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Deliver Us to the Lesser Evil: How Social Movements Bury Themselves in the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party has often been called “the graveyard of social movements,” and more often than not the social struggles in the United States end their useful lives digging their own graves in the DP, the alternative party of the capitalists.

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Illustration by Luigi Morris

Self-appointed leaders shut down the anti-war movement when Barack Obama started his presidential campaign, even though Obama was never going to end the United States’ multiple wars. The strike movement against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was dismantled when the labor unions and the Democratic Party supported a campaign to recall the Republican governor and replace him with a Democrat.

The recall, of course, failed and Walker is still in power. The Democratic Party seems to exert a magnetic attraction on social movements regardless of what Democrats actually do for them in the end. Movements that work with the Republicans (e.g. the Tea Party) do get institutionalized, but for them institutionalization means they get more attention, money and capacity–without being forced to moderate or demobilize their base. But movements with progressive movements aims that look toward Democratic Party institutions, become more restrained, more concerned with keeping their leaders happy, less confrontational, and less powerful. Eventually their supporters figure out that these organizations have already died as progressive movements and walk away.

What is it that makes right-wing social movements stronger when they work their way into establishment institutions, and leftist movements weaker? And why do all the movements that support the oppressed end up next to the Democrats exclusively, when the Democrats are so resistant to an actual challenge to power? As we will see, this dynamic has a long history. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Democrats are a part of that managing committee, a place where capitalists figure out how to govern their exploitation and explore different ways to manage society. The capitalists actually do well with two parties, because the two-party system supplies some variation and a little healthy competition of policies. Capitalism certainly does operate under one-party dictatorships, but these kinds of regimes tend to make mistakes, lose legitimacy and get overthrown. A better gameplan for capitalists is to use different parties to try out different strategies, and then go with the strategy that is working better.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently said that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party. Socialists would definitely agree, since it’s a party made up of capitalists including Pelosi herself and the numerous millionaires in Congress, paid for by capitalists, and a party for capitalists, particularly when it runs the executive administration–for example with presidents Clinton and Obama–and their considerable efforts to create good conditions for profitability and financial sector growth. So it is very strange that a capitalist party, which is of, by and for capitalists, would be the place progressive social movements always turn, even though it always turns out badly.

And it would not fair to say they are poorly informed or make bad decisions–there must be a very strong reason, a structural reason for why the Democratic Party is the party that always outmaneuvers labor and social movements and for why, no matter how many times leftists try to influence the Democrats, they stay capitalist and move back to the right.

Some tombstones in the graveyard

For most of its history, the Democratic Party was a party of slaveowners and racist one-party rule, at least in its most consistent territory, the “Solid South.” Jim Crow was the product of a campaign of lynchings and political terrorism by forces like the Ku Klux Klan that operated like fascists would in the 20th century, to suppress democratic rights.

Even so, in the North the Republicans became the party of big business, so that the Democrats could posture as a party more to the left, though largely on the basis of corrupt city machine politics. While both parties had a ‘progressive’ capitalist wing, there was also an independent Socialist Party to compete with, the Industrial Workers of the World and other militant unions, and huge immigrant-led radical organizations that eventually helped form the Communist Party. The two parties certainly preserved capitalist rule, but they could not convince workers that there was no alternative to working inside a capitalist party. When the country lurched into the Great Depression after an extended period of Republicanadministered capitalism, the Democrats returned to power with the support of capitalists who wanted the government to help organize economic recovery.

This led to Roosevelt’s adoption of the New Deal–although, because it was done through the Democratic Party in Congress, it was designed in a thoroughly racist manner that shut many Black workers out of Social Security and set up housing policies that institutionalized neighborhood segregation, with the government codifying the lines of division. Yet, the New Deal represented concessions to a rising working class movement. Even with the Democratic Party being as far to the left as it had ever been, workers were making much better progress by refusing its control, fighting directly against the capitalists and gaining institutional power, often organized within independent socialist parties.

Communists formed councils of the unemployed that pressed directly for jobs through protests, rather than negotiations. Socialists, Communists, and Trotskyists led general strikes in three major US cities and a wave of sit down strikes in auto plants that were met by the national guard. In the South, as documented in Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, communists organized interracial unions in the Birmingham Steel mills under Jim Crow oppression.

The strikes set up the strongest working class institution the US had ever seen, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. It had severe weaknesses— domination of some of its unions by bureaucrats, a failure to fight consistently for integration or unionization of the South—and these weaknesses derived ultimately from a lack of political unity on the basis of uniting the whole working class to fight the capitalists. Mike Davis writes in “The Barren Marriage of American Labour and the Democratic Party”: “The original Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) was an alliance of dissident trade union bureaucrats, with important financial resources and friends in high places, created for the purpose of capturing an already existent mass movement of industrial shop committees and rebel locals– a movement with dangerous embryonic proclivities toward an anti-Gompersian model of ‘class struggle unionism.’” The problem was made worse when the Communist Party received orders to collaborate with the Democrats as part of a Popular Front, intended to help the Democrats mobilize support for a future war in Europe.

They ended up taking the side of the bureaucrats to get control over (and really against) the socialist agitators who had done the actual organizing in very oppressive Midwestern factory towns. The CIO was built upon strikes, many of them illegal, and all of them disruptive to capitalists, but its workers faced an acute choice: could they make their institution stronger by making a compromise with the bosses? In the Union of Automobile Workers, historian Nelson Lichtenstein shows, the union leaders faced a choice when the strike wave of 1936-37 was exhausted.[1]

They could continue mobilizing workers and leading strikes, with the risk that they would sometimes be shut out of negotiations by the capitalists, and that the leaders might personally be out of office in the unions. Or, they could take contracts that would not require them to carry out continuous worker mobilization, while guaranteeing management a stable workforce that wouldn’t be building up more resentment and energy in future strikes. Of course they went for the latter, and if they hadn’t, some other set of conservative union bureaucrats probably would have.

This is the classic bargain of a social movement, and always a very tricky question, because after all unions definitely want contracts. Taking enough control from the bosses to have a stable union is a major step that helps with defense and solidarity, but union leaders do get into a position that is easier for them to sit in comfortably if workers are not mobilized to take more. But if the union officials are not accountable to union democracy and, optimally, a revolutionary socialist party, it is all too inevitable that their actions will come to reflect their own self interest, whatever their speeches may profess.

A link up with the Democratic Party helps the union officials divert member militancy into hopeless political pressure campaigns, and thereby solidify their own position. It also drives the unions further from the socialist political orientation that would both mobilize action and subject the bureaucrats to democratic control or replacement. This demobilization was the start of a pattern, however. During World War II, unions agreed to a no-strike pledge and support for the war, and got the government’s protection to unionize huge numbers of workers who had never managed to get a union through striking.

But the unions didn’t stop strikes permanently (actually, WWII was a strong time for wildcat strikes, to the consternation of both Democrats and Stalinists), and after the war these newly unionized workers launched the largest strike wave in US history. This was a high point in terms of numbers on the picket line, and from there the unions could have gone very far. Instead, CIO bureaucrats collaborated with the Democrats to purge their unions of Communists, many of them the more active organizers and strikers, and then submitted to the Taft-Hartley Act banning revolutionaries in the unions.

The CIO signed on for long contracts with no-strike clauses that would continue to be the capitalists profitable, and keep the workers from gaining new experience and strength by winning strikes. Perhaps most ominously, the CIO failed to organize in the South and with Black workers, as it promised to do under ‘Operation Dixie.’ Of course, the Communists who had been expelled would have been some of the best prepared for the task. In the thirties, they had success combining the civil rights struggle with unionizing drives in Memphis, as shown by Michael Honey in Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights, but the CIO was not only unwilling to fight the political battle, but expelled the organizers who would have done it. So Operation Dixie was secretly undermined by bureaucrats, effectively sabotaging both the labor movement and civil rights for decades.

Organizing the South would have meant breaking through the authority of the southern capitalists, sheriffs, and of course the KKK, and undermining the racist authoritarianism of segregation through the power of the working class. In other words, it would have undermined the Democratic Party, and the CIO’s alliance with the Democrats at the national level, in which they hoped southern white votes would win national majorities for their preferred party.

For the CIO bureaucrats, this was fine, as they continued to have easy positions winning consistent contracts in the already-unionized sectors. And who would ever expect them to do otherwise, with all their institutional links to the Democrats, and no significant revolutionary socialist party to make fighting capitalists and segregation the priority?

But not without a fight

With training and experience from labor struggles and socialist movements in previous decades, the Civil Rights movement started out very independent and disruptive, with an obvious antipathy for the only governing party in the South, the Democrats.

In many ways, the Black struggle shows the efficacy of a principled united front of different approaches on basic demands of democracy, but independent in practice from the capitalist parties. Of course, some players in civil rights did cooperate extensively with the Democrats, such as the NAACP, but this was simply not possible for the civil disobedience campaigns that pried open the contradictions between federal and state power, and so effectively exposed the Democratic Party that it was forced to implement concessions.

Civil disobedience effectively combined large masses of demonstrators prepared for nonviolent resistance with activists like the Deacons for Defense and Robert F. Williams taking up arms for protection of rights, while sheriffs and white terrorists were using violence to suppress the movement. This tends to be downplayed, because it is inconsistent with the story of nonviolence smoothly transitioning into electoral politics, but that alone would not have worked. To the extent Eisenhower, Kennedy or Johnson limited the abuses of the Southern Democrats, it was to maintain state power on their own terms.

Parts of the movement began to express the radicalism already being seen in direct action at the base, from Malcolm X to the revamped SNCC and CORE. Rebellions against conditions in the cities of the North showed that the parts of the Civil Rights movement aligning themselves with President Johnson could not take the steps necessary to organize a resistance to racism and segregation in the strongholds of the ‘liberal’ Democratic Party.

And though pacifists like Martin Luther King abhorred the violence of rioting, he was willing to use it as an argument in private communications [2] with the mass murderer Lyndon Johnson. If concessions weren’t granted, King’s case went, the militant struggle would escape any possible control and lead to “social disintegration… [and] tragic destruction of life and property.” Whether or not there is any defense for King’s telegram, it is clear that he knew that those acting outside the Democratic Party were doing the difficult work to bring about change.

Civil Rights leaders who called for using the Democrats as a vehicle ultimately were drawn into defending its reprehensible policies, for example the sometime-socialist and pacifist Bayard Rustin who ended up defending the continuation of the Vietnam War, opposing the antiwar movement, and collaborating with the CIA. In the end, the question of working with the Democrats split the Civil Rights movement on an entirely appropriate line, with many leaders becoming Democratic politicians who did little and progressively less of a positive nature over the years.

The tragedy is, the militants in the struggle who turned to revolutionary and socialist ideas did not find the strategies to give their movement further success. The Black Panther Party clearly recognized the need to build up power that would remain outside the control of the Democrats—so much so that, whatever the BPP’s other inadequacies, it was the construction of independent power that motivated the state’s brutal repression.

To really succeed, however, would have required a longer term strategy of gaining revolutionary leadership within the labor struggle, something the League of Revolutionary Black Workers pointed to in Detroit. The fact that the labor unions were (and are) run by conservative bureaucrats, supporting and supported by the Democrats. The CIO’s lack of class conscious (socialist) education to overcome white racism, meant they failed to provide solidarity with Black workers and the oppressed, and therefore are ultimately responsible for the failure of united labor-Black struggle.

The Sixties, as the second great peak of social struggle in the history of the United States, saw an increasing understanding that the institutions offered by the parties supporting the capitalist system were poisoned chalices. It was no mystery that the capitalists could be forced to grant more by struggling in opposition to their rule than by attempting to gain influence with their mealymouthed, left liberal hangers-on.

A politicized and socialist labor movement could have done real damage to the Vietnam War effort while winning strikes, but since labor bureaucrats were entirely tied to the Democratic Party and their own despotic control over the unions, the strikes that did break out—in very large numbers—were generally wildcats without union or legal sanction. Meanwhile, the antiwar and student movements grasped after some kind of effective politics opposed to capitalism and effective organizations for it.

The travails of the Students for a Democratic Society, and the several attempted versions of revolutionary politics that came out of it, certainly could have done much more with a coherent revolutionary perspective and party, based on the independence of the working class (and a rejection of Maoist fantasies), but at least at that time they had little confusion about the Democratic Party being a pied piper of social movements. Were they wrong not to try to organize primaries against the more hateful Democratic politicians, when mass demonstrations and resistance by conscript soldiers were forcing even Richard Nixon’s hand? There is one particular “concession” that the Democratic Party is always willing to grant social movements, which is the opportunity to run a nominee in its presidential primary.

Realistically, the Party does not concede anything by this strategy and, on the contrary, gains quite a bit. The primary is conducted among voters that are already largely wedded to the Democratic Party machine, and if that does not prove to be sufficient to elect the favored candidate, Party insiders can always put their thumbs on the scale to ensure the desired result.

By participating, social movements not only give the Democratic Party legitimacy and divert their members from more radical ends, but also give the Democrats the opportunity to sweep up the wreckage of the demoralized and confused movement once the inevitable primary loss occurs. Jesse Jackson’s presidential runs in the 1980s are a case in point. Jackson pulled various social groups into his “Rainbow Coalition”—including many Marxists who should have known better—that ran aground on the shoals of the Democratic Party primaries. Before that, Eugene McCarthy cynically appealed to the anti-Vietnam War movement to bolster his candidacy in the 1968 primary.

Those who were taken in by McCarthy’s overtures were rewarded with police batons outside of the convention center. Naturally, McCarthy was never again to appear as an opponent of the war, and the best that could be said for his erstwhile supporters was that they had foolishly wasted their time in supporting him.

Whom do the Democrats serve? Whom do they represent?

The way the U.S. capitalist parties work is through a division of labor. The Republicans represent the hard line capitalist strategy, best used whenever the social movements are weak or too dependent on the Democrats. Social movements that try to substitute a Democrat election campaign for actual organizing end up in the situation of thinking they have to help the Democrats win by moderating the struggle.

But when social movements are moderate, they get demoralized, and whether the Democrats or Republicans win, the movements don’t have the mobilization to resist. By turning his supporters in the direction of Hillary Clinton, Sanders (who has always been effectively a Democrat in Congress) prevented his agitated base from preparing in any way to resist Trump—or Clinton for that matter.

Sanders almost succeeded in getting a generation to wait and see about Clinton like they did with Obama. And that waiting and seeing got us into the disastrous situation we now find ourselves in. So the Democrats represent the strategy of cooptation. When people are forming new social movements, fighting independently, and beginning to threaten capitalism, the hard line strategy of the Republicans doesn’t work as well.

More capitalists backed Clinton because they valued the stable management of capitalism, like under Obama, and Democratic Party management of social movements as well. Campaign promises mean nothing to the Democrats, but a sincere progressive faction that continues to support them means they don’t even have to worry about those people becoming opponents. The Democratic Party offers an institution to the movements, whether it’s an elected official, a spot on a ballot, nonprofit funding from billionaires, the support of some city councillors or mayors, or a permit to march, but with conditions. It’s not that our social movements are dumb and are taken in.

There are very real benefits to using the existing institutions, and the Democrats will offer a reform as compensation. When the Democrats offer a reform, the best explanation is not that they shifted left to welcome new people coming in. They offer reforms to deal with the possibility that an antiDemocratic Party movement would arise. If that did happen, the Democrats would have to make much bigger concessions to convince people to come back their way.

When US capitalism was at its height of profitability after WWII, it was easy for the Democrats to justify the expense of reforms in order to keep production running smoothly, but today’s crisis-wracked capitalism turns ever more to austerity. Concessions to the workers would now cut into capitalism’s reduced profits, not restore health to the system, and that explains capitalists— and Democrats’—fierce resistance to such policies. Still, reforms can be real, and because the institutions the Democrats offer are real, workers will have access to more resources the second they go for the Democratic Party strategy. Socialists are feeling this pressure when they look at the chance to get ballot access through the Democratic Party.

But without breaking from the Democrats, a union or a social movement is not going to build the power of the working class in the long run (if it did, the Democrats would instantly cut off support). As Lenin wrote 100 years ago in State and Revolution, while a Russian government of socialists allied with liberals was continuing a war to send millions of soldiers to their deaths, “A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell… it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.”

Of course, back then the workers had institutions of their own independent of the capitalists, and by denying the liberal government all support, they were able to make their committees and councils into a new state of the workers. The Democrats are with us for a reason. They tried running this country as a dictatorship of slaveowners. They tried running half this country as an apartheid state. Again and again, social movements saw that Democrats were a primary obstacle to actually gaining ground, and took the struggle directly to the capitalists and their politicians. In each case, when the struggle had exhausted part of its energy, someone suggested that an institutional link up with the Democrats would keep things going more smoothly for a while.

The record of that strategy is the graveyard in which social movement have buried themselves. Why does it keep happening if it has such bad results? Movement leaders have limited options, and interests of their own, and sooner or later the faction that is willing to compromise gets some resources from the capitalist-aligned institutions. We need our own organizations to defeat the capitalists, but more centrally we need a revolutionary socialist party so that our unions and movements don’t succumb to capitalism’s very well prepared trap– the Democratic Party.


1 Lichtenstein N., Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit.
2 Telegram from King to President Johnson, 1967 Jul 25. Available at APM Reports.

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