The interview below first appeared in revolution magazine (#6, May-June 1998). Fred was a longtime shopfloor militant and Marxist in the United States, being frequently fired and suspended from jobs due to his union and political activities. At the time of the interview Fred was living in San Francisco but retirement meant that, at a certain point, he could no longer afford to live in that city and he moved to Mexico. Fred died in 2002.
revolution: People have an image of the 1960s as fairly wild, in terms of social experimentation and political radicalism. How general were these trends in the US?
Fred Ferguson: In the beginning, it depended on what part of the country you were in. The New York City and San Francisco Bay metropolitan areas have always been little social democratic and liberal islands in a sea of reaction. The US is a very backward country, politically and culturally.
However, as time went on and one revelation after another was made of government lying, duplicity, secret vendettas against civil rights leaders and secret wars against whole countries, young people began to wake up and look around.
By the end of the war in Vietnam, even high school (and junior high school), student strikes were taking place in the most remote areas of the mid-west and rural south.
Tens of thousands of young people flocked to the two sea coasts and formed what was to become the ‘youth culture’ of the United States. The influence was tremendous: racially, sexually, politically, in pharmacology, fashion, hair styles and even in the automobile plants of Detroit.
The combined effect of that period politically has been misnamed ‘the Vietnam Syndrome’. But it didn’t only apply to the government’s policy in Southeast Asia – it extended to nearly every aspect of society. The people no longer believed.
revo: Although the US lost the Vietnam War and the American ruling class appears to have been traumatised for a while by that experience, they seem to have paid very little political price domestically. For instance, no big revolutionary organisation emerged out of the years of ferment around the war and today the US government is intervening militarily around the world again, with very little domestic opposition. How would you assess the campaign against the Vietnam War?
Fred: The campaign against the war was headed by the social democrats and their political partners in the Communist Party and the rapidly rightward-moving Socialist Workers Party. Sociologically, it was overwhelmingly pacifist, middle class and campus-based. The working class was, by and large, suffering under the patriotic illusions left over from World War II and the Korean War. The US had only just begun its long decline economically and most of the working class was doing quite well compared to the pre-war years. That tended to give them a conservative colouration.
But by 1967 most were deeply disturbed by the war and by the pictures that were on their television news programmes every night. The social democrats, with no base in the working class, and the CP which had pissed theirs away in the 1930s and strike-breaking during World War II, had been driven to the right by the McCarthyite witch-hunt and the need to hide in the Democratic Party. The left-wing concentrated around the (Maoist) Progressive Labor Party and the early (Trotskyist) Spartacist League were just too small, too late and too shrill.
During the same period much of the youth became disillusioned with the lying politicians – every presidential candidate from 1965 promised to end the war – and drifted into the drug scene and out to agricultural communes and ‘lifestyle’ solutions of one kind or another. With the defeat of the civil rights movement and the annihilation of the Black Panther Party, black youth drifted off into nationalism and religious/mystical ‘solutions’ of their own.
When Richard Nixon hit upon the brilliant notion that most of the antiwar protesters were university students and their friends and families feared that their son-brother-friend-neighbour-lover-husband would be drafted and sent to die in the hellholes of Vietnam, he ended the draft and created the ‘all-volunteer army’. What that meant was that the draft moved from being one of a lottery of every able-bodied male, to an economic draft of those too poor to go to college and having no skills to get jobs in the plants, ie white and black working class youth. People with no influence in Washington (or city hall for that matter).
The antiwar movement declined from that moment on. While there were some further flare-ups, for the most part it was all over for the antiwar movement and the American ruling class could withdraw in semi-orderly fashion.
revo: The Vietnam War period also saw the rise of the women’s, gay, black and Chicano liberation movements. What happened to them?
Fred: The women’s movement came organically out of the civil rights movement where many, many times, women (black and white) found themselves playing supporting roles to the male ‘stars’. The civil rights movement began to wind down when it became apparent that the ‘liberal’ ruling class in the north was not willing to extend the gains made against the Jim Crow South to the valuable apartment blocks in Chicago and Cicero.
With stalemate in the streets of the north, the movement lost momentum, and began to spin off black nationalists like H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. Carmichael, when asked what the position of women was going to be in these new (nationalist) organisations, answered, “prone”.
The late 1960s, with the ferment on the campuses over the war in Vietnam and the cities literally blazing with urban rebellions in the ghettos, produced a general feeling of social crisis throughout the country. One of the results was the re-emergence of the struggle for sexual freedom. While the effect was felt by the entire country, for example with the legal sale of pornographic material for the first time since the 1920s, the leading edge was among the college and working class youth.
The invention and easy access of birth control pills, combined with the coming to maturity of the ‘baby boomers’ within the context of the ‘youth rebellion’, produced a political movement for the sexual, social and legal liberation of women. Young, mostly middle class women, demanded an end to the double standard that allowed their male peers to ‘sow a few wild oats’ before they settled down.
The left-wing of this still very tenuous movement took the position that the nuclear family was the source of the social inequality of women and that it had to go. Lacking the influence of a workers’ party, many of these young women subsequently experimented with all sorts of urban and agrarian communal living arrangements. Without an alternative to a capitalist economic system, they were inevitably utopian failures.
With the decline of the anti-war movement and the general decline in radicalism in the mid-1970s, the women’s movement moved to the right. Most of the so-called ‘Second Wave’ feminists adopted the more traditional feminist position of the First Wave: that the male gender, rather than capitalism, was the problem. Twenty years later, North American feminism is a sad little group of bitter women that spends most of its time trying to censor free speech, fight ‘glass ceilings’ in the executive suite and pursue politically dubious law-suits on so-called ‘women’s issues’. It has no connection with the lives and needs of working class women.
The Chicano or Brown Power movement was a more clearly ethnic and national movement than was the Black Power movement. Chicanos are the descendants of a people that once controlled vast areas of the American south-west. As a potentially mass movement, it always had two contradictory wings.
The first, totally supportable, had demands for the full legal equality of Chicano and for an end to racial discrimination by whites. The second was a series of revanchist demands for the return of formerly Mexican territory which they referred to as the land of Aztlan.
Organisations like the Denver-based Crusade for Justice and the Chicano Moratorium Against the War were inspired by the civil rights struggles of blacks but never had the mass character of those struggles. With the general decline in radical activity, they too retreated to the right and today are cultural affinity groups that sponsor celebrations in San Francisco around Mexican national and religious holidays.
revo: Could you tell us something about the social composition of the American working class today (ethnic-gender-white/blue collar etc) and also about the effects of de-industrialisation and decay of core economic sectors?
Fred: The North American working class is surely one of the most stratified of any country in the world with the exception of the former Soviet Union. Two gigantic waves of immigration about a hundred years apart, and the earlier slave trade, have contributed to a workforce with ethnic contingents from around the world. There are 20 million black/African-Americans, over 30 million from Mexico and the countries of Central and South America. Twenty-five percent of the population of California, for example, is now foreign born. And yet, with all this enormous variation, there remains a dominant Anglo-based ‘majority’ culture.
This culture is not necessarily made up of people of Anglo-Saxon ‘ethnic’ or ‘racial’ stock – indeed not all are white. Rather it is the irresistibly brutal pressure to assimilate that puts the children of every immigration wave in front of a television set and in an English-speaking school and, ultimately, working for an employer who requires that you speak English and ‘fit in’ socially.
In America, there never were many social programmes for the poor and unemployed; today what little there was is being dismantled as we speak. The pressure is that to eat, you must work. To work, you must speak English and, even in a union job, you can only be just so weird. But, the dialectical aspect of this pressure is that the working class, armed to the teeth and in the face of some of the worst racist hatreds, religious bigotry and sex/gender warfare in the industrialised countries, almost universally speaks English and shares the national culture – as disseminated by the ever-present television set. Nearly every school in the country is wired into cable TV and will soon be wired into the internet.
The significance of all this lies hidden from view until something comes along like the United Parcel Service (UPS) strike of last year. UPS consciously hired racial and ethnic minorities for super-exploited part-time jobs, and then played them off against the largely white and black full-time workers – until the strike. Thousands of workers walked out of UPS warehouses and depots with the determination to end the low-wage, part-time jobs. Despite the divisions created by capital and management, there was almost no scabbing.
This is the history of the American working class in microcosm. When, on those too-seldom occasions they are conscious of themselves as a class and pit themselves in battle against the capitalists, all the old racist/religious/sexist shit goes by the way or, at least, can start to be challenged.
revo: How would you assess the current state of the class struggle in the United States, both in terms of economic struggles and the political level of consciousness of American workers? What prospects do you see for radical challenges to the system today?
Fred: The industrial working class is rapidly changing. For example, the average age in the auto plants is 58. That means that soon they will jack up the United Auto Workers Union and out a new membership under it as all these older workers drift off into retirement.
The workers in these plants are the ones who were left after the massive layoffs due to downsizing, runaway plants and the introduction of more and more automated systems on the assembly lines in the plants that were left in operation.
The auto companies have just about reached the limit of plants that they can move off-shore and still economically supply the home market, so they will most certainly be hiring large numbers of new workers.
This is true in many of the core industries of the so-called rust belt. I look for this new generation, held out of the plants for years because there were no jobs for them, to be the most militant since the end of World War II. Real wages (after inflation) have been declining for twenty years. There was an accepted ‘wisdom’ in the trade union bureaucracy that strikes “were a thing of the past”, that taking on the major heavy industry capitalists in a strike was suicidal. A series of successful strikes in the US and Europe have given the lie to this assertion. In any case, I am hopeful that this new generation will be free of the mental baggage that a lot of older workers have carried around with them and which has inhibited the possibilities for radical struggle.
Then there are literally millions of young black workers unemployed. Tens of thousands of them are incarcerated in the hell-holes of the American prison system. I am hopeful that some day the rage of this inner-city ghetto layer, which at present is mainly vented in petty crime and rap music, will become politicised in an active way. In addition there are millions of workers from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America who have migrated here from these countries where revolutionary ideas and militant strike tactics are taken for granted. All under-paid, under-employed and with large families to feed.
In short, I am more optimistic about the class struggle here than I have been in years. I think that, at the very least, there is a huge strike wave in the offing in the next five-ten years. Of course, without a revolutionary party, it is doubtful that something like the formation of the CIO will occur again. But, after a period of social upheaval, I’m confident that at least some of them will draw the right conclusions. Perhaps 1905 has to happen before there is a 1917.
revo: What kind of activism exists on American campuses these days?
Fred: Pretty right-wing stuff. Defending policies like ‘affirmative action’ is about as ‘left’ as it gets.
One thing that has happened is that tuition has about doubled in the past 15 years (after inflation), and that has prevented a lot of the children of the working class from attending. More and more the universities are populated by the same privileged young people that traditionally inhabited them before the egalitarian effects of the post-World War II GI Bill which provided funds for working class demobilised soldiers to get further education.
The result of the current class composition on campuses is that the groups active on campuses tend to be around issues of the puritanical feminists ‘take back the night’ and politically correct anti-porn campaign variety. Or they are about organising trips to the north woods to ‘save the trees’, all the while ignoring the thousands of men and women literally living under the bridges of San Francisco.
The days of the 1968 ‘Red University’ are long gone. The working class (and middle class) youth who go to university today are there, by-and-large, to prepare for a career in some lucrative field that will allow them to have a reasonably good standard of living.
The problem for these young people is that with the weight of student loans that are taking ten to fifteen years to pay off, they are more and more finding themselves living the hand-to-mouth existence of the non-university youth of their own generation.
Universities are where the capitalists traditionally got many of their managers and technicians from. But, nowadays, it is just easier for Silicon Valley to import someone from the University of Bombay or Brazil to develop software or engineer a building project. This process is potential trouble for the ruling class, as they are creating a new layer of qualified people for whom the system has little on offer.
revo: Over the last two decades the US has lost its unrivalled economic position, as Germany and Japan have emerged as key economic superpowers. What kind of effect has this had on the US ruling class and its policies?
Fred: Well, in a relative sense, what you say is true, and these former defeated enemies have become regional superpowers and second-layer imperialist powers in their own right. But, at the same time, the American imperialists are far and away still top dogs.
I think that the lessons that one could draw from the Gulf War were that it was as much to show the Germans, and particularly the Japanese, who it was that controlled their energy supply. Iran notwithstanding, the Persian Gulf is an American pond, and they control it with an entire fleet of state-of-the-art warships, planes and missiles.
Furthermore, while the bourgeois papers describe Germany and Japan as US ‘trading partners’, there are entire industries that American capitalists control nearly totally – electronics, aircraft, agricultural commodities and military weapons and equipment in addition to their domination of the energy industry, both fossil and nuclear.
That was one of the purposes of NAFTA: to create an American-only trading bloc to counter the European Union – and on much more profitable terms. Germany trading with France is one thing, but the US dealing with Mexico is something else entirely.
Ultimately, the question of who will dominate what markets will be settled, at least temporarily, with another war. All the talk about the European Union being the end of nation states is just nonsense. The interest of the national capitalist class will sooner or later reassert itself. What the mix on either side will be, only time will tell. But there has never been a serious trade wat in the bloody history of capitalism that did not end in a shooting war.