The Spark

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

Jesse Jackson:
A Maverick, but in the Democrats’ Corral

Jan 31, 1984

Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination picked up steam with his trip to Syria and his performance in the televised debate among Democratic candidates in New Hampshire. He soon ranked (a distant) second behind Mondale in the polls. However small his chances are of winning the nomination, his campaign has apparently found a response among certain parts of the population, including not only many black people, but also poor people in general, women, the unemployed, and those who fear war. To an extent, he has aimed his campaign at those who, angry and disgusted with the politicians, have tended not to vote in the past.

Jackson has made as his issues in the campaign: the threat of war, the problem of jobs and the economy, the plight of the disadvantaged of all sorts.

Many no doubt feel that Jackson genuinely represents their interests. Others believe that, even if his proposals are vague or are not clearly differentiated from those of other candidates, Jackson himself is different: more supportive and responsive to the poor and dispossessed. Many seem to think that if someone’s finger is going to be on a nuclear trigger, it would be better to be Jackson’s rather than someone else’s. Particularly in the wake of his trip to Syria, which gave him the image of being a politician who can make a difference in world affairs.

On the Threat of War

Jackson frequently speaks to the widespread fear of nuclear war, as well as to people’s concern about the risk of a U.S. war in the Middle East or Central America. He argues that it is possible to negotiate settlements of these conflicts, if only the leaders of the nations involved will sit down and talk to each other. The key variable, according to Jackson, is the attitude of national leaders toward negotiations.

In the televised New Hampshire debate, he put forth his visit with Syrian President Assad as a model for decreasing world tension:

“...We make progress in foreign policy through Presidential initiative, not through isolated rhetoric or threats. It was Eisenhower going to Korea. The detail people followed. Kennedy going to Geneva. Nixon going to China. Carter convening Camp David. When it’s all said and done, a group of academics can agree that we must freeze weapons that will destroy all of us. The leadership must take the risk for peace and make a difference. If you meet with Andropov, if you meet, if you talk, you act; if you act, you change things. So you must unthaw that relationship before you can then agree to freeze, verifiably, the weapons.”

He underscored this position in another speech to an audience of New Hampshire environmentalists: “We’ve got to meet with Andropov. Only two men can prevent nuclear war. The president could meet with Andropov unconditionally, and agree with him conditionally.”

In discussing international conflicts in this manner, Jackson manages to forget the responsibility of imperialism for war. If the U.S. is engaged in conflicts in the Middle East and Central America, it is because the people there have been the systematic victims of imperialism. Jackson manages to forget the role of the U.S. government in representing U.S. corporate interests internationally. There is a danger of world war today – and that dangers exists precisely because U.S. imperialism weights on the whole rest of the world. Today, it attempts to resolve the economic crisis for itself by imposing starvation on many of the peoples in the underdeveloped countries. Tomorrow if the financial system collapses, as it could, that weight will even intensify, and on the whole world.

U.S. imperialism has investments and interests all over the world. It is not about to negotiate away its interests in the Middle East or Latin America. And it is not about to negotiate away its overwhelming military strength, particularly its nuclear weapons, with which it holds the whole world hostage.

When Jackson proposes negotiating, he obscures this basic fact. Just as did all the politicians he himself cites as examples. When Eisenhower went to Korea three decades ago, U.S. imperialism was establishing its domination of South Korea and a permanent military presence in the Far East. Today there are still tens of thousands of U.S. troops in South Korea. In that same period, the U.S. began to engage itself in Viet Nam. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon were among those who set and carried out the U.S. policy there. Kennedy’s trip to Geneva gave himself the cover while he was presiding over an accelerated nuclear weapons program, and while he was directing the U.S. entry into Viet Nam. If Camp David meant a new military and political relationship among the U.S., Israel, and Egypt, it resolved nothing about the oppression of the Palestinian people. Just the opposite – it brought together those who wished to impose a control on the Palestinians. And it gave Israel a certain leeway for its attacks into Lebanon.

Of course, the politicians negotiate – they always have, as a cover for the wars they are preparing or those they are concluding. In this, Jackson would be no different than any of the politicians he cites. And he is no different than the other politicians today. He may have a different rhetoric than they do, but he proposes the same basic policy, a policy which, in the past, has never prevented war, and which cannot prevent it in the future.

On the Economy

Jackson criticizes the recent cutbacks in various kinds of social welfare spending which the Reagan administration has led. He calls for more spending on these programs and on job training programs. He also calls for an end to import competition. For example, he has argued:

“Workers, black and white, need some kind of international affirmative action to protect them from unfair competition with unorganized or slave labor abroad and unfair competition with robots at home...”.

And he calls for other kinds of government intervention to encourage corporations to provide more jobs, saying, for example:

“...Business has the technological genius, but it has never volunteered to share that genius with the market. So now it has our tax dollars, our consumer dollars and our jobs. There needs to be a kind of favored corporate status, as in favored-nation status, for those who receive the tax investments and benefits of the American dollar and reinvest, reindustrialize and re-educate workers in this economy...”.

Certainly it’s reprehensible for the Reagan administration to have proposed the cuts of the last few years. But Reagan has gotten them through a House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats. And, in fact, the cuts began under the Carter administration. The cuts in unemployed pay and eligibility were made mostly in the last year Carter was in office. Jackson, like all the other Democrats, carefully avoids mentioning these facts. The cuts in the social programs reflect the class nature of this society; they reflect the fact that the politicians of the bourgeoisie, both Democrats and Republicans, have protected the capitalists throughout the crisis.

None of this is to say that the welfare programs, if they were put back, offer a solution for the working class. Welfare would no more be a solution today to the problems of poverty than it has ever been. The problem for the working class is to have decent paying jobs.

To provide jobs, Jackson proposes a “favored corporate status.” But if corporations do not provide more jobs today, it is not because they don’t have money to invest. It is because they provide jobs only when the situation of the economy allows them to sell enough more so that they need more workers to put out increased production. Today, if they can make more profit by cutting back on jobs, they will. If they don’t need more workers, the best we can expect is that they will pretend to hire more in order to get “favored corporate status.” It’s what they’ve always done with such programs when they didn’t need new workers. So Jackson’s proposal is finally a way to give tax breaks to the corporations under the guise that their investment will provide jobs.

Jackson accepts the principle that the capitalists should be assured their profits before the workers can have jobs. If this weren’t so, he would propose the obvious: that the corporations be forced to stop layoffs and plant closings, to stop demanding concessions from the workers, and to give jobs to the unemployed – at the expense of the wealthy stockholders. But he doesn’t. All he has to offer is a new version of Reagan’s “trickle down” approach, which does nothing but subsidize the corporations’ profits.

As far as “international affirmative action” is concerned, it ignores a basic fact of life today: in a period of economic crisis, less and less are there jobs for the working people – around the whole world. Asking the workers to fight each other for a shrinking number of possibilities is a way to cover for the responsibility the capitalists have in bringing the world to a state of economic collapse. It is a trick that politicians who defend the capitalists use to disarm the workers, preventing them from seeing the problem.

On the Plight of the Dispossessed

Jackson has presented his campaign as a way to empower all the dispossessed of society, the poor, the victims of discrimination. He emphasizes a range of consequences of social inequality, such as the denial of legal abortions to poor women, while the well-to-do have the option available. He says that there is a link between their victimization and their lack of political power. But Jackson argues that there is a way out for the dispossessed: that is, to vote.

In fact, there have been times when the dispossessed have wielded some of their potential power to change the conditions of their lives. During the depression of the 1930s, the working class began to fight back against the misery the capitalists had enforced on them. The workers demonstrated in the streets and took over the factories. The workers won union recognition and some economic gains directly from many of their bosses and a range of social legislation from the government. If the workers won gains in that period, it was not because they voted for the Democrat, Roosevelt, but because they broke the rules of bourgeois society and fought in their own interests.

Likewise, black people in this country won a series of gains in the 1950s and 1960s because they refused to continue to live under the rules of a racist society. Neither Kennedy nor any other Democratic or Republican politician handed rights to anybody. They were won in struggles ranging from the Montgomery bus boycott to the rebellions in hundreds of cities. Thousands of people risked their lives, and many died, in the struggles.

In both of these cases, the dispossessed imposed on the rulers of this society the changes that were made. Nothing comparable has come through the ballot box.

Jackson, himself, refers to the militancy of the black movement. When he calls for stronger enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, he tries to link himself to the victories of that movement:

“...it’s not just enough for us to offer aid and programs to poor people. We must empower poor people to aid themselves. Now to that extent, so long as the Voting Rights Act of ‘65 is not enforced across the South, it means you’ll not get equity amongst blacks, Hispanics, women and poor people in the Congress, in the Legislature, in the judiciary where these decisions are made – in fact, unless that Voting Rights Act is enforced, you’ll never get the E.R.A. passed, and that’s critical because 70 per cent of all poor children live in a house headed by a woman. And unless that passes, you’ll not end right-to-work laws so people get paid for the work that they do. See, I want some focus here on lifting the boat at the bottom. The blacks, the Hispanics, the women, the Asians, the locked-out must be empowered and not just embellished.”

But finally what he proposes is: to vote. In this, he is no different than all the other politicians, who propose nothing to ordinary people other than to put their hopes in the ballot.

Jackson argues that, even if a black president is not about to be elected, there could be important changes in local government administration if black people and poor people register and vote in sufficient numbers. He said, “If you can get your share of legislators, mayors, sheriffs, school-board members, tax assessors and dogcatchers, you can live with whoever is in the White House.”

Jackson is certainly right that key government positions have been dominated by rich white men. Candidates for national office are always rich or tied to the rich. It takes large sums of money to run, and the politicians are overwhelmingly closely tied to big business. But, if the poor would vote for either the Democratic or Republican candidates in bigger numbers, it would not mean that these candidates themselves would be less tied to the capitalists; nor if the poor vote for black candidates, that the black candidates were less tied to the capitalists.

For the poor people to have their “share of legislators, mayors, sheriffs,” etc., they would at least have to have their own political party. But this is not what Jackson is proposing.

Jackson and the Democratic Party

Of course, Jackson says that it is not the Democratic Party as it is today that the dispossessed should trust, but the Democratic Party as it could become under the pressure of their votes. But there is nothing that lets us think that the Democratic Party will change.

Not its past. It is a very old party, and the only times it has given reforms to working people were during those periods such as the 1930s or 1960s when people imposed those reforms through struggle.

And certainly not its present. If the Democrats in Congress criticize Reagan for being too militaristic, they still vote for practically the same budgets he proposes. They provide the votes needed to cut the social programs.

In fact, of course, the Democratic Party has always defended the corporate interests both domestically and internationally against the workers and poor. Jackson can see this. And he admits that it is still true today when he says that the party has to be changed if it is to represent poor people. He acknowledges that internally it is an undemocratic, closed structure when he calls for changes in the convention delegate selection.

Jackson knows all this. So, why bother to make a fight inside the party at all? He could make his campaign as an independent candidate. Running as an independent candidate could provide the poor with a choice to express themselves politically. They could make a demonstration in November, if there were a truly independent candidate to vote for; they could demonstrate that they represent a force in the country.

Certainly no election campaign by itself can be the cause of a social movement, but if the poor were to demonstrate their numbers today, in the current situation, when they seem paralyzed by their isolation, this demonstration could help them to mobilize themselves.

Obviously this is what Jackson doesn’t want. If he doesn’t run as an independent, it’s not because it could cost him the presidency. He has no change to win even the Democratic Party nomination. If he doesn’t run as an independent, it must be because he doesn’t want to risk the chance that his candidacy could spark a mobilization. It’s the reason he doesn’t break with the Democratic Party today, when it might make a difference; the reason, in fact, he takes pains to demonstrate he is part of this party.

Finally, what Jackson’s candidacy represents is a way to pull sections of the poor population back into the Democratic Party. He trades on the illusions he has been able to create among the poor to reinforce a party which represents only the wealthy.

Tomorrow he could go further. When a movement of some kind develops among the dispossessed of this society, he could use his reputation as a civil rights leader and representative of the poor to try to place himself at the head of it and channel it out of the streets and back into the Democratic Party, away from any activity which could make a challenge to the system.

Someone like Jackson could even, in the event that the imperialists see a necessity to go to war, be the politician to argue to the population that war is in their interests and unavoidable. In the Goodman case, Jackson made a dramatic negotiation with the Syrian state. While Jackson presented his negotiation as the key to peace, he also played up the theme of the plight of the downed American flier, the kind of patriotic stuff which can be a part of a preparation for war. Tomorrow, Jackson, the peace-seeker, could argue effectively that he had tried to travel the road of negotiation, had been frustrated by the enemy, and could see no recourse but war.

Jackson is exactly the kind of politician who can play a big role to sidetrack and contain a social movement. His present campaign is being used to promote a politician who can stand in the way of people when they are ready to fight. It’s why Jackson represents a danger, a trap for those who support him in the hope to do something against poverty, discrimination, and war.