By Deirdre Griswold
History doesn't repeat itself, says one adage. But the more things change, the more they remain the same, says another. The struggle history of the working class and the oppressed is rich in lessons for the present, despite the breathtaking technological change of recent years. Marxism is a scientific approach to understanding not just people's relations to things but how they deal with one another-- class and social relations.
Isn't it amazing to see that in this age of space ships and computers, capitalism is reverting to 19th-century sweatshop conditions in so many places? Clearly, while commodities have evolved at breakneck speed, class relations have not.
We are entering a period of great potential for the development of independent, militant action by the working class of the type that raises class consciousness and clearly targets capitalism as the root of the problem.
But for 60 years, social and political conditions in the United States have been unfavorable to just such a development. What factors have made it so difficult? And what is different about the situation now?
SINCE THE DEPRESSION
The last great period of workers' struggle so scared the ruling class that it agreed to a historic package of concessions known as the New Deal.
That was during the devastating capitalist crisis known as the Great Depression. But by the late 1930s, an expanding war-driven economy and the glorification of U.S. imperialism's global mission dulled the militant labor movement that had been fighting the low wages, unemployment and brutal conditions that followed the 1929 breakdown.
World War II, which positioned Wall Street and the U.S. ruling class for the "American Century," was followed within a few years by the opening of the Cold War and then the extremely hot war in Korea. At home, virulent reaction spearheaded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy swept progressives out of the unions, campuses, arts and many professions in the 1950s. The anti-communist witch hunt left the labor movement with leaders who bowed down before the capitalist state and preached business unionism.
BREAKING THE ICE
The civil-rights movement and the radical anti-war struggles of the 1960s broke up the ice of McCarthyism. Many workers, Black and white, came back from Vietnam with a deep hatred of the officers and the government that had sent them there.
They organized, demonstrated, fought the police and looked for answers amid a confusion of competing ideologies. But once a significant section of the bourgeoisie decided the war could not be won at an acceptable price, it began to dominate the peace movement. The anti-imperialists were not strong enough in the working class to turn the war around against the oppressors and exploiters at home, although some tried.
The economy was rising. And the Johnson administration granted new social programs to keep peace at home while waging the war abroad.
The programs of the so-called Great Society were nowhere near as comprehensive as the New Deal. But they plus the strong economy kept the rebellion of the 1960s from spreading to the working class at large. The young, some of them middle-class, tried to storm the heavens. But their anger was not sufficient to overcome material conditions.
As the war wound down, repression was unleashed at home against the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, Kent State, Jackson State and other centers of rebellion against the capitalist state. The movement began to ebb. Even so, the desire to end repression kept flaring up, especially in the women's movement and newly emerged gay movement.
By the late 1970s, the Pentagon-industrial-banking complex was aggressively pushing for vast new and expensive weapons systems, bemoaning the "Vietnam Syndrome" that had left the population war-shy. They got the actor they wanted in the White House in the 1980s.
Ronald Reagan and former CIA head George Bush presided over the biggest peace-time military buildup ever seen. High-tech jobs abounded. And for a while, it demoralized the movement.
It also brought down the weakened Soviet Union, changing the global relation of forces to the great disadvantage of the working class and oppressed people.
But U.S. imperialism has paid a price for all this success. Or rather, the workers have paid the price.
PAYING THE PRICE
There has been a steady erosion of workers' incomes--wages plus benefits--that by some calculations began as long ago as 1965. It is now common knowledge that few new jobs pay a living wage with health coverage and a pension plan.
Yet that used to be the standard for a union job in industry, not to speak of white-collar expectations.
By hook and by crook, Social Security, Medicare and other vital programs are being crowded out of the budget by the demands of a huge post-Cold-War military machine. Hundreds of billions of dollars that could be spent on rebuilding communities are also going down the drain of interest payments on a national debt incurred almost totally during the Reagan-Bush years of Pentagon spending sprees and tax cuts for the rich.
So while many workers in the 1950s looked forward to having a better place to live, retirement during which to enjoy it, medical care when they needed it and education for their children--today the prognosis for the future is all gloom and doom. No wonder so many people slide into a life of get high, be merry and try to forget about tomorrow!
In Europe, cuts in social services have not gone anywhere near as far. But already the workers' movement there has responded with massive demonstrations, general strikes, occupations and take-overs.
The objective material conditions here clearly favor a major fight back by the working class. What has held it back?
Reliance on the Democratic Party.
Imagine for a moment that it had been a Republican president--Bob Dole, for example--who announced he was getting rid of welfare. A Republican-appointed panel that said there had to be major cuts in Social Security and a higher retirement age.
Would the unions sit back and go along?
THE WAIT IS OVER
For over a year, the argument was that everyone progressive had to rally around President Bill Clinton and get him re-elected, or the big bad Republicans would get in and--what? Cut welfare? Cut Social Security? Cut Medicare and Medicaid?
So now Clinton has another four years. And he's already given some pretty clear indications of what he's going to do with them.
First, he pinned a Medal of Honor on Bob Dole. For falling off the podium?
Yes, it's only symbolic, but the symbolism is clear. Clinton has embarked on a major public-relations campaign to justify his adoption of most of the Republican Contract with America. You see, he can slash and burn so much more effectively than Gingrich or Dole. No wonder the big corporate backers are lining up to have coffee with him.
And the lovefest has just begun. At the end of April, Clinton will meet in Philadelphia with Bush, Gen. Colin Powell and other luminaries to resurrect Bush's "thousand points of light" nonsense.
Hospital workers being laid off? Libraries closing? Schools crumbling? Get all those workers with lots of free time to "volunteer" their labor so everything can start working smoothly again.
Excuse me. Slavery was outlawed over a century ago. Not even the slimiest capitalist politician can sell free labor as a bridge to the next millennium.
Governors and mayors are being rounded up for Clinton's "Volunteer Summit." They're stuck holding the bag when federal funds are slashed and will undoubtedly be the target of a lot of local anger.
But it's the federal government that has orchestrated this vast shift of wealth from workers' benefits to the banks and military industries. The problem is not just a Republican mayor or governor somewhere; it's the offensive of big capital as carried out by the ruling class's bipartisan political machinery on a national level.
The political realities are getting clearer every day: Clinton won't do anything to stop them.
The objective and subjective conditions are over-ripe for a momentous struggle against the arrogant, greedy, heartless moneybags who can never get enough.