The Economic Crisis, the American Working Class, and the Left

Mis en ligne le 18 mars 2008

The Situation Today and the Situation in 1930

The world appears to be on the verge of an eco­no­mic crisis and, if it turns out to be as serious as some think, one that could rival or exceed the great panics of the late nine­teenth cen­tury and the decade-long Great Depression. The crisis began with uns­cru­pu­lous mort­gage len­ding on an enor­mous scale, lea­ding to mass hou­sing fore­clo­sures, then to a col­lapse of the secu­ri­ties backed by sub-prime mort­gages, and finally became a crisis of the banks that held those secu­ri­ties. Over the past wee­kend govern­ment and ban­king offi­cials worked out J.P. Morgan’s buyout of Bear Sterns, one of the most impor­tant U.S. banks which stood on the verge of col­lapse, a deve­lop­ment that threa­te­ned to unleash an inter­na­tio­nal finan­cial crisis.

by Dan La Botz

This may turn out to be only ano­ther reces­sion, pain­ful as those are, but if it turns out to be a genuine depres­sion, what are we on the left pre­pa­red to do ? What will this crisis mean for the American wor­king class ? What should be the res­ponse of the U.S. left ? What can be lear­ned from the expe­riences of the past and how can those les­sons be applied to the present chal­lenge ?

A Common Recognition of the Danger

The crisis that faces us is now clear to all, even if President Bush — like President Herbert Hoover after the Crash of 1929 — denies that the eco­nomy is in danger. Already seve­ral months ago Lawrence Summers, Secretary of the Treasury in President Bill Clinton’s admi­nis­tra­tion, wrote in an opi­nion piece in The Financial Times war­ning that « Even if neces­sary changes in policy are imple­men­ted, the odds now favor a US reces­sion that slows growth signi­fi­cantly on a global basis. Without stron­ger policy res­ponses than have been obser­ved to date, moreo­ver, there is the risk that the adverse impacts will be felt for the rest of this decade and beyond. »1

John Lipsky, the number two offi­cial of the International Monetary Fund said this week that govern­ment policy makers must be pre­pa­red to « think the unthin­kable. » One pre­sumes that by that he means a col­lapse of the world eco­nomy.2Robert Brenner, the UCLA eco­no­mic his­to­rian, wrote recently in the lef­tist jour­nal Against the Current that « The cur­rent crisis could well turn out to be the most devas­ta­ting since the Great Depression. » He concludes his article wri­ting « banks’ losses are so real, already enor­mous, and likely to grow much grea­ter as the down­turn gets worse, that the eco­nomy faces the pros­pect, unpre­ce­den­ted in the post­war period, of a free­zing up of credit at the very moment of sli­ding into reces­sion — and that govern­ments face a pro­blem of unpa­ral­le­led dif­fi­culty in pre­ven­ting this out­come. »3

A Crisis for Ordinary People

There is a common unders­tan­ding of the serious nature of the crisis, even if no agree­ment on ulti­mate causes and conse­quence, among a range of people with quite dif­ferent poli­tics. Not only do banks, govern­ments, and inter­na­tio­nal finan­cial ins­ti­tu­tions face a crisis, so do the wor­king people of the world. The crisis has tre­men­dous poten­tial to cause wides­pread suf­fe­ring because it is taking the form of a crisis of stag­fla­tion, that is simul­ta­neous eco­no­mic down­turn and rising prices.

Josette Sheeran, World Food Program Chief for the United Nations, recently stated that the world eco­nomy « has now ente­red a per­fect storm for the world’s hungry. » A series of deve­lop­ments — soa­ring energy and oil prices, cli­mate change, pro­duc­tion of bio­fuels, and rising demand from India and China — will make it increa­sin­gly dif­fi­cult for mil­lions to afford food.

« This is lea­ding to a new face of hunger in the world, what we call the newly hungry. These are people who have money, but have been priced out of being able to buy food, » she said. « Higher food prices will increase social unrest in a number of coun­tries which are sen­si­tive to infla­tio­nary pres­sures and are import-dependent. We will see a repeat of the riots we have already repor­ted on the streets such as we have seen in Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Senegal. »4

Impact on the United States

When a reces­sion occurs, com­pa­nies fail, plants close, those that sur­vive lay off wor­kers, and unem­ploy­ment rises. If the cur­rent crisis turns out to be merely a reces­sion, unem­ploy­ment is expec­ted to rise to 6.4 percent by 2009, accor­ding to Goldman Sachs, while African American unem­ploy­ment would reach 11.0 percent. (Blacks’ unem­ploy­ment is gene­rally twice that of whites.)5 However, if this turns out to be a more serious reces­sion such as those we have expe­rien­ced in the last 25 years, then unem­ploy­ment could reach 8.84 percent as it did in 1975 or 9.71 percent as it did in 1982.

And, if this is the kind of eco­no­mic crisis which many fear, a crisis along the lines of the Great Depression, then we would be tal­king about an unem­ploy­ment rate of 25 percent, and for African Americans, 50 percent as it was in the 1930s. Deep reces­sions and depres­sions have his­to­ri­cally been accom­pa­nied by shor­ter work­weeks and wage cuts, so income also falls for those who have work.

What would we expect to happen if such an eco­no­mic crisis with such high levels of unem­ploy­ment were to hit the United States ? The United States today has a social safety net such as did not exist in 1929 — unem­ploy­ment insu­rance, social secu­rity, and Medicaid and Medicare — but a tre­men­dous strain would be put on those sys­tems and govern­ment at every level would soon face a fiscal crisis.

The Likely Failure of the Social Safety Net

With lowe­red cor­po­rate pro­fits and decli­ning incomes and sales, Federal, state and local govern­ment would not have the reve­nues to pay for those social pro­grams and would also be unable to pay sala­ries and wages of public employees. In fact this has already begun, as the New York Times reports, « About half of the state legis­la­tures are scram­bling to plug gaps in their bud­gets, shot through by rapid declines in cor­po­rate and sales tax reve­nue. . . . »6

With pri­vate sector and public sector wor­kers losing their jobs, more fami­lies would qui­ckly exhaust their savings, lose their homes, and increa­sing num­bers of those who rent would be evic­ted. Homelessness of wor­king-class fami­lies would rise beyond the capa­city of govern­ment and cha­ri­table ins­ti­tu­tions. The condi­tion of the African American and Hispanic wor­kers will be much worse than that of the white wor­kers, and that will be quite bad. Significant num­bers of recent Hispanic immi­grants would return to their home­lands in Mexico or Central America, though most would pro­ba­bly stay here, since things will be no better at home.

The Political Response

What will happen to American poli­tics if there is a depres­sion ? Whether we have a govern­ment headed by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain, we will face simi­lar issues. All three can­di­dates share a com­mit­ment to the neo­li­be­ral and global capi­ta­list model that has domi­na­ted our poli­ti­cal eco­nomy since the 1980s. While a Republican govern­ment might react more rigidly and a Democratic govern­ment more flexi­bly to such a deep eco­no­mic crisis, still it is unli­kely that either will at first take dra­ma­tic mea­sures.

Especially since the crisis will pro­ba­bly be deve­lo­ping during the first year or two of a new admi­nis­tra­tion, one would expect that there will be foun­de­ring fol­lo­wed by expe­ri­men­ta­tion. The American expe­rience of the 1930s under President Franklin D. Roosevelt or the 1960s under President Lyndon B. Johnson might lead a Democratic pre­sident to create a pro­gram of public wor­kers, the expan­sion of the social safety net, and broa­de­ning of social pro­grams in hou­sing all paid for by defi­cit spen­ding along Keynesian lines. Will American capi­ta­lism today be able to afford such a poli­ti­cal eco­nomy given the rela­tive weak­ness of pro­duc­tion and the decline in pro­fi­ta­bi­lity ?

McCain and the Republican Party are likely to seek eco­no­mic reco­very through a pro­gram of tax cuts for cor­po­ra­tions and the weal­thy, reduc­tion of social pro­grams, toge­ther with an increase in repres­sive mea­sures against social move­ments, immi­grants, African Americans, and the poor. Whether or not it will be able to find a mass base for such poli­cies after the George W. Bush administration’s ter­mi­na­tion in the disas­ter of a failed war abroad and eco­no­mic crisis at home remains to be seen.

When govern­ment and tra­di­tio­nal party poli­tics fail in times of crisis, people tend to look for other alter­na­tives, for options to the right and left of the American mains­tream. During the Great Depression this took the form of the growth of right-wing, quasi-fas­cists such as the radio-priest Father Coughlin and rise of left-wing groups, most impor­tantly the Communist Party. With the American dream tur­ning into an American night­mare, mil­lions will begin to look around for other ethi­cal ideals, poli­ti­cal values, eco­no­mic pro­grams, and social stra­te­gies. Some will turn to far right orga­ni­za­tions that sca­pe­goat blacks and Hispanics. Others will turn to the left loo­king for a humane orga­ni­za­tion of society, a system that will improve life for all. What will be the pos­si­bi­li­ties of the U.S. labor unions and left in such a crisis ?

A Comparison of the Labor Movement, Then and Now

The U.S. popu­la­tion today is more than double what it was in 1930. In 1930 the popu­la­tion was 137 mil­lion, today in 2008 it is about 304 mil­lion. The United States had 3.6 mil­lion union mem­bers at that time, which repre­sen­ted 12.34 percent of the nona­gri­cul­tu­ral work­force and 7.45 percent of the total work­force (there being many more far­mers at that time). Almost all of these wor­kers were in the pri­vate sector, since there were no public employee unions then. With the excep­tions of miners and garment wor­kers, those union mem­bers were almost all mem­bers of craft unions, like car­pen­ters, that had few foreign-born and African American mem­bers. The gene­ra­tion of the 1930s had expe­rien­ced its last major labor move­ment in 1918-1919, a move­ment for indus­trial unions only about 15 years before. That indus­trial uphea­val had been cru­shed by the employers and the state, but had left behind expe­rien­ced lea­ders and dedi­ca­ted acti­vists. Since then the unions had decli­ned in mem­ber­ship, many were mere ske­le­ton orga­ni­za­tions, and strikes were few.

Today, the union mem­ber­ship for pri­vate indus­try wor­kers is 7.5 percent, while that for public sector wor­kers is 35.9 percent. Altogether, 15.7 mil­lion wor­kers belong to unions, repre­sen­ting 12.1 percent of employed wage ear­ners, roughly the same pro­por­tion as in 1930. The gene­ra­tion of 2008, howe­ver, has not par­ti­ci­pa­ted in a major labor move­ment since the period the late 1960s and early 1970s, now almost 40 years ago, when there was a wave of orga­ni­zing by public employees and farm wor­kers and of wild­cat strikes and oppo­si­tion move­ments in the indus­trial unions. Some acti­vists and lea­ders came out of that gene­ra­tion of 1968. Since then the indus­trial unions have decli­ned while there has been some growth in the orga­ni­za­tion of public employees and ser­vice wor­kers. Today only a small per­cen­tage of wor­kers in unions have ever atten­ded a mee­ting or par­ti­ci­pa­ted in a strike.

The Left of the 1930s and the Left of Today

The left of the United States in 1930s was made up of about 20,000 com­mit­ted mem­bers of one or ano­ther party and recei­ved sup­port at the ballot box from nearly a mil­lion voters. The Socialist Party had approxi­ma­tely 13,000 mem­bers at that time while the Communist Party about 7,000 mem­bers, while the Trotskyists, who at the time consi­de­red them­selves an exclu­ded part of the Communist Party, had at most a few hun­dred mem­bers. The Socialists were a broad refor­mist party whose pre­si­den­tial can­di­date Norman Thomas recei­ved over 800,000 votes in 1932, while the Communists were a vir­tually ille­gal revo­lu­tio­nary party which had little or no public pre­sence. The loo­sely orga­ni­zed Socialist Party, a conge­ries of conflic­ting ideo­lo­gies and ten­den­cies, had many talen­ted and dedi­ca­ted mem­bers but its efforts were dif­fuse.7

The highly cen­tra­li­zed Communist Party, belie­ving that libe­rals and socia­lists were fas­cists, focu­sed its efforts on the orga­ni­za­tion of its own labor fede­ra­tion, the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), and its inde­pendent indus­trial unions with per­haps a couple of hun­dred thou­sand mem­bers. While its sec­ta­rian stra­tegy iso­la­ted the Communists from much of the American wor­king class, it also gave them inva­luable orga­ni­zing expe­rience. The Communist party cadre of the 1930s — and their Trotskyist satel­lite — were true belie­vers in their par­ties’ ideo­logy, abso­lu­tely dedi­ca­ted acti­vists tested in struggles against employers, rival unions, and the govern­ment, sur­vi­vors of bea­tings, pros­crip­tion, and impri­son­ment.

The left of the United States today is made up the mem­bers of various socia­list orga­ni­za­tions and broa­der move­ments. The lar­gest left orga­ni­za­tions in the U.S. today, the Communist Party (CPUSA), the Committees of Correspondence (CC), the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the International Socialist Organization (ISO) represent a few thou­sand com­mit­ted mem­bers. There are also smal­ler socia­list groups such as the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) and Solidarity. Most left acti­vists, howe­ver, par­ti­ci­pate in broa­der move­ments such as those that came toge­ther in the U.S. Social Forum last summer in Atlanta : com­mu­nity groups, envi­ron­men­ta­lists, African American orga­ni­za­tions, femi­nist groups. There are also those aca­de­mic lef­tists and campus-based acti­vists who gather at the Left Forum New York every year. Even taking all of these toge­ther, the U.S. left repre­sents a very small orga­ni­zed force in American society.

We could also gauge the left in terms of its elec­to­ral sup­port as mea­su­red by the 2.8 mil­lion voters for the cam­paign of Ralph Nader on the Green Party slate in the year 2000, a year in which he ran a cam­paign on what was vir­tually a social demo­cra­tic plat­form. Then too one should take into consi­de­ra­tion the unions and acti­vists affi­lia­ted to the U.S. Labor Party ins­pi­red by the late Tony Mazzocchi and local or state left-of-center poli­ti­cal for­ma­tions such as the Working Families Party in New York. None of the orga­ni­za­tions of the left, howe­ver, has a signi­fi­cant public pre­sence com­pa­rable to that of the Socialist Party and none has the dedi­ca­ted and tested cadres of the Communist Party of the early 1930s.

The Strategy of the Labor Left of the 1930s

The socia­list left played a cru­cial role in the labor move­ment of the 1930s pro­vi­ding lea­ders, cadres, and acti­vists for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) which orga­ni­zed the indus­trial unions in steel, rubber, glass, auto, elec­tri­cal, and other indus­tries. While there were impor­tant ideo­lo­gi­cal dif­fe­rences bet­ween Socialists, Communists, and Trotskyists in the 1930s, the three strains of the left shared common stra­te­gies and tac­tics during the 1930s. At the begin­ning of the 1930s all three groups had the same prin­ci­pal goals : the orga­ni­za­tion of indus­trial unions ; the crea­tion of a labor party ; and the esta­blish­ment of a socia­list society in America.8

With the depres­sion, all three orga­ni­za­tions enga­ged in many of the same orga­ni­zing stra­te­gies. In all of the cam­pai­gns to orga­nize indus­trial unions, it was gene­rally expe­rien­ced skilled wor­kers who had been lef­tists and mem­bers of craft unions who played the key role. The Communist Party orga­ni­zed their mem­bers indus­trially to coor­di­nate their union and wor­king-class acti­vi­ties. In 1928 the Communist Party, which then had 10,000 mem­bers, had almost 1,000 in the buil­ding trades, 1,500 in the needle trades, 850 metal wor­kers, 1,200 miners, 400 auto wor­kers, and 150 lumber wor­kers.9 Many of the Communist union acti­vists would play impor­tant roles in orga­ni­zing throu­ghout the 1930s.

The lef­tists of all per­sua­sions in cities throu­ghout the coun­try built unem­ployed coun­cils that enga­ged in pro­test demons­tra­tions and confron­ta­tions with govern­ment offi­cials to demand relief and public works jobs from the govern­ment. The few hun­dred lef­tists active among the unem­ployed soon came to lead groups of thou­sands of jobless wor­kers. The unem­ployed coun­cils proved key to pre­ven­ting scab­bing and buil­ding soli­da­rity.

By 1934 the various lef­tist par­ties active among indus­trial wor­kers suc­cee­ded in lea­ding three great strikes in 1934, all of which led to union recog­ni­tion and contracts : the Communists lea­ding the long­shore strike in San Francisco, the Socialists direc­ting the Autolite strike in Toledo, and the Trotskyists hea­ding up the Teamsters strike in Minneapolis. The lef­tists brought to these strikes the same tac­tics of coor­di­na­tion with the unem­ployed coun­cils, the use of mass picket­lines, the dis­patch of flying squads, and violent confron­ta­tions with scabs and the police to defend the strikes.

When John L. Lewis, the conser­va­tive head of the United Mine Workers, crea­ted the CIO, all three socia­list ten­den­cies became invol­ved either as paid staff or as volun­teer orga­ni­zers in the orga­ni­za­tion of the unions in heavy indus­try. The Communist Party, which began with the lar­gest number of union acti­vists, played the lar­gest role in the CIO, coming to be the lea­der­ship of some unions such as the United Electrical Workers. Throughout the 1930s the Communist Party grew while the Socialist Party decli­ned, losing mem­bers to both the Communists and the Trotskyists. The CIO suc­cee­ded in orga­ni­zing mil­lions of wor­kers in basic indus­try, and the AFL also grew by adop­ting many of the stra­te­gies and tac­tics of the CIO.

The Left and the Labor Movement Today

The labor move­ment today is divi­ded into two rival fede­ra­tions, the AFL-CIO and Change-to-Win. The AFL-CIO, his­to­ri­cally domi­na­ted by the more conser­va­tive buil­ding trades unions, failed during the 1980s to stop the decline of orga­ni­zed labor. This led in the 1990s to the rise of a new lea­der­ship under John J. Sweeney which during the 1990s and early 2000s also proved unable to stop the hemor­rhage of union mem­bers. Then in 2005, frus­tra­ted by the conti­nuing decline in union mem­ber­ship, seven unions left the AFL-CIO to form Change-to-Win, a new fede­ra­tion with the goal of deve­lo­ping new stra­te­gies and dedi­ca­ting grea­ter resources to orga­ni­zing.

Among those Change-to-Win unions, the Service Employees International Union has played the lea­ding role. SEIU’s leader Andy Stern, who has little use for union demo­cracy, deve­lo­ped a top-down stra­tegy, brought in young col­lege-edu­ca­ted orga­ni­zers, and was accu­sed by some of using wor­kers like cannon fodder. SEIU suc­cee­ded in brin­ging signi­fi­cant num­bers of new mem­bers into the union, but it also faced moun­ting cri­ti­cism for his treat­ment of the mem­bers, for example, conso­li­da­ting huge local unions, large beyond the pos­si­bi­lity of mem­ber­ship control. Stern has also been cri­ti­ci­zed recently by lea­ders of his own union for orga­ni­zing and get­ting union contracts by making deals with employers and govern­ment offi­cials, some­times behind the back of the union mem­bers.10

The Workers Centers and Jobs with Justice also represent impor­tant cen­ters of union acti­vism. The Workers Centers, usually led by and assis­ting immi­grant wor­kers, attract young acti­vists inter­es­ted in the labor move­ment. Jobs with Justice (JwJ), the natio­nal cam­paign for wor­kers rights, is a large net­work of labor acti­vists that takes up labor issues through local cam­pai­gns. JwJ repre­sents an impor­tant venue for radi­cals and mili­tants of all stripes within in the labor move­ment. Many radi­cals work in the labor move­ment, and whe­ther in their unions, wor­kers cen­ters, or soli­da­rity groups such as JwJ, they defend union demo­cracy, orga­nize mili­tant cam­pai­gns, and chal­lenge the employers. They do so, howe­ver, without a broa­der labor, social, and poli­ti­cal stra­tegy ?

The left today has thou­sands of mem­bers active in the wor­king class and in the labor unions either as union staff, elec­ted offi­cers, or as rank-and-file mem­bers. Events such as the Jobs with Justice confe­rence, the Labor Notes confe­rence, and the U.S. or World Social Forum pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for the labor left in the wor­king class to come toge­ther. There is, howe­ver, vir­tually no coor­di­na­tion of the left in the labor move­ment ; in fact, there is very little com­mu­ni­ca­tion as each left group goes its own way.

Moreover, few orga­ni­za­tions of the left active in orga­ni­zed labor put forth a stra­te­gic vision for labor inde­pendent of that of the union lea­der­ship in the two major fede­ra­tions. (There is Solidarity, a small socia­list group which came out of a merger of seve­ral left orga­ni­za­tions in the early 1980s. It upholds an alter­na­tive vision for the labor move­ment based on the notion of rank-and-file power built within unions to trans­form them into more demo­cra­tic, mili­tant, and class-conscious orga­ni­za­tions capable of moun­ting a broa­der wor­king-class struggle. Solidarity’s mem­bers have been par­ti­cu­larly active in buil­ding Labor Notes and in sup­port for Teamsters for a Democratic Union.)

Unlike the lef­tists of the 1930s, vir­tually none of the labor acti­vists in the union move­ment defends revo­lu­tio­nary socia­list poli­tics. Within the wor­king class there is vir­tually no socia­list pre­sence. Socialism exists prin­ci­pally in the aca­demy, while the wor­king class remains tied to the Republican and Democratic par­ties and is seldom offe­red a poli­ti­cal alter­na­tive.

The Labor Movement and Politics in the 1930s

While the labor left of the 1930s star­ted out figh­ting for indus­trial unio­nism, a labor party, and socia­lism, they had by the early 1940s set­tled for the first and given up on the other two. By the second elec­tion of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, the Socialist Party and the Communists had both reo­rien­ted toward the Democratic Party ; by 1942 they had been sub­su­med by it. The Socialist Party found that Roosevelt had lar­gely adop­ted their pro­gram of social reforms, while the Communist Party deci­ded that mem­ber­ship in the Democratic Party was the American ver­sion of the Popular Front. The Democrats swal­lo­wed the left.

After the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, for Communists the defense of the socia­list home­land blen­ded with American patrio­tism and found expres­sion in loyalty to Roosevelt, the Democrats, America, and the war. The Progressive Party cam­paign of Henry A. Wallace in 1948 repre­sen­ted the last hurrah of the Communist Party and its Popular Front before it went down to igno­mi­nious defeat. After the war, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower suc­cee­ded in cohe­ring and conso­li­da­ting a new poli­ti­cal eco­nomy based on the limi­ted wel­fare state, mili­tary Keynesianism, war, and impe­ria­lism. By 1950 or so, with the conso­li­da­tion of the new poli­ti­cal eco­no­mic system and the begin­nings of the Cold War, the American govern­ment began the purge of the Communist left from the unions, society, and poli­tics. McCarthyism meant the end of the left for a gene­ra­tion, until the revi­val of the 1960s.

The American Left and Politics Today

The elec­tion of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton as pre­sident in the midst of the grea­test eco­no­mic crisis in 75 years will present the small socia­list left of the United States today with an enor­mous chal­lenge. The left will have to find a way to build an inde­pendent labor, social, and poli­ti­cal res­ponse to the crisis without beco­ming drawn into the Democratic Party. Obama, with his cha­risma, crea­ti­vity, and flexi­bi­lity, may prove to be a Rooseveltian figure who will be able to lead the social forces that can cohere and conso­li­date a new life for American capi­ta­lism. The res­pon­si­bi­lity of the left is to fight to prevent such a conso­li­da­tion of a new social pact bet­ween capi­tal and labor, govern­ment and the people, and to build an inde­pendent wor­king class move­ment and poli­ti­cal party that can fight for socia­lism in the coming decade.

The Challenges for the Left Today

The prin­ci­pal orga­ni­za­tio­nal pro­blems for the revo­lu­tio­nary socia­list left today are its nume­ri­cal weak­ness, its divi­sion into too many small rival orga­ni­za­tions, and its lack of dedi­ca­ted cadres in the labor move­ment. The poli­ti­cal pro­blems are equally serious : the left lacks an ins­pi­ring vision, lacks a poli­ti­cal pro­gram, and per­haps most impor­tant at the moment, lacks a stra­te­gic plan for inter­ven­tion in the wor­king class and society more broadly. The list of defi­cits more or less consti­tutes the list of tasks of the American left in this period, though logi­cally the latter poli­ti­cal defi­cits have to be addres­sed before the orga­ni­za­tio­nal weak­nesses can be addres­sed.

First, we need a left that clearly defines itself as revo­lu­tio­nary socia­list, that is, that sees change coming through the over­throw of capi­ta­lism and the state and the crea­tion of a new social order. That such a revo­lu­tio­nary socia­list left fights for reforms goes without saying, but that it par­ti­ci­pates in struggle for reform with its eye on the revo­lu­tio­nary future must be stres­sed. Socialism means the libe­ra­tion of the full poten­tial of the indi­vi­dual through the libe­ra­tion of the wor­king class from exploi­ta­tion, of the oppres­sed from the weight of the state with its police, courts, and pri­sons, and of huma­nity from the mass murder of war­fare. The ful­fillment of indi­vi­dual and col­lec­tive poten­tial comes from the demo­cra­tic expe­rience of crea­ting a new eco­nomy, a new society, and a new form of human self-govern­ment.

Second, such a revo­lu­tio­nary left needs a pro­gram for American society, that is a broad sta­te­ment of prin­ciples that addresses the fun­da­men­tal pro­blems faced by Americans today in our govern­ment, our eco­nomy, our society, and our foreign policy in a way that points to their solu­tion through fun­da­men­tal social change. The pro­blem of health care for the 50 mil­lion unin­su­red, for example, can be solved by taxing cor­po­ra­tions and the weal­thy to pay for a publi­cly funded health care system — without insu­rance com­pa­nies or pri­vate hos­pi­tals — demo­cra­ti­cally admi­nis­te­red by orga­ni­za­tions of patients, wor­kers, nurses, doc­tors. Such a pro­gram of tran­si­tio­nal demands should have the cha­rac­ter of a set of pro­po­sals that address the pro­blems of today and pro­pose solu­tion in ways that pro­ject fun­da­men­tal struc­tu­ral changes in the system, the sum total of which would amount to ano­ther system, a demo­cra­tic socia­list system.

Third, the revo­lu­tio­nary left must have a stra­tegy that connects with the American wor­king class and the American people. Such a stra­tegy must be able to bring about a fusion bet­ween the left and the most cri­ti­cal and active sec­tions of the popu­la­tion, of whom African Americans have his­to­ri­cally been at the fore­front. Many of those that we will want to recruit will be found in the move­ment which at the moment is ral­lying to Barack Obama. We have to offer the people attrac­ted to his mes­sage of change the prin­ciples, pro­gram, and stra­tegy of genuine change through the crea­tion of a socia­list move­ment.

The most impor­tant part of a stra­tegy will be the deve­lop­ment of stra­tegy for labor. The contem­po­rary American wor­king class is not that of the 1930s or even the 1970s. Industrial wor­kers, while remai­ning quite signi­fi­cant, no longer have the eco­no­mic power, social weight, or geo­gra­phi­cal com­pact­ness that they did 80 or even 40 years ago. While the strike remains the clas­si­cal wor­king-class form of figh­ting, it was not then and is not now the only form of struggle. Though unions are the fun­da­men­tal wor­king-class orga­ni­za­tions, nei­ther unions nor wor­king-class com­mu­ni­ties have the same cha­rac­ter they did in other decades. The glo­ba­li­za­tion of the eco­nomy, the inter­na­tio­nal cha­rac­ter of pro­duc­tion, the dis­per­sion of wor­kers throu­ghout indus­trial regions, and the revo­lu­tio­nary trans­for­ma­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­no­logy mean that while we have much to learn from the past, we have to find and to create the ins­ti­tu­tions and forms of struggle appro­priate to our own era.

The crea­tion of a contem­po­rary wor­king-class and socia­list poli­ti­cal move­ment will not be based on an attempt to recreate the American left of the mass Socialist Party of 1912, the Communists Party of the 1930s and 1940s, or by pas­sing once again through Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). What we once called inter­na­tio­na­lism and anti-racism, and which the uni­ver­si­ties today call mul­ti­cul­tu­ra­lism and diver­sity, will form a more cen­tral part of the new wor­king-class party. The res­pect for the inte­grity and auto­nomy of every sector of society’s exploi­ted and oppres­sed form the basis for the unity and soli­da­rity of the class. We will have to dis­co­ver, invent, and construct the right prin­ciples, poli­ti­cal pro­gram, and stra­tegy for the socia­list party of our time. The depth of the crisis sug­gests that the task is an urgent one.


1 Lawrence Summers, « Wake Up to the Dangers of a Deepening Crisis, » The Financial Times, Nov. 25, 2007.

2 John Lipsky, « Dealing with the Financial Turmoil, » speech to the Peterson Institute, March 12, 2008.

3 Bob Brenner, « Devastating Crisis Unfolds, » Against the Current, No. 132 January/​February 2008.

4 Reuters, « UN Sees More Hunger, Unrest over Food Inflation, » March 6, 2008.

5 Algernon Austin, « What a Recession Means for Black America, » Issue Brief #241, Economic Policy Institute, Jan 18, 2008.

6 Jennifer Steinhauer, « As Economy Falters, So Do State Budgets, » New York Times, March 17, 2008, p. 1.

7 Communist Party mem­ber­ship figures from : Nathan Glazer, The Social Basis of American Communism (New York : Harcourt, Brace and world, Inc., 1961), 114-5 ; Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism : The Depression Decade (New York : Basic Books, 1984), 91 ; David Shannon, The Socialist Party of America (New York : The Macmillan Company, 1955), p. 215.

8 David Milton, The Politics of U.S. Labor from the Great Depression to the New Deal (New York : Monthly Review, 1982), 9-23.

9 Glazer, 115.

10 Mark Brenner, « Health Care Local Charges SEIU Is Shutting Members Out of Bargaining & Organizing, » Labor Notes 348, March 2008 ; Mark Brenner, « California SEIU Leader Mounts Battle for Local Control, Union Democracy : An Interview with Sal Rosselli, » Labor Notes 348, March 2008. For a more stri­dent attack on Stern, see : Matt Smith, « Local Union Leader Rosselli Blasts SEIU Boss Andy Stern, » SF Weekly, February 20, 2008.

Source : MR Zine – 18 mars 2008

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