Polarization past & present

Polarization past & present

An article by J Pierce on the polarization of society during revolutionary upsurges.

Two summers ago, the Phoenix IWW held an event celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Revolution. That same summer, while visiting a friend, I toured various abolitionist, African American, and Civil War historical sites around Virginia. Meanwhile, the struggle over the rights of immigrant workers in Arizona was heating up and everyone, it seemed, had an opinion on the subject. I think connecting these historical dramas could assist our work in the IWW and the concept of social polarization might be the key.

The IWW Organizer Training teaches that organizing leads to a polarization of the workplace. We must get our coworkers to support the union effort or they will side with the boss. Once the union is public, there is no more grey area. Those who attempt to stay neutral wind up helping the boss in the end. When looking at the broader society, however, does this principle remain true?

Civil War in Spain: Fascism vs. Workers’ Revolution

In the summer of 1936, Spain witnessed uprisings from both the Right and the Left. Military officers attempted a coup d’état while anarchists responded with factory and land takeovers. These rebellions hardened into the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 as the country polarized into not just fascists vs. anti-fascists, but into a three-way war based on competing class interests.

The Nationalists were a mix of contradictory right-wing tendencies. They wanted a radical restructuring of society based on modernist, fascist ideology or a restoration of the Catholic Church, the monarchy and regionalist separatism. The anarchists, in the form of the CNTFAI- AIT (the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, Federación Anarquista Ibérica, and Asociación Internacional de los Trabajadores) acted as the pole that attracted the working class and peasants to libertarian communism. The republicans, social democrats, and Socialists, by and large, wanted to maintain capitalism and liberal democracy. The Communist Party, in attempting to gain control of the government, became a pole for politicians, employers and police within the anti-fascist camp.

The divisions and contradictions were inescapable as the war engulfed every aspect of society and forced people of all backgrounds to choose sides. The fascists led an illegal uprising against the elected government and therefore divided Spanish society into camps supporting the republican government or opposing it. The anarchists were in a strange position of deciding how to fight the fascist uprising and acquire arms without reinforcing the present government. Not only did the population polarize over the uprising, but the anti-fascist camp itself polarized over how to respond. Arguments over the CNT’s course of action are valuable conversations for contemporary IWW members.

Civil War in the States: Slavery vs. Freedom

A different type of polarization occurred in the United States surrounding slavery as it led to the American Civil War of 1861-1865. The country divided regionally, between the North and the South, as well as socially on the issue of slavery. Abolitionists engaged in myriad efforts to polarize the nation over the continuance of the slave system. Their task, with respect to whites, was to bring the horrors of slavery into every city and every home, forcing whites to make a choice between righteousness and evil. With respect to Blacks, the task was to arm every African American with the weapons of liberation— be they books, newspapers, escape routes, or rifles.

Similar to the Spanish case, the federal military in the South lined up with their local right wing, in this case the confederate slavocracy, and led a treasonous uprising against their own government. For many whites, the outbreak of war stripped them of their ability to view the conflict from a distance. They were forced to side with either the North or the South, and ultimately, regardless of their own racial attitudes, Worker.with abolition or slavery. For African Americans, the war presented an opportunity to liberate themselves and their kin, either as soldiers in the Northern army or as “contraband,” escaping bondage to cross Union lines. Many prominent abolitionists threw themselves into the Union cause, and thus behind the republican-led government. Notably, Harriet Tubman worked as a scout, a spy, and an army nurse; Frederick Douglass recruited Blacks for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, including his two sons. The early abolitionist movement—a handful of Northern church-goers and pacifists, as well as isolated slave rebellions—might be an intriguing subject for Wobblies who are interested in the development of polarization to study.

Both of these civil wars provide disturbing parallels for our time and place. A frenzied and lawless right-wing element panicked over the changing times’ resorts to insurrection against their own government— one to which they would otherwise profess the holiest of loyalties. It appears, at times, that we are much closer to rightwing rejection of liberal democracy than we are to proletarian revolution. For those of us in the United States, it would be a strange situation to find ourselves on the same side of a struggle as the American government—but it is not without precedent or plausibility.

The IWW as a Pole

The past is often directly in our midst here in the present. At your average gun show in Phoenix, right wingers can be heard berserking themselves for a civil war against the liberals, the socialists, and the Mexicans. Arizona gun nuts notwithstanding, our task as Wobblies is to shift the divisions away from ”politics” and race hatred toward a class-based struggle; the goal being to pit the exploited class—including right wing whites—against capitalism. We need to define the conflict in terms that encourage workers to join our side: slavery vs. freedom; fascism vs. democracy; or perhaps the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent. We must define capitalism as the enemy and sharpen the conflict so that the financially disgruntled elements find themselves, perhaps inadvertently, on the side of their co-workers and against their employers. We must create a situation in which white workers have to decide, “Am I on the side of the bosses and politicians— of fascism, Nazis and slavery? Or am I on the side of working people—of democracy and freedom?”

The IWW is uniquely situated to sharpen this polarization into class conflict. We are the abolitionists and antifascists of our time. We have the power to drive a class wedge into the present turmoil and become a pole for multi-racial, social revolution. To do this, we’ll need to consider numerous tensions: building coalitions vs. relying on ourselves as the IWW; focusing on the liberation of workers of color vs. focusing on turning white workers against the system; illuminating the contradictions in the unions and on the left vs. organizing for mutual self-defense; and continuing a program of union organizing vs. developing a more overtly “revolutionary” orientation.

The IWW is slowly positioning us to be facilitators, if not leaders, of a powerful class movement internationally. We must be ready to become the pole that attracts the revolutionary working class.

Editor’s note: Part 3 of the Building Blocks series on building the Richmond General Membership Branch (GMB) will run in the December 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012)