Crossing the Class Line in the Pandemic
The following document, written by SL/U.S. Central Committee member Jake Jots, was endorsed by the 16th SL/U.S. National Conference last year.
The catastrophe created by COVID-19 is a consequence of capitalism, criminally compounded by the clear class treason of labor’s leaders and the left. Capitalism created the miserable conditions fueling the crisis: decrepit housing, horrible health care, dilapidated schools, dangerous work conditions, scarcity, oppression, etc. The reactionary response of the ruling class multiplied the misery of the masses: workers were laid off in droves; whole sections of industry, schools and childcare facilities were closed; “essential workers” were subjected to massive attacks, speedup and givebacks and were forced into life-threatening conditions where over a million died. The leadership of the unions and the left utterly betrayed the workers: preaching class collaboration and reliance on the state, they disarmed our class and prevented the struggle necessary for workers to defend themselves against both the deadly threat of the virus and the devastating offensive of the bourgeoisie. Labor’s leaders and the left were complicit in the disastrous ruin of workers worldwide.
The ruling class pushed the lie that the only recourse for workers was to forfeit their lives and livelihoods for the “greater good,” and that they must look to the state—the violent apparatus of class domination—as the arbiter of public health. The labor bureaucracy fell in line, proudly leading “essential workers” to sacrifice in the name of “national unity,” while pushing class-collaborationist illusions about “having a seat at the table” in the bourgeoisie’s management of the crisis.
The fake socialists followed suit and offered nothing but a militant veneer on the treachery of the pro-capitalist bureaucracy, agreeing that the only option was to pressure the government for minor changes in policy (in many cases more closures and repression), while accepting the devastating measures and the omnipotence of the state. In the U.S., the program offered by these class traitors dovetailed perfectly with the Democrats’ 2020 election campaigns, in which they exploited Trump’s anti-science ramblings to posture as the “rational” wing of the bourgeoisie, further duping workers into supporting the destructive designs of their class enemy and thwarting any effective struggle for the defense of workers’ lives.
Contrary to the suicidal strategy of subservience offered by these sycophants, workers needed to fight against the closures and repression. During the pandemic, as always, the interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat remained irreconcilably counterposed, and the state remained a tool for the defense of capital. The measures enacted by the bourgeoisie and carried out by their state did not represent some mythical trans-class “necessary evil” for the “greater good.”
The bourgeoisie responded to defend their social order with methods that flowed from, upheld and advanced their class interests, while undermining the ability of the working class to struggle for their own. The proletariat desperately needed a massive expansion of production and infrastructure to provide adequate health care and safe conditions, but the bourgeoisie only needed to maintain a viable pool of wage slaves at the lowest possible cost. The reactionary measures only aimed to head off further calamity for the capitalists by deepening the immiseration of the masses and leaving the root cause of the crisis untouched.
Because the bourgeoisie must maintain production for private profit, they were only capable of a reactionary response that would necessarily be at the expense of the working class. Only the independent mobilization of the workers could provide a progressive path forward. But for that, they needed to take matters into their own hands: take control of safety in workplaces and redistribute the existing resources. It was the duty of communists to intervene and chart this course, starting from the immediate needs in the pandemic and linking the struggle to the necessity of taking state power.
Workers needed to fight against the attacks and for safe conditions. They needed to fight for more and better schools and childcare facilities, for more production, for more jobs, for more wages and for the unions, not the state, to determine what conditions are safe for work. To wage this struggle, they needed to fight against the repression, atomization and devastation of the working class. The fundamental prerequisite was to break workers from the “saving lives”/“national unity” blackmail peddled by the capitalists and their labor lieutenants, which dictated that nothing could be done but to support government measures. Workers required a revolutionary leadership to break the bonds to the bourgeois state and conduct class war for their defense. It was incumbent on revolutionaries to draw the class line, expose the traitorous misleaders shepherding workers to the slaughter and oppose the lockdowns, which decimated the working class and bolstered the bourgeoisie’s oppressive apparatus.
Internationalist Group Salutes the State
After a year of capitulating, the International Communist League produced the “Down With the Lockdowns!” statement, which took on the lie that the only option was to submit to the class enemy and put forward a program of revolutionary opposition counterposed to the betrayals of the labor leaders and the left. In response to our statement that the working class must defend itself by taking matters into its own hands, breaking with the labor traitors and “national unity,” the Internationalist Group (IG) produced a screed that doubles down on their perfidious program of reliance on the capitalist state. In “Spartacist League’s Lockdown Lunacy” (May 2021), they denounce our call for independent revolutionary action and opposition to the machinery of bourgeois force as “lunacy.” It confirms that their program, like the union bureaucracy’s, is an obstacle to the advancement of working-class interests and even to their basic defense.
The IG objects to our statement that the lockdowns were reactionary public health measures that weakened the fighting ability of the working class:
The IG’s full-throated defense of the bourgeois state as the benevolent defender of workers’ health and safety is a grotesque violation of basic Marxist principle. It is not a question of “recommending” an alternative policy for the bourgeoisie, but of mobilizing workers in struggle to defend themselves and for solutions that can actually begin to address their needs. Any struggle in the interests of workers would necessarily be carried out against the capitalists, their state and the lockdowns. But the IG dutifully deludes workers with the lie that, when it comes to public health, all classes share a common interest and that the bourgeoisie and its state will deliver us from danger. The IG’s position places them firmly on the wrong side of the class line, which they attempt to obscure by regurgitating the same moralistic effluvia spewed by the capitalists to instill subservience to their diktats. Behind the supposed concern for “saving lives,” the capitalists conceal the brutal pursuit of their class interests, and the IG, their touching faith in the bourgeois state.
Our difference with the IG is not over whether the virus posed a deadly threat for workers that called for immediate action. Our difference is the class line. The intervention of a revolutionary party was desperately needed to raise the class consciousness of workers and to dispel their illusions in the state so that they could effectively defend themselves in this deadly situation. Our statement illustrates why workers must break with their treacherous leaderships and rely only on their own forces to defend themselves and advance their interests. The IG takes umbrage at this and instead implants deadly illusions and servility to the state. In the context of the mortal danger presented by the pandemic, the IG’s refusal to break workers from the bootlicking bureaucrats on the question of the state is a criminal betrayal.
Remote Learning Was a Frontal Attack
In “The Fight Over Reopening Schools Is a Class Battle” (September 2020) the IG argues:
Belying any claim to communism, the IG kneels before the bourgeois power, extols its efficacy and laments only that people weren’t locked up longer. They not only hoodwink workers with the false idea that the ruling class was working in their interests and that nothing else was possible, but they also echo the reactionary position of the union bureaucracy, which fought to keep schools closed and remote. This is an abdication of the fight for safe working conditions, as it makes any struggle impossible; it guarantees the IG won’t fight for free, quality, integrated public education. Far from “necessary,” the closures were antithetical to the needs of the working class and premised on accepting the miserable state of education and childcare.
The school closures and remote learning schemes were oppressive to youth who were cut off from social interaction and fell behind in basic education. Black students, already segregated into failing schools with no resources, were hit even harder. Teachers and students were subjected to surveillance through remote learning software. Teachers and school staff were massively overworked, laid off, isolated and atomized. With the closing of schools and childcare facilities, even women who did not lose their jobs were forced back into the home to suffer the unpaid burden of the family. And domestic violence increased.
Everyone knows that the closures were devastating for black people, women, youth, and workers. The IG knows this and elaborates on many of the horrific consequences in their article. They even polemicize against CORE (Chicago Teachers Union leadership), MORE (United Federation of Teachers caucus in New York), the Democratic Socialists of America and the Socialist Equality Party for demanding that schools stay shut until COVID is all but eliminated.
The IG can both support the bourgeoisie’s devastating measures and criticize their own bedfellows because there is no programmatic difference between them, only a quibble over criteria. All these left groups share the perspective of reliance on the state—the very instrument that would be used against any real struggle to improve conditions. Their starting point is not class independence but an embrace of the bourgeoisie’s authority, thinly veiled in an appeal to science. The IG states, “Contrary to Trump’s demand to resume in-person instruction everywhere, the overwhelming verdict of scientists is that in much of the country, reopening schools is not possible at this time.”
The IG offers the same “solution” as the bureaucrats and others on the left: deference to the bourgeoisie until the threat subsides. They conclude: “Thus, we are for keeping schools closed where infections are high, and to use union power to make the schools safe where they can be opened.” Thus, the IG supports the reactionary policies of the bourgeoisie against the working class, so long as they are supposedly carried out in the name of science. But the struggle for safe conditions cannot advance one inch in alliance with the capitalist state, even with the IG earnestly advising them on a more scientifically sound policy.
The IG’s claim that nothing else was “possible” makes sense only if one regards private property as something holy and inviolable—the social context of the science the IG cites. The elite private schools, with their small class sizes and superior facilities, were able to operate during the pandemic, and there is no “scientific” reason this should have remained a privilege of the wealthy. Every major city, especially New York, is full of empty luxury real estate that is spacious, well-ventilated and able to provide conditions far superior to the existing crumbling schools. The role of a revolutionary party was to explain to workers that the labor movement must take over this property and put it to work for socially useful purposes that can actually begin to address their needs and that in no way is the state their ally in the struggle.
Teachers and construction unions should have demanded a massive program of public works to erect modern, quality facilities where such property did not already exist. With workers taking the lead and property at their disposal, steps could have actually been taken to integrate education, linking the struggle for safe conditions to the struggle against black oppression. Beyond just the schools, the pandemic underscored the miserable living conditions of workers and the unacceptably inhumane condition of the homeless population. Mass construction of quality, integrated public housing was so obviously called for. Instead, the IG strongly suggests that the state should have shut down all construction.
Despite explicitly supporting the lockdowns, the IG regularly invokes the need for “class struggle” and “union power,” but these slogans are meaningless since the IG has already yielded to the “necessity” of the bourgeois monopoly over health and safety. The IG can call for better HVAC, bathroom remodeling, etc., but how do they propose to win even such meager demands? Wage a strike, but send everyone home as soon as the state deems the situation unsafe?
Like the program of the trade-union bureaucracy, the IG’s support to the lockdowns fundamentally undermines the ability of workers to wage even the most minimal struggle. Moreover, this subordination to the bourgeoisie limits the struggle to impotent half measures that are acceptable to the ruling class. While the IG narrowly criticizes the bureaucracy’s support to the Democrats as a brake on militancy, they share the same framework that binds workers to the state and leaves them prostrate before their enemy. In the pandemic, as always, the workers needed a revolutionary leadership to defend themselves—one that was able to provide a revolutionary course of struggle against the state and in defiance of the “saving lives” blackmail.
Union Bureaucrats Serve Up NYC Transit Workers
In NYC, the transit workers were devastated by the pandemic, and their leadership betrayed them. The bureaucrats canceled union meetings, enforced the bosses’ ban on PPE, refused to organize the non-union cleaners and kept the system running at the expense of workers’ lives. The union tops accepted the trashing of seniority rights, a hiring freeze and a service reduction. They did this all in the name of “national unity” and “essential” sacrifice, while preaching reliance on the Centers for Disease Control and the Democrats. It is not only the MTA bosses that workers needed to fight against, but the betrayals of their leadership, which offered them up for sacrifice using the same justifications pushed by the IG.
But another course was possible—one that would have actually represented the interests not only of TWU Local 100 members, but of workers and the oppressed more broadly. Again, there is a vast amount of real estate in NYC, like the 32-story, 1.6 million-square-foot MTA headquarters at 2 Broadway. Workers should have appropriated the necessary space to organize their work and meetings. While they were at it, the question of providing quality accommodations for the homeless population who had taken refuge in the subway system could have been addressed.
When the MTA refused the bureaucrats’ requests for PPE, a detachment of workers should have gone and taken the pallets of masks the bosses had stockpiled. Workers needed to take control of safety in opposition to the bureaucrats’ co-management schemes. All cleaners needed to be brought into the union immediately. Against the hiring freeze, the union needed to take control of hiring and bring in masses of workers to spread the work with no loss in pay—a measure that could have combated the mass unemployment as well. Workers needed to take control of service and run more trains to eliminate overcrowding.
In response to opposition from the bosses and their state, workers should have gone on strike. The lockdowns and closures imposed by the state did nothing to improve the existing dangerous conditions and crumbling infrastructure. Conversely, workers shutting down the system in their struggle for safety could have actually resulted in improvements. But because the leadership of the TWU refused to wage this fight and bowed to the blackmail, the system remains just as unsafe today, and conditions for workers and riders are even worse.
The bare minimum course of action was to strike for safety. The argument against was that it would screw over other “essential workers.” But it was the MTA bosses and Democratic Party government, with the complicity of the union tops, who were screwing workers by cutting service and packing people into fewer trains and buses. Revolutionaries had to show how the transit workers fighting against the lockdowns and “national unity,” “saving lives” blackmail was in the interests of the nurses and all other workers. Safer, cleaner, more frequent service was desperately needed by those still forced to work.
Transit workers taking on the blackmail that said there was no other alternative but to sacrifice their lives for the greater good would have given impetus to others facing the same assault—teachers, nurses, etc. A strike would have defied the Taylor Law and led to a larger confrontation with the state—an action notably incompatible with promoting the state as the arbiter of public health. Smashing the Taylor Law would be particularly in the interest of teachers and public-sector health care workers in their fight for better conditions and would have provided a way to broaden the struggle beyond the TWU.
At the end of the IG’s article “MTA Bosses’ Coronavirus Disaster: For Workers Control of NYC Transit!” (May 2020), they call for workers control of transit and safety, a hiring hall and plenty of demands about PPE. But the call for union control of safety, in any Marxist sense, is categorically counterposed to their support to the lockdowns, i.e., the capitalist state’s control of safety. At best, this can only amount to enlisting the unions as adjuncts of the bourgeois state to help enforce government rulings. While the IG lists some fine demands (which they qualify as “emergency measures”), they cover for the bureaucrats’ betrayals that precluded their achievement, spending much of the article positively quoting them with the caveat that they only took action under pressure from the ranks and they should be ousted if they support the Democrats.
The IG does not take on the “national unity” blackmail pushed by the bureaucrats to ward off a strike; in fact, they repeat it:
Negating their paltry lip service to a strike, the IG aligns with the bureaucrats and the bosses, accepting the entirety of their reactionary framework: the only option was to lock the population up in their homes and any struggle to improve conditions is a threat to human life.
Contrary to the claims of the capitalists and the IG, a revolutionary leadership wouldn’t have hung nurses out to dry during a strike, but organized with them to carry out the struggle. A revolutionary does not temper the impulse to strike against life-threatening conditions with the moralistic blackmail of the bosses. They would explain that in this action transit workers should begin to exercise management of society as a whole and send delegations to other unions to unite them and plan the attack. Those delegations would explain that they are waging the same fight against the same class enemy and that the strike’s victory is in the interest of all workers. Special service for health workers could have been arranged. In fact, this happened during the shutdown; and if management did it, workers could do it better.
As for the unorganized workers, there needed to be a massive organizing drive to bring them under protection of the union and involve them in the workers’ planning of how to run society. While the IG invokes “dual power,” it is an empty phrase, like “workers control,” as nothing they argue points to the working class relying on its own strength and taking control of society. In fact, they denounce us for having that program. For the IG, waging the required struggle against the state in a time of crisis is “lunacy,” and the bureaucrats who tied workers to the state, calling for more repression and closures, are to be commended.
While the IG tries to slander us for “boycotting” the mass liberal protests for police reform (we did not), they supported the school closures, which were disastrous particularly for black students, and they support the lockdowns, under which police were dispatched to enforce “public health” measures. While the IG tries to slander our program for the independent mobilization of workers against the bourgeoisie and their state to defend our class as a “sharp turn to the right,” they offer only a more militant version of the bureaucrats’ bankrupt reformism and reliance on the state. The difference between us and the IG is not “sanity” vs. “lunacy”; it is reform vs. revolution, and the working class needs revolutionary leadership now to advance its interests and even to defend itself.