The roaring twenties

Increasingly, big business leaders and bankers are talking about the possibility of an economic boom in the next few months. Earlier projections of economic stagnation and talk of the worst economic results in centuries have faded. Vaccines and lockdowns seem to have worked. The worst has been averted. Now, some are even speaking about another “roaring twenties” — harking back to the third decade of the last century.

What does that mean for the left?

Obviously, economic recovery is a good thing for everyone, so things like low unemployment are welcome news. But the 1920s were not exactly a golden age for the labour movement in most countries.

In the USA, the 1920s were associated with something called the “American Plan” which was an effort by businesses to prevent workers from joining or forming trade unions. Unions were considered to be “un-American” and the Plan was, to a considerable extent, a success. The surge of trade unionism, and especially the rapid growth of the militant Industrial Workers of the World, was halted by the beginning of the decade. Mass organising of big industries like automobiles and steel had to wait until the mid-1930s to resume. Even though the decade was characterised by an economic boom, workers in the US suffered from growing inequality and a lack of any means of class self-defence.

Similarly, in Britain the decade saw the historic general strike of 1926, but that did not end in a victory for the workers. The Labour Party, which held power briefly in 1924, spent most of the decade in opposition.

On the European continent, the workers did not fare much better. In both Germany and Italy, fascism was on the rise, having come to power in the latter in 1922.

And of course in the Soviet Union, the decade was marked by economic growth and a rising standard of living, but also with the establishment of a ruthless new bureaucratic ruling class and the destruction of any opposition, socialist or otherwise.

Yes, the 1920s saw some wonderful cultural products, some of them clearly a reaction to the horrors of the First World War and the “Spanish flu” pandemic which followed it. And new technologies like radio and cinema opened up new possibilities.

But for working people it was a not a great decade. The return of some degree of prosperity should have made it easier to organise workers, and for workers to win better wages and conditions — but this did not prove to be the case. Instead the decade ended with the working class movement nowhere poised to take power, divided between Socialist and Communist factions, and facing extinction as fascist movements grew.

Our decade is showing some parallels to what happened a century ago, including the emergence of new communications technologies based on the internet. Perhaps we will see some interesting cultural experimentation as the world moves into a post-Covid era. We are also unfortunately seeing the rise of racist and fascist movements in nearly all the developed countries.

With trade unions in decline in most countries, and with the international left weaker than it has been in a generation, the prospect of a repeat of the 1920s should not fill us with hope.

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.