Workers Vanguard No. 988
14 October 2011
Occupy Wall Street: Rebels for Liberal Reform
For Workers Revolution to Expropriate the Capitalist Class!
Below we print excerpts from an October 8 forum by Spartacist League spokesman Irene Gardner in Oakland.
This past Wednesday my comrades and I were at the mass demonstration in downtown Manhattan with the Occupy Wall Street protesters, roughly 700 of whom were arrested by the NYPD at a march over the Brooklyn Bridge a few days earlier. I think the scale and popularity of these protests have surprised the New York City ruling class somewhat. It’s another indication of how much anger is out there.
Each day we open up the paper and discover another set of horrible statistics about the effects of the capitalist crisis on poor and working people. The reality is a lot worse than the numbers. Back in 2008, the con men on Wall Street, whose financial swindles were central to the economic collapse, were bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars. But the working class, black people, Latinos and the growing mass of the poor have been made to foot the bill, losing jobs, homes, pensions and just about anything else that makes life livable.
Today, one in six people of working age in the U.S. are unemployed, with long-term unemployment the highest since the Great Depression. The Census Bureau now reports that 46.2 million in the U.S. live under the poverty line, and of those, 2.6 million fell into poverty just in the last year alone. Those who still have a job are being squeezed to work harder, faster and longer for lower pay. And there are plenty of people who have given up even looking for a job altogether. A new census report also shows that one in five New Yorkers now live in poverty, the highest level in a decade. Another astounding figure: in New York City the number of homeless students in public schools has quadrupled since 2008, to almost 43,000 as of last October.
Meanwhile, during the past two years, corporate profits have broken all historic records. The government’s “welfare for the rich” schemes have boosted financial speculation, artificially driving up the price of stocks, while the manufacturing and productive capacity of the U.S. has dropped significantly. And now we’re in a global financial crisis with Europe ready to implode.
Even billionaire New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg mentioned that riots could happen if job prospects don’t improve. It is the fear that the masses might revolt that concerns union-hating Bloomberg and other multibillionaires like Warren Buffett. President Obama has now been pushing a new tax rate for millionaires (the so-called “Buffett Rule”) in exchange for Democrats’ support to more cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. In reality, this token “tax the rich” scheme is meant to be sugarcoating on another round of anti-working-class austerity.
Obama and the Democrats want to appear as if they care about “the little guy,” but in reality Obama championed the same austerity agenda as the Republicans all summer long, pushing for massive budget cuts. The Democrats, like the Republicans, are a political party of the capitalist class. As one Verizon striker put it, “The Democrats are doing the job of the Republicans, only with a smile.”
Economic crises, booms and busts, are nothing new—they are endemic to the capitalist mode of production. A key contradiction that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels identified is that under capitalism production is socialized. But the means of production remain the private property of a few, who appropriate the wealth that is produced by workers’ collective labor. Those who own the means of production—the factories, mines, railroads, banks—constitute the capitalist class, also known as the bourgeoisie. Those who subsist only on their labor power—their mental and physical ability to work—constitute the working class, the proletarians. Between these two classes lies a variety of merchants, independent professionals and others known as the petty bourgeoisie. But the main, decisive classes are the capitalist class and the working class.
Consciously or not, labor seeks to resist exploitation. 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.
The Imperialist Epoch
V.I. Lenin, leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, described how 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.
The 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. 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! Fight, don’t starve! Labor must rule!
In a climate conditioned by the imperialists’ proclamations that the destruction of the Soviet Union proved Marxism to be a “failed experiment,” the prospect of proletarian socialist revolution might appear implausible. 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. As Leon Trotsky pointed out in The Revolution Betrayed in 1936:
“Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of its leadership, were to collapse—which we firmly hope will not happen—there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than ten years successes unexampled in history.”
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 robbed the workers of their political power and vainly sought to appease the imperialists by selling out workers struggles in other countries.
Today, the deep economic crisis in the capitalist countries contrasts sharply with the situation in China, where the industries central to production are collectivized. Beijing has massively channeled investment into developing infrastructure and productive capacity. However, China’s Stalinist regime also undermines the social gains of the 1949 Revolution by conciliating imperialism and promoting “market reforms” that strengthen internal counterrevolutionary forces. In its “partnership” with world capital, the Beijing bureaucracy is subsidizing American imperialism through its huge investment in U.S. treasury bonds, which, among other things, are used to finance the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. As Trotskyists, we stand for the unconditional military defense of the Chinese deformed workers state against imperialism and internal counterrevolution. At the same time, we call for proletarian political revolution to replace the Stalinist bureaucrats with a revolutionary internationalist leadership and a regime of workers democracy.
From Spain’s Indignados...
I want to talk a bit about Europe and in particular Spain, where I visited this past summer. Along with the wild roller-coaster ride of the stock market, Europe has been in the news just about every day with the imperialist rulers desperately trying to keep the economies afloat. In Europe, the financial crisis has sharply accentuated the contradictions inherent in the European Union (EU), an unstable consortium of rival capitalist states, some richer, some poorer. At the heart of the EU’s contradictions is the fact that the maintenance of a common currency requires a common state power. That is simply not possible under capitalism. As proletarian internationalists, we have always opposed the EU as an imperialist trade bloc. We say that only the conquest of state power by the working class can lay the basis for a socialist United States of Europe and a rationally planned economy.
In Spain, youth unemployment is around 45 percent. Factories are closing, hospitals are cutting back, and evictions during just three months of this year numbered over 15,000, more than 150 a day. When I was in Spain I got to discuss with some of the “Indignados” (“the indignant”) at their encampment in Puerta del Sol, the central square in Madrid. The Spanish Indignados are essentially a petty-bourgeois movement that arose in response to the austerity measures being enforced by the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) before its huge defeat in the municipal and regional elections in May. The PSOE in power has carried out a relentless capitalist austerity drive.
Those who started the Indignados movement were inspired by the best-selling book Indignez-vous! (Be Indignant!) by Stéphane Hessel, a French anti-communist bourgeois ideologue. They were also inspired by the protests in Egypt and Iceland. They occupied squares in major cities throughout Spain, numbering in the tens of thousands, mostly youth, calling on people to “stand up against indifference in a peaceful uprising.”
Their main organizers, around a group called Real Democracy Now, put out a manifesto calling for an end to corruption and an end to the dictatorship of the markets, “real democracy.” But what is democracy in a class-divided society? Under capitalism, it is democracy for the ruling class, those wealthy few who own the means of production and carry out laws to defend their private property. There are no laws that will establish equality between the capitalists and the working class. The capitalists have a state apparatus, armed bodies of men (cops, courts, prisons) to keep the bourgeoisie in power and repress any challenge to their rule.
So how do the Indignados propose to change society? By endless protests and encampments? You can be indignant all you want, but to really make a change you have to ally with the social power of the working class, the only class that has the power to stop production and has the historic interest to overthrow capitalism. But the leadership of the Indignados movement is anti-union and therefore anti-working-class, because unions are the basic defense organizations of the working class. In Spain early on, the Indignados assemblies would not allow any union or political organization to join with them, “in order to guarantee the political neutrality of this citizens’ movement”! Their so-called “non-political” stance is actually very political—in the direction of anti-communism. This is shown by their exclusion of left groups from speaking at assemblies and attempts to censor left groups from distributing their literature.
Even their anti-leadership emphasis on “consensus” decision-making is undemocratic. Instead of using majority votes to make decisions, people are supposed to debate endlessly until they all agree. Then, of course, a non-elected clique usually makes the decisions in the background.
While the Indignados leadership pushes anti-union politics, it seems that many of the youth don’t necessarily buy into it. One example is that there have been large teachers strikes in Madrid recently, and some Indignados have put out a statement in support.
Many of these youth hate the effects of capitalism but do not see socialism as an alternative. The whole “death of communism” ideology pushed by the bourgeoisie following the fall of the Soviet Union is reflected in such low-level protest movements. This is also a reflection of the betrayals of the Social Democracy and the Communist parties, which have engaged in decades of class-collaboration—the Spanish labor union bureaucrats work hand in hand with the Socialist Party government! We fight to win youth over to the side of the working class, to the program of international socialist revolution, and to the understanding that you need a Bolshevik vanguard party to accomplish this.
...To “Occupy Wall Street”
The new Occupy Wall Street encampment, which has been gaining steam around the country, is in solidarity with the Spanish Indignados, raising similar demands against corporate greed and for a “leaderless resistance movement.” As one columnist put it, it’s like a “festival of frustrations” and people are plenty mad. They also look for inspiration from the “Egyptian Spring.” But look at what has happened in Egypt—the workers continue to get screwed under a renewed military dictatorship. What’s needed is not endless protests and occupations of squares but workers to power!
For many of the youth in the encampment, this is their first protest. Many are pro-union, but they view the working class as just another base of support for their all-inclusive “movement.” We’ve been intervening into the Occupy Wall Street protests, distributing lots of Workers Vanguard, looking to win over those who are open to a Marxist perspective of international socialist revolution.
Many of you have seen the video of the Wall Street protesters getting viciously attacked by the NYPD during a march to Union Square, where 80 people got arrested. The videos show several young women being corralled inside a movable police pen and pepper-sprayed by cops. Others were kicked, bruised and thrown over barricades by the police. And then last weekend 700 were arrested when the police trapped them on a march over the Brooklyn Bridge. According to a recent New York Times article, the NYPD is geared up to deal with “unrest.”
Many of the protesters are saying that the problem with the cops is that they were “unprofessional.” But these cops are as “professional” as they come! They are precisely carrying out their “profession” as the capitalist state’s armed bodies of men. There are massive illusions that “the cops are workers, too,” with slogans like “NYPD is a layoff away from joining us” and “The 99 percent includes cops.” No, the cops are not a part of the working class—they have a special role to play as part of the capitalist state apparatus. We say cops, prison guards and security guards out of the unions!
What we are seeing in the Occupy Wall Street protest is lowest-common-denominator politics, which does not at all challenge the rule of the bourgeoisie. An example of this was seen in the attempt to create a General Assembly declaration: Somebody objected to using the phrase “redistribution of wealth” because it sounded “dangerously similar to theft”! So it was decided, via consensus, to remove this phrase altogether. If you look at their final declaration posted on the Web, it does not even oppose capitalism, it just raises the same appeals for classless “democracy.” This is not new. A lot of these same themes were put forward during the anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s, here and in Europe, which did not go anywhere.
Many of the slogans raised, like “We are the 99 percent,” are totally compatible with the Democratic Party’s line. In fact, the Democrats are working to get on top of these protests as a way of invigorating Obama’s campaign for the next election and to counter the Tea Party. Not only has Obama empathized with the protests, but yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reported that even Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke have expressed sympathy! You also have celebrities like Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon there—one of the first things she asked was if people were registered to vote. And there are the left-talking Democrats like Charles Barron, all looking to corral youth toward the Democratic Party.
As I mentioned at the start, several unions have called for joining the Occupy Wall Street protests. A recent article noted, “The decision by organized labor to join the demonstrations has given them an extra jolt of numbers and credibility, since unions have historically played an important, but waning, role in mobilizing voters on the left” (New York Times, 6 October). The labor bureaucrats’ program is not about class struggle. It’s about pressuring the Democratic Party to go a little easier on their membership during a period of union-busting austerity.
One of the more vocal unions in support of the protests has been the New York City Transport Workers Union (TWU). Like other unions, the TWU is under heavy attack by the bosses. TWU members showed real social power when they went on strike in December 2005, defying the state Taylor Law banning public workers strikes. But the workers were stabbed in the back by the leaders of other NYC unions and the TWU International, and in the end were sold out by their own local union misleaders.
TWU bureaucrats and the rest of the AFL-CIO officialdom are pushing impotent “tax the rich” schemes along with reformist left groups like the International Socialist Organization, the Workers World Party and the Party for Socialism and Liberation. These “tax the rich” demands are tailor-made to fit in with the current Obama administration and Democratic Party platform. The corporations and banks are sitting on mountains of cash, but you aren’t going to get your hands on it by appealing to the tax authority of the capitalist state, whose purpose is to guarantee and defend the interests of the bourgeoisie.
This past spring, tens of thousands of unionists and their supporters (including students) came out to occupy the Wisconsin State Capitol to protest Republican governor Scott Walker’s union-busting law tearing up collective bargaining for public workers unions. But the bureaucratic misleaders of the AFL-CIO worked overtime to squelch any move toward actually using labor’s strike weapon. Instead they channeled the anger of the ranks into support for the Democratic Party with a petition to recall Walker and a number of Republican state legislators, which failed miserably. Wisconsin public employee unions have been dealt a real defeat.
Within the labor movement, the proletariat is saddled with a pro-capitalist union bureaucracy that promotes the lie that the interests of labor and capital are compatible. They tie working people and the oppressed to the capitalist system, especially through support to the Democratic Party. The trade-union misleaders poured a whopping $450 million into the 2008 elections, backing capitalist politicians like Obama as “friends of labor.”
It is absolutely necessary to forge a new leadership of the unions to mobilize labor in struggle for its class interests, to fight against all forms of discrimination and for full citizenship rights for immigrants. A strategic question for the American workers revolution is the fight against black oppression, which is rooted in the very foundation of capitalism in the U.S. If the unions are to fight for their very existence, they must take up the defense of the ghetto and barrio poor by fighting for jobs, quality housing, education, health care and more.
The decades of betrayals by the labor bureaucracy have encouraged the U.S. rulers in the arrogant belief that they can get away with doing anything to the working class, the poor and most everyone else without provoking any social struggle. But the rulers and their labor lieutenants cannot eliminate the class struggle. The same conditions that grind down the workers can and will propel them into battle against the capitalist class enemy. Right now International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21 in Longview, Washington, is in a battle for its life, fighting against the union-busting of the EGT multinational conglomerate. They have been facing court injunctions, arrests and police assaults, including pepper spray and cops in full riot gear, in a fight to defend their union.
Renewed labor battles will lay the basis for reviving and extending the unions, with a new, class-struggle leadership coming to the fore. It is crucial that we build a revolutionary vanguard party that will bring the critical element of consciousness to the proletariat, to transform it from a class in itself to a class for itself, fighting to do away with this entire system of wage slavery. Join us in the fight for a socialist future for humanity!