Thursday, August 26, 2010

Class Struggle and the Two Party System

By David Sole
Published Aug 25, 2010 2:56 PM

When White House Press Secretary Robert L. Gibbs blasted the “left wing” of the Democratic Party on Aug. 10 during an interview with The Hill it kicked up quite a storm. He focused on what he called the “professional left” commentators who he denounced as seeking “Canadian health care” and to “eliminate the Pentagon.” (

Gibbs, while not backing down from his attack, admitted it was “born out of frustration.” Some in the press called him “irascible.” Interviewed on MSNBC on Aug. 11, Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida called Gibbs “Bozo the Spokesman.” Yet not one of the articles on Gibbs’ outburst got to the heart of the matter. The Democratic Party is made up of two classes. Its base is made up of the unions, so-called “minorities” and the poor — the working class. But the leadership is firmly in the hands of the banks and corporations — the ruling capitalist class.

As the economy deteriorates a conflict is rising between these two classes. In the long run this conflict will break apart the Democratic Party. Gibbs is not just anybody. He has been working with President Barack Obama since 2004. As White House press spokesperson he is in the inner circle of Democratic Party discussion.

Clearly the Obama administration is feeling the heat for its failure to deliver on its promises to end the wars. Despite claims to be ending combat operations in Iraq, that country still has no functioning government and military attacks by the resistance continue. And more U.S. troops are streaming into Afghanistan as U.S. casualties rise and much-touted counter-insurgency operations grind to a halt.

Economic crisis and two-party system

Of greater threat to the administration is the continuing economic crisis inside the U.S. Despite a short upturn in profits for the banks and bosses, the jobless crisis keeps crushing the working class population. Home foreclosures are at record levels. The so-called health care reform bill is more and more being seen as mainly a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry and the health-care-for-profit industry.

That Gibbs, speaking for Obama and the Democratic Wall Street bunch, is feeling snappish only reflects how far out of touch they are with the tens of millions of suffering working-class families. They cannot understand why the few crumbs they have thrown to the masses are not satisfying those ungrateful wretches.

But Gibbs wasn’t too worried. He wouldn’t apologize and when asked at a White House press briefing, said he was certain that the “liberals” would still vote Democratic. While he didn’t say it directly, he believes they have nowhere else to go.

It is true that the U.S. is seen as a two-party system. Both the Democrats and Republicans raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars for their major campaigns. The mass media is also so wedded to the capitalist system that they rarely cover progressive third-party challengers. But history has shown that even this two-party monopoly is vulnerable in periods of great economic and social crisis.

The “irrepressible conflict” between the slave-owning South and the emerging capitalist North erupted over and over again from the early 1800s onward. The Whig Party represented the northern capitalists and farmers. It was firmly established against the Democratic Party, dominated by the slave-owners. The Whigs had their own “left wing,” such as the Massachusetts Whigs led by Charles Sumner, who were strong against slavery. But the Whig Party as a whole contained them and kept a moderate, compromising policy toward slavery in the South. Ultimately the Whig Party couldn’t contain the growing class conflict.

In 1854 the Republican Party was born with the influx of many different currents — abolitionists, free-soilers, temperance activists, Whig party breakaway elements and others. Six years later the Republicans took the White House. Of course the election itself could not end the class struggle. It was only an indication of the mood of the masses. The election precipitated the Civil War, which solved, through blood and thunder, the class issue of whether slave owners or capitalists would run the country. The formerly powerful Whig Party disappeared.

Another third-party movement that almost derailed the two-party system in the U.S. was the Peoples Party (Populists) of the 1890s. This party was based on the anger of small business owners and small farmers, sometimes in alliance with industrial workers, against the growth and oppressive hand of the big banks, the monopoly corporations and especially the railroads.

The Peoples Party movement was hindered by its general failure to address racism. It derailed completely when it gave up its independence and endorsed the Democratic Party candidacy of William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896. Ultimately it was doomed since it was based on the shrinking influence of the small business/farmer class, which became less and less important in the economy.

Today any challenge to capitalism must be led by the working class including the oppressed nations — African American, Latino/a, Native and others within the U.S. The class conflict between the two classes cannot be papered over forever. It was only the emergence of the U.S. as the chief imperialist world exploiter after World War II that allowed the U.S. capitalists to hand enough crumbs out to the industrial unions and others to raise the average standard of living for several decades inside this country. This bought the bosses class peace at home and depoliticized the working class to a great extent for decades to come.

The average standard of living has been declining steadily since 1972 in the U.S. This has been an uneven development, with the poorest, non-unionized workers, welfare recipients and unemployed losing more at first. Step by step the capitalists have widened the downward pressure.

Today we see the decline of the once great unions in auto, steel, rubber, etc. Where jobs remain (and millions of these jobs have been lost to outsourcing and off-shoring) the wages are often half of what they were before. With the current economic crisis the drive to reduce the standard of living of the working class is accelerating.

Broadening fight vs. capitalism

This is the problem the Democratic Party big shots are griping about when they attack their left wing. It is a problem they cannot fix. It is inherent in the capitalist system itself.

Most union leaders and many civil rights activists are still loyal to the Democratic Party. They have no intention to pull out, especially since most of them have no knowledge of Marxism or class political analysis. But the pressure from their membership and constituencies is growing and they feel they must respond. What they intend, and what they unleash, may be very different things.

A most significant development recently arose when the veteran civil rights leader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, got together with the new United Auto Workers international union President Bob King to announce the Aug. 28 march for “Jobs, Justice and Peace” in Detroit.

The planning documents of the UAW leadership call for ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and using the money for needed social services at home. They also call for a moratorium on foreclosures, a demand initiated and fought for in Detroit over the past three years by the Moratorium NOW! Coalition. The UAW, along with other Michigan unions, is putting significant effort and resources into this initiative. They are also drawing in activist-oriented community organizations.

While the top leaders of this effort mainly see it as a way to register more Democratic Party voters and to influence the November elections, Rev. Jackson stated that his goal is also to push forward an “urban agenda” for jobs, against foreclosures, to end the wars, etc., that the masses of unemployed, students and workers can begin to fight for.

In addition to the Detroit march the NAACP, in league with the AFL-CIO national leadership and others, has called for a mass march in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 2.

These are the things that should be worrying Gibbs, Obama and Wall Street. For the first time in a long time, powerful unions are making an alliance with broad-based community groups with a program of demands for the working class.

It won’t be in the electoral arena that the class struggle is mainly fought, but in the streets and in the workplaces. The tensions inside the Democratic Party are only a weak reflection of real, powerful and inevitable struggles that cannot and will not be repressed for long.

Sole is a long-time union activist and former president of UAW 2334 in Detroit. He is a leader of the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice.
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