'Workers are seeing that tariff is ultimately the bosses’ policy'

The second part of the ICP interview with PSL CC members Eugene Puryear and Brian Becker elaborates on US tariff policy, the rivalry with China, the Palestinian issue and Syria.

ICP, 10 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) late 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.

Let us continue with the G7 meeting that took place in Canada this summer, which was marked by a photo publicized worldwide that displayed the straining of ties among the wealthy states that form the G7 alliance, as well as the U.S. losing the control and hegemony over the imperialist order. Meanwhile, China is upgrading its claims in the world order, widening its alliances and sphere of investment and therefore influence, in zones overlapping with the U.S. zones of influence. Naturally, these developments and competition are always volatile under imperialism. From a revolutionary socialist point of view, how do you think the global crisis of imperialism will proceed?

Brian Becker: U.S. imperialism created a new world order at the end of the World War II. It rehabilitated its adversaries as well as its allies. It was the only imperialist entity that had not been fundamentally weakened by World War II; in fact it was strengthened. As a consequence it created a multilateral world order including the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and the Bretton-Woods conference that designated the U.S. dollar as the world currency.

A few years later, in 1949, it created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and multiple other military alliances all around the world, designed to encircle the Soviet Union. After the surprising collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government reoriented its foreign policy, but it did not eliminate the previous multilateral arrangements. Rather, it simply declared that it would brook no competition from any other country in the future, and that American power would be demonstrated mainly through the exercise of military authority. Here we are, 27 years after the Soviet Union, and now we are witnessing another profound change in the world order.

Most notable is the emergence of China as a strategic competitor. That's why the Trump administration now officially designates China as a strategic competitor with U.S. imperialism, which was almost unimaginable in 1991 at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But China today, ironically as a consequence of foreign direct investment by imperialist corporations and imperialist countries, has become the second largest economic power in the world, and is asserting its national economic interest not simply within China but throughout the world — in Asia of course, in Africa, and in Latin America.

Chinese foreign policy has been to appease U.S. imperialism during this entire period, to accept U.S. hegemony as the dominant reality of global politics in exchange for China continuing to receive foreign direct investment and access to markets. But now, in the face of China’s growth, the U.S. government and bourgeoisie — not simply Trump but also with Barack Obama and we would say almost all factions of the U.S. capitalist establishment — see China as a threat to U.S. hegemony, and as a consequence are targeting China. This happened formally with the announcement by Barack Obama of the so-called Asia Pivot when he was in Australia in late 2011. That pivot had two prominent features: first was the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) whereby the United States, and not China, would write the rules of the global trade to the detriment of China and to the benefit of the United States; and second, to place U.S. military assets, in particular at least 60 percent of the U.S. Navy and Air Force assets in the Asia-Pacific region, taking a highly aggressive and confrontational position with China in its own “backyard,” so to speak. And so with this new reality China could no longer continue only to have a policy of appeasement to US imperialism because now it was taking its aggressive designs right up to China’s borders.

Obama sought using multilateral agreements, such as TPP, as well as the relocation of American military to contain and threaten China. Trump is pursuing a hostile attitude towards China, using instead of TPP which has been scuttled, an extremely punishing system of tariffs and sanctions against China. The idea is to push China back, and prevent China’s continued dynamic economic rise. And at the same time, the Pentagon — and perhaps this is more important than Trump — has also targeted China, not only for military confrontation in the South China Sea, but also agitating against the “One Belt, One Road”. The secretary of defense, James Mattis, in a recent speech, condemned China for attempting to pursue the “One Belt, One Road.” Mattis said “There are many belts and many roads” — meaning that the United States won't allow China to take the place of the United States as the dominant player in the global trading order. So this is a fundamental new contradiction in the world politics. It will drive world politics; it's not temporary, incidental, or ephemeral. It will be a fundamental axis of struggle in the coming years and decades.

The political assault against Russia is a subsidiary issue within this larger U.S. imperialist framework that targets China, although it’s struggle against Russia and the Russian state will proceed as has been the recent pattern unless the or a Russian government returns to a neo-colonial vassal statust as it was under Yeltsin in the 1990’s. Ultimately, the U.S. ruling class feels that the only way the U.S. can retain real hegemony with the world order established after World War II is to weaken China, and we believe ultimately the goal is to overthrow the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. Unless it was overthrown by revolutionary communists we believe this would be a catastrophe for the people of China because we believe that it would lead to dismemberment of China, just as the Soviet Union was dismembered when the Soviet government collapsed in 1991. We think that’s the real goal of U.S. imperialism. The only way to stop China’s rise is to overthrow its government, which would lead to the actual physical dismemberment of China, instead of one unitary China. It would essentially return China to the status that it had in the 19th century, divided by European and imperialist powers, and weakened as a consequence.

Eugene Puryear: I’d like to add one quick point here about Africa, which also bears on the issue of China. US imperialism, over the past five years, has dramatically increased its military rule on the African continent. A very significant amount of U.S. special forces activity, for instance, is now in Africa, and I think the question that we have to ask is: Why? Oftentimes this is simply presented as a conflict between the U.S. and China over resources. We think it's important to have a more sophisticated understanding based on what is really happening amongst the popular forces in large parts of Africa.

The US remilitarization, along with France and Germany, in Africa, is very similar to the Reagan administration’s policy in Latin America in the 1980s, of using the fig leaf of terrorism to heavily arm and rearm these very exploitative governments that have allied with the West and that have mortgaged their resources to it.

But what we've also seen is the emergence of large popular movements of working-class youth in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Telema movement (Stand Up in Congolese – t.n.), also in Burkina Faso, and in Guinea. Many of these movements are taking as their inspiration the African revolutionaries Thomas Sankara and Patrice Lumumba, and they’re struggling for power. For the United States and other European powers, this is very dangerous, because were there to be a radical revolutionary government along the lines of what briefly existed in Burkina Faso under Thomas Sankara, the existence of a country like China would be highly important. A revolutionary government that would emerge in Africa in such a context would have other choices; they could work with China, India, Russia, Brazil, whoever it may be, to extract better, less exploitative relationships, which would heavily undermine US imperialism and European imperialism on the continent. For them, the total and unfettered access to African resources is crucially important, the ability to continue the capitalist imperialist machine. On the question of China in Africa, we have to also be including and understanding the agency of Africans, and African workers and peasants, to grasp why the US imperialist strategy is so hostile towards China. I think it helps illustrate, even though it's very rarely discussed, how US imperialism is very concerned about the rise of revolutionary minded movements in different parts of Africa, West Africa, Central Africa and now in South Africa. There the United States government has begun to very aggressively back the claims of the former white apartheid forces, because of the fear of more radical movements in South Africa, that are being driven by many popular demonstrations and strikes.

Connected to the previous question, what is your opinion on the course and future of so-called trade-wars and the imposed tariffs on China, as a reflection of the rivalry within the imperialist hierarchy? Do you think this would lead to the escalation of global aggression or perhaps even to a war? How do you assess the protectionism of Trump vis-a-vis free trade championing of China? Would the interdependence of monopolies be able to absorb the escalation of military aggression or act otherwise? Moreover, how is it interpreted among the working class of US?

BB: When Lenin wrote his book “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism”, he outlined the reasons why inter-imperialist war was an inevitable future for modern day capitalism. He made a point that the imperialists had already divided the world between themselves for markets, spheres of influence and colonies. And as monopoly capitalism expanded, that this compelled a struggle to redivide the world, markets and colonies — which would drive imperialists to war with each other. That is what happened in World War I and it led to the revolution in Russia. In addition to the birth of the first socialist republic, it led to near-revolutions in Germany, a short lived revolution in Hungary, and the war certainly began to weaken the imperialist hold over the colonized parts of the world. Communist movements began to grow all over the world, especially in Asia and in the Middle East. The World War II was a repetition — not an exact replication but a repetition of this basic phenomenon. That war too led to another wave in socialist and anti-colonial revolutions.

The U.S. ruling class after World War II sought to create a new world order that would not only allow the U.S. to exercise absolute domination but also to prevent the outbreak of a third world war — because each of the world wars was leading to socialist revolutions that threatened the fundamental fabric of capitalist domination. So they prevented a third world war, meaning an inter-imperialist war, a major power conflict. Of course there have been many other wars: the Korean War, the Vietnam War and many other smaller regional confrontations. But a major power conflict has been avoided.

What the PSL sees is that there is a new path towards major power confrontation with the re-emergence of China as a strategic competitor with U.S. capitalism, and with the U.S. organic tendency towards promoting counter-revolution and regime change. This is not rhetoric and it’s not simply in the imagination of the PSL’s Central Committee. It is the official doctrine of the U.S. Pentagon, which leads by far the world’s largest war machine with force projection all across the planet in over 1,000 military bases. In the National Security Strategy that was adopted in the January 2018 and in the Nuclear Post Review it’s clear that now US is preparing for major power conflict and they have even designated that as the label for their new doctrine. That means military planning, contingency planning, budgeting and military placements will be designed with that goal in mind. It’s no longer the so-called “war on terror” that is the priority for U.S. ruling class.

Now what does that actually mean? Could there be a war between US and China? Could there be a war between US and Russia and China? Our answer is that of course it seems like absolute insanity. But so was World War II, and so was World War I. No one can say that those were rational exercises of military or economic or political power. And yet they happened nonetheless. So we feel that Lenin’s thesis on “the inevitability of the war” has reasserted itself under changed historical situations and context. Yes, the world is no longer filled with colonies or dominated by handful of colonial powers, and the world will not be redivided on that basis. But the same organic tendency towards war is reasserting itself with an orientation of major power conflict between the U.S., Russia and China. Will this be something helpful or beneficial to capitalism? No. Will it be helpful and beneficial to capitalist interests that are highly integrated that derived their profits not simply from investments in US but investments in China, who derived their profits not only from labor in U.S. but in an international division of labor that is part of the production of almost every commodity? No, it would not not helpful. But that’s another principal contradiction of imperialism and capitalism in this stage.

When we say “imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism” meaning it can’t get better, it can’t be reformed into something else; it has an organic and fundamental flaw. So our thesis is that as insane as a major power conflict is, that in fact is what’s coming. Will it come tomorrow? Will it come in the next ten years? We don’t have a crystal ball and don’t predict future. We also don’t forget or downplay the possibility that masses of people could intervene through the revolutionary process and change the existing status of relationships. So our whole premise is that socialism is an imperative need not simply because it ends the exploitation and oppression of class society but it perhaps saves the humanity from the possibility of a fundamental catastrophe that would be produced by another major power conflict.

EP: As it concerns the tariff policy, in the working class obviously there are many views. But at least in the industrial working class it’s having an interesting contradictory response. Take steel for instance. Now initially the Trump policy that he campaigned on, trying to bring back steel jobs, had some popularity among steelworkers, many of whom ultimately supported Trump because they felt this would bring back jobs, improve wages and so on. Now we don’t want to overplay the rhetoric of Trump that the loss of steel jobs is all because of China, Mexico or whoever. Many steel jobs have been lost because of the improvement in technology, which is also perhaps the most important factor in the contraction of the steel industry. What’s actually happened is that to the extent business for U.S. steel owners has increased, they are keeping the money for themselves. The workers who thought that a policy to empower the steel industry would also empower them, are now seeing that it’s the exact opposite and that the steel bosses who are richer than they have been in years are still demanding that they lower their wages and give them less benefits — even in the phase of high and higher profits. This is why over 60,000 steel workers have now authorized a strike. Will they strike? It’s unclear but it is driving more anger at the Trump administration because workers are seeing that this tariff is ultimately the bosses’ policy one way or the other.

And on the same token you look at some other industries like aerospace where the terms of the tariffs, increasing the cost of their inputs, are challenging for the company. And that means of course not the big bosses — like Boeing and these other companies — will take paycuts, but that any losses they take will be passed on the workers. So it’s an interesting contradictory reality, but I think it could be a promising one. Whether you work in an industry that is perhaps benefitting a little bit from tariffs or one that is challenged by it, the ultimate conclusion that workers are seeing and drawing is that, either way, the moves of the government are not about working class people. They’re about helping the bosses. We think the labor movement can be strengthened if it draws out this conclusion that if workers don’t fight in their own interest, no politician is going to assist them and making this possible.

I think the tariff policy is growing less popular. It’s never been hugely popular. Most of the working class of US is not industrial so I think for many people the idea of tariff policy, the idea of more tension between US and Mexico, China or anywhere is not something they instinctively welcome. Because, as is often said, trade wars lead to real wars; many people know that. But even in the areas of working class that most affected from tariff policy, I think what’s really happening is the exposure to a large degree of the falseness of the capitalist promises to save workers.

Continuing with the reaction of the working class towards US government policies, how was the provocative move of Trump moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem receive reaction among the working class in the United States?

BB: The working class in US, except for its most progressive forces, is largely not paying attention to what US does in regards to its embassy in Israel. There is no real fundamental opposition even within the ruling class in America to this move, which you would think, would understand this provocation as unnecessarily gratuitous, something that would possibly lead to resistance. There is so much arrogance and so much hubris by the American capitalist establishment when it comes to the Palestinian people, that Trump faced no real opposition. The Democratic Party actually congratulated Trump. The Democratic Party’s Senate leader Chuck Schumer, who is from New York where pro-Israeli positions are primarily important, immediately congratulated Trump. So there was not that much opposition in the US in that sense.

But from pro-Palestinian forces from the BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – t.n.) from those who care about human rights and are promoting the just cause of the Palestinian people, there has been a great deal of mobilization. We had pretty major protests for three years, time to coincide with the American-Israeli Political Action Committee Conventions in Washington D.C. The ANSWER Coalition helped lead those demonstrations.

So why did Trump do this? It was unnecessary, the Israelis control not only Israel proper, they control West Bank in completeness. They control Gaza. They control the territory and the airways. They did it simply because the most right-wing Zionist and the right-wing Christian elements who are supporting the Trump administration politically in US have seen this as a prize: the illegal recognition of Jerusalem by the US as the Capital of Israel. It was driven by narrow political interest in the US. These are the people who give Trump a lot of money; right-wing Zionist and right-wing Christian evangelicals. They are the ones who dominated this policy.

EP: In many ways I would say that the growth of pro-Palestinian sentiment comes long before this. The Israeli wars in Gaza starting in 2008 began a process of popular revelation on this issue; and really during the late Obama administration there was the issue of the $35 billion weapon deal, the complete and total support for Israel in many different ways, all this has driven a process of radicalization amongst youth, be they working class or petty bourgeois individuals who are adopting socialist, anarchist and different forms of anti-capitalist ideology. In that period, many people become much more open and vocal in solidarity with Palestinian movement. The “Black Lives Matter” movement in 2015 issued a platform that said Israel was an apartheid state, which of course it is. The movement was criticized sharply by centers of ruling-class power and influence. But nevertheless this was perhaps the first time a major organization with such a large profile, which wasn’t directly involved in Arab or Muslim community, made a statement that was very strong about Israel.

So I think the Embassy was seen as part and parcel of this broader process. So there is a growth of the pro-Palestinian movement and I think really the actions of Trump are really fueling the growth of that movement. But it’s not because of any one individual action of Trump. The movement is growing separate from his actions, as much of the work is really based on the deepening knowledge of Israeli actions themselves and the deepening level of education among American population about what is happening there. So I think it’s a very good development in many ways and, as Brian said, it is totally unreflected in any organized political force in Congress or even in the level of state legislatures, which is sometimes even more pro-Israel than the Congress even though they don’t deal with foreign policy at that level. They are trying to outlaw pro-Palestinian activism and drive it off of campuses using a variety of tricks. So that will be the big challenge of the Palestinian movement in the upcoming few years.

As the Syrian forces, together with the military and economic support from their allies, are regaining the occupied lands since the start of the imperialist intervention and war in 2011, all the forces involved are re-shaping their alliances. The most recent developments in Idlib point out that US and its Western imperialist allies will stick to their ambitions to a degree, and they would resort once again to a chemical weapon pretext. Russia will also insist on its own geopolitical aims in the region. Turkey now has fallen into a very critical and fragile position, now with the responsibility of “cleaning” the zone - which does not seem easy with such dirty hands. Given the aggressive foreign policy of Trump administration, what can be expected in the near future of Syrian war?

BB: We believe that the US government has a commitment to carry out regime change in Syria; that is the overthrowing of Syrian government. That effort has largely failed as a consequence of resistance of Syrian people and the military intervention of Russia and allied forces from Iran and Lebanon. The Russian government of course does not seek to overthrow the Syrian government, but wants to keep the existing state intact. That is its fundamental objective. Of course, the Russian government has long-term diplomatic and military alliance with the Syrian government and there are Russian military forces and bases that are located in Syria. So we see that Russia and US have fundamentally different goals in Syria that are playing out.

But, Syria is just pursuing a strategy based on what they understand to be their own national interest; which are to reclaim all of Syrian territory and to exercise complete sovereignty over that territory. That is the priority of the Syrian government but not necessarily the absolute top priority of its allies including Russia. So, we see that the Russian government has, within its pragmatic foreign policy orientation, the capacity to make a deal with Turkey and with Erdoğan government that appears at least on the surface to fundamentally compromise the essence of Syrian sovereignty over especially the northern provinces of Idlib. Whether this is a long-term negation of Syrian sovereignty or temporary maneuver in order to await another moment, that remains to be seen.