I have seen too many self-described progressives and even leftists become soft on the Democratic Party in recent months, with the rise of Donald Trump, a paper tiger if there ever was one.
Meanwhile, with the vapid paranoia spreading, almost the entire ruling class has thrown its weight behind the hyper-hawkish multi-millionaire neoliberal Hillary Clinton — namely Wall Street, the vast majority of the corporate media, right-wing leaders, and all the big-name neocons.
At moments like these, it is more important than ever to stress the following:
The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. It will never allow systemic left-wing change. It never has, and never will.
The only thing that has ever moved the US government to the left have been independent leftist movements that work outside the Democratic Party. Democrats only later try to claim credit for their hard-earned victories.
In fact, it is significantly more likely that the Democratic Party and its war-mongering, neoliberal “lesser evilism” will pave the path straight to a fascist victory on the right. Trump is just the beginning. The Frankenstein’s monsters created by a Clinton presidency will be even worse.
The most hopeful thing I saw at the DNC this year was the prominence of calls for a “Demexit” — an exit from the Democratic Party. It was quite popular among Sanders supporters.
This is an incredibly significant development. And it is the first step in the struggle for an actual revolution. The only way forward is leaving the Democratic graveyard, where the corpses of revolutionaries lie.
Leftists have been saying this for decades, but it is important to emphasize this to the millions of people who have been politicized for the first time by the Sanders campaign. It is important not to lose patience, not to write them off as “bourgeois reformists” and “naive liberals.”
I spoke with dozens of Sanders delegates at the DNC, many of whom are young and new to politics, who expressed deep disdain and even hatred for the Democratic Party, but did not know what to do next.
The left must step up and provide answers. The left should not be dismissive and condescending. The left should be welcoming and forgiving, but also firm and uncompromising on a few basic points.
High on the list of these basic points these should be opposition to the Democratic Party. This is the starting place — a call for building new parties, movements, and organizations that are not subject to the tyranny of capital under which both factions of the Business Party happily operate.
The Socialist Convergence, a meeting of leftist parties and organizations during the DNC, tried to lay the bricks for future action, but more work — much, much more work — is left to be done.
Grounding this work in history is imperative. After all, we must remember, the explicit goal of the “Progressive Era” in the early 20th-century US was to prevent a socialist revolution, not to bring one about.
In A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn cites an early 20th-century Progressive newspaper that made this clear: Conservatives “fight socialism blindly… while the Progressives fight it intelligently.”
Many businessmen did not want even the puny reforms proposed by the Civic Federation-but the Federation’s approach represented the sophistication and authority of the modern state, determined to do what was best for the capitalist class as a whole, even if this irritated some capitalists. The new approach was concerned with the long-range stability of the system, even at the cost, sometimes, of short-term profits.
Thus, the Federation drew up a model workmen’s compensation bill in 1910, and the following year twelve states passed laws for compensation or accident insurance. When the Supreme Court said that year that New York’s workmen’s compensation law was unconstitutional because it deprived corporations of property without due process of law, Theodore Roosevelt was angry. Such decisions, he said, added “immensely to the strength of the Socialist Party.” By 1920, forty-two states had workmen’s compensation laws. As Weinstein says: “It represented a growing maturity and sophistication on the part of many large corporation leaders who had come to understand, as Theodore Roosevelt often told them, that social reform was truly conservative.”
As for the Federal Trade Commission, established by Congress in 1914 presumably to regulate trusts, a leader of the Civic Federation reported after several years of experience with it that it “has apparently been carrying on its work with the purpose of securing the confidence of well-intentioned business men, members of the great corporations as well as others.”
In this period, cities also put through reforms, many of them giving power to city councils instead of mayors, or hiring city managers. The idea was more efficiency, more stability. “The end result of the movements was to place city government firmly in the hands of the business class,” Weinstein says. What reformers saw as more democracy in city government, urban historian Samuel Hays sees as the centralization of power in fewer hands, giving business and professional men more direct control over city government.
The Progressive movement, whether led by honest reformers like Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin or disguised conservatives like Roosevelt (who was the Progressive party candidate for President in 1912), seemed to understand it was fending off socialism. The Milwaukee Journal, a Progressive organ, said the conservatives “fight socialism blindly… while the Progressives fight it intelligently and seek to remedy the abuses and conditions upon which it thrives.”
Let us not repeat past mistakes.