English
International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International 1991: Oppose imperialist war and colonialism!

Letter from a worker in Volzhsky, and a reply

David North

November 13, 1990

Hello, Comrade North!

We acquainted ourselves with great interest with the materials of the International Committee. The problems raised by you are in fact not distant from the interests of our workers.

Our town of Volzhsky is a major industrial center. There are machine building and chemical plants, hence, a numerous working class. Of course, we aren’t too badly off by comparison with the miners of Donbass and Kuzbass, but we well understand their hopes and dreams.

In your documents, besides the theoretical works we would like to read about the practical side of workers’ life in other countries.

We hear that our fellow workers abroad have their own newspapers, workers’ clubs, technical means, i.e., things which help to unite the toilers.

Your experience would be valuable to us.

It would be helpful to read about the activities like festivals and fund drives, since the workers would also like to have their own newspaper and club in the town. But regrettably the press is in the hands of the government or the CPSU.

Comrade North, we wish to set up relations with some American workers’ club.

We share common goals and aims.

So long,

A.M.

Reply from David North

November 21, 1990

Dear Comrade:

Thank you for your letter, which arrived here just one week ago. I am gratified to learn that the Bulletin of the Fourth International has made its way to the workers of Volzhsky. The editorial board welcomes the critical comments of interested readers and will attempt to improve future issues of the Bulletin by acting upon the suggestions which we receive. Your proposal—that the pages of the Bulletin include more material relating to the practical side of workers’ experiences outside the Soviet Union—is one with which we heartily agree. Such material would be especially valuable considering the fact that the Soviet press presents an image of life in the United States (and other capitalist countries) that is twisted to fit the immediate needs of government policy. Dazzled by the opulent lifestyles of the American capitalists and the upper layers of the petty bourgeoisie, Soviet journalists virtually ignore the harsh reality of working class life in the United States.

One significant aspect of the condition of the American working class is raised by a sentence which appears in your letter. You write that “We

hear that our fellow workers abroad have their own newspapers, workers’ clubs, technical means, i.e., things which help to unite the toilers.”

I am obliged to inform you that in the United States this is not, in fact, the case. One central feature of social reality in the United States is the virtual absence of any form of independent organization, political or cultural, of the working class.

There are, of course, trade unions. But the AFL-CIO—the main trade union federation—embraces less than 15 percent of the work force. However, this small figure does not fully convey the increasingly insignificant role that this organization plays in the day-to-day life of American workers. The AFL-CIO has never attempted to organize its own membership independently of the two political parties of the bourgeoisie, the Democrats and Republicans. To this day, there does not exist a mass labor party of even a social democratic character. While possessing the formal right to vote, workers feel so alienated from the political system that less than half the eligible voters even bother to cast their ballots.

The political subordination of the trade unions to the bourgeois parties is only the most concentrated expression of their general integration into the established institutions of the capitalist state and corporate management. The quasi-incestuous relationship between the trade union bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie has, as you might imagine, a terrible effect on the consciousness of the working class and its sense of internal solidarity.

The trade unions, as presently constituted, assume virtually no responsibility for the education and cultural development of their members. The sole “educational programs” that are offered at factories are those which promote the economic and social ideals of the employers. Their basic aim is to inculcate among the workers slavish devotion to the goals of the corporation.

As for “workers’ clubs” which serve to unite toilers in the pursuit and study of shared interests, such institutions are virtually unknown in the United States. Occasionally, a group of workers may decide to organize a sports team of one sort or another, but this is usually the product of little more than the initiative of a few individuals and it has no broader social significance. For example, there do not exist sports and athletics leagues which coordinate the recreational activities of workers at several large factories.

Traditionally, there had been a powerful sense of class solidarity within certain sections of the working class. Working class communities in the coal fields of West Virginia and Kentucky or in the steel towns of the Mon Valley in Pennsylvania exhibited a high level of class consciousness which was the product of decades of the most bitter forms of struggle against the corporations. But the economic and political developments of the past decade have wreaked havoc in these communities. The shutdown of vast sections of the steel and coal industry, combined with the systematic destruction of the trade unions in the area, has had a shattering effect on these old working class communities. (Do your friends among the miners of the Donbass and Kuzbass understand what the capitalist market has in store for them?)

Given the fact that there hardly exists any specifically working class form of social and political mass organization, it follows that there is little independent literary activity associated with the workers movement. There are some trade unions which publish newspapers and journals, but these generally serve only to promote the careers of the functionaries who occupy high posts.

Another factor that inhibits the development of literary activity within the working class is the low level of literacy in the United States, compared to that of other advanced capitalist countries. Estimates of illiteracy run as high as 25 to 30 percent of the population.

I do not wish to give the impression that American workers are without technical and intellectual interests. On the contrary, American workers are highly skilled and often devote hours of their spare time to hobbies at which they display immense expertise. They often establish contact with others who share their interests. For example, there are countless thousands of “ham radio” operators and computer “hackers.” But membership in such groups generally cut across class lines.

It is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which the bourgeoisie promotes the idea that classes do not exist in the United States. The very term “working class” is virtually taboo in the American media. The bourgeoisie is generally referred to as an “upper income group.” The bulk of the population is described as “middle class.”

These terms, which are without any scientific content, are used to deny the fact that the United States is socially polarized and to promote the old myth that America is “the land of unlimited opportunity,” where those who are ambitious and work hard can steadily improve their position and ultimately achieve the cherished goal of becoming rich.

The reality is very different. A recent issue of the extremely conservative British journal, the Economist, published an analysis of American living standards. Among the facts which it presented were:

Median family income has fallen to the level of 1973 despite the sizable increase in the number of families in which both husband and wife are working.

The real level of wages, adjusted for inflation, has fallen to the level of 1961.

The cost of owning a home—which is the centerpiece of the “American dream”—has risen rapidly relative to income over the last 20 years. In the 1950s, the average worker spent 14 percent of his income on mortgage payments. Now, he spends 44 percent of his income to meet the monthly payments on his house. (A mortgage is a loan obtained from a bank or special lending companies to finance the purchase of a house. It is usually repaid over a period of 20 to 30 years. If a worker is unable to meet his monthly payments, the bank or mortgage company “repossesses” the house—that is, it throws the worker and his family into the street.)

The income of the wealthiest 20 percent of the population rose by 25 percent between 1973 and 1988. On the other hand, the income of the poorest 20 percent of the population fell by 9 percent during the same period.

Comrade, I hope that you will find that this information sheds some light on social conditions in the United States.

With fraternal regards,

David North

P.S. By separate post, I will send you a copy of Death on the Picket Line: The Story of John McCoy. It is a biography, written by a member of the Workers League, of the life and death of a coal miner who was murdered last January in the course of a strike. To this day, the police have made no attempt to arrest his assailants. This book will provide you with a picture of the bitter reality of class relations in the United States.