Now’s the time for socialist organisation

Danny Katch, a member of the US-based International Socialist Organization, argues that the socialist left has an urgent task in the era or Donald Trump: grow. This article was first published at SocialistWorker.org.

“History seems to be moving backward.”

That’s what a teacher in his mid-20s told me at a rally when I asked what had led him to come out to what he said was the first political demonstration of his life. The protest was about the Dakota Access Pipeline, but he was clearly referring to Donald Trump’s election, an earthquake that continues to spread shock waves of fear with each passing day.

The fears are concrete: mass deportations; a government “registry” for Americans who practice Islam; the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing legal abortion. The executive branch under Trump will be stuffed with reactionaries – from the anti-union and pro-business hacks typical of any Republican administration to the open racists and Islamophobes Trump has already installed in top positions.

The shock is the realisation that we don’t live in a world in which crude scapegoating isn’t acceptable in mainstream politics. Just because the calendar says 2016 doesn’t mean we can’t see a return to the open racism and thuggery of the pre-civil rights era of half a century ago, with Twitter being the new way for demagogues to spread their Big Lies and anonymous online threats the new cross burnings.

In truth, we were already moving backward – otherwise, there would have been no need for protest movements like Occupy Wall Street or #BlackLivesMatter.

But Trump’s victory is a warning that we could go a lot further back – both here and in many other countries where far-right forces are either already in government or on the rise – if we don’t fight for the history our children will inherit.

That’s why hundreds of thousands have already taken part in anti-Trump protests and vigils that started the night of his election and will continue through his inauguration on 20 January and after. Just as important as the protests has been the surge in interest in radical and socialist publications – like Socialist Worker – and meetings that followed Trump’s victory.

This is very different from the big election protests that happened in 2000, when Republicans stole the White House for George W. Bush by blocking a recount in Florida that would have made Al Gore president. Sixteen years ago, most protesters looked at the Democratic Party as victims of Republican wrongdoing. Today, the anger is far more widespread at the Democratic Party as a key element of a political system so rotten it couldn’t stop a wildly unpopular sexual predator from crashing right to the top.

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The Democrats’ role in this mess goes a lot deeper than Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate – though there were many of those. More fundamental is the party’s many betrayals of the working-class people it claimed to defend, from the broken promises to pass protections for unions and a health care system that guaranteed access and affordability, to Bill Clinton’s trade deals and Barack Obama’s bank bailouts. 2016 was like a concentrated version of many decades of broken promises playing out in one election cycle.

When Bernie Sanders galvanised millions of blue-collar workers and young progressives behind his call for taxing the rich to pay for genuinely universal health care and free college education, Democratic Party insiders and elected officials almost unanimously rejected him in favour of Hillary Clinton and her Wall Street-funded message of … wait, what was her message again?

At the same time, leaked e-mails from the Clinton campaign reveal that party leaders were working to “elevate” Trump to the top of the Republican race – in the belief, proven horribly wrong, that even a horribly compromised candidate like Clinton couldn’t possibly lose to that clown. In effect, the Democratic Party blocked Sanders’ “socialist” New Deal liberalism as too extreme, but helped to give the toxic racism of Trump’s campaign unprecedented legitimacy as the Republican presidential candidate.

Now that Trump has won, the Democrats have pivoted from their campaign posture about Trump being an unstable fascist who will start a nuclear war – to patriotic calls to unite behind the new president and accept his good intentions on faith. The alternative – let Trump know from the start that we will oppose with every fibre of our being the plans he laid out in his campaign – was dismissed out of hand.

The problem with the Democratic Party isn’t that those who manage it don’t have the courage to stand up to Republicans. It’s that they don’t want to stand up. The Democratic establishment wants to preserve the stability of a political system that will still work well enough for them and their big money donors, even under a Trump presidency.

So the problem is not only the victory of hard-right nationalists, but the accompanying self-satisfied liberals who accommodate them – leaving many people with the double shock of dealing with a Trump presidency and the realisation that no one in mainstream politics is going to protect us from it.

We’re going to have to organise the resistance ourselves – which means not only protesting Trump’s incoming administration, but building socialist organisations and parties that can pose a credible alternative to a 21st century capitalism that isn’t working for the vast majority of humanity – not to mention all the other species on this planet. If we don’t, the only “opposition” to Trump’s politics of bigotry and cynical self-interest will be the Democrats’ empty platitudes about how “America is already great”, which have proven to be a colossal failure.

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How can we fight Donald Trump’s agenda of scapegoating and victimising the most vulnerable when the Republicans control not only the White House, but both houses of Congress?

Let’s go back 10 years to early 2006. The Republican-dominated House had already voted for James Sensenbrenner’s proposed HR 4437, an odious bill that would have classified undocumented immigrants as felons, along with those judged to have helped them enter or stay in the country – in other words, anyone who didn’t report them. The Republican-dominated Senate was set to vote on the bill in March, and if approved, it would have been signed into law by Republican president George W. Bush. But before any of that could happen, mass protests erupted among hundreds of thousands of mostly undocumented, mostly Mexican immigrants in Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and dozens of other cities.

The immigrant rights “mega-marches” culminated in the historic 1 May “Day Without Immigrants,” when, as NBC reported: “More than 1 million mostly Hispanic immigrants and their supporters skipped work and took to the streets [across the US], flexing their economic muscle in a nationwide boycott that succeeded in slowing or shutting many farms, factories, markets and restaurants”.

But as Bridget Broderick and Orlando Sepulveda wrote for SocialistWorker.org earlier this year: “May 1, 2006, wasn’t a boycott. It was a general strike. One well-photographed placard held by a protester said, ‘The sleeping giant wasn’t sleeping – we were working’”.

The Sensenbrenner bill never even came to a vote in the Senate – and so the most abhorrent version of anti-immigrant legislation was beaten back.

There have been other examples in recent years of large-scale protests bringing about change in different forms – from victorious strikes by Chicago teachers in 2012 and Verizon workers this past [northern] summer, to the years of demonstrations and actions that stopped construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, to the ongoing struggle against racist police killings.

All of these are living proof that if you’re not a billionaire, the best way to work for change isn’t how we’re taught in school – Write your congressperson! Run for office yourself! – but by organising alongside many others to demand change from a political system that’s always been rigged.

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The power of large numbers of ordinary people working together in a collective political project of liberation is the potential strength of our side – and it exists on a scale Trump and his far-right followers can only pretend at.

The right has built a following around the message that ordinary people are victimised and powerless and need a strong leader to fight for them. Our message is that we ordinary people have power we normally can’t even imagine – the power to shut their system down and rebuild it on a basis of justice and cooperation.

Our task starts today by bringing people together – in the kind of numbers that came out against the Sensenbrenner bill – to protest any efforts at mass deportations, anti-Muslim measures or attacks on abortion rights. We need to organise the majority of people who reject Donald Trump’s agenda of bigotry and scapegoating and create a crisis of legitimacy for his new government – the exact opposite approach of the Democrats, Bernie Sanders included, who are talking about finding areas of common ground with the new president.

But just building an anti-Trump movement isn’t enough. We have to come up with an agenda that we are fighting for – from a $15-an-hour minimum wage to taxing the rich to pay for single-payer health care. We already know these are popular demands from the Sanders’ campaign. Now we need to free them from a party that is determined to sabotage them.

The only way to do this is to organise our own party, independent of the bankers and careerists who will always undemocratically run the “Democratic” Party. This understanding that workers need their own party is one of the distinguishing features of the revolutionary socialist tradition.

It’s what Karl Marx discovered when he was a young newspaper editor fighting for a democracy in Germany: the elites who complained about the monarch always backed down when things got hot because they’d rather stay with what they had than risk an upheaval that threatened their wealth and power. Only the workers in Germany were consistent fighters for democracy.

Fifty years later, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party came to the same conclusion in Russia: The most determined fighters against the anti-Semitic pogroms and all the other tyrannies of the Tsar weren’t the educated elites, but the workers, who truly wanted to see the end of the regime.

Workers’ power starts not from running our own party in elections – although that’s part of it – but from the power that we have to bring democracy into being everywhere we’re not supposed to have it: at our jobs, in our schools, and in the way we’re policed in our neighbourhoods.

It’s based not in the narrow minority that currently runs society, but a diverse majority class of workers – the undocumented day labourers who led the mega-marches; the drowning-in-debt college graduates at the heart of Occupy Wall Street; the rank and file union teachers and telecommunications workers who led the Chicago teachers and Verizon strikes.

Unfortunately, we can’t look to recent history for inspiration in this project. Among the protest movements I mentioned earlier, none built lasting organisations independent from the Democratic Party. As a result, many leading activists eventually followed the “realistic” path of working with and for the Democrats. This November, they were inside the empty Clinton campaign, and so the only seeming messages of rebellion that most voters heard came from Trump.

This is the treadmill that we have to get off.

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There are many different types of organisations that need to be built, from student clubs and coalitions, to workplace solidarity networks, to political parties that call protests and run for office.

In all cases, building democratic organisations is about creating collective bodies that can test ideas in practice and then debate and assess how they worked. It’s not easy for people who have never done it, and it helps to have people involved with organising experience, as well as an education in what radicals and revolutionaries have done before us.

The primary goal of the International Socialist Organization is to build leaders of struggle, trained in the Marxist theories that generalise lessons from the past and organised collectively so we learn how to debate with each other and recognise the balance of our own individual strengths and weaknesses.

This is an exciting time to be a socialist in the US. You can see the developing strands of resistance: the youth radicalisation, the protests for Black lives that refuse to be put down, the campaign that Sanders built almost entirely with small donations.

But there are also enormous challenges. Not only do we face a far-right government, but we do so at a time when strikes are at their lowest level in almost a hundred years, which means that the strongest muscle we have is the most atrophied.

“I feel like I need both urgency and patience right now.” Those were the words of a different person – a college student, talking to me after a socialist meeting the night after the DAPL protest. He was explaining that he wanted to fight this system and tear it down right now, but also realised that he needs to develop his ideas over time.

I completely agree, and there are other aspects of that urgency/patience dialectic. We need to fight with passion against Trump while being patient with those who are afraid or demoralised about taking part. We need to argue that the Democrats are part of the problem, but welcome all those who want to oppose Trump into our coalitions and engage in comradely debate, no matter who they supported in the last election.

We have to do everything we can to build a socialist movement while understanding that some necessary factors are not yet in place, like the willingness and organisation of workers to strike.

To get that balance right, you need to be part of collective organisations that assess our mistakes and learn from them. We are going to win some victories, but we are also going to experience some horrible defeats in the coming months and years. Both of those things we know. The question is if the socialist left in this country is going to get stronger through the process, or if we’re going to stay on the treadmill.

Now is the time for people not only to stand up and be counted against Trump, but to figure out what alternative to his dystopian vision of society they are going to organise for. If your alternative is socialism, you should find out more about joining the ISO.

First published at www.SocialistWorker.org