The world watched in inspired wonder last summer as the pressure cooker of American society rattled and screamed.
The extrajudicial murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited protests that gave vent to the accumulated outrage at the economic crisis, botched pandemic response, presidential arrogance, and a never-ending stream of police killings and brutality. Roughly 26 million people—fully 10% of the adult population—participated in the broadest wave of mass protests ever seen in the United States.
In a country as polarised as it has been in over a century, the masses came together to make it clear that “enough is enough”. Risking coronavirus exposure, enduring vicious police violence, and staring down armed troops, the movement even forced then-President Donald Trump into a bunker beneath the White House.
This was the nearest the US has been to an all-out insurrection in modern history, with a Minneapolis police precinct burned to the ground and armed self-defense patrols emerging organically in some working-class neighborhoods.
The ruling class was off-balance, and the potential for things to get out of control was evident. However, despite its elemental energy and committed participants, the movement lacked a clear class-struggle program and a coordinated leadership committed to overthrowing the system once and for all.
The labour leaders did nothing to give the masses form and cohesion, mobilise their millions of members as a working-class block, or declare a general strike. On the contrary, they did their utmost to derail it into the electoral process, tailing the Democrats.
Given its lack of concentrated focus, the head of steam eventually subsided, a new president was elected, and trials prepared against the officers involved in Floyd’s murder. As intense and messy as things got, the capitalists did not lose control of the military, police, judiciary, and other key institutions of their rule, including their political parties and the electoral process as a whole.
Less than a year later, the world’s eyes were again on the movement’s epicenter, as Derek Chauvin was tried for George Floyd’s murder. During the proceedings, another young black man, Daunte Wright, was murdered by a cop just a few miles away, setting off a new wave of protests.
Tensions were high on the eve of the verdict, and more National Guard troops were on the streets of Minneapolis than are presently stationed in Afghanistan. Police presence was bolstered in major cities across the country in anticipation of the result.
Chauvin’s conviction may have been met with a cathartic wave of celebration and relief. Still, most people understand that this hardly makes up for the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and thousands of other black people killed with impunity by the police in this country—241 in 2020 alone. There can be no real justice for the exploited and oppressed within the confines of capitalism.
That the trial’s outcome was ever in question speaks volumes about the so-called “justice” system. Millions had seen the horrifying footage of Floyd’s life being squeezed away over nine-and-a-half agonising minutes as a callous Chauvin ignored his desperate pleas for breath. The liberal mouthpieces of the ruling class bent over backward to ensure “the right decision” was made by the jury. When several top detectives and even the police chief testified against him, it was clear which way the wind was blowing.
An example had to be made out of Derek Chauvin to add gloss to the tarnished illusion that justice is possible under capitalism—especially now that the Democrats run the show. The potential for another mass explosion was palpable, and this had to be headed off at all costs.
Mass left-wing protests against someone like Trump are one thing, but once such a movement emerges against the so-called “left” wing of the ruling class, a prerevolutionary situation would be near on the horizon.
However, despite the colossal outpouring of energy, the movement did not achieve even its most modest aims. The bitter truth is that nothing fundamental has changed when it comes to capitalism’s domination of humanity. A flooding river will eventually recede into its banks if it does not succeed in bursting through the dam.
Road to revolution
But this doesn’t mean that nothing has changed. Last year’s movement was an inspiring point of inflection and a life-changing experience for millions. In the long view of human history, there is no question that the US is on the road to a third and decisive revolution. But the road is long and full of twists, detours, potholes, and dead ends.
Even greater exertions by the working class will be required, a more concentrated convergence of objective and subjective factors, and above all, that all-important component of the subjective factor—a revolutionary Marxist leadership of sufficient size and influence in the working class.
The development of mass consciousness is not linear. Although the pressure cooker was severely stressed, it contained the pressure—and a lot of steam was let off. It will take some time for it to build up again.
Trump was a particularly effective boogeyman and made an art out of pouring fuel on the fire. But with a new administration come new expectations, and it can take some time for those illusions to be fully betrayed, particularly in the absence of a fighting, class-conscious alternative.
Biden and the Democrats
Biden does not represent the working class. Nonetheless, millions saw the heading off of a second Trump term as a kind of victory. And although he has not infringed even slightly on capitalist property rights, the new president’s approach to the pandemic, stimulus checks, unemployment relief, proposed jobs and infrastructure plans, support for the PRO Act and Amazon unionisation, and calls for justice for George Floyd represents a definite change of tone and have bought him some time.
Although millions of advanced workers and youth despise Biden and see through the Democrats’ nauseating worker-friendly rhetoric, millions of others will continue to “wait and see". Most people prefer the path of least resistance—an election or a protest every few years—versus an all-out life-or-death effort to overthrow the system.
As with bourgeois elections, maintaining social peace often comes down to small margins. If even relatively small numbers can be appeased for a time, a critical mass can be prevented from accumulating.
This explains the relative honeymoon Biden continues to enjoy. This interlude will inevitably come to an end, but revolutionaries should guard against the bane of impatience. Those who were politically active when Obama was elected amid an economic meltdown will remember it took some time before the rise of Occupy and the first wave of Black Lives Matter.
Whether or not a mass left-wing movement will return on an even higher level is not the question. The real question is: how much better prepared will the American Bolsheviks be this time around?
Millions of Americans, especially among the youth, are wide open to socialism or even consider themselves communists. Millions supported the burning of the police station and the demand to “abolish the police”—which cannot be accomplished within the bounds of capitalism.
Tens of thousands of Americans are actively looking for ideas, theory, and organisation. They are thirsty for internationalism and a revolutionary optimism grounded in scientific political perspectives. The example of every revolution in history shows that even relatively small numbers of dedicated revolutionaries can have a decisive impact on events under the right circumstances.
But such a leadership must be built in advance. Revolutionary circumstances are in our not-too-distant future, and this must give us a sense of urgency. Now’s the time to join the fight for socialism in our lifetime.