Sean Cumming and Bob Bacon report from the frontlines in Portland, Oregon, arguing that the ruling class is divided over how best to quash the ongoing anti-racist rebellion, and that advancing a clear socialist strategy within the movement will be essential in the coming weeks.
The world is in crisis, as is the nation, as is the city of Portland. This crisis is rooted in economic disaster, systemic racism, and the repression and murder by the police necessary for the capitalist state to defend itself against a working class that might unify. Yet the capitalist class is divided on how it might best remediate this uprising, and as street protests intensify and young Portland workers become more militant in their insistence for justice, the state has answered with violence.
First, the Portland Police Bureau, with Mayor Ted Wheeler at its head as police commissioner, gassed those who stood for Black lives, and when that failed to crush the movement, the feds were brought in to do the same, and have escalated the violence. While in the past, the local cops would typically wait for the crowd to thin before shooting their gas grenades, the feds have decided to shoot into crowds of thousands, and brutalize those who have come to protect young protesters, such as the now famous Wall of Moms.
Portland has in recent years been the site of many protests against the far right which have at times descended into pitched battles with both police and fascist gangs like Patriot Prayer.
There is a sense amongst the right that Portland is a liberal playground and this city has been an obsession of the right for a number of years. This is of course an inaccurate description of a city that is deeply segregated by race and class, yet it has become a testing ground for the federal government’s push to increase the role of the Department of Homeland Security and border police.
These thugs are well-schooled in cruelty, abduction, and intimidation. Many are ex-military, or mercenaries trained in the US’s never-ending wars in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The Border Patrol and ICE are notorious for their abuse of undocumented (and documented) workers.
Yet the feds have so far failed, perhaps because they’re used to terrorizing isolated immigrants and Muslims, and were not expecting the sustained demand for justice resonating from Portland’s streets night after night. Now, the state finds itself in a bind, and the ruling class is split on how best to deal with the triple crisis of protests, pandemic, and economic collapse.
The US debt-to-profit ratio has never been higher. Capitalists are desperate to get ‘back to business’ but can offer not even the most meager reform as profitability has fallen to its lowest point in over a hundred years and public debt spirals out of control.
The money that is funneled into share buybacks and payroll protection for huge corporations is a band-aid on an open wound. Real investment has stagnated, unemployment soars. The real crisis may yet be on the horizon and the legitimacy of the state to manage class tension is evaporating.
The ruling class wants workers to pay to restore their profits by stealing our livelihoods, selling off our services, poisoning our environment, or taking our lives, and the increased militancy of the working class — in its demand for racial and economic justice — is a threat not just to the Trump administration but to the system’s ability to get back to exploiting us at the highest level possible.
Those around Trump want greater control to wield direct state violence, and on the other end, local Democrats want to ‘get things back to normal’ — despite the almost assured knowledge and complicity on Ted Wheeler’s part that the feds were coming in, and that ‘back to normal’, when divorced from liberal deception, means more repression, more murder, and more misery for working people.
The gamble played by our politicians has not paid off, and now the local Democrats scramble to align themselves with a movement they despise, as Ted Wheeler makes a show of meeting protesters on the street and ‘suffering’ a gas attack at the hands of the feds. This is an election year for Wheeler and other liberal politicians and there is a palpable desperation whose stench lingers in the words of every politician who calls for the feds to leave, after only days ago blaming protesters for the brutality of the local police, or from those who claim a tiny reduction in the bloated Portland Police Budget is a radical move.
We wonder — if Ted can push the feds out — will he order his local goons to desist brutalizing protesters, as they had been doing for weeks before the feds arrived? Will he defund the Portland Police Department and allocate funds to social services? Will he insist that those who have murdered Black, brown and poor people be brought to justice? If not, what is the use of ‘back to normal’ but a liberal veil over further brutality and exploitation of those below for the profit of those above?
And so enters a liberal ploy to shore up a capitalist system that is in crisis. It is losing its hegemonic power, and Democratic politicians aim to reassert capitalist ideology.
Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci outlined this idea of hegemony in the 1920’s and it has never been clearer than today in Portland. In every era the ruling class retains its legitimacy through ideas and through violence. This is hegemony; the control over the way we view the world and the way we are coerced to accept it. Gramsci argued that as long as the ruling class maintain this hegemony they will remain in power. Yet the nature of class society is so alienating that people inevitably question the ideas and actions of the ruling class. The more we act against these ‘common sense’ ruling ideas the more the ruling class will rely on direct violence to maintain their control.
A space has now opened for the working class to imagine how they would run a more just society. This is why the liberals attempt to shift protesters away from generalizing about the systematic abuse and systemic racism to specific ideas of identity, personal responsibility, and ‘regional community.’ They want us to misidentify the source of our oppression and direct our anger toward channels that don’t challenge the power of the state.
On Wednesday night, we witnessed Ted Wheeler attempt his grandstand in front of the protesters and fail miserably. There was an attempt by some self-appointed leaders of the movement to whitewash Wheeler by allowing him to speak openly and repeat his talking points. This was undermined immediately afterwards when a group of Black activists took to the bullhorn to denounce the previous speakers, while behind them, onto the side of the building, a list was projected, demanding defunding the PPB and Wheeler’s resignation. These activists called out to the crowd, asking if any of us had seen these self-appointed leaders before: “We’ve been out here every night getting tear gassed by the PPD and we’ve never seen them once.” They went on: “Do we want to vote in November? No. Do we want reform? No. We want the feds gone. We want the PPD gone.”
This speaks to the myth of the Black monolith — that all Black people share the same interests, think the same thoughts, and want the same things — and as these contradictions arise, class distinctions become apparent. Those who fear a unified working class frenzy to erase the politics that are central to our struggle. Distinct divisions, debates, and political disagreements between protesters are common now on the streets, and while many protesters are new, and may not align themselves with a particular political tendency, or even know or care what that is, these contradictions are laid out bare before them.
It is revealing that the young people we spoke to at the protest told us they were radicalized by a connection between the economic situation and the Black Lives Matter protests. In an encouraging sign of the generalization of the struggle, this weekend will see workers take to the streets in ‘defense of Black Lives.’ Teachers, cooks, lawyers, medical personnel, the unemployed, gig workers, all sectors of the American working class are mobilizing. That these actions are organized by both official trade union locals and ordinary rank-and-file workers is a sign that after the July 20 labor actions for Black lives, class is becoming central to the current moment — even if it is not yet acknowledged by its current leaders, or the media. Anti-racism and the fight for Black lives has been part of the labor movement since its beginnings but this shift is a sign of it becoming a central issue to the working class.
These encouraging signs come with a caveat. As the working class rises to demand that Black Lives Matter and to push back against the increasing violence of the state, what is the role of the left? Will spontaneity be enough to overcome the contradictions of capital? Will it be enough to take the streets night after night? How can people exist in a state of perpetual heightened tension and terror from the armed wing of the ruling class?
One danger is the reassertion of the ‘common sense’ ideas of the ruling class — that we can educate ourselves or ‘center Black voices’ and that individual change is enough or all that can be hoped for. This obviously ignores the systematic role that capital has played in using racism as a tool of division and class war. Racism is not an individual problem but one tied deeply to capitalism, from its birth in the the slave trade. These erroneous perspectives are tied to ‘solutions’ of electing more enlightened people to positions of power within the structures of the capitalist state; that we can reform away racism and exploitation.
We as socialists welcome any reform that limits the power of the state to enact horrifying violence on Black people. But as a strategy to end racism and state terror, it ignores the role of the economic system in maintaining that terror for its own ends. As we outlined before, the capacity of capital to offer reforms is tied to its capacity to exploit. The economic crisis means that the reforms offered will be paltry and won through continual sacrifice. They can only be guaranteed while we are still on the streets.
The other political thread running through the movement is a strategy that advocates a continued confrontation with the state while building autonomous zones free of all forms of oppression. This approach rejects electoral democracy in favor of consensus and autonomy. This would then act as a counter-power to capital. These ideas are attractive as they point to the role of the individual, their individual oppression and identity and how that can be harnessed in a positive way.
Yet the shortcoming of this approach is that it relies on small groups of individuals (in some cases many thousand on a march) agreeing on every facet of their actions. This leads to a situation in which the insistence on secrecy and consensus acts as a mechanism to perpetuate unaccountability among the leaders of these movements. These leaders are in some cases the most active, organized, and vocal. They often put themselves on the line first, but many of us have seen these unaccountable, self-appointed leaders lead people back to reformism or back into the hands of liberal politics. Ultimately they substitute themselves or a small group for the movement as a whole. This is not a personal failing, but a result of political strategy.
In addition, the idea of creating autonomous zones where people provide all our needs ignores the totalizing role of capital in exploitation. Any isolated attempt will be met with the full force of the state — and that self-imposed isolation strategy ensures the autonomous zone remains separate from the one social force that can defend it — a unified working class. How can we maintain an autonomous zone when we must work to survive under capitalism?
All of these trends and ideas are mixing on the streets of Portland. They are picked up, examined, and stirred together as people defend their city against racism and the repression of the state. And so there is no one concrete political position that leads the movement. We must be clear — we do not mean to chastise or denigrate people putting their lives at risk to stand against the racism and the brutality of the US government, but merely offer a critique of these ideas. We hope they can be debated and discussed as we stand in solidarity — and we hope those who disagree with us will tell us so.
We believe the argument most lacking is one that places the working class at the center of the movement for change. Ideas of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism are all tied to the exploitation of class society. Racism is class war by the ruling class, and we must fight it. As Marxists we argue that it is the historic role of the working class to build a society that places the needs of all over the drive for profit and exploitation. This is not because the working class is somehow more virtuous but it is by their role as sole creators of all wealth. Ours is the only class that can put its shoulders to the wheel and in doing so destroy the machine of capital. In the process the working class has at times in history created alternative organizational structures that challenge those of capital. This goes beyond ideas of autonomy to the idea of a different system of democratic workers’ control. We must at once oppose all exploitation and attempt to build the confidence of the working class to fight for this better world.
That is why we point to the lack of organized, democratic leadership in the movement in Portland, or nationally. Good demands have been raised, such as throwing out so-called police unions from the labor movement and defunding the police to reinvest in needed social services, however these are coming mostly from long-term anti-police violence organizations such as Don’t Shoot PDX, who are a boon, but not enough. The socialist left is small and scattered. While some small left groups have been organizing and are deeply involved, there has been a noticeable lack of obvious involvement by the DSA, on paper the largest organization on the left here in Portland (although individual members and some caucuses are deeply involved). There is a trepidation by the left whereby they do not want to ‘co-opt’ the movement. This has, in most cases, led them to dissolve into it.
This raises the questions: The movement is powerful and growing, but for how long? How can we sustain and deepen the struggle? The first challenge for socialists is to place themselves openly in the struggle, have discussions about how we organize and why, try to build the confidence of organised workers to fight back in every sphere, and be unafraid to debate our politics openly. We must build on the labor actions of July 20, connect the ideas of anti-racism to the failure of the state, to war, to imperialism, and to exploitation. This requires organization, debate, and a political party that can put forward these ideas and tie them more deeply into the radical struggle. There is a need for clarity on the streets. People are looking for a solution.
The role of socialists is to win people to a vision that goes beyond individual identity, moralism, electoralism, or the dead-end of liberal politics. We must argue to push working class organizations to the center of the movement for liberation, agitate to build bigger and deeper strikes, and connect the isolated sectors of the working class to the struggle. There is no victory without a long-term, unified anti-racist coalition with deep roots in the working class struggling alongside a political party that can point to viable solutions and is big enough to influence the movement as a whole. We need a party capable of providing a vision beyond liberal capitalism — a vision that demands unreserved justice for Black people and liberation for all.
Sean Cumming and Bob Bacon