United States: History and Current Situation of the Class Struggle and the Left

We share the report given by our comrade Alejandro Bodart on the last edition of International Panorama, the program of the International Socialist League.

The recent election in the United States has had the attention of the entire world.

Before analyzing the meaning of the result and the tasks and debates that are posed to us as revolutionary socialists, we want to pause for a brief review of the rich history of the class struggle in this country, because it is practically unknown for a large part of the people who are at the forefront of the rebellions around the world.

The uprising that shook the United States after the murder of George Floyd appears as something new in a country that we are accustomed to see as the ultimate example of social stability.

Many are also surprised by the massive popularity of socialism, with the majority of young people preferring it to capitalism, in the country known to be the world center of capitalist imperialism.

However, the class struggle and the socialist movement in the United States have a very rich history, even important dates of the world class struggle such as May Day and International Working Women’s Day, have their origin in the struggles of the working class in the United States.

US capitalism was built on the basis of the territorial dispossession and genocide of native peoples and the massive slavery of Africans and their descendants.

It took a revolution, culminating in the Civil War in the mid-19th century, to end institutional slavery.

Although even after emancipation, Blacks were subjected to the brutal regime of segregation and legal persecution known as Jim Crow in the southern States.

Structural racism has been a central feature of US capitalism from its inception, and it has been incredibly effective for the bourgeoisie as a weapon to keep workers divided.

It has been a central point of the class struggle to this day.

After its triumph in the Civil War, the northern bourgeoisie drove the highest rate of economic growth in the history of humanity, which was achieved on the basis of the super-exploitation of white, Black, Chinese and European immigrant workers.

The industrial revolution in the United States was fast tracked. The steel, oil, railroad, and banking industries enabled a handful of businessmen, including Rockefeller, Gould, Morgan, and Carnegie, to accumulate multi-million dollar fortunes and supreme political power.

The unscrupulous methods of these tycoons to accumulate and defend their businesses included fraud, extortion, bribery, theft and violence.

This earned them the title of “robber barons.” They are the begetters of the modern US imperialist bourgeoisie that still dominates the world.

None of this was accomplished without resistance. The “golden age” of the robber barons is also that of the rise of the first political and trade union organizations of the working class.

The struggle for the eight-hour working day that gave rise to the International Workers’ Day after the Haymarket revolt in Chicago in 1886 was the culmination of a wave of combative strikes led by anarchist and socialist revolutionaries.

At the end of the 19th century, the first national unions were consolidated in the first workers’ federation, the AFL, and in 1901 the Socialist Party of America led by Eugene Debbs was founded.

The Socialist Party would draw millions of votes, even with its presidential candidate jailed for opposing US involvement in the World War.

The entry of the United States into that war, and the triumph of the Russian Revolution at the end of that year, provoked a new rise in the class struggle.

The Seattle general strike in 1919 began as an act of solidarity with the Bolshevik state, when dock workers prevented ships carrying weapons destined for the counterrevolutionary White Army from sailing to the USSR.

The port strike turned into a general strike of 65,000 workers who took control of the city during 6 days, in solidarity with the Soviet government and for their own demands.

After Debbs, The Socialist Party was left in the hands of reformist leaders who condemned the Russian Revolution, as a result of which a sector broke up and founded the Communist Party in 1919.

One of its leaders, James Cannon, after hearing Trotsky’s criticisms of the process of bureaucratization of the USSR, would found the first Trotskyist party in the world: The Communist League of America, which would pave the way for the SWP or Socialist Workers Party.

The Great Depression that began with the crash of the economy in 1929 was a severe blow to the American working class. By 1933, a third of the workforce was unemployed and millions of workers were sinking into misery and hunger.

But this sparked a backlash from below that would result in the most important gains that the US working class has ever achieved in history.

In 1934, three historic strikes marked a new situation. The Toledo automotive strike was known for the battle in the streets between 10,000 workers against 1,300 National Guard soldiers, which was won by the workers despite suffering two deaths and more than 200 injured.

The San Francisco Port Strike ended with a 4-day general strike during which the police and government fled and workers ran the city before winning all their demands.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota a truckers’ strike led by the Trotskyists of the Communist League of America also evolved into a general strike that ended up winning the bulk of the demands of the struggle.

The three triumphs of 1934 began a generalized rise in the struggles of the industrial working class, which was then not unionized, since the AFL unions were organized by trade, not by industry, leaving out most of the unskilled workers of industrial production.

In 1935, a split from the AFL founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) with the goal of unionizing the auto, steel, and other industries.

In a few years, and in the heat of the struggles, the CIO organized millions of workers in the country┬┤s main industries.

Perhaps the most important was the unionization of the autoworkers, which was achieved through a series of long strikes with factory occupations in 1936.

The wave of strikes and occupations changed the balance of forces between the bourgeoisie and the working class for a period that would last for decades. It is known as the era of the New Deal, in which the legal right to unionization and collective bargaining, the public pension system, regulations and labor protections, among other gains, were won.

On the political level, the Communist Party grew rapidly. It was at the head of the main struggles, it was the most important current in the CIO leadership and it managed to organize hundreds of thousands of militants.

Unfortunately, the Stalinist policies of the popular front led the CP to support the Roosevelt government, and to adopt a policy directly against strikes once World War II began.

The effectively pro-boss politics of the CP during the war isolated it from the working-class base, which allowed anti-communist sectors to oust them from the leadership of the CIO during the postwar McCarthyism.

The cold war was used by the bourgeoisie to launch an offensive against the labor movement. Senator Joseph McCarthy led a witch hunt against communist militants and activists of all stripes in labor unions, in the state workers, the entertainment industry, and the academy.

McCarthyism succeeded in liquidating, not just the Communists, but all radicalized union activism, a blow from which the American labor movement took decades to recover.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Blacks in the South rose up against the segregation, lynching, and state oppression that they had endured since the abolition of legal slavery. With radical actions such as boycotts and occupations, and massive marches, they achieved the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which outlawed discrimination and segregation, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which imposed federal control of elections to guarantee the right to vote for oppressed minorities.

These triumphs, combined with the influence of the worldwide rise in the class struggle after the Cuban revolution, radicalized the Black movement in the United States and moved other sectors of society.

The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked a wave of Black rebellions in hundreds of cities across the country.

That same year the Vietnamese offensive exposed that the US Army was bogged down and losing a war to which few had paid attention until then.

A massive antiwar movement emerged, led by a radicalized student body, which pitted against the Washington establishment.

The rebellion reached the ranks of the army, which suffered a wave of mutinies, desertions and assassinations of commanders, which contributed to the defeat of the United States by the Vietnamese people in 1975.

The LGBT movement rose from the rebellion of Stonewall in 1969, and so did the feminist movement that, with a massive new wave, conquered the right to abortion in 1973.

The Communist Party, broken by McCarthyism, and discredited for its support for the Democrats and its association with the atrocities of Stalinism, did not play a role in the rise of ’68.

In the vanguard what would be called the New Left emerged, fundamentally associated with Maoism, although the Trotskyist SWP also played a prominent role in the student body.

The most important political expression of the period came from the most radical sector of the Black movement, the Black Panthers.

Born as a self-defense group against police abuse, the Black Panthers organized tens of thousands of militants, under a program that defended the socialist revolution, with armed militias and a newspaper with a circulation of 250,000.

Unfortunately, the New Left did not manage to connect with the working class. The largest organizations in the vanguard turned towards Maoism, including the Black Panthers.

They saw the working class backward and privileged, not as a revolutionary subject. They looked instead towards the oppressed sectors and the Third World movements. This weakness isolated them and allowed the regime to organize a fierce counteroffensive, assassinating and imprisoning the main leaders and dismantling the Black Panthers.

The working class, weakened since the McCarthyite offensive and under the leadership of a trade union bureaucracy subordinated to the Democratic Party, did not participate as such in the rise, which was defeated through co-optation and repression throughout the 1970s.

With the retreat of the movements of the 60s and 70s, the bourgeoisie led a counteroffensive, the so-called conservative revolution of Ronald Reagan, and began the advance of neoliberalism that it would export to the rest of the world throughout the 80s and 90s.

In the United States, this meant a permanent offensive against the working class. Thus the conquests of the 1930s were dismantled; reducing unions to the point of having less than 6% of private sector workers unionized; and liquidating the bulk of the industry to move it to countries with cheaper labor.

Although it was a Republican government that initiated this turn, the shift to the right was of the entire bipartisan regime of the United States.

The US two-party system has ruled uninterruptedly since the Civil War.

Although their social bases have changed, the Democrats and Republicans have alternated in government since then.

The Democrats went from being the party of the southern slave owners, to adopting a profile linked to the unions and defense of the welfare state, since World War II and the New Deal.

The Republicans were born as an abolitionist party linked to the liberal bourgeoisie of the north, and have moved towards the conservative right.

Both are entirely parties of the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Trump exposed in the most complete way the essence of the Republican Party, blatantly classist, racist and misogynist defender of the interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie.

But the Democrats are direct representatives of that same class. Their legislators have accompanied the worst policies of Republican governments, and their governments have advanced those same policies.

They have played a disastrous role in the co-optation of social movements throughout history.

Bernie Sanders is the latest in a long line of candidates channeling the mobilization of millions toward a strategy of winning the Democratic primary and changing the Democratic Party from within, and then supporting the candidate that the apparatus ends up imposing.

In this case, it is Biden, a man directly linked to the imperialist bourgeoisie, who does not even hide his opposition to the progressive policies that gained massive support with the Sanders campaign.

He won the election based on the merit of not being Trump, but it will not be long before he proves to be a disappointment.

That is why the central political task in the United States is to build an independent and socialist party of the working class.

The Communist Party of the 1930s squandered the opportunity when it had it, eventually becoming integrated to the Democratic Party itself.

The Black Panthers tried to build an independent party, but separated from the working class, and were defeated.

The SWP, meanwhile, became Castroite in the 80’s and abandoned the task. And the main Trotskyist organization that had been built since then, the ISO, was dissolved last year.

It is up to the new generation of revolutionary militants to solve this fundamental task.

Luckily, they have the best conditions in decades to do it.

After decades of defeats, demobilization and setbacks in the class struggle, today we are seeing a monumental rise, along with an unprecedented crisis of the US political regime.

The 2008 economic crisis disposed of the illusion of a capitalist paradise, especially for US workers and youth.

The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 was a first expression of the radicalization that was beginning.

The Ferguson uprising and the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2014 exposed the continuity of institutional racism and unleashed a mass movement that erupted in social rebellion after the assassination of George Floyd a few months ago.

Women have returned to the streets en masse with Me Too and against Trump since his inauguration.

Meanwhile, the working class was reactivated, reaching a high point with the 2018/19 teacher strikes, organized outside the bureaucratic unions, despite laws that criminalize work stoppages, mobilizing tens of thousands and achieving the first triumphs of the workers’ struggle in many years.

And since 2016, with the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, the DSA, a profound radicalization has been expressed, especially among young people, a majority of whom vindicate socialism.

At the same time, a radicalization is also taking place on the right and the regime tries to advance against basic rights, deepening the social polarization that exacerbates the class struggle.

The presidential election confirms the decadence of the US political regime, delegitimized and without answers for the majority, and indicates a deepening of the struggles and polarization.

In this scenario, the International Socialist League in the United States works to regroup revolutionary militant forces, intervene in the class struggle and build the revolutionary party that is sorely needed.