A Crisis of Leadership

Over the last few years, we have seen the emergence of an increasingly militant and confident layer of working class activists prepared to shake things up in the trade union movement. Although mostly seen on a local level, this need for a change in outlook is also beginning to have national implications. This also is reflected in the rise of the influence of Labor Notes, an organization that once included only the most left of the US trade union movement, but that’s now moved into the mainstream of local union activism. The national conference of Labor Notes this Spring promises to be the best attended ever and includes many more local activists from all over the country. We can also see a movement back to old fashioned class struggle, as shown in the West Virginia teachers’ union strike that has completely shut down the school system in that state. A strike that was also “illegal” under the bourgeois law. Between these and other lesser known activities, it’s obvious that the trade union movement is beginning to awaken from the shock of its recent half century of defeats and is, once again, flexing its muscle.

Of course unions have been declining in influence and numbers for decades now, a trend that was accelerated by the Reagan neoliberal attacks on these basic working class organizations back in the 1980s. But a half century of declining and stagnating wealth and wages for the wider working class has finally reached a tipping point, causing unions, to become more popular in the aftermath of the Great Recession. This has resulted in an actual increase in membership in the last few years. This has also been the result not of only the capitalists’ class war on the rest of us, but also because the unions themselves have recognized that they cannot do it alone. They have begun to reach out to the wider community and not just rely on their declining membership for support. Slowly, but surely, unions have begun to recognize that they can’t garner support for their interests without giving support to the problems of their allies in the wider communities, most of whom are also workers and facing the same struggles in the wider economy as union members are.

And of course, there are still miles to go before the conservative nature of US unions is eradicated. They are not up to the task at present. The old “anti-Red” attitude of the bureaucracy of the AFL-CIO and their reliance on a “business union” strategy of making sure they are equally concerned with the bosses’ profits as they are of their own members’ welfare will have to be thrown into the metaphorical “dustbin of history.” After all the owners are only concerned with their own profit and they don’t need supposed worker organizations to help share this burden. One side is enough, especially when that side has all the wealth and power. The recent upsurge of popularity in the idea of unions is tied directly to the idea of unions as class struggle organizations and not as “partners” with the bosses.

Along with this need for unions to return to their class struggle roots, and intertwined with it is the need for a break with the Democratic Party. A political party of the bosses, no matter its benevolent public face and rhetoric toward workers, cannot represent the interests of workers. And this is especially true during times of heightened class struggle as we find ourselves in today. The Biblical injunction against serving two masters applies today more than ever. In spite of the rhetoric, Democrats can never be both a party for workers and a party for the owners. It’s a logical impossibility.

The Centrist Left

Because of this heightened class struggle brought on by the various societal crises that are besetting the US today, we have seen a rise in membership for Marxist and Marxist influenced groups. Of course, this heightened class war predated Trump, but the Trump election and the resistance to it have accelerated the process. Almost immediately after his election the two main groups in the US that were the best-known representatives of “socialism” in this country, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Socialist Party of the United States of America (SPUSA) saw gains in membership that tripled their previous numbers. And they’re still growing. DSA now claims over 34,000 members.

The Marxist left has also experienced a “growth spurt,” although not as prominent as the more generic versions of the socialist and social democratic groups. Once again this was happening even before Trump was elected, with the rise of Socialist Alternative. These groups, in spite of theoretical and methodological failures, have risen in the post-Trump era into prominence on the American Marxist left because of an influx of new, young, and energetic leaders and members. It is also reasonable to think that even the old-style Stalinists of the CPUSA and the various Maoist groups have shared in this growth too, although none of the aforementioned groupings has risen to a “mass” status, or even to the tens of thousands like the DSA has.

While this movement leftwards is to be noted and encouraged, there are still problems in the Marxist left with important differences between the groups regarding methodology, strategy and tactics. While these differences are not insignificant, with a few exceptions – like the Socialist Equality Party’s opportunistic and sectarian refusal to work in the unions – it should not become an excuse to abandon all attempts at united front activity.

Unfortunately long periods of isolation from the mass workers’ organizations have meant that the programs of the far left organizations have not been tested in the real world. Now there appears an opportunity to do so, by joining in the struggle to bring about an independent working class party in the US.

This would provide the best framework for testing the various approaches because it would be within a larger and broader formation, an American party of labor, within which revolutionaries should fight openly for their program.

Finally this leftward movement towards anti-capitalism can also be seen, albeit in a mostly subjective fashion at the present time, in all of the nominally left-leaning groups and organizations. The social justice organizations seem to be coming around to the idea that their particular “identity” cause might not be solvable under capitalism and that it certainly won’t be solvable without combining forces with allies who are also facing their own struggles. This can be seen in Nashville, Tennessee when the predominantly black organization Music City Riders made common cause with the predominantly Latino ALO, Obrera Dignidad. Or when Latinos and Muslims make a common cause against the Trump attacks on their populations in regards to immigration and ICE attacks on immigrants all over the country. Or when the white anarcho-syndicalists of Redneck Revolt join with oppressed communities, allied groups and other Antifa fighters to confront and protect vulnerable populations against fascist attacks on the streets as happened in Charlottesville, VA and elsewhere.

Social Conditions After the Election

For the first time in many years the economy is playing a role in the widespread dissatisfaction with the American politico-economic situation. In the past century there has been no objective situation exactly like the current one. The labor struggles of the 1930s were based on the economic failings of capitalism in the Great Depression, but the social justice and anti-war struggles were in the future. The Civil Rights movement arose during a time of economic plenty, the aftermath of the labor struggles that had ushered in the epoch of New Deal and, as such, played only to the conscience of the white majority who were, overall, mostly satisfied with the way things were going. In addition, the Civil Rights movement had a goal that accomplished under capitalism in the final analysis.

And finally, the last big upsurge of dissatisfaction tied into the civil rights struggle but came at the tail end after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights acts which struck down legal discrimination. This involved the Vietnam war and the naked imperialism of the USA against lesser developed countries, mostly peopled by non-white populations. But economically, the country was still doing well for most and the struggle for social justice and peace had become, for the majority, a self congratulatory phase where it was thought we were on the way to a “color blind” and peaceful society. This self satisfaction was reinforced for the majority by the ending of the Vietnam war.

Today we have a rather unique situation in that the lingering aftermath of the Great Recession, the Long Depression as Michael Roberts describes it, played and is still playing a leading role in the attitude of a majority of Americans, even the white population, that the country is on the wrong path. This has led directly to the election of Donald Trump. Most analyses of the 2016 election have shown that, while the majority of his support came from the more historically racist areas of the country where Jim Crow and segregation had been the law, the votes that actually won the election for him were in the Midwest and with voters who had supported Obama, a Black man, in 2008 and 2012. This could and should be tied to the Long Depression as the lingering effects still holds sway over the economy in those areas. This dissatisfaction with an economy that’s rewarding the wealthy vastly more than its rewarding the workers who actually create that wealth played the major role in winning for Trump in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio who joined with the south and the mountain states to put him in the White House. It’s not like these Trump voters were necessarily actively racist, but his stands on economic nationalism and putting America’s workers first played the major role in allowing them to overlook his obvious racism and bias.

But that obvious racism and bias of Trump has also created a dialectical uptick in opposition to Trump on social justice grounds. So, we have two of the three causes of the massive societal upheavals that rocked the past century coming together today in economic dissatisfaction and social justice dissatisfaction. And with Trump’s belligerent attitude in foreign affairs, an attitude that suits his economic nationalism and neo-conservative tendency to use the US military to enforce the economic demands of capital, can anyone truly believe that another imperialist war is not in the offing? Will this war necessitate the reinstating of the draft, putting more of America’s youth directly in the firing line of Chinese or North Korean or even Russian weaponry? And even if Trump really were some sort of “peacenik” compared to Hillary Clinton, as some on the Marxist and radical/reformist left seemed to imply during the election campaign, the sharpening competitions of senile capitalism would prevent him from changing the nature of imperialist competition and conflict, both economic and militarily.

Crisis and Reaction

So, the social conditions that have provoked some of the most unsettled times in American history have become worse and show no signs of getting significantly better anytime soon. Times like these lead to crises of capitalism in society. And that’s without another economic crisis triggered by the means used to “save” capitalism in the Great Recession. To this issue, even some mainstream economists are concerned by the “bubbles” that caused the last crisis being reinflated and causing the next one. These bubbles were encouraged by the “free money” policies of the Federal Reserve Bank to stabilize the system in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession and flooded corporate America with cheap credit. Many are also warning about the rise in wealth inequality causing more societal stress and conflict between the “haves” and the “have nots”. We also know that these are features of the current system and not “bugs” that can be eliminated. So, the best that the system can do is delay the reckoning for a future date, but at some point, the piper will have to be paid.

Another reflection of this theme is in the polls that show a declining belief that capitalism is the best system for organizing society and the concurrent rise in interest in socialism. This is true among almost all age groups but is especially true among the Millennials who have come into adulthood during the worst of the Long Depression and have seen their economic prospects dwindle into a morass of student loan debt, coupled with a declining jobs market, the worst that capitalism has to offer.

The Opportunity is There

To sum up, the opportunities are there as presented in objective conditions of politics and the economy in the Trump era in 2018. As always, the problem lies in a crisis of working class leadership in presenting a Marxist alternative to the current orthodox view of the intractable problems of society. Without this Marxist view, the field of a “left” alternative is the province of a weak social democratic Keynesian thinking that has already been found wanting by both the conditions of capitalism over the last 50 years and in the public’s mind as well. Many in the subjectively “Marxist” left are also complicit in propounding this view. From the CPUSA’s continued and continuing advocacy of the Democratic Party in elections, to the ISO’s economism and union fetishism, to SALT’s marginalization of the working class in its calls for a “party of the 99 percent”, the objective results of these stands are merely a return to the “good old days” of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s original reforms of the 1930s in the New Deal. And of course most elements in the non-Marxist or reformist left have the same goal, either explicitly or tacitly.

But to even get to the point of getting back to the “good old days” of the social democratic programs of FDR will take a struggle that’s at least on par with, if not greater than the struggles that birthed those reforms in the first place. And if you want to add in the further reforms brought about by the civil rights era and extend them into an even fuller equality, then even more struggle will be necessary. So, while the opportunity is there, the challenges are great.

These challenges are the reason that a break with the Democratic Party and the formation of a mass American party of labor needs to be job one on the agenda for the Marxist left. A workers’ party that’s able to mobilize the American working class to forge their own way forward in the fight for their own interests. A workers’ party to be involved in the lives and struggles of workers in every locality and every day, not just during elections. A workers’ party that will lead us into becoming a class aware of itself as a class and then for itself as a class. And a party with a healthy and vibrant revolutionary current that can argue a way forward to workers’ power in society. A vanguard to lead by the power of ideas, tested in the crucible of debate and then on the ground in class struggle.
So, conditions are ripe, and to paraphrase Trotsky, getting somewhat overripe. It’s our turn to step up our game in the class war being waged against us. To fight back, first to defend and extend what’s left of the FDR laws currently under attack and then to go on the offensive and take the struggle to the owners and their profits. Standing on the sidelines waiting for someone else to do it is no longer an option. The time is now!