Jerry White is the presidential candidate of the Socialist Equality Party. The following is the first of a three-part, abridged transcript of my interview with White, which took place in Detroit on August 30.
Born in Queens, New York, White is an intense but gregarious man. As the transcript shows, he does not speak in sound bites, or even just sentences. He speaks in fully formed chapters. In this first installment, White defines socialism and the objectives of the SEP, and then addresses the most common criticism of socialism, that it stifles human initiative. Finally, White talks about the “pseudo-left,” groups that use the language of equality but have no actual intention of achieving equality.
For the unabridged version of the interview, contact Legal Reader.
What is socialism?
Socialism means social equality. It means the end of a system in which the vast productive capacity of mankind and the wealth created by the collective labor of millions of people are controlled privately and owned privately. It means the huge industries and major banks are put under the democratic and collective ownership of the working class. It means that a new principle is established for economic and political life based on production for human need, not private profit. And it means the development above all of the harmonious integration of the entire world economy, putting an end to the destructive competition between nations, the struggle over markets and profits and raw materials that has led to two world wars and poses the danger of a third one. And it means the working class, broad masses of working people, who do not own and control the banks and the major corporations and the stock market, have political power in their own hands.
We perceive a far more democratic reorganization of political life. That the broad masses of working people democratically decide how the resources and wealth that we create are allocated. That priority be placed on putting an end to poverty. That the huge resources and the technological capacity that has created conditions where mankind now produces more wealth than ever before, those are marshaled to rebuild neighborhoods, rebuild schools, to employ masses of people who are unemployed. And that the working class has political power. A worker’s government—as we say, a government of the workers, by the workers and for the workers.
A common criticism of socialism is that it not only asks for a level playing field and equal opportunity at the beginning of life—as if capitalism offers that—but that it demands “equal outcomes.” That is, that socialism does not reward hard work and that it does reward laziness. How do you respond to that criticism?
Well, of course that’s how those who are in political and economic power have always portrayed any struggle to end inequality. They argue that the inequality that exists is the inevitable and natural selection in which those who are richest are those who contribute most to society. And in fact, the opposite very much is the case. You know, who are those who have come to the pinnacle of society? You know, the Wilbur Rosses and the financial swindlers who have looted society, who ruined the economy in 2008. And they were rewarded with massive bailouts, they were rewarded with quantitative easing. Today, the greatest means of the accumulation of personal wealth isn’t through the development of the productive forces. I mean, as ruthless as Carnegie and Rockefeller and Ford were, they actually contributed to the development of the productive forces. What is the situation today?
So we say, first of all, there is immense human potential, which is squandered every single day through the destruction of public education, through the destruction of war. Billions of people on this planet whose creativity and potential to contribute to society, snuffed out. So the ending of a social system in which a tiny minority have dictatorial control over society and squander society’s resources on war. Look at the Middle East. One of the most advanced societies, the Iraqi society, the cradle of human civilization has been turned into a wasteland, and now they’re working on Syria to do the same. And there are now figures that there are something like 71 million more unemployed young people now. I mean, that’s the entire population of the UK. Millions of young people who have immense potential, you know, are burdened with debt or are working low-wage jobs.
You take a city like Detroit. People are having their water shut off, they’re having their electricity shut off, the school system has been ravaged. This is in a city where the auto companies made literally trillions of dollars in profits over decades and decades. And so, what about the immense potential that’s being squandered and destroyed each day?
So we think the question of socialism would lead to an enormous development and innovation. I mean, you take any essential economic issue. You take the domination of the pharmaceutical industry by a handful of corporations like Mylan and all the rest. They don’t even share copyright secrets with one another because each of them are ruthlessly competing to corner the market. This has nothing to do with innovation. And then you have the battle between huge transnational companies over the control of markets and so forth. So we see the issue of social ownership, scientific planning, the democratic decision-making over the allocation of resources as being an immense unleashing of mankind’s potential.
In the United States there are a number of political organizations and parties with the words ‘socialist’ and ‘worker’ in their titles. The Socialist Equality Party is critical of many of these organizations and claims that they are not actually socialist. Talk about the difference between the Socialist Equality Party and those groups that you refer to as the ‘pseudo left.’
That’s a very important question. The development of a genuine revolutionary party and leadership of the working class is a protracted historical and political struggle. Our movement, the Socialist Equality Party, traces its roots back to the battle between genuine Trotskyists, who would advance an international program, against Stalinism. So for example, the Communist Party had a very large following in the 1930’s in the United States, right in this city. It was involved in major strikes. Two locals of the UAW, the Jefferson local, the Ford Rouge plant were run by the Communist Party. The Trotskyists, which developed in 1938 as the Socialist Workers Party, founded in collaboration with Leon Trotsky, were based on the struggle for internationalism against the claims by the Stalinists that you can build socialism in a single country. Under Stalin, the perspective of world socialist revolution was completely repudiated, and instead Stalin allied himself with what they called the “progressive section” of the bourgeoisie. And in the United States, that took the form of the Communist Party’s full-throated support for Roosevelt and the New Deal. They opposed the building of an independent political party of the working class. At that time, the Trotskyists were fighting for the working class’s newly-built trade unions that were built in the explosive upsurge in the 1930’s to take the next step and make a political break with the Democratic Party, build a mass labor party, and we fought for that labor party to have a socialist program. . . In fact, the leaders of our movement, including James P. Cannon, were thrown in jail in 1941 for opposing the imperialist war, the entry of the United States into World War II. While absolutely opposing Hitler, we explained that the United States was not entering this war to fight for democracy against fascism but to advance its own imperialist interests. They were jailed for that.
Now the great complexities emerge in the post-war period with American imperialism coming out as the dominant power, and there was a period of economic expansion in the post-war period. Under those conditions, there was enormous pressure on the Trotskyist movement, both in the United States and around the world, to adapt itself to what appeared to be the post-war stabilization: the Soviet Union on one side, American imperialism on the other. And our movement developed in a battle against a tendency that emerged, led by a man named Michel Pablo, who argued that really there was no independent road for the working class, that the Trotskyist movement had to adapt itself to these Stalinist mass parties. Our movement was built and was a minority at that point, in 1953.
In the struggle we said, No. We said Stalinism could not be pushed to the left, it was not going to be a revolutionary force, that the working class had to build independent movements. And the post-war period demonstrated, and there were upsurges against the Stalinists in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 and so forth, and far from the Stalinists being moved to the left, they in fact drowned these struggles in blood. Trotsky had warned, and our movement insisted, that far from the Stalinists leading a world revolution, that if the working class didn’t overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy and reestablish Soviet democracy, and fight for world socialist revolution, that one day the Stalinists would restore capitalism in the Soviet Union and overthrow what had been a degenerated workers’ state. And in fact that’s what happened.
So this is a complex historical process, but there was time and time again a differentiation between genuine Trotskyism—and in the United States in particular, the Workers League, which was the predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party, was founded fifty years ago in 1966, and it was based above all on an international strategy, on all the lessons of the struggle against Stalinism. And an orientation to the working class, the American working class, which was being written off by all of these other groups who said, “No, the issue is race in America. The white workers are all racist. You’re never gonna get a social struggle in America. Maybe in the Third World there’ll be upheavals, but never in America.” They all adapted themselves to the appearance of the post-war economic expansion, and they wrote off the American working class.
In our founding congress in 1966, we specifically said, No. While we give support to the Civil Rights movement and to the struggles against racial oppression and to opposition to war, for example in Vietnam, none of the problems could be resolved, that American imperialism could not be dealt with, by any other force than the American working class. That the American working class—black, white, immigrant—was going to be driven into struggle. That this post-war boom was a temporary state of affairs. And that’s what it proved to be because it began unraveling by the mid-1960’s and certainly by the 70’s. And that the American working class was going to come back into the road of revolutionary struggle, and the great task was to build a revolutionary leadership which fought to unite American workers with our brothers and sisters internationally, draw all the lessons of the historical experiences of the past, and repudiate all those who wrote off the working class and were now adapting themselves entirely to middle class politics.
That’s what happened particularly in the 1960’s and 70’s. In response to the wave of urban uprisings that occurred, including in Detroit in 1967, the American political establishment made certain adjustments. Nixon, who was no friend of civil rights, declared that he was now all in favor of black power. He said, “If they want a piece of the action, we’ll give em a piece of the action. So they used minority set-aside contracts and affirmative action to buy off a section of the minority population and give them a stake in the capitalist system itself. They did the same thing to the feminist movement and son on and so forth. In all of these so-called left movements that had their origins in either Stalinism or the Pabloites, who adapted themselves to the middle-class domination of the anti-war movement or the Civil Rights movement or the feminist movement, and who rejected the revolutionary role of the American working class, in one way or another their whole evolution has been into bourgeois politics. I mean, after all, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton were in the anti-war movement. (Laughs) There’s a picture of the two of them, in Texas of all places, in Austin. Long hair and all the rest. Did you ever see that picture?
The McGovern campaign, they were involved in the McGovern campaign. And there’s a whole layer, including the founders of the Green Party, who were part of the anti-war movement. Now, we fought in the anti-war movement, but we insisted that the social force that students who wanted to oppose the war had to turn to was the American working class, in a struggle against the anti-communism and militarist CIO leaders like George Meany and others who were absolute defenders of American imperialism. But, we said, the only way you’re gonna deal with American imperialism is not through protest and appeals to the conscience of the ruling elites, but to mobilize the working class at home against American imperialism and to take political power in our own hands.
And what has happened to this anti-war movement? What are they doing today? In 1999, one of the former leaders of our movement who adapted himself entirely to the middle class movement of the anti-war movement, he came out and said while Clinton was bombing the Balkans that you had to “give war a chance.” And today, groups like the International Socialist Organization are criticizing Obama from the right for not intervening militarily as aggressively as they deem necessary in Syria. And they promote the argument that these wars are for human rights? And inevitably they will be backing Hillary Clinton when she wages war against Russia or China in the name of women’s rights.
So we call them “pseudo-left” not as an epithet but to describe those organizations that present themselves as sort of anti-establishment or even in some cases socialist, but whose politics are pro-war and articulate the interests of the top ten percent, that layer of the upper middle class that does have some real concerns over how wealth is being distributed at the top and is really concerned about, you know, getting its own cut of the spoils. But they’re not looking to overthrow capitalism.
Photo credit: wsws.org