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What Can We Learn from the Teens? Protest, Rebellion, Commitment: Then and Now

Protest, Rebellion, Commitment: Then and Now

by GROVER FURR

"Everything old is new again"

The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. By July the Espionage Act had been rushed through Congress. "The law made it a crime, punishable by a $10,000 fine and 20 years in jail, for a person to ‘convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or willfully obstruct recruiting or enlistment service." [Murray, 13-14]. The 1918 Sedition Act prohibited a person, under pain of $10,000 and 20 years imprisonment, to ‘utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or any language intended to encourage resistance to the United States, or to promote the cause of its enemies.’"

"Those who spoke or wrote against the war were arrested in droves. Over fifteen hundred people were charged under these laws for the crime of expressing an opinion the government did not agree with. One socialist, Rose Pastor Stokes, was sentenced to ten years in prison for telling an all-female audience that she was for the people, while the government was for the profiteers. Eugene V. Debs, a prominent socialist leader, was sentenced to ten years in a federal penitentiary for a rather academic speech analyzing the economic causes of war." The American Socialist Society was convicted under the Espionage Act merely for publishing a book by Scott Nearing, The Great Madness.

In addition to the Espionage and Sedition Acts, between 1917 and 1920 many states passed laws against "criminal syndicalism," which, according to Eldridge T. Dowell’s authoritative study, normally meant commission of any crime "as a means of accomplishing change in industrial ownership or effecting any political change", as in the California statue.

Both Federal statutes were used mainly against one organization–the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, and it was the aim of virtually all the state criminal syndicalism laws as well. On the eve of the war the IWW was in the midst of a large-scale drive, which brought a huge increase in membership and an upsurge in strikes and organizing activities

According to Dowell,

"The war gave to the employers and to others opposed to the IWW a golden opportunity to associate the syndicalist philosophy and militant tactics of the Wobblies with violence, terrorism, lack of patriotism, pro-Germanism, and, later, with radicalism and all the violent characteristics attributed to the Bolshevik Revolution."

Dowell searched the many state prosecutions against the IWW for any evidence that the union had, in fact, engaged in violence, even in strikes, and was unable to find any. Nor was any IWW member ever convicted of sabotage, though many were charged.

In violation of existing laws and of Constitutional guarantees, the Army was used to break strikes, most notably in Spokane in 1919, to raid IWW lodges, and to imprison workers illegally. The states and the military used various techniques to avoid habeas corpus proceedings, and abused the concept of "protective custody" to imprison striking workers and organizers William Preston concludes that all IWW strikes, whether involving "force" or not, were considered "unlawful conspiracies" by State and local authorities, urged on by employers and abetted by the Federal government, notably, after its creation in 1919, by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s Bureau of Investigation, later the FBI, and his assistant J. Edgar Hoover.

Thus the drive against "espionage" and "sedition" was, overwhelmingly, an employer-sponsored drive against striking and organizing workers, the most effective workers’ organizations of the day, and anyone who spoke up in support or even sympathy with them or their views. Dowell details how industrial and employer associations connived at the passage of criminal syndicalist laws. He calls it "class legislation"–meaning, legislation clearly in favor of employers as a group, and against employees as a group, as well as against anyone who opposed the war.

Wilson’s Attorney General Thomas Gregory stated with satisfaction, "It is safe to say that never in its history has this country been so thoroughly policed."

The newspaper industry, the major mass medium of the time, fell into line. Major newspapers held membership on George Creel’s "Committee on Public Information," which set up a virtual censorship board which, according to Postmaster-General Albert Burleson, allowed no criticism of the war. By November 1917 both the Milwaukee Leader and the New York Call, Socialist pro-labor newspapers opposed to the war, had been closed.

"Interfering with industry" by slowdowns or striking, was equated with disloyalty and treason, with spying for Germany, and with leading an insurrection or planning to do so. Secondary and college teachers were dismissed for statements considered "disloyal", including simple pacifism or support for labor struggles. The New York State Legislature closed the Rand School for Social Science by passing a bill requiring all schools to be licensed by the Board of Regents, and then denying it a license. Helen Gould Shepherd, daughter of millionaire financier and "robber baron" Jay Gould, "pledged her entire fortune to the stamping out of radicalism in our colleges." But there was not much opposition to begin with in an academia that had never had much tolerance for dissent or interest in academic freedom.

Parallels

I’ll concentrate on five striking parallels between the post 9/11 situation today and that of WW1 and the post-WW1 period. They are: laws; imperialism; class oppression; racism; war profiteering; and media propaganda.

Laws

The Espionage and Sedition Acts are paralleled by the Patriot Act. The former two acts, while used against espionage as well, were mainly used against domestic dissent, especially against the militant labor movement and those who opposed the war as an imperialist war in the interest of capital. In the WW1 era the government broke its own laws by using Federal troops and the Army National Guard against workers in private labor disputes. Virtually any expression of "disloyalty"–to be defined by local authorities at their whim–was assumed to be "illegal." Incidentally, the Espionage Act itself, as amended, remains in effect today.

Today the Bush regime claims the right to selectively abrogate Constitutional Rights, as in the case of José Padilla, deprived of the right of habeas corpus, and of the prisoners at Guantánamo, Cuba, entitled to but denied Prisoner of War status according to conventions signed by the United States. As in the WW1 era, the Bush regime claims powers far beyond even the broad powers given them under the Patriot Act. Until recently the courts assumed the President could, by executive order, do whatever he wanted to do, while local authorities have assumed police can stop antiwar and other protest actions with violence. Meanwhile in Iraq the US Army has been used to break up Iraqi labor unions and arrest their activists.

The Espionage and Sedition Acts were mainly used against workers’ struggles. The semi-Marxist, class analysis of the IWW and the Socialist Party was considered "treasonous". That is, "patriotism" and "loyalty" were openly defined as loyalty to employers, i.e. to capitalists, and to whatever the President did. I submit that "patriotism" is widely understood the same way today.

World War I was a purely imperialist war, a struggle among the capitalists and financiers of Germany, England and the U.S. for markets and colonies. In the 1930s the Nye Commission hearings disclosed that Pres. Wilson’s own advisors had told him that, unless the US declared war on Germany, England would be unable to buy more from American industries, while American banks’ loans to England and France would be in danger of default if Germany won the war. The Allies’ Secret Treaties, published right after the War by the Bolsheviks and reprinted by communist groups in Western Europe, proved that the major aims of the European combatants was grabbing land from one another.

Today’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are, equally clearly, imperialist wars. The term "empire" is now routinely used by the mainstream mass media in the US–and of course abroad — to refer to post-9/11 US foreign policy. A scant two years ago it was never used in that way! With the excuses of "fighting terrorism" and "destroying Weapons of Mass Destruction" in Iraq completely exposed, the Bush / Blair regimes are trying to cloak their aggression by christening the invasion of Iraq "a war to defend democracy." On April 2 1917 Woodrow Wilson told Congress the coming war was "to make the world safe for democracy." Instead it is more and more clear that the war is a grab for oil, and the political power that control over this essential resource can bring. In short, it’s a war of inter-imperialist rivalry, as was WW1, and the imperialist rivals–France, Germany, China, Russia, and large parts of the British elite–understand this very well.

The Wilson Administration and local governments declared war on striking workers. The Bush regime has relentlessly attacked the living standards of all employees, waging what economist-columnist Robert Krugman has called "class warfare" against workers in favor of employers and the rich generally. Under the smokescreen of "fighting terrorism" the Bush regime has pushed through cutbacks in Medicare, huge cuts in public education, and restrictions on women’s rights to health care, while deliberately building in such heavy budget deficits that even future Democratic administrations will claim they are "forced" to reduce social welfare spending even further. Conservative columnist and former editor A.M. Rosenthal called the milder Reaganite attacks on social welfare "class warfare".

Imperialist war meant a bonanza for finance and industrial capitalists after 1917, with US factories arming France, England, and until February 1917, Russia against Germany, and American financiers making huge loans to the Allies, especially England. Today the giveaways to favored corporations, like V.-P. Cheyney’s Halliburton, in Iraq, and to outright theft of billions by big Bush supporters like Enron, remind us that war profiteering is another form of class warfare of the rich against the working population. It’s a transfer of resources. The immense costs of the wars are socialized–i.e. paid by taxpayers, mainly working people, since corporations and the wealthy are given large tax reductions, even in wartime–but the profits of the war are privatized. War is the original "socialism for the rich."

Racism

Germans were dehumanized during WW1, portrayed in government-produced posters as gorillas, apes, less-than-human killers and rapists.

From 1917 to 1920 leftist non-citizens–meaning, mainly labor activists — were demonized in the US, over 300 finally being deported. Since most of these were from Eastern Europe, as were most immigrants at the time, this demonization took the form of racism against Slavs and Eastern Europeans, including Jews, who were said to be lower in intelligence, lazy, and anarchistic. Right after the war "intelligence" tests were invented to demonstrate the "inferiority" of Eastern Europeans and Jews, leading to the passage of racist immigration laws in 1924 and 1925 that set immigration quotas according to the population as it was in 1890, before most of the Eastern European immigration had taken place.

During WW1 Blacks served in the American military in large numbers, and were exposed to Europeans, mainly French, with far less racist attitudes. Upon their return, an incipient "civil rights movement" in which Black soldiers were prominent was met with a campaign of officially-sponsored or tolerated race riots and lynchings across the US.

Today racism against Muslims and Arabs are dehumanized; their customs, beliefs and religion deemed "inferior", so the Iraqis specifically and Arabs generally need "the West"–read: the US and Israel–to "teach them democracy." "Racial profiling", a technique perfected against Black Americans and people who look Hispanic, is turned against anyone of Muslim appearance, who are demonized as "terrorists."

Media Propaganda

Every work on the Red Scare stresses the importance of the press’s role in promoting government and employer propaganda. With the war officially over in 1919, George Creel, as former head of the Committee on Public Information the informal Chief of War Propaganda" of the US, wrote in Everybody’s Magazine: "Just as every untoward incident was credited to the German spy system, so was every disaster, every manifestation of unrest ascribed either to the IWW or the Bolsheviki". According to media historian Michael Schudson, the New York Times described WW1 as "the first press agents’ war," and historian Jack Roth has called the war "the first modern effort at systematic, nationwide manipulation of collective passions." Nothing could have been more persuasive than the war experience in convincing American newspapermen that facts themselves are not to be trusted. In the war and after, journalists began to see everything as illusion, since it was so evidently the product of self-conscious artists of illusion.

Dowell concludes:

A deliberate policy of distortion and suppression of the news and of misrepresentation of the facts would be difficult to prove, but a more unreal picture of the IWW could scarcely have been presented had such a policy been deliberately and maliciously employed. [38]

Today liberal media critics like Jeff Cohen, Norman Solomon, Edward Herman, and even Paul Krugman of the New York Times complain about the obtrusive bias the press shows towards President Bush and his policies. Abroad–say, in the UK–the press itself is even more frank, a recent article in the London Observer titled "Lessons in how to lie about Iraq" [Aug. 17 03] being but one example among many. In reality, the mass media are in fewer, and wealthier, hands than ever, even relatively small media companies being valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, so it’s no mystery that they still portray the world through with an employer’s bias.

Lessons

The lessons we should draw from the similarities between the wave of repression during and after WW1 and that today are obvious but, to many, unpalatable, because they impel us to discard habits of political thought that are deeply ingrained. Here, in my opinion, are a few of the most important ones:

1. Like WW1, the Afghan and Iraq wars make the class nature of government and government policy much clearer–so clear that even mainstream journalists are suddenly writing about "class warfare" of the government against the working population, and about a supposedly new American imperialism (it’s not new, just so unmistakable that it can no longer be denied).

Anyone reading the histories of the Red Scare of the WW1 period can see that these historians recognize that the laws against "espionage" and "sedition" were mainly applied in a class-conscious way against labor militants and against workers’ collective action against exploitation. Wars give employers and governments greater scope to attack collective rights faster. Even those dissenters who were punished as individuals in schools, for example, protested the war for its anti-working class nature.

2. We can’t understand what’s happening if we see the Patriot Act as a government attack on "individual" or "civil rights". The individual cases are test cases; it is mainly an attack on all working people, which includes white-collar workers, including those of us in education, who, unlike our predecessors during WW1, are increasingly unionized.

3.These wars remind us that the government has never been a defender of the working population, and has never defended, but always tried to restrict, the rights of most of its citizens. Wartime gives employers, through the government, greater scope to attack the rights and living standards of the working population much faster. The more dramatic repressive moves come against those who resist–the IWW then, protestors today, including some union members in the recent Miami FTAA protests. But these are the "tip of the wedge"; the purpose is to repress and intimidate all, by making an example of a few. Likewise with the Bush regime’s selective deprivation of basic Constitutional rights applied to only a few American citizens: it is a "trial balloon," to be used in future against dissidents more generally as needed.

4. Imperialist War Abroad is accompanied by Class Oppression At Home, because these are different facets of the same thing: the pursuit of profit under capitalism. Thanks to the Cold War, and ultimately to the very Red Scare at issue here, we have all been taught that it is "illegitimate" to see that capitalism is based, not on law and rights, but on exploitation; that imperialism is the name given to the more advanced stage of capitalist exploitation of other countries; and that imperialist war has historically been the inevitable result of capitalist competition between states.

We need to recognize something the Socialists, anti-war radicals, and IWW members, understood 90 years ago: that this war is not primarily a war against "terrorism", against a brutal ruler the US used to support with open hand, but against

* the peoples of the Middle East

* the rulers of the other major industrialized countries;

* us–the American working population. The war is not a war to "secure our freedom" or to "make us safe against more 9/11 type attacks". Rather, it’s a war to raise the level at which we are exploited, and to get us to pay the costs, in blood and money, for a war that Halliburton and big oil will profit from. This war is a war against us–the working people of America–just as the First World War was.

Finally, a few thoughts about what is to come. Many of us long for a return to the "golden age", sometime in the not-too-distant past–the 1960s? or maybe any time since the 1930s–when "things were better." During and after WW1 many people–mainly the better-off–longed for a return to the "better time" of the late Victorian, or Edwardian, era. It didn’t happen the, and it’s not going to happen now.

Patrick Henry said: "I know no way of judging of the future but by the past." Edmund Burke wrote: "You can never plan the future by the past." Both are true. Historical periods echo and parallel each other, but history is not mere continuity.

In the view of many, we are well into a qualitatively new period, and we must employ parallels and analogies of the past with care. After WW1, the only thing that was predictable with confidence was another world war–WW2.

There’s no WW2 on the immediate horizon, because militarily there is no other power or combination of powers equal to the United States. Compared to WW1, 9/11, the Afghan and Iraq wars, terrible as they are, are very minor events. Yet the Bush regime immediately undertook a very harsh domestic response, both in the Patriot Act; in an acceleration of its program of sharp attacks on the standard of living of working Americans; and in police repression of dissent, as recently in Miami; and in the draft of "Patriot Act II", enactment of which would complete the conversion of the US into a police state.

The history of imperialism unmistakably suggests that small wars lead, eventually, to large-scale wars of tremendous destruction and huge loss of life. Quite simply, the US cannot remain "top dog" forever. Some combination of other major imperialist powers will challenge it, and sooner, rather than later. Much harsher attacks on the standard of living of the American population, through the destruction of what remains of a weak network of social welfare benefits, will accelerate. Protests will grow, and so will repression. Like our ancestors of the period of WW1, we are descending into a very dark period. Today, however, the US does not have a militant working-class movement to lead the fight for more rights and higher wages.

It seems that things will get much worse, both internationally and domestically, before they get better. In 1908 Jack London, Socialist and novelist, published The Iron Heel, in which he predicted a period of capitalist-led war, terror and repression lasting several centuries. During the Red Scare his novel won new readers; to many it seemed prescient. Allowing for fictional exaggeration, London simply predicted that things would get worse for working people for a long time before they get better.

In London’s novel too, a better world eventually came about because of a protracted and violent mass resistance struggle. I can offer no more hopeful scenario. It’s time for us to wake up, get organized, and fight back.

I hope you will all come to the Delegate Assembly* meeting and support the Radical Caucus’s resolutions against the Patriot Act, the language of war, and military expenditures, and the emergency resolution against the imposition of "patriotic" criteria for Federal Title VI funding. And after you do, I hope we all go back to our campuses and communities, and organize with others to meet the onslaught to come.

* This paper was delivered at the Modern Language Association (MLA) meeting in San Diego in December 2003.

GROVER FURR teaches English at Montclair State University in NJ and is active in the Radical Caucus of the MLA.