This document analyzes how world events over the last 100 years have led to the conditions of instability and polarization working and oppressed people in the U.S. are experiencing today. Drafted on behalf of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) National Committee in May 2016, it has been amended to incorporate additions and changes made by the FSP membership at the party’s September 2016 50th Anniversary Convention.
The early 20th-century era of revolution
Prosperity for some ushers in a long period of equilibrium
Concrete victories and lasting gains in consciousness
The economic context
Suffering, polarization, resistance: causes and effects of instability
The bourgeoisie’s crisis of direction
A test of the Left
There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
— Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come”
A definite shift in the political weather marks this U.S. election year. The rear-view mirror shows a decades-long era of relative labor peace and relative stagnation in the movements, during which war became unending and an enormous amount of wealth was transferred from workers and the poor to the ruling elite. The new period, inaugurated by the launch of the Arab Spring with the Tunisian revolution in December 2010, is one of increasing instability and extreme polarization internationally. The unpredictable and tempestuous U.S. election, featuring the popular upstart candidacies of billionaire bigot Donald Trump and self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, is a glaring example of this volatility and sharp division.
For socialist feminist revolutionaries, this time of rabid reaction combined with growing outbreaks of resistance is one of new challenges and fresh opportunities.
Lining up for gas in 1973.
The political instability on display has at its foundation economic instability. As discussed in previous political resolutions, neoliberalism was capitalism’s answer to the end of the post-World War II economic boom and the newly obstinate tendency toward recession that set in during the 1970s. By breaking down trade barriers, intensifying the exploitation of workers everywhere, and stealing public wealth through privatization, neoliberalism succeeded in keeping capitalism on life support. However, it could not reverse the basic downward course of an outmoded system whose contradictions have become acute. As a strategy to return the profit system to its youthful health, neoliberalism has failed. But the capitalists still cling to it, because they have no viable economic strategy with which to replace it.
Permanent war is neoliberalism’s partner, also devastating, also failing as a strategy, and also with no end in sight. The imperialist militaries, led by the Pentagon, have been mired in war in the Middle East since the first Gulf War in 1990 to protect their economic and political interests: oil, arms industry profits (crucial in the faltering economy), and counterrevolution. Their grip on developments is shaky at best. And, along with immeasurable human suffering and environmental damage, their military adventures have engendered crisis-level disequilibrium in the region, caused widespread disapproval at home, and helped to provoke the revolutions that they meant to forestall. At this point, counterrevolution has the upper hand, but revolt has not been contained. The permanent revolution is still unfolding.
As capitalism continues to degenerate, with the resulting instability, polarization, and permanent war, crises of leadership are everywhere — in the ruling class, in the working class, in the movements, and on the Left. At the same time, the conditions experienced by workers and the oppressed are provoking outbreaks of resistance in the U.S. and internationally, some on a scale not seen in a long time.
Change is happening. On the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Socialist Party’s founding, the party and its members are called by events to a new level of commitment, daring, and political keenness. The FSP has faced and met many challenges in its history. We survived the anti-radical attacks on the party in the 1980s, the reactionary years of Reagan/Bush One/Clinton/Bush Two, the passing of the torch to new party leadership with the deaths of our founders, the fall of the Soviet Union, the launching of the war on terrorism, and a myriad of other difficulties large and small.
FSP has not only survived. With the foundation of a correct program and the remarkable dedication of the human beings who give the program life, the party has created a strong record of analysis and accomplishment, up to our recent contributions in helping to win freedom for Lynne Stewart and Nestora Salgado — truly victories against the odds.
We must meet the challenges of this current period as well, and make the most of its opportunities. And, if we keep our eyes constantly fixed on winning the prize of revolution — and what that means for us as the vanguard party — we will.
The idea that political acts, grand performances of state, are decisive in history is as old as written history itself, and is the main reason why so little material has been preserved for us in regard to the really progressive evolution of the peoples which has taken place quietly, in the background, behind these noisy scenes on the stage.
— Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring
To make sense of the international scene as it exists today — and to understand the promise it holds — requires taking a look backward, with a little help from our friends Leon Trotsky and James P. Cannon.
The early 20th-century era of revolution
V.I. Lenin, Trotsky, and the other Bolsheviks believed that the Russian Revolution would be the opening salvo in a series of capitalist overturns in Western Europe. And they had good reason to believe this. World War I caused unprecedented misery, leading people on both sides of the conflict to become disgusted with their governments and lose confidence in them. Socialist ideas were spreading.
But in the few years immediately following the revolution in Russia, most Communist parties elsewhere were young, untested, and small, with established social-democratic parties outweighing them in numbers and mass influence. Compounding the problem, some of the largest Communist parties were still carrying the baggage of reformist ideas and electoral fetishism inherited from the social-democratic movement. Trotsky provides a thorough analysis of this period, and brings alive the era of revolutionary upswing, in his two-volume The First Five Years of the Communist International.
After Joseph Stalin began gaining power in the USSR, Stalinist bureaucratization became the enemy of new revolutions, leading to the defeat of the German revolution in 1923 and the Chinese revolution in the mid-1920s. Stalin capped his counterrevolutionary policy with the bastard “theory” of socialism in one country in the autumn of 1924, after Lenin’s death in January. Trotsky describes and explains these events in The Third International After Lenin, and their domestic corollaries in the Soviet Union in The Revolution Betrayed.
Despite Stalin’s machinations, world events like the Great Depression and World War II kept revolt and resistance alive. Around the globe, the working class of the 1930s and 1940s was a combative one. But a number of factors once again conspired against revolution, ultimately leading to a quiescence in the labor movement — never total, of course — that lasted for decades.
Prosperity for some ushers in a long period of equilibrium
Lashed by depression and workers’ rebellion, capitalism solved its most acute problems with World War II, the rebuilding of Europe, and the permanent militarization of the economy that followed. The boom following the war inhibited the development of radical movements and revolutionary prospects. This was especially true in the U.S., the main country to benefit from the conflagration economically and in terms of international power.
James P. Cannon discusses this in several places, including in a piece called “What Must Lead to a New Labor Upsurge” in his book Speeches to the Party. He delivered this report to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1952 at the height of the McCarthy era. In it he says this:
Big changes have taken place since the stormy days of the early CIO — and even since the years 1944-1946. In the past five or six years of the armaments boom, the class struggle has been muffled, mainly as a result of full employment and comparatively high wages. The upsurge of the late thirties, which flared up again in the late forties, has been followed by a workers’ attitude of wait and see. The workers have settled down into relative passivity, and a monolithic conservative bureaucracy has been consolidated with a firm control over the unions.
The new consolidated, conservative bureaucracy is closely tied in with the government and is, in effect, a government agency in the unions. It fully and consciously supports the whole foreign program of American imperialism and hopes to share in the crumbs of the prospective spoils at the expense of the rest of the people of the whole world.
Trotsky analyzes the tightening of relations between the state and the unions that Cannon references in a 1940 article called “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay.” Union militancy was also undermined by serious Stalinist influence in the labor movement.
At the bottom of it all was the prosperity of the time, which extended to a broad swath of the working class. But workers inside the U.S. shared in this prosperity unequally, based on color, gender, immigration status, etc.; the main beneficiaries were the labor bureaucrats and the “labor aristocracy,” which consists of the highest-paid and most skilled workers. And the fact that this prosperity was created in large part by the super-exploitation of workers abroad fed the nationalism, conservatism, and allegiance to the government of labor’s top layers. This was no “Golden Age” for workers, as filmmaker Michael Moore and others would have it, but the age of U.S. imperialism’s giant leap forward.
In his 1952 speech, Cannon has a lot to say that is highly pertinent to the FSP’s situation today — as one would expect, given that the history of the SWP is the history of our predecessors. We are the SWP’s direct descendants, and the lessons of its history are lessons for us as well. Cannon touches on the fact that “the blows of reaction” have resulted in some party branches losing members, but then says:
The greatest losses our party has suffered as a direct result of the eleven-year boom are the recruits we did not get. Revolutionary and radical parties in the past have always been kept alive, and periodically invigorated, by an influx of new people, mainly young people, who took the places of the old, the used-up, and the tired.
… We have been cheated out of this life-renewing blood transfusion in the past decade. The abnormally prolonged prosperity, combined with witch-hunt terror, robbed us of a whole generation of potential young revolutionists — the natural and traditional candidates for a revolutionary party.
During times of relative class peace, whatever the cause, the vanguard party fails to grow, because the people who would have been recruited during an upsurge were never in motion, never radicalized. This is something that our party can unfortunately appreciate. We have held our own, though, in the long pause in great movement upheavals after the early 1970s, and that is something to take pride in.
What can radically change the situation and open up meaningful new opportunities for the Leninist party? Only another great social convulsion, says Cannon: “Objective circumstances, which have been working against us, will work in our favor later on.”
The question is, when that time comes, will the party be prepared for it? The “abnormally prolonged” prosperity that Cannon talks of in 1952 was to last for another two decades. And, not incidentally, when the next big social upheaval came, it was largely outside of the labor movement. The ferment that radicalized masses of young people was mainly in the social movements, not the unions. And the SWP was not prepared for it, thanks to the degeneration analyzed in our book Crisis and Leadership. The SWP’s political decline was largely due to its prolonged isolation, intensely exacerbated by the lasting effects of the McCarthy witch-hunt. Stuck in an orientation to the labor bureaucracy, the SWP could not apply a class understanding to the movements of anti-war activists, people of color, women, and the other upsurges of the oppressed that followed them. Instead, their approach to each was either to deprecate their importance or to opportunistically latch on in single-issue style, often in sequence.
This political betrayal by the SWP meant that the revolutionary potential of the 1960s era was not realized. Movements against war, movements of the oppressed, and other social justice mobilizations, no matter how radical, and even if made up mostly of working-class people, cannot by themselves make a revolution. Revolution needs the class-conscious leadership of the working class, because that is where commonality and power lie. It is the job of the vanguard party to stimulate this consciousness in the class. The SWP abdicated its responsibility through a lack of dialectical understanding: the party could not reconcile its understanding of class war with the revolts of the specially oppressed. And it was not the only revolutionary socialist organization to make this error.
Therefore, even given all the tumult of the sixties, the passivity of the U.S. working class that Cannon speaks of has never really been shaken off.
Rosa Parks sits up front and makes history.
A great factor in the comparative stability of the post-World War II decades was the Cold War. Military spending directly propped up the economy. But the hot and cold wars also boosted the economy in other ways, as described in Part 3 of the Red Banner Reader A Worker’s Guide to the 20th Century: “The war and the subsequent arms race sparked unprecedented progress in science, medicine, and technology. The years between 1940 and 1960 saw everything from the discovery of DNA to the development of birth control pills.”
Along with its boost to prosperity, the Cold War also muted class conflict in other ways. “Peaceful coexistence” was not really all that peaceful for parts of the globe, as also described in the Worker’s Guide. However, in the standoff between the USSR and the U.S., the USSR subordinated the advance of world revolution to the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy, while at the same time checking the hand of U.S. imperialism to an extent. In the advanced industrial countries, a shaky balance among countries and classes prevailed.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s, and the rise of neoliberalism as imperialism’s answer to the economic stagnation that set in during the 1970s, a new kind of steadiness set in — what was termed the “unipolar” world. Essentially, Washington did whatever the hell it wanted internationally. First among its goals was control of oil — and so a feature of this new “stability” became permanent war. This ultimately led us to the world situation today: rampant instability, partnered with an insoluble capitalist economic crisis.
But before we leave the mostly reactionary decades that followed the last big spate of U.S. strikes and labor protest in the late 1940s, it is worth briefly considering some of the gains made and consolidated in that time.
Concrete victories and lasting gains in consciousness
First of all, successful wars and campaigns for national independence swept the colonized countries of Africa and Asia, especially during the 1950s and early 1960s. In Africa, 17 countries gained their independence in one year alone, 1960. Following the Chinese revolution of 1949, bureaucratically deformed workers’ states like Cuba and Vietnam also came into being, in defiance both of the Yankee giant and of Stalinist détente with imperialism.
All these developments showed that the imperialist emperor, if not naked, at least could be challenged and beaten under the right circumstances — even mighty Uncle Sam. This was a powerful lesson for all the world’s exploited and subjugated.
In the U.S., as the Worker’s Guide describes, “McCarthy interviewed his last witness in 1954. One year later, Rosa Parks changed the world by sitting in the front of an Alabama bus.” The civil rights movement as we know it today had begun, with its roots in the earlier activism of people who kept the struggle for Black equality and freedom alive in the years between the crushing of Reconstruction and the Montgomery bus campaign. These were people like Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, and a host of unsung grass-roots organizers, many of them members or sympathizers of the Communist Party.
The civil rights movement and the Black Power movement that followed it altered the political landscape forever. Internationally, they reinforced and were reinforced by the battles against colonial domination and apartheid in Africa. At home, they set off a chain reaction of liberation movements that is still reverberating today.
Progress for LGBTQ people is yet being made in some areas. But most of the reforms won by the mobilizations of the sixties and seventies are in shreds today, or totally reversed: safe, legal access to abortion, and even contraception; voting rights; opportunities and legal protections for people with disabilities; and more. This all goes to show what we already know: reforms without revolution don’t last.
But something did last — a deep, widespread shift in consciousness. Despite the malevolent persistence of institutional and individual sexism, racism, and heterosexism, the attitudes of most people today — especially youth — have become more progressive. The beliefs of the majority differ dramatically from those held 60 years ago on issues extending from gender roles and women’s rights to the standing of people of color and immigrants in society, the rights of LGBTQ people, environmental awareness and concern, corporate America, the trustworthiness of government, the U.S. two-party system, and capitalism and socialism. These are changes with powerful implications.
The FSP can take great pride in the party’s role both in fighting for and winning reforms and in changing consciousness.
To start with, the party’s program of socialist feminism and revolutionary integration, and our early promotion on the Left of the importance of questions like women’s liberation, the LGBTQ movement, disabled rights, and Native sovereignty, was the needed answer to the political bankruptcy of U.S. Stalinists and blinkered, sectarian Trotskyists including the SWP. We played a role in victories for abortion rights, comparable worth, opening the nontraditional trades to women, extending protective labor legislation to men after the ERA passed in Washington state, anti-discrimination law, the rights of radicals and political minorities, defense of the Black Panthers, and much more.
Party members organized unions, defeated union-busting attempts, and pushed unions to take up social issues and fight bad contracts. Given any opportunity, we took our program into the labor movement, as U.S. International Secretary Stephen D. did in the 1985 New York City Hotel Trades Council strike by 16,000 workers, most of them people of color, women, and immigrants. We were the first left group to raise lesbian/gay rights in the union movement. While speaking up for the issues of women and people of color, we especially stressed the connection between them, with our decades of political work at Seattle City Light as a notable example.
We built a national and then an international party, and have extended our international collaboration in recent years through the Committee for Revolutionary International Regroupment (CRIR). By initiating and participating in united fronts, we have faced down white supremacists and fascists in all our branches, including in Australia, and were key to thwarting fascist dreams of an Aryan homeland in the Northwest. We took groundbreaking positions on everything from women and the draft to the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the trajectory of the workers’ states; over and over again, life proved our analyses correct.
Through our education and activism, FSP contributed to the general heightening of consciousness about issues of gender and sexuality, but perhaps our main impact was on the rest of the Left. In the FSP’s early years, most left organizations considered feminism to be petty-bourgeois, anti-working class, and divisive, and the lesbian/gay struggle to be an exotic sideshow.
Well. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, FSP has lots of admirers on the Left. Today, even the International Socialist Organization (ISO) has suspended its official rejection of feminism. It is up to us now to more sharply draw the distinction between our revolutionary synthesis of socialism and feminism versus their socialism with a side order of belated feminism.
Hold on and fight it out until the break comes, then take advantage of every opportunity.
— James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism
That, más o menos, brings us up to today. Past political resolutions and the Freedom Socialist have analyzed the stubborn capitalist crisis arising from its fundamental contradiction, which the Communist Manifesto calls “the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production” — i.e., the profit system. This basic antagonism causes bouts of overproduction; these are followed by recessions and depressions that are growing longer and more acute, like the one that started in late 2007. FSP documents and articles have also addressed the inability of neoliberalism to solve this inherent antagonism.
As a result of the crisis and its attendant misery, anger and desperation, there is a global shift to profound instability and polarization.
The economic context
According to ruling-class gurus, the world is in the middle of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” But this revolution, instead of creating jobs, is destroying them.
U.S. politicians running on a nationalist program — and that includes all of this electoral season’s major contenders — love to blame employment loss on companies moving overseas and unfair international competition. What they don’t discuss is the role of technological progress.
Where workers are employed will shift, according to what the capitalists can get away with: where can they operate with the lowest wages and fewest restrictions? But technological progress is a historical constant. Over time, human beings improve the methods by which they survive. Or, put another way, labor productivity grows.
Increased productivity means that the human labor time needed to produce goods and services decreases. This should mean that people would be able to spend more time doing what they love and less time working just to live. It should mean that the work necessary to maintain society is shared and no one goes without a job. But under capitalism, of course, it means none of these things.
In our age, progress involves leaps forward in automation, digitization, artificial intelligence, virtual reality — everything from robots assisting in surgery to automatic checkout stations at the grocery store. The tech boom is driving overproduction at the same time it is destroying jobs, a recipe for economic collapse. As the World Economic Forum prepared for its January 2016 annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, it reported that tech advances could wipe out five million jobs in the next four years.
The effect of automation on human employment.
Volatile stock markets and slowing global growth contributed to what was described as a grim mood at Davos. And compounding capitalist anxiety is a multi-trillion dollar illness festering under the surface of global finance: toxic loans.
The debt problem is not new. But it has been greatly exacerbated by credit binges — in the U.S., notably by the energy industry — and by government borrowing to stimulate economies thrown into crisis by the Great Recession. Big banks are holding massive bad loans from Europe, where this debt is believed to total over $1 trillion, to Brazil, where a recession is sharpening. In Puerto Rico, the U.S. Congress is now proposing to use the country’s $72 billion debt as an excuse to impose an economic dictatorship through a seven-member Financial Control Authority — to do to the island what was done to Detroit through the “emergency manager.”
The Great Recession officially lasted in the U.S. from December 2007 to June 2009 and spread globally in 2008 and 2009. It ultimately affected at least 60 countries, from Venezuela to Albania and Greece, where it persisted for a shocking 63 months — more than five years.
China is a special case in some ways, but caught by similar contradictions. In the years before and during the recession, its economy was one of the few bright spots on the scene, powered by industrialization, urbanization, and exports — the most in the world. It was one of the few countries to escape the recent recession, but it could not escape the ripples in the global pond. Recession dampened the demand for China’s exports from its major buyers: the U.S., Hong Kong, Japan, and Germany. Growth began slowing in 2012; the powers-that-be responded with an explosion of government spending and banks lending to businesses. China’s public and private debt is now approaching 30 trillion dollars.
Just as China’s credit-driven growth has been prompted by the same need to stimulate the economy that has ballooned the debt load elsewhere, it is producing the same results: unsustainable bubbles in housing and construction, overproduction, and a consequent slowdown of expansion. China’s rate of growth reached its lowest point in 25 years in 2015, at 6.9 percent. This is still the envy of most of its competitors; the U.S. rate, for example, was 3.12 percent. But the signs of over-indebtedness and slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy are highly alarming to ruling-class soothsayers.
And the ripples move ever outward. China’s current troubles, traceable in large measure to stagnation in behemoths like the U.S. and Japan, in turn causes problems for the rest of its trading partners. Australia, one of the few other countries to dodge the bullet of the global recession, is an example. Its growth in recent years has been heavily dependent on export of mineral resources to China. Now, with the slowing of China’s expansion, Australia is feeling the pinch, and the government is pursuing a vicious anti-working class agenda.
In the U.S., the 2007-2009 downturn was the longest and worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the economy has barely rebounded. For a “recovery,” especially, employment has been sluggish in the past few years and the GDP rate of growth anemic — roughly half of the pre-recession years. And, as comrades and their sister and brother workers know all too well, the recession wiped out massive amounts of household wealth, especially for Blacks and other people of color, and provided an excuse to launch a no-holds-barred assault on working-class gains won over more than a century of struggle, in the U.S. and in all the developmentally advanced countries.
More bad news: bourgeois economists predict that the next U.S. president will be saddled with a new recession, and soon. The billion-dollar question: Will the organized labor movement be ready to respond more aggressively than it did in this past period?
Looking at the top tiers of the union movement tells one story; looking at the rank and file tells another. When crisis hits, the ranks always show signs of a willingness to fight. However, the leadership always puts the brakes on, counseling reliance on labor’s false friends in the Democratic Party. This is because the natural inclination of those in the union hierarchy is to work within the confines of the system; they fail to recognize the need for the class independence of the labor movement. On top of that, their willingness and ability to fight has been eroded through the decades of prosperity, McCarthyism, and right-wing assaults on unions, too frequently successful.
But the tremors of the times are rattling the House of Labor, too. Labor support for Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant for Seattle City Council was one thing. Even more significant, though, is the union support for self-identified socialist Bernie Sanders — running as a Democrat, yes, but attractive to labor precisely for his positions outside the Democratic mainstream. Seven national unions have endorsed him, including the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America after a general membership vote. More than 60 local unions and regional bodies have endorsed him, and over a dozen of these picked Sanders in defiance of their national organization choosing Clinton. This is remarkable. These events show both a fighting spirit and an advance in consciousness as discussed above.
However, this doesn’t alter the fact that labor’s top officials have done a lousy job of resisting the egregious onslaught against workers and their unions, which the bosses are trying to destroy now, before the next economic crisis sharpens the existing instability and increases rank-and-file radicalization. When that time comes, labor leaders are going to have to decide: fight or die. As a working-class leadership organization ourselves, FSP’s job is to be there, pushing for a fighting labor movement. In the union movement, this is our raison d’être — our reason for being there.
How can we help to achieve this necessary labor militancy? One way is by explaining and organizing around the need for an independent labor party, one that will embrace the causes of both organized and non-organized workers.
Suffering, polarization, resistance: causes and effects of instability
The U.S. has been at war in the Middle East, whether acknowledged as such or not, since George H.W. Bush launched “Operation Desert Storm” against Iraq in January 1991. This offensive followed decades of intervention, similar to Washington’s machinations in Latin America: supporting coups, propping up friendly dictators, helping to suppress revolts, and selling arms on a scale that served to militarize the whole region. Bush Senior’s war never ended, but was continued by Bill Clinton with deadly sanctions and intermittent air strikes. And then came 9/11 in 2001 and the permanent “war on terror,” begun by George W. Bush with the invasion of Afghanistan a month later.
Nine years later, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia.
The abject failure of neoliberalism to “lift all boats,” as promised, was a primary cause of the uprisings. Neoliberalism was and is a global phenomenon. People in the Middle East and North Africa experienced the same “economic restructuring” as elsewhere and the same results: privatization of publicly owned industries, extreme concentration of wealth, intensified corruption, staggering income inequality, unemployment, union-busting, and the like. Add to this foreign economic domination, wildly repressive domestic regimes, and imperialist war and military intervention, and you have the ingredients for revolution.
Even though the nonsectarian rebels in the Middle East and North Africa are under ruling-class and jihadist attack, many continue to fight. Syrian-Swiss Marxist Joseph Daher, in an April 2016 interview published at syriafreedomforeverwordpress.com, cites mass mobilizations in Lebanon and Iraq in 2015 and 2016, large social movements and strikes in Morocco in late 2015 and early 2016, and recent strikes and protests in Egypt and Tunisia. He describes the situation as one of “long-term revolutionary processes” characterized by ups and downs.
Like other left analysts close to the conflict, Daher argues that it is incorrect to say that these processes “are defeated, even temporarily, despite very harsh difficulties.” And he goes on to make a very good point: “The problem with some medias, especially in the west, so eager to speak of defeats, and this for at least three years now since 2013, is that finally they don’t advocate for anything else than the withdrawal of activists fighting for democracy and social justice.”
The final chapters of the Arab uprisings are yet to be written. Still, the poisonous fruit of U.S.-led war and the violent suppression of the Arab Spring is enormous, ongoing devastation. Tens of millions of people have died or been displaced. Syria’s pre-civil war population was between 22 and 23 million. But the war has taken the lives of nearly half a million people and torn another 12 million or more — half the population — from their homes. Many U.S. lives and the lives of allies have been lost too, although on an utterly different scale.
All the deaths at Uncle Sam’s door, taken together with the lies, use of torture, buildup of the national security state, and shabby treatment of veterans, have sparked protest movements that have waxed and waned — and anti-government suspicion and anger that endures. The unpopular wars exacerbated a growing split between the people of the U.S. and the government. The split was also worsened by fury over the Great Recession and Washington’s coddling of Wall Street at a terrible cost to working people, the middle class, and the poor.
The bailout of finance capital in 2008 was a main trigger for protest on both the right and the left. The Tea Party came to prominence in 2009; the labor movement began to stir noticeably with the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol in February 2011; and Occupy Wall Street exploded onto the scene in September 2011. This was political turmoil generated by economic turmoil, and it marked the kind of disruption of relatively uncontested social relations at home that the Arab Spring did internationally, in the same period.
Trotsky discusses capitalist equilibrium in The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume I, in a report delivered in 1921.
With the imperialist war [World War I] we entered the epoch of revolution, that is, the epoch when the very mainstays of capitalist equilibrium are shaking and collapsing. Capitalist equilibrium is an extremely complex phenomenon. Capitalism produces this equilibrium, disrupts it, restores it anew in order to disrupt it anew, concurrently extending the limits of its domination. In the economic sphere these constant disruptions and restorations of the equilibrium take the shape of crises and booms. In the sphere of inter-class relations the disruption of equilibrium assumes the form of strikes, lockouts, revolutionary struggle. In the sphere of inter-state relations the disruption of equilibrium means war or — in a weaker form — tariff war, economic war, or blockade. Capitalism thus possesses a dynamic equilibrium, one which is always in the process of either disruption or restoration. But at the same time this equilibrium has a great power of resistance, the best proof of which is the fact that the capitalist world has not toppled to this day.
Trotsky makes the point that economic equilibrium can only be restored at the cost of disrupting class equilibrium: i.e., increased exploitation will mean increased resistance.
The restoration of capitalist equilibrium … can take place only through the classes. Every step, no matter how tiny, toward the restoration of equilibrium in economic life is a blow to the unstable social equilibrium upon which the Messrs. Capitalists still continue to maintain themselves. And this is the most important thing.
The comrades of the time, with capitalism experiencing a slight economic uptick after the chaos and desolation of the war and immediate postwar period, wondered whether crisis or boom is more likely to lead to revolutionary action. Trotsky’s answer:
Neither impoverishment nor prosperity as such can lead to revolution. But the alternation of prosperity and impoverishment, the crises, the uncertainty, the absence of stability — these are the motor factors of revolution. … This lack of stability, the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring in the personal life of every worker, is the most revolutionary factor of the epoch in which we live.
Now instability extends even to the fate of the Earth. How will we solve the problem of not enough clean and drinkable water around the world? How can global warming be dealt with? How fast will we lose the polar ice cap, and what will happen then?
People’s reaction to today’s anxiety-producing lack of predictability can swing either left or right, especially in the absence of solid socialist and labor leadership. This is where polarization comes in, and the environmental crisis is a good example. Defense of the planet has spawned a mass global movement, mainly reformist, although with strong grass-roots and indigenous leadership in some places. In contrast, right-wing politicians mock the very idea of dangerous climate change, relying on popular anti-fact, anti-science, anti-intellectual prejudices. These biases are created and fed by an establishment that has no desire for critical and independent thinking among the masses, and still has an enormous financial stake in fossil fuels.
Representing at Occupy Wall Street in NYC, where comrades led teach-ins on “Economics for activists.”
On one hand, for example, we witness the achievement of same-sex marriage, a movement for the rights of trans people taking off, and throngs turning out for a perceived socialist running for president. On the other, we have suffered through a parade of Republican contenders with popular support who variously don’t believe in evolution, think Planned Parenthood is the work of Satan, deny the “Americanness” of our two-term Black president, and don’t believe Muslims, any Muslims, should be allowed into the country.
We see people bent on removing the symbols of the loathsome slave era from the South while others rally around the Confederate flag to save it. We have a movement made up largely of young people demanding $15 Now and a union, and we have politicians and institutions determined to wipe unions off the map. And the same deep polarization features around the world — sometimes expressed in elections, like in Latin America, and sometimes expressed with guns, like in the Middle East.
Consciousness — what people think about each other and the world they live in — is divided and contradictory. In the U.S., “Two Americas” exist, based not only on people’s material circumstances, but also on what they believe about abortion, evolution, immigrants, and so on. This reflects the lack of a definite class consciousness to unite and guide people. Lacking this, it becomes an open question at to what or whom one blames for social ills and one’s own precarious position. Immigrants and Muslims, or Wall Street and the banks? “Too much government,” or capitalism?
Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich — that is the democracy of capitalist society.
— V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution
Capitalism’s acute problems today, reflected in the instability and polarization discussed above, are not just conjunctural — i.e., not just due to a combination of circumstances of this particular time. We have analyzed the inherent problematic tendencies of capitalist economy in past resolutions. Partnered with these are destructive political tendencies.
In his book Democracy and Revolution, George Novack makes the case for the inevitable decline of liberal capitalist democracy and explains the reasons behind it.
In the battle to overthrow feudalism, the just-emerging capitalist class depended on the backing of the common masses, “the wind beneath its wings,” to win victory. Ever since, it has relied on a degree of support from workers and the middle classes to remain in power. This is the “consent of the governed,” which is assumed to be expressed through elections — the parliamentary system of democracy. But this coalition of classes is a fragile one and, over time, it becomes more and more untenable. At that point, the forcible nature of capitalist rule, always a part of its makeup, becomes increasingly dominant. The Freedom Socialist analyzes the relationship of this tendency to the 2016 elections in the article “US presidential contest reflects the growing polarization of society.”
In his chapter “Parliamentary democracy in crisis,” Novack explains:
Every state, whether democratic or autocratic, maintains its rule in two ways: through its organized instruments of repression (the army, police, paramilitary forces, courts, prisons, assassination of opponents, exile) and through the spiritual, moral and ideological influences emanating from the ruling class. The bourgeois-democratic regime is distinguished from more restrictive forms of government by the extent of its reliance through indoctrination through the church, family, educational institutions, the communication media and artistic and cultural channels. Its perpetuation depends in no small measure upon the ability of the capitalists to retain the faith of the masses in the merits of their regime.
Novack makes it clear that by “faith” he does not mean unconditional approval. The governed don’t have to believe that their system is perfect — only that it offers the best chance for a good life for themselves and their children. However, writes Novack:
Liberal ideology fares best in fair weather. Bourgeois democracy enters into crisis whenever the relations between the contending class forces are severely strained and the hold of its illusions upon the minds of the dissident strata of its citizens is loosened.
As the vicissitudes of the system and the shocks of class conflict strip the political structure of the mystical veils which obscure the realities of capitalist domination, pure liberalism is soon beset from the right by Bonapartist, clerical-reactionary or fascist contestants, or from the left by socialist forces. The ensuing furious confrontation of ideologies and tendencies is a telltale sign that the authority of liberalism is on the wane.
Opponents of the “Citizens United” decision, which ruled that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment and that this right applies to corporations as well as to people, would find the following passage from Novack illuminating.
A representative democracy is alien to the economic tendencies of corporate capitalism. The advent of monopoly rule [replacing the more competitive conditions of early capitalism] not only halts the extension of new freedoms but also brings about the contraction of already acquired rights of the people. Imperialism accentuates the contradiction, which existed from the first, between the coexistence of the power, profiteering and property of the capitalist rulers and political democracy. It inescapably fosters antidemocratic forces and trends because the heightened centralization of command, required by the operations of big business in both production and political life, conflicts with the dispersion of power among the voters and parties on which the parliamentary system rests.
As the political pillars on which the social compact is built begin to crumble, as rights are denied and reversed and power becomes ever more centralized, people respond with growing distrust of government and protest. They begin to suspect that perhaps capitalism is not the best of all possible worlds and that socialism may be a real alternative, as many are concluding today. The ruling class then seeks to concentrate its power even more, especially in the executive branch of government. Through the government, the ruling elite redoubles its attacks on civil liberties like free speech, the right to assemble, and privacy, while relying more heavily on state violence to quash dissent and pursue its aims at home and abroad. This is evident today in everything from the suppression of voting rights, the growth of the prison-industrial complex and the surveillance state, the herding and penning of demonstrators, and police murders, especially of Black young people.
Taken far enough, these vile trends can lead to a police state. In the U.S. today, most of us don’t live in a police state most of the time. Our democratic rights are far from completely extinguished; we don’t yet suffer under sweeping fascist abuses such as a passport system regulating our movement within the country, for example. But one could certainly say that we have a “police state for some” — those who are Black or brown or immigrant, those who are poor and homeless and bad for business, those who are in the streets trying to exercise their First Amendment right to protest. And the “some” is growing.
Every state is a police state in some sense, since states arose to protect the interests of “haves” in a class-divided society, and they require police in order to do that. As Frederick Engels writes in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: “The state … is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel.”
The intensifying of these “irreconcilable antagonisms” has led to the ruling-class criminalization of protest internationally and to mass incarceration and the militarization of the police in the U.S. It is why the U.S. spends $80 billion a year to house the most prisoners in the world — 2.2 million people — and why these inmates are so disproportionately of color. It is why Blacks make up nearly 38 percent of the prison population but only 12-13 percent of the total population, a figure that includes children. It is why prisons and immigrant detention centers are big business.
Moreover, it is why, although it is perfectly legal for corporations to buy candidates, it can be a federal crime to protest these candidates. It is illegal to “disrupt the orderly conduct of Government” in an area under Secret Service protection — like a Trump rally — or at a “National Special Security Event,” an invention of Bill Clinton’s that has come to include even Super Bowls. Changes in the law’s language in 2012, which Barack Obama signed off on, now give the government more leeway in prosecuting the law.
However, no matter to what degree protest is legislated, restricted, and hamstrung, the sharpening of these “irreconcilable antagonisms” means one additional thing: social explosion is inevitable.
The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament.
— V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution (paraphrasing Karl Marx)
The downward spiral of events caused by capitalism’s long-term economic and political trajectories also causes confusion and conflict within the bourgeoisie about how to manage the problems. The U.S. election, featuring the phenomenal rise of left and right populists Sanders and Trump, is a prime example. And it has also set a test for the Left, a test that some organizations have passed and others have flunked.
The bourgeoisie’s crisis of direction
Turning to the establishment first, let’s briefly address Bernie Sanders. The excitement over his candidacy has a lot to do with his presentation of himself as a “democratic socialist.” Capital “D” Democrat, yes; socialist, maybe. By what criteria would he deserve to be called a socialist? On examination, there are no reasons besides his self-description, his membership in a socialist youth group in college, and his platonic brush with the Socialist Workers Party many decades ago. On the other hand, he is a Democrat running to be chief executive of U.S. imperialism; he is a nationalist pledged to defend U.S. interests and “national security,” by military means when necessary; he is not a member of a socialist party, reformist or otherwise, and apparently never has been; and he explicitly rejects the idea of nationalizing industry, let alone under workers’ control, and doesn’t advocate for other basic elements of a socialist program.
Sanders hardly seems worthy even of the designation “social democrat,” or democratic socialist as he terms himself. Originally, revolutionary socialists called their movement social democracy. But, when the socialist parliamentarians of several countries supported their own governments in World War I, this caused a split in the movement between revolutionaries and reformists. The revolutionaries started a new organization, the Third or Communist International, while the reformists inherited both the term “social democrats” and the Second International, today called the Socialist International.
Over time, the social democracy has degenerated badly, even considering its politically impoverished point of departure. Many of the world’s labor parties are in the Socialist International, and its members and leaders have included Golda Meir in Israel, Indira Ghandi in India, Tony Blair in England, François Mitterrand in France, and Pierre Trudeau in Canada. In Europe and Australia, social democrats have regularly switched off with conservatives for 30 years as the heads of governments waging wars and imposing austerity. So perhaps the term is apt for Sanders after all.
Sanders’ job was to keep irate young people and progressives aligned with the Democratic Party. Having done what he could in that direction during the primaries, we can expect him to stump for Hillary Clinton after the Democratic Party convention anoints her as its candidate in July. People’s intense desire for change allowed for the rise of a candidate substantially to the left of any recent contenders, just as it dramatically produced our first African American president in 2008. Otherwise, however, this bait-and-switch is Democratic Party business as usual.
Nevertheless, the Democrat side of the election, just like the Republican, shows that the capitalists are in a quandary. Given that the adoption of police-state-type measures doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, how best to quell the extreme dissatisfaction with the status quo among young people, feminists, people of color, public-sector workers, and all the other traditional Democrat constituencies?
Typically, it is with pledges of reform, of forward movement. On the campaign trail, Clinton and Sanders have both promised not to deport undocumented immigrants who are “otherwise law-abiding” and pose no threat to national security. They both support a raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, although Clinton hedges and qualifies. They both say they will work toward universal healthcare. Et cetera.
These promises are not worth the electricity that fires the teleprompters they are read from. At the same time, gains have been made in areas like the minimum wage and LGBTQ rights. This is thanks to popular pressure, but it also thanks to concessions made by politicians who understand just how much trouble their system is in. However, considering that selfsame trouble, how much they can concede is strictly limited.
At the other end of the spectrum from Sanders is Donald Trump, who is exposing and exacerbating a deep rupture within the Republican Party, more severe than any in recent decades.
Trump reflects the response of the hard right to tribulation and turmoil, although not with snow-white purity, given his liberal deviations like qualified support for Planned Parenthood. Even better than Trump, figures like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson represent the agenda that is reactionary in the truest sense of the word. They want to turn the clock back to a time when men were men and women were chattel, immigrants stayed super-exploited in the shadows, business was completely unregulated, unions were nonexistent, the white race was the unquestioned global master, nobody was challenging the police or talking about the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, and America was First, period. They are at war with history.
Inside the Republican Party, they are also at war with the wing that acknowledges we live in the 21st century, the remnants of “compassionate conservatism,” and most importantly the straight-up Wall Streeters who believe that insurrection, even right-wing insurrection, is not the surest guarantee of profits.
Trump is clearly a bigot, a sexist, a militarist, an anti-immigrant xenophobe, and a dangerous, id-driven blowhard. But is he a fascist? No, although he certainly serves to legitimize fascist ideas and thereby nurtures the seeds of a fascist movement. The term he uses to describe his foreign policy and whip up nationalist fervor, “America First,” comes directly from an isolationist, anti-Semitic, fascist movement of the post-World War I era.
When people use “fascist” as a description today, they generally have in their minds its ideology: an extreme master-race hodgepodge of “isms.” But fascism is more than a vicious ideology. Fascism arises when capitalists fear that revolution is on the horizon and they have no alternative but to turn to a jackbooted mass movement, with the petty bourgeoisie in the front lines. The purpose of this movement is to spearhead a political counterrevolution, to crush any and all working-class activism and organizations and ultimately all democratic institutions. Novack calls it “the most terroristic system of monopoly-capitalist domination.”
Does Trump lead or aspire to lead such a movement? Is he looking to destroy all the forms of bourgeois democracy? Is he likely to organize a separate fascist party? It does not seem so. Is he backed by a section of big business that has decided fascism is the only option? Is his ascendancy attributable to the failure of a revolutionary upsurge? No. Is he offering a radical program of “anti-capitalism,” as did Hitler’s “National Socialists”? No. Trump is a one-percenter himself, or at least a two- or three-percenter; the emergence of a fascist leader directly from Wall Street, given fascism’s reliance on fake anti-capitalism, is highly unlikely — although not theoretically excluded. If a section of his ruling-class confrères concluded that fascism was their only option, it is possible Trump could become their tool — although his unpredictability might make them think twice.
In the situation now, Trump is more of an aspiring Bonapartist, a designation Trotsky used for a strongman with the pretense of being “above” classes at a time of acute class strife. Bonapartism can be a precursor to fascism. Novack calls it “a bureaucratic-military dictatorship born of a deep-going but incompletely resolved confrontation of openly antagonistic class forces.” He goes on:
Bonapartism carries to an extreme the concentration of power in the head of the state already discernible in the contemporary imperialist democracies. All important policy decisions are centralized in a single individual equipped with extraordinary emergency powers. He speaks and acts not as the servant of parliament, like the premier, but in his own right as “the man of destiny” who has been called upon to rescue the nation in its hour of mortal peril.
And how much like Trump do these lines of Novack sound?
The Bonapartist regime makes a big show of total independence from special interests. Its head invariably claims to be above the brawling party factions which have misruled the nation and led it to the brink of ruin, from which he has providentially snatched it in time.
But to say that Trump is not a fascist is not to minimize the threat of a development toward fascism or Trump’s role in creating fertile ground for such a development. Clearly, the popular support for him in the face of his clear bigotry means that far-right ideas and the blaming of the most vulnerable sections of the working class are gaining ground.
This poses a challenge to the left and labor movements to break with old habits of sectarianism and conservatism in order to provide a better explanation for the crisis and a better vision for change — and to form united fronts to confront rising fascism wherever it occurs, and in whatever form. FSP comrades in Australia are already doing this, and it is bound to once again become a necessity for FSP in the U.S. as well.
A post-election anti-Trump rally.
During the 1950s, SWP leaders analyzing the anti-communist witch-hunt characterized McCarthyism as an incipient fascist movement. McCarthyism lacked many of the traits of “classic” fascism in Europe in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. However, SWPers like James Cannon, Murry Weiss, and Joseph Hansen warned against the danger of formalistically analyzing fascism as though it were trapped in amber. In different times and places, the rise of fascism will look different. Certainly, fascism in the U.S. in the 21st century is not going to be identical to the fascism of Germany, Italy, or Spain in the 20th.
In the next period, it would be valuable for comrades to study fascism, including not only writings by early analysts like Trotsky, Daniel Guerin, and Felix Morrow, but also later writings by Weiss, Cannon, Hansen, and Novack. Guerin describes fascism as a virus that is endemic to capitalism. The only way to truly “disinfect” the profit system, he says, is to overthrow it.
The bottom-line condition for the emergence of fascism is that capitalism cannot continue to maintain its rule through normal methods. And in certain circumstances, when working people are hurting, profits are in jeopardy, class tension is escalating, and ploys like neoliberalism have failed to resolve the problems, capitalism must and will resort to fascism as its last desperate measure. In a period of instability such as today’s, that prospect becomes more likely. And the election will solve nothing, no matter who becomes president. The class contest will be determinant, and it is still to be waged.
A test of the Left
In revolutionary politics, just like in the transportation gridlock of our major cities, there are no short cuts. But, a hundred years after the Russian Revolution, the lure of the short cut can be seductive indeed, especially for a party already burdened with a history of electoral opportunism.
This is the case for Socialist Alternative (SA), whose roots are in a Trotskyist grouping called the Militant Tendency, founded in 1964. Its “entrist” orientation to the British Labour Party (LP) was based on the pie-in-the-sky belief that the LP could be turned into a vehicle for socialist change through legislative means. Militant launched the Committee for a Workers’ International, to which SA belongs today, in 1974. After being expelled from the LP in 1982, it crossed the Atlantic in search of new opportunities in the U.S., adopting the name Socialist Alternative in the late 1990s.
SA’s accommodation to pro-capitalist parties and candidates is longstanding. The organization promoted Ralph Nader in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008, and Jill Stein of the Greens in 2012. FSP should not feel especially snubbed by SA’s refusal to endorse Stephen Durham and Christina López; in every election, the group prefers to support a reformist or “progressive” candidate rather than a socialist from another party. But SA has reached new lows this election season, and its deeper descent into the bourgeois electoral muck gives FSP an opportunity to reach out to those of their members who are concerned and appalled.
The magnetic field surrounding Sanders has also drawn in the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), which in 2012 sabotaged socialist contenders for the Peace and Freedom Party nomination by supporting political dilettante Roseanne Barr, who is now a raging Zionist. SA is urging those who can, including members, to vote for Sanders in the primaries, and PSL urged registered Democrats to vote for him at least in New York.
Leaders of SA are premising their strategy on Sanders not winning the Democratic nomination. They are undoubtedly correct, but it would be fascinating to see what contortions they would be obliged to go through if they were wrong.
SA explains its support for Sanders, a capitalist-party candidate, by saying that this is the road toward building a mass party of the working class. However, as Cannon points out in his essay “Socialist Electoral Policy,” a person can’t drive south to get to a northern destination. “A socialist is not a member of, or supporter of, any capitalist party whatever,” Cannon writes. This is “the first test of socialist seriousness and sincerity.”
The cheerleading by SA only serves to perpetuate all sorts of illusions: that the electoral arena is where radical change happens; that the Democratic Party can be a friend, not an enemy, to workers and the oppressed; that the U.S. system has some kinship with “democracy”; and that opportunist maneuvers can serve a principled goal. The role of socialists in elections is to expose the capitalist parties and the two-party con game, not give them cover!
SA’s real aim is to increase its membership and political influence with the union bureaucracy and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, such as it is. In short, it’s an old hustle. As Cannon warns in The History of American Trotskyism:
Bluffs do not work. At most they deceive people for a time, but the main victims of the deception, in the end, are the bluffers themselves. You must have the goods. That is, you must have a correct program in order to survive and serve the cause of the workers.
Cannon, again, in his remarks on the third-party campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948, excepted by National Chair Guerry H. in FSP Internal Discussion Bulletin Vol. 9, No. 8:
It would be very, very bad and demoralizing if we would allow for a moment the antiwar demagogy of Wallace to be taken by any member of our party as something preferable to the blatant aggressiveness of [President Harry] Truman and [Secretary of State Gen. George] Marshall. That would be nothing less than the preparation of the minds of party members for “lesser evil” politics — based on the theory that one kind of capitalist tactics in the expansion of American imperialism is preferable to another, and that the workers should intervene to support one against the other.
… The opposing comrades [who supported working inside the Wallace campaign] admit that we would have to pay a price to work inside the Wallace Party. The admission price is simply this: Get in there and rustle votes for Wallace for president. If you won’t pay that price you cannot get in. You have no grounds even to haggle, because it is a Wallace for President movement. That is a price we cannot pay, because it is a price of principle. It is against our principles to solicit votes for bourgeois candidates under any circumstances. It vitiates the whole concept of independent working class political action.
Not every socialist group is succumbing to Sanders’ siren song. So far, the SWP, Workers World Party, and International Socialist Organization (ISO) are holding steady and explaining that Sanders’ candidacy is a false alternative and a trap. This is perhaps especially notable in the case of ISO, which has supported Nader in the past.
As a vanguard party, FSP’s role in elections is to look behind the smoke and mirrors of the “lesser evil”; help others to do the same; show the limits and inherent falseness of capitalist “democracy” expressed through elections; and make the case for social revolution.
VI. The U.S. working class and the movements: fresh vitality and an all-too-familiar vacuum of potent leadership
The world situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.
— Leon Trotsky, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”
As stated at the beginning of this resolution, counterrevolution has the upper hand at present, with harsh results for working people and the planet. The evidence is everywhere from the growth of the far right and its electoral representation in Europe to the five Solomon Islands that have now disappeared into the Pacific, claimed by climate change.
At the same time, protest is alive, often reaching an unprecedented level, from a strike against a concessionary contract by thousands of unionized junior doctors in Britain to tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in Ethiopia over government land grabs and repression in the guise of anti-terrorism.
Rising sea levels have submerged five Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and six more have lost drastic amounts of shoreline.
In the U.S., the dynamism of Occupy Wall Street and the union takeover of the Wisconsin Capitol finds expression today in everything from the enormous turnouts for Sanders to transgender organizing against reaction, Black Lives Matter, and the strike by nearly 40,000 Verizon workers, one of the largest in recent U.S. history.
The anger of women has yet to find an outlet in the same way. The oppression of women is still the scarcely acknowledged bedrock upon which the whole capitalist structure rests globally. Can it be true that in 2016 in the U.S., women still earn only 79 cents to a man’s dollar — women of color much less? That an average of three women are killed every day by former or current male partners? That childcare remains a prohibitively expensive private burden? These are commonplace realities. In the absence of a militant mass feminist movement, they don’t generate daily headlines. But they remain the basis for an eventual explosion that will not be contained. Meanwhile, women continue to provide much of the energy that is stirring in the labor and other movements.
As long-unused muscles of resistance are being flexed, the movements face the enduring questions of political program and leadership. Take Black Lives Matter, for example. Will it move forward politically and gain momentum, based on the radical impulses in the movement? Or will it succumb to a lack of accountable leadership, reformism, cultural nationalism, or the siren call of the Democratic Party and NGO career opportunities? All of these tendencies are present and in conflict within Black Lives Matter. How the situation resolves will depend as much or more on developments outside Black Lives Matter as inside it: who wins the presidency; whether militancy grows in other spheres, creating new pressure and possibilities for making alliances; and whether the main impetus for Black Lives Matter, killings by police, can be at all restrained, which does not seem likely.
Conservative, class-collaborationist leaderships are still holding back radicalism. These include the encrusted labor bureaucracy, the bourgeois feminists like Gloria Steinem who are all-out for Hillary, and so on. And now NGOs have joined the Democratic Party as a graveyard of movements.
But acute disequilibrium guarantees that things will not remain as they are. Some sort of shakeup is inevitable: either a revival of class conflict on a newly serious level, or a new capitalist gambit designed to bring stability at any cost. We cannot predict, let along control, which comes to pass. What we can do, in either eventuality, is be ready to provide leadership.
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.
— Karl Marx, The German Ideology
This leadership means, first of all, battling for the humane, rational ideas of scientific Marxism and socialist feminism. Our bitterest fight is with the ideas of the far right, which pose the greatest threat in the absence of strong left leadership. But equally important is countering the viewpoints holding back class struggle in the activist milieus, academia, and the labor movement. Most of these attitudes can be traced back to petty-bourgeois influences in one way or another.
The social position of the petty bourgeoisie, or middle class, is precarious. Formally, Marxism defines the petty bourgeoisie in relationship to the means of production; in other words, the owners of small farms and businesses. Socialists including Trotsky, Novack and Guerin also discuss the growth of “new middle classes” as capitalism develops, mainly managers or salaried professionals with government or large companies. They occupy the same uncomfortable intermediate position between ordinary workers and the big bourgeoisie as do the owners of the vanishing corner grocery store. And they often share with the classic petty bourgeoisie the feeling that they are superior to the working class.
Normally, the aspirations of the middle class lie with the big bourgeoisie, even though it “regards the bourgeoisie with envy and often with hatred,” as Trotsky writes in Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It. They believe their success or failure is bound up with the success or failure of their “betters.” Like the middle caste, whose role is to dampen class struggle, the middle class is a voice for the ideology of the capitalists and a buffer between the two main antagonistic classes. It is incapable of leading as an independent force in society. But whom it follows can make all the difference in the world. In peaceable times, it is the social bedrock for capitalist democracy. In times of sharp conflict, either the ruling class or the working class can win it over, depending upon which displays the firmest leadership and best hope for a way out of the crisis.
The characteristics of a petty-bourgeois independent businessperson, a petty-bourgeois intellectual in academia, and a petty-bourgeois activist can be varied: the store owner might be individualistic, pragmatic, conformist, and risk-averse; the academic in love with jargon and unintelligible; the activist anti-authoritarian and utopian. But, viewing them as representatives of a social type, what they have in common is contempt for the working class, disdain for “orthodox” Marxism, and hostility toward the vanguard party.
Petty-bourgeois influence is inescapable, especially in the U.S. and other advanced capitalist countries where everyone is assumed to be “middle class.” A number of factors have caused this influence to spike over time: the decline of unions, the heavy weight of the middle caste, and the proliferation of NGOs, to name a few. The impact is clear in society at large — designer water, anyone? — and in the movements. It also affects FSP; party members are subject to the same pressures and seductions as our class sisters and brothers. In the party, it’s expressed in career fetishism, self-centeredness to the detriment of common goals, resignations, and antipathy to democratic centralism. Fortunately, this is by no means a rampant problem. However, just as is true for racism and sexism, party members are not immune.
Petty-bourgeois thinking permeates many activist tendencies. It is absolutely at the core of anarchism, for instance; it infuses identity politics. Crucial to winning the war of ideas is studying these trends, understanding them, and being able to refute them and counter them with the ideas of socialist feminism and revolutionary integration.
The same is true of other trends that offer themselves as alternatives for scientific socialism, explicitly or not: intellectuals who claim to be Marxists but part ways with Engels and reject the revolutionary party; modern-day Keynesian messiahs who continue to spread the discredited gospel of a kinder, gentler capitalism; anti-“meta narrative” prophets of postmodernism, which was discussed in the 1997 political resolution; cultural nationalists; radical feminists. National Committee members will be writing pieces on some these schools of thought for the party’s pre-convention discussion.
In day-to-day life, these ideologies do not always present themselves with a label in a clear-cut fashion. To analyze anything, from a cell under a microscope to the two-party system, requires dialectical materialist thinking, which first of all means the ability to look beneath surface appearances. In the social world, analysis also requires the ability to spot the class dynamics at work — in a broad movement, in a presidential campaign, or in a specific coalition.
Of course, to understand opposing currents of thought is not to be awarded a license for sectarianism. The better we understand anarchism, or postmodernism, or Keynesianism, the better we can engage with people interested in those sets of ideas. Our goal is not to take our knowledge and wall ourselves off with it. Our goal is to win the contest of ideas in the course of struggling alongside anyone and everyone working to advance the cause of workers and the oppressed.
One of the main ways that we do this is by formulating demands that hit home for people while spurring the radicalization of their thinking. Transitional demands are a political bridge between here and there; they address the needs of the moment, but lead to the conclusion that they can only be met under a different system. These days, when it seems impossible for large sections of the population to get even formal equality under the law, just about every demand is a transitional one. Developing the demands that best fit the situation — an anti-war or immigrant rights movement, for example — is a skill that relies on knowledge of history and consciously dialectical analysis. Like any skill, it comes easier with practice.
FSP’s job on the ideological front is made both easier and harder because many elements of our program, like feminism and multi-issuism, have earned the stamp “mission accomplished” on the Left and among activists. As noted earlier in this paper, that means we must be able draw the distinctions between FSP’s socialist-feminist synthesis and the simple addition of feminism to the political repertoire of groups like ISO and SA. Likewise, we must be able to explain how revolutionary integration differs from a concept like intersectionality, which seems to be a variant of multi-issuism with the profundity removed. In other words, minus the tie to the fight for socialism.
The common basis for socialist feminism and revolutionary integration is an understanding of permanent revolution. Trotsky’s theory explains that in the period of late capitalism, basic democratic rights cannot be won short of winning a revolution that is advancing toward socialism. Worldwide, no rights are more basic than those of half of humanity – the women globally whose unpaid and underpaid labor is still an essential prop for the system, and who bear the brunt of the misery of its decline. And, in the U.S., the issue of Black equality is similarly fundamental. It has already undergirded one revolution – the Civil War – and it will take another to finally and fully achieve.
For decades, FSP’s program recognizing that Earth’s most oppressed and exploited are central to transforming the world has put us on the cutting edge. The party needs to stay there. That means boldly bringing forward the goal of anti-capitalist revolution that is our reason for being. And it means explaining and defending the need for the Leninist party as the only means to achieve that goal. The vanguard party is the “missing link” that joins the desire for radical change to the accomplishment of that change.
Only the party can extend isolated insurgencies into constant, concerted mobilizations for the total revamping of society.
— Clara Fraser, “Class: The Power that Heals”
Every period has its challenges.
Imagine the difficulties of the period just after the Russian Revolution. In a tribute to Jacob Sverdlov published in Portraits, Personal and Political, Trotsky describes it as one in which comrades had to operate “amid the greatest, chaos, in the absence of precedents, without any statutes and regulations” — all the while fighting counterrevolution and the hunger and poverty of the war-ravaged people in a country of daunting vastness.
The subject of Trotsky’s eulogy, Jacob Sverdlov, was a man whom both Trotsky and Lenin esteemed as the best organizer the Bolsheviks had. Born to Jewish parents in 1885, with a father who was a supporter of the revolutionary underground, Sverdlov himself was a radical from his teens forward. He died suddenly in March 1919, apparently a victim of the flu pandemic that began the year before.
Sverdlov was renowned as the comrade who could translate political needs into practical action. He had a knack for assigning the right person to the right job and for understanding how all the pieces of a project related to one another — what must be done first, what must be done second, and so on. But his outsized gifts as an organizer would have counted for far less without another of his attributes: a total and unswerving dedication to the party and the revolution. Trotsky said of Sverdlov:
The secret of his art was simple: to be guided by the interests of the cause and that only. No one of the party workers had any fear of intrigues creeping down from the party staff. The basis of this authority of Sverdlov’s was loyalty.
We need “one, two, many” Sverdlovs in the FSP, comrades who, whatever their position in the party, have won the loyalty and respect of the rank and file by showing that they can take responsibility, grow from constructive criticism, and share authority and joy in the work with other comrades. Perhaps few of us can become the guiding light that Sverdlov was, but everyone can put their shoulder to the wheel to move us forward without unnecessary conflict, competition, or chaos.
Some of FSP’s challenges remain the same as those faced by Lenin and Trotsky and Sverdlov. But the difference in the nature of the times means that many of our challenges are different.
Women voters in Egypt during the Arab Spring.
Ours has been a long period of reaction dating from the McCarthy era, stemming originally from economic prosperity. This was compounded by the role of the middle caste, including Stalinism; the Cold War and then, in an altered way, the fall of the Soviet Union; the fracturing of the Trotskyist left internationally; and permanent militarization ultimately followed by permanent war. Reaction was certainly not total, or the whole picture; it was punctuated by colonial revolutions, the rise of new workers’ states, and the radical movements fueled by young people, people of color, LGBTQ people, and women during the 1960s and early 1970s.
The situation now is contradictory and polarized. In the area of civil and human rights, LGBTQ people are making gains. At the same time, the attacks on women’s reproductive freedom just keep coming; Blacks are under terrorist siege by police and the state as a whole, suffering everything from physical violence to the denial of voting rights; the wages of the majority of the working class remain stagnant, regardless of the passage of “$15 Someday” laws; immigrants are still being deported and scapegoated. And even where there are gains, as with LGBTQ people, the Christian right is in a frenzy to overturn them as soon as possible.
Given the complex and changing times, what are the core tasks of the FSP?
• Studying socialist history and theory, including the party’s own rich 50-year history, and using what we learn to educate others. If we are out selling the Freedom Socialist, our ideas will find new audiences as instability becomes more profound.
• Continuing to increase our numbers in organized labor. Comrades have worked hard to find union jobs recently and have had encouraging successes. This is important because helping to radicalize the labor movement is basic to our job description as a proletarian party. Material conditions are the fundamental determinant of consciousness; as a spur to revolution, however, they need help from the subjective factor — that’s us. The party also plays a vital and special role in building a bridge between the union movement and social-protest uprisings, a bridge which is indispensable to forward motion for the class as a whole.
• Maintaining — and, as possible, expanding — our work in attempting to regroup Trotskyist forces, through CRIR or whatever avenue presents itself. This too is basic to who we are. It is not only essential for the world revolutionary movement, but it’s also crucial for us as a party. It helps us preserve the clarity that we are part of something immensely powerful: the international working class.
• Keeping our emphasis on feminism front and center in our writings and our activism. Women’s consciousness about their own oppression and the oppression of others has grown tremendously thanks to the feminist movement. In contrast, their conditions are moving backward. This contradiction means that women, especially women of color, will be leaders in the next radical mass upsurge, which they are already laying the groundwork for — confirming our socialist feminist and revolutionary-integrationist program.
The uphill battle faced by seekers of system-upending change can be demoralizing, especially for revolutionary socialists for whom the revolution has been so long delayed. Some will become cynics and drop out; others will embark on political get-rich-quick adventures; some will turn to the escapism offered by a distraction-saturated culture; some will find a career haven in the world of NGOs; still others will conclude that the Democratic Party is the lesser evil after all.
At 50, FSP has strengths and weaknesses that reflect our program and the times we have lived through. Our strengths are due to our program and the quality of our leadership and membership. Our weaknesses largely reflect the contradiction between our nature — a vanguard combat party — and our times — a long period in which the idea of a “final conflict” has seemed remote.
But cynicism, opportunism, escapism: those are not the routes chosen by FSP members anchored by the program. We know that class struggle, combined with a correct program, is the antidote to demoralization and the guard against disorientation. Ours remains the only politics that brings together a sturdy, “orthodox” class analysis with a deep understanding of the role of the most oppressed in winning revolution.
Our program is what will enable us to take advantage of the opportunities of this new, unsettled and unsettling period, with its “pop-up movements” and outright revolutionary uprisings. Our program will enable us to do what we need to do: give the program itself life by recruiting many more Black revolutionaries; grow the leadership of the party; engage in struggle and hone our fighting edge; keep the lessons of the past alive; and continue to provide the education for ourselves and our class that will be our best friend as we play our part in the permanent revolution.
And we can take a cue from what Trotsky called Sverdlov’s “inexhaustible reserve of optimism in doing” — his confidence that “it was possible to solve any task and to overcome any difficulty.” Building the party, advancing the revolution: this is our life’s work. It is where we find our joy, express our passion — in comradeship and in the struggle.