Editors’ Note: Below is an interview with John Reimann, a socialist labor activist in the U.S.. Reimann is a retired carpenter, the former recording secretary of Carpenters Union Local 713 in Alameda County, CA. He was expelled from that union specifically for his role in the 1999 San Francisco Bay Area Carpenters’ wildcat strike. Reimann travelled to Egypt in 2011 to participate in the Arab Spring. He produces the blog, Oakland Socialist (oaklandsocialist.com). He is also on the editorial board of The North Star (thenorthstar.info).
For our analysis of the Trump Administration and the crisis of US imperialism we refer readers to various documents:
RCIT: World Perspectives 2017: The Struggle against the Reactionary Offensive in the Era of Trumpism. Theses on the World Situation, the Perspectives for Class Struggle and the Tasks of Revolutionaries, 18 December 2016, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/world-perspectives-2017/
Michael Pröbsting: The Meaning, Consequences and Lessons of Trump‘s Victory. On the Lessons of the US Presidential Election Outcome and the Perspectives for the Domestic and International Class Struggle, 24.November 2016, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/meaning-of-trump/
Q: What is your characterization of the Trump government?
A: We are still a capitalist (or bourgeois) democracy, but there are elements of bonapartism in the Trump government. By that I mean that the mainstream of the capitalist class - which is mainly finance capital - has partially lost control over their presidency. On the one hand, as I’ve written (https://oaklandsocialist.com/?s=Mobster+in+chief), Trump has served as a money launderer for the Russian oligarchs/mafiosa for decades and has deep links with them. This means that he is tied to one of the main rivals of US imperialism - Russian imperialism. On the other hand, we have to consider the role of racism and sexism in US society. The capitalist class always keeps that pot simmering on the back burner, but usually trying to prevent it from boiling over. Trump is so stoking that flame that it is tending to boil over. Then there are all his appeals to what can only be described as hysteria. This sort of thing is not useful to a stable capitalist regime; it threatens to destabilize US society.
Trump is doing things that no administration would have dared try before, especially as far as deregulation and privatization of public lands, opening them up for the mining, oil and ranching industries. (You have to realize that in many of the Western states in the US, over half the land is owned by the federal government.) So, if you take the Wall St. Journal for example, they are the true militants of the capitalist class and they have a kind of schizophrenic attitude towards Trump. On the one hand, they denounce his “chaos theory of government.” On the other hand, they love his economic policies.
Another important development is the transformation of the Republican Party. The Republicans have systematically built up the Christian fundamentalist and similar rabid right wing types over several decades. They did this to disguise their attacks on the working class. But the tops of the party, and their capitalist masters, always thought they could keep these fanatics under control. Now, they have become a Frankenstein monster and, with Trump as their leader, are tending to take over the Republican Party. This is causing sectors of the capitalist class to gravitate towards the Democrats as being the more reliable of the two capitalist parties. In other words, a shift in the traditional positions of the two parties seems to be under way. It is exactly at such moments, when the political set-up of a country shifts like this, that a movement from below is likely to develop.
Q: What are the main characteristics of the Trump supporters?
A: I think they are all over the place, but the main characteristic they have in common is denialism. It’s literally an infantile attitude - that any facts that are inconvenient to them don’t exist. For example, I have a neighbor who I discovered is a Trump supporter. He was telling me that he supports Trump because he wants the federal deficit to be lowered. He told me this before Trump had unveiled his tax plan, but even then it was obvious that Trump was going to do just the opposite.
Racism is, of course, a strong element among them, or at the very least a willingness to tolerate racism. Some deny that any sizable sector of the working class voted for Trump, but that’s not true. Polls show that over 40% of voters who came from union households voted for him, and the president of the United Auto Workers Union estimated that 30% of UAW members voted for Trump. It’s a combination of racism, sexism, chauvinism, and infantile denialism.
There are also the evangelical Christians, who support Trump almost unanimously. At least the white ones do, and some of the black and Latino evangelicals too. Their religious fanaticism is also a form of denial of actual facts. The fact that Trump has never shown any religious inclination up until now, as well as his obvious “sins” (in their eyes) shows that “morality” has nothing to do with religion; it’s all about power.
Q: How would you describe the different factions inside the US bourgeoisie?
A: Of course, finance capital is dominant, but politically there are some differences. For example, we have the Silicon Valley capitalists who are new to their role as being an important part of the ruling class and therefore new to the role of rulers over society, with all that entails. I think the majority of them have an ahistorical point of view. They completely discount the role of the working class and are entirely unaware of periods like the 1930s. On the other hand, they tend to be socially liberal. For this reason, the great majority of them supported Clinton in the last election. But even there, there are exceptions such as Peter Thiel who is one of the richest of the Silicon Valley capitalists, and he supported Trump.
Then there is the wing of the capitalist class that believes they can return to the situation in the US that existed in the 1920s and earlier, especially as far as workers’ rights and racism are concerned. One of the most prominent of these is the Mercer family, who own Cambridge Analytica. This is the company that did the voter analyses both for Trump and for the Brexit supporters and is supposed to be the most sophisticated software company of its type in the world. There are others like them like Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire and hard core Israel supporter. These are true dinosaurs.
I think the majority of the US capitalist class still wants to and believes it’s possible to return to the situation of just a couple of years ago. That is the situation of relative stability. So they are trying to get Trump under control and install the Democrats as the congressional majority in 2018 and get Trump out in 2020. Maybe they will succeed, but the US will never be the same. That’s for sure. How will it have changed? Who knows? Who, after all, ever expected Trump to be elected president?
Q: What is the state of the trade union movement since the beginning of the era of Trump?
A: Disaster. Of course, there have been massive attacks on the unions, and they have succeeded in reducing the unionized sector to around 10% of the work force. But the policies of the union leadership have proven completely incapable of opposing this.
I joined the Carpenters Union in 1970. Shortly after that, we started hearing that our union must help the contractors compete with the non-union contractors. In reality, that meant that we union carpenters had to compete with the non-union carpenter for who would work cheapest. (I’d like to suggest my pamphlet on this history. It can be found online here: https://oaklandsocialist.com/2013/06/06/what-happened-to-our-unions/)
Today, the union leadership has doubled down on that approach. They bring employers in to lecture active union members that the union members must be the hardest working workers around. They tell the Chamber of Commerce that “we are on the same side”. Recently the UAW lost a campaign to unionize a Nissan plant in Mississippi. Their theme was “pro-Nissan and pro-union”. How can you possibly be “pro” both? The majority of workers drew the logical conclusion that if you want to be pro-company, then you should vote against having a union.
Basically, what’s required for a start is to return to the methods of the 1930s - the sit down strikes and mass picket lines.
Or take another example: In all the protests against racism, including the Black Lives Matter-type protests, the unions were almost entirely absent. I was in Ferguson shortly after Michael Brown was killed. (See the videos on my blog site from then.) I was told by one UAW member that his local union officials told him “this is not our battle”. Why? Because the (capitalist) Democratic Party didn’t want the issue exposed; they didn’t want the police exposed for who they are.
To return to the issue of workers who voted for Trump: The main question in the US is the absence of a mass working class political party and, historically, the union leadership has been the main barrier to building this. Because of the lack of any real tradition of a working class political party, the very idea that the working class is its own force and can play an independent role in society is extremely weak.
Q: There have been mass protests of the Black Live Matters movement as well as of Latino migrants? How would you describe the strengths and weaknesses of these movements?
I was in Ferguson a few days after Michael Brown was killed by a cop. It seemed the entire black community was out there. (If you look at the following you will see some video, including interviews: https://oaklandsocialist.com/2015/04/21/more-video-from-ferguson-2/ and https://oaklandsocialist.com/2014/08/20/its-building-its-a-revolution-voice-from-ferguson/) That was one of the first times I’ve seen such a mobilization since the 1960s or so. In my experience, it’s been pretty scattered since then.
One issue that all protest movements have to deal with is how to relate to the Democratic Party. Those who are absorbed into the Democrats are so unpopular among the young radicals - both white and black - that the leaders of these movements find it nearly impossible to support Democratic Party candidates. But they seem to be avoiding an open break with the Democratic Party, because they also don’t work for building an alternative, a working class alternative.
Q: There has been a significant growth of the left social democratic DSA? Could you briefly describe your assessment of the DSA and of their new members?
A: I joined DSA in April of 2017. From what I can tell, the overwhelming majority of those who joined recently are Bernie Sanders supporters. At this point, I have not found many who want to go beyond that.
The main issue for any socialists of any stripe - including social democrats - is the necessity for the working class to have its own party. And one thing that’s been proven is that it’s not possible to really campaign for, to organize for such a party while supporting ANY Democrats at the same time. But the overwhelming majority of DSA members at this point are very reluctant to even discuss this issue, at least in my experience.
This plus their adherence to the union bureaucracy has some very concrete consequences. For example, my home city, Oakland CA, has historically been an overwhelmingly working class city and also the working class majority are people of color. Now, though, it’s rapidly being gentrified. A very specific example of that was the attempt of the owner of the professional baseball team, the Oakland A’s, to get ahold of some land right across the street from Laney Community College to build a new stadium. Students (over 90% people of color and working class) and the faculty strongly opposed it and a campaign started against it. I am involved in that campaign, but DSA held itself aloof. (See this article for more on the issue: https://oaklandsocialist.com/2017/10/18/oakland-as-stadium-proposal-save-laney-college-stop-gentrification/) I believe that that one reason DSA has not been involved is that the majority of the union leadership supports this stadium plan because it will mean jobs, or so they say.
However, DSA itself has changed tremendously, from a little liberal Democratic Party club to a group that could have some real clout. The situation cries out for a socialist group to really start to build a working class party. I am hoping that as this situation becomes even more serious, that a general discussion opens up inside DSA around the issue of breaking from the Democrats and starting to build a working class alternative.
Q: What is your assessment of the main groups of the US left and their politics in the Trump era?
A: Most of the major “socialist” groups support the union bureaucracy and support Assad and Putin. These two questions go together because in both cases what they do, in effect, is to dismiss the role of the working class.
There are all sorts of little sects and also some larger groups, such as Socialist Alternative, which has a member who’s a city councilor in Seattle WA. But all of them think that they’re the next coming of the Bolsheviks. They ignore the fact that the Bolsheviks and the Third International were built in a certain time and under certain particular conditions. Those conditions have changed drastically, and in my opinion the next workers’ international will look a lot more like the First International than the Second or Third. In other words, it will be composed of all sorts of different political tendencies and the working class will have to sort it out through experience.
I think the main thing is that, as I say, they just don’t understand the role of the working class in history. They understand it from a theoretical point of view, but have no idea how to apply that. So, I believe that they have very little to offer except confusion at this point. Maybe, in the future, when the working class in the US really starts to stir, some of that confusion will be cleared up. Maybe.
Q: Could you give us a summary of your and your comrades’ activities in Oakland?
A: We are a small group of comrades who meet regularly, mainly for discussion on all sorts of different issues, from Marxist theory to perspectives for the US, to historical issues. We also tried to get involved in DSA here, but that avenue is pretty much blocked. We were also involved in the campaign around the Oakland A’s which I mentioned above.
Q: What do the left-wing groups say about the ongoing liberation struggle in Syria against the Assad regime?
As I said, most of the larger ones support Assad, Putin & co. They think what’s happening there is just a rerun of the US invasion of Iraq and they keep chanting against “regime change.” Obviously, they don’t even read the newspapers, because it’s clear that the US government supports Assad! Even if they didn’t support him, for socialist to support Assad because the US government is against him would be similar to supporting Hitler and Mussolini because they were at war with the US at that time.
A couple of the larger socialist groups don’t support Assad, but there’s a critical issue that they don’t address: How could this whole disaster have been averted? What could have been done differently? In my opinion, we have to look at the Local Coordinating Committees and their tendency towards creating a situation of dual power. I try to lay out my view of that in this pamphlet: https://oaklandsocialist.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/what-is-revolution-5.pdf