A Working-Class Perspective on Politics Today
Today I welcome a guest author: David Rowlands.
David and I are longtime friends going back to my college years. We met while doing political work together at Kent State University. David is former member of the United States Socialist Workers Party (SWP), not to be confused with a party of the same name in Great Britain. I was active in the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) in those days.
In November David published this article on Facebook, encouraging people to share and discuss it. Hence its publication here. The article speaks for itself but I’ll offer this brief introduction for context.
The article addresses issues under discussion by people who are currently, or were previously, engaged in socialist organizing and party building, or are closely interested. I’m guessing that is not the experience of most readers here. The article discusses what socialists should be doing these days, and why. To some, this may seem like insiders “talking shop.” However, there’s a lot here for the average reader to think about. David looks at what’s happening in politics beyond Trump’s latest Tweet.
I think we’re all acutely aware that a profound and unprecedented situation exists today in the United States. The two mainstream political parties are in deep, deep crisis and the media is obsessed nonstop with Trump. This obsession masks and distorts reality. It makes it appear that Trump is the only game in town, the only thing happening and the only thing that matters. And, yes, he is President, so he is important. But this singular focus is also driving many liberals towards a deepening anti-working class bias. Liberals blame workers for Trump’s election and attribute this to workers being racist and reactionary.
In their vast majority workers are not racist and reactionary. David explains this and writes, “The vote for Trump represented a giant middle finger flipped in the direction of the two capitalist parties and all they represent.” And why not? A report by the Pew Research Center pretty well sums it up:
After adjusting for inflation, however, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power it did in 1978, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms average hourly earnings peaked more than 45 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 had the same purchasing power that $23.68 would today.
Contrast this picture with upper-class families, as also reported by Pew:
Upper-income families also had 75 times the wealth of lower-income families in 2016, compared with 28 times the wealth in 1983.
The urban working-class voters who tipped the Electoral College in Trump’s favor were voting for change in the only realistic way they thought they could get it. I think it’s fair to say the Trump option hasn’t worked out well, but voters’ motives in electing him had a reasonable logic. Many were previously two-time Obama voters — again, seeking change. That isn’t something a racist and reactionary person would do.
The views expressed here are David’s and not necessarily mine. We agree on much but not all.
A Note to a friend. Mass movements and today’s realities. In defense of the Socialist Workers Party.
Originally published Sunday, November 25, 2018
I am not a member of and have no formal affiliation to the United States Socialist Workers Party. The thoughts below are my own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Party.
- A Note to a friend was inspired by a discussion with several friends of the article linked below that appeared in the issue of the Militant dated November 26, 2018.
- Greatest Crisis of Bourgeois Order in our Lifetimes
- Above photo: Armed combatants of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, circa 1969. Not the same as Hamas, not the same as Hezbollah. Are you with me so far?
“Turning to the U.S., [Mary Alice] Waters told the audience, ‘You’ll never understand anything about what is happening in the class struggle there unless you get your eyes off of Trump!’ That’s not easy, she noted, given the liberal media’s hysteria over the president.”
It’s important to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, or even worse, how we remember it was when we were young.
In response to the assertion made in the Militant article titled, “The Greatest Crisis of Bourgeois Order in our Lifetimes,” that “The economic, social and political gap between the working class and the highly paid layers of the middle class in the U.S. has accelerated in the last two years, and that’s what every political battle there is an expression of,” another commentator, who disputes the Militant’s political conclusions replied, “Political battles taking place in the U.S. in the last two years include (but are not limited to) fights against sexual assault and sharpening threats against abortion rights; fights over police murders for the crime of basically being Black and in public; fights against xenophobic immigration policies and family separation; efforts to reverse unscientific attacks on climate change regulations; and a giant wave of strikes by teachers and other significant labor fights such as at the Marriott Hotel chain.”
I’m not sure how our friend would define the word “battle” or “fight,” but leaving that aside for the moment it is important to note that there are no significant and/or sustained battles taking place around police brutality (BLM was swallowed whole by the Clinton campaign and has yet to reappear), no serious activity in defense of abortion rights (nor has there been since the early 1990’s), nor is there any generalized response to attacks on immigrants; no real motion anywhere in the country around issues pertaining to the destruction of the environment (the solution for which will require nothing less than the renewed advance of the socialist revolution), and I would add for good measure, there is a complete absence of movement around endless war in the Middle East, for reasons that are not a mystery. There is an uptick in defensive actions by labor, specifically with the teachers last summer, but nothing that would approach a “giant wave” involving teachers or anyone else.
On the other hand there’s plenty of activity by the middle-class left and liberals to overturn the results of the election, censor art and speech, ban or shout down speakers that cause discomfort, attack the Bill of Rights, glorify the secret police, promote Jew hatred, rally voter participation for the next “most important election in our lifetime,” harass political opponents in public spaces, weaken the presumption of innocence, and generally shut down any and all discussion and expression that lacks the Meritocratic Seal of Approval.
The fact is there are no mass movements today, and by mass movements I mean the motion of millions independent of the capitalist state apparatus. The last mass movements in this country were those that sprang up against the imperialist assault on Vietnam and the proletarian struggle against Jim Crow, and before that, the rise of the CIO. There hasn’t been an extension of the socialist revolution since 1975 and the revolutionary upsurge of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s in Central America and the Caribbean was defeated.
It’s a Straw Man argument of a certain kind: identify movements that don’t exist, call them “mass movements” for good measure, and then criticize the Party for not participating in them. Truth be told, there has been very few instances where the SWP has assumed an organizational or leadership role since the early to mid 1970’s. The exceptions would include the Battle of Boston (the last expression of the traditional civil rights movement lead by Martin Luther King, Jr.), the defense of the clinics during the onslaught of Operation Rescue (no one else was capable of rising to the challenge after the National Organization for Women and NARAL went Missing in Action) and to a lesser degree, the campaign to free the Cuban Five.
The historic events of fifty years ago — events that produced a favorable playing field for the working-class which endures to this day — were made possible by the convergence of the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions, the anti-colonial struggles following the end of the second imperialist war, the movement against Jim Crow which also gave rise to the second wave of feminism, the anti-Vietnam war movement in the imperialist countries and the emergence of Malcolm X. Obviously nothing like that exists today capable of supplying the raw energy required to propel tens of thousands of bona-fide militants forward, that would in turn make it possible for working-class fighters and communists to collaborate over a period of time on sustained campaigns producing sustainable victories.
The SWP did not grow and become a part of the central leadership of the movement against the War in Vietnam because our comrades were good at making leaflets or because we attended more actions than anyone else, but because hundreds of thousands of fighters came forward, with significant defeatist attitudes towards their own government, ideas which spread to the workers and farmers in uniform, to fight on behalf of the right of the Vietnamese people to self-determination, in tandem with other large political and cultural shifts. As for the anti-war cadre, we were them and they were us, a splendid situation which required nothing in the way of communists engaging in fraudulent forms of phony fakery, i.e., infantile substitutionism. Is anyone arguing that a like reality is a part of the calculation today?
What we are seeing instead are smallish, uneven and episodic actions here and there, some more significant than others, like the struggle that took place at Standing Rock around the rights of the Sioux Nation, but most political activity today, even those that involve street demonstrations of one kind or another are organized around getting Democrats elected. If the SWP was significantly larger it might make sense to dispatch agitators to these kinds of events, such as the actions to protest the potential firing of Robert Mueller, based on the assumption that some good souls may be at the wrong place for the right reasons, and to mix it up with the participants. There would be nothing unprincipled about attending such events, as opposed to endorsing and recommending such a course to our class as a way forward, but that is not the situation the Party finds itself presently.
The Party has far more important priorities, which a cursory glance at any issue of the Militant will quickly confirm. The communist vanguard remains, at this point in time, a small propagandist organization that by necessity focus its activity not only on considerations involving social weight, but on considerations such as size and geographical spread. As James P. Cannon said all those years ago, “The art of politics is knowing what do and when to do it.” We are in a period of preparation aimed at winning a layer of class conscious workers to the perspectives of revolutionary socialism and communists cannot substitute ourselves for an objective situation that has yet to mature.
For instance, the party maintains a small but important number of public spaces, hosts a forum series, maintains a weekly newspaper that it distributes directly to workers (which constitutes a central part of it’s activity), maintains a publishing house that is essential to ensure that the lessons of the workers movement going back to 1848 remains intact, contests the capitalist parties in the elections, raises its own funds, attends book fairs in this country and around the world, and remains faithful to its internationalist obligations, especially to the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico and the defense of the Cuban revolution.
Does anyone think that making available the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, Farrell Dobbs and Malcolm X; James Cannon, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Tomas Sankara to the working people and youth of Kurdistan, who are a part of the largest fight for self-determination in the world today, is less important than trying to win over the local campus chapter of the Committee for Middle-Class Whateverism?
As the cute red-heated boy on the TV commercial currently making the rounds gleefully proclaims, “I hope not!”
The multinational outpouring following the murders of the Black worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina, that lead to the striking of confederate flags, statues and racist symbols throughout the American south, the immediate response at airports following the President’s executive order banning travel from certain Muslim countries, the teacher’s actions in Trump Country, the 40,000 who came out in Boston in the wake of the rightist rally in Charlottesville that ended with the death of a counter-protestor, the outpouring of solidarity around the recent events at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the many examples of Jews and Muslims coming together when attacked, and the vote in Florida to grant voting rights to “felons” in which hundreds of thousands of people who voted for Trump voted “yes,” belies the assertion that rightist sentiments have permeated our class — before, during or after the election of Donald Trump.
Trump may be odious (he reminds me of an obnoxious labor skate, the kind some of you may be familiar with) but there is ZERO evidence that his chauvinist outbursts have permeated our class in any meaningful way. Quite the contrary. Racist, sexist, anti-gay and anti-immigrant sentiments are at an all time low, and working people from all walks of life are receptive to discussing why we need to replace the dictatorship of capital with a workers and farmers government. And until the objective situation changes to the point when large numbers of working people begin looking for us, it is the responsibility of the communist vanguard to look for them.
In any event, the kinds of actions described above are essential in unifying the working-class and are the kinds of actions working-class militants savor and strive to be a part of, and are a part of to the best of the ability of those involved. Indeed, the workers of the world are becoming less concerned with skin color and place of birth as people move in and out of each other’s countries. We are becoming more secular, less restrained by religious superstition, more in favor of the rights of women, and no wall, no matter how high or how thick can halt this process, in the United States or anywhere else. Simply put, communists are in favor of everything that aids our line of march towards unity and power and we are opposed to everything that doesn’t. It’s not that complicated.
The wailing and the gnashing of teeth with all things Trump reminds me of the last years of the Bush 43 administration, the last so-called fascist to occupy the White House, when middle-class activists and their liberal allies became unhinged in their frenzy to elect John Kerry. Many of my former comrades endorsed Kerry, as was the case with Barack Obama. There are likewise similarities to the reaction to Ronald Reagan’s blow-out election in 1980. It’s worth remembering that in the aftermath of his election a petite-bourgeois, inside-outside split operation against the revolutionary party was organized. Coincidence? I think not.
I will say, however, that Trump provides millions of workers with daily entertainment as he barks back at the big business media, arrogant Talking Heads dripping with hatred for the toiling majority; Generals, U.S. Senators, Democrats, Judges, various Republicans and others that are so beloved by the working people (trigger alert, sarcasm on display). Does Rachel Maddow and her fellow aristocrats really believe that when workers cheered Brett Kavanaugh for lashing out at his interrogators, after being accused of organizing weekend rape parties, that by doing so they are in favor of violence against women? Again, I think not.
Trump is weaker and less accomplished when it comes to getting solid, anti-working class results than were his predecessors, especially the master of them all, William Jefferson Clinton. Yes, Trump is a bigot, a characteristic of the class he belongs to, and his most obvious prejudice, as was the case with Barack Obama, is a fear, hate and loathing of the working-class, but that’s not why people voted for him. More African Americans and Hispanics voted for Donald Trump than voted for George Romney in 2012, and large numbers of workers did not vote at all. The vote for Trump represented a giant middle finger flipped in the direction of the two capitalist parties and all they represent.
It’s imperative we build a revolutionary party. It may be a difficult row to hoe, but it’s possible, which is one of the primary lessons of the Russian Revolution. And it will not be without missteps and mistakes. And it may not come to fruition in our lifetimes, especially for those of us who are in the winter of our lives. As the outstanding Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once said, “We must not only be a citizen of the world, we must also be a citizen of time.” But if the pillars of such a party are not in place when the rightest gangs hit the street, it will be too late.
The two capitalist parties are in deep crisis, as is the moral, political, social and economic underpinnings of the profit system. Truth be told, they are increasingly unable to govern. Just look at the response, or non-response, of the governing institutions when it comes to the recent “natural disasters” and to a host of other preventable scourges, like drug addiction and poisoned water. It is our duty to patiently explain, to approach workers in an undifferentiated way, to safeguard the conquests of the international workers movement, to provide direction when possible to do so, and above all, to tell the truth. As Comrade Castro famously said, “The truth must not only be the truth, it must be told.”
Stay the course SWP!
Deeper into the working-class! Build the Socialist Workers Party! Build the labor movement!
Amnesty for all — all workers into the unions! Defend those who work the land! Defend the rights of women! Health care and education for all! Defend the Bill of Rights! Defend the victims of racist attacks! Defend the African-American nationality and the First Nation peoples! No to Jew hatred! Defend the Cuban Revolution! Independence for Puerto Rico!
A Request to my Facebook Friends: If you have a comment I encourage you to enter it below instead of on Facebook. This way everyone can participate in the conversation!