J.R. Johnson

One-Tenth of the Nation

(5 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 31, 5 August 1946, p. 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In my last column I gave a general picture of what is taking place in the economic and social life of the South. Let us briefly summarize.

  1. The South is not a democracy, as England or France, or the rest of the United States. It is not a democracy because democratic rights are legally and officially denied to substantial millions of the population.
  2. The basic cause of this was and is the old cotton plantation system and the role it gave to labor, particularly Negro labor. Industry did develop in the South but the organization of the cotton plantation remained, the decisive pattern in the social and political relations. The Cotton Ed Smiths, the Bilbos, the Rankins, the O’Daniels and the rest, the political representatives of the South, have represented and represent essentially the grip of the old plantation economy and social morals upon the South. They were and are fortified by great financial interests in the North, but these interests find it profitable to maintain the old Southern system in its essentials.
  3. The war has brought to a head a process which was developing slowly over the years. Heavy industry has penetrated into the South. New economic interests have been created. Cotton no longer dominates.

New Political Forces

Upon these new interests there are arising new social and political forces. They seek to bring the South more in harmony with the rest of the nation. For Bilbo, Rankin, Ellender, Talmadge and O’Daniel they want to substitute Southern liberals. They are ready to recognize the CIO. They want to relieve the Negroes of some of the worst pressures from which they suffer. They genuinely wish to abolish the poll tax. They are genuinely eager to pull the South out of its ignorance, its backwardness, its burden of racial prejudices. They propose to do this by the processes of capitalist democracy – the right to vote, right of free assembly, equality before the law, equality of opportunity, etc.

These liberals are not very powerful. But they have made the nation and the South aware of their ideas. Some of them are not only ready to receive the CIO. They even fraternize politically with the PAC. To sum it up: On the basis of the new industrial development there have arisen forces in the South which hope to transform it (by degrees of course and without violence) into a passable imitation of states like New York, Pennsylvania or Illinois.

What are their chances of success? In the opinion of this writer, they are doomed to mischievous failure. Capitalist democracy at its best flourished during a certain period of the economic development of capitalism. That period may roughly be said to have lasted between 1848 and 1914. There were certain countries, however, which never had a flourishing capitalist democracy. The most remarkable of these was Czarist Russia. In Russia in 1905 you had the Czarist government, a combination of reactionary landlords, bureaucrats and great financial interests. You had also a rising industry and, based on it, a combination of capitalists and liberals who wanted desperately to transform their country into a democracy such as existed in Britain, France and the U.S.A. They could not do it. They could not do it because of the peculiar relation that existed between them and the workers. The workers were organized by large-scale industry and grouped in unions and workers parties.

Liberals Cannot Lead

They were engaged in continuous battles with the liberal capitalists themselves. Thus wherever there was a sharp social or political crisis, the capitalists and the liberals found themselves jammed between the reactionary Czarist government and the organized workers. To put it briefly, organized labor was already so strong, or potentially so strong, that the capitalists and the liberals feared them far more than they detested the reactionary rulers of Russia. The result was that the liberals could make no serious attempt to establish a capitalist democracy. It was too dangerous. In the end, the working class, in order to overthrow the reactionary Czarist regime, had to push the liberals aside and create a workers state – the state of Lenin and Trotsky.

Russia is not an isolated example. We saw only recently a similar situation in Spain. The reactionary landlord regime in Spain was stifling the country. The liberals (and the labor leaders too) wanted to get rid of it. But the best that they could do was to get rid of the monarchy – King Alfonso. Caught between the old regime and the revolutionary workers they vacillated, hesitated, fought a half-hearted civil war and were ignominiously defeated by Franco. You have a similar situation in India, in China and, before World War II, in Poland. In all these backward countries the problem was and is the problem of old Russia. How to modernize the country, make it into a modern democracy and at the same time keep the workers quiet and subordinate. When Washington and Jefferson got rid of the reactionary British regime, the working class was small and could be managed. When the French revolution made modern France, the workers gave an immense amount of trouble but they could also be managed. When Oliver Cromwell first began and two hundred years later the English liberals completed the transformation of England into a flourishing capitalist democracy, the workers were not sufficiently organized to form a serious threat to those who led the struggle for democracy. Even when Lincoln broke the power of the South over the nation, organized labor followed his leadership and did not raise violent demands of its own. But today, 1946, those days are over.

The CIO today is a power in the land. If it organizes a million new workers in the South, then those workers will feel themselves part of the great movement whose power has already terrified all the property owners from one end of the country to the other. The CIO has a political arm – the PAC. Though the labor leaders hesitate and tremble and the PAC is only a shadow of what it could really be, yet it was strong enough in the 1944 elections to draw the concentrated fire of both Republicans and Democrats. The old-line Democrats felt that they were being crowded out of their own party. Imagine a CIO which has organized the South. Add to it the organized force of the AFL. In the face of this, the liberals in the South, as they did in Russia, in Spain, and in China, in India, would forget their liberalism and rush for support to the blackest reaction.

Labor Political Action

With all the obvious differences between Czarist Russia, India, China and the South the lesson still holds good. The movement to organize labor in the South must place its political confidence in unions. If liberalism and New Dealism were able to play a certain role in the United States as a whole under Roosevelt, that was due to the long tradition and conditions in the North, East and West which approximated to the tradition and conditions of Britain, France, Belgium and Holland. But the miserable backward Southern regime and a highly organized modern labor movement are like oil and water. They can’t mix. The CIO’s Van Bittner says that he is organizing unions – he is not mixing in politics. That is what he thinks. At any rate that is what he says. That is an illusion. Operation Dixie is no mere union movement.

History has shown that in a social regime like the South the movement by its mere existence poses fundamental questions. And the social questions in the South, even before Operation Dixie, were sharp enough. Far-seeing Negroes and militant workers should realize that here, more than anywhere else perhaps in the U.S., is the need for clear-cut, independent political action by labor.

Last updated on 3 April 2019