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Lessons of the Bonus March

(August 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 33 (Whole No. 129), 13 August 1932, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

With their dispersal following their forceful eviction from Johnstown, the worker-vets have rung down the curtain on the first act of the fight for the bonus. It is the close of the first act but it is not the final scene. The fight they put up against the iron fist of “democracy” was too dramatic, too fraught with forebodings of the treatment the capitalist class holds in store for its wage slaves for the working class to forget it.

Under the remorseless pressure of the steadily deepening crisis, goaded to action by the cynical indifference of “their” government to their misery, and still permeated by illusions about the institutions of democracy, the vets spontaneously marched on Washington from all parts of the country to demand their “back wages”. The outstanding aspect of that march was its spontaneity. It was not prepared for. It was not organized in advance. In this sense it may be said that the vets were thrown up by the flux of the class struggle.

Waters’ Leadership

During the six weeks they were encamped in Washington they tolerated the leadership of the Oregon cannery ex-superintendent who watched their fight with the police and their heroic resistance to the military from the side lines. This individual organized a military police which beat up the Reds, and worked with the secret service men to terrorize and intimidate the men. He conferred regularly with chief of police Glassford and together with him arranged for the segregation of the vets who followed the leadership of the Workers’ Ex-Servicemen’s League.

Under Waters’ leadership the fight assumed a narrow character, limiting itself to a demand for relief without any class content or class issues. No attempt was made by the vets to link up their fight with the broader fight for class relief led by the Communists. By this policy the vets were condemned to fight an isolated struggle without the active support of the masses of the working class who watched their fight with the greatest interest.

By all this the vets gave abundant evidence of their lack of class consciousness Perhaps this was to be expected. The average age of the vets was somewhere between thirty-five and forty. They had come through the years of “prosperity” with profound illusions about the “difference” of American capitalism from the old world imperialisms. They were deeply impregnated with the democratic nature of “our republic”.

The tactics of the Workers’ Ex-Servicemen’s League in denouncing everybody not a faithful follower of the one true Bolshevik, Stalin, alienated them from the masses of the vets and made their isolated demonstrations easy for the police to break up. They failed in their elementary Communist duty of raising the class consciousness of the vets. For this failure the vets and they have paid a heavy price.

The tactic of passive resistance which the vets pursued finally exhausted the little patience of the capitalist class. The armed forces of the government were called into play. First, the police proved unreliable – 1,200 of the 1,400 cops were themselves ex-servicemen!The sailors who were summoned next, notified their masters that they were “sea fighters”, and did not enlist to fight on land. The marines gave a similar answer.

The newspapers, hungry for sensational stories, spread the story far and wide in all its gory details. No item of the gruesome butchery was spared. The New York Evening Journal reporter said that he saw a vet who was lying prone, face to the ground stabbed in the back by a bayonet! No one can be mistaken about the job that was done in Washington by Hoover’s orders.

The working class will not soon forget what it learned from the bonus fight. The fight put up by the veterans will yet become one of the traditions of the revolutionary working class movement. The traditions of American democracy and legalism have become thinner in the minds of the workers. We are nearer to the day when they will snap. This we owe in part to the fight put up by our class brothers in Washington.

The capital which this fight has given us must become the special weapon of the Communists to advance the cause of the revolution. We must proceed by raising the class consciousness of the vets by linking up their fight with the fight for general class relief from the crisis at the expense of the capitalist class and its government. The national conference called by the Workers’ Ex-Servicemen’s League for the end of September must work out a program of accomplishing this task. We will support it with all the means at our disposal.

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