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U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, and US Senator Ed Markey (R), Democrat of Massachusetts

Today’s struggle for a Green New Deal: Lessons from the Freedom Budget of the 1960s

The Green New Deal has generated considerable interest and excitement in recent months.

Yet it has been aptly criticized even by some of its supporters (for example Jeremy Brecher writing in the May 2019 issue of In These Times) as “existing only as an outline of goals,” whose “actual legislation will require more details,” with details that can truly defend both the quality of life of our working-class and of our environment “in an integrated way.”

It has nonetheless projected a sweeping programmatic vision of how to decisively push back capitalism’s destructive impact on our environment in a manner that would also enhance the economic well-being and quality of life of a majority of the American people.  “There will be no livable future for generations coming, for any part of the country if we don’t address this issue urgently,” according to sponsor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “We will have to mobilize our entire economy around saving ourselves and taking care of this planet.” This involves “shifting our economic, political and social paradigms on every issue because we don’t have time to wait,” she stresses. “We don’t have time to wait five years for a watered down compromise solution.”

The truth of this challenge makes it urgent for serious partisans of the Green New Deal to full in the gaps—advancing detailed policy proposals, bristling with charts and graphs and facts and timetables, to show in detail how the job could be done.  But rhetoric, facts and even detailed proposals are not enough.  No less urgent is the question of strategy and tactics in the immense power struggle required to make the Green New Deal a reality. How can the battle be won?

More than half a century ago, a similar programmatic vision was projected with a focus on wiping out racial injustice in the United States—again in a manner that would ensure economic justice for a majority of the American people.  This was “The Freedom Budget for All Americans,” which was mapped out in considerable detail, from which partisans of the Green New Deal can learn.  But not only its inspiring vision and detailed projections, but also its bitter defeat may provide helpful lessons for today’s activists.

What It Was

Cover of A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today

Read more in A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today by Paul LeBlanc and Michael D. Yates (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).

The Freedom Budget was put forward in 1966-1967, designed to abolish poverty and end unemployment in the United States within a ten-year period.  It projected job-creation, with decent incomes for all workers, involving a dramatic expansion of decent health care for all, full educational opportunity for all, decent housing for everyone, enhancement of mass transit systems, with attention to society’s infrastructural and environmental needs.

Poverty and unemployment rates were twice as high among black Americans as among white Americans.  Life expectancy tended to be significantly shorter, infant mortality rates higher, housing worse, educational opportunities lower, and so on.  For that matter, the same is true today.  Sometimes this is referred to as “institutional racism,” distinguishing it from more personal forms of racism.

Many white workers were not all that secure either—and competition for jobs, housing, education and so on could reinforce and deepen racial antagonisms.  Some whites believed that civil rights gains for blacks would mean a deteriorating situation for them, and this could make them more susceptible to racist appeals.

The Freedom Budget was designed to end all that.  Income and poverty and employment disparity between black and whites would be ended not by taking jobs and income away from whites.  Instead it would provide jobs and decent incomes for all; it would end poverty for everyone; it would ensure each and every person would receive good health care, full educational opportunities, adequate housing—all as a matter of right. Building on the already-existing moral force and political momentum of the rising civil rights coalition, it demanded a better life for all, which had the potential for drawing together a powerful interracial movement of the working-class majority.  This would help replace racial antagonism with a deepening solidarity among these allies in the struggle.

Where the Freedom Budget Came From

The Freedom Budget was developed by civil rights and labor activists who had played a central role in organizing the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom that drew more than 250,000 to Washington, DC, and where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Key organizers of the march were the architects and advocates of the Freedom Budget—an impressive group of people in and around the Socialist Party of America, including A. Philip Randolph (President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and his protégé Bayard Rustin.  Stokley Carmichael (later known as Kwame Turé) later recalled Rustin “was like superman …  hooking socialism up with the black movement, organizing blacks.” He drew together an amazing team of younger socialist cadres, black and white, active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  His homosexuality and one-time affiliation with the Young Communist League were used to marginalize him, but Rustin’s dynamism and organizing skills—plus the support of Randolph and others—catapulted him into the central role of overseeing the 1963 March.

The primary target of the March was the racist Jim Crow system in the South—which enforced racial segregation and denied voting rights in order to keep black people down.  The modern civil rights movement mushroomed after the 1954 Supreme Court decision declaring school segregation un-Constitutional, followed by the 1956 victorious Montgomery Bus Boycott Throughout the Jim Crow South, picket-lines, demonstrations, rallies, boycotts, sit-ins, mass arrests, and patient grass-roots organizing mobilized many thousands of blacks, as well as growing numbers of white supporters, in the cause of racial equality.  They faced violence and sometimes murder not only from terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and mobs motivated by race hatred, but also from local police.

The 1963 March rallied nation-wide support for the civil rights cause. It was supported by many other left-wing organizations and individuals, not just the Socialist Party. Right-wing politicians, segregationists, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI used this to red-bait the march and to scare people away from participating.  But there was an avalanche of support.  This included Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the more moderate National Association for the Advance of Colored People (NAACP) and Urban League, some of the more liberal and radical trade unions, liberal groups, and a broad range of religious dominations and organizations—particularly students and youth throughout the country.

Randolph and Rustin were convinced that racism had deep economic roots in the United States. Its economic impact on the majority of people—the diverse and racially divided working class—not only was devastating for African Americans and other people of color, but also undermined the quality of life of so-called “white” workers as well. They believed that it was necessary to link the struggle for racial justice with the struggle for economic justice.  The 1963 action was called a March for Jobs and Freedom.  Immediately after the March, the Socialist Party drew together a broad conference of more than 400 key activists to develop practical perspectives for overcoming the economic sources of institutional racism.  This culminated, over the next three years, in development of the Freedom Budget for All Americans.

Joining Randolph and Rustin in this effort was Leon H. Keyserling, previously involved in developing economic policy in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Michael Harrington—whose classic exposé of poverty, The Other America, had been a best-seller—also played a role, as did economists associated with the AFL-CIO.  The best-known advocate was Martin Luther King, Jr.  Endorsed by hundreds prominent of civil rights activists, trade unionists, academics, religious figures, and others, it projected a dramatic power shift and reordering of priorities that would have changed the course of our history.

Freedom Budget and Green New Deal

In order to overcome the specific realities of racism, the Freedom Budget advanced universal goals that would provide education, health care, housing, and decent-income jobs for who lived in the United States. The Green New Deal proposes similar universal goals in the context of transitioning to a net-zero carbon emissions economy.

Parallels are obvious.  The Freedom Budget linked racial justice and economic justice.  The Green New Deal links environmental justice (and plain survival) with economic justice.  The Freedom Budget also had a positive environmental component—but since then our planet has suffered fifty additional years of environmental degradation. The urgency of the situation compels dramatic change.  But connections in each highlight the necessity of economic justice.

There are two aspects of “economic justice” here.

One has to do with who is responsible for institutional racism and environmental degradation.  The modern slave-labor system was essential for the accumulation of immense profits as capitalism developed, rationalized by racist ideology. Old-time and modern-day Robber Barons have also accumulated immense profits through the pollution, degradation and destruction of our environment, rationalized by the ideology of rampant of rampant consumerism and throw-away culture. There is no justice in saying the laboring majority must pay for cleaning up the messes of racism and pollution that were created by the wealthy elites.

The second aspect involves the belief that all are created equal and have a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  If all of us have an equal right to those things, we must create conditions that can allow for it.  Both the Freedom Budget and the Green New Deal have as their core commitment the creation of that reality: education, housing, health care, employment, and all of the other conditions that can provide a decent standard of living and full range of opportunities for each and every person. And both have linked this commitment to policies that would overcome systemic evils—racism and the destruction of a livable environment.

Within the Framework of Capitalism?

Critiques from the Left have identified limitations in both the Freedom Budget and Green New Deal.  The Freedom Budget emphasized it could be realized within a capitalist framework: its implementation would raise living conditions of the majority of people, generating a prosperity beneficial to our capitalist economy.  The Green New Deal has a similar limitation.  (For that matter, so do trade unions and many social movements struggling for reforms in the here-and-now.)

The problem with this, as left-wing critics point out, is that capitalism is animated by powerful dynamics that go in the opposite direction, necessarily inclined toward riding rough-shod over all the worthy goals of the social movements, the trade unions, the Freedom Budget, and the Green New Deal.  Achieving those goals, the critics correctly point out, requires overturning this destructive, oppressive economic dictatorship of capitalism, and replacing it with the economic democracy of socialism.

What the critics seem to miss, however, is the point that Rosa Luxemburg makes so eloquently at the very beginning of Reform or Revolution— the fundamental connection, for the socialist movement, between social reforms and revolution: “the struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”

Neither the Freedom Budget nor the Green New Deal could come close to being enacted without the creation of powerful social movements and social struggles that are fighting for them—and along with this, a growing mass consciousness that these things can and must be brought into existence.  Their actual implementation would reflect a profound power shift in society toward the working class majority and those committed to racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice.

Inevitable resistance to such a power-shift will come from the corporate business interests that have long dominated the political economy of the United States.  Driven by the dynamics of capital accumulation, in pursuit of profit, these interests are compelled to ride rough-shod over everything represented by the Freedom Budget and Green New Deal.  Such capitalist resistance must come into conflict with the forces that would benefit from the power-shift, which are also the forces on which victory is dependent.  This would be an increasingly conscious, powerful, well-organized working-class majority, mobilizing around (in the present case) the Green New Deal.  Historically, such confrontations have been springboards for revolutionary change.

Mass Action Perspective

Bayard Rustin and the young socialist comrades around him had envisioned advancing the Freedom Budget through the kinds of struggles animating the civil rights movement: mass actions, marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, militant education and consciousness raising—a moral crusade. It would have support from the coalition forces around the March on Washington, plus new layers of the working class drawn to the Freedom Budget’s central goal of economic justice.

Even as the Freedom Budget was being finalized, Michael Harrington, in an article that foretold its coming, had commented that “the financing of a massive war on poverty will require change and struggle in the United States,” pushing “beyond the Johnson consensus and the reactionary Keynesianist subsidizing of the very rich.” Martin Luther King Jr. projected plans for national demonstrations to support the Freedom Budget. Courtland Cox of SNCC, referring to the laboring poor of the South, asserted: “the Freedom Budget is something that we can begin to look at and use because the present poverty program is so inadequate.”  His perspective was to see that “the people who are poor get behind the [Freedom] Budget and say not, ‘Please give us a handout,’ but make it impossible for the country to function if it does not put the Freedom Budget into action.”

The politics of mass action was central to the thinking of Bayard Rustin in the spring of 1964.  We can see this from a discussion involving the editorial board of Dissent magazine (headed by Irving Howe) and Rustin and three of his young Socialist Party supporters: Norman Hill, Rachelle Horowitz, and Tom Kahn.  Rustin is clearly the central figure in the discussion, and it is he who articulates first and most clearly “the important point . . . that the civil rights movement, because of its limited success, is now confronted with the problem that major Negro demands cannot be met within the context of the civil rights movement.”

Militant actions limited to opposing racial segregation could not be expected to overcome a deep-rooted institutional racism.  Hill backs him up with the observation that “the usual tactic of direct action which here and there has produced an integrated lunch counter does not seem to be answering the demands of larger numbers of Negro people.” Rachelle Horowitz chimed in that since the March on Washington “the Negro in the street has not seen one gain.” Rustin focused on jobs, which he defined as one of the key “problems of the whole society.” He emphasized that “the labor movement . . . is itself unable to provide jobs for the people enrolled in the unions.” He argued, “the only way labor can handle this thing is if it allies with the Negro in a bigger struggle.”

He emphasized that he was talking about “trade union people,” clarifying: “I certainly do not look for any alliance which would include the AFL-CIO per se” (led by anti-radical George Meany). The political program to unite these forces, Rustin noted, would need to be “around questions of total employment, limited planning, work training within planning, and a public-works program.”

Rustin argued that the civil rights movement must do two things. “First, stay in the streets,” he insisted, “winning little victories, and sometimes none, but stay, for the very reason that you stimulate other segments of society, limitedly, to move.” But the second necessity would be “to carry the question which I discussed earlier under full employment, planning, training, and so forth. They must carry that message into the streets.” This was interwoven with the conception of organizing a “sit-down in front of the building trades” and other direct action. He expanded on this at length later in the discussion:

I think we’ve got to have a political movement, in the sense that the civil rights movement is now a political movement. It’s a matter of broadening that.

Regardless of people’s politics, regardless of what church they belong to, or union, thousands and millions of people are contributing to the civil rights movement, are getting into the streets. They came to the March on Washington.

This is the kind of movement I see as a political movement, around such things as full employment, some planning, training within that planning, a public works program. I think without setting up a political structure or a party we can carry this to the people and get the kind of enthusiasm you now get around the civil rights bill, or that we got around the March on Washington.

Rachelle Horowitz commented that “there are things which are intrinsic to people in motion,” concluding, “Something wonderful happens to people when they are somehow determining their own destiny and beginning to control and change their own conditions.”

Contradictions and Consequences

But a contradiction of the civil rights movement came into play in a way that would de-rail the Freedom Budget campaign. A powerful liberal current in the Democratic Party in some ways (though often inconsistently) facilitated victories of the civil rights movement.  Seeking to pressure that powerful current to “do the right thing,” the radical-activist wing of the civil rights movement also developed a dependency on it.  One leader of SNCC referred to this as a kind of dance.  With the liberal triumph through the Kennedy and Johnson Presidencies, this became central to the movement’s orientation.

In 1966, at a massive rally against the war in Vietnam, Carl Oglesby of Students for a Democratic Society usefully distinguished humanist liberals (sincerely wanting to advance democracy and human rights) from corporate liberals (tied in with the power and needs of corporate capitalism). The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has historically been dominated by the corporate liberals.  It was prepared, for pragmatic reasons, to support much of the civil rights agenda for racial justice—passing and implementing various civil rights acts and voting rights acts to dismantle the Jim Crow system. It also made gestures in the direction of economic justice, with a “War on Poverty,” part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s so-called “Great Society” (echoing Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and Truman’s “Fair Deal” and Roosevelt’s “New Deal”).

This “opportunity” persuaded those advancing the Freedom Budget to adapt to these allies, who seemed essential to the victory of the new campaign.  Rustin—who for years had been a key strategist and central figure in the organization of effective mass protests—by 1965 was writing of the need to shift, as he put it, “from protest to politics” (meaning electoral politics), presumably moving the struggle to a higher level, involving the political power to turn things like the Freedom Budget into reality.

This was the beginning of the end.  It was deemed necessary to hold back on mass mobilizations and militant protests, and also, in deference to what were seen as increasingly important allies, to make compromises—including compromises with the Southern segregationist wing of the Democratic Party.

These allies, including various liberal Senators and Congressmen, plus key lobbyists and others tied to the labor bureaucracy of the AFL-CIO, treated the Freedom Budget with sympathy, but then deemed the adoption of this radical-tilted package as “impractical.”  Yet Randolph rejected their piecemeal approach, explaining the struggle could not “be won by segments,” but only through “a unified and consistent program.”  Threatened by the radicalism inherent in that program, liberal allies pushed for its dilution and fragmentation.

The Democratic Party of Kennedy and Johnson was also advancing a foreign policy that could be described as a sort of “imperialism with a human face.” It dramatically escalated US military involvement in Vietnam into a horrific and bloody conflict, with the usual rhetoric about freedom and democracy. The war drained resources away from the domestic reform programs that the Freedom Budget sought to expand, and it split the forces that had pushed forward the civil rights victories.  Many dynamic activists who had rallied to Bayard Rustin in 1963, broke with him when he prioritized supporting the Democratic Party over opposing the Vietnam war.

The forces needed to push forward the Freedom Budget no longer existed.  The Democratic Party dug in its heels, resisting it or ignoring it.  Various liberals, the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, the NAACP, and others giving lip-service to it, were unprepared to fight for it.  Many youthful activists and cadres of the Left were alienated from it—seeing it as a diversion away from mobilizing against an immoral war.

***

The Freedom Budget became a program whose potential mass appeal could not be realized, and after an initial flurry, it faded away.  “Realistic” compromises made to ensure the Freedom Budget’s relevance ended up making it impossible.

Foreign Policy “Pragmatism”

There was a conscious decision to avoid foreign policy matters in the Freedom Budget, in order to prevent any narrowing of support.  A similar tendency can be seen among partisans of the Green New Deal.

Leaving foreign policy out of the texts of the Freedom Budget or Green New Deal can be defended as a tactical decision—but the realities cannot be avoided by the socialists advancing a strategic orientation for such a program.  As Rosa Luxemburg emphasized in The Accumulation of Capital, imperialism and militarism are absolutely and necessarily central to the nature and functioning of modern capitalism.  To avoid them as we develop our analyses and strategic orientation will blind-side us, as the Freedom Budget’s partisans were blind-sided.

The explosion of the Vietnam War into American life and politics posed one of the greatest challenges to the Freedom Budget.  After he came out against the war, Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to integrate such opposition with a sharpened advocacy of the Freedom Budget’s linkage of racial and economic justice.

Had Rustin and Randolph and others joined in building the anti-war movement, they could have put the Freedom Budget forward in that context—building consciousness that there had to be and could be a practical, radical alternative to a corporate-capitalist system that puts profits before people in both foreign policy and domestic reality.  Their failure to do that, in deference to the liberal-capitalist war-makers, was a fatal misstep ensuring that the Freedom Budget would soon be lost in the costly violence of, and the fierce resistance against, the Vietnam war.

Political parties committed to maintaining capitalism, whether they are liberal or conservative, and particularly in a country like the United States, are necessarily committed to maintaining a military establishment and an imperialist foreign policy (today we call it globalization).  It is possible to cooperate in short-term alliances with such parties. Some socialists are now engaged in an innovative experiment, making use of the Democratic Party by running and getting elected—as open socialists—on its ballot-lines, in order to spread the socialist message and challenge the powers-that-be.

But experience from the past highlights the dangers—for example, the erosion of the effectiveness of such a wonderful socialist organizer as Bayard Rustin.  In struggles of the working class and the oppressed, we cannot afford to lose sight of the need for political independence from corporate capitalism.

The corporate business partisans that control the Democratic Party, no less than the Republican Party, cannot be expected to have any real loyalty to the working-class majority or the oppressed layers of our own society.  That is obvious not only in regard to domestic policies, but also in regard to foreign policy.  It should also be obvious to any serious politician that there is a necessary and ongoing interplay between domestic and foreign policy, and that neither can be left in the hands of the super-rich and their “expert” advisors.

Political and activists representatives of the working-class majority—the 99 percent—must be prepared to develop an independent foreign policy of labor, representing the interests of our class, guided by the elemental principle of global solidarity uniting the working classes and oppressed of all countries. As the experience of the Freedom Budget demonstrates, a failure to do this places a weapon in enemy hands with which the super-rich will destroy our best hopes for social and economic justice.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Our world is different from the world of 1966.  The basic outline of the Freedom Budget remains feasible but the half-century delay makes it necessary to insist on some things not raised in the old Freedom Budget.  In particular, the super-rich capitalists must pay back the many years of tax cuts for the wealthy that they have stolen from our society, and they will need to give up many of the other privileges they enjoy at our expense.  With the accumulating crises of our time, we will need to use our resources differently—that is certainly true, as well, as the deepening environmental crisis closes in on us.  The Green New Deal approximates a new version of the Freedom Budget.  Perhaps there can be a blend of the two, since both are needed more urgently than ever.

There are great responsibilities on us to get this right, to see clearly, to fight hard, to organize more and more of our people, and together pushing on to what must be a hard-fought victory.    The Freedom Budget was developed by socialists who hoped the already-existing Democratic Party (purged of its segregationist wing) would become its champion.  They made major compromises to achieve that—and when they were betrayed, they had nowhere to go.

The Green New Deal is being pushed forward by open socialists inside the Democratic Party, and they have choices.  One way to go is to rely the Democratic Party as a champion of the Green New Deal—and the lesson of the Freedom Budget’s failure is that this is a pathway to defeat and irrelevance.  Instead, the Green New Deal can become a litmus test for determining who are truly one’s allies, and at the same time a means for challenging those forces in the Democratic Party aligned with corporate liberalism.

No movement for fundamental social change can afford to restrict the struggle to electoral channels.  Contrasting “protest” to “politics” is a mistake.  Frederick Douglass noted no positive change in society comes without the thunder, lightening, and powerful winds of mass protests.  Genuinely revolutionary politics cannot be restricted to voting, it must involve much more: organizing in workplaces and communities, petitions and picket lines, sometimes civil disobedience, mass marches and what Rosa Luxemburg described as “mass strikes.”

The interplay of non-electoral politics and electoral activity can dynamically transcend the boundaries of traditional “bourgeois politics.”  Raising the consciousness and morale of more and more people, involving them in active struggle as part of a coordinated strategy, can advance a genuine political revolution that flows in the direction of social revolution.

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