I finished reading Sharon Smith’s latest book, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, on May Day 2006. Rather appropriate, I thought as I turned the last page of text, especially since this working class holiday began in the United States during one of its headier periods of working class solidarity and rebellion. Even more appropriate when one considers the resurgence of May Day protests in the US this year thanks to the movement to make undocumented workers legal.
Smith’s book is exactly what its title suggests. This is the story of class struggle in the United States–a story told from the perspective of a radical leftist. Consequently, it’s a history most folks who went to school in the US do not know. Why? Because the powers that run this country don’t want them to. Smith has done an outstanding job telling it. Well-researched and well-told, Subterranean Fire informs the reader with lively writing and unembellished facts of oppression, exploitation and the fight against such phenomenon.
Ms. Smith begins the book by detailing the history of US labor prior to the War Between the States. At that time, the US economy was primarily agrarian in nature and depended on the enslavement of Africans and their descendants for its strength. Subterranean Fire not only acknowledges this, but discusses the essential role that slavery played in the creation of the US economy. Like others before her, Smith analyzes the international slave trade, the economics of Southern plantation growers, its repercussions for white-skinned workers, and the economic aspects of the US Civil War.
Furthermore,Smith keeps the reality that racial discrimination has played in the history of US labor throughout the book. Whether it was the use of African-Americans as scabs or the constant tactic of divide-and-conquer based on skin color by business or the refusal of the unions to allow black members, the role that the uniquely US racial situation plays in keeping the working class in constant uncertainty is detailed here. In addition, this history proves via its descriptions of various strikes and radical unions (most notably the IWW) that when workers ignore the prejudices of society and unite across racial and ethnic boundaries, they are more likely to win. The current struggle for immigrant rights in the US could learn from this lesson, especially among those US workers that believe it is the immigrant that drives their wages downward, not the corporation.
Today’s news constantly runs stories about workers taking concessions and massive company layoffs. Smith’s analysis holds that this is directly related to the conscious retreat from class-based struggle and the purge of leftists from US unions after World War Two. It is this historical fact that is also responsible for the continually falling numbers of union members throughout the United States. This model of unionism, known as economism by various leftists, helped prevent the development not only of a labor party in the United States, but also of politically oriented unionism. Instead of demanding that the government represent the majority of Americans–that is, the workers of the country–unions and their members got involved in providing pensions and health care to their members. In other industrialized countries where the labor movement is represented in the legislature by various labor and leftist parties, such issues are the duty of government. Of course, in today’s neoliberal/neoconservative world, workers in those countries are finding their health care and pensions under threat from governments taken over by big business. The recent against the so-called Kleenex law highlighted this fact quite vividly.
Speaking of worker’s parties, the spectre of the various anarchist, socialist and communist groupings looms in the background of Smith’s text. She details the twists and turns of the Socialist Party, USA and the US Communist Party (CPUSA). It is her conclusion that the two organizations failed the workers of the country. The Socialists did this by acceding the leadership to the party’s right wing, while the CPUSA stumbled in the wake of its Popular Front politics before and during the Second World War–politics that were determined by the Stalinist regime in Moscow more than by the situation in the workplace and on the ground in the United States. The anarchists failed, writes Smith, because of their determination not to be vanguardist. It was the latter’s organizing and anti-capitalist politics, however, that insured the worker’s movement would maintain its radical spirit and politics. This, writes Smith, is why they were targeted for deportation, harassment and elimination by the State and Big Business.
There are stories in this book that should be part of every textbook in the United States. The attacks on the miners in the Appalachians, the Ludlow massacre of women and children in Colorado, the police and military attacks on striking textile workers in Gastonia, NC, the remarks of various capitalists regarding their opinion of those that made them their riches, the persecution of labor and other radicals throughout the past 150 years, and the manipulation of the public by the two-party system–a manipulation that means the worker gets screwed no matter who he or she votes for. Women on the barricades and the Wobblies. Likewise, the tales of racial and ethnic prejudices that caused strikes and solidarity to fall apart should be told. This latter aspect of US labor history is very important today as immigrants flex their political muscle in the streets of the country and the power elites attempt to create and widen divisions between these immigrants and those US workers that were born here. If workers don’t learn from history and oppose these attempts to divide us, Subterranean Fire makes it abundantly clear that all workers will suffer. And only the bosses will win. When lessons from our history are common knowledge we can move ahead in a manner that will bring a movement back onto US soil that protects the lives and rights of the working people in this country.
Smith’s book is the perfect vehicle for such an endeavor. It is a readable, lively tale of the worker’s movement in the United States. A collection of statistics and anecdotal stories combined with a critical analysis, it is at times despairingly downbeat and at other times exhilaratingly hopeful. Subterranean Fire’s a piece of agitational literature. If there’s one message that exists in its pages, it is this: Don’t just read, organize.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org