The Paradox of Social Democracy: The American Case

by cominsitu


by Robert Brenner (1985)

Part I

I A New Social Democracy?

A very long time ago — in the Palaeolithic days of the new left of the later 1960s — few red-blooded radicals would have been caught dead inside the Democratic Party. This was the era of the student and anti-imperialist movements, of SDS; of the militant Black movements, of SNCC, the Black Panther Party, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; and of the nascent rank and file movements among industrial and public service workers. In those days, it was strictly the politics of the streets and of mass direct action. ‘Power to the people’ definitely did not mean ‘part of the way with RFK.’ The Democratic Party was recognized as firmly wedded to American imperialism, as expressed in LBJ’s Vietnam War, not to mention Harry Truman’s A-Bomb over Hiroshima or his Cold War or Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs. Moreover, despite the fact that workers, Blacks, and the poor did vote, in their majority, for the Democratic Party, that Party was viewed as clearly pro-capitalist, anti-working class, and anti-Black. Neither workers nor Blacks controlled, nor even much participated in the Democratic Party. So, it was hardly surprising to the 60s radicals that the Party never tried to repeal the viciously anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, that it refused to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at its 1964 convention in place of the arch-segregationist official delegation, and that the Kennedy presidency failed to achieve a single significant piece of social legislation.

Indeed, the one lesson that the new left absorbed, at least superficially, through its rather vague notions of corporate liberalism and participatory democracy, was that the labor bureaucratic, party politico, service professional, and Black petty bourgeois elements which constituted the core of official reformism could never be counted on to put into effect even their own programs. Left to their own devices, they would find a way to compromise with ‘the powers that be.’ The first generation of the new left grew up on the rather crude slogan of ‘never trust a liberal,’ and their successors did not forsake that credo. The accepted premises, therefore, for an effective new left politics were understood to be an organizational and political independence from the forces of official reformism, a reliance on militant direct action to impose reforms from the outside, and the sort of direct democracy inside the movements which was anathema to the party, labor, and Black bureaucratic forces that dominated the Democratic Party and the official institutions of liberalism.

Today, in the Democratic Party, nothing fundamental has changed since the 60s. But in most other respects, we live in a different political world. Above all, the mass direct action movements which made reforms possible and which provided the material basis, so to speak, for the rise of radical organizations and ideas have suffered more than a decade of disastrous decline. In connection with the deepening crisis of the international economy, the secular decline of American manufacturing, and the accelerating offensive by employers against all sections of the working class and the poor, the decline of the movements is the overriding factor determining the political universe of the left. The militant mass movements which motivated hundreds of thousands of people to strike, to demonstrate, to sit-in and to sit-down in the 60s and 70s — these were, and are, the only real sources of power for the left. These movements provide the indispensable basis for actually winning reforms and imposing policies on the government — above all in periods like this one of economic contraction. In consequence, they provide the critical condition for making left perspectives realistic and, in this way, the necessary basis for winning people to a left worldview. For, as a rule, people will not maintain a political perspective — no matter how empirically and logically compelling — unless they can see a more or less immediate possibility of putting it into practice. The decline of mass direct action movements over many years, and especially the collapse of rank and file working-class organizations, is thus the overriding reason for the disarray of the left, as well as of liberalism, and it has opened the way for massive confusion.

Unable to suck mass movements out of their thumbs, the majority of leftists in the U.S. for more than a decade have relentlessly searched for substitutes, new social agencies and new political strategies. By the late 70s and early 80s, there had issued inside the left — though nowhere else in society — a broad commitment to move in the direction of a ‘new social democracy.’ In late 1978, Doug Fraser, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and a self-styled socialist, revealed that there was a ‘one-sided class war’ going on against the American working class. He subsequently withdrew from Secretary of Labor John T. Dunlop’s Labor Management Advisory Group (whose explicit function was indeed to manage labor) and convened the ‘Progressive Alliance,’ a new multi-constituency organization ostensibly designed to ‘revive the spirit of Selma and the sit-downs,’ support grass roots organizing efforts, and bring the disparate movements together. The Progressive Alliance drew large numbers of liberal and social democratic officials from the women’s, Black, environmental, and consumer groups, as well as from the unions, to its first meeting.[1] A short time later, the New American Movement (NAM), the last surviving organization of the new left, merged with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), the official social democratic organization in the U.S. and a member of the Second International, to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). In the meantime, since the early 70s, the overwhelming majority of those who had survived from the Black movements of the 60s had immersed themselves in a single-minded electoralism, aiming to capture key offices in the cities both north and south. By 1984, Manning Marable, a well-known Black writer and a national officer of DSA, was hailing this tendency, too, as a new (Black) ‘social democracy.’[2] Indeed by 1984, all wings of this new social democracy had found their fore-ordained home inside the Democratic Party. Almost the entirety of the American left, in one incarnation or another, participated in the 1984 election in support of the Democratic Party candidates. The campaign of Jesse Jackson for president constituted the near-exclusive focus of the left’s organizing efforts throughout the election year.

Not surprisingly, the proponents of this new social democratic strategy have justified their approach in terms of a return to realism. ‘We were ultra-left,’ say the ex-Maoists, who have forsaken the ‘New Communist Movement’ in order to invade the Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson campaigns. ‘We have to get out of the sandbox into the real world,’ say the ex-CP realpolitikers who have joined DSA in order more effectively to implement the old popular front line inside the Democratic Party. What all this means, in brief, is that to be practical you have to relate to the Democratic Party, since that’s where the action is.

Proponents of working in and for the Democratic Party argue, then, that because the Party has been historically and is today the party of the mass movements and the party of reform, it must be the central vehicle for left struggle. These progressives point to the fact that a majority of working people, Blacks, and other oppressed groups, even now, generally vote Democratic. But they fail to distinguish between the passive, private, and individualist act of voting and the active, collective, power-creating act of organizing to confront the employers or the government. The pro-Democratic Party progressives also notice, quite properly, that the unions, the official Black organizations, and the official women’s organizations constitute the backbone of the Democratic Party. But they fail to distinguish between the interests of bureaucratic and middle-class elements which dominate these organizations and which represent them inside the Democratic Party and the very different interests of the rank and file and working-class elements which constitute the membership of these organizations but play essentially no active role inside the Democratic Party. The new social democrats point out further that the stated programs of the ‘left’ Democratic Party officials, Black politicos, and trade union leaders are generally at the left extreme of the political spectrum in the U.S. today, and that, if implemented, these programs would amount to a giant step forward for the American people. But they fail to distinguish between talk and action, what’s on paper and what’s implemented. They simply ignore the near-total incapacity not only of Democratic Party Congressional majorities, but also of fully fledged social democratic governments around the world, to impose reforms upon capital throughout the period of crisis which began in the early 70s. Nor do they recognize how totally committed these parties have been in power to austerity and attacks on the working class. Finally, those who would rebuild social democracy in the U.S. point out that social democracy in general, and the Democratic Party in particular, has appeared as the ‘vehicle’ of those great waves of reform which have, periodically, shaken the advanced capitalist countries. But they fail to distinguish between the immediate legislators of reforms and the creators of the mass political offensives which actually made reform legislation possible. They characteristically, and disastrously, neglect the tumultuous mass movements which transformed, willy-nilly, what hitherto had been do-nothing reformist politicians into agents of social and political change.

II The Paradox of Social Democracy

 The point is that most of the U.S. left, like most of the left throughout the world, still remains transfixed by social democracy’s passive mass base, its left paper programs, and its historic association with reform. They refuse, therefore, to take social democracy seriously as a distinct social and historical phenomenon — one which represents distinctive social forces and, as a result, advances specific political theories and strategies, and, in turn, manifests a recognizable political dynamic within capitalism. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the evolution of social democracy has been marked by a characteristic paradox. On the one hand, its rise has depended upon tumultuous mass working-class struggles, the same struggles which have provided the muscle to win major reforms and also the basis for the emergence of far left political organizations and ideology. The expansion of working-class self-organization, power, and political consciousness, dependent in turn upon working-class mass action, has provided the critical condition for the success of reformism as well as of the far left. On the other hand, to the extent that social democracy has been able to consolidate itself organizationally, its core representatives —drawn from the ranks of the trade union officials, the parliamentary politicians, and the petty bourgeois leaderships of the mass organizations of the oppressed — have invariably sought to implement policies reflecting their own distinctive social positions and interest — positions which are separate from and interests which are, in fundamental ways, opposed to those of the working class. Specifically, they have sought to establish and maintain a secure place for themselves and their organizations within capitalist society. To achieve this security, the official representatives of social democratic and reformist organizations have found themselves obliged to seek, at a minimum, the implicit toleration, and, ideally, the explicit recognition of capital. As a result, they have been driven, systematically and universally, not only to relinquish socialism as a goal and revolution as a means, but, beyond that, to contain, and at times, actually to crush those upsurges of mass working-class action whose very dynamics lead, in tendency, to broader forms of working-class organization and solidarity, to deepening attacks on capital and the capitalist state, to the constitution of working people as a self-conscious class, and, in some instances, to the adoption of socialist and revolutionary perspectives on a mass scale. They have done this, despite the fact that it is precisely these movements which have given them their birth and sustained their power, and which have been the only possible guarantee of their continued existence in class-divided, crisis-prone capitalism. The paradoxical consequence has been that, to the extent that the official representatives of reformism in general and social democratic parties in particular have been freed to implement their characteristic worldviews, strategies, and tactics, they have systematically undermined the basis for their own continuing existence, paving the way for their own dissolution.

For these reasons, even those most intent on calling into existence a new reformism have before them an ironic prospect. To the extent they wish to create a viable social democracy, they will have to maintain their political and organizational independence from, and indeed systematically to oppose, those who represent actually-existing social democracy. To the extent, on the other hand, they end up, as they have until now, merging themselves with the official forces of reformism, they will be disabled for carrying out what is clearly the cardinal (if enormously imposing) task facing those who wish to implement any left perspective: to rebuild the fighting capacity, organization, and left political consciousness of the working class and oppressed people. Indeed, to the degree that the proponents of a new social democracy bind themselves to already-existing reformism — its distinctive organizations, leaderships, strategies, and ideas — they will contribute, if unwittingly, to the further erosion of collective and class-based forms for pursuing workers’ interests, and thereby encourage the adoption of those individualistic and class-collaborationist forms of achieving workers’ interests which literally pave the way for the right.

None of this is mere logic, nor is it ancient history. Remarkably, the American left has crystallized its own trend toward social democratic politics immediately in the wake of an extended series of experiments in social democracy in Europe, experiments that have proven catastrophic for the entire left. By the mid-70s, through most of Europe, the social democratic and Communist parties had succeeded in channelling the energies of the mass worker and student movements of the previous decade into the parliamentary/electoral arena and, on this basis, had achieved for themselves practically unprecedented positions of political authority. At the same time, the near totality of those leftists who had, during the late 60s and early 70s, constructed a small but significant extra-parliamentary left out of those same mass movements also moved en masse into the ostensibly revitalized and reconstructed Eurocommunist and Eurosocialist parties. Their justification for this turn? Precisely the same one invoked by America’s new social democrats: entering into these organizations appeared to them the best way to hook up with the workers, to fight effectively for reforms, and to rebuild the mass movements.

The results are now plain for all to see. The Communist Parties outside Italy have suffered massive, probably irreversible decline, as the European working classes have seen no need for two mass reformist parties and have preferred to back the official ones. Much more importantly, labor and socialist parties in Portugal, Spain, and above all France have won smashing electoral/parliamentary victories and ascended to ‘power.’ In every case, these electoral campaigns and electoral victories took place in the wake of alarming declines in working-class organization — indeed as more or less explicit substitutes for working-class action nevertheless, most of the left insisted on interpreting them as in themselves mass movements and, therefore, as working-class triumphs. What has been the outcome? In every case, with no independent mass movements to ‘keep them honest,’ the labor and socialist governments have used their newly-won authority to ‘restructure’ their national capitalisms in the interests of international competitiveness. In the process, they have imposed upon the working class policies of austerity even more vicious and thoroughgoing than those of their conservative predecessors, and have undermined further the workers’ main defensive organizations, especially the trade unions. The consequence of social democratic hegemony has been neither a new period of reform, nor an opening to the left. On the contrary, capitalist restructuring under social democracy has brought about the most massive political demoralization of the working class and the most devastating discrediting of socialist and Marxist ideas within memory. Not surprisingly, the medium term consequence has been to breathe vibrant new life into long-discredited right wing political perspectives, to prepare not only the revival of the most virulent forms of free enterprise ideology, but also the emergence of a dynamic crypto-fascism — above all, and not accidentally, in Socialist France. So, once again, the paradoxical but predictable dynamic: in the absence of mass movements to supply their own, independent material force for reform and for the rise of left ideas, the most decisive victories of social democracy have issued, in the end, in the most decisive undermining of social democratic perspectives, organizations, and movements in Europe since the 1950s. This despite a deepening long term capitalist economic crisis which has brought the highest levels of unemployment and the most severe suffering for the working class since the 1930s.

III The Dynamics of Reformism

Activity, Power, Consciousness

It should be a commonplace within the left that the indispensable condition for beginning to reconstruct working-class organization, power, and political consciousness is the rise of mass direct action by working people against the employers and the government, in the factories and the offices, as well as in the streets. This is because, as a rule, it is only where working people have in fact broken through their own passivity, created new forms of solidarity, and, on that basis, amassed the power needed to confront capital, that the goals of reform and revolution premised upon collective, class-based action can appear at all relevant and practical. In the absence of class solidarity and collective power, working people are reduced to the ‘other side’ of ‘what they really are’ under capitalism, viz. sellers of commodities, notably their own labor power. If people cannot, in fact, struggle for their interests by means of class-based organizations and class-based strategies, they will find that it only makes sense to treat the social world, its institutions and balances of power, as given, and to pursue their interests by devising the individualist and class collaborationist strategies which will allow them best to pursue the competitive struggle among commodity sellers.

Because of the profound interdependence of collective action, social power, political effectiveness, and political consciousness, abrupt, large scale changes in the level of working-class struggle have tended to be the condition for significant political transformations — the onset of broad waves of reform, the transition from craft to industrial unionism, the rise of mass social democratic parties and the like. At the same time, because class-based strategies tend to depend on collective mobilization of social power, working people and oppressed groups normally confront a classic double-bind: without a significant level of organization and power, it seems suicidal to initiate collective action; yet, without a significant level of collective action, it is impossible to amass organization and power, and to develop consciousness. Understandably, even the ideological and organizational intervention of socialists is often useless for actually breaking this bind. Historically, then, as Rosa Luxemburg clearly saw, ‘the unconscious movement tends to precede the conscious movement.’ Her classic account of the mass strike phenomenon captures the psychological dynamics of mass working-class movements in general: ‘The first direct action reacted inward . . . as it for the first time awakened class feeling and class consciousness . . . This awakening of class feeling expressed itself forthwith in the circumstances that the proletarian mass . . . quite suddenly and sharply came to realize how intolerable was the social and economic existence which they had endured for decades.’ Thus, ‘the moment that the real, earnest periods of mass strike begin, all those calculations of “cost” [which previously had discouraged working class initiatives] become merely projects for exhausting the ocean with a tumbler.'[3] The result, in potential, as Luxemburg goes on to explain is not only the emergence of unprecedented forms of organization, involving previously disorganized layers, around novel demands, but the politically self-conscious confrontations of workers with capital and the state, and the placing of socialism itself once more on the agenda.

Once in struggle, people can find meaning in hitherto irrelevant strategies requiring working-class collective action and hitherto utopian goals requiring working-class power. As winning becomes conceivable, it is reasonable to try to do what is required to win: to break the law and confront the state, as well as to develop new forms of social connections with ‘outside social forces — between organized and unorganized, between employed and unemployed, between Black and white. Correlatively, as collective action leads to collective power, it makes sense to consider broad programs of reform which hitherto were incapable of inspiring action. In other words, it is in the process actually constituting themselves as a class in order to struggle that workers come to conceive the interconnected notions of a class-divided society, of a strategy of class struggle, and of socialism as a goal as constituting a reasonable perspective.

Reformism as an Ideology of the Working Class

Naturally, periods of mass activity are temporally limited. Although trade unions, social democratic parties, and revolutionary groups, as well as mass organizations of oppressed people, tend to establish themselves at high points of struggle, they must operate for significant periods in an environment shaped by relatively low levels of working-class activity. Indeed, in ‘normal’ times, working-class activity takes on a character the reverse of that in periods of mass upsurge. By its very nature, it is sharply limited in scope: mass political parties tone down their rhetoric of class; trade unions organize workers from only a particular firm, craft, or industry; shopfloor militants can attract only a small proportion of their fellow workers. Attempts to spread struggles beyond a narrow sphere do not as a rule meet with success.

In such periods of downturn, the minoritarian and restricted character of working-class activity appears to be its natural and permanent character. It therefore tends to form the material basis, the starting point, for the formation of working-class political consciousness. Class-wide attacks upon the prerogatives of the capitalists, let alone the transition to socialism, are off the agenda. A majority of working people conclude, therefore, that they must accept as given the basic ground rules of the capitalist system — especially the requirement for capitalist profitability as the basis for the operation of the system. It is the apparent unchallengeability of capitalist property and the capitalist state which forms the necessary, although insufficient, condition for the widespread acceptance within the working class of reformism — viz., the worldview and strategy for action which takes the capitalist property system as given, but asserts the special interest of the working class within it, above all, the working class’s ‘right’ to appropriate a ‘fair share’ of the total product. In turn, because it tends to be consolidated in periods when working-class organization is relatively weak, the reformist perspective is almost invariably associated with strategies for reform requiring minimal working-class mobilization — routinized (often symbolic) strike action, institutionalized collective bargaining, and above all the electoral road. Unable to carry out the class struggle in an all-out way, the workers seek alternative methods to defend their interests.

Nevertheless, reformism, like any other worldview, can command widespread acceptance only on the condition that it provide the basis for successful action. Thus, given even a minimum of working-class organization, reformism tends to be widely attractive in periods of prosperity precisely because in such periods the threat of even limited working-class resistance — symbolized by the resolution to strike or a victory at the polls — actually can yield concessions from capital. Since filling orders and expanding production are their top priorities in the boom, capitalists will tend to find it in their interests to maintain and increase production, even when this means concessions to workers, if the alternative is to endure a strike or other forms of Social dislocation. In fact, as the economy expands, capitalist competition almost always drives up the price of labor, whatever labor does, and this gives an appearance of effectiveness to workers’ organizations, and of the reformist perspective, even if these are actually quite weak. On the other hand, in periods of economic contraction and falling profits, the capitalists’ first priority is to increase competitiveness in stagnant markets. Since increasing competitiveness depends on cost-cutting, employers will often choose to weather a long strike or social unrest if they can thereby achieve significant reductions in labor costs. Moreover, the very fact that capitalist profits are shrinking gives capital a tremendous weapon in periods of economic downturn. Since profits are the only category of income which can be assumed regularly to go back into expanding production and increasing employment, even workers find it hard to deny that the capitalists’ share, above all others, must be protected as the pie shrinks, and that (by the ironclad logic of arithmetic), the working class must be prepared to make sacrifices. All else being equal, declines in profitability and the general outlook for business actually tend, in themselves, to increase the power of capital vis à vis labor. Under conditions of economic crisis, then, unless an explosion of working-class struggle can radically transform their level of organization, power, and consciousness, workers will find reformist ideas decreasingly relevant or attractive. With strategies requiring class action against capital apparently impossible to implement, working people will increasingly find it reasonable to resort to individualistic and class-collaborationist strategies, and will adopt the pro-capitalist, right wing theories which make sense of these strategies.

Reformism as the Ideology of a Distinct, Non-Working Class Social Layer

Under conditions of low or diminishing struggle and minoritarian working-class activity, any working-class organization and leadership — trade union, political party, or whatever — will be obliged to make certain compromises with capital and to relinquish, for the time being, certain programmatic ends and strategic options. To do otherwise would be to ignore the actual balance of forces and invite suicidal defeat. The recognition of this reality — which in certain periods is the dominant one — constitutes the critical point of departure for those who argue for building a new social democracy by entering into reformist organizations and by merging with reformist forces. The new social democrats view the conservative outlook and strategies of the official reformist organizations and their leaderships as merely reflecting the temporary balance of class forces and the momentarily reigning political consciousness. They logically conclude, therefore, that they should enter into and seek to build these organizations, since, on their assumptions, as working class activity once again increases, and new strategies and ideas become more appropriate, these organizations and their leaderships will, more or less naturally, adjust their perspectives in a radical direction.

Nevertheless the view that the political limitations of today’s reformist organizations and their leaderships simply mirror the political limitations of the rank and file of these organizations is partial and profoundly misleading. For it fails to take sufficiently into account those critical modern social forces which constitute the permanent social basis for reformist institutions and ideas, give to reformism its consistent character, and provide its chief sources of creativity — i.e. the trade union officials, the parliamentary politicians, and the petty bourgeois leaderships of the organizations of the oppressed. Any political strategy that seeks to revitalize social democracy from within must look to these elements. Now, the official representatives of the reformist organizations obviously do depend for their very existence upon the establishment of these organizations, and these are almost always initially created out of militant mass struggles. Moreover, as the class struggle dies down, the reformist leaderships tend to adopt political and strategic alternatives which appear quite similar to those adopted by the majority of the working class in such circumstances. Nevertheless, the reformist standpoint does not have the same causes or the same significance for the reformist officialdom as it does for rank and file workers. The majority of workers adhere temporarily to reformist perspectives because, under conditions of waning struggle and minority organization, they believe these perspectives are the best ones they can realistically act upon. In contrast, the official representatives of the reformist organizations tend to adhere to a reformist political worldview on a permanent basis. Constituting a distinct social layer with distinctive interests quite different from those of the mass of the working class, these elements adhere to reformism as an expression of their drive precisely to free themselves from dependence upon their working-class base and to secure their long term acceptance by capital. This fundamental difference becomes crystal clear when the level of working-class activity and organization begins to grow. As the class struggle heats up, the transformation of workers’ self-activity creates the potential for the transformation of workers’ consciousness in radical direction. But for the reformist officials, the same is not true. As the class struggle intensifies, these elements do not dissolve or change their political approach. On the contrary, they seek to contain the struggle and channel it into the classic form of reformist activity — forms which they hope will be acceptable to capital.

The Labor Officialdom, Parliamentary Politicians, and the Petty Bourgeois Black Leadership

Simply put, the labor officialdom, the parliamentary politico and the petty bourgeois leaders of the Black organizations adhere permanently to a reformist perspective because it offers them the theory, strategy, and tactics through which they can best pursue their own reproduction as they are. Labor bureaucrats, parliamentary politicos, and Black officials no longer work beside, or share the conditions of, those they represent. This is fundamental, as the requirements for their survival cease to be the same as those of the rank and file workers or the people in the community. They are not directly affected by the pressure from employers upon wages and working conditions or from the government upon social expenditures for the community. Nor is their ability to defend their own conditions of life, as it is for the rank and file they represent,immediately dependent upon their capacity to build a counterforce by organizing their fellow workers for struggle. Instead, the material base of the trade union bureaucrats, the party politicos, and the Black officials becomes the organizations for which they work, and, in turn, the increasingly self-conscious groups of officials who operate the union, the party, or the Black organization. The organization — and the bureaucratic group which founds itself upon it — not only provides the officials with their means of support, thereby freeing them from the drudgery of manual labor and the shop floor. It constitutes for them a whole way of life — their day to function, formative social relationships with peers and superiors on the organizational ladder, a potential career, and, on many occasions, a social meaning, a raison d’être. To maintain themselves as they are, the whole layer of officials must, first and above all, maintain their organizations. It is thus easy to understand how an irresistible tendency emerges on the part of the trade union officials, the party politicos, and the Black leaderships to treat their organizations as ends in themselves, rather than as the means to defend their memberships — to come to conflate the interests of the organizations upon which they depend with the interests of those they ostensibly represent.

As representatives of the organized sectors of the working class, the trade union officials have historically constituted the critical — and archetypical — social layer attached to reformism. The trade union officials naturally understand that the fundamental threat not only to the workers whom they represent, but also to the organizations upon which they depend, is the capitalist class — a class ‘permanently’ self-organized and ‘permanently’ dominant. The indispensable condition for the survival of the unions and thus of the officials’ own continuing existence as officials is acceptance by capital —specifically, the capitalists’ recognition of the unions and the capitalists’ acceptance of the rules of parliamentary democracy. Ultimately, the capitalists’ acceptance of the unions and of parliamentary democracy can only be assured by the organized power of the workers. Nevertheless, the trade union leaders are excruciatingly sensitive to the fluctuating strength and the potential weakness of the organized workers: they understand that even at the height of the class struggle, indeed especially at that point, there is an enormous risk of defeat, and thus of the destruction of their organizations. To the extent that they are able to do so, they increasingly seek to protect their organizations — and, in their minds, their memberships — by renouncing all those broader forms of struggle which provide the ground for broadly ranging attacks on capital and, in turn, the basis for socialist ideology – not only militant direct action, but organization which goes beyond the immediate workplace or industry to link organized with unorganized, employed with unemployed, workplace with community, etc. But even while undermining workers’ militancy and self-organization, the officials must still appear to defend their constituencies, within the limits imposed by the requirements of defending capitalist profitability. This, in the end, is a difficult trick to pull off. But historically, the official labor movement has relied on two basic strategies as consciously-conceived substitutes for direct action: (1) constituting, with the help of the state, permanent institutions to regulate worker-employer conflict; (2) the electoral/parliamentary road.

Collective Bargaining

Establishing regular institutions for the (temporary) coexistence between capital and the labor officialdom – the traditional forms of collective bargaining — has, classically, depended on striking a ‘deal’ between labor officials and capital. The officials must be prepared to pledge to reduce labor disturbances and enforce labor discipline. In turn, the capitalists must be prepared to make regular concessions to the workers for which the officials can take credit, since this is the requirement for their being able to maintain the allegiance of the majority of workers and to isolate militants. This deal is not without cost to the capitalists and benefit to the workers, and the capitalists will therefore accept it only to the extent they are forced to do so, and to the degree it is worth their while to pay extra for labor peace in exchange for smooth production. Capitalist expansion and high profitability are, almost always, the necessary conditions for the deal.

In the context of this bargain, the union officials are free to develop their ‘organization within the organization’ and their own  special role. They negotiate a contract; there is an agreement not to strike throughout its duration; instead, the officials settle disputes through the grievance procedure and ultimately compulsory arbitration. The officials ‘service’ the rank and file, enforcing the contract in grievance procedure. But as the other side deal, they must also compel the membership to adhere to contract and limit any sort of shopfloor resistance. To this end, they must move to undercut all independent organization of the rank and file and to curb rank and file control over the trade union itself, curtailing union democracy.

Like reformist practices generally, collective bargaining in the context of the deal has a dual significance. On the one hand, it does reflect the momentary interests of the working class in a period of declining and minoritarian organization: under the circumstances, most workers see no choice but to accept it as the best they can get. On the other hand, the labor officials find in ramifying institutions of collective bargaining, not only an essential raison d’être, but also an important basis for their material existence and a critical foundation for their modus vivendiwith capital. In the hands of the officials, the functioning of collective bargaining ceases merely to reflect the momentary unfavorable) balance of class forces between capital and labor; it serves to dissolve workers’ self-organization and workers’ power, and in this way has the effect of tipping that balance further in the direction of capital. Thus is produced, once again, the classic paradox of reformism: although the union officialdom may rise to great heights during the boom on the basis of its ability to secure labor peace and the apparent well-being of workers, it does so at the expense of the workers’ self-organization and thus of its own power and position over the long term. As the expansion gives way to contraction, the officials are less and less able to make collective bargaining work for their constituencies or themselves: the employers break the deal and unleash their offensive; the workers see fewer reasons to support either the officials or their reformist strategies; the officials watch their organizations erode and their whole worldview lose its credibility.


The electoral/parliamentary road constitutes the definitive strategy of all those distinctive social elements characteristically tied to reformism, because it appears to provide the means to overcome the central dilemma they face: how to retain their mass working-class bases without having to organize their constituencies for direct action against capital. In election campaigns, isolated individuals can be mobilized to cast their ballot privately and individually, in favor of pro-working class candidates around a reform program. In this way, it appears possible to amass power and win reforms without the risk of mass struggles like strikes or street confrontations.

Nevertheless, to adhere to a primarily parliamentary strategy is to fall victim to the classical social democratic illusion: that balance of class forces favorable to the working class can be constructed inside the state by electoral/parliamentary means, apart from the massive strengthening of the workers against the capitalists in the shops and in the streets. The electoral approach is illusory because, contrary to appearances, power in capitalist society is not normally exercised through control over the state and through force. So long as capitalist property relations hold, the capitalist class, through its control over the means of production, retains control over the investment function, and thereby holds the key to the development of the productivity of labor, to economic growth, and to economic prosperity — and, on that basis, to employment, social stability, and state revenue. Since capitalist investment depends on the capitalists’ ability to make a profit, short of revolution, all elements of society find sooner or later in their own interest to ensure capitalist profitability. ‘What’s good for GM is good for the country’ captures an important aspect of reality under capitalism.

In this context, it is clear why those who hold positions in the state, even those elected on programs representing the interests of workers, are under enormous pressure to ‘be responsible,’ to support policies that will safeguard profits. To do otherwise would risk the malfunctioning of the economy and all that entails. The politicians are aware that, short of challenging capitalist property itself — taking control of production away from the capitalists — it is impossible to carry out, over an extended period, an anti-capitalist program without inviting the withdrawal of investment funds and ultimately economic chaos.

Even so, it needs to be emphasized that, like collective bargaining, the electoral/parliamentary road has a dual significance. On the one hand, under conditions of limited working class mobilization, the majority of workers are likely to favor the electoral road: electoralism appears to constitute a substitute for action, a way for workers to fight for their interests without having to face the enormous dangers of confronting the capitalists. Moreover, like collective bargaining, the electoral road can, under certain conditions, appear to function very well for the working class. In periods of prosperity, especially in the wake of fairly substantial working-class mobilizations, it is often in the interests of capital to accept reforms, rather than risk social disruption.

On the other hand, because the gulf which separates the social democratic parties’ bureaucracies from the working class as a whole is even greater than that which separates labor officialdom its membership, the social democratic party politicos are positioned to respond to the needs of capital even more sensitively and immediately than are labor bureaucrats. Union leaders must, in many cases, respond to the organized interests of (usually localized) groups of rank and filers who have been brought together in production and who have had the experience of collective struggle and collective self-organization in their union and on the shopfloor. In contrast, the party ostensibly represents the ‘class as a whole,’ but since workers are, in practice, able actually to organize themselves as a class only rarely, the official party and its machine are generally under little pressure from, or control by, their atomized electoral base. Nor (in the absence of mass working class direct action) can the periodically radicalized and aroused party rank and file generally exert more than the most partial and temporary pressure on the parliamentary delegation and apparatchiks who rule the party. This is, in part, because the professional politicos generally command an institutionalized apparatus explicitly designed to ensure their control over the organization and insulate them from the pressure of the party membership. But it is also because the politicos can, in most situations, claim with some justice to represent the party’s real base — viz., the broader electorate, which is generally far more conservative than the rank and file party members and which will decide the one question of moment to the whole party: whether or not it will win the election. Free to accept the rules of the game, the reformist professional politicians may demand the workers’ rightful piece of the growing pie in periods of prosperity, but as prosperity gives way to crisis, they will have little choice other than to translate ‘fair share’ into ‘austerity’ for their worker constituents. However, as the reformist politicians increasingly assume the role of restorers of capitalist profitability, the working class finds fewer reasons to prefer them to the outright representatives of capital, or even to distinguish between the reformists’ perspectives and those of capital itself. Consistent reformism leads once again, to its own dissolution.

Rationalizing Capitalism Through Corporatism

Unable to confront capitalism, and acutely aware of their consequent dependence upon the health of the system, the official forces of reformism have been among those most concerned to understand the operation of capitalism and to devise plans to make it function better. Perhaps more than any other groups, the labor bureaucracy, reformist politicians, and the official representatives of the established organizations of the oppressed have been the leading proponents of conscious, society-wide attempts to regulate those economic dislocations which they see as caused by capitalism’s anarchy and its unequal distribution of income. One need attribute no special cynicism to reformist officials in pursuing the policies they do. On the contrary, they view their interests as coinciding with those of (capitalist) society as a whole, and their ideology as expressing the general interest. Indeed, given the particularist interests of the individual capitalists and their necessary competition with one another, the capitalist class as a whole may actually be less capable than the reformist leaders of devising and promoting policies in the interests of overall capital accumulation. As is well known, the trade union officials, reformist politicians, and official Black leaderships have been the most consistent proponents of government intervention to regulate the economy. They were the prime apostles of Keynesian efforts to smooth out the cycle by means of regulating demand. They are today the leading exponents of industrial policy to make their own national capitalisms more competitive in the international economy. Through these approaches, the reformist leaderships strive to ensure and restore capitalist profitability and economic growth, for that, in their view, is the indispensable condition for the improvement of the condition of the working class, as well as their own survival. Given their belief in the permanence of the capitalist property system, they have no other choice.

Nevertheless, in order actually to have their policies put into practice, the official reformist leaderships know that they must secure the cooperation of the employers, for they have no intention whatsoever of imposing upon them (since this would require working-class mobilization). For this reason, as the economy enters into crisis, the official reformist leaderships seek, with increasing single-mindedness, to eschew all forms of resistance and to force corporatist or collaborative arrangements with the employers at the level of the shop floor, the firm, and the economy as a whole through which they can have implemented their rationalizing plans. But as the economic crisis appears more inexorable and as their own self-disarmament increases their weakness, their plans for the reform of capital appear ever more quixotic and their ability to influence the employers declines. As they forward ever more desperately their plans for collaboration, they encounter an increasingly ferocious capitalist offensive. Unless a revitalized workers movement deters them or the economy’s miraculous recovery reprieves them, the reformist leadership will pursue to its conclusion their lemming-like drive to self-destruction.

Notes to Part I:

1. Stan Weir, Doug Fraser’s Middle Class Coalition’, Radical America January-February 1979)

2. See ‘The Paradox of Reform: Black Politics and the Democratic Party’, Southern Exposure, 12 (February 1984), pp. 23-24; ‘The Left in the 80s’, Changes (March–April 1984).

3. The Mass Strike (1906).


IV Two Cycles of Reform and Decline

The whole history of the relationship among the official leaderships of reformist organizations, the Democratic Party, and the movements for reform over the past half century in the United States illustrates the dynamic outlined thus far. Since the late 1920s, we have witnessed two great cycles of reform and decline, the first running from the 1930s to the early 1950s, the second running from the late 1950s to the present. During each of these cycles, workers and oppressed people won major reforms by means of explosive mass direct action against employers and the state — in the workplaces, in communities, in the street. Through these struggles, the working class and oppressed groups imposed reforms on hitherto do-nothing Democratic Party administrations from the outside. In each cycle, the Democratic Party profited from the reforms, the mass movements, and the liberalization and radicalization of consciousness which went with them, significantly expanding its electoral base. Nevertheless, the movements were obliged to develop almost entirely outside and largely against the Democratic Party and the established reformist organizations on the basis of new leaderships, because the established, official leaderships opposed them. As the movements developed, small sections of the traditional leaderships did ‘go over.’ But as they did, they functioned generally to domesticate these movements, specifically by turning them away from mass direct action and to dependence upon electoralism and the Democratic Party. In each cycle, as the movements declined — partly as a result of the officials’ actions, partly for independent reasons — the leaderships succeeded in recuperating their bases for the Democratic Party, and working people and oppressed groups were left to depend upon it. But as popular militancy died down, the Democratic Party, despite its electoral majorities, was less and less successful in winning reforms. In the end, the Democratic Party’s abject failure to deliver the goods opened the way to a new period of revival for the Republican Party.

The Movements of the 30s

Franklin Roosevelt acceded to the Presidency in 1933 as a pragmatist and moderate, with no clear reform program. Shortly after his inauguration, a wave of increasingly powerful workers’ struggles shook the country, beginning in the auto industry in Detroit, spreading to the southern textile mills, the eastern coal mines, and the midwestern steel mills. But Roosevelt stood and did nothing, as the companies and the local repressive forces crushed one strike after another. Meanwhile, the mediation boards set up under Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act attempted, in almost every case, simply to get the workers back on the job for the employers without dealing with the issues at stake. But the strike wave continued to grow, and in 1934 workers won astounding victories in three great general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco — all of which were marked by the most massive and violent confrontations between workers and authorities. During 1935-1936, a mass rank and file movement of auto workers created the United Auto Workers and went out to defeat General Motors in the historic sit-down strikes December-January 1936-1937.[1]

The Democratic Party benefited from this broad labor upsurge and the transformation of political consciousness which it underwrote. This was evidenced in the party’s unexpectedly massive and decisive midterm electoral victory in November 1934. Meanwhile, more radical forces were also gaining ground, with the Communist Party experiencing a massive period of growth and expanding influence, and the Socialists asserting themselves successfully in certain local electoral arenas. As a result of the sharp increase in the level of struggle and the consequent radicalization of the political mood, Roosevelt suddenly changed political course. In 1935, he pushed through the hitherto neglected Wagner Act and Social Security Act, the two main reform achievements of the New Deal.[2]

The great mass workers’ movements of the 30s developed entirely outside and against the old AFL officialdom. Throughout the later 1920s, these officials watched passively as employers waged an all-out assault on the unions, exemplified in the union-busting American Plan. Even as their dues base declined, then shrank to insignificance after 1929, the bureaucrats were incapable of launching even a token counteroffensive. When the new workers’ movement exploded onto the scene in 1933, the AFL tried to capture and domesticate it by seeking, in strike after strike, to get the workers to go back to work and to rely on the decisions of the courts and the federal mediation boards. With the help of AFL officials, the employers crushed the United Textile Workers strike of 1934.[3] Meanwhile, in the fall of 1933, John L. Lewis played a powerful role in limiting the militant struggles of coal miners which had spread to the captive mines owned by the steel companies); shortly thereafter in early 1934, Lewis helped derail a nascent triple alliance of the miners, the steel workers, and the railroad workers. The auto workers succeeded in creating the UAW only by breaking from the AFL and building a powerful and independent rank and file movement, with an explicit program of refusing to depend on the officials, the courts, and the mediation boards, and of relying instead on militant direct action.[4]

Ultimately, as the movement threatened to get out of hand, a small section of the old AFL leadership, led by John L. Lewis, did see the handwriting on the wall and made a break from the AFL to help found the CIO. At the same time, however, they strove mightily to contain the movement’s burgeoning militancy and turn its energies toward the Democratic Party. Lewis made himself a hero by standing firmly beside the GM sit-downers in January 1937. But immediately thereafter, he cut short the Chrysler sit-down which was threatening to win even greater gains than had the GM strike. During the spring and summer of 1937, Lewis and his cohorts bent all their energies to break the wave of sit-downs and wildcats that continued to shake the auto industry. Meanwhile, Lewis ensured that the critical campaign to organize the steel industry would end in disastrous defeat when he turned explicitly to top down, conservative methods of organizing and carried out the strike under the banner ‘Trust in Roosevelt.’ The defeat of the Little Steel strike in the summer of 1937, following the infamous Memorial Day Massacre and the betrayal of the workers by one after another Democratic Party mayor and governor, coupled with the officials’ successful repression of the struggle in auto, marked a turning point. Especially with the onset of the new depression, beginning in mid-1937, the dynamism of the labor upsurge was rapidly dissipated and a long process of erosion initiated.[5]

As Lewis and Co. were stifling the movements of direct action they were, simultaneously, attempting to reroute the CIO into electoral dependence on the Democratic Party. When the UAW voted not to endorse Roosevelt at its first convention in April 1936, Lewis personally intervened to get the decision reversed. Henceforward, the CIO leaders stuck ever more closely to a strategy of electoral intervention aimed at increasing their leverage on the Democratic Party. To this end, the union established in 1943 the so-called Political Action Committee: (PACs) as part of their general tactic of building local level machines to turn out the vote for pro-labor candidates in order ultimately to strengthen their position inside the Party. But if the labor movement could not win a place as coequals with the Dixiecrats and big city bosses inside the Party during the period of mass labor upsurge and of the reforms which accompanied it, it was unrealistic to expect that they could do better as the movement waned and labor’s real strength correspondingly declined. During the 1940s, despite the Democrats’ overwhelming electoral/parliamentary hegemony for most of the period, the forces of reform became progressively weaker. As early as 1943 Congress passed the Smith-Connally Act, which curtailed some of labor’s chief weapons of struggle (providing for ‘cooling off periods before strikes, injunctions in the public interest,’ etc.)[6] By the end of the war, labor was unable to prevent the passage of the viciously anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, which in a single stroke wiped out much of what had been won in the 30s. By the early 1950s, the official forces of reform had presided over the total decay of the workers’ movement of the 1930s, the consequent dissolution of the main forces for both reform and Democratic hegemony, the resulting dissipation of liberal and radical sentiment, and the inevitable return to power of the Republican Party.

The Movements of the 60s

The rise of a mass militant Black movement, originating in the buses and cafeterias of the Deep South, ushered in a new period reform. The Black movement, which rose and fell in the period from the later 1950s to the early 70s, followed very closely the trajectory traced by the mass labor movement of the 30s and 40s. Thus, the historic civil rights movement, ignited by the Montgomery Bus boycott of 1955-1956, and, even more, the explosive movement of Black Power, which arose in the urban ghettos of northern cities in the summer of 1964, based themselves from the start on a powerful commitment to direct action and confrontation with the white power structure. In the civil rights struggles the late 50s and 60s, tens of thousands directly stood up to the authorities in illegal sit-downs, provocative freedom marches, and unauthorized fights for the right to vote. Whole communities, especially in the South, organized themselves to resist. In the urban risings of the North between 1964 and 1967, hundreds of thousands of working-class and poor Blacks actively participated in the struggle. By the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination in early 1968, the Black movement had shaken white society to its foundations, had inspired militant student and anti-imperialist movements in its wake, and had begun to ignite dynamic organizing drives in the labor movement itself. King was assassinated in the middle of an organizing campaign of primarily Black city workers in Memphis, Tennessee. A short time later, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was founded in the inner-city auto factories of Detroit.

John F. Kennedy came to office, as had Franklin Roosevelt, as a middle-of-the-road and pragmatic Democrat. Interestingly, his narrow electoral victory over Richard Nixon was assured by the massive vote of newly-aroused Blacks which allowed him to carry certain key states. Nevertheless, during his three years in the Presidency Kennedy failed to achieve any significant social legislation, and his tenure in office was overshadowed by America’s growing, if largely unheralded, involvement in Vietnam. It was clearly the deepening radicalization of the Black struggle, marked by the civil rights movement’s growing opposition to the Vietnam War, and above all the urban rebellions in Detroit, Watts, Harlem, Newark and elsewhere which concentrated Lyndon Johnson’s mind on his ‘Great Society’ and enabled him to inaugurate a new era of reform. In 1964, Johnson won a landslide electoral victory on a rising tide of liberal and radical sentiment rooted in the Black and newly emergent anti Vietnam movements. Shortly thereafter, a suddenly reform minded Congress passed the Civil Rights Acts, the Poverty Programs, and other important pieces of reform legislation Once again, an independent mass movement had forced the Democrats to become reformers.

Like the workers’ movement of the 30s, the Black movement grew up almost entirely on the basis of new leadership and new organizations. SNCC and CORE, not the NAACP or the Urban League, provided most of the dynamism that built the freedom struggles. The new Black militants had to create their movement largely over the resistance of the old, official leaderships. The NAACP refused to participate in the 1963 March on Washington unless it would be entirely legal and peaceful; it insisted that the Black movement support Johnson and his war in Vietnam; and it vehemently attacked Black Power. In the process, it precipitated a profound split between the new movement and the old guard. The chasm became unbreachable when the urban rebellion ignited the mass struggle for Black Power which ultimately issued in the formation of the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.[7]

Treading the well worn path followed by trade union officialdom in the 30s, official Black leaders did what they could to steer the explosive Black movement toward the Democratic Party. In 1964, for the first time ever, the NAACP officially endorsed the Democratic candidate and organized a voter registration drive designed to channel the newly-unleashed energies of the Black struggle toward the campaign of Lyndon Johnson for President. Nevertheless, the new civil rights organizations continued t reject electoralism and remained almost obsessively devoted to militant direct action. When the civil rights movement sought to use the ballot box, it was, as a rule, to assert the right to vote, not in an election. This is best seen in what was perhaps the civil rights movement’s most dramatic electoral intervention: the struggle of the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi in 1964. There, against the violent resistance of the white power structure, organizers from SNCC, CORE, and other groups initially tried to compel the authorities to allow Blacks to register to vote in the Democratic Party. When they were prevented from doing this by a wave of repression, they turned to organizing an autonomous campaign to sign up Black voters for their own, official Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in order challenge the official Democratic Party delegation which was, course, firmly segregationist and reactionary. Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party refused to seat the MFDP at the national convention, despite the official Mississippi delegation’s rejection of most of Johnson’s program and their generally favoring the right wing Republican Barry Goldwater for President. Nevertheless, at the time of the convention and after, the official Black leadership called upon the MFDP to compromise. More generally, they demanded that the Black movement turn ‘from protest to politics,’ in Bayard Rustin’s eloquent phrase, from the politics of the street to the politics of the ballot box. Nevertheless, the civil rights movement continued to reject electoralism. As Meier and Rudwick, the historians of CORE, sum up the position of both CORE and SNCC at this critical juncture: ‘Social change could come only through an independent movement that would “remain a threat to the power structure.” ’[8]

As it had from the labor struggles of the 30s, the Democratic Party benefited greatly from the Black movement, as well as from the student movement, the anti-war movement, and the small but significant rank and file movement — all of which emerged in the middle 60s on the rising tide of Black militancy. The Party also benefited from the general trend toward political liberalization and radicalization which accompanied these movements. Indeed, despite Richard Nixon’s victory over Humphrey in 1968, the Democratic Party appeared to some at this time on the verge of achieving a permanent electoral majority. This was largely because demographic developments were drastically sapping the Republicans’ rural strongholds and feeding the Democrats’ apparently permanently reformist working-class and Black electoral base. Cushioned from capital by the unprecedented prosperity and pressed for reform by the rising mass movements, the Democrats appeared capable of delivering the goods more or less indefinitely.

By the middle 1970s, the mass movements of the 60s had experienced precipitous decline and, with them, the impetus for reform. Significantly for the argument of this essay, the continuing strength of the movements and of the liberal and radical ideologies to which they gave rise propelled a dramatic continuation of the general wave of reform even through the first Nixon administration. The years between 1968 and 1972 witnessed the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and dramatic increases in funding for Social Security and food stamps. But during the late 60s, the Black movement reached its zenith, and, unable to find powerful allies in a still largely dormant working class movement, found itself isolated, politically without perspective, and brutally repressed by local and national police. When Nixon began to withdraw the troops from Vietnam, the once powerful peace movement declined rapidly. For a brief period, militant rank and file movements exploded across industry and precipitated bitter struggles with employers; but they were unable in the end to produce a lasting impact on the political landscape.

Thus, by the mid-70s, the Democrats got the chance to prove once again that, in the absence of mass struggles, reformist electoral majorities bring little power to the forces of reform. As recently as 1976, the Democratic Party controlled both the White House and powerful legislative majorities. Many of its officials were committed on paper to widely ranging programs of social reform. Nevertheless, during the later 1970s, the Democrats were unable to pass a single significant piece of social legislation. Congress first gutted then passed the Humphrey-Hawkins bill for ‘full employment,’ as if to rub the noses of its sponsors in the dirt. The bill for common situs picketing was soundly defeated. National health insurance, the rallying cry of the Democratic left, never got a hearing. Perhaps most humiliating, the so-called Labor Law Reform bill, shorn of all serious anti-employer passages, was soundly defeated. Meanwhile, President Jimmy Carter put an end to the long period of rising expenditures for the urban poor, and was, after one term, succeeded by Ronald Reagan. Once again, the Democratic Party and the establish reformist leaderships had succeeded in riding out the wave of mass struggle, depriving themselves of their own base and the way to the Republicans and the right.

V Left Reformists in the Economic Crisis

The conservative tendencies of the trade union officials, the bourgeois Black leadership, and the Democratic Party politicos are often recognized. It is, nevertheless, widely assumed, especially by the new social democrats, that, given the proper backing from an active and politicized rank and file, at least the left wing among the reformist officials, under pressure from the capitalists, will take the lead in reviving mass movements. According to the widely accepted view, the trade union, politico, and Democratic Party ‘lefts’ cannot help but understand that capitalism is experiencing a long term economic crisis and that there is a wide-ranging employer offensive underway restore profits. These leaders are acutely aware, moreover that the employer offensive poses a mortal threat to the basic institutions from which they themselves draw their lifeblood —viz., the trade unions, the established Black organizations, and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. On the rampage, employers have been discrediting the leadership with the rank and file, if not smashing the unions outright, thereby undermining the officials’ cherished dues base. Meanwhile, through their PACs, the capitalists have been isolating the unions and the Black leaderships even inside the Democratic Party. Thus, according to this line of thinking the trade union, Black politico, and Democratic Party ‘lefts’ have no choice but to resist, out of self-interest, to protect their own positions. They will, sooner or later, have to initiate action, put masses into motion, or at least create the conditions which will bring this about.

This analysis is sadly mistaken conceptually, and has been massively refuted empirically in the recent period. The fact is that the reformist leaderships have a wide range of options in responding to the employer offensive. They can, in the first place, often carry on quite prosperously for extended periods, even while their memberships suffer heavy losses. Moreover, even when the employers attack them directly, the reformist leaderships are most unlikely to respond in kind. In periods of deepening crisis like the present, to fight back effectively against the employers requires organizing the most massive and militant mobilization of unions and other mass organizations in order directly to confront the employers. But as the reformist officials are aware, to carry through such a mobilization and confrontation, they would have to risk the total destruction of their organizations and their secure positions. As a rule, therefore, the trade union, Black official, and Democratic Party ‘lefts’ will choose to sustain even serious losses, if the alternative is to stand up and confront employers and risk total annihilation. It seems to them the better part of valor to preserve their own organizations and positions at least partially intact until a new period of economic expansion allows them to take up their old positions as brokers between capital and the working class. Of course, to the degree the crisis lengthens and the employer offensive intensifies, the reformist officials’ strategy proves progressively less effective; so, over the long run, the officials tend to find the ground for their very existence cut out from under them. Nevertheless, at any given moment, it appears to the officials too risky to make a stand, so they are unlikely ever to take the initiative to reverse the trend. Even as the entire labor movement disintegrated under the employers’ attacks during the 1920s, and with it their own organizations and positions, the old AFL officials never offered any serious resistance. Nor are things markedly different with the officials of the current epoch despite the distant origins of their organizations in the CIO mass upsurge. When UAW President Doug Fraser made his dramatic exit from the Labor Management Advisory Board to form the Progressive Alliance in 1978, he warned that the bosses had broken their side of the deal and could expect swift retaliation from at least the left wing of reformist officialdom. But it is doubtful if Fraser’s defiant posture struck much fear into the hearts of the employers. In fact, the ‘one-sided class war’ of which Fraser spoke had been going on for at least a decade with hardly a murmur of protest from the ranks of labor’s officialdom least of all from its ostensible ‘left’ or social democratic wing.

The Rank and File Revolt

The imposition of Nixon’s ‘New Economic Policy’ in the wake of the recession of 1970-1971 was the definitive sign that the economy had entered a phase of protracted crisis and that the employer offensive was well under way. The NEP could not have been more clearly designed to redistribute income away from the working class toward the capitalists. Wages were frozen under the control of the wage-price board (assisted by hundreds of thousands of capitalists). Prices were allowed to rise (as no effective mechanism was provided to enforce the mythical freeze on prices).

Meanwhile, employers stepped up their attack in almost every industry. The response was a significant wave of worker rebellion. Nevertheless, in almost every case in order to struggle it the employers, workers had to act in defiance of — and in direct opposition to — their own officials. In March 1970, over a quarter million Post Office employees defied the law and the National Guard — as well as their own leaders — to shut down the mails in over 200 cities and win big gains. Some two months later, tens of thousands of teamsters covered by the National Freight Agreement conducted the first (effectively) nationwide truckers strike in history. It was no accident that this unprecedented action was strictly unofficial — and directed not at employers but also the Teamsters bureaucracy. Over the two years, there were numerous battles of this sort — for example, the wildcat strike in telephone in New York in 1971. But by far the most spectacular and far-reaching of these rank and file struggles was waged by the coal miners. Over more than a decade, between 1965 and 1978, the rank and file miners unleashed one after another wave of unofficial mass strikes against mine bosses on the one hand and against a succession of sell-out leaderships on the other. For the present context, what is most significant about the rank and file movements among miners is that, by the end of the period, the UMW rank and file was no longer training its weapons on the gangster-type regime of corrupt Tony Boyle, but was having to assault a newly-ascendant group of self-styled reform officials, led by Arnold Miller, who had risen to power in large part on the basis of their working relationship with key elements within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, notably ADA lawyer Joseph Rauh. Entirely devoted, like the rest of reformist officialdom, to electoralist and legalistic methods, this new ‘Miners for Democracy’ leadership would prove no more willing than its predecessors to mobilize the ranks to stand up to the vicious assaults of the mining companies upon safety conditions in the mines. Like its predecessors, the Miller-MFD leadership had to be buried beneath a new wave of entirely rank and file-led resistance, which actually succeeded in holding back the corporations in the miners strike of 1977-1978.[9] The question still remains, however; were things different in the real bastions of the labor ‘left,’ above all the UAW and public workers unions, long associated not only with militancy and social unionism, but with social democracy.


During the early 70s, in close conjunction with Nixon’s NEP, GM introduced its famous GMAD speed-up system into its auto assembly operations. This made headlines around the world and helped make the question of work the center of national discussion. It also provoked a new wave of working-class revolt in auto. Most notable, perhaps, was the six month fight at Lordstown, Ohio, where GM tried out its 100 car per hour assembly line. But an equally long and bitter 26 week strike took place in Norwood, Ohio. Toward the end of 1972, rank and file pressure succeeded in forcing representatives from St. Louis Local 25 to demand a national strike of all GMAD plants. At meeting of the UAW’s GMAD council in Detroit, local presidents went so far as to ratify this plan.

The response of UAW President Leonard Woodcock and of the UAW staff could not have been more destructive. Instead of organizing the national GMAD strikes demanded by the members, they instituted the so-called ‘Apache strategy.’ This call for local strikes, announced in advance, to run in successive weeks at different GMAD plants for two or three days at a time Given the advance warning and the shortness of the strikes, GM was easily able to adjust its operations to make sure that these were not disrupted. On the other hand, it was hard to conceive a tactic better designed to disorganize and demoralize work militancy. It broke their embryonic drive for unity; forced them to face the employers one at a time; and was almost calculated to prevent victory. It showed the workers precisely where their leaders stood, and succeeded in its purpose of breaking the movement.

If the auto workers had somehow failed to get the message their liberal/socialist leadership was sympathetic to the corporation’s problems, things were made perfectly clear over the next few years, as socialist Doug Fraser himself took center stage. In the summer of 1973, Black workers dramatically seized control of a Detroit Chrysler plant to protest deteriorating conditions, terrible overheating, and racist foremen. To everyone’s surprise, they won an initial victory. But when they (ill-advisedly) attempted the same sit-in tactic a second time, union officials were ready. Fraser led more than 1000 UAW staff in smashing physically the picket line outside the occupied plant and dispersing the movement.

The process of social unionist sell-out has, of course, reached its climax with the recent series of concessionary contracts. These began in 1978–1979, with the famous contract to save Chrysler, negotiated by Doug Fraser as part of the bailout engineered by the Carter administration. That agreement was followed in GM and Ford by a series of give-back deals, supposedly temporary, to tide the companies over the serious recession of 1979-1982. But the return to prosperity and record profits in auto, union officials have failed to reverse their approach. On the contrary, in the contract negotiated in September 1984, the UAW gave GM the green light to pursue its far-reaching plans both to shift much of production to Japan and Korea and to modernize drastically its remaining American operations, even though these policies will decimate the auto labor force. Once again, the utter dependence of the labor officialdom, left and right, on ‘their’ corporations’ profitability could not have been more definitively expressed.[10]

The Public Workers Unions

The pattern in the public sector unions has paralleled that in auto. There, an explicitly ‘social democratic’ leadership has assumed command to an extent probably unequalled anywhere in the labor movement. Jerry Wurf, president of AFSCME, and Victor Gotbaum, leader of New York’s giant District 37, were both members of DSOC, and District 37 is loaded with DSAers at the local president and staff level. Nonetheless, these leftists constitute the hard core of the conservative wing of public sector unionism. Ironically, it was the ‘apolitical’ locals that were most responsible for the pressure from the ranks within AFSCME during the 70s. The militant strikes waged by public employee locals in response to the city and state governments’ versions of the employer offensive during the middle and late 70s had to take place independently of the ‘more advanced’ and more ‘radical’ leadership.

This has been particularly true in New York, which entered the 70s as the nation’s stronghold of public employee unionism, When the crisis struck in 1975, the rank and file responded vigorously, only to be crushed by their ‘left’ leaders. In that year, sanitation workers walked out on a nearly unanimous wildcat. The leadership, however, refused to budge, and allowed the strike to be smashed. In the teachers union, the membership voted an official strike, but were forced back to work after one week by their officials (this time headed by conservative ‘socialist’ Albert Shanker).

In the wake of these and other defeats, social democratic officials were free to help turn the city over to the direction of the banks and corporations via the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC). They have cooperated in the gutting of municipal services to the working-class poor with barely a rhetorical whimper. Tens of thousands of jobs have been surrendered, remaining ones Taylorized. Class sizes of 40 or more in the New York City schools is common. Firehouses have been close while the number of fires grows. A large proportion of public hospital beds has been eliminated. Meanwhile, for their cooperation in saving the city from financial ruin, unionized workers have been compelled to accept a succession of increasingly concessionary contracts while watching their unions reduced to a shell.

Winpisinger, PATCO, and Solidarity Day

Although the images of the miners, auto, and public service union leaderships have been tarnished by their conduct throughout the employer offensive, International Association Machinists (IAM) president William Winpisinger remains a hero of the new social democratic left. A member of DSA, Winpisinger will, at a moment’s notice, call for just about any progressive reform measure and (between elections) will even demand that labor break from the Democratic Party. He remains a favourite speaker at DSA conferences, and at the roundtable discussions of intelligentsia.

But ‘Wimpy’ has never tried to conceal his contempt for rank and file organization, past, present, and future: ‘The leadership of a union is almost always an accurate reflection of the view of the membership,’ he said in an interview with The Guardian paper not long ago. What about the Teamsters, he was asked, surely a different case? ‘Perhaps not,’ he replied. ‘It’s up to the membership to change the situation.’ Then, concretely, does Winpisinger support the rank and file movement in that union? No, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) represents, in his words, ‘outside forces.’ They asked me to back them,’ he said. ‘But I asked myself, hell, what’s to stop a bunch like that from coming in here and doing the same thing?’ In addition, Winpisinger denounced moderate steelworkers union reformer Ed Sadlowski, and said he supported that union’s notoriously reactionary leadership. He saw no merit, he said, in Sadlowski’s charge that the USW staff had been undemocratically mobilized to stop Sadlowski, asking ‘What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t the staff have democratic rights too?’ Winpisinger added Sadlowski had ‘burned his bridges’ by running for USW president on a ‘screw management platform.’ ‘I view that as a i of irresponsible populism,’ said Winpisinger.[11]

Far more significant than his words, however, have been Winpisinger’s deeds. Over the recent period, Winpisinger has shown that he and the rest of the labor officialdom, both right and left, are one when it comes to cutting short any movement toward a mass militant fight back against the corporations. In the summer of 1981, Reagan fired the opening shot in his newly stepped-up war against the labor movement when he simply abolished the Professional Air Controllers Organization (PATCO) for daring to go out on strike. Coincidentally, at about the same the AFL-CIO was planning its so-called Solidarity Day demonstrations, aimed at kicking off the traditional electoral/legislative effort against Reagan. To everyone’s surprise, some three quarters of a million workers showed their potential power by attending the March on Washington, while tens of thousands of others demonstrated at the largest local labor day demonstrations in decades. PATCO had large and militant contingents at all these demonstrations.

Here was a clear opportunity for the labor leadership to bring the spontaneously aroused labor movement behind PATCO and to launch a counter-offensive against the employers and Reagan. Not surprisingly, however, the AFL-CIO officials, across the board, failed to do anything. In particular, Winpisinger refused to call on his membership to honor PATCO’s picket lines. The powerful IAM airline mechanics could certainly have shut down the airports and, had Winpisinger been willing to act, called upon the rest of the labor movement to rally behind them in support of PATCO and against Reagan. What was Winpisinger’s excuse for scabbing on the pilots? Exhibiting the shopkeeper mentality for which the labor officialdom has become famous Winpisinger explained that supporting PATCO would have bee illegal and would have been risky for the union, threatening it apparatus, especially because the top AFL-CIO leadership had decided not to help (as if it ever had or ever would). In the upshot, the entire labor movement was, yet another time, shunted back onto the electoral road, initiating the ill-fated campaign which reached its predictable and disastrous dénouement in the recent Mondale fiasco.

A Two Pronged Strategy?

To the extent that the advocates of a new social democracy base themselves, as they must, on already-existing social democratic and reformist forces, particularly any wing of the trade union officialdom, they pose for themselves a classic dilemma. Historically, the trade union officialdom has furnished the ‘political proponents of a social democratic politics with a ready-made working-class base. But since the turn of the twentieth century these same officials, in the U.S. and around the world, have asserted their sole right to speak for and to control this base within the party, while setting themselves systematically against those militant rank and file upsurges which have, periodically offered social democracy in particular and the left in general it best opportunities for transforming working-class consciousness in a radical direction.[12] DSA leader Michael Harrington recognized the dilemma in an interview a number of years ago ‘If you say to me, is it possible that someone who is now member of DSOC in the union movement will be so fixed and anchored in the bureaucracy that they will be appalled by the rank and file movement and try to put it down? I guess, sure, it’s happened before and I suppose it will happen in the future. What will we do then? I hope we will go with the rank and file… but I’m sure that some of us might fail the test. There’s no way you can anticipate.’

Less willing than Harrington to depend solely upon good intentions — and perhaps more concerned than he about a trade union bureaucratic interest within social democratic parties — some of the current advocates of a new social democracy have posed a more nuanced, two pronged approach to the problem: ally with the ‘progressive’ officials inside the party, they suggest, but, at the same time, organize the ranks, independently and from below, in the workplace and the industrial context. This tactic might be worthy of consideration, if there already existed a strong independent rank and file movement which was in a position to act on its own and to influence political organizations. But today no such movement exists. The question, therefore, is whether at the present moment, when the key problem is precisely to bring such a movement into existence, it will be possible simultaneously to work with the trade union ‘lefts’ in building social democracy and to attack these same ‘lefts’ while building the rank and file movement. Can anyone seriously contend that the Frasers, Wurfs, Winpisingers and their ilk will, at this juncture, ally with people on a political project when they know that these same people are simultaneously opposing them in ‘their own unions’? To ask this question is to answer it. This explains why even the embryonic social democratic movement in the U.S. has failed to challenge in the slightest way the hegemony of its trade union officials in their own special sphere, despite these officials’ already long record of bureaucratic discouragement of independent rank and file initiative and militancy. The new social democrats have already, in other words, ratified the ‘two pole’ structure of separated jurisdiction which has marked social democratic parties from the beginning, and helped mightily to perpetuate their self-destructive dynamic.

Notes to Part II: 

1. On the mass strike upsurge of the 30s and the response of the employers and the government, see Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step (1972) and Irving Bernstein, The Turbulent Years(1969).

2. On Roosevelt’s new activism, in response to the mass movements and radicalization of 1934, see W.E. Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963).

3. On the trade union officials’ passivity under the employers’ offensive of the later 1920s and beyond, see Irving Bernstein, The Lean Years (1961), as well as The Turbulent Years.

4. S. Lynd, ‘The Possibility of Radicalism in the Early 1930s: The Case of Steel’, Radical America(November 1972); Roger Keeran, ‘Communists and the Auto Workers. The Struggle for a Union, 1919-1949 (University of Wisconsin Ph.D. dissertation, 1974), chapter IV.

5. Keeran, ‘Communists and the Auto Workers’, pp. 292ff. ; Preis, Labor’s Giant Step; R.R. Brooks, As Steel Goes . . . (1940).

6. Keeran, ‘Communists and the Auto Workers’, p. 215; Bert Cochrane, Labor and Communism(1977), p. 107ff. ; Mike Davis, ‘The Barren Marriage of American Labor and the Democratic Party’, New Left Review, no. 124 (November–December 1980).

7. A. Meier and E. Rudwick, Core. A Study in the Civil Rights Movement 1942-1968 (1975), parts II and IV; Clayborne Carson, In StruggleSNCC and the Black Awakening (1981), esp. pp. 83-95 and 218-220.

8. Meier and Rudwick, Core, pp. 282, 272-281; Carson, In Struggle, 111–129.

9. For a superb account of the miners’ struggles of the 60s and 70s, see Paul Nyden, ‘Miners for Democracy: Struggle in the Coal Fields’ (Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation, 1974).

10. For an interesting account of the latest, very important agreement in auto, see Eric Mann, ‘Send in the Robots: How UAW sold out its membership 1984 . . . ‘, L.A. Weekly (4-10 January 1985).

11. Ben Bedell, ‘Winpisinger’s Wimpy Socialism, The Guardian (20 February 1980).

12. For a classic account of these dynamics, see Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905–1917 (1955).


VI The Electoral Struggle as Movement Building? The Jesse Jackson Campaign

In the wake of the precipitous decline of the movements throughout the late 70s and early 80s, the official reformist leaderships — the trade union bureaucracy, the established Black leadership, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party — have focused ever more narrowly on the electoral road. In this situation, those who would revive social democracy have had little choice but to make a virtue of necessity. They have themselves focused more and more on electoral campaigns and have justified this tactic either by claiming to use these campaigns to organize mass struggles, or simply by construing the campaigns themselves as mass movements. In the absence of already existing mass movements, such perspectives are delusionary. It is, of course, on occasion quite possible to translate the power accumulated through mass struggle into electoral victories and reform legislation; but the reverse is rarely if ever conceivable. Those who contemplate such a strategy can do so only because they mistake the meaning of the electoral struggle to both the Democratic Party leadership and its rank and file, and because they fail to take into account what is required to wage electoral campaigns successfully.

Winning Elections and Organizing Mass Movements

In part, as I’ve emphasized already, using the electoral struggle for mass organizing is problematic because the official reformist forces who provide much of the impetus behind Democratic Party campaigns conceive the electoral road explicitly as a substitute for mass organizing. To use Democratic Party electoral campaigns for movement building would have to be done, so to speak, over their dead bodies. Nor are the bureaucratic leaderships the only force inside the Democratic Party that opposes the use of electoral struggle for mass organizing or left politicking. In the continuing absence of major mass struggle the Democratic Party rank and file and prospective recruits are no more likely than is the leadership to support such efforts. The most obvious, yet most important, fact about the reform-minded people who choose to work inside the Democratic Party or who are attracted to the campaigns of ‘progressive’ Democratic Party candidates is that they believe the electoral process provides an effective vehicle for winning reforms. If they felt, as do a number of those leftists behind the new social democratic movement, that the electoral road, in itself, cannot generate the power required to win reforms, they would not expend the tremendous amount of energy required to do electoral work. On the other hand, because they are serious about the electoral road, they want to win, and because they want to win, they will have no truck with leftist plans to use electoral campaigns for mass organizing or left propaganda. This is especially because they believe, quite correctly, that such plans would be counter-productive for their own aim of winning the election.

There is a strict logic to winning elections which is quite different from the logic of winning strikes or organizing successful mass militant actions of any sort. In strikes and analogous forms of protest which have the object of winning concrete gains from the owners or the government, it is not only the numbers of people involved which is critical, but what they do. Especially as the economic crisis deepens, in order to win, people have to construct a new and enormous power, for they have to extract the desired concessions, since these will be granted by the employers or the state only under great pressure. If they are to win, then, they have to develop the most powerful solidarity; they must take risks; they have to make sacrifices; they must be prepared to take illegal actions and use force; and, in the end, they need to develop the ideas that explain and justify these actions to themselves and others. All this is necessary to win, because what is involved is a direct test of power with the employers and/or the state. Without such direct tests of strength little can be won, especially in periods of economic contraction the present. For this reason, leftists have much to offer in strikes and analogous struggles — above all an understanding of what is required, both organizationally and theoretically, to build a successful mass movement, and a willingness to act upon this knowledge.

Winning an election is entirely different: it demands two basic things: 1) appealing somehow to 50% plus one of the voters; 2) getting potential supporters to the polls. Nothing else matters. Money and bodies, and little else, are required. It follows that the way to win is to adapt one’s program to the existing consciousness of the electorate. The right has to move left; the left has to move right. The battle is for the votes in the middle.[1] This is not to deny that mass struggles and the transformations of political consciousness with which they are associated would in theory be of help to a liberal or left candidate. It is simply to point out that, in the short period of an electoral campaign, it is almost never in practice feasible even to try to call such a movement into existence. It can rarely be done, and it would be absurd to predicate a campaign on succeeding in doing it. To win an election, one must essentially accept consciousness as it is and try to adapt.

Naturally, there are limits beyond which candidates cannot go without turning off their core supporters; but these supporters are often quite flexible. In the first place, where else can they go? They are not going to support the opposition (to the right), for this would be self-defeating. At the same time, and equally important in this context, the supporters of the reform candidate almost always freely accept the necessity of moderating the candidate’s image and program, for they, too, understand that this is required to win. Winning, moreover, is everything, for unless the candidate takes office, absolutely nothing can be gained. There is, for the overwhelming majority of leaders and followers in the campaign of progressive Democrats, no other payoff.

Because of this logic, the reform-minded rank and file Democrats can have little or no sympathy for radicals who want to use the campaign ‘not only’ to win, but to build organization and change consciousness. First, they understand that if the candidate were associated with radical ideas (as he/she would be if his/her followers were spouting left ideas in the campaign), it would be much more difficult to get the moderate vote. They understand, too, that the same is true, only more so, for any sort of mass organizing of militant direct action, for this is guaranteed to frighten moderate potential voters. It was on the basis of this sort of reasoning that some of the new social democrat forces ‘understood’ Mondale’s move to the right in the recent presidential campaign. Given the rightward political shift within the electorate, they ask, what else could he have done? Of course it is precisely because the electoralist perspective must accept the state of mass movements and mass political consciousness as given that it is, in the end, like other reformist strategies, futile and self-defeating.

From Black Movement to Black Middle Class[2]

The supporters of Jesse Jackson’s recent campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination contended, not surprisingly, that his campaign was something different. Some argued that it was the de facto extension and logical culmination of the Black movement of the 60s. Others asserted that whatever Jackson himself intended, his electoral campaign had the objective effect of building a ‘Rainbow Coalition,’ which wanted not merely the revival of the civil rights movement but the unification of the popular movements of the working class, women, gays, and Latinos, as well as Blacks. Still others, like Manning Marable, espoused both these positions and went on to assert that the Jackson movement actually represented an already crystallized ‘Black social democracy’ and the vanguard of the left.

Nevertheless on the eve of Jackson’s campaign and after it, the Black movement was and is at its lowest ebb by far in several decades, with very few struggles of any scope occurring in the Black community — neither strikes, nor rent struggles, nor fights for services, nor other campaigns of that sort. It is the demise of the Black movement which, more than any other factor, has determined the character of Black politics in the recent period. During the 60s, the growing Black movement relied on militant mass direct action, not the ballot box, to extract significant reforms ‘from the outside.’ In the process, radical Black organizations like SNCC, CORE, and the Black Panther Party succeeded in loosening, partially and temporarily, the political stranglehold over the Black community long exercised by organizations more or less explicitly representing the Black middle class – the NAACP, the Urban League, and the like. These traditional organizations argued, even in the 60s, for toning down direct action and putting primary emphasis on legislative/ electoral and lobbying tactics. But at least through the 60s, they saw their political influence waning within the Black community.

However, with the political repression of the late 60s and the economic crisis which followed, militant Black organizations and their options radically reduced and entered into a period of profound decline. Even at its height, the Black movement had not, for obvious reasons, been able to amass a power or consolidate a position at all comparable to that of the workers movement of the 30s; nor could it, correspondingly, maintain as much of its influence as it began to run out of steam. This was especially the case, since the decay of the Black movement occurred at a time of deepening economic contraction and accelerating employer offensive, while the decay of the labor movement took place during — and was obscured by — the spectacular post-war boom. The fact that economic crisis and decline affected disproportionately precisely those heavy industries (auto, steel, etc.) where Black workers had made their greatest inroads into the workforce — and where Blacks had played prominent roles in the short-lived militancy of the early 70s — naturally made things even worse, increasing Black workers’ economic insecurity and reducing the already rather limited potential for linking Black aspirations to the struggles of the organized labor movement. As it was, the skyrocketing Black unemployment— running at rates double the national average and at 50% among Black youth — was a further critical demoralizing factor, making it that much more difficult for the Black community to launch a fight back.

As the Black movement disintegrated, the Black middle class was able, bit by bit, to reconsolidate its domination over Black politics. Black professionals, small businessmen, government servants, and politicos turned out to have been the Black movement’s main material beneficiaries, as well as its major political inheritors — even though they had not been its primary instigators. They staffed the new poverty programs. They gained most from the expansion of supervisory positions in state and local government. They and their children assumed the lion’s share of the places opened up by affirmative action programs in the universities and the professions. They, too, were hurt by the diminished strength of the militant Black movement, as well as by the deepening economic crisis of the 70s. But the Black middle class was also able to adjust and make the most of the new situation, while the income gap between them and the Black working class and poor grew sharply throughout the 70s. Above all, the Black middle class was able to reimpose its old political line.

The Black middle class’s increasing domination of Black politics was manifested in the fact that, as the Black community turned away from militant mass action tactics, they adopted whole hog the Black middle class’s preferred strategy: getting Black progressives elected to office. The turn to electoralism was dramatically symbolized by the retreat of the Black Panthers, riddled by police repression and politically isolated, from their former militant tactics to a purely electoral focus. When in 1972-1973, Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown, symbols of Black Power, ran for mayor and city council in Oakland, they were setting the trend for what remained of the entire Black movement. Nor was the political perspective of the Black middle class exhausted by electoralism pure and simple; it also involved establishing ties between the established Black organizations and large corporations in order to obtain corporate assistance for the economic development of the Black community. It was expected that local Black businessmen and professionals could play a profitable, if subordinate, role in this development. Black organizations sometimes took their own lead in establishing such alliances —  as with the NAACP’s agreement with Exxon or with the agreements made by Jesse Jackson’s PUSH with Coca-Cola and other companies. But naturally, these alliances could best be consolidated when Blacks held leading urban offices; electoralism and the alliance with big capital generally went hand in hand.

The Black electoral effort has totally dominated Black politics in the 70s and early 80s.[3] Black mayors now govern four of the six largest cities in the nation — Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit — and a total of twenty cities with populations over 100,000. In 1973, there were only 48 Black mayors across the country; today there are 229. The new Black mayors nearly universally pursued the same strategy: a growing alliance with the corporations. Black mayors see to it that the governments grant tax cuts, raise (regressive) sales taxes, grant subsidies to corporations (including tax breaks, cheap loans, etc.) in order to create the conditions for corporations to invest. Black mayors like Maynard Jackson, Coleman Young, Kenneth Gibson have, for at least a decade, been making corporate investment the keystone of their urban development strategies. Recently-elected Andrew Young also did not waste much time in emphasizing the need to seek private capital for his city’s economy, and quickly pushed through a 1% sales tax increase as a token of his intentions. More left-talking politicos, like Richard Hatcher of Gary, have pursued essentially the same policies with a different rhetoric throughout the 70s. The hope, of course, is that if businesses are encouraged, they will invest, the benefits will ‘trickle down’ to the Black community. Unfortunately, there is no lack of statistical data demonstrating that no Black mayor has succeeded in slowing down even slightly the downward curve of economic development for Black workers and the poor throughout the 70s and early 80s. Still, the Black middle class does benefit from this approach. The professionals get supervisory and managerial jobs, and small businessmen get subcontracts from the giant corporations.

The more candid and sober of the Black Democratic politicians do not make great claims for their strategy. They point out that they are highly constrained in what they can accomplish by the cut-off of federal funds and the erosion of the urban tax base due to capital flight and the economic crisis. Surely they have a point. For without the sort of mass struggles which can compel concessions from the government and corporations at both the national and local levels, the cities will be hostage to the corporations and their requirements for profits. Meanwhile, the Black mayors can adopt the words, though not the actions, of the 60s Black movements. Above all, they depict their entirely legalist voter registration drives and the push to elect Black Democrats like themselves as the extension of the old civil rights movements — neglecting to mention the mass mobilizations, illegality, and confrontational tactics which gave those movements their power (as well as the fact that those were struggles for rights, not electoral contests). As Joseph Madison, director for voter registration for the NAACP put it at the time of the 198 meeting of the ‘Black Leadership Family,’ attended by over 1000 professionals, politicians, and government officials: ‘The militancy of the old days is passé. We’ve got to develop technical militants out of those middle-class affluent Blacks who have received training, acquired good education, worked themselves into the mainstream of economic life.[4]

Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination represented the culmination of the electoralist strategy which the Black middle class has been implementing for more than a decade. Many of Jackson’s leading supporters are advisors, such as Richard Hatcher of Gary and Harold Washington of Chicago, are reform-minded, left-talking Black mayors. Indeed, Washington’s dramatic campaign for mayor Chicago in 1983 was the immediate predecessor, and in many ways the model, for Jackson’s own effort.

Washington’s Campaign

As they would with Jackson’s effort, many leftists insisted on calling Washington’s campaign a mass social movement. The rallies were huge, the enthusiasm boundless, the rhetoric inspiring. But the fact remains that Washington’s election campaign was simply that. It did not come out of, nor was it accompanied by, significant oppositional struggles of any sort in the Black community. There were no demonstrations (or demands) by Chicago Housing Authority tenants for improvement in their conditions; there were no strikes by workers demanding wages, better conditions or benefits, or that plants not be shut down. Material conditions in the Chicago Black community have deteriorated rapidly in recent years, but the level of Black militancy and political organization has declined with equal speed. In no sense did Washington ride to power on the crest of already existing movement of Blacks organizing themselves against employers or the government. Nor did the Washington campaign — which, like other electoral campaigns, remained solely concerned with electing the candidate — seek to bring such a movement into existence. On the contrary, as one observer put it: ‘Everything stayed well within the bounds of traditional politics — though a remarkably boisterous and rowdy brand of traditional politics. Everyone’s hopes were in Harold Washington — no one had any hopes or expectations in themselves.’[5]

What has happened since the election? Despite dealing a powerful blow to the old machine and bringing many Blacks and Latinos into important official positions, the Washington administration has functioned much like other liberal regimes in the crisis. Immediately upon assuming office, Washington explicitly called for ‘austerity’ and pushed through a reduction in the city’s workforce. He did support a bill for collective bargaining for city workers, but only after seeking to pass legislation which would have taken away the unions’ right to strike. Shortly thereafter, Washington forced the Amalgamated Transit Union to accept a plan to defer the payment of 26 million dollars into their pension fund, threatening that if they refused, 1500 layoffs would follow. Perhaps most important, Washington failed to give any support to the majority-Black teachers union in its bitter, unsuccessful, three week strike in October 1984. In fact, Washington’s labor attorney, Richard Laner, helped the school board engineer the final settlement and defeat the union. Washington failed even to protest when U.S. Steel closed its Southside Southworks plant (which only a few years ago employed some 5000-7000 workers), despite massive concessions from the United Steel Workers Union. Meanwhile, like Black mayors all over the country, Washington went about creating an economic development task force whose membership reads like a who’s who of Chicago business — with top representatives from all the leading banks, manufacturing firms, and construction companies. Washington has admittedly been badly hurt by the obstructive tactics of what remains of the old white machine. On the other hand, he has not lifted a finger to aid himself, the Black community, or working people in general by helping them to organize themselves to fight to improve their conditions. A traditional liberal politician, Washington led no mass social movement in his campaign; has, in office, been bound by social movement; and has done nothing to bring one into existence.

Jackson’s Campaign

That Jesse Jackson was, intentionally and explicitly, carrying out the electoral strategy of the Black middle class and Black politicians to enhance their influence within the Democratic Party in particular and American society in general was made clear again and again throughout the campaign by his supporters and opponents alike. Jackson’s overriding goal was to get millions of unregistered Blacks signed up for the Democratic Party. With this newly-created electoral base, Jackson hoped use the primaries to amass the power to leverage the Democratic Party: Jackson and the Black politicians would deliver a much increased Black vote to the Democrats, if the latter would, in return, grant the Black politicos a greater role within the party and, more generally, make certain programmatic concessions. This is precisely the same strategy organized labor has followed for the past forty years, with progressively diminishing returns.

As should have been obvious to those who hoped the Jackson campaign would constitute an on-going mass movement for social reform, Jackson’s strategy did not require building mass struggles or even constructing much of an electoral organization. The be-all and end-all was to get Blacks registered and voting in the primaries for Jackson. No one should have been surprised therefore, to find that Jackson’s organization, to the extent  it existed, was entirely top down. It was headed by elite figures long influential in business and Black politics, who saw their goal as accomplishing certain clear-cut electoral tasks. There was no need to get feedback and input, let along to encourage mass self-activity required for actual social struggles. Jackson did, of course, hold massive demonstrations and marches, and made hundreds of speeches in local community churches. He is a magnetic personality, and generated an enormous amount of enthusiasm. But despite the rhetorical verve, he did practically nothing to strengthen the existing grassroots organizations in the community, but, on the contrary, subordinated the already constituted organizations and their resources to the electoral effort.

Nor could those former leftists who flooded into the local Rainbow Coalitions, as they had into the Washington campaign, significantly reverse the direction. It is doubtful, in most cases, they even tried. It was not that the official politicos exerted a stranglehold on the campaign organization and tactics — although this was a problem in some places, like Los Angeles.[6] It was, rather, that most of those from the Black community who came to build the campaign naturally did so with a single purpose in mind — to get out the vote and win the primaries. It is hardly surprising that, only a few months following the elections, most local Rainbow Coalitions have been reduced to hollow shells, manned by leftists and liberals. No more the launching boards for new social struggles than they were before the campaign, most are looking to survive by finding new electoral efforts in which to immerse themselves.

Jackson’s Impact

Precisely because he did not build a movement with the capacity to exercise power outside the Democratic Party and outside the polling booth, Jackson failed badly even in his own terms. When the Democratic Party, in an arrogant display of realpolitik, refused to grant a single one of Jackson’s key programmatic planks, he was nonetheless forced, ignominiously, to call for unity at the national convention and to back Mondale. Some leftists saw this as a sell-out, but Jackson had, in fact, no choice, since he had no basis for breaking from the Party and going off on his own. First of all, Jackson himself never had any intention of splitting and had not prepared his followers to do so. But, equally important, Jackson’s campaign had emerged in the wake of the decline of mass struggles in the Black community and had itself done nothing to bring about the emergence of a movement in any way independent of Jackson’s electoral effort, or indeed, of Jackson the personality. This was why Jackson’s more radical and impatient supporters were obliged to sit quietly by as Jackson capitulated at the convention. In possession of no mass base themselves, they had no means  to pressure the candidate. In the absence of already existing mass movements, a critical source of Jackson’s attractiveness, not only to his backers among the politicians and the bourgeoisie, but to the Black community as whole, was his apparent ability to offer realistic strategy for reform. Consciously or unconsciously, the majority of Jackson’s supporters saw in his plan to use primaries to leverage the Democratic Party a credible substitute for the self-organization which seemed, at that moment, off agenda.

Had Jackson sought at any point to build an electoral movement which claimed independence from the Democrat Party — and which had as its object a long term process of rebuilding the left — he would surely have lost the support of the Black middle class and, arguably, also the Black masses. As most Americans are aware, splinter parties have no hope winning practical gains, given the winner-take-all electoral system, unless they are extremely large — larger, that is, than any which have appeared on the political horizon for more than half a century. The premise for a practical third party campaign would have to be the radical and massive transformation of the national political consciousness. This would depend, in turn, on enormous historical changes, not the least of which would be the rise of mass struggles of a magnitude not seen since the labor upsurge of the 30s. In the absence of such a transformation, any third party efforts will, of necessity, be confined to propaganda objectives — which is not to say they would be without value.

Because the whole premise of the Jackson campaign was its claim to being practical, Jackson and his allies could not refuse to mobilize against Reagan after the convention, despite the Democrats’ continuing failure to grant them the slightest concession. For, as the Democratic Party regulars realized, the Black leadership and the Black masses wanted to defeat Reagan more than did any other group in American society. To refuse this effort in order to punish the Democratic Party would have been to cut off their nose to spite their face. This, of course, has been the  characteristic quandary of the official labor leadership which has for decades supinely backed Democratic Party candidates  no matter how anti-labor. It follows strictly from the logic of the electoralist strategy.

A Black Social Democracy within the Democratic Party?

Despite the long term decay of the Black movements, Manning Marable, a prominent writer and national officer of DSA, has, in several recent essays, argued that the Black officials and the thrust they represent actually constitute an ‘American version of social democracy’ within the Democratic Party and society at large. What Marable means by this assertion is that Black politicians, virtually across the board, advocate social programs and give voice to ideas which are today far to the left of those in the white political mainstream.[7] This is undoubtedly true, as far as it goes. There is no question that the political sentiments of the Black community as a whole are far to the left of those common in the rest of American society. Indeed, one reason Jesse Jackson could adopt his radical-sounding program was that his electoral strategy required focusing, almost exclusively, on the Black community and did not necessitate a broad appeal to the far more conservative white electorate.

But to imply, as Marable does, that the Black electoral movement led by the Black middle class constitutes a powerful force for reform is highly misleading. Even had the Democratic Party adopted significant sections of Jackson’s radical program at the convention, it would not have made a stitch of difference: the party has adopted countless, quite radical, platforms in the past, but unless mass movements acted effectively to ‘keep the Party honest,’ these platforms have remained only on paper. Indeed, throughout the 70s, Democratic Party majorities with on-paper commitments to reform retained control of Congress to no discernable effect. To bring this point home, one has only to refer to the obvious fact that what Manning Marable sees as Black social democracy — the Black politicos with their left programs and mass electoral ‘movements’ — has been in power in numerous places for at least a decade, but has done little either to challenge the powers that be or help the Black masses. Witness all the cities with Black mayors, including left-talking ones like Richard Hatcher and Harold Washington. Of course, social democratic parties also have been in power in quite a few nations around the world during the late 70s and early 80s, but have delivered only cuts in services and rising unemployment to their working classes. By conflating electoralism and program mongering with movement building, Marable perpetuates the myth that winning office is winning power, and that there is a shortcut the long, hard, and daunting task of rebuilding the movements.

VIII From Fair Share to Austerity: The Failure of Corporatism and the Opening to the Right

Throughout the 70s and early 80s, the official forces of reformism have become progressively more reluctant to combat capital. They are aware that the slowdown of the economy is, in the last analysis, a crisis of profitability and that this has consequences for their own strategic perspectives. Between 1965 and 1973, the rate of return on investment dropped from 16% to 9%, and it has declined even further since.[8] The crisis of profitability is, in the first instance, an expression of the long term crisis of the international economy — a crisis which has engulfed all of the capitalist nations. But it is also the case that international crisis has been accompanied by a long term relative decline in the growth of the productive forces and the accumulation of capital in the American sector, and this has had vast implications for working-class politics. It is sufficient to note that over the long period between 1950 and 1976, the rate of growth in productivity in U.S. industry averaged 2.8% while the comparative figures were 5.4% for Germany, 5.0% for France and 8.3% for Japan. Similarly, over this same period, the U.S. devoted on average 17.8% of GDP to investment in new plant equipment, while the comparative figures were 24.3% Germany, 23.2% for France, and 33% for Japan.[9] Over the recent period, the numbers have, if anything, become even more unfavorable for the U.S.

As the official forces of reformism are aware, these figures represent a huge decline in the competitiveness of the U.S. sector and, specifically, its declining attractiveness as a place for investment. The declining relative efficiency of the U.S. productive system has meant that relative costs of production, especially in manufacturing, have continued to increase. The result, as most are now aware, is accelerating disinvestment, a mass flight of capital especially in the form of loans, and a preference for finance over manufacturing. This trend has reached a climax over the past several years, with large sections of what was the industrial core of the U.S. economy entering into serious crisis — steel, auto, textiles, consumer electronics, machine tools etc.

These trends, in the context of the international crisis, have forced the official reformist forces drastically to reappraise the Keynesian approach to political economy which was their received religion throughout the post-war boom. By the end of the Carter administration, deficit spending was perceived not only as inflationary but as less capable of increasing employment. Equally salient, government programs which appeared to redistribute income away from capital came to appear increasingly counter-productive. Even the ‘left’ leaderships of trade unions, Black organizations, and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party have come to believe that forcing capital to give higher wages, better conditions, or more government services is less likely to make things worse, harming competitiveness and generating reluctance to invest. Wedded to an ideology of ‘fair share’ within capitalism, the forces of reformism, both right and left, have accepting austerity as the economy declines, just as they demanded a bigger piece of the pie in the period of growth.

The long term political consequences of this change in perspective are ominous. Unwilling to launch an attack on capital, the official forces of reform have moved rapidly toward devising strategies to help ‘their own’ capitalists protect their profits in order to safeguard their own and their memberships’ position. They have sought to enter into tripartite partnerships with business and government to launch vast cooperative efforts to protect and revamp the American economy from to top to bottom. Pursuant to this strategy, the labor leadership has, with increasing unanimity, embraced protectionism for U.S. manufacturing. Beyond this, in tandem with certain minority representatives of capital — notably the investment banker Felix Rohatyn — they have been the arch-apostles of what has come be known as ‘industrial policy,’ a hodgepodge of programs to encourage planning of and investment in new industry. At the level of the corporation, they have placed top labor leaders on boards of directors of corporations, while beginning more and more to accept corporate proposals for profit sharing. Finally, on the shop floor, they have become backers of so-called Quality of Worklife (QWL) programs, aimed at increasing worker participation to improve productivity.

Meanwhile, the decreasing numbers of liberal politicians who have continued, as the crisis deepens, to demand improved social programs from the government have failed, systematically, to show how the capitalists can be made to bear the naturally high costs. In so doing, they have opened the way to discrediting in advance any new offensive for reforms. Over the past twenty years, no section of the reform establishment has lifted a finger to oppose the dramatic long term decline in the level of corporate taxation.[10] On the other hand, since the early 70s, the working class has had to accept a massive decline in their disposable income: workers now get approximately 20% less spending money per hour (wages minus taxes) than they did 1972-1973, and approximately the same amount they received 1961.[11] The great majority of workers have come to assume that they themselves will have to pay for any increases in social services won in Congress. As a consequence, many working people have given up attempting to defend themselves through the struggle for reforms and sought to ameliorate their condition by trying to reduce taxes. Propositions 13 in California and 21/2 in Massachusetts were typical in this respect.

The reformist officials’ increasingly desperate turn to corporatist solutions throughout the 70s and early 80s is understandable in view of their absolute refusal to confront capital, but has nonetheless proven entirely self-destructive. By emphasising both the impossibility of successfully resisting employers and the self-defeating character of any effective resistance, official forces of reform have merely confirmed the workers’ own conclusions, derived from a decade-long experience of both defeat at the hands of the employers and of the declining competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing. By recommending, on that basis, policies which bring workers objectively into alignment with capital and in de facto conflict with other groups of workers, they have demonstrated the increasing irrelevance of strategies based on collective organization by the working class, and, in turn, the decreasing utility of their own organizations. Ironically, to the extent that the trade union officials have transformed their own organizations from weapons of class struggle into instruments of collaboration in production, they have been to that degree less able to assert their own place within those corporatist arrangements through which they had hoped, alongside the employers, to manage the crisis. Under no pressure to accept the trade unions as partners, the employers have seen no reason not to turn around and destroy them — and that is what they have done, with growing success, since Reagan ascended to the Presidency.

Finally, as class-based strategies for self-defense have become less practicable and as class collaborationist alternatives have appeared more inevitable, workers naturally have embraced the ideological conceptions which can make some sense of what re actually doing.[12] To the extent that workers have supported protection, they have allied with their own capitalists against workers around the world. To the extent, moreover, that they have participated — at the level of the state, the corporations, or the shop floor — in cooperative arrangements to improve productivity, they are actually helping their own employers defeat workers in other places. To the extent that workers have turned to tax cuts, they are unavoidably joining the attack on the living standards of those who are dependent upon welfare and other social services, above all Blacks and women. To the extent that workers are defending their own positions — in a ‘color-blind’ and ‘sex-blind’ manner — through defending the seniority list against affirmative action, they are attacking Blacks and women in still another way. Many working people who attempt to defend their positions with these methods do not intend to profit their employers or to gain at the expense of other workers. But this is in fact what they are doing. Their actions are, in effect, chauvinist, racist, and sexist. Inevitably, therefore, they are opened up to the reactionary worldviews which will rationalize their conduct.

Ultimately, as workers cease to find any practical basis for the collective defense of their own lives, they cannot help but perceive the world as a dog-eat-dog competitive struggle, and, as a result, come to consider more attractive those pro-family and fundamentalist religious ideologies which make this perception their point of departure. Whatever oppression the patriarchal family brings, it can, with some conviction, still offer some of the only non-commodity, non-commercially competitive relationships which still remain intact — i.e., between husband and wife and between parents and children. It can, therefore, with some legitimacy, offer the reality of a (non-capitalist) ‘haven in a heartless (competitive) world.’ It need hardly be added that to the degree such a view of the world — as inevitably composed of families in cutthroat competition — carries conviction, that promise of community held out by the fundamentalist Christian sects will prove ever more appealing.

From Mitterand to Le Pento . . .

The progression from reformism to corporate capitalist restructuring to the rise of the right is, unfortunately, no mere prediction. Throughout the later 70s and early 80s, it has been, and is being, played out in a variety of forms in the capitalist west, above all in some of those regions which have experienced the most thoroughgoing social democracy during the first stage of the global economic crisis. In June 1981, the Socialist Party of François Mitterand came to power in France in a smashing electoral landslide that gave it a massive parliamentary majority and uncontested control of the executive for seven years. The Socialists were committed at the start to a somewhat radical version of the traditional social democratic program: Keynesian reflation, mild increases for social welfare, and ambitious plans for economic modernization through state intervention and nationalization. Within months of their accession to power Socialists’ attempt to implement their program had led to run away inflation, massive capital flight, precipitously rising imports, the collapse of the balance of payments, and stagnating investment and growth. As a result, in less than a year, Socialists had junked their reform program, devalued the franc twice, and embarked upon a vicious program of austerity marked by severe fiscal restraint and huge cuts in government services. France’s workers are today experiencing the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression, made worse by the decay of government welfare programs. Meanwhile to counteract the disastrous effects of its own policies on its worker constituencies, the government has sought shamelessly to shift as much as possible of the burden of the crisis onto immigrant guest workers, while attempting to distract the population with Cold War polemics and imperialist adventures.

With their own political parties and trade unions implicated in what has been, in effect, an all-out experiment in capitalist modernization, French workers have been compelled, not surprisingly, to rethink their political perspectives. With their traditional parties and trade unions making a mockery of class-based, collective strategies of self-defense, it is hardly unexpected that they are turning in increasing numbers to those political forces who will give coherent ideological rationalizations for the class collaborationist and individualistic strategies they have been forced to live by. Is it really surprising that Le Pen with his barely concealed fascism, has emerged from the rubble of Mitterand’s experiment in capitalist transformation under Socialism? Do today’s American exponents of a revitalized social democracy from within social democracy believe they can achieve better results than did the French Socialists through the agency of Mitterand’s feeble American counterparts and their even feebler reformist perspectives?

*I want to thank the editorial board of Against the Current for helpful suggestions and criticisms of earlier drafts of this paper. I wish to dedicate this essay to the memory of Steve Zeluck (1922-1985)

Notes to Part III:
1. The pressure of this electoral logic is of course the greatest where there is a winner-take-all electoral system, as in the United States (in contrast to proportional representation).
2. For this and subsequent sections on the Jackson campaign, see especially Anthony Thigpenn, ‘Jesse Jackson and the Black Movement’, Against the Current3, (Fall 1984)’

3. For a fine analysis of the recent practice of Black electoralism, which forms the basis for this paragraph, see Monte Pilawski, ‘The Limits of Power’, Southern Exposure, 12, (February 1984).

4. Quoted in Thigpenn, ‘Jesse Jackson’, p. 16.

5. Dan Labotz, ‘Harold Washington: The Hopes and the Realities’, Against the Current, 3, (Fall 1984), p. 40. My discussion of Washington’s campaign and its upshot depends very heavily on Labotz’s excellent article, and I have appropriated a number of phrases from it.

6. Thigpenn, ‘Jesse Jackson’, p. 16.

7. Marable, “Paradox of Reform’, pp. 24-25.

8. D.N. Allman, ‘The Decline in Business Profitability’, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Economic Review (January 1983).

9. Riccardo Parboni, The Dollar and its Rivals (1981), p. 93. Ira C. Magaziner and Robert B. Reich, Minding America’s Business (1982), p. 45.

10. See Joseph A. Pechman, Who Paid the Taxes, 1966-1985? (1985), esp. chapter 5.

11. Samuel Bowles et al, Beyond the Wasteland (1983), p. 25. Wages per hour are about 10% lower today (before taxes) than they were in 1972-3.

12. For the following analysis, see Johanna Brenner and Robert Brenner ‘Reagan, the Right and the Working Class’, Against the Current, 1, (Winter 1981) and ‘The Right Wing and the Working Class’, Against the Current, 1, (Summer 1981).


  • Originally published in Mike Davis, Fred Pfeil, and Michael Sprinker (eds). The Year Left: an American Socialist Yearbook 1985. Vol. 1. London and New York: Verso. pp. 33-86