US imperialism is to blame for Aaron Bushnell’s tragic death

The responsibility for Aaron Bushnell’s tragic self-immolation lies with the Israeli state’s horrific war on Gaza, and with US and Western imperialism bankrolling the disaster in the region. It is an acute reminder of the urgency for global anti-war protests to escalate with intensified social resistance and labor strikes to shut down the system to win a permanent ceasefire.

Kailyn Nicholson and Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative (ISA in the United States)

(This article was first published on 28 February 2024)

Aaron Bushnell’s death by self-immolation is an extreme expression of the desperation millions of working and young people in the United States and across the globe feel as the Israeli government’s brutal assault on Gaza nears the five-month mark. Despite a global protest movement of millions and the demand for a permanent ceasefire growing in popularity every day, the Netanyahu regime has been able to continue its assault on Palestinians in Gaza. While paying lip service to the idea of de-escalation, the Biden administration has continued to provide unabated political cover, arms, and funding for the war.

Over a million American people have protested the Israeli state’s war on Gaza since October, and 67 percent are calling for a permanent ceasefire and a de-escalation of violence in the region. Major unions like the UAW, whose members won major gains last year through a historic strike action, have passed resolutions calling for a ceasefire. In total, American labor unions calling for a ceasefire represent over 9 million union members – more than half of the nation’s unionized working class. Some workers and unions have also courageously refused to load weapons onto ships destined for Israel. However, none of this has been sufficient to force the hand of the Biden regime, the Democratic and Republican Parties, and US imperialism.

The mass protests and demonstrations for a ceasefire have in many cases also been actively repressed by police, faced blanket accusations of anti-Semitism, and blatant attacks from the right wing, such as at Harvard University. Similar repression has been faced by the anti-war protests in other countries like France and Germany.

The responsibility for Aaron Bushnell’s death lies with the Israeli state, the Biden administration, and US imperialism. His tragic self-immolation is symptomatic of an urgent search by millions of people who feel completely blocked due to the inability of the protests to force Netanyahu, the Israeli state, Biden, and US and Western imperialism to stop the war and brutal killing of Palestinian people. It also reflects well-founded fears of things moving in the opposite direction, towards a wider war engulfing the Middle East as the US- and China-led blocs in the New Cold War increasingly step in to defend their interests in the region.

It’s understandable that Bushnell’s action is seen as heroic by some working and young people who want the slaughter of Palestinians to end. And despite the absurd search by mainstream media for an answer as to why he did this, there’s no doubt from Bushnell’s final words that his deep anguish about the war on Gaza, and empathy for the Palestinian people, motivated his actions. Many in the anti-war movement are mourning the collective loss that someone so deeply affected by human suffering felt no other recourse than to take their own life. But history clearly shows that individual acts of destruction and self-destruction are never a viable threat to the massive institutions of imperialism and capitalism we’re up against. Our power is in organized action as the working class and youth, and in our ability to act in coordination to shut down the flow of money and weapons to the governments facilitating this war.

While shocking and disturbing events can serve as a trigger for mass revolt, it is always the case that the conditions for that revolt already existed under the surface. The self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010 is often attributed as being the key event that kicked off the revolutionary events of the Arab Spring. However, his tragic death – a product of intolerable social and economic conditions which later led to the Tunisian revolution carried out by labor strikes and mass youth protests – was not on its own a decisive factor, nor did it need to happen.

It is important that such tragic acts of desperation are not held up as necessary precursors to mass revolt. In particular, in the United States where there is no free, public mental health services available to working-class and young people, and where suicidality has alarmingly increased year after year, it is crucial not to lionize suicide or mistake it for an effective movement-building strategy.

While we grieve the tragic death of Aaron Bushnell, we need to consider how we can strengthen and build the US Gaza solidarity movement. The movement immediately needs a clear strategy for escalation, in order to put decisive pressure on Biden and the two parties who both see war and bloodshed as necessary to defend their interests in the current era. And we need a similar viable strategy for the protest movement globally to strike a blow at the forces of imperialism.

Such a strategy must involve mass workers’ organizations worldwide including unions and organizations of social struggle taking united action, including nationally and internationally coordinated days of action with mass protests and strikes to shut down corporate and state institutions.

In the US, a serious strategy to end the war immediately raises the need for the labor movement to break from Biden and the Democratic Party. The leadership of many of the same unions that have publicly called for a permanent cease-fire, including prominent ones like the UAW, have rapidly turned around and endorsed Biden, the warmonger-in-chief, throwing away the massive potential leverage they could exert on him in the context of a closely contested election. This type of undermining by the leadership of mass workers’ organizations stymies the anti-war movement. By failing to present a serious threat to the warmongering politicians, the movement is left treading water. In the absence of a clear path forward, individual or small-scale actions can appear as the only viable methods of escalation, but they are tragically destined to fail.

The only way to prevent future tragedies like Aaron Bushnell’s death is to build a mass anti-war movement that offers a viable path forward for the millions of working-class and young people who want an end to the war on Gaza, starting with no endorsements and no donations for candidates who don’t support an immediate ceasefire and ending of all military aid to Israel.

The potential for such an approach to gain steam is evident in the growing support for the #AbandonBiden and “uncommitted” campaigns, where potentially millions of angry Democratic voters are refusing to vote for Biden in the Democratic presidential primaries, motivated in large part by opposition to his support for Israel’s war on Gaza. By late Tuesday night, “uncommitted” had tallied up more than 100,000 votes, or about 14 percent, of all ballots cast in the Michigan Democratic primary.

However, in the absence of any serious working-class, anti-war challenger, Biden still won handily. This shows that simply registering opposition to Biden isn’t enough – the anti-war movement needs its own party that can pose a real alternative to the warmongering Democrats and Republicans. A party based on the organized power of workers, unions, and social movements that isn’t beholden to corporate interests and can fight for our demands instead of blocking them at every turn. Political independence from the parties that are carrying out this war is essential for the anti-war movement to be able to offer a real way forward for workers and young people like Aaron Bushnell, and it can’t wait.