Fighting Back

Issue section: 

John Newsinger

Fighting Back

US politics over the last couple of years has been a see-saw of the rise of the right in the guise of the "grassroots" Tea Party and the resurgence of independent working class action and anti-capitalist protest with the revolt in Wisconsin, subsequently defeated, and the explosion of the Occupy movement.

The pre-election campaign has been dominated so far by the ravings of the right - most notably those of the Republican candidate for Missouri, Todd Akin, who claimed that victims of "legitimate rape" rarely become pregnant because a woman's body has a way of preventing pregnancy in such cases, a claim entirely lacking scientific basis that carries with it the insinuation that any woman who does get pregnant as a result of rape must be consenting at some level.

The tradition of workers' struggle and the nature of the battle between the classes in the US is often submerged under the weight of the US's (increasingly difficult) role as the world's policeman and the pronouncements of mavericks of the right.

In this splendid corrective John Newsinger tells a very different - and often hidden - history of the dramatic strikes and sit-down movement of the 1930s which won widespread unionisation at a time when European workers were largely on the retreat and fascism was on the rise.

Newsinger puts the seismic battles of the 1930s in the context of the horrors of the period following the First World War. The Red Scare against militants and "Bolsheviks" and race riots against black workers cleared the way for a massive employers' offensive as unions were smashed across the country. While the war had boosted the US economy, US bosses fought tooth and nail against the militancy that had predated the war. Unionisation almost halved from five million in 1920 to 3.5 million in 1923, while the richest one percent of the population concentrated a staggering 48 percent of the country's wealth into their hands.

This was the unpromising background for what remains the high-water mark of US working class action.

The US economy crashed in 1929 and the ensuing Depression brought twin responses - Roosevelt's reforms which were designed to save US capitalism but gave a foothold to working class bitterness. Lives that had been stunted by poverty, the tyranny of the production line and the violence of the state against resistance found an outlet for anger in strikes and protests for the democratisation of company towns and for union representation. From the lowest point of defeat, within a few years the US working class was posing the question of state power in three massive strikes.

In 1934 three cities were rocked by strikes based around car workers in Toledo, Ohio, truckers in Minneapolis and dockers in San Francisco. Workers organised across craft and industry lines, united against the employers, city and federal governments, and the police. The revolts were tremendous demonstrations of workers' power. In Minneapolis the "teamster rebellion" created a situation of virtual dual power with workers organising the distribution of food and medical supplies and forming their own militia.

Newsinger tells the story of the rise of this incredible militancy with a rich attention to detail and an eye for memorable anecdotes. He weaves histories of the employers, the union leaders, working people and their political parties into his narrative of events. It is a great strength of this book that many lesser-known incidents and struggles are covered, as well as the more famous events, which gives a brilliant sense of the atmosphere of the time and the complexity of the fast-moving political situation.

Fighting Back draws out the lessons of this tremendous upsurge in US history. The labour movement made a huge leap forward in strength, a feature that has characterised US working class history from its earliest beginnings, with the formation of the CIO and independent unionisation. But it also saw the defeat of the movement and its subsequent bureaucratisation.

In a period of renewed recession, and the stirrings of working class battles once again in the US, this is a welcome history which contains much socialists can learn from. The account ends by stressing the role of the left in the militancy, but also in the defeat. The Stalinised Communist Party was unable to build the deep roots that could have have propelled the strike movement forward. Despite extraordinary resistance and valour on the part of workers, the left was not able to make a lasting mark on US politics.

That vacuum is still with us, and the rise of new resistance in the US poses the question with renewed force. This book is timely, important and very welcome.

Megan Trudell