As the 20th century began, American capitalism turned its continental empire into a hemispheric one, fighting a war against Spain to “liberate” Cuba in 1898, which it made into a protectorate, as it turned the Philippines and Puerto Rico into colonies. U.S. marines regularly invaded Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and other Central American and Caribbean nations to defend the local dictatorships that were sharing the spoils with U.S. corporate interests.

Groups like the anti-Imperialist League opposed these developments as a violation of the ideals of the American Revolution, as did the new Socialist Party of America (SP), which gained support in many large and middle-sized American cities and among former Populists in states like Oklahoma and Colorado and California.

The existence of the SP also influenced non-socialist reformers, called progressives, in the early twentieth century, to support workman’s compensation legislation, tenement house reform, and other social legislation. The Meat Inspection Act directly and the Pure Food and Drug laws indirectly, for example, were influenced by the agitation created by Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, the most widely read socialist work in U.S. history, even though reformers completely ignored Sinclair’s main message that only socialism could solve the misery that he found in the packing houses and industrial slums of Chicago.

But the socialists had no clear strategy for labor, and no real understanding of racism and its role in dividing the working class. While they opposed imperialist interventions and were among the few socialist parties in the world that opposed World War I as an imperialist war, they had little understanding of imperialism as a system. Out of World War I, which president Woodrow Wilson called a war to “make the world safe for democracy,” came massive repression against socialists and progressives in the name of 100-percent Americanism, and a national Red Scare, a wave of strike-breaking terror, and a “red summer” of race riots and lynch law against African-Americans.

From the ranks of the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, and other revolutionary groups, the Communist Party, USA, was eventually formed. The Communists early on developed a strategy for labor based on the building of industrial unions, a commitment to fight for what was then called “Negro Liberation” and against “white chauvinism” (racism in the ranks of labor) as a way to unite the working class, and wholehearted opposition to American imperialism as it continued its interventions in Latin America.

When the Great Depression of the 1930s created conditions that made working-class victories both possible and necessary, if reaction and fascism was to be defeated, Communists were at the center of building of the new unions of the CIO, and providing the grassroots force that propelled the New Deal government of Franklin Roosevelt, the most advanced government of non-socialist reform in U.S. history, to enact social security and unemployment insurance, minimum wages and the 40-hour week, and create the National Labor Relations Board to protect workers rights to form unions and other major reforms.

Communists also campaigned against racism at home and fascism abroad, leading groups like the American League Against War and Fascism, pioneering in Civil Rights defense cases like the Scottsboro Case through the International Labor Defense, and mobilizing the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers, the first formally integrated U.S. fighting force, to fight for the Spanish Republic against fascism in Spain.

Through alliances with the broad left and New Deal liberals, Communists contributed to a five-fold increase in the number of workers in unions, put civil rights on the political agenda, helped defeat isolationists and others who wanted to do business with Hitler, and helped to win the war against the Axis.

While the Soviet Union made the major contribution to victory over fascism in the Second World War, the U.S. contribution was also enormous. Had the gains of the 1930s not been made and an isolationist Herbert Hoover-style government been in power in 1940, it is possible that the fascists would have won the Second World War.

In their many accomplishments, Communists in the 1930s and 1940s contributed to the most powerful revival of American revolutionary traditions since abolitionists had built a national anti-slavery coalition in the 1850s and helped to create a new mass party, the Republican Party, to advance that coalition’s aims.

Unfortunately, the failure of Communists and the broad left and New Deal liberals to create something like the Republican party of the 1850s, either through or outside the Democratic party, had disastrous results when Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945 and his successor, machine Democrat Harry Truman, embarked upon a cold war policy while paying lip service to New Deal domestic policies. Truman also went along with his Republican enemies in repressing Communists and others on the broad left and pushing back the labor movement, which supported him on a “lesser of two evils” principle.

When progressive forces revived in the 1960s, thanks to the impetus of the Civil Rights movement, they helped to destroy southern segregation and stimulated a wide variety of social movements opposed to the Vietnam War, for women’s liberation, and a new consumer rights and environmental movement.

However, these groups had no clear coordinated focus, as the CPUSA, which revived from the massive postwar repression it had suffered and sought to offer direction to mass movements, had provided in the 1930s and 1940s. As the 20th century ended, these movements had to a considerable extent “professionalized” into interest groups fighting defensive battles, losing sight of long-range goals, and seeking with increasing frustration to influence the Democratic party into enacting progressive legislation.

As the 21st century begins, the U.S. still needs a mass party of labor, which it needed as the twentieth century began. The U.S. still has no system of socialized medicine, which most of the developed capitalist world has had for half a century. U.S. also spends on its military somewhere between a fourth and a third of the world’s state military expenditures.

But one shouldn’t be pessimistic. Imperialism, which now calls itself “globalization,” has given us more militarization and war, which in the past has meant more anti-imperialism and revolution. The U.S. has a dynamic multi-cultural society, with new non-European populations joining older groups to create a vital working class with nothing to gain from a parasitic economy that exports capital, and lives on the military-industrial complex and debt.

The U.S. also has enormous productive capacity, the world’s most extensive educational system, advanced technology and a vast skilled labor force that make it the most likely candidate for socialist transformation in the future. Unlike all other socialist transformations in twentieth century history, American capitalists and the technically skilled “middle classes” won’t be able to take their wealth and education and flee to the “West,” unless they find another planet.

What is needed today is what American revolutionaries in the 1770s, abolitionists in the 1850s, and Communists in the 1930s provided in the past – strategies to organize, coordinate, and advance class and social struggle, to make big gains that Tories in the 1770s, compromisers with slavery in the 1850s, and old guard politicians and business unionists in the 1930s thought impossible just before they happened. In that sense, a slogan of the Chinese revolutionary Mao Tse-tung (whatever his flaws were) deserves to be taken up by Communists and all progressives in the U.S. today: “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win.”

Norman Markowitz is a Marxist historian in New Jersey. He can be reached at pww@pww.org

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