Can Class Struggle Use the Bosses’ Courts?
“This society is structured in inequality in all its aspects. The simplest formula for this is the 1% vs. the 99%. So why would we expect the 1% not to control and use the courts, government, education and the media in their interests? Why would we expect that the 99% could break down that structure of inequality by using those same courts, government, education or media controlled by the 1%?”
This question was posed to a law professor who had just given an expert account to a group of retired teacher unionists about the Supreme Court’s racist legal history: the 1857 Dred Scott decision declaring that slaves or their descendents have no rights; its negation of the antiracist statutes legislated by the post-Civil War Radical Reconstruction Congress, to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 legalizing segregated schools.
The Reconstruction statutes — interpreting the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution allowing use of the courts to oppose racist acts — were then left unused for fifty years. Official racism prevailed in the U.S. until the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement in the streets forced them back into use. The liberal Warren Court (1953-1969) restored their use, starting with the unanimous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, reversing Plessy v. Ferguson by ruling against racist “separate but equal” public schools.
The professor said that during the Cold War period, after 1954, the Court and Congress responded to the movement in the streets. Also the “business class” realized it needed to lighten up their official racism in order not to look so bad to the world’s black and brown majority during U.S. rulers’ rivalry with antiracist communism.
Good question: Can the working class use the courts in our class struggle with the bosses who control those courts? The rhetorical question expected the answer “no.” It was clear the speaker agreed that the courts served the 1%, saying the courts and police had smashed the very Occupy Wall Street group which coined the 1%-99% slogan, and that to this day Brown v. Board had not ended de facto school segregation. But he asserted that the courts were also arenas of struggle, that the 1% control of them could be fought in a movement-building way. Ruling-class structure could be opposed by working-class action.
While working as a litigator in civil rights cases, the professor said, “the revolutionaries, the activists, the militants in the community who brought us these unwinnable cases valued the court battles because in them oppressed people could have their stories heard.” Even today, tweets from the Floyd case vs. stop-and-frisk in New York, he said, were spreading to thousands of people the powerful stories young people were telling in court. (Testimony in this case revealed that NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told state legislators privately that stop-and-frisk was meant to keep black and Latino men fearful of the police whenever they left their homes.)
The professor concluded by saying we needed masses of people in the streets again if we wanted to influence the Roberts Court dominated by four reactionary judges who often win over a fifth for their many 5-4 decisions.
Pondering this question and answer, I was thinking that the concept of fascism was needed to understand the Supreme Court’s move to the right. Did the answer reinforce my colleagues’ illusions in the fascist direction of the Court — their vain hopes that with enough organizing within the Democratic Party, backed by popular action in the streets, could make the Court liberal again? And even if that happened, was the Warren Court such a boon to the black rebels and Vietnamese fighters of the ’60s? What was true here?
PLP often says that we can’t rely on the courts (agreeing with the questioner who said the ruling class controls them). But what about the speaker’s point that court battles galvanize public opinion and allow people’s voices to be heard? That certainly seems to be happening today in front of the Court as it hears the cases concerning homophobia — the Defense of Marriage Act and the California law recognizing gay marriage. And what about the point that social media is spreading antiracist awareness through the stop-and-frisk case? That appears on Facebook.
Do we write off legal struggle, for example, when backers of Ramarley Graham, Shantel Davis or Kimani Gray want to pursue it, or do we incorporate their court cases into movement-building? Do we defend in court Brooklyn’s East Flatbush rebels arrested for breaking the bosses’ laws in their mass protest against police murder? Do we consider the liberal lawsuit against the UN demanding justice for the victims of the Haiti cholera epidemic to be just a waste of time, because the UN declared they had no such liability under their charter, or do we use it to expose the UN and build that movement?
I pose this question to CHALLENGE readers: Even if we don’t rely on the courts to give us what we want, can we use the courts in our struggles? How can we analyze the role of the courts dialectically, not in a one-sided manner? Can the working class act politically in the injustice system (as in the schools) even though the ruling class controls the structure of schools and courts? Should communist revolutionaries have a legal strategy and be training communist lawyers? Did they, in the past? What about the Scottsboro Boys case? How would this work in the struggles we wage today? What does the 50-year practice of PLP suggest?
Workers Need Communism, Not Heroes
When I heard of Hugo Chavez’s death and the plans to entomb him in a glass mausoleum, I thought about the legacy of leaders like Mao and Stalin who had mausoleums and statues dedicated to them. They never achieved their goal of communism which would end their workers’ suffering from capitalist exploitation and inequality.
Seeing the grief of people in Venezuela on TV, I mentioned to a comrade that I heard Chavez gave free heating oil, food subsidies and housing to many poor people. My comrade reminded me that during the Great Depression Roosevelt provided similar programs for the poor to prevent the working class from taking over and running society without capitalist profits and inequality like the communists in Russia had done.
I began to wonder if people in Venezuela would lose whatever gains they had made like the Russians and Chinese people did when their leaders died. Then I recalled some words that had stuck in my mind of the Mexican revolutionary Zapata who said, “A weak people needs a strong leader, but a strong people need only themselves.” That thought put the idea of leadership into perspective.
I think the true test of leadership today is how well comrades are helping workers feel that their own power is strong and important. How well are they being prepared to understand communist ideas and the concept of production for their needs without a profit system. Once the working class grasps and can fight for those ideas, we will become a material force that capitalists can never defeat.
Then instead of shouts of “Viva Chavez!” we will hear “Viva Comunismo! Vivan los trabajadores!” and “Muerte al Capitalismo!” (Death to capitalism).