Niemöller’s famous words ring out to us
Photo courtesy of CPUSA

First, they came for the Communists.

And I did not speak out.

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the Trade Unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Trade Unionist,

Then they came for the Jews

But I did not speak out

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak up for me!

– Pastor Martin Niemöller

Donald Trump made a frightening speech at the Faith and Freedom Conference last June indicating the kind of dictatorship he intends to impose if elected. “Those who come to enjoy our country must love our country. We’re going to keep foreign, Christian-hating Communists, Marxists, and Socialists out of America,” said Trump.

We’ve seen alarms sound and many well-meaning responses calling for “unity against Trump.” Many of these pieces printed Pastor Martin Niemöller’s statement (above), underscoring their calls to unite.

Unfortunately, some also contained poison pills. A surprising number of these “unity” calls purposely misquote Niemöller, leaving out his first formulation, referring to Communists.

I’ve tried to come up with a phrase that best describes the irony and hypocrisy of purposely misquoting Niemöller’s statement for unity, creating the very disunity he warned us about.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a word that powerful.

Certainly not when we think of the horrible damage done to all of humanity by fascism. Certainly not when thinking of the sacrifices made by anti-fascist fighters, including Communists, who sacrificed their all to defeat fascism.

The real Martin Niemöller

As we revisit Niemöller’s famous quote, it’s worth noting that he was not a Communist or even a person holding left-of-center views. Pastor Martin Niemöller was a Nazi, in all but name.

A former U-boat commander, he was an activist/leader of the pro-fascist student organization Freikorps. He voted for the Nazis in both the 1924 and 1933 elections, and he enthusiastically welcomed the Third Reich. Niemöller only found his opposition to the Nazis when they demanded church adherence to Nazi programmatic issues.

Niemöller’s statement was a personal criticism and a statement of fear and deep regret. What he was stating, in the vernacular, was,

“I should’ve tried to stop those fool Nazis before they got completely out of control and came for ME! I would’ve had to defend the Jews, unionists, even Communists, but at least I’d be safe now!”

For Niemöller and us all, there’s a lot of self-interest there. But you only realize it if you don’t leave anybody out. That’s the whole point of his statement. If you quote it and leave someone out, it loses all meaning and purpose.

Trump’s statement, then Niemöller’s warning, echo through history with the sound of hobnailed boots coming for us all. The only question is who goes first.

The only way to be safe from fascism is with the unity of people against it. As Benjamin Franklin stated, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately!”

Class, unity, and disunity

Unity is a central working-class value, essential to everything workers do, even conceive of! I learned that not in class but on my first day in the big Lorain steel mill job. We couldn’t do anything without working together.

I also learned quickly that any other union or group of people that fought needed our help. We also learned that if we gave it, others doubly returned when we needed it. The ‘worker’s word’ we used was “solidarity.” It’s the very center of what unions are.

Without it, workers could never win. With it, there is nothing we couldn’t win. Unity is the cement that holds the building together.

Unity holds the people’s movement together. Without it, there cannot even BE a movement. Without unity, only a collection of individuals can conceive of individual action. Without unity, victory isn’t possible.

Unity is fundamental to all movements, even for workers to do a day’s work. Work in modern society is collective, so even the individual craftsperson today depends on the rest of society.

Unity is necessary to win even the most minor grievance. If management sees a complaint as only having a single complainant, they put it on the back burner or ignore it.    However, the issue of having numerous backers must be taken seriously, given the collective nature of labor.

Unity is the fuel that allows work, movement, and struggle to be more than theory. While it is true that without workers, “not a single wheel would turn,” without unity, workers could not even work in the modern workplace.

How do Trump and the statement I started with relate to this topic? What’s its class value?

Some dismiss Trump as stupid and uneducated; his statement is just another off-the-cuff remark. While there is undoubtedly some truth in that, Trump also reflects the ideology of his class, especially its most reactionary sections.

Woody Guthrie, in 1950, wrote “Ol Man Trump,” denouncing racist housing rules put in force by Trump’s father, who had ties to the KKK. Donald Trump was raised on and trained in the values of his class, as well. We underestimate him at our peril.

He represents the ideology of his capitalist class in its most racist, misogynist, anti-worker, homophobic, and undemocratic incarnation. While unity is essential for working people to reach goals of prosperity, health care, education, etc., Trump learned the opposite. Dividing people is necessary to obtain his personal and class goals. His ideology further taught him that racism and anti-communism were very effective tools to attain those goals.

Many have warned that; “It’s not only about Trump!  It’s about Trumpism!” It will take a united people’s movement to defeat this menace to democracy.

United, the people can win

The 1930s saw the emergence of a broad center-left alliance, bringing together workers, farmers, unemployed folks, women, people of color, and academics loosely united around the New Deal banner of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. New people’s organizations came together, representing these alliances.

Combating the massive economic depression, this broad alliance pushed for and passed the Wagner Act, helping workers organize. A newly organized federation of progressive-led unions, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), joined together to organize the vast industrial, mass production sector of our working class, including people of color, women, and immigrants, previously ignored by the older, conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Congress passed Social Security and unemployment relief and created the Works Projects Administration (WPA), putting 8.5 million workers on public jobs and producing 650,000 miles of roads, 125,000 public buildings, and 8,000 new parks. Progressive new ideas swept the nation, sweeping aside old conservative notions and prejudices. Similar developments occurred in countries around the globe.

Here and there, the wealthy and powerful responded by setting up political movements to protect their wealth and power. Many of those were fascist groups used by the rulers to crush the progressive alliances brutally. To protect themselves and the people’s gains, they formed even broader, more inclusive formations known as anti-fascist coalitions.

It took strong unity in comprehensive people’s alliances and a massive, bloody World War to defeat the inhuman, evil scourge of fascism ultimately.

Breaking the people’s unity

At the end of WWII, the wealthy ruling class, long wary of this broad people’s unity, saw their opportunity to break it. Their primary weapon was anti-communism.

We’re still suffering under the influence of that horrible period. Trump and others like him see fascism as the way they’d like to “Make America Great Again!”

That was not only a bad time for Communists. Corporate and far right-wing forces used the Red Scare to divide and crush any progressive group idea.

Taft-Hartley Act crippled the previously militant labor movement, outlawing solidarity between unions. Organizing drives ended, and progressive unions were expelled and disbanded. Unions were intimidated, and they abandoned positive initiatives.

The “Hollywood 10” was only the tip of the iceberg culturally. Authorities and Hollywood moguls combined to kill progressive, innovative filmmaking. They blacklisted the best of our nation’s writers and producers. Others were banned and intimidated into producing meaningless blather or pro-capitalist propaganda in place of real, thoughtful art.

Petrified and spineless university leaders transformed academia from a haven of exploration, experimentation, and learning into an island of fear and mediocrity. The McCarthyites transformed our entire society and culture negatively.

J.Edgar Hoover’s crowd of FBI bullies went from less than 2,000 to over 8,000 overnight. Real American heroes and fighters for justice—Martin Luther King, W.E.B. DuBois, and Paul Robeson—were threatened, harassed, and called “communist” as a pejorative. Pro-Civil Rights white allies were tagged communists, losing jobs, attacked physically, in print, and isolated. Hoover’s thugs defended racism and attacked civil rights as “communist-inspired.”

Later, the anti-Vietnam War movement was attacked and suppressed as “anti-American Communist sympathizers.”

Our nation’s precious democracy was gutted and became a shell of itself. We had “rights,” but you’d better not use them. If you did, you’d be called a communist! Division replaced unity among our people.

McCarthy and McCarthyism was eventually defeated, but its harmful effects linger even today. It was never just about Communists or even the broader left. It was always about breaking our people’s unity and leaving us powerless.

When even the Holocaust Museum is self-intimidated into leaving off a crucial part of Niemöller’s statement, it is a symptom.

When we answer redbaiting with more redbaiting, it shows fear.

Unity – the only way forward

More learned folks than me have stated that we learn more from our setbacks than victories. We know we fell short with setbacks and study ways to improve. When we win, we think everything is lovely, even if it isn’t.

The McCarthy era of redbaiting and intimidation was one hell of a setback for unions, writers, filmmakers, teachers, students, our people, and our entire nation. Hard-earned lessons from that period cost us all dearly.

First and foremost, we learned that “giving them just one” doesn’t work. We cannot keep the monsters away by feeding them. It only encourages them.

We learned that when we stood up together and fought, our courage returned, and that united, we could win.

I want to illustrate this with a couple of little stories.

In Cleveland, Ohio, where I spent some of my younger days, Cleveland Heights has a reputation as a “progressive area.”  The culture is more inclusive, racially diverse, and more vibrant. They vote better, show better movies, have more innovative arts, workers have unions and rights, and elect more progressive representatives.

“The Friedas,” a group of incredible Jewish working-class women, lived and worked there. Some were Communists, others were Democrats or independents. They founded and worked with a progressive group that took up all types of issues named “Women Speak Out for Peace and Justice.”

Their individual “politics” never seemed to matter because one of them showing up meant they all did. And they always brought a crowd. They’d been active in positive activities since the 1930s-40s and were dear friends.

They decided early on that no matter what anyone else did or didn’t do, their friendships and positive work were most important. They wouldn’t let anyone else tell them who their friends and allies should be.

McCarthy era or no damn McCarthy era, they’d shared too many hard times to let anyone split them up. They stayed united, keeping “Women Speak Out for Peace and Justice” out front and fighting. If any misinformed cop, union buster, or McCarthyite “patriot” came for one of them, they have all of them, their friends and supporters, to take on too.

As long as they breathed, there were no cracks in their armor!

There is no doubt that Cleveland Heights has some better ordinances and more rights and is more inclusive and more vibrant because of the Friedas. Cleveland and our nation are undoubtedly better because they stuck together.

Later, when I joined the Steelworker’s Union over a half-century ago, knowing the Friedas had trained me a bit in basic unionism.

That sacred old union slogan already had meaning to me.

‘United we stand, divided we fall.

An injury to one is an injury to all.’

Not long after that, I’d gone to work at the 8,000-worker steel mill in nearby Lorain. After getting my “union time” in and the lay of the land, I’d run, and the workers elected me to the union office at USWA, local 1104. Later, I became Chair of their 10-member Grievance Committee. I always tried to preach unity, and that unity brought us strength.

However, sometimes you feel overwhelmed and aren’t accomplishing what’s needed. I was in the throes of what some old preachers called a “crisis of faith!” You know, I was feeling sorry for myself.

Even though I talked and pushed “unity, struggle, and support our union,” I doubted if workers cared what we or our union did or said. You know, your basic “self-pity.”  On top of that, we’d just lost a decent young guy in a preventable seamless pipe mill accident when management pushed him to run a faulty crane.

It was union meeting night. I was making my report when one of the pipe mill guys pushed into the hall, stating that I was “needed in 4 Seamless, right now!”  I grabbed my hard hat and shoes and ran for the mill.

The first thing I saw at 4 Seamless was that nothing was moving. I thought the worst. Getting inside, I saw the seamless crew standing in the bay, milling around, the foreman by himself across from them.

They piped up all at once, “We’re not going run that fucking crane until its fixed! All the way!”

They went on to talk, telling me they had been listening and heard what our union was telling them. They cited section ’14-C’ of our contract, the section on ‘Safety.’

“You told us we didn’t have to work if the job was unsafe. That damn crane broke down, and the company only half-ass fixed it. Now they want us to run it.”

“That ain’t happening,” they said together.

The foreman, George C., was a good guy who treated workers fairly, appealed that they’d got the crane fixed “enough to do the one job we have to get done.”

He explained that they had a “priority job that had to go out,” and they would shut things down after that.

The workers exploded! “No fucking way! We’re not ending up like Bill (who’d been killed in the recent accident). We all agree and none of us are moving til it’s done right.”

The upshot was that the company recalled the maintenance crew, made sure the crane was completely fixed, and they went back to work and even got that “priority job” out, too! Admittedly, they spent much more time than needed and yucked it up.

But for them, at that time, “unity” came alive on that job. It was more than a slogan, a nice line in the union paper. Maybe for the first time, they felt their strength, knew now that when they stood up together, “not a wheel would turn!”

Unity brings excellent benefits to all of us. But it isn’t given, handed down like Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting, from the “hand of God.”  Unity must be built, protected, and nurtured! We can never overlook it, carte it out when it sounds good, and disregard it when uncomfortable. Unity must be constantly FOUGHT for.

Especially now!

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Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and leader in Ohio Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.