The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 31 (Fall 1988) and later appeared in the LRP pamphlet The Democratic Party: Graveyard of Black Struggles.
At the October 1987 convention of the Rainbow Coalition, Jesse Jackson made the expected announcement that he was again running for the U.S. Presidency. This time around he is emerging as a “serious” contender for the Democratic Party nomination. He retains a solid base of support among blacks, and he is also gaining a small but significant following among other oppressed groups, white workers, liberals and family farmers.
hat he lacks in campaign funds he makes up in charisma, the devoted adherence of blacks and the activism and support of left militants. This cadre makes him a real alternative among a cast of candidates whose chief claim to fame is their tenacious pursuit of mediocrity.
Now as in 1984, the left sees him as building a popular movement capable of undermining racism and reaction. But there is discomfort around the new, improved Jackson.
Probably the stickiest issue has been his reaction to growing racist violence. Given the hopes that black people have vested in him Jackson’s increasing attempts to throw cold water on protest actions have startled those who see him as the herald of a movement.
Last year, for example, in response to the lynch-mob murder of a black youth in Howard Beach New York and the Klan attack on civil rights protesters in Forsyth County, Georgia, mass demonstrations were held in both communities to assert the right of blacks to exist there. But Jackson insisted: “Let’s not confront each other at Howard Beach or in Forsyth County.”
On Howard Beach he went even further, lauding the role of New York Mayor Ed Koch, who is rightfully hated by every defender of black rights. Jitu Weusi, vice chairperson of the National Black United Front (NBUF) and a leading Jackson supporter in New York, observed bitingly that Jackson, who “has never needed to be approached to come anywhere, was extremely equivocal about coming to New York to play a role in response to the Howard Beach murder. Jackson not only vacillated in supporting the militant protest marches but even kept his distance from the impotent boycott efforts called by black radicals.
While the recent spate of murderous attacks in New York has met with justified outrage by blacks, Jackson turned a cold shoulder to the protestors. He stated he would “challenge those who say racial violence is the dominant issue in New York City” (New York Times, January 26). The Times added that his “call for conciliation” has dominated his recent activities in New York. This line is a precise echo of Koch’s claims that black militants are exaggerating the problem in order to stir up trouble.
Regarding Jackson’s retreat on black rights, NBUF Chairman Conrad Worrill commented, “We work inside the Rainbow, as an independent formation to make sure the issues of concern to African Americans stay alive. … I see some tactical changes—I mean, he’s going to talk ‘President!’ But, it’s also the reason why we have to stay in this Rainbow room: We are the ones who have to make sure that that’s the only change there.” (Guardian, January 13, 1988)
Obviously Worrill is worried. He has reason to be. Jackson’s real function is above all to hold back black struggle. That is why he’s working within the Democratic Party. It isn’t some flaw in an otherwise progressive agenda, which is the way leftists waiting for him to go “independent” see it. Rather Democratic Party politics is the essence of Jackson, and Jackson’s conciliation on black rights is not just an isolated presidential maneuver.
We have demonstrated the historical role of the Democratic Party as a deathtrap for popular movements and causes. (see Proletarian Revolution Nos. 20 and 21.) It acts to divert potential rebellion and self-activity of the masses into passive support to bourgeois politicians. Nowhere is this more true than regarding the radical black struggles of the 1960s which were destroyed by the Democrats.
Thus by 1984 Jackson could run as a radical but as a radical power broker. He hardly hid his role: trading the growing black voter registration for a piece of the action. This role did not alienate him from his black base. His supporters had already begun to reverse past patterns of rejecting the vote as meaningless. They had begun registering in large numbers prior to Jackson’s efforts, precisely because more militant struggle seemed to have come to a dead-end, given the limits of crisis-wracked capitalism. Blacks supporting Jackson understood that the Democratic Party was a world of quid pro quo (although each class had different expectations as to the quid they expected to receive.)
But at the 1984 Democratic Convention Jackson did not even get crumbs, despite the impressive numbers of blacks who supported him in the primaries and the big percentage of the total Democratic vote that blacks represent. He was publicly humiliated, forced to eat crow rather than a piece of the pie. Afterward his dutiful support for the party nominee helped secure the pivotal black vote, thus enabling Mondale to move even further to the right—and lose the election anyway.
The Democrats gave the black masses nothing because they had their votes in their hip pocket anyway. While the Democrats want black support, they want to avoid at all costs the idea that they back radical demands or confrontations (which they claim will alienate whites.) Clearly Jackson learned a big lesson from his 1984 campaign and its humiliating consequences: cut back on his already modest demands for blacks and adopt “a more traditional mode.” (New York Times, September 8.)
In 1984 Jackson loudly decried the fact that blacks were systematically denied the representation at the convention warranted by the votes they cast in the primaries. He emphasized party rules as a way to underemphasize the issues really disturbing the mass of exploited and oppressed blacks; but he did raise them in an effort to show black power and rock the Democratic boat a bit. Today he keeps the boat on even keel. This has provoked complaints from southern Rainbow activists, who hoped to use the Jackson campaign to make further inroads against the white power structure that rules the Democratic Party.
Maintaining black support while aborting black struggle is the common policy of all sectors of the Democratic Party except the most overt racists. Jesse Jackson, like Harold Washington in Chicago, came to prominence because of an upsurge reflecting the power of the black masses. At the same time, it was already being derailed into an electoral dead-end. The threat of confrontational upheaval had enabled black politicians to expand their numbers in government and the Democratic Party, but at the same time it was exactly this confrontational upheaval that the bourgeois power structure told the black politicians they must end. If the black leaders wanted their party to win they had to become statesmen.
The pro-Mondale black Democrats agreed. While they would upon occasion use the threat of “the black underclass” to warn white colleagues not to go too far, their own ability to exist in the world of bourgeois politics—to play the angles in order to get the sops to pass on to their voting bases—depended on their ties to the white-dominated power structure. They all needed the Democratic Party to win. They all viewed the demands of outraged blacks as a threat to racial stability, their stability as operators within the system.
In 1984 the moderates did not want to hook up with Jackson, despite his popularity, because it harmed their ties with other sections of the party. In the present campaign, without a dominant frontrunner, they have more leeway. They also know that the question is no longer whether to be a Jackson delegate to the convention, but who controls the Jackson delegations. There is room for them to maneuver and broker their own deals at the convention when Jackson inevitably loses. Having embraced so many differing political power centers among black politicians, Jackson can’t keep as tight a grip on his delegates as last time.
Accompanying the downplaying of black demands has been a concerted effort to expand Jackson’s constituency beyond his black base. This reflects a second big lesson he learned from 1984: how to get the Democratic Party to take him more seriously. In 1984 the Rainbow was a real myth: Jackson represented blacks—a problem to a party that wants black votes but doesn’t want to be identified as pro-black. Now he still must broker for blacks but must also try to the put “the rainbow” in effect, that is attempt to increase his clout with other sectors as well. This is often called his appeal to whites, but it is necessarily more complex because here again the class question invades.
First, Jackson is under no illusion that he can win the more racist and reactionary elements among these groups. But he can offset their hostility and establish himself in the eyes of their leaders as a suitable broker they can deal with. The main effort in this direction is shown by Jackson’s increased promotion of ethnic coalitions and all that implies.
In the 1970s and ’80s the ruling class has attempted to shift popular consciousness to the right. They beat the drums for God, family, country and every conservative institution. By trumpeting the wonders of ethnic identification and roots, they attempt to play upon deep-seated needs for community, solidarity and support in a society based on human alienation. Ethnic manipulation serves to destroy working-class consciousness and promote identification with parochial petty-bourgeois misleaders. Inevitably, given the inherent racism of American capitalism, in times of economic crisis the ethnic honchos play upon mass prejudices to the detriment of the oppressed. (“Our” ancestors came here without speaking English and “we” didn’t complain; “our” people made it without welfare so why can’t “they?” etc., etc.) As long as capitalism exists, the idea that it’s a war for sops, jobs and income between whites, blacks and other minorities seems more and more real.
This mechanism at the heart of the Democratic Party works to make the oppressed black (and Latino) masses view themselves as simply one of many ethnic groups and to tie themselves to leaders who will produce for them if they play by the rules of the game. This destroys the real strength of black workers, whose unique history of militant struggle against oppression and whose concentration in the major bastions of capitalist industry has put them into a potentially powerful leadership position within the working class as a whole.
Congressman William Lipinski, a Democrat from Chicago’s Southwest Side and Co-chairman of the Ethnic American Council of the Democratic National Committee, is a clear spokesman for the view to which Jackson has tried to adapt. According to the September 16 New York Times, Lipinski said that the party
must make more room for conservative and moderate views, especially on social issues. The ethnic voters are most unhappy …with the prevailing views in the Democratic Party about abortion, school prayer, defense spending and affirmative action programs for minorities. To retain the working-class voter … the party must stress its pro-labor stand on the pocketbook issues.
We’re trying to remind these people—the plumbers, the carpenters, the bricklayers—that they wouldn’t have unions and good wages if it weren’t for the Democratic Party.
If he can deal with General Motors and Burger King for black franchises, Jackson can deal with ethnic politicians. They all have a vested interest, he (falsely) believes, in stabilizing tense relations between ethnics and blacks. He hopes that the more moderate elements among the ethnic politicians can be brought into a new coalition that will accept black leaders as senior participants based upon voting clout.
It is not that Jackson can really support Lipinski’s conservative social program. he can’t do that and retain his base among radical activists; after all, his successful attempt to bury the abortion issue at the first Rainbow convention noticeably chilled the militants. But he can try to emerge as a conciliator between the conservative ethnic leaders and popular forces, blacks and others, who threaten their positions and their world views. Still, he must go further than the Lipinskis in taking a “pro-labor stand on the pocketbook issues.”
This strategy leads to fudging on social questions, particularly on womens’ rights, because that is an area where traditionalist ethnic leaders have their strongest base of support. It leads to emphasis on questions of the family, God and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. And Jackson can go further than Lipinski in stressing a “pro-labor stand on pocketbook issues.”
It has become popular to say that Jackson is joining the “mainstream,” but that is only a surface explanation. Jackson is in essence an opportunist, and a brilliant one at that. Before pundits, pollsters and even revolutionaries can, Jackson is able to sense the direction of the masses he seeks to win. After all, his very political existence depends upon his ability to tail popular consciousness and adapt to it. Therefore he was way out in front in recognizing that “mainstream” attitudes in America today weren’t the epitome of moderation and economic conservatism that other political observers claimed. For years he sensed the growing anger and frustration of workers and petty-bourgeois elements in American society. Seeing the anger beneath the surface, Jackson began to appeal to the growing class antagonism earlier than others.
His basic speech in the Iowa campaign reflects his radical approach to workers and small farmers. It is dotted with phrases like “We’re caught between cheap labor at home and slave labor abroad”; “If we can bail out Chrysler…we can bail out the family farm”; and “Workers united will never be defeated.” (New York Times, January 18). Heady stuff.
However, the labor bureaucracy has withheld its support. One obvious reason is racism: many a white bureaucrat will simply not support a black candidate. Related to this is the racist-tinged pragmatism of which the bureaucracy has such a bountiful supply; as the argument goes, Jackson can’t win so let’s find a more realistic candidate, meaning a white. And many bureaucrats find Jackson too radical. His increasing moderation on foreign policy is hardly enough to satisfy an AFL-CIO leadership which embraces the CIA and the contras and loves Israel, oppression and all.
Even more appalling to the bureaucrats, Jackson voiced support for militant actions like the Hormel strike at a time when the AFL-CIO leadership was actively trying to destroy that struggle. It’s a sad commentary that a bourgeois politician can come across as a better champion of struggling workers than the alleged leadership of the working class.
Nonetheless, the bureaucracy is giving Jackson more leeway than in the last election. He is a welcome guest at labor gatherings. His picture is in union newspapers alongside the appropriate bureaucrats. He even received a warm ovation at the ultra-conservative Teamsters’ convention.
The top leadership of the AFL-CIO still hasn’t recovered from the humiliating defeat of “their man,” Fritz Mondale. As a result of the 1984 fiasco, the lesson they learned was that labor can’t be too quick or too prominent in supporting a nominee lest he be castigated as a prisoner of “special interests.” Besides, who in the current field of candidates can command their support like Mondale?
One factor in the receptivity to Jackson is the strong support he enjoys among many black workers, who comprise almost a third of the AFL-CIO membership; the bureaucrats are being careful not to appear to discriminate against Jackson. Polls among the Communications Workers (CWA) and the Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) found Jackson to be their favorite candidate. Jackson has the overwhelming support of blacks in other unions as well. Added to that is the active sympathy he has among hard-hit white workers in the Midwest and elsewhere.
This doesn’t make Jackson a champion of the ranks against the bureaucracy. It does make him an ally of the more left bureaucrats. The only national official who so far has openly bucked the AFL-CIO decision to delay all endorsements is Henry Nicholas, head of the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Workers. Others, like Kenneth Blaylock of the Government Employees (AFGE), William Winpisinger of the Machinists and leaders of the CWA are known Jackson allies who have shied away from pushing for open endorsement of their unions—in much the way they operated during the Hormel strike.
Then there are locally prominent black labor leaders like Stanley Hill, head of the large AFSCME section in New York, DC 37, who publicly supports Jackson. Together they constitute a significant portion of the leftish labor bureaucrats, many of whom are members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Jackson’s support of the Hormel strikers was of course accompanied by his offer to mediate the strike and an open attempt to pacify it. Even the local sheriff who led the assaults on P-9 praised Jackson’s role. While the strike was anathema to the dominant AFL-CIO leadership, it was supported sub rosa by much of the left bureaucracy as part of the shadow war they are waging with Kirkland and Co.
Of course, like Jackson they avoid any open break with the AFL-CIO-CIA leaders. They are simply fearful of the growing trend towards union-busting. They welcome limited rank and file actions as a pressure on Kirkland to do something, but always within the context of not forcing an open fight in which the ranks might get out of hand. Some—not all—talk about an eventual mass movement to pressure the Democrats. Because they, like Jackson, anticipate the coming upsurge, they want to be sure it is under their control. The last thing they want is an independent movement of workers.
The left bureaucrats, like their more right-wing colleagues, have for many years tried to channel workers’ anger and frustration into electoral support of the Democrats. They differ with the Kirklands in that while they will inevitably back any Democrat, they want to push for a more populist nominee. Jan Pierce, National Vice-President of the CWA, writing in the DSA press in defense of the union’s “Jobs with Justice” campaign, expressed his hopes that the campaign would
convey an important message to labor and its supporters as more and more organizational resources are devoted to electing a Democrat—any Democrat—to the presidency next year. I believe that the changes organized labor needs to survive—much less revive—are not likely to occur solely as a result of ending Republican rule in 1988. And if we look to the Democratic Party (as currently constituted) to be our automatic saviour, we are in for some serious disappointments akin to those experienced by trade unionists during the Carter era.” (Democratic Left, September-October 1987.)
If you remember that the Vice President during the “Carter era” was the AFL-CIO’s candidate in 1984, you see the hidden barb aimed at Kirkland. Pierce and his friends want a candidate who will go further to defend the unions and workers’ aspirations. Jackson is a fitting Democrat in that respect. His electoral program is as ephemeral as the program of “Jobs with Justice.”
Naturally, Jackson’s stance on labor contains vague talk about supporting workers “in all kinds of struggles” but no mention of encouraging self-action or unifying the isolated strikes that break out in this period—and certainly no advocacy of the mass strikes, sit-downs and social rebellions, actions labor undertook when it was indeed a movement in the 1930s. It was the mass movement from below threatening to destroy capitalism that forced Franklin Roosevelt to grant reforms. Jackson’s reform promises today serve only to preempt and prevent such a social movement.
The only sort of “movement” planned for the rank and file is the movement to the polling places. Contrary to the illusions of the Rainbow activists, Jackson is not using the vote to encourage mass action but to detour it into passive electoralism. As he proclaimed to Iowa workers and farmers, “Now the time has come. I’ve stood with you, day in and day out. Stand with me, just one night: February 8.”
Jackson’s overture to white workers is based on stressing the pocketbook while pushing socially conservative issues and downplaying black responses to racial attacks. It is simply the flip side of his approach to black workers. His message to whites tells them to adhere to their petty-bourgeois ethnic power brokers and the labor bureaucrats. After all, his immediate base has always been in the black small business community, adroit at riding the movement tide to secure new positions in corporate society.
As Jackson has moved toward playing by the rules of the Democratic power brokers, some nationalist black radicals have objected. Weusi is a good example of those Rainbow activists whose criticism of Jackson’s line on Howard Beach was dictated by opposition to his overtures to white workers. Weusi stated (in the previously cited article):
Many of us would like the opportunity to discuss problems we had with his sermons, in particular some of the analogies he made comparing Harlem and Howard Beach as ‘different sides of the same coin.’ … I disagree with the analysis of Jesse Jackson when he tries to place Howard Beach in some kind of class context that downplays the traditional white racist character of this community.”
Weusi, as a radical petty-bourgeois black nationalist, sees black defense and working-class defense as counterposed interests, with Jackson capitulating to the latter. In this Weusi and other sectoral leftists mirror the outlook of Jackson and most Democratic politicians: they equate white workers with the racist Howard Beach murderers. To appeal to such workers, they imagine, you have to sacrifice militant black protest. The mainstream Democrats are willing to do so; Weusi is not, not yet.
Separatists like Weusi once adored Jackson because he seemed to push independent black power. But the ethnic brokerage game always features leaders who initially build a mass following by stressing group power—as a means to position themselves better for bargaining. Because it is impossible for any oppressed group in American society to go it alone, all sectoralists, even nationalists, inevitably end up dealing away the interests of their mass base.
Jackson has submerged his previously radical rhetoric in favor of a more open imperialist stance. That was the third lesson he learned from 1984: the Democrats demand proofs of loyalty to U.S. imperialism. So for example, when hawkish Senator Al Gore criticized his primary opponents for not being militant enough cold warriors, Jackson responded as a defender of the Democratic Party’s moderate but entirely imperialist line:
Mr. Jackson suggested that Gore was outside the Democratic ‘mainstream’ on military issues. ‘The antics and the tactics are attention getters,’ Mr. Jackson said of Mr. Gore. ‘But they do not represent good tactics or sound leadership’.” (New York Times, October 8.)
A far cry from his anti-imperialist rhetoric of 1984.
In a recent debate over Reagan’s policies in the Persian Gulf, Jackson said that he did not favor an immediate end to the reflagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers (the excuse for the U.S. naval intervention). Thus his position on the Gulf is to the right of other Democratic candidates in the “mainstream.” The militant Jackson of yore who blisteringly attacked the U.S. military now equivocates over Reagan’s “Star Wars” scheme for a massive military build-up.
Even such a Jackson well-wisher as journalist Alexander Cockburn has had to comment on his blatant defense of imperialism. In his December 23 column in In These Times, Cockburn noted that during a nationally televised debate, Jackson was asked whether the presence of a “Soviet satellite in Central America” would bother him. Jackson’s response was revealing: “If we support self-determination and aid economic development … we can win Nicaragua.” Cockburn was prepared to swallow this crap –“Excepting the unattractive conceptual connotation of ‘win,’ this is all right”—but he went on to quote the rest of what Jackson said:
Yes, we should negotiate bilaterally with Ortega. No foreign military advisers. No Soviet base. And if they, in their self-determination, choose to relate to the Soviets in that way, they must know the alternative. If they are with us, there are tremendous benefits. If they are not with us, there are tremendous consequences. If we are clear … the response will be clear.
This overt defense of U.S. imperialism was too much. Cockburn commented: “In other words, if you are not with us, you are against us—and in case you are wondering what this means, read up on the history of Guatemala.” As Cockburn understands, Jackson not only defends U.S. imperialism and the cold war with the USSR but is prepared to invade Nicaragua to do it. Cockburn is more honest than the rest of his playmates on the left but he too has no alternative to the “progressive” thrust of Jesse Jackson.
Cockburn and Weusi are hardly alone in trying to understand what Jackson is up to. At the same time that the bulk of the left has been issuing clarion calls for “economic justice,” jobs, and an end to plant closings and corporation bailouts, Jackson is reassuring the ruling class that his aim is to save the capitalist system, not destroy it. In response to the Wall Street crash Jackson preached:
We are all in the economic trenches now, even if, on Wall Street, the trenches are mahogany-lined. Layoffs, farm foreclosures, bank failures, rising debt and falling wealth are our common ground. Wall Street and LaSalle Street [Chicago’s financial center] cannot escape Main Street and Rural Route 3. We are one. (New York Times, November 1.)
Jackson called for an “economic Camp David”—bringing together business, labor, Wall Street and politicians—to find a way to cut budget deficits and restore economic health. This has nothing in common with defending the masses; instead it lays the basis for a capitalist austerity program: “Let’s all share the burden just as we’ve all shared the wealth.” This garbage is meant to convince working people to accept cutbacks, under the illusion that the rich will suffer too. We’ve all heard this “equality of sacrifice” line before.
Jackson’s remarks can’t be dismissed as “acting Presidential.” When he reassures business of his loyalty to capitalism, it is no act. In a letter to Business Week (June 1), Jackson proclaimed:
I wish to make clear the positive aspects of my position on economic policy: a realistic concern about the practices of American businesses that tend to place short-term profits ahead of the well-being of their employees, their communities, the nation, and their own future financial health.
To point out these problems and to call for their correction is not ‘business bashing.’ A strong, healthy private economy is essential to our national well-being and our hopes for social progress. The future of the business Establishment and of the nation itself are dependent upon attention to the long-range effects of current American business policies.
The long-term interests of American business and the American people are mutual and inseparable.
Whereas Jackson laments that present policies weaken “our ability to compete in international markets,” the reality of American capitalism is that in times of trouble big business always has always said to blacks and working people, what are “we” going to do? But contrary to Jackson it isn’t “our” country nor “our” system—not until the socialist revolution sweeps away racist capitalism.
Jackson’s working-class appeal is a dangerous trap, but it reflects a correct perception that the working masses are on the road to a new upsurge of class power. The rest of the motley crew of Democratic aspirants also see this; following Jackson, their rhetoric has shifted noticeably to the left to capture workers’ dissatisfaction. In his letter to Business Week, Jackson concurred with the magazine’s earlier comment which “correctly suggests that my attack on economic violence is setting a tone being echoed by other Democratic Presidential candidates.”
What Jackson sensed is now confirmed; the rest of the crew has finally smelled the same scent. “The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s attack on ‘big corporations’ has been picked up by Mr. Gephardt especially.” And Gephardt is not alone. Even former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, who set the troops on striking copper workers at Phelps Dodge, now calls for “workplace democracy.” (New York Times, January 17.) Babbitt has even attacked on Iowa’s large meatpacking company, IBP Inc., for its union-busting activities.
The impact of class anger has surfaced even in the Republican Party. Senator Bob Dole, of all people, has been doling out attacks on “Preppie” George Bush and his “country club followers” from the vantage point of one who “started at the bottom.”
A new movement is nearing, but the left overlooks that the electoral “leaders”—even the Democrats, even Jesse Jackson—aren’t trying to build it. They are desperately working to detour it so that it doesn’t endanger the capitalist system they all worship.
The pro-Jackson leftists who are nervous about his ethnic-sectoralist coalition-building inside the Democratic Party want to do the same thing outside. The result would be disastrous either way. Both strategies rely on divisions within the working class necessary for capitalism’s divide-and-conquer methods. Bargaining for crumbs at the top inevitably masks the growing reality of crisis-ridden capitalism below, where one group is turned against the other in pursuit of survival.
For blacks to weaken their struggle against racist violence means feeding fuel to the fire. Blacks are not simply another ethnic group that can follow the mythical path to integration and prosperity. They are a huge minority to which decadent capitalism cannot grant equality, economic or social. They are the scapegoat U.S. capitalism needs to save its skin, cast to the bottom of the economic—ladder and consequently painted as a permanent threat to other workers. Waving a flag of retreat now would be the signal for an assault on all gains blacks have made and the system can no longer afford.
Black workers are critical for the coming upsurge in class struggle. They cannot win jobs without leading a fight for employment for all; they won’t achieve a decent standard of living unless all workers do; they can’t defeat racism except by demonstrating that class struggle is infinitely preferable to racist idiocy for white workers as well as blacks. In their own interest they need to lead the working class to smash racism and poverty by overthrowing capitalism. And they have the power to take the lead.
Workers will create their own movement, not condescending bourgeois saviors or even well intentioned left organizers. In doing so they will recreate their own revolutionary party, a party which will not say that what is good for General Motors is good for workers. Our class is learning in practice that salvation lies not in chasing rainbows but in proletarian socialist revolution.