Since the dawn of industrial capitalism in North America, the two great parties of US capital have attempted to co-opt and control the worker’s movement. Unlike in other parts of the world, the working class in the US has so far failed to establish a lasting political party of its own, despite many heroic attempts. The need to develop independent working class politics has been a central aim of the socialist movement since the time of Marx. As the great US socialist James Cannon put it “The unconditional break away from capitalist politics and capitalist parties is the first act of socialist consciousness and the first test of socialist seriousness and sincerity… Marx and Engels explained that over 100 years ago… I personally heard Debs explain that in the election campaign of 1908!” Like many leftists, Eugene Debs learned this lesson not through theory, but by experience. He started as a labor activist within the Democratic Party and only broke with that party to join the Socialists after a Democratic governor he had campaigned to elect ordered the national guard to crush a strike he had organized. Debs’ complete break with the Democratic party came to be both a core part of his politics and the radical tradition in the United States.
Despite this history and the example of figures like Debs and Cannon, many on the radical left in the US have not been convinced of the need to function independently as a class. Many reformist socialists, and even some who consider themselves Marxists, have advocated for working inside the Democratic Party and voting for its candidates. In their mind socialists must support even bourgeois candidates if they are the “lesser of the two evils” on the ballot. The following two short excerpts were taken from debates between socialists who supported and opposed this “lesser evil” argument. The first debate was between George Breitman and the trade unionist Carl Haessler, the second was between Peter Camejo and the influential Democratic-Socialist thinker Michael Harrington. In both debates, Camejo and Breitman explained why the “lesser evil” argument leads working class people into the fold of their class enemy, and prevents them from ever building independent organizations of their own class. Reliant on the forces of the bourgeoisie and without its own organizations, the working class cannot take power in its own name and build socialism. Despite their age, these speeches given by Breitman and Camejo remain cogent and powerful arguments for class independence and against “lesser evilism.”
Should Socialists Work Inside the Democratic Party?
George Breitman – 1959
I shall begin defining what I have in mind by the terms “progressive,” “work in,” and “Democratic Party.” By “progressive” I mean two things: First, the great social forces that have the power to decide the future: the working class and its allies, the working farmers, the Negro people, and the youth. Second, I have in mind the smaller, radical groups and individuals who are repelled by the capitalist system, as its anarchy, militarism, depressions, regimentation, inequality, and debasement of human and cultural values, and who favor the replacement of this system by one based on cooperation. planning, brotherhood, and promotion of the interests of the majority. In short, I use the term “progressive” for those who are pro-labor or anticapitalist, who are antiwar, antifascist, and anti-Jim Crow. prosocialist.
By “work in” I mean belong to, become a member of, vote for, support, or endorse.
Now, about the nature of the Democratic Party. Socialists say that political parties represent, express, reflect class interests. This doesn’t mean that parties necessarily say they represent class interests; nor that all their members think they do; nor even that all their members come from the same class. (The truth of this proposition doesn’t depend on what socialists say or what anti-socialist say. It can be tested by facts, the evidence of history, objective analysis.)
When socialists say the Democratic Party is a capitalist party, they don’t mean that most of its members are capitalists. Obviously not. If the capitalists had to depend on their own numbers, they couldn’t elect a justice of the peace for they are a tiny part of the population. Actually, most supporters of the Democratic Party are workers, farmers, and members of the middle classes. But they aren’t the ones who decide the real aims of the party.
Nationally, the Democratic Party is a coalition: of capitalists union leaders, of southern white supremacists and northern Negroes, of corrupt machines in the cities and unorganised or loosely organized farmers on the land, of conservatives and liberals, et cetera.
This coalition explains why the Democratic Party says the things it says, why it writes the platform it writes, for it appeals to conflicting interests and tries to hold them together. It also explains why the Democratic Party sometimes says different things than the other capitalist party, the Republican Party, for the Republican Party has a somewhat different composition and following, making its major appeal for support to the middle classes and non-unionized sections of the working class.
But, it doesn’t determine which interest controls, dominates, runs, and uses the Democratic Party. We say it is dominated, as the Republican Party is dominated, by a minority of its members —by a small group of monopoly capitalists who also control the economy, the government, the means of communication, and the educational system.
It doesn’t matter what the Democratic platform says, the chief function of this party, as of the Republican Party, is to protect the interests of the monopoly capitalists at home and abroad. It doesn’t matter what the candidates of this party say during election campaigns (they usually say what they think will win votes, not what they think) what counts is what it’s officeholders say about the important issues of the day. Only a few examples are possible now: The overwhelming majority of the people of this country, and of the members of both capitalist parties, want peace, the relaxation of international tensions, a ban on nuclear explosions, and so on. But what do they get? Wars, war crises, preparation for war, militarization, the draft, a permanent arms economy, and crashing taxes to maintain it… And the Democratic Party’s chief complaint against the Republicans is that they don’t appropriate and spend enough for these purposes. On this issue the Democratic Party surely serves the interests of the ruling class faithfully and consistently.
The Democrats differ from the Republicans occasionally in what to do about unemployment, because the Democrats usually have greater support among the unemployed and want to retain that support. But their differences are minor, sometimes insignificant. They agree on the basic things: that the present economic system must not be reorganized to abolish unemployment, that when workers are laid off through no fault of their own, they should suffer cuts in their living standards, rather than the employers, that jobless compensation should not be paid for the duration of unemployment, that the workweek should not be shortened. These are things the capitalist class thinks too…
My final example is civil liberties. We are still suffering from the effects of the witch-hunt launched to silence all opposition to the cold war. The record shows that the Democratic Party served the capitalist class just as zealously in this witch-hunt as the Republicans. The Democrats passed and enforced the Smith Act to gag political dissent. Democratic presidents transformed the FBI into a political police force. The Democrats started the misnamed government “loyalty” program. A Democratic president initiated the “subversive” blacklist. Democrats spearheaded the passage of the Internal Security Act of 1960. Liberal Democrats took the lead in passing the Humphrey-Butler “Communist Control” Act of 1954. We tend to think of this as the era of McCarthyism, but the Democrats, liberal as well as conservative, were in there doing their fair share of gnawing away at the Bill of Rights…
Having given an analysis of the Democratic Party, for better or worse, I want to indicate now why it is wrong from just about every conceivable angle for progressives to work in it. I’ll take up the labor movement first, the radical groups second.
Unions are created in the first place because there is a fundamental clash of interests between workers and capitalists. A necessary condition for the effective functioning of unions is that they be independent of the capitalists; as we all know, a company union, an organization dominated by the employers, does not and cannot defend the workers’ interests. I believe it can be stated as a law; the more independent a union is of capitalists, of individual capitalists and of the capitalist class as a whole, the better able it is to defend the workers’ interests. Or if you don’t care for the word law let me put it this way: Independence of the labor movement is a first principle, recognized and expounded by the best union leaders, like Debs and Haywood.
…What labor in this country needs above everything else is a party of its own, which can fight for the needs and aspirations of the workers on the political field as unions can on the economic field. But, instead of having a party of its own, the labor movement is dependent, in the political sphere, on a party controlled by the capitalists and promoting the interests of the capitalists. It is a tail to the Democratic kite, as one union leader put it. This must be designated as a violation of the principle of independence on the basis of which the union movement was created. It is not only wrong in principle, however. It is also harmful in practice, and the cause of most of the ills besetting the labor movement today.
It was reported not long ago that the unions spent more money on the last congressional election than the Democratic campaign committees did. What have they gotten in return? UAW Secretary-Treasurer Emil Maxey said about a month ago: “We won an election last November, but until now we have not received a single thing from this victory.” This is true after every election.
The present Congress, controlled by the Democrats the unions helped to elect, has refused to end the filibuster. It has refused to extend jobless compensation for a year. It is on the verge of passing the Kennedy-Ervin bill to further restrict the independence of the unions by subjecting them to government control, a bill which becomes worse and worse every time Congress takes it up. And, at the recent conference on unemployment in Washington, all the AFI-CIO could get from the leaders of the Democratic Party was a promise to study the question.
No wonder Jack Creilin of the Detroit Times commented after the jobless conference that the AFL-CIO seems to be getting a “mighty poor return on its investment.” And, he added ironically, “At least Jimmy Hoffa gets six per cent on his.” Hoffa is not our idea of a model Labor leader, any more than Reuther is. But sometimes they tell the truth too. I think Hoffa did that in a recent Interview with the Detroit Free Press. Asked to comment on the alliance between the UAW and the Michigan Democratic Party, he said: “The UAW has less power that way. If I got you. I don’t have to worry about you. The Democrats control the UAW in Michigan. Reuther has got himself into a trap and doesn’t know how to get out.” Reuther knows how to get out all right but except for that, I think Hoffa’s statement comes close to the truth, which I would have put this way: Thanks to this alliance the Democrats have much more influence in the labor movement than the labor movement has in the Democratic Party.
The Democrats can take the unions for granted, because they feel they have them in their pocket; because the unions, having sworn not to create their own party, have nowhere else to go. Who can deny this? …The union leaders not only have become dependent on the Democratic Party, they have become its captives. And this is one of the reasons why the Democratic Party has been moving steadily to the right year after year. So labor’s support of the Democrats is wrong in all respects — from the standpoint of the principle, from the pragmatic standpoint of results.
What the labor movement and its allies need is to make a clean break with both capitalist parties and form an independent labor party dedicated to winning control of the government and putting into effect a program that will meet the needs of the majority of the people.
For radicals and socialists, the situation is even more clear-cut. Our goal—the creation of a new society through working class political action— requires that we help the labor movement to break away from capitalist parties and capitalist politics; and that we expand the influence and organization of radical and revolutionary groups and parties fit to provide leadership to the workers in a fight for a better society.
Neither of these objectives can be served by working in the Democratic Party. Again, it is wrong in principle and wrong in every other way that can be measured. The highways are littered with the political corpses of radicals and socialists who entered the Democratic Party with the idea of making it radical and who ended up by becoming more liberals or even conservatives themselves.
The main function of the radical movement today is educational and propagandistic, pending the time — not as distant as some radicals think— when it once again can lead the people in great actions and struggles. To educate means first of all to say what is, to tell the people the truth. What good is a radical, what right has he to any hearing, if he doesn’t meet this minimum condition?
But you can’t be in the Democratic Party and tell the truth to the people. The first thing demanded of you in the Democratic Party is that you support its candidates, that is help spread the propaganda that the election of Democrats is in the interests of the people. If you do this, you have to lie, you have to cover up the fact that the Democratic Party stands for…, more armaments, little or no help to the unemployed, racial oppression, restrictions on the Bill of Rights… and maintenance of the status quo generally.
In short, the condition for working in the Democratic Party is that you must abdicate the primary function of the radical. If everyone did it, it would mean the death of the all organized radical opposition to capitalism…
Supporting the Democratic Party is at best an exercise in futility for radicals, and one of the causes contributing to their decline. At worst it is a betrayal of anti-capitalist principles that are at the heart of radicalism and without which it must decay and die.
It is also a repudiation of the whole past of American radicalism. If it’s right to support the Democrats today, if it’s wrong to oppose them at the polls and to work in every other way to expose their reactionary character, then everything the old socialist movement did in its best days was also wrong and should be renounced rather than pointed to as an inspiration for the future. If it’s right to support the Democrats today, then Debs was wrong in helping to organize the socialist party in running those magnificent election campaigns in teaching that it is unprincipled for socialists for socialists to support capitalist candidates; then Debs was just a hopeless sectarian, whose example has little to offer us today.
Speaking of Debs reminds me of the question that people sometimes ask: What happened to the old idealism of the socialist movement, the self-sacrificing spirit of solidarity and militancy that the American radical movement used to know? What happened to it was that the leaders of the movement, lacking or losing confidence in the capacity of the workers to change society and govern themselves, began to find all the kinds of pretexts and rationalizations for deserting the policies of class struggle and embracing the policies of class collaboration. One of the manifestation of this change was the change from the old principle that it’s the duty of socialists to oppose capitalist party candidates, to run independent candidates, and use election campaigns to expose the nature of capitalism and present the truth about socialism— a change from this tradition to arguments that independent campaigns achieve nothing, that you must not let yourself get “isolated,” that you must adjust yourself to the politics of the labor bureaucracy rather than fight them.
… The policy dictated to progressives is to oppose the Democratic Party, not to work in it or get others to support it. Those of us who are workers should strive in our unions to bring about a break with capitalist politics, and the formation of an independent labor party. Those of us who are radicals and socialists should do everything we can to fight the two-party system, utilize election campaigns to spread socialist ideas and influence, and run socialist slates for office, if possible along the general lines of the Independent-Socialist ticket in New York in 1958.
That ticket, bringing together independent radicals, former Progressive Party members, and Socialist Workers Party members in a united socialist campaign against both capitalist parties was an encouraging progressive alternative to the compromising, demoralizing, self-defeating policy of working in similar united left-wing tickets here in Michigan in the 1957 and 1958 election campaigns. The other radical groups in the state rejected its proposals in those years. We hope they will respond differently to proposals for a united ticket of radicals, socialists and progressives in [the future]. If they don’t we promise we will still try to act as socialists should by…running a campaign that will help promote independent working class political action by openly telling the truth about capitalism and socialism.
- This law outlawed advocating the overthrow of the US government and required all foreign nationals living in the US to register with the federal government.
- This law, introduced by a Democratic Senator, required all communist organizations to register with the government and restricted the citizenship and travel rights of members of these organizations. It also established a board tasked with surveilling and keeping tabs on radicals.
- This law outlawed the Communist Party of the United States and criminalized membership in all communist organizations. Despite being widely considered to be unconstitutional it has never been taken up by the Supreme Court and remains on the books to this day.
- “Big” Bill Haywood was one of the earliest radical union leaders in the United States. A founding member of the International Workers of the World, he believed strongly in building industrial unions which organized all workers in the industry, regardless of their trade. One of the greatest champions of the working class in this country, he was eventually arrested in 1918 for his anti-war activism. He fled to the USSR while out on bail and died in the Soviet Union in 1921.
- Jimmy Hoffa was the union boss of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1957 to 1971. He was known for his style of union leadership that centralized power into his office as well as for his ties to organized crime. In the summer of 1975 he disappeared and is presumed dead. His body has never been found.
- Walter Reuther was president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) from 1946 until his death in 1970. Reuther was a staunch anti-communist who was one of most powerful leaders of the AFL-CIO until 1968 when he took the UAW out of the federation.
Should Socialists Vote for the Lesser Evil?
Peter Camejo – 1970
[T]he essence of this debate—the question that just kept getting repeated over and over and over again—is basically this: Is the Democratic Party an institution through which working people, women, Blacks and Chicanos can make gains; or is it an institution that is run in the interests of the ruling class? That is the real basic debate we’ve had here.
I say American history proves beyond a question of a doubt that the Democratic and Republican parties have been run by the same basic interests since 1876. Today the Democratic Party is an institution run for the interests of the corporations and the rich in this country. The promises and the concessions they give us are not because they’re in favor of them, it only insofar as we put mass pressure on them. It is true. if we have mass demonstrations like we did in the anti-war movement, they have to bend towards us because they have to make a decision. It’s bad enough they have to lose Vietnam. But they don’t want to lose this country, too.
But don’t tell me the Democratic Party cares one bit about the people of Vietnam. Let’s not rewrite history. When the first referendums were held in this country on the war in Vietnam, Eugene McCarthy urged people to vote for the war. They used his name in the ads. He voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. He voted for all the war appropriations. Eugene McCarthy was for the war in Vietnam… I debated Ted Kennedy when I ran against him in 1970. I said to him, “Mr Kennedy. why is it you said you were against the war, but every time it comes up in Congress, you vote for it? You vote for special appropriation. You vote for chemical warfare in Vietnam.” He said, “Well, our troops are there. We have to protect them.”
Listen, I’m sick and tired of this double-talk. That’s all we get from these politicians. They told us they were for stopping the war, but they wouldn’t do anything about it. When they wanted $200 billion for the war in Vietnam, they had the money. When we asked for education, they said there’s no money. This year we’re having the largest gross national product ever. one trillion, seven hundred billion dollars. Corporate profits. are the highest ever $150 billion.
Mr. Harnrigton’s party controls the Congress, the Senate, the city, and the state. You know what would happen if our party controlled the Congress, the Senate, the city, and the state? But we will never have the working people run the city, the state, or the federal government if we continue to follow his policies, because his policy is for us to join their party.
I say break with them, Let the workers have an independent movement. I say: I’m a socialist. I vote socialist. I belong to a socialist party, And, therefore. I call myself a socialist.
I think Mr. Harrington, who’s a Democrat, who votes Democrat, supports the Democratic Party, should call himself what he is: a Democrat. And that means to defend capitalism. I know he doesn’t want to do that. I know that in his ideology he would like to see socialism. We will never get socialism by supporting capitalism. You will never win equal rights for women by supporting sexists. You will never win the end of racism by supporting racists— even if there are worse racists and worse sexists.
We mustn’t fall into the trap of the ballot box myth: You pull the curtain, no one can see what you’re doing, then you vote for one of them or you vote for another of them. Then they announce they won again, and you think you decided something.
That is a myth. The decisions are made by much broader social forces, and the key to it is that the workers’ movement must be independent. We must favor that the unions break from the Democratic and Republican parties and form their own party. That’s what Mr. Harrington won’t do. And I wish he would. I wish we could join together on that as we have on other things.
7. Eugene McCarthy was a left leaning democratic senator from Minnesota who in 1968 came out against the Vietnam war during a run for the democratic presidential nomination. Despite popular support, and the assasination of the front runner Robert Kennedy, McCarthy was swindled out of the nomination by the pro-war candidate Hubert Humphry at the 1968 DNC while the Chicago police rioted and beat anti-war protestors outside. Afterwards Humphry went on to lose to President Nixon in a landslide defeat and McCarthy made a number of unsuccessful runs for democratic nominee “from the left” in the 80s and 90s.
8. Ted Kennedy was a liberal Democratic senator from Massachusates who was first elected to the senate in 1964 and re-elected between then and 1980 including in 1970. He was the frontrunner in the 1980 democratic primaries but ultimately withdrew from the race during the convention.
Both of these texts are available alongside other historical debates in The Lesser Evil? Debates on the Democratic Party and Independent Working-Class Politics
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