The Response of the U.S. Left to Trump and the 2016 Election
Class Collaborationism and the Importance of Revolutionary Program
By Joseph Donnelly, March 2017.
On January 20th, Donald J. Trump was sworn in to become to the 45th President of the United States. Formally launched on June 16, 2015, Donald Trump’s campaign had been the center of many political activists’ attention who worry about what Trump’s America would look like. For many Democrats and other liberal political bodies, Donald Trump seemed to be the perfect rallying cry to their cause – if you don’t choose the liberal Democrat (like Hillary Clinton), you’re choosing Trump, or so the argument goes. Revolutionaries, like ourselves, have dealt with this “lesser evil” argument for hundreds of years. And always, we state, it is an argument for giving political support to bourgeois forces, leading to the disarming and demobilization of independent class struggles. Still, many nominally revolutionary persons and organizations give into it.
As the Communist Manifesto states, “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority” (emphasis added). A political program that seeks to subordinate the struggle for socialism to political formations lead by one faction of the bourgeoisie or another is class collaborationist. Class-collaborationist, pseudo-revolutionary politics had been a major aspect of Stalinism throughout the 20th century, leading to the betrayal of the first Chinese revolution (1925-27) and the massacre of the Chinese workers and peasants as the Stalinists ordered the Chinese communists to subordinate themselves to the bourgeois political force known as the Kuomintang. Class-collaborationism is the main tenant of the idea of the “popular front,” which subordinates independent proletarian politics to those politics of a faction of the bourgeoisie, usually one that is labelled “progressive,” “less evil,” or “democratic.” The popular front policy, with the support of the Stalinists, paved the way for defeat of the 1936 general strike in France. This defeat prevented the proletariat’s victory over the capitalist state, which could have prevented the rise of the brutal Vichy regime. As well, the popular front was the reason for the defeat of the Spanish Revolution and the rise of the Franco regime in Spain. Capitulating to the republican, “anti-fascist” government, many anarchists, the Stalinists, and even some supposed “Trotskyists” organized in the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) led to the defeat of the working class in Spain, and this betrayal led directly to the rise of the fascist Franco regime which would go on to further brutalize Spain’s working class for decades.
When a revolutionary situation arises, the ability for leaders in the workers movement to oppose class-collaborationist policies will be fundamental for any chance that the working class may have in taking state power. Maintaining the independence of one’s revolutionary program is not, as some may argue, a sectarian attempt to maintain some sort of cult-like purity but rather a real attempt to separate those who can fight for revolution and those who will betray it. The strategy that many leftist, anti-capitalist groups in the U.S. advocate for will inevitably lead to those betrayals unless they fully break away from their current opportunist and class-collaborationist policies.
CPUSA: Pro-Hillary “Communists”
The history of U.S. imperialism has been a history of not just the “extreme right” of the Republican Party, but of the “progressive” liberals of the Democratic Party. Atrocities such as World War I, the firebombing and nuclear bombing of Japan, the Vietnam War, the overthrow of democratically-elected governments in Latin America and throughout the world while supporting dictatorships in their place have been led by the Democrats. Modern Democrats such as the Clintons and former president Obama continued this long-standing tradition of Democratically led imperialism, particularly in regards to the continued brutalization of the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, as well as in Somalia, Pakistan, and so many other nations around the world. For socialists to be behind the Democrats, whether they’re “establishment” or “progressive” Democrats, is a crime against the working class.
The Communist Party USA (CPUSA), which for many in the U.S. is their first reference point in learning about communism, commits this crime blatantly. In an FAQ on their website, they state that “a socialist revolution is not a single cataclysmic event. Rather, it will span an era of transition – of radical economic, political, social and cultural change. The electoral process will be part of that process. It will be a deeply democratic process, one that unleashes the creative energy of millions of people in motion”. The CPUSA’s strategy of slow reforms towards socialism is reminiscent of the “Chilean way to socialism.” Represented by the experience of the Allende government in Chile during the 1970’s which advocated for reforms such as nationalizations and agrarian reforms, the reformist experiment ended in a military coup. Instead of revolution that genuinely fights against capitalism, reformists cannot truly stand up against the ruling class because the capitalists will simply not accept being “reformed” away from power and eventually will attempt to crush the workers, even if it requires resorting to fascism, which eviscerates all aspects of bourgeois democracy and workers’ rights.
They state on their website, “Communists seek to change society peacefully. We work to expand every democratic and electoral avenue as part of our fight for working class political and economic power. Our party believes that it is possible to make fundamental transformations using the electoral process, the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights.” But really this just means they won’t favor workers’ self-defense in the face of overwhelming violence by the bourgeois state. The inevitable result of refusing to support the violence of the oppressed against their oppressors and seeking to change society within the confines of a bourgeois-democratic constitution is to lead one to remain “neutral” in the fight between the oppressor and the oppressed – which, really, is just aiding and abetting the oppressor. Ideally we too would like a non-violent way for socialism to be realized, but history has repeatedly shown that the bourgeoisie will use all kinds of violence in order to keep its power, and we should be prepared for this. As Engels stated in the Principles of Communism:
“It would be desirable if [the peaceful abolition of private property] could happen, and the communists would certainly be the last to oppose it. Communists know only too well that all conspiracies are not only useless, but even harmful. They know all too well that revolutions are not made intentionally and arbitrarily, but that, everywhere and always, they have been the necessary consequence of conditions which were wholly independent of the will and direction of individual parties and entire classes.
“But they also see that the development of the proletariat in nearly all civilized countries has been violently suppressed, and that in this way the opponents of communism have been working toward a revolution with all their strength. If the oppressed proletariat is finally driven to revolution, then we communists will defend the interests of the proletarians with deeds as we now defend them with words.”
With their “peaceful”, election-centered outlook, the CPUSA kept true to the class collaborationist tradition of the Stalinist movement by supporting Hillary Clinton in November’s election. Both on its organizational website, (cpusa.org), and the website of its media arm, (peoplesworld.org), the non-communists of the Communist Party have been droning on and on about the loss of their preferred candidate in November’s presidential election, blaming Clinton’s loss on the FBI as well as “right-wing attacks and conspiracy theories.”
While initially preferring Bernie Sanders and constantly referring to him as a “socialist,” picking up on Sanders’ own misuse of the term, the CPUSA was preparing for his loss and thus their future backing of Clinton against Trump in the election. They stated that their Party should not “dismiss the fact she has been battling the extreme right for over 25 years, including the Gingrich-led government shutdowns and the drive to impeach Bill Clinton.” As well, they argued that “Clinton is also motivated by democratic sensibilities and supports collective bargaining rights, reproductive rights, and restoring and expanding voting rights. She has pledged to continue the Obama climate policies,” finally saying they “need a more nuanced view of Clinton, who is susceptible to pressure from below.”
The only force that can fight for and maintain democratic rights in the long term is the proletariat, within the framework of the fight for socialist revolution. History shows us that democratic struggles outside of the struggle for socialism, under capitalist rule, won’t achieve lasting results; and mobilizing the power of the working class, especially in the context of a wider struggle for socialism, is a much more powerful method to achieve democratic demands, especially in nations under imperialist domination, as Trotsky pointed out through his Theory of Permanent Revolution. By looking to the Democrats instead of the working class, the CPUSA can offer the workers movement nothing but defeat in the coming struggles ahead.
Socialist Alternative: Sanderista “Trotskyists”
Other organizations, such as Socialist Alternative (SAlt), the U.S. section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), focused more on supporting Bernie Sanders and, later on, the Greens, while at the same time capitulating to lesser-evilism in regards to “protecting” the swing states for Clinton. Kshama Sawant, Seattle city council member and member of SAlt, in an interview stated, in regards to a petition to Bernie Sanders, that “Over 120,000 people signed that petition because they wanted Bernie to continue his political revolution outside the Democratic Party if the Democrats didn’t let him continue as their nominee. And in that petition we said that if people aren’t convinced of the idea of running in every state then let’s run in the safe states. So I think that the safe states idea can be used as a tactic, but I think fundamentally what people need to grapple with is, you know, the fact that we need to build an independent party.” SAlt’s opportunistic and class-collaborationist support for Sanders, desperately trying to appeal to his fans, has lead them so far down the rabbit hole that they do not even wish to seem opposed to Clinton! This is the inevitable result of their strategy of appealing to Democratic voters that they have used for years.
Marx and Engels had a different approach to the bourgeois electoral process than SAlt. Besides putting forward only candidates that are decisively opposed to capitalism on a revolutionary basis, unlike pro-capitalist Sanders, Marx and Engels knew that the workers’ decision to run should not be affected by the chance of leaching votes from a liberal against a more conservative opponent. In their March 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League in London, they state,
“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”
If a revolutionary socialist organization grows large enough that it is feasible and beneficial to run a candidate for office of a bourgeois government, the workers’ interests – not the interests of liberals, “progressives,” or any other group – comes first. Besides prioritizing having its own decisively anti-capitalist candidates, running on a revolutionary program, when this is not possible, an alternative tactic for Marxists is to support class-independent candidates at the same time as criticizing their insufficient program, as a way to “put them to test” and brake their supporters illusions through practical experience. But Sanders is clearly not a class independent candidate by any stretch of the imagination.
The vision Socialist Alternative has is not that of a revolutionary socialism, but of liberalism tinged with empty anti-corporate rhetoric. SAlt, which nominally seeks to break with the Democrats and build some new party, looked to Bernie Sanders throughout the entire election season and still look to his defeat as an example for future movements to follow. Admitting this very fact, they state, “If we want to win what Bernie Sanders campaigned for, it’s up to us to lead the way in building our own movements and our own political party – of, by, and for the 99%.” For SAlt, socialists’ goal is to recreate the Bernie Sanders campaign, where anti-capitalism is replaced with “anti-corporatism,” which is a liberal utopian version of a reformed capitalism where small businesses are fetishized. Their vision of “a society that puts people before profits” is still a society with profits; and to expect capitalism to be reformed, or to be “politically revolutionized” to “place people before profits” by “progressive” Democratic politicians is a harmful illusion that SAlt is putting forward. That Bernie Sanders’ style of politics represents working class politics is absurd to any real Marxist — precisely why SAlt is, really, not Marxist. They argue that “Bernie Sanders’ historic presidential run proved decisively that a powerful electoral campaign can be built without corporate money, based squarely on the interests of the 99%”.
A candidate who ran for president on the ticket of one of the two parties of U.S. imperialism is supposedly based on the interests of the “99%” (which, for SAlt, include the armed guards of the capitalist state) which “proved a threat to the ruling class”. As we said in a recent polemic with SAlt in regards to its support to Sanders, “Sanders was not even an independent ‘progressive’. His campaign was for one of the two parties of big capital and he actively sought to recruit people into many non-progressive ideals represented by the Democrats. In spite of having been elected Senator as an independent, Bernie is with the Democrats in most important issues. He did not support the war on Iraq, but has been a consistent supporter of American imperialism action worldwide, from the bombing in Serbia in the late 1990s, to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the recent operations in Libya and Syria. During the primaries, he declared he would support Hillary Clinton in case she were chosen as party candidate. This support was reinforced after the end of the primaries, which shows his commitment to the Democrat establishment.” Isn’t this enough to demonstrate he wasn’t any sort of threat to the ruling class? He’s not a threat to them because he’s one of their many representatives, albeit a “progressive” one.
After Trump’s election victory, SAlt also argued that “A party which stands for working people must first of all advance a bold anti-corporate, working class agenda. But it must also require their elected representatives to refuse all corporate donations and accept only the average income of their constituents like Kshama Sawant, socialist council member in Seattle. Most Democratic elected officials would choose to leave the Democrats rather than accept this situation. This is why we will continue to argue for a new party of the 99%”. Apparently, it seems, SAlt sees a place for the small minority of Democrats who would “accept this situation” in its new party. How can a revolutionary party incorporate Democrats? And not only incorporate Democrats, but also, as they clearly said before, have Democrats like Bernie Sanders lead this new party of the 99%? Well, that is why the party they advocate for is not a revolutionary socialist party that can lead future October Revolutions, but rather a vaguely “anti-corporate” party with a “working class agenda” – and by that, what they really end up meaning is a class collaborationist agenda, sprinkled with some genuine reforms that workers could support, one agenda that will betray the interests of the working class interests by subordinating them to the capitalists. As Trotsky stated in the Transitional Program, “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” Clearly, SAlt is a part of the problem Trotsky noted here, as they continue to foster illusions in the bourgeoisie.
Socialist Action: A Labor Party, But For What?
There also exists Socialist Action (SA) which offers the perspective of forming a labor party in the U.S. SA is affiliated with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec, and not actually the Fourth International), the Pabloite formation for which the fight against was the cornerstone of our anti-revisionist and anti-Pabloite Trotksyist tradition, culminating in the formation of the Revolutionary Tendency (RT), whose program we uphold as a part of our own revolutionary continuity. (See: In Defense of a Revolutionary Perspective). Their article, “Labor’s Trump Card: Build a Labor Party!” proposes organized labor as the only force able to fight back against “Wall Street and the modern-day robber barons,” and they also advocate for rebuilding and democratizing the unions. All good things, though it is not particularly radical nowadays to hate on Wall Street – this is the message Democrat Bernie Sanders based his campaign on, and anti-Wall Street rhetoric is easily found to be spouted by any candidate for office trying to appeal to “the people,” even by Trump and Clinton.
SA, in pushing for organized labor as the force to overcome Trump’s attacks, advocates this be done by launching a party of labor, stating that “Such a labor party would harness the justified disgust working people feel for the two corporate political machines, but finally channel it in such a way as to beat back the long-running corporate offensive against working people and the planet.” The slogan and demand for a labor party is a tactic that Trotskyists can utilize in certain scenarios, but we also insist that the labor party slogan goes hand-in-hand with advocating for a revolutionary Trotskyist program, a program that aims to create the dictatorship of the proletariat for the sake of the communist transformation of the globe.
SA’s idea for a “party of labor” is a party that would fight for demands such as “money for jobs, not for war.” But by not stating the need of workers’ power or socialist revolution in this piece, SA is ambiguous about how these demands would be implemented, giving room to the idea that they could be achieved through changing governments or its budget. As well, they advocate to “tax corporations and the rich, not working people.” It is necessary to clearly state this cannot and will not be done consistently without the establishment of workers’ rule through a socialist revolution – which SA doesn’t do here. And more still, they advocate that the state “halt racist killings and prosecute killer cops.” While we are fully behind the first half of that demand, the second half presents the issue as if justice can be obtained by pressuring the bourgeois state to fight its own instruments, the inherently racist police. Ending murder by the police will not be achieved merely by prosecuting cops but must be addressed by the organized working class which fights for its own self-defense.
Marxists should fight in mass movements against the illusions in government reforms that many working people unfortunately have, pointing to the need to build a revolutionary workers party that fights for socialism. Whatever reforms are won through working class struggle can only be guaranteed and significantly expanded when workers defeat the capitalist state and establish their own class power. SA says, “It’s time to reject the dead end of electoral politics that leaves us begging for crumbs from one or another party controlled by our class enemy. It’s time to channel our power effectively. It’s time to organize!”. Yet their labor party solution cannot channel power effectively unless it is organized around a revolutionary program; otherwise, it may end up being a channel to foster illusions or even be a part of the bourgeois state rather than overthrow it, as is the case with most mass European Socialist and Labor parties.
SA mentions the U.S. to be one of the few countries missing this kind of party: “The fact that the U.S. is perhaps the only major capitalist nation on earth with no tradition of working-class-based political independence manifested by a Labor Party or mass Socialist Party has proved to be a major disorienting factor.” However, having a mass party like the French Socialist Party, Spanish PSOE or the British Labor Party would prove no less disorienting for the working class. While we also recognize that using this slogan correctly, as Trotsky wrote about it (See: “On the Labor Party Question in the United States”), can be a path for building a revolutionary party, it is necessary to openly state that a “party of labor” can only truly represent the interests of the working people if it adopts a revolutionary strategy against capitalism.
Socialist Action tends to be significantly more principled on vital issues such as class independence than most of the U.S. left. For example, SA clearly recognized, unlike many on the left, that the Sanders campaign was nothing more than another capitalist politician, criticizing the already mentioned SAlt, writing “Socialist Alternative’s support for the Democrat Sanders, while urging him to break with the Democrats to be the Green Party’s presidential candidate, serves to foster illusions in capitalist politics,” which is a true observation on their part. They recognize that, “For Sawant, the prime example of an ‘independent party’ is the middle-class pro-capitalist Green Party, or some such class-undefined political variant.” But how will SA’s “party of labor” – which would be built upon the fight against the “corporate offensive” – be different from SAlt’s “party of the 99%” – which would be built upon an “anti-corporate, working class agenda”? SA states that, “Revitalizing the labor movement and launching a labor party are key steps on the path to moving the 99% from the defensive to the offensive,” yet, just like SAlt, fails to mention anything at all about the necessity of a revolutionary Trotskyist program, thus leading us to believe that these new parties will be only based on vague anti-corporate slogans and liberal demands instead of a program of demands designed to break workers from their illusions in the capitalist state.
Socialist Action, for their part, states that “revolutionary socialists raise the pressing need for a Labor Party, based on a fighting, re-energized, and re-invigorated labor movement,” which, while a more principled basis for a party than SAlt’s Sanders-style party, can only fail at winning any long-term gains if revolutionary program is not at the forefront. Yet here their only mention of revolution is in reference to themselves as revolutionary socialists with nothing else to show. They state, “The reactionary programs promised by the capitalist Republican and Democratic parties underscores the need for all the movements for significant and just social change to redouble their organizing efforts. We must build our struggles on multiple fronts—against U.S. wars of imperialist aggression, for immigration rights and climate justice, against cop violence in minority communities, for full reproductive rights of women, and many other issues. Join us in building these independent movements, and join Socialist Action!” While these are issues we would also get behind, as revolutionaries we would explain these struggles in the context of an over-arching struggle against capitalism and the need for a revolution. We, in Revolutionary Regroupment, advocate for a revolutionary workers’ party which we state outright must be based on a Leninist-Trotskyist (i.e. transitional) program which fights for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the creation of communist society.
Party for Socialism and Liberation: Tailing Popular Understandings of “Socialism”
Another leftist organization, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), argues, “It is of utmost urgency that all progressive people take to the streets in defense of immigrants, Muslims and people of color, and to advance an alternative vision of working-class unity and solidarity in the struggle against the ravages of neoliberal capitalism.” This is true. While it is principled for Marxists who openly maintain and fight for their revolutionary program to work tactically with non-Marxist or centrist groups in the workers movements on specific issues, the PSL does not follow there own words in regards to how they interact in the workers movement – instead, they tail popular “progressives” like Sanders, noting only the fact that he is somewhat to the left of Clinton or some other Democrats while failing miserably to point out the class line. In doing this, they subordinate the class struggle to vague, “progressive” politics, which means some form of bourgeois politics. Failing to put forward an explicitly revolutionary program that maintains the independence of the proletariat, in their day-to-day struggles they maintain, just as the CPUSA does, the Stalinist strategy of class collaborationism. This means nominally seeking to split with the Democratic Party while actually refusing to put forward a revolutionary message and instead tailing whatever is popular.
In regards to the primary run of Bernie Sanders, the PSL argues against what groups like ours do when we denounce Sanders. They think trying to break the illusions that many well-meaning workers have in one faction of the bourgeoisie or another is the wrong strategy to bring about socialist revolution. The PSL writes, “Yet some radical socialists have emphasized in their agitation how ‘bad’ Sanders is on some issues, or that he is not a ‘real socialist.’ That is not the best way to reach the millions of new Sanders supporters who for the first time in their lives want a ‘democratic socialist’ to become president of the United States”. The PSL simply has it all backwards. A revolutionary’s goal isn’t to popularize an understanding of socialism that simply means advocacy of basic reforms like universal healthcare, free public higher eduction, etc. but rather to swim against the stream and point out how this understanding of socialism and the politicians behind it – like Sanders – serve only to disarm actual struggles for socialism. Marxists struggle against all “progressive” bourgeois misleaders. If we want to win workers over to actual socialism, we don’t refuse to point out what is true about Sanders: he offers us nothing but betrayal. The PSL, in refusing to do this, contradicts their earlier emphasis on “working-class unity and solidarity” and will end up offering only the same betrayal that Sanders does, perhaps with a more leftist bend.
Fight Trump with militant working-class action!
In response to Trump, we in Revolutionary Regroupment recognize that only an independent working class movement can pose any real threat to Trump and the entire capitalist state apparatus, which is also actively defended by the Democrats, the Greens, and many other anti-Trump forces. While we are not a powerful social force, a fighting Trotskyist propaganda group which struggles alongside the wider workers movement and other socialist organizations via the united front tactic can have a powerful influence in the outcome of battles in the class struggle. This tactic, counterposed to the class-collaborationist popular front, maintains the programmatic independence of organizations involved in struggle together during a particular circumstance or action, such as a strike. As well, everyone involved maintains the right to criticize others involved in that action – a necessity in putting forth the Marxist viewpoint on what that situation represents, such as pointing out how this or that battle represents that fight between capital and labor, or in trying to counterpose our views with that of other groups that claim adherence to the socialist perspective, which may not have a principled revolutionary outlook on a future course for action. For example, we would fight along with Kshama Sawant and the rest of Socialist Alternative for a $15 minimum wage, but we would be adamant that Bernie Sanders is not the solution. Or we would fight with Socialist Action in a strike situation, such as one for better wages and working conditions, but we would be explicit that we need not just a labor party but a revolutionary party with a revolutionary program.
The necessity of actually participating in the struggles of the proletariat is a vital part of that revolutionary program, even if we are a quantitatively small group. If we look to the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster’s strike, we see the very small cadre of the Communist League of America, a Trotskyist organization at the time which later took part in founding the Socialist Workers Party (which, for decades, has no longer followed the political tradition of its founders), effectively counterposing the misleadership of trade union bureaucrats to that of a revolutionary leadership – and in the course of the strike, the correctness of the Trotskyist outlook was proven to thousands of workers who were able to win significant victories under their leadership. Even as Trotskyist leaders were arrested and intimidated, workers learned that to win they must oppose the labor bureaucrats’ class collaborationist, anti-militant tactics. (For more on these events, see: “The Great Minneapolis Strikes”).
A fight against class collaborationism and the adoption of a revolutionary program that points out the need for the proletariat to take state power and to establish communist society is the only way to achieve a final success in the class struggle. History has shown that this can lead to victories whereas other methods lead workers to defeat.
For a revolutionary workers’ party!
Fight Trump with militant working-class action!
Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!
Solidarity with all refugees! No to the ban!
For universal healthcare! Defend abortion rights!
Workers’ defense guards against police attacks!