Jason Schulman is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, co-editor of New Politics, and author of Neoliberal Labour Governments and the Union Response. He spoke to Solidarity about the challenges facing the US left under Donald Trump.
Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric, his frequent invocation of “forgotten Americans,” was never anything more than bombast. He’s assembled the most oligarchical cabinet in American history. It’s true that the American ruling class overwhelmingly preferred a Clinton victory, but the Trump victory hasn’t led to a great clash of interests within that class — yet. Few capitalists are happy with Trump’s appeals to protectionism, but they have no choice but to deal with Trump...and they will make their peace, but not totally on their own terms.
The Republicans see their dominance of both chambers of Congress and the executive branch as their chance to implement “right-to-work” laws across the whole country, at least in the private sector. As Labor Notes recently put it, these laws will “codify freeloading, making it optional to pay for union representation,” which would starve the unions of revenue. Few American unions, particularly at the national level, are at all prepared for this.
The response by some union tops to Trump’s victory has been especially appalling. Teamsters General President James Hoffa Jr. praised Trump for having “taken the first step toward fixing 30 years of bad trade policies” and for “executive orders today that will advance the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline, creating thousands of good union jobs.” The building trades union leaders are particularly friendly with Trump for the same reasons, though of course those “thousands of good union jobs” will be very temporary, never mind the pipelines’ ecological impact or the lack of acknowledgement of American Indians’ persistent, justified struggle against the DAP. It really is reminiscent of Samuel Gompers and the old AFL all over again. And it will do nothing to revive organised labor, which represents a minuscule portion of the US working class.
Trump’s domestic agenda is austerity mixed with at least some degree of protectionism. His promises to protect what there is of a “safety net” in health insurance — Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid for the poor — were completely empty. He intends to slash the federal government’s workforce. And of course he’s promised to deport three million undocumented immigrants in his first year. This is logistically impossible but we can be sure he will “ramp up” the deportations that were a staple of the Obama presidency. Some unions are defending targeted communities but not enough of them. Direct action against Trump is essential, however possible and wherever possible, particularly by those of us who aren’t — except as workers — notably part of Trump’s “hit list.”
This is absolutely necessary to protect undocumented immigrants from ICE and people who “look Muslim” from Trump’s white supremacist fan club. Persistent pressure on elected Democrats to oppose the entirety of Trump’s agenda is already happening and there’s now less capitulation by Democrats than there was earlier. Democratic mayors who pledge to make their cities “sanctuary cities” have to be forced to keep their promises. We’ve already seen the gigantic women’s march and the “day without a woman” in response to Trump’s sexism, his inadvertent admission to being a sexual predator, and his opposition to abortion (however insincere that last declaration may be).
Abortions are still readily available for women with the financial backing to travel to states where it is easily accessible. The danger is primarily in Texas and other Republican-dominated states, with their extremely restrictive laws and the threat of vigilante violence against abortion providers, which force poor women into unwanted pregnancies or “backstreet” abortions. As to climate change, Trump has famously said that he considers it a hoax dreamt up by the Chinese, and the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency is a climate-change “skeptic.” Trump not only loves oil pipelines but the dying coal industry.
Unfortunately even the most militant direct action is unlikely to be successful. Local governments may be able to effect some change if they’re forced to do so. But “late capitalism” is an ecological nightmare and no reform under it will be sufficient to stop humanity from speeding toward the precipice. If there was ever a case for the global socialist revolution, impending eco-cide is it.
Millions of people did support Bernie Sanders but as of yet there’s no organisation with which all of these millions are involved. A “political action organisation” called “Our Revolution” emerged out of Sanders’ presidential campaign; it engages in educational and electoral work but it isn’t structured as a political party. The organisation’s 501(c)(4) designation prevents Sanders from playing a role in the organisation because he’s an elected official. Similar entities like “Justice Democrats” (a political action committee) and “Brand New Congress” (same) have also formed, but they seem to be completely election-oriented and represent more attempts to replace all elected Establishment Democrats (those who obviously represent the ruling class) with Sanders-style social democrats who eschew funding from big business.
It’s important to note that these groupings aren’t internally democratic dues-paying membership organisations – they’re not really attempting to found a “party within the Democratic Party”, certainly not with plans of splitting the Democrats in order to found an independent working-class party as — in a sense — your Labour Party emerged from the Liberal Party. However, I’ve also seen an online petition to “Draft Bernie for a People’s Party”. I’d be extremely happy if this led to Sanders declaring the need to form a nationwide independent party of the left but I doubt this will happen, as he seems to now think that the only way to create such a party is by taking over the whole of the Democrats, or at least to make a serious attempt to do so.
Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) started growing significantly in 2015 once we became involved in the Sanders campaign. It really was a godsend for us — he brought terms like “democratic socialism” and “political revolution” into the political mainstream, and if one types “democratic socialism” into an online search engine, voila, there we are. And then suddenly after the Trump victory unaffiliated leftists started signing up in droves. We had around 7,000 members before November 2016 and now have around 18,000 members. When so many people — most of them under 35 — are now paying dues and want to be actively involved in building DSA, it gives me hope for the future. Even the mainstream media has taken notice.
I’d say that DSA is somewhere between the left edge of social democracy and what the historian Christopher Phelps once called “the rational wing of revolutionary socialism”. I can live with that, particularly since there’s nothing that prevents Marxists from promoting our political perspectives within DSA. I’m especially glad to see a number of current and former members of the Marxist group Solidarity joining DSA — it says good things about our political trajectory. I gather that the International Socialist Organization (ISO, formerly aligned with the British SWP) and Socialist Alternative (aligned with Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party) have also grown substantially though not to the degree that DSA has.
It’s perfectly fine that there are multiple socialist groups in the US though I find it very annoying when some of them attempt to “poach” new DSA members at our events (this is the modus operandi of certain Trotskyist organisations). Thankfully the ISO doesn’t do this (any more) and we’re friendlier than we once were. But unfortunately we’re not on the verge of creating a new mass socialist party. Yes, there’s now a revival of American socialism (finally!), but not to the degree where DSA could form a party that would attract the attention of the entire US electorate.
For one thing, American socialists are still disproportionately white and male. If we want to run candidates with a chance of winning elections then it’s particularly important to develop candidates who have “street cred” with constituencies, particularly constituencies of colour, beyond our membership. They’d have to be also leaders of tenants’ rights organisations, union locals, organisations fighting against police violence and our “criminal justice” system, etc. Plus we’d need significant union support at the national level for Congressional campaigns, and even the politically best unions don’t seem inclined to support fully independent political action. Individual DSA members do run for office (and sometimes even win!).
And of course a mass socialist party is a necessity in the US and we should say this often. But even now we can’t just found one with the hope that the toiling masses will suddenly join in great numbers.
The apologists for Russian imperialism are mainly from the far-left groups in the US whose outlook derives from the late Sam Marcy — Workers World Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation — as well as a few semi-famous individuals, the more Stalinoid, ostensibly-Trotskyist sects as well as peace activists. On the other hand, most liberal pundits and elected Democrats seem to be looking for “Russians under every bed” in a bizarre replay of the 1950s minus Joseph McCarthy or the Communist Party USA.
I think most American socialists understand that Vladimir Putin is in no sense our friend. Obviously he presides over a far-right, reactionary regime. I also gather that most of the top union officials are following the Democrats’ belief in a Great Russian Conspiracy that helped Trump become president.
Of course socialists should be declaring “Neither Washington nor Moscow, nor Beijing, nor anywhere else,” so to speak. But building a truly internationalist working-class politics is very difficult when most U.S. unions remain sectionalist and nationalist and not particularly interested in whether or not there’s anything approximating a labour movement in Russia, or in the “spontaneous” strikes that have repeatedly broken out in China, winning significant concessions.
Solidarity: In Britain, the response from some on the left and in the labour movement to Brexit (in some ways our “Trumpism”) has been to argue that socialist politics should triangulate to accommodate the concerns of nationalist-inclined working-class voters — such as by ending free movement arrangements with other European states and reducing immigration. AWL has opposed this. Is there a similar debate in America? What policies can the American left offer that address the social grievances of disaffected working-class communities while simultaneously challenging racism and nationalism?
The debate over “triangulating” seems to be confined to American liberals and partisan Democrats who appear to think that addressing income and wealth inequality or addressing “identity politics” are mutually exclusive things. Some even say that struggling white workers who voted for Trump because he spoke to their desperation, while Clinton said nothing, deserve to have their health insurance taken away. This is a far cry from the quasi-social democratic liberalism of decades past and helps to explain why “liberalism” is increasingly a swear word even among American democratic socialists.
But even smart left-liberals understand that racism, sexism, bigotry in general often express themselves in “economic” ways in the US. Counterposing an economic populism which would supposedly only appeal to working-class whites to clear opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. is, as my friend and fellow DSA member Michael Hirsch would put it, “a mug’s game”. Adolph Reed is totally right when he says that leftists must be “crafting a politics based on recognition that the identity shared most broadly in the society is having to or being expected to work for a living and that that is the basis for the solidarity necessary to prevail and, eventually, to make a more just and equitable society.”
That doesn’t mean we should ignore or dismiss the particular oppressions that women, racial “minorities” and LGBTQ people face within the American working class. Far from it. Sanders’ popularity should indicate that fighting for an immediate program of far-reaching social-democratic reform does not require making concessions to racism and nationalism. Solidarity within the US working class that transcends our “ascriptive identities” is the only basis upon which a social-internationalist workers’ movement can be built.