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After Dr. King

The global class struggle today

Published Jan 27, 2011 10:10 PM

Larry Holmes at Jan. 17 march
for Band of Brothers cemetery
WW photo: Monica Moorehead

Following are excerpts from a talk given by Larry Holmes, Workers World Party secretariat member, at a Jan. 14 forum in New York City. The podcast of the entire talk can be watched on www.workers.org.

It is important for revolutionaries to study [Martin Luther] King because he plays a unique role in the struggle against racism.

It is quite easy to reference King at the beginning of 2011 in the wake of everything we are going through. Quite profoundly, in a way, you can analyze King’s struggle since the 1963 march and the famous “I have a dream” speech. When he died, he was in Memphis fighting for public workers — predominantly Black men — fighting for union rights.

The first thing that he was fighting for was to end Jim Crow. What was the second thing?

King was constantly begging the capitalist ruling class to reform the system before it is too late. Do you want to save capitalism? Do you want to make it relevant? Do you want to avoid being hated by the workers and oppressed around the planet — from Asia to Africa to the Middle East to right here in the belly of the beast?

[King urged the capitalists to] give the workers and oppressed a break; give them something to believe in; raise them up; give them some rights. He died for this in many ways.

And almost 43 years since his murder — the capitalist economy is that much more technologically advanced, so much more wealth is created, and the productive forces of society are so much greater. What have we learned?

Workers — and all sorts of well-meaning people — have been trying to reform capitalism for the better part of 150 years: [by fighting for] the eight-hour day, getting unions, any rights they could get, any recognition, the welfare state.

Much of the past 150 years since [Karl] Marx wrote “Capital,” people have been trying to reform it and here we are in 2011. We have the answer — you can’t reform it.

It is not just that capitalism doesn’t meet the needs of the workers and doesn’t meet their social needs — it is taking everything away that the workers have won. Not just here — everywhere.

In many respects, that is what 2011 is going to be about. We don’t know what the next phase of this endless capitalist crisis will be or rather what will be the catalyst for the next phase of it.

Some things we know. The efforts to divide the working class will continue.

Actually Forbes New Year’s edition listed 11 or 12 things that could be the catalyst for the next crisis. High up there is contagion from the European debt crisis [and] housing, which is still a big crisis for the banks and mostly for the millions of people who have lost their homes — that’s many millions of people, families. There is also the U.S. federal, state and municipal debt crisis. Or a bank could fail like Lehman Brothers a few years ago.

We don’t know which one of these things it will be or when it will come. What we do know is that it is all intertwined. And as important as the catalyst is, you don’t get it unless you connect it to the overall world capitalist crisis of overproduction. That is underneath it.

I watched the memorial service in Tucson, and it was difficult because it was hypocritical. It was striking to me that on the first anniversary of this terrible event in Haiti — that no one, not even Obama, would mention it. One would have thought that would be common sense.

There is the fascism, the neofascism and the violence they inevitably create in Arizona, the epicenter of all this. The other question is how the ruling class — particularly Obama but a wider section of the ruling class — is using this.

There is a sense that it has favored the Democrats and pushed back the most reactionary elements. That is true on a certain level. But there is something deeper.

This is about the capitalist crisis and what is coming [and] the ruling class and whether they will succeed. Or if [the ruling class effort] will fall apart next week is another question. The contradictions are there in terms of unity in the ruling class.

I saw Obama with others in the ruling class using Arizona as an opportunity to remind [the entire ruling class] of something they knew all too well in 2008. And that was: Remember why you supported me. Not the people, the ruling class. Remember why you wanted me in office because you knew what you were going to have to do to the workers.

Before you got all nuts with the Tea Party, you wanted me to put a nice face on repression and the attacks and the program that we have to carry out against the workers. And what is that program?

Unions, budget cuts & gov’t restructuring

That program is many-fold. But I can give you the big picture. [The capitalists’ program is:] Crush the labor movement. They have been trying to do it, but this year they are going to accelerate it. Not just public workers; the whole labor movement. Public workers are the largest segment of the organized labor movement, more than 50 percent. They are the strongest pillar. The other parts of the economy are outsourced. They are done in India or someplace else.

It is the public workers and to some extent the service workers who have been able to organize. But the public workers are politically stronger. Their unions are older and they have won more. They are the strongest pillar of the entire labor movement, private sector and public sector. You have the transit workers, [the Service Employees union], hospital workers; the Teamsters even have public workers. I don’t know how large the American Federation of Government Workers is.

Take the American Federation of Teachers, the [National] Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and you have more than 6 million of the 14 million organized workers. Those unions are the ones they are after; almost half of the organized labor force is considered the most politically powerful.

We have to make some good propaganda about this. Have a picture of the bankers — Citibank, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs — rich white men on one side and on the other side predominantly African Americans and women. That is who the public workers are: workers who make an average of $40,000 to $45,000 a year, nearing retirement after being at their jobs for 30 or 40 years. What is the average pension they are taking away? $19,000. These are the workers who are being demonized.

Why is the ruling class doing this?

It is not just about the budget cuts. Yes, the federal government and the states and the cities have huge budget deficits. As soon as possible they want to cut the federal workforce by 10 percent. Goldman Sachs recently released something that said states and municipalities had to be cut by 20 percent — 1.6 million workers.

But it is not just how much they can cut in 2011. It is more political and strategic than that. They want to smash the unions because they have a bigger project in mind. They want to restructure government, which is part and parcel of the capitalist economy. Long ago it became a business. If you are not making money in the stock market, the rich go in the bond market. These days they make money by cutting if they can’t invest or find new markets. It is about downsizing; it is about privatizing in the long term. It is about privatizing public education — taking it away as a right.

It is about hitting Social Security hard — everything else we have won and especially those pensions that are worth trillions of dollars. The capitalists want it back. But they can’t do it without crushing the labor movement.

It is the reason why some of the states are trying to revoke collective bargaining rights for public workers. Some states are trying to revoke the [unions’] dues check-off, which means that public workers can’t sustain themselves.

What will the fightback look like? Organized labor appears very weak and very demoralized. It is not used to fighting. It is used to going into a room and making a deal and getting the best deal they can get with a bourgeois politician. That is becoming harder and harder because the Democrats are betraying them like [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo and [California Gov. Jerry] Brown.

The unions seem demoralized. But in an uneven way they will begin to fight. We as communists must agitate for a classwide, militant response to this attack. It doesn’t matter whether it is not going to happen next week or unlikely that it will happen in a few months. What are we if we don’t advocate for it? Organized labor, community, students and all the oppressed must come out together.

Usually these struggles against budget cuts develop locally. Our job is to agitate for a broader reaction to it that is both national and even international.

At this stage of the capitalist crisis, which is fully global, fully centralized, our class enemy is global, conscious and against us. How can we just think locally? It is OK for a while, but ultimately it won’t work. It won’t raise the political or class-consciousness level of our class, [which] won’t be able to fight back.

Generalize the struggle

We will face another problem that is all too prevalent — fragmentation. The ruling class wants to have a thousand guerilla battles with the workers. They want every struggle to be separate, to be localized, because, with some exceptions, they can chew you up and digest you. They know that the more national and international [the struggle] becomes, even if it is only symbolic in the early stages, the harder it is [to divide and conquer].

As communists, it is incumbent upon us to find ways to struggle against that. We want to be with the workers everywhere. We are not against local struggles. We have an obligation to generalize and synthesize the class struggle to a higher level, especially now with the unique character of this global crisis. We have to be concerned with the entire working class.

The students in this country are trying to organize a fightback from California to New York and everywhere else. We are fortunate that our comrades in FIST (Fight Imperialism, Stand Together) have some influence there. They have called the month of March a month of student protest against the cuts and tuition hikes. Some of them are talking about a strike. And we should see if there is a basis for building support around them that can last beyond their activities — sort of a student-worker-community alliance.

We have International Women’s Day — the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Women are meeting on how to make defense of public workers — predominantly women and people of color — central [in that].

There is April 9, a big, important anti-war demonstration also in solidarity against repression of Muslims here and the oppressed. What relationship will that have to the class struggle?

There is May Day, International Workers Day, which, most notably in this country, has become over the past five years central to the struggle with immigrant rights. And it will remain so and necessarily so.

I want to harken back to our party’s conference last November, where we discussed the need, wisdom and timeliness of opening up an ideological struggle on the need to abolish capitalism. All these struggles, whatever happens, need that too.

We could help [the overall struggle by] drafting a declaration calling for the abolition of capitalism, get it around and get support for it. Maybe at some point tie it to an event that has the objective of unifying forces. This is to bring it to our entire class so that their perspective will have an anti-capitalist, pro-socialist current pushing it forward.