The United States in the Global Crisis: Perspectives for Revolutionary Struggle

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Below we reproduce Left Voice editorial board member Jimena Vergara’s speech from the Latin American and United States Conference which was called by the organizations of the Left Front in Argentina this July. More than 50 organizations from across Latin America and the United States participated. Vergara’s intervention was part of a panel on the global and U.S. situation.

We are holding this conference in the midst of a capitalist crisis accelerated by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. The international situation before the coronavirus was already marked  by rising class struggle in France, Chile, Bolivia, Lebanon and many other countries across the globe. The pandemic and the quarantines that have followed have interrupted  many of these struggles, but at the same time it has accelerated the capitalist contradictions that had been latent since the 2008 recession. While all of these international developments are important, I am going to use my time today to talk mainly about the United States. As the world’s main power, the events unfolding in the United States have international repercussions, and can help us better understand the most general tendencies of the global situation from geopolitical, economic, political and social points of view.

You probably remember when President Donald Trump looked befuddled at the half-empty Bok Center auditorium in the city of Tulsa in June, as he launched his campaign for presidential reelection. As Bill McGowan, one of America’s most influential communications CEOs, says, “Back in 2016, a Donald Trump rally speech was like a triple espresso for his adoring audiences. Not anymore. If his listless campaign event in Tulsa last month is any indication, the caffeine has been replaced by Ambien.” A month had passed since the outbreak of a new chapter in the saga of the Black Lives Matter movement when Trump decided to launch his campaign in none other than the city where in June 1921, paramilitary bands of white men armed by local politicians massacred the black population by burning down houses and businesses.   

Desperate to overcome his dramatic drop in the polls, Trump has been increasingly exploiting the already deep levels of polarization within US society in order to stir up and energize his conservative and racist base. According to recent  polls, the uncharismatic Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, is leading the race for president by anywhere between 9 and 14 points. Trump says that the polls are lying and that he has the support of the “silent majority,” and, although his base is neither a majority nor very silent, there is some truth to this claim. Even though his poll numbers are down, Trumpism is still very much alive as a political phenomenon. 

The Donald Trump phenomenon is in part due to the fallout of the Democratic Party’s mis-handling of the 2008 capitalist crisis. The massive capitalist bailout they oversaw and the austerity and precarity that followed divided the electorate, pushing large sectors of the US population toward reactionary nationalism on the one hand, and the redistributive reformism of Bernie Sanders on the other. But Trumpism also has its roots in the larger crisis of the neoliberal order and in the decline of US hegemony, which has included  the emergence of competing powers like China and foreign policy failures like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an attempt to “make America great again,” Trump has effectively modified the global political agenda, pushing the US regime towards unilateralism in geopolitical matters (against those nostalgic for the multilateral liberal order) and imposing new levels of protectionism that Joe Biden and the Democrats will likely be forced to continue if they win the presidency. 

The most strategic aspect of this agenda from the point of view of the interests of U.S. imperialism is the confrontation with China that is being hailed as  a “new cold war.” Trump engaged in a trade war with China in 2018 with the aim of containing it and winning the competition for technological supremacy. A tariff war that has been very disruptive for world capitalism because it clashes with the globalized structure of the value chains, and also because it threatens the capitalist profit of the big American corporations produced by the exploitation of cheap labor in China. Trump was unable to convince the hegemonic capital sector that benefited from the relocation of production to China, Mexico or Vietnam to “return home” because in order to do so he would have to dramatically lower wages in the United States. Since then, the United States and China have been advancing in a spiral of growing tensions, from confrontation in the commercial and technological spheres to a new arms race and the struggle for global influence, even though China does so from a condition of military inequality. The clash between protectionism and the defenders of globalization will be a source of tension and permanent crisis in the historical period that has been opened by the crisis of the bourgeois neoliberal consensus.  

 Putting aside the circumstantial twists and turns dictated by the electoral contest in the United States, the diplomatic tensions between Washington and Beijing are likely to escalate.  The anti-China propaganda in the mainstream media — whether it be in the moderate style of the New York Times or in the strident style of Fox’s “fake news” — aims to make China responsible for the Pandemic and therefore for the economic crisis and unemployment in the United States.  Both parties are seeking to create a domestic social base for hostile policies. 

Likewise, both U.S. parties are on the same page concerning the task of preserving the global leadership of the United States and sending China back to the status of a subordinated nation, an issue in which they have so far failed. At Left Voice we fight for the left and the workers in the U.S. to oppose the aggressive interests of the U.S. imperialist bourgeoisie and to reject the class-divisive idea that the decline in the wages and living conditions of American workers is a product of the Chinese and Mexican workers. It is the corporations and their global value chains that set the workers of one country against another to compete in order to increase their profits. This does not, however, mean that we give any support to the bureaucracy of the Chinese Communist Party, which, together with the rising bourgeoisie associated with imperialist capital, manages companies that make capitalist investments in Africa, Latin America, and other regions with features that are imperialist, extractive, and which we have repudiated in the call for this conference.

Trump’s call to put “America First” was the popular formulation of this offensive against China, as well as an intensification of the U.S. imperial project directed at the oppressed peoples of the world. This inlcudes putting pressure on Mexico — where AMLO’s “progressive” government has been punctually carrying out Trump’s orders on immigration, and reopening the industries that depend on the United States at the cost of the lives of millions of workers on the northern border — as well as Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and the Palestinian people, who are threatened with the annexation of the West Bank by Israeli forces funded with US dollars. This imperialist offensive, however, is not taking place under the conditions of relative neoliberal stability that existed prior to the crisis of 2008, but in a period of great instability. The pandemic, in particular, has acted as an accelerator of the latent contradictions of the imperialist world system, opening up a crisis only comparable to that of the Great Depression of 1929. This crisis has so far resulted in a fall in production, trade, and consumption, a rise in unemployment (far above the levels of the 2008 crisis), and a historic fall in GDP in 2020.   

How did the world’s leading power arrive at this crisis? Many currents in the Left reject the ideas of the revolutionary Marxist Antonio Gramsci because he has too often been used by reformism. But refusing to use Gramsci is like refusing to use Lenin because he was used by the Stalinist bureaucratic caste to justify their political practice. We have made a theoretical effort to critically retrieve Gramsci in order to enrich the revolutionary theory of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg. Antonio Gramsci used the term “organic crisis” to describe a moment of economic, political and social upheaval arising from the failure of a “great capitalist enterprise generating a crisis of hegemony in the ruling class. This definition makes it possible to foresee the emergence of pre-revolutionary situations. The 2008 crash put the globalising neo-liberal offensive in crisis, generating elements of an organic crisis that is the substratum both of the tendencies towards Bonapartism embodied by Trump and of the class struggle that we are witnessing across the globe. 

The Black Lives Matter movement has put one of the most reactionary institutions of the U.S. imperialist state in check: the police. At no time since the formal creation of police departments in the U.S. (which emerged from the patrols at the service of the slave owners) has the idea of their elimination been so popular. The murder of George Floyd aroused the anger of the masses and brought 24 million people onto the streets, according to the New York Times.

This change in attitude is largely the product of a militant vanguard of young people of all races and working class people who took to the streets immediately after Floyd’s murder and have kept on marching and protesting ever since. The persistence of these marches and demonstrations, even in the face of a new military and federal intervention ordered by Trump in cities like Portland, Seattle and Chicago, shows how deep the process of open class struggle goes. Trump’s treachery in militarily invading and sending Feds to Portland, even bypassing the local government, shows his character of weak bonapartism. Because Trump has been forced to compromise with the House of Representatives and the Senate to govern, his power lies in the Justice Department led by the obscure Attorney General Bill Barr, the National Guard, and the military.

What began in Minneapolis has reached a nationwide scale, dozens of racist statues have been knocked down, and protesters set up general assemblies or occupations of the streets and plazas in several cities. The government’s cruel and incompetent response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has already caused over 150,000 deaths, and the resulting economic crisis, have revealed how profoundly unsustainable imperialist capitalism is, and has moved, in particular, the youth — a youth that is indebted for life, in a condition of precariousness and aware of the climate crisis, opposes oppression and racism, and that saw in Bernie Sanders’ candidacy an alternative to the social crisis caused by capitalism. The renewed movement for Black lives in the conditions of the pandemic shows the continued importance and centrality of Black struggle in the U.S. and its potential to mobilize broad sectors of American society.    

 Before the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, a wave of militant workers’ struggle erupted sweeping across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic, with more than 800 strikes, walkouts and other actions in the last four months. This series of militant workers’ actions has been led first and foremost by precarious workers and health care workers against employer abuse in the midst of the pandemic. Once the anti-racism movement broke out, unionized workers, particularly those to the left of the AFL-CIO, are playing a key role in the mobilizations against police brutality, as was very clearly shown by the two days of actions by dock workers who closed down ports across the country. Right now, teachers’ unions across the country are beginning a process of struggle and reorganization against the reopenings that Trump and local governments want to impose. 

A very auspicious development within the labor movement is the call to expel the police unions from the central unions, as they are the main protection of the repressors against the Black and Latino community. The huge Los Angeles teachers’ union (the second largest in the country), the Chicago teachers’ union, the writers’ union, the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, which represents over 100,000 workers in the Seattle area, the Flight Attendant Association, all of them members of the AFL-CIO, have passed resolutions demanding that the leadership expel police unions from the union. The rank and file group SEIU Drop Cops has released a set of demands calling on the SEIU and other unions to expel police from their ranks and to adopt a Movement for Black Lives platform. The Delegate Assembly of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union, which represents more than 25,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York (CUNY), passed a resolution demanding that the AFL-CIO “end its affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations”.

In Left Voice, we issued a statement from health care workers who were at the forefront of the struggle against the Pandemic to demand that the unions expel the police from the labor movement, a statement which gathered over a thousand signatures from workers in the sector. It is time for the Left around the world to learn from this example, and banish the nefarious idea that police unions can have anything to do with the working class.  

The task of revolutionaries in the U.S. — and Left Voice is at the service of this as part of the International Network of La Izquierda Diario  — is to unify the anti-racist movement with the struggle of workers on the “front lines” in the face of the pandemic and the struggle against the economic crisis. This means not only waging a fierce battle against the union bureaucracy, such as the leadership of the AFL CIO, which refuses to expel the police from the labor movement, but also unifying the ranks of workers among the unionized, the precarious workers and the unemployed. Grassroots self-organization (uniting the struggle of black, brown and white people, natives and immigrants) is fundamental. We must revive the tradition of organization of the American workers that carried out the Seattle general strike in 1919 (backed by the so called Washington soviet), the multiracial unemployment councils of the 1930s, and the strikes in Minneapolis and Toledo.

This perspective can only be offered by a revolutionary Left. But it is not a question of making sterile proclamations that are not embodied in real sectors of the vanguard and the Left. That is why in Left Voice we have been engaged with young socialists from the DSA (which grew exponentially to 70,000 members after Trump’s election), so that they break with the electoral politics of working within the Democratic Party, supporting candidates like Sanders, and instead propose independent socialist candidates. The strategy of the DSA leadership, often promoted in the journal Jacobin, is to build the Left within the Democratic Party, a plan that heavily draws upon the ideas of Karl Kautsky, particularly his “strategy of attrition” but which is much more to the right than Kautsky himself ever was since these strategies are being carried out within an imperialist party.  

As part of our strategy to help build a truly revolutionary current in the U.S. we have built a publication that now receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each month and which provides us with a way of dialoguing with large sectors of the U.S. vanguard. We do this in the hopes of eventually being able to regroup the militants and the young revolutionaries — a tactic you might call “Iskra” for the 21st century — against the failed attempts to found “mini-parties” that proclaim themselves without gaining real influence within the vanguard or within the broader Left. This is allowing us to converge with traditional and increasingly young Trotskyist militants who are awakening to political life around a program that is constantly tested in the living events of reality.

As our comrade Julia Wallace, a militant of the Black movement, said in the international event we held on July 11: “It would be enormous for the world revolutionary movement if from the entrails of these movements and from the convergence of the best of the Trotskyist tradition in the United States, the workers’ struggle and the renewed energy of the youth a revolutionary party emerged in the United States, since that would inevitably give new energy to the reconstruction of the Fourth International.”

Black Struggle and Revolution 

For my second intervention I wanted to address the centrality of the Black class struggle in the United States. The assassination of George Floyd and the uprisings in response have rattled the very foundations of the country.  Founded on Slavery the U.S. ruling class has shown unlimited creativity in their ability to revitalize and weaponize racism with structural racism, police brutality, and the mass imprisonment of Black people. From the War of Independence through the Civil War to the struggle against racial segregation to the present day, the masses of Black people have contributed to the class struggle through struggles for black emancipation, showing that one of the great revolutionary tasks in the U.S. remains the complete emancipation of the African-American masses. 

The centrality of the Black struggle in the U.S. is undeniable, which is why we at Left Voice among other sectors of the Left,  have confronted the neo-Kautskyist position of Jacobin, which believes that the demands specifically raised against racial oppression are circumscribed/submerged in the struggle for class-wide demands, dissolving the specific weight of racial oppression on the one hand and, on the other, the racial bias of the health and economic crisis that is affecting Black and Latino minorities first and foremost, as all the indices of the pandemic say. 

What is behind the position of Jacobin is the social democratic conception of subordinating itself to the white, unionist, economist and chauvinist labor aristocracy, refusing to form a labor movement that takes as its own the struggle against oppression. We want to learn from the mistakes of the Left in the United States, which on the one hand has dissolved itself in the “social movements,” neglecting to unify them with the working class and refusing to build a party of combat in the tradition of Lenin, or, which has on the other hand, focused on unionism without fighting for the American working class to break with the nationalist economism imposed by the union bureaucracy and embrace as its own the struggle against racial oppression. Our perspective, in contrast, is to fight oppression with proletarian hegemony in order to confront the capitalist state as a whole. The task before us then in our struggle to build a revolutionary party, is to find and embolden the sectors of youth and workers that are coming into struggle with a revolutionary program.  

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Trotsky gave fundamental importance to thinking, with great imagination and strategic intransigence, about ways to build a revolutionary organization in the United States, and he did so in political struggle with Cannon and the American Trotskyist leadership. From the experience of the Minneapolis and Toledo strikes and at Trotsky’s initiative, the American Workers Party emerged in 1934 as the result of the merger of the Communist League of America founded by Cannon and the Workers Party of America led by Muste.  

Later on, in 1935, Trotsky led a political struggle within the WP to have a special tactic on the American Socialist Party, which was incorporating new workers and young individuals who had been impacted by international events such as the rise of fascism and had begun to radicalize. The Socialist Workers Party emerged from this experience in 1936. 

In June 1940, again in discussion with Cannon (who refused) and the SWP leadership, Trotsky proposed to critically support the U.S. Communist Party’s presidential candidacy, following the logic of influencing the vanguard with political struggle, in this case the rank and file workers and CP sympathizers who remained loyal to the party. These initiatives, elaborated in five years of intense intervention of the SWP, had the objective of making the revolutionary program become embodied in the vanguard, something which is impossible without bold tactics, political struggle, and clear intransigence in defending the revolutionary program. 

Following Trotsky’s method, the emergence of a revolutionary organization in the U.S. will not be possible without political struggle, special tactics towards the vanguard and the most dynamic political phenomena, and programmatic clarity and common experiences in the class struggle, where possible, between the Left and the vanguard. That is why Left Voice aims to influence the vanguard and the Left through political struggle and through the program, with the objective of organizing the revolutionary elements of the U.S. in international revolutionary struggle. 

About author

Jimena Vergara

Jimena Vergara

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.