Chris Harman

International: United States

Democrats are different

(October 1984)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 69, October 1984, p. 25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Many socialists believe the Democrats to be equivalent to Labour. Chris Harman argues that they have little in common.

RONALD REAGAN is almost certain to win another four years in office in next month’s US presidential elections. The opinion polls at the end of September gave him a 20 percent lead over his Democratic Party opponent, Walter Mondale.

The prospect of a second Reagan victory is causing panic among virtually the whole of the American left. The Republican Party convention voted for a programme which took a hard, right wing line, and most of the left sees a second term in office for him as meaning the destruction of all the liberal gains made in the past couple of decades. Within weeks of his re-election, it is said, US troops will be in operation against Nicaragua, and that will be followed by a further build up of nuclear weapons, more union busting, the stacking of the supreme court with the nominees of right wing fundamentalist religious sects, and the removal of abortion rights.

From the explicitly reformist Democratic Socialists of America through to the CP and the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ remnants of the Maoist organisations you hear the same cry: a Reagan victory would be a terrible catastrophe and it must be prevented by mobilising behind Mondale and the Democrats. Typical has been the attitude of the independent socialist weekly, the Guardian, which recently explained that this prospect had caused it to drop its 30 year old policy of refusing to opt for either major party.

The ‘new left’ experience

The tendency for the left to collapse into the Democratic Party is not a new one. The old reformist Socialist Party (one of the ancestors of the Democratic Socialists) long ago gave up independent electoral activity, and the trade union leaderships have always relied on pressurising the existing party machines (usually the Democrats, but occasionally, as with the Teamsters, the Republicans).

But this was a trend which most of the left of the late 1960s and early 1970s rejected. Black activists turned against the Democratic Party in 1964 when it refused seats at its convention to black delegates from the Mississipi Freedom Democratic Party. New left activists in Students for a Democratic Society soon turned, in disillusionment, away from their 1964 slogan of ‘Half the Way with LBJ’ (Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic President) to ‘Hey, Hey LBJ, How many kids did you kill today’.

The belief of the new left was that students, blacks, anti-war activists and feminists could form links with workers and build a force capable of challenging American capitalism. The collapse into the Democratic Party represents the final abandonment of these hopes by the great majority of those who made up this left.

The scale of the collapse is often not understood by socialists in Europe. After all, they say, we urge a vote for Labour in elections, so why should American socialists not urge a vote for the Democrats?

But there are very important differences between the Democratic Party and the European Socialist and Labour Parties.

The Labour Party is a product of the working class movement – albeit a product that is ingrained through and through with the commitment of union bureaucrats and careerist politicians to operating within capitalism even if this means defending it against the pressure of rank and file workers. And so the struggles of workers and the arguments these give rise to find an echo, however muffled and distorted, within the party. Elections find 99 percent of the capitalist class ranged against the Labour Party, and almost all workers with any sort of elementary class consciousness ranged behind it. Socialists cannot avoid having to take sides on such occasions. We have to relate to the aspirations of rank and file Labour Party members, even while trying to build a separate party of our own.

The Democratic Party is a very different sort of party. It developed in the nineteenth century as an alliance of very different social groups that had only one thing in common – resentment at the growing political dominance of Northern industrialists. While the Republican Party united industrialists and ‘native born’ farmers behind a policy of capitalist development based on free wage labour, the Democratic Party gained support from both the northern urban poor (especially immigrant groups like the Irish, Italians, and East European Jews) and the Southern plantation owners. So at the time of the Civil War in the early 1860s it stood for ‘state rights’ and the toleration of slavery, and right up to the early 1960s it was the party of ‘Jim Crow’ segregation in the South.

Industrialisation of the South long ago transformed the heirs of the plantation owners into successful businessmen. Many have been quite happy to climb onto the Reagan bandwagon. As a result the Southern overtly racist component in the Democratic Party is much less important than it used to be, and many Southern racists believe the Republicans are the party most open to their pressures.

Meanwhile the Democratic Party has obtained for itself two new sorts of support. In the 1930s Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy of organised capitalism, containing strong doses of state capitalism and elements of welfarism, won endorsements from the main sections of the trade union bureaucracy. And in the 1960s, the willingness of Kennedy and Johnson to enforce the ending of southern segregationist laws and practices which no longer suited the needs of big business enabled the party to win the support of blacks in much the same way it had won the support earlier of other minority ethnic groups. Machine politicians would promise to reward trade union and black leaders who sought votes for them just as they rewarded those who represented any other ‘constituency’ of support.

But the core of the party remained, and remains, thoroughly capitalist. At every level its machine depends upon those with business interests which tie them to the present system. They support the Democratic Party because it pushes their particular interests against those of other sections of the capitalist class. And those who rise through the party machine are expected to develop such interests themselves (so no-one finds it Strange that one of Jesse Jackson’s campaign managers is facing charges connected with sizeable business deals).

The party has promised favours to the unions and to blacks. But it has never seriously tried to deliver these where they have clashed with the real interests of US capitalism. So many Democrats in Congress voted for the legal restraints on the unions embodied in the Taft Hartley Act of 1948.

Democrats and the unions

The Democratic Party has been happy to receive full mailing lists of the AFL-CIO unions for the Mondale campaign; but union placards were banned from the floor of the party’s convention. There is no equivalent within the party to the delegate structures which enable the unions directly to influence Labour Party policy in Britain.

The structure of the party serves to tie in union bureaucrats and the leaders of ethnic groupings to the American political system. But it does not provide any means for their rank and file supporters to engage in discussion of, let alone influence, policy. Socialists who try to exercise such influence through the party inevitably end up campaigning for policies which are absolutely compatible with the aims of US capitalism.

Thus many Central American support groups are putting all the stress on voting for Mondale, but Mondale himself has made it clear that, if elected, he would impose a blockade on Nicaragua and continue the war in El Salvador. The freeze campaign too is backing him; but his running mate, Ferraro, has said she is in favour of first use of nuclear weapons in certain situations.

All this is in line with the party’s long history of pressing the interests of US imperialism. It was, after all, Democratic Party administrations that took the US into World War One, World War Two, the first cold war, the Korean War, the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the Vietnam War, and the second cold war.

If much of the American left has forgotten all this, it is because its lack of historical perspective has driven it into the same sort of despair that persuaded some of the British left a year ago that the working class was finished and that the future lay in alliances with the Liberals and Social Democrats.

Last updated on 8 October 2019