Why we should not back US Democrats

Introduction
With Mitt Romney’s scorn for “the 47%”, many left-minded people will conclude that they must support Barack Obama in the USA’s presidential election in November.

The Democratic Party is firmly controlled by capitalist interests; Obama’s administration has increased inequality in the USA; yet the TUC’s pamphlet for 20 October sets up Obama’s policies as a model for Britain. “USA shows the way”.

When Franklin D Roosevelt was president, from 1933 until his death in 1945, and put through the “New Deal”, the political gap between Democrats and Republicans in the USA was even wider than now.

The Communist Party and many trade union leaders rallied to Roosevelt. The revolutionary socialists refused. They argued for the unions to form their own independent labour party.

They also proposed a socialist programme for that labour party; but even if the labour party at first had policies not much to the left of Roosevelt’s - as the British Labour Party in its early days was in policy close to the Liberals - the beginnings of independent working-class political action would open socialist possibilities which the Democratic Party closed off.

This article by Max Shachtman from Labor Action of 9 November 1942 explains more. Labor Action was the paper of the Workers’ Party, one side of a split in the US Trotskyist movement in 1940. The other side was the Socialist Workers Party, or “Cannonites”.

The American Labor Party which the article refers to was not what its name suggests. It was an electoral apparatus set up in 1936 by trade-union leaders in New York state (only) to back Roosevelt’s wing of the Democratic Party. It lasted to the early 1950s.

“Tammany Hall”, in the article, signifies the Democratic Party machine in New York, notoriously corrupt.



At the very last minute, in The Militant of 31 October, the Socialist Workers Party issued a statement on the New York elections in which it argued for a policy of casting the working class vote for Dean Alfange, gubernatorial candidate of the American Labor Party in New York. [From their statement]

“In most of these elections (in the last few years) the ALP has found it necessary to nominate some candidates for minor offices independently of the capitalist parties. In every case where this has been done the SWP, making it clear that we oppose the program of the ALP, has given electoral support to such independent candidates while rejecting those candidates of the ALP who ran also as candidates of one or another of the bourgeois parties. The guiding line which determined our position in each case is our support of independent political action by the workers. There is no principle reason to change this position in the present election.

“To be sure, the miserable and treacherous leaders of the ALP find themselves conducting an independent campaign this year very much against their will. They are doing so only because the Democratic Party rejected their modest request that it nominate one bourgeois scoundrel (Mead) instead of another bourgeois scoundrel (Bennett), and because the sentiments of the workers forbid them to dissolve the the ALP at Roosevelt’s command.

“But the reasons which prompt reformist labor leaders to sponsor an independent labor ticket are of no fundamental concern to us. Nor is the personality of the candidate the decisive question. Alfange, the candidate for governor, is a political adventurer from Tammany Hall. But he is no worse and no better than the other leading figures of the ALP. We do not distinguish between good and bad faker. What is important and decisive is the fact of an independent ticket nominated by a party based on trade unions. We don’t support the leaders or their program. We support independent political action by the workers. For that reason and that reason only, we vote for the independent candidates of the ALP in the present election.”

As can be seen from this ample quotation the opportunists who wrote the statement are still pretty shame-faced about their policy.

They don’t have the courage to come forward with the flat declaration “Vote for Alfange, representative of the idea of independent working class political action” - and therefore the statement is not really addressed to the workers in general. The Cannonite leaders have their own ranks to contend with first. That is why, as language and tone of the statement show, they are really addressing themselves to the members and the sympathizers of the SWP. That is whom they are trying to convince of their policy! That is why the statement is not forthright in tenor, but essentially polemical and defensive in tone. Against whom are they polemicising? From whose criticisms are they defending themselves?

Now let us get to the question of the policy itself.

It is quite permissible, given the state of the working class movement in this country, for a small revolutionary party, which is unable to put a ticket of its own in the field to upon the workers to vote for the candidates of another, non-revolutionary political party. But only under certain conditions.

First that the other party is based upon the labor movement in other words, that it is a working class and not a capitalist party

Secondly, that in calling upon workers to support it, the revolutionary party makes it perfectly clear that it criticizes the reformist character of the other party, of its program and its leadership since, in such cases (Labor Parties, Farmer-Labor Parties, etc) it is always a reformist party that is involved.

Thirdly, as most important of all, in each concrete case, voting for the reformist party ticket must serve this revolutionary end: it must contribute to bringing the workers into conflict, as a class, with the capitalist class and its political parties: it must serve to separate the workers, as a class, from the capitalists and their political parties and factions it must serve to heighten the class consciousness and feeling of solidarity of the workers. If, in the concrete, a vote for a reformist party does these things, even in the smallest substantial degree, it is proper for a revolutionary party to endorse the other party.

Failing to meet these conditions, a vote for another political party, even if it goes by the name of “Labor”, is opportunistic, is a disavowal of revolutionary principle, is sometimes downright betrayal of socialism, and at all times in conflict with the best interests of the working class. The revolutionary socialist then frankly prefers not to vote at all, indifferent to the epithet “abstentionist!” because he is merely abstaining from playing capitalist politics. He confines himself to utilizing whatever interest there is in the elections to stimulate the interest and support of workers in the socialist program for which his revolutionary party stands.

Did the ALP ticket, or even the nomination of the “independent” candidate for Governor, in the New York State elections this year meet these conditions?

Did it, as the Cannonites say, represent “the idea of independent political action by the workers”? Is the Cannonite analysis of the ALP position correct? No, it is an opportunistic political deception through and through. Everybody seems to have understood the real situation, but not the leaders of the SWP.

When the Cannonites write that “the sentiments of the workers forbid them (the ALP bosses) to dissolve the ALP at Roosevelt’s command” they hope that they either do not understand what happened right before their very eyes, or they don’t care to understand. Roosevelt had not the faintest desire to see the ALP dissolved in the present election. Exactly the contrary! The ALP’s “independent” nomination for Governor was absolutely indispensable to the plans of the real Roosevelt party. That is how things were in reality and that’s how every intelligent person understood them.

Ever since the last presidential election, a stiff interneccine conflict has raged in the Democratic Party between the “progressive” Roosevelt group and the conservatives best represented by James A Farley. Farley sought the presidential nomination. but lost it to Roosevelt, who ran for a third term and was elected. For the past two years Farley has been laying the grounds for a more successful fight against Roosevelt at the Democratic nominating convention in 1944. There Farley intended (and perhaps still intends) to win the nomination either for himself or for one of his men, against the nomination of Roosevelt again or of a Roosevelt man, in case a fourth term is out of the question.

The fight for the Democratic nomination for Governor of New York was a decisive stage in this open struggle for control of the national party and the coming presidential nomination. Farley, as New York Democratic state chairman, put forward the candidacy of John J. Bennett, a docile nonentity. Roosevelt promoted the candidacy of the New Deal stooge, another nonentity named James Mead, senator from New York.

Each side understood that control of the state meant control of the powerful and almost decisive state delegation to the 1944 nominating convention. Roosevelt pressed his candidate with the open hint that if Farley-Bennett won the nomination the Democrats would lose the election because Roosevelt would not be behind him. Farley said, in effect, he can win with Bennett even if Roosevelt doesn’t support him.

What role did the ALP play? Pure and simple stooge of Roosevelt. It shouted: We want Roosevelt’s man nominated by the Democrats!

If he isn’t nominated, the Democrats can’t win New York because we will not support Bennett or any other Farley man! If Bennett is put up, we’ll put up a candidate of our own, that is, a genuine Roosevelt man, that is, a candidate of the real Roosevelt party.

Farley & Co. did not listen. They were out to break the control of Roosevelt, to break their past dependency upon the ALP bureaucrats and the votes they could haggle for the Democratic candidates in the past (like Lehman and Roosevelt), and ride into power in New York on a wave of conservative reaction from New Dealism. So, in defiance of Roosevelt and his ALP henchman, Farley licked Mead and put over Bennett at the Roosevelt-baiting Democratic convention in Brooklyn.

Now follow closely the ensuing events. They show a classic example of the cynicism of capitalist politics in general, and of capitalist politics in the labour movement.

What was Roosevelt to do now? What was the loud-mouthed ALP bureaucracy to do? Farley had called their hand. He demanded that they support Bennet with the implication that “even if Bennett wasn’t an ideal liberal, he was better to have in office than the Hooveristic crew and mentality represented by Dewey and the Republican mob. Farley was especially convinced that he had Roosevelt hip and thigh, because he knew that Roosevelt’s position in the Democratic Party as a whole is such that he dares not pull a Teddy Roosevelt “Bull Moose” break right now, that he dares not “take a walk” out of the party as Al Smith did in 1936.

Among other reasons, he dares not do this for fear of strengthening a precedent for other Democrats doing the same thing in 1944 should Roosevelt get himself nominated again. Farley was right, formally. But Roosevelt outsmarted him in the essence of the matter!

What about the ALP fakers? They sat in their convention back rooms biting their nails. They couldn’t nominate Mead, because Mead would no more break with the official Democratic machine and ticket now than Roosevelt would. Yet they had no other purpose than to keep Roosevelt and the real Roosevelt party (i.e., machine) in power, locally and nationally. How to accomplish it? We don’t know what political shyster-genius suggested the idea. or whether it came right from the White House or not. But that’s not important. The important thing is the way it was done.

The “honorable labor men” kept the ALP convention delegates cooling their heels and after several secret sessions of the very uppermost bureaucracy, they brought forth a dark horse named Dean Alfange, a nobody who makes such nonentities as Bennett and Mead look like titans of history. A Tammany Hall member, he wasn’t even a member of the ALP. But that didn’t matter to the ALP bosses. They weren’t out for an independent ticket; they were out to serve the Roosevelt political interests as they have done for ten years. And — give the devil his due — they made no particular effort to conceal the fact!

Here is how it was to work out:

The “Independent” ALP candidate far Governor was to run and keep running in order to make sure Bennett was defeated.

Most of the other state-wide Democratic candidates who were acceptable to Roosevelt and Lehman — like Poletti and O’Leary — would be endorsed (and presumably elected by the ALP). This would show the Democratic Party people in New York that anyone Roosevelt okayed could be elected in New York, but that anyone nominated against his wishes would go down to defeat — thus depriving thousands of deserving Democrats of patronage and all other plants of office.

It would show them that Farley is a jinx to all hungry Democrats and should be run out of control of the New York machine before the all-important nominating convention opens its sessions.

At the same time, by this clever plan, Roosevelt would “remain in the clear.” Why? Because formally, he stayed “regular”, that is, in spite of the defeat of his own man, he gave three public endorsements to Farley’s man. Bennett. Thus he could say: You see, boys, once you turned down my nominee, not even my endorsements could get your nominee (i.e. Farley’s nominee) elected. But as everyone with half an eye could see. Roosevelts “endorsements” of Bennett were so frigid that it’s God’s wonder that the poor fellow wasn’t stricken with pneumonia.

The Roosevelt strategy was positively double-edged in its cleverness. By defeating Bennett, the New Deal machine would dispose effectively of rival Farley in the 1944 campaign. But at the same time it would elect Dewey to the governorship, strengthen his claim to the Republican Presidential nomination in 1944 and thus confront the Roosevelt candidate with what they consider a push-over, as compared with the more popular “liberal” Republican possibility, Willkie.

Well. the strategy worked like a charm, except for the fact that the Dewey sweep was so strong that it carried the rest of the Republican ticket and defeated, by a very narrow margin, the Democratic state candidates who were also endorsed by the ALP.

What role did the ALP play in the election? It was assigned by the New Deal machine to carry out the task of doing its dirty work, that’s all.

“Dewey is the lesser evil” was the frank statement of David Dubinsky of the Ladies Garment Workers Union and one of the real bosses of the ALP, in calling upon the workers to vote for Alfange. “Some may ask: is it to the interest of President Roosevelt to have Dewey elected Governor? Is not Dewey a potential candidate for President in 1944? Well, between the two evils of losing his own party or of having Dewey the candidate for President on the Republican ticket in 1944, it is more important that Roosevelt retain control of his own party.” (New York Times, 27 October)

The Stalinists, who also ran an “independent” candidate for Governor, also understood this obvious strategy. One of the CP spokesmen, Gilbert Green, put it this way in the text of an election speech over WQXR, in answer to a question of the meaning of a Dewey victory: “As for the President, his prestige will be all the greater, for then it will be abundantly clear that had his choice, Senator Mead, been the Democratic candidate. his election would have been assured.... If the policy we suggest is pursued, Bennett will trail far behind the other Democratic state-wide candidates. Once again it will prove that the President’s strength in New York State far exceeds that of Farley and Hoover.”

Even pro-Alfange PM understood the scheme. “If Dewey wins he at least will have pulled most of the teeth with which Jim Parley bit out control the Democratic Party in New York.” (29 October).

In a word nobody with political understanding was deceived by the “independence” of the political action represented by Alfange’s nomination — nobody but the Cannonite politicians.

Alfange’s nomination did not serve the cause of independent working-class political action — he was nothing less than the stalking horse for the New Deal’s determination to keep control of the Democratic Party. To separate Alfange’s “independent” nomination from all the real and overwhelming circumstances in which this candidacy originated and grew in sheer abstractionism; it is not revolutionary politics or intelligent thinking of any kind. At best. It is political amateurishness and ignorance of Marxist politics in general and current politics in particular; at worst — and that’s what the growing right wing tendency in the SWP leads us to believe — it is the crassest opportunism.

Alfange’s nomination and campaign, a vote for Alfange, did not meet the elementary conditions outlined above for working-class support of a political party or ticket. It did not represent independent working-class political action. It was a cynical continuation by the ALP bureaucracy of the capitalist political action they have imposed from the very beginning upon the rank and file who make up the party.

As for the Cannonite endorsement of the Alfange candidacy, it is an opportunist deception of revolutionary militants who make up the supporters of the SWP. It cannot be considered an isolated or episodic error, however.

It is of a piece with the right wing trend which has grown in the SWP since the war began and which became especially pronounced after Leon Trotsky was murdered and the SWP was left to the sole leadership of the theoretical sterility and political opportunism represented by Cannon and his satellites.

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