After nearly a year of Joe Biden’s presidency, politics in the United States appears to be heading towards another confrontation involving two different layers of the masses, mobilised behind two bourgeois-imperialist factions. Current incumbent President Joe Biden heads the modern-day ‘liberal’ party of US imperialism, the Democrats. Their opponents being the Republicans led by Trump, who lost the November 2020 Presidential Election by over 7 million votes. In a strange sense, both parties have become variations of cross-class blocs. The baleful influence of the two blocs is causing a political paralysis of the working class which is creating a danger of confrontation along racialised lines, and indeed threatening to bring to power a fascist-like regime in open negation of the traditionally illusory American capitalist ‘democracy’.
The Presidency of Donald Trump was the product of this polarization among the masses. But Trump was decisively defeated by his Democratic opponent in November. On 6 Jan 2021 he then attempted a feebly organised, but real, putsch in Washington though encouraging a mob of white nationalists and QAnon conspiracy nuts to invade and attack the Capitol building to stop the certification of Trump’s defeat. Aiming to keep Trump in power against the popular vote as clearly expressed. Trump continues to this day to rubbish the idea that there was anything fair and accurate about election, and is seeking though racist gerrymandering – i.e., election fraud and fixing – to disenfranchise particularly millions of black people in key states to try to ensure that the Democratic Party and their sometime allies can never be elected.
In part, what is driving this Republican campaign of gerrymandering is the realization by many white nationalist/supremacist bourgeois politicians that the day is rapidly approaching, with the demographic growth of various non-white populations, when ‘traditional’ white US Americans will no longer be a majority in the United States. The hardened white supremacist element that is legion within the ruling class and many of its petty bourgeois fellow-travelers across the country, fear that this eventuality will lead to a major shake-up of US politics whereby ‘their’ kind of right-wing bourgeois, white dominated type of government will fail to be elected at all. The entire Trump administration rampage and attempted witchhunt against supporters of BLM was driven by this racist programme, which is a logical consequence of the colour-caste system that underpins US capitalism, in this period of imperialist decline. Trump has at times been effective in mobilising his working-class base on quasi-racial lines.
This was illustrated by such events as the November 2021 acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenage white vigilante shooter at Kenosha, Wisconsin, of killing two Black Lives Matter protesters and maiming another in August 2020, at the height of BLM protests during Trump’s reign of terror. This killer, who associated himself with Proud Boys fascistic-militia types and with Trump himself, was blatantly assisted by a fascistic judge who evidently was firmly in support of shooting BLM demonstrators, to the extent that the prosecution was banned from calling Rittenhouse’s victims ‘victims’ in the courtroom, whereas Rittenhouse’s defence was allowed to smear the victims in numerous ways as rioters, looters, you name it. The traditional system in such cases, where an all-white jury, carefully selected, would let off such racists with a nod and a wink, was slightly modified by the presence of one token black on the jury. Rittenhouse was openly lauded by Trump and other far right figures in the United States, both when Trump was president, and he made his armed rampage, and now, in the light of his acquittal despite having clearly deliberately killed and maimed demonstrators who had in fact merely tried to disarm him after he brazenly menaced a BLM demonstration. This was against the police shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake, which left the victim paralysed. Rittenhouse is still vulnerable, as most of the population know he is as guilty as OJ Simpson was in his notorious case, and Rittenhouse knows he faces the same kind of civil legal action as Simpson did. Which is why after his acquittal he bizarrely tried to claim to himself as supportive of BLM. The explicit threat from Trump’s followers is that future outbursts of anger from blacks and their allies at police or vigilante murder will be met with Rittenhouse-type vigilantism on a much bigger scale.
However, the conviction of three white vigilantes of the murder of Ahmaud Aubery, an unarmed black jogger who was running through what they considered ‘their’ community in Brunswick, Georgia, in February 2020, did not quite fit in with what the Trumpians wanted. His vigilante killers blatantly tried to abduct him and murdered him in a “modern-day lynching” as his family put it. This case also provoked Black Lives Matter protests within the state, as the cops and local state prosecutors sat on the case for several weeks, while smearing the victim as a ‘burglar’ even though film clearly showed that he weas an unarmed jogger and not involved in any illegal activity at all. The jury’s verdict in convicting these vigilantes of multiple counts of murder, abduction etc. did not quite fit in with the Trumpians agenda, even though attempts had been made to interfere with the jury in this case as in Kenosha. It appears that it is not just the Trumpians who can exert social pressure on the viciously racist US justice system in these conditions.
Democrats and Popular Fronts
Since the early 20th Century, the Democrats have acted as the party of the US American popular front. Though originally, the Democrats were the party of the slavocracy, and the Republicans the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Northern bourgeoisie who were eventually forced to abolish slavery to consolidate capitalism as an economic system in the US, a complex evolution of US bourgeois politics led to the two parties changing places on the US political spectrum, with the Republicans today in the process of becoming a far right, white supremacist party with the Democrats nominally opposed to that. The labour movement/trade unions have lined up behind the Democrats as supposed ‘friends of labour’, a designation that was contradicted by reality far more often than this bourgeois party ever delivered any reforms for the working class. Though they had to provide something to prevent the labour movement from seeking independent politics, such reforms as were instituted were always about preserving the stability of US capitalism from such independent labour politics.
This kind of popular front politics was epitomized by the New Deal of Franklin D Roosevelt during his prolonged presidency from 1933-45, with a series of liberal, Keynesian economic reforms aimed at providing relief for the unemployed, and concessions on trade union rights aimed at co-opting and influencing what was then a tremendously powerful, expanding and radicalizing trade union movement in the basic industries such as auto, mining, steel, transportation, which in that period were still indispensable for US capitalism. Since then, the Democrats also co-opted much of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, as the more left-wing and radical critics of collaboration with bourgeois liberals were either destroyed by the state, as were some of the best militants of the Black Panther Party; or wasted themselves in destructive factional struggles often derived from aspects of Stalinist/Maoist politics, often also fanned by the FBI’s strategies of infiltration and division. The net result of this history is that much of what is left of the old civil rights movement was co-opted into the Democrats, who thus doubly became the party of the US Popular Front.
In the neoliberal period of capitalism more recently, the US ruling class, and other imperialist states in the US orbit, sought to restore profitability and decisively weaken the proletariat by large-scale export of industrial jobs to lower wage semi-colonial countries. This amounted to the liquidation of that strategic part of the proletariat that was often militant in defence of its living standards and perceived gains within the framework of the imperialist nation state, but was aware, at least subliminally, that its standard of life was in some way bound up with that of ‘their’ imperialist nation state. In previous recessions and even depressions within advanced capitalism, such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, where much of productive industry went into deep economic decline and mass unemployment became a terrible curse on the working class, there was never any question that an economic revival would reflate those industries, or ones very much like them, and the workforce would rise again on similar foundations to the old one.
This happened to the industrial workforce in the US after the Second World War and was key to the economic revival of US imperialism and its imperialist allies after the war, The re-growth of the proletariat after the Great Depression essentially took place during the war itself and was thus seen to be bound up with the militarization of the subsequent Cold War. The US labour movement was radicalized in the 1930s to a considerable degree, so that as part of the building of the industrial unions three major city-wide near-insurrectionary strikes took place in 1934 under the leadership of ostensible Communists (the San Francisco General Strike, led by the US Communist Party; the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike, led by the Workers Party/US of AJ Muste, and the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, led by the Trotskyist Communist League of America) Yet this labour aristocratic element always existed in the makeup of the very powerful US proletariat.
The Workers and the Labour Aristocracy
Of course, the entire US (or British) proletariat, could not be called a labour aristocracy. However, the creation of a labour aristocracy was both a result of imperialist plunder and exploitation of dependent nations. Not to mention that labour aristocratic sentiment is bound up with the post-slavery racial caste system in the United States: racist contempt for black and later Hispanic immigrant workers has frequently had a major influence particularly on a particular layer of workers from the dominant ethnic group, who are paid qualitatively more than the bulk of the working class, sit on top of the working class, and in ‘normal’ times exert a great deal of political influence on those below them.
This explains how the same labour movement then drove out its communist militants in the late 1940s and 1950s witchhunts in the most brutal manner and became dominated by right-wing business unionists and barely liberal pseudo-lefts like the Reuthers, who basically marched in lockstep with McCarthyism and the purge of ‘Reds’ from the labour movement. This is how the labour movement in a major imperialist country like the United States became hegemonized by social chauvinism of an extreme kind, as we saw in the McCarthy period (and in a rather different and transformed form today).
Of course, there was labour militancy at times in the mainstream of the US labour movement between those times and the period when Reagan took the axe to the working class with a vengeance, followed through by the elder Bush, with the finishing touches put on it by the ‘Reagan Democrats’ who elected Clinton/Biden as ‘New Democrats’ to undo key concessions from the Roosevelt era. The boom times under Clinton and then the younger Bush accelerated the restructuring of the proletariat away from the US, but the boom did not refloat the rustbelt where basic industries had been done away with. It passed them by and whole sections of the former industrial proletariat were robbed of their assumed birthright of a decent job and stable employment. The way this was often done was through ‘givebacks’ – the leadership of the US unions, realizing that jobs were threatened in an unprecedented way by the neoliberal project, made concession after concession to the bosses to try to induce them to keep the jobs of their members in the United States. And in so many cases, once the giveback deals were done, the jobs disappeared anyway. And this time the deprivation was permanent – these jobs had not ceased to exist temporarily in a homegrown depression but had been shifted permanently to elsewhere in the world. The result being that previously ‘proud’ working class localities in the rustbelt became hellholes of drug addiction and despair, and the only growth industry was the trade in opiates.
The initial response to the huge financial crisis that struck neoliberal capitalism in 2007, with its origin in the United States, was for the masses to put their faith in a supposed new Roosevelt, Barack Obama, the first black President in US history and a seemingly very liberal figure, who many felt would redress the balance against the anti-worker offensive that had dominated US politics over the previous thirty years or more. Obama’s huge landslide in 2008 was overwhelmingly social-democratic in its aspirations, reflecting the rhetoric of the candidate. But Obama, with his Kennedy-flavoured liberalism, would not have been able to reinstate the formerly strategic sectors of the proletariat that neoliberalism has outsourced, even if he wanted to, which he did not in any case. Under capitalism, such a reversal is well-nigh impossible. So, when disillusionment set in with Obama, the response was a sharp turn to nationalism in the rust belt, which made this formerly core sector of the proletariat prime fodder for a reactionary demagogue if one were to arise. As indeed happened with the rise of Donald Trump.
Trump’s movement, like Brexit, in terms of the working-class support base it has generated, is sloganised as ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) which really translates as “give us back our stake in American imperialism, give us back our privileges over workers in the Global South, give us back our ‘national pride’“. Something similar is behind working class support for Brexit and the fall of the so-called “Red Wall” in the 2019 British General Election, based on the delusion that if the working class only supports the re-arming both ideological and military of US imperialism, British imperialism, etc. they will in turn regain the relative privilege that they previously had prior to neoliberalism’s fundamental attacks on the US American and British proletariat, symbolized by Reagan and Thatcher.
In both cases, there was plenty that was dodgy about the electoral process. Trump lost the 2016 popular vote by 3 million: a quirk of vote distribution in the electoral college got him in. There are legitimate grounds to suspect the tweaking of postal votes in the 2019 General Election in Britain. A massive rise in postal votes was reported by Lord Ashcroft, a top Tory pollster and pundit, Tory ministers and Tory-loyal media pundits let slip in the media that they knew the postal vote results before it was even legal to count the votes – the postal voting operation was done by a privatised outfit headed by Peter Lilley, a notorious right-wing Tory from the Major years. And somehow Boris Johnson managed to win a massive electoral victory while hiding in fridges from being asked awkward questions by the media, while his opponent Jeremy Corbyn addressed mass rallies around the country. Those demagogues who have latched onto working class despair at the permanent decline of the rust belts are none too scrupulous about corrupt and previously often illegal behaviour. This was shown in Johnson’s illegal proroguing of parliament in mid-2019, and in Trump’s attack on the Capitol on Jan 6.
Such is the delusional character of the programme derived from this, that sections of the working class came to regard as their saviours radical-right demagogues from the same main ruling class parties, the US Republicans and British Tories, that ground their faces into the dirt and brought about their humiliation and relegation to servitude in the first place. Since neither the US Republicans nor the British Tories have either the slightest intention, or even the capability, to reverse the fall of these layers from being the ‘favoured’ workers of ‘their’ respective imperialisms, the awakening from this delusion is likely to be abrupt and cause great anger against the ruling class when it happens.
Far-Right Cross-Class Blocs
However, in the meantime, we have this second cross-class block, of far-right, nationalist bourgeois figures personified by Trump, with a reactionary-minded, deluded section of the mainly, though not exclusively, white semi-lumpen (ex-)proletariat in tow, seeking to reclaim what it sees as privilege lost (or privilege in the process of being lost). This cross-class bloc bears a strong resemblance to 1930s style fascism, although there are specific differences in terms of origin and evolution. It does have a somewhat different composition to many of the fascist movements of the 1930s, with formerly core sections of the working-class providing Trump with his mass base. Like European fascism in the 1930s, it is wholly conceivable that this cross-class bloc could lead to the conquest of power by fascists in the United States around coming elections such as the 2024 presidential election. Trump himself is someone who flirts openly with fascism but hesitates to dot all the I’s and cross the T’s. The legacy of the ultra-reactionary Trump presidency can also be seen in the flagrant gerrymandering by the US Republicans in several ‘swing’ states: as the Republican Party consolidates behind Trump it bears more and more resemblance to an outright fascist party. This will be a major issue in 2022’s mid-term Congressional elections. This legacy is also present in the attack on Roe vs Wade – the constitutionally protected right of woman to abortion – which looks set to be done away with by the Supreme Court with Trump’s nominees in 2022, the hostility of many Republican ideologues and functionaries to basic public health precautions against the Covid-19 pandemic, and their continued open climate change denialism. All these things are not abstractions, but tools to mobilise a reactionary mass base with the aim of power.
All this must be fought and fended off by United Front tactics. One concrete example of trying to build such a thing is the initiatives we have endorsed in the US calling for a United Front against Fascism addressed at the labour movement, such as the call for action against fascism on the anniversary of the 6 Jan putsch, issued by a US-based body called the Committee for a Labor Party, implementing what is an obvious tactic for the United States in today’s situation just as it was when Trotsky advocated this policy for the US in the 1930s. This initiative was promoted by an Australian left-wing grouping, Class Conscious, who appear to have a correct perspective on this and some connections in the US to enable them to play a role in publicising and pushing for such initiatives, as they did with a previous initiative which we endorsed, an Open Letter to AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, defending the Vermont AFL-CIO, which correctly put out calls for a general strike against an attempt at a coup to overturn the results of the November election, against a bureaucratic attack from the incredibly cretinous AFL-CIO leadership.
The Labour Aristocracy – A Pro-Imperialist Bulwark
However, the question then arises about the nature and material roots of labour aristocratic sentiment in the working class in imperialist countries, which has long been an obstacle to revolution. If as seems likely, Trumpism and Brexit represent a dramatic death twitch of such sentiments, it is worth briefly looking into the history of this phenomenon, and the role that it has played in making revolutionary struggles qualitatively more difficult in imperialist countries.
Marx noted about Britain that the English Trade Unions in the 19th Century reflected the privileged position of at least part of the British working class, in a period when for much of that century, Britain had a monopoly as the only major industrial capitalist power. Lenin quoted this analysis at length in his Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (see https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/imperialism.pdf):
“It must be observed that in Great Britain the tendency of imperialism to split the workers, to strengthen opportunism among them and to cause temporary decay in the working-class movement, revealed itself much earlier than the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries; for two important distinguishing features of imperialism were already observed in Great Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century—vast colonial possessions and a monopolist position in the world market. Marx and Engels traced this connection between opportunism in the working-class movement and the imperialist features of British capitalism systematically, during the course of several decades. For example, on October 7, 1858, Engels wrote to Marx: ‘The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.’ Almost a quarter of a century later, in a letter dated August 11, 1881, Engels speaks of the ‘worst English trade unions which allow themselves to be led by men sold to, or at least paid by, the middle class’. In a letter to Kautsky, dated September 12, 1882, Engels wrote: ‘You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.’ “
Lenin analysed the phenomenon of the labour aristocracy in more general terms, as representing something common to all the imperialist countries, particularly in the period when Britain’s industrial monopoly had been broken and various different imperialist powers faced off against each other. This phenomenon was the principal cause of the social chauvinism and social imperialism that allowed workers of all the imperialist powers to be led to slaughter each other in the carnage of the first imperialist world war, 1914-18 (this is from one of the prefaces to Imperialism):
“As this pamphlet shows, capitalism has now singled out a handful (less than one-tenth of the inhabitants of the globe; less than one-fifth at a most ‘generous’ and liberal calculation) of exceptionally rich and powerful states which plunder the whole world simply by ‘clipping coupons’. Capital exports yield an income of eight to ten thousand million francs per annum, at pre-war prices and according to pre-war bourgeois statistics. Now, of course, they yield much more. Obviously, out of such enormous superprofits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their ‘own’ country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy. And that is just what the capitalists of the ‘advanced’ countries are doing: they are bribing them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert. This stratum of workers-turned-bourgeois, or the labour aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principal prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism. In the civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie they inevitably, and in no small numbers. take the side of the bourgeoisie, the ‘Versaillese’ against the ‘Communards’. Unless the economic roots of this phenomenon are understood and its political and social significance is appreciated, not a step can be taken toward the solution of the practical problem of the communist movement and of the impending social revolution. Imperialism is the eve of the social revolution of the proletariat. This has been confirmed since 1917 on a world-wide scale.
Or in more generalised terms:
“The distinctive feature of the present situation is the prevalence of such economic and political conditions that are bound to increase the irreconcilability between opportunism and the general and vital interests of the working-class movement: imperialism has grown from an embryo into the predominant system; capitalist monopolies occupy first place in economics and politics; the division of the world has been completed; on the other hand, instead of the undivided monopoly of Great Britain, we see a few imperialist powers contending for the right to share in this monopoly, and this struggle is characteristic of the whole period of the early twentieth century. Opportunism cannot now be completely triumphant in the working-class movement of one country for decades as it was in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century; but in a number of countries it has grown ripe, overripe, and rotten, and has become completely merged with bourgeois policy in the form of ‘social-chauvinism’”
However, concretely in the century or so since Lenin wrote this analysis, particularly in Britain and the United States, the domination of the labour aristocracy over the working class has never been consistently and coherently challenged. Decades of Stalinist betrayal have seen to that. And the impotence and thus far the failure of the Trotskyist movement has in turn failed to challenge the domination of the labour aristocracy over the proletariat and has thus allowed this chauvinist understanding and self-conception to persist and remain dominant in our class particularly in periods of defeat.
This persisted in Britain despite the formation of the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th Century, which was a half-step towards class independence, but the resulting party was dominated by the labour aristocracy and completely dependent ideologically on British imperialism. This is the root of its crisis over neoliberalism, as the decision of the bourgeoisie to get rid of strategic layers of the working class that were dominated by a labour aristocracy, even when militantly defending the interests within the framework of trade unionism, cut off a whole supportive layer of the Labour Party bureaucracy. The upshot of this is that the Labour Party bureaucracy sought alternative social support from elements of increasingly financialised capital, and the semi-class element in Labour became more and more diluted. This lay at the root of both Labour’s near victory in the General Election of 2017, as the Corbyn leadership appealed to some basic class sentiment and achieved the biggest swing to Labour since 1945. And conversely, when Corbyn allowed Labour’s neoliberals to undermine him particularly using Brexit as a weapon, seeking to set the half-social democratic, half populist working class layers against the Labour leader, it led to a weaker election result in 2019, though it does seem likely that without the additional sinister influence of Tory-Trumpian electoral malpractice particularly in the ‘Red Wall’ the outcome would have been another hung parliament.
The question of ‘fascism’ has a curious dialectic. The decline in strategic proletarian layers in countries like the US and Britain has led to a culture of national victimhood among sections of the former industrial proletariat, that feeds the influence of far-right trends that target immigrants, refugees and other perceived ‘foreigners’. This sense of victimhood is characteristic of the far-right narrative that the oppressor nations, deprived of the opportunity to oppress, are the real ‘victims’. But the permanent end of large-scale industrial employment in formerly industrial districts is a real blow, a real oppression, inflicted by the bourgeoisie, against its former wage slaves, who are reduced in considerable measure to lumpenism in conformity with the adage that there is only one thing worse that being exploited as a worker under capitalism, and that is not being exploited under capitalism. Given the element of ‘anti-fascist’ mythology, derived from World War II, in both Britain and the US, you often hear some, even on the left, identify neoliberal ‘globalists’ who have robbed the British and American proletariat of their conditions of life, with ‘fascism’.
But this is not fascism, this is the normal workings of the capitalist system, translated into today’s conditions. It is a powerful argument for the system’s overthrow internationally. It is also an important shift which takes the necessity of international class struggle out of the realm of holiday speechifying and into the realm of vital necessity. It is simply necessary for elementary self-defence against today’s capitalism for workers to find ways to unite across national boundaries, and particularly for workers in advanced countries like Britain and the US to unite with workers in the Global South. The migration that goes hand in hand with this globalisation is an opportunity to forge such links and common struggles. The nationalist victimology of the former workers of labour-aristocratic consciousness, often expressed in virulent hostility to immigrants and ‘foreigners’, is complete counterposed to such unity and is therefore flatly counterposed to working class interests. It needs to be combatted, not conciliated, to help those sections of the working class transcend their labour aristocratic consciousness and take the position that is consistent with their own real material interest, as a class-conscious contingent of the internationalist world proletariat. For this to come about, a party is necessary that does not conciliate nationalism and populism, but which tells the truth to the masses about their real situation. That is what we are trying to build.