Where Do We Go From Here?


The Occupy movement has been inspiring, amazing, and fascinating. But if we really want to change this corrupt system we need to take things further.

Right now it is too easy for the 1% to ignore us. We are still relatively small. Business as usual has been allowed to continue uninterrupted. The 1% can pass us by on their way to their corner offices and continue to ruin lives, to pillage the environment, to profit off of the hard work and misery of others. We cannot allow this to continue. We must take the occupation further. We must disrupt the machinery of the system, not solely through symbolic protest that appeals to our leaders to fix everything, but through direct action.

Direct action strengthens us and it weakens them. Direct action wakes people up to the fact that they don’t have to just take it when they are being screwed over. They can stand up and fight back. The system and the 1% who govern it can only work when people are beaten down, passive, conforming to their “place” in society — when we follow the orders of cops, politicians, and bosses.

We know that the government serves only the interests of the 1%. We know how money dominates the machine of politics. Our problems cannot be fixed by appealing to the same broken machinery that upholds the system. Instead we must take matters into our own hands. When we don’t depend on leaders, politics, and symbolic appeals but on collective direct action anything is possible — even a complete change in society.
Here are ways we can take direct action:

1) We’re pissed off about home foreclosures, right? The same greedy banks that were bailed out with our money are now kicking ordinary people out of the homes they worked so hard for. Politicians can’t fix this problem, but we can — we should set up a network of people within the Occupy movement willing to help stop foreclosures. We can occupy the homes and prevent people from being kicked out onto the streets. This is not a pipe dream; it has already happened. In Spain, protestors have stopped over 50 foreclosures in recent months through the kind of networks I am describing.

2) Let’s stop evictions. In many cases landlords will evict people at the drop of the hat and kick them out on the streets. This leaves entire families homeless. We must mobilize the same kind of networks described above to prevent evictions.

3) Not only should we prevent evictions and foreclosures, but we should stand in solidarity with rent-strikes and mortgage non-payments when they happen. People who go on rent strikes have good reasons for it; most of the time they are protesting awful conditions in the apartments they pay exorbitant amounts for. Housing should be a human right anyway! No one should be homeless in a society of abundance like ours. Let’s stand with rent strikes and refusals of mortgage payments when they happen. Let’s organize networks and affinity groups within the Occupy movements in charge of publicizing our support for these types of actions and organizing that support when they are contacted. This will bring even more people into the movement because it shows them what we are all about; solidarity with each other and resistance to putting profits before people.

4) Let’s support labor actions. Whenever any group of workers goes on strike in any city, that city’s Occupy movement should be there for support. We need a committee, affinity group, network, or working group within each occupy movement in charge of coordinating labor actions and publicizing the fact that we will support striking workers. Nine occupiers in New York disrupted an auction which had locked out the art handlers in a wage dispute; imagine how effective this action would have been if a hundred people had disrupted it! We should swell the picket lines so that workers’ demands cannot be ignored. In the long run this supports our own interests as employees because whenever one group of workers gets higher wages or better conditions, it is more likely that these conditions and wages will become standard for the industry. If we fail to support strikes when they do happen, we are sabotaging our own future. And we need to stand with striking workers whether their union officials support their actions or not. This movement is not about officials and bureaucrats, it is about the people themselves standing up and creating a new society. This will cause even more people to join us, as they will see that we stand with working people everywhere.

5) We should occupy universities and schools which are proposing cuts; whenever a public school or university is having classes slashed, teachers laid off, or any other kind of cut, we should be there. Education is a human right! There should be no cuts in education while we spend more than half of the budget on violence and imperialism in other countries! Again, we need a working group or network which gathers information on school cuts, publicizes out support for anti-cuts actions, and coordinates actions against school cuts. The same goes for cuts in hospitals or any other public service.

6) Let’s occupy unemployment offices to prevent them from cutting off benefits. There are trillions of dollars available for imperialist violence, bank bailouts, and corporate welfare but none to help the employees who have been thrown out of work like they’re disposable and who haven’t been able to find work for a while. This is unacceptable. Let’s occupy the unemployment offices and demand they extend unemployment benefits indefinitely. If we put enough pressure on them they will come up with the money!

These are just a few of the actions we should and could be taking to grow the movement, to increase the struggle, and ultimately to completely change society from the bottom up. We can’t rely on bosses, politicians, bureaucrats, or self-appointed “leaders” to win this struggle for us, we must do it ourselves! There is nothing wrong with standing on the corner chanting and holding signs. This is a great first step. But it is more symbolic than practical and ultimately we are asking our corrupt leaders for change. Instead, we must stand up and make change happen ourselves. Direct action will connect us with a broader base of people because it will show them that this movement can help them directly. We have realized that the system we have now is utterly corrupt and that it must be radically altered. But many people are cynical, passive, and uninterested in politics. To get those people to stand with us we will have to show them what we are about, rather than simply tell them. We will have to show them that the system is not invincible, that instead of just asking for change, we can make it happen.

Where Do We Go From Here?

“Baby, We’re All Anarchists Now”

I just came across an article entitled “Baby, We’re All Anarchists Now” (http://libcom.org/library/baby-we’re-all-anarchists-now-malcolm-harris) by Malcolm Harris on the Occupy movements. Harris makes some interesting points that I agree with. Those that talk about “direct democracy” but who insist on acting as managers and gatekeepers cannot be allowed to control this struggle! Another good commentary is “When Push Comes to Shove”,(http://insurgentnotes.com/2011/10/when-push-comes-to-shove), by the communist publication Insurgent Notes. I am planning on posting another piece about the “Occupy” movement soon. In the mean time, let’s keep fighting, keep struggling against the constraints that class society imposes on our lives. Protest which is purely symbolic is a dead end. Direct action — the refusal of unnecessary mediation and the stultifying, pacifying framework of “politics” — is the only way forward.

“Baby, We’re All Anarchists Now”

“Occupy Wall Street”: Why the struggle must go beyond occupation

First of all, let me say I stand in full solidarity with the protesters; your actions have inspired us all and been the cause of some much-needed debate. It takes boldness and initiative to take these first steps, and you should be applauded for doing so. I believe all of you want a better world, a desire that I share with you.

There has been much talk lately of the “goals” of the protest, and much criticism when a clear 10-point program did not emerge. I must disagree with those commentators who complain of the lack of easily-definable “goals”; such a program is more appropriate to a political party than to a grassroots movement. All of you have had different experiences under capitalism, and therefore all of you emphasize different changes which are needed. A list of demands cannot contain the true spirit of the protests, which are quite simply an expression of rage and frustration with the world as it is.

This rage and frustration is the first step. Rage has been brewing in the working class for years now as the trappings of the “American Dream” are stripped away before our eyes and our rulers openly mock the democratic principles which supposedly bound and restrain their power. In the face of this sorry situation you have come together to voice the rage which is latent in even the most conservative of “the rest of us”. This is the first step and you deserve praise for having the courage to make the leap of faith necessary in voicing this rage. You all have seen that our “democracy” is a lie, that the government serves only the rich, no matter which party is in power. You have watched as the poor are ignored and social programs slashed while the bankers and corporations are showered with tax money; tax money which the richest among them do not even contribute to. This situation has lead many of you to see yourselves as attempting to restore “democracy” and the “middle class”.

Here I think you must re-examine your thinking. One cannot restore that which never existed. This democratic golden age you want us to return to only existed in propaganda and wishful thinking. The government has never served the people; it has always served the rulers and the rich. The postwar years of “middle class” abundance were years of abundance only for privileged sectors of the “99%”. This state of affairs was built on the backs of black, Chicano, and Asian workers, as well as underpaid female laborers and poor whites. The creation of a “middle class” was a compromise between the ruling class and a privileged section of the workers, at the expense of others. During World War Two working people never stopped struggling for better conditions of life. 1946 saw the greatest number of strikes of any year in American history. This working class movement was only quelled with the compromises of the G.I. Bill and other social measures by the state. By offering a few privileges to some workers, the rulers prevented deeper, more fundamental change. Now that these privileges have been snatched back and we are now approaching the same levels of inequality that we experienced in the 1920s, people are agitated and angry again.

This is a great thing, and I welcome manifestations of it such as Occupy Wall Street and the other occupation movements that are cropping up across the country. But we cannot simply fight to return to some half-imagined age of middle class abundance and true democracy. If we do, the same mistakes will repeat themselves. The working class, or the “99%” will be divided against itself. The rulers will try to buy some of us off. Those with the most to lose and the least to gain will be inclined to accept this kind of blood money. I speak, of course, of white workers like me, especially those of us who are “middle class”. We have been tricked for hundreds of years into identifying with our oppressors over our class brothers and sisters because of the system of white privilege. White privilege offers us a few incentives to side with the system, but these are nothing compared to the world we could gain through uncompromising struggle. Ultimately we cannot really fight until we are united. If we fight to restore America to the way it was in the 1950s or 1970s we will simply be fighting for a new House of Mirrors. The system has destroyed some of our illusions; let us not reconstitute them.

Let me be clear; electoral reforms, such as preventing money from being considered speech, will not solve our problems. Politicians manipulated and tricked us just fine during the era of campaign donation limits. The abolition of Glass-Steagle did not lead to this crisis. The crisis is an inherent aspect of capitalism, suppressed for decades by the ruling class and now flaring up again. It is rooted in the falling rate of profit and the fact that there are barely any areas left which are untouched by capitalism and can provide growing markets and unlimited raw materials. We are rapidly reaching the social, political, economic, and ecological limits of capitalism. Campaigning narrowly for tax reform, public works projects, and more jobs is like calling for repairs on a burning house.

So I urge all of you who are involved in these protests to question the limits you have imposed on yourself and the assumptions you have made. Question the assumption that “the cops are on our side”; as long as they wear their uniforms and carry their badges they will serve their masters. The brutality that you have experienced at the hands of the NYPD is not an aberration and it is not “shocking”. It is a taste of what happens in ghettos all across America, of what people of color and the very poor face on a daily basis. Question the assumption that the system can be reformed, that a few legislative maneuvers and a few new faces or even new political parties can fundamentally change this system. Question the idea of the “99%”, which implies that the problem is just a few extremely wealthy banks, corporations and individuals on the top. The problem is the system. Abolish the banks and watch as new institutions arise to take their place. Throw the “1%” out on its ass and watch as a new “1%” is recruited and installed.

The occupations are a crucial first step. People have been inspired and have, for the first time in years, begun to seriously question the conditions of their lives. But the struggle must go beyond occupations. It must begin to actively challenge the relationships and social structures that form the sinews of the system. We must carry the struggle into our everyday lives, and fight not solely in the symbolic and political domain of protest. We must carry the struggle into economic territory by uniting with our fellow workers and fighting against the parasitical bosses and landlords who control our lives, as well as the money-hungry banks foreclosing on houses we worked our whole lives to afford. We must struggle in the social territory of our families and relationships to challenge racism, sexism, and homophobia as they divide us and keep us stepping on each other like crabs in a barrel. We must look at the world and question the lies we are sold, lies perpetuated in school, in the media, and in churches. We must begin to think and fight for ourselves as a class without “demanding” anything.

“Occupy Wall Street”: Why the struggle must go beyond occupation

On the Meaning of Self Negation

Self Negation is exactly what it sounds like; it is the abolition of the present world and with it an abolition of the self.

To negate one’s self is not to commit suicide, to destroy one’s physical body. Rather it is the transformation of the social content of the ‘self’ to such a degree that it effectively ceases to exist in its present form.

We all exist in the world in relation to others. We are White and they are Black, or the reverse. I am man, and you are woman. And et cetera.

These attributes are not simply internalized attributes that exist solely within our own beings. They are socially created and sanctioned. Man exists in opposition to woman, and is defined by what it is not. I am only one thing because you are another, and the intersection of our socially prescribed roles is what gives them validity. Without ‘minorities’ around, no one is ‘white.’ The category of ‘white’ is ontologically meaningless without another category outside of whiteness. This is not to say the mere fact of differing skin tones automatically creates the category; on the contrary, humans existed for most of their history dealing with people who looked different from them without creating categories based on these visual differences that supposedly inhered in a person – being ‘white’ had no meaning for the Ancient Romans, for example, although being ‘Roman’ certainly did. Rather, for any such category to have relevance it must be brought into relation with another group.

More often than not, these relationships have been hierarchical. In American society, for example, whites have been privileged over populations excluded from this category. Women have been subject to men. And those who have no value-producing property have been exploited by those who do.

This brings us to the necessity for self negation.

Self negation does not mean a world without categories. Categories are inherent in the way we understand the world. Every word, every concept, is a category formed by a host of data points classified into it. Diversity and difference can make the world a richer and more beautiful place, if these ‘differences’ do not mean the reduction of our own aspirations or those of others.

Self negation simply means doing away with those categories that limit ourselves and others from our full potential, that hinder us more than they assist our understanding.

Self negation cannot be an individual act. White people cannot escape from ‘whiteness’ by simply acting in a way they perceive as being contrary to this identity. Rather, they must work to alter the relationship between themselves and non-whites; and this necessarily means fundamentally altering the society we live in.

What is called ‘The Workers’ Movement’ in much of the recent history was an attempt to affirm and uplift the category of the working class within capitalism. As such it suppressed tendencies arising from within itself towards rupture with the logic of capital. The obvious outcome of such a movement was to cut a deal with the existing system, to accept a re-positioning of the class within capitalist society without challenging class itself.

The idea of being ‘proud to be a worker’ is ludicrous, as to be a worker is inherently to be subject to a boss and the vicissitudes of the market. Such pride is a stumbling block on the way to any real transformation.

Therefore, let us negate ourselves. Let us do away with all categories and identities that restrict the possibilities of what we can be. This cannot be achieved individually, through a change in behavior or an act of will. It must be a collective and collaborative effort. Without asking anyone to give up those identities which empower them – such as the cultures and traditions that some hold dear – let us give up oppositions and categories which exploit others or allow others to be exploited.

As a ‘middle class’ consumer, I benefit from the exploitation of millions of others. And yet this category is parochial and limiting in the extreme, coming as it does with a whole set of flawed values, prescriptions, and rules. It ties me closer to this system which can offer nothing to the masses of humanity nor, ultimately, to anyone.

As a ‘man’ I wish to abolish the category of ‘manhood’. I do not wish to alter my body; I simply believe this identity, as it has been traditionally construed, is limiting to me and exploitative to others.

Likewise with ‘whiteness’; to be white is to have access to privilege and power beyond those of ‘non-whites’. Despite this, a world without this unjust power is ultimately a world in which I want to live and one which is better for everyone.

To be ‘straight’ is similarly bestowing of privilege. Yet it also forces one to follow a prescriptive set of behaviors which are ultimately damaging to me in that they restrict what I think and feel.

As I said before, these attributes do not simply exist within me as an individual but are social relationships. My privilege as a straight, white, man of relatively privileged economic status (although I do not own any capital) is inseparable from the violence and oppression inflicted on those on the wrong side of the hierarchy; those who get the shit end of the stick. Hence I cannot simply ‘decide’ to stop being those things. This decision in itself would be a manifestation of unjust power. The middle class youth may drop out from school and leave the suburbs. Whites can grow dreadlocks, convert to different religions or follow different cultural practices. Straight men may semi-ironically appropriate gay or trans ways of being. Such meaningless stances do nothing to address the root causes of the problem.

Instead of behaving in this way, beneficiaries of unjust hierarchies must collaborate with each other and their victims to abolish these hierarchies collectively. Unfortunately, the oppressed usually find themselves taking action against hierarchy alone as those at the top of hierarchies rarely give up power voluntarily. However, there are the noble exceptions. The separation engendered by capitalism is one of the greatest weapons it uses against us. The privileges it hands down to favored groups of workers are crucial to keeping us loyal to the system as a whole and keeping us in line. Let us reject these bloody offerings meant to pacify us. Let us not be satisfied until we live in a society where differences and identities are chosen and not imposed; where the affirmation of ourselves does not depend on the destruction and exploitation of others.

Let us work to negate the present society and with it those aspects of ourselves poisoned by it.

On the Meaning of Self Negation

Class and Nation: WWII and the Class Struggle in America and Worldwide

The memory of war is always a site of contestation and conflict. This was eminently true of World War I, which left most of the Western world—or at least most of those who were forced to bear the brunt of the sacrifice—embittered by their experiences and against future wars.1 More recently, the Vietnam war has become the object of heated debate, with many coming out decisively against the conflict both during and after the duration of the war.2 The memory of World War II, in contrast, has remained largely uncontested.3 In America, a dominant narrative of the Second World War exists which has been unchallenged in the public discourse since Pearl Harbor. As would be expected, the memory is one of good versus evil, of a righteous war against the barbaric, inhuman enemy. This narrative was fostered first by Roosevelt and his New Deal coalition and then continued after the war. While more or less accepted by most Americans, this picture of the war is created and disseminated by elites in the state, the military, academia, and the media. No counternarrative comparable to the aforementioned dissent against Vietnam has surfaced to challenge this picture.  

This essay aims to challenge this official viewpoint, drawing on the pioneering scholarship of others who have been unconvinced of the war’s fundamental nobility. I will begin with an analysis of the official viewpoint on the war, which includes not only the righteousness of the cause but the unquestioning loyalty and unity of Americans. After discussing the dominant narrative, I will proceed to critique it. However, I will first outline the reality that World War II narratives often obscure: the fierce class struggle that occurred during the interwar period. I will argue that the revolutionary upheaval after the First World War profoundly shaped World War II. Following this section I will present my objections to the received wisdom about the war and cite evidence that contradicts the official assertions about the war. Finally, I will demonstrate that class struggle continued in wartime America despite the calls for patriotic unity coming from every direction. Overall, this essay will aim at demonstrating that the dominant understanding of World War II presents a distorted picture of the conflict and that no real understanding of the war is possible without acknowledging the fundamentally hierarchical nature of the belligerent nations, including the United States. As the sources cited above show, the United States has a long history of opposition to war. The Second World War, however, is an exception to the rule. World War II enjoys a unique status in American culture; moreso than other wars, which have been more susceptible to revisionism, it is still seen as just. World War II is still a war to be proud of because of perceptions about its cause. Despite the influence of intellectual movements emphasizing cultural relativism, realpolitik, or an economic basis for politics, the dominant understanding in America of the war continues to be that of a conflict between good and evil. “This was a moral struggle,” states one historian; while he can understand victims of Allied violence “might feel there was an equivalence between the two sides,” he states unequivocally that “they are wrong.” The Allies were engaged in a “just and necessary struggle.”4 Another work is dedicated to the soldiers and civilians who fought “to enlarge the possibilities of freedom.” In emphasizing the importance of the Allies’ military might, it reads “moral righteousness alone does not win battles,” while the Axis is described straightforwardly as “evil.” Moreover, the bombing of entire enemy cities is described as a culmination of the West’s “moral imperative to punish the Germans,” expressing its “sense of moral conviction.”5 Another intellectual describes the United States’ war against Nazism and Japanese imperialism, as well as the Cold War, as “America’s unique gift to the world.” 6 The dominant view of World War II as a war fought for altruistic principles of democracy and freedom continues to prevail and has been challenged very infrequently in public discourse.

The Myth of Unity

While the war itself is sacralized―elevated to an object of almost religious devotion―the memory of ‘the home front’, an expression which conveys the extent to which society itself was militarized during the war, also plays an important role in the mythology of the Second World War. The characteristic that most defines the post-war American memory of the homefront is unity. This emphasis on unity was present from the beginning; it was only natural that the rulers during the war would use patriotic rhetoric emphasizing common interests, values, and goals in order to unite a country riven by class and racial emnity. As 1945 recedes farther into the past, however, the myth of perfect unity has been purified and consolidated. For example, a veteran rhapsodizes about “the strong patriotism all Americans felt during the war with Germany and Japan.”7 According to an artist who produced a memorial for the conflict’s 50th anniversary, World War Two was “a time when every American patriotically set aside his or her own concerns to support our troops and accomplish a greater goal.” It was characterized by Americans’ willingness “to pull together and sacrifice as a nation.”8 Perhaps more notably, famous NBC anchor Tom Brokaw wrote that

“World War II and the demands it made on all parts of the country was the quintessential American melting-pot experience. It was a great unifying force, requiring sacrifice and imposing new disciplines across the many layers of American society. In a way, America came to know itself better through this common experience.”9

These words are representative of the way wartime unity is remembered. They present a narrative of the nation as a fundamentally coherent unit. While almost everyone recognizes the fundamental divisions that split Americans, divisions of race, class, gender, and politics, it is seen as self evident that the war could, should, and did transcend these divisions. The war was something that all Americans sacrificed for and which was in all Americans’ interests; these are the unspoken assumptions of the myth of unity.

This narrative obscures just as much as it reveals, however. It ignores the true nature of the competing ‘concerns’ which Americans supposedly ‘set aside’ of their own accord. These divisions were not merely varying ideas, priorities, and principles. The language employed in describing homefront unity gives no hint that some Americans may have had more of a stake in the war than others, that some had more power than others and therefore experienced wartime quite differently. In fact, the lines which divided Americans were not merely vertical―isolationists versus interventionists, republicans versus democrats―but horizontal as well. In other words, the hierarchical nature of many of the rifts in American society is absent from the official narrative. The relationships of whites to black and Japanese people, of men to women, and of owners to workers were all fundamentally hierarchical ones,defined by unequal power.

The transcendence of disunity and the creation of unity may be necessary in many cases for a group to accomplish its tasks. However, in a hierarchical society, such unity not accompanied by a corresponding mitigation of the greviences or subordinate status of the disenfranchised group amounts to merely sweeping such contradictions under the rug. What one observer calls ‘unity’ another might call ‘submission’. In the United States during the Second World War, as I will show in succeeding sections,the sacrifices of the war were not distributed equally. Those with the most power and wealth sacrificed very little; many of them profited immensely.

One should bear this in mind whenever the myth of unity is invoked. It is clear that the remembrance of these patriotic times, of a society with a common purpose―the pursuit of which is conceptualized as something freely chosen, rather than imposed―, serves a political function in America. One senator, for example, after invoking his own service in World War II and his firsthand knowledge of the veterans’ sacrifice, stated that “it is my sincere hope that, thanks to this bill, the National World War II Memorial will be a lasting symbol of American unity―and a timeless reminder of the moral strength that joins the citizens of this country.”10 The enormous appeal for the nation’s elites of commemorations that celebrate unity, of idealizing and simplifying the coherence created by the war, is obvious. The implicit message in emphasizing unity on the home front during the Second World War is that rulers have everyone’s best interests at heart, that sometimes citizens should shut up, buckle down, and get behind the leaders and the nation. The difference between the forties―nationalist mobalization behind a fairly popular cause―and the era from the sixties up to the present―characterized by protest and ambivalence towards war―could not be more clear. Any glorified account of a wartime society in which everyone did their part and “set aside his or her concerns” is, on some level, an appeal for such behavior in the present day and an admonishment of those who fail to step in line. Everyone should support the agenda of our leaders who have, just as their predecessors did, our best interests at heart; this is the essence of the political function of World War Two’s history.

Reaffirming a Class Analysis

The most important function of the myth of unity is to obscure class struggle, which has no place in patriotic rememberance. Before going into the details of pre-war and wartime class struggle, however, I wish to give a short introduction to the intellectual fate of class analysis.

Perhaps what has enabled American leaders to present an increasingly rosy and idealized view of the war and wartime society is the decline of class as a category of intellectual analysis. As time has passed an odd thing has happened; what was once a central contradiction of American life, perpetually in the center of politics, is now almost entirely absent from the public debate. Some scholars have gone beyond ignoring class to actively denying its existence, something which would no doubt have been absurd in the 1940s.11 A critique of this tendency is not within the scope of this essay. However, it is reasonable to surmise that the decline of class as an academic and cultural concept has lead to a tendency whereby the significance of class in history is minimized or glossed over. This has been especially true of the Second World War. Its sacralization has ensured that the class conflict immediately before, after, and during America’s war against the Germans and Japanese has been purged from public memory.

The rectification of this situation, the use of class as a lens through which to view the war, is eminently necessary, not merely to counter the smug narratives of patriotic remembrance but because no real understanding of the war is possible when class is ignored. The fact of social class profoundly structured the events of World War Two. Evidence of this is apparent everywhere, from the propaganda and rhetoric leaders used to build support for the war to the organization of war production to the very battlefields of Europe and Asia where soldiers fought and died for their respective states. For all the things that divided the Axis and the Allies―political structure, history, culture―they both shared one fundamental characteristic: the societies that fought on both sides were divided into classes. In America, this simple fact is in danger of being overlooked in a deluge of self-congratulatory discourse.

The Revolutionary Moment of 1917

The eclipse of class analysis is a recent phenomenon. It was not really absent from the public discussion until the 1990’s.12 In order to highlight the ways class played a critical role in the Second World War, it is necessary to trace the development of the period which preceded it. In order to restrict this to a reasonable stretch of time, as well as for comparative purposes, the discussion will be limited to the interwar years.

If class is ignored in society today it was omnipresent at the end of the first world war. All the wartime societies had mobilized their citizens in the service of a ‘common cause’. However, as the conflict swept across Europe, destroying millions of lives and causing material deprivation and hunger, increasing strain was put on the belligerents. It is at this point that the traditional conceptual tools break down and become useless. Much traditional and military history offers a view of society which is static and coherent. “Russia”, “Germany”, “England”, “France”, “Austro-Hungary”, “The United States”; these monolithic entities are the protagonists and primary actors of much traditional history. If one accepts these pat conceptual tools, however, it becomes very difficult to explain many of the events during and immediately after the First World War.

In fact, it was not Russia, Germany, Britain, etc which had made the cumulative decisions which propelled Europe to war but in each case the ruling classes of these countries. This reality is made invisible by the simplistic way society is conceptualized in the traditional discourse as organic entities that are fundamentally unified. In fact, all of the belligerent countries were class societies.

This was eminently clear in Russia. The price of food and other essentials shot up appreciably during the war, leading to riots and strikes, often initiated by women angered over the price of grain or other household goods.13 The number of workers on strike shot up from 100,000 in the whole of Russia in 1915 to a quarter of a million in 1916 just in the city of Petrograd. Riots against the draft broke out in sixteen of Russia’s provinces and grew to massive proportions in the central Asian regions of the empire. A million soldiers had deserted by 1917, many of them keeping their weapons as they fled the front.14 Ultimately the combination of an unpopular, destructive war, food shortages, inflation, strikes, and repression added fuel to the fire of class conflict. In 1917, a general strike in Petrograd toppled the Czar. Despite the ascendency of a murderous, despotic regime in Russia following the revolution, even historians with clearly anti-Bolshevik and anti-revolutionary outlooks acknowledge that the 1917 uprising and the system of ‘soviets’ (workers, soldiers, and peasant’s assemblies) that were set up were not the products of some shadowy revolutionary cabal’s machinations but an organic movement growing from the increasing class struggle during the war.15

Russia, with its ancient and incompetent autocracy, weak sense of nationalism, and underdeveloped economy, seemed like the most likely European state to face a serious popular insurgency, and indeed, the revolt there had a more decisive outcome and further-reaching consequences than any of the other uprisings of this period. However, the Czar was not the only head of state to be overthrown by the upheaval that came on the heels of the Great War. On November 9th, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the throne and fled Germany. Although support for the war had been strong in 1914 and almost no one opposed it publically, resentment and unrest began to grow in Germany as the war grew longer and the sacrifices greater. In 1917, hunger strikes, work stoppages, and agitation for “food commitees” broke out among German sailors. Stikes occurred at the beginning of 1918 involving half a million workers in Berlin and surrounding cities. When German general Ludendorf ordered the German High Seas Fleet to engage British warships, German sailors refused to carry out what they knew to be a suicide mission. Instead they revolted; by November 4th, 1918, the port city of Kiel was in the hands of a 20,000-strong sailors’ soviet. In the weeks that followed, similar events took place all over Germany as workers, soldiers, and sailors formed assemblies similar to those in Russia and governmental authority seemed to crumble.16

Events in Germany and Russia have been emphasized heavily, perhaps because they had a huge impact on the future of the political forms of those countries. But the wave of revolt that swept the world from approximately 1917 to the middle twenties―and in some places longer―transcended these two countries and even Europe. Italy had seen major unrest before the war: the “red week” of 1914, which lasted from June 7th to the 14th, saw a massive general strike which “paralyzed almost all the major cities in Italy for at least two days” and involved two million workers.17 Another general strike occurred in May 1915 when Italy entered the war.18 The strikes continued and intensified; 1917 saw massive strikes and uprisings in the industrialized northern regions and peasant protests and demonstrations in the countryside. These movements were spurred by vast increases in the cost of living as well as anger over the war and the imposition of military discipline in the factories, both of which gave women a very prominent role―they could not be punished under the military codes. At one point in 1917 the entire province of Liguria was officially declared a war zone. Within it, the city of Turin was particularly inflamed, with workers rioting and erecting baricades. This uprising was only crushed with the use of military and police violence.19 An Italian victory did nothing to defuse the workers’ discontent: the strikes actually increased after the war, culminating in 1920 with a wave of factory occupations in the north.20

The more developed and stable nations of France and Britain did not experience such mass uprisings, but there were still rumblings of discontent. A wave of wildcats by miners in South Wales and shipyard workers on the Clyde River near Glasgow troubled Britain in 1916.21 Strikes in the 1917- 1920 period were more numerous than in any prior period, the proportion of organized workers grew enormously, and rhetoric of class struggle and revolution became increasingly common despite the agreement of many union leaders to prevent strikes for the duration of the war.22 In France, strike waves broke out every spring in Paris from 1917 to 1919; during this last year, the unrest spread to the previously quiet northern regions of the country. An increase in class struggle rhetoric among the workers is evident despite “l’union sacrée,” the pledge of the French Left not to instigate any strikes or threaten the war effort in any way.23 That the French ruling class considered these developments a serious threat is evident in the fact that “even when a renewed German attack was expected in the spring of 1918, Clemenceau kept four cavalry divisions in reserve for possible internal use.”24   Discontent was not limited, however, to workers on the home front. Their counterparts in uniform also caused havoc for the French and British armies. British troops mutinied at the Etaples base after a corporal was shot and killed by the military police.25 Around one thousand soldiers, many of them Australians, New Zealanders, and Scots, broke through lines of officers trying to prevent them from leaving the base and rioted in the nearby town, throwing stones at officers, attacking MPs and chasing them through the streets.26 The unrest was quelled but disturbances at the camp continued into 1919.27 In the same year, strikes broke out in the nearby town of Boulogne among labor companies composed of “colonials” (mostly Chinese and Egyptians)―these were put down ruthlessly: in one incident 23 of these unarmed men were killed and another 24 wounded. Despite such harsh measures,strikes among the military laborers continued.28

Mutiny among French soldiers was a consequence of the awful conditions they had to endure as well as general Neville’s offensive which squandered 200,000 soldiers’ lives “to no purpose.”29 This resulted in widespread refusal among the troops to sacrifice themselves further in the form of refusal to attack or to go to the front, sit-down strikes, and the formation of soldiers’ councils. Such incidents occurred in about half of the divisions of the French army. In response, thousands of men were court-martialed and forty-three were officially executed, although the real number is probably greater as this does not include those who were simply shot on the battlefield.30

This kind of upheaval was not a purely European phenomenon. It was present from the moment the United States entered the war. In 1917 an armed rebellion—admittedly small in size and extremely brief in duration—broke out among farm laborers in Oklahoma against the Conscription Act.31 In the same year a mutiny of black soldiers in Houston in response to local racism and brutality left twenty people dead.32 Strikes were endemic during the war; “The war years from 1916 to 1918 averaged 2.4 times as many workers on strike as 1915.”33 There were four regional general strikes during the war years and a great many ‘solidarity strikes’, demonstrating the increasing class consciousness among American workers.34 In 1919, a general strike broke out in Seattle which saw effective control of the city ceded to the strikers for several days. The strike was crushed with the use of military and police repression.35 350,000 steelworkers struck in Pennsylvania, bringing the industry to a halt and provoking a massive reaction from government forces.36 Strike waves occurred in New England, New York, and Chicago.37 Between 1919 and 1921 strikes and conflicts in the coal industry developed into full-blow insurrections in Kansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, and other areas, with Federal troops, planes, and machine guns deployed against armies of striking miners and scores killed on both sides.38 Interestingly enough, World War One veterans played a strong role in many of these conflicts. While the immediate post-war period seems to have been the most volatile, significant struggles continued, including several massive and violent strikes in the early 1930’s.39

The last years of the First World War and those that followed immediately after proved to be rife with class struggle of a kind that has hardly been seen since. It is interesting to note that the beginnings of the phenomenon of fascism arose in response to these events. In Italy, the young fascist movement proved indispensable in crushing the workers’ movement which demanded worker control of the factories and seriously threatened social order.40 In Germany the workers’ and soldiers’ councils were tamed through a combination of reform and repression: the SPD proclaimed a republic and at the same time armed brigades of freikorp, reactionary soldiers who were used to break the council movement. Before the swastika was a symbol of the Third Riech it was worn by freikorp troops shooting down rebellious workers. Many of these counter-revolutionary shock troops would later join the SS or SA.41

The Outbreak of the War

The point of the preceding section is to demonstrate that the interwar period was a time of profound instability in the capitalist system.42 Social upheaval was a serious problem for the rulers of all the countries mentioned above and many others as well. While some of the revolutionary fervor of 1917 and the following years faded away, class struggle was still a perpetual concern. By the end of the thirties the ruling classes of the world had a firmer grip on things, but the memory of the memory of postwar events was undoubtedly fresh in their minds. The decisions leading up to the war and the war itself must be seen in the context of this experience of crisis.

Here it will be useful to analyze the situation of the Axis powers, since their expansionism lead to the Second World War. For the sake of brevity my inquiry will be limited to Germany and Japan. Contrary to the commonly accepted image of perfect ‘totalitarian’ control, class struggle remained a paramount concern and a material reality in the fascist countries.

In Germany, of course, the trade unions were smashed in 1933 and replaced by a state controlled ‘union’, the German Labor Front (DAF), and the right to strike was rescinded; the Nazis also threw the most radical members of the working class into prison camps.43 The reality of the fascist assault on the working class was obscured by falling unemployment—not solely the doing of the Nazis, welfare associations, and equalitarian rhetoric, all of which served to dull dissent.44 Robert Lay, the leader of the DAF, boasted in 1935 that “we are the first nation to overcome class struggle.”45 The Nazis asserted that they had abolished class, yet the continued existence of a class structure was obvious.46 Perhaps this explains why “the first flush of enthusiasm for the regime had already begun to fade in 1934, and by early 1936 it had reached such a low level that even Hitler’s popularity was beginning to wane.”47 The instability of support for Hitler among workers is demonstrated by the fact that some one hundred sixty five factories had miniature concentration camps added on and that despite the illegality of the action and the harsh consequences for doing so hundreds of strikes occurred between 1935 and 1937.48 The fascist regime had brutally repressed the most combatative elements of the working class and pacified the rest with jobs and social programs. It was in this context of an uncertain class peace that Hitler, in 1937, stated to his military leaders

To arrest the decline of Germanism (Deutschtum) in Austria and Czechoslovakia was as little possible as to maintain the present level in Germany itself. Instead of increase, sterility was setting in, and in its train disorders of a social character must arise in course of time, since political and ideological ideas remain effective only as long as they furnish the basis for the realization of the essential vital demands of a people. Germany’s future was therefore wholly conditional on solving the need for space (Lebensraum.)49

Here the connection between preventing proletarian unrest and pursueing military conquest is explicitly stated. The fascists viewed expansionism as a tool in strengthening social cohesion. It planned to do this not only through the fear-mongering and increased nationalism that always accompany war, but also by brutally exploiting the subjugated nations economically, enabling them to avoid doing so to the same extent domestically.

According to Mark Spritzler, the strategy of Blietzkrieg was not solely a military innovation but a necessity forced upon Hitler by his fear of provoking the German working class by increasing exploitation to the levels necessary for serious arms production. The discontent provoked by an attempt to abolish overtime and paid holidays and cut wages motivated the regime to reverse its decision almost immediately.50 Because the Nazis were afraid to squeeze workers enough to produce adequate weaponry, they had to conquer adjoining territories and plunder their resources instead; it was only after the war had begun that Hitler could call upon the workers to sacrifice in the name of the nation. Thus it is apparent that Nazi imperialism, as well as being a consequence of Nazi ideology, was a means of controlling the working class and overcoming their recalcitrance.

Japan too was beset by problems of class upheaval, and it also turned to war as the solution. Japanese elites feared the downfall of the “social order.” One important Japanese leader stated that “a great war would fundamentally strengthen the people and their nationalism.”51 In the wake of World War One and all throughout the thirties, Japan was beset by the same sort of class struggle outlined in the previous section.52 Organs of elite opinion stated explicitly that a war would be of great utility in solving the problem of domestic unrest. One military leader stated that “One cannot distinguish between domestic and foreign policies. The two evolve influencing each other. Without attention to the external, the internal will not cohere. If you ignore the external, you may think you can unify domestically but you cannot.”53 Another opined

Industrial rationalization will only increase unemployment and lead to social tragedy unless accompanied by expanded markets as outlets for our goods. These markets will be won in economic competition over price and quality. But if foreign relations atrophy, the competition will be restricted. We greatly need renovation of foreign policy and rationalization of industry.54

Clearly these leaders viewed the opening up of markets not only as economically beneficial but socially necessary to prevent dissent. Although Japan grew increasingly fascist labor unrest continued in the thirties.55 It is clear that the imperial ambitions of Japanese rulers, like their German counterparts, were inseperable from their domestic policy of created a unified society where class struggle was stifled. This sort of concern with unrest on the home front was not unique to fascist societies, however. The next sections will demonstrate that the American elite shared this desire with their enemies.

A Crusade for Democracy?

The idea that the Allies fought the war at least partially with the aim of neutralizing class struggle will seem outlandish to some. As demonstrated in the first section, World War II stands alone in America as the one war whose memory has scarcely been tarnished by the passage of time. Certainly at the time it was waged the war was made to be something holy, a grand struggle for civilization itself against the forces of barbarism and darkness. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin all claimed to be fighting for a civilization which was qualitatively better than that of their enemies, different in kind from the evil of fascism. Lofty rhetoric in documents like the Atlantic Charter and in the speeches of leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill were attempts to establish themselves firmly on the moral highground. In this section I will lay out evidence that the Second World War was not fought for altruistic reasons but because it was in the imperial interests of the powers involved.

Of course, there can be no doubt that the crimes perpetrated by many in the fascist societies were evil. Events like the Rape of Nanking stand out for their brutality. The Holocaust is unique, indescribable. The extermination of millions by the Nazis reached new depths in the way it dehumanized its victims and inured its perpetrators against their own actions.

And yet the evil of one group does not somehow confer moral legitmacy to its enemies. The British, the Americans, the French, and of course the Soviets all had genocides and attrocities in their pasts. While the Holocaust is unique it is not the only horror in history. The way the allied nations tried to set themselves up as the opposite of the nations that they fought is not bourne out by the historical record. They were indeed, for the most part, societies which were freer and without the same kind of extensive, institutionalized mass murder the Nazis had perpetrated. But to see the Allies as exemplars of democracy and human rights, as many historians have, sacrificing themselves by the millions for the good of the world, is deeply problematic. The war was not fought on the behalf of the suffering millions under Axis rule.

As Howard Zinn said in reference to the American failure to aid the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War,

was this simply poor judgment, an unfortunate error? Or was it the logical policy of a government whose main interest was not stopping fascism but advancing the imperial interests of the United States? For those interests, in the thirties, an anti-Soviet policy seemed best. Later, when Japan and Germany threatened U.S. world interests, a pro-Soviet, anti-Nazi policy became preferable. Roosevelt was as much concerned to end the oppression of Jews as Lincoln was to end slavery during the Civil War; their priority in policy (whatever their personal compassion for victims of persecution) was not minority rights, but national power. It was not Hitler’s attacks on the Jews that brought the United States into World War II, any more than the enslavement of 4 million blacks brought the Civil War in 1861. Italy’s attack on Ethiopia, Hitler’s invasion of Austria, his takeover of Czechoslovakia, his attack on Poland― none of these events cause the United States to enter the war. . .56

The horrific bombing in 1937 and subsequent massacre in the Chinese city of Nanking had not brought the United States into the war either. American scrap metal and oil aided the Japanese war machine until 1940. American oil helped Mussolini’s tanks roll into Abyssinia.57 All of these facts confirm Zinn’s assertion that American policy was not about defeating fascism.

Not only did the United States fail to respond to fascist militarism until it became a clear threat to its interests, it also failed to do the very thing some thought the war was about and which postwar commentators insisted was the noble reason for the bloodshed: save Europe’s Jews. Of course, it would have been impossible to rescue most of them. Still, there is compelling evidence which reveals that the Allies did not even act to save those who could have been helped easily. In fact, American lawmakers refused to relax the strict immigration laws then on the books to allow Jewish refugees into the country and even struck down a bill to aid Jewish children who had fled from the Third Reich.58 According to Deborah E. Lipstadt, “There is no question but that the United States could have done far more than it did. . . [the Allies’] policy of “rescue through victory” meant that when victory came there would be no one left to rescue. The Allied bureaucracy displayed a callous indiference to the plight of the Jews. At times this callousness bordered on complicity in the Final Solution.”59 This attitude prevailed in such incidents as those involving the SS St. Louis and the SS Quanza, two ships with hundreds of Jewish refugees on board which were turned away from U.S. shores by the State Department.60

While the United States did not have death camps or Einsatzgruppen, it did have a long and infamous history of racism and violent persecution of minorities which hardly needs to be repeated here. At the same time the U.S. was supposedly waging a war against racism and tyranny, the army―and of course society at large―remained segregated. And even as the fascist powers were being condemned for their expansionism, the United States presided over a network of client states which, despite their nominal independence, served the U.S. economically and were kept in such a position through brutal local regimes and frequent intervention by the armed forces.61 The war with the Axis was not undertaken out of humanitarian concern for the opressed. Instead, as Zinn states, “it was when Japan threatened potential U.S. markets with its attempted takover of China, but especially as it moved toward the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia, that the United States became alarmed. . .”62

In short, this was far from a war for democracy. The Secretary of State said that “leadership toward a new system of international relationships in trade and other economic affairs will devolve very largely upon the United States because of our great economic strength. We should assume this leadership and the responsibility that goes with it, primarily for reasons of pure national self-interest.”63

Consistent with this attitude, planners at the Council on Foreign Relations had begun examining the possible effects rising Japanese and German imperialism would have on ‘American interests’ in 1940. A series of papers examined the effect fascist “price-fixing and monetary exchange controls” would have on American trade. The Council fretted that “economic isolation in the Western hemisphere would cost the United States almost two-thirds of its foreign trade.” It began to seem clear that a world where Japan and Germany were largely self sufficient, exploiting their own systems of colonies, would have negative consequences for U.S. capital: “any Western hemisphere cartel for selling to Germany was doomed to failure because the self-sufficiency of the German bloc was such that it could not be forced to trade with the Western Hemisphere”

At this time the council “began to define the national interest in terms of the minimum geographical area that was necessary for the productive functioning of the American economy without drastic controls and major government intervention.” On June 28 one report concluded “that the Far East and the Western hemisphere probably bore the same relationship to the United States as America had to Europe in the past―a source of raw materials and a market for manufactures.” Other studies concluded that “the economies of Great Britain and Japan could not function adequately in harmony with the American economy without a large part of the world as markets and suppliers of raw materials” and “United States problems could not be solved if Japan excluded the American economy from Asia”.65

 American policymakers were already, in 1940, examining the ways the rise of the fascist powers would effect them. It seems that they concluded that Japan and Germany carving out their own autarchic economic blocs would be against the “national interest”―they also resolved not to let Britain retain a monopoly over trade with its colonies, which might explain American pressure on Britain to decolonize.66 Promoting and protecting American capitalism was of cardinal importance throughout. One historian stated that “no conservative outdid Hopkins,” one of the President’s most important advisors, “in championing foreign investment, and its protection.”67

The idea that the United States pursued the war for its economic interests is not just some chimera conjured up by left wing historians. There is a great deal of evidence from the statements of various U.S. policy makers as well as from the work of serious scholars of American foreign policy and diplomacy that the American government acted more extensively to foster economic dominance than It ever did to rescue victims of the Holocaust. As Zinn points out,

quietly, behind the headlines in battles and bombings, American diplomats and businessmen worked hard to make sure that when the war ended, American economic power would be second to none in the world. United States business would penetrate areas that up to this time had been dominated by England. The Open Door Policy of equal access would be extended from Asia to Europe, meaning that the United States intended to push England aside and move in. . .The ARAMCO oil corporation, through Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, got Roosevelt to agree to Lend Lease aid to Saudi Arabia, which would involve the U.S. government there and create a shield for the interests of ARAMCO. In 1944 Britain and the U.S. signed a pact on oil agreeing on “the principle of equal opportunity,” and Lloyd Gardner concludes (Economic Aspects of New Deal Diplomacy) that ‘the Open Door Policy was triumphant throughout the Middle East.’ . . . In April 1944 a State Department official said: “As you know, we’ve got to plan on enormously increased production in this country after the war, and the American domestic market can’t absorb all that production indefinitely. There won’t be any question about our needing greatly increased foreign markets.”

 Ultimately, the assertion of historian Gabriel Kolko that “the American economic war aim was to save capitalism at home and abroad” seems to describe the U.S.’s actual interests and policies far better than the image of the Allies as crusaders for good.69 The economic concerns which preoccupied American planners and leaders are a far cry from concerns over democracy, human rights, or expansionism which so many Americans believed―and were told―were the reasons for going to war. Having shown the idea that the war was fought for idealistic reasons to be without merit, I will move on to explain the rhetoric with which American rulers justified the war and then shed light on the reality on the home front behind this rhetoric.

The Rhetoric of Popular War

America’s war aims, then, were meant to maintain or increase the power and wealth of a small minority of the population, the American ruling class. However, honesty about these goals would not have been very effective in mobilizing support for the war, especially in the wake of the First World War. Roosevelt and others began to frame the conflict in terms that made the conflict out to be one of universal importance in which every American had an equal stake.

In a radio address immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR stated that the war would be to further “ultimate good as well as against immediate evil.” He evoked responsibility to future generations and boldly asserted that it was a privilege, not a sacrifice, to serve in the armed forces and to work longer and harder for the war effort. America was fighting to destroy permanently the “sources of international brutality” to create “a peace in the Pacific which would be fair and honorable to every nation, large or small.” Such high-minded and egalitarian goals would be matched by a homefront where industrialists would accept lower profits while workers pulled longer hours.70 The overall message was this: the war was a righteous cause, one with the blessing of “the vast majority of the members of the human race,” and American capitalists were to sacrifice just as much as their workers in order to secure victory.

This image of the war, put forth when the wreckage at Pearl Harbor had scarcely stopped smoldering, would dominate national discourse throughout the conflict. Unlike the rhetoric of most war leaders, Roosevelt’s picture of the conflict has survived virtually untouched up to the present. Is his insistence that all social groups would contribute to (and benefit from) the war borne out by the evidence?

Class Struggle in the Arsenal of Democracy

In this section I will show that FDR and other American elites sought to supress domestic dissent even as they responded to fascist militarism with overwhelming force. Indeed, these two objectives were not in conflict or seperate but fundamentally intertwined.

Buried under the patriotism and unity of the war years the class struggle continued. It has been rendered invisible by historians and popular commentators in the postwar era but it was nonetheless a reality, one which leaders at the time understood even if they rarely acknowledged it in public. Nationalist rhetoric worked almost as well in America as it had in Germany and Japan. There were virtually no overt challenges to the legitimacy of the war while it was being fought. While workers for the most part accepted the righteousness of the Allied cause, or at least failed to challenge it on principle, they still fought to impose some measure of equality to the way the burdens and rewards of the war were distributed. According to one historian of the AFL during wartime, workers would “commit their labor and their lives, but not if their sacrifices lined the pockets of big capitalists” or “emboldened reactionary politicians”.71 This assessment may be overly optimistic as by Kersten’s own evidence the war did serve to ‘line the pockets of big capitalists’. However, it is undeniable that workers maintained a core of resistance which patriotism was capable of overcoming only to a certain degree despite the enthusiasm of the unions for Roosevelt’s war plans and their attempts to get workers solidly behind them.

The best expression of the political struggle taking place among unions, the government, and workers was the phrase “equality of sacrifice,” coined by the CIO. As mentioned above, the state put forward the claim that all groups would sacrifice equally for the war effort. This was to be a popular war, one in which the elite sacrificed no less than their social inferiors. This assertion, however, allowed unions and workers to put forth their own claims within the framework of the national interest. The narrow cupidity and autocratic behavior of anti-union employers could now be cast as downright unpatriotic, and government approval helped to bring about a near doubling in union membership.

Yet the unions were not the end of the story. Too many labor historians have treated workers and the institutions that represent them as one and the same, collapsing both into the vague term ‘labor’. Even while the unions put pressure on the government and recalcitrant employers, workers themselves put pressure on the unions. To many of them it must have seemed that the unions, far from acting as faithful and aggressive guardians of workers’ interests, had their own set of goals and priorities which were not identical to their own.

According to Jeremy Brecher, “with the coming of the World War II, the divergence between unions and workers’ own actions deepened.”72 Ironically, the unions’ success meant the leadership was able to drift further and further from their social social base. The Wagner Act, passed in 1935, was designed to avert “bloody and costly strikes” like those which swept America the year before, “which in some cases swelled almost to the magnitude of national emergencies.”73 Liberals like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert F. Wagner, and Frances Perkins were more far-sighted than their conservative counterparts and many of the country’s businessmen. They understood that unions were far more dangerous when they existed as semi-clandestine organizations with no legal protection. By bringing the unions into the regulatory apparatus, bodies like the National Labor Relations Board made itself useful by “composing [sic] disputes and sending millions of workers back to their jobs on terms beneficial to every interest.”74 Left to their own devices, many businessmen would more often than not refuse to bargain with unions and destructive strikes would occur which, in aggregate, seriously threatened capitalism’s stability. By forcing businesses to negotiate with trade unions and handing down legally binding decisions, New Deal leaders were able to channel worker militancy down a less threatening path.

Unions were increasingly the solution to, rather than the problem behind, worker unrest. Frances Perkins, for instance, speaking to a group of businessmen, said “you should not be afraid to let the CIO organize in your factory. . . they don’t want to run your business. You will probably get a lot more production and a lot more peace and happiness if you have a good union organization and a good contract.”75 Vouching for the CIO leadership’s character, she later said, in reference to the famous 1937 sit-down strike in GM plants in Flint, that “I know for a fact that John Lewis [head of the CIO union the United Mine Workers] and Sidney Hillman [head of the CIO’s Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and co-head of the Office of Production Management] and Lee Pressman [CIO lawyer] made great effort to get the men to leave the plants.”76 Hillman himself made the increasingly conciliatory stance of the union leadership leadership crystal clear: “Certainly I believe in collaborating with the employers! That is what unions are for. I even believe in helping employer function more productively.”77 Thus the AFL and CIO, along with FDR and his liberal administration, became the unlikely saviors of capitalist normality in the late thirties and forties.

The union bureaucrats further proved their usefulness to capital at the outbreak of the war. William Green, president of the AFL, declared on December 9th, just two days after the Day of Infamy, that “labor knows its duty. It will do its duty, and more. No new laws are necessary to prevent strikes. Labor will see to that. American workers will now produce as the workers of no other country have ever produced.” The day before, Phillip Murray, president of the CIO, had issued a similar statement on the radio, with the added caveat that the no “selfish advantage will be taken of the sacrifices they are prepared to make.” According to Glaberman, however, this was mere rhetoric; it was actually the moreconservative and patriotic AFL that fought harder against attempts to strip workers of their overtime pay.78 The no-strike pledge was taken by the national leadership of these two unions without bothering to consult the membership.79 AFL workers were issued a pamphlet that forbade them from striking and warned them that they were expected to make “personal and financial sacrifices.”80 Union leaders joined the ear-splitting chorus of voices calling for workers to be ready to give up whatever the government required of them

Was this all in the interests of their members? The unionists mentioned above certainly would have seen it that way. But in fact many rank and file union members chose to continue striking even after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Not only that but measures taken by the government and the unions in concert cast a great deal of doubt on the notion that the unions had voluntarily relinquished the strike as a tactic for the good of their members.

In order to serve effectively as channels through which class struggle could be mitigated and neutralized, the unions had to be strengthened, not vis a vis the bosses, but against their own members. In most cases, the board met this need for “union security” by setting up maintenance-of-membership provisions, under which no union member could quit [the union] for the duration of the contract. Thus the union was “safe-guarded against a shrinkage of membership and relieved of the necessity of reselling itself to the membership every month.” Maintenance of membership “protected the union from those new employees who did not wish to join or those old employees who became dissatisfied.” By making the unions dependent on the government instead of on their members, it kept them “responsible.”81

The problem with unions was that they were too democratic, too susceptible to influence from the rank and file workers. Union leaders no longer had to worry about workers quitting their organizations and ceasing to pay dues; they were forced to be members as a condition of employment. This type of union- strengthening legislation provided “a stable basis for union-management cooperation . . . irresponsible and uncooperative members cannot escape discipline.”82 Ultimately, “it is in the interests of management . . . to cooperate with the unions for the maintenance of a more stable, responsible leadership.”83 The power government-backed immunity to workers’ demands gave to unions is evidenced by the spectacular growth in union membership during the war. This growth was the result of a Faustian bargain with the government; “Union security” explains why they were able to add so many new members without making substantial gains for them.84

If the no-strike pledge and the actions of the union leadership were understood by the rank and file as necessary and beneficial to their interests, such measures would have been unnecessary. That “union security” was perceived as necessary is a testament to the deep distrust that labor leaders, government bureaucrats, and businessmen alike felt towards the workers. While many today view the patriotism and solidarity of Americans of all classes after Pearl Harbor as both natural and indestructible, rulers in the forties understood that the cooperation afforded by the working class in the war effort was anything but guaranteed.

This was demonstrated clearly as the war continued and the combined efforts of the government, unions, and management proved ineffective at suppressing class struggle. Despite a six month period after Pearl Harbor during which strikes virtually ceased, the figures began to creep up again throughout the war.85 1944 saw more strikes than any year prior in American history.86 These actions, which were in direct defiance of the no-strike pledge, were self-organized wildcats disrupting production in short bursts and asserting worker power in the factory in unofficial, non-sanctioned ways. As in 1919, worker militancy which had begun to smolder as the Axis was being defeated flared violently after the war: “the first six months of 1946 marked what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics called ‘the most concentrated period of labor-management strife in the country’s history,’ with 2,970,000 workers involved strikes starting in this period.” 4.6 million workers went on strike in 1946 and they lasted on average four times as long as strikes during the war had.87


World War Two, while it stands now, and perhaps was at the time, as our nation’s most popular war, was not a “people’s war.” Citizens did not just step in line behind the government. It required a massive propaganda effort and an attack on a U.S. base to mobilize the population. This propaganda systematically distorted the reasons for the war, making it out to be a noble, self-sacrificing endeavor for the salvation of fascism’s victims. In fact, the Allies failed to do the good they could have done, and all evidence points to the war being for the salvation and betterment of American capitalism, not democracy. The war had the effect of bringing down the fascist regimes which had arisen after the First World War and therefore did some good. Yet, this good was entirely incidental to the war. There is no evidence to suggest that the Atlantic Charter and other idealistic proclamations from the Allied leaders were anything other than an ideological fig leaf to distract attention from the terrible slaughter which was taking place worldwide.

While FDR was mourning that the “sturdy working men” of Europe, formerly so free and proud, “now stumble and cower beneath the lash of the slavemasters,” the Brazilian dictator Getulio Vargas was press-ganging “rubber soldiers”―slaves, in actuality―into forced labor in the Amazon; about half are thought to have died from the brutal conditions there.88 They were laboring to provide the United States with rubber, at Roosevelt’s request. The difference between the two sides was hardly so great as has been imagined then and now. The war was fought to preserve America’s imperial interests.

Moreover, it was the working class that bore the brunt of the sacrifice. The vast majority of soldiers were working class. Workers at home “gave up” their right to strike and in return had their wages frozen, even as corporate profits and executive salaries remained quite high.89 “Equality of sacrifice” was a lie, “necessary for the purpose of maintaining civilian morale.”90 Labor did nothing to make it a reality and much to make sure that the unequal distribution of the benefits and costs of the conflicts stayed the way it was. Indeed, by 1947 “the average worker had less purchasing power than in January 1941.”91 The balance of payments for the war was skewed by class in other ways: workplace injuries shot up to appalling levels between 1939 and 1940 and remained high until 1943. Succesful safety programs were feasible, as several factories demonstrated. However, the bottom line costs of such programs was greater than the cost of accidents, and management was not willing to undertake the extra costs to save workers’ lives.92 Another factor demonstrating the class nature of the war is the fact that many major corporation continued to do extensive business with the Nazis despite the war—an act of treason—and that despite his knowledge of this fact Roosevelt never prosecuted any businessmen for trading with the enemy and even retained some of them in various government organizations.93 Meanwhile, in Europe, working class soldiers were executed for minor offenses like desertion and petty theft.94 While many tried to sweep class under the rug during the war, and even more do so today, the experience of the war remains deeply affected by the class structures of the societies involved, including that of the United States. Even as the war raged in Europe and Asia another struggle was being waged on the home front, a struggle to bring an unruly proletariat to heel. The goals of the war—resources, markets, and imperial control—were inseperable, as they had been for the Japanese and Germans, from the neccesity to control class struggle at home.


1 For instance Edward Drea states in refference to the United States that “Anti-war sentiment and economic retrenchment in the years immediately following World War I forced the Army to drop its wartime requirement to 40 divisions” and military historian Jeremy Black notes the strength of “pacifist and anti-war sentiment after World War I,” although he points out that these sentiments did not prevent the next World War. Edward Drea, “The Imperial Japanese Army (1868-1945): origins, evolution, legacy,” in War in the Modern World Since 1895, ed. Jeremy Black (NY: Routledge, 2003), 95. Jeremy Black, “Introduction,” in War in the Modern World Since 1895, ed. Jeremy Black (NY: Routledge, 2003), 95.

2 The costs of the war and doubts as to its necessity “strongly drove American public opinion against the war.” Adam Gerfinkle, Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 1.

3 Historian Stephen E. Ambrose states in his foreward to Gerfinkle’s book that “Every American war (except World War II) has spawned a significant antiwar movement.” Ibid., v.

4 Jeremy Black, World War Two: A Military History (New York: Routledge, 2003), xiv-xv.

5 Williamson Murray, Allan R. Millett, A War To Be Won (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), iii, viii-ix.

6 Stephen E. Ambrose, “The Presidency and Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs 70, no. 5 (1991): 120.

7 James R. Clark, American Soldier At 13 Years Old: WWII (Bloomington, IN: Trafford Publishing, 2005), ix.

8 John Labja, quoted in John Bodnar, The “Good War” in American Memory (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2010), 109.

9 Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 1998), 273.

10 Congressional Record, pg 11010, June 15th 2000.

11 For example Robert Nisbet stated in 1958 at a meeting of sociologists that “the term social class is by now useful in historical sociology, in comparative or folk sociology, but that it is nearly valueless for the clarification of the data of wealth, power, and social status in the contemporary United States and much of Western society in general.” Quoted in Jan Pukalski and Malcolm Waters, “The Reshaping and Dissolution of Class in Advanced Society,” Theory and Society 25, no. 5 (1996): 667. Pukalski and Waters seem to agree with Nisbet. They describe scholars who defend the concept of class as representing “an effort, however genuine, to manufacture class where it no longer exists as a meaningful social entity.” Also see Terry N. Clark and Seymour Martin Lipset, “Are Social Classes Dying?” in The Breakdown of Class Politics: A Debate on Post-Industrial Stratification ed. Terry N. Clark and Seymour Martin Lipset (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 39-52.

12 It is certainly possible to overstate the extent to which class has ceased to be important in the public dialogue. While class as a concept seems to be seldom mentioned in mainstream American culture today, it has certainly not ceased to exist as a material reality: indeed, disparities of wealth are sharper today than at any time in the postwar years. Additionally, several events, such as the recent financial crisis, have made the return of class to the intellectual and cultural realm more likely. It is rare for a public figure to straightforwardly deny the existence of class. Instead it is simply omitted from the dialogue or minimized with various rhetorical strategies.

13 Barbara Engels, “Not By Bread Alone: Subsistence Riots in Russia During World War I,” The Journal Of Modern History 69, no. 4 (1997): 696-698.

14 Walter Moss, A History of Russia: Since 1855 (London: Anthem Press, 2005), 110-112. Mark Spritzler, The People As Enemy (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2003), 37.

15 Geoffrey A. Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 391- 393. In fact, the Bolsheviks seized power at the expense of the soviets while pretending to be in favor of them.

16 Robert O. Paxton and Julie Hessler, Europe in the Twentieth Century (Boston: Wadsworth, 2005), 122-123. Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923 (London: Bookmarks, 1982), 29-45.

17 Ralph Roland Sarti, Italy: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: Facts on File, 2004), 512. Darlington, Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism (Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008), 80.

18 Darlington, Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism, 80.

19 Ibid. John H. Morrow Jr., The Great War: An Imperial History (Abingdon, Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, 2004), 217- 218. Giovanna Procacci, “State Coercion and Worker Solidarity in Italy (1915-1918): The Moral and Political Content of Social Unrest,” in Strikes, Social Conflict, and the First World War: An International Perspective ed. Leopold Haimson and Giulo Sapelli (Milan: Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, 1992), 148-156.

20 Stefano Musso, “Working Class Conflicts in Turin” in Strikes, Social Conflict, and the First World War: An International Perspective eds. Haimson and Sapelli, 238-240.

21 Paxton and Hessler, Europe in the Twentieth Century, 98.

22 James E. Cronin, “Industry, Locality, and the State: Patterns of Mobilization in the Postwar Strike Wave in Britain” in Strikes, Social Conflict, and the First World War: An International Perspective eds. Haimson and Sapelli, 93, 100-101.

23 Paxton and Hessler, Europe in the Twentieth Century, 95. This agreement was in exchange for representation on National Labor Advisory Committee and promises “to control industrialists’ profits”. The voluntary abandonment of the strike as a tactic by trade unions is a theme I will return to later. See also Michel Perrot, “Introduction” in Strikes, Social Conflicts, and the First World War: An International Perspective eds. Haimson and Sapelli, 25-30.

24 Paxton and Hessler, Europe in the Twentieth Century, 121.

25 Douglas Gill and Gloden Dallas, “Mutiny at Etaples Base in 1917,” Past & Present 69 (1975): 91-93.

26 Ibid., 88, 92-93.

27 Ibid., 88.

28 Ibid., 102-104. These are only the casualties which were recorded. Many other incidents which were “put down” occurred where a body count was not given, so the number of colonial laborers shot by the British on the Western front could well have been higher.

29 Larry H. Addington, The Patterns of War since the Eighteenth Century, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), 162-163.

30 William P. McEvoy and Spencer C. Tucker, “France, Army Mutiny (1917)” in The Encyclopedia of World War I ed. Spencer C. Tucker (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 434. Edward L. Byrd, Jr. and Ingrid P. Westmoreland, “French Army Mutiny, 1917” in The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia ed. Spencer C. Tucker (New York: Routledge, 1999), 273-274. Interestingly enough, Petain, who was later to be the head of the collaborator Vichy regime was sent in to replace Neville and defuse the situation.

31 Nigel Anthony Sellars, Oil, Wheat, and Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma, 1905-1930 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 77-91.

32 Robert V. Haines, “The Houston Mutiny and Riot of 1917,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 74, no. 4 (1973): 418.

33 Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (Boston, South End Press, 1997), 117.

34 Ibid., 118.

35 Ibid., 119-128.

36 Ibid., 136, 138-140.

37 Ibid., 129-133.

38 Ibid., 152-156.

39 Mark Spritzler, The People as Enemy, 52-66.

40 “During 1919 and 1920, moreover, Italy experienced the most extensive and militant strike wave in her history, culminating in the factory occupations of September 1920 . . . fascism began to gether momentum late in 1920, in volent reaction against the Socialist labor movement . . . Some Italian businessmen sought new political arrangements which would enable them to tame the unions and to absorb public power for their own ends. The Fascist regime was apparently serving their purposes when it outlawed strikes and forced workers . . . into [labor organizations] controlled by fascists, when it emphasized national solidarity and the further viability of Italian capitalism, when it brough economic and poltical power together through corporativism.” David D. Roberts, The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism, (Chapel Hill University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 4.

41 Gordon Williamson, The SS: Hitler’s Instruments of Terror (St. Paul: MBI Publishing Company, 1994), 9, 11.

42 Including the Soviet Union, which had evolved into a form of beauracratic capitalism managed directly by the state.

43 Mark Spritzler, The People As Enemy, 19-20. Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power (NY: Penguin Press), 457.

44 Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power (NY: Penguin Press, 2005), 333-335, 492-493, 497-498.

45 Ibid., 498.

46 Ibid., 500.

47 Ibid., 493.

48 Mark Spritzler, The People As Enemy, 22.

49 Quoted in Mark Spritzler, The People As Enemy, 14.

50 Ibid., 23-26.

51 Ibid., 26-27.

52 Ibid., 27-31

53 Ibid., 32.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid., 33-34.

56 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 410.

57 Ibid., 409.

58 Deborah E. Lipstadt, “Witness to the Persecution: The Allies and the Holocaust: A Review Essay,” Modern Judaism 3, no. 3 (1983): 322.

59 Ibid., 323.

60 Henry L. Feingold, Bearing Witness: How America and its Jews responded to the Holocaust (Syracuse, NY: Syracruse University Press, 1995), 63.

61 Zinn, People’s History, 408.

62 Ibid., 410.

63 Ibid., 414.

64 Spritzler, The People as Enemy, 99.

65 Ibid., 99.

66 Ibid., 100.

67 Lloyd Gardner, quoted in Zinn, People’s History, 414.

68 Zinn, People’s History, 413.

69 Ibid., 413.

70 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Adress of the president delivered by radio from the white house”, December 9th, 1941 (http://www.mhric.org/fdr/chat19.html)

71 Andrew Edmund Kersten, Labor’s Home Front: The American Federation of Labor during World War II (NY: New York University Press, 2006), 3.

72 Jeremy Brecher, Strike!, 237.

73 Robert F. Wagner, Speech on the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), February 21st, 1935. Congressional Record, 74th Congress, 1st Session, vol. 79, 2371-72. (http://dandelion-patch.mit.edu/afs/athena.mit.edu/course/21/21h.102/www/Primary%20source%20collections/The%20New %20Deal/Wagner,%20National%20Labor%20Relations%20Act.htm)

74 Ibid.

75 Quoted in Spritzler, The People as Enemy, 57.

76 Ibid., 57.

77 Ibid.

78 Martin Glaberman, Wartime Strikes: The Struggle Against the No-Strike Pledge In the UAW during World War II (Detroit: Bewicked Editions, 1980), 2.

79 Ibid., 3-4. Andrew Kersten cites an incident in Buffalo, NY, where the UAW lost out to a organizing drive by the AFL affiliate, the International Association of Machinists, because the IAM refused to give up overtime pay, causing the workers to join in droves. The UAW responded by accusing the IAM and the AFL generally of a lack of patriotism, demonstrating the moderate nature of this supposedly more radical arm of the labor movement. Kersten, Labor’s Home Front, 29.

80 Kersten, Labor’s Home Front, 28.

81 Brecher, Strike!, 239.

82 Ibid., 239.

83 Ibid.

84 Ibid., 240.

85 Glaberman, Wartime Strikes, 35. Brecher, Strike!, 240.

86 Glaberman, Wartime Strikes, 36. Brecher, Strike!, 240.

87 Brecher, Strike!, 246.

88 Kersten, Labor’s Home Front, vii. Larry Rohther, “Of Rubber and Blood in Brazilian Amazon,” New York Times, November 23, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/23/world/americas/23brazil.html

89 Kersten, Labor’s Home Front, 39.

90 Ibid., 35.

91 Brecher, Strike!, 247.

92 Kersten, Labor’s Home Front, 72-75.

93 Mark Spritzler, The People as Enemy, 86-102.

94 Studs Terkel, “The Good War” (NY: Ballantine Books, 1984), 390-392.


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Class and Nation: WWII and the Class Struggle in America and Worldwide