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John Newsinger

From Class War to Cold War

(December 1996)

From International Socialism 2 : 73, December 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

George Lipsitz
Rainbow At Midnight
Urbana 1994, £12.95

At the end of the Second World War the United States was gripped by the greatest strike wave in its history. Whereas the number of strike days a month had averaged less than 2 million in the first half of 1945, in September, after the end of the war against Japan, the figure was over 4 million, rising to over 8 million in October. When the new year of 1946 was welcomed in, there were over 2 million US workers, both men and women, out on strike. In January 1946 there were over 20 million strike days and in February 23 million. A comparison with 1937, the great year of labour revolt, demonstrates the significance of the post-war strike wave. In 1937 there were 4,740 strikes involving 1,861,000 workers for over 28 million days, by 1945 there were 4,750 strikes involving 3,470,000 workers for 38 million days, and in 1946 there were 4,985 strikes involving 4,600,000 workers for 116 million days. The US strike wave of 1945–1946 is one of the great episodes in working class history, a neglected turning point in the history of the class struggle, that played a decisive part in shaping the post-war world. George Lipsitz’s recently revised and republished classic, Rainbow At Midnight, is a marvellous study of the causes and consequences of this great explosion and of its impact on the lives of working class people. It is a book of great depth and insight that deserves reading and re-reading.

In his introductory chapter, Why Write About Workers, Lipsitz complains bitterly about the way that the ‘invisibility of labour in the present keeps us from comprehending its accomplishments and its errors in the past’. The working class has been effectively written out of US history and society, but he insists ‘working people have been a powerful force for democratic change in the United States’. It was political mobilisation by workers in the 1930s that ‘forced business and government to establish meaningful unemployment insurance, old-age pensions and home-loan assistance’ and it was the upheaval of the 1940s that ‘won a high-wage, high-employment economy responsible for what we have come to know as the American standard of living’. Nevertheless he points out that ‘the working class has always functioned as a subordinate force in American history, a group capable of winning concessions from those in power, but never capable of mobilising itself and its allies sufficiently to set the direction for the nation’s economic and political life’. What he hopes to do is ‘to draw out...the implications of labour’s struggles in the 1940s for what has happened since’. He believes that ‘today’s problems and tomorrow’s possibilities can come into clearer focus if we understand the ways in which the political battles in the post-war era shaped the contours of the country’s economic, cultural and political life’. Crucially, Lipsitz asks, ‘what can we learn from labour?’

Lipsitz’s own involvement with working class struggle began in the 1970s when he was working on an underground newspaper in St Louis and became involved with rank and file members of the Teamsters Union, who were campaigning to democratise their union. They provided him with ‘a wonderful education about social class, the workplace, and the nature of movements for social change...their eventual defeat also educated me about the painful costs of social struggle’. Rainbow At Midnight was originally written as part of an effort ‘to understand the origins of the problems facing that insurgent caucus of the Teamsters Union’. [1]

The war years

Lipsitz argues that wartime mobilisation transformed the US. Between June 1940 and September 1944 the US government paid $175 billion to some 18,000 companies in the form of military contracts. Of this huge sum, $117 billion went to just 100 companies and over $50 billion to the top ten. As he puts it, ‘The nation’s largest businesses clearly reaped the greatest benefits from one of the largest welfare projects in history – wartime industrial expansion.’ The US economy practically doubled in size in the course of the war with, as one would expect, most of the benefits accruing ‘to those who already had the greatest share of the nation’s wealth’.

This economic expansion led to a shift in the balance of power within the US ruling class. The conservatives, representative of small corporations traditionally opposed to big government and bitterly anti-trade union, were being eclipsed by the corporate liberals, the representatives of the giant corporations that benefited most from government military expenditures. Whereas in 1939 firms with less than 500 workers had employed 52 percent of the manufacturing workforce, by 1944 they employed only 38 percent. At the same time those firms with more than 10,000 workers increased their share of the manufacturing workforce from 13 to 31 percent. This expanding sector, with its greater ability to pass on costs, was prepared to recognise trade unionism as a way of controlling and regulating the workforce. Indeed, the corporate liberals were prepared to ally themselves with ‘responsible’ trade union leaders and government in the maintenance of a militarised economy and US world hegemony. The challenge to this corporate liberal utopia came not from the conservatives but from the working class.

The dramatic expansion of the economy transformed the working class: the number of women workers increased by 140 percent and the number of black workers employed in industry increased by over 1 million. Whereas in 1942 blacks made up 3 percent of the workers employed on war work, by 1944 they were 8 percent. This transformation in the composition of a growing working class was accompanied by a dramatic increase in trade union membership from 7.2 million in 1940 to 14.5 million by the end of the war.

While the union leaders promised industrial peace for the duration of the war, with the Communist Party leading the way, in industry after industry across the country, unofficial ‘wildcat’ strikes became a routine means of self protection for millions of workers. While most workers supported the no-strike policy in principle, in practice they never allowed it to interfere with the defence of their interests. Many wartime strikes were condemned by employers, union officials and the government as being over trivial issues: a study of Detroit between December 1944 and January 1945 showed that out of 118 strikes only four were over wages with most taking place over disciplinary issues and management prerogatives. Lipsitz’s discussion of this phenomenon is outstanding and worth quoting at some length:

A strike can serve as a tactic to obtain specific ends, but it can also function as a symbolic demonstration of power on the part of the workers. Accumulated grievances and resentments appear in all strikes in submerged form; they may not become negotiating points, and they may never appear in print as ‘causes’ of a strike, but any strike has a history hidden in past labour-management relations. And, of course, what seems trivial to management may have enormous importance for workers. During World War Two, unsettled grievances perpetuated onerous and perhaps dangerous working conditions while leaving company profits secure. Layoffs and production changes threatened to reverse wartime gains in employment, exploiting labour’s cooperation for the benefit of management. Eruptions of violence and displays of defiance released pent-up hostilities over the hours and conditions of work. Walkouts over disciplinary action expressed defiance of management prerogatives and voiced solidarity with other workers. Strikes to win the right to smoke on the job asserted the right to relax at work, and they denied to management the right to control personal habits. Demands for meat in cafeteria meals reflected anger over the inequalities of sacrifice that created huge profits for business but shortages of meat and consumer goods among workers.

Strikes that paralysed production graphically illustrated ‘the importance of workers to society’. In wildcat strikes across the country, ‘workers demonstrated their collective understanding of what only a few would articulate as individuals: that the emerging corporate-liberal state appeared particularly vulnerable to direct action and that workers had an outstanding capacity for such action’. Neither the union leaders, the employers or the government could afford to ignore this. [2]

While celebrating working class resistance, Lipsitz does not shy away from confronting the widespread ‘hate’ strikes that were also a feature of the war years. In many workplaces, white workers tried to resist the hiring and promotion of black workers in what were often vicious displays of racism. Black workers fought back, refused to be intimidated and demanded their rights. Lipsitz argues that it was this black determination to challenge the status quo, even in the face of sometimes violent opposition from white workers, that stimulated those same white workers to protest against inequality, exploitation and authoritarianism. This determination provided the essential groundwork for what he calls a ‘strategy of popular power’. Black workers’ success in claiming their rights actually empowered the whole working class, black and white, men and women, by showing that the way to win concessions and improvements was to take on the employers. It was the refusal of black workers to accept discrimination that broke down the age old divide and rule tactic and prepared the way for the wildcat strikes of the war years.

‘We will not go back to the old days’

With the end of the war the working class came under immediate attack. The ending of overtime meant a substantial reduction in take home pay and there were widespread layoffs. By the start of October 1945 there were already 2 million unemployed. Many employers moved to put an end to the gains the working class had made during the war. This provoked the greatest strike wave in American history. There were massive strikes in the car, steel, rubber, meatpacking, oil refining and electrical appliance industries. Lipsitz, however, focuses not on these great setpiece struggles but on the less well known rash of general strikes that were part of this working class revolt.

In Stamford, Connecticut, the town’s largest employer, the Yale & Towne lock company, withdrew recognition from the International Association of Machinists. An official strike began on 7 November 1945, accompanied by arrests and clashes on the picket line. There was a widespread fear in the city that Yale & Towne was spearheading an open shop offensive, preparing the ground for an attempt to make Stamford a non-union town. On 3 January 1946 there was a general strike in support of the machinists:

Workers all over Stamford reported to their jobs. But instead of going to work, they marched downtown to a mass rally. Many merchants closed their shops for the day. Others put signs in their windows announcing support for the strikers. Ten thousand people, accompanied by a band from the musicians union, paraded in front of the town hall, shouting slogans of support for Yale & Towne workers ... Downtown Stamford’s theatres, stores and streetcars closed down, while workers from industries in surrounding cities took the day off and sent contingents to the mass rally.

One prominent slogan on placards at the rally read: ‘We will not go back to the old days’.

The one day general strike did not win the dispute, but it encouraged the strikers and was followed up with support on the picket line and through collections and levies. Foremen going into work were assaulted, had their cars damaged and their houses stoned, while on one occasion the factory was sniped by an unknown gunman. At the end of March 1946 a series of mass pickets successfully closed the factory down and another general strike was threatened. The company finally surrendered in the first week of April, after five months, restoring union recognition and conceding a 30 percent pay rise.

Lipsitz goes on to provide graphic accounts of the protracted transport strike in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that provoked a three day general strike in February 1946; of the general strike in Rochester, New York State, that put a stop to the city council’s union busting in May 1946; of the Pittsburgh general strike of September 1946 that forced the release of union leader, George Mueller, from prison; and of the general strike in Oakland, California, in December 1946.

Let us look at this last episode in more detail. A thousand shopworkers, mainly women, were on strike at two city stores, Kahn’s and Hastings. Local teamsters were refusing to cross their picket lines and so on 2 December 1946 a convoy of scab lorries was brought in to supply the strikebound stores. The union had advance warning:

[200 pickets] blocked the entrance to Hastings store when the first truck drove up to it at 6 a.m. Anticipating trouble, the Oakland police force despatched 250 foot patrol officers, 12 motorcycle riders and 12 squad cars to shepherd trucks through the picket lines at both stores. As word spread that city police were protecting strikebreaking truckers, demonstrators began to pour into the downtown area. Workers travelling to their jobs learned of the police action and took to the streets, stopping buses, streetcars and cabs. The Alameda County AFL [American Federation of Labour] Labour Council announced a general strike … but no announcement was necessary. The strike had already started in the spontaneous decisions by thousands of workers ... In less than 24 hours, over 100,000 workers joined the Oakland general strike.

The city was to all intents and purposes in the hands of the strikers. As far as the official union leaderships were concerned the situation had got seriously out of hand and they moved to put a stop to what amounted to a working class revolt. Indeed, Teamsters’ leader Dave Beck condemned events in Oakland as ‘more like a revolution than an industrial dispute’. After three days, under considerable pressure, the AFL Labour Council called the general strike off despite rank and file protests. [3]

The post-war strike wave, Lipsitz argues, ‘presented the possibility of a significant break with the past’, but in the end it failed to ‘translate momentary victory into permanent gains’. Instead of mounting a successful working class challenge to the power of the American ruling class, the movement was successfully contained. The strike wave showed conclusively that a conservative open shop strategy to smash the unions, which had followed the First World War, was no longer a viable proposition. The unions were too strong and their members were too confident and determined. Instead, the unions had to be contained and their leaderships co-opted, welcomed into an unequal alliance with business and government. The union leaders had to be enlisted on the side of corporate America so that a rebellious rank and file could be brought to heel. This was the triumph of corporate liberalism.

The triumph of corporate liberalism

The containment of the post-war strike wave and of the threat it posed involved four initiatives by the US ruling class: first the Taft-Hartley Act to curb the rank and file and strengthen the union leaders; second the Marshall Plan combined with an urgent determination to restore world markets and third the red scare which aimed to eliminate the left and make possible the fourth initiative, the continuation of the militarised war economy into the post-war era. These initiatives are all obviously inter-related, and informing them all was the fear of the labour revolt of 1945–1946 and the potential threat it posed to the power of the ruling class. The unions were too strong to be broken, they had to be contained. This presupposed not just measures to curb the rank and file, strengthen the position of the union leaderships and purge the left, but also the maintenance of full employment and of a high wage economy. The alternative was the risk of unprecedented social unrest with the possibility of a political alternative to the establishment emerging. Lipsitz establishes the extent to which fear of the likely consequences of this unrest lay behind US government policies in the opening years of the Cold War; this is one of the book’s great strengths.

Lipsitz’s discussion of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 is particularly interesting. He sees this as the outcome of a struggle between conservatives and liberals over how best to deal with union strength. Even the conservative senator Robert Taft actually came round to see the need to strengthen the position of union leaders. As Taft put it, ‘I think the men are more radical than their leaders in most cases.’ The act was intended to increase the power and authority of the union leaders and to compel them by means of legal sanctions to restrain and discipline their members. Another important aspect of the act was that it denied legal protection to attempts to unionise foremen and supervisory workers. This was an important setback for the labour movement. Most union leaders were quite prepared to accommodate themselves to the act, however much they might condemn it in public. Indeed, they accompanied it with their own purge of the left from the unions, a purge that brought organising new workplaces to a virtual halt and killed off Operation Dixie, the attempt to organise the South. This is a neglected aspect of what was to be more generally known as McCarthyism. Lipsitz provides detailed accounts of this purge of the labour movement in the cities of Evansville and Fairmont which bring home how it reached down to the shopfloor. It was, as Lipsitz insists, one of the decisive moments for the working class. [4]

The boom years of US capitalism, the years of the permanent arms economy, saw organised workers successfully fight for a high and improving standard of living. As Lipsitz points out, military spending rose from $14 billion in 1950 to $53 billion in 1953 and thereafter fluctuated between $34 and $40 billion for the rest of the decade. This, he writes, ‘helped launch an age of US supremacy in the world economy and led to one of the greatest growth periods in the history of world capitalism’. It also, he goes on, ‘sowed the seeds for social and economic crises to come’. [5]

The great post-war boom made possible by the permanent arms economy provided the basis for an accommodation between unions, business and government. Organised US workers were to reap material benefits from the boom, although not without struggle, but the unorganised workers, mainly women and blacks, were left out in the cold. Nevertheless the boom saw a great increase in the size of the black working class and this made possible the challenge of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and the urban revolts of the 1960s. The union bureaucracies, however, clung desperately to their sweetheart relationship with employers and government, a relationship that was increasingly unrequited. By the time corporate liberalism was overthrown by the conservative revival of the 1980s, the unions were too bureaucratised, too weak, too corrupt and too compromised to offer effective resistance. The lessons of the great strike wave of 1945–1946 have got to be learned again.

The politics of spontaneity

The condition of the working class during the war, the post-war strike wave and its successful containment, are at the core of Rainbow At Midnight. Lipsitz also provides stimulating, provocative chapters on the rise of consumerism, Hollywood and the working class, and the class origins of rock and roll. These deserve a review in themselves, but we shall end here with a consideration of the book’s politics. While Lipsitz provides a tremendous celebratory account of working class culture and revolt, the politics that inform his account are the politics of spontaneity. The working class offers spontaneous resistance to class oppression on a day to day basis and on occasion in great revolts like the 1945–1946 strike wave. His own account recognises the limitations of that spontaneity, but he still rejects the need for political organisation and leadership, for a revolutionary party. As far as he is concerned vanguardist parties are discredited by the performance of the US Communist Party in these years and by the grim reality of ‘the Leninist states’ in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The first point is, as his own account shows, that the Communist Party was not a revolutionary party. Secondly, the various state capitalist regimes had nothing in common with Lenin or with Bolshevism. A revolutionary party would not make the revolution for and over the working class but would be the organisation of the most advanced workers both learning from and leading the class in struggle. Only such a party can prevent the spontaneous resistance of the working class being either defeated or contained. All of Lipsitz’s own evidence points to this conclusion but he has allowed the terrible legacy of Stalinism to prejudice him against the need for revolutionary politics.

Since the original publication of the book in 1981, he has published the award winning A Life In The Struggle, the biography of Ivory Perry, a rank and file, working class civil rights activist in St Louis. In 1990 he published Time Passages, a study of American popular culture and collective memory since 1945. This volume flirts with postmodernism but still places class at the centre of its discussion of TV, film, music and fiction. He argues that ruminations on the past in the films of John Sayles, in television programs like Crime Story, in the novels of Eudora Welty and Toni Morrison, or in the music of John Cougar Mellencamp, equal or exceed the quality of historical acumen represented in most political speeches or history textbooks. They might not, he argues, hold the answer to the crisis in historical thinking but they go a long way to show where the answer might be found.

Most recently, Lipsitz has published Dangerous Crossroads, an often dazzling account of international popular music and its relationship to ethnicity, social conflict and globalisation. Here the discussion is compromised by an enthusiastic and uncritical embrace of postmodernism, although there is still much of interest. The discussion ranges from the Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans to Apache Indian, from the Neville Brothers to Fela Kuti, from Paul Simon to Queen Latifah. Somewhat surprisingly there is no discussion of Rock Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League. He dedicates Dangerous Crossroads to the members of United Auto Workers Local 879 at the Ford plant in St Paul, Minnesota. In 1994 this local pledged $300 a month from shopfloor collections to pay the wages of a union organiser in the Mexican car industry. This was part of the Cleto Nigmo Memorial Agreement in honour of the Mexican Ford worker of that name shot dead by police during protests against wage cuts in Mexico in 1990. [6] Lipsitz is still clearly committed to the working class and the likelihood is that the coming resurgence of working class struggle will see the postmodernism he has adopted consigned to the dustbin.


1. G. Lipsitz, Rainbow At Midnight (Urbana 1994), pp. 4–5. This is the revised edition of a book first published in 1981.

2. Ibid., ppp. 88–89.

3. Ibid., pp. 120, 148–150.

4. Ibid., pp. 172.

5. Ibid., p. 188.

6. G. Lipsitz, A Life In The Struggle (Philadelphia 1988); Time Passages (Minneapolis 1990); Dangerous Crossroads (London1994).

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