Historic Opportunities for Rebuilding the Workers and Socialist Movements
U.S. Capitalism Passing Through Profound Crisis and Upheaval
The following document outlining economic, social and political processes in the United States and the potential for building the workers movement in the next period was submitted by the outgoing National Committee of Socialist Alternative to our recent National Convention in Denver and approved after discussion and amendment. In addition to this main perspectives document we also publish here a shorter document on economic perspectives that was also approved by the Convention.
U.S. society is passing through a period of profound change, crisis and upheaval.
We have seen a pronounced wave of struggle and radicalization since 2011 – the battle of Wisconsin, Occupy Wall Street, the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, student unrest, 400,000 marching in the largest environmental protest ever, the dramatic increase in support for socialism, and the strongest left-populist political campaign in decades around Bernie Sanders.
Among significant sections of workers and particularly youth we see a new emerging consciousness. At the forefront is a fierce anger at the super rich, Wall Street, and big business. There is also a deep distrust towards the establishment and its institutions; a deep rooted sense of injustice and inequality; and strong “class feelings” with elements of class consciousness developing especially among younger workers. A common dominator in the struggles of this period has been a determined mood and an embrace of combative methods. Of huge importance has been the surge to historic levels of support, among those under 50 years old, for the broad idea of “socialism.”
At the same time, the gap between the objective crisis of capitalism and the weakness of the forces of Marxism has never been greater. This comes on top of a crisis of consciousness and a crisis of organization of the working class and the oppressed. The emerging radicalization is starting from a very low level of consciousness reflecting the setbacks in the U.S. and globally since the collapse of Stalinism and the pro-longed neo-liberal offensive. The emptying of the activist layer in the 1990s has meant the new generation entering into struggle has a very limited understanding of how to organize and struggle. The level of organization of the working class is also at historic lows, with a prolonged falling back of union membership and activity.
Underlying these developments are enormous changes taking place at the very foundations of society. The tectonic plates of U.S. capitalism are shifting, triggering profound crises on multiple levels and intense upheavals. American society is wracked by turmoil, economic and political polarization, a deep dissatisfaction among broad swathes of the working and middle classes, and splits and divisions within the ruling class.
The neo-liberal order which has dominated economically, socially, and politically for 40 years is fraying. The previous social and political equilibrium is breaking down. Yet the decomposition of the neo-liberal regime is proceeding far faster than the emergence of a new regime. There is no immediate prospect of the bourgeoisie establishing a new stable equilibrium economically, socially, or politically. This accounts for the tremendous fluidity, sharp turns and sudden changes, and turmoil shaking all classes. The institutions of U.S. capitalism are deeply discredited and dysfunctional, but there are no new systems of rule yet at hand. For the working class there is an enormous lag between the realization of this profound crisis and the development of a new consciousness, organizations, and politics which correspond to the radically new reality.
What Do We Mean by Perspectives?
In common usage a “perspective” means a point of view. But for scientific socialists, for Marxists, what is meant has a different and precise meaning. Marxist perspectives are based on an analysis of the underlying economic, social, and political trends in society. Flowing from this, we develop a perspective, or an estimation of how those trends will play out in the short and medium term based on the dynamic interplay of the various forces at work.
Perspectives are not a crystal ball that provides definite answers for how the future will unfold. We can, however, apply the Marxist method to elaborate a working hypothesis which aids us in having an active orientation towards the most likely developments. The development of perspectives is a process of making successive approximations of the complex reality around us, which must be checked against reality at each stage, making adjustments based on the actual course of events or wholesale revision if the line of developments proceeds along a different path. As materialists our starting point and ending point must be the objective reality of actual events and not a schema!
As Leon Trotsky wrote in In Defense of Marxism:
“Every historical prognosis is always conditional, and the more concrete the prognosis, the more conditional it is. A prognosis is not a promissory note which can be cashed on a given date. Prognosis outlines only the definite trends of the development. But along with these trends a different order of forces and tendencies operate, which at a certain moment begin to predominate. All those who seek exact predictions of concrete events should consult the astrologists. Marxist prognosis aids only in orientation.”
The Marxist method is fundamentally different from the narrow and empirical approach which only sees “facts” in their isolation, which is the dominant outlook of U.S. society. We seek to draw out the dialectical interconnection between different phenomena, the subterranean processes that are the driving engine behind what is visible on the surface, and to locate concrete events within a larger context and processes.
For example, after 9/11 the empirical fact was that a wave of nationalism, chauvinism, and racism swept across U.S. society. But unlike others on the left who succumbed to this reality, seeing it as immutable and fixed, we recognized it was part of a deeper process which had its own limits and would turn into its opposite at a certain point. While fully recognizing the reactionary effects of 9/11 Socialist Alternative correctly predicted – our perspective – that on the basis of the experience of the failures of the war on terror internationally, state repression at home, and new economic and social developments, support for war would fall and that opposition to Bush would explode at a later stage.
Socialist Alternative has demonstrated in our recent work the tremendous advantage of having a correct perspective. We were the force on the left to most quickly recognize the importance of Bernie Sanders running for president in 2016. Starting in early 2014 we highlighted the discussion on the left around Sanders considering running either as an independent or a Democrat. Given our analysis of the huge discontent in U.S. society and the vacuum to the left of the Democratic Party, we stressed the major potential impact Sanders could have given his relative profile and weight. This was an important theme of our August 2014 National Convention where we wrote:
If Bernie Sanders were to run as an independent, railing against Wall Street, rejecting corporate donations and exposing the 1%’s influence on Capitol Hill and in the White House, it would electrify hundreds of thousands of people. Millions more would be discussing his program and his vague, reformist call for socialism. The ruling class would be genuinely worried, and it would provide one of the biggest openings in the history of this country for working-class and socialist politics. Of course, Bernie Sanders has limitations. His biggest weakness is his close collaboration with Democrats. He is unfortunately unlikely to run as an independent.
…The Convention also needs to consider what approach we should adopt if Sanders runs within the Democratic primaries against Hillary Clinton. Such a campaign, despite being within the confines of the Democratic Party, would still very likely arouse significant support from sections of the best workers and youth who correctly oppose Hillary Clinton and desperately want to see a credible political candidate who will oppose big business.
We would need to orient towards Sanders’ campaign, intervening in Sanders rallies and other campaign events which would draw a broader audience, in order to try and reach this layer, some of whom could be won to Socialist Alternative. Our starting point would be sympathy and support for the underlying mood of the workers who are rallying behind Sanders, while explaining that Sander’s has no chance of defeating Clinton within the Democratic primaries. (Socialist Alternative Members’ Bulletin #63)
Our analysis and perspectives prepared us in advance for the huge impact a Sanders campaign would have, and allowed Socialist Alternative to consider beforehand how it would approach such a development. When Sanders did launch his presidential campaign as a Democrat at the end of April 2015 we rapidly oriented towards it. We mapped out an initial perspective for its likely support, how it would develop based on its internal contradictions, and the broad role for Marxists in such a campaign:
This campaign can gain a big echo among the millions who are disgusted by corporate politics that are making the rich richer while living standards for the rest of us are increasingly lagging behind. This is why first the Occupy movement and now the Fight for $15 have won such support across the country. It is also why there is increasing openness to the idea of a “third party” and explains how Kshama Sawant won almost 100,000 votes in 2013 when she was elected as a socialist to the Seattle City Council.
… Given the overwhelming disgust with status-quo politicians and the weakness of independent left-wing forces, Sanders’ campaign has the potential to rally millions against the political establishment and their billionaire masters.
… Over the next year the main arena for discussion and debate on anti-corporate politics will be within and around Sanders’ campaign. All those forces which recognize the vital need for independent left politics need to orient towards the large audience that will likely gather around Bernie.
Sanders’ campaign is heading for a political crisis in 2016, when he will need to choose between supporting the Democratic nominee or continue running in the general election. Socialists need to build the strongest possible base among Sanders supporters in preparation for this debate. A strong left current can mobilize Sanders’ supporters to demand Bernie continues running, or lead as much of the campaign as possible away from the Democrats if Bernie insists on endorsing Clinton. (“Bernie Sanders Calls For Political Revolution Against Billionaires – Campaign Needs to Build Independent Political Power,” SocialistAlternative.org, 5/9/15)
This perspective gave us an enormous advantage over others on the left who were caught unaware by the explosion of support around Sanders and were left disorientated by it. We gained valuable time by being involved in the campaign from the beginning, and were able to work with a clear strategic aim in mind given our perspective of the crisis Sanders would face in 2016 when he would most likely be defeated in the Democratic primaries.
Another illustration of the critical importance of analysis and perspectives involves a critical turning point in the history of Socialist Alternative – its decision to ask Kshama Sawant to run for the Washington State legislature in 2012 which laid the basis for her election in 2013. With the collapse of the Occupy movement Socialist Alternative argued that the underlying radical mood and angry anti-corporate sentiment was still present. Our perspective was that given the 2012 presidential election, electoral battles would dominate the political landscape and the scope for social movements in 2012 was limited. However, there was a big space to the left of the Democrats for independent candidates to give voice to the Occupy mood in the electoral arena.
It was with this in mind that the decision was made to test out these hypotheses with Sawant running as an Occupy inspired Socialist Alternative candidate. Sawant went on to win 29% of the vote (over 20,000 votes) and lay the basis for the historic election in 2013 to the Seattle City Council with almost 95,000 votes.
This underlines the critical role of an organization to test out a perspective, to be able to measure it in reality. Our analysis of the political situation could have been 100% accurate, but without Socialist Alternative taking action to test it out it would have remained an abstract truth hidden from almost everyone. By Kshama running we were able to make visible the space to the left of the Democrats that existed. This was of decisive importance, altering the course of events by giving the Fight for 15 a huge impetus, accelerating the re-popularization of socialism, and in a small way laying the basis for Sanders’ run in 2016.
For Marxists, the use of perspectives is not a question of abstract contemplation, but a tool to actively intervene with to shape events. The development of our perspectives through discussion and reviewing our previous estimations helps us to best understand the conditions we are working in, the stage we are passing through, and how this affects the consciousness of different layers. This assists our ability to identify opportunities, understand the mood of those we are trying to recruit, intervene in movements, establish roots in the working class, and build our organization most effectively.
Part I: Economic and Social Turmoil
In his last State of the Union speech in January, Barack Obama said he was optimistic about the future, based on Americans rising to various challenges. “The future we want—opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids—all that is within our reach,” said Obama (Wall Street Journal, 1/12/16).
But the future does not look bright under capitalism: the critical tipping point towards runaway climate change is fast approaching. U.S. society is more unequal than at any time since the 1920s and there is massive anxiety in the working class based on the cumulative devastation caused by decades of neo-liberalism and globalization followed by the financial collapse of 2007-8. Wide sections of the working class, especially young people, have joined the ranks of the “precariat,” constantly living one paycheck away from disaster. Ordinary people increasingly lack confidence in the future under this system.
And now, after a very partial recovery, the world economy is tipping towards another catastrophe. The U.S. will not escape the effects of this downturn either economically or politically. Depending on how quickly this crisis develops the U.S. could even tip into recession this year.
The Toll of Neo-Liberalism
Probably the most defining feature of the past historical period in the U.S. is the drastic growth in social inequality. This is the direct result of almost 40 years of neo-liberalism including the pushing back of the labor movement, massive attacks on the public sector, the regressive re-working of the tax code, the removal of restrictions on financial capital and the effects of globalized trade. To quote Larry Summers, an evangel of neo-liberalism, “If the United States had the same income distribution it had in 1979, the bottom 80 percent of the population would have $1 trillion – or $11,000 per family – more. The top 1 percent would have $1 trillion – or $750,000 – less.” (Washington Post, January 2015)
The ideology of the “Reagan revolution” (actually begun under Jimmy Carter) received a devastating blow in the crisis of 2007/08. In the neoliberal era of globalization and financialization of the economy, the capitalists got almost everything they wanted: lower wages, less rights for workers, and corporate free trade. While it restored their profitability in the short term, this whole model of accumulating profits triggered the deepest crisis since 1929. Behind the political instability – visible even in the relatively economically stable U.S. – lies an ongoing crisis of “secular stagnation”. While clinging to neo-liberal attacks, the top 1% has no new model to regain outlets for their super-profits. This finds its reflection in consciousness, in a deep alienation towards all the institutions, parties and authorities of capitalism. The widespread anger and the openness for a different system, the interest in socialism, all of that is rooted in the sea change in the global stage of capitalism we entered in 2007.
While the U.S. can still export a lot of its economic problems to weaker counties and is one of the few states that has surpassed its pre-crisis GDP levels, the effects of the crisis here are nevertheless profound: Several recent studies have shown how little savings large sections of the population have and how exposed they are to emergencies. A recent Google Consumer Survey for the personal finance website GOBank found that 62% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings and 21% have no savings account. This fit the results of another survey last year for Bankrate.com which found that 62% do not have the savings to cover a $1,000 emergency room visit or a $500 car repair bill, (marketwatch.com, 12/23/15).
For the black working class the past decade has been an unparalleled economic disaster, all the more glaring given that it has occurred on the watch of the first African American president in U.S. history. The sub-prime loan crisis and the massive wave of foreclosures that followed hit black communities particularly hard and led to the biggest loss of wealth for black Americans since Reconstruction. This has come on top of the massive loss of better paid, unionized industrial jobs which affected black workers disproportionately. It is compounded by the ongoing assault on the public sector, another significant concentration of black employment. And through it all, black working class communities have faced relentless police repression driven by the bankrupt policies of the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration.
Across the board, the bottom 10% are now living significantly shorter lives than the top 10%. Forty years ago the difference in lifespans for the top 10% of 60 year old men was a bit over 1 year compared to the bottom 10%. Now for men born in 1950 the difference is 14 years and for women it’s 13 years (New York Times, 2/13/16). This is unheard of anywhere in the advanced capitalist countries. A connected issue is the rising mortality among white Americans concentrated overwhelmingly among poorer sections of the white working class, due primarily to drug overdoses but also to suicides. Among whites age 25-34 the death rate has gone up by nearly 24% since 1999 (drug overdoses in this age group was five times the 1999 level).
This epidemic which is also without parallel in the advanced capitalist world, points to a much deeper crisis. It is directly connected to the decline of industrial jobs; to the economic devastation of towns across large sections of the midwest, coal country and the northeast as a result of NAFTA and globalization; to the massive indebtedness facing so many; and to the increasingly precarious economic position of large sections of the working class, especially young people. All of this has contributed to the support for both Trump and Sanders in white working class communities in the presidential election.
Young people constitute the large majority of the precariat. It is now widely recognized that they face a future with lower living standards than their parents. Yet at the same time young people have unprecedented expectations given the obvious wealth of U.S. society and the development of technology. This gap between these expectations and capitalist reality is especially wide for young working class women. This younger generation of women has a much lower tolerance for sexism. They are not prepared to accept the economic discrimination of the gender pay gap on top of all the other expressions of sexism in this society alongside the dire prospects this system offers them as members of our class.
Ruling Class Offensive Continues
The neo-liberal offensive against the living standards and rights of working people, against women and against the environment did not relent in the wake of the financial implosion. While Obama moved in 2009 to adopt some Keynesian stimulus measures the overall working of the capitalist system has placed the bulk of the burden of the crisis on to the backs of working people. The right wing of the Republican Party has been the sharp edge of many of these attacks but on a whole range of issues there has been a bipartisan corporate consensus.
The corporate liberal narrative stresses that after bailing out the banks and letting the foreclosure crisis destroy the wealth of millions of working people, Obama’s federal stimulus package helped prevent things getting even worse. It is true that the stimulus was not trivial and did help prevent an even more serious collapse. And since then some aspects of Obamacare, particularly the extension of Medicaid coverage to several million people, have represented a certain wealth transfer to the poorer sections of the working class.
However, if we look at the overall picture of federal, state and local spending, the US undertook significant austerity on a very large scale in the period after 2010. For example there were massive cuts to public education across the country with hundreds of thousands of teachers and other school staff laid off. In case after case the cuts were done on a bipartisan basis with the Democrats only arguing about the scale of cuts not the principle of austerity.
In a country as rich as the U.S. the effects of austerity were uneven but in the poorest communities, like Detroit or Puerto Rico, the results were as devastating as in many parts of Southern Europe. Recently we have had the exposure of how Flint was poisoned as part of relentless cost-cutting. This shows how austerity literally destroys lives.
During the recovery many states have seen a return to fiscal health but social services have almost nowhere been returned to their pre-recession levels. Even in relatively well-off Boston, there are still education cuts being pushed through. And in a number of states and municipalities, with Illinois being a prime example, the systematic underfunding of public sector workers’ pension systems is leading to wholesale attacks on workers’ pensions or using the pension “crisis” as a cover for attacks on social services.
At the same time in a number of states and cities, especially those seeing more rapid growth, Democratic governments have passed a certain increase in social welfare and pro-worker reforms such as raising the minimum wage, universal pre-K, paid sick days, and paid parental leave.
We have also seen a number of issues where the right has clearly taken the lead with the Democrats formally opposed. This is clearly the case in the concerted attack on reproductive rights, particularly in the South, and social issues more generally. There are now whole swathes of the South where access to abortion, particularly for poor women, has been essentially eliminated. The Whole Women’s Health case in front of the Supreme Court represents the biggest threat yet to Roe v. Wade. We have also seen the right push through legislation in North Carolina directed at transgender people but which is actually a thinly veiled attack on LGBTQ people as a whole, trying to reverse the progress that has been made in the fight for LGBTQ equality.
Obama and the Democrats’ rhetoric about addressing climate change stands in sharp contrast to the Republicans. This has been accompanied by Obama’s attempts to limit CO2 emissions from coal-fired plants. But, taken on the whole, the record of the Obama administration points largely in the opposite direction with the massive expansion of fracking and domestic oil production. What has undercut this is mainly market realities (the drastic drop in oil prices) although environmental protest has also played a role, particularly in the decision to shelve the Keystone pipeline.
Now the Trans Pacific Partnership – supported by the leadership of both parties and the Chamber of Commerce – represents the next major threat to both the environment as well as the rights of working people. It is due to be brought to a vote in Congress in the coming months. As we and others have explained, it is a charter for the corporations, elevating their “interests” above national laws which protect working conditions or the environment. It will take a massive mobilization from unions and the environmental movement bringing in the energy of the youth politicized by Sanders to stop this threat.
A Wave of Social Struggle Since 2011
The social catastrophe caused by capitalism demanded an answer from the organizations that allegedly stand on the side of working people, but by and large none came in the months and years following the crash. Instead we saw the initial response of working people expressed on the political plane with the rejection of Bush and the Republicans and the election of Obama in 2008 on a wave of hope for progressive change.
The Democrats and Republicans choosing to save the banks rather than working people’s jobs and homes soon led to the disillusionment of progressive workers and youth with Obama. It is worth remembering, however, that this didn’t initially lead to a resurgence of struggle. Instead the right, in the form of the Tea Party, made gains. This was a consequence of the failure of the unions to stand up and defend the working class. In 2010 a Republican majority was elected in the House of Representative as well as a number of reactionary governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin as many Democrats stayed home.
The 2010 Tea Party gains were the “whip of counterrevolution” which helped to provoke a wave of resistance beginning on the streets of Madison. Even though that struggle – which held the promise of reigniting labor struggle in this country – was defeated, a few months later the Occupy movement exploded on the national scene, raising the banner of the 99% and putting the question of inequality firmly on the agenda. Though the actual occupations dwindled and were suppressed by early 2012, the Occupy mood did not end. A new layer of activists began to inject energy into a number of struggles including resistance to foreclosures, fights against school privatizations, developing union oppositions as well as environmental and anti-racist struggles. More broadly, the “Occupy mood” lifted the sights of millions to see that it was time to push for change.
Another key moment was the beginning of the fast food worker strikes at the end of 2012, with the backing of SEIU and the popularizing of the demand of “$15 and a union.” The fast food worker days of action helped to keep the question of social inequality in the public eye and along with the Occupy mood contributed to laying the basis for the political breakthrough Socialist Alternative made in Seattle in 2013 and the subsequent historic victory in winning a $15 minimum wage for the first time in a major city. This in turn laid the basis for a series of other victories in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities. Now California and New York State have brought in $15 minimum wages, although in upstate New York it will only go to $12.50 before being reviewed. These are enormous developments that we helped set in motion. It is hard at this juncture to remember how improbable victories like these seemed even as recently as 2012. They also point to the potential to rebuild a fighting labor movement which is critical to launching a full scale push back against super-exploitation.
Another decisive change has been the emergence of Black Lives Matter. Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in the summer of 2014, tens of thousands of black youth have taken the road of struggle. As we have said this is the most significant phase of the black freedom struggle in 40 years. The movement has shone a spotlight on police killings and institutional racism and these issues are not going away.
In Baltimore the uprising of black youth forced indictments against the cops who killed Freddie Gray. In recent months in Chicago the exposure of the cover-up of the video documenting the police murder of Laquan McDonald created a deep crisis for Mayor 1%, Rahm Emanuel, formerly Obama’s chief of staff. The Chicago crisis shows graphically how BLM has put the establishment – and particularly sections of the Democratic Party machine which have run so many big and not so big cities with large black populations – on the defensive, creating added pressure for at least partial reform of the criminal justice system and winding down parts of the war on drugs.
The fast food workers’ actions for “$15 and a union” which reached a new height on April 14, 2016 are increasingly explicit in linking the fight for economic and racial justice. But the fight against racism is now also moving onto campuses where young people are being radicalized around a series of questions including institutional racism, sexism and student debt as well as climate change.
We have also seen enormous gains by the LGBTQ movement. These have been fueled by a historic sea change in social attitudes on LGBTQ issues. The incredibly rapid speed of these developments is a pointer of how quickly consciousness can change on other issues as well, despite all the arguments of reformists that “change is slow.” While the dominant theme was the movement for equal rights from the state, for example marriage equality, there were also significant gains against discrimination in the workplace. We expect these battles to continue, to spread deeper into addressing workplace and social conditions and to go broader for example for trans rights.
This brief survey of the wave of protest and struggle since 2011 would not be complete without mentioning the 400,000 people, largely youthful, who took to the streets of New York in September 2014 to demand real action to fight the looming climate catastrophe as well as the sustained fight against Keystone and a range of other environmental campaigns. There have also been a series of local campaigns on environmental issues, where people feel more confident to succeed in fighting back and winning the change they see as urgently needed on a national and global scale.
Another key event in the recent period which points towards future developments was the one day political strike by Chicago teachers on April 1. Here a union with a more fighting leadership has stood up to the corporate-inspired attempts to gut public education for the second time in four years. They have mobilized massive support from the black and Latino working class communities in which they work because they have taken a broader stance in defense of their students’ future as well as their own wages, benefits and conditions, having made the case that the two are completely linked. The potential for a new political force of the 99% led by fighting sections of the labor movement and giving voice to the aspirations of the oppressed is more sharply posed in Chicago than anywhere else in the U.S. at the moment.
The huge potential for workers struggle has been shown with both Wisconsin and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Wisconsin was an uprising from below provoked by the right. In Chicago we have seen an organized battle led by the reformed CTU. If this anger is blocked by conservative union leaders and further provoked, eruptions like in Wisconsin, Occupy, or BLM can develop very quickly. These eruptions have had a determined and angry mood, but have started from a low political level. They have a broad but loose character and have been uncontrolled to a significant degree. On the other hand, if the left manages to take over unions and offer some lead, this potential can be used to build towards powerful resistance with labor at the forefront.
But the biggest development on the left in this phase of struggle has been the Bernie Sanders campaign. Sanders left-populist, anti-corporate, pro-worker campaign has struck a powerful chord. It has developed into the largest grassroots political campaigning recent U.S. history. It is the strongest left populist campaign in the U.S. in decades, surpassing the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988 in its scale of support. Hundreds of thousands have attended some of the largest political rallies across the country in many years. Over two million people have donated, breaking all previous records. Critically, it has popularized the idea of socialism to a mass audience of millions.
Sanders’ campaign has given a generalized political expression to the huge discontent that has been bubbling up in different ways over the past period, though unfortunately inside the parameters of the Democratic Party. This demonstrates a big step forward in many respects, but also will run into fundamental limits due to operating within the Democratic Party.
When we assess the phase of struggle and radicalization since 2011 in the US a number of features stand out. We see an enormous reservoir of discontent and raw material for social struggle, and an angry, combative, radical mood, an openness to socialist ideas, and a lack of legitimacy of establishment institutions. At the same time there is a vacuum of organization and leadership. With huge regional differences, the traditional organizations still play a key role, but have much less weight than in previous periods. This is combined with a low level of consciousness, a low level of organization, a relatively small number of activists, and serious political weaknesses of the leadership that has developed.
Labor perspectives, perspectives for BLM, women and youth as well as perspectives for other struggles will also be discussed in more detail later in the document but the key point to stress here is the huge potential for social struggle to develop further in the next period. In the short term, however, this will be at least partially cut across in 2016 by the presidential elections.
Part II: Political Upheaval
The Shift to the Left in U.S. Society
In a recent article in The Atlantic (January February 1916), Peter Beinart, former editor of The Republic, usefully summarizes the evidence for the significant shift to the left that has taken place over a whole period in American society. He correctly stresses that this is particularly pronounced among younger Americans (“millennials”). In our material we have also stressed how polls have consistently shown for several years that socialism as a broad concept is increasingly popular, especially among people under 30. Polls have also consistently shown majority support for left positions like higher taxes on the rich (in 2013, 52% supported the statement “redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich”) and in 2015 no less than 63% said they supported a $15 minimum wage. A Gallup poll in September 2014 showed 58% supporting the idea of a third party. The shift to the left is also reflected on certain social questions, especially in the rapid and dramatic shift in support for marriage equality and LGBTQ rights generally.
“A new survey shows that students feel much more engaged and open to activism than they were in the past,” writes The Atlantic (February 11, 2016) about “The annual American Freshman Survey,” which itself states: “Perhaps connected to the increased activism among college and high school students over the past year, first-time, full-time college students in 2015 report substantially greater likelihoods of participating in student protests and demonstrations while in college compared to their peers who entered last year.”
Beinart cites a wide range of polling data to support the argument that this shift may only accelerate in the coming period. One of his key conclusions is that “Millennials are not liberal primarily because they are young. They are liberal because their formative political experiences were the Iraq War and the Great Recession, and because they make up the most secular, most racially diverse, least nationalistic generation in American history. And none of that is likely to change.”
Beinart is pointing towards a deep crisis of bourgeois ideology though, as a liberal, he does not fully draw out this conclusion. In the wake of the collapse of Stalinism and the retreat of the labor movement, there was a significant degree of acceptance in sections of the population for at least aspects of neo-liberal policy although there was also mass opposition to NAFTA in the 90s, mass support for the Teamsters’ UPS strike in 1997 against part-time jobs and other attacks on workers’ historic gains as well as the anti-globalization movement at the turn of the century.The consciousness of different social classes is ultimately determined by material conditions. Sharp changes in the economic situation have a huge effect. It is precisely the cumulative experience of the all-sided disaster which neo-liberalism created since 2007 on top of the experience of the previous 30 years which has radicalized millions. The “American Dream” which had really died decades ago is now understood to be over by the bulk of working class people. Young people in particular do not see a viable future under the current system. This is reflected in the mass support for Occupy and BLM and now Sanders’ campaign.
Another element which is affecting mass consciousness is the decline of U.S. power on a global scale. Nationalism – along with racism and the belief that life would continue to improve for each generation – were a key part of the ideology which helped U.S. capitalism maintain a significant degree of political support in the past in the white majority of the working class.
While U.S. imperialism is still the strongest military and economic force on the planet, over the past period it has seen its position weaken relative to its rivals, most graphically in the Middle East, the Far East, and in Latin America. Consciousness has been profoundly shaped by the US defeat in Iraq, creating an “Iraq Syndrome” just when they hoped to get rid of the “Vietnam Syndrome.” There has also been the dramatic and convulsive events of the September 11th attacks and the protracted and unresolved “war on terror” and Afghanistan war. In the Far East, the U.S. has scrambled to contain the growing economic and military reach of China. The long term decline of US power which began in the 70s, marked by the defeat in Vietnam but cut across by the collapse of Stalinism and capitalism’s “triumph,” has resumed.
Young people are less concerned than ever about the maintenance of U.S. global power or prestige. And within the population as a whole, while there is at points – like after the San Bernadino terrorist attack – significant levels of anxiety about terrorism and support for military action, there is very little support for ongoing Bush-era style military occupations. Nevertheless the ruling class must maintain a serious military presence in Afghanistan – which it tries not to advertise – for the foreseeable future because of the real danger that without this presence the regime would collapse.
The legitimacy of the political institutions of U.S. capitalism has also been several undermined. The theft of the 2000 election by Bush and the Supreme Court; the arrogant, undemocratic, and unbalanced character of the Bush administration; the Patriot Act, domestic surveillance, and NSA spying have all significantly undermined confidence in U.S. “democracy;” the naked domination of Wall Street and the billionaire class over Congress and the U.S. government, symbolized by “Citizens United;” a Republican Party increasingly out of touch with broad swathes of America; and a dysfunctional political system have all been key elements in a historic decline in the legitimacy of the ruling class’s political system.
Beinart is also correct to say that racism in the white population overall is at historically low levels, something we have also pointed out. At the same time, institutional racism has remained entrenched or even increased (such as police murders, the income gap, mass incarceration, etc.). This contradiction leads to struggle and also shows that fighting racism isn’t just about changing opinions; black liberation can only be won through building a movement to confront the institutional racism inherent in U.S. capitalism. This in no way means that racist attitudes have been extinguished – in sections of the population they could grow – and institutional racism remains in full force but the decline in racist attitudes among the majority of whites is an enormously positive element of the situation which partially removes a key obstacle to building a multiracial fighting workers movement.
However, this is not the whole picture. On the other side we see currently a hardening attitude in sections of the population, a growing xenophobia, directed at Muslims and immigrants generally. This does not contradict the overall point about the shift to the left but it is part of the political polarization.
It must be stressed that if the left and labor movement do not seize the enormous opportunities opened up especially by the radicalization of young people, at a certain stage the right will be able to make real gains and, within that, a far more developed far-right force can emerge. We see the outlines of that already in the deepening divisions in the Republican Party and Trump’s campaign in particular.
Also we need to reiterate that the broad shift to the left and the radicalization of big sections of young people comes at the end of a long period where consciousness was thrown back internationally and in the U.S. after the collapse of Stalinism and the long retreat of the labor movement. To put it another way, the current shift in consciousness is starting from a very low level.
A key effect of the throw back in consciousness in the late 80s and 90s was that the activist layer that existed even in the 80s, especially in the labor movement, but also the civil rights and women’s movements, was decimated. This throwing back of the size, weight, and cohesion of the activist layer has meant that new activists need to re-learn very basic traditions of organizing and struggle. Only now are we seeing through Occupy, BLM and the Sanders campaign (including phenomena like Labor for Bernie) the first steps in the reforming of this layer.
In the pre-1989 era there was a pro-socialist outlook among key sections of this activist layer, with many consciously identifying as Marxists. In the post-1991 era that has been replaced with a much more basic anti-corporate outlook. Since 2008 we have begun to see a re-popularization of “socialism” in the U.S. But the understanding of “socialism” is extremely limited. “Socialism” is identified with expanded public services and Western European Social Democratic welfare policies. There is still an extremely limited understanding of socialism as a new economic and social order based on public ownership, planning, workers councils, and international cooperation. This is coupled with a throwing back of the class consciousness of activists; today their consciousness is more of a populist character though a more pronounced class understanding is beginning to emerge especially among the more advanced elements.
Finally we fully agree with Beinart that the consciousness of big sections of the working class and youth could move further to the left in the next period and in fact is likely to do so. However, this will not be in a straight line. There will be big leaps forward based on social and political struggles, especially when working people and the oppressed win real victories, leading people to draw conclusions from their experience about the bankruptcy of the establishment and the capitalist system and the need to challenge it in a more fundamental way. On the other hand, defeats and dramatic setbacks which are also inevitable, can throw consciousness back for a period. The role of Marxists is to assist the largest possible number to understand the lessons both of victories and defeats, and to prepare the way for more decisive battles.
A new Harvard University survey of young adults between ages 18 and 29 found that 51 percent of respondents do not support capitalism, while just 42 percent said they support it. Thirty three percent said they supported socialism. A subsequent survey that included people of all ages found that somewhat older Americans also are skeptical of capitalism. Only among respondents at least 50 years old was the majority in support of capitalism. Socialism is most strongly supported by 18- to 20-year-olds (41%), Democrats (50%), African Americans (39%), and Hispanics (38%).
Commenting on these results the Washington Post wrote “Although the results are startling, Harvard’s questions accord with other recent research on how Americans think about capitalism and socialism. In 2011, for example, the Pew Research Center found that people ages 18 to 29 were frustrated with the free-market system. In that survey, 46 percent had positive views of capitalism, and 47 percent had negative views — a broader question than what Harvard’s pollsters asked, which was whether the respondent supported the system. With regard to socialism, by contrast, 49 percent of the young people in Pew’s poll had positive views, and just 43 percent had negative views” (4/26/16).
John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard, said the figures are an indicator of a lack of trust that young Americans have that extends to “the very premise of how our country’s organized.” Della Volpe “went on to personally interview a small group of young people about their attitudes toward capitalism to try to learn more. They told him that capitalism was unfair and left people out despite their hard work” (Washington Post, 4/26/16).
“‘The word ‘capitalism’ doesn’t mean what it used to,’ said Zach Lustbader, a senior at Harvard involved in conducting the poll. For those who grew up during the Cold War, capitalism meant freedom from the Soviet Union and other totalitarian regimes. For those who grew up more recently, capitalism has meant a financial crisis from which the global economy still hasn’t completely recovered. Lustbader said the darkening mood on capitalism is evident in the way politicians talk about the economy. When Republicans — long the champions of free enterprise — use the word ‘capitalism’ these days, it’s often to complain about ‘crony capitalism,’ he said” (Washington Post, 4/26/16).
This “socialist” consciousness is limited and is not the same as the scientific, Marxist understanding of socialism we propagate. It represents a searing anger at Wall Street and the super-rich, a discrediting of capitalism, along with a notion of a more just redistribution of wealth. It is strongly associated with support for increased public services, universal healthcare, free college education, and higher wages along the lines of the traditional European welfare state.
Crisis of Legitimacy for Establishment Institutions
The discrediting of capitalism goes hand in hand with a broader public contempt for the political establishment and discontent with the general state of the country. The Pew Research Center found “overall confidence in the future of the U.S. is … substantially lower than during the 1970s … a 1975 survey by Gallup found that 60% had quite a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S. The share expressing a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S. fell to 48% in 1994 and is at about the same level today (45%) … Just 38% of those younger than 30 have quite a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S., the lowest of any age group.” (People-Press.org, 11/23/2015)
The Pew Report found “The public’s trust in the federal government continues to be at historically low levels. Only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).” This is down dramatically from the all-time high in 1964, when 77% of the public said they could trust the federal government to do the right thing nearly always or most of the time. (11/23/2015)
Another survey done by Gallup found that “Congress is the institution in which Americans express the least confidence this year, with 8% doing so, one point above its 7% rating last year — the lowest Gallup has ever measured for any institution.” Confidence in the Presidency is also at historical lows, with only 33% of Americans expressing confidence in it compared to a historical average of 43%, (6/15/2015).
Gallup found Americans’ crisis of confidence extends to most major U.S. institutions. “Americans’ confidence in most major institutions has been down for many years as the nation has dealt with prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a major recession and sluggish economic improvement, and partisan gridlock in Washington … Americans’ confidence in all institutions over the last two years has been the lowest since Gallup began systematic updates of a larger set of institutions in 1993 … Today’s confidence ratings of Congress, organized religion, banks, the Supreme Court and the presidency show the greatest deficits compared with their historical averages, all running at least 10 points below that mark,” (6/15/2015).
“The large decline in confidence in organized religion is likely tied to a decline in religiosity overall, but also to scandals that have plagued various religious organizations, most notably the Catholic Church. This year’s 42% score for confidence in the church or organized religion is the lowest Gallup has measured for that institution [the historical average is 55%] … Confidence in the police, at 52% this year, ties the low for that institution recorded [the historical average is 57%]. In the past year, the police have been a major focus of news coverage in several incidents in which white police officers’ actions resulted in the deaths of black men they were trying to apprehend.”
The report revealed low levels of confidence in the Supreme Court at 32%, down from a historical average of 44%; and only 23% confidence in the criminal justice system. Confidence in big business and banks was anemic at 21% and 28% respectively.
“Four in 10 Americans say they have ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ of trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. This ties the historical lows on this measure set in 2014 and 2012. Prior to 2004, slight majorities of Americans said they trusted the mass media, such as newspapers, TV and radio. Americans’ confidence in the media has slowly eroded from a high of 55% in 1998 and 1999.” (Gallup, 9/28/2015)
However, the surveys also point to important reservoirs of support for the establishment. The military had the highest-rated ranking of all institutions with 72% confidence, up from a historical average of 68%. Second was small business with 67% confidence, up from a historical average of 63%. And while confidence in the church and police had fallen, they still remained relatively high overall. It is also notable that the decline in authority of key institutions extends to organized labor, with the poll finding only 24% expressing confidence in organized labor, down from 26% historically (Gallup, 6/15/2015).
The 2016 Presidential Election
In the absence of a fighting workers movement pushing back hard in the workplaces and the streets against the capitalist offensive, the intense discontent in the working class and sections of the middle class has been expressed first and foremost on the political plane. In the presidential campaign we have seen a full-scale revolt against the establishment of both major corporate parties. In very different ways, both Trump and Sanders’ candidacies reflect this same underlying process.
Of course we should be clear that the establishment still has important reserves of support expressed in support for candidates like Clinton. But the most important feature is how far the process has gotten out of their control and how the class polarization in society has been given a clearer political expression. This is a sea-change in American politics and even if, at the end, two clear candidates of the corporate establishment are left facing each other, things will not return to “normal.” It is also part of an international trend which in some countries has gone much further with the complete collapse of key establishment parties and the rapid emergence of new political forces both on the left and the right.
The Trump Phenomenon and the Question of a New Right-Wing Party
The process of polarization has clearly gone further in the Republican contest with Trump emerging early in the primaries as the front-runner. This led to a desperate attempt to cut across Trump’s path to the nomination, mainly using the campaign of Ted Cruz – after the campaigns of several establishment figures imploded – who is barely more acceptable to the establishment. Many scenarios are still possible including a brokered convention and an out and out split in the party or a Trump victory which leads sections of the ruling class to temporarily abandon the Republican Presidential nominee even if Trump tries to “reposition to the center.”
We have explained that part of Trump’s appeal to many white workers is his opposition to neo-liberal trade policy, including the TPP. He has talked about punishing companies that take jobs out of the U.S. Trump has also said he would oppose any undermining of Social Security and Medicare benefits. This is a break with the orthodoxy of the Republican Party going back decades and is not acceptable to the ruling class.
But it is also clear that Trump’s visceral misogyny and anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim tirades go beyond what is politically acceptable to the ruling elite. This is not because they have any principled opposition with Trump’s bigotry – the Republican party’s policies and rhetoric over the last period also engaged in Islamophobia, immigrant bashing, homophobia, racism, and sexism. However, Trump’s open and brazen rhetoric is seen as “damaging the brand” of imperialism given the intense political backlash they would face domestically and internationally. Further, Corporate America needs an educated female workforce, broadly wants more immigration not less, and also sees the idea of banning all Muslims from entering the country as seriously undermining globalization with grave political and economic consequences.
It is important to characterize Trump and the phenomenon he represents in a scientifically correct way. We have said Trump represents a right-wing populism which rests on the anger of sections of workers and the middle class combined with a racist, chauvinistic, and sexist appeal. Trump’s rallies increasingly took on a nasty, authoritarian character, with violence or threats of violence encouraged by Trump against anyone who would dare to protest, no matter how mildly. His campaign has also created a fertile environment for the growth of the extreme right and fascists who nevertheless remain a fringe phenomenon at this stage but who could become more lethal in the future.
There has been debate about whether Trump is a fascist. Some of this is openly encouraged by a section of the corporate media who have sought to use fear of Trump to build support for his bourgeois opponents, especially Clinton. But as we pointed out in Socialist Alternative 23:
“Historically, fascist movements mobilized mass movements of the middle class, the unemployed and sections of workers with the aim of completely overthrowing democratic institutions, physically smashing the labor movement and the left and targeting racial and ethnic minorities. Fascist movements that took power like those led by Hitler and Mussolini received the support of key sections of the ruling class who saw this as necessary to save their system from revolutionary upheaval led by radical socialist parties in the context of economic and social devastation.
“The American ruling class today does not see any need to go in this direction. But in conditions of profound crisis, fascist and neo-Nazi organizations can gain a base, like Golden Dawn has in Greece. There are also a number of far right parties in Europe like the National Front in France led by Marine Le Pen which have sought to shed their neo-Nazi past and link their racist, anti-immigrant agenda to right populist themes that seek to appeal to working class voters. In all these cases the space is opened up for the far right to grow to the degree that the labor movement and the left do not put forward a clear alternative to the crisis created by capitalism.
“Trump’s politics have much in common with Le Pen although, unlike her, he does not represent a fully fledged far right party. But the Trump phenomenon does not resemble the organized paramilitary, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. When corporate publications like the New York Daily News compare Trump to Hitler or Mussolini the goal is primarily to mobilize women, black people, Latinos and young people behind the Democratic Party. And we should not be fooled into thinking that many of the leading Republicans opposing Trump, including Cruz, are [not] also deeply reactionary. This is not in any way to minimize the threat posed by Trump’s right populism. But we need to accurately characterize the threat in order to know how the labor movement and the left should respond.”
Although most of the capitalist class at this stage opposes right-wing populism, they are very limited in their ability to fight it. Right-wing populism draws sustenance from the consequences of pro-capitalist policies carried out by the establishment. Our strategy is not to arrogantly mock Trump supporters either. We boldly take up the need for anti-racist protests against Trump and right-wing populism while also connecting this to a working-class program against both political parties and their “free trade” agenda, and instead demands good jobs, education, housing, healthcare and social services. It is not enough or always advisable to physically confront or shut down right-wing populist movements; they must first and foremost be undermined politically. Only mass protests and a working-class approach can decisively confront and cut across right-wing populism.
Can the Trump Phenomenon Lead to the Formation of a New Far Right Party?
While it remains unclear how serious Trump is in pushing his agenda in the medium-term, it is very definitely the case that the Trump phenomenon is the outline for such a party. If he is denied the Republican nomination based on maneuvers by the establishment, he will most likely not support the nominee and this would pose the question more sharply of right populist forces, including a section of the Tea Party, moving outside the framework of the Republican Party.
A new right-populist party clearly would have space to develop among sections of the white working-class and middle class. It would clearly pose a danger to the workers movement with outright fascists using it as a recruiting ground as we have already seen with the Trump campaign. But it would also act as a spur to developments on the left, an element of what we have previously described as the “whip of counter-revolution.” Openly racist and sexist appeals, like Trump has made, will act as a magnet for enormous opposition and protest. Large sections of people of color and women will not, at this stage, accept such open bigotry. If Trump was to be elected president – which is highly unlikely – he would face a tidal wave of struggle and resistance. It is precisely this underlying relationship of forces that is one of primary reasons big majorities of the ruling elite oppose Trump.
The Sanders Phenomenon
If Trump has more than a little in common with Marine Le Pen, the Sanders phenomenon bears real comparison to the rise of Corbyn and the Corbynistas in Britain. Corbyn, a longstanding left social democratic member of parliament, ran for the leadership of the Labour Party, on the basis of opposing the austerity agenda which the party’s neo-liberal leadership had enthusiastically accepted for years. He was an accidental figure lifted to victory by a revolt of the disenfranchised British left, with young people to the fore. Now he faces an ongoing campaign of sabotage by the party’s neo-liberal apparatus. As our co-thinkers in the Socialist Party of England and Wales have pointed out, the Corbynista phenomenon represents the outline of a new party. Either they or the neo-liberals must win and define Labour’s direction; there is ultimately no middle ground. Sanders faces an even more uphill battle, given the different history of the Labour Party compared to the Democratic Party. The Labour Party used to be a bourgeois workers party which was transformed into an outright bourgeois party but still retained some remnants of its previous social-democratic character. The Democratic Party on the other hand has always been a bourgeois party.
It is worth remembering that when Sanders first talked about running for president, he raised the possibility of doing so as an independent or in the Democratic primaries. Socialist Alternative argued that he should have run as an independent and even now we believe this would have been preferable. Clearly he would not have reached the same scale of an audience but he would have reached millions and on the basis of a much better political basis of independence from the corporate parties. However, we recognize that to date his campaign has acted to seriously expose and politically undermine the Democratic establishment.
But while Bernie reached a bigger audience initially by running in the Democratic primaries this comes at the cost of losing the opportunity to address the much larger audience in the general election, if he loses the Democratic nomination to Clinton, as is very likely. By refusing to step outside of the framework of the Democratic Party, Sanders’ role could be transformed into being a valuable left-wing prop for the political establishment if he supports Clinton in the general election. Of course there is an alternative path available for Sanders by breaking from the Democrats and running independently in the general election, as Socialist Alternative is arguing for. However, all signs currently point to Bernie refusing to take this step and instead backing Clinton.
It is also important to point out that even in the hypothetical scenario where Sanders ran in the Democratic primaries and then as an independent in the general election, he would face major obstacles due to his decision to run first in the Democratic primaries. A big section of his supporters would be politically confused and others would oppose Sanders running as an independent. Sanders would be attacked for flip flopping, telling his supporters one thing and then doing another. While he would have established a much wider audience initially, he would enter into the general election in a politically weak way and on the basis of a defeat in the Democratic primaries. This reinforces our argument that Sanders should have run a smaller but politically stronger independent campaign from the start.
Further, Sanders and most of the left underestimated the potential support Sanders could have established by running as an independent from the start. The political space existed in 2015 and 2016 for a stronger independent left presidential campaign than the historic Nader campaign in 2000 which would have been a tremendous foundation to begin building a new political party after 2016.
Regardless of the objective merits of our arguments, we had to adapt to the reality of the situation when Sanders decided to run within the Democratic primaries. We therefore positively welcomed his decision to stand while criticizing him for running in the Democratic primaries and pointed to the contradictory character of his campaign. On the one hand, it meant drawing workers and young people towards the Democrats and is creating illusions in the idea that the Democrats can be reformed or used as an instrument to serve the needs of ordinary people.
But his campaign also points in another direction: towards a fundamental break with the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party which taken to its conclusion must mean building a new political force for the 99%. It is worth reiterating briefly the key reasons why the logic of the Sanders campaign, despite Sanders’ own intentions, can point in this direction.
First of all there is his program including breaking up the big banks, a $15 minimum wage, massive investment in rebuilding infrastructure, single payer healthcare, free college tuition, decisive action on climate change, ending mass incarceration and returning to real progressive taxation to pay for it all. He has also pointed to the role of mass movements in changing society and has opened an unprecedented national discussion on democratic socialism.
Despite its radical content, it is nevertheless clear that Sanders’ program is of a reformist character, i.e. trying to improve the position of the working class but within the framework of the capitalist system. But we must underline that serious reform on this scale is not acceptable to the American ruling class at this point in history.
Sanders program points to a return to the type of structural Keynesian policies adopted after World War II in the U.S. and Western Europe. This was in the context of the biggest period of growth the system ever experienced, but also reflected the pressure of a powerful labor movement and the challenge posed by revolutions having ripped a large part of the globe out of the capitalist sphere although these gains were horribly deformed by Stalinist rule. Neo-liberalism which has dominated for almost 40 years has pointed in the opposite direction: towards the steady dismantling of the welfare state and an all-out assault on workers’ share of wealth and benefits.
So a mass political force seriously pushing for Sanders’ program will in this period tend towards a full-scale conflict with the ruling class and cannot ultimately be contained within the framework of the Democrats unless the corporate wing of that party were pushed out or left.
The second critical factor is Sanders’ refusal to take corporate money combined with the enormous outpouring of financial support from ordinary people. At the time of writing, Sanders campaign is on course to raise over $200,000,000 without taking any contributions from big business! What this has proven once and for all – despite Citizens United and the flooding of corporate money into the political process – is that working people do not have to meekly accept the choices blessed by the political establishment and choose the least objectionable. We need to hammer home the lesson that independent working class candidates can raise the funds needed to mount serious campaigns by raising money from the working class and the left, as Kshama Sawant’s campaigns have also amply demonstrated, in contrast to the claims of many “left” politicians that they “need” to take money from business to be electable.
Thirdly we have seen the important role of the emergent, alternative left media which supports Sanders. Many young people now rely primarily on this alternative media for information. As a result the corporate media narrative does not have the same crushing effect, although the primary has also demonstrated the other side of this, that the capitalist media still has a wide degree of influence over working people.
The final factor pointing away from the Democrats is the nature of Sanders’ base which is centered on youth and a section of working people in open rebellion against the neo-liberal agenda. Even if Sanders capitulates to the Democratic leadership, it will be difficult for him to bring many of the youth with him. Sanders has also achieved significant support among progressive workers, at first mostly white, but increasingly his appeal has also resonated with a section of younger black and Latino workers. This is potentially of enormous significance and points directly towards a party based on working class interests.
This shows how disgraceful the role of most union leaders has been, shilling for Hillary and actively working to corral support for the establishment of the Democrats which is complicit in so many attacks on the interests of working people. On the other hand, Sanders’ campaign has become a pole of attraction for the more fighting, healthy forces in the labor movement. Labor for Bernie has established significant points of support, with approximately 100 union locals and 7 national unions (ATU, APWU, CWA, ILWU, NNU, NUHW, and UE) endorsing Sanders, along with tens of thousands of union activists who have joined the campaign.
The further this fight has dragged on the more it has exposed the anti-democratic nature of the Democratic Party and its primary process. This has further radicalized Sanders’ base. From the attempt of the Democratic National Committee last December to deny Sanders access to critical voter data; to the way debates were kept to a bare minimum; to the role of the corporate media in trying to shut out or distort Sanders’ radical message, millions have seen through this cynical game. Many have become particularly incensed at the role of the super-delegates and the fact that in state after state where Sanders has won, all or almost all of the super-delegates are still going to Hillary.
The more Hillary and her surrogates are forced to bare their fangs and expose the real nature of the establishment and the utter hollowness of their “progressivism,” the more difficult it will be to reconcile the Sanders base to the establishment’s agenda.
Beyond the Primaries
All of these points about the deeper significance of the Sanders phenomenon and how it is helping to lay the ground for a new political party of the 99% will remain true regardless of the final outcome of the primaries.
Assuming Clinton secures the nomination with an outright majority of pledged delegates, Sanders will most likely endorse her as he has said he would do all along. This first and foremost reflects Sanders mistaken, pragmatic political approach. But it also is due to the lack of a well organized, politically clear left within the Sanders campaign. This has meant the important minority of Sander supporters who say they will not support Clinton in the general election (around 20-35% in polls) has not been systematically organized and provided a leadership to mount real pressure on Sanders to go further.
The Sanders campaign, like all the left developments we have seen over the last period, has a strong element of “proxy consciousness” though we have seen thousands of young people prepared to sacrifice significant amounts of time and energy to knock on doors and make millions of phone calls. While still limited this, along with Occupy and BLM, points towards the reemergence of an activist layer, albeit still very loose and politically unformed.
If Clinton is heading towards being the undisputed winner, pressure will build up to “unite the party” against the Republicans the closer we get to the convention. A majority of people who voted for Sanders would agree with this appeal. But as the response for our call for Sanders to run as an independent all the way to November indicates, a significant minority of his supporters may not be prepared to go along. Depending on how events unfold Sanders may come under significant pressure to take a more resolute stand against the establishment before and during the convention. This would be especially the case if the perception that the whole process was rigged continued to grow. But the question of a subjective factor, a leadership, will be decisive in determining how much this potential is realized.
While Sanders is very unlikely to continue running as an independent, there are a number of possible scenarios of what he will do. There is an important difference between Sanders saying he will support Clinton based on the need to stop Trump while continuing to campaign for his program versus throwing himself aggressively into her campaign. The latter would be a massive, demoralizing blow to many of his supporters who see the entire establishment which serves the interests of the 1% – both Republican and Democratic – as the problem.
Sanders will likely adopt a posture of trying to pressure the Democratic party to the left. Already, in the course of this primary campaign, Hillary Clinton has been pushed to the left on several issues, including TPP, the Keystone XL pipeline, criminal justice, the minimum wage, expanding social security benefits, etc. It remains to be seen how far the establishment is prepared to go to accommodate Sanders and his base whose support they urgently need given Clinton’s serious weakness as a candidate.
An important factor in this situation is Sanders himself. Sanders, as we have noted, has been pushed to the left by the primary fight, and certainly does not want to be seen as another Dennis Kucinich who is now mostly remembered for his capitulation to the establishment in 2004. Sanders will seek to remain relevant to the development of further movements and left politics.
We need to stress that if Clinton wins, whether she faces Trump, Cruz or one of the Republican establishment figures, the rest of the year will be dominated by a wave of lesser-evilism. This is reinforced by the crisis created by Justice Scalia’s death which will likely continue through the elections with the Republicans in the Senate refusing to consider any nominees Obama may bring forward.
The ability of Supreme Court decisions to affect workers’ rights, reproductive rights, the scale of deportations, regulations to limit CO2 emissions, etc. can turn the November election into a referendum on a liberal or reactionary agenda for the court whose outcome is decided by who is elected President and which party controls the Senate. In this scenario, the potential vote for Jill Stein of the Greens would be squeezed but she could still do comparatively well depending on the level of disaffection among Sanders’ supporters, especially among young people.
But if Trump is the Republican nominee or if there is a split in the Republican Party then it may become increasingly clear that Clinton and the Democrats will win by a landslide. Recent polls point to the possibility of the Democrats regaining control of the Senate and even challenging Republican control of the House if Trump is their candidate. Even if the odious Cruz is the nominee this perspective could materialize, especially if Trump stands independent of the official Republican ballot line or Trump supporters boycott the election.
In this scenario, the space for Jill Stein’s campaign could grow and we would have a more favorable situation to extend the discussion about how to continue the political revolution, build a broader socialist movement especially amongst young people, and win people to Socialist Alternative.
2017 and Perspectives for the Left
If Hillary Clinton is elected the next president of the United States, she will face a radically different political situation compared to Barack Obama when he was inaugurated in early 2009. There were enormous hopes for change invested in the idea of the first black president and after eight years of a right-wing Republican administration of George W. Bush. It was inevitable that there was an extended honeymoon for Obama. However, there will be a much shorter honeymoon this time. While Clinton will gain some temporary political capital as the first woman president, there are far less illusions in her than there were in Obama in 2008. From day one, the new president will face demands for change. A new phase of social struggle will open up. This will be especially the case if the Democrats regain control of Congress. In a four-year term, Hillary would likely oversee a renewed economic crisis, further undermining her credibility and laying the basis for a deeper questioning of capitalism as well as preparing the ground further for left and right populism.
A key question for us is what will happen to the enormous energy and radicalization represented by the Sanders campaign. It is not possible for us to answer this definitively at this point. On the one hand there is clearly support among many of his supporters for the general idea of a new party of the 99%. Reflecting this mood, Michelle Alexander and Shaun King of the Daily News have called for a new party and Rosario Dawson has pointed in this direction. Rose Ann DeMoro of the NNU at one stage suggested Sanders should consider running as an independent if blocked in the primaries.
But we must also seriously ask where the forces for such a new party will come from in the short term. Objectively a massive space has opened up for independent working class politics as was demonstrated through Kshama Sawant’s election and re-election and as Sanders’ campaign has demonstrated on a national level. But besides ourselves the actual organized forces prepared at this point to consider actively trying to build such a party outside the Democrats remains extremely small and with very limited social weight. Nevertheless this could change and the emerging but still inchoate new left activist layer that Sanders mobilized point to the potential for such a party to emerge rapidly as a result of further developments.
While it is not possible to map out the exact course of events, it is likely that there will be a combination of national and local developments. Besides Sanders’ campaign, the other key development of the last period has been Kshama’s election and re-election as a socialist city councilmember in Seattle who led the historic fight for a $15 minimum wage.
The argument that it is not possible for leftists to break into U.S. politics because of the two parties and the danger of being portrayed as “spoilers” clearly doesn’t apply at local level. Today large numbers of cities and Congressional districts are in reality one party not two party operations. Political analysts have been pointing out for some time that there is a geographical polarization underway in the U.S. where “blue” districts become more “blue” and “red” districts more “red.”
When Kshama Sawant was first elected in 2013, the local media began talking about Socialist Alternative as the city’s “second party” given that there is no effective local Republican operation. This was simply recognizing reality and there is no reason in principle why this could not be replicated in many cities and towns across the country (including in places currently run by Republicans). By fighting in local politics, and building movements and organizations that have a base in particular communities we can make concrete gains even with limited resources and no national presence. While this is a possible starting point, the forces of the independent left cannot remain limited to the local level. This would need to be built upon to begin building a new political party that takes on the big business parties in federal elections as well.
On the other hand there are forces, including many of Sanders’ labor supporters, who may be attracted to building a “Tea Party of the left,” half inside and half outside the Democratic Party, based on Sanders’ left populist program and refusing to take money from corporate interests. Sanders himself has pointed in this general direction and if he puts his weight behind this idea it would gain momentum. At local level and in a few Congressional races we already see some Democratic candidates modeling themselves on Sanders in a more or less genuine way and Sanders recently endorsed three Congressional candidates.
Given Sanders proven ability to raise massive amounts of money and the thousands of activists who could theoretically become involved in such a political venture, one can’t exclude that it would get a number of people elected. If it took on a more developed organizational form with a mass membership structure and democratic accountability – as recently suggested in an online “love letter to Bernie” – this “party within a party” could have serious appeal to progressive workers and youth.
Such a development would represent a continuation of the contradiction expressed by the Sanders campaign. On the one hand it would pose the danger of drawing in fresh activists into the trap of the Democratic Party. On the other hand, if it develops mass support it could pose a real challenge to the Democratic establishment and ultimately if it stuck to its guns it would probably not be containable within the Democratic Party. However, it would also delay what is really needed, a new independent party based on the interests of working people and the poor. While adopting a sympathetic approach towards such developments, Socialist Alternative would continue to patiently explain that they stand in fundamental contradiction to the character of the Democratic Party and to succeed they will need to begin building a new party.
Building a New Party
Socialist Alternative has long argued for the building of a new mass party that serves the interests of working people and the poor rather than the 0.01%. A whole series of developments, as we have shown, point towards this being the most favorable objective opportunity to create such a party since the deep economic, social and political crisis of the early 1970s when elements of the situation in the U.S. pointed in a pre-revolutionary direction.
One of the questions that naturally arises is why a mass party of working people was not formed in the past. There was huge potential to build such a party in the 1930s and 40s given the rise of mass industrial unions and a powerful left which helped win huge gains for working people as a whole. The Communist Party played a key role in squandering this potential, along with objective events such as World War II.
But in a broader sense, independent working class politics was also cut across by the enormous political power and resources of U.S. capitalism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This wealth allowed the U.S. ruling class to provide rising living standards to the majority of each generation of workers and thereby soften class relations up to a point. Of course with their own party, workers could have achieved far more but union leaders instead threw their support behind the Democrats based on having a “seat at the table.” The absence of a mass workers party along the lines which existed in one form or another in almost all other advanced capitalist countries reinforced the idea of “American exceptionalism,” that somehow the U.S. had fundamentally different political dynamics to other countries.
The long term decline of U.S. capitalism since the 1970s is creating a sharper class polarization that is beginning to pull the two party system apart. But this is not an automatic process. In the 1990s, a number of unions came together to launch a Labor Party which had promise but was stillborn because the union leaders involved were not prepared to go the next step and actually stand candidates. Ralph Nader’s campaign in 2000, reflecting anger at eight years of the Clinton presidency and the anti-globalization movement, likewise showed the enormous potential for independent left politics. Running as the Green Party candidate on a left-populist platform, Nader received nearly 3 million votes (3% of the popular vote), the highest vote for an independent left presidential candidate in the U.S. since the 1920s. But Nader’s impact was greater than his final vote indicated, with a consistent support of over 6% in polls just weeks before the election and an important minority of labor supporting him.
However, Nader refused to try to turn this support into the basis of an ongoing political project, leaving it to the Green Party which was not an effective vehicle for the development of class politics. Nader also adopted an overly rigid position on the Democrats by failing to take into account the lesser-evil mood against Bush and the Republicans. This was ruthlessly exploited by the liberal-left to attack Nader after Bush took office and carried out an aggressive right-wing agenda. Nader also made a serious mistake in not intervening in the Florida recount to help organize mass protests against Bush’s theft of the election. This underlines the importance of any future left force having the tactical adroitness to navigate the challenges presented by the inevitable elements of lesser evilism among sections of workers and oppressed groups while remaining politically firm on the need to build independently of the Democratic Party.
Of course, Nader’s political shortcomings were secondary to the much bigger objective complications that arose out of the September 11 terrorist attacks. This led to a wave of chauvinism and racism, the collapse of the anti-globalization movement, and later a strong “Anybody But Bush” mood on the left for supporting the Democrats to get rid of Bush (which Nader courageously stood against in his 2004 and 2008 presidential runs).
The current situation, however, is the most developed opportunity so far. Nevertheless, the weakness of the American left raises real questions about how quickly the forces for a new party can be assembled. As pointed out earlier, the specific way in which the Democratic primaries conclude will have an important bearing on the next stage. A further development of social struggle in 2017 can help to speed up the process.
It cannot be stressed enough that this historic opportunity will not remain indefinitely. The question is whether the forces can be assembled to tap into this potential.
What Will A New Party Look Like?
In the past socialists have looked to the unions as the key force to build a new political party in the U.S. Today this is not a likely scenario although some unions could be pushed to play a role in such a development. Labor activists will still be decisive in giving it weight and influence and a huge battle in labor would open up about supporting a new force. But in the current conditions it is more likely a new left party will not initially be centrally based in the organized working class. Given the weakness of the organized labor movement and the current level of consciousness it is more likely to initially have a more populist multi-class character rather than having a clearly pronounced working class character. Left developments over the past period have generally pointed in this direction, such as Nader, Green Party candidates, Occupy, and now Sanders. Even in the huge working class battle in Wisconsin in 2011, Socialist Alternative’s experience was that the dominant consciousness pointed more in a left populist direction than a sharply class conscious outlook.
A new party based on broader forces in this period will most likely begin with the dominant trend being of a left populist or left social democratic character, though this will likely be one part of an array of different political tendencies that will make up a broad formation. The idea that capitalism can be seriously reformed will be tested and rapidly exposed leading to a crisis for such a new party as it has for other new left formations internationally. This points to the critical importance of building a Marxist pole of attraction in such a formation that can help the best workers and youth draw the necessary conclusions in time and fight to win the leadership of such a party on the basis of a clear socialist, working class program.
As we said last year in Socialist Alternative:
“Establishing a new party is not in itself the solution to the problems working people face. But it is a vital step. However given the range of forces which must come together to make such a party viable there will inevitably be different currents. In particular there will be a vigorous debate between social democrats who believe capitalism can be tamed through a series of reforms and made to serve the interests of working people and revolutionary socialists who while fighting for every possible reform under this social order believe that it must ultimately be removed as a roadblock to human development. Such a discussion linked to the building of an independent political movement and involving tens or hundreds of thousands of people would in itself be an enormous step forward.
“We firmly believe that for the party to go forward and lead the mass movement which can finally end corporate domination of society it will have to adopt a fully socialist program. But this position will be arrived at on the basis of experience and the testing out of different positions.
“It is therefore essential that the party of the 99%, as a party of social struggle, have a genuinely democratic internal life and accountable structures so that the lessons of struggles and political campaigns can be fully assimilated and thereby strengthen the party’s roots in the broader working class. It must for example be possible for the party membership to recall public representatives who no longer represent the party’s positions.”
Where new independent or semi-independent formations develop they will quickly face serious crisis unless they develop a clear program that matches the objective needs of the working class and the oppressed, the scientific program of Marxism. As quoted above, these formations will offer a huge arena of discussion and debate, of clarification of ideas in the framework of common struggle. But it is no accident, that Syriza, Podemos, the already forgotten NPA in France or the SSP in Scotland had only a short time of ascending hopes.Socialist Alternative’s role in this process at the current stage is firstly to prepare the forces of Marxism for future political openings.
We do not take it upon ourselves to artificially “unite the left” or build a broader electoral organization. Any future political formation will have a “battle of strategy and ideas” within it. We must make sure that the left and socialist wing is as strong as possible going into that struggle. In preparation, we must build and strengthen our party politically. There is mass interest in socialist ideas, and we can position ourselves as the key force on the socialist left.
If a viable independent left formation emerges, even a multi-class one, it would be incumbent on socialists to intervene in the formation, being the socialist wing of that formation, encourage the involvement of workers and worker organizations, and argue against the participation of capitalists and corporations.
If there is a genuine movement behind certain “Berniecrat” candidates, socialists should intervene in those movements to win over the advanced layers to socialist ideas and explain the need to break with the Democrats in order to win radical demands.
Socialists should call on “Berniecrat” candidates to run as independents, especially after failed primary runs in the Democratic Party.
We need to position the forces of Marxism for the upcoming period of new left formations and wherever the raw material for a new third party appear, which is likely to be the discontented mass of Sanders sympathisers and fresh forces new to politics. This way, when a left formation coalesces there can be a strong socialist tendency within that formation that starts with legitimacy and authority on the basis of its political work, ideas and a winning method of struggle.
Part III: Perspectives for Labor, BLM and Other Struggles
The Labor Movement
In the past, unions, or at least a section of them, would have played a galvanizing role in pushing back against ruling class attacks during a downturn and in fighting for a real share of the recovery. Now a mere 6.7% of the private sector workforce is unionized, the lowest level since 1932. The public sector has a significantly higher rate of unionization (35.2%) which is a key reason why the right has focused its attacks on public sector unions. Strikes remain at an historic low. In 2015, there were only 12 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers. The leadership of the labor movement, with few exceptions, is tied to a disastrous strategy of trying to “manage the retreat” while maintaining its political subservience to the corporate leadership of the Democrats. This has been graphically demonstrated in the past months by their role in supporting Hillary.
For the large majority of the working class, even for most workers in unions, there is now no experience of participating in collective struggle against the bosses. While the central obstacle to rebuilding a fighting labor movement is the leadership of key unions, the lack of traditions embodied in people who know how to fight, i.e. the extremely small size of the activist layer, is also an objective problem. This is tied together with the low level of consciousness in the working class.
These problems are in some ways compounded by the change in the composition of the workforce away from manufacturing and other “industrial” sectors and towards “services.” Clearly there remain groups of workers like dockers or the refinery workers who went on strike last year who have the ability to inflict serious losses on the bosses through determined action. But part of the power of the “industrial” working class was not just its ability to stop production but its strength in numbers. Now in some highly mechanized workplaces handfuls of people do the work formerly done by thousands, while new strongholds of industrialization were developed, for example, in car factories in the South. A new army of skilled workers in the IT industry are only beginning to discover that they belong to our class but already many of them have been among the strongest supporters of Bernie Sanders and Kshama Sawant (The Guardian, 4/19/16). Today we are dealing with a largely “new” working class which will have to develop its own traditions and modes of collective action; this will not happen automatically.
But to say that the situation is complicated does not in any way mean that workers have not shown a willingness to fight when given a clear opportunity. Five years ago, Wisconsin’s newly-elected right-wing Republican governor Scott Walker brought forward the now-infamous Act 10 which not only effectively imposed “right to work” conditions in the public sector but went further forcing public sector unions to face yearly recertification votes and stipulated that they could no longer bargain over any issue other than wages and then never for actual wage increases! The result has been a steep decline in the membership of public sector unions like AFSCME, the NEA and the AFT in Wisconsin.
This provoked a huge uprising of workers and youth on the streets of Madison, including the occupation of the capitol, aimed at defeating Walker and Act 10. But as the movement was building increasing momentum towards a general strike, the national union leadership stepped in to divert workers towards instead trying to recall Walker and elect a Democrat. This strategy demobilized the workers movement at the critical point and set the stage for a decisive defeat that is still resonating today. The approach of the labor leaders, bordering on suicidal, reflected their enormous conservatism in the face of taking illegal strike action, their hostility to a class struggle strategy, and their dependence on the Democratic Party.
We also saw that even at the height of the Wisconsin struggle the inner life of the Wisconsin unions was relatively quiet, with a very limited consciousness of trying to put pressure on the union leaders to take action, and the small number of union activists not growing substantially. The main dynamic of the struggle was an angry outpouring of young people and the working class in a mass protest movement from below. As with Occupy, there was a very determined mood, and willingness to deploy fighting methods, and a big openness to socialist ideas. At the same time, the movement was very loose with very limited organized structures and a low level of understanding of how to organize and fight back.
Wisconsin’s Act 10 was followed the next year by the passing of “right to work” in Michigan, the historic heart of the United Auto Workers. In 2015, Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans went the final step and extended “right to work” to the private sector, now officially the 25th state to pass such legislation. This represents a tipping point and other states will very likely follow.
While the effects of the defeat in Wisconsin are still having a demoralizing effect on the workers and youth of Wisconsin, there is a potential for new Wisconsin-style upheavals in other parts of the country. Provoked by an overreach of the right, blocked for too long by conservative leaders, eruptions of the anger of the working class are absolutely possible. But there is a huge danger that, given the lack of organization to express such movements, they can end in some setbacks and can be short lived.
The national intervention of Socialist Alternative in Wisconsin was a turning point in our own development. The ability to throw our forces and our increased, though still limited, weight nationally into such battles can make a difference in how these struggles turn out and what conclusions are drawn even if they are lost.
As we have pointed out in Socialist Alternative, pensions both in the private and public sector, for those workers fortunate enough to still have them, have become a particular target of the corporate elite and their paid politicians, again using the cover of “fiscal crisis.” Illinois has become the most important battlefield in this fight. The Republican governor, Rauner, backed by an avalanche of hedge fund money, is pushing, alongside Chicago’s Mayor 1%, Rahm Emanuel, to radically cut back pension benefits. But Rahm at least faces a combative foe in the Chicago Teachers Union, led by Karen Lewis, which went on strike in 2012, temporarily checking the corporate offensive against public education in the city, and again took bold strike action in April 2016.
Of course, it is the Republicans like Walker, Rauner and Michigan’s governor Snyder who have pushed austerity and union busting policies most viciously. The Democrats say they are opposed to “right to work” for example. And there are real differences in the ruling class about how far to go down this road with one section concerned that destroying what is left of the unions outright will lay the basis for an even bigger and less controllable social explosion further down the road by removing a key safety valve in the form of the class collaborationist union leaders. On the other hand, the Koch Brothers and their ilk clearly believe that they have an historic opportunity to “finish the job” and destroy the labor movement as a viable force for an indefinite period.
And while the Democrats balk at the most serious measures – wanting to maintain the financial support provided by the remaining unions – they have gone along or encouraged numerous attacks and done very little to help the unions out of their predicament.
The labor movement dodged a bullet with the defeat of Friedrichs case in the Supreme Court as a result of Scalia’s death leading to a 4-4 tie. Friedrichs would have resulted in the entire public sector in the U.S. becoming “right to work” with the probable loss of hundreds of thousands of members and large amounts of income in key public sector unions. This would have been Wisconsin writ large. This result, however, was in no way the result of struggle with the public sector unions having tacitly admitted defeat and making no serious effort to mobilize their members public opinion before Scalia’s demise.
Another significant development is the defeat of the Vergara case aimed specifically at teachers’ tenure in California. Eliminating tenure would make unionized teachers “employees at will” which would mean they could be fired far more easily at the whim of administrators. This would drastically weaken the teacher unions. And Vergara, unlike Friedrichs, had clear bipartisan support. When Vergara passed its first hurdle in front of a viciously anti-union judge in California, Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, hailed it as some sort of victory for “students’ rights.” While the defeat of Vergara is very important, there are copycat cases going ahead in other parts of the country. One way or another, challenges like Friedrichs and Vergara will continue, pushed particularly by the right.
The Way Forward for Labor
While we have to see the profound challenges facing the existing unions in a clear-eyed way, we also need to stress the other side of the situation which is how developments are preparing the ground for a massive re-emergence of the workers movement.
The potential can be seen in the enormous enthusiasm generated among low paid workers by the Fast Food Workers’ days of action and the broader Fight for 15. It can be seen in the massive support for the CTU strike in 2012, the Seattle teachers’ strike last fall, and again with the CTU strike in April 2016. Going back further it can also be seen of course by the tens of thousands in the streets of Madison but also in the mass movement of immigrant workers a decade ago and the national day of strike action on May 1, 2006.
As we have said before, we have to be very open about how the labor movement will redevelop and about the time frame. New unions and other new forms of working class organization and vehicles for collective struggle will have to be built which relate more directly to the realities of the new working class. But this will require the assistance of sections of the existing labor movement. The new Uber drivers union in the Seattle area points in this direction.
Alongside this there will also be battles to revitalize the union movement within some of the existing unions. There can be the development of more union opposition movements which fight to reform their conservative leaderships like CORE in the CTU and other reform movements in teacher unions in other cities. Especially in some unions with deeply entrenched bureaucratic and pro-capitalist leaderships, like the UAW, we can see cases of workers moving to bypass the official union structures and in some cases split away.
The need for socialist ideas in labor is decisive. Given this era of capitalist crisis, labor cannot accept the limitations of what is profitable if it is seriously to fight for improvements for the working class. Union democracy, with elected officials subject to recall and on an average wage of the workers they represent, is crucial to get rid of bureaucratized union officialdom that strangle the energy and power of their members and push away new people from even joining unions.
Of course there are unions which have taken a bold stand in the past period or whose leadership has shifted to the left. The National Nurses United stands out in this respect. Several teacher locals, most notably the CTU and the Los Angeles Teachers Union have leaderships prepared to fight. The ATU has had a more left leadership in the past period but there is still a long-term struggle for control of the union’s apparatus with more conservative elements. The CWA and the Postal Workers have taken the very positive step of endorsing Sanders.
Beyond that Labor for Bernie has tapped into deep discontent with the leadership of a number of unions who are prepared to continue the death march in lockstep with the Democratic Party leadership. At the moment this debate about the political strategy of the unions is the most important positive development which Socialist Alternative has correctly oriented to. This can be the basis of building support within a section of the labor movement for taking further steps toward political independence beyond 2016.
In Labor for Bernie and in any serious steps towards rebuilding the labor movement, the role of socialists will be critical. Socialists are the “memory of the class” which is more needed than ever and can play an indispensable role in bringing forward proposals that can galvanize the best elements into action. The platform Socialist Alternative has achieved with Kshama’s re-election is absolutely central to this.
An indication of the potential is in Seattle itself. Having a voice for working people in the council for over two years and leading the grassroots fight for the $15 minimum wage has given Socialist Alternative significant authority with a layer of local labor activists while also contributing to a bolder, more fighting mood in the city’s labor movement than in most parts of the country.
Black Lives Matter
We have already alluded in this document to the profound impact that the BLM movement has had on U.S. society, particularly since the rebellion in Ferguson in the summer of 2014 and to the limited but significant victories won by the movement through struggle.
But despite these gains, the criminal justice system remains and will remain racist to the core. Meanwhile, housing segregation remains entrenched, education is becoming more segregated and the black population faces significantly higher rates of poverty, unemployment and underemployment than the population as a whole.
The movement has largely reached the end of its initial phase of intense street protests. Police killings continue but are not producing the same reaction. When the cop who killed 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland was not indicted in December there was no eruption on the streets. People see that something more than reactive protests is going to be needed to change the system. Of course at a certain stage new police atrocities will inevitably lead again to big protests.
But in a similar way to Occupy, the ending of the first phase of struggle does not mean that the effect of the movement is over or that it will not continue to evolve or express itself in a number of important ways. It is clear for example that BLM has now inspired a whole series of anti-racist protests on college campuses, the biggest being the Mizzou protests that then led to a national day of solidarity action by students across the country.
The most important outcome of BLM to date is the radicalization of an important section of black youth on a scale not seen in four decades. Many black youth entering struggle rejected Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the black establishment. This is a welcome development, but it is uneven. In some areas, radicalizing African-Americans took over existing civil rights organizations like the NAACP; we saw this in Minneapolis. Also, in the South, the black churches and civil rights organizations still have authority when people move into struggle. This was clearly the case in the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina, for instance.
Despite its impact, BLM functions more as a banner than an organized force. While the banner of BLM has a wide reach, the movement remains very small in an organized sense and has only limited reach within the broader black working class. A number of aspects of BLM are symptomatic of the general points we have made about the character of struggles in this period. Like Occupy, it has a loose, horizontal character, with a relatively small active base but a much broader public sympathy. While there are many extremely positive radical elements to BLM, it also reflects the overall throwing back of consciousness with strong elements of identity politics and reformism.
The limited ability of BLM to connect with and mobilize broader sections of the black working class is not because of a lack of support for the issues BLM-linked groups have raised but because these groups have not succeeded to date in rooting themselves and developing a program to address all aspects of black working-class reality. It’s one thing to convince people in the abstract that “the whole damn system is guilty!” But it’s another thing to get people to replace that system.
This requires taking up the wide range of issues facing black workers and youth, building alliances with other sections of the working-class and linking the struggles for specific aims to a vision for how to change society along socialist lines. Most black working-class people agree with BLM in opposing racist police violence, mass incarceration and “stop and frisk” policing. However, broad sections of the black working class are also angry at the amount of violent crime in their communities and sometimes call for more cops “walking the beat;” BLM activists have difficulties addressing these concerns. Another problem is that a number of groups under the BLM banner have become dependent on financing from forces hostile to working class interests like the George Soros foundation. And while identity politics has played a role in radicalizing many it has also led to division and contributed to the problems facing BLM today.
Besides campus activism many BLM activists have now turned towards political action. For example, there was the high profile candidacy of DeRay Mckesson for Mayor of Baltimore. Despite his prominent association with BLM and huge following on social media he only managed to get 2% in the recent Democratic primary. This reflected a failure to really root his campaign in day to day struggles of the local community. But despite this very weak showing, we should expect that there will be other BLM-linked candidacies at local level in the next period, both within and outside the Democratic Party, and many of these will have a bigger impact than Mckesson. Of course the Democratic establishment is working overtime to co-opt many of these activists but it is very clear that a significant section is determined not to go down this road.
In the presidential election the official BLM position was not to endorse a candidate. Nevertheless the pull of the 2016 elections as an arena for political action was reflected in the focus of BLM actions aimed at presidential candidates. BLM activists disrupted Bernie Sanders events early on but as the campaign went on increasingly focused their fire on Hillary and Bill Clinton. Broadly speaking these actions had a real impact in raising issues of racist policing and mass incarceration within the presidential debate. It should also be pointed out that Trump has also been a focus of BLM and other radical protesters. This could escalate if he becomes the nominee.
The New York Times (April 18, 2016) recently wrote published an article acknowledging that there is a generational divide in the black community with people over 45 generally supporting Clinton while there has been a broad rejection of “Clintonism” among people under 45. The core issue that is driving this rejection is the Clintons’ role in expanding the war on drugs and mass incarceration but it also reflects the broader rejection of neo-liberalism and capitalism among young people generally. Many but certainly not all of the black activists opposing Clinton wound up supporting Sanders campaign. We have already mentioned Michelle Alexander’s support for a new party. These are important developments.
It is also important to point out how Sanders’ eventual program – centered on pro-working class demands combined with a strong anti-racist appeal – was able to win the support of tens of thousands of black and Latino youth and gave a taste of how to counter the divisive impact that identity politics can have. It demonstrated, despite limitations, a point that is central to our politics, namely that black, Latino and white workers, young people, women and men can be brought together around a program that speaks to their common interests while opposing all forms of discrimination and oppression.
While the first phase of BLM struggle is over, the “genie is out of the bottle” with a generation of black youth moving into action. This will continue and has the potential to become a key factor in movements. Socialists must propose strategies of mass action to bring killer cops to justice while also calling for the movement to put forward concrete demands like elected civilian boards with full control over the police and class demands for good jobs, equal pay, quality schools, expanded affordable housing and guaranteed health care. With a working-class program, the struggle against racism can be brought to new heights and win real victories to improve black people’s lives while confronting capitalism.
Potential for Women’s Struggles
The burden of the capitalist crisis and ongoing austerity has had a disproportionate impact on women and young people. The services and jobs cut in the public sector over recent decades were overwhelmingly relied on by women as an avenue for decent jobs and a social safety net. Austerity increases the burden of unpaid labor on women. Meanwhile, the assault on reproductive rights by the right continues.
It is no accident that many of the unions waging a fight against the capitalist crisis are made up primarily of women. This is true of the nurses and teachers who have been at the forefront of labor struggles. However, the main liberal women’s organizations like NOW and NARAL have failed to mobilize sufficiently against the steady stream of attacks by right-wing lawmakers while Democrats pay lip service to women’s rights but will not fight back in a consistent or effective way.
We have seen some protests in recent years like the State House occupation in Texas during early 2013 against attacks on reproductive rights. We saw the “slutwalks” against sexual assault before that as well. While a new women’s movement has yet to emerge, we see tremendous anger against sexism revealed in mass discussions around rape on college campuses, the misogynistic #Gamergate movement, the Steubenville tragedy and countless other attacks on women. In broader movements like Occupy, the Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter, women were often at the forefront of struggle.
A battle for the women’s vote is in full swing and will only escalate. The Democrats will play on fears of a reactionary Republican Presidency to mobilize women voters. While millions will be cautiously hopeful around the potential of the first woman President, votes for Hillary will be more of a “lesser evil” character than the 2008 excitement over Obama becoming the first black President. This is due to Hillary’s clearer track record as a corporate politician and the radicalization of young women that’s been expressed in countless protests and in support for the Sanders campaign.
Polls show that a majority of young women voters cast their ballots for Sanders in the Democratic primaries, and that young women voted for Sanders at a higher proportion than young men. This again shows that when a left or working-class program gathers support, identity politics can be pushed back as women fight for their interests. The attacks by establishment “feminists” like Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright against women Sanders supporters backfired and emboldened young women in particular to articulate a program to win real gains for working-class women.
If Hillary reaches the White House on the basis of playing up her “support” for women’s struggles, this can give confidence for women to fight and eventually come into conflict with the Democratic Party. This could take the form of some attempts to change existing liberal women’s organizations, but it is more likely that new struggles will emerge clearly rejecting the failed strategy and leadership of NOW, NARAL and Planned Parenthood.
A new generation of women have lived through the disappointment with Obama and the struggles of Occupy, the Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter. This experience, along with constantly coming face-to-face with institutional sexism in class society, can lay the basis for a new women’s movement in which labor struggles and mass protest can be a decisive factor. Millions will come to the understanding that confronting individual sexist behavior – while empowering – will not be enough to dismantle the sexist institutions and attacks that are a daily feature of life under capitalism. Women – particularly young women – will begin to increasingly take the road of struggle and will be among the most determined pioneers of a new socialist movement.
As pointed out earlier in this document the achievement of marriage equality was an enormous milestone in the struggle for LGBTQ rights, also reflecting a massive change in social attitudes. But the passage of the “bathroom bill” in North Carolina, driven by social conservatives (with the support of some Democrats) shows that the right is looking for ways to push back against these advances. A number of copycat bills are being pushed in other states. While directed specifically at trans people, this bill which also removes other anti-discrimination protections is really directed at LGBTQ people generally.
The response in North Carolina to this has been dramatic. The NAACP which initiated the “Moral Mondays” protests against the attack of the right wing legislature three years ago, is again leading the charge calling for occupations of the state legislature against the bathroom bill. The North Carolina battle is a further indication that trans rights will be a focal point for LGBTQ struggle in the next period. But it also shows how these attacks can galvanize a wide spectrum of progressive forces into action.
Youth Revolt and Interest in Socialism
In poll after poll, interest in socialism is on the rise among young people. This is fleshed out by the data from the Harvard study cited earlier. This flows from the failures of capitalism to provide decent jobs, affordable education or a solution to racism, sexism and environmental destruction. While interest in socialism is extremely confused, it isn’t purely passive either. Young people have been at the forefront of every major protest since the anti-globalization movement in 1999, and this trend will intensify.
“Millennials” are the largest, most diverse, progressive and highly-educated generation in US history, but they also face a system of perpetual crisis that has no prospect of providing a decent future. Even in the context of a shallow economic recovery, youth face student loan debt, low-wage jobs and a deteriorating social safety net. These contradictions fueled overwhelming and enthusiastic youth support for the Sanders campaign. With the potential for renewed economic crisis, there will be an intensified search for alternative ideas, and the socialist movement can grow dramatically with a youth orientation.
Alongside increased struggles, we will also see an ideological ferment among youth. Socialist Alternative, with a consistent youth orientation and attractive public meetings on college campuses, can win the best young people to our party.
Youth have also been to the forefront of the environmental movement including the 400,000 strong protest in New York City in September 2014 and the intensive campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline. The enormous threat posed by climate change is going to play a key role in the unfolding social and political struggle of the next period. But there will also be many specific fights, for example against fracking or natural gas pipelines like the campaign Socialist Alternative has helped lead in Boston.
As the popularity of the CTU’s stand on April 1st shows, as well as recent student protests against budget cuts in Boston, the ongoing attacks on public education will also continue to be a focus for struggle. There are other cities and towns in which teacher unions have radicalized and are fighting back alongside parents and students. In 2015, 620,000 public school students nationally (240,000 in New York alone) refused to take high stakes tests. While the “opt-out movement” has been concentrated in middle class communities, there are signs of it spreading into black and white working class areas. This is a significant revolt against the corporate agenda.
Last but by no means least, the struggle of undocumented workers to win full rights in US society will re-erupt at some point in the next period. After the enormous mass movement of immigrant workers a decade ago, demanding an end to repression and “papers for all” there were promises from many ruling class representatives of a concerted push for “comprehensive immigration reform.” But under Obama things have gotten much worse with mass deportations on a historically unprecedented scale. Obama’s partial executive order to lift the threat of deportation from several million people has been so far blocked by the right in the courts. Young immigrants, especially Latinos, have been at the forefront of immigrant rights protests especially the combative actions of “Dreamers.” Young Latinos have been actively involved in protesting and fighting back against Trump and openly racist Republican candidates during the course of the 2016 elections. This could also escalate if Trump becomes the Republican nominee.
Social struggle and mass protests will develop in the next period along a number of fronts and it is hard at this point to say which issues will galvanize and radicalize the most people in 2017 and 2018. In general, different sections of the working class move into struggle at different points in response to specific attacks. But we must also point out that, especially if key battles begin to spark new life in the labor movement, there could be a generalized challenge to the political and economic domination of the 1% on a different level to anything we have seen since the late 60s and early 70s.
Shifting of the Tectonic Plates of U.S. Capitalism
An important role of perspectives, as with Marxism generally, is to help make conscious the unconscious. Many activists are vaguely aware that there are vast changes taking place in US society. In developing perspectives Marxists help to draw out a clear, conscious understanding of these historic, revolutionary, shifts taking place which are the background to understanding the current political situation. These include the end of the American Dream, a crisis of legitimacy of capitalism and its institutions, and a weakening of the position of U.S. imperialism.
Economic Crisis and the End of the “American Dream”
Historically the relative stability of U.S. capitalism has rested upon the material foundation of rapid economic growth which delivered rising living standards for decisive sections of the working and middle classes. This was etched into the American psyche as the “American Dream.” The dynamic growth of the US economy allowed the capitalists to provide enough concessions to maintain political stability and help cut across developments towards a mass workers party or socialist movement. This was the material basis for “American exceptionalism” and the two party system of big business.
This era is now over, marking a fundamental change in U.S. society. Since the 1970s there has been a historic transfer of wealth from labor to capital, leading to an intense polarization of society. It is increasingly recognized that today’s youth will have a lower standard of living than their parents. This historical pivot, the end of the American Dream, started in the 1970s with the end of the post war boom and the beginning of the neo-liberal offensive. The full effects of this however were partially masked by the growing entrance of women into the workforce, the extension of consumer credit, and the housing bubble. The 2008 crash has brought this new reality home sharply.
Integral to this process has been the shattering of the post-war architecture of labor relations. There is now a low-wage “precariat” which makes up a key section of the U.S. working class, especially young workers. The era of the limited “labor peace” which existed during the post war period has been replaced with a more brutal and direct form of class conflict. Union density in the private sector has fallen from a highpoint of 34% in the 1940s to 6.7% today. Half of states are now “right to work.” Sections of the ruling class no longer see the need for the buffer of a union bureaucracy. This is laying the basis for less controllable social explosions by removing a key safety valve in the form of the class collaborationist union leaders.
This is part of a deep rooted international trend. A stunning 2016 Oxfam report stated “In 2015, just 62 individuals had the same wealth as 3.6 billion people – the bottom half of humanity. This figure is down from 388 individuals as recently as 2010. The wealth of the richest 62 people has risen by 45% in the five years since 2010 – that’s an increase of more than half a trillion dollars ($542 billion), to $1.76 trillion. Meanwhile, the wealth of the bottom half fell by just over a trillion dollars in the same period – a drop of 38%.”
Crisis of Legitimacy for Capitalism and its Institutions
This deep polarization of society is accompanied by a crisis of capitalist rule – an ideological failure of capitalism and a crisis of legitimacy of the main institutions of U.S. society.
Most stunning is the discrediting of capitalism and the growth in support for socialism given the U.S.’s role as the bastion of global capitalism and its long history of deeply ingrained anti-socialist propaganda. Precisely because of its history as America’s continuously lauded state religion capitalism is now taking the blame for all its associated evils: Wall Street fraud, stagnant wages, home foreclosures, and health insurance companies that don’t pay claims. In a striking parallel to the process in Eastern Europe in 1989, though in reverse, an alienated populace has evidently concluded if socialism is anti-capitalism it must be better than the failing system they are living under.
These historic and sweeping declines in the broad outlook of the American people towards the key institutions of U.S. capitalism are an expression of a deeper political crisis for the U.S. ruling class. Over the past period the political system has become increasingly dysfunctional and unresponsive to the needs of capitalism as well as the needs of working people.
This dysfunctionality of the political system for the ruling class is expressed most sharply by the increasingly unhinged character of the Republican Party. We have traced out in our material how the Republican Party has on a number of issues failed to act in the strategic interests of US capitalism due to political or ideological factors, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the threatened debt default, the refusal to reach a “grand compromise” with Obama in 2011 that would have enacted key neo-liberal reforms, and the impeachment of Clinton in 1998. At the same time we have seen a tremendous timidity by the Democratic Party in response to the Republicans unbalanced policies.
We have also seen an increasingly brazen and partisan Supreme Court carrying out a right-wing agenda, most glaringly in their 5-4 decision in 2000 to hand the presidency to George W. Bush by refusing to allow a ballot recount in Florida. This was also followed by another 5-4 decision in the 2010 Citizens United case, legalizing the naked domination of billionaires over the political process. The liberal minority in its dissent astutely warned of the tremendous damage being done to legitimacy of bourgeois democracy, a core ingredient in gaining the consent of the oppressed, when they argued that the ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation … [and] will do damage to this institution. A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”
Crisis of U.S. imperialism
Compounding the economic and political crises of U.S. capitalism is the relative decline of U.S. imperialism. There is no doubt that the U.S. remains by far the top global power economically, militarily, and strategically. But its domination is declining, and world events are increasingly beyond its control.
It is hard to overstate the significance – for U.S. power, prestige and for the psychology of the American people – of the greatest imperialist power in world history utterly failing to win the Iraq war and instead triggering an unending disaster throughout the Middle East. This follows on from the drawn out quagmire in Afghanistan and the decisive U.S. defeat in Vietnam. There is far less willingness in the population to support military adventures with an “Iraq Syndrome” reinforcing the “Vietnam Syndrome.” This series of defeats has created serious complications for the U.S. to engage in future major wars that are not seen as directly needed to defend the American people.
The growing inability of the U.S. to control world events has been underlined by the September 11th terrorist attacks, the chaos in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS, growing tensions with Russia and China, weakening U.S. domination over Latin America, an inability to manage climate change, and increasingly unstable world relations.
Underlying these developments is a relative weakening of the economic position of U.S. imperialism. Once the world’s largest creditor nation, it is now the largest debtor nation. Up until the 1980s the U.S. was a net creditor, exporting capital around the world. Since then the U.S. has become a debtor, relying on investment and loans from its rivals.
Historic Opening for Socialists
This document has extensively described the huge changes in consciousness in U.S. society; the growth of struggle in the past period; and the perspective for even wider social upheaval in coming years. Within these overall processes we must again stress the critical importance of the radicalization and growth in support for socialism among young people.
While having no illusions about the limited character of this new socialist understanding, there is no doubt that this is a historic conquest and massive leap forward for the U.S. working class given the hostility and poison created during the cold war against “socialism.” It represents an enormous opportunity to build a new, broad socialist movement. Marxists must seize on this interest and desire to learn about socialism to build their forces by positively explaining genuine socialism.
The basis now exists for the emergence of a broad socialist movement in the U.S. in the next period, especially among students and youth. However, the huge gap between the general interest and the very small size of the forces that are consciously working to capitalize on this interest creates big complications and can delay its development. But it also provides a unique opportunity for Socialist Alternative to punch above its weight and have a disproportionate impact as a cohesive force which understands the potential and can confidently offer a program and strategy to build around.
Overall we can expect relatively quickly over the next few years the further development of social movements, a broad left, and steps towards independent left politics. These will contain a multitude of different trends, with reformist and populist ideas likely to initially dominate. There will also inevitably be anarchist and ultra-left trends. The ability of these broader developments to win and conquer new ground will depend both on objective factors, but also critically, the policies, strategy and tactics they adopt, which will be determined by a political struggle within these formations.
Alongside these broader developments, the objective space exists for the construction of a small Marxist party of three to five or even ten thousand members over the next few years. Such a force, a party based on the genuine ideas of Marxism and Trotskyism, would be able to act as a powerful pole of attraction which could be at the forefront of the leftwing of the broader struggles and political formations which will develop. It can play a critical role in arming the left of these movements and parties with the necessary analysis, program, and strategy to make a decisive difference in their development.