The following article first appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 60 (Winter 2000).
The “Battle in Seattle"—between tens of thousands of union workers and largely middle-class activists who disrupted the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Seattle police who gassed, beat and shot them with rubber bullets—has evoked widely disparate responses on the left.
These reactions reflect what could become a new sorting-out process within the reformist and centrist left as it reacts to these events. The unexpectedly large protest expressed a popular desire for political change developing beneath the surface of day-to-day events. Newly revived forces, angrily hostile to the status quo, are beginning to make their presence felt. As is usual at such a beginning point, the leadership of the protesters was pro-capitalist and the consciousness of the participants was mixed and confused.
As Marxists know, action precedes consciousness rather than vice versa. The Seattle explosion, and the warm reception it received by the working class in the U.S. as well as abroad, has already made its impact on the outlook not only of the developing movement itself, but on those leftists who seek to influence and even lead future struggles against the capitalist system.
On one side, the massive protest is hailed as an epochal turn in U.S. politics—a new “Greenie-Sweeney” alliance between organized labor and middle-class college-age activists, united in common struggle against a central institution of capitalist domination. The Communist Party drew reformist and electoralist conclusions, asserting that the main lesson was the ability of the “labor-led coalition” to “inflict a sweeping defeat on the GOP on Nov. 7, 2000.” The ISO went further, claiming that “the main trend at the meetings in Seattle was firmly anti-capitalist"—as usual, deliberately mistaking populism for conscious opposition to capitalism.
On the other side, the protest is condemned as a chauvinist bloc with the Democrats aimed at bolstering U.S. imperialism; actions they don’t control often frighten the more rigid elements on the left. The Socialist Workers Party wrote: “The actions, and the participation of the demonstrators—whether unionists or others—had no redeeming value whatever from the point of view of the interests of working people.” The Spartacists boasted of their non-participation, denouncing the protest as “overwhelmingly a mobilization of the Democratic Party” and “a grotesque nationalist festival."
The WTO certainly deserves outraged protests. Founded in 1995, it is one of several institutions (like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) run by the imperialist powers, the U.S. in the lead, to preserve their domination of the globe and enforce the superexploitation of the vast majority of the world’s people. It defends a capitalist system that kills 30 million people a year through starvation despite plentiful food production, and in which less than 10 percent of the world’s population lives above official poverty levels.
The WTO’s specific role is to rule on and often ban labor safeguards, health and safety laws, government food subsidies, environmental protection and anything else that gets in the way of “free trade.” This reflects the dominant interests of the American capitalist class and its imperialist investments abroad. But it is hardly an expression of any “free trade” principle: the U.S. ruling class also must try to protect its industries and profits at home. As well, its executive committee—its state, headed by President Clinton—must try to divert the working class at home and help turn worker against worker around the globe.
Thus the U.S. also introduces labor and environmental issues that appeal to the labor and environmental movements but really serve as a protectionist ploy to discriminate against third world exports. On its agenda in Seattle were measures to give it extra powers to control the economies of “third world” nations, especially on agricultural issues.
It was a victory for the working classes of the world that the protesters, including participants from dozens of countries, succeeded in giving imperialism a black eye. No pseudo-left demagogy can hide that fact. They prevented the WTO from meeting on the first scheduled day, November 30, and thereby embarrassed Clinton, who was trying to flex the U.S.’s muscles. They even stiffened the backbones of “third-world” delegates who normally bow to imperialism without a whimper. And in the end, the WTO was forced to adjourn without settling any of the ongoing disputes among the imperialists, or between them and the superexploited countries. Anti-imperialist fighters across the world saw imperialism slapped in the face in its own heartland.
The setback for their bosses motivated the vicious behavior of the Seattle cops that seriously injured hundreds of protesters. The police violence came as a surprise to most demonstrators, especially after Clinton publicly announced his supposed sympathy for their concerns. Clinton aides, notably Secretary of State Albright and Attorney General Reno, demanded that the rabble be cleared from the streets, and their stormtroopers in Star Wars gear moved into action.
The level of police brutality reflected the direction the ruling class is turning in the current period of growing economic inequality and looming crisis. It was a wake-up call in that it was directed at a largely white crowd, previously unaccustomed to the violence that Blacks and Latinos regularly have to face from cops.
The Seattle events were the culmination of efforts by many organizations, the most prominent being the “progressive coalition” of union leaders and professional environmentalists, for example Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen group. Bureaucrats never known for any spark of radicalism resorted to rhetoric reminiscent of the 1960’s. Thus Gerald McEntee, head of AFSCME, urged his labor audience to “name the system” that “commodifies everything from a forest in Brazil to a library in New Jersey"—"corporate capitalism."
Such radical rhetoric belied the union bureaucrats’ actual conservative and pro-imperialist program. Their ideology is in reality nationalist and protectionist; they hope to protect American jobs by restricting the shift of production to low-wage countries, and by stopping imports of products made abroad. In Seattle, given their built-in class collaborationism, they wanted above all not to cause trouble for Clinton or the AFL-CIO’s candidate to succeed him, Al Gore.
"Democracy” was a popular slogan among all the protesters, inspired by the notoriously secretive back-room dealings of the WTO. But for the “progressive” leaders it was a code word for favoring sections of U.S. capital against that of allegedly more repressive and autocratic states. Many of the denunciations of “global capitalism” coming from them really meant opposition to foreign capitalism, with an implicit demand for the “democratic” imperialists to have an even greater say over other countries’ environmental and trade policies. McEntee’s sally against “corporate capitalism” only indicated his opposition to sole corporate domination of the WTO—in favor of a “democratic” sharing of power by capitalist governments as well as businesses, with labor bureaucrats getting a subordinate “seat at the table."
A month before the Seattle meeting, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney had written to Clinton assuring him of labor’s “broad support” for the U.S.’s negotiating agenda. So when the bureaucrats organized a march of 40,000 workers to downtown Seattle, possibly the largest union rally in this country since Solidarity Day in 1982, they steered it away from the civil disobedience activists who were blocking streets and preventing the WTO sessions from starting.
Clinton’s supposed concession to labor, his remark to the press that the WTO should impose sanctions on countries that refuse to observe fair labor standards, was a hypocritical fraud for several reasons. For one thing, it is the imperialist exploiters who largely gain from the miserable wages and working conditions that he complains of. For another, the U.S. itself refuses to ratify the basic International Labor Organization standards, on the grounds that doing so would violate U.S. sovereignty. Then, after his pro-labor speech his staff, led by Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, assured her fellow ministers that the Clinton proposal was just talk since it called only for a study of working conditions.
On top of that, for the U.S. to impose sanctions on any country is an imperialist act that not only violates the sovereignty of weaker nations but usually means harsh economic warfare against an entire population. The decade-long sanctions against Iraq have meant death for over a million people, mostly small children. That U.S. labor leaders stand behind such crimes against working people abroad refutes all their pretensions to international labor solidarity and antagonism to corporate capitalism.
The Naderites also attack the WTO for its subordination to “corporate power,” centering on the claim that its regulations violate U.S. national sovereignty. In reality, the WTO is dominated largely by American corporations; the fact that the WTO overturns health, labor and environmental laws that inconvenience profits is not a “foreign” problem but the way imperialist capitalism works. The officials of big-time “Non-Governmental Organizations” (bourgeois reform outfits) were consciously lined up behind a national chauvinist strategy of collaboration with big American capital and the Democratic and Republican politicians who serve it.
Both the AFL-CIO and Public Citizen opposed the prospect of China joining the WTO, charging that the Chinese regime rejects fair labor standards—a cover for excluding Chinese products from U.S. markets. Of course, China’s statified capitalist rulers encourage superexploitation of Chinese workers—not only for their own benefit but also for imperialist investors, many of them American. That’s why Clinton & Co. fought for China’s admission. Of course, the internationally oriented wings of the U.S. ruling class are happy to use campaigns for protectionism mounted by the labor/green coalition to wring more concessions from China before ratifying its membership in the WTO and greater access to the U.S. market.
In place of the Sweeney-Greenie nationalist program, American workers and unions should be solidarizing with Chinese workers who for several years have protested in massive numbers against Beijing’s expanding privatization of state-owned companies, which wipes out housing and other benefits linked to state jobs.
The masses of protesters who marched peacefully or sat down disruptively in Seattle were furious at the violation of workers’ rights and environmental protections. Unlike their U.S.-nationalist leaders, they held a muddle of internationalist and nationalist views, radical ideas mixed with reformist conclusions (like “fixing” the WTO).
Their victory was not won by the polite pressure exerted by the labor and environmentalist bureaucrats but by the direct action activists, including students and radicals of various stripes—along with hundreds of unionists who defied the union marshals and broke from the official labor parade to join the sit-downers in the streets. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair made the point:
In the annals of popular protest in America, these have been shining hours, achieved entirely outside the conventional arena of orderly protest and white paper activism and the timid bleats of the professional leadership of big labor and environmentalists. This truly was an insurgency from below in which all those who strove to moderate and deflect the turbulent flood of popular outrage managed to humiliate themselves.
While the cops were attacking the thousands in the streets, the respectable leaders hobnobbed with Clinton & Co., hustling their seats at the WTO table and denouncing the handful of demonstrators who went around smashing Starbucks and Nike windows. Workers’ solidarity actions included the shutdown of the docks along the West Coast by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU); Seattle taxi drivers went on strike on November 30.
Mass action was the key to Seattle’s success. The window-breaking anarchists on whom much of the bourgeois media coverage focused (and whom some “non-violent” progressives denounced to the cops) were in reality a sideshow. Their efforts substituted justified anger against the system for a serious revolutionary program and gave some cover to the perpetrators of the real violence, the police.
The size of the protest shows that, despite the prosperity for the top layers of society, workers and many others in the United States are seeing the effects of the underlying economic crisis, directly or indirectly. Decent jobs are fewer, job security is fragile, private gain is exalted over public good, and the capitalists are squeezing profits out of every possible crevice—including destroying health and educational gains that have been won over years. The tens of thousands in Seattle were outraged by much of what they see in American society: the obscene gap between rich and poor; racist “law-and-order” campaigns; military interventions abroad; the increase in racial and anti-gay assaults.
The majority of protesters did not see that all these attacks, and the crisis itself, are inherent in the capitalist system. The crimes will not be halted by reforming or even abolishing the WTO. They will certainly not be prevented by electing Democrats to office, as Clinton proves. They demand the overturn of capitalism, the workers’ socialist revolution.
Those on the far left who condemned the protesters as U.S. chauvinists or dupes of imperialism were, in sectarian fashion, taking the inevitable mixed consciousness of a mass action as proof of its treason to the working-class cause. Identifying the ranks of a movement with the aims and motivations of its official leaders is a mistake for anyone but a disastrous analysis for supposed Marxists, whose aim should be to break the demonstrators’ illusions in pro-capitalist liberal or populist nationalist leaders like Nader, Sweeney and Pat Buchanan.
Those who refused to participate in the union demonstrations displayed gross anti-Bolshevik behavior. As Leon Trotsky pointed out to his followers on the eve of the Spanish Civil War:
A political group that stayed outside of the actual movement and occupied itself with criticisms after the events … would be rejected by the working class. I do not doubt for a moment that the majority of the Bolshevik-Leninists in the regions have participated in all the mass movements, even when they regarded them as not conforming to their own purposes. A revolutionist criticizes not from the outside but from the very heart of the movement itself. … I do not doubt that on this fundamental question we shall not have the slightest difference among us. (The Spanish Revolution, p. 172.)
And in a different article:
We do not solidarize ourselves for a moment with the illusions of the masses; but we must utilize whatever is progressive about these illusions to the utmost, otherwise we are not revolutionists but contemptible pedants. (p. 116.)
Trotsky was writing explicitly about a revolutionary situation but did not restrict his comments to that context.
Proletarian communists in mass movements neither abstain from the protests because of their ideological confusion and errors nor sugarcoat them as if they already were consciously anti-capitalist. In Seattle, we solidarize with both the labor march, as an expression of the class power of workers, and the civil disobedience activists whose efforts shut the WTO down.
Our aim is to sharpen the protesters’ anti-corporate views and draw the central lessons of the struggle: that the capitalist class as a whole is the enemy, its politicians included; that the capitalist system must be destroyed; and that the international working class, the chief target of the WTO imperialists, has the social power to accomplish this. We point out that the working class needs to unite its various struggles in a general strike against the capitalists that could win real gains—and above all show the working class the real power it has when it unifies to challenge the system. We also stress the importance of a mass struggle, including mass armed self-defense, against cop brutality.
Against the reformist programs, we point to the only way to actually solve the crisis the WTO is at the center of: socialist revolution to create a world federation of workers’ states. The LRP and Proletarian Revolution have regularly raised demands and slogans that reflect what a workers’ state would carry out: repudiate the international debts owed to the imperialist banks and financiers; create jobs for all through all-out programs of public works, sliding scales of working hours and escalating scales of wages; end all restrictions on immigrants and refugees to the imperialist countries; end all activities that destroy the environment in the interest of profit.
These and other demands meet the real needs of workers and oppressed people everywhere. We know that now the great majority will try to accomplish such changes by seeking them as reforms by the capitalist states. Their struggle is ours, but we always point out that their aims cannot really be realized under capitalism. However, when the struggle places demands on bodies like the WTO there is a difference. Asking the imperialist WTO to equalize wages in subjugated countries is like asking the fox to protect the chicken coop, or NATO to create peace and plenty for all. The WTO’s sole reason for existence is to deepen imperialist exploitation.
We raise the need for collaborative international workers’ struggles to raise wages, reduce hours and alleviate the imperialist-induced rivalries within our class. We call for the international organization of the working class. However, here too we warn that trade union federations, by themselves, will tend to become tools of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracies of the wealthy imperialist nations. Only through the re-creation of the authentic proletarian Fourth International can the working class overcome imperialist dominance.
Marx showed that workers everywhere have an underlying common interest around which to unite. Capitalism, in contrast, is fundamentally anarchic; the capitalists cannot overcome their divisions. The WTO cannot successfully regulate nor contain the imperialist rivalries; its conflicts in Seattle were a harbinger of a future world war with devastation of a magnitude never before achieved in the history of capitalist bloodletting.
Seattle showed the enormous hatred growing against the horrors of capitalism. That hatred has to be turned into dedication to overthrow the entire capitalist system. The prime task for all anti-capitalist fighters is to join in the building of a revolutionary proletarian party, part of a world party of socialist revolution. Re-create the Fourth International!