The following was originally published in Socialist Voice No. 20 (Winter 1984) and later appeared in the LRP pamphlet The Democratic Party: Graveyard of Black Struggles.
It is not unusual for the black leadership to be divided, so the current bitter dispute wracking the recognized black political establishment is hardly astonishing. Forces ranged around Rev. Jesse Jackson are pushing for his candidacy in the Democratic Party presidential primaries. Other leaders have favored early support to liberal white Democrats. But what is unusual is the political near-unanimity underlying the surface schism; both blocs agree on an electoral Democratic Party strategy for black America. This seeming paradox of schism and unity, however, only masks the crucial paradox: the unity so desperately needed by the black masses—indeed, by all workers—can come only through breaking the present coalescence at the top.
For all its narrowness and dead-end quality, the dispute over how to maximize black clout inside the Democratic Party reflects real questions. Jackson, at the June 1983 meeting of black leadership forces held in Chicago, steamrollered the passage of a resolution endorsing the idea of a black candidacy. Although the resolution did not name Jackson as the candidate, few observers doubted that he had anyone else in mind. The formation of an “exploratory committee” under the aegis of Jackson’s biggest promoter. Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, was only one signal of his intentions. The “Run, Jesse, run!” outcry which greeted his appearances everywhere among black audiences is testimony not only to a genuine sentiment which is beginning to swell but to an organized drive by a wing of the black political elite.
Ranged in opposition to a black presidential campaign are such figures as Coretta Scott King, Washington D.C.’s Congressional Delegate Walter Fauntroy, NAACP leader Benjamin Hooks, Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), William Lucy of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and Andrew Young, Mayor of Atlanta and Jimmy Carter’s front man in the United Nations. Most of them are overtly or covertly in support of Walter Mondale for the Democratic Party nomination.
The anti-Jackson forces argue that a black candidacy not only has no hope of winning but could also cripple the chances of the more liberal, pro-civil rights Democrats like Mondale. They assert that a black candidate would strain relations with the Democratic Party as a whole and its liberal wing in particular. A Jackson campaign could realistically garner only a handful of delegate votes at the party convention, given the Democratic Party rules. For this the whole network of relations built up for years with liberal politicians would be weakened.
The Jackson proponents do not claim that a black could win the nomination. They do believe that a black candidate could accelerate black registration, inspire a much larger black vote and help elect black candidates for lesser offices. They claim that Jackson’s campaign could force commitments on important issues from the frightened white liberal politicians. Even if Jackson cannot win many convention delegates, blacks will have consolidated themselves as a solid enough force so that the Democrats will have to take them more into account. Further, it is just possible that Jackson could place himself at the center of a wider “rainbow coalition,” which would include women’s, peace, ecology and Hispanic interest groups and thereby add to the blacks’ bargaining position.
The differences are clear enough, but the common agreement on the need for an electoral Democratic Party strategy is equally so. It is not by accident that the “black leadership family” is now called the 1984 Election Strategy Committee. The significance of this unanimity is highlighted by the fact that in the past, the black leadership has been torn apart by radically different perspectives on how to achieve goals and has rarely united in giving priority to electoralism. Non-violent direct action, massive judicial efforts, religious appeals and social quietism, as well as guerrilla warfare, separatist tactics, self-defense and even mass action, have all been advocated at one time or another by major leaders.
But hardly an article is written today on black politics which does not quote some politician or minister asserting the blacks have learned to “play the game” and that they have “matured.” The present leadership meetings consist of Democratic Party politicians and influential organizational and ministerial leaders, and are far less varied than, for example, the conferences in the 1970’s whose attendees included proponents of radical action. Today, advocates of strategies more radical than electoralism exist only on the periphery of the black leadership; center stage is accorded to the camp followers of the Democratic Party. And their politics fit the mold. Both wings are undeniably pro-capitalist, and pro-U.S. capitalist at that, which means pro-imperialist. The newly presidential Jackson originally supported keeping U.S. troops fighting in Lebanon. “We have to live with certain of these contradictions,” he said (Village Voice, October 4), echoing the apologetics of imperialist liberals everywhere. After the 200 marines were killed he urged a U.S. pullout to allow less-exposed countries to pacify Lebanon for imperialism. Both Reagan and the Democrats seek to use pawn nations to front for U.S. stabilization plans in Central America. Jackson and other Democrats extend that policy to Lebanon.
How did this happen? After all, it was only a few years ago that revulsion and contempt for the Democratic Party was so great even among those who grudgingly voted for it that no such total commitment could be made by public figures. Moreover, the economic tailspin with its inflation, unemployment, retreat on social welfare, educational collapse and urban decay accelerated throughout the 1970’s and blew away so much of the highly touted “permanent gains” of the “New Deal”, “Fair Deal” and “Great Society” that Democratic liberalism seemed like a macabre joke to dispossessed blacks. How is it that the Democrats are now being resurrected as the party of hope for the black masses (and the white as well)?
Blacks historically supported the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, until the late 1920’s when they steadily turned toward the Democrats. This process accompanied the Northern and urban emigration of the hitherto predominantly Southern rural black population. The basis for the switch was similar to the enrollment of foreign immigrant workers into the Democratic city machines. The Democratic Party helped in the adjustment process for blacks and delivered crumbs, very small ones indeed, mostly to the tiny black petty bourgeoisie, petty job seekers, small businessmen, churchmen and the like. To others it offered a little hope, in the wake of the repression and collapse of the labor revolts of the post World War II period on the one hand and the massive Garvey movement on the other.
The working-class battles of the thirties endangered the very existence of capitalism. The threat to property posed by general strikes, sitdowns, plant seizures and mass battles forced concessions from the ruling class. Far from being the benevolent dispensers of largesse, Roosevelt and the Democrats doled out concessions actually won at the factory gates and on the streets by fighting workers. Blacks played a limited but important role in key strike situations. But their small voting power, determined by their small numbers in the North and discrimination sanctioned by government and the Democratic Party in the South, meant that blacks had little political weight. Blacks did benefit as a result of the general concessions won by the working class, but given their frequent status as landless agricultural laborers and marginal workers in marginal industries, they benefited even less than others.
The Democratic Party rested during the thirties on a base of urban workers and small farmers in the South and elsewhere plus various layers of the middle class. The dominant control over the party, however, lay with sections of the big bourgeoisie coupled to reactionary Southern rural landlords, local businesses and oil operators. The landlords and small-town businessmen dominating the “Solid South” were the keystone in maintaining the party’s stability. The big-city machines, largely controlled by Catholic immigrant leaders, the unions (both AFL and especially the new, radical CIO) as well as the blacks, were all tied to the party whose existence was maintained by a venomously, anti-Catholic, anti-labor and racist power center, later named the “Dixiecrats.” That is why the liberal Democrats talked loudly but swung small sticks at the Southern reactionaries. Much of the financial as well as political power of the city machines and the ethnic and labor leaders came from their links to Democratic power in Washington—which in turn rested upon the Southern Bourbons.
The other keystone of the alliance was the Communist Party and other leftists, who played a crucial role in allying with Roosevelt and the Democrats to ensure that rebellious workers did not transcend industrial unionism into political action independent of the Democratic Party. (See U.S. Labor and the Left in Socialist Voice No. 5.)
War and post-war prosperity wedded to substantive transformations in agrarian and industrial technology transformed the South into a predominantly urban and increasingly industrial area. Economic power shifted to urban capitalists in the South, but for many years political power remained in the hands of the Dixiecrats. Neither the national Democrats nor the Southern urban capitalists (and their Northern partners) wished to do more than cosmetic reforms, since the Dixiecrats remained a bulwark against unionization in the South and the key to maintaining the Democratic Party nationally. (For details, see “Class Struggle in the South,” Socialist Voice Nos. 2 and 3.)
The post-World War II prosperity, the cold war, the colonial revolution overseas and now the increasingly urbanized condition of blacks all played a role in spurring the mass black upheavals of the late 1950’s the 1960’s and the early 1970’s. Among other consequences, the rebellion destroyed the power of an old black leadership in the South which rested upon a matter-of-fact alliance with the segregationists. It also forced Washington and the Southern urban bourgeoisie to assume the political reins in the South and grudgingly oppose the waning Dixiecrats.
The comparatively small share of prosperity that reached blacks served to reinforce and expand the small middle-class leadership. The threat of the black masses demanding an end to discrimination and the right to jobs, reinforced the role of black leadership organizations as brokers between the desires of the masses and the bourgeoisie and its political representatives in the Democratic Party. In the South, the new circumstances helped create an urban-based coalition between the newly empowered capitalist forces and the black leadership, based on the end of formal, legal discrimination. Black leaders thereby played an increasingly important role in the political structure and in the Democratic Party in key cities of the South, in alliance with the “business community.”
The national Democratic Party also took black leaders into greater account. However, the power structure was unwilling to disperse significant benefits to the black brokers. Martin Luther King, Jr. spend innumerable hours explaining to the Democrats that they ought to increase the sops given blacks through his good offices, to give him a few “victories” instead of standoffs; for if he was unable to deliver, mass black anarchy would occur.
As Malcolm X pointed out in his analysis of the 1963 March on Washington:
When Martin Luther King failed to desegregate Albany, Georgia, the civil rights struggle in America reached its low point. King became bankrupt almost, as a leader. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was in financial trouble; and it was in trouble, period, with the people when they failed to desegregate Albany, Georgia. Other Negro civil-rights leaders of so-called national stature became fallen idols.
Malcolm went on to point out the underlying relations between the Democrats in Washington and the black leadership shown through the microcosm of the events leading up to the march:
It was the grass roots out there in the street. It scared the white man to death, scared the white power structure in Washington, D.C. to death. I was there. When they found that this black steamroller was going to come down on the capital, they called in Wilkins, they called in Randolph, they called in these national Negro leaders that you respect and told them, ‘Call it off.’ Kennedy said, ‘Look, you all are letting this thing go too far.’ And Old Tom said, ‘Boss, I can’t stop it, because I didn’t start it.’ I’m telling you what they said. They said, ‘I’m not even in it, much less at the head of it.’ They said, ‘These Negroes are doing things on their own. They’re running ahead of us.’ And that old shrewd fox, he said, ‘If you all aren’t in it, I’ll put you in it. I’ll put you at the head of it. I’ll endorse it. I’ll welcome it. I’ll help it. I’ll join it.’…
Once they formed (the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership) with the white man over it, he promised them and gave them $800,000 to split up among the Big Six; and told them that after the march was over they’d give them $700,000 more. A million and a half dollars—split up between leaders that you have been following, going to jail for, crying crocodile tears for. And they’re nothing but Frank James and Jesse James and the what-do-you-call-’em brothers.
As soon as they got the setup organized, the white man made available to them top public-relations experts; opened the news media across the country at their disposal, which then began to project these Big Six as the leaders of the march. Originally they weren’t even in the march.
As the 1960’s struggle deepened the black masses got out of hand. Riots and rebellions burgeoned in ghetto after ghetto as the masses, tired of promises, demanded delivery. The initial leadership of the NAACP, SCLC, CORE and SNCC increasingly lost power to newer and younger black power forces who tried to reflect the radical demands of the black masses.
But not even these elements could connect solidly with the masses in motion. Riot after riot, revolt after revolt demonstrated that if the moderate leadership, including King, could hardly venture into the ghettoes safely, even the more accepted leaders could hot lead or control the events. The masses were out of hand, as the white bourgeois political forces learned when they attempted to pacify the upheavals through dealings with local leaders who proved to have no mass following or power to stop the upheaval.
It was in this period, up through the early 1970’s, that the political establishment began to dole out concessions to blacks under the threat of mass struggles. Of course, as with all concessions and reforms, the bourgeoisie did it in its own way. It chanelled the fund so as to build up a leadership in the communities that would have actual clout among black workers through its brokerage role. This meant recruitment into the various programs, projects, plans, community-elected boards, etc., of elements who were radical enough (often sincerely so, for what that’s worth) to gain a response. Thus, painstakingly, a new leadership (including some elements of the old) was slowly forged. The, remaining prosperity, although imperiled by the increasingly dangerous crisis of capitalism which resurfaced in the late 1960’s, was sufficient to dole out enough gains to provide hope for masses of blacks. This response to mass pressure came at a time when blacks, fed up with liberal promises, were voting less and less and were becoming more and more contemptuous of the Democratic Party.
The revolt of the black masses was stalled during the 1970’s, partially as a result of the transitory gains it made, partially because it found no alternative leadership it trusted to fight for real and lasting changes. But the major reason why the movement did not transcend its previous limits was the recession of 1973-75, which devastated black hopes. The recession put an end to the wave of wildcat strikes which shook American industry in the early 1970’s. It quieted the riot-torn ghettoes. It enabled the established union bureaucrats and the patched-up and refurbished black leadership to find a way to maintain their grip over their bases.
Gingerly at first, the AFL-CIO began to point to the Democratic Party and electoralism as the safe and responsible alternative to industrial militancy. By keeping struggles localized and separate, with the aid of the recession it succeeded in regaining its authority. The black leaders too began slowly moving toward increased Democratic activity.
Militancy subsided and hopelessness grew at the base; for years there was little popular response. Black workers tried riots again in Miami and elsewhere. Isolated and without clear leadership, in bad times when the bourgeoisie was on the offensive and would and could give less, they failed. Gradually, seeing no other alternative and no avenue to mass action, working-class people of all races renewed their interest in electoralism.
The Census Bureau reported that workers were beginning to vote more often, particularly the jobless and particularly blacks. 34.1 percent of the jobless said they voted in the 1982 Congressional elections as opposed to 27.4 percent in 1978. Black voting went from 37 percent in 1978 to 43 in 1982, twice the increase among whites. The traditional gap between white and black proportional turnouts at the polls narrowed.
Even within the diversity of black leaders during the 1970’s, the specific weight of Democratic politicians was slowly but steadily climbing. Historically, of course, black office-holders had been few and far between, and black leaders not directly involved in the political structure (such as ministers or professional organizational executives) would be dealt with by white politicians because they carried more weight. But politicians were becoming a new and important factor. For example, between 1978 and 1982 the number of black state legislators increased from 35 to 355, the biggest leap ever. Nevertheless, the total of 5160 black officials nationally, while significantly higher than in the past, still amounts to only one percent of all elective offices in the U.S.
The drive to get blacks to the polls in order to increase the specific weight of the black leadership within the Democratic Party is growing. The Atlanta-based Voter Education Project has been conducting a major campaign to register 350,000 new Southern black voters by the end of the year. Supermarkets, shopping mails and department stores have set up permanent registration tables. Radio commercials are designed to add to the hoopla. The NAACP aims to register two million new voters nationwide by the end of the year. It is sponsoring an “Overground Railroad” to accelerate its effort to reach potential black voters. However, the most significant jumps in black voting stem from elections in which black candidates run with a chance of winning. Last but not least, Jesse Jackson has been crusading day after day to whip up registration sentiment among black youth, with substantial results. The pattern is clear. So are the reasons. The consequences for the black masses will be disastrous.
Let us sum up. The Democratic Party has never been the source of black gains. At times it disburses the gains actually won by mass challenges to the system. Its function is to allocate these gains through a system of brokers (leaders) who have or who have been given clout within specific sectors organized as “interest groups.” The Democratic Party delivers only to the degree that capitalism can afford to. It could never, even at the height of a prosperity greater than any prosperity that ever occurred in the history of the world deliver enough to feed, clothe, and house its entire working class. Now that the bubble has burst and the chronic, mortal crisis has resurfaced, the sops are tinier and the many previous gains are eroded or taken entirely away.
The Democratic Party is the institution within which the various sectors are forced to exercise their clout against each other for a portion of the small take. Not only does the party mechanism, with its rewards dependent upon votes and maneuvers, encourage sectors to vie with each other for scarce sops—but within each group, separate interests are forced to clash in order to maximize their take. Democratic Party politics internally—with city pitted against city, region against region, state against state, Hispanics against blacks against Poles against Italians against Irish against Jews for a piece of the federal budget action—is the war of all against all which mirrors life under capitalism. That is the purpose of the Democratic Party. Through the allocation of sops and reforms, it is designed to divide, conquer and destroy, existing or potential mass movements. (No wonder the present dispute within the black leadership is so hostile.
As we pointed out in our last issue, the rewards given through the brokering facility of the leaderships of the various sectors are designed also to split up class consciousness since class demands cannot be met by capitalism. This is not just “theory” but practice; and as we showed, sections of the bourgeoisie are perfectly well aware of it, discuss it and refine it. As well, the rewards must of necessity be distributed unequally within each group: the brokers, bourgeoisie (if any) and the middle strata get the most, and the base, the more exploited workers get vicarious identifications, group pride, hope for the future—but far less or nothing at all for themselves. When things get worse, as they have been, the sops dwindle to nothing and even the upper layers of the particular sector are undercut. This is exactly what has happened among blacks, and with a vengeance.
The Census Bureau recently reported with amazing understatement that recession, unemployment and poverty had halted the “momentum of social and economic improvement” for blacks. The disproportionate attack on blacks as opposed to whites, and the fact that it reaches up into the middle strata so dramatically, is hot only the cause of fears, anguish and the revival of social motion among the mass of black workers and unemployed. It is also behind the present turmoil within the black leadership.
At first glance, the difference between the anti-Jackson forces and the pro-Jackson forces seems to be between those black politicians who depend either upon white voices for their power or upon their ties to white politicians and interests. It is no accident, therefore, that Andrew Young, Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit, Mayor W. Wilson Goode of Philadelphia and many of the Congressional Black Caucus members support Mondale rather than Jackson. Likewise, Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, whose power rests on an almost exclusively black base, supports Jackson. It is no accident that aspiring black candidates will tend to favor Jackson because he will accelerate the black for a black vote and will quite probably enlarge the numbers of elected blacks.
There is more to it, however. The Jackson candidacy finds great support among the ministers who constitute such an important part of the black leadership.. As Time magazine recently pointed out, “If Jackson runs, the foundation for his campaign will be provided by the network of black churches across the nation, still the most influential institution in the black community. In July, 125 ministers met in East St. Louis to form a Draft Jesse Jackson Committee, aimed at collecting one million signatures.”
On the contrary, the professionals associated with the NAACP, the SCLC and above all the Urban League oppose a black candidacy. Their budgets are substantially dependent upon white philanthropies and corporations. It is not that these people are simply bought off, rather their whole mode of thought is conditioned by their material base. Social change and defense of blacks (and their personal security in the organizational bureaucracies) as they see it rests with close ties to “allies” who have the same desire for ameliorative change designed to prevent outbreaks which threaten their common stability. Their hostility to such a campaign at the moment is quickened by the economic crisis. The recent demeaning court fight between the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Fund after so many years of coexistence was due to their desperate competition for funds. They don’t want to strain relations with the liberal white bourgeoisie.
The leadership’s willingness to maintain ties to whites at all costs was shown at the heralded August 27 March on Washington led by the black establishment. The program of jobs, peace and freedom, already vague enough to mean all things to virtually all people, was made even vaguer by attempts to water it down. Any idea that “peace” meant opposition to existing war was ruled out to satisfy Zionist organizations and the labor bureaucrats. “Jobs” has so little content that General Motors can sound more radical on the subject. “Freedom” was not allowed to mean reproductive rights for women, and the march leaders attempted to “defend” gay rights by ignoring gays’ existence. Even so, the AFL-CIO was present only in the form of its black-based and leftish-led unions; Lane Kirkland stayed away. The Urban League, fearful of the straining of relations, opposed the march. The pro-Israel groups refused to be mollified.
These pulls and tears also affect the Jackson wing. They too have “connections” with the white-dominated power structure of the Democratic Party and the myriad of organizations, philanthropies and institutions interpenetrated with it. But their relative insulation is higher. Hatcher has less concern about immediate white tie-ups than does either of the Youngs. So too with the black churches. They rest foursquare on the black community. Historically they were not only its strongest institution but also its most nearly independent one. While their mortgages might be held by white-owned banks, their essential financial base is in the black caste. It is no accident that they are aligned to a Jackson candidacy.
As the contest unfolds, the heat builds up. At a recent meeting in Chicago, Time reported that Andrew Young defensively challenged Jesse Jackson and added: “I consider myself in the ‘family’.” Jackson retorted, “Dick Hatcher is family. You’re in the neighborhood.”
Clearly Jackson is on the offense and the anti-candidacy forces are retreating. In fact, Young and many of the others are being forced to cover their pro-Mondale support and either line up behind Jackson or equivocate as the campaign develops. They may have no choice, given the fact that while they must retain ties to the whites, they are worthless to the white capitalists if they are read out of the black leadership “family.”
In the past, one current of the black leadership pointed to assimilation and integration as the road forward. The other current was identified as separatist or nationalist. (See “The Black Struggle Today” in Socialist Voice No. 7.) Integrationism has always meant equality and acceptance of blacks by white America into its class structure as it stands. It reflected the deep need in the black community for equality and the social action to achieve it. Nationalism, on the other hand, reflected the need of blacks for group defense, distrust in the promises always broken by others and group solidarity. Its ideology was that of national separation, but in reality it reflected attempts to build separate and independent economic, social and political institutions in existing black sections of America. Integration was impossible under capitalism, which could never afford real equality. Nationalism was equally impossible in that the black economy solidly intertwined with and subordinate to the dominant white capitalist American economy. In imperialist America neither was a way out.
Both middle-class ideologies picked up real support in the black proletariat and subproletariat. Integrationism could entrap black workers because of its seeming identity with the interracialism they seek, which can only be achieved in the internationalist world of abundance under socialism. Nationalism too was a class-negated version of the masses’ understanding, taking advantage of their yearning for group solidarity to survive and their awareness that social promises by others are believable only if blacks wield power.
Jackson bases his campaign on the middle-class sectors who wish to strengthen their own roles by maximizing group power. His relation to the Democrats is similar to that of the machine-oriented white ethnic politicians in its openly quid-pro-quo character. The party, he has said, “cannot receive investment without promising dividends and returns.” His readiness to sit down with Alabama’s Governor Wallace shows him dealing in the Democratic Party in the hard-headed terms that the game demands. His opponents reflect the traditional liberal reformer style which, while not averse to building its black voting base, emphasizes instead integrated leadership of “men of good will” fighting for common social needs. Jackson’s self-help program is hardly the same as the grandiose nationalist ambitions for a separate economy, but it reflects more moderate impulses of a similar kind.
Jackson is feeling his bats also because his campaign touches a responsive chord among black workers and unemployed. “Run Jesse, run!” was not manufactured out of thin air.
The sentiment is growing: “We want ours.” This is seen in ethnic-racial terms, not class terms. All blacks are under the gun, even if the attack is disproportionately heavy on the poorer mass. Unfortunately, the masses have interpreted past history as being the failure “to play the game.” What did mass action, riots and strikes get us in the end? What we should have done or should do now is what other sectors and ethnic groups have done to get ahead: play the game inside the Democratic Party; it’s the only game in town. That’s why the black masses, as opposed to the leaders, are not ecstatic about the Democratic Party. They know the other racist forces that are there, they know it isn’t a question of good will, of liberal do-goodism, philanthropy and the like—it’s quid pro quo. You can’t be enthusiastic about such an institution; you hold your nose and grab what you can.
Take the August 27 march. The leadership would have loved to turn the march into a rally for the Democratic Party. It could not do so. The march was anti-Reagan and for voter registration, but the call could not be, “Let’s all turn out for the good old Democratic Party!” No Democratic Party leaders (not even Presidential candidates, aside from Jackson) were presented to the crowd. While the intent of the march leaders was to begin building up for such an ardent embrace, it could not yet be brought off. This is not because the leaders aren’t in love already. It is not because the largely middle-class and labor aristocratic marchers won’t vote Democrat. The absent black masses will also probably vote Democrat; but just that the mass of black people themselves still regard the Democratic Party with contempt, coolness and a lack of great expectations.
We are for Jackson, people feel, not the Democrats. But one of the reasons we are for Jackson is that he is mobilizing a black power base inside the party of reality, not a powerless sure loser outside. Oh yes, Jackson will lose inside the Democratic Party, but that’s not the point. We can’t win the whole pie, but we want our share and we can force them to give it to us.
His opponents call Jackson a demagogue, and certainly he is that—an opportunist and a hypocrite. Masses of black people are perfectly aware of his demagogy, but they view with disdain the more hypocritical elitism of liberals who make lofty promises but don’t deliver. They advocate programs which always seem to sacrifice strong black solidarity for hollow promises and Utopian dreams of whites and blacks hand-in-hand together. Maybe that’s real at Yale, but not in Harlem.
Black solidarity is a need that is immediately perceived. Indeed, Jackson is well aware that feelings of black unity as a result of the Carter-Reagan attack are burgeoning, with or without him. His forces seek to channel this justified sentiment into support for the leadership’s Democratic Party strategy. Many are buying this line despite their contempt for the Democrats, because they believe that Jackson’s black solidarity efforts will prove more important than his party ties. But the sense of unity that Jackson is playing upon is actually a two-edged sword.
The black masses perceive part of the nature of the Democratic Party but not the whole of it. They have learned that their past mass actions failed. They have not learned that the reason for their failure was that they didn’t transcend the Democratic Party and smash it, not that they didn’t use it.
The missing dimension in this black working-class view is class itself. Black workers do understand that white workers are also hurting; but they are also aware of the racism of many white workers. They also do not see any class banner to group around. Does the labor bureaucracy provide a better, more attractive way out than black identity and Jesse Jackson? Black unionized workers have even greater contempt for the union bureaucracy than do the whites. In the absence of class action, class consciousness is predictably low. And this, given the reality of American society, spells disaster for blacks.
Racism is fundamental to the existence of American capitalism. That is the Achilles heel of the middle-class strategies. For capitalism requires a permanent army of unemployed. It must divide the working class by wielding more-favored workers against a clearly demarcated outcaste group occupying the lowest rungs on the. ladder. For black workers to play the divisive, competitive game that is the heart of the Democratic Party strategy is to guarantee their defeat. Black workers above all need a class-wide strategy to survive.
If the struggle is confined to the Democratic Party, the different sectors will be competing with each other in an environment in which the government has far less fat than even during the last great depression. Then it could go into debt to finance the small sops it gave; today the staggering debt is already a major factor dragging the system down. So the competition can only intensify.
White workers as well as blacks face mounting unemployment. Those who still think they have it made are in for a great shock. American capitalism has always used elements among impoverished white workers to attack their black fellow-workers. Under these conditions intensified sectoral competition will lead to race war, a leap toward fascism.
In the 1930’s Southern segregation stabilized the Democratic Party coalition by keeping blacks so far down and so marginal to heavy industry that they were only a symbolic challenge to white workers. That is no longer true. Race war will come quicker and more viciously among today’s Democratic voters than yesterday’s. The racist vitriol spouted by white Democratic leaders in Chicago trying to inflame their sectorally divided base is only a mild foretaste. And this is a struggle that blacks cannot win.
This is the deadly trap black workers are being led into today. But the situation is far from hopeless. Just as in the 1930’s, just as is happening in a dozen countries around the world today, American working people will inevitably fight back against the capitalist assault. They will fight not only out of desperation against the loss of their material gains but also from their strength: it is they who make industry produce, who yield the capitalists’ profits—and who therefore can stop production, stop profits, and restart industry on a socialist, non-profiteering basis. Black workers, among the most exploited, are also among the most strategically located in heavy industry in the United States.
Moreover, there is another major difference between today and the 1930’s. Not only is Roosevelt’s Democratic Party ally, the Southern industrial landlord, gone, but so is his solid left ally that served to keep the workers from independent political action. The Communist Party is today a shadow of the powerful force in the unions and the factories that it was in the thirties. Its power among black workers is also greatly reduced. Today’s left, divided into a myriad of groups the bulk of which pimp for the Democratic Party, cannot form such a unified force of betrayal again. Therein lies the hope that mass action, the general strike, which unifies the class in action will not be forced aside by fake leftists who have gained authority among workers. The weakness of the pseudo-socialist left today and the limitations of its passive electoralism can only serve to postpone the workers’ upheaval, not to prevent it.
Jesse Jackson and similar demagogues, in playing upon the theme of black unity and promising gains impossible under capitalism, only whet the masses’ appetites. Even a passive electoral display of black power, coupled to the inevitable disappointment at its betrayal, could be an impetus toward the mass action it seeks to prevent. Over time it can lead to the rejection of the petty-bourgeois misleaders, both pro-capitalists like Jackson and “anti-capitalists” like his leftist cheerleaders who have too great a stake in the system to challenge it. This can lead to the creation of a Marxist revolutionary workers’ party to pose a real alternative to capitalism.
Such a revolutionary party will inevitably reflect the fact that blacks will play a leadership role in any American workers’ upheaval, far out of proportion to their minority numbers. It would not only proclaim the interracialist program so necessary for black workers but would champion the practical lighting experience of the super-exploited black caste. It would be a living example of black solidarity, one that would attract class-conscious white workers as well to the universal proletarian cause.
But such unity can come only on working-class terms with proletarian leadership, not that of the brokers and their narrow, sectoral sops. The truly American paradox is that, given the systemic racism and the economic crisis, few sectoral gains are possible for the most militant and anti-capitalist “sector” of the working class, the black masses. They cannot free themselves without leading the working class as a whole to a new world.