The following is the US perspectives document which was discussed and voted on at the National Congress of the US section of the International Marxist Tendency. The document aims to outline the main economic, social, and political developments in the United States over the past period and lay out perspectives for the class struggle in the coming period. If you agree with our perspectives, join us in building the forces of the International Marxist Tendency!
We live in an epoch in which crisis, austerity, upheaval, revolution, and counterrevolution surround us. Lenin's three objective factors for a successful revolution are maturing everywhere: splits in the ruling class; vacillations in the middle class; and a working class prepared to fight to the end to change society. In the US, these conditions are still in the early stages of development, but on the basis of events can accelerate rapidly at a certain stage. Most importantly from our perspective, Lenin also explained that for the working class to take power in a successful socialist revolution, the subjective factor is indispensable: the workers must have a revolutionary party of sufficient size and influence. The IMT is building this subjective factor and the US section has a particularly important responsibility in this process.
Perspectives are a linked series of provisional prognoses on the future development of complex economic, political, and social phenomena. The purpose of this document is to outline the main lines of development for the coming period, in order to help guide our comrades in our collective work of building the organization. However, because the pace of change is so rapid, we must understand that there will be aspects of our analysis that need to be adjusted and updated, sometimes from one day to the next. We must follow events carefully and make the necessary changes to ensure a balanced understanding and intervention in these processes.
Trotsky wrote in In Defense of Marxism: “Every historical prognosis is always conditional, and the more concrete the prognosis, the more conditional it is. A prognosis is not a promissory note which can be cashed on a given date. Prognosis outlines only the definite trends of the development. But along with these trends a different order of forces and tendencies operate, which at a certain moment begin to predominate. All those who seek exact predictions of concrete events should consult the astrologists. Marxist prognosis aids only in orientation.”
Trotsky explained that a Marxist perspective is the victory of foresight over astonishment. The bourgeoisie, who look at the world empirically and are organically incapable of understanding the crisis of their system, are perplexed at the situation that they face and are unsure what to do about it.
Both American and world capitalism face an epoch of instability and decline. We have explained in other documents that this is nothing less than an organic crisis of the system. The system should have been overthrown decades ago, but it received a new lease on life courtesy of the reformists, Stalinists, and labor union leadership. But none of the contradictions have been resolved, nor can they be resolved within the limits of capitalism. Once again, the ruling class faces an intractable economic predicament. As we have explained, in the last analysis, capitalist economic crisis leads social and political crisis. This is reflected in what Trotsky referred to as the molecular process of revolution, in which, on the basis of experience, small, quantitative changes can lead to sudden, qualitative leaps forward in people’s thinking. Events are already having an impact on consciousness, and even more dramatic events are in store for the future.
While the forces of Marxism are growing, we are still quite small and cannot yet have a decisive impact on events. However, there is a layer of the population which is instinctively looking for revolutionary ideas and an organization to join, particularly among the youth.
The decline of US capitalism
The slump of 2008 was a turning point, marking a “before and after” in US economic, political, and social history and consciousness. It was followed by the most feeble recovery in history. Paul Krugman in the New York Times wrote: “According to the economist Kevin O’Rourke, who has been running a comparison between the Great Depression that began in 1929 and the Great Recession that began almost eight years ago, the world has just passed a sad landmark. While the initial slump this time around wasn’t nearly as bad as the collapse from 1929 to 1933, the recovery has been much weaker—and at this point world industrial production is doing worse than it did at the same point in the 1930s.”
The shocks to the market in early 2016 did not lead to a generalized crisis at that time, but the fault lines are clear. Take, for example, the state of the country’s infrastructure. During and after World War II, the US had the best intercity train travel (passenger and freight) and the best in mass transit. Many high-quality roads, highways, bridges, tunnels and airports were built. Today, the framework upon which the US economy rests is crumbling and the ruling class is unwilling to spend the funds required to fix it. As reported by 60 Minutes, the situation is far worse today, nearly a decade after the tragic 2007 rush-hour bridge collapse in the Twin Cities.
Seven years into the recovery, GDP growth in 2015 averaged less than 2.4%. Anything under 3.0% was once considered a “growth recession,” as this rate is not even enough to keep up with the growing population. The capitalists have little margin for maneuver to influence the economy. Interest rates are already near zero. Quantitative easing, which in effect means printing money, has flooded the market with billions of dollars. The only result of these measures has been to prevent a total collapse, but it has not spurred investment in production.
During periods of upswing, workers typically find jobs, wages increase, and many are able to pay off debt and increase savings. This has not happened this time around. Wages are down 4% since 2009. The lowest-paid fifth of workers saw wages fall by 5.7%, while those of the next fifth fell by 4.7%. Median household income is 6.5% lower in 2014 than 2007, and is much worse for those on the bottom of the income scale. Unemployment has dropped since the depths of the slump, but remains persistent. The employment-to-population ratio for those 16-years old and older was 59.8% in February 2016, while in 2007 it was 63.3%. The US Department of Labor's U-6 unemployment rate for February 2016 was 10.1%. If the labor participation rate was the same as in 2007, the U-6 would be roughly 13.6%, after seven years of recovery. In other words, millions of people are condemned to permanent unemployment. In 2010, consumer debt stood at $2.6 billion. By 2014, it had risen to $3.1 billion, an increase of 20%.
Marx explains that capitalist production is divided into two departments: the production of means of production, and the production of means of consumption. Both these sectors have been hit by a crisis of overproduction, often referred to as “overcapacity” by bourgeois economists. Industrial capacity utilization in 2009, at the beginning of the recovery, stood at 66.9%. In January 2016, it had recovered to 77.1%. However, this indicates that deep into the recovery, more than a fifth of capacity still sits idle. The capitalists are sitting on piles of cash, but they will not increase capacity when the market is already saturated.
The top 500 US companies have cash assets of at least $1.4 trillion in US banks, with an estimated additional stash of $2 trillion in offshore accounts. This is enough cash to instantly wipe out the student, credit card, and auto loan debt of every single American. Instead, these companies hoard money and use it to speculate on currencies and the market. This is a graphic example of the parasitism of the capitalist class at a time when their historically progressive role has long since passed. These corporations dominate the economy, accounting for roughly 73% of US GDP in 2010. They cannot be “broken up”—they must be nationalized under workers’ democratic control.
The idea that the US was somehow exempt from world political, economic, and social problems was always untrue, but in present day society, it is clearly absurd. The US economy is completely integrated in the world economy. For example, the slowdown in China directly affects the US. Economist Alan Levenson of T. Rowe Price explains: “If this were just China weakening but the rest of the world reasonably healthy, we might not be seeing the US stock market plunging the way it did [at the beginning of 2016]. But we’re not talking about an environment with otherwise healthy economies. China can’t be seen in a vacuum. It’s indicative of a broader trend, particularly among emerging economies that became overextended and now have to deleverage and reduce capacity.”
China had accumulated $4 trillion in reserves of various foreign currencies as of June 2014. In August 2015 alone, they spent $94 billion to prop up their currency. They now have $3.5 trillion in foreign currencies, a sizable cushion, but one that is shrinking nonetheless. The stronger US dollar is hurting US exports. Although it has recovered somewhat, the collapsed price of oil negatively affects the US energy industry, including the fracking industry—formerly one of the few bright spots.
US imperialism is still the largest and most powerful imperialist power, but it has declined since its height at the end of World War II. In 1946, the US held approximately 75% of the world’s gold and accounted for 52% of the world production of goods and services. This was the heyday of US manufacturing, but once countries like Germany and Japan recovered from the devastation of the war, US industry entered into protracted decline. Today, the US produces just 16% of world GDP.
The World Perspectives document will deal with this in more detail, but it is clear that US imperialism has intractable international problems that cannot be solved through sheer military might, which itself has been scaled back due to the economic crisis. Afghanistan and Syria are cases in point. The fact that the Obama administration and a section of the ruling class is compelled to work with the mullahs in Iran shows their weakness and the complexity of the situation. Around the world, regional powers are maneuvering to take advantage of the void left by the US.
The debt of the US federal government is another indication of the relative decline of the US. Once the world’s largest creditor nation, it is now the largest debtor nation. According to The Economist, over a span of 218 years, average US debt was 28% of GDP. In 1932, when FDR won the election, it was close to 40% of GDP. This allowed a certain margin of borrowing for the New Deal, a series of programs designed to buy the capitalists time and stave off social revolution. In 1946, after World War II, debt peaked at 121%. With its infrastructure intact and the rest of the world in shambles, the postwar boom benefitted US capitalism more than any other, and the country’s debt fell to about 31% of GDP in 1980, the year Reagan was elected.
By 1990, it was over 53% of GDP. In the first quarter of 2015, after years of cuts and austerity, which was promoted as a way of reducing debt, it stood at 102.6%. Today, there is no money for another New Deal. Due to the class balance of forces, there is no possibility of an all-out world war to ramp up production in the US and destroy means of production elsewhere, and, as a result, nothing like the postwar boom is possible. As a comparison, Puerto Rico is $72 billion in debt and cannot pay this back. This represents 68% of its GDP on an island of 3.5 million people. The scale of the crisis in the US is many times greater. Only inertia and the US’s position as the world’s only superpower has allowed its economy to defy gravity for so long. But sooner or later, what goes up must come down, and the US economy is no exception.
In another confirmation of Marx’s predictions, capitalism has led to a situation in which a small group of super rich people are at one pole of society, while a mass of unimaginably impoverished people are at the other. The world’s richest 1% now owns more than the poorest 3 billion people. In the US, the 400 wealthiest individuals have more wealth than the bottom 150 million. The richest 20% of the country, which includes the bourgeoisie and the upper sections of the petty bourgeoisie, receives 51% of the national income, and accounts for 73% of total net worth, while the bottom 80% gets what is left.
When various stock options are accounted for, virtually all of today’s CEOs own a stake in the businesses that they operate. Exxon’s Christopher Crane, earned more than $12.5 million in 2014, the equivalent of $6,052 per hour, based on a 40-hour work week—and he was among the least-well-compensated of the top 200 CEOs. Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav made $156,077,912 that same year—12 times more than Exxon’s boss. The top 25 hedge fund managers made a total of $11.62 billion—an average of $467 million each. While these titans of capital rake in the dough, 2015’s college graduates, mostly from working class backgrounds—since the wealthy do not have to borrow for college—have an average debt of $35,051.
Mergers are on the rise and are often an indication that the “business cycle” has peaked and is primed for a new downturn. As an example, DuPont and Dow have now combined, for a net worth $130 billion—and thousands of workers will lose their jobs as a result. The serious bourgeois analysts interpret these mergers as a lack of confidence in the future, of “playing it safe,” of not “taking chances” when it comes to innovation. This is the opposite of the attitude of the capitalists during the postwar boom, at a time when they were full of confidence in their system. As expressed by The Wall Street Journal: “If the likes of Pfizer Inc., Anheuser-Busch, DuPont, UnitedHealth Group Inc., and American Airlines Group Inc. have lost faith in the future, why should we feel any different?”
New economic crises are on the horizon. It is impossible to know just how severe the next slump will be, but sooner or later, given the organic contradictions of capitalism, a crisis even deeper than 2008 is inevitable. No matter what, the next crisis will not be a simple repetition of the last one. The capitalists have all but exhausted the tools at their disposal to deal with such crises, and workers’ consciousness has come a long way since then. The shock and paralysis of 2008 will be replaced by outrage as the working class moves to take things into their own hands.
Social crisis and changes in the superstructure
The pace of change has been accelerating in the recent period. Although this is not an automatic or mechanical process, in the final analysis, it is a reflection of the dramatic shifts taking place in the economic foundations of society. Due to a crisis of leadership, the world working class has missed many opportunities to bring about the socialist transformation of society. This means that capitalism has continued to exist well beyond its “expiration date.” In a phenomenon that may be likened to “inverse uneven and combined development,” the old society is pregnant with the new, but the birth is long past due. This means that aspects of humanity’s potential under socialism, which can only be fully actualized after capitalism is ended, are present today, albeit in a contradictory and distorted form.
For example, the proliferation of the internet, smartphones, and social media, particularly in the United States, has connected humanity in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago. Additionally, recent developments in technology have the potential to give nearly universal access to much of the arts, literature, music, science, and many other fields of human culture. This changed dynamic has broken down barriers in places that would have, in the past, been dominated by a narrow, provincial worldview. However, within the truncated limits of capitalism, this hyper-connectivity also has the potential to facilitate atomization, particularly in periods of lull in the class struggle, an obstacle that will need to be consciously overcome as the working class moves into action.
The increase of poverty, unemployment, cuts to social services, and mass incarceration of the poorest layers of the working class are all linked to the present crisis of capitalism. These are responsible in large part for the disintegration of the bourgeois institution of the family. The US Census Bureau reported in 2011 that 40% of all live births in the US were to single mothers, correlating to higher poverty, high school dropouts, and juvenile violence. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2007 that almost 1.5 million minor children have parents in jail, with half of those parents responsible for primary financial support for those children.
The legitimacy of this basic pillar of social life under capitalism is being increasingly challenged, especially by the youth, as are many of the social norms which accompany it. One recent YouGov poll found that one in three 18-29 year olds did not identify as entirely heterosexual. While another poll conducted by Benenson Strategy Group found that 50% of 18-34 year olds believe that gender identity lies on a spectrum. Even the Supreme Court cannot ignore this sea-change in social attitudes, as shown by the recent legalization of same-sex marriage. The rich diversity and potential of human social relations is trying to break through millennia of stifling control, but it cannot find its realization within the confines of capitalism.
The contradictory pressures of capitalism have contributed to the breakup of many families, and the lack of stability has left many young people in what may be considered a permanent state of transition. Meanwhile, traditional religions, like the Catholic Church and mainline Protestantism have declined. The fact that the current Pope poses as a “left” tells us something about how concerned the Church is with the prospect of losing its power and prestige. These and other institutions of bourgeois rule are being discredited, especially among the youth. However, until a new socialist social infrastructure replaces the old forms, this disintegration will also continue to have negative consequences in people’s lives.
The US in its prime was a country with powerful oil, steel, automobile, electronics, and construction industries. This was the material basis for the American Dream. Quality of life for wide layers of the population increased from one generation to the next. This has now been replaced by mass unemployment. Not only are workers disillusioned with the system but even the capitalists have lost faith in capitalism. With the decline of manufacturing Wall Street has resorted to speculative markets in place of these once great industries, gambling with the future and livelihoods of millions of workers. Unsurprisingly, as the postwar boom ended and the prolonged crisis of the system deepened, this was reflected in society at large when gambling was expanded as a way to “create economic growth” Casinos promise jobs, revenue and a chance out of poverty, funded by low-income workers and impoverished retirees placing all their hopes on striking it rich at the slot machine. It has not succeeded, and again shows the parasitic nature of American capitalism.
Another manifestation of the crisis is what can only be described as an epidemic of heroin and prescription drug addiction and overdoses. To be sure, the causes of substance abuse and addiction defy a simply economic explanation. However, the deepening crisis of capitalism has amplified the many factors that lead to addiction. In 2001, there were about 2,000 deaths due to overdoses of heroin in the US. Since then, there has been an increase of over 500%, with the sharpest rise coming after 2009. Nationally, 125 people a day die from drug overdoses, 78 of them from heroin and painkillers. In the midst of this crisis, treatment for drug addiction, which is widely recognized as a medical condition, is underfunded and unavailable for all but the children of the wealthy.
Indeed, while the wealthy attend private rehabilitation clinics, hundreds of thousands of working class youth end up in jails and prisons as a consequence of the “War on Drugs.” This war is merely one leg of a system of mass incarceration, whose decades-long expansion has mirrored the development of the crisis of capitalism. In 2013, there were 2.3 million people imprisoned in the United States and another 4.7 million on parole or probation. This is by far the highest per-capita rate in the world. Mass incarceration has skyrocketed along with police militarization and brutality, which plague poor and oppressed neighborhoods. This build-up in repression is a sign of weakness on the part of the bourgeois state. It represents an attempt to control and neutralize the social powder keg of poor and marginalized youth who cannot be integrated into the crisis-ridden capitalist economy. It overwhelmingly targets young people, particularly non-whites, in one of the most vicious aspects of a wider divide-and-conquer strategy. Ultimately, the highly profitable prison industrial complex is an attempt to manage profound economic and social contradictions by extraordinary means and will lead to an explosive reaction in the future.
In another indication of societal decline, it seems that not a week goes by without someone going on a shooting rampage, often at schools. The continual eruption of such events is evidence of a society at an impasse. Although these incidents involve a small number of people, they reflect the growing nihilism and pessimism of a section of society. When the masses enter into struggle, this can at least temporarily cut across these moods. But truly mass struggles have been few and far between in the recent period, though this too will inevitably change.
Such struggles tend to begin as a push back against the whip of reactionary attacks. Anti-immigrant legislation was the straw that broke the camel’s back for immigrant workers, leading to a mass movement in 2006. Occupy Wall Street began as a reaction to the polarization of wealth and the financial crisis, and was inspired by the Arab Revolution and the 2011 events in Wisconsin. The Arab Revolution began in response to the police in Tunisia repressing Mohamed Bouazizi, a young university graduate reduced to becoming a street vendor. Wisconsin began with Governor Walker’s vicious attack on public sector workers. Black Lives Matter began in reaction to racist killings. We also saw the movement against the Confederate flag as a result of a racist mass murder in South Carolina. This shows the weakness of the KKK as compared to the 1920s or even the 1970s. This took place in one of the most conservative states in the country. Big developments are ahead in the South, which we will delve into in much greater detail in the future.
Although these movements may sometimes win a few minor reforms, in and of themselves they are incapable of resolving the problems they seek to address. All such problems are woven into the very fabric of class society. Although it is running out of room for maneuver, the system is still flexible enough that it can offer small concessions that do not too adversely affect its bottom line. By letting off some steam, the class struggle can be derailed into the dead end of the courts, lobbyists, and Democratic Party, while the standing of reformist trends within the movement are enhanced—but only temporarily. Nonetheless, even small victories can increase the confidence of many people newly drawn into struggle—appetite comes with eating! We cannot predict which sparks will lead to mass movements, but society is full of combustible material and there are many potential sparks.
On the basis of experience, growing numbers will come to realize that nothing fundamental has changed and that something far more transformative is required. The disparate efforts to change society will have a layering effect on consciousness, which will eventually reach a tipping point. Over time, the streams of struggle will tend to converge in one form or another, eventually merging into a raging river of revolutionary class struggle.
Political crisis and a shift to the left
As we explained in previous perspectives documents, the political pendulum, which had swung so far to the right, is beginning to swing sharply in the opposite direction. Years of crisis and instability have had an inexorable effect on consciousness. From a Marxist perspective, it is a matter of course that polarization of wealth and income will find its reflection in the polarization of society and in politics. Given the absence of a clear working-class consciousness and lead at this stage of development, the polarization has initially taken the form of right and left populism, including, for the first time in many decades, the rise of reformism. Nonetheless, this marks a deep change in working-class political consciousness, breaking through decades of anti-socialist, “we are all middle class” propaganda.
The working class has different layers and these layers are in flux. But the decisive trend is that many people no longer believe in or trust the mainstream parties, politicians, media, academic institutions, and religions. Most people do not know what precisely it is they want, but many have an increasingly clear idea of what they do not want. People’s consciousness is transformed via experience and successive approximations.
A Pew poll in the spring of 2015 found that “two-thirds of respondents believed government policies since the 2008 financial crisis had primarily benefited the wealthy instead of the middle class or the poor—a view held by 70% of those making less than $75,000 a year and by 55% of Republicans.”
A New York Times poll in June 2015 showed that 67% believe that the gap between the rich and poor is getting wider, and 65% believe it is a problem that should be addressed now. 68% wanted taxes increased on people who earn more than $1 million and 57% believe that the government should do more to reduce the gap.
Even among those with higher incomes, cynicism reigns. The New York Times reported that a third of those surveyed making more than $500,000 “have witnessed or have firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace . . . Nearly one in five respondents feel financial service professionals must sometimes engage in unethical or illegal activity to be successful in the current financial environment.”
The fact that big business ultimately calls the shots when it comes to government policy is increasingly clear to millions. Earlier in the election cycle, Robert Reich reported that 158 families and the companies they own or control had contributed $176 million, 50% of the total amount contributed, to the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. Growing numbers of Americans instinctively feel that the state does not represent their interests. In an election year, they are looking for an outlet.
In 2008, Obama’s abstract appeal for “hope” and “change we can believe in” rallied millions to the polls. He was accused of being a socialist in an attempt to smear him, and he rejected that label. He was elected as the first black president in a country with a long and tortured history of slavery and institutional racism. Eight years later, we see the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders. The fact that he calls himself a socialist, calls for a “political revolution against the billionaire class,” for a higher minimum wage, for universal healthcare, free education, and against police brutality resonates profoundly after the experience of the last few years. The massive enthusiasm for his ideas is a sign that consciousness has moved to the left among a large layer of the working class and the youth.
He has been met by massive, energetic crowds across the country. His campaign has received more than 5 million individual contributions, and many thousands have volunteered their time and energy. The final result of the candidate selection process is impossible to know at this stage and we must be careful not to make categorical predictions. By the time we vote on this document at our Congress, the picture may well have been clarified. We will have to supplement our US Perspectives discussions on the 2016 elections with editorials, articles, internal circulars, etc. Nonetheless, there are important general conclusions that can be drawn for the purposes of a document of this nature.
While a layer of the working class and youth has moved rapidly to the left, US politics has moved far to the right, as compared to the 1960s and 1970s. Even Bernie Sanders is to the right of where he was in 1989. In 1989, Sanders wrote a scathing criticism of the Democrats for helping Reagan get his program through Congress. Since then, the party has moved much further to the right, yet he chose to run as a Democrat instead of independently of the two big business parties. This is not simply a matter of ideology, but of objective reality. Those who accept the limits of the system are compelled to move to the right, as the depth of the crisis rules out any significant reforms and increases in the masses’ standard of living.
When looking at recent independent challenges coming from the left of the two major parties, Ralph Nader’s 2.74% of the vote in 2000 was a high-water mark. Had Sanders run as an independent he would have surely done better than this, and the beginnings of a new political formation—perhaps the beginnings of a mass labor party—could have been established. However, if Bernie Sanders had run as an independent, he would not have received as much publicity and would have less support and money. Though running as a Democrat, Sanders’ candidacy is stirring up a debate within the labor movement.
It remains to be seen whether Sanders will follow through on his promise to back Hillary if he loses the nomination “fair and square.” It is also possible that he will actually win the nomination by winning so many pledged delegates that the party machine is unable to play the “super delegate” card without causing a major backlash. The serious bourgeois are already preparing for this possibility. Hillary’s campaign could implode at any time, and if another economic crisis hits or a mass movement erupts before the elections, they would much prefer to keep Sanders within the “big tent” of the Democrats, in order to control the movement, rather than risk his splitting off and undermining, perhaps terminally, one of the key pillars of capitalist rule.
The effects of his winning the nomination would have unforeseeable consequences for the future of that party, which we would have to analyze concretely. If Sanders were to actually win the presidency as a Democrat, he would be constrained by a hostile party, Congress, the capitalist crisis, and the limitations of his program. Unable to implement his policies within the existing setup, he would be faced with the choice of either managing the capitalists’ crisis, which would mean breaking his campaign promises, or of breaking with their parties and their system. No matter what occurs, the full implications of his winning the nomination and/or the presidency will have to be discussed on the basis of events themselves.
If he is blatantly blocked, or otherwise comes under overwhelming pressure to do so, it remains a possibility that he will run as an independent after all. Or perhaps he will choose not to run this year, but will begin laying the foundations for an electoral challenge against the two major parties in the future. Some combination of these scenarios could well be the beginnings of a labor party, the formation of which will surely go through many twists and turns before it coalesces. We must explain, however, that if such a party does not win the backing of the major labor unions and does not adopt a revolutionary socialist program that breaks with capitalism, it too will end up managing the capitalist crisis, and succeed only in channeling the anger of the masses into avenues safe for the continuation of the system. Whatever form the future mass party of the working class may take, we must arm our comrades with Marxist ideas and methods in order to fight for our program within it.
Once again, it is impossible to say for certain which of the many variants or combinations will become actual. We will have to follow events closely in order to keep our analysis sharp. There are many individuals supporting Sanders because he is a socialist and despite his running as a Democrat. Many of them have already understood the dead end represented by that party, are open to revolutionary socialist ideas and the formation of a new mass party, and would be bitterly disappointed if he ends up endorsing Hillary. We can win many of these individuals with a friendly and skillful explanation of our analysis. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum, and Sanders has filled it this electoral cycle. No matter what happens, his campaign has changed the dynamic of “what is possible” in US politics. 2016 will not be a mere repetition of 2008 or 2012. There are many unknowns and possibilities which we must continue to analyze dialectically. We cannot approach things mechanically. What is clear is that both major parties are being stressed to the limit, and splits in one form or another are in the cards.
Crisis of the Republican Party and the rise of right populism
The rise of Donald Trump, and earlier, the Tea Party, are manifestations of the emergence of right populism. The base of this sentiment is the petty bourgeoisie, older parts of the population, and some backwards white workers, many facing stagnation and decline as a result of the capitalist economic crisis. There is often an element of truth in what such demagogues say, but this is wrapped in lies, racism, fear-mongering, and sensationalism. If Trump or someone like him actually wins the presidency, there would be a massive Wisconsin-like movement against him. The violence at some of his recent campaign rallies is just a small hint of what would happen. At the same time, his inability to deliver on his outrageous promises would quickly disappoint many of his supporters.
Trump is in some ways like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi—a bourgeois out for himself, and not the good of the class as a whole. Trump’s “philosophy” is economic and political nationalism. He was born the son of a landlord and he made his early start in business due to political connections his father had. His rhetoric and bombast is unprecedented for a mainstream Republican candidate. Reagan would wink at the racists and use thinly coded language, but he would never have used the overt anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim propaganda that Trump gets away with.
Some on the Left and in the media claim that Trump is a fascist. Marxists examine these issues not on the basis of emotion, but from a scientific point of view. As of now, Trump is not galvanizing the enraged petty bourgeois and lumpen elements to dismantle the organizations of the advanced working class, with the ultimate goal of preserving a collapsing capitalist system on behalf of a layer of the bourgeoisie. Even if he attempted to do so, the class balance of forces is such that there are far fewer people than in the past who could make up the “battering ram” of a genuine fascist movement of any size. Even the present labor leadership could be compelled to mobilize against such a threat due to pressure from below.
Furthermore, there is also no reason for the US ruling class to support a reactionary movement on the streets at this time. They have the full support of the labor leadership, which has been able to keep the working class in check. Very few strikes have taken place in the recent period, and even when they do take place, the leadership usually adheres strictly to the letter of the law, which is why the workers usually lose. There is no mass left force in existence at the present time that needs to be smashed. Just because someone is a right-populist demagogue does not mean they are a fascist. As we have explained in our past documents, the Tea Party is not a fascist movement either. This does not mean that the balance of forces cannot change, or that individual groups of right-wing fanatics cannot coalesce and wreak havoc. But before we are confronted with a serious threat of naked counterrevolutionary reaction, the working class will have many opportunities to take power.
The Republican Party is in a deep crisis, as the traditional conservatives, Tea Party, and Donald Trump tear each other apart. At present, it looks as though it will be difficult for the Republicans to prevent Trump from becoming their nominee. They will either have to embrace him, block him in a contested convention, or possibly run someone as an “Independent Republican” or on an existing conservative third-party line. If Trump is blocked, it is almost certain that he will bolt from the party and take millions of voters with him, perhaps leading to a new political formation and the destruction of the GOP in the process.
No matter who wins each party’s nomination, or how many candidates run, polarization will be catalyzed further, and the “lesser evil” pressure to defeat the Republicans will be merciless. We must resist this pressure without alienating those with sincere illusions, and patiently explain that there are no shortcuts or quick fixes, that a “lesser evil” policy eventually leads to the “greater evil” getting into power, and that the only real way to fight and defeat the right is by building a mass socialist labor party based on the unions. Despite the enthusiasm for Sanders and the cracks this has revealed, the Democratic Party machine remains firmly in the control of big business, is tightly fused with the bourgeois state, and there are no structures for “taking over the party” from the inside.
If Sanders were to split from the Democrats and launch an independent campaign for the presidency, a tremendous new arena for mass work could open up for Marxists. The widespread enthusiasm for his candidacy could be transformed into a mass movement in the fullest sense of the word, which could in turn rapidly grow into a mass party. These choppy waters would put enormous pressures of a different kind on us, but could put us in active contact with a broad layer of self-identified socialists, many of whom would be open to our ideas, program, and organization.
The Green Party campaign of Jill Stein for President has been actively courting Sanders supporters for the eventuality that Sanders loses the nomination, and then endorses Clinton. It is conceivable that a good number of Sanders activists and supporters, unable to stomach such a turn, may look to the Green Party. We will need to keep our eyes open for new opportunities to discuss socialism and Marxism with activists radicalized by the Sanders candidacy and actively breaking with the Democrats, but disappointed in his embrace of Wall Street’s candidate, if that is the course he follows.
Whatever variant plays out, the field has now opened up for the advance of our work among broader layers of youth and workers. American politics is no longer the humdrum affair it used to be. We must be attentive and follow the ins and outs of the electoral process in detail, discuss it regularly at all levels of the organization, and determine at each stage how best to intervene to build the forces of revolutionary Marxism. Our main task must be to recruit the ones and twos, and then educate and consolidate them as cadres. This is the only way to ensure we can make a real difference in the future, with the aim of becoming a mass revolutionary tendency and then party, which can help lead the coming US socialist revolution.
Perspectives for the labor movement
The labor movement has continued to suffer a massive crisis of leadership. As we have explained in the past, the post-World War II boom and the McCarthy period purged the labor movement of the Left. Stalinism made this task easier for the bourgeois. The Trotskyist influence, though small, was also destroyed by the combination of external attacks and the mistaken methods and perspectives of the SWP and the rest of the Fourth International’s leadership. Basically, the entire trade union leadership in the US accepts capitalism and does not even refer to socialism, anarchism, or—heaven forbid—communism. The political fruits of class collaboration are evident: 25 states are now “right to work,” including former union strongholds Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when capitalism was still in an upswing, the trade union leaders and their “business unionism” led to a relative weakening of the unions in the private sector. In 1946, 35% of the labor force was in unions, mostly in the private sector. By 1977 it was down to 23.2%, much of that being public sector union members. Reagan’s successful attack on the PATCO air traffic controllers and the labor leaders’ tepid response led to an acceleration of this process. Today, the “partnership with the bosses” and the Democrats means that just 11.1% of all workers are organized; 35.7% of those in the public sector, and just 6.6% in the private sector.
American capitalism has also changed the way it allocates employment between industries. As an example, far fewer people work in coal, steel, and auto, as compared to the past. There are no longer any mines organized by the United Mine Workers in Kentucky, a former stronghold. In the 1940s, the UMW had more than 800,000 members. Today, the UMW has 80,000 members including retirees, and only 35,000 active members. Of these, just 20,000 are coal miners—the rest are public employees, health care workers, and truck drivers. The United Auto Workers was 1.5 million strong in the mid-1970s. Today, not including 560,000 retirees, they have just 390,000 active members. Walmart is now the biggest private employer, accounting for 1% of the total working population in the US.
The massive unionization of the workforce in the 1930s and 1940s mainly included private sector workers. Historically speaking, public sector workers had lower pay, but better benefits. Once the civil service system replaced some of the “spoils system,” they also had better job security. State and local government workers, including most public school teachers, were organized mostly in the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. On the heels of the relentless assault by capital on private sector unions over the last 30 years, and given the relative strength of the public sector unions, they are now in the crosshairs of the bosses, as we saw, for example, in Wisconsin.
A strong union movement in the public sector strengthens private sector unions. In addition, the ruling class wants to cut state expenditures, and the wages, benefits and working conditions of the unionized work force make attractive targets. The parasitic ruling class also wants to make easy profits by expanding the privatization of public services, and the public sector unions are their main obstacle.
Public workers’ pensions have been cut in California, Rhode Island, and Detroit, Michigan. The Supreme Court recently took up Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which if successful, would have established an “open shop” at the state, county and municipal level, thus striking a serious blow to public sector unions. The death of Scalia resulted in a 4-4 deadlock, and the court’s past precedent was not overturned, though it may revisit this question in the future. Despite the gravity of this attack, the union leaders did not mobilize the membership to fight against it. They relied instead on lawyers and legal briefs to pressure the court. Their argument was essentially as follows: “You still need us to tame the working class. If you create an ‘open shop,’ we will be forced by the membership against our wishes to become more militant.”
In the past, given a certain left-wing influence in the union movement, labor militancy, and the ever-present example of the USSR, the labor leaders were seen by the capitalists as tools to control the working class. The union tops have done this so successfully that significant sections of the ruling class no longer fear the workers and believe that the unions themselves can be dispensed with.
Strikes remain at historic lows, with just 11 or 12 major work stoppages or lockouts per year over the last two years, and there is no organized opposition of any note to the leadership. But the ranks are not happy, especially when new hires do the same jobs for as little as half the pay of their older coworkers. The friction between the rank and file and the leadership, and the growing solidarity between the various tiers of workers can be seen in the recent contract votes in the auto industry. Also of note in the recent period, skilled trades workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted in the union, an indication of the pressures that are building in the South.
In addition, there was a strike in the oil sector in 2015, led by the US Steelworkers union, but they did not aim to stop production and they eventually accepted a give-back contract. If there had been a fraction of Marxists working in that union ahead of the strike, and if we were a larger force that could also help them from the outside, the impact could have been very different. The Market Basket strike a few years ago in Boston was a victory by workers not organized in a union, who nonetheless successfully shut down the company’s stores. There are many contradictions in the labor movement that show the confusion that can arise when Marxism is a small force, a huge vacuum exists, and yet the workers are compelled to fight back.
The class struggle has not yet been expressed through the labor movement, and in an election year, attention is focused on who will next occupy the White House. However, the election has brought to the surface the glaring political disconnect between the unions’ support for the Democrats and that party’s anti-labor policies. In a recent article by Ralph Nader, “Big Union Leaders Betray Sanders and Workers,” the former presidential candidate reported on a meeting held at AFL-CIO headquarters, at which “A furious exchange occurred between labor union presidents” on the question of the impending Executive Council decision to endorse Hillary Clinton. “A union leader of the postal workers charged unions backing Hillary as being ‘completely out of touch with their workers,’” at which point AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka ended the discussion by cutting off dissenters’ microphones. This revealing exchange is reflective of the strong and growing pressure within the mass organizations of the working class.
We cannot say how these insoluble class contradictions will manifest precisely, but we can be certain that sooner or later, capital will force the workers to fight openly, politically, and economically. The broadening fight for a $15 minimum wage and the campaign against Wal-Mart, although limited in scope and aims, are an indication of this, as is the growing campaign to unionize adjunct faculty, TAs, and other workers at universities. Given the dearth of unions in the service sector and in the South, it is possible that the first big struggles will emerge where there are no unions in place—as was the case in the 1930s. Those unions with younger workers will most likely join the fight first and become more militant. New unions will rise and established ones will be transformed, revitalized, or disintegrate. Current leaders will be pushed to the left or pushed out altogether.
We cannot predict precisely how the class struggle will develop. Different forms of organization and struggle are also possible, and we cannot think rigidly about how these processes will unfold. When blocked in one direction, the workers will eventually find another path. Battles in one sector will eventually be felt throughout the labor movement and throughout the class. Eventually, the energy and creativity of the working class will come up with many ways to confront the bosses economically and politically, by shutting down production and shutting down their political parties.
The youth and the revolutionary future
Lenin once said that “he who has the youth has the future.” According to right-wing political consultant Frank Luntz, Americans 18 to 26 have moved so far to the left that “the hostility of young Americans to the underpinnings of the American economy and the American government [should] frighten every business and political leader.”
A recent poll conducted by Luntz found that 58% of respondents said they agreed more with the statement “America isn’t better or worse than most other countries” than with “America is exceptional. It’s better than every other country in the world.” 35% of 18 to 26-year-olds, including 42% of 18 to 21-year-olds, said they considered themselves more a citizen of the world than of the US. In response to the question, “Which type of political system do you think is the most compassionate?” 58% said socialism and 9% said communism. Just 33% chose capitalism. 66% of the poll’s respondents said corporate America “embodies everything that is wrong about America.”
Anecdotal evidence would seem to indicate that those under 18 are even more open to revolutionary ideas. The world they live in is not the same as their parents’ and grandparents’, and their political attitudes reflect this. They have never known and will never know the relative stability of the postwar world. There is no guaranteed job, mortgage, car loan, or retirement to anchor them to the system. Theirs is a world of crisis, revolution, and change, combined with instant worldwide cultural exchange and communication. They have no firm loyalties to any party or politician, and the pillars of bourgeois society have little authority in their eyes. As Marx explained in the Communist Manifesto, they live in a world in which “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
This, for us is the key question—the rapidly changing attitudes of the youth. This is not to say that there does not exist a layer of older workers who are “young at heart.” But poll after poll shows that young people are beginning to draw advanced and even revolutionary conclusions. They are not chained to the institutions, ideologies, identities, or politics of the past. Support for basic democratic equality is being transformed into support for socialism and “equality of life.” The cynicism, pessimism, and prejudices of the older generations are unknown to them, and they are brimming with optimism for the future, confident in their ability to make a meaningful impact on the world. At the same time, this is combined with unease, uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. They can sense that there is no guarantee they will be able to realize their potential, as they are still shackled by the narrow constraints of a system that sees them as mere automatons.
In the course of just a few months, people’s perception of socialism has been dramatically transformed, and US politics will never be the same. If we work correctly, we can make big gains in this new environment, though we must always keep in mind that this will be a nonlinear process, with ups and downs, ebbs and flows. It is crucial, therefore, that we have a sense of proportion and keep our eye on the long-term perspective. There is a big difference between perspectives and wishful thinking, just as there is a difference between the first and ninth months of pregnancy. There are no shortcuts to building the revolutionary party. We are in the early days of this process. The next few months will be extremely interesting and important, but the coming years will be even more momentous, and this is what we are preparing for.
The youth are putting the capitalist system on notice. But we understand that it will not be overthrown automatically merely because people “favor” socialism or vote for this or that politician at the polls. Preparation, perspectives, organization, sacrifice, struggle, and much more will be required. This means building the forces of the IMT in the US and throughout the world.
In a world of endless distractions and constant sensory and information inputs, the need for theoretical clarity, perspectives, and patience is greater than ever. Turbulent waters are necessarily muddy and confused, and things will only get more complicated before they are clarified. But we study dialectical materialism for a reason: in order to apply it to complex processes such as this. All our members, sympathizers, and contacts must study, discuss, and sharpen our understanding of world and US perspectives. We must draw all the organizational and personal conclusions that flow from this, to take advantage of the opportunities ahead of us.
We stand at an important juncture of history. The environmental destruction caused by capitalism is a challenge that cannot be addressed by a system based on quarterly profit margins. In the United States, the struggles over the Keystone XL Pipeline and fracking for natural gas shows the nightmare created by capitalism when it comes to managing our planet’s natural resources. Humanity is already faced with enormous challenges such as rising sea levels, scarcity of potable water, climate change and threats to food production. California officials have announced that the drought, the worst in the state’s history, will likely be permanent. Only a nationalized, democratically planned world economy can do what is required to safeguard humanity and the planet.
The Marxists have passed through a tough period in which socialist ideas were marginalized in US society and a general malaise and apolitical apathy prevailed. We had relatively few opportunities to connect with wider layers of the workers and youth. But that is beginning to change. While there are plenty of storm clouds ahead, the first rays of light are beginning to shine above the horizon. We must meet our historical obligations and not just observe and comment on history, but prepare to actually change it. As the curve of historical development accelerates, we can look ahead with great optimism to a revolutionary socialist future.