Build political independence, don’t tail after the ruling class! A response to John Bachtell
Platypus Review #88 | July-August 2016
COMMUNIST PARTY USA (CPUSA) chairman John Bachtell argues that the main danger—overriding all—is the danger of the extreme right.[i] Bachtell points out that the CPUSA has been sounding the alarm on this danger since the 1980s. In doing so, the CPUSA has consistently urged people to vote for the Democratic Party candidates and not support third party efforts in the cause of defeating the extreme right. The CPUSA has thereby taken up the position of the (not so) liberal wing of the capitalist class. The role of revolutionaries is to lead the working class. To follow the ruling class is not to lead but to tail after its leaders. Through this strategy, the CPUSA has discouraged and prevented the political independence of the working class since the 1980s.
The CPUSA has tailed the movement and the Democratic Party and waited for workers to spontaneously come to understand the need for an independent party. Bachtell writes that at this time a third, independent party is not viable within the two-party system. He defends the Democratic Party as a “loose” multi-class alliance against the extreme right (á la Dimitrov in the 1930s and in other periods). He claims this multi-class alliance is necessary to defeat the extreme right.
The key link is not to fight the extreme right. The key link is breaking the hold that the Democratic Party and the vast majority of union leadership have on the working class.
The Sanders campaign accomplished three things crucial to American workers. First, it has raised the question of socialism and put it firmly on the political agenda. Regardless of whether we agree on the definition of socialism, Sanders has raised the issue and that allows revolutionaries to discuss and explain socialism. Second, Sanders has raised the question of opposing the one percent—the ruling section of the capitalist class—to a legitimate political position for workers to take up. In identifying the real problem facing this society, Sanders has educated broad masses of people and done what the Left has been trying to do for years. Third, in pointing the finger directly at the capitalist funding of both the Democratic and Republican Parties, Sanders has begun the admittedly nascent but very important process of politically splitting from the mainstream parties and establishing independence from them.
How do we fight the right? Should we depend on a powerful working class movement or on the liberal section of the bourgeoisie? The working class learns from experience. It can begin to learn to fight the one percent and the bourgeoisie through the Bernie Sanders campaign. Supporting Hillary Clinton sends the opposite message.
We are in a new political situation: we are witnessing the beginning of the splintering of the political parties. The Republican Party is splintering into moderate, Tea Party, and populist wings. The Sanders campaign has begun the splitting of the Democratic Party to the left. The role of revolutionaries is to encourage this. The possibility of political realignment is as great now as before the Civil War or in the 1930s. Third or even fourth parties could emerge as viable, national forces. On the Left, such a party would be formed in part from the Democratic Party, in part from the independents, and in part from sections of the Republican Party. This would give revolutionaries a “people’s party” to work in and with which to challenge the “extreme right.” It would be a place to further build working class consciousness.
What is a multi-class alliance?
An alliance is a conscious union formed for mutual benefit. When speaking of a multi-class alliance and the working class, this implies some level of class consciousness on the part of those working class forces forging the alliance. But there is no class consciousness in Bachtell’s “alliance.” Bachtell writes, “For those who recoil at the notion of a multi-class alliance, consider that our nation’s history is replete with such examples.” He mentions as examples the U.S. Civil War, the Russian Revolution, the fight against fascism during the 1930s and 1940s, and—in the present—the question of climate change. Let us examine each.
The concept of the United Front is one of the most misunderstood and misused concepts on the Left today. The United Front, put forth by Georgi Dimitrov, leader of the Third International during the 1930s, was one of the clearest examples of a conscious alliance—in that case, between the communist-led workers and the social democratic-led workers (and some others) against the fascists. It was a necessary compromise by the Communists to fight an enemy that was so powerful that the unity of the working class against fascism was of the utmost necessity. Today, by contrast, the concept of a multi-class alliance is used on the Left (and by Bachtell) to mean working within any movement or organization that happens to be multi-class. This hides the crucial role of class consciousness in the development of the revolutionary potential of the working class.
The period of the U.S. Civil War was not a united front against slavery and there was no multi-class alliance. The real political realignment took place before the Civil War: when the Republican Party was formed in 1854. The economic contradictions between northern industry and southern slave-based agriculture became so acute that they forced a political resolution, which led to the formation of the Republican Party. (We are in the beginning of such a period of political transition today, driven by the contradictions between industrial production based on machinery and human labor and automated production based on electronics and robotic labor.) In 1860 the ruling class of the South—the slavocracy—declared war on the northern industrialists when the Republicans won the White House. The interests of the northern workers and the slaves were clearly aligned with those of the industrialists and were fought out on the Union side. It was not an “alliance” but rather a similarity of interests that manifested politically in the Republican Party. The northern workers were, for the most part, not class conscious, they fought because they knew slavery was wrong and challenged their economic interests. The slaves did have some class consciousness—they recognized themselves as slaves—and fought to end bondage.
The Russian Revolution was a multi-class alliance of the toiling masses, the proletariat and the peasantry. The Tsarists were overthrown in February 1917 by the bourgeoisie, led by Kerensky. That government was in turn overthrown by the Bolsheviks in the Great October Revolution. The Bolshevik program included a program for the peasantry—an exploited and oppressed class like the proletariat—and won the peasantry to the revolution. Among the Bolsheviks, there was never a question but that the proletariat was the leading aspect of that multi-class alliance. As the struggle developed, the kulaks (the bourgeois peasants) became the object of class struggle, again between the toiling masses on the one side—the proletariat and the toiling peasantry—and the bourgeoisie on the other. That is fundamentally different from an alliance of the toiling classes and the capitalist class.
Finally, Bachtell points to the splits in the ruling class over the climate crisis. The economic basis for this split lies in in the objective economic interests of the fossil fuel industries and the green-energy industries. The interests of the working class lie with reversing the damage to the climate and ending the domination of the fossil fuel industry. This is not going to be accomplished by following the more liberal section of the ruling class, but only by a class-conscious working class overthrowing capitalism and building a socialist society.
The need for a people’s or working class party
A “people’s party” would not be a multi-class alliance; it would be an anti-corporate, multi-class party in which working class interests could be made explicit. It is worth noting that Sanders recently called for a working class party. This is a further development and would not be a multi-class party. The question is whether such a working class party can be built at this time.
The program of the revolutionaries must be based on the objective and subjective political situation of the workers. Objectively, the workers are in the Democratic and Republican Parties. Subjectively, they know something is wrong economically and socially, but they do not know what to do about it. They do know that the current crop of politicians is not solving their problems. The workers are looking for leaders who have solutions or who are at least willing to move in a different direction from the mainstream political hacks.
The question is: are the workers ready to form a workers’ party at this juncture? If a leader such as Bernie Sanders emerges who is willing and able to form a national working class party, that would be a great leap forward. On the other hand, if what emerges is a people’s party, consisting of anti-corporate elements from all sections of society that would be an intermediate but important step forward. A people’s party at this time would establish the conditions for a working class party later, but it would be a compromise with the actual level of consciousness among the workers. A mass socialist party would require an ideological component—belief in socialism—in order to join. A workers’ party would be for all workers, whether they are socialist or not, and therefore broader. Whatever emerges, revolutionaries must be prepared to work within the political formations at hand to move the process forward. Such formations will develop through stages that take time.
The question boils down to trying to discern what exactly is the next stage of development of working class consciousness and organization, to what the workers are willing and able to do. Sanders has called for reforming the Democratic Party along the lines of his social-democratic program that favors the working class. He is forcing the mainstream leadership to make a choice. We know where Sanders stands. He is not tailing the mainstream leaders. By forcing them to choose, he maintains the political initiative in uniting the anti-corporate forces.
A “people’s party” or (if possible) a workers’ party would not be the same as past third parties. In the past, one of two situations existed. In the late 1940s, the Progressive Party seriously challenged the hegemony of the two party system. At the time, however, capitalism had the ability to expand—a point made by Nelson Peery in Platypus Review #81.[ii] Economic expansion took place in the 1950s and 1960s as capital defeated the Left and expanded across the globe. That period of expansion—along with considerable violent force, including numerous assassinations—allowed the capitalists to defeat or defuse any working-class-led movements in the U.S. By the mid-1970s capital had reached the geographical limits of expansion. During the years around 1990 the expansion of capital was completed with the defeat of socialism. Since then, third party movements have continued to be isolated and have failed because they were not able to mobilize broad sections of the working class. They were unable to split off sections of society based in the major parties on behalf of the third party efforts. The workers clung to the organizations they knew.
During the last quarter century, however, the capitalist class has succeeded in all but defeating the union movement, eliminating the social safety net, abrogating the basic rights of people, terrorizing the population, spreading fear, destroying the ecology, and making war on millions of people. For many of those years, the working class largely believed that its interests lay with the misleaders of the Democratic and Republican Parties and the unions. Those purporting to lead the working class—including the CPUSA—told them to vote for the “lesser of two evils” and then “hold their feet to the fire” (make them carry out the workers’ demands). That never happened. The elected officials of both parties carried out the program of the capitalist class.
The Great Recession and continued social deterioration have begun to break the mainstream politicians’ and union leaders’ hold on workers. They are beginning to see that these misleaders do not have real solutions. Thus, the conditions for national third party politics are now in place. This requires us to accept and embrace the power that we have as workers and revolutionaries. Making the extreme right the overriding danger gives up working class power and hands it to the ruling class. It subordinates the role of the working class and revolutionaries to the interests of the capitalists. Today the generals of the working class army are on the other side! This appears to include the CPUSA.
The realities of class politics today
There are only two classes in the U.S. and in most of the world: the working class and the ruling capitalist class. The danger of the extreme right and/or neoliberalism is the danger of the ruling class. The scientific and technological revolution based in electronics is undermining the capitalist system. Modern technology accounts by some reports for as much as 88 percent of job loss in the U.S. over the last decade. The capitalists no longer need “excess” workers in a world dominated by permanent unemployment. More than two billion people are living on less than two dollars a day, including many in the U.S. These workers no longer simply constitute a reserve army of the temporarily unemployed to be thrown into production as needed. With permanent unemployment, the capitalists are not going to pay to reproduce the whole working class, only those they need. This is the economic basis for the continual shift of capitalist policies to the right since the mid-1970s. If the interests of the ruling class are to move toward further austerity then that will be done by Trump or Clinton. If the interests of the ruling class are to move to fascism, then that will be done by Trump or Clinton.
The objective conditions for socialist revolution are in place. What is missing are the subjective conditions for revolution: working class consciousness. But raising working class consciousness is the role of revolutionaries. We are the Lenins of today; our role is to imbue the class with an understanding of its historic role. This process must be approached in stages, moving the working class along a particular line of march toward political independence and political power. This means independence from the Republican and Democratic Parties.
How do we build a mass “people’s party?” The key right now is to build on the organizational efforts begun with the Sanders campaign. His campaign has mobilized millions of people. In the past, such efforts have been allowed to wither and die. As revolutionaries, we need to do everything we can to ensure the continuation of these organizational efforts. We need a people’s party that is both electoral and integrally connected to the struggles on the ground. It must be a viable national party based the anti-corporatist section of society. It would further put forth the very issues Sanders has begun to raise and help develop the need for independent class politics.
Many on the Left define sections of the Republican Party as the “extreme right,” but it is important to recognize that the Republicans have won important sections of the working class to their side. These sections cannot be abandoned, but must be won to working class interests. The CPUSA identifies the neoliberals in the Republican Party as the extreme right and has called for following the Democrats in every election since 1980 in opposition to this section of the Republicans. The term “neoliberalism,” however, hides the fact that it is just a name for capitalist ideology, implying that there is an “acceptable” capitalist ideology other than neoliberalism. In using the term, the CPUSA (and others following the same line) fail to build a recognition that there is a working class ideology and program separate from that of the ruling class.
Working class ideology is different from identity politics, which deals with specific multi-class groupings of people based on their identity as women, people of color, sexual orientation, etc. Outlawing or curtailing discrimination based on a person’s identity builds the illusion of bourgeois democracy. It does not outlaw or curtail the exploitation or oppression of workers, whether they are women, people of color, or of a specific sexual orientation or identity. In fact, the reason capitalism can never eliminate sexism (male supremacy), discrimination (white supremacy), or discrimination against those of certain sexual orientations or identities is that the working class section of those groupings will continue to be oppressed and exploited. Class politics aims at not just eliminating discrimination against the working class (which by definition is impossible under capitalism) but raising the working class to the level of ruling class.
The role of Revolutionaries
There is another crucial role of revolutionaries: to form an organization of revolutionaries. The role of such an organization—and there is not one now—is to coordinate revolutionary activities. It must ensure that revolutionaries carry out the tasks before us. It guarantees the education both of the revolutionaries and of the working class. It must work to develop and implement a strategy that can build and develop working class consciousness and the working class movement. This is different from and in dialectical relationship to a mass political party. It is important that conscious revolutionaries are connected and coordinated in their efforts. Their efforts consist of both instigating workers into action and educating workers on their objective (real, concrete, independent of personal opinion) position in society and the possibilities facing society. To do this, revolutionaries must be where workers are, in every organization workers are in: political parties and organizations, social clubs, unions and other economic organizations, and in cultural forums.
The situation has never been better for revolutionaries. This is not the time for timidity! It is the time to be bold and move forward in building political independence of the working class from the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the union leaders, and ruling class itself. It is necessary and possible to build a viable, national third party based in the anti-corporatist sections of society.[iii] It is through demonstrating what is possible that workers develop class consciousness. It is the role of revolutionaries to foster this development. This process must continue no matter the outcome of the 2016 elections. |P
[i] John Bachtell, “The 2016 Elections: A Response to Baszak and Henwood,” Platypus Review 85 (April 2016), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2016/03/30/the-2016-elections/>.
[ii] Nelson Peery, “The Most Revolutionary Weapon: An Interview with Nelson Peery,” Platypus Review 81 (November 2015), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2015/11/29/revolutionary-weapon-interview-nelson-peery/>.
[iii] Luis Rodriguez is active both politically and in the cultural arena. See Luis Rodriguez, “Indispensable or Irrelevant: Which Way for Communists? A Response to the Nelson Peery Interview,” Platypus Review 85 (April 2016), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2016/03/30/indispensable-irrelevant-way-communists/>.