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Giving up on Godwin’s Law

Today's tumultuous political environment resembles the Gilded Age more than the 1930s.

Jay Gould with his family. Library of Congress

Our rulers think they are Churchills and their foes are all Nazis. Anthony Eden gambled what remained of British imperial prestige in 1956 against Nasser, a “Mussolini on the Nile.” George H. W. Bush wrapped himself in Churchillian prose as he let loose the American military on the Hitlerian Beast of Baghdad, and his son, desperate not to be misunderestimated, smashed Saddam for the second time on the same grounds. These so-called statesmen reduced history to an exercise in Godwin’s Law, which states that if you talk online for long enough, someone will compare something to Hitler.

The election of Donald Trump has pushed Godwin’s Law to the fore once again. Many people on the Left seem to think that Hitler has seized power. They cite the rise of the Trumps, Le Pens, and Brexiteers as proof that we have entered a postmodern 1930s. Read up on your dictators, ladies and gentlemen — the center cannot hold, and the blackshirts are coming.

The events of the last year do warn against complacency. Trump, Farage, and company have thrown aside their dog whistles. Racist bile gushes from their mouths, as they paw at whichever women come within reach, and pass off sexual violence as a normal part of life. They offer vague promises for a return to national greatness, when the wrong people knew their place and the right people kept theirs at the top. They have allies in rightist governments from Poland and Hungary to Turkey and Russia, governments that would think nothing of enacting the travel bans and other xenophobic measures that Trump glories in. But while casting all these reactionaries as the second coming of Hitler might be gratifying — and there are obvious similarities between some of their ideas and those of latter-day fascists — I think it’s also wrong.

Look around Europe and the United States. Golden Dawn in Greece is really the only organized mass movement — or even the simulacra of a mass movement — calling for the destruction of the Left and the organized working class. There is no drive for war from major sections of the people, or at least none to equal the centrists’ when they were in power.

If racism equals fascism, or sexism equals fascism, or if we see Nazism in the hollowing out of the welfare state, then the conclusion follows that we’ve been living under fascism all along. Our political vocabulary is denuded of all meaning when everything that is bad becomes fascism and fascism becomes everything that is bad. If fascism does return in mass form, we will have no way to tell and no words left to describe it.

What we face is bad enough without making that mistake. After all, if the powerful unions, communists, and social democrats of Germany were flattened under the Nazi jackboot in the 1930s, what hope is there for us, when the Left, while resurgent, remains weak? Better historical comparisons are needed, to avoid despair on one side and complacency on the other.

Finding the Right Time

For the first and perhaps only time, we should listen to Niall Ferguson. The British historian has justly received his share of criticism. Yet his recent suggestion that the Gilded Age is a more apt analog for the present than the 1930s isn’t entirely wrong.

Ferguson presents the 1880s and 1890s as a period of great rebellion against the first age of globalization. Suffering from the depression that followed the Panic of 1873, experiencing mass immigration from all parts of Asia and Europe, and living under the shadow of Eastern banks and capricious financial markets, many Americans turned to populism.

Instead of Donald Trump and the “alt-right,” Ferguson gives us Dennis Kearney, the anti-immigrant leader of the California Workingmen’s Party in the 1870s and early 1880s, who famously ended each speech with the cry “the Chinese must go.” In 1883, Kearney successfully pushed Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred all Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. Trump’s xenophobic calls to keep out Mexican and Muslim immigrants echo that infamous law.

Kearney was just the tip of the xenophobic iceberg. Throughout the Gilded Age, immigrants were scapegoated for capitalism’s crises and social ills. Nativist organizations like the American Protective Association mushroomed in size. The Populists resorted to antisemitism at times in their tirades against the banks. So far, we might say, so Ferguson.

But Ferguson is concerned only with explaining the rise of Donald Trump, and by political inclination, is not much interested in turning his historical gaze to the left. Instead of Godwin’s Law we have Trump’s Law, written in exactly the spirit that the orange-faced billionaire would like it — every lecture, every comparison, every comment and tweet, ends up being all about Donald.

The Law of Trump has the same faults as the Law of Godwin and even less of its virtues. Americans in the 1880s and 1890s had their own Bernie Sanders and Occupy Wall Streets as well as their own Donald Trumps. Remembering them can help us understand our present problems, and maybe even offer some solutions.

Finding the Right Movements

The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was at once the most representative and the most unusual of the left organizations that fought their way through the Gilded Age. The Knights organized their members around a radical platform that called for an end to the wage system. In 1885, their Southwestern railroad strike forced the financier Jay Gould — who reportedly boasted of his power to hire one half of the working class to kill the other half — to give in. It was the most impressive victory workers in the United States, and perhaps even the world, had yet won against corporate power. The next year saw a frenzy of strikes and boycotts across the United States, and nearly a million members — men and women, white and black, immigrant and American born — joined the Knights.

The Knights’ achievements should not obscure their shortcomings. Lurid descriptions of the living conditions of eastern and southern European immigrants, and vile slanders against the immigrants themselves, often appeared in the Knights’ newspapers. Even as they welcomed black workers into their assemblies, they followed Kearney in his cry to keep out the Chinese. Not until the 1885 massacre of several dozen Chinese by white miners at Rock Springs, Wyoming did the Knights soften some (not all) of the hard edges of that prejudice.

But these are failings common to any nineteenth-century labor organization, and the Knights went at least as far down the road of racial equality as any other contemporaneous movement. They might not have much to teach us about racial mores — no working-class movement of that time does — but they can teach us how to organize.

The Knights built strong local assemblies (branches) with deep roots in working-class life. Rank-and-file workers maintained those assemblies in spite of the incompetence of many national officials, and some of those assemblies outlived the collapse of the national organization. They took their radical program, which aimed “to secure to the workers the full enjoyment of the wealth they create,” into the mines, the mills, the factories, the farms, and the workshops of the United States.

The results were impressive. The Knights organized a larger proportion of wage earners than American unions do today. They reached into the ranks of black, female, immigrant, and unskilled workers to a degree that American unions never had (and have often struggled to match since). They built an international movement, with branches in Europe, Africa, and Australasia, that lasted into the twentieth century. They emerged out of the same mess of economic crisis, racism, and violence as the lynchers and antisemites and nativists — yet they proclaimed the need, however hazily defined, for a system based on cooperation rather than the whims of a few thousand millionaires and their hired guns.

The Knights belie Ferguson’s neat picture of race-baiting Kearneyites and right-wing populists — and they were not alone. Between 1885 and 1887, workers in every state created local labor parties or captured local Republican and Democratic organizations from the elites who controlled them. Double the words thrown between Bernie and Clinton supporters, add Ralph Nader and Jill Stein together (and root them in the working class), situate it all within an explosion of labor discontent, and you get a sense of American workers’ political rebellion in the mid-1880s. This was a time when European observers hoped that British unions would follow the American example and form a Labour Party — not the other way around.

American labor parties came close to winning in places as large as New York. In 1886, the newly minted United Labor Party contested the city’s mayoral election, and relegated the Republican candidate, one Theodore Roosevelt, to third place. After much ballot-stuffing, the ringleaders of Tammany Hall managed to prevent Henry George, the radical economist and Union Labor candidate, from overtaking the Democratic contender and millionaire, Abram Stevens Hewitt.

Tammany’s riggers-in-arms weren’t so successful elsewhere. Labor parties took city halls, seats in state legislatures, and even places in Congress between 1885 and 1887. Compared to today, when the Left can tout a handful of progressive Democrats and independent socialists around the country, usually in minor offices, the campaigns of that time really did represent the start of what Bernie Sanders might call a political revolution. Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress briefly feared for their jobs, their slush funds, and their pork. For a moment, it looked like the Washington swamp might really be drained.

The swamp survived, of course, and the labor parties fizzled out. But at a time when a social-democratic presidential candidate is attracting millions of votes, and when the need for socialist solutions to our economic, ecological, and political problems is patently clear, the insurgents of the 1880s still have something important to say.

If we could commune with them in some appropriately materialist séance, they would tell us to start now, and start local. That advice would seem like a pleasant utopian dream if we had no precedents to follow, or had not lived through the enthusiasm of the last Democratic primary. But we have those precedents. We remember that enthusiasm. The advocates for an American labor party will need to look back to both if they want to move forward.

Even the Populists do not fit neatly into the nativist box in which Niall Ferguson has placed them. Their flirtations with racism and antisemitism, while contemptible, didn’t define the movement. Their obsession with printing greenbacks, coining free silver, and other tweaks to the currency should not blind us to the better parts of their program.

Just compare it to recent offerings from the Democrats. Nationalization of the railroads and the telegraphs — in short, the whole transportation and communications infrastructure of the country — was a common Populist demand. So were restrictions on land speculation, and the creation of public works programs to end unemployment.

These are not planks that Trump is likely to nail onto a Republican platform anytime soon. Nor are they the kind of bold measures that Clinton would dare put forward.

We should not be so circumspect. Socialists can still recover what remains relevant about the Populist program without pushing quack cures, or absorbing their prejudices.

Rewinding the Tape

Labor and socialist history is a graveyard, the final resting place of defunct unions, parties, and movements. The Knights of Labor, the Populists, and the labor parties of the 1880s are all buried there.

The Knights were eventually smashed by employers and the state, even as factional struggles tore them apart and as they lost a running war with rival unions in the American Federation of Labor. The labor parties disappeared after only a few years, and the Democratic and Republican party machines recaptured the ground they had briefly lost. By 1900 the Populists had fallen away too.

Their activists and organizations were absorbed into the Democratic Party, where their demands did not meet with the favor of its bosses and backers. They survived only in the form of William Jennings Bryan, their one-time orator, and three-time Democratic presidential candidate. The parallels with today, when many former Bernie supporters are waging a war to remake the Democratic Party, are clear and grim.

At the same time, the present moment seems like it could be the opening stage of a replay of the 1880s and 1890s, but in reverse. Then, an independent Populist Party merged into the Democrats and disappeared. Now, a populist movement within the Democratic Party, whipped into shape by the Bernie Sanders campaign, threatens to break free from the binds of the party machine. The next few years will show if that happens, or if Sanders supporters will go the way of the Bryanites and become (or remain) an impotent pressure group on the left of the Democratic Party.

Perhaps that historical tape will rewind still further, back to the movements of the 1880s. Is it still possible, in this age of automation, precarious employment, and a global race to the bottom, to build mass movements of the size and scope of the Knights of Labor? The struggles of low-wage workers, Fight for 15, and many others at least provide some hope.

Can we expect a rebellion from the left against the two major parties, at every level of government, comparable to the labor parties of 1886 and 1887? The remarkable rise of Bernie Sanders is proof that the enthusiasm and material is there, if properly channelled.

These, surely, must be the two main priorities for socialists across the United States in the decade to come: rebuild a labor movement that can deal with the changing nature of work, and build a political movement that starts at the local level and works up from there. These are easy to say and hard to do, but they need saying and doing all the same. Learning from history, from the successes and failures of the Gilded Age and from many other ages, can improve our chances in the present.

In the meantime, let’s give up on Godwin’s Law. The Nazis might well return to power, but they are not there yet. It is bad enough that we face the same choice that we have had for so long, since well before the swastikas and little mustaches first appeared on the scene. That, as Rosa Luxembourg once put it, is the choice between socialism and barbarism.