William F. Dunne

What War did to America

Source: The Communist International, No. 5 (New series) 1924.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

COMPARED with the European nations that were on the verge of ruin when America entered the struggle, the world war wrought no damage in that country, but served only to increase its physical wealth. Yet the world war made far-reaching changes in America—political, social and economic. America is no longer a nation with a tradition of isolation from world, and particularly European politics, or if the tradition is still remembered, it is with the feeling that it belongs to the school-day period of American development. This is not to say that all elements of American capitalism have succumbed to the lure of world politics and subscribe to the imperialist policy of the real rulers of America—the lords of steel and finance—but American foreign policy is now based on the financial conquest of Europe and the present government endorses the Morgan-Dawes plan for enslaving the German workers.

It is probable that in no country which entered the world war was there such a complete reversal of custom and legal procedure, based theoretically on the right of the people to rule through their elected representatives, as in the United States; certainly in no nation were the guarantees of individual liberty, of freedom of press, speech and public assemblage contained in the organic law of the land abrogated with such speed and so little mass protest. Following the declaration of war in April, 1917, almost overnight the United States changed from a nation in which the national government for more than a hundred years had never interfered with freedom of expression—except in one or two instances that called forth public disapproval—into a country where an army of government spies watched every act and listened carefully to every utterance of Labour, Radical, Liberal and revolutionary organisations and individuals.

For the first time in the United States a nation-wide censorship of the Press was inaugurated. Scores of governmental organisations, with power to control almost every activity of the masses, were set up and a period of persecution that gave employment to every slimy creature with the soul of a spy was begun. Naturally, Labour and revolutionary organisations were the first to feel the weight of the fist of American capitalism. The bureaucracy of the trade unions became spies of the government, and the capitalist class. They were more active even than the employers in informing upon and denouncing the members of the unions who refused to obey the orders of the American imperialists and their tools. An instance of this will be illuminating. When war was declared by Wilson, I was in Montana. In June a great strike of miners and metal tradesmen tied up copper production for six months following the smothering to death of 154 miners in the Speculator disaster in Butte. The local Labour officials, the officials of the State Federation of Labour and the officials of international unions who came to Butte (the largest copper mining camp in the world) all took the side of the Anaconia Mining Company and tried to break the strike. In public speeches and articles they excused the murder of Frank Little (taken from bed by night and hung by thugs of the mining companies). The president of the State Federation of Labour was one of the chief witnesses against me when I was tried and convicted of sedition, and he served on the State Council of Defence (a governmental body with arbitrary powers controlled by the mining companies) all through the war. Spies in the unions, spies maintained by the employers and the regular spies paid by the government were linked up into one gigantic espionage system that would have made the Czar turn green with envy.

Laws were railroaded through Congress and the State legislatures making acts and utterances of no importance before the war punishable with twenty years imprisonment. Freedom of speech and Press became a memory. The ordinary activities of Labour and revolutionary organisations became crimes.

The war was the excuse for these measures, but so successful were they in curtailing and suppressing strikes and agitation that the American capitalist class, unacquainted from experience with the immediate value of centralised power, were enamoured with their new tools and have never surrendered them.

My own case is an example, but there are many comrades who can tell a more stirring tale. Since 1917, there has been but one six-month period when I have not been either under arrest, in jail or out on bail awaiting trial. At present some forty-five members of the American Communist Party are out on bail of from 1,000 to 10,000 dollars, and liable to twenty years imprisonment if convicted.

The department of justice has been severely shaken by the exposures made as a result of the investigations following the Teapot Dome scandal, but it remains and is now headed by a House of Morgan lawyer.

Of all sections of the working class, the foreign-born workers have suffered the most, and this is one of the most striking changes that the war brought to America. Before April, 1917, America was really a land of refuge. It is true that the foreign-born were bitterly exploited in industry, that they were unable to find the unoccupied farming land they came to seek, and that they were robbed mercilessly in many ways by their unscrupulous countrymen and the cunning Yankees through the medium of a thousand shady schemes, but nevertheless, they could flee to the United States and be safe from pursuit of their governments. They did not even have to have a passport to land.

All this is changed. The foreigner, unless he is a moron or a counter-revolutionist, is no longer welcomed by American capitalism. During the war a tremendous propaganda machine designed to create prejudice against the foreign-born, particularly those from so-called enemy countries—was set up. It still works overtime. Far from welcoming those who have shown that they have vision and courage by struggling against oppression at home, America to-day will receive only those individuals who have the endorsement of the European capitalist governments.

Convicted of a mere misdemeanour a foreign-born worker can be deported and under the guise of Americanisation campaigns, a steady propaganda is poured out against the aliens. These campaigns serve three purposes. They make the alien workers timid and cautious about becoming active in Labour and revolutionary organisations, they divide the Labour movement and they instil into the mind of the backward American workers a pride of birth that is most useful to American imperialism.

On the economic field the war gave to American industry a tremendous impetus. The only country able to supply war munitions, food and clothing in the enormous quantities needed to glut the appetite of the war god, with profits that astonished even the avaricious American bourgeoisie, American industry grew like the proverbial mushroom. Tiny manufacturing plants secured war contracts, and in a time dependent upon the ability to secure labour, covered acres of ground. The big plants doubled, trebled and quadrupled their capacity and profits increased one hundredfold. America became one gigantic hive of industry, and far out in the agricultural districts could be heard the hum of machinery working day and night. Both for the capitalists and the working class—except the radical and revolutionary elements—war-time was a pleasant and profitable period. Billions of dollars were grafted. Millionaires were made in a day. The total crop as disclosed by the not too accurate income tax figures was 27,000.

Labour was at a premium, and with a “no strike on war work” clause in their agreement with the government, the unions were allowed to organise through closed shop agreements. The membership of the American Federation of Labour Unions grew to over 4,000,000, and the union officials became little satraps, protected by the armour of government authority.

All debauches must be paid for and though the “morning after” sickness has been postponed because of the health of the American capitalist organism, it now affects the participants in the orgy of war and exploitation. American industry did not decline immediately after the signing of the armistice. It had received too much of an impetus, and its competitors were unable to recover from the set-back they had received. In 1920, however, there was a depression due to the inability of European nations to buy, that lasted well into 1922. Then came another period of intense activity based on domestic demands that had been neglected by war productions, and this period is now ending. In America as in other capitalist nations, it is the basic industries that first give evidence of curtailment of markets, and in the United States the steel industry is operating at less than 65 per cent. of capacity. Unemployment increases rapidly, and by the first of the year will be of an acute nature.

Just as the war brought prosperity to American industry, so did it bring what seemed an inexhaustible market to American agriculture. The price of wheat was fixed at $2.50 per bushel, and to farmers who once longed for. “dollar wheat” as the Mohammedan longs for Mecca, this meant wealth.

Agricultural production expanded. Every available acre was tilled. Farmers bought all the land they could by a first payment of a portion of its price, and hungered for more. It costs money to farm in the United States. Machinery is vitally necessary, and like everything else, during the war period its price soared skyward. The farmers bought and bought, and went in debt for machines that American agricultural methods demanded.

Then the crash came. The market vanished, but debts contracted at war prices had to be paid. The Federal Reserve Bank (the financial agency of Wall Street, operated by the government) refused to make new loans or extend old one. Hundreds of thousands of farmers were ruined in a flew months’ time, and so were hundreds of small banks to whom they owed money. The farmers suddenly discovered that with interest on mortgages and deferred payments on machinery, railroad increased taxes, rates fixed during the war, and never reduced, the centralised control of elevators and milling concerns controlling prices, they could not get for their produce enough to pay them for raising it and hauling it to market.

An exodus from the farms began and the flocking of the farmers into the industrial centres has made up to the capitalists the loss of surplus labour through the stoppage of immigration and has created a new problem for the Labour unions. In one industry alone—metal mining—about 65 per cent. of the workers are now farmers and their sons who have been starved off the land.

High wages during the war attracted much farmer labour into industry; the bankruptcy of the agricultural population since the war has driven the farmers themselves into industry. early in 1914, the American population was about equally divided between town and country. Two years ago statistics made the proportion 60 per cent. city and 40 rural; to-day it is probably 65 per cent. city, and 35 per cent. rural. America is now an industrial nation, and the once great prosperous and contented farmer population is bankrupt and restive.

I must mention here another phenomenon produced by the war, and the flood of racial and national hatreds it let loose. The scarcity of labour and the high wages paid in industry brought the negro from the southern plantations into the factories. Thousands of them were drafted into the army and after their discharge would no longer tolerate the tyranny of the southern employers, and the southern ruling class in general. Hundreds of thousands of negro workers have left the southern states, and the cotton plantation owner finds himself unable to raise cotton with the hymns of hate poured out by the Ku Klux Klan against the negro. Several million acres of fertile cotton land lies untilled.

Safety for American capitalism lies in keeping the enormous army of industrial workers employed. 100 per cent. American propaganda, the eulogising of the captains of industry by the capitalist Press, pictures of the Stars and Stripes waving proudly thrown on the screen in moving picture theatres, cannot take the place of bread, and the American worker is accustomed to being well-fed.

The strongest foundations of American capitalism have been greatly weakened; there is no longer a great acquiescent agricultural population; there is no longer a limitless market for agricultural products, for raw materials and manufactured commodities. The enormous gold supply, the tribute which the American imperialists have levied upon a suffering world tends to keeps prices high; the discontent of the middle class, ruined by the thousand through the process of deflation, is expressed by La Follette and the group of “progressive” senators and congressmen which he leads; thousands more will be ruined during the corning period of depression; the majority of the working class is now in industry and, therefore, potentially revolutionary; the capitalism of America appears to have reached the limits of expansion, and must now be placed in the list of national economics that are on the downgrade.

Yet it would be a serious, an inexcusable mistake, to conclude that the coming economic crisis will bring a political breakdown that offers immediate revolutionary possibilities. American capitalism has tremendous recuperative capacity; the South American market has already made up to some extent the loss of European fields, and it can be exploited much more intensively, and will be. The American working class is poorly organised—perhaps one-seventh in trade and industrial unions—and saturated with ruling class conceptions of patriotism, efficiency for the employer and loyalty to the national institutions; the influx of farmers and negroes has had a distinctly reactionary effect upon the labour movement as must occur with the flooding of the labour market with groups even more backward than the American industrial workers.

The bankruptcy of the farmers, the inability of the capitalist political machine to prevent the airing of the Teapot Dome scandal and other evidences of far-reaching corruption in national affairs, gave a favourable opportunity for a break of the Labour organisations from the capitalist parties, but as the Communists stated would occur, a monstrous betrayal of the working class has been perpetrated by the Labour bureaucrats, the remnants of the Socialist party and the so-called progressives.

A great mass party of organised workers, working and exploited farmers with certain elements of the middle class, will not be formed this year. Under the leadership of the -Communist Party of America, however, there will be formed a class party of workers and exploited farmers that will be a factor in the coming election, and that will be the beginning of a great mass party of the exploited toilers of America. The activity of the party in this field and its other avenues of activity has won it the leadership of the small but active and growing minority in the American Labour movement.

This leadership must and will be used to extend the influence of the party in the trade union movement, and among the unorganised industrial workers. It is among the industial workers that the work must be prosecuted with the most vigour because of the enormous numerical strength of the American working class and the diminishing importance of the agricultural population in American political and economic life as a result of the tremendous industrial expansion during and since the war.

It is a source of pride to every member of the American party that it is fully conscious of the tasks ahead and that in the last eighteen months it has firmly established itself before the American workers and farmers as the only revolutionary group in the greatest capitalist nation in the world. It is preparing now to acquaint the masses of American workers with the responsibility of capitalism for the coming crisis that will mean misery to millions and to organise and lead the American masses, under the guidance of the Communist International in the struggle against the dictatorship of American capitalism and for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The war brought many new things to America, but none of more importance than the Communist Party of America in the place of the reformist Socialist Party whose former leaders are now in the arms of the tools of American imperialism—the Labour bureaucrats.

The trade union bureaucracy became part of the American capitalist government during the war. Long before the masses had any intimation that they were to be dragged into the struggle, a secret committee with wide powers had been formed by President Wilson. This committee included Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labour, and six representatives of the most powerful industrial and financial concerns in the United States. The work of this committee was to prepare the proper background for the entry of America into the war, to make ready all the necessary organisational and psychological measures, to create a popular demand for participation in the imperialistic struggle on the side of the allied nations, in the language of American commercialism, to “sell” the war to the people of America.

The conscription law—a wholly illegal and unconstitutional act, measured even by the elastic standards of American jurisprudence—was passed with the endorsement of the labour union bureaucracy and was enforced with comparatively little trouble, largely because of their co-operation.

The theory voiced by Gompers and his henchmen was that the war was a great popular undertaking to save the world from the Hunnish menace, and that for its duration anything smacking of the class conflict should be eliminated. To this end the American Federation of Labour executive council worked hand in hand with the national chamber of commerce-the organisation of the bourgeoisie—to enforce the conscription act; State federations of labour, central labour councils and local unions were mobilised both by coercion and propaganda to drive all eligible trade unionists into the army and assist the army intelligence service and the department of justice in rounding up the “slackers”—the term applied to those workers who tried to evade military service.

In the drives for securing subscriptions for the “Liberty Loan,” for the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Red Cross, the relief work of Knights of Columbus—Catholic—and other auxiliary financial measures and organisations that bar, which advantage was taken of the war hysteria to batten upon the masses, the Labour bureaucrats were in the front rank. Boards of conciliation for labour disputes were set up by the dozen; “labour investigators” were appointed by the hundred; government employment offices were opened and Labour bureaucrats put in charge of the work of recruiting labour for the shipyards and munition plants. Enormous salaries were paid and liberal expenses allowed for these sinecures. The Labour bureaucrats became war profiteers, and nothing but praise for the high purposes of American capitalist government and denunciation of rebels came from their lips.

When the Industrial Workers of the World organised strikes in the lumber camps and metal mines, it was to the Labour bureaucracy that the capitalists hurried for assistance, and they responded loyally by outdoing the capitalist Press in condemnation of the workers who dared to strike when “the nation is straining every nerve to win a righteous war.”

When savage sentences of from five to twenty years were meted out to 10 members of the Industrial Workers of the World in the Chicago trial, no group was more jubilant than the trade union bureaucracy.

Financed out of the 100,000,000 dollars slush fund voted to President Wilson by Congress when war was declared, Samuel Gompers made the “American Alliance for Labour and Democracy.” Into this auxiliary organisation of American imperialism flocked the Labour bureaucrats and Socialists like Charles Edward Russel, Chester M. Wright, A.M. Simons, etc.—all the petty-bourgeois elements of which the Socialist party was largely composed.

Special trains were chartered and armies of speakers toured the country, descending upon local Labour organisations suspected of disloyalty or lack of whole-hearted enthusiasm for the slaughter; with the aid of the police, the volunteer terror organisations by means of economic pressure the unions were whipped into line.

The clang of the jail doors or the tar and feathers and noose of the white-collared mobs drowned the voices of protest. Reaction reigned supreme and continued in full sway long after the armistice was signed. It was in zgi9 that John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America ordered his members to submit to an injunction prohibiting them from striking, with the statement: “We are Americans and we cannot fight our government.” When lie used the word “our” he expressed the attitude of the Labour bureaucracy—they consider it their government, and they are right-they are part of it.

There has been no substantial change in the situation since that time except that a process of disillusionment has gone on among the masses that makes more difficult the task of persuading them that their interests are identical with those of their exploiters. The Labour bureaucracy remains the tool of American imperialism; it makes no protest against the atrocities perpetrated upon the Latin American peoples and the Filipinos in the name of democracy; it endorses the Morgan-Dawes’ plan for the enslavement of the German working class; it forms a united front with the blackest organisations of capitalist reaction against the Communist-led left-wing in the Labour movement, and it outdoes the capitalist Press in the venomous attacks it launches against Soviet Russia.

American capitalism learned the value of the Labour union bureaucracy as an ally during the war, and so servile has this treacherous crew become that, contrary to all previous procedure, it no longer even insists on wage concessions for the section of the working class that supports it.

This supine cowardice plays directly into the hands of the Communists and destroys, slowly but surely, its only means of influencing the organised American workers. Backward as the trade unionists of America are, they will not long support an officialdom that will not fight for higher wages, shorter hours and more control of the job.

The war elevated the Labour bureaucracy to a position of great power as a wing of the government, but it also created the conditions that will isolate it from the organised masses.