How the corporate elite started to eliminate the Left and the power of the US working class right after the end of WWII
Richard Wolff brilliantly explains the economics behind the great US anti-leftist purge (McCarthyism) after 1945:
At the end of WWII - late 1940s into the 50s - something remarkable happened politically in the United States. And it was in many ways surprising. Suddenly, a group of people in the United States who had been celebrated as heroes, became instead - almost overnight – demons. From being leaders they became traitors.
Communists - members of the American Communist Party, Socialists - members of the two socialist parties at that time, and active leaders of the labor movement - the big organizing drives of the CIO in the 1930s and 40s, had brought millions of Americans who had never been in unions before, into the unions. They joined the unions because they thought it would be a safe way to make it through the Great Depression of the 1930s. At least safer than not being in a union.
And together, the Communists, the Socialists and the Unionists, really struggled to develop a good situation for the mass of the American working people - the lower two-thirds at least of the US population. And in the depths of a depression when those folks were really suffering, a kind of coalition emerged.
The coalition of Communists, Socialists and Unionists was strong enough to basically pressure the then President Franklin Roosevelt, during the 1930s, to institute for basic programs that helped average Americans in a way no previous administration had dared to do.
First, the creation of the Social Security system to give 65-year or older Americans a check every month for the rest of their lives. To help survivors, to help people injured early in life and disabled, to take care of our friends and neighbors, our family members who needed it. In the midst of a depression, when people were suffering, the government stepped in - not only helping, of course, the older folks 65 and over who got that monthly check, a lifesaver - but also helping their children, who therefore didn't have to help them the way they would have otherwise had to, because the government was lending a hand.
As soon as the Social Security system was set, the government did another thing. It created the unemployment compensation system. We never had that before, just like we never had a Social Security system before. And this was done in the depths of a depression when there were millions and millions of unemployed people who suddenly got a lifeline.
Third, they passed the first Minimum Wage Act in American history, saying that we all people who work a decent minimum. And it's unethical and immoral and unnecessary to deny that to them.
And finally, the biggest program. The decision of Franklin Roosevelt's government to say that they would hire millions of unemployed people. Roosevelt said, ‘if the private sector - private capitalists don't hire people, we will’. And the government did. And it used unemployed people to make many of those national parks out west that Americans love. To do some of the first conservation work in American history. To give artists of all kinds a job bringing artistic activity to the mass of the American people in a way that had never been done before, and by the way, has never been done since.
Unemployed people got a good job, doing something useful. And they got paid properly, so they could make their mortgage payments. The mass of people were helped because millions had joined unions and had become interested in, and listened to Socialists and Communists who said people deserve that. And an economic system that didn't provide it maybe wasn't justified.
And where did the money come from in the 1930s, in the depths of a depression, when the government didn't have money? How could it pay for Social Security, unemployment compensation and hiring 15 million unemployed people and paying them? The answer was that Roosevelt taxed corporations and the rich. And that's how he paid for it.
And the result for him, as a politician, was that he was reelected three times across the 1930s. He was the most popular president in the history of the United States because he was the one who went after corporations and the rich to help average people. But he didn't do it because of him. If you look at his entire political history before he became president, he was no radical, he was no left-winger. He was a conventional rich kid, went to school in the right universities of Harvard and Yale etc etc. He was pushed from below, the coalition of Communists, Socialists and Unionists.
So, when WWII was over in 1945, and when in the same year President Roosevelt died in his fourth term, the business community that was enraged that they had to pay those taxes to help average people, went to work. And they understood the problem wasn't defeating a Democrat and bringing in a Republican. They knew very well that Roosevelt didn't do this because he thought it was a good idea. They understood he had been pressured from below - by that coalition of Unionists, Socialists and Communists to do what he did. So, they understood that to roll it back, to break it down, and to make sure that will never happen again, they had to destroy that coalition.
And the way you do that, the way you destroy any coalition, is you look for, and focus first on the weakest link among the groups that are making up the coalition. And they determined in 1945 that the weak link are the Communists, the Communist Party. So, the Communist Party and its activists - who had been leaders of the unionization movement in many industries, who had been leaders in the struggle against fascism in Germany, in Italy, in Japan - became, overnight, not leaders, not heroes, but demons. They were converted into agents of a foreign power, the Soviet Union.
Kind of remarkable, if you remember that in the previous 4 or 5 years, from 1940 to 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies in a war against fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan. That soldiers from Russia and America worked together with the same objectives in a coordinated struggle. They were our friends, our allies, our supporters. Suddenly, they had been turned into arch enemies.
And so, in the aftermath of WWII, after the death of Roosevelt, we had in America a political purge, really of the kind you rarely see in the world, and like nothing else in American history.
The government, big business and conservatives everywhere went on a tear to arrest Communists. Many were to deport - many of them back to countries they had left sometimes 40 years earlier. To demonize them as evil agents of a foreign power, not leaders of an effort that had succeeded in giving average Americans the benefit of government programs the likes of which had never happened before in American history, and never happened again since then either.
The McCarthy period entered American history - named after a senator from Wisconsin who took the lead holding hearings in Washington, finding a communist in this Bureau, a communist in that office. And remember, the Communists that were there - some of them - had been heroes years earlier. Army veterans, leaders of Union efforts and so on. Made no difference, they were now evil.
And when the Communist Party was destroyed and evil demonized they went after the two socialist parties, telling Americans basically that Socialism is the same as Communism. They just spell it differently. And when they were done, they went after the labor movement, and they have done a good job. In 1945, labor unions represented a third of American workers. Today, they represent a tenth of American workers. Communist Party destroyed. Socialist parties destroyed. Labor movement reduced to a pale shadow of what it once was.
This chaotic destruction of the Left in America traumatized the American people, or at least that half or more of it that's open to critical thinking about capitalism. The kinds of people who face an uncertain job, a job with no benefits, insufficient wages to lead a decent life and who say ‘that has to change’. And who are willing to support, vote for, work with, demonstrate with people who want and demand change.
Those people had gotten that change in the 1930s, but now they watched, as all the leaders that they had followed and had been successful with, were demonized, jailed, denounced in public, deported, made to appear as though they were there some total of all evil.