The US Strike Wave, the DSA, and Transforming the State
Eric Blanc is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Oats talked with Eric about his recent book, Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (Verso: 2019). Our discussion connected the teachers’ strikes with the broader socialist upsurge in the US and the long term struggle to transform the capitalist state. The following Jacobin article by Eric is referenced during the discussion: “Why Kautksy Was Right (and Why You Should Care).”
Check out this Bullet from Eric Blanc – “Teachers’ Strikes: A New Class Politics Emerging.”
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[Music fades in – Willbe, “Home Sweet Home”]
Sadia: Hello and welcome to Oats for Breakfast.
Steve: Oats for Breakfast is affiliated with the Socialist Project, an eco-socialist organization based in Toronto.
Sadia: My name is Sadia.
Steve: And I’m Steve.
Sadia: Today we’re joined by Eric Blanc, who was once a high school teacher in California. He recently wrote a book titled Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics.
Steve: Thanks for taking the time to come on the show, Eric.
Eric: Yeah, thanks for having me on.
Sadia: I wonder if we could begin Eric by asking you to talk a bit about yourself and how is it that you came to write this great book?
[Music fades out]
Eric: Yeah, I had been a teacher in the Bay Area for a long while and I’ve been a socialist and a public education organizer for a long time. So when the strike way of popped off in West Virginia I basically asked Bhaskar Sunkara, who is the editor of Jacobin, if he would let me go cover it even though I had zero journalistic credentials, and he was a nice enough and crazy enough to give me the assignment. And ever since I’ve been traveling around covering on the ground basically every one of the big strike that’s happened, not just in the red states (but more recently in places like Oakland and Los Angeles. So it’s been a very exciting movement to witness and to try to write about and to help organize national solidarity for as a member of DSA [Democratic Socialists of America]. And just the left more generally.
Steve: Could you talk a little bit about what you think the political significance of the strikes has been and how they relate to the political work in the DSA?
Eric: Yeah, the big story is that the strike is back on the table for working people in the United States for the first time in four decades. So that’s amazing and in itself the stakes of that are quite high because one of the main reasons we’ve been losing for so long is that the union movement has been in retreat to a significant extent because it has relied on lobbying the Democratic party rather than building up its own independent power through things like strikes or independent politics. And the strike wave then is the first time in a very long time – really in generations – where you get the sense that there could be a revived labor movement as a whole. And then that in turn poses the question of how that’s going to relate to and how it already has related to the reemergence of a socialist movement. And these two phenomena are interrelated in a very important way because in some ways both of them are rooted in the crisis of mainstream politics in the United States and the discrediting of the Democratic Party elite and the Republican Party as well. And that led to things like the Bernie Sanders campaign, the growth of DSA. And in fact some of the key organizers that initiated these strikes, particularly in West Virginia and Arizona were socialists, young socialists, DSA members who did study groups on books like Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts, and really tried to use the history of socialist organizing and labor organizing to propel the movement forward and to move toward strikes. So you already see the role that socialists have been able to play in these strikes despite their very small numbers. And the exciting thing is now the DSA is much bigger, we have the ability to have this reciprocal politics where the growth of the labor movement in turn creates new possibilities for a socialist movement that isn’t only numerically large, but that is actually rooted amongst the significant layer of the class, which to a certain extent is a test that remains to be done and isn’t really yet accomplished.
Sadia: I wonder if you can speak a little bit about the conditions of teachers and the public school systems in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona because I think teachers here are considered largely a middle class profession and although things are quite bad under Doug Ford it’s nowhere near the kind of harrowing stuff that you describe in your book. I’m going to read a passage – an Oklahoma teacher named Mickey Miller’s experience. And I quote, “During the day, Miller teachers at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa. After the school day is over he works until 7:30 at the airport loading and unloading bags for Delta Airlines. From there he goes onto his third job coaching kids at the Tulsa soccer club. ‘I have a master’s degree and I have to work three jobs just to make ends meet,’ he explained in April, ‘It’s very difficult to live this way’.” Your comments, Eric.
Eric: Yeah, the answer to that is tricky because in some ways relative to other workers in the United States teachers remain at the top of the working class. This is still a job in which your average pay, as low as it is, is significantly higher than average pay for other workers in the States. So it’s not the case, as it’s been framed in the media, that this is just a question of absolute deprivation, that there’s just a certain level beyond which workers start rising up. Because if that were the case, you’d be seeing strikes all across the board – that’s not the case. The reality is that there’s a huge gap specifically within education right now between the expectations of teachers and the realities of what the education system has become after decades, really, of neoliberalism. And in particular since the 2008 economic crisis and the policies of privatization and austerity that the Democrats just as much – in some ways even more than – the Republicans have imposed. So the expectation that teachers have had that they can do a decent job teaching has been undercut by all of these policies. And that’s part of the reason why you see so many strikes. So it’s not just that the conditions are bad, but that teachers feel like they deserve more – and that’s a good thing. And it’s that gap that has led to this resistance.
Steve: I want to ask something from a slightly different angle. When I was coming of age politically the radical politics was all about the anti-globalization movement. And one of the biggest fault lines in the anti-globalization struggle – which was completely decentralized, mostly unorganized, a kind of anarcho-horizontalism – was between what we then regarded as people’s movements and ‘big labour’, as it was called. And big labour – i.e. the labour unions – were regarded as having turned their back on popular movements and progressive politics and were actually kind of hopeless and written off as a vehicle for any kind of progressive struggle. So I wanna just maybe tease out a little bit, first of all why you think that’s changed, if it’s changed, how we can keep changing it? And also if there has been any kind of arguments, discussions politically within the DSA over different orientations to the labour movement based on these legacies?
Eric: Yeah, that’s a big question. The reality is that for a long time in the United States – it definitely predates the anti-globalization movement – the common sense is that labour movements are at best just another good group that you should have in a coalition amongst many different groups. And at worst maybe they’re actually a big part of the problem. So that’s the common sense. And the case that Marxists have made that there’s something special about the organized working class and that there’s a specific level of potential leverage and power amongst organized workers just hasn’t had enough empirical validation on the ground to gain that much traction.
So one of the things that has been hard about making the case for why the labor movement should be central is that we haven’t had that many things to point to. That began to change a little bit after, really, the Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012 which in some ways was the precursor to the current teachers’ strike wave. And that galvanized teachers and it made it clear that, actually, socialists who played a very important that strike could have an impact well beyond their numbers if they oriented to working within unions, not just as staffers but building a caucus to take over the union and systematically organized that union on a different basis toward building working class power. And that combined with, just to be honest, the impasse of all of the other political strategies that have been attempted has led to the current situation in which for the first time in a very long time we’re able to make a credible case that is increasing increasingly gaining traction. That, in fact, the strategic horizon for the left has to be to end this forced divorce between socialism and organized labour, which is really prevailed since the Red Scare in the 1950s – that the cutting edge issue, if we’re going to win and not just make ourselves feel good by taking good positions on things, is to reconnect the socialist movement to the labor movement.
And that doesn’t mean just organizing in work places. It doesn’t mean doing all of your work in the unions, but it’s to see both the workplace and the union as the critical point of leverage and lever through which we can do things like building labor-community partnerships, in which we can do things like fight oppression effectively. And that in the absence of that orientation, all of the community work we’re doing, all of the social movement work we’re doing – and which should continue – is just not going to have the social weight necessary to win. So because of the teachers’ strikes now within DSA I think that there is a real vigorous debate about the relative centrality of the working class and its unions. And the way that debate goes will have a big impact not just for DSA but for, I think, the labour movement.
And it’s not a foregone conclusion because there’s still a very widespread sense amongst activists – despite the impasse of the anti-globalization moment – there’s still what I would consider a “movement of movements” strategy in which basically it’s seen as somehow hierarchal or oppressive to prioritize types of struggles. It’s seen as somehow ignoring the interest of the most marginalized to do something like focusing on labour. And the case we’re making is that, in fact, it’s the contrary – that if we’re going to be able to create vehicles that are able to actually promote the interests of a working class communities of colour in particular, it’s very hard to do that in the absence of a revived labour movement. So that debate is continuing and the way it plays out I think will be in part based off of the continued development of the strike wave. Because as long as this is going on we have proof that this can work. But it’s also going to depend on the intra-DSA debates that I think is important for Marxists to weigh in on.
Sadia: And where do public sector workers fit into this broader wave of labour struggles and, in particular, how might public educators be particularly well placed in building up labour – not just organized labour itself, but how it connects to the broader un-organized working class and communities around them?
Eric: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Teachers unions are the most powerful labour unions in the United States at this point in the sense that they’re the most organized and they’re clearly at the fore of this strike wave. And that’s not the case in other sectors yet. It’s not the case in other parts of the public sector and definitely not the case in the private sector, although we have seen an uptick in labour actions in healthcare – of which some is public – as well as hotels. So the centrality, then, of teachers and public sector workers generally toward rebuilding a working class movement as a whole follows along a few different lines.
One is just being an inspiration for other working people. Because if you see teachers win then – if you look at the way the federal government shut down and ended it was not because the Democrats did anything but it’s, in fact, because air traffic controllers called in sick. And because the flight attendants’ union – which is a private sector union – threatened to strike the very next day. And when Sara Nelson, who’s the president of the flight attendants’ union, was interviewed by the mainstream press to say, “How did you come up with this idea of a strike to end the shut down?” And she said, “Well look, if the teachers are doing it, why can’t we?” So there’s one aspect of the inspiring example spreading. But I think maybe the most important lever that educators and public sector workers potentially could do is that by fighting for better conditions for better public services as a whole they’re able to be the lever through which you could have a broad coalition of working class people – not just those who are directly working at a given institution. But generally speaking for things like taxing the rich to pay for better schools, to start re-incorporating key services into the public sector.
So, for instance, if you think about what’s at stake, if you’re able to reverse the decimation of public schools and make the case clear through practice that the public sector is actually better than the private sector in its ability to provide quality services. But that in order for that to happen you need good funding amongst other things, and you need strong unions so that working people can have some sort of say over what public services look like and how they’re provided. If you’re able to do that think about the stakes for that for things like how you combat climate change. Because if we’re ever going to win a Green New Deal it’s going to be contingent on being able to win working class people as a whole to an understanding that, actually, you need to move toward the public provision of key services and not the private sector. So I think that that is the immediate implication is that working people as a whole could benefit from a robust coalition to take on the billionaires. And that starts by defending and expanding current public services.
Steve: Yeah, and that then points to the kind of necessity for politics. Because if you win a strike and then a right-wing government responds by closing down half the schools through an austerity program then nothing’s left behind. So it also depends on building something that’s a political movement that can then push forward a political agenda through the state that would support those kinds of struggles. Which brings me to a slightly a different point. You recently wrote an article for Jacobin – which I thought was brilliant – about the importance of Kautsky’s work in the current moment. And one of the key parts of this debate that’s going on in the North American left around the question of the state is about whether it can be transformed.
I wonder, given Sadia’s questions about the public sector – that means that these workers are basically part of the state – and so part of what’s at stake in these struggles is what the state is, how it relates to communities, how the people whose work comprises the state in these different communities relate to their work. All these questions together. So there’s the matter of the nature of the state’s embeddedness in communities and its democratic responsiveness, the degree to which it’s organically embedded in those communities and those communities have a say over what those services look like. Or are these people, like teachers for example, just doing a job and they’re doing it in this kind of rigid, hierarchical, bureaucratic way where somebody decided this is how it should be. And so that’s how it is. So I wonder if there’s a connection in your mind between your ideas about the capitalist state and the nature of the public sector struggles that teachers are engaging in, in terms of their relation to communities and so on?
Eric: Yeah, I think just starting with the first point you made, it’s absolutely critical to underline that strikes aren’t enough. That you have to revive the strike if we’re going to have a significant labour movement but the reality is – even if you look at the experience we’ve seen since West Virginia – strikes on their own have a difficult time systematically changing the priorities of state governments – let alone national governments – which are necessary to create the type of structural reforms that could actually resolve the depth of the crisis in public education or services. So you have to be able to combine the strikes with some sort of political movement and that could take different forms. Part of that is doing things like state-wide referendums and initiatives to tax the rich. So in California, the Los Angeles teachers’ union, to its credit, has pivoted after their very successful strike toward building a state-wide movement to reverse the tax system in California, which is so anti-working class ever since Prop 13. And that is an aspect of it but…
Sadia: Sorry, can you just say what that is?
Eric: Yeah, sorry. So in, in the tax revolt in the 1970s which really began in California through this thing called Prop 13, which made it almost impossible to raise property taxes on corporations. And so our public sector has been decimated ever since. And the fact that, because of the strikes, you have unions being able to make a case that now is the time to reverse what became a pillar of neoliberalism in the United States – so there’s the significance of using the momentum of the strikes to pivot in a political direction. But I think, ultimately, even something like these initiatives is not enough because if you still have the state itself being run by corporate politicians – whether it’s Democrats or Republicans – then all of the gains that you make or can impose are going to be weaker than you would have had if you had an actual working class party or politicians in power. And even if you win they very quickly could get reversed. So if we’re talking about fully-funded public education, if we’re talking about expanding the public sector to Medicare-for-all for instance, and things like that – you can’t do that just with social movements and just with unions on their own. You need to have a political project. And that raises the question – most immediately before talking about the transition to socialism – would be raising the question of Bernie Sanders and the absolute centrality of the Bernie Sanders’ campaign both in 2016 for helping initiate this new socialist movement and particularly now in 2020 we have a significant socialist movement. How do we relate to elections in order to rebuild a socialist movement that is rooted in the working class? And for the most part, to be honest, I don’t think that’s the case currently.
I think the class composition – as far as the personal background of DSA members – most people probably do come from, broadly speaking, working class backgrounds. But the level of organic relationship to working class institutions or communities is very weak at best. So that raises the possibility of using the Bernie Sanders campaign to really go out and talk about class politics and socialism with millions of people. And so it’s in that context that there’s a very big debate about the state and the fault lines to certain extent are Marxists trying to overcome a widespread sense on the left, both of various iterations of what you were talking about before – semi-anarchist inclinations to ignore the state – and then, to be honest, within traditions of Marxism and traditions of people who consider themselves revolutionary socialist who, at best, very systematically downplay the importance of electoral politics. “That somehow this is not our terrain. It’s less important than mass action from below.” And so the stake then of talking about what that tradition going back to Karl Kautsky and thinking about democratic socialism as a strategy – part of which means that the idea is if you’re going to get a rupture with the capitalist system, you’re going to have to do that in part, not just through mass movements, although that’s necessary. But through being able to build a majoritarian coalition that can use the democratic openings and contradictions of the existing capitalist state but leaning on the most democratic institutions that we have – there’re things like parliament or the ability to elect someone like Bernie Sanders. And using that contradiction then between this democratic opening and what are very anti-democratic structural dynamics within the state and capitalism generally.
And there’s this contradiction between the democratic form of the current state and its generally capitalist content. And so if we are going to ever get to socialism, it’s going to require using the electoral arena to be able to win a majority to elect a worker’s party to the state. But I think in the short term, the stakes of this admittedly more distant horizon has primarily to do with the relative weight we give to electoral politics or not. Because if you have this conception that really the real politics of socialism is just in the workplace or community and electoral politics is like really, at best, social democratic diversion, then I think you’re going to miss what is really the most opportune moment for building socialist politics in generations. And so I see that as the immediate implication of what sometimes can seem like a more theoretical debate.
Sadia: I think one of the things you mentioned in the book is that there seems to be an interesting contrast. On the one hand, the left, while being hesitant to work with unions is also hesitant to engage in electoral politics. And the unions on the other hand, union leadership is primarily oriented toward electoralism and lobbying. And then less so toward working with the left and actually building something on the ground either with their members or with the communities around them. And so how do we try – or what instances have you seen where there was a successful attempt, where you see labour unions and the rank and file mobilizes, connecting to working class communities and being able to pursue electoral politics while still sort of doing the mass work. And being able to hold those things together.
Eric: Yeah. In the most general sense, you can look at the relationship between the Bernie Sanders campaign and these strikes in this back and forth dynamic as an example of that. So Bernie Sanders inspires the rebirth of a socialist movement which in turn intervenes in education, leading toward mass strikes. That now in turn creates a whole layer of educators who have confidence, a level of nascent class consciousness and a willingness to fight back, which in turn is very much helping the Bernie Sanders campaign now have a base. And Bernie, to his credit, has raised the education platform as central. And so you see this reciprocal effect. But I think when it comes to a specific organization that has manifest this strategy most effectively, I wish I could say it’s DSA, but I don’t think that’s the case yet. Partly because we don’t have the power and implantation necessary, but you can look at some examples of where DSAers have embedded themselves in unions and where these unions have pushed in the direction that you mentioned. And the best example Chicago, where that 2012 teachers strike really galvanize the city. Under the leadership of a rank and file caucus that took over the union and in which socialists played a central role and continue to play a central role. They were able to reshape politics in Chicago. The strike won important gains but it was not enough. Some of the gains of the strike were very quickly reversed in the wake of the strike. And part of the lesson that the union, including socialists, learned is that you can’t ignore the state because the state doesn’t ignore you.
And I think ever since there’s been a orientation of the CTU, the Chicago Teachers Union, to try to build working class power in the electoral arena in Chicago. And to be honest I think that some of that has not been as independent as maybe some of us would have liked. In the recent mayoral election, for instance, CTU endorsed kind of a mainstream Democrat and that was quite controversial. But, if we leave that aside, the main thrust of the CTU on the electoral front has been to build kind of a front called Working Families Party that has been central toward rebuilding a working class politics in the city. And, in fact, the recent election, which some of you listeners might have heard of, of six socialists, six DSA members city council aldermen in Chicago, there’s no way that would’ve happened without the resources of the Chicago Teachers Union. And this is every account on the ground: if it hadn’t been for the Chicago Teacher’s Union, there’s no way that we’d have now what is the most significant socialist presence within the state on the local level in the country. And so you do see how strikes can lead to the revitalization of unions, which in turn can intervene in a political way, which in turn, particularly then when the socialists have an orientation toward mass politics – and there was DSA members who are involved in the union and who also were just involved in building these electoral campaigns independently – all of these things can come together and in a very potentially powerful way. And so you could see that the model of Chicago in that sense could be replicated whereby leaning on the power of the teachers’ union, you could have socialists have the leverage to be able to win across the board and across, the United States.
Steve: You mentioned the importance of the Sanders campaign. And I definitely agree that the significance of that is major and there’s different ways in which it’s major. I mean there’s the education that he can do and the kind of confidence-boosting of the working class that he can do. You know, if the presidential candidate, or dare we say, the president himself was on the picket line with workers – that makes a huge difference about their level of consciousness and how the public interprets their struggles and so on.
Another question, though, is what you do with the power when you have it. And so one question I have is going beyond just the question of educating people and building confidence of the working class. What concretely – and this is also going back to the question of transforming the state – from the point of view of today’s budding socialist movement, what would a democratic education system look like? If you were President Sanders and, let’s just for a minute gloss over the fact that the Democratic Party is the Democratic Party – completely neoliberal for the most part and doesn’t support anything that he wants to do – what would a program for a democratic worker-led, teacher-led education system in the United States look like?
Eric: That’s a really interesting question. I think part of the democratic socialist tradition that I identify with, and that you mentioned, is also seeing the need to combine interventions within the state with mass action from the outside. So the first thing I would say before we talk about what sort of transformations you could see in education that someone like Bernie Sanders could bring about – it should be stated from the outset that in order for that to happen you would need a significantly stronger and more disruptive labour movement that could force the type of changes upon the state as a whole. When we talk about what this transformation would look like, it’s not something that Bernie could do on his own. And I think, to his credit, he’s conscious of that and has actually explicitly argued that. And it’s not just rhetorical. The slogan of the campaign this time is, “Not me, Us.” And over and over again that’s been manifest in the way that he’s organized the campaign and that we’ve oriented toward it, which is using the electoral lists that he’s built up to literally just tell people to go walk the picket line and to support strikes over and over again. So that same dynamic is going to have to happen under our imagined Bernie presidency, in which you’re going to need this type of bottom-up organizing. Because the structural constraints of the existing state are such that without that, it’s very hard to imagine getting to the type of public education system we need. But I think, as you mentioned before, education is a really good example for the case for democratic socialism because public education is part of the state and public education workers are state workers. So it’s in some ways the easiest – comparatively – institution to think about transforming. One could imagine that the difficulties you’d have in creating a robust democratic institution in favor of working class people in the military for instance would be much more difficult.
Steve: Or the CIA!
Eric: Right, so it’s hard. You don’t want to overgeneralize but particularly within education, even short of breaking from capitalism you could imagine a couple of different things. One is you’d have to systematically reverse the financial and economic priorities of the current tax system. And you’d really have to go after big business and you have to go after the rich to be able to have the funding necessary. So the funding I think is actually a precondition for a lot of the type of transformations we’d want. Because the starting point for being able to create a more just and more fair and more useful public education system would be doing things like dramatically lowering class size, hiring way more teachers, counselors, nurses, being able to bring back the arts. I don’t know what it’s like in Canada, but in the United States the first thing to get chopped are the arts programs. And so making education much more than what it is currently – which is, at its worst, really just a semi-authoritarian regime to teach students how to take tests – and that’s one of the reasons why you have a lot of teacher burnout is that teachers sort of object to not being able to actually teach critical thinking. And so you would need to be able to have this economic underpinning to the transformation of schools. But you could also think about democratizing the school system and democratizing schools in a way that, to be honest, even people who aren’t democratic socialists are already talking about. In Los Angeles, for instance, the demand of the teachers’ union, has been for what they call “community schools,” which are public schools that are fully funded and which provide wrap-around services for the community as a whole. So the school itself would be almost like the local instantiation of the democratic state that we would want in which it’s able to provide not only better school services, but a variety of public services for students and teachers in the community as a whole. Whether it’s immigration help or just being able to have somewhere you could go after school – to be able to have a public sphere. And part of that is also then giving teachers and students and parents democratic input on what the school should look like. What should the priorities be, what should the curriculum be? Thinking of things like that, that right now or just off the table. And so I do think you could look at the school system and the types of transformations as the cutting edge for what we’d like to do with the state as a whole – which is to both massively give it the funds necessary so that it can be more than just an austerity regime and then begin democratizing it.
And that’s not always so easy. And I think that one of the tensions will see – and I don’t know how to resolve this ahead of time – is that particularly if you’re still under capitalism, but even potentially under a socialist system, the democratizing aspects of the strike in which you get people’s input, there can be a tension there between also the necessity to remain independent of the state. So the tension for instance of bringing teachers’ unions into the governance of a school while then at the same time being able to represent their interests is not an easy thing to resolve. And I think it’s going to be precisely that tension that you’re going to have to over and over again grapple with. But there’s no way around that, in the same way there’s no way around dealing with the contradictions of how much you do politics within the state. How much do you do, you know, extra-parliamentary action? It’d be nice to think there’s a formula for that or there’s some quick fix that, just, if only you stick with this one thing, then you’re not going to sell out because the reality is you can do that, but you also might just lead yourself to marginalization or ineffectiveness. Unfortunately, there’s no guidebook for this. We’re just going to have to sort of see as we go on the basis of what we know. But there’s no road map.
Sadia: Yeah, I think well you know just to add to your vision Eric, we’d been having some of these conversations with George Martell who was an education activist in the city before he passed away. And one of his key interventions was that in addition to drastically changing the structures and the broader conditions that act upon how education is done, that even the very nature of how we think about what is it to educate, what sort of ethics should guide it, what are we trying to do in terms of reproducing the minds of young people, that those sort of concerns as well as how those get actually operationalized in practice – in terms of how teachers think of themselves – would be have to be just as much part of the transformation. And so I think a visioning of the public education system in the full way that you’re doing it could be one of the ways to keep the momentum of something like a strike wave going – that you’re not just pushing back and having a defensive struggle and not just an offensive struggle in terms of asking for more funding but you’re able to put forward a fuller and fuller vision to bring teachers and parents and students on board to have at least this kind of sector of the state be pre-emptively transformed into something that actually meets human needs.
But what I was going to ask was that in terms of when we think about building working class solidarity for a broader political project, the way that the left often here has thought about the working class in the States in particular – the white working class and their support for Trump – and therefore being written off. Huge swaths of the population there and in Canada as well that are doomed to be the ones who are going to get in the way of such a project and they’ll have to be kept aside instead of incorporated. And in your book you illustrate why that’s a really offensive take and why in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, it’s been largely the white working class that’s been at the center of mobilizing for a better public education system for a better public sector. And so what are some of the ways that you’ve seen organizers and teachers’ unions push back against these sort of formulations? So that insofar there’s the Republicans and far-right mobilizing, that they’re not able to pull away the working class and their grievances in oppositional direction.
Eric: Yeah, that’s a good question. The reality is very different on the ground and the way it’s described in the sort of dominant red state/blue state paradigm. And all of the mainstream hot takes after Trump was elected, blaming it on the working class. Even though in every single state the majority of workers – white workers included – either voted Democrat or abstained. This is the overwhelming majority in every single one of those states. The reality is, yeah, many white workers did vote for Trump and many of these workers just went on strike against the Republicans to fight for better schools. Not just for themselves, but for their students who were overwhelmingly, in many states, students of colour. In a place like Arizona, the teachers are overwhelmingly white, students are predominantly Latino and other non-white students. And nevertheless, these teachers who, if you listened to the mainstream media, are probably intractable racists in fact went on strike and put at the fore demands on behalf of communities of colour and better funding for their students. So I do think that this idea of the depth of ideological racism is overblown and the depth of the threat posed by the far-right is overblown. The main attacks that we’ve seen on immigrants and on marginalized communities have come from the state and – both the Democrats and obviously the Republicans are way worse. I don’t think we should like underestimate the gravity of having someone like Trump in office. It’s certainly emboldened the far-right but, look, the reality was in West Virginia, in Oklahoma, and Arizona when these strikes popped off the far-right became an almost non-issue.
I asked people what happened to these groups? Did they try to show up? In Arizona five people came and they were literally drowned out because you had hundreds of teachers – at first who didn’t even know who these people were, but then when it became clear that they were hecklers – you had literally hundreds of teachers just surround them chanting “Red for Ed! Red for Ed!” And they just didn’t come back. So the reality was that the working class was able to cohere around an alternative political perspective when it was provided. And the big problem you have is that for the most part an alternative political perspective between, on the one hand, the Democrats who combined anti-working class austerity with social liberalism and then the Republicans who combined austerity politics, anti-working class politics, with reactionary positions – and so it’s sort of lose-lose and you can understand why some people either just check out of the system as a whole or, to be honest, when their jobs are cut by Democrats in the states you could see why some people might think that Trump is going to do something different.
And so it’s not the case that there’s this monolithic racist white working class. I just don’t think that that’s the reality. And the fact that in West Virginia, for instance, Trump won every single county also is brought up all the time. And you know they say how could you have a strike wave in a place where Trump won every single county? Well, Bernie Sanders won every single county in West Virginia as well. And that’s significant. And then in response to your particular question about what did the unions do or the organizers do – part of that is they were able to give voice to what already exists, which is a progressive sentiment across the board. Amongst working class people in all of the states, if you just look at poll after poll – even before these strikes even before Bernie – the overwhelming majority of people in all states think that the rich aren’t paying their fair share. That you need better schools that you need universal healthcare and even on issues that you might think would be more controversial, like immigrant rights, overwhelming support for giving rights to immigrants and opposition to racism in a general sense. It’s not to say that everybody is where we might want them to be at, but it’s not like we have to recreate from scratch a popular consciousness in favor of our demands. The thing we need to be able to do is put forward a path that can win them because people feel powerless. What the strikes did is they were able to show that there’s a way to win against these elites that exist. And the reality was tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who you might not otherwise have expected seize that moment and came out in full force to fight against the Republican Party. And so I think the big lesson there is that if you have confidence in working class people, which I think a lot of the left lacks actually – they have a somewhat condescending assumption about the cognitive abilities of working class people – if you actually think that the problem is less that people are brainwashed or somehow just so deeply ideologically confused by the powers-that-be, the main issue isn’t that but rather just people’s sense of powerlessness, then the politics that you’re going to put forward is less about just this ideological case for what we stand for and hope that people eventually get on board and more about fighting around very particular demands that people support and building up mass organizing and struggles that can win. And that in turn will lead people closer to our politics. Even if at first their involvement, uh even if first they’re not ideologically on board.
Steve: Thanks. And I think we just have one more question. You’ve talked a lot over the course of our really fascinating conversation about the need for a political struggle. And you’ve even mentioned the need for a worker’s party. Obviously the Democratic Party being porous as it is and allowing through the primary system somebody like Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic nominee, potentially, for president – the Democratic Party as a result of that porosity does offer a certain opening or a certain vehicle through which progressive struggles can be built to a certain extent. But it also poses barriers over the long run and even over the short run. So I was curious if you could talk a little bit about, as you have in your writings elsewhere, how to relate to the Democratic Party in both the short and the long term and particularly this idea that’s often discussed on the American left now of the “dirty break” with the Democratic Party and what that might mean.
Eric: Yeah. You know the historic position of the left in the United States, was that just two parties of the bosses and we need one of our own and that tactically what that meant was you shouldn’t ever support a Democrat. And to be honest in most countries of the world that probably makes sense. I think that is, on the whole, the right take because so much of what we try to do is draw class lines and make it clear that really the cutting edge issue on everything is whether you’re on the side of the working class or of the capitalist class. And elections are very important time to do that. So the position that we’re forced into in the United States is quite difficult, which is that because of the anti-democratic nature of the political system and then also the relative openness of the Democratic Party every attempt to build a worker’s party on what the model has been elsewhere has not gained the type of traction that we’d like it to have gained.
And so one of the lessons than we’ve seen over the last few years is that it is to intervene within I would say – I wouldn’t even call it necessarily intervening within the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party isn’t a type of membership party that you could really intervene in. It’s a ballot line that is really organized by the state. And the actual organization of the Democratic Party is totally secondary to both, on the one hand, the state structure and the ballot, which has these primaries that you vote for. And then on the other hand, the funding apparatus which is central, which is the main mechanism through which the capitalist class is able to make sure that the Democratic Party, as a whole and its politicians, upholds the interest of capital as opposed to labour. So the ability for us to intervene is primarily about using the ballot line which is to say that socialists or maybe working class political candidates generally can run on the Democratic Party ballot line but on a political basis and in connection with organizations that are directly antagonistic not just a capital, but really the policies of the Democratic Party as a whole.
Eric: It’s a very contradictory situation. And to be honest it’s not so easy because the Democratic Party does try to impose discipline. They do try to muddy the waters and they make it so that if you’re going to run – they call upon Bernie or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to also do things like support whoever the mainstream candidate of the Democratic Party is. And this tends to muddy the class lines in a way that is unhelpful and poses one of the reasons why you need your own party so that our candidates aren’t constrained by this incessant pressure to be part of anybody but the Republicans. And so the danger on the one hand of using the Democratic Party ballot line is that in most times throughout US history where that’s been attempted the result has been to have the left dissolved and co-opted back into the Democratic Party mainstream through this argument and the institutional and financial pressures of, “Well, we need to unite against the Republicans.”
And so if you’re actually going to be a Democrat, if when you lose the primary or more generally, you need to line up with the party as a whole. Which means, in fact, lining up with a wing of capital or at least the political representatives who are linked to a wing of capital. And that as socialists is very dangerous. That being said, we have no other option because the space for thinking that you’re going to build a third party just through running independent candidates is relatively thin. I do think on a local level you can and there have been some instances – like Kshama Sawant in Seattle for instance – of being able to run as an independent socialist. And so I don’t think these two things are contradictory. And I think actually if we’re ever going to have a “dirty break” from the Democratic Party, which is to say that you use the Democratic ballot line but in the direction not toward building the Democratic Party but actually building up the political and organizational forces that could have culminate in a workers’ party.
If you’re going to do that, it does make sense to, as soon as possible, start running some people independently too so you have some sort of exit strategy because the dangers that you just stay incessantly within the Democratic Party because on the structural level, it’s easier. You don’t have to go through all these hoops, you’re less likely to be accused of being spoilers. So the strategy then of how we relate to Bernie Sanders, but also Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is how do we use these electoral vehicles and these campaigns and then when they’re elected, first and foremost, to build independent working class organizations and to promote socialist politics in general. Because if we’re ever going to get to a workers’ party, it’s going to be, I think, down the road. I don’t think we’re talking like a half-year to a year framework. Although anything could happen. Imagine if Bernie gets elected, who knows what’s going to happen right.
All sorts of crazy things can happen. But generally speaking the level of class organization and class consciousness in United States is just too low to have a mass workers’ party yet. And so the exciting thing about what we’re seeing is class politics and socialist politics is back on the table to a significant extent – although not exclusively – because you have people like Bernie and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez everyday all day basically railing against the billionaires and are able to do that on a national platform. Our task has to be: how do we give an organized political expression to that on the ground by building independent organizations like DSA, like Labor for Bernie, like the unions. And if we’re able then to build up our forces, that’s going to be the precondition to be able to really heighten and continue to heighten the contradictions within the Democratic Party that you already seeing right now in which the apparatus of the Democrats are more inclined to have razed to the ground people like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – to impose all sorts of attacks on them than they are in defeating the right.
I think that they would rather have Trump get elected than have Bernie get elected, you know, as far as the Democratic Party establishment. But for us to be able to win that is it going to require building up our forces, building more strikes and disruptions. Because I don’t think you’re gonna be able to do this on a purely electoral way and making it so you have a socialist movement, which right now has 60,000 members. I think realistically you’re gonna have to have DSA or a socialist movement generally of hundreds of thousands of members – that has a real base in the workers’ movement. And if we have that, then at that point you can start talking seriously and not just sort of a rhetorically about building a workers’ party that is completely independent of the Democrats and we are going to need that eventually because otherwise we’re going to get sucked back into the politics as usual. The timeline is very hard to imagine but at this point it seems to me that that’s the only real plausible way toward building independent working class politics in the United States.
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Sadia: So thank you for joining us, Eric. This has been a great discussion.
Eric: Yeah, thanks for having me on. It was really fun.
Steve: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in to Oats for Breakfast. Feel free to get in touch with us by emailing email@example.com.
Sadia: If you’d like to support us, please go to patreon.com/oatsforbreakfast.
Steve: Thanks again for listening.
Sadia: We’ll see you next time.
Eric: Bye everyone.
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