Today Labor Cannot Take Its Main levers of Power... Can Labor Capture the Party Machine?

Submitted by martin on 23 January, 2014 - 6:03

As a political platform, the Fair Deal is vague enough, even in the eyes of the labor leaders who support it. What is much clearer is that support to the Fair Deal means support to the Democratic Party, generally speaking. And no
discussion of Fair-Dealism can be rounded out without taking up the role of the Fair Dealers' political machine.

These two, the Fair Deal on the one hand and the Democratic Party machine on the other, are not at all identical. By its very nature, the party machine has a life of its own. Fair Deal or no Fair Deal, the party machine is not there to carry out the Fair Deal. The Fair Deal is there to get the machine into office.

Of course, that's an oversimplified statement, tailored to fit two sentences, but it serves to put the spotlight on an aspect of Fair-Dealism which the "practical" politicians of the labor movement would like to ignore. In those briefly happy days after the Truman upset victory in 1948, when labor crowed "We did it!" with much justification, there was a temporary upsurge of euphoric dreams of "taking over" and "transforming" the Democratic Party into a reliable instrument of labor's interests. The idea is still around; more than that,' the practice of the Tabor movement implicitly assumes it.

But there is a wide chasm between labor's ability to control the Fair Deal's political machine and its ability to get Fair-Dealish speeches from Democratic politicians. Part of the reason for this stems from the setup of the U. S. political system. The two old parties of American politics are not programmatic groupings primarily; that is, their reason for existence is not the advocacy of distinct political programs, even within the framework of capitalist ideas. Each, in different historical periods, has become the vehicle of various capitalist political platforms while preserving its organizational continuity.

So clearly is this recognized by everyone that prominent political "thinkers" in the country even spin theories about this state of affairs as a peculiarly American "contribution" to political thought: the purpose of having two parties is simply to provide alternative candidates in order to keep the "ins" on their toes. One party is not enough for this purpose, and more than two are too many; hence the two-party system is virtually ordained by mathematics;


What this does is provide a rationale for a status quo in which fundamentally the two major parties exist as power machines, not political alternatives. It is not a question of asserting here what is obviously not true, namely, that they are merely power coalitions, without meaningful political distinction at any time. The very fact with which we began, the fact that Fair-Dealism as a political ideology is connected with one of these machines and not the other, is sufficient.

The point is: Strip the Democratic Party of the Fair Deal and it is still the same Democratic Party; but the Fair Deal detached from the Democratic Party is nothing.

The proof of this autonomy of the machine is positive and irrefutable, never more clearly given than in 1952: it was
shown by the possibility which clearly existed of the Democratic Party's embracing Eisenhower; a possibility which was raised by the Fair Deal leadership (Truman), a possibility which was killed only by Eisenhower himself, a possibility which no one considered to be a deviation from the "American system," It is this machine, which has never even been "captured'' by the Fair Dealers (in the widest extension of the term), that the labor strategists think of using as
their vehicle, instead of forming their own party.

There is, in fact, nothing inherently "American" about this setup. It has arisen, and still substantially survives today, not as a contribution to political thought but in part because of the relative backwardness of American political development. First and foremost, that backwardness is the backwardness of the labor movement which, unlike labor in almost all other important countries, has not yet entered on the political stage as an independent party to challenge the two-party system. American politics can remain the "political game" of Ins and Outs as long as the fundamental assumption behind both political machines is not seriously called into question: the preservation of the capitalist profit system.

If the Democratic and Republican Parties as such have taken on a more "ideological" coloration in the last two decades it is because labor has more and more sought to organize - its political strength as a class, through the CIO-PAC, etc., even if that strength is not yet utilized for its own independent political action.


What are these capitalist-party machines?

They are primarily loose coalitions of local eateries and power cliques, important individual politicians, individual financial contributors, and agents or representatives of "interest groups" and "pressure groups." The basic tie which holds them together is the patronage of office-holding, the indirect patronage at "favors" which accrue when one gets one's man into office, and the special interests of one or more pressure groups.

The machine is the "core" organization of the party. It may be "corrupt" or relatively "honest" in terms of the criteria of the civic-reformers; it may be strong or weak; unified or composed of struggling factions; be based on only a small group of office-holders or on active wardheelers in every precinct; limited to one ward or conglomerated in city-state or national machines; etc. But all have one cement that binds them: patronage. The individual politicians with public-service motivations (of a reactionary character no less than of a progressive one) are secondary as far as the machine is concerned, though useful for its public appeal.

Machines have undoubtedly changed in recent times. Civil service seriously cut into the available spoils, though often it merely made the division of the spoils more devious. Despite recent headlines about the federal government, it is probable £bat graft and corruption has grown even more in the cities. But even the latter are enterprises too complex, with too many serious problems and watchful eyes, to permit the operations of a Tweed ring such as used to operate in the simpler old days. The rewards may go to fewer people in the organization; and the numbers of machine stalwarts have consequently tended to decrease.

Interest and pressure groups are their most significant rivals. They range from those with very narrow interests, like the silver bloc, to those with some generalized program. But the most important are definite economic interest groups with several political aims, stretching from the Natioonal Association of Manufacturers to the CIO.

Even more than in the open political arena, those with the most money have the most weight in lobbying activities. To its great disadvantage, much of the labor movement's political activity is not far removed from the principle of being another competing pressure group, only occasionally deviating from aping their typical tactics.

In the present political setup, machine weakness need not be any great gain. It may only mean that pressure groups become relatively stronger. Programmatic responsibility within the party becomes even more attenuated. That is what has happened in the state of California. Because the political machines are generally weak in both parties, the state "boss" is the "non-partisan" Artie Samish, open representative of the liquor interests and frequently paid to push the demands of other business groups. An adjunct is the public-relations firm of Whitaker and Baxter, which methodically plans election and referendum campaigns for a price. Party responsibility becomes less observable than (say) in New York City under Tammany domination in the days of Charlie Murphy's leadership.

Knowing it had to maintain a "reliable" electorate to remain in office regularly, Murphy's machine (including one Alfred E. Smith) steadily supported, and could be expected to continue to support, most "social legislation." If it was so difficult to determine whei'e Tammany "stood" on most questions in the time of its greatest cohesion, how much more impossible is it to locate the "program" of parties which have to listen to Artie Samish. . . .


The leaders of the labor movement have, during the New Deal and Fair Deal periods, considered themselves as leaders of another pressure group, particularly associated with the Democratic Party. The difference with the Gompers days is in the direction of more active and organized electoral intervention and closer ties to one particular party. Little effort has been made to combat the entire structure. Rarely have labor unions fought Democratic political machines. Occasional pre-nomination fights over personnel, the general union support for LaGuardia in New York and the activity of the unions that make up New York's Liberal Party, cannot be over-generalized.

The labor movement has generally collaborated with, and helped bolster, local Democratic machines. There would seem to be every reason why they should get along.

Machines are interested in victory and patronage; unions are interested in specific policies. Machine politicians may favor these policies because they will enhance possibilities of electoral victory and are dictated by the needs of the national party. New Deal legislation passed Congress because of the support of the representatives of Flynn, Hague, Ed Kelly, Pendergast, and (sometimes) Crump. And these all gained strength thereby, when they might otherwise have soon tottered. This has not changed during the Truman administrations. Machines may have lost their power' and structural stability, but they have,
not been replaced.

Because of the structural weakness of many local machines, labor leaders, and ideological Fair Deal liberals in such organizations as Americans for Democratic Action believe that they con "take over" sections of the Democratic Forty. In some localities they hove been abie to fill up an organisational vacuum, or win out in primary, fights for local leadership. Such "victories" most often meat) only greater absorption into the politics and organisation) of the Democratic Party. The flies capture the fly paper.

Trying to compete in pressure-group rivalry has appeared to have its frequent successes. After all, labor does represent the largest pressure group, whose votes are essential for any Democratic victory on a national scale. Yet the coalition which makes up the Democratic Party is set on administering capitalism above all else, and time and time again in the past twenty years, the crucial yielding has been in favor of those interest groups that are most intimately associated with the control of capitalist America. The fact that these also have the most free money to wield is an inherent part of the same picture.

To add to the picture of the organizational futility of "working within the Democraitc Party," the fact is that a strong section of the party, as well as much of the congressional leadership, comes from conservative Southern Democrats. The spread within the Democratic Party between Northern ADA liberals and Southern Dixiecrats is no anomaly for the American political set-up; it is characteristic of it. And time and again the Fair Deal machine has demonstrated that it considers this spread to be, not a bad and regrettable feature of the party, but a source of strength and fortune - which it is indeed, from the viewpoint of the machine politician.

On the level of pressure-group polities, there are mere powerful groups to control an administration geared to administering capitalism under a war economy, even if one or another of these groups is defeoted on any single issue. On the level of pressure-group politics, labor cannot use its main levers of power.

The typical instrument of the pressure group is money. The typical instrument of the special-interest group is often its economic power exercised in other forms. The instrument of the labor movement, its forte, is the power of its numbers or the militancy of its class struggle.


The owners of industry have, time and again, gotten their way in vital matters of policy because, dealing with government officials sympathetic to their own fundamental class outlook, they have threatened or practiced unpublicizcd slowdowns of production or the deliberate creation of obstacles to policies which can only be achieved through their own cooperation as the private masters of the plants. Labor can exercise its economic power only publicly, in strikes and the threat of strikes, and to do this to influence important government policy on any scale is even further from the thinking of the labor leaders than is forming a political party of their own. The elementary political weapon of labor is its numbers - and when the chips are down, the strength of this weapon is fragmentized when the Fair Deal politicians know that they have nowhere to go on the political field.

A capitalist special-interest group can conceivably shuttle between the Democrats and Republicans, because of the community of class interest. For labor to "threaten" to support the GOP instead of the Fair Deal would be an empty gesture, except insofar as workers do in fact make the switch in spite of and against the pleas of their leaders!

More broadly speaking, labor cannot unleash its strength as a mere pressure group because it is NOT in fact a mere pressure group. What is involved for it is no small segment of policy, such as a special-interest lobby might be interested in, to be put across administratively by getting the right man in the key post etc. For labor it is the broadest social (class) interests and basic questions of government orientation which are at stake. A representative of the natural-gas interests on the Federal Power Commission can do a fob for his patrons behind the backs of the voters. A "labor man" who is kindly granted a seat in the administration's train tends to become a hostage, not a tribune.

This relationship between labor, the Fair Deal and the existing party machines is only an aspect of the whole question, to be sure, but an integral aspect of it. It is not the existence of party machines per se which is evil; it is the political character of the two big party machines of the day which stands in the way of labor's fruitful use of its power.

In the same sense, labor needs its OWN political machine. It needs a political machine which is the instrument of its own party. A labor party will not win victories merely by adopting a program; it will have to organize, from the grass-roots up, behind that program.

But its grass-roots are not the venal wardheelers and patronage-peddlers who are associated in the popular mind with "practical politicals" (i.e., "dirty politics"); its grass-roots are the workers of the organized labor movement in the shops and factories and mines. As the British labor movement has shown, here is the resource - which cannot be tapped by the old parties - which can build a party machine stronger, more solid, more reliable, more dynamic, than any that the country has ever seen.