Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 12, 2007

Whigs and Democrats

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,third parties — louisproyect @ 7:37 pm

Henry Clay: Whig leader known as the “Great Compromiser”; would have fit right in with today’s Democratic Party

In the course of reading T.J. Stiles’s excellent biography of Jesse James as background for a review of movies about the famous bandit, including the latest with Brad Pitt in the leading role, I came across a number of references to the Whig Party’s efforts to straddle the fence between anti-secessionism and support of slavery. Robert Miller, the editor of a Whig paper in Missouri in the 1850’s, wrote “Where there is no legal sanction of slavery the masses, the laboring portion of the people, are oppressed and run over.”

Stiles describes Miller as “a Whig, struggling like all Missouri Whigs to cling to his party even as it disintegrated.” Whig leader James S. Rollins wrote that his party was “ready to resist illegal Northern aggression and abolition on the one hand, and to suppress the Southern fanaticism and nullification on the other.” In other words, they stood for everything and for nothing.

Eventually, the Whig Party disappeared because it proved incapable of challenging the Democrats who did not have divided loyalties. Some Whigs ended up joining the Republican Party, which was up to the task of confronting the Slavocracy even if they were not totally committed to abolitionism at the outset. The most famous of them was Abraham Lincoln, a great admirer of party leader Henry Clay, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846.

Henry Clay was known as the “Great Compromiser”. When I first came across Stiles’s reference to the Whigs, I began taking a closer look at this party and came to the conclusion that they were the Democrats of their day. If the Whigs imploded because they were incapable of developing an adequate response to the crisis of their day–slavery–then one can surely anticipate the Democrats to begin to disintegrate in the 21st century for analogous reasons. War, racism, ecological destruction and a host of other ills are associated with the slavery of our time–namely wage slavery. By issuing empty denunciations of these ills, as Al Gore does in “An Inconvenient Truth,” and refusing to tackle the underlying cause of such ills, they prove incapable of sustaining the support of their base, as the low approval rating for Congress today would indicate.

The Republicans have their own contradictions, but by no means as extreme. This is a party whose social base and economic goals are much more in alignment. They oppose any limits on personal enrichment, even if it means abolishing every last vestige of the welfare state and turning back the clock to 1890. The Democrats claim to oppose this socio-economic agenda but rely on the very same corporations for funding that the Republicans do. In effect, they are opposed to the excesses of wage slavery but will never call for its abolition.

In 1820 a dispute arose over the extension of slavery into Missouri, which was not then yet a state. Henry Clay worked out a compromise in Congress that made Maine free and Missouri slave. This maintained the balance in the Senate, which had included 11 free and 11 slave states. Except for Missouri, it would ban slavery north of Arkansas. The Missouri Compromise sounds exactly like the kind of legislation that the Democrats would come up with nowadays, especially in light of Mukasey’s approval and the continued funding of the war in Iraq.

On May 1, 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy made a statement on the floor of the Senate on the occasion of the hanging of portraits of five former Senators there, including the one of Henry Clay seen above. With respect to Clay, Kennedy had the following to say:

Senator Henry Clay, of Kentucky, who served in the Senate 1806-7, 1810-11, 1831-42, 1849-52. Resourceful expert in the art of the possible, his fertile mind, persuasive voice, skillful politics and tireless energies were courageously devoted to the reconciliation of conflict between North and South, East and West, capitalism and agrarianism. A political leader who put the national good above party, a spokesman for the West whose love for the Union outweighed sectional pressures, he acquired more influence and more respect as responsible leader of the loyal but ardent opposition than many who occupied the White House. His adroit statesmanship and political finesse in times of national crisis demonstrated the values of intelligent compromise in a Federal democracy, without impairing either his convictions or his courage to stand by them.

As the words “courage to stand by them” would indicate, Clay was also honored by Kennedy in his “Profiles in Courage.” That a president who would eventually be seen as some kind of “friend of the Negro” could speak so favorably about a Whig leader might be puzzling at first. This does contradict, after all, John Kerry’s acceptance speech to the Democratic Party in 2004, where he referred to JFK’s election as a “beginning of a great journey – a time to march for civil rights, for voting rights…”

But a deeper investigation of Kennedy’s attitude toward Blacks might clear things up:

Not only were the Kennedys hostile to the Civil Rights Commission; they appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.” Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as “basically second-rate.” Kennedy frequently turned to Mississippi Senator James Eastland for advice on appointments. According to long-time activist Virginia Durr, Eastland would “invite people over for the weekend and tell them to ‘pick out a nigger girl and a horse!’ That was his way of showing hospitality.”

Even in their selection of voter registration as the least confrontational tactic in the South, the Kennedys were loath to put the power of the federal government behind it. When the KKK targeted civil rights workers trying to register black voters, Robert F. Kennedy bent over backwards to appear conciliatory toward the racists. He said, “We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people protection.” This indifference was one of the main reasons the racists felt free to kill activists in the Deep South.

One such assassination took the life of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in the driveway of his home. In keeping with his accomodationist policies, Robert F. Kennedy told the media that the federal government had no authority to protect Evers or anybody else. Such responsibilities rested with the state of Mississippi!

The mass movement against racial discrimination continued unabated, without the support of the Kennedy White House. In 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama unleashed attacks by Police Commissioner Bull Connor who used nightsticks, police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses and mass arrests. JFK complained about the protests that they made the USA “look bad for us in the world.” His brother opined that 90 percent of the protestors had no idea what they were demonstrating about.

Nation Magazine contributor Jon Wiener wrote a blog entry there on October 31 posing the question: Is Hillary the Next Grover Cleveland? It begins as follows:

We hope we’re about to elect FDR,” New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman told me earlier this week, “but we might be about to elect Grover Cleveland.” He said he was referring to the front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

Grover Cleveland, for those who don’t know their 19th century presidents, was the only Democrat who made it to the White House between 1860 and 1912, the decades when Republican big money ruled the country. Cleveland, elected in 1885 and again in 1893, mobilized the army to crush the 1894 Pullman strike of railroad workers, and joined Wall Street in supporting the gold standard. “He was what they called a ‘Bourbon Democrat,’ as in the French royal family,” Krugman explained. “He wasn’t that different from the Republicans at the time.”

Perhaps that is true, but Wiener and Krugman–as one might expect–pose the question in terms of the individual rather than institutions. Clinton is seen as a “Bourbon Democrat”, where the goal ostensibly would be to return the party to its progressive roots. What would this mean? A return to JFK, with his indifference to Klan killings in the South?

I would suggest that the problem is institutional rather than individual. The big bourgeoisie, to use a bit of Marxist jargon, has been bent on rolling back all the gains of the New Deal era and returning to conditions that existed in the late 19th century. It has embarked on this road not because it hates poor people (although it does) but because the boom years of the post-WWII period are long gone. In a showdown with rival capitalist powers, it is imperative to reduce labor costs and government spending on “wasteful” items like education, health, housing and the environment. Once it made this turn, the underlying economic raison d’etre for the Democrats disappeared. If it could not deliver the goods, there was no reason to support it unless one rationalizes to oneself that it is not as bad as the Republicans.

Looking back in retrospect, one might say that the same thing was true of the Whigs. They were not as bad as the Democrats. As the social crisis of the 19th century deepened, a new party was formed that could inspire working people, farmers and manufacturers who saw slavery as inimical to their own class interests. Surely, a new crisis of the 21st century will propel new class forces into motion that will organize a new revolutionary party capable of eradicating the slavery of our epoch–one resting on wage exploitation.

January 12, 2007

An Unreasonable Man

Filed under: Film,third parties — louisproyect @ 4:44 pm

Last night I attended a press screening for “An Unreasonable Man”, a documentary on Ralph Nader that opens in theaters around the country later this month. It is an absolute must for anybody who is trying to understand the ongoing political crisis in the United States, reflected most recently in the Democratic Party’s abject failure to mount an effective challenge to Bush’s escalation in Iraq. It is also a stunning dramatic portrait of why Ralph Nader rose to the challenge of resolving this crisis despite having to face a torrent of abuse and political/economic/legal reprisals.

“An Unreasonable Man” reminded me of an observation I made a month or two ago in an email discussion. In places like Colombia, the left’s biggest obstacle is physical violence organized by the army, police and paramilitaries. In a rich democracy like the United States, the left instead has to endure social pressure and the threat of ostracism. It is to Ralph Nader’s everlasting credit that he has stood up to this kind of bullying as if it were a bullet aimed at his head.

The liberal media’s portrait of Ralph Nader is that of a Jekyll-Hyde. There is a “good” Nader who took on GM, built the consumers’ rights movement, inspired progressive legislation, etc. Then there is the “bad” Nader who somehow out of the blue (bit by a vampire?) decided to help elect George W. Bush. This is explained as a function of his “megalomania” and his inability to see the obvious, namely that the Democrats are better than the Republicans.

In a brilliant stroke, directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan include interviews with Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin, two of the more hysterical critics of the Nader campaigns. They serve as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the film reminding the audience of Ralph Nader’s perfidy. They only end up indicting themselves through their willful refusal to acknowledge why Gore lost in 2000. Nader’s campaign manager Theresa Amato presents that case most effectively. Her affable demeanor is in stark contrast to the glowering Alterman and Gore, who spit out their words. She points out that Gore could not even win in Arkansas and Tennessee, the home states of the 2-term incumbent Democrat president and vice-president. She also pointed out that the margin of victory in Florida for Bush was less than the vote totals for a slew of 3rd party candidates. Why blame Nader for “stealing” 527 votes from Gore in Florida when even the SWP candidate received more votes than that?

Since Ralph Nader has led a monastic existence for his entire adult life, there is not much in the way of biographical material that would present itself in a project such as this. His career and his life are practically equivalent, just as is the case with somebody like Fidel Castro. The key to understanding Nader’s evolution is his family life in Winstead, Connecticut. In interviews with his sisters Laura and Claire, we learn that their father, a Lebanese-Christian, was so passionate about discussing politics that friends warned him about driving customers from his restaurant. His reaction was to say that they could go. As an immigrant to the United States, he believed in the bill of rights and other democratic guarantees and refused to be blackmailed into silence.

Nader’s mother was just as outspoken. After Winstead’s downtown was heavily damaged by a flood, she made sure to get Senator Prescott Bush (George W.’s grandfather) to promise that he would fund a dam. When he was in Winstead for a typical “meet your senator” visit, she stood patiently on line until her turn. When Bush shook her hand, she made the case for a dam and wouldn’t release his hand until he agreed. With parents such as these, it should not come as any surprise that Nader sticks to his guns.

The film begins with Nader’s famous confrontation with Detroit over safety. We see some amusing old commercials that depict cars as the key to happiness and success with the opposite sex. What they never revealed was how dangerous they were, like unprotected sex with a stranger in some ways. Nader decided to look into auto safety after a classmate and good friend at Harvard was killed in an automobile accident. While Nader was no expert in the matter at that time, he soon became the country’s leading authority and the nemesis of the big three auto-makers.

William Greider and James Ridgeway, two journalists who were instrumental in publicizing his early career, give testimony to his tenacity and his brilliance. Furthermore, both of them–despite their connection to mainstream liberal publications–both understand why Nader decided to risk the enmity of wealthy liberals who were all too happy to back his consumer rights activism but not his electoral bids: he is driven by idealism, not Machiavellian calculation. Ridgeway, who does not mince words, says that people like Alterman and Gitlin are “the meanest bunch of motherfuckers” you’ll ever run into.

In his early career, Nader was no enemy of the Democratic Party. His consumer organizations worked closely with the Democrats and actually stumped to get them elected. His status as an insider was cemented after Jimmy Carter’s election. Carter invited Nader down for some consultations after taking office and it was expected that his administration would defend the rights of the consumer.

As a symbol of that breakthrough, Carter appointed long-time Nader associate Joan Claybrook as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Once again demonstrating that principles were more important than political horse-trading, Nader broke with her when she agreed to an air-bag regulation that he deemed inadequate.

When voters perceived Walter Mondale as a continuation of Carter administration ineptitude, they elected Ronald Reagan. Reagan, and every politician who succeeded him including the “liberal” Bill Clinton, has been hostile to the kind of pro-consumer legislation that Nader fought for. Finally Nader decided that it would require action in the electoral arena in order to counteract a two-party crusade against everything he believed in and fought for. Put succinctly, it was not Nader who changed but the Democratic and Republican Parties. It was these two powerful institutions that were subverting the Jeffersonian dreams of his parents. Nader believed in small-town values, including town meetings and family-owned businesses. If it took a radical challenge against an increasingly monolithic pro-corporate two-party system to turn the country around, he was willing to step forward even if it seemed Quixotic.

When some of his old friends and associates interviewed throughout the film worry about how posterity will view Nader (Jekyll or Hyde), Nader assures his interviewers that there is nothing that his liberal critics can say that will tarnish him. Even though a seat belt in your automobile does not have the legend “Made by Nader” stamped on it, it might as well have.

The title of the film comes from George Bernard Shaw’s “Maxims for Revolutionists”, a section in the 1903 “Man and Superman”:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Long live Ralph Nader and long live being unreasonable!

Film website, with schedule information about openings this month.

October 23, 2006

Thoughts On The US Midterm Elections

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,swans,third parties — louisproyect @ 5:16 pm

(Swans – October 23, 2006) The same liberal pundits who characterized the 2004 presidential election as a kind of Armageddon showdown against evil are now revved up in the same fashion for next month’s elections. Voting for a Democrat is tantamount to saving one’s soul, or more accurately, the soul of the nation. Since there is no Ralph Nader factor this go round, there is not the same kind of hysteria directed against the Greens or any other left-wing electoral challenge. Given this all too familiar scenario, it might be useful to restate what is wrong with voting for the lesser evil and why one should support third-party initiatives, no matter their flaws and weaknesses.

In the current issue of The Nation Magazine, always a bellwether of lesser-evil sentiment, William Greider confesses that he is worried about being robbed of certain victory:

Okay, I admit it. As the election approaches, I am feeling a creepy sense of paranoia. My right brain reads the newspapers, studies the polls and thinks we are looking at a blow-out next month — Dems conquer at last. My left brain hoots in derision. Get real, sucker.

One wonders if Greider has been reading the newspapers carefully. If so, you’d think he’d be a bit more restrained in his enthusiasm for the party of donkeys given this profile of candidate Jack Davis running against incumbent Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds from upstate New York:

Mr. Davis is prone to overstatement. He has warned about “Red China,” for example, and suggested he would take a bat to anyone who sent his sons sexually explicit e-mail messages like those a congressman sent to young male pages.

He defies liberal orthodoxies. He has said he wants to “seal” the nation’s borders and has held memberships in conservative groups like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

If the Democratic Party stood for any sort of progressive principles, it would have given Davis the boot. But in the eyes of Greider and company, one supposes that it suffices that he is not a Republican. If Richard Nixon rose from the grave and ran against Davis, however, there would be no question as to who was the “lesser evil.” With his support for affirmative action and environmentalism, he looks much better than the Democrats who succeeded him. Even if TV faux conservative Stephen Colbert had tongue in cheek when he advised his New York Magazine interviewer that he was a big fan of Nixon, these words are still worth considering:

Here’s something Colbertophiles might not know or might not want to know: He loves Richard Nixon. He has a 1972 Nixon campaign poster on the wall of his office. He points at it and says, “He was so liberal! Look at what he was running on. He started the EPA. He opened China. He gave 18-year-olds the vote. His issues were education, drugs, women, minorities, youth involvement, ending the draft, and improving the environment. John Kerry couldn’t have run on this! What would I give for a Nixon?”

Full: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy41.html

July 31, 2006

Young America

Filed under: third parties — louisproyect @ 1:18 pm

Mark Lause’s Young America
Land, Labor and the Republican Community
by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Lause, Mark A.: Young America: Land, Labor and the Republican Community, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2005 ISBN 0-252-07230-8 (paper), ISBN 0-252-02980-1 (cloth), 240 pages

(Swans – July 31, 2006) There is a tendency to look at American working people as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. This was especially pronounced after the 2004 elections, when despairing liberals felt that “red state” voters chose George W. Bush against their own class interests. Oddly enough, their disgust with the American blue collar worker was reflected in Bertolt Brecht’s poem The Selection, with the substitution of the word “liberals” for “government”:

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Against this understandable tendency to blame the people, labor and left historians in the U.S. have worked hard to correct the record. Following the example of Howard Zinn, the dean of this school, they uncover instances of working people acting on their own class interests and for the interests of humanity as a whole.

The latest addition to this very necessary literature is Mark Lause’s Young America: Land, Labor and Republican Community. This is a study of an obscure political party from the 1840s that was in the vanguard of the fight against the concentration of land ownership, slavery, and for a kind of utopian socialism that predated the more orthodox Marxism of later years. If it is obscure, it is no fault of the actors who deserve a more prominent place in the historical panorama. We have to thank Mark Lause for rescuing them from obscurity and demonstrating our kinship with them. As we struggle against the rich and powerful in the 21st century, we can draw inspiration from our forerunners in the struggle.

The “Young America” in Lause’s title refers to the newspaper of the National Reform Association (NRA), whose initials ironically are the same as the arch-reactionary National Rifle Association of today. Although, as one begins to familiarize oneself with the earlier NRA, little doubt will remain about how distinct they were from each other!

Unlike the political parties of today (with the exception of the Greens and smaller socialist groups), the NRA was made up of and led by ordinary working people and small businessmen. In the winter of 1843-44, three men in the printing trades came together to launch the new group.

Born in Great Britain, George Henry Evans was a veteran labor editor who had once published Free Enquirer, a paper strongly influenced by the Owenites in Great Britain. Robert Owen had pioneered communes in Great Britain and even inspired followers in New Harmony, Indiana to begin work to realize their ideals. Even Friedrich Engels understood Owen’s importance, despite his disagreement with the utopian underpinnings:

His advance in the direction of Communism was the turning-point in Owen’s life. As long as he was simply a philanthropist, he was rewarded with nothing but wealth, applause, honor, and glory. He was the most popular man in Europe. Not only men of his own class, but statesmen and princes listened to him approvingly. But when he came out with his Communist theories that was quite another thing. Three great obstacles seemed to him especially to block the path to social reform: private property, religion, the present form of marriage.

Evans sought out John Windt, a blacklisted union organizer, who he collaborated with for fifteen years, and Thomas Ainge Devyr, a veteran of the Chartist movement in Great Britain. Devyr was also an advocate for tenant farmers in the United States. One of the lessons of Lause’s study is that land hunger in the U.S. at this time was as pronounced as it was in Latin America. Despite the reputation that it has for providing ample and cheap land for immigrants, the U.S. was plagued by the sort of landlordism that kept people in poverty. The main goal of the NRA was to achieve a sweeping land reform that would establish the material basis for true democracy. It was the age-old Jeffersonian hope mixed with the yearnings of utopian socialism.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy39.html


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