53. Building Socialism in the US



The 1992 split with the Grant and Woods minority was international in character and not just restricted to Britain. This necessitated an increased number of international visits by me, but mostly by those comrades who worked primarily for the CWI at this time. Tony Saunois, Bob Labi, Clare Doyle and Simon Kaplan carried most of the burden of this work. However, Lynn Walsh and I also played an increased role following the split as a means of consolidating our international support. Some of this initially involved working with small forces.

This was the case when I visited the US in 1994 for the first time. For decades, a small band of dedicated Marxists has worked to lay the basis for the victory in Seattle in 2013 of Kshama Sawant and the party to which she belonged, Socialist Alternative.

The 1994 visit took place in one of the most difficult periods ever to find an echo for socialist and Marxist ideas, particularly for a small group, coming as it did just a few years after the collapse of Stalinism, when capitalist triumphalism was at its height. The attendances at meetings, as well as the broad response, were meagre to say the least! One of the purposes of my visit was to speak at the National Committee of the US organisation sympathetic to the ideas of the CWI – called Labor Militant at the time – which was well attended and was very useful for me in assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, travelling round this vast ‘country’ on a continental scale allowed me to form a picture of the conditions of the US working class, which proved to be useful in drawing some conclusions as to their consciousness and the state of the broad labour movement.

In the month I was in the US and Canada, I spoke at about ten public meetings, which meant criss-crossing North America. I travelled from New York to Philadelphia, then to Boston, from there to Toronto, back to New York – for the National Committee – then to Chicago, Oakland in California and on to Seattle, where I addressed a very small meeting. It was difficult to imagine then that in this quite attractive city the biggest breakthrough for US socialists would come 20 years later! I was then driven up the West Coast to Vancouver before returning via Seattle back to London.

Labor Militant, which was in solidarity with the CWI, had been raising the issue of a Labor party for many years and was actively involved in Labor Party Advocates. It had 20 delegates at the National Convention of this body and also when the Labor Party was set up at the conference of 6-9 June 1996 in Cleveland Ohio. They were able to make a significant intervention. The hope was that this meeting would be the most historic for the US working class since the building of the mass industrial unions in the 1930s. 1,400 delegates were at the founding convention of the new Labor Party. A worker from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union told this convention: “We regard the Democrats and Republicans as so similar that the two candidates Clinton and Dole are like a toothache and a headache, both painful in ways that makes no real difference to the sufferers – working Americans.”1

As soon as Ralph Nader indicated his intentions to stand as an independent in the 2000 Presidential elections we gave critical support to this campaign, before the rest of the left had taken a position. It immediately gained an echo, rising on the high tide of antiglobalisation sentiment with a host of progressive celebrities jumping onto the bandwagon. Subsequently Nader was blamed, even by formerly supportive radicals, for allegedly allowing Bush to win by standing in Florida. In fact, the Democrats represented by Al Gore had a weak, ultra-cautious approach in the election campaign, even losing Gore’s home state of Tennessee. Moreover, when it was clear that George W Bush and his cronies – particularly his brother Jeb who was the governor of Florida – had in effect corruptly fixed the election by debarring the infamous ‘hanging chads’ (incompletely punched holes in electronic ballot papers) in Florida, the Democrats refused to organise a mass movement to dispute this and demand that the decision be revoked.

After much prevarication and under the pressure of Socialist Alternative amongst others, Nader again decided to run in 2004. The appeal of John Kerry was so weak that the Democrats lost ground in their core constituencies. In contrast to the 2000 elections, Nader’s 2004 run was built on the back of the anti-war movement and with most middle-class progressives feeling scarred after the lies and four years of Bush’s assaults. However they were successfully bullied into the comforts of ‘unity’ behind Kerry.

We were confident that out of the anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation and anti-war movements, a new consciousness would develop. This was not yet of a broad socialist character but an important layer of workers and youth had begun to draw socialist and revolutionary conclusions. Even in the US elections, the underlying situation reflected a polarisation which could take a more conscious form in the period that followed. We stated that “Socialism and Marxism are now going with the grain of history after the difficult struggles of the 1990s to maintain a revolutionary pole of attraction.”2 The predictions made here were borne out, with some delay, but borne out they were in the election of Kshama and the new radical, socialist period which is opening up in the US and worldwide.