The Paradox of Reformism – The New Social Democracy and the Jackson Campaign

Written by Robert Brenner
The following are two excerpts from Robert’s Brenner’s series of articles on the nature of social democracy in the U.S., first published on the Verso website in 2016 under the title “The Paradox of Social Democracy”. In these pieces, Brenner reflects on the rise of Bernie Sanders and “democratic socialism” in the U.S. electoral arena, and offers historical context for helping to understand the nature and potentials of these phenomena. We publish them with Brenner’s permission.
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. (…)
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.
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 counterproductive 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. (…)
From Black Movement to Black Middle Class
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 re-consolidate 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. (…)
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 alone 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.
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.

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