Elections 2012: Wall Street Democrat vs. Wall Street Republican
For a Workers Party That Fights for a Workers Government!
The following is a presentation, edited for publication, by Spartacist League spokesman Paul Cone at an October 13 forum in Los Angeles.
As revolutionary Marxists, our approach to the elections is the same as our approach to all our work and especially our interventions into class and social struggle. We seek to break the workers from illusions that the Democrats, Republicans or any capitalist party can be relied on to promote their interests, or that any lasting improvement of their lot can be achieved under capitalism. At bottom, the belief that any fundamental change for workers and the oppressed can be achieved through the ballot represents a utopian belief in the reformability of the bourgeois state.
We seek to instill in the working class, as well as radicalized youth, the recognition of the unique social power the proletariat possesses as the collective producers of most of the wealth of this society. Such social power needs to be realized through a party of their own, a workers party. What we mean by that is not an electoral vehicle but a party that leads the working class and oppressed in a fight for workers rule: the expropriation of the capitalist class through workers revolution and the formation of a workers government. In a society under workers rule, the productive capacity and resources are owned in common and production is based on human need—not the mad chase after profits.
I want to also point out that we communists would run for elective office and serve in the Congress and other legislative bodies as revolutionary tribunes of the working class—i.e., as oppositionists to the capitalist order. But we would not run for executive offices such as president, governor, mayor. Holding executive office means taking responsibility for the administration of the machinery of the capitalist state. Running for such offices can only reinforce illusions that the capitalist state, under the right leadership, can be made to serve the interests of the exploited and oppressed.
Although the working class here has historically waged some of the fiercest battles against the bosses and their state, the U.S. stands out as the only advanced capitalist country where the working class has not attained even a minimal level of political class consciousness. In its mass, the American working class has never supported a party whose declared ultimate goal is the replacement of the capitalist system with a socialist society, or which even claims to stand simply for workers’ interests in their day-to-day struggles against the employers. The two primary, and interrelated, obstacles have been illusions in the Democrats and the racial and ethnic divisions promoted by the capitalists, both of which are purveyed by the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy.
Capitalist Crisis: Workers Pay
This year’s elections come in the context of four years of the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. We’ve seen the continued hemorrhaging of jobs, home foreclosures and massive indebtedness along with a massive bolstering of the forces of state repression under the pretext of the wars against terrorism and drugs.
To the tune of trillions of dollars, first Bush and then, even more so, Obama bailed out the con men on Wall Street whose financial swindles were central to this collapse. The working class, black people, Latinos, the poor, the sick and the aged have been made to foot the bill. Alongside large-scale and long-term unemployment, corporate profits have, on the average, risen at an annual rate of 4.8 percent over the past three years. Over the past year, the net worth of the 400 richest Americans grew by $200 billion—an average of $50 million each. In that same period, median household income fell by 4 percent. In New York City, the center of American finance capital, nearly 1.7 million people are officially classified as poor, the highest figure in more than a decade. Officially, the homeless population of the city is 46,000.
The national jobs report issued on September 7 disclosed that only 69.8 percent of men over the age of 16 were either working or looking for work—an all-time low. With one-quarter of jobs paying below the poverty line for a family of four, 58 percent of all job growth since what they like to call the “recovery” is in low-wage occupations, earning less than $14 an hour. Six million people have no income other than food stamps. Some 2.8 million children live in households with incomes of less than $2 per person a day—a benchmark generally associated with the impoverished Third World.
In racist America, it’s all the worse for black people and Latinos, who were among the main victims of the banks’ subprime mortgage scams. One-third of black and Latino households have no net worth, with many underwater in debt. Over 25 percent of blacks and Latinos are officially recorded as living in poverty.
Periodic economic crises, such as the one we are in now, are inherent in the capitalist system of production for profit. In the 1930s, the one country that not only wasn’t ravaged by the Great Depression but experienced great economic development was the Soviet Union, where the working class in 1917 had taken state power, which was maintained despite the subsequent bureaucratic degeneration under Stalin. Today in the Chinese deformed workers state, where capitalism was overthrown by the peasant army led by Mao in 1949, state control of the economy has greatly offset the effects of the worldwide economic crisis.
Short of the working class taking power, there is no crisis that cannot be surmounted by the bourgeoisie. In “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International,” better known as the Transitional Program, which was written in 1938 during the Great Depression, revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky put forward a series of demands that are applicable today. These demands address the economic catastrophe facing the working class, “unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”
In the face of mass unemployment, Trotsky called for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay to spread the available work, for a massive program of public works and for wages to rise with prices to guard against the ravages of inflation. To unmask the exploitation, robbery and fraud of the capitalist owners and the swindles of the banks, he argued that the workers should demand that the capitalists open their books. He also raised the call for the expropriation of branches of industry vital for national existence and of the most parasitic of the capitalist owners. He underlined that such a demand must be linked to the fight for the seizure of power by the working class, as against the Stalinist and social-democratic misleaders for whom the call for nationalization was merely a prescription for bailing out capitalist enterprises.
Trotsky bluntly put it: “If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish.” In opposition to the capitalists and their reformist agents, Trotsky argued that “‘realizability’ or ‘unrealizability’” would be “decided only by the struggle,” by means of which, “no matter what its immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.”
Obama at Helm of U.S. Imperialism
Our opposition to Obama and the Democrats, no less than our opposition to the Republicans, is a class opposition. It’s not a protest against the Democrats’ failure to live up to expectations—they did exactly what we expected. It is not a search for some alternative within the capitalist electoral framework—a formation like the Greens or the Peace and Freedom Party that would supposedly break the two-party monopoly with a bourgeois third party. Nor is it an exercise of political coquetry: “Oh, if you know we always vote for you Democrats, what would compel you to carry out our political wishes?” All of these are how the radical liberals and reformist socialists approach the question of the Democratic Party. No less than open support to the Democrats, these do nothing to advance class consciousness but rather keep the working class enthralled to the capitalist order. They are all obstacles to building the revolutionary workers party necessary to end this nightmare of capitalism once and for all.
As we wrote four years ago (“Obama: Commander-in-Chief of Racist U.S. Imperialism,” WV No. 925, 21 November 2008):
“The election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States has aroused great expectations among working people and the oppressed around the world. Black people and others celebrated on streets throughout the country the election of the next Commander-in-Chief of bloody U.S. imperialism.... Amid fears of a new Great Depression...hopes for ‘change’ center on the incoming Democratic Obama administration. These hopes will be brutally dashed.”
We also pointed out: “As America’s next top cop, Obama will preside over the racist capitalist system, which is based on the exploitation of working people at home and abroad.”
That prognosis was verified—and then some. But we didn’t need a crystal ball. V.I. Lenin, who founded the Bolshevik Party and together with Trotsky led the October 1917 Russian Revolution—the only successful workers revolution in history—aptly described the choice in elections under capitalism as a process “to decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people.”
This time around, the reality show to become America’s next top war criminal pits the two rich white guys, Romney and Ryan—who look like a walking ad for khakis, hair gel and Pearl Drops tooth polish and who promise to eliminate just about all of the remaining government social services that are a lifeline to a large bulk of the population, while promising greater riches to the capitalists—against the hoops-playing, change-promising Obama, who stuffed his administration with a Wall Street all-star team, such as Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers and Jacob Lew. The Obama administration has handed out lucre to just about every industrialist and banker that came, hat in hand, knocking on the White House door—and not even spare change for the rest.
A lot has happened in the last four years. Mass unemployment has provided a more fertile climate for the decades-long attacks on the basic organizations of defense of the working class—unions. The current attacks were kicked off by the 2009 auto contracts forced upon workers at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler by the United Auto Workers’ Ron Gettelfinger and the newly elected Obama—part of the bailout of the auto bosses. This opened the floodgates for extending two-tier agreements to other union contracts throughout the country, and threw thousands of auto workers on the scrap heap.
We’ve seen the emergence of the Tea Party crazies, launched and funded by some of the fattest of fat cats in the conservative Republican establishment. They seem to have consolidated a great deal of control of the Republican Party, peddling religious obscurantism, anti-women bigotry, nativist hatred of anyone who wasn’t born in the U.S.—that is, born with white skin and speaking English. Their not so thinly veiled racism is expressed, among other ways, in the hallucinogenic belief that Obama is forcing socialism on the U.S., the only basis for which is his black skin. To defend the purity of elections, they have been on a drive to purge blacks and Latinos from voting, imbibing so much of the “voter fraud” Kool-Aid they have begun to visualize magic buses full of “illegal” voters pouring into polling places across the country.
After decades of massive redistribution of wealth to the richest sliver of the population under both Democratic and Republican administrations, even the bourgeois press has noted the gaping inequality between the haves and have-nots. The populist Occupy phenomenon burst across the scene with an impact reminiscent of the 1973 comet Kouhoutek.
Earlier this year Charles Murray, author of the racist screed The Bell Curve (1994), turned his attention to poor white people in a new book, Coming Apart. According to Murray, poor people are poor because they make poor choices—usually citing what he considers “moral” ones, like smoking, drinking, a little pot, having sex at a young age. As if the well-heeled don’t do exactly the same—and probably to a greater extent since they have the money to burn. (This is the same drivel that Bill Cosby, Obama and others have been handing down to poor black people to blame them for their oppression.) Obviously the poor “choices” begin with choosing to be born into a poor family. Although the book overwhelmingly represents the view of the capitalist class, it didn’t get that much play thanks to its inopportune timing—both political parties are fighting over precisely that demographic in the key swing states.
The right to abortion has been further eroded. Obama promised to ease the Republicans’ war on immigrants only to have his administration shatter prior records for deportations by such a wide margin it is a wonder they weren’t called before a Congressional committee investigating steroid use. Obama also promised to reverse much of the decimation of civil liberties under the “war on terror” only to expand government spying to a level that would make George Orwell’s Big Brother envious. Meanwhile we have seen authorized assassinations of U.S. citizens, indefinite detention and persecution of leftist opponents of government policies.
Two-Party Electoral Circus
In his September 25 lecture to the United Nations, Obama told this gathering of imperialist thieves and their victims that Americans “have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their view.” No. Since its emergence as an imperialist power with the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S., like its imperialist rivals, has sent its young men, and now some women, to fight and kill in its quest for world domination, to secure markets and resources and geopolitical military advantage. For over a century, Washington has placed in power and/or propped up just about every military dictatorship around the world.
This Nobel Peace Prize recipient initiated a surge of troops for the occupation of Afghanistan and supplied the firepower for NATO’s devastation of Libya. He has bolstered U.S. military forces in Asia directed against the Chinese deformed workers state, declaring the Pacific to be the Pentagon’s number one priority, and the U.S. also maintains the embargo against the Cuban deformed workers state. Obama has also implemented starvation sanctions against Iran as punishment for their purported program of developing nuclear arms. U.S. drones regularly rain death and destruction from Pakistan to Somalia. DEA narcs help terrorize Latin American farmers and workers in the name of the “war on drugs,” and when the U.S.’s puppet rulers meekly suggest decriminalizing some controlled substances they get slapped down from Washington. U.S. imperialism, hands off the world!
Obama promised nothing to black people. He kept that promise. In the supposedly “post-racial” utopia ushered in by his election, we have the continued mass incarceration of black people and the escalating terrorization by cops of black and Latino youth in ghettos and barrios, which in turn fuels vigilante terror like the racist killing of Trayvon Martin.
Yes, Obama has done just about everything the capitalist masters asked and so much more. Yet from the day he took office, a core component of the Republican Party took to the streets demanding “Take our country back!” Back from whom? No secret there. Even as the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism, Obama is marked by his black skin and African heritage. Newt Gingrich called him the “Food Stamp President.” Romney, not unexpectedly, has even charged, falsely, that Obama is undoing Clinton’s signature law eviscerating welfare by removing the work requirements, resurrecting Reagan’s “welfare queen” chimera that impoverished black women are sucking up the government dollars of hard-working, tax-paying white people.
Add to these the likes of abortion opponent Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for Senator from Missouri, who said that a woman who gets pregnant following a rape wasn’t really raped; the spectacle at the Republican Convention, where a black woman working for CNN was pelted with peanuts while one of the Republican faithful screamed at her, “This is how we feed the animals”; the efforts across the country to destroy unions; draconian immigration laws enacted in Arizona, Georgia, Alabama and elsewhere. You get a sense of why workers, blacks, immigrants, women, gays, who have nothing to show for their past support, are going to again vote Democrat as a lesser evil.
How to account for a significant portion of the American bourgeoisie being so mentally unhinged? Did a Klingon warship pass over the U.S. 30 years ago firing some form of brain-destroying phaser? Maybe the answer is buried in the UFO museum in Roswell, New Mexico. But I don’t think so. After the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, it appeared that the U.S. imperialists had finally become masters of the world. But even as the U.S. achieved unrivalled military supremacy, its industrial base continued to decline. To some in the ruling class, this decline of the country’s economic might defies explanation—besides being contrary to “God’s will.” In consequence, a wing of the bourgeoisie has seemingly gone totally insane.
The massive redistribution of wealth to the top, the increasing segregation of black people, shredding of the social “safety net,” embrace of “Christian family values,” rollback of democratic rights, imperialist wars and occupations: all have been bipartisan policies. The Republicans may explicitly announce that it is open season on workers and oppressed minorities; the Democrats instead offer a pat on the back, maybe a little consolation that we “share your pain,” while enforcing capitalist misery and social reaction, often more effectively.
Yet at the same time that the differences between these two capitalist parties have increasingly narrowed, the vitriol between them has grown. This is not a unique development. Writing about the 1912 presidential election won by the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, in an article titled “The Results and Significance of the U.S. Presidential Elections,” Lenin observed:
“Since the Civil War over slavery in 1860-65—two bourgeois parties have been distinguished there by remarkable solidity and strength. The party of the former slave-owners is the so-called Democratic Party. The capitalist party, which favoured the emancipation of the Negroes, has developed into the Republican Party.
“Since the emancipation of the Negroes, the distinction between the two parties has been diminishing. The fight between these two parties has been mainly over the height of customs duties. Their fight has not had any serious importance for the mass of the people. The people have been deceived and diverted from their vital interests by means of spectacular and meaningless duels between the two bourgeois parties.”
Centrality of Black Oppression
Shortly after the Republican Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election victory, Richard Viguerie, a key conservative fund-raiser and organizer, said, “It was the social issues that got us this far, and that’s what will take us into the future. We never really won until we began stressing issues like busing, abortion, school prayer and gun control.” Reagan aide Lee Atwater made clear what that meant. For obvious reasons I’m going to paraphrase here: “You start out in 1954 by saying the ‘N’ word. By 1968 you can’t say the ‘N’ word—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
In fanning the flames of racist reaction, the Republicans are implementing the “Southern Strategy” that has served them well for the past 40 years. The shape of bourgeois politics in America was fundamentally altered by the civil rights movement. The New Deal alliance between labor, Northern liberals and Southern segregationists cemented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s was blown apart. The 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act, was the one who authored the “Southern Strategy,” persuading racist Southern Democrats—the Dixiecrats—to defect.
The bourgeoisie, which was willing to permit the gradual abolition of legal segregation and provide avenues for the upward social mobility of a small layer of black people, at the same time unleashed a campaign of white backlash which eventually took the form of opposition to “big government”—identified as forcing white children to go to school with blacks, giving tax money to black welfare mothers and poverty bureaucrats, and giving jobs to blacks and women under affirmative action. While most black people were no better off, the government created a layer of black middle-class professionals. Racist politicians began deliberately stoking white resentment.
All this underscores that the oppression of black people, a race-color caste overwhelmingly segregated at the bottom of society, remains at the core of American capitalism. The forcible segregation, stigmatization and vilification of those whose ancestors were dragged here in chains as slaves serves to maximize profits, regulate labor and divide the working class. As historic American Trotskyist Richard Fraser noted of segregation some 60 years ago:
“Prejudice is the product of this complex social relation. But although it is directed immediately against the Negro, its object is the working class as a whole. Through discrimination and segregation, Negro labor is degraded and its wage falls to the bare subsistence level. But this sets the pattern and controls the conditions of labor as a whole.”
—“The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution” (1953), reprinted in “In Memoriam—Richard S. Fraser: An Appreciation and Selection of His Work,” Prometheus Research Series No. 3, August 1990
Fraser added: “Without racial separation in the United States, there would be no possibility of maintaining the discriminatory social and economic practices which are fundamental to the economic and social well-being of American capitalism, and its role in the world today.”
The fight for black equality remains the strategic question of the American revolution. We fight for black freedom on the program of revolutionary integrationism. In fighting for the working class to oppose all instances of racist discrimination, we have supported scatter-site public housing in opposition to residential segregation; defended school busing as part of our fight for free, quality integrated education; initiated mobilizations centered on the multiracial labor movement against KKK and Nazi terror. At the same time, we stress that genuine equality for black people in the U.S. will only come about through the smashing of capitalism, preparing the road to an egalitarian socialist order. This perspective is counterposed to liberal integration, which is premised on the utopian notion that equality for black people can be attained within this capitalist society founded on black oppression. Our perspective is counterposed as well to go-it-alone black nationalism—a petty-bourgeois ideology of despair which at bottom accepts the racist status quo.
There will be no effective resistance to the immiseration of American working people without the unity in struggle between the trade unions and the black and Latino poor. Despite the destruction of industrial jobs and erosion of union strength, black workers, who have a significantly higher rate of trade-union membership than white workers, continue to be integrated into strategic sectors of the proletariat, which alone has the power to shatter this racist capitalist system. Won to a revolutionary program, black workers will be the living link fusing the anger of the dispossessed ghetto masses with the social power of the multiracial proletariat under the leadership of a Leninist vanguard party.
[TO BE CONTINUED]
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.
Reformist Left: 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!”