WeeklyWorker

30.06.2022
Slow off the mark

The party question is key

After the Supreme Court ruling, the left is debating strategy and tactics. But the key must be establishing a party and the best place to begin is breaking the DSA from the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, argues Matthew Strupp of the Marxist Unity Group

On June 24, the US Supreme Court released its ruling in the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, reversing the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that established the right to choose to have an abortion as a constitutionally protected privacy right nationwide.

The ruling declares that the 14th amendment’s due process clause does not guarantee any right to abortion and removes the obstacle that the Roe precedent provided to state laws restricting or banning abortion. In fact 22 of the 50 US states have either pre‑Roe abortion bans written into their statutes or state constitutions that will now go into effect. Also some have ‘trigger bans’ that are written to go into effect following swift action of the state legislature, either banning abortion entirely or after six weeks of pregnancy. Four additional states are expected to enact bans on abortion soon.1 That means abortion will soon be illegal or heavily restricted in over half of all US states.

This follows decades of increasing restrictions on abortion following the 1992 Planned Parenthood v Casey decision, which significantly modified the provisions of the Roe decision concerning the regulation of abortion providers, with many states placing onerous restrictions on those seeking abortions, such as required counselling. Abortions - as a healthcare procedure in the privatised nightmare of a US system - can also be very expensive, and the Hyde Amendment prevents federal funds from paying for it through Medicaid. Funds from individual states can cover the procedure, but most have their own version of the Hyde Amendment that prevents this too. Thus working class women, and trans and non-binary people capable of becoming pregnant, carry the main burden of this regime of private healthcare and draconian restrictions, since they are the least able to afford either to travel to a more lenient state or pay the cost of the medical procedure.

The court’s majority opinion states that the abortion question is unique because it concerns the right of the child to life and that the Dobbs precedent cannot be used to reverse other “substantive due process” decisions concerning the use of contraception, gay sexual relationships and gay marriage. However, Clarence Thomas, in a separate but concurring opinion, argued that the Dobbs ruling precisely could and should be used to challenge these other decisions, since the matter of the interpretation of the due process clause was the same: “In future cases, we should reconsider all of this court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence and Obergefell.”2 These other rulings thus stand on shaky ground at best, while the court retains its present composition - especially considering that Donald Trump appointed justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who both pledged to senators that they would not threaten the Roe precedent during their appointment hearings.3

Responses

The political response to the decision from the Democratic Party and the liberal pro-abortion groups like Planned Parenthood has been tepid. After the draft opinion was leaked on May 2, Democrats made noises about codifying Roe - passing its protections as a federal law - but the Women’s Health Protection Act failed to pass the Senate by a margin of 49-51 after Democratic West Virginia senator Joe Manchin joined with his Republican colleagues to oppose the bill.4 In my state, Wisconsin - which still has a pre-Roe abortion ban from 1849 on the books - Planned Parenthood even pre-emptively stopped scheduling abortions after June 25 in anticipation of the decision’s release over a week in advance.5

In a runoff primary election in South Texas that occurred during the interim between the leaked and final decisions, anti-abortion House Democrat Henry Cuellar defeated the more progressive Jessica Cisneros, with the backing of party leaders like house speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had travelled to the district to campaign for Cuellar during the first round of the primary and recorded robo-calls for his campaign.6 Now that the final decision has been made, the Democrats have already integrated it into their campaign messaging, calling for voters to return them an extremely unlikely midterm majority large enough to overcome the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes. There is little indication that they will do anything to protect abortion rights now or after November.

With the liberals offering nothing but shrugs, the left has spearheaded the street movement against the decision. Back in May, the former Committee for a Workers International group, Socialist Alternative, and the Marcyite Party for Socialism and Liberation were responsible for calling the first round of demonstrations against the leaked decision in many localities, with the Democratic Socialists of America and other groups supporting the actions. When the final decision came out on June 24, many DSA chapters were quicker to act, calling demonstrations on the Friday night, sometimes alongside the PSL and/or SA (the latter of which operates a caucus within the DSA).

The DSA has established a national-level committee to coordinate the response to the decision between the organisation’s different working groups, into which activity is often siloed, and has circulated a toolkit for local chapters to take on pro-abortion activities, as well as issuing a statement that calls the Supreme Court an “illegitimate institution” and declares that what is needed is “a vibrant, militant, majoritarian socialist movement to defeat Republican minority rule, win legislative power and build a better world that guarantees healthcare as a human right, including the right to free abortions on demand without apology”.

This is a passable statement. One could ask for a sharper analysis of the undemocratic constitutional order, more attention paid to what it would mean to win “legislative power” under such a system (overthrowing it, for one), but it does recognise that the Democratic Party and its leadership “cannot be depended upon to save us”.7

Unfortunately, the message conveyed by the statement’s title, ‘Fight for democracy, fight to protect abortion’, underwent a mutation in the leaflets handed out by New York City DSA at Friday’s demonstrations. These were headlined ‘The Republican Party and Supreme Court are undermining democracy’ and contained the phrase, “fight for our bodies, our choices and our democracy” - as if democracy was something already enjoyed by the working class in the United States and it was simply being undermined by the Republicans and the Supreme Court. To make this claim about the Republicans is consonant with the liberal messaging about Trump’s supposed authoritarianism during his presidency, but the inclusion of the Supreme Court in the formula gives away the game. If the Supreme Court is undermining democracy, then we never had democracy at all, because the Supreme Court is a core part of the constitutional order that is being described as “our democracy”. A clearer message would be that the Supreme Court is attacking the democratic rights of American women within an undemocratic political system that gives them the authority to do so.

There have been debates within the socialist movement about the relative importance of different tactics in the abortion struggle. The main tactics discussed are:

Advocates of street demonstrations and work within the labour movement are correct in relation to the mutual aid enthusiasts that, though the act is admirable and will be necessary, a focus on fundraising or the provision of clandestine abortions is depoliticising and retreats from attempting to actually win legal and publicly provisioned abortion as a gain for working class women. If the mutual aid tactic is made primary, workers are meant to pool their wages to pay for an expensive and illegal procedure without challenging this illegality or expense at the level of political action.

However, one thing that makes the mutual aid approach attractive is that street demonstrations also have a limited utility and the immediate street movement in relation to the decision will likely peter out prior to the achievement of its main aims, such as the codification of Roe or public funding for abortions. Over the past decade, the US has seen a wide range of (often quite militant) street movements come and go, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter, and there is a widespread frustration with ‘yelling at people who aren’t listening’. This is also the attraction of working to transform the unions - they are the sort of working class institutions that can really pack a punch when drawn into struggle - yet the status quo is for unions to eschew such leadership and involvement in political struggles, and the various attempts at union reform that have occurred since the post-World War II bureaucratisation and purge of leftwingers from the labour movement have all ended in failure.

Starmer

The only thing that could provide some coherence to the various tactical proposals in the air would be the forging of a truly independent working class political party that can

react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; [which] is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation. (Lenin: What is to be done?)8

This would not be a bourgeois workers’ party along the lines of the British Labour Party, which represents the interests of a section of the national working class within the framework of capitalist class rule, as some DSA figures advocate (how anyone could desire an American Starmer baffles me).9 Rather, a genuine Communist Party, armed with a programme for working class rule and the emancipation of all humanity, including an end to the social slavery of working class women. Such a party could provide the class leadership necessary to make the trade unions into “schools of communism” and really effective instruments of the proletariat. It is no coincidence that the bureaucratisation and political domestication of the trade unions in the United States corresponds closely with the decline of the Communist Party USA, as flawed as it was.

The organisation that provides the best raw material for the forging of a Marxist party in the United States is the DSA, with its large membership, relatively open political culture, and inclusion of many leftwing groups within it. The DSA’s national political platform contains some of the rudiments of a radical democratic programme for working class rule. Its opening section declares that “The nation that holds itself out as the world’s premier democracy is no democracy at all” and it calls for the abolition of the Senate and the creation of “A new political order through a second constitutional convention to write the founding documents of a new socialist democracy”.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the Supreme Court, the platform only calls for packing it to break the rightwing majority, not for the abolition of the institution or of its power of judicial review. The platform also does not mention the need to challenge the federalist fragmentation of political power through the states, a key feature of the US political system that enables the new abortion status quo, while on a national level abortion rights enjoy majority support.10

The DSA will also need to establish real control of its elected politicians by the membership as a whole. This means breaking the alliance that many of these politicians have declared with Biden and the leadership of the Democratic Party - from stating that the man who cruelly confiscated the assets of the central bank of Afghanistan in the midst of a famine is “doing a very good job so far” and floating tentative support for his next presidential campaign, to voting to fund his imperialist proxy war in Ukraine, in contradiction to the organisation’s official position on the war.11

The question of women’s emancipation has entered the centre stage of US politics and social life, and only the socialist movement can provide the necessary direction to win safe, legal and free abortion on demand, without apology. But to do so it will need to break once and for all out of its political tailism of the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie.


  1. www.guttmacher.org/article/2021/10/26-states-are-certain-or-likely-ban-abortion-without-roe-heres-which-ones-and-why.↩︎

  2. thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/3535841-thomas-calls-for-overturning-precedents-on-contraceptives-lgbtq-rights.↩︎

  3. www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jun/25/gorsuch-kavanaugh-misled-senators-roe-v-wade.↩︎

  4. www.npr.org/2022/05/11/1097980529/senate-to-vote-on-a-bill-that-codifies-abortion-protections-but-it-will-likely-f.↩︎

  5. www.jsonline.com/story/news/health/2022/06/17/planned-parenthood-wisconsin-stop-scheduling-abortions-june-25/7665059001.↩︎

  6. www.nytimes.com/2022/06/21/us/politics/cuellar-defeats-cisneros-texas-primary-runoff.html.↩︎

  7. www.dsausa.org/statements/fight-for-democracy-fight-to-protect-abortion.↩︎

  8. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/iii.htm.↩︎

  9. jacobin.com/2021/02/labour-party-uk-lessons-socialists.↩︎

  10. www.dsausa.org/dsa-political-platform-from-2021-convention.↩︎

  11. www.npr.org/2022/02/14/1080548604/the-biden-administration-frees-up-7-billion-in-afghan-assets-frozen-in-the-u-s; www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jun/12/aoc-biden-2024-election-democrats-anxiety; clerk.house.gov/Votes/2022145; www.dsausa.org/statements/on-russias-invasion-of-ukraine.↩︎