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The "halves" and the have-nots

By Paul D'Amato | April 18, 2003 | Page 9

IN 1562, three American Indians were brought to France, where they were interviewed by King Charles IX. Coming from a society, wrote the French essayist Montaigne, with "no practice of subordination or of riches or poverty, no contracts, no inheritances, no divided estates," the Indians were shocked at what they saw:

"They have an idiom in their language which calls all men 'halves' of one another…they had noticed that there were among us men fully bloated with all sorts of comforts while their halves were begging at their doors, emaciated with poverty and hunger; they found it odd that those destitute halves should put up with injustice and did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses."

The great Sioux leader Sitting Bull, a chief among a people who subsisted by hunting buffalo, and who also knew no class divisions, had a similar view of the economic and social system brought by Europe to America. "These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not," he noted at the 1877 Powder River Indian council. "They take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich who rule."

In the same year that Sitting Bull delivered this speech, workers across the U.S. took the opportunity to express their outrage at a world where the sweat of their labor went to "support the rich who rule." Across the country, tens of thousands of railroad workers went on strike against starvation wages and long hours. In many cities, other workers came out in sympathy, and in St. Louis, workers organized a general strike that spread throughout the entire city.

Everywhere, troops were brought out to smash the strike. Dozens of workers were shot down in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Though the strike wave was defeated, it radicalized many American workers, who came to see the contest not simply as a struggle for better conditions, but as a battle of labor vs. capital for a better society.

Though much has changed since 1877, the basic features described by Sitting Bull and the railroad workers are still core features of the capitalist world we live in today. On the one hand, brutal armed conquest in order to seize land, resources and wealth; and on the other hand, systematic class exploitation. We see both of these features in the conquest of Iraq and the plundering of U.S. workers in order to restore the profits of U.S. business.

Such a system cries out for an alternative. In the Pittsburgh Post, a worker describing himself as a "Red-Hot striker" wrote a fiery response to an article that had accused striking workers of being "communists": "You challenge me to compare 'the Communist and the Railway.' The way to do it is, first to see what is the idea of both, what each of them demands.

"Now, I say--and I challenge you, or any other fellow like you, to show I'm not right--I say the 'Commune' represents the cause of the poor in this; that its object is to give every human born into this world a chance to live; live long, and die well.

"And I say of the 'Railway,' it represents the few rich who don't want everybody to have a chance for a decent living, but intend to grind out of the rest of the world all the wealth possible for their own special benefit.

"I say this, and don't fear you can show the contrary. The difference is, the one is struggling to make it possible for all the world to get on; the other is doing its damnedest to make it impossible for anybody to get on, save the few rich it represents.

"Let the public judge which side is most worthy--as it will judge in good time, and don't you forget it."

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