Sep 30, 1980
1980 is a Presidential election year. For the past year and a half, the process of selecting the candidates has gone on. Despite this campaign, the American working class has not exhibited much interest in the elections.
This general lack of interest in the elections is not a new phenomenon. Since the election of Kennedy in 1960, a declining proportion of eligible voters has turned out to vote. More recently, in the 1972 election, less than 55% of the potentially eligible voters voted. In 1976, less than half of the potential voters voted. This meant that over 70 million people who could have voted did not. While all sections of the population are voting less, a proportionally larger share of the working class and other poor people don’t vote.
Even when there was a turn-out of working class voters during the 1980 primaries, it was not for the most part tied to the hopes of a particular Democratic candidate. In a few states, many workers voted for Ronald Reagan. It seems likely these votes were not so much a vote for Reagan or the Republican Party as they were a vote against Carter or Kennedy.
In other words, the larger part of the working class shows little confidence that any of the candidates can or will solve their problems. For them, it’s no longer obvious that the Democratic Party is their party.
Certainly, they have not made a conscious choice not to vote. But it is better than choosing to vote.
In the past, when the working class did put its faith in the Democrats, it was always cheated. And yet, for a long time, the illusion persisted that one bourgeois party, the Democratic Party, was the lesser evil, that it more closely represented the interests of working people.
In fact, the confidence and allegiance the American working class has shown toward the Democratic Party in the past has been one of the obstacles which prevented the American working class from developing the consciousness of itself as a class with its own separate political interests and goals. This allegiance is an obstacle in the way of the American working class developing its own independent party. It is important to understand how, when and by who this illusion was fastened on the American working class.
There are several periods that were critical in bringing the general acceptance of the Democratic Party as the party of the American working class.
In the late 1800s, hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to the United States. Many of the immigrants came out of the socialist tradition of Europe. These socialists, and many more of the other immigrants, became the basis of the massive strikes in the late 1870s and in the movement for the 8-hour day in the 1880s.
It was in the largest cities, like New York and Chicago, that the Democratic Party was able to play the role of integrating the immigrants, while breaking them from the Socialist tradition that some of them had had, and even from the struggle for industrial unions. While the Democratic Party and its local political machines were able to grant a few favors, they did so in a way which served to reinforce and pit each ethnic group against the others.
But during this time the Democratic Party was successful in tying only certain sections of the working class to it (the ethnic groups who immigrated during this time: the Irish, the Poles, the Italians and the Germans, in some cities). It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Democratic Party was able to cement the ties between it and the whole working class.
In the 1930s it was easy for the Democratic Party to blame the economic crisis on Herbert Hoover and the Republicans who were in office. Because Hoover’s government continued the old policy of hostility towards the unions, he quickly became a target for the workers’ anger. Their shantytowns became known derisively as Hoovervilles.
In 1932, Roosevelt was elected president. Roosevelt may have been seen as the lesser evil, but he quickly moved to create the image of FDR, the champion of the working people.
In early 1933, Roosevelt and the Democratic Party proposed an abrupt change in government policy. Roosevelt pushed through Congress emergency relief programs and the Works Progress Administration Act (WPA), a work relief program. In June 1933, the Democrats pushed through the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), one section of which supposedly gave the workers the right to organize. But this and other social legislation was thrown out by the Supreme Court.
Clearly, the bourgeoisie, as a whole, was not convinced to follow Roosevelt’s path until after the three general strikes of 1934.
In 1932, strikes had totaled only 841 with 324,000 strikers involved, but by 1933, the number of strikes had doubled to 1,695 with almost four times as many strikers, 1,168,000 strikers. A mass movement was built by the unskilled workers in the major industries: auto, rubber, steel, packinghouse, glass, trucking. The movement drew into it also the unemployed and other workers not in the basic industries, such as retail clerks. It was only then that the bourgeoisie decided to give the concessions, concessions which they now tried to make appear as gifts from the Democratic Party. Quickly the Wagner Act legalized unions. Social Security and Unemployment Compensation were both made law.
Alone, the politicians of the Democratic Party would not have been able to convince the working class that it was the representative of their interests. It was the more far-seeing trade union bureaucrats like John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman who finally fastened the Democratic Party on the workers’ backs. It was these leaders who in 1935 broke with the American Federation of Labor to create the Committee on Industrial Organization (CIO).
Certainly the CIO leaders did not propose strikes as the means for the workers to impose their main demands, such as the recognition of their unions. The CIO preferred bureaucratically negotiated settlements – such as they finally achieved in steel – to put the industrial unions in place. Nonetheless, when workers di strike to form their own unions, officials like Lewis weren’t afraid to put themselves at the head of the movement, even if this brought them into momentary conflict with some of the capitalists. But always they did it with the same message: they told the workers that it was the laws passed by the Democratic Party (specifically, the Wagner Act) that had made it possible for the workers to organize unions.
At the same time, they tried to convince the workers that more could be gained by addressing the government, and to this end they began to focus on the elections. They painted a picture of FDR as the “friend of labor.” They urged the workers to vote Democratic.
But even so it was not so easy to convince all the workers. The attacks on strikes by Roosevelt remained in their minds. And in certain regions of the country, particularly New York, among the garment workers, there was a tradition of not supporting bourgeois candidates or parties.
These workers represented a section of the working class which was ready to go beyond the bourgeois parties. Many believed that the working class needed its own party – a party independent from the bourgeois parties. They wanted to see a labor party created.
This desire became widespread enough among a section of the working class so that the union leaders felt forced to set up political organizationslike Labor’s Non-Partisan League and the American Labor Party. These organizations were supposed to be the first steps toward a labor party: they would work for independent labor action and support only those candidates who would represent the interests of the workers.
In reality, the trade union leaders used these organizations to channel workers back into the Democratic Party. These organizations ended up supporting some socialists, or even communists, as unionist candidates in local and state elections. But in national elections they chose to support Roosevelt.
The CIO leaders stood for so-called practical politics to keep these workers supporting Roosevelt. They argued that if the workers were going to vote they should make their vote count; if they did not vote for the Democratic Party, the workers would waste their vote on candidates who had no chance of winning.
It is this that constitutes the greatest betrayal of the working class by the reformist union leaders: that when a section of the working class was ready to move towards creating its own party, they counseled and maneuvered to keep the working class within a bourgeois party, the Democratic Party.
A significant section of the working class – probably its majority – left the 1930’s believing that the Democratic Party had given them better living conditions and working conditions. In reality, it was they who made the changes, they who had won concessions from the government on social security, unemployment compensation and minimum wage guarantees. Yet they had come to believe that they could win more from the Democratic Party than from the Republican Party. And they believed that it served their interest to vote for and support the Democratic Party.
With the aid of the reformist union leaders, the bourgeoisie has been able to prevent the mobilization of the American working class from going further, that is, on a political level, to prevent the working class from creating its own party. Instead, the working class has come to believe that it was its participation in elections and its links which bound it to the Democratic Party, and not its own activity, which were the means to create a better life.
With these attitudes fastened on the working class the bourgeoisie could feel more confident that they could be able to conduct the war they had been preparing for, World War II.
We can see a similar process in the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, which was a movement of one of the most important layers of the oppressed, even if it was not per se a working class movement.
The movement began in the 1940s during World War II, in response to the ever present conditions of black oppression in the United States, exacerbated by the social disruptions of the war.
From the end of the war to the early 1960s, the attention and activity of the established rights organizations had been directed toward filing and drawing attention to court cases. In fact, the Supreme Court case of Brown versus Board of Education in 1954 is today regarded as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. In reality, it was the response by the courts to the organizing and activity of black people for over a decade. But the movement could not be contained within the courts.
From the war years on, the black movement organized marches, demonstrations, boycotts and voter registration drives. Most of this activity especially in the war years took place in the South. Each activity was meet with resistance, often with violence. People were beaten and jailed; they had fire hoses and dogs turned loose on them; many people were killed.
Nonetheless, the struggle continued. Some of the most odious aspects of segregation began to fall, and jobs began to open up.
The Democratic Party responded to this mobilization and to the combativity of black people by making a change in its policy and proposing a change in government policy. Kennedy. In 1960, had based much of his campaign on promises to black people. Under Johnson, the Civil Rights Act was passed. The structure of the party itself was changed to allow black people from the South greater possibility to participate in the party and to purge many of the open racists from public positions in the party.
Once again, the Democratic Party granted some reforms – to a people mobilized and fighting to protect themselves and to change society. It hoped to create the illusion that the Democratic Party has “given” black people what they had, in reality, won for themselves through their own struggles.
But it was really the leaders of the civil rights organization who made it possible for the Democratic Party to foster these illusions among black people. Without these allies, it would have been impossible for the Democratic Party, which in the South was openly racist, to convince the mass of black people to trust it.
The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, like the leaders of the union movement of the 1930s, argued for practical politics: that is, that black people, by voting for and supporting the Democratic Party, would have more leverage to put pressure on the system. They also argued that black people should vote Democratic as a choice between the lesser of two evils.
For 20 years, civil rights activists had shown that they were willing to risk injury, jail, and even death to end racism and bring about a better society. They fought hard and sacrificed much. It was these people who had won the end of segregation and other gains made for the black population. Hundreds of thousands of black people had already shown they were willing to go beyond the Democrats and Republicans. They had demonstrated their disrespect for the legalities of the bourgeoisie state. But civil rights leaders like King had done everything they could to channel black people back into the Democratic Party. They kept the movement within the political framework of the American bourgeois society, not of what people were willing to do at the time.
The black movement was convinced to put its faith in the Democratic Party, which did nothing to solve the basic problems of black people. Still today, the wages of black workers are significantly lower than those of whites, while the rate of unemployment is more than twice as high. Still today, many areas of the cities are unofficially closed to black people, and the schools for black children are totally inadequate. And the racist harassment by white policemen, while maybe held down somewhat, nonetheless continues.
In the past, the workers have given their support to the Democrats. For their efforts, Roosevelt and Truman passed legislation that attacked the workers’ organizations and outlawed strikes. They sent the workers to fight and die in World War II and the Korean War. In the 60s, Johnson presented himself as the man who would give black people their rights and black people voted for him. For their efforts they were rewarded with a rate of unemployment which remained double that of whites and the government’s assassination of militants like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
Today, the working class may have many fewer illusions in the Democratic Party. Some of the more radical trade union leaders even try to keep a certain distance from Carter. Nonetheless, when the working class or black people begin to mobilize again, they will have to face these same leaders. These “realists” will come forward to tell them to find the way to make their struggle count. Once again, the workers could be led back to the Democratic Party.
So we say that today, if the American working class does not vote, even if it is not done in a politically conscious way, it is better than continuing under the illusion that there really is a lesser of two evils.
Certainly, it is not the same as if the working class has chosen consciously not to support the bourgeoisie, their parties or their elections. And certainly, not voting does not mean the working class has understood that it can rely only on its own activity and struggles; nor that it has decided to actively oppose the bourgeoisie and its parties; nor that it has decided it must create its own party.
At least, when it doesn’t vote, the working class does not choose to endorse those who are its enemy; those who make promises to it; those, who after the elections, find new ways to attack it.