Democratic revolution, from one abolition to the next

BY:Scott Hiley| September 22, 2020
Democratic revolution, from one abolition to the next


Step by step we have seen the slave power advancing; poisoning, corrupting, and perverting the institutions of the country; growing more and more haughty, imperious, and exacting. The white man’s liberty has been marked out for the same grave with the black man’s.
—Frederick Douglass, “Speech on the Dred Scott Decision,” 1857

“Loud and exultingly have we been told that the slavery question is settled, and settled forever,” declared Frederick Douglass in 1857. The Supreme Court had just decided, in the infamous words of Chief Justice Taney, that Black people “had no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” Therefore, the opinion held, state governments did not have the constitutional authority to outlaw slavery.

That ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford was supposed to be the last word on the question of slavery, enshrining it as a permanent, constitutionally protected part of the republic. In reality, though, Douglass explains, slaveholders had been fighting a losing battle for four decades, attempting to preserve their inhuman system in the face of growing opposition. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Congressional gag rule of 1835, the annexation of Texas in 1845, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850: all were designed to impose slavery on a nation that increasingly rejected it.

“The fact is,” Douglass quipped, “the more the question [of slavery] has been settled, the more it has needed settling!”

The free states of the North could no longer keep a respectable distance, nor entertain the fiction that slavery was a uniquely Southern problem. There was only one way forward. “The American people have been called upon, in a most striking manner, to abolish and put away forever the system of slavery.”

We are facing a similar moment now, a high-water mark of reaction like 1857. Like Southern slaveholders before the Civil War, the reactionary forces that dominate the current Republican Party understand that their program is opposed by a majority of the American people, and that their ability to impose that program is incompatible with democracy — even the limited democracy of the capitalist republic.

The Trump regime is their response, a desperate play to retain power. In embracing the man Ta-Nehisi Coates called “the first white president,” they hoped to win their “gag rule,” their Fugitive Slave Law, their Dred Scott decision: a way of enshrining reactionary power in the Constitution, shoring up right-wing dominance against the erosion of its popular support. In one sense, the Trump regime simply follows the established pattern of the extreme right: voter suppression, packing the federal judiciary with conservative extremists, gutting regulatory agencies, and using executive power to advance the interests of extractive, defense, insurance, prison, and financial firms. That strategy dates back to at least the Reagan era, and it accelerated after the 9/11 terror attacks and then again, even more sharply, after the election of the first Black president and in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

The fascist threat looms so close that even the colorblind can tell the whites of its eyes from the white of its hood.

As the crises of capitalism deepen, however, the Trump regime and its core supporters have escalated their fascist provocations. Coronavirus is resurgent, and tens of millions face homelessness and hunger now that COVID-19 relief payments have expired. Rather than cooperating with Democrats to fund relief for working families, state and local governments, and public schools, Senate Republicans demand more and more tax cuts for the rich — on top of the $135 billion doled out during the first two rounds of stimulus. Intent on restarting the profit engine at any cost, conservative billionaires funded the anti-mask movement and “re-open” protests, where armed right-wing vigilantes disrupted legislatures and defied public health orders. Authorities look the other way, just as they do when police murder Black men and women in the streets and even in their beds. The president declares himself and his supporters immune to oversight and empowered to exercise violence against their political enemies. Those who criticize his regime or the white supremacy that infuses it are labeled traitors, thugs, and terrorists. The same president who defended the “very fine people” of the neo-Nazi mob in Charlottesville now deploys secret police to gas, beat, and kidnap Black Lives Matter protestors. The fascist threat looms so close that even the colorblind can tell the whites of its eyes from the white of its hood.

But here again, echoes of Douglass: the more it has been settled, the more it has needed settling.

Led by Black and Brown working-class youth, a vast democratic movement tests its strength. Grabbing what is possible with one hand and what is necessary with the other, it has dragged the two so close together that their edges have begun to overlap, allowing demands like community control and even abolition of police to emerge as immediate, practical questions.

Recent decisions reflect the growing cultural isolation of the extreme right.

Also significant are moves by traditionally conservative organizations to repudiate the most odious icons of white supremacy. Mississippi has removed Confederate imagery from its state flag. NASCAR has banned the display of Confederate flags at its events, and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention announced that he was retiring the Broadus gavel, a symbol of his office that once belonged to a Confederate slave owner. The Boy Scouts of America have stated their solidarity with Black Lives Matter and amplified their work on diversity and inclusion, which will now include a merit badge that is now mandatory for any Scout who wants to achieve the organization’s highest rank. Though symbolic, these decisions reflect the growing cultural isolation of the extreme right.

Finally, public rebukes of the Trump regime like those by the Supreme Court, Republican allies, senior military officials, the asylum officers from Citizenship and Immigration Services, and even by voices from Fox News testify to the disarray within the ruling class.

At the same time, the sharpening of capitalism’s economic, social, and political crises during the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the dead end of neoliberalism. With over 200,000 dead and 27 million out of work, 40 million Americans facing evictions that will further complicate efforts to contain the spread of the virus, an underfunded public health infrastructure and a dysfunctional health care system, and pharmaceutical companies raking in billions from drugs developed on the public dime, it is clear that the free market and its apologists have little to offer in the way of solutions.

Yet the House and Senate Democrats have fought for an unemployment extension, increases to SNAP benefits, ongoing stimulus payments, and oversight of payments to big corporations — showing the degree to which the liberal section of the ruling class casts its eyes leftward in search of solutions. This is particularly marked in the European Union, where Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel have walked back their long commitment to austerity in favor of a massive stimulus package where the bloc’s richest nations will take on debt to bail out those hardest hit. As one comrade, Wallace Sparks, put it, “the problem with being against socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s talking points” — especially when a crisis hits.

Just as the pandemic showed whose work was essential to keeping the country going, the response shows that working-class and people’s forces now provide not only the momentum, the “boots on the ground,” but increasingly the ideological and political leadership of the struggle against the fascist threat. With the ruling class mired in bitter internal struggles and the people’s movement converging around demands for justice, equality, and democracy, we are in a moment of democratic revolution, like Reconstruction or the civil rights movement, where it is possible to change how political power is distributed and how it is used, in ways that push at the boundaries of capitalist democracy.

We have the chance to take decisive action against the most racist, anti-democratic, and violent section of the capitalist class: the Trump regime, its lackeys in the Republican Party, and the corporate backers, propaganda networks, and terrorist organizations that enable their rule. Doing so will weaken the capitalist class as a whole, stripping it of the ability to force the burden of this crisis on the backs of workers.

What would such a victory look like? Can it be measured with simply parliamentary arithmetic, by tallying up legislative majorities, or does it require other benchmarks? And where would it put us in the struggle for socialism?

With Douglass’ words — to abolish and put away forever the system of slavery — still ringing in our ears, we might say that the decisive defeat of reactionary forces is summed up in a single word: abolition! Not seeking compromise with the extreme right, not normalizing it, accepting it, or carving out a space for it in the name of “bipartisanship” and “civility,” but recognizing at long last that it is incompatible with even basic democracy and dismantling its whole political apparatus.

Revolution and Reconstruction

Such an abolition of reactionary institutions is what Lenin theorized as a “decisive defeat” of tsarism in his major essay on Russia’s 1905 revolution, Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution. Lenin’s argues that the task of Communists is to help the working class take leadership in the struggle for democracy — even when that means fighting alongside liberal-democratic forces from the capitalist class, and even when the immediate gains to be made remain within the bounds of the limited, imperfect, and unstable democracy of capitalism.

After all, Lenin reminds us, “there is bourgeois democracy and bourgeois democracy.” That is, the level of democracy in a capitalist state depends on the balance of forces. (Think, for example, of the difference between the New Deal and neoliberalism: both are configurations of capitalist democracy, but with very different orientations.) Russia’s 1905 revolution set in motion a cross-section of the empire: urban and rural proletarians, struggling peasant farmers and small business owners, students and democratic intellectuals, members of national minorities, and some big capitalists. For Lenin, the main question was who would lead that revolution, who would stamp it with their class interests and political priorities.

Democratic-minded capitalists might oppose the monarchy to a degree, he proposed, but their own power as a class depended on the ability to exercise undemocratic control over labor. Their class interest would push them toward compromise with the tsarist state to maintain the old repressive institutions and block the initiative of the people. Therefore they would limit themselves to slow and partial reforms.

A new democratic republic would not be socialist, but it would place the working class and its allies in the best possible position to fight for socialism.

Wage workers, however, had a material interest in the advancement of all forms of democracy and equality, including the eventual abolition of capital’s power over labor in a socialist state. Thus, working-class leadership in the democratic revolution would direct it along “the way of fewest concessions and least consideration for the monarchy and vile, rotten, disgusting and contaminating institutions that go with it,” leading to the establishment of a republic based on universal, secret-ballot suffrage and equal political and civil rights for all, regardless of sex, class, or nationality. The new democratic republic would not be socialist, but it would place the working class and its allies in the best possible position to fight for socialism (“to turn against the bourgeoisie . . . the democratic institutions which will spring up on the ground cleared of serfdom”).

To borrow our own country’s history as an example, the framers of the Constitution left us a scaffolding for a capitalist republic, but their vision of popular sovereignty, political equality, and inalienable rights was constricted and distorted by their reliance on a particularly savage form of capitalist exploitation linked with settle colonialism: slavery, in which enslaved African labor was used to cultivate land stolen from Native nations through state-sponsored displacement and genocide.

Post–Civil War Reconstruction comes closest to what Lenin envisions: a decisive defeat of reactionary forces, and a decisive advance of democracy under the leadership of Black workers demanding the abolition of slavery and full political rights. “It was,” in the words of historian Eric Foner, “a remarkable, unprecedented attempt to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery.” The defeated Confederacy was placed under military occupation. Old state governments were dissolved and, in most cases, placed under the administration of the Union Army. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established even before the war’s end to provide relief for newly free people and refugees. However, as Du Bois describes in “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” the Bureau grew during Reconstruction into a transitional government that made laws and used state power to enforce them. That government’s main purpose was to protect the rights of new Black citizens — freedom from enslavement (13th Amendment), due process and equal protection (14th Amendment), and voting rights (15th Amendment).

However, before the Union could fulfill its promises to Black citizens and put democracy in the South on a solid political and economic footing, the balance of power in Congress shifted away from Radical Republicans and toward a bipartisan group anxious for reconciliation between Northern and Southern capital. Many of the gains of Reconstruction were swept away in a tide of reaction and white supremacist terror that lasted well into the twentieth century, leaving behind the jetsam of Confederate monuments that protestors are now tearing down.

Obviously, neither the Freedmen’s Bureau nor Lenin’s “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” provide a ready-made template for our current struggle. The threat we face is not from outside — not a separatist slave power or a leftover feudal monarchy. Rather, it festers within the bourgeois-democratic republic, where it works to undo the gains of two centuries of struggle for equality. Equally significantly, workers and oppressed people now wield tools of political struggle that they did not have when Lenin was writing, let alone at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War: universal suffrage, labor unions, public education, and mass communication technologies. Finally, capitalism itself is both vastly more developed and more volatile, closer to its end than its beginning. It is no longer a question of achieving capitalist democracy (as it was for Lenin), or even just of broadening it (as during Reconstruction), but of directing its deepening crisis toward socialism rather than fascism.

We need a revolutionary, working-class, abolitionist approach to the struggle against fascism and for democracy.

Despite the differences of context, a basic point of strategy emerges: the extreme right has got to go. Neither the liberal-democratic configuration of capitalism put in place after World War II nor its neoliberal reboot at the end of the Cold War has proven capable of keeping extreme right and fascist forces in check — any more than it has been able to deliver on its promises of shared prosperity and equal opportunity. In fact, time and again, the liberal bourgeoisie is drawn into cooperation with the extreme right to advance its own interests. While we would be foolish to dismiss opposition to the Trump regime from within the ruling class, we must also be clear about the need for a revolutionary, working-class, abolitionist approach to the struggle against fascism and for democracy.

An abolitionist approach is rooted in a broad people’s uprising whose leading forces are no longer willing to tolerate violent, oppressive, and undemocratic institutions — a movement with the tactical flexibility to acquire power and the unity and determination to use it to reshape the institutions of the republic.

What does democracy look like?

This is not the place for a programmatic discussion of the demands that might be raised in the struggle to abolish the extreme right. Such a program will take shape in the course of struggle, driven by the work of building mass unity. Nonetheless, three arenas of struggle seem central to the task, based on the current strategy and tactics of the extreme right and the demands of the movements rising against it.

The first is the fight against white supremacist terrorism, whether committed by vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse or by police under the guise of “law and order.” In fact, the links between law enforcement and white supremacist militia organizations are well documented and have only become clearer with Trump’s insistence on using federal law enforcement to terrorize immigrant communities and suppress Black Lives Matter protests. This fight has two sides. On the one hand, we must designate and target white supremacist groups who advocate armed violence as the terrorist organizations they are, and identify, remove, and prosecute any law enforcement personnel who are shown to be working with them. On the other, we must fundamentally transform — defund, restructure, and even abolish — those law enforcement agencies that now function as the main domestic terrorist organizations of the ruling class, especially militarized urban police forces and the Department of Homeland Security, which Trump seems to have activated as the advance troops of a fascist takeover.

The struggle for voting rights is the second arena. The Republican Party shows its neo-Confederate colors most clearly in its unrelenting campaign to disenfranchise racially and nationally oppressed people, as well as youth and the poor. An abolitionist approach to the struggle against the Trump regime and the extreme right must beat back any attempt to restrict voting rights, including by restoring the Voting Rights Act’s powers and penalizing officials and organizations who engage in voter suppression. It must also go beyond defensive struggles, working to expand the electorate by securing the right to vote for incarcerated people, opening a path to citizenship for immigrants, and allowing non-citizen residents to vote in local elections.

But voting rights is about more than who gets to vote. It’s also about what we get to vote on, and how much our votes count. The Senate and the Electoral College, designed to limit the role of the people, are incompatible with a “one person, one vote” electoral system. Outside the narrow political sphere, we can also fight for community and workplace democracy, by establishing community control of police and by turning back the 40-year tide of privatization and union busting that have placed more and more of our social and economic life under unilateral, unaccountable corporate control. The right to organize and bargain collectively, to maintain strong public institutions, and to regulate how businesses operate in our communities is as fundamental to democracy as the right to cast a ballot in a presidential election.

The final arena is the struggle against the right-wing propaganda machine that saturates society with the ideas of the most backward section of the ruling class. This machine includes billionaire-funded university centers, conservative mass organizations like the NRA, radio and broadcast monopolies like iHeartMedia and Sinclair Broadcasting, content producers like Fox News and Breitbart, and social media platforms that amplify conspiracy theories and enable the ghoulish behavior of right-wing provocateurs (not to mention the murderous behavior of gun-toting terrorists). Reforms like breaking up media monopolies, restoring the fairness doctrine, providing subsidies for independent media outlets, and regulating social media as a public utility could vastly limit ability the ability of reactionary billionaires to propagandize for their agenda.

This is a fight to preserve democratic liberties from the effects of concentrated wealth.

This struggle is distinct from the battle of ideas, which aims at uniting people around a particular vision of society. It has nothing to do with targeting people’s beliefs. Instead, it is a question of property, and how its misuse threatens democracy: of wealth generated by our labor, stolen and accumulated in vast quantities by the capitalist class, and concentrated into institutions that amplify the speech of a reactionary minority. The goal is not to ban one set of ideas, but to restrict the role of corporations in deciding which ideas people encounter. Just as the fight for voting rights aims at leveling the playing field in the struggle for political power, demands like overturning Citizens United and regulating social media as a public utility aim to level the field in the battle of ideas. This is not an attempt to limit free speech or close down political dissent, but a fight to preserve democratic liberties from the effects of concentrated wealth.

From one abolition to the next

Reforms that increase the breadth and power of the electorate, control the use of state violence, limit monopoly power, and restrict the role of property in the battle of ideas will have the biggest impact on the extreme right, but they will limit the power of the capitalist class as a whole, including those forces who allied themselves with the democratic movement in opposition to fascism. This is true, to one degree or another, of every democratic reform. A decisive, abolitionist defeat of the extreme right will entail new limitations on capitalist property rights — just as the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of freed people did, just as the National Labor Relations Act and the Civil Rights Act and the Affordable Care Act did, to greater or lesser degrees.

In other words, the fight to dismantle the political apparatus of the extreme right will bring forward the contradiction between democracy and capitalist property. In his analysis of the 1848 revolution in France, which toppled the last Bourbon monarch, Marx says that it “struck off the crown behind which capital had kept itself concealed,” clearing the way for open class struggle. The abolition of the monarchy cleared the way, he proposed, for the struggle to abolish capitalism.

The fight for democracy must challenge capitalist power directly.

Paraphrasing him, we might say that the decisive defeat of the extreme right will strike off the white hood beneath which capital conceals itself, making it ever clearer that the fight for democracy must challenge capitalist power directly. As CPUSA’s program puts it, the next phase of struggle will pit the anti-monopoly coalition, led by the working class and its closest allies, against the biggest transnationals (including forces who are currently part of the broad democratic and anti-fascist movement).

These phases are not self-enclosed, airtight historical units. The anti-monopoly coalition is already taking shape within the struggle against fascism, within organized labor, around progressive candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and on issues like collective bargaining, single-payer health care, tenants’ rights, debt forgiveness, redistributive taxation of the rich, cutting the military budget, and rebuilding the public sector. Likewise, the reactionary right will persist well past when we dismantle its institutional infrastructure.

Nonetheless, a decisive, abolitionist defeat of the extreme right will take us around a corner. Not only will it eliminate the immediate threat of a fascist takeover, it will deprive the liberal bourgeoisie of the main cover for their own undemocratic demands on labor. It will also reveal new possibilities of struggle, including the formation of an independent workers and people’s party.

We cannot turn that looming and all-important corner if we fall into the trap of measuring victory by tallying parliamentary majorities. Defeating Trump will be a victory, as will breaking Republican control of the Senate. But if we are to move forward decisively, those majorities must be put to the work of change, used to dismantle the infrastructure of fascist and neo-Confederate reaction that brought Trump to power — an infrastructure so entwined with the Republican Party itself that the two are inseparable.

It remains to be seen if our capitalist republic can survive without organized white supremacist terror, without voter suppression, without the “vile, rotten, contaminating and disgusting institutions” that have festered in it since the founders took slavery and settler colonialism as the basic tools of nation building. What is clear, however, is that it can no longer survive with them.

So, for democracy: in defense of we have won so far, and onward to what we have yet to win. The work begins with the resounding defeat of the Trump-GOP regime this November, but it must be carried on, from one abolition to the next, to the point where our struggle explodes out of capitalism’s narrow confines and reshapes the world.

As we think about that work, we should ask ourselves the question Lenin takes as the title of the final chapter of Two Tactics: dare we win?

Image: Joe Brusky (CC BY-NC 2.0).


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