THE WORKERS’ GROUP is a voluntary political union of workers that seeks to develop and deepen communist theory in order to aid in the emergence of a genuinely revolutionary working-class political movement. The Workers’ Group is not itself a party or even a pre-party formation at this time. Rather, we are a fraction within our class and its movement that hopes to become a key element in the formation of a new proletarian communist party.
The following is an abbreviated version of our Fundamental Positions. The full document is available on our website.
- Capitalism, as a social system, cannot be reformed in any meaningful way to benefit the exploited and oppressed, and no part of the system itself can be “captured” and wielded by the proletariat for its own ends. Capitalism came into existence through both the forcible exclusion of the working masses from ownership of the means of production and distribution, and the accumulation and concentration of those means into the hands of a small class of owners, the bourgeoisie. The maintenance of this system is accomplished through both the exploitation of the proletariat and the development of state institutions designed to protect and defend the exploiting classes — the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie — and their respective class interests.
- The proletariat is the only really revolutionary class, in all countries throughout the world, and cannot rely on or entrust any other class, section of or even individual from another class to accomplish its historic tasks. The development of capitalism simplified the system of social (class) relations, consolidating the majority of population into two main classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Positioned between the two is the petty bourgeoisie. Even individuals from these classes cannot break from their social consciousness without a definitive and irreversible break from their social being, which is a years-long process.
- Capitalism can only be defeated and overthrown by the working class, organized into its own independent party and organs of rule, and guided by a program that has as its central task the seizure of power and formation of a workers’ republic, based on the rule of workers’ councils, committees and assemblies. Since the beginning of the 20th century, we have been in the epoch of decay and decline, known as imperialism. Imperialism is an epoch where the countries and peoples of the entire world are interconnected and interdependent through world production and the world market, where the accumulation and expansion of capital are only really possible through war, and where exit from this world order is only possible through workers’ revolution and the overthrow of the exploiting classes.
- All wars launched by capitalism are imperialist adventures — wars between different factions or cartels of the exploiting classes to retain or to advance their positions within world capitalism. Our chief task under such conditions is to aid in the organizing of the defeat of “our own” bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. Because imperialism is not a policy, but capitalism itself in decline, all wars of conquest, “national dignity” or other such ideologies of the exploiting classes are imperialist wars. At all times, communists carry on their internationalist responsibility by organizing for mass working-class action to stop “our own” exploiting classes’ ability to make war, thus precipitating its defeat (even if that results in a victory for the other side).
- In the epoch of imperialist decline and decay, when the petty bourgeoisie has been allowed to carry the construction of the capitalist state and system to its logical conclusions, all classes outside the proletariat stand as a single reactionary mass. Capitalism’s entry into the epoch of decay and decline, the epoch of imperialism, began a series of qualitative transformations in all areas of society. The most sweeping of these transformations was in the relationship among classes, especially the role of the petty bourgeoisie, to that of a partner at the head of production (an arrangement that allowed the bourgeoisie to retreat further from direct interaction with the proletariat and society). It took time for the transformation to take place in all countries of the world, but by the latter part of the 20th century, this process had been completed.
- Alliances, coalitions and “united fronts” with the trade (business) union officials, the leaders of so-called “workers’ parties” and the “Left” — i.e., the left wing of capitalism — are unacceptable, as it would mean the subordination of the practical communist program to that of petty-bourgeois populism. The new social partnership between the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie is not an amicable one, but rather a marriage of convenience. The ongoing antagonisms between the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie operate according to the rules of the class struggle. In their conflicts, the exploiting classes will often use the working class as a cudgel, battering ram or even a Trojan horse to defeat their opponent. This is accomplished through the ideology of populism and the use of vague socialist phraseology as a mask to deceive workers into supporting their struggle.
- The old organizations of the proletariat, such as trade unions, “labor parties” and the like, which are led and controlled by the petty bourgeoisie, are a part of the capitalist order and represent a fifth column in the broader working-class movement. The transformation of social relations in the epoch of decay and the elevation of the petty bourgeoisie to a partner in reactionary capitalist rule has had severe consequences on the material conditions upon which much of the old socialist and communist programs rested. One of the key roles the petty bourgeoisie fills is that of ideological gatekeeper and policeman for the bourgeoisie. This is seen clearly through their actions in both the trade (business) unions and the ostensible political organizations of the class. Indeed, virtually every movement initiated by these organizations that compose the left wing of capital acts as a shackle on the ankle of workers.
- The petty bourgeoisie, through its control of the institutions of the old organizations of the proletariat, is the primary and immediate transmission belt of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideology into the working class. It is through the petty bourgeoisie, by virtue of the position that sections of that class hold in ostensible “workers’ organizations” and “community advocacy groups,” as well as through the media, organized religion, the political system, etc., that much of the ideology of the exploiting classes is transmitted into the proletariat. This means workers subordinating their own class interests to those of the “professionals” and abdicating their own independence and education by promoting illusions that such subordination places the exploited on an equal footing with their exploiters.
- The path forward for the proletariat, and for its communist party, is created through its own self-organization and action, in all areas of society, with the goal of an all-encompassing revolutionary workers’ movement that can carry out a workers’ communist revolution. Communists reject and advocate against any subordination of the interests of the working class in the name of “unity” across class lines — whether it is for leading a single event, sharing membership in a common organization or anything in between. We reject attempts at “labor unity” under the direction of the unions, which are led by petty-bourgeois bureaucrats and officials, and instead advocate for the organization of workers’ assemblies, committees and councils with elected and recallable delegates.
- The former USSR and Eastern European “people’s democracies” were not, and China, Cuba, North Korea, etc., are not, “socialist” or “communist,” nor were or are they “workers’ states” of one type or another. Rather, they were or are bureaucratic petty-bourgeois regimes sitting atop state-capitalist economies. The 1917 October Revolution in Russia began as a genuine attempt by the proletariat and poor peasantry to break from the world capitalist order and begin on the path toward communism. However, a combination of theoretical errors by the Bolsheviks, unprincipled “compromises” made during the Civil War and the effects of failed revolutions, particularly in Germany, unraveled and overthrew proletarian power in the name of protecting the “proletarian dictatorship.” What remained was a counterrevolutionary petty-bourgeois bureaucratic state presiding over a state-capitalist economy.
- The battle against superoppression and superexploitation is an integral task of the class struggle that must be organized and fought by communists and the revolutionary workers’ political movement as a whole. The bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie use ideological tools like nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., to divide, manipulate and confuse the proletariat enough to prevent a fighting unity against such ideology. It is the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideology. Communists oppose all tendencies that seek to prevent, shatter or suppress the unity of the proletariat with any part of this reactionary tool, regardless of whether it is used by the exploiters from the oppressor or the oppressed. We consider the fight for unity against the use of this powerful ideological weapon a central part of the workers’ class struggle.
- Immigration brings the proletarians of all countries closer together, allowing for a greater fighting unity against all attempts to superexploit foreign-born workers and pit them against their fellow, “native” workers. The epoch of imperialism has only reaffirmed the view that the proletariat has no “homeland” or country it can truly call its own. Working-class immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers enrich the experience of all of the proletariat, add to its collective knowledge of the class struggle and raise its consciousness Communists oppose capitalism’s restrictions on immigration. Further, we believe that only through united working-class action can our class stop efforts to superexploit immigrant workers and drive down the conditions of life of all proletarians.
- The emancipation of the proletariat must and can only be conquered by the workers themselves, through their own conscious, international and internationalist movement, not through a self-seeking party hungry for power and “leading” workers like cattle to the slaughter. It is our overarching task as communists to establish the subjective conditions where a worldwide proletarian revolution can take place. This starts with the revival of the global proletarian communist movement. Such work requires: first, ongoing theoretical and programmatic clarification of historic and current material conditions; second, organized political intervention at all levels, based on clear principles and a program; third, unity of genuine proletarian communists to found an international proletarian communist party.
- Communist theory and philosophy — the methodology of Marxism — is not a finished “science,” but a means of analyzing and understanding the many changes that take place in this world, including those not seen in the days of Marx or Engels, and it is our responsibility to take up this work and move forward. For the Workers’ Group, part of our central activity will be engaging in discussion and exploration of those parts of the methodology of Marxism that have to be approached anew or were inadequately approached in the past. This includes greater in-depth discussion about the changes in class relations in the epoch of imperialism, but also other historical questions.
THE RECENT INFLUX of refugees and asylum seekers at the southern U.S. border has begun to overwhelm the system of immigration detention and administration, which is leading to its breakdown. The concrete result is that both adults and children are dying at the border or while in Border Patrol custody.
The December 8, 2018, death of Jakelin Caal Maquin brought the story to light. She and her father crossed the border as asylum seekers two days prior, having fled Guatemala’s political, economic and gang-related chaos. When taken into custody by Customs and Border Patrol agents, Jakelin and her father were not given a medical exam. They and over 160 others were herded into an unheated loading bay, forced to sleep on the cold concrete.
By the time the bus arrived to take them to the detention center, the father was telling agents that Jakelin was sick. By the time they arrived, she was not breathing. After being briefly revived, Jakelin was rush to a hospital in El Paso, Texas. She died about 15 hours later of acute dehydration, shock and liver failure.
Jakelin was not the first child to die in Border Patrol custody in 2018. Last May, 21-month-old Mariee Juárez died after being exposed to illnesses in a CBP detention center, being unable to get a proper medical examination and being given improper medication.
Moreover, less than three weeks after Jakelin’s death, 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, another refugee from Guatemala, died in the late hours of Christmas Eve from an as-yet-undisclosed illness. At first, doctors in the U.S. diagnosed Felipe as having the common cold and fever. However, after he began complaining of nausea and vomiting, he was admitted to the hospital, where he succumbed to his illness.
Death along the U.S.-Mexico border is nothing new. In 2018, 281 deaths were recorded. This is down from 297 the year before and much lower than the peak of 471 in 2012. But a large reason for the reduced numbers has been the net drop in border crossings and deportations under the Barack Obama administration.
CBP officials claim that in-custody deaths are “extremely rare” — by which they mean that there were 22 such deaths in custody since the beginning of 2017, not including the three children mentioned in this article. Among those included is Roxana Hernandez, a transgender woman and refugee from Honduras who died after being in custody for less than two weeks.
The increased scrutiny of the CBP and Department of Homeland Security resulting from these deaths is, as one might expect, prompting the exploiting classes — Republican and Democrat — to call for bigger budgets, more CBP and ICE agents, and expanded detention camps for the growing numbers of families arriving as refugees and asylum seekers.
But under decaying capitalism, even refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence and repression are seen as a weapon to be used to stoke nationalism and xenophobia as a means to maintain power and further disorganize the working class. Thus, the politicians and their media transform these people into “invaders.”
While all those seeking asylum in the U.S. should be admitted without delay or detention, and should have full citizenship rights upon admission, communists understand that it will take workers’ revolutions and workers’ control of immigration to create the open and developed society that every worker seeks out.
Government Shutdown an Attack on All Workers
SINCE THE BEGINNING of the latest U.S. government shutdown on Dec. 22, about 800,000 federal employees and agents of the state have been affected, with civilian workers being furloughed and state agents forced to continue working without pay.
In addition, over 4 million government contract workers have also been idled in this current conflict.
At the time of this reporting, there appears to be very little chance of this shutdown ending any time soon. Both Congressional Democrats and the Donald Trump White House have dug in their heels, with each side, surprisingly, refusing to capitulate.
The ostensible reason for this conflict is Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in the federal budget devoted to building a wall (fence, barrier, whatever the term is today) along the U.S.-Mexico border. Congressional Democrats want the government to be reopened before any negotiation on a border wall is begun.
However, it now appears that the wall is more of a pretext. As the days have dragged into weeks, both the Republicans and the Democrats, and those surrounding them, have seized the opportunities presented by the mass layoffs and agency closures to implement the policies of the pirates and privateers of the exploiting classes that pay their ticket to power.
Take, for example, the furloughed civilian workers. Neither side really appears to want to send federal employees back to work with any urgency, and both parties are certainly willing to let these 380,000 workers twist in the wind until their game of procedure over the border wall finally ends. (We call it a procedure game because the Democrats will fund Tump’s border wall; the fight is simply over whether it is done now or done after some more negotiations.)
Then there are the workers under contract with federal government agencies. These workers often make much less and receive fewer benefits than their non-contracted counterparts in the same jobs. It remains to be seen if these workers will be brought back after the shutdown ends, as well as whether they will receive back pay for the time they were idled.
As for the agents of the capitalist state, they are in a different situation. The ongoing government shutdown has provided the exploiters with an opportunity to once again “perfect” its protective bodies. In effect, the practice of compelling individual state agents to continue working without pay has become a kind of loyalty test — loyalty to Trump and loyalty to the ruling classes as a whole. And it has been effective, since it has already exposed a weakness in the state: the Transportation Security Administration.
The sick-outs, the mass quitting, the generally rebellious attitudes on the job — all of these have demonstrated to the owning and managing classes that the TSA is in dire need of “perfection” once this shutdown is over. The agency played a key transitional role in the wake of 9/11, but there is now a need to “professionalize” it, by clearing out those rebellious and “unreliable” individuals and replacing them with more loyal elements, like soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines coming back from Syria and Afghanistan.
And then there is the wall itself. The wall is no more meant to “protect American jobs” than it is to stop unauthorized immigration. On the contrary, it is designed to be a weapon against all workers. As we wrote last issue, such “hard” stances on immigration are designed to keep immigrant workers at a regulated level to maintain not only current production levels, but also to use as a cudgel against non-immigrant workers to keep wages low and the class divided.
Yes, the shutdown is an attack on all workers: immigrant and non-immigrant, organized and unorganized, employed and contracted, and ultimately affecting every section of the class. But the solution is not the ending of the shutdown, which means a return to the status quo. Only mass self-organization on a revolutionary basis can defeat the attacks, which means the defeat of the capitalist system itself.
On the Oshawa Sit-Down Strikes
PLANT AND FACTORY closures can be one of the sharpest forms of class warfare. They not only affect the workers employed there, but also thousands more who work at businesses, both directly and indirectly connected. One needs only to look at the economic devastation of Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s to see how working-class communities are devastated by capitalism’s drive for profits.
It is therefore no surprise that, in response to hearing that their GM assembly plant was going to close by the end of the year, autoworkers in Oshawa, Ontario, staged two short sit-down strikes. As we go to press, however, the small factory occupations have ended — thanks primarily to the officials of the Unifor union.
The plant’s truck assembly line shut down on the afternoon of Jan. 8, immediately after GM bosses announced that, after discussions with Unifor officials, they were going to go ahead with their plans to move the jobs overseas. The spontaneous sit-down idled the entire night shift and continued until the next morning, when union officials arrived and pressured the workers into giving up on their own actions and relying on the union’s public-relations “corporate campaign.”
This was not the first time that the Oshawa GM workers broke with the union and turned toward class-struggle methods to fight the plant closing. When GM first announced its intent to close the facility and four others in the U.S. last November, workers staged a one-day wildcat strike that shut down the plant.
Many of those involved in the spontaneous workplace actions have expressed their view that a proper fight against GM requires Canadian, U.S. and Mexican workers acting together across borders. However, the response from Unifor, like its American equivalent, the United Auto Workers, has been a seemingly relentless wave of racism and national chauvinism, especially against workers in Mexico.
At events, union officials and backward workers have worn sombreros and talked in caricatured accents while appealing to “patriotic consumers” and parroting their masters by demanding “punitive tariffs.” In this age of capitalist decline, the unions are a major way that nationalism, chauvinism and racism — that hatred and fear of one’s fellow workers — are made “normal” within our class.
By feeding the Oshawa workers a steady diet of national-chauvinist poison, the Unifor union has effectively disarmed them at a time when cross-border workers’ unity and action is needed to break the cycle of pitting Canadian, American and Mexican workers against each other. By pressuring the workers to end their wildcat actions, the union has betrayed their fight for a decent standard of living.
It will take workers’ self-organization and action, on the basis of their own organizations of struggle, and fighting against both the bosses and business unions, to not only win back past gains, but move forward to workers’ emancipation.
Exploiting Classes Use Riot Police, Tear Gas to Disperse, Terrorize Refugees
FOR MONTHS, the approach of thousands of Central American refugees (the so-called “Migrant Caravan”) has been a specter for politicians on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, with the reality of the situation lost behind grandstanding and pandering. But with the recent clash between refugees and U.S. forces at the Port of San Ysidro, the exploiting classes on both sides of the frontier are joining together to attack the refugees, a large section of whom are women and children seeking peace and the freedom to live without fear of being murdered at any moment.
The eventual skirmish that took place on November 25 began as a peaceful march of nearly 5,000 to the Mexican side of the border. Thousands of mostly women and children began assembling at the Tijuana sports stadium where the local government of Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum have chosen to warehouse the asylum seekers. They walked toward the Mexican side of the Port of San Ysidro, carrying handmade U.S. and Honduran flags, as well as repeatedly chanting, “We are not criminals! We are international workers.” Moving closer to the border, the protest swept past a line of riot police to get up to Mexico’s side of the line.
It is here that reports from the capitalist media say that small groups of protesters spread out on both sides of the port entry. Most groups did nothing more than come up to the border fence and yell or hang banners on it. But one of those small gatherings attempted to pass through a hole in the barbed wire and fencing placed by the Mexican government on the border. In response, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents fired flash-bang grenades and tear gas — a chemical weapon banned in warfare since 1993 — across the frontier into Mexico to forcibly disperse the protesters, at least 90 percent of whom were women and children that were peaceful, and stayed away from the fences and walls.
In the aftermath of the skirmish along the border, the propaganda machines in both the U.S. and Mexico went into overdrive. The intent was to tar the refugees as dishonest, dangerous, violent and even parasitic, with the goal of building up “public opinion” against their legitimate claims of asylum. The media dutifully lined up, playing up incidents of refugees impotently throwing rocks at CBP agents (incidents that, according to the CBP Commissioner, resulted in no injuries and only involved four agents) and echoing the White House’s lies about “lawlessness” and “tremendous violence.” News outlets in both countries repeated the lie-by-implication told by Mexico’s Interior Ministry that hundreds of refugees were being deported because they sought to “illegally” and “violently” cross the border — even though only 42 were arrested for attempting to enter the U.S. and none of them actually succeeded in crossing.
Nevertheless, the “provocation” (as Mexican authorities called it on Sunday, but buried on Monday) along the border allowed the exploiting classes, especially Trump’s White House, to effectively make the thousands of refugees into criminals. It also allowed Washington to successfully ignore long-standing U.S. law regarding the right of refugees to residency in the country while awaiting the processing of their asylum applications. It also allowed Mexican officials to continue to deny the refugees basic assistance and services.
The Facts Hidden by Propaganda
Since October, the so-called “Migrant Caravan” has been a favorite punching bag of propagandists and politicians alike. From the moment that the first 160 refugees gathered together in Honduras, the group was declared a serious threat by nearly every government in continental North America. At nearly every stop, the caravan was met by riot police or soldiers (or both), participants were removed or arrested, often for no cause, and regularly denied basics services, such as places to sleep or food to eat — all because virtually every official and news outlet along the path declared the people in the caravan to be “dangerous.”
But who was in this caravan? Contrary to the lies of the Trump White House, these were not “criminals and unknown middle easterners.” Quite the contrary. Most of those in the caravan were women and children fleeing gang violence and the epidemic of femicide, the murder of women for misogynistic reasons and in the name of machismo.
Since 1990, thousands of women have been killed by men for such things as talking to another man, refusing the advances of a man, challenging male-dominated authority, and so on. These murders are often accompanied by incidents of rape, assault, mutilation and torture, but tens of thousands more women have been victims of these crimes and have lived to tell their stories. But as many of these women will attest, there are few, if any, political, religious or media institutions in Honduras interested in listening to or doing anything about this wave of misogynistic brutality.
The most well-known incident of femicide in Honduras was the 2014 murder of María José Alvarado, who had recently won Miss Honduras. She and her sister, Sofía Trinidad, were brutally murdered by the sister’s boyfriend, Plutarco Ruiz, after he became jealous of her attending a party where other men were present. He shot Sofía after an argument, then turned his gun on the fleeing María, who was shot 12 times in the back. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30-40 years. From reports in local and international media, the only thing that surprised Hondurans about this case was the fact that Ruiz was tried and convicted; reports of femicide are usually not even investigated.
The situation for women only got worse after the reactionary coup d’état in 2009, which restored the conservative wing of capitalism to power. Incidents of femicide spiked; by 2013, an average of 53 women were being killed a month. By 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, the average was 32.4 killings a month, with 30.1 percent of all murders being women between the ages of 15 and 40. It was in the wake of the coup that the first caravans of refugees were organized in 2010. As femicide has grown in the region, spilling over into neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, so have the size and scope of the caravans going north.
This is why we have insisted throughout this article to refer to those fleeing from the region to the U.S. as refugees and not simply migrants. They are mostly women and children fleeing the reactionary and misogynistic violence that has become rampant in that region. As well, most of the men in the refugee caravan are also fleeing from the gangs, looking for opportunities to engage in honest productive labor.
Refugees, Immigrants and Capitalism
However, it is not for nothing that the different exploiting classes along the path of the caravan have relentlessly attacked these refugees. Even if Washington had not made the demands it did or taken the steps to financially punish its client states south of the Rio Grande (e.g., threatening to further slash economic aid, which was already cut by 40 percent when Trump came into office), the ruling classes of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras would have taken it upon themselves to attack and arrest the refugees.
The exploiters of all four countries try to minimize and rationalize the effects of femicide and the gangs on the working class. Thus, when thousands of refugees gather together to escape these conditions, it not only exposes their propaganda as a lie, but also presents a core challenge in a society where the capitalists and their managers use misogyny as a tool to maintain social order. U.S. capitalism also benefits from this misogyny, on two levels: first, by keeping large sections of women from entering the labor force, and, second, by using the threat of deportation back to those countries to keep working women who do make it in the worst conditions.
In our central document, we point out that the exploiting classes take a dual approach toward immigration to keep workers under control: “on the one hand, isolating and marginalizing immigrant workers in their jobs and communities as much as possible; on the other hand, using a strict immigration control regime to make sure there are just enough foreign-born workers to continue production at needed levels.” Again, contrary to the propaganda, the ruling classes don’t oppose immigration — including so-called “illegal” immigration. Fearmongering and repression are key elements of capitalism’s “strict immigration control regime,” designed to keep both native and immigrant workers divided from each others and subject to the whims of the exploiters.
Moreover, there is no liberal or social-democratic “path to citizenship” that will affect this approach, as it is integral to capitalism’s production system. Indeed, for all their talk about it, the liberals and leftists of the Democratic Party have only aided and abetted the continued functioning of this system — this includes the Obama White House giving tacit approval to the 2009 coup in Honduras. Senator Bernie Sanders, the social-democratic darling of the Left, limits his criticism to only the more egregious specifics of Trump’s immigration policy and says nothing about the overall control regime or the effect it has on workers of all backgrounds.
It will take the unity and self-organization of workers of all nationalities, guided by its own communist program, to break apart the rule of the capitalists and their managers, and put an end to the superexploitation of immigrant workers. It is this fight to which we commit ourselves fully.
On the XIV Amendment and the Current Efforts to Overturn It
In the closing days of the 2018 Congressional elections, President Donald Trump appeared desperate. He and his Republican Party colleagues already knew they were going to lose control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats; however, new reports suggested they might lose the Senate, too. Moreover, the economy was beginning to slip, due mainly to the seemingly endless and increasingly harsher trade war with China. A way had to be found to distract attention and rally his hardened base. The solution was to return to an issue not raised since early in the 2016 presidential campaign: birthright citizenship as it applies to children born in the U.S. to parents who are undocumented.
“It was always told to me that you needed a constitutional amendment. Guess what? You don’t,” said Trump in an October 29 interview with Axios, a news and opinion website, for its Axios on HBO show. “Number one, you don’t need that. Number two, you can definitely do it with an act of Congress. Now they’re saying I can do it just with an executive order. Now, how ridiculous; we’re the only country in the world where a person comes in, has a baby, and that baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years, with all of those benefits. It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end…. It’s in the process. It’ll happen with an executive order.”
The comments had an almost immediate effect, simultaneously whipping his Republican base into line for the election and winding up the outrage machine for Congressional Democratic candidates to rally their supporters. This manufactured controversy drove tens of thousands more to the polls for the midterms, fueling the appearance of a revived interest in “democracy” — when, in reality, it was more a case of increased animosity and national chauvinism that brought people to the ballot box. In the end, the gimmick worked for Trump, staving off a possible loss of control of both houses of Congress, and laying the groundwork for the beginning of the 2020 presidential sweepstakes.
Leaving aside for the moment the assertion that Trump can change birthright citizenship without a constitutional amendment, his arguments are demonstrably false. For example, the U.S. is not the “only country” to have citizenship rights based on birthright, regardless of the status of the parents; 34 other countries, including Canada, Mexico and most other countries in the western hemisphere have what is called unrestricted jus soli (“right of the soil”). The number of countries with unrestricted jus soli has shrunk, however, in the last 30 years, as several European, African and Asian countries have taken a reactionary turn in response to an increasing number of immigrants and refugees from war zones and economically devastated areas of the world.
The XIV Amendment and Its Malcontents
The reason Trump is talking about birthright citizenship and trying to change it without a “constitutional amendment” is because the practice is already defined in the U.S. Constitution and has been in place since 1868. Indeed, several court cases, including key Supreme Court decisions, have upheld the broad but clearly-explained interpretation of what is called the “Citizenship Clause” of the XIV Amendment — one of three constitutional amendments passed after the Civil War during the period of Reconstruction, meant to provide civil rights to Africans freed from slavery and expand bourgeois-democratic rights throughout areas of the U.S. where they were restricted or non-existent.
The part of the U.S. Constitution in dispute — well, in dispute among Trump and his acolytes, that is — is the first sentence, or clause, of Section 1 of the Amendment, which speaks specifically to the question of birthright citizenship: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
For Trump and his mouthpieces, the magic bullet allowing the president to change 120 years of citizenship law with an executive order is the phrase, “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” They believe that this specific phrase has never been “clarified,” especially in the context of modern immigration law. They argue that undocumented immigrants do not stand fully within the shadow of U.S. law, and therefore are not subject to this country’s jurisdiction. The “clarification” they are looking for is actually an affirmation of their argument. That is, they want to change — more to the point, narrow — the definition of what it means to be subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S., and thus strip citizenship rights from hundreds of thousands of children born to “illegal” parents.
Leading the charge is Dr. John Eastman, a law professor at the conservative Christian Chapman University in California and fellow at the reactionary thinktank, Claremont Institute. In an interview on the Legal Talk Network, Eastman said, “if the Fourteenth Amendment sets a lower floor,… people who are lawfully domiciled in the United States rather than temporary visitors or people who are unlawfully present at all, then Congress can certainly offer by statute its understanding of that phrase.” He also asserted that “the president would be well within his rights by Executive Order to tell [the U.S. State Department] to quit offering passports to people who are ineligible for them.”
This statement has been crudely repeated and echoed by numerous conservative, reactionary, nativist and nationalist mouthpieces, as well as by current and former officials and advisors around Trump. The groupies at the Washington Examiner went full “own the libs” in their gushing puff piece. The San Francisco Chronicle could barely contain their giddiness, enthusing over the current ideological leanings of the U.S. Supreme Court. Vice President Mike Pence went on C-SPAN and declared, “the Supreme Court of the United States has never ruled on whether or not the language of the 14th Amendment, subject to the jurisdiction thereof, applies specifically to people who are in the country illegally.” But the most hyperbolic reaction came from former Trump aide and avowed fascist Sebastian Gorka, who went on the Fox Business Channel to express his support for Trump’s attack on birthright citizenship and baselessly assert on air, “There is an industry, in baby factories, people coming here to have babies, and then they get citizenship.”
What Congress and the Courts Have Said So Far
Contrary to the assertions of Trump and his minions, there is a long record of discussion in Congress and the federal courts on the question of birthright citizenship and its application — some of them with roots in the founding of the U.S. In Inglis v. Sailors’ Snug Harbor (1833), for example, the Supreme Court decision in favor of Inglis, who was born in New York City at the time of the Declaration of Independence, noted, “Nothing is better settled at the common law [level] than the doctrine that the children, even of aliens, born in a country while the parents are resident there under the protection of the government and owing a temporary allegiance thereto, are subjects by birth.” For the Court, this meant that, because U.S. citizenship law was rooted in English common law, the same standard for granting such rights applied here as there. Similar cases, revolving around rights of inheritance and citizenship, occurred in that same period.
However, non-Europeans were often seen as outside of the common law. The most obvious examples were Africans held as slaves and Native Americans, with Chinese laborers later added. It was the infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that set the course toward the XIV Amendment; Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s statement that Africans were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” was a clarion call for abolitionists and free soil Republicans, and hastened the crisis that precipitated the Civil War.
These were the precursors for the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the XIV Amendment, which established birthright citizenship for all persons born in the U.S. and thus subject to its laws. Following its passage, a number of legal rulings were issued that, in today’s changed language, appear to contradict the clear language of the Citizenship Clause. For example, in In Re Slaughterhouse Cases (1872), the Supreme Court noted in passing that the phrase, “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” was meant to exclude “children of ministers, consuls, and citizens or subjects of foreign States born within the United States.” A year later, the U.S. Attorney General, George Williams, sought to clarify the question of jurisdiction again, in the wake of the Slaughterhouse Cases: “The child born of alien parents in the United States is held to be a citizen thereof, and to be subject to duties with regard to this country which do not attach to the father.”
The Chinese Exclusions Acts had limited the rights of Chinese workers who came to the U.S., allowing them to reside but preventing them from applying for citizenship. Despite these laws, however, the federal courts had ruled in several cases in favor of the citizenship of Chinese children born in the country. But the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) became the most pivotal of these cases, settling the question of birthright citizenship for 120 years. The justices in Wong Kim Ark clarified the extent of “jurisdiction,” outlining three exceptions to who is considered part of that legal category: those born to foreign rulers, diplomats, ministers, etc.; those born on public ships outside U.S. waters; those born to enemies engaged in hostile occupation of the U.S. The justices also tossed out the interpretation of jurisdiction from Slaughterhouse Cases, since birthright citizenship was not a question before the court.
Since Wong Kim Ark, the question of the citizenship status of children born to non-citizens has been considered settled law. Even after the U.S. formally created the category of “legal” and “illegal” immigrant in 1924, the “three exceptions” standard remained the precedent for deciding on questions related to citizenship rights and equal protection under the law. In Plyler v. Doe (1982), the definition of “jurisdiction” from Wong Kim Ark was applied by the justices in their rejection of a Texas law that denied access to K-12 public education for the children of undocumented workers.
Bourgeois Democracy and Citizenship Rights
So, does all this mean that Trump is doomed to fail in his effort to overturn the XIV Amendment and numerous Supreme Court decisions, and restrict birthright citizenship? Depends on who you ask. Liberals and non-Trump conservatives believe the White House will ultimately hit a brick wall on the steps of the Supreme Court. Even though nearly all Congressional Republicans and some key Democrats have already backed the plan to restrict birthright citizenship, these elements are convinced that “settled law” and a majority of the court will put an end to Trump’s efforts.
Meanwhile, the exploiters’ Left (so-called socialists and communists, etc.) has responded to Trump’s plan with an eerie silence. Apart from three articles among the more prolific websites (World Socialist Web Site, SocialistWorker.org, PeoplesWorld.org) and a short aside in the usually verbose Workers Vanguard, the Left has chosen to stay silent on the issue, leaving it to the imagination of the readers what they’re actual position is — although anyone with any experience with these petty-bourgeois sects can tell what they would do about it: either something pointless, like a “mass protest” that does nothing to actually change the situation, or some sterile “party building” that does nothing but add handfuls of individuals to their respective membership rolls.
The fact is, however, that while his executive order might be seen by many bourgeois legal scholars as authoritarian and ham-fisted, Trump will issue it when it’s expedient for him to do so. That, of course, will prompt a legal challenge that will quickly find its way to the Supreme Court. At that point, the real question will be what will win out in the debate: political ideology or “settled law.” Given its current composition and recent record, the chances of the high court deciding that the White House’s executive order is constitutional are roughly even to that of affirming past decisions.
This is the reality of “democracy” as we know it — bourgeois democracy, the democracy of the exploiters and oppressors. It is “liberty” and “freedom” for the capitalist owners and their petty-bourgeois organizers, not for the workers. And it is only as broad or as narrow as the ruling classes will allow or can afford. This is as true for what are considered its bedrock, or fundamentals, such as citizenship or civil rights, as it is for the various reforms fought for over the last century, such as the minimum wage or universal health care.
For workers, the only way we can insure that the core values and fundamentals of society work for us is through the revolutionary overthrow of the exploiting classes and establishment of a workers’ republic. Today, this starts with the political development and conscious self-organization of our class. As our fellow workers come together in action groups, assemblies and committees to grapple with the issues they face, both practical and political, they will be preparing themselves for future confrontations with their class enemies — confrontations that are not impotent pleading or petitioning, but manifestations of the class struggle.