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International Socialist Review, Fall 1957



Signs of a Thaw


From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.4, Fall 1957, pp.109-110.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE VICTORY of the Democratic candidate over the Republican in the Wisconsin senatorial election in August is one more sign of the beginning of a significant change in the political atmosphere of the United States. There were some special circumstances, such as the split in the Republican ranks, which enabled Proxmire to beat Kohler by so sizeable a majority. But this division between the conservative die-hards and the moderates among the Republicans was itself a reflection of the same tendencies which swept Proxmire into office.

The outstanding political fact is that McCarthy, the mortal embodiment of extreme reaction, has been replaced by a figure backed by the union officialdom. The symbolism of this shift was dramatized by Proxmire when immediately after his election he went to the factory gates to thank the workers for their support. To be sure, the workers will get little else in return for their votes.

Beginning with Truman’s infamous “loyalty” purge in 1947, this country became encased in a glacier-like reaction that felt endlessly oppressive. In foreign affairs the bipartisan warriors of US imperialism waged their cold war in all parts of the globe until it flared into the hot war in Korea and threatened to extend into Indo-China, China and the Middle East. At home, with McCarthy in the lead, the witch-hunters combed the land, ferreting out “subversive” individuals and ideas and finding them even at the top of the Democratic Administration.

The material underpinning for this prolonged shift in the direction of police dictatorship was the postwar boom which, with minor fluctuations, kept mounting until it touched the heights after 1954. This combination of rabid political reaction and artificially sustained prosperity gave social stability to the capitalist regime. With the help of the policies imposed by labor’s officialdom, it reduced the independent political activity of the working masses to a minimum.

There were, of course, signs of deep uneasiness among the American people, particularly over the drift toward atomic war. This pressure – plus the stiff resistance of the Asian peoples – was sufficient to help persuade Eisenhower to end the ill-conceived adventure in Korea. However, in the absence of a strong political lead from the labor movement, the underlying dissatisfaction had the paradoxical result for a time of helping the witch-hunters.

The shelving of McCarthy in 1954 indicated that this phase had passed. Along with this the Negro people succeeded in bringing their grievances to national attention as they began striking a new note of militancy and determination in their long struggle for equality. They won a concession from the Supreme Court, the decision on integration in the schools, and this gave fresh impetus to their movement, a development that did not help the witch-hunters.

The change in climate has now been signalized by the recent liberal decisions of the Supreme Court in cases involving alleged “subversives” which have served to further check the aggressiveness of the witch-hunters. The fact that Congress has finally been compelled to consider a civil-rights measure, even though the bill passed is a toothless one, is another sign of the change in political weather. Finally, the agitation for suspension of nuclear weapon tests has grown so powerful that the White House has had to take note of it and soften its stance somewhat at the London disarmament conference.

Concomitant with the most recent political shifts are the warning indications of impending trouble in the economic outlook. The most authoritative business journals say the crest of the boom has been passed. Businessmen and economists are disturbed by the fact that, since January, industry’s backlog of unfilled orders has been declining and new orders are fewer. Pockets of unemployment are appearing in aircraft, auto and other soft spots in the economy.

There has been no improvement in agriculture; the spread between prices of farm commodities and manufactured goods, which has been stretching the small farmers on a rack, continues to widen. Actually the unfavorable relationship between the prices of farm commodities and manufactured goods has been one of the principal factors in sustaining the industrial boom although it injures the farmer by reducing his share of the national income and thus weakens the economy in the long run.

These unfavorable economic prospects were reflected in the break of the stock market where points have dropped sharply since July 16.

Meanwhile the scourge of inflation is worse than ever. Living costs touched new highs in August for the eleventh successive month. The incomes of the working people are tending to lag in the race with soaring prices. Despite wage increases, the real income of the workers for the second quarter of 1957 registered a decline from last year.

Discontent over high prices, bitterness in farm areas over decreased income, the growing feeling of insecurity and uneasiness about the future, and anger against the Eisenhower Administration for its failure to relieve the situation were prime factors behind the Democratic triumph in Wisconsin.

If these economic trends broaden and deepen in the months ahead – and there seem to be no compelling reasons to believe that they will not continue to operate – then they presage a definite upset in the existing balance of class forces. Further undermining of the confidence of the monopolists and their representatives in their own economic prospects would have its symmetrical manifestation in a rise in the dissatisfaction among the workers, farmers and middle classes and an awakening from their previous political lethargy.

The first effects of a shift in national politics would be a strengthening of the Democrats at the expense of the Republicans and the liberal tendencies in both parties to the detriment of the ultra-conservatives. By itself the strengthening of the so-called liberal Democrats might not seem too encouraging. The United States was taken into World War I and II by liberal Democratic Presidents. The current cold war was begun under the Democrats as was the witch-hunt. And it was the “friend of labor” Truman who plunged America into the civil war in Korea without even consulting Congress, still less the people.

Moreover, the change in political climate began under the Republicans. It was under a Republican Administration that the Korean war was ended, McCarthy taken from the center of the stage, favorable Supreme Court decisions made on the witch-hunt cases and segregation in the schools, and civil-rights legislation considered in the Senate without a filibuster.

In the present case, however, a shift toward the Democrats and the liberals in both parties would indicate the beginning of a leftward movement among the masses. That embryonic shift away from extreme capitalist reaction is what is important, not the liberal shadows this movement casts on the screen of Congress in the first stage. Things would not end there. Ultimately the changes could rot be kept within the confines of the two-party system.

It would, of course, be a mistake to exaggerate the actual degree of change at present. The fear of imminent war has receded – but the threat of a new outbreak en the Korean model is inherent in the world situation. The most extreme expressions of the witch-hunt have been curbed – but the witch-hunt machinery has not been dismantled and remains ready for use. Economic activity seems to have passed its peak, but it still remains on a high plateau. Republicans and Democrats may squabble over details, but the bipartisan foreign policy and the astronomical war budget are unchanged. And the labor leaders show no inclination to end their subservience to the capitalist politicians even though these politicians are proceeding with a senatorial inquisition against the unions.

Before the mass movement can turn in the direction of independent political action and go to work building a labor party there will have to be a decisive change in the national picture. The forces of American radicalism and socialism now have the task of preparing themselves for such a turn. After the years of passivity, “loyalty” purges, thought control, and gov rnment inquisitions, we can take heart from the fact that the glacier is melting and new opportunities are appearing. The long freeze of the McCarthy era seems about over.

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