Workers Vanguard No. 945
23 October 2009
Break with the DemocratsFor a Workers Party!
U.S. Capitalism in Decay
America Needs Workers Revolution
We print below, edited for publication, a September 12 forum given in Chicago by Spartacist League Central Committee member Ed Clarkson.
Let’s start with the obvious: things are bad. Official unemployment is about 15 million. Nine million people are working part-time. Another several million or more have thrown in the towel; they’re not reflected in the unemployment statistics because they don’t look for work anymore, and probably haven’t since the dot-com crisis. We see people losing their homes and dreams of retirement smashed.
News was just released that only 60 percent of the people attending college ever complete their four-year degree. People drop out, I assume, because they don’t have the scratch. And generally those who are applying for college are downsizing to the community colleges, which are kind of like trade schools. Typically you go through community college, get a skill and go look for a job. But there are no jobs, and you go back to community college and get another skill, and so on. Everybody knows that phenomenon. The reason being education doesn’t produce jobs; capitalist economic investment produces jobs. Also, with the continuing loss of jobs, you have a continuing loss of health care.
Last November about 56 percent of the voting-age populace turned out, many hoping to end the seeming Nightmare on Elm Street of the Cheney-Bush years. Democratic voters all had considerable illusions in Barack Obama, the first black man elected to the presidency. Now, it’s not his 100th day, it’s his 200th day or so. It’s not that nothing has happened since he took office; it’s unfortunately worse than that. Two of the major actions of his administration are, first, giving a lot of bread to the banks, which has the population outraged. And the other, with the able assistance of United Auto Workers head Gettelfinger, is bringing what was at one time the most powerful union in the United States to its knees. That auto bailout deal was orchestrated from the White House. All the promises that he made as a candidate, or half promises, that plants wouldn’t close—the plants closed. Jobs vanished—they’re not even spoken about anymore with any seriousness.
Mortgage relief is not forthcoming at all. People are still losing their homes; they’re going to continue to lose their homes. Roundups of immigrants have in fact escalated greatly compared with the Bush years. The occupation of Iraq continues, the “timetable” for partial withdrawal being essentially the one that George Bush proposed, no different, and who knows what the timetable means in any case. Anybody who thinks that there will actually be a departure in 2010 better think about it again. There’s the escalation of war in Afghanistan, which most Americans today are not very happy with. And then there is the torture apparatus of U.S. imperialism: the government won’t brag about it anymore, just tuck it back in a corner. Unlike Cheney, they won’t cheer every time somebody screams in a prison
Look at the current health care “reform.” There are now approaching 50 million people in this country without any health care at all. There is some impulse on the part of the bourgeoisie to cover a larger percentage of the population, because it’s bad press to have so many people without health care. Of even greater concern for the bourgeoisie, health care in America is not cost-effective. Remembering that this is the most savage and backward of the major imperialist powers, and always has been, health care “reform” is gone about in a particularly American way. The “evil” cited is that people are “consuming” too much health care. Just like they consumed too many homes, when banks gave them the loans, and they ran up too much debt just trying to get by because their incomes were really shrinking.
So the evil consumer is behind everything. What’s happened, they found out, is that a significant percentage of credit card debt was for health costs. People don’t “consume” health care: “Oh, doc, I’m looking for a bypass, and what are you charging for liver transplants today?” What happens is that you go into a doctor’s office because you don’t feel well, he tells you what you need, your insurance either approves it or doesn’t, and the hospital provides it or doesn’t. There is no consumerism here. Everything is out of your hands.
So what are they putting together in Washington now? Obama has already made deals with the insurance companies, with the doctors, with the hospitals, that certain areas won’t be touched, so they are all now supporters of health care “reform.” All these people who have made mammoth profits are now all of a sudden behind this because they may get some tens of millions more people able to “consume.” On the other hand, ordinary people get nervous when they hear that there will be all these great cost savings, because the fox is now running the chicken coop. They suspect what’s going to happen—and there is a basis for this suspicion—is that the people that have health care are going to get less. The government will cut Medicare and Medicaid, cut the “gilded” insurance policies. They’re talking about taxing the “excess” benefits of a two-worker family with kids. So people pretty much were for health care reform going into it, but they are now very suspicious that who is going to pay is the working class, that working people are going to have to pay for people who are not working. In this country, such suspicions always intersect anti-black racism. This shows the invaluable service that the race/caste oppression of black people in this country plays in helping the bourgeoisie to divide working people along racial lines.
Having said that, it needs to be understood that all health care is rationed in capitalist society, both government health systems and private insurance. As Marxists, we don’t call for a “better” reformist plan, like national health insurance. It would be nice if that were in place, but that’s not our solution. We are for free, quality health care for all. If there were a socialist revolution tonight, tomorrow all health care would be free. All health care—abortions, everything. That’s how easy it is to reform health care. The hard part is having the socialist revolution.
American Capitalism and the Obama Presidency
The Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League, opposed Barack Obama when he ran for president. We oppose all bourgeois candidates. Moreover, in the case of executive offices—the administrators of the capitalist order, the governors, the mayors, the top cops and the president—we oppose the offices as such. In the past on several occasions we have run for mayor, for example, which is an executive office, expressly stating that we would not take that office if elected. We have since reconsidered the matter, because the very fact of running for executive office carries with it, no matter what you say, the implication that reform is possible within that context. So we no longer run for executive office (see “Down With Executive Offices of the Capitalist State! Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 61, Spring 2009).
People voted for Obama hoping that something good would happen after the Bush years. Our opponents on the left, although most of them did not openly call for a vote to Obama, said maybe this guy will open things up for people, somehow. And of course everybody who read their papers knew what that meant.
The reason that we didn’t vote for Obama is not because we liked or disliked the man; that had nothing to do with it. It’s because as communists we understand that the capitalist order is the source and perpetuator of human misery and that the system of private property and the bosses’ state that defends it must be overthrown by a socialist revolution led by the working class. There is no other answer to the matter. Our model for that is the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.
For the reformist left, support to a capitalist politician as president especially reflects their illusions. But is it possible, assuming he even wanted to, for anyone in that office to reform the capitalist system? Georgi Plekhanov, speaking about the nature of human progress, said in his The Role of the Individual in History:
“At the present time we must regard the development of productive forces as the final and most general cause of the historical progress of mankind, and it is these productive forces that determine the consecutive changes in the social relations of men. Parallel with this general cause, there are particular causes, i.e., the historical situation in which the development of the productive forces of a given nation proceeds and which, in the last analysis, is itself created by the development of these forces among other nations, i.e., the same general cause.”
The historical situation that we happen to live in has been called by Leon Trotsky the “epoch of imperialist decay” and the “death agony of capitalism.” Capitalism was always accompanied by misery, but it did have its era of progress. In this country that era reached its high point in the Civil War with the victory of the North and the smashing of the slave system of labor, which was in fact a social revolution. With the beginning of the 20th century, the major industrial powers began, in their quest to expand their basis of profits and their rule, to conflict with each other in the process of dividing up the planet. The U.S. entered the imperialist order on the world stage in 1898 against the decaying Spanish empire in the Philippines, Cuba, etc. (the Spanish-American War), while simultaneously re-enthralling black people at home through the legal apparatus of Jim Crow segregation in the South. Of course the legal apparatus of Jim Crow is now gone, but it is reflected in every meaningful social statistic: health, life span, jobs. Although it’s not particularly the subject of this talk, the oppression of blacks is a fundamental feature of American capitalism that the bourgeoisie uses in dividing the working class and in maintaining the U.S. as the only major country that lacks even a reformist workers party. In other words, workers in this country simply do not generally consider themselves to be part of a working class.
Obama is a member of the new black middle class. By “new” I mean there is now a small layer of blacks in executive offices, in corporate firms, high up in the educational apparatus, in addition to sports and popular entertainment figures. And that’s the stratum that Obama comes from. He gives Booker T. Washington-like lectures to black men to get themselves together and start to behave “responsibly,” and then he sits down to have a brewski with a cop to explain why cops should be “sensitive” when dealing with black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates Jr. And of course the cop is now the hero of all the U.S. police forces, which praise his lack of sensitivity, because after all these are the repressive forces that are responsible for controlling this capitalist society for the bourgeois rulers. While doing all this, Obama is also the guy putting the hammer to a key segment of the old black working class, the auto workers, further turning Detroit into a wasteland. This is the domestic face of Obama’s role as Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism.
Let’s look further at the epoch of imperialist decay. To be sure, in the epoch of decay, there are periods of rot and devastation, but there also occurs regrowth. When this “Great Recession” ends, as it someday will, hiring will begin again. Will it be as good? No. The jobs haven’t been as good for a long time. You lose your job, the second job is worse, the third job is worse than that. And will there be as many jobs? Probably not. But there will be an uptick in hiring at some point. So what the epoch of imperialist decay means is not something like The Picture of Dorian Gray or Night of the Living Dead, but rather that, in aggregate, there is more pain than gain for humanity from the capitalist social system. But social systems don’t just dissipate and go away. Unlike biological organisms, social organisms have to be put to death, primarily through war and revolution. For example, the most powerful and wealthiest of the imperialist powers, the U.S., arrived at its apogee in the aftermath of World War II, which took place in the epoch of imperialist decay.
What has been the price of that ascendancy? Well, there are the almost 100 million dead from two world wars, the devastation of Europe and much of Asia, the savagery at Hiroshima and Nagasaki where essentially a defenseless people were incinerated by atomic weaponry. Since its ascendancy in the aftermath of the war, the United States has been involved in wars or military actions virtually every year. At least another ten million bodies have been added to the graveyards created by the First and Second World Wars, of course in the service of the spread of “democracy,” which is really a gussied-up form of the “white man’s burden.”
History after the world wars gives ample testimony to the fact that the working class had no side in these wars between the major capitalist powers, not even in the so-called “heroic war against fascism.” There was only one side that was appropriate to defend in the Second World War: the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state. Decades later, however, in an historic defeat, the Soviet Union fell to capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92. The situation today shows an actual historical regression. A false view of Marxism is that it holds that societies always march forward. No, unfortunately great defeats are possible. What we see in Russia and East Europe now is the impact of the inferior, reactionary capitalist social system destroying a social system that, despite the Stalinist bureaucracy’s misrule, had in it the roots of social progress—i.e., the overthrow of capitalist rule and the institution of the beginnings of working-class forms of production. We fought against the capitalist counterrevolutions in East Europe and the USSR in 1989-92 and today we defend the remaining countries like China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba where capitalism has been overthrown. At the same time, we fight for proletarian political revolutions to oust the Stalinist bureaucracies. Worldwide, the greatest impact of the fall of the Soviet Union has been on the consciousness of especially the advanced elements of the working class, who no longer tend to see socialism, even in its reformist variant, as something to be fought for. That is a tremendous setback.
Recession, Depression and Roosevelt’s “New Deal”
I happened to grow up in the heyday of American imperialism. Unfortunately, I now lose my rights as a geezer to tell people “I had it harder than you did.” It’s simply not true. And so in the last three or four decades of considerable economic decline, we see the erosion of living standards of ordinary people, with occasional huge gouges (for example, the “end of welfare,” orchestrated by Bill Clinton); the ratcheting up of attacks on rights (the “war on drugs,” the “war against terror”); a goodly percentage of the black population now finds its “housing” in prisons. In general, things look pretty grim for people.
But one might ask, “With all this rot, why are we better off today than we were in the Great Depression?”—which we are, it must be frankly said. Let me go back for a minute to where we started. The presidency since Lincoln has generally been a succession of nonentities. What did Calvin Coolidge do, what did Chester Alan Arthur do, what did Grover Cleveland do, what did Woodrow Wilson do? Nobody did anything, because they operated within the confines of the system, and the office has never been used, nor will it ever be used, to challenge those confines. There’s one putative exception: Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was known as some combination of Lenin and Satan by the right wing, and as the guy, for the liberals, who really proved that capitalism can be decent. Both because of the similarities between the Great Depression and now, and because of the sainthood of FDR, it’s useful to examine this question. I hope to refute it.
There are two major differences in the world now from the time of the Great Depression: first, the 1917 October Revolution was then a beacon for the working class, and, second, the United States was a growing industrial country at that time, the strongest in the world. That no longer pertains. Those are important qualifiers.
Let’s compare and contrast Obama and FDR a little bit. There are some similarities: the primary act of both was to stabilize the banks, although they did this by different mechanisms. Roosevelt essentially just closed the bad banks. Obama showered money on the bad banks. The net result was the same: the banks sat on money, they did nothing with it. Why? Because the important thing for capitalists is the ability to realize a profit, and that money will not move until then. It doesn’t matter how much money Obama prints. Now the other thing that was similar is that the bigger banks ate the smaller ones, the more stable ate the weaker. That happened both times.
During Roosevelt’s “First New Deal,” he formed the NRA, the National Industrial Recovery Act, which mainly promoted worker-management “cooperation,” if you can imagine that, creating very few jobs. The same with the Tennessee Valley Authority and what became the Civilian Conservation Corps—a minuscule number of jobs were created. What the NRA mostly did is set the basis for the formation of company unions. This did not enchant the working class a great deal, so workers for the most part walked away from them, because a company union is not much good when you want to fight the company.
Now let’s look at what’s called the “Second New Deal”—that’s in 1935. The Works Progress Administration hired more people, still a small percentage of those unemployed, but a couple million people. Social Security was initiated, and from Social Security came unemployment relief, ADC (welfare), etc. And then to supplant the NRA, which had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935, there was something called the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, which was passed later in 1935. This was supposedly to allow the workers to organize—if they behaved well and legally under the system of capitalism.
So one should ask the question: does this reflect the fact that the FDR administration—the executive committee of the capitalist rulers—developed a heart? No, it developed the pretense of a heart, and there’s a difference. What really extracted these social concessions from the bourgeoisie were the giant strikes of 1934 in Toledo, on the West Coast in longshore and the Minneapolis trucking strike. Militants began at that time to organize the unemployed as a section of the labor movement. Just to show you FDR’s great ambivalence about even the small reforms he initiated, he raised the number of people employed by the government in the Works Progress Administration in 1935, then cut it drastically in 1937 because he thought there was an upturn, and that ushered in another recession. The Great Depression was actually constructed of two recessions—in 1929-33 and 1937-38.
Now, as for the powers of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the employers ignored the NLRB because they thought that it too would be overturned by the Supreme Court. The workers tended to ignore it too, which was a good thing. In other words, what followed was a strike wave. Let me give you a sense of its proportions. In 1934, there were 1,800 strikes; in 1935, there were 2,000; in 1936, 2,100 strikes; in 1937, during the beginning of the second recession, there were 4,700; in 1938, 2,700; in 1939, 2,600 strikes. Nobody was trotting down to the offices of the NLRB and asking “please.” They were out there kicking ass on the streets, and some dying in the process.
The great Flint sit-down strike occurred in 1936-37. Anybody remember the NLRB intervening into that? No, it did not. It might have attempted to, but it had no impact as such. Incidentally, the strike wave beginning in 1935 resulted in a doubling of the trade union movement in five years. So it was quite substantial. These workers were betrayed, however, by the reformists, especially the Stalinist Communist Party, in the service of their ties with the Democrats, and in the service of going into the war on the side of Roosevelt.
There is much talk today about Keynesianism. FDR was not a Keynesian. He was a balanced-budget kind of guy. Government expenditures went up some during the Great Depression, accompanied by tax increases. In other words, the government was going to pay its way, unlike with Obama where you just run the printing press and see what happens. For Keynesianism, the answer is supposedly to put money into consumers’ hands. You do deficit spending. It wasn’t until 1939 that the government started on a course toward significant deficit spending, and the reason for that did not have to do with the economy, it had to do with building weapons. Capitalist governments do need Keynesianism for war, unless they have a very fat treasury and unless they are going to show up on the battlefield without any guns, without any planes, without any tanks. So Keynesianism in fact played no role, has never played any role, in that kind of situation as occurred in the Great Depression. Of course what solved the Depression, as we all know, was World War II: automatic improvement to joblessness, since half the working population was sent off to kill and die on the battlefield.
Having said that, Obama has done nothing like even the stinting sort of things that FDR did, except to pay off the banks. Moreover, as far as I can tell, there’s no talk of doing anything. But Obama doesn’t have the spur of class struggle, like FDR did. On the other hand, we know the limits within which the capitalist system operates.
Going into the Second World War, wages were frozen and the right to strike was taken away, with the complete complicity of the trade-union bureaucracy in support of the government’s war plan. People worked throughout the course of the war at Depression-level wages, leading to the giant strike wave at the end of the war in 1946. Obama’s policy, insofar as he seems to have one, seems more like right-wing economist Milton Friedman’s. It’s essentially monetarist, you keep the Federal Reserve interest rate very low, at zero percent. Japan brought its federal bank rate to zero percent starting in the mid 1990s. It didn’t stimulate the economy, because, again, capitalism depends on generating profits. If profits aren’t available, it’s very slow. If there are a lot of profits available, it runs very fast and creates the basis for the next crisis.
Today, money going to the consumer is not apparent, as consumer spending continues to fall because people are losing jobs. Those that have money expect to lose their jobs, so they are not going to give it up quite as easily. Or they expect to lose their health care, or they expect to lose their homes—and their fears have reason.
So, are we materially better off today than we were in the Depression? I would say so, but why? Because Social Security exists, because unemployment insurance exists, because food stamps exist—all those things that were the by-products of the social struggles of the 1930s now exist. They didn’t exist until later in the Great Depression, and barely then. You can speculate that maybe the more rabid sections of the bourgeoisie could just abolish these, but that’s not quite a political reality. If they did that, the Codgers for a Democratic Society would be rolling the guillotines down Pennsylvania Avenue. You’re not just going to take everything that people have away from them in one fell swoop. But codgers, unfortunately, are not an adequate social force.
For Workers Revolution
I’ve tried to argue that the myth about FDR is just that, a myth. Key events that occurred in the course of his administration were, in an important way, a loss for humanity. The United States’ victory in World War II, its domination of the world, is a loss for humanity, a tremendous blow. And in particular, those things that seem to be benefits, he had nothing directly to do with, except to respond in an effort to buy off and placate the class struggle that was seriously ignited at that time.
What I’ve tried to show is that reforms are the by-product of social struggle, that those reforms are eroded and endangered constantly by the trade-union bureaucracy, which, in its allegiance to capitalism, is willing to make important concessions. In the case of the once very powerful auto workers union, it’s not dead yet, but it has a moribund quality. The trade-union bureaucracy, the labor lieutenants of capital, operates to contain and/or, sometimes simultaneously, betray the class struggle. In this country that is politically expressed through its ties with the Democratic Party, of which it is a significant component. I think at any given Democratic presidential convention, 25-30 percent of the delegates are trade unionists. The Democratic Party is not a workers party, it’s a bourgeois party. But it must be recognized that there is substantial integration of the tops of the trade-union movement into that party, to the detriment of the unions.
I have also tried to demonstrate that the only way forward for humanity is the smashing of capitalism through working-class social revolution. It might be mentioned, in terms of health care, for example, that only those countries that overthrew capitalist rule—Cuba, the Soviet Union and much of East Europe—provided free health care. It wasn’t highly elegant, but it was available to everybody. (Although in Cuba they do fairly sophisticated things, and they did fairly sophisticated things in the Soviet Union, too.) And because it was available to everybody, you just got people to the doctor and treated them.
Some people ask, what’s going to happen under socialism? Well, of course, some problems are more complex than others, like restoking the industrial base of this economy, which would require some thought and planning. But I promise that, in an American workers state, the housing problem, like the health care crisis, would be quickly over. Is there any question that there are houses out there that people can live in, empty office buildings, etc.? And it’s possible in the short term to provide everybody with a job by just shrinking the number of hours you work. That’s what the Transitional Program, written by Trotsky in 1938, suggests: a manner in which revolutionaries can raise demands, unattainable in their entirety under capitalism, thus leading to the understanding that what is necessary is a revolutionary solution. There is the demand for a sliding scale of wages and hours; for the nationalization of the banks without compensation; the nationalization of important firms, again without compensation; the formation of workers defense guards. Let me read from the Transitional Program:
“The orientation of the masses is determined first by the objective conditions of decaying capitalism and second by the treacherous politics of the old workers’ organizations. Of these factors, the first of course is the decisive one: the laws of history are stronger than the bureaucratic apparatus.”
So why don’t we just go up and ask Barack Obama to nationalize the banks without compensation? Well, you’d probably be arrested for drug abuse, with some reason to think it true. So let me quote from Trotsky on how one uses this kind of program: “The difference between these demands and the muddleheaded reformist slogan of ‘nationalization’ lies in the following: (1) we reject indemnification; (2) we warn the masses against demagogues of the People’s Front”—in today’s parlance, that means reformists—“who, giving lip service to nationalization, remain in reality agents of capital; (3) we call on the masses to rely only upon their own revolutionary strength; (4) we link up the question of expropriation with that of seizure of power by the workers and farmers.” (Small farmers were a significant element in American society then, which they no longer are.)
What our reformists often do is make one demand that seems possible to them, like the call for nationalization. The problem is, in that context, it is begging. Who are you asking? Do you really think that America’s imperialist rulers are really going to grant these kinds of reforms? Well of course the reformists do, because they think that this system can be reformed.
There is class struggle in the world, incidentally, but not much in the United States, and there hasn’t been much for decades now. But, as Friedrich Engels pointed out, the capitalist order is a system that socially organizes production, on the one hand, but the product of that socially organized production is, on the other hand, anarchically appropriated by the ruling class. There are those that labor and those that own the products of that labor. This system is inherently volatile, but not predictably so. If you ask me, “When is the class struggle going to be?”, I have to say, “I don’t know.” Nor is there a recipe to engender the class struggle that we Marxists know will occur. But the very conditions that grind down the working class, the same conditions that demoralize workers and set them one against the other in a fight to survive—that is, the capitalist mode of production—these same conditions also propel the working class toward unity in battle against its exploiters. As long as capitalism exists, it will generate the conditions that spawn class struggle.
So what should people do today? Well, what we need is the kind of social overturn that I’ve talked about. But it cannot be effected without the forging of a revolutionary Trotskyist party. And it will be necessary for class-conscious workers to drive the trade-union bureaucratic betrayers out of their positions of power in the unions. So what must be done today is to begin to accrue those that have committed to forming a revolutionary workers party. Our reformist opponents have no such commitment. We are unique on the left for that commitment. Because of that, the reformists consider us kind of obnoxious, because we point out that they are opponents of socialist revolution and we show the many ways in which they betray and sell out the struggles of the working class and peddle illusions in capitalism. So, we are looking for people who would aspire to some day carry this little booklet, the Transitional Program, into their plants and factories and to play a role in mobilizing the working class in its historic task of overturning this very savage capitalist order.