by Caleb T. Maupin
Imagine going to your local public library and asking for a book by Karl Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, or maybe a book of sociology dealing with homosexuality or feminism. Imagine then being told by the librarian that these books were locked in a cabinet, and before getting them out, you had to present your I.D. so the librarian could then write down your name and present it to the FBI at the end of the day.
Does this sound like Freedom? Does this sound like “the great years of the Republic” or “Morning in America?” But this was typical in the 1950s United States.
Contrary to the mythology that has been constructed, the 1950s, so idealized by the right-wing and to some extent the capitalist left was a horrific period. It was period in which the U.S. was very much a totalitarian police state.
In the 1950s, homosexuality was a crime that resulted in imprisonment or forced psychological treatment and hospitalization. Feminists and non-conforming women were also subject to forced hospitalization and torture with “electrical shock therapy.”
In addition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had a huge public relations campaign bearing the slogan “The FBI is as close to you as your telephone.” People were encouraged to call the FBI if they saw people taking petitions for leftist causes, or criticizing U.S. foreign or domestic policy.
Employers required their employees to sign “loyalty oaths” stating that their political opinions were suitable to the boss.
Religion was forced on the public through mandatory prayer in public schools, and the adding of “Under God” to the pledge of allegiance.
In the Southern U.S. Blacks were barred from voting, and those who rallied to change this were labeled “subversive” and often arrested. The Ku Klux Klan had free reign, and its terrorist activities against Jews, African-Americans, and other oppressed people were openly supported. Emmit Till, a 14 year old Black youth was tortured to death for whistling at a white woman. His killers were acquitted in court, and later bragged about it in a national newspaper.
Catholic Schools mobilized youth to attack protesters in the New York City, providing them with placards reading “Kill A Commie For Christ" and permission to use violence.
The government created a network of concentration camps, and had a list of 2 million people who would be placed in them if a “state of national emergency” was declared by congress, under the McCarran Internal Security Act.
Each police department had a wing called the “Red Squad” or the “Anti-Subversive Squad” which openly stated its goal as the suppression of certain political ideologies and beliefs.
Women frequently died from illegal, thus unregulated, abortions.
It was a crime to own a condom in many states, and likewise, in many states receiving a pornographic magazine through the mail was a felony, punishable with jail time.
A military draft was in effect, and countless young men who did not attend college were conscripted into the military against their will.
Teachers beat students in public schools frequently, without question.
Battered women’s shelters and prosecution for domestic violence were both unheard of.
This is all undisputed historical fact about the post-war United States, much of it not even being changed until the mid-1970s.
Why, I must ask, is the 1950s portrayed in the public consciousness “the wonder years?” There is hardly any "wonder" in the accurate portrait painted above of the 1950s United States.
A Bribe for "Labor Aristocrats, Gone!"
The myth of the 1950s as being a joyous episode of “Leave It To Beaver” is a deceptive, ugly myth.
The only thing about the 1950s that makes it seem better than now is that there was economic prosperity. For certain sectors of the working class there were unlimited job opportunities at union wages. A “family owned home”, something only available to the upper class before, became a staple of many white workers life in the U.S. A “family car” was common as well.
A family could survive on a single income from a “bread-winner.”
It was because of these bribes granted to so many white workers, that the harsh political suppression heaped on the population at large was allowed to continue, without the massive resistance that eventually erupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In the post-war period, the U.S. was the only industrial country that had not been reduced to rubble. U.S. capitalists were now the undisputed “top dogs” of world capitalism, and in order to make sure no strikes, protests, and worker’s uprisings took place on the “home front” they handed out a lot of goodies in exchange for class peace.
Lenin referred to this concept as the formation of a “labor aristocracy.” A section of the working class was given so much prosperity by its ruling class that it shed class consciousness, and began to be “bourgeosified”, thinking in line with the ruling class and identifying with its interests.
The 1950s was the “honey-moon period” for workers, granted by their capitalist oppressors, following the great depression.
During the 1930s and early 40s, the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the trade unions, the Civil Rights Congress, and countless other leftist and progressive movements sprung up. A whole culture devoted to fighting for a new socialist future existed.
The 1950s was the period in which this was killed with bribes and jackboots; both carrots and sticks at the same time, so to speak.
The prosperity enjoyed by workers in the U.S., of course, did not apply to Black workers, or Latin@ workers. The Jim Crow south left millions of Black workers without indoor plumbing or reasonable employment, in addition the apartheid conditions.
Indigenous and Latin@ workers in the western U.S. and elsewhere were also brutalized and abused, as well, sharing the position of “last hired, first fired” with other oppressed nations.
However, since the 1950s, this “labor aristocracy” is rapidly vanishing. Unions have been virtually destroyed, and wages have declined beyond belief. As Fred Goldstein documents in his groundbreaking book Low-Wage Capitalism, the lifestyle of all U.S. workers has declined dramatically since then.
The “Family Owned Home” has been foreclosed by banks. The factory jobs paid less and less, until they were shipped off to another country. The college education so many thought was their hope for social mobility now costs something like $100,000, and will leave those who get it with massive debt, and much less economic advantage along with it.
We Must Fight Back!
The answer for U.S. workers is not to long for the years of a totalitarian state during economic boom like the 1950s. The answer is to form our own organizations, and struggle and fightback. The answer is not to look at the past, but at the future.
The Workers at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City are the example to follow. When faced with the threat of layoffs, they have announced that they will fight back. They broke with the company union and as a “band of brothers” joined the Teamsters. They have openly told the bosses that they will not accept their terms or be intimidated by their threats of layoffs.
Leave Beaver in the Dust Bin of History. The “Leave it to Beaver” world is a lying fantasy, and it is also long gone. Rather, let us workers embrace heritage of William Z. Foster, Harry Bridges, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and all others who fought back for justice and freedom.
As poverty and misery grow in the U.S., it pretends to be heaven. If this is so, let us be like the heroic workers of Paris Commune, and storm heaven itself, claiming the riches and gold for the we who built it with our blood and sweat.
Capitalism offers no way forward. Only we can carve out a better future.