By Gaither Stewart
“Suppose that some great disaster were to sweep ten million families out to sea and leave ‘em on a desert island to starve and rot. That would be what you might call an act of God, maybe. But suppose a manner of government that humans have set up and directed, drives ten million families into the pit of poverty and starvation? That’s no act of God. That’s our fool selves actin’ like lunatics. What humans have set up they can take down….Whoever says we’ve got to have a capitalist government when we want a workers’ government, is givin’ the lie to the great founders of these United States….”
A Stone Came Rolling
Olive Tilford Dargan
(Rome-Asheville, N.C.) I was back in Asheville where I started out. I found her gravesite in the obscure Green Hills Cemetery in the frontier territory of the West Bank part of this mountain city, across the French Broad River that the Cherokee called Tahkeostee.
OLIVE TILFORD DARGAN
HER HUNDREDTH YEAR
The poet is now forgotten. Her tomb lies far from the monumental cemetery-resting place of other Asheville writers such as Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry. In her long life she was neglected because she was a proletarian writer, no easy undertaking in her times in Western North Carolina. Concerning the workers’ struggles in America last century, Dargan admitted that literature was secondary to her social commitment. ‘The struggles lie closer to real experience than the flutter of an eyelid which has occupied bourgeois writers ….’ A widely traveled Radcliff graduate, Olive Tilford Dargan lived most of her life in Asheville, NC. Acclaimed poet and novelist and in Who’s Who, she was blacklisted during the McCarthy Communist Scare in 1950s. Other writers labeled her writings propaganda because she “hobnobbed” with Communists.
Dargan described her first novel, Call Home the Heart, published in 1932 by Longmans, Green and Company, under the pseudonym of Fielding Burke—as ‘a proletarian novel depicting the role of mountain folks in the Gastonia, North Carolina cotton mill strikes,’ also largely forgotten as are the wave of violent textile worker strikes that swept through North Carolina in 1929. The strike in Gastonia reflected the tensions rising from the industry’s rapid development in the South after World War I when northern capitalists took over the southern mills to exploit cheap labor. Since Gastonia was the epicenter of the phenomenon, mountaineers from the Smokies swept into town to work in the mills. The Loray Mill (pronounced Low-Ray) was the first in the South to undergo new “techniques” such as speed-ups forced on the worker rather than new technology. That exploitation of labor ignited the anger of textile workers in the region until walkouts began. The strike in the Loray Mills was the most famous and the most violent.
I still remember the red brick buildings, the chain-link fences and the little houses in Loray Village in West Gastonia that we passed each time we arrived in Gastonia where my grandparents lived. At that point my father always said, “Well, we’re at Loray, so we’re nearly there.”
Mill owners and state law enforcement crushed those strikes so viciously that subsequent attempts to organize labor in the North Carolina textile plants were unsuccessful. Yet the history of the strike remains, recorded in novels like those of Dargan and in the writings of one of the organizers of the Gastonia strike, Vera Buch Weisbord, a Communist and member of the National Textile Workers Union, NTWU. No less than Marxist writings, such histories of the battles for social justice throw light on the eternal struggle between labor and capital.
The history of the clash in Gastonia offers the perfect setting for an epic film or a social play of an insurrection. All the classic characters are present: evil capitalist mill owners, exploited workers in hot dusty factories, tiny ragged children and their emaciated mothers and wives in the square wooden houses, strikers, scabs and strike-breakers and dedicated and corrupt union leaders.
Dargan claimed the sequel to her first novel—A Stone Came Rolling, same publisher, same pseudonym—was even more proletarian. She claimed that she strove not to write propaganda while she fought with conflicting feelings about writing poetry and her social responsibility. Can one combine the two? she wondered. Or are fiction and social reality destined to take separate paths?
Dargan was an idealistic dreamer. To the end she continued to see good in a southern folk that has always been not only violent and brutal but also lacking in any kind of class-consciousness. They were no shield against the capitalism she detested. Neither her Asheville nor strike-ridden Gastonia 100 miles away were safe places for radicals.
PROLETARIANS, THE PROLETARIAT AND CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS
This article should be dedicated to wage earners—especially inthe USA and Europe—as well as to those peoples of the world who have no wages at all, the potentially class-conscious proletarians who have the capability of changing the reigning social-economic order.
The prologue to this historical play begins in ancient Rome where the proletariat was the lowest class, the plebs, the masses. Then, a jump forward through the English Revolution to the French Revolution where the curious wage earner-spectator finds the same lower classes now represented by the sans culottes, the ragged have-nots of society, ruled over by the bourgeois and the royalty. Then, a half century later, Marx attaches the old label of proletariat to the workingmen and the downtrodden masses capable of war against the bourgeoisie. By the time of the Russian Revolution the working class there has become class-conscious and in the vest of the industrial proletariat—no longer simply ignorant masses—executes its revolution.
Ten years later, when those textile workers strikes spread over the American South, bombs flew, agitation was real and the potential for proletarian revolution was in the air. The missing factor in America was effective leadership as in Russia. There were only strikers for more pay, strikebreakers, scabs and suffering people.
Online I found this eloquent testimony in the book by John A. Salmond, The General Textile Strike of 1934, From Maine To Alabama, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London.
WE DIDN'T HAVE NO BACKING.... WE SHOULDN'T
have done it. The South hadn't even begun to organize well by then, ” remembered Kasper Smith, former textile worker and striker. “What happened in 1934 has a whole lot to do with people not being so union now.” The veteran organizer, Solomon Barkin, made much the same point at a 1984 symposium commemorating the strike's outbreak. The strike's leaders had had little “experience with leading large strikes, ” he asserted; there was no money to sustain the effort; “organizational preparation was practically nil”; there was little support from other unions, the federal bureaucracy or the president, “preoccupied” as he then was “with recovery rather than labor relations.” Moreover, the AFL generally had failed its local union base, especially those “which had been spontaneously formed” in the wake of the NIRA's passage. They were essentially left to their own resources during the strike. There was no national direction, no widespread public or union support. This was not a national strike at all, but rather the sum of thousands of essentially local efforts, often with differing impulses and aims, and this was especially true of the cotton textile South, the strike's supposed epicenter, where the workers' sacrifices were the greatest, the repression the most severe, and the consequences of failure the most long-lasting.
No, the idea of the proletariat is not passé. The word proletariat still conveys the sense of resistance to oppression, of action, of force and strength, of an ideal. The words labor and capital, as Marx used them, are real-life categories. The capitalist and the wage earner are the personification of capital and wage labor. To disparage such words or use them in derision is to deny the dignity of human existence. For today as yesterday the proletariat is no less than the great masses of the world. It is the people. It is one of those words that are exciting and stimulating … but in the abstract. In fact the concrete proletariat is hard to touch.
Though those masses personified by proletariat constitute a class, they themselves are seldom aware of it. To become a class of action the proletariat requires leadership, something those furious, hungry, striking textile workers did not have.
The proletariat is complex. It comprises much more than the industrial proletariat of the Russian Revolution. It comprises any wage earner, the property-less class, which sells its labor to the class of property, money and power who however do not work.
Thus those two classes—those who work and those who don’t—stand face to face on the stage of life, interdependent, but forever at war with each other. The capitalist class understands instinctively this eternal dichotomy dividing men since the Persians, Mesopotamians and the Greeks. But the super-indoctrinated American working class dulled by the “American dream” does not get it. On the other hand the middle class in America and Europe has not grasped that they too are now part of the proletariat.
Having a mortgaged home, a car and a TV does not change the proletarian’s status because his very lifestyle depends on wages determined by the capitalist class which controls property, power and money. The wage earner depends on money lent him by the capitalist bank to buy his home, his car and his TV. The current subprime crisis demonstrates eloquently that those loans make the wage earner a prisoner of his employer, be it industry or banks or the state bureaucracy.
Though the man who works for wages, blue collar or middle class, is a member of the working class, his wage earner status does not make him automatically a class-conscious revolutionary. He can be anything, from a priest to the blackest reactionary, which unfortunately is often the case in the USA.
Modern history shows that the American wage earner—the potential proletarian—is in reality the staunchest flag-waving defender of the capitalist system that exploits him, does nothing for him except pay him unfair wages, sends him to war to defend capitalist interests, and throws him aside at will. American wage earners are so amorphous, so blunted in their ballyhooed ignorance, so unstructured and ill-organized that they do not even constitute a class. Their ignorance and their acceptance of their situation represents one of the great victories of capitalism.
The arrangement doesn’t make any sense at all.
Many Europeans workers are still class-conscious. But not the reactionary American workingman. The absence of class-consciousness of the American workingman exemplifies Marx’s statement that “the working class is either revolutionary or it is nothing.”
Even more: not even the mildly class-conscious workingman is aware that he is willy-nilly engaged in a war with the capitalist class. He continues to accept his role as an indistinct part of an illusion of a society, as an abstraction of a cradle-to-grave category, destined to make no mark on society, to leave no traces of his passage though life.
However, those 1930s textile strikes in North Carolina show that his illusions may one day fall away. The day he and his new middle class companions wake up from their incubus and genuine, fully developed class awareness arrives, the newborn proletariat can then become revolutionary.
That day will be the death of American capitalism, as we know it.
Meanwhile, caution. Let’s don’t confuse revolution with either liberal reform or armed insurrection. Reform is adjustment made by the rulers in order to maintain power, as happened for decades in Tsarist Russia. As a rule, reforms are too little and too late. Insurrection on the other hand is a local, spontaneous and one-issue matter, as was the 1929 Gastonia cotton mill strike. Insurrection is not revolution.
Since drastic and radical social-political change should be the goal of thinking world citizens today, everything that inhibits social solidarity, the blossoming of resistance, the redistribution of wealth, and the creation of a rebellious mindset against a negative myth are obstacles to be overcome.
But wait a minute! A myth? What myth? In this case—the myth is America itself. The Greeks too wondered how can you battle a myth? In the aftermath of the fall of Troy, Menelaus stood before Helen with his sword raised: he stared at the traitoress and let his sword fall. He couldn’t kill her. Helen was a myth. Menelaus wondered how you can kill a myth. He was not a revolutionary. In the final countdown, myths too, that is illusions and false consciousness, must be destroyed to make room for legitimacy.
Speaking of myths, let’s keep in mind that though born out of solidarity and resistance and reason, the United States of America has always harbored violence in its soul. We now see that peaceful, anti-war, mankind-loving America is a myth. A parallel violent world lives within American society. In America, violence and war are so much a part of life that non-violent opposition to its inbred violence seems to be hopeless folly and unreason. In comparison to America’s homebred terrorism and violence, just a heartbeat away from mainline life, al-Qaeda is stuff for babies and schoolgirls. In comparison to today’s institutional terrorism, past student non-violent protest or even pistol-armed Black Panthers and Weather Underground insurrections appear as innocent as breaking plate-glass windows.
Another illusion to be overcome is that the abstract workingman-proletarian can develop class-consciousness alone. Class-consciousness must be instilled from outside the class. That role inevitably falls to the intelligentsia and activists. Marx wrote in German Ideology that “one of the most difficult tasks confronting philosophers (let’s say, educated people), is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world.” That is, to the world where the workingman lives.
Yet, proletarians reject interference by intellectuals. The American workingman appears allergic to knowledge and history. Therefore he is the most truant in class awareness. The American working people have forgotten that they constitute a class, that classes even exist. They act as if the class idea belongs to another planet. To the world of Communism! That it too is an illusion.
Moreover, the poor economic classes of America accept the American Dream rhetoric that the rich deserve to be rich because they are smarter. Wealth is proof of their virtue. It is good to be rich. The poor are guilty for their poverty. As John Steppling points out on these pages, the American poor produce and reproduce the values of the ruling class, the values and ideals of the rich. The poor live in the illusion of real choices in life while in reality they live their little lives in servitude.
While the “people” are as if paralyzed, blind and dumb, in its name travesty after travesty are committed by those same capitalist leaders who betray the people routinely and abominably, making themselves traitors in the process and making the people complicit in their crimes against humanity. In Nazi Germany it was “we didn’t know.” In America today it is “we don’t want to know”. No false airs, please. That’s un-American. Who cares about social theories? Who cares where Laos is located? Or Georgia? If Saddam Hussein wasn’t responsible for 9/11, he could have been, which is the same thing. Only evildoers and anti-Americans believe he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. The wide admiration for ignorance, I think, is in imitation of the ignorance of the nation’s leaders. And, as we know, ignorance is the handmaiden of the crime of Fascism.
By a strange coincidence I just opened at random the book The Origins Of Bolshevism by one of the forgers of the Russian Revolution, the Menshevik Theodore Dan, and found his remark about the “open war of the Orthodox folk (in pre-revolutionary Russia) with educated people.” Also then, in those different but analogous circumstances of pre-revolutionary Russia, educated people were isolated from the masses. From that perspective the working class in the US has become politically worse than nothing. As a collective it has been molded into a reactionary force that keeps the power elite in power. Conditioned, brainwashed and hoodwinked, the bribed workers seem to believe ignorance is for their own good.
So what happened to the collective? Or, worse, was it always that way? Except for sporadic insurrections in face of starvation in the depression years and isolated periods of resistance, the American collective has never emerged in the glory it must harbor somewhere.
Therefore Marx said that if the proletariat is not revolutionary, what good is it? And that is the pertinent question today. Is the American workingman, the wage earner, the proletariat, reformable? I pose that question for that American wage earner who does not pose the question himself.
At this point we can’t go much further in the American part of the proletarian tragedy without some class distinctions. Today, up there on the political stage we see the prancing billionaire puppets of the capitalist class who control property, money, and, consequently political power. Whom they decide to place at the top of the pyramid today to represent their interests and misrepresent the masses should be a matter of indifference to the blue collar-middle class wage earner masses. In my mind not voting for any of them is an acceptable choice if accompanied by compensatory revolutionary activity. The most one can say is that a growing number of Americans, now approaching a majority, either through choice or indifference have opted for the non-vote route, while a tiny minority finds satisfaction in minimal grassroots agitation.
And here, another character mentioned above steps on stage. Today, as in recent centuries in the Occident, there is an in-between class. It is part of the middle class, elsewhere and at other times called the petty bourgeois, from which emerge America’s liberals and progressives. Many petty bourgeois beyond America’s borders, chiefly in Europe, prefer to label themselves Social Democrats. Far from wanting to transform society in the interests of revolutionary proletarians, they aspire to making the existing society tolerable … for themselves. In their own interests they want to counteract the rule of capital by the transference of as much power and employment as possible to the state of which they are an integral part.
HOWEVER, in their conception of state and society, the workers, the wage earners, the proletariat, are to remain forever workingmen, wage earners, proletariat. Therefore the petty bourgeois (again, the liberals and progressives) social programs for better wages and security for the workers, with which they bribe the workers to stay in line.
That was the warning Marx and Engels brought to the Central Committee of the Communist League in 1850. But how modern it rings.
That’s where the proletariat must step forward and shout, NO!
To be continued.
Gaither Stewart, Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes, (www.wastelandrunes.com) .