The period running up to Joe Biden’s inauguration as president of the US on 20 January was marked by unparalleled turmoil and crisis. Tony Saunois, secretary of the Committee for a Workers’ International, analyses the significance of those events and how they affect the prospects for a Biden presidency.
Amid unprecedented events, thousands of supporters of Donald Trump rallied in Washington on 6 January. Hundreds, some armed, then stormed the congress buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Donald Trump, promising a “wild” protest, had summoned his supporters to come together. Far-right militias like the ‘Proud Boys’ and the far right conspiracy group QAnon, and others, converged on Washington as Congress debated the usually formal procedure of certifying the election results.
Like everything else in this polarised drama, the battle is still being played out, and will continue to do so even after Joe Biden is sworn in.
Regimes such as those of Xi Jinping in China and Putin in Russia have looked on with glee at the turmoil unfolding in the US. They have used it as a propaganda weapon against both US imperialism and the idea of ‘democracy’. The turmoil which has engulfed the US will threaten to further undermine the standing and credibility of US imperialism with regards intervening internationally, especially in the neocolonial world.
The inauguration day is posed at the time of writing to be like no other. Further attacks by armed right-wing militias are possible throughout the country, if not in Washington itself, which is in a ‘ring of steel’ with thousands of national guardsmen deployed as the city goes into lockdown. Trump has declared that he will not attend Biden’s inauguration – the first time in 152 years that an outgoing president refused to attend.
Many of the features of war also apply to revolution. Yet they also apply to counter-revolution as well. On 6 January, events unfolded at a dizzying speed and have continued since. Splits, divisions and political summersaults have taken place within the Republican Party and among Trump supporters.
The vast majority of the US ruling class, already wanting Biden to replace him, have been terrified by the events which have unfolded and are intent on punishing Trump. Banning him from Twitter and other social media platforms, they are attempting to impeach him and prevent him from standing for election in the future. Imprisonment for financial irregularities is not excluded. They have brutally moved against this out-of-control egomaniac. This is an indication of how they would also react to a serious challenge from the socialist left.
At the top, many of Trump’s erstwhile defenders have peeled away and abandoned him, including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and House representative Liz Cheney, who are now backing Democrat proposals for his impeachment.
What the events on 6 January represent has provoked discussion on the left. Some have simply dismissed Trump protesters as a rabble and a mob – including the majority of the capitalist politicians. Others have wrongly denounced Trump and all his supporters as ‘fascists’ and ‘racists’.
For socialists, this requires greater analysis in order to have an accurate assessment of the forces involved in order to combat them. Fascism, for Marxists, is a special form of reaction, which acquires a mass social base with the objective of destroying and atomising the working class and its organisations.
This is not what is represented among the mass of Trump voters and supporters. Within the movement around him there are racists and some fascistic elements, especially in some of the militias. However, the majority of his voters have been drawn behind the right-wing populist rhetoric denouncing the Washington elite, ‘big tech’, and the rich, due to the lack of a serious socialist alternative existing.
Now they believe the election was rigged, partly because Trump has repeatedly claimed it was, and because the US has a long history of vote rigging. This, and other movements of this character, pose a serious threat and challenge, and need to be fought against. However, they are not the same as the mass fascist movements which developed in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.
The events on 6 January need to be placed in context. They follow attempts by Trump, once he lost the election, to circumvent the result. It had the features of an attempted coup, if not military, then parliamentary and judicial, backed up by an attempt to mobilise right-wing forces on the streets.
The Black Lives Matter movement was denounced as violent ‘antifa’, ‘anarchists’ ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’. In the election campaign, Trump denounced Biden and Harris as ‘socialist’.
This political preparation was then followed by attempts to manipulate the postal service to minimise the importance of postal ballots. After the vote, Trump launched 62 court cases, including one to the Supreme Court. State legislatures were appealed to, to keep Trump in power and declare the election a ‘fraud’.
At the same time, street protests, including those by the far right Proud Boys and others, took place around the country. A parallel attempt to control the executive was put in place, with the firing of the Secretary of Defence, the cyber security chief, and homeland security directors. The court case pursued by Texas won the backing of 127 members of Congress. The question of declaring martial law was discussed in Trump’s inner circle.
The declaration on 18 December by the Army Secretary and Chief of Staff that the military had no role in determining the outcome of the election, was followed on 3 January by a similar declaration by all ten living former defence secretaries. This indicated what was being discussed behind the scenes in Trump’s inner circle.
Amid signs that some serving police and military personnel, as well as reservists, supported attempts to block Biden becoming president, the very tops of the US military issued on 12 January an unprecedented statement saying: “President-elect Biden will be inaugurated and become our 46th Commander in Chief”.
It is unclear if any clear co-ordinated plan existed for 6 January – however, some of the right-wing groups, in carrying handcuffs and some weapons, may have had the intention of kidnapping members of Congress.
The decisive majority of the capitalist class in the US and the tops of the state machine clearly opposed these developments by the out-of-control Trump administration. Sections of the Republican leadership like vice-president Mike Pence peeled away, undoubtedly under ferocious pressure from the capitalist class, while McConnell, having used Trump to consolidate the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, moved to try to break Trump’s grip on the Republican Party.
Trump and the far right clearly did not have the forces to carry off their attempt to overturn the election results, which would have produced a social explosion.
The fact that the attempts to enact a ‘coup’ did not have the forces for it to succeed, does not mean that it was not attempted. In 1981 in Spain, Antonio Tejero led 200 Civil Guards into parliament to prevent it electing the government. Ministers and parliamentarians were held hostage for 18 hours. Yet the ruling class opposed this adventure and it collapsed.
In Venezuela in 2020, operation Gideon, aimed at overthrowing Maduro’s government with the support of the Venezuelan opposition, collapsed into a farce.
The developments in the US illustrate the polarisation which exists in US society. This will not evaporate under Biden. Although not mass organisations, it is clear that some of the far-right organisations in the US view the events of 6 January as the first encounter for a new civil war in the US. Some are even posing the question that the ‘two Americas cannot live together and they must live apart and separate’. For some, behind this is the idea of greater powers and autonomy to the states, and a partial fragmentation of the US.
An element of this has always existed in the US, but it is not excluded that this could develop further as the crisis and polarisation deepen in the coming period.
The devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the economic and social crises facing US capitalism, will not be fundamentally resolved under a Biden presidency. The disappointment with the Obama era, the social crisis, the lack of a powerful socialist working-class alternative to the Republicans and Democrats, and the social conditions which exist, have created a vacuum in which Trump and the right-wing populist forces around him have won a basis of support.
Some sections of those who have rallied behind Trump could have been won to supporting a serious socialist alternative. The cynical switch of Trump to describing the protesters, firstly as “heroes”, then as a “mob”, may cost him support among those who had previously backed him. One of the tasks of an independent party of the US working class would be to appeal to Trump’s base, with a view to splitting it and winning its support for a genuine working-class alternative.
In the light of the events which have unfolded, a big majority of the US ruling class and the Democrats, together with international capitalist politicians, have launched an onslaught against Trump. Only a few weeks ago, these same international representatives of capital were extremely timid in their attacks on the Trump regime. US capitalism is terrified that the Trump disaster could be repeated. Biden now speaks of the need for a domestic anti-terrorism act. Yet workers’ and socialists cannot rely of these measures by the capitalists to defeat Trump. These same methods will be deployed against socialists and the working class. In Seattle, the Democrats are attempting to remove the socialist councillor Kshama Sawant, illustrating the real character of these ‘Democrats’. This is opposed by the Committee for a Workers’ International and all socialists.
The way to defeat Trump is by building a political alternative which challenges capitalism – the system which allowed him and his reactionary forces to flourish.
The crisis has opened big divisions in the Republican Party as a backlash to the events which have taken place. The die-hard Republicans who backed Trump in the House of Representatives and Senate in opposing the certification of the election results have been at logger heads with big business groups, many of which are already withdrawing funding from them.
It is possible that a split, or even a series of splits, could take place. The future of the party as it is currently constituted is an open question. If the ‘traditional’ Republicans were to gain the upper hand, a split to form a Trump-based party – with or without Trump – is inherent in the situation. This prospect is one measure of the crisis confronting the US ruling class.
The devastating economic and social situation facing US capitalism means that the Biden administration will be compelled to introduce a big stimulus package. Already he has announced a $1.9 trillion stimulus package to tackle the pandemic crisis. The health crisis, the millions who are unemployed, the 30 million facing the prospect of eviction, together with the likelihood of further racist attacks by sections of the police, means that Biden will come to power facing an explosive situation.
The Democrats, representing corporate capitalism, are coming to power under entirely different objective conditions to those faced by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Defending the interests of capitalism will compel him to attempt to adopt certain measures in an effort to avert even greater social upheavals. The Financial Times is urging Biden to be more like Franklin Roosevelt than previous Obama administrations and “go all out for structural change”.
However, such measures will have limits, and will not be able to resolve the underlying crisis which exists. It is the worst crisis facing US imperialism since the 1930s. The massive investment in infrastructure in the New Deal introduced by Roosevelt in 1933-36 had a significant impact. However, alone it was not sufficient to overcome the crisis. With a renewed crisis in 1937, it was mainly rearmament as the onset of the world war loomed which began a rebooting of US capitalism, opening the prospect for an unprecedented upturn in the world economy after World War Two. US imperialism was also in an assertive position as the dominant imperialist power. The situation in the Covid-19 era of capitalism is entirely different.
Any concessions or reforms introduced by the Biden administration could have a conjunctural effect, but they will not resolve the underlying devastating crisis.
The decline of US imperialism is also in marked contrast to its global dominance following the end of World War Two. The selection of Boston mayor, Marty Walsh, a former building workers’ union leader, as Labor Secretary, illustrates how Biden will attempt to lean on the trade union leadership and the AFL/CIO trade union federation.
The dire economic situation facing the US working class will provoke big struggles from the working class, and the need to transform the trade unions into fighting combative organisations of the working class. The building of opposition groups in the unions to fight for their democratisation, and organisations to defend the working class and break from the Democrats, is a crucial question for the working class in the US.
The limitation of Biden’s programme is reflected in his opposition to a universal health system, free at the point of use. The timidity of the ‘left’ Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was reflected in her refusal to force a vote on the ‘Medicare for all’ system because it was “too divisive”.
US imperialism hopes that a Biden administration will enable it to reassert itself internationally. While Biden will undoubtedly have a different approach to Trump, attempting to have a ‘diplomatic offensive’ and reach out to the US’s allies, it will not be in a position to revert to its unipolar dominant position.
The decline of US imperialism and strengthened position of China has changed world relations. The blow struck against the US by the recent trade agreement between the European Union and China illustrates the changed world situation
The crucial task facing workers and socialists in the US now is how to begin to take the necessary steps towards building a new independent party of the working class. It is clear that the only perspective advocated by Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and others, is to remain within the Democratic Party and apply pressure on the Biden administration. For their services in supporting Biden, and refusing to break from the Democrats, they have been rewarded with nothing!
The Democrats do not want the masses mobilised or on the streets. Where protests arise they strive to channel them into the safe avenues of the Democrat machine. Confronted with the mobilisation called by Trump, the Democrats and its ‘left’ wing, as the Committee for a Workers’ International supporters in the US have explained, consciously sought to oppose and block any attempt at counter protests.
The struggle against Trump needs to be linked with the idea of building a political alternative of the working class to Trumpism and the corporate Democrats, at city and state level. Initiatives need to be taken of those who are prepared to begin to build a movement to fight Trumpism, and oppose the corporate Democrats. Assemblies and meetings of socialists, Greens who supported the Howie Hawkins presidential campaign, rank-and-file trade unionists, youth, and others, need to be organised to discuss the way forward and prepare for the struggles that are looming ahead. These initial meetings could take the steps to form coordinating committees to link up on a state and eventually a national level.
Such initiatives could be the important first step towards building an independent party of the working class with a socialist programme. This is now more urgent than ever in the US.
The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)
The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) is the international socialist organisation which the Socialist Party is affiliated to. The CWI is organised in countries across the planet. We work to unite the working class and oppressed peoples against capitalism, and to fight for a socialist world.