United States: Interview with Ashley Smith, socialist militant and author

We share here the interview that our comrade Alejandro Bodart did with Ashley Smith, a socialist activist and author from the United States in Internacional Panorama, the program of the International Socialist League, on October 1.

Alejandro Bodart: The political situation in the US shows elements of radicalization and polarization, with the immense anti-racist rebellion as the central protagonist, but also with actions of extreme right-wing groups. Could you briefly tell us your analysis of the social and political situation in the United States in general, and the dynamics of these elements in particular?

Ashley Smith: Yes, I think the US is probably one of the most politically polarized societies of the advanced capitalist world. And that’s a long term phenomenon that has been dramatically intensified by the crisis that began in 2008. And then with the onrushing recession, whose arrival was very clear, for the end of last year, and the pandemic has dramatically intensified that recession. So now we are in the midst of a catastrophic pandemic, hundreds, couple hundred thousand people have died. Unemployment shot up to around 15%. Now it’s back to around 8%. People are dying at work. They’re dying in nursing homes, and they’re dying, in particular in Black and Brown communities. So there was already deep political polarization in the country to the left expressed around the Democratic Socialists of America´s dramatic growth to an organization now of around 70,000 people and to the right with the election of Donald Trump. And then the growth of far right and fascist forces that are around the Trump right, they are a hard core within that broad Trump right. So the pandemic and recession have intensified that. And I think the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, really set off the intense period of struggle and deepen the polarization. So we’ve had basically a whole summer of anti racist protests that are Black led, but are very multiracial in character that have swept the entire country from the big urban centers of the country, to almost every town and city, even if it’s overwhelmingly white. And that shows a real dramatic shift to the left in consciousness and militancy of millions of people. So its estimates are as high as 26 million people have demonstrated in the wave of protests that we’ve seen. Now, that said, we are now in an ebb of that wave of protests. It’s died down a little bit. But the shocking ruling about Breonna Taylor’s murder has provoked another round of struggle. And I think that’s going to be characteristic of the situation because the police are going to keep on killing black and brown people. And the injustice system will not deliver justice for the victims of those murders. And so we will see rounds and rounds of new struggle. Now that struggle has produced a counter offensive, led by Trump from the White House, and then into the police departments against this multiracial anti racist uprising. So Trump has basically designed his entire reelection campaign around law and order racism, depicting the protests, as terrorists, as antifa led, as socialists, as every kind of trick in the book, he’s tried to demonize it, and portray black people as out of control and dangerous threats to society. So he’s engaged in the worst kind of law and order racist politics, worse than we’ve seen, really in generations. I don’t know there’s a living precedent until you go back to the 1960s and early 1970s, with the open kind of racism that we’ve seen from Donald Trump. And the police have taken that as a green light to engage in more brutality in the streets of the country. And that has provoked the increasing mobilization of far right forces and fascist forces that are armed and show up at anti racist demonstrations in a threatening and intimidating fashion. So I think we’ve got deep political polarization in the country that will not end no matter what the results of this upcoming election. This is a deep pattern that is particularly severe in the US but is not unique to the United States. And it is an international phenomenon, whether in the advanced capitalist countries, or in the developing world, we have political polarization as a global phenomenon rooted in the crisis of the system and the crisis of neoliberalism. And the search for alternatives that can go in the direction of the left and in a direction of the right. And the contest that’s shaping up, internationally and in the United States, is which political wing of that polarization is going to be able to provide a solution for the majority, in struggle, in electoral politics and in social reforms and systemic change. And that’s the battle that’s going to shape the coming epoch of global politics.

Alejandro Bodart: In this scenario, with Trump encouraging the actions of racist, far-right groups, there are sectors of the left that call to vote for Biden and some characterize Trump as fascist. You recently wrote an article debating with these views, could you develop your opinion on this?

Ashley Smith: Yeah. Well, I think the key thing to understand is this election is shaping all the political discussion in the United States. By mainstream political figures, to the socialist left, to the social movements. This is an extremely politicized society right now. I think, the most politicized of my entire life as a conscious activist. And people are engaged in an intense debate about how to deal with the rise of a right which we have not had in this kind of way, in a long, long time. I think the key thing to understand about the debates on the left is understanding Trump correctly. I think it is wrong to call Trump a fascist. I think that is a mischaracterization of him and his political project. He is a conservative to authoritarian right wing political figure who is not threatening bourgeois democracy, not threatening to suspend the norms of bourgeois democracy. He’s certainly pushing the boundaries of bourgeois democracy, of formal democracy, calling into question election results and doing all sorts of things like that. But I think that the argument that he’s a fascist is mistaken. He’s not threatening a coup to impose a dictatorship and suspend the right of elections, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, whatsoever. There are supporters of him who do advocate those kinds of positions. But I think it’s important to make a distinction between Trump and those people. Trump is a right wing Republican Party politician, that’s the best way to understand him. Now, the liberals and sections of the left argue that we can stop this phenomenon of the growth of Trump, Trumpism, the far right and fascism by electing Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. And I think that’s a profoundly mistaken position for a few reasons. First, we have to understand Biden, the Democratic Party accurately, this is a capitalist party. It’s an imperialist party. And it’s committed to the restoration of neoliberalism, and the position of US power in the world against the damage done by the Trump administration. So in a genuine sense, this is not an alternative in the sense of undoing some of the deep problems in the system for the vast majority of people. It’s a capitalist party that may be a lesser evil by comparison to Trump, but it’s still evil and still against the interests of the vast majority of working class people and oppressed people in the country. So I think you have to understand Biden and the Democrats accurately, because we live in a country in the United States where we don’t have a Workers Party or a Labour Party, a Social Democratic Party, we have two capitalist parties, a right wing capitalist party, and a liberal to Neo Liberal Democratic Party, another capitalist party. So we have a horrific election choice this year. And I think that to think that Biden and the election of the Democrats will stop the rise and increased intensity of Trump, Trumpism and the far right, is mistaken. First and foremost electing Biden will restore the very political project that is the root of the rise of Trumpism to begin with, because if you think about what I was saying earlier, the roots of the development of the far right have to do with the crisis of American capitalism. And, in particular, its neoliberal regime of accumulation over the last few decades. Attacks on the social welfare state, dismantling of unions, cuts in social benefits, attacks on the rights of oppressed people in the country. That’s what Joe Biden stands for. So if he’s elected, he will restore a political project that is the root of the crisis for the vast majority that has detonated the political polarization that we have in this country to begin with. So in many ways, getting him and the democrats back in power restores the problem that generates both to the left and the right and the polarization of our society. So I don’t think it will stop Trumpism to get Biden elected. If anything, I think we’ll see a more radical right rise in opposition to Biden in power, with an increasingly militarized faction organized on the ground in the coming years across the country. So the far right is here to stay and will not be eradicated by this election. The second problem with the left, the workers movement, and social movements getting behind Biden is the classic trap of lesser evilism. That is in trying to get the second most enthusiastic capitalist party in American society elected, the workers movement and social movements will subordinate their struggle, their political demands, and their independence to a party that they don’t like, a party that doesn’t support their demands, and opposes their movements. Just think about the Black Lives Matter uprising that we’ve witnessed. That movement’s demands, in its most clear form, is for the defunding, dismantling, and eventual abolition of the police. Joe Biden and the Democratic Party are absolutely opposed to that demand. So this social movement is just one example. But all the social movements, in the labor movement, getting behind Biden means suspending our demands, and our struggle for those demands in the hopes that Biden will be amenable to our demands when they are in power, when he and the Democrats are in power. And there’s no evidence that that is the case. And the biggest danger in the movements and the labor movement doing that is that we will give Biden a honeymoon, the only opposition to Biden will be from the far right, which will be like the Tea Party that we saw in opposition to Obama, more radical, more militant and militarized. And if that’s the case, we know the proclivities of Joe Biden, when he faces right wing opposition, instead of fighting it, he cuts a deal with it. So the danger is that we’ll be in a situation where if Biden wins, the left, the social movements and the labor movement will go into at least a breathing spell, ff not honeymoon, the right will be the only opposition and Biden will be predisposed to cut a deal with the Republican Party in the Senate and Congress to fend off the attacks from the right in the streets. So that instead of advancing our interests, our demands, and our power will compromise them in a fundamental way. Then I think that the final thing, that’s the big problem with this whole move is that it accepts the electoral framing of the problem. That is that it’s an electrical problem. Trumpism is the result of the 2016 election, and can be resolved by the 2020 election, which is a mistaken analysis, as I pointed out, in the previous question, and what I’ve just been saying. This is a deeply rooted political polarization, and can be only resolved by mass struggle, by class struggle, strikes, demonstrations, protest movements like the Black Lives Matter uprising, that can win and advance our demands and provide a credible solution that can win over sections of the working class that out of despair and hopelessness have voted for Trump out of disgust with the Democratic Party. So the battle won’t be resolved in the electoral arena, it will be resolved in the streets through struggle, and that means that the movements and the left have to have political independence from both capitalist parties, most importantly, the Democratic Party so we can chart a course of independent struggle for the demands that we need met for reform and systemic change to rip up the roots of Trumpism in our society.

Alejandro Bodart: The elections are getting closer and there are all kinds of analysis around what can happen. There are those who say that Trump will stage a coup, or that, as Chomsky has said, there will be a civil war. What scenarios do you see for the elections and the next few months and what should the socialist left do?

Ashley Smith: I think one of the things about American society is it’s absolutely unpredictable. So I don’t want to be held to thinking that I have a crystal ball in this situation. And for example, nobody expected the video of George Floyd’s murder, would set off the biggest social protest movement in American history with tens of millions of people in the streets all across the country. So there are many contingencies in a very volatile, unstable political period. But looking at the election, as we see it right now, Biden is clearly ahead in the national polls, depending on the poll, anywhere from six to 10 percentage points ahead in the national opinion polls. In the State polls, and that’s the most important thing for people to understand, in the United States, we don’t have a democracy, the person who gets the most votes doesn’t necessarily win the election. It’s who wins the most votes in the Electoral College, which is a proportion between the different states of the country. So we have an undemocratic election system in the United States. So you have to look at the State polls. In the State polls, Biden is still ahead and has a path to victory that is easily seen, and is doing way better than Clinton did in 2016. And pre election polls, and is doing as well as not better than Obama did in the 2012 election against Romney. So he has a clear path to victory in the election. If I were to predict, I would think that Biden is the most likely victor. I think the Trump administration knows this. They know that they have a weak hand in the country right now. They’re behind in the polls, both nationally, and in the states, including in traditional Republican dominated states. So they are in a very weak position. And I think the entire Republican party knows that. I think that in part explains the rush to get this new justice that they’re nominating through into the Supreme Court, because they see it as a way of locking in a set of political positions that are a minority supported set of political positions in the country right now. So Trump is in a weak position, electorally, but he’s also in a weak position in terms of the structures of the US State, and economy. The bulk of capital never supported Trump. They use the Trump administration to get what they do want, which is tax cuts and deregulation. But they do not like his protectionism, his alienation of us strategic allies in Europe, and in many other places around the world. They don’t like the America First, go it alone, foreign policy strategy that Trump has advocated. So I’d say the bulk of capital, including Wall Street is tending to support Biden right now. Even centrist Republicans, who are out of office are rallying to Biden as well. And then if you look at the heart of the American state, the US military, in its brass,in its officer corps opposes Trump and supports Biden, the State Department opposes Trump and supports Biden, the FBI, the CIA supports Biden and opposes Trump, that is the core of the US state is behind Biden and would prefer to see Biden come to power and restore neoliberalism as usual, and restore US Imperial domination in the world which has been so compromised by both Trump and the pandemic and the recession. And so that’s where most of the establishment is headed right now. Given that I think the idea that Trump is organizing a coup is just a misreading of the situation. What Trump is doing is building in an alibi that if he loses the election, he will claim that it’s been robbed from him that in a fair game, he would have won. So he’s building in an alibi. And he’s also using that to fuel his hard right base to turn out and vote for him in the election. So he’s using this rhetoric of not respecting the results of the election as a tool for electoral politics. And the other thing that he’s doing is revving up the Republican party establishment, to challenge voter registration, to challenge mail in ballots and to engage in voter suppression. But this is what the Republican party has been doing for decades. In fact, this is not new. What’s new is the open advocacy and tweeting of it by Trump. That’s a new phenomenon. But this is the way the republican party has been electorally viable for decades. It’s a minority party that’s based on racism, and votes in rural areas of the country. And in gerrymandered districts, that is rigged districts that give the chance of Republicans to win. In any kind of fair, democratic election, the Republican party would lose. And they all know that and they’ve been scheming to retain their position of power by fighting democracy for a long time. So this is standard Republican Party behavior. That said, I don’t want to minimize how Trump is dramatically escalating the rhetoric and fueling the far right around this question, there is no doubt that there will be vigilantes that turn up at the electoral poles from the right, there is no doubt that we’re going to see more far right demonstrations around the election. And in the case of Trump defeat, we are going to see, like I said earlier, a Tea Party style formation with likely Trump at its head with militarized factions within it. So I think that’s a very dangerous situation that we’re in.

So I think there are three scenarios that are very likely in the election. The first scenario, which I think is likely, is a Biden victory in the national polls, and a Biden victory in the Electoral College. The second possible scenario is Biden wins the national vote, and loses narrowly in the electoral college based on voter suppression and challenging of the mail in ballots. And the third scenario, which I think is a possibility, is that we’re going to see a rerun of the George Bush versus Al Gore 2000 election, in which the entire election turned on the results of the Florida vote, and was contested legally and unresolved for a month until the democrats threw in the towel, and allowed George Bush who didn’t win the election to take the presidential office. So that’s a possible situation, not only in one state, but several states through legal challenges to mail in votes. So I think those are the three possible scenarios. In this situation, I think the tasks of the left are very clear, we have to be agitating for demonstrations in defense of democratic rights in our country. Number one, we should be protesting around the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, who is one of the most extreme right wing judges in the country. And her confirmation to the Supreme Court would be a threat to health care, labor rights, to women’s rights to abortion, to anti racist rights, to any number of things that are very important for our side, workers and oppressed people. And so we should be rallying people to protest that and organizing meetings as best we can to prepare for protection of the right to vote in November, and protests in the event of a theft of the election by Trump through the mechanisms that I’ve described: voter suppression, challenging mail in ballots, getting the election won through a rigged supreme court with Barrett in and confirmed to the Supreme Court. I think we need to be agitating around that. And in the event that Biden does win, it sets in motion a project of collaboration between all the different elements of the left that have been divided by the question of the election, in protesting for the demands that we all are in favor of, that we all support. So I think it’s an important thing that we do to forge as much unity as possible in the midst of a highly polarized debate on the left about the election, for the defense of basic democratic rights in the country. And many of us are trying to do that, although it’s a very challenging situation to organize that because the poll of subordinating everything to campaigning and advocating for people to vote for Biden will make it challenging to organize the kind of street protests that I think are essential right now.

Alejandro Bodart: To start closing, and changing the subject a bit, though it is related. You are part of the recently formed Tempest Collective, which aims to build a space for revolutionary socialist ideas and debates. Could you tell us more about this project?

Ashley Smith: Yeah, well, I think, you know, if you look at the US left, in many ways, it’s the best of times and the worst of times. It’s a kind of Dickensian moment when you think about it, because on the one hand, we have the growth of a socialist organization, on a big scale, not a mass scale, we have now 70,000 members of the Democratic Socialists of America, which I’m a member of, and I think that’s a tremendous development in left wing politics in the United States. For a whole generation, Bernie Sanders has become an iconic figure and a representation of demands for social reform, and an idea of an alternative to the capitalist horrors that we live under in the United States, and the idea that socialism is a real solution to this catastrophe in our society. So we have a growth of socialist politics and socialist consciousness in a way that is of tremendous significance. And I think that DSA but not only DSA, many other socialist organizations have grown in this context. Other socialist organizations have gone into crisis, amidst this situation. And I think we have a whole dynamic of renewal, recomposition and reinvigoration of socialism and deep thinking about how we go forward in the situation that we’re in. So I, I’m part of the Tempest Collective, and we came together out of people who were in various organizations, the ISO, which voted to dissolve, from Solidarity, from independent leftist, from new radicals that are members of DSA, or members of the labor movement and members of the broader socialist radicalization that are trying to come to grips with a strategic debate inside DSA, and on the left in general, which has been mainly oriented for the last five years on the electoral strategy for socialism. That is, especially Bernie Sanders, and a whole idea that if we could win more elected socialist leaders, we could begin to change the balance of politics in the country and help change the balance of class power. So I think there’s a kind of, not exclusively but predominantly electoralist conception of how we’re going to win socialism. That is, through using the Democratic Party ballot line gradually building up a phalanx of socialist elected figures and eventually launching a predominantly electoralist, a social-democratic type party in the country. I think that we’ve seen through Sanders, the dead-end of that project, of that strategic organization, the strategy of trying to use the Democratic Party to advance the struggle of independent socialism. Because the Democratic Party will just block, when it becomes significant, the socialist challenge within its ranks. It will preserve its status as a capitalist party. Its funders, its bureaucracy, and its elected officials, politicians will block us at every decisive turn. That said, there are a lot of elected socialists in the country that have only a minor sense of accountability to the DSA, and to the social movements and labor movement. So I think what Tempest is trying to do is create a space for revolutionary socialist broadly construed, not from any particular tradition, to come together around a politics of socialism from below that accents struggle from below, workers, social movements, demands of the oppressed, that we’re going to win those largely through strikes, street protests, and that what we need to agitate for is for an independent electoral project connected to that. So shifting people away from trying to win over the Democratic Party to socialism, or social democratic politics, or to try and advance that project of socialism through using the Democratic Party ballot line.

So it’s really an argument that we have to build the struggle of workers and the oppressed and build a independent electoral project connected to it. And eventually, and, frankly, as soon as we possibly can, begin launching discussions for how we’re going to form a new Socialist Party in the United States that would have multiple tendencies in it. And I think most importantly, given the experience of broad parties throughout the world, a conscious coherent revolutionary pole of attraction within it. So I think it’s a very exciting moment. It’s a very urgent moment. And I think there are many, many debates on the left about this. And I think one of the most important things is to not lock people into their current positions, but accept that it’s going to be a fluid process of the re composition of the socialist left in the coming years. Where it’s an urgent project that we provide a coherent political and activist alternative to the right. And that’s going to be the framing battle for the next epoch. The left, how effectively it can get itself organized on clear socialist politics, against the right that is going to be increasingly radicalized, increasingly far right with fascist components to it. So welcome to polarization in the USA.