Workers Vanguard No. 1012
9 November 2012
Wall Street Democrat vs. Wall Street Republican
For a Workers Party That Fights for a Workers Government!
This part concludes this article. Part One appeared in WV No. 1011 (26 October).
The “Southern Strategy” [by which the Republican Party attracted white Southern Democratic voters in the wake of the civil rights struggles] may be associated with the Republicans, but the rightward turn in this country really kicked into gear with the Democratic Party administration of Jimmy Carter. Coming to office in 1977, the Carter administration kicked off an onslaught of domestic social reaction and the renewal of the Cold War drive against the Soviet Union.
A primary concern was to reverse the economic decline of American imperialism. By the 1970s, the arrogant U.S. rulers had let their industrial infrastructure become technologically obsolete. Particularly with the economy distorted by defense spending for the Vietnam War, the U.S. no longer was the world’s undisputed capitalist powerhouse. A good number of auto and steel factories were closed. To increase profitability, the ruling class moved a good deal of production to low-wage places in the open shop South as well as to neocolonies in Latin America and Southeast Asia. The ruling class launched a campaign to crack down on the working class.
For the American bourgeoisie, the radicalism of the 1960s—the fight for black equality, the struggle for women’s rights and against the Vietnam War—was a dangerous bubble, with social protest threatening to spill over into an aroused labor movement. A major ideological assault was launched, aimed at instilling unquestioned acceptance of capitalism, god and family, including the desirability of dying for one’s country. The “born again” Carter brought religion into the White House. As school busing was going down to defeat in city after city, Carter stoked the anti-busing, segregationist backlash by proclaiming the virtue of “ethnic purity.” Carter signed the Hyde Amendment cutting off government funding for abortions for poor women, while declaring that “there are many things in life that are not fair.” He drafted plans to break a threatened strike by the PATCO air traffic controllers union, and his successor, Reagan, fired the entire PATCO membership of 12,000 when they went on strike, opening the way for what has been a one-sided war on labor.
Having lost the presidency to Reagan and George Bush the First in the 1980s, the Democratic Leadership Council came up with a plan to win back white racist voters. In 1992 they fielded a ticket with two Southerners—Clinton and Gore. Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it,” a promise he kept—something the arch-conservative Reagan couldn’t accomplish. The Southern and Southwestern states achieved new prominence. This largely non-union region contains a big part of the “bible belt,” whose considerable yahoo fringe became a potent political force. Within each party, the former right wing became the mainstream.
Capitalists’ Labor Lieutenants
No less than the Republicans, the Democrats are a capitalist party, a political vehicle for the filthy rich, racist capitalist rulers. Structurally part of the Democratic Party, the labor bureaucracy acts as the political agents of the capitalist class within the workers movement. Presiding over the decimation of the unions they sit atop, the “labor statesmen” work harder and harder to keep an increasingly frustrated base in the Democratic Party fold. Since the 2000 election cycle, the AFL-CIO has ponied up at least a billion dollars for the Democrats while doing next to nothing to organize the unorganized or to prepare and support strike action to defend unions from a bipartisan capitalist onslaught. How about this for a souvenir at the next AFL-CIO convention: “My union federation spent hundreds of millions on the Democrats and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
The bosses and their state have been taking it to what’s left of the organized labor movement. The past two years have seen an increased use of the tactic of locking out union workers. At the height of this summer’s heat wave, New York’s giant Con Edison utility locked out over 8,500 utility workers for nearly four weeks. Members of the United Steelworkers were locked out for 13 weeks by Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. in Ohio. After more than a year, workers at American Crystal Sugar in North Dakota and other states remain on the street, and Oakland Teamsters at Waste Management Inc. have been locked out since July as well.
The pro-capitalist union tops have overwhelmingly met this onslaught with the same prostration they perfected in past decades. In a bitter and ominous defeat for labor, on August 17 a 15-week-long strike against the Caterpillar corporation by 780 members of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 851 in Joliet, Illinois, ended when workers narrowly voted to accept a draconian two-tier contract. With company profits at an all-time high, the company got wage freezes for most workers, while the contract also doubles health care premiums, weakens seniority rights and eliminates the defined-benefit pension plan.
And it’s not like there isn’t anger and will to fight out there. In Chicago, public school teachers, perhaps the most vilified sector of the labor movement, struck and held firm for seven days at the start of the school year. For a couple of September days last year, in Longview, Washington, the ILWU longshore workers union and its allies flexed their muscle in the kind of labor action not seen in this country for decades. Mass pickets mobilized to block trains bringing grain into the scab terminal, and ports in the region were shut down for a day. Longshoremen from throughout the Pacific Northwest poured into Longview. Ultimately the union held the line but ended up with a concessionary contract that could embolden the bosses in future struggles.
As the Wisconsin legislature debated a law last year to strip collective bargaining rights from public workers, some 100,000 pro-union demonstrators flooded the streets of Madison, the state capital. The teachers unions organized sick-outs, causing schools to close across the state. But there was no strike action. The labor leadership worked overtime to divert workers’ militancy into Democratic Party electioneering, centrally through a campaign to recall Republican legislators as well as the union-busting governor Walker—which failed.
Parroting the bosses, the union bureaucrats have told their members that sacrifice is needed to assure the continued profitability of American industry against foreign competition. Obama has gone after Romney for “outsourcing American jobs” as head of Bain Industries in the 1980s. As he set out on a campaign swing in the Midwest a few weeks ago, Obama announced that his administration was bringing its second lawsuit in two months (the eighth since he took office) against what the U.S. calls China’s unfair trade practices, this one targeting the export of automobiles. Such chauvinist appeals have been used to sell givebacks in health insurance coverage, work rules, seniority rights and wage scales. Wages have been reduced to near Walmart levels by the infamous “two tier” system, leading many embittered younger members to call into question the value of unions at all.
Labor and the Fight for Immigrant Rights
Just as the union tops line up with a wing of the capitalist rulers in mobilizing American workers against their working-class allies abroad, they are aligned with the administration in screaming that immigrants are stealing “American jobs.” The capitalist-imperialist rulers see in immigrant workers a pool of labor to be brutally exploited and deprived of the most fundamental rights. While much of the bourgeoisie wants to preserve this cheap and vulnerable labor pool to ratchet up the rate of exploitation of all workers, the openly nativist wing that is behind the spate of anti-immigrant laws rants that American culture—by which they mean white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture—is being overrun by those from south of the border. They particularly mean Mexico, which had one-half of its land including Texas stolen by the U.S.
Thanks to the nativist bigots, Obama and the Democrats are able to posture as friends of immigrants, winning 70 percent of the Latino vote last time around. They are way ahead in the polls once again, despite carrying on a coldly more effective policy than the Bush administration of sealing the borders, rounding up brown-skinned people and deporting those here without papers.
It is important to combat anti-immigrant chauvinism in the working class and especially among black workers, while the immigrant-derived proletariat must understand that anti-black racism remains the touchstone of social reaction in this country. As we wrote nearly 40 years ago in “Immigration and the Class Struggle” (WV No. 41, 29 March 1974):
“It is in the interests of the working class to back the fight of undocumented workers for their rights, because undocumented workers will otherwise continue to be used as a weapon against the rest of the working class. Those in desperate, illegal situations are more difficult to organize and must accept lower wages. Unfortunately, labor does not always see its real interests so clearly. It is led today by bureaucrats who not only accept, but actively enforce, the capitalist ‘rules of the game’ in which unemployment and high profits are automatically accepted as natural....
“In fact, as long as the labor movement accepts unemployment it will remain divided against itself. Instead of fighting for more jobs it will fight against those it sees as threatening the jobs it has. And the bosses will use this fight quite skillfully against the working class, breaking strikes and pushing down wages. The solution to the problem of both U.S.-born and immigrant workers lies in overthrowing the system which creates unemployment and perpetuates poverty....
“It is not enough to provide an alternative to the capitalist parties. There must be an alternative to capitalist politics.”
In the late 1950s, 35 percent of workers were unionized—today it’s under 12 percent. The only way the labor movement can be revitalized is by returning to the road of class struggle. Immediately posed is the fight to organize the mass of unorganized workers, particularly in the “right to work” South. This will require actively combating black oppression, long used by the capitalists to divide and weaken labor as a whole. Against the government’s anti-immigrant crackdown, which has derailed one organizing campaign after another, the union movement must fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. Key to all such battles is the fight for the political independence of the workers from the capitalists and their government and political parties.
Racism and Patronage Politics
I wasn’t much of a student and actually peaked in the first grade. One of the few things I recall from my early education was the textbook characterization of the early Democratic Party as representing the interests of the working man and the Republicans as representing the unbridled greed of the rich. I am sure you are aware that the Democratic Party that was being portrayed as the champion of the downtrodden was the party of slavery and the defeat of Reconstruction; the party of Jim Crow segregation and KKK terror.
We had a very interesting series of articles in Workers Vanguard called “Wall Street and the War Against Labor,” which is reprinted in our pamphlet on the economy, Karl Marx Was Right: Capitalist Anarchy and the Immiseration of the Working Class. The articles made the point that sundry left-populist movements that have existed in the U.S. have been absorbed by the Democrats. Since I keep using the word populism, I should define what it is, which is nothing but the doctrine that if the little people get together and democratically elect representatives of the little people, the government will carry out their will. It is nothing less than a doctrine of profound illusions in the capitalist state.
The Democratic Party has played a critical role in maintaining the divisions within the working class, while at the same time fostering the belief within each of these constituencies that it is the political vehicle through which their particular needs and interests can be realized. The patronage machines and political bosses of yesterday may be gone, or significantly attenuated, and the ethnic constituencies may have changed a bit, but the Democrats still play this same game, which is instrumental to capitalist rule in the U.S.
The quintessence of such political machines was Chicago under Mayor Richard Daley. It was such patronage that made Chicago known as Segregation City. Yet the black component of that machine, led by Harold Washington (who later became the city’s first black mayor in 1983), always dutifully delivered the black vote for the party’s candidates. Should any of Washington’s black constituents have sought to relocate their families to another Democratic Party stronghold, they would more likely have been met with firebombs than a welcome wagon. Daley insured that there was never an attempt to implement school busing. To a greater or lesser degree, this type of political machine was replicated in cities across the North and remains the norm to this day, with Latinos becoming a key part of the Democratic Party structure in cities like New York, L.A. and others.
In the early 19th century, the Democratic Party, then dominated by the Southern slavocracy, gained support among the Irish Catholic immigrants who made up the bulk of unskilled urban workers in the North before the Civil War. The Democrats combined a posture of hostility toward the Yankee ruling elite with racist demagogy that the abolition of slavery would result in black freedmen taking their jobs and driving down wages. Following the Civil War, the Democrats benefited from growing support among Midwestern farmers, especially those of German ancestry, along with foreign-born Catholics. In industrial states, immigrants from Ireland and Germany filled factories and voted Democratic, many of them alienated by the Republicans’ pursuit of some rights for black people, who were seen as competition in the job market.
Populism and the Democrats
As described by Mike Davis in Prisoners of the American Dream:
“The cooptation of individual labor leaders was facilitated by the revolution in American city government that occurred in the 1880s as an aspirant petty bourgeoisie of Irish—and occasionally German—extraction began to take municipal power from old Yankee elites.... Local trade-union leaders—especially in the Irish-dominated building trades—were often key links in cementing machine control as well as principal beneficiaries of political sinecures. The overall effect of this ‘spoils system’ was to corrupt labor leadership, substitute paternalism for worker self-reliance, and, through the formation of ethnic patronage monopolies, keep the poorer strata of the working class permanently divided.”
In a Congressional debate following the 1893 economic collapse, Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan declared, “Today the Democratic party stands between two great forces, each inviting its support.... On one side stands the corporate interests of the nation, its moneyed institutions, its aggregations of wealth and capital, imperious, arrogant, compassionless.... On the other side stands the unnumbered throng which give a name to the Democratic party and for which it has assumed to speak.” The “side” of corporate interests was led by President Grover Cleveland. Tales of Cleveland’s contempt for the poor were legion, including one joke describing Cleveland confronting a man eating the White House front lawn, who explained he was unemployed and hungry. Cleveland suggested, “Why don’t you go around to the back yard? The grass is longer there.”
Three years later, that same Bryan headed the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket and won as well the endorsement of the populist People’s Party, largely under the illusion that Populist leader Tom Watson would be Bryan’s running mate. This paved the road for the fusion of the Populists back into the Democratic Party. But the populist Bryan selected bank president and railroad director Arthur Sewall.
The Populists were initially a multiracial movement, encompassing poor white and black farmers as well as small businessmen. But the heroic efforts of its organizers in the South were defeated when the local ruling class and its Democratic Party enforcers launched a wave of racist demagogy and violence. Having made their way back into their Democratic Party home, many Populist leaders, such as Watson, turned against impoverished blacks and openly embraced racism. Watson himself became an outspoken champion of lynching. On the other hand, the Populist movement also included people who would become key figures in the labor and socialist movements, such as Eugene V. Debs.
The New Deal Coalition
In the North, ethnic ward politics remained a constant of the Democratic Party, which increasingly won support of the young labor movement. The support of Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor was instrumental in the 1912 election of the patrician “progressive” Woodrow Wilson, the former president of Princeton University and a staunch segregationist. Gompers played a key role in winning labor support for U.S. entry into the first imperialist World War. In 1919-20, Wilson’s administration launched the first anti-red witchhunt, the Palmer Raids, named for his attorney general, in which thousands of foreign-born communists, anarchists and socialists were deported.
This coalition was later consolidated in the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The New Deal coalition, which is today hailed by most liberals and leftists, included pro-Communist labor organizers, liberals and black leaders in the North and racist Dixiecrats and Klansmen in the South. Key to the New Deal was an attempt to protect U.S. capitalism against growing radicalization and labor struggle. New Deal reforms such as the National Labor Relations Act, which made it easier to organize unions, or the Works Progress Administration, which carried out public works, were aimed at stabilizing capitalism by tying the new, powerful industrial unions, grouped in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), to the capitalist system. On the part of the CIO tops, the social democrats and Stalinized Communist Party, the New Deal coalition was a betrayal of the interests of the working class, heading off the evident possibility of forging an independent workers party.
Now, I said that our opposition to the Democrats is a class opposition to any capitalist party. So what precisely is meant by “class”? In this country, where the most rapacious imperialist ruling class wields the purest ideology of raw, naked exploitation of any advanced capitalist country, there’s a longstanding obfuscation of what class means. In a 1948 article in the Militant, our forebears in the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party wrote:
“The biggest political myth the ruling capitalists are trying to sell to the workers is that this country is different from any in history, that here there are no real class divisions, and, therefore, no basis for class politics.... But all politics is class politics. It is to the interests of the ruling capitalists and their various agents and dupes to conceal this elementary fact of the realities of political life.”
The capitalists, their agents and dupes are still at it. Donning his populist hat for a few months, Obama has resurrected himself as the champion of the “middle class.” Echoing their Commander-in-Chief, the labor tops appeal not for labor action but to broad public opinion by describing the war on the unions as attacks on the middle class. In the 1950s and ’60s, a middle-aged white industrial worker could be excused for believing in the “American Dream,” living in a suburban home with an affordable government-subsidized mortgage and driving a late-model car. Some may have added a Harley, others maybe even took up golf, with their children attending state universities or city colleges with low tuition. (For black people, of course, it has always been an American nightmare, as Malcolm X described, even for a unionized black worker in the Northeast or Midwest, who was more likely to live in an inner-city ghetto than in a tree-lined suburb.)
That was a short period based on a particular set of circumstances. By 1945, one-third of nonagricultural labor was in unions. The international dominance of U.S. imperialism, secured through the devastation of its imperialist rivals Germany and Japan in World War II, made possible some substantial improvement in the material conditions of the working class. But the industrial economies of Germany and Japan eventually recovered from the devastation of WWII and made deep inroads in world markets, including the American market, and started to surpass the U.S. By the late 1960s, U.S. wages were stagnating and good jobs were soon to become scarce, especially for young workers. The deterioration of conditions for unionized industrial workers shows that whatever gains they had made was the best that American capitalism could offer—and those days are long gone.
This past year and a half has added to the political lexicon the “99 percent” versus the “1 percent.” This was the mantra of the fleeting Occupy movement. For months, the Occupy trademark was affixed to just about any political activity called by the reformists: “Occupy the Hood,” “Occupy the Justice Department,” even protesting mass incarceration by calling to “Occupy the Prisons”—something the capitalist rulers would be very happy to accommodate. It got to the point where I was wondering if Robert De Niro’s next movie would be “Occupy This.” Not surprisingly, as the elections near you no longer hear about Occupy, largely because as we predicted, such an amorphous, populist movement could in the main only occupy the Democratic Party.
It is false that 99 percent of the population, which includes such diverse strata as the unemployed, technicians, computer programmers, dentists, and direct agents of the state—cops, security guards, judges—as well as real workers, share common interests. We start from the Marxist understanding that society is divided into two main classes: The bourgeoisie—that is, the tiny group of families (more like the .001 percent) that own the banks, industry, mines, newspapers, telecommunications—and the proletariat—that is, the vast majority of society who must sell their labor power to the capitalists in order to live. It is the labor of the working class that creates just about all of the wealth of this society.
The interests of these two classes are diametrically counterposed—they cannot be reconciled. The capitalist state is, at bottom, organized violence to protect the class rule and profits of the bourgeoisie. At the core of the state are armed bodies of men—the cops, military, courts and prisons. The state cannot be made to work in the interests of the exploited or oppressed. Social gains and political reforms that have benefited workers and the oppressed were not won through the ballot or in the courtroom but were the product of tumultuous class and social struggle. Gains that have been won by unions, often in pitched battles, have immediately come under attack before the ink is dry on the contract, which, as the bosses recognize, is but a momentary truce in an ongoing class war. Similarly, the capitalist rulers set about dismantling those formal political and legal rights that resulted from the civil rights and women’s movements as soon as they were attained. No democratic rights are secure under capitalism.
Democrats’ Fifth Wheel
Lending what little authority they may have to the miseducation of young radicals is the reformist left. Before talking about their posture toward Occupy, it is worth reviewing their take on the elections.
Four years ago, the Workers World Party (WWP) stated: “The election victory of Barack Obama will go down in history as a triumphant step forward in the struggle against racism and national oppression in the U.S.” (Workers World, 14 November 2008). Now in an editorial titled “Stay in the Streets” (Workers World, 29 August), the WWP declares, “Workers World is for socialism—where the workers, not the billionaires, own the means of production. This will take a titanic struggle by the masses of people who have nothing to lose but their chains. One of those chains is the two-party political system.”
Look carefully: Helping wield those chains is the same Workers World Party, which has a decades-long history of supporting black Democrats, going back to Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The latest object of their affections is Brooklyn’s Charles Barron, who they supported in the Democratic primary for Congress in 2006. Workers World also supported Barron’s 2010 campaign for governor on the ticket of the stillborn Freedom Party, which they deceitfully described as “a break from the imperialist Democratic Party.” This year, they again supported Barron’s efforts to be the Democrats’ candidate for Congress.
Also upon Obama’s election, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) threw an election night party in Harlem to “celebrate the end of far too many years of Republican rule” and to discuss “what can activists do to press their demands on the next administration?” Today, the ISO describes the Democratic Party as the “graveyard of social movements.” They easily could have added, “Pass the shovel.”
Then there’s the Maoist Freedom Road Socialist Organization in New York. A recent polemic against them in the Young Spartacus pages in WV that pointed to their electoral support to Obama in 2008 struck quite a nerve. In response, one of their leaders protested that their organization didn’t support Obama, it was just most of their leadership. In terms of the Freedom Road split-off in the Midwest that publishes Fight Back!, this is what they have to say: “We know that many activists…are likely to continue to vote for the lesser of two evils” (fightbacknews.org, 12 August). And what do they think about that? “In terms of voting in the presidential election, it is better to vote against Romney, especially in swing states. In other states like California, the Republicans are unlikely to win. In these cases, it would be positive to have a strong third party vote total.” They add, “Our faith and our future are in the people’s struggle, not the ballot box.”
Of course, all these groups fawned over Occupy. Last fall the ISO wrote: “The movement is already a success in what it has done to revive the legitimacy of mass protest and establish beginnings of a new radical left in the United States.” This is the present-day watchword of the heirs of Eduard Bernstein, the revisionist leader of German Social Democracy a little over a century ago, who declared, “The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.” Bernstein was characterized by the great Polish Jewish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote in 1898-99 that whatever lip service such revisionists may pay to wanting socialism, they are not choosing a different “road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modification of the old society.” This certainly fits Bernstein’s modern-day acolytes.
History has shown that whether it be the Occupy kids, the antiwar movements led by Workers World and ISO front groups or the other movements that episodically spring up, these movements can only be a tail on and ultimately be subsumed by the Democrats because they are not consciously directed toward the formation of an independent working-class party to lead the working class in struggle against capitalist rule. Invocation of the “people’s struggle” and action on “the streets” is little more than a conjurer’s trick to pretty up the pro-Democratic Party pressure politics common to all the reformists.
Though careful not to explicitly support a Democratic Party politician, the ISO speaks for them all in promoting activities that are centered not on advancing the need for independent working-class politics leading toward socialist revolution but on pressuring the Democrats to come through. At a talk in January 2010 on “The Left and Obama,” leading ISO member Lance Selfa described the need to “provide a foundation for further organization to pressure the government to respond to the progressive majority and not to the loud right-wing minority.”
In a recent interview, Selfa declared, “If the Democrats know that activists won’t hold them accountable for their record—i.e., what they actually do—they have no incentive to do anything the left might demand” (socialistworker.org, 5 September). On such political foundations, the ISO has supported capitalist third parties, what they call a “left alternative,” momentarily standing outside Democratic Party ranks. Examples are Ralph Nader or their own member Todd Chretien running a few years ago on the ticket of the Green Party, a bourgeois environmentalist outfit whose counterparts in Germany were part of the capitalist government that joined the U.S. in carrying out the bombing of tiny Serbia in 1999.
The 1912 article by Lenin that I’ve cited (“The Results and Significance of the U.S. Presidential Elections”) addressed such capitalist third parties. Writing about the Bull Moose progressives of Theodore Roosevelt, who polled over four million votes, surpassing the Republican Taft, Lenin stated:
“We shall save capitalism by reforms, says that party. We shall grant the most progressive factory legislation. We shall establish state control over all the trusts (in the U.S.A. that means over all industries!). We shall establish state control over them to eliminate poverty and enable everybody to earn a ‘decent wage.’ We shall establish ‘social and industrial justice.’ We revere all reforms—the only ‘reform’ we don’t want is expropriation of the capitalists!”
A Revolutionary Perspective
In closing, I have an observation for someone looking around at the world and hating what he sees and wanting to do something fundamental about it. Coming to political awareness when I did, having grown up in the ’50s and ’60s, had an advantage over today. We had the benefit of seeing labor when it was more likely to use its muscle—like the 1966 NYC transit strike that shut the city down for twelve days and won. One could not avoid seeing the question of black oppression as central to American society. And you also had the courageous Vietnamese workers and peasants fighting to defend a social revolution against the most dangerous imperialist power in the world—and winning.
Most important, though, was the existence of the Soviet Union, a workers state that, despite its bureaucratic degeneration, showed that a different type of society was possible. Many of those seeking to change the world were compelled to study Marxism to see what this was all about. Obviously, most of those young activists did not choose the revolutionary Marxist path and found their way back to the Democrats and points further right, thanks in no small measure to the same reformists I’ve referred to. But with the destruction of the USSR and the triumphalist blaring of the “death of communism” by bourgeois ideologues, you don’t see the same impulse to study revolutionary Marxism, and the idea of creating a new world is gone. In its place is left a belief that the best one can fight for is a partial amelioration of the horrors of capitalism.
But just as medical science, despite being confined under capitalism, is continuously finding new cures for horrible illnesses, such as the recent genetic studies that pose breakthroughs in treating certain cancers, Marxism is the science of the development of society through class antagonism. It provides the framework for rooting out the cancer of capitalist rule through workers revolution and finally bringing a better world to birth. The necessary instrumentality to make that happen remains, as Trotsky eloquently put it, “a party; once more a party; again a party!”