Workers Vanguard No. 1011
26 October 2012
SYC Presentation at Bard College
Students Must Ally with the Working Class
(Young Spartacus pages)
We print below an edited presentation given by comrade Irene Gardner to students and campus workers at a May 9 Student Labor Dialogue meeting at Bard College in New York State. Although the liberal Occupy movement has dissipated during the 2012 drive to re-elect Obama, the central illusions propagated during these protests are still commonly shared among young activists.
Thanks for inviting us to speak with your group. Since you are interested in supporting workers, we are here to address the question: how to bring about the end of the exploitation of workers, of wage slavery, and bring about the liberation of all humanity? Well, you can’t do it by trying to fundamentally reform the capitalist system, by putting Band-Aids on it, by trying to pressure capitalist parties like the Democrats or by carrying out civil disobedience. The only way to ensure jobs and decent living standards, including free, quality medical care and education for all, is by seizing the wealth from the hands of the capitalist class through proletarian socialist revolution.
In 1848, Marx and Engels indicted the bourgeoisie as “unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society.” If the bourgeoisie of that time was unfit to rule, the imperialist rulers today have long passed their “sell by” date. It is high time that working people, who create the wealth in this society, run this society! We need an all new ruling class—the workers! Labor must rule!
A question that comes up a lot these days is what is the definition of class. A Marxist analysis is that social class is defined by your relationship to the means of production, not from a state of mind, nor how rich or poor you are. For example, a unionized worker in the building trades may make as much or more income than a yuppie supervisor in an office. Nevertheless, the worker still has an economic interest in overthrowing his capitalist exploiter, while the supervisor is an accessory to capitalist production and thus bound to its ongoing material success. The real, fundamental division in capitalist society is between the working class, which sells its labor power to survive, and the capitalist class, which is actually a very small fraction of the “1 percent.” In order to survive, workers have no choice but to sell their labor power as a commodity to the capitalists, who own the banks and the means of production, such as factories and mines.
Consciously or not, labor seeks to resist capitalist exploitation. It seeks to maintain and even raise its standard of living. It comes into constant conflict with the uncontrollable drive of capitalist production, which is the drive for the accumulation of more and more capital, and the production of more and more profit. This is the basis for class struggle: the irreconcilable class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These class interests are counterposed and cannot be harmonized.
Uniquely, the international working class possesses the social power—its ability to shut off the flow of profit by withholding its labor—and the collective interest to expropriate the bourgeoisie and reorganize society globally on a socialist basis. The intermediate social layers are part of the petty bourgeoisie—a heterogeneous class encompassing professionals, shopkeepers, students and others—who have no direct relationship to the means of production. Lacking social power, the petty bourgeoisie cannot provide an alternative to capitalism and, depending on which way the wind is blowing, will align either with the workers or against them. If the working-class leadership shows that it has the resolve and program to lead society out of its crisis, it can pull much of the petty bourgeoisie behind the workers in struggle.
V. I. Lenin, who along with Leon Trotsky led the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, described how modern capitalism in the late 19th century reached its highest stage—imperialism. He described how the means of production came to be monopolized by fewer and bigger conglomerates with ever-growing needs for investment funds and other financing, leading to the dominance of finance capital, centrally the giant banks. As the capitalists in the advanced industrial countries strove for newer markets to exploit, they carried out wars to redivide the world and secure spheres of exploitation in less-developed countries. In their competition for world domination, the imperialist powers engulfed people around the world in the barbarism of World Wars I and II and waged countless bloody wars in colonial and semicolonial countries.
Reformist left groups like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Workers World Party raise the demand, “Money for jobs & education, not for war.” These slogans simply build illusions that mass protest can somehow pressure capitalism to stop being imperialist by somehow redirecting the budget. This is a total fallacy. As long as capitalism survives, there will be imperialist wars of depredation like Iraq and Afghanistan. The only way out of the endless cycle of capitalist economic crises and imperialist wars was shown by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when workers took power in their own hands, expropriating the bourgeoisie and establishing the Soviet workers state.
Today the bourgeoisie uses every opportunity to proclaim that the destruction of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s proved Marxism to be a “failed experiment.” But the collectivized economy in the Soviet Union worked! Despite its isolation in a world dominated by imperialism, the Soviet Union, arising from deep backwardness and the destruction of world war, civil war and imperialist intervention, became an industrial and military powerhouse, even under Stalinist bureaucratic misrule.
When the capitalist world was in the midst of the Great Depression, the Soviet Union actually increased its industrial output. Now, two decades after counterrevolution destroyed the Soviet degenerated workers state, many in Russia long for the days when they were guaranteed a job, education, housing, health care and vacations, regretting that they were taken in by the myth of capitalist “democracy.” What undermined the collectivized economy, and ultimately laid the basis for the destruction of the Soviet Union itself, was the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy, which beginning in 1923-24 robbed the workers of their political power and vainly sought to appease the imperialists by selling out workers struggles in other countries.
As Trotskyists, we continue to defend the existing bureaucratically deformed workers states—China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and Laos—against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution. These are countries where capitalism was overthrown and the economies collectivized. But they are run by nationalist, Stalinist bureaucracies that need to be thrown out by workers political revolution to institute workers democracy under the banner of revolutionary internationalism.
The Myth of “Pure Democracy”
Many of you may be involved with the Occupy movement, which raises calls for classless “democracy” and liberal reform, especially of the financial sector. But what is democracy in a class-divided society? Under capitalism, it is democracy for the ruling class, the owners of the means of production who construct and carry out laws to defend their private property. There are no laws that will establish equality between the capitalists and the working class. We fight against any attacks on democratic rights for the oppressed under capitalism, but it is futile to call for classless “democracy.” Real democracy for the working class, black people, immigrants and the poor can only be accomplished by the proletariat smashing the rule of the bourgeoisie and establishing its own class rule.
The Occupy protests have tapped into the widespread anger against the increasing destitution brought on by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But the populist notion that the struggle is about “reclaiming our democracy” from greedy bankers and corporate magnates is erroneous. This country was founded on the enslavement of black people and the genocide of Native Americans. Its history is riddled with the bodies of working-class fighters killed at the hands of the police or the courts. The banks and corporations didn’t “hijack” the government in the last couple of decades or with the onset of the Wall Street crash. The purpose of this government has always been to defend the property and profits of the ruling class.
The wealth of this country is actually overwhelmingly concentrated in the handful of families—far less than 1 percent of the population—that own the corporations and the banks and whose profits are derived through the exploitation of labor. This capitalist class runs both the Democratic and Republican parties, whose main difference is not what they do but how they do it. The Republicans make no bones about being the party of “big business” in viciously going after the labor movement and minorities. The Democrats lie and do the same thing. The “choice” at election time is simply which capitalist party will oversee the brutal repression of the working class and oppressed at home and prosecute U.S. imperialism’s bloody wars and occupations abroad.
The ubiquitous slogan of the Occupy movement—“We are the 99 percent”—is based on a populist notion of the “people,” which falsely lumps together everyone except for a small, rich elite, the so-called “1 percent.” According to this outlook, workers and the oppressed supposedly share common interests with the managers who fire their employees, cops who gun down black people and religious leaders who preach obedience to authority. This “99 percent” populism dissolves any understanding of the fundamental class line between workers and their capitalist exploiters.
Especially in the beginning of the Occupy protests, there were lots of illusions in the cops, with slogans like “NYPD is a layoff away from joining us.” Cops are not workers. The police are an essential part of the repressive state apparatus that exists (along with the prisons, courts and military) to defend the interests and rule of the capitalist class against workers and the oppressed. They break strikes, terrorize black and Latino youth and carry out vicious police repression of political movements. Contrary to illusions built by the reformist left and others, no amount of civilian review boards, “community control” or federal oversight is going to change that. We call for cops, prison guards and security guards out of the unions!
No Substitute for Labor’s Power
It’s good that many Occupy activists want to solidarize with labor, but for the most part workers are seen as simply another victimized sector of the “99 percent.” Protesters have been led to believe that solidarity with workers means setting up community pickets to shut down port operations (like on the West Coast), or calling for a “General Strike” (like on May Day with the call for no school, no work, no shopping). To be clear, these Occupy protests were not genuine strikes, and they did nothing to advance the workers’ consciousness of their power as a class. In a real general strike, workers actually shut down production and run various aspects of society themselves, thus posing the question of which class shall rule.
Some anarchists, like the Black Orchid anarchist collective in Seattle, openly try to pit Occupy against the unions, saying that Occupy represents a “new movement of the working class.” The unions, which were built in this country through hard class battles, must be defended, and there is no substitute for waging a political fight within the unions to build a new class-struggle leadership. During the Great Depression, when there was a brief upturn in the economy, workers began to engage in hard-fought battles to organize industrial unions. The sit-down strikes, mass pickets and other actions that built the CIO and the mass movement for integrated industrial unions were ignited by the 1934 San Francisco general strike and mass strikes in Toledo and Minneapolis the same year. All of those strikes were led by reds. New Deal social programs such as Social Security were implemented to head off the threat that continuing class battles would challenge capitalist rule. Following World War II, Cold War red purges in the unions drove out socialists and communists, including the Stalinist Communist Party which had channeled workers’ discontent into support for Roosevelt’s Democratic Party.
It will take a leadership committed to the political independence of the working class to pull the struggle forward. At times, the union tops can be pressured by labor’s ranks or by provocations of the bosses into carrying out strikes and other work actions. But within the labor movement, the proletariat is saddled with a pro-capitalist, protectionist union bureaucracy that promotes the lie that the interests of labor and capital are compatible. Instead of mobilizing in struggle, they tie working people and the oppressed to the capitalist system, especially through support to the Democratic Party. The trade-union tops poured a whopping $450 million into the 2008 elections, backing capitalist politicians like Obama as a “friend of labor.” Even though the Obama Democrats have stomped on unions, the trade-union officialdom will do the same thing this time around.
Reformist groups like the ISO argue that “many labor leaders have correctly seen Occupy as a key to a revival of the union movement” [“The Unions Weigh In for Occupy,” socialistworker.org, 10 November 2011]. To the contrary, the labor tops embrace the Occupy movement not to revive workers struggle but to divert workers’ discontent once again into the Democratic Party. This was put clearly in a [seiu.org, 16 November 2011] statement by SEIU president Mary Kay Henry: “We agree, all across SEIU, that we need to stand for a 99 percent agenda and re-elect our president, Barack Obama, and that those two steps are on the same path…so that we can make the 2012 election about the agenda for the 99 percent.”
It is absolutely necessary to forge a workers party to mobilize labor in struggle for its class interests; to fight against all forms of discrimination and for full citizenship rights for immigrants (and we’re not talking about a party like France’s Socialist Party or the British Labour Party, parties that administer the capitalist system). A revolutionary workers party is the critical instrument for leading the battle to sweep away capitalist class rule through proletarian socialist revolution.
Students can play an important role by allying with the working class and helping to build a revolutionary party. Student struggle can also provide a spark for broader social struggles. But there is no such thing as genuine “student power”—during the ’60s and early ’70s there were massive student strikes across this country against the Vietnam War, but in fact the bourgeoisie escalated the war. What ended the Vietnam War was the military defeat of U.S. imperialism by the Vietnamese workers and peasants.
Student power illusions are usually tied to the idea that the universities can become morally pure “ivory tower” communities isolated from the exploitation of bourgeois society if students apply enough pressure. But as university administration union-busting campaigns across the country show, capitalism doesn’t stop at the campus gates—immigrants and all workers are still exploited at institutions of higher education.
Under capitalism, colleges and universities serve an irreplaceable function: training the future administrative, technical and ideological personnel of bourgeois society. For the most part, children of the working class and minorities are excluded from quality higher education. We are for nationalizing private institutions and making them open to all, free of charge, with a state-paid living stipend so that all working-class youth have access to higher education. We also call for abolishing the administration, including the Board of Trustees—colleges and universities should be run by those who work and study there.
To conclude: the crisis of capitalism will not in and of itself catapult the proletariat to power. It is crucial that we build a revolutionary vanguard party that will bring the critical element of consciousness to the working class, to transform it from a class in itself to a class for itself, to do away with this entire system of wage slavery. The Spartacist League and its youth section, the Spartacus Youth Clubs, part of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), are committed to this task. Check us out, and join us in the fight for a socialist future!