The end of the 19th century saw the birth of imperialism. Germany, France, Britain and Belgium struggled to gain possession of markets, territory, raw materials and spheres of influence. This policy led to the establishment of colonies and empires in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. On the Pacific, Japan’s development followed a similar pattern, following the Western lead in industrialization and militarism, enabling it to gain a foothold or “sphere of influence” in China. As Germany emerged as a great power after victory in the Franco-Prussian War, which completed the process of German unification, so the U.S. would emerge as a great power after the victory of the North in the Civil War.
The United States, as the youngest member of the capitalist club, entered late into the scramble for markets and colonies. As a result it found itself at a disadvantage with respect to the older imperialist nations of Europe. The Panic of 1893 exacerbated the already fierce competition over markets in the growing “spheres of influence” of the United States, which tended to overlap with Britain’s, especially in the Pacific and South America. Like all newly industrializing great powers, the U.S. adopted protectionism, seized a colonial empire of its own (the Spanish-American War of 1898), and built up a powerful navy (the “Great White Fleet”). Following the example of Germany, the United States tried to solve the depression by the adoption of protective tariff protection with the passage of the McKinley Tariff of 1890.
The nascent trend of American imperialism found its voice in a new generation of U.S. politicians, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, all of whom advocated a more aggressive foreign policy as a means of pulling the United States out of the depression of the second Grover Cleveland administration.
In addition to the strictly economic content of imperialism, it also fulfilled an important social and political role. Europe in this period witnessed the re-emergence of far more militant working-class organization and mass strikes. The existing social order felt threatened by the growth of the trade unions and Social Democratic Parties. A period of increasing unemployment and deflated prices for manufactured goods gave an additional impulse to imperial expansion.
Very soon after it had thrown off the yoke of British and European imperialism and established itself as a young and vigorous capitalist power, the U.S.A. began to flex its muscles and assert its power, developing territorial designs on its neighbors, especially Mexico. This was expressed in the Monroe Doctrine, which, as early as 1823, proclaimed that the American Continent was closed to European colonization, that America was for the Americans and that any attempt on the part of Spain or any other European state to reconquer the South American republics would be considered “a manifestation of unfriendly disposition towards the United States.”
On this subject W.E. Woodward writes:
“[…]the South American republics were not grateful then and are not grateful now. On the contrary, they hate us heartily on account of the Monroe Doctrine, as they assume that the doctrine is our indirect way of asserting an overlordship over the countries to the south of us.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 358.)
Whatever may have been the original intention, there can be no doubt that that has been precisely the result.
Under the pretext of reaffirming the Monroe Doctrine, U.S. imperialism in reality extended it beyond all recognition through the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904. In practice, this was taken to mean that the U.S.A. claimed the exclusive right to “lead” the entire American continent – North and South. Under McKinley’s Republican administration, the U.S.A. aimed to restore prosperity and obtain new markets through the “Open Door” policy. The meaning of this was already demonstrated in the U.S.-Cuban War.
Spain was the weakest of all the European imperialist states, and its last remaining possession in the New World, Cuba, was an obvious target. In 1895 the people of Cuba rose in revolution against their Spanish colonial masters. The Madrid government sent 200,000 soldiers but were unable to put down the uprising. The Cubans made use of guerrilla war, avoiding pitched battles and resorting to hit and run tactics – just like the Iraqis at the present time. The Spanish imperialists resorted to brutal repression. All suspected rebels were rounded up and placed in concentration camps, where many died of disease and starvation. These events were followed with great interest in the United States, and not only from humanitarian motives. American citizens had about $50 million worth of Cuban property, including sugar and tobacco plantations and iron mines. American property was being destroyed.
A vociferous campaign began in the U.S.A. in favour of “going to Cuba and sorting out the whole damn mess.” This was an early expression of the pent-up chauvinism that was pushing America to assert its power on the world stage. President McKinley was not sympathetic to the imperialists and attempted to keep the U.S.A. out of war. But he was under increasing pressure from the imperialists who made sure that every Spanish atrocity, real or imaginary, was splashed all over the front pages of American newspapers in what was called “yellow journalism”.
We know from more recent experience how easy it is to whip up pro-war feelings by using the mass media to create hate figures and manipulate public opinion – as George W. Bush and his administration did very effectively after the 11th September. It was even easier at that time because the American public had no experience of foreign wars. In such a situation, some incident is always needed to spark off war hysteria. In this case it was provided by the notorious Maine incident. The U.S. war party had a very vocal leader in the person of Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt, who imagined that the U.S.A. should act on the world stage in the same way as General Custer leading the Seventh Cavalry into battle against the “injuns”. He declared that President McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair”. All the war party needed was that useful little incident. They got it on February 15 1898 when the Maine was blown up in Havana harbour.
Late in January 1898, the U.S. government sent the battleship Maine to Havana on what was supposed to be a “good will” mission. In fact, “good will” had nothing to do with it. The Maine had been sent to protect U.S. property and citizens in Cuba. Despite this act of blatant interference, the Madrid government swallowed hard, maintained a diplomatic silence and publicly accepted the “good will” fairy story. It could hardly do anything else!
To this day nobody knows what happened. It may be that the Maine was blown up by Spanish loyalists, indignant at the affront to their government. But it is also possible that it was the work of Cuban rebels, intending to provoke a U.S. military intervention against Spain. It is even possible that the ship’s magazine may have blown up through some kind of accident or spontaneous combustion. Certainly the official report on the incident was inconclusive. But it really made no difference. All this has quite a modern ring about it. After the 11th September, the right wing clique in the White House found the perfect excuse for carrying into practice the plans for the invasion of Iraq that they had already prepared long before. The destruction of the Twin Towers was the perfect excuse for this, although it is well known that Iraq had nothing whatever to do with it. Once the war machine starts to roll, like the Juggernauts of ancient India, it crushes everything in its path.
Is it not remarkable how every war is always humanitarian and pacific in intent, no matter how many lives are lost? Chauvinistic and anti-foreigner feeling is whipped up and all kinds of false moralizing arguments are put forward to dress up an act of aggression under the banner of the noblest and most humanitarian sentiments. But behind the scenes the most sordid self-interest is at work. Listen to Senator Thurston of Nebraska: “War with Spain,” he said, “would increase the business and earnings of every American railroad, it would increase the output of every American factory, it would stimulate every branch of industry and domestic commerce.” In other words, war was just another department of big business, or, as old Clausewitz might have said “the continuation of business by other means”.
Faced with pressure of such intensity, McKinley took the honourable way out and joined the war party. In his speech to Congress, the President was economical with the truth. He did not inform Congress that Spain had agreed to accept all the terms imposed by Washington for reform in Cuba. He doubtless understood that a “splendid little war” would not do his prospects for re-election any harm. He would have been right, except that his Presidential aspirations were cut short by an assassin’s bullet.
On April 19th, Congress declared war on Spain. The U.S. Navy moved in with gusto, although it was based on the other side of the world in Asia. Admiral Dewey entered Manila where the Spanish fleet was anchored and reduced it to scrap iron in the space of five hours. U.S. land forces backed by Filipino insurgents defeated the Spanish. But later the same insurgents were fighting the U.S. forces. Not for the last time, one imperialist power had simply replaced another.
From the American point of view the Spanish War was a brilliant success. Casualties on the U.S. side were few. The U.S. Navy lost fewer than 20 men, having destroyed the entire Spanish fleet. The total fatalities of the U.S. army in Cuba were 5,462. Of these, 379 were killed in action. The rest died from disease and bad food sold to the army by unscrupulous Chicago meat companies and accepted without question by stupid or corrupt military managers.
The Seizure of Panama
It was the “splendid little war” in Cuba that brought fame to Teddy Roosevelt, the man who discovered the art of public relations, photo opportunities and political marketing. He commanded a division known as the “Rough Riders” made up, supposedly, of cowboys from “out West”, whose barnstorming tactics were excellent material for the front pages back home. War correspondence has never been the same since. The face of TR is the face of the American bourgeoisie in its expansionist phase: crude, vigorous, self-confident, greedy and uncultured. He enriched the English-American language with picturesque words like “muckraker”, “mollycoddle”, “big stick”, “undesirable citizen” and other gems.
Here was a plain, ordinary American millionaire, proud of his lack of culture, a man who hated the kind of educated, highfalutin’ language of politicians, or “weasel words”, as he called them. His main interest in life was shooting lions and tigers, and especially being photographed in the performance of this manly activity. His moral views were slightly more progressive than those of Atilla the Hun. He opposed birth control as “wilful sterility” and “more abasing, more destructive than ordinary vice.” He also condemned divorce. His taste in literature was as refined as those of the class he represented. He denounced Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata as “filthy and obscene”.
George W. Bush may trace his political line of descent back to Teddy Roosevelt. But there is an important difference. When the U.S.A. invaded Cuba and occupied Philippines, capitalism was still on its ascending curve. It easily dominated countries that lagged behind historically and economically. But now we are in an entirely different historical period. Capitalism on a world scale has long since outlived its historical usefulness. Its progressive role is played out. That is why it is faced with crises, wars, instability and terrorism everywhere.
The decline of capitalism can be seen by comparing the invasion of Cuba with the invasion of Iraq. Even the comparison between the persons of Bush and Roosevelt reveals all the symptoms of decline. They have many things in common: reactionary politics, provincial narrowness and cultural philistinism. But Theodore Roosevelt possessed the élan, the drive and the raw pioneer energy of the American capitalist class in the period of its expansion. In his rhetoric there was a certain defiant style, and he showed personal courage in spite of the theatricalities. Yes, the man was a gangster, but he was a gangster with style. This was a reflection of the boundless self-confidence of rising American capitalism thrusting its way to world domination.
George Bush has all the negative features of his illustrious predecessor without any of his virtues. A mean-spirited provincial, this cowardly and hypocritical second-rater from the Bible Belt perfectly personifies the nature and intellect of the class he represents: the monopoly capitalists in the age of capitalism’s senility. Here is no great idea, no broad horizon, no audacious rhetoric, only vicious intrigues combined with shameless bullying covered with a thin veneer of religious hypocrisy. Insofar as Roosevelt gave any thought to the Almighty, it was to thank Him for the invention of the machine-gun. And despite his aversion for Tolstoy, at least he was capable of putting together a coherent sentence when he wanted to.
The truth is that for the U.S.A. the Cuban war was a small war, though not for Spain, for which it began a period of national humiliation and soul-searching that eventually had revolutionary consequences. For America, on the contrary, it marked the beginning of a long career of imperialist expansion and a fatal involvement in world affairs. The war was supposed to have been fought for Cuban independence from Spanish tyranny. But at the Paris Peace Conference the U.S.A. demanded the control over Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The Spanish were in no position to argue. As a cover for their actions the U.S.A. paid Spain $20 million for the Philippines, and as we know, fair exchange is no robbery. The opinion of the people living on the islands was not asked.
There is a Russian proverb: appetite comes with eating, and the appetite of the new member of the imperialist club was insatiable. Theodore Roosevelt was determined that the United States should control the passage from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans. This was a vital objective both militarily and economically, a major step in the U.S.A.’s march towards world domination. Admittedly there was a small snag: Panama was part of Colombia, a sovereign nation.
However, such trifles have never been known to deter imperialists from Teddy Roosevelt to George W. Bush.
Roosevelt proceeded to negotiate with the Colombians to obtain the necessary permission to control the all-important canal. In early 1903 the Hay-Herran Treaty was signed by both nations, but the Colombian Senate failed to ratify the treaty. Not deterred, Roosevelt got into contact with Panamanian rebels (as George Bush got in touch with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and later the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites) and gave them to understand that if they revolted the U.S. Navy would assist their cause for independence. Panama proceeded to proclaim its independence on November 3, 1903, and the U.S.S. Nashville in local waters impeded any interference from Colombia – a classic case of gunboat diplomacy.
When the fighting began Roosevelt ordered U.S. battleships stationed off of Panama’s coast for “training exercises”. Fearing war with the United States, the Colombians avoided any serious opposition to the uprising. As we know, one good turn deserves another. The “independent” Panamanians returned the favour to Roosevelt by generously handing over to the United States control of the Panama Canal Zone on February 23, 1904 for the quite modest amount of $10 million. All in all, a very nice little business deal!
The Philippine-American War
The ambitions of U.S. imperialism went far beyond the New World. The successful outcome of the war with Spain led to bigger things. Although U.S. capital investments within the Philippines and Puerto Rico were relatively small, nevertheless these colonies were strategic outposts for expanding trade with Asia, particularly China and Latin America. The United States suppressed an armed independence movement in the Philippines in the first decade of its occupation. During the ensuing (and largely forgotten) Philippine-American War, 4,234 U.S. soldiers were killed, and thousands more were wounded.
Philippine military deaths were estimated at roughly 20,000. Filipino civilian deaths are unknown, but some estimates place them as high as one million.
U.S. attacks into the countryside often included “scorched earth” campaigns where entire villages were burned and destroyed, torture (the “water cure”) and the concentration of civilians into “protected zones.” As a result many Philippine civilians perished of disease and famine. All these methods were later repeated and developed in Vietnam, where civilians were forced into so-called fortified villages. The depersonalization of colonial peoples as a justification for treating them as animals, to be tortured and killed without a second thought – all were put into practice in the Philippine-American War, and even earlier in the genocidal wars against the Native American peoples.
As in Vietnam and Iraq, reports of the execution of U.S. soldiers taken prisoner by the Filipinos was used to justify disproportionate reprisals by American forces. Many U.S. officers and soldiers called the war a “nigger killing business.” In the same way, the Vietnamese were described as “gooks” and the people of Iraq are depicted as bloodthirsty terrorists. Racism is always the inevitable concomitant of imperialism.
The forcible interference of one nation in the internal affairs of another is conveniently justified on the grounds of alleged racial and cultural superiority. This is supposed to give “our” people the right to decide what another people is supposed to believe and how they should organize their internal government and laws. During the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, English was declared the official language, although the languages of the Philippine people were Spanish, Visayan, Tagalog, Ilokano and other native languages. Six hundred American teachers were imported aboard the U.S.S. Thomas. The people of the Philippines were compelled to accept the language, culture and religion of the conquerors, whether they wanted it or not. In 1914, Dean C. Worcester, U.S. Secretary of the Interior for the Philippines (1901-1913) described “the regime of civilization and improvement which started with American occupation and resulted in developing naked savages into cultivated and educated men.” In 2004, the Iraqi people are being treated in exactly the same way; only the politicians do not speak so honestly.
The United States and World War One
The U.S.A.’s entry into World War One (the “War to End All Wars”) in 1917 marked a qualitative new stage in American history. The whole logic of America’s position in the two decades prior to 1914 rendered American intervention inevitable. The enormous and growing economic strength of the U.S.A. and its resulting military power made a clash with the older imperialist powers of Europe a certainty. That is why during the 20th century the U.S. was involved in two World Wars. However, when World War I began in 1914, the United States at first firmly protested neutrality – and none more loudly than the President, Woodrow Wilson. He was a strange figure in history. Wilson was neither a socialist nor a radical but a man of rigid views who tried to reconcile imperialism with democracy and pacifism. This was approximately like trying to reconcile a man-eating tiger with the principles of vegetarianism. No wonder Wilson died a bitter and disappointed man.
To imagine that the U.S.A. could keep out of the war in Europe, given America’s important and growing role in world affairs, was utopian. The logic of events was pushing her into the war. All that was required was the usual incident to justify intervention. This was provided when early in 1917 Germany resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. The RMS Lusitania, a British ship carrying many American passengers, was sunk by German submarines. The Lusitania, like the Maine, Pearl Harbor, and the Gulf of Tonkin incident later, served as a convenient excuse to justify intervention in a European War, in a way that was to turn the U.S.A. into the de facto arbiter of the destiny of Europe – and hence the world. This created the necessary public indignation and led to a final break of relations with the Central Powers. President Wilson requested that the United States Congress declare war, which it did on April 6, 1917.
All sides in this War claimed that they had entered it with the purest and most Christian and civilized reasons. But, as in all other imperialist wars, this was only for the gallery. That goes just as much for the “idealist” Wilson as for Lloyd George and Clemenceau. The British and French insisted that the United States emphasize sending infantry to reinforce the line. They needed more cannon fodder to replace the millions who had been already led like sheep to the slaughter since the summer of 1914. The United States Army and the National Guard had already been mobilized in 1916 to pursue the Mexican “bandit” Pancho Villa, which helped speed up the mobilization. However, it would be some time before the United States forces would be able to contribute significant manpower to the Western and Italian fronts.
With American help, Britain, France and Italy won the war. The latter naturally (from an imperialist point of view) took their revenge on the defeated and imposed savage economic penalties on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson gained a short-lived popularity by proposing his famous Fourteen Points, which proposed a democratic peace without annexations or crippling indemnities, as well as self-determination for all peoples etc., etc. As a list of good intentions it was admirable. But as a program for the post-war world it was useless. The British and French leaders, Lloyd George and Clemenceau, thought Wilson was mad. But they needed America’s money and soldiers, and so they bit their tongues. Lloyd George was the wilier and more cunning of the two. He loudly demanded small concessions on matters of no importance, in order later to abandon them in exchange for getting his way on all the important questions later.
The style of the French President George Clemenceau was of a different type, although the substance was the same. As W.E. Woodward correctly states:
“Clemenceau spoke English well. He was annoyed by Wilson’s abstractions and ideals, and by his dissertations on the inalienable rights of mankind. His only comment on Wilson’s essays was frequently an expressive, obscene and unprintable English word, which has been expunged from the record.
“Clemenceau did not want to be considered a gentleman; he looked upon all that as a lot of flummery and a waste of time. He made it perfectly plain that he was not in sympathy with the Fourteen Points, except those which gave something substantial to France.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 794.)
The conduct of Lloyd George and Clemenceau has rightly earned them the reputation of callous brigands. But there was a definite logic behind their conduct. It was largely determined by the relations between Europe and America. The Allies owed a large amount of money to the U.S.A. and they intended to squeeze it out of Germany. Despite all President Woodrow Wilson’s calls for reasonable terms, the Versailles Treaty amounted to a decision to plunder Germany.
A New World Power
“I spent 33 years in the Marines. Most of my time being a high-classed muscle man for Big business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped in the rape of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street....”
- Smedley D. Butler (1881-1940) Major General (U.S. Marine Corps)
Somebody once said to Lenin “war is terrible”, to which he replied: “Yes, terribly profitable.” In 1922, the U.S. government created the Nye Committee to investigate the reasons the United States got involved in the war. The committee reported that between 1915 and April 1917, the U.S. loaned Germany 27 million dollars ($27,000,000). In the same period, the U.S. loaned Britain and its allies 2.3 billion dollars ($2,300,000,000), or about 85 times as much. They concluded that the U.S. entered the war because it was in its commercial interest for Britain not to lose. In other words, the decision to enter the War was the result of a simple business calculation.
The human balance of the First World War was as follows: Allied soldiers killed: 5,497,600; Central powers soldiers killed: 3,382,500; Civilians killed:
6,493,000. However, the economic balance of the War was quite satisfactory. The American firm J.P. Morgan and Co. bought approximately three billion dollars’ worth of goods during the War on behalf of the Allies, and made a profit of thirty million dollars from this source. In addition they made a great deal more from the sale of Allied War Bonds in the U.S.A.
The World War turned the U.S.A. into the most powerful nation on earth. As the world’s creditor, it was in a position to put Europe on hunger rations. The Allies were in debt to America to the tune of $10,350,000,000. Italy owed $2,000,000,000 and was given 62 years to pay up at an interest rate of four tenths of one percent. The French owed twice as much and were to pay it back at an interest of 1.6 percent. Great Britain had the biggest debt of all:
$4,600,000,000, to be amortized in a similar period at 3.3 percent.
Since Europe was ruined, these debts could not realistically be paid. The ruling class in Britain and other countries passed the bill to the working class in the form of savage wage cuts that led to a sharp upswing in the class struggle. In order to pay their bills, the French and British ruling class exerted brutal pressure on the defeated Germans. They intended to pay the United States out of reparation funds squeezed from the German people. But bleeding, shattered, starving Germany could not pay.
Within one year the German payments stopped. The Dawes Commission looked into the situation and decided to reduce the amount paid to a more “lenient” sum: $500,000.000 in gold, payable by 1925, followed by an increasing amount thereafter. As a guarantee of payment, Germany’s railroads, controlled revenues and large-scale industries were placed under international control. The author of this plan, Charles G. Dawes, was given a Nobel Prize in 1925, but the plan collapsed immediately.
In 1928 Germany ceased to make any payments. Another committee of experts was formed under Owen D. Young. It proposed that Germany liquidate its debts in 59 years. During the first 37 years the annual payments were to be $512,500,000; after that, “only” $391,250,000. The total amount was twenty-seven and a half billions. The only problem that the authors overlooked was that it is not possible to squeeze blood from a stone.
In 1931, President Hoover had to face the facts and announced a moratorium on all foreign debts owed to the U.S. government. The economic impact of the reparations mandated by the Treaty caused chaos and misery on an unprecedented scale. These conditions ultimately led to the rise of Adolf Hitler who seized power in Germany in 1933. The United States Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles; instead, the United States signed separate peace treaties with Germany and her allies. But the power of the U.S.A. was enormously reinforced by its intervention in the War.
By 1934 all the foreign debtors, except Finland, had ceased to make payments of either principal or interest. From 1920 to 1932 the total payments on the consolidated principal amounted to $583,000,000. All these payments were made in gold or its equivalent in international exchange. In this way, the United States accumulated the biggest stock of gold ever held by a national treasury in the whole of human history. Other nations were forced off the gold standard as a result of this huge drain. This opened the door to a chain of competitive devaluations that seriously aggravated the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The Russian Revolution
In March 1917, demonstrations in Petrograd culminated in the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. The workers and soldiers organized themselves in soviets –democratically elected action committees. The appointment of the Provisional Government, dominated by bourgeois liberals and politicians of the old regime, solved nothing. Power was really in the hands of the workers and the Petrograd Soviet. This confused and chaotic situation of dual power could not last. The bourgeois Provisional Government could neither end the war, nor solve any other of the pressing problems of the Russian workers and peasants.
As a result, discontentment grew and the government became more and more unpopular.
Inside the soviets, the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky, began to gain an echo. By the autumn of 1917 they had won an overwhelming majority in the Soviets and were in a position to take power. The triumph of the Bolsheviks in November (October according to the old pre-Revolutionary calendar) was a turning point in world history. Here, for the first time – if we exclude that glorious episode that was the Paris Commune – working people succeeded in overthrowing the old oppressive order and at least beginning the socialist transformation of society.
It is true that the Revolution later suffered a process of bureaucratic degeneration, as the result of being isolated under conditions of extreme backwardness. But at least the Russian workers showed that a socialist revolution was possible. As Rosa Luxemburg said: “They alone dared”. The Bolshevik Revolution lighted a beacon that inspired hope in the hearts of millions of downtrodden and exploited people everywhere. Its echoes were heard far across the Atlantic in the United States.
If you ever visit Moscow and take a stroll around the Kremlin walls, you will find among the tombs of famous Russian revolutionaries the graves of two outstanding Americans – “Big” Bill Haywood and John Reed, the celebrated American writer and journalist who was the central character of the movie Reds. John Reed was active in the American labor and socialist movement before the First World War and is best remembered for his marvelous book about the Russian Revolution Ten Days that Shook the World, which Lenin himself described as a most truthful account of the October revolution. After Trotsky’s monumental History of the Russian Revolution it is the best book one could read about this subject. Not only is this a great and truthful work of historical journalism. It is a remarkable human document in which every line is vibrant with the excitement of the moment:
“It is still fashionable, after a whole year of the Soviet Government, to speak of the Bolshevik insurrection as an ‘adventure.’ Adventure it was, and one of the most marvellous mankind ever embarked upon, sweeping into history at the head of the toiling masses, and staking everything on their vast and simple desires. Already the machinery had been set up by which the land of the great estates could be distributed among the peasants. The Factory-Shop Committees and the Trade Unions were there to put into operation workers’ control of industry. In every village, town, city, district and province there were Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, prepared to assume the task of local administration.
“No matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the great events of human history, and the rise of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of world-wide importance. Just as historians search the records for the minutest details of the story of the Paris Commune, so they will want to know what happened in Petrograd in November, 1917, the spirit which animated the people, and how the leaders looked, talked and acted. It is with this in view that I have written this book.
“In the struggle my sympathies were not neutral. But in telling the story of those great days I have tried to see events with the eye of a conscientious reporter, interested in setting down the truth.” (Ten Days that Shook the World, preface)
What a refreshing change from the kind of book that now floods onto the market every day, written by allegedly “objective” and “scholarly” authors whose only intention is to blacken the name of the Russian Revolution, to bury it under a heap of lies and calumnies and thereby to convince the new generation that revolution is a very bad thing. What concerns these “impartial” hypocrites, of course, is not so much what happened in Russia almost a century ago, but what might happen in America tomorrow.
The modern American who wishes to understand the Russian Revolution could do no better than to read this marvellous book. John Reed was by no means an exception. Many Americans were inspired by the Russian Revolution at the time. And despite what happened subsequently, it remains a source of infinite inspiration and hope for the human race. Future generations of Americans will look back with infinite gratitude and affection to people like John Reed who were prepared to face slander, isolation, persecution and worse to defend the cause of socialism and justice.
White Terror in the U.S.A.
John dos Passos’ U.S.A. is yet another socialist American literary masterpiece. It comprises three novels The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money. The second of these novels expresses with extraordinary vividness the nature and atmosphere of the period that followed the Russian Revolution. It is an extraordinary work, written in a highly original form, combining newspaper headlines and telegraphic episodes with real-life and fictional stories. Although in later life dos Passos went to the right, he wrote a book that really gives a flavour of the times.
The notorious Versailles Treaty that set the seal on Germany’s defeat in 1919 was put together by the U.S.A., Britain and France. As an example of cynical power politics and imperialist robbery it is perhaps without parallel. With the sureness of touch of a master artist, dos Passos conveys the essence of the wheeling and dealing of the great imperialist powers and the sheer hypocrisy of the leaders of the “civilized Christian world”:
Three old men shuffling the pack,
dealing out the cards:
Rhineland, Danzig, the Polish Corridor, the Ruhr, self-determination of small nations, the Saar, League of Nations, mandates, the Mespot, Freedom of the Seas, Transjordania, Shantung, Fiume, and the Island of Yap:
machinegun fire and arson
starvation, lice, cholera, typhus;
oil was trumps. […]”
“On June 28 the Treaty of Versailles was ready and Wilson had to go back home to explain to the politicians, who’d been ganging up on him meanwhile in the Senate and House, and to sober public opinion and to his father’s God how he’d let himself be trimmed and how far he’d made the world safe for democracy and the New Freedom.”
Whether it is Germany in 1919 or Iraq in 2004, the diplomatic representatives of the great powers never admit that their activities are dictated by crude economic interests (oil was – and is – trumps). Their motivations are always pure and noble (“making the world safe for democracy”). And just as the monstrous Treaty of Versailles, which was supposed to make the world safe for peace, made the world a lot more unsafe and guaranteed the Second World War, so the present wars waged by the U.S.A. in Afghanistan and Iraq to “make the world a safer place” only render it far more unstable, unsafe and dangerous than before. George W. Bush also believes fervently in the God of his fathers, to whom he prays while ordering the bombing of Iraqi cities and inflicting machine-gun fire, arson, starvation and disease on millions of people. Meanwhile, behind all the rhetoric, oil is still trumps.
The description of the class struggle in the U.S.A. in the stormy years after the First World War in Dos Passos’ book is outstanding in its raw and uncompromising realism. These were the years when the bosses and the government, fearing the effect of the Russian revolution on the American working class resorted to the methods of lynch law and mob rule to crush the labor movement. The year 1919, which gives Dos Passos’ book its name, was a high point in the class struggle in the U.S.A. The war, as we have seen, was a time when the bosses were making easy profits. The coming of peace was marked by more difficult conditions. The party was over for the capitalists.
As in other countries, the American bosses tried to pass the bill for post-war readjustments to the workers. As a result, an epidemic of strikes and labor disputes broke out involving, at one time or another, 4,160,000 workers. In April 1922, there was the first coal mining strike in American history in which both the bituminous and anthracite coalfields were involved. More than half a million miners struck against sweeping reductions in wages. The strike lasted four months and ended in victory for the miners.
The repression against the labor movement had begun during the War when many were sent to prison, including socialist veteran Eugene Debs, now an old man. His only offence was that he had opposed the war. This gentle old man of American socialism was sentenced to ten years in a federal penitentiary. After the War, that fine Christian humanitarian Woodrow Wilson, out of spite, refused to pardon him. President Harding finally released him, after he had spent three years in prison.
Congress passed draconic espionage and sedition laws. The Postmaster General was given autocratic powers of censorship over written or printed matter sent through the mail. Socialist publications like the Milwaukee Leader and The Masses were excluded from the mail – a measure intended to bankrupt them. As if that was not enough, Congressman Victor L. Berger, the editor of the Leader, was given a twenty-year prison sentence. All these measures were in direct violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees all American citizens freedom of speech and of the press. More than fifteen hundred people were dragged before the courts for disloyal utterances.
State repression reached a feverish peak after the War. Terrified of the events in Russia, and fearful that revolution would spread to the United States, the ruling class unleashed a white terror against the American labor movement. When the AFL unions, which had grown to a membership of five million by 1920, organized a wave of strikes to combat the post-war inflation, corporate leaders denounced them as “radicals, connected with Bolshevism, aided by Hun money.” Given the record of the moderate AFL leadership, this was ironic. But as always the ruling class was not afraid of the leaders of the unions but of the masses that were behind them.
A wave of violence was unleashed against the strikers, of whom twenty were killed. The strikes were defeated. Thousands of spies were hired to infiltrate the unions and identify labor leaders who were fired and blacklisted right across the U.S.A. The bosses attempted to destroy the unions by forcing the workers to sign “yellow dog” contracts, promising not to join unions. It is an indication of how far back we have been thrown that such contracts still exist in the U.S. at the beginning of the 21st Century. And this is regarded as acceptable in a supposedly democratic country! A mood of hysteria was created that fed the flames of lynch law. The Washington Post reported approvingly that when an irate citizen shot someone who had criticized a patriotic pageant, “the crowd burst into cheering and hand clapping.” (P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, The Free and the Unfree, a New History of the United States, p. 331.)
In Indiana it took a jury just two minutes to acquit another patriotic citizen who killed a man for saying “to hell with the United States”. In Connecticut a salesman for a clothing company was sentenced to prison for calling Lenin “one of the brainiest men in the world.” As usual, the most violent expressions of hate were reserved for the religiously minded. Billy Sunday, the nation’s most powerful evangelists, said: “If I had my way with those ornery, wild-eyed socialists, I would stand them before a firing squad.” (ibid.) Senator McKellar of Tennessee was much more moderate. He merely advocated the establishment of a penal colony on Guam for political prisoners. The senator was a man ahead of his times. It took another 85 years for his ideal to be realized by another great democrat and patriot, George W. Bush. However, some of his contemporaries had a good crack at it.
The Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, set in motion widespread raids, breaking into private homes and union halls without even the pretence of a warrant. On Palmer’s initiative, a special anti-radical division was set up under a young officer by the name of J. Edgar Hoover. Thousands of suspected radicals were arrested, held without bail, denied access to lawyers, and often brutally beaten after being marched in chains through the streets. Most were later released. But not all were so lucky. In Massachusetts two anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were convicted on a murder charge. The trial was clearly politically motivated. Judge Thayer who presided, declared that he wanted to get “those anarchist bastards”. Despite a huge international campaign to save them, Sacco and Vancetti were executed – two more martyrs to the cause of American labor. They were not the only ones.
In his book 1919, John dos Passos recounts the story of the brutal lynching of War veteran and Wobbly Wesley Everett is one of the most moving episodes of the work:
“Armistice Day was raw and cold; the mist rolled in from Puget Sound and dripped from the dark boughs of the spruces and the shiny storefronts of the town. Warren O. Grimm commanded the Centralia section of the parade. The ex-soldiers were in their uniforms. When the parade passed by the union hall without halting, the loggers inside breathed easier, but on the way back the parade halted in front of the hall. Somebody whistled through his fingers. Somebody yelled, ‘Let’s go … at ‘em boys’. They ran towards the wobbly hall. Three men crashed through the door. A rifle spoke. Rifles cracked on the hills back of the town, roared in the back of the hall.
“Grimm and an ex-soldier were hit.
“The parade broke in disorder, but the men with rifles formed again and rushed the hall. They found a few unarmed men hiding in an old icebox, a boy in the stairs with his arms over his head.
“Wesley Everest shot the magazine of his rifle out, dropped it and ran for the woods. As he ran he broke through the crowd in the back of the hall, held them off with a blue automatic, scaled a fence, doubled down an alley and through the back street. The mob followed. They dropped the coils of rope they had with them to lynch Britt Smith the IWW secretary. It was Wesley Everest’s drawing them off that Kept them from lynching Britt Smith right there.
“Stopping once or twice to hold the mob off with some scattered shots, Wesley Everest ran for the river, started to wade across, up to his waist in water he stopped and turned.
“Wesley Everest turned to face the mob with a funny quiet smile on his face. He’d lost his hat and his hair dripped with water and sweat. They started to rush him.
“‘Stand back,’ he shouted, ‘if there’s bulls [police] in the crowd I’ll submit to arrest.’
“The mob was at him. He shot from the hip four times, then his gun jammed. He tugged at the trigger, and taking cool aim shot the foremost of them dead. It was Dale Hubbard, another ex-soldier, nephew of one of the big lumbermen of Centralia.
“Then he threw his empty gun away and fought with his hands. The mob had him. A man bashed his teeth in with the butt of a shotgun. Somebody brought a rope and they started to hang him. A woman elbowed through the crowd and pulled the rope off his neck.
“‘You haven’t the guts to hang a man in the daytime’ was what Wesley Everest said.
“They took him to the jail and threw him on the floor. Meanwhile they were putting the other loggers through the third degree.
“That night the city lights were turned off. A mob smashed in the outer door of the jail. ‘Don’t shoot, boys, here’s your man,’ said the guard. Wesley Everest met them on his feet, ‘Tell the boys I did my best,’ he whispered to the men in the other cells.
“They took him off in a limousine to the Chehalis River Bridge. As Wesley Everest lay stunned in the bottom of the car, a Centralia businessman cut his penis and testicles off with a razor. Wesley Everest gave a great scream of pain. Somebody has remembered that after a while he whispered, ‘For God’s sake, men, shoot me … don’t let me suffer like this. Then they hanged him from the bridge in the glare headlights.”
Having described this bloody lynching in merciless detail, dos Passos reverts to a cold and crushing irony:
“The coroner at his inquest thought it was a great joke. He reported that Wesley Everest had broken out of jail and run to the Chehalis River Bridge and tied a rope around his neck and jumped off, finding the rope too short he’d climbed and fastened on a longer one, had jumped off again, broke his neck and shot himself full of holes.
“They jammed the mangled wreckage into a packing box and buried it.
“Nobody knows where they buried the body of Wesley Everest, but the six loggers they caught they buried in Walla Walla Penitentiary.”