Jesse Jackson: Judas-Goat for the Bourgeoisie
Democrats, Dixiecrats and Rainbows
[First printed in 1917 #5, Winter 1988-89. Originally posted on http://www.bolshevik.org/1917/no5/no05jesse.html ]
“When you keep the Democrats in power, you’re keeping the Dixiecrats in power.”
--Malcolm X, 1964
Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination stirred the hopes of millions of blacks and working people. Most of those who supported Jackson did so as a protest against the fundamental injustice of the racist capitalist system. Yet, despite the illusions of his base, he ran as a candidate committed to preserving and maintaining the oppressive status quo. Jackson is not a leader of struggle against the bourgeois rulers--he is a Judas-goat for them. In the final analysis, “Jackson action” was a scam to fool those for whom the “American dream” is a cruel joke into getting out and voting Democrat.
In drawing the lessons of the revolution of 1848, Karl Marx insisted that the German workers “must do the utmost for their final victory by clarifying their minds as to what their class interests are, by taking up their position as an independent party as soon as possible and by not allowing themselves to be seduced for a single moment by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeois into refraining from the independent organisation of the party of the proletariat.” The necessity for the independent political organization of the working class has been an axiom of Marxism ever since.
Most of the fake Marxists in the U.S. have a tendency to forget this elementary lesson. Discouraged by their own relative social isolation and perceived irrelevance, many would-be socialists latch on to anything that moves, and inevitably find themselves adapting to the Democratic Party as the “left wing of the possible.” The wholesale accommodation, either overt or implicit, to Jesse Jackson’s campaign to carry the standard for the Democratic Party of racism and imperialist war, is the latest example of this opportunism and short-sighted “pragmatism,” which has crippled the American left for generations.
Jackson and the Black Question In America
Jackson campaigned as a representative of the “left wing” of bipartisan bourgeois political consensus. He spoke to the dissatisfaction and desperation of large sections of the oppressed and exploited in American society. What really distinguished his campaign, however, was not his populist demagogy so much as his color--Jackson is the first black to mount a serious campaign for the presidential nomination. His candidacy thus acted as an emotional magnet for millions of blacks, for whom presidential politics has always been an exclusively white man’s game.
From the days of the slave trade, the history of American blacks has been one of brutal oppression and systematic dehumanization. Living in the citadel of “free enterprise,” blacks in this country remain profoundly alienated from the flag-waving imperial patriotism of the Democrats and Republicans. Forcibly segregated at the bottom of this violent and deeply racist society, subjected to constant cop terror, scourged by chronic and worsening unemployment, life in America’s rotting ghettos is now worse than ever. Ghetto schools, which don’t teach anything, are more like prisons. The drastic cuts in welfare and social services carried out by the Reagan administration as part of their war on the poor, have translated into increased homelessness, malnutrition and infant mortality across America. At the same time, there has been a sharp rise in murderous racist attacks, from Forsyth County to Howard Beach, as the limited and largely cosmetic gains of the Civil Rights movement are increasingly eroded.
Jackson deliberately attempted to run a “color-blind” campaign, and pointedly refused to make an issue of the increasing tempo of racist atrocities. Yet while Jackson attempted to ignore the black question, the racist reality of American society nonetheless dogged his campaign. Jackson, the “life of the party,” the man who made the Democratic primaries interesting and garnered seven million votes in the process, was guaranteed in advance that he could not win because of the color of his skin. His eventual rebuff by the Democratic power brokers once again reminded American blacks that they are nothing more than voting cattle in the eyes of the capitalist big-wigs who run the party.
Jackson’s appeal was not limited to blacks. Also significant was the substantial number of unionized white workers who voted for him in several primaries, mainly in the unemployment-stricken “rust belt” of the Midwest. This demonstrates that despite the pervasive racism of American society, many white workers--after more than a decade of union-busting and givebacks–are prepared to support someone they perceive to be acting in their objective interests, regardless of their color.
Jackson in Atlanta
If Jackson’s rhetoric and the issues he raised struck a chord among the many millions for whom life in Reagan’s America is a nightmare, the finale in Atlanta--and the events leading up to it--once again underscored the futility of attempting to reform the Democratic Party. By choosing Lloyd Bentsen, a contra-loving oil baron, as his running mate, Dukakis proclaimed that his campaign strategy would be aimed at right-wing constituencies, especially Southern whites, who defected to Reagan in 1980. “Special interests” (labor, blacks, women, etc.--the majority of the population) could expect nothing from a Dukakis administration. Dukakis drove this point home with an extra measure or spite; he waited for Jackson to publicly express an interest in the vice-presidency...and then chose Bentsen the next day. Dukakis didn’t even bother to tell Jackson, who found out from reporters. This was not an oversight but a calculated insult; it was Dukakis’ way of telling Jackson to forget about becoming a power broker and to stick to his appointed role of hustling black votes for rich white men. Jackson’s initial reaction was bitter:
“It is too much to expect that I will go out in the field and be the champion vote picker and bale them up and bring them back to the big house and get a reward of thanks, while people who do not pick nearly as much voters, who don’t carry the same amount of weight among the people, sit in the big house and make the decisions.”
--New York Times, 15 July
By convention time, however, Jackson had once again resigned himself to the fieldhand’s (or, more properly, the black field boss’s) role. The promise of an evening in the Atlanta limelight and a campaign plane for himself and his staff were enough to persuade him that it was time for “lion and lamb to lie down together.” But as Shakespeare’s Henry VI observed, “When the lion fawns upon the lamb, The lamb will never cease to follow him.”
On Jackson’s instructions, a threatened floor fight over the election platform was abandoned in favor of a perfunctory presentation of a few proposed planks (tax the rich, no first use of nuclear missiles, etc.), all of which were duly voted down. A deal was made to prevent the controversial issue of an independent Palestinian mini-state from even coming to a vote.
When some Jackson supporters, ignoring their leader’s instructions, held up signs that read “Renounce Savimbi” and “No Contra Aid,” and began chanting “No Contra Aid” during the speech nominating Bentsen and during his acceptance statement, they were pressured by state delegation leaders to cease these “disruptive” activities. “In the New York delegation ‘we almost had a riot,’ according to state Assemblyman and Rainbow Coalition chair Arthur Eve, when ‘security guards came down and started inspecting credentials’ of delegates holding signs” (Guardian, 3 August).
The most significant “gain” claimed by the Jacksonites at the convention was a vague promise to end support for “irregular forces” in Central America. Less than three weeks later, the Democrats pushed a $27 million contra aid bill through the Senate!
Despite minor tactical differences, Jackson shares the bipartisan consensus on containing the Central American revolution. During the campaign he took an explicitly pro-imperialist position on Nicaragua in a nationally televised debate:
“Yes, we should negotiate bilaterally with Ortega. No foreign military advisors. No Soviet base. And if they, in their self-determination, choose to relate to the Soviets in that way, they must know the alternative. If they are with us, there are tremendous benefits. If they are not with us, there are tremendous consequences. If we are clear... the response will be clear.”
--In These Times, 23 December 1987
Jackson’s performance at the convention closely followed the script of his first presidential effort in 1984, as described by Mary Summers, his chief speechwriter for that campaign:
“In 1984 he called for a 20 percent cut in the military budget, for putting people in this country to work and for a new non-interventionist foreign policy. He was not afraid to emphasize how different his priorities were from Hart’s and Mondale’s. When he actually arrived with his delegates at the Democratic Convention, however, ‘peace’ became an elaborately choreographed accommodation with the party hierarchy. The ‘jobs’ he fought for placed a handful of friends in the Mondale campaign apparatus. ‘Justice’ was his chance to speak to a national prime-time television audience for forty-five minutes, an event in which he demonstrated his personal charisma to millions of people but did not attempt to involve them in an ongoing fight for ‘a new direction’...”
--The Nation, 28 November 1987
The Jackson campaign, far from an “opening for the left,” provided another example of how the capitalist two-party system succeeds in containing potential opposition. As Malcolm X once aptly commented, you cannot make a chicken lay a duck egg. The slavemaster’s organization will never be the instrument for the liberation of the slaves.
The Function of Capitalist “Democracy”
In the bourgeois democracies, the capitalist class employs physical force on a mass scale only as a last resort. The electoral process is important to the bourgeoisie not only as a method of resolving differences among its various factions, but also of validating its class rule in the eyes of the masses. Whatever anti-popular measures politicians take once in office, they can always point to the fact that it was “the people” who put them there.
Electoral democracy is not without potential pitfalls for the bourgeoisie. The majority of the electorate is comprised of workers and other plebian and semi-plebian layers whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the capitalists. Bourgeois democracies have therefore evolved highly sophisticated electoral machines to deceive and politically paralyze the popular masses.
In countries where the majority of workers are organized into their own political parties, the bourgeoisie relies upon its ability to buy off and corrupt workers’ leaders. The popular front--an electoral bloc between bourgeois and workers parties--is also an important means of subordinating the proletariat, through their misleaders, to their class enemies in situations of sharpening class struggle.
In the United States, where no workers party exists, the role of ensuring popular support for bourgeois class rule more commonly devolves upon various reformers, populist demagogues and black preachers, usually operating within the Democratic Party. Their game consists in first building a mass base by voicing popular discontents, and then using their base to support one of the candidates of the status quo when election time comes around. Alternatively, they may seek office themselves, in which case, if they are successful, they get to personally implement right-wing policies. The derailing and co-optation of the leadership of the Congress of Industrial Organizations during the 1930's and 40's; of the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's; and of the anti-Vietnam war movement, demonstrate that the Democratic Party is not a “springboard” but a graveyard for social movements.
Jackson’s voting base was overwhelmingly concentrated among poor and working blacks, but his active supporters were largely drawn from the black petty bourgeoisie with a leavening of white “radicals” and left-liberals. The Jackson machine, and the delegates it selected, could hardly be numbered among the wretched of the earth.
“To begin with, both Jackson and Dukakis delegates are far wealthier than the national average. Only nine percent of Jackson’s backers (and four percent of Dukakis’s) earned less than $25,000 last year....
“On the other hand, sixty per cent of Dukakis’s delegates-and forty percent of Jackson’s-have family incomes of more than $50,000 a year, more than double the national average.
“...fifty-eight percent of the Dukakis delegates, and forty-nine percent of Jackson’s, are ‘professionals’ of one sort or another.”
–Express, 5 August
Knowing that Jackson was willing to play ball, the other Democratic presidential contenders refused to join New York’s racist mayor, Ed Koch, in his attempt to initiate a “stop Jackson” movement. The 13 June issue of America’s leading financial publication, The Wall Street Journal, editorialized, “Mr. Jackson, despite his heady rhetoric and rapport with Third World thugs, has on net served as an integrating force in American society.”
Jackson’s “Socialist” Backers
While the Jackson campaign’s role in defusing potential social explosions was apparent to leading spokesmen of the bourgeoisie, most of the ostensibly-socialist left did not display similar insight. Assorted social democrats, Stalinists and ex-New Leftists had been wandering too long in the wasteland of Reagan’s America to resist the mirage of renewed influence conjured up by the “righteous reverend.”
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who have consistently acted as rank apologists for the Democrats regardless of the political conjuncture, were determined to jump on Jackson’s coattails whatever the cost. Gerald Austin, Jackson’s campaign manager, initially turned down DSA’s endorsement for fear that association with “radicals” would tarnish the Jackson image. DSA honcho Michael Harrington understood this perfectly: “We raised the problem with Jackson that we want to support you but we don’t want to support you in a way that would harm you” (New York Times, 5 December 1987). Jackson reversed Austin’s decision the next day--after all, somebody had to do the donkey work! The whole flap was unnecessary. Had Austin been familiar with Harrington’s yeoman service in red-baiting New Left radicals out of the League for Industrial Democracy twenty-five years ago, he would have known that America’s premier social democrat has always kept his promises to the liberal bourgeoisie.
Where the social democrats tread, the Stalinists are never far behind. For the first time in decades, the Communist Party (CP) decided not to run even a token presidential candidate, in order to devote all its resources to the Jackson campaign. And if the pro-Moscow Stalinists of the CP were true to form in supporting yet another Democratic presidential hopeful in their perennial quest for an “anti-monopoly coalition,” various Peking-loyal splinters like the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS--led by Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones) were no more reluctant to look to the Rainbow. In the mid-1970's Baraka had numbered Jackson among “the most corrupt vacillating collaborators” of American imperialism (Black Scholar, January-February 1975). But Baraka’s days as a left-posturer are long gone. The 18 July issue of the LRS’s Unity, featured a special supplement entitled “A New Day,” which included a 15 by 22 inch centerfold of Jackson. The LRS rhapsodized that Jackson’s campaign “kindled hope in a new generation as it laid the foundation for a new electoral majority which can change the face of America.”
For those who succumbed to the illusions generated by the Jackson campaign in the first place, there was little alternative but to put the best possible face on their standard-bearer’s ignominious surrender to Dukakis in Atlanta. Just as it is Jackson’s job to sell a rightward-moving Democratic Party to the masses, so his “socialist” camp followers willingly embrace the task of retailing a thoroughly compromised Jesse Jackson to the more critically-minded left-wing workers and activists.
Typical of the reaction of Jackson’s leftist admirers is the following comment from Frontline, journal of Irwin Silber’s Maoist-cum-Muscovite Line of March group:
“There was the elation of having been part of a historic moment and witness to a tremendous stride forward for Black empowerment and the broader progressive agenda. But there was also the sense of having been soiled in the gritty politics of compromise.”
“Jackson sent his supporters home from Atlanta both inspired by his example and charged with the specific and difficult task of working a transformation in the Democratic Party.”
The “Rainbow” is a classic example of reformism without reforms. What Jackson “won” was access to a jet to campaign for Dukakis; a few jobs for his followers in the Dukakis campaign machinery; some procedural changes in the method of delegate selection; and a few seats on the Democratic Party’s National Committee--one of which just happened to go to Jesse Jr. And of course Jesse Sr. got to deliver a unity pitch to the convention. In return Jackson pledged to do what he could to rope in the votes of the black masses for the Democrats, leaving the party free to pursue its “Southern strategy” of openly courting the racist vote.
Jackson’s Fake-Trotskyist Admirers
For those pseudo-Marxists who pretend to uphold the historic legacy of Trotskyism, indulging their reformist appetites toward the Jackson campaign was slightly more awkward than it was for the social democrats or the Stalinists. Political independence from capitalist parties has always been a matter of principle for Trotskyists, and cannot be discarded without renouncing the explicit programmatic pronouncements of Trotsky himself. But the fake-Trotskyist reformists and centrists find it as difficult to resist the pull of any left-sounding “mass movement” as to resist the force of gravity. They were therefore obliged to come up with a formula which allowed them to maintain a figleaf of orthodoxy while sidling up to the Jackson camp. Calling upon Jackson to break with the Democrats and run independently fit this requirement to a “T.”
Prominent among those trying to pressure Jackson to the left was the International Workers Party (IWP), American section of the Argentine-based International Workers League, which advised the Rainbow Coalition to run Jackson as an “independent.” Unable to tell the simple truth about Jackson to the workers--that he is a fraud and that his Rainbow is simply a vehicle for the preservation of the entire social system which breeds racism, poverty and war--the IWP tricksters promote illusions in the “progressive” character of the Jackson Democrats with their call for this bourgeois formation to change its spots.
A similar “tactic” was taken by “Solidarity,” an unprincipled amalgam of anti-Soviet third campists and supporters of Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat. In a pamphlet entitled “Jesse Jackson, The Rainbow and the Democratic Party--New Politics or Old?” Solidarity laments Jackson’s affiliation with the Democrats but emphasizes its “keen appreciation for what is different and inspiring about this candidacy and the Rainbow Coalition that supports it.” Solidarity goes on to praise Jackson’s “generally progressive program with a powerful appeal to the needs and interests of U.S. workers and farmers, as well as an inspirational message of hope for Black America under siege” and asserts, “Our quarrel is not with the spirit and message of the Rainbow. It is with the Democratic Party” (emphasis in original). Like the IWP, Solidarity’s bottom line is that, “Jackson should be pressured to run as an independent in November; the often neglected Rainbow Coalition should be a key player in that pressure campaign.”
The hope that Jackson will break with the Democrats is as farfetched as the expectation that he will succeed in reforming that party from within. Jackson has made it clear that he has no intention of breaking with the organization in which he is vying to become a “somebody.” Andrew Kopkind reported that during a bus ride on the campaign trail, Jackson and his supporters were discussing the future of the Rainbow Coalition:
"Should the campaign fold into the Democratic Party, remain a kind of external caucus (‘a progressive adrenal gland on the sluggish Democratic kidney’ as someone had said) or make a clean break and become a party in its own right? Jackson spoke up. He would be in favor of a third party--provided that his could be the Democratic one. Sam Nunn and that ilk could go off and have their own party if they wanted to. But the Democratic Party was too important and too powerful to leave to the enemies of progress.”
--The Nation, 16 July
“Black Capitalism” and the “Talented Tenth”
Jackson’s declaration of loyalty to the Democrats is completely consistent with his entire history, ideology and social base. As head of Operation PUSH in Chicago, Jackson is a longtime advocate of “black capitalism,” and has made a career of accommodating to the racist establishment. Well known for negotiating “trade agreements” with Coca-Cola, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and various other giant corporations, Jackson has been willing to do business with anyone who could promote his political ambitions. In 1983, in a prelude to his first bid for the Democratic nomination, Jackson visited the Alabama State Legislature, where he lauded arch-Dixiecrat George Wallace as a man of “charisma, stature and grace.” Standing near the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as the president of the Confederacy of slaveholders, Jackson commented, “This has been a marvelous place to speak, where Jeff Davis spoke...” (Washington Post, 25 May 1983).
On a tour of South Africa in 1979 he pushed for “operational unity” with Gatsha Buthelezi, the Zulu tribalist leader whose Inkatha thugs work closely with the apartheid regime in murderous attacks on black trade unionists and young militants in the townships. Jackson complimented Pieter Koornhof, apartheid minister for “black affairs” as a “courageous man’ for whom he had high regard”! For this he was denounced by a black militant in Soweto, Tom Manthata, as “a diabolical Western agent” who was more interested in being elected to the United States Congress than in advancing the real interests of South African blacks” (New York Times, 2 August 1979).
In the United States, a thin layer of black entrepreneurs, professionals and government bureaucrats have risen above the grinding poverty and hopelessness to which the vast majority of America’s ghettoized black population is condemned. Like all petty-bourgeois strata, this black elite is driven by the desire to obtain its slice of the “American Dream,” i.e., to become a legitimate and accepted part of the ruling capitalist establishment. Its quest for upward mobility is, however, severely limited both by the declining fortunes of U.S. capitalism and the pervasive racism of American society. As the ”American Century” fades into a memory of things past, there is less and less room at the top for parvenus of plebian origin. This in turn reinforces the racial prejudice of the U.S. bourgeoisie, in whose eyes even the wealthiest of black men and women are still regarded as inferior because of their color.
The black petty bourgeoisie has no other means of exerting pressure for social acceptance on the nation’s white rulers than by periodically attempting to rally the impoverished black masses behind them. And it cannot do this except by appealing to the resentment that all blacks share as social outsiders. This appeal obtains its broadest scope when extended to other outsiders as well--for example unemployed blue-collar workers and working mothers, sectors that mainstream bourgeois politicians have long since written off. But these are sectors that the black petty bourgeoisie is also willing to abandon for the first crumbs tossed in its direction by the ruling class. And if late capitalism has no room within its contracting walls for the aspirations of the black masses or increasingly impoverished white workers, the crumbs capitalism can offer to the black petty bourgeoisie are still tempting enough to keep them in tow.
Today’s American metropolitan centers--from Newark to Detroit, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia--are more than ever inhabited by blacks and other minorities, and hence cannot be effectively governed by old-line white machine bosses. For this job, slick black politicians are needed. If Philadelphia’s white racist tough cop ex-mayor, Frank Rizzo, had bombed the MOVE commune in 1985, the black population of that city would have been up in arms. Only his black surrogate, Wilson Goode, could commit this unspeakable atrocity and survive politically.
For the black middle class, black elected officials (BEO’s) represent the success of their striving for respectability. And these BEO’s can only maintain their control of the urban Democratic machines by remaining in the good graces of the white ruling class. It was the endorsement of the BEO’s that Jackson sought in 1984, and obtained in 1988. It is also to them, and the social stratum they represent, that Jackson is primarily responsible, and for them that he was all too willing to betray the hopes he had aroused among his larger black and white working-class constituency. Calling upon Jackson to break with the Democrats is enjoining him to bite the hand that feeds him--something bourgeois politicians, black or white, are notoriously unwilling to do.
Jackson’s candidacy was not a great “historic event” but a temporary interlude in the twisted development of the American working class’ struggle for independent political action. The job of revolutionaries is not to promote illusions, but to tell the truth. And the truth is that Jackson’s “Rainbow”is not a step on the road to the emancipation of the workers and oppressed-- it is a prop for the maintenance of the system of racism and exploitation.
The downtrodden and oppressed in this country desperately need hope for a brighter future, but not a sugary false hope. American workers and blacks need a party separate from their class enemies--a party to lead the struggle to expropriate the landlords, the bankers, and the bosses; a party committed to fight for a workers government. Such a party, based on the unions--the mass organizations of the proletariat--can only be forged through an uncompromising struggle against all wings of the twin parties of the bourgeoisie.