Debate: Marxists and Democrats

Submitted by martin on 27 October, 2020 - 10:35 Author: Martin Thomas
Bernie Sanders

• See here for other articles debating the US election, Trump, etc.

The Sanders movement, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Labor Party USA of 1996, are none of them exactly "in" the Democratic Party.

Sanders sits as an Independent Senator. The DSA endorses relatively few Democratic candidates, and in Chicago City Council elections, for example, which are formally non-partisan, it runs candidates against mainstream Democrats. They are in different ways "around" the Democrats. The question is whether that should require Marxists to shun them.

The US party system is in many ways more like the Tories and Whigs of 19th century Britain than the modern membership-party political systems of Europe. Those were largely forced into existence by the rise of structured working-class parties (the German SPD, for example) which then pushed the bourgeois factions into organising proper parties to compete.

Largely, the USA continues to lack proper bourgeois parties because it has not yet had a mass organised workers' party.

The Tories and the Whigs were loose conglomerates of parliamentarians and local notables, without any real membership structure, and without clear divisions. Pitt the Younger is often reckoned as the founder of the Tory party, but always considered himself as an "independent Whig". There were Tory radicals, even Tory Chartists, and very conservative Whigs.

The Republicans and the Democrats emerged as the same sort of conglomerates, except that with a more fluid ruling class, their "local notables" were not aristocrats but Tammany-Hall-type "machine politicians".

In the Civil War, the Republicans were to the left of the Democrats, and Karl Marx wrote a glowing letter to the Republican president Abraham Lincoln to congratulate him on his re-election in 1864. The Southern Democrats remained the most right-wing force in mainstream US bourgeois politics until after the Civil Rights movement, when bit by bit Southern white voters seceded to the Republicans.

The biggest leftish "third party" movements, the Progressive Parties of the 1912 and 1924 presidential elections, both came from the Republicans. One of the USA's main fascists of the 1930s, Frank Hague, was a Democratic Party machine politician in New Jersey, and a big figure in some of Roosevelt's campaigns.

Eisenhower was approached by Truman to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952, but turned it down because he decided to go for the Republican nomination instead. When Roosevelt defeated the Republican Wendell Willkie in 1940, he quickly gave Willkie a job as Roosevelt's personal envoy to Britain.

The US trade union movement started off with a "business unionist" approach to politics, backing individual Democrats or Republicans case-by-case. John L Lewis, the first leader of the CIO, was a Republican (though in 1936, by way of exception, he backed Roosevelt).

The Marxists built the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. When a mass trade union movement developed in the 1930s, they pushed for those unions to form a Labour Party, to have their own candidates to stand against both capitalist semi-parties instead of trying to do business with whatever bourgeois candidates were friendlier to labour.

In 1953, when James P Cannon and his comrades argued that McCarthyism was an imminent fascist threat, they called for the unions to form a Labour Party as the force to defeat it, and explained that they thought that a possibility within the next year or so. Their slogan was "Organise a Congress of Labour". Now! They underestimated the effects of the unprecedented capitalist boom and the softening of international tensions. McCarthyism faded. The slogan got no response.

Cannon's SWP then settled into a routine of running candidates in each presidential election from 1948, as a propaganda and party-building exercise (they always got very few votes), and having "labour party" as an up-in-the-air propaganda theme. That continued until their organisation, the SWP, did itself to death as a Trotskyist grouping from about 1979 by converting to Castroism.

The Heterodox Trotskyists, Max Shachtman and others, recognised earlier that the working-class upsurge that went from the mid-30s through to 1947 had ebbed for the time being. They were perplexed, and not content to have "labour party" just as an up-in-the-air propaganda slogan.

By then the alignment of the unions with the Democrats was becoming closer. It is probably closer still since the beginning of what bourgeois political scientists call "the Sixth Party System", from the late 1960s or early 70s. That system's components include a more-or-less all-embracing system of "primaries" (only patchy previously), an increase in the role of individual candidates' political campaign fund-raising, and an on-the-whole more consistent demographic and political differentiation between Democrats and Republicans (there are no more "Dixiecrats", and no more "liberal Republicans" or Republican "Progressives").

In 1954 the Heterodox Trotskyist Independent Socialist League decided to back trade-union candidates (these would have been leftish, Reutherite-type candidates) in Democratic primaries; and in the general elections if they won the primaries. As Al Glotzer reported in Labor Action, 18 October 1954, they had been debating the issue since 1950, when they divided over whether to support a Democratic primary effort in Chicago by Willoughby Abner, a left-wing African-American trade-unionist. Hal Draper still opposed backing those trade-union candidates, but now a majority agreed. The rationale was simple: here was the only real autonomous working-class political action anywhere within sight; given the loose structure of the Democratic Party, candidacies like Abner's implied no slackening of criticism of the party as a whole; in fact this would help to shake up and differentiate. It was "Sanders campaigning" on a small scale 60-odd years before the fact.

From that 1954 decision the ISL and its successors moved bit-by-bit towards more orientation to Democratic Party machinations. The ageing Max Shachtman developed, but never spelled out, a scheme of "realignment", according to which the accumulation of efforts like that Abner campaign could force a split in the Democratic Party, sloughing off the racist and right-wing Southern Dixiecrats, leaving the party controlled by the trade unions and the big-city leftists, and thus converting into a European-type Labour Party.

In fact, as the Southern Dixiecrats did hive off, union density declined from the early 1970s, there was a flood of union-busting rather than of left-wing union-linked candidates, the Sixth Party System was developing, and control passed to the wealthy donors whom Democratic politicians had to tap to finance their campaigns.

The problem was not, however, that the loose structures of the Democratic Party produced an irresistible conservatising suction, so that anyone around them was vacuumed into compliance. The DSA, set up by a Shachtmanite splinter in 1973, today endorses only few Democratic Party candidates, gives most of its energy to non-electoral activity, is in general terms more left-wing than it was in 1973, and is bigger (66,000+ now, 840 then). It is not by our wish or prior scheme or effort that the DSA has been the left-wing group growing fast since 2015, while the ISO has wound itself up and Solidarity has faded, but that is how it has happened.

In the 1960s Shachtmanites were able to have pole positions in the Civil Rights movement and the early SDS.

The problem was elsewhere. Their rank and file workplace activity had dwindled away by the late 1940s, as their industrial workers moved into "professional" jobs or into full-time union official positions. (Yes, Abner too studied law while working in the car factory, and then became a UAW official. In his case, worse still, he was later a Federal labour mediator.)

Increasingly the Shachtmanites' orientation to the labour movement became a wheeler-dealer orientation to the more left-wing officials. Their energy for their own "party-building" activities and for youth and student activity diminished.

Cannon denounced the Shachtmanites in 1954 as "crossing the class line" for having anything to do with Democratic primaries. But, he explained to his comrades, keeping aside was not sectarian. They were marching with ever-expanding forces! "When you talk now about the principle of the class struggle… you have the great Russian Revolution behind you… In the Second World War you have had the proof that this new economy… gave the Soviet Union the strength to prevail in the war… And now you have China and the ever-expanding colonial revolution on your side".

The "Shachtmanites" had no such comfort. Worldwide they saw Stalinism as a system crushing all working-class possibilities and as dynamic and stable, confronting a capitalist system which they saw as "at the end of its rope". Their perspectives dwindled. They came to see the priority as preserving bourgeois democracy from Stalinism long enough that forces like European social democracy could, just somehow, come good.

Thus they were in pole position at the beginnings of SDS, but they quickly isolated themselves by "sulking in their tents", rather than seeking to convince, when young radicals were soft on revolutionary-seeming Stalinistic forces in the "Third World". When they won influence in the civil rights movement, the result was to get Tom Kahn a top office job in the AFL-CIO, and Rachelle Horowitz in the AFT, rather than to expand a revolutionary organisation.

They weren't necessarily made loyal to the Democratic Party. Shachtman's last political shift, before he died in 1972, was to follow the AFL-CIO leaders in refusing to back the Democrat presidential candidate that year, George McGovern.

Mutatis mutandis, their political drift can no more be blamed on the 1954 decision about trade-union candidates than the political drift of Socialist Action (an ex-Trotskyist group whose main focus is to get its members into jobs as advisers and backroom string-pullers in the top ranks of the Labour Party) can be blamed on their decision (as the IMG, then) to get involved in the Labour Party after 1979.

The idea of orienting to the real forces moving towards working-class politics, and trying to develop them, rather than to abstract scenarios, or to the sustaining thought that you have "China" and the "Soviet economy" on your side, is valid. It does not imply an immersion in Democratic Party machine politics, or an ever-greater suction towards deference or loyalty to the Democratic Party.

DSA leftists talk about building a working-class party through a "dirty break" with the Democrats. That couldn't have worked in the early 1950s, because of the predominant conservative trend of society then. It may not be a workable long-term perspective even now. But the immediate tactics associated with the "dirty break" - such as active orientation to the Sanders movement - can be valid for now without having to be rigidified into a quasi-dogmatic perspective.

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