The USA: politics as a "business" and populism

Submitted by martin on 4 April, 2021 - 11:22 Author: Friedrich Engels; Martin Thomas
"Boss Tweed"

From Socialist Organiser 194, 30 August 1984. Image above: "Boss Tweed", the leader of the Democratic Party machine in New York City from the 1850s to the 1870s

Two sorts of democracy

Friedrich Engels, writing in 1891, saw the USA as an example of the limitations of even the best capitalist democracy. At that time the USA did not even have a sizeable permanent state bureaucracy or standing army. Yet Engels saw a radical difference between the USA’s democracy and the workers’ democracy created in the Paris Commune, when the working class took power in Paris for two months in 1871.

Nowhere do “politicians” form a more separate and powerful section of the nation than precisely in North America.

There, each of the two major parties which alternately succeed each other in power is itself in turn controlled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory are rewarded with positions...

It is precisely in America that we see best how there takes place this process of the state power making itself independent in relation to society,whose mere instrument it was originally intended to be. Here there exists no dynasty, no nobility, no standing army, beyond the few men keeping watch on the Indians, no bureaucracy with permanent posts or the right to pensions. And nevertheless we find here two great gangs of political speculators, who alternately take possession of the state power and exploit it by the most corrupt means and for the most corrupt ends....

Against this transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society — an inevitable transformation in all previous states — the Commune made use of two infallible means. In the first place, it filled all posts —administrative, judicial and educational —by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors. And,in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers... In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates to representative bodies which were added besides. This shattering of the former state power and its replacement by a new and truly democratic one is described in detail [by Marx].

• From Engels’ Introduction to The Civil War in France, by Karl Marx

Dollar democracy

By Martin Thomas

For the first half-century after the United States was founded 200 years ago, its policies were dominated by aristocrats from the longer-settled areas. The Democratic Party originated in a revolt against that domination by the more newly-settled West and the middle class in the grow ing cities of the East.

They elected Andrew Jackson as president in 1828. Jackson — the first president who went “from a log cabin to the White House" — alarmed the wealthiest citizens by abolishing the Bank of the United States (US equivalent of the Bank of England). "Ever since I read the history of the South Sea Bubble" (a famous swindle of the 18th century), he explained, "I have been afraid of banks".

The Democrats — and in particular Martin Van Buren, their leader in New York — originated most of the techniques of modern party politics. The New York Democrats, indeed, believed that efficient party organisation, linked to a "spoils" system for allocating public offices to the West, every wage worker could hope to become a small proprietor. was in and of itself democratic. The party policies were secondary; but the party organisation could enable ‘the people’ to challenge the long-established wealthy families.

Within this doctrine of the supremacy of the party machine, the Democrats spread their net wide enough both to win support from a sizeable share of the upper class and to absorb into their ranks the world’s first ever self-proclaimed workers' party. The fate of the New York Workingmen’s Party — which was absorbed into a radical wing of the Democrats in the 1830s — illustrates a recurrent pattern in US politics. It was a populist party, a party aspiring to represent working people in general as against a few rich parasites, rather than a socialist party of class struggle. By its definition, farmers, shopkeepers, even industrial capitalists, were all workers too.

Such ideas of "people’s politics" rather than class politics have been a recurrent theme in US radicalism. Populism is always unstable. It tends to go in for quack schemes of social reform, and to be easily hoodwinked by capitalist politicians who can present themselves as "of the people".

In the 19th century there was a real social basis for such politics. Right up to 1880, more people worked on farms in the US than in all other occupations combined, and as late as 1900 nearly ten million out of a total labour force of 29 million were farmers or their immediate families or “managers and proprietors". With new territory constantly being opened up in the West, every wage-worker could hope to become a small proprietor. The ideal of an equal society of small property owners had a real grip.

The Democrats ruled almost without a break from 1828 to the eve of the Civil War in 1861. The issue that led to the rise of America’s second the Republicans, was slavery.

The Democrats had never wanted democracy for the blacks (nor for the Indians). Andrew Jackson himself was one of the biggest slaveowners in Tennessee.

The issue became sharp with growing revolts among the slaves and with the open ing-up of new territories in the West. Slavery had been legal or illegal in the US according to individual state law. What would happen in the new states? The Republican Party was formed to resist the extension of slavery. Its initial base was among the settlers of the Northwest, alarmed at the prospect of newly-settled territories being made into slave plantations rather than free homesteads.

Under Abraham Lincoln, it led the Union side in the Civil War of 1861-65. The Democrats split several ways, some frankly supporting slavery, some advocating conciliation, and some supporting Lincoln. Marx and Engels most enthusiastically acclaimed Lincoln and the anti-slavery war: ‘‘The workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class’’. So how did the party of Lincoln become the party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan?

The Republicans dominated US politics from 1860 through to 1884, with the Democrats discredited.

The Radical Republicans — who initially had the upper hand — imposed military governors on the southern states, to reform them by force. Blacks were given the right to vote and brought into politics, universal free education was established, and other social reforms pushed through.

But this regime of Reconstruction in the South soon degenerated disastrously. Many of the officials who had moved down from the North used the chance to line their own pockets. And during the hectic boom period of 1865-73 corruption was even worse in the Northern states. One city politician ripped off maybe $200 million from New York.

Large-scale industrial capitalism was growing fast out of the ‘‘property-owning. democracy’’. By the mid-1870s, the Republicans were the party of big business and the Democrats could come forward once again as the party of reform.

Around the turn of the century both parties revived themselves by absorbing new waves of populist radicalism.

The Populist party, founded in 1890, declared in its platform: ‘‘The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few... From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two classes — paupers and millionaires..."

There were many elements of genuine radicalism in this party. It grew out of militant farmers’ movements in the South which had united black tenant farmers with whites. Although its main base was in the West, it had some strength in the South, too: and Populists courageously argued against racism because it divided the working people. They demanded an 8 hour working day and public ownership of the railways.

But they were still populist — based on the impossible dream of a society of independent small producers.

The profiteering of Wall Street and the great corporations was an inevitable consequence of the market economy; but the populists hoped somehow to lop off the wealthy few at the top and keep their “property-owning democracy’’ in its primitive virtue.

The Populists also tended towards nationalism: immigration controls were one of their major demands, and they made a lot of their hostility to British and Jewish bankers. (The US in the 19th century had a huge foreign debt.)

But what led the Populists finally into being captured by the Democratic Party was their search for an economic quack remedy which would somehow give them an economy based on individual profit without its oppressive capitalist consequences. They hit on the idea of bi-metallism.

The idea was this. The farmers were crippled by debts and high interest rates. They demanded that silver be coined for money, as well as gold, to increase the supply of money, make credit easier, and break the power of the banks.

The silver-mining capitalists supported this idea too, for their own reasons! And they built up a powerful lobby with in the Democratic Party. By 1896 the "Silver Democrats" had the upper hand, nominating William Jennings Bryan for president.

Bryan declared: ‘“You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favour of the gold standard: we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country...

“Having behind us the producing masses of the nation... we will answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” That was enough for most of the Populists.

Bryan never won the presidency, but he did become Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson in 1912. His last appearance in public life was to speak for the prosecution in the Scopes trial of 1925, in which a school teacher was indicted for teaching the theory of evolution, contrary to Bible.

The remarkable thing is how many of Bryan’s ideas — the vague identification with the ‘producing masses’, the praise for small-town virtues as against the big cities, the religious fundamentalism — are still alive, in diluted form, in US politics, even though today nearly 80% of the American people live in cities.

They can be found in Reagan’s party, and were a theme of Goldwater’s: ‘‘Some times I think this country would be better off it we could just saw off the Eastern sea board and let it float out to sea".

The Republicans also had their own infusion of populism, in a milder form, with the Progressive movement. Its themes were municipal reform, welfare measures, trust-busting, and imperialism.

Lenin defined imperialism as the monopoly stage of capitalism. The Progressives wanted imperialism without the monopolies. They presented: themselves as champions of the nation and the common people —and, implicitly, of ordinary capitalism — against monopoly capitalism. But capitalism breeds monopolies like swamps breed disease.

They got the empire: the Philippines were made a US colony (after two years of war against the Filipinos); so was Puerto Rico. Cuba and Panama, and to varying extents much of Central America, were made semi colonies. But the trusts were not busted.

Theodore Roosevelt, Progressive Republican president in 1905-8, made a private agreement with the great JP. Morgan business empire. The Morgan companies would cooperate with anti-trust investigations in return for a promise that they would not be harmed.

By 1920 the Progressives had faded and both parties had become solidly conservative. But their talent for absorbing and deflecting radicalism had not been exhausted.

In 1932 Franklin D Roosevelt won the presidency for the Democrats with a campaign criticising the Republican, Herbert Hoover, as a spendthrift. But — under the pressure of the great slump of the 1930s, when millions were living in shanty-towns round the cities of the US — he proved, paradoxically, more radical in office than he promised. The New Deal was pushed through, with big public-spending programmes, public works, and welfare measures.

The working class won some benefits from the New Deal. More important, however, was that the New Deal Democrats managed to absorb the most promising moves yet by the US working class towards independent politics. The US trade union movement expanded enormously and waged huge struggles in the mid-1930s; but it never got to the point of forming its own labour party. Many factors led to that result, including the policy of the Communist Party, which still had the reputation of a genuinely revolutionary party but in fact had been corrupted and diverted by Stalinism. The result, however, was that yet another move for radical politics had been absorbed, via the ideology of populism into the existing system.

Soon enough the Democratic Party was once again solidly conservative. A Democratic president dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, opened the Cold War, and sent US troops to Korea.

A Democratic Congress passed the anti-union Taft Hartley Act in 1947. Through all the apparently radical phases of the Democratic Party, its most solid voting base had been the white racists of the South. Insofar as blacks had got to vote at all, they had mostly been for the Republicans. But the Democrats’ most recent operation in absorbing popular protest has been in the black communities. They are counting on a huge majority of the black vote for Walter Mondale [Democrat candidate in 1984].

The process began in 1948, when Strom Thurmond (now a Republican) led a Southern Democrat split to form a "States’ Rights" party. But as late as 1960 the Democratic candidate — Kennedy — still had his major base in the South.

It was only in 1964, after great struggles had forced the Democratic administration to do something about implementing civil rights for blacks, that the black vote swung over to the Democrats and the Southern white racist vote to the Republicans.

Part of the reason for the character of US politics is the elaborate system of checks and balances built into the constitution by its 18th century authors, who feared strong centralised government. The president can obstruct Congress, Congress can obstruct the president, the Supreme Court can obstruct both, and the individual states can obstruct any federal decision. The end result is that change can be brought about only by very militant campaigns — such as the blacks waged in the 1960s — or by behind-the scenes consensus in the ruling class. Electoral politics is merely the means for gaining consent to whatever has already been decided, and for deciding which contender gets the spoils of office.

But Britain is not so much different. And the leaders of the Labour Party — with all their talk about ‘‘common sense’’ and ‘‘the national interest’’ — use the same sort of debased populism as their stock-in-trade as do US politicians. Our advantage is that the Labour Party, through its trade union connections, is anchored to something other than the career ambitions of its leaders.

Many Labour leaders would like to let slip that anchor. Our job is not only to stop them doing that, but to tip them overboard, and fight for a leadership that will represent class politics.

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