Saturday, September 22, 2012


Harry Targ

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…. (President Abraham Lincoln, “The Emancipation Proclamation,” January 1, 1863).
The Purdue University Black Cultural Center on September 21, 2012 organized a panel honoring the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the final version of which was issued by the President on January 1, 1863. The proclamation declared slaves in the states rebelling against the United States to be free. It did not apply to those border states which had not seceded from the union. In those states 750,000 slaves were yet to be liberated.
Celebration of political anniversaries provides an important opportunity to better understand the past, how the past connects to the present, and what needs to be done to connect the present to the future. As a participant on this panel I was stimulated to reflect on the place and significance of the Proclamation and the centrality of slavery and racism to American history.
First, as Marx suggested at the time, the rise of capitalism as a mode of production was inextricably connected to slavery and the institutionalization of racism. He described the rise of capitalism out of feudalism and the centrality of racism and slavery to that process:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation (Capital, Volume 1).
Second, the Emancipation Proclamation began a political revolution, abolishing slavery in Confederate states, but it did not embrace full citizenship rights for all African Americans nor did it support economic emancipation. The historical literature documents that while Lincoln’s views on slavery moved in a progressive direction, the President remained more committed to preserving the Union than abolishing slavery. Until the Proclamation, he harbored the view that African Americans should emigrate to Africa, the Caribbean, or Central America to establish new lives. As historian Eric Foner wrote: “Which was the real Lincoln--the racist or the opponent of slavery? The unavoidable answer is: both.” In short, President Lincoln, an iconic figure in American history thought and acted in contradictory ways.
Third, Lincoln’s growing opposition to slavery during his political career and his presidency was influenced to a substantial degree by the abolitionist movement. As an influential participant in that movement Frederick Douglass had a particular impact on Lincoln’s thinking. Foner points out that on a whole variety of issues “Lincoln came to occupy positions the abolitionists first staked out.” He continues:  “The destruction of slavery during the war offers an example, as relevant today as in Lincoln’s time, of how the combination of an engaged social movement and an enlightened leader can produce progressive social change.”
Fourth, the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation was never fully achieved. It constituted an “unfinished revolution,” the creation of political rights for former slaves but not economic justice. The former slaves remained dependent on the plantation system of agriculture; landless sharecroppers beholden to former slave owners.
Fifth, post-civil war reconstruction began to institutionalize the political liberation of African Americans. For a time Blacks and whites began to create new political institutions that represented the common interests of the economically dispossessed. But the collaboration of Northern industrial interests and Southern plantation owners led to the destruction of Reconstruction era change and a return to the neo-slave system of Jim Crow segregation. Even the “unfinished revolution” was temporarily crushed.
Sixth, over the next 100 years African Americans, workers, women, and other marginalized groups continued the struggle to reconstruct the political freedoms implied in the Emancipation Proclamation and temporarily institutionalized in Reconstruction America. The struggle for democracy culminated in the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and the rising of Latinos, women, and gays and lesbians.
Finally, the contradictions of victories achieved and the escalation of racist reactions since the mid-1960s continues. And, most vitally, the unfinished revolution continues. The question of the intersection of race and class remains as gaps between rich and poor in wealth, income, and political power grow.
In this historic context, the candidacy of President Obama in 2012 offers a continuation of the struggle for political rights against the most sustained racist assaults by neoliberals, conservatives, and tea party activists that has existed since the days of segregation.
At the same time Obama’s re-election alone, while vital to the progressive trajectory of American history since 1863, will not complete the revolution. The need for social movements to address the “class question,” or economic justice along with protecting the political gains that have been achieved, will remain critical to our future.
One hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation the struggle for democracy, political empowerment and the end to class exploitation, remains for this generation to advance.

Monday, September 17, 2012


Harry Targ
Ten thousand times the labor movement has stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians. But not withstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun (Eugene V. Debs).
After World War I workers believed it was time to unionize everybody who worked. Some organizers came out of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), some were enthusiastic followers of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), some were members of the Socialist Party-- followers of Eugene V. Debs, and many were inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution. Workers launched two nationwide strikes in steel and meat packing.
The ruling classes responded with force and fraud. As to the former, they used a multiplicity of means to crush strikes and they jailed and deported known radicals. The United States government participated with other regimes to intervene in the Russian civil war and to isolate the new revolutionary government diplomatically and economically.
As to fraud, corporations initiated various worker-management schemes to mollify worker discontent: from sporting activities, to counselor home visits, to the establishment of human relations departments. Also businesses embarked on a huge campaign to stimulate consumerism, including catalog purchases of products to buying on time to creating an automobile culture. Force and fraud worked. Labor union membership and worker militancy declined even though wages and working conditions did not improve substantially.
But by the late 1920s strikes in textile and mining occurred. With the onset of the Great Depression, radicals were organizing Unemployment Councils in urban areas. Dispossessed farmers began their long trek to the West Coast seeking agricultural work.
In 1934 alone, general strikes occurred in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo and Akron Ohio. In the late 1930s, workers in South Bend, Indiana and Flint, Michigan added the “sit-down strike” to the panoply of militant tools used by workers to demand the right to organize unions, fair wages, health and safety at the work place, and pensions.
Many of their goals were achieved by the 1950s. 1953 was the peak year for organized labor. Thirty-three percent of non-agricultural workers were organized. Then union membership began a slow but steady decline. The Reagan “revolution” brought a return to many of the strategies of force and fraud employed in the 1920s. Declining worker power was dramatic. Both Republican and Democratic administrations used administrative tools, out-sourcing of jobs, so-called free trade agreements, and outright banning of rights to collective bargaining in various sectors to crush unions.
But as history shows, workers from time to time fight back, regain the rights they lost in prior eras, and continue the process of pushing history in a progressive direction. The last year is such a time for fight back. Workers in Cairo, Madison, Madrid, Athens, and Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and all across the globe are rising up.
In the United States the most recent example is that of the Chicago Teachers Union. Public sector workers have been hit very hard in recent years. Government officials rationalized anti-labor legislation as necessitated by fiscal crises. But these fiscal crises lead not to the end to services but to their privatization. Teachers, librarians, fire fighters and others are laid off and replaced or rehired at wages a third less than they made as unionized public sector workers.
Chicago teachers have said no to this scam. They are fighting against the privatization of public schools, demanding the maintenance of job security for teachers so they can continue to meet the needs of children, and are standing up for the principle that all children, not just children of the wealthy, are entitled to the best education that the society can offer. Throughout history workers’ demands have been beneficial for everybody.
Revisiting history can provide useful lessons from the past for the present. They are not specific roadmaps for action. But what the lessons of the past, the militancy of the last year, and the mobilization of Chicago teachers suggest is that now is a good time to think about all workers--in factories, on construction sites, in offices, in universities, everywhere—organizing unions. There is power in the union.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


Harry Targ
It is almost unfathomable for the media to explain the protests against the United States in seventeen countries as primarily the result of a trailer to an obnoxious anti-Muslim You Tube video. This view is consistent with the historic Western understanding of Islamic people, people of color, the “other,” as ignorant, subject to manipulation, and, finally, less than human. The reality is the peoples of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Asia have a sense of their history and the world and most Americans do not.
Just to review the U.S. role in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf since World War II tells us much more about this week’s protests than the You Tube video. As Michael Klare has written, President Franklin Roosevelt met with King Abdul Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, a week after the famous Yalta Conference aboard the USS Quincy. The President and the King made an agreement that the United States would provide protection for the Saudi regime in exchange for perpetual access to its oil.  
Mohammed Mossadegh the Iranian Prime Minister who negotiated with his parliament the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was overthrown in a CIA engineered coup in 1953. For the next 26 years the Shah ruled Iran as a brutal dictator, crushing secular and religious dissent.
In 1957 President Eisenhower declared that the United States was prepared to send troops to the Middle East to protect the region from international communism. Two years later, claiming the Eisenhower Doctrine, the president sent thousands of marines to Lebanon on false pretenses. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson worked to undermine the influence of secular Arab leaders, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Syrian leaders, who were pursuing autonomy from former colonial overlords. During the 1960s, U.S. support, financial and military, tilted dramatically toward Israel in its war on the Palestinian people and neighboring Arab states.
In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution of 1979  the Carter Doctrine proclaimed the right of the United States to intervene if any attack on the Persian Gulf occurs because  it would “be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America….”  Carter created a Rapid Deployment Force of 100,000 specially trained troops to engage in instant responses to events such as had occurred in Iran and he created what became the U.S. Central Command to govern all forces in the region. Carter and then Reagan embarked on a massive covert war against the government of Afghanistan in the 1980s, supporting fundamentalists such as Osama Bin Laden in the war on communism.
George Herbert Walker Bush launched Gulf War One with a coalition of nations to extricate Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Over the decade of the 1990s, the Iraqi people were smothered by an economic embargo and regular bombing campaign.
Then the wars on Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) were launched as well as attacks on military targets in Pakistan. The “war on terrorism” included violence against Muslim populations in several countries, including Yemen and Somalia, with hundreds of forward bases in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Asia.
Stephen Walt, Harvard political scientist, estimated that from 1988 to 2009 about 10,000 Americans died in military encounters with Muslims. However, 288,000 Muslims died at the hands of American troops or bombs.  He wrote that Americans killed 30 Muslims for every United States citizen who was killed and if one includes the over one million non-combat deaths from economic sanctions (in Iraq for example) the ratio of Muslims who died in interaction with Americans would be 100 to one.
Walt reported that Muslim deaths were the direct result of United States foreign policy, whereas American deaths were largely at the hands of non-state actors, i.e. terrorist groups. In addition, the United States has funded and supports allies who also engage in the slaughter of Muslims.
He concluded: “Some degree of anti-Americanism may reflect ideology, distorted history, or a foreign government’s attempt to shift blame onto others (a practice that all governments indulge in), but a lot of it is the inevitable result of policies that the American people have supported in the past. When you kill tens of thousands of people in other countries-and sometimes for no good reason-you shouldn’t be surprised when people in those countries are enraged by this behavior and interested in revenge. After all, how did we react after September 11?” (“Why They Hate Us (II): How Many Muslims Has the U.S. Killed in the Past 30 Years?” November 30, 2009, reposted on the blog site of Foreign Policy on September 15, 2012).
The new reliance on drone warfare, while increasing the scope of war on Muslims, decreases the risk to U.S. troops in the short run. However, the question for the future is whether this war will continue to cause the violent attacks on United States targets that have been experienced over the last week.




Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Harry Targ
But we also believe in something called citizenship – citizenship-- a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.
We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe. (Barack Obama, Democratic National Convention, September 6, 2012)

Most political and cultural historians argue that the United States has not had a strong socialist tradition, at least compared to European countries. While this view has some merit, these commentators ignore the deep communal traditions of Native peoples, the founders of utopian communities in the nineteenth century all across the Northeast and Midwest, radical socialists in the labor movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the large Socialist Party led by Eugene V. Debs, and the Communist movement of the twentieth century. These pundits also ignore violent state repression in virtually every period of American history that has been targeted against Socialist dissenters.
However, despite state police, the FBI, strike breakers, and repressive cultural institutions such as churches, educational systems, and the media, the vision of community, sharing, and public purpose have survived.
Survival has taken many forms—political parties, mass movements, religious and secular campaigns for social and economic justice. President Obama was not talking about Socialism in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention September 6. Indeed, he would reject any suggestion that his political vision has a commonality with that of Socialists. But he did offer an insightful rendition of values embedded in the American experience. He called it “citizenship.”
What is citizenship about? For starters, it implies the idea of a public purpose. A society consists of persons of all races, genders, classes, sexual orientations, and ethnicities who are, of necessity, bound together to sustain life. The President is arguing that at a fundamental level human survival requires some sharing of pain and work as well as the enjoyment of life. It is inevitable that a nation’s people, indeed global citizens, share space, water, the air we breathe, the roads we travel on, and virtually every physical, social, and economic institution and process beyond our most intimate and private lives. Ultimately citizenship is about human community.
In American political history, groups of people have had to struggle to get recognition of citizenship and community. In the nineteenth century, educational reformers had to campaign to establish public educational institutions. Reading, writing, research on agriculture and medical science was vital to human community. The success of the public school movement and the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act for higher education are examples of the realization of the needs of human community.
Citizens also came to realize that access to printed material, books, magazines, newspapers, was critical to an informed public and to human community. Public libraries were created to provide reading materials, public space for discussion, and meeting centers.
In urban areas, people came to realize that human community, the practice of citizenship, required space for people to meet, to argue, to play dominoes, to lecture in front of interested audiences on the topics of the day. Human community meant “hanging out,” in parks, on street corners, in empty lots.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, in response to the rapacious, unplanned spread of capitalism, it was recognized that rural space needed to be preserved. National parks were created to encourage the use of what remained of the natural environment, much of which had been destroyed when the colonists conquered the people and occupied the land on which they already had been living in harmony. The original dwellers would be forbidden from regaining what was stolen from them but efforts were made to return some of the land to its pristine beauty.
In addition to schools, libraries, urban spaces, and national parks, human community, it was realized, required social, economic, and political rights. Citizenship for people living in various geographic areas and working in various manufacturing and service venues required the right of people to associate with whomever they chose, in unions, churches, civic organizations, and interest groups. Citizenship meant coming together with like-minded others, particularly those who had economic interests in common. No human is “an island.”
In a modern society where human community cannot be based solely on direct, interpersonal interaction, voting was necessary to allow the full expression of the sentiments of the human community.  
So when President Obama spoke of citizenship, whether he realized the full implications of his remarks or not, he was speaking of human community, education, public space, the freedom of association, and the right to vote. All of these core values embedded in American history and culture are under fundamental threat today.
“Market fundamentalist” ideologues argue that there is no such thing as citizenship, human community, and a public sphere.
Advocates for the privatization of public schools--from vouchers in Indiana and charter schools in Chicago to the privatization of higher education by business model university presidents--forget that education has been a public good, not a commodity for sale in the market.
Those who call for the selling off of public spaces in cities and the countryside are advocating robbery of land for profit.
And those who challenge the right of workers to form trade unions and associations and those who seek to repress the right of people to vote are advocating the destruction of the most fundamental conceptions of citizenship and human community.
These are very dangerous times. Whether activists want to call themselves socialists, anarchists, occupiers, liberals, progressives, or whatever, the task is clear. We must unite to save our citizenship, our public space, and human community.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


Harry Targ

Saturday, September 8, 2012, I will be participating in a very special conference called “Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie’s Legacy to Working Men and Women,” at Penn State University. My introductory comments below reflect the connections between these iconic performers and the Marxist tradition, the working class, popular culture, and people’s music. It calls for a return to the “popular front” politics of Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger.

Several key concepts in the Marxian tradition influenced the consciousness and political practice of Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. First, all three were historical and dialectical materialists. They conceived of the socio-economic condition of people’s lives as fundamental to the shaping of their activities and consciousness. They were historical materialists in that they understood that the material conditions of people’s lives changed as the economic system in which they lived changed. And they were dialectical in that they were sensitive to the contradictory character of human existence.

Second, class as the fundamental conceptual tool for examining a society shaped their thinking. Increasingly they realized that class struggle was a fundamental force for social change. Given the American historical context they saw that class and race were inextricably interconnected.

Third, all three addressed a theory of imperialism which they regarded as critical to understanding international relations. Living in an age of colonialism and neo- colonialism all three performer/activists, but particularly Paul Robeson, saw imperialism as a central structural feature of relations between nations, peoples and classes. They were inspired by those resisting the yoke of foreign domination.

Fourth, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger saw that community, harmony, and socialism would represent the next stage of societal development. They believed that the vision of socialism had the potential for improving the quality of life of humankind. Robeson’s experiences in the Soviet Union led him to expect socialist states to be free of the kind of racism endemic to the United States.

Fifth, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger emphasized the connection between theory and practice. Each artist in his own way articulated what Robeson proclaimed in 1937 in the context of supporting the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War that every artist must take a stand. The artist (i.e., the intellectual) must act in the context of a world of exploitation. One was either on the side of the ongoing oppressive order or on the side of change.

Armed with these insights, the three folk artist/activists committed themselves to action; action grounded in the struggles of their day. In Antonio Gramsci’s terms, they were “organic intellectuals.” They joined anti-racist, anti-colonial, labor and peace struggles. They walked picket lines, entertained Spanish Civil War loyalists, striking workers and other protesters, and sought to lend support to international socialist solidarity.

Being an organic intellectual in the 1930s and 40s, and in the case of Pete Seeger the 1940s and beyond, meant participating in what Michael Denning called “the cultural front.” The political environment of the CIO, the Communist movement, civil rights and anti-war struggles, and building the New Deal provided the social forces out of which Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger could thrive and grow. The three artists and activists--Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger--were agents and products of Marxist ideas engaged in practical political work as organic intellectuals participating in a broad cultural front.

Each artist/activist projected an image of human oneness. They saw the connections between the defense of democracy in Spain and the U.S. South and the necessity of building a peaceful and democratic post-World War II order to achieve justice for the working classes of all lands. Robeson’s consciousness was shaped by the vision of a common pentagonal chord structure in the world's folk music; a metaphor that privileges difference and unity. The musical visions of Guthrie and Seeger celebrated what was common in the human experience as well.

In sum, an implicit Marxist lens influenced the consciousness and behavior of three giants-Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. Their artistic and political work was shaped by and shaped the social movements of the period from the 1930s to the 1960s and beyond. Cultural theorist, Michael Denning referred to the connections between artists, social movements, and the political moment as a multilayered “cultural front.” And the three in linking the theory, context and practice were applying the political strategy of the “popular front.”

Finally, the theory and practice of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger represent a model for building contemporary mass movements in the face of economic and political crises. Over the past two years the world has seen mass mobilizations against dictatorship in Middle Eastern regimes; emerging new socialist forces in France, the Netherlands, and Denmark; mass movements against wars on workers, women, and minorities in the United States; and the emergence of grassroots mobilizations, particularly the Occupy Movement, all across the North American continent. The framework of struggle—the 99 percent versus the one percent— while not expressly Marxist, can have the same animating effect on workers, youth, minorities, and women, that the songs of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger did from the 1930s to the present time.