Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Race against the machines

(September 2000)

From Socialist Review, No.244, September 2000.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

US workers can now vote for a radical alternative in the coming presidential election, argues Chris Harman

Elections in the US cause confusion for the left on both sides of the Atlantic. People tend to see them as parallels to the contests which take place in most European countries between openly capitalist forces on the one side, and social democratic or labour parties that originated in the working class movement on the other.

The argument goes that however bad the Democratic Party might be it has to be supported against the Republican Party, since it is the party that most trade unionists and black people support. After all, it was the Democratic president Roosevelt whose ‘New Deal’ in the 1930s provided the first welfare benefits and union rights for US workers, and it was the Democrat presidents Kennedy and Johnson who pushed through the first effective civil rights legislation.

The argument is wrong on two counts. The fact that a party is supported by workers does not make it into a workers’ party. In Britain in the second half of the 19th century workers supported either the Liberal or Tory parties. Both were run by industrialists and big landowners, without being workers’ parties.

The historic development of the two major parties in the US has followed a similar pattern. At the core of each are people closely associated with big business, and their main funding comes from such interests. The split between them reflects divergent interests within America’s ruling class rather than any split between big business and workers. The Democrats have courted trade union support since the 1930s and black support since the early 1960s. But their structures and conventions are not gatherings of trade union or black activists. Rather they are dominated by machine politicians who seek votes by offering favours to interest groups in each locality. They are a ‘clientele’ or a ‘patronage’ party, not a working class party.

The European social democratic and labour parties have very different historical roots to the Democrats. They grew out of the workers’ movement, even though their leaders usually preached collaboration with capitalism. This meant they were subject to contradictory internal pressures, which threatened to produce splits at times of heightened class conflict. The Russian revolutionary Lenin encapsulated their contradictory nature when he called the Labour Party a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. On the one hand they were tied to capitalism by their leaders, and on the other they were organised in such a way that workers and their representatives had collective forums where they could discuss whether they needed to be tied in this way.

Even today trade union leaders are directly represented at the conference and on the executive of Britain’s Labour Party. Many of the social democrat and labour leaders have long resented such links and tried to replace them by complete reliance on big business interests in the American fashion. In Britain ‘the project’ of the Blairites since the mid-1990s has aimed at doing this by consciously recasting the Labour Party as a version of the Democratic Party, for instance seeking to replace trade union funding by donations from millionaires. But they have not yet completely succeeded in doing so, and the base of Blair’s party still remains rather different from that of Clinton and Gore’s, however close their policies might be.

The Blairites still have a residual fear that any great economic or political crisis could lead to an outbreak of class arguments within their party. The contradictory class character of the Labour Party means most socialists will be supporting socialist candidates where possible in the next general election, but will still be voting Labour when there is no socialist standing.

The Democratic Party is built in a very different way. The unions have never been represented as such but have always been supplicants pushing for machine bosses and ‘enlightened’ businessmen to grant them favours. Any concessions the Democrats have made to the unions, they have just as readily taken back. It was a Democrat president, Truman, who agreed to the Taft-Hartley law in the late 1940s which sharply restricted the union rights granted in the 1930s. Under Clinton the gap between the super- rich and the mass of American workers has grown even greater than it was under Nixon, Reagan and Bush. The Democrats have always been just as keen as the Republicans to undertake imperialist ventures. It is not a party that gives in under pressure to American big business and imperialism. It is a party of American big business and imperialism.

This is why the development of Ralph Nader’s campaign for president is so significant. Nader does not call himself a socialist, and is part of that rather confused tradition of American radicalism which sees big business and corrupt politicians as the problem rather than the whole system. But he has embraced the spirit of Seattle, which he describes as a ‘fork in the road’, attacks the way ‘big business has been on a rampage to control our society ... for the past 20 years’, and declares, ‘We have government of the Exxons, by the General Motors, for the DuPonts.’

Nader insists, ‘The only distinction between Bush and Gore is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when big corporations knock on the door,’ and denounces the fact that ‘the majority of workers still, after ten years of economic growth, make less today, in inflation adjusted dollars, and work 160 hours a year longer, than they did in 1973.’ Such language has won over 5 percent support in opinion polls, and nearly 10 percent in the western states of California, Oregon and Washington. It is winning direct support from some smaller trade unions and some friendly words even from the bosses of big unions like the Teamsters. In doing so, it is opening up a discussion among American workers as to whether their organisations should continue to subordinate themselves to one ruling class party in its contests with its rival. It is also providing an opportunity for the hundreds of thousands of people influenced by the new radicalism shown at Seattle, Washington and elsewhere to find a common language with the workers who have lost out over the last quarter of a century.

It is impossible to predict what share of the vote Nader will get. It is possible that many of those backing him now will collapse into the Gore camp before November. And even Nader is not translating his challenge to the Democrats in the presidential race into a challenge to all the party’s congressmen.

Nevertheless, his campaign gives American socialists the best chance for very many decades to argue with workers that they should develop a politics of their own.

Nader has embraced the spirit of Seattle, describing it as a ‘fork in the road’

Last updated on 22 December 2009