Labor Advocate Online
An open letter to Margaret Kimberley
Where A November 3rd
Movement Needs To Move
by Bill Onasch
This article is a response to The November 3rd Movement by Margaret Kimberley of the Black Commentator.
I always look forward to your Freedom Rider column in the Black Commentator. I admire your skill in analyzing current events and placing them in a broader context. Usually this is connected to calls for action.
All along you have resisted the pressure to pull punches in deference to the Anybody But Bush frenzy that has disoriented so many. Your column on the November 3rd Movement is an excellent summary of the bankruptcy of the Kerry campaign and a call for organizing no matter who is declared the next President.
However, you fail, in my opinion, to draw the logical conclusion of the needed direction for such a movement. After pledging that "we won’t get fooled again," you predict the "remaking of the Democratic party will have begun and the change will be for the better." With all due respect, it sounds to me you are in fact setting yourself up to be "fooled again."
We can’t afford to forget that the problems with the Democrats didn’t just begin with Slick Willie and the DLC. The Democrats, more an electoral machine than program based party, are old hands at "remaking” themselves.
They started out as a partnership of slave holders and merchant capitalists. That, of course, got shaken up by a Civil War. But they quickly remade themselves by putting together a power base including big city machines controlling ethnic bloc votes, along with southern whites unhappy with Reconstruction.
Al Gore was not the first Democrat to be cheated out of the presidency. The Republicans stuck it to Sam Tilden in 1876. But, unlike Gore, Tilden extracted a big price for not pursuing a constitutional crisis.
The Democrats got an end to Reconstruction, the opening needed to pursue domination of the South. It would be Democrats, through both legislation and physical intimidation, that would crush a multi-racial populist movement, disenfranchise Blacks and go on to establish Jim Crow. They also worked hand-in-hand with southern bosses to keep Dixie union free.
Until the 1930s most Blacks who could vote voted Republican–the party of Lincoln. During the same period the Socialist Party had wide spread support among industrial workers and, to a certain extent, even among the leadership of many unions. In Minnesota a Farmer-Labor Party emerged to become the dominant state party, relegating the Democrats to a minor third party status.
What is today assumed to be the "core constituencies" of the Democrats was only assembled during the depression years New Deal period of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Democrats once again remade themselves in response to great social movements that shook the system to its very foundations.
In 1934 the unemployed joined with striking unionists in semi-insurrectionary battles in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. They won. Soon after, workers in nearly every industry began to challenge the most sacred of all rights–the right of private property–by occupying their workplaces, denying the bosses access until a fair agreement was won. The Communist Party, and other left organizations, grew by leaps and bounds–including big inroads into Black communities. Bosses, bankers, and white supremacists became very nervous.
Today’s Establishment owes a great debt of gratitude to FDR for steering their ship of state through such rough waters. Incredibly, Roosevelt was able to assemble a new coalition of labor, Blacks, Dixiecrats, and, at times, the Communist Party. He diverted struggles from the workplace and streets into orderly government regulation–and electoral politics.
At the end of the day, the New Deal produced only two lasting social reforms of any significance–Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Both are under serious bipartisan attack today.
I matured during a second less sweeping, but still significant period of radicalization during the Sixties and Seventies. First came the civil rights movement, actually launched during the Fifties but really taking off during the following decade. Then came the mighty anti-Vietnam war movement, the resurrection of feminism, and the birth of a new environmental movement.
It was an era marked by mass demonstrations, brave civil disobedience, and occasional "riots." In response, LBJ remade himself from a Dixiecrat into a champion of civil rights. The resulting civil rights legislation did open up new opportunities for Blacks, especially in the South. Trying to imitate Roosevelt, Johnson offered a Great Society–which launched Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and enhanced welfare.
But LBJ, who had landslided Goldwater by posing as a peace candidate, remained inflexible on the war and that did him, and his party, in.
During these more radical times there was massive disaffection from the two party system and various experiments with alternatives.
Among radical Black nationalists there was of course the Black Panther Party, whose prominent leaders became victims of police killings and jailings orchestrated by the infamous COINTELPRO. Other examples included the Michigan Freedom Now Party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama, and, toward the end of the radicalization, the National Black Independent Political Party.
The La Raza Unita Party attracted some Chicano support, particularly in Texas and Colorado.
Disillusioned peace activists established the Peace & Freedom Party, promoting such candidates as Dr Benjamin Spock and Dick Gregory. A hollow shell survives as a ballot line in California to this day, hotly fought over by small radical groups.
And there were a fair number who renounced both electoral and protest politics in favor–at least metaphorically–of picking up the gun.
But the Democrats showed a remarkable resilience in the face of such fragmented challenges. They lured most of the antiwar folks back to support a self-styled "peace" candidate, George McGovern, who bravely took one for the team. BEO became a fresh addition to the alphabet soup of American politics as Blacks, including some former radicals, were elevated to positions such as mayor–where they could accept the blame for the crisis of major cities. Most feminists bought the line that it was essential to have Democrats controlling Supreme Court appointments in order to defend Roe.
And through all of these times the main stream leaders of organized labor rarely wavered in their loyalty to the Democrats–with the partial exception of a few who backed Reagan in his first election.
So it’s no wonder that the DLC was formed on the expectation that the "core constituencies" were permanent prisoners of the Democrats and that they could go as far to the right as they pleased to try to garner undecideds and soft Republicans. The Nader vote in Florida reinforced their steel edged warning not to dare deviate from the Mother Party.
This lose-lose political reality has emboldened the ruling class as a whole to become more aggressively reactionary on all fronts–war, wages, civil liberties, public services, environmental destruction, you name it. There’s no body to call them to order.
To be sure, we have to be ready to hit the streets with mass protests regardless of the election winner. Sometimes our demonstrations can make a difference around a particular crisis issue.
But we need to do more. Protests are by definition defensive in nature, against something our rulers are trying to do to us. In addition to this negative response we sorely need a comprehensive political opposition that can offer a realistic program of positive alternatives.
Remaking the Democrats still once more is not going to cut it. It’s not, and never has been, our party. It is their party–the ones who profit from war, exploitation, racism, and sexism. As long as we let them dictate not only the terms of debate but also our permitted organizations of struggle then we will indeed get fooled again.
We need a genuine working class political party. As Adolph Reed Jr has described it, "The working class is us, all of us, people who work for a living and/or who are expected to work for a living. It includes as well all those being driven to the edge of the labor market, the unemployed and the under-employed and those on welfare."
Like Reed, I am committed to building the fledgling Labor Party. The Labor Party’s foundation rests on affiliated organizations. These include both traditional trade unions, such as the United Mine Workers, and American Federation of Government Employees, for example, and groups such as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia. There are also community chapters open to all.
The Labor Party today is issue driven. We have a well rounded program. We are now focused on three issue campaigns around Just Health Care, Worker Rights, and Free Higher Education. Like everyone else, we will be conducting a lively post-election discussion to figure out our coming priorities under the next President.
At this stage, the Labor Party is not running or endorsing candidates for office. Our electoral policy views elections as just one aspect of working class politics, important only if it is combined with action at work and in the streets as well. As we develop a mass membership base, and win over additional organizations as affiliates, we will also contest the Establishment parties for power at the ballot box.
Admittedly we are a long way from being ready for a contest for power. But, I am convinced this is the direction we must head. Any movement victories will be temporary and tentative until we have a party of our own.
In closing, let me again congratulate you on your columns. I hope to see many more.
kclabor.org webmaster Bill Onasch represents Midwest chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council. The views expressed above are his own, not an official party statement.