Friday, November 24, 2017

JOHN STEINBECK, THE DUST BOWL, AND FARM-WORKER ORGANIZING


Portside Date: 
November 23, 2017
Author: 
Harry Targ
Date of Source: 
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Portside


Steinbeck is most known for his iconic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939, which described in detail the migration of the Joad family from their dust storm devastated farm land to California seeking work and eventually, they hoped, to accumulate enough money to buy land in this presumed mecca. Their travels involved encounters with thousands of other migrants, called "Okies," desperately leaving their homelands in several Southern and Midwest states to find a livelihood. The metaphor that shapes our consciousness of the suffering of the Great Depression of the 1930s, scholar Michael Denning suggests, is a natural disaster, the Dust Bowl.

But the natural disaster is in fact a part of a long history, political economy, politics and culture. New agricultural technologies, shifted the means of production and the products produced  making small farming obsolete. This and a debt system that kept tenant farmers in bondage all created an inextricable connection between a crisis-prone capitalist political economy and the delicate balance of the natural environment.

Corporate land owners demanded that tenant farmers produce more cotton and wheat from land that had been overworked and when those farmers could not produce enough to pay their debts, tractors came and plowed under fences, farmhouses, and ways of life. In fact, the new mechanized agriculture did not need as many tenant farmers to grow the crops that fed the nation. So between the erosion of the land, the huge winds that blew the dusty soil all across the sky, the new agriculture, the debt system millions were set afoot. The deeply indebted tenant farmers forced off their land and enticed by advertisements promising work and wealth in California began the long migrations from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere via old dilapidated trucks and cars to California.

We're sorry, said the owner men. The bank, the fifty-thousand-acre owner can't be responsible. You're on land that isn't yours. Once over the line maybe you can pick cotton in the fall. Maybe you can go on relief. Why don't you go on west to California? There's work there. And it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why, there's always some kind of crop to work in. Why don't you go there? And the owner men started their cars and rolled away.[1]

Steinbeck powerfully describes the trek westward, the expenditures of life savings, the prejudices of gas station owners and other merchants against the "okies" along the way, the inspiring desperate efforts of migrants to share their meager food with others and the shocking arrival in a California where migrant labor is cheap and expendable. Grandpa and Pa Joad die along the way. Tom the second oldest son, and a recently paroled killer, joins a California labor struggle along the way and kills a sheriff in a brawl and is forced to leave the family. Tom tells his mother of his decision (powerfully recited by Henry Fonda in the movie version) after she asks how she will know about him. Tom Joad responds:

Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain't got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one-an' then-
    .....I'll be ever'where-wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there....I'll be in the way guys yell when they're made an'-I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build-why I'll be there.[2]

Folk balladeer Woody Guthrie went to see the film, taken from Steinbeck's novel and wrote in a column in the People's World, the west coast paper of the Communist Party USA:

Seen the pitcher last night, Grapes of Wrath, best cussed pitcher I ever seen.

The Grapes of Wrath, you know is about us pullin' out of Oklahoma and Arkansas, and down south, and a driftin' around over state of California, busted, disgusted, down and out, and a lookin' for work.
Shows you how come us to be that a way. Shows the dam bankers men that broke us and the dust that choked us, and comes right out in plain old English and says what to do about it.
It says you got to get together and have some meetins, and stick together, and raise old billy hell till you get your job, and get your farm back, and your house and your chickens and your groceries and your clothes, and your money back.

Go to see Grapes of Wrath, pardner, go to see it and don't miss.

You was the star in that picture. Go and see your own self and hear your own words and your own song.[3]

One day shortly after seeing the film Guthrie bought a jug of wine, stayed up all night and penned the classic song depicting the story of The Grapes of Wrath called "Tom Joad."

    Tom Joad got out of the old McAlester Pen;
    There he got his parole.
    After four long years on a man killing charge,
    Tom Joad come a-walkin' down the road, poor boy,
    Tom Joad come a-walkin' down the road.
    Tom Joad, he met a truck driving man;
    There he caught him a ride.
    He said, "I just got loose from McAlester Pen
    On a charge called homicide,
    A charge called homicide."
    That truck rolled away in a cloud of dust;
    Tommy turned his face toward home.
    He met Preacher Casey, and they had a little drink,
    But they found that his family they was gone,
    He found that his family they was gone.
    He found his mother's old-fashion shoe,
    Found his daddy's hat.
    And he found little Muley and Muley said,
    "They've been tractored out by the cats,
    They've been tractored out by the cats."
    Tom Joad walked down to the neighbor's farm,
    Found his family.
    They took Preacher Casey and loaded in a car,
    And his mother said, "We've got to get away."
    His mother said, "We've got to get away."
    Now, the twelve of the Joads made a mighty heavy load;
    But Grandpa Joad did cry.
    He picked up a handful of land in his hand,
    Said: "I'm stayin' with the farm till I die.
    Yes, I'm stayin' with the farm till I die."
    They fed him short ribs and coffee and soothing syrup;
    And Grandpa Joad did die.
    They buried Grandpa Joad by the side of the road,
    Grandma on the California side,
    They buried Grandma on the California side.
    They stood on a mountain and they looked to the west,
    And it looked like the promised land.
    That bright green valley with a river running through,
    There was work for every single hand, they thought,
    There was work for every single hand.
    The Joads rolled away to the jungle camp,
    There they cooked a stew.
    And the hungry little kids of the jungle camp
    Said: "We'd like to have some, too."
    Said: "We'd like to have some, too."
    Now a deputy sheriff fired loose at a man,
    Shot a woman in the back.
    Before he could take his aim again,
    Preacher Casey dropped him in his track, poor boy,
    Preacher Casey dropped him in his track.
    They handcuffed Casey and they took him in jail;
    And then he got away.
    And he met Tom Joad on the old river bridge,
    And these few words he did say, poor boy,
    These few words he did say.
    "I preached for the Lord a mighty long time,
    Preached about the rich and the poor.
    Us workin' folkses, all get together,
    'Cause we ain't got a chance anymore.
    We ain't got a chance anymore."
    Now, the deputies come, and Tom and Casey run
    To the bridge where the water run down.
    But the vigilante thugs hit Casey with a club,
    They laid Preacher Casey on the ground, poor Casey,
    They laid Preacher Casey on the ground.
    Tom Joad, he grabbed that deputy's club,
    Hit him over the head.
    Tom Joad took flight in the dark rainy night,
    And a deputy and a preacher lying dead, two men,
    A deputy and a preacher lying dead.
    Tom run back where his mother was asleep;
    He woke her up out of bed.
    An' he kissed goodbye to the mother that he loved,
    Said what Preacher Casey said, Tom Joad,
    He said what Preacher Casey said.
    "Ever'body might be just one big soul,
    Well it looks that a-way to me.
    Everywhere that you look, in the day or night,
    That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma,
    That's where I'm a-gonna be.
    Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
    Wherever people ain't free.
    Wherever men are fightin' for their rights,
    That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma.
    That's where I'm a-gonna be."



Paradoxically, John Steinbeck published his powerful novel of labor strife in a California apple orchard in 1936, three years before his more famous novel. In Dubious Battle is about Communist organizers trying to mobilize super-exploited apple pickers to strike for higher wages and the right to form a union. In Dubious Battle takes place in the aftermath of large-scale strikes all up and down the West Coast including a general strike by longshoremen in San Francisco. It was also at a time when the Communist Party USA was actively engaged in helping to build a new militant, largely industrial, labor movement. While the reader does not find out the outcome of the strike and the new young militant organizer Jim, working as an apprentice of the experienced Mac is killed by vigilantes, the narrative takes the effort and the party militancy seriously. It also addresses in depth the problematic tactical questions about how to build class consciousness, creating unity and willingness to struggle out of isolation and self-centeredness.

Near the end of the novel Mac, the Communist leader, is called upon to give a eulogy for Joy, a hapless working class activist who spent his life protesting and rallies and getting brutally beaten by police. Joy arrived in a trainload of scabs and almost immediately is shot and killed by the same vigilantes who later would kill Jim. Mac tells the assembled mourners about Joy:

"The guy's name was Joy. He was a radical! Get it? A radical. He wanted guys like you to have enough to eat and a place to sleep where you wouldn't get wet. He didn't want nothing for himself He was a radical!...D' ye see what he was? A dirty bastard, a danger to the government I don't know if you saw his face, all beat to rags. The cops done that because he was a radical. His hands were broke, an' his jaw was broke. One time he got that jaw broke in a picket line....He was dangerous-he wanted guys like you to get enough to eat....What are you going to do about it? Dump him in a mud-hole, cover him with slush. Forget him.[4]

[1] John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin, London, 1976, 46.
[2] John Steinbeck, 572.
[3] Woody Guthrie from a column in People's World, 1940, reprinted in Woody Suez, New York, 1975, p.133.
[4] John Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle, Penguin books, London,2000, 254.

[Harry Targ is a Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. He is a co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism [1] (CCDS).]

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Friday, November 10, 2017

ANTI-WAR ACTIVISM: SOLDIERS, VETERANS, AND MILITARY FAMILIES: a reposted book review

Monday, November 10, 2014

Harry Targ


Fighting for Peace: Veterans and Military Families in the Anti-Iraq War Movement by Lisa Leitz. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. (306 pages; paper)

One of the biggest scholarly secrets about social movements since the Vietnam War is the magnitude and vibrancy of the anti-war movement inside the military. “Sir! No Sir!” a 2005 film documented the militant anti-war movement that spread throughout the United States military in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The movement included acts of civil disobedience at military bases, networks of coffee houses near military installations, anti-war newspapers targeted to military readers, and a spreading network of anti-war families and loved-ones as the movement percolated throughout U.S. society.

Fighting for Peace by Lisa Leitz, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Director of Project Pericles at Hendrix College, fast-forwards in a rigorous way to the study of the military anti-war movement from 2005 to 2012; involving veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, loved-ones of those serving, extended families, and networks of military families. The volume uses a variety of methods--questionnaires, extended interviews, archival materials, and ethnographies of organizations and individual military anti-war activists and their families. While surveying anti-war movements against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Professor Leitz concentrates on the participation, vision, rhetoric, activism, tactics, and contradictory “identities” of five organizations: Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Gold Star Families for Peace, and Gold Star Families Speak Out.

The narrative begins with the formation of some of these groups and growing tensions between them arising after the dramatic anti-war protests initiated by Cindy Sheehan, mother of a son who was killed in Iraq. The site of these demonstrations in Crawford, Texas was adjacent to the summer residence of President George Walker Bush.  For Leitz, the camp site that was created and named after Sheehan’s deceased son, Camp Casey was “a watershed moment for this movement.” In addition to inspiring the anti-war movement generally “…the vigil brought together veterans of the current wars, veterans of past wars, families of dead military service members, and families of current service members who were all critical of the Iraq War” (3).

The volume presents in-depth research on each of the anti-war military organizations. It addresses their composition: current military and veterans; families of service members and those killed and injured; and veterans of prior U.S. wars, particularly the Vietnam War. It examines the collaborations and tensions between the veterans and military families and the larger peace movement.  It describes policies, programs, and strategies. These involve anti-war positions and demands for increased services for soldiers on the ground and those returning veterans with health needs. It describes debates about how the military and military families should use their special legitimacy, experiencing war directly or through loved ones, in the mass movement. And the narrative describes how the military anti-war movement (rather than the peace movement in general) became a platform for debate between some socialist organization members who wished to incorporate it in a larger campaign to radically transform society versus those who argued that the military anti-war movement should concentrate on the more limited goal of ending the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and providing adequate services for returning veterans.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the study is the portrait of the contradictions faced by the author herself and the five organizations as they navigated through a hostile military environment. First, Professor Leitz, a visible anti-war activist was married to a career military officer. As a military spouse, she lived on military bases and carried out some of her anti-war activism in a social milieu that was hostile. She frames much of the study around how active military personnel, veterans, and military families addressed these contradictions personally and politically. 

The contradiction of being anti-war activists in social networks of military personnel and families was replicated in the tensions anti-war veterans and military families experienced working with the larger, non-military peace movement. Many of the former opposed the two twenty-first century wars but believed that the U.S. military was needed and, on occasion, could engage in positive projects. This position put these military activists at odds with peace movement ideology and sometimes peace movement practice.  

This portrait of the contradictions between the military movements and the larger peace and anti-war movement provides useful information for activists who ponder how to expand participation in campaigns to promote a peace agenda. And, of course, the peace movement should appropriately respect the special experience, legitimacy, policy preferences, and more limited perspectives of those who actually have experienced war. In addition Professor Leitz describes how the military activists reflected on how their influence could be enlarged as they struggled to become part of a larger more “generic” peace movement.

Fighting for Peace can be a valuable tool for researchers as well as activists. Despite the author’s abstract framing of her research as a study of the military “insider-outsider” identity which sometimes interferes with the well-written account it remains an important contribution to the scholarly study of social movements. Furthermore the rigorous study demonstrates the issues and pitfalls that peace activists must consider as they organize to create a more peaceful world.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

TWENTIETH CENTURY REVOLUTIONS: PLANTING THE SEEDS FOR TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY SOCIALISM

Presented at the Working Class Studies Association annual conference, June 1, 2017, Indiana University,

A revised version printed in Duncan McFarland ed. The Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union: Seeds of 21st Century Socialism, Changemaker Publications. http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/chsngemaker
Harry Targ, Professor, Department of Political Science, Purdue University

Understanding Revolutions: Theoretical and Empirical Explorations
The phenomena of revolution has long been a subject of interest to scholars and activists. The original curiosity about revolution has its roots in histories and analyses of “the great revolutions,” the English Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution. Subsequent to early studies of the great revolutions scholars and activists have conceptualized historical transformations in Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria, Iran and other cases as possible candidates for studies of revolution.

Perhaps undergirding the study of societal changes in the twentieth century, interest and concern about the Russian Revolution stands out as a motivation for such research and speculation. A substantial hidden motivation for this concern has been an implicit bias against the consequences of the Russian Revolution for other societies, for order and stability, for civilization, for the future of humankind. This bias includes various defenders of traditional regimes and cultures and sectors of left opposition to them who have been as vociferous opponents of the Russian Revolution and its consequences as the avowed enemies of revolution.
This essay briefly surveys the social science study of revolution, identifies key moments in the history of the former Soviet Union (which was officially constituted in 1922, five years after the revolution) from the vantage point of the anti-Soviet left, and proposes ways in which the Russian Revolution and its aftermath has contributed to social change in the twentieth century and continues to make contributions for the building of a twenty-first century socialism. This is a difficult and controversial subject, but one that needs to be confronted if a socialist agenda for the twenty-first century is to be meaningful.

The Social Scientific Study of Revolution
The subject of revolution has intrigued modern social science research and theory. Jack Goldstone (“Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science, 2001:4, 139-187) provides a wide-ranging survey of the twentieth century literature on the subject. He addresses the definitions of revolution; types of revolutions: the causes of revolution; the role of states, elites, ideology, mobilizations for and against revolution, foreign influences and factors such as leadership and gender shaping revolutions. Each of these sets of factors have generated research, discussion, and debate about this thing called revolution.

The literature surveyed has several interesting general features that characterize the way the phenomena has been studied.  First, the concept of revolution, which was first derived from interest in a handful of cases has expanded to include all kinds of transfers of power; including Nicaragua, Iran, Afghanistan, and as some data sets suggest hundreds of cases of the transfer of power. Second, as Goldstone suggests, scholars have identified many “types” of revolutions: elite led power shifts, grassroots mobilizations, worker-led versus peasant-led forms, and unplanned disintegrations of political institutions. Third, the literature, Goldstone indicates, addresses the causes of revolutions. Here too there are a myriad of explanations from foreign intervention, the declining legitimacy of elites, intra-elite factionalism, crises in the distribution of resources among the population, unsustainable population growth, and stagnating economies.
An additional designation of revolution addresses various processes that generate the transformation that is being described. Some research on revolution concentrates on the formation of oppositional groups from unions to political parties, networking among opponents of regimes, leadership skills,  the building of identities, and ideologies. In addition, some perspectives include a discussion of culture, from value systems to popular manifestations of protest. Also attention is paid to leadership skills and style. In recent years, studies have addressed the role of gender in revolutionary processes. Further, “rational choice” models assess  the individual and group costs and benefits of participating in some effort at systemic transformation of the political and/or economic system.

As to the consequences of revolution, Goldstone suggests the research is more sparse. “The outcomes of revolutions have generated far less scholarly inquiry than the causes, with the possible exception of outcomes regarding gender. This may be because the outcomes of revolutions are assumed to follow straightforwardly if the revolutionaries succeed. However, such research as we have on outcomes contradicts this assumption: revolutionary outcomes take unexpected twists and turns” (Goldstone, 167). The research that has been done, he said, shows little long-term economic development or democratization after revolutionary occurrences. While China and the Soviet Union experienced short-term industrialization neither “has succeeded in generating the broad-based economic innovation and entrepreneurship required to generate sustained rapid economic advance.”  He refers to an edited collection by D.Chirot, (The Crisis of Leninism and the Decline of the Left: the Revolutions of 1989, 1991, University of Washington Press) on this point.
After summarizing the myriad of studies of revolution, Goldstone does say that despite their failures to achieve sustained economic development and democratization they have been “remarkably successful in mobilizing populations and utilizing the mobilization for political and military power.” And these results, he claims, are attributable to strong leadership. In terms of international relations, revolutions have had consequences: stimulating others to revolt, causing threatened states to engage in conflict with the new regimes, and stimulating new states to engage in aggressiveness (for example the warlike behavior resulting from the Nazi “revolution”).

This survey of the social scientific study of revolution suggests many weaknesses. First, what is called “revolution” is defined in so many ways that all different transfers of power from Russia, China, Germany, Iran, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, to Cuba are all contenders irrespective of their radically different aims and bases of support.
Second, the lack of definition affords social scientists the opportunity to disaggregate every conceivable variable that might be part of the phenomena such that the historical and dialectical character of the revolutionary process is totally excluded from the analysis. Mindless empiricism replaces subtle historically-grounded judgement.

Third, and as a result of the second, leadership, organization, ideology, class, economic and political context, the cultural backdrop, and the international dimensions are all disassembled in such a way as to mask the reality behind the process.
Fourth, the analyses tend to be “presentist,” that is the history that led up to the transfer of power and the long-term domestic and international impacts of the revolution are eliminated from the analysis. And to the contrary, commentators and activists who have been part of revolutionary struggles provide a lens on the process that is usually deeply embedded in the country’s history, the long-term prospects for organizing aggrieved groups, and a vision of a “better future” that takes account of various setbacks, patterns of resistance, and regime errors. Social scientists have little or no sensitivity to revolution as an historic project.

And it is for these reasons that assessments of the Russian Revolution, 100 years later, requires an historical and dialectical assessment that goes beyond conventional scholarship.
Historical Materialists Analyses of the Post-1917 Post Soviet Experience:

Left critics of the former Soviet Union (and by implication often the Russian Revolution) have historicized the revolutionary process as they have assessed its impacts. If there is an historical narrative it is “declension,” or a step-by-step set of decisions that led to a betrayal of the vision of the revolution. The categorization of experiences of decline include the bureaucratization of the state, the centralization of power, Stalinism, and the transition from socialism to Soviet Social Imperialism. Each of these critiques is the result of political disputes between key political actors and/or nation-states as they engage with or confront the former Soviet Union. For some, the emerging conflicts have their roots in the Russian Revolution itself, particularly after the death of Lenin.
Looking at critical historical junctures, left critics of the Russian Revolution identify at least six moments in the declension. First, the Soviet leadership debated the direction of economic planning in the post-Civil War period shifting from “war communism” to the New Economic Policy. The latter reflected the need to slow down the process of moving from a capitalist to a socialist economy, recognizing the ongoing role of markets, and protecting private property, central to the outlook of the peasantry. For some, the NEP adopted by Lenin, constituted a shift away from the socialist project. Pragmatism replaced principle.

Second, with the death of Lenin, Stalin emerged as the new leader of the Soviet Union. He moved to collectivize agriculture, shifted more in the direction of a command economy, isolated his enemies, and escalated repression of dissent. What became known as Stalinism was a metaphor for totalitarianism. Totalitarian societies, critics suggested, were those in which the minds and behaviors of its members were controlled by a top-down administrative apparatus.
Third, the Soviet/Nazi Pact of 1938 is presented as proof that the similarities between fascism and Soviet-style communism outweighed any differences that were claimed by each. It showed, the critics said, that Stalin was willing to make a pact with any regime to maintain himself in power. At the state level the construction of socialism was replaced by traditional conceptions of national interest.

Fourth, the consequences of Stalinism were proclaimed in Nikita Khrushchev’s famous Twentieth Party Congress speech in 1956. It condemned the loss of life during the collectivization of agriculture, the trial and execution of Stalin’s enemies in the late 1930s, and  criticized Stalin’s efforts to control the political life of allies in Eastern Europe. 
Fifth, the Soviet Union practiced “great power chauvinism,” intervening in other countries when the latter seemed to be pursuing an independent path of economic and political development. This was most visible as Soviet troops crushed rebellions in Budapest in 1956 and Prague Spring in 1968. In both cases, workers and students sought more political autonomy within the Socialist camp.

And finally, many Communists around the world embraced the Chinese evaluation of the Soviet Union as a case of Soviet Social Imperialism, that is socialist in name but capitalist and imperialist in reality. And the Chinese embraced Mao’s “theory of three worlds.” One of the world’s poles, consisted of the United States and the Soviet Union. This pole represented the pursuit of global hegemony at the expense of most countries in the international system. The vast majority of countries were from the “Third World.” European countries, east and west, constituted a Second World. Consequently, with China in the lead, the countries and peoples of the Third World,  needed to band together to challenge the domination of the two imperial powers and their client states.
The theorists who articulated one or many of these six moments came from the Communist or Socialist left. Contrary to the social scientists, these analysts derived their positions from historical analyses. Several of the theoretical positions on the Russian Revolution in decline came from the prioritizing of these historical moments; whether embracing the NEP, the rise of Stalinism, the Soviet-Nazi Pact, the revelations of Khrushchev, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, or the Sino/Soviet split. But while these analyses use history to make their case against the historic project of the Russian Revolution they do so in a one-sided and ultimately ahistorical way. Whereas the social scientists atomize their subject, the left critical theorists derive simplistic historical lessons from their analyses.

Contextualizing the Russian Revolutionary Project
In 1916, Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik party that would seize power in 1917 and establish a state commonly referred to as Communist, wrote an essay: “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism.” In it he described the latest stage of capitalist development as consisting of an economic system in each developed country of industrial and financial monopolies increasingly pursuing investment and trade opportunities in other countries. Sometimes powerful capitalist countries cooperated with each other, accepting spheres of influence where each would dominate. Other times powerful capitalist states would compete with each other for access to land, labor, resources, and investment opportunities. These last circumstances could lead to war. And, for Lenin, World War One was a direct result of capitalist competition and conflict.

One year after Lenin published his essay Lenin’s political party seized state power in Russia and created the new Soviet Union, the first state generally defined as Communist. President Wilson of the United States and his Secretary of State began to speak of the new danger of Communism to the prospects for creating democracies and market-oriented economies across the globe. The animosity to the new regime in Russia was manifested in several ways. Armies from at least fifteen countries sent troops to support a counter-revolutionary campaign against the new Soviet government. The counter-revolution supported by the United States continued until 1933 as it refused to diplomatically recognize the Soviet regime.  When President Franklin Roosevelt assumed office in 1933, the Soviet Union was finally recognized.
During the 1930s, fascist movements gained power in Germany, Italy, Japan, and across central Europe. The Soviet Union, now led by Joseph Stalin, engaged in programs of rapid industrialization in part out of fear of the rise of German fascism. With the emergence of a fascist assault on democracy in Spain, relative isolationist policies in the United States, and acquiescence to fascism among European powers, the Soviet Union signed a controversial peace pact with Nazi Germany. The Germans also signed an agreement at Munich with Great Britain, France, and Italy promising non-aggression. This promise was short lived as their army invaded Poland in 1939. In 1941 they rescinded the Soviet/German agreement by invading the Soviet Union. The United States began to supply western nations fighting Germany with war material and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany. World War Two ensued.

During the war an “unnatural” but necessary alliance was formed between the United States and Great Britain, the new capitalist giant and the declining capitalist colonial power, and the Soviet Union, the center of the Communist political and ideological universe. After four years of devastating war in which 27 million Soviet citizens died and the Red army confronted 90 percent of Germany’s armies, the Nazi war machine was defeated in Europe. United States and British forces defeated Japanese militarism in Asia. The leaders of the wartime anti-fascist alliance, President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union met at Yalta on the Crimean Sea in February, 1945 and reached agreements on the establishment of a post-war world order. Just before the war ended in Europe, April, 1945, the new United Nations held its first meeting in San Francisco.
The “spirit of Yalta” was short-lived as escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union developed over a variety of issues as when to hold Polish elections, Soviet support of a separatist movement in Iran, and the Greek Civil War, where an anti-communist government was trying to repress the former Greek resistance dominated by Greek Communists. The struggle was over what kind of post-war government should be created. The British, who had supported a repressive Greek government, urged the United States to step in, help the faltering Greek government, and save Greece from Communism. In a meeting held in February, 1947 to develop a recommendation for President Harry Truman, key diplomats and politicians endorsed the idea of United States financial and military support for the beleaguered Greek government. The Republican chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arthur Vandenberg, advised President Truman that he better “scare hell out of the American people” if the President would want to build support for a global policy of opposition to the Soviet Union.

Taking Vandenberg’s advice, President Truman spoke to the Congress and the nation on March 13, 1947 announcing his famous Truman Doctrine. He declared that the United States was going to be involved in a long war against a diabolical enemy, the Soviet Union. He said it must be the role of the United States to defend free peoples everywhere against the spread of International Communism. With that speech, warning of the Communist threat and need of the U.S. to resist it,  the general features of United States foreign policy for the next forty years were proclaimed.
“The Free World” Battles “International Communism”

Over the 45 years between the end of World War Two and the beginnings of the collapse of Soviet bloc Communist states, tensions, threats of war, proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union ensued. The wars in Korea, Vietnam, Central America, and Southern Africa involved super power troops and/or military assistance to support their side in the Cold War. Historians have debated the root causes of United States foreign policy toward the Soviet Union. Some claim, as President Truman articulated, that the spread of International Communism, primarily through Soviet expansion, required a bold aggressive U.S. foreign policy. Others argued that the U.S./Soviet conflict was not too dissimilar from most big power conflicts in world history. Finally, the historical revisionists  developed the most compelling case claiming that U.S. foreign policy was about the interests of global capital. The spread of Communism, ever since the initiation of the Russian Revolution was seen as a threat to the pursuit of investment, trade, cheap labor, access to natural resources and, in total, corporate profits.

Irrespective of the root causes of U.S. and allied foreign policies, they were explained in terms of the Communist threat. Pundits referred in a simplistic way to writings of Marx or Lenin or Mao Zedong to prove that Communist regimes sought to expand their power and control. This theme exacerbated political conflicts within the United States as the Communist issue was used to promote conservative politicians and public policies. The decade of the 1950s is often identified with the Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy who claimed that the successes of Communist regimes such as the Soviet Union and China occurred because of subversive Communist individuals and groups in or close to the United States government who were committed to weakening American institutions including government, popular culture, the education system, and even the military. While anti-communism had been deeply embedded in the American political culture ever since the rise of the labor movement in the 19th century, it grew in 1917, and flourished after World War Two. Being a Communist became associated with liberal domestic policies and supporting peaceful relations with Communist states.
Soviet fear of the west had its roots in the interventions of western and Japanese armies on the side of counter-revolutionaries during the Russian civil war. Statements from U.S. presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan about the threat the Soviet Union represented exacerbated Soviet fears. And paralleling Truman’s warning of the danger of International Communism to Ronald Reagan’s conceptualization of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” the Soviet Union consolidated its control of Eastern Europe, sought to keep up with the west in the arms race, and supported allies in the Global South who were challenging the rule of pro-western governments.  The concept of Communism in the west and capitalist imperialism in the east fueled an escalating arms race, the profusion of nuclear weapons, and periodic crises that brought the two big powers into direct conflict. From the Berlin Blockade to the Korean and Vietnamese Wars to the Cuban Missile Crisis, to the building of the Berlin War, the Cold War always had within it the danger of escalating to hot war, maybe even nuclear war. The impacts of this ideological contestation led to wasted military expenditures on both sides, wars in the name of fighting Communism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; domestic repression in both the Western and Soviet orbit, and always the fear of nuclear war lurking in the background.  

Conflicts Within the Communist World
Key foreign policy decision-makers in the United States and many spokespersons for Communist countries and movements portrayed the Communist world as one based on solidarity and harmony. For the West, ironically, this perceived unity was the basis of the threat Communism meant for the so-called free world. However, while many states, and parties outside the Communist orbit, shared in a general Marxist/Leninist outlook, geopolitical conflicts diminished the harmony that simplistic outsiders believed existed among Communists.

The most significant and long-standing geopolitical and violent conflict among Communist nations involved the two largest, most powerful, and most engaged Communist countries; the Soviet Union and China. The so-called Sino-Soviet split which became visible to the world in the late 1960s had its roots in troubled relations between Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong of the Chinese Communist Party going back as far as the 1920s. Soviet/Chinese diplomatic tensions intensified in the late 1950s when Soviet and Chinese policy-makers disagreed about the appropriate development model the latter should adopt, whether the Soviets should provide the Chinese with nuclear weapons, and whether the Soviet Union should be negotiating with the capitalist enemy, the United States.
By the 1960s, Mao Zedong was declaring that the Peoples Republic of China, not the Soviet Union, represented the hub of an International Communist movement of poor countries. Mao declared that the Soviet Union was a state capitalist, and therefore imperialist, power and as much a threat to most of the world as the United States. The Nixon Administration, for the first time recognizing the Sino/Soviet split, began to play one Communist giant off against another. The president reopened relations with and visited China and signed trade and arms agreements with the Soviet Union. This increased the fears the Soviets and the Chinese had of each other, making them more cooperative with the traditional enemy, the United States.

The growing conflict between the Soviet Union and China reverberated around the world. On the Indochinese peninsula, the Soviet Union supported the newly unified Vietnamese government in its disputes with a new regime in Cambodia. The Chinese supported the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and invaded Vietnam in 1978. The Soviets and the Chinese supported different political groups in the long civil war in Angola. And in general, Communist regimes and parties felt compelled to side with one Communist giant against another.
These internecine conflicts weakened the Communist world and the Communist movement as a force in world history. The Sino/Soviet split was vital to understanding the collapse of the Soviet bloc between 1989 and 1991 and the shift of the post-Cold War international system to one based on globalization. What is clear is that the role of the vision, the ideology, and the practice of Communism was made more complicated and ultimately was contradicted by geopolitics in international relations.

Assessing the Russian Revolutionary Project in the Twentieth Century
Social scientists have contributed to the discussion of revolutionary processes by studying political organizations, leadership, ideology, mass-based support, regime types, and external interventions. Left critics of the Russian Revolution and the former Soviet Union, provide useful analyses of weaknesses in efforts to build socialism in the former Soviet Union. At the same time there is a danger in these intellectual traditions in that they underestimate the extraordinary contributions the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union made to the advance of socialism as a world historic project. And by marginalizing this history, millennial activists lack the tools to learn from the twentieth century about theory and practice, finding themselves groping for an understanding of where modern exploitation and oppression have come from and thinking about ways to challenge them.

First, the Russian Revolution was the singular event in modern history where a radical overthrow of a reactionary regime occurred, in which the new leadership represented the interests and perspectives of the working class. Its leaders embraced an anti-capitalist agenda and articulated a vision of building socialism, in both Russia and the entire international system.
Second, for oppressed people around the world (Lenin estimated that 1/7 of the world’s population lived under colonialism) the Russian Revolution stood for the overthrow of rule by the small number of capitalist powers. Within a decade of the solidification of the Revolution, anti-colonial activists from every continent began to dialogue about developing a common struggle against the great colonial empires of the first half of the twentieth century. And Third World revolutionary and anti-colonial activists, such as Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, looked to the Russian experience as a guide and source of support for their struggles.

Third, the experience of the Russian workers, paralleled by workers movements in the United States and other countries, gave impetus and inspiration to class struggles. Leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for example and many Debsian Socialists saw the Russian Revolution as a stepping-stone for the overthrow of capitalist exploitation of the working class in the United States.
Fourth, the Bolshevik Revolution stimulated new currents in struggles of people of color, particularly in the United States.  Black Nationalist leaders of the African Blood Brotherhood and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance began to see a connection between racism and capitalist exploitation. Cyril Briggs, Harry Haywood, and others of the ABB were early founders of the Communist Party USA. Many saw in the evolving Soviet experience a commitment to oppose all forms of national oppression, including anti-Semitism, and over the decades prominent artists, intellectuals, and activists such as Paul Robeson and W. E. B. DuBois spoke to the connections between capitalist exploitation, national oppression and colonialism, racism, and war. In each of these cases the image of the Russian Revolution, if not the reality, contributed mightily to global struggles against capitalism, imperialism, and racism.

Fifth, International Women’s Day was first celebrated by the newly created Russian government on March 8, 1917, and it became a national holiday in the Soviet Union after the Bolsheviks seized power in November, 1917. As in reference to marginalized people, workers, people of color, ethnic minorities, the Russian Revolution sent a message that human liberation for all was possible. In the case of women, the new regime declared its commitment to women at a time when struggles for women’s suffrage were occurring in Great Britain  and the United States.
Sixth,  the first decade of the Russian Revolution was a time of experimentation in the arts and culture. Poster art, literature, music, alternative theories of pedagogy were stimulated by the revolutionary atmosphere. The support for cultural experimentation was stifled in the 1930s with the rise of the fascist threat and Stalinism at home but the linking of political revolution and cultural liberation became etched in the consciousness of revolutionaries everywhere. The literacy campaigns in Cuba and Nicaragua many years later may have been inspired by cultural dimensions of revolution inspired by the Russian Revolution.

Seventh, the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia created the necessity of anti-fascist states mobilizing for war. The Soviet Union assumed a major burden and thus became a leader in the anti-fascist struggles that engulfed the world by the late 1930s. Sensing impending German aggression, the creativity of the revolution was transformed into a mass mobilization of workers to rapid industrialization in preparation for German aggression. Germany invaded Poland in 1938 and the former Soviet Union in 1941. From the onset of World War II until its end, vast stretches of the Soviet homeland were laid waste and over 27 million Russians died in war. Without the Soviet sacrifice, fascism would have engulfed Europe.
Eighth, in the Cold War period, the Soviet Union and its allies were confronted with an anti-Soviet, anti-communist coalition of nations committed to the “rollback” of International Communism. What began as the first step down the path to socialism became a great power battle between the east and the west. And despite the enormity of resources the Soviets committed to their side of the arms race, they still supported virtually every anti-colonial, anti-imperial campaign around the world; from Asia, to Africa, to the Middle East, and Latin America. They gave Vietnam and Cuba as lifeline; they supported the African National Congress and South African Communist Party; the MPLA in Angola; and they supported nationalists leaders such as Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt.

Ninth, until the Sino/Soviet split rent asunder the socialist camp, the Soviet Union provided a check on the unbridled advances of western capitalism. After the split in international communism in the 1960s, Soviet influence in the world began to decline. This split had much to do with the dramatic weakening of socialism as a world force in the 1990s.  One can only speculate what the twenty-first century would have looked like if the Soviet Union had survived? Would the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq have occurred? Would the Libyan regime have been overthrown? Would the countries of the Global South have had larger political space in world politics inside and outside the United Nations?
Lessons Learned: Assessing the Revolutionary Project

It is important, one hundred years after the Russian Revolution, to think about its contribution to human history, (and for many of us to twenty-first century socialism). First, it is important to conceptualize revolution as a multi-dimensional historical process, a process which sets off numerous collateral responses, positive and negative. This means that all the variables articulated by social scientists are part of an explanation of what revolution means. Also the history of shortcomings and the historical contexts are part of this process.
Second, when we revisit the Russian Revolution (and the Soviet Union which has to be seen as an extension of the revolutionary project) several features, often ignored, need to be stressed. The Russian Revolution planted the seeds for workers struggles everywhere. The Russian Revolution inspired anti-racist campaigns, particularly developing the links between class and race. The Russian Revolution provided a modest dimension to the historic process of women’s liberation. And putting all this together the Russian Revolution, and the material support of the former Soviet Union, gave impetus to the anti-colonial movements of the last half of the twentieth century. And we must remember that virtually all these dimensions were actively opposed by western imperialism, particularly the United States.

Having recognized all this, and other contributions as well, twenty-first century advocates of socialism need to revisit the history of socialism, of revolution, to find the roots of today’s struggles. The intellectual formulations of today, as well as debates about them, go back at least one hundred years. The intellectual connections revolutionaries today make with their past can be liberating in that they suggest continuity with common historic struggles. And they provide an opportunity to relive, study, critique, embrace or reject, ideas, strategies, tactics, and organizational forms of the past.
As a former leader of the Chinese Communist movement, Zhou Enlai is alleged to have said in response to a journalist’s request for an evaluation of the French Revolution, Zhou said, “it’s too early to say.”




Monday, November 6, 2017

THOUGHTS ON HIGHER EDUCATION


It is time to think about a new model of higher education, not a business model. Not one based on metrics. Not one that infantilizes students and faculty. Not one that makes private corporations profitable.

Higher education is a social good. Tuition and living expenses should be provided by the state. Adequate funds should be provided for community colleges and technical schools. Flagship universities and branch campuses should offer night classes.
Serious discussion should take place about mixing online and in person learning.(Most who experience online courses, students and faculty, are negative).

Also, we should move beyond the false god STEM. Empirical research shows more graduates than jobs in many STEM areas.

Holistic models of knowledge integrating history, social science, philosophy, literature, with science, engineering, and agriculture need to be developed.
Discussions should be held about ethics and research. Are there sources of funding and research projects that violate the values of higher education?

And we should return to real shared governance, with educators playing a leading role in decisions about the educational process.