Racism, Trade Unions & the U.S. Working Class
The SEP’s color-blind, anti-union cul de sac
In our article on the social upheaval in America triggered by the brutal murder of George Floyd, we observed that there were hints that a few groups on the American far-left were possibly reconsidering some aspects of their positions on the police and the state. If generalized, such shifts might open a period of opportunity for revolutionary regroupment, which could potentially help lay the basis for a serious campaign to promote the urgent necessity of establishing a viable mass workers’ party in the U.S.
The response of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), and its World Socialist Website (WSWS), to events has thus far given little indication of a willingness to make any course corrections; indeed the SEP’s commentary has revealed an inability to appreciate the importance of the widespread revulsion at America’s history of murderous police racism directed primarily at black people. This shortcoming has been compounded by a stubborn refusal to appreciate the potential significance of recent, admittedly very limited, political initiatives by several trade unions.
The recent mass outrage at the murderous white supremacist legacy of slavery that Floyd’s murder exemplified, drew millions of Americans into the streets. The overwhelmingly positive attitude of the white population to the protests, and the massive participation of white youth, represents an historic opportunity to develop class-based politics in the U.S. and undercuts, at least for a time, the chief historic mechanism for dividing workers along ethnic and racial lines which rendered U.S. workers more politically backward than those of any other advanced capitalist country.
In its coverage of the mass protests of Juneteenth – the 19 June celebration of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. – the WSWS essentially dismissed the solidarity actions by workers in auto factories and West Coast ports. On Juneteenth, the leaders of the United Auto Workers (UAW), responding to pressure from their base, called for a work stoppage of 8 minutes and 48 seconds—the amount of time Floyd’s murderer knelt on his neck. The Ford and General Motors auto bosses calculated that it would be smarter, in the current climate, to go along with this rather than attempt to challenge such limited, symbolic industrial actions aimed at making a political point. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down 29 ports for 8 hours on Juneteenth, as well as stopping work for nine minutes ten days earlier, on the occasion of Floyd’s funeral. The SEP, in a 19 June piece, declared: “The protests organized by the unions are nothing more than empty stunts aimed at covering over their role as instruments of corporate management and the state.” It dismissed the longshore action as being carried out in collaboration with the bosses:
“The UAW is not the only union trying to cover itself by marking Juneteenth. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which held a nine-minute protest the day of Floyd’s funeral on June 9, has called for an eight-hour work stoppage at 29 West Coast ports Friday. The union made it clear that the ‘stop work meeting’ was approved by the Pacific Maritime Association and included in the ILWU-PMA contract.”
– WSWS, 19 June 2020
The right to “stop work” on the docks was won through struggle—not handed to the workers by benevolent employers. The shipping bosses would certainly prefer to avoid work stoppages for political reasons—even shutdowns as short as 8 minutes 48 seconds. Conversely, revolutionary union militants are well aware that limiting such actions to what is tolerable for the bosses, will ensure that they never move beyond mere tokenism. In rebuilding a class-conscious workers’ movement the ability to stage political strikes to shut down economic activity, and thereby turn off the flow of profit, will be an essential weapon for labor. The principle of taking industrial action to impose the priorities of the workers on their employers is an important one to establish. Whether future political strike actions can be extended beyond mere symbolism will depend on developments in the broader class struggle.
The SEP, as presently constituted, is unlikely to play a positive role in such developments because it has embraced a profoundly defeatist view of trade unions as simply instruments of the bourgeoisie, as we noted previously. Workers who join unions generally do so because they know that organized workplaces generally have somewhat better working conditions and higher wages. The “business unionists” who have run the American labor movement into the ground, occupy a contradictory position as “labor lieutenants of capital.” They must attempt to mediate between the requirements of their base, whose dues their existence depends upon, and the interests of the capitalist exploiters with whom they seek to establish class peace.
Leon Trotsky’s 1940 observation about the strategic necessity for revolutionaries to struggle with the trade-union misleaders for “influence over the working class” remains entirely valid today:
“…in spite of the progressive degeneration of trade unions and their growing together with the imperialist state, the work within the trade unions not only does not lose any of its importance but remains as before and becomes in a certain sense even more important work than ever for every revolutionary party. The matter at issue is essentially the struggle for influence over the working class. Every organization, every party, every faction which permits itself an ultimatistic position in relation to the trade union, i.e., in essence turns its back upon the working class, merely because of displeasure with its organizations, every such organization is destined to perish. And it must be said it deserves to perish.”
The SEP chooses to “turn its back” on these defensive working-class organizations because of the betrayals of their treacherous leadership:
“In the conflict between the financial oligarchy and the working class, in which the police are used to enforce the dictates of the rich, the unions stand entirely on the side of the financial oligarchy.
“This is why workers must break with the unions and build new organizations of struggle, rank-and-file committees. These organizations, democratically controlled by workers themselves, will unite the struggle against unsafe conditions with the fight against police violence and the attacks of democratic rights in general. This should be combined with a fight to abolish wage slavery, overthrow the rule of the capitalist class, and to establish a workers’ government and socialism.”
– WSWS, 19 June 2020
This ultimatistic position, superficially similar to classical ultra-leftism, has, in the case of the SEP, a more squalid material motivation, as we noted in 2008.
The UAW and ILWU’s actions to protest the ongoing racist brutality of cops in America, are supportable, despite their limited scope and the reformist illusions peddled by their organizers. Marxists in the unions must seek to expand the scale of such actions, deepen the political understanding of those who participate in them and politically expose the pro-capitalist politics of the union bureaucrats. This cannot be done by those, like the SEP, who reject in principle, the idea of seeking to turn the existing workers’ organizations into an arena for revolutionary intervention:
“If it be criminal to turn one’s back to mass organizations for the sake of fostering sectarian fictions, it is no less so to passively tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative (“progressive”) bureaucratic cliques. Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution.”
– Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program, 1938
The active participation of trade unionists in support of the more or less spontaneous upsurge of opposition to racism and police violence touched off by Floyd’s murder is a good thing. The minimalist gesture by the UAW and somewhat more substantial action of the ILWU provide a hint of the enormous potential social power of a politically mobilized proletariat to act in defense of its own immediate interests as well as other victims of the bosses’ system—in this case black people and others murdered with impunity by killer cops. But the SEP leadership appears unable to see this:
“The uniform explanation of police violence as a manifestation of racism fails to explain anything. Of course, there is racism in the police. Fascistic sentiments are ubiquitous among the layers recruited into the police forces. However, the victims of police violence are the poor and oppressed of all races….
“The police function not as an instrument of racial oppression, but as an instrument of class rule.”
. . .
“The international character of police violence—along with the proliferation of such violence in cities overseen by black police chiefs and black mayors—refutes the racialist narrative–the claim that what is involved in the US is the oppression of ‘black America’ by ‘white America.’
“Police violence is bound up with the character of capitalist society. The particular brutality of the police in the United States is to be explained by the particular brutality of class relations in America, the land of inequality and the home of the financial oligarchy.”
– WSWS, 17 June 2020
The “uniform explanation of police violence as a manifestation of racism,” is an evasive caricature—a straw man—set up because it is so easily knocked down. It is essentially an attempt to avoid the core issue. The SEP acknowledges that there is “racism in the police,” but points out that police violence is characteristic of every capitalist society. This is quite true, because the fundamental division in capitalist society is not along the lines of skin color, ethnicity or gender, but social class. Yet it is also true that in the U.S., police violence against poor and working people is overlaid by a historical pattern of racist state persecution of blacks (as well as native peoples, Latinos and other minorities).
A clear example of the SEP’s profound disorientation on the question of “special,” or extra-class, oppression is contained in the assertion that: “The police function not as an instrument of racial oppression, but as an instrument of class rule.” Intelligent supporters of the SEP must surely be able to see that this need not be a binary choice—in fact police in America have always functioned as both an instrument of racial oppression and of class rule. In fact, the pervasive racism that always characterized American capitalism, has played a central role in both maintaining social stability and impeding the development of a class-consciousness, because it served to divide the working class along racial lines. As we wrote in 1993:
“Racism is rooted in the historical development of capitalism as a world system. It has proved through several centuries to be a useful and flexible tool for the possessing classes. It justified the brutal wars of conquest and genocide, which established the European colonial empires. It rationalized the slave trade, which produced the primitive accumulation of capital necessary for the industrial revolution.
“Today racism in its various guises remains an important ideological mainstay for the capitalist elites, providing a rationale for the barbaric oppression of minorities. Racism ‘explains,’ for example, why black people in America fail to get a piece of the ‘American Dream’ one generation after another.”
– 1917 No.12
The SEP may think that the essential problem is a “racialist narrative,” but recent events signal that it has become quite obvious to most Americans, including a majority of whites, that black oppression is real, that policing in the U.S. has a distinctly racist cast and that George Floyd’s skin color was a major contributing factor in his murder. It is also of course quite true that police murder people of all colors, including many whites, and that their victims are almost always from among “the poor and oppressed.”
In our recent statement on Floyd’s murder we described capitalism as a “system of multiple, overlapping forms of injustice.“ This is not an original idea—Lenin described Tsarist Russia in very similar terms, and proposed that one of the essential tasks of a revolutionary workers‘ party was to act as a “tribune of the people.“ What he was advocating was a commitment to not only waging class struggle against the capitalists, but also combatting every manifestation of “special“, or trans-class, oppression, including fighting anti-semitic attacks, demanding equality for women and resisting Great Russian bullying of smaller nations.
The impact of racist policing on America’s black, aboriginal and Latino population is reflected in the disproportionate percentage of the U.S. prison population they constitute. What the WSWS refers to as “the particular brutality of class relations in America, the land of inequality” has always had an important racist component. Lenin’s concept of building a party that vigorously defends all of the oppressed—including non-proletarian victims of extra-class oppression—provides a path to uniting the working class across national/racial/sectoral lines while also winning the allegiance of important allies for the revolutionary movement.
The existence of a layer of black “quislings” with a material interest in the preservation of the status quo, which we discuss in our recent statement, does not change the fact that most American blacks are forcibly segregated at the bottom of society. This results from historical measures deliberately implemented by the ruling class, in pursuit of profit, that divided workers according to skin color, thereby severely retarding the development of working-class solidarity. To recognize this fact and actively seek to combat its consequences is an essential element in the struggle to create a class-conscious workers’ movement in America. Dick Fraser, the American Trotskyist who probably made the most outstanding contributions to developing a materialist understanding of the black question in the U.S., observed in 1953:
“The racial division of society was born with capitalism and will die only with the death of this last system of exploitation. Before capitalism there was no race concept. There was no skin color exploitation, there was no race prejudice, there was no idea of superiority and inferiority based upon physical characteristics.
“It was the advent of Negro chattel slavery in the western hemisphere which first divided society into races. In a measure the whole supremacy of western capitalism is founded upon this modern chattel slavery. The primary accumulation of capital which was the foundation of the industrial revolution was accrued largely from the slave trade.”
– Dick Fraser, The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution, November 1953
The SEP’s inclination to downplay or minimize the fact that the historical development of American capitalism has its roots in the extermination of the native peoples and the brutal racial oppression of black people under slavery, prevents it from correctly orienting to an essential, core component of class politics in the U.S. An example of effectively addressing this question was provided in the 1970s in Chicago, when supporters of the now thoroughly degenerated Spartacist League took the lead in establishing an exemplary trade-union defense guard to protect the home of a UAW member from fascist attacks:
“C. B. Dennis, black UAW union member, has been trying to move into the white neighborhood of Broadview. His house was firebombed and stoned repeatedly. But tonight, like every night for the past week, the Dennis family home is being protected by an integrated defense guard of his union brothers. Local 6 of the United Auto Workers, International Harvester, voted unanimously at the membership meeting Sunday to set up the defense guard.
“At a time when there is a dramatic increase in racist terror against blacks all across the country, the UAW local’s action is a powerful example of what can be done to stop the nightriders. And it is the best possible answer to those who preach reliance on the bourgeois cops….”
– Workers Vanguard No. 67, 25 April 1975
This concrete application of the principle of workers’ self-defense, organized through the union, provides a model for the future. It is also a demonstration of the Leninist policy of fighting racism and other forms of trans-class oppression through class struggle. We know that there must be people in or around the SEP who understand that workers’ fights to advance their class interests are not counterposed, but rather complementary, to the struggle against racist oppression, including police brutality against black people.
The key task facing socialists in America today is to help create the conditions for the emergence of a mass labor party with a program of consistent class struggle. Such a party must be rooted in the organizations of the working class—a task that requires class-conscious union militants to engage in serious, political-programmatic struggle to oust the rotten, pro-capitalist policies of the present bureaucratic misleaders, and return the unions to their origins as agencies of struggle against rapacious capital.
The SEP calls for “new organizations of struggle” to replace the existing unions. But such formations (which Trotsky dubbed “sectarian fictions“) will never arise from the incantations of people standing on the outside who refuse, in principle, to take up the fight to transform the consciousness of the rank and file in the existing workers‘ organizations. The struggle against racial oppression in America will play a central role in the forging of a political leadership capable of dislodging the existing misleaders, uniting working people in a common struggle to bring down the entire system of capitalist exploitation and opening the road to a new, egalitarian, socialist society. These two questions are ones which serious revolutionaries have to get right.