Editorial of the Socialist issue 1118
Biden, Labour, and the need for a new mass workers’ party
With Trump gone, capitalist governments worldwide are queuing up to establish friendly relations with Joe Biden, the new US president. While it is a bit awkward for Boris Johnson, who was once described by Biden as Trump’s “physical and emotional clone”, it is clear that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer thinks he can gain kudos by praising the new presidency to the skies.
He has been joined by Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary, who described Biden as a “woke guy” who “is an inspiration for Labour”, who “mentioned the trans community in his victory speech” and “defended the Black Lives Matter movement”. After Trump’s reactionary, divisive, blatantly sexist and racist presidency, there is undoubtedly widespread relief among workers and young people that he has gone. However, the lavish praise Starmer and co. are heaping on Biden is yet another indication of their desperation to show the capitalist class that – unlike the previous leader Jeremy Corbyn – they can be relied on to defend the interests of the elite.
Biden was the chosen candidate of the big majority of Wall Street and the billionaires in the US. He got, for example, more than twice as much as Trump in donations from billionaires. His party, the Democrats, has been a party of big business throughout its history and, given the crisis in the Republican Party, is now their favoured choice.
It’s true that there is a left wing of the Democrats, as shown by Bernie Sanders running for the Democratic nomination for the second time, describing himself as a ‘democratic socialist’ and calling for ‘political revolution’. However, the Democratic establishment was determined to prevent Sanders winning the nomination, coming behind Biden as – above all – the means of defeating Bernie. Mistakenly, instead of running as an independent as a step towards the development of a workers’ party in the US, Sanders then backed Biden.
For Starmer and his ilk Biden is a model. He has a long history of bipartisanship – meaning working together with the Republicans. He has a history of arguing for what would now be called austerity, repeatedly arguing for cuts to welfare. For example, in a speech to the Senate in 1995, he declared: “When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans’ benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government.” He was also one of those Democrats who, like Blair in Britain, backed to the hilt Bush’s launching of the Iraq war.
In sharp contrast to Trump, Biden is preaching unity and making pro-trans rights and anti-racist statements, which will be widely welcomed. But that does not mean his government will act in the interests of working-class Americans of any race, gender or sexuality, including on the issues of police brutality, which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
Not only Republicans, but also Democrats have stepped up racist policing measures. Biden, for example, drafted the 1994 crime bill, which expanded mass imprisonment of black people. Hopes that Kamala Harris’s election as vice-president will lead to a fundamentally different approach by this presidency are not backed up by experience.
Of course, for many black and Asian workers in the US and around the world, it is encouraging to see a woman with Indian and Jamaican parents as vice-president of the most powerful capitalist country on the planet, which was built on slavery, racism and colonial exploitation. However, Harris was California’s attorney general when the Black Lives Matter movement erupted in 2014 and did not take action against a number of police killings on her watch.
Three years later, in the final year in office of Barack Obama – the first black US president – there were still over 1,000 police killings, with black men nine times likelier to be killed than other Americans. Against the background of a capitalist system in crisis, poverty among black workers increased while Obama was in power. Between 2007 and 2016, with Obama in office for most of that time, the average wealth of the bottom 99% of Americans dropped by $4,500, with African Americans worst affected.
Biden is coming to power during a new, even deeper, crisis for world and US capitalism. At this stage he is proposing a bigger bailout package than Obama put forward in 2009; not because he is more radical, but because that meets the needs of the capitalist class at this stage, in order to bail out their system. The Johnson government, and all states around the world who can afford to, have carried out similar measures. However, Biden’s package – even if it is passed without amendment – will not be enough to prevent misery for millions of working-class Americans.
Workers have suffered
It was the misery suffered by the working and middle class in the last economic crisis that created the vacuum into which the racist right populism of Trump stepped. Today, in the short term, Biden may have a breathing space as he is ‘given a chance’. But, by acting in the interests of capitalism, against the background of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, he will further fuel the divisions and anger in US society which, if there is no alternative, can be harnessed by the right. A mass workers’ party is urgently needed, putting forward a socialist programme, which could begin to cut across the reactionary racism of Trumpism.
The same is true in Britain. The Labour shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, has driven home Starmer’s intentions. In her lecture to the City University of London she insisted that a Labour government would be governed by “pragmatism not dogmatism”, and would be “responsible”. Nationalisation was not mentioned once, and she committed to not even attempt to interfere with the ‘independent’ functioning of the Bank of England.
If a Starmerite Labour government was to come to power, it could not be clearer that it would act in the interests of capitalism, and enrage all those who suffered as a result, potentially leaving a space for the right. Socialists and left trade unions have a responsibility to learn the lessons of the US and – rather than leave the working-class majority with a choice of different brands of pro-big business politicians – fight for the establishment of a mass workers’ party.