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Can there be a revolution in the U.S.?

November 9, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

SHARON SMITH is the author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States and Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation. She is also a regular columnist for Socialist Worker. This article was adapted from a speech at the 2007 Northeast Regional Socialist Conference in New York City.

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CAN THERE be a revolution in the United States? The answer is yes. Of course there can be a revolution in the United States. This country was founded by an act of revolution--which was followed by a second revolution in the Civil War, which finally outlawed the system of slavery.

The Civil War should be seen as part two of the Revolutionary War, since it finally resolved the outrageous contradiction of a nation calling itself a democracy while enslaving a significant portion of its population.

So there have already been two revolutions in the United States.

As to whether there can be another revolution in the U.S., I would just point out to the skeptics, who can't imagine today's population engaging in a revolutionary struggle, that appearances can be very deceiving.

After all, the band of radicals who pulled off the Boston Tea Party would hardly seem to be raging revolutionaries at first glance. We've all seen the pictures in our high school history books--the guys with the wigs, wearing tights. They don't really look like revolutionary material. It took experience for them to reach revolutionary conclusions.

What else to read

Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States recounts the hidden history of workers' resistance and the socialist tradition in the U.S. Her book Women and Socialism argues for a struggle that integrates women's liberation with the fight against a society that puts profit above human needs.

Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism is a new book that provides a lively and accessible account of the ideas of Karl Marx, using historical and contemporary examples. For a book that give an introduction to socialism and the socialist tradition, read The Case for Socialism, by Socialist Worker editor Alan Maass.

The best introduction to Marxism remains The Communist Manifesto, written 160 years ago by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. A new edition of the Manifesto, edited by Phil Gasper, provides full annotation, clear historical references and explanation, additional related text and a full glossary.


And for those who point out that the USA PATRIOT Act makes it difficult to organize an opposition today--and it absolutely does--I would also point out that the first rebellions against slavery were organized by slaves themselves under the harshest of conditions in this country and in the Caribbean, organizing plantation by plantation in a powerful movement from below.

The sovereign nation of Haiti, in fact, was the product of a massive, revolutionary rebellion by slaves who embraced the principles of the French Revolution. Yes, revolutions are possible even in the most difficult of conditions.

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BUT THE obvious next question, of course, is: How can there be a revolution in the United States?

I would imagine that the vast majority of people reading this, no matter how you plan to vote (or not vote) in the 2008 presidential elections, are already convinced that whoever wins the White House on Election Day--even if the Democrats sweep both houses of Congress--we will not be experiencing nirvana the morning after. We will still be facing the same fundamental injustices that we are facing today.

This group of incompetents in Congress can't even pass a veto-proof bill to insure the nation's low-income children. It should go without saying that they have no intention of passing single-payer health insurance, however desperately it is needed--because their campaigns are all funded by corporations.

The fact is that both the Republicans and the Democrats have locked the U.S. political system into a two-party chokehold. The only choice voters have is to kick the bums out, only to replace them with the bums from the other capitalist party. It's a win-win situation for the U.S. ruling class.

No matter how thrilled all of us will be when George W. Bush is finally kicked out--and hopefully, he will go down in a sea of humiliation that finally wipes that perpetual smirk off his face--the fact remains that neither Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama nor John Edwards (and I think with the primaries starting in two months that we can safely assume one of these three, probably Hillary Clinton, will become the Democratic Party's anointed candidate) will even guarantee that U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of their first term in 2013.

They have thumbed their noses at the antiwar majority because they also want U.S. imperialism to succeed in Iraq. They don't want the U.S. to fail--they just think the Republicans have gone about it in the wrong way.

And by 2013, who knows whether the U.S. will have invaded Iran or Pakistan or some other unlucky Middle Eastern nation? Perhaps by then, Venezuela will become a U.S. military target.

The U.S. is involved in a long-term war to maintain and expand its global dominance, and it will require a long-term struggle against it if our side is going to win.

And the war is just one aspect of the fundamental injustices not just produced by the system, but required by it. Capitalism can't function without gross inequality, not only on a global scale, but also within each country.

The way capitalism works is this: For the tiny fraction of the population at the top to live in exorbitant wealth, the rest of the population can't, and a significant portion of the population must live in poverty.

This is the only way to understand how it came to be that the United States is both the richest society in the world and the most unequal--with the biggest gap between the rich and the poor of any industrialized country. These two facts are connected. The gap between the rich and the poor in the United States is bigger now than at any point since 1929, the year the Great Depression began.

Literally anything goes when it comes to making a profit today. There's a direct connection between the fact that executive pay in the United States has more than tripled since 1980 and the fact that wages for working-class people in the U.S. have fallen so much that they are lower today, after adjusting for inflation, than in the early 1970s.

The rich gain their wealth, literally, at the expense of the rest of the population. It is literally the case that for every corporate honcho driving around in a Jaguar or--in the latest trend--a Hummer (a vehicle that combines a military theme with grotesque opulence), a worker paid for it--a worker who got downsized, or was forced to take a pay cut, or lost their hard-earned health care or pension benefits. Or a poor person who has to watch their kids going without necessities, or who, in more than a few cases, became homeless and is going hungry.

These are drastic problems, and they require drastic solutions, no matter who is destined to occupy the White House starting in January 2009. This system is crying out for a radical transformation everywhere we look.

It's hard to believe that the noose--the symbol of lynching--has returned as a racist weapon against African-Americans, more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War. It's hard to believe that when white students hang a noose in Jena, La., it's Black students who end up in prison.

It's also astounding that women still don't have the right to control their own bodies more than 30 years after abortion became legal in the U.S. And it's appalling that Fred Phelps and his sadistic band of reactionaries have been roaming the country picketing the funerals of gay soldiers killed in Iraq, condemning them to burn in hell.

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THE MOST urgent question we face is how we can begin to lay the groundwork for that revolutionary transformation of this society. It isn't going to happen overnight, but it can happen--with a longer-term perspective and an understanding of the revolutionary process.

Here, Karl Marx provides the framework for understanding the revolutionary process--as a product of class conflict. Marx and his co-thinker Frederick Engels put it this way in the Communist Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle."

Now you might be thinking, "Class struggle? I don't see any class struggle. All I see is the working class taking a beating."

That is, of course, the case today. But that just tells us which side is winning at the moment. The fact is that at all times, as long as class society exists, there's an ongoing struggle between the interests of the rulers and the people they rule--whether they be serfs or slaves or workers--because they have fundamentally antagonistic interests. At the most basic level, higher profits equals lower wages; tax cuts for the rich equals more taxes paid by the working class, and so on.

We've had plenty of class struggle over the last 30 years, but just one side has been winning. There has been a ruthless war against workers--which is why there's even a debate in our government about whether poor children should be entitled to health insurance. That's how bad things have been for our side--because the other side has been fighting and organizing, and our side has not.

At times like today in the United States, it can be hard to picture how things will ever change. That's why it's so important to have a longer-term view of the historical process of class struggle as fundamental to class relations under capitalism.

The most important thing to understand about the nature of class struggle is that it ebbs and flows--it goes up and down, sometimes over long periods of time. And there is no way to predict when it is going to re-emerge. The class struggle may be quiet one day, and then break out into the open the next day. The working class can be on the defensive for a long period, and then start to fight back again and move into the offensive.

This dynamic has caused many a social commentator to write off the working class as a force for change, only to feel foolish when it erupts in struggle once again. Andre Gorz wrote a book called Farewell to the Working Class in 1968, but before the print was even dry on the book, the class struggle erupted massively in France.

The quiet times can fool even the most perceptive of revolutionaries. "We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution," the Russian revolutionary Lenin said in a public lecture in January 1917--just one month before women textile workers went out on strike in Petrograd, touching off the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The class struggle in the United States is even more prone to long periods of calm. But these long periods of calm, lasting for decades, far from representing labor peace, usually represent periods of massive attacks on workers' living standards and dramatic setbacks for the labor movement, as is the case today.

Because we have no labor party or social democratic party, working-class people have no means of political expression. The fact that half the adult population stays home on Election Day is an expression of alienation from the Tweedledee-Tweedledum politics of the Democrats and Republicans. But this nevertheless leads to massive political passivity on a day-to-day basis.

And with employers always hell-bent on preventing workers from organizing into unions, U.S. workers have tended to have much lower rates of union membership than in many other countries, leaving them with no organized means to defend their basic rights in the workplace on a daily basis.

With no outlet for expression, the anger and bitterness accumulates and accumulates, over many long years, unnoticed and unexpressed, until it finally explodes--as it did in the 1890s, the 1910s, the strike wave of the 1930s, and again in the late 1960s. The pattern of class struggle in the United States has always been long periods of calm that are then interrupted by huge explosions of class struggle.

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HOW CAN we be certain that this will happen again in the future? Because the current class status quo--and by that, I mean the balance of forces that is now weighted so heavily in favor of the ruling class--ultimately, can only be changed when our side begins to organize on the basis of our strengths. And that means not only union organization, which is essential for our side to move forward, but also political organization, with revolutionary, working-class politics.

Many people on the left today shudder at the thought of revolutionary organizations, and cringe at the idea of carrying a "party line." Socialist organizations are often accused of having agendas--as if that mere fact proves that we are a sinister bunch.

Should we have an agenda? Of course we should have an agenda--a working-class agenda.

The ruling class is extremely well organized--from the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce to the Business Roundtable--and that's just the tip of the iceberg of the array of think tanks and other organizations at its disposal to aggressively promote a ruling-class agenda.

What is the current ruling class agenda? It was very clearly laid out in Business Week magazine in 1979: "'It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow--the idea of doing with less so that business can have more...Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must be done to make people accept the new reality." By the end of 1979, there were more than 1,000 union busting firms operating in the United States.

The truth is that if we want our side to move forward, revolutionary organization is an essential ingredient. In fact, if you look at it historically--and history, again, is crucial to having a long-term framework for viewing these things--the working-class and progressive movements have only ever advanced when there have been strong and sizeable revolutionary organizations.

Radicalism and socialism are not alien to the working-class tradition in the U.S., but have played an essential role in working-class history.

At any given time prior to the McCarthy era and the anticommunist witch-hunts of the 1950s, thousands--and sometimes hundreds of thousands--of working-class people belonged to a radical political party.

The Socialist Party in the 1910s reached a membership of 120,000--and its candidate for president, the revolutionary socialist Eugene Debs, got almost a million votes in 1912.

It has been estimated that roughly 1 million workers passed in and out of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. The party reached 80,000 members at its height--with a membership that was 9 percent Black, showing the possibility for building a multiracial movement in the U.S.

Socialists inside the working class built the working-class movement and led most of the key struggles during its high points--from the communists and socialists who won the Flint sit-down strike in 1937 to the members of the League for Revolutionary Struggle who formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in 1968.

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BUILDING A revolutionary movement is a long-term project. The idea that revolutions appear out of nowhere is simply not the case. Movements are built over a long period of time--and they go through many ups and downs, defeats as well as victories, before they can galvanize large numbers of people into a coherent movement.

What we usually learn about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Birmingham, Ala., bus in 1954. What we don't usually learn is that Rosa Parks did pretty much the same thing on a bus 11 years earlier, and nothing happened. And she worked diligently all those years in between building her local NAACP chapter in the segregated South under very difficult conditions before the breakthrough finally came.

So instead of becoming frustrated with the present state of the class struggle, we need to take a longer-term view and understand that the very struggles taking place today--from the fight for justice for the Jena Six, to the immigrants rights' movement, to the veterans fighting to stop the war, all these small struggles, which seem to rise up and then disappear or retreat into small committees--are the seeds of the future revolutionary movement.

And in the process, a new generation of revolutionaries is being born. Look at the Cygnus strike in Chicago this past summer. It's a strike that never made it into the national news, but the young Latino workers who fought that strike are the heroes of today's labor movement.

When the company started enforcing no-match letters, instead of cowering in fear, this group of workers--who had no union to back them up--walked out and went out on strike. The immigrants' rights movement in Chicago moved into action to help them on the picket lines--and within two weeks, the company surrendered. That's right--a seemingly defenseless group of migrant workers beat back Cygnus--and since then, the machinists union has set about organizing these workers into the union.

This small struggle points the way forward for the entire labor movement. We should not be disappointed that it took so long to happen or that it is just one isolated struggle. We should be thrilled that it is finally taking place and advancing the revolutionary process. We should be thrilled that the struggle on behalf of the Jena Six is finally reigniting a civil rights movement, and that vets are risking so much to speak out against the war.

We owe an enormous debt to the immigrants rights movement for making May Day 2006 a historic day--when for the first time in many decades, International Workers Day was celebrated on U.S. soil with mass working-class demonstrations.

The opportunity for building a revolutionary movement exists right now, even if the prospects for a revolution are farther off in the future.

What would a revolution look like? The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky--with the advantage of having played a role in the Russian Revolution of 1917, described the ingredients for a revolution as follows:

The most dubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events. In ordinary times, the state--be it monarchical or democratic--elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business--kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists.

But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they 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...The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

Whenever we get discouraged, we have to keep our eyes on the prize. It will take us some time to get there, but the kind of revolution we are working for is one in which the very people who are suffering so much today will be the same people who will be running this society.

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