Workers Vanguard No. 1137
27 July 2018
Labor, Minorities, Women Under Attack
Capitalist Injustice and the Supreme Court
Break with the Democrats!
For a Class-Struggle Workers Party!
A series of reactionary Supreme Court rulings last month, followed by Donald Trump’s nomination of ultraconservative Brett Kavanaugh to a newly vacant court seat, has struck fear into huge swaths of the population. And for good reason. Kavanaugh’s confirmation would give the Supreme Court a solid right-wing majority lasting perhaps a generation. This would strengthen the hand of the capitalist rulers in their drive to crush the already attenuated rights of the working class and oppressed. Having targeted the unions, blacks, immigrants and other minorities, the forces of capitalist reaction have their guns set on eliminating women’s right to abortion.
In late June, the Supreme Court declared war on public workers unions, the largest remaining concentration of organized labor, when it ruled against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in the Janus case. The decision eliminates the agency shop in the public sector, under which all employees have to pay union member dues or “agency fees” if they choose not to join the union since they benefit from the union bargaining on their behalf. As we noted in “Janus Case: Assault on Labor” (WV No. 1133, 4 May), the intention is to bankrupt, e.g., destroy, the unions by bleeding them of members, posing a direct threat to all of labor, including private-sector unions. Even before Janus came down, a court case was initiated in Washington State demanding that a large state union “disgorge and refund” fees that nonmembers had already paid. This would be larceny with legal sanction.
The Janus ruling will particularly hit hard against black workers, who are heavily represented in the public sector. In yet another blow to black people, the Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s system for purging voters from the rolls. This was a continuation of the attack on voting rights for black people and the poor; in 2013, the Court had already effectively gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
This year’s round of reactionary legal decrees began with an early June decision supporting a Colorado baker who, citing religious beliefs, refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. It was no more about a cake than the sit-ins at Woolworth’s lunch counters in the early 1960s were about coffee. While couched in narrow legal terms, the ruling gives a green light to use a theological justification to trample on the rights of gays, transgender people and any other persona non grata.
The Court then approved Trump’s permanent ban on citizens of seven, largely Muslim, countries from entering the U.S. Like the roundups and detentions at the Mexican border, Trump’s ban plays to his white-supremacist base, including border guards and other law-and-order forces, whipping them up for further acts of racist violence.
Then came the nomination of Kavanaugh, whose credentials include upholding state voter suppression laws, opposing affirmative action and abortion rights, and repeatedly ruling in favor of employers in workplace discrimination cases. Like Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s earlier Court appointee, Kavanaugh was promoted by the reactionary Federalist Society. Formed in 1982 by law students whose central goal was to limit, obstruct and overturn enforcement of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, the society counted among its mentors Yale law professor Robert Bork, an outright racist who once wrote that a law insisting that restaurants serve black people would be a “principle of unsurpassed ugliness.” It is no accident that the Christian fundamentalists who are mobilizing against abortion had their origins as a political force 50 years ago in the crusade to maintain racial segregation.
The promotion of the Catholic reactionary Kavanaugh has energized “right to life” bigots who see their best opening in nearly 50 years to undo the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. If Roe is overturned and abortion thrown back to state legislatures, it would be catastrophic, resurrecting the days of back-alley abortions and making the already growing number of do-it-yourself abortions the norm. Minority, poor and working-class women, millions of whom are already denied access to this simple medical procedure through myriad state restrictions and lack of funds, would especially suffer.
Against the ghoulish Republicans, whose slogan to “make America great again” conjures up an earlier time of U.S. supremacy when black people and women supposedly knew “their place,” the Democrats see an opportunity to build their anti-Trump “resistance” so they can win the midterm elections and eventually take back the White House. No less than the GOP, the Democratic Party represents the same capitalist system, which is driven by the brutal exploitation of the working class and based on the vicious oppression of black people, who are segregated in the mass at the bottom of society.
It was the Democrats’ own attacks on the unions, immigrants and others that paved the way for the current Republican offensive. What is desperately needed is militant class struggle to strike a blow against the endless ruling-class onslaught. Key to this perspective is the fight to break the allegiance of the labor movement to Democratic Party “lesser-evilism.”
Behind the Black Robes
Labor leaders, feminists and the liberal press claim that the way to fight is through the ballot box: elect more Democrats, who will in turn appoint more friendly judges. But under capitalism, regardless of which political wing of the bourgeoisie holds power, the judiciary is an arm of the bourgeois state machine, whose purpose is to defend capitalist class rule against the exploited and oppressed. Along with the courts, the core of the capitalist state apparatus includes the police, prisons and the military.
On July 9, the same day as Kavanaugh’s nomination, the New York Times published an editorial bemoaning how the “Constitution is about to be hijacked by a small group of conservative radicals well funded by ideological and corporate interests.” Demonstrating bipartisan civility, it simultaneously published an op-ed piece titled, “A Liberal’s Case for Brett Kavanaugh,” which praised the president for his “classiest move” and hailed the nominee as a judge “who prioritizes the Constitution’s original meaning.” Yes, and that original meaning included slavery.
At its inception, when the U.S. was marked by “free labor” capitalism in the North and chattel slavery in the South, the Supreme Court was designed as part of a system of “checks and balances” to insulate government from the unpredictable masses. As Alexander Hamilton put it in the Federalist Papers, its purpose is to be “an essential safeguard against the effects of occasional ill humors in the society.” The Supreme Court, with its august judges appointed for life, has not a little in common with Britain’s aristocratic, unelected House of Lords (though given the current Court’s Christian zealotry, the Iranian ayatollahs’ Guardian Council may be a more apt analogy).
Four years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Supreme Court declared in the 1857 Dred Scott decision that a black man “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” In 1896, the Court sanctified “separate but equal” segregation as the law of the land, a hallmark in the crushing of black rights that had been gained through the smashing of slavery but rolled back with the defeat of Radical Reconstruction. During World War II, the Supreme Court approved the racist internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans, ordered by the Democratic Party administration of liberal icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt and implemented by California attorney general Earl Warren.
A prominent Republican politician, Warren was later appointed to the Supreme Court by Republican president Eisenhower. Liberals who push reliance on the courts as a motor for social progress hark back to that same Earl Warren, the Chief Justice defining the “golden years” of the Supreme Court from 1953 to 1969. Starting with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated education and over the next two decades, a series of Supreme Court rulings gave some meaning to the protections that most Americans are taught are in the Constitution, like upholding due process rights.
These reforms were not handed down by generous or fair-minded judges. Such rulings, including the 1973 Roe decision, came in the context of convulsive social struggles, starting with the marches against Jim Crow and culminating in the huge protests against the Vietnam War. Racist segregation and the repressive social climate had also become a liability for the U.S. rulers as they postured as the great defender of “democracy” in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
Aided by the liberals and other misleaders that tethered such struggle to the Democratic Party, the capitalist rulers worked to contain, co-opt and eventually destroy the mass civil rights movement and the burgeoning radicalization centered on opposition to the Vietnam War. And they succeeded. With minimal personnel changes, the Supreme Court immediately started to erode the gains of the preceding 20 years, signaled by the restoration of the death penalty in 1976. The devastation of lives and the shredding of civil liberties over the past few decades, including a massive bipartisan increase of government surveillance, were carried out not only by Reagan and Bush I and II, but also by Democrats Carter, Clinton and Obama.
Don’t Bow to the Democrats—For Class Struggle!
As Trump announced his new justice pick, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, along with their “democratic-socialist” adjunct Bernie Sanders, headed a rally on the Supreme Court steps amid signs reading “Stop Kavanaugh” and “Protect Our Courts.” Democrats are being called on to “pack the courts,” i.e., increase the number of justices to offset Trump’s appointments—once the Democrats regain the presidency. A June 28 article posted on jacobinmag.com, a project of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), titled, “In Defense of Court-Packing,” claimed that “lasting progressive change” lies through such schemes to gain control of the Court, as their hero FDR once threatened to do.
For its part, the reformist International Socialist Organization (ISO) puts forward a variant of how to tinker with the capitalist state, writing in the article, “Without Struggle, There Is No Roe,” that Kavanaugh “could be rejected if the Democrats are forced to put up a real fight” (socialistworker.org, 20 July). The underlying premise of both the ISO and the DSA is that the capitalist state is a neutral body that can be swayed, and that bourgeois democracy can be made to represent the interests of the exploited and oppressed. But as Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin wrote in a polemic against the granddaddy of the ISO and DSA, German Social Democrat Karl Kautsky: “Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor” (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, 1918).
The strategy of the ISO is to call on the Democrats to resist. Given that the Democratic Party leadership today is about as appealing as a cold sore, the reformist lackeys try to refurbish the Democrats’ credentials by promoting pseudo-socialists in the party. The recent victory of the DSA’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the New York Congressional primary election has been celebrated as an opening for the left, with ISO leaders openly calling to work with such Democrats to “deepen the confidence of our side and strengthen the fighting capacity of the working class” (socialistworker.org, 23 July). In fact, they are acting to keep the working class chained to its class enemy, to the very capitalist party that has targeted immigrants as terrorists and criminals, ripped up democratic rights and beefed up the machinery of state repression, and unleashed U.S. military might against oppressed peoples from the Near East to Africa and beyond.
Even over abortion, Democratic administrations have acquiesced and colluded in the decades-long Republican-led drive to end women’s basic right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. In 1980, the Supreme Court affirmed the Hyde Amendment—signed into law by Jimmy Carter—that denied Medicaid funds for abortion. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton, while axing welfare for mothers, presided over a barrage of additional abortion restrictions. In 2010, Obama ensured that federal funds from the Affordable Care Act would not be used for abortions.
Meanwhile, the bureaucrats who run the trade unions have refused to wage even defensive class battles, instead pushing reliance on the government, its courts and supposed “friends of labor” Democrats. Their central argument for opposing Janus is that they needed a dues base in order to keep a lid on class struggle. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten put it baldly in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, warning that an anti-union decision would disrupt “labor peace.” It is that program of class collaboration that has helped decimate the unions throughout decades of anti-labor and racist attacks.
In “Marxism and Reformism” (1913), Lenin noted how the capitalists “grant reforms with one hand and with the other always take them back, reduce them to nought, use them to enslave the workers, to divide them into separate groups and perpetuate wage-slavery.” While the reformists “restrict the aims and activities of the working class to the winning of reforms,” the goal of revolutionary socialists is to use reforms to broaden the class struggle. Lenin explained, “The more independent the working-class movement, the deeper and broader its aims, and the freer it is from reformist narrowness the easier it is for the workers to retain and utilise improvements.”
There are urgent needs in this country: for decent, high-wage jobs and quality, integrated housing and schools for all; for free abortion on demand as part of socialized health care; for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. It is in the vital interest of the multiracial working class to mobilize through hard class struggle, in defense of itself and all the oppressed. It is through intervention into such struggles that the Spartacist League seeks to forge a multiracial revolutionary workers party. Modeled on the Bolsheviks, such a party would serve as a “tribune of the people,” fighting all manifestations of oppression as part of the fight for workers revolution. With the proletariat in power, justice will be in the hands of workers councils committed to rebuilding this society on a socialist basis, and the bourgeoisie’s supremely reactionary Supreme Court will be a relic of a barbaric past, like the medieval rack and the slaveowner’s lash.