US politics and Trump: a discussion document

Submitted by martin on 23 February, 2021 - 9:24 Author: Daniel Randall, Ben Tausz and Stephen Wood
state votes 2020

Part of an ongoing debate: see here for all the contributions


Developments in US politics over the past year have been the subject to lengthy debate in the labour movement, within the AWL and in our paper Solidarity. Those discussions have been useful and should continue. Our AGM should make an initial assessment and draw some political conclusions.

Trump

Donald Trump was the most right-wing, authoritarian, nationalist, president in recent US history, as well as a racist, sexist, transphobic narcissist. For workers of the world, and in particular for black, brown, and immigrant working-class people in the US, it is a relief that he is no longer president.

Trump’s politics championed the interests of US big business. His domestic and foreign policies were designed to lever advantages for US capitalists above other bourgeois factions and to use the state to tip the balance of forces in favour of capital and against labour.

Trump’s anti-working-class politics were illustrated by his hostility toward migrant workers and his attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement. His contempt for working-class communities was clear from his gross mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic in the US.

Trump’s lies, the repetition of blatant falsehoods, conspiracy theories, fake news and his denial of science, reason, and genuine debate, have poisoned US and world politics.

Trump’s contempt for the norms of bourgeois democracy, even the limited democratic system of the US, poses a genuine threat. His attempt to deny the results of the presidential election, to subvert his defeat through lawsuits and ultimately, via the march on the Capitol on 6 January, show that he is a mortal enemy of democracy and of the working class.

Fascism

Trump encouraged and amplified the US far right, including explicitly fascist elements, armed right-wing militias and other forces that directly threaten workers, the oppressed and basic democratic freedoms.

The threat of a mass fascist movement growing in the US is significant. The US has seen efforts to spur the growth of fascism in the 1930s, 1950s, including McCarthyism, and 1970s, alongside white supremacist movements such as KKK. The US working class will have to face down the growth of such elements in the years ahead.

Trump is not a fascist in the sense Marxists have historically understood the term. Fascism originated in the 1920s as a reaction to growing, militant, labour movements led by Communists in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Fascism organised disaffected soldiers, ruined petty bourgeois, and even workers into a plebeian force to physically confront and beat down the labour movement. Fascism garnered support from big business when it feared these labour movements. Fascism in power has always developed towards totalitarianism, and has been distinguished by its violent suppression of workers’ parties, trade unions, minorities, and political freedom, even in instances where certain democratic freedoms and mechanisms of opposition were not snuffed out immediately. Fascism has taken many forms, some close to Bonapartist, military, or other anti-democratic forms of bourgeois rule.

Socialists oppose almost everything Trump did in power. But in the 2016 election and in power, he was an authoritarian right-wing leader of the Republican party, one of the main bourgeois parties in the US. Above all, he has pursued opportunistic self-interest and self-aggrandisement before any heartfelt ideological commitment, approaching office in the manner of a mobster. To characterise Trump and his movement as straightforwardly “fascist” is to misdiagnose the threats our class face and misdirect the working-class politics needed to oppose him and the growth of the far right, including the more fascistic elements of the Trump movement and fascist groups outside it.

Even if Trump could be described as fascistic or proto-fascist, this would not indicate an orientation to the Democrats as the appropriate response. US workers and oppressed minorities cannot rely on the Democrats or the Biden administration to curb the far right.

Working-class anti-fascist politics, starting with the Comintern and developed by Trotsky, and later the experience of fascist movements in the 1970s, emphasises: 

• Working-class political independence

• No reliance on bourgeois parties and bourgeois states

• Working-class self-defence

• Support for black and other forms of self-organisation and self-defence

• Working-class political answers to social despair and alienation that opens some workers to fascist movements

These remain the best guiding principles for working-class anti-fascism. The US labour movement and left also needs to take up the struggle for democracy in a serious and consistent way, around demands including: 

• Demilitarisation and curbing of the police

• Abolition of the Senate

• Proportional representation for the House of Representatives

• Fixed terms for Supreme Court judges

• Abolition of the Electoral College

• Removal of the many obstructions to especially black Americans registering and voting

• Suffrage for prisoners, felons, and all residents regardless of nationality

• Thresholds for election nominations reduced at least to UK-comparable levels, and no exemptions for incumbents

• An end to over-representation of small rural states; statehood for DC, self-determination for Puerto Rico

The vote in the presidential election

In November 2020 there was no pressing, desperate reason for the AWL to advocate a Biden vote.

The pressing matter was supporting a mobilisation to defend democracy from the election loser’s power-grab. The AWL was right not to advocate a Biden vote. Biden is a wretched representative of a mainstream bourgeois party, the Democrats, which has traditionally been a net that has enmeshed US radicalism. A Biden vote would have confused our message for the need for independent working-class political organisation and voice in the US.

Biden will almost certainly introduce anti-working class and anti-migrant legislation. Biden may well pave the way for a new Trump, or someone worse than Trump.

Voting for Biden may open up a small audience. But given our tiny weight the main reaction will be, amongst small numbers who might listen to us, “We’re glad to have you onboard”. Chiming in with the “Vote Biden” clamour would have made it less likely, overall, that our key message about the need for independent working-class politics was heard.

On balance it was right to favour a vote for the Green candidate, the socialist and trade unionist, Howie Hawkins.

Our attitude to the Democrats

We oppose US socialists having a thoroughgoing activist orientation, of the type we currently have to the Labour Party, to the Democrats. The Democratic party is not “reformable” via an intervention from US labour or the socialist left. It is not a US Labour Party. It is a bourgeois party of big business, primarily an electoral machine for those interests. There is little space for activists. There are no direct mechanisms to hold elected Democrats accountable, and no structures via which unions, which give substantial funding to Democratic candidates, can assert direct democratic control, or push for particular policies - except by threatening to withdraw funding and support.

The Sanders movement, and the success of figures like Ocasio-Cortez show that Democratic electoral structures can be used to win a hearing for socialist, or social-democratic, ideas. The unusual nature of the USA's major parties - lacking coherent programmes and with relatively open primary structures - combined with severe barriers to third-party ballot access, makes intervening in Democratic primaries a possible tactic for socialists despite our hostility to the party itself. But the likes of Sanders and AOC also express the limitations of an orientation to the Democrats: they are individual figureheads, unaccountable to any permanently organised socialist movement, whose principal strategy for political advancement is to get more people like themselves elected to public office.

Whilst socialist challenges in Democratic primaries have a place as one of several socialist approaches to official politics in the US, the ultimate aim should be for an independent working-class party that breaks up the “Democratic coalition”. We agree with those US socialists who oppose a thoroughgoing orientation to the Democrats that aims to take over or “reform” the Democratic party as such.

The greatly expanded Democratic Socialists of America has immense potential to renew and develop socialist politics in the USA. For that potential to be realised, class-struggle socialists within it need to organise to promote and win:

• A consistent and systematic turn to activity in workplaces and rank-and-file organisation in unions

• Working-class anti-fascist and anti-racist organising

• Working-class independence in politics

• A “third camp”, pro-working-class-independence stance on international issues

• The strengthening of the DSA’s multi-tendency democracy, combined with central democratic coordination to carry through majority decisions

The AWL will seek dialogue with tendencies and individuals inside the DSA, as well as others on the wider US left, who are organising to promote these perspectives.

Lesser evilism

In bourgeois elections our general policy is to support working-class candidates. This means supporting candidates who argue for socialism; or for social democratic reforms that can mobilise the working-class to fight for its own interests; or candidates standing for parties based on or structurally linked to the labour movement, who are thus directly subject to organised working-class pressure. 

The key criteria is developing a working-class voice in politics, as part of the drive for working class self-emancipation. We judge working-class candidates on their politics, and endorsement of particular candidates does not exclude sharp criticism as necessary.

The “viability” of working class candidates is not the key measure. Many workers’ parties have only achieved small number of votes, well short of bourgeois parties. The German SPD in its early years, Eugene Debs and other socialist candidates often garnered less than 5% of the vote. Yet they made socialist propaganda, promoted the class struggle and took steps towards working-class political independence.

The tradition of AWL politics in recent decades across the globe, including South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Pakistan, Indonesia, as well as in US and European elections, has been to support even small independent working-class candidates, where this could have contributed to developing independent working-class politics and organisation.

We have no ironclad principle of never voting for “bourgeois” candidates. Socialists may advocate a vote for non-working-class, and even “bourgeois”, candidates in certain circumstances, for example where such candidacies are tied to the aims of a democratic national liberation movement (e.g., the pro-Kurdish HDP in Turkey), or, sometimes, in run-offs where working-class candidates we supported have been knocked out.

But potential exceptions are not the basis for a general approach, which is to oppose “lesser evilist” votes, however critical, for bourgeois parties. A “lesser evilist” policy would ultimately rule out fielding working-class candidates, in order help the least-bad bourgeois candidate win. This is political suicide for working-class, socialist politics, which have to begin somewhere in elections, even on a very low level of support, to assert a working class voice. In a context in which electoral conflicts between various forms of bourgeois liberalism on the one hand, and various forms of right-wing, populist nationalism on the other, are likely to be a common feature, it is especially important to continually assert the need for the working class to speak and act in its own interests, including electorally.

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