There is a specter haunting American politics – the specter of class collaborationism. Far from representing a challenge to the status quo in any meaningful sense, the presidential campaign of ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders is in fact the highest expression of class collaborationism this election season, with Sanders’ reformist program pulling into its orbit everyone from the clicktivists of reddit to the pseudo-Trotskyists of Socialist Alternative. And yet, the Sanders campaign is celebrated by many on the ‘left’ as a genuine alternative to ‘neoliberalism.’ That this is the case only shows how much the left has forgotten about the past and how little it has learned from the litany of defeats it has suffered in the 21st Century.
Class collaborationism can take many forms – throughout history, as varied groups and figures as the utopian socialists, Napoleon III, the German SPD after 1914, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Clement Attlee, Barack Obama, and of course, Bernie Sanders’ campaign, could all be said to represent a collaborationist impulse, whether using left-wing or right-wing rhetorical flourishes here or there. What unites them is their outright opposition to a politics of ‘class against class,’ and the elevation of a mediating entity above all classes, the state. For Napoleon III as well as Bernie Sanders, empowering the state to smooth over the conflicts between classes is the key to creating a capitalism that functions well enough, but without all the nasty side-effects it produces in turn. This is of course utopian (in the sense that it is impossible), because capitalism has at its root the conflict between the working class and the capitalist class as it’s key and unavoidable contradiction, one that can only be solved by the overthrow of the latter by the former.
Most of those who make class collaborationist appeals implicitly understand the utopianism of the rhetoric they employ, but of course, rhetoric is rhetoric. The actual record of these figures points to policies which strengthen capital at the expensive of the working class, even if the latter get a few more crumbs here or there, for the time being. In fact, under the guise of class collaborationism, the ruling class often is more successful at undermining the position of the working class than under normal conditions, as the working class is tied to the ruling coalition or party itself, and thus may refuse to make much of a ruckus about what is being done to it. Case-in-point: Barack Obama managing to push through a tax on union health insurance plans without much resistance from the labor movement.
The particular form of class collaborationism employed on the so-called ‘left’ is the Popular Front, a formation in which working class organizations subordinate themselves within a bloc to the liberal bourgeoisie, thus robbing them of any really independent initiative and drawing the lines of what is ‘acceptable’ politically around whatever the liberal bourgeoisie will accept in return for maintaining the coalition. The advantages of this formation to the liberal bourgeoisie are obvious – they receive the votes and manpower of the labor movement and other ‘popular movements’ allied with it, and in return are allowed set the agenda with little difficulty. The leadership of the trade unions and the self-appointed leaderships of the ‘popular movements’ agree to these terms often enough because they benefit financially from them and are appointed to positions of power within the state bureaucracy (the National Labor Relations Board, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, etc.).
In the United States, the Democratic Party tends to govern as a Popular Front formation, appointing labor bureaucrats to the state bureaucracy, engaging in policies which increase state direction of the economy, etc. It is important to remember here that the state we’re talking about is a capitalist state by nature, and therefore, when we talk about increased state direction of the economy, what we are essentially talking about is increased direction of the economy by a particular subset of the capitalist class. In the case of the Democratic Party, whose finances are underpinned largely by financial capital, this essentially means increased economic direction by finance capital. Financial capital has a special role within the Popular Front coalition because unlike productive capital, there’s no real direct conflict between it and organized labor, allowing trade unionists and investment bankers to occupy positions within the same administrations, the same state bureaucracies, and so on.
However, the politics of the Democratic Party are currently in a state of flux. Since the 1970s, the financialization of the economy (part of the overall process of deindustrialization) has led to the empowerment of finance capital relative to productive capital. With productive capital weakened and then thrown through the wringer in an attempt to restore profitability throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the labor movement in which it was concentrated effectively collapsed. Today only 6 percent of private sector workers are union members, depressing (relative to the 1970s and earlier) their collective strength on the shop floor and within the Democratic Party. The tendency toward open and unfettered political rule by the liberal bourgeoisie, without recourse to the Popular Front facade, is exemplified in the presidency of Bill Clinton and is today represented by the presidential campaign of his wife.
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, represents the shrinking segment of the liberal bourgeoisie which wishes to maintain the Popular Front politics of the past. Allaying trade unionists and hard-up millennial voters to his banner, the Sanders campaign projects a future which looks a lot like the class collaborationist past in his calls for the importation of a Scandinavian-style social welfare state to the United States. Interestingly, one segment of the Popular Front of past Democratic Party politics that doesn’t seem to be present within the Sanders coalition are ethnic minorities, which for the most part are solidly within the Clinton camp. This is partly the result of decades of identity politics appeals by Democratic Party politicians and the liberal bourgeoisie’s mouthpieces in particular, who project their own class prejudices about white working class people (‘they’re racist,’ ‘they’re religious nuts’, ‘they’re stupid rednecks’, ‘white trash’, ‘trailer trash’, etc.) onto the white working class as a whole, furthering the divide between white workers and workers of color.
The question then is between outright rule by the liberal bourgeoisie and its coalition partners (professionals, the petty bourgeoisie, ethnic minorities) the cloaked rule of the liberal bourgeoisie in a coalition with the labor movement. The question for the left that immediately flows from this is of course: Why are significant elements of the left injecting themselves into a fratricidal conflict between segments of the liberal bourgeoisie?
If the liberal bourgeoisie allies itself with elements of the working class in order to stamp out that class’ ability to act independently of the former, ‘socialists’ who carry water for elements of the liberal bourgeoisie do the same. But why is this the case? Why would ‘socialists’, who should know better, willingly offer themselves and the working class as lambs to the slaughter for the liberal bourgeoisie? I would argue that there are four reasons for this.
1. Theoretical illiteracy. Although theoretical works are more widely available today than at any point in history, the left as a whole seems to be less theoretical than it has at any point since ‘the left’ emerged as a specific political tendency during the French Revolution. Socialist Alternative, for instance, begins it’s ‘What We Stand For’ section with the subheading ‘Fighting for the 99%.’ This is of course a phrase cribbed from the Occupy movement, which never took a clear class line itself and itself reflected a class collaborationist ethos, attempting to unite everyone from highly-paid professionals to janitors under the banner of the ’99%.’ Not understanding the underlying relationship between classes, or understanding classes at all leads you in all sorts of directions, none of which are good.
2. Historical illiteracy. In addition to being theoretically illiterate, the modern left has no real understanding of its own history. For all the ‘sectarianism’ of the past, you could never accuse a member of the Socialist Workers Party in the 1950s of not knowing the history of his party, how the party came to particular theoretical positions, etc. Good luck getting that out of a member of the International Socialist Organization, which has jumped from one position to another (especially with regard to the ‘popular movements’) since the 1970s, with little or no explanation beyond the ‘need to meet people where they’re at’ (i.e. opportunism.). But even this pales in comparison to the lack of historical knowledge on the left in general. It continually repeats the mistakes of the past, be it adapting to popular consciousness, no matter how reactionary (homophobic Maoists in the 1970s, for instance), getting behind liberal bourgeois politicians (the CP in the 1930s, Maoists backing Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, ‘Trotskyists’ backing green parties, etc.), etc.
3. Pessimism about the working class as a revolutionary class. A pervasive pessimism about the ability of the working class to effect change on its own account underlies almost the entire left today. This is reflected in ultra-leftism (anarchists calling for a ‘general strike’ when no possibility exists of actualizing such a strike, ‘black bloc’ types breaking windows at Starbucks, etc.) which sees the working class as utterly ‘bought off’ and needing to be roused to action by the example of a few ‘liberated’ individuals by direct action, and in pure opportunism, which sees the working class as completely backward and the only way of getting through to it is to acclimate the socialist project to that backward consciousness. Neither side sees the working class as a potentially revolutionary force. Although the ultra-left might claim that it does, it’s actions tend to alienate workers from it and reinforce their very worldview, creating a sort of never ending spiral of mutual distrust between the two. Opportunism itself becomes reformism, and ultimately liquidates those who participate in it of any real understanding of how to effectively fight capital.
4. Careerism. Tied closely to opportunism, a good number of those ‘socialists’ getting involved with the Sanders campaign are doing so with an eye to their own future. Like the trade union bureaucrats and ‘community leaders’ before them, they see a potential Sanders administration as a lever whereby they can have mediating influence between the working class and the capitalist state, a position that would necessarily bring prestige and social status.
I believe that, for the most part, the most relevant of these reasons is the third, a general pessimism about the ability of the working class to act as a revolutionary class. Today we see less ultra-leftism than we do opportunism, and boy, do we ever see opportunism. The adaptation of the ‘left’ to slogans like that of the ‘Fight for 15’ is a good example of this. Rather than calling for workers to organize trade unions and fight for higher wages or a reduction in the working day, these organizations instead call on the capitalist state to implement a higher minimum wage. The pessimism in the ability of the working class to effect change of its own accord is evident here, as are other programmatic demands which call on the capitalist state to do things like implement ‘community control’ of police, ban possession of firearms, etc.
In effect then, these organizations do not represent a real alternative, but rather the left edge of bourgeois politics. Unrepresented within the halls of Congress, they nonetheless act in such a way as to prop up the capitalist system by calling for a ‘kindler, gentler’ capitalism rather than calling for independent working class organization and the overthrow of capitalism. It goes without saying of course that Bernie Sanders is himself also no alternative, and if he manages to get elected President, his hangers-on among the ‘socialists’ will quickly figure out that he, no less than Barack Obama, is committed to American imperialism no less resolutely.
The real alternative is to break with class collaborationism, with the Democrats, with Bernie Sanders, and with the so-called ‘socialists’ that apologize for them. The problems outlined above could be corrected by building what Lenin called ‘a party of a different type,’ i.e. a Leninist party, a combat organization of the working class. A Leninist party representing the most advanced section of the working class and de-classed intellectuals could cut through the theoretical quagmire we find ourselves in and articulate actual Marxist theory to the masses. The pessimism of the ‘socialists’ is misplaced; the working class can be won to Marxism – it must be won to Marxism. Arguing that we must ‘meet the working class where it is’, and not try to impart upon it an understanding of its historical mission is intellectual snobbery, and it has no place on the left. It is the implicit belief that the working class is ‘too stupid’ for Marxism and that Marxist theory should be left to the Marxists. This attitude has hamstrung the left for far too long. We need no priest caste, no men of the cloth in red.
The Leninist party is the living, thinking, acting expression of the class. It does not make a revolution, but rather agitates for one, and, when the time comes, assumes leadership by dint of the correctness of its position. We must stop wasting our time on fratricidal warfare between segments of the liberal bourgeoisie and start the long, hard, perilous work of building an effective Leninist party. Anything less is treasonous to the working class.