Should Progressives Work in the Democratic Party?


Here we reprint part of a 1959 debate between a revolutionary socialist and a social democrat. George Breitman, a member of the Socialist Workers Party and longtime editor of The Militant newspaper, argued the No side.

I shall begin by defining what I have in mind by the terms “progressive,” “work in” and “Democratic Party. ” 

By “progressive” I mean two things:

First, the great social forces that have the power to decide the future – the working class and its allies, the working farmers, the Negro people and the youth.

Second, I have in mind the smaller, radical groups and individuals who are repelled by the capitalist system, its anarchy, militarism, depressions, regimentation, inequality and debasement of human and cultural values, and who favor the replacement of this system by one based on cooperation, planning, brotherhood and promotion of the interests of the majority. In short, I use the term “progressive” for those who are pro-labor or anti-capitalist, who are anti-war, anti-fascist, anti-Jim Crow, pro-socialist, 

By “work in” I mean belong to, become a member of, vote for, support or endorse. 

Now, about the nature of the Democratic Party. 

Socialists say that political parties represent, express, reflect class interests. This doesn’t mean that parties necessarily say they represent class interests; nor that all their members think they do; nor even that all their members come from the same class. (The truth of this proposition doesn’t depend on what socialists say, or what anti-socialists say. It can be tested by facts, the evidence of history, objective analysis.) 

When socialists say the Democratic Party is a capitalist party, they don’t mean that most of its members are capitalists. Obviously not. If the capitalists had to depend on their own numbers, they couldn’t elect a justice of the peace, for they are a tiny part of the population. Actually, most supporters of the Democratic Party are workers, farmers and members of the middle classes, But they aren’t the ones who decide the real aims of the party.

Nationally, the Democratic Party is a coalition – of capitalists and union leaders, of Southern white supremacists and Northern Negroes, of corrupt machines in the cities and unorganized or loosely organized farmers on the land, of conservatives and liberals, etc. 

This coalition explains why the Democratic Party says the things it says, why it writes the platforms it writes – for it appeals to conflicting interests and tries to hold them together. It also explains why the Democratic Party sometimes says different things than the other capitalist party, the Republican Party, for the Republican Party has a somewhat different composition and following, making its major appeal for support to the middle classes and non-unionized sections of the working class. 

But it doesn’t determine which interest controls, dominates, runs and uses the Democratic Party. We say it is dominated, as the Republican Party is dominated, by a minority of its members – by a small group of monopoly capitalists who also control the economy, the government, the means of communication and the educational system. 

It doesn’t matter what the Democratic platform says – the chief function of this party, as of the Republican Party, is to protect the interests of the monopoly capitalists at home and abroad. It doesn’t matter what the candidates of this party say during election campaigns (they usually say what they think will win votes, not what they think) – what counts is what its office holders do about the important issues of the day.

Only a few examples are possible now: 

The overwhelming majority of the people of this country, and of the members of both capitalist parties, want peace, the relaxation of international tensions, a ban on nuclear explosions, and so on. But what do they get? Wars, war crises, preparation for war, militarization, the draft, a permanent arms economy and crushing taxes to maintain it, the continuation of the Cold War and Cold War propaganda. And the Democratic Party’s chief complaint against the Republicans is that they don’t appropriate and spend enough for these purposes! On this issue the Democratic Party surely serves the interests of the ruling class faithfully and consistently. 

The Democrats differ from the Republicans occasionally on what to do about unemployment, because the Democrats usually have greater support among the unemployed and want to retain that support. But their differences are minor, sometimes insignificant. They agree on the basic things: That the present economic system must not be reorganized to abolish unemployment. That when workers are laid off through no fault of their own, they should suffer cuts in their living standards, rather than the employers. That jobless compensation should not be paid for the duration of unemployment. That the work week should not be shortened. These are things the capitalist class thinks too. 

The Jim Crow system in the U.S. is the scandal of the world. Nevertheless, the American ruling class shows no intention of abolishing it within the time of anyone now living. In the South, the Democratic Party is a one-party dictatorship dedicated to maintaining white supremacy. In Congress, it provides the bulk of the votes against meaningful civil rights legislation. Northern Democrats have to make some gestures to keep the Negro vote, but their liberalism is rarely more than skin deep on this question. If you elect liberals like Hart and McNamara, who swear undying devotion to the civil rights cause, the first thing they do when they get to Washington is vote to elect the Southern Democratic enemies of the Negro people to the key Congressional posts, which are used to block civil rights and all other progressive legislation, Liberals like Governor Williams will make impassioned speeches about injustice to Negroes in the South, but no one has ever heard him utter a single word about the most Jim Crow city in the North right on his own doorstep, Dearborn, whose mayor boasts that no Negro can live there. So it would be putting it mildly to say that the Democratic Party’s policy on civil rights is in accord with that of the ruling class, which always benefits from hatred and discord among the workers. 

My final example is civil liberties. We are still suffering from the effects of the witch hunt launched to silence all opposition to the Cold War. The record shows that the Democratic Party served the capitalist class just as zealously in this witch hunt as the Republicans. The Democrats passed and enforced the Smith Act to gag political dissent. Democratic presidents transformed the FBI into a political police force. The Democrats started the misnamed government “loyalty program. A Democratic president initiated the “subversive” blacklist. Democrats spearheaded the passage of the Internal Security Act of 1950. Liberal Democrats took the lead in passing the Humphrey-Butler “Communist Control” Act of 1954. We tend to think of this as the era of McCarthyism, but the Democrats, liberal as well as conservative, were in there doing their fair share of gnawing away at the Bill of Rights, And not only in Washington, but in Lansing too. The Trucks Law of 1952 was the worst and most repressive law ever passed in Michigan. All the Democrats in the legislature voted for it. Williams, begged by the civil libertarians to veto this bill to turn Michigan into a police state, said he could see no reason not to sign it, and sign it he did. For the next four years he ignored all appeals that he call for its repeal. It would still be on the books if it had been left up to him, rather than the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally struck it down. 

Having given an analysis of the Democratic Party, for better or worse, I want to indicate now why it is wrong from just about every conceivable angle for progressives to work in it. I’ll take up the labor movement first, the radical groups second. 

Unions are created in the first place because there is a fundamental clash of interest between workers and capitalists. A necessary condition for the effective functioning of unions is that they be independent of the capitalists; as we all know, a company union, an organization dominated by the employers, does not and cannot defend the workers’ interests. I believe it can be stated as a law – the more independent a union is of capitalists, of individual capitalists and of the capitalist class as a whole, the better able it is to defend the workers’ interests. Or if you don’t care for the word “law,” let me put it this way: Independence of the labor movement is a first principle, recognized and expounded by the best union leaders like Debs and Haywood. 

This has always been true, but it is especially true today, when the monopoly stage of capitalism expands the role of the state and gives all struggles, including labor struggles, an openly political character. What labor in our country needs above everything else is a party of its own, which can fight for the needs and aspirations of the workers on the political field as unions can on the economic field… 

But instead of having a party of its own, the labor movement is dependent, in the political sphere, on a party controlled by the capitalists and promoting the interests of the capitalists. It is a tail to the Democratic kite, as one union leader put it.

This must be designated as a violation of the principle of independence on the basis of which the union movement was created. 

It is not only wrong in principle, however. It is also harmful in practice, and the cause of most of the ills besetting the labor movement today. 

It was reported not long ago that the unions spent more money on the last congressional election than the Democratic campaign committees did. What have they gotten in return? UAW secretary-treasurer Emil Mazey said about a month ago: “We won an election last November but until now we have not received a single thing from this victory.” This is true after every election. 

The present Congress, controlled by the Democrats the unions helped to elect, has refused to end the filibuster. It has refused to extend jobless compensation for a year. It has refused to enact a federal standard for jobless compensation. It is on the verge of passing the Kennedy-Erwin bill to further restrict the independence of the unions by subjecting them to government control, a bill which becomes worse and worse every time Congress takes it up. And at the recent conference on unemployment in Washington, all the AFL-CIO could get from the leaders of the Democratic Party was a promise to study the question… 

[Teamsters Union president Jimmy] Hoffa is not our idea of a model labor leader, any more than Reuther is. But sometimes they tell the truth too. I think Hoffa did that in a recent interview with the Detroit Free Press. Asked to comment on the alliance between the UAW and the Michigan Democratic Party, he said: “The UAW has less power that way. If I got you, I don’t have to worry about you. The Democrats control the UAW in Michigan. Reuther has got himself into a trap and doesn’t know how to get out.” Reuther knows how to get out all right, but except for that, I think Hoffa’s statement comes close to the truth, which I would put this way: That, thanks to this alliance, the Democrats have much more influence in the labor movement than the labor movement has in the Democratic Party. 

The Democrats can take the unions for granted, because they feel they have them in their pocket; because the unions, having sworn not to create their own party, have nowhere else to go. Who can deny this? Dixiecrats get more concessions from the Democrats than the union leaders do because they threaten to bolt and form their own party. The union leaders not only have become dependent on the Democratic Party, they have become its captives. And this is one of the reasons why the Democratic Party has been moving steadily to the right year after year. So labor’s support of the Democrats is wrong in all respects – from the standpoint of principle, from the pragmatic standpoint of results. 

What the labor movement and its allies need is to make a clean break with both capitalist parties, and form an independent labor party dedicated to winning control of the government and putting into effect a program that will meet the needs of the majority of the people, 

For radicals and socialists, the situation is even more clear-cut. Our goal – the creation of a new society through working class political action – requires that we help the labor movement to break away from capitalist parties and capitalist politics; and to expand the influence and organization of radical and revolutionary groups and parties fit to provide leadership to the workers in a fight for a better society. 

Neither of these objectives can be served by working in the Democratic Party. Again, it is wrong in principle and wrong in every other way that can be measured. The highways are littered with the political corpses of radicals and socialists who entered the Democratic Party with the idea of making it radical, and who ended up by becoming mere liberals or even conservatives themselves. 

The main function of the radical movement today is educational and propagandistic, pending the time – not as distant as some radicals think – when it once again can lead the people in great actions and struggles. To educate means first of all to say what is, to tell the people the truth. What good is a radical, what right has he to any hearing, if he doesn’t meet this minimum condition? 

But you can’t be in the Democratic Party and tell the truth to the people. The first thing demanded of you in the Democratic Party is that you support its candidates, that is, help spread the propaganda that the election of Democrats is in the interests of the people. If you do this, you have to lie, you have to cover up the fact that the Democratic Party stands for the Cold War, more armaments, little or no help to the unemployed, racial oppression, restrictions on the Bill of Rights, retention of the Taft-Hartley Act, maintenance of the status quo generally. 

In short, the condition for working in the Democratic Party is that you must abdicate the primary function of the radical. If everyone did it, it would mean the death of all organized radical opposition to capitalism.

The final test of a policy is in its results. The policy we are debating tonight is not a new one, and it has been tested for a long time. The labor movement has been working in and supporting the Democratic Party for the last 25 years: Isn’t it true, Brother Haessler, that the Democratic Party today stands to the right of where it stood 25 years ago, and not to the left? The main sections of the radical movement have been supporting the Democratic Party, directly or indirectly, with only a few lapses for over 20 years: Can you claim, Brother Haessler, that radical influence in the Democratic Party is greater than it was 20 years ago? Can you claim that radical influence in the country is generally greater today than it was in the days when the radical parties, considered it their duty to oppose the Democratic Party at the polls? 

Supporting the Democratic Party is at best an exercise in futility for radicals, and one of the causes contributing to their decline. At worst, it is a betrayal of anti-capitalist principles that are at the heart of radicalism, and without which it must decay and die. 

It is also a repudiation of the whole past of American radicalism. If it’s right to support the Democrats today, if it’s wrong to oppose them at the polls and to work in every other way to expose their reactionary character, then everything the old socialist movement did in its best days was also wrong and should be renounced rather than pointed to as an inspiration for the future. If it’s right to support the Democrats today, then [Eugene] Debs was wrong in helping to organize the Socialist Party, in running those magnificent election campaigns, in teaching that it is unprincipled for socialists to support capitalist candidates; then Debs was just a hopeless sectarian, whose example has little to offer us today. (Which, incidentally, is what William Z. Foster and the Communist Party now are saying.) 

Speaking of Debs reminds me of the question that people sometimes ask: What happened to the old idealism of the socialist movement, the self-sacrificing spirit of solidarity and militancy that the American radical movement used to know? What happened to it was that the leaders of the movement, lacking or losing confidence in the capacity of the workers to change society and govern themselves, began to find all kinds of pretexts and rationalizations for deserting the policies of class struggle and embracing the policies of class collaboration. One of the manifestations of this change was the change from the old principle, that it’s the duty of socialists to oppose capitalist party candidates, run independent candidates and use election campaigns to expose the nature of capitalism and present the truth about socialism – a change from this tradition to arguments that independent campaigns achieve nothing, that you must not let yourself get “isolated,” that you must adjust yourself to the politics of the labor bureaucrats rather than fight them.

You can’t create idealism, you can’t maintain militancy and devotion to the great goals of the socialist future through such maneuvers. Take the workers into the Democratic swamp of opportunism, horse trades and dirty machine politics, where any piece of filthy work is justified if it helps win the next election, and you can’t expect anything but that it will sap the workers’ militancy, devotion to principle and class-consciousness – if they remain there and don’t drop out of politics altogether demoralized. 

The future lies with the youth – the young people just beginning to recover from a decade of Cold War conformism. They’ve heard enough lies to last them for a lifetime. What they need is the truth, simple and direct. Only if they get it will they respond with those reserves of militancy and bravery that are especially characteristic of the young, that seem to be the prerequisite of every genuine revolution, and that can revitalize American radicalism as an effective fighting force. You’ll get nowhere telling the youth white lies or half truths about the Democratic Party. You’ll be shirking your duty to them and to the future if you tell them to go work in the Democratic Party.

Therefore, the policy dictated to progressives is to oppose the Democratic Party, not to work in it or get others to support it. Those of us who are workers should strive in our unions to bring about a break with capitalist politics and the formation of an independent labor party. Those of us who are radicals and socialists should do everything we can to fight the two-party system, utilize election campaigns to spread socialist ideas and influence, and run socialist slates for office, if possible along the general lines of the Independent Socialist ticket in New York in 1958. 

That ticket, bringing together independent radicals, former Progressive Party members and Socialist Workers Party members in a united socialist campaign against both capitalist parties, was an encouraging progressive alternative to the compromising, demoralizing, self-defeating policy of working in the Democratic Party. The Socialist Workers Party advocated similar united left-wing tickets here in Michigan in the 1957 and 1958 election campaigns. The other radical groups in the state rejected its proposals in those years. We hope they will respond differently to proposals for a united ticket of radicals, socialists and progressives in the 1960 campaign, nationally and locally. If they don’t, we promise we will still try to act as socialists should, by placing a socialist ticket on the ballot in Michigan and running a campaign that will help promote independent working class political action by openly telling the truth about capitalism and socialism.

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