Opinion, editorial and commentary articles
How a Viral Cultural Outburst Defines the Anger of the Younger Generations by Erasing the History of the Older Ones
The following is the product of a series of discussions among members and supporters of the Workers’ Group on the cultural phenomenon known as “OK Boomer.” The purpose of these conversations was to understand not only the motivations behind the phrase, but also the social contradictions that allowed it to become so widespread. A more comprehensive document, addressing the broader social, political, and cultural questions surrounding the use of this phrase, will appear in the next (Summer 2020) issue of our theoretical and discussion journal, Class Line.
WHEN TALKING ABOUT the reasons behind the “OK Boomer” phenomenon, it is important to start with a general historical context. In this case, we will need to start with the general cultural tendency of inter-generational conflict and tension.
Generations, as we know them, are a capitalist creation. Each generation roughly coincides with a necessary change in the way that the mode of production interacts with society as a whole, with common experiences tied directly to the ebb and flow of capitalist society. This in turn reflects changes in production and exchange designed to meet the general needs of capitalism that arise when a new wave of both exploiters and exploited appear.
Culturally, this development, this shift in focus, fosters secondary antagonisms toward newer generations among the exploiters. This happens because the concrete by-products of generational development are lower profits and the need to invest capital to remain competitive. Through bourgeois ideology, these antagonisms filter down into all classes as a kind of ritual hazing that is reproduced with every new generation. Thus, every generation faces these antagonisms and every generation, as it matures, will reproduce and use them.
This typecasting aids capitalism by creating specialized, niche markets that cater to one group of people, and by reinforcing other antagonisms the exploiting classes use for maintenance and intensification of their rule.
As capitalism continues its decay, this antagonism has taken on a special malignancy, with each succeeding generation having a sharper and more destructive experience.
It was inevitable that this intensified antagonism — e.g., “Millennials are killing [fill in the blank]” — would lead to a backlash. This is especially true since, as it became more hostile and unacceptable, few spoke up to denounce it. Hence, “OK Boomer,” an equally unhealthy and unacceptable response — but also understandable, given the conditions.
Ironically, even though Millennials are regarded in the media as the creators of “OK Boomer,” it did not, in fact, come from them. According to the publicly known, agreed-upon history, it was a pair of Generation Xers that invented the phrase and released it on the Internet. And yet, Millennials take the heat for that, too! Is it any wonder why younger generations are so salty and angry that they would resort to using such a phrase so much?
COMPARED TO MANY of the slurs older generations hurl at the younger ones, “OK Boomer” is a relatively tame response. Why then should we care so much about its use, especially since, like all such responses, it is likely to fade away over time?
Some advocates of the use of “OK Boomer” argue that it is not intended as an attack based on generations. Rather, they argue, it is based on a particular worldview that predominates in the Baby Boomer generation: privileged, arrogant and conservative. According to this argument, a 20-year-old who demonstrated such a viewpoint would receive an “OK Boomer” just as easily as a 60-year-old.
This argument, however, contains its own refutation. By stereotyping the Baby Boomer view in this way, by generalizing the views of some as the views of all, it reveals itself as a discriminatory attack on that generation.
Stereotypes by their very nature are inaccurate. And it is the inaccuracies of the “OK Boomer” stereotype that make it dangerous, not to the older generations, but to the younger ones. By generalizing the Baby Boomers as a bulwark of reaction, “OK Boomer” erases an entire generation of militants from history.
Far from the stereotyped perceptions of Baby Boomers currently being promoted, it was this generation that threw itself into the fight against war, both in the streets and within the ranks of the military. It was the generation that fought racism, segregation and police repression (Civil Rights Movement; Black Panthers) — that fought sexism, sex discrimination on the job and social inequality — that fought homophobic bigotry and violence, often initiated by the cops (Stonewall Rebellion) — that fought rampant pollution, smog and environmental devastation.
It was the generation of workers that engaged in strikes, mass protests and wildcat actions over more than just “bread and butter issues;” strikes against the war in Indochina, against racism and against capitalist production itself were common. Some of these actions shook the very core of capitalism and, in a few cases, even directly challenged its rule.
However, with two words, these militants — some of whom gave up everything they had, including their lives, in the course of struggle — are completely erased from history.
The danger of erasing these people from history is greater for the younger generations than for the older ones. For those who know history, the similarities between the Baby Boomers and those generations struggling for social change today are uncanny. This is true both for the issues that are important to them, but also for the problems that surround the movements that they are building.
By erasing past generations from history, current generations are denied the ability to learn from their mistakes. By erasing their experiences and the lessons they offer, current generations are doomed to walk the same path, thus becoming what they now despise.
In recent years one of the most striking differences between older and newer generations has been a greater awakening of and reach toward class consciousness. Unlike generations of the past, influenced by the myth of the Great American Classless Society™, the younger generations began to show an increasing awareness of class and its importance. For this reason, the ruling classes needed something that could erase the lessons of past struggles (the most important of which was the role of classes and the class struggle). “OK Boomer” serves this need perfectly.
As for the privileges enjoyed by the Baby Boomers, they didn’t magically develop. They were a result of the military victory of the imperialist Allies in World War II. Tens of millions of workers were killed or maimed to secure dominance of Washington and Wall Street over its great power rivals. Part of that was pacifying workers (and their new families) with bribes: cheap housing, free or low-cost education, jobs with decent wages, and so on.
Thus, it can be rightly said that part of the rationale behind “OK Boomer” is an unconsciously reactionary desire to replicate the conditions following WWII — i.e., U.S. domination through the slaughter of millions — for the benefit of the younger generations.
As we mentioned above, this question raises many more issues that we cannot explore in the space available here. The next issue of Class Line will carry a more detailed analysis, as well as supplementary articles.
Real Motivations for Removing Trump Exposed as Impeachment Hearings Go Public
AS WE GO TO PRESS, the first round of public impeachment hearings in committees of the House of Representatives are coming to an end. The second round of hearings, which are expected to last until mid-December, will likely end with formal impeachment charges voted on by the House.
It has been a little over a month since the House voted to proceed with an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, ostensibly over his role in holding back hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to Ukraine.
In return for releasing the aid, Trump sought information that could discredit his likely Democratic challenger in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden, specifically about Biden’s son, Hunter, who held a lucrative $50,000-a-month position on the board of directors of Burisma, the country’s largest natural gas and oil extraction company, since 2014.
While this may legitimately raise some eyebrows, it is hardly unusual. Capitalism regularly makes use of quid pro quo, sweetheart deals and behind-the-scenes maneuvering as part of its day-to-day functioning. Much more revealing, though, is how the exploiting classes moved past the attempted quid pro quo, focusing on the specific quid that was offered in exchange for the quo.
What gored the exploiting classes’ ox? It was not Trump’s sleazy effort to dig up some dirt on Biden. If it was, the Democrats wouldn’t be fighting tooth-and-nail to keep the former vice president and his son completely out of the process. In fact, the quid pro quo itself is not even an issue, insofar as it being seen as a breach of ethics or violation of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution.
It only factors in due to what Trump was holding back as part of his side of the deal: $390 million in lethal military aid to Ukraine. Almost six years ago, in January 2014, the U.S. bankrolled a coup in Ukraine to the tune of $5 billion. Using neo-Nazis as shock troopers, the goal of this coup was to secure a strategically-vital region on the southern flank of the Russian Federation that could be used as a base of operations by the U.S. and NATO in the event that a new cold war ever turned hot.
But, for the last five years, the war has been hot, with Ukrainian soldiers fighting pro-Russian militias and, quite likely, Russian “volunteer” military units in the Donbass region. The last two years of the Obama administration focused on reorienting the U.S. from fighting the “war on terror” to preparing for inter-imperialist Great Power conflicts, such as war with Russia or China.
This preparation continued into the Trump administration. However, conflict soon broke out between the White House and the state apparatus over whether Russia or China was the bigger threat. For the state (the military, CIA, FBI, NSA, etc.), it was unquestionably Russia. And any show of friendship toward Russia or its leaders was seen as weakness and tantamount to treason.
This has been the basis of the last three years of anti-Russia hysteria from the Democratic Party and its mouthpieces, from the accusations of interference in the 2016 elections to the Mueller report to now. Desperate to regain power in Washington and finish the job started by Obama, the Democrats have aligned themselves with the state apparatus to see to it that Washington is returned to the road to war against Moscow — a road to the next world war.
The end result is that the impeachment hearings have been initiated and pushed forward on perhaps the most thoroughly reactionary basis possible.
The so-called “choice” being offered by the U.S. exploiting classes is either side with Trump and his radical reactionaries, and excuse or even accept the numerous crimes against human decency he and his faction of the exploiters have committed, or side with the state apparatus and Democrats, and sign off on a renewed war posture against Russia that can only end in a nuclear moment.
In our view, that is not a choice. That is a mortal threat to all of humanity.
It is time for the working class, not just in the U.S. but around the world, to stand up and put an end to this madness, to organize ourselves as a class, to build the organs we need to wage an effective and successful fight, especially an international proletarian communist party, to liberate ourselves from capitalism.
As Populism Surges among Democrats, the Ruling Classes Step Up Their Efforts to Maintain Ideological Dominance
THE 2020 PRIMARIES and caucuses for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president begin in less than two months, and the state of the campaigns, particularly the ongoing success of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, continue to vex the party leadership and the faction of the exploiting classes supporting it.
This surge in left populism among Democrats, on a scale not seen since the days of William Jennings Bryan at the end of the 19th century, has led to all kinds of efforts to cut this movement off at the knees: whisper campaigns, media falsifications, social media hatchet jobs, intra-party bureaucratic maneuvering, almost endless talking-head gossip.
The big bogeyman, according to the Democratic leaders and their Wall Street masters, is “socialism.” It it also Trump’s favorite specter. While each side uses it for their own ends, the convergence on this line of argument should give pause.
Nevertheless, large sections of the Democratic Party base continue to cast their lot (in lieu of their vote) with the populists — either the one who is using vague socialist phraseology (Sanders), or the one who is not (Warren) — forcing the exploiters to take stronger measures to maintain dominance.
Of course, the point of their stepped-up intervention is not to engage in a great “battle of ideas” with the populists, but to close down the thinking process entirely, to narrow down the differences in opinion and solution, and restore “normalcy.”
This is why the last six months have seen numerous Democratic “superstars,” up to and including former President Barack Obama, offer up warnings to the party about “crazy stuff” like extending Medicare to all, or that the “moderate” Democrats, independents and “moderate Republicans” [sic!] “are not driven by the same views that are reflected on certain, you know, left-leaning Twitter feeds … or the activist wing of our party.”
And if it’s not Obama, then it’s someone like liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz pleading with the Democratic base, saying “don’t go socialist,” because Trump might use that in the election (as if accusing Democrats of being socialists is something never done before by the Republicans).
Certainly, someone can look at all this and simply declare it to be part of the latest temper tantrum by Wall Street. And they would not necessarily be wrong. But there is something deeper, something more institutional to these attacks.
It was revealed to a large extent by one of Obama’s comments at the Democracy Alliance donor gathering in Washington, D.C., last month.
“This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement,” Obama told the crowd. “They like seeing things improved. But the average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”
This world view, also expressed in the famous quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is properly known as the ideology of Whigism.
Those of you who remember your U.S. (or British) history class from school may recall hearing about the Whigs. Your teachers were referring to the political parties, which is different than Whig ideology and historiography. Whigism as an ideology is the view that human history and society is made up of a long series of incremental improvements that come together into an inexorable march toward liberty, progress and enlightenment.
While the Whigs as a political movement in the U.S. only lasted about 24 years before shattering into several factions (some of which helped to form the new Republican Party in 1856), Whigism increasingly became a dominant bourgeois ideology, especially when there was a need to defend against other world views that could destabilize
the exploiters’ order. Indeed, Whigism in America was born out of the 1832 fight against the populism of Democratic President Andrew Jackson.
For nearly two centuries, Whigism has occupied a leading position in the ideologies motivating bourgeois politics and elections. That is, until now.
For the first time in 188 years, there is a real chance that neither of the candidates of the two major parties in the U.S. will carry forward the ideology of Whigism. To make matters worse, in the eyes of the ruling exploiters, both parties’ standard bearers could be avowed and unapologetic populists.
The lack of a viable candidate standing as the torchbearer of Whigism has pushed the exploiting class toward undertaking extreme measures. (Former Vice President Joe Biden is apparently looked upon as a “Mr. Magoo” candidate who is expected to crash any time.) Enter Michael Bloomberg.
The billionaire financial services and media magnate, and former mayor of New York City, has jumped into the race specifically to counter the two populists, as well as offer a more stable “moderate” option for the exploiters to support. Bloomberg’s $37 million ad buy at the end of November was one of the largest single purchases in electoral history, especially for a primary contest. It was aimed specifically at undermining the progress made by Sanders and Warren in promoting their platforms.
In fact, looking at the strategy Bloomberg is employing, it is clear that he is conducting a campaign to ensure that the party never again falls out of Wall Street’s hands. His focus on Super Tuesday is designed to collect enough delegates to deny any candidate a majority at the Democratic National Convention next July, giving him and his fellow exploiters a veto over who will be chosen.
In the end, there’s very little that Democratic primary voters can do about this situation. In a period where the Democrats’ only real slogans are, “Anybody But Trump,” and, “Vote Blue, No Matter Who,” the rise of a slightly-more coherent and colorless version of Trump to be the party’s standard-bearer should come as a surprise to no one.
The Humiliating Defeat of GM Workers Offers Many Lessons about Today’s Trade Unions and Tomorrow’s Labor Struggles
As we go to press, it has been announced that a tentative agreement has been reached between the United Auto Workers and Fiat Chrysler, effectively ending 2019 contract negotiations. Moreover, it has been reported that Gary Jones has resigned his position as UAW president, in an effort to avoid being removed and stripped of his pension. Look in future issues of Workers’ Path to Power for analysis on these and other important developments.
The Problem with Reforming Unions
WHEN A STRIKE ends, especially in defeat, talk inevitably turns to the future and what needs to be done. Discussion focuses on how to ensure that the failures, the betrayals and the defeats become a thing of the past. The starting (and, often, ending) point of these talks is union reform.
For almost as long as there have been unions, there have been calls for union reform. In this respect, union reform was a part of unionism itself, not a challenge to it. The reformers were there as a kind of steam valve that could be utilized to release the pressure and stresses that workers felt as a result of the unions submitting to the demands of capital.
Union reform movements continue to play this role today. They allow workers to vent the feelings of anger, frustration and betrayal they develop during the course of a defeated strike in a manner that, in the final analysis, does not challenge the unions themselves or even the bureaucratic officials running them. Indeed, these reform movements don’t even cause the bureaucratic officials enough consternation to interrupt their nightly rest.
(Some “official” reform movements, such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, even provide a safety net for bureaucrats, giving them a path to redemption … and power).
Of course, there are reforms and there are reforms. Some might even package up their reforms as a kind of “revolution” in the union, or see the best road to reform through the switching out of one union with another. Whatever the form chosen, the content of the union and of unionism remains unchanged.
Nevertheless, we proletarian communists mustn’t be cynical when workers themselves call out for reform, even if we understand quite well that they do not resolve the fundamental problems of unions as labor contractors and mediators of the price of one’s ability to work.
We should always bear in mind that workers struggling with coming to an organic class consciousness are going to start with reform, since that is the only form of opposition with which they are familiar. At the same time, it is our responsibility to be honest with our fellow workers, to point out the sordid history of union reform, to work with them so they can analyze for themselves and understand why these movements are a dead end.
Central to this is explaining that no amount of reform can change the character of unions under capitalism as labor contractors and wage mediators. The labor laws adopted by the exploiting classes, especially throughout the 20th century, require unions to take on these roles and operate within the framework of capitalism. This was not so much a choice, but rather the price of legalization. If the unions did not accept, they would not receive legal protection or recognition by the state.
This is why unions, no matter how many reforms are enacted, how “militant” or “rank-and-file” the leadership is, or how sincere the pledges to fight for the membership, cannot act as organizations for the defense of workers’ rights and living standards beyond the most narrow of economic issues. This means that gains they might make today are under constant attack and will be reversed at the first opportunity. Moreover, many issues workers raise today, such as an end to mass precarity (e.g., making large sections of the workforce temporary), are increasingly political and require a measure of state intervention to maintain. Thus, unions won’t even seriously consider them as legitimate demands to advocate.
Unions capitulated to capital in order to become legal and their bureaucratic officials respectable. Meanwhile, workers were left to twist in the wind, subject to an intensified wage slavery and lacking any viable alternative.
Beyond Unions and Unionism
It is clear today, based on the lessons of the last century, that the existing unions and union models (corporatist/business, “rank-and-file,” “revolutionary”/syndicalist, and so on) have long since become obsolete as instruments for the workers’ class struggle, both in an historical and practical sense. No amount of reforms, “boring from within” or “capture of the summit” can change their basic character.
However, what is not obsolete is the desire for workplace organization. That basic impulse among workers to unite and defend their class interests, from the immediate to the historic — that impulse that once motivated the formation of the earliest unions, as well as other forms of workers’ organizing — is perhaps more important today than at any time in the past. Indeed, it is the self-organization of the class into its own bodies of struggle that drives the fight against capitalism today.
A glimpse of this kind of workers’ self-organization could be seen in the mass wildcat strikes of maquiladora autoworkers in Matamoros, Mexico, last February. Facing off against the bosses, the charro unions, the capitalist state and various NGO leftists who are tied to the AFL-CIO and the U.S. government, tens of thousands of workers organized to defend their own rights and livelihoods, building workers’ assemblies to organize, expand and coordinate strikes at over 85 auto parts factories around the central demands of a 20 percent raise and a 32,000 peso bonus.
After nearly two months of fighting, which slowed down (and, in some places, shut down) production in North America, the maquiladora workers won their demands. Moreover, they were joined in victory by others in the area, most notably teachers, who were able to win their own raises and bonuses.
But Matamoros is not an isolated incident. Over the last 50 years, in Europe, Asia and Latin America, some of the most intensive strikes have seen workers break with the unions, establishing strike committees, workers’ committees and assemblies as the means of waging their own fight for the well-being of themselves, their families and their class.
In periods like today, where large class battles are few and far between, the rise of these mass class-struggle bodies are inevitably a temporary phenomenon. It is only when the class is in an ongoing state of open struggle — when strikes, occupations, mass strikes, etc., occur on an almost daily basis, such as when entering a revolutionary period — that these organs look like something more permanent.
(In a period of workers’ revolution and the victory of the workers’ republic, these bodies will assume a semi-permanent character as key bodies responsible for production.)
Nevertheless, other, smaller, class-struggle bodies may emerge in these periods, such as workers’ discussion circles or agitational struggle groups. These often emerge relatively spontaneously, without any kind of prodding or outside guidance. Working with and, to the extent it is possible and principled, within these bodies is key to intervening in our class to move beyond mere unions and unionism.
At the same time, proletarian communists can have both a complementary and parallel role to that of the discussion and struggle groups. For example, we can support, encourage and publicize the formation and work of such class-struggle bodies, not only through literature, such as articles and leaflets, but also through promoting engagement with these groups by their fellow workers, both inside and outside of the workplaces they cover.
That said, our role is not simply to be a passive tag-tail of the class struggle groups/assemblies, nor is it to substitute ourselves for them in any way. Rather, our role is to intervene in these bodies and movements on a conscious, organized political basis, directly connected to the proletarian communist organization as a fraction or section, with the goal of winning our fellow workers to the program for a workers’ republic and workers’ control of production.
This would be a two-fold mission. First, educating about the history and lessons of the class struggle, and how they apply to today’s and tomorrow’s battles, especially how even seemingly narrow economic conflicts have, at their root, an inescapable political character.
Second, our organized intervention would assist the class-struggle groups in avoiding the errors that would drag them on to the path of mere unionism. Often, demoralization due to a lack of struggle can pull these groups toward desperate attempts to hold on to its numbers and even its existence. History shows this only results in them transforming into unions and losing their overall class-struggle character.
Finally, we must realize that progress will move at the pace of the class struggle, not our own. We must be realistic in our intervention, be patient and prepare for the long haul.
BOLIVIA HAS BECOME the latest entry on the long and repetitive list of countries targeted by the Great Power cartels of imperialism in its drive to re-divide the resources of the world to their advantage. Since the initiation of the coup d’etat on November 10, which brought down the populist regime of Evo Morales, Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, continues to balance precariously on the brink of civil war.
While the immediate pretext for the coup was a series of contrived “anomalies” related to the October 20 general elections, mostly with the unofficial “quick-count” vote tally, tensions between the Morales government and the exploiting classes had been building up to a breaking point for years.
Riding a wave of working-class and poor-peasant opposition to resource privatization and superexploitation, Morales and his MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) party came to power in early 2006. Almost immediately, they set to work terminating some of the most egregious of the deals with international mining firms; while ultimately paying out nearly $2 billion in settlements, the actions nearly tripled the size of Bolivia’s economy, which allowed Morales to fund social welfare programs and improve the social position of large sections of the indigenous petty bourgeoisie.
As Marx so aptly pointed out almost 170 years ago, such “reforms” put in place by petty-bourgeois democrats, social democrats, populists, and the like, are little more than bribes, “a more or less disguised form of alms […] to break their revolutionary strength by temporarily rendering their situation tolerable.” As for the workers themselves, “one thing, above all, is definite: they are to remain wage labourers as before.” (Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, March 1850)
The termination of these agreements, and the transfer of a fraction of the associated wealth to social programs, drew the ire of world imperialism, primarily that of the U.S., Canada and the European Union. It should come as no surprise, then, that these Great Powers either aided or supported the coup, as well as the orgy of reactionary violence now on display in all the major cities of Bolivia.
The radical petty bourgeoisie was the motor-force driving the overthrow of Morales. Large sections of the class felt threatened by the shift away from lucrative (for them) partnerships with world capital, as well as by the inclusion of ever-larger sections of the indigenous population in the ranks of the exploiting classes. The attempt to expand the ruling classes to include those from indigenous groups — unheard of in the history of Bolivia — not only stirred up fears of proletarianization among the white/mestizo population, but also brought out racist, anti-indigenous sentiment combined with Christian theocratic bigotry.
This has set the stage for radical reactionaries, such as Luis “Macho” Camacho and his Santa Cruz Civic Committee (which have close ties to the fascist Falangist party), to act as the vanguard of reaction, leading attacks on working-class and indigenous neighborhoods, dragging people out of their houses and beating them. The military regularly flies bombers over these neighborhoods and police are using live ammunition and tear gas to break up any demonstrations that take place.
Meanwhile, the response of the Left has been that of pathetic prostration. Having been bound hand and foot to the capitalist state, the main trade unions and indigenous organizations have been able to muster little more than idle threats. They, and the so-called socialist and communist groups on the Left Wing of Capital, have acted as little more than a tag-tail for the spontaneous resistance that has arisen in indigenous areas like El Alto, just outside of the capital, La Paz. Their central political demand is for a bourgeois Constituent Assembly.
While it is certainly not unusual for imperialism to orchestrate “regime change” in states being exploited for their resources, it must be said that the overthrow of Morales represents something new. Bolivia is the subject of the first “green” coup of the 21st century. That is, the ouster of the MAS government was designed specifically to fulfill the needs of world imperialism to shift toward a more “eco-friendly” form of exploitation of the planet.
Bolivia claims the largest reserve of lithium in the world: up to 70 percent of the global supply. Lithium is to the imperialists’ “green new deals” what oil was to industrialization in the 20th century. Without it, the electrical storage and transmission technology needed for large-scale energy generation without fossil fuels is nearly impossible. The Morales government understood this and sought to have any deals to extract lithium be a co-venture with Bolivia’s domestic industry on an equal basis, as well as comply with the wishes of local (mostly indigenous) communities. While Chinese firms were willing to work with the Bolivian government to develop new ways to extract lithium and share profits, American and Canadian companies saw these as a direct impediment on the superexploitation of necessary resources in “their” hemisphere.
It is no wonder that the stock of both U.S.-based Tesla and Canada’s Pure Energy Minerals rose dramatically in the days following the coup. Both corporations stood to benefit substantially from the new regime holding power in La Paz.
For the workers in Bolivia, the path from resistance to power is twofold. First, the expanding and consolidating of the organs of resistance that have sprung up spontaneously in response to the coup. The popular assemblies of workers, peasants and poor people that arose within hours of the ouster of Morales to coordinate resistance and protests should be extended to every factory, mine, mill, shop, working-class neighborhood and city throughout the country. Together with the organization of workers’ self-defense groups, these bodies can serve as a center of workers’ organization and resistance in the wake of the failures and betrayals of the trade unions, indigenous community organizations and political parties that have been tied to the capitalist state and system. Moreover, they can demonstrate in action the central importance of organizing and maintaining the independence of the working class in the face of external class pressures, primarily coming from the MAS and their dependencies.
Second, there is an urgent need for our fellow workers in Bolivia to study carefully the lessons of the class struggle in order to begin to develop a proletarian communist program and party that can aid the working class in achieving its self-organization and self-emancipation from capitalism. Such a party, as part of a proletarian communist international, would be able to assist in preparing our class to fight in future battles with the exploiting classes, and to organize and take power in its own name.
This fight for the future must start today. The lessons of Bolivia’s “green” coup, the failures and betrayals of Morales’ MAS, the Left and the unions, and the role of workers’ self-organization, must be assimilated and fashioned into a weapon for the great class battles to come in the next period.
OVER THE LAST few months, we have seen a wave of mass protests sweep across multiple countries on at least four continents. Indeed, we have seen over the last 11 months protests, strikes and uprisings against the exploiting classes, its state, institutions and acts of austerity.
This wave of class struggle began last December with wildcat strikes, led by working women, at factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, China, Hungary, India and Romania, as well as popular (cross-class) revolts in Iraq, Morocco and Tunisia. In Sudan, a three-fold rise in bread prices sparked riots and a popular uprising that ultimately ousted the long-time dictator, President Omar al-Bashir.
At the same time, a series of weekly protests against rising fuel prices was initiated by the popular movement known as the “Yellow Vests.” The protests grew increasingly sharper as 2019 began, forcing French President Emmanuel Macron to make concessions to the protesters. However, the demands of this cross-class movement had grown by that time and the protests continue to this day.
February saw wildcat strikes break out in Iran (again!) and Mexico. The previous November, Iranian workers staged a genuine mass strike in southwestern region of Khuzistan, with workers at the Haft Tapeh sugar factory going so far as to explore the organization of a shora (workers’ council) and workers’ takeover of their workplace. Workers continued their strikes and protests in early 2019, including at the steel plant in Hawaz.
In Mexico, nearly 100,000 workers in Matamoros, in the maquiladora zone on the border with the U.S. began a mass strike against both the bosses and their trade union stooges. After three weeks of struggle, which included facing down the threat of military intervention by “leftist” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and with the help of striking teachers in Michoacán, who blockaded roads and railways, most workers were able to win their demands of a 20 percent wage raise and bonus.
For several months, events seemed to die down. However, September saw popular (cross-class) protests pick up across the Middle East and the Americas. In Egypt, thousands took to the streets in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities against corruption and growing poverty. More than 3,500 have been detained by the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and thousands more injured.
Half a world away, in Haiti, ongoing protests against food and water shortages, price hikes, looting and roadblocks have turned into daily popular protests against corruption and a demand for the resignation of the president, Jovenel Moïse, have effectively shut down the capital, Port-au-Prince.
At the beginning of October, popular protests and riots broke out in Iraq and Ecuador. People took to the streets of Amara, Baghdad, Basra, Najaf and Nassiriya to protest against unemployment, lack of social services and corruption. They were met with bullets (real and rubber), water cannons and tear gas. At least dozens have been killed and thousands have been injured in the clashes.
Meanwhile, in Ecuador, the Oct. 1 announcement of an end to fuel subsidies set off a powerful wave of popular unrest and protests, led mainly by indigenous Ecuadorans, that was able to take control of the capital of Quito and force the government of President Lenín Moreno to flee the city and set up shop in the coastal town of Guayaquil.
By mid-October, popular uprisings began in Lebanon and Chile. In Lebanon, the announcement of a tax on WhatsApp messaging sparked mass protests across the country that cut across ethnic and religious lines, forcing the prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, to not only withdraw the tax but also demand that no new taxes be imposed on the poor and working class in 2020. But this has not stopped the protests, which now seek the ouster of al-Hariri’s government and a “revolution.”
At the same time, in Chile, mass popular rejection of a rise in mass transit fares announced Oct. 1 have transformed into the largest protest movement in the country since the end of the August Pinochet dictatorship. At the time of this writing, millions have joined the popular movement, including large sections of the working class. Moreover, the movement itself has begun to take on a character of a mass reckoning over the end of the dictatorship and the “transition to democracy.”
(There are, of course, other events that are continuing to unfold, including the mass protests in Spain, Hong Kong and, most recently, Guinea. These will be addressed in future articles in WPP.)
There is a line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth of a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The events of the last year are indeed a great tale of cross-class uprising, with great sound and fury. But does it all signify nothing? Were events to continue and be left to their own devices, the unfortunate answer would be yes. On their own, as they are current constructed, with the de facto political program and leadership left in the hands of the petty bourgeoisie, either of the community leader or trade union bureaucrat type, these cross-class popular movements cannot do anything but fail.
Militancy is an expression of committed action, not a substitute for program. All the militancy that can be mustered by humanity, if used for reformist ends, can, at best, only achieve a reformist conclusion.
It is inevitable that mass social movements, even one for workers’ revolution and the overthrow of capitalism, will contain within it both backward-thinking workers and even non-workers. That is why there is a need for a conscious proletarian communist political leadership, organized into a party that is strictly proletarian in program and makeup, internationalist, and part of a world party of proletarian revolution, within such movements.
It would be the task of such a party to actively intervene, winning its best workers to the communist program, while also educating our fellow proletarians on both the important tasks of the day, as well as the dangers inherent with the presence of elements of the exploiting classes in the movement. At all times, the proletarian communist party must serve as a guardian of the historic interests of our class.
The Humiliating Defeat of GM Workers Offers Many Lessons about Today’s Trade Unions and Tomorrow’s Labor Struggles
THE END OF THE 40-day strike by the United Auto Workers against General Motors has left many autoworkers across the U.S. with feelings of anger, frustration and some serious questions about where they and their co-workers go from here.
When the strike began on September 16, many of the over 49,000 autoworkers belonging to the UAW were not only supportive of the action, but also very clear about their demands and what they would consider a victory: the end of the multi-tier system, an end to the growing number of temporary workers by giving them permanent status, a rollback of the concessions handed to the company by the UAW in every contract since 2007, a commitment to not close any more plants, and a guarantee that new products are built in the U.S. by UAW autoworkers. Modest thought they are, these demands would have been the first gains that workers would have made in contract negotiations since the late 1970s.
Moreover, because of the practice of “pattern bargaining,” not only GM, but also Ford and Fiat Chrysler workers would have benefited from the fulfillment of these demands.
However, it was clear very early on that the demands of the autoworkers — their open and adamant support for their temporary co-workers, their belief that over a decade of “sacrifice” to keep GM afloat after its bankruptcy and government bailout should be rewarded, and so on — were not shared by the UAW officials chosen to negotiate with GM management. This should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the UAW.
The reality is that the UAW as an institution never wanted to go on strike; the reason they authorized it was fear and pressure. But we’re not talking about fear of and pressure from the autoworkers themselves, but fear of and pressure from the ongoing federal government investigation into the close ties between the UAW officials and the management of the Big Three auto manufacturers.
Over the past years, numerous investigations into incidents of corruption, embezzlement and graft by top UAW officials have moved from Regional officials into the heart of the union’s headquarters and uncomfortably close to the office of union President Gary Jones. Several past presidents, vice presidents and regional officials have been indicted or designated as “persons of interest” by the government for their roles either in the use of union funds to enrich themselves or in the receipt of bribes from management to ensure that concession deals are pushed through.
The investigations have so eroded morale and trust among autoworkers that the UAW was desperate and willing to try anything to restore even a small portion of confidence in their leadership, including resorting to a strike — albeit one that was heavily stage-managed.
In many respects, the strike, as organized, was little more than theater. The UAW gave GM ample time to build up a stock of vehicles and other necessary products to help them weather the work stoppage. By the time the action began, GM had a solid supply that could last them 87 days. In other words, even a strike lasting two and a half months would not harm GM’s ability to sell vehicles with desired options, thus allowing them to continue to generate profits while not having to pay for the power needed to produce vehicles (be that the labor-power of the autoworkers or the electricity needed for the machines).
Moreover, it is abundantly clear now that the strike was designed to fail. This is not only because, as usual, it was governed by the “injunction politics” that have robbed workers of their ability to win battles against the exploiting classes for decades, but also because it was never meant to hurt the company or its shareholders (the UAW being a major one). The demands of the workers were never seriously considered to be part of the agenda, only a propaganda tool to keep them “on the line.”
And then there was the mysterious meeting between GM CEO Mary Barra and her top staffers, on one side, and UAW President Gary Jones and Vice President Terry Dittes a few days before the tentative contract was announced. Little has been said or confirmed about this meeting, but what has been leaked centers around two words that no worker wants to hear: Taft-Hartley. If the rumors are true, the meeting was to inform the UAW that if a deal was not reached soon, then President Trump would have invoked the Taft-Hartley “slave-labor” act and ordered autoworkers back to the plants, deal or no deal.
The Problem with Unions
Even though unions represent only 6.3 percent of all workers outside of government jobs, they continue to be seen as the only effective means of fighting for the interests of the class in the workplace. This is understandable, from an historical perspective, but nevertheless a core problem for workers today.
Historically, unions have been seen as a primary means for workers to organize and defend themselves from the daily attacks by the exploiting classes. From the first craft unions of the 19th century to the industrial and amalgamated unions of the 20th and 21st, unions are still seen as the only viable means of securing and ensuring job security and a better standard of living — even if, in reality, none of these are actually achieved.
The enactment of laws like the National Labor Relations Act fundamentally changed the character of unions. No longer were they, or could they be, an organized expression of the demands and desires of workers themselves. Capitalist “legalization,” with its labyrinth of bureaucracy and regulations that demanded a mirror within the unions, transformed them into a collective mediator and negotiator of the price of a worker’s ability to carry out labor. Thus, instead of its main mission being to defend what workers have won in the past, its role is now to create an “equitable” agreement with the exploiters on their terms. “Stability” and “fairness” — and, most of all, preserving capitalist “competitiveness” — is the order of the day. The workers be damned.
In addition, the legalization process took workers themselves out of the very functioning and leadership of unions, with positions above the local level increasingly (and now consistently) being filled mainly by elements from the exploiting classes: lawyers, “labor relations” experts, professional statisticians and consultants. Occasionally, they include a few workers who once worked for a few months on the floor, mostly for color and cover. Is it any wonder that the staff workers at any large “international” union headquarters are often subjected to the most disgusting union-busting methods?
This transformation, which actually began more than a century ago (the first targets being the railroad unions), initiated the process of integrating unions into the capitalist system as the aforementioned collective mediators of the price of labor-power. That transformation also opened the floodgates, accelerating and intensifying the flow of the exploiters’ ideology into the working class.
The dominance among unionized workers of nationalism, sectoralism and chauvinism, as well as the intensifying of the ideology that tells workers they are “dummies” and incapable of running things for themselves, is specifically designed to maintain the class-based divisions that keep all workers in a position of precarity, fear and subordination.
An excellent example of this is the reaction of the UAW and many autoworkers to the wildcat strikes by Mexican workers in the maquiladoras against the Big Three. Last February, when tens of thousands of autoworkers struck in Matamoros against the low wages and horrific working conditions in the factories — two things that autoworkers in the U.S. and Canada have complained about since the beginning of outsourcing — the response of the UAW was to … hold flag-waving nationalist rallies and call for a boycott of products made in Mexico! At a time when cross-border solidarity between U.S. and Mexican workers, fighting for the same demand against the same companies, could have hobbled the Big Three and weakened them in advance of contract negotiations here, the UAW strengthened the hand of the bosses by keeping workers divided along national lines and preventing real unity.
The view of the unions that gains can only be fought for when the companies are profitable does nothing but shackle the well-being and interests of workers to that of their exploiters. Even worse, it keeps workers divided against themselves, even within a single industry. The needs of the working class are subordinated not only to one sector of the capitalists, but even to a sub-sector, where groveling is the only accepted form of survival.
[CONTINUED IN NEXT ISSUE]
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.
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.
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.