George Novack

Can American Workers Make a Socialist Revolution?

(November 1968)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.30 No.1, January-February 1969, pp.41-64. [1*]
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The capitalist rulers of the United States have choirs of troubadours, voluntary and hired, to chant their praises nowadays. Intellectuals of all categories exalt their own functions in the fields of culture and communications. Countless books, movies, and TV series depict the joys and cares of suburban middle-class families. The press features the doings of youth, from the antics of hippies and yippies to the demonstrations of the campus rebels.

For a long time the Afro-American was, in the phrase of novelist Ralph Ellison, “the invisible man.” But first the civil-rights movement and now the deeply felt black nationalist demands, exploding in ghetto uprisings, have pushed the black masses into view. Their grievances may be unsatisfied and their tactics deplored, but their forceful presence can no longer be ignored.

The least attention is being paid to the largest part of the American people. The white workers have almost fallen from public sight. Their social prestige is at the lowest point in this century. The wageworker has the fewest friends, admirers, and defenders among the intellectuals and in politically articulate circles. Who cares if the wealth-producers of the world’s richest country have no Homer or even Walt Whitman to celebrate them?

The current devaluation of the social significance of the workers as a class, and the white workers in particular, stands in contrast with the latter half of the nineteen-thirties, when the mass production workers were invading the open-shop strongholds of big business and installing powerful unions in them. At that time they were widely believed to possess the potential energy, not only to change relations within industry, which they did, but to overthrow American capitalism. This esteem for labor’s progressive capacities persisted in radical and even liberal quarters until after the postwar strike wave of 1945-46. (See The New Men of Power, written around that time by C. Wright Mills.)

In the two decades since, as a result of the prolonged prosperity, political reaction, union bureaucratism, and labor conservatism, the wageworking class has dropped to the bottom of the rating scale. Today there is “none so poor as to do them reverence.” How pointless it seems to ask: Do the American workers have any revolutionary potential? Can they break loose from established institutions, develop an anti-capitalist consciousness, engage in a struggle for power, and go on to build a socialist society?

Run through the hierarchy of American society and every level of it will come up with negative answers to these questions. The corporate chiefs, their political agents, and the comfortable middle classes would agree that, except for a few disgruntled “subversives,” the workers in the United States are content with their lot and station, have few deep grudges against the existing system, and will never look forward to changing it. Most professors and intellectuals look askance at the notion that ordinary workers have what it takes to organize themselves and lead a mass movement that can challenge and displace the monopolist and militarist masters of their fate.

Skepticism about such qualifications among the workers extends beyond the well-to-do. The union bureaucrats, who do not permit the ranks to lead their own unions, hardly expect them to run the whole of American society. Afro-Americans view privileged and prejudiced white workers as indifferent and hostile to black emancipation, and they are to a certain extent correct.

In their quest for forces that can bring about revolutionary change in the contemporary world, some young radicals look toward the “poor,” the unemployed, the lumpenproletariat, student rebels, and the peoples of the Third World. They turn in every direction but one: the millions of industrial workers in their own land. Although the Socialist and Communist parties preserve some ritual rhetoric, inherited from their Marxist pretensions, that links the prospects of socialism with the working class, in practical politics they display a lack of faith in its independent power by supporting capitalist parties and liberal politicians and refusing to propagandize for a labor party based on the unions.

This attitude has been formulated in philosophical terms by Prof. Herbert Marcuse in his popular book, One-Dimensional Man. In a symposium at the University of Notre Dame in April 1966, he argued that Marxism has broken down in its central contention that the working class is the predestined gravedigger of capitalism. “In the advanced industrial countries where the transition to socialism was to take place, and precisely in those countries, the laboring classes are in no sense a revolutionary potential,” he asserted. More recently, in an interview published in the October 28, 1968, New York Times, Marcuse flatly ruled out any possibility of revolution in the United States. Revolution is inconceivable without the working class and that class is integrated in the affluent society and “shares in large measure the needs and aspirations of the dominant classes,” he stated.

In a reassessment of Marx’s theory of the revolutionary role of the industrial proletariat at the 1967 Socialist Scholars Conference in New York, Monthly Review editor Paul Sweezy propounded the proposition that, in sharp contrast with the peasant masses in the Third World, the advances of modern technology and its prodigious productivity in a developed democratic capitalist framework tend to shape a proletariat which is less and less revolutionary.

These write-offs of the workers by the Left have been matched by liberals who proceed on non-Marxist premises. Thus, after announcing that Marx erred in expecting the working class to be the prime agency of revolutionary change, David Bazelon in Power in America: The Problem of the New Class assigns that function to the managers and technocratic intellectuals who he thinks are about to supplant the capitalists as the future ruling class.

To round out this record of disparagement, most American workers would hardly give positive answers to a pollster who asked whether they had the need, right, or prospect of taking control of the economic and political system from the present possessors of power and property.

Hardly anyone but revolutionary Marxists nowadays retain faith in the anti-capitalist strivings and sentiments of the working people or believe that they can in time participate in a mighty movement oriented toward socialist objectives. For adhering to these convictions and being guided by them, we are looked upon as ideological freaks and political fossils, ridiculous relics of a bygone era, dogmatists who cling to outworn views and cannot understand what is going on in front of our own eyes.

Indeed, it may seem quixotic to put up countervailing arguments against such an overwhelming preponderance of public opinion and dulled class consciousness among the workers themselves. Why not go along with the crowd?

Unfashionable as it may be, Marxists have substantial reasons for their adamant resistance on this point. Their convictions are not an affirmation of religious-like faith. They are derived from a scientific conception of the course and motor forces of world history, a reasoned analysis of the decisive trends of our time, and an understanding of the mainsprings and the necessities of capitalist development. Marxism has clarified many perplexing problems in philosophy, sociology, history, economics, and politics. Its supreme achievement is the explanation it offers of the key role of the working class in history.

This is far too serious an issue to be treated in an offhand way. Nothing less is at stake than the destiny of American civilization and with it the future of mankind.

So grave a question cannot be definitively disposed of by reference to the present mood, mentality, and lack of political organization of the workers themselves. Nor can it be permanently suppressed. It keeps reasserting itself at each new turn of events. No sooner has the revolutionism of the working class been dismissed for the hundredth time than it returns from exile to haunt its banishers.

The year 1967, for example, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution, when the workers did conquer power for the first time in history, opening a breach in the structure of world capitalism which has been widened and deepened by a series of subsequent socialist revolutions. Will this process never be extended to the United States when it has already come within ninety miles of its shores?

The general strike of ten million French workers in May-June 1968 disclosed an unsuspected readiness for anti-capitalist action in the advanced industrial West. Cannot the American workers become imbued at some point with a similar militancy?

There is another side to this problem. Those who deny any latent radicalism in the industrial workers seldom appreciate what consequences logically flow from this negative position in the areas of most concern to them.

If the working masses cannot be counted on to dislodge the capitalists, who else within the country can do that job? It would be exceedingly difficult to point out another social force or find a combination of components that could effectively act as a surrogate for the industrial workers. The struggle against capitalist domination then looms as a lost cause and socialist America becomes a Utopia.

Recognition of this difficulty gives rise to pessimistic forecasts of America’s future. Some see the iron heel of fascism already poised above the nation; others emphasize the powerlessness of the Left. People who seriously envisage such a perspective must logically reconcile themselves to the eventual unloosing of a nuclear holocaust by the American imperialists at bay.

A typical instance of such prostration was provided by the historian Gabriel Kolko of the University of Pennsylvania in an article on The Decline of American Radicalism in the Twentieth Century, published in the September-October 1966 issue of the now defunct Studies on the Left. After pronouncing Marxism obsolescent, he concluded:

“Given the consensual basis of American politics and society in the 20th century, and the will of the beneficiaries of consensus to apply sufficient force and power at home and abroad when resistance to consensus and its hegemony arises, the new left must confront the prospect of failure as an option for radical, democratic politics in America. Rational hopes for the 20th century now rest outside America and in spite of it ...”

In view of the omnipotence of the ruling class and the weakness of its internal opposition, all that radicals can do is “to define a new intellectual creed at home which permits honest men to save their consciences and integrity even when they cannot save or transform politics.” As though to verify these arguments, Studies on the Left shut up shop shortly thereafter, and its editors have scattered in search of a new critique of “post-industrial society” to save (or should we say “salve”) their scholarly consciences.

Before succumbing to such sentiments of hopelessness, it would seem advisable at least to reexamine the problem in a more rounded way. It might then be seen that the Marxist analysis and inferences on the prospects of the American working class are not so unfounded as the critics make out.

The present situation of American labor

The potential of any class is derived from the place it occupies in the dynamics of economic development. Is it advancing or receding, rising or declining in the system of production? From all statistical indices it is plain that the small family farmer falls into the second category. Is the industrial worker shriveling as well?

All over the world – regardless of the social form of production – industrialization and urbanization is causing the proletariat to grow in size and gain in economic, social, and political importance. The wage-working class, defined as those who sell their own labor power to the owners of capital, is no exception to that rule in the most advanced of all the industrial countries. Between 1880 and 1957 the ratio of wage earners of all sorts in the gainfully employed population of the United States rose steadily from 62 percent to 84 percent, with a corresponding decline for entrepreneurs of all kinds (from 37 percent to 14 percent).

The number of jobs in American industry has more than doubled since 1940, rising from 33 to well over 70 million. This army of wage earners operates the most complex and up-to-date productive facilities and produces the most abundant and diversified output of goods. The product of their energies and skills provides the riches of the owners of industry and supports their gigantic armed forces.

Thanks to the prodigious capacities of the productive apparatus, this working class has the highest wage rates and living standards, even though it receives a diminishing share of the annual wealth it creates. Eighteen millions or so have organized strong unions and engaged in many of the biggest and bitterest strikes in labor’s history.

At the same time most members of this class are extremely retarded in political and social outlook, the least aware of their class status and responsibilities, racist-minded, privileged, and conservatized. They remain the only working class of the highly industrialized countries which has not cut loose from subservience to the capitalist parties and established a mass political organization of their own, whether of a Laborite, Socialist, or Communist type. Although they may be steady union-dues payers, they are by and large uneducated in Marxist ideas and the socialist program.

Many of today’s young radicals are far more impressed by the undeniable shortcomings of the labor movement than by any of its positive accomplishments. Sometimes they appear to deny it any progressive features. They slight the significance of the sheer existence of powerful union organizations which act as a shield against lowering wages and working conditions and check the aggressions of capitalist reaction. They leave out of consideration the working conditions of a century ago, before unionization, the fourteen- to sixteen-hour day, the exploitation of child labor, the early mortality rate for all workers; and they neglect to study what happens when unions are exceptionally weak and fragmented – or destroyed – in the epoch of imperialism, for instance in Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany.

According to the anti-Marxist ideologues, whatever else happens, the workers will never become a force ready, willing, and able to transform the United States. Their ranks are so smugly and snugly integrated into the mass “consumer society” that they can have no compelling reasons to turn against it. It is out of the question for them to attain the political or ideological level of their European counterparts and certainly not the revolutionary temper of the Cuban workers.

Such a long-term prognosis rests upon two suppositions. One, that American capitalism has been immunized against severe crises and will maintain its domestic stability indefinitely. Two, that the present characteristics, attitudes, and relations of the working force are essentially unalterable by any foreseeable change in circumstances. Much hinges then on the prospects of US monopoly capitalism in the last third of the twentieth century. What are these likely to be?

The outlook for American capitalism

Despite the elimination of private property elsewhere, the capitalist rulers of America today have an arrogant faith in the longevity of their system. They firmly believe that the empire of the almighty dollar is assured of perpetual dominion at home and abroad.

From an offhand glance at developments since the Civil War, the case for their continued supremacy would appear unassailable. Over the past century the magnates of capital have succeeded in concentrating economic, political, military, and cultural power in their hands. They have emerged from two world wars stronger and richer than before. They hold the commanding heights within the country and over two-thirds of the globe.

While peoples on other continents have become more and more cognizant of the revolutionary nature of our epoch, Americans consider themselves completely detached from it because of the contradictory effects the international upheavals since 1917 have had on the fortunes of American capitalism.

While the system that it is committed to defend to the death has been losing ground step by step to the socialist forces on a world scale, US capitalism has been gaining enormously at the expense of its rivals. Today it towers above them all.

This country has been the prime capitalist beneficiary of the cataclysmic changes that have marked the first period of the transition from capitalism to socialism. The main beneficiary of the capitalist past, it has flourished more than ever during the first phase of capitalism’s decline. As it holds the fort for the rest of the capitalist camp, the United States has drawn into itself most of the residual vitality of the disintegrating capitalist order.

This temporarily favorable aspect of the world situation for America’s ruling class accounts for the unexampled strength of monopolist domination, the stability of its social alignments, the complacency of its political outlook. The eminence that so pleases the rich and the very rich and deludes the rest of the American people is viewed as a fitting culmination and reward of the entire career of American civilization.

The basic reasons for the political backwardness which appears so insuperable and everlasting are not to be found in any irremovable psychology of the American people and its working class but rather in the exceptionally auspicious circumstances of the development of American bourgeois society. It was the offspring of a lusty young capitalism which swept everything before it from the time the New World was opened up for settlement and exploitation half a millennium ago.

The population of the United States has been the most favored, pampered, and even spoiled child in the family of capitalist nations. Capitalism has attained the most luxuriant growth here in almost every respect. This consummate development of capitalism, which is the outstanding peculiarity of our history, has set its stamp upon the thinking, values, and outlook of almost every American. That is why the worship of the golden calf, the frantic chase after the fast and not so elusive buck, and confidence in the eternity of this system are so deep-rooted and widespread. Any suggestion that world capitalism in general, and its American segment in particular, has reached its zenith seems incredible to the ordinary citizen who expects that the system as he knows it will, like old man river, just keep rolling along.

These devout believers in the perpetuity of US capitalism fail to take into consideration the impact of five mighty tendencies upon its further development.

First is the fact that America’s wealth and preponderance have been gained, and are being sustained, at the expense of the poverty and weakness of less fortunate countries in other parts of the world. Their blood and flesh fatten the vulture of imperialism. The gap between rich and poor keeps widening on a global scale. American citizens make up one-fifteenth of the world’s population and consume one-half of its total output.

Second, this unequal and oppressive relationship has its consequences. Those underdeveloped – or, more accurately, overexploited – countries which have been shut off front almost all the benefits of capitalist expansion, while suffering from imperialist depredation and domination, are increasingly resorting to anti-capitalist actions to achieve their liberation. They are determined to get access to a rightful share of the conquests of modern civilization. This is the motivation and meaning of the irrepressible revolutionary movements in Asia, the Near East, Africa, and Latin America.

Third, the predominant trend of history since 1917 has not been the building up but the breaking down of world capitalism. This process of socialist expansion has already established workers’ states all the way from the Adriatic in Europe to the Pacific Ocean; in Cuba it has come within hailing distance of the United States. This international anti-capitalist struggle, which is the ascending social and political trend of the twentieth century, celebrated the first half-century of its conquests in October 1967. The next half-century does not promise fewer advances toward socialism than the first.

Fourth, the spread of world revolution has already administered stiff jolts to American imperialism and continually confronts its strategists with grave problems on the foreign field. Their disastrous setback in Vietnam is only a down payment on the enormous costs they must incur in undertaking the overambitious design of policing the world for the preservation of the profiteering way of life.

Finally, the cumulative effects of all the problems growing out of the convulsions of a chronically sick capitalism are sooner or later bound to have sizable and serious repercussions within the United States itself. They will tend to undermine its stability, upset its conservatism, and give rise to new forms of mass radicalism. These have already announced themselves in the strivings of black America for national self-determination, the disaffection among the youth, and the antiwar movement that changed the face of American politics in 1968.

It should be noted that these expressions of discontent emerged amidst the longest boom of the twentieth century and virtually full employment. A slump in economic activity would intensify the growing dissidence in the unions and add a sizable amount of labor unrest to the array of opposition to the monopolist regime.

Is it reasonable to expect that the United States alone will remain indefinitely separated from the world historical movement toward socialism when it is already up to its ears in every other international development? It is more likely that its reckless and far-ranging activities in attempting to safeguard its system from decline and destruction, combined with the fluctuations in its economy, will bring about an eventual radicalization of its own working class.

Japanese seismologists monitor micro-earthquakes every day to detect signs of impending tremors that portend major upheavals. So the recurrent strikes at the lowest ebb of the class struggle in the United States serve as reminders that its workers cannot be completely counted out as a factor in the calculations of American radicalism.

Possible precipitants of labor radicalism

The skeptics who repose unlimited confidence in the longevity of capitalism rule out the possibility that the workers will be any more insurgent in the next twenty years than the last. What will incite them to change from being a prop to a peril to capitalism, they ask. Won’t they become more and more like the housebroken “cheerful idiots” depicted by C. Wright Mills?

Surprisingly, it may turn out that the past two decades of inertia were not a totally dead loss. They may have enabled the working class to rejuvenate its ranks and accumulate energies which await a suitable occasion for discharge. Thus the French workers, who appeared to be disarmed under de Gaulle, seized the tenth anniversary of his assumption of authoritarian power to launch the greatest of all general strikes and make an aborted bid for power.

The United States has hardly been a model of social peace since Johnson started bombing North Vietnam in 1965 – and the rising tide of radicalism is far from its crest. The workers will not join it solely as a result of verbal exhortations. But they can get moving again in reaction to some whiplash of the capitalist regime. Here the subsequent course of international economic development will be the decisive factor.

Throughout the postwar expansion the exceptionally high productivity of the American economy has enabled its capitalists to dominate the world market despite the higher wage scale of our industrial workers. Now the unbeatable international advantages enjoyed by US corporations for two decades are fast diminishing as other industrialized countries have re-equipped, rationalized, and modernized their productive systems. Although West European and Japanese industries continue to trail behind the American giants in the computer and aircraft fields, they are today fully capable of challenging them in auto, steel, chemicals, shipbuilding, and many lines of consumer goods.

Under intensified foreign competition, US corporations will be increasingly pressed to shave their costs, beginning with the cost of labor. The average wage of the American worker has been two and a half times that of the West European and five times greater than the Japanese. Big business will have to try to reduce this immense wage differential through direct or indirect moves against the earnings and living standards of the industrial work force. As the unions engage in defensive actions against such attacks, sharp tension can quickly replace the prevailing toleration between the bosses and the workers.

The resurgence of labor radicalism may come from the flagging of the long-term postwar capitalist expansion and an extended downturn in the industrial cycle – or it may be precipitated by intensified inflation. It could be provoked by anger against anti-labor legislation or by resistance to another military venture and debacle of US imperialism. It could be hastened by the impact of a black insurrection, student clashes with the authorities, as in France, or by the penetration of these forces into the unions through black caucuses and radicalized young workers. The possibilities are so diverse that it is impossible to foretell where or how the break in the dike will come.

The irregular development of American radicalism from 1928 to 1968

The widespread underrating of the working class comes from reliance on short-range criteria. Marxism has other standards of judgment. Its general strategy in the struggle for socialism is based upon a long-term, many-sided and dialectical approach to the development of the proletariat.

It is important to note that from 1928 to 1968 the struggles of the three main anti-capitalist elements have unfolded in a disparate manner and at an uneven tempo. The industrial workers, the black masses, and the students have manifested fluctuating degrees of radicalism over those forty years which have brought them into differing relations with one another as well as with the ruling class.

The American workers of the nineteen-twenties were far more passive, helpless, and poorly organized than today. Many experts at that time could not figure out how these weaknesses might be overcome, and it was not easy to do so. The touchstone of labor’s impotence in their eyes was its inability to introduce unionism into basic industry where most low-paid workers were located.

They marshaled imposing reasons why the workers were unlikely to emerge from disorganization. The workers were divided against themselves: native against foreign-born, white against black, craft workers against mass production workers. The anti-union forces were rich, crafty, and powerful. The magnates of capital had the workers at their mercy. They controlled the courts, legislatures, Congress, and the press. They used the blacklist, their private police, labor spies, and reserves of strikebreakers to crush and victimize organizers in the shops.

Moreover, the AFL officialdom was uninterested in bringing unionism to the unorganized. How, then, were the mass production workers to organize themselves? They were considered too unintelligent and unaware of their own interest and bereft of the necessary resources, national connections, and experience.

The most telling argument advanced by the empiricists was the failure of every effort that militants and radicals had made for forty years to organize basic industry. The campaigns undertaken by Eugene Debs in the early eighteen-nineties; by the De Leonists, Wobblies, and left Socialists before the first world war; and, finally, by the Communists in the nineteen-twenties had all come to nothing.

The gloomy prognosis drawn from these empirical facts had one flaw: it assumed that previous conditions would prevail with undiminished effect from one decade to the next. However, the 1929 crash intervened and upset many things. Once the workers recovered from the paralyzing onset of the depression, and industry picked up in 1933, their morale and fighting spirit revived with it. Before the end of the decade, they broke down the open shop and unionized basic industry.

Such swings tell a great deal about the mutability in the disposition of social forces. Consider the contrasting positions of the white workers and the black people in the nineteen-thirties and the nineteen-sixties. This is as instructive as the reversals that took place in the state of the working class from the nineteen-twenties to the nineteen-thirties and from the thirties to the sixties.

Labor was on the offensive against corporate capital in the nineteen-thirties, with the white workers in the lead. Once the black workers became convinced that they were really welcome in the new industrial unions, they joined wholeheartedly with the white workers in the organizing struggles of the CIO. In fact, pro-union sentiment was stronger in the black community as a whole than in the white community in the late thirties and early forties.

Black militancy and black radicalism were expressed mainly through general labor struggles in the thirties, rather than as a specifically black movement. There were scattered pockets of black nationalist organization, and black nationalist sentiment was undoubtedly more widespread than most whites realized, but the strength and potential of Afro-Americans as an autonomous force had not yet been expressed in any significant organizational form. It was not until 1941, with the emergence of the short-lived March on Washington movement, that there appeared the first signs of a nationwide nationalist awakening, or reawakening, since the heyday of Garveyism in the nineteen-twenties. Its development was slow and erratic during the forties and early fifties, but by the sixties it had become one of the central features of the present epoch.

So the relative roles of the white workers and the black people became reversed. While the white workers were by and large quiescent, millions of black Americans were now pounding against the status quo. The initiative in struggle, held by the working class in the nineteen-thirties, had now passed into the hands of blacks as a people.

Suppose that learned sociologists, projecting from the state of affairs in the thirties, had concluded that the black people never would or could rise up on their own and take the lead in social protest. Would such an extrapolation be better grounded than the current presumption that apathetic white workers, now in the rearguard, must be disqualified as a fighting force for the rest of the century, or even the coming decade?

What about students? Throughout the nineteen-thirties they played a small part in the surge of radicalism dominated by labor. During the great strike wave from 1945 to 1947 they were not heard from. At that point could they not have been written off for all time as a ferment for revolution? Indeed, they remained “the silent generation” through the nineteen-fifties and did not pass over to radicalism until they were animated by the civil-rights movement, the Cuban Revolution, and the anti-H bomb demonstrations in the early sixties.

Such pronounced irregularities in the radical activities of diverse sectors of society speak against making hasty categorical judgments about their respective capacities for combat from their postures over a limited time. The prophets of gloom may easily mistake the recharging of the energies of the American working class for their exhaustion.

Proposed alternatives to the working class

Once the workers have been canceled out as the chief bearer of social progress, the question is insistently posed, Who will take their place? Obviously, the peasantry, which has been the most massive revolutionary battering ram in the colonial countries, cannot serve as a substitute in the United States.

One answer is that the twenty-two million Afro-Americans will fill the vacancy because they occupy a comparable status as an oppressed colonial people inside the imperialist monster. At the present stage the battlers for black liberation unquestionably stand in the front line against the capitalist power structure. They have not waited for anyone else to launch a vigorous attack upon the caste system that victimizes them in so many ways. And they have begun to form their own leadership and create their own organizations in pursuing that struggle.

However, these facts do not exhaust the problem of their place in the overall development of the American revolution. Black Americans have need of powerful allies at home as well as abroad in order to overcome “the man” and win liberation from the oppression of Uncle “Sham.” They can count on sympathetic support from radical students and intellectuals. But that is hardly enough. Remote and improbable as it seems in the prevailing situation, the principal source of internal reinforcement for their liberation movement can come only from the white end of the labor force.

The long-term strategical formula for throwing off the rule of the rich is an anti-capitalist alliance in action between insurgent Afro-Americans and militant white industrial workers. No other coalition of forces can carry through that task. Like the workers and peasants in colonial lands, the two will triumph together or not at all.

Some non-Marxists rebut this strategical orientation by counter-posing the aggressiveness of black America to the docility of the white workers. They thereby lose sight of significant similarities in the socio-economic positions of the two parts of the proletariat which can acquire great importance at a later time.

The black liberation movement itself has a dual character. It combines the democratic struggle for self-determination of a national minority with a drive for proletarian demands and objectives. This is because the black masses are not peasants in the countryside who aspire to change agrarian relations. They are largely wage-workers penned in city slums who are up in arms against intolerable conditions of life and labor.

In 1957-58, for example, almost 90 percent of the half-million blacks in Detroit were blue-collar workers. Most were in the auto, steel, and chemical plants and belonged to the industrial unions. Many participated in the 1967 uprising. According to John C. Leggett’s study, Class, Race and Labor (1968), they are not only highly race conscious but “more class conscious than whites.” That is, they are more outraged by the privations imposed on them by “the big-money class” and readier to resist it. The same holds true for Chicago and other centers of industry, as the black caucuses springing up in unions from the East to the West Coast indicate.

The composite character of the super-exploited wage slaves in the cities makes their struggles doubly explosive. The democratic demands of the black people for an end to discriminatory treatment and racism are fused with their proletarian demands for jobs, rank-and-file control of the unions, more welfare, and other essentials. Although many nationalist black militants do not yet see the matter in this light, they act as the anti-capitalist vanguard of the entire American working class. However much the black masses are now estranged from the white workers, both are objectively yoked together through their joint subordination to the profiteers. They constitute two distinct segments of a single labor force. They are, to be sure, diametrically different in certain respects, since black and white are unequally subjected to the pressures of capitalist exploitation. Nevertheless, their common economic positions vis-a-vis the ruling economic and political power tend to draw them closer together, despite the width of their divergences.

* * *

Apart from the national minorities or along with them, anarchistically inclined thinkers imagine that such elements as the chronically unemployed, the lumpenproletariat, the hippies or other temporary dropouts from bourgeois society can be alternative gravediggers of capitalism. But they cannot explain how these outcast groupings can organize themselves or others for sustained economic or political activity of any kind, whatever spasmodic and despairing outbursts they may indulge in.

C. Wright Mills looked to the dissidents among the “intellectual apparatus” as “a possible immediate, radical agency of change.” The wage-workers, he theorized, acted as a decisive political force only in the early stages of industrialization. Now these workers had become co.opted into the bureaucratized “mass consumption” United States and the “cultural workers” would have to lead the struggle against “the power elite.”

The general experience of the past decade has not confirmed this conclusion of the empirical sociologist, or rather, it has certified its limitations. Dissident intellectuals can play significant roles in starting and stimulating oppositional currents against authoritarian regimes and unpopular policies, as Czechoslovakia in the East and the anti-Vietnam-war teach-ins in the West have indicated. But however great their political impact, nowhere have their initiatives or activities in and of themselves overturned an established social or political regime and put a new one in its place.

Students have likewise demonstrated the world over that they can play a vanguard role in opposing official and unofficial reaction and detonating struggles of broader scope by setting an example of resistance for other forces to imitate. But in the dynamics of the revolutionary process as a whole, their intervention is auxiliary to the decisive power of the working masses. Once the ten million French strikers returned to work in June 1968, the student rebels, who had touched off the workers’ offensive, could not sustain their confrontation with the de Gaulle government.

The perspectives of a triumphant fight to the finish against capitalist domination and imperialism are inseparably connected with the entry of the workers onto the arena. Who else can organize and mobilize a counterpower strong enough to challenge and crush the powers-that-be? Who else is in a position to take control of the means of production, socialize them, and plan their operation? Who else can become the directors of the new social order? To understand this and act upon it distinguishes the vanguard students who become Bolsheviks from all others.

* * *

There is a further consideration. The non-Marxist rebels want greater democracy. Yet, paradoxically, the repudiation of the workers as the central agency of social reconstruction leads to extremely undemocratic options.

The white and black workers and their families compose the vast majority of the American people. Suppose some other agency is delegated or destined to lead the way to the abolition of capitalism. What relation is the savior-force to have to the working masses during this process? If the workers are not self-active, it could at best be paternalistic. In that event, the revolutionary movement would fall under the auspices of a benevolent elite or a maleficent bureaucracy.

How does such a mode of development square with the insistence of these young rebels that they are more devoted to democratic methods than the Marxists and opposed to all forms of elitism or bureaucratism? How are they, or anyone else, going to promote a revolution along democratic lines without the conscious consent and active participation of the wage-working majority? And what happens if that majority remains antipathetic and resistant to the ongoing revolution – as they should, according to certain preconceptions? If the workers cannot be revolutionized under any conceivable circumstances, then the prospects for expanding American democracy are no brighter than those for achieving socialism.

Depreciating the working class

It is ironical that young rebels who reject conformism to big business mimic its low opinion of the working class. One reason for this attitude is a limited historical vision. Contemporary Americans are divided, according to University of Michigan sociologists, into the “depression” and the “prosperity” generations.

The new radicals belong to the latter group. Cradled in the prosperity and domestic stability of the postwar Western world, they are acquainted only with a non-mobilized union movement. They have never witnessed combative legions of labor at firsthand nor seen what they can accomplish. They regard the union structure as an unbreakable solid block and make no distinction between the membership and the officialdom that sits upon it. Consequently, they feel as alienated from the ranks of labor as the ranks do from them.

Many unwittingly share the disdain of middle-class intellectuals for less formally educated people. They visualize the mass of workers as contented cattle who cannot look beyond their bellies or ever be inspired by a call to struggle for broad social causes and political aims.

Although they may have taken courses in economics or sociology, they fail to perceive how the psychology of the better-paid workers has been debased by middle-class values. The worst aspect is not, as some think, an artificially stimulated craving for meretricious goods and the latest gadgets.

Far more vicious and pernicious are the feelings of inferiority induced in the popular masses through systematic indoctrination in the standards of the master class which underrate their real worth to society. The self-reliance of the workers is so weakened that they do not realize they can say “no” to capitalist domination or escape from the status quo.

By echoing the pervasive disparagement of the workers, supercilious students involuntarily help to reinforce such class mistrust. The revolt of the Afro-Americans shows that the techniques of submissive-ness practiced by bourgeois miseducators have limited effectiveness. The new radicals accept the fact that the black masses, so long depicted as menials, can reject their degradation, heighten their racial pride, resist their oppressors. Yet it has still to dawn on these new radicals that, at some later date, white workers too can pass through similar processes of remoralization. If black can become beautiful, so can labor in its most energetic and creative periods.

Not a few young radicals come from working-class families. Although they have come to comprehend how and why Afro-Americans have been taught to hold themselves in contempt and bend the knee to the master race and class, they fail to recognize that they can fall victim to similar pressures. Cut off from their own roots, they have been tricked into accepting the disdain for the capacities of working people inculcated by the bourgeois system.

They acquire so one-sided a view of the wage-workers by conceiving of them, not as the chief agents of production, but primarily as consumers motivated by suburbanite standards. However, the functions of the workers as purchasers of commodities are not equal in social importance to their role as the creators of wealth in the productive process. Nor do these different sides of their activities have the same weight in shaping their conduct. The reactions of the workers are primarily and ultimately determined by what happens to them in the labor market and at the point of production. That is where they encounter speedups, short time, layoffs, discrimination, insecurity, wage reductions, and other evils of exploitation. That is why any drastic fluctuation in their economic welfare can quickly alter their tolerance of the existing state of affairs.

* * *

The more sociologically inclined among the new radicals have elaborated some theoretical justifications for their disqualification of the industrial workers. They base their arguments, not on the narcotizing effects of capitalist consumption and culture, but upon changes in the productive process. They point out that white-collar workers are growing faster than blue-collar workers and conclude that this relative reduction has qualitatively diminished the economic, social, and political power of the latter. Is this the case?

It is true that the labor force is undergoing marked changes in all industrial countries. Two such shifts have special significance. Because of its high capital intensity, the number of workers engaged in modern industry tends to decrease relative to the personnel employed in transport and communications, the educational system, research, government jobs, and the service trades. Further, as a result of mechanization, the percentage of technical and highly skilled workers tends to grow at the expense of the unskilled.

The implications of these structural changes in the work force do not signify that the working class as such has less importance since, in fact, the sellers of labor power grow relative to the farm population, independent small proprietors, and other sectors of society.

The declining role of such social strata in production and distribution enhances the weight of others. Thus the decrease of the small farmer with the growth of large-scale mechanized enterprises in agriculture is accompanied by increases in the numbers of agricultural workers; the obsolescence of the small retailer with the expansion of chain stores creates scores of thousands of commercial employees; mechanization and automation industrialize many departments of economic activity previously unaffected by wage labor. These interrelated developments extend the scope of wage-labor relations on a scale unknown in the nineteenth century.

The main meaning of these changes is that education and skill become ever more vital in the competition for jobs and the scramble for social survival and economic advancement. On the one hand, the low-paid, unskilled segments of the laboring population become more miserable, insecure, ground down. On the other hand, the growing numbers of white-collar, professional, and technical personnel become more subjected to capitalist exploitation and alienation, more and more proletarianized, more responsive to unionization and its methods of action, more and more detached from loyalty to their corporate employers. These trends pile up combustible materials which can flare into massive anti-capitalist movements.

The relative reduction in the directly producing force does not nullify the key role of the proletarians within industry. In the relations of production, quality is more decisive than quantity. Ten thousand transport workers are far more crucial in social struggle than ten thousand office workers. When 35,000 transport workers shut down the New York City subways and buses several years ago, everything ground to a halt in the hub of US capitalism.

The strategic position that the mass production, transport, and communications workers occupy in the operations of capitalism invests their actions with a power exceeding their actual numbers. As direct producers, they alone can start or stop the most vital sectors of the economy. The capitalist regime is well aware of the latent power of the strike weapon wielded by blue-collar workers and constantly seeks to hamper its use. In practice, the rulers have little doubt about its revolutionary potential.

Thus one million industrial workers command incomparably more revolutionary power than seven million college students. Although the three million teachers constitute the largest single occupational group in the country, their collective economic power is less than that of the half-million blue-collar workers in the steel mills.

Some envisage the imminent ejection of almost all workers from industry through the swift spread and consummation of automation. Under capitalism, mechanization and cybernation do threaten the jobs of skilled and unskilled alike, in one industry after another. The dislocations and job instability caused by these processes have to be guarded against by both the economic action and political organization of the working class.

Capitalist production cannot do without an ample laboring force, no matter how many are unemployed, because profit-making and the accumulation of capital depend upon the consumption of large quantities of labor power which creates value in the form of commodities. Although this or that segment or individual may be squeezed out of jobs temporarily or permanently, the industrial work force as such is not expendable, no matter how fast or how far automation proceeds under capitalist auspices.

Indeed, the inherent limitations upon its introduction and extension under capitalism, the inability of the profiteers fully to utilize the immense potential of the new science and technology for reducing the working day and rationalizing production, provide further reasons for breaking their hold upon industry. Socialism envisages the elimination from industry of the capitalist proprietors and coupon-clippers, rather than the workers.

In any event, the industrial workers are far from obsolescent and cannot be conjured away by abstract extrapolations. They will be on hand from now until the socialist revolution – and quite a while thereafter, because they provide the minds and the muscles for the production of all material wealth.

Marxism and the “labor metaphysic”

Two authoritative periodicals of the plutocracy, the London Times Literary Supplement and the New York Times, paid high tributes to the genius of Karl Marx on the centennial of the publication of Capital in 1967. It is “the most influential single work of economics ever written,” said the New York Times editors. In the same breath they hastened to expose what in their eyes were the basic errors of Marx’s teachings. Prominent among them, they insisted, was his false prediction about “the role of the working class as the gravedigger of capitalism.”

“New Left” theorists play on this same theme from a different standpoint. Orthodox Marxists glorify the working class, they claim. Instead effacing up to the realities of contemporary capitalism and appraising its assimilation of the industrial workers in a dispassionate scientific manner, the disciples of Marx fall prey to what C. Wright Mills has called “the labor metaphysic.” To be effective reformers of society, they ought to give up doctrinaire fascination with the leading role of the working class and look elsewhere for more suitable candidates.

They dismiss the fact that, despite the vicissitudes of the class struggle, every so often since 1917 the revolt of the workers and their allies has been victorious. Over the long run, the sum total of their successes has outweighed the reverses; the overall movement of the world working class keeps advancing toward its social goals.

The surest index to the validity of Marxism is the balance sheet of world history in this age of permanent revolution. International experience demonstrates that Marx’s ideas have been vindicated over the past half-century, though only in a partial way. Like shipwrecked sailors hanging onto an overturned lifeboat in a stormy sea, all sorts of anti-Marxists cling to the fact that not all of Marx’s prognoses have yet been verified, above all, in the United States. The impregnability of American capitalism constitutes their rock of salvation.

Yet they are not wholly secure even here. A not unimportant part of Marx’s theory on the evolution of capitalism has already been confirmed in the United States. His forecast of the inherent tendencies of a matured capitalism to pass from competition to monopoly through the concentration and centralization of capital is epitomized by contemporary America.

What remains to be verified are the logical political and ideological consequences of these economic trends, namely, the transition of the workers from union to class consciousness, from bourgeois and petty bourgeois to socialist ideology, from subservience to capitalist parties to independent and militant political organization and action. The fact that these developments have been considerably retarded does not bar them from ever being realized. This very delay sets the tasks that will have to be tackled and solved in the next stage of radicalism.

The dispute between the “New Lefts” and Marxists over the role of the working class is less concerned with divergent appraisals of the facts in the present situation than with their methods of reasoning. The two proceed along different lines in analyzing the dynamics of contemporary social development. The anti-Marxists of the New Left are provincial-minded empiricists. They reject the ideas and perspectives of Marxism, not so much because these have been rendered invalid by irrefutable argument or overwhelming evidence, but because these are not yet accomplished facts.

Although they fancy themselves ahead of their contemporaries, they remain captive to the ideological and political backwardness of American life. They are swayed by the prevailing prejudices against dialectical materialism which can go unchallenged because of the absence of solid Marxist traditions and a strong socialist movement in the United States. They are hardly aware of the extent to which they have been swept along by the pragmatic habits of thought so deeply embedded in our national culture.

The hidden capacities of the oppressed

In determining whether the American working class is a dead volcano or whether explosive energies still simmer in its depths, it should be kept in mind that neither revolutionary situations nor revolutionized classes are normal occurrences. They mature at rare intervals when the slow growth of the preconditions for a showdown between contending social forces comes to a head. During the intervening lulls in mass activity, people come to believe that the social contradictions of capitalism will never generate insurrectionary moods and movements in their time.

Such a conviction became fixed in the minds of the reformists when no direct confrontation between capitalists and workers took place for fifty years from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Russian Revolution of 1917. A like conclusion has come to the fore whenever the working class has suffered grave setbacks or passed through a protracted quiescence over the past half-century. It has taken a new upsurge or victory of the workers to dispel that defeatism.

Over the past half-century the close association of oscillations of confidence in the capacities of the working class with alternations in the intensity of the class struggle can be charted in three major waves. The pessimism produced by the collapse of the European Social Democracy in 1914 was counteracted by the triumph of the Russian workers in 1917; the catastrophic defeats of the nineteen-thirties leading to the second world war were succeeded by the revolutionary upsurge after 1943, which culminated in the Yugoslav, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban victories; and the torpor of the Western working class from 1948 on was unexpectedly upset by the French general strike of May-June 1968.

Cuba shows how the urge to power can break out in the most unscheduled ways and places. Nobody in 1958 expected that a few years later the workers of that island would become uplifted by the ideals of socialist internationalism which the organizers of the July 26th Movement themselves did not then consciously hold.

Time and again funeral ceremonies performed over the revolutionism of a particular national section of the working class, or the class in general, have turned out to be premature. Such shortsightedness has resulted from an overestimation of the “reasonableness” of capitalism on the one hand and an underestimation of the latent capacities

of the toilers on the other. Sudden shocks can cause the rebelliousness of the oppressed to spring to life with a celerity that confounds the skeptics and amazes the participants themselves.

Beaten down in so many ways, workers seldom suspect what they are capable of achieving under the extraordinary stimulus of a revolutionary crisis. That genius of propaganda, Tom Paine, once testified how his plunge into the First American Revolution brought forth talents hidden in him.

“I happened to come to America a few months before the breaking out of hostilities ...” he wrote some years after the Battle of Lexington. “I had no thoughts of Independence or of arms. The world could not then have persuaded me that I should be either a soldier or an author. If I had any talents for either, they were buried in me, and might ever have continued so, had not the necessity of the times dragged and driven them into action.” (Political Writings, vol. I, 169-170)

The “necessity of the times” forces groupings, classes, and whole peoples, as well as individuals, to perform prodigious feats. The colonial rebels displayed a tenacity of purpose, unity, and skill at warfare that astonished their foe and their contemporaries, much as the Vietnamese liberation fighters have in our own day.

In a speech he made in 1968 on the fifteenth anniversary of the attack on the Moncada army garrison, Fidel Castro emphasized the immense untapped resources, lodged in the masses, that a revolution can draw upon.

“The history of this Revolution has furnished us with many examples, repeated examples, of the fact that those who were in error were those who did not believe in man, that those who made the mistake and failed were those who had no confidence in the peoples, who had no confidence in man’s ability to attain and develop a revolutionary awareness.

“In the past, those of us who proclaimed the revolutionary struggle, who proclaimed the need for a revolution, were told the same thing: that we were mistaken, that we were a bunch of dreamers and that we would fail.

“This was what the politicians, the ‘savants’ of politics, the ‘professors of politics,’ the ‘brains’ of politics, the leaders of the traditional, bourgeois parties, had to say. They did not believe in the people; they underestimated the people. They thought the people incapable of accomplishing anything. They thought of the people as an ignorant herd to be manipulated at their will. Those of you who are here today – especially those who are here as guests – and can take a good look at this enormous congregation of people which is the living expression of our Revolution’s power, should not forget that only fifteen years ago we were a small group of youngsters whom many considered dreamers, who had been told they would fail because it was impossible to make a revolution in a country of illiterate, ignorant people. And yet, what is it that we see today? What has been the result of the effort begun fifteen years ago by a small group of youngsters at that stage of our revolutionary history? How much has been accomplished by this people? How much has this unarmed people accomplished? How much has this people that they called ignorant, that they underestimated, that they considered lacking in every virtue, accomplished?”

Such historical precedents suggest that the American workers ought to be sized up, not simply for what they are at a given moment, but for what they may be compelled to become under changed circumstances.

The historical judgment of the skeptics is at fault. With all its appurtenances of power, it is the corporate plutocracy rather than the proletariat that is a decaying class heading toward its demise. The American working class is fresh, vigorous, undefeated, undemoralized. It has displayed considerable fighting spirit, initiative, and stamina in the past – and its career as a creative social force has barely begun.

When republican and democratic movements first emerged in the bourgeois era, spokesmen for royalism, aristocracy, and clerical domination argued that common people were unfit to be entrusted with affairs of state. The same sort of elitist prejudice motivates some of those who today permanently preclude the workers from sovereignty in society.

On what grounds are they justified in setting arbitrary and insurmountable limits to the creative capacities of American labor? If the workers can produce airplanes and precision instruments for the industrialists and militarists and all kinds of commodities for the market, if they can build and maintain powerful industrial unions for themselves, why can’t they go beyond all that?

What prevents them from organizing a mass political party of their own, being won over to socialist ideas, and eventually manning a revolutionary movement which can challenge the existing order and lead the way to a new society? Why can’t these workers, who make such a plenitude of other things, also make history and remake society and, in the process, remake themselves? If they perform all kinds of jobs for the profiteers, why can’t they do their own jobs? If they wage and win wars for the imperialist rulers, why can’t they conduct a civil war in defense of their own interests, as their predecessors did in the nineteenth century?

The wage-workers are no more fated to remain servants in their own house than the American colonists were condemned to remain subjects of the British Crown, or the slaves to remain the property of the Southern planters. If a few million workers and a mass of illiterate peasants in less developed lands have succeeded in revolutionizing themselves along socialist lines, what inherent qualifications did they possess that the better-equipped American workers cannot acquire? The class struggle within the United States should give an answer to these questions before this century is over.

The problem of leadership

The capacities and conduct of a class at any given time depend in no slight degree on the character of its leadership. If the American workers have such a poor record over the recent past, the responsibility rests more with the men at their head than with their own inadequacies. The potentially most dynamic body of workers in the world has the most corrupt, servile, and obtuse official union leadership.

These leaders kowtow to the corporations and the government while lushly living on munificent salaries and expense accounts. They think more like big businessmen than representatives of a progressive social force. They cannot inspire the members of their organizations to higher levels of achievement in industry or politics or teach them anything new. They are rightly despised by young rebels on the campuses and distrusted and held in contempt by young workers in the plants.

Many mistakenly believe that this breed of leaders faithfully and fully represents the caliber of their ranks, that it is the only kind they can produce or follow. Actually, these officials are the product and the promoter of a prolonged period of stagnation. A resurgent labor movement would thrust forward a new type of leadership from below, and even prod some susceptible bureaucrats, as it proved capable of doing during the industrial union drive of the nineteen-thirties. Under a comparable radicalization, labor can both reenergize itself and renew its leadership.

And one thing may be anticipated. Once their militancy revives on a large scale, the American workers will travel at jet-plane speed. They will take off from the point where their march was halted and thrown back several decades ago. The mass production workers did not go ahead to form an independent political organization after they created the industrial unions in the nineteen-thirties. They were prevented from taking this next step by the John L. Lewis-Communist Party coalition in the CIO. They have suffered heavily ever since from this failure to disengage from the two big capitalist political machines.

When they again rise up, the fighting vanguard of the union movement will have to seek the road of independent political action to promote their objectives, as workers elsewhere have already done. However, they will not duplicate the precise course of political development taken by their predecessors. They will follow an exceptional line of march because their thrust toward independence comes so late on the scene, is directed against the most formidable and ruthless adversary, will be objectively intertwined with the revolutionary struggle for Afro-American liberation, and will have been preceded by a new, radicalized generation of college and high school students and young workers. The most advanced workers will be inclined to adopt the best methods of militant action and revolutionary organization available to them.

The sharpness of their break with the old ties can impel this vanguard to make a big leap in their ideas and activity in relatively short order. Whereas the workers who were radicalized at earlier dates in other countries were attracted to Social Democratic, Fabian, or Stalinist programs and parties, these movements have today become largely discredited and decrepit. They cannot provide a new generation of rebellious workers with the leadership, organization, and program they need in the harsh struggle against the monopolists, militarists, and union bureaucracy. These militants will be open to the acceptance of the ideas of authentic Marxism, which the Trotskyist movement alone presents in the United States.

The American working class has colossal tasks ahead of it. It confronts the most formidable and ferocious of adversaries in the monopolist-militarist combine that controls American capitalism. Yet it possesses the potential of a giant. Like Gulliver, it has been pinned down by lilliputians while it has fallen into a drugged sleep.

This class will be roused from its slumber by events beyond anyone’s control. Marxists do not believe that the popular masses can be summoned into battle on anyone’s command. The class struggle unfolds with a rhythm of its own, according to internal laws determined by weighty objective historical conditions.

On the other hand, Marxists are neither fatalists nor anarchists. They recognize that the working masses can launch mighty offensives on their own initiative once capitalism goads them into action. It occurred to no one that February 23, 1917, would be the first day of the Russian Revolution or that May 13, 1968, in France would see the start of the greatest general strike in working-class history.

The revolutionary program and perspectives of Marxism are predicated upon fusing such autonomous actions of the masses with the conscious intervention of its socialist vanguard. The correct combination of these factors is the only guarantee of success in the combat against capitalism.

If it is not correctly oriented in time, the most powerful spontaneous upsurge can fall short of its mark, dribble away, be turned back and crushed. This misfortune has befallen the workers’ movement many times over the past century.

The revolutionary party helps workers take full advantage of their opportunities in good times or bad. That is its reason for existence. Just as every army has its training camps, officer corps, and a high command, so every serious revolutionary movement needs experienced cadres of militants and a dependable general staff. Such a leadership cannot be created overnight. It should be assembled, tested, and tempered in the preparatory period of a revolutionary process. Otherwise, it may be too late. Default on this score has ruined many promising openings for the conquest of power.

The American workers will have to be morally and ideologically rearmed in order to conduct an effective struggle to the end against their exploiters. As every teacher and student knows, self-confidence is necessary to learn new skills and perform greater tasks. Any vanguard that aspires to prepare a revolutionary change in the United States will have to impart assurance to the working people that they have what it takes to meet and beat the ruling rich and liberate themselves.

This is a reciprocal process. The revolutionary socialist party enhances its own confidence to the extent that the masses it proposes to assist elevate their reliance on themselves.

The will to win is an indispensable factor in the way to win. The decisive sections of the working class, black and white, can go forward to victory only as they become convinced that the profiteers are not born to command, that they are misruling the nation and leading the world to catastrophe, that they are not omnipotent and unbeatable, that their system of exploitation is not everlasting but has to go and can be abolished. This is the essential message of Marxism. It teaches that the workers are qualified and mandated by historical progress to supplant the plutocrats as the directors and organizers of economic and political life and become the pioneers of the first truly human society.

It is obvious from these considerations that the continuing controversy over the capacities of the American working class does not involve minor issues. Nothing less than the course and outcome of the struggle for socialism and self-determination hi the United States, if not the very survival of society, depend upon whether an affirmative or negative answer is given to it, first in principle, then in practice.

* * *

The Young Socialist Alliance has given the most affirmative answer to this question by its program, activities, and its very existence. You are meeting this Thanksgiving weekend to implement that faith in the potential of the American working class, black and white. Remember what Fidel Castro said last year: “Only fifteen years ago we were a small group of youngsters whom many called dreamers.” You are a small group of the same sort in this country today.

But what you are and what you do here and now – and, even more, what you may become – has great political importance because you represent the vanguard of the young students and workers who are called upon to bring the liberating ideas of socialism to the American people and wipe imperialism off the face of this planet.


Editorial Note

1*. This talk was delivered on November 28, 1968, to the eighth national convention of the Young Socialist Alliance at the University of Illinois (Chicago Circle Campus).


Last updated on: 20 June 2009