Friday, October 28, 2022

UAW at a Crossroads

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Flint sit-down strike

Note: We are publishing a statement by Peter Ross and Steve Zeltzer on the current election campaign for the International Executive Board of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW). The statement provides an excellent overview of the history of the UAW from its roots as a militant working-class organization in the 1930's, to its degeneration in the post-war period and its current status as one of the most corrupt unions in the country. We do not necessarily agree with everything in this statement, but it is nevertheless an important contribution to a continuing debate about the future of the American working and its unions.

One issue that we disagree on is the use of the phrase "united front" in the context of building an alliance with other groups in the union. While we wholeheartedly agree that different groups should be able to collaborate on issues they have in common and work together in joint campaigns, calling this kind of activity a "united front" opens the door to theoretical confusion. The "united front" was a very specific tactic developed in the early years of the Communist International and later the Trotskyist movement that called on the mass parties of the working class, particularly the Communist Party and the Social Democrats, to bring together their forces in a joint struggle against fascism and reaction. The slogan had particular resonance in the struggle against fascism in Germany and France in the 1930's. Raising this slogan today when mass parties of the working class no longer exist or have become so corrupted - as for example the British Labour Party - that they can hardly be considered working class parties anymore, does not help in educating the masses about the need for independent political action by the working class. It is even worse when the "united front" slogan is applied in the context of statements signed jointly by several tiny political groups. It sows illusions that such groups have the capacity to become mass working-class organizations. Hal Draper dealt with this particular form of wishful thinking many years ago in his excellent essay, Anatomy of the Micro-Sect.

Given that caveat, the statement by Ross and Zeltzer deserves a wide audience. They point out the significance of the fact that one of the candidates in the UAW election, Will Lehman, has made a powerful impression by calling out the UAW bureaucracy and raising the question of socialism in his campaign. At the same time Ross and Zeltzer point out the schizophrenic position of the Socialist Equality Party which is behind the Lehman campaign. While running a candidate for a leadership position in the UAW, the Socialist Equality Party has very recently called for the destruction of the UAW and urged workers to vote against the union in the recent union organizing drive of Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama.

When Peter Ross tried to raise the question of the contradictory position of the SEP in relation to their campaign in the UAW in a comment on the World Socialist Web Site, he was censored by the editors of that online publication. We are adding Ross's unpublished comment on the WSWS in an appendix.

Alex Steiner

UAW at a Crossroads

Peter Ross and Steve Zeltzer

(United Front Committee for a Labor Party)

October 20, 2022

Last Monday, the United Auto Workers began mailing out ballots for the election of the union’s International Executive Board, its highest governing body. This is the first election in the history of the UAW in which every member will be able to vote directly for the leadership of their union.

This historic election comes two months after the UAW held its once-in-four-years Constitutional Convention—the first convention in which rank-and-file members were able to put themselves up for election to the union leadership.

These and other changes to UAW rules were put in place by a 2-1 vote in a union-wide referendum, which was part of a consent agreement with the federal government, after 17 executives were federally indicted for embezzlement and racketeering. The corruption scandal, which began in 2017, has rocked the union leadership, many of whom are implicated in taking company bribes and stealing dues money from the membership. The federal government has also installed a monitor, who in July issued a report on the leadership’s lack of transparency and violation of the terms of the consent agreement.

The imposition of more democratic processes by the federal government has opened up some new possibilities for militant workers, but no confidence should be placed in the capitalist state to democratize the union. The new rules leave the bureaucratic apparatus untouched. It retains its function as a proxy of management, whose role it is to negotiate and enforce concessionary contracts in the workers’ name. The interventions of the capitalist state are not aimed at truly democratizing the union, but at providing its bureaucratic apparatus with a veneer of democracy, in order to preserve its legitimacy in the eyes of workers and stabilize it as an instrument of labor management. That the American government felt the need to intervene in union affairs is itself a damning indictment of the rot at the heart of the UAW and exposes the character of the bureaucracy as a junior partner of the capitalists. The union belongs to the workers! The rank-and-file must demand: feds and bureaucrats alike, out of the UAW!

The Movement for Union Democracy

Only a movement from below can truly bring democracy back to our union. Recent reform efforts have been led by Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a grassroots movement of UAW members from around the country, which commanded substantial influence at this year’s convention. The Administration Caucus, which has ruled the UAW for decades, usually sets the agenda for the conventions in a choreographed series of speeches and Administration Caucus-sponsored resolutions. But at this year’s convention, they were unable to prevent resolutions drafted by the rank-and-file and passed by union locals from reaching the floor for discussion.

UAWD-sponsored resolutions included one to start strike pay from day one instead of day eight, and increase strike pay from $275 to at least $400 per week. The International Executive Board (IEB) voted for the pay increase just prior to the convention, in an effort to take the initiative from UAWD, but convention delegates went a step further, passing the resolution to begin strike pay from day one and increasing strike pay to $500 per week, at the initiative of a striking Case tractor factory worker.

A UAWD-drafted resolution calling for the UAW to amend its constitution to require it to oppose contracts with tiered pay and benefits also made it to the floor and was the subject of extensive debate but was ultimately defeated. The two-tier system has been backed by the Administration Caucus as supposedly the only way to save autoworkers’ jobs in the face of company cost-cutting and outsourcing. It is both a betrayal of the newer members and a weapon against the demands of the more senior members, and it is a wedge which the management and bureaucracy use to divide the union membership.

On the final day of the convention, the Administration Caucus attempted to reassert its authority by forcing a revote on the increase in strike pay. Many of the delegates had already returned home by this point, and the Administration Caucus, working behind the scenes to pressure delegates, was able to rescind the increase in pay. These are the actions of a bureaucracy that is so used to ruling, it doesn’t know how to respond to rank-and-file opposition, and clumsily exposes itself in its efforts to retain control.

Another telling episode from the convention was the refusal of the Administration Caucus-dominated International Executive Board to invite a contingent of GM workers from Silao, Mexico—who recently founded the independent union SINTTIA—to attend the convention. Instead, they invited the so-called Solidarity Center—an international operation of the AFL-CIO—which receives $75 million per year in corporate and federal money from the National Endowment for Democracy. The AFL-CIO has a long history of collaborating with the CIA and American government in suppressing workers’ struggles, propping up corporatist trade unions against independent unions, and overthrowing governments around the world, including in Brazil, Guatemala, Guyana, and the Dominican Republic. They worked to sabotage a peasant movement in El Salvador, supported the apartheid regime in South Africa, and participated in backing right-wing unions in Chile prior to the 1973 coup, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands (see also, the Labor Education Project on AFL-CIO International Operations). While the multinational corporations have spread production all over the globe, the AFL-CIO prevents workers from mounting an effective response by organizing internationally. In the age of globalization, the only way to rebuild the labor movement is on an international basis, and this means a rebellion against the AFL-CIO.

The Radical Roots of the UAW

There is a long history of militant working-class struggle in the UAW. Following a long decline of the craft unions organized in the American Federation of Labor (AFL)—long-controlled by their own ossified bureaucracies—the onset of the Great Depression and a wave of militant struggles opened a new era in the American Labor Movement. In 1934, a wave of powerful general strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo, led by socialists and left-wing workers, showed that the organized working class could defeat the employers.

This eruption of class struggle gave a powerful impetus to the development of the Labor Movement. The following year, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was founded, originally as a committee within the AFL, and then, after it was forced out, as an independent organization of industrial unionists. The UAW, also founded in 1935, was divided from its inception between a group aligned with the radical-led CIO and a group aligned with the conservative, class-collaborationist AFL. Due to the efforts of militant workers and socialists, the UAW followed the CIO out of the AFL, and went on to grow rapidly. The 44-day Flint Sit-down Strike of 1937 forced General Motors to recognize the UAW, and within the next few years, it also won recognition from Chrysler and Ford.

The power of auto workers during the period of the UAW’s founding came from taking direct action on the shop floor to stop production. This approach was successful in protecting the health and safety of workers and also in stopping the firing of union militants and rank-and-file leaders. There was also significant support at this time for the formation of a Labor Party, independent of both the Democrats and Republicans.

The nature of the UAW gradually changed in the following years, as the union became established and took on a dual role as both the negotiator and enforcer of labor contracts. In March 1939, a group of ten UAW locals led by Trotskyists came together to support the formation of a Labor Party and to keep power in the hands of the rank and file. This was opposed by a conservative faction led by Walter Reuther and a faction led by the Communist Party, but the Trotskyists' Union Building Program was adopted, along with a resolution calling for the formation of a Labor Party in the United States. However, the leadership of the CIO remained subordinate to the Democratic Party.

In the World War II era, the UAW’s Executive Board signed a no-strike pledge to assist the American war effort. This was backed by the Communist Party. After the war, communists and class struggle militants were systematically purged from the trade unions. The AFL and CIO merged into a single anti-communist and pro-imperialist alliance, and the labor movement went into sharp decline. The Administration Caucus began its life during this period as an anti-communist grouping founded by then-UAW president Walter Reuther, who remained president until his death in 1970. The Reuther leadership vehemently opposed the militant tactics that had built the UAW, and they eventually signed contracts that ended this power on the job, while solidifying their own leadership.

The UAW bureaucracy became little more than an adjunct of the Democratic Party. At a UAW convention in San Diego in 1995, then-President Bill Clinton, who had been invited to speak, told union leaders that he would support NAFTA whether they liked it or not. After this speech, the craven UAW officials gave him a standing ovation despite his open declaration that he would push deindustrialization via this corporate trade program. The UAW and AFL-CIO tops have been right behind not only Clinton but also Trump, who passed the USMCA, a trade agreement replacing NAFTA that is aimed at further consolidating the North American trading bloc in preparation for conflict with China.

Today, Flint, Michigan—the site of one of the great victories of American labor—is a decaying city in the deindustrialized area around Detroit, known to most Americans as the town whose residents were poisoned by their water supply. Flint is emblematic of the decay of American capitalism and the defeats of the Labor Movement. Yet after a lifetime of rule by the Administration Caucus, which has overseen one concessionary contract after another and helped run the Labor Movement into the ground, rank-and-file workers have shown that there is still a spark of life in the UAW.

Almost a century ago, American Trotskyist James P. Cannon described the Flint Sit-down strike in these terms: “The revolt, which no bureaucracy could contain, was spearheaded by new people—the young mass production workers, the new young militants whom nobody had ever heard of…” The strike was propelled by the “bitter and irreconcilable grievances of the workers: their protest against mistreatment, speedup, insecurity; the revolt of the pariahs against their pariah status.”

Today, after decades of attacks on living and working conditions, there is a new generation of workers who are being driven into struggle against the capitalists and the union bureaucracies. A wave of strikes, unionization drives, and renewed working-class militancy has shown that workers will not continue to accept endless wage cuts, sellout contracts, and attacks on their livelihoods. It is up to this new generation of workers to return the UAW to its radical roots, sweep away the bureaucracy, and turn the union back into a weapon to defend the rights of working people.

Reformism and Sectarianism: Two dead-ends for the working class

The Administration Caucus has clearly been taken aback by the level of support and organization among the rank-and-file for the upstart reform movement. But now that they know the strength of this movement, they will make every effort to crush and disperse it.

Three weeks after the convention, UAW Region 1 “CAP Coordinator” Brian Negovan flagrantly violated the “Official Rules for the 2022 International Officer Election” by attempting to prohibit campaign leaflets from being passed out outside a meeting of a retiree’s chapter. UAW Presidential candidate Will Lehman’s campaign has reported a similar act of intimidation by Local 598 District Committeeman Sean Meachem, who confronted Lehman and a team of volunteers who were leafleting outside a GM plant, took photographs of them, and called GM security to remove them from the premises.

Lehman—the only avowed socialist in the campaign—has rightly highlighted the Administration Caucus’s use of intimidation tactics, something that UAWD has failed to do. He has won a hearing in the UAW for raising issues no other campaign will broach: above all, the need to entirely dismantle the bureaucratic machine and replace it with democratic institutions controlled by workers themselves. He was the only candidate, in the election’s one presidential debate, to speak to the real conditions workers face, to attack not only the current bureaucrats but the bureaucratic apparatus itself, and to call for organizing workers on an international basis.

Lehman’s campaign—conducted by the Socialist Equality Party, which publishes the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS)—has centered on “abolishing the bureaucracy” and calls on union members to form so-called “rank-and-file committees” as an alternative. But the SEP’s committees are not broad-based organizations aiming to draw in the widest possible layers of militant workers and educate them in the class struggle. Rather, the SEP insists that the committees must be in full political agreement with itself on all issues. Hence, these committees are typically founded by and subordinate to the party, and generally consist of only a few members.

Workers want and need organizations they control, which give them a voice and allow them to become active agents in fighting for their own lives and livelihoods. The role of a Marxist is to aid the workers in their struggles for political independence and to fight for a revolutionary political perspective. This requires that Marxists immerse themselves in the movement, not section themselves off into isolated committees, which are doomed to sterility and irrelevance. It requires a willingness to build United Fronts, capable of drawing into struggle as many workers as possible, including those who have not yet come to revolutionary conclusions. Marxists must fight intransigently for a revolutionary program, but they do not demand that workers adopt all their positions as a precondition for uniting around common, transitional demands.

The “Trotskyists” in the SEP would do well to recall the 1938 discussion between Trotsky and Cannon on whether the Socialist Workers Party should support the movement in the CIO for the formation of a Labor Party. Trotsky called for the SWP to join these efforts as a necessary tactic for organizing the mass trade union movement politically, while maintaining an independent existence and revolutionary program for the SWP. Trotsky concludes, “To say that we will fight against opportunism, as of course we will fight today and tomorrow, especially if the working-class party had been organized, by blocking a progressive step which can produce opportunism, is a very reactionary policy, and sectarianism is often reactionary because it opposes the necessary action of the working class…”

Indeed, the SEP has long since gone over to an outright reactionary position, attacking the trade unions in general, and calling for workers to leave them for their own committees. For the purposes of this campaign, they now claim that they seek to abolish the bureaucracy, not the union itself, since the latter would make their campaign an obvious absurdity. This is pure sophistry, as a brief look at their past positions makes clear. In a WSWS article, “The middle-class ‘left’ and the UAW-GM contract”, published October 12, 2007, the authors write: “The Socialist Equality Party would advise workers, should the UAW come to their plant, to vote to keep it out. Joining the UAW would not advance workers’ interests one iota.” Elsewhere, WSWS refuse to differentiate between the union and its bureaucracy, calling the UAW an “agency of corporate management” and stating that their task is to “destroy, not bolster, the ‘persuasive power’ of the UAW and to build a powerful political alternative.” Last year, WSWS called for a “No” vote for the unionization of an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Again and again, the website calls for the replacement of the trade unions by rank-and-file committees, i.e., the abolition of the former, even to the point of opposing the organization of unorganized plantsa direct attack on the union and the working class. Such backward positions not only discredit the SEP—they give priceless ammunition to the bureaucracy, which can and will be used against other revolutionaries in the UAW.

Rather than criticizing the SEP on this basis, the left-wing media outside WSWS has instituted an unprincipled black-out of Lehman’s campaign.

In contrast to the SEP, UAWD took the initiative in mobilizing pro-reform elements across the UAW during both the ‘one-member-one-vote’ campaign and the convention. Their platform calls for abolishing the multi-tier system, opposes corruption and the existing labor-management partnership, and has put forward the old slogan ‘30 Hours Work for 40 Hours Pay’ in answer to the mass-layoffs brought about by automation and cost-cutting. However, UAWD fails to even address the issues that Lehman’s campaign has raised and limits its aims to superficial reforms rather than building the organizations the rank and file will need to confront the Administration Caucus. Their presidential candidate, Shawn Fain, attacks individual bureaucrats but scoffs at the idea that the bureaucracy itself must be dismantled. Fain often hails the anti-communist Reuther as representing the supposed good old days of the UAW. While the UAWD platform calls, in vague terms, for “international solidarity” and makes a meek call for a “re-examination” of the UAW’s relationship with the Democrats, they have not pressed these issues in the IEB campaign and have provided little in the way of a concrete program. They have run on the whole, an insipid, pro forma campaign, completely lacking in militancy. It is little wonder that they have proved unable to mobilize mass support in the union after the convention.

Perhaps most glaringly, neither UAWD nor the SEP has publicized the ongoing strike of 700 Case tractor factory workers in Racine, Wisconsin, or attempted to use their campaigns to mobilize workers across the UAW to defend the strike.

Neither of these camps is capable of bringing real change to the UAW. What is needed is a true oppositional caucus, committed to building a mass movement in the UAW that will sweep the bureaucracy out of the union and replace it with new institutions of worker democracy. Until such a caucus exists, revolutionaries should work both in UAWD and outside of it, building United Fronts with the reform forces around certain demands, while openly criticizing reformism and fighting for a revolutionary perspective.

An oppositional caucus can only exist if it is absolutely independent of the Democrats, which led the bureaucratization of the unions, and have spent decades, together with their “Republican colleagues,” dismantling all that is left of the old Labor Movement. The first political task for a renewed Labor Movement will be to carry out a struggle against the Democrat-aligned bureaucracies and pose a political alternative: a mass democratic Labor Party in the United States.

The critical fight is to organize the large number of auto plants in the South, the Midwest, and Mexico. This has been an abject failure by the business-unionist officialdom of the UAW. We need to win these organizing fights by supporting a mass movement of workers in these communities that backs up organizing with direct action. This is how the UAW was built.

The Fight in the UAW in a New Era of Class Struggle

Workers all over the United States are suffering from the same conditions as UAW workers. They are dealing with the same sell-out bureaucrats and the same bosses who want to make profits on their backs. More layoffs and speedups are in store. We have to unite as a class to shut down industry because that is the only way we will win our demands. Negotiations do not result in any victories without militant struggles. When workers see the power they have through mass mobilizations, there is no stopping that power.

Workers must reclaim the ability to take direct action on the job to protect health and safety and prevent contract violations. The NLRB will not help us. The Biden Administration has underfunded and understaffed this agency while the federal government has provided $210 million for so-called “democracy” and "labor rights" union work in Mexico (supplied to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs through the USMCA trade agreement).

The auto companies aim to further gut the auto industry as they transition to the production of less labor-intensive electric vehicles. Auto workers and other UAW members should take up UAWD’s call for equal pay for a shorter work week, so that no one need lose their job, and workers can benefit from the enormous technological advances their labor has made possible.

The union movement must take as its starting point the international unity of the working class against the capitalist class and its political parties. In the UAW, this means building direct international links with other workers at GM, Ford, Caterpillar, and all other auto, truck, farm machinery and parts companies around the world, and taking direct action internationally with our fellow workers when they need it. We cannot allow the bosses to pit workers here against those in other countries or pit our members against each other with two-tier wages and substandard contracts. We need real union solidarity in action.

With no one in Washington representing their interests, many working-class people, including some in the UAW, have turned to the faux populism of the Republican Party, which is now moving toward fascism and dictatorship. The issues of growing racist attacks and the rise of fascism were not debated or even brought up at the UAW 2022 Convention by any grouping, but these issues are critical not only to UAW members and their families but the entire working class. In the past, the UAW supported the struggles against racism and the right to vote in the South, yet the present bureaucracy refuses to support a mobilization against the danger of a fascist coup. Instead, they rely on the Democrats. UAWD should link up with the Vermont AFL-CIO, which is fighting to build a democratic Labor Movement and organize the working class against the threat of another coup by the fascists in the Republican Party. We also need to defend Black, Brown, and Asian members, who face increasing racist attacks in the plants and in our communities.

There is also a growing threat of a catastrophic war between the US and China and Russia. The UAW, as one of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO, has long supported US imperialism around the world. We must end the trillions of dollars that are spent for the war machine while our cities and communities are falling apart and working people don’t have affordable housing, healthcare, or a good public education system. Both the Democrats and Republicans are bipartisan when it comes to more wars and privatization. We need to organize a national fight against wars abroad and privatization of public education, public services, and public lands. The enemies of UAW members are not Mexican or Chinese auto workers and the people of these countries, but the billionaires and capitalist class that are exploiting people throughout the world and use xenophobia, racism, and nationalism to pit worker against worker.

In this time of social collapse, we must rebuild our unions and take the first steps toward a Labor Party, founded and controlled by working people. Only such a party, capable of organizing the entire working class, can successfully oppose the giant transnational corporations and open a new era in the struggle for socialism.


Censored comment by Peter Ross on the World Socialist Web Site

I applaud Lehman for bringing socialist ideas before the UAW membership for the first time in many years.


He consistently attacked the bureaucracy and counterposed to it the power of the rank-and-file. He also raised the important question of international organizing several times. Fain’s answers, in contrast, were vague and uninspiring. The idea that the union can be democratized while leaving all the old institutions intact is absurd.


But Lehman should have provided concrete proposals on HOW to abolish the bureaucracy and what it would be replaced with, i.e. both immediate and long-term organizing goals for the rank-and-file committees, how they would elect an international leadership and measures for democratizing the union, to include the ability to immediately recall officials, pay limited to that of a skilled worker, open and direct elections, more regular conventions and mass meetings, creation of a union-wide forum to facilitate discussion, etc. Without these sorts of demands, the call to abolish the bureaucracy is vacuous. Also needed is a plan of action to organize the unorganized auto plants concentrated in the southern US and eastern Mexico.


If the SEP were serious about building rank-and-file committees, it would pursue United Front tactics aimed at drawing in as many militant members as possible. In practice, the SEP views the committees as proxies for the party, which has the effect of isolating them from wider union politics.


Lehman was able to participate in this debate not due to major organizing victories in the rank-and-file, but because of new rules brought about by the intervention of the federal government into the union. His candidacy would not have been possible without the victory of one-member-one-vote, in which UAWD played a key role. Where was the SEP in this struggle? Criticizing the bureaucracy is one thing, but without serious organizing efforts, these are only words.


If Greenhouse misquoted Lehman, that is indeed an egregious mistake, but union liquidationism is exactly what the SEP has preached for many years. Does Lehman know the history of his party? In an article by Jerry White and Barry Grey, “The middle-class ‘left’ and the UAW-GM contract”, published October 12, 2007, the authors write “The Socialist Equality Party would advise workers, should the UAW come to their plant, to vote to keep it out. Joining the UAW would not advance workers’ interests one iota.” Elsewhere, the WSWS calls the UAW an “agency of corporate management” and says its task is to “destroy, not bolster, the ‘persuasive power’ of the UAW and to build a powerful political alternative.” Last year, WSWS called for a “No” vote for the unionization of an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Again and again, the website calls for the replacement of the trade unions by rank-and-file committees, i.e., the abolition of the former.


The SEP has now opportunistically altered its line for the purpose of this campaign, since to run a candidate for UAW IEB president while calling for the replacement of the UAW would have been an obvious absurdity. Now the WSWS says it doesn’t want to abolish the trade unions — only their bureaucracies. Its demands remain just vague enough that it can claim this is what it meant all along.


As Trotsky pointed out, opportunism is the flip side of sectarianism. The SEP has leapt on an opportunity to be heard and has had no trouble adapting its line to whatever was most convenient to the campaign, without really moving away from its sectarian and abstentionist politics.


Letter from Peter Ross to members of the SEP and the Will Lehman campaign:



I am a graduate student worker and member of UAW 2865, and a former provisional member of the Socialist Equality Party.


I attempted to post the below comment on September 26 to the WSWS article “The UAW presidential debate: A rank-and-file socialist confronts the apparatus,” by Joseph Kishore.

( I attempted to post the comment three times, and I don’t believe this was a mistake or technical issue. It’s incredibly hypocritical that an organization that protests internet censorship so forcefully would censor a critical comment, and it shows an incredible backwardness and lack of understanding of socialist methods. Will Lehman and members of the LA branch, do you really stand by this action?


I would add a few things to my original comment. I don’t think I sufficiently emphasized that Lehman made many powerful points. He was, as Kishore’s article notes, the only candidate to speak to the real conditions workers face and the only candidate attacking not only the current bureaucrats but the bureaucratic apparatus itself. He also, importantly, called attention to the undemocratic methods of the bureaucracy, including their attempts to intimidate and silence his campaign.


But I repeat: For years, the SEP has based its politics on the claim that unions can’t be reformed, yet now it runs a candidate for UAW president and say it wants to abolish the bureaucracy, not the union. To say the abolition of the bureaucracy wouldn’t be a reform of the union is pure sophistry. The party has in the past opposed the organization of unorganized plants. Obviously, this was a direct attack on the union, not its bureaucracy. I am still astounded that SEP members seem not to have noticed this glaring contradiction.


If the party had truly reversed itself and was now seriously engaged in fighting for rank-and-file power in the UAW, I would be compelled to support your campaign. But the SEP remains committed to sectarian politics - it refuses to build united fronts and it continues to reject and attack the Transitional Program.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Revisiting the events of Jan 6

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...if the fear of falling into error is the source of a mistrust in Science, which in the absence of any such misgivings gets on with the work itself and actually does know, it is difficult to see why, conversely, a mistrust should not be placed in this mistrust, and why we should not be concerned that this fear of erring is itself the very error.  (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Introduction)

by Alex Steiner 

A little over a year ago we reprinted an article by Bryan Palmer on the events of Jan 6.  The article was titled, The Insurrection that Wasn't.  One cannot help but be struck by the irony of that title given all we have learned over the past year about the depth of Trump’s aborted coup attempt as a result of the investigative work of the House Jan 6 Committee as well as other ongoing investigations.  Clearly, we have to admit that the emphasis of the article, captured in that title, was off base.  After all the information that has come out since, it can hardly be denied that Trump and his accomplices did indeed conspire to stage a Presidential coup in order to nullify the results of the 2020 Presidential election and maintain power through a Bonapartist dictatorship built around the cult of Trump.  This was and remains a watershed moment in the history of the American republic. There has been nothing like it since the Civil War and it is not by accident that much of the symbolism of the failed insurrection of Jan 6th borrowed from the heraldry of the Confederacy.

The attempted coup was made possible by the rapid transformation of the Republican Party from what was traditionally a Center Right party into a neo-fascist authoritarian party.  This is still a work in progress but it is very far along and clearly there is no going back to the Republican Party that our parents and grandparents knew.  The historian of Italian fascism, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, speaking of the recent election victory of the Italian neo-fascist Giorgia Meloni, made the following point about the trajectory of the Republican Party,

…the GOP, I’ve been saying for a long time, has to be seen as a far-right authoritarian party in the model of European parties. And what’s going on right now, we’re having — history is being made before our eyes. The party is remaking itself to support whatever form of illiberal rule it wants to have in the United States. And, of course, we’re seeing this at the state level, in Texas and especially in Florida.

And so, when a party is remaking itself, it pushes some people out, and these are, let’s say, moderates, like Cheney, Kinzinger, all these — all the people who were anti-Trump. And who is being invited in? Lawless people, violent people. That’s why, if you want to get ahead in the GOP, your campaign ad has to have you and an assault rifle. People who participated in January 6th — criminals — are being invited to run for office, and actual extremists, like Mark Finchem in Arizona. He is an Oath Keeper. He is very proud. He’s very public about being an Oath Keeper, a member of the violent extremist group. And so, he is now the Arizona candidate for secretary of state. So, getting ahead in today’s GOP, being an extremist is a help to that, because they are remaking themselves as a far-right party. So there are going to be, I predict, a lot of interchange between Meloni’s neofascists and the GOP. [1]



It should also be emphasized that a major contributor to the Jan 6 coup attempt was the subservience of the Democratic Party to the corporate elite and their abandonment of the social contract with the working class that was central to the coalition built by the Democratic Party since Roosevelt’s New Deal.  This created a political vacuum where millions of working-class victims of neo-liberalism felt betrayed by their putative defenders and abandoned the Democratic Party in droves.  Many of those disinherited working-class voters gave one last chance to Barack Obama. When Obama’s “Hope and Change” turned out to be nothing but desolation and more pain embodied in the opioid crisis that devastated so many working class communities, the feeling of abandonment by the Democratic Party and the liberal elite turned into rage.  This was a perfect storm for a demagogue like Trump who manipulated the enraged middle class and working-class masses into the social basis for the MAGA movement.  The psychology behind convincing tens of millions that the billionaire and corrupt businessman Trump was a genuine anti-establishment spokesman and represented the interests of the working class was already anticipated years earlier in Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?

The evisceration of the norms of bourgeois democratic forms of rule and the plunge into authoritarianism and a revival of fascism is not limited to the United States of course but is part of a well-documented international phenomenon.  It is the political expression of the global crisis of capitalism which has evolved into a crisis of legitimacy. It is the final chapter of a decades long process that has seen the atomization of the working class, the practical disappearance of class solidarity and the near complete isolation of the left from the working class. Given these conditions, it was almost inevitable that right wing faux populism would step in to fill the vacuum.

Seen in this context the events of Jan 6, as well as the continuing efforts by Trump and the Republican Party to overthrow the 2020 election should not be a complete surprise.  In fact, since Jan 6 the authoritarian turn of the Republican Party has hardened.  Whereas the Republican Party has been a minority party for decades, winning office only as a result of gerrymandering and relying on the anti-democratic institutions enshrined in the Constitution to stay in power, a document drawn up by 18th century landowners and slaveholders, they had in previous years tried to hide this inconvenient truth from the public.  No more! Today they proudly broadcast their desire to overturn elections, to deprive millions of the right to vote and to impose draconian legislation through an unelected Supreme Court that takes away rights that had been previously won in long struggles. With its overturning of the Roe v Wade decision the Supreme Court has stepped back into the role it has harbored for the great majority of its 200 plus years existence, a bastion of reaction and protector of privilege, a role only briefly interrupted by the short interregnum of the liberal Earl Warren Supreme Court of 1950s and 1960s. This was nicely summarized by the historian Alan Singer,

Politically conservative decisions by the Supreme Court have been the norm, with possibly the only exception being the Warren Court of the 1950s and 1960s. From 1840 until the Civil War the Supreme Court was a pro-slavery Court dominated by Southerners Roger Taney (Maryland), James Wayne (Georgia), John Catron (Tennessee), John McKinley (Alabama), Peter Daniel (Virginia), and John Campbell (Alabama). After the Civil War the Court dismantled civil rights protections for formally enslaved Africans and free Blacks with a series of decisions culminating in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Eric Foner argues in The Second Founding,” the post-Civil War 13, 14, and 15th Amendments “were nullified in the generation after Reconstruction, that, little by little, the rights - the right to equal protection of the law, the right to vote, things like that - were just taken away in the South with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court of the United States.” Post-Civil War Supreme Courts through the 1930s were also notoriously pro-capital and anti-labor, even declaring unconstitutional early New Deal legislation aimed at addressing conditions during the Great Depression. [2]

The Dobb’s decision overturning Roe was therefore no anomaly but a return by the Supreme Court to its proper home. Although the Court has been moving in a reactionary direction for many years there is no longer even the fig leaf of pretense that the Court represents some version of impartial justice.  It has more than anything else in recent memory punctured the liberal myth that the “moral arc of the universe is long but that it bends towards justice”.  These words, originally penned by the radical abolitionist Rev. Theodore Parker, have been repeated by Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. While those words are inspiring, they can also become a rational for complacency and duplicity as they did when Obama uttered them.  The negation of those illusions may be the single most positive effect of the Supreme Court decision.

Returning to our consideration of the Palmer essay, one problem was its concentration on the amateurish and sometimes comical as well a tragic antics of the Jan 6 mob that stormed the Capitol.  To be fair, given the lack of information available at the time, Palmer could hardly be blamed for concentrating on this aspect of the Jan 6 events.  It was also to Palmer’s credit that he exposed the indignation of the Democrats in relation to Jan 6 for what it was, an opportunity to demonstrate their fealty to the bourgeois state and its repressive institutions. They never missed a chance to wail against the violation of the sanctity of the “People’s House”. This hypocrisy on the part of the Democrats is a continuing saga.  The FBI raid on Trump’s residence in Mar-a-Lago has been used by the Democrats as an opportunity to pay homage to that most reactionary institution of the American police state.  This is the same FBI that has been responsible for the murder and false imprisonment of tens of thousands of political dissidents over the decades.  And their colors have not changed as witnessed by their recent raid on the offices of the African People’s Socialist Party.  We have yet to hear any prominent Democratic politician say anything negative about this latest atrocity of the FBI.

But for all that we now know that the mob that attacked the Capitol was only one element of a complicated scheme to overturn the election and far from the most important element. The real nature of the conspiracy could only be discerned in hindsight from testimony of those who were privy to the behind the scenes plotting.  It is now clear that Palmer, and us, attributed far too much import to Trump’s penchant for acting out in a kind of primal rage without any strategy.  It is true enough that Trump’s sociopathy manifests itself in bouts of rage and even violence, but what was not known at the time were the plans directed by his close lieutenants to use the chaotic attack on the Capitol as a pretext for declaring a State of Emergency.

There was in fact a months-long plan hatched long before the election by Trump and his inner circle to overturn the election.  The first chapter was the legal phase where the counting of ballots in many constituencies was challenged in court.  When Trump lost all those court cases the next phase kicked in, the attempt to convince state legislatures controlled by Republicans to invalidate votes and to name hand-picked Electors who would vote for Trump regardless of the outcome of the popular vote.  When that looked like it would fail, the next plan was to pressure the Vice President, Mike Pence, to refuse to certify the election and send the outcome of the election to Congress or the courts where the Republicans would prevail.  When Pence refused to go along the mob was released to spread mayhem.  And while there was certainly amateurish posturing by the mob, there were also within its ranks highly trained fascists armed to the teeth and looking to assassinate members of Congress. As it turned out those who thought that the coup consisted of this mob were not looking in the right place.  The mob as dangerous as it was, was never a serious candidate for overthrowing the United State government and taking power even given the crippling of the Capitol police and the refusal by Trump’s man in the Pentagon to intervene with National Guard troops.  Trump and his inner circle were well aware that the mob could not by itself effectuate a regime change.  But what they were hoping for was to use the mob as an excuse to declare a national emergency and martial law, giving Trump the pretext he needed to overturn the election.  

In addition to revising our estimate of the level of coordination between the legal and extra-legal, i.e., insurrectionary actions of Trump’s phalanx of rioters on Jan 6, it is also worth revisiting some of the prognostications in Palmer’s essay, prognostications that were written in the heat of events as they were unfolding.  For instance, take this one.

Impeachment has proceeded, but its finale in a Senate trial has been deliberately delayed by Republicans, who are happy enough, under the circumstances, to have the Democrats carry the impeachment can. Biden is anything but enthralled with the prospect of an impeachment trial and would much prefer that Trump simply fade away into the Mar-a-Logo night. If enough GOP Senators get on board with the ultimate Congressional sanction of convicting Trump in the forthcoming impeachment trial, it will be because there are those among the Republican elected elite who want to cut the Party loose from Trump. This will unleash an unseemly raft of repugnant pretenders to the throne and allow vindictive venalities like Mitch McConnell a chance to settle a score with an ex-President who did them dirt. If, however, impeachment fails to get the two-thirds Senate majority vote required to convict – which appears likely – it will allow Trump to yet again claim, however tortuously, victory.  [3]


Palmer wrote this essay after Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives but before the delayed impeachment trial in the Senate.  There is nothing he needs to apologize for here given what was known at the time.  But given the greater understanding we now have we can revisit this period with better clarity. It seemed to many for a moment that there was a possibility of Republicans breaking with Trump.  Clearly the Democrats hoped for this outcome.  In so doing they were relying on the tried-and-true formula that has guided American politics since the post-war era, that when the dangers of extremism are exposed, the political compass will move toward the center.  On this was based the hope that some kind of post-Trump Republican party would be able to collaborate with Democrats on behalf of the “greater good”, i.e., the defense of capitalism and U.S. hegemony internationally.   But what was not noticed was that the movement to the center was no longer the guiding light of American politics. The rules had changed and sometime in the past few years a nodal point was reached.  Movement to the center turned into its opposite.  The more Trump acted against the rules, the more outrageous his actions became, the more support he garnered.  The hope for “responsible Republicans” replacing the Trumpists in the Republican Party was seen to be an illusion. The purge of dissident Republicans like Liz Cheney from the ranks of the Republican Party is now almost complete. The Democrats held onto these illusions long after their due date because to acknowledge the reality of a neo-fascist Republican Party implied a political battle they are unable and unwilling to confront. The logical conclusion to draw from this is that the fight against Trumpist reaction must be undertaken independent of and opposed to the Democratic Party.  Only an extreme Left - “extreme” in the sense that it brooks no illusions in capitalism and openly calls for a new socialist society - can pose a viable alternative to the extreme Right.   

While the attempted coup orchestrated by Trump and his allies failed due to the refusal of the national security state and the military to go along with Trump, there is no assurance that another attempt, this time better prepared, could not succeed in the future.  That being said, talk of a “fascist coup” as some left groups have done, is a formula for spreading confusion rather than clarity.  If what Trump and the MAGA movement represent is fascism, it is definitely a different variety of fascism than the classical fascism of the 1930’s.  What Trump and the Republicans are trying to achieve in the U.S. has more in common with the “illiberal democracy” of Orbán‘s Hungary than the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy.  As the historian Andrew Gawthorpe has observed,

In some ways Orbán resembles Trump, but in the eyes of many conservatives he’s better understood as the man they wished Trump would be. Where Trump was a thrice-married playboy who boasted of sleeping with porn stars and managed to lose the 2020 election, Orbán seems both genuinely committed to upholding conservative cultural values and has grimly consolidated control over his country, excluding the left from power indefinitely.

Among the terrifying implications of the American right’s embrace of Orbán is that it shows that the right would be willing to dismantle American democracy in exchange for cultural and racial hegemony. [4]

But while the methods of achieving power and the social basis for the neo-fascism of the 21st century is very different than its predecessors in the first half of the 20th century – a topic that would require a separate article - there is also an ideological kinship between these two phenomenon that should not be ignored; extreme nationalism, xenophobia, racism, anti-semitism, anti-intellectualism, misogyny, the systematic employment of violence against political opponents and the destruction of class solidarity and all independent institutions of the working class. Furthermore, today’s neo-fascists have worked for decades to rewrite the history of fascism and normalize the fascist butchers of the 1930’s while demonizing their left-wing opponents. This is the common heritage that unites Giorgia Meloni with Steve Bannon and Victor Orbán.

We should learn from this that sometimes one has to revisit immediate reactions to events.  It is no crime to admit your estimation of a particular event was one-sided and revise it as new facts emerge.  That in fact is the very model of the scientific method.  


Marxism does not consist in a set of formulas whereby one can predict the future.  While it is necessary to anticipate tendencies at work in the current situation on a national and international scale, it is not possible to work out in advance which of the possibilities inherent in a fluid dynamic will prevail.  These must be tested through practice and observation.  Those who claim that their perspectives are “always confirmed”, who never acknowledge a misstep or a reversal, are a sad caricature of Marxism. 

We anticipated in general the direction of the Trump presidency shortly after the 2016 election.  We wrote,

The crisis of liberalism is also the crisis of liberal democracy. The incoming Trump administration will be fundamentally different from its predecessors: it will be an authoritarian government, rule by a strong man… The cancer of social inequality has eaten up liberal democracy. This doesn't mean that Trump is omnipotent, quite the contrary. It's easy to foresee many and varied crises that will afflict the new administration and possibly even lead to Trump's impeachment. But whatever happens personally to Trump, there will be no going back to “the days of decency”. Either the system will continue its descent into authoritarianism and worse, or a new, social, democracy will emerge from the ruins of its liberal predecessor.[5]

But we had no way of knowing exactly how this turn to authoritarianism would play out.  Immediate reactions to events, while valuable and necessary, have to be revisited in light of new information.  Failure to do so is a sign of formulaic thinking, the very opposite of a dialectical approach.  A perfect example of formulaic thinking can be found in the following assessment from the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site, published three days before Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. They belittled the possibility of an invasion, writing,

In its report on the planned summit, the Washington Post wrote, “Although senior U.S. officials say they believe that Putin has made a decision to invade, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that U.S. officials ‘are committed to pursuing diplomacy until the moment an invasion begins.’ She confirmed that Biden accepted the invitation again, if an invasion hasn’t happened.’”

This statement is absurd. If Putin had already decided to invade, as Biden claimed at his press conference on Friday, Putin would not be inviting Biden to a summit. Can one seriously believe that having given the final go-ahead to a vast military operation, Putin can simply shut it down with a wave of his hand? [6]

As it turned out the WSWS International Editorial Board was dead wrong, while the public pronouncements from U.S. intelligence were correct, a Russian invasion of the Ukraine was imminent.  That in itself should not be a reason to berate the WSWS Editorial Board.  Lots of pundits, many of whom were serious students of Ukraine and Russia, were caught flat-footed when Putin launched the invasion on February 24.  And while it is true that when the CIA makes public their assessment of an impending military crisis they often lie or distort, in this case they achieved their goal, spreading anti-Russian sentiment, by simply reporting the truth, that Putin had indeed mobilized the Russian military for an imminent invasion. 

The real problem comes when one refuses to own up to a mistaken assessment or even acknowledge that it ever happened.  Unlike some of the pundits who were caught off guard, and who did some serious re-examination of their assumptions, the World Socialist Web Site continued as if nothing had happened.   This mode of operation is par for the course for this sectarian outfit.  You can search the archives of the WSWS as much as you like, and you will never find an admission that they were wrong about anything.   

One hopes that our reassessment of the events of Jan. 6 provides some insight into the genuine science of Marxism as opposed to its dogmatic caricature.


Alex Steiner


[1] Interview by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, Sept 26, 2022.


[2] The Dobbs Decision Punctures the Supreme Court's Sacred Mythology, Alan J. Singer,


[3] 01/06/21: The Insurrection that Wasn't, Bryan Palmer,


[4] Conservatives want to make the US more like Hungary. A terrifying thought. Andrew Gawthorpe,


[5] Trump and the crisis of liberalism, Frank Brenner,