The Trump Moment: Why It Happened, Why We “Dodged the Bullet”, and “What Is To Be Done?” — August H. Nimtz

The most instructive fact about 6 January 2021 is not the mini-rebellion inside the Capitol. Rather, it is that only 30 000 to 40 000 of the 74 million who voted for Donald Trump on 3 November, traveled to Washington to attend a peaceful rally to demonstrate their continuing support for him—a city that had seen countless progressive demonstrations beginning in 1963 that easily dwarfed the gathering. And of that number at the rally only about 8000 took Trump up on his suggestion that they “walk” to the Capitol. And from that crowd, only about a tenth of them decided to go inside. Based on arrest records at this time, it appears that about half of the 800 invaders, 400 to 500, consciously acted—maybe—to prevent a peaceful transfer of presidential power. About that select few, “40% of those arrested at the Capitol are business owners or hold white-collar jobs”. [1]

In other words, an infinitesimally small percentage of the 74 million Trump voters, or an even smaller percentage of the country’s 240 000 000 eligible voters, unrepresentative of the country’s population, willingly voted with their feet to try to impose its will on the majority. This is not to belittle what the 400 did on 6 January, but rather a call to not exaggerate their importance. A political action, certainly one that size, in which the attention of many of the participants was directed at their cameras, could not have been a threat to political power in a country of 330 000 000 whose citizens enjoy basic democratic rights. Take, therefore, the proverbial deep breath and relax! But not too long.

Lest I be accused of writing from the comfortable vantage of hindsight because Trump no longer has access to the bully pulpit to stoke what he did on 6 January, consider what I wrote very early in his presidency. Despite all the noise coming out of the White House, unlike anything seen before, provoking early stages of what the crowd at Fox tauntingly called “Trump Derangement Syndrome”, I advised:

“The capitalist crisis and timeworn lesser-evil politics delivered Trump on November 8th. But contra liberal hysteria it didn’t herald the coming of the apocalypse. Three months or more into the Trump presidency capitalist systemic reality has begun to assert itself amidst the din at the level of appearance. His election was a warning shot, a bullet I think we’ll mostly dodge.”

“But”, I immediately added, “we shouldn’t press our luck”. [2]

Making Sense of Trump’s Advent

When I first encountered the Impeach Bush movement in 2007, I had to think about how to respond in a pedagogical and non-sectarian way. “If we don’t”, I began to say, “impeach the system that put Bush in the White House, we’ll have someone there who will make us long for him”. No, I didn’t have a crystal ball that foresaw President Donald Trump; only the lessons bequeathed by Marx and Engels, and enriched with those of their most capable student, Lenin, and with more from some of their followers in the United States.

The long-term crisis of late capitalism and its quotidian political economy, to put it in a highly distilled way, made a Bush presidency possible—the same for Trump. The end of the post-Second World War economic boom, signalled by the two recessions in the 1970s and 1980s, inaugurated the beginning of the end of the “American Dream” for its workers and farmers. Stagnant growth and anemic productivity, owing to the profits crunch of late capitalism, has led to a shrinking economic pie—for which the defenders of capitalism have no solution other than by tightening the vise on workers’ lives, living standards, and rights. Squeezing workers to restore capitalist profitability also required cuts to social wages, that is, social benefits: Marxist ECON 101. [3] The realization of both goals required a rightward shift in bourgeois politics—but an outcome that was far from inevitable.

The underlying reason for the more than quarter-century contentious character of US politics, its “polarization”, its “tribalism”, is the sobering reality that the best that capitalism has to offer working people is behind us. In the absence of an independent working class political alternative, politics under capitalism can only be bourgeois politics, a fight over whose group, in whatever skin colour, gender, nationality, or whatever—anything other than working class consciousness and solidarity—keeps, gets, or increases for “their people” its slice of the diminishing pie. This was the necessary part of the mix that made it possible for Trump to get into the White House in 2016—an outsider who pledged not only to build the wall, playing the “white” identity card, but “to drain the swamp”, the stench of bourgeois politics.

Determinant in Trump’s victory at the more granular level were the 206 counties in the so-called Rust Belt that had voted twice for Obama but flipped to Trump. Also instructive was Flint, Michigan, half of its population African American. The lead poisoning of the city’s water supply, begun under a Republican administration but effectively ignored by Democrats, including the Obama White House, goes a long way in explaining why almost two-thirds of the city’s electorate stayed home on election-day, 8 November 2016. It helped Trump to carry the state of Michigan, one of three “battle ground” states in his victory.

The absence of a political party that represents and fights for the interests of working people—a contingent factor and exactly why the rightward turn of bourgeois politics was not inevitable—made those who had once voted for the Democratic Party increasingly vulnerable to the siren call of the other capitalist party, the Republicans. Marx once said somewhere that a drowning person will grab hold of a twig if they think it can save them. For workers who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a Republican, they increasingly abstained, as in Flint; 43% nationally in 2016, and 33% even in the highly contested 2020 election. Not to be forgotten is the daily reality of capitalist media competition, the reason for all of the free airtime Trump got—also determinant in his victory.

Last, and not least important, the Hillary Clinton factor, a candidate who epitomized all that is so problematic with bourgeois politics for the working class. Business as usual, literally—the buying and selling of politics, as is true with everything under capitalism, including personal integrity. That public trust in government was at an historic low in the lead-up to the election worked especially well to her disadvantage—exactly why Trump’s “draining the swamp” demagogy played so well with many working people. Though she tried to walk it back, Clinton was never able to overcome the negative reaction amongst workers to her pronouncement in West Virginia, early in the campaign, that if elected she would put “a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”. Her unfavourable ratings, at least until 6 January, were still higher than those of Trump. [4] It speaks volumes about the damaged product the Democratic Party was peddling in 2016.

But Clinton was simply the representative of a party, with roots in the slavocracy, that has a long record of coopting progressive movements, beginning with the original one in the 1890s, and then betraying them—their graveyard. “Out of the streets, into the suites” has been their collective swan song, on the way to being housebroken.

Exhibit A is what took place in Minnesota, the only state in US history where a working class party, the Farmer-Labor Party (FLP), won four consecutive gubernatorial elections—which were biennial—from 1930 to 1936. But it was ripe for coopting by the Democrats, as they did in 1944. By then it had become a spent force. Farrell Dobbs, a militant trade union leader in Minnesota who had once crossed swords with the FLP, and then later a revolutionary socialist, explained why years later:

“Independent labor political action requires more than an organizational break with the capitalist two-party system. If a mass party’s program remains limited to seeking reforms compatible with capitalism, the workers will find themselves trapped in procedural norms designed to serve the interests of the ruling class; opportunists within the party, who put their personal ambitions above mass needs, will act as de facto agents of capitalism; and what was meant to be an emancipating social movement will degenerate into a narrow instrument that helps perpetuate the very injustices it initially set out to correct. Thus the hopes and aspirations of the working people become frustrated.” [5]

Dobbs’ trenchant assessment could be the epitaph for not only the FLP but social democracy for the last century virtually everywhere; in addition, the reason for organized labour’s increased difficulty in delivering the vote of its members to the Democrats in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Nothing was inevitable about the descent and eventual death of the FLP into the gleefully waiting clutches of the Democratic Party. Trump benefited from that fateful decision because the renamed Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) had become increasingly disconnected from the needs of workers who had once voted almost religiously for it. [6]

The duplicity of the Democratic Party was on full display in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020. The historically unprecedented mass multi-racial protests that erupted first in Minnesota constituted a challenge for the party, particularly in a presidential election year in which the overriding priority was deemed to be the defeat of Donald Trump. At one of the protests at the State Capitol, a DFL official urged the protestors to direct their energies into defeating Trump, the only way to end police brutality. At the national level, then Democratic Party rising star Stacey Abrams echoed that claim. In a New York Times op-ed, written at the height of the protests, she almost pleaded with the protestors to understand that “voting . . . in a democracy . . . is the ultimate power”. [7] Nothing could be further from the truth.

Voting Fetishism

The tendency of many otherwise smart people to see the 71 million who voted for Trump in 2016, Clinton’s “irredeemable basket full of deplorables”, and later the 74 million who voted for him in 2020 in catastrophic terms is to be afflicted with what I call “voting fetishism”—a malady on both the left and the right. To treat a vote as an actual exercise of power is a mistake. It is an important democratic right, often won in struggle, to register a preference for either a candidate or a policy, no more, no less. Registering a preference, however, is not exercising power. Doing the latter means to impose one’s will. Every time, for example, you press the button to turn on your computer, you’re doing just that; why it’s called “power”. But an action that takes on average no more than a minute to do and is done alone—the ordinary meaning of political voting—could not be more alien to what is involved in exercising political power.

The next time you hear a no doubt well-intentioned person advise that the most important political thing you can do is to vote, be skeptical. The first time I tried to vote, in 1964 Jim Crow New Orleans, I was denied that right owing to my skin colour. Four years later, I could have done so. How to explain? Exactly because people who looked like me and our allies had been voting with our feet, in the streets—the mass marches in Selma, Alabama and elsewhere to demand the right to vote—successfully imposing our will. How else to explain why those who could not vote got the right to vote?

Real politics—or, better, transformative politics—takes place in the streets, on the picket lines, the barricades or the battlefield. It involves, in other words, a lot of people acting together—unlike the lone individual, the atom, in a polling booth—and it takes a lot of time. That’s how the vote was won and only how it can be successfully defended. Not every such action results in success; most, in fact, in failure. But without them, no meaningful change—what the Bolshevik and Cuban revolutions teach, genuine insurrections.

Lenin’s all so insightful retort to critics of the Bolshevik Revolution like Karl Kautsky about the reality of elections was the inspiration for my “voting fetishism” formulation. Their fallacy, he argued, was to “imagine that extremely important political problems can be solved by voting. Such problems are actually solved by civil war if they are acute and aggravated by struggle.” [8] Marx and Engels’ notion, “parliamentary cretinism”, the mistaken belief that what takes place in the legislative arena is the be all and end all of politics, was another inspiration. But in no way did Marx, Engels, or Lenin dismiss elections and participation in the parliamentary arena; to the contrary. As Lenin wrote two years after Bolshevik ascent, those spheres were “indispensable” in their success. Not as an end in themselves, but, as Marx and Engels had taught, as means to an end, for making a revolution—what he labelled “revolutionary parliamentarism”, in stark contrast to “reformist parliamentarism” à la social democracy. [9]

The breakthrough lesson for me about the reality of voting was the 2000 presidential election. Voters for Democratic Party candidate Al Gore, the majority, were willing to register their preference, but not willing to impose their will. The Trump voters at least held a rally; Gore did not even get that. In the end, one person, unelected for life, US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, decided in a five to four decision that George W. Bush, who won the electoral college but not the popular vote, would be president of the United States—done not in some conspiratorial way by “the deep state”, but openly, by the book, the Constitution. It could all be seen on C-SPAN. Imagine the conversation ninety miles away in Cuba, or any other Third World or semi-colonial country. “You mean”, someone likely asked, “that one person unelected for life could actually decide who would be president of the United States, the paragon of democratic rule? And there were no protests?” Only then did I understand why the word “democracy” has never found its way into the Republic’s founding document.

Two decades later the people of Puerto Rico, colonial subjects, taught another lesson. Almost half of the islanders took to the streets in summer 2019 to force the governor to leave office. The last time anything similar happened in a US-related territory was in, not coincidentally, colonial Virginia, in 1676, the rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon. Colonial subjects tend to be more savvy about the reality of power because they are compelled to be; more sober than those who have long enjoyed bourgeois democratic rights. [10]

Lenin’s point about “civil war” is truly accurate. The most critical question in the history of the United States, how to end chattel slavery, was not settled in the Supreme Court, Congress, or by a presidential election. Only on the battlefield could that so divisive issue be resolved. To argue, as in Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, that the 6 of January motley crew of 400 constituted an existential threat to the Republic is not only to subscribe to “parliamentary cretinism”—perhaps better, “parliamentary solipsism”—but to depreciate the profound significance of Appomattox in 1865. The rebellion of the slavocracy four years earlier was and remains the only real threat to the US democratic project—a work still in progress.

Like the Gore voters, the supporters of Donald Trump were never willing—at least so far—to mobilize in sufficient numbers to exercise power, to impose their will. Hanging out in the virtual world has proven apparently to be more appealing than doing in-person politics, real politics—not unlike much of the left in the Zoomosphere since the pandemic lockdown. Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, was the first sign. 250, at most, took part in the infamous tiki torch parade, after months of organizing on social media. Despite alarmist liberal reaction to the wannabe Nazi theatrics, progressives came out in the tens of thousands in Charlottesville and Boston in days after to make clear that this was not the time to send in the clowns—at least the more dangerous one (more about this later). Progressive forces have been given, therefore, a respite—so far.

Also instructive about liberals is their elevation in importance of the actions of so few on 6 January, over and above the maybe twenty-five million of all skin colours and other identities who took to the streets last spring and summer, in the middle of Covid-19, in all kinds of American nooks and crannies, to protest the murder of George Floyd. Year 2020, despite the pandemic, was not the nadir for our species, as some in pandemic locked-down mode would have us believe. To have had the opportunity to participate in any of the actions was literally a breath of fresh air. Even the Georgia run-off elections days before made the actions of the Keystone Kop Capitol invaders pale in comparison—obvious facts that the antics of the 400 did not, contra liberal catastrophism, register in any way reaction triumphant.

Blowing out of all proportion the significance of the “insurgents” is the partisan mirror image of what the Fox crowd did with the George Floyd protests. The comparable moment to the invasion of the Capitol was what occurred at the first of those protests, in Minneapolis, the day after the murder of Floyd.

Following a peaceful protest of 5000, the majority of whom were Caucasian—an action I had the privilege of attending and writing about [11]—the protestors marched to the nearby Third Precinct police station; I declined at that moment to take part knowing what was likely to occur. About a handful of the protestors have since been convicted of torching the station; amongst them, a few ultra-rightists. Contrary to liberal claims that the police have been harsher on anti-police brutality protestors than the crowd that acted out in the Capitol, the burning and subsequent looting in Minneapolis and St. Paul took place with impunity. As at the Capitol, the vast majority of the protestors had been mere spectators, not actors—the difference between entertainment and something more significant. Only when it appeared that another police station would be attacked did the Minnesota ruling class find the wherewithal three days later to call in the National Guard to restore order.

Watching all of it on local television, and smelling the burning embers three miles away, reminded me of what I had read about 1 January 1959, the general strike in Cuba that ushered in the triumph of the revolution. Unlike in Minneapolis, there was no burning of police stations. Rather, they were taken over by the millions in the streets, under the leadership that Fidel Castro had founded six years earlier, and converted into institutions that served their local populations for the first time. What happens, in other words, in a genuine insurrection, and why, therefore, the George Floyd phenomenon does not exist in Cuba. [12]

Three months later, it was clear that local rulers had now found their footing. Wanton looting and vandalism on the crown jewel of the Minneapolis central business district, after a fake police brutality report, brought the National Guard back, in rapid time. [13] The looters, whatever their motives, had given the ruling class a cheap pass to do its thing—to take off the Minnesota nice gloves and impose its rule: the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” as Marx once called it.

And therein was the most dangerous result of the looting and vandalism. Local ruling elites can now take back political space in the name of restoring law and order. That too was what was most problematic about 6 January. The national capitalist state has, especially since 9/11, a new pretext to infringe on democratic rights and civil liberties. Does anyone really believe that its current campaign to clampdown on “extremism” will be confined only to rightist/reactionary forces? The history of progressive causes, certainly in the United States, teaches otherwise—lessons their supporters ignore at their peril. [14] “Sedition”, which came into the vocabulary of millions for the first time owing to the events of 6 January, was what Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was convicted of, forcing him to conduct his 1920 campaign from a prison cell. The persecution of Debs for exercising freedom of speech anticipated the McCarthy witch-hunt two decades later.

“What Is To Be Done?

“One thing is certain”, I wrote in 2013: “the logic of capital dictates that unless there is a real working-class alternative, bourgeois politics will keep moving to the right—especially in the context of the still unfolding [capitalist] crisis. Every delay in the pursuit of independent working-class political action only emboldens reaction.” [15]

Four years later, again, three months into the Trump presidency, I also wrote:

“Trump, contrary to liberal hysteria possessed by lesser-evil thinking, is far from the worst that the crisis of capitalism portends. [Think President Ted Cruz or President Tucker Carlson! Farfetched?] Both the Democratic and Republican wings of the ruling class and their mouthpieces in the media were willing to risk a bonapartist-inclined buffoon in the White House in order to prevent the victory of a pink socialist [Bernie Sanders], and that speaks volumes about what they’re willing to resort to defend their system. [Alexis de] Tocqueville, unlike his latter-day admirers, had at least the honesty to admit why he could have and indeed did enable the original ‘grotesque mediocrity’ to take power, Louis Bonaparte, in 1851: ‘I am instinctively aristocratic because I despise and fear mobs’.” [16]

Tocqueville’s fear and contempt for the mob has a thoroughly current ring to it: what liberals find most alarming about Trump, the “irredeemable deplorables” who support him. That sentiment only deepened over the course of the Trump presidency. It reached new depths when it was learned that three million more voted for Trump in the 2020 election, including, incredulously for many liberals, more BIPOCs!

What I wrote in 2013 anticipated the Trump moment more convincingly than my response to the Impeach Bush movement in 2007. The Great Recession of 2008 and the toll it was taking on the working class made that possible. As well, the time-worn Democratic Party non-solutions for the proletariat were still in place. Informing my point, also, was a critique, a few pages earlier, I made about the US labour movement: its “cynical prostitution . . . in collusion with its leaders, by the Democratic Party”. As an example, one that now looms large in my narrative:

“The head of [the Delaware] AFL-CIO [an African American] told me in 2011 how, after he expressed dissatisfaction to Vice President Joseph Biden with the Obama administration’s lackluster performance on labor, Biden shot back, ‘what are you complaining about? You know you have nowhere else to go!’ The bitter truth is that Biden was right. As long as labor’s officials refuse even to consider breaking with the Democrats, it will be exploited to its increasing peril.” [17]

This goes a long way in explaining why the misleadership of US unions can no longer ensure that its members vote for the Democrats—what Trump benefited from. “Every delay”, to repeat, “in the pursuit of independent working-class political action only emboldens reaction”. There is nothing to suggest that now President Biden has a different position about the labour movement, meaning that the working class cannot expect any meaningful improvement in its lot—setting the stage again for potential rightist electoral victories in 2022 and 2024.

The 2017 comment is more interesting because it argues for a factor in Trump’s victory that is almost counterintuitive—the assistance of liberals. Fear of “socialism”, a proxy for “the mob” for the later Tocqueville, is exactly what led him to humour and eventually entice Bonaparte to make his coup d’état. He admitted that he would rather risk “the grotesque mediocrity” in power than “the mob”, that is, “the socialists”.

If not as honest as Tocqueville, is not this what the Democratic Party establishment did in making sure that Bernie Sanders would be denied the party’s nomination, not only in 2016 but in 2020 as well? Again, to risk a Donald Trump presidency and reelection? I leave aside the substance of Sanders’ “socialism”. [18] Or, whether the opposition to him was motivated sincerely by Sanders’ politics or fear of him losing. In mid-nineteenth century France Tocqueville could be more honest, at least publicly, than the Democratic Party bosses on the matter. But certainly the editorial and op-ed pages of the most influential liberal paper, the New York Times, made clear that the “socialism” factor weighed most in its anti-Sanders stand. It is probably true that Sanders, given all of his subsequent compromises with the Democratic Party establishment, would have been more effective against Trump in 2016 than in 2020.

Whether to call Trump a “Bonapartist” once in office was admittedly problematical. I did so initially because Marx’s memorable characterization of the prototype, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, “the grotesque mediocrity”, seemed all so fitting. But more than halfway through his tenure, I dropped the label. Bonaparte actually overthrew the Constitution and the Second Republic in 1852. It was not clear, at least to me then, that Trump wanted to do something similar. All that was certain is that he was the most authentic capitalist to ever occupy the US presidency, and with all that implied—self-interest on steroids. [19] His failure to mobilize the crowd that greeted him a couple of days after his release from Walter Reed Hospital, an opportunity to whip them up into a frenzy, seemed strikingly un-Bonapartist. All he could manage to do was wave at them from his SUV on the way to the golf course.

Therefore, his post-2020 election behavior, as it became increasingly clear that he actually wanted to overturn the election, was unexpected. In that sense, he was indeed a Bonapartist, or at least an aspirant. But he faced a big problem that the original did not. It was not a Bonapartist moment. The ruling capitalist class, unlike in the original scenario, was not a willing partner—certainly no significant wing of it. [20] That is because the working class masses were not a threat to its rule, as was increasingly true in France in the years leading up to Bonaparte’s coup d’état. And besides, why unnecessarily provoke mass discontent (and probably more) by going along with Trump’s campaign to overturn the election? As the Wall Street Journal editorial page explained: “what do Republicans think would happen if [Vice President] Mr. Pence pulled the trigger, Mr. Biden was denied 270 electoral votes, and the House chose Mr. Trump as President? Riots in the streets would be the least of it.” [21] Rarely is the editorial page of a leading bourgeois daily willing to admit what really matters in politics.

Unlike Bonaparte, Trump, therefore, was too inept to carry out a coup, to mobilize the masses on his behalf and unable to convince any important part of the ruling class to endorse it. The indulged scion of a NYC real estate magnate was incapable of organizing a serious challenge to the elections; nothing in his background prepared him to do something much more threatening. Our side is lucky! The bullet we dodged.

As for those Republicans in the Congress who went along with Trump, they did so, as the WSJ editors explained, exactly because they knew it wouldn’t actually happen; it was all theatre. Unlike Trump, Patrick Buchanan, Republican Party aspirant in 1992, probably did have not only the skills but the will to organize a serious mobilization. His problem was also with the ruling class. They didn’t need him—in that moment. There will be a time when they will and whether they prove victorious will depend on the fighting capacity of the working class—the preparatory work prior to the decisive class battles.

The revered author of Democracy in America is the prototype for a liberal in an authentic Bonapartist moment. Tocqueville’s deep fear of the masses anticipated his response to the working class in motion in the 1848 Revolution. A major protagonist in the mid-century drama, he did all he could to crush them. In so doing, he inadvertently paved the way for Bonaparte’s coup; but Tocqueville had no regrets. Trump lacked a Tocquevillean counterpart who could have given license to a coup. For how Tocqueville and his liberal cohorts aided and abetted Bonaparte’s overthrow of the Second Republic, there is no better account than Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. [22]

Deep in the DNA of a liberal like Tocqueville is the fear of the masses in motion. Martin Luther is the most outstanding example from early modern history. Freedom of conscience was a noble goal as long as the peasant masses didn’t believe and act on the same belief; if they did, death to them, as Luther called for when they revolted in 1524—25. His actions anticipated those of Tocqueville three hundred years later. The editorial and op-ed pages of the NYT stand in that ignoble tradition; again, the Stacey Abrams plea to George Floyd protestors to direct their energies into the electoral arena. If Republicans are prone to deny workers, especially those in black and brown skin, the democratic right to vote, Democrats campaign to convince workers that only through voting can democracy be exercised. What both have in common is fear of “the mob”, the demos.

No one should doubt that big class battles are in the offing. The ever-deepening crisis of capitalism compels workers—again, only on whose backs can the capitalists solve the crisis—to look for radical solutions, not only on the left but the right as well. The Republican Party, certainly its official wing, which makes no bones about standing for a social entitlement-free political economy—capitalism’s default position (think Dickensian England)—has nothing to offer the working class. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, ever since its cooptation of the labour movement in the 1930s and 1940s (with crucial assistance, by the way, from the Communist Party USA in Popular Front campaign mode), must pretend to represent workers in order to keep them within its fold. But its only answer is “wait until the next elections”—a non-solution. With their backs increasingly against the wall, workers about to be evicted from their homes can’t wait until the next election. Nor can those who are unemployed, or, if employed, wait to be able to work in a safe environment in the era of Covid-19—just to name the most obvious problems increasing numbers of workers face.

To the incessant liberal question, “why do the Republicans behave as they do?”, the answer is clear: “Because they can get away with it”; it is really no more complicated than that. [23] As long as the labour movement is docilely penned up inside the Democratic Party, the Republicans perceive no threat to capitalism, and, therefore, are under no compulsion to act differently.

Though no one can say when, the ability of labour officialdom, in collaboration with the Democratic Party, to bridle the working class cannot, under present conditions, last indefinitely. Hence the importance of bringing solidarity to any fights to defend or form a union. Breakthroughs, history teaches, can take place with victories in well-publicized struggles, such as the current organizing drive at the Amazon fulfillment centre in Bessemer, Alabama, or in sites less well-known, be it an oil refinery in St. Paul Park, Minnesota or a produce market in the Bronx.

Both wings of the ruling class, conservatives and liberals, prefer to squeeze the working class under bourgeois democratic conditions rather than under a nakedly repressive authoritarian regime. It is the optimal way to do so because it gives workers hope, especially in a setting like the United States, where bourgeois politics has reigned as long as it has, that they can get relief via the electoral and parliamentary arenas. They won’t, in other words—at least this is the hope of the capitalists and their spokespeople—have to resort to extra-parliamentary action and impose their will with their feet as the colonized subjects in Puerto Rico did (why, unlike the mob on 6 January, the four nationalists who carried out a shooting inside the House of Representatives in 1954 became heroes and heroines on the island). [24] Or, what African Americans like myself, who couldn’t vote, had to do to get that right. This is what the Wall Street Journal’s 30 December editorial warned the Congressional Republicans about. To overturn Biden’s victory would be playing with fire. “Riots”, again, “would be the least of it”.

The electoral and parliamentary arenas offer built-in advantages for the bourgeoisie. Outside, with a more even terrain, is where the working class has a better chance of winning, as history has so often revealed. This is why, contrary to what Stacey Abrams would have us believe, the four cops who murdered George Floyd were indicted. Tens of thousands of us in Minnesota, the majority of whom were in white skin—so much, then, for the Trump era/white supremacy triumphant thesis [25]—didn’t wait for November; we took immediately to the streets.

But if in the process of capital trying to restore profits, enough workers begin to realize that they can’t wait until the next elections, and, after a lot of ducking and weaving and wishful thinking, attempt to impose their will with their feet, namely to exercise power, then will capital consider the real “nuclear option”, the fascist card? Time to let the dogs out.

That is what the Tocqueville example teaches. In his case, it began with the championing of a clampdown on civil liberties and political space in the name of law and order after a real insurrection, the mass uprising of Parisian workers in June 1848 to protest the end of the first unemployment program under capitalism. The context was the first transnational capitalist depression. The unemployed proletariat couldn’t afford to wait until the next election. They had already done the election thing in April—the first time ever for universal male suffrage—but voting didn’t save their jobs and, thus, they and their families from starvation. As Marx explained, “the workers were left no choice; they had to starve or let fly . . . The Parisian proletariat was forced into the June insurrection by the bourgeoisie.” [26]

Tocqueville, what his modern-day admirers conveniently ignore, helped to lead the bloody repression of the uprising. That defeat was followed by increasing infringements by the bourgeois-dominated National Assembly on universal male suffrage—the slow but steady steps that emboldened Bonaparte’s coup d’état and end to the Second Republic. If today’s Republicans are renowned for wanting to erode voting rights for workers in black and brown skin, Democrats effectively do the same for toilers in white skin, specifically Trump’s rural “deplorables”, with their newfound calls to end the electoral college. I refer here only to what motivates their complaints about the college, not to what is truly problematic about the institution.

When the toilers in France realized they couldn’t trust the establishment ruling elite of either wing of the bourgeoisie, only then did they, especially the peasantry, begin to consider an outsider, someone who was different—the nephew of the savior of the Fatherland. The socialist left had compromised itself by not wanting to support the uprising of the Parisian proletariat; too radical for its taste. The communist left was too underdeveloped to be a protagonist in the drama. In hindsight, but only in hindsight, can it be said that nineteenth-century Bonapartism was the forerunner to twentieth-century fascism. [27]

If big class battles are surely ahead of us, uncertain is whether there will be a leadership in place to direct the righteous anger of the toilers in a way that advances the interests of all of humanity—the sorely missing ingredient in the 1848 Revolutions, the European Spring; think also about the Arab Spring.

Contrary to a lot of supposedly informed opinion, Marxists argue only that the class struggle is inevitable, not that its outcome is inevitable. Otherwise, there would have been no need for The Communist Manifesto—written to give the working class a better than even chance of winning, when given a shot at the title. An honest reading of the document makes that clear. Unvermeidlich in the original, “inevitable”, appears only once, the very last word in Part I. Immediately following in Part II, “Proletarians and Communists”, are instructions for “what is to be done”. [28]

Lenin was even clearer. If the working class, he argued in 1901, didn’t have a party in place before the proverbial “s**t hits the fan”, it would be “too late to form the organization in times of explosion and outbursts.” [29] That fateful insight goes a long way to explaining why the Bolsheviks were able, unlike any other current—including, never to be forgotten, Russia’s feckless liberals—to lead the workers and peasants in Russia to power in 1917. Not only to take power, but to consolidate and defend it—all done in the middle of the deadly 1918–19 worldwide influenza pandemic.

Bolshevik preparatory work, in which “revolutionary parliamentarism” was “indispensable” (as Lenin, again, confirmed after the October/November revolution), tragically never took place in Germany. This is why their example could not be emulated a year later in Germany. When German workers in uniform, that is, soldiers and sailors, took to the barricades to end the slaughter of the “Great War”, they discovered that they lacked what their counterparts in Russia had, a revolutionary leadership. That all so essential missing ingredient facilitated, arguably, the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the two leading revolutionaries, by the now in power Social Democratic government—the logic of reformist parliamentarism.

The consequences of the failure of the German working class to take power after three failed attempts continue to resonate. It paved the road to Stalin’s counter-revolutionary betrayal of the Bolshevik project. Fascism, as well, was bred on the ashes of those demoralizing missed opportunities. Conscious working class fighters today, along with their progressive allies, have the elementary obligation to absorb those lessons, earned in blood. To not do so risks a similar and, hence, real catastrophe, this time in a world with nuclear-armed ruling elites.

The test for any party or tendency that claims to offer an alternative to capitalist business as usual is its perspective for independent working class party-building and its record in realizing that vision. To demand or do anything less would be morally and politically indefensible.

Let 6 January 2021 be, therefore, without alarm, a wake-up call.

August H. Nimtz is Professor of Political Science and African American and African Studies, and Distinguished Teaching Professor, at the University of Minnesota. Recent publications include Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets–or Both(2014), Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets–or Both (2014), and Marxism versus Liberalism: Comparative Real-Time Political Analysis (2019).

[1] PBS News Hour (4 February 2021).

[2] August H. Nimtz, “The Graveyard of Progressive Social Movements: The Black Hole of the Democratic Party“, Monthly Review Online (9 May 2017).

[3] On the long-term profitability crisis of capitalism, and its consequences, see Michael Roberts, The Long Depression: When It Happened, Why It Happened, and What Happens Next (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), especially ch. 4.

[4] See Andrew Dugan, “Hillary Clinton’s Favorable Ratings Are Still Low” Gallup (28 September 2018); Project FiveThirtyEight, “How Popular Is Donald Trump?“.

[5] Farrell Dobbs, Revolutionary Continuity: The Early Years, 1848—1917 (New York: Monad Press, 1980), 13.

[6] I learned first-hand about this development six months before the 2016 election: see August H. Nimtz, “A Black Socialist in Trump Country”, Star Tribune (29 July 2016).

[7] Stacey Abrams, “I Know Voting Feels Inadequate Right Now“, New York Times (4 June 2020).

[8] Vladimir I. Lenin, “The Constituent Assembly Elections and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” [1919], in Lenin: Collected Works [LCW], vol. 30 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974) 253, at 265—66 (original emphasis).

[9] For details see August H. Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets—or Both? From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019).

[10] I suspect, based on anecdotal evidence, that Puerto Ricans of my generation were not shocked by what happened on 6 January; there was probably some amusement. In 1954 on 1 March, four nationalists from the island carried out a gun attack in the House of Representatives, not intending to shoot anyone but only to get attention for the cause of Puerto Rican self-determination. In my African American household, in Jim Crow New Orleans, no tears were shed; in fact, laughter. My parents, political activists, were amused at the fact that some of “good old boys”, our nemeses, had to scramble to try to fit themselves under their desks. 

[11] August H. Nimtz, “It’s a Big Deal That the Outrage Expressed Over George Floyd’s Death Was Massive and Multiracial”, MinnPost (28 May 2020).

[12] See August H. Nimtz, “Why There Are No George Floyds in Cuba“, Legal Form (17 June 2020).

[13] August H. Nimtz, “The Discomforting Lessons of Nicollet Mall“, MinnPost (14 September 2020).

[14] The issue is being grappled with in Germany at the moment; see Emily Schultheis, “Germany is Treating a Major Party as a Threat to Its Democracy“, New York Times (19 February 2021).

[15] Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets—or Both?, 411.

[16] Nimtz, “Graveyard”.

[17] Nimtz, The Ballot, the Streets—or Both?, 409.

[18] Part III of the Communist Manifesto, “Socialist and Communist Literature”, still has currency, specifically, the distinction it makes between “Bourgeois Socialism” and “Communism”. See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party” [1848] in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976) 477, at 51317. The former best exemplifies Sanders’ politics. 

[19] August H. Nimtz, “What Is Unmistakable About Trump: His Naked Capitalism”, MinnPost (6 September 2019).

[20] As was the case in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression. In his first Inaugural Address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt raised the possibility that solving the crisis might require asking Congress for “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if were in fact invaded by a foreign foe”. See First Inaugural Address of Franklin D. Roosevelt (4 March 1933). The proposal didn’t engender any significant ruling class opposition. The 1932 Bonus March protest in the Capitol weighed heavily on the brains of FDR and the ruling class.

[21] Editorial Board, “Trump’s Embarrassing Electoral College Hustle“, The Wall Street Journal (30 December 2020).

[22] Bringing Tocqueville into the picture enrichens and confirms Marx’s account, specifically, the role of the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, to which he belonged, in inviting Bonaparte’s coup. Marx could not have known of Tocqueville’s account because, for good reason—its confessional character—it was published long after both were dead. For details, see August H. Nimtz, Marxism versus Liberalism: Comparative Real-Time Political Analysis (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Missing in Zeynep Tüfekçi’s otherwise accurate use of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire in trying to explain Trump’s post-election behavior is any discussion of the duplicitous role of liberals like Tocqueville in Bonaparte’s ascent. See Zeynep Tüfekçi, “This Must Be Your First“, Atlantic (7 December 2020).

[23] August H. Nimtz, ““Why Do Republicans Behave the Way They Do?”, MinnPost (26 January 2018)

[24] See above note 11.

[25] See my critique: August H. Nimtz, “The Meritocratic Myopia of Ta-Nehisi Coates“, Monthly Review Online (17 November 2017). Those who subscribed to the thesis had trouble believing what their “lyin’ eyes” were telling them about the racial composition of the protests.

[26] Nimtz, Marxism versus Liberalism, 45.

[27] Along the way was the Boulanger threat in 1889; see August H Nimtz, Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 273.

[28] Marx and Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, 496—97.

[29] Vladimir I. Lenin, “Where to Begin?” [1901], in LCW, vol. 5, 13, at 18.