In the United States of America, the presidential election campaign is launched, with the primaries as a funny first round. Those of the Democratic Party put a candidate claiming "socialism", Bernie Sanders, in front of liberals and even the billionaire financial press magnate Bloomberg, former Republican mayor of New York. Recent polls have highlighted a major breakthrough for Sanders. His flagship proposals, notably to generalise a compulsory public social security system, to increase the minimum wage, to fight student loans, but also his moderate positions towards Palestine or Cuba, have now earned him violent attacks, in the form of virulent anti-communism. This is not without paradox since the senator from Vermont, although he claims to be progressive, is certainly not communist, or even socialist in the sense that one could understand it in France.
John Catalinotto of the editorial staff of Workers World gave an interview to Initiative Communiste, the website of the Pole of Communist Renaissance in France, that allowed us to describe the context of these Democratic primaries in the United States but also to provide a political analysis of the situation for the workers of the United States, in terms of struggle as well as in terms of action strategy during this election campaign.
Initiative Communiste : How do you assess Trump’s first term in social, political, cultural and géopolitical terms?
John Catalinotto : Trump has succeeded in shifting an enormous quantity of wealth from the working class, including the most oppressed sectors, to the richest and most elite sectors of U.S. society. He did this mainly in two ways: One was to change the tax laws so that the highest incomes are taxed at a much lower rate, also reducing taxes on corporate profits, capital gains and inherited wealth − these changes all help the super rich; the second way was to open up public lands to private exploitation, such as the Alaskan coast and parts of the U.S. West. This giveaway to his billionaire class has won him the continuing support of this sector of society, even if some of the ruling class consider Trump an incompetent president who understands nothing of foreign affairs. He fills their vaults with money. They love him for that.
Politically Trump has polarized society. There is less cooperation than ever in recent times between Trump’s Republican Party and the Democratic Party, which are both pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist parties. All U.S. presidents tell lies. Culturally, Trump has eliminated facts from public discourse and replaced them with rhetoric that underlines his reactionary ideology: racism, misogeny, islamophobia, anti-LGBTQ comments are the daily feed from the president of the United States. In reaction to this development, on the left there has been a growth of a social-democratic movement that is against Trump and also for social reforms. (Most of these reforms had already been won in many of the European imperialist countries between 1945 and 1990, such as universal health care, free education, better retirement benefits.) Trump’s daily reactionary comments have also boosted the fortunes of the fascist parties, right-wing militias, etc.
Geopolitically Trump has continued striving for the same goals of the administrations before him, that is, U.S. imperialist domination of oppressed countries and U.S. hegemony within the imperialist world. He more openly calls for “U.S. America First” treaties as opposed to global treaties. His attacks at first appeared to threaten the NATO alliance but they have turned out to be demands that the European imperialist powers pay a greater cost for the military alliance and accept fewer crumbs of imperialist loot. The U.S. has lost relative economic power (to China, to the EU) and Washington is trying to overcome this loss by applying more military power. That was true under Bush, Obama and now under Trump.
Is there a real policial issue, from the working class point of view, in the Democratic Party primary elections? Do you think there are really Democratic Party candidates who can carry a more favorable alternative to the workers’ movement and to the camp of social progress and peace in the world ?
It is hard to imagine a situation where a mere electoral change, even the election of the most progressive candidate, would bring a real change to the pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist character of the U.S. state apparatus. What Lenin wrote about capitalism and imperialism over 100 years ago is still true: You can’t change the pro-capitalist nature of the state power without smashing it and replacing it with some form of workers’ or popular state, no easy task.
There is, however, a new development in the Democratic primaries. It’s the growth of a movement in support of Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont. Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist,” yet his version of “socialism” is really a program to reform capitalism. Nevertheless, the capitalist class is in no mood to allow reforms like free college tuition, Medicare for All or rolling back the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. Even his words, in the context of the reactionary social situation in the United States, have led many young people to identify as pro-socialist. Sanders is the only candidate who raises large amounts of money from millions of small donations. The other candidates are dependent on wealthy donors. Sanders is the only candidate who gathers enthusiastic mass audiences, with many young people, who look like they really are ready to fight for these programs.
The Democratic Party leadership is turning itself inside out looking for a way to stop Sanders from getting the nomination. Sanders has said that if he loses the nomination, he will support whoever the Democrats nominate. That means a serious campaign independent of the Democratic Party is unlikely. If the Sanders movement is strong enough to win the primaries and overcome the Democratic Party leadership, these leaders will likely abandon Sanders. At the same time big capital will shift its support to Trump. And Trump will run a race that paints Sanders as a radical communist. It is a living struggle.
What is the situation of the working-class and democratic movement, in social, cultural and political terms in the USA?
As in the entire world, the defeat of socialism in the USSR in 1989-91 has continued to have negative repercussions in the working-class and democratic movement in the United States. There have been partial gains on what people here call “social issues,” that is, a growing struggle for gender equality, greater acceptance of social questions like marriage and adoption rights for gay or lesbian couples, a greater public presence for trans people. Of course Trump wages a reactionary war on all these issues. And physical attacks on gay men, lesbians, and murders of trans-people, misogynic murders of women still take place. Regarding the fight against racism, having an African-American president for two terms, something that seemed almost unbelievable when it happened, did nothing to stop racist police brutality and racial discrimination in many areas.
The most massive demonstrations since 2017 have all been directed against the Trump administration and have been partly under control of the Democratic Party or of its left wing. There were the women’s demonstrations against Trump’s open misogeny, in favor of gun control to stop the epidemic of shooting deaths, in solidarity with refugees and migrants, and in defense of the environment.
Working class struggles included important teachers’ strikes, especially in some states where such job actions are illegal (West Virginia, Oklahoma, for example) and in Chicago and Los Angeles. These showed that working-class resistance is possible, although this resistance has not yet spread widely in the class.
A big challenge for the non-parliamentary left in the U.S. this year will be how to participate alongside the movement supporting Sanders while still managing to keep an independent revolutionary role. Many more young people than before in the last three decades are now disillusioned with capitalism and are looking for a radical change in society. Right now they orient toward social democracy, to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) for example. Will they progress from the electoral and social-democratic activity to devoting their lives to the fight for fundamental change in the system? During the election period and after the vote communist organizations in the U.S. will be adjusting to this living struggle, just as you in France had to adjust to changes in the Yellow Vest movement and the wave of strikes defending pension rights against Macron’s attacks.
For Palestine, Cuba, the patriots and the progressives of Latin America, the Near East or Africa, would it make much difference whether a “Democratic Party” or a “Republican Party” candidate is elected ?
When Trump, during the State of the Union speech, introduced Juan Guaidó as the “president of Venezuela,” all Republicans and almost all Democrats gave this comment a standing ovation (and that’s when there was so much hostility between the parties that Speaker of the House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, tore up Trump’s printed speech). Also, the entire impeachment against Trump was based on his threat to hold back military aid to the reactionary Ukraine government. So we would say that both parties have an aggressive, belligerent approach toward the rest of the world. Even if Sanders were elected, he would have to confront the Pentagon, the CIA and the massive government bureaucracy to wage a more peaceful foreign policy. That’s easier said than done.