Letters from America

With the US presidential election just around the corner, Challenge correspondent Ellis Garvey, speaks with Luke Watkins, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and an active member in the Teamsters Union.

Challenge looked specifically at the current situation on the ground in the USA, and what the options are for US workers to provide an alternative to the status quo and to bring developing events to their conclusion. The first part of the interview focused on the ongoing BLM protests, examining how they have impacted working class organisations.

Ellis: “Tell me about yourself, are you part of any ongoing campaigns or organisations?”

Luke: “I’m a young working-class individual who lives in one of the poorest regions of the country. For my whole life, my family has been impoverished. We’re historical members of the lower-middle class of this country (i.e., the majority of the working-class). I first became politically conscious of the plight of the worker in 2016, when Bernie Sanders ran for President. His was the first campaign in my lifetime that I felt truly represented my family and mine’s interests. What he was proposing seemed like an incredibly radical change to American politics; I wasn’t aware that what he was proposing was actually the norm in Europe, and that his policies would be considered more on the center-left wing there, instead of far left, which was generally how it was received here in the States. 

That campaign galvanized my interest in left-wing politics. After he lost in 2016, I began to research more about what he called “democratic socialism.” After a while, I’d fallen down the rabbit hole, so to speak, and began learning about the history of socialism in the United States, then socialist history in general. Then I began reading Marx, which only served to make me more politically conscious. The works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao were inspiring to me, because I’d seen what these revolutionaries had proposed for people just like me – people in my economic strata – and I found hope in their messages. I was able to relate to their words in a way that I’d never been able to with anybody else before. 

Cut to a few years later, and I’m an avid Marxist-Leninist, a member of my local Teamsters union, and an aspiring activist. I’m also a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.”

Ellis: “Has there been any changes to union action and organisational tactics in light of recent events regarding both the COVID outbreak and the BLM movement upsurge in the US?”

Luke: “Among the workers in my area, union membership has definitely increased since the start of the pandemic. As terrible as this outbreak is, it’s served as a dramatic wake-up call to the working-class across the United States that something needs to change. Workers in the Deep South are shedding the idea that’s been force-fed to them by the Republican and Democratic parties for years that capitalism is a liberating and uplifting system. The scales are falling from their eyes en masse, and I couldn’t be happier that some change, as minuscule as it may be, is occurring.”

Ellis: “What has been the impact on the working class with these recent events? Is ideological change becoming more possible within progressive elements of unions, towards socialism?”

Luke: “In spite of the profound injustices towards the working class, especially the African-American working class, that COVID and the BLM movement have brought attention to, many unions in the US are still staunchly anti-socialist. This shouldn’t be too surprising, I suppose, as since the Cold War, the government has been engaged in a propaganda war on socialist and communist thought. The labor unions of this country are not immune to it. Unfortunately, from what I see, unionization is becoming less and less of a viable vehicle to be used in pursuit of revolution and justice for the working-class. 

A good chunk of the working-class in the Deep South are also reactionary, making it harder for trade unions in this area to appeal to African-American and Latino workers. I’d love to see national and regional unions like the Teamsters themselves become more open towards black and brown workers. They cannot be divorced from the labor movement, they are invaluable and essential to the struggle for justice. I will say it again – a mass socialist revolution that lacks justice for our black and brown comrades is no revolution at all – it is a reactionary parade.

After this I wanted to know how his local area, a Republican dominated area of America, has responded. Getting to understand the local context was important to this interview because it illustrates how even in areas that have a vocal right-wing presence there can be noticeable changes that occur.”

Ellis: “As you are from a majority Republican area is it reflective of how local prejudices have been in response to BLM? How can we raise awareness for the millions of workers who are disillusioned from politics, can we break with the mainstream?”

Luke: “A few months ago, the mayor of my town posted a racist rant on Twitter, calling George Floyd a “drug addict”, and absolving the cop who murdered him in cold-blood from any wrongdoing. There was an uproar that put my city in the national spotlight, and it was reported on by many major news organizations, even by some across the pond, and rightly so. Guess what party he belonged to.

His comments weren’t just reflective of the Republican Party, you understand. They were a reflection of years and years of white people holding disproportional executive, legislative, and institutional power over black people. It’s gotten better, obviously, since the end of Jim Crow, but conservative areas of the country still remain the worst areas for anti-racist activism.

Here’s how we raise awareness: we need to emphasize the importance of anti-racism in the labor movement. As I said earlier, reactionary white workers are a huge obstacle to this. If we can change their mind, we can build a broad, multi-racial coalition of the working-class who can make actual change. We need to convince the reactionary Southern worker that our Mexican-American migrant worker comrades didn’t “steal their job” – the ruling class did. We need to show them that their anger needs to be directed upwards towards the exploiters, not towards the exploited.

To get an idea about the situation in regard to the election I pressed on this question to find what the sentiment was like around the election. Furthermore, I wanted to receive criticism of tactics perused and gain some nuance on the topic, particularly in regard to the Democratic Party.”

Ellis: “With the status quo for the upcoming elections remaining largely the same, how do you and organisation’s you are involved in feel about the way things are going? How have they impacted your area and organisation and how do you think things are going to change for the future?” 

Luke: “Many labour unions in the US have put their full support behind Joe Biden. For what reason, I don’t know. He will be, in my opinion, no better for labor rights than Trump is. I hope that the many crises of 2020 will continue to wake labor organizations up more to the injustices of capitalism, and that they will shift farther to the left, embracing socialism.”

Ellis: “What are your thoughts personally on what we should be doing in terms of advocacy in regard to the election? Will you personally vote at all in light of the candidates?”

Luke: “Organize, organize, organize. That is our only option. Voters are not given a choice in this election. The “choices” for the candidates are two elderly, rich, white capitalists who have no idea what it’s like to be a member of the working-class. We need to collectively become disillusioned with the sham that is electoral politics. We need to work diligently to raise awareness of its inefficacy, and say “Do you want real change? Revolutionary socialism is the only answer. 

We can look to Lenin for guidance here. He spoke about bourgeois electoralism. We must form our own revolutionary parties like the PSL or WWP, who engage in revolutionary activity, as well as electoralism, not just one or the other. It can’t hurt. I will be voting for Gloria La Riva of the PSL. I know she will not win the Presidency, but that’s not the point. The point is to show, through the numerical results, that the American worker is sick of capitalism. Hopefully, this will galvanize the US as a whole in favor of revolution.” 

Ellis: “To come back to the theme of my first question has the upsurge and interest in politics allowing a wider base to be formed that would be independent of the Democratic Party?”

Luke: “I definitely think so. More “left-wing” democrats (i.e., social democrats like Sanders and AOC) have been appealing to the youth. The American youth (or “Gen Z”) is our treasure. They are the most politically conscious in our society, and they are future revolutionaries. We must support their struggle in any way we can, even if this involves forming a more left-wing coalition that is not quite Marxist-Leninist, but still anti-capitalist. From my experience, this seems to be the collective attitude, anyway.” 

Ellis: “Do you think it is possible for those self-proclaimed socialists in the US to start to be able to move away from the Democrats and build a wider support base similar?

Luke: “Many already have. The DSA is an example. Joining the DSA is an excellent starting point for young people and workers who are disillusioned by capitalism to get into revolutionary politics. We must respect and encourage their collective disavowing of the centrist policies of the Democratic Party, and we must influence them in any way we can to move further towards the left, towards a revolutionary mindset. To make such a movement possible, I believe the circulation of leftist literature is key. Works like “Why Communism?” by Olgin are perfect examples. It is succinct, it is simple, and it is a great place to start moving away from the centrism of the DSA to revolutionary communism. 

My next question here focused on what we have to learn from the strategies employed by the ‘mainstream’, well known, left wing groups in America. This was intended to be able to receive criticism and find where abouts would be the best direction and course of action for socialists in America. Historical examples are after all a way to see where we have gone wrong and how we can rectify the situation.”

Ellis: “Can we learn from the criticisms of the historic tactics of communists in the USA or the DSA and be able to move to a new stage of struggle that is less reliant on figures such as Bernie Sanders?”

Luke: “Of course we can. And we must, if we want to survive. Bernie Sanders is a great tool for getting more people into revolutionary politics, but at the end of the day, he is still a capitalist and an imperialist. As Marxists, we must invite “developing leftists” into our movement with open arms, but we must make it known that some of their imperialist views, especially towards AES states, must be abandoned. I’ve seen many on the left (the actual left) be pretentious and critical of young leftists just getting into theory, many of whom, like myself, were galvanized by Sanders’ and Stein’s rhetoric. This must be changed. We cannot allow ourselves to think of ourselves as “better” socialists than them. We must mentor and tutor them and change their opinions that way.”

Ellis: “It’s been a pleasure to have this interview and hope we can discuss more in the future as events unfold, any final comments you’d like to make?”

Luke: “Read Marx. Organize. Join a union. Work to change your local chapter if it holds reactionary and anti-socialist sentiment. Black lives matter.”

We hope this interview will provide a good inside line from our comrades over the sea, to get to know what we can learn from one and other experiences as a key part of our internationalism. And also, to find ways in which we can show solidarity whilst having a broader understanding of the situation and the matters at hand. In the future to show our solidarity we will be more able to march forward past the errors of the past and will bring help bring an effective and coordinated alternative to American capitalism.”

Ellis Garvey

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