the East for their salvation. Their plight made them altogether insensitive to the cruelties and bestialities committed by the tsars' successors. At the same time the spurt given by the New Deal to the organization of the unskilled workers occupied in the mass production industries enabled many professional Communist agitators to insinuate themselves into, and to get control of, many of the newly formed unions. It was the dual character of the Communist Party as an anticapitalist group, on the one hand, and, on the other, as an agency of a foreign imperialist power waging a cold war against the United States, that resulted in its eventual elimination as a potential revolutionary factor. For it gave the American government a pretext for adopting repressive measures which drove the Communist leaders from most of the unions which they once controlled. At the same time the growing prosperity and security of the workers made the membership of those unions look with equanimity upon the outlawing of their Communist leaders. And the revelations about Stalin in Khrushchev's famous speech of February, 1956 broke what hold the party still had upon a very |considerable section of its fellow travelers and card-carrying dupes.


The indifference of the American workers towards anti-capitalist ideas has given America the unique status of a country which, for all its anti-communist hysteria, is not threatened either by Socialism or Communism; a country which has dampened the hopes or allayed the fears of all those who believed that sooner or later all countries will have to enter upon the phase of a socialist or near-socialist economy.

However, there is one flaw in this picture of a changeless America, permanently consecrated to the principle of "free enterprise." Whatever the non-radical or non-anticapitalist sentiments of American labor, that attitude is by no means so all-pervading as far as the intellectual workers are concerned.

That social group has been growing faster than any other section of the population. The days of its economic security are gone. The earnings of very many members of this group are often below those of the skilled or better organized manual workers. And even the most learned among them are being looked down upon with contempt by manyan employer. Hence the sympathy one encounters among the intellectual workers either for the "creeping socialism" of the New Deal or for the galloping totalitarianism of Moscow.

Will these educated malcontents eventually become a political factor by combining with those ultra-moderate near-socialists within the trade union movement who, however timidly and cautiously, advocate the formation of a Labor Party, British style? Or will the hopes of those malcontent intellectual and manual workers be thwarted by the labor barons -- ex-workers with incomes of bank directors -- who believe that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds and who will prefer to serve as the tail of the big city "machines" while holding out to their flock the hope that, once all labor is united, it will take over one of the two big parties?

There are a few more questions regarding the near future if there is no change in the political setup:

Will not the spread of "automation" and of the "thinking machines" eventually produce mass unemployment on such a scale as to lead to the pauperization of enormous sections of the population? And will not such a situation provide a fertile ground for all kinds of mass movements, neo-fascist, racist, crypto-communist, and the like?

And should movements of this kind fail to make their appearance, will not the less favored sections of the population, seeing no immediate improvement ahead of them and losing faith in the politicians of all hues, resort on a mass scale to primeval, desperate forms of protest similar to those used by the slaves of ancient Rome when they systematically damaged the live stock and the equipment of their masters until their status was changed to a less cruel form of servitude? Will they emulate the example of those workers in England and Germany who, at the outset of the industrial era, turned their fury against the machines? It short, will they resort to a chaotic guerrilla warfare of sabotage and violence, a ubiquitous creeping rebellion without battles or barricades in which tanks, machine guns or gas bombs would be of no avail to the defenders of law and order? (It may not be amiss to mention that for various reasons peculiar to America acts of sabotage -- originally advocated only by the now extinct Anarchists and Syndicalists, but frowned upon not only by the bona fide unions but also by the Socialists and theCommunists -- have been a very frequent accompaniment of American labor conflicts. Witness the extreme case of the McNamara brothers of the Iron Workers Union, A.F.L., in 1910 -- the "dynamiters" in question were good Irish Catholic Democrats -- and the very numerous acts of sabotage committed during the telephone workers' strike in 1955, without the authorization of their C.I.O. union).

Or will the rulers of the day, hearing the rumblings of such a revolt, or anticipating its possibility and its potentialities, see the light and once more call in the despised "eggheads" and entrust them with organizing a super-New Deal that would combine the advantages of the Welfare State with those of a semi-socialized economy and full employment -- while maintaining the traditional vocabularyof "free enterprise, " dear to rich and poor alike in theUnited States, as are the myths of monarchy, pseudo-democracy, socialism, communism and fascism to the illusion-hungry denizens of other sections of the globe?

Will, then, those prophets of bliss prove right who seein automation and the application of atomic power to peaceful purposes the straight road to a no longer mythical golden age with jobs and plenty for everybody?

Such a golden age offering every manual worker the standard of living of, let us say, an organized truck driver with his weekly $130.00 (as of 1956), and to every college graduate something almost approaching this figure, could no doubt do away with the rougher aspects of class antagonism. For a well-fed, well-housed and well-clothed "wage slave" who has plenty of leisure to read his tabloids and crime comics and to discuss baseball and gang murders, will perhaps strike for a few more dollars weekly in orderto realize his dream of a better car than the one he has in his garage. But his anger, and possibly also his primeval urge toward violence, will be aroused only if a new wave of migration or immigration should bring large numbers of Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Mexicans or Italians into his neighborhood. And he will not get excited by the warnings of those who are frightened by the prospect oft his country moving towards a combination of Utopia and nightmare, with a full dinner-pail and a Buick for every worker and full control of our cultural life by billionaire newspaper syndicates and obscurantist "legions."

Well, this may actually happen in the United States. But what if all the other countries of the world, those within the Kremlin orbit and those outside of it, should gang up against Uncle Sam and demand a much larger share of his wealth than he is ready to spend voluntarily on his poor relations in Europe and Asia? Will those who dominate the United States still be willing to share the country's wealth so lavishly with those in their employ?And will that not bring back the class struggle, even though in 1955 America's united labor unions have eliminated any reference to that idea from the original consti tution of the American Federation of Labor?

Or, again, will not the continuous increase of the college population in the United States eventually result in such an overproduction of the technical intelligentsia that the latter -- at present comparatively well-paid and hence conservative and satisfied with the status quo -- will become susceptible to the ideas of the technocrats and realize Thorstein Veblen's dream of the engineers' general strike, in the wake of which the managers and the technicians might take oyer the industrial fabric?

The ousted owners might then have the consolation that they have been expropriated by a genuinely American form of socialism, more akin to the aristocratic ideas of Plato than to those of Marx and his disciples who used a "proletarian" verbiage to camouflage the ambition of the non-capitalist "knows" to step into the shoes of the capitalist"haves."


All this may or may not happen in the more or less distant future. However, for the time being it looks as if the comforts and benefits enjoyed by the great majority of those who in other countries are included among the under-privileged, were a guarantee against any attempt -- peaceful or violent -- at a thoroughgoing change in the American way of life, all its injustices, inequalities and prejudices notwithstanding.

To be sure, the submerged one third or one fourth of the population will keep arousing the indignation of the idealistic lovers of justice and of the not-so-idealistic demagogues and adventurers hungry for power. But it does not look as if their preachments could in any way influence those workers who, enjoying their full dinner pail, are utterly indifferent to the fate of their poorer brethren. On the contrary, it looks as if, for the time being, those malcontents, whatever their radical label, were doomed to remain "alone with the truth, " as the permanent conspirator and rebel Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) put it without any intention at self-irony after one of his many unsuccessful attempts at seizing power.

It is possible of course that the "truth" of those socialists, liberals or progressives who now protest against the existing injustices, will some day be realized, that the slums will disappear, and that the sharecroppers, the migratory workers, the Negroes, the Puerto Ricans and all the other victims of economic and social inequalities will be treated like human beings. It is in the lap of the gods whether this will be accomplished by the pressureof those immediately concerned, or by the wisdom of those anxious to forestall possible outbreaks of desperate violence.

There is no doubt that in such a setup the center of gravity will shift from the big shareholders to the engineers, the economists and the intellectual workers in general whom the other sections of the population may have to restrain from becoming all too powerful.

And the workers ? Well, they will work, most of them indifferent as to who will rule the roost, the brightest among them becoming either labor tycoons or politicians and contributing their share towards the maintenance of the status quo and the perpetuation of the American dream.


1 Karl Kautsky in the German Marxist organ Neue Zeit, 1901-1902, Vol. XX, I, No. 3, p. 79. Quoted in Lenin's What is to be Done? New York edition, 1929, p. 40.

2, V. I. Lenin, op. cit. pp. 32-33 (Chap. II, Section A).

3, See p. 158ff. of the chapter entitled "The Declasses" in this volume.

4 For a more detailed analysis of the I.W.W. and of the American radical and labor movements in general see Max Nomad's Rebels and Renegades pp. 338-391 and Apostles of Revolution pp. 256-301.

5, S. Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, New York, 1925, Vol. I, p. 385.

6, Mary Beard, A Short History of the American Labor Movement, New York, 1920, pp. 92, 105.

7, The Double Edge of Labor's Sword, Chicago [1914].

8 See pp. 119-120 of this volume.