What is the Democratic Party?
Why even pose this question? Isn’t it sufficient to discuss its ideological orientation, platform, constituencies, social role and sources of funding? And wouldn’t such an inquiry invariably conclude that the Democratic Party simply anticipated the evolution of parties in the European Labor and Social Democratic traditions, so that they are all now essentially on the same page? And while the Democratic Party was never a socialist party, aren’t all current mass parties of reform ones that have abandoned the struggle for socialism to accommodate the existing organization of society, bringing them in synch to what the post FDR Democratic Party always was? In other words, aren’t the experiences, sellouts, compromises, defeats, and shortcomings of the Democratic Party and modern social democrats fundamentally interchangeable, rooted in the same politics, the same mass base and the same social dynamics?
If so, does it make any sense to treat a socialist orientation towards the American Democratic Party any differently from how we might approach any other labor or social democratic party? If socialists have always been able to make the conjunctural case for working in mass reformist parties and trade unions, why not simply clamp a clothespin on our noses and work in the Democratic Party? Isn’t any other approach deeply sectarian? Aren’t the realignment politics of Shachtman during the last decade of his life and of Michael Harrington retroactively re-affirmed, insofar as all mass left parties of Europe have now seemingly recast themselves in the American mold? Doesn’t the American labor movement and its allies need an electoral agency and wouldn’t advocacy of independent politics -- of withholding support from the Democrats -- leave our class even more socially isolated and powerless within capitalism? Aren’t we relinquishing the electoral front, the battleground in which ultimate political legitimacy is still conferred in the eyes of a majority of Americans?
Before answering this line of thought, an aside is needed on the origins of the “realignment” strategy in the early 1960s. Socialists in the ISL tradition who entered the Socialist Party to support realignment did so at first in pursuit of independent politics, not in contradiction to their tradition. They, in fact and in principle, affirmed that it would hopelessly compromise the content of revolutionary politics, which revolve around the working class and the independent role it must play in the reorganization of society, to advocate in favor of the Democratic Party. They argued that trade union endorsement of the DP had no weight in determining whether socialists should support that party any more than labor support for imperialist wars and interventions should dictate socialist attitudes towards such conflicts. The remnants of the ISL at first continued to advocate breaking with the Democratic Party, which they rightly judged to be a “company union” party. And they did so not from a sectarian insistence on retention of ideological purity, but because it was a substantive reflection of what made them socialists in the first place.
Their point was different. They fully expected that the next stage to be one in which a labor party would emerge. But, they argued, the American labor movement could only educate itself to that end, insofar as the left had no practical electoral alternative to offer, by active engagement and experience in the Democratic Party. If the option to working class involvement in the DP was a return to abstentionism – of a simple ad hoc rewarding of friends and punishing enemies, socialists should welcome the systemic exercise of labor muscle in the DP. They were similarly encouraged by rank and file grassroots reform currents within the DP that, conjoined to the rise of an increasingly politically conscious labor movement would, in their view, herald a future split in the DP or from the DP.
The Dixiecrat racists did in fact split from the DP, but the labor movement failed to take control.
How could this be explained? Draper and his comrades made one element of what was missing from this analysis abundantly clear. No material distinction had been made between the caste interests of the labor bureaucracy and the class interests of labor’s rank and file. European social democratic and labor parties arose prior to the widespread bureaucratization of their union movements. The modern labor bureaucracy jealously guards the autonomy of the unions. But it also requires privileged access to the ruling class. As arbiters of the class struggle, the bureaucracy needs independent unions, but not independent politics. Its natural orientation is therefore towards coalition/ pressure group politics, not labor party politics, unless it is pushed forcefully in that direction from below. The entrenched bureaucracy continues to act in its own self-interest by advancing its influence precisely within that coalition, not outside it or beyond it. Its periodic threats to place its mass resources elsewhere are dismissed by the ruling class for the toothless exercises in either leverage or exasperation or both that they most assuredly are.
Both the Draperites and Shachmanites (I use these terms broadly and advisedly) also recognized the backwards nature of American workers, most of whom had (and have) yet to attain trade union consciousness let alone any elementary political consciousness. Even militant rank and filers more often combine a penchant for shop floor action in the teeth of bureaucratic inertia with quite reactionary social and political leanings. If labor activists had politics, it was often to the right of the bureaucracy as the scandel of the 1968 George Wallace fallout in UAW strongholds most famously revealed. The Shachtmanites identified with the more politically liberal bureaucratic caste. Working within the DP was and remains a capitulation to the existing level of political consciousness that exists in society and all of the conservative assumptions that are institutionalized within it.
The later fallout between Shachtman and Harrington (the Social Democrats USA and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee or later DSA), was initially concerned with which wing of the bureaucracy to orient around. Both considered work within the Democratic Party to be activity within the left wing limit of what American politics could accommodate. Beyond that, in their view, stands irrelevance. Whatever justification it had in the minds of its adherents, the Democratic Party orientation also spelled the effective end to any pretence at “third camp” politics. The rightwing of what had been the ISL had not captured the DP; the DP had captured them.
The labor party slogan too lost immediacy for revolutionary socialists giving way instead to the more general quest for independent political action. Any independent political action on the left can offer an example and stimulus to workers and, to the effect that there is spillover, can be harnessed to drive a wedge between the union leadership tied to the DP and militants who are in the opening stages of protest against the subordination of labor’s interests stemming from that tie. At this moment, the entire machinery of the DP is arrayed against the striking Chicago Teacher’s Union. They are joined by Paul Ryan and the tea partiers in an across the board ruling class drive to privatize public education. Even this abject betrayal will predictably not shake the bureaucracy from its commitment to the Democratic Party. It’s dedicated to the “big picture,” that is its long-term interests.
Independent socialists favored struggling as a ginger group within embattled rank and file insurgencies to ally the thirst for fightback with other and broader forms of social unrest in the black, anti-poverty, anti-draft and anti-imperialist movements. This understanding underlies, for instance, the Labor Notes project. The continued relevancy of this orientation resides in the recognition that the goals of Occupy, climate change activists, and the anti-war movement today can be fulfilled only through an eventual alliance with a working class awakened to the irreconcilability of its own interests with those of the establishment. It is the latent power of the working class that offers the critical nucleus for any comprehensive challenge to the current organization of society. This is what socialists bring to that struggle.
That is one aspect. The equally decisive issue is what exactly are the two American political “parties”? Are these actually parties in the sense that the rest of the world understands this term?
I hope to return to this second question in a future letter.