�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
NC -- 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
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 the 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
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 strikebreakers 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.
proletariat and class-consciousness
This article should be dedicated to wage earners -- especially
in the 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
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 lead�ing 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 pass�. 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 propertyless 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
It�s true that every event that happens leaves traces. It is
something like mirrors and their reflections. Except that in the mirror�s
reflections, the left is right, and the right is left. Illusions all! Illusions
are like words unspoken that are no longer words at all. Sometimes we have to
banish all possibilities of illusion. Sometimes we have to stop, close our
eyes, and allow ourselves to see real reality, not illusion where right is
left, and left right. Reality free of brainwash. Free of all those words and
euphemisms we hear on TV and read in the establishment press. We can trust none
One problem facing the wage earner-proletariat is the lack
of a suitable program. I can�t see an acceptable program for changing the
world. The �Another World Is Possible� movement is at best a loose agreement
around the planet that change would be a good thing. One answer to those who
wonder what the new resistance wants is simple: they want a just society.
Sometimes it is comforting -- but not much more than that --
to recall that though protest movements of the past have been broken and
scattered by Power, many of those people and like-minded others are still out
there in society. They could rejoin the growing number of mature people with
eyes to see and ears to hear.
But what are they to do? one wonders.
That has always been the question.
Studies show that the class of Power in the USA is
surprisingly small, numbering in the tens of thousands. The potential
opposition on the other hand is enormous, including all those Che Guevara had
in mind when he quipped, �If you tremble in indignation at injustice then you
are my comrade.� El Che had in mind the proletariat of the world.
Though much of the ruling class is stashed away in corner
offices on top floors behind batteries of secretaries, apparently in hiding,
out of its vanity it still wants to be seen. For what is Power if no one knows
YOU hold it? Members of the Power class are visible on stage each day, in TV,
in Congress, in the military hierarchy, in diplomacy, multinationals, religions
and the universities. The higher they ascend the ladder of Power, the more
entrenched in the Power system they become. However, those at the very summit are
in hiding, the rulers who really rule. The most dangerous are those who meet in
secret societies like the Bilderbergers. We can suspect who they are.
Since it seems that the people sitting in the top
tiers of our political-social theater have abdicated from the struggle, we tend
to underestimate their power. For they too have a stake in the land. One
forgets the potential force of those textile strikes of the 1930s. One forgets
that organized workers can bring a small city like Asheville in North Carolina
or a metropolis like New York or a company like General Motors to a standstill
in a matter of hours. The reason that seldom happens is because the people
have forgotten their own strength.
People don�t think about their strength because of Power�s
astute use of myth and illusion: the myth of freedom and the illusion of happiness
made of comfort and ease. And today, above all, more and more out of fear!
Though most people seem to prefer ignorance, some
people are learning to distinguish between myth and reality. For many issues
are glaringly real and evident: the Iraq War, globalization, US imperialism,
legalized torture and genocide, the new American police state, and the
degradation of social life in the West in general.
Solidarity too is growing. Resistance spreads. The
superiority of �the American way of life� has revealed itself to be a great
lie. The result of extended and prolonged resistance is inevitably state
violence against dissent. State violence in turn has a multiplier effect: when
Power steps in to taser dissenters, it intensifies resistance. An explosion becomes
inevitable. First collective action, then civil disobedience, then state
violence, then the explosion. For police-state laws change our thinking about
legitimacy. This time around the explosion can become something much different
than Power imagines. An organized people can shut down the nation without
firing a shot.
The people! Today the American people are broken, fragmented
and bewildered, devoid of unity of purpose, as existed briefly, let�s say,
during the Vietnam War. According to recent studies the vast majority of
American people are still unaffected by America�s ongoing permanent war. The
discussion about whether 70,000 or over one million Iraqis have been massacred
has a certain theoretical-academic air about it. Not even the mothers of the
American dead in Iraq can get organized.
At the same time more and more people have lost faith in the
electoral system. Some of them have taken on the job of breaking down the
natural passivity of the dissatisfied and fragmented people who, though in potential
agreement with revolutionary analyses, are unused to resistance because of the
illusionist spin conducted by Power. Therefore, the suggested antidote of not
voting for any of them.
Then there are the wars to be ended. If the people can�t
share the government�s war effort, it can share in anti-war objectives.
There is vast and growing poverty and social injustice to be resolved. There is
a dramatic need for universal health care. There is a corrupt and mean
political class to be removed. All of it. Both parties. There is every need to
give power back to the people.
Grassroots organizer Abigail Singer, co-founder of Rising
Tide North America and of a recent Southeast Climate Convergence conference in
Asheville, North Carolina, said in an interview that voting is not enough
because the electoral process has been sold to the highest bidder and that
people who get into positions of power have to sacrifice whatever principles
they started out with to the point that systemic change is impossible. Real change
can come only from the grassroots.
At the same time a growing number of people are losing faith
in nonviolence. Singer points out that capitalism itself is extremely violent.
�If you�re not nice and polite, some people consider that violence. But most violence
is in business as usual and capitalism grinding on, killing workers, forests
and oceans. We�re surrounded by normalized violence and don�t recognize it for
what it is. Confronting this normalized violence in a direct way is not
violent; it�s necessary.�
While liberals and progressives argue that you have to work
within the system, the modern activist is mutating because the political
climate has changed. The violence of government repression creates violent
reaction in the same way war against Iraq creates new shahids. Violent
resistance is nothing new: Black Power backed up the Civil Rights movement.
Historically the US government didn�t grant more workers rights because it
became good but because people rose up and demanded their rights. People organizing
to defend themselves reaches back through the history of man. Today in America
some few people are coming together and developing new ideas of resistance.
Their number is destined to grow to the degree that government repression
After my youth in America I have lived my adult abroad.
Traveling to the USA today is to go abroad. Therefore I have acquired a double
sensibility about my homeland. When I arrive there, abroad, but also at home, I
feel double tensions in the air: the tension connected with the widespread fear
of losing �the American way of life� and the tension of a minority of
dissatisfied people also fearful because it knows it is living an illusion, and
that mutiny -- still so nebulous as to appear a chimera -- will be necessary to
change things. In America I sense both a fear of action and a fear of
non-action. Perhaps also a fear of change, fear that things can only get worse.
The fear, as one friend wrote me today, that something very bad is about to
happen to America. A fear like that of a people inhabiting the wrong house, or
the haunting fear that the real house it once inhabited is today occupied by
usurpers and has lost its soul.
One senses also a disturbing atmosphere of sick pragmatism
and a depoliticalization coupled with widespread contentment with just
analyzing the current situation rather than challenging it.
It is a good sign that across the land some grassroots
activists are working to break down indifference. Radical change presupposes an
end to blind acceptance of Power�s fictionalized version of reality. Activists
no longer need feel alone. Each person arrested in anti-war demonstrations
acquires new faith in resistance and each of them creates new converts.
Acceptance of the legitimacy of Power, indifference to
Power�s deviations and passivity in the face of Power�s threats against
external enemies seem to have peaked. More and more people believe that Power
gone mad has to be put aside. The eventual end of acceptance and passivity
could result in a kind of explosion the world has never seen.
Today however that clash is still more hope than reality.
Hope that a new strategy of liberation from the oppression of illegal American
Fascism will mushroom. In other times, in an older language, that strategy
would be called revolutionary theory. The old Leninist concept is apt here:
there can be no revolutionary movement without a revolutionary theory. The
theory here, the strategy, must explain that it is not just George W. Bush, the
system�s current representative, or his replacement, who must go, but the
system itself run by that tiny minority at the top.
But people don�t rebel easily. People prefer reforms. People
do everything possible to avoid social convulsion and upheaval, even
compromising with a Fascist police state, precisely as happened in Nazi Germany
and Fascist Italy.
On the other hand, today�s US government is aware that the
spirit of mutiny/revolution is brewing. That is why it has armed itself with a
set of illegal and anti-constitutional laws to crush it. At this juncture the
alternative to ousting today�s corrupt American system is a permanent police
state, which if it becomes any more fixed than it is now just might last a
The American people will have to decide what to do and how
to act. Meanwhile many non-Americans agree that the most extreme problem of
this century for mankind is the confused, powerful and violent United States of
Finally, as an epilogue, see what Henry David Thoreau
(1817-78), great American author and philosopher, wrote in his �On the Duty of
�All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the
right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny
or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. Those who, while they disapprove
of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and
support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently
the most serious obstacles to reform.
�If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the
machine of government, let it go, let it go. . . . if it is of such a nature
that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break
the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have
to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong, which I
�But what shall I do? You ask. My answer is, If you really
wish to do anything, resign your office. When the subject has refused
allegiance, and the officer has resigned from office, then the revolution is
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.