Support the Fair-Dealers? Labor and the Democrats

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 12:43

Remember . . .? Back in 1948, Truman upset the pollsters by his unpredicted victory, after a whistle-stop campaign in which he hauled out all of the best phrases of the Fair Deal and polished them up. In a moment of glowing gratitude, he told the press next day, "Labor did it!"

In fact, labor had a great part in doing it. It was done against the propaganda of the one-party press, against the apathy of the Democratic machine itself, and in spite of the fact that Truman himself had done little or nothing as president to make labor happy.

He had brought back the most hated of anti-labor weapons, the injunction, and had used it to break three great strikes; he had, not long before, appealed to Congress for a law a good deal more vicious than the Taft-Hartley Law—a law to draft strikers into the army; his record of positive accomplishment was not impressive. Expecting his defeat anyway, important sections of the labor movement were getting ready to break away. Even William Green, semi-fossilized president of the AFL, was talking about a labor third party, not to speak of several CIO leaders.

But as candidate, Truman delivered the goods—with speeches. He inveighed against the "special interests" and heartless big business, even if it was not always clear what he proposed to do about it. This is sometimes called "social demagogy” but in capitalist politics it is considered very smart. He seemed to be telling labor that he was for labor's program; he seemed to be telling the small farmers that he was for their program; and they warmed up and flocked to vote for him, sweeping him back into the White House.

The Republicans were perfectly correct when, scandalized, they accused Truman of making a "class" appeal, stirring up "class antagonisms." He did, in that same "smart" fashion. It got him elected, even though the labor leaders who flocked to him insist on making speeches denouncing the idea of a labor party with a "narrow" class appeal.


"We did it!" crowed labor too, echoing Truman, not bothering to denounce itself for this obviously "class" analysis. In those briefly happy days, there was a temporary upsurge even of wild talk about "taking over" and "transforming" the Democratic Party into a reliable instrument of labor's interests.

One reason why this talk died down pretty rapidly was that, as soon as the Candidate became the President again, he went back to normal. You can't put butter on a speech about the "special interests."

Truman and the Democrats made no attempt to deliver on promises of civil-rights legislation. They made no meaningful attempt to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act. Truman went in for more strikebreaking, as the railroad workers found out.

His labor supporters were tarred with the festering corruption that boiled up out of his administration. Labor had to fight against Truman-appointed war-mobilization agencies infested with dollar-a-year big businessmen like the same C. E. Wilson who later told us "what's good for General Motors."

We got the Korean war. In foreign policy, we also got the U. S. turn back to friendship with the Franco fascist regime, and the change of line back in favor of Chiang Kai-shek.

We got the "subversive list," instituted by none other than Truman, and the government-initiated witchhunt which got started long before-McCarthy.

This was the Democratic Party back at the old stand, with a Fair Deal sign over it.


A second reason, no doubt, why the talk died down of "taking over the Democratic Party" is more basic: What does it mean to take over a party like the Democratic Party?

(Incidentally, most of all this applies to the Republican Party even more, but we are not discussing the Republican Party separately because there is no important tendency in labor's political movement to orient in that direction. All the real questions of labor's dependent politics concern the Democrats.)

These two old parties are not programmatic groupings, but power coalitions and federations of machines. The Democratic Party is a coalition of city political machines and bosses, Southern reaction, and labor and liberal pressure politics. When the chips are down, it follows the politics of the more enlightened Northern capitalists tempered by the vicious racism and Dixiegop conservatism of the Southern white-supremacists. In this Popular Front, there is a division of labor: The workers and farmers provide the votes, and the city machines and Southerners run the Democratic administrations, while the labor-liberals mutter angrily and sometimes even protest audibly.

Truman may have got back to the White House by pitching his "class appeal" in one direction; but once back in the White House he knew what class had to be followed in deeds.

Now then: suppose labor and its liberal allies "captured" this party in some sense—not merely in some small town where it could elect the aldermen, but where it counted, in the national seats of power. Suppose, for example, labor and its liberal allies made a real light at a Democratic national convention and sought to put over its own program, candidates, and party leaders....

Would the Southern reactionaries bow to majority rule and accept the new leadership and spirit that had "captured" their party? The very thought is ridiculous, of course. They would walk out. They even walked out on Harry Truman in 1948.

Or the city machine politicians—would they simply salute their new leaders, underwrite the new program, and go along no matter what? The thought is almost as ridiculous. Could all the capitalist politicians and wardheeling fakers who infest the party submit to a labor-"captured" Democratic Party simply out of a spirit of discipline? This spirit doesn't exist.

Or would the labor movement simply capture itself in "taking over" the Democratic Party? Would it not rather be, at the very possible best, the beginning of a general sweeping realignment in American politics that would produce precisely what the labor leaders say they want to avoid: a party of labor?

Even if we assume for the sake of argument that it is conceivable, if not likely, that labor should really set about reforming this power-coalition called the Democratic Party and give it a progressive program and some likelihood that the program will be carried out: is it reasonable to expect that it could beat the entrenched Democratic political machines on their own terrain, inside the party, and make the effort worthwhile?


So, as we wore saying, these were some of the considerations which put a quick end to the burgeoning idea of "taking over" the Democratic Party, but what is the alternative to that, if labor is to stay in political activity, as it must?

For the labor leaders, the alternative was—and still is—going back to the status of just another "pressure group" in the Democratic Party. Get behind the good things and good men; complain about the bad things and bad men—try to move the party over to the "left" as a whole....

There are a number of difficulties about this pressure-group role, even though organized labor is so big, so powerful and so influential that it is the most feared or courted single presure group in politics.

The first difficulty is inherent in the fact that labor is not inherently a pressure-group at all, even though it tries to act like one. It is a separate class.

What we mean concretely is this: If the natural-gas lobby can pressure both the Democratic and Republican Parties into jumping through the hoop, that is natural; because the interests of the oil and gas men, while only one sector of the total business interests, fit into the capitalist-party program; and as long as their special demands do not hurt all of business too much, they can get their way. True, it is another robbery of the public, but that is what bourgeois politics is for.

But if the labor movement tries to "pressure" the major parties into (say) repealing the Taft-Hartley Law, it finds itself up against the solidarity of all business interests, who are entrenched in the old parties.

Labor's distinctive program, even where exceedingly modest, tends to raise society-wide issues and tests, by its very nature—issues and tests which are not resolvable by pressure-group means.


That is a fundamental difficulty. There is another difficulty in labor's pressure-group politics which is more immediate—and which has wrought havoc with labor's effectiveness on the political field.

A pressure-group in this political tug-of-war can hope to exert its pressure only in one way: by promising support or withholding support—votes or campaign contributions, or anything.

Every social, economic and political pressure group in the country can operate this way. The neo-Klansmen in the South can threaten to bolt to the Republicans. The farmers can mutter about voting Democrat instead of for Eisenhower. The NAACP leaders can hint cautiously about voting GOP. Even the natural-gas men can grumble over Eisenhower's veto with the implied threat of punishing him with votes or, more likely, campaign contributions. So it goes.

But labor cannot operate this way.

Labor's political movement cannot shuttle its votes back and forth between the two old parties, or successfully threaten to do so. If Adlai Stevenson refuses to make even a verbal obeisance in favor of the Negroes' epochal fight in the South, can Reuther and Meany "get even" by announcing support of Eisenhower and Nixon? If labor is dissatisfied with what it gets from the Democrats, outside of talk, where is it to go?

In the last analysis, this too is the outcome of the fact that labor is not merely a pressure group, not merely
even a very big pressure group. It has a program, even when its leaders do not formulate one or are incapable of formulating one. Its program, branded on its forehead and unconcealable, is: labor's needs and interests.

Its lenders can ignore this program, as they most often do successfully; its leaders can reduce this program to empty words, as they do very skillfully; its leaders can betray this program, as they do in good time too. But the program is there because it is spelled out in the course of the daily struggle in the shops and factories over the conflicting interests of two different classes.

Because the program is there, the labor leaders are prevented even from maneuvering with the more reactionary of the two parties and are inevitably oriented toward that party whose brand of social demagogy appeals in its direction.


Now, everybody knows this is so. Hence the difficulty.

As long as labor has nowhere else to go, what is the pressure upon the Democratic machine to heed its complaints, protests, proposals or lamentations?

True, on a local scale in some areas, labor politics has flirted with "liberal" Republicans, as in New York City, but not where the main issues are decided.

True, the labor leaders can try to threaten, not that they will break with the Democrats and go to the Republicans, but that their rank and file will—unless such-and-such measures are carried out. Or they can threaten, usually with more justice, that unless the Democrats concede a few more crumbs, the worker-voters will just sit it out despite doorbell-ringing. A small component of labor's enormous pressure-power is thus brought into play. Even this small component has power. But how little compared to what is possible, as can be seen from the present political impotence of labor's political arms in an important election year.

In 1948 there was an enormous pressure on Truman, besides his fear of defeat. This was the Stalinist-led Wallace candidacy of the Progressive Party, which momentarily threatened to attract away part of the working-class support indispensable to Truman's election. This was an important reason for Truman's leftish talk in the campaign.

In 1952, and again in 1956, the fear of a Southern bolt is either the reason or the pretext for the pussy- footing on the Jim Crow question even by Northern Democratic liberals, like Stevenson.

But they are not afraid that labor will bolt.

No, labor is in their pocket. Safe. Don't have to worry about it much. It's the other side they have to worry about, the reactionaries, the current "moderates."

So labor's tremendous political strength is expended like a free-spinning wheel stuck up in empty air, going nowhere.


Sooner or later labor will have to break with this Democratic Party and do what every other working class in the world has had to do: form its own party. But there are different roads through which this can happen.

Meanwhile the great majority of the trade-unionists do not see or agree with this necessity. The most politically conscious among them believe in working within and supporting the Democratic Party. In spite of the lessons of experience, the leap over to a new .party is still too great, at least for this period of war-economy prosperity.

But for us, who are for a labor party, this does-not mean an end to our dialogue with such workers. We have a very important thing to tell them:

You, for whatever reason, are against forming a labor party now. You want to support Democrats against Republicans, and good Democrats against bad Democrats. You want to do this not because you are a careerist or are looking for a wardheelers' job, but because you think labor's interests demand that you support the lesser evil against the greater evil.

Very well, then, you will work within the Democratic Party, but—Work!

You're for a forthright civil-rights program by the Democrats? Then fight for it. Don't just advocate it: fight for it, for that is the only way it will be won.

Demand that your leaders at the Democratic Party conventions—and there will be a platoon of labor leaders there as delegates—fight all the way down to the floor on behalf of a few propositions of elementary democracy: clear endorsement of the desegregation decision of the Supreme Court; strong provision for its implementation; repudiation by name of all those who are fighting to keep the Negroes under, like the signers of the Southern Congressional Manifesto.

Insist that the Democratic platform firmly call for the repeal of Taft-Hartley. Call for abolition of the congressional seniority system whereby the Southern, bloc automatically controls a Democratic Party-controlled Congress.

Implement Reuther's threat that "You cannot have Mr. Eastland and have us at the same time."

Labor's political machine can work in the Democratic Party by capitulating to its machine, or it can work to really achieve those good things which it claims it can convince the Democrats to accept.

So far, it has mainly tagged along as a fifth wheel of the party, not as a dynamic left wing of it.

You, who want to work in the Democratic Party: fight at least for what YOU believe in, since you disagree with our Labor Party views; and if you fight for it in the Democratic Party we will see whether you are right, and can really get what you want; or whether your fight will merely open up a different and broader road leading to genuine independent labor politics, a labor party, by breaking with this party.

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