We are living in an epoch of crisis, war, revolution, and counterrevolution. However, revolutions are nonlinear processes; they do not unfold in a single act. From the perspective of the working class, the objective conditions and class balance of forces have never been as favorable. However, given the confusion and limited options of the bourgeois, the class-collaborationist policies of the labor leaders, and the lack of a mass revolutionary party—the subjective factor—this process will necessarily have a prolonged character. There will be many starts and stops, periods of advance and retreat, inspiring victories and demoralizing defeats. But through it all, the workers will learn, and we will steel and expand our forces. We must prepare our comrades and periphery for this perspective.
This document was originally drafted in early 2014 and was approved by the congress of the Workers International League, the organisation of the American Marxists. It should be read in conjunction with the 2014 IMT World Perspectives and the 2012 WIL US Perspectives documents.
Along with Marxist theory, which occupies a central place in a Bolshevik organization, our political perspectives are our guide to action. They are an important factor in building the organization’s membership and political authority. Experience shows that uncorrected mistakes in theory and perspectives lead inevitably to disastrous results in practice. Although our previous perspectives have been broadly correct, we cannot be complacent. We must continually update and concretize them, keeping an eye out for quantitative and qualitative changes in the situation. When we make mistakes we must acknowledge, correct, and learn from them.
As Trotsky elaborated in 1930: “The art of revolutionary leadership is primarily the art of correct political orientation. Under all conditions, communism prepares the political vanguard, and through it the working class as a whole, for the revolutionary seizure of power. But it does it differently in different fields of the labor movement and in different periods.
“One of the most important elements in orientation is the determination of the moods of the masses, their activity and readiness for struggle. The mood of the masses however does not fall from the skies. It changes under the influence of certain laws of mass psychology, which are set into motion by objective social conditions . . . Combining the subjective data with the objective, it is possible to get to a certain degree the perspective of the movement, i.e., the scientifically based prediction without which a serious revolutionary struggle is in general inconceivable.
“But prediction in politics has the character, not of a rigid schema, but of a working hypothesis. Directing the struggle to one or the other direction, it is necessary attentively to follow the changes in the objective and subjective elements of the movement, in order to introduce opportunely into the tactics corresponding corrections. Even though the actual development of the struggle never fully correspond with the prognosis, that does not absolve us from having recourse to political prediction. One must not however, get intoxicated with finished schemas but continually check up the course of the historic process and conform oneself with its indications.”(The “Third Period” of the Comintern’s Mistakes)
The period since the early days of the Arab Revolution, the mass movement in Wisconsin, the rise and decline of the Occupy movement,and Obama’s reelection has been complicated. The jobless economic recovery has limped along and a certain malaise and sense of resignation to the “new normality” has permeated many layers of society. The class struggle has seemingly been stuck in low gear as the workers and youth continue to “wait and see,” hoping against hope itself for some magical solution to the intractable problems confronting them.
Every epoch is different, and historical analogies are useful only within certain limits. Nonetheless, there are interesting similarities with the defeat of the 1905 revolution in Russia, and indeed, with all defeated or derailed mass movements. These retreats in the struggle are inevitably followed by demoralization and disorientation. But as none of the fundamental contradictions have been resolved, these periods of apparent apathy, introspection, and inactivity are inevitably followed by renewed and often even more spectacular upsurges, with the October Revolution of 1917 a shining example. We can see similar dynamics in the ongoing Venezuelan and Egyptian Revolutions.
The recent period in the US has by no means been on the level of Russia in the early 20th century or Egypt since 2011, but the collapse of Occupy has had a similar effect on the psychology of the masses. Dialectically speaking, however, events and processes are eventually dramatically transformed into their opposite, sometimes quite literally from one day to the next.
This is why Marxists take the long view of history. We cannot allow ourselves to become frustrated or impatient. There is a deep and palpable undercurrent of discontent building up in American society. None of the contradictions of capitalism have been resolved by the weak economic recovery and regime of austerity; in fact, they have only been exacerbated. The tension is building. Consciousness is transforming. In both nature and society, similar conditions lead to similar results. The question is therefore not whether there will be mass movements and revolutionary explosions of the class struggle in this country—but when.
Already, there are important and encouraging signs of a revival among US workers and students. Although it is by no means generalized as of yet, this process will continue to unfold and intensify in the years ahead. In this epoch of economic, social, and political turbulence and instability, momentous events are on the horizon. Armed with Marxist theory, and by collectively developing and refining our perspectives, we have the advantage of foresight over astonishment. On the basis of our analysis and activity, we must sink deep roots in the working class and recruit and educate the cadres that will play a decisive and leading role in the future American Socialist Revolution.
The US and the World
The world crisis of capitalism is the broader context for the unfolding crisis in the United States—and vice versa. This idea is developed more fully in the 2014 IMT World Perspectives document. In this short section we aim to supplement that material with a few additional points.
US imperialism reached its apex in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the crisis of 2008, it has entered an era of ignominious, protracted decline. Nevertheless, it remains a formidable force—at least on paper. No country on earth can match it in military spending or sheer projection of force to defend the profits of its ruling class. But to paraphrase Trotsky, it is a colossus with feet of clay. It has dynamite built into its foundations, and that dynamite is the working class. As the old adage goes, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
Its vast military might has always been predicated on its enormous economic power. The relative decline of that power, even vis a vis countries like Canada and Germany—not to mention China—is transforming the geopolitical balance. The economic crisis and the disastrous and humiliating adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced it to retrench. Americans are tired of foreign adventures and the economy simply cannot maintain the constantly increasing spending levels of the past. No longer can the State Department and the Pentagon spend at will and arrogantly bully and bomb the world into submission. Instead of large-scale direct intervention, US imperialism must now resort to diplomatic maneuvers, in an attempt to balance various regional powers and thereby defend its interests.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East. The US stood by helplessly as their key allies Ben Ali and Mubarak were toppled by the masses. The confrontation with Russia over chemical weapons and intervention in Syria was but one example of the diminished ability of the US to impose its will. The ongoing negotiations with Iran are another reflection of the new regional balance of forces. At the same time, smaller regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are independently pushing their weight around in a way that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.
As it twists and turns to extricate itself from this volatile part of the world, it must shift its focus to the Pacific. Trotsky summed up this region’s importance to the future of humanity in 1938: “The principal arena of struggle will, of course, not be that Lilliputian bathtub, the Mediterranean, nor even the Atlantic Ocean, but the basin of the Pacific.” (Revolution and War in China)
The rising tensions among ASEAN nations, Secretary of State John Kerry’s five visits to the region in a single year, the conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and the forthcoming Trans Pacific Partnership—a kind of “NAFTA on steroids”—all underline this perspective. The Pentagon has openly stated that China will without a doubt be the US’s key geopolitical rival in the decades to come, with the prospect of military confrontation in some form or another an all-but-foregone conclusion. Japan is aggressively reasserting itself and other regional powers such as Indonesia, Australia, South Korea, and the Philippines have growing doubts as to the US’s ability to hold its own against China and defend them.
The confrontation with Russia over Ukraine and the Crimea is the latest example of US imperialism’s limitations, and raises similar questions for European and Caucasian countries that had counted on the US for protection.
Long before beginning its retrenchment from the Middle East, the US military pulled back from its Cold War buildup in Europe. US forces there are 85% smaller than they were in 1989. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US presence in Europe has dropped from 400,000 troops to just 67,000; from 800 aircraft to 172; from 40,000 Navy sailors and Marines to 7,000.
Due to budget cuts, skyrocketing pension costs, and a changing international balance of forces, the Pentagon is being forced to pare down the US military to its lowest level since the buildup for WWII. Instead of having the capability to fight and win two major conventional wars—one each in the Atlantic and Pacific—they must now content themselves with the capacity to fight and win one major war and stalemate a second. With an increased focus on special forces units and high technology weaponry and cyberwarfare, US imperialism can no longer project overwhelming force and occupy countries the way it once did. This marks a dramatic change in the balance of forces since the postwar/post-Soviet period and will have unforeseeable and far-reaching consequences.
After World War II, the US replaced Britain as the “world’s policeman.” This positioned it to reap immense profits and gave it the resources to blunt the class struggle for an entire historical period. But this is now at an end. Although this shaped the worldview of several generations, this is not the norm for capitalism, but an anomaly. We cannot apply historical parallels mechanically, but the story of the rise and fall of British imperialism as the world’s foremost power contains some instructive lessons for its successor.
On the basis of its worldwide empire and powerful manufacturing base, the British ruling class was able for decades to pass on a few crumbs to its working class. It leaned on the top layers, the “aristocracy of labor,” to check the class struggle and keep it within safe channels. However, the long decline of British preeminence, beginning in the late 19th century, coincided with the growing radicalization and unionization of the working class and the eventual creation of the Labour Party.
By the end of World War II, Britain’s fall from grace was all but complete and a Labour government was thrust into power by the masses, pressured from below to implement reforms such as the National Health Service, free education, public housing construction, and more.These reforms were possible under capitalism due to the postwar boom and factors like the Marshall Plan. History never repeats itself in precisely the same way, but the similarities to the situation in the US are evident. The US’s decay and decline is not only up-ending and transforming its relationship to the world, but is already having a dramatic effect on Americans’ consciousness.
Along with the “American Dream,” the idea of “American exceptionalism” has been shattered over the last decade. A Pew Research Poll found that 53% of Americans think US geopolitical power is at a historic low—as compared to 20% who felt that way just 10 years ago in 2004. Furthermore, 55% polled said they think the US should “mind its own business” when it comes to meddling in international affairs—the highest number since this measure began 50 years ago. And although the US is still overwhelmingly the world’s preeminent economic power, a majority of Americans think China has already surpassed it. The long-term ramifications of these shifts in outlook cannot be overstated.
Even the mighty United States cannot escape the vortex of the world economy. With a global economy come global crisis and global class struggle. Seemingly minor economic or political developments in any country can surge out of control, sweeping across the planet like a tsunami. Like wildfires and economic meltdowns, the class struggle and revolutions do not respect borders. This is why, for Marxists, internationalism is not an empty phrase. The struggles of workers everywhere are our struggles. We must follow international events and their reciprocal effects on the US and the world closely.
The struggle between the capitalists and the workers over the surplus value created through the labor of the working class is the essence of the class struggle under capitalism. Although there is a dynamic, contradictory, and dialectical relationship between the economic “base” and the political, social, and ideological “superstructure,” in the final analysis, the economy sets the basic parameters within which this struggle unfolds.
Changes in the economic foundation affect every other aspect of society, including the outlook of the masses. The post-World War II promise of quality jobs, pensions, and steadily rising living standards for all has been exposed as a hollow fiction. Workers are learning the hard way that the postwar prosperity was the exception, not the rule under capitalism. The material base for the “American Dream” has been transformed into an “American Nightmare” of permanent austerity, low wages, unemployment, homelessness, and precarity for the majority, while a handful at the top are unimaginably wealthy. Since the beginning of the recovery in 2009, 95% of new income generated has gone to the top 1 percent of earners. The bottom 60% of Americans control just 2.3% of the country’s financial wealth.
US GDP grew at the modest pace of 1.9% in 2013 and the official unemployment rate has fallen steadily. These results are used by the bourgeois propaganda machine to put forward the idea that things are indeed getting better, and if people aren’t doing well, it must be their own fault. But this “technical recovery” hides the real situation confronting millions of Americans. As recently as the 1990s, bourgeois economists maintained that any growth below 3% per year was “a growth recession,” in that it would feel like we were in a downturn even though the economy is not contracting.
Pensions have virtually been eliminated. Job security is almost nonexistent. The relentless driving down of wages and economic polarization on a previously unimaginable scale will only intensify in the years to come. The permanent army of the unemployed will continue to expand as millions languish in enforced and wasteful idleness. A staggering 23.9 million Americans have been out of work at least 6 months and received extended unemployment benefits over the past 5 years.8.7 million jobs were lost during the economic downturn and only 7 million have been created since the peak of employment in 2008.
Just 74,000 jobs were created in December 2013—the fewest since January 2011. This is fewer than the 150,000 needed each month just to keep up with the growing population, let alone to make up for the losses suffered during the worst of the crisis. According to the government’s U6 unemployment figures, which include both un- and underemployed workers, the real rate is around 13%. While lower than the peak of 17.1% in 2009 and 2010, it is nearly double the rate in 2000. This means that no fewer than 20 million workers are un- or underemployed. Millions of others are no longer even counted in the official unemployment figures, as they are no longer “actively seeking work.” For example, in December 2013, 347,000 people formally dropped out of the workforce. This explains the drop in the official unemployment rate to 6.7% in December 2013, the first time it has been below 7% in five years.
The overall labor participation rate—the percentage of the population currently working—currently stands at 62.8%, the lowest since 1978. The labor participation rate for men, who are typically higher-paid and thus less likely to be hired back if a company can hire someone female or younger, is now at its lowest level since 1948. Only 70% of the 6 million jobs lost by male workers during the slump have been recovered. Long-term unemployment has reached record levels, and the chance of ever finding a job again if you have been unemployed for a year or more is a mere 9%.
A majority of the jobs that are created are non-union, low-wage, and often part-time, while hundreds of thousands of relatively well-paid union jobs have been lost over the last 6 years. There are 55,000 fast food workers in New York City alone. Since 2000, the number of fast-food jobs in the city has increased by more than 50 percent—10 times as fast as any other type of job in the private sector. The business model of the fast food industry is based on exploiting young part-time workers. Now millions of adult workers depend on these jobs to feed, clothe, and shelter their families.
The federal minimum wage currently stands at just $7.25. If it had kept up with gains in worker productivity since the federal minimum was first implemented in 1968, it would be $21.72. 3.6 million Americans work at or below minimum wage, and millions of others are only marginally above it. Nearly half the country lives “paycheck to paycheck”—a pink slip or an unexpected expense away from financial disaster. This explains the simmering movement among fast food, Wal Mart, and other retail and low-wage workers.
Median income, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 1989, and $4,000 less than it was as recently as 2000. Income inequality is the highest it has been since 1928. Since the defeat of the PATCO workers in 1981—a tipping pointin organized labor’s precipitous fall—it has only accelerated. In 1982, the highest-earning 1% of families received 10.8% of all pretax income, while the bottom 90% received 64.7%. By 2012, the top 1% received 22.5% of pretax income, while the bottom 90%’s share had fallen to 49.6%.
Wealth inequality is even greater than income inequality. While the highest-earning fifth of US families received 59.1% of all income, the richest fifth held 88.9% of all wealth. According to Bloomberg, it would take a Chicago McDonald’s worker who earns $8.25 an hour more than a century on the clock to match the $8.75 million the company’s chief executive made in 2011.
The tight situation facing millions of Americans 5 years into the recovery was underlined by the New York Times: “American households took on $241 billion in additional debt in the fourth quarter of last year, signaling the end of an extended period of hunkering down. Total household debt increased 2.1 percent, the largest quarterly increase since before the recession, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York . . . Total household debt grew steadily before the financial crisis and peaked in 2008, at $12.7 trillion, at a moment when, it is now clear, Americans were dangerously overleveraged. It then decreased to a low of $11.2 trillion before starting to edge back up in the second half of last year . . . David Strasser, a retail analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott, was skeptical of claims that the increased borrowing meant increased optimism. ‘The problem is you’re not seeing job growth; you’re not seeing wage growth,’ he said. ‘We’re still overleveraged by any historical measure.’”
Inflation grinds away at any gains that are made. All other factors being equal, even a “low” inflation rate of 2% per year means a 75% decline in purchasing power over the course of an average lifetime. Economist Simon Black uses the cost of sending a postcard to illustrate the decline in purchasing power over the last few decades. In 1951, it cost $.01 to send a postcard. With median household income at $4,237, a household could send 423,700 postcards. Today, median income stands at $51,017. As it costs $.34 to send a postcard, today’s household can only afford to send 150,050 postcards. In other words, nominal income rose 12 times, and the cost of sending a postcard rose 34 times. The costs of other commodities have risen even more dramatically. This combination of stagnant wages and creeping inflation has led to a collapse in the real standard of living for millions of Americans.
At the same time, the military budget remains enormous, at $633 billion for 2014, down only slightly from $634 billion in 2013. By comparison, the 2013 federal budget included just $76.4 billion for food stamps—at a time when some $40 billion in cuts to these essential programs are planned over the next 10 years. Just $25.6 billion was spent in 2013 on unemployment benefits, and 1.3 million people lost even that meager lifeline at the end of 2013.
The stock market has rebounded since the 2008 crash and has reached new heights. The S&P has grown 170% since March 2009. Corporate profits are at record highs and are now over 12.5% of GDP. Recent “corrections” notwithstanding, the market bears no rational relation to the real state of the economy.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the years since the crisis, labor productivity and hours worked have steadily risen, while wages have stagnated or fallen when adjusted for inflation. This is the real “secret” of the recovery. More work is being done by fewer workers for less pay. This explains the growth in GDP and the skyrocketing corporate profits, while unemployment remains high and wages low.
The economy has been artificially propped up by the policy of so-called “Quantitative Easing (QE)”—another word for printing money. $85 billion in mortgage-backed securities and Treasury securities have been pumped into the economy each and every month for several years to prop the banks up. This represents massive state intervention into the so-called “free market” economy.
As we saw in 2008, after decades of decrying excessive government regulations and oversight, big business came cap-in-hand for massive public bailouts. With the money used to bail out the banking, insurance, and auto industries, these key sectors of the economy could have been nationalized outright. So far, overall inflation has been kept low by the general weakness of the recovery, but eventually it will make itself felt. While new Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen plans on winding down QE by the end of the year, recent volatility on the stock markets may change the Fed’s plans.
We live in an epoch of perpetual cuts as the capitalists force the workers to shoulder the burden of the capitalist crisis. In one form or another, the gains won in the past by the working class must be whittled and hacked away, all in the name of balanced budgets and deficit reduction. Given the country’s federal structure, austerity is not as centrally administered as in Europe, and trickles down in myriad forms from the federal to the state, county, municipal, and neighborhood levels, across the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. Sometimes it takes the form of “fee increases” for government services or other regressive “nickel and dime” measures. This makes building a centralized fight back against these cuts and policies more complicated. However, the workers will have no option but to fight back, and this too will take myriad forms before becoming more generalized and coalescing into a concerted and cohesive economic and political struggle.
The entire federal deficit can be traced to expenditures on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the bailouts in 2008 and 2009. In order to pay these debts back, the workers are being made to pay for these imperialist adventures and the crisis of the system. But austerity and unemployment only serve to further undercut consumption. This places the capitalists in a vicious downward spiral. They each want to maximize their short-term gains at the expense of their national and international rivals, the state treasury, the workers, and society as a whole. The capitalists do not do this because they are “mean-spirited.” Based on the role they play in productive and social relations, they have no alternative. On pain of extinction, they must maintain and increase their profit margins.
Capitalists invest to make money, not to produce goods. They are profit-seekers, not “job creators.” In a globalized economy, US workers must now compete with wages and conditions in China and Bangladesh. Industrial capacity utilization in November 2013 was just 79%. While higher than the 2009 low of 66.9%, this nonetheless indicates that over 1/5 of industrial productive capacity is not being used. In other words, 20% more could be produced with existing plants and equipment. The capitalists will not build new capacity or hire new workers when they can squeeze more out of existing assets and employees. They prefer to park their trillions in cash reserves in the banks or to speculate on real estate and the stock market, in foreign currencies, Bitcoin, the art market, and other unproductive activities.
Neither Obama nor any other capitalist politician or party can force the capitalists to invest. Capitalism is an irrational, unplanned system. As long as the means of production and the enormous sums extracted from the labor of the workers remain in private hands, they can do with them as they wish. You cannot plan what you do not control, and you cannot control what you don’t own. This is why we demand public ownership and democratic workers’ control over the Fortune 500 companies, which alone account for 75% of US GDP.
It is true that some technologically sophisticated plants are being opened and a trickle of highly paid jobs are being created. Domestic energy production is also booming in a few parts of the country, and a handful high-wage jobs are being created in this sector. However, this affects only a small number of workers and industries and is not generalized throughout the economy. As reported in The Economist: “Rich economies seem to be bifurcating into small groups of workers with skills highly complementary with machine intelligence, for whom [economist Tyler Cower at George Mason University] has high hopes, and for the rest, not so much… America may be pioneering a hyper-unequal economic model in which a top 1% of capital-owners and “supermanagers” grab a growing share of national income and accumulate an increasing concentration of national wealth.”
From the perspective of the Marxists, a modest and sustained economic recovery would not be a bad thing. It is often the case that the class struggle swings upwards during periods of recovery, as workers regain their confidence and are willing to risk their current position in the hopes of improving it through struggle. At present, however, we are experiencing the worst of both worlds—neither a clear recovery nor a clear slump. Broadly speaking, the workers have their heads down as the tepid recovery offers no boost of confidence and security. At the same time, there has been no major shock in the last few years to shake the workers out of their momentary inertia. This in part explains the apparent apathy of the majority of workers at the present stage—although the bulk of the blame must be laid at the labor leaders’ feet for not offering a fighting alternative.
However, booming growth and dramatically rising employment is not the most likely scenario for the coming period. The “jobless” recovery is likely to drag on for years, although it will eventually and inevitably slip back into a slump at a certain stage. As long as capitalism continues, so too does the boom-slump cycle. We are not catastrophists, but we understand that given the internal contradictions of capitalism, an even deeper slump is being prepared for the future. And though most Americans would say the economy has not recovered from the crisis, what we are living through today is technically a boom—the “good times.”
Credit continues to artificially expand the limits of the system, and the housing and stock market bubbles have reflated. Eventually these will have to burst. They cannot defy the laws of capitalist gravity forever. In order to deal with the 2008 meltdown, and in an attempt to postpone a repetition, they have already used up many of the mechanisms they could normally use get out of a crisis (such as low interest rates and massive public borrowing). The next downturn—whether it is “hard” or “soft”—will be a serious a wake up call for the working class. No longer will American workers be able to stoically brush it off as a “once in a generation” occurrence. The reality of capitalist instability will hit home hard and will have an even bigger effect on consciousness than the crash 2008.
The collapse of the USSR means there is no longer a counterbalance to the boundless avarice of the capitalists. Many of them truly believe that “history is over,” and that there is no chance of their system being overturned. They are pushing their luck, and imagine they can get away with anything. But other, more far-sighted members of the ruling class and their strategists are increasingly worried. The Economist: “In the 19th century it took the threat of revolution to bring about progressive reforms. Today’s governments would do well to start making the changes needed before their people get angry . . . The rise of the middle class—a 20th-century innovation—was a hugely important political and social development across the world. The squeezing out of that class could generate a more antagonistic, unstable, and potentially dangerous politics.”
In other words, the relatively broad layer of better-paid workers and small business owners that served as a conservative and stabilizing buffer between the working majority and the capitalists during the postwar boom is being mercilessly driven out of existence. The bourgeois are right to be concerned about the inevitable social and political consequences. But they are in no position to do anything much about it. The only source of resources to take the edge off the rising discontent is the wealth of the capitalists themselves. But any serious inroads targeting that wealth is a political nonstarter for both Democrats and Republicans. Even modest reforms have been almost entirely absent under Obama, let alone something on the scale of the New Deal—a program intended to let off steam and save capitalism from the danger of socialist revolution. On the contrary, vicious counterreforms are on the order of the day.
What many economists are calling the “Great Stagnation” has led to a temporary state of shock, resignation, and inaction. Most workers are still looking for individual solutions and ways out the blind alley of the system, taking extra jobs or imposing their own austerity on personal and family budgets. But this cannot last forever. Eventually, the working class will have to band together collectively to fight back in the workplace against the bosses through thelabor unions, and politically, through a mass party of labor. This process is still in its early days; but it can accelerate rapidly as consciousness catches up with the serious objective reality of the situation.
The Capitalist Crisis and the Youth
The crisis of capitalism bears down most heavily on the youth. This is the first generation in US history that will have a lower standard of living than its parents’. Many young people are effectively living off the gains of the postwar boom—living with their parents, reliant on them for health care, tuition, rent, gas and other financial support. This is not a long-term solution and means that the fat accumulated by the postwar generation is being burned off even more quickly, further squeezing precisely that layer of society which served as a buffer between the haves and the have-nots. Millions of other young people are already out on their own with no future and no safety net.
15% of workers ages 16 to 24 are unemployed, as compared with less than 7% for all workers. The unemployment rate for black youth is 36%, 400% higher than the national rate. These figures do not include young people who are not working because they are in school, are no longer looking for work, or are too discouraged to even begin a job search. Federal youth jobs programs have been cut by $1 billion a year since 2002—long before the financial crisis. In 2012, AmeriCorps, a national service program, had more than half a million applicants for about 80,000 positions. The march up the so-called “ladder of success” is impossible when the ladder has been kicked over.
In an effort to increase their employability, many young people have entered higher education, despite extortionate costs and draconian cuts to grants and other forms of financial assistance. 37 million Americans now carry student debt; a total of over $1 trillion. In 2010, total student debt surpassed total credit card debt; in 2011, it surpassed total auto loans. It now stands at an average of nearly $25,000 per debtor. According to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, student debt increases by $3,000 every second of every minute of every hour of every day. Many young people are forced to drop out of school for one reason or another (often because they can no longer afford it), and yet they still must pay back this debt.In the past, credit card debt had the highest default rate, but now it is student debt. This is not only a burden on the youth but could precipitate another financial meltdown.
For those who do graduate, there is no guarantee of a place in the work force, even for those with advanced degrees. The total number of lawyers in the US has tripled over the last 30 years, as young people seek the highest possible education to improve their position. In what is being called a crisis “elite overproduction,” there is now a “surplus” of 25,000 new law school graduates each year, some with literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.
The internal contradictions of the system are driving relentlessly toward the increased proletarianization of the petty bourgeoisie, of professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and others who for decades formed a crucial social and ideological buffer between the ruling class and the masses. As described in the Communist Manifesto, these layers are being squeezed out and driven into the ranks of the working class—there is no “place at the table” for them as the crisis of the system deepens and polarization intensifies.
It is not a lack of skills or education that keeps the capitalists from hiring. During the postwar boom, many unskilled and uneducated workers could go straight from High School into a unionized manufacturing job and make a good living. However, as we have explained above, given the crisis of the system, the capitalists are not hiring and there are few quality jobs to go around.
Just as many workers are seeking an individual way out of the impasse of the system, many young people think that they will be one of the “lucky ones” who manages to make the system work for them. Many see higher education as their ticket to success. They may not particularly like it, but many feel that as they made the individual decision to borrow these extraordinary sums of money, they must live with the consequences. They do not yet see this as a collective problem affecting an entire generation, one that requires a collective solution.
Rapidly changing attitudes towards racism, sexism, LGBTQ rights, legalization of marijuana, and other basic social, democratic, and civil rights issues are an indication that within the limits of American politics, there is a clear shift to the left among young people. 70% of those aged 18 to 34 thought Edward Snowden “did a good thing.” We have often cited the poll indicating that a plurality of young people say they prefer “socialism” to “capitalism,” an attitude shift pregnant with implications for the future.
Movements against student debt and other issues affecting the youth will eventually take off, including the question of building genuine fighting student unions. Already there have been walkouts and strikes by high school students. Given the vastness of the country, they may at first be regional in character (as in California or Quebec in the recent past), and will of necessity be amorphous, disorganized, and start out with limited, reformist aims—much like Occupy. We must participate energetically in such movements as they arise, but at least in the beginning, our task is not to lead them. We must clearly and boldly present our program, perspectives, and vision of how these struggles can be generalized and won by linking them to the unions, the working class, and the fight for socialism. But our primary task is to build up our own forces, to broaden our base of support, and to find and win the ones and twos to Marxism and the IMT.
Many young people were awakened to politics and inspired by Occupy. This represented an initial and necessarily naive attempt to find their bearings in a country where the left is virtually nonexistent and the labor leaders offer no alternative. There was much confusion, much of which remains to this day, for example, the illusions many young people have in libertarianism and both left and right populism. This was followed by dejection and even further confusion after the movement reached an inevitable impasse. But the best elements are actively seeking an explanation and way forward. Over the last 18 months, there has been a notable rise in interest among young people in issues affecting the broader working class, for example, the role being played by the youth in the Wal Mart and fast food workers’ campaigns, and the exemplary solidarity shown by students with their teachers in Portland, as was also the case in 2011 in Wisconsin.
During Occupy, many young people harbored illusions in Obama. Many even helped reelect him. However, just over a year into his second term, they are already abandoning him in droves. A poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that only 41% of young people ages 18 to 29 approve of the president’s job performance, as compared to 58% who approved in the fall of 2009. Only 14% believe the country is “headed in the right direction,” and they overwhelmingly named the economy as their top concern.
The Democrats can’t indefinitely pump up expectations only to “bait and switch” young people once they are actually in power. More young people said they would recall Obama (if this were possible) than said they want him to stay in office (47% to 46%). However, this is not because they prefer the Republicans. While 59% disapprove of the Democrats, 75% say they disapprove of the Republicans. With such limited options, it is little wonder that only 22% say that they are “politically engaged.” 41% consider themselves to be “independents” as compared to either Republicans (24%) or Democrats (33%). The potential for class-independent politics and a labor party is clear.
It is not an accident that we are now winning individual and even small groups of High School students. The sum of their entire life experience amounts to an endless series of counterreforms—they have never witnessed a genuine progressive reform. Many of these contacts and comrades have been exploring Marxism from an early age, and come to us on a much higher level of understanding than was the case just 5 years ago. Even if they are students, many of them have to work to pay for school or even to support their families. They are coming to us with a serious thirst for theory as well as action, and are inspired by the work of the IMT among students and in the labor movement around the world.
We must not have a mechanical approach when it comes to a young person’s class background. Just because someone comes from a working class background does not mean they will automatically have a working class outlook. The same applies to youth from a petty bourgeois or even bourgeois background. We can win and educate young people, no matter what their background, as long as they throw themselves fully in with the working class, and take the study of Marxist theory and methods seriously.
As we often say, the youth and particularly the students are a sensitive barometer of society. The youth are most immediately affected by the crisis and generally have the most time, energy, and desire to not only discuss changing the world, but to actively work towards making it a reality. The examples of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden bring to mind the heroism of the Russian Narodniks, who risked everything to try and spark a revolution, even before a mass movement of the workers had developed. There are growing numbers of Americans, and especially young people, who feel they have “nothing to lose” and are willing to do something about it.
However, while we will win many students in the coming period, we understand that in the final analysis, it is only the working class that can transform society. Only by orienting to and sinking deep roots in the working class and its mass organizations can we lay the basis for a successful struggle for socialism.
The Labor Movement
The pro-capitalist union leadership has led the labor movement into the dead end of a decades-long decline. As a result, the US working class has been in a kind of prolonged and disoriented hibernation. With few exceptions, it has been many years since any mass labor struggles galvanized the country and spread an inspiring example. Those who can see only the surface of society take this to mean that the working class either no longer exists, or is no longer a revolutionary force for change. The Marxists, however, view the world dialectically, look beneath the surface appearances, and understand that as long as capitalism and classes continue, so too does the class struggle.
The working class will move when it is ready to move—not a moment sooner—and not a moment later. There are already important signs of the first groggy reawakening of this mighty and decisive social power. These first stirrings are necessarily of an uneven, unfocused and imbalanced character. But once the class begins to get its bearings and to flex its muscles, no force on earth can stop it from changing society—provided it is armed with the necessary leadership, methods, and perspectives.
The union membership rate in 2013 remained the same as in 2012, at 11.3%, with total union membership likewise essentially unchanged at 14.5 million. An additional 1.5 million workers are not union members but have jobs covered by a union contract. In 1983, the union membership rate was 20.1% and there were 17.7 million union members (and the total US population was significantly smaller). New York remains the most unionized state, with North Carolina again in last place.
In 2013, 35.3% of public-sector workers were members of unions (7.2 million), as compared to just 6.7% in the private sector (7.3 million). However, despite the relatively low overall numbers, the power of union workers to impact the functioning of capitalist society by withholding their labor remains enormous. In the public sector, teachers, librarians, firefighters, and municipal workers are heavily unionized. In the private sector, key strategic areas such as utilities, transportation, warehousing, telecommunications, and construction are heavily unionized. The lowest-unionized sectors include agriculture and related industries, finance, food service and drinking establishments. Male workers were more likely to be unionized than women, and black workers were more likely to be unionized than whites, Asians, or Latinos. In 2013, union workers had median weekly earnings averaging $200 more than non-union workers ($950 versus $750).
As we explained in our 2012 US Perspectives document, 2009 marked an all-time low in strike levels, with just 5 major strikes or lockouts involving 1,000 workers or more. Since then, there has been a modest uptick, with 2012 levels about even with those in 2011, at 19 per year, and 2013 slightly below that at 15. The biggest work stoppages of 2013 included the bus drivers of the New York Public Schools, AFSCME workers at the University of California Medical Centers, and two stoppages by BART transit workers in San Francisco.
Based on the official figures, it may therefore appear that “nothing has changed” for several years, and that labor remains hopelessly mired in impotence. However, we must always delve beyond the raw numbers and trends and understand the deeper processes unfolding in society. Although relatively few and far between as compared to the labor upsurge of the 1970s, there have been important efforts by the workers to fight back despite their leadership. In 2011, we saw the mass movement in Wisconsin, a strike in which the rank and file attempted to implement class struggle methods at Verizon, and Occupy. In 2012, there were important struggles in Chicago (teachers) and among the ILWU longshore workers on the West Coast. All of these experiences are slowly but surely layering upon the collective outlook of the workers, even if it is not immediately apparent.
Trotsky, writing in 1929 about the perspectives for the revival of the class struggle in France after a period of economic downturn and dampened class struggle, made the following observations: “But in the political field the ebb-tide or stagnation continues even now, at any rate, in the main mass of the proletariat. Thus, the awakenings of the activity of certain sections of the proletariat in the field of economic struggle, is irrefutable. But this process too is only passing through its first stage, when it is primarily the enterprises of light industry that are drawn into the struggle, with an evident preponderance of the unorganized workers over the organized and with a considerable specific gravity of the foreign-born workers.”
The recent period has been broadly in keeping with Trotsky’s description of how the revival of the class struggle typically evolves. In the last few years, we have seen a steady rise in mostly symbolic strikes, walk-outs, and protests among Wal Mart, service, and fast food workers, with the participation of young and immigrant workers and the unorganized generally. The amorphous Occupy movement can also be broadly classed as part of this trend. Other symptomatic developments include the efforts of NCAA college athletes and casino workers to unionize.
In particular, the various campaigns to raise the minimum wage are an important manifestation of this growing mood of militancy. These campaigns have limited aims at present—for example, there is no concerted push for a union contract to accompany the demand for higher wages, or to link the struggle with the need for a labor party. Nonetheless, they have the potential to awaken many young people to political and labor activism in the coming years.
Given the country’s size, it is inevitable that particular movements or struggles may be concentrated at first in certain states or regions. The Pacific Northwest in particular is a hotbed of labor struggles at the present time, with the ILWU’s battle at the port of Longview, Washington; simmering struggles among Amazon warehouse workers; workers at SeaTac airport voting for a higher minimum wage; Seattle voters electing a Socialist Alternative candidate for city council; rising militancy among Portland’s teachers; and a bitter contract vote at Boeing. Before that, the Midwest had its share of activity, with Wisconsin and the Chicago teachers’ strike, and the Northeast has also seen important struggles, with Occupy beginning in New York City, and the Verizon strike focused in that region.
The South continues to be a powder keg waiting to detonate. The tide of unionization and labor struggles in this massive region cannot be held back indefinitely; the more the pressure builds before it finds an outlet, the greater will be the eventual explosion. For example, despite low overall unionization rates, Texas has 2.7 million unionized workers. States like Georgia and Florida have immense working class populations.
Big demographic shifts are taking place throughout the South. Despite their rock-bottom unionization rates, we must also keep an eye on the Carolinas. There is a large concentration of military families in the South, most of whom live and work in working class conditions. As history has shown time and again, the situation can transform dramatically into its opposite. We must orient the comrades to this perspective even if we are unable to put much effort into building in this important region at present. The best way to build on our foothold in the South and to support our comrades there is to continue strengthening our work in the Northeast, Midwest, and California.
The recent period has seen a series of significant defeats without the workers even getting a chance to put up a fight. The machinists at Boeing are a classic example. Formerly part of the more “privileged” layers of the working class, these workers too have now seen the real face of capitalism in its epoch of crisis and decay. They have been blackmailed by the company and sold out by their union’s international leadership. After initially rejecting a concessions-heavy contract by a margin of 2 to 1, they have had draconian give-backs rammed down their throats. While Boeing’s shareholders make billions of dollars in profits and receive billions more in tax breaks from the state of Washington, the 31,000 IAM-represented workers are now locked into an 8-year no-strike contract that includes steep health care cost increases, wage increases that do not keep up with inflation, frozen pensions, and lower wages and no pensions for new hires. This contract will set the stamp for industry and skilled workers across the country.
Postal workers have also been under vicious attack, with only the most half-hearted of responses by their leaders. New York City’s municipal workers, including teachers, are already being sold out by their leadership and set up for a concessions contract in back-room negotiations with the city’s new “liberal” mayor, Bill de Blasio.To have one’s hands tied by those who are supposed to be defending you, but who are instead in bed with the boss, can be extremely demoralizing. Nonetheless, the workers are learning that class appeasement does not win, while class struggle can stop at least some of the bosses’ most ferocious assaults.
The groundwork for the Chicago teachers’ showdown with Rahm Emanuel was laid long in advance, through the patient work of building up a left-leaning and more militant opposition to the official union leadership, eventually winning the leadership, and building ties of solidarity with the broader working class. Recently, APWU workers elected an opposition slate to the national leadership. Also, oppositions are forming in the IAM with the workers at Boeing in the forefront, the Los Angeles teachers’ union, and elsewhere. We will see this trend continue in the period ahead, as rank-and-file workers begin to challenge the logic of their leaders’ class collaboration. The Marxists will give critical support to these oppositions, but we must explain that without a socialist program, these new union leaders will find themselves facing the same systemic limits as the leaders that they replaced.
Despite the rotten state of the leadership, interest in joining a union is rising, especially among the youth. Many are braving difficult conditions and are slowly but surely building up support for unions in their workplaces. We support any increase in unionization rates or numbers, as this strengthens the working class and increases its class confidence, consciousness, and unity. However, we must be clear that the labor leaders’ current efforts to unionize the unorganized fall far short of what is needed.
For example, when it comes to unionizing Wal-Mart, they lack a cohesive strategy of broader class solidarity, and if necessary, defiance of anti-union laws like Taft-Hartley. To truly tackle a giant such as the world’s largest retailer, the labor movement will have band together to cripple the company’s operations across the board; not only with walkouts, strikes, protests, and community solidarity at the retail stores, but by impeding the movement of commodities through the ports, trucking, rail, and warehouse networks. In the future, we can be confident that on the basis of generalized mobilizations of the class, entire industries will be unionized virtually overnight. But at present, the union leaders’ tepid approach can only lead to more setbacks than victories.
The failed effort to unionize a Volkswagen factory in Tennessee is a clear example. Instead of making it a clear-cut battle between the bosses and the workforce, fighting for higher wages, pensions, healthcare and other benefits for all industrial workers and beyond, the UAW leadership took a blatantly class-collaborationist approach. The unionization effort was largely seen as a legal necessity in order for the company to introduce a German-style “works council”—a worker-management scheme that serves to increase efficiency, productivity—and profits. Workers at the Chattanooga VW plant make roughly $19 an hour, compared with about $26 to $28 an hour for veteran hourly workers in Detroit. But new hires at unionized plants in Michigan are making closer to $17. Why vote for a union—in the face of extreme anti-union peer and media pressure—when you are already making more than new employees at the Big Three? The entire episode is a lamentable commentary on where class collaboration, concessions, give-backs, and multi-tier contracts have led the movement.
A complete break with this approach is needed. Only policies that recognize the irreconcilable interests of the workers and the capitalists, and which seek to organize the power of the working class for victory, can show the way forward. However, no one in the current leadership is offering a real way out. Instead of mobilizing, winning battles, and inspiring workers to fight collectively to improve their lives, they propose instead to water down the very essence of what it means to be a union member. Facing stagnant membership, they are looking for shortcuts by formalizing relations with liberal pressure groups, such as the Sierra Club and La Raza.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has stated that such “partnerships” would not preclude voting rights and membership affiliation—essentially making these groups AFL-CIO members—whether they be workers or business owners. While we may agree with certain goals that the Sierra Club or La Raza may profess—such as the protection of the natural environment or rights for undocumented workers—we approach these issues from a class-independent perspective. Any alliances with such organizations must be temporary and tactical and cannot alone turn around labor’s fortunes.
The bottom line is that the labor leadership has no confidence in the working class, and sees class appeasement and backroom deals as the only way to maintain their positions. The lack of even a reformist or Stalinist mass political party of the working class means there is no counterbalance to either the union leadership, or the bosses and their parties. By the same token, however, it means that the Stalinists and Social Democrats are not in a position to strangle the movement as they did in the past.
The crisis of capitalism means the crisis of reformism; there is no base for reformism without reforms. And yet, it is precisely now, when capitalism has the least to offer, that the labor leaders have the greatest illusions in the system. In fact, these ladies and gentlemen are so intertwined with the capitalists that they cannot even rightly be called reformists. They openly defend capitalism as the only possible system, and are not seeking to reform it, gradually or otherwise. As Trotsky explained, they are not only a subjective impediment to the struggle for socialism, but have become an objective factor in holding back the working class and defending the bourgeois order.
The shameful role of the labor leadership has led an increasingly large portion of the ruling class to believe that they no longer need the labor leaders to contain the working class. Many even believe that the unions can be done away with altogether. The battle in Wisconsin and the passing of the mislabeled “right-to-work” laws in industrial states like Michigan and Indiana show this trend. This also threatens the existence of the labor bureaucracy. At some stage, this might force a section of the labor leaders to mobilize the class in a more militant direction. After all, if there are no unions, there will be no bureaucracy.
Despite the demoralizing setbacks, labor’s forces remain largely intact; by no means have they been decisively crushed. Despite their somewhat limited scope and perspectives, the more militant currents emerging in various key unions can take on a life of their own under certain conditions. Wherever possible, we will participate in these currents and patiently work to push them further to the left, raising the need for class independence, a labor party, and militant tactics. However, we must be clear that our task is not to build these currents ourselves. We cannot substitute ourselves for the working class as a whole or even its advanced elements. As with any other field of work, we must always keep our eye on the prize: recruiting the ones and twos and educating them in the ideas and methods of Marxism.
If one looks beyond the surface appearances, the situation is clearly beginning to change. Nonetheless, we must not mistake the first month of pregnancy with the ninth. The process of radicalization is only just beginning. It has been a long time since we saw anything along the lines of the Teamsters’ 1997 struggle at UPS, which electrified and polarized the entire nation. The October Revolution in Russia was preceded by years of ebbing and flowing strike waves, some even reaching insurrectionary proportions, as in 1905. But without the patient work of training the cadres throughout these years of revolution and counterrevolution, the first lasting workers’ state would have never become a reality. We must maintain a sense of proportion and perspective and not be tossed this way and that by the winds and waves of the class struggle.
We cannot look at the unions, their leadership, or the rank and file as something static. The leaders reflect the past—not the present or the future. Eventually, the unions’ organizational forms, strategy, and tactics will be forced to catch up to reality. In due time, the “heavy battalions” of the working class will join the fray. In the stormy years to come, existing unions will be renewed from top to bottom, new unions will rise, and old ones will disappear. The old guard of leaders will be pushed to the left or pushed out altogether. The youth will be a key factor in this process, as millions join the many social movements, labor struggles, and unionization drives that will emerge before fusing into a united economic and political struggle to fundamentally change society.
As the bourgeois increasingly run out of options to maintain their profits while maintaining relative social peace, they will be forced to lean even more heavily on the labor leadership to keep the workers in check. As we have seen in one country after another, given the crisis of capitalism and the weak position they find themselves in, the bourgeoisie could not continue to rule without help of the labor leaders.
It is a law of motion of the world working class that when there is no clear political outlet through which to express themselves, the workers tend to move to action on the industrial front, in the form of economic and trade union struggles against the bosses. Likewise, when they hit a roadblock in these battles, they tend to look for a political solution. The absence of a mass party of labor in the US introduces a wide range of contradictions and confusions into this general process. For lack of an alternative, many workers have attempted to find a way out by supporting the Democrats or even the Republicans. However, this back and forth between “lesser evils” is reaching its limits. Both parties are thoroughly discredited.
For decades, the capitalists have successfully cut across the emergence of a lasting nationwide labor party in the US. This helped them keep profits up and allowed them to roll back the unions, wages, rights, and conditions won by workers in the past. But as the tide of class struggle rises in the coming period, the bosses will regret not having a firmer grip on the labor movement in the form of broader unionization and a labor party. Without decades in which to sink their claws into these leaders and organizations, the new wave of unionization and the rise of a labor party will be far more difficult to control and channel into safe conduits.
The Political Situation
The political situation is in a certain sense quite straightforward: 1) Due to the crisis of capitalism and the bourgeoisie’s inability to continue ruling in the old way, there are deep divisions between and within the two main bosses’ parties; 2) The lack of a mass political party of the working class, in the form of a labor party based on the unions, brings with it all manner of contradictions, distortions, and confusion. Nonetheless, the way in which this situation expresses itself is infinitely complex and cannot be predicted in advance with absolute precision.
When a storm approaches, “the wind blows the tops of the trees first.” Likewise, an impending revolutionary crisis is normally first indicated by splits in the ruling echelons of society. The American ruling class is unsure how to proceed. The shutdown over the budget, debt ceiling, and defunding Obamacare was the most serious example in the recent period. Divisions over what to do about Iran, Libya, Syria, and China also reflect the growing contradictions within the ruling class.
For decades, the US capitalists could more or less do as they pleased, as the postwar boom lulled a massive layer of the population into relative acquiescence—the “American Dream” was a reality for millions. US imperialism ruled the roost and could throw its weight around huge swathes of the world. The situation today is very different. The ruling class has much less room for maneuver. Austerity is on the order of the day. US imperialism has had to pull back. There are profound disagreements—not on secondary social or moral issues as in the past—but on issues of fundamental importance to the future of American capitalism itself. All of this has profound implications for the stability of American politics. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned that the impasse over the budget threatened to render the country “ungovernable.”
It is not so much the absolute levels of poverty or inequality that have the greatest effect on consciousness, but the constant instability, and the fact that the system can no longer deliver on its promises. Although they do not pose it in Marxist terms, the geopolitical strategic analysts at Stratfor understand the implications of this betrayal of expectations: “The United States was built on the assumption that a rising tide lifts all ships. That has not been the case for the past generation, and there is no indication that this socio-economic reality will change anytime soon. That means that a core assumption is at risk. The problem is that social stability has been built around this assumption . . .
“. . . If we move to a system where half of the country is either stagnant or losing ground while the other half is surging, the social fabric of the United States is at risk, and with it the massive global power the United States has accumulated. Other superpowers such as Britain or Rome did not have the idea of a perpetually improving condition of the middle class as a core value. The United States does. If it loses that, it loses one of the pillars of its geopolitical power . . . The conventional solutions offered by all sides do not yet grasp the magnitude of the problem—that the foundation of American society is at risk.”
These are solemn warnings from serious bourgeois analysts with a long-view of history. Nonetheless, we should maintain a sense of proportion. We are not yet on the eve of a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary crisis. Due to a lack of an alternative, the economic, social, and political quagmire will drag on for years. However, we are far closer to such events than most people might think. A few years or even decades are but a heartbeat in history. This is the perspective we must prepare for.
The 2013 off-year elections provided an important snapshot of the political situation as we head into the 2014 midterm elections and a new presidential round in 2016. In the November election, frustration with incumbents and disgust with “politics as usual” reached record highs. Only 9% of Americans polled at the time thought Congress was doing a “good job.” A record low wanted their own representatives reelected. Just weeks after coming out bruised but on top in the showdown with the Republicans over the government shutdown, President Obama’s rating was at its lowest ever—39%—lower even than GW Bush at that point in his second term. Only 19% polled trust the government to do “what is right.”
For the first time in history, a majority of members of Congress are millionaires. Democratic members of the congressional delegation are actually even richer, on average, than their Republican counterparts. As reported by National Public Radio: “‘Dissatisfaction with government’ now ranks as the most important problem facing the country, ahead of health care, unemployment, the economy, and the federal budget deficit. According to Gallup, dissatisfaction with government has been cited as the top problem for the past two months—something that has never happened before, and the polling firm has been asking this question since the 1930s.”
There is a developing crisis of confidence in the institutions that Americans have long taken for granted. These institutions—including the main political parties—did not fall from heaven. They have been carefully nurtured and put in place over centuries in order to maintain the rule of the capitalist class. What we are seeing is therefore without precedent. It is not simply this or that party, politician, or institution that is being questioned—but the entire system.
In response, one wing of the ruling class would like to offer a few modest concessions—but there is no money with which to do this. On the other side, we can see the rise of what can be best described as mild parliamentary Bonapartist tendencies, with a creeping encroachment on basic civil liberties, increased surveillance and police presence, a clampdown on protests, etc. However, unlike those who cower in an almost superstitious awe of the power of the state, we understand that laws like the Patriot Act and the NSA’s dragnet of any and all communications is a sign of weakness, not of strength.
Looking ahead to 2014 and 2016, we must not be too categorical when making political prognostications. This far in advance, it is impossible and pointless to spend too much time guessing the precise outcome of these races. The usual beneficiary of the two party system is “the other guy.” In a set up limited to “lesser evils,” eventually the “greater evil” gets back in. But discontent with both parties—and especially the Republicans—is high. However, after the experience of nearly six years of Obama, youth and labor activists have less reason to get out and vote Democrat or work for their election. Therefore, any result is possible.
The Republicans have been embroiled in a debilitating internal civil war between the more “mainstream” conservatives and the fanatics of the so-called Tea Party—in reality, the remaining dregs of the Jim Crow South and its extension into the West and Midwest. Even formerly fervent Tea Party supporters such as the Koch brothers have been forced to try and rein in their overly rabid proteges. Chris Christie’s woes in New Jersey show just how quickly a candidate’s fortunes can change. Other potential candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are steadily building support for a possible presidential run.
The Democrats are not tearing each other to pieces at the present time, but eventually, there will be challenges from the liberal “left” in the party. Left-populists like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bill de Blasio of NYC, and popular figures like Wendy Davis of Texas, may emerge and challenge the Hillary Clintons of the party. Some Democrats may even demagogically style themselves as “socialists.” Accidental figures can and will emerge to fill the vacuum left in the absence of a labor party. We must patiently combat any and all illusions in such people. If individuals such as these were to break with the Democrats and call on labor to join them in building a new party, it would be a different story altogether. But as long as their aim is to nudge the Democrats ever so slightly to the left, they will serve only to suck those leaning to the left into the “big tent” swamp of the Democratic Party.
For example, there is the possibility that Vermont independent “socialist” Bernie Sanders may run for the presidency, either in the primaries as a Democrat, or as an independent. We will have to evaluate our position on whether or not to give critical support to such campaigns on a case-by-case basis. In no way, shape, or form can we take responsibility for these candidates’ brand of “socialism,” and must explain what genuine socialism really is. We must always remain focused on the task of building a cadre organization and emphasizing the need for a labor party armed with socialist policies.
60% of Americans say they favor a mass third party. A record number of Americans consider themselves to be “independents” (42%), with those who consider themselves Democrats at 31%, and Republicans at just 25%. More independents say they lean Democrat as opposed to Republican, which, within the constraints of the US political spectrum, indicates that they lean to the “left.” The “school of Democrats” has been slow one, but the potential for turning US politics upside down is inherent in the situation. However, until a clear lead is given by the union leaders—leading to the formation of a mass labor party—wild swings and volatility in the opinion polls and at the ballot box are on the order of the day.
Marxists and the Mass Organizations
Marxists do not make a fetish of this or that traditional party or trade union of the working class. We orient to the mass organizations for a very simple reason: this is where the workers are. Likewise, our position on the need for a labor party in US flows from our economic and political perspectives. The simple fact is that the objective conditions for revolution are developing more rapidly than the building of the subjective factor—our tendency. If the conditions were such that we could proceed directly with building a mass revolutionary party—thereby skipping the transitional stage of a mass labor party—we would certainly do so. But such a party does not emerge simply by declaring it. This is why a concrete and dialectical approach to politics and the working class is necessary.
Again bearing in mind the limitations of historical analogies, we can say that the US experience will be far more like the British than the German. In Britain, the unions launched the Labour Party; in Germany, the Social Democratic Party helped create the unions. After decades of bouncing back and forth between the Tories and Liberals, the Labour Party finally arose after years of strike waves and union organizing. The basic indicators for unemployment and inequality are actually worse today in the US than they were when the British Trade Unions Council launched the Labour Representation Committee in 1899, which eventually became the Labour Party proper in 1906. Earlier efforts such as the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party had a certain impact, but failed to take root among the broader working class.
As we have already explained, in the coming whirlwind of economic, political, and social struggle, many movements and parties will rise and fall. But only a party based on the power and resources of a significant section of the unions can fundamentally challenge the entrenched interests of the US ruling class. The rise of such a party in the context of a general intensification of the class struggle could quickly pose the question of political and economic power—but only if it is armed with a socialist program and class struggle methods that seek to mobilize the workers against the bosses.
The mass parties that came out of the Second and Third Internationals were built as revolutionary parties; only subsequently did they degenerate into reformism. As Marxists, we understand that mass reformists parties serve as obstacles to the working class taking power. This is the precisely why we have an orientation to them where they exist. Our task in these parties is to build a Marxist tendency that can effectively battle the left and right reformists, and win over those centrists moving away from reformism and towards Marxism.
It is quite clear, therefore, that our aim is not to build reformists parties. Nonetheless, it is inevitable that the future mass labor party will begin its life as a reformist formation. We understand that if it confines itself indefinitely to the limits of capitalism, it will be forced to carry out the same pro-capitalist policies as the Democrats and Republicans. But not all the workers attracted to its banner will immediately understand this. This is why we must build Marxism into a mass force which, along with the hammer blows of events, can break reformism’s hold over the working class.
In order to do this, we must begin with the painstaking work of building a cadre organization that can transform its accumulated quality into numerical quantity on the basis of future events. We cannot allow ourselves to be confused in any way with the reformists of any stripe. We cannot blur the lines between a reformist and a revolutionary policy. We must at all times present a clear banner that differentiates us and serves as a point of reference for the future. Otherwise, the workers will not learn from the experience and will not know who to turn to when events bear out our perspectives. It is in this context that we must look at Socialist Alternative’s approach to electoral politics (as well as the ISO and others who may be joining them in the near future).
For a variety of reasons we have explained elsewhere, the old Socialist and Communist Parties never developed into truly mass forces in US and have not had an impact on American politics for decades. This, and the lack of a labor party, has created a vacuum for reformism that the Taaffe group is seeking to fill. However, all of history shows that mass parties arise only out of mass forces. Never before has a small sect or group of sects conjured up a mass party that can truly challenge the rule of the capitalist class. This time will be no different.
The election of a city council member in Seattle is of symptomatic importance; but we must always maintain a sense of proportion. This electoral victory was achieved, not on the basis of applying a transitional program that inexorably leads to the need for socialist revolution, but rather, on the basis of a “minimum program,” limited to what is “realistic” in the short-term. A higher minimum wage, taxing the “super rich,” and rent control are all laudable demands as far as they go; but they are also demands that many liberal Democratic politicians embrace and have even implemented or co-opted. The purpose of Marxist transitional demands is to make it clear that even basic, reasonable demands—such as universal employment, healthcare, and education—cannot be achieved unless society moves beyond the limits of capitalism.
Furthermore, Socialist Alternative is attempting to substitute itself for the labor movement, and are effectively giving the current leaders a free pass—an excuse not to mobilize the membership to fight to change society. For example, organizing campaigns for a higher minimum wage is the responsibility of the labor leadership and a labor party, and can only truly gain traction based on the power and resources of the unions. A tiny group simply cannot fill this vacuum, even if they donate tens of thousands of dollars in city council wages back to the movement and send out constant appeals for donations and volunteers.
Our approach towards organized labor is fundamentally different. Unlike the sects, we do not shrilly denounce the labor leaders from the sidelines, but, as energetic supporters of the unions, place positive demands on them, in order to help the rank and file draw the conclusion that class-independent political and industrial action is necessary. Nor do we see labor as an afterthought, as one of various more or less equal “social movements.” For Marxists, the working class, and in particular, the workers organized in unions are decisive. This is why we emphasize the key role of the unions in breaking with the Democrats and Republicans and building a mass political party of, by, and for the working class. We do not merely seek out “labor endorsement” or donations for this or that progressive or socialist candidate, as a kind of pressure tactic or protest vote.
The following question must therefore be asked: What kind of party does the working class need, and what kind of party is Socialist Alternative building? The entire experience of the last 100 years shows that the working class requires a mass revolutionary party with a strong core of theoretically trained Marxist cadres if it hopes to end the rule of capital. There are no shortcuts or ways around this. On the basis of campaigning around “lowest common denominator” demands, even if they did succeed in building a “mass party,” what they would be building is not a revolutionary Marxist party, but a mass reformist party; i.e., yet another obstacle to the socialist revolution. Most of their members may be sincere revolutionaries, but history has shown again and again that good intentions are not enough. There will surely be some more far-sighted individuals inside and around their organization, and whenever we come into contact with them, we should patiently discuss our perspectives on this and other questions.
The Need for a Labor Party
The question of a labor party has not been firmly on the agenda in the recent period. Obama’s second honeymoon and the labor leaders’ dogged support for the so-called “friends of labor” Democrats has cut across the uptick in interest on this question that preceded the 2012 elections. It still remains far off the radar of the mainstream media. However, we have long understood that at a certain point, pressure from the working class would lead to divisions in the trade union bureaucracy and push them to independent political action.
The election of 24 “Independent Labor Party” city council members in Lorain County, Ohio is one such example and shows the enormous potential of such a party. While the details remain sketchy at present, the Chicago teachers have also announced their intention to enter the political fray on an independent basis. With most major urban areas in the US controlled by the Democrats, the implicit danger to one of the main pillars of capitalist rule in the country is clear.
These developments absolutely confirm our perspectives on this vital question and represent a symptomatic and concrete example of labor actually running independently, mobilizing, and winning, even if it is only on a local level at this stage. It shows that the Democrats by no means have an unshakable grip on labor and that people will campaign and vote for labor candidates when given the option, even in Democratic Party strongholds.
The example of Lorain County must be generalized across the country, at all levels of government, backed by organized labor’s colossal resources and mobilization capabilities, and eventually unified into a single nationwide labor party. Rising in tandem with strikes and other mass movements, it will not be so easy to hijack and derail the future mass party of labor.
Although most branches are engaged in developing student clubs, we currently lack a unified and concerted national field of work. In a milieu of thousands (and eventually millions) of workers and young people moving to the left, breaking with the Democrats, forming a labor party, and looking for a solution to the crisis of capitalism, there will be enormous possibilities for winning people to the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. However, working within a broader campaign for a labor party and/or an actual labor party will be fundamentally different than merely advocating for one in our propaganda and agitation.
Once a major movement for a labor party develops, we will of course support it—but we must always keep ahead of the curve and raise even more advanced demands. For example, we would explain that we want a labor party that is fully independent of the capitalist parties, with no cross-endorsements or coalitions. Furthermore, we would argue that it should stand for the nationalization of the Fortune 500 and the socialist transformation of society. Positions such as these would establish us as the most advanced section of the movement to form such a party, and of the party itself, once it is established.
In cases like Lorain County, for example, we support the newly established party and the election of its candidates. However, we must also explain from the beginning that if the party does not seek to broaden its scope, spread across the state and the country, and organize the workers to struggle against capitalist class, the state and federal governments, it will be doomed to manage local government within the confines of capitalism, thus falling into the trap of serving the interests of big business, no matter how sincere their intentions. This may not make us the most popular members of these parties or movements at first, but it will put us in a position to win the more far-sighted elements as our perspectives are borne out by events.
To better understand how we would approach this work concretely, we can look to the model of our comrades in Liverpool in the 1980s. When a labor party succeeds in taking charge of a city or town, we can explain how this must be used to organize the class to put pressure on the state and federal governments for money to fund the rapid expansion of employment, useful public works, infrastructure, mass transportation, housing, schools, hospitals, and facilities for sports, recreation, arts, culture, and more.
As the experience of the IMT shows, work in the mass political parties of the working class is complicated, and there will be many pressures on our comrades. The rise of a labor party will create new problems and contradictions for our organization and cannot be seen as a panacea. The labor party itself is not the end, but only a means toward the socialist revolution. Our comrades must be firmly grounded in the long-term perspectives and tasks, and this is possible only with theoretical education, strong branches, and a leadership that has earned the confidence of the membership through its hard work and political track record.
The decay of capitalism is manifested in a variety of ways. Many people are turning inward and are lashing out in frustration on an individual basis. At present, there is a mood of resigned tension and disaffection. There is a nationwide heroin epidemic in states like Vermont. Nationally, drug overdoses have tripled since 1990, and now account for more deaths than motor vehicle crashes. Mass shootings, bombings, and murders over texting in a movie theater or overly loud music in a car are regularly in the headlines. We live in a society of economic, political, and social decline.
But this will all eventually turn into its opposite. The workers and youth are just waiting for something to happen, for a lead, for someone to point the way forward. You can feel it in the air, on the bus, in the workplace, and at the check-out counter.
In the coming period, in the absence of a political outlet, the workers’ aspirations to improve their position will tend to be channelled into economic struggles. We can anticipate a rise in strikes, organizing drives, and militant, class struggle tendencies in the unions. But as economic struggles and strikes are nowhere near enough to stop austerity and falling living standards for the majority, this energy will feed back into the struggle to build a labor party. Alongside these developments, interest in socialism will continue to grow, and there will be an increasingly clear understanding of what socialism really is. International events and the economic cycle will also play a big role in shaping workers’ outlook.
As we are always at pains to explain, changes in consciousness are not linear. However, history wastes nothing, and the contradictions continue to pile up and will eventually reach a breaking point. Consciousness can and will catch up with a bang.
The task of Marxist perspectives is not to look into a crystal ball, but to draw out the most general trends. To use a scientific analogy, American society is a nonlinear system “tuned to the edge of chaos.” Any efforts to reestablish equilibrium in the economy can only lead to further instability in politics and society, and vice versa. All of these dynamics feed on and condition each other in ways that are impossible to predict precisely. We can expect many unexpected twists and turns, even though they are deeply rooted in the objective and subjective conditions themselves. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, the instability of the system has unleashed dynamics that are impossible to predict—and even harder for the ruling class to control.
The longer the pressure builds the more explosive it will be when it finally bursts to the surface. Small, accidental incidents can express a deeper historical necessity and have an effect far out of proportion to their immediate significance. This is why, while developing the broad overview of our perspectives, we must also do our best to keep our finger on the day-to-day pulse of the working class and the youth. The coming period will be fundamentally different from the recent past. In an epoch such as this, there is no room for routinism!
It is a dialectical contradiction that we must build our forces precisely now, at a time when the movement is at a low ebb. But history shows that once the revolution begins, it is too late to improvise the necessary leadership. Recent examples such as Tunisia and Egypt, or even Wisconsin and Occupy demonstrate this without a shadow of a doubt. Our small forces can develop an excellent analysis, but we cannot yet have a decisive effect on events. If we do not build the leadership the working class requires and deserves, no one else will. This is why, although we understand that there are no magic shortcuts to the building of the revolutionary party, we must have a healthy sense of urgency.
We live in the most exciting historical epoch humanity has ever witnessed: the epoch of the world socialist revolution. As Trotsky explained in his 1938 classic, Their Morals and Ours, the Marxists have studied and learned from “the rhythm of history, that is, the dialectics of the class struggle. They also learned, it seems, and to a certain degree successfully, how to subordinate their subjective plans and programs to this objective rhythm. They learned not to fall into despair over the fact that the laws of history do not depend upon their individual tastes and are not subordinated to their own moral criteria. They learned to subordinate their individual desires to the laws of history . . .
“They know how to swim against the stream in the deep conviction that the new historic flood will carry them to the other shore. Not all will reach that shore; many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will—only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!”
We have been fighting against stream since the WIL was founded in 2002. But in the brief span of time that has elapsed since then, our ideas already no longer seem as radical or “out there” as they once did. The disconnect between the conditions faced by the majority and the potential for humanity to reach ever-new heights has never been more glaring. Our ideas reflect reality, while those of the labor leaders and the bourgeois politicians are increasingly at odds with the situation confronting workers and the youth. There have never been greater possibilities for our organization or for the struggle of the working class for socialism. To make this potential actual, we must train the cadres and build the IMT in the US and internationally.
If you agree with this perspective and want to learn more about joining the WIL, please contact us.