Coronavirus and capitalist crisis: The struggle of (and for) our lives
People wait in line for help with unemployment benefits at the One-Stop Career Center, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Las Vegas. | John Locher / AP

Joe Sims is a national co-chair of the Communist Party USA. This article is adapted from a report he delivered to a meeting of the CPUSA’s National Board on March 25, 2020.

In a new and dangerous twist to the coronavirus crisis, Donald Trump is now calling for an end to social distancing perhaps as early as Easter. His goal is to restart the economy and avoid the worst impact of the coming recession.

Can you imagine? Trump, in the crudest and most callous possible way, is attempting to solve the crisis on the backs of our working class and people. It wasn’t enough that the administration ignored each and every warning from the scientific community and called it a hoax and a scam. It wasn’t enough that they are using the crisis to turn immigrants back at the border and bust unions.

Now, Trump is willing to risk the health and lives of millions of workers in order to satisfy the Wall Street Journal and corporate America’s quest for maximum profits. They think that since most people under 50 years of age who contract the virus will experience only mild symptoms, re-opening the country won’t be a problem. The theory is that those most affected by the coronavirus will develop an immunity, and the virus will end. They call this “herd immunity.” And it might have worked in early January before the pandemic became widespread in the U.S.

A man balances boxes of food that he picked up from Masbia Soup Kitchen, Thursday, March 26, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic in the Brooklyn borough of New York. | Mark Lennihan / AP

But here’s the problem: Because Trump refused to test early—and even refused the World Health Organization’s offer for free tests—public health experts still have no idea how many people are infected. And the rate of infection is doubling and tripling. Today in New York, the new epicenter of the crisis, hospitals are close to being overwhelmed.

The whole purpose of social distancing is to slow the rate of infection so that the hospital workers can deal with the influx of critically ill patients. But if Trump’s return-to-work plan goes through, hospitals could be pushed to the verge of collapse.

We are living in an era of crisis

The country is faced with more than a health crisis. It’s also an economic crisis. In addition, it’s a political, social, and environmental crisis. And these crises are interlocking and interacting in ways that can’t be anticipated.

Who would have thought that a month ago, even two weeks ago, a health crisis would shake the very foundations of the capitalist system? This is not an exaggeration; the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis estimated that the unemployment rate could go as high as 30%—higher than during the Great Depression.

The service economy is shutting down. The entertainment industry, restaurants, and bars are closing. And because the crisis is international, it’s going to affect basic industry—from cars to iPhones—as supply chains are disrupted and production comes to a halt. With just-in-time-production, spare parts are scarce. If factories in other countries don’t send them here, workers get laid off. Laid-off workers don’t buy products, and the circulation process is affected: business shuts down, state and local governments lose revenue, and the whole thing starts to unravel. That’s what’s starting to happen.

The fascist danger is growing

On top of all this, there’s a political crisis, in the first place with respect to the elections. Already, several state primaries have been postponed, and it’s not beyond possibility that Trump may attempt to postpone the general election in November. The conservative Rasmussen poll recently claimed that 25% of Americans support postponement.

Needless to say, such an eventuality must be resolutely opposed.

Adding to the depth of the crisis is the administration’s ideologically-driven approach to governing, one aspect of which is “dismantling the administrative state.” One of the reasons that Trump was not prepared for the pandemic is that in 2018 the Executive Branch got rid of the office of the Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biothreats, established during the Ebola crisis. They also drastically cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control, which oversees combating the spread of pandemics in other countries.

Hence, it’s not an accident that they at first refused to take effective federal action and put everything on the governors or that they have refused to use the Defense Production Act to compel industries to produce the goods necessary to combat the crisis. It all grows out of their “alt-right” approach to ruling the country. Those who claim the president is not ideologically-driven might take another look.

All of this requires a political response, but that, too, is part of the crisis. As necessary as the stay-at-home policy and social distancing is, it raises enormous issues. How do you protest when you can’t gather in groups of more than ten, when doing so risks being charged? One idea is to organize car caravans with protest signs to the homes and offices of elected officials. Another is the pot-banging protests used effectively in Latin American protests. A third is the organization of rent strikes in support of tenants facing eviction.

Added to this is the fact that the crisis increases risks associated with the fascist danger that goes beyond election postponement, as grave as it is. The Justice Department is reportedly considering state of emergency provisions that would end the right of people who are arrested to appear before a judge in a timely manner, eliminating habeas corpus, at least for a time. One could be held indefinitely without trial so long as a state of emergency exists. Other plans are being contemplated for setting up military rule and martial law in the event of a collapse in the order of succession to the presidency.

Even before the crisis, Trump had initiated purges of individuals deemed disloyal in the federal government along with repeated interference in the judiciary, as in the Roger Stone case. Taken as a whole, it’s a dangerous situation. Without the 2018 midterm elections, Trump, Barr, and his other henchmen would have had free rein to do as they pleased, limiting the working-class and people’s movements’ ability to struggle.

Nyla Clark, 3, accompanied by her mother, Chavonne Clark, sits in a baby stroller at a corner in New Orleans, hoping to get a few dollars from an occasional passerby Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Clark was a phlebotomist with a local company until she lost her job because of the coronavirus pandemic. She is waiting for unemployment. | David Grunfeld / The Advocate via AP

People before profits is more important than ever before

Clearly, the only way forward is to struggle for a program and platform that puts people before profits as the point of departure for addressing the crisis. Even by bourgeois accounts, the $2 trillion legislation passed by the Senate—although twice the size of the 2007 bailout—will mitigate only the worst aspects of the crisis.

In the first place, this means putting money in the hands of workers—whatever it takes to do this: whether it’s a livable monthly stipend, unlimited sick leave, or Medicare For All for the duration of the crisis, or eliminating student debt, ending rent and mortgage payments, or a moratorium on all debt—a debt jubilee. Fidel Castro used to say that the Third World’s debt is unpayable and uncollectable; the same holds true for working-class debt here in the “First World,” especially for students.

Let’s not forget that there will be a racist and sexist dimension to this crisis. Most African Americans and Latinos never recovered from the wealth loss of the subprime rip-off and the consequent impact of the Great Recession. And the majority of those going to work now are black and brown—those most unable to have the resources to respond when and if laid off. These issues will undoubtedly play out with respect to who lives and who dies today.

Special attention has to be given to the incarcerated, including immigrants held in detention in overcrowded conditions, veritable breeding grounds for an epidemic. Demands are being placed for an amnesty for elderly prisoners as well as for the release of non-violent offenders.

The point here is that special compensatory measures are required to address the more aggravated social and economic consequences of the crisis on people of color, women, and LGBTQ persons.

The socialist moment arises precisely in those areas where capitalism begins to fail

In many ways, this crisis has heightened the significance of the socialist moment. In a profound way, it has laid bare the gross inequities of the capitalist system. It’s laid bare how privatization, austerity, cutbacks, and profiteering wreak havoc on the working-class public. The socialist moment arises precisely in those areas where capitalism begins to fail.

It’s also revealed the ruling class’s indifference to working-class plight and circumstance—the rich just don’t care. Workers will be sent back to work sick or not, so long as the bosses maintain their profit margins. What will happen when they realize this? Or to be more precise, what will be done to help workers come to this realization, the understanding that there are common interests as a class, that survival requires workers as a class to take the future into their hands? This is not only a question of education but also of platform, of connecting partial demands today with more long-term ones tomorrow.

In this regard, the crisis has raised some tactical questions with respect to the all-people’s front and the placing of public—that is, socialist—solutions to the crisis. Depending on how the crisis unfolds, the question looms: Can the working class’s problems be solved? Can the country’s crisis be addressed without putting forward socialist solutions? Do not, in circumstances such as these, the national interests coincide with working-class interests? Can a 30% unemployment rate be addressed without massive public works jobs on the order of the WPA? Will the health crisis be met without Medicare for All or universal health care? In the eventuality of a banking crisis, can a solution be found that’s in the public’s interest absent socializing the banks? What about the airlines? Calls are already being made for their nationalization.

The most radical demands are not always the most revolutionary

On the other hand, more limited and therefore more winnable issues have to be considered. What happens when the $1200 checks run out? In many places, that’s one month’s rent—if you are lucky. What demands will address what’s needed when the extension in unemployment compensations runs dry—and that’s coming sooner than later? The most radical demands are not always the most revolutionary. Consideration always has to be given to what will move the largest and broadest numbers of people around the most effective demands. Politics begin with the millions.

The election campaign does not preclude addressing these issues—in fact, this crisis demands it. The 30–40% who voted for Bernie Sanders will expect it, those in the center radicalized by the crisis need it, and the future of the country may depend on such discussion and action.

The country, indeed, the capitalist world system, may be entering a whole new period of profound weather, health, and economic calamities. Consider for example this summer’s coming fires in the West or this fall’s hurricanes in the South and East as the inevitable second wave of the coronavirus strikes.

The role of the Communist Party in these circumstances must be to bring our revolutionary working-class “communist plus” to an analysis of these issues. And on the basis of this analysis, the Party’s job must be to, in concert with others, agitate and organize while spreading the word. How do we unite our class and people against the right and big business in these new circumstances? This is a question for and for And it’s an issue for every club and district.

In this regard, the Party has got to up its social media and social networking game. For years, we’ve been trying to improve our online activities, not without some progress but not nearly enough. Social distancing now demands it. Everyone must now learn to work in a different way.

This means greater use of People’s World and sharing of our articles, not only on the district parties’ pages but on the members’ personal pages. It means developing an electronic paper route. It means sharing video, podcasts, and images.

It also means joining local neighborhood mutual aid networks or setting them up to assist people in need. We’ve often talked about the importance of neighborhood concentration—the technology exists to achieve it via social networking.

In the near future, we’re going to develop plans for national schools, local study groups, as well as ongoing webinars. But let’s start with a national town hall meeting on addressing the crisis, and let’s do it soon.

Comrades, the time is now! A decisive moment has arrived. How the Party acts now will help determine not only our Party’s future but also, if we act correctly, the country’s.


Joe Sims
Joe Sims

Joe Sims is co-chair of the Communist Party USA. He is also a senior editor of People's World and loves biking.