When first encountering the “Impeach Bush” movement in 2007 I responded, almost flippantly, “why not impeach the system that gave us Bush?” Otherwise, I said, “we risk having someone in the White House who’ll make us long for Bush.” If prescient, my response was admittedly formulaic and evidentially deficient.
Not surprisingly, whiffs of a new impeach movement are now in the air since the November 2016 surprise. Those blowing from the left, however, are again devoid of systemic/structural thinking and, alas, to its peril. It’s to those who are wary of being seduced by this crowd that this more substantive response is directed rather than to the lesser-evil true believers for whom hope springs eternal.
Obviously, the latter aren’t looking for a President Michael Pence outcome if successful. Then what? A resurrected Hillary brought back from the dead? Or, some combination of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders? In other words, some kind of Democratic Party solution? Any of these options, I contend, buys once again into a system that risks a “mediocrity” even more “grotesque” than Trump—as Marx, in the Eighteenth Brumaire, might have described him.
I could be prescient—in broad strokes if not in specifics—exactly because I was thinking systemically, of the system of capitalism in all its logic and actuality. Those who had long dismissed Marx for whatever reasons did so, also, to their peril. They’ve been theoretically and politically hamstrung in making sense of the unprecedented political moment in which we now live. Never have the sentences in the Communist Manifesto about the reality of capitalism—“All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned”—had such currency.
To think that a capitalist party, be it the DP or any other incarnation, offers solutions to working people is not only ill-informed but dangerous. Severe opportunity costs come with such thinking, the delay in forging a real working class political alternative.
Systemic thinking about the DP requires first an analysis of the internal logic of capitalism, specifically at this stage in its life history. What’s glaringly absent, for example, in Thomas Frank’s latest, Listen, Liberal (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016), published months before the election, is a critique of the party.1
Those of us who subscribe to Marx’s thesis about the tendency for profit rates to fall have long argued that the 1974-1975 and 1981-1982 recessions spelled the beginning of the end of the post-World War II boom that had lifted the standard of living of most workers in advanced capitalist countries. Capitalism had entered into one of those rare but consequential moments in its 250 plus year history, a prolonged period of contraction and/or slow growth. And it was only a matter of time before working class resistance would begin to build.
Wage rates have indeed been stagnant or declining since then, regardless of the party affiliation of the occupant in the White House. Social wages have also come under attack in order to restore capitalist profitability. Never should it be forgotten that it was a DP president, William Jefferson Clinton, who eliminated a key plank of the New Deal—the concessions the ruling class was forced to grant to workers in the streets in response to the Great Depression. Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC) was intended to be the first sacrificial lamb to capital on the altar of the New Democrats that the Clintons so personified. Only out of fear for the political price to be paid have the governing servants of capital not gone after their real target—social security. Hence why they’d like to do to all the key pillars of capitalist rule what they did in 1913 for the Federal Reserve Board, to wall them off from the electorate; so far only a dream.
What many of us didn’t anticipate about the crisis that began in 1974-1975, particularly in the U.S. case, was the extent to which the capitalist state through the Fed would promote the use of credit to perpetuate the American dream for many workers—either through credit cards and/or their houses as ATMs. That all came to a virtual halt in 2008 (except, interestingly, for student loans), with only a partial rebound since then. The expected resistance has so far mainly taken the electoral road as the unprecedented 2016 election cycle revealed in both the Trump and Sanders phenomena. That both campaigns have an echo in many other advanced capitalist countries in Europe, for example, testifies to the systemic nature of the crisis, what some defenders of capitalism now call “secular stagnation,” or “the new normal.”
But the ruling class did begin to pay a price for the beginning of the end of the American dream. Coupled with the two other blows it suffered in the mid-seventies, Watergate and the defeat in Vietnam, trust in government and the political class precipitously declined and has never recovered. The findings of the Pew Research Center poll of Nov. 2015, “Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government,” anticipated Hillary Clinton’s defeat given how negatively the vast majority of the population viewed the political class in both Democratic and Republican clothing. (In jest—but only slightly—I tell colleagues whose specialty is Congress that they should receive extra hardship pay for having to study such a discredited institution.) A sliver of the sixty percent of the eligible electorate who voted, about 77,000 in three states, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, decided to risk Trump in the White House rather than Clinton who epitomized all that was wrong with bourgeois politics. Had he been less outrageous he would have won the popular as well as the Electoral College vote.
My prescience about someone worse than Bush was informed by the awareness of how turned off to politics as usual millions of workers had become. I’d written in 2003 that it wasn’t a question of “whether…recession and depression…will come to the shores of the United States, but only when” (Marx, Tocqueville, and Race in America (2003), p. 213). Five years later I was proven right. I also argued that the combination of a still unfolding economic crisis with deep distrust of the political class opened up the possibility of a repeat of what happened in the global capitalist crisis of the nineteen-thirties—unless a real working class alternative was available. Capitalist crises, history had shown, spawn radicalizations not only on the left but the right as well, Exhibit A, “national socialism.”
The lesser-evil thinking that entices many well-intentioned liberals, workers as well, to keep electing Dems and, thus, the delay in the construction of a real working class political alternative, would only, I further argued, embolden capital to do whatever is necessary to lower wage costs in order to restore profitability. A demagogue in the White House who plays the xenophobic card is one reason for Wall Street’s embrace of Trump, the “Trump trade”—at least so far. Capital always profits from a divided working class. Lowering wage costs, both individual and social, is in fact the default position of capital since its inception—a Dickensian world. The irreconcilability of the fundamental class interests of capital and labor is the key and why a Bernie Sanders reform-capitalism-alternative won’t work.
Consider the jobs crisis, where fewer and fewer living wage jobs have led to all manner of tragic social consequences—be it gangbanging in West Side Chicago or OD’ing on oxycontin in small town Ohio. Without work the proletariat is the precariat. So why aren’t capitalists spending the trillions they’re sitting on to create “decent paying jobs”? Simply because it’s not profitable, or, more accurately, it’s not as profitable as investing in “fictitious capital,” as Marx called it, like credit default swaps and other sophisticated kinds of paper. It’s no more mysterious than that. Not only is money making money more remunerative than money buying labor to make things to make money but it’s less risky because all the stuff has to be sold to make a profit. Yet, as the 2008 crisis dramatically revealed, the money-making-money game entails its own unique risks; it works as long as most players think they can exit faster than others when the house of cards—or, better, paper—collapses. Hence in a mode of production that commodifies everything nano-second trading is a growth industry.
Capitalism’s internal logic has brought it to a stage in its life history that obviates any prospects for returning to the “good old days” for workers. As the bosses at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis cold-heartedly put it to the workers on the eve of the election: it’s either $5.85/hour or we move to Mexico. No wonder many a worker of different skin color, gender, and national origins in the plant voted for Trump, who promised to save their jobs. A drowning person, as Marx once put it, will grab hold to a twig in hope of salvation. But for Clinton’s diehard apologists those voters were the “irredeemable basket full of deplorables” responsible for her defeat. Rather than fault the system, capitalism, they, owing to the privileged bubble in which they reside, or hope to reside, blame its victims. A pattern the African American working class, especially after the seventies, has long been subjected to. Think of the now dethroned O’Reilly—“all that is solid melts into air”—and the rest of the Fox crew.
I must confess as a long-time African American Marxist that the biggest surprise of the election cycle before November 8 was to learn that “white folks” could too be treated with such contempt—by both the right and the left. The Jerry Springer Show of the nineteen-eighties should have prepared me. Reading Nancy Isenberg’s most informative White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America the summer before helped to explain the long roots of those prejudices.
The best that capitalism has to offer workers is behind us—a sobering fact whose recognition by the working class in its immense majority is the necessary condition for a real working class alternative, a socialist revolution. As Marx’s thorough study of economic history revealed: no mode of production lasts forever, which means that each system, including capitalism, has a life cycle. Though increasingly decrepit—what the “new normal” signifies—capitalism will not die on its own accord. It will have to be overthrown and if not, “socialism or barbarism” will be posed in ways unimaginable. Think of the carnage in the Middle East (written before the latest outrage).
“One thing is certain,” I wrote in 2013: “the logic of capital dictates that unless there is a real working-class alternative, bourgeois politics will keep moving to the right—especially in the context of the still unfolding crisis. Every delay in the pursuit of independent working-class political action only emboldens reaction” (Lenin’s Electoral Strategy, vol. 2 (2014), p. 191). Trump, contrary to liberal hysteria possessed by lesser-evil thinking, is far from the worst that the crisis of capitalism portends. Both the Democratic and Republican wings of the ruling class and their mouthpieces in the media were willing to risk a bonapartist-inclined buffoon in the White House in order to prevent the victory of a pink socialist, and that speaks volumes about what they’re willing to resort to defend their system. Tocqueville, unlike his latter-day admirers, had at least the honesty to admit why he could have and indeed did enable the original “grotesque mediocrity” to take power, Louis Bonaparte, in 1851: “I am instinctively aristocratic because I despise and fear mobs.” (quoted in Nimtz, Marx and Engels (2000), p. 138)
The history of the class struggle since the emergence of the capitalist mode of production, specifically in the nineteenth century, reveals that only when the working class organizes to be a threat or is perceived to be a threat to the interests of capital can it win concessions from the ruling capitalist class and advance its interests as it did during the Great Depression (see my article, “Violence and/or Nonviolence in the Success of the Civil Rights Movement,” New Political Science, 2016). And therein is the other side, apart from the internal logic of capital, of what is so problematic about the DP for working people.
“Out of the streets, into the suites”
Frank, as true for other like-minded liberals and workers, proceeds from the premise that the DP is “the Party of the People” that has “usually sided with the weak and the downtrodden.” I respectfully but emphatically disagree. The party more accurately is the graveyard of progressive social movements. In aligning themselves with the DP the very thing that made them effective is undermined—their independence from bourgeois politics. “Out of the streets, into the suites”—the swan song of the Freedom Now or Civil Rights Movement—they became null and void, enabling capital to revert to its default position.
“The Party of the People was also, once the Party of Slavery and the Party of the Klan,” Frank admits, but quickly dismisses that inconvenient history in order to paint the picture he wants to see (Listen, Liberal, p. 17). But that’s a sleight of hand. What does the record actually reveal?
After the successful anti-colonial struggle (Tom Paine being its best propagandist) the campaign to end slavery was America’s first progressive movement.2 But only with the birth of the Republican Party in 1854 did it consider aligning with a political party. No one with any credibility in the movement would have looked to the Democrats, “the Party of Slavery,” to advance its agenda; hence, why many of us who have roots in slavery had grandparents who were loyal Republicans as late as the mid-twentieth century.
So what explains why a party of slave owners would become the home of progressive social movements? Maybe it had a Pauline conversion moment on the road to Washington. The evidence upon a close reading suggests something less transcendental. It reveals that there was nothing inevitable about that unlikely marriage. Historical contingency is a better explanation.
The debilitating and ultimately deadly embrace of progressive social movements by the Dems began with the original populist movement, the People’s Party. Launched in 1891 by small farmers and petit-bourgeois forces to reform capitalism, it rapidly grew owing to the increasing number of those victimized by the system’s inherently rapacious character, especially when the depression of 1893 hit. DP presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan opportunistically pitched his 1896 campaign to the People’s Party base and rather than run their own candidate they endorsed Bryan. A faux populist, Bryan’s lost to Republican William McKinley (Mark Hanna, McKinley’s campaign manager and Karl Rove’s hero, out-organized him) effectively spelled the end of the People’s Party. Little if any of the populist tinge rubbed off, which is why the DP remained as conservative as ever. As late as 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Republican President Herbert Hoover’s DP challenger, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, could find no area of disagreement on issues dearest to the heart of capital: spending and deficits.
And not to be forgotten in FDR’s inaugural address—usually remembered for “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” about the crisis—was his bonapartist option. If Congress wasn’t prepared to pass his proposals (early onset dysfunction evidently) to deal with the unprecedented situation, “I shall ask [it] for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Never in the history of the Republic—those more informed can correct me—has a president, including the current one, ever raised that option; the real “nuclear option.”
For at least one of the People’s Party supporters there was a lesson to be learned from the 1896 debacle; working people needed their own party independent of the Dems. In helping to found the Socialist Party in 1901, Eugene V. Debs, a labor battle-tested fighter, set in motion for the first time in the U.S. the practice of working class-oriented parties contesting elections.3 His 1912 and 1920 presidential campaigns—the latter from a prison cell—garnered more votes than ever for an avowed socialist candidate (though he never disavowed the label, Bernie Sanders, not to be forgotten, didn’t run as a socialist).
It was in Minnesota, more than any other locale, where organized working class involvement in the electoral/parliamentary arena in the U.S. reached its zenith and like the People’s Party, not surprisingly, its cooptation by the DP. What happened in Lake Wobegon in the 1940’s offered a cautionary lesson for subsequent progressive movements.
The tradition of socialists contesting elections helped birth in Minnesota in 1918 the Farmer Labor Party (FLP).4 The FLP won the governorship of the state in four consecutive elections from 1930 to 1936 (gubernatorial elections were biennial) with the Dems often finishing a distant third. The latter had given serious consideration to merging with the GOP to halt the FLP but realized no doubt that would actually perpetuate FLP hegemony. Because workers and farmers were the majority of the population a capitalist Dem-GOP party would likely end up being forever relegated to minority status.
What especially frightened Minnesota’s ruling elite about the FLP is that at its height it was accompanied—not organizationally—by one of the most militant labor movements in U.S. history and led by partisans of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Teamster Local 574’s 1934 labor organizing drive that began in Minneapolis and soon spread to surrounding states was one of the three key labor victories that brought the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) into existence in 1936. Ruling class fears about the union weren’t confined to the state level; hence FDR’s government trying and jailing of its Socialist Workers Party leadership under the anti-communist Smith Act in 1941—the first party to have been so persecuted.
Once FDR commenced his New Deal program in 1933 FLP Governor Floyd B. Olson tied the party’s fate to the DP president. FDR reciprocated and one of the reasons the local Dems did poorly in elections; their nominal national leader seemed more entranced with the FLP than with them. FDR saw the light because he felt the heat in the streets beginning with the Bonus Marchers in Washington D.C. in the summer of 1932. But embracing his New Deal came with a price, particularly when the “Roosevelt Depression” began in 1937. The FLP was swept out of office by the GOP in 1938 (with striking parallels to the Trump victory) and faltered again in the 1940 and 1942 elections. And therein was revealed the Achilles Heel of the FLP.
Owing to its roots in the Socialist Party it bore a basic defect of that party—the mistaken belief that the electoral/parliamentary process was the road to socialist transformation in the U.S. Only with the coming of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was the way shown—what Lenin called “revolutionary parliamentarism”—how to effectively utilize both processes for working class ascent, not as an end in themselves but a means to that end. The losses the FLP sustained in the electoral arena made its reformist leadership vulnerable to the entreaties of the Dems. If winning office was the end-all and be-all of politics, as they assumed, then uniting with them to do so seemed to make sense—the rationale in part for the fusion of the two in 1944 and hence why the Dems in Minnesota are called the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party.5
The subduction of the FLP into the DP was part of a larger development at the national level. Between 1936 and 1940 the possibility of the U.S. working class having for the first time, like its counterpart in Europe, its own political party was posed unlike ever before.6 The evidence makes clear that while there was deep rank and file support for that option it was the misleadership of the trade union movement, especially, the CIO and John L. Lewis, who blocked that possibility. So what happened later in Minnesota wasn’t an anomaly. That the betrayal—“the criminality of this deed,” as Teamster Local 544 leader and revolutionary communist Farrell Dobbs put it—took longer to happen there than elsewhere only registered the more advanced character of what had been in place in the state.
But there was another and perhaps more formidable obstacle to independent working class political action. No organization was more conscious and effective in blocking that development than the Communist Party USA. And because of its significant influence in the labor movement at that time could it be effective. As a loyal affiliate of Moscow’s Communist International the CP was obligated to carry out the “popular front” line rubber-stamped at its 1935 gathering. Stalin, in executing the policy, ordered all CI affiliates to align themselves with the “national” or “progressive” capitalist parties in locales where they operated—all in the name of halting fascism. FDR’s DP was deemed such a formation. Therefore, any possible alternatives to the DP, especially for FDR’s 1944 reelection, such as the FLP were to be eliminated—Moscow’s first effort, long before Trump, to influence U.S. elections.
And in Minnesota the CP had a special mission—to dispatch Stalin’s archenemies, the Trotskyists, specifically, the SWP, who had more influence there than probably anywhere else on the planet. Because the “Trots” practiced independent working class political action to the hilt and, thus, implacable opponents of FDR’s DP, the CP had all the more reason to take up Stalin’s directive. But its maneuvering in Minnesota on Moscow’s behalf proved to be costly. They inadvertently—I’m being generous—aided anti-communists like Hubert Humphrey, a Dem and key figure in the merger in 1944, only to later be stabbed in the back by them. Their duplicity and applause for the SWP persecution earned them just deserts. Humphrey, whose political rise they enabled as a result of the fusion, led a Cold War anti-communist witch hunt against them once he entered the U.S. Senate in 1949—a precursor of McCarthyism.
The marriage of convenience between the Dems and the FLP was possible because by 1944 the once dominant party had seen its best days. Dobbs explained why years later:
Independent labor political action requires more than an organizational break with the capitalist two-party system. If a mass party’s program remains limited to seeking reforms compatible with capitalism, the workers will find themselves trapped in procedural norms designed to serve the interests of the ruling class; opportunists within the party, who put their personal ambitions above mass needs, will act as de facto agents of capitalism; and what was meant to be an emancipating social movement will degenerate into a narrow instrument that helps perpetuate the very injustices it initially set out to correct. Thus the hopes and aspirations of the working people become frustrated.7
Dobbs’ trenchant assessment could be the epitaph for not only the FLP but all of Social Democracy for the last century; as well, the reason for organized labor’s increasing difficulty in delivering the vote of its members for the DP as in the November 2016 election. He could be insightful because he personally witnessed as a student of the Bolshevik Revolution and leader of the militant teamsters union the ascent and demise of the FLP, at times crossing swords with it. The Minnesota case suggests that the combination of social democratic reformist thinking a la FLP—the target of Dobbs’ point—the CIO misleadership, and the treachery of the CP go a long way in explaining why that unique opportunity for independent working class political action in the U.S. was missed. It wasn’t foreordained. Nothing was inevitable about the descent and eventual death of the FLP into the gleefully waiting arms of the DP.8
“Out of the streets” Redux
Once the labor movement was wedded to the Dems—with whom it has been submissively residing ever since—the marriage became the template for subsequent social movements, first, the Freedom Now or Civil Rights Movement and then later, the fight for equality for women, the two most consequential social movements in the second half of the 20th century.
For the first two post-WWII decades, no two individuals epitomized the Dems progressive face better than two Minnesotans, Humphrey and, later, Walter Mondale. Black rights fighters like my mother in New Orleans, for example, now saw hope in the Dems owing to Humphrey’s famous address at their 1948 convention that denounced Jim Crow, provoking the split led by unreconstructed segregationist Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrats. But as a trade union activist she didn’t know that four years earlier her hero Humphrey played a leading role in undermining independent working class political action.
Fast forward almost two decades later. The Black Freedom Now movement, in the streets for almost a decade, had produced an insurgent contingent within the ranks of the DP, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, that decided to challenge business as usual at the 1964 Convention in Atlantic City, namely, the time worn all-white delegation that incredulously claimed to represent all Dem voters in the state. The party had a public relations problem that almost traumatized its standard bearer in the White House, Lyndon Johnson. To the rescue came the Minnesotan, Mondale. Standing on the legacy of what had been done to the FLP twenty years earlier, he was able to do the same to the MFDP—pacification and cooptation. Liberal hysteria at that moment around the rightist GOP 1964 presidential nominee Barry Goldwater—not unlike the reaction to the Trump candidacy—ensured the compliance of the Freedom Now movement leadership with the deal Mondale had struck. Except for Malcolm X no Black figure of any stature challenged their call for a moratorium on protests until after the election. What Mondale engineered in Atlantic City paved the way for the soon to be full embrace of the DP by what was increasingly being called—instructively—the Civil Rights Movement rather than the Freedom Now Movement.
Fast forward again twenty years later. The last gasp of Black nationalism, independent Black political action—what Malcolm X embodied more than anyone—met its demise in the euphoria of, first, the Harold Washington Chicago mayoral campaign in 1983 and, shortly afterward, the Chicago-based Jesse Jackson 1984 presidential campaign bid—both Black Dems. Influential Black figures who had once professed allegiance to Malcolm’s perspective had decided by then to come out of the cold into the “big tent” of the DP. Those of us who still harbored hopes in such a perspective, the National Black Independent Political Party, had to soberly recognize what had transpired. An era had passed. The young Barack Obama was a product of those betrayals; it’s not coincidental that he got his start to the White House in Chicago. If Minnesota was the original crime scene, Chicago was arguably the second and duly applauded by the Stalinists (and, possibly, enabled by them).
The most instructive moment of the Obama presidency vis-à-vis the historic Freedom Now movement was his speech in 2013 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. As a student of Black history he was all too aware of why he could make such a speech and what, therefore, he was up against—Martin Luther King’s hallowed “I Have a Dream” speech. Under the gaze of the Lincoln monument like MLK a half-century earlier, he chose his words carefully in hope, no doubt, that he too would forever be remembered. Ever the professor, he strove to educate his audience. Yes, it was true, he acknowledged, that it took marching in the streets to make the advances that he so personified to be possible. But mass marching was yesterday. Rather, as he exhorted to those gathered, it was those “marching” everyday as “teachers,” “parents,” “small business people,” who represented the future. In other words, the efforts of the individual and not the “mob” Tocqueville despised and feared were now determinant; the liberal agenda touted by its most renown advocate.
The struggle for racial equality—gender equality as well—paid a high price for the kind of advice Obama was peddling. That was evident during both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Clinton could get away with ending AFDC and enabling the mass incarceration of African Americans, with all the tragic social consequences, in a way that no GOP occupant of the White House could have. And that Obama did nothing meaningful to challenge the Clinton policies and their outcomes is all so telling. He could get away with inaction precisely because he was a Dem in black skin. Flint, Michigan, could have been his Katrina but because of his skin color and party affiliation he didn’t pay the price Bush did for the earlier social disaster. What if Mitt Romney had been at the helm when Flint occurred? Does anyone doubt the outpouring of anger in the streets on the part of liberals and progressives in response?
At the massive April 2004 march for abortion rights, Clinton famously told the crowd: “We didn’t have to march for 12 long years because,” referring mainly to her husband’s tenure, “we had a government that respected the rights of women.” And to make clear what she meant in that election cycle: “The only way we’re going to be able to avoid having to march again and again and again is to elect [DP candidate] John Kerry.” So deeply immersed in bourgeois politics and pained to have to put on marching shoes, she was oblivious to the irony of her claim. Exactly because there had been no mass actions in defense of abortion rights during the Clinton era—the leadership of the women’s rights movement mistakenly thought its cause was secure in its marriage to the DP and, thus, no need to be in the streets—the anti-choice crowd not only felt emboldened but was actually able to have implemented more restrictions on the right to abortion than ever.
Obama and Clinton’s aversion for the streets has a long tradition in the DP, particularly when one of their own is in the White House. President John Kennedy tried unsuccessfully to have the 1963 March called off. With the 1932 Bonus Marchers still no doubt on the brain FDR had better luck. His wife Eleanor was able to convince the organizers to cancel the original March on Washington for Black rights in 1941, with the Stalinists, in full popular front campaign mode, cheering in approval.
Those of us who work in liberal spaces and hadn’t voted for Obama and warned against the euphoria that came with his election in 2008 were a rare species. And to be an African American professor warranted a front page story in the student newspaper.9 Because so many of my students actually thought a revolution had taken place, I realized that I had to figure out how to be more convincing. I began to employ an analogy, especially for digital savvy young people who were enamored with the new White House occupant: the distinction between operating systems and apps. Real change only comes with new operating systems, I argued, and Obama was merely a new—yes, shiny with bells and whistles—app. What was installed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, and then updated after the Civil War, and then later around the time of the Great Depression, was an operating system that sustains and defends the capitalist mode of production. Obama could not have been elected had he been incompatible with that system. Therefore, at the least, I advised, lower your expectations. As the latest National Urban League report puts it, “the Obama years were no panacea for America’s longstanding racial inequities.” I take, therefore, no delight in saying the obvious.
Both Obama and Clinton played the timeworn DP identity cards for the 2016 election cycle; this time they didn’t work. To the Black Congressional Caucus dinner a few weeks before the election, Obama arrogantly demanded: “I will consider it a personal insult—an insult to my legacy—if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election. You want to give me a good send off? Go vote.” In fact, they came out in lesser numbers than in 2012. That the turnout in Flint was down by more than half from 2012 was poetic justice for Obama’s at best symbolic response to its crisis, whose devastating consequences will tragically be with us for decades. Clinton’s constant reminder about “breaking the glass ceiling” also fell on deaf ears for millions of working class women and much to the grief of her still perplexed middle class cheerleaders. The fact that the old identity dog whistles of the Dems are less effective bodes well for the future. (Instructive are the recent elections in Ferguson, MO.)
Almost exactly a year after the 50th anniversary commemoration, young people of all skin colors and genders but overwhelmingly working class in composition ignored Obama’s liberal advice and took to the streets in mass protests against police brutality. But for Black Lives Matter to advance it too will have to think systemically—again, the system of capitalism. And because capitalism is an equal opportunity employer in its carnage, the current mobilizing label of the movement, “people of color,” will have to mean all colors: not only in its actions but in the decisions about its actions. There can be no Jim Crow in a truly progressive social movement.
In his final months MLK began to employ a phrase that reveals an epiphany. For the struggle for racial equality to advance “there would have to be a radical redistribution of economic and political power”—a new operating system I contend. Whether he would have been willing to do as Malcolm did, calling for “any means necessary” toward that goal, we’ll never know. But recognition that the operating system of capitalism has to be replaced by one compatible with social equality—what Cuba’s revolutionary masses did and continue to defend and what Obama tried to subvert—is a crucial step forward.
Action, however elementary, is indispensable: that’s how we all learn.
“What is to be done?”
The necessary condition for a socialist alternative is recognition by workers that the best that capitalism has to offer is behind them. One of the sufficient conditions to realize a socialist alternative is recognition that we have opportunities today that our forebears didn’t have.
The crisis of bourgeois politics for both the Dems and GOP should give us heart. Honest working class fighters have no excuse today for not thinking beyond the Dems, a party that is objectively weaker than it has ever been in its more than two-century existence. Those who are still mourning Clinton’s defeat can’t be our starting point. But somewhere in the crowd of the forty percent of the eligible electorate who decided not to go to the prom on November 8, 2016, because they didn’t like their date choices and had too much self-respect to do so exist a layer of workers who should be our focus. And to write off any who did vote for Trump—no, they didn’t all come in white skin as liberals incessantly charge—is to engage in prophecy self-fulfillment about their political trajectory, to consign them needlessly to the waiting arms of the potentially real fascists.
Are workers in white skin who voted for Trump any more delusional than those in black skin who voted for Clinton and other Dems? Months prior to the election I learned personally that many of the former are open to a discussion about a real socialist alternative if given the opportunity (see August H. Nimtz, “A Black Socialist in Trump Country,” StarTribune, July 29, 2016.) And when you point out how the bosses are always trying to divide us—picture me, visibly African American, saying that—they can and do immediately relate. Millions of them, as the DP primaries demonstrated, actually voted for socialism-lite, the Sanders option; that many of them voted twice for Obama is not insignificant. As the reality of the Trump presidency becomes clearer, can there be any doubt about how many of them will be ready to discuss the real thing? To believe otherwise is to see them all as—in Clinton’s contemptuous charge—“irredeemable.”
The capitalist crisis and timeworn lesser-evil politics delivered Trump on November 8th. But contra liberal hysteria it didn’t herald the coming of the apocalypse. Three months or more into the Trump presidency capitalist systemic reality has begun to assert itself amidst the din at the level of appearances. His election was a warning shot, a bullet I think we’ll mostly dodge. But we shouldn’t press our luck. Every delay in forging, unapologetically for the umpteenth time, a real working class alternative—as opposed to a “socialism-lite” version—does indeed risk having someone in the White House who’ll make us long for, yes, “the Donald.” Think French politics where “socialism-lite,” Social Democracy—Sanders’s reference point—has long held sway but is now holding on to dear life while a party born in holocaust denial, the National Front of Marine Le Pen, is in ascent. A sobering reminder of what’s at stake. I wrote, in fact, in 2003, that the gains the party made in the first round of the presidential election of 2002 at the expense of the Socialist Party showed that “the inability of [the] social democratic-led government to provide real solutions for workers opened the door to the false solutions of [her father Jean Marie] Le Pen” (Marx, Tocqueville, and Race in America, p. 224).
Social Democracy to its peril—think the Workers Party in Brazil—ignored the principle lesson of the Paris Commune that Marx and Engels distilled: the working class cannot employ the capitalist state operating system for socialist transformation—the only correction they ever made to the Manifesto. A new kind of state operating system was required, what the Communards, Marx proudly reported, “discovered on their own.” No one absorbed that lesson more than Lenin. It informed all that he was doing exactly a century ago. Armed with that insight, the Bolsheviks, the current he led, proved to be more efficacious than any other. Seventeen years earlier he recognized that if would-be revolutionaries didn’t already have in place an organization, it would be too late to try to do so when the proverbial “s—t hits the fan”: the turbulence wouldn’t permit. For those who also think that a new operating system is needed to advance the working class but argue for an alternative road, I eagerly await their proposals.
Lastly, the big picture. History reveals, thankfully, that the most decisive political questions have never been settled in the electoral/parliamentary/judicial arenas. To believe so is to be afflicted with what Marx and Engels called “parliamentary cretinism” along with what I term “voting fetishism” and “judicial cretinism.”
No moment is as instructive in U.S. politics as the period from March1857 to April 1865. Three major decisions made under the authority of the Constitution were only effectively decided in an arena unauthorized by the Republic’s founding document. I’m referring, respectively, to the Supreme Court’s notorious Dred Scott ruling of March, 1857, the contested presidential election of Abraham Lincoln in November, 1860, and the passage by Congress in March 1861 of a proposed amendment to give constitutional protection to the institution of slavery, and duly submitted by the just inaugurated president to the states for ratification. But it was the outcome of the Civil War, the battlefield, April, 1865, that proved to be the ultimate arbiter of what took place in all three spheres of constitutional governance—what the authorized process had made no allowance for.
Just as the future of chattel slavery could not be settled on authorized terrain so too will it be for the future of wage slavery—capitalism. The historical crisis of the two major capitalist parties—still unfolding since the 2016 election cycle—aids and abets that day of reckoning and is therefore cause for celebration.
- ↩ I thank my former student Martin Kapsch for bringing Frank’s book to my attention. In addition to Frank there is almost a cottage industry of left critiques of the Dems. See for example, Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class, 2010; Adolph Reed, “Nothing Left,” Harper’s March 2014; Paul Heideman, “It’s Their Party,” Jacobin, Feb. 4, 2016. Missing in all of them is any interrogation of the raison d’etre for the party, namely, capitalism, both programmatically and organizationally.
- ↩It could be argued that antebellum labor organizing was also as important. But as long as slavery was in place any kind of progressive effort was limited in what it could accomplish. This is exactly what Marx explained to Lincoln in his congratulatory message to him in 1864 upon his reelection; for details see my “Marx and Engels on the US Civil War,” Historical Materialism, vol. 19, no. 4 (2011)
- ↩See Dobbs, Revolutionary Continuity: The Early Years 1848-1917 (New York: Monad Press, 1980), pp. 86-87, for details on the cooptation and the lessons for Eugene V. Debs. Paul Heideman, “The Rise and Fall of the Socialist Party in America,” Jacobin, February, 2017, makes mention but doesn’t elaborate. Later AFL leader Samuel Gompers gave occasional support to the Dems as in 1908. But until the forties such trysts and dalliances with them were simply that—fleeting.
- ↩Richard Valelly’s Radicalism in the States: The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and the American Political Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) provides a useful synthesis of the literature on the party—except for its demise.
- ↩The most informative account is supplied by John Earl Haynes, Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
- ↩Michael Goldfield makes the most convincing case: The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: The New Press, 1997), pp. 218-20. See also Farrell Dobbs, pp. 47-57.
- ↩Farrell Dobbs, Revolutionary Continuity: The Early Years 1848-1917 (New York: Monad Press, 1980), p. 13.
- ↩I’m challenging, therefore, Valelly’s politically deficient read of the FLP’s end.
- ↩Minnesota Daily, November 6, 2008.