What should a new party of the left based on the interests of working people look like?
Tom Crean, Socialist Alternative (ISA USA)
Working people in the U.S. are facing a crisis of massive proportions. Decades of neoliberal attacks on unions and the gains of working people have created the greatest level of inequality in a century and massive precarity. The deep cuts to public hospitals over the past years on top of millions being without health insurance has left the country, especially the poor, dangerously unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic.
In the immediate sense, there is no national plan to deal with the pandemic with new cases reaching record numbers and hospitals across many parts of the Midwest heading towards a breaking point. The failure of the Republicans and Democrats to agree to an extension of the $600 unemployment top-up means that millions are living on their credit cards and are only able to stay in their homes because of the federal eviction moratorium. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses will fail without further aid.
Meanwhile the epidemic of police brutality has sparked a massive multiracial rebellion against racism. This is to say nothing of the biggest challenge we face: climate disaster, brought home in the most graphic way possible by the devastating wildfire season in the western states.
All of these catastrophes are by-products of decaying capitalism in this period. Donald Trump is also a by-product of decaying capitalism and during his four years in office has worked to make almost every one of the problems working people face worse. But he certainly didn’t create the problems. And while tens of millions here and around the world will understandably rejoice at the end of the Trump regime, to find a solution to the underlying problems we must look deeper. In particular we need to see how the two party corporate political system, and especially the Democratic Party, have worked to maintain the rule of the billionaire elite.
Democrats, Party of Neoliberal Capitalism
The Democrats, as one of the two main capitalist parties in the U.S. going back to the 19th century, have a long and complex history. The post-World War II party was based on an alliance between “Dixiecrat” segregationists in the South and a coalition of labor, immigrant whites and Blacks in the North. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, conservative whites in the South began to move towards the Republicans.
This was followed by the shift of the ruling class towards what is now called neoliberalism in the late 70s. The Democrats adopted the neoliberal agenda of deregulation, reducing the role of government, promotion of free trade, and pushing the unions back (while still accepting tens of millions in campaign contributions from unions). This represented the abandonment of the pretense to represent the interests of working people going back to the New Deal. Instead, the party pretended to care about racial and gender discrimination in order to draw a distinction between themselves and the Republicans who increasingly used wedge issues like guns, abortion, and affirmative action to mobilize their base.
During Bill Clinton’s eight years in office from 1992 to 2000, the Democrats built on what the reactionary Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush regimes had “accomplished” in the previous twelve. They set out to “end welfare as we know it,” gutting anti-poverty programs that were passed under the pressure of mass struggles in the 60s and 70s. They passed the 1994 Crime Bill which accelerated the mass incarceration police state measures directed at the Black population. They passed the single biggest neo-liberal trade deal, NAFTA, which led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs. They even repealed the Glass Steagall Act from the 1930s – which had imposed basic regulation on the banks – at the behest of Wall Street. This helped fuel the financial casino which triggered the 2008-9 economic crisis.
After George W. Bush came to office in 2000 in a stolen election (see p.10) the Democrats capitulated to him on issue after issue. They voted for the Patriot Act after 9/11, which massively increased the government’s surveillance powers, and most of them enthusiastically supported the disastrous invasion of Iraq two years later. Large numbers of them also went along with Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and reduction of corporate tax, which helped to widen inequality even further.
The Democrats returned to the White House in 2008 with Obama’s victory as the economy was in the midst of its most serious crisis since World War II. There was huge hope created by the election of the first Black president, but Obama’s soaring rhetoric contained no commitment to change course from the neoliberalism of Bill Clinton. Once in office, his administration’s solution to the economic collapse was to bail out the banks to the tune of trillions of dollars while standing by as millions lost their homes.
Between 2008 and 2010 the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress. During this time, they extended the Bush tax cuts and reneged on pledges to make it easier to organize unions. They joined the Republicans in a relentless campaign to privatize and destroy public education. To top it off, Obama’s response to immigration across the Southern border was to deport more people than any previous president.
The leadership of the unions and other progressive organizations refused to stand up to these attacks because of their utter subservience to the Democratic establishment. In this vacuum, the populist wing of the Republican Party saw an opening to exploit economic discontent. This led to the birth of the Tea Party in 2009, which in turn laid the ground for Donald Trump. Likewise under a Biden presidency, the threat of the far right could well grow as the Democrats oversee a massive crisis and point no way forward.
This is the disastrous record of the Democratic Party over the past forty years. They stand for policies at the local and national level, like giving the police and the military ever more resources, which are rejected by the entire progressive wing of their base. At the same time they refuse to support policies like Medicare for All and taxing the rich, that are supported by significant majorities of the whole population because their corporate donors reject these.
Over the past ten years, there have been huge struggles that have helped rebuild the left in the U.S., from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to the teachers’ revolt of 2018. In 2016 and again in 2020, the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders showed the potential for a mass left alternative built around a fighting pro-worker program. Sanders stood for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, an end to mass incarceration, a $15 federal minimum wage and free college.
But despite the mass radicalization of recent years, especially among young people, the change that people actually want was not on the ticket this November. Incredibly we got Joe Biden, the worst possible retread of Democrat neoliberalism, except maybe for Hillary Clinton. Joe Biden who was in the Senate or the White House for 44 straight years, was an architect of the 1994 Crime Bill, and a supporter of NAFTA and the Iraq War. This is because the Democratic Party is owned lock, stock and barrel by corporate America. And as long as Sanders, AOC, the unions and progressive forces generally accept the framework of the Democrats, this is the type of outcome we’ll be stuck with. It is tragic to watch Sanders angling for a position in Biden’s cabinet.
Will This Time Be Different?
What will the Democrats being in power this time look like? They have promised that they are going to “spend money.” This may sound like a move to the left compared to their past support for cuts to social services. However, it is not at all radical in the context of the current global economic crisis. All of the key capitalist financial institutions around the world, including the IMF, World Bank and the U.S. Federal Reserve, are advocating massive fiscal stimulus on top of what has already been spent (far more than 08-09). This is because of their very justified fears that the economy is on the edge of a deep slump if they don’t keep pumping money in.
But there is a big difference between “spending money” on a temporary expansion of unemployment benefits and aid to small businesses – which is completely necessary – and actually committing to longer term programs. Biden and Harris have made amply clear they will actively oppose Medicare for All despite its massive popularity. During the campaign, they doubled down on opposing a ban on fracking and, while saying there would have to be a transition away from fossil fuels, they flatly opposed a Green New Deal, which would create millions of good industrial jobs. However, they did say that they would support more funding for the police!
On the Democratic caucus call in the days following the election, it was reported that Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger emphatically exclaimed that the reason the party lost seats in the House is because they have become associated with progressive politics. Spanberger’s concluding advice to the party was: “Don’t say socialism ever again.”
The Democrats will seek at the first opportunity to implement savage cuts to make the working class pay for the cost of the crisis. They will resist any serious proposal to tax the rich and big business and they will seek to maintain as much of the neoliberal agenda as they can. But they will face huge problems because the mass of the population will reject austerity and a continuation of the policies of the past decades.
Building a New Party
So if the Democrats are not the vehicle to win the change we need, how will we win Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and bring the police under real democratic control? The history of this country shows that real gains for working people are only won by mass movements and social struggle. Examples include the mass unionization drive and strike wave of the 1930s and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
As we face a billionaire class that has amassed nearly another $1 trillion during the course of this pandemic it is clear we urgently need to rebuild a fighting labor movement. The teachers, hotel workers, and auto workers showed the way in 2018-19.
But to take on the entrenched interests of the billionaire class, we also need a political party that represents our interests. Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns showed not only the potential level of support for a left political alternative to corporate politics in general but also concretely how hundreds of millions could be raised from ordinary people without accepting a cent in corporate money. For decades we’ve been told that it’s impossible to run serious campaigns without corporate money. If Sanders’ campaigns did nothing other than smash this myth, they did a very valuable thing.
What should a new party of the left based on the interests of working people look like? First and foremost it should be a party of struggle, not simply an electoral machine. As Socialist Alternative has demonstrated in organizing victorious campaigns in Seattle that elected Kshama Sawant to the City Council three times, the key is to build movements in the streets and bring those movements into the corridors of power. That’s how we won the first $15 minimum wage in a big city and that’s how we won the Amazon Tax, which will raise hundreds of millions from big business to build affordable housing and for other essential needs.
A national party of working people should represent all the struggles of the increasingly multiracial and multigender working class including fighting to end mass deportation policies and for citizenship rights for immigrant workers; to defend abortion rights and LGBTQ rights from the attacks of the emboldened reactionary right; to end all gerrymandering and voter suppression policies.
We need a party where our elected representatives are accountable to the membership and where they are required to vote for the positions in the party platform. Accountability also means that the party’s public representatives don’t make more than the average workers’ wage like Kshama.
In such a party, Marxists would fight for a clear anti-capitalist platform that advocates bringing key sectors of the economy, including the banks, healthcare, major manufacturing as well as the energy, logistics and transportation sectors, into public ownership. This is the only way we can begin to direct society’s resources to ending massive inequality and structural racism as well as carrying through a rapid transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy.
One question that is often asked is where the forces for this new party will come from. Our answer is that there is a massive potential pool of support from those who supported Sanders’ campaigns, progressive trade unionists, and young people active in the fight against racism, sexism and climate catastrophes. But it is absolutely true that it will require significant figures and organizations to launch this party.
The left in the U.S. has prominent figures like Sanders, AOC and the newly-elected Cori Bush, Congressperson from Missouri. We need them to hear from their supporters who have drawn the conclusion that the Democratic Party can’t be reformed. We applaud figures like Cornel West, Nina Turner – president of Our Revolution, and Roseann De Moro – former president of National Nurses United, who are already moving in this direction. We need the Democratic Socialists of America, which has grown to 70,000 members in recent years and has formally committed itself to supporting the formation of a workers party, to actually make this effort a priority. One immediate step could be to begin running socialist candidates for local office on an independent basis with a common platform and a movement-building focus.
Never Another Trump
We need to be very clear that, unless we begin to take more serious steps towards building a new political force based on the multiracial and multi-gender working class, we face serious dangers in the coming years. Donald Trump and the populist right have built a massive political base, which includes a growing far right wing.
If we have a repeat of 2008-10 with working people and sections of the middle class suffering as the banks and corporations are looked after by a corporate Democratic administration, this will provide a huge opening for the far right to grow further.
There have been possibilities in the United States to build a party of working people in the 1930s, in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s. For various reasons these were squandered. Today it is clearer than ever to millions, especially young people, that capitalism is a bankrupt system. The time has come to build a mighty movement, organized in workplaces, neighborhoods, and colleges and reflected at the ballot box, which can decisively challenge the rule of the billionaires. This movement must stop at nothing to bring the destructive and parasitic rule of capital to an end in America and unite with working people across the world to build a peaceful, prosperous, and egalitarian socialist future.