Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 14, 2016

Did the Democratic Party ever really represent the working class? (part one)

Filed under: two-party system,workers — louisproyect @ 11:22 pm

Not long after Trump’s election, a number of liberal commentators wrote essentially the same article that called for the Democrats to return to their blue-collar roots. Michael Moore, who is haunted by the memory of the good old days in Flint when workers had well-paying jobs, got a jump on fellow liberals by predicting a Trump victory made possible by the defection of “Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room.”

Also ahead of the curve was Thomas Frank who wrote on March 7th: “The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured, had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer.”

Catching up with Moore and Frank, Robert Reich wrote on November 13th: “The Democratic Party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades the party stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class – failing to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violate them, or help workers form unions with simple up-or-down votes.”

One might ask Reich when exactly did the Democratic Party represent the working class. For most on the left, that would mean FDR’s New Deal and perhaps LBJ’s Great Society that was seen as building on the New Deal.

Essentially, Moore, Frank and Reich urge the Democrats to go back to its roots if it wants to win elections in the future. Bernie Sanders embodies these hopes with many rebuking the party leadership for torpedoing his candidacy. They insist that Sanders would have cleaned Trump’s clock or words to that effect.

This begs the question of how painful losing an election was to someone like Hillary Clinton who along with her husband is worth $110 million. The last Democrat before her to lose an election to a rightwing monster was John Kerry–the richest Democrat ever to run for president and worth twice as much as the Clintons. Despite losing the election, he remained a powerful player in Washington politics. By the time you become the Democratic Party candidate for president, economic insecurity would have ceased to be a problem long ago. That was why so many people laughed at Hillary Clinton’s claim that she and her husband were “dead broke” when he left the White House.

I would argue that when you have fortunes in the hundreds of millions of dollars like these people, it tends to determine your ideology. If capitalism worked so well for them, why can’t it work so well for everybody else? If that is true for the candidates, it is a thousand times true for major donors like George Soros who has convened a powwow of rich bastards like himself to consider changes to the Democratic Party that will help it become a winner once again. I always get a laugh out of Soros’s duplicity. He has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Working America, the vote corralling organization launched by the AFL-CIO, at the same time his currency manipulation has ruined entire nations. This is not to speak of his warnings about climate change that don’t seem to preclude investing in coal and fracking.

As a Marxist, I have often been described as unrealistic but is there anything more unrealistic than expecting the Democratic Party to be taken over by Bernie Sanders and those CP’ers and DSA’ers who are carrying out deep entry tactics in the party? I often wonder if these comrades have really thought much about the Democratic Party’s history.

While having such knowledge probably wouldn’t make much difference to those who see voting for Democrats as a tactical question, I thought it might be useful to write about the Democratic Party using the tools of historical materialism and to hone in on the question of its relationship to working people. Although I mostly regret the time I spent in the Trotskyist movement, I did benefit from the Marxist education I received there and particularly the analysis of American history from George Novack, who despite his leaden prose and a certain amount of reductionism bordering on vulgar Marxism, was most astute at debunking the hagiography around FDR.

I am not sure how many posts I will be writing about the DP and the working class, but these three will surely be included:

  1. From Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson: I will be starting with this today. Although some might question what bearing Jackson has on today’s DP, I will argue that many on the left still labor under the illusion that he was the working man’s best friend.
  2. FDR: Obviously the icon of the liberal left and the president people like Moore and Reich consider the model for pro-working class governance.
  3. Post-FDR: a look at JFK, the first “New Democrat” and those that followed in his footsteps.

Andrew Jackson

If FDR is Michael Moore’s poster child for the Democratic Party,, at least one left historian hearkens back to the very first Democrat who called the White House his home. In 2005 Wilentz wrote a biography that was meant to refurbish Jackson’s reputation in more or less the same manner that Ron Chernow tried to do with his Alexander Hamilton biography, a friend of the rich who for some ungodly reason is now being celebrated on Broadway as proof that immigrants can make it in the USA.

For Wilentz, this meant repeating arguments made originally on Jackson’s behalf by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who regarded the architect of Cherokee removal and defender of slavery as pro-labor. While it is true that the Democrats were more partial to the early labor movement’s opposition to the eleven-hour workday and the expansion of voting rights, Jackson’s party was hardly one to serve as model for progressive change.

In 1946, Harry Braverman wrote an article (as Harry Frankel) for the Trotskyist press titled “The Jackson Period in American History” that put the pro-labor orientation of Andrew Jackson into context.

The original home of this political art was in the Northern wing of the planters’ Democratic Party – an auxiliary in enemy territory. It fought the bourgeoisie through sections of the urban petty-bourgeois and proletarian masses, who were mobilized by means of democratic and even anti-capitalist slogans. The planting class, resting on unorganized, unrepresented, almost unmentioned slave labor, could afford to countenance reforms which struck against the Northern bourgeoisie. The ten-hour day for workers, extension of the vote to the proletariat, attacks upon the factory system and other such agitations, typical of the Jackson period, represented no direct economic threat to the planters. During the Jackson period the planters put on their best democratic garb … in the North. But during that very same time, barbarous slave legislation multiplied on the statute books in the South. The concessions in the North were part of the slaveholder system of maintaining national power. John Randolph, the erratic phrasemaker of the planter bloc in Congress, gave clear expression to this strategy. “Northern gentlemen,” he taunted, “think to govern us by our black slaves, but let me tell them, we intend to govern them by their white slaves!”

As the needs of the “planting class” grew stronger, the Democratic Party became the political instrument of slavery and utterly indifferent to the needs of Northern workers who had by the 1850s become partial to the abolitionist cause. Despite the earlier plutocratic tendencies of the Whigs, it was a faction of the party led by Abraham Lincoln that launched the Republican Party whose record on labor struggles was mixed at best according to Mark Lause. Andrew Johnson was a perfect example of the Democratic Party of that time. Despite being Lincoln’s vice president, he was ready to retreat on Reconstruction while Lincoln’s corpse was still warm.

Grover Cleveland

Like Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland was a forerunner of the shitty centrist politics that is responsible for Republican Party victories today. As is the case today, this was a candidate who defiantly defended the class interests of the big bourgeoisie.

A two-term president from 1885 through 1897, Cleveland was a labor-hating shithook. He was aligned with the so-called Bourbon Democrats who were the Democratic Leadership Council of their day. These were politicians firmly wedded to free market economics of the sort that we call neoliberalism today except back them there was nothing “neo” about them back then. Like Thomas Friedman or Paul Krugman, the Bourbons were opposed to Trump-style protectionism. Despite the 130 years that separate us, it seems that the same issues keep cropping up.

In 1894 Cleveland intervened in the Pullman workers strike that for the time was as pivotal a confrontation as Reagan’s with the airline controllers. The workers were organized in the American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs. When George Pullman refused to recognize the union, Debs called for a boycott of Pullman cars that was very effective, costing the company $80 million. This led to Cleveland ordering the army to break the strike and then charging Debs with violating the injunction against the strikers. Debs served a six-month prison term for defying the government. At the time of his arrest, Debs was not a socialist but during his time in prison, he read the works of Karl Marx. After his release in 1895, he became America’s best-known socialist and as such ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket. Any resemblance between him and Rich Trumka is purely coincidental.

Upon being sentenced, Debs issued a proclamation to the ARU that should remind you of what labor radicalism once sounded like. The fact that Bernie Sanders can keep a picture of Eugene V. Debs on his wall is enough to make you sick to your stomach. From the proclamation:

I need not remind you, comrades of the American Railway Union, that our order in the pursuit of the right was confronted with a storm of opposition such as never beat upon a labor organization in all time. Its brilliant victory on the Great Northern and its gallant championship of the unorganized employees of the Union Pacific had aroused the opposition of every railroad corporation in the land.

To crush the American Railway Union was the one tie that united them all in the bonds of vengeance; it solidified the enemies of labor into one great association, one organization which, by its fabulous wealth, enabled it to bring into action resources aggregating billions of money and every appliance that money could purchase. But in this supreme hour the American Railway Union, undaunted, put forth its efforts to rescue Pullman’s famine-cursed wage slaves from the grasp of an employer as heartless as a stone, as remorseless as a savage and as unpitying as an incarnate fiend. The battle fought in the interest of starving men, women and children stands forth in the history of Labor’s struggles as the great “Pullman Strike.’ It was a battle on the part of the American Railway Union fought for a cause as holy as ever aroused the courage of brave men; it was a battle in which upon one side were men thrice armed because their cause was just, but they fought against the combined power of corporations which by the use of money could debauch justice, and, by playing the part of incendiary, bring to their aid the military power of the government, and this solidified mass of venality, venom and vengeance constituted the foe against which the American Railway Union fought Labor’s greatest battle for humanity.

Woodrow Wilson

Like Cleveland, Wilson was a two-term president from 1913-1921. Best known as a “progressive” and an internationalist (ie. imperialist), Wilson’s relationship to the working class is a bit of a blur to most people, including me before writing this article. Under the influence of the Progressive movement, Wilson did support a much more enlightened policy than Cleveland. In 1912 the Democrat Party’s draft campaign program called for all federal employees to be provided a minimum wage, an eight-hour day and six-day workweek, and health and safety measures. It also called for the prohibition of child labor, safeguards for female workers and a retirement program.

The Rich Trumka of his day, AFL president Samuel Gompers (there was no CIO yet), developed close ties to the White House. Like LBJ, Wilson campaigned as someone who would keep the USA out of war. But when Wilson betrayed the voters by entering WWI, Gompers agreed to serve on the Labor Advisory Board and supported a no-strike pledge just as the Communist Party did during WWII. Despite inflation eating away at workers’ wages, the AFL stayed true to the Democratic Party.

This was not the case for the IWW, the SP or the Communists who were hounded by the FBI for practicing sedition. Not relying exclusively on Gompers’s class collaborationism, Wilson established a Committee on Public Information (CPI) that promoted WWI to the American public through newspapers, radio, movies and other forms of communication. It recruited 75,000 “Four Minute Men” who volunteered to speak at social gatherings on behalf of the inter-imperialist rivalry that cost millions of lives.

Perhaps you have heard of Edward Bernays, who directed the CPI’s Latin American bureau. Bernays is widely regarded as the founder of modern public relations. In 1928 Bernays wrote a book titled “Propaganda” that has probably been studied by the likes of both Republican and Democratic campaign managers, State Department officials and other paid lackeys of the ruling class for the better part of 90 years. Bernays wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

In my next post, I will have a whack at FDR.



  1. Louis, you are mistaken when you talk about Andrew Jackson, the 7th President (served in office 1829-37). You are meaning to talk about Andrew Johnson, who was Lincoln’s vice President (1865-1869), but you confuse Johnson with Jackson when you mention the Trail of Tears. You should review your history, before you embarrass yourself. This is in spite of the fact that I generally agree with your points here, and I am interested in seeing you make your case in a more historically correct fashion.

    Comment by David Westman — November 15, 2016 @ 12:49 am

  2. Don’t you recognize a typo when you see one, asshole?

    Comment by louisproyect — November 15, 2016 @ 12:51 am

  3. There is no need to get insulting at a friendly correction. And this is far more than a typo – the picture you use is Jackson’s, not Johnson’s, so you are clearly confused, and calling me names will hust make bad matters worse. Your own hubris os getting in your way here.

    Comment by David Westman — November 15, 2016 @ 2:21 am

  4. Thanks for doing this, Louis.

    Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — November 15, 2016 @ 2:24 am

  5. Since you corrected a “typo” by changing the reference to Jackson to Johnson in one sentence, you fail to notice that this renders your assertion that Cleveland was “the only other Democratic Party president elected in the 19th century” invalid. Actually, there were several pre-Civil War Democratic Party Presidents elected after Jackson (Van Buren, Pierce, Polk, and Buchanan). You should think about what you are correcting more carefully here.

    Comment by David Westman — November 15, 2016 @ 3:00 am

  6. Reblogged this on 21st Century Theater.

    Comment by 21st Century Poet — November 15, 2016 @ 4:13 am

  7. Alexander Hamilton, not Andrew Hamilton. Funny how your readers missed that.

    Comment by uh...clem — November 15, 2016 @ 5:09 am

  8. I know about other Democrats elected after Jackson but the article is only about those I was trying to make a point about.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 15, 2016 @ 5:50 am

  9. Dems may have never really represented the working class, especially before FDR, but as you develop and ultimately conclude your series, I’d like to know why the Sanders wing—aided by leftists outside the party—should not at least try to take a controlling interest now. How can it hurt to try? In other words, despite your analysis, I’m not convinced it’s inevitable that the Dem party cannot be turned into a party that represents the working class. The FDR wing could have gone further but were beaten back. It’s an uphill struggle but there for the taking with a whole lot of persistence and organization.

    Comment by Voline (@pyotr_kropotkin) — November 15, 2016 @ 7:49 pm

  10. Because Voline, that dog won’t hunt. It’s a waste of time, like convincing the scorpion not to sting the frog who is helping it cross the river. You say “the FDR wing could have gone further but were beaten back.” Sure they were, by FDR himself. Read & weep: http://www.counterpunch.org/2008/10/03/fdr-s-response-to-the-plot-to-overthrow-him/

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 16, 2016 @ 1:58 pm

  11. With a lot of coordinated effort by a lot of people maybe an effort to take control of the Democratic Party could succeed after decades of struggle. Yet it seems that those who would propose such a strategy believe that power in the United States rests in the political system and not outside the political system in the MIC. Of course I can not present a document or smoking gun that proves that the military is no longer under civilian political control. All that I have is 50 years of eccentric observations. I guess if a mass movement of leftist were to take control of the Democratic Party they would at least win the opportunity to prove me wrong.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — November 16, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

  12. The Democratic and Republican parties seem likely to dominate U.S. electoral politics for a long time, if Trump and the Republicans permit future elections, perhaps killing it even more dead than it is in the first place now that we are about to inaugurate a fascist-like demagogue claiming a non-existent, possibly dictatorial, “mandate.”

    One aspect of these strange organizations seem to escape comment:

    They are in a sense antiparties–if you look at the endless spewing forth of e.g. James Madison or George Washington on the subject of party, you will find that he, like the rest of the Floundering Bothers was greatly exercised to prevent the evil of “party” as he saw it from taking root in the U.S.


    “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.

    Such run-of-the-mill 18th-century ruling class sentiments pervade American political consciousness, leading in the popular mind to an unending series of Mr. Smiths Going To Washington as the Best Man in Opposition to the Corruption of the Political Parties, and virtuous idiots proclaiming “I vote for the Man, not the Party.” Hip whoopee. To this we also owe the endless stale drama of the political “maverick” espousing a Third Way–another cliche that never seems to lose its freshness for some people, including, as Counterpunch proves, many who for reasons it is hard to understand insist on identifying with something they call “the Left.” (The American Third Way tendency in superficial ways resembles, but in other respects is radically different from the Weimar Republic querfront politics of Kurt von Schleicher, whose too-clever and entirely self-interested attempt to, you should excuse it, trump Hitler at his own game–led to his death at the hands of the SS. Another time, another country).

    In fact, American political parties have in some respects very little entity politically speaking–they are loosely affiliated networks of Committees to Elect, bolstered by a hodgepodge of thinktanks and institutes of various kind and cemented by secret networks of financial obligation leading to the oligarchs who, as often as not, are funding both parties. They are loosely directed by various organizations of the actually elected. In legislative bodies, various rules of procedure oblige all matters go forward under the aegis of one or another of these chimerical bodies.

    American political parties are to our ideology of political morality as marriage was to Augustine: a Lesser Evil than burning. The anxiety and sense of sin this provokes are essential to maintaining the illusion of democracy, which is based on fear and denial.

    Oppose this to the modern European conception of party, which takes it for granted that parties stand for something, and which tries to form governments through alliances and coalitions of parties in Parliament. Think Borgen.

    As corruptible and dangerous–and ultimately illusionist–as this latter setup is (consider the Labour Party or the French Socialist Party), it represents a far superior avenue for legitimate election participation by the Left than the two-party antiparty system in effect in the U.S. at present.

    It is quite impossible that the U.S. as we know it will ever implement a parliamentary system, and probably impossible that any scheme of proportional representation will ever be implemented giving what are now insignificant third parties a seat at the table of governance.

    What conceivably could happen is the modification of the existing antiparties to become in effect clearing houses for actual parties–venues in which coalitions can be formed for legislative and political campaign purposes, rather than all-consuming and stifling bodies whose “members” are prevented from any meaningful form of political advocacy except that for increasing austerity and authoritarianism in government.

    Perhaps some idea like this is at the back of Bernie Sanders’s much-denounced “movement.”

    I am not advocating this, merely introducing the topic. I haven’t seen any other discussion of it anywhere.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 17, 2016 @ 3:39 pm

  13. See Seth Ackerman in Jacobin on DP and the US political system

    For the record, don’t agree with Ackerman’s prioritization of the trade unions and their officials “just because they have the resources”. But Jacobin tends towards left social democratic trade unionist politics anyway. And his historical account if flawed by his rejection of any connection to the foundation and basic structure of the state in the 1787 constitution. This causes Ackerman to present a picture of an apparently more “open” system in the 19th C. It was more “open” because its agrarian democratic basis was still alive then. It was tolerated by the bourgeoisie because such a democracy is dispersed in the countryside, leaving the exercise of practical political power safely in the hands of ruling “Whig-liberal” cliques in the state’s and Federal capitols. Just like James Madison had promised in 1787. Also why the political centers were always far removed from the big cities. It was only when the population swing from rural farmer to urban proletarian did the gates slam shut.

    Ackerman may have a point about the “ballot line trap”.

    Comment by Brad — November 17, 2016 @ 10:40 pm

  14. IMHO: Even if you believe that somehow taking over the Democrats will work, the Left needs new formations in addition to whatever becomes of the Democrats. My own feeling is that a left-colored Democrat Party would continue to lose elections. Against the common wisdom, I actually think that Obama’s centrism was essential to his being elected–and to Hillary Clinton’s narrowly missing being elected. Trump won because he is loved by most of the people who voted for him. That could change, but his massive unpopularity with the majority of voters does not counter the great affection in which he is held by the deciding minority. Clinton is less loved, but is still a very popular politician–just not quite popular enough. She is probably right that Comey’s outrageous intervention decided the election, cheese-eating walkback or no. Had she been more Sanders-ish, her loss would have been greater.

    Centrism works up to a point politically, as Obama proved, and if replaced, must be replaced by something that people believe they know well and think will help them.

    Without a powerful labor movement, both the left and the center will continue to lose. IMHO: There must be some formation on the left that constitutes a helpful presence in the everyday lives of working people, especially the alienated who do not vote. This is the only thing that will give anything leftish a lasting appeal at the ballot box. It goes without saying that such formations could also mitigate the awful effects arising from the imminent total destruction by the Republicans of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare, which is now certain, and which will be responsible for many deaths.

    Spectacle and sermons do not help and will only continue to make things worse.

    America could easily become the Sick Man of North America–mired in the stale dogmatic residue of a fading empire and without hope for its immiserated citizens. This could last for decades if not for centuries and indeed (I think) is the likeliest outcome of the current awful mess.

    Consider Afghanistan–mired in the residue of millennia of empires, with an illiterate, devoutly religious populace who are manipulated with great cruelty by networks of tiny, brutal elites whose authority is never challenged except by factional warfare. Is this the future of the United States? In some form, it may be.

    I am now 69 years old. I see where things are heading and, for me, the only recourse in the long run is suicide, which I am now postponing (with Flashman-like cowardice) month by month Expect a wave of self-destruction as the reality sets in–accompanied by screams of triumph from the enemies of mankind who now rule with a sway that cannot be disputed and–as far as I can see–will never effectively be disputed

    Concretely, I do not believe that there is any hope for the future of the United States.

    Comment by Joan Walker — November 18, 2016 @ 1:41 pm

  15. Dear Joan,
    Yes things are so bad that there is almost no hope for the PLANET. The slim hope that I see is that there will be breakthrough in nuclear fusion power which will lead to a breakthrough in removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. In 2003 I came to the conclusion that the only way to change America was to control the means of mass communication. We live in a WORLD in which becoming a multimillionaire is a badge of success not as a sign of failure. We live in a world in which adherence to stone age traditions is a sign of responsible behavior. I could go on and on about how screwed up the most basic operating assumptions of both the masses and the elites are.
    If success lies in humanity’s future humanity needs to be reprogrammed.
    It certainly seems that there are to few people in to few places to have had a chance to short circuit the system and reprogram humanity. The election of Donald Trump has not changed what was ALREADY true. Some people may ask why do I even bother to spend time on web sites devoted to politics. The answer is that I did not lose my hope until this year. But since losing all hope I just do not know what to do with the time that I have on my hands. Other than doing chores around the house I am just waiting to die. For reasons that I do not care to discuss volunteer work outside of the house is not an option. Well at least I enjoyed sitting on a bar stool crying into my beer next to such a fine lady

    Comment by Curt Kastens — November 19, 2016 @ 11:02 am

  16. Woodrow Wilson’s racism-and the depth of it-bears mentioning. While Jim Crow had flourished before and the Democrats had been its partisan, under Wilson it was consolidated and fully entrenched into a “lilly white” totalitarian system based on white supremacy worthy of apartheid South Africa. C. Vann Woodward, no ultraleft, went so far as to compare its ethos to the racial laws and culture of the Third Reich. (“The Strange Career of Jim Crow”).

    Consistent with this, Wilson, son of a Confederate veteran, fired the remaining black postmasters and decreed rigid segregation throughout the federal government. For good reason African-Americans could not view Wilson as a lesser evil by any concievable standard to TR (who had dined with Booker T. Washington at the White House) or Taft. Later, Wilson summed his racist outlook by having a private screening of Birth of a Nation in the White House.

    Comment by Tom Cod — November 21, 2016 @ 5:56 pm

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