Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Oberlin, 2017

Deeper into the Working Class
Act on the Rulers' Deepening Political Crisis
Build the Young Socialists and the Party
2017 Socialist Workers Party Active Workers Conference

That is the full text of the banner behind Jack Barnes as he addressed the plenary session of the 2017 Oberlin conference. The picture is in the pdf version of The Militant here. The article, by Terry Evans and John Studer is here.

It's all very deep.

To try to make head or tail of it, I went back to their report on the 48th Socialist Workers Party (SWP) convention. The connecting thread between that convention report and today's article is this paragraph from the convention (which I failed to quote in my post about that convention, here).
The only way forward for workers and working farmers, Barnes said, is to recognize ourselves as the political vanguard of the “deplorables” — to see the need and capacity of the working class and our allies to put an end to the rule of capital, of the small handful of superrich families that hold state power in the U.S. and control both the Democratic and Republican parties.
So here is the way I now understand the SWP's strategy. I am phrasing everything in my own words.

  • The leading section of the working class today are Trump supporters. The Party is actively trying to engage those people.
  • The Party does not support Trump--they are only chasing his supporters. They are not looking for "adorable deplorables," but rather "revolutionary deplorables."
  • Trump supporters are mad because of the "crisis" in the capitalist system caused by the relentless assault of the ruling class against workers.
  • The Party's propaganda aim is to raise the consciousness of these workers and win them to revolutionary socialism.
  • A large section of the capitalist class (aka Liberals) sees Trump as a threat to stable class rule in America, and is trying hard to overthrow him. Many so-called "revolutionaries" (I'm looking at you, Solidarity) have signed onto this Liberal crusade, and are thus inadvertently serving the bourgeoisie.
This is a remarkable analysis, and considerably more intelligent than what others on my beat put out. It is entirely consistent with the Trotskyist dislike of Liberals, and puts the SWP very much at odds with the Democratic Party. Which is very much where they want to be.

I can quibble with details: Evans and Studer suggest that Trump's rise is primarily about economic issues. As evidence they cite the opioid epidemic, declining birth rates, and a declining labor force. These are all important issues and they affect the economy, but I don't think they are ultimately economic in origin.

  • The opioid crisis started with over-confident pharmaceutical companies ("our painkillers are not addictive"), dishonest doctors, and a highly intelligent, entrepreneurial Mexican drug gang. It's all detailed in a book entitled Dreamland (which I have not read yet, but it's on top of my list). It's terrible, awful, no-good, but it's hard to see how it's caused by macroeconomics.
  • Birth rates are going down around the world--Cuba being an excellent example. Not clear what the US government (or any other government) can do about that.
  • The decline in the size of the labor force is in significant part due to the retirement of people like me--baby boomers. Many people leave the labor force before age 65. Beyond that, it's hard to hold a steady job if you're addicted to heroin.
Still, Evans & Studer have a point: measured labor productivity has more or less flat-lined since 1970. That, too, is a global phenomenon, and is not something that can be fixed by any government (not even in Cuba, where labor productivity is abysmal). Trump will never be able to keep his promise of 4% annual growth.

Details aside, I think I finally understand the Party's strategy--and I'm feeling a bit ashamed that it's taken me so long to get it through my thick skull. It's not ludicrous or stupid. Indeed, it's much more reasonable than anything else I've seen on the Left.

But it's wrong.

Trump's election was not caused by economic malaise, and certainly not by a revolt of the working class. Instead it was caused by new media.

Trump has done to political campaigns precisely what Amazon did to bookstores and what Uber has done to taxicabs. Every political operative in America has been rendered obsolete. Trump used Twitter and Facebook to do an end run around the traditional media, leaving longstanding institutions like the New York Times and CNN in the dust. (Fox survived only because of sycophancy).

So of course these people hate Trump, and are desperately (however futilely) trying to roll back the clock to the status quo ante. They'll fail, of course, but they might succeed in overthrowing Trump.

It has nothing to do with a split in the capitalist class. Nor anything at all with a working class rebellion (which doesn't exist).

My reservations aside, the strategy makes sense. Then what about the tactics? Here we're back to the same incoherence which has long characterized the SWP.

First, they're gonna go deeper into the working class! Who knows what that means--the Party has spent 40 years doing just that and apparently hasn't pulled it off yet. It seems to me it gets a lot harder now given they're mostly at or beyond retirement age.

Miraculously the Young Socialists have reappeared on the scene. When I was comrade one "graduated" from the Young Socialists at age 26--after that one became a full Party member. I wonder what the cut-off age is now? Sixty five? Still, in honor of newfound youthful exuberance they are going to attend the World Festival of Youth and Students in Sochi, Russia. Wow! That'll really appeal to those heroin-addicted, childless Trump supporters!

Then they're going to Cuba to celebrate the life of Che Guevara, a fellow who had the good sense to die at age 39 while he was still handsome enough to decorate dorm room posters.

Steve Clark delivered what must have been a really short talk: “New Avenues for Extending the Communist Movement in the Middle East”.

If the Party were really serious about tactics, they need to take some lessons from the Trump campaign. Any political organization needs to use social media effectively--the Party has no competence there whatsoever. Selling an old, fuddy-duddy, print newspaper to superannuated union members in Albany, NY, is not going to get them very far. So much for being in the vanguard!

Establishing a presence on Twitter and Facebook should be a top priority.

They should also learn how to do A/B testing, which does not necessarily mean being unprincipled. It does require a new way of thinking.

Finally, back in the 1970s we comrades made at least a little bit of effort to be fashionable and hip. That's all gone today. Partly it's because we've all gotten too old, but also it's because there's no effort. Maybe comrades should start watching Project Runway?

The tactics are absurd. But don't let that distract from the larger picture. The strategy is legit. Just because I think it's wrong, doesn't mean it is wrong.

Further Reading:


  1. I'm trying to understand where the SWP's current orientation toward "Trumpism" comes from and I'm really at a loss. We could see inklings of it when they condemned the rescue of Elian Gonzalez in 2000, or in their position on the Gore vs. Bush recount later that year. But really, their position on Trump is almost diametrically opposed to what they said about Patrick Buchanan's "Bonapartism" in the '90s, which I thought was a little hysterical but still a valid point of view.

    All I can come up with is, having banked on a mass radicalization of the US working class for all these many years and, since said radicalization hasn't occurred, they're settling on Trumpism, rather desperately, as the channel within which it will occur. The thing is, since the election masses of people really are awakening politically and breaking at least partially with the Democratic Party, but they're doing this in opposition to Trumpism, not within it. I will say that The Militant's use of Trumpian language like "Deplorables" and "Carnage" is weird and downright pathetic.

  2. I don't think I agree with you (though I'm not sure). I don't think they like Trump, so I see no conflict with their Buchanan position. But unlike Buchanan, Trump leads what they would call a "mass movement." It's the movement they're after--not the leader of it.

    Your second paragraph is closer to the mark. They're confusing Trump support with a mass radicalization (however misdirected). That agrees with much of what the mainstream media also says, but I think it's wrong. There is no mass radicalization.

    "Carnage" is just another word for the "crisis of capitalism." Again, there is no crisis, but I can understand why they think there is.

    But I really need to think about this some more. It probably deserves another post.

  3. Read their coverage more closely, Dan. For the last four weeks they've been running article after article about a "liberal witch hunt" against Trump. It's true that the Trump administration is floundering and in crisis, but this is 95% thanks to Trump's own incompetence and idiocy, not because of any sinister conspiracy. And if he's impeached and removed from office (highly unlikely) this will be because the ruling class thinks he's a poor steward of their interests. The political beneficiaries would be the Republican Establishment, not liberal Democrats, who have their own problems.

    No, this isn't a case where the SWP is opportunistically latching on to the Trump "movement" in the hopes of selling a few newspaper subscriptions and picking up a few members, although there is that. Rather taken in conjunction with their prettifying the alt-right (in Portland, for instance), sucking up to the Bundy cattle kulaks in Nevada and Oregon, and their endorsement of the Israeli "Law of Return" a few years back, it marks a significant shift to the right. I know this seems hard to reconcile with their continued support of Cuba and similar causes, but political cults are generally not marked by consistency. They go every which way according to the whims of the leader.

    If you read The Militant these days, you'll see that more and more the SWP counterposes itself to "the Left." I think we should take them at their word that they are no longer a left-wing group.

    1. I don't agree with you. They seem totally committed to socialism--see their latest books, eg, Is a Socialist Revolution in the US Possible.

      Though the cattle rustling thing is a bit mysterious. I think it's an odd form of virtue-signalling. Other than that I find them quite consistent.

      I don't like the word "cult." If I really thought they were a cult I'd have to drop them off my blog. No point in writing about a bunch of nut cases.

  4. From The Militant, a "Socialist Newsweekly published in the interests of President Trump" (August 21 issue):

    "Big Trump rallies

    "Despite wishful thinking by liberals that support for the president “is collapsing,” Trump has called out supporters in the face of this witch hunt in big rallies in working-class cities like Youngstown, Ohio, and Huntington, West Virginia.

    “"Are there any Russians here tonight?” Trump asked to laughter from a crowd of thousands Aug. 3 in Huntington, in the heart of coal country. “We don’t’ need advice from the Washington swamp,” he said to cheers. “We need to drain the swamp.”

    “"The reason the Democrats only talk about the totally made up Russia story is because they have no message, no agenda and no vision,” the president said. Under his leadership, Trump promised, “American workers will build the future and American energy and American clean coal will power this future.""

    Now that could run in Breitbart without any editing.