The Leninist Vanguard Party vs. the Anti-Trump Popular Front
The following is the main document of the 16th National Conference of the Spartacist League/U.S.
1. The 2016 election of Republican Donald Trump, an overtly reactionary capitalist politician, was a product of intensifying contradictions of decaying U.S. imperialism. His election represented a right-wing backlash against the liberal status quo. Almost a decade of Democratic Party-administered misery, years of foreclosures, the loss of six million industrial jobs since 2000, crushing student and health care debt and general anger at the political dynasties of the bourgeoisie paved the way for Trump. While Obama bailed out the banks, for the working class and oppressed, the 2008 economic crisis was disastrous. Millions who had hoped for change had those hopes dashed, and they turned to the putrid populism of Trump. His anti-globalization posture, anti-immigrant ravings, trade-war threats against China and promises to bring back jobs and “drain the swamp” appealed to a layer of workers and the petty bourgeoisie who were fed up with the lot they had been left in by the previous administration. Trump’s racist bombast offered a scapegoat for the economic anxieties of these layers, and his vulgar indignation toward his political opponents found resonance with those who were devastated by the Democrats and were sick of the suits in Washington.
2. Trump was supported by sections of the capitalists who had benefited the least from the Obama years, like the steel, coal and energy bosses. Another section of the ruling class disagreed with his “America First” protectionism that pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his less hawkish approach toward Russia. Under Trump, the Republicans sought to ratchet up the imperialist rape of Mexico through renegotiating NAFTA, but the Democrats initially thought the cost of renegotiating the existing rape outweighed the benefits. Both parties stand firmly for the militarized border and the degradation, deportation and caging of immigrants—they simply differ on the efficacy of the optics when chanting about a wall and the tone of the anti-immigrant rhetoric. Both parties fully agree that the Chinese deformed workers state must be destroyed—they simply differ on the most efficient method of waging their offensive. While Trump openly gave a wink and a nod to the fascist scum crawling in the crevices of the crumbling economy, the Democrats preside over the same social system that breeds them, and as well hold them in reserve to be unleashed against the workers in times of crisis. They just think embracing Confederate flags and Klan hoods isn’t a good look while they maraud around the world supposedly in the name of “freedom and democracy.” On every fundamental question, the two wings of the bourgeoisie fly together. The Democrats simply saw Trump’s racist bravado and provocations against NATO allies as an impediment to the pursuit of their imperialist interests and were concerned that Trump might tarnish the image of U.S. imperialism. However, the differences within the bourgeoisie were merely tactical disagreements about how to best carry out the exploitation of the working class and imperialist plunder. The Democrats’ objections to Trump don’t represent the interests of the workers and oppressed, which are counterposed to both bourgeois perspectives.
3. To regain their rule, the Democrats rallied their disenchanted constituencies with maudlin moral outrage at Trump’s indecency. Because Trump is a misogynist, vote for Democrats…who support the Hyde Amendment, whose program is responsible for the erosion of abortion access, and who represent the class that maintains women’s oppression. Because Trump is a racist, vote for Democrats…who preside over the wanton police murder, mass incarceration and forcible segregation of the black masses in almost every major city, who deported record numbers of immigrants during the Obama administration, destroyed busing and welfare in the 1980s and ’90s, and require racial oppression for the stability of their rule. Because Trump didn’t pay his taxes, vote for Democrats…whose policies have led only to economic ruin and immiseration for the masses. The Democrats’ supposed “fight” against Trump was nothing but a cynical media circus around Russiagate, tawdry tabloid scandals and empty speechifying about the sanctity of American democracy. Neither their parades nor their righteous proclamations did a damn thing to defend the workers and oppressed against Trump’s attacks. Their only purpose was to lure the electorate back to their side and reclaim the imperial presidency so they could administer their brutal class dictatorship with the demeanor they desire. The AFL-CIO bureaucracy and the rest of labor officialdom were instrumental in lining up workers for this goal.
4. Throughout this period, and today, there is polarization within the Democratic Party between the “progressive” and “establishment” wings. The “progressive” wing only represents a tactical difference over how to most effectively seduce the support of those they subjugate. Their program to “fight Trump” was to make a better electoral case for the Democratic Party. The “establishment” Democrats had a losing strategy in the election in 2016. Hillary Clinton’s campaign wasn’t even compelled to offer crumbs to the masses who had been crushed under years of her party’s rule, instead declaring that America was “already great” and denouncing her detractors as “deplorables.” Sanders and “the Squad” found the stodgy strategy of screaming about Trump being Putin’s puppet less than sufficient. Instead, they believed the masses would be better baited with bombast against the “billionaire class” and promises of health care and debt relief. But these “progressives” have no intention of even waging so much as a scuffle within their party to fulfill the promises they make on the campaign trail. They dutifully abide by the discipline of their party, lawyering for the likes of the less popular Pelosi and Biden and serving the interests of the ruling class. Both wings agree on all fundamental questions of administering capitalist rule. Despite this, liberals and the left were lovestruck by the song and dance of these “progressives,” who try to give the program of their imperialist party more pizzazz.
5. It was a criminal betrayal that those who claim to be “socialists” and say they stand for “class independence” supported the liberals’ “resistance,” explicitly or implicitly. Bound by the glue of “anybody but Trump” and “lesser-evilism,” they tied the workers and oppressed to a wing of the bourgeoisie and its predatory rule. From sanctuary cities to Bernie-mania, the Women’s Marches and #MeToo, to the “fight against fascism,” Black Lives Matter (BLM) and national unity in the pandemic, nearly every single left group served as foot soldiers for nearly every single iteration of the anti-Trump popular front, eagerly following the leadership of the liberals and betraying the interests of workers and the oppressed. The largest ostensibly socialist group, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), self-destructed and dissolved into the Democratic Party DSA. Some, like Socialist Alternative, pretended to maintain some nominal claim to independence while fully supporting Sanders by pleading with the Senator, now serving his 32nd year in Congress for the imperialists, to form a third party. The Revolutionary Communist Party even went so far as to mobilize rallies protesting Trump’s firing of the FBI director. These traitors to socialism spent four years sucking up to the liberals and begging them to build a “mass movement in the streets.” Their efforts accomplished absolutely nothing for workers and the oppressed and moreover ensured that there would be no actual fight against Trump. Their program of class collaboration paralyzed the fight and their hysterical hustling herded voting cattle for the Democrats.
6. Centrist organizations like Left Voice, the Internationalist Group (IG) and the Spartacist League/U.S. put on a slightly more convincing act by serving as left critics of the various cogs in the apparatus of the anti-Trump popular front, which was nothing but a cover for it. While they all screamed about revolution and breaking with the Democrats, they sought to build the labor component of the popular front and push movements like BLM to the left by criticizing their most craven excesses. These centrists did everything but mobilize workers and youth on a counterposed communist program. Despite the tactical differences with the more openly reformist outfits, the result was the same: the leadership of the masses—many motivated by the misery created by capitalism and searching for solutions—was left in the hands of the liberals, who would lead them not to salvation but deliver them to defeat and demoralization. For example:
- The SL/U.S. and the IG had a superficial spat over sanctuary cities. The IG supported “sanctuary” because it placed “constraints” on the cops, and the SL/U.S. “welcome[d] any measure that may impede the immigration cops” while “warning” against the “notion” of “sanctuary cities.” Both built illusions that the Democratic Party’s fig leaf of “sanctuary cities” was a supportable “reform” and not a symbolic scheme to lull immigrants into a false sense of security.
- While Left Voice is openly “socialist-feminist” and the IG and SL/U.S. offer sterile critiques of feminism, all responded to the liberal women’s movement with condemnation of the Democrats, calls for “independent” labor mobilizations and calls for revolution. None drew the class line against feminism or exposed that an alliance with the bourgeoisie is an obstacle to abortion and all women’s rights. This capitulation is why they all hail, sometimes critically, bourgeois feminist organizations like Planned Parenthood.
- All organizations were cheerleaders for BLM, despite the IG and SL/U.S. openly identifying it as a liberal movement. All organizations called for labor to defend black people without drawing a class line against BLM’s liberal program. While the IG and the SL/U.S. oppose cop reform as a dead end, they refused to draw the conclusion that it is necessary to break with a movement whose class-collaborationist program inherently ties the oppressed to the management of the state.
Not one of the iterations of the anti-Trump popular front was met with a communist program of opposition to the liberal movement that was mobilizing the masses against their interests. A counterposed communist movement against Trump was needed, but those claiming the mantle of communism refused to build one.
7. The Trump presidency represented a rightward shift in society that exerted pressure on the entire left, but this did not change the fundamental tasks of communists in this period. Workers and all the oppressed desperately needed a leadership that could chart an independent path forward, but not a single left group rose to the occasion. As a result, the only resistance to Trump was organized on the basis of a class-collaborationist program that subordinated the interests of the proletariat to that of the liberal bourgeoisie. From this sorry “struggle” under liberal leadership, workers and the oppressed achieved nothing. In fact, the only outcomes were the strengthening of capitalist rule, the election of yet another bourgeois overseer from the other party and even worse conditions for workers and the oppressed. This is the consequence of the crisis of revolutionary leadership.
8. The central betrayal of the SL/U.S. during the Trump presidency, flowing from years of degeneration and accumulated revisionism, was the total abdication of the fight for communist hegemony—i.e., the reason for our existence. The 2018 Conference document argued that “sooner or later the ongoing, lengthy ebb in the United States will break,” and that:
Thus, the SL/U.S. had concluded that our purpose today is not to fight for revolutionary leadership but to wait until the period changed. Justifying our abdication by blaming the low level of class struggle, we then identify it as the main pressure on us:
But the main pressure in this period was for Marxists to liquidate into liberalism. Marxists needed to counterpose a communist program of action which would set class against class. The only way for the Marxist program to become a real force was for revolutionaries to wield it to break the chains of liberalism that link the Democrats, the union bureaucracy and the reformist and centrist left. Instead, the SL/U.S. used the objective period to justify substituting for revolutionary politics a turgid, centrist, Marxoid cover for social-democratic economism and liberal anti-racism, which led to crossing the class line.
The Party Question
9. The first Workers Vanguard article in response to Trump’s election was already an example of the SL/U.S.’s centrist, social-democratic aspirations. Along with the jargon-filled journalism and the echoes of liberal talking points, we find the programmatic core of what the SL/U.S. had to offer:
10. To mobilize the class in its own interests requires a revolutionary program in direct opposition to the dominant liberalism. Anything else is just a cover for the popular front. To fight for women’s liberation requires a fight against the feminists; to fight for black liberation requires a fight against BLM; to fight for health care requires a fight against Sanders and his sycophants. Nowhere in the article or in any other of the next four years does the SL/U.S. explicate the necessity of breaking with the misleaders of these movements and explain that only a communist program can advance the struggle of black people, immigrants, women or workers. Instead, the SL/U.S. offers promises of prosperity in a future socialist society. Liberals and the entire left were eager to build a mass movement that would supposedly defend black people, immigrants and women from Trump’s terror, but nowhere in the article or in any other of the next four years does the SL/U.S. draw a principled line against their liberal schemes. Pointing to the objective social power of the working class, the need to break with the Democrats and the need to champion the oppressed is not, on its own, revolutionary—it is compatible with social democracy. So long as we refuse to stand in clear programmatic opposition to the liberalism and reformism that captivates the masses who were mobilized against Trump, we are not building the vanguard party but acting as yet another obstacle, whether we howl about “revolution” or not.
11. Our phony attempt in the same article to draw a line against our supposed opponents comes in response to the ISO, who pointed to “the potential for building a stronger grassroots resistance” in the wake of Trump’s victory. WV responds:
This sterile, maximalist counterposition is a total abdication of the fight to build a communist opposition to Trump. The ISO wants to build a movement, and we want “revolution.” No! The burning question on the table was not whether to build a movement today or dream of revolution tomorrow. The question was: on what program would a movement against Trump be built? A dead-end, class-collaborationist, reformist popular front? Or revolutionary class independence in open opposition to every manifestation of traitorous misleadership? All of WV’s talk about a “multiracial revolutionary workers party,” without counterposing a communist program of struggle against liberalism and reformism today, was nothing but a cover for the popular front.
12. If you are not fighting for an explicitly revolutionary party for today, you are building a reformist party. And if a reformist party can defend the interests of the working class, who needs a communist party? Eventually, WV decided to drop the pretense and explicitly called for a reformist labor party. In the 2020 ILA longshore article, WV concluded with a quote from pre-World War I laborite Ira Steward that argues for a reformist labor party to administer the capitalist state:
13. Contrary to the framework of the SL/U.S., building a reformist party that fights for the oppressed is not a stage the class struggle must pass through but an obstacle to defending and advancing the interests of workers today. As James P. Cannon put it in the 1948 fight in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) over support to Henry Wallace’s bourgeois third party campaign, which was backed by the Stalinists:
14. WV, for years, has pushed that a “class-struggle” workers party, independent of the Democrats, would be an expression of class independence. However, in the absence of a program counterposed to liberal reformism, this is merely an organizational break. Without a political break with the liberalism that links the programs of the trade-union bureaucracy, BLM, Sanders and all the treacherous tendencies pushing a non-revolutionary program, the struggles of the workers and the oppressed will continue to be subordinated to the interests of the bourgeoisie. Only a revolutionary party whose program is based on the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat can defend and advance the interests of the working class and lead it to emancipation. A nominally independent, social-democratic party only seeks to reconcile the irreconcilable interests of the exploited and the exploiter. Its acceptance of wage slavery leads only to the betrayal of our class. The key lesson of the Russian Revolution and of the collapse of the Second International is that the communist vanguard must break the workers movement from the reformists and wage a struggle against all who conciliate them. As Lenin argued against Kautsky: