Robert Cuffy (above) is a member of the Socialist Workers Alliance of Guyana, currently based in New York, where he is a public sector worker, trade unionist, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He spoke to Daniel Randall from Solidarity.
DR: What’s your assessment of where the Black Lives Matter movement is at, and what perspectives and ideas class-struggle socialists involved in it should be advocating and building for?
RC: This iteration of the black liberation struggle, which is the second uprising happening under the hashtag or label “Black Lives Matter”, comes at a specific and particular historical juncture. It comes at a point where the decay of capitalism is becoming more and more apparent. That’s something that socialists have been talking about for a long time, and have been mocked for talking about, because people see the periods of upsurge and recovery within capitalism.
But this time around, when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, everyone could see the real crisis our society was in, because by then we had millions of people unemployed across the world, tens of thousands of people dying from Covid-19, and we also had Covid-19 disproportionately affecting people of colour, and black people especially, and the economic crisis falling hard on black people and other people of colour as well. That was also true of the 2008 crisis and the subprime mortgage crisis which caused it, which fell heaviest on black owners and caused a generational theft of wealth.
In the context of this acute economic crisis, as well as the crisis of the long-term profitability of capitalism, and a public health crisis which has been poorly managed in the United States, the George Floyd rebellion represents what I would see as the leading edge of the class struggle in the United States. It’s a movement that is attempting to claim space from the capitalist class. This is happening under the Trump regime, which is openly racist, openly sexist, openly anti-immigrant, and openly going against the norms of bourgeois democracy that have been established over decades. It’s attacking institutions that are needed and represent gains of struggle, for example overturning things like the Voter Rights Act, and engaging in voter suppression so Trump can remain in power. So it was a confluence of these things that made the Black Lives Matter movement as powerful as it is right now. Black youths who rose up in struggle were able to bring along the rest of the class, young people especially, into that fight.
We’re at a place now where we have to ask, “what are our demands?” The main demands that have come up from the movement are to defund the police, to get cops out of our schools, and to get cops out of our unions. With those broad demands, what we as socialists and Marxists have to do is dig down into and interrogate them, and draw on lessons from the past to frame both our current struggle and the society we want to see. There’s no obvious answer to these things; in New York, for example, when we said “defund the police”, which became a demand to defund them by $1 billion over a fiscal year, we got okie-doked by our city council, because they achieved it by transferring the school security staff from the NYPD to the Department of Education, and making other line-item changes, whilst still instituting an austerity budget.
Does that suggest it’s necessary to root those demands in a broader programme for social levelling-up, as part of a transitional programme? How do you see the relationship between those demands around police powers and funding that the BLM movement has generated, and making that part of a general class-struggle programme for social advance, whilst not blunting the specificity of those demands?
That’s something that’s been debated in the past few years on the left in the United States, particularly in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). But it’s also a much older debate: how do demands arising out of the needs of particular parts of the working class, that are oppressed along lines of race and gender, relate to broader, “class-wide” demands?
There are those who say that we need a class-wide programme, and specific demands need to be subsumed into that. However, I would argue that the path to universality and universal demands come through winning the wider working class to the fight for these particular demands. As particular as they are, they have an underlying class content to them. Yes, the police kill black people disproportionately, but the ultimate role of the police in our society is to keep the working class in check.
A lot of people have a conception that labour, organised labour, should take the lead in these fights. We can tell by looking at the labour movement that it’s not in the state where it’s going to use the weapon of a general strike, but we have also seen that when black people have taken to the streets and launched this great protest movement, unions have followed, by issuing statements of solidarity, which we didn’t see in the same way in 2014 and 2015.
We’ve seen bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York City refuse to transport arrested protests. These are real acts of solidarity. We’ve some some unions take meaningful, if symbolic, steps, like the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which held a day of action for George Floyd, where they shut down ports across the country, and prior to that held an eight minute, 46 second work stoppage, the amount of time Officer Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Most recently, on 20 July, a coalition led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) held a day of action under the banner “Strike for Black Lives”.
If you study history carefully, it shows that the way to meld struggles against oppression and struggles against class exploitation is that you follow the lead of the most oppressed layers of the working class, because they have less invested in the system. The system has less to give us. Even the most simple demand of the BLM movement, for the police to stop killing black people, has not been met by this system. Even in the midst of this rebellion they have continued to kill black people with impunity. After the rebellion was launched, they killed Dave McAtee, they killed Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. So continuing to unearth what the pressing demands are for the most oppressed layers of the working class, and following their lead in struggle, is what needs to happen.
This needs to be differentiated from the tokenistic version of “following black leadership”, where you follow leaders simply because they are black, and you don’t interrogate the political programme you’re following. We could follow the Congressional Black Caucus. But if we did that, we’d be following them into kneeling with Nancy Pelosi, and that would get us nowhere. We can appreciate that they were forced into that act by struggle, and that municipalities have been forced to cede space to paint Black Lives Matter slogans on streets, whilst still understanding that the system is so limited in what it has to offer working-class and oppressed people that despite a mass movement that has shifted consciousness on the police in this country, we are still yet to see any concomitant or resultant material changes in the lives of black and working-class people.
What we’ve actually seen in response to these crises is austerity budgets being passed on a federal, state, and municipal level, which continue to disproportionately hurt the working class, people of colour, and black people most of all.
I wanted to ask about the appearance on the stage, so to speak, of organised labour as a strategic and independent anti-racist actor in this latest phase of the movement. You mentioned some of the strikes and other actions I wanted to ask about, such as the ILWU, which has its own particular tradition of taking industrial action around political questions, and we’ve seen, as you also mentioned, the SEIU-led “Strike for Black Lives” day of action. Could you say more about this? Firstly, how are those strikes decided upon and organised, given the legal restrictions on striking over political issues? And secondly, are the questions of racial inequality and racial injustice being pursued on the terrain of the labour movement itself? Are there rank-and-file and reform caucuses in unions that are taking these issues up as democratic questions inside trade unions?
I’ll have to plead ignorance about the legal terrain in the UK about political strikes. I don’t think it’s quite analogous to our situation in the United States, although we do have laws such as the Taylor Law in New York state, which imposes a prohibition on public sector workers going on strike and taking certain actions. That’s definitely been limiting, as public sector workers in New York state do things like run the subway. The last time subway workers went on strike, in 2005, they were fined for being on strike, and the leader of their union, Roger Toussaint, was jailed. People saw that and though, wow, if we go on strike we’re really taking a big risk.
So the public sector unions here in New York have instead tried to build a series of actions, or endorse actions organised by others. One recent event I attended was a march organised under the banner of “Caribbean People for Black Lives Matter”, and SEIU Local 1199, which represents workers in the healthcare industry, many of whom are from a Caribbean and West Indian background, turned out for that march. They produced signs with pictures and the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
But in my opinion, some of what the union movement is doing is trying to be a valve to release pressure, and show that they’ve done something, because this is a moment that demands that everyone has done something. We’ve even got banks issuing pro-Black Lives Matter statements. The unions are doing something similar, but because they’ve got this legacy of being organisations of struggle, they have to do a bit more. But they’re symbolic gestures, no more than one-day strikes. At no point are they discussing launching the working class’s nuclear weapon, which is the general strike: a general strike for black lives, where working-class people stay out and withhold our labour until we win specific demands.
Do you think the conditions exist for that? If a union issued that call, would it have grip and traction?
If, within any union, a rank-and-file caucus raises a motion to say, “we call on the leadership of our union, and the Central Labor Council to which it affiliates, to call a strike on this particular day in support of the Black Lives Matter struggle,” I think existing bodies of people within the ranks will hold that up. It’s then a question of how much you can keep that pressure on, and whether you can push it all the way up to the top leadership of the AFL-CIO.
I don’t think that our labour lieutenants want, at this time, to further upset the balance of capitalism. It’s clear that capitalism is in a moment of instability. The economy is tanking, they don’t even have places to store the oil that’s being overproduced, because demand is so low, and I don’t think they want to upset the balance.
One indicative example I’ve been pointing to is that the AFL-CIO leader, Rich Trumka, was on Fox News, of all places, talking about how the protests were violent and disorderly and all these things, and maybe a day later the protests in Washington DC attacked and burned the AFL-CIO’s headquarter. That was the point at which labour started issuing statements in support of the rebellion.
The dynamic is that, in many ways, the struggle in the streets is leading the struggle in the workplace. As Marxists we can have an orthodox, reflexive reaction to say, “no, it’s organised labour that should lead”, which appears to make sense, as Black Lives Matter has no overarching official structures - it doesn’t have a national structure, with state and city components that relate to it, it’s a much more formless, decentralised thing that we have going. But the challenge should certainly be made within the labour movement, even if we don’t see mass actions at this particular moment. It’s still something to propagandise for, and ask it says about our current union leadership that they’re not leading this fight.
Rank-and-file caucuses and other dissidents within unions have been pushing these things and raising these questions. Within my union, which is District Council 37 [AFCSME], which represents city employees, and is a federated union made up of many locals, we’ve had people who work in the mayor’s office, for example, lead Black Lives Matter marches. We’ve launched petitions in support of the movement, and we’ve tried to highlight the role our jobs play. I work in child welfare, for example, and we’ve tried to highlight the way in which the child welfare system disproportionately impacts people of colour. So that work is being done, but again, the leadership of the unions hold captive the resources. They hold the dues we pay, and they hold captive the membership lists and contact details that you could use to do something simply like say “show up on Monday for a national day of action”. The challenge therefore is how do we, as the rank and file, build solidarity across our workplaces but also challenge the leadership to do something more than issue symbolic statements.
You recently spoke at an action involving the Hong Kong diaspora leftist group Lausan, which drew links between the BLM struggle against police brutality in the USA, and the democracy struggle in Hong Kong. What do you see as the potential of that kind of international solidarity work?
One of the best things about this iteration of the Black Lives Matter is that it is global. It has been taken up across the world. Even in my hometown in Guyana, a small town called Bartica, they painted roads with Black Lives Matter signs. It’s really been inspiring that this movement has gone as far afield as it has, and that it’s giving impetus to local struggles as well.
The rally organised by the Lausan collective outside the People’s Republic of China consulate here in New York City was of a special importance, because it explicitly tried to build links between these struggles, rather than it simply being a latent thing. That rally happened a few days after I was attacked and injured at the “Defund NYPD” protest, so I wasn’t in any real shape to help organise, but I was able to speak there and there are videos available.
The point I made there is that we’re all beset by a global system of oppression and exploitation, and while that makes us sufferers in common, it also makes us powerful in common. It really gives life to the phrase that “capitalism creates its own gravediggers.” It’s reputed that the virus originated in China - there’s newer research emerging that suggests it may have been around before that - but, staying with that reputation, it’s really significant that the place we know this virus from is a place where the super-exploitation of the working class happens at one of the most intense levels in the world. It’s a place where the world has relied on the super-exploitation of migrant workers from the countryside, living in port cities, living in cramped and disgusting conditions where they have to place suicide nets outside workers’ dormitories. The regime in China can only keep social peace by doing things like instituting a whole new caste of workers and detaining Uyghurs, whilst also suppressing the democracy struggle in Hong Kong.
We have some unfortunate parts of the left that see that struggle as an “anti-communist” struggle, whereas in fact it is a struggle for true liberation. It’s a struggle from which we can learn. Immediately prior to the Lausan rally, the police had tried to raid the encampment at City Hall which is there to demand the defunding of the police, and that encampment successfully pushed back the NYPD and was able to stay there a while longer precisely because they took up tactics learned directly from the Hong Kong democracy movement, and the use of hand signals to communicate between barricades. It’s that kind of international solidarity that helps us break down and build out of the atomisation and alienation of the capitalism system. It helps us to say that, as individuals, we need to reach out to each other, but also as families, we shouldn’t be stuck in nuclear family units that force us to compete with each other. We should be stuck in our homes with fences around them. We need to break down the national barriers and borders that keep working people pitted against each other.
As the United States and China go to war with each other, the solution for working class people is not to take sides, but to make practical solidarity with Chinese workers, in both the mainland and in Hong Kong. So although that Lausan rally was small, it took steps in that direction, and I’m really happy to be in communion with the comrades from the Lausan collective to extend that hand. Hopefully it can be something that inspires people to continue to build that kind of global solidarity.
We’ve seen in the last few days comments from President Trump about possibly postponing November’s election. There’s discussion here on the left in the UK, as there is all over the world, about the political implications of the November election and what the Trump regime represents. What’s your assessment of that, and what the class-struggle left can do to reinvigorate itself and intervene?
Trumpism is a challenge, just to understand it. Since Trump has come into office, history has been moving at such a speed, it’s hard to even remember some of the things Trump has done. In arguing with friends about electoral strategy and tactics for November, I often challenge them to look at a timeline of what has happened, in the US and the world, since Trump has come to power. Day after day, the man says things and makes policies that threaten the very existence of a republic in the United States.
In looking at the origins of Trumpism, you have to peel back the layers. The rise of this kind of populist figure is really a result of the 2008 crisis. It was with this crisis that the crisis of capitalism’s profitability rose to the surface again. People did not take that lying down, people rose up in Black Lives Matter movements, they rose up in Occupy Wall Street. On the right wing there was the Tea Party movement. But one of the enduring features of populist movements is that they’re not explicitly anti-capitalist; they’re anti-corporatist. They see the financial sector of capitalism as the enemy. This is why things like “the billionaire class”, and “the 1%” became the popular conception of how to describe these things: “we’re the 99%, we’re against the 1%”. But populism, almost inevitably, fails to carry through its goal of democratising the state so the state can wrest control from these financial institutions. People saw that banks were being bailed out and car companies were being bailed out whilst homeowners and auto workers were being cut adrift, and it gave them the impetus to fight as part of these movements, but none of them really won, either on the right or the left. Consequently their energies were channeled into these populist figures, like Bernie Sanders on the left and Trump on the right.
These figures are like a man on a white horse, semi-Bonapartist figures who say they’ll rise above the fray of what’s happening. Trump says he’s going to “drain the swamp”; the older reference might be Jesus throwing the moneylenders out of the temple. Bernie Sanders was outmanoeuvred by the Democratic party, but Donald Trump, very shockingly, won the Republican nomination, because he’s someone who’s grounded himself in these populist movements via the Tea Party and the “Birther” conspiracy, based on the racist claim that Obama forged his birth certificate. That’s differentiated from other figures in the Republican party, like John McCain, who once interrupted one of his supporters in the midst of claiming Obama was a Muslim to say “no, Obama’s a decent family man.”
Trumpism is a response of the capitalist system, represented by the rise of figures like Trump, Modi in India, and Bolsonaro in Brazil, where a section of the ruling class sees a need to take a more hands-on, authoritarian approach to stop all resistance from the working class and save the capitalist system. But it’s a job they can’t actually carry out. We have in Donald Trump someone leading a bumbling administration, which is very inefficient, and who didn’t win the popular vote.
Trump has consolidated his power by taking into his hands all the reins of the state. In doing so he’s violated all previous norms. Even the Attorney General of the United States doesn’t even make a pretence of objectivity, Attorney General Barr is squarely in the pocket of Donald Trump. Barr has coordinated the federal response of police officers to go into cities like Portland and Seattle and put down protests.
I don’t think people fully understand what this represents, and how it threatens the existence of a republic in the United States. I don’t think people understand the extent to which socialists should’ve joined the fight for impeachment. There’s not just intensified class struggle in the United States between the working class and the ruling class, there’s also intensified struggle within the ruling class. This isn’t merely struggle between the Republican and Democratic parties, but struggle over what direction the state should go in handling these triple crises - the unemployment and economic crisis, the public health Covid-19 crisis, and the crisis of police brutality and the uprising against it.
Trump, at the beginning of June, wanted to deploy the military against protests. The national security establishment prevented that, understanding that deploying the military against protests risks having the military take the side of the protests. So this workaround that Trump has found, of deploying federal police officers, shows that, within the ruling class there is at least a tacit understanding that, should they simply put down this movement by force of arms, they risk a much bigger uprising. The president is unpopular like never before, to the extent that, people are willing to vote for Joe Biden even in places where he didn’t campaign, and even though he’s a deeply flawed candidate with his own history of racism and sexism.
We have to understand both the working class and the ruling class as bodies that have conflict within them, and understand how a united front needs to be built against Trumpism. There are some obstacles in people’s theoretical approaches to this. They’ll tell you we can’t have united fronts with Democrats, which is not the Marxist tradition. If you go back to someone like Trotsky, he says you can have a united front with the devil and his grandmother if necessary, because the concept of a united front is to have time-limited blocs for actions against a greater danger. That’s what Trump represents, especially for the most oppressed layers of the working class.
He’s repealed protective laws for transgender people. He has overturned the Voter Rights Act, which we achieved through the civil rights struggle. He’s tried to overturn the temporary programme for immigrants, the DACA programme, and he’s stepped up the deportation machine’s presence in immigrant communities so there’s now a palpable fear amongst undocumented communities.
Moving forward, the struggle in the streets to continue, but refine around particular demands. But we need to not counterpose the struggle in the streets to developing an electoral strategy. People tell us all the time, “screw November, you can’t vote out fascism, that’s not how you fight it.” That ignores the fact that the bourgeois democracy that exists in the United States exists as a gain of struggle, against patriarchy and white supremacy. Women and black people put their lives on the line to gain access to voting, and we still have an opportunity in this country to express our franchise. The options posed to us are very stark: neoliberal austerity with Joe Biden, or neo-fascist authoritarianism with Donald Trump. To abdicate making a decision, as my organisation, the DSA has done, by passing our “Bernie or bust” resolution that says we can’t endorse anyone else, doesn’t make sense. Working-class people are smart; they’re going to look around and say, “we’re voting. We’re holding our noses and voting for this no-good, piece-of-shit candidate Joe Biden. Why are you socialists too good to join us in this task?”
It’s not clear to me what the perspective is amongst socialists if Trump delays the election. I don’t think people are really paying attention to the dangers of these things, partly because we have these national blinkers on where we don’t look at things internationally. I’m Guyanese, and in Guyana we’re still in the midst of a disputed election that we held in March. The government in power is struggling as best they can to hold, even though they know they don’t have the popular support to do so. We have a similar thing in this country. Trump is continually trying to demonise the protests, and appeal to suburban voters. Fortunately it appears not to be working, as his popularity ratings keep plummeting, so to remain in power, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to imagine that Trump will postpone the elections. If that happens, I think the onus will be on socialists to join all other forces in protesting that. We have to recognise the ways in which Trump, Mitch McConnell, and the Republicans have remade the federal judiciary in their favour and stacked the Supreme Court with their people. It’s partly because of this situation coming up in November where a) they want to delay the election, and b) when the election is held, if Trump loses, he wants to appeal and appeal and appeal until it gets to the Supreme Court… and in whose favour is the supreme court stacked?
What are your thoughts on Howie Hawkins’s campaign on the Green Party ticket? Do you see any potential for the development of an independent left force that can intervene on the electoral terrain. In many ways it’s unfortunate, in my assessment, that Hawkins is running in what will be such a polarised election, because he’s someone who is from a class-struggle, internationalist socialist tradition, as his running mate. They both have backgrounds in rank-and-file labour organising as well. It’s quite a good looking third-party candidacy from a left-wing point of view. But you clearly think it would be a mistake for socialists to try to cohere around his campaign and make something of it? You think we should be saying, “hold your nose and vote for Biden.”
If we had much more time, we could talk about the way that this is just one of an array of united front tactics to be deployed regarding electoral work, and we could talk about the history of how Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky all put forward these tactical approaches at one point. But this is a very concrete historical circumstance: this election is a referendum on Trumpism. The voters have made that clear. It’s why someone as idiotic as Biden is the candidate, as opposed to Bernie. People just didn’t want to take a risk on Bernie, someone they don’t know as well, someone putting forward all these broader ideas, but also someone who’s been unable to make critical linkages with the black electorate, which you need to win any national election.
I moved to this country in 2002, and since then, and before, the Green Party has been running candidates. When they ran Ralph Nader in the early 2000s, they had great success in getting millions of people to vote for him. But Nader at the time had anti-immigrant politics, and people papered over that, even the socialists who encouraged people to vote for him. But more importantly, the Green Party at that time didn’t even come out and say it was anti-capitalist. That’s something that happened later.
Let’s be very clear: the Green Party, in no place that it exists, represents revolutionary socialism. The Green Party does not see the need for a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state. The Green Party would do what all other radical parties have done when they come to power, which is compromise with the system and implement austerity, despite their promises. The Green Party doesn’t even talk about austerity, or the crisis of capitalism, or the fact that there’s a certain inevitability to cutting wages, cutting jobs, cutting healthcare under this system.
Howie Hawkins is someone I know semi-personally. He’s a really nice guy. But there are missteps in his campaign that I would want to stay far away from. The question of Syria comes up prominently, for example. This is a terribly divisive issue on the US left, which is really a tragedy, because it should be a straightforward matter of solidarity with the Syrian revolution. When Howie was running for governor in New York, he had a campaign event with Jimmy Dore, who is very popular on the left, but is very pro-Assad who gaslights the Syrian revolution as some kind of al-Qa’eda operation. When Howie was asked to break links with Jimmy Dore over this, he said, “well, there are more important things to argue about.”
But the issues are bigger than that. Let’s say Howie’s campaign was the real deal. The question is, what tactics and strategies should the working class and its constituent organisations take the November elections? It’s important to put that framking on it because when people talk about voting, they talk about it in individual terms, as a virtue-signalling thing. Part of the reason people can’t vote for Biden, and I get it, is that it would crush their insides to vote for a racist and a sexist, because they conceive of voting as an individual act. The concept that socialist organisations take up strategic and tactical positions about how the working class should vote is somewhat alien.
So if we are talking about what is in the best interests of the working class, and this is a referendum on Trumpism, to vote for a third party is a wasted vote. No working-class third party can be built out of the Green Party, because the Green Party is not based in any of the places where you’d need organisation to build a labour party. In the United States, many of the Trotskyists have this perennial call for a labour party, which really misses what should be the Trotskyist understanding of the labour party - which is that when labour struggle is moving in such a way that there’s an uptick, and the labour leaders claim to be at the head of it, you challenge them to form a labour party. You make the demand that a labour party be formed.
To ask that a labour party be formed today, when Rich Trumka is on Fox News denouncing the protests for their violence, is a non-starter. He’s not going to create a labour party, and should he create one, it will be a conservative organisation. Why would we call that into existence?
Part of the problem with the left as it exists today is that we don’t create space for comradely debate and discussion. There’s a lot of sniping that happens. Maybe someone writes something in Jacobin, someone else writes something in Spectre, but there’s no real meaningful debates that are had on these questions. I’m considered a pariah in some parts of the left because I would advocate a vote for Biden. I still understand that he’s a ruling-class enemy. But it’s a question of picking which enemy we want for the next four years.
Is it permissible, in principle, for revolutionaries and socialists to have united fronts with Democratic politicians? Most people would answer that question by saying no, and that’s partially what’s wrong with the left, because most of these people have themselves been in united fronts with Democratic politicians without understanding it. If you go to a demonstration where a Democratic politician speaks, you’re in a temporary united front with them, plain and simple. If you’re building a march endorsed by a Democratic politician, you’re in a united front with them. If you went to the Women’s March, which was built mostly by Democratic party forces, you’re in a united front with them.
The question is, how to differentiate between a united front, where you’re working in a principled way with people with whom you disagree, and a popular front, where you’re building a long-term bloc with people with whom you disagree, but you don’t actually talk about those disagreements. It’s a thin line between a united front and a popular front. It’s a question of figuring how we march together and strike separately. But people confuse that with the idea of working with Democrats in any capacity, which is hilarious because five minutes ago these same people were telling me to vote for Bernie, who was running as a Democrat!
I had criticisms of Bernie, which led me not to support his campaign, but if for some reason he had become the Democratic nominee, of course I would tell you to vote for Bernie over Trump, but don’t have illusions. The problem was that the left was building illusions in Bernie Sanders, illusions that he could get into power and deliver from the top down all these campaign promises he made.
People see neoliberalism merely as a set of policies consciously implemented by the ruling class, so they think that all we need to do is get “our people” into power, who can then consciously reverse those policies and we’ll have welfare capitalism again. But that doesn’t really track with what the actual history of the United States is, because the economic crisis that gripped the United States during the Great Depression never really went away. The New Deal didn’t solve it, it was the US entry into World War Two that allowed them to stave off that crisis and usher in a period of postwar prosperity. That period is what people think of when they think of “the American dream”, when they think of the golden age of American capitalism. That’s what Trump’s referring to when he says “make America great again.” It’s your ability as a working-class person to have a job, have a house, buy a car, raise a family, and be safe and content on your deathbed knowing that your children will have a standard of living equal to or better than yours.
As socialists we’ll say, okay, that’s a great dream, but during that period, black people didn’t have rights, women didn’t have rights, LGBT people didn’t have rights, and immigrants were terribly persecuted. Nonetheless, the tone-deaf Democratic response - “America’s already great” - doesn’t acknowledge people’s real suffering under the system. It doesn’t acknowledge things like the decline in white life expectancy. It doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the wealth gap between black and white people today is back to what it was in the 1950s.
I fully understand why people don’t want to build a united front with the Democrats. They’re terrible, shitty people, who’ve been pretending to launch a “resistance” for the last four years. But we have to acknowledge that there are real conflicts in the directions in which the Democrats and Republicans want to take American capitalism and imperialism. While they both want to maintain the system, Trump wants to do so by pressing his knee more and more on the necks of the most oppressed layers of the working class. So to give ourselves a temporary reprieve, we need to join those saying “this is a referendum on Trump.”
The Green Party’s campaigns have been a nuisance in the past. This time around, they pose an actual danger of playing a spoiler role and letting Trump march to four more years of power. Four more years of a neo-fascist, semi-Bonapartist, authoritarian ruler is four more years for him to turn into an openly fascist leader. This is a country that posits itself as the leader of the free world; the last thing we want is for authoritarianism to take a firm grip in the leading imperialist country in the world. What message does that send to the ruling classes, and the working classes, of the rest of the world?
The last question I wanted to ask is on a different topic. You’re from Guyana, and are a member of the Socialist Workers Alliance of Guyana. I wondered if we might conclude with a few words on your group, its political heritage, and the left and the labour movement in Guyana.
The group is, for the most, part struggling. People in Guyana went through a period of history where a government that was put into power by the British and the United States in 1966 when we won independence decided it was going to chart a course to “socialism”. So socialism is viewed with great suspicion in Guyana, and it doesn’t help that the People’s Progressive Party, the main opposition party also comes from a type of socialist tradition, and still has a “Marxist-Leninist” constitution because it was founded by Cheddi Jagan who at the time was part of the Communist movement.
In Guyana we have a pretty unique historical situation where, in the early 19th century we changed from being a Dutch colony to a British colony. Soon after we became a British colony, in 1812, the Emancipation Act was passed in 1834 and the slaves were freed from the plantations, although they then had to go through a ridiculous, four-year apprenticeship period. 1 August marks Emancipation Day in the English-speaking Carribean, and it also marks a slave rebellion that took place in Essequibo, protesting this four-year period of apprenticeship.
But with the former slaves and Africans leaving the plantations in the 19th century, there was a need to replenish the labour supply. The British initially turned to Chinese and Portuguese indentured labour, which didn’t really work out, but as a result we now have minority populations in Guyana of people descended from the Portuguese and Chinese. They eventually turned to India, and a scheme of indentured labour lasted all the way from the mid-19th century until 1917, when activism from Gandhi and others got this scheme abolished.
So today, Guyana’s population consists of the indigenous people who were near the coastline and then chased into the interior by the colonists, who represent 10-12 percent of the population; then we have around 30-something percent of the population who are Afro-Guyanese like myself; and around 40-something percent, which represents a plurality, who are Indo-Guyanese. So politics skews along racial lines, and to all intents and purposes the People’s Progressive Party is the party of the Indo-Guyanese, and the People’s National Congress is the party of the Afro-Guyanese.
Right now, Guyana’s government is made up of a coalition headed by the People’s National Congress and involving several other smaller parties, and this racial animosity has come to the fore again because this government had a no-confidence motion passed against it in December 2018. What’s supposed to happen when a no-confidence motion passes is that snap elections are meant to be held within three months, but this government disputes the motion by going through the courts. So we’re previewing what could happen in the United States, because our government is refusing to step down. But unlike the United States, our government is trying to coopt the Black Lives Matter movement by saying “it’s so unfortunate that we, the black people in this government, are having our democracy denied to us.” They’ve tried to frame themselves as anti-imperialists by saying that it’s the United States that wants them out of power and has committed voter fraud to get them out of power. Government figures have written op-eds in support of the George Floyd rebellion, they’ve painted some streets with “Black Lives Matter”, and they’ve painted the Square of the Revolution, which honours the 1763 slave revolt, with “Black Lives Matter”.
We’re in a very tense and complicated political situation, but the situation makes clear that, even though we’re on the periphery of capital, we remain interlocked with this global system. The reason these two parties, who represent Guyana’s petty-bourgeois ruling class, are fighting so hard for power is because Exxon was poised to start extracting oil from the coast of Guyana before the Covid-19 epidemic hit. Because of the crisis in the petroleum industry, where there’s overproduction and plummeting prices, this has been put on hold, but they know that at some point prices will pick up and they want to be there to scoop up the profits.
The tradition that I align with, as part of the Socialist Workers Alliance of Guyana, is the tradition of the Guyanese revolutionary Walter Rodney, who was a Marxist and pan-Africanist; the tradition of CLR James; the tradition of Claudia Jones; the tradition of Andaiye, who was also a Guyanese revolutionary who recently passed away. This tradition speaks to the agency of working-class people in making the struggle for themselves. It speaks to not looking to the above for saviours. And it speaks to analysing very specifically the neo-colonial ruling classes in the Carribean and the global south, and the role that they themselves play in keeping the imperialist system afloat, even in the instances in which they’re rhetorically imposed to imperialism.
The most important aspect of that is the concept of debt, and the foreign debt that countries like Guyana owe and continue to repay. We pay about 40-50% of our GDP annually towards servicing this debt. As a result, the wealth that’s created within our society gets sent abroad, and isn’t spent on addressing the human needs of Guyanese people. As a result our government imposes austerity measures to balance the books. One of the ways in which it’s done this in the last few years is that it’s shut down the sugar estates, which were historically the lifeblood of the Guyanese economy. Sugar production is the reason Guyana was colonised. They’re the reason we were transported across the Atlantic, both as African slaves and Indian indentured labourers. And in the remaking of this economy, the villages surrounding the sugar estates have fallen into the kind of depression that would happen if you just pulled all the auto industry out of Detroit.
While both the coalition government and the opposition party have attempted to racialise the struggle, there have been struggles by the sugar workers, who’ve gone on strike; struggle by Guyana’s teachers, who’ve gone on strike; struggle by the box site workers, the people who work for multinational corporations in gold mining and timber, who’ve all shown a different way forward. These are the examples that we have to speak to.
Walter Rodney said that no-one but the working class can liberate the working class. Anyone who’s offering you freedom is either trying to fool you, or fool themselves. These words really ring true in the year that marks the 40th anniversary of Rodney’s assassination. Rodney’s legacy is one that stretches across the globe, and it touches the UK: he studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and you can go and find the place where he wrote his dissertation, on the Upper Guinea Coast, and where he did a lot of the research for How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and where he often returned to lecture. Rodney, like CLR James before him, would go to Hyde Park and deliver lectures there, as part of the oral West Indian tradition of radicalism.
Rodney’s story helps to connect Guyana to the wider class struggle. It helps people to think of Guyana beyond being the place where Jim Jones committed his massacre. And it helps connect Guyana to an international struggle. Guyanese people are everywhere; we’re a small country, but for the 800,000 people we have living in our country, we have just as many abroad. Guyanese teachers for example are in high demand across the world, we range as far away as Botswana, the UK, the United States. The struggle of Guyanese people for freedom and liberation is the struggle of all people for freedom and liberation. It’s critically important that we speak to each other, and that we learn to be fluent in the language of each other’s struggles, because there’s always something to learn in that give-and-take and the critical pedagogy that Rodney and Paulo Freire and others spoke about.