The nineteenth and twentieth centuries
WORLD HISTORY III: the 19th and 20th centuries
The industrial revolution
The industrial revolution in England started in textiles and mining. In textiles, cotton spinning was concentrated in factories, employing mainly women and children, while weaving was still done by handloom workers in rural areas. Mining was usually based in villages located by rivers, canals, or railway lines. The burgeoning number of independent handloom weavers in the 1790s was turned into a desperate mass of people barely able to scratch out a livelihood in the 1840s by competition from new factories using power-looms. Booms and busts also caused workers to suffer.
A wave of agitation arose in Britain toward the end of the Napoleonic wars among the radical artisans of London, heirs of the movement of the 1790s; stocking maker and weaver Luddites whose wages were being forced down by the introduction of machines; and illegal trade unions of skilled workers, cotton spinners, and farm laborers. The struggle went through different phases – machine breaking, mass demonstrations like the one attacked by the gentry militia at ‘Peterloo’ in Manchester in 1819, big strikes, agitation for the vote alongside the middle class in 1830-32, attacks on workhouses after 1834, and protests against the establishment of police forces designed to keep a lid on working class neighborhoods.
In the late 1830s these streams of agitation flowed together, giving rise to the Chartist movement, the first permanent, democratically organized workers’ organization. Its newspaper, the Northern Star, founded in Leeds in 1837, soon had a circulation as great as the main ruling class paper, the Times, its articles read out loud for the illiterate in workshops and pubs in every industrial area. In 1838-9, hundreds of thousands of workers attended mass meetings at which the points of the Chartist program were presented and debated; tens of thousands began to drill in expectation of a popular uprising; the government sent the military out into industrial areas; and there was an attempted armed rising in Newport, south Wales. In 1842 the first general strike in history occurred in Lancashire as workers marched from factory to factory, putting out furnaces. Finally, in 1848, roused to new action by industrial depression in Britain, famine in Ireland, and a wave of revolutions in Europe, masses of workers prepared again for confrontation. The state stood firm, however, the lower middle class behind it, and troops confronted 100,000 workers gathered in south London. Chartist leaders were united on the demand for universal male suffrage and annual parliaments, but some believed in winning over the existing rulers through ‘moral force,’ while others believed in using physical force to overthrow them.
Islands of industry were also emerging in France, southern Germany, northern Italy, Catalonia, Bohemia, the northern United States, and the Russian Urals.
In 1830 the Parisian masses took to the streets for the first time since 1795. The advisors of the Bourbon king, Charles X, persuaded him to go into exile, and he was replaced by the ‘bourgeois monarch,’ Louis Philippe of Orleans.
The birth of Marxism
Frederick Engels and Karl Marx were both from middle class families in the Prussian Rhineland. Helping to manage one of his father’s factories in Manchester, England, Engels saw the harsh reality of life for industrial workers, and, meeting some who were politically active, joined the Chartist movement. Meanwhile, Marx, as editor of a liberal paper, was clashing with the Prussian censor and writing about the nobility’s attempts to treat the peasants’ gathering of wood as theft. Exiled to Paris, and reading Hegel’s defense of monarchic coercion as the only way to bind together an atomist society, he became convinced that a merely liberal constitution wasn’t enough. He concluded that workers could only overcome the inhumanity created by capitalist economic relations by collectively taking control of the process of production.
Marx and Engels gave practical content to their ideas by participating in groups of exiled German socialists in Paris and Brussels. Eventually, they joined the League of the Just, a group of exiled artisans (soon to be renamed the Communist League), which commissioned them to write The Communist Manifesto.
On February 25, 1848 a protest march by republican students and sections of the middle class clashed with Parisian police, igniting a spontaneous rising in the poorer, eastern part of the city, the center of sans-culottes agitation half a century before. King Louis Philippe abdicated and left the country, and opposition politicians threw together a government that included a socialist reformer and, for the first time in history, a manual worker.
Successful risings followed in Venice, Milan, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, and the industrial towns and state capitals of almost every German principality. In every city, protests led by the liberal middle class culminated in huge crowds that defeated both army and police and took over palaces and government buildings. Reactionary politicians like Metternich, the architect of counter-revolution in 1814 and 1815, fled for their lives, and monarchs and aristocrats were forced to accept liberal constitutions. Radical reforms like universal male suffrage, freedom of the press, the right to trial by jury, and the end of aristocratic privilege and feudal payments seemed achieved. A few months later, however, the unwillingness of the middle class to ally with the masses allowed royalty and the upper class to crush the movement.
What was the back story to all of this? In 1845 harvest failures had interacted with the ups and downs of the market economy to produce system-wide economic crisis. A million starved to death in Ireland as grain was exported to pay rents, and there was discontent everywhere over hunger, rising prices, and massive levels of unemployment. Peasants rose up against feudal dues and aristocratic landowners as they hadn’t done since the Peasant War of 1525, and workers joined street demonstrations organized by middle class republicans and constitutionalists. The difference was that workers and peasants weren’t just concerned with creating democratic constitutions and abolishing feudal privilege – they wanted living standards inconsistent with capitalist profits and property.
In Paris, the workers and artisans who’d played the decisive role in overthrowing the old order in February were now demanding work at a living wage. The government had already reduced the working day by an hour and a half, and promised employment for all citizens through ‘national workshops.’ It had also set up a ‘labor commission’ consisting of employers’ and workers’ representatives that became a virtual parliament. Soon financiers, merchants, and industrialists set middle class opinion against this ‘social republic,’ blaming the deepening economic crisis on these concessions. (The national workshops were, in fact, little better than the English workhouses.)
The bourgeois republicans in the government rushed to placate the financiers by recognizing the debts of the old regime and imposing a tax on the peasantry to balance the budget. They ensured that the National Guard was dominated by the middle classes, and recruited thousands of the young unemployed into an armed force, the Gardes Mobiles, under their control. They also called elections for a Constituent Assembly so quickly that artisans and workers had no time to spread their message outside the capital. The campaign among the peasantry was dominated by landowners and priests, who blamed the new taxes on ‘red’ Paris. The new assembly, dominated by barely disguised supporters of the rival royal dynasties, immediately sacked the two socialist ministers. The government closed the national workshops and gave the unemployed a choice between dispersal to the provinces and enrollment in the army.
The next day the workers and artisans threw up barricades in eastern Paris and did their utmost to press to the center. The republican government turned 30,000 soldiers, between 60,000 and 80,000 members of the National Guard, and up to 25,000 Gardes Mobiles on them, and civil war raged for four days. 40,000 insurgents were killed, 12,000 arrested, and thousands deported to French Guiana.
In the German kingdoms and principalities the authorities began dissolving left wing and republican clubs, persecuting newspapers, and arresting agitators. The Austrians regained control of Milan, and the king of Naples established military rule. An Austrian general imposed a state of siege on Prague after five days of fighting with the Czech middle class, students, and workers. He occupied Vienna in the face of bitter popular resistance at the end of October, leaving 2,000 dead, then moved against Hungary. The Prussian king dissolved a constituent assembly in Berlin, and sent his army into southern Germany to crush the revolution. The defeated revolutionary army fled to Switzerland, and the Hungarians were crushed when the Austrian emperor received military assistance from the Russian tsar. The king of Naples reconquered Sicily, and revolutionary nationalists who’d driven the pope out of Rome and taken control of the city were forced to abandon it after a 3-month siege by the armed forces of the French republic.
After they’d defeated the workers, the French middle-class republicans found that there was no one to protect them against the monarchists, divided between the heirs of the Bourbons and the heirs of Louis Philippe. Napoleon’s nephew Louis Bonaparte stepped into the gap, winning the presidency in late 1848 with 5.5 million votes – against only 400,000 for the middle-class republican candidate and 40,000 for a left-wing revolutionary. In 1851, fearing he’d lose a further election, he staged a coup, and the following year he declared himself emperor.
Karl Marx concluded that a German bourgeois revolution would never succeed, that the future held only “social republican revolution” or “feudal and absolutist counter-revolution.” The revolutions did bring about the final end of feudal payments and serfdom in Germany and Austria, but on terms that merely transformed the landowning Junkers into agrarian capitalists. The monarchs of most German states conceded constitutions that left them the power to appoint governments, but provided for parliamentary representation for the monied classes, and even, in a diluted form, for workers and peasants.
Germany began to undergo its own industrial revolution, and although it started 60 years after Britain, it was soon catching up. There were large-scale industries in France, too, and to a lesser extent in parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Germans rejoiced as Bismarck, exercising near dictatorial powers within the Prussian monarchy, fought wars against Denmark, Austria, and France to make the new, unified German Empire the most powerful state in western Europe.
Italy was unified, too. In the late 1850s, Cavour, the minister of the king of Piedmont, made deals with the radical nationalist Mazzini and the republican revolutionary Garibaldi on the one hand, and the governments of Britain and France on the other. Garibaldi landed with a thousand revolutionary ‘redshirts’ in Sicily to raise the island in revolt against the king of Naples and marched north. The king of Piedmont sent an army south and together they crushed the royal army of Naples, while French forces ensured the withdrawal of the Austrians from Lombardy. Cavour and the king of Piedmont then disarmed Garibaldi’s troops, forced Garibaldi into exile, and gained the reluctant backing of the southern Italian aristocracy. The kings of Piedmont became kings of the whole of Italy, though the country remained fractured between an increasingly modern capitalist north and an impoverished south where landowners still treated peasants in a near-feudal manner and mafia banditry flourished.
In the 1860s, following conflicts with France and Prussia, the Austrian monarchy established two parallel administrative structures. The first, run by German-speakers, was partly responsible to a parliament in Vienna and ruled over Austria, the Czech lands, the Polish region around Cracow, and the Slav-speaking province of Slovenia. The second, run by Hungarian-speakers in Budapest, ruled over Hungary, Slovakia, the partially Romanian-speaking region of Transylvania, and the Serbo-Croat-speaking provinces of Croatia and (following conflicts with Turkey) Bosnia.
The Polish nobility had never been reconciled to the partition of the kingdom of Poland between Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the 1790s, and they led revolts against Russian rule in the 1830s and ’60s. The Polish nobles were feudal landowners, dominating the Polish, Byelorussian, Ukrainian, and Jewish lower classes. Still, they were supported by British Chartists, French republicans, and democrats across Europe, just as exiled Poles from noble families were found fighting in Italy, southern Germany, Hungary, and Paris.
The American Civil War
On April 12, 1861, volunteer soldiers opened fire on federal forces at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, expressing the slave-owning Southern states refusal to accept the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and the recently formed Republican Party.
In 1790 the South produced 1,000 tons of cotton a year; by 1860, because of the insatiable appetite of the Lancashire mills, that figure had grown to a million tons. Gangs of slaves working under the discipline of overseers with whips were an efficient means of cultivating and picking cotton on a large scale, and there were 4 million slaves. Plantation owners wanted more land to feed the foreign demand for cotton, and they got some when the US government bought Florida from Spain and Louisiana from France. They seized land granted to Indian nations like the Cherokee, who were forced to trek 1,000 miles further west under conditions of immense hardship, and grabbed vast amounts through war with Mexico. Now they looked to the unsettled area between the Mississippi and the Pacific, also coveted by settlers and Northern capitalists.
The plantation owners got their way for the better part of half a century. Missouri in 1820 and Texas in 1845 entered the Union as slave states, and during the 1850s federal soldiers enforced a new law against runaway slaves. In 1854 Kansas became the setting for a mini civil war between ‘free labor’ settlers and advocates of slavery from Missouri. In 1860 support for the new Republican Party and its candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln, cut across class lines. Sections of big business, farmers, artisans, and workers were bound together by the determination to preserve the western territories for free labor.
After Lincoln’s election, the seven southernmost cotton-producing states – where slaves accounted for almost half the population – announced their secession from the United States and began to arm. After the attack on Fort Sumter, four of the other seven slave-owning states joined them, leaving Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland as ‘border states.’
McClellan built up a large army in the Washington area and tried to break through to the Confederate capital at Richmond, but 18 months into the war, the battle lines were essentially the same as at the beginning. Abolitionists argued that Lincoln should declare the slaves free and strengthen the North’s forces by enlisting black soldiers. After Lincoln followed these suggestions and dismissed McClellan, victory became possible, though the defeat of the main Confederate army at Gettysburg in the summer of 1863 still left the South with a vast territory. The final defeat of the Confederacy came only after Sherman’s troops made their famous march through Georgia, burning and looting, and freeing slaves.
Lincoln’s vice president and successor, Andrew Johnson, followed a policy of conciliating the defeated states, pushing for them to be allowed back into the Union with no change in their social structure apart from the formal abolition of slavery. Republican politicians, on the other hand, didn’t want the near 100% Democratic states back in Congress. Johnson came within one vote of impeachment, Grant was elected president in 1868, and ‘reconstruction’ was enforced in the South for the best part of a decade.
In these years, Northern armies kept the old planters from controlling state or local governments, and Southern Republicans, black and white, took their place. There were 20 black congressmen and two black senators, and schools for poor white and black children were opened. The plantocracy fought back, encouraging terrorist tactics on the part of the Ku Klux Klan. Forty-six blacks and two white sympathizers were massacred in Memphis in 1866. In addition, the only land available to former slaves was government-owned, and it was often of poor quality. Most freedmen and women were forced to work as sharecroppers or laborers for their former masters.
Things got worse after the mid-1870s, when the Northern capitalists felt they’d achieved their goal in the South. The withdrawal of the Northern army left a free hand for the Klan and other racist forces. The big landowners restricted, then abolished black (and often poor white) suffrage, established formal segregation in every area of social life, and created an atmosphere of racial antagonism that prevented poor whites from engaging in joint economic, social, or political struggle with blacks.
The conquest of the East: India
At the beginning of the 18th century the British East India Company was a marginal force in the subcontinent, relying on concessions from Indian rulers for coastal trading posts. Over time, however, it established increasingly strong ties with the Indian merchants from the interior who sold it textiles and other goods. In the 1750s, Robert Clive, a company official, played two Bengal rulers against each other, defeated a French force, and gained control of the province, by far the wealthiest part of the old Mogul Empire. The Company collected the taxes and ran the government administration, allowing an Indian nawab to continue to hold the formal regalia of office. It aimed to cover all its costs from taxes and relied on Indian sepoy troops. Indian rulers saw the Company as a useful ally, and used it to train their troops and modernize their administrations. Indian merchants also welcomed the Company’s increased influence, as it bought growing quantities of textiles from them and helped guarantee their property against Indian rulers. The Company further cemented its power by creating a new class of large-scale landowners out of sections of the old zamindars. It wasn’t difficult for the British to consolidate their position further, when necessary, by dispensing with obdurate rulers and establishing direct Company rule.
By 1850 a policy of conquering some rulers and buying off others had extended the area of British domination throughout the subcontinent. The Marathas were conquered in 1818, Sind in 1843, the Sikhs in 1849, and Oudh in 1856. Using bribery in some instances and violence in others, the British played ruler off against ruler, privileged class against privileged class, caste against caste, and religion against religion, conquering an empire of 200 million people with a native army of 200,000 men, officered by Englishmen and kept in check by an English army of 40,000.
Enormous wealth, created by Indian peasants, flowed to the Company’s agents – Clive left India with what would be millions today. The poverty that had afflicted the mass of people in the late Mogul period grew worse. Crop failures in 1769 were followed by famines and epidemics that took up to 10 million lives. None of this worried the nawabs, maharajahs, merchants, or zamindars who supped from the Company’s table, until the first decades of the 19th century when the mechanization of the Lancashire cotton mills enabled them to produce cloth more cheaply than the Indian handicraft industry. Then, instead of India’s products playing a central role in British markets, British cloth took over India’s markets, destroying much of the Indian textile industry, devastating the lives of millions of textile workers, and ruining Indian merchants. Without a government of their own, Indians had no way of protecting their interests as their country underwent deindustrialization, and British capitalists displaced them from areas of profit making like shipbuilding and banking. Meanwhile, British officials became more arrogant, racist, and rapacious.
In 1857 the Company’s Indian troops turned on their officers when they were ordered to use cartridges greased with beef and pork fat (the former anathema to Hindus, the latter to Muslims). Within weeks they’d seized control of much of northern India, killing British officers and officials and besieging isolated fortified posts. Hindus and Sikhs forgot their animosity toward Muslims, installing an heir of the Moguls as emperor in Delhi.
British troops were rushed to the subcontinent, and officers persuaded Indian troops in Madras and Bombay to put down the northern mutineers, using savage methods. Administration was regularized and taken out of Company hands, but the people continued to suffer. Famines swept the country, killing a million people in the 1860s, three and a half million in the 1870s, and ten million in the 1890s. Village brahmins and headmen helped the British collect their taxes, and the zamindars their rents, all manipulating old caste and religious divisions, so that by the end of the 19th century caste divisions were even more rigid. A new middle class of lawyers, clerks, and civil servants also emerged, their hopes of advancement continually frustrated by racial barriers.
Europeans wanted Chinese products, but the Chinese were much less interested in what Europe was producing. The Company addressed this problem by turning wide areas of the newly conquered lands in India over to the cultivation of opium, a product that creates its own demand. By 1810 it was selling hundreds of thousands of kilos of the drug a year through Canton, soon turning China’s centuries-old trade surplus into a deficit. When Chinese officials tried to curb the trade in 1839, Britain went to war. After three years, the Chinese were forced to accede to British terms – opening more ports to opium, paying an indemnity, ceding the island of Hong Kong, and granting extra-territorial rights to British subjects. In 1857, 5,000 British troops laid siege to Canton and forced a further opening of trade, then joined with the French to march 20,000 troops to Beijing and burn the summer palace. Soon other European powers also had extra-territorial enclaves called ‘concessions’ (in effect, mini-colonies) all along the Chinese coast.
In southern China in the mid-1840s, Chinese peasants and laborers joined a dissident religious sect and rose up against their masters. The rebellious T’ai-p’ing (Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace) movement, led by a schoolteacher, preached equal division of the land, communal ownership of goods, and an end to the old social distinctions, including those subjugating women to men. By 1853 the movement was two million strong, able to take the former imperial capital of Nanking and run 40% of the country as a state.
The egalitarian ideals of the movement didn’t last, however. The T’ai-p’ing high command, having discovered that China didn’t have the resources to ensure plenty for all, was soon behaving like a new imperial court, exacting taxes from half-starved peasants. Meanwhile, a reorganized imperial army, financed by Chinese merchants, provided with modern weapons by Britain and France, and assisted by foreign troops began to push its way up the Yangtze. Nanking finally fell, with 100,000 dead, in 1864.
The vast multinational Ottoman Empire had dominated an enormous area for 400 years – north Africa, Egypt, the Sudan, Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Asia Minor, and a huge swathe of Europe, including the Balkans and at times Hungary and Slovakia. It was ruled by Turkish emperors based in Istanbul, and there was a Turkish landowning class in Asia Minor and parts of the Balkans. But much of the empire was run by the upper classes of conquered non-Turkish peoples – Greeks in parts of the Balkans, Arabs in the Middle East, and the descendants of the pre-Ottoman mamluke rulers in Egypt. In Istanbul different religious groups – orthodox and Syriac Christians, Jews, etc. – were self-governing under the sultan’s rule. Even the army wasn’t exclusively Turkish. Its core was made up of janissaries – children from Balkan Christian families taken at a young age to Istanbul and trained as fighters.
Until the mid-18th century, there were slow but steady advances in handicraft industry and agriculture, including the spread of new crops like cotton and coffee. By the beginning of the 19th century, however, the Ottoman Empire was increasingly under pressure from outside. The British had taken over Egypt and the French Algeria, and Russian forces conquered much of the Caucasus and the Black Sea coast and set their sights on Istanbul itself. Serbs rebelled against Turkish rule and set up an independent kingdom in 1815, and Greeks carved out a state with British and Russian help in the 1820s. Until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, western European countries did everything they could to maintain the Ottoman Empire as a barrier to Russian expansion.
Until around 1600 Japan had an economic and political system much like that of medieval Europe. There was an emperor, but real power lay with the territorial lords, served by samurai, who exploited the peasants and fought each other. Finally, one of the great lordly families, the Tokugawa, defeated the others, and its head became the ‘Shogun,’ the real ruler. The other lords were forced to spend much of their time at the shoguns’ capital, Edo (present-day Tokyo), leaving their families there as hostages. The shoguns banned guns, and allowed only samurai to carry other weapons. They also forbade trade, except by Dutch and Chinese vessels, which were allowed into one port under strict supervision. They banned all foreign books, and savagely repressed the many thousands of converts to Catholicism.
The concentration of lords and their families in Edo and other cities led to a growing trade in rice and handicrafts. The merchant class became increasingly important, and an urban culture of popular poetry, plays, and novels developed. A relaxation of the ban on western books after 1720 led to some intellectuals showing an interest in western ideas, and a ‘school of Dutch learning’ began to study science, agronomy, and Copernican astronomy. The growing importance of money impoverished the samurai, who were forced to sell their weapons and take up agriculture or crafts. Repeated famines hit the peasants – almost a million out of a population of 26 million died in 1732, 200,000 in 1775, and several hundred thousand in the 1780s – and there was a succession of local peasant uprisings.
In 1853 Commander Perry of the U.S. Navy arrived off the coast with four warships to demand that the Japanese government open the country to foreign trade. In the Meiji Revolution of the late 1860s, two of the great feudal lords attacked the shogun with samurai support and formed a new government in the name of the emperor. The incomes samurai used to derive from exploitation of the peasantry now went to the state, so any samurai who wanted more than a minimal livelihood had to look to employment with the state or private firms. The government subsidized and controlled new industries, handing them over to merchant or banking families with close connections to the state when they were firmly established.
The Paris Commune
Louis Napoleon, who’d overthrown the French republic in 1851, played rival groups in the ruling class off against one another, and tried to bolster his position with military adventures in Italy and Mexico (where he attempted to impose a French nominee, Maximilian, as emperor). Sections of the bourgeoisie turned bitter as a speculative economy damaged them and enriched a coterie of financiers close to the emperor. Parisian workers also hated the regime, as the cost of living rose higher than wages. Half the population of Paris lived in poverty verging on destitution even though they worked 11 hours a day.
In 1870 the emperor allowed the Prussian leader Bismarck to provoke him into declaring war, and French forces suffered a devastating defeat. With the Prussian army besieging Paris, Louis Napoleon abdicated, and power fell into the hands of the bourgeois republican opposition. Workers, artisans, and their families bore the brunt of the suffering as prices soared and food and fuel became scarce. They were also the defenders of the city, pouring into the National Guard and electing their own officers. The republican government put down one left-wing attempt to overthrow it on October 31st, and just managed to beat back another on January 22nd, using regular troops from Brittany to fire on a crowd of workers. A few days later, the government called for elections to confirm their decision to surrender. When the new government tried to disarm the National Guard, women and children surrounded the soldiers, one of the generals ordered them to fire on the crowd, and they refused. The government fled the capital, and Paris was in the hands of the workers.
The central committee of the National Guard organized elections for a new elected body, the Commune, based on universal male suffrage. The Commune improved working conditions, provided pensions for widows and free education for every child, and stopped eviction for non-payment of rent and the collection of debts incurred during the siege. Meanwhile, the old republican government persuaded Bismarck to release French prisoners of war, and gathered them in Versailles, together with new recruits from the countryside, under royalist officers.
Distracted by political debate, the Commune didn’t use its forces effectively and failed to seize the gold in the vaults of the Bank of France. The workers of Paris fought street by street, block, by block, building by building, but they were defeated. 1,900 of them were executed on the spot. Troops patrolled the streets picking up poor people and condemning many of them to death after 30-second trials because they looked like Communards. The total number of killings came to somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000, according to calculations by present-day French historians. Another 40,000 Communards were held in prison for a year before being put on trial. 5,000 of these were sentenced to deportation.
The Century of Hope and Horror
1890-1900: Japan attacks China and takes Taiwan, the Spanish-American War.
1899-1902: Boer War
1904: Russia loses a war with Japan.
1905: Revolution in Russia; founding of the Industrial Workers of the World.
1911: Proclamation of the Chinese Republic, the Mexican Revolution.
1912-1913: Balkan wars
1914: Outbreak of First World War, collapse of Second International.
1916: Easter Rising in Dublin.
1917: Russian Revolutions in February and October; the US enters WWI.
1918: Revolution in the German and Austro-Hungarian empires.
1919: Foundation of the Communist International, the Treaty of Versailles ends WWI.
1922: Italian Fascists in power.
1927: Leon Trotsky exiled from the USSR.
1928-1929: Stalin all-powerful, first Five Year Plan, collectivization of agriculture.
1929: Wall Street crash.
1931: Revolution in Spain.
1933: Hitler takes power in Germany; famine in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
1936: Popular Front electoral victories in France and Spain, military coup and revolutionary risings in Spain, Moscow trials.
1938: Hitler takes over Austria.
1939: Victory for Spanish fascists, German invasion of Poland, WWII begins.
1940: Fall of France, Italy enters the war.
1941: Hitler attacks Russia, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor.
1942: German defeat at Stalingrad, famine in Bengal, ‘Quit India’ movement.
1943: Allies land in southern Italy.
1944: Allies land in Normandy, Paris liberated, Warsaw Rising, Greek resistance attacked by British.
1945: The Allies occupy Germany, atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Britain re-establishes French rule in Vietnam.
Communist-led governments in eastern Europe.
1947: Britain leaves India; partition leads to bloodshed.
1947-1948: Beginning of the Cold War, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, McCarthyism, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army
enters Beijing, creation of Israel.
1950: The Korean War begins.
1952-1957: The Mau Mau rebellion against the British in Kenya.
1953: Nasser overthrows the Egyptian monarchy, Stalin dies, US H-bomb tests.
1954: The Geneva Agreement divides Korea and Vietnam. The CIA overthrows a democratically elected government in Guatemala.
Revolt against French rule in Algeria.
1955-1956: The Montgomery bus boycott starts the civil rights movement in US.
1956: Britain, France, and Israel attack Egypt for nationalizing the Suez Canal.
1957: Ghana wins independence.
1958: Nationalist revolution in Iraq, the Great Leap Forward in China.
1959: Castro’s rebels take Havana.
1960: Nigerian independence.
1961: Abortive U.S. invasion of Cuba. Split between Russia and China. U.S. advisers in Vietnam.
1962: Cuban missile crisis.
1965: Military coup in Indonesia – half a million people killed.
1967: Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza after the Six Day War.
1968: Tet offensive in Vietnam, student revolts in Europe, the ‘Prague Spring.’
1970: Allende elected in Chile, the US invades Cambodia, students shot dead by troops at Kent State.
1973: Pinochet coup in Chile.
1974: World recession, revolution in Portugal.
1975: Independence for Portuguese colonies.
1979: Iranian Revolution, Sandinistas take over Nicaragua, Russia invades Afghanistan.
1980: Iraq attacks Iran with US backing, end of white rule in Zimbabwe.
1981: Civil war in El Salvador, US/Contra terrorism against Nicaragua, the Polish military crushes Solidarnosc.
1983: US invasion of Grenada.
1987: Glasnost in the USSR.
1989: Tiananmen Square protests in China, political revolutions across eastern
Europe, US invasion of Panama. First warnings about climate change.
1991: US-led war against Iraq, dissolution of the USSR, civil war in Yugoslavia and Algeria.
1992: Famine and civil war in Somalia.
1994: Black rule in South Africa.
1998: East Asian economic crisis; collapse of Suharto in Indonesia.
1999: US-led war against Serbia.
The world of capital
Britain’s Reform Bill of 1832 extended the suffrage to a fifth of adult males. An act of 1867, carried through in the midst of great popular agitation, increased these numbers, but still left half the male population without the vote. In Prussia and a number of other German states a three-class voting system gave the majority of parliamentary seats to the wealthy minority. On top of this, almost all ruling classes insisted on an unselected second chamber – a House of Lords or senate of notables – with a veto over decision-making, and a monarch with the power to appoint the leader of the government. Having to fight for the vote focused workers and women on becoming part of the system, not going beyond it. A new sort of nationalism that proclaimed the common identity of the ruling and exploited classes of each country was cultivated as part of the process of controlling even this amount of democracy.
The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) gained more votes with every election, and ran 90 daily papers. Its network of ancillary organizations – unions, welfare societies, and so on – became part of the social fabric of people’s lives in many industrial districts. Socialists in France, Spain, Italy, and Britain started working along similar lines, and an international federation of workers’ organizations, the Second International, was formed in 1889, with the German party as its guiding light. But there was a contradiction between these parties’ goal of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and their day-to-day practical activity, which consisted of pushing for reform within the system.
Eduard Bernstein, one of the leading intellectuals in the German party, saw “the privileges of the capitalist bourgeoisie yielding step by step to democratic organizations in all advanced countries.” Kautsky, the SPD’s main theorist, insisted that capitalism couldn’t be legislated out of existence, that at some point there would have to be a struggle for power and a social revolution. He thought the socialist revolution could come about through the growth of the socialist vote, which would eventually put a socialist government in power, however. The 27-year-old Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg was alone in challenging advocating immediate revolution.
In 1876 no more than 10% of Africa was under European rule. By 1900 more than 90% of it was colonized – Britain, France, Belgium, and Portugal having divided the continent between them, leaving small slices for Germany and Italy. In the same period Britain, France, Russia, and Germany established wide spheres of influence in China, Japan took over Korea and Taiwan, France conquered all of Indochina, the US seized Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain and dominated Cuba, and Britain and Russia agreed to an informal partitioning of Iran. Independent states outside Europe and the Americas could be counted on the fingers of one hand: the remains of the Ottoman Empire, Thailand, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan.
The colonies were an outlet for investment and provided markets for domestic industrial output and cheap raw materials. They jump-started a new period of capitalist expansion, especially for Britain. Germany, the European power with the fastest industrial growth, having come late to the race for colonies, set about building battleships to challenge Britain’s domination of the seas, and Britain, France, and Russia prepared for possible war as well.
Real wages began to fall in most industrial countries in the early 1900s, leading to an international wave of workers’ struggles, including bitter strikes in most countries and new types of workers’ organizations. The Industrial Workers of the World, formed in the US in 1905, led militant strikes in the mining, lumber, dock, and textile industries, and organized blacks, women, and unskilled workers ignored by the moderate American Federation of Labor. The Confédération Genéral de Travail (CGT) in France followed a similarly militant approach, insisting that Change could come about through trade union methods of struggle and rejecting participation in parliamentary politics. This approach became known internationally as syndicalism, after the French word for union, syndicat. The Conderación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT) in Spain was founded by anarchists as a revolutionary alternative to socialist party leadership.
The sense that there was an alternative to the parliamentary approach received an enormous boost from revolution of 1905 in Russia. Successive waves of strikes swept the country after troops fired on a demonstration of workers in the capital, St. Petersburg. The tone of the strikes became increasingly revolutionary after the massacre, and socialists produced openly revolutionary newspapers. There was a mutiny in the Black Sea fleet and an attempted uprising in Moscow led by the militant “Bolshevik” faction of Vladimir Lenin’s Social Democratic Party. A new sort of organization, the soviet (“council” in Russian), based on elected delegates from workplaces and presided over by 26-year-old Leon Trotsky, became the focus for revolutionary forces in St. Petersburg.
The road to war
That imperialism meant wars between colonial powers was shown as early as 1904, when Russia’s drive toward the Pacific led it into direct conflict, in northern China, with Japan’s drive west through Korea. Its defeat in the war that followed helped precipitate the 1905 Revolution.
The Balkan countries of southeastern Europe provided the worst tinderbox, since each of the great powers regarded certain local states as clients. There were wars between these states in 1912 and 1913. First Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, and Bulgaria fell upon the remaining Turkish territories of Macedonia and Thrace. Then Greece, Serbia, and Romania attacked Bulgaria. These efforts to unite ethnic groups, marked by atrocities on all sides, did nothing to relieve the underlying pressures, which also existed in much of Austro-Hungarian eastern Europe.
In July 1914 the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian nationalist while on an official visit to the Bosnian provincial capital of Sarajevo. The Austrian government declared war on Serbia, with which Bosnia had wanted to integrate, and Russia, fearing a challenge to its position, declared war on Austria. Germany, which identified its interests with Austria’s, moved against Russia, and France felt it had to prevent Germany from defeating Russia and becoming the dominant European power. Britain threw its weight behind France, and went to war with Germany, using the movement of German troops through Belgium as its excuse.
The determination of Europe’s ruling classes to go to war was transmitted to the middle and working classes through patriotic speeches and newspaper stories about “enemy atrocities,” through marching bands and popular songs, and through declarations by novelists, poets, and philosophers. Anyone who dissented was guilty of “stabbing our boys in the back.”
Many socialists and trade union militants attended mass rallies in London, Paris, and Berlin on the eve of the war and heard their leaders call for peace. Once war broke out, however, the same leaders rushed to support it. Even the veteran Russian anarchist Kropotkin was willing to back his ruler against others. In the warring countries only the Serbian Socialists and the Russian Bolsheviks were unremittingly hostile to the war.
In the first months of the war, the German army raced through Belgium and northern France to within 50 miles of Paris, and the Russian army advanced far into German East Prussia. Both armies were then forced back, and the Russians were driven from German territory. The war became one of attrition, with each side suffering enormous losses as it attempted to break through the strongly entrenched positions of the other. The expected four months of hostilities turned into four years, and spread from the eastern and western fronts to Turkey, Mesopotamia, the Italian-Austrian border, and Greece.
The war was the bloodiest in human history, with 10 million dead – 1.8 million in Germany, 1.7 million in Russia, 1.4 million in France, 1.3 million in Austria-Hungary, 740,000 in Britain, and 615,000 in France.
A rising in Petrograd, the Russian capital, on February 23, 1917 culminated in the tsar’s abdication March 2nd, and by November a revolutionary government headed by Lenin was running the country. Slogans in the initial rising changed from “Bread!” to “Down with autocracy,” and “Down with the war,” and on the fourth day soldiers ordered to put down the rioters mutinied and joined them. Masses of intermingled workers and soldiers swept through the city streets with guns and red flags, arresting police and government officials. Regiments sent by train to restore order went over to the revolution on entering the city. Similar movements swept Moscow and other Russian cities.
Two parallel bodies emerged to take on government functions – the bourgeois politicians of the old state Duma and workers’ delegates. The Duma formed a provisional government with the acquiescence of the soviets, and the war, no longer being waged on behalf of tsarism, became a war of “revolutionary defense.”
When the provisional government tried to launch a military offensive into Austria in June, discontent increased in the army and already inflated prices soared higher. Deliveries of food to the cities fell, and hunger grew. In August, General Kornilov tried to march on Petrograd and impose a military dictatorship.
When the Bolsheviks, the largest party among Petrograd’s workers, came out solidly against the war, their Duma deputies were thrown into prison. Lenin, the party leader, was for the soviets taking full power, replacing the old army and police with a workers’ militia, nationalizing the banks, and giving land to the poorer peasants. Bolshevik support grew, as they involved themselves in every workers’ struggle. They encouraged soldiers to challenge the power of their officers, peasants to divide up the land, and generally set out to prove to the exploited and oppressed that they had the power and the ability to run society in their own interests through the soviets.
The Bolshevik-led Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd soviet could make decisions that masses of workers and soldiers would support, because they’d elected it. When it announced a takeover of the government on October 25th, all but a handful of troops in the city followed its commands, leaving the leaders of other parties little choice but to flee.
Opposition to the war was now widespread across the continent. In Germany the pro-war SPD had expelled a large proportion of its party members for expressing peace sentiments, leading them to form a party of their own, the Independent Social Democrats. In Britain the future Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald chaired a convention in Leeds of workers’ delegates wanting peace. In January 1918 a wave of strikes swept through Austria-Hungary and Germany, involving half a million metal workers in Vienna and Berlin. The strikers, inspired by the Russian Revolution, were subjected to vicious police attacks.
The German high command had given the revolutionary Russian government an ultimatum in negotiations at the Polish border town of Brest-Litovsk, saying that if it didn’t allow Germany to take over vast areas of the Russian Ukraine, the German army would advance into Russia. The Russian government appealed to Germany’s workers and soldiers, distributing hundreds of thousands of leaflets in German across the front line. But the defeat of the strike movement ruled out any chance of an immediate revolutionary breakup of the German army, and its troops advanced hundreds of miles. Lenin surrendered.
The punitive terms imposed by Germany in return for peace rounded off the damage done to the Russian economy by the war. The Ukraine contained the bulk of Russia’s coal, and was also the source of much of its grain. A million people left Petrograd in search of food, and the workers who’d been able to lead the rest of Russia into revolution because of their strategic role in the production process were out of work. The soviets still existed, but had lost their ties to workplaces. Still, worker, soldier, and peasant enthusiasm for the revolution enabled Trotsky to conjure up a new million-strong Red Army, built around the workers’ militias of 1917.
The German seizure of the Ukraine was followed in June and July by attacks orchestrated by the British and French governments. Some 30,000 Czechoslovak troops (prisoners from the Austro-Hungarian army organized by Czech nationalists to fight on the Anglo-French-Russian side) seized control of towns along the Trans-Siberian Railway, cutting Russia in half. Under their protection, Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks formed a government in Saratov that killed anyone suspected of being a Bolshevik in the street. Japanese forces seized control of Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, and British troops landed in Murmansk in the north and took control of Baku in the south.
External encirclement on the one hand and internal attempts at terrorism and counter-revolution on the other brought a shift in the character of the revolutionary regime. Until June, the revolutionary government had had a system of internal democracy, but the Allied intervention, the rebellion of the kulaks (rich peasants), famine, and local anarchy forced it to concentrate power in the hands of party leaders.
In the fall of 1918, with defeat on the horizon, the German high command ordered its fleet to sail against Britain in the hope of a redeeming naval victory. But sailors in Kiel armed themselves, marched through the streets alongside striking dockworkers, disarmed their opponents, and established a soldiers’ council, lighting a fuse for the whole of the country. Huge demonstrations of workers and soldiers took control of Bremen, Hamburg, Hanover, Cologne, Leipzig, Dresden, and scores of other towns. In Munich they took over the royal palace and proclaimed an anti-war reformist socialist, Kurt Eisner, prime minister of the “Bavarian Free State.” On November 9th, it was Berlin’s turn. As vast processions of workers and soldiers with guns and red flags swarmed through the capital, the recently released anti-war revolutionary Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a socialist republic and world revolution from the balcony of the imperial palace.
The Kaiser fled to Holland, and the two Social Democrat parties presented a revolutionary government of “people’s commissars” for endorsement by an assembly of 1,500 workers’ and soldiers’ delegates. Soldiers’ and workers’ councils were now the arbiters of political power everywhere in Germany and in German-occupied Belgium.
But the councils had given power to men afraid to use it for revolutionary ends. Ebert, the new prime minister, was on the phone to General Groener of the military high command within 24 hours. The pair agreed to work together – with the support of Hindenburg, the wartime dictator – to restore order to the army, so that the army could restore order to society as a whole. Social Democrat leaders provoked a rising in Berlin in order to crush it with troops from the outside, blaming the bloodshed on Luxemberg and Liebknecht, who were summarily executed.
Troops sent to Berlin to help the government assert control rose against it in the first week of January, and workers and soldiers who helped suppress the January rising were in revolt by March. Months of civil war in Germany were also months of unrest throughout the rest of Europe. A soviet regime took power in Hungary, led by Bela Kun, a former Hungarian prisoner of war in Russia. The liberal nationalist regime established at the end of 1918 had collapsed, unable to prevent Czechoslovakia and Romania from seizing parts of the country, and a Communist-Social Democrat government had taken power peacefully. It pushed through domestic reforms and nationalization, and attempted to wage revolutionary war against Czechoslovakia and Romania, hoping for support from the Russian Red Army to the east and an uprising of Austrian workers to the west.
Nowhere else did revolutionary governments come to power, but nowhere else was stable either. The newly formed nationalist republics of central and eastern Europe all contained ethnic minorities that resented the new order. In Czechoslovakia, German speakers were in the majority in some sizable regions and Hungarian speakers in others. Romania and Yugoslavia contained large Hungarian speaking minorities. Yugoslavia and Austria had bitter border disputes with Italy, and Bulgaria with Romania. There was continual fighting between Polish and German forces in Silesia, and all-out war erupted between Turkey and Greece, with large-scale ethnic cleansing on both sides. Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria contained large numbers of workers with revolutionary sentiments opposed to the middle-class nationalism of their governments.
Revolutionaries led unemployed workers in an attempt to storm the Austrian parliament in April 1919. But the Austrian Social Democrats persuaded the Viennese workers’ councils to allow the protests to be crushed, ensuring the survival of Austrian capitalism. Meanwhile, the Communist-Social Democrat government in Budapest relied on the old officers to run its army and failed to divide up the great estates that dominated the countryside. The regime collapsed after 133 days when the Social Democrats abandoned it, opening the door to a right-wing dictatorship under Admiral Horthy.
The British and French armies were shaken by mutinies among troops forced to wait before being returned home. British, French, and US troops in Archangel refused to go into battle against the Soviets, and French forces in Odessa and other Black Sea ports staged a mutiny. Engineering strikes at the beginning of the year led to bitter clashes with the police in Glasgow and a near general strike, uniting Catholics and Protestants, in Belfast. There were police strikes in Liverpool and London. A miners’ strike was narrowly averted, but not a 9-day shutdown of the railway network.
Spain hadn’t taken part in the war because its rulers were split between the pro-German sentiments of the court and the pro-Anglo-French sentiments of the bourgeoisie and Socialist Party. But rising prices had devastated the living standards of Spanish workers and peasants. There had been a widespread but unsuccessful general strike in the summer of 1917, and a new wave of militancy erupted in 1918. Three great strikes swept the vast estates of southern Spain, manned by seasonally employed day laborers. Bolshevik-type republics were proclaimed in some towns, and it took the dispatch of 20,000 troops to break the momentum of the movement. Similarly, during a week-long strike in Valencia, workers renamed streets “Lenin,” “Soviets,” and “October Revolution,” and widespread bread riots in Madrid led to the looting of 200 shops. The most serious struggle was in Catalonia early in 1919. Striking energy workers paralyzed public transport and plunged Barcelona into darkness. Most of the city’s textile workers went on strike, as did gas and water workers, while the printers’ union exercised “red censorship.” The government brought troops with machine guns into the city, armed bourgeois volunteers, closed down the unions, and crushed the general strike over the space of two weeks.
The US witnessed the biggest attempt yet to unionize its unorganized industries, with a bitter strike of 200,000 steel workers, and Australia exploded in a series of costly strikes. Winnipeg in Canada experienced a general strike as part of a wave of agitation across western Canada and the northwest coast of the US.
The revolutionary upheavals in western Europe peaked in 1920 with decisive struggles in Germany and Italy. A series of regional civil wars in Germany inflicted massive casualties on workers moving from a parliamentary to a revolutionary perspective – the usual estimate of the dead is 20,000. On March 13th, troops marched into Berlin and overthrew the Social Democrat government, leading to a general strike across the country. People also formed new workers’ councils, took up arms, and attacked troops sympathetic to the coup. In the Ruhr, thousands of workers, many with military experience, formed a Red Army that drove the national army, the Reichswehr, from the country’s biggest industrial region. Within days, the coup had collapsed. The Social Democrat ministers returned to Berlin and made a few left-wing noises before throwing in their lot once more with the Reichswehr, which restored “order” in the Ruhr.
In Italy, 1919 and 1920 were known as “the two red years.” Workers started a wave of strikes and flocked to join unions and the Socialist Party. The summer of 1919 saw a three-day general strike in solidarity with revolutionary Russia. The militancy reached a climax in August 1920 when engineering workers in Milan responded to a lockout by occupying the factories. Within four days, the movement had spread throughout the Italian metalworking industry, involving 400,000 workers, plus 100,000 workers in other industries. In the south, peasants returning from the war began dividing the land. The government negotiated with the union leaders, who betrayed the workers, giving them a few minor and temporary improvements in wages and conditions rather than revolution.
World revolution seemed to be a possibility in 1920, but it didn’t materialize, because most European governments granted just enough to workers and peasants and had withstood the rigors of the war better than Russia, which didn’t have that much to give. Finally, most socialist leaders, essentially parliamentarians who wanted their aims to be achieved in an “orderly” manner, repeatedly stalled the upsurge of workers’ activity to the advantage of the bosses. Angelo Tasca, a Turin activist, recalled, “The method of the workers’ and socialist organizations was alternatively to advise ‘calm’ to the over-excited masses and promise them revolution. Political life in Italy became one long meeting at which the capital of the ‘coming revolution’ was squandered in an orgy of words.”
The leaders of the Russian Revolution had called for the formation of new Communist parties in each country affiliated with a new Communist International, but the repression and dislocation of the war years meant that the first conference of the International couldn’t take place until March 1919. Even then representation from across Europe, let alone the rest of the world, was sparse. The second congress, in July and August 1920, was the first genuinely representative gathering. There were delegates from the mainstream socialist parties in Italy, France, and Norway; the Independent Social Democrats of Germany; the Spanish CNT; the British Independent Labour Party; and the American Socialist Party. One of the main messages of the congress, laid down in the 21 conditions for membership, was that these parties could only become truly revolutionary if they transformed their ways of operating and their leaderships. Many of the middle of the road leaders refused to accept these conditions, but the majority of the German Independent Social Democrats and French Socialists, together with a minority from Italy, voted to become Communist parties of the new type.
A fresh crisis developed in Germany in 1923, with French troops occupying the Ruhr, inflation soaring, the beginnings of the Nazi Party, and a successful general strike against the government. Workers’ discontent turned toward fascism as the conservative parliamentary tradition of pre-war socialism continued to block real change.
Benito Mussolini was famous in Italy as the rabble-rousing Socialist editor who’d broken with his party to support the war. His personal following was small, confined to a group of other ex-revolutionaries turned national chauvinists and a scattering of veterans angry that Italy had been denied territory in the peace settlement. Workers became demoralized as rising unemployment took away the material gains of “the two red years,” employers wanted to teach the workers’ movement a lesson, and the “liberal” prime minister wanted a counterweight against the left. Sections of big business and, secretly, the government provided Mussolini with funds, and the minister of war issued a circular advising 60,000 demobilized officers that they’d be paid 80% of their army wages if they joined newly forming fascist fighting units. Mussolini won 35 parliamentary seats in 1921, and his armed groups, helped by police, began to attack left-wing and union centers.
By October 1922 Mussolini was powerful enough to declare that his fascists would march on Rome if he wasn’t put in control of the government. The king appointed him prime minister, and the majority of Italians were relieved, thinking the fascist leader would bring sorely needed order and stability.
When Mussolini’s henchmen murdered a leading reformist socialist parliamentarian in 1924, the fascists briefly lost much of their support and might have been forced from power. But the parliamentary opposition restricted itself to marching out of the chamber in protest to form a breakaway assembly – it wasn’t prepared to risk social upheaval by calling for mass action against the government, and most deputies had tamely resumed their places in parliament by the beginning of 1925.
Knowing he could now get away with anything, Mussolini transformed Italy into a totalitarian regime with himself as the all-powerful Duce (leader). His success drew admiration from ruling classes elsewhere, including praise from British conservative Winston Churchill.
The post-World War I period saw waves of revolt sweeping through the colonial world. An armed rising in Dublin in 1916 was followed in 1918-21 by guerrilla war. There were demonstrations and strikes against British rule in India and the British occupation of Egypt, and nationalist agitation in China, which began with student protests in 1919 and culminated in civil war in 1926-27. China had thrown off imperial rule in 1911 with a military revolt followed by the proclamation of a republic with newly returned exile Sun Yat-sen as president. Within a month Sun passed the presidency to one of the old imperial generals, who set himself up as a dictator, dissolving parliament.
The 1916 Easter rising of Irish republicans failed because of lack of coordination, British thwarting of attempts to land arms, and the indifference of the people of Dublin. British measures to crush it – the bombarding of Dublin by warships and the execution of the rising’s leaders after they’d surrendered – created growing anger, which deepened in 1918 when the British tried to introduce conscription. Sinn Fein, a left-wing, republican party founded in 1905 (the name is Irish for “we ourselves”) swept the board in the general election of late 1918. Sinn Fein representatives then met in Dublin to proclaim themselves the new Dail (parliament) of an Irish republic, with one of the commanders of 1916, Eamon De Valera, as president. A guerilla force, the Irish Republican Army, led by Michael Collins, pledged allegiance to the Dail, and both groups worked to make Ireland ungovernable through the boycott of British courts and tax collectors and attacks on British troop movements. The British imprisoned elected Irish leaders, hanged alleged rebels, had suspected republicans assassinated, fired machine guns into a football crowd, and established a mercenary ‘Black and Tan’ force, which committed atrocities against civilians.
In 1921 British prime minister Lloyd George, negotiating with an Irish delegation led by Collins, threatened a scorched earth policy of all-out repression unless the Irish agreed to leave the six counties of northern Ireland under British rule, provide Britain with bases in certain ports, and keep an oath of allegiance to the British crown. Under pressure from sections of the middle class, who feared what all-out war would do to their property, Collins accepted the compromise and won a narrow majority in the Dail. De Valera rejected it, as did the majority of the IRA. Two years of civil war broke out between the two groups after Collins accepted British weapons and drove IRA members from the buildings they controlled in Dublin.
The independent Irish government ruled over an impoverished country, cut off from the industrial area around Belfast. De Valera came to power in the early 1930s, but nothing changed. For half a century the only way for most young people to secure a future was to emigrate to England or the United States.
There were strikes and food riots across India from 1918 to 1920. General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on thousands of demonstrators in an enclosed square, the Jallianwala Bagh, in Amritsar, killing 379 and wounding 1,200.
Mohandas Gandhi, one of the Indian leaders, was the son of a government minister in a small princely state. He’d studied to be a barrister in London, but dressed in peasant clothes and stressed Hindu religious themes to bridge the linguistic and cultural gap between the English-speaking professional classes and the great mass of Indians. Because he was partially supported by Indian capitalists, Gandhi couldn’t encourage too much agitation against their British counterparts, so he emphasized peaceful non-cooperation with the authorities that was never allowed to slide into class struggle.
The 1919 Versailles peace treaty gave the former German concessions in China to Japan, despite US president Woodrow Wilson’s promise of national self-determination. Japanese, British, and French interests controlled Chinese railways, ports, and waterways, and took a first share of taxes and customs revenues, while police and foreign soldiers maintained order in the concession areas of major cities. Meanwhile, backed by the different powers, rival Chinese generals, acting as warlords, divided up the rest of the country.
Students, intellectuals, and workers organized a series of strikes in 1922, culminating in a general strike that forced employers to capitulate. Sun Yat-sen had established a constitutional government in Canton, but its hold on power was precarious, so he asked Russia to help reorganize his party, the Kuomintang, and invited members of China’s recently formed Communist Party to join. When capitalists connected with British interests tried to use an armed force against Sun, the Communist-led Workers’ Delegate Conference’s army came to the rescue. In 1926 nationalist forces marched north against the warlords controlling the rest of the country. Members of the workers’ army created by the Hong Kong strike rushed to volunteer for the force, commanded by General Chiang Kai Shek and Russian-trained officers. The warlord armies, held together by short-term mercenary gain, couldn’t stand against such revolutionary enthusiasm, especially with workers in the cities they controlled going on strike as the nationalists approached.
The nationalist officers came from merchant and landowning families that profited from the exploitation of workers and the miserable conditions of the peasants, and they were prepared to break their alliance with the revolutionaries at any moment. Chiang Kai Shek had already cracked down on the workers’ movement in Canton by arresting a number of Communist militants and harassing the unions. Now, after allowing the victorious insurrectionary forces of Shanghai to hand the city over to him, he met with wealthy Chinese merchants and bankers, representatives of the foreign powers, and the city’s criminal gangs. He arranged for the gangs to stage a pre-dawn attack on the offices of the main left-wing unions. The workers’ guards were disarmed and their leaders arrested. Demonstrations were fired on with machine guns, and thousands of activists died.
Now the only way Chiang Kai Shek could establish himself as nominal ruler of the country was to make concessions to foreign powers and others. Over the next 18 years, his government became infamous for its corruption, gangsterism, and inability to stand up to foreign invaders.
The experience of the nationalist revolution in Egypt was, in its essentials, the same as that in China, India, and Ireland. There was the same massive ferment after the war, and an alliance in 1919 between the nationalist middle class and groups of strikers in industries such as the tramways and railways. Britain allowed a monarchic government which left key decisions in British hands, and the main nationalist Wafd party accepted this, turning its back on the workers, only to be driven from office by British collaborators when it didn’t have sufficient forces to defend itself.
Mexico enjoyed a high rate of economic growth under the 33-year dictatorship of Porfiro Diaz, who allowed foreign capital to dominate, while great numbers of Indians were driven off their traditional communal lands and workers, a fraction of the total workforce, suffered deteriorating living standards. When a world financial crisis in hit the country in 1907, Francisco Madera, the son of a wealthy family, was able to gather enough middle-class support for a campaign to oust the dictator. Armed revolts also broken out in the north, led by former cattle rustler Francisco Villa, and in the south, led by Emiliano Zapata, a small farmer.
The new government, supported by the United States, clashed with these rebel armies. When Madero was murdered by his own general, Huerta, with the backing of the US ambassador, two wealthy members of the middle class, Carranza and Obregon, formed a ‘Constitutionalist’ army to uphold the dead president’s approach. Zapata and Villa defeated Huerta, and occupied Mexico City. The leaders of the peasant armies had no program for uniting the workers and peasants around a project for revolutionizing the country, though Zapata tried to create one, and they retired to their local bases to put up ineffectual resistance to the Constitutionalist generals.
Carranza and Obregon used the language of the revolution, promising concessions to the masses, and resisting pressure from the United States, but they murdered Zapata in 1919 and kept Mexico safe for capitalism with their one-party (Institutionalized Revolutionary Party – PRI in its Mexican acronym) system.
In the United States, police actions ordered by attorney-general Palmer and future FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover had smashed the old militants of the IWW and the new militants of the Communist Party.
In Germany the crisis of 1923 – when it seemed either socialist revolution or fascist rule might be in the offing – was followed by a brief period of savage deflation until American loans gave capitalism a new lease on life. The elections of 1928 returned a Social Democratic coalition government, with the Communists getting 10.6% of the vote and Hitler’s Nazis 2%.
Though capitalism seemed to have achieved long-term stability, the atmosphere of the ’20s was closer to cynical self-indulgence than reborn hope. And what hope there had been came crashing down on October 24, 1929, when the US stock market lost a third of its value. 1931 and 1932 were worse than 1930, with 5,000 US banks failing. By the end of 1932, world industrial output had fallen by a third, and that of the US by 46%, with no sign of recovery. One-third of the American and German workforces and one-fifth of British workers were jobless. The slump devastated Third World countries whose economies had been tailored to produce food and raw materials, as world trade fell by a third.
The 1930s are sometimes called the “red decade” because of the appeal Communism had for many intellectuals, including US novelists John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright, and Dashiell Hammett, English writers W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, French novelist André Gide, and German playwright Bertolt Brecht, as well as a host of lesser-known writers, playwrights, and artists.
The revolutionary regime in Russia had only been able to recover from the physical devastation and extreme hardship of the civil war by allowing the internal capitalism of the New Economic Policy (NEP). Lenin’s last political act before his death in 1924 was to write a testament arguing for the removal of Joseph Stalin as party secretary because of his crudely bureaucratic treatment of other party members, but the dominant group in the party leadership – Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, and Stalin – ignored the document and kept it secret.
Still, widespread opposition arose, with an open letter from 46 old Bolsheviks critical of the bureaucratization of the party. This ‘Left Opposition’ coalesced around Trotsky, president of the Petrograd soviet of 1905, organizer of the October insurrection, and founder of the Red Army. It argued that if the workers’ state was to be preserved, it was necessary to expand industry so as to increase the social weight of the working class, increase workers’ democracy, and put an end to bureaucratic tendencies within the party and state. These suggestions were denounced and Trotsky was demoted to minister of science and technology. In 1926 Zinoviev was also denounced, and Stalin and Bukharin embraced the new doctrine of “socialism within one country.” The ruling group resorted to ever more repressive measures against the opposition, using police to break up a demonstration in support of it by some Petrograd workers on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, expelling the opposition from the party and exiling them to remote areas, and deporting Trotsky.
In 1928 the peasants began refusing to sell their grain to the cities, and Britain, Russia’s biggest trading partner, broke off diplomatic relations and imposed a virtual ban on trade. Stalin decided to seize grain from the peasants by force and impose a program of enforced industrialization and collectivized agriculture. Consumer goods would no longer be produced in any quantity.
Millions of small and middle peasants were denounced as kulaks and herded into cattle trucks for deportation, and tens of millions went hungry as their grain was seized. Workers also suffered a sharp fall in living standards. All protest was crushed, trade unions were completely subordinated to the state, and vast numbers of people were shipped off to labor camps, so that the number in them was 20 times higher by 1930 than it had been in 1928. Executions, rare between the end of the civil war and 1928, became commonplace. There were 20,201 in 1930 – more than twice as many as at the end of the civil war in 1921. The grisly total peaked in 1937 at 353,074, almost 40 times the 1921 figure.
Show trials deflected mass bitterness away from the regime toward alleged “saboteurs.” The climax of the terror in 1936-37 involved the condemning to death of all the remaining members of Lenin’s central committee of 1917, except for Stalin, Alexandra Kollontai, now the Soviet ambassador to Sweden, and Leon Trotsky, who survived in exile until his 1940 assassination by one of Stalin’s agents.
Harman compares Stalin’s cruelty and barbarity to that of historic capitalism, saying that “the only significant difference was that while Western capitalism took hundreds of years to complete its primitive accumulation, Stalin sought to achieve Russia’s in two decades – therefore, the brutality was more concentrated.”
Some outsiders marveled at how the Soviets seemed to be escaping the economic slumps of the capitalist world, but in reality they weren’t: Stalin financed the import of foreign machinery by selling grain from the Ukraine and Kazakhstan; when the price collapsed after 1929, he had to sell twice as much and state seizures of grain led to the deaths of at least 3 million peasants from starvation.
The foreign policy counterpart of Stalin’s new regime was an order to international Communist parties to stop allying with left socialists, a disaster which for six years failed to take advantage of the opportunities for recruitment provided by the Great Depression. Following these orders, communist parties attracted people radicalized by the crisis, then led them into battles which, cut off from the wider layers of workers influenced by trade union and social democratic organizations, they couldn’t win. A battle-hardened minority of party members persisted and fought on despite the odds, but the majority of members dropped away, as shown by party membership figures for every country, except Germany.
The effects of the depression in Germany were graver than in the US, since many of those who lost their jobs had already lost their savings to inflation. A majority of Communist Party members were unemployed, however, and so unable to engage in Party activities at their workplaces. The turnover in Party membership was also incredibly high, so that Communists won only 4% of factory committee seats in 1932, compared to 84% for Social Democrats. By denouncing the Social Democrats as “social fascists,” as Stalin had ordered, the Communists cut themselves off from the mass of workers who wanted to do something about the economic crisis and resist Hitler’s Nazis.
The vote for the National Socialist (Nazi) Party shot up from 810,000 to more than six million in 1930, then doubled to 37.3% of the total poll in 1932. But the Nazis weren’t just an electoral party. At the core of their organization were paramilitary street fighters – the SA or Stormtroopers – numbering 100,000 at the end of 1930 and 400,000 by mid-1932. They attacked Jews and “Marxists,” blaming these groups for the social crisis.
Anti-Semitism wasn’t part of Mussolini’s fascist movement until after Italy allied with Germany in the late 1930s, but in other respects Il Duce blazed a trail for Hitler to follow. Like the Italian fascists, the Nazis were a party of the middle classes; a large proportion of party members before Hitler took power were self-employed (17.3%), white collar employees (20.6%), or civil servants (6.5%). Many of the working-class votes the Nazis picked up were those of agricultural workers in areas like eastern Prussia, where attempts at unionization after the war had been broken and traditions of working class politics hardly existed; workers in small towns, where the influence of the middle classes was greatest; and the unemployed, who were atomized and sometimes attracted by the benefits of Nazi, and especially Stormtrooper, membership.
In the critical election of the summer of 1932, the Social Democrats didn’t stand a candidate, but urged supporters to vote for the aged Hindenburg, who then repaid them by agreeing with von Papen, who was secretly negotiating with Hitler, to issue a decree overthrowing the Social Democratic government in the state of Prussia. The Social Democrats had banned public demonstrations by the Nazis in Prussia, but now the Stormtroopers were free to parade openly, creating the impression of a dynamic, all-powerful movement that might somehow get rid of the conditions making life so difficult.
The immobility of the Social Democrats left the field clear for the Nazis, but the latter couldn’t have come to power based on their electoral support. Their highest vote in free elections was 37.1%, and they actually lost two million votes between July and November 1932. Even with Hitler as chancellor and mass intimidation of the opposition, they won only 43.9% of the vote in March 1933. What gave the Nazis power was the decision by key representatives of the German ruling class to hand it to them. There had long been sections of big business that gave money to the Nazis, seeing them as a useful counterweight to the left and the unions. Upper class leaders, Ruhr industrialists, big landowners, and the bulk of the officer corps thought only a dictatorship and suppression of workers, along with a repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles, could get Germany back on its feet. Most of these elements wanted key members of the old bourgeois parties, like von Papen, to share power with Hitler, but Hitler refused to go along with this. He took office on January 31, 1930. Many Social Democratic supporters wanted to fight this, but party leaders insisted that the new chancellor had come to power ‘constitutionally,’ and Communist Party leaders failed to ally with or organize the discontented.
Like the cowardice of the Social Democrats, the lunacy of the Communist leaders persisted even after Hitler took office. Ignoring what had happened in Italy, they somehow managed to believe that the Nazis would either act like any other bourgeois government or that the Nazi dictatorship was fundamentally unstable and likely to be short-lived.
SA Stormtroopers worked with the police to harass the working class parties. Then on February 27th, the Nazis used a fire in the Reichstag as an excuse to ban the Communist Party, suppress its press, and drag 10,000 of its members off to concentration camps.
The cowardly stupidity of the Social Democrat leaders persisted to the end – they actually expelled members who talked about underground resistance. Trade union leaders even promised to cooperate with the Nazis in turning May 1st into a “day of national labor.” On May 2nd, the Nazis carted these leaders off to concentration camps as well. Between Hitler’s accession and the outbreak of war in 1939, 225,000 people were sentenced to prison for political offenses, and a million spent time in the camps.
The parties of big business had supported Hitler’s onslaught on the Communists, the Social Democrats, and the unions, but now he turned on them, too, forcing them to dissolve and accept a Nazi one-party state. He used state terror to destroy the independence of all sorts of organizations, however respectable and middle-class – lawyers’ groups, professional associations, even the boy scouts. Big business and the officer corps of the army were left alone – he wanted them to make profits and expand their military capacity. A year later, on the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler used his own bodyguard, the SS (Schutzstaffel: Protection Squadron or Defense Corps) to murder leaders of the SA Stormtroopers, whose talk of a “second revolution” worried the generals and the industrialists.
Hitler’s victory in Germany boosted the confidence of Austria’s fascists, though it also split them in two – between those who wanted Austria to merge with Germany and those wanting a Catholic state allied with Italy. The leader of this second group, Dolfuss, dispensed with parliament and started ruling by emergency decree in March 1933. Dolfuss ordered socialist workers to join his new party, the Patriotic Front, on pain of losing their jobs, and announced his plan to abolish parliamentary democracy and rebuild Austria as a Christian, corporate, federal state. The Austrian Social Democrats did nothing, hoping that Dolfuss would form an anti-Nazi front with them. On February 12, 1934, police entered socialist headquarters in Linz to disarm members. Three hours later, the Viennese electrical workers struck – the pre-arranged signal for a general strike, and civil war raged for four days. At the end, 11 men were hanged, and the Austrian labor movement was driven underground. In 1938, Mussolini made a deal with Hitler, German troops took over Austria to cheers from middle-class crowds, and there was full Nazification.
In France successive governments of the center Radical Party had responded to the world economic crisis with deflationary policies that cut the pay of public employees and the incomes of peasants, who still made up a majority of the population. Popular bitterness led to a growing atmosphere of disorder, with protests by civil servants, demonstrations by small shopkeepers and small businessmen, and violent mass action by peasants. The far right, organized around various paramilitary ‘leagues,’ was able to take advantage of this, parading through the streets and attracting growing middle-class support for its combination of nationalism, ultra-Catholicism, denunciation of “corrupt” financiers, and anti-Semitism.
By the beginning of 1934 the far right had hopes of emulating Hitler’s victory a year before. On February 6th its organizations called for a huge demonstration in Paris against the recently formed left-center government of the Radical Party’s Eduard Daladier. Demonstrators and police fought each other, and Daladier resigned, a right-center Radical replacing him.
The major union federation, the CGT, called for a general strike on February 12th, and the Socialist and Communist parties called for separate demonstrations. When the groups met, people began chanting the same anti-fascist slogans and melted into a single demonstration. The success of the demonstration and the strike halted the right’s advance, and a formal agreement between the Communists and Socialists led to electoral gains for both at the expense of the Radicals. In May 1936 a Popular Front of Communists, Socialists, and Radicals gained a clear majority, and the socialist leader Leon Blum was able to form a government.
Meanwhile, in the streets a huge left-wing demonstration culminated in a 600,000-strong commemoration of the Paris Commune. On May 26th, workers in engineering plants in the Paris suburbs struck and occupied their plants, followed two days later by workers at the huge Renault plant, a total of 70,000 workers by the end of the week. The movement, which spread across the country, involving workers who weren’t even unionized, won labor contracts, pay increases, the election of workers’ delegates at all factories employing more than ten workers, two weeks paid vacation, and a 40-hour work week.
On July 17, 1936, inspired by the victories of fascists in Italy, Germany, and Austria, a group of Spanish generals staged an uprising against the 5-year-old republican government of Spain, which requested arms from France with which to defend itself. Blum, in favor of doing this, was blocked by Radical leaders.
By 1938, disillusionment with the Popular Front was costing French left parties and unions members and support. By the outbreak of the Second World War the following August, the French ruling class was able to get the same parliament that had been elected on a wave of exhilaration only three years earlier to outlaw the Communist Party and expel its deputies. Nine months later, the same parliament – including the majority of Socialist Party delegates – voted to give dictatorial powers to Marshal Pétain, who formed a government containing French fascists to collaborate with the German Nazis’ occupation of the northern half of the country.
In July 1936 the effort of Spain’s military, headed by General Franco, to seize power was thwarted in more than half the country by workers’ uprisings, followed by civil war – the culmination of six years of increasingly bitter class struggle.
The defeat of the workers’ movement in the early 1920s had allowed a dictator, Primo de Rivera, relying on the military, to rule the country for the rest of that decade. Most anarcho-syndicalist and Communist leaders went into exile. De Rivera’s dictatorship collapsed in 1930, unable to cope with the effects of the world economic crisis. A few months later, the left won an overwhelming victory in local elections, the king abdicated, and enthusiastic crowds proclaimed the republic, first in Barcelona, then in Madrid.
A bourgeois republican government ruled for the next two years, promising much and delivering little. A section of bourgeois republicans formed an alliance with a new party, CEDA, backed by large landowners, certain big business interests, leading army officers, monarchists, admirers of Mussolini, and the bishops of the Catholic church. CEDA leader Gil Robles wanted to graft fascist methods onto Catholic dogma, as Dolfuss was doing in Austria, and he held rallies reminiscent of Mussolini’s and Hitler’s. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Socialist Party and its UGT union, determined to oppose CEDA physically, joined forces with some smaller working-class organizations to form a united Workers’ Alliance. The hostility of the industrial workers of major cities and vast numbers of rural laborers on the great southern estates toward CEDA was shared by a section of the middle class, especially in Catalonia, where they feared a right-wing attack against their autonomous government and language. Yet when CEDA finally took office in October 1934, only the miners of Asturias in the north of the country rose up, taking control of the area. The government was able to crush the miners, using troops from Spanish Morocco under the command of General Franco. Elsewhere in Spain, Socialist Party members, including the Socialist minister of labor, and trade unionists were thrown into prison.
Early in 1936 another election was called in a climate of increasing class polarization. The French idea of a ‘Popular Front’ was influencing much of the left, and the small Communist Party campaigned vigorously for all to unite with the bourgeois republicans. The Popular Front won an overwhelming majority of seats, with the new government composed of the same republican politicians who had so disappointed people in 1931-33. Pressure from below led them to free left-wing political prisoners, and workers’ confidence led to a wave of strikes and demonstrations. Membership in both the anarcho-syndicalist CNT and the Socialist UGT unions grew, and the Socialist Party moved to the left. CEDA activists joined a more overtly fascist organization, the Falange, whose thugs launched violent attacks on the left. When the generals tried to seize control of the cities on July 17th and 18th, the Popular Front government did nothing, but the CNT and UGT called for a general strike, and workers seized control of military barracks, seized weapons, and won over sections of the army. In many places, however, officers claimed to support the republic, waited till workers dispersed, and then declared for the coup and shot down anyone who resisted. Authority shifted to local revolutionary committees, and where workers held power, they took over factories, and peasants divided the land.
Anti-fascist centralization wasn’t achieved, because the most powerful workers’ organizations were led by anarcho-syndicalists, who insisted that centralization of power would lead to the crushing or workers by a new state. In Madrid, the Socialists feared any elected delegate structure that might allow anarchists to pressure the rank and file of their organizations, and leaned toward compromise with the bourgeois republicans. This was also the party line of the Communists, dictated by Stalin. So, another Popular Front government was formed at the beginning of September, with the majority of its members republicans or right-wing Socialists. Its slogan was, “First win the war, then talk about the revolution.” The moderate republicans wanted the workers to give up control of the factories and estates they’d taken over in July, which meant taking arms from them and handing them back to officers who’d sat on the fence. After this was done, the propertied middle classes tried to arrange a compromise for themselves with Franco. Officers promoted to positions of command by the government went over to the fascists, and finally, a junta of republican generals seized power with the hope of negotiating peace with Franco. Britain and France refused to supply the republic with arms, while Germany and Italy gave massive backing to Franco.
Spain in the 1930s was a backward country with a backward landowning class, a backward capitalist class, a backward military, and a backward church. But it was also an integral part of the modern capitalist world, with centers of advanced industry and a powerful, if relatively small, working class. To combat these workers, the archaic ruling and middle classes adopted up-to-date forms of counter-revolution, copying the ‘clerico-fascism’ of Dolfuss and the totalitarian fascism of Mussolini and Hitler. Half a million people were executed in the wake of Franco’s victory, and a great number went into exile. For more than two decades, no open expression of liberal, let alone socialist, ideas was possible, and not until the early 1960s was there a recovery of the workers’ movement.
In the US, the mid-1930s saw the formation of the CIO, led by miners’ union leader John Lewis, to recruit mass production workers into industrial unions,and sit-down strikes – most notably at GM plants in Flint, Michigan. 1.8 million workers were involved in strikes, and total union membership was over 7 million at the end of 1937, up five million from 1933. The unions were creating a new culture of collective action among workers, summed up in the union song “Solidarity Forever,” sung at the sit-ins. They were even beginning to chip away at the racism in cities like Detroit.
August 1937 saw the steepest economic decline in US history, with half the ground gained since 1932 lost. Steel output fell by more than two thirds in four months, cotton by 40%, and farm prices by a quarter. In May of ’37, Lewis began the biggest organizing drive yet, in the steel industry. The companies responded to a strike involving 75,000 workers by attacking picket lines with company thugs, deputies, police, and the National Guard. Eighteen strikers were killed, scores wounded, and hundreds arrested. The organizing drive was broken, the economy slumped again, and union leaders began to collaborate with employers and restrict agitation and democracy within union organizations.
The Communist Party, which had played a leading role in the militancy of 1934-37, now approved of FDR and other New Deal Democrats in an American version of Popular Front politics. This continued for the next ten years, allowing union leaders to consolidate control over their memberships, which they’d use in the 1940s to destroy Communist influence.
Novelist James T. Farrell described the New Deal cultural climate as “pseudo-populist,” emphasizing the uplifting of the common man and “Americanism as the means of unifying races, creeds, and classes.” Other writers were disillusioned, too, including Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, who felt that socialists were just another group of whites out to use blacks.
With each capitalist nation out for itself, Germany and Japan felt hemmed in. Japan had already taken Taiwan and Korea as colonies, and in 1931 it seized Manchuria. In the late 1930s, the government, formed after a military coup in Tokyo, invaded China and began to cast its eye on the Dutch East Indies, British colonies in Malaya, Borneo, and Singapore, French colonies in Indochina, and the US-run Philippines.
Italy expanded its colonial empire, too, grabbing Ethiopia to add to Somaliland, Eritrea, and Libya, and hoping for an opportunity to expand into Albania and the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia.
The Western powers, which saw fascism as an ally against working-class agitation and Russia as the only foreign enemy, allowed these encroachments. In March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria, then demanded the German-inhabited border areas of Czechoslovakia. In the summer of 1939, he invaded Poland, leading to declarations of war by Britain and France, but no real defense of the Poles. In May 1940, a German attack broke the back of the Allied armies in Belgium and northern France, forcing the British army’s evacuation from Dunkirk and allowing the Germans to enter Paris on June 14, 1940.
After an attempt to broker a deal for division of influence in Asia fell apart, the US blockaded Japan’s access to desperately needed raw materials, especially oil, and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
World War II was billed as a democratic attempt to defeat fascism, but the interests of Allied leaders were economic and colonial, as shown by the fact that between the fall of France (1940) and the Allied landings in southern Italy (1943) most of the fighting by British armies was in north Africa – Churchill was determined to hang on to the Suez Canal and Middle Eastern oilfields. Then, when the most vital battles of the war were being fought in western Russia, Churchill countered pleas from both Russia and the US to open a second front in France with the claim that Italy and the Balkans were the “soft underbelly of Europe,” despite mountainous terrain that ensured bloody battles and a slow pace of advance. Churchill’s refusal to concede independence for India also meant that in 1942, while the decisive Battle of Stalingrad was taking place, thousands of British-led troops were brutally crushing demonstrations in India instead of fighting the Nazis, and an Indian army fought on the side of Japan. The British colonial government did little to avert a famine that killed 3 million in Bengal.
Similarly, the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan to ensure its surrender before Russian troops, advancing rapidly across Manchuria, could have any say in the disposition of post-war Japan.
5.7 million Poles, half of them Jewish, 16% of the population, lost their lives during the war. Russia lost 13 million soldiers and 7 million civilians, with German casualties on the Eastern Front alone totaling 6 million. After Poland and Russia, Greece suffered more than any other country during the war, as Italian and then German occupation led to the deaths of one in ten people – half of them from starvation. When the German army prepared to withdraw north in late 1944, the Greek liberation movement seemed destined to take control of the country. A right-wing dictatorship sustained by the monarchy had followed a pro-Nazi policy prior to the Italian invasion of 1940, and most of the resistance, wanting to end the monarchy and eliminate the power of the old ruling class, were happy to see the Greek Communist Party playing a central role.
In Italy the first overt resistance to Mussolini’s regime came in March 1943 when a wave of strikes began in Turin and spread, despite arrests, across northern Italy, eventually involving 100,000 workers. When US and British troops landed in Sicily in early June, a special meeting of the Fascist Grand Council voted for Mussolini to surrender power. The next day the king put Il Duce under house arrest and replaced him with General Badoglio, the commander of Italian troops in Ethiopia in 1935. The new government crushed popular demonstrations and gave Germany time to rescue Mussolini and occupy the country north of Naples.
The German occupation provoked a massive resistance movement with three components: thousands of armed partisans in the countryside, armed ‘patriotic groups’ in the cities, and lower-paid and women workers striking in the factories – to which German troops responded with arrests and mass deportations. The three strands came together in August 1944, when the resistance seized most of Florence from the German army before the Allies arrived. They came together again eight months later to take control of the country’s three major industrial cities: Genoa, Turin, and Milan. In Genoa a rising led by armed urban groups seized the city’s public buildings, surrounded German troops, captured a barracks, and, aided by partisans from the countryside, forced the surrender of the German general and 15,000 troops. In Turin the people, led by factory workers, assumed the full brunt of the fighting, which raged around worker-occupied factories. In Milan armed groups stormed the fascist barracks, and fought around the major factories until partisans and workers took control of the city.
Many young men had joined the partisans in the mountains to escape conscription or avoid forced labor in Germany, and the resistance led them into left-wing politics. Everyone knew the ruling class had backed Mussolini and that the industrialists were collaborating, to a greater or lesser extent, with the German occupation. The Communist Party attracted vast numbers of people anxious for revolutionary change, and even the middle-class-led Party of Action was insisting on a radical break with the past.
In France the call for resistance hadn’t come from the left, as the majority of Socialist MPs had voted for the Pétain government, and the Communist Party, on orders from Moscow, opposed resistance till the summer of 1941. The call came from a middle-rank army officer, Charles de Gaulle, who had escaped to Britain. De Gaulle’s British-based ‘Free French’ forces were small, and the US wouldn’t recognize him, hoping till the end of 1943 to strike a deal with the pro-German Vichy government. After Germany invaded Russia, the Communist Party set up a resistance organization, the FTP, that soon outnumbered the Gaullists and was instrumental in seizing Paris in advance of the Allies in 1944.
Meanwhile, at conferences in Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam, Churchill and Stalin were dividing the spoils with Roosevelt’s assent, making deals that would crush the hopes of the resistance movements.
In Italy and France the restoration of the old order occurred more or less peacefully; in Greece there was civil war, though not because of any serious attempt by resistance leaders to carry out revolutionary change. The retreat of the German army at the end of 1944, left the National Liberation Front (EAM) in control of virtually the entire country; yet it allowed British troops and a new government to take over Athens and disbanded its armed wing in return for an agreement the government had no intention of keeping. Soon government forces were hunting down anyone who had been part of the resistance; at least 50,000 EAM supporters were imprisoned or interned during 1945, while right-wing paramilitary groups operated with government protection. (EAM was Communist-led, but also included other leftist and republican groups.)
Churchill feared that revolution in Greece would inspire the same in Italy and France. Even in Germany, the collapse of the Nazi regime in May 1945 saw workers flocking to their old Socialist and Communist allegiances, setting up popular anti-Nazi committees and taking over factories from which Nazi managers had fled – until the occupation forces restored ‘order’ with the help of politicians who had returned from exile with them. Ex-Nazis were soon included in this ruling group.
US arms ensured that the right won the Greek civil war, and the US supported those who ruled via rigged elections through the 1950s and early ’60s. In 1967, fascist sympathizers and former collaborators in the army seized power, and not until their military regime collapsed in the mid-1970s did anything like a normal capitalist democracy exist in Greece.
On VE Day, marking the defeat of Germany, Arabs took to the streets of Setif, Algeria waving the green and white flag of resistance to French rule. French police opened fire, and in the subsequent fighting 500 Algerians and 100 French settlers were killed. The French state’s determination to keep the colony cost a million lives over the next 20 years. In Vietnam, the Communist-led national resistance movement, the Vietminh, had taken control of the country when Japan surrendered. British troops landed in Saigon, armed Japanese prisoners of war, and used them to disarm the Vietminh, then handed the city to the French colonial authorities. After a brief lull, a 30-year war broke out that would cost over 2 million Vietnamese lives.
The Western powers let the Soviet Union incorporate eastern Poland as ‘Western Ukraine,’ stood back while Stalin allowed the Germans to crush the Warsaw uprising, and then accepted the ‘people’s government’ the Russian dictator appointed to rule the country. In the same way, they allowed him a free hand in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. In Yugoslavia, Communists led by Tito had built a multi-ethnic resistance movement against both the German occupation and the Croat Ustashe fascists that had received arms from the Allies. Tito’s post-war regime copied Stalin’s, but broke away and became neutral in 1948.
The United Nations, founded in May 1945, shared the same flaw as its predecessor, the League of Nations – it was set up by the victors in a world war. Decision-making lay with the four permanent Security Council members – the US, Britain, France, and Russia – and between them, Harman says, “they dominated, oppressed, and exploited the rest of the world.”
Churchill declared the start of the Cold War in his famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri in March 1946. The subsequent Marshall Plan was intended to strengthen area still outside Stalin’s grasp, and within weeks parties of the right and center had forced the Communists out of governments in France and Italy. The Berlin blockade and purging Communists from US unions and other organizations following the dictates of Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee followed. Two military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, opposed each other, and East and West were cut off from each other economically. Military expenditures on both sides leaped to heights unprecedented in peacetime, reaching 20% of US national output and 40% of Russia’s smaller output. The Soviets developed an atomic bomb, and the Americans the H-bomb – 100 times more destructive than the atom bomb.
In June 1950, Kim Il Sung, the Russian-supported dictator of North Korea, launched an attack on the south, and the US rushed to intervene in support of its puppet, Syngman Rhee. Over the next three years, there were 500,000 Western casualties and three times that number on the other side. Two million Korean civilans died, and half the southern population lost their homes or became refugees – all for no result.
Post-war, world capitalism experienced its most sustained boom ever, with the US economy turning out three times as much in 1970 as in 1940, German output up fivefold over 1949, and French output up fourfold. Italy was transformed from a peasant country into a major industrial power, and Japan took second position behind the US. Unemployment fell to 3% in the US in the early 1950s, 1.5% in Britain, and 1% in West Germany by 1960. There was a gradual and more or less uninterrupted rise in real wages in the US, Britain, and Scandinavia in the 1950s, and in France and Italy in the 1960s. Workers were living better than their parents and expecting their children to live better still. The wide range of available consumer goods made the rise in the working class standard of living qualitative as well as quantitative.
A shortage of labor caused capital to scour the world for replacements, and migrant workers from rural Italy were soon laboring in Belgian mines and Swiss factories, as well as adding to the growing populations of Milan and Turin. The flow of black sharecroppers to Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago became a torrent. German firms welcomed refugees from the east and organized the arrival of millions of “guest workers” from Turkey and Yugoslavia. French firms recruited labor from north Africa, Britain’s health service sought workers in the Caribbean, and its textile plants workers in the Punjab.
Concerned about the reproduction of the labor force, the state encouraged married women to stay at home, look after their children, and cater to their husbands, and at first most of them did, not finding the low wages they could earn a sufficient incentive to carry the double burden of paid employment and domestic labor.
In the summer of 1949, a People’s Liberation Army led by old Communists like Mao Zedong, Zhu De, and Liu Shaoqi occupied Beijing and marched south to unify all of China except for the large island of Taiwan and the British city-colony of Hong Kong. The PLA had started out as a group of Communists and dissident soldiers from the nationalist armies who had escaped the massacres at the hands of Chiang Kai-Shek in the late 1920s by establishing a base on the border of Kiangsi province in the south. Having recruited local peasants, and pressed by Chiang’s troops, it went on a circuitous 7,000 mile Long March through south and west China to Yenan in the remote northwest. Fewer than one in ten of the 100,000 who set off arrived, but this rump was able to build new support, particularly after the Japanese attack on China in 1937.
When Chiang’s army was driven far inland by Japan, he agreed to cooperate with the Communists. His army was much bigger after the Japanese collapse in 1945, and he had vast sums of aid from the US. But Mao had an army with higher morale, better discipline, and more popular support. When civil war broke out between the two, Chiang’s army began to disintegrate, with whole sections (including their generals) going over to the Communist side. By the end of 1949, Chiang had fled the mainland for Taiwan, where the Kuomintang still dominates the government today.
The US drive north during the Korean War forced China to come in on the Korean side and drove Mao and Stalin together, though their alliance would only last a dozen years.
Britain withdrew its troops from Palestine in 1947, relying for the defense of its oil interests on puppet Arab monarchies in Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. The US and Russia were both keen to move in as Britain moved out, jointly backing a UN resolution partitioning Palestine and establishing an Israeli settler state that took half the land for one third of the population. The settlers received substantial supplies of arms from Communist-run Czechoslovakia and backing from the US. When fighting broke out, they terrorized many of the Arabs into fleeing by massacring the inhabitants of the village of Deir Yassin. They then defeated an ill-organized army sent by the Arab monarchies. This army occupied what was left of Palestine (a mere 20% of the original land) and divided it between the kings of Jordan and Egypt.
Arab bitterness over Israel’s victory helped spark a military coup in Egypt that brought nationalist officers led by Gamal Abdul Nasser to power, ending the pro-British monarchy. Nasser’s move to nationalize the Suez Canal, owned by Britain and France, led to a joint British-French-and-Israeli attack on Egypt in November 1956. The US took advantage of Britain’s financial problems at this juncture to pull the plug on the operation and supplant Britain as the dominant power in the Middle East, while a wave of anti-British agitation throughout the region led to the overthrow of the British-backed Iraqi monarchy two years later.
The US followed Britain’s policy of relying on Israeli settlers and Arab client regimes. It provided Israel with more military aid than any other country in the world, and at the same time worked closely with the Saudi Arabian monarchy. Coups were encouraged that reestablished the absolute rule of the shah in Iran (1953) and gave power to the Ba’ath Party, including a young Saddam Hussein, in Iraq (1962). The US was only able to assert hegemony over the region and its oil by encouraging antagonisms between states and peoples that resulted in a succession of wars – the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, the long civil war in Lebanon after 1976, the war between Iraq and Iran during the 1980s, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the US-led wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
Stalin died in 1953 after a quarter of a century of near-total power. In February 1956, Krushchev, the Communist Party general secretary, told the 20th party congress in Moscow that Stalin had been responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent people and the deportation of millions of members of national minorities. He’d also been incompetent and cowardly at the time of the German invasion of Russia in 1941, Krushchev added. A few months later, Russia crushed an uprising of workers in Poland. These events led to a revolution in Hungary as a student demonstration gained the support of tens of thousands of workers in Budapest. Rebels took over the city, and every town was in the hands of factory councils and revolutionary committees. Russian tanks swept into Budapest, crushed the armed resistance, killing thousands, reducing parts of the city to rubble, and driving 200,000 refugees across the border into Austria. There were 350 executions, three quarters of them workers around 20 years of age.
The official Communist line was that the revolution was pro-capitalist and had been planned by Western spies. Western propaganda claimed that its goal had been to establish a “free society” along Western capitalist lines. In fact, Hungarian workers sought a genuinely socialist society with decision-making in the hands of the workers.
In 1959, the corrupt, dictatorial, US-supported Cuban regime of Fulgencio Batista collapsed, leaving power in the hands of a group of guerillas led by Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, and an exiled Argentine doctor, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The rebel army that entered Havana on the first day of 1959 had the backing of all the social classes in Cuba. Castro instituted reforms to gain working class and peasant support (land reform, the provision of welfare benefits and healthcare, and literacy campaigns) combined with state support for industrialization. Eighteen months later, the US-owned oil refineries on the island refused to process cheap Russian oil, so Castro nationalized them. When the US retaliated by ending the arrangement by which it bought the bulk of Cuba’s sugar, Cuba nationalized the US-owned sugar companies, factories, and electricity and telephone monopolies, and developed trade links with Russia.
In April 1961, the CIA tried to land an army of exiles intent on overthrowing Castro on the island’s Bay of Pigs, while unmarked US planes bombed Cuban airfields. The attack was a miserable failure as the Cuban population rallied behind the regime. On October 20th, the US government, having learned that the Russians were secretly installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, had the island surrounded with warships, intent on using force to prevent Soviet vessels from landing. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-based missiles, and 1,400 bombers armed with nuclear weapons were on alert. In addition, in Florida, 60 miles from Cuba, the US assembled the largest invasion force since the Second World War – 100,000 troops, 90 ships, 68 squadrons of aircraft, and eight aircraft carriers. War was only avoided because Krushchev backed down at the last minute and agreed to withdraw the missiles – a decision only narrowly approved by the Politburo.
Vietnam had been partitioned in 1954, after France’s attempt to hold the country as a colony had been dealt a devastating blow by the Vietminh victory at Dien Bien Phu. The Vietminh had been persuaded by Russia and China to take control of just the northern half of the country, leaving the south in the hands of Vietnamese who’d backed France, pending elections to unite the country. The US, which had funded most of the French war effort, now sponsored the government that ran the south and helped ensure that the aforementioned elections never took place.
When there was increasing repression against any opposition in the south, Buddhist monks protested by setting fire to themselves, and former Vietminh fighters began guerilla warfare in the countryside. The 400 US “advisers” present in the south when Kennedy became president in 1960 had risen to 18,000 by the time of his assassination in 1963. By the end of 1965, there were 210,000 US troops in-country. Meanwhile, the US air force conducted the biggest bombing campaign in history, pounding away at both north and south. In early 1968, US positions were almost completely overrun by the Tet offensive, and soon American business interests were complaining about the cost of the war. Fissures also opened in US society as young people and others protested the war’s horror and questioned the reasons for it.
On taking control of China’s great cities in 1949, the leaders of the People’s Liberation Army had followed a policy of uniting all classes, including some capitalists, behind a program of rapid state-run industrialization. The bureaucracy was staffed, in the main, by members of the educated middle classes, with most of the officials of the Kuomintang period left in place. There was land reform in regions dominated by landlords, but better-off peasants were left alone, and the condition of the mass of workers remained much as before. These measures produced considerable economic growth – 12% a year according to figures for the years 1954-57. But they still didn’t get China anywhere near the level of the advanced industrial countries, and a section of the Chinese leadership around Mao Zedong began to fear that unless desperate steps were taken China would remain an underprivileged Third World country. In 1958, against the opposition of leaders like president Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, they launched a ‘Great Leap Forward’ aimed at ultra-rapid industrialization. Heavy industry was to be made to grow faster by every district making its own iron and steel, and millions of new industrial workers were to be fed by removing individual plots from the peasants and forcing people into ‘people’s communes.’ In 1958 and 1959 the official growth rate was almost 30% a year, but in 1960 it became clear that China didn’t have the technical equipment to make the communes viable. Grain output dropped catastrophically, and millions died in famines.
The leadership shunted Mao away from the levers of power and returned to a more measured approach, which meant that in 1965 industrial output was lower than in 1960, and there weren’t enough jobs, especially for college graduates. In 1966, Mao and a coterie of supporters, including his wife Jian Qing and defense minister Lin Biao, proclaimed the ‘Proletarian Cultural Revolution.’ China, they said, was being held back by bureaucratic culture and those running the bureaucracy. This had led Russia down the ‘capitalist road’ of de-Stalinization and could drag China back to its old Confucian ways. It was the task of the youth to stop this by mass criticism of those obstructing Mao’s policies, and they did, shutting down all educational institutions for six months and encouraging 11 million college and high school students to carry the criticism from one region to another on free rail transport. This wasn’t proletarian – workers were expected to abandon ‘capitalistic’ worries like bonus rates and health and safety issues, clinging to ‘Mao Zedong thought’ for motivation. And it wasn’t a revolution – students were instructed not to interfere with the functioning of the military or police (the state). Student ‘Red Guards’ were just encouraged to unleash their frustrations against individuals without sufficient revolutionary zeal. At the top, this meant targeting those who had disagreed with Mao at the time of the Great Leap Forward – Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and others were forced from office. At the local level, it meant scapegoating low-level figures of minimal authority thought to embody ‘old ways’ – schoolteachers, writers, journalists, clerks, and actors.
Mao couldn’t control the movement completely, and some Red Guard and rebel groups began to attract young workers, who raised questions about the lives of the mass of people, and, in Shanghai, got involved in strikes. Mao tried to stop this by calling on the army, a move that prompted some students to turn against the system. These and millions of others were forcibly removed from the cities to undertake backbreaking work in remote rural areas. In 1970 Lin Biao, Mao’s designated successor, suddenly fled the country for Russia amid talk of a failed coup, his aircraft crashing close to the Soviet border.
The early part of the 1970s saw central power concentrated in the hands of Zhou Enlai, who brought Deng Xiaoping back as his designated heir. Mao’s wife and three collaborators (the ‘Gang of Four’) briefly regained control in 1974, purging Deng again and bringing back the language of the Cultural Revolution, but huge demonstrations to commemorate the death of Zhou Enlai showed how little support they had, and they were overthrown and imprisoned after Mao died in 1976. Mao had greeted US president Nixon in Beijing in 1972, and by 1977, under Deng, China was beginning to embrace the market more furiously than Russia under Stalin’s successors.
Worldwide, the period between the mid-1960s and the early 1990s was marked by a series of social upheavals, sudden economic crises, bitter strikes, and the collapse of one of the world’s great military blocs. There were three great turning points in the second half of the 20th century: 1968, 1973-75, and 1989 that together demolished the political, ideological, and economic edifice of the Cold War era.
1968 saw student protests, demonstrations, and occupations around the world. It also witnessed the high point of revolt by black Americans, the biggest ever blow to US military prestige in Vietnam, resistance to Russian troops in Czechoslovakia, the largest general strike in world history in France, the beginning of a wave of workers’ struggles that would shake Italian society for seven years, and the start of the ‘Troubles’ in northern Ireland. These eruptions were a shock, because the societies in which they occurred had seemed so stable. McCarthyism had destroyed the left in the US, and the country’s trade union leaders were notoriously bureaucratic and conservative. Czechoslovakia was the most prosperous of the Eastern European countries, and had been among the least affected by the upheavals of 1956. France had been firmly under the dictatorial rule of de Gaulle for ten years, the left was doing badly in elections, and the unions were weak. Governments came and went in Italy, but were always led by Christian Democrats, who relied on the Catholic church to herd people to the polls on their behalf.
In 1965, 1966, and 1967 there were black uprisings in northern cities like Los Angeles, Newark, and Detroit, and in 1968 every ghetto in the country went up in smoke after the assassination of black leader Martin Luther King. Many young blacks began to identify with the Black Panther Party, which called for self-defense and preached revolution.
The ability of the state to stabilize itself in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal in the late 1940s had depended on the fact that a large proportion of people in those countries were small farmers, who could be bribed or intimidated into supporting the status quo. The ideological expression of this was the hold the highly conservative Catholic Church exercised in many regions. The long economic boom of the ’50s and ’60s changed this. By 1968, large numbers of men and women from peasant backgrounds were concentrated in factories and other large workplaces across the countries of southern Europe, facing pressure to work harder for wages that didn’t always keep up with rising prices.
Similarly, Czechoslovakia’s economic growth slowed in the early ’60s, leading to a build-up of frustrations at every level of society and to splits in the ruling bureaucracy. When leading figures in the party forced the president and party secretary to resign, intellectuals and students seized the opportunity to express themselves freely for the first time in 20 years. The whole apparatus of censorship collapsed, and the police appeared powerless to crush dissent. The students formed a union, the workers voted out state-appointed union leaders, ministers were grilled on TV, and there was public discussion about the horrors of the Stalin era. This was too much for Russia’s rulers. In August 1968, they sent massive numbers of troops into the country. Faced with enormous passive opposition, Russia for a time allowed the Czech government to carry on with a promise to bring dissent under control. Eventually, however, the Soviets imposed a puppet government that silenced opposition by firing or imprisoning people.
The boom had allowed the rise of Japanese and West German capitalism, with which the US couldn’t compete and pay the cost of a land war in Vietnam. The war also interfered with President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ program of welfare expenditure to provide long-term societal stability.
The long boom had also increased the numbers of students, especially those from middle- and working-class families, and these students increasingly challenged the whole character of capitalist society. In the US, the student, civil rights, and anti-war movements inspired Native Americans, gays, and women to take up the struggle against their oppression.
The Socialist Party in Chile benefited from the new militancy, and one of its leaders, Salvador Allende, was elected president in 1970. Two years later, US business interests and sections of the Chilean ruling class tried to drive Allende from office through a ‘bosses’ strike’ spearheaded by the owners of trucking companies. The effort was thwarted by workers seizing factories and setting up workers’ councils. Another attempted coup in June 1973 failed due to splits in the armed forces and massive street protests. But the Communist Party and main sectors of the Socialist Party told people to dissolve the workers’ councils and trust that the army would adhere to its ‘constitutional’ traditions. Allende even brought generals, including Augusto Pinochet, into his government, believing this would placate the right. In September, Pinochet staged a coup with US aid, bombarding Allende in the presidential palace and murdering thousands of worker activists.
The long boom came to an abrupt end in the autumn of 1973 when Western economies went into recession simultaneously for the first time since the 1930s and unemployment doubled. Keynesian remedies didn’t seem to help, and in 1976 economists and political journalists switched, seemingly overnight, to a belief in a ‘free’ market, unconstrained by state intervention. Unemployment levels remained high, however, and another recession at the beginning of the 1980s doubled unemployment again. Generalized job insecurity became a feature everywhere, with whole industries disappearing and towns reduced to wastelands. Welfare benefits were cut to the levels of 50 years earlier, or abolished.
The Solidarity movement in Poland (1980-81) constituted an alternative power to the government, but deliberately committed itself to avoid overthrowing it. In mid-December 1981 the government declared martial law, jammed the country’s telecommunications systems, arrested the Solidarnosc leadership, and used troops against workers who resisted.
When Mikhail Gorbachev took over as head of the USSR in 1985, he seemed all-powerful. When he spoke in 1987 and 1988 about the need for openness (glasnost) and reform, he seemed popular, too. But his call for reform created confusion in the Soviet police apparatus and raised people’s hopes so that they began to challenge the exploitation and oppression of the past 60 years. Unwilling to do no more than restructure the state capitalist organization of production, Gorbachev couldn’t satisfy those hopes. In addition, by the end of the decade the economic stagnation of the early 1980s had become economic contraction.
The spring of 1988 saw the first mass protests since the 1920s not immediately crushed by police – first in Armenia and then in the Baltic states. Gorbachev had the means neither to repress the protestors, nor buy them them off. In 1989 and 1991 huge miners’ strikes came close to shutting off Russia’s energy supplies. In September and October of 1991, a wave of demonstrations swept East Germany, and its government began to demolish the Berlin Wall that cut it off from West Germany. In November the Czech government fell, amid massive street demonstrations and a one-hour general strike. Bulgaria followed suit. An attempt by Romania’s dictator to resist the wave of change by shooting down demonstrators led to a spontaneous uprising in Bucharest and his execution by a firing squad under the command of his own generals. The only Stalinist regime left in eastern Europe was Albania, and this collapsed early in 1991 after a general strike.
In the spring of 1991, there was a second great miners’ strike in Russia and a huge demonstration in Moscow. That summer, conservative forces in the government tried to take a hard line, staging a coup in Moscow. Some military units refused to back them, however, and power fell into the hands of a group of reformers around Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic. Yeltsin agreed to the formal dissolution of the links between the national republics, and the USSR was no more.
Economic miracles were promised for Eastern Europe and the former USSR after all these changes, but they didn’t materialize. In 1999 only two countries, Poland and Slovenia, had a higher output than in 1989. The Czech Republic and Hungary were both slightly poorer than ten years before, and the economies of Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Russia had shrunk by 40% or more. People in major Russian cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, were dependent on what they could grow on small allotments to supplement meager supplies of bread and potatoes. Workers weren’t paid for months at a time, health services fell apart, diseases like tuberculosis became common, and life expectancy fell. East Germany continued to have unemployment rates of 20% or higher, and in southeast Europe – Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania – conditions were as bad as in Russia. In the southern belt of the former USSR, they were worse.
The eastern European country that fared the worst, Yugoslavia, was no longer being given Western loans on favorable terms because it was no longer needed to counterbalance to Russian power in the region. The IMF imposed a debt repayment program that halved living standards and produced astronomical levels of unemployment and a series of bloody ethnic wars. The Western powers intervened to bolster the groups most friendly to them.
A few months before the political collapse in eastern Europe, the Chinese state came close to breaking down as student demands for greater democracy became the focus for grievances of wide sections of the population, culminating in the famous demonstration in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. For several days the regime was paralyzed, seeming to have difficulty finding soldiers prepared to bring the demonstrations to an end.
In 1997, an economic crisis that began in Thailand swept through the region, pushing Indonesia into a slump on the scale of the 1930s and forcing South Korea, Malaysia, and Hong Kong into deep recession.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 was an explosion of bitterness against a despotic ruler and the US government that backed him. The shah’s rule had antagonized traditional clerics, nationalist intellectuals, sections of capitalism, workers, students, and sections of the peasantry. The first years after the shah’s overthrow saw clashes between Islamic and secular groups and between Islamic factions. Eventually, the faction around the Ayatollah Khomeini proved victorious and conducted a reign of terror against its defeated opponents.
A civil war followed the withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan, until the Taliban, backed by Saudi Arabia, conquered most of the country. The American CIA had arranged for Islamists from across the Middle East to go to Afghanistan and fight the Russians. Now they directed their fire against their own pro-US rulers and were denounced as “terrorists” by the US.
Globally, the US was engaging in a ‘new imperialism.’ On a smaller scale, a reviving Russia also attempted to maintain dominance within wide sections of the former USSR, using its military strength to influence the outcome of civil wars in Georgia and Tajikistan. France maintained a major sphere of influence in Africa, Britain attempted to impact events in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and Nigeria intervened in other west African states under the guise of ‘peacekeeping.’
Gaps between rich and poor within and between countries continue to grow. At the end of the 1960s, the gap between the richest and poorest fifths of the world’s population stood at 30 to one, in 1990 at 60 to one, and in 1998 at 74 to one. In 1980 the top managers of the 300 biggest US corporations had incomes 29 times larger than the average manufacturing worker, and by 1990 their incomes were 93 times greater. Even in the world’s poorest countries, a thin ruling stratum expected to live the lifestyle of the world’s rich, keeping multimillion dollar deposits in Western banks as insurance against social unrest at home.
“The alternatives of socialism or barbarism are being posed more starkly than ever,” Harman says. “The often misunderstood Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci pointed out that some individuals and groups are trapped almost completely within the views characteristic of the dominant society, some have gone a long way toward breaking from these, and others are stuck somewhere in the middle, pulled first one way, then another under the influence of those with views at either extreme. The concrete action of a class at any point in history depends on which of these extremes is more successful in attracting the middle group as social upheavals open it up to new ideas.
Out of the struggles of the billions-strong working class of the new millennium will emerge new attempts to remold society around the values of solidarity, mutual support, egalitarianism, collective cooperation, and a democratically planned use of resources. The ruling classes of the world, like their predecessors for 5,000 years, will do their utmost to thwart these attempts and will, if necessary, unleash endless barbarities to hang onto what they regard as their right to power and property. They will defend the capitalist order to the end, even if this means the end of organized human life.”