All posts by Chris Wright

The Revolutionary Beethoven

Beethoven in 1803, painted by Christian Horneman

Two hundred and fifty years after Beethoven’s birth, we’re faced with something of a paradox: his music is known and beloved all over the world, probably more than that of any other composer, even as its real significance is hardly ever remarked on except in critical studies largely unread by the public. Familiarity, it seems, has bred, not contempt but ignorance. We hear the famous melodies for the thousandth time, whether in movies, commercials, or concerts, melodies from the third, fifth, sixth, ninth or other symphonies, or from piano concertos and sonatas or pieces of chamber music, but the cutting edge of this music has been dulled through overuse. That is, we have forgotten, and no longer seem to hear, the intensely political nature of Beethoven’s music—its subversive, revolutionary, passionately democratic and freedom-exalting nature.

In the year of the great composer’s 250th birthday, it would be fitting to recapture the music’s essence, retune our ears to pick up its political and philosophical message. This is especially appropriate in our own time of democratic struggles against a corrupt and decaying ancien régime, a time of parallels with the Beethovenian era of revolution, hidebound reaction, and soaring hopes to realize “the rights of man.” Beethoven belongs, heart and soul, to the political left. Centuries after his death, his music, especially if properly understood, still retains the power to transform, transfigure, and revivify, no matter how many political defeats its partisans and spiritual comrades suffer.

We might start with the most famous of Beethovenian motifs, the opening notes of the Fifth Symphony (1808). We’ve all heard the legend that they represent “fate knocking at the door.” The source of this idea is Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s notoriously unreliable secretary. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, world-renowned conductor, has a different interpretation: he detects the influence of Cherubini’s revolutionary Hymne du Panthéon of 1794 in the famous notes. “We swear, sword in hand, to die for the Republic and for the rights of man,” the chorus sings, to the rhythm of da-da-da-duuum. Beethoven was a great admirer of Cherubini, not to mention a devoted republican, so Gardiner’s theory is hardly far-fetched. In the stultifyingly conservative and repressive Vienna of 1808, Beethoven issued a clarion call to revolution in the very opening notes of one of his most revolutionary, Napoleonic symphonies. No wonder conservatives detested his music!

Some biographical details are in order. Beethoven was a child of the Enlightenment and remained so his whole life. Bonn, in the late eighteenth century, was steeped in the most progressive thought of the age: Kant, the philosopher of freedom, was a lively subject of discussion at the university, as was his follower Schiller, the poet of freedom, impassioned enemy of tyrants everywhere. The young Beethoven was heavily influenced by Eulogius Schneider, whose lectures he attended: one of the most important of German Jacobins, Schneider was so radical that in 1791 he was kicked out of the liberal university, whereupon he joined the Jacobin Club in Strasbourg. (There, he was appointed public prosecutor for the Revolutionary Tribunal, enthusiastically sending aristocrats to the guillotine—until he lost his own head a couple years later.) Schneider’s republicanism stayed with Beethoven, but it was Schiller whom Beethoven worshiped.

Schiller’s poem “An die Freude,” of course, impressed Beethoven immensely, given that he planned early on to set it to music and finally did so in the Ninth Symphony. But he was just as enamored of Schiller’s idealistic, heroic plays, such as The Robbers, William Tell, and Don Carlos. In marginal notations on the latter play, he jotted down his own thoughts as a young man: “To do good whenever one can, to love liberty above all else, never to deny the truth, even though it be before the throne.” Decades later, we find him exclaiming in a letter, “Freedom!!!! What more does one want???” In a similar vein, he once wrote to a friend, “From my earliest childhood, my zeal to serve our poor suffering humanity in any way whatsoever by means of my art has made no compromise with any lower motive. I am thoroughly delighted,” he continued, “to have found in you a friend of the oppressed.” The historian Hugo Leichtentritt concludes, “Beethoven was a passionate democrat, even in his youth; he was, in fact, the first German musician who had strong political interests, ideals, and ambitions.”

Indeed, his first significant composition was his Cantata on the Death of Joseph II, a heartfelt and moving tribute to the enlightened reformer who died in 1790. Beethoven, who always disliked hierarchy, was wholly in sympathy with Joseph’s attacks on the power of the Catholic Church and the Austrian aristocracy. His contempt for aristocrats was such that, years later, he was able to write an insulting note to his most generous benefactor, Prince Lichnowsky: “Prince, what you are, you are by circumstance and birth; what I am, I am through myself. There are, and always will be, thousands of princes; but there is only one Beethoven.” Even his fashion sense was democratic. A woman who knew him wrote a reminiscence of his behavior in aristocratic Viennese salons: “I still remember clearly Haydn and Salieri sitting on a sofa…both carefully dressed in the old-fashioned way with wig, shoes, and silk stockings, while Beethoven would come dressed in the informal fashion of the other side of the Rhine, almost badly dressed.” Corresponding to this was the fact that he was “without manners in both gesture and demeanor. He was very haughty. I myself saw the mother of Princess Lichnowsky…go down on her knees to him as he lolled on the sofa, begging him to play something. But Beethoven did not.”

One reason for Beethoven’s decades-long fascination with Napoleon was that the latter was not an aristocrat, that he was the “little corporal” who had conquered Europe by his own efforts. “He admired Napoleon’s ascent from such a low beginning,” remarked a French officer he befriended in 1809. “It suited his democratic ideas.” On the other hand, Napoleon’s crowning himself Emperor certainly did not suit Beethoven’s ideas, as we know from the anecdote of how he furiously tore up the title page of the Eroica Symphony (1803), which he had originally intended—incredibly, given the political repression in Vienna—to title Buonaparte. “So he is nothing more than an ordinary man!” Beethoven raged. “Now he too will trample underfoot all the rights of man…and become a tyrant!” And yet twenty years later, in the thick of the Restoration, his views had softened: “earlier I couldn’t have tolerated him [Napoleon]. Now I think completely differently.” However bad Napoleon was, he wasn’t the despised Emperor Francis II—or, even worse, Metternich.

The Eroica is arguably the most revolutionary of Beethoven’s symphonies, which may be why it remained his favorite, at least until the Ninth. John Clubbe, author of Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary (2019), believes the famous first two chords, which crash like cannon shots, are indeed supposed to represent the cannon fired by Napoleon’s armies as they marched across Europe carrying the banner of revolution. “The chords recall the world of the [French] Revolution: exuberant, over-the-top, colossal. They are wake-up calls to jolt [the] somnolent audiences” in Vienna and elsewhere—for Beethoven loathed the complacent, apolitical, frivolous Viennese of his day, intimidated by repression and censorship into sybaritic silence. The symphony is full of the techniques of “disruption” that have come to be considered quintessentially Beethovenian, including sudden dynamic contrasts, extreme dissonance, colossal noise, massive dimensions, density of ideas, bursting of forms and conventions, even an extra French horn to conjure the atmosphere of revolution. All of it together serves to communicate the abiding essence of Beethoven’s music: struggle, ending in triumph. It is not mere personal struggle, such as his struggle against deafness; it is collective, universal, timeless struggle, a war against limits, so to speak—artistic, creative, moral, political, even spatial and temporal. Gardiner’s characterization is apt: Beethoven represents the struggle to bring the divine down to Earth, a struggle he shares with revolutionaries everywhere. (Gardiner contrasts this with Bach and Mozart, the first representing the divine on Earth, the second giving us the music you would hear in heaven.)

Theodor Adorno was surely right when he said, “If we listen to Beethoven and do not hear anything of the revolutionary bourgeoisie—not the echo of its slogans, the need to realize them, the cry for that totality in which reason and freedom are to have their warrant—we understand Beethoven no better than does one who cannot follow the purely musical content of his pieces.” The man was so political that, by the end of his life, some of his friends refused to dine with him: either they were bored of his constant politicizing or they feared police spies would overhear him. “You are a revolutionary, a Carbonaro,” a friend of his wrote in his conversation book in 1823, referring to an Italian secret society that had played a role in various national uprisings. Well past the point that it had become (to his contemporaries) anachronistic, Beethoven kept the Enlightenment faith.

It is beyond the scope of this article to trace Beethoven’s hortatory humanism through all its musical permutations, from the bucolic poetry of the Sixth Symphony (he had a nearly pantheistic love of nature) to the “peace that passeth understanding” of the final piano sonata, with the dazzling variety of forms and content in between. We can hardly ignore, however, the one opera he wrote, whether in its initial form (as Leonore) or its final form almost ten years later (1814) as Fidelio (which he wanted to dedicate, much like Lord Byron, to the Greek freedom fighters in their war against the Ottoman Empire). Here was a chance for the great democrat to express his convictions in words, not only music. And the words, music, and plot of the opera are unambiguous: in them “the Revolution is not depicted but reenacted as in a ritual,” to quote Adorno.

Fidelio gives free rein to Beethoven’s unalloyed idealism, as the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony would do a decade later. The plot is simple (and ostensibly based on actual events that occurred during the French Revolution). Leonore, disguised as a young man named Fidelio, gets a job at a prison where she suspects her husband Florestan is being held for political reasons. He is, in fact, being slowly starved to death in the dungeon for having denounced the crimes of the prison’s governor, Pizarro. The minister Don Fernando will arrive the next day to investigate accusations of cruelty in the prison, so Pizarro resolves to kill Florestan in order to keep his existence and unjust imprisonment a secret. Fidelio and a few others are sent to the dungeon to dig a grave; meanwhile, they set most of the prisoners free, at least temporarily, to gather in the courtyard and see the sun once again. At last the time is come for Pizarro to kill Florestan: he approaches with a dagger, but Fidelio leaps between him and Florestan and reveals herself, to everyone’s shock, as Leonore. She threatens Pizarro with a pistol, but at that moment a distant bugle is heard, announcing the arrival of the benevolent minister. Pizarro ends up imprisoned himself, as Leonore frees Florestan from his chains and is celebrated for her heroism by the crowd of newly freed prisoners.

The symbolism and allegorical meanings of the opera are not hard to discern. Beethoven believed in the courage and heroism of women just as much as men, and was just as affected by its contemplation and depiction. He was, in fact, a lifelong child, as sincere and pure in his values—as well as in his “utterly untamed personality” (quoting Goethe)—as a naïve boy reading Schiller for the first time. Doubtless it is this quality that so moves audiences, that inspires flash mobs with millions of views on YouTube, and that has made his music immortal. The greatest art is always affirmative in spirit, and no one is more profoundly affirmative—or more entitled to affirmation, in light of his terrible suffering—than Beethoven.

The spirit of his music is as simple as the spirits of his models (he insisted) Socrates and Jesus: good will triumph over evil; cherish freedom but live with moral seriousness, always challenging authority; love your fellow human beings, not parochially, as in the mode of nationalism, but universally; never compromise your ideals or integrity; above all, struggle for emancipation. “Freedom remained the fundamental motif of Beethoven’s thought and music,” Clubbe writes.

Lest a political conservative misinterpret this last point, I must insist that “freedom” for Beethoven did not mean the freedom to try to start a business, to rent yourself to a corporation (on pain of starving), or to enjoy the wealth you have inherited. These are deeply impoverished “freedoms,” however glorified they may be in the rhetoric of modern conservatism. Richer is the republican freedom to participate actively in politics, or the freedom to create and think and speak what you will, where you will. Politics “as the art of creating society, a society that will express a richer and fuller life,” was Beethoven’s favorite theme, according to his biographer W. J. Turner. Indeed, there is something incongruous about the attendance of the lavishly dressed moneyed elite at public concerts of Beethoven symphonies or concertos, given the music’s expression of the revolutionary, democratic, humanitarian spirit the elite’s existence is premised on crushing. But such are the ironies that result when the historical specificity of art is denied or forgotten and all that is left is a vague feeling of aesthetic enjoyment.

Still, even the pure aesthetic enjoyment is significant. The music is exquisitely beautiful in the mode of invigoration: no composer in history is more humanistic than Beethoven. As Leonard Bernstein once said:

No composer has ever lived who speaks so directly to so many people, to young and old, educated and ignorant, amateur and professional, sophisticated and naïve. To all these people, of all classes, nationalities, and racial backgrounds, this music speaks a universality of thought, of human brotherhood, freedom, and love.

That even reactionaries today can love Beethoven, however perversely, suggests just how universal his music is.

Let us, then, turn again with fresh ears and open minds to “the first great democrat of music,” in the words of Ferruccio Busoni. Let us draw inspiration from him in our own struggles to humanize and democratize the world. And let’s be sure not to forget, in the cultural wasteland that is twenty-first-century America, the nobler aspects of our civilization’s heritage.

Admirers of Richard Wagner’s music have been known to call it the “Music of the Future.” Let’s hope that Beethoven’s is the real Music of the Future, and that humanity one day will be free.

The post The Revolutionary Beethoven first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Learning from the Great Depression

According to Mark Twain (supposedly), history doesn’t repeat itself, but it frequently rhymes. He was right. Donald Trump, for example, rhymes with Mussolini. The decline of organized labor in recent decades rhymes with its decline in the 1920s. And the coming depression will rhyme, in many respects, with the Great Depression.

For decades, in fact, it has been clear that the political economy of neoliberalism “rhymes” with the political economy that caused the Depression. In addition to (and in part because of) the analogous collapses of organized labor, economic inequality skyrocketed in both eras: in 1929 the richest 0.1% of families in the U.S. owned 25% of all wealth, which is almost exactly the same amount as today. Real wages in the last forty years have stagnated or even declined, as in the 1920s. What these trends, coinciding with an explosion of debt, have indicated is a dangerous weakness in aggregate demand, which has heralded an eventual collapse of markets.

Now that markets are imploding (although from an unforeseen trigger, the coronavirus pandemic), we can observe history rhyming yet again: the fiscal policy responses today, especially by states, mimic those of the Great Depression.

It is of interest to consider government policies in that earlier period, for there may be lessons to heed as states and the federal government confront our own generation-defining economic cataclysm. While political officials don’t always learn from the past, at least activists and the public can.

The most striking fact about the fiscal policy of states in the 1930s is that they consistently underfunded unemployment relief, even in the years when many of them, far from being strapped for cash, had budget surpluses. This is a paradoxical and frequently forgotten fact: U.S. states ended the Depression in a much stronger financial position than when it began.

The reason is simple: it was in these years that states discovered the sales tax, and came to rely on it (together with taxes on alcohol, tobacco, gasoline, and soft drinks) for the majority of their revenue. By 1940, they had doubled the amount they collected in 1930. And yet even the wealthiest states, such as Illinois, continued to plead poverty as an excuse not to adequately fund relief for the unemployed.

It is also noteworthy that states typically preferred to enact regressive forms of taxation such as the sales tax rather than raise taxes on property, individual and corporate incomes, estates, and the like.

The very agenda of austerity, which was a near-religion for states and municipalities in the 1930s (except insofar as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal counteracted it), was not the “economic necessity” authorities claimed it was. It was hardly unavoidable that governments would—as they did—deeply cut spending on such services as public health, sanitation, education, libraries, and transportation. Instead, they could have collected more taxes from corporations and the wealthy, as liberals, labor unions, Communists, and various popular organizations advocated.

In retrospect, such progressive policies seem both just and economically wise, in that they would have increased purchasing power among lower-income groups and thus expanded markets, incentivizing businesses to invest. But the political power of business groups like Chambers of Commerce, Real Estate Boards, and the National Association of Manufacturers ensured that more regressive fiscal policies were enacted and large proportions of the unemployed were left to fend for themselves.

In short, governments made choices; they were not forced to act as they did. They chose to rely on sales taxes instead of something more progressive; they chose not to spend budget surpluses on relief programs for the unemployed; they chose to cut spending on institutions that disproportionately benefited the working and middle classes.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because governments are making the same choices today (as they did following the Great Recession).

New York, for example, is cutting billions of dollars in aid to schools and Medicaid, and is sure to make further cuts in the coming months. Even as he pleads poverty, Governor Andrew Cuomo has rejected out of hand the idea of raising taxes on the ultra-rich, which could generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue for the state.

Other states are following the same playbook, making significant cuts without committing to raising taxes on the wealthy.

In the end, what the Great Depression and its solution in the colossal spending for World War II showed is that ultimate responsibility rests with the federal government. A mobilization of society’s resources on the level of the 1940s—under the auspices, say, of a Green New Deal—would not only solve the coming economic crisis but lay the foundation for sustained prosperity.

Nevertheless, states are not without their own resources, which they have an obligation to tap in order to mitigate the burden on the most vulnerable.

Let us, for once, avoid making the present “rhyme” with the past and instead set foot on a more enlightened path.

Revolution in the Twenty-First Century: A Reconsideration of Marxism

In the age of COVID-19, it’s even more obvious than it’s been for at least ten or twenty years that capitalism is entering a long, drawn-out period of unprecedented global crisis. The Great Depression and World War II will likely, in retrospect, seem rather minor—and temporally condensed—compared to the many decades of ecological, economic, social, and political crises humanity is embarking on now. In fact, it’s probable that we’re in the early stages of the protracted collapse of a civilization, which is to say of a particular set of economic relations underpinning certain social, political, and cultural relations. One can predict that the mass popular resistance, worldwide, engendered by cascading crises will gradually transform a decrepit ancien régime, although in what direction it is too early to tell. But left-wing resistance is already spreading and even gaining the glimmers of momentum in certain regions of the world, including—despite the ending of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign—the reactionary United States. Over decades, the international left will grow in strength, even as the right, in all likelihood, does as well.

Activism of various practical and ideological orientations is increasingly in a state of ferment—and yet, compared to the scale it will surely attain in a couple of decades, it is still in its infancy. In the U.S., for example, “democratic socialism” has many adherents, notably in the DSA and in the circles around Jacobin magazine. There are also organizations, and networks of organizations, that consciously repudiate the “reformism” of social democracy, such as the Marxist Center, which disavows the strategy of electing progressive Democratic politicians as abject “class collaboration.” Actually, many democratic socialists would agree that it’s necessary, sooner or later, to construct a workers’ party, that the Democratic Party is ineluctably and permanently fused with the capitalist class. But the Marxist Center rejects the very idea of prioritizing electoral work, emphasizing instead “base-building” and other modes of non-electoral activism.

Meanwhile, there are activists in the solidarity economy, who are convinced it’s necessary to plant the institutional seeds of the new world in the fertile soil of the old, as the old slowly decays and collapses. These activists take their inspiration from the recognition, as Rudolf Rocker put it in his classic Anarcho-Syndicalism, that “every new social structure makes organs for itself in the body of the old organism. Without this preliminary any social evolution is unthinkable. Even revolutions can only develop and mature the germs which already exist and have made their way into the consciousness of men; they cannot themselves create these germs or generate new worlds out of nothing.” The Libertarian Socialist Caucus of the DSA is one group that identifies with this type of thinking, but there are many others, including the Democracy Collaborative, the Democracy at Work Institute (also this one), Shareable, and more broadly the New Economy Coalition. Cooperation Jackson has had some success building a solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi.

The numbers and varieties of activists struggling to build a new society are uncountable, from Leninists to anarchists to left-liberals and organizers not committed to ideological labels. Amidst all this ferment, however, one thing seems lacking: a compelling theoretical framework to explain how corporate capitalism can possibly give way to an economically democratic, ecologically sustainable society. How, precisely, is that supposed to happen? Which strategies are better and which worse for achieving this end—an end that may well, indeed, seem utopian, given the miserable state of the world? What role, for instance, does the venerable tradition of Marxism play in understanding how we might realize our goals? Marx, after all, had a conception of revolution, which he bequeathed to subsequent generations. Should it be embraced, rejected, or modified?

Where, in short, can we look for some strategic and theoretical guidance?

In this article I’ll address these questions, drawing on some of the arguments in my book Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States (specifically chapters 4 and 6).1 As I’ve argued elsewhere, historical materialism is an essential tool to understand society and how a transition to some sort of post-capitalism may occur. Social relations are grounded in production relations, and so to make a revolution it is production relations that have to be transformed. But the way to do so isn’t the way proposed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto, or by Engels and Lenin and innumerable other Marxists later: that, to quote Engels’ Anti-Dühring, “The proletariat seizes state power, and then transforms the means of production into state property.” Or, as the Manifesto states, “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class.”

Instead, the revolution has to be a gradual and partially “unconscious” process, as social contradictions are tortuously resolved “dialectically,” not through a unitary political will that seizes the state (every state!) and then consciously, semi-omnisciently reconstructs the economy from the top down, magically transforming authoritarian relations into democratic ones through the exercise of state bureaucracy. In retrospect, this idea that a “dictatorship of the proletariat” will plan and direct the social revolution, and that the latter will, in effect, happen after the political revolution, seems incredibly idealistic, unrealistic, and thus un-Marxist.

I can’t rehearse here all the arguments in my book, but I’ve sketched some of them in this article. In the following I’ll briefly restate a few of the main points, after which I’ll argue that on the basis of my revision of Marxism we can see there is value in all the varieties of activism leftists are currently pursuing. No school of thought has a monopoly on the truth, and all have limitations. Leftists must tolerate disagreements and work together—must even work with left-liberals—because a worldwide transition between modes of production takes an inordinately long time and takes place on many different levels.

I’ll also offer some criticisms of each of the three broad “schools of thought” I mentioned above, namely the Jacobin social democratic one, the more self-consciously far-left one that rejects every hint of “reformism,” and the anarchistic one that places its faith in things like cooperatives, community land trusts, mutual aid, “libertarian municipalism,” all sorts of decentralized participatory democracy. At the end I’ll briefly consider the overwhelming challenge of ecological collapse, which is so urgent it would seem to render absurd, or utterly defeatist, my insistence that “the revolution” will take at least a hundred years to wend its way across the globe and unseat all the old social relations.

Correcting Marx

Karl Marx was a great genius, but even geniuses are products of their environment and are fallible. We can hardly expect Marx to have gotten absolutely everything right. He couldn’t foresee the welfare state or Keynesian stimulation of demand, which is to say he got the timeline for revolution wrong. One might even say he mistook the birth pangs of industrial capitalism for its death throes: a global transition to socialism never could have happened in the nineteenth century, nor even in the twentieth, which was the era of “monopoly capitalism,” state capitalism, entrenched imperialism, the mature capitalist nation-state. It wasn’t even until the last thirty years that capitalist relations of production fully conquered vast swathes of the world, including the so-called Communist bloc and much of the Global South. And Marx argued, at least in the Manifesto, that capitalist globalization was a prerequisite to socialism (or communism).

All of which is to say that only now are we finally entering the era when socialist revolution is possible. The earlier victories, in 1917, 1949, 1959, and so on, did not achieve socialism—workers’ democratic control of the economy—and, in the long run, could not have. They occurred in a predominantly capitalist world—capitalism was in the ascendancy—and were constrained by the limits of that world, the restricted range of possibilities. Which is doubtless why all those popular victories ended up in one or another form of oppressive statism (or else were soon crushed by imperialist powers).

If Marx was wrong about the timeline, he was also wrong about his abstract conceptualization of how the socialist revolution would transpire. As he put it in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production… From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.” The notion of fettering, despite its criticism by exponents of Analytical Marxism, is useful, but not in the form it’s presented here. For to say that relations of production fetter productive forces (or, more precisely, fetter their socially rational use and development) is not to say very much. How much fettering is required for a revolution to happen? Surely capitalism has placed substantial fetters on the productive forces for a long time—and yet here we all are, still stuck in this old, fettered world.

To salvage Marx’s intuition, and in fact to make it quite useful, it’s necessary to tweak his formulation. Rather than some sort of “absolute” fettering of productive forces by capitalist relations, there is a relative fettering—relative to an emergent mode of production, a more democratic and socialized mode, that is producing and distributing resources more equitably and rationally than the capitalist.

A parallel (albeit an imperfect one) is the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Feudal relations certainly obstructed economic growth, but it wasn’t until a “competing” economy—of commercial, financial, agrarian, and finally industrial capitalism—had made great progress in Western Europe that the classical epoch of revolution between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries burst onto the scene. Relative to capitalism, feudalism was hopelessly stagnant, and therefore, once capitalism had reached a certain level of development, doomed.

Crucially, the bourgeoisie’s conquest of political power wasn’t possible until capitalist economic relations had already, over centuries, spread across much of Europe. There had to be a material foundation for the capitalist class’s ultimate political victories: without economic power—the accumulation of material resources through institutions they controlled—capitalists could never have achieved political power. That is to say, much of the enormously protracted social revolution occurred before the final “seizure of the state.”

If historical materialism is right, as it surely is, the same paradigm must apply to the transition from capitalism to socialism. The working class can never complete its conquest of the state until it commands considerable economic power—not only the power to go on strike and shut down the economy but actual command over resources, resources sufficient to compete with the ruling class. The power to strike, while an important tool, is not enough. Nor are mere numbers, however many millions, enough, as history has shown. The working class needs its own institutional bases from which to wage a very prolonged struggle, and these institutions have to be directly involved in the production and accumulation of resources. Only after some such “alternative economy,” or socialized economy, has emerged throughout much of the world alongside the rotting capitalist economy will the popular classes be in a position to finally complete their takeover of states. For they will have the resources to politically defeat the—by then—weak, attenuated remnants of the capitalist class.

Marx, in short, was wrong to think there would be a radical disanalogy between the transition to capitalism and the transition to socialism. Doubtless the latter process (if it happens) will take far less time than the earlier did, and will be significantly different in many other respects. But social revolutions on the scale we’re discussing—between vastly different modes of production—are always very gradual, never a product of a single great moment (or several moments) of historical “rupture” but rather of many decades of continual ruptures.2 Why? Simply because ruling classes are incredibly tenacious, they have incredible powers of repression, and it requires colossal material resources to defeat them—especially in the age of globalized capitalism.

Building a new mode of production

What we must do, then, is to laboriously construct new relations of production as the old capitalist relations fall victim to their contradictions. But how is this to be done? At this early date, it is, admittedly, hard to imagine how it can be accomplished. Famously, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

But two things are clear. First, a significant amount of grassroots initiative is necessary. The long transition will not take place only on one plane, the plane of the state; there will be a tumult of creative energy on sub-state levels, as there was during Europe’s transition into capitalism. (Of course, in the latter case it was typically to establish predatory and exploitative relations, not democratic or communal ones, but the point holds.) The many forms of such energy can hardly be anticipated, but they will certainly involve practices that have come to be called the “solidarity economy,” including the formation of cooperatives of all types, public banks, municipal enterprises, participatory budgeting, mutual aid networks, and so on. In a capitalist context it is inconceivable that states will respond to crisis by dramatically improving the circumstances of entire populations; as a result, large numbers of people will be compelled to build new institutions to survive and to share and accumulate resources. Again, this process, which will occur all over the world and to some degree will be organized and coordinated internationally, will play out over generations, not just two or three decades.

In the long run, moreover, this solidarity economy will not prove to be some sort of innocuous, apolitical, compatible-with-capitalism development; it will foster anti-capitalist ways of thinking and acting, anti-capitalist institutions, and anti-capitalist resistance. It will facilitate the accumulation of resources among organizations committed to cooperative, democratic, socialized production and distribution, a rebuilding of “the commons,” a democratization of the state. It will amount to an entire sphere of what has been called “dual power” opposed to a still-capitalist state, a working-class base of power to complement the power of workers and unions to strike.

The second point is that, contrary to anarchism, it will be necessary to use the state to help construct a new mode of production. Governments are instruments of massive social power and they cannot simply be ignored or overthrown in a general strike. However unpleasant or morally odious it may be to participate in hierarchical structures of political power, it has to be a part of any strategy to combat the ruling class.

Activists and organizations will pressure the state at all levels, from municipal to national, to increase funding for the solidarity economy. In fact, they already are, and have had success in many countries and municipalities, including in the U.S. The election of more socialists to office will encourage these trends and ensure greater successes. Pressure will also build to fund larger worker cooperatives, to convert corporations to worker-owned businesses, and to nationalize sectors of the economy. And sooner or later, many states will start to give in.

Why? One possible state response to crisis, after all, is fascism. And fascism of some form or other is indeed being pursued by many countries right now, from Brazil to Hungary to India to the U.S. But there’s a problem with fascism: by its murderous and ultra-nationalistic nature, it can be neither permanent nor continuously enforced worldwide. Even just in the United States, the governmental structure is too vast and federated, there are too many thousands of relatively independent political jurisdictions, for a fascist regime to be consolidated in every region of the country. Fascism is only a temporary and partial solution for the ruling class. It doesn’t last.

The other solution, which doubtless will always be accompanied by repression, is to grant concessions to the masses. Here, it’s necessary to observe that the state isn’t monolithically an instrument of capital. While capital dominates it, it is a terrain of struggle, “contestations,” “negotiations,” of different groups—classes, class subgroups, interest groups, even individual entities—advocating for their interests. Marxists from Engels, Kautsky, and Lenin to Miliband and Poulantzas to more recent writers have felled forests writing about the nature of the capitalist state, but for the purposes of revolutionary strategy all you need is some critical common sense (as Noam Chomsky, dismissive of self-indulgent “theorizing,” likes to point out). It is possible for popular movements to exert such pressure on the state that they slowly change its character, thereby helping to change the character of capitalist society.

In particular, popular organizations and activists can take advantage of splits within the ruling class to push agendas that benefit the populace. The political scientist Thomas Ferguson, among others, has shown how the New Deal, including the epoch-making Wagner Act and Social Security Act, was made possible by just such divisions in the ranks of business. On a grander scale, Western Europe’s long transition from feudalism to capitalism was accompanied by divisions within the ruling class, between more forward-thinking and more hidebound elements. (As is well known, a number of landed aristocrats and clergymen even supported the French Revolution, at least in its early phases.) Marx was therefore wrong to imply that it’s the working class vs. the capitalist class, monolithically. This totally Manichean thinking suggested that the only way to make a revolution is for the proletariat to overthrow the ruling class in one blow, so to speak, to smash a united reactionary opposition that, moreover, is in complete control of the state (so the state has to be seized all at once).

On the contrary, we can expect the past to repeat itself: as crises intensify and popular resistance escalates, liberal factions of the ruling class will split off from the more reactionary elements in order to grant concessions. In our epoch of growing social fragmentation, environmental crisis, and an increasingly dysfunctional nation-state, many of these concessions will have the character not of resurrecting the centralized welfare state but of encouraging phenomena that seem rather “interstitial” and less challenging to capitalist power than full-fledged social democracy is. But, however innocent it might seem to support new “decentralized” solutions to problems of unemployment, housing, consumption, and general economic dysfunction, in the long run, as I’ve said, these sorts of reforms will facilitate the rise of a more democratic and socialized political economy within the shell of the decadent capitalist one.

At the same time, to tackle the immense crises of ecological destruction and economic dysfunction, more dramatic and visible state interventions will be necessary. They may involve nationalizations of the fossil fuel industry, enforced changes to the polluting practices of many industries, partial reintroductions of social-democratic policies, pro-worker reforms of the sort that Bernie Sanders’ campaign categorized under “workplace democracy,” etc. Pure, unending repression will simply not be sustainable. These more “centralized,” “statist” reforms, just like the promotion of the solidarity economy, will in the long run only add to the momentum for continued change, because the political, economic, and ecological context will remain that of severe worldwide crisis.

Much of the ruling class will of course oppose and undermine progressive policies—especially of the more statist variety—every step of the way, thus deepening the crisis and doing its own part to accelerate the momentum for change. But by the time it becomes clear to even the liberal sectors of the business class that its reforms are undermining the long-term viability and hegemony of capitalism, it will be too late. They won’t be able to turn back the clock: there will be too many worker-owned businesses, too many public banks, too many state-subsidized networks of mutual aid, altogether too many reforms to the old type of neoliberal capitalism (reforms that will have been granted, as always, for the sake of maintaining social order). The slow-moving revolution will feed on itself and will prove unstoppable, however much the more reactionary states try to clamp down, murder dissidents, prohibit protests, and bust unions. Besides, as Marx predicted, the revolutionary project will be facilitated by the thinning of the ranks of the capitalist elite due to repeated economic collapses and the consequent destruction of wealth.

Just as the European absolutist state of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries was compelled to empower—for the sake of accumulating wealth—the capitalist classes that created the conditions of its demise, so the late-capitalist state will be compelled, for the purposes of internal order, to acquiesce in the construction of non-capitalist institutions that correct some of the “market failures” of the capitalist mode of production. The capitalist state will, of necessity, be a participant in its own demise. Its highly reluctant sponsorship of new practices of production, distribution, and social life as a whole—many of them “interstitial” at first—will be undertaken on the belief that it’s the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being the complete dissolution of capitalist power resulting from the dissolution of society.

It is impossible to predict this long process in detail, or to say how and when the working class’s gradual takeover of the state (through socialist representatives and the construction of new institutions on local and eventually national levels) will be consummated. Nor can we predict what the nation-state itself will look like then, what political forms it will have, how many of its powers will have devolved to municipal and regional levels and how many will have been lost to supra-national bodies of world governance. Needless to say, it is also hopeless to speculate on the future of the market, or whether various kinds of economic planning will, after generations, mostly take the place of the market.

As for “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” this entity, like the previous “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” won’t exist until the end of the long process of transformation. Marxists, victims of impatience as well as the statist precedents of twentieth-century “Communist” countries, have traditionally gotten the order wrong, forgetting the lesson of Marxism itself that the state is a function of existing social relations and can’t simply be taken over by workers in the context of a still-wholly-capitalist economy. Nor is it at all “dialectical” to think that a group of workers’ representatives can will a new economy into existence, overcoming the authoritarian, bureaucratic, inefficient, exploitative institutional legacies of capitalism by a few acts of statist will. Historical materialism makes clear the state isn’t so radically socially creative!3

Instead, the contrast that will appear between the stagnant, “fettering” old forms of capitalism and the more rational and democratic forms of the emergent economy is what will guarantee, in the end, the victory of the latter.

An ecumenical activism

In a necessarily speculative and highly abstract way I’ve tried to sketch the logic of how a new economy might emerge from the wreckage of capitalism, and how activists with an eye toward the distant future might orient their thinking. It should be evident from what I’ve said that there isn’t only one way to make a revolution; rather, in a time of world-historic crisis, simply fighting to humanize society will generate anti-capitalist momentum. And there are many ways to make society more humane.

Consider the social democratic path, the path of electing socialists and pressuring government to expand “welfare state” measures. Far-leftists often deride this approach as merely reformist; in the U.S., it’s also common to dismiss the idea of electing progressive Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because supposedly the Democratic Party is hopelessly capitalist and corrupt. It can’t be moved left, and it will certainly never be a socialist party.

According to Regeneration Magazine, for instance, a voice of the Marxist Center network, “Reformism accepts as a given the necessity of class collaboration, and attempts to spin class compromise as a necessary good. One of the more popular strategic proposals of the reformist camp is the promotion of candidates for elected office running in a capitalist party; a clear instance of encouraging class collaboration.”

There are a number of possible responses to such objections. One might observe that if the left insists on absolute purity and refuses to work with anyone who can be seen as somehow “compromised,” it’s doomed to irrelevance—or, worse, it ends up fracturing the forces of opposition and thus benefits the reactionaries. It is a commonplace of historiography on fascism that the refusal of Communist parties in the early 1930s to cooperate with socialists and social democrats only empowered the Nazis and other such elements—which is why the Stalinist line changed in 1934, when the period of the Popular Front began. Then, in the U.S., began Communist efforts to build the Democrat-supported CIO (among other instances of “collaboration” with Democrats), which was highly beneficial to the working class. Leftists, more than anyone else, should be willing and able to learn from history.

Or one might state the truism that social democracy helps people, and so if you care about helping people, you shouldn’t be opposed to social democracy. It may be true that the Democratic Party is irredeemably corrupt and capitalist, but the more left-wing policymakers we have, the better. Democrats have moved to the left in the past, e.g. during the New Deal and the Great Society, and they may be able to move to the left in the future. One of the goals of socialists should be to fracture the ruling class, to provoke splits that provide opportunities for socialist organizing and policymaking.

At the same time, the strategy of electing left-wing Democrats or “reformists” should be complemented by an effort to build a working-class party, not only for the sake of having such a party but also to put pressure on the mainstream “left.” Anyway, the broader point is just that the state is an essential terrain of struggle, and all ways of getting leftists elected have to be pursued.

Personally, I’m skeptical that full-fledged social democracy, including an expansion of it compared to its traditional form, is possible any longer, least of all on an international or global scale. Thus, I don’t have much hope for a realization of the Jacobin vision, that societies can pass straight into socialism by resurrecting and continuously broadening and deepening social democracy. Surely Marxism teaches us that we can’t resuscitate previous social formations after they have passed from the scene, particularly not institutional forms that have succumbed (or are in the process of succumbing) to the atomizing, disintegrating logic of capital. The expansive welfare state was appropriate to an age of industrial unionism and limited mobility of capital. Given the monumental crises that will afflict civilization in the near future, the social stability and coherence required to sustain genuine social democracy will not exist.

But that doesn’t mean limited social-democratic victories aren’t still possible. They certainly are. And in the long run, they may facilitate the emergence of new democratic, cooperative, ecologically viable modes of production, insofar as they empower the left. Even something like a Green New Deal, or at least a partial realization of it, isn’t out of the question.

On the other hand, while mass politics is necessary, that doesn’t mean we should completely reject non-electoral “movementism.” As I’ve argued, the project of building a new society doesn’t happen only on the level of the state; it also involves other types of popular organizing and mobilizing, including in the solidarity economy. The latter will likely, indeed, be a necessity for people’s survival in the coming era of state incapacity to deal with catastrophe.

Not all types of anarchist activism are fruitful or even truly leftist, but the anarchist intuition to organize at the grassroots and create horizontal networks of popular power is sound. Even in the ultra-left contempt for reformism there is the sound intuition that reforms are not enough, and we must always press forward towards greater radicalism and revolution.

An ecological apocalypse?

An obvious objection to the conception and timeframe of revolution I’ve proposed is that it disregards the distinct possibility that civilization will have disappeared a hundred years from now if we don’t take decisive action immediately. For one thing, nuclear war remains a dire threat. But even more ominously, capitalism is turbocharged to destroy the natural bases of human life.

There’s no need to run through the litany of crimes capitalism is committing against nature. Humanity is obviously teetering on the edge of a precipice, peering down into a black hole below. Our most urgent task is to, at the very least, take a few steps back from the precipice.

The unfortunate fact, however, is that global capitalism will not be overcome within the next few decades. It isn’t “defeatist” to say this; it’s realistic. The inveterate over-optimism of many leftists, even in the face of a dismal history, is quite remarkable. Transitions between modes of production aren’t accomplished in a couple of decades: they take generations, and involve many setbacks, then further victories, then more defeats, etc. The long march of reactionaries to their current power in the U.S. took fifty years, and they existed in a sympathetic political economy and had enormous resources. It’s hard to believe socialists will be able to revolutionize the West and even the entire world in less time.

Fortunately, it is possible to combat ecological collapse even in the framework of capitalism. One way to do so, which, sadly, is deeply unpopular on the left, is for governments to subsidize the massive expansion of nuclear power, a very clean and effective source of energy despite the conventional wisdom. The rollout of renewable energy is important too, despite its many costs. Meanwhile, it is far from hopeless to try to force governments to impose burdensome regulations and taxes on polluting industries or even, ideally, to shut down the fossil fuel industry altogether. Capitalism itself is indeed, ultimately, the culprit, but reforms can have a major effect, at the very least buying us some time.

Climate change and other environmental disasters may, nevertheless, prove to be the undoing of civilization, in which case the social logic of a post-capitalist revolution that I’ve outlined here won’t have time to unfold. Nothing certain can be said at this point—except that the left has to stop squabbling and get its act together. And it has to be prepared for things to get worse before they get better. As Marx understood, that’s how systemic change tends to work: the worse things get—the more unstable the system becomes—the more people organize to demand change, and in the end the likelier it is that such change will happen.

The old apothegm “socialism or barbarism” has to be updated: it’s now socialism or apocalypse.

But the strategic lesson of the “purifications” I’ve suggested of Marxist theory remains: the path to socialism is not doctrinaire, not sectarian, not wedded to a single narrow ideological strain; it is catholic, inclusive, open-ended—both “reformist” and non-reformist, statist and non-statist, Marxist and anarchist, Democrat-cooperating and -non-cooperating. Loath as we might be to admit it, it is even important that we support lesser-evil voting, for instance electing Biden rather than Trump. Not only does it change people’s lives to have a centrist instead of a fascist in power; it also gives the left more room to operate, to influence policy, to advocate “radical reforms” that help lay the groundwork for new economic relations.

It’s time for creative and flexible thinking. The urgency of our situation demands it.

  1. Being an outgrowth of my Master’s thesis, the book over-emphasizes worker cooperatives. It does, however, answer the usual Marxist objections to cooperatives as a component of social revolution.
  2. If someone will counterpose here the example of Russia, which didn’t require “many decades” to go from capitalism and late-feudalism to a “Stalinist mode of production,” I’d reply that the latter was in fact like a kind of state capitalism, and therefore wasn’t so very different after all from the authoritarian, exploitative, surplus-extracting, capital-accumulating economy that dominated in the West.
  3. This is why I claim in the above-linked book that my “revisions” of Marxism are really purifications of it, eliminations of mistakes that finally make the properly understood Marxist conception of revolution consistent with the premises of historical materialism.

A Modest Proposal for Socialist Revolution

At this point in history, two things are clear. First, Marx was right that capitalism is torn by too many “contradictions” to be sustainable indefinitely as a global economic system. In its terminal period, which we’re entering now (and which we can predict will last generations, because a global economic order doesn’t vanish in a decade or two), it will be afflicted by so many popular uprisings—on the left and the right—so many economic, political, and ecological crises causing so much turmoil and dislocation, that only a permanent and worldwide fascism would be able to save it. But fascism, by its murderous and ultra-nationalistic nature, can be neither permanent nor continuously enforced worldwide. Even just in the United States, the governmental structure is too vast and federated, there are too many thousands of relatively independent political jurisdictions, for a truly fascist regime to be consolidated nationwide, in every nook and cranny of the country. Fascism, or neo-fascism, is only a temporary and partial solution for the ruling class.

Second, the original Marxist predictions of how a transition to a new society would play out are wrong and outdated. Some Marxists still continue to think in terms of the old formulations, but they’re a hundred years behind the times. It is no longer helpful (it never was, really) to proclaim that a “dictatorship of the proletariat” will “smash the state” and reconstruct society through initiatives that magically transform an authoritarian, bureaucratic, exploitative economy into an emancipatory, democratic one of dispersed power. The conceptual and empirical problems with this orthodox view are overwhelming, as I’ve explained in this book (chapters 4 and 6). As if the leaders of a popular movement that, miraculously, managed to overcome the monopoly over military force of a ruling class in an advanced capitalist country and took over the government (whether electorally or through an insurrection) would, by means of conscious aforethought, be able to transcend the “dialectical contradictions” and massive complexity of society to straightforwardly rebuild the economy from the ground up, all while successfully fending off the attacks and sabotage of the capitalist class! The story is so idealistic it’s incredible any Marxists can believe it (or some variant of it).

Some leftist writers have argued, rightly, against an insurrectionary approach to revolution in a core capitalist nation, using the words of Kautsky and other old Marxists to make their point. But it isn’t necessary to follow this general practice of endlessly poring over the works of Kautsky, Bernstein, Luxemburg, Lenin, and others who wrote in a dramatically different political economy than the present. It can be useful to familiarize oneself with hundred-year-old debates, but ultimately the real desideratum is just some critical common sense. We don’t need pretentious academic exercises that conclude in some such statement of truisms as the following (from an article by Stephen Maher and Rafael Khachaturian):

What is certain is that waging a struggle within and against the state demands that we build new forms of democratic participation and working class organization with the goal of breaking definitively with capitalist production relations and forms of political authority. This process will occur in fits and starts… Navigating between a reflexive anti-statism and the fallacy of attempting to “occupy” state institutions without transforming them is undoubtedly challenging. But only in this way can we advance beyond the past shortcomings of both dual power and social democratic approaches to the capitalist state.

Pure truism, which it wasn’t necessary to write a long essay to support. So let’s shun elitist jargon and academic insularity, instead using the democratic capacity of reason that’s available to everyone.

The social democratic (or “democratic socialist”) approach to revolution is favored by the Jacobin school of thought: elect socialists to office and build a social democratic state such as envisioned by Bernie Sanders—but don’t rest content with such a state. Keep agitating for more radical reforms—don’t let the capitalist class erode popular gains, but instead keep building on them—until at last genuine socialism is realized.

I’ve criticized the Jacobin vision elsewhere. It’s a lovely dream, but it’s over-optimistic. The social democratic stage of history, premised on industrial unionism and limited capital mobility, is over. It’s a key lesson of Marxism itself that we can’t return to the past, to conditions that no longer exist; we can’t resurrect previous social formations after they have succumbed to the ruthless, globalizing, atomizing logic of capital.

Suppose Bernie Sanders is elected this year (which itself would be remarkable, given the hostility of the entire ruling class). Will he be able to enact Medicare for All, free higher education, a Green New Deal, safe and secure housing for all, “workplace democracy,” or any other of his most ambitious goals? It’s highly unlikely. He’ll have to deal with a Congress full of Republicans and conservative Democrats, a conservative judiciary, a passionately obstructionist capitalist class, hostile state governments, a white supremacist electoral insurgency, etc. Only after purging Congress of the large majority of its centrists and conservatives would Sanders’ social democratic dreams be achievable—and such a purge is well-nigh unimaginable in the next ten or twenty years. Conservatives’ long march to their current ascendancy took fifty years, and they had enormous resources and existed in a sympathetic political economy. It’s hard to imagine that socialists will have much better luck.

Meanwhile, civilization will be succumbing to the catastrophic effects of climate change and ecological destruction. It is unlikely that an expansive social democracy on an international scale will be forthcoming in these conditions.

So, if both insurrection and social democracy are apparently hopeless, what is left? Realistically, only the path I lay out in my above-linked book.1 Marx was right that a new society can be erected only on the basis of new production relations. Democratic, cooperative, egalitarian relations of production cannot be implanted by fiat from the commanding heights of national governments. They have to emerge over time, over decades and generations, as the old society declines and collapses. The analogy with the transition from feudalism to capitalism is far from perfect (not least given the incredible length of time that earlier transition took), but it’s at least more suggestive than metaphorical, utopian slogans about “smashing the state” are. Through democratic initiative, allied with gradual changes in state policy as leftists are elected to office and the state is threatened by social disruption, new modes of production and distribution will emerge locally, interstitially, and eventually in the mainstream.

The historical logic of this long process, including why the state and ruling class will be forced to tolerate and aid the gradual growth of a “solidarity economy” (as a necessary concession to the masses), is discussed in the book. The left will grow in strength as repeated economic crises thin the ranks of the hyper-elite and destroy large amounts of wealth; the emerging “cooperative” and socialized institutions of economic and social life will, as they spread, contribute further to the resources and the victories of popular movements. Incrementally, as society is consumed by ecological crisis and neo-fascism proves unable to suppress social movements everywhere in the world, one can expect that the left will take over national states and remake social relations in alliance with these democratic movements.

Such predictions assume, of course, that civilization will not utterly collapse and descend into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. This is a possibility. But the only realistic alternative is the one I’m sketching.

Ironically, this “gradualist” model of revolution (which, incidentally, has little in common with Eduard Bernstein’s gradualism) is more consistent with the premises of historical materialism than are idealistic notions of socialists sweepingly taking over the state whether through elections or armed uprisings. At the end of the long process of transformation, socialists will indeed have taken complete control of national governments; and from this perch they’ll be able to carry the social revolution to its fruition, finalizing and politically consolidating all the changes that have taken place. But this end-goal is probably a hundred or more years in the future, because worldwide transitions between modes of production don’t happen quickly.

Again, one might recall the European transition from feudalism to capitalism: in country after country, the bourgeoisie couldn’t assume full control of the state until the liberal capitalist economy had already made significant inroads against feudalism and absolutism. Something similar will surely apply to a transition out of capitalism. It is a very Marxist point (however rarely it’s been made) to argue that the final conquest of political power must be grounded in the prior semi-conquest of economic power. You need colossal material resources to overthrow, even if “gradually,” an old ruling class.

What are the implications for activism of these ideas? In brief, activists must take the long view and not be cast into despair by, for instance, the inevitable failures of a potential Sanders presidency. There’s a role for every variety of activism, from electoral to union-building; and we shouldn’t have disdain for the activism that seeks to construct new institutions like public banks, municipal enterprises, cooperatives (worker, consumer, housing, financial, etc.), and other non-capitalist institutions we can hardly foresee at the moment. It’s all part of creating a “counter-hegemony” to erode the legitimacy of capitalism, present viable alternatives to it, and hasten its demise.

Meanwhile, the activism that seeks whatever limited “social democratic” gains are possible will remain essential, to improve the lives of people in the present. While full-fledged social democracy in a capitalist context is no longer in the cards, legislation to protect and expand limited social rights is.

Anyway, in the twenty-first century, it’s time Marxists stopped living in the shadow of the Russian Revolution. Let’s think creatively and without illusions about how to build post-capitalist institutions, never forgetting that the ultimate goal, as ever, is to take over the state.

  1. Being an outgrowth of my Master’s thesis, the book over-emphasizes worker cooperatives. It does, however, answer the usual Marxist objections to cooperatives as a component of social revolution.

Is Bernie Sanders Electable?

In his 2007 classic “Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War”—a book that, in the age of Donald Trump, is more relevant than ever—Joe Bageant makes an observation that cuts to the nub of the matter. America, he says, isn’t composed of some great middle class; it is an overwhelmingly working-class country. “If we define ‘working class’ simply as not having a college degree, then fully three-quarters [or at least two-thirds] of all Americans are working-class.” He continues:

“Class,” however, is defined not in terms of income or degrees but in terms of power. Especially regarding labor. If you define “working class” in terms of power—bosses who have it and workers who don’t—at least 60 percent of America is working class, and the true middle class—the journalists, professionals and semiprofessionals, people in the management class, etc.—are not more than one-third at best.

In fact, professionals, such as journalists and teachers, live increasingly precarious, disenfranchised lives, as revealed by the upsurge of teacher strikes in the last couple of years. Many professionals belong right next to truck drivers, medical technicians, retail workers, and the chronically unemployed and underemployed in the exploited, low-paid working class.

Among the Democratic candidates for president, there is one person who speaks for this vast, long-suffering working class, this beating heart of America: Bernie Sanders. Whether or not all his legislative goals are achievable in the short term, he is the one fighting most aggressively for the interests of workers. It is hard to argue, after all, that his proposals for “workplace democracy,” the cancellation of student debt, tuition-free higher education, a federal jobs guarantee, aggressive action to combat climate change, Medicare for All, and so on are against the interests of the large majority of Americans.

So what does it mean to say, as so many do, that he is unelectable?

One possible meaning is that most Americans are unaware of their true political interests. They might be swayed, say, by pundits’ or Republicans’ demonization of Sanders as a socialist—even though true socialism means popular control of the economy and abolition of the capitalist class, which Sanders hasn’t advocated. Disinformation campaigns like this (and there are many other examples) are crucial to convincing working-class Americans to vote against a candidate who has spent most of his life fighting for the working class.

Another possibility is that Democrats who support Sanders will convince themselves that in the general election he would never win, so voters in the primaries will choose someone supposedly more “electable” like Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden. On this understanding, the primaries may pose more of a challenge for Sanders than the general election, in that the prediction of his unelectability could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But primary voters shouldn’t single out Sanders for their worry; the fact is that neither Warren nor Biden is obviously more electable than Sanders. Both have weaknesses Trump could exploit: for instance, Warren could be mocked for her “elitist” Harvard resumé, her claims to Native American ancestry, and (like Sanders) her “ultra-left” program. Biden, on the other hand, is prone to gaffes, is just as much an “establishment” candidate as Hillary Clinton was, and lacks “the vision thing” that Sanders and Warren have in spades. Trump would have a field day depicting him as senile, bumbling, out-of-touch, undisciplined, corrupt, etc.

As for Sanders, the argument that he’s far to the left of the electorate is belied by polls. Nationally, he is consistently more popular than Trump, while among Democrats he is competitive with Warren and Biden. Support for the two left-wing candidates together trounces support for the centrist Biden.

On issues, the electorate—consistent with its largely working-class composition—tends to be left-wing. A majority favors Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, worker representation on corporate boards, free college tuition and student debt cancellation, a wealth tax, and other leftist goals. If Sanders were given the sort of universal media coverage Trump was in 2016—as opposed to being regularly ignored—it’s likely that support for him would increase. After all, people tend to like politicians with a simple, consistent, populist message, the message that “I’ll fight for you.” No one delivers this message more forcefully than Sanders.

Attempts to predict election results are a fool’s errand, but it should be clear, at least, that in a working-class country such as the U.S., a candidate whose essence is his appeal to the working class has a definite shot at winning. The question is whether he and his millions of supporters can neutralize the corporate chorus of disinformation and fear-mongering about “socialism.”

In an age of working-class desperation, this question, too, may prove to have an affirmative answer.

The Life and Times of Jimmy Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa used to say he’d be forgotten ten years after his death. This was an uncharacteristically unintelligent judgment. Forty-four years after his murder on July 30, 1975, Hoffa is still famous enough that one of the most celebrated movies of the year is about the man who claims to have killed him, Frank Sheeran. Called The Irishman, the film, directed by Martin Scorsese, stars Robert De Niro as Sheeran, Al Pacino as Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino, the Mob boss who approved the killing. For a labor leader, such a level of fame is not only extraordinary; it is unique.1

Of course, the reasons for Hoffa’s fame are not entirely to his credit. He is seen as the dictatorial and corrupt union leader who was close friends with gangsters and allied his union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), with the Mafia. Bobby Kennedy went after him for years, starting with the famous McClellan Committee hearings of 1957–59 (for which Kennedy was the chief counsel), and finally got him convicted in 1964 on charges of jury tampering and fraud, for improper use of the Teamsters’ pension fund. His appeals having failed, Hoffa went to prison in 1967, but was released in 1971 when Richard Nixon commuted his sentence. As described in Charles Brandt’s bestseller I Heard You Paint Houses, on which Scorsese’s movie is based, Hoffa’s subsequent campaign to regain the presidency of the Teamsters was sufficiently threatening to the Mafia that they had him killed.

The Irishman focuses on this seedier side of Hoffa’s life, thus perpetuating the image of a wholly amoral and self-serving criminal with which the McClellan hearings made Hoffa’s name synonymous. Most articles published in popular media, such as Steve Early’s recent piece “The Ghost of Jimmy Hoffa Won’t Go Away,” express a similarly one-sided view. The truth is that Hoffa’s Mob connections were hardly the defining feature of his life. Rather, he deserves to be known, in large part, as the preternaturally effective and hard-working—20-hour days six days a week—leader of what was then the largest union in American history, responsible for raising millions of truck drivers, warehousemen, laundry workers, retail clerks, and others into the middle class.

With the possible exception of John L. Lewis, no twentieth-century union leader was as beloved by the members as Hoffa. He made it a point to be approachable and endlessly responsive: in speeches, for example, he regularly gave out his office phone number and insisted that members call him at any hour of the day or night if they had problems. The contracts he secured were remarkably generous—and yet, ironically, even employers profoundly admired him, considering him a master negotiator, a “genius,” more knowledgeable about the trucking industry than anyone, all in all “a great statesman” who was scrupulously honest and realistic in bargaining.

Indeed, the fundamental reason for the perennial fascination with Jimmy Hoffa may be not so much his ties to the Mafia as his sheer power and success. No other industry was more critical to the nation’s economy than trucking, and Hoffa did more than anyone to rationalize and stabilize conditions in this chaotic, competitive industry (a service for which employers were grateful). Bobby Kennedy may have exaggerated when he said Hoffa was the second most powerful man in the country, but he certainly did have a degree of power unimaginable for a union official in the twenty-first century. And that’s what’s so interesting about him: Hoffa symbolizes a political economy long gone, an era when a union leader could strike fear and loathing in the hearts of senators and presidents, when the old industrial working class, millions strong and capable of bringing the economy to its knees if it so desired, was still the foundation of the social order. Certain sectors of the working class were even defiantly independent of the corporate-liberal “consensus” of the Cold War establishment, having carved out their own self-policed political economy with the help of organized crime, informal deals, and a willingness to meet violence with violence. The Teamsters epitomized this independent working class, and Hoffa epitomized the Teamsters.

It was the aesthetic, so to speak, of the Teamsters and their form of unionism to which Bobby Kennedy and other “corporate liberals” objected (together with “socially responsible” unionists like Walter Reuther of the United Autoworkers). As historian Thaddeus Russell argues, “the confrontation [between Kennedy and Hoffa] represented a cultural conflict between the rising, respectable professional class of the prosperous postwar years and the uncultured, unassimilated, and unruly industrial working class of the Depression.” To have such an untamed and independent social force right at the heart of society—in the age of triumphant liberalism—was an embarrassment.

That working class is dead now. But in its heyday, it was one hell of a force to be reckoned with.

The Rise of Jimmy Hoffa

Years later, Hoffa formulated the moral philosophy he had imbibed from his early days in Indiana and Detroit:

Every day of the average individual is a matter of survival. If by chance he should go from home to work and have an accident, lose an arm or an eye, he’s just like an animal wounded in the jungle. He’s out. Life isn’t easy. Life is a jungle… Ethics is a matter of individualism. What may be ethical to you may be unethical to someone else… But my ethics are very simple. Live and let live, and those who try to destroy you, make it your business to see that they don’t and that they have problems.

It was in Detroit in the Depression years that Hoffa learned the law of the jungle. As a dockloader at Kroger’s warehouse, Hoffa led a strike against the sadistic foreman, which resulted in a temporary agreement with the company that improved conditions and pay. When he was fired a couple of years later, in 1935, for dropping a crate of vegetables on the loading dock, he was immediately hired by a Teamsters official to be an organizer (or “business agent”) with Local 299. He was only 21, but with his boundless energy and intelligence he proved effective.

Across much of the country, the IBT was beginning a sustained offensive in these years. In 1934 its members played a decisive role in two successful general strikes: one in San Francisco, where they joined the longshoremen’s union to shut down the city, and one in Minneapolis, where the Trotskyists in charge of Local 574 led a strike that elicited shocking violence from the police and thugs hired by employers. The Teamsters’ almost total victory in this strike, leading to the unionization of thousands of “unskilled” workers, began its transformation from a small conservative craft organization to a national industrial union encompassing over two million members.

The more politically conservative Detroit Teamsters were, in their own way, just as militant as the Trotskyists in Minneapolis. To organize the increasingly numerous—and abysmally paid—intercity freight drivers, Local 299’s organizers favored a strategy much simpler than signing up workers and petitioning for elections that would be overseen by the newly established National Labor Relations Board. Instead, they approached an employer: “either enroll your workers with the union or we’ll bomb your trucks.” If he refused, they bombed his trucks. And sometimes his home. In a violent, lawless city, this strategy worked well. (They had likely learned it, in fact, from having their own cars bombed by “hired thugs.”) Combined with frequent strikes and strike threats, such intimidation resulted in an influx of new members into the local and steadily rising wages.

Hoffa and his several union colleagues didn’t limit themselves to organizing drivers; anyone who worked on a loading platform was fair game too. “We’d go out,” Hoffa later recalled, “hit the docks, talk to drivers, put up picket lines, conduct strikes, hold meetings day and night, convince people to join the union.” It was treacherous work: “My scalp was laid open sufficiently wide to require stitches no less than six times during the first year I was business agent of Local 299. I was beaten up by cops or strikebreakers at least two dozen times that year.” During one strike he was jailed eighteen times within a 24-hour period, since he kept returning to the picket line after being released. In these years he also had a list of arrests “that’s maybe as long as your arm” for fighting with strikebreakers, hired thugs, and members of rival unions who were trying to organize the same workers the Teamsters were.

In 1938 two developments occurred that would later facilitate Hoffa’s centralized control over the entire union. First, Dave Beck, an organizer from Seattle (who went on to become president of the IBT in 1952), formed the Western Conference of Teamsters, an administrative body covering the eleven western states and British Columbia. Such a higher-level body was necessary for coordinating organizing and bargaining in a fragmented industry that had thousands of small employers and hundreds of local Teamster unions. That very year, two thousand employers in the eleven states signed an agreement to bring higher wages to intercity (“over-the-road”) drivers.

Around the same time, Farrell Dobbs was achieving a similar ambition in the Midwest. One of the Trotskyists who had led the 1934 Minneapolis strike, Dobbs realized it was inefficient and mutually damaging for locals to separately negotiate different wage scales for their own over-the-road drivers. So he and his comrades, with the cooperation of the IBT leadership, created the Central States Drivers Council (CSDC) to bargain for all unionized over-the-road drivers in the twelve Midwestern states. To force reluctant—and widely scattered—employers to come to the bargaining table, Dobbs gave them the kind of ultimatum that Hoffa used to great effect in later years: all firms with lines ending or beginning in Chicago (which meant most firms in the Midwest) would have to negotiate an areawide contract or face a devastating strike. They quickly complied, and over two weeks they and the CSDC hammered out the most ambitious and important contract the IBT had ever negotiated. Establishing uniform minimum wages, maximum hours, seniority rights, safety guarantees, a grievance committee, and a closed shop (all drivers had to belong to the Teamsters), the contract covered 125,000 workers at 1,700 companies.

Hoffa worked with Dobbs in this historic campaign, specifically as a leader of Dobbs’ effort to organize those long-distance Midwestern drivers who hadn’t yet been recruited into the union. Whatever qualms he felt about Dobbs’ Trotskyism, Hoffa was profoundly impressed by the man’s strategic and organizational genius. “I was studying at the knee of a master,” he reminisced later.

He also learned from Dobbs the usefulness of the secondary boycott. Some employers in Omaha and Sioux City had refused to accept the CSDC contract and locked out their unionized employees. Dobbs and other Teamster leaders studied the companies’ routes and decided that the best way to force them to capitulate was to threaten a strike against employers in Kansas City, who made shipments for the Omaha and Sioux City operators, unless they suspended their dealings with the latter. This would cut off the holdouts in Nebraska and effectively force them to sign the contract. The plan worked—and Hoffa was made vividly aware of the power of the secondary boycott, a tactic he would never be afraid to use. (After the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 made such boycotts illegal, Hoffa found a legal loophole and defiantly continued to use them.)

This tactic also inspired a broader strategy that helped the Teamsters organize industries contiguous to trucking, thus increasing the IBT’s membership considerably. Any company that depended on Teamsters for deliveries and pickups could be compelled to unionize its employees simply by being refused service and thereby shut down. “Warehouses, canneries, laundries, retail stores, bakeries, and breweries fell to this tactic,” one historian writes, “which Hoffa used to make the Detroit Teamsters and ultimately the entire IBT into a boundless, multi-industry union.”

Hoffa’s triumphant future might have been quite different if not for a fateful decision Farrell Dobbs made in 1939: he resigned from the Teamsters to devote all his time to the Socialist Workers Party. Daniel Tobin, head of the IBT, pleaded with him to reconsider, to drop his Trotskyist politics and continue working with the union, even promising him the first available vice-presidency. Which could have been a stepping-stone to the presidency. But it was to no avail: Dobbs resigned his union positions, including negotiating chairman of the powerful CSDC. This is what made possible Hoffa’s rise to national prominence, as he wrote later in his autobiography:

I was chosen to replace Dobbs as negotiating chairman. I didn’t realize, when I accepted the job, along with a vice-presidency [of the CSDC, not the IBT] the following year, that it was the post that would project me into the national limelight as far as the International Brotherhood was concerned, but that job really paved the way to the General Presidency. As a rung in the ladder of my career, it provided a giant step upward.

Hoffa’s star was rising on other fronts too. He had been de facto leader of Local 299 since 1936—overseeing its financial stabilization (after near-bankruptcy) and recruitment of several thousand new members—and was gradually becoming de facto leader of the Joint Council of all Detroit locals. In 1942 he was elected to the board of directors of the Wayne County Federation of Labor, but more importantly, he established the Michigan Conference of Teamsters to centralize in his hands bargaining for all locals in the state. Weaker locals regularly negotiated subpar contracts for their intracity members, which exerted downward pressure on wages across the state. With Hoffa negotiating a uniform statewide contract, the wages of thousands of workers were raised, and increasingly many members became familiar with him and intensely loyal to him.

But it was his achievements with the CSDC that ultimately made him wildly popular across the country. During World War II Hoffa’s ambitions were confined within the straitjacket imposed by the National War Labor Board, but starting in 1945 he was able to negotiate contracts that contained wage increases as high as 20 percent or even 50 percent. He brought tens of thousands more drivers into the Midwestern agreement and established a Central States health and welfare program funded entirely by employer contributions. And he did what the CIO failed to do with its postwar Operation Dixie: he organized the South. Using the secondary boycott, it wasn’t particularly challenging (at least in principle). He ordered warehousemen and dockworkers to boycott Southern trucking companies crossing into the Midwest unless they hired union members, which after a few years forced the large majority of Southern employers to sign with the union. And then, by the mid-1950s, he forced them to raise wages and improve working conditions to the level of the CSDC.

At the same time, the CSDC (renamed the Central States Conference) had undertaken two gargantuan projects: to negotiate uniform contracts for local workers—as opposed to over-the-road drivers—in the 22 states the Conference now covered, and to complete the unionization of all trucking companies in these states. By 1957, these goals were achieved.

Hoffa’s meteoric rise in the IBT was cemented at the 1952 convention, when he was unanimously elected a vice-president of the union, the youngest ever (at 39). He quite possibly could have been elected president, but he preferred to engineer Dave Beck’s election in return for Beck’s promise not to interfere in his activities. Aside from the president, Hoffa was the most powerful union officer at the time, controlling the Southern and Central Conferences, and by the middle of Beck’s brief reign (ending in 1957) he was certainly the dominant force in the entire IBT.

How did Hoffa rise so high so fast? Part of the answer, which will be explored below, is that he allied himself with a lot of useful people. But much of his success was due simply to his personality and intelligence. According to people who knew him, he had an “almost hypnotic” charisma, was a “master psychologist,” “the smartest guy I know,” “like an elephant with his memory—it’s beyond belief,” and expert in the minutiae of labor law. In the 1960s he would often give talks at universities or business executive lunches, discoursing perceptively on the history of labor legislation or jousting with economists and lawyers, leaving initially hostile audiences so impressed they would give him a standing ovation (as on one occasion at the Harvard Law School Forum). He was supremely confident and supremely competent.

In addition to all this, of course, he was infinitely ambitious.

He wanted the union to be millions strong. It’s almost as if he shared the old IWW dream of One Big Union for the entire working class—even as he rejected the concept of social-movement unionism associated with both the political left and, in a diluted way, liberals like Walter Reuther. Just before Hoffa was elected president in 1957, he wrote a “policy statement” that included earmarking at least 25 percent of the IBT’s income to organizing. This was at a time when the AFL-CIO, to which the Teamsters belonged, was (myopically) devoting about 5 percent of its revenue to organizing. A year later, even as the McClellan hearings—broadcast on televisions around the country—were making his name synonymous with corruption and criminality, Hoffa announced a plan to bring every policeman in the U.S. into the IBT. “It is a piece of unmitigated gall,” one political official responded, speaking for multitudes. Hoffa also planned to establish a “Conference on Transportation Unity,” under his leadership, that would bring together the IBT, the International Longshoremen’s Association, the National Maritime Union, railroad brotherhoods, airline unions, in total more than fifty organizations in the transportation sector. Both of these projects had to be scuttled because of public opposition. But they indicate the scope of Hoffa’s dreams, which the union continued to pursue by organizing everyone from egg farmers to airline flight attendants.

The other ingredient of Hoffa’s personality that was crucial to his success was the one that also led to his downfall: his contempt for bourgeois respectability, bourgeois hypocrisy, and liberal pieties.

Hoffa vs. Kennedy

Jimmy Hoffa was a contradictory man, but one quality, at least, was foundational to his character: brutal realism. He saw the world in terms of power relations; he rejected all ideological illusions and mystifications (as he saw them), from communism to liberalism to his wife Josephine’s Christianity. This is how he could both support Republican politicians and frequently sound like a Marxist. It was all in the name of realism, whatever was necessary to get ahead and help certain others get ahead.

His attitude towards the legal system was characteristic. As a couple of academic observers who knew him well wrote, “To Hoffa law is not something to respect, but rather a set of principles designed to perpetuate those already in power, and something for others to ‘get around.’ Thus, Hoffa feels clear of conscience about his expertise in devising legal loopholes and practicing legal brinksmanship.” In effect, he thought the state was a capitalist state; therefore, he had little respect for the idealistic liberal corporatism of a Reuther or the Kennedy brothers. While he recognized the value and necessity of having a welfare state, at bottom he thought the working class had to take care of itself, do whatever was necessary to survive, and constantly fight against a hostile world.

His public statements at the time of the McClellan Committee reflected this perspective. “The working man is being shortchanged every day in America.” “Twenty years ago [i.e., in 1939] the employers had all the hoodlums working for them as strikebreakers. Now we’ve got a few, and everybody’s screaming.” Speaking to a television audience:

Now, when you talk about the question of hoodlums and gangsters, the first people that hire hoodlums and gangsters are employers. If there are any illegal forces in the community, he’ll use them, strong-arm and otherwise. And so if you’re going to stay in the business of organizing the unorganized, maintaining the union you have, then you better have a resistance.

In short, Hoffa was working-class through-and-through, the very symbol (at least to the public) of anti-establishmentarian defiance in a relatively conformist age, closer to the rank and file than probably any other major labor leader. “As he walks down the street,” one observer wrote in 1964, “he often halts passing trucks for a moment’s discussion with a couple of members. When away from Washington, D.C., he takes time out to tour the local trucking terminals, where he jokes, wrestles, and swears with the workers.” Nothing was more apt to provoke his legendary temper than an aspersion cast on the dignity of the truck driver’s occupation.

Hoffa’s connections to the criminal world dated back to the 1930s and were, arguably, a natural product of operating in a violent, cutthroat environment. If Local 299 and others hadn’t made alliances with unsavory people, they likely would have been gobbled up by employers and/or rival unions. In the late 1930s, for instance, a jurisdictional war erupted between the Detroit Teamsters and the United Brewery Workers, both of which unions claimed the right to represent the city’s beer drivers. Vicious street battles broke out while higher-level administrative bodies and even federal courts tried to mediate the dispute. The Teamsters developed a network of allies from local saloons to the Michigan statehouse, including members of the East Side Sicilian Mob and other criminals. With their help, and by bribing or intimidating some bar owners into only accepting beer delivered by Teamsters, the latter managed to keep their foot in the brewery industry.

More broadly, David Witwer points out in Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union that the IBT had both been victimized by, and benefited from, criminal associations for decades, but especially starting in the 1930s. Chicago and New York were the great hubs of extra-legal activity. The sociologist Daniel Bell explained long ago why trucking was particularly susceptible to crime: “racketeers were able to enter only into small, unit-sized industries where chaotic competition prevailed,” meaning that “the greatest potential for racketeering is in the Teamsters union.”

It isn’t known for sure when the Detroit Teamsters first made really durable and extensive connections with organized crime. Some writers, such as Dan Moldea, argue it was in the early 1940s, when Hoffa’s union was facing an existential threat from well-funded CIO unions that were raiding the (AFL-affiliated) IBT’s turf to steal its members. Supposedly Hoffa was compelled to turn to the Mob for manpower and political influence in his many battles against the CIO.

Thaddeus Russell, on the other hand, argues the decisive events weren’t until later in that decade, in connection with Hoffa’s attempts to control the local liquor industry (made up of breweries, bars, groceries, liquor stores, and the state Liquor Control Commission) and to defend it from CIO incursions. By 1946 the Teamsters had organized nearly all of the industry’s workers, except for those in a group of businesses owned by the Mafia. The president of the largest Mob-owned company, Bilvin Distributing Company, was William Bufalino, who was a close associate of (among others) Russell Bufalino, underboss of one of the most powerful crime families in the northeast. To break the resistance of the Detroit Mob to unionization, Hoffa hired William as president of Local 985, which covered jukebox workers. This created the first institutional alliance between the Detroit Teamsters and the Mafia, who now accepted unionization and, in fact, engaged in a violent campaign against scores of bar owners who didn’t sign with the gangster-owned, Teamster-organized firms.

William Bufalino went on to become one of Hoffa’s most important attorneys in his later legal battles. And these new (or not-so-new) connections to organized crime in Detroit facilitated IBT connections to Mob figures all over the country. In 1951, for example, Hoffa placed the Central States health and welfare fund with the Union Casualty Life Insurance Agency of Chicago, which was owned by Allen Dorfman. Allen was the son of Paul Dorfman, who was a useful ally to have in Chicago: he was friends with the city’s political bosses, President Truman, leaders of the Chicago Federation of Labor, and AFL president George Meany. He was also connected to organized crime in both New York and Chicago.

In general, one of the key reasons for Hoffa’s alliances with gangsters is one of the reasons politicians’ later attacks on him tended to be hypocritical: the Mafia was politically influential (in addition to being inextricably intertwined with the “legitimate” business community). “The mobsters have always been wedded to the political system,” one criminologist observed decades ago. “That’s how they survive. Without that wedding, they’d be terrorists—and we’d get rid of them.”2 As Thomas Reppetto has written, “in both politics and business [the Mafia] managed to link the underworld to the upper world,” becoming immensely powerful in the process. In the 1940s and ’50s, if businessmen, politicians, and corrupt law enforcement were all linked to organized crime, it would have been odd for an ambitious union leader operating in a viciously competitive environment not to reach out for protection and advantage to those same powerful “underworld” figures.

In an ABC News interview in the early 1970s Hoffa justified his relationships with alleged criminals and ex-convicts in terms that were, while self-serving, not wholly implausible: “these [organized crime figures] are the people you should know if you’re going to avoid having anyone interfere with your strike. And that’s what we know them for… Know who your potential enemies are and neutralize ’em.” To another reporter he insisted, “I’m no different than the banks, no different than insurance companies, no different than the politicians. You’re a damned fool not to be informed what makes a city run when you’re tryin’ to do business in the city.” On the other hand, a majority of politicians could have justly pointed out they had no ties to the Mafia. Whether they had no ties to any corrupt individuals or businesses, or even themselves weren’t morally and legally compromised in numerous ways, is another question entirely.

Hoffa was certainly unusual, though, in his willingness to thumb his nose at propriety. Being convinced of the moral turpitude of the entire political-economic system, he saw no reason to take seriously the self-serving outrage—directed at unions (not corporations or politicians)—of its guardians. So he dug himself deeper, so to speak, even flaunting his relationships with notorious people. The Central and Southern States Pension Fund (CSPF), for example, which he browbeat employers into creating and funding in 1955, got him into trouble some years later. With millions of dollars flowing into it every month, retired union members received some of the most generous pensions in the country. (Teamsters were also, by now, receiving some of the most generous wages: there were stories of professors at elite universities quitting their jobs to become long-distance truck drivers because they could double their pay.) But all this money, hundreds of millions of dollars, had to be invested, and Hoffa was in charge of the investment decisions, as he was in charge of almost everything. The Fund gave out countless loans to a bewildering variety of people and institutions, but some were given to mobsters such as Russell Bufalino, Carlos Marcello, Santo Trafficante, Johnny Dioguardi, and Morris Dalitz, one of the Mafia figures who used CSPF money to build Las Vegas casinos. While these loans may have been legal, in the context of the McClellan hearings they were provocative.

Meanwhile, since at least the 1940s Hoffa had found it expedient to bribe public officials, including in law-enforcement and regulatory agencies, prosecutors’ offices, and state legislatures. “Every man has his price,” he was wont to say. No doubt he thought bribery, a well-established practice among businesses and (less so) unions through the entire industrial age (in a sense, even up to the present), was necessary to secure the cooperation of typically anti-labor governments. But its widespread practice by unions contributed to the stench of corruption that had, in the public mind, settled on organized labor by the early 1950s.

The history of the public revulsion against ostensibly corrupt “Big Labor,” crystallized in the award-winning 1954 film On the Waterfront, is too well known to need retelling here. Grand jury investigations, congressional hearings as early as Senator Estes Kefauver’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce in 1950–51, and negative media coverage hounded some of the nation’s largest unions for years. This was the era, after all, when big business was conducting a colossal political, legal, and public-relations campaign to beat back the left-liberalism spawned by the popular movements of the 1930s. As Elizabeth Fones-Wolf argues in Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945–60, there was a “unity of purpose within much of the business community on…the necessity of halting the advance of the welfare state and of undermining the legitimacy and power of organized labor.” The more that unions could be tarred and feathered for connections to organized crime (as if business itself lacked such connections, or were selflessly devoted to the common weal and knew nothing of legal infractions!), the better it would be for the corporate offensive against labor.

Needless to say, the personal motive of self-designated crusaders against organized crime and union corruption was not necessarily to do the bidding of big business. Bobby Kennedy, for instance, who emerged as the most ferocious enemy of both the Mafia and Jimmy Hoffa, was a highly religious man who seems to have considered it his Catholic duty to cleanse organized labor of racketeers. Unions, he thought, should be sacred institutions, a movement of the oppressed—hence his embrace of Cesar Chavez in the 1960s. According to Arthur Schlesinger, this millionaire son of a successful businessman, brother of a senator and president, “came to identify himself with workers who were expelled, beaten, murdered.” The point, however, is that whatever Bobby’s motives were, his long obsession with crushing Hoffa and other despised union officials fit neatly into the political agenda that had been set by business. This fact, doubtless, is why he was given all the resources he needed to pursue his obsession.

In retrospect, the Kennedy–Hoffa war from 1957 to 1964 has symbolic, sociological significance. It was a clash of two opposite types, two personifications of diametrically opposed philosophies and social strata. On one side was the liberal “do-gooder,” the idealist, the educated, elite professional who thinks society should be run by idealistic educated professionals who are noble and objective enough to have the public interest at heart. He may be inclined to think in terms of moral absolutes—“as Mr. Hoffa operates it,” Bobby wrote, “[the Teamsters union] is a conspiracy of evil”—and is certain he is on the side of Good. This idealist is motivated by whatever lofty ideas he chooses, but his actual role in the political economy is typically to be a smooth-talking technocrat who enforces the rule of the capitalist class. Objectively, so to speak, he is on the side of business.

On the other side is the working-class materialist, the realist, the person whose training in the art of survival has taught him that what matters above all is the struggle for resources. He may share Hoffa’s lack of interest in broad social reform, as well as his belief that a union is, in essence, just a business to sell its members’ labor at the highest price. He may, therefore, somewhat accommodate himself to society as it is. But the reality of this person’s existence is a kind of class struggle, a struggle to wrest what he can however he can. Doubtless the liberal professional finds him—and his class—vulgar, uneducated, crassly materialistic, and potentially threatening. As Kennedy found Hoffa. But the working-class realist doesn’t have the luxury (nor the liberal hypocrisy) to sneer at “materialism.”

These two types tend to loathe each other.

Incidentally, there is an irony here: in some respects Hoffa had a “purer” character than Kennedy. He never drank or smoked—didn’t even want people to drink in his presence—and would never have dreamed of cheating on his beloved wife, contrary to the perennially philandering Kennedy brothers (whose sexual addictions, including White House orgies, revolted him). At a San Francisco nightclub once, he was so embarrassed by a stripper’s performance he turned his chair away so as not to see her. While he cursed incessantly—except around his family, where he was a paragon of a doting, gentle father and husband—he hated off-color jokes. Far from using the union as a means to enrich himself, Hoffa lived modestly, rarely even upgrading his (somewhat shabby) wardrobe, and constantly gave away large sums of money to anyone who asked for it. “He was probably the most generous, open-handed guy I’ve ever met,” an associate recalled, being a “sucker for any sad song or hard-luck guy.”

As for the Kennedys, their aversion to the Mafia didn’t prevent them from hiring its members to kill Fidel Castro, as part of the secret terrorist program called Operation Mongoose. Seymour Hersh even reports in The Dark Side of Camelot that the Mafia, rather stupidly, got John F. Kennedy elected president by manipulating the vote in Illinois. Their reward was that Attorney General Bobby Kennedy devoted unprecedented resources to destroying them.

In effect, what Kennedy and his fellow liberals who administered the Cold War corporatist state wanted was a fully assimilated, “civilized,” obedient population that wouldn’t have any shadowy groups opaque to the state. Communists were illegitimate and had to be persecuted, as they were from the late 1940s on; unions that forged their own way, not consenting to political assimilation, were also illegitimate. Hoffa’s Teamsters, the most powerful union of all and the most “independent”—it even supported Republicans!—was first on the list of offenders.

Dave Beck, sybarite extraordinaire, was the first big fish to be caught in the net cast by Senator McClellan’s Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor and Management Field. But right around the same time he was exposed as corrupt, in early 1957, Hoffa was caught allegedly bribing a lawyer involved with Bobby Kennedy’s investigation. And then began Hoffa’s streak of good luck: to Kennedy’s shock, a jury found him not guilty. So later that year he went on to be overwhelmingly elected General President of the IBT. Kennedy was certain the election had been rigged, and publicly said so; it turned out he was wrong. Hoffa was incredibly popular with the members, and grew more so the more he was vilified in the press. “When the government came after him,” a union member said years later, “a lot of us wanted to take our trucks and run ’em over certain people… Everyone I knew thought Hoffa was a great man.”

His election did result in the Teamsters being expelled from the AFL-CIO. But legally his troubles were overcome one after the other, infuriating Bobby, “the only member of our family who doesn’t forgive,” his father said. A trial on Hoffa’s alleged wiretapping of union offices ended in acquittal. An indictment for perjury before the McClellan Committee had to be dropped when the Supreme Court ruled that wiretap evidence obtained by state officials couldn’t be used in federal court. Over three years, the committee subpoenaed hundreds of Teamster officials and mobsters, filled fifty-odd volumes with witness testimony, interrogated Hoffa many times, charged him with more than eighty improper activities, but in the end, remarkably, proved nothing (as regards Hoffa, that is—other targets weren’t so lucky). Organized labor’s national reputation had been damaged, but legally, Hoffa had weathered the greatest congressional onslaught against a single individual in history.

The committee’s activities did stimulate the passage, in 1959, of the Landrum-Griffin Act, officially known as the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. Consistent with the committee’s almost exclusive focus on union corruption and blithe disregard of management corruption, this act largely ignored management and instead regulated the internal affairs of unions. For instance, people convicted of robbery, bribery, extortion, aggravated assault, or embezzlement were barred from holding a union office for five years after conviction. The act also outlawed the principal means by which Hoffa had built the Teamsters since the 1930s: picketing to force employers to recognize a union; certain forms of secondary boycotting that the Taft-Hartley Act had left legal; and “hot cargo” arrangements whereby employers would agree not to deal with another employer involved in a labor dispute. This law thus revealed what, on the broadest scale, was really at stake in the McClellan hearings, namely, the business class’s desire to control, hobble, and discredit unions.3

The Teamsters membership seemed to understand this fact, judging by delegates’ behavior at the IBT convention in 1961. Russell describes Hoffa’s reception:

On the day the convention opened, an airplane trailing a banner with the message “Re-Elect Hoffa” circled overhead as more than 2,000 delegates, nearly all wearing Hoffa hats and saucer-sized buttons, flooded into the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach. After Hoffa was nominated by John English, who called the incumbent “the man with the most guts in America,” the delegates responded with a fifteen-minute ovation and a continuous chant of “Hoffa, Hoffa, Hoffa.”… The delegates then mocked the government’s attempts to impose Spartan living on their leaders by passing with roaring unanimity a resolution raising Hoffa’s salary to $75,000—the highest of any American union official at the time…

As for Bobby Kennedy, he “had long been the target of the members’ insults as a ‘pantywaist’ and ‘hatchet man’ bent on taking away the comforts they had gained from the union.” Except for some dissidents scattered around the country, Hoffa acquired nearly mythic status among members as he continued to grow the union and systematically raise wages in the 1960s, even as he was facing his greatest legal threats yet.

Bobby hadn’t forgiven him for escaping his clutches earlier, so as soon as he became Attorney General in 1961 he formed the Get Hoffa Squad (as it was known), consisting of sixteen attorneys and thirty FBI agents. By any means necessary, including methods of questionable legality (such as wiretapping, bugging, and planting spies), they were going to destroy their target. They empaneled fifteen grand juries to investigate Hoffa. In 1962 he went on trial in Nashville, Tennessee for accepting payments from an employer in violation of the Taft-Hartley Act. The government meticulously prepared its case, and yet, once again, Hoffa bested Kennedy: the trial ended in a hung jury.

Six months later, however, he was indicted yet again, this time for jury-tampering in the Nashville case. The Justice Department had uncovered evidence that he had attempted to buy some of the jurors’ votes. The trial took place in early 1964, and this time, at last, Bobby got his revenge: Hoffa was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison. Just a few weeks later he went to trial once more, on charges of defrauding the CSPF in an alleged scheme that was so complex and technical it took him some time even to understand what he was being charged with. In this case, too, he was convicted, on one count of conspiracy and three counts of mail and wire fraud. His sentence was five years in prison, to run consecutively after the other eight years. Five days after the verdict, his great obsession finally consummated, Kennedy resigned as Attorney General to run for the Senate.

Thus, the Cold War state had won a major battle against a union that had stepped out of line and gotten too powerful for its own good. “The International Brotherhood of Teamsters,” Senator McClellan had written in 1962 for the Reader’s Digest, “is now powerful enough by itself to put a stranglehold on our nation’s economy… If they called a nationwide strike, you could not get ambulances to take sick people to the hospital, nor hearses to carry the dead. Farmers could not get produce to urban areas; food manufacturers could not send in canned goods…” McClellan exaggerated Hoffa’s power, but his fear was shared by many people and did reflect, however hyperbolically, the very real power of the IBT. Corruption and outright lawlessness existed all over society, not least within the federal government itself.4 It is hardly a coincidence that officials empowered to hunt down corruption attacked, first and foremost, the largest union in the country.

Indeed, in the very year that Hoffa was convicted, the IBT was attaining new heights of power. In January of 1964, Hoffa achieved the dream both he and his mentor Farrell Dobbs had cherished since the 1930s: a National Master Freight Agreement that covered hundreds of thousands of intercity and local truck drivers. It wasn’t entirely complete, not being wholly uniform and not covering all the trucking-relevant occupations of the IBT membership. But it was a magnificent achievement nonetheless, 25 years in the making.

In the years when Bobby Kennedy and his colleagues were almost single-mindedly focused on, in effect, disciplining and defaming organized labor (however they personally interpreted their actions), Hoffa was patiently laying the foundations for realizing his dream. Year by year he was consolidating his power over the two regions he didn’t yet control, the East and West. Bargaining was highly fragmented in the East, wage diversity prevailing everywhere. Both employers and local union leaders, fearful, as Hoffa said, that “they would no longer be kings of their individual little isolated area,” resisted standardization. But through threats and cajolery, strikes and other kinds of leverage, Hoffa gradually imposed uniformity on West Virginia and Pittsburgh, upper New York state and New England, then Philadelphia, Delaware, and southern New Jersey, finally the troublesome New York–New Jersey metropolitan area. All these places saw conditions begin to approximate the privileged Central States area for which Hoffa had long been bargaining.

It was a similar story in the West, although in a sense his task was easier there because bargaining was less fragmented. By 1961 he had achieved near-uniformity, in the process greatly raising wages in some areas, including Los Angeles.

Having engineered a common expiration for contracts from coast to coast in 1964, Hoffa was able to bargain with employers across the country at the same time. The 47-page contract, “the most complicated one ever worked out between a union and employers” (in Hoffa’s opinion), covered 450,000 drivers. For most, the generous fringe benefits and across-the-board increases of 28 cents per hour over three years and three-quarters of a cent per mile were a significant improvement over their previous contracts. In just a few decades, then, the trucking industry had gone from being completely decentralized, low-paying, and characterized by utterly inhumane working conditions to being highly centralized, high-paying, and relatively humane.

For the next couple of years Hoffa worked towards achieving the same goal of relative uniformity for other occupations in his union, such as warehousemen. But by early 1967 his appeals of his convictions had run out, and it was time for him to report to federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. “The last couple of weeks before he went to jail were hellish,” said a staffer who was with him during this time. “He was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He would lie on the floor and yell, ‘I’m not gonna go!’” But in early March, he went.

The End

It’s easy to imagine that for a man with the energy of Jimmy Hoffa, prison would not be easy. In fact, one of his favorite expressions became “Prison is hell on earth, only hell couldn’t be this bad.” When he was released, after 58 months in an overcrowded, rape-plagued, drug-infested, violent penitentiary, his description of the experience didn’t mince words: “I can tell you this on a stack of Bibles: prisons are archaic, brutal, unregenerative, overcrowded hell holes where the inmates are treated like animals with absolutely not one humane thought given to what they are going to do once they are released. You’re an animal in a cage and you’re treated like one.”

During his confinement he constantly suffered little indignities, such as having his anus inspected for drugs after returning from the visiting room, having to wear shoes and pants that didn’t fit, and getting nosebleeds from his job assignment of unstuffing and restuffing old mattresses forty hours a week.

But even in prison, the labor leader found opportunities to organize. He became quite popular with the prisoners, for whom he formed and headed a committee that brought grievances to the attention of the warden. Since officially he remained president of the IBT until just before he was released, he was able to find jobs for many parolees, as well as sending money every year to his former Teamster assistants so they could buy Christmas cards for the families of his fellow prisoners. Guards and prisoners of all racial, religious, and educational backgrounds were, by all accounts, very fond of him.

Meanwhile, his power in the IBT was waning. He had appointed the rather dull but loyal Frank Fitzsimmons as acting president in the belief that he would willingly step aside when Hoffa was released (hopefully early, on parole). But Fitzsimmons gradually began to show signs of developing an independent identity and wanting to remain in power. Not that his leadership was beneficial for the union. He was too weak to impose his will on the vast bureaucracy, so he restored decentralization to local and regional officials. Since this allowed them to build their own structures of power—not always to the benefit of the rank and file—they found Fitzsimmons’ presidency quite congenial to their taste. They also began to increase their involvement with the Mafia, which, in addition, was finding it easier to get loans from the pension fund than under Hoffa.

In contract negotiations Fitzsimmons had skills, but they weren’t on the level of Hoffa’s. The renewals of the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA) in 1967 and 1970 disappointed thousands of workers, who went on strike in cities across the country. Considerable violence broke out as governors mobilized the National Guard, employers sent hired goons to attack pickets, and the union sent its own officials for the same purpose. Employers were finding it easier to coordinate resistance to employee demands, in part because the NMFA had, ironically, forced unity on them, but also because the IBT’s leadership was increasingly ineffectual and corrupt. Wage growth slowed at the very moment when inflation was rising (as it continued to do through the 1970s). By the early ’70s, rebel rank-and-file groups were springing up in almost every major city.

In fairness to the Fitzsimmons regime, in the long run even Hoffa could hardly have been up to the challenges. The political economy that had allowed a Hoffa to seize the reins and dominate an entire industry was already coming to an end. Facilitated by technological change, employers were embarking on a productivity push that threatened Teamsters’ traditions of workplace control, as Dan La Botz argues. More companies were using pallets and forklifts; truck trailer lengths were growing longer; radio dispatch increasingly directed drivers; mechanized systems of conveyor belts distributed packages. The organization of work was changing. Teamsters “worked harder and under worse conditions as new equipment and new management techniques eliminated jobs while forcing those still employed to pick up the slack.”

Hoffa had foreseen the inevitability of technological change and done what he could to ease the transition for suffering workers, forcing employers; e.g., to pay for new job training and the costs of workers’ relocation. But just as he left the picture, change was accelerating. His departure from the scene, however adventitious, was symbolic.

As economic and political crisis gripped the country in the 1970s, the transition to a neoliberal economy began. Neither strike waves in industry after industry nor the formation of union reform movements such as the important Teamsters for a Democratic Union (founded in 1976) could prevent the economic transition, though they could, at least, discipline and even eliminate corrupt leadership that was often in league with employers. With profit-rates under attack from heightened international competition, the overriding business agenda to cut costs, no matter the consequences for workers and communities, soon became the national political agenda. Industries began to be deregulated, a trend that has continued, with interruptions, up to the present. Trucking was deregulated when Jimmy Carter signed the Motor Carrier Act in 1980. Dan La Botz summarizes the consequences:

As intended, new non-union trucking firms swarmed into the industry, union firms went bankrupt en masse, and a series of buyouts and mergers pushed the industry toward oligopoly. Part and parcel of the same processes, the IBT lost tens and eventually hundreds of thousands of unionized truck drivers and dockworkers, and within a decade the Teamsters Union had been obliged to cede its long-standing position as the dominant force in American over-the-road truck operations. Since the freight industry had been the heart of the union and freight workers the most political and active union members, the cost to the union as a fighting organization went far beyond mere numbers…

The stage was set for the Reagan years, so disastrous to the labor movement.

Hoffa was released from prison late in 1971, but Nixon had imposed a restriction on his parole, probably at the request of Fitzsimmons: he couldn’t engage in union activity until 1980. He hadn’t known about the restriction when agreeing to be released, and was quite bitter when a reporter told him of it. “Jimmy, do you want to be president of the Teamsters again?” he was asked. “Jack, do you like to breathe?” Hoffa replied. But, not wanting to violate the terms of his parole, for a couple of years he laid low and gave the impression of accepting the terms of his freedom.

Instead, he pursued a new passion: prison reform. He went on television shows, talked to journalists, testified before Congress, gave speeches, and did whatever he could on behalf of a new organization called the National Association for Justice, dedicated to reforming prisons. Using his negotiating skills, he was instrumental in averting several prison riots and improving conditions in an Ohio penitentiary. Meanwhile, he was deluged with letters and physical greetings from well-wishers, thousands of drivers who treated him “like the Messiah,” according to one observer. All this can only have whetted his appetite to return to power.

Which opens the curtain on the final act of his life: his legal battle to get Nixon’s parole restriction overturned, together with his public campaign to take back the presidency into which Fitzsimmons had been elected at the 1971 IBT convention (while Hoffa was still in prison). Ever the fighter, reckless to a fault, in 1974 Hoffa began publicly attacking both Fitzsimmons and the Mafia. The terms in which he did so certainly opened him to the charge of hypocrisy: he accused Fitzsimmons of “selling out to mobsters and letting known racketeers into the Teamsters.” “I charge him with permitting underworld establishment of a union insurance scheme,” he declared. “There will be more and more developments as time goes on and I get my hands on additional information.” Such statements could hardly have pleased his Mob associates.

Nor did these associates want a change of administration in any case. The union was more corrupt than ever, and they were perfectly happy with that. It was starting to look like Hoffa intended to kick them out of the union’s affairs, to clean things up and get revenge on everyone he thought had betrayed him. “I’m going to take care of the people who’ve been fucking me,” he told Russell Bufalino, according to Frank Sheeran. “Everybody wants Hoffa to back down. They’re all afraid of what I know.”

And so, in the end, Hoffa was done in by one of the deepest traits of his character: reckless defiance. His union career had ended because of his defiance of the law—the law of a government he didn’t respect—and now his life ended because of his defiance of the Mafia. On July 30, 1975 he stood waiting in a restaurant parking lot just outside Detroit. A car pulled up; inside were his foster son Charles O’Brien, his hitman friend Frank Sheeran, and Salvatore Briguglio, an associate of the vicious mobster Anthony Provenzano. The friendly faces of O’Brien and Sheeran reassured him, so he got into the car, which O’Brien—not knowing what was in store—drove to a small suburban house nearby. The meeting to “make peace” was, as far as Hoffa knew, to take place in this house. Hoffa and Sheeran got out and walked up to it as the car drove away. Once inside, Sheeran put two bullets in the back of Hoffa’s head, after which two men waiting in the house brought the body to a local Mob-connected funeral parlor, where it was cremated.

At least, that’s how Frank Sheeran tells the story. And a lot of knowledgeable people (Arthur Sloane, Joe Pistone, Bryan Burrough, William D’Elia, and others) find it credible.

So, in such an anticlimactic way did the remarkable life of a remarkable person come to an end, a life lived at the very center of the most dramatic events of the age.

Hoffa’s disappearance did have one positive result: it jolted the federal government into systematic action against organized crime, action not just in the context of a battle against a single individual and his unacceptably powerful union but as the beginning of a decades-long war of attrition. In the following years, the FBI hunted down the men it knew were involved in the murder and imprisoned them all on one charge or another (except for those who were themselves killed). The Mafia continued to infest the Teamsters until the 1ate 1980s and even 1990s, but federal prosecution, assisted by Teamsters for a Democratic Union and a reformist president in the 1990s (Ron Carey), finally succeeded in almost completely ridding the IBT of its ancient ties to racketeers. Today, the Teamsters isn’t the awe-inspiring force it used to be, but it is still one of the largest unions in the United States, with 1.4 million members.

As for its greatest leader, Jimmy Hoffa, he’ll always be something of an enigma. On the one hand, he was no saint, nor was he a hero. He sometimes acted in amoral, brutal ways. While his biographer Arthur Sloane is right that the more lurid accusations (that he ordered murders, for instance, or even the assassination of JFK) have never been proven, and also that he was more independent of the Mafia than is generally supposed, Hoffa was not the kind of man or labor leader who should be copied in every particular. What he was was a concentrated, brilliant reflection of his environment, differing from other ruthless power players of his age and ours chiefly in that the side he chose was that of the working class, not the business class. He helped create the postwar middle class, in the process becoming arguably the most popular and the most reviled labor leader in U.S. history.

But perhaps his greatest legacy can be summed up in the inscription on a plaque he displayed on his desk: Illegitimi non carborundum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

  1. This article relies primarily on the following books: Thaddeus Russell, Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001); Arthur A. Sloane, Hoffa (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991); Ralph C. James and Estelle Dinerstein James, Hoffa and the Teamsters: A Study of Union Power (Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1965); James R. Hoffa, The Trials of Jimmy Hoffa: An Autobiography (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1970); Charles Brandt, I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa (Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2004); Robert F. Kennedy, The Enemy Within (New York: Popular Library, 1960); and Dan La Botz, “The Tumultuous Teamsters of the 1970s,” in Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below in the Long 1970s, eds. Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow (New York: Verso, 2010), 199–226.
  2. Arthur Sloane uses this quotation in Hoffa, but he doesn’t cite the source and I haven’t been able to locate it.
  3. During the hearings, for example, the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States Chamber of Commerce “initiated a ferocious anti-union drive,” Thaddeus Russell writes, “and used as one of its selling points the issue of union corruption.” See David Witwer, Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), chapter nine.
  4. For examples, see William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2004).

Don’t Mourn, Organize

We live in a paradoxical time. On the one hand, workers and organized labor are in their worst state since the early 1930s. Only 6.4 percent of private-sector workers belong to unions; average hourly pay is below what it was in 1973; 40 percent of adults lack the savings to pay for a $400 emergency expense. On the other hand, there is more excitement and organizing potential on the left, and among many workers, than there has been in generations. The Fight for $15 has been remarkably successful; hundreds of thousands of teachers have gone on strike illegally and won; innovative new forms of organizing are reinvigorating both labor and the left.

Steven Greenhouse, longtime labor correspondent for the New York Times, surveys this extraordinary terrain in his new book Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. While he doesn’t provide a detailed history of labor, he does cover some of its most dramatic moments and significant phases from the early twentieth century to the present, with a journalistic flair for personal stories often absent from academic accounts. Much of the narrative, particularly of the neoliberal attack on unions, is bleak, but in the end Greenhouse’s argument is compelling: labor’s present weakness is not engraved in stone. A renaissance is possible.

The most interesting parts of the book are those that lend support to this argument. Too few people are aware, for example, of the spectacular successes of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Las Vegas. “Its membership has more than tripled since the late 1980s,” Greenhouse writes, “soaring from eighteen thousand to sixty thousand today, making it one of the most powerful and fastest-growing union locals in the nation.” Dishwashers, waiters, and hotel housekeepers—immigrants, blacks, refugees—have been raised to the middle class.

The trick has been to reject the union’s old “business unionism” model and make it a rank-and-file union, starting in the 1980s. With the help of large and long-lasting strikes at casino-hotels—one lasted over six years—the Culinary forced one hotel after another to accept “card check” neutrality (meaning it would recognize the union after a majority of workers signed cards supporting it). Even the very anti-union MGM finally changed its tune, after public demonstrations were held and the union distributed reports to MGM’s investors warning them that a Culinary strike could damage the company’s precarious finances.

Other unions could also learn from the Culinary’s dedication to politically mobilizing its members. In 2016, it was decisive in switching Nevada from ‘red’ to ‘blue’: its members knocked on 350,000 doors, got thousands of people to register to vote, and brought tens of thousands of early voters to the polls. In 2018, similarly, the union was instrumental in flipping a U.S. Senate seat from red to blue, along with the governor’s mansion and two House seats.

Greenhouse is especially interested in how activists and a “militant minority” of workers have adapted to the adverse conditions of neoliberalism. In chapters on app-based work (Uber, TaskRabbit, Mechanical Turk, etc.), the Fight for $15, viciously exploited farmworkers in Florida, the teacher strikes of 2018, and “how Los Angeles became pro-labor,” he explores the novel strategies and tactics that have been used—in some cases outside the framework of any traditional union at all.

For tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, for instance, conditions have approximated slavery. In 1993, activists founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to educate and entertain workers by means of leadership training sessions, a low-power radio station, weekly skits about farmwork and social justice (with the immigrants as actors), and other programs. By the mid-90s the Coalition was organizing strikes to press growers for higher pay and better working conditions. But the strategy wasn’t working.

So they switched their focus: they began to pressure tomato-buying chains like Taco Bell and later McDonald’s and Burger King. They had two demands: that these companies require their suppliers to adopt a code of conduct, and that they pay their suppliers a penny more per pound, money that would be passed on to the pickers. With the help of university and high school students, the National Council of Churches and other religious organizations, federal prosecutions of forced labor on Florida farms, and highly visible tactics like a hunger strike outside Taco Bell’s headquarters, the CIW organized a boycott of Taco Bell until the corporation would agree to its demands. In 2005, it finally did. A few years later, other companies followed.

As a result, 35,000 farmworkers have had their wages and working conditions significantly improved. A workplace-monitoring program, which experts have called the best in the U.S., ensures that violations are investigated and punished. “[T]he tomato fields in Immokalee,” one researcher says, “are [now] probably the best working environment in American agriculture.”

Such stories as these make Beaten Down, Worked Up an inspiring read. The final chapter is particularly interesting, for Greenhouse gives concrete advice on “how workers can regain their power.” Perhaps there could be a major national workers’ group comparable to AARP, called something like the American Association of Working People, to which members would pay dues and which would advocate for their interests. Activists could champion a system of worker representation on company boards, similar to Germany’s. Union leaders should be incentivized to do more organizing. If the federal government won’t act, states could implement new laws Greenhouse outlines.

Readers familiar with labor history and the recent corporate attacks on unions might find the book’s treatment of these subjects a little superficial, but Greenhouse’s purpose, in any case, is to contribute practically to the struggle for workers’ rights. And at this he will surely succeed admirably.

Capitalism, Socialism, and Existential Despair

Decades ago, Edward Said remarked that contemporary life is characterized by a “generalized condition of homelessness.” Decades earlier, Martin Heidegger had written that “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world.” Around the same time, fascists were invoking the themes of blood and soil, nation, race, community, as intoxicating antidotes to the mass anonymity and depersonalization of modern life. Twenty or thirty years later, the New Left, in its Port Huron Statement, lamented the corruption and degradation of such values as love, freedom, creativity, and community:

Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man…

Over a hundred years earlier, Karl Marx had already understood it was capitalism that was responsible for all this collective anguish. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations…are swept away,” he wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…” Home, community, the family, one’s very relation to oneself—all are mediated by money, the commodity function, “reification,” exploitation of one form or another.

And now here we are in 2019, when the alienation and atomization have reached such a state that it seems as if the world is in danger of ending. The phenomenology, the “structure of feeling,” of living in this society is that everything is transient and “up in the air,” human survival is in question, a hectored, bureaucratized anonymity chases us from morning till night, nothing really matters, no one gets their just deserts. Young people are refraining from having children. There is certainly no collective sense of belonging—that’s long gone. We’re les étrangers, passively consuming distractions as we wait for the other shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, we read of little else but agonized suffering, from children in cages to rainforests burning, from opioid epidemics to rampaging neofascists.

The case for socialism is usually made, rightly, from the perspective of its justice. It would be just to have economic and social democracy, for one thing because it is intrinsically right that people not be forced to rent themselves to a business owner who exploits them for profit but instead that they collectively control economic activities and distribute rewards as they see fit. Moreover, economic democracy, whether in the form of worker cooperatives or democratic government control, would essentially make impossible the extreme income inequality that corrodes political democracy and ultimately unravels the social fabric.

But it’s also worth broadcasting the message that even from an existentialist point of view, our only hope is socialism. Certain types of conservatives like to complain about the demise of the family, the community, non-hedonistic interpersonal ties, and the sense of meaning in our lives, a demise for which they blame such nebulous phenomena as secularism, “humanism,” communism, and liberalism. That is, everything except what really matters: capitalism, the reduction of multifaceted life to the monomaniacal pursuit of profit, property, and power. So these conservatives end up in the realm of fascism or neofascism, which promises only to complete the destruction of family and community.

The truth is that only socialism, or an economically democratic society in which there is no capitalist class, could possibly usher in a world in which the existentialist howl of Albert Camus and JP Sartre didn’t have universal resonance. Mass loneliness, “homelessness,” and the gnawing sense of meaninglessness are not timeless conditions; they’re predictable expressions of a commoditized, privatized, bureaucratized civilization. Do away with the agent of enforced commoditization, privatization, and hyper-bureaucratization-for-the-sake-of-social-control—i.e., the capitalist class—and you’ll do away with the despair that arises from these things.

It’s true that the current suicide epidemic in the U.S. and the mental illness epidemic around the world have more specific causes than simply “capitalism.” They have to do with high unemployment, deindustrialization, underfunded hospitals and community outreach programs, job-related stress, social isolation, etc. In other words, they have to do with the particularly vicious and virulent forms that capitalism takes in the neoliberal period. But long before this period, widespread disaffection and mental illness characterized capitalist society.

Now, in light of global warming and ecological destruction, it’s possible that humanity won’t last much longer anyway, in which case capitalism will never be overcome and our collective existential anguish is perfectly appropriate. But nothing is certain at this point. Except that we have a moral imperative to do all we can to fight for socialism. It is what justice demands, and it offers the only hope that even we privileged people—not to mention the less privileged majority—can know what it is to truly have a home.

Political Correctness Is Getting Out of Hand

On June 28, the New York Times published an article by Bari Weiss that wasn’t moronic.

Titled “San Francisco Will Spend $600,000 to Erase History,” it was about the school board’s unanimous decision to destroy a New Deal-era mural by the famous Communist painter Victor Arnautoff that’s painted on the walls of a local high school. Called “Life of Washington,” the mural depicts Washington’s slaves picking cotton at Mount Vernon as a group of colonizers walks past a dead Native American. The painting is clearly meant to oppose the sanitized versions of American history that are taught in most schools.

So you’d think “progressives” would support it. Instead, some of them, at least, find it so offensive they want it gone. “A grave mistake was made 80 years ago to paint a mural at a school without Native American or African-American input,” the school board’s vice president told Weiss. “For impressionable young people who attend school to have any representation that diminishes people, specifically students from communities that have already been diminished, it’s an aggressive thing. It’s hurtful and I don’t think our students need to bear that burden.”

It seems that most students object to the mural’s removal, though a number of community members support the board’s decision. “We know our history already,” a recent high school graduate and member of the Tohono O’odham tribe said. “Our students don’t need to see it every single time they walk into a public school.”

Predictably, Weiss’s article confines itself to admonishing liberals and leftists for being “un-American” snowflakes, failing to point out that conservatives are typically far more eager to censor than the left is. Bashing hyper-sensitive leftists seems to be Weiss’s favorite activity, aside from hyper-sensitively complaining about supposed instances of anti-Semitism that are usually nothing more than criticisms of Israel’s horrifying militarism and near-genocidal policies towards Palestinians. (I didn’t see her write a column bewailing what a “snowflake” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was for advocating the destruction of an “anti-Semitic” mural in L.A. that depicts Israel as the Grim Reaper.)

But leaving aside Weiss, who’s nothing but a vulgar propagandist, her column does raise an important issue. Censorship, the destruction of art, and the sanitizing of history are appropriate agendas for reactionaries and establishment-types like Weiss; progressives and radicals should certainly oppose them. And yet, in the age of “political correctness,” there’s a disturbing tendency for those on the left to adopt the repressive tactics of their enemies.

Whether on social media, on university campuses, or in cultural spaces of whatever sort, people are shunned, shamed, and silenced for not adhering wholeheartedly to a party line. A whiff of dissent brings down the wrath of the mob; a statement or an image that someone, somewhere, might find hurtful is enough to end your career or ruin your life. Magazine editors are fired for defending “cultural appropriation,” as in 2017 when an editor in Canada lost his job for the crime of defending the right of white authors to create characters from other backgrounds. Safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression reporting systems, call-out culture, and other such devices become ever more ubiquitous, threatening to neuter culture and intimidate even fellow leftists into silence.

In the end, all this excess reaches truly farcical extremes: political correctness eats itself, as a wonderful old mural that tells a people’s history of the United States is destroyed for being “degrading.” A paradigm of identity politics that celebrates and weaponizes victimhood brings forth practitioners who claim they’re being victimized by having to be reminded of their history as victims. In the name of “empowerment,” they want to whitewash a mural whose existence is a blow against whitewashed history, which is the very thing to which identity politics indignantly objects. Political correctness chokes on itself and coughs up self-refuting paradoxes.

In this grotesque autosarcophagy we see the reductio ad absurdum of this whole mode of aggressive liberalism: it becomes a kind of void, a black hole of infinitely dense inhumanity, the postmodern left’s version of cultural totalitarianism. It becomes kitsch, virtually without content except to prevent members of “vulnerable” groups from ever feeling the slightest pang of discomfort. That’s the universal standard, the standard of acceptable art, acceptable speech, acceptable politics, and acceptable thought. And if you stray outside the bounds of acceptable thought, we’ll “cancel” you, hopefully most aspects of your identity: career, social life, public life, especially internet life, since the beautiful anonymity and atomization of the internet are what allow us to besiege you and call out your transgressions against orthodoxy. Ultimately it isn’t permitted—or at least it’s testing our good will—even to state manifest truths, such as that men on average are taller and physically stronger than women, or that, e.g., women tend to be attracted to male dominance (e.g., men taller than they) and the dominant male. No such truths we consider insulting to “marginalized” people can be acknowledged.

Now, as I said, these totalitarian trends are only the reductio ad absurdum of political correctness, and do not invalidate the entire phenomenon known as PC culture. Historically, this multicultural politics that emerged from the radical movements of the 1960s and ’70s has had very constructive effects on society. It has been integrally tied to the collective recognition of real history, the history of Native Americans, African-Americans, immigrants, women, and European colonialism. In educational curricula, it has effectively challenged the supremacy of the Western canon of white male writers, such that students now encounter voices from many different cultures and traditions.

Feminism has raised consciousness to a far more civilized level than in the 1960s, when Betty Friedan could write about “the feminine mystique” that dehumanized women. The MeToo moment is just the latest front in a long war to advance women’s rights. Similarly, we have identity politics to thank for the historic victories of the gay rights movement, which have at long last made homophobia disreputable.

Even the much-derided concept of “microaggressions” denotes a real situation that minorities and women face. Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs gives examples. When a female physician wearing a stethoscope is repeatedly mistaken for a nurse, that surely gets irritating and can be seen as offensive. When a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Hispanic man approaches, that’s a racist microaggression. A particularly egregious example is the time when a black student asked her academic advisor for information about majoring in biology and, “without being asked about her academic record (which was excellent), was casually directed to ‘look up less-challenging courses in African American Studies instead.’” Whatever the Supreme Court thinks, the U.S. is still saturated with racism, and unconscious racism is constantly revealing itself in trivial interactions in every social context.

Identity politics and political correctness are far from being the unmitigated evils Donald Trump and Bill Maher apparently think they are. And it’s true that in popular movements, excess is inevitable. From the French Revolution to the New Left—and now to the new New Left—popular enthusiasm has been apt to get out of control and become absurd and even violent (as with Antifa). But that doesn’t mean the excess shouldn’t be fought when it becomes truly damaging. When a mode of politics starts to ruin the lives of innocent people, discourage independent and honest thinking, and advocate the destruction of valuable works of art, it’s time to rein it in.

One of the most striking features of the extreme fringe of political correctness—a fringe that seems to dominate culture more and more—is one of the least talked about: often, it is just a sublimation of the very conditions of neoliberal capitalism that leftists hate. Interpersonal atomization and alienation, gleeful cruelty, schadenfreude run amok, censorship and suppression of dissent, a universal leveling that valorizes groupthink as the highest virtue, and surveillance of daily life and every interaction: these tendencies of late capitalism are somehow refracted into left-wing forms and concerns. The mechanism, actually, of this ironic ‘refraction’ is probably quite simple: society has become so inhuman and depersonalized, so bureaucratized and anonymized, that people all across the political spectrum—not only leftists—are made pettier, more insecure, sensitive to perceived slights, and mean-spirited (especially online).

We see the “Other” as oppressing us—however each of us defines the Other—and we lash out to punish it or those who we think manifest it at any given moment. This punitive mentality at least gives us little malicious pleasures that partly compensate for the indignities we’re constantly suffering.

But while it might be understandable, it’s hardly appropriate for people on the left to be so corrupted by the anti-humanism of a fragmented and paranoid capitalist society. From Karl Marx to Eugene Debs, from A. J. Muste to Noam Chomsky, the left has devoted itself to far more elevated causes than vindictively shaming people for, e.g., using the word fútbol despite not being Hispanic, or quietly telling a “sexist” joke to a friend within earshot of a woman who doesn’t like such jokes, or in general policing the world so that every space is “safe” and people are never uncomfortable. Some such policing, within reason, can be productive and important: people should be educated, to the extent possible, out of their unconscious biases and prejudices. But those who identify with the left should also identify with the tradition’s compassion and self-critical inclinations. Perhaps a little less puritanism is called for, and a little more understanding that even good people are imperfect and have lapses. And that no one, including the most eager shamer, is perfect.

Indeed, I’m tempted to say that the hyper-moralistic mindset doesn’t belong to the left at all. Its demand for purity is uncomfortably close to the puritan obsessions of the religious right, so vigilantly attuned to the merest indication of atheism, sex, homosexuality, coarse language, and humanism. At best, leftist puritanism represents an attenuated, enervated, decadent left, a strain of the left that has lost its love of people and become thin and narrow as a reed. Brittle, misanthropic, crabbed, ungenerous, ultra-judgmental, whiny, sickly—these are the words that come to mind to describe such a “left.”

How different from the humanism, compassion, and spiritual capaciousness of a Debs or a Chomsky!

The destruction of a left-wing mural for being “hurtful” may seem like a pretty minor affair, and compared to the catastrophes occurring every day all over the world, it is. But if the cultural tendencies that have eventuated in this crime against art are not checked, we’ll continue to see more such crimes, and not only against art. Against people, too, people who don’t deserve to be publicly shamed or ruined. The left should take care lest it lose its humanity and adopt the censorship-fetish of the fascist right.

Renewable Energy Is Not the Answer; Nuclear Is

“It’s always a good idea to start by asking about the facts.” So advises Noam Chomsky. “Whenever you hear anything said very confidently, the first thing that should come to mind is, ‘Wait a minute, is that true?’” De omnibus dubitandum—doubt everything—was Karl Marx’s motto and should be the motto of every thinking person. Question even or especially what the tribe most takes for granted.

In the era of climate change, when fossil fuels are known to be driving civilization straight into the ocean, the idea that liberal and left-wing tribes take most for granted is “Renewable energy!” It is shouted confidently from every public perch. Renewable energy, scaled up to replace fossil fuels and even nuclear, is declared the only possible salvation for humanity. It has such obvious advantages over every other energy source that the world has to go 100% renewables ASAP.

Obviously!

But wait a minute—is that true?

Let’s try to shed the religious thinking, look objectively at the facts, and come to a conclusion about this most important of subjects: how to power the future and hopefully save the world.

Renewable energy emits greenhouse gases

First, consider the claim that renewable energy has no carbon emissions. This is true, in a sense, for wind and solar farms (as it is for nuclear energy), which in themselves emit virtually no greenhouse gases. It isn’t true for hydropower, however, which in 2016 produced 71% of all electricity generated by renewable sources. According to one study, hydroelectric dams worldwide emit as much methane (a potent greenhouse gas) as Canada, from decaying vegetation and nutrient runoff. Another study concluded they produce even more carbon dioxide than methane.

“These are massive emissions,” one expert comments. “There are a massive number of dams that are currently proposed to be built. It would be a grave mistake to continue to finance those with the impression that they were part of the solution to the climate crisis.”

And yet in every scenario projected by renewables advocates, hydropower is absolutely essential. For instance, Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson’s famous—and deeply flawed—proposal to run the U.S. on 100% renewables by 2050 assumes the country’s dams could add turbines and transformers to produce 1,300 gigawatts of electricity, over 16 times their current capacity of 80 gigawatts. (According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the maximum capacity that could be added is only 12 gigawatts, 1,288 gigawatts short of Jacobson’s assumption.)

The International Energy Agency projects that by 2023, wind and solar together will satisfy a mere 10% of global electricity demand, while hydroelectric power will satisfy 16%. Nearly all the rest will be produced by fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Burning biomass, too, which is a renewable energy source, releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. “It does exactly the opposite of what we need to do: reduce emissions,” says an expert in forest science and management.

Even leaving aside hydropower and biomass, the use of wind and solar dramatically increases greenhouse gas emissions compared to nuclear energy. This is because, given the intermittency and the diluted nature of solar and wind energy, a backup source of power is needed, and that source is natural gas. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a guru of the renewables movement, himself acknowledges this fact:

We need about 3,000 feet of altitude, we need flat land, we need 300 days of sunlight, and we need to be near a gas pipe. Because for all of these big utility-scale solar plants—whether it’s wind or solar—everybody is looking at gas as the supplementary fuel. The plants that we’re building, the wind plants and the solar plants, are gas plants.

The burning of natural gas; i.e., methane, emits about half as much carbon dioxide as the burning of coal. So natural gas is better than coal, but not nearly good enough if we want to solve climate change. Even worse, many millions of tons of unburned methane are leaked every year from the American oil and gas industry—and methane is more than 80 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. So these leaks cancel out much of the environmental good that wind and solar farms are supposedly doing.

In other words, the fact that wind and solar farms typically operate far below their capacity (because of seasonal changes and the unreliability of weather) necessitates that a more reliable power source “supplement” them. In fact, as researchers Mike Conley and Tim Maloney point out, strictly speaking it is the renewable source that acts as a supplement for the oil or natural gas plants linked to the renewables. A solar farm with a capacity of one gigawatt, for instance, will on average operate at only about 20% of its capacity, which means that if a gigawatt of energy is really to be produced, the majority will have to be provided by the “backup” fossil fuel plant(s).

The upshot is that an anti-nuclear and pro-renewables policy means an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

California is a good example. Like other states in the U.S and countries in the Western world, it has been closing its nuclear power plants—despite their safety, reliability, effectiveness, and environmental friendliness. The carbon-free nuclear plants have been replaced with renewables + natural gas, which is to say, they’ve been replaced mostly with natural gas (prone to methane leaks). After it closed the San Onofre nuclear plant in 2013, California missed its CO2 emissions targets as a result.

In New England, after the premature closing of the nuclear power plant Vermont Yankee in 2014, CO2 emission rates rose across New England, reversing a decade of declines. When Massachusetts’ last remaining nuclear plant, Pilgrim, closed last month, much more electricity generation was lost than the state generates with all its solar, wind, and hydropower combined. Several new fossil fuel plants and a couple of small solar and wind farms will take the place of Pilgrim, increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

In their new book A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow, Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist give other examples. Between 1970 and 1990, due to its construction of nuclear power plants, Sweden was able to cut its carbon emissions by half even as its electricity consumption more than doubled. Germany, by contrast, emits about twice as much carbon pollution per person as Sweden despite using one-third less energy per person, because it has chosen to phase out its nuclear power while introducing renewables.

This means that Germany has simply substituted one (relatively) clean energy source for another, while doing virtually nothing to decarbonize. Its energy production remains dominated by coal, and greenhouse gas emissions are around a billion tons a year.

A more sensible policy would have been to build more nuclear plants and phase out coal. Or at least to let the existing nuclear plants continue to operate while adding renewables, which then would have displaced coal.

ExxonMobil likes renewable energy

The fact that renewable energy directly and indirectly causes far more greenhouse gas emissions than nuclear should already tell us it isn’t a solution to climate change.

Indeed, the willingness of the oil and gas industry in recent years to promote and invest in renewables is itself significant. Over the last three years, the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies have invested over a billion dollars in advertising and lobbying for renewables. “Natural gas is the perfect partner for renewables,” ads say. “See why #natgas is a natural partner for renewable power sources,” Shell tweets.

By pretending to care about the environment, these companies not only burnish their reputations but also are able to associate natural gas with clean energy, which it very much is not. The formula “renewables + natural gas” thus serves a dual purpose. In fact, it serves a triple purpose: it also distracts from nuclear power, which, unlike renewables, is an immediately viable alternative to oil and gas.

Nuclear power, not renewable energy, is what the fossil fuel industry really fears. The reason is simple: the energy in nuclear fuel is orders of magnitude more concentrated than the energy in oil, gas, coal, and every other source. (Which is why nuclear reactors produce vastly less waste than everything from coal to solar.) If governments invested in a global Nuclear New Deal, so to speak, they could make fossil fuels largely obsolete within a couple of decades. Not even Mark Jacobson’s wildly unrealistic $15-20 trillion 100% renewables plan envisions such a fast transition.

Because of the diffuse and intermittent nature of wind and solar energy, all the world’s investment in renewables didn’t prevent the share of low-carbon power in generating electricity from declining between 1995 and 2017. Western countries’ shuttering of nuclear power plants in these decades was a disaster for the environment.

Another way to appreciate the disaster is to consider that global carbon emissions are actually rising, even as the world spent roughly $2 trillion on wind and solar between 2007 and 2016. (This is similar to the amount spent on nuclear in the past 55 years.) So much for the gospel of renewable energy!

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry has been smiling on the sidelines, giving millions of dollars to groups like the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and many others that work to kill nuclear power and thus exacerbate climate change. (Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are particularly active in the war on nuclear—and they refuse to disclose their donors. Could it be because they receive an unseemly amount from oil and gas companies?)

We have eleven years

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 special report, we have eleven years left to avoid potentially irreversible climate disruption.

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has called on global leaders to “demonstrate how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade and achieve net zero global emissions by 2050.” They’re supposed to meet in New York in September 2019 to answer this call.

The only conceivable way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the scale called for is to aggressively embrace nuclear power. It is cost-competitive with all other forms of electricity generation except natural gas—although if you take into account the long-term environmental costs of using natural gas (or oil or even renewables), nuclear is probably the cheapest of all.

A worldwide rollout of nuclear power plants on the scale necessary to save civilization would certainly take longer than eleven years, but we can at least make substantial progress by then. If, that is, we pressure our governments to stop subsidizing oil, natural gas, and the renewables they go hand-in-hand with and instead massively invest in nuclear.

It’s time to stop doing the bidding of fossil fuel interests and get serious about saving the world.