Why we defend constitutional rights

September 5, 2022

The importance for working people in defending our constitutional rights and protections from government interference has been driven home by the Aug. 8 raid by the FBI, Washington’s political police, at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

Since the working class first began organizing to defend itself, free speech and assembly and protection from unreasonable search and seizure, to name but a few of the rights conquered in the Constitution, have been crucial. It is the utilization of these rights by millions in hard-fought class battles that has been integral to building unions, organizing opposition to Washington’s wars, bringing down Jim Crow segregation and fighting for women’s emancipation.

But that is far from the same as saying, as John Studer, the Socialist Workers Party campaign director, is quoted saying in the last issue of the Militant, that SWP members “are supporters of the Constitution, as written and strengthened by dozens of amendments.”

Some 240 years ago, the American Revolution overthrew British tyranny, established a republic and the victorious coalition of ruling Northern merchants and Southern slave owners put together the Constitution as they set out to organize their newly conquered state power.

The goal was to advance their class interests and to regulate their own class conflicts. That Constitution allowed states to limit who could vote, barring slaves, women and those without property from the franchise. It firmly established the new government to defend the rule of private property. It guaranteed the slave owners would dominate the federal government for decades.

While the SWP defends, supports and uses the rights written into the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, a product of class struggle by farmers and other plebeians, this has nothing to do with “supporting the Constitution as written.”

It took a Second American Revolution — the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction — before adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, establishing that citizens’ right to vote could not be denied “on account of race, color or previous conditions of servitude.”

The overthrow of the Reconstruction governments, backed by the growing capitalist ruling class, and the imposition of Jim Crow segregation over decades of bloody battles crushed voting rights won by African Americans. It took over 85 years until the Black-led civil rights movement uprooted Jim Crow, forcing Washington to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Not until 1920 did women win the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Class-conscious workers are not “supporters of the Constitution,” nor the capitalist state institutions it established. We support the rights and protections incorporated in it. One of its great strengths is that instead of flowery declarations, it lists rights — like free speech — which the government is forbidden from interfering with.

This understanding was key for the Socialist Workers Party to lead a victorious political and legal campaign against decades of FBI spying and disruption. It exposed the real role of the FBI as the capitalist rulers’ political police, dating back to its raids and prosecution of party and Teamsters union leaders in Minneapolis who were leading opposition to U.S. entry into the second imperialist world war.

The working class has most to gain from defending constitutional protections and the most to lose when they are attacked. Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky wrote in 1939, “All suppression of political rights and freedom, no matter whom they are directed against in the beginning, in the end inevitably bear down upon the working class, particularly its most advanced elements. That is the law of history.”

The working class, he said, “must stand in defense of freedom of all political tendencies, including their own irreconcilable enemies.”

And this is what is at stake in speaking out against the Joseph Biden administration’s sending the FBI to raid Donald Trump’s Florida estate.