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Vol. 78/No. 15      April 21, 2014

Long view of history reveals
status quo is not everlasting
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Understanding History, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for April. This collection of articles by George Novack, long-time leader of the Socialist Workers Party until his death in 1992, covers a broad range of topics, applying the Marxist method of analysis to theoretical and political questions posed in the workers movement. The piece below is from the chapter “The Long View of History.” Copyright © 1972 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

Everything in this world — and this is especially true of political regimes and social systems under class society — includes within itself its own opposition, its own fatal opposition. This is certainly true of the power of capitalism which breeds its own nemesis in the productive — and political — capacities of wage labor.

The irony is that the greater the wealth of the capitalists, the stronger becomes the social position of the exploited workers from whom this wealth is derived. The United States has witnessed, side-by-side with the rise of monopoly capitalism, the emergence of an ever more strongly organized, centralized and unified labor movement. Ever since the capitalists and wage workers came into existence together, there have been differences, friction, outbursts of conflict, strikes, lockouts, between sections of these two classes. They arise from the very nature of their relations, which are antagonistic.

By and large, up to now, these conflicts have never gone beyond the bounds of the basic political and economic structure laid down by the Civil War. They have been subdued, reconciled or smoothed over. Despite all disturbances, the monopolist rulers have entrenched themselves more firmly in their paramount positions. However, a closer scrutiny of the development discloses that the working class occupies an increasingly influential, though still subordinate, place in our national life.

The question presents itself with renewed force: Will this situation of class stalemate — with the workers in a secondary position — continue indefinitely? The capitalists naturally answer that it can and must be so. Furthermore, they do everything from teaching in school the perpetual existence of the established class structure to passing antilabor laws to insure the continuance of the status quo. The union officialdom, for their part, go along with this general proposition.

Neither the capitalist spokesmen nor the AFL-CIO officialdom will find any precedent in American history to reinforce their expectations of an indefinite maintenance of the status quo. That is one lesson from our national past that the “long view” of socialism emphasizes. For many years, despite occasional tiffs, the American colonists got along with their mother country and even cherished the tie. Then came a very rapid and radical reversal in relations, a duel to the end. The same held true of the long coexistence of the Northern free states and Southern slavery. For sixty years, the Northerners had to play second fiddle to the Southern slave autocracy until the majority of people in the country came to believe that this situation would endure indefinitely. The slaveowners, like the capitalists of today, taught that their “American way of life” was the crown of civilization. But once the new combination of progressive forces was obliged to assert itself, the maturing differences broke out in a civil war which disposed of the old order. The political collaborators of yesterday turned into irreconcilable foes on the morrow. …

Organized labor has within its own grasp enough political strength, not to speak of its economic and social capacities, to be the sovereign force in this country. That is why any movement toward the formation of an independent party of labor based on the trade unions would have such highly revolutionizing implications upon the existing setup, regardless of the intentions or announced program of its organizers. Any such move on a massive scale would portend a shift in the power of supreme decision in the United States from capitalist to labor circles, just as the coming to Washington of the Republican Party in 1860 signified the shift of power away from the slaveholders to the Northern industrialists.

The Republican leaders of 1861 did not have revolutionary intentions. They headed a reformist party. They wanted to restrict the power of the slaveholders. But to do this involved upsetting the established balance of class forces. The slaveholders recognized the threat to their supremacy far more clearly and felt it more keenly than did the Northern Republican leaders themselves. That is why they initiated a counterrevolutionary assault in order to retrieve the power they had previously possessed.

The parallel with any national assumption of political power by the labor movement, even in a reformist way, is plain to see. Is such a shift possible? A succession of crucial shifts of power has marked the onward movement of the American people: from Britain to the colonial merchants and planters in the eighteenth century; and from the Southern slavocracy to the industrial capitalists in the nineteenth century. The thrust in the present period of our national history is toward another such colossal shift this time from the ruling plutocracy to the rising working class and its allies among the oppressed minorities.

The whole course of economic, social and political development in this country in this century points to such a shift in power. Of course, the working class is far from predominant yet, and even less conscious of its historical mission. But, from the standpoint of the long view, it is most important to note the different rates of growth in the economic, social and political potentialities of the respective contenders for supreme power. Reviewing this country’s history from 1876 to 1957, together with the rate of growth of the working-class movement on a world scale, the balance of forces has been steadily shifting, despite all oscillations, toward the side of working-class power.  
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