Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere

Against the Current No. 16, September-October 1988

Justin Schwartz

JESSE JACKSON AND many Rainbow activists present the Democratic Convention in Atlanta as victory. It was the first time a Black politician was taken seriously in national politics, they say; the first time hitherto forbidden topics were discussed in a national forum. On the socialist left, many see Atlanta as a vindication of a strategy of working for socialism in alliance with Black and movement insurgents within the Democratic Party.

Another view, however, sees Atlanta as an abject defeat for Jackson and the left, underlining the futility of trying to 0takeover” the Democratic Party or transforming it into something which might represent the interests of the working class and oppressed nationalities.

In ATC 15 (July-August 1988), Charles Sarkis argued for the first viewpoint. I will argue for the second.(1)

I am not happy about this conclusion. As a revolutionary socialist, I was excited when Jackson first campaigned five years ago. I worked on the 1984 campaign and attempted (unsuccessfully) to help build a post-election Rainbow Coalition in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan. In 1988, I defended Jackson in Solidarity–a lonely task. In between I was intermittently involved in local Democratic Party politics, largely in the hope that Rainbow activism might advance socialist goals.

Of course, Jackson is no socialist While anti-corporate and anti-imperialist, he is not anti-capitalist His answer to the question, “What does Jesse want?” is, “I want to be president,” not “I want socialist revolution.” Winning the nomination, or at least being treated as a serious candidate, would have been one type of victory. While it would have been a victory for anti-racism, electing another Democrat, even a Black one, is not much of a reason for a socialist to support Jackson. If it had been Andrew Young, it is less likely that we would have much cared.

But Jackson is clearly not just more of the same in a different color. I supported Jackson because he took progressive stands unprecedented for a serious presidential candidate; more important, by inspiring a multiracial alliance of the left, the dispossessed and the workers who could overcome racism, Jackson appeared to offer a challenge to the dominance of big business in U.S. politics that would outrun his own moderate electoral ambitions.

What has this strategy achieved? Sarkis usefully outlines three socialist tests for the Rainbow strategy.

1. Has our participation reversed the rightward shift of the Democratic Party?

2. Has it built that grassroots-based multiracial alliance, leaving our popular movements better off?

3. Could we have done better things with our time?

On the evidence of the last five years, the answers are no, no, and yes. These answers were predictable on the basis of the U.S. and international experience with the electoral route.

First Test: Realignment

“There is little question,” Sarkis says, “that in the short term Jackson’s campaign significantly blunted the rightward movement of the Democratic Party.”

Are we talking about the same Democratic Party? The Rainbow did not win one major programmatic concession from the Democrats in 1984 or 1988. In San Francisco in 1984, socialist Jackson supporter Amiri Baraka complained bitterly, “Why are we going home with nothing?”(2)

And nothing was what we got in Atlanta in 1988. The Democrats voted down by a 2-1 margin the Rainbow proposal to reverse Reagan’s tax cuts for the rich. As in 1984, they opposed joining the Soviet Union in renouncing first use of nuclear weapons. The Jackson forces did not even try to force a vote on Palestinian statehood.

Jackson retreated from his unsuccessful 1984 demand for a major military-budget cut to a request for a budget freeze and settled for an empty promise to “restrain” Pentagon spending. Dukakis, meanwhile, proposes a vast conventional arms buildup.(3)

As regards regular Democratic campaigns, in 1984, Mondale ran the most right-wing campaign of any Democrat hitherto, campaigning on an austerity program of putting the working class through the wringer of higher taxes to maintain Reagan’s (really Carter’s) military buildup.

When Reagan accused Dukakis of liberalism, the candidate replied, “I think the president is a little confused.”(4) Given his record as an austerity governor and supporter of workfare, his denial was perfectly correct.

To hammer it home, Dukakis picked a George Bush clone as his running mate.

The Democrats have chosen a “Southern Strategy” which takes Blacks for granted and goes for white backlash voters who supported Reagan in 1984.

Jackson’s response to this emphatic rejection of his program and his constituency is to call for unity with the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket. This was predictable given the political structure of the party and the record of past attempts to reform the party, which I consider below.

Sarkis objects that critics must show that “later defeats necessarily overshadow earlier victories.” Writing before the convention he says, “Suppose that Jackson … gets few or no programmatic concessions and still backs the nominee. That still does not prove that the advantages labor struggles (for example) got from Jackson were illusory.”

The principle is correct, but even real gains may not balance real defeats. Are there real gains in the area that Sarkis chooses? Jackson’s commendable support may have helped the International Paper strike in Jay, Maine, but has not done much to reverse the continued decline of organized labor.(5) Perhaps as a candidate there was not much that Jackson could do, but that is part of my point The defeats, on the other hand, have been grave.

Second Test A Stronger Movement?

Socialists must evaluate the Jackson campaign by whether “left-wing participation in it left grassroots groups in better or at least no worse shape than before,” Sarkis says.

But five years of Rainbow organizing have failed to build a non-electoral movement. The National Rainbow Coalition remains a top-down, purely electoral effort that is already disappearing, according to Manning Marable, a socialist Jackson supporter who finds these trends “disturbing.(6) Sarkis’ shift from talk of “Rainbow participation” to talk of “the Jackson campaign” reflects an unhappy reality in a way he does not pause to consider.

Sarkis addresses whether Jackson relates to his constituencies as members of movements or as atomized voters. His participation on picket lines and at demonstrations “reinforces the identification of his voters as people who should demonstrate,” Sarkis says, and gives them “broader political identification as part of a popular, pluralist and activist coalition.”

Jackson’s support of strikes and demonstrations is to his credit. But his appeal is to people as voters. “When I win, you win,” he says, but that is the wrong way around. This is how electoral politics works in capitalist democracy. All that matters is how many individuals you can get to pull that lever. Any broader Rain­ bow Coalition with which Jackson supporters identify is a myth.

Third Test Could We Do Better?

Did the socialist and movement participation in the Jackson campaign produce better results than other sorts of work we might have done? Sarkis argues that “Jackson has run when almost all social movements have been at a low ebb.” I suspect that the real point is: What’s the alternative?

The Rainbow strategy is a response to the Jack of a labor-based mass grassroots opposition. There is a strong tendency to say: what else is there to do? Party-building by the revolutionary left flopped. The movements are marginalized. If one is sick of mere opposition, and wants some real change, the electoral route can look appealing. A Jackson makes it palatable for socialists in a way that a Dukakis cannot.

But major change in this country has never come through mainstream electoral politics. Social security and union-organizing rights were won by factory insurgents and sit down strikers in the 1930s. The abolition of Jim Crow was won in the marches to Selma and Montgomery in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was ended on the streets and campuses. That is also where escalation of the Central American war has been blocked and the INF treaty achieved.

Women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, all have been won outside of major party politics. Mass movements are the only thing that we know makes a difference.(7)

There is no way around the need for the self-activity of the working class, that is, revolutionary socialism. The electoral route is not a shortcut but a dead end. You can’t get here from there.

The classic Marxist-Leninist model derived from mechanical misapplication of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? to advanced capitalist nations is also a dead end. But the social-democratic model of voting socialism in by degrees is equally bankrupt Both models neglect the truth that the working class must emancipate itself: neither the Communists nor the Democratic Party can act on the workers’ behalf.

What makes socialists think that the Democratic Party is any more susceptible to reform or takeover than capitalism itself? In their scrupulously researched account of the “right turn” of the Democratic Party in recent decades, Ferguson and Rogers argue that:

“Organized labor, Black and women’s organizations, and community groups representing poor and other ordinary Americans … have never run the Party. They have always occupied the lower rungs of a hierarchy that had other, more powerful interests on top-principally capital-intensive and multi-nationally owned big business and its allies among urban real-estate magnates, military contractors, and portions of the media.”(8)

We might as well try to “takeover” or reform American Express. Most socialists would scoff at that proposal, yet to take over or reform the Democratic Party would require no less. It is fantasy to suppose that socialists can take over or replace this behemoth if we cannot build a mass labor-based movement. Yet our current inability to build such a movement is an essential premise in the argument for the Rainbow strategy.

Which party is in the White House might make a marginal difference on some issues. But lots of things might make a marginal difference. Revolutionary socialists are few and poor. We have to decide where to put our limited energies, resources and numbers. Do we want to put them into promoting a capitalist party that can do perfectly well without our participation? Or do we want to put them into independent movements that are likely to collapse without our work?

Just now there is no mass movement of the sort or on the scale needed. Such a movement depends on factors that no one understands very well and that are not in our control. In the current situation, revolutionary realism counsels patience and perseverance.

By building the mass movements, the grassroots groups, rank-and-file unionism and independent local electoral politics, we prepare the ground for the next upsurge in potentially revolutionary activity. Lord knows, there is no shortage of things to do. Participation in mainstream electoral politics can only detract from this work.

Psychology & Politics of Electoralism

“What’s your alternative?” is a reasonable question. But it cuts ‘both ways. Is the electoral route really an alternative for socialists?

Mainstream electoral work creates an investment of emotional energy in having it mean something. Honest assessment of whether it really achieved socialist goals is hard. Revision of goals downward to make them fit what is feasible in the mainstream is easy. Too often, we call defeats “moral victories” or decide they were real victories. People end up wanting what they can get: this is the well-known phenomenon of II sour grapes.”(9)

Socialists may brush off the psychological as something easy to handle. The theory of ideology should remind us that this is a mistake.0Social being determines consciousness;’ as someone once remarked.

This difficulty applies in any sort of work, but here a special political problem arises. In mainstream electoral politics we cannot achieve socialist goals. So participants in such politics often end up abandoning radical goals.

We are not the first to have tried the electoral route. In this country, the Communist Party has worked in the Democratic Party since the 1930s. So did the old Socialist Party; the Democratic Socialists of America continues the tradition.

The record is even less promising if we consider the Labour and Social Democratic Parties of Europe which, unlike the Democratic Party, are not controled by big business. As Adam Przeworski and John Sprague conclude their careful empirical analysis of a century of social democracy:

“The error of the early socialists was to have thought that one could precipitate radical social transformation through the electoral process. Today, 100 years later, left-wing parties face the threat of secular decline …Ashamed of looking too far forward, mortally afraid of looking irresponsible, left-wing political parties view socialism with embarrassment. Thus the era of electoral socialism maybe over.”(10)

On both sides of the Atlantic, these groups have for all practical purposes given up on socialism itself. They act merely as left-liberals, whatever their rhetoric. Verbal commitment to socialist pieties is empty if in your practical work all you do is try to get Democrats elected. Some socialists talk about “using the Democrats” for our own purposes. This illustrates how politics interacts with psychology to subvert socialist goals.

Who is in a position to use whom? On one side is a powerful national party, firmly controlled by big business and backed by vast financial resources and access to media and government. On the other is a handful of poor and unorganized activists who, by their own admission, cannot (for now) build an independent political party or mass movement to advance our own goals.

As hard workers, we can be quite useful to the party if we will give up our goals. But the party can do without us.

Either the progressives or the party are deceiving themselves, and it’s not the party.(11)

Sarkis says that critics of participation in the Jackson campaign must “make a specific argument against Rainbow participation that is not at the same time an argument against any electoral participation.”

While it is reasonable to insist that arguments be germane, this “ground rule” is designed to exclude relevant evidence. For Sarkis, we cannot put the Rainbow in historical context or use empirical political sociology to assess the Rainbow strategy. The assumption is that the Rainbow is so unique a phenomenon that all the usual factors cease to operate. But why should any rational person accept this?

Many fear that leaving the party will isolate us from any prospect of real power. Jackson has said, “We have too much invested in the Democratic Party. When you have money in the bank, you don’t walk away from it.(12)

But when the bank is embezzling your funds, you have to cut your losses. Participation in the Democratic Party has never brought workers or the oppressed real power. It has locked us into powerlessness in a de facto one-party system, where both parties are the party of capital. No matter who wins, we lose.

The odds against independent socialist and movement politics are long, but, as Sarkis says, “long odds are not an argument against anything socialists do.” The odds against the electoral route, however, are not long but impossible, and impossible odds are a decisive refutation Otherwise we are wasting our time and others.


  1. My arguments have close affinities with those of Joanna Misnik, Jesse Jackson, The Rainbow, and the Democratic Party–New Politics or Old? (Detroit: Solidarity, 1988) and Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (New York: Verso, 1985).
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  2. Manning Marable, Black American Politics: From the Washington Marches to Jesse Jackson (New York: Verso, 1985) 298.
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  3. For Mondale’s appalling retreats, see Davis, 1985, Chapter 7.
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  4. Ann Arbor News, July 31, 1988. A ‘”worried Bush adviser”‘ cited by Business Week (July 25, 1988) says, “We’re going to spend all of our energies trying to make Dukakis look like another George McGovern. The trouble is, he isn’t.”
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  5. Kim Moody, “Stumbling in the Dark American Labor’s Failed Response,” The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook, Mike Davis, Fred Pfeil and Michael Sprinker, eds. (New York: Verso, 1985) Chapter 3.
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  6. Manning Marable, ”The Contradictory Contours of Black Political Culture,” The Year Left 2: Towards Rainbow Socialism (New York: Verso, 1987) 9-11.
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  7. These are empirical claims, not articles of faith. Davis (1985) argues the case for social security and union-0rganizing rights; Marable (1985), makes it for civil rights. Michio Kaku and Daniel Axelrod summarize some of the evidence about the anti-Vietnam War movement in To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon’s Secret War Plans (Boston: South End Press, 1988) Chapter 10.
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  8. Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986) 195.
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  9. Jon Bister, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) Part III.
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  10. Adam Przeworski and John Sprague, Paper Stones (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985) 183-85. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. For a precis, see Przeworski’s ‘”Social Democracy as an Historical Phenomenon,” Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 7-46.
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  11. Ellen J. Langer discusses this sort of self-deception in “The Illusion of Control,” Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biasis, Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) Chapter 16.
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  12. Marable, 1987, 9.
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September-October 1988, AT 16

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