We are the Forces of Movement


There’s still a lot to learn from Arno Mayer and Gabriel Kolko


Arno Mayer is one of the more important historians in modern times. His works have influenced more than one generation of historians, particularly those of us on the Left. His work is varied, and always incisive and often brilliant, and one of his overriding themes, and the title of one of his earlier classics, is “the persistence of the old regime.”

His work that his influenced me the most was Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918-1919. It’s on a pretty short list of history books that shook up the way I looked at the past and the world in general. In it, he established the framework that the Great War had created a conflict between the “forces of order” against the “forces of movement.” It’s a formula I’ve used ever since. As the war became increasingly bloody, with no end in sight, the Left–the unions, Labor parties, Socialists–the forces of movement, began to organize and demand an end to the fighting and a recasting of society in the home countries. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution became a real-time example of that. The old regime, the forces of order, recoiled at the Left’s organization and power and especially loathed the Bolsheviks.

And so, while the Great War raged, there was a concurrent political struggle in western Europe. To cut to the chase, despite some gains by the Left, the forces of order were able to reestablish their political-economic hegemony and stave off socialism in Europe, and part of their strategy did include making some reforms that the Left sought but that did not change the fulcrum of power in the existing systems.  To use another historian’s idea, Bourgeois Europe was “recast” into a more modern state, but did not adopt the type of liberal capitalism that the United States was developing…..yet.


Though he didn’t use the same terms, Gabriel Kolko showed much the same in his work on the early Cold War. In The Politics of War, and even more in The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954, written along with his wife Joyce Kolko, a couple books to also shake anyone reading them up, he showed a political economic terrain much like the one Mayer depicted.  The Left led much of the resistance to fascism throughout Europe, and its partisans were nationally recognized leaders, openly identifying as Communists and Socialists. When the war ended, the credibility and political power of the Left resistance was a grave threat to American interests.  In France and Italy, via democratic elections, Socialists and Communists were winning local offices and joining popular front governments.  In places like France and Italy, the established governments that had led before the war often took action against partisans in 1945, in some cases jailing or eliminating them.

This outbreak of radical democracy terrified the U.S. ruling class, which dispatched operatives and huge sums of money to Europe to contain the Left there.  Diplomatic officials, the CIA, Organized American Labor, the AFL and the “radical” CIO [or the AFL-CIA, as people joked], cultural figures and other “black ops” characters went to various European countries to establish counter-institutions [such as anti-communist trade unions or American-centric cultural cooperatives] to contain the Left.  The case of Italy is instructive. In the first postwar elections in 1946, the Left won 39.6 percent of the vote–the Socialists received 20.7 and the Communists received 18.9–to 35 percent for the Christian Democrats, and the most respected political figure was the Communist Palmiro Togliatti.  The Americans were firm in their resolve to contain the Italian Left so began an intensified campaign of subversion in Italy. The CIA,1101480419_400 the Mafia, and the Vatican joined together (the Vatican funneled tens of millions of dollars to anti-Communist groups), along with American labor representatives who undermined Left unions, to ensure Christian Democrat success.  Time Magazine featured the Christian Democrat, Alcide de Gasperi on its cover with a menacing “polpo rosso,” red octopus, symbolizing the Left.  In the 1948 elections, the American efforts paid off, with the Christian Democrats gaining 48 percent to the Left’s 31 percent.  Again, the forces of order had restrained the forces of movement and remained in charge of the global political world.

The same dynamic was happening inside the U.S.  Various groups generally outside the halls of power–organized labor, African Americans, the Left, women–had been forces of movement at home.  Blacks and women worked in factories because of the need for ramped-up wartime production; unions negotiated deals with industry for better wages in exchange for no-strike pledges; the left joined in the anti-fascist fight.  But once the war ended and those groups wanted to cash in for the efforts–with better wages for workers, genuine civil rights for African Americans who lived in an apartheid system but had helped defeat Nazi tyranny, women who wanted to work rather than simply become part of the Baby Boom–the state and corporate America, the forces of order, reacted.  The Taft-Hartley Act, the attack on radical African Americans like Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and Harry Haywood, McCarthyism in its broadest sense, Hollywood Blacklists, and convincing women to leave the workplace were all part of the political revanchist strategy of the old regime to remain firmly in charge without changing the dynamics of power.

Others have used this formula to study the postwar era, after both world wars, in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere, where an emboldened Left was contained, by force or subversion, in countless places. In my own work, I contend that something similar happened in 1960s America, as the Civil Rights Movement had to operate in “safe,” political territory, meaning it never held an anti-Capitalist doctrine, and student groups like SDS, the Black Panthers, and others were subverted by police violence or programs like COINTELPRO.

So what’s this have to do with COVID-19?  This current moment has been in the works for a long time. The Old Regime has been discredited. Many of us have seen it coming since the advent of the “Neo-Liberlism” regime and there’s extensive writing about it. The Coronavirus has lit a fuse that had been soaked in gasoline and was essentially hidden in plain view.  Current events have shown how frail the neo-liberal regime is, how fractured and weak global capitalism has become.  The forces of movement have been active already in America–teachers strikes in various states, environmental activists in groups like RTNA or XR-America, Black Lives Matter, the Flight Attendants Union, and many others–and can act in this moment to demand not just palliatives like a $1000 check, but a fundamental restructuring of the American economy.  Nationalize, don’t bail out, airlines and other industries that got massive subsidies and tax breaks, but cut their workers loose at the first sign of trouble.

Don’t let fear and panic overwhelm this moment. Doctors and scientists are on the front lines of the health crisis.  We have time to take care of each other, and to organize!  It’s time, as Lenin said, to be as radical as reality itself. We are the forces of movement and we have staggeringly larger numbers than the ruling class. We have a world to win!

About buzzanco

Historian, Agitator, Sicilian
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