Polemical articles from a proletarian communist perspective
Greta Thunberg, Climate Change and the ‘Greening’ of Capitalism’s Desolating Nature
THE UNITED NATIONS’ annual “Climate Week,” culminating this past September 23 with a summit meeting of most of the world’s leading capitalists and their politicians, was less of a policy gathering and more of a coming-out party for the new wave of eco-capitalist rock stars, with top billing at the media circus going to 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Thunberg came to prominence in 2018, when she began protesting outside the Swedish parliament, calling for a student strike to stop climate change. Since then, she has become the poster child for “green” capitalism, meeting with all manner of celebrities, politicians and CEOs. Her arrival in New York City by yacht on August 28 began over three weeks of appearances, meet-and-greets, protests and speeches, culminating in a “climate strike” protest in Battery Park on Sept. 20.
However, it was her speech at the UN summit that garnered Thunberg the most attention. Proclaiming humanity to be at “the beginning of a mass extinction,” she chastised those in attendance for stealing “my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” concluding that, “if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” In response, the politicians and capitalists sympathetically nodded and offered up such platitudes as, “my generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change” (UN Secretary-General António Guterres), and “we need such a youth to help us to change things” (French President Emmanuel Macron).
Why did the world’s exploiters fall over each other to ingratiate themselves on Thunberg? The answer is found in the vision and perspective that she and her companions in organizations like Extinction Rebellion (XR), which plays a
central role in many of the “climate strike” actions, have chosen to put forward.
It goes without saying that climate change is real and presents a serious problem for humanity to overcome — a serious problem that demands an immediate and comprehensive response. However, the perspective put forward by Thunberg and XR is hyperbolic to the point of recklessness. Put simply, humanity is not facing extinction because of climate change. Even the worst-case scenario put forward by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a rise of 8°C in global temperatures over the next century, will not cause our mass extinction. Indeed, humans have survived such a climate shift before … during the stone age, without the benefit of modern technology and modern science.
So, if humanity is not facing extinction, what is? And, moreover, why the falsification? Second question first. The need for falsifying the scientific conclusions stems from the necessity to rally young people of all classes into taking immediate action without the benefit of having thought through the implications of their acts. As for what is facing extinction, it is not humanity, but capitalism as it exists today, specifically its ability to maximize profits through the discovery and exploitation of new wellsprings of natural resources around the world. It is not humanity that they worry will be extinguished in a century, but the social positions and living standards of the exploiting classes who are at the core of the movement.
To put it another way, Thunberg says she wants us to “act as if your house is on fire.” But her solution is to make an alliance with the arsonists so they can have another 100 years to keep doing what they do best: making the world burn!
All of the grandiose speeches, millenary apocalypticism, neo-puritan moralism, performative martyrdom, puerile “militant” theatrics, and so on, does not hide the fact that they are promoting unity with the people who own and control the system of exploitation that has trashed the planet — albeit with a fresh coat of “green” accents, meant to make it palatable until the next century. Such a program can only be seen as conscious deception. It is shameless and despicable.
Unlike these “green” grifters, communists understand that the climate crisis is inseparable from capitalism, and its mode and methods of production. Over 150 years ago, Marx explained how the cultivation of land, natural resources, agriculture, as well as the production of commodities, etc., that is not “consciously controlled” and planned for need, not profit, “leaves deserts behind it.” (Letter to Engels, March 25, 1868) — i.e., “that climate and flora change” over time as a result of the anarchic process of production of commodities for profit.
To fight climate change, it is necessary to organize and fight for revolutionary change — for a working-class revolution based on a proletarian communist program that will dismantle the old mode of production and build a new one that is consciously controlled by our organized class, that is not only sustainable but also restores the balance in the shared metabolism of humanity and nature.
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 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.