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Is a revolution possible in the U.S.?

December 10, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

WHEN SOCIALISTS talk about the need to transform society, we're often accused of being unrealistic and utopian. ALAN MAASS answers this objection.

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ONE SEGMENT of progressives reacted to George Bush's victory in the 2004 presidential election with despair.

"Maybe this time," Nation magazine columnist Katha Pollitt commented bitterly, "the voters chose what they actually want: Nationalism, pre-emptive war, order not justice, 'safety' through torture, backlash against women and gays, a gulf between haves and have-nots, government largesse for their churches and a my-way-or-the-highway president."

Liberal author Garry Wills concluded that "Enlightenment values" have been abandoned in the U.S.--and that the vote was driven by "the fundamentalism of the American electorate." A Progressive magazine editorial singled out "the American superiority complex, a profound affliction that distorts our perceptions and enables manipulative presidents to give the marching orders."

Such pronouncements fit with the corporate media's take on the election--that the rural backwaters rose up against the cities, that Bush's appeal to "moral values" and social conservatism was the secret of his success and so on.

Actually, these claims are mostly wrong. For example, the much-hyped statistic that 22 percent of voters said "moral values" was their prime concern turns out to be the same result as the last three presidential elections, according to the Los Angeles Times--including two that were won by a Democrat. And Bush's biggest gains over his showing in 2000 came not in rural areas, but urban centers--that is, the places where John Kerry should have been strongest.

That's the real secret of Bush's success--the fact that Kerry and the Democrats didn't give people reasons to vote for them.

Still, the election result will have led some people to wonder if the goal that we socialists set for ourselves--a revolution to overturn the power of a minority ruling class and establish a new system based on democracy and equality--has at least been pushed off into the future, if not proved unrealistic.

This highlights a point that is more important than any analysis of exit polls--that the 2004 presidential election is so different from anything socialists mean by a revolution that drawing conclusions about one from the other is pretty useless.

Election 2004 was a lifeless non-debate between the candidates of two pro-capitalist parties who shared more in common than they differed on. A socialist revolution is about political debate thriving in every corner of society--and masses of people taking action to use their collective power to set entirely new priorities. Comparing the two is like comparing a bushel of apples and an orange grove.

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BUT ISN'T it utopian to talk about a revolution in the United States in the first place? That's an objection that socialist hear all the time.

Actually, the question isn't whether a revolution can take place in the U.S. It's whether another revolution can take place--America has already had two.

One of the strangest things about the U.S. is the fact that its political leaders are committed to social order and the rule of law--yet they regularly celebrate the origins of this country in a bloody revolution that declared independence from British rule. The American Revolution wasn't accomplished by signing the Declaration of Independence, but through mass resistance and a years-long war of liberation.

The revolution ended in the establishment of a radically new system of representative government and probably the widest democracy known anywhere in the world to that point. The new United States wasn't consistently democratic--above all, the bloody crime of slavery was left untouched. But it was a revolutionary advance over what came before it.

The U.S. experienced another social revolution 90 years later--the Civil War of 1861-65, which destroyed the Southern system of slavery.

The importance of this war is covered over today by myths about the generals who fought it, nonsense about "Southern culture" and other trivia. In reality, by freeing the slaves, the Civil War marked the largest expropriation of private property at any time in world history.

Credit for this revolutionary outcome usually goes to Abraham Lincoln and perhaps a few army generals. But this ignores the role played by countless other people. Black slaves themselves played a crucial part in the struggle, as did the agitators of the abolitionist movement in the North. So did the soldiers of the Northern army, who fought and died to defeat the Confederacy.

These weren't socialist revolutions. Both left the capitalist system of private property altered, but intact. But no one can claim that the War of 1776 and the Civil War didn't fundamentally transform American society--and not gradually either, but in one great convulsion.

The century and a half since has also been marked by enormous upheavals. In 1919, for example, in the aftermath of the slaughter of the First World War and despite a right-wing hysteria whipped up against immigrants and radicals, the U.S. was swept by an unprecedented strike wave that involved one in every five workers.

The high point was the Seattle general strike of 1919. Partly inspired by the 1917 revolution in Russia, more than 100,000 workers--in a city of 250,000--honored a call by the Seattle Central Labor Council for a general strike to stop the bosses of the city's huge shipyards from breaking the union. Suddenly, Seattle was paralyzed--its rulers powerless to re-impose order. But even more impressive was the way workers organized to provide essential services during the strike--essentially running the city collectively through a General Strike Committee made up of representatives from the striking locals.

There are other examples from 20th-century America. The 1930s was the decade of the Great Depression, when millions of families were plunged into poverty and desperation. But it was also the decade when workers won unionization in basic industries.

The 1950s are remembered for McCarthyism and the anti-communist witch-hunts. But they were also the years when the formative struggles of the civil rights movement took place. In the decade that followed, this movement rose up to smash the apartheid system of Jim Crow segregation in the South--and inspire other struggles that shook American society to the core, from the movement against the U.S. war on Vietnam, to the women's movement, to the struggle for gay and lesbian rights.

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MANY OF the claims that America is deeply conservative and its population content have been heard before--especially during the 1950s, the era of the so-called American Dream.

In those years following the Second World War, there was an element of truth to this. For a majority of U.S. workers--certainly not all, but a majority--the system seemed to deliver modest increases in living standards and the promise of a better life for themselves and their children.

But the American Dream is dead today. The last 25 years have seen a huge shift in income distribution in favor of the very richest Americans. In the four years since a recession began in early 2001, median household income has declined once inflation is taken into account.

For those who were always stuck with the short end of the stick, conditions are worse. African Americans continue to suffer an unemployment rate twice as high as the national average--while bearing the brunt of the politicians' law-and-order incarceration boom. Meanwhile, many of the reforms won as a result of the civil rights and Black Power movements--from affirmative action to overcome discrimination, to poverty programs to give a small leg up to the most vulnerable--are being dismantled but fast.

Given all this, it would absurd to claim that U.S. workers are content with their deteriorating living standards today--much less the more violent, war-filled and polluted world they live in.

Opinion polls show that ordinary Americans are far from devoted to the priorities of the Bush administration. One survey by the Wall Street Journal, for example, found that more than half of those asked would be willing to pay $2,000 a year extra in taxes to guarantee health care for those who don't have access to it. The same sentiment exists around funding for public education.

And for all the ranting of the Christian Right, a consistent majority of Americans believe that abortion should remain legal, and more than half support some form of official recognition--either marriage or civil unions--for gays and lesbians.

This last issue--gay and lesbian rights--is especially important because it represents a dramatic shift in attitudes in just the last decade--despite the continuing backwardness of the political debate in Washington, under both Bill Clinton and George Bush.

There's no reason to believe that working people have been hoodwinked into accepting declining standards of living. And the truth is that these conditions are growing worse over time, not better, and with no sign of a turnaround.

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THE POTENTIAL exists for our side to take action over many, many issues. What determines the level of struggle is confidence and organization. And the last several decades have been a period of retreat for the labor movement, the struggle for African American rights and other progressive causes. This has had an impact on how people organize to fight--even whether they fight.

Unions, for example, have been hammered by Corporate America's attacks since the late 1970s, with the proportion of organized workers dropping steadily to 13 percent today--even less in the private sector. One major reason has been the passivity of union officials in the face of this offensive. The leaders of organized labor believe that strikes and militant action--especially when that means breaking the law--are methods of the past that do more harm than good. Instead, they've devoted their resources to winning favor in Washington.

Backing Democrats has been disastrously ineffective for unions. But organized labor's defensiveness is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Every battle with employers that unions duck with only a token fight or no fight at all adds to the strength and confidence of the other side--and weakens ours.

These are the circumstances that lead people to conclude that they can't win--and are better off making some concessions in order to keep their jobs, rather than take the risk of striking for more.

But saying all this doesn't mean we should accept the stereotype that working people in the U.S. are apathetic and conservative. The level of class struggle remains low, but in every city in the U.S., there are fightbacks all the time, around many issues--strikes, protests against police violence, demonstrations for gay marriage, opposition to anti-immigrant attacks.

The most obvious example is the opposition to Washington's war and occupation of Iraq. When the Bush gang was preparing for its invasion in early 2003, millions of people turned out for demonstrations and protests across the U.S.--not to mention the rest of the world. This prompted the New York Times to declare that "there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion."

Unfortunately, the U.S. election put a brake on antiwar activity this year--most of all because leaders of the movement threw themselves into supporting John Kerry, even though he was pro-war. But this doesn't mean that the Bush administration has succeeded in making its war and occupation popular. Far from it. The brutality of the occupation--and the ever-growing number of casualties among U.S. soldiers--has set the stage for the movement to take off again.

When struggles do emerge and link up, they can develop with remarkable speed. This was the case, for example, when the Teamsters went on strike against UPS in 1997. In the midst of the so-called "miracle economy," the mainstream media were forced to stop their happy talk and investigate the issues of corporate greed and declining living standards that the strike brought to center stage.

On a bigger scale, something similar can be said about the high points of struggle in U.S. history. The great labor uprising of the 1930s was preceded by the 1920s--when the ruling class was on the offensive, and the established labor movement seemed to be bankrupt and dying. Likewise, the radicalism of the 1960s was preceded by the conservatism of the 1950s.

Importantly, the civil rights struggles of the 1960s were born years earlier with lesser-known fights, involving modest numbers of people, initiated during a period we remember as profoundly conservative. For the individuals who were willing to make their voices heard, there was no guarantee that they would eventually defeat Jim Crow. On the contrary, the racist system appeared to be all-powerful, capable of defeating all challenges. But it was defeated--and history was made.

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THE IDEOLOGUES who defend the status quo are always ready to proclaim the "end of history"--a period of social calm and conservatism. But a society built on injustice and inequality will never be entirely pacified. That is the lesson of the most brutal police states, and it is also the reality of societies like the U.S. that present a veneer of democracy and liberty.

When struggles do emerge, they always start small. But these early battles are crucial in forming the ideas of people who will go on to take the larger steps. For example, the Black college students who joined the civil rights movement in the early 1960s were motivated by relatively conservative ideas about taking their place in the capitalist system.

A few years later, many SNCC members considered themselves revolutionaries. They had been through the Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate bus lines, the murder of civil rights workers during the Freedom Summer voter registration project in 1964, and the Democratic Party's betrayal of civil rights delegates at its 1964 national convention. These experiences convinced them that the struggle against racial injustice could only be won by linking it to the fight against other injustices--and by fighting for a different kind of society altogether.

This transformation was repeated throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. College students who volunteered for Freedom Summer used the skills they learned from the civil rights movement to organize the struggle against the U.S. war in Vietnam. Veterans of the antiwar movement in turn launched the struggle for women's rights, including the right to choose abortion. The modern gay and lesbian movement was born in 1969 with the formation of the Gay Liberation Front--an organization named after the liberation army in Vietnam.

The media love to heap contempt on the struggles of the 1960s today. But they are proof that ideas can change with enormous speed. In periods of such upheavals, millions upon millions of people who focused their energy on other things suddenly turn their attention to the question of transforming society.

This is what makes revolution possible--mass participation. The caricature of revolution passed off by many historians is of a small group of armed fanatics seizing control of the government and running it to enrich themselves. But this has nothing to do with genuine socialism.

The decisive moment of any real revolution comes, as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, when masses of people "break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime."

This moment is only the final act of a revolution--the climax of a much longer period of struggle in which the rulers of society face a growing crisis, at the same time as workers become more confident of their own power.

At the beginning of the process, the goals for change can be modest--a few reforms in the way the system operates. But the struggle raises deeper questions, and people begin to see the connections between the struggles that they're involved in and other issues--and the nature of the system itself.

Obviously, we are years away from upheavals on this scale. In fact, the difficulty today is that so much of the organization and initiative for struggle has to be started from the ground up. But given the history of this country, it would be foolish to claim that revolution is impossible-- however passive the media portrayal of society is.

Revolution is not only possible in the United States, but it's absolutely necessary and urgently needed to put an end to poverty, war and oppression--and create a new society dedicated to justice and freedom.

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