A Long, Weird Convo with the Hardline Trotskyist Running a 2020 Campaign That Makes Bernie Look Centrist

"I'm a full-time professional revolutionary. I'm not a reformed socialist, like Bernie Sanders."
September 27, 2019, 10:00am
A Conversation with the Trotskyist Running A 2020 Campaign That Makes Bernie Look Centrist
Collage by Hunter French | Images via Shutterstock  

Jeff Mackler is to the left of the left of the left. A self-proclaimed Trotskyist, he believes Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America—the growing party focused on the "left wing of the possible"—are unnervingly compromised. He thinks "Medicare for All" doesn't begin to go far enough, that most wealth taxes are far too kind to the rich, and that anything short of complete eradication of the military budget is an imperialist victory. And don't even get him started on self-proclaimed capitalist reformers like Elizabeth Warren.


"I'm a full-time professional revolutionary," Mackler told VICE. "I'm not a reformed socialist, like Bernie Sanders."

Mackler is also running for president as a representative of his political party, Socialist Action, for which he's served as national secretary for more than three decades. "We are Trotsky ists, I-S-T-S, not Trotsky ite, which is the word that Stalin used to discredit us and murder us," he said. Socialist Action's website suggests readings by the likes of Karl Marx, Fidel Castro, and Vladimir Lenin. It lists "revolution" as a primary aspect of the political program. And it even counts Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker among its small collection of supporters.

Ahead of a Midwest tour this week, Mackler spoke to VICE about the Democratic Party, the 2020 election, and why democratic socialism—despite being in vogue in the Trump era—doesn't begin to go far enough. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

VICE: For people who don't know, how would you sum up your own political positions?
Jeff Mackler: I start with the fundamental premise that all of the problems that increasing numbers of people are aware of in U.S. society—racism, poverty, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, endless wars, environmental destruction, un-payable student debts, people being evicted, gentrification, and a myriad of other issues—are inherent in the capitalist system. And we have to organize working people, win them over, build a mass revolutionary party that is deeply embedded in all of the social struggles, challenge capitalist rule, and abolish it.

In these troubled days, when capitalism is in crisis worldwide, the receptivity to socialist ideas is at an all-time high. And we're happy about the prospects for the future. All the polls today show that the majority of youth in the country under 30 prefer socialism to capitalism [Editor’s note: true]. That's because they're experiencing in their personal lives the horrors of capitalist society. They're not sure at this point what socialism means. But in general, most consider it an egalitarian society that fights for the majority, that fights against the 1 percent—actually one-hundredth of 1 percent—who rule the nation.


How would you compare your version of socialism with other socialist organizations, like DSA, or democratic socialism more generally?
The difference between Socialist Action and DSA is day and night. DSA has the uninterrupted history of supporting the Democratic Party and supporting every candidate that the Democrats put forward. So, for example, DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of her gang in the 2018 midterm elections—regardless of their proclamations—supported every Democrat running in the United States from right-wing Blue Dog racist Democrats in the South to moderate Democrats to supposedly left-wing Democrats. [Editor’s note: In September, Ocasio-Cortez, who actually challenged and defeated an incumbent Democrat in New York, backed progressive Marie Newman’s bid to unseat Rep. Dan Lipinski, a "pro-life" Democrat in Illinois.]

In our view, the Democratic Party is a 100 percent capitalist party. It's ruled by the richest people on Earth, as is the Republican Party. It supports the military budget completely. And it supports the simple fact that a handful of people, the 1 percent, owns and controls and dominates every major institution in capitalist society.

They want to reform capitalism, which is the position of most social democrats around the world. We want to abolish it.

If you abolish capitalism, are there any aspects of it that you'd like to keep around? What economic system would you put in place?
We would fundamentally transform the fundamental nature of the capitalist system, while retaining and expanding the democratic rights that people fought for in the original American Revolution. The second American revolution ended slavery. The third American revolution that we fight for will end capitalist oppression, economic domination, endless wars, trillions for the military budget, inadequate healthcare systems, racism, poverty, unemployment and all the other evils that, as I said, are inherent in the capitalist system.


I wondered if you watched any of the Democratic debates so far.
I’ve watched most of them. They're extremely informative. And they tell us that the fundamental differences, rhetoric aside, between all the candidates are very, very little. Let’s take Elizabeth Warren. She announced among her many plans that she is for a 2 percent [tax of] all incomes in the United States over $50 million [Editor’s note: Warren's proposed tax would hit wealth, not income, over that threshold]. And she enumerates all the great things she could do with that revenue. Well, that’s so absurd in my view. Our platform calls for a 100 percent tax on all incomes over $200,000. To even consider yourself a liberal or progressive and say that the people who have $50 million in wealth are going to be punished with a 2 percent [tax] on everything over that $50 million is just simply absurd. So we have fundamental differences on every question.

Bernie and Elizabeth and others are advocates of single-payer healthcare, but in the context of maintaining the privately owned healthcare system in the United States, which is one of the most horrendous, profit-making, extorting systems in the world. These hospitals continually lay off workers, install computers to replace workers, proletarianize the medical profession, and extract huge profits. We would nationalize the entire healthcare industry, and make it the most extensive in the world, free for everyone with no cost. And pay for it by not only ending the military budget, but by taxing the heck out of the ruling class, who we would seek to abolish and take their wealth.


So you're saying that Medicare For All doesn't go far enough?
Exactly. It's a good step relative to what we have now, Obamacare, and that had some positive aspects. And in truth, Socialist Action is for every reform even under capitalism that advances the needs, however modestly, of working people, and defends their basic democratic and social rights.

Do you consider Bernie Sanders a socialist?
In no way is he a socialist. He is what they call in Europe a democratic socialist. [But France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland]—there’s nothing socialist about these countries. In every one of them, the vast wealth of the nation is in the hands of a tiny elite, extremely similar to the United States. They are in competition with each other. And in order to maximize their ability to exploit more profits, they take it out of the hands of the working class, which is the case of every nation on Earth.

Certainly though “Medicare for All,” “College for All,” “Housing for All,” eliminating student loan and medical debt—they would be transformative for the country?
Absolutely, we are for college, not only college, but education for all from the cradle to the grave. And we think that that cannot be the case under capitalism. None of these proposals they make have any basis in reality. And I mean that seriously, because in order to implement them, it's not a matter of words and campaign promises. President Obama made many of those. It's a matter of fundamentally transforming the economic nature of the system.

You [need to] have a candidate that challenges capitalist rule, which means a whole bunch of things: abolition of the police, massive investment in infrastructure, a fundamental transformation of the entire energy system. That is, a Green New Deal presided over by working people that guarantees jobs for everyone in a transition to a socialist society at top union wages. No candidate says that, even Bernie. He says he’s for the Green New Deal, but the Green New Deal is based on the continued existence of the polluters, of the monopoly capitalist oil industry. They just want to tax them a bit more and regulate them a bit more. And maybe cut down the trillion-dollar grants that are embedded in the tax bills that they get every year. They want to regulate the polluters. We want to abolish the polluters. We want to nationalize their wealth completely and put it under the control of a working class that literally rules society.

It’s not hard to see Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders taking issue with you, in particular, saying their ideas have no basis in reality.
It’s true. My ideas have no basis in reality in the framework of the capitalist system. Every politician that has ever existed on this Earth [within a capitalist system] starts with the premise that we have to start with the exploitative system that we have. A revolutionary says we have to end the exploitative system we have.


There’s two things in my mind that can end life on Earth, or severely limit it. One is an uncontrolled asteroid smashing the planet to bits, which happened in the past and fundamentally changed life on Earth. The other is the capitalist system. It's a worldwide. repressive, exploitative, war-making system. To abolish it requires the organization of the working people, their unions, and the oppressed working together to challenge capitalist rule.

The sort of irony of your criticism of the Democratic Party is that they themselves have been facing a lot of criticism from others for their so-called shift toward socialism. I wonder what you thought of that?
Well, I know that Trump and the morons who attack [Sanders] charge Bernie Sanders and others with being socialist. That's just a reversion to McCarthy-era red-baiting to discredit an idea by putting a label on it and associating that label with Stalinism in the Soviet Union, a repressive, bureaucratic state that had nothing to do with socialism.

I think that the Trump types, Fox News types who are experimenting with red-baiting Cold War-type rhetoric are going to pay a price for that because there’s an increasing interest in socialism. When our comrades were in the streets in cities across the country last Friday passing out our campaign literature [during the climate strike], signing up people for membership, selling our newspaper, Socialist Action, we got an incredibly wonderful, warm response, especially from young people.


I have to ask you, after all this, do you prefer a Warren or a Sanders to, say, Joe Biden or one of those more centrist candidates?
Not in any way. This is a carefully orchestrated show.

In the end, 99 percent—including DSA—will end up supporting every Democrat there is, because they're wedded to the impossible notion that the Democrats are better than the Republicans. Obama was elected as a progressive. He deported more people than any president in the history of the United States. Trump’s rhetoric aside, Obama was the great deporter. And the same thing with [former President Bill] Clinton. He posed as a liberal, and he twisted the criminal justice system [in a way] that allowed the ruling class to literally enslave millions of people in the prison-industrial complex.

The goal is the exploitation of human beings for profit, whether that means wars, persecution of immigrants, racism, sexism, homophobia, attacks on transgender people. That’s the norm of capitalism, and every one of the Democrats is wedded to that system. In 2016, Bernie Sanders rose to the podium of the Democratic Party’s national convention and supported Hillary Clinton, and that's what every Democrat will do if they want to keep their job as part of the ruling class’ exploitative two-party system.

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