How to Get the Change We Need

My name is Lisa and I am a member of Socialist Action USA, from its Minneapolis branch. I thank SA Canada for inviting me to speak (to the “Revolution or Ruin” conference, November 21). I look forward to hearing your questions and comments.

In 2020 we witnessed to one of the most astounding chain of events in modern history. We are living at a turning point in history, as we stagger from tragedy to tragedy, as capitalism teeters on the edge of collapse.

Of course, the major headlines around the world continue to focus on the global corona virus pandemic. The U.S., while the richest nation in the world, has had some of the highest infection and death rates. COVID-19 deaths have now well surpassed 200,000, a number that was unthinkable just a few short months ago. And we are on track to double that amount by the end of the year, with infection rates skyrocketing and the country on the edge of another lock-down.

The expiration of an additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits several months ago has left many families at the brink of desperation, forced to choose between risking their lives to put food on the table, or staying home safe, but unable to pay for rent and other basic needs. We now face an unprecedented eviction crisis, with an estimated 30-40 million renters and homeowners in the US at risk of losing their housing and joining the homeless population, now reaching epidemic proportions. Eight million people in the U.S. have slipped into poverty since May.

Across the board, it has been Blacks, Asians, Latinx, Native Americans, immigrants, women, LGBTQI and other oppressed groups that have suffered the most under the pandemic. People of color and other oppressed groups are more likely to work in frontline or so-called “essential” jobs, and are less likely to have access to health care. The racist underpinnings of the U.S. system have been exposed by the effects of the pandemic on people of color. It is no coincidence that Blacks and other minorities are dying at much higher rates that their white counterparts. According to the COVID Tracking Project, Black people are dying at 2.1 times the rate of white people nationwide. Blacks, Native Americans, and immigrants are also much more likely to be caught up in the racist prison and detention system, where the corona virus pandemic has raged largely unchecked, leading to massive outbreaks and lack of proper medical care.

Women have also largely been impacted by the pandemic. In every instance, women, especially Black, Latina, Asian, Native American, and lesbian and trans women, stand at the bottom of every measure of a decent life. Women make up two thirds of those employed in the 40 lowest-paid jobs, with women of color making up the majority of low-paid workers. All the gains women have made in the labor market since the 1970s, hard fought and hard won by the feminist movement, are being steadily stripped away in the current crisis. Between February and May of 2020, 11 million jobs held by women have disappeared.

All the pain, rage and misery that the working class has been experiencing for months boiled onto the streets following the brutal police murder of George Floyd in broad daylight on a street corner in Minneapolis. The world watched in horror as Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, kneeled on the neck of Mr. Floyd for almost nine minutes, while he pleaded for air. And all because he allegedly passed a counterfeit 20-dollar bill at the corner store.

In the days following his murder, “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for the movement, as wide spread protests and riots erupted first in Minneapolis, and then spread across the county and around the world. Millions of people, fed up with lost wages and lack of access to health care, poured into the streets to protest the pandemic of police brutality and systemic racism. I live about four blocks from the third precinct police station in Minneapolis, and I will never forget the sound of tear gas canisters being fired into the crowd before the police station was stormed, the helicopters constantly flying over my home, the smoke and ashes hanging in the air as my neighborhood burned, and rage and hurt I felt in my community.

Despite the mass protests of millions of people for weeks on end, the problem of police brutality and systemic racism has not been conquered. While the Minneapolis City Council debated “defunding the police,” they were allowing hundreds of homeless people to be evicted from city parks, their tents and belongings bulldozed if they refused to leave. While millions of protestors, Black, brown and white, young and old, fought for justice in the streets, stormed the White House and toppled Confederate statues, riot police and National Guard members clashed with peaceful protestors and Breonna Taylor’s murderer went free. Although the widespread protests raised the collective consciousness of the working class and exposed to the world the horrible racism inherent in the capitalist system, they have not brought about lasting change. Police continue to engage in racial profiling, and they continue to murder Black and brown people every day with virtual impunity.

While protests raged in the streets, fires raged in California and much of the west coast of the United States. As of today, over 4,000,000 acres have burned, making 2020 the largest wildfire season in modern history. Skies were turned an eerie orange, and thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes, while others have been forced to stay inside because of health conditions like asthma. In California, thousands of incarcerated people are sent each year to fight wildfires, while being paid between two dollars and five dollars a day. And around the world we hear daily reports of melting ice, rising temperatures, and impending catastrophe. Despite ongoing protests, little is being done to address climate change in a system that puts profits before the health of people and our planet.

To top it off, we just lived through a truly epic presidential election. With the racist, homophobic, war mongering, misogynist Trump facing off against the lack luster democratic pick, Joe Biden, the 2020 election truly became a spectacle of “lesser evilism.” Much of the spontaneous, creative and independent organizing and protesting that had been happening in the streets up until a few months ago, was suddenly being sucked into “get out the vote” efforts. We often say that the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements, and we truly saw this happening during this election cycle. “Anyone but Trump” became a mantra of many, who were willing to vote for Biden (or anyone else for that matter), just to get Trump out of office.

After surviving a last minute Supreme Court nomination, a daily media spectacle, debates that were little more than shouting matches, President Trump testing positive for COVID-19, threats of violence and intimidation, accusations of non-existent voter fraud, threats made against the U.S. post office, and a battle over mail-in ballots, Joe Biden was elected the next President of the United States with a slim majority in several swing states.

So, we’re safe now, right? The four horrible years of Trump are over! Things will go back to normal under Biden. He’s going to save the economy, get us a COVID-19 vaccine, pass immigration reform, and address climate change! Policing will be reformed, bad cops will go to jail, and we’ll have Medicare for all! Right? Right??

Well, think again. Biden doesn’t represent the working class any more than Trump does. He’s just another rich white, privileged heterosexual man, given a position of power by the ruling class. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party don’t have the interests of working people at heart, they are just two sides of the same coin, both working to prop up the capitalist economic system. If Trump is no longer serving their interests, if he’s too much of a loose cannon, makes too many inflammatory statements, they’ll just replace him with someone who can soothe the masses into a false sense of security. But replacing Trump with Biden will no more solve the problems of the capitalist system than will jailing a few so-called “bad cops” solve the problem of systemic racism.

But the capitalist system is now in its death throes. It is no longer able to save itself from economic crisis after crisis, from never ending wars, from impending climate collapse. The system is crumbling, a system built on racism, sexism and every form of oppression, a system meant to keep workers in place and the cogs turning, to create more and more profits and power for those at the top, while the rest of us are left to wither and die. The contradictions of that system are now being exposed as never before, millions of people are waking up and seeing with fresh eyes the racism, the homophobia, the sexism, the climate crisis, that surrounds them every day.

So, if Biden isn’t going to save us, if elections and voting aren’t the answer, what is? How do we act on our anger and hope, how do we bring about a new society, one built on solidarity and collaboration, one that puts people before profit and the health of the planet before economic expansion? And didn’t Socialist Action also participate in the election?

Yes, we did participate in the elections, not because we had any illusion that we would win, or even influence the outcome in any measurable way. SA participated because the election gave us a platform to share our views, another way to reach the hearts and minds of all the people, young and old, who are waking up and realizing that they don’t want to live another day under capitalism. Socialist Action is much more than a theorizing group of so-called “armchair socialists,” we want to raise the consciousness of the working class, to help people understand that the only way to win against racism, sexism, misery, climate change – all of it – is to break the capitalist system. And the only way we can do that is by organizing in the streets, being there in solidarity with working people … we must fight to build a revolutionary working class party that is independent of the Democrats, the Republicans, and any connections to the ruling class.

Socialist Action, and our predecessors in the Socialist Worker’s Party, have a long history of leading and organizing social struggles. One of my favorite examples is the 1934 Teamsters’ Strike, led by a handful of comrades in Minneapolis throughout a bitter year. Despite being threatened, battling strike-breakers in the streets, and even being gunned down by police, the strikers led the movement to victory, making Minneapolis a union town and laying the groundwork for important labor struggles across the U.S.

I highly recommend Farrell Dobb’s first-hand account of the strike, Teamster Rebellion. Since that time, our party has been involved in every major struggle and movement, including the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the movements in solidarity with Cuba and Latin America, the feminist movement, climate justice, the immigrant rights movement, and many, many more.

Today, the health pandemic and the epidemic of police brutality have exposed the corruption of the capitalist system, rotten to its core, in new ways every day. We have already seen how the consciousness of working class people has risen to a new level as the lies of the ruling class have been exposed. Over the last few months, people have risked their lives to march and protest in the midst of the worst pandemic in 100 years. But despite the mass character of many of the protests we saw this year, they were largely spontaneous. They lacked a national leadership, a cohesion, a clear strategy that can make a movement sustainable. They were bursts of anger and energy that faded away without leaving lasting change. Many of the social movements being organized today lack a charismatic leader or group that can hold a movement together and provide national direction and leadership. This is true across many movements, the women’s movement, immigrant rights, the anti-war movement, and many others. There is no Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, no Cesar Chavez, to lead today’s movements. In the past, the union movement was able to provide leadership in many movements, but the labor movement has become weak after years of attacks and encroaching bureaucratization. The same holds true with many social movements. The best leaders and organizations people have to look to for direction these days, are more often than not watered down or weakened by ties to the Democratic Party.

So how do we go about building a truly independent movement of working people? A movement free of ties to the Democratic Party and the ruling class? A movement with direction and leadership, that is strategic and sustainable? A movement that has, at its core, the goal for a better society, one that serves the interests of many instead of the interests of a few elite?

I’m going to quote from a speech that was first given by Young Socialist Alliance leader Peter Camejo in 1969, called How to Make a Revolution. He says,

“Revolutionary socialists have been accused for many years of wanting to overthrow the U.S. government by force and violence. When they accuse us of this, what they are really trying to do is imply that we want to abolish capitalism with a minority; that we want to force the will of the minority on the majority. The opposite is the truth. We believe we can win a majority of the people in this country to support a change in the system. It will be necessary to make a revolution precisely because the ruling powers will not peacefully accept a majority rule which wants a basic change.”

Peter goes on to explain that the small number of ruling elite who run our country, let’s say 30 thousand people, hold sway over the rest of the 300 million of us by maintaining illusions. They want people to feel safe, secure, to put their hopes in a Democratic candidate like Joe Biden, rather than in an independent social movement. The real danger to the ruling class comes when the masses of people begin to awake, when they see through the lies and illusions to the true nature of the beast, when they take matters into their own hands and start to realize their collective power. And while the ruling class will use force if necessary, to suppress opposition, they will also try to keep their repression within the bounds of what they can get away with without destroying the illusions they have so carefully created and waking up masses of people. That’s why you didn’t see the National Guard indiscriminately gunning down protestors after George Floyd’s murder.

Peter goes on to explain in his speech,

“Now let me explain something about mass awakening. There’s no way that we radicals can by ourselves wake up the American people. Just forget about that. There is no special leaflet that we could write so articulately and carefully that when you hand it to a worker, he will pick it up and say, “That’s it – I’m with you.” If that were how we could do it, we’d have done it a long time ago.

There is only one way it will happen. Capitalism does it for us. The system creates the situation in which people wake up.

So, all of a sudden, you have an increase in consciousness, an awareness about the problems of society, created by the capitalists. And this awareness can become much more intensified if you have a crisis – if you have a major war, or a downturn in the economic situation.

Now you can have all this spontaneous radicalization, you can even have uprisings of sorts, but that will never result in a change of the system, unless it’s organized, unless there is a concept of how to struggle. Because, the masses of people, when they first radicalize, they don’t understand the general problems. They don’t understand how to change society. Very few individuals come to this consciousness completely on their own.

Think about the ideas – some of them very complex ideas – which have been a by-product of the accumulation of thought and experience over the long history of revolutionary struggle. It’s this thought, this experience which is embodied in what we call the vanguard – organizations like the Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers Party.”

Today these ideas are embodied in Socialist Action. There is no shortcut to revolution. The path to revolution is a long and at times weary road. What we need to work towards is mobilizing people, winning them over to our ideas, and involving them in the struggle through mass movements. The U.S., Canada, and every country in the world is made up of working class people. Blacks, Latinx, Native Americans, Asians, women, LGBTQI people and every oppressed group make up an overwhelming mass of people who have no objective interest in the capitalist system. They have to be won over to our ideas and our strategy. We don’t create the conditions for revolution. But we can create the subjective factor – the vanguard party.

Our task is to build the revolutionary party, to understand and participate in the revolutionary process. To be in the streets (and online too) with the working class, shoulder to shoulder with the best activists who are building movements to fight every kind of injustice inherent in the capitalist system. I invite you to join Socialist Action today, to join us in our ongoing work to make a new world possible.