CLR James 1949
Source: Fourth International, Vol.10 No.7, August 1949, pp.208-214;
Signed: G.F. Eckstein;
Transcribed: by Daniel Gaido;
Public Domain: this work is free of copyright.
Since the Anti-Socialist laws of Bismarck in 1883, the more or less constitutional regimes of Western Europe and the United States have never seen anything approaching the attack which is being carried out against the civil liberties of the American people by the American bourgeoisie. German fascism declared all civil liberties to be a menace to civilization and openly and systematically destroyed them. But the present all-embracing attack upon civil liberties is taking place in a country which for generations has claimed, and with some justification, to have been the cradle and outstanding example of modern democratic liberties. It is taking place when the United States has attained a degree of power and influence without precedent in the history of the world. It has attained its astonishing proportions immediately after a complete and devastating destruction of German, Japanese and Italian imperialisms, the avowed enemies of civil liberties everywhere.
That the cause of this is the “danger of communism” is the familiar alibi of all despots, parasites and privileged groups. This was the ideological justification for the fascist dictatorships of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco – and for the police regime of Stalin, who merely substituted the word “Trotskyism” for communism. But there is one difference, a difference which speaks volumes on the subject of morality: Hitler smashed democratic rights as an open antagonist of democracy, while the American oligarchs abrogate the rights of the people in the name of the struggle against “dictatorship” and “totalitarianism.”
The American bourgeoisie, first and foremost, and from first to last, is in mortal terror of the American people and, above all of the American workers. Let the stupid liberals put their fingers to their foreheads and wonder at the “hysteria” of the American government; let them puzzle on why the Truman administration attacks the House Un-American Committee and yet carries out a policy which corresponds step for step with the aims and wishes of the most reactionary Congressional committee the country has known since the Civil War. Let them wonder at the constant betrayals in Congress of every promise made at the election. Let them be perpetually “astonished” at the apparently senseless persecution of atomic scientists. They will know only frustration and impotence until they recognize that the struggles over civil rights in the United States express the intensification of the irreconcilable class antagonisms of American capitalism. These struggles are an expression of the inevitable break-up of that society, a stage and an advanced stage, in the transition from capitalism to a new social order.
Capitalism in its decline must destroy the democracy and civil rights which it brought into the world and nourished in its progressive days. The attack against civil rights is the defense of capitalism. The defense of civil rights, not in France in 1789 nor in America in 1776 but in the United States in 1949, the defense of civil rights involves the attack against capitalism. This does not in any way mean that the mass struggle in defense of civil rights is limited to those who recognize the fact that the fate of American capitalism is involved. But for those who propose to lead or for those who wish to make a serious and scientific examination of this monstrous apparition of capitalism in decline, the connection must be made and maintained or the result can be nothing but aiding the government, the capitalist magnates and their agents in their deception of the people.
To grasp the logical development of the conflict over civil rights of the country as a whole, there is, today, no more instructive example than that embodiment of the relation between capitalism and civil rights, the fate of the Negro people.
In order to maintain the corrupt and tyrannical oligarchy of the South as a valuable ally in the exploitation of the people of the United States, the American bourgeoisie, under Republican and Democratic administrations, has for decades safeguarded the Southern regime which could never have existed so long without their guarantee. The American bourgeoisie to this day hides the truth about Negro civil rights in the South. Every actual or would-be liberal can recite the need for an anti-lynching bill, for an anti-poll tax bill, for a federal FEPC “with teeth in it.” But there is a vast conspiracy of silence about the terror which is exercised every minute of the day against the 10,000,000 Negroes who live below the Mason and Dixon line.
Every Negro in the South, whatever his status, knows that in any serious dispute with a white man, he can be beaten up, or shot down like a dog. The unwritten law does not sanction punishment of a white man for violent crime against Negroes. A Negro can be dragged out of his car, driven off, beaten or shot, and thrown into the gutter for taking the right of way against a white man. For trying to organize a union, he runs the risk of disappearing from his house, his body found weeks afterward under water or in the forest. A small percentage of the Negroes in the South can rise above starvation wages. In, particular areas some thousands can vote when allowed to or when they can band themselves together and enforce their rights. Tens of thousands of Negroes are in Southern unions with white workers and there are thousands of Negroes in Negro colleges in the South. But the terror of the white man’s revolver remains unchanged for all of them.
This is the cement of the huge apparatus of super-exploitation of the Negro by both Southern Bourbons and Northern capital. At its base is the sharecropping system; flowing from it is the existence not only of the basic economic interests but of vested interests among hundreds of thousands of the white petty bourgeoisie who monopolize all the white-collar administrative and better-paid jobs in industry. There is also the cheating of Negroes in federal and state funds for education, housing, relief, etc. At the summit are a political oligarchy in Washington and the state governments whose primary function is to protect the system and inject it into the rest of the country wherever possible.
Here are some unpublicized examples of the effect of the system and the way in which it controls the two major parties. In the spring of 1944 Governor Dewey and his chief henchman, Lieutenant Governor Joseph R. Hanley, persistently referred to themselves as protectors of “states’ rights.” By this means the Republican candidate for president assured Southern Republican electors in the Republican Party Convention that he could be depended upon not to disturb their social system. These statements have far greater social significance than the enactment of certain measures against Negro discrimination which had been forced upon him by the need for Negro votes in the state of New York. Today the gyrations, the vulgarities and the stupidities of Senator Douglas of Illinois in Congress are inexplicable unless it is understood that if he is to be a serious candidate for the presidential nomination in 1952, the first necessity for him is to assure the Southerners that, although by reputation a radical from the North, he can be trusted not to poke the presidential finger into their pie.
In the presidential addresses of Woodrow Wilson, 1912-20, the question of civil rights for Negroes is not mentioned once. It was the burning issue in the election of 1948 and has dominated the 81st Congress. Why this change? The needs of capitalist production in World War I and World War II dragged millions of Negroes to the North. Large numbers of them were incorporated in the great union movement of the CIO. There they gained knowledge, experience, strength in the advocacy of their own rights, and the strongest allies they have ever had, however much the labor bureaucracy may fall short of its promises. In this way the Negroes have placed the Negro question where it is in the politics and life of the country.
But in general hasn’t the situation of the Negroes improved? And here we come to another fundamental feature of the struggle for civil rights. When national interest is aroused, as it has been aroused in civil rights for Negroes, there begins the skillful manipulation of minor concessions, the creation of vested interests for a small stratum to blunt the edge of the attack, all accompanied by a tremendous barrage of propaganda to deceive the people. A few selected Negroes are being incorporated in the government and also in technical and white-collar posts in industry. Truman attacks discrimination and welcomes Negroes at his inaugural ball in a manner that would have caused Roosevelt to wish to purge him from the Democratic Party as a disrupter. But in the South the relation between the Negro and the revolver is as raw and as brutal as ever except insofar as Negroes have found places in the union movement and gained some protection thereby in various communities. The statistics about the decline of Negro lynchings are a cynical fraud. Small parties of whites pay quiet visits to a Negro they find objectionable and either do away with him or give him the signal to remove himself from the community where his presence is objectionable. He obeys or is struck down.
So much for the South. In the country as a whole, the situation is worse than it was:
The Negro struggle is only a special case, if a very special case, of the relations between American capitalism and labor. While in the United States the people as a whole won civil rights much earlier than in many countries of Europe and helped to make America a focus of democratic aspirations, American capitalism for generations maintained an unceasing war against the civil rights of the mass production workers by means of stool pigeons, spies, frame-ups and government injunctions. The struggle remained obscured for generations until after World War I, when an irrefutable summary of some of the material was written into the records of Congress by the LaFollette Committee.
The high peak of this persecution was reached in the very center of capitalist industry, in the Ford plant in Detroit. A recent volume, The Legend of Henry Ford, documents this crucial period in the history of American capitalism. To maintain control of the workers Henry Ford built the largest private army ever known in the United States, composed mainly of gangsters, thugs, jailbirds and men on parole under the command of the infamous Bennett. This army exercised a fascistic surveillance of the, men inside and outside the plant. Through his control and corruption of Detroit politics and the city officialdom, Ford was able to exercise an enormous influence upon the private lives of the workers by intimidation and, when necessary, physical violence. Ford was only the advance guard of similar conditions in steel and other industries such as the mines, where these practices had existed for generations. It was from this intolerable situation that the CIO erupted. The NRA was passed in 1933. But despite the NRA the workers in Ford, Republic Steel and other plants had to, fight the employers to a standstill in order to win what had already been granted to them by law.
With the formation of the CIO the defense of the workers’ rights in the great mass production industries was concentrated in the hands of the leadership of the unions, the labor bureaucracy. The close relation between the struggle for civil rights and the development of capitalism can be seen in the history of labor since the establishment of the CIO. The bureaucracy collaborated with President Roosevelt and under pressure of war propaganda was able to control the labor movement and keep it subordinated to the will of the capitalist war machine. The great strikes of 1946 showed that this period of collaboration was over.
Whereupon immediately the capitalist class initiated the Taft-Hartley Bill by means of which it proposed to cripple the proletariat and at the same time to insure its official control over the labor bureaucracy itself. As was written in the editorial of the Fourth International, June 1949:
“Green, Murray, Reuther, Dubinsky and Co. have never been opposed to Taft-Hartleyism as such; that is, to the essential features of the law which bid the workers’ freedom of action in government chains ... What irks these labor lieutenants of monopoly capital most are the provisions of the law which restrict their privileges and curb their power over the workers.”
Thus the labor bureaucracy, which was a silent partner to the wrecking of civil rights for Negroes in the 81st Congress, is now prepared to barter away the civil rights of the workers in return for a few pitiful concessions for itself.
It is obvious that what we have here is not a series of incidents but a process. What American capitalism did to the Negroes in order to perpetuate its brutal forms of exploitation; now in its hour of crisis it is seeking to do to American workers. The process is infinitely more complex, infinitely more difficult, more dangerous. The Negroes were the basic labor force of only a section, and a backward section, of American agriculture. Even today they constitute only a small section of the American industrial proletariat. But the American proletariat is the largest, the best educated, the best organized, homogeneous social force that history has ever known. The pattern of oppression, revolt, and increased opposition seasoned with demagogy, which we saw in the Negro struggle for civil rights now emerges here with the very foundations of American bourgeois society at stake.
One of the great tenets of Marxism, following from the concentration of capital and the socialization of labor is that
“along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the processes capitalist production itself.”
This is the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation, and repressive measures from the old jungle law of government-by-injunction to the Roosevelt-inspired National Service Act and Taft-Hartley law are the capitalist response. How irresistible is this force is proved by the course of the labor leaders themselves. Subordinated to capitalism they are not only completely at the mercy of Truman’s devious politics. In their own right they assume the methods of capitalism. Nothing could exceed the brutality with which Michael Quill of the Transport Workers Union, for instance, purged his union of a majority with which for many years previously he had collaborated. There is no precedent in the union movement for the thought-control, police-state regulations which the Curran leadership proposed to fasten on the membership of the National Maritime Union. The National Executive Council of the CIO has now decreed that there is no room in the CIO for those who do not support the Atlantic Pact and the Marshall Plan, i.e., subscribe to the political doctrines of American imperialism. The bourgeoisie itself has not imposed these restrictions upon its political parties.
Thus, both from the government and from its own leaders, the millions of workers in the United States are today subject to the most vicious attacks upon their fundamental civil rights and political liberties. Taking their lead from the government and the union bureaucracy, the private employers are now coming into the open, preparing to strike at individual workers who are “Communists,” by which every employer from the beginning of capitalism to the present day has always meant workers who take a principled stand against the untrammeled exploitation of capitalism.
How deep-going is this process of capitalist degradation, proletarian revolt against it, and the need for still further capitalist oppression is shown by the fact that in 1945, with victory in sight, President Roosevelt made a desperate attempt to impose upon the nation a National Service Act, i.e., military conscription of labor. The excuse that 300,000 workers were wanted in industry was so absurd that even members of the National Association of Manufacturers derided it. So little had this to do with “Russian Communism” that the Stalinist party at that time, along with some Southern senators, was among the most fanatical advocates of the proposal.
The American bourgeoisie is responding to a fundamental law of capitalist development in its own capitalistic way. But it is the same crisis of imperialism which impels it to its imperialist adventures. Thus it combines its violence against the workers with preparations for the war abroad. The policies of Stalinism at home, in Eastern Europe, in Western Europe, and everywhere make it particularly useful to American imperialist propaganda. In one sense undoubtedly the reaction at home is preparation for the projected war. But the lie that is to be nailed is that if there were no perspective of war with the Soviet Union, if the Communist Party were not the agent of a foreign power, then we would have more civil liberties than ever. From which is supposed to follow the conclusion that after the Soviet Union is defeated and after the Communist Party is suppressed, we shall resume where we left off.
If Marx made clear the inevitable humiliation and slavery for the workers under capitalist production, Lenin made clear the inevitability of imperialist war. The whole miserable mess is all of one piece-in the unforgettable words of Lenin “one bloody lump.” You can no more separate the crisis of civil liberties from the crisis of capitalist production and the world-wide war than you can separate the arm which is administering the blows from the body which it is attached. The danger of “Russian Communist’ offers a priceless peg to the American bourgeoisie on which to hang their agitation for the suppression of the workers at home and for war against their enemy abroad. This is the root cause of the apparently senseless viciousness and incredible stupidities of the whole campaign. It is a campaign of intimidation and terror of the great masses of the people, and the preparation to regiment the nation under the guise of protection against “Russian Communism.” If it were the crisis-ridden Stalin regime and the weak and discredited Communist Party of the United States that formed the main danger, if the bourgeoisie were concerned about this and this alone, it would not need one-twentieth of the preparations and the methods it uses. A few examples will suffice.
The film industry – one of the most prostituted and venal agencies of mass entertainment in the long history of culture – can legitimately hold up its hands and state that it has not injected Communism or anything like Communism in any single film. No number of Communists in Hollywood could secretly produce a pro-Communist film and suddenly distribute it to the American people, either yesterday, today, or tomorrow, in the course of a War with the Soviet Union. A film is not a leaflet. The whole persecution of the Hollywood writers was based upon the need to make clear to the film industry, the arts and other media of public communication, that they were now to be completely subordinated to the demands and wishes of the State Department. Intimidation and terror of foreign-born workers are at the root of the unprecedented attack upon aliens, many of them men and women who have lived in this country from childhood and learned whatever political opinions they hold in the United States. In this department it is the labor movement which is being educated in the correct attitude toward radicalism.
All principles of law are being violated. Guilt today in the courts is not for alleged disloyalty or seditious conduct. Guilt is now proved by association and by association with others who have not even yet been proved “guilty” of anything. The British judge, who dismissed the American charge against Gerhart Eisler, did not trouble to disguise his contempt for the whole proceeding. The attitude of the British bourgeois judge underlines the hypocritical, fraudulent character of the whole American campaign. Behind the barrage of propaganda the whole mighty power of the United States fastens on to such terrible crimes as violating passport regulations.
Judge Medina states that the trial of the twelve Stalinist leaders is not a political trial. What else is it? People can be charged with having prepared or with preparing an insurrection. They can be charged with such and such concrete acts of espionage. But to charge a group of leaders with having taught and expounded the doctrines of Marx and Lenin-and particularly the Stalinist betrayers of these doctrines-shows the pitch of degradation and slimy dodges to which the American government and the American bourgeoisie have been reduced. During the last hundred years, these doctrines have been published in millions of copies, translated into numerable languages, sold in bookshops, annotated by bourgeois professors and even made the subject of courses in bourgeois schools.
To prove the “conspiracy,” the government has evolved another scandalous procedure. It puts on display an assortment of stool pigeons whose business was to participate in the lives of Communist Party branches, steal documents, make reports to the FB1, and then to come to court and offer this as proof of the subversive activities of the Communist Party. If Louis Budenz, who was a highly placed member of the leadership, could not give any proof of a definitive conspiracy, how was it possible to expect proof from such as these? But by this not only members of the Communist Party but members of all other organizations which seriously oppose the policies of the administration are notified that their ranks are, or soon can be permeated with spies.
But while this is taking place in front of the scenes, behind them, and not too far behind, the real, more important preparations are going on. There is being built up in these United States an organization of secret police on a scale and with ramifications that so far can only be guessed at. Look at these figures. Up to March 1949 the records of 2,350,097 employees of the government had been examined by the FBI. Behind that simple word “examined” is the following paragraph from the Loyalty Order. “An investigation shall be made of all applicants at all available pertinent sources of information.” What are pertinent sources? The government’s Executive Order details them:
“FBI files, Civil Service Commission files, military and Naval Intelligence files, the files of any other appropriate government investigative or intelligence agency, the files of the House Committee of Un-American Activities, the local law enforcement files; also schools and colleges attended ... former employers, references given ... and any other appropriate source.”
This now is the field of operations, by law assigned to the FBI, for applicants for civil service positions and in the testing of those employed. It was precisely on such tests that the Gestapo operated and the GPU still functions. The private employer can at any time hand over the important information and the name of any “suspicious character” to the FBI. The excuse is simple: he can be suspected of “subversive activities.” It must not be forgotten, that these investigations include the wives, families and friends of those investigated.
While the FBI carries out these practices, 200 national boards carry out personal examinations. The candidate is at the mercy of these inquisitors. Here are some of the questions:
Let the news about questions like these circulate through the Civil Service, let the knowledge of minute investigations of the FBI circulate also. You get a situation where civil servants and their friends and relations, with this in their rear and the trials and propaganda in front of them, are being hammered into docile acceptance of Truman’s conception of the “American Way.” The state legislatures have not been slow to follow the federal example, with permutations and combinations of their own. Maryland, for example, has just passed a law providing penalties up to 20 years for subversive activities.
Now academic freedom is under attack. The expulsion of members or “suspected” members of the CP from the staff of the University of Washington, approved by recreant intellectuals like Hook and Counts, was the signal for state laws in New York, Nebraska and elsewhere proscribing “subversives” from teaching in the schools and colleges. As this method is now being proposed for nationwide use by Eisenhower and Conant, the Un-American Committee is preparing to kindle a Hitlerite book-burning fire.
Of symbolic importance is the case of the atomic scientists. The government subjects them to a brutal examination. They complain bitterly in their bulletin. They attempted to get answers to a questionnaire which asked a dozen innocuous questions. Various army, navy and air force officials refused permission to their subordinates to answer, some threatened government action, and carried out a spoken and written propaganda against the proposal as being intended to smear the American form of government. All this is very bewildering to the scientists. But if every attempt is being made to maintain Negroes in subjection, to cripple the labor movement by Taft-Hartley or some version thereof, to intimidate the films and the teachers, to terrorize the government employees, why should atomic or any other scientists be let off free?
In the face of the enormous complexity of modern economic life, the growing revolt of the workers against the conditions of modern capitalist slavery, the need for regimenting the whole country for war, and preparing it for this regimentation, the government must stamp out, or prepare to stamp out all present or potential opposition.
It is true that the government wants to rid itself of all scientists with a Stalinist tinge. But that is only the pretext. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists itself contains constant discussions as to the role of the scientist, whether he should or should not contribute to the destructiveness of modern science, the necessity of world government, draft constitutions for world federation, etc. All this is precisely what the government must stamp out, control, circumscribe, discredit. All who continue to be astonished, or to bleat out agonized protests, to proclaim that they support the government’s foreign policy but cannot see the reason for its attacks on civil rights, these, whatever their intentions, are aiding American capitalist propaganda in its assault upon the liberties of the American people.
It is in the construction of atomic energy that the general tendency meets with its most finished expression. First of all atomic energy as used by capitalism for destruction generates such terror that governments as well as politicians are subject to hysteria. The battle between the military and the civilians for control is a sham battle. All the various atomic projects and the industries which serve them will be in the hands of the military as soon as war breaks out; and today the military decides what they want done and how.
Atomic energy production is a gigantic project. It employs 60,000 men in factories and buildings numbering over 2000. These numbers steadily increase. The whole is under control of the government. What are the results to date?
It is not serious to consider all this accidental. The Atomic Energy Commission follows the course of the armed forces during the war. It can claim as the General Staff did that it was not formed to right civilian wrongs. In the present crisis it cannot jeopardize its main purpose by attempting to alter social laws and practices characteristic of the country as a whole. It must enforce them and precisely because of the vast range, complexity and ramifications of the work and its urgency, those responsible must enforce these reactionary practices with the utmost rigidity.
But other nations can have atomic bombs, supersonic planes, the materials for bacteriological warfare, and the whole deadly paraphernalia of modern war. An atomic bomb may come in a plane; it might be a guided missile; its parts carried in suitcases to be assembled; it can be secreted in a vessel; it can be transferred in a submarine.
Against the terror and social disintegration which are inherent in these possibilities, the government must prepare. It is preparing. Recently a Pittsburgh paper carried a report of these preparations. Private industrialists and other reliable persons will be given commissions in the army, and complete regimentation imposed upon the population, above all on the workers. There is not the slightest reason to doubt this. How else can discipline be imposed- first, the discipline of modern industry, and, at its peak, the construction of atomic energy; then the discipline needed to keep men at work under the threat of atomic attacks; and finally the discipline needed to prevent millions of workers deciding to bring the whole thing to an end by getting rid of the rule of capitalism and establishing their own government and stretching out their hands to the tens of millions in other countries suffering similar tortures from their rulers?
But the American people are not passive spectators to this systematic destruction of their cherished liberties. The working class was ready to undertake direct action when the Taft-Hartley Bill was passed in 1947. The labor leadership prevented it. The great body of the people has a growing sympathy for the struggle of the Negroes. While the Catholic Church seizes this opportunity to take the offensive against civil liberties and finds a welcome in the highest places of the government, important sections of the Protestant Church have expressed alarm at the assault CE democratic rights and have denounced war preparations, militarization, the destruction of civil liberties. But the very resistance imposes the need for further encroachments upon civil rights and this in turn can and does stimulate more radical protest.
A great mass movement of struggle is possible. But, on the one hand, the labor leadership keeps tight rein upon the working class while the Stalinists have been a perfect godsend to the American bourgeoisie. Stained with every political crime, advocates of the no-strike pledge, defenders of Jim Crow during the war, advocates of the use of the Smith Act against the Trotskyist in the Minneapolis Trial, and again today, defenders of totalitarianism in Russia and Eastern Europe, slaves to every twist and turn of the Kremlin, the Stalinists are today utterly discredited; and many who wish to defend civil rights cannot find the stomach to brave the government’s attack on behalf of these corrupt and bedraggled errand boys of the Kremlin and the GPU. The small Trotskyist movement, persecuted by the government during the last war, rallied an impressive support. Today Kutcher, the legless veteran, dismissed from his government post because of his membership in the Socialist Workers Party, has won support in his protest from unions and intellectuals, including some of the most distinguished scientists in the country. The Trotskyists are confident that the great masses of the American people, faced as they will be with the loss of every civil liberty in order to protect the profits and privileges of a few, will know how to measure up to the great struggle. Until then the task is to fight on the specific issues as they arise. But it is necessary periodically to make clear the basic axis around which the whole struggle revolves.
The brutal assault upon civil rights sooner or later will be completely integrated in the minds of the workers with the economic and political degradation which capitalism imposes upon them. To follow this movement step by step but never to lose sight of the relationship between the assault upon civil rights and the degradation of capitalism, that is the task for Marxists.
Last updated on: 11 April 2009