Saturday, April 2, 2016

Which Side Are You On Boys?

Which Side Are You On Boys is an old union hymn from the Kentucky coal country and sung in this particularly funereal rendition by Natalie Merchant. The lyrics include this verse:
They say in Harlan County  There are no neutrals there. You'll either be a Union Man, Or a thug for J. H. Claire. 
Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on? Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?
Trotskyists aren't much for hymnody, perhaps because there aren't that many revolutionary tunes. But occasionally--especially at Oberlin conferences--we'd break out into song.

Life was simple back then. We all knew where the class line was. The cops, Democrats, big business, schools, and the military were all on one side. The Vanguard Party, working people, the Vietcong, and the unions were on our side. Nobody had the choice to be neutral.

Since then it's gotten much more complicated. The class line now wiggles, twists and turn through society, separating Uber drivers from taxi cabbies, Ukrainian rebels from the other Ukrainian rebels, this Syrian sect from that Syrian sect, Greenpeace from the Laborers International Union, and so forth.

My Trotskyist friends can no longer agree who's on which side of the increasingly fuzzy boundary. They increasingly disagree with each other.

Of course some things are clear as daylight. Every Trotskyist of whatever denomination believes the Democratic Party to be bourgeois. And likewise Donald Trump represents the capitalist class--indeed, quite proudly so.

The dispute, then, revolves not around the characterization of the presidential candidates, but rather on who their supporter are. Are the supporters of Donald Trump members of the proletariat? Or are they instead an incipient fascist grouping allied with white supremacism and Islamophobia?

And likewise with Bernie Sanders. Socialist Action's Bruce Lesnick recently published a clever piece entitled House socialists and field socialists. The house socialist (Bernie) is in fact a stalking horse for the Democratic Party, for he believes that capitalism can reform itself into a just, humane society. Field socialists (such as my Trotskyist friends) instead fight for a root-and-branch revolution.

Bernie's supporters, fools that they are, have fallen for his scam and have flocked to the banner of the house socialist.
Long-time union activists have frequently asked each other, “Where are all the young workers?” The first answer is that many of them are in the Fight For $15 movement, and the second answer is that they are attending Bernie Sanders rallies. We have seen in the period of about 10 weeks this summer over 100,000 people crammed into sports arenas in a variety of cities to hear Sanders’ populist message about economic inequality and the fight against the “Billionaire Class.” (from Ann Montague's 2015 piece).
Even though Bernie himself is a charlatan, his followers are people Socialist Action wants to recruit to field socialism.

The Militant doesn't disagree with any of this. And like their fellow Trotskyists they'd also stipulate that Donald Trump is a bourgeois figure not to be trusted. Trump supporters, like their Bernie brethren, are equally victimized by false consciousness and an inability to make rational political judgments.

And yet however much they oppose Trump, unlike Socialist Action they are trying to appeal to his supporters. For they believe (correctly) that Trump is attracting blue collar white voters who deserve to learn about socialism. So just as Socialist Action might attend Bernie rallies, so the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) attends Trump rallies.

Dan Fein reports from Chicago.
The organized disruption that forced the cancellation of Republican candidate Donald Trump’s campaign rally here March 11 “was a blow to free speech,” Socialist Workers Party candidate for president Alyson Kennedy said. “Shutting down political expression is inevitably turned against workers.” 
Kennedy’s statement stands in stark contrast to the celebration of the disruption on the left and among liberals who are increasingly shrill in charging Trump with being the spearhead of a rising racist and fascist movement. This could be “remembered as the dawn of the resistance,” declared Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson March 14.
It is important to note that the SWP remains resolutely Leftist, despite attending these rallies. They don't agree with The Donald at all.
SWP vice-presidential candidate Osborne Hart spoke about why opposing the scapegoating of immigrants, including attacks on Muslims and their mosques, is a life-and-death question for the working class. “These are fellow workers, part of the fight for jobs, for unions, for dignity,” he said. “Unless we approach every worker that way, we can’t build a movement to overturn capitalism.”
Admittedly, Mr. Osborne's remarks were made to an internal audience, not to a group of actual Trump supporters.

But be your audience Bernie's Boys or Donald's Dudes, if you want to talk to somebody you have to treat them like human beings. You can't call them fools or fascists or idiots or unthinking victims of false consciousness. And so Mr. Lesnick opens his piece in a friendly spirit: "I wholeheartedly support the populist programs that Bernie Sanders advocates—from single-payer health care, to free college tuition, to taxing the rich and more."

Similarly, The Militant goes out of its way to defend Trump supporters of being fascists or white supremacists. For if they thought otherwise it would be impossible to even have the conversation.

So there probably isn't a dispute about the class line here. Both grouplets agree that Bernie and Donald represent the class enemy. They likely both agree that their supporters are (in part at least) members of the working class. And yet Socialist Action and most of the other grouplets are going to the Bernie rallies, and as far as I know only The Militant attends to the Trump crowd. Why?

I think there is a distinction between the two crowds--perhaps not a class line, but as Trotskyists might put it, they are different layers of the working class. I've put it in rather pejorative terms in previous posts, which in the interests of civility I'll refrain from here. But the key distinction is their relation to the government.

Bernie's Boys (and Girls) are generally net recipients of tax dollars. They are students ("free tuition for all"), teachers, professors, public employees, and welfare recipients. Some may work in the medical field--nominally private but in reality so heavily regulated and funded that it's essentially tax-supported.

Donald's Dudes (and Dolls) are mostly net payers of tax dollars. They are workers in fast-food places, Walmart, hotels, factories, and businesses across this great land. They are also entrepreneurs and businessmen. The Donald himself is not faking it as a proletarian (which he manifestly isn't), but instead as somebody who pays more taxes than he gets in return. In this he has more in common with any private-sector worker than with the politicians in Washington.

And that distinguishes the politics of the candidates. Bernie advocates for more government spending so that the tax-beneficiaries can get more money and more power. "Free tuition" is an obvious one, as is more money for schools and infrastructure. I'd argue his support for climate change is of the same piece.

Trump, on the other hand, cares much more for the private sector folks. He's not gonna spend more money on schools and colleges than absolutely necessary. Government bennies have to go directly to working people, and not to the bureaucrats and intermediaries in the public employee unions.

Of course Trump's snake-oil won't be anymore successful than Bernie's balderdash in actually making Americans richer. Wealth comes from people spending their own money the way they want to spend it, without government interference. Neither of the candidates seem to understand that.

Still, I'm probably going to vote for Trump in my state's primary. Which side are you on?

Note: Blogging has been light because I was involved in a traffic accident. I have no serious injuries, but it is taking me some time to recover. Should be back to normal soon.

Further Reading:


  1. The SWP's orientation toward the Trump "movement" is unique on "the left." There is not necessarily something unprincipled about this. As you point out, it would be wrong to write off every one of his supporters as a racist or fascist. Still, it is odd for a tiny little "party" of less than a hundred souls to devote its meager resources to this. Wouldn't Bernie's rallies be a more fruitful arena for selling The Militant or finding potential recruits?

    There seems to be something deeper going on here: The SWP's new orientation toward the white (or as they quaintly call it, the "Caucasian") working class. A recent issue of The Miltant reported that the SWP's presidential candidate Alyson Kennedy campaigned in an overwhelmingly white, and rather prosperous, suburb of Chicago. And the SWP's Philadelphia branch moved its headquarters from black North Philadelpia to Mayfair, an area of the city that is 95% white.

    I have a feeling that when the SWPers set up their literature tables at Donald Trump rallies, they're not promoting books by Malcolm X.

    1. I think the SWP's policy makes tactical sense. Chasing Bernie voters means competing with the entire zoo. With the Trump crowd they've got the field to themselves.

      They do have to be careful not to lose their principles, at least if they want to stay "Trotskyist."

      The class struggle takes different forms, they'll argue. In earlier decades the leadership came from the Black community. Today that may no longer be true.

    2. I think you've hit the nail on the head there, Dan! The SWP are loath to have anything to do with what they call the "Petty-Bourgeois Left." Hence their current orientation toward right-wing ranchers and Trump supporters. This is pretty barren ground for a Castroite cult to be plowing. The SWPers are dying off fast, and this desperate move will do nothing to halt their demographic death spiral.

    3. John -- I agree it is a Hail Mary pass, but they do have a chance. They could recruit enough people to keep the enterprise going for another generation.

      Oddly, I wish them success. Probably only for sentimental reasons.

  2. The problem, Dan, is they haven't recruited anyone in 30 years (effectively). They are all gray haired, 60+ years old, demoralized leftists. Other groups are far younger and, interestingly, have stronger roots in the working class than they do. They are slowly turning into the SLP who *we* used to make fun of for their ever aging gray haired cadre.

    1. I generally agree--what they're doing is a Hail Mary pass, no doubt. The odds of success are long, but not zero.

      I did do a post on the SLP some time ago, more or less making your point. It's entitled "Marxism Without the Leninism."