Will the Rainbow Face Reality?

Against the Current, No. 15, July/August 1988

Mel Leiman

JESSE JACKSON HAS singlehandedly electrified the fairly dull and routine presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988. His growing strength across race lines in the current 1988 campaign has surprised virtually all of the professionals and produced consternation, perhaps bordering on panic, among the leading political power brokers of the Democratic Party.

Some of the liberal members of the press corps are trying to sanitize Jackson by simultaneously flattering and prodding him away from his “leftist” positions. A.M. Rosenthal, for example, in a March 19 New York Times column entitled “Bravo, Jesse,” gives Jackson advice on how to win over white liberals and centrists:

“Mr. Jackson could win these white voters. All he has to do is stop talking in simplistic [i.e., radical] slogans, stop acting as if every third world country represents virtue against Western deviltry [i.e., tone down his comments about the contras and the Palestine Liberation Organization], stop giving his twisted figures about economic conditions in the United states, stop sending the mixed social message that individuals must help themselves but that it is all society’s fault.”

In other words, Jackson should sound more like the rest of the Democratic Party candidates.

Jackson’s blend of left-liberal stances on many pressing issues has obviously touched a responsive chord among many voters. Significant numbers in states as disparate as agrarian Iowa and industrial Michigan have supported Jackson.

The reaction of these voters is a primitive form of class protest at their fragile, if not deteriorating, economic condition, which many voters intuitively connect with the distorted priorities of the system. Jackson has probably earned the begrudging respect of many white voters who see him as a modem populist hero joining battle with the affluent, free-spending, machine politicians.

Yet beneath the surface there are other factors that must be considered in order to properly evaluate the Jackson phenomenon, and especially, where it fits in the political struggle for positive social change.

Although the Democratic and Republican parties are not mirror images of each other, neither are they sufficiently different to form the foundation of a genuine political democracy by offering distinct political or economic alternatives. Both draw support from the propertied as well as non-propertied classes.

There is no doubt that the Democrats represent a somewhat more flexible approach in dealing with incipient or actual revolutionary pressures, both domestic and international. Thus they have been better able in certain past periods to tap and deflect the discontent felt by the most deprived sectors of the society.

Jackson, in particular, appears to offer a genuine alternative to Democratic Party traditionalists. This was as true in the 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, Albert Gore, Paul Simon, eta!., as it was in 1984 vis-a-vis Walter Mondale and Gary Hart.(1) This has led a number of leftists to extend critical support to Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition while acknowledging that there are obstacles to achieving societal change through electoral politics.

Manning Marable, in a well-researched and sensitively written article on the 1984 Jackson phenomena,(2) suggested that Jackson may have become radicalized by contact with an assortment of Black Marxists, left social democrats, liberals, and Black nationalists who acquired pivotal positions in his entourage. Marable’s statement that Jackson’s campaign had a “left social democratic tone” and that it “became forthrightly anti-imperialist and anti-corporate in context”(3) stretched the facts, but it did correctly indicate the gap between the Democratic Party “regulars” and the Jackson “irregulars.”

In a similar way Dave Dellinger recently stated that Jackson’s 1988 campaign “can raise public consciousness by helping to delineate and publicize the nature and depth of the country’s problems and putting forward genuine rather than cosmetic solutions.”(4) Michael Albert claims that “Jackson’s campaign threatens the system the Tweedledum and twiddle-dee candidates legitimate.”(5)

In 1984 Jackson stated, “Choosing dollars over dignity not only in South Africa [Jackson favored a gradual removal of U.S. firms from South Africa] but in El Salvador, Chile, the Philippines and elsewhere around the world, is leading us as a nation down the road to moral suicide.”(6) In campaign ’88 he emphasized the need for redirecting resources from the Nicaraguan contras and risky adventures in the Persian Gulf to home investments. Jackson lost favor among some liberal and radical Jewish supporters when he was unfairly accused of being anti-Semitic as a result of his having gingerly raised the thorny issue of Palestinian rights.(7)

Almost alone among the candidates he has attacked the major corporations who have benefitted from Reagan administration tax cuts, and then shut down many of the plants in America while opening new plants in low-wage countries with repressive governments, such as South Korea. Jackson hammers on the populist theme that corporate power machinery is fostering a reckless path of “merger mania” and that government is no longer striking a proper balance between business and labor.

While recognizing the necessity for offering incentives to the corporations — their precise nature is unclear — he insists:

“[These] incentives … should shift from the phenomenon of merging corporations and purging workers, leveraged buyouts and submerging the economy, to reinvesting in America, retraining Americans1 reindustrialize our nation, research for our development, and conversion … from building war machinery to building infrastructural products.”(8)

Statements and attitudes like this help give Jackson an aura of being independent of the white ruling establishment. Jackson, moreover, is seen as possessing the necessary charisma for making the passive and powerless Blacks (and even a certain number of similarly situated whites) feel a sense of potential control over the system that oppresses them. One voting estimate indicates that more than 1.3 million Southern Blacks were added to the voting registry during the 1984 campaign.(9)

Jackson directs his main appeal to the over-all Black community (especially Black churches) and liberal whites rather than specifically to the Black or white working class. The Black religious establishment in its tum overwhelmingly endorsed Jackson in both the1984 and 1988 campaigns. The Black Democratic machine went for Mondale in 1984 but switched to Jackson in the current campaign.

With hindsight based on the1984 campaign, we can conclude that the Jackson movement was structurally flawed from the outset by operating within a framework of bourgeois politics that, in effect, limits dissent to a choice between the lesser of two II evil” candidates within the two major parties. When he lost at the 1984 Democratic Convention-a virtual inevitability, given that period’s hostility to liberalism as well as to Black economic empowerment-he climbed on the Mondale bandwagon with flowery rhetoric, making what the New York Time called “an impassioned plea for party unity.”(10)

The commitment of the Rainbow Coalition leadership to remain in the Democratic Party forces them to move to the right as the mainstream of the Party itself (for various reasons) has drifted in that direction. Left elements who stay in the coalition in the hope that they can eventually build a left-wing mass movement out of the Rainbow Coalition are caught in a choke hold.

By getting absorbed in the limited and compromising party of electoral politics rather than taking on the crucial but formidable task of building an independent mass base, this well-intentioned leadership cadre is undermining its own pursuit of a more just society.(11) Jackson has partially bottled up the sense of exploitation and discontent that he has creatively helped to arouse.

Perhaps the central theoretical weakness that Jack­ son shares with most liberals is the belief that the state is the most effective instrumentality for humanizing the market system, or at least for softening its harsher contradictions. This position is defective because, contrary to the liberals’ thinking, the state is not an unbiased mediator in the class struggle. To say that it’s dominant credo is, or could be, caring for the downtrodden and controlling its privileged elite is tantamount to substituting folklore for science.

Capitalism with a “human face” is only possible under certain historical conditions, such as an expanding economy. But since the early 1970s these conditions have been eroding. State intervention advances and legitimates dominant corporate interests, and those interests have, in some periods, been in harmony with the general welfare and, in other periods, in conflict with it In the last decade, under both political parties, the expansion of military spending and limitation on welfare spending has accented the conflictual angle. Jackson sees a reordering of these priorities as essential for social harmony. In effect he would like to rationalize an irrational system, a desire that demands more from the system than it is capable of delivering.

Manning Marable, despite his strong sympathy and support for Jackson’s 1984 campaign, was forced to conclude that: “Another political mechanism must be constructed in the U.S. among the most class conscious of progressive elements of the Rainbow Coalition, which will raise the central political contradictions of class/race/gender at every instance in the process of the expanding social movement”(12)

It is precisely this mechanism which is necessarily lacking when one works within the framework of the Democratic Party. This was the sad and painful lesson of the 1984 Jackson campaign and will undoubtedly repeat itself in 1988.

If the consciousness of some of the participants is being raised by their experience in Jackson’s campaign, and if they in time recognize the limited possibilities of forming a labor party from a radicalization of the bourgeois Democratic Party, then there could be important positive results from the Rainbow Coalition. In that sense, Jackson’s struggle can be seen as a historical marker of the exhaustion of reformist possibilities. The transition to socialism henceforth must proceed along other paths.

It is all too obvious that in contemporary America, national elections take on aspects of a state fair wherein all of the players pull out all stops to win the prize. Our two leading parties are mere wings of the main party, the Party of Private Property.

Working within this structure limits the demands of even the most liberal members to goals that remain compatible with the long-run objective of sufficient profits for maintaining the viability of the existing system. Yet it is precisely this system, based on the drive for private profit, that is the fount of class and race oppression.

Although there were numerous socialists in Jackson’s camp who understand these linkages; Jackson himself has thus far chosen to accept the limits of orthodox politics rather than to launch a new party committed to genuine structural change. Without this commitment, all reform movements are overwhelmingly likely to die stillborn.

The core issue transcends the Jackson phenomenon. It concerns the question of whether or not there is a viable and politically acceptable liberal strategy for confronting the problems exacerbated by stagflation and the political tum to the right over the last decade. Can a liberal administration succeed where the conservative counterpart has not? Can it, for example, ameliorate the fiscal crises (no less the unemployment, poverty and violence) of the major cities?

The evidence is that many of the most progressive city administrations in the current era of stagflation find themselves hamstrung by sets of interlinked problems: the city’s powerful corporate sector (and secondarily, the Black bourgeoisie) exerts a dominant economic influence that no administration, however well intentioned, can ignore.

A progress-minded political administration that bucks the corporate interests in terms of tax, welfare or wage policies will find itself with a withering economic base that prevents it from implementing liberal-radical policies. An economy based on the dominance of Capital can, at best, accept only those reforms that are compatible with continued profitability.

The only potential exception is when there is a truly imminent threat from a powerful working class. Then, and only then, is it possible that a party of the capitalist class might accept severe compromises to maintain some measure of hegemony.(13)

There is no way that progressive people like Jackson, Harold Washington in Chicago or Mel King in Boston can constitute a significant left presence within the Democratic Party capable of leading to popular control of the economy while meeting the pressing needs of the society.

The growing zone of accord between the two par­ ties reflects the fact that the moral-political axis of bourgeois politics has moved to the right. These facts do not mean that electoral political politics should be eschewed as meaningless or harmful. As a tactic for organizing and educating working people, electoral politics certainly can be highly useful if this occurs within a political party dominated by the working class.

But the truth is clear: The Democratic Party is not, and cannot become, a working-class party. Those among the Jackson cadres — perhaps Jackson himself — who join the demand for a fundamental restructuring of the capitalist system rather than “democratizing” it, will be part of a socialist vanguard. Primitive anti-capitalist yearnings are assuredly evident in the Jackson revolt against the Democratic Party hierarchy, but it is only through a drastic deepening and widening of this struggle that racism as well as class inequality can be uprooted.


  1. Jackson called for an $80 billion cut in the military budget for 1985, a $50 billion public works program and $10 billion earmarked for the poor. This does indeed represent a substantial difference in allocational priorities from that of the mainstream in either of the two major political parties.
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  2. Manning Marable, 0Jackson and the Ride of the Rainbow Coalition,” New Left Review, Jan/Feb. 1985, 3-44.
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  3. Marable 18.
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  4. Dave Dellinger, “Activism and Jackson,” Zeta Magazine Feb. 1988: 29. Dellinger emphasizes that the Jackson electoral campaign must be ac­ companied by widespread activism-demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience-in order to bring about effective social change.
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  5. Michael Albert, “Jackson vs. Technocracy,” Zeta Magazine, Feb. 1988: 26.
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  6. Marable 39.
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  7. Jackson’s 1984 support from the Muslim minister Farrakhan-who has indeed made a number of genuine anti-Semitic remarks such as referring to Judaism as a “gutter religion” and to Hitler as a “‘very great man” — further undermined his standing with the Jewish community. See Marable’s insightful and fair reportage, 29-36. In the 1988 campaign Jackson is the only candidate with the courage to argue for Palestinian rights. “We must assure the Palestinians of our commitment to them, recognition as a State to assure security for Israel, justice for the Palestinian and peace for both.” (David Moberg, “On the road with Jackson in Iowa: Addressing the Primacy Issues,” In These Times, Jan. 20-26, 1988, 7.)
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  8. Moberg 7.
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  9. Charles V. Hamilton, “The Phenomenon of the Jesse Jackson Candidacy and the 1984 Presidential Election,” The State of Black America, 1985, ed. James Williams (National Urban League, 1985) presents a study of voting behavior during this campaign from a liberal point of view.
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  10. The New York Times, July 18, 1984. It ought to be noted that this plea followed closely on the heels of a near-total rebuff at the convention to every significant liberal plank put forward by the Jackson group. If the maintenance of Party discipline is a virtue, this performance deserves highest ranking. It is highly unlikely that the Democratic Party in 1988 will engage in the same crude behavior towards Jackson.
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  11. The role of these left elements in Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition will be similar to that of Communist Party trade-union militants in the New Deal period. They adhered to a self-defeating strategy of assisting in the formation of a center-left alliance within the Democratic Party rather than the revolutionary strategy of forming a counterforce. Instead of pushing the Democrats to the left, these well-intentioned militants were either absorbed by it or retreated from politics. In any case, this popular-front strategy proved to be ineffectual.
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  12. Marable 44.
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  13. The above comment is not intended to deny that the struggle for reform by a worker-dominated movement may have revolutionary implications.
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July-August 1988, ATC 15

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