Socialism’s all the rage. “We Are All Socialists Now,” Newsweek declares. As the right wing tells it, we’re already living in the U.S.S.A. But what do self-identified socialists (and their progressive friends) have to say about the global economic crisis? In the March 4, 2009, issue, we published Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr.’s “Rising to the Occasion” as the opening essay in a forum on “Reimagining Socialism.” TheNation.com will feature new replies to their essay over the coming weeks, fostering what we hope will be a spirited dialogue.
In the bleak winter of 1929-30, before the Great Depression even had a name, several hundred members of the Young Communist League, inspired by the millenarian spirit of the Comintern’s “Third Period,” attempted to launch a national uprising against unemployment and eviction. Led by class warriors like 27-year-old Steve Nelson and 16-year-old Dorothy Healey (then Rosenblum), they quickly earned the jail cells and beatings that were the ordinary wages of radical free speech in Open Shop America.
But as with the Wobblies a generation earlier or SNCC a generation later, the YCLers had an “audacity of revolt” (pardon the pun) that corresponded to a growing desperation for change; in this case, in the tenements and mill towns. Small knots of angry people around skid-row soapboxes in December 1929 quickly grew into organized protests of hundreds in January 1930, which, inflamed by punctual police brutality, became marches of thousands in February. On March 6, 1930 (International Unemployment Day), cops fought unemployed demonstrators in a score of cities. Ten thousand rioted in Cleveland, while in Union Square, a berserk police attack on a crowd of 35,000 ignited New York’s biggest street melee since 1863.
The militancy of the unemployed movement was soon redoubled by anti-eviction campaigns that often segued into unarmed, neighborhood guerrilla warfare. The “ultraleftist” trend of these protests, of course, was widely condemned by the mild left, but as Irving Bernstein points out in his classic 1960 history of the early Depression, The Lean Years, they were the authentic catalyst–not opinion columns or candidates’ speeches–for a serious national debate on unemployment:
“Bleeding heads converted unemployment from a little-noticed to a page-one problem in every important newspaper in every important city in the United States. No one could any longer afford to ignore it. Non-Communist forces seeking relief and employment were strengthened.”
I realize that is not fashionable these days to praise the CPUSA in its sectarian heyday or to applaud highly confrontational tactics that provoke violent official responses. But if these are near-to-the-end times, when social change risks being “too late,” as our new president repeatedly emphasized in a brilliant campaign speech that quoted Martin Luther King Jr. from 1967, then we must be as forthright about the need for disorder (“raise less corn and more hell”) as were our populist and socialist ancestors.