The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Another FDR, JFK or ... Jimmy Carter?

Sep 30, 1993

Last year, among the less well off layers of the population, including sections of the middle classes, there was plenty of skepticism about what Clinton would do as president. But after 12 years of Reagan and Bush in the White House, most people were fed up. They blamed Bush for the recession, unemployment and the general decline. The fact that during the campaign Bush either ignored the recession, or tried to convince people that the recession was really a recovery, only discredited him further.

Clinton’s campaign was geared to take advantage of Bush’s stance. Clinton often hammered away at what the Democrats referred to as "the legacy of 12 years of Republican rule": the growing gap between rich and poor, the lack of jobs, the unjust tax structure, the health care crisis. Clinton stressed that his campaign was about change. But he was always careful to make as few promises as possible, and even those promises were vague ones.

Despite the fact that most union officials and leaders of black organizations had not supported Clinton in the primaries, once it became clear that Clinton would win the nomination, they jumped on the bandwagon, sometimes reluctantly, in any case despite their criticisms of him. Once more, they presented the Democratic Party as the party of ordinary people. This consolidated the support Clinton needed for his victory.

Once Clinton took office, he seemed unable or unwilling to bring about even the modest changes that he had promised.

Moreover, when he finally got his budget through the Congress, it turned out to be a budget almost identical with the last budgets of George Bush. Cuts in social programs, with a tiny exception, were not restored, in fact, there were some additional 60 to 100 billion dollars worth of cuts made in Medicare and Medicaid, plus promises of another 241 billion dollars worth in the new Medical Insurance program. All the so-called "entitlement" programs, which are essentially the range of social welfare programs, are to be reduced by 1% a year. And retired federal workers are to have the cost-of-living on their pensions reduced. As for the tax increases, most of which were supposed to weigh only on the wealthy—these were, in reality, compensated for by new loopholes, concerning real estate investment, capital gains and charity contributions. A one percent higher tax on the corporations was compensated by new tax breaks for investment and research. Finally, the "luxury" tax on expensive items was repealed—and retroactively, back to January of 1991. Apparently, since Bush had promised this, the Congress and Clinton decided to post date it two years back into his term.

This has required the very people who raised expectations about Clinton to begin explaining why Clinton seems to be sailing along on the Republicans’ course. Of course, sometimes they just paper over what he has done with some wishful thinking. But to the extent that they admit what is happening, they usually explain it in two ways: either the problem is Clinton himself, his weakness or lack of principles; or else Clinton is being blocked by other forces, such as the Republicans, or Congress.

Behind both of these rationalizations rests the myth that somehow the Democrats could act differently, that the Democrats could bring about more reforms if only they had the right people in office. In other words, they repeat the same old myths which obscure what the Democratic Party is—and always has been.

A Party in the Service of the Wealthy

The Democratic Party is often referred to as a big tent, inside of which we find a cross-section of representatives from various "interest" groups, from the leaders of the unions, the black and Hispanic communities and women’s groups. And it certainly is true that the Democratic Party relies on such social layers to provide votes and financial support for Democratic candidates.

But for the people who run the Democratic Party, that’s another matter. They either come from the bourgeoisie or are professionals who serve it. The Rockefellers, one of the wealthiest families in the country, and a symbol, more than anyone else, of the bourgeoisie, is split between its two parties, Republican and Democrat. Jay Rockefeller, the governor of West Virginia, is a Democrat, while Nelson Rockefeller, the former Vice President and Governor of New York, or Winthrop Rockefeller, the former Governor of Arkansas, were Republicans.

The Democratic Party, just like the Republican, is owned and controlled by the bourgeoisie, and is connected to it in myriad ways. The major corporations contribute to both parties. Usually the Republicans pull in more money, but last year Clinton succeeded in raising more money from these corporations than did Bush. And Clinton had more monetary support from the financial barons of Wall Street. One of Clinton’s first supporters was Pamela Harriman, of the railroad and banking fortune. He rewarded her by appointing her ambassador.

The people in the Clinton cabinet, that is, those who shape and implement policy, are every bit as bourgeois as those in Bush’s cabinet. In fact, they have a higher per capita income than did those who served Bush. If they aren’t the corporate elite, like Under Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin, the former co-chairman of Wall Street’s premier merchant banking company, Goldman Sachs, then they make their living representing the corporate elite, like lawyer Ron Brown, the Commerce Secretary. Or else, they come out of backgrounds that combine both, like Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen. Bentsen’s family owns a ranch in Texas of over one hundred thousand acres; he was formerly chairman of the very same Senate Finance Committee that passed Reagan and Bush’s budgets; and in the 1980s he earned the reputation for being more like Reagan than Reagan.

But the ties and interests that the Democratic Party serves are covered over by mythology. According to this mythology, during times of crisis, the Democratic Party finds people like Roosevelt or Kennedy who supposedly take up the reins of the party and government in order to institute reforms recognizing the rights of the disenfranchised, helping to improve their lives.

Roosevelt’s New Deal vs. the Militancy of the Working Class

History books, the media and union officials all credit Franklin Roosevelt with giving workers the right to organize. According to them, the building of unions of unskilled workers in the mass production industries would not have been possible without his backing. Besides that, they credit Roosevelt and the Democrats with the social reforms that established Social Security, unemployment insurance, the abolition of child labor, etc.

In reality, when Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, his immediate goal was to put forward a program geared toward helping business. In Roosevelt’s famous first hundred days, 15 major bills were passed by Congress. All kinds of new agencies were set up to regulate and aid banking, industry and big agriculture. Their purpose was to restore business confidence, encourage investment, and therefore supposedly push the economy into a recovery. On this level, Roosevelt’s program was a flop: not until the massive military spending for World War II did the economy begin to pull out of the Depression. But the thing Roosevelt’s programs did do was to reinforce the very largest corporations at the expense of small business, the farmers and the working class.

What Roosevelt offered the unemployed and the very poor were mere pittances. By the time Roosevelt took office, unemployment had soared to 25 per cent. In his first year, the Emergency Relief Act of 1933 granted only enough money to the states simply to continue the already existing starvation doles, which people said were "not enough to live on and just too much to die on." In early 1935, Roosevelt proposed to suppress even this aid. With unemployment averaging 12 million people a year Roosevelt’s first public works program, the Civil Works Administration, ran only from November 33 to January 34, and created work for only a few hundred thousand.

And it was the workers who paid even for this. The first action that Roosevelt took when he came to office, under the guise of cutting the federal deficit, was to cut federal workers’ wages to the tune of $300 million. And he cut veteran’s benefits by $500 million. One of the criticisms that the Democrats had made of Hoover was that he refused to pay a bonus to the veterans who fought in World War I. But Roosevelt went further than Hoover—he cut veterans’ benefits.

Generally, union officials point to one clause in one of the bills enacted in this period to show that Roosevelt was pro-union. This was Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA). But this clause, which stated that workers had the right to choose their own representatives, in fact was only a restatement of another law already on the books, the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act, enacted under Hoover in 1932. Roosevelt added Section 7a at the last minute as a sop to the leaders of the AFL, who otherwise would have had nothing to show for all of their efforts.

But Roosevelt made a point of warning workers that they should not consider 7a a license to act. One month after the NRA was passed, Roosevelt said in a radio address: "The workers of this country have rights under this law which cannot be taken away from them, and nobody will be permitted to whittle them away but, on the other hand, no aggression is necessary now to attain these rights.... The principle that applies to the employer applies to the workers as well and I ask you workers to cooperate in the same spirit." Given that there was no method of enforcement written into 7a against the employers, it was obviously nothing other than a moral statement. Yet, as everyone knew, the government had always stood ready to crush workers who sought to enforce their rights. No wonder workers began to call Section 7a of the NRA the "National Run Around".

Thus, Roosevelt’s first two years were like those of any other presidential administration, generally right-wing, all pro-business. And that is the way things would have continued, if the workers had actually done what Roosevelt demanded of them.

But the workers didn’t. A strike wave had been building since 1933. By 1934 general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco broke out, led by militants of the Communist Party, of the Trotskyist Communist League of America and of other left organizations. There was an unprecedented general strike involving 400,000 workers in the entire textile industry, one of the major industries at the time. From North to South, in the small towns, which textile dominated, other workers joined in the fight. It was one of the first major strikes which brought black and white workers together in the segregated South.

This huge movement that shook the country forced the Roosevelt Administration to change its stance. The mass of unskilled workers were striking. Roosevelt, representing that part of the bourgeoisie most conscious of the bourgeoisie’s own class interests, understood that something would have to be ceded to the workers in order to circumvent the possibility of a more massive social movement.

In 1935 Congress passed the Social Security Act that provided money for old age and disability, and that also established unemployment insurance. This law had real limits. Social Security relied on a very regressive flat tax, with ceilings on how much income could be taxed, so that a high-paid executive paid no more tax than did a worker. This tax was paid directly out of wages. Billions taken out of workers’ wages were accumulated in a special government fund before any money was ever paid out in benefits. The law also denied coverage to almost half of the working class, including farm laborers and domestic workers. And it did not include any health coverage, something that Bismarck’s Germany had implemented almost half a century before.

But with all of these limits, Social Security and the other reforms were real concessions that the working class movement won not only for part of itself, but for other sections of society. For the first time, the government recognized that working people had social and economic rights.

In 1935, Congress also passed the Wagner Act. This law, which in its theory recognized the right of workers to organize unions, in its practice established the government as the licensor and regulator of the unions. Roosevelt and the Democrats immediately tried to convince the workers to depend on the government to give them their unions.

If the workers had actually followed Roosevelt’s advice, they would never have won unions. Just as Norris-LaGuardia or the NRA’s Section 7a had not won the workers anything, neither would have the Wagner Act. No, it was the enormous strikes and factory occupations of 1936-37 that imposed the unions on the bourgeoisie.

Pointing to these reforms, unprecedented up until that time, Roosevelt and the Democrats tried to take the credit for what had in reality been won by the workers’ own mobilization, the mobilization that the Democrats tried to weaken by diverting it into the legal channels of seeking "union recognition."

Roosevelt used the gathering clouds of World War II to throw up a barrier to a further mobilization of the working class, depending on the newly constructed bureaucracies of the trade unions to enforce a no-strike pledge on the working class. The corporations, of course, were not so hindered and made record profits out of war production.

Such was the record of this "friend of labor".

The Kennedy Myth

If Roosevelt’s admirers could at least claim that under his presidency reforms were passed, Kennedy’s could not even claim that. When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he had practically no record on civil rights. By the time he was assassinated 3 years later, he still had almost no record. The myth of Kennedy as the champion of civil rights was created afterwards.

John Kennedy was a senator in the 1950s when some of the earlier civil rights struggles were being fought in the South. The strength of his commitment to civil rights could be seen in his voting record. Kennedy voted for the Civil Rights Bill that passed Congress in 1957. But he refused to vote to allow the part of the bill that contained enforcement powers, called Title III, to bypass a committee controlled by a Southern Democrat that was holding it up. Title III eventually failed. Obviously the rules and traditions of the Democratic Party counted above the freedom and equality of an oppressed people.

Not having a record of fighting for civil rights did not stop Kennedy from seeking the black vote as a champion of civil rights when he ran for president. First, though, he had to establish a record on the issue. So, one day during the presidential primaries, Kennedy got on the phone, called Martin Luther King in an Alabama jail, and asked him if he needed any help. It was a symbolic gesture that gave the civil rights leaders the cover to argue that black people should vote for Kennedy. The black vote was Kennedy’s most solid vote.

Once in office, Kennedy made no effort to repay the civil rights leaders for the service they had rendered him and the Democrats. Kennedy explained that he wasn’t in a position to get even the most mild civil rights bill passed by Congress, because that would instigate a revolt by the Southern Democrats, whose support he said he needed for other parts of his program. (It seems that Clinton is not the first to use the excuse of a backward Congress in explaining why he cannot do anything.) Kennedy did promise, however, that the Justice Department under his brother Bobby would throw its full weight into enforcing the laws to protect the civil rights struggles. What Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department did was minimal. The Justice Department provided some small protection in a few civil rights skirmishes during the desegregation of the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama, about on a par with what had been done under Eisenhower.

Files released in the early 1970s showed that the FBI under the jurisdiction of Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department was, however, going all out during this period, working with local authorities, the white citizens councils and the KKK to murder, beat up, imprison, threaten and intimidate thousands and thousands of people involved in the struggle.

Finally, in June 1963, Kennedy did what he said he could not do before: he introduced his civil rights bill. What had changed by June 1963 that led Kennedy to change his mind? It was the same Congress with the same Dixiecrats.

What had changed was that Kennedy was facing a rapidly developing and more determined black mobilization. For months, a campaign led by Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Alabama had tried to desegregate the city. Then on May 11, on the eve of a settlement, King’s headquarters was bombed. All that night, black people in Birmingham rioted. Suddenly, the black movement had exploded outside the legalistic limits of King’s "passive resistance" approach. If people like King were not to be bypassed by the movement, then Kennedy had to deliver them something that they could say they won. That something was the civil rights bill. Here again, this was nothing more than a restatement of something already on the books: in this case the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed after the Civil War.

But even then, Kennedy did not push his bill. He did use it as a pretext, however to call on the movement to "remain calm". When civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, James Farmer and Martin Luther King were pressured by the already growing push for a march on Washington to put their names at the head of the call for such a march in August 1963, Kennedy called them into his office. He tried to talk them into calling the march off, using the excuse that if the march was held, it would frighten the Southern Democrats, and this would make it more difficult to pass the bill. But the pressure of the growing movement meant that King and the others probably could not have called off the march.

When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, the civil rights bill was still languishing in Congress. When it finally was passed, it was too late: the black population was by then determined to gain "freedom now". The northern cities began to explode. In 1964 there were riots in Harlem and Philadelphia. In 1965 the first massive rebellion took place, in Watts. By mid-1965, Lyndon B. Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was actually uttering the words "We shall overcome" on national television. In 1957, only 8 years before, Johnson as the Democrats’ Senate majority leader, had led the fight against the passage of Title III of the civil rights bill. But starting in 1965, and speeding up as the cities began to burn, he presided over sweeping political, social and economic reform.

It wasn’t Johnson who had changed. It wasn’t the Democrats who had changed. The black rebellions, and the vast movement behind them had changed the country. It was only after the fact that these changes were attributed to Kennedy who was already dead. Because Kennedy had died in such a fashion, he could all the more easily be transformed into a martyr, a martyr for a cause that he himself had tried to hold back.

Thus was added another chapter to the official story of the Democratic "friends of labor".

In reality, the Democratic Party, in ordinary times, has always fought against working people. In extraordinary times, it has done everything possible to break and/or hold back every popular movement.

A Weak or Strong President?

Today, people who are disappointed in Clinton for not "doing anything" explain it by saying that he is weak. This was the same thing that was said about John F.Kennedy (until the day he was assassinated) or Clinton’s Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter.

Carter was called weak because he too did not get passed what many believed he would. In his campaign, he had made vague promises about some increased social programs, health care reforms, etc. But these programs were quickly put on hold; the requirements of big business during a time of economic stagnation, recession, the energy crisis and inflation came first.

During the late 1970s, there was no mass movement, strike wave or urban revolts which could have forced Carter to deviate from the course expected not only of him, but of all presidents, Democrat or Republican, before and after him. Carter said there was no money in the budget to meet the expanding social needs created by the unemployment and poverty. In fact, he quietly began to pare down the social programs won by the big social movements in the 1960s. He cut one of the extensions on unemployment benefits and made it more difficult to get food stamps. This money taken from the social programs was funneled into big subsidies to the major corporations. Carter began to budget big increases in military spending; in fact, Reagan’s much bigger defense build-up in later years only followed the projections laid out by the Carter administration. Carter in the late 1970s initiated policies that in the 1980s grew into what was known as Reaganomics.

Carter too carried out an anti-labor policy. In the late 1970s the corporations were beginning to demand that workers make concessions. The first important industry-wide demands for such concessions came in the coal industry. When miners struck in response, Carter invoked the Taft-Hartley Law to try to break the strike, saying that he had no choice, given the energy crisis. When the miners union did not obey the injunctions, Carter had union leaders arrested. If he was not able to break the strike, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

He was much more successful against the workers in his next venture. With Chrysler claiming to be on the verge of bankruptcy, Carter offered government loan guarantees, using that offer to insist that in return for any government guarantee, the Chrysler workers would have to give up concessions. This was the wedge that GM, Ford and many other companies subsequently used to demand concessions as their turn came.

Besides that, the Carter administration spent a year preparing the federal government’s showdown with the air traffic controllers that ultimately took place under Reagan. When Reagan in his first year in office broke the air traffic controllers strike and union, a defeat that marked the beginning of a sharp corporate offensive against the unions, he made use of the military controllers who had been rapidly upgraded and prepared for taking over the system during Carter’s term.

Was Carter really "weak"? The union and civil rights leaders who had to justify calling on people to vote one more time for someone who had carried out an open policy against their interests, certainly called him that. But Carter was just doing his job, which was to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie at a time when there was not enough activity among the workers and the oppressed to seriously challenge them.

If in the next year or two, sections of the working class or other oppressed layers do not take the road of social struggle to protect themselves, and in so doing force concessions on the government, then the excuse used before to explain Carter’s actions could very well be the excuse that will be used to explain why Clinton "won’t do anything".

Is Congress Blocking Clinton?

The other explanation for why Clinton cannot do more is that he is being blocked. First, it is said, he is being blocked by the Republicans, as in the case of his so-called job stimulus bill that was supposedly blocked by the Republicans.

But the fact is that the Republicans do not control either house of Congress. The Democrats, Clinton’s own party, do. In the House, the Democrats have a 260-175 seat edge. In the Senate, the Democrats hold a 56-44 seat edge.

Now, perhaps, as the Democrats and Clinton are claiming, the Republican minority is really strong enough to block both the Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic President. But if this is the case, then how did Reagan and Bush get their program through for 12 years? For all eight years of Reagan’s term, the Democrats controlled the House. And for three out of eight years, the Democrats also controlled the Senate. Under Bush, they had a majority in both houses of Congress all four years. So, why didn’t the Democrats, who then had a majority, do what they say the Republicans, who now have only a minority, are doing today? Why didn’t they block Reagan’s and Bush’s program?

The reason is obvious. The Democratic majority passed Reagan and Bush’s program because it was also their program—just as they are passing the same kind of program under Clinton.

Of course, we sometimes also hear the argument that it is the "conservative" Democrats who are the problem; that Clinton and the "liberal" Democrats really do want a different program. First of all, we don’t see Clinton using his control of the reins of power to get a package passed that would favor ordinary people at the expense of the wealthy and the big corporations. But even if he were trying to do this, and were truly blocked by his own party, this would only confirm the fact that the Democrats, as a party, do not in any way represent the working class and poor.

Clinton is certainly not the first Democratic president to claim that a Democratic Congress is blocking him from doing what he really wants to do. When Kennedy was in power, claiming that he could not get Congress to pass a civil rights bill, the Democrats held a 252-174 majority in the House and 65-35 in the Senate. In the Congress with which Jimmy Carter supposedly had such trouble, the Democrats had a 61-38 majority in the Senate and a 292-143 majority in the House.

In fact, it is very rare for a Democratic President to be able to blame a Congress that is controlled by the Republicans, for the simple reason that the Democrats have been the dominant majority party, controlling Congress, almost uninterrupted, since Roosevelt. The Republicans have had a majority in both houses of Congress for only four years out of the last 60 years. In other words the Democratic Party is the major party responsible for putting in place the legislation under which we live today, legislation which defends the interests of the bourgeoisie.

One of the few exceptions to this was the so-called Taft-Hartley law. This repressive law aimed against unions and strikes was enacted in the early stages of the McCarthy period by a Republican Congress. That fact, and the fact that Harry Truman, the Democratic president, vetoed it, is often used to indict the Republicans. What is usually forgotten in all this story, however, is that Taft-Hartley was passed over Truman’s veto, and the Republicans didn’t have nearly enough votes to do that. 2/3 of the votes of Congress are needed to override a veto. It wasn’t just a few Democrats who gave the Republicans the votes needed to override the veto; the majority of Democrats voted for Taft-Hartley (66 out of 103 Democrats in the House and 17 out of 32 in the Senate). And after the bill was passed, Truman rushed to use the Taft-Hartley club against the miners, packinghouse workers, atomic workers, the International Typographical Union, maritime workers and the steelworkers. Truman’s veto undoubtedly created a swell of sentiment among the workers that allowed him to upset Dewey in 1948, but in no way did Truman feel bound to respect his own position after the law was on the books.


All the explanations of why Clinton is developing into a disappointment have been used before. They were false issues then, and they are false issues now. The question of Congress blocking Clinton or any other president has always served as a political pretext to impose unpopular programs or to avoid doing what a Democratic President promised. And all the ruminations over Clinton’s character, whether or not he is weak, hesitant or devoid of real principles, are not the issue. Certainly, like the rest of his party, Clinton uses a rhetoric which is different than that of the Republicans. But finally, in the same situation, he does the same things as the Republicans.

Clinton is like all the other presidents: like Carter, Reagan and Bush, but also like Roosevelt and Kennedy. What distinguishes these historical figures are not their personal qualities, but the social conditions under which they rule. Roosevelt and Kennedy were in power during times of big social movements. Those movements forced Roosevelt and in fact, not Kennedy, but Kennedy’s successor, Johnson, to take steps different than they would have taken if there had been no social movement. They had to face masses of people who were in the streets, on strike, in open rebellion. So these presidents were forced to give concessions to those movements.

Ironically, what made them "strong" presidents and gave them their image was what they had fought with full force to prevent: the upsurge of the oppressed on the social and political scene.