The following was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 22 (Fall 1984) and later appeared in the LRP pamphlet The Democratic Party: Graveyard of Black Struggles.
The perception was that Jackson was humiliated on the platform planks and the constituency came away with nothing. (New York Times, August 13.)
So spoke Walter Mondale’s deputy campaign manager in mid-August. Jesse Jackson had said the same to the Black Caucus at the Democratic National Convention in July; after listing the plums granted to all the other party leaders, he added, “And you ain’t got nothing.”
It is absolutely true, and it confirms what this magazine has been saying all along: the Democratic Party is a deathtrap for all mass movements. It is designed to slice up the population into warring ethnic and racial sectors, to separate broad class interests into narrow regional and sectoral ones, and thereby to incorporate the struggles of working-class and oppressed people. And in racist America, under present-day crisis-ridden capitalism, it leaves blacks precisely where they start from, at the bottom of the heap. Thus Jackson’s campaign to add a black stripe to the party rainbow had pulled millions of black votes but was granted little reward.
That didn’t stop Jesse Jackson from doing his bit to bait the trap. Given two hours on nationwide television, he played his role to perfection. He groveled before the racist party-bosses to apologize for his indiscretions; he preached the unity of oppressors and oppressed; he cajoled the black masses to come out and support the Democrats, and he promised the party bosses to lead the masses nowhere but to the polls. He spoke in the name of “the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected and the despised.” but he promised them only the chance to vote for Mondale over Reagan.
“I will deliver” the black vote, he repeated two weeks later to the National Urban league, and to Walter Mondale a month afterward. In the early part of the campaign, Mondale haughtily ignored Jackson’s plea for a piece of the action; later he granted some posts to blacks, mostly those who had supported him, not Jackson – and this was enough to pull Jackson into line. Of course, Jackson couples his party loyalty to pledges to maintain his independence and to campaign for “freedom” as well as the ticket. But this too is intended to make plausible his drive to ensnare more black voters.
The real story of the convention and the subsequent campaign is not Jackson or Geraldine Ferraro but the party’s clear turn to the right. Despite the outpouring of support for Jackson, despite the unprecedented role of labor in the primaries, despite the first nomination of a woman for national office (made possible by the Jackson effort), the choice between Mondale and Reagan looks even less meaningful than before. The Democrats feel they can take for granted the votes of millions of blacks, workers and women who appear to have no place else to go. It is this void on the left that enables the party to move right. Capitalism owes a debt of gratitude to Jesse Jackson which it probably will never repay.
Mondale may even win in November, thanks to the votes of blacks and other working-class people, but this will not mean the end of the Reaganism that many see as the enemy. For although Democrats and republicans appeal to different constituencies, they operate in and for the same system: capitalism – imperialist, decaying capitalism. Mondale in office will be subject to its demands just as much as Reagan. And under present conditions he has already promised to carry out much the same program.
Mondale summed it up best himself in his convention speech: “Look at our platform. There are no defense cuts that weaken our security; no business taxes that weaken our economy; no laundry lists that raid our Treasury.”
Yes, let’s look. Should Mondale win, the massive arms build-up begun by Jimmy Carter and speeded up by Reagan will not stop; only Reagan’s rate of acceleration will be slowed, from 7 to 4 percent yearly. Business taxes, which have been slashed under every, recent president and cut to the bone by Reagan, will stay minimal. On top of this, Mondale noted: “Let’s tell the truth – Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” But if that’s the truth (and it is), and if business taxes won’t be raised (and they won’t), whose taxes are left? There might be a token increase for the rich, but the bulk of the funds to cut into Reagan’s deficit will have to come from the working class.
Notice also Mondale’s implication that tax cuts for business have strengthened the economy. But there has been no payoff in productivity; and not even Reagan claims that the world-historic deficit stemming from his arms spending and tax cuts is something to be proud of. So how do business taxes “weaken our economy”? Mondale’s statement makes sense only if he is worried about weakening business profits, not the economic health of the vast majority. Naturally he says that Reagan rules for the rich and privileged, but so would he. That’s one truth he’s not telling.
The “laundry list” that Mondale now mocks used to include such welcome (but false) promises from Democrats as national health insurance and low-income housing. The fact that it’s not there is a further indication that now both parties have given up claiming to be able to meet the needs of the desperate and despised. In sum, if you like Republican economic policies you’ve got two candidates to choose from.
Now look at foreign policy. Public opinion polls show that on this issue the Democrats could have their biggest advantage; people may be fooled by the temporary upturn in the economy, but many still don’t trust Reagan at the head of the armed forces. Yet the Democrats complain that Reagan can get hundreds of soldiers slaughtered in Lebanon and still smell like roses. Why? Well, for starters, does anyone remember Mondale’s position on the troops in Lebanon? Or on the invasion of Grenada? Reagan at least appears to know what he’s doing; even when he changes his mind he does it decisively. Nobody knows what Mondale stands for.
Underneath all his waffling, what Mondale does stand for is not all that different from Reagan. Both his acceptance speech and the party platform framed the world’s crises in terms of “Soviet meddling” and stuck to the usual imperialist parameters in democratic disguise. For one example, he vowed to pursue peace in the Middle East by continuing to militarily champion Israel, the region’s chief warmaker. For another, he said noting about the U.S.’s racist ally. South Africa (despite Jackson’s importunings). Mondale supports the meaningless “nuclear freeze” only to leave funds for strengthening the readiness, mobility and size of “conventional” imperialist forces.
On Central America, Mondale did sound different from Reagan. He came out for “human rights” in El Salvador like his mentor Jimmy Carter, but remember that Carter used that cover five years ago to back Duarte’s civilian facade for military rule. Today both Reagan and Mondale are both fans of Duarte. Mondale also promised to “stop the illegal war in Nicaragua.” This sounds good, but remember that when Gary Hart called for a U.S. military withdrawal from Honduras (where American “advisers” conduct the contra operation), Mondale charged him with “pulling the plug on Central America.”
Nor can we forget the previous presidential promise to stop an illegal war: Lyndon Johnson’s campaign pledge in 1964 to stay out of Vietnam. Democratic presidential candidates have a long history of getting into wars after promising peace; this is in fact the chief bourgeois technique for softening up the country to accept a “necessary” war. Even if Mondale did withdraw from this war, his dedication to U.S. imperialism would inevitably lead him into others.
The excuse for the Democrats’ move to the right is that Reagan won in a landslide last time and is wildly popular, so an appeal must be made to his conservative base. That is why for three years congressional Democrats gave the votes needed to pass Reagan’s cutbacks and tax breaks for this rich, and why they supported most of his aid to Central American reactionaries. During the primaries the candidates had to appeal chiefly to the Democratic Party’s own base, so they sounded more liberal. But they are now back on what they see as Reagan’s territory.
No doubt the Democratic politicians believe that they have to move rightward so visibly in order to catch up with the voters. But there is a deeper class reality underneath their shift. The Democrats are not simply liars and opportunists who will adopt any policy to win votes. They have convictions based on their class position; they interpret the voters’ attitudes from their particular capitalist vantage points.
Reagan’s popularity (even if normally overestimated) stems from the tenuous economic upturn and his apparent decisiveness. The latter is crucial, because millions are confused and worried about the future. The image of an increasingly conservative America falling for Reagan’s fabled attraction is false, but it mirrors the views of the upper-echelon Democrats. The motion of the masses themselves has in fact been contradictory.
The Democratic Party has always had at its core a share of big capitalists, allied to certain petty-bourgeois and labor-aristocratic layers. With the fading of the postwar prosperity, the “newly arrived” elements grew more defensive towards U.S. capitalism, now that they had a stake in the system. They view the rise of overseas upheavals with dismay and favor a string “defense” to ward off disasters. They also fear mass discontent at home growing among out-of-work, low-paid and precariously employed workers. While they welcome the traditional economic promises (now emptier than ever), they also see themselves as border guards for American values. Symbolic of this trend are the labor and Jewish leaders, champions once of Democratic liberalism but now of the status quo.
But the party’s voting base was built among the large urban working class, largely Catholic but including blacks and other minorities as well. Their stake in the system is less solid. While they share in part their leaders’ attitude, theirs has another dimension: many white workers voted for Reagan in 1980 as a radical act, signifying not a deep conservative ideology but an urgent desire for something different. Reagan’s decisiveness, his theories of how to achieve prosperity and his unwavering opposition to the “Eastern establishment” looked better than Carter’s “malaise,” flip-flops and austerity program.
Reagan, however, acted differently in office – as we predicted. Because his sunbelt bourgeoisie is intimately intertwined with Wall Street, he waged no war against the establishment but blended it into his administration. The polemics against the big banks died out; what held his restive petty-bourgeois voting base was his conservative social program (anti-abortion, pro-prayer, etc.) as well as his debt-based “recovery.” Reagan’s program is unabashedly capitalist. It celebrates profits and, without, the annoyance of working-class or black upheavals, it makes no concessions. Reagan basks in the bourgeoisie’s support and acts with confidence if not consistency. He is the Great Warrior up against a Great Waffle.
Mondale’s waffling, like his other “personal” characteristic of boring preachiness, is less a matter of personality than of class relations. The Democrats have been historically torn between their essential task of defending capitalism and their appeal to their working-class base. In prosperous times they appear less split; now, with world capitalism desperate to stave off depression, their contradictions become glaring. The old liberal rhetoric glowed when there was money behind it for concrete payoffs to masses in motion; now Mondale’s speeches sound stale because his promises can only be few and hollow.
The Democrats know the system cannot afford more for the deprived sectors (let alone whole classes); indeed, it must take more from them. Yet the party must retain its base among ethnically divided workers. Hence the inevitable wobble. Set in motion by the contradictory class bases, the wobble is most visible on the surface where the party’s various sectors (the unions, the minorities, nuclear freezers, save the whales, etc.) compete for attention. Mondale is obliged to be all things to all men and all women, all blacks and all whites, all yuppies and workers, Jews, Italians, North, South, etc., etc. But his payoffs for the base are more vicarious than real.
Jesse Jackson was only the latest Democratic supplicant. He got nothing because there was nothing – no worthwhile social promise – to give. And he shares the blame: black and labor leaders who detour their rebellious bases into electoralism thereby remove the pressure on the system felt by the Democrats. Ironically, Jackson’s campaign to move the Democratic Party left only succeeded in helping it move right. The party need only offer a few border-guard positions to the new arrivals to ensure their votes. Geraldine Ferraro as vice president will do nothing for working-class women; the blacks anointed by Mondale will only become spokesmen for austerity.
Of course, when the workers’ struggle does revive you can be sure that some Democratic politician (Ted Kennedy? Jesse Jackson?) will be waiting at the pass to head it off. He (or she) will promise all kinds of good things as long as the workers stay dies to the Democrats or some other suitably capitalist party and don’t disentangle themselves from electoralism. The fact that Mondale makes no such promises now proves the passive state of the labor movement, most notably its official leadership, the labor bureaucracy.
Mondale is supposed to owe lots of favors to the bureaucrats, since it is their funds and manpower that boosted him over the top in a hard-fought primary campaign. Yet their strategy ensures that there will be no workers’ movement left to demand anything from either Mondale or Reagan.
The unions’ strategy of pinning everything on the elections guarantees hat their defeatist line in industrial struggles will be reinforced this year. Electoralism rules out major strikes, especially those that could escalate into serious confrontations having political effects. Under current capitalist circumstances, it also means that nothing will be won from the Democrats – since it takes mass struggles to force the politicians’ hands. The working class loses either way.
Unless the electoral trap is broken, the efforts of the masses will be channeled into narrow sectoral avenues and even fratricidal warfare rather than class struggle. As the past has proven, capitalism in crisis won’t pay to meet working-class needs, but it will pay for war preparations, leading to conflicts between not only sectors but nations too.
There is a way out of the trap. Tragically, the bureaucrats have prevented a general strike aimed at stopping Reagan’s attacks, leaving each union isolated. Workers justifiably fear that isolated and bureaucratically led strikes mean defeat. But broader strikes uniting several sections could break the isolation and lead to a general strike to crack the capitalists’ stranglehold. (The accompanying article on the New York hospital workers’ strike shows how this could have been done.) A general strike would teach workers a practical lesson in class consciousness, as opposed to the present sectoral division and powerlessness. And it would also prove to workers that the state is their enemy, that their only real alternative is revolution.
But fighting for such a strategy requires a leadership totally different from today’s bureaucrats, an alternative dedicated to the working class and not to capitalism. Workers who recognize this, today relatively few, look to the left. What they most often find is far from revolutionary.
It is not just union bureaucrats who are tying working people to the capitalist Democrats. Most of the organized left, drifting steadily to the right, has played the same role in this election period. The excuse for some was the Jesse Jackson “movement,” supposedly a totally different matter from everyday corrupt bourgeois politics. (For social democrats and the Communist Party, of course, no excuse was needed; they’ve always found the Democratic evil to be lesser.) Now that Jackson is in Mondale’s everyday bourgeois camp, we may ask: whither the left?
One radical newspaper, the Guardian, showed what is happening. It argued in an August 8 editorial that “Reagan Must Go” and urged a vote for Mondale, adding apologetically, “but much more important for the left is militant organizing against the policies Reagan stands for.” It claimed to have “no illusions about the Democratic Party” and reasoned, “A defeat of the reactionaries in November can offer an important breathing space to the left and progressive forces in the U.S. and, perhaps more important, to liberation movements and anti-imperialist countries around the world.”
Two accompanying articles, however, demonstrated that the Guardian has illusions aplenty in both the Democrats and the left. One offers advice to the Democrats: “instead of proposing a watered-down Reaganism, they would do better to run on a straightforward platform that would address the interests of Blacks and other minorities and the working class and mobilize them. That way seems to offer the best possibility of beating Reagan.” As if the Democrats ever wanted to mobilize workers and the oppressed; their whole purpose is to mobilize the working class and steer it into electoralism!
As for addressing the interests of the masses, the article itself stumbled onto why this wasn’t done: “The Democrats may be politically and economically unable to offer the broad and costly New Deal/Great Society-type programs.”
The editorial endorsing Mondale makes the same point, that Reagan’s right-wing policies “more fundamentally are a reflection of the general crisis of capitalism.” But it concludes without explanation that while the Democrats have no solution to fundamental problems, “we have every faith that the reactionary forces headed by Reagan will continue to make them worse.” This argument (or lack of one) evidently means that the Guardian has “every faith” that the Democrats will not make them worse. It is quick to forget not only Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson but also its own Marxistical verbiage about capitalism in crisis.
As for the “breathing space” for the left to mobilize, we are dubious. Up until the Democratic convention, mobilizations were few and far between, since the so-called left devoted its energies to campaigning for Jackson. (There was, for example, no mass protest against Reagan’s military intervention in Lebanon.) Just as the union officials fear strikes that might damage Mondale’s chances, leftist pseudo-realists looking for “the best possibility of beating Reagan” will prefer to postpone “divisive” mobilizations.
They are likely to follow their model Jesse Jackson, who (as reported in the second article, on the “Rainbow Coalition”) will be giving his time to voter registration to aid Democrats – that is his form of “mobilization.” This article also shows that the “militant organizing” the Rainbow leaders are interested in is electing politicians to local office; no other kind is mentioned.
Moreover, there is nothing left or militant about Jackson’s local Democratic candidates. In our last issue we detailed how Jackson’s local leadership in Jersey City, New Jersey, was linked to the pro-Reagan mayoral machine. Since then, Jackson’s big primary victory in Jersey City spilled over into votes for the machine – which thereby consolidated its grip on the Democratic Party and used it to continue ridding the town of its poorer, mostly black and Hispanic, workers. Predictably, when local members of a Workers World Party front group campaigning for Jackson were picked up by Jersey City cops and subjected to vile racist attacks, they got no support from their Jacksonite “friends.”
Leftists who still publicly enthuse over Jackson – while he himself takes to the stump for Mondale – are, like it or not, serving to build the Democratic Party’s standing among the masses.
The Democrats are proving once again that bourgeois electoralism is no solution at all for capitalism’s victims. Everywhere black and working-class struggles will be fettered by their middle-class leaders’ dedication to electing Democrats. If working people allow their strikes and other class battles to be derailed so that Mondale can pass, they will win even less. Fellow workers devoted to the fight against capitalism must join the LRP in struggle against the electoral trap and for the general strike. In this we are laying the basis for the revolutionary party that is the only genuine alternative to the Mondales and the Reagans.