Friday, April 27, 2007




At one time I used to believe that the Progressive Era in America, roughly from 1900- 1920, was the real source of post World War II ideas of social progress such as Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society. Previously I had placed those ideas on the doorstep of Franklin Roosevelt. Ah, but those were the silly days of my youth when I believed that the Democratic Party could be pushed to the left and made the equivalent of a European social-democratic organization responsible to its working class base.

I now believe that the progressive period is decisive but for a different reason, that is, its role in sucking up the leftist political landscape and preventing a hard core working class-centered socialist party from crystallizing in this country. For those, like myself, who look hard for antecedents, this is important to an understanding of why today, in face of incredible provocations by the two major political parties, we have no independent class party of the working people. Thus, a look at the period becomes essential for understanding the malaise that we find ourselves today. A good place to start, and I would emphasize the word start since the book originally took form in the 1950's, is Professor Hofstadter’s book on the period. While one does not have to be sympathetic to his generally pro-Progressive tilt this little book, complete with important footnoted source references, gives a very good outline of the personalities, issues and sociological trends that broke the back of fight for an independent mass socialist party in the period.

Ironically in Europe, in the period under discussion, large, well-organized class-conscious labor parties some of them, like the Bolsheviks in Russia even revolutionary were rearing there heads. Although a relatively small, loosely organized, and programmatically amorphous Socialist Party did emerge in the United States at this time it was definitely (and occasionally, by choice) subordinated to the Progressive movement. Unless one is eternally committed to the political strategy of the ‘popular front’, that is multi-class organizations based on the lowest common denominator policies in order to achieve social change this was a very badly missed opportunity by socialists.

Hofstadter makes the interesting, and basically true, point that the whirlwind Populist movement that sprang out of the farms of the American prairie in the early 1890’s and embraced Free Silver and Bryan in 1896 was fundamentally hostile to the urban classes and particularly to the working class. I have argued elsewhere that the working class had no interest in the inflationary silver coinage issue. Moreover the populist movement, except in the South where it had the potential of driving a wedge against the rampant race segregation there, was the last gasp effort of the small capitalist family farmer in the face of the victory of mass industrialization and the rise of finance capital. I would however, argue that as late as 1896 it was still possible that the bedeviled populist movement could have been an auxiliary to an urban-based workers party. With the rise of the middle class Progressive movement such a possibility was derailed.

The rise of the Progressive movement is the strongest part of this book. Hofstadter having staked out his own personal political philosophy under the aegis of that movement has many interesting things to say about it. The fundamental driving force behind this movement was the fact of ruthless industrialization and the reaction to it by those who either had previously benefited from society, the classic “Mugwumps”, or were being driven under by ‘ the captains of industry’. Particularly well done are the analyses of the rise of the professoriat, the increase in the number of cities and their size and with it the creation of new political organizations, the change in the status of the clergy and the free professions, immigration (that round of it, anyway) and the changing mores which broke down the prevailing ideology.

While one may, as this writer does, disagree with the depth of the positive effects that the various pieces of legislation that the Progressives were able to get passed one can nevertheless see that a different class axis would have been necessary in order to make fundamental changes. Thus, although Hofstatder will not be you last place to look in understanding the evolution, such as it is, of American society for this crucial period in working class history it certainly should be your first stop.

Thursday, April 26, 2007



The main bourgeois electoral political action of 2007 in the Western world has thus far been the French presidential elections. After the just completed first round the Gaullist and Socialist Party candidates are headed into the final round on May 6th. Recently, in a commentary on the workers movement and public campaign funding (see April 2007 archive), I used the example of the French presidential campaign in discussing the erroneous policy of ‘far left’ groups in France, like the Revolutionary Communist League (English translation) and Worker’s Struggle (also English translation), of accepting campaign funds from the state. My position was that as a matter of integrity, the nature of our tasks and security this policy was unprincipled for revolutionaries. That stirred up some controversy; or rather I should say a 'tempest in a teapot', not so much around the question of accepting funds as the question of whether those organizations in France should have even fielded presidential candidates. Thus, the question is starkly posed. Can leftists in principle run for executive office in the bourgeois state and therefore take political responsibility for the administration of its policy? The following comments represent my take on this issue; however, they are by no means my final thinking on the matter.

Those of us who consider themselves Marxists owe two debts of gratitude to Vladimir Lenin. First, for leading the modern fight against parliamentary abstensionism, mainly a fight against anarchist and syndicalism tendencies in the worker’s movement to deny any importance to bourgeois elections as a means of getting out the socialist message. His classic polemic against those tendencies in ‘Left-Wing' Communism-An Infantile Disorder’ gives short shrift to such notions.

Secondly, we owe Lenin for his sorely needed updating of the Marxist conception of the state and the need to replace the current bourgeois state with a workers state with its own institutions. His classic statement of the case in State and Revolution gives short shrift to the notion that a victorious worker’s revolution can take over the current state apparatus with just a little ‘fine tuning’.

Why do we need to invoke the tremendous authority of Lenin on what is a seemingly simple question of whether a revolutionary organization should or should not run for an executive office of the bourgeois state? On the basis of State and Revolution to pose the question would appear to give the answer. However, unlike other questions this one is not one where to pose the question gives the answer. Let us set the parameters of the debate. Nobody, or at least I hope nobody, believes in 2007 that running in elections will lead to socialism. I would also hope that nobody believes that we can simply take over the current state apparatus as is and go from there. I would further hope that no one, in some kind of anarchist funk, would fail to draw a distinction between administering the executive power of the capitalist state and using the legislative branch as a forum in order to be ‘ tribunes of the people’. Finally, for now and the foreseeable future no one should assume that this question is much more than a theoretical one. Otherwise something is desperately wrong with one's organizational priorities and one's grasp of political reality.

So now that I have safety guarded all those parameters, What is the big deal? And that is pretty much where I stand on the issue. Historically, revolutionaries have used bourgeois election periods to run on their programs and get a hearing in quarters they might not reach outside of the electoral process. In terms of executive offices, a revolutionary organization, like the Socialist Workers Party in the old days, ran for executive office with the proviso that if elected they would not serve. And that seems to me to continue to be the right policy. Those who want to carry out a policy of total refusal to participate in executive office campaigns, like the presidency, today have got to make a better argument for that decision than they have thus far.