Is a revolution possible in the U.S.?

Paul D'Amato has been a regular writer from the earliest issues of Socialist Worker. He has completed an expanded and updated version of his book The Meaning of Marxism. The book ends with a collection of answers to the most commonly voiced objections to socialism and Marxism. SW is serializing this section from The Meaning of Marxism--in part four, Paul looks at some of the claims made that have been called "American exceptionalism."

The Meaning of Marxism | Paul D'Amato

You can be your own boss

A uniquely fluid class system that allows for significant upward mobility is "the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream," according to a New York Times study on class in the United States.[36] The ability of the poor and the working class to climb the social ladder has always been exaggerated. But in the early phases of industrial development it had a certain amount of validity. The abundance of cheap land in the West for a time offered workers (but not those who were enslaved) the opportunity to "retire" from wage labor and become farmers. Each new wave of immigrants would start at the bottom, but might dream of improving their lot by moving up and out of the working class. This provided a safety valve preventing the formation of what Engels called a "permanent proletariat."[37] Once westward expansion had completed its course by the end of the 1890s, however, the safety valve was closed.

But the "dream" never disappeared. Being your own boss--starting up a small business where there aren't any foremen or managers bossing you around--continues to be seen as a way out of the working class. The dream is a backhanded acknowledgement of the alienating, tedious, and unrewarding quality of wage labor. But the dream also has an ideological purpose--to promote the idea that individuals can make something of themselves, not through collective struggle, but by dint of individual hard work. Conversely, it reinforces the idea that those who are stuck in the working class or in poverty deserve it because they haven't tried hard enough to get out.

How realistic is it for most workers to become their own boss? There are lots of small businesses in the United States, but they are responsible for only a small part of total employment and total wealth. In the United States, there are 3,551 larger firms that employ twenty-five hundred or more workers, accounting for 37 percent of the total workforce and 43 percent of the total payroll. On the other hand, the 3.75 million businesses that employ nine or fewer workers account for only 11 percent of employment and a paltry 8.7 percent of total payroll.[38]

The problem with the dream of owning your own business is that it is a precarious existence that often ends in bankruptcy. Only half of newly created small businesses are still in business after four years. Indeed, every year about as many small businesses close as are created. In 2004, for example, in the midst of an economic expansion, 580,900 new small businesses opened, but 576,200 closed--34,317 of these ended in bankruptcy.[39]

For millions of people, the dream of ownership means pouring your life savings into a business venture that requires endless work and the constant threat of failure to show for it. The small number of those lucky enough to grow into real businesses end up surviving by exploiting other workers--profiting from the difference between labor's output and labor's pay. That is, by becoming their own boss, they also became someone else's boss.

According to the New York Times study, income mobility in the United States has been on the decline for the last three decades. In the past, notes one Michigan economist cited in the study, "People would say, 'Don't worry about inequality. The offspring of the poor have chances as good as the chances of the offspring of the rich.' Well, that's not true. It's not respectable in scholarly circles anymore to make that argument."[40]

Of course there is some income mobility. In fact, capitalism relies on it for its survival, both practically and ideologically. But that mobility has limits. According to one study, one out of three people whose families were in the top one percent of income distribution are making at least $100,000 in family income by age thirty, whereas only one out of twenty-five people who grew up in the bottom half of income distribution have reached that income level by age thirty.[41]

Income inequality, moreover, has grown substantially over the past decades. According to the Economic Policy Institute, "The top 10% of the income distribution has claimed almost two-thirds of the gains to overall incomes since 1979, with the top 1% alone claiming 38.7% of overall gains."[42] According to Sharon Smith, "This is...the first generation of young workers in U.S. history that faces a substantially lower standard of living than their parents."[43]

The ultimate argument against the dream of upward mobility for the majority is the fact that the economy is a social pyramid--lots of room at the bottom, very little room at the top. The vast majority of workers in the United States, just like workers everywhere else, can only advance through joint struggle with their class, not by trying to climb out of that class.

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Radical ideas are foreign to the United States

There is a long history in the United States of propaganda claiming to prove that radicalism and socialism are "foreign imports" into the United States that have never really taken hold. It is true that the United States never had the same size socialist movement compared to Europe. And it is also true that many immigrants came to the United States bringing their radical ideas with them. But really, if we are going to stick to this method, then horses, factories, the steel plow, books, and the English language are also foreign imports. What does that prove? The conditions that prompted workers and oppressed people to fight back in Europe and elsewhere have always been the same ones that have prompted workers to fight back in the United States.

The US working class has a long and rich tradition of struggle and of radicalism. But it has followed a boom and bust pattern: extended periods of surface calm interrupted by huge explosions. The eruption of pent-up anger appears on the surface to come from nowhere, but it has its roots in the preceding period of employer attacks on the working class and its organizations. The attacks, which often involve intense violence directed against strikers and their families, have usually been successful in weakening or destroying unions and crippling the left. The result has been periodic breaks in the organizational and political continuity of the movement. Each new wave of struggle has not necessarily had the benefit of learning from the experiences of previous waves. This herky-jerky history prompted Trotsky to observe, "The American workers are very combative--as we have seen during the strikes. They have had the most rebellious strikes in the world. What the American worker misses is a spirit of generalization, or analysis, of his class position in society as a whole."[44]

Yet having said this, it is important to point out that in every upturn of mass struggle, tens of thousands of workers have embraced socialist ideas and organization. The Socialist Party, for example, peaked at 150,000 members in 1915. Eugene Debs got almost a million votes in his 1912 presidential run. Tens of thousands of workers went through the school of the IWW, and at its height in 1938, the Communist Party (CP) boasted 80,000 members and twice as many close collaborators. In 1969, at the height of radical ferment, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover warned President Nixon that "a recent poll indicates that approximately 25% of the black population has great respect for the Black Panther Party, including 43% of blacks under twenty-one years of age."[45] The American ruling-class tradition is one in which it uses every means at its disposal to divide and weaken the working-class movement--and to try and crush it when it rises up. It is distinct from other ruling classes not in nature, but in degree. The racism it has employed, for example, has historically surpassed that of every other advanced industrial society, with the exception of apartheid-era South Africa. Moreover, the political system it presides over is based on the rule of nearly identical capitalist parties, in which one party masquerades as an ally of workers and the oppressed in order to absorb the movements. And the scale of violence it is willing to use to smash workers' resistance is the most extreme in the industrialized world. These are the real obstacles workers have faced. Yet the bosses would not place these obstacles in front of workers unless the possibility of class unity was a real threat.

The 1930s were a time when the working class had a real opportunity to fulfill its revolutionary potential.[46] The statistics show the scale of the upheaval. Strikes tripled to 1,856 between 1933 and 1934, and peaked in 1937 at 4,470. Union membership rose from 2.6 million in 1934 to 7.3 million in 1938. In 1930, only 50,000 Black workers were in unions. By 1940, half a million were unionized. In 1937, 193,000 workers engaged in 247 sit-down strikes in the aftermath of the Flint strike, and before the year's end half a million workers had engaged in the sit-down tactic. Out of this upheaval came the formation of the mass industrial unions and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Communist Party militants played a leading role in many struggles, attracting to their ranks many of the best working-class rebels. The party took on racism head-on--organizing Black sharecroppers in the South, and picketing stores, demanding the hiring of Black workers in New York City. It organized a campaign for justice for the "Scottsboro Boys" (nine young Black men framed for rape in Alabama) that united Blacks and whites in marches and meetings across the country. As a result, thousands of Blacks joined the party, increasing its African American membership in 1938 to about 9 percent of its total membership. It was able to demonstrate, in a society wracked by racism and lynching, not only that Black and white workers could unite in the struggle for common demands, but that white workers could be won to the fight against racism.[47]

But if the CP showed that US workers weren't at all averse to socialism, it also was the single greatest obstacle to building a left challenge to the Democratic Party. The problem was that by the 1930s the CP had ceased to be a genuine revolutionary party. At the height of the struggle in the 1930s, the CP was in its "Popular Front" phase--having been ordered along with other Western Communist Parties to make uncritical alliances with bourgeois parties as part of Stalin's agreement with the Allies against Hitler. In the United States, this meant instructing members to give their full backing to Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. The party that had denounced Roosevelt as "an inspirer of fascism" in 1935 was singing his praises just a year later. Though the Communist Party's members had played a leading role in the sit-down strikes, the party's leadership agreed to throw a wet towel on the struggle. A December 1937 article in the CP's paper, the Daily Worker, declared "unequivocally and emphatically that the Communists and the Communist Party had never in the past and do not now in any shape, manner or form advocate or support unauthorized and wildcat action and regard such strikes as gravely the cause of cooperative action between labor and middle-class groups."[48]

Instead of building a party of workers committed to genuine socialism, the CP helped steer workers away from that alternative, and into the arms of the Democratic Party. When thousands of workers expressed support for a labor party alternative to the Democrats, the CP and the union bureaucracy created fake local labor parties whose purpose was to siphon workers' votes toward Roosevelt's reelection.

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36. "Class Matters" series, New York Times, April–May 2005.
37. Frederick Engels, "Appendix to the American edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England," in MECW, vol. 26, 403.
38. US Small Business Administration, "Employer Firms, Establishments, Employment, and Annual Payroll Small Firm Size Classes, 2003" table.
39. US Small Business Administration, "Frequently Asked Questions." These statistics are misleading because they consider a small business any firm that employs fewer than five hundred workers. The businesses that have the most difficulty surviving, however, are the small "mom and pop" stores, restaurants and local shops, and businesses run by individuals out of their homes.
40. Quoted in Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, "Shadowy Lines That Still Divide," in the "Class Matters" series, New York Times, May 15, 2005.
41. David Leonhardt, "In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters," New York Times, July 22, 2013.
42. Economic Policy Institute, "Income Inequality," in The State of Working America.
43. Smith, Subterranean Fire, 300.
44. Leon Trotsky, "American Problems," Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939-1940 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 335.
45. Quoted in Dick Cluster, They Should Have Served That Cup of Coffee (Boston: South End Press, 1979), 44.
46. Facts and quotes in this section, unless otherwise cited, come from Sharon Smith, "Depression Decade: The Turning Point," in Subterranean Fire, 102–52.
47. Paul D'Amato, "The Communist Party and Black Liberation in the 1930s," International Socialist Review 1, Summer 1997.
48. Bert Cochran, Labor and Communism: The Conflict That Shaped American Unions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 138.