The Legacy of US Reaction


The American middle class, subject of the ravings of the bourgeois media and academics alike, is a potent myth. Contrary to this myth, the Luxembourg Income Study Database ranks the US fourteenth out of the fifteen countries included in their rankings. This statistical database defines the term “middle income” as being those households with incomes from 62.5% to 150% of the median national income.

The countries with the largest middle class to the smallest are: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Taiwan, Netherlands, France, Poland, Hungary, Australia, UK, US and finally Russia. US workers have never had the same experience with social democracy as the other states in the survey. With sad irony, most US workers identify themselves as being a part of a “middle class” when in fact they are not middle class by definition. The absorption of bourgeois values forms the ideological basis of this false identification. The term itself is so broad it can include anyone who is not homeless or working in a factory and directly involved in large-scale production.

US workers organized into the early American Federation of Labor chose May Day 1890 as the day to protest for an eight-hour workday. The day was subsequently adopted by resolution at the Paris Congress of the Second International, July 14, 1889, and marked the foundations of May Day as a workers holiday. Today, few proletarians in the US will identify themselves as proletarian and to even use such a term is to place oneself beyond the pale of the dominant ideas acceptable within the bounds of bourgeois political discourse. Confronting the legacy of the political destruction of all expressions of proletarian organization is key to confronting the reality of the vicious and highly adaptive mode of bourgeois rule in the US.

To do this one must look at the political development and destruction of the early workers movement via the lies and repression employed by the ruling class as it sought to enter into the slaughter of WWI. A confluence of legislation is seen in the first years of the twentieth century. From the Espionage Act and the Sedition Law of 1918, to the “Palmer Raids”, through the worst years of the lynching and state supported vigilante terror, revolutionary movements and those workers who were at the time most positively inclined towards those movements, were the targets of hysterical propaganda and repression from which the proletariat never fully recovered. The same period saw the near total collapse of the Socialist Party USA after it expelled much of its membership when the early communist parties were formed in the US. The IWW was crushed through a system of anti-syndicalism laws passed at the state level while systematically being bankrupted with fines and legal costs. The reaction went further in the chaotic stillbirth of the early Communist groups in the US who were forced underground at their very inception and “bolshevized” into the official left of the bourgeois left in the US. The period from 1917 to 1923 was the key period in the destruction of the concrete organizational political expressions of the proletariat in the US.

What was left at the end of this period as the raids and vigilantism began to subside, was a shell of a bourgeois Socialist Party, a shell of an IWW, a Socialist Labor Party that was turning in on itself in its adoration of the figure of Daniel Deleon, and a browbeaten Communist Party furiously attempting to show itself as a legal party within the framework of bourgeois politics. In fact, by 1923 a figure like C. E. Ruthenberg, writing in the pages of the Liberator (v.6 no. 3, March 1923), in an article titled An Open Challenge could openly state that:

No Communist advocates the use of violence in the class struggle in the United States today.

At this point the activity of the Communists was being increasingly geared towards achieving bourgeois legal acceptance as they went through their own period of Bolshevization. By the time of what is probably the greatest wave of strikes in US history, 1943 to 1945, the Stalinist party, under the false label of Communist acted to isolate and destroy all movements of workers against the no-strike pledge, acting openly as an agent of the US bourgeoisie in their “united front” against the working class.

One of the most vocal proponents for supporting the Federal Statute called the Alien Registration Act, popularly known as the Smith Act of 1940, was the CPUSA. The Stalinists were especially supportive of the use of the Smith Act when it was used by federal authorities against the CPUSA’s own opponents on the left, they only stopped their support for this piece of repressive legislation when the same federal authorities started applying it to them.

The Capitalist class must always resort to whipping up nationalist hysteria and using repression to silence even their mildest critics. The anti-war movement in the US largely went silent after the Iraq War. The two main antiwar groups, United for Peace and Justice and ANSWER (Act Now to End War and Racism) organized their yearly “days of action”. The UFPJ demonstration ended predictably with a slew of Hollywood luminaries, and Democratic Party functionaries again calling on people to furiously lobby their congressmen. ANSWER, while posturing as being slightly more anti-war, ultimately support the idea that Congress can be pressured to cut off funding for the war. ANSWER poses as a slightly more militant voice against the war than UFPJ. But both have the same bourgeois reason for being, to channel the antiwar sentiment down accepted legal electoral paths while promoting the political fortunes of the prime organizational core of ANSWER, the Workers’ World Party. The WWP is the ultimate rancid ex-Trotskyist state-capitalist formation. It was expelled from the Socialist Worker’s Party for supporting the Soviet repression of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, and in later years fell deeply in love with North Korean “juche” style state-capitalism.

The trouble is that pacifism and peaceful orderly democratic discourse cannot stop the slaughter that has been set in motion by the capitalist class. Just as the Democratic Party politicians support the war while simultaneously catering to antiwar sentiment, the official left antiwar movement also acts to benefit from and sabotage any effective struggle. Even at a time when the sentiment against the war is so widespread and so broad their sincerest hope is that they can contain anti-war sentiment before it starts resulting in an increasing political awakening that begins to outstrip the bounds of the accepted limits of the state-capitalist left. The left petty bourgeoisie systematically betrays antiwar sentiment through the impotence of their “actions”. After the anniversary of the fourth year of the war in Iraq came and went all the leading organizations on the left can do today is to fill the classic role played by pacifism during imperialist conflict, acting as the tragic Greek chorus of the imperialist war.

The course of US imperialism, in its generalized permanent warfare, is waking broad masses of people, many who for the first time in their lives find themselves starting to think and act politically. In this respect the traditional organizations of the left act in a manner which functions, regardless of the level of militant rhetoric and posturing, as the auxiliary of the Democratic Party faction of the ruling class. Recently, the stale old liberal publication The Nation published an editorial gushing over how the ISO and the College Democrats of America (DP youth) were working so well together in the anti-war movement and in the new sanitized reincarnation of Students for a Democratic Society in the wake of the March 17, march on Washington. (2) Even the recreation of the classic middle-class protest milieu complete with a new SDS cannot conceal the role these organizations play in channeling the hostility to the war back into the ruling party orbit of the Dems. Even the loyal and fraternal order of followers of Bob Avakian in the Revolutionary Communist Party selling their newly renamed paper, “Revolution”, cannot hide how they themselves are no more than a middle class protest organization that ultimately will encourage its followers to support the Democratic Party when the next electoral circus comes to town as they have already done before.

The Bush regime did not come to power as the result of the bourgeoisie of the US having somehow erred in the conduct of their electoral circus and having punished itself in unleashing the very reactionary religious elements they rely on to maintain their rule and disseminate ruling ideas among their subject proletarians. Bush is the logical result of the trajectory of bourgeois politics in the US. Out of the ruins of Watergate and the defeat in Vietnam the Reagan-Bush political machine grew into what it is today. It gave the ruling class the program that best fit their needs while using religious reaction and fear to maintain the outward appearance of a popular mandate. Even during the usual eight-year alternation of power, under the Clinton administration the constant sanctions and bombing raids in the no-fly zones over Iraq demonstrated graphically that a war against Iraq to topple the Ba’ath Party regime was inevitable. Almost as inevitable as the future conflict between the US and Iran appears today.

Bush explicitly came to power after being crowned by the apparatus in the Philadelphia Republican National Convention in 1999 at First Union Center where the Pentagon brass lined up to offer them their paeans. His rule was the direct product of the two capitalist political machines that dominate US politics and not an aberration.

The political impasse imposed on workers today is born of the needs of the bourgeoisie in the current imperialist epoch where China stands as the sweatshop of the world and the US is the biggest debtor nation on the planet. With the US steeped in a permanent and expanding war in the Gulf it is painfully apparent that the US military machine the final guarantor of US imperialist power and not the immaculately conceived dollar. The regime in Washington must force further confrontations, not simply with powers abroad like Iran but against workers within the US. The capitalist system itself provokes and exacerbates such crises, while posing as the defender of order when it moves to crush people. As the imperialist conflict threatens to widen into further wars, the question is this: will the bourgeois left be able to keep recouping the energy and anger of new generations of workers and keep them disoriented? Will continuing wars and disasters force a break with the old liberal-left expressions of the bourgeoisie in favor of more militant and proletarian forms of struggle?

After four years of war the dominant left still has no answers and has eliminated from discussion, in attempting to operate in another middle-class protest movement, has written off the only truly realistic options for those workers who want to put an end to this war. What is needed are not the stale winds of the bourgeois left but a revolutionary perspective that is truly internationalist and unmistakably proletarian.

A. Smeaton

(1) C. E. Ruthenberg, The Liberator. An Open Challenge. March 1923. vol. 6 no. 3.

(2) Graham-Felsen, Sam. The Nation. Antiwar Students Rising. April 2, 2007. Vol. 284, no. 13.