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Relation of Progressives to the Democratic Party

The current situation

Donald Trump is not simply the worst President in recent history—he is systematically bringing about fascism. For a detailed exposition on this, please see ‘Neo-Fascism in the White House’ in the April 2017 issue of Monthly Review and Trump in the White House: Tragedy and Farce (Monthly Review Press, 2017), both by John Bellamy Foster.

This fascism will be based upon White Supremacy, as seen most recently in Trump’s reaction to the Charlottesville White Nationalist event, his support for retaining Confederate statues (‘thing of beauty’), and his pardoning of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In his inaugural address, Trump exclaimed in words which Hitler might have used:

From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. … At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America. … When America is united, America is totally unstoppable … Most importantly, we are protected by God … Together, We Will Make America Strong Again. We Will Make American Wealthy Again. We Will Make America Proud Again. We Will Make America Safe Again. And, Yes, Together, We Will Make America Great Again. (Quoted on page 9 of the Foster article.)

One reaction to the Trump agenda within the Democratic Party has been that it needs to swing (further) right, in order to win back Trump voters. However, there is also enthusiasm among active supporters of the Bernie Sanders campaign for trying to take over the Democratic Party in order to have it advance a liberal agenda along the lines of the Sanders campaign.

Relating to the masses

A great many people support decent living conditions for everyone. Progressives realize that this can be accomplished only through fundamental change away from our current capitalist system. Liberals believe it is possible to effect needed reforms without drastically altering our present economic system. Even self-identified conservatives will often support salient reform policies, especially if they are of libertarian bent.

Progressives realize that [decent living conditions for everyone] can be accomplished only through fundamental change away from our current capitalist system.

In order to be effective, progressives have got to link up politically with liberals and many conservatives: without doing this, we have no chance of overthrowing the rule of the 1%. Such linkage will usually be of the form of mutual participation in particular, well-defined struggles for progressive social change, rather than broad agreement on necessary social change. Such mass struggle with progressives integrally involved is the necessary mechanism for transforming our society in a progressive direction. (Historically, the tendency not to associate with persons who don’t fully accept the ‘correct line’ has been a great weakness of the Left in our country, and it must be overcome.

However, the electoral arena is also critically important, for, like it or not, that is where most people are at, in looking to bring about positive change in living conditions. This venue gives us the opportunity to propagate widely our ideas about necessary changes to make in our society.

Thus some progressives may choose to involve themselves in electoral politics, while realizing that fundamental transformation of our society can be achieved only through mass struggle. Electoral work can nonetheless play a critical supporting role by actually electing to office people who can implement progressive demands to some extent at least, and by tying together (ideologically) the various progressive struggles, so that people see the need to address all these issues as a whole, for their own liberation.

Relation to the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party has always functioned as the servant of the capitalist class, particularly (now) of the 1%. For untold decades its role has been to absorb and emasculate progressive struggles, and attempts to ‘reform’ it or to take it over have always ended in failure. Recognizing this fact, many progressives may decide to have nothing to do with the Democratic Party, except as necessary to stave off the imminent prospect of outright fascism.

Other progressives may choose to run in elections as Democrats for tactical and/or strategic reasons. In primary elections, their opponents (mainstream Democrats) should be fought. Unrelentingly by progressives, as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have demonstrated to substantial extent. The challenger should not hold back in offering a progressive alternative to what the mainstream Democrat stands for, even if so exposing the mainstream Democrat may weaken her/his chances in the general election. (A dubious, self-serving claim to make!) The progressive may even pull off an upset victory over the centrist, as has happily started to happen, but the point is that we must not water down our progressive politics when we have a mass forum for expressing them.

Furthermore, after the progressive candidate (presumably) loses in the primary election, it no longer is the time to continue the attack on the mainstream Democrat’s politics, for what then become foremost is the need to fight against the right-wing onslaught. So the progressive candidate may endorse her/his opponent’s campaign and even use her/his campaign organization to get out the vote for that person, but only in the context (expressed publicly) that it is important to vote for the Democrat in order to defeat the Republican, not because the Democrat’s politics are now beyond reproach.

Dealing with Progressive Democrats

There are definite limitations which genuine progressives running for or holding office as Democrats will encounter, in order to be able to work effectively with their Democratic colleagues, for example Sanders’ necessary endorsement of Clinton in spite of her dirty tricks. While we must push back against egregious politics, we also should cut progressive Democratic office-holders some slack, and concentrate on our important mass work. Realizing these structural limitations on progressive Democratic office-holders, we must not rely on them to effect the fundamental change needed in our society, but should welcome whatever support they are able to give to this effort.

In any case, the crucial point regarding relating to the Democratic Party is to avoid submerging progressive struggles to the needs of building that organization, as has occurred so often in the past to the acute detriment of the progressive movement. Doing this leads nowhere.

Dave Jette holds a Ph.D. In theoretical physics, and taught at Rush University in Chicago. He is one of the original founders of Works in Progress.  He lives in Seattle, where he has been active in progrssive struggles for fifty years, particularly in the electoral sphere.  He’s an avid backpacker as well. 

This article is reprinted from A Reformulation of Dialectical Materialism, by Dave Jette and available on-line from Lulu.  The argument incorporates feminist theory into the traditional Marxist presentation of the science of dialectical materialism.

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