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Fight Trump, Keep Dems at Bay: The Case Against a Popular Front

If we want long term gains for the working class, we need to avoid the trap of the Democratic Party.

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The moment he entered the White House, President Trump unleashed a series of vicious attacks on Muslims, immigrants, and native peoples. All within his first week in office, Trump issued a string of executive orders that resuscitated the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines, initiated his project to build the wall along the border with Mexico, cut federal funding for Sanctuary Cities, passed an immigration ban on Muslims from seven countries, and suspended all entry for refugees for 120 days (and indeterminately for Syrian refugees).

Probably the most unliked president in decades, Trump is eliciting mass outrage and resistance with each of his recent measures. The spontaneous demonstrations in dozens of airports around the country this past Saturday are an impressive example. As the magnitude and frequency of the protests reveal, the political landscape is changing: people are ready to fight back.

This increased level of mass struggle raises the question of what form the movement against Trump will take and what role the left should play in this new conjuncture. Especially after the Women’s March on Washington — one of the largest demonstrations in US history — a discussion ensued among leftists and liberals about the potential and the challenges created by such mass mobilizations. There appears to be a strong sense within the left that the most urgent task now is to organize the wave of political actions in order to build a movement that will not only fight back against Trump but will also significantly advance the struggle of the workers and the oppressed.

Most protesters who have taken to the streets against Trump understand perfectly that his policies constitute a colossal assault on civil rights, democracy, and progressive values. However, while it is important to insist that we must not “normalize” the frightening direction in which the current president seeks to take this country, it is also important to understand that Donald Trump is yet another expression of the violent, dehumanizing regime of capitalism.

The task of revolutionaries today is to join the ongoing and emerging battles with a program aimed to overcome the capitalist system that offers nothing but destruction and misery for most people, a program based on a strategy to upend capitalist exploitation and pave the way toward ending all forms of oppression.

Avoid the Democratic Party trap

The 2016 elections and the post-election events have made it obvious that the Democratic Party is as incapable of reform as any bourgeois party. The Democrats nominated a candidate who did not bother to propose a plan to address people’s real grievances. If Hillary’s “lesser evil” campaign failed to convince, the Sanders campaign, propelled by a groundswell of opposition, ended up disappointing all those who had some hope left that a break with the party establishment was possible.

Sanders’ capitulation shows that only organizations composed exclusively of workers can represent workers’ interests. In the absence of a labor party in the US, unions are the only organizations of this type. More often than not, however, union leaders look out only for their own narrow interests and strike deals with the bosses or with the government at the expense of the workers they are supposed to represent. Furthermore, unions have only rarely shown solidarity with workers of other countries and/or undocumented immigrants.

The union bureaucracies are arguably the greatest obstacle workers will have to overcome to put in motion their class power. The fact that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka met with Trump and expressed his willingness to collaborate with him is only a measure of how far the unions are from a leadership that puts forward workers’ interests. But we will not let them off the hook; we will challenge them — we will fight to win back the unions for the workers.

The Democratic Party, however, has demonstrated that it will never belong to or be accountable to workers; it will always be a party owned and dominated by corporate elites, administered by the puppets of the ruling class or the ruling class itself. It will always be a mighty machine of duplicity, cooptation, and betrayal. For this reason, we must refuse to collaborate with or even lend political support to any Democratic Party official. At the same time, we must engage with Democratic Party supporters at protests, rallies, and marches, and work to convince them to abandon their support for a party that has always served the interests of capital.

Time and again, the Democratic Party has usurped radical movements in order to blunt their impact. This is what happened to the immigrants’ rights movement that shook the country on May Day 2006. Through minor concessions and a comprehensive network of workers’ centers and other non-profits, the Democratic Party secured the support of swaths of immigrant workers, and the movement promptly lost steam.

Even the Civil Rights movement’s unquestionable radicalism was tempered by the carrots of the Democrats in power. Let’s remember the words of Malcolm X when he talked about the March on Washington and the cooptation of the Civil Rights movement:

When they found out that this black steamroller was going to come down on the capital, they called in these national Negro leaders that you respect and told them, “Call it off,” Kennedy said. (…) And Old Tom said, “Boss, I can’t stop it because I didn’t start it.” (…) “I’m not even in it, much less at the head of it.” They said, “These Negroes are doing things on their own. They’re running ahead of us.” And that old shrewd fox, he said, “If you all aren’t in it, I’ll put you in it. I’ll put you at the head of it. I’ll endorse it. I’ll welcome it. I’ll help it. I’ll join it.” This is what they did with the March on Washington. (…) And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising.

Resist the siren calls of cross-class collaboration

The liberal media today is filled with opinion pieces urging people to “call your representative,” sign petitions, and show up for rallies. Even Frances Fox Piven’s appeal to “throw sand in the gears of everything” is accompanied by a nod to progressive mayors who allegedly “nourish urban resistance movements.”

These efforts to channel the energy of the mass actions into electoralist and reformist programs are in effect putting a harness on the forces that push for real social change. Socialists must resist such attempts at short-circuiting the nascent popular resistance against Trump.

Along the same lines, a recent op-ed in the Guardian, Jacobin editor and DSA Vice-Chair Bhaskar Sunkara calls for qualified support of ‘progressive democrats’ in order to oppose ‘neoliberal democrats’: “There is every reason to believe that if confronted, this caste can be overtaken,” he states. However, this proposal is more than a little reminiscent of the popular frontism of the past, which has proven disastrous for the working class.

This means, in practical terms, supporting Elizabeth Warren, who endorsed Ben Carson for Secretary of HUD, or Bernie Sanders, who attended Trump’s Inauguration while thousands gathered outside to protest.

As historical experience has shown, an alliance across class lines can only end in defeat for the people and victory for the ruling class. Therefore, revolutionaries should be skeptical when socialist groups advocate collaborating with a party of the bourgeoisie, such as when Socialist Alternative pledges to “work alongside progressive Democrats around clear demands to mobilize people into action,” but “will not limit our program, strategy or tactics to what is acceptable to the corporate Democrats.” Given that Socialist Alternative openly campaigned for Bernie Sanders during the primaries, we can assume that “progressive democrats” includes figureheads like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Keith Ellison.

Other organizations and movement leaders are similarly open to cooperating with the Democrats. In a different context, Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza called for building the movement “across divides of class, race, gender, age (…).” The problem with this approach is that while it is absolutely vital to forge connections between different oppressed groups, it is just as crucial to reject associations with our class enemy. United fronts are necessary for the success of a revolutionary movement, but coalitions with bourgeois parties will inevitably defang any anti-capitalist agenda and throw a wrench into the workers’ struggle for freedom.

When leftists talk about building a “United Front” with progressive democrats, they are really talking about a Popular Front. A United Front (sometimes called Workers’ United Front) is composed only of working class organizations. The tactic was thoroughly discussed at the 3rd and 4th Congresses of the Comintern as a means to win the majority of the working class to revolutionary politics. However, political support for a bourgeois party (or a wing within a bourgeois party, for that matter) was always out of the question.

Popular Front: Lessons from France and Spain

The Popular Front strategy proved disastrous several times throughout the 20th century. In the first Chinese revolution (1925-1927), the Comintern advised (ordered) the Chinese Communist Party to dissolve in the bourgeois nationalist party Kuomintang. Thousands of communist workers took the city of Shanghai in March 1927 and brought it under the workers’ control. A month later, Kuomintang’s leader Chiang Kai Shek was welcomed and cheered in the city. A day later, he unleashed a bloody massacre and witch hunt of communists, a catastrophic episode movingly portrayed in Malraux’s novel The Human Condition. The ChCP under Mao would repeat the same mistake when agreeing to form a governing coalition with Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang in 1945 only to be grossly betrayed a few months later.

During the resistance to fascism in France (1934-1936) and the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939), the communists made coalitions with bourgeois organizations. The Comintern embraced the policy of the Popular Front in 1934 and urged the Communist Parties to implement it. The French CP took part in a Popular Front government in 1934; the Spanish CP did the same in 1936. In both cases, these decisions contributed to the failure of the communists to bring to power a workers’ government and lay the foundations for socialism. Tragically, the result was the rise of fascism in the form of Vichy’s government in France and Franco’s regime in Spain.

It is of course important to recognize that the conditions in the US today are very different. For one thing, working class and socialist organizations are nowhere near where they were in terms of strength and political clout. The French CP had a membership of 40,000 at its lowest level in 1930, and the Spanish CP boasted over 300,000 members in 1937. Furthermore, the US is not currently in a revolutionary situation, aswas the case in France and Spain in the 1930s. The Left in the US still has a long way to go in developing the class consciousness needed to build the political tool, i.e. the party, that can lead the working class to overthrow the rule of capital. The task is paramount and difficult, and our success will depend on our ability to engage in militant, patient organizing as well as the concrete experience of class struggle.

The present moment is undoubtedly one of increased class struggle. People are mobilizing and fighting back. The massive protests against Trump are evidence that the will to combat the objective contradictions of the current situation is gathering steam. Now is the time for socialists to advance working-class politics and affirm the need for a revolutionary movement that can take the struggle beyond the impasses inherent in capitalism.

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