Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Early Years of the National Caucus of Labor Committees 1966-1971

Hedgehog, Hylozoic. How It All Began: Origins and History of the National Caucus of Labor Committees in New York and Philadelphia (1966-1971). c. 2013. 

I confess. I have a morbid fascination with the history of the Left in the US. Originally I wanted to read about my Old Left socialist, communist, and anarchist forebears, their successes and failures, and learn from their experience. Now I have moved on to my own New Left generation, now 50 years past. As a young and inexperienced student radical in the late 60s, I was mostly unaware of the ideological disputes between different Left groups of the time. The predominant Left group in my college years at Purdue University 1967-1969 was Student Peace Union. I now know SPU was founded by ban-the-bomb pacifists in the 1950s, and in the 1960s came under sway of the Young People's Socialist League (aka Yipsels), then dominated by the Shachtmanites, a Trotskyist sect. As “Third camp” socialists they rejected both Western capitalism and Soviet communism as equally imperialist. It turns out, this political current was also the source of Lyndon LaRouche's National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC), subject of Hylozoic Hedgehog's ebook, How It All Began: Origins and History of the National Caucus of Labor Committees in New York and Philadelphia (1966-1971). Hylozoic Hedgehog is the nom de guerre of a former NCLC member from 1971-1979. He also published a companion ebook Smiling Man from a Dead Planet: The Mystery of Lyndon LaRouche (2009) which I have not yet read.

Lyndon  LaRouche, Jr. (aka Lyn Marcus) 1974

I can't vouch for the accuracy of HH's history. My LeftBook comrade Bert Schultz, who was fellow traveler of Progressive Labor Party (PLP) in NYC during this period, disputes the details and interpretation around NCLC's exit from PLP after the Columbia University student strike in April 1968. The facts seem murky enough to invite many histories. This account largely predates my involvement on the left, and my arrival in Philadelphia in Fall 1971. It shows NCLC was legitimate player in the New Left from 1966-1971 before it turned crazy a few years later. When I first encountered NCLC in Philadelphia they were disrupting public meetings with long harangues and were regarded as fascist thugs by most of the left. But it didn't start out that way.

Lyndon LaRouche, Jr. founded NCLC in 1968, and still remains its leader today at age 93 (now named the LaRouche movement). He grew up in a Quaker family, and served as a non-combatant in India during WWII. After the war and college, he joined the Socialist Worker's Party (SWP), assuming the party name “Lyn Marcus” for his political work. In 1964 he broke with the SWP and wandered through various left formations in NYC.

In summer 1966 LaRouche began teaching an idiosyncratic “Elementary Course in Marxist Economics” at the Free University of New York in a loft just off Union Square which attracted students from Columbia University and City College of New York. Some of these students joined LaRouche in forming the West Village Committee for Independent Action (CIPA) and later the NCLC. CIPA supported an effort to revive socialist electoral politics in NYC and nationally. Former Communist Party member James Weinstein was running for Congress in the liberal Upper West Side, and similar efforts were organized by Stanley Aronowitz on the Lower East Side. LaRouche offered a distinctive Marxist perspective. Invoking the mass strike ideas of Rosa Luxemburg and Industrial Workers of the World, LaRouche emphasized organizing different groups of people into united efforts rather than single issue campaigns. He advocated a larger programmatic class unity which transcended race, sex, trade union, or any particular or parochial group identity. LaRouche also asserted that capitalism was facing crisis in the 60s, and that Keynesian measures couldn't fix the economy. He proposed some sort of socialist reinvestment in technology and infrastructure, including nuclear fusion technology, which became a big theme for LaRouche years later.

LaRouche and his cohorts entered PLP in 1968, which he considered the most coherent Marxist faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It is interesting -- both PLP and NCLC came out of the Old Left. PLP was founded in 1962 as a split from the Communist Party. Its leader, Milt Rosen, was the same age as LaRouche, a middle-aged communist leading college revolutionaries. Many leaders of the New Left in the 60s were also Red Diaper babies. There was more continuity between the Old Left and New Left than most realize. LaRouche entered PLP and SDS just as the Columbia University student strike began in April 1968, and the later NYC public school teachers strike against the Board of Education from May-November 1968. LaRouche's group became major players in both events. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) strike was particularly contentious. The new community-controlled school board in the largely black Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn fired a group of white unionized teachers, and the UFT went on strike. Ninety-three percent of the city's 58,000 teachers walked out. The left divided on the strike--some supporting black community control, and others supporting organized labor. NCLC supported the union; most of the New Left supported local community control and called the UFT racist. This was one of the defining moments of the New Left. It may be the birthplace of identity politics that followed the demise of the New Left. There is a huge academic literature on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict.

United Federation of Teachers (UFT) strike
the NYC School Board 1968
NCLC is one of the few groups that grew in the aftermath of the collapse of SDS in 1968. They claimed to have 1000 members in 1973, perhaps its zenith. Some of that history was in my hometown of Philadelphia, which I recounted in my book review of Steve Fraser's The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. Fraser was the local leader of NCLC in Philadelphia from 1967-1971. NCLC was most active at Temple University, Swarthmore College, and University of Pennsylvania, and made efforts reach Philadelphia high school students. They held their founding national conference at the University of Pennsylvania in March 1969, after participating in the six-day student strike at Penn in February 1969 opposing the new University City Science Center in West Philadelphia. Paul Lyon's The People of This Generation: The Rise and Fall of the New Left in Philadelphia (2003) covers this local history in more detail. In February 1971 Steve Fraser broke with the NCLC, and took one-third of the membership with him to form a new organization, which did not last long. Fraser felt LaRouche was not effectively supporting his legal defense against charges of a bomb plot. He did not want to go to jail as a NCLC martyr. Fraser wanted to engage a broad left coalition in his legal case, and pursue a pluralist non-sectarian brand of socialism. LaRouche took NCLC in a different direction, attacking rival New Left groups (“mop-up the left”) and swinging to the right.

Herein How It All Began concludes. NCLC attracted many talented activists in these early years. The author HH vividly describes the hothouse atmosphere in the student New Left as I remember it. Just like the 1930s, revolutionary change seemed just around the corner. It also portrays the insular life in a left sect, or cult, which is the sad fate of too many socialist organizations.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Scranton PA Radical Book Fair 2016

Last Saturday April 9 my wife Tess and I attended the Scranton Radical Book Fair at the student center of Marywood University in Scranton, PA. I noticed comrade John Dodds, Director of Philadelphia Unemployment Project, was presenting, and well as local activists. Also, I never need an excuse to book shop. There were about a dozen vendors, mostly anarchist or environmental. We attended three presentations.

The first was “Grassroots Environmental Activism on the Frontlines of Fracking” by the Shalefield Organizing Committee. Pennsylvania coal country was was the site of extractive mining for 75 years (now abandoned), and now the site of a new extractive industry--natural gas. Both industries have seriously damaged the ecosystem. Community organizers Casey Pegg and Sierra Shumer noted there are still 30 active mine fires in PA left over from the age of coal. Neither industry has uplifted local employment or produced a sustainable economy. The Shalefield Organizing Committee is opposing the proposed Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline that would connect the Marcellus Shale wells in northern PA to East Coast ports for gas export to international markets. It is all about profits for oil companies.

Second, we heard John Dodds talk about Raise the Wage PA coalition, the campaign to lift the minimum wage to $10.10/hour. His organization Philadelphia Unemployment Project was instrumental in the last successful effort to raise the minimum wage in PA ten years ago. Hard to believe- the last time the minimum wage was raised in PA was 2006! Given the weakness of labor unions in the US, the most effective way to raise the wage floor for low income workers is minimum wage legislation. One in four workers in northeast PA and 1.3 million workers statewide would get a raise with $10.10/ hour minimum wage. Of course, some cities and states have passed $15.00/hour minimums. Call Sen. Lisa Baker (R-NE PA) at 570-675-3931 and ask her to report the $10.10/hour minimum wage bill out of the Labor and Industry Committee.

Tess Gerould, John Dodds, Frank Gerould

Last, we heard Mitch Troutman's stories about the PA Anthracite Coal Region. He blogs with the byline Nixnootz at his website Coal, Corn, and Country. He has a great story about “bootleg mining” in the Depression 1930s. The coal operators closed most of the mines in the region. Most miners were out of work, so they reopened the mines themselves and set up contraband mines. They sold coal to local churches and businesses, contracted truckers, sized the coal. It was dangerous but supported the local economy, and persisted for many years. Like bootleg whiskey during Prohibition.

It was a cold day with snow showers Saturday morning. My wife and I wandered around the tidy redbrick Marywood University campus before the book fair opened. There is lots of Catholic iconography spread around the campus indoors and out. An incongruous message at the anarchist book fair.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Two Gilded Ages in America

 Fraser, Steve, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner named the post-Civil War era of waste and excess “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873). The term derives from Shakespeare's King John: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily… is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” It was Mark Twain's first best seller, but rarely read today. It's probably time for a revival.

Now we live in the second Gilded Age in America. Labor historian Steve Fraser compares the two gilded ages, the first 1865-1932 and the second 1970 to the present, in his recent The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. The interlude in between saw FDR's New Deal and the golden age of capitalism post-WWII with the growth of labor unions and a modest welfare state (Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, Keynesian economics). Evidently Thomas Piketty charts the same developments in his opus Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  Both gilded ages saw growing wealth and income inequality. Steve Fraser argues the marked difference between the two periods- the first engendered intense class warfare, socialist parties, and rising living standards, whereas in our present gilded age, the working class has acquiesced to austerity and insecurity. Most young people do not expect to do as well as their parents. Fraser paints a gloomy picture.

Steve Fraser

Fraser knows how to write. He was an editor at Basic Books and other publishing houses, and guest scholar at a bunch of universities. He studied labor history at Rutgers with my LeftBook comrade Murray Sklar in the mid 1970s. He also has a colorful Philadelphia connection. As a young student  revolutionary, he was sent to Temple University to found a chapter of Progressive Labor Party in Fall 1967. He subsequently broke with, or was expelled from PLP, for joining Lyndon LaRouche's (aka Lyn Marcus) faction then called the SDS Labor Committee, later known as the National Caucus of Labor Committees, and became its local leader in Philadelphia. Fraser had his moment in the spotlight in those turbulent years when Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo raided his apartment in April 1969, and charged him and his roommate with a bomb plot. Fraser and co-defendant Richard Borgmann were ably defended by Philadelphia legal luminaries Bernard Segal and David Rudovsky. Charges were dropped in 1971, the same year Rizzo was elected Mayor of Philadelphia. Fraser then left the Labor Committee in a split in 1971, which exonerates him from the LaRouche craziness that followed. Details of this episode can be found in How it all Began: The Origins and History of the National Caucus of Labor Committees in New York and Philadelphia (1966-1971), by Hylozoic Hedgehog, the nom de guerre of a former NCLC member on the LaRouche Planet website. These years surely gave Fraser a thorough Marxist education, for better or worse.

Fraser's account of the first gilded age highlights the working class resistance to waged labor, or “wage slavery” according to the nascent socialist movement. He observes that 80% of Americans were self-employed in 1820. By 1940, the self-employed constituted only 20% of workers. The disappearance of the artisan tradition and its replacement with waged labor during the long 19th century was tumultuous. Before the Civil War Harriet Beecher Stowe saw the emancipation of the slaves and the working classes as one: “the war for the rights of the working classes of mankind as against the usurpations of privileged aristocracies.” Workers fought over wages, the length of the workday, and union representation. Between 1886 and 1893 state governments would call out the National Guard more than 100 times to deal with labor turmoil. Fraser surmises the bloody labor confrontations at Homestead, Ludlow, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, et al threatened a second Civil War. It generated socialist politics and unions, and eventually social concessions from the bosses and the state during the Progressive Era pre-WW1 and the New Deal.

Today we live in the new gilded age, with equally extreme economic inequality. Fraser recounts the deindustrialization of US economy, the eclipse of the labor movement, growth of casual sweatshop labor, and the erosion of pensions and the social safety net since 1970. He says, “National politics over the last half century has polarized between efforts to defend and restore the New Deal order, and relentless attempts to repeal and replace it with something even older.” Whereas in the first gilded age capitalism was ascendant, now it is decaying. Capitalist assets are sold off, mortgaged, or moved to low wage countries. Marxist economist Paul Mattick Jr. sees in the years following the golden age of capitalism (1945-1970), the classic Marxian case of a declining rate of profit. The usual Keynesian nostrums for managing the economy and securing full employment have not worked. Wages and benefits have been cut steadily hollowing out the middle class. Rich conservatives have promoted laissez-faire economics, revanchist patriotism, religious fundamentalism, and nativism as the magic solution to every problem. In Tea Party patron saint Ayn Rand's immortal words, “Booty is truth.” Money rules.

Steve Fraser doesn't have any remedies to offer us. He is nostalgic about the class conscious workers in the 19th century America, the pre-WWI Socialist Party, and victories during the New Deal. Perhaps the  Fortress Walmart associates, retail and fast-food workers, adjunct university teachers, and immigrants will revolt against austerity and decline. Perhaps something unexpected will occur, like the civil rights revolution in the 50s and 60s, the LGBT and woman's movement, the CIO in the 30s, something unforeseen. Bernie Sanders unexpected success running as a socialist in the Democratic primaries could become such a movement. 

But the left also needs self-examination. Communism in the former Soviet Union and Social Democracy in Europe do not offer attractive models for socialism here. The left needs fresh creative thinking that may diverge from the master thinkers of the 19th century. We have a rich tradition, but shouldn't be captivated by it. We need to offer practical solutions for the world we live in today. For example, Finland is launching an experiment in guaranteed basic income, and eliminating much welfare state bureaucracy. This is not socialism, but merits attention. While we're waiting for the glorious non-violent social revolution, waiting for the Messiah, we could indulge in speculative thinking and experiments in democratic socialism, or libertarian communism if you like. Fraser notes the fervor of 19th century radicals produced innumerable utopian colonies and cooperatives, and a best selling utopian literature that converted many to labor's cause. Laurence Gronlund Cooperative Commonwealth, Edward Bellamy Looking Backward, and Henry George Progress and Poverty reached a mass audience in the 1890s. Socialist doctrine was not yet set in stone. There were many socialist schools of thought. We need to recover that sentiment.

Despite Steve Fraser's often gloomy history, as socialists we believe there is an alternative to capitalism. In Sidney Hillman's words in 1918, “[we] can hear the footsteps of the Deliverer… Labor will rule and the World will be free.” We will not be dismayed.