The Democratic Party of the US, along with its legions of capitalist donors, supporters in the state bureaucracy, liberal NGOs and union officials, serves to slap an occasionally liberal gloss on unbridled capitalism. Throughout US history, the Democrats have been called upon to coopt and nullify progressive mass movements. Yet swathes of the socialist left find it impossible to break from the Democrats, and the idea that it is permissible to campaign for them is deeply entrenched. But Stalinism is no alternative to Democratic liberalism. Ironically, it was Stalinism that helped the workers’ movement of the US into the abusive arms of the Democrats.
Until the middle of the 1930s, few socialists in the world would have dared support the candidates or program of a capitalist party like the Democrats. Since the 19th century, the socialist movement had been riven with debates about the necessity for revolution. But there was widespread agreement on the need for working-class independence from other classes, a concept that Marx and Engels considered essential to revolutionary theory and practice.
The pair concluded from their experience of the 1848 revolutions that the working class must be organisationally and politically independent of other classes, and that elections were an important avenue for expressing that independence. As Marx put it in his “March Address” of 1850:
“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled.”
Instead of accepting the rhetoric of political parties and individuals at face value, Marx and Engels analysed their class basis. The interests of the capitalists, even their liberal wing, would always clash with those of the working class. They “diverge at an angle of 180 degrees”, as Trotsky was to put it almost 90 years later. Marx and Engels concluded that, even if the working class needed to cooperate with other classes for some common goal, it would need to organise separately and always put forward its own political program if it wished to avoid being sidelined, compromised or crushed.
The Socialist Party of America understood this basic principle. The party, formed in 1901, recognised that bourgeois parties like the Democrats and the Republicans were the enemies of workers, and that socialists had to argue this. They ran socialist candidates in elections against both major parties, including in the presidential race. They won dozens of mayoral and state governor contests, and gained around 6 percent of the presidential vote. They maintained their critical line in the face of enormous pressure to endorse Democratic President Woodrow Wilson during his 1916 re-election campaign. Wilson was a darling of liberals; after his re-election, he would lead the US into World War I. The socialists went on to oppose virulently America’s entrance into the war, landing many of their members, from both the left and the right, in jail. The popular radical Eugene Debs secured a million votes in the next presidential election from his prison cell.
By the Second World War, this admirable commitment to independent workers’ organisations had become its opposite for socialists around the world. Many would be drawn into campaigning uncritically for liberal bourgeois parties and governments. Why?
Stalin’s government in Russia, and the Stalinist Communist parties around the world, played the leading role in convincing millions of working-class socialists to subordinate their parties, unions and their own class interests to the will of the “progressive” capitalists and middle-class liberals.
The new strategy was called the Popular Front. The Stalinists claimed that the global fascist threat, which had multiplied with the defeat of the German and then Spanish revolutions, had to be met with a broad anti-fascist coalition that included liberals. The goal was to defend liberal and reformist governments rather than intensifying working-class struggle. Instead of fighting fascism through working-class organisation and defence of democratic rights even up to the point of revolution, Stalin’s movement focused its energies on constructing and promoting capitalist governments.
Prior to the adoption of the Popular Front, Stalin’s regime in Russia had pursued a rhetorically militant policy for several years. Claiming that global capitalism was on the verge of collapse, the Communists insisted that all liberals, social democrats and the workers loyal to them were no different from fascists, and they would all soon be overthrown in a victorious revolution. Everywhere Communists built their own unions separate from the rest of the workers’ movement, and refused to unite the working class for joint action against the growing far right.
The policy helped bolster the power of Stalin’s bureaucracy over the Russian state and the foreign Communist parties. Anyone who refused to go along with the sectarian mania was either purged from the Communist movement or, in Russia, imprisoned or executed. By 1934, Stalin’s regime in the USSR had largely eradicated any opposition to his rule. At the same time, Hitler’s government in Germany posed a military threat to the USSR. Instead of strategising to overthrow Hitler with a workers’ revolution, Stalin sought diplomatic and military alliances with imperialist governments like France, Britain and the US. The previous theory had declared the US president a “social fascist”. Now Stalin did a complete about-face. The Popular Front became the new policy of the Communist International: it demanded that Communist workers play nice with their ruling classes. The Popular Front represented the further subjugation of the international workers’ movement to the interests of the Russian state bureaucracy, and it revealed the extreme counter-revolutionary role of Stalinism.
In the US, the Stalinists led the most militant workers’ movement in US history into a disastrous alliance with liberals, union bureaucrats and the Democratic Party. This unsavoury alliance is often referred to as the “New Deal coalition”. As the aristocratic President Franklin Roosevelt tried a series of economic and social measures to jump-start the economy, he also had to try to contain a growing militant strike wave in industry. State and city governments and bosses, many of them Democrats, used police violence and the National Guard to smash strikes, while the federal government also promoted class collaboration, arbitration and compromise. Roosevelt coopted the leadership of an emerging radical union movement and channelled that energy into support for the Democratic Party.
Democrats like Roosevelt could always be expected to play this role. But in a twisted way, the Communists were better placed than anyone to convince worker militants of the virtues of Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition.
Throughout the 1930s upsurge of workers’ struggle, which led to the creation and growth of the CIO union federation, the Communist Party had built an impressive multiracial organisation of worker militants, numbering in the tens of thousands. They had an important base among industrial workers who led sit-down strikes from 1935 to 1937 in steel, rubber and other industries. They accepted many full-time positions in the growing union bureaucracy, leading about 40 percent of the new industrial unions by 1937. Both the union bureaucracies and the Democrats realised the value of Stalinists in helping to wind up the wave of struggle. Luckily for them, the Communists had by then turned sharply towards the Popular Front and were desperate to be accepted into the liberal alliance. Much of their focus was on supporting the Democratic Party. By 1938, Communist leader Eugene Dennis was arguing that in the US, the Popular Front could “take the form of a political federation, operating insofar as electoral activity is concerned, chiefly through the Democratic Party”.
The Communists argued that the Democrats and the New Deal coalition were the only thing preventing America’s collapse into fascism. In 1938, Communist leader Earl Browder said that democracy was “fighting for its life” in much of the capitalist world: “It can survive only to the degree to which there are successfully carried out programs such as those of ... the Committee for Industrial Organization and the economic reforms and peace program of President Roosevelt”.
Roosevelt’s “peace program” would soon include an unprecedented military build-up, participation in World War II and an oppressive division of the world into “spheres of influence”.
Around the world, the Stalinist Popular Front did nothing to prevent the rise of fascism. In Spain, the Communists hoped to keep the bourgeois Republican government in power during the fight against Franco’s fascist forces. In the process, they wilfully destroyed the workers’ militias and collectives and wrecked the possibility of social revolution. With much of the population unable to defend themselves, and the rest disillusioned, Franco’s victory was complete. Fascism reigned in Spain for 30 years. In the US, fascists were not on the verge of state power. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration was the immediate threat to the continued strength of the workers’ movement—and his warmongering was the greatest threat to democracy and freedom.
The Communists argued that only the Democrats would defend workers’ rights to collective bargaining and union recognition. In fact, workers made the most gains precisely when they didn’t rely on Roosevelt and fought back against the forces of the state. A Roosevelt presidency was no guarantee of union rights. As the struggle was wound up in the late 1930s, the bosses pushed back against collective bargaining, and company unions grew. The Democratic-controlled courts ruled sit-down strikes illegal.
Nor did the commitment to the New Deal result in new social reforms after 1935. With the onset of another economic downturn, Roosevelt slashed poor relief and the public works program for the unemployed in 1938 and 1939, unemployment rose and the bosses clawed back wages and union rights. But by this time, the Communists had convinced a generation of working-class militants that the most important political task of the workers’ movement was to promote political loyalty to Roosevelt’s capitalist Democrats.
Because of their sycophantic attitude towards liberals, the Communists began to lose influence among rank-and-file workers, even as their party grew by attracting moderate liberals and middle-class sympathisers. The Communists had consciously abandoned their campaign organisations within the working class by 1938, so as not to seem threatening to the CIO or the Democrats. The Black Communist leader Harry Haywood reflected years later in his autobiography, “[T]he tendency to subordinate the class struggle to Roosevelt’s New Deal policy had manifested itself earlier in the liquidation of the Party’s factory units, shop papers and trade union fractions”.
The new policy, emanating directly out of the Russian government, made the party more appealing to white-collar professionals and bureaucrats than to the industrially militant core of the working class. But even with all their sycophancy, Communists still overstayed their welcome in mainstream politics, particularly when the USSR became America’s key rival after the war. The Communist Party’s former allies turned to purging communists from the unions, workplaces, state bureaucracies and cultural institutions. By this stage, they had no mass base among workers who wanted to defend them. The Communist’s right-wing policies made them even more powerless in the face of an attack, and condemned them to the margins of US politics as soon as their liberal “allies” lost interest in them.
Stalinist support for the Democrats helped entrench the two-party system in the US and complete the historic “realignment” that shuffled liberals, Blacks, migrants and the bulk of unionised workers into the Democratic camp. This did not usher in a paradise of social reform. Black people, migrants and workers all gained very little from a prolonged period of Democratic presidencies, except that which they won by struggle. The fact that the oppressed felt that their lives were tied to the electoral fortunes of the Democrats served only to dampen struggle.
This cooption was not a foregone conclusion. In the rebellious atmosphere of the 1930s there was a groundswell of support for a working-class alternative to the major parties. Meetings of miners, smelters, sleeping car porters, textile workers and southern farmers all voted to form a workers’ party. A similar motion passed unanimously at a meeting of the United Auto Workers, who even voted down a resolution supporting Roosevelt for president in 1936. A Gallup Poll conducted in 1937 reported that at least 21 percent of the American population supported the formation of a national “farmer-labor party”. The bureaucrats of the new industrial unions worked closely with the Communist Party to put an end to the agitation for a new, independent workers’ party.
Perhaps the most sickening practical application of Popular Front-style politics came during World War Two. The American Communists fell into outright sycophancy after the Soviet Union joined the war in June 1941, adopting an ultra-patriotic stance. Communist leader Earl Browder argued that “the main sacrifice” for the war effort must come from workers, declaring that “class division or political groupings have no significance now”. They supported and rigorously enforced a no-strike pledge and production speed-ups. This fervent patriotism and uncritical support for Roosevelt did not reflect the mood of rank-and-file unionists, who continued to strike in spite of the Stalinists. The Communist Party publicly condemned strikes in war industries, even slandering the 1943 United Mine Workers strike as “pro-Nazi”.
Stalinist parties played this treacherous role around the world. The sum of their efforts was to wind up revolutionary workers’ movements, normalise left-wing support for capitalist parties, promote reformism within the working class and marginalise left-wing opposition to Western imperialism in World War II. The British Communist Party sang the praises of Winston Churchill, the Tory and prewar Nazi sympathiser. Even after the war, they supported Churchill, supposedly engaged in a fight against the “reactionary sections of capitalism”, and offered to extend the no-strike pledge.
The Stalinists facilitated a historic shift in the workers’ movement towards open support for bourgeois parties and liberals. Everywhere, the results were dire. Radical explosions of struggle, and even revolutions, were subjugated to the interests of capitalist parties, who crushed and tamed them in equal measure. The legacy of those years in America is a left that consistently chains itself to the chariot wheels of the Democratic Party, still regurgitating many of the same arguments used by the Stalinists in the late 1930s.