by Peter B. Gemma
Michigan resident Jerry White is the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) candidate for President. He was the SEP’s first presidential candidate in 1996, and headed their national ticket in the 2008 and 2012 elections. The SEP holds that, “The Democratic Party, committed to militarism and austerity, is no less the political instrument of Wall Street and the military-intelligence apparatus than the Republicans.”
An active socialist since he was 19, White, now 56, serves as editor of the World Socialist Web Site Autoworkers Newsletter and is the author of Death on the Picket Line: The Story of John McCoy, about a fourth generation West Virginia coal miner murdered during a strike.
Peter B. Gemma: Thanks for taking time off the campaign trail for this interview. I’m afraid I have to start with some very basic questions. On the Socialist Equality Party website, the SEP describes itself as a “revolutionary party” which will, “saturate the workers’ movement with Marxist theory.” Please explain.
Jerry White: Thanks for this opportunity to answer your questions. Marxism is a way of understanding society, history and thinking scientifically. Marx’s philosophy has provided people, a theory of knowledge that enables the people to understand the world in order to change it.
Marxism isn’t dogmatic. It’s a way people can understand the ever-changing world, both nature and society. The SEP uses this method to educate and organize the working class so its struggles are not led into dead ends, like what happened with the Sanders campaign.
Under the capitalist system, a tiny elite owns giant banks, utilities and conglomerates privately. The elite have one consideration: how large a profit can I make and how quickly. In fact, companies today are sitting on a hoard of cash, but not investing in industries and hiring workers. Instead they speculate wildly on the stock market to make huge profits and use offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes.
Workers collectively, in a social process, produce everything, but they really don’t own anything, as many people found out in the 2008 crash. But it’s workers’ labor that creates profit. So that is
one major contradiction in capitalism: private ownership of the means of production vs. social labor. This contradiction leads to the struggle of the working class against the capitalists.
The other contradiction is that while production is global, with millions of workers working in the same production process worldwide, the world is divided into nation-states. The capitalists and bankers in each country are in a bitter struggle with those in all other countries. The only way US workers can wage a successful struggle against the global auto companies, for instance, is to unite with workers elsewhere in North America and throughout the world.
The United States seeks to dominate the world, but is no longer able to do so economically. That’s why it resorts to military violence, with endless wars that create chaos and with threats against Russia and China that could lead to world war.
These contradictions have created tremendous social inequality and wars that drive the working class into struggle, for decent jobs and wages, health care, affordable housing, better schools and against war. When we say, “saturate the workers’ movement with Marxist theory” we mean educating the working to understand society in order to prepare for these struggles.
During our election campaign, I go with supporters to meet workers at factories, various events like the Labor Day parade in Detroit, at shopping centers and schools. We send out custom newsletters to various sections of workers. The Socialist Equality Party publishes a web site, the World Socialist Web Site, with daily postings. We also hold public meetings.You get the idea.
Gemma: The Socialist Equality Party specifically asserts it is a Trotskyist political party – what does that mean? Can you tell me the difference with the Marxism you advocate and Communist ideology?
White: The SEP is part of the world Trotskyist movement and we are classical Marxists, building a party to unify the world working class against capitalism and to create social equality. Leon Trotsky was one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution in 1917. We trace our roots back to the battle Trotsky took up against Stalin, who represented the privileged bureaucracy that developed after the Russian Revolution.
Trotsky and the Left Opposition continued the struggle to unite the world working class to fight for socialism. He explained — and don’t forget this was the first time workers had taken power — what the objective conditions were that allowed the bureaucracy to usurp political power. Trotsky opposed Stalin’s policies and the theory that he was building socialism in one country.
As the bureaucracy consolidated political power, Stalin launched purges against any opposition, murdering the leaders of the Russian Revolution and millions throughout the USSR. The Communist parties in the US and other countries became Stalinist parties and their policies followed those of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. But Trotsky showed there was a genuine socialist alternative to Stalinism, that Stalinism was not an inevitable outcome of the revolution.
You know, millions of American workers supported and were inspired by the Russian Revolution. In fact, during many struggles in the 1930s, such as the autoworkers sit-down strikes and Minneapolis Teamsters strike, socialist-minded workers including Trotskyists played leading roles.
After the World War II, there was a big strike wave. Workers, having been through the Depression and war, demanded better conditions. In response, the government passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 that required union leaders to sign a statement that they were not supporters of the Communist Party and had no relationship with any organization seeking the overthrow of the United States government. Following Taft-Hartley, socialist-minded workers were purged from the unions. This was the beginning of the McCarthyite witch-hunts.
Gemma: Let me get back to Socialism 101. What are the differences between your Socialist Equality Party and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Socialist Party USA, and the Socialist Worker’s Party? Has there ever been a movement to merge these entities?
White: The development of a genuine revolutionary party and working class leadership takes place through a long historical and political struggle.
For example, Trotsky’s supporters in the US who had been expelled from the Stalinist Communist Party in 1928 founded the Socialist Workers Party. Later, after World War II, some leaders of the Fourth International, the world movement founded by Trotsky, abandoned the principle that the Stalinist bureaucracy had proved itself to be counter-revolutionary. These revisionists claimed the Stalinists could be pushed to the left. They told Trotskyists to enter Stalinist parties and liquidate their own independent revolutionary parties.
The SWP organized an international split in 1953 against the revisionists, which established the International Committee of the Fourth International. Ten years later, the SWP moved to rejoin the revisionist international and broke with the International Committee.
Those inside the SWP who opposed this break and defended the principles and program of building a politically independent revolutionary party of the working class were the founders of the Workers League, which became the Socialist Equality Party in 1995. Our party is part of the International Committee of the Fourth International.
Building a revolutionary working class party is complex and requires a struggle against bourgeois pressures to give it up and look for other forces for change.
As to the other parties you mentioned, the Socialist Party USA is a reformist party. The Party for Socialism and Liberation was a split from the Workers World Party, which left the Socialist Workers Party to support Stalinism. Their outlook includes protest politics, Stalinism, bourgeois nationalism and forms of identity politics such as black nationalism.
Our party can only establish the political independence of the working class through struggling to define those interests in opposition to every political organization of the capitalist class, from the pseudo-left to the far right. This is why we educate workers and youth on the historical experiences of the international working class movement, which are embodied in the history of the Trotskyist movement and its struggle against all forms of Stalinism, reformism, revisionism and nationalism.
We call political parties that use the word socialist but are not fighting to unite the international working class against capitalism “pseudo-left.” They are middle-class parties that seek to find space within the current political establishment. They assert the interests of a section of the upper middle class, which have nothing to do with getting rid of the capitalist system but advance the political and economic goals of an already well-off social layer.
They promote identity politics; they propose uniting people by their race or gender or sexual orientation, not by class, which is treated as just another identity, not objectively determined by the nature of capitalist economy. They oppose unifying the whole working class — for social equality and against war — as the only revolutionary force that can overthrow capitalism. In fact, they also support US imperialism’s never-ending wars. Now they are supporting US government’s war plans against Syria. They fall in line with the government’s pro-war propaganda by calling these brutal wars “humanitarian.”
Gemma: There are several Socialist Equality parties around the world and they form a network called the International Committee of the Fourth International. What other countries have an
SEP and what does the international group do?
White: The International Committee of the Fourth International is the world party of socialist
revolution. We have sections in Australia, Germany, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom and the United States. We also have supporters building sections in other countries, such as Canada,
France, India and Turkey. The ICFI publishes the World Socialist Web Site, wsws.org. The site posts daily, with articles and analysis from many countries.
Gemma: I would think that the success of Senator Bernie Sanders, both in votes and media impact, would have opened new doors for the SEP. Yet your website claims, “Sanders has demonstrated by his long political career that he is neither a socialist nor an opponent of the political establishment.” Did Sanders’ platform muddy the waters when it comes to political action in the name of socialism?
White: I wouldn’t say it muddied the waters. It gave us a chance to explain to the workers and youth the nature of the Sanders campaign. People supported Sanders because he called himself a “socialist.” But he supported the capitalist system and its wars, despite railing about the billionaire class.
We warned his supporters that his role was to channel opposition to unemployment, lack of health care, college debt, poverty and war back into the Democratic Party. We explained that when the primaries were over, he would endorse Clinton. And he did. Our purpose was to help people learn the lessons from the experience they went through.
Gemma: The SEP campaign website states, “The proposals from Democratic candidates to raise the federal minimum wage – whether to $12 an hour as proposed by Hillary Clinton or $15 as proposed by Bernie Sanders – are not only insincere, they are completely inadequate, leaving workers earning poverty-level wages.” What do you think a federally mandated fair wage should be?
White: In fact, companies are driving more and more workers into conditions of poverty. Wages have continued to fall throughout the “recovery,” by 4 percent in real terms between 2009 and 2014. Those in the lowest-earning quintile saw their wages decline by 5.7 percent during this period. Wages for manufacturing workers — who once set the benchmark for other sections of the working class — now average $15.66 per hour, 7.7 percent below the median wage for all occupations.
Only a workers government can only reverse that trend. Political parties that promote the fight for 15 are promoting illusions that capitalism can be reformed. Those days are gone. The reforms that were won by the New Deal under Roosevelt were only made when the US was the dominant world economic power and wanted to avoid revolutionary struggles developing as a result of the Depression.
Gemma: The SEP says it must, “explain that its goal is the establishment of a workers’ government … Such a government will utilize the political power it intends to gain through democratic means, if possible, to reorganize economic life in the interests of the working class, to overcome and replace the socially-destructive market forces of capitalism.” If shifts in America’s political/social power structures can’t come about democratically, what does “if possible” mean in this context?
White: We try in every way possible to organize the working class politically and democratically in a struggle to impose the goals and democratic will of the masses of people. But we are also political realists.
We’re dealing with the most violent government on the planet. In Detroit in 1932, workers were shot down and killed in front of the Ford Rouge factory for marching for jobs in the hunger march. In 1967 in the uprising of workers and youth against inequality, Lyndon Johnson sent the 82nd Airborne right from Vietnam to Detroit. There have been political assassinations as policy. You know, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Or frame-ups with the goal of executing people, like Big Bill Haywood and many others.
History has demonstrated that no ruling class ever just gives up its power to the democratic strivings of the population. As much as we hope that this can be conducted in a peaceful, democratic fashion and we fight for that to be done, we also explain and warn workers that real attacks, dangerous attacks are being prepared against the democratic rights of the working class every day.
So we say masses of workers have every right to defend ourselves, to organize ourselves politically, and to fight to dismantle the oppressive apparatus of the state and establish a genuine democratic control of society by the working class.
Gemma: Wikipedia maintains that the SEP, “does not seek to facilitate any sort of social change through the trade unions, which they characterize as having interests antithetical to the workers they represent. The Party calls for a break with the US union bureaucracies and the formation of ‘workplace committees’ that will carry on economic struggles.” Will you explain that?
White: The union bureaucracy defends its privileges, not the workers it supposedly represents. The unions’ nationalist strategy, pursued by unions in each country, is bankrupt and reactionary, and it only drives workers in a race to the bottom. For example, the steel workers’ union is now
working with the Obama administration to push tariffs against Chinese steel. They are using language of the filthiest anti-Chinese chauvinism. It recalls what was promoted in Detroit in the 1970s, when the UAW would tell workers to use sledgehammers on Toyotas and Datsuns, which led to the murder of a Chinese-American autoworker named Vincent Chin.
This nationalism, you know — like that of Trump and also Sanders — hasn’t defended a single job. The only way a real fight against plant closings and layoffs can take place is through the unifying the working class worldwide around a socialist program. Workplace committees would be a means for workers to break the union’s stranglehold by reaching out to workers across North America and the world. We reject the so-called right of the capitalists to shut down factories, to slash wages, to carry out mass layoffs. We call for the nationalization of the auto industry under the democratic and public ownership of the working class.
Gemma: The Socialist Equality Party wants to end, “private ownership of the large corporations, with all those valued above $10 billion transformed into publicly-owned enterprises under the democratic control of the working class.” It also wants to nationalize the telecommunications, agriculture, education, health care, and transportation industries. Nationalization is quite a foreign concept in this country. How would it work?
White: Yes, nationalizations are almost nonexistent. And when they take place by a capitalist government, say here with Amtrak or in Britain with the National Health Service, they’re subject to cutbacks, because the interests of the ruling elite come first. So if they need more money for war, they drastically cut services needed by workers and youth.
And some city services like water and sewerage or bus service, more and more are being privatized. And in cities like Detroit, essential services such as privately owned companies have always provided electric power. So you have the utility company DTE in Detroit making billions in profit and turning power off for tens of thousands of residents so they have no electricity.
Once the working class has established its own government and put a company like DTE under its control, it could analyze how much power was needed, look at what were the best means of proving that service and democratically decide how best to service all the residents. A workers government in the US would be able to collaborate with workers in every country to see what resources they have, develop new efficient technologies that don’t damage the climate, the implications are vast. Of course that’s just one example.
Gemma: The SEP wants to shut down multiple national security agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, FBI, and NSA. Don’t you believe the US is vulnerable to foreign covert intelligence and faces terrorist threats? Even our allies – Germany, Israel, and France, among others – spy on us. How do we protect our national interests?
White: Workers, youth, and sections of the middle class have “our” common interests. The US government, and each capitalist government, has “their” interests quite different from workers’ interests. As far as the US government is concerned, it has two enemies. First are other capitalist countries, their rivals in dominating the world, such as Germany. And they also fear the world working class, and above all the American working class, that under the leadership of a revolutionary party can threaten their existence.
The US government, which bailed out the banks after 2008, to the tune of trillions of dollars, has “no money” for education, for affordable housing, to provide clean drinking water. This government spies on millions of its citizens, has militarized the police, set up military tribunals and relies on self-censorship by the establishment media.
This same government bombs country after country in the Middle East, creates bloody havoc, destroys whole societies, leading to millions of displaced people and refugees that have lost everything. So the SEP says to the American working class that our interests are not the “national interest” of Wall Street and the Pentagon, but are the same as those of workers throughout the world. We have a common enemy, capitalism.
And the big danger is that in its military crusade for world dominance, the US government comes into conflict with other imperialist countries, as well as with Russia and China, which are not imperialist, but represents obstacles to Washington. The danger of world war is a real threat.
Gemma: On which states ballots will the Socialist Equity Party’s name appear?
White: We’re on the ballot in Louisiana. I know you’re familiar and have written about the problems with ballot access. We’re asking voters to write us in wherever possible.
Gemma: Tell me about your running mate, Niles Niemuth.
White: Niles was raised in a working-class family in Wisconsin. He represents the new generation of the working class that is now coming into political life. He became a member of the SEP during the 2011 mass protests against budget cuts and attacks on workers’ rights imposed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. After he completed his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, where he specialized in African-American history, he joined the staff of the World Socialist Web Site. He’s written extensively on US social conditions, working-class struggles and the government’s assault on democratic rights.
Gemma: Finally, the Socialist Equality Party insists that, “In the United States, there are growing signs of radicalization.” How do you come to that conclusion?
White: There are many signs of a radicalization over the past year. The fact that 13 million voters chose the self-described socialist Sanders certainly expressed a move to the left by workers and youth. Then there was the autoworkers struggle against a terrible contract in the fall of 2015. The SEP issued regular autoworkers newsletters that were read by tens of thousands. Shortly after the contract expiration, the Fiat Chrysler workers were the first workers in 33 years to reject a UAW-backed national contract. We also won a wide hearing among striking Verizon workers. So our political perspective and program is starting to intersect with the emergence of opposition by the working class.