He couldn’t have put it better: “The goal of the state department is… building bridges…” So spoke Dan Kammen in explaining why he resigned from his role as the US State Department special envoy for science. He joined the president’s arts and humanities committee, which resigned en masse. None of them, of course, can explain why they accepted the posts in the first place or remained in their respective roles up until now.
Tendency Towards Bonapartism of Two Sorts
What we are seeing is a tendency towards Bonapartism of two different types, which represents a growing crisis in the capitalist class. On the other side, we are seeing a continued weakness in the US working class, its absence as a cohesive, independent force in society.
There had been the hope, the last and best chance, that Trump’s new chief of staff, General John Kelly, would be able to reign in
the president. He has tried to nearly isolate Trump, trying to control who has access to him and what “information” he receives. Kelly is joined by several other military men in the Trump administration (Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a retired Marine general; Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Marine general; and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, a US Army general). The problem is that Trump still has his own telephone, his own Twitter account (which is a two-way street) and his own television. The events of the last week or so perfectly exemplify the twin pulls on Trump:
Right after Charlottesville, Trump gave an off-the-cuff press conference in which he supported the nazis and racists. Then, with the outrage, he read a prepared speech, making a “presidential” condemnation of them. Then, feeling his base, he gave another off-the-cuff commentary supporting the fascists again.
A few days later, Trump gave an extremely “presidential” sounding speech in which he announced sending more troops to
Afghanistan. But, ever the demagogue, just a few days later he held his rally in
Phoenix in which he again reverted to his true self whipping up has base.
Trump has his supporters among the capitalist class, such as the billionaire Mercer family, but the mainstream of the US capitalist class is beside themselves over the instability that Trump is creating. They understand that the role of the president is to reach out, “build bridges” to hold the tensions within society (and internationally) to manageable levels. It is a symptom of their weakness that despite their mass campaign against Trump (just watch CNN at night) they cannot cut his support to below 35%.
Trump represents a tendency towards Bonapartism – rule by some sort of dictator or dictatorship – based on right wing populism. And who is the main force countering this tendency? The US military! In other words, a tendency towards military Bonapartism. You could not get a better example of the weakness of US capitalism.
Situation Within Working Class
But there is also another weakness: The absence of the US working class as a cohesive independent force in society. Here’s one example:
A few people distributed a leaflet to union workers in a few places, including to workers at unionized grocery stores here in Oakland, CA. The leaflet urges union members to make their union stand up to the racist far right. “Isn’t it time your union stood up and organized to put a stop to these racists?” it asks. (See leaflet below.) “Sisters and brothers, you can start a campaign inside your union to make it really lead,” it says. What was the response of the workers?
We later were told that several workers were discussing this leaflet. They had thought it was the union leadership that had distributed the leaflet and their response was: “The union wants us to do their thing on this but they can’t even get us a raise.” (Grocery workers have been working without raises for years now.) What does this response tell us?
It’s true that the leaflet should have linked up the necessity for the union to lead the campaign against the racists with the necessity to organize to make the union fight for its members on the job. And “the union” in this case really means the union leadership, and these leaders are dedicated to keeping the employers happy by holding down wages as much as they can get away with. It’s up to the members to organize to change the unions. But the willingness to do so among the members is still at a very low level.
This is also reflected in the low level of working class participation in the movement against the racists and other anti-working class forces.
How did we get to this point? It’s not something new, after all. Even the movement against the Vietnam War was carried out largely (although not entirely) outside the working class.
Weakened Role of Socialism Within Working Class
What happened was this: It’s always been the socialist movement of different stripes that has kept alive the best traditions of class struggle within the working class. Along with the traditions of struggle has gone a lively debate about history, theory and ideas in general. But socialism was given a bad name due to the role of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, starting mainly in the late 1940s, after the end of WW II. The different socialist tendencies were increasingly isolated or actually driven out of the working class, especially out of the unions. There was a general mood for this, and it was augmented by the anti-Communist McCarthy purges of the 1950s. Even much later, here’s how this worked:
This writer joined the Carpenters Union in 1970. When the union leadership failed in driving him out in the mid ‘70s by blackballing him, they took another tack. When they’d see him talking with a young apprentice in the hiring hall in the mornings, they’d call that apprentice aside. When the apprentice came back, he’d usually move to the other end of the hall. One or two told what had been said to them. “John is a communist. He’s going to get you in trouble. If you want a good career in this trade, you’d best stay away from him.” All you have to do is multiply this example some tens of thousands of times over, and you get a sense of what happened in the unions.
Importance of Ideas
Debate around ideas has always been an essential ingredient of the workers movement and the socialist movement. But ideas and views do not exist in the ether; they are carried in the minds of people. In this case that means, the minds of the socialist forces within the working class – exactly those forces which have been so marginalized not only by the capitalist class but also by the very leadership of the working class. This extreme weakness of genuine socialist tendencies within the working class – aside from a few tiny groups who largely orient towards the leadership rather than towards the rank and file – has helped create this generally low level of struggle among the rank and file workers.
This has given a greater freedom for the union leadership to capitulate to management, to represent both the employers and one of their two parties – the Democratic Party – within the unions. It has given them the freedom to produce one concessionary contract after another. It has also allowed them to be largely missing in action, to refuse to mobilize their members, in the general protest movements of recent years, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
Then there is something else: We have seen the steady drip, drip, drip of lowered living standards. The most graphic example of
this is the fact that the US fertility rate in 2016 was down to 62 births per every 1,000 women between 15 and 44 years old. This is the lowest rate in US history! Clearly, tens of millions of young people are deciding that they cannot afford to raise a child. These attacks on living standards were fought, mainly in the early and mid 1980s in a series of strikes, such as the Hormel strike and two strikes at Greyhound Bus Company. Due to the timid and conservative policies of the union leadership, all these strikes were defeated. That combined with the driving out of the socialist tendencies as described to have a serious and long term effect on the consciousness and the mood.
What will it take to change all this?
Often a great shock is necessary. What sort of shock could that be?
True, it could be an economic shock, but the shock of the 2008 recession did not in the main accomplish that. Maybe it will be some sort of political shock. An environmental or similar disaster like what happened in Flint, Michigan, but on a far greater
scale is one possibility. But maybe it will be a more overtly political shock:
What would happen, for example, if there were a war and a mass movement against the war, or mass riots – possibly including
race riots – in the lead up to the 2018 or 2029 elections? Especially if it’s clear that the Democrats are about to overrun Trump and the Republicans at the polls, isn’t overt and generalized voter suppression possible? We’re not talking about some purging of the voter rolls, but for example massive call-up of the National Guard to ring every voter polling place, especially in working class – and most especially in black working class – neighborhoods. Or maybe in other neighborhoods if black and other voters decide to go elsewhere to protest.
One way or another, a shock is coming, which means a real ferment within the very heart of the working class itself, not just on its fringes. The role of revolutionary socialists, of Marxists, is to continue to orient to the working class and continue to struggle to revive all the best traditions of the class struggle, of working class independence, and of the debate around perspectives and the next necessary steps for the working class movement. And to link that up with the necessity to bring down the capitalist system, root and branch, and replace it with genuine socialism based on working class control and management of society.