No. 6, April 2009  

Marxists for Class Struggle, “Obama Socialists” for Tax Reform

What Program to Fight the Crisis?

In any serious social struggle, differing political outlooks come into conflict, leading to different choices for action. This clash of programs is inevitable, and often crucial to the success or failure of the effort. All the more so amid the present conditions of imperialist war and worldwide capitalist economic crisis, as millions of workers lose their jobs, hundreds of billions are spent on the colonial occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and governments dole out trillions of dollars to shore up the banks.

In the fight against budget cuts and tuition hikes at the City University of New York, the main dividing line has been over the attitude toward the Democratic Party. Many union officials and student activists focused on pressuring the Democratic governor and legislators in Albany, as well as in Washington. The CUNY Internationalist Clubs, in contrast, reject this program of pressure politics and look to militant protest uniting students and workers. In the last election, we declared: “Democrat Obama No Answer to Republicans Bush/McCain” (Revolution No. 5, September 2008). We pointed out that it is the precisely the Democrats who are pushing the attacks on public education.

Differences over these issues first came to the fore in a demonstration last September 22 outside the Midtown Manhattan offices of New York governor David Paterson called by CUNY Contingents Unite. The CCU is a newly formed organization of adjunct faculty and other “part-time” City University employees who are also members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union representing educators at CUNY. After repeated efforts to get PSC participation in the protest, union officials let it be known that they would not endorse because they didn’t want to embarrass Governor Paterson amid sensitive discussions with his office.

Disruption in the Service of Democrats

Coming out of a mid-November meeting initiated by the CCU, activists from several campuses (including the CUNY Internationalist Clubs) formed a Student Coordinating Committee. Together they organized for a December 8 protest outside the Board of Trustees meeting at Baruch College where the proposal for a $300 per semester tuition hike was to be voted on. Thousands of leaflets were distributed on more than a dozen campuses, the event was publicized with tabling and at November rallies at Hunter College, Brooklyn College and LaGuardia and Bronx Community Colleges.

Shortly before the demonstration, it was discovered that someone else had quietly obtained permission from the New York Police Department to rally at the same time and place. An e-mail was received informing organizers that they would be allowed no more than one speaker, take it or leave it. On the day of the rally, as scores of students and adjuncts gathered outside Baruch, the mystery group congregated around a banner of International ANSWER, the antiwar front led by the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL). Although they claimed the backing of the University Student Senate (USS), there was no USS presence visible.

The key to this stealth rally was Democratic city councilman Charles Barron, who was, we were informed, the reason police permission was given. Although demonstration organizers had agreed that no politicians would speak, the interlopers insisted that Barron be the main speaker. In the face of opposition, Barron himself twice pushed a demonstrator to the ground. The ANSWER crew then got police to threaten to arrest demonstrators if we continued to use our bullhorn to chant. They then gave Barron the mike. Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, spoke on behalf of the union bureaucracy. After 30 minutes or so, the ANSWER spokeswoman announced that “the rally” was over and “anyone who doesn’t want to get arrested should go home.”

This was a brazen provocation using the threat of state repression to hijack the rally and turn it into an event for the Democratic Party. Such maneuvers are a trademark of ANSWER, which routinely parades Democrats before the microphones of “antiwar” rallies while the Democratic Party routinely votes for Bush’s (and now Obama’s) war budget. But the provocation didn’t work. Well over 100 students stayed for another 45 minutes, cheering more than a dozen speakers, many of whom were black and Latina students, as well as speakers from Committee to Revitalize Asian American Studies at Hunter and unionists from the Transport Workers Union, and other unions, as well as several members of the CCU.

“Tax the Rich” vs. Class Struggle

In the spring semester a new grouping of students and adjuncts came together to coordinate CUNY-wide action under the name of Ad Hoc Committee Against CUNY Budget Cuts and Tuition Hikes. There was a sharp debate over a petition initiated by the International Socialist Organization  (ISO) and circulated by the Hunter Student Union calling on Hunter College president Jennifer Raab to “come out against tuition hikes and support student activities in opposition to the tuition hikes.” Supporters of the CUNY Internationalist Clubs criticized this as creating illusions that Raab (a former public relations flack for right-wing Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani) and the CUNY administration (which was behind the call for a tuition hike) could support student protest (see our March 5 leaflet, beginning on page 2).

 Then at the March 5 city worker demonstration in which hundreds of CUNY students participated in response to the call of the Ad Hoc Committee another difference arose. The demo itself was the largest mobilization of labor in years, with some 75,000 participants, stretching more than 13 blocks from the tip of City Hall Park to above Canal Street. But while the focal point of workers’ anger was the threat of thousands of layoffs by Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson, rally organizers, principally the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) headed by Randi Weingarten, paraded leading Democrats including City Council speaker Christine Quinn across the platform. The UFT’s main demand was for a “fair share tax” scheme.

Marching to the rally from nearby Borough of Manhattan Community College, hundreds of students enthusiastically took over the street and joined the Internationalist chant of “Students and Labor, Shut the City Down.” This reflected the perspective of a class struggle against the budget cuts, layoff threats, and tuition and transit fare hikes. But a report on the March 5 protest in the ISO newspaper, Socialist Worker (13 March), “New York Labor Rallies Against Cuts,” had a very different perspective. A box on “What You Can Do” declared, “No budget cuts! Tax the rich!... We demand Gov. David Paterson and State Senator Malcolm Smith support the Millionaire’s Tax!” This call for tax reform is a program of collaboration with the Democratic Party. The ISO was pushing the same program as the UFT and PSC bureaucrats, and not for the first time.

In the abstract the ISO editorializes “Against Shared Sacrifice” (10 April), but in practice it mobilizes for the “Fair Share Tax Reform” proposal which is the concrete expression of the “shared sacrifice” policy put forward by top capitalists and Democrats. The call to tax the rich is raised by multibillionaire capitalists like computer monopolist Bill Gates and the investor Warren Buffett. The New York Times, voice of the liberal bourgeois establishment, editorialized in favor of the “millionaire’s tax.” The idea that raising the state tax on those earning more than $500,000 a year from 6.85 percent to 10.3 percent is somehow a blow against capital is positively ludicrous. Like the proposal to tax bonuses given to AIG and other Wall Street high fliers at 90 percent, it’s just a Democratic ploy to give the appearance of “fairness.”

Listen to the spokesman for the Working Families Party (WFP), the main group campaigning for the “millionaire’s tax”: “the Fair Share campaign insisted on ‘real shared sacrifice.’ Asking the wealthy to pay a little more, said one key ally, provides the thread to secure our social fabric –  our schools, our health care system, our safety net – and in so doing demonstrates our belief that we truly are ‘in this together’.” (The WFP is not really a party but a ballot line so labor officials can get their ranks to vote for Democratic candidates while holding their noses.) To refute the claim that such a tax on top salaries would induce the rich to leave the state, the WFP pointed to a Princeton University study showing that after taxes were raised in 2004 on those earning over $500,000 a year, the number of “half-millionaires” in New Jersey actually increased.

There’s nothing the least bit radical about this tinkering with tax tables. Don’t get us wrong – we’re not against raising taxes on the rich: if you ask us, it would be just ducky if those who sweat billions out of the labor of working people were taxed at 100 percent (don’t count on it). But the bottom line is, the people who rule society today – from City Hall to the governor’s mansion to the White House and Congress – are the capitalist class. When the capitalist government taxes, it does so for its own reasons, and when it spends money, its own class interests are paramount. Whether taxes are paid by the rich or the “middle class,” they will go to finance imperialist wars, bailouts of the banks and the like. That you can count on.

To pretend that taxing the rich has anything to do with stopping tuition hikes and budget cuts is to buy the bourgeois lie that there is not enough money. Like calls for “money for jobs/education/health care, not for war,” this depicts the fight as one over “spending priorities.” It is not. It’s all about class interests. As revolutionary Marxists, the CUNY Internationalist Clubs defend the working class, students and others against the attacks of the ruling class. If forced to, the bosses’ government will find the money, if necessary by printing it, as it is doing now in vast amounts. And even if they have the money it won’t stop them from raising tuition, a plan that was in the works even before the economic crisis broke.

What this is really all about is that the various reformist groups (both social-democratic ones like the ISO and Stalinoid ones like the PSL) pitch their politics to appeal to bourgeois “progressives.” Sometimes that translates into support for populists like Ralph Nader, a rabid anti-Communist and immigrant-basher who the ISO backed in 2000 and (less enthusiastically) in 2004. Generally, though, it’s about sidling up to the Democrats. This election year, with the vast popularity of Barack Obama, especially among youth, the ISO tried to appear as militant “yes we can” Obama supporters. To be fair, they were not the only “Obama socialists,” although they were among the most shameless.

Now the ISO writes that, “After 30 years of Republican ascendance in Washington and the retreat of liberalism at every turn,” Obama’s budget was “a welcome blast of fresh air” (Socialist Worker, 3 March). “In its budget outline introduced last week, the new Obama administration proposes to raise taxes on the richest Americans, increase spending on programs for the poor,” it gushes. In a similar vein, a group that stuck with Nader in ’08, Socialist Alternative (SAlt), writes that “In a sharp break from political policies during the last 30 years, President Obama’s budget proposes repealing tax cuts for the rich, increasing spending on social services,” etc. (Justice, March-April 2009). There couldn’t be clearer proof that these groups are just masquerading as socialists, but are actually liberals, who hail Obama’s capitalist war budget as a “blast of fresh air” and a “sharp break” from the past.

So after March 5, the ISO, SAlt and other reformists threw their efforts into building a new Tax the Rich Coalition. “If the proposed federal budget can be based on raising taxes for the wealthy, why not in New York state?” the ISO asked. They unenthusiastically went along with the March 25 student/labor rally at Hunter, while doing nothing to reach workers and increasingly pulling back from bringing out students. Their coalition called a “Make the Rich Pay” rally at Paterson’s office on March 31, after the budget fight was all over. For them it was all about creating a “movement” that they can recruit out of rather than actually trying to stop a tuition increase that will force thousands of CUNY students out of school. And now the results are in: the millionaire’s tax passed, although only raising the top bracket to 8.97 percent. The WFP proclaimed victory. Are you happy, ISO, SAlt, PSL? We’re not. The tuition hike stayed.

With our limited forces, the CUNY Internationalist Clubs worked intensively to organize opposition to beat back the budget cuts, layoffs and tuition hikes throughout this period. Rather than looking to the bourgeois parties and the CUNY administration – who were behind these attacks on students, poor and working people – we focused on building links between students fighting the tuition purge, faculty fighting layoffs and workers fighting union-busting. In contrast to light-minded calls for “student power,” we looked to the power of labor, stressing that students, faculty and staff at CUNY can play an important role in building a working-class counteroffensive against the capitalist attacks. Fighting political illusions in the Democrats, we called to break with all the capitalist parties and build a revolutionary workers party.

La lotta continua, the struggle goes on, as Italian students and workers proclaimed after the “hot autumn” of 1969. Winning open admissions, free tuition and student-teacher-worker control of the universities won’t be easy. In fact, it will take nothing short of revolution to make quality higher education genuinely free and accessible to all, so that it really is a human right. We urge you to join with us in the CUNY Internationalist Clubs in waging this fight.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com