‘Labor movement offers a model and potential for multinational unity’

The ICP interview with PSL CC members Brian Becker and Eugene Puryear comes to an end with this third part treating US-DPRK relations, anti-imperialist resistance in Latin America, recent strikes of teachers and prisoners and the issue of personal gun ownership in the U.S.

ICP, 22 October 2018

The International Communist Press interviewed Central Committee members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) during their visit to the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) in September. The first part of the interview the PSL members conveyed their views on the effects of the mobilization against imperialist interventions in Syria, the opportunity arising from the popularization of “socialism” in the US, the recent struggles of immigrants within the US working class and the positioning of US communists in the world communist movement while the second part of the interview elaborated on US tariff policy, the rivalry with China, the Palestinian issue and Syria. This third part treats US-DPRK relations, anti-imperialist resistance in Latin America, recent strikes of teachers and prisoners and the issue of personal gun ownership in the U.S. Puryear states that there are hopeful signs in the unions in the United States, which are increasingly made up of people of color and adds that labor is one of the few institutions in America that has a level of integrated activity. He arrives at the conclusion that the labor movement offers a model and potential for multinational unity.

A few days ago, it was announced that the war between DPRK and South Korea has ended, and a “peace agreement” between both parts was signed. How would this “de-demonization" of DPRK impact the plans of U.S. in Southeast Asia in terms of its hegemonic presence in the region and the intervention to the relations between China, DPRK and South Korea?

Brian Becker: The U.S. often describes South Korea as an “ally.” South Korea is not an “ally” of the U.S. South Korea was the colonial subject of the U.S. So, what we are witnessing with the diplomatic initiatives of past year and a half are an attempt by the South Korean government to exercise autonomy, or I would say sovereignty. But it is a very limited sovereignty because ultimately the U.S. government still has 32,000 troops in South Korea and in the time of crisis, the U.S. military takes command of South Korean military forces under the banner of the UN Command that was established at the beginning of Korean War. The U.S. still has military control over the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone), the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea.

As a consequence, we could see, even two weeks ago, the U.S. government vetoed, through the mechanism of the UN Command, an announced intention by the South Korean and North Korean governments to build a railroad that links the two Koreas — which is really one Korea that is divided by colonialism. This demonstrates again that the South Korean government has very limited sovereignty.

With that said, there is a change in the political situation in South Korea with the ascendancy to the presidency of Moon Jae-In. He and his staff have been long time committed to the reduction of tensions in the Korean Peninsula and the beginning of a peaceful reunification process of some type. Of course, from the point of view of the North Korean government, they seek a kind of reunification that would be the opposite of what happened to East Germany, where capitalist West Germany absorbed the East German part. Reunification of a country divided not only by geography but by two antagonistic social systems is extremely complex. The DPRK leadership, for the past four decades, is suggesting a confederal system rather than a full assimilation.

North Korea's immediate goals, and the focus of its diplomatic initiatives are to lessen the tensions and to change the political equation so that the extreme pressure that has been applied by the US — of a military and economic character — can start to be relieved. This can happen in spite of the UN Security Council's draconian sanctions against the DPRK, because if Russia, China and the South Korean government determine that it is in their own interest to start to treat North Korea as a normal country and normalize relations with it, North Korea can achieve those goals at least in a limited way. We think that that is really what is going on right now.

The U.S. has been trying to overthrow the progressive governments of Latin America and to reimpose its full control over the continent which it considers its “backyard”. This year has seen numerous attempts by all means ranging from bourgeois media manipulations to violent acts, especially in Nicaragua and Venezuela. Yet it is still not successful to overpower the people’s resistance. Could the spontaneous resistance and anti-imperialist movements both in the U.S. colonies and the continent in general evolve into a working-class based, socialist revolutionary orientation?  How do you relate these to the crisis of US in sustaining its superior position within the imperialist hegemony?

Eugene Puryear: I certainly think that it is possible that the socialist tide could rise further. When you look at the essence of the resistance to the U.S. imperialism in Latin America, especially in the case of Venezuela, what you see is the consciousness of people moving to the possibility for a greater horizon, for greater social justice, greater freedom, self-determination and sovereignty and, at least in the case of Venezuela, the horizon of the transition to socialism is a major part of the political culture of the social movements and is the stated political agenda of the government. The resistance to the imperialist moves has been so resolute because people see that what is at stake is the roll-back of a process that has really been in motion since the early 2000s, that is whatever critiques or criticisms they may have. Certainly the lives of millions of people have improved already, with a reorientation away from the sort of society where 20 percent control the wealth and 80 percent are in poverty, and towards a much more equitable circumstance with the possibility that it could move forward for the working class.

So the movement wants to preserve the kernel of already existing positive measures as well as advance to the horizon of socialism; both aspects are a key part in that resistance in itself.

This is also the root of U.S. imperialist opposition and the strong desire to reactivate the 4th Fleet in order to threaten many of these southern countries. They feel very strongly that these movements certainly could grow and continue to evolve and continue to offer an alternative to capitalism. In the past fifteen or twenty years the Latin America is the only zone of the world where on a large-scale basis the idea of an alternative to capitalism has really been raised. Even raising the question, especially in the context of mass social movements that are gaining power electorally, this is very dangerous to the U.S.

It is clear that the U.S. government will continue and intensify their efforts. It seems now that they are looking to develop many sort of terrorist, underground coup-type networks in the region. We've seen that recently for instance with the U.S. intelligence agencies meeting with some Venezuelan military officers who wanted to launch a coup.

For the U.S. government, there is a particular danger, a particular fear of, quite frankly, even assertive social democratic activity in the Western Hemisphere. The region is closer to the U.S. and is the point of origin of many immigrant populations that have come to the US. These are developing organic connections between the working class of those countries and the U.S. And the possibility is very clear of this creating a catalytic effect to advance left-wing ideas inside the U.S.; that has already happened to a degree.

And you can see that with Cuba, which is obviously a very small country that poses no military threat to the U.S. in any way, shape or form. Yet, it has been treated as one of the most dangerous nations by the U.S. Clearly this is because of the proximity and the example of what countries with very few resources, very close to the U.S. are able to accomplish and it raises the question too of what socialism could accomplish in the U.S. context.

Obviously there are many sharp contradictions in Latin America right now. The Colombian government is a right-wing government and playing a crucial role in trying to roll back and push back progressive movements. The possibility of a right-wing government in Brazil is also very dangerous. Some governments that were moving in a left-wing direction have already been pulled back to the right. But what we've seen in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba — the steadfastness of the resistance in these countries alongside the growth of popular movements in Haiti, which is also looking to these countries — means that we will see continued struggle throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. How this will play out is yet to be seen but we can expect the tensions between the U.S. and these countries to continue and intensify.

Cuts in wages and insurances of educational sector workers in Oklahoma yielded a big and encouraging wave of demonstrations and resistance where thousands of workers have participated for days. What has been the outcome, and do you think would this spread to other states beyond Oklahoma, given that this movement came after the mobilization of workers in Arizona? Given that the states that started the strikes were those where Trump got a majority of votes in 2016, is there an opportunity of uniting the different racial segments of the working class in the near future?

EP: Well I would say that the main impact so far from the initial wave of the teacher strikes is that they increased the confidence of working class. What we’ve seen in the sectors like nursing especially, but even among the steel workers and the others, is that the idea of striking, of fighting back against the bosses, has grown because people have seen the teachers win and succeed. Certain nurses’ job actions are adopting similar hashtags and slogans as the teachers’ strike — it is very directly inspiring workers. The teachers’ struggle continued to grow for instance in Washington state, which is sort of a split state — one half of it is progressive and the other half is more conservative — but across the entire breadth of the state teachers stood up. In some cities they struck and in some they are threatening to strike. Across the country we can see that the teachers are not backing down. It is continuing to grow in Los Angeles – is one of the largest school districts of the country, where teachers have authorized a strike — although it is unclear if they will have to strike.

Does that raise the prospect for uniting people? Yes and no. The teachers’ struggle is especially unifying because the schools affect so many people in the community, especially the working class, whose families and students cannot afford a private school. The strikes obviously bring together education workers of different racial backgrounds.

What’s a little more challenging is that first and foremost there are differential strata within the working class that often correspond to race and so the struggles of higher-paid workers and the lower-paid workers can sometimes also be exploited as a racial division. I think the competition, or the perceived competition, between Latino or Asian immigrant workers and Black workers also is a major challenge.

There are hopeful signs in the unions in the United States, which are increasingly made up of people of color; Black people, Latino people, Asians, Native Americans and so on. Labor is one of the few institutions in America that has a level of integrated activity already where people of different backgrounds are just by the nature of their job working together and being together. So the labor movement offers a model and potential for multinational unity. But labor has also sometimes reflected and reproduced some of the worst divisions that have existed in the working class generally. I think that this is the role of the communist parties, to be able to go into the unions and into the working class, to explain these divisions, how they are keeping many of workers down and keeping many of the workers exploited and divided, and try to affect the struggle in that way.

You both served as a source of information regarding the jail strikes and publicly expressed your support for the demands of the prisoners. What were the consequences of the strike in terms of its political effects on the people outside, prisoner families and the vulnerable people in general? Can we consider these initiatives promising in terms of paving the economical demands into political demands?

EP: Yes, I would say that the political effect of the prison strike has been to raise the demand for human rights in the prisons quite significantly. I don’t think that we have seen in the past 20 or 30 years any similar action, able to reach into every major newspaper, TV station, people on the street and on the Internet; so many millions of people are now talking about the conditions inside of the prisons and why we have so many people imprisoned.

About 15 states ultimately ended up having at least some type of activity in at least one prison. We saw even in the most brutal prisons prisoners were able to conduct strike actions. So from that perspective, given that it was wider and bigger than many people expected, I think it reached into the mainstream of the political conversation and set the stage for a broader discussion about the nature of the prison system and mass incarceration in the United States. That system really was built for the social control of the Black community, a ruling-class attempt to contain the consequences of the economic deprivation that has been present in the Black community. This question is a very powerful one when we see that most prisoners come from places that have 50% Black unemployment, especially among youth, very high levels of poverty, terrible social conditions and so on. We’re seeing the prison strike issue is an entry point into that conversation as well about racial oppression and the national question.

We’re also seeing that prisoners themselves are becoming politically active. They are encouraging their families and their friends on the outside to become politically active and to link up with the organizations supporting them that often have a radical anti-capitalist critique of the conditions of the community. This has the possibility creating a much stronger revolutionary movement in the United States. It is building a much broader segment of the most exploited sectors of the working class that has started to directly critique not just conditions of prisons, but ask why so many people are in prisons and ultimately question the capitalist policy that led to the system of massive incarceration.

BB: Prisoners chose to go and strike on August 21st and end their strike at September 9th. August 21st 1971 was the day George Jackson, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party and a leading prisoners’ spokesperson, was executed by California prison authorities. September 9th was the first day of the Attica Rebellion, which was perhaps the most spectacular prison rebellion in U.S. history. That wave of the prison rebellions, between August 21, 1971 and September 9, 1971 was a reflection of the larger Back liberation movement that was raging across the United States. The prison movement, and those inside of the prisons were reflecting what was going on the outside of the prisons. Those prisoners who initiated today’s prison strike are deliberately making a specific symbolic “political statement” by scheduling these actions from August 21st to September 9th. It reflects the rise once again in the United States of a manifestation of the same historic Black liberation movement, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement in the past few years.

When you look through American history every wave of prison rebellions is a reflection, not just of what’s going on inside at the prisons, but of what’s going on politically outside of the prisons. So the prisoners today are generally less political than in 1971 but that’s a reflection of the fact that the movement outside is still at a lower level ideologically, and lower in intensity than it was during that time period. But these are clear patterns of political activity that keep manifesting themselves over and over again in numerous contexts.

In U.S., the per-capita number of guns owned by people is 88 per every hundred resident. How do you interpret the increasing individual ownership of guns in the U.S. society? Is this related to sentiments like tension, hatred, fear that are willfully provoked by capitalism? Can this be considered as a rise of lumpen-proletarian culture in the working class? And how is this possible for the people of a country where the record of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq had negative traces in their collective memories and the general discontent towards the issue of war?

EP: I think it’s an interesting phenomenon that has been understood on a couple different levels. There are roots in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which made gun ownership possible in the United States to serve the settler-colonial nature of the U.S. in its founding. That is, to enlist part of the population to assist in the extermination of Native Americans and suppression of the Black population. That history means that there is a large subset of gun ownership that is very much heavily based on the politics of fear. For instance, the largest percentage of gun owners are not people who hunt but primarily middle class white people on the suburbs who own weapons because of their own fear of Black and Latino working-class people victimizing them. This is a mainly false fear, but nevertheless it is a factor, that is important to recognize.

But it’s also important to recognize another core element of the gun ownership issue in the U.S. That is, it’s also rooted in a self-defense tradition from oppressed people, especially in the Black community but also the Native American community, as well as to a lesser extent parts of the Latino population. The existence of extra-legal fascist organizations, the Ku-Klux-Klan in particular but others, has long been a major feature of U.S. society. Historically and contemporarily the idea that these sorts of forces can kill with impunity has also created a many of the national oppressed communities a culture of self-defense and resistance. That’s rooted in a much more positive collectivity, in many ways of communities standing together against fascist forces. So it’s difficult to understand the gun ownership issue without discussing that.

Now there is a third piece to add, which is the issue of gun violence in inner city communities. I don’t think that reflects the rise of a lumpen proletariat culture so much as it reflects the hopelessness introduced to the population by capitalism that has driven many people not just into the underground market in economic terms but into almost a nihilistic posture based on the lack of a future because of their living standards. It caused to a lot of contradictions within communities. This phenomenon exists slightly apart from the sort of traditions of gun ownership that I mentioned previously. I think we really should consider it as a broader part of the conversation about the social conditions created by capitalism. Certainly the easy availability of guns reflects and magnifies this, but the issue is not so much the right of gun ownership as it is the contradictions caused by the disruption to these communities’ economic, social and family structures, not to mention the suppression of its radical leadership. Black market economic activity usually leads to violence in many different ways; I think the tragic violence that we see in so many cities can only be really truly understood through an economic lens.

Thanks for the interview and your comprehensive answers.