Posts Tagged ‘united states’


 American Navy and Japanese Army personnel stand together at attention as the “Stars and Stripes” are raised over Ponape island on September 12, 1945. 

The man and woman in the left foreground are Mr. and Mrs. Carlos Escheidts, Belgian nationals who were interred during the Japanese occupation.

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“So the very first question people in this country must ask in considering the question of revolution is where they stand in relation to the United States as an oppressor nation, and where they stand in relation to the masses of people throughout the world whom US imperialism is oppressing. The primary task of revolutionary struggle is to solve this principal contradiction on the side of the people of the world. It is the oppressed peoples of the world who have created the wealth of this empire and it is to them that it belongs ; the goal of the revolutionary struggle must be the control and use of this wealth in the interests of the oppressed peoples of the world. It is in this context that we must examine the revolutionary struggles in the United States. We are within the heartland of a worldwide monster, a country so rich from its worldwide plunder that even the crumbs doled out to the enslaved masses within its borders provide for material existence very much above the conditions of the masses of people of the world. The US empire, as a worldwide system, channels wealth, based upon the labor and resources of the rest of the world, into the United States. The relative affluence existing in the United States is directly dependent upon the labor and natural resources of the Vietnamese, the Angolans, the Bolivians and the rest of the peoples of the Third World. All of the United Airlines Astrojets, all of the Holiday Inns, all of Hertz’s automobiles, your television set, car and wardrobe already belong, to a large degree to the people of the rest the world.”

— The Weather Underground, “You Don’t Need A Weatherman To Know Which Way The Wind Blows” (via womanhoods)

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“Police Brutality Must Go.”
Harlem, 1963.
Photo: Gordon Parks

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“Recognizing the vast economic and racial inequalities his students faced, he chose what some might consider a radical approach for his writing and social-studies classes, weaving in concepts such as racism, classism, oppression, and prejudice. Barrett said it was vital to reject the oft-perpetuated narrative that society is fair and equal to address students’ questions and concerns about their current conditions. And Brighton Elementary’s seventh- and eighth-graders quickly put the lessons to work—confronting the school board over inequitable funding, fighting to install a playground, and creating a classroom library focused on black and Latino authors.

“Students who are told that things are fair implode pretty quickly in middle school as self-doubt hits them,” he said, “and they begin to blame themselves for problems they can’t control.”

Barrett’s personal observation is validated by a newly published study in the peer-reviewed journal Child Development that finds traditionally marginalized youth who grew up believing in the American ideal that hard work and perseverance naturally lead to success show a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviors during their middle-school years. The research is considered the first evidence linking preteens’ emotional and behavioral outcomes to their belief in meritocracy, the widely held assertion that individual merit is always rewarded.

“If you’re in an advantaged position in society, believing the system is fair and that everyone could just get ahead if they just tried hard enough doesn’t create any conflict for you … [you] can feel good about how [you] made it,” said Erin Godfrey, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School. But for those marginalized by the system—economically, racially, and ethnically—believing the system is fair puts them in conflict with themselves and can have negative consequences.”

– Melinda D. Anderson, “Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color.” The Atlantic, July 27, 2017.

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“IN SEARCH OF historical analogies for our present crisis, pundits often compare the present to the Civil War or to the reassertion of white supremacy immediately following the end of Reconstruction. But it is the longer Gilded Age that our own moment more closely resembles. In the 1890s, the US suffered the most violent labor conflicts in the world; in the 1930s, developments in the US caused the greatest global capitalist crisis in history. During all these years, it was routine to wonder whether the country was falling apart. Industrial society produced inequalities and physically destroyed workers in its factories; political institutions seemed incapable of responding. The constitutional system’s endless veto points made it nearly impossible for the poor to use elections to better their lot. Business elites wielded outsize power at virtually every level of government, which they exercised to defeat social programs and to criminalize labor organizing and protest. It was a political world marked by sensational conflict, in which class war wasn’t a metaphor. Nor, as in the person of Sanders’s hero Eugene Debs or in black labor leaders like A. Philip Randolph, was socialism a mere rumor. During the Great Depression, a major political party even became partly indebted to the labor movement. For a brief period, labor helped provide the Democrats with supermajorities—backed by an implicit threat of social revolution, which was necessary to implement meaningful reform.

At the same time, unreconstructed white supremacy remained part of the country’s drinking water. A majority believed the United States was an intrinsically white republic under extreme duress from recently emancipated, migrating black populations and growing numbers of southern European and Asian immigrants. These white fears created a climate of continuous racial terror and transformed paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan—a creature not just of the South but of the North and West as well, with strongholds in Indiana and Oregon—into among the most powerful social forces in collective life, with a membership in the 1920s of around 4 million people.

World War II and the confrontation with the Soviet Union fundamentally altered existing political dynamics. The war against Nazism delegitimized isolationist sentiment, made overt white-supremacist politics an international liability, and fostered support for an aggressive American global presence after the war. As attention turned to the Soviet Union, policy makers developed a new account of the cultural and political differences between the United States and the country’s totalitarian foe. As opposed to those of its global adversary, they contended, the interests of America were coterminous with the world’s interests. Taking up threads from earlier politicians, from Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt to Albert Beveridge and Woodrow Wilson, early cold warriors effectively wove together a new past for the nation, newly cleansed of official racism. The United States, they declared, had been from its founding committed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence: self-government, universal equality, and personal liberty. All this licensed an assertion of American international police power—largely unprecedented outside the Western Hemisphere—and the country’s position as world steward and first nation.

In the context of competition with the Soviet Union, the American push to world hegemony placed new pressures on postwar domestic politics. As decolonization began in Asia and Africa, national elites became concerned about winning over politically assertive and newly independent nonwhite populations in the Global South. Jim Crow became an international public-relations problem: for western Republicans like Earl Warren or southern Democrats like Lyndon Johnson both, racial reform was a foreign-affairs imperative. If the Soviet Union embraced a language of racial egalitarianism and anti-imperialism, the US, too, had to recast state-sponsored discrimination as out of step with the march of American history.

Just as important, the challenge of the Soviet Union created a need to project global prosperity. Although not nearly as wealthy as the United States, the USSR offered a clear example in the postwar years of an impoverished state that had rapidly industrialized. The US responded by attempting to provide developing states with tangible material benefits. This was most obviously underscored by the Bretton Woods institutions and the Marshall Plan. Both were organized on the principle that the US should support a global system for reconstruction and development, undergirded by the noblesse oblige of American capital. The system grew out of a desire for American corporations to profit, surely—the benefits were real enough—but also out of a genuine desire to produce practical economic achievements that could stand up against the Soviet alternative.

Under this framework, civil rights reforms were passed, US economic leadership grew, and uncooperative politicians like George Wallace were pushed to the margins. Both parties had committed to the basic elements of what became “the American model.” At home, it involved a modest welfare state combined with meliorism on issues of race. Abroad, the goal was the reconstruction of foreign societies on American terms through the spread of market capitalism and the legal-political institutions of liberal democracy. The aim: an American-led world community in the nation’s own reconceived image, driven by collective security and a supposedly enlightened capitalism, with US military power and wealth as the ultimate guarantor.

IN THE PAST YEAR it has become commonplace for left-liberals and even conservatives of the Bill Kristol and David Frum variety to pine for the sureties of the postwar project: the serenity of labor-business cooperation, the joy of global multilateralism, and the bonhomie of bipartisan faith in American exceptionalism. Some liberals appear willing even to forgive the Kristols and Frums of the world for their ardent warmongering, as long as they repeat bromides on race and voice support for human rights.

But one cannot discuss the civil rights achievements of the cold-war era without recognizing the degree to which they were enabled by imperialism. Freedom at home was used to justify unfreedom abroad: Harry Truman explicitly argued that for American foreign ambitions to succeed, the country would have to “correct the remaining imperfections in our practice of democracy”; Lyndon Johnson was said to have called “segregation” at home “absolutely crazy” because “80 percent of the world is not white.” And although the US presence abroad was defended as promoting liberal democracy, whenever foreign populations opposed American preferences the consequences were staggering—direct involvement or complicity in mass violence, coups, and assassinations across large swaths of the world, epitomized by the American war in Vietnam but extending to hundreds of thousands of deaths in Indonesia, Central America, Chile, and elsewhere.

Cold-war rhetoric also downplayed the extent to which systematic forms of political and economic subordination defined the experience of racial minorities and indigenous peoples within US borders. The cold-war vision presented the achievement of racial equality as a matter of simply completing the project of liberal integration. Unlike the dominant views on the left before the 1940s—when even establishment academics took for granted that the Constitution was a counterrevolutionary document—the new assumption of the cold-war order was that American institutions were essentially just, and the only necessary change would be to open these institutions to worthy members of black and brown communities. Little attention was paid, as it had been in sections of the left in the 1930s, to how racial and class subordination were intertwined, let alone to how American capitalism was both racialized and inherently oppressive. One should not romanticize that period; the incipient forms of 1930s organizing, against the backdrop of persistent racial discrimination within the labor movement, hardly suggested a clear path to liberation. But what marked that pre-cold-war era was real ideological openness, a variety of genuine political possibilities—some emancipatory, some deeply destructive—at least in comparison with what followed.

This closing off of ideological alternatives partly explains why the cold-war order was bound to unravel. The bargain between business and labor led to the entrenchment of economic hierarchy and the defeat of social democracy. Where in the 1930s radical elements of the labor movement had influence in the Democratic Party, following the cold-war crackdowns on communism, labor radicals lost it all. Government provision of social programs and business’s acceptance of collective bargaining came with a stipulation: the union had to change from a class-conscious instrument of mass democratic organization to a more limited special-interest group. The AFL -CIO left issues like control and management to business, and parroted cold-war patriotism. For union leaders like Walter Reuther, fearful of McCarthyism and optimistic after decades of union growth, this was an acceptable exchange. Over time, it cost unions the ability to contest the terms of the state, which chipped away at domestic labor gains while promoting a pro-business foreign policy through force of arms.

By the early 1970s, the postwar consensus had frayed. Economic crisis, social rebellion, and failure in Vietnam exposed the limitations of the early cold-war vision. Reaganite conservatives blamed these failures on a bloated government, a corrupt labor movement, and a black community mired in pathologies. But while he seemed to repudiate basic elements of the cold-war framework, Reagan, in his runs for the presidency in 1976 and 1980, couched his appeals in a nostalgic and virulent militarism: an effort to take America back to the good old days. (His 1980 campaign was the first to proclaim, “Let’s make America great again.”) In this climate, both parties rejected the deeper goals of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., from social democracy and radical racial reform to an end to American interventionism. But they nonetheless symbolically sanctified the civil rights movement’s legislative achievements, which could stand as proof of the national capacity for progress. In this way, Reagan reset, rather than overturned, the cold-war order.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union a decade later represented the ultimate confirmation of the worldview. It was critical in shaping the political identities of the Clintons, Obama, and the younger Bushes. Although extensive structural disparities between white and black society persisted, the integration of elite institutions and the growth of the black middle and professional classes appeared to herald a new postracialism. The demise of the Soviet Union ended debates about alternatives to capitalism and also seemed to bolster the legitimacy of US international adventurism. The only proof one needed for the basic goodness of the American project, at home and abroad, was 1989.

WELL INTO THE 2010S, American political elites of both parties shared a common vision. They remained gripped by a cold-war imagination that saw the ascendancy of American liberalism not as a unique confluence of events generated by the combination of the Depression, war, and Soviet competition, but rather as the country’s natural and permanent progression. Men like John McCain and Obama believed so deeply in this story because they had worked and suffered for it, and it had given their lives a larger meaning. And for periods in American life, if one kept to the proper circles, it could actually feel true: wealth was indeed generated, excluded groups were included, and threatening adversaries were defeated.

The problem turned out to be that neither the ideals nor the institutions were up to the challenges to come. Structural economic problems had been mounting for decades, and new problems had been created in the meantime. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were international adventures larger than any since the Vietnam war. The global financial crisis underscored the precariousness of middle- and working-class economic security and exposed the scale of the divide between haves and have-nots. As the country reeled from near-economic collapse, the carceral state’s generational effects on poor and black communities led to mass protest and social rebellion. The years 2014–16 saw more civil unrest than any time since the early 1970s.

Apparently unrelated, each of these crises was the result of policies based in core cold-war assumptions: the moral value of American interventionism, the faith in market liberalism, and the presumption that American institutions were bending toward racial equality, simply in need of small-scale reforms. The policies that had set the nation down these paths had been enacted precisely because they fit so well within the cold-war frame. And as political elites responded, the dominance of that frame led them back to the same old cold-war toolkit: more intervention (Libya, Syria, Yemen), more marketized social services (Obamacare), more minor racial adjustments (body cameras, sensitivity training).

The size of these crises would have made them difficult to contain under any circumstances. But political leaders confronted another new reality: the growing intractability of the American constitutional structure. Starting in the years immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, then accelerating with the election of the first black president in 2008, American political decision-making became defined by paralysis. Even if political elites had had the creative imagination to pursue large-scale change—as the New Dealers did before the cold-war consensus took hold—it now became impossible for reforms of almost any kind to make their way through governing institutions short of a supermajority.1

In the 1990s, encomiums to the Constitution were taken for granted. It was commonplace for scholars and commentators, drawing on arguments that flourished at the beginning of the cold war, to praise James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for devising the very features in the US Constitution that promoted deadlock. According to this conventional wisdom, checks and balances warded off tyranny: by limiting the power of any single political actor, they ensured that one did not need a society of “angels” for democracy to function.

But as pre-cold-war reformers understood, American political institutions actually require precisely the opposite to work: a near-angelic degree of social cohesion (if not agreement on political ends) among empowered elites. The cold-war order had in fact been forged on two related facts. The first was an organized working class that helped deliver the supermajorities needed to defeat barriers to mass democracy in the 1930s, and then mustered enough electoral strength in the decades that followed to expand, or at least protect, the social safety net their efforts had secured. Just as essential, the confrontation with the Soviet Union fostered cohesion among political elites in ways that produced the conditions for compromise, most dramatically evidenced during the period of 1960s civil rights legislation. When the Republican senator Everett Dirksen helped break the Southern filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, declaring, “The time has come for equality of opportunity. . . . It will not be stayed or denied,” he was speaking the same liberal universalist language as Lyndon Johnson and was motivated, regardless of the partisan divide, by much the same vision of the country and its global mission.

With working-class organizations weakened, it has become hard to see how any political coalition can elect a supermajority capable of overcoming the Constitution’s roadblocks. At the same time, the US’s enemies, from marginal global players like North Korea to weak nonstate actors like al Qaeda or ISIS, hardly present an existential competitor in the style of the USSR. There are no longer external incentives for elite agreement. Instead, a combination of intense party polarization and the profound influence of money have left the legislative branch constitutively unable to confront fundamental social issues. And as Obama’s post-2010 time in office made clear, even the ever-more-powerful executive branch is limited when it comes to reshaping domestic policy.

The dysfunction is not a matter of our institutions alone. When the Bushes and Clintons of the world reached political power, what it meant to be American had a very specific content. Politicians knew what homilies they had to repeat to be taken seriously by party gatekeepers and thus rise to prominence. They had to defend Constitution and country, and to see in the founding principles a basic commitment to universal equality. They had to embrace free enterprise as the greatest economic system on earth. They had to speak glowingly about American exceptionalism and the country’s global responsibilities. Every one of these views remained seriously contested within sections of the public, on both the right and the left. Members of the white citizens’ councils in the South did not simply stop believing in white nationalism. Similarly, the radical political activism of the 1960s and ’70s, which challenged the combined evils of white supremacy, capitalism, and militarism, did not simply evaporate with the resignation of Nixon. These threatening ideas were suppressed, often through force by the state, and they were disavowed—even if still expressed under cover of “dog whistles”—by the two main political parties. There may have been popular constituencies for beliefs that fell outside the polite consensus, but those constituencies had no explicit home in establishment politics.

But with more than two decades having passed since the cold war, and the republic’s basic institutions paralyzed, the country was overdue for a reckoning. In the Republican Party, the candidates of the old center-right, like Jeb Bush and John Kasich, were dispatched with ease. In the Democratic Party, Clinton ran as an old-fashioned cold warrior, with a flag-waving party convention that looked, and at times even sounded, like what Nixon or Reagan might have offered, embracing the national security establishment and repeating the truisms of the postwar order (“We are great because we are good”). This strategy won Clinton the most votes, from her party and the general voting public, but the center of political gravity nevertheless shifted elsewhere. On the left, those who championed Sanders and rallied to social movements have not hesitated to critique capitalism, defend socialism, reject the national security state and hyper-incarceration, and call for both a dismantling of the banks and an end to racial and class inequality on a structural level. On the right, new life has been breathed into perhaps the most powerful pre-cold-war ideological position in American history: the long-standing combination of anti-elitism, economic populism, and white nationalism, stretching in various permutations from Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson, Father Coughlin, and George Wallace.

The differences between Trump’s and Wallace’s political trajectories are instructive. In 1972, Wallace’s third attempt to claim the Democratic nomination was derailed by an assassination attempt. But his failure overall was also due to coordinated efforts within the party to deny him the nomination. A significant part of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 primary strategy involved running popular local surrogates against Wallace in the states where Wallace ran. In 2016, no analogous effort was mobilized against Trump. Part of the reason was that in the 1960s and ’70s, elites still appreciated the power of overt white supremacy. Four decades later, the leadership in both parties simply could not believe that their invocations of “American values” would fail to blunt the appeal of an old man who trafficked in explicit racism and misogyny, and who embodied elements of the past long assumed to have been politically vanquished. But Trump’s success was in part due to his advanced age. Raised in the early days of the cold war, he gave voice to the sentiments and vitriol of a previous era when white nationalism was active enough that it had to be aggressively tamped down. This might also explain why Trump’s parallel figure on the left was also a septuagenarian. In his youth, Sanders joined the Young People’s Socialist League, a group that originated in the Progressive-era Socialist Party. He came of age with a politics that predates the cold war—perhaps this, and their rise outside the party process for culling nonestablishment voices, are the two men’s only real similarities.”

– Aziz Rana, “Goodbye, Cold War: For the first time, we are living in a truly post-cold-war political environment in the United States.” n+1, February 2018 issue.

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“A journalist for the Evening Independent wrote that [General Amos] Fries was often “accused of being an absolute militarist anxious to develop a military caste in the United States.” But to those who shared his cause, Fries was an excellent figurehead. A family man, a dedicated soldier, and a talented engineer, Fries was the perfect face of a more modern warfare.

Just as some in Europe argued that chemical weapons were a mark of a civilized society, for General Fries war gases were the ultimate American technology. They were a sign of the troops’ perseverance in World War I and an emblem of industrial modernity, showcasing the intersection of science and war. In an Armistice Day radio speech broadcast in 1924, Fries said, “The extent to which chemistry is used can almost be said today to be a barometer of the civilization of a country.” This was posed as a direct intervention to the international proposal for a ban on chemical weapons: Preparations for the Geneva Convention were well under way. If chemical weapons were banned, Fries knew it would likely mean the end of the CWS [Chemical Warfare Service] — and with it his blossoming postwar career.

To save the CWS from extinction, Fries would need his own army — one that would fight with rhetoric and social capital. Over the autumn of 1919, Fries worked to secure a network of publicists, scientists, and politicians to rally for their cause. They strategically began a full-scale multimedia marketing campaign to promote “war gases for peace time use.”

The trade press provided the first and largest forum for the spread of the tear-gas gospel. In the November 6, 1921, issue of Gas Age Record, Theo M. Knappen profiled Fries, the “dynamic chief” of the Chemical Warfare Service. Knappen wrote that Fries had

given much study to the question of the use of gas and smokes in dealing with mobs as well as with savages, and is firmly convinced that as soon as officers of the law and colonial administrators have familiarized themselves with gas as a means of maintaining order and power there will be such a diminution of violent social disorders and savage uprising as to amount to their disappearance.

In the future, Knappen predicted, when breaking up a demonstration, tear gas “will be the easy way and the best way.”

This early promotional writing struck a careful balance between selling pain and promising harmlessness. Its psychological impact set tear gas apart from bullets: It could demoralize and disperse a crowd without live ammunition. Through sensory torture, tear gas could force people to retreat.

These features gave it novelty value in a market where only the billy club and bullets had previously been available. Officers could disperse a crowd with “a minimum amount of undesirable publicity.” Instead of traces of blood and bruises, tear gas evaporates from the scene, its damage so much less pronounced on the surface of the skin or in the lens of the camera.

But the idea of transforming wartime weapons for peacetime use was not without its critics. In a 1922 letter to the New York Times, US Army veteran A. Reid Moir argued that gas was not only inhumane but “hellish.” He wrote, “Is it humane to lie in excruciating pain, with stomach swollen by the expansion of gas, and with lungs eaten by the deadly vapor to cough up one’s life in an agonizing convulsion?”

Fries’s team had carefully constructed comebacks for such objections. Borrowing loosely from medical statistics, Fries and his team constructed a trio of retorts. War gases, they claimed, killed only one-twelfth the amount of fatalities caused by bullets. Second, only half of disability discharges were from gas. Finally, they argued that there was no medical proof of permanent injury from gas exposure and that serious injuries were very rare.

Numbers could be twisted, but veterans’ testimonies stood in their way. Fries and his team claimed these were exaggerated tales, going so far as to publicly declare that “every imposter is beginning to claim gassing as the reason for his wanting War Sick benefits from the government.” This approach provided the groundwork for the decades of legitimizing less lethal weaponry to come.

Never far from Fries’s lenient use of statistics were his rationalizations of colonial myth as fact. Fries’s writing and speeches are littered with references to white supremacy. In his lecture at the General Staff College, Fries told young soldiers, “The same training that makes for advancement in science, and success in manufacture in peace, gives the control of the body that hold the white man to the ring line no matter what its terrors. A great deal of this comes because the white man has had trained out of him nearly all superstition.” It is this training, for Fries, that sets him apart from the “negro” as well as the “Gurkha and the Moroccan.”

While it would be easy to write Fries off as an anti-communist, racist, and military extremist, the potency of his views arose from his intellect as much as his ignorance. After graduating seventh in his class from West Point in 1898, Fries had entered the academy by acing an exam held by Congressman Binger Herman and went on to impress his superiors and inspire his army subordinates.

In the words of his peers, Fries took a situation in which “the entire civilian population,” as well as the army, stood against his pro-gas campaign and ignited in people an “earnest conviction” that these chemicals were the solution to law enforcement and political control in a time of economic depression. Instead of being seen as a form of physiological and psychological torture, tear gas became rhetorically cemented in much of the public imagination as the humanitarian alternative to live ammunition.

Into the next century, tear gas would become the most widely used less lethal technology. It would transform into part of today’s $1,630,000,000 global industry in less-lethal weapons, with rapidly expanding markets in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But for all that to unfold, Fries and his compatriots would first need to build up a commercial market for tear gas.

Commercializing Tear Gas
Beyond trade publications, radio speeches, and news features, Fries and his network also staged large-scale product demonstrations. On a balmy July day in 1921, Fries’s old friend and colleague Stephen J. De La Noy brought large supplies of tear gas to a field near downtown Philadelphia. Here he enacted the power of war gases in peacetime by inviting members of the city’s police department to experience its effects. Inviting reporters to record the spectacle of 200 policemen faced with tear gas, De La Noy set the stage for an enticing media story.

A reporter from the New York Times described how the gas “thrice sent [the police] into hasty and wet-eyed retreat.” As the demonstration continued, Philadelphia’s police superintendent selected “a battalion of his huskiest men … with instructions to capture six men who were armed with 150 tear gas bombs.” They fared no better than the first bunch, as “three times they charged, but each time were driven back, weeping violently as they came within range of the charged vapor.” Afterwards, police officials told the Times that the demonstration “undoubtedly proved the value of tear gas in police work.” The gas, they concluded, would likely replace “means hitherto used to subdue mobs and criminals.”

This early demonstration spawned a major national and international campaign for the use of tear gases by law enforcement agencies. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s both the CWS and commercial manufacturers peddled their products to police departments, National Guard, prisons, and private security firms.

This marked a turning point in what is today called the “militarization of the police.” “A few police armed with this weapon could disperse a mob easily and destroy the impact of a mass demonstration,” historian Daniel P. Jones argues. “The dramatic increase in the power of police forces in handling mass disturbances certainly meant a loss of power to any group opposing established order.”

Just as demand needed to be secured, so too did supply. To jump-start the commercial market, Fries donated samples from the CWS to friends — many of them former soldiers — who had become entrepreneurial executives in gas munitions companies.

Perhaps the most outspoken of these was Colonel B. C. Goss, who had worked in the chemical warfare division during World War I. A respected chemist and decorated military man, Goss founded the Lake Erie Chemical Company in Cleveland, Ohio. As general manager of one of the largest companies in this new industry, Goss knew profits would follow perception. He wanted to be the single manufacturer supported by the US military, and sought to use his wartime credentials to make this happen. Goss solicited help from his old CWS buddies and learned the art of twisting scientific testing into advertising copy.

On April 15, 1926, Goss wrote to Fries requesting that he contact the Chicago Superintendent of Police, Morgan A. Collins, “calling his attention to the fact that there are many possible new uses and new chemicals which are admirably suited for use by police departments, with which you would like to have them made acquainted, and that you would appreciate it if he could arrange to have me give a brief talk to the National Convention of Police Chiefs at Chicago.” Fries, uncomfortable with this request but committed to Goss, delayed his reply. Busy preparing for a confidential show at Edgewood Arsenal, Fries “hesitated about writing to the Chicago Chief of Police for fear of possible unfavorable reaction.” He thought it better if the superintendent could telephone him, at which point he could then recommend Goss as a keynote speaker, making the matter appear more casual. “You know my great personal interest in what you are doing,” Fries reassured Goss, “As fast as your products are available, send them along to us for test.”

Within a year, the CWS was providing tests of Lake Erie’s commercial products. The company’s new tear-gas weapons were set to undergo scrutiny at Edgewood Arsenal in the winter of 1927. While Goss was soliciting military endorsements, he wanted to make sure the tests were carried out in a way that provided the best possible outcome. This was no ordinary tear gas. “These Shells are intended to be used, namely, for firing directly in the faces of rioters or mobs, at short range by guards,” Goss wrote, checking in with Fries on February 17, 1927, to recommend that testing be done only with the one-inch Very Pistols instead of the ten-gauge. He promised, “These one-inch shells really have a terrific wallop.”

On February 25, the CWS reported the results of Lake Erie’s “Blind-X Shell” tests. In the opinion of the board, this tear gas was of no use in the outdoors, as Goss had noted in his letter. Yet the gas “would seriously injure if fired in the face of a person under twenty feet,” making it useful for “warehouses or other large rooms.” It recommended that “the charge must be received full in the face or on the body to be effective” and that this gas “will be effective against unarmed individuals, but will only stop a determined and armed individual when red point blank.”

While the Lake Erie “Blind-X Shells” tests were just one in long series of munitions tests to take place at the Arsenal, the results speak toward common misperceptions about how tear gas is handled. Today when canisters are shot at people’s heads or into rooms or cars, it is seen as an accident or against-protocol use. However, these tests show that tear gas was in fact intentionally designed to be shot at point-blank range at people’s faces and bodies and was indeed recommended for use inside buildings and for ring at close proximities.

Second, the test results explicitly stated that the product would be effective against “unarmed individuals.” Again, it was not an anomaly or ethical mistake for police to fire upon unarmed protesters at close range in enclosed spaces. This function was embedded in the very design of these tear-gas weapons. Causing injury to unarmed civilians was an intended outcome of manufacturing these tear-gas shells.

Today, companies claim to manufacture safer and safer forms of tear gas and less lethal weapons. But what does it really mean to improve on the safety of a device designed to cause harm? Is it truly an accident when a product developed to shoot people in the face is used to shoot people in the face? If you follow the hyperlinked trails of less-lethal-weapons patents into the past, you will see the mystifying language of safety and protocols erode. Yet the design and purpose of these technologies remains the same.”

– Anna Feiggenbaum, “The Man Behind The Mask.Jacobin, January 5, 2018. 

Extract from Tear Gas. London: Verso, 2017.

Picture is from a Federal Laboratories, Inc. brochure touting the value of the ‘Federal Gas Riot Gun,’ 1932. LAC RG73. 1-8-1. Vol. 1.

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From revolution to World War Two
The Russian revolution and the formation of the Comintern cemented the political split between reformism and revolutionary socialism. The way in which the revolution unfolded concretely demonstrated the correctness of rejecting social chauvinism. However, as the Russian revolution was ravaged by the civil war, its working class decimated, and the revolution became isolated as revolutionary wave in Europe retreated, the Russian Communist Party shifted its political line away from international revolution towards ‘socialism in one country.’ This mirrored the outlook of the rising bureaucracy in the Soviet state. As Duncan Hallas notes:

“‘Socialism in one country’ fitted well with the needs and aspirations of the newly-emerging bureaucracy. It meant focussing on a national arena which they could aspire to control, rather than on an international class struggle which they could not. At the same time it was a banner around which they could group. As Trotsky put it, socialism in one country ‘expressed unmistakably the mood of the bureaucracy. When speaking of the victory of socialism, they meant their own victory.’”

The logic of this change of position meant that other communist parties were subordinated to the survival of the USSR. The Comintern, which was an instrument for world-wide revolution, was slowly dispensed with, meeting infrequently and eventually abolished. The international class struggle was subsumed into the interests and outlook of the Soviet state.

Between the reformist wing of the socialist movement and the communist movement adopting a ‘socialism in one country’ perspective stood a very small layer of socialists around Leon Trotsky, who had split from communist parties after its abandonment international revolution. This International Left Opposition became known as Trotskyism. Trotskyists saw themselves as standing in the best traditions of international socialism, as James Cannon a prominent American follower of Trotsky stated:

“Trotskyism is not a new movement, a new doctrine, but the restoration, the revival, of genuine Marxism as it was expounded and practised in the Russian revolution and in the early days of the Communist International.”

This tiny movement faced its first real test about how to apply its political perspective of international socialism to actual current events with Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. The Independent Labour Party in Great Britain, which split from the main Labour Party in 1932, was divided over the issue, with one faction of the party seeing this as just a quarrel between two dictators. Trotsky correctly saw that in the context of rising fascism and imperialism the invasion of Abyssinia should be resisted no matter what one thought of its ruler Haile Selassie. As Trotsky stated at the time:

“If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of the Negus, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.”

C.L.R James, then a member of the ILP and a follower of Trotsky opposed the use of sanctions by the British against Italy for fear disorienting class struggle politics by subsuming it under the banner of the British state:

“Let us fight against not only Italian imperialism, but the other robbers and oppressors, French and British imperialism. Do not let them drag you in. To come within the orbit of imperialist politics is to be debilitated by the stench, to be drowned in the morass of lies and hypocrisy.  

Workers of Britain, peasants and workers of Africa, get closer together for this and for other fights. But keep far from the imperialists and their Leagues and covenants and sanctions. Do not play the fly to their spider.

Now, as always, let us stand for independent organisation and independent action. We have to break our own chains. Who is the fool that expects our gaolers to break them?”

The young Trotskyist movement was able to put forward a political position that rejected growing imperialism and fascism in a way that aimed to build the class struggle at home while also maintaining the centrality of an independent working class politics internationally. Trotsky was repeatedly clear that Selassie should not be romanticized, but that a defeat of Mussolini was a set back for not only Italian fascism. but for British and French imperialism as well. This was a concrete application of the politics of international socialism. The only problem was that Trotskyist movement was too marginal for this to be impactful.

World War Two: The development of Neither Washington nor Moscow
The outbreak of World War Two put the young Trotskyist movement to its greatest test. The zigzags of the Comintern and Soviet state policy from the late 1920s through the 1930s meant communist parties around the globe went from rejecting united activity with socialist parties and working within established trade unions at the at beginning of the 1930s to forging alliances with liberal parties and trade union bureaucrats by the end of the decade. Most notably the Soviet state signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. This non-aggression pact carved up Poland, saw the Soviets send resources to Nazi Germany and abandon the European working class in its fight against fascism.

Trotsky and his followers predicted that a period of revolutions and rising class struggle would follow the war and they stridently opposed the imperial war while aiming to stoke class tensions at home. For Trotsky, the USSR and its socialized property relations, though not its ruling bureaucracy, were to be defended. For states invaded by the USSR – the Baltic states and Poland – the Stalinist regime could be criticized but those invasions laid a foundation upon which socialism could be built. As Trotsky argued:

“First, the defeat of the USSR would supply imperialism with new colossal resources and could prolong for many years the death agony of capitalist society. Secondly, the social foundations of the USSR, cleansed of the parasitic bureaucracy are capable of assuring unbounded economic and cultural progress, while the capitalist foundations disclose no possibilities except further decay…

Our tasks in the occupied territories remain basically the same as in the USSR itself…

We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production of the USSR: that the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR is subordinate for us to the question of the world proletarian revolution.”

This position was critiqued inside the Trotskyist movement, most notably by Max Shachtman and those who would go on to form the Workers Party in the United States (splitting from the Socialist Workers Party). The split was over the question of the nature of the USSR and a perspective of class struggle from below. In his reply to Trotsky Shachtman critiqued Trotsky’s unconditional defence of the USSR and the notion that it could have a positive revolutionary influence into states it had conquered:

“I cannot leave unmentioned your references to the “revolutionary” role of Stalinism in its recent invasions.

“In the first case (Spain), the bureaucracy through hangman’s methods strangled a socialist revolution. In the second case (Poland) it gave an impulse to the socialist revolution through bureaucratic methods.”

Here again, I find myself compelled to disagree with you. The bureaucratic bourgeois revolution – that I know of. I know of Napoleon’s “revolution from above” in Poland over a hundred years ago. I know of Alexander’s emancipation of the serfs “from above” – out of fear of peasant uprisings. I know of Bismarck’s “revolution from above.” I know that Hitler and Mussolini play with the idea of an Arab “national revolution” in Palestine out of purely imperialist and military reasons – directed against their rival, England. But the bureaucratic proletarian revolution – that I do not know of and I do not believe in it. I do not believe that it took place in Poland even for a day – or that it is taking place or is about to take place in Finland.”

Shachtman and his followers in the Trotskyist movement would frame this perspective as “third campism”, stating during World War Two, that they we were for “neither London-Paris or Berlin-Moscow but for the third camp of international socialism”.

“We say there is in this war a third camp independent of either of the two warring imperialist camps, the camp of the world working class, cut off from all political control, inarticulate, brutally repressed when it raises its head, but ceaselessly in ferment, pushing up from below, breaking through the surface to assert its human rights and needs. This is our camp, the camp of the hundreds of millions of men and women with black and white and yellow and brown skins who have no say about whether “their” country sends them to death. To accept any of the two-camp alternatives, however good and noble one’s intentions may be, is to give aid to the war-makers, since all three slogans are essentially more or less well disguised devices to enlist the masses under one military banner or another. The policy of the third camp, the camp which fights under the banner of world revolution to overthrow all the existing governments of the two imperialist camps, this is the only realistic anti-war policy.”

The development of third campism was in response to a series of on-going crises within the international socialist movement about how to resist imperialism and how to build the independent capacities and politics of the working class to shape its own destiny. The proponents of third campism, like the Trotskyist movement before it, saw their position not as an original insight, rather as the correct application of international socialist politics in their current context.

Reorienting in the Cold War context
When the war ended instead of confronting an internal crisis as predicted the USSR expanded its sphere of influence. A brief upsurge in working class militancy in the West in the immediate aftermath of the war was followed by the Cold War and stabilization and expansion of world capitalism. These event caused a series of debates and splits on the Trotskyist left over questions of the nature of the Soviet Union that underpinned the assumptions that world revolution was around the corner. Was the Soviet state a workers state, albeit degenerated, because of its property form? If so what were the territories conquered by the USSR? Were they capitalist, or a deformed workers’ states due to their property form, or something else entirely? These questions created all sorts of confusion and debate within the Trotskyist movement.

While these debates may seem abstract and even comical in retrospect, socialists were wrestling with difficult and unprecedented questions in a very new context. The emerging Cold War between two, but unequal, blocs meant the left had to have clarity with how to position itself in this conflict both at home and abroad. Those in the CP’s orbit who believed the USSR was the torchbearer for international socialism, seeing its actions as bringing socialism to newly conquered nations, concluded the USSR must be defended. The tactical and strategic orientations of CP activists around the globe flowed from this perspective. Often in many countries this saw the CP aim to make progressive blocs with the liberal left or “progressive” capital. Those on the social democratic or liberal left who saw in the USSR an unspeakable authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies concluded that they must align their own ruling class’ anti-communist worldview against the USSR’s totalitarianism.

Socialist taking a third camp position aimed to develop an alternative analysis and theory of the Soviet bloc and the new capitalist global order. Some like Shachtman and Bruno Rizzi viewed the USSR no longer as a workers’ state, but as a bureaucratic collectivist society or bureaucratic state socialism. The logic of this position, with its sole focus on the authoritarian nature of the state bureaucracy, rather than the political economy of the system, lead some like Shachtman to increasingly see the USSR as the greatest imperial danger. Others like Tony Cliff, Raya Dunayevskaya, and C.L.R. James developed an analysis that the USSR was state capitalist (there were very notable differences within this perspective and it should be remembered that various socialists, anarchists and social-democrats had used this terminology to describe Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, though most did little to develop the theory). While the bureaucratic state socialist position saw the USSR as a new form of class society, the state capitalist analysis tried to grapple with the mode of production and the position and alienation of workers in society and the workplace.

The development of theories like state capitalism were not merely an exercise in an abstract political debate, rather they aimed to clarify and rearticulate the Marxist principle of the self-emancipation of the working class. In most western countries in the post-war era working class politics was split between liberal/social democratic parties and unions hewing close to the Cold War logic of their respective ruling class and communist parties and unions aligning themselves with Moscow. State capitalism was an attempt at reasserting the importance and centrality of the working class in the struggle for socialism.

State capitalism posited that the USSR could and did engage in imperial adventures. This was not simply a function of policy choices made by a ruling bureaucracy, but more fundamentally they were the expression of the political economy of the USSR, where the logic of accumulation and expansion, were thrust on the state via external global military competition.

The Socialist Review Group, a third campist split from the Fourth International in Great Britain, adopted the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow” and argued the Cold War had defanged working class socialist politics stating, “the present power of the two world camps is largely based on the dragooning by force and trickery of the many by the few. Let us set up our standard against all such methods and lead the way to working for a genuine international socialism–not for Washington, nor for Moscow.”

Applying the Third Campist perspective
The slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow” was outlining a political outlook that was challenging the twin ideological influences of Moscow and Washington (via communist parties and social democratic parties) on the working class. The slogan was never developed or intended to specifically guide concrete political action in a given circumstance, rather it was about placing class struggle from below back at the centre of socialism.

For instance the Socialist Review Group’s position on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was to support the push for unilateral disarmament of Great Britain, while also noting that both sides of the Iron Curtain’s game of nuclear brinksmanship stem not simply from misguided or bad politicians but from the logic of imperial rivalry and capitalist competition. In articles and editorials in International Socialism in the late 1950s through the early 1960s, the SRG/IS position was not simply that both sides should disarm or that the USSR and United States and it allies are equally to blame. Rather that the CND should push to transform the call for unilateral disarmament into a heightened class struggle, as numerous International Socialist articles and editorials in 1960 argued:

“It (the CND) should broaden its propaganda to take in all aspects of the struggle against the Powers that Be. Strikers should hear that the Campaign believes a blow against the Boss is a blow against the Bomb, Workers should know and see that CND will mobilize support for them not only as marchers but as workers. In this way working class action against individual bosses might be united and directed against the bosses as a whole, might indeed become a political struggle against the entire system and its monstrous issue – the Bomb…

‘Our strongest weapon would be to link the issue of defence with the stuff of ordinary life … It is obvious that progress for the Left lies in breaking down the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy into the small chips of class struggle.”

The critique of the CND presented in the journal was that right-wing had well understood the unstated implications of the unilateralist position, withdrawal from NATO and the dissolution of the American alliance, while the Left had largely shirked these implications. As an editorial in the journal stated “we must clarify the implications of unilateralism: the fight against the Bomb is a fight against the Boss.”

The SRG third campist position was not a simply  “Neither Washington nor Moscow” but the application of a class struggle line to a concrete campaign under a specific set of historical conditions.

The western left’s position on the Vietnam war also follows a similar trajectory. The initial liberal left opposition to the war in the United States, which was supported by the CP, was framed around the call for “negotiations” between the North Vietnamese and the United States. A small minority of radical pacificists and socialist took the position of immediate withdrawal. The British International Socialists’ (formerly the SRG ) position on the conflict was that of immediate withdrawal. The organization had major political differences with the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, and did not think their program or perspective were the path to socialism, but they supported their victory nonetheless, stating:

“Thus there is no contradiction between support and realistic appraisal. We must oppose the terrorism of US intervention in Vietnam, and we must defend unconditionally the right of Vietnamese to be left free of outside intervention – to do so, in the circumstances, is to offer unconditional support to the NLF. But Ho Chi Minh is not thereby made some genial uncle, nor the NLF merely the Vietnamese YMCA – the fog of cosy sentimentality with which Communists seek to cloud the issue must not mislead anyone. Of course, when the issue of American power is settled we know what kind of regime and policies the NLF will choose – and be forced to choose by the logic of their situation. But that is, for the moment, another fight, the real fight for socialism. Socialists must support every genuine struggle against imperialism and capitalist oppression – whether it be by workers of the advanced countries or by all classes in the backward.”

While a rigid an unthinking application of the line of “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” could lead to the adoption of a position of neutrality in direct and proxy struggles between the Cold War superpowers, it would completely miss the context of a rising political movement in the West against war and imperialism as a 1966 International Socialist editorial stated:

“Those that choose solely to oppose the Vietnam war as a moral gesture or in isolation from the domestic policies of the Government, not only misunderstand the significance of Vietnam, but also disarm themselves: for only working-class action can ultimately check Wilson and begin to end the war.”

The politics of third campism captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s as protests, rebellions, and upsurges from below swept across the globe. The emergence of Eurocommunism, and the growth of Maoist and some Trotskyists organizations on the far-left signalled a modest ideological shift in left politics from the beginning of the Cold War. The dominance of Moscow on working class politics in the West was on the decline. The death of Stalin in 1953 and the invasion of Hungary in 1956 initiated a crisis in western communist parties that was only exacerbated by the waxing and waning of class struggle in the 1970s. Communist parties in places like France and Italy shifted to the right. The ebbing of class struggle in the West in the late 1970s meant the radical left had to contend with a new right-wing offensive against workers and new Cold War tensions.

This was the context of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. The USSR sought to support its ally the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and ensure the country remained in its orbit of influence. The United States funded and supplied the insurgency with arms and intelligence in order to deal the Soviets a military and geopolitical defeat. The response of third campists in the West was not to say USSR hands of Afghanistan, rather it was to understand the political context in which they were actually situated in the West. As Chris Harman explained:

“If we were in Russia, that would mean vigorously arguing against the takeover of Afghanistan and welcoming every defeat of the army of occupation. But we are in Britain, where the slogan ‘Russians out of Afghanistan’ is being used to justify increased arms spending, the movement of the US Fleet to the Gulf, the British base in Diego Garcia, the British officers in Oman, the supply of guns to the hangman in Pakistan. We have to oppose these move-and the ideology behind them.

We have to insist: All imperialist hands-off Asia; No arms for the hangman who rules Pakistan or the slave owners who rule the Gulf states; End the American threat to Iran: the US Fleet out of the Gulf: British mercenary officers out of Oman; the Russians out of Afghanistan.”

Likewise, the crisis in the Balkans, specifically the outbreak of the Kosovo War in 1998 and NATO led, bombing caused some confusion on the Left about how to respond to supposed humanitarian interventions by the U.S. led NATO coalition in “defence” of self-determination against Serbian aggression. Rather than simply backing the Kosovo Liberation Army in its bids for immediate self-determination, Harman situated the struggle in a wider context:

“Under such circumstances, there can be no excuse for any genuine socialist backing the KLA’s nationalism. To do so would be to line up with an ally of imperialism and a proponent of ethnic cleansing, even if on a smaller scale at the moment than Milosovic’s. Socialists certainly see a place for Kosovan self determination in a final, peaceful outcome for the region. It is difficult to see how Serbs and Albanians can ever live together peacefully unless they accept each other’s rights, and this means Serbs accepting the right of Albanians to establish a state of their own in Kosovo if they so desire. But it also means the Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia guaranteeing to other ethnic groups, including the Serbs, their rights. Otherwise Kosovan self determination would simply mean the old Balkan game of one national group establishing a state, denying minority ethnic groups their rights, and leading to still more ethnic strife.

When early meetings of the Communist International discussed the Balkan question they concluded that the only way to satisfy the different demands for national rights was in the context of a socialist federation of the whole region and not through the further proliferation of rival capitalist states, each entrapping embittered national minorities within them. But all these arguments are purely hypothetical while the Nato war against Yugoslavia continues, for it is reducing Kosovo and much of Serbia to one great bomb site, where national rights for anyone are a sick joke. Only if the war leads to revolutionary developments in countries like Greece will things be otherwise. Meanwhile, the responsibility of socialists in the bombing states is to do our utmost to bring the war to an end.”

Harman’s supple application of third campism never devolved into an abstentionist position. To wash one’s hands of the messiness of regional, proxy or direct imperial conflicts through a wooden declaration of an abstract slogan would be the opposite of trying intervening with concrete socialist politics in order to heighten the class struggle – it is blackboard socialism.


Art is from the cover to April 1940 bulletin of “The New International, A Monthly Organ of Revolutionary Marxism”

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