A bit of a discussion is under way (again) about an alternative to the Democrats. Seth Ackerman has written an article “A Blueprint for a New Party”, for example. His “blueprint” is to focus on the unions – which really means on the union leadership in this case, and to work through the Democratic Party. John Leslie of Phillyworkersvoice has written a reply, talking about “the party we need”.
We should start by considering the method.
It’s not a matter of what “we need” or want. Nor is it possible to draw up a blueprint, especially not in this country in this period. Rather, it’s a matter of how things are likely to develop – not in detail, nor in certainties, but the general process. It is also not a matter of a party of “the left”, but a class question. Writing over 100 years ago, Frederick Engels commented: “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organization of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party.”
Working Class Mass Political Party
All political parties are based on one class or another. The Republicans and
the Democrats (as well as the Libertarians) are based on the owners of capital, the capitalist class. There has never been a case in history of a capitalist party being transformed into a working class party, and the Democrats will not be so transformed. The question is how, under what conditions and through what sort of process, will the US working class organize into its own party. Again, not what we want, but what is the most likely general process.
Both Ackerman and Leslie focus a lot on the role of the unions. That makes sense, since even in their greatly weakened state, they remain the only mass organizations of the working class. But what they don’t deal with is the present situation within the unions. The entire union leadership is dedicated to the proposition that for the unions to survive, the members must assure their employers that they, the employers, will be able to compete with the non-union employers, that they will make steady and sufficient profits. (See this article, for a clearer view.) This has direct, concrete consequences. It means granting concessions after concessions and refusing to fight for the members in the daily struggles in the work place. And the result for the members? Demoralization and alienation from the union.
No campaign for the unions to build a wider movement and a political party can succeed without the participation of a mass of the members. But this means that no such campaign can succeed unless it is directly linked to a campaign to transform the unions, to make them the fighting organizations that so many workers struggled and sacrificed for in the first place.
And there’s the rub. Such a struggle has to involve organizing opposition caucuses within the unions. But that is often a bitter and lonely struggle, and given the repression and demoralizing role of the leadership as well as the alienation most members feel from their union, it’s been nearly impossible for such oppositions to make a real breakthrough. (It has happened occasionally, such as in the 1999 Bay Area carpenters wildcat strike. But these have been the exception, not the rule.)
This situation cannot last forever. It won’t last forever. But how is it likely to change?
Broader Social Movements
Broader social movements give a hint. During the “general strike” of Occupy Oakland, a few union members came down looking for a way to link up that movement with their dissatisfaction with their own union leadership. It was similar in the first week of the protests in Ferguson, where some union members got involved. So, the question is how can a broader social movement develop and what are its possible links to the rise of a mass workers’ party?
It seems almost certain that January 20 will mark the start of a new stage in the movement, with more than just the “usual suspects” involved in widespread and persistent struggles against the attacks of the Trump administration. There will be strong efforts to channel this movement into the waiting clutches of the liberal establishment and the Democratic Party, but this will not entirely succeed. Most likely, most of the organizing will start out at the local level, but as a movement develops, it’s hard to see how there won’t be a tendency to come together at the national level – to coordinate as well as draw some conclusions at that level. Wouldn’t this tend to become some sort of national coalition or national organization of some sort?
At the same time, isn’t it likely that wider layers of working class people will tend to get involved, meaning that the working class will tend to stamp its imprint on this movement? And as this movement develops, then and maybe only then will we see a tendency for rank and file union members to organize and rise up to make their unions into the fighting organizations that they were meant to be in the first place.
If that is so, then what will tend to develop is a body, a coalition, whose role is to guide and coordinate – and draw conclusions from – a movement that is increasingly based on the working class. And what is that but the beginnings of a mass workers party?
Put another way, there is a tendency to think of the development of a workers party in the US as being through running candidates for office. But given all the traditions of the struggle in the US – a struggle that has always tended to focus first on the mobilizations in the streets, communities and work places – why should we think that a workers’ party will develop first through elections?
Of course, the issue of elections will be a litmus test. Some – including those close to the nonprofits, the union leadership and other Democratic Party supporters – will argue against this movement/organization-in-the-making running its own candidates. (Ironically, the anarchists will join forces with these liberals.) Some of them will argue for abstaining from elections, while others will argue for supporting the next Bernie Sanders. But abstention will not be an option; the alternatives will be either supporting the Democrats or running our own candidates. That will be a harsh test for this movement in the making. Maybe it will start with running candidates at the local level, where the movement will have a better chance to actually make an impact. But run its own candidates, this movement must do.
Categories: United States