Liberalism Then and Now

Classical liberalism, in the sense of the liberalism of the 18th and 19th Centuries, was a powerfully progressive force. It was the ideological expression of the need of the bourgeoisie to put paid to the social-political vestiges of kings and aristocrats and to create a society in it’s own image, and one in which the repressive power of the state could be reduced to the minimum necessary. Thus liberals fought, often with great success, for universal suffrage, formal equality before the law, freedom of expression, improvements in the status of women, a military under civilian control, and limitation of police powers. All good things, compared to what had gone before.
A progressive ideology that basis itself on a progressive economic system becomes reactionary when that system has exhausted itself.  Compare the progressive role of Christianity in the fight against the Roman slave system to Catholicism’s reactionary role during the downfall of the feudal monarchies.  In the same way, when capitalism itself became reactionary—that is, when it could no longer maintain itself without massive wars and destruction of infrastructure and ever-increasing measures of repression to defend its ever-greater difficulties in distributing human wants (wealth inequality)—liberalism transformed from a progressive ideology to one that simply provided a cover for the worst crimes of capitalism. 
We could look at the criminal role of liberalism in the Russian revolution, or its craven role Germany in the 30s, but really, we don’t have to look any further than the US. From the massive labor battles of the 1930s to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, liberalism in the form of its official spokesmen (politicians and journalists) has specialized in fighting tooth-and-nail against any moves toward equality, and, insofar as their efforts failed, loudly claiming credit for instituting them.  It’s like. after being robbed at gunpoint, you bragged about your generous donation.  When the US ruling elite needs to take a repressive step but fears that its “right-wing” elements will generate too much popular outrage, it turns to its “left-wing” side to carry it out.  We all remember how it turned to Obama to cut SNAP benefits, protect Wall Street gangsters, launch new wars, and begin a massive assault on immigrants.  Going further back, it was the “New Deal” Roosevelt who asked congress for the right to draft striking workers and force them to labor.  The “Fair Deal” Truman invoked Taft-Hartley 12 times within the first year of its passage.  Permit me to quote from Labor’s Giant Step by Art Preis:
“It is an irrefutable fact that the New Deal-Fair Deal liberals were the chief authors and sponsors of the first federal laws to (1) make mere opinion a crime (the Smith Act of 1940, rushed through by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Roosevelt); (2) establish concentration (detention) camps in America where political dissenters can be imprisoned without trial during “national emergency” (McCaarran-Kilgore Internal Security Act of 1950); and (3) outlaw a political party (Communist Control Act of 1954).”
The last, by the way, was sponsored by Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, who “won his spurs” by collaborating with the Stalinists to destroy the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.
In the end, the first and third of these acts were used (with, it must be admitted, the cooperation of the union bureaucrats) to essentially neuter the American union movement and leave it helpless in the face of the massive, direct attacks on the unions that began under Reagan.
Today, what goes under the name of liberalism directs its energy toward preventing independent action of the working class, spreading ignorance, sowing division, and, above all, trying to convince us that the hollow shell of liberalism is the only alternative to the even more reactionary elements.
Heads up: it isn’t.

A quick note on the elections of 1952

The US elections in 1948 were a full sweep victory for the Democratic Party—the presidency and both houses—running on a strong pro-labor stance.  Upon election, of course, Truman and the Democratic controlled congress turned against the unions, breaking them up and suppressing them and making sure they were led by people who fully supported the Korean “police action” (that was opposed by the majority of Americans, and the overwhelming majority of workers).  The attacks on the union movement were continuous and powerful, although, in fairness to Truman, he never went as far as FDR, who pushed for a law permitting striking workers to be drafted into military service and forced to labor.

The primary technique Truman used in this was to raise hysteria against “Russian spies” and “Russian influence.”  While it is worth discussing how the actions of the Stalinists in the 30s and 40s permitted this to work, that isn’t the point I’m making now.  What I want to say is, this campaign was very successful, in that he was able, with the help of AFL and CIO bureaucrats, to break up some of the more militant unions and significantly weaken others.  It is not going too far to say that Reagan was able to launch such a successful attack on the unions in the 1980s because of the action of Truman and the Democrats 30 years earlier.

In 1952, the Republican Party ran on a platform that the Democrats were “soft on Communism” and won the presidency and control of Congress and unleashed McCarthy.

In other words, “Hey, thanks for going out and finding that nice stick.  Now we’re going to beat you to death with it.”  When you abandon principle (not that the Democrats had any) for short-term political gain, you’re stropping the razor that will be used to cut your throat.

Here endeth the lesson.


When Was Capitalism Progressive?

In a Facebook discussion, my friend Vicka Corey asked if I thought capitalism had value at one time, which I think is an excellent question. When I said yes, she asked when and how I thought it changed, another excellent and important question. I’m copying my answer here with some minor edits because it might generate some interesting discussion. Here it is:


Huge question. It was progressive when it came into the world, although, from it’s birth it covered itself in blood. But in spite of that, it got rid of the kings and aristocrats, and in this country it ended slavery. It increased the productivity of labor to the point where there is no longer any reason for hunger, homelessness, untreated disease. It brought socialized production to a high art, although in doing so it increased the contradiction between socialized production and private ownership.

The US, from its inception as a nation, epitomized capitalism’s contradictory nature probably more than anywhere else. A huge creative spurt in productivity of labor (the “American system of manufacture”), and profound cruelty toward its own working class. Tremendous strides toward equality–and chattel slavery. A growth of freedom that inspired the oppressed throughout the world–and genocide of its native population combined with the most hypocritical warmongering ever seen (cf The Mexican-American War, and The Spanish-American War for early examples).

When did it change? One thing capitalism has always required is expansion. A company (with a few weird exceptions that end up proving the rule) that does not expand is dying. As capitalism is built on the nation-state, that means the expansion of nation-states, which means any society at a lower technological level is to be plundered and exploited by the more advanced countries.

World War I, 1914, marked the point where every less advanced country was “owned” by one of the imperialist nations: Germany, England, France, the US,* From there, the only way to expand was at the expense of another great power (of course, the helpless victims in the conquered countries counted for nothing.) So I would say it was at that point that capitalism had reached the end of its ability to advance mankind; any further continuance would require body counts in the millions and massive destruction of infrastructure just to provide it another breathing space.

* Add Belgium on a small scale, and Russia sorta kinda counted; it was both imperialist and a potential victim of imperialism, because of its massive size and weirdly contradictory development of technology, advanced in some ways, but deeply backward in others (including military technique).

An Object Lesson From Minnesota History

Minneapolis really is a good place to live. I mean, if you’re in the continental United States, you could do far worse. Minneapolis has more area of public park per person than anywhere else in the US, with St. Paul a close second, and no one else anywhere near. An extremely active theater scene, museums and art galleries open to the public at little or no charge, decent public education, a pretty fair system of public transit, and—
But you know, my point is not, in fact, to sell you on Minneapolis. It’s to point out something that even most people who live hear don’t know.
All of those things I mentioned were not gifts. They didn’t fall from the sky, and, no, they were not the result of kind-hearted politicians.
In 1934, there was a strike here. It was one of the formative strikes that built the Teamsters Union (although, ironically, it was opposed at every step by Dan Tobin and the national Teamsters leadership) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. It was led by Trotskyists, and it broke the Citizens Alliance, an organization of businessmen dedicated to keeping Minneapolis an open shop town. All of the things that make this a good place to live, can be traced, directly or indirectly, to Teamsters Local 574—who incidentally, a bit later, broke up a rally of a Nazi-esque organization called the Silver Shirts so thoroughly they never again amounted to anything.
The high point of the strike itself was the Battle of Deputies Run; the name should be sufficient to tell you what happened. Afterwards, for days, the cops didn’t dare show their faces, and the organized workers took over the job of making sure the city kept functioning—and did a damned fine job of it, thank you very much.
Shockingly (ahem), the local Democratic Party, as well as the local Republican Party, did all they could to break the strike.  The myth here in Minnesota is that Hubert Humphrey emerged fully formed from Minnehaha Falls and bestowed blessings upon the people. Crap. Out of the pugnacious Minneapolis working class grew a Farmer-Labor Party that, in fact, elected a governor–Floyd B. Olson. He, himself, was no hero; but the very fact that the Minnesota labor movement had a political arm, apart from the two capitalist parties—was enough to give us a lot of the things I treasure about this city. It lasted until it was destroyed by a combined effort of the Stalinist Communist Party and—Hubert Humphrey.  Humphrey then, as the Trotskyists had warned he would, turned around and smashed the Communist Party.  What’s left is that, in Minnesota, the Democratic Party is known as the DFL—Democratic Farmer-Labor, and is the reason the Republicans have never really gotten a foothold here.  The other thing that’s left is that, as per protocol, after failing to keep the masses from getting what they wanted, the Democrats claimed credit for them having gotten it.
It isn’t that complicated: The more the masses of the working class count only on their own strength, with a solid, determined leadership based on revolutionary socialist principles, the better things are for them—and for all of us.
Scan from original on Epson Expression 10000XL.
Scan from original on Epson Expression 10000XL.

Why Can’t the US turn into Scandinavia?

“The Russian bourgeois dreamed of an agrarian evolution on the French plan, or the Danish, or the American – anything you want, only not the Russian. He neglected, however, to supply himself in good season with a French history or an American social structure.”  Trotsky—History of the Russian Revolution

The issue of “modified capitalism” or “a mix of systems” or “Scandinavian style capitalism” has been coming up a great deal on social media as the capitalist juggernaut crushes more and more people and the idea of revolution seems less far-fetched and therefore, to certain social layers, more terrifying.  I’ve added a section to my sidebar post, “Answers to a Few Things I’m Tired of Hearing,” (point #20) , but it’s coming up so often now that I’ve decided to talk about it here.  This is mostly a copy of what I put there, with some expansions.

Of course it is tempting to point and say, “They do it there, why can’t we do it here?”  Like all easy answers to difficult questions, it makes intuitive sense, but falls apart upon examination.  Before I get into methodological problems, let’s look at it historically for a moment.

There is no question that in certain countries the working class, through terrible struggle and through the creation of labor parties, was able to win significant and important concessions from capital that have made those societies far more humane.  This was a product of the post WWII conditions, that is, a time when capitalism, having gone through this slaughter, and massive destruction of property, had given itself a certain amount of flexibility.  At the same time, the bourgeoisie was absolutely terrified of the social revolutions that were threatening throughout Europe (and Asia).  In general, expressing it in the form of an equation, we get something like this:

Flexibility in capitalism + fear of social revolution = the possibility of reform.

That is pretty much what happened in the Scandinavian countries (as well as England, Belgium, &c)  after WW II.  But then, what about the US?  Alas, thanks above all to the betrayals of the Stalinists in the US Communist Party, the same upsurge in the US (1946-48 strike wave, see also the Progressive Party ), was not able to produce a political arm, which has crippled the ability of the US working class to win similar concessions (although it still did win some: see medicaid, medicare,  &c).  But here’s what I want to emphasize: The idea of doing so now, when capitalism has so little flexibility that it is taking away every tiny thing once gained, and is going so far as to turn police forces into militarized terrorist gangs, and is attacking democracy on every front, is utterly absurd.  And if you believe the best way forward is to recreate those post-war conditions, in other words, to have a third world war (nuclear this time) merely so capitalism can continue its bloodbath while being a bit gentler in the more privileged countries, I’m going to have to fight you on that.

Moreover, capitalism is international.  Financial exchanges, capital investments, and deals for new factories fly across borders that, after all, are only intended to keep the working class in place, not the elite, and certainly not the elite’s money.   I won’t say that a butterfly in New Mexico can cause a hurricane in China, but we’ve seen that a bank failure in Thailand can cause a stock market crash in New York.  And as these crises increase in frequency and severity, we know who is asked to pay for them.  Hint: It isn’t the capitalists.   Not here, not in Thailand, and not in Iceland.

Capitalism is rattling itself apart like a machine whose control mechanism has broken.  Rather than the Scandinavian countries being a model for what the US should do, the US is a predictor of what will inevitably happen there.  We can already see it in the virulent anti-immigrant stances that are more and more common there (and in Australia).   Such reactionary positions are not independent of attacks on the working class domestically, but are part of the same process.  In other words, the reformists in most of those countries have either lost power, or are moving sharply to the right.  The others will follow because they must.  If capitalism is to be preserved, it must be preserved on the backs of the working class; the working class, on the other hand, has no way to protect what it has won, or, in this country, to win basic human rights like healthcare, without a program that rejects the idea that capitalism has a right to exist.  However much you’d rather it were otherwise, those are our choices: the needs of the masses, or the free market.

What I want to emphasize, though, is the method behind this confusion: in part, it comes from looking at surface phenomena and accepting them, without digging deeper into causes.  But another part comes from the same methodological flaw that produces right Libertarianism: the idea that the way forward involves thinking up what sort of society you’d like to live in, then convincing enough people that this would be a good idea that it is (somehow) implemented.   I hope and believe that, someday, this can happen—that humanity will achieve a level of cooperation and a height of intellectual power that we will be able to plan out our own future development.  But we’re not there yet.  Now we’re where history has placed us, and we have to move forward from here as best we can, and that means, among other things, a study of history, and an effort to learn its objective laws.  That is where to begin, not with picturing an ideal society, but with where are we, how did we get here, what are our options, and what do we need?  Turning the US into another Scandinavia is simply not on the table.

One last point, because it’s somewhat related: for those who claim the Scandinavian countries are socialist.  Uh, no.  They do not have public ownership of production, state power in the hands of the working class, or state monopoly on trade—and those are only the foundations upon which socialism can be built, not even addressing distribution. Socialism does not mean capitalism that isn’t quite as brutal as it is elsewhere.  It is a sign of the poverty of political understanding in the US, and additionally a sign of the barbarity of the US ruling class, that anyone could look at those countries and consider them socialist.  As a side note, I have yet to meet anyone from Sweden or Norway or Iceland or Denmark or Finland who claims to live in a socialist country.