Keep marching: From streets to voting booth and back again
A woman holds a sign during a funeral procession Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Hallandale Beach, Fla., to symbolize a day of mourning for lives lost due to systemic racism. Movements are going to have to protest in the streets now, march to the ballot box in November, and then hit the streets again to organize and keep up the pressure for change. | Lynne Sladky / AP

With a nationwide uprising over the public execution of George Floyd, and Trump’s use of military force in D.C.’s Lafayette Square, the country has entered an extremely dangerous period. Institutionalized racist police violence, always present, is now front and center in the COVID-sparked economic crisis.

The pandemic, along with the uprising against racist violence, has raised the stakes dramatically in this regard. Demonstrators, well aware of the danger of infection, after living weeks in COVID lockdown, are literally risking their lives to protest. They have little to lose when their jobs have disappeared and their communities are dying at three to four times the rate of everyone else.

The sight outside Trump’s window: A young woman who holds her fist up in front of a large banner that reads Black Lives Matter hanging on a security fence in front of the White House, Monday, June 8, 2020, in Washington. | Andrew Harnik / AP

The uprising has created a tipping point. But instead of providing leadership and coming to the rescue with emergency programs and proposals that match the scale of the crisis, conservatives in Congress stall. Unemployment payments, for example, are due to run out in just eight weeks. Senate Republicans, however, refuse to pass the extension contained in the House-approved Heroes Act.

A long, hot summer of hunger, disease, joblessness, and civil unrest is sure to follow unless something is done. But how and what? The answers are being written on the nation’s streets. As Frederick Douglass once observed, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” but “power concedes nothing without demand.” But struggle around what issues, whither, and with whom?

Take the issue of the extreme right danger. Trump has pushed right-wing militias to “liberate” state capitols, demanding an end to stay-at-home provisions—an unprecedented act by the nation’s chief executive and one that demands a swift and indignant response. Instead, conservatives offered “good old boy” excuses while liberals fretted—an enormous failure of leadership in both cases.

Whether it’s because they’ve largely failed to recognize the fascist impulse lurking behind Trump’s governing or they lack courage matters little. If Trump remains unchecked, the country’s “leadership” will be unable to save themselves, much less the country. Importantly, the country’s top military brass took exception to the infamous “battle of Lafayette Square” but even with that the threat remains.

Negative appeals, whether in elections or movements, rarely win. 

It’s doubtful, however, that even if the danger were more broadly recognized it would be enough to ward off a second term. Warnings against fascism, divorced from the main issues confronting people in their day-to-day lives, are inadequate. Negative appeals, whether in elections or movements, rarely win. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this. As much as the 1963 March on Washington was against racism, organizers also framed it in positive terms as a rally for Civil Rights, peace, and jobs.

Successful campaigns and movements are framed around forward-looking, issue-oriented appeals. People need something to be for: a platform that champions their interests and needs.

Will candidates respond by advancing and fighting for a platform that addresses the magnitude of the crisis? What are the issues? Of immediate concern is policing, which now is a central issue in the presidential campaign. Calls for body cameras, “community policing,” and other measures put forward during the Ferguson uprising will hardly do. The Minneapolis police force underwent a series of sensitivity trainings, none of which seemed to stick with Derek Chauvin.

Fulfilling way-past-due demands for tracking police killings with a national database might be a baby step in the right direction, but what’s next? The people demand that white supremacist cliques who have infiltrated and recruited in police departments be eliminated immediately. Community control boards should oversee police hiring and firing. And while we’re at it, don’t stop there: demilitarize and defund the departments.

More broadly, radical reforms of policing and the entire criminal justice system are in order. But to start, eliminate racial profiling, three-strikes-you’re-out, and sentencing disparities. The abominable practice of trying children as adults also needs to be abolished. Even the very role of prisons, where COVID-19 infection and death rates are astronomical, requires changing.

To those who might say, “impossible,” “pie-in-the-sky,” or “you’ll lose the suburbs,” African Americans could well reply, “Remember South Carolina!” The African-American vote in that state’s primary dramatically changed the dynamics of the elections. While Sanders was the better candidate, Black voters demonstrated their power, one that could well determine the November election.

Beyond the policing issue, the pandemic and economic crisis require that we address issues and demands that also speak to the deep inequities in our country:

  • Republicans, backed by big business, are trying to force workers back to their jobs on pain of losing unemployment compensation and contracting COVID-19. This should be rejected with all the contempt that it deserves.
  • The unemployment rate, already nearly 25%, is double that figure in black and brown communities and even higher among young people, perhaps triple. Public works jobs proposals already under consideration require remedies for overcoming racial disparities—that used to be called affirmative action.
  • The plight of undocumented immigrant workers, left out of the first stimulus package, cannot be ignored. Nor can the status quo in the COVID-infected detention camps on the border be allowed to continue. These workers must be freed, as the Hispanic Caucus has demanded.
  • Keeping frontline workers safe and secure, of course, remains a top concern. With millions losing health insurance due to job loss, the right to health care is paramount. In this situation, the demand for Medicare for All has new relevance.
  • Relief from household and student debt, long a heavy burden on working-class families, must be given renewed attention in the coming months. Debt cancellation, or a “debt jubilee,” once an unheard-of proposition, may well be a simple and effective means of freeing up cash and increasing workers’ purchasing power.
  • Another key issue is helping organize unemployed workers, linking them up with local unions, and assisting them in receiving unemployment benefits, paying utilities, and putting food on the table. The time has come to build a movement for unemployment councils.

These are among the issues around which coalitions for jobs and justice can be built. The whole point is to build bottom-up independent movements in the context of these battles both before and after the elections. The uprising is giving this imperative new life and urgency. Many young people are being arrested and will require bail and legal assistance, along with political and moral support. How can the uprising be connected to efforts to end voter suppression and evictions, and to ensure that people have food, shelter, income, and free COVID-19 testing?

No single social force can win the battle alone.

Changing the terrain of struggle: An activist holds a clipboard asking demonstrators to register to vote, Thursday, June 4, 2020, near the White House in Washington. | Evan Vucci / AP

Electoral coalitions must be broad and diverse if they are to defeat the extreme right. Why the emphasis on breadth? Simply put: no single social force can win the battle alone—not workers, people of color, women, youth, LGBTQ people, none. The forces grouped in and around the Trump administration are too powerful, and the danger is too great.

As coalitions grow and mature, particular attention must be given to representing workers’ interests, demands, and leadership. Indeed, the working class must place its “imprint” on the battle for democracy—molding unity, shaping issues, prioritizing demands, engaging the disengaged, resisting diversions, and keeping its eye on the prize.

The wider the coalition’s breadth, the more urgent this is. The presence of diverse class forces in the anti-Trump movement will understandably raise both dangers and fears. Some might ask: Won’t it dilute the struggle, divert it, give rise to illusions and, worse, run the serious risk of co-optation? In the push and pull of real life, the answer is yes. Hence the need for independent working-class politics, structures, and platforms.

While bringing pressure to bear on issues, coalitions must also work to change the balance of forces. This means creating a more favorable playing field for exercising people’s power from below. The balance of forces can be changed via the struggle for reforms and in the electoral arena. It is in these struggles that the political capital, the experience capital, the organizational capital, even the ideological capital can be built that will lay the basis for transformative, revolutionary change.

Campaigns are the vehicles within which parts of the class and democratic struggle are waged.

Participating in the electoral struggle is not so much about supporting political parties as it is about building movements and electing candidates who support labor’s platform. It’s not about endorsing campaigns, lending “critical support,” or supporting candidates as if an election were a personality contest. Participation is about promoting the issues and movements that give campaigns life. Campaigns are the vehicles within which important parts of the class and democratic struggle are waged.

Public office should be contested wherever possible: school boards, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures, etc. It is in these bodies that decisions are made about zoning, school curriculum, policing procedures, and street paving—the very stuff of day-to-day living. A working-class approach to the elections means focusing on issues, building movements around them, fighting for their presence in election platforms, and participating in the independent union structures during the campaigns.

Soon unions will initiate voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. Trade unions for some time have maintained an independent election structure, including separate fundraising, email and texting lists, along with telephone banks. They also run their own candidates. This election structure is an extremely important form of political independence, separate from the Democratic and Republican parties. It allows for focusing on issues, building labor-community alliances, and maximizing turnout to change the balance of forces in an election.

“The domination of the Democratic Party by big capital prompts many to argue that not only is it an imperfect vehicle, but one which time and again reproduces the labor movement’s subordination—this is undeniable. Yet…in a race in which there are but two viable vehicles, you can pine for the one you wish you had, but ultimately you must use the one that’s on the road—either that or pull off to the shoulder and sit the contest out.”

Trade unions, along with people of color and various democratic, civil rights, and environmental movements, largely use the vehicle of the Democratic Party. As is well known, big business also makes use of the Democratic Party. In fact, they dominate both parties, with more right-wing sectors preferring the GOP, and the rest operating within the Democrats’ orbit.

The domination of the Democratic Party by big capital prompts many to argue that not only is it an imperfect vehicle, but one which time and again reproduces the labor movement’s subordination—this is undeniable. Yet an imperfect vehicle is still a vehicle, and Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others in the African-American, Latinx, women’s, and labor movements have run effective campaigns through it.

At the same time, independent campaigns and non-partisan races are an important option. The only principled questions involved here are not accidentally electing right-wingers and the ongoing need to fight for political independence and communist presence where possible. This must include fielding candidates.

In a race in which there are but two viable vehicles, you can pine for the one you wish you had, but ultimately you must use the one that’s on the road—either that or pull off to the shoulder and sit the contest out. Viewing developments from the sidelines may make one feel untainted and therefore better, but here’s the thing: Is casting a ballot more a matter of individual feelings or one of participating in a collective act?

Some contend that the driver of one vehicle, while imperfect, is less imperfect than the other, popularly known as “lesser evil” politics.

How can concrete interests in specific situations best be moved forward when faced with a limited path?

Lesser Evilism implies a choice between two immoral options. But elections are not about abstract morality. On a micro level, elections allow workers to determine where they do battle, whether it’s opposing fascist-minded federal court judges or supporting judges who favor civil rights. This applies as well to engaging with “foxes in the henhouse” agencies or ones that protect labor rights and the environment, or electoral spaces in which a million votes have been suppressed or ones in which voters have easy access to the ballot.

More broadly, though, the terrain of political struggle is the extremely limited two-party system. This, too, requires radical reform. Rarely do workers’ and people’s movements get to choose the terrain on which they fight. The class and democratic struggle is not primarily about universal abstractions but concrete interests in specific situations and how best to move them forward when faced with a limited path. A classic example of this is when Lenin advocated a broad coalition against the tsar. The workers had an objective interest in aligning with the peasantry and emerging capital against a decaying feudal system. Yet no one would argue that Lenin’s position implied an “endorsement” of the Russian Cadets.

“Elections are not about abstract morality… Bourgeois politics is a messy business and does not neatly fit into the moral categories of good and evil.”

In the fight against slavery, Karl Marx worked to lend aid to Lincoln and the Republican Party against Jefferson Davis and the slavocracy. The working class then had an interest in defeating chattel slavery. Marx did not endorse Lincoln or see him as a lesser evil. It wasn’t that simple. Bourgeois politics is a messy business and does not neatly fit into the moral categories of good and evil.

Small “d” democratic and workers’ movements may not get to choose their terrain, but they can choose their independence, self-organization, system of ideas, and fighting capacity. And with that, everything else becomes possible.

In Homer’s Iliad, Ulysses, on his journey, was confronted with two unenviable choices: the sea monster Scylla or its counterpart Charybdis. He finally decided that his crew’s chances were better with Scylla; they sailed and lived.

To develop Homer’s analogy, in the ocean of 21st-century bourgeois politics, one must navigate two whirlpools in but two ships, two vehicles. Today, it’s either the ship of state led by neo-fascists and Trump, or the one commanded by the Democratic opposition.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, representing two of the main Democratic camps, are aligning their forces and developing planks they hope will lead the country forward. But they’re sailing in uncharted and turbulent waters—a mass democratic uprising against racism combined with an unprecedented health, economic, and political crisis. Plans made today will likely be undone by the political storms of tomorrow. Politics means navigating that tempest.

If Trump is defeated, the new administration will be confronted by enormous tasks. Much will depend on the size and quality of the electoral mandate. Without question, the executive branch and Congress will face tremendous pressure to solve the crisis in the interests of big business. With Democrats tending to tilt right on issues of foreign policy, intervention in other countries’ affairs will have to be stiffly resisted.

On domestic issues too, labor, Civil Rights, and community groups will have to organize tooth-and-nail to ensure their interests are met. It will not be easy, as many will want to give the new administration space and will be reluctant to take it on—but that would be a huge mistake. At the end of the day, organized mass pressure from below is the only guarantee of advances.

Once again power concedes nothing without demand; or, to put it another way: The only thing that will save us, is us.


CONTRIBUTOR

Joe Sims
Joe Sims

Joe Sims is co-chair of the Communist Party USA. He is also a senior editor of People's World and loves biking.    

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