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Sy Landy

Left Sinks into Democrats’ Swamp

(Spring 1984)


From Proletarian Revolution, No. 21 (Spring 1984).
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


Many black workers today are being won to electoral politics in general and Reverend Jesse Jackson’s campaign in particular. Given present circumstances this is understandable. Reagan’s economic “recovery” only serves to mock the stark reality of omnipresent poverty and unemployment in the ghettoes. What alternative is there to playing the electoral game?

And in racist America, the idea of an obviously sophisticated and charismatic black leader commanding universal attention and running a credible campaign for the highest office in politics is a great source of pride. It is therefore no surprise that ordinary black workers who make no pretense of being class-conscious Marxists are buying Jackson and the strategy of electoralism in the capitalist Democratic Party. But growing numbers of self-proclaimed socialists are doing so as well. Rival leftists are vying with each other in a mad effort to win the fervency prize in support of the Reverend Jackson.

Many of these leftists argue that racism is the key question in the coming election period. They are right. A fight against racism could unlock the class struggle and open the way to black liberation. But a tragically large number have concluded that the war against racism must be initiated through electoralism, Jesse Jackson, and the Democratic Party. This course will have the effect opposite to that intended: it will slam the door to black liberation shut.

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Communist Party (CP) are both reformist outfits which habitually splash around in the Democratic Party swamp. Today they find themselves unable to choose between Jackson and his union bureaucracy-backed opponent Walter Mondale.

What is more distinctive about 1984 is that the more “revolutionary” left, like the Communist Workers Party (CWP), the Workers World Party (WWP), Line of March and the Guardian newspaper are all jumping into the same swamp. And they are joined by many “Marxist-Leninists” and independent radicals in crossing the class line. Once there they will inevitably meet up with older generations of ex-socialistic types like Bayard Rusrin and “Fritz” Mondale himself; for the new road is actually an old and well-worn one-way street.

Does Jackson’s Program Matter?

The Jacksonian left is not supporting their man because of the stellar qualities of his political program. On the contrary, Jackson is so clearly a defender of capitalism that it is no simple task to costume him for the role of hero. Thus the CP simply ignores his pro-capitalist views. The Guardian delicately comments that “his views on a number of issues leave something to be desired.” All agree with the CWP’s Workers Viewpoint, which claimed that opponents of Jackson’s campaign who “grumble over Jackson’s” non-socialist platform miss the point.” The point is that Jackson is supposedly arousing mass movements, notably the black movement. When a hero does that, who can resist?

Michael Harrington, leader of DSA, made it even more explicit in a Convention resolution: “We cannot, of course, approve the programmatic content of Jackson’s past positions which fall far short of what is needed, and sometimes (!) have suggested (!) that there is a ‘black capitalist’ solution to poverty and economic crisis. But we are very much impressed by the movement that is building up behind Jackson as a candidate...”

To round out the picture, Sam Marcy, high potentate of the WWP, pontificates: “Not withstanding the fact that he continually promotes a left-liberal line on most fundamental political questions which does not distinguish him very much from other liberals such as George McGovern, Gary Hart or Alan Cranston, it is very plain that they are all part and parcel of the capitalist establishment which Jackson is running against.” What makes it so evident that Jackson is not part and parcel of this establishment? “The fundamental difference...is that Jackson is leading a movement.”

The left’s arguments on the question of Jackson’s pro-capitalist position can be summed up in two words: ignore it. Only the movement he is initiating is important. Nevertheless, it is instructive to look at what Jackson’s views of his role in the capitalist system and its electoral process actually are – to see precisely where Jackson is leading his followers. Jackson is widely known for his demagogy but is really far more forthright than many left leaders. He has repeatedly made clear that he intends to be a broker for the black masses and others who shelter under his “rainbow coalition.” “A credible campaign,” he said, “would give blacks much-needed bargaining power. Bargainers without bases are beggars, not brokers.” He noted that “the Democratic Party has litmus tests it must pass. It cannot receive investments without promising dividends and returns.”

This program cannot be ignored – because it is the very program that black working people who support Jackson agree with. Indeed, those blacks who support the black politicians in Mondale’s camp have the same outlook; they disagree merely over how to maximize the returns from brokering within the system. To dismiss Jackson’s proclaimed intent on such questions is to dismiss in reality the current views of the black working class.

In our opinion these views – that real gains are possible under present-day capitalism, through the Democratic Party – are very wrong. But they must be contended with. What black workers think is critically important, especially for those who claim to believe that working-class consciousness is the key to the socialist transformation of society.

Another point: historically Marxists have understood why the masses of working people turned to religion for solace from the miseries of daily life. Communists have always tried to collaborate with religious fellow-workers in battles against the exploiters; the two agreed to disagree in order to further the struggle. But the same heritage teaches us the need for an unyielding criticism of organized religious leaders who seek to maintain superstition’s grip on their “flock” and inevitably betray them to the ruling classes. Today’s left utters not a peep about the fundamentalist harangues of the Baptist clergyman, the Reverend Jesse Jackson. They consider themselves too sophisticated for such pap, but they have no quarrel with letting Jackson do the “necessary” dirty work.

Does the Democratic Party Matter?

Central to Jackson’s campaign is the goal of using his mass support among blacks to build the Democratic Party. Thus he has said:

I’m running because there are more people locked out of the Democratic party who are its natural constituents than are locked into it. ... So I’m running to defend the poor and make welcome the outcasts and to deliver those votes that are stuck at the bottom. I think that is the salvation of the Democratic party, the democratic process, and for the soul of America. (New York magazine, January 9.)

Genuine communists know that the Democratic and Republican parties are both capitalist parties, enemies of the working class, black and white. They are panics of racism, unemployment, depression and war. But since the 1920’s when blacks began to switch from “the party of Lincoln,” blacks have had a different estimate of the Democrats. And not without reason.

The Republican Party openly represents big business. The Democrats represent the more liberal bourgeoisie and therefore can claim to reflect the interests of workers and minorities as well. For example, in the 1930’s with the huge explosion of industrial unionism and in the 1960’s with the black upheaval, the Democrats were forced to yield some reforms, lest the mass struggles threaten the capitalist system itself. The Democratic Party was never the source of these popular gains; votes were never the weapon that won them. But the Democratic Party was the channel through which gains won in struggle were grudgingly distributed. And voting power within the party did affect the apportionment of the concessions disbursed.

The price that the black and white masses paid for these benefits was pacification and the incorporation of their struggles. The party machines and the network of bureaucracies and agencies of the welfare state were the byways and mazes that people were forced to traverse in order to get the gains they had won. The Democratic Party has always been an institution designed to divert struggles against the system and divide them up into small sectors so that eventually the system can take away the gains it can no longer afford. Thus the Democratic Party is not a way-station for a movement but a diversion, in fact a graveyard.

As long as black assertiveness is confined to the Democratic Party, there will always be a racist reaction and the blacks will be doomed to lose. The bourgeoisie and its politicians will always favor their white pawns at the expense of blacks. Even in past times of relative prosperity, capitalism denied blacks equality; now it is out of the question. When black politicians make very limited demands for blacks – as in Detroit, Atlanta and Philadelphia – there is no big problem for the moment. But when there are mass mobilizations with real demands, as in Chicago’s election of Mayor Washington last year, no matter how much the Washingtons equivocate there will always be Vrdolyaks available to whip up racist reaction.

The Left and the Democrats

Part of Jackson’s attraction for the left is his “rainbow coalition” idea, a unification of the dispossessed inside the Democratic Party. By pressure of voting strength inside and potential for movement outside the electoral arena it hopes to compel concessions out of the system. But such alliances are traditional within the Democratic Party. Not being class conscious, they are alliances based upon loyalty to a particular sector and aimed at combining divergent class interests within each sector. Under capitalism such pacts always break down, even more readily than do cartels and trusts among the capitalists themselves. If the system can offer one group in the alliance something at the expense of the others, then the deal is off.

When Jesse Jackson invites working-class people into the Democratic Party, when he promises that if you support it you will get a piece of the pie, do the Jacksonian leftists warn against this? Do they point out that tying a movement to the Democrats can only cripple it? No. Not a word. There is not even a hint of the line that might say, “We support Jackson, but the Democratic Party trap will kill his movement.” Even those leftists who think of themselves as too pure to join the Party (yet) believe it vital to begin there. Again, let Jesse do the dirty work.

The DSA, on the other hand, echoes Jackson’s invitation in slightly more leftist terms: “So for now; at least, American social movements have their electoral expression within the Democratic Party. Whether the party will someday be transformed in a more left direction by this activity, or whether progressive forces will have to leave en masse to form a new party, is impossible to foresee. But today the Democratic Party is where the action is.” (Democratic Left, November December 1983.)

Similarly but more nastily, the CWP’s Phil Thompson also invites the unwary into the Democratic Party trap: “The person who stands on the sidewalk with their merry band of ten followers are not revolutionaries. The real revolutionaries are people willing to go into the Democratic Party, the bourgeoisie’s turf, and put their politics out to the millions...” (Workers Viewpoint, December 14.) Yet for all its unwillingness about standing on the sidewalk and all its eagerness to jump into the bourgeois gutter, the CWP is encumbered by its radical past and doesn’t want to get its feet too wet. It still says that “workers, Blacks and other oppressed people in the U.S. will gain nothing if Mondale beats Reagan. We will lose nothing if Reagan beats Mondale.” (Workers Viewpoint, December 21.) In its own terms, the CWP will then be joining us on the “sidewalk.”

However, the CWP is able to talk left like this only because it isn’t ready to admit what the CP, the DSA, Jesse Jackson, most blacks and almost everybody else knows: after Jackson loses the Democratic nomination he will endorse the party candidate, Mondale or some facsimile thereof. And the CWP will very likely follow the logic of its “revolutionary” street-walking and join the more experienced leftists in the Democratic camp – if not this year, then next time.

The DSA will be delighted to be able to endorse “labor’s candidate.” After all, Harrington still justifies his support to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 with the “vote for Johnson to stop Goldwater and prevent a war in Vietnam” line. Now as then, the social democrats find it useful to fib a little about their candidate. Harrington delicately put it in his Convention report, “Like all the other announced candidates, Mondale’s program leaves much to be desired (!) and does not address (!) the urgency of democratizing basic investment decisions.” That’s why Marxists call the capitalists the ruling class, Mike, remember? According to another DSA Convention report, “At the center of the Democratic Party is Walter Mondale and his ‘corporatist’ proposals to bring business, labor and the state together in a ‘new social contract’... Mondale certainly has more than a little of the Cold Warrior in him...” More than a little indeed, but this will prove no hindrance to DSA’s endorsement.

The CP’s Daily World has been promoting Jackson. If, it hasn’t actually endorsed him that’s because it too has friends in the labor bureaucracy who are committed to Mondale. Since Mondale is more than a little bit of a Cold Warrior, the Daily World criticizes him a little bit but not more. After all, the CP’s main theme is “Dump Reagan.” Reagan, not capitalism, is the source of problems like war, unemployment, racism, etc., a line well calculated to convince anyone who never heard of Jimmy Carter or Lyndon Johnson. Of course, when the CP backs the Democrats against Reagan it will be done in vintage Stalinist style: the CP will run its own candidates who will speak boldly for stopping Reagan above all, i.e. for voting Democratic.

The Workers World Party may follow the same tack, and it too has its own “anti-Reagan” candidates ready. But given its Trotskyist origins (well hidden and well past), the WWP tries a little harder to maintain an independent stance. But not much, it too has constantly identified Reagan as the source of capitalism’s evils; and even if it hesitates to call openly for a vote for Any Democrat, its periphery will have been trained to do exactly that.

What about a Third Party?

The WWP has one difference with the CP: it has announced that it will support Jackson and withdraw its own candidates is he runs a third-party campaign. Another outfit with the same line is the New Alliance Party, which specializes in denouncing the Democratic Party while working actively inside it. Thus it backs Jackson inside while running its own candidate outside: “It’s what we call an insurance policy in case Jesse doesn’t get picked by the Democrats and some folks in the Rainbow Coalition seek to deliver the Rainbow’s clout to the Democratic Party bosses.” (National Alliance, February 20) This “policy” overlooks the evident fact that one of the “folks” planning a deal with the party bosses is Jesse himself.

As already noted, Jackson is clearly not going to run independently. What he will do is make the mildest possible bargaining statements to warn the Democrats not to take blacks for granted. He did this last time around, trying to threaten Jimmy Carter that “the idea that blacks won’t vote for a Republican is inaccurate.” (New York Times, July 22, 1980)

No one took him seriously then, and now that he is heavily involved in the electoral game he is taking even fewer chances. This time he said, “I have absolutely no fear of blacks being so destabilized by the possibility of a loss at one level that they will not be able to adjust to the reality of the general election.” (New York Times, November 2, 1983.) As well, “I’m inclined to expand the party, not break with the party.” (New York January 9.) He is promising that he and his base are loyal and safe.

In fact, Jackson’s loyalty pledges have gone so far as to draw Sam Marcy’s criticism – but not of Jackson. “It is all well and good for certain leftists who are looking for an excuse not to support Jackson to avail themselves of his many utterances about how we are all one party, we are all Democrats, we are for unity, and so on and so forth. But this kind of jargon is part of the form of struggle. Whether it is of good coin or not matters little. It is the objective dynamics of the struggle which are decisive.” (Workers World, February 2.)

Yes, the struggle is what matters. But Jackson’s words, and those of all his leading lieutenants and followers, influence the struggle. Black workers are not cattle, driven by cowboy leaders or simply by elemental forces. They take their politics seriously, and when someone who presently commands their allegiance urges them to be loyal Democrats this has its effect. Socialists concerned about workers’ views would decry what Jackson says and argue against him. Whereas Marcy and the rest who ignore Jackson’s message in favor of other “objective dynamics” are demonstrating only their contempt for the masses.

The leftist tendencies that oppose support for Democrats and therefore for Jackson are relatively few. In words they are more radical than the Jacksonian left, but there is no fundamental difference in terms of class. Their objections to Jackson are programmatic and personal; they do not see the criterion as class against class. If they apply the term “middle class” to Jackson it is simply a statement of hostility or description rather than of whose interests he represents.

In reality their approach is sectoral. Since all blacks are oppressed in the U.S., these leftists choose to overlook class differences among blacks. They oppose the Democratic Party because it is a particular institution of evil, not because it is an instrument of the capitalist class. In other words, Jackson’s main problem is that he is running as a Democrat. If he had the same constellation of class forces outside the party, they would support him or someone like him.

Consider the International Socialists (IS), which calls for Jackson to run independently. (No surprise: an IS minority wanted to endorse Democrat Harold Washington in Chicago.) Thus two IS leaders write in the March 7 Guardian:

We believe Jesse Jackson would be most responsive to the real, immediate and historic needs and to the mass sentiments of his base if he ran for President as an independent. And we believe activists should advocate that he do this ...

They go on to add that his present campaign “represents an historic opportunity tragically wasted because it remains locked within the Democratic Party.”

The Revolutionary Socialist League once split from the IS and had a brief honeymoon with revolutionary class politics before receding back. Now it is virtually indistinguishable from its forebears. Like the IS, it rejects Jackson as a Democrat but likes him as an independent:

If Jackson were to lead a third, independent party campaign based upon the publicity and organization built up through the Democratic primaries, such a campaign would have the potential to generate a movement combining electoral action with other forms of protest. Such a campaign could develop into an alliance of Black people, Latins, women, gays, workers and progressive groups that would deserve serious consideration regardless of its formal label or Jackson’s own reformist politics. (Torch, February 15.)

The IS also supports Jackson as the leader of a list of groupings not different from the RSL’s. For both, workers are just one constituency like any other. A Jackson-led third party would not in their eyes (or in reality) be a working-class party, not even a black workers’ party. Like Jackson and the Jacksonian left, they too accept the idea of a coalition of sectors instead. So they favor a third capitalist party today. Their customary calls for a reformist party (like the British Labour Party) are cast into the far future along with the even more impractical idea of revolutionary socialism.

A third capitalist party led by petty-bourgeois elements is no “realistic” step toward class independence; it is an attempt to head off class consciousness when the looming social explosion occurs. Black workers have never bought a third party despite the attempts of many radicals to launch one. Coalitions – that is, pacts among sectors to broker the system – have to come to grips with power. Third parties, especially non-existent ones which accept capitalism, have all of the problems of the Democratic Party plus a lot of rhetorical demands which everyone knows are utopian. What they don’t have is the Democratic Party’s power, its seeming ability to deliver gains. Who needs them? The left “third party” groups are sending the message that Jackson in the Democratic Party is more serious than they are. And that is correct.

In contrast to the CWP, WWP and NAP, the IS-RSL wing understands that Jackson doesn’t want to run independently. But the latter groups would have a difficult time opposing Jackson the Democrat if he did try an independent course after losing the primaries. The RSL already appreciates that the “publicity and organization built up through the Democratic primaries” would be essential. The difference between them and the Jacksonians is not a question of class, only of time.

Another group, Workers Power, is equally committed to sectoral coalitions externally, and it in addition is a coalition itself internally. It can rarely agree on a course of action. While it opposes Jackson with some effective arguments, it is anyone’s guess what the group thinks the alternative should be.

The Socialist Workers Party, on the other hand, knows its course very well and is in the process of jettisoning even the minute Trotskyist pretensions that it retains. The SWP opposes Jackson but (like the WWP) has stated that it will support him and withdraw its own candidates if he runs as the head of an independent black party. The SWP regards blacks as fundamentally working-class and therefore defines any black party as proletarian. Thus its differences with black misleaderships always take a moralistic form: they are good outside the Democratic Party but bad inside. Without a class analysis it has trouble distinguishing itself not only from a non-existent third party but also from the Democrats. It has learned to run its own candidates for office in order to avoid the political logic which would put it among the Democratic liberals. The Guardian, which has fewer hesitations about naked bourgeois campaigns, has pointedly mocked the SWP for its sectarianism in this regard, running candidates against Washington in Chicago and Mel King in Boston without anything much different to propose – and netting less than a negligible total of votes as a reward.

Left Lacks Class Analysis

Then there is the Spartacist League, whose idea of revolutionary politics is to substitute ultra-radical rhetoric and abrasive image-making for any understanding of class struggle. While the CP and the WWP use their “independent” candidacies as covers for the line that Reagan, not capitalism, is the enemy, the SL does something similar. The fine print in its press blames capitalism, while the headlines scream that “Reagan is War Crazy!” – and paint him as a maniac out of control. If taken seriously, this language only suggests to readers that they had better run out and vote for anyone rather than this madman who is liable to push the button any moment for no rational reason at all. The Democrats could ask for no more backhanded support than that. But in reality Reagan reflects only one version of U.S. ruling class interests. His politics, as well as the liberal Democrats’, will lead to war, racism and misery not out of personal craziness but out of the needs of capitalism.

Jackson too is pictured as an evil hustler. Beyond an epithet or so, his relation to petty-bourgeois class interests as opposed to the workers’ is ignored. This becomes clear when the SL discusses why it opposes any Jackson-led third party: it is not a question of class but of sufficient radicalness. The SL still boasts of its past electoral support: “when the Panthers ran Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver as candidates in the 1968 California elections, the SL called for votes to them (but not to their running mates of the petty-bourgeois Peace and Freedom Party).” (Workers Vanguard, December 10.)

True enough, Newton, Scale and the Cleavers were more radical than Jackson but hardly more working-class. The Black Panther Party combined radical middle-class and student elements wedded to an openly lumpenproletarian outlook. But the giveaway is the SL’s distinction between the BPP leaders who ran on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket and the PFP itself, whom the SL calls petty-bourgeois. The two groups were in alliance because both were petty bourgeois. The SL’s inability to call the Panthers either middle-class or working-class shows that it, like the rest of the left, does not discern real class differences among blacks.

Jackson’s Underlying Strategy

James W. Compton is executive director of the Chicago Urban League and a leading Jackson supporter. Six years ago he observed, pointing accurately to the conditions facing blacks in the United States: “Our large cities are in much the state they were in 1965 when the poor of Watts put the torch to the most accessible symbols of their disadvantage.” He added, “Without genuine relief the urban poor can reasonably be expected to rise again.” But this time he foresaw that they will rise “against class as well as against race, with blacks of moderate achievement and their property among the most ready victims.” (New York Times, February 13, 1978.)

As Compton foresaw, the black masses saw that the real and illusory gains made in the past were blowing away by the late 1970’s, and there were riots in several cities. But where the earlier riots like the one in Watts had struck fear into the ruling class and forced benefits out of the government, now capitalism in crisis would not yield what blacks “of moderate achievement and...property” were pleading for to stave off the upheaval.

On the contrary, the repressive forces of the state tightened their grip on the ghetto, and unemployment and poverty shot up. The press, black as well as white, carried story after story about the hostility toward the middle-class black leadership that abounded in the ghettoes. Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson were booed in Miami. Shortly after the riots there one resident commented, "Black people can forget about all that leadership stuff. Black leaders do a lot of talking. But that’s all they do talk.” (New York Times, June 29, 1980.)

The black leaders could offer no way out except to begin their campaign for voter registration and passive electoral activity. Seeing no other alternative to the failure of violent explosion to produce gains, many blacks followed their misleaders into the Democratic Party they had come to despise. This is the part of Jackson’s underlying strategy that is not talked about so publicly: to divert any future black explosion into safe electoralist channels.

Contrary to the left, it is not Jackson who will build a movement of the black masses. Gimmicks and heroes do not create movements. Leaders may point the way, may take command, for better or for worse, or may even derail them. But Marxists, as opposed to leftists and other middle-class political operators, know that it is the system and its contradictions that forces people into motion. The black upheaval is inevitable because capitalism continues to grind people down. Jackson’s campaign and the electoral registration drive accompanying it are preventative measures designed to defuse such a movement, not build it. A vote for Jackson is a vote against a black upheaval. Likewise, so is a vote for any of the other Democrats supported by Jackson’s black political rivals.

Jackson approaches the Democratic Party in order to get it to open its doors further to incorporate the black masses. He wants to reform, not overthrow it; his challenge should be seen, according to him, “not as a threat but as therapy.” (Washington Post Weekly Edition, December 19, 1983.)

The party still retains vestiges of its past appeal when it was thought of as the deliverer of benefits for the working people. It was this very capital gained in the past that enabled the Democrat Carter to demand austerity from the masses to restore capitalist profits. It is no accident that Democratic governors and mayors (the growing number of blacks among the latter included) preach the same message. Likewise, it was no accident that mass anti-war movements throughout the century have attracted Democratic politicians with their pledges of peace – and it was equally inevitable that Democratic presidents used this capital to lead the U.S. into World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the invasion of the Dominican Republic and the Vietnam War.

Traditionally, the Democratic Party has tolerated representatives of various ethnic groups, unions, blacks, Hispanics, women, reformers, environmentalists and all others who form its voting base. These brokers bargained and fought with each other for pieces of the pie that the bourgeoisie was forced by mass action to place on the table. The petty-bourgeois brokers and the institutions they were tied to got the largest share. Small favors, small jobs, small concessions but a lot of hope were doled out to the constituents of each sector.

When times were good for American imperialism, especially during the postwar prosperity bubble, there were enough sops to satisfy the brokers and even some of their working-class constituencies. They took the form of welfare-state measures like social security and unemployment insurance as well as business contracts, industry subsidies, government jobs and the like. But today capitalism is caught in a profound economic crisis that is pushing it toward a new great depression despite momentary and shallow recoveries. The pie is shrinking, especially in those sectors that tend to benefit blacks who are shoved to the bottom of the ladder: blacks are disproportionately dependent on government jobs and welfare-state support. The situation is grim – and only beginning.

Carter could not sell his austerity policy, at least not enough to stabilize capitalism, which needs to squeeze far more out of the workers if it is to emerge from its crisis. Carter tried escalating the Cold War in part to justify sacrifices by the American people. His failure produced Reagan, who has tried harder on both counts. If Reagan’s failure in turn becomes evident before the election we will see another austerity-liberal regime under one Mondale or another. Jackson’s argument that black voices providing the margin of the Republicans’ defeat will increase black brokerage gains was already disproved by Carter, who beat Gerald Ford in 1976 by virtue of the black vote.

But one thing is clear in any case. The increasing devastation of blacks, together with their strategic position as workers in hard-hit but crucial industries and services in major cities, means that the system and the Democratic Party need more black faces to preside over austerity.

The Black Politicians

The black politicians, who reflect the varied interests of the small but socially significant black middle class, are eager to play this role. The numbers of black elected officials are growing (5606 in 1983, an 8.6 percent increase over 1982). Jackson’s description of them as “brokers” is exactly on target. In 1891 Friedrich Engels noted the same phenomenon:

Nowhere do the ‘politicians’ form a more distinct and powerful subdivision of the nation than in North America. There both of the two great parties, which alternately succeed each other in power, are themselves in turn ruled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who live by spreading propaganda for their party and are awarded with offices after its victory. (Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France.)

This description still fits American politicians, including the blacks. In a previous article (Socialist Voice No. 20) we trace the different bases within the black middle class and among politicians that are represented by Jackson on the one hand and his rivals for black leadership on the other. The two wing see the world alike. They have a common stake in the system and in preventing social upheaval. But they are tied to the black masses because American capitalism, racist to the core, will never let them escape this identity. The power of the politicians in fact stems from their brokering for the black masses; without this they would be of no use to the whit bourgeoisie.

Given the fact that the black bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeois property owning sectors are tiny, the ties of the black middle layers to capitalism are general rather that particular. Naturally the black politicians seek to reinvigorate the poverty programs of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. That is hardly possible today, but the politicians are still primarily oriented toward the state sector. So they preside over austerity for the masses, over stricter police enforcement, over contraction of the “social wage” in the form of education transportation and other government services in the cities. The masses’ vicarious racial identification with these leaders is used to keep a lid on rebelliousness. This is the true social program of the black middle class and its political leadership Jesse Jackson included.

Operation PUSH

Thus Jackson’s well-publicized Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) criticized big corporations like Coca-Cola for not giving contracts and franchises to black small businessmen and for not hiring black workers – and succeeded in winning such contracts and franchises, but few jobs. Far more insidiously, PUSH spreads propaganda among black youth that if they study and work hard they can “make it” under capitalism. This “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” line really means that blacks have only themselves to blame if they don’t succeed. But it is capitalism, not a lack of trying, that creates the over 50 percent unemployment of black youth. Pushing may get a job for you instead of the next person, but it can’t increase the total available.

Jesse Jackson also has stood for one of the favorite programs of the Reagan right, the sub-minimum wage for youth Recent studies show what Marxists (and, indeed, dedicated trade unionists) have known for decades: this only means a general lowering of wages. If there is any additional hiring of youth, under all foreseeable conditions this will mean white youth.

PUSH’s attitude toward workers and unions in Chicago, its home base, is, instructive. For example, it acted as strikebreaker in the recent strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Coalition of School Employees Unions. It sought a court injunction to force the CTU workers (who are 55 percent black) back to work. PUSH was particularly vehement during this strike, since it considered it an attack on black prerogatives now that Harold Washington was in power as Chicago’s mayor.

Jackson represents an attempt to pull together a multi-class (not just multi-racial, as “rainbow” implies) coalition for political office, an embryonic popular front. Like all other class collaborationist arrangements, it necessarily sacrifices the workers’ interests for those of the upper layers. It is no accident that the welfare of black politicians in Chicago was seen as coinciding with the continuation of the capitalist cutback and austerity program.

Recently a Chicago resident sent a pointed letter to the Guardian which correctly accused the paper of “refusing to even report the attacks of Harold Washington on labor, especially public sector workers, many of whom are black, Hispanic or female.” The letter quoted Washington’s chief labor negotiator, Richard Laner, whose comments had appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

There’s been a long history in the public sector that one has a job for life and will get a raise every year. But the economy has changed all that. The mayor wants to increase productivity as if this was a private company, watch the dollar and ride tough and hard. The unions, in my view, haven’t accepted that.

This is the social program of austerity for the workers supported by the supposedly “working-class left” in the U.S. today!

Jacksonism in Action

How Jesse Jackson will play the Democratic Party game isn’t mere speculation. There are concrete examples. One of his strongest supporters urging him to run for the presidency was Bobby Jackson, head of the Jersey City, New Jersey, city council. Bobby Jackson is now a state coordinator of Jesse Jackson’s campaign. In 1981 he was a running-mate of Mayor Gerry McCann and since then has been the mayor’s strongest ally among blacks in the council. Likewise Operation PUSH, in which Bobby Jackson is active, not only supported McCann in the election but continued to be his firm ally.

Mayor McCann is a confirmed Reaganite, the head of Hudson (County). Democrats for Reagan in 1980, who maintains warm relations with the administration, especially its notorious Secretary of Labor, Ray Donovan. He was offered a sub-cabinet post but chose to run for mayor again. During his tenure he has tried to crush rent control, and has so far succeeded in gaining significant exemptions from it; he has raised local taxes 30 percent in two years, and has openly favored chasing the poorest people (mostly black and Hispanic) out of the city.

The political columnist of the Jersey Journal wrote on August 10, 1983:

Council President Bobby Jackson’s relationship with McCann remains a puzzle to many, but for now it appears to be mutually-beneficial. Jackson has been able to secure prominent positions in municipal government for blacks, while McCann has been able to deflect some criticism of his generally conservative administration through Jackson and his allies.

Jersey City politics are not basically different from other cities’ run by the Democratic party, just more naked. It all means essentially a few positions for black politicians at the expense of the black masses.

The Bobby Jackson-McCann coalition may well break down; such is the nature of coalitions. But it won’t be over principle or out of sudden concern for black-Hispanic unity among the working people. Nor will it be out of a sudden heartfelt concern for the anger of black and Latin politicians in New York City that Jersey City is using federal funding to snatch jobs from blacks and Hispanics across the Hudson River in New York. No, it is just the Democratic war of all against all; the rainbow coalition can’t even span the Hudson.

Jackson’s Foreign Policy

Jesse Jackson’s role as the left face of capitalism, struggling to maintain the system by reforming it to allow potential rebels to get a little piece of the action, is true abroad as well as at home. Take his visit to South Africa in 1979. The apartheid regime gave him permission to come when he assured it, in familiar terms, that his trip should be seen “as a therapy and not as a threat” (New York Times, July 24, 1979).

Oppression, however, demands destruction, not therapeutics. Young South African black power militants denounced him for associating with the racist regime’s token black leaders. He was also denounced for praising government minister Pieter Koornhof, the “liberal” face of apartheid, as a “courageous man” and one “for whom he had high regard” (New York Times, August 2, 1979). His attempt to patch up apartheid by endorsing its more liberal facade earned him the title of “a diabolical Western agent” from one militant. Would that the American left could speak the truth so well.

More recent was his renowned trip to Syria to rescue U.S. Lieutenant Robert Goodman, captured after a bombing flight over Lebanon. The aim of Jackson’s mission was to promote a deal between U.S. imperialism and the Syrian rulers to carve up influence over Lebanon peacefully. Jackson, like some other Democrats, understood that the American forces could not succeed in stabilizing Lebanon as open supporters of the neo-fascist, minority Gemayel regime. A few months ago, however, he still favored the U.S. presence there; now he prefers a United Nations contingent, as a cover, to maintain the imperialist presence and keep the Lebanese masses down. The one thing Jackson did not do was use his highly publicized expedition to criticize U.S. or Israeli imperialism.

Quite the contrary. Jackson told the press that “the Arab war against Israel must be stopped,” (New York Times, January 6) whereas it is Israel that continues to be the aggressor in the war to crush the Palestinian people. Jackson had gained a reputation for being pro-Arab because of his wish for the U.S. to hold talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The racist anti-Arab media still attack Jackson and PUSH for accepting donations from Arab sources. But Jackson is not supporting the Arab masses; he is simply agreeing with a section of the American bourgeoisie that wants Washington to have ties with reactionary Arab regimes as well as with Israel.

Jackson’s attitude on the Middle East was aptly rebuked by a spokesman for the moderate American-Arab Relations Committee, whose president stated that Jackson’s pronouncements showed “utmost contempt for the feelings of the Arab people.” He added, “You are a disappointment, brother.”

Jackson’s actual pro-imperialist position does not stop the Daily World, Workers World, the Guardian, and Workers Viewpoint from hailing their hero’s “peace mission” to Damascus, his support for the Arab people, his fight against imperialism. They are equally glowing about his supposed anti-imperialist policies toward Central America. Yet Jackson himself has been more than explicit about the real nature of his position. It is designed to be the best possible defense of the imperialist system. During the Democratic Party debate in New Hampshire, Jackson urged that: “We should be in a state of readiness now. Some things are worth fighting for. Honduras and Lebanon are not worth it, but the Persian Gulf is worth it. The industrial base of the Western world is at stake.”

But of course the left understands Jackson better than Jackson does. Irwin Silber asserts in his paper Frontline (January 23), “Whether he is completely aware of the fact or not, Jackson is the political representative of that section of the working class and laboring masses with the least basis to support imperialist policy.” Thus does the left again offer itself as a cover for the liberal wing of imperialism.

The “Hymie” Affair

As of this writing it has been some time since Jackson, after a two-week delay, confessed to and apologized for his now-famous chauvinist remarks about Jews as “Hymies” and New York as “Hymietown.” Most of the Jacksonian left has moved with equal slowness to comment. So far only the Guardian has taken a clear-cut position objecting to Jackson’s remarks. It believes Jackson’s stance to be “counterproductive” to what still is “the most promising vehicle at present for building an independent progressive political movement” (March 17).

It concludes that “someone in Jackson’s position ought to take the lead in showing that being anti-Zionist is not the same thing as being anti-Jewish. He hasn’t done this. And he has undermined his principled Mideast position by not doing so.” The Guardian, of course, has every right to sympathize with Jackson’s “principled” position, which it agrees with and therefore falsely qualifies as “anti-Zionist.” But it is correct in noting Jackson’s difficulty in distinguishing Zionism from Judaism. Still, the Guardian cannot point out the fundamental source of Jackson’s statements, since like the rest of the left and all of the Zionists it holds a nationalist, class collaborationist perspective rather than a working class one.

The Zionists have indeed harassed Jesse Jackson, complaining bitterly about his Mideast position. It is noteworthy, however, that Zionist organizations were far more gentle m treating John Connally, a conservative white contender for the Republican nomination in 1980, who held a similar position to Jackson’s on Israel and the Palestinians. Likewise, the level of bile directed against George McGovern’s candidacy is far less, and he too reflects a similar trend in U.S. bourgeois opinion.

The Jewish leaders are quarreling with Jackson because he represents an attempt to broker a larger share of the diminishing pie. As the last ones in on the take, their own position of acceptance in American capitalism is still precarious. They have been fighting black leaders of various stripes for years over quotas, affirmative action and the like. This quarrel has achieved notoriety as “The Crisis in Black and Jewish Relations.” It naturally focuses inside the Democratic Party, capitalism’s major agency for deepening social divisions. The newly arrived Jewish politicians like New York mayor Koch fight off the demands of the later-arriving blacks. The Jackson candidacy, demanding a major new division of the pie, is seen as a threat not only to the Jewish leaders but also to their historic allies among party apparatchiks and labor officials, especially because of the power of the black working class.

American Zionism is not only a reactionary pro-Israel nationalism but also a specific adaptation to U.S. capitalism. It is a central aspect of the ethnic ideology purveyed by the Jewish bourgeoisie to break the once-powerful working-class identification among the Jewish masses. Even today, as the more affluent Jews become more reactionary, there is still a strong progressive potential among white collar working-class Jews. Sectoral identity at the expense of class consciousness is maintained through demagogy on the “Arab threat” and increasingly the “black threat” as well.

Jackson thinks the same way, in reverse. When he sought to apologize for his “Hymie” remarks, he cited the hostility of an interviewer named Cohen against his daughter, who was applying for entrance to Harvard (symbolically enough). For Jackson the problem was not just the Zionists, but the Cohens, the Jews – just as the Jewish bourgeoisie sees the problem as the blacks.

It is important to note that Jackson was not attempting to whip up the black masses against Jews. That could only backfire now in racist America. The entrenched Jewish leadership has somewhat more leverage to heighten Jewish hostility toward blacks. And when the situation gets worse economically and socially, the fight will become more naked.

If the black proletariat allows its middle-class leadership to take it along the same course in the Democratic Party as the Jewish leaders have gone, the results will be disastrous. What is necessary is an end to sectoral coalitions inevitably based on the class outlook of the upper strata, and a turn to class consciousness. But the left also sees sectoralism as paramount; it too is mired in its networks, coalitions, and pacts which will inevitably break down. This can only fuel fratricidal warfare between sections of the working class.

Jackson’s thoughts on “Hymies” were par for the course for bourgeois politicians. For the left to cover, equivocate and apologize for such garbage on the part of the man they put forward as the hero of the oppressed is a new level of degeneration, just a foretaste of what these social cretins have in store.

The Left vs. Marxism

In the last analysis, the reason the “socialists” support the austerity-minded black middle-class leaders is that they themselves reflect a radical section of the same layer, the same intelligentsia. The cynical contempt all of these people have for the workers is enormous. The existence of the radical left in the working class, and especially its middle-class aristocracy, is a world-wide phenomenon.

Much of the left rhetorically hails “the masses,” “the people,” “the rank and file,” “the movements.” They are constantly putting forward minimal liberal or “anti-Reagan” programs for these movements and masses. They inevitably presume that you have to water down your own nominal program (that is, not raise openly socialist or revolutionary ideas) to “spark,” “arouse,” “galvanize,” “electrify” or “generate” mass movements. Therefore they have an easy unconcern at best or an apology in practice for Jackson’s pro-capitalist program and actions, since that is what’s necessary to create a movement.

That is why so many far-left outfits that began work in the unions in the early 1970’s with salutes to the rank and file and tried to devise “rank and file programs” have since wound up in the laps of left-talking labor officials. That is why so many far-left groups who prate about movements and try to devise minimal (always capitalist) programs to ignite them end up serving as lap-dogs for liberal politicians whose goal is to contain any movement, not stimulate it.

The middle-class left has patently opportunist politics, but its remaining qualms about working inside the Democratic Party are purely sectarian and will soon disappear. After all, once you accept that “galvanizing” a movement requires tailing what you consider the present level of consciousness, you accept the Democrats. That is why those leftists who deem themselves too good to actually dip into the swamp allow Jesse to do the dirty work for them. They will soon learn that they have to plunge in themselves.

The notion that liberal campaigns like Jesse Jackson’s are steps toward socialism is nothing new. Part of the historic difference between reformism and Marxism rested on this question. Reformists tend to see liberal capitalists as creeping socialists who press for a slow, progressive transformation of society even if they personally don’t see going, all the way. Marxists, in contrast, view liberals as defenders of the capitalist system who go along with just enough reforms to forestall socialist consciousness and revolution.

But workers can’t be led to socialism like an animal led to a trap with little pieces of bait along the way. They will reject the Democratic Party and capitalism in general when their hope in these institutions is exhausted and when they recognize their own class power through mass struggle. Then all things become possible that seem absurd today. That is why Marxists use election periods, when all eyes are turned to politics, to show that elections can’t change the system – only class action can. For this reason we argue for the general strike to unite the working class in struggle.

What Kind of Black Leadership?

The key to opening up the class struggle is indeed the question of race and racism, as the reformist left asserts. Proletarian leadership is impossible without the participation of black workers far out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. As a result of history blacks generally have a higher level of combativity than white workers; they have a far higher level of anti-capitalist consciousness; and black workers are located in the most strategic industries in the major cities of the country.

In strikes throughout the 1970’s white workers began to follow blacks who fought militantly. The prejudices of the ages were subordinated to the common class goal in practice. By following this direction, by fighting in each of the upcoming class battles for the general strike, the way can be paved to a true rainbow that can reach its goal. This means the black leadership that the working class needs.

Instead blacks are offered another kind of leadership, a peace offering to capitalism rather than a new generation of struggle. That is why the issue of working-class independence from capitalism in all its shapes must be posed starkly for black workers in this election campaign. If blacks continue to follow middle-class leadership they will remain trapped in the deadly embrace of capitalism, with its pervasive diseases of racism, depression and war. It is time for black workers to take the lead both in the black liberation struggle and the class struggle necessary to achieve it. That means the working for the proletarian socialist revolution through the struggle for a proletarian revolutionary party. There is no other hope for the working class, black and white.


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