The US left must constitute itself as an independent pole, and not fall in behind attempts to rehabilitate business as usual, argues Kevin Ovenden
The fallout from last Wednesday’s fascist riot in Washington incited by Donald Trump is cascading through US society at all levels.
On Monday the leading Democrat in the House of Representatives (similar to the British House of Commons) Nancy Pelosi said that the Democrats would press on with a process of impeachment of Trump “urgently” even as Joe Biden will take over in nine days’ time. Its prospects of success are a different matter.
It is the second time Trump faces the impeachment process to remove a president from office and ban them from standing again. The first was over allegations of corrupt attempts to influence the Ukrainian government – “Russiagate”. It passed in the House of Representatives but failed in the upper-house Senate where 67 of its 100 members must vote for it in order to convict.
There was no move to impeach Trump over the many other dangerous and repressive actions he has taken through his presidency. They include praising far right and fascist thugs in Charlottesville in 2017 who were responsible for the murder of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer.
As with the last effort, this move comes not because Trump has violated the rights of racial minorities, launched drone assassinations abroad or attacked the civil liberties of ordinary Americans. It is because he has tampered with the ruling class settlement – undermining US alliances abroad (Russiagate) and authorising a riot at what they call “the temple of US Democracy” on Capitol Hill.
Many on the US radical left have been quick to point out that this “sacred place” was built upon slave labour, sustained by robbery of US workers enforced frequently by extreme violence, and is the cockpit of projecting big power interests against weaker countries.
It is reminiscent of the impeachment of Republican president Richard Nixon in 1973. It was not for dropping more bombs on Vietnam and Cambodia than during the whole of the Second World War. It was not for murderous repression of the black liberation and other social movements of the time – including assassinations.
Those had bipartisan support. It was for authorising the burglary of the headquarters of the rival establishment party – the Democrats – or, as it is often put, the other wing of the same ruling class party. Dog doesn’t bite dog.
Hence the reaction of Democrat politicians, a few Republicans and most of big business and establishment institutions.
But for all the talk of a coup (it wasn’t) and insurrection (an alternative to naming the rioters as fascist at their core) this boils down to playing political games. It is trying to use this crisis not to uproot the violent far right across US society, but to strengthen the state and incoming government.
Joe Biden speaks of “healing division” and “unity” after the Trump years. He means returning to the deal-making in Washington between leading figures from both parties that has been his life for four decades. It is through that that he hopes to deliver his modest reform programme, not through a radical rupture with a US political system now seen to be discredited even more than before.
For all Pelosi’s talk of urgency, the chief whip of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, Jim Clyburn, let slip that they may delay passing the impeachment process to the Senate until Easter. That would give time for Biden to have his “first 100 days” as president to pursue matters through usual channels.
If they truly thought this was a coup attempt, then they are not acting like it.
Such is the damage to the prestige of the US state, it has had to respond to this fascistic provocation with a wave of arrests. It is using some of the battery of powers that are normally reserved for smashing the left and militant social movements. There is increasing evidence of participation by former or serving military and police officers.
There will have to be some high profile prosecutions. Already there have been sackings and suspensions in the Capitol police over the security breach. But one thing the incoming government has no intention of doing is a purge of the repressive arms of the state of those who are of or sympathetic to the racist far right.
To do so in the police forces across the US, alone, would mean sacking so many as to have to dissolve and reconstitute the police on a different basis.
So we are seeing a transition at the top from the Trump years while trying to limit the scope of it from addressing the fundamental problem of the far right and of the state’s authoritarianism against working class Americans, black people especially. All this in the middle of the pandemic.
Indeed, there are calls for more powers for the FBI, police and criminal justice system. Left-Democrat Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), part of “the squad” of social-democratic figures in Congress, rightly says that there is no need for more powers. The issue is against whom those powers have been used and who has been granted near impunity.
But both she and Bernie Sanders have focused so far exclusively on this controlled and theatrical impeachment process. They have echoed the lines from Democrat leaders. They have not really offered an independent socialist voice, either in demands for a truly radical rupture with Trumpism or calls for mobilisations to start to force that into the political debate and to win it on the ground.
Some left-Democrat figures are suggesting that things must go further. Robert Reich served as Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary but backed Sanders’ runs for the presidency in 2016 and 2020. He has rightly argued that the responsibility on the right goes way beyond Trump. It includes all those in politics and in big business who either supported him or acquiesced because in addition to the chaos he delivered tax cuts for the rich and pro-business policies.
But that is an awful lot of people. Carrying through some “impeachment” of them would mean a colossal battle. And the Democrats are simply not going to do that, as Reich in effect concedes.
Another major left-liberal intellectual, Cory Robin, says that this ought to be a moment not for a normal transition from one presidency to another, or even just the Congress moves against Trump. It should mark a break from what he calls the “Reagan regime”. That is the neoliberal dominance in politics and economics that has held sway over all governments in the US for 40 years.
He too knows that is not what the Democrats intend even though the crises of that regime are as great as those in the post-war settlement that shattered in the 1970s ushering in Reagan-Thatcherism.
It is in this political mix that the varied forces of the US socialist left are trying to make an impact.
There has been a big growth in the popularity of broadly socialist ideas in the US over the last decade, which began with the Occupy movement inspired by the Egyptian revolution. You can trace it back earlier to the start of this century. There have also been big struggles under Trump – starting with the women’s marches and opposition to the ban on Muslims visiting from various countries.
The biggest has been the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement. It is estimated that 25 million people have taken part and its popularity is much wider.
An expression of this has been the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It now claims 80,000 members. It includes people with a range of socialist views and grew explosively in the two presidential runs by Bernie Sanders. It has also backed successfully some left-Democrats for office.
It has said that it seeks to operate both inside and outside the Democrats to pursue a broad socialist strategy but has become increasingly focused upon the party that will now hold all three elected parts of government.
Unfortunately, socialist friends of various stripes across the US say that there has been no national response from the DSA in the course of this crisis. Nothing aiming to call nationwide agitation or to flesh out demands for a rupture with the Trump years beyond just the Biden presidency and the narrow policy debates about what it may do.
There is a big discussion taking place as a result. Some local city-wide branches are attempting to provide a socialist focus – for mobilisation against the right and independent of liberal games in Washington.
Indeed, many US anti-capitalists point out that the DSA is scarcely a national organisation – despite its historically large size and geographical presence. It is more a collection of local coalitions.
There is also a lot of reliance on figures like AOC. Their election might come to spur social struggles or to be a voice for them. But it can equally act, as did progressives under Obama 12 years ago, to channel desire for change into the official politics of Washington and what is a major effort to “return to normal” post-Trump. It is likely to do both. But it is that old normal that produced the raw material for Trump and other actual fascist forces to turn into such a dangerous force.
In Chicago and other cities socialists report obstruction from some local DSA leaders to attempts to turn this crisis into a moment for mobilisation and for asserting independence from the Democrats. There have been protests, such as this organised by the United Against Racism and Fascism initiative in New York.
But as yet they are on nothing like the scale that befits both what has happened and the opposition to it of eight in ten Americans. Though 45 percent of Republicans agree with the incursion last Wednesday. So this political crisis is not going away, nor is Trumpism in one form or another.
The veteran Marxist author and activist Mike Davis has highlighted the intensification of the political turmoil in the US. In rejecting the Democrats playing around with words like “coup” he nevertheless emphasises the seriousness of the situation and argues urgently for a socialist initiative in action nationally.
It means dealing with the enormous pressure to fall in behind conventional liberal politics. It is using this crisis not to unleash a radical movement for change and against the far right, but to restore political authority also against the insurgent left.
Millions who marched against racist police violence are now expected to support “law and order” in the name of opposing a dangerous right that many police and military are part of.
There is considerable fragmentation of anti-capitalist forces in the US.
There is also an accumulated socialistic “good sense” that has arisen not only from intellectual debates on the left but out of the experiences of millions who have taken part in some form of protest or political action in recent years. That ranges from people organising against voter suppression of black people in places such as Georgia to a number of victorious strikes.
The great danger is that this can all be rolled back and dissipated through falling in behind a ferocious effort to rebuild the “extreme centre” – an operation that is already being directed at critical left voices.
Resisting that certainly means putting the socialist analysis of events and arguments in the national debate. It entails crucially, as this piece concludes, fighting to reorient what is a considerable left away from the Democrats and electoral campaigns they have already won and towards mass struggles and a politics suited to them.
The Greek extreme centre tried as the equivalent in the US is doing now to usurp the victory in jailing the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn as its own work. That has largely failed.
First, because there has been a mass and militant anti-fascist movement that is seen by very many to be responsible. But even more so because a part of the left, who helped construct that movement, has put throughout an independent position that is capable of answering all efforts at incorporation or demonisation.
Amid all the unpredictable turmoil in the US now – the splits at the top, the desperation of working people at the bottom under the pandemic and economic crisis – many US anti-capitalists identify that as the key issue for the whole left.
A left based upon an insurgent politics and mass activity, capable of changing the overall political constellation.
We should all wish our friends in the Belly of the Beast the very best and do what we can to help. The biggest part of that is acting wherever we are to construct our own insurgent left in mass movements of resistance that are not contained by the old politics.
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Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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