Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Spanish Civil War and other failures

“Our brave legionnaires and regular soldiers have taught the reds what is to be men, and on the way, they also taught the wives of the reds, that now, finally, they have known true men, not castrated milicanios. Kicking and crying will not save them”

– General de Llano, Spanish Fascist

“Long live death!”

– General Astray, Spanish Fascist

I believe I know now why the Fascists in Spain won the Civil War in the thirties, although I’m still baffled as to why Franco was allowed to rule like an emperor until his death in the seventies. The Fascist victory had nothing to do with airplanes from Germany. It was yet another example (albeit a heightened one) of the usual pile of sectarian crap that has plagued the Left since the French Revolution.

To those who think that the Stalinists came into Spain and ruined everything, it bears pointing out that the Communists’ counterparts amongst the anarchists were just as intransigent and factional as any other group that was loosely defending the Spanish republic. The notion of a “united front” was present in the minds of the anti-fascists, but other than a mutual hatred of ultra conservative fascism, the unity stopped there. The myriad of itty-bitty groups were not and did not want to coordinate with each other. It was the same hardliner, no-compromise approach that’s found echoes throughout the world since the beginning of modernity.

Jacobin Magazine recently held an interview with the Greek Communist Party, an organization that honestly has some good ideas but zero intention of ever sharing them with anyone else. Hardliner left-wing groups all claim a monopoly on truth, and in the case of Greece, you’re either with them or against them. Jacobin is just as bad in this regard; the sheer din of competing voices make any kind of unity impossible.

The Chinese communists were correct in their approach towards getting rid of the Japanese army and the reactionary Kuomintang forces. The first priority, above all else, was to engage and physically defeat the enemy. Ideological niceties took a back seat during the Revolutionary War in China – one can deal with niggling philosophical details AFTER dealing with the immediate, concrete threat of annihilation at the hands of the fascists.
In Spain, there were at least four different groups vying for supremacy in the Republic, and in at least the anarchist section, they wanted to rush in societal changes even before engaging an enemy that wound up sweeping the floor with their faces. The four major groups (Russia-backed Communists, the Trotskyite POUM, the anarchist movement and all of its many contingents, relatively moderate Republicans, and sub-nationalists of various stripes) did not coalesce and agree to cohesion, any kind of cohesion. This childish lack of co-operation during an emergency period made it quite easy for a fascist victory. It almost goes without saying that the fascists of Italy, Germany, and Spain had no problem working together.

I happen to belong to a radical group which is fairly open-minded, and they don’t seem to have a problem working with other groups on the left side of the dial. Still, like the harder core-than –thou Fourth International, they throw a fit when mentioning any other group or sympathy for anyone other than approved figures like Trotsky and Lenin. This is despite the fact that Lenin himself urged the left-wing to deal with concrete problems first and ideological dribble-drabble later.

Win the war. That should be the keywords of any radical operating today, and it should have been the keyword of the radicals in Spain. You can work on the societal revolution later, AFTER defeating the enemy. There needs to be a greater emphasis on a broad front, and as long as squabbles take place between groups and microgroups, the Right will continue their hegemony. Forget this fifth column nonsense now – it does no one any good, and neither does intransigent, no-compromise pigheadedness.

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Palmer/Revolutionary Teamsters

Like tectonic plates, radical politics and organized labour in the United States have often crashed into each other throughout history, creating seismic social upheavals in the unlikeliest of places. For those that believe that radicalism is some sort of foreign contagion, shipped in from Europe into the US, one need only to glance at the history of America – from Thomas Paine to the IWW to the Black Panther Party, radicalism has imbued the US from its inception. Revolutionary Teamsters is a glimpse of one of those collisions mentioned above, as hardcore revolutionary fervor became intertwined within one of the most reactionary labour groups in the States, the Teamsters. The ensuing mass strike in the chilly city of Minneapolis during the thirties is one of the seminal events in the radical history of a country that would like to believe that it is allergic to militant socialism.

By the beginning of the thirties, organized labour had already diverged into reactionary and progressive camps; the Red Menace scare of the early twenties had dealt a death blow to the IWW and other domestic socialist organizations, but it was hard to deny the appeal of a Marxist system during the worst period of the Depression. On the other hand, conservative labour organizations such as the AFL and typified by personalities like Sam Gompers had risen to take the premier seat of “respectable” labour, labour that the bosses could “do business with”. The Teamsters were almost a caricature of that sort of conservatism; it was a reactionary, racist body that had already begun to embrace the gangster lineage for which it is infamous.

In Minneapolis, the teamsters and other even less enfranchised working groups found themselves bereft of aid, during a period when work was an employers’ market and the management class could feel free to push their employees in whatever direction they felt like, knowing the desperation of those in need of a job. Wages were cut, hours were extended, and in an environment such as Minneapolis, where the real effects of basic living conditions were brought to the fore with every passing winter, workers (as exemplified by the Teamsters) had to make do with whatever pittance that their bosses tossed out to them. These Teamsters were utterly denied any kind of assistance by their “Fraternal” Order (who were entirely in bed with management and opposed to anything that smacked of progressive/radical measures) and the situation had become desperate.

In the realm of organized radicalism, Stalinism had gone worldwide by this point, and the Communist Parties of the world (and their fellow traveler brethren, such as the Workers Party in the US) had followed suit. Those who held contrary beliefs to the crushing autocracy of Stalinist politics were branded Trotskyites and were promptly ousted. The disenfranchised Red rebels found themselves in the same sort of position as the independent Teamsters, locked out of their own creation by backwards, dictatorial elements.

These two forces joined together in the despondent days of the early Depression in Minneapolis, with Marxists and ex-Communists linking hands and adding organizational skill to the mounting numbers of disenfranchised Teamsters. They created a new union, a safe haven for workers who had grown sick of the total inaction of their supposedly protective “Fraternal” organization, and following a clash with predatory employers and management class, went on strike. This triggered a snowstorm of sympathy strikes throughout the normally radical-free city, creating a mass strike on par with the earlier mass strike in Winnipeg. Please note the similarity in unforgiving physical environments of the two cities – the strikers were literally fighting for their lives in the most adverse conditions.

Bryan Palmer outlines all of this in masterful prose, with an excellent breadth of knowledge of the forgotten/forbidden history of the Teamsters, an organization now synonymous with organized crime (the first inklings of that direction were felt in Minneapolis). Palmer is well acquainted with both organized labour and organized radicalism, two movements that were not inextricably linked in the US. History is narrative, and the best histories read almost like exciting works of fiction – Revolutionary Teamsters falls neatly into that category. Palmer also includes an incredibly depressing post-script of the fate of Trotskyites in the US, a chilling reminder of what international Stalinism was capable of, even in the heartland of liberal capitalism. As Jon Stewart once said, “The eternal fate of the noble and enlightened is to be crushed by the armed and dumb”, and the actions of violent Stalinist thugs mirrors the violence displayed by the reactionary strike-breakers.

This wonderful slice of American Pie is part of Haymarket’s excellent Historical Materialism series, which carries copies of Marxist classics such as this volume. It is also an affordable book, which unfortunately is not the case with many Historical Materialism titles (there are more than a few books in the series that cost as much as fifty dollars, making them as inaccessible as they were when they were out of print). For anyone who thinks that Trotskyites had their heads in the clouds and held no contact with the actual working class, this book is essential.

Big Bill Haywood/An IWW Fable

I’m currently reading the autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, one of the founders of the militant American union orgs, the Industrial Workers of the World. This is NOT a great book, and offers almost zero insight into the actual personal life of one of the greatest labour activists in the world, but it is a wonderful peak of the horrific conditions of industrial labour in turn-of-the-century America, and the violent, deadly opposition workers faced when they attempted to fight back and form unions. Anyway, here’s a passage from the bio, a fable that Big Bill told fellow IWW internees awaiting trial in Chicago on trumped-up charges. The punchline is at the very end. Racial implications are rife in this story, so prepare yourself for some triggers.

The fruit-growing landowners of the golden state had determined to rid themselves of members of the IWW. The first move on their part was to introduce Japanese workers in the orchards and vineyards.

Some of the little yellow men joined the IWW which, unlike many other labour unions of America, admitted them the same as white or men of any other colour.

But the Japanese were not satisfied to work for small wages under the miserable conditions imposed by the Fruit-growers Association, so they formed co-operatives, saved their money, and began purchasing land for themselves, becoming serious competitors of their former employers.

Fearful that the Japanese would buy the entire fruit-growing region of California, having already bought most of the land in the Vaca Valley, laws were passed by the legislature forbidding the sale of land to the Japanese, and a Federal law was passed in Washington restricting their immigration to the United States. There was already a law restricting the immigration of the Chinese.

The fruitgrowers were again compelled to employ migratory white labour, until a wonderful idea developed at one of the conventions of the Fruitgrowers’ Association. One of the delegates got up and suggested that it would be possible to train monkeys to pick and pack fruit. This was decided upon without hesitation, and steps were taken to get a lot of monkey fruit pickers.

The Chimpanzee was decided upon as the most intelligent.

Splendid little houses, all nicely painted, were built and equipped for the monkeys. They were actually fed and taught to what they were to do. When the fruit grew ripe, the owners brought their friends from the city to see how ingeniously they were solving the labour problem.

The monkeys were restless in their houses, as the air was aromatic with the ripened fruit. When they were turned loose, they hurriedly climbed the trees. But instead of doing as they had been taught – to bring the fruit down and put it in a box – the mischievous little rascals would dart about, selecting the choicest fruit, take a bite or two, throw the rest away, and go after more.

Before the day was gone, and the monkeys with paunches full had gone back to their houses, much damage was done.

The wise fruit-growers had to seek another method. The next day, each monkey had a muzzle put on. They went up into the trees rapidly enough, but none of them would pick any fruit. They were busily engaged in trying to rid themselves of the frightful contrivance that prevented them from eating and enjoying themselves.

The fruit-growers were in an awful predicament with so many monkeys to feed which would do no work in return. They appealed to the Governor of the state, who regretfully replied that as the offenders were not men, they were not amenable to the law. If they were IWWs, he could have them imprisoned and perhaps have their leaders shot, but over monkeys he had no jurisdiction.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who had never interested itself on behalf of the IWW or the Japanese, learning that the monkeys were being neglected, threatened to prosecute the fruit-growers if the little animals were not properly  taken care of.

The chimpanzees came to be as disliked as much as the IWW. Some of the fruitgrowers owned cotton plantations in Imperial Valley on which they had trouble getting white and black wage slaves sufficiently docile for the work of picking cotton. It occurred to them that the monkeys could be made to pick cotton, and there would be no trouble about them trying to eat it.

So all the monkeys were shipped to the new location. Strange to say, they could pick cotton and at a speed that made their owners happy. Here was the solution to the labour problem as far as picking cotton was concerned. But their satisfaction was short-lived.

One day, while all the monkeys were at work, chattering while they gathered the white bolls of cotton, a gentle breeze wafted a white tuft from a monkey’s hand. It amused him to see it floating through the air. He tossed up another bit, and another. The other monkeys, catching the spirit of the fun, began to do the same. At first little bits and then handfuls, till the air was full of fleecy cotton. It looked as though the first snowstorm had struck southern California.

The overseers were alarmed.

There was no way to stop the monkeys in their eager playfulness, which, before they had tired themselves out, had almost destroyed the entire crop of that particular plantation.

In some peculiar manner the monkeys on other plantations learned of the fun, and their pranks caused the same disastrous result.

The fruit and cotton growers were at their wits’ end. They knew not what to do with the monkeys, until deportation was finally decided on, and the Chimpanzees were shipped back to the forests of Africa, where they now gather together, and the eldest, with a grin on his face, hanging by his tail, tells the younger generation how they won the strike in California.