Peekskill, 1949: What Was Lost, What Remained, What It Means Today
The possibility before us is that now we enter upon another time, again to choose. Its birth is tragic, but the process is ahead: we must be able to turn a time of war into a time of building.
There are the wounds: they are crying everywhere. There are the false barriers: but they are false. If we believe in the unity and multiplicity of man, then we believe too in the unity and multiplicity of imagination. And we will speak across the barriers, many to many. The great ideas are always emerging, to be available to all men and women. And one hope of our lives is the communication of these truths.
Muriel Rukeyser wrote these lines in 1949, commenting on what she recognized as a time of crisis, a time when divergent paths could be chosen. The cost of possibilities foreclosed were on full display later that year when thousands gathered in Peekskill, New York, to attend a concert with Paul Robeson as the featured performer. What happened then pointed to a “resolution” of the crisis that resolved nothing. Instead, there was a fracturing that reflected a narrowing of imagination, an inability to communicate what lies beneath the surface of events. And so the opportunity to build society anew was lost.
Today, our lines of fracture are deeper. Powerful forces in the United States are intent on suppressing all expressions of difference to give an appearance of unity that only serves as cover for repression. That was the goal of the Trump administration, the goal of the powerful corporate interests that supported him – and the root of support for those who rally behind, as unfocused anger has been channeled in a rage at all those who look, act, and think differently. Unity in multiplicity is the only path we can take if we are to successfully overcome the challenge posed by the hate in the air. A glimpse of what that may look like was on display when diverse forms of resistance ensured Trump’s re-election bid defeat. Necessary though that was, it is hardly sufficient to overcome the injustice still rampant in our society.
We now need to press for deeper change that goes to the roots of our system’s dysfunction if we are to put an end not just to the Trump administration, but to the reasons his outlook continues to command as much support as it does. That will only be possible if we find a way past the tension between those who oppose Trump in the name of a “return to normalcy” and those who seek to root out the oppressions that have prevailed throughout our history. Holding onto the dynamic of both ought to be central to creating an alternative political culture in our society, a culture that can also address the anger of those who point a finger at those deemed “other” others in a game that victimizes all.
With this in mind, we turn to Labor Day in Peekskill in 1949, a day when violence was in the air. Working-class unity, which helped to overcome long-standing divisions and enable the expansion of democracy during the New Deal years, was coming undone. Corporations were seeking to put a stop to “excessive” labor demands, Southern barons wanted to nip in the bud renewed demands for equal rights and equal justice, and militarists wanted to flex U.S. muscle around the world. Lines were drawn, and reaction gained the upper hand. Americans and people around the world paid a heavy price in the years that followed. Looking back at that time and its lost opportunities ought to give pause as we look upon our situation today. Doing so may be essential as we seek to ensure that this time the people, not reaction, will prevail.
In 1946, Paul Robeson spoke and sang in Peekskill at a fundraiser for the newly founded Civil Rights Congress(CRC), an organization which aimed to build legal and political defense as part of a broad movement in opposition to Jim Crow segregation, lynching, and a racist criminal justice system. The CRC sought to defend civil liberties for labor unions, as well as Communists and other leftists whose freedoms to picket, strike, demonstrate, engage in free speech were threatened. Thousands attended in the atmosphere of hope in future progress that coincided with the defeat of fascism during World War II.
Three years later, another CRC fundraising concert was scheduled for Peekskill. Reaction had meanwhile grown in numbers and aggressiveness, while left-wing politics, especially those linking racial justice, labor rights, and peace, were isolated and unable to build alliances. In mid-August an attempt to hold the concert was broken up, the stage where it was to be held smashed by members of the American Legion and other vigilantes. Early concert goers were beaten -14 people were hospitalized – the event stopped before it even began. The memory of how Italian and German fascists choked off the ability of working people to engage in peaceful public activities was still alive for many. Refusing to be intimidated, the CRC immediately rescheduled the concert. The Fur and Leather Workersunion, a militant union with Communist leadership offered to co-sponsor the concert as did District 65, a left-wing distributive and warehouse workers union. The Communist Party, alongside others for whom anti-fascism remained a core of their politics – unionists, activists in the Black community, members of progressive Jewish, Italian and other foreign language organizations and a broad range of those who clung to New Deal ideals — mobilized in defense of threatened rights.
About 25,000 people attended, even with threats of hate-filled mobs weighing heavily upon them. About 2,000 unionists armed with baseball bats formed a double ring protecting the concert goers. A special contingent was formed to protect Robeson himself. The concert went off without an incident. Robeson performed with his message of universal brotherhood, working class solidarity, and international understanding. His assertion of dignity and equality as the core values of democracy and the true meaning of “Americanism,” was rooted in the legacy of the struggle against slavery, a slavery his own father endured. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and other artists sang as well, all of whom expressed a vision of the future that stood as a direct rebuke to a distorted vision of American democracy rooted in suppression of dissent and difference.
The violence inherent in a democracy of suppression showed itself after the concert ended. Only one narrow, miles-long road led in and out of the event grounds and it was lined with people throwing rocks and shattering windshields — acts protected by the local police and state troopers, some of whom joined in the game. Over 200 concert goers were injured, many seriously. More than 20 of the union bodyguards, who stayed on site until all the concert goers left, were arrested, unlike the stone throwers and vandals who got off scot free. Dummy cars that looked like Robeson’s were smashed (Furriers Vice President Irving Potash’s eyes were injured by shattered glass in one of them). Robeson had to lie covered, on the floor of a car so as to not be seen by the mob which had hung an effigy of him on a lamppost.
In the days that followed, “Wake Up America, Peekskill Did” became the battle cry of the right. Communist public meetings or public events deemed Communist were banned or broken up, the air filled with racist and anti-Semitic jeers that come so easily to lips masking fear. Government commissions and respectable mainstream papers blamed the left for the violence and condoned the vigilantes. At the same time, many progressives and liberals who worked with Communists in the past as part of broad New Deal coalitions were quick to join in those verbal attacks, placing the onus on the Communist left as a danger to the country. Too many others stayed silent, or were silenced. The train that was to become McCarthyism had left the station.
What Preceded It
In 1942, then-Vice President Henry Wallace made a speech titled “The Century of the Common Man,” which traced the fundamental continuities between the American and French revolutions with 19th century Latin American and European, and 20th century Russian revolutions. Drawing upon their common heritage, he stated that the goal for which our country was fighting in World War II was the creation of a world system based on peace, mutual understanding and economic justice. The epitome of radical New Deal thinking, it became a national best-seller that articulated the hopes of millions of people in the United States and around the world.
Business circles, in their belief that the New Deal went too far, embraced a different hope for the future. Wallace’s speech was a response to Time magazine publisher Henry Luce’s dream of an “American Century.” In Luce’s vision, the defeat of Nazi Germany, the weakening of the British Empire, and the exhaustion of the Soviet Union would ultimately allow for U.S. global domination. Conflict between those two outlooks lay at the heart of struggles within the Democratic Party and society at large. Although Wallace’s personal popularity grew on the basis of that speech, political power brokers successfully blocked his re-nomination as Vice President, securing instead the selection of the more compliant Harry Truman. After FDR’s death in 1945, Truman quickly retreated from domestic and foreign policy initiatives developed over the previous decade. When Wallace resigned as Secretary of Commerce in 1946, there was not a single FDR appointee remaining in the cabinet.
Shifting political priorities reflected domestic tensions that deepened with the war’s end. The greatest strike wave in US history took place in 1945-46, when workers exercised the power of mass unionism to make up for wartime sacrifices. Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union leaders saw this upsurge as strengthening labor’s role in the national economy and sought a continuation of wartime economic planning. Business willingness to make concessions to labor, however, ended by 1945. Both the strikes and the perceived threat to unrestricted corporate power led to unprecedented political attacks on “big labor,” and in the 1946 mid-term elections the Republicans won control of both House and Senate for the first time since before the Depression.
They used that majority to push legislative proposals to undermine workers’ power by outlawing tactics the CIO used to build mass unionism. Those eventually took shape as the Taft-Hartley Act, which reinstated injunctions, created the category of “unfair labor practices” by unions, prohibited sympathy strikes, secondary boycotts, mass picketing, and other union tactics. Moreover, it allowed for the passage of state-level “right-to-work” laws. Government interference in union internal life was permitted through restrictions on union election campaign spending and a requirement that union officers sign an affidavit affirming that they were neither members of nor sympathizers with the Communist Party.
At the same time, opposition was mounting to demands for genuine equality. African Americans came out of World War II ever more confident and determined to assert long-denied rights based on their participation in the war, their increased presence in the industrial economy, and the sense that meaningful reform was possible. Democratic Party leaders – some out of genuine conviction, others out of the pragmatic desire to build on the shift of Northern black voters from Republican to Democratic – adopted a strong civil rights plank at their 1948 national convention. So did the Republicans, long the home of most black voters. Republican opposition to unionism and state intervention in the economy, however, meant they opposed policies especially important to the black community such as federal hiring or housing programs, Social Security expansion, national health insurance. Still, official recognition by both parties of the need to address racism was new.
All the while, however racist reaction was gaining momentum. Throughout the war years, public professions of equality were contradicted by public policy expanding housing segregation and other forms of discrimination. Union support for racial justice met fierce resistance among a significant section of white workers. The so-called “zoot suit riots” attacking Mexican Americans in California and the white mobs who attacked the black community in Detroit in 1943 were visible manifestations of the hatred roiling just below the surface. The internment of Japanese-Americans during the war was widely supported, rooted as it was in popular acceptance of racial hierarchies that deemed Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos as unassimilable “others.” Violence against returning African-American servicemen after the war, especially in the South, served as a warning against any expression of dignity. Dixiecrats – Southern Democrats whose “whites only,” one-party rule in the South gave them outsized influence in the Democratic Party and in Congress – were only the most vocal of opponents to any steps toward equal rights.
Conflicting visions over whether to expand the New Deal or reverse it came to a head in the 1948 elections. A newly confident Republican Party ran on a platform to weaken organized labor and “free” corporations from government regulations and programs promulgated during the Depression and the war. They celebrated US global power, united in the belief that promoting it required not just a reversal of New Deal policies, but of the underlying New Deal ideology that posited an intimate connection between democracy and equality, freedom and security. Anti-Communism became the means for Republicans to attack every aspect of FDR’s domestic and foreign policy. Southern Democrats, wholly opposed to the “Party of Lincoln” yet enraged by the Democratic Party civil rights platform, decided to run their own Dixiecrat presidential campaign with unabashed segregationist South Carolina Governor (later Senator) Strom Thurmond as their candidate.
Truman, for his part, ended the attacks on labor that marked his first two years in office, vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 (the Republican-controlled Congress over-rode his veto) and demonstrated support for equality through an executive order banning discrimination in the armed forces. His appeal to a New Deal legacy, however, was based on labor’s exclusion from economic planning, the banishment of Communists from union ranks, and unconditional support for military expansion and an anti-Soviet foreign policy that backed up English, French, Dutch colonialism. The dominant sectors of the labor movement, in fear of aggressive corporate anti-unionism, switched gears. They went from being severe critics of Truman to unquestioning supporters. And the strength of the US economy compared to the war-ravaged economies in the rest of the world widened acceptance of American exceptionalism and gave a far broader base of support for the “American Century” than appeared possible in 1942.
Against this stood groups and individuals who acted in the spirit of the New Deal and wanted to extend its reach. Republican gains in 1946 were largely attributed to Truman’s retreat from FDR’s policies. With the conviction that reaction would further advance in the absence of an alternative, Henry Wallace, with the support of others from the New Deal left, became the presidential candidate of the newly launched Progressive Party. He ran on a program of full employment, equal rights, peace and economic planning prioritizing public need over private wealth. Progressive Party supporters launched their campaign with a confidence bred from the remarkable growth of labor, progressive and left strength from its nadir at the end of the 1920s.
By 1948, however, the political ground had shifted decisively. Wallace finished fourth, well behind Truman, Dewey, and Thurmond. His defeat reflected a forgotten lesson of the 1930s: the strength of the left depended on being part of a much broader movement. Once that broader movement collapsed, its weakness was exposed and further attacks ensued. For their part, liberal unionists, civil rights leaders, and all those who thought social progress would flow once they removed the Communist albatross from around their necks discovered that retreat followed retreat. They forgot the other lesson of the 1930s – liberal humanism would fail to contain corporate power or advance democratic rights absent a strong, vibrant, independent left-wing.
Peekskill was a measure of the cost of mutual isolation. Robeson was enormously influential through his art, his person, and his political engagement (serving as one of the chairs of Wallace’s presidential campaign). He expressed his sense of racial pride with a deep attachment and solidarity to all working people around the world. Robeson linked US democratic traditions with the Soviet revolutionary impulse, and both to growing independence movements in Africa and the strivings of peoples in every corner of the world to win their freedom. It was his identification with the cause of independent labor, an independent black community, and an independent foreign policy that made him the target of an energized and emboldened corporate power. It was those connections which unionists, civil rights organizations, and liberals of all stripes could not sustain when they acquiesced in those attacks.
What Was Lost
After assuming office in 1945, Truman announced plans for national health insurance but this proposal was defeated in the Republican Congress,which instead passed a bill favorable to state private insurers. Although Democrats regained Congress in 1948, Truman was still unable to motivate its passage. No further progress was made on expanding national health until 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law.
Progress was also hard to come by in the field of racial equality. In his 1948 campaign, Truman proposed to make the wartime anti-discrimination Fair Employment Practices Committee permanent, make lynching a federal crime, and abolish the poll tax used to deny African Americans voting rights. The bill failed. In 1950, when the House passed a bill written only to extend the FEPC, it was defeated by a Senate filibuster.
Truman denounced the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which won him the support of many labor leaders. But he did not hesitate to invoke it after winning election in 1948, and made no serious effort to reverse or modify its restrictions on labor rights. While the federal government’s right to enforce equal protection under the law or ensure health care or for all was limited, its role in overseeing the internal affairs of unions was expanded.
Although Truman successfully campaigned on the need to get rid of an obstructionist Congress, his newly won congressional majorities proved insufficient to pass far-reaching progressive legislation. The Truman Administration’s failure to pass social reform measures, presaged the experience of the Carter, Clinton and Obama Administrations, all with relatively few gains as compared to promises, even when Republicans were the congressional minority. Democrats were supported by labor, civil rights and popular movements because they oversaw implementation rather than sabotage of existing social programs, and because they served to block the more anti-democratic measures proposed by right wing forces. But the only exception to that generalization about the stalling of egalitarian measures were the substantive gains on domestic issues made during Lyndon Johnson’s term of office following Kennedy’s assassination due to the impetus given by the Civil Rights movement.
This contrasts with the years when FDR was in office, when progressive legislative gains were possible. The reason: a strong, rooted left able to work with people with more mainstream views on both a local and national level to keep a progressive agenda moving. The isolation and destruction of that left in workplaces and communities that accompanied the onset of the Cold War meant that progressive legislation often lacked sufficient strength behind it.
The failure of the CIO’s “Operation Dixie” organizing drive, originally conceived as a fight to unionize the South through a campaign for racial equality on and off the job, was symptomatic of this reality. Mass unionization in the 1930s was always accompanied by an advance in democratic and civic rights, but by 1949 organizing spoke only about union recognition and collective bargaining. Divorcing organizing from a challenge to racism meant accepting the South’s undemocratic laws which, in turn, made it impossible to break Southern anti-unionism. As a result, Southern politicians retained their stranglehold in Congress and the region remained a low-wage haven for “runaway” shops that were set up by companies to escape unionization elsewhere.
1949 was the year the CIO expelled 11 unions (representing about one-third of its membership) on the grounds of Communist domination. Similar mini-purges took place against staff members, and elected local union leaders associated with the Communist left in the remaining unions and later took place in those AFL unions where Communists had a presence. Expulsions were nothing new in the labor movement. The CIO itself became an independent body after its founding unions were expelled from the AFL. In this instance, however, the dominant leadership refused to defend union members subject to public harassment, arrest and deportation, firing and blacklists, because of their views on public issues. What’s more, many union leaders facilitated those blacklists. Once rank-and-file members, stewards and local officers were left unprotected for having expressed dissident ideas, the labor movement stopped being a hotbed of discussion, debate, and progressive activism.
Differences always existed within and between the various CIO unions, let alone within U.S. labor as a whole – and the coexistence of different outlooks on unionism and politics was healthy. But the atmosphere of fear created by red-baiting resulted in a decline of unions’ internal life with virtually all political differences suppressed. Ever more people withdrew from active involvement in public affairs in any arena, undermining democracy in the most practical sense: people using the institutions of government or the organizations of which they were part to try and make a better life for themselves, their families, their communities. Union shop floor activism declined, as did union membership participation in election or social justice campaigns, which became increasingly bureaucratic exercises.
A consequence of the inability to achieve labor’s goals through political action led to the focus on collective bargaining as the vehicle to win vacation, sick leave, supplemental unemployment, health insurance, and pensions as well as better pay. Those gains were real, yet they increased union dependence on the profits of particular employers and, ultimately, on corporate profitability as a whole. Tying union strength on company health created the basis for conflict between union contract demands and labor’s domestic political agenda – or, to put it in other words, union workers’ immediate workplace needs and union members’ needs as members of society. And since an improvement in a company’s bottom line meant better contracts, there was ever-less resistance to speed-up, automation, or overseas investment, despite the consequent loss of jobs and workplace rights. The same held with arms spending. The danger inherent in war preparation was tolerated because military spending boosted corporate wealth, providing a floor for union negotiations. Adopting a growth at any cost mindset flowed from this and contributed to the subsequent slowness of unionists to recognize the dangers of environmental destruction.
Union political programs retained a concern with civil rights, social insurance, and equity but these tended to be isolated from the members and subordinate to the collective bargaining agenda. The decline of internal debate and discussion after the left expulsions had another unintended consequence: the strengthening of conservative members who wanted to further narrow union goals. The chilling of civil liberties inevitably inhibited all expressions of class solidarity, however moderately framed.
Although not as extreme, the dominant leadership of the civil rights movement also did everything it could to distance itself from left-wing radicalism. A narrow focus on legal equality and legal strategies distinct from public action isolated the demand for civic equality from other concerns. The critiques of capitalism as a system, the connection between capitalism and the continuation of structural racism after the end of slavery, the connection between the Cold War and U.S. desire to succeed European colonial power in Africa and the Caribbean were deemed illegitimate and dangerous. Adopting the anti-Communism then in the air not only meant disavowing W.E.B. DuBois, Robeson and others who had been central figures, it meant divorcing social justice from economic justice.
Similarly women who had taken jobs in industry were pushed out of the workforce with little protest by labor. This reflected and reinforced social pressure for a return to “normalcy,” the return of married women to domestic life. The emphasis on a family wage for the male breadwinner went hand-in-glove with a retreat from an emancipatory perspective that looked at ways to improve the quality of life, build social solidarity, and enhance genuine individual freedom. The post-World War II suburban boom furthered patriarchal structures and a narrow individualism as consumerism became a substitute for community. That too contributed to a growing conservatism in union ranks, to a working-class conservatism that became increasingly anti-union. Not accidentally, it also furthered patterns of segregation in housing and education.
Perhaps most tellingly, an overwhelming bipartisan consensus on foreign policy brooked no opposition. Anti-war voices from any perspective were attacked as disloyal – social liberalism and criticism of domestic policies was permitted a public hearing only to the extent that government actions abroad were unswervingly backed. Whether the matter was the establishment of NATO to contain the Soviet Union, armed support for monarchists in the Greek civil war, the non-recognition of China, military engagement in Korea, the overthrow of progressive governments in Iran and Guatemala, nuclear arms expansion or German rearmament, dissent was put in the box marked “treason.” The fate of Robeson, fame forgotten, an “unperson” while still alive, speaks to how powerful that force was.
Fascism was not around the corner, labor wasn’t crushed, social welfare capitalism remained in place. Working people’s living standards were maintained and over the next two decades continued to improve. The left’s worst fears, and the politics that flowed from those fears, proved mistaken. Yet the fact that worst case scenarios did not come to pass was due to continued resistance and organization among working people, by unions and popular movements unwilling to see a return to the untrammeled corporate power of the Gilded Age or the “Roaring Twenties.” Notwithstanding the very real repression of the late 1940s and 1950s, there was no equivalent to the union busting, white mob assaults on the black community, and mass deportations such as followed World War I.
The labor movement, even with its narrowed field of vision, remained engaged defending worker needs and rights. New organizing faltered and legislative victories were few, but collective bargaining was able to win much – and many of the gains were passed on to non-union workers by employers to keep unions out so that working people overall benefited from union strength. For all its limitations, labor represented one of the few arenas of life where independent working-class thought and ideas could find expression. For all the realities of racism in its ranks, unions were one of the only broadly-based interracial organizations in the United States. Despite a loss of political vision and elan, labor’s legislative program continued to uphold social rights. The United Auto Workers (UAW) and other former CIO unions in the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department remained committed to a progressive liberalism. The Packinghouse workers came closest amongst the unions that avoided expulsion to maintain the perspective of left unionism, while amongst expelled unions the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the United Electrical Workers, and (until 1965) the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers survived without surrender. District 65 became a home for expelled locals in the East Coast, while the Furriers merged into the progressive AFL-affiliated Amalgamated Meat Cutters. A few other AFL unions also sought to connect worker rights and social rights, most notably the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which never ceased striving for an end to racism inside the “House of Labor” as well as in society at large.
AFL-CIO unions in mass production industries and in skilled trades waged lengthy strikes in the 1950s, while the Teamsters grew in strength and power, never ceasing to organize. And unions were beginning to take root in the public sector and amongst under-represented and marginalized workers, laying the groundwork for the 1960s upsurge. The structural losses post-Taft-Hartley were substantive, yet union survival made a genuine difference in improving working people’s lives and laid the basis for new beginnings.
Meanwhile, the movement for civil rights and to abolish Jim Crow did not end. In fact, it revived and became central to a revived demand to make democracy real for all. The Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling, the outraged response to Emmett Till’s lynching, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott created a groundswell that gave birth to the Black Freedom movement, linking struggles for racial, social and economic justice. This became one of the few avenues in our society where the left and progressives, liberals of all stripes, where working-class and middle-class, church and secular groups, worked together with a degree of unity amidst differences comparable to that of the New Deal era.
This was not limited to the black community or the civil rights movement. Perhaps the defining labor struggle of the 1960s – United Farm Workers (UFW) organizing, strikes and boycotts – got its start in Mexican-American community organizing in the 1950s focused on discrimination in housing, education, as well as access to jobs. There was always a radical component to this activism as there was in the Filipino Community, also part of the labor upsurge in the fields and beyond, connecting the struggle for rights in the US with the battle against the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines itself. At the same time, stirrings began in Northern and Midwestern Puerto Rican neighborhoods that laid the basis for subsequent community radicalism. Representative of developments under the surface was the emergence of Local 1199 at the center of organizing hospital workers; its 1959 strike at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, rooted in African American and Puerto Rican activism.
Even where the conservatism of the 1950s seemed to close off every possibility, instances of resistance emerged. The seeds of second wave feminism and of the gay liberation movement that burst into open in the 1960s were planted in the undercurrent of dissatisfaction that simmered without an outlet in the 1950s, alongside a cultural ferment bubbling up from below. This was also true of the peace movement. Although opposition to war was out of step with the tenor of the times, anti-militarist sentiment persisted. Religious pacifists, some of whom had been conscientious objectors during World War II, bore witness to the horrors of war made all the more obvious by the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear bombs. The Black Freedom movement, with its roots in church activism and its experience on the receiving end of state-sanctioned, state-permitted violence, expressed and embraced a strong anti-war sentiment. The Stockholm Peace Appeal, with its call for nuclear disarmament, was one of the few Communist Party initiatives in that period able to reach wide numbers. All this stood alongside awareness of the senselessness of the Korean War. In these, we can see the origins of what would mushroom in opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Since the mid-1970s, pressure on our liberties and rights has increased dramatically – we have suffered many setbacks whether measured in standard of living or quality of life. Nonetheless, workplace and social activism preserved many gains in the postwar era and was critical to inhibiting the damage done since corporate capital began its restructuring in the late 1970s. Without such prior assertions of rights, far more would have been lost – moreover, without such assertions new possibilities would have had a harder time in getting off the ground. But the corrosion of our strength should not be minimized. There has been a loss of connecting links, a sense of how an overarching change in the structure of US society could take place. That is the challenge which remains.
What Needs to Be Done
Under the umbrella of the New Deal-CIO a framework developed within which movements and individuals put forward particular hopes as part of something broader — even as the definition of that broader goal was itself contested. It was that sensibility and the accompanying belief that working people acting in concert could shape the world which was lost during the 1950s. The emergence of a push for hopes in possibilities of a different, liberatory future that developed over the course of the 1960s and 1970s was unable to overcome the disintegration of a sense of commonality. Aspirations for democracy, freedom, and equality were delinked, reflecting and reinforcing a deepening fragmentation within our country.
This shapes our present. A scant two generations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s turn to market-based development, and the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher,unrestrained capitalism has underscored the present system’s failure to meet human needs. Instead we have growing inequality, needless want, and endless war in a society propelling us toward environmental disaster, a society that has lost spiritual values. The “American Century” proved to be a failure on its own terms.
For that reason, the danger of fascism is greater than in 1949. Trump reflects the degree to which mainstream politics and traditional institutions of governance have lost credibility over the years. He is not, however, an aberration. Trump is the scion of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunts, Mississippi Senator James Eastland’s vitriolic racism and support of the Klan-like White Citizens Council, Robert Welch and the John Birch Society’s paranoid conspiracy theories. What we see now fits in nicely with the corporate reaction that went back to the promoters of the Taft Hartley Act, and to the elite reaction against the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision.
Attempts to counter this by a liberalism that seeks a return to US capitalism’s “golden age” of the 1950s ignores the inner conflicts of that era which led to its collapse. Notwithstanding liberal nostalgia for a world seemingly grateful for US domination, talk of alliances and human rights cannot hide the destruction of wars and the culture of violence that is itself a threat to democratic rights. The injustice perpetrated on people around the world by our serving as a “global policeman” has its analogue in the creation of a system of mass incarceration.
Confronting both reaction and a tepid liberalism is a multi-tiered, broad progressive left that has struck a popular chord. Stemming from movements as diverse as Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, from a revival of union workplace resistance and organizing, from demands of Dreamers and the #MeToo movement, of those organizing around climate change, gun violence, police brutality, mass incarceration, and war, we see the revival of a striving for a different world. Animating those who are so engaged is a re-envisioning of community as a place to explore the multiple connections and divergences in our individual identities, as a source of strength to overcome existing power structures. The growth of Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, National People’s Action and Our Revolution, exemplify the multiple expressions of a new political dynamic.
An expression of this was evident in the 2020 elections in the broad support for Bernie Sanders as well as for Elizabeth Warren, for more progressive members of Congress such as Pramila Jayapal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Cori Bush, Jamal Bowman and others elected to national and local offices. Yet mainstream Democrats committed to neo-liberalism and U.S. global supremacy are resisting their initiatives, trying to contain the impulse toward substantive change that people can see, feel, taste in their lives.
Which way the wind will blow depends upon whether we can transform democracy from being a kind of theater into a site of contestation over governance, into an instrument of popular rule. The struggle against racism, after all, should be about self-determination, not representation as an end in and of itself, just as the struggle for unionism ought not be about recognition alone but about control in the workplace and the economy writ large. Such transformative politics, however, requires sustaining forms of engagement with those who do not see the need for far-reaching change, based upon a shared commitment to resist without compromise the politics of exclusion, the violence of neo-fascism. And it depends upon whether left currents are able to work with working people drawn to the right, without ceasing to confront racism, sexism, cultural intolerance.
Ultimately, what we need is to bring the sensibility of a different way of life into the purview of the vast majority rooted in an understanding that power in the democratic hands of the people means taking it away from the minority who now cling to it so tightly.
Writing months before the Peekskill assault, Rukeyser expressed what was at stake there and then, is at stake here and now:
In the life of this people, we have seen some of that submerged continent of song surface and take its place. … In many families, we were parented by the wish to move differently, to believe differently – that is, more intensely – from the past and the past place. Many came freely, inviting all the risk. I think of those others – stolen from beside African rivers, seduced by promises of land and work, who reached harbor and found the homestead underwater, the work a job of conscription; and those in Mexico who were promised an education, and arrived to find themselves signed to four years at the hottest place in the assembly line; and those newly from the camps of Europe who wake in the Louisiana swamp. Their awakening is sharp, and we can tell their dreams. They do not long for home; they long for America. What of the others – born to mine-towns and the cave-in under the house floor, driving the night trucks packed with high explosives, anonymous in the schoolrooms, the outcast teacher among the very young? Their songs have been lost as the songs of the unborn. Or the happy, who kiss lying in the park – who dive in the clear branchwater and rise dripping to April in the South and sing their lost songs among the green of our seasons as well as among our freezing rigid power? Dead power is everywhere among us – in the forest, chopping down the songs; at night in the industrial landscape, wasting and stiffening the new life; in the street of the city, throwing away the day. We wanted something different for our people: not to find ourselves an old, reactionary republic, full of ghost-fears, the fears of death and the fears of birth. We want something else…
They are among us, the voices of the present, the famous voices and the unacknowledged, and the voices of the past. We may choose; we are free to choose, in the past as well as now, and there is a tradition at our hand.
Kurt Stand joined DSA in 1983 and been part of the labor movement from the mid-1970s. In 1997, he was arrested and served 15 years in prison on charges of having committed espionage for the German Democratic Republic, charges he unsuccessfully contested at trial and upon appeal. Currently he works at a bookstore, is active in Prince George’s County DSA, participates in criminal justice reform/re-entry initiatives, serves as a Portside Moderator and works with the Metropolitan Washington AFL-CIO Labor Council’s Bread & Roses program.