Debate: why working-class independence is a principle

Submitted by martin on 9 February, 2008 - 5:45 Author: Sacha Ismail

In his reply to my article on the US elections (Solidarity 3/124), Eric Lee displays complete indifference to the principle of working-class political independence.

It’s true, perhaps, that describing the Republicans and Democrats as “almost identical in policy terms” was a bit flat-footed on my part. But my statement was nowhere near as off the mark as Eric’s claim that “on every single policy issue that concerns American voters, regardless of their class, Democrats and Republicans come down on different sides.”

Both parties: against socialised healthcare. Both parties: for keeping the bulk of the US’s anti-union laws. Both parties: against a living minimum wage. Both parties: against a well-funded welfare state. Both parties: for an imperialist foreign policy.

The only way that Eric can get round this uncomfortable reality is by posing the issues in such soft terms (“if you want x, you vote Democratic” — never mind whether they’ll legislate for even this very moderate demand) that an optical illusion is created to make the differences seem stark. The reality is that, even on social issues such as gay rights and abortion, where the differences between the parties are most real, the Democrats do not take consistently progressive positions. And on “class issues”, the gap is much smaller.

John Edwards is now out of the race for president. He told his supporters that they should nevertheless expect the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, to “make history”. Will Eric be joining him? Doesn’t the fact that Edwards was never going to make all Eric’s fervent preacing of “practicality” rather empty?

Edwards’ policies on union rights, poverty, and corporate lobbyists, make him a liberal; better than Obama or Clinton, perhaps about as left-wing as the Liberal Democrats here. His programme goes nowhere near even the most basic demands socialists raise (e.g. socialised healthcare). Is Eric claiming something more for him? Perhaps not, but the issue of Edwards highlights a fundamental difference in our approaches.

The essence of liberalism is the idea that the workers should vote, their organisations support etc ruling-class politicians who will introduce positive reforms (big or small) on their behalf. Hence the US unions’ long-standing policy of selectively supporting candidates (in various parties, but mainly the Democrats) who are “friends of labour”. This is opposed to the idea that the workers’ should have their own candidates, standing against all the parties of the ruling class, who take the class struggle into the arena of politics.

As a trade union activist, Eric supports the idea of independent working-class organisation and struggle to force concessions from the bosses. He does not accept the idea that workers should rely on bourgeois philanthropists. So why does he not apply the same principle to elections?

In this context, it is clear that my comments about Edwards’ personal wealth, his spending $400 on a haircut, are not personal swipes, but highly relevant political facts. The point is that he is a member of the ruling class who favours making certain — perhaps quite significant — concessions to the workers. His election would thus not be a step towards working-class representation in even the limited way that the creation of a bureaucratic, unsocialist workers’ party would be.

For Marxists working-class independence in elections is as much a principle as working-class independence in the workplace.

Eric is presumably aware of this idea, which is why he goes out of his way to dismiss the notion that US workers could ever create a political party of their own. He attacks the Labor Party which was established in 1996, as existing “only on paper”. In reality this organisation represented a small but real movement at its inception. It withered because it unwilling to become fully independent, for instance by contesting elections. Every time an election came around, the bulk of the trade unions affiliated to it would go back to the Democrats.

For the last eighty years, every genuinely progressive movement in the US — from the industrial unions of the 1930s (when, by his logic, Eric would have joined the Stalinist CP in calling for support for Roosevelt) to the anti-war, black and women’s movements of the 1960s and 70s — has been sucked into the Democratic Party and neutered. The argument that it is necessary to stop the right immediately, and that there will be time to build something better in the future is powerful, but its consequences have been disastrous. The time for independent initiative never seems to come.

Breaking the organisations of the labour movement and the oppressed from the Democrats is the key task for those who want to see the transformation of American society.

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