Baltimore, Bernie Sanders, and the Brewing Revolution

Editorial for Socialist Appeal No. 88

FreddieGrayProtestWith the heinous murder of Freddie Gray, the #BlackLivesMatter movement came roaring back to life. Tens of thousands of people again flooded streets across the country to protest against racism and police brutality. These once-routine and largely unrecognized murders are now churning up powerful forces long dormant in the womb of society. The movement expresses the deep-seated discontent of several generations of Americans who have been sold out and betrayed by a system they were led to believe should work for everyone, but which in reality only works for a tiny minority. As increasing numbers of Americans draw the conclusion that it’s not just a few rotten apples in this or that police department, but a system diseased and rotten to its core, the tragic death of yet another young black man at the hands of the state was the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Just 40 miles from Washington, DC, Baltimore is the Detroit of the East Coast. A former industrial powerhouse straddling the border between the South and the North, its decay and decline—brilliantly portrayed in the television program The Wire—has made it a hell on earth for tens of thousands of its residents. Already gutted, tortured, and humiliated by the decades-long decline of American industry, Baltimore City has only been hammered further by the Great Recession. By 2012, Baltimore-area manufacturing jobs were down 35% since 2000. The official poverty rate has now risen to nearly 25%. Of the country’s 100 largest counties, Baltimore’s children face the worst odds of escaping poverty. Living conditions for 15 to 19-year-olds in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods rank as bad or worse as those in Shanghai, Johannesburg, New Delhi, and Ibadan (Nigeria’s third most populous city). When we speak of a bleak future for the youth under capitalism, Baltimore is the horror movie poster child.

Without a doubt, the nauseating racial disparities hardwired into American capitalism play an inordinate role in determining who suffers most from the capitalist crisis. However, the scenes in Baltimore are clear proof that the experience of the last few years is pushing workers and the youth to fight together against oppression and exploitation. Videos and interviews showed thousands of young people of all races coming together in solidarity and unity, pouring through neighborhoods long neglected by the state—except when it comes to police harassment and repression. Their faces beamed with confidence as they began to realize the enormous potential power the majority has to collectively change society. This is yet another example of how the “molecular process of revolution”—as was described by Leon Trotsky—is inching ever closer to attaining a revolutionary critical mass.

That the question of police brutality is not simply a question of race or gender is evidenced by the fact that three of the six police charged in Freddie Gray’s death are black, one of them a woman. The mayor of Baltimore is a black woman and sits on various leading bodies of the state and national Democratic Party. Merely having greater representation of minorities or women in the police and in government will not change anything fundamental. What matters most is what class interests those individuals represent. The root problem is a system of haves and have-nots, of exploiters and exploited, in which the ruling class must use laws, courts, police, and other forms of state violence and compulsion to defend its interests, wealth, and power. Charges were only brought against these officers in order to defuse the rising tensions. It was a carrot to accompany the stick of a draconian curfew and 2,000 fully armed National Guard troops and hundreds of State Troopers patrolling the streets of a major American city. But state repression and small concessions will not be enough to stem the tide of class struggle indefinitely.

The real attitude of the state toward its own personnel was clearly displayed when bail was set and made for $350,000 or less for the officers accused of Gray’s murder, while a young “rioter” who smashed a police car window languishes in jail with an unpayable $500,000 bond. We can have no confidence in a legal system in which the rich write the rules—there is no such thing as legal impartiality in a society divided into opposing classes. No matter what the outcome, there will be no real justice for Freddie Gray and the millions of other victims of this cancer-ridden system until capitalism itself is thrown into history’s trash compactor.

Not surprisingly, much of the media’s attention was hypocritically focused on the handful of incidents of window-smashing and looting. The protesters were decried for “destroying their city.” To be clear, the Marxists do not believe that destroying cars and storefronts is a useful tactic for achieving lasting social change. Our program calls for public ownership and democratic control of the means of production, education, health care, transportation, and housing. We are in favor of mass, collective action, strikes, general strikes, workplace occupations, mass demonstrations, and solidarity. But we fully understand why so many residents do not see Baltimore as “their” city at all, but rather, as a city controlled by parasitical and hated big banks and corporations.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in The Atlantic: “When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.”

Or as Leon Trotsky eloquently explained in Their Morals and Ours: “A slave owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning and violence breaks the chains—let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!”

Many brave and inspiring natural leaders have emerged spontaneously from the movement—only to sink back into obscurity or prison cells once the flood tide ebbs. The tragedy is that there is no existing organizational and leadership structure of sufficient size that can canalize and galvanize the energized masses in concerted, longer-term political activity. Armed with a clear set of demands and democratic structures the movement could quickly spread and become a powerful force. The blame for this vacuum and wasted potential rests with the current leadership of the labor unions, who have cravenly avoided anything more than a few sympathetic comments. Other than Local 10 of the ILWU in the Bay Area, which organized a solidarity strike on May Day, there has been no effort by organized labor to puts its tremendous resources into organizing and broadening this struggle.

Due to the “common sense” pragmatism instilled in us by the prevailing outlook of American capitalism—summed up in the inimitable phrase, “git ‘er done!”—most of us are not inclined to make broad theoretical generalizations. We are limited by the narrow, provincial parameters of US political and historical analysis. This is why Americans tend to react to events empirically and emotionally, lashing out in outrage, only to succumb to feelings of impotence when we are sold out and nothing fundamental changes. Nonetheless, millions of people are instinctively connecting the dots between low wages, racism, and inequality. It is incumbent on the labor movement to give this an organizational and class independent political expression. Until this happens, we will see many movements rise and fall without fully achieving their aims. But those who participate and observe will learn from this experience, and by degrees, these struggles, sparked by myriad accidents expressing a deeper historical necessity, will begin to overlap, eventually converging into a unified struggle against capitalism itself.

Americans are given precious few opportunities to express themselves politically. This is why, even though they represent little more than a stage-managed circus and are virtually devoid of any real politics, people’s interest in politics rises when bourgeois election season rolls around. With a historically weakened left, without a clear lead by the labor leaders and in the absence of a labor party, the vacuum on the left is inevitably filled in a distorted way by liberals, populists, and even libertarians.

bernieThe emergence of Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate is a symptomatic confirmation of this perspective. In the desert that is contemporary American politics, his call for “Scandinavian-style socialism,” his railing against the “billionaire class,” and his call for a “political revolution” naturally resonates with millions of people. He is boldly raising ideas and words that have not been part of the political discourse for decades. The Marxists may know that Scandinavia is in fact capitalist and that the workers there are suffering from austerity cuts and increasing exploitation, but to the average American worker, the idea of universal health care and education, quality housing and infrastructure, and strong environmental and labor protections is understandably appealing!

According to UNICEF, the US ranks 36th out of the 41 wealthiest countries in the world, with 32.2% of its children living below the poverty line, as compared to 5.3% in Norway. Given this stark contrast, the appeal of reformism is easy to understand. But there is one small detail to consider: given the deep, organic crisis of world capitalism, only antiworker counterreforms are on the agenda. As long as capitalism continues to dominate our lives, the majority will never achieve a steady, secure, and universal increase in our standard of living.

However, it is no small detail that Sanders has decided to run for president as a Democrat. Let us be clear: the Democratic Party is neither a party, nor is it democratic. It is a bureaucratic electoral machine firmly under the control of big business. Sanders himself links Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, with the likes of the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. Though not a member of the Democrats, he has caucused and voted with them on most issues over the years, including open support for the military, aid for Israel’s reactionary government, and the war in Afghanistan.

Running a presidential campaign these days requires deep coffers and a massive on-the-ground operation. Sanders has neither. While he raised an impressive $1.5 million in the first 24 hours after announcing his candidacy, this is still a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $5 billion that will go into the 2016 campaign. It is true that money isn’t everything—inspiring ideas and enthusiasm count for a lot—but even they are far from enough.

Also required is a vast real-world social network to get out the vote, enthuse, and educate people about what is at stake. According to Sanders, 175,000 people have pledged through his website to volunteer on his campaign. But it is not an easy task to organize and coordinate such a large group of people, as he himself admitted in an interview with Rachel Maddow. Outside the well-heeled offices of the Democratic and Republican National Committees, only organized labor has such resources, structures, and boots on the ground. This is why we constantly insist that the unions must form the backbone of a future independent party of the working class. This is also why such a party must have clear organizational structures, a program, and candidates democratically elected and accountable to the membership.

Furthermore, denouncing inequality in the abstract is not enough. Without a fully worked out program for the socialist transformation of society, even the most well intentioned initiatives will eventually flounder and fail. By not putting the question of private property of the means of production front and center, Sanders’ approach is ultimately no different than that of Robert Reich, whose policy proposals amount to “taking the edge off” of capitalist inequality in a desperate and futile effort to save the system from itself.

Given his lack of an independent organizational structure, Sanders opted to latch on to the Democrats’ ready-made electoral machine. Furthermore, he has explicitly stated that he would not run as an independent if he does not win the party’s nomination, and that he would support the eventual Democratic nominee against the Republican—as he would hate to play the role of “spoiler.”

By opting to run as a Democrat, Bernie Sanders will therefore not present a real alternative or challenge to Hillary Clinton. His participation in the primaries and caucuses will certainly inject some much-needed working class language and ideas into the election year debate. But in the end, instead of jump-starting the process of breaking labor and the broader working class from the Democrats, he will succeed only in leading many well-meaning people back into their “big tent”— which is unshakably dominated by big business. He may force Hillary to tack rhetorically to the left in an attempt to co-opt some of his supporters, but in the end, it is the big donors who will call the shots no matter who wins.

Just as the “antiwar candidate” Howard Dean ultimately served only to provide “progressive” cover for the pro-war candidate John Kerry in 2004, Sanders is setting himself up as part of yet another “bait-and-switch.” This kind of “independent” run can only disappoint and confuse those who are earnestly seeking an alternative. This is why “doing something” is not enough. It also matters what is being done and to what end.

The capitalists are hedging their bets and investing heavily in both the Democrats and the Republicans. No matter who ends up in the White House, the Fortune 500 corporations will be the real winners. This electoral back and forth will continue until a mass force emerges to audaciously challenge the status quo. The rise of a serious working class political contender will unfold over a period of many years, with starts and stops, successes and defeats. It will be accompanied by widespread and prolonged social unrest and struggle, and will inevitably mean major shifts, splits, and crises within both major parties.

Had he run as an independent, Sanders’ appeal would have been even greater in the long run, and he could have laid the foundation for something much bigger in the future. The rapid rise of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are examples of what is possible when you confront the bosses’ parties head on, instead of trying to work within them.

In this context, to foment any illusions whatsoever in Sanders is to foment illusions that the pro-capitalist Democrats can offer a way out of the crisis facing the working class. This is why the Marxists cannot offer even the most critical of support to his campaign. Had he run as an independent and used his candidacy as a stepping stone toward breaking the unions from the Democrats, and establishing an independent party of the working class, our approach would have been different, despite his limitations. The support and enthusiasm he has already generated is proof positive that the time is right for a mass party of labor with a socialist program. Millions of workers would be receptive to this if only a lead were given!

It is not an insignificant change in the situation that an important layer of workers and youth will have their consciousness transformed as a result of Sanders being “in the mix,” even if it is in a truncated, incomplete, and distorted form. Tens of thousands of Americans will inevitably draw more advanced and even revolutionary conclusions, from both his successes and his failures. This will represent a quantitative step in the right direction, and can be accelerated through patient and clear explanation by the Marxists.

In the coming months, tremendous “lesser evil” pressure will be put on us—first to support Sanders, and then to support Clinton. In the face of this, we must remain firm and clear in our perspectives. Otherwise, we will be discredited for falsely raising people’s hopes, and no one will learn from the experience of banging their heads against the Democratic Party machine. By sticking to our positions now, while proactively engaging in a flexible but principled way with Sanders supporters, we will become a greater political pole of reference in the future. Connecting with these individuals without giving actual support to Sanders’ Democratic Party campaign will require skill and nuance, but will certainly provide many opportunities for building the revolutionary Marxist leadership the US working class needs and deserves.

Because black lives don’t matter under capitalism. In fact, no lives matter to this system—only profits matter. To fight merely for equality of police brutality and oppression for all is not genuine freedom. The power to change society already exists in potential form. What remains only is to make it actual. We have long explained that once the sleeping giant of the US working class begins to move, nothing will be able to stop it.

Economic shocks and international events will also profoundly impact the development of the US class struggle. From Venezuela and Egypt to Wisconsin, from Greece and Spain to Baltimore, Israel, and beyond, what was once a seemingly abstract theoretical proposition is unfolding before our very eyes: the beginning of the beginning of the world socialist revolution. The process has begun. Now we need political clarity and organization, and a program and perspective to end the rule of capital once and for all. If you agree with these ideas, we invite you to join the IMT and fight for a better world.

Ferguson and Baltimore are only the tip of the iceberg! Fight the system that breeds racism, inequality, and brutality! Fight for a labor party! Fight for socialism!

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