Chapter 13: Revolutionary Potential of the 1970s

The struggles waged by radical women on many fronts coincided with a dramatic and sustained upsurge in working class militancy. In 1970 alone, approximately one-sixth of the 27 million unionized workers went out on strike. These workers were fighting for more than increased wages and greater benefits; teachers, overwhelmingly women, struck to increase their input into the curriculum and expand collective bargaining rights in the public sector. Coal miners, teamsters, and auto-workers struck en masse while, simultaneously, significant reform caucuses were organized to wrest control of their unions back to the rank and file. Electrical, telephone, and railroad workers mobilized hundreds of thousands in strikes which brought major sections of industry to halt.

The labor revolt, combined with radical social movements against racism, sexism, and war as well as the revolt within the U.S. military in Vietnam was creating an increasingly ungovernable situation. The Watergate scandal and subsequent resignation of Richard Nixon illustrated the chaos that was enveloping the ruling class. The Democratic Party was in profound crisis starting with the infamous Chicago convention of 1968 and extending into the early ‘70s.

Tragically, however, the transformational potential of the 1970s remained unrealized. Working people, youth, women, people of color, and LGBTQ people were revolting against the establishment and tens of thousands of young activists had a consciously anti-capitalist, even revolutionary outlook. Internationally, the general strike in France in 1968 as well as developments in a number of other countries pointed toward a decisive challenge to capitalism This was an amazing opportunity to build a new political party in the U.S. with a mass base representing the interests of working people and all the oppressed. It was the best opportunity to politically challenge corporate power since the 1930s and ‘40s when the leadership of the CIO could have launched a new workers party with mass support but refused to do so.

To win real gains, a party based on the interests of working people and the poor would have had to go beyond standing in elections and played an active role in social struggle linking its electoral campaigns and the work of its elected representatives to the movements in the streets and the workplaces. The new party would not have immediately had a revolutionary or even necessarily clearly socialist character. A lively debate on the way forward would have ensued which could have been won by socialists on the basis of key events. To do this would have required building a well-organized revolutionary current in the new party.

Again none of this was inconceivable, as a large section of young people especially had been radicalized though building mass movements and through the impact of revolutionary developments internationally. Armed with a genuine Marxist program, tens of thousands of fighters for women’s liberation, black liberation and workers’ power could have joined together in the U.S. in the ‘70s to build such a revolutionary current. Under the right conditions, this current could have led millions.

While being the most consistent fighters for every progressive reform, the Marxist trend would have had to combat the idea that capitalism could be made to serve the interests of workers, women and black people. Tragically, the ideas of most forces on the “New Left” including those which informed the radical wing of the women’s movement were not adequate to this task. Crucially there was a lack of a consistent orientation to the working class, including working-class women, who alone have the social power and interest to end capitalism and with it all forms of oppression.

Neoliberal Counterrevolution

Each failure to seize the opportunity for independent working-class politics had major repercussions for all working people, even more so for black workers and working-class women. A workers party in the ‘40s could have won a national health care system and a national pension system. In the ‘70s the possibility of a national health care system was again posed.

An early casualty of the failure to build a workers’ party in the ‘70s was Nixon’s largely uncontested veto of legislation that would have created universal childcare in 1971. Despite women flooding into the job market, an organized mass women’s movement, and a rank-and-file-led upsurge in the unions, no united effort was launched to fight the veto. Later in the ‘70s, the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would have enshrined formal legal equality for women, became mired as the right wing began to reassert itself.

By 1975, the newly emerging “family values” far right went on the offensive on childcare, painting it as communistic and un-American, as the backlash against the women’s movement began. The Democratic Party also began heading to the right as the capitalists moved toward neo-liberal policies. This reflected the end of the postwar economic boom and a new period of structural crisis for capitalism that was marked by the sharp recession of the mid-‘70s. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and his firing of striking air traffic control workers a year later, signaled the beginning of several decades of retreat for the labor movement, from which it is only beginning to recover. Reagan’s administration also opened a war against the gains made by women and black people in the previous period, a war by the right which has continued right up to Donald Trump.

The counter-revolutionary developments of the Reagan era were the direct result of the failure to seize the massive opportunities for the left opened up by the 1960s and ‘70s. If the ruling class is not defeated it will regroup and push back. Even the most basic reforms are never won for good under this system but must be constantly defended and often won again.

The historic tasks of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s remain to be completed: women continue to face obstacles in reproductive rights, employment, sexual violence, and more. A new women’s movement is needed alongside a mass workers movement that, based on the lessons of the past, challenges the capitalist system itself in a decisive fight for women’s liberation. This is what we will address in the final section of this pamphlet.