No Easy Solutions

A reply to Seth Ackerman

Illustration by Harry Haysom.

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Seth Ackerman is to be commended for seriously engaging with the problem of how to build a sustainable and effective working-class politics in the post-Bernie moment. Unlike many commentators who portray this phenomenon in ahistorical terms, as if it sprang up from the minds of the faithful, Ackerman roots his analysis in a historical understanding of American politics and, concretely, in the failed attempt to launch a union-backed labor party in the late 1990s.

As we assess the capacity for independent working-class politics in the post election period, Ackerman’s suggestions about how to build a party of the working class outside of the highly regulated formal party structures of US election and campaign financing laws may prove valuable.

The Sanders campaign has shaken up politics in potentially significant ways. Here was an open socialist running on a social-democratic program who received nearly 13 million votes and challenged the connection between big money and viable political candidates. Unlike contemporary European strains of social democracy, Sanders placed class struggle at the center of his appeal, denouncing Wall Street greed and an economic elite whose control of the political process is the most proximate cause of massive and growing inequality.

The campaign also exposed the fault lines within labor and related social movements, between transactional and transformational politics. In the United States in particular, with its winner-take-all two-party system, the stakes are very high when unions put at risk important political relationships that may be needed when attending to the day-to-day needs of their members. These mundane politics of negotiation and compromise are a necessary part of the activities of any organization that represents and is accountable to an actual constituency with real needs.

The problem arises when unions embrace this transactional practice as the only possible activity, indeed, as the central mission of the organization, to the exclusion of transformational politics linked to an understanding of the class contradictions at the core of their relationship to capital and its political class. Thus, this year we had the spectacle of the two largest education unions supporting the candidate who favored privatization and charter schools, and the union most identified with the Fight for $15 campaign supporting the candidate who opposed a $15 per hour living wage.

Nonetheless, six national and dozens of regional and local unions endorsed Sanders and over forty thousand unionists signed a pledge to support the candidate, often against the wishes of their national leadership. A much larger group of unions, as well as the national AFL-CIO, remained neutral throughout the campaign despite massive pressure from the Clinton organization with the implied threat that failure to jump on the bandwagon would threaten their immediate transactional interests. This neutrality, in turn, opened a space for local leaders and activists to begin to organize grassroots support efforts that began to define a new working-class politics.

The Sanders campaign struck a chord with millions of Americans who are still suffering under the effects of the 2008 economic crisis.They see that growing inequality and lack of basic security is abetted by a bipartisan political regime that serves the interests of a global financial elite (the revanchist anger exploited by the Trump campaign also arises from many of the same causes but with vastly different perspectives and proposals). To some degree it also reflects the growth of new social movements that have helped to change, at least temporarily, the terms of debate about the definition of a living wage, the right to higher education, the policies of extreme policing and mass incarceration, and the need to expand social security and other social insurance programs.

However, it is important not to get ahead of ourselves. As Ackerman points out, running as an insurgent Democrat is very different from building a political party that is connected to a mass movement powerful and organized enough to implement substantial pro-worker policies in the face of the united opposition of capital. The American system of campaign financing and lack of candidate accountability to formal party structures makes the Democrats particularly unsuitable to advancing these interests.

Beginning with Ted Kennedy in 1980, there has been a long history of insurgencies objecting, to some degree or another, to the rise and consolidation of neoliberalism within the Democratic Party. All of them failed to change the fundamental control that capital has had over the policies and practices of the Democratic Party. The party remains the left wing of neoliberalism: promoting diversity while doing next to nothing of substance to address inequality. A new politics must start from the understanding that the Democrats are ultimately unreformable and that a party of our own remains the great unresolved challenge of the US working class.

But proclaiming this reality does not make it so. Working-class parties are not built by constructing a shopping list of progressive proposals or assembling a letterhead of prestigious left leaders and organizations. They are built by engaging in the nitty gritty of building a constituency and giving voice to their needs and concerns. The long history of the Green Party’s dilettantish dabbling in national electoral campaigns shows that the results of their approach are essentially zero. Indeed, leaders of organizations representing real constituencies with pressing demands are correct to view such politics as self-indulgent and counterproductive.

Ackerman situates the challenge of party building in the unique history and structure of US political parties. He is right that, in a rigid two-party winner-take-all system that is structured to be self-perpetuating, the spoiler problem is fundamental. His analysis of the “uniquely repressive” ballot system help explains why.

But the problem is deeper, and in a way simpler, than just these technical issues. Multi-class parties are by their nature controlled and subservient to the dominant class. Scholars and pundits have produced a voluminous literature that explains in more or less technical, more or less cultural and mystical ways how the American political system is exceptional, how there are distinctive features of American institutions and/or values that have preempted the development of ideological or openly working-class based parties. While Ackerman discusses technical features that significantly increase the degree of difficulty, the cultural/mystical ones have their origins principally in the postwar anti-left ideological campaign. A much simpler explanation of that failure is that, where European capitalist classes came out of the war weakened and discredited by their association with fascism, US capitalists emerged strong, with a largely rehabilitated reputation.

Politically, the pendulum had swung our way by the end of the war. In the context of Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights proposal and debates over whether the Office of Price Administration and other planning agencies should continue after the war, a Roper opinion poll only weeks before the 1944 presidential election found that 68 percent of respondents indicated that they would not support any political system, no matter what it was called, that did not guarantee a right to a job for everyone willing and able to work.

By 1946, progressive labor leaders like A. Phillip Randolph and Walter Reuther had begun to consider that the Democratic Party was not a proper home for working people’s interests and aspirations. Randolph, John Dewey, and several others, constituting themselves as a National Education Committee for a New Party, put out a call for discussion of “Ideas for a New Party: Provisional Declaration of Principles.” They put up $25,000 — more than $300,000 today — to explore possibilities. The effort received serious discussion among progressive intellectuals and activists, but it didn’t get off the ground, no doubt for the same reasons that had impelled it in the first place: the business offensive had hit its stride in 1946, and thereafter the labor-left was on the defensive.

We point to that moment to illustrate, first, that at a time when the labor-left had made its greatest advances in American political history, key leaders recognized the Democratic Party’s inadequacy as a vehicle for continuing to pursue working-class agendas. Second, the effort was undone not by idiosyncrasies of American governmental forms but by capitalist class power.

More recently, the Working Families Party’s attempt to address the institutional problems that raise the degree of difficulty for new electoral parties has been interesting and informative. While it is a legitimate effort to promote working-class politics, from the start the WFP has conceded the permanence of the two parties of capital and has attempted to accommodate itself to that permanence by finding the leverages and small cracks in the system to win tactical improvements for workers while conceding strategic control to capital. (The jury is out on whether the new constituencies called together by the WFP’s enthusiastic participation in the Sanders campaign will result in any significant change in the practice of the WFP.)

Ackerman is correct in stating that the assumption that a Labor Party must ultimately have an independent party ballot line was in tension with the immediate transactional concerns of its member unions. That tension certainly caused significant cognitive dissonance in the internal life of the young party. However, the fundamental cause of the Labor Party’s decline was the labor movement’s strategic defeat at the turn of the century and the subsequent diminishment of the field of action.

Our strategy depended on broadening and deepening support within the trade union sector, as a source of both institutional resources and activists who could take the program and party out through their union bodies, workplaces, communities, families, and personal networks. In the absence of that growing, dynamic base of labor support, there was little space for expansion on a left-of-center political landscape largely characterized by an activistist and sectarian left with few organic roots among actual constituencies and that had accommodated to defeat by withdrawal into a pageantry of protest, insular debates, and wish-fulfillment.

Indeed, our prohibition of fusion candidacies stemmed primarily from a political concern — to distance ourselves from a common tendency to propound alliances or coalitions promiscuously with any and all nominally “progressive” initiatives that came along, without regard to their class character, substantive programs, or what actual forces and constituencies they represent. It is important to keep these lessons in mind as we assess the prospects for independent working-class politics today.

We agree that the essential next step for the Bernie movement is to explore how to begin the construction of the kind of “externally organized political movement” that Ackerman calls for. Adopting his suggestions may have an additional advantage beyond facilitating ballot access: a party constructed around the principles of free association (and thus outside the strictures of election laws), would be much more capable of holding its candidates and officials accountable to a real constituency and program, a central problem in US politics as well as in many existing left formations around the world.

Central to that project is a revitalized institutional labor movement. Such a revitalized movement would, by definition, reject neoliberal orthodoxies, be immersed in a culture of organization and be engaged with a working class constituency that moves beyond narrow interests to a class perspective.

Some say that the institutional labor movement is no longer capable of rising to the challenge and becoming a vehicle for a working-class politics. Many of these criticisms can be dismissed as the rantings of identitarian and anarchist elements. However, more serious critics like former CWA president Larry Cohen have also weighed in with concerns that, “Too often, a particular union’s political stance may reflect a private employer’s growth plans, not the general good for working people” and that we should, “. . . not necessarily focus on [labor] unity about political strategy.”

These criticisms are significant. But they don’t change the fact that, without the resources, constituency, and organizing capacity of a labor movement at the core of any effort to build truly independent working-class politics, we are doomed to the status quo: marginalization or “second best” efforts like the WFP.

These political challenges must be met. Once that happens, Ackerman’s tools, suggestions, and insights may prove highly valuable in developing the techniques to breath life into a “party of our own.”