The following article was originally published in Socialist Voice No. 19 (Summer 1983) and later appeared in the LRP pamphlet The Democratic Party: Graveyard of Black Struggles.

Black Upsurge Meets Electoral Trap

by Sy Landy

Harold Washington’s election as mayor of Chicago in April, following his upset Democratic Party primary victory in February, is being hailed by both black and white activists as a magnificent step forward in the struggle for progress in the United States. The black congressman’s triumph in such a heavily segregated city did reflect a leap in black consciousness; at the same time it is significant testimony to the way that consciousness is being perverted and turned against the black masses.

The contradictory upsurge is occurring in the context of the simmering crisis of capitalism, which has had a profound impact on the way the bourgeoisie rules the country as a whole and specifically its second largest city. The collapse and fragmentation of the infamous Chicago political machine reflects not only schisms within the bourgeoisie but, alongside the black resurgence, an increasing polarization within the white working class.

Statistics measure part of the significance of the political shift. Black voting figures in Chicago as well as elsewhere have until recently been traditionally low and (as with Hispanic and working-class whiles) decreasing. In the 1980 Reagan-Carter presidential election, with 950,000 Chicago blacks eligible to vote, only 400,000 were registered and only about 30 percent of these actually voted. However, two and a half years later, 77 percent of blacks as well as whites who were registered voted in the primary, and Washington got over 80 percent of the black vote. In the interim, black leaders and leftist politicians had succeeded in getting over 150,000 additional blacks to register. Since Washington won the superheated primary with a bare 36.7 percent of the vote while the rest was split between two white machine candidates, incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and Richard Daley, son of Chicago’s long-time machine ruler, the black shift was decisive. Washington then got well over 90 percent in the election against Republican Bernard Epton.

Washington referred to his primary campaign as a “crusade,” and it certainly was much more than simply a winning electoral effort. The avalanche of blacks into the voting booths was touched off by Mayor Byrne. Blacks had backed Byrne when she split the once-monolithic machine in 1979. In office she stabbed them in the back: she ignored a popular black educator in favor of one of his subordinates as her candidate for the city’s school superintendency; she replaced blacks with whites on the board of education and the Chicago Housing Authority board; her police chief was the notoriously racist Richard Brzeczek. All this led to a campaign to boycott last summer’s ChicagoFest, part of Byrne’s program to stimulate commercial activity; then to the successful voter registration drive; and finally the elections. While the spark that lit the fire was Byrne’s conduct in office, the fuel came from far more profound causes reflecting the foundering of the U.S. social structure.

Washington’s Moderate Program

Washington himself jumped at the opportunity to underscore the significance of the massive black primary vote. It was, he said, blacks’ “coming into political maturity”:

We were slow to move from the protest movement into politics. We were lulled to sleep thinking that passing a few laws was enough. But we’ve got to be involved in the mainstream political activity. That’s what’s happening here in Chicago. And that’s the lesson that’s going out across the country.

Here Washington seizes on the fact that the gains blacks made in the 1960’s have been rapidly eroding (a fact, by the way, that liberals and reformists never warned of but was predicted repeatedly by Marxists) ; that is why he criticizes the ideas that protest or “passing a few laws” were enough. But no one should imagine that new and greater achievements are now possible. Actually Washington means the exact opposite. Politicians like Washington believe that the Democratic Party is the place for compromise. “Maturity” in his book means surrendering adolescent fantasies, such as eliminating racism and winning full employment, education for all, etc. It means getting smart – that is, becoming cynical. It means accepting the fact that the earlier ambitions were unreal and unachievable in the real world.

One of Washington’s aides said of the “crusade” that “It was like Harold was Martin Luther King all over again.” But whatever his actual accomplishments, Martin Luther King had a dream; Harold Washington says wake up and look at the world around you – only small changes are possible.

According to representative Gus Savage, Washington’s close friend, “White people may see him as some sort of Black Panther, but he’s actually a moderate.” He is indeed. Take his interview in the February Chicago magazine, when he was asked about Chicago’s notorious “invisible government – the business community, suburban executives.” He answered,

I’m meeting with them daily, in singles, pairs and groups. And they find out I don’t have horns. ... I wouldn’t say the business community to a man is anti-black. They want the status quo and, to a certain extent, so do I. I’m not talking about changing the whole make-up of the city of Chicago. ... I’m talking about trying to create a city in which business will be, shall we say, more relaxed about coming in. ...

Obviously a candidate who loved the banks and big corporations of Chicago – where their conservatism has never been veiled, they have always sided with the machine and always supported the white status quo – would not have much appeal among black workers. Nevertheless, Washington knows how capitalism works. The city could not survive without credit from the big banks and the trust of the giant companies. An ardent pro-Washington reformist, David Moberg, writing in the Chicago-based social-democratic paper In These Times, quoted Washington as saying, “We have to conduct ourselves in such a way that in the process of winning we do not make it impossible to govern.” Moberg points to the difficulty Washington would face as a result of “white flight or a capital strike against the city by banks and businesses.”

In fact Washington openly campaigned for a state income tax increase to bail Chicago out of its financial crisis. That is one reason why the little white primary support he got came mostly from the upper and middle-class Lakefront districts. Washington had said aloud what Daley and Byrne wouldn’t admit – that all three candidates stood for the financial program of the banks and the Republicans. If he could not get higher taxes from the state he urged that “we go on an austerity budget ...”. Austerity for the workers is now very popular among capitalists, and Washington’s little get-togethers had their effect. The president of the Greater State Street Council noted that Washington had “said many of the things the business community wanted to hear.”

Harold Washington’s dilemma is the same as that of any liberal or reformer who takes office at the head of a popular movement these days. And not just in the decaying cities of the U.S. For very similar reasons, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas try to keep capitalists in their government, plead their moderation internationally and work overtime to keep the masses in check and private property as inviolate as possible. Likewise Robert Mugabe seeks to placate the imperialist U.S., apartheid South Africa and white racist ex-ruler Ian Smith, at the expense of the Zimbabwean people. Salvador Allende played the same game in Chile in the early 1970’s, and lost.

The choice is clear. If capitalism is to be maintained, business must be allowed to squeeze out its profits and the banks their interest. When times are tough it is the working people who must be squeezed. Fewer workers will have to do the work once done by more, and they will receive less pay. Social services needed by working people will have to be drastically cut. And capitalists invariably demand harsher terms from reformist politicians than from others: the risks are greater, and therefore the returns must be greater or the sources of investment will dry up and go elsewhere. For capitalists are frightened of mass movements, especially during crisis-ridden times. They fear that the reformers cannot control their base and that the populist rhetoric the politicians use to reassure the masses will instead inflame them. In some cases, the rulers suspect that the reformist leadership is lying and is really responsible for mass upheavals and threats co property.

The trick for the reformer is to placate both his popular base and the bourgeoisie. This is not always an easy task, but it has been done. When Andrew Young, Martin Luther King’s former aide and Jimmy Carter’s former U.N. ambassador, took the mayor’s office in Atlanta the capitalists were not overly scared. There had been no real movement by blacks. But Young had employed a populist tone to keep his ties with black voters in the growing economic crisis. So far business has had no need to worry. The president of the Chamber of Commerce and a leading banker told the New York Times (March 20, 1983) that “His first year has been a good one. The business community has been pleasantly surprised. He has gotten things done that others couldn’t.”

That is exactly the point. The Times underlined just what Young has done for capitalism in Atlanta:

For years City Hall had wanted to meet its financial problems with a sales tax increase. In 1979 voters rejected the tax by a 2-to-l margin. In November, after some diligent campaigning by Mayor Young, a similar referendum for a 1 percentage point sales tax increase, to 5 percent, was passed by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent, with support from poor blacks who would likely be hurt by the additional tax but voted for it anyway because Mr. Young asked them to. After a year, the tax increase is to be accompanied by a dollar-for-dollar decline in property taxes, a relief for corporations and homeowners.

Harold Washington’s tax proposal in Chicago is similar to Young’s in Atlanta, the one that “poor blacks who would likely be hurt” by it voted for because of Young, the one that provided “a relief for corporations.” But the situation is not exactly the same: in Chicago there is an actual black movement that Washington rode to victory. As well, in Atlanta there is a history of collaboration to a degree unknown in Chicago. The ingrained racism of “the nation’s most segregated city” and its bourgeoisie adds to the depth of the chasm between Washington and business. As in the nation as a whole, the bourgeoisie in Chicago is torn between a desire to deal with black leaders in order to keep social peace and the feeling that the system must turn to grinding workers harder – so much so that both leaders and led have to be subdued now.

But Washington has made the start he promised. His transition team includes senior executives of major Chicago banks. In addition, the absence of a black majority (present in several other big cities led by black mayors) acts as a further pressure on Washington to make peace with Chicago’s “invisible government” at whatever cost. Still, to keep his mass base he will have to deliver a few sops. He would surely fire the already resigning Richard Brzeczek – but, as he already warns, there will be few other changes in the racist police force. In general, the small gains that were possible in the 1960’s are out of the question in the present state of capitalism. Washington’s task, like Andrew Young’s, like Coleman Young’s in depression-ridden Detroit, will be to preside over austerity, not sops. And when you are dealing with a hungry movement, that’s a real dilemma.

Why Electoralism Today?

The Washington campaign reflects not only the bourgeoisie’s need for reformers with popular support to keep the masses in place. It is primarily the product of a genuine, if limited, mass upsurge. But why has there been a response now? Over the years blacks have often been provoked and scorned by white politicians, brutalized by white police, without a mass electoral counterattack. Liberals and leftists have sallied forth time after time to register blacks en masse or to marshall their voices behind a “progressive” candidate – to little avail. The liberals and their leftist camp followers think they know why, beyond Byrne’s provocations, the result was different in 1983: Ronald Reagan. There is truth in this but only half of the truth.

Reagan’s across-the-board attack on poor and working people has certainly hurt blacks worst. Black unemployment is double that of whites, and it climbed by 25 percent in 1982. Black youth unemployment is at 49.5 percent compared to 21.6 percent for whites. And these official figures conceal millions more, as well as the alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide that accelerate as a result.

But blacks have hated Reaganism before this. What delights the liberals and leftists is that now the anti-Reagan sentiment has been congealed into a “solution”; electoralism behind a progressive Democrat. There were hints of this turnabout in last November’s New York elections, but no real movement yet. Previously all the evidence indicated that the growing contempt by white workers for the Democratic Party and liberalism was echoed among blacks as well. Despite the current liberal-left mythology, most blacks have been well aware that Reagan did not cause the economic crisis. He worsened it for workers and the oppressed, while the Democrats and liberals offered no alternative except further austerity.

In the 1960’s when Martin Luther King’s pacifist civil rights campaigns whetted the ghetto’s appetite for a better life but failed to deliver, the masses erupted in riots and rebellions. These in fact produced most of the gains that King and the other leaders couldn’t get. When the ruling class was prosperous and feared civil strife, it was willing to pay off within limits. Today the balance of forces has shifted. Prosperity is gone; the black masses are on the defense. Riots secure little, as Miami has proven more than once. Labor strikes – and blacks in the large cities of the North provide a large portion of the most powerfully situated layers of the working class – have been divided and corralled by the labor bureaucracy and so have led to little but retreats and concessions. Despite all the cynicism, the only alternative to an even worse future that appears to exist is the wretched Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party, in fact, contains a negative confirmation of the strength of the black working class. Since the 1960’s a number of black leaders have become mayors, congressmen and other elected officials, mainly as Democrats. Propelled into office in the ebbing years of the once formidable mass black upsurge, they were wheeling and dealing and seemed to have carved out a few niches of power. They carried the authority of being recognized as brokers for the black masses by the white rulers. With the collapse of radical black nationalism and the absence of militant labor struggles, the black Democrats appear to offer the only source of power against the Reagans, Byrnes and Brzeczeks. Thus the blacks’ turn to electoralism in large numbers is a defensive move by people who have given up their past hopes for a society of genuine racial equality, full employment and liberation.

The Democratic leaders did not create the new movement, but on the surface they seem to meet its limited expectations at least for the moment. The shift toward the Democrats and electoralism is only an initial reflection of the movement, not a long-term commitment. Despite the present mixed consciousness of the black masses, their needs and political experience will drive them away from this trap. The very strength that blacks have demonstrated acts to undermine the cynicism that limits their aspirations, ones that the Democrats cannot fulfill. Perhaps Jesse Jackson’s comment was more apt than he realized when he said of the February primary, “What you saw was a political riot, disciplined rage.” Demagogues like Jackson have worked to keep blacks tethered to (and their aspirations disciplined by) electoralism, so his choice of words was probably meant more as a threat to the white establishment than anything else. But the explosiveness could burst its electoral channels and undermine the power brokering business of the Jacksons and Washingtons.

Washington’s Popular Front

One leftist black spokesman who approves of Washington’s form of “discipline” is Manning Marable, a vice-chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Significantly, Marable has criticisms of Washington, whereas DSA itself makes none, at least in public. Marable is not one of the ordinary social-democratic leaders who has toiled in the Democratic Party vineyards for years, like his comrade DSA Chair Michael Harrington (still defending his support of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 – to keep American boys out of Vietnam, remember?) ; Marable long favored an independent black party and is only a recent convert to the Democrats. In justifying his new stance he wrote in the March 16 Guardian:

If we decide to stay out of the reformist battle to mobilize Black voters, simply because Washington is a ‘liberal democrat’ we will alienate and isolate ourselves from the Black masses and inadvertently aid the forces of police brutality, corporate dominance and racism.

We will deal with the charge that not backing Washington aids the capitalists and racists shortly. As to isolation from the masses, contrary to Marable blacks are hardly wedded to electoralism – yet; all the electoral statistics prove that. They will be if the Marables and Harringtons have their way. Marable’s particular sense of isolation stems from the fact that for years the masses ignored the idea of an independent black party. The programs advocated for such a party were for major reforms under capitalism – much the same as the programs of the black Democrats. Which is why people stuck with the Democrats: whatever elements of that program were felt not to be utopian under decaying capitalism were better fought for with a party that existed, had power and ties to the white rulers. A non-existent party couldn’t compete on the same grounds. Black workers have learned to be suspicious of radical rhetoric aimed at narrowly limited ends.

Marable particularly believes that the decisive question is black unity:

The success of Washington’s campaign was from beginning to end a result of the forging of an independent Black united front – ministers and Muslims, trade unionists and professionals, entrepreneurs and the unemployed.

The problem is that such coalitions are inevitably dominated by the entrepreneurs and professionals, as Washington’s pro-business program demonstrates. True, Washington has also promised to improve public health in Chicago and revitalize black and Latino-neighborhoods. But as Marable himself points out, “Any attempt to carry out any significant part of this program will generate the intense opposition of many white ethnics, the corporations and banks…”.

Marable is amalgamating two questions: the banks’ and businesses’ objections to real reforms, and working-class (both white and black) opposition to higher tax burdens. Washington has made little or no appeal to working-class interests, despite labor’s backing for him after the primary (beforehand the local AFL-CIO had endorsed Byrne). If the working people in Washington’s “united front” start pressing for their programs, the coalition will break down very quickly. What will the black politicians and entrepreneurs do then, those who depend upon an orderly, stable government? Very little different from their white counterparts: Detroit’s Coleman Young, formerly far to Washington’s left, is now the model black strikebreaker and austerity liberal. Those who are channeling the black liberation struggle into dependence on middle-class and petty-bourgeois elements are the ones who “inadvertently aid the forces of police brutality, corporate dominance and racism.” It is critical for working class people – blacks especially, given their far greater consciousness of the rottenness of capitalist society – to organize themselves independently of all capitalist interests and such electoral fronts.

Marable, an avowed Marxist, has some inkling of this, however corrupted he is by his fear of isolation from the class-collaborationist popular front he describes. When the corporations and police pull out all the stops to hamstring Washington’s program (Marable suffers from the illusion that a capitalist politico like Washington would really carry his efforts that far) Marable notes: “The key here is for progressives to continue the mobilization of the working class, national minority and poor constituents, in the streets as well as beyond the next election.”

But Washington’s front, his “disciplining” of the masses’ rage, is designed precisely to forestall mass action in the streets and in the factories. How many times have working-class militants been told – in Allende’s Chile, Mitterrand’s France, Coleman Young’s Detroit, etc., etc. – “don’t rock the boat; we’ll wheel and deal in the corridors of power.” Washington in power, like Mitterrand, will tragically hold the allegiance, at least for a time, of the masses who put him there (perhaps a long time, given the sharp racial nature of the elections) – and he will use it to carry out his austerity program while his base is momentarily tranquilized. That is the lesson that Marxists should be fighting to teach, no matter how unpopular it makes them for the moment. But there is more.

The real significance of Washington’s coalition is shown by its relation to the traditional Chicago machine. Formed during the 1930’s in order to head off the threat of mass radical politics and unions, the machine rested chiefly on strong white working-class support. Like similar organizations elsewhere, it operated to break up class-wide solidarity by reinforcing the ethnic identities of the different segments of the class. The majority of workers within each group could get little from capitalism. But by identifying with the gains made by the upper layers of their group they could raise their hopes. Thus petty office seekers and petty shopkeepers (some not so petty) became influential, the more so if they could dispense favors. Ethnicity always tends to increase the influence of the petty bourgeoisie over the workers, since this element acts as power brokers between the ethnic group and the ruling class.

Each group vies with each other in showing loyalty to the machine, in order to win a piece of the pie. The machine’s ethnic dynamic and its usefulness for the bourgeoisie was summed up by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now Democratic Senator from New York, and his academic buddy Nathan Glazer. In an article in Commentary magazine (October 1974) called “Why Ethnicity?”, they noted that ethnic assertion was on the rise and that this was linked to the growth of the welfare state. In modern society it is not useful, they stated,

... to assert claims on behalf of large but loosely aggregated groups such as ‘workers,’ ‘peasants’ ... . Claims of this order are too broad to elicit a very satisfactory response. ... As a matter of strategic efficacy, it becomes necessary to disaggregate, to assert claims for a group small enough to make significant concessions possible and, especially, small enough to produce some gain from the concessions made.

In plain English, Moynihan and Glazer advocated a strategy of abandoning working-class-wide demands which capitalism cannot meet in favor of smaller demands for a privileged few; later others can hope to imitate their success. “Disaggregation” is academic jargon used here to mean class division. The same concerns are voiced by the big bourgeoisie: thus the oft-quoted Wall Street executive Henry Kaufman, in an address to the Economic Club of Chicago two years ago, said that a “fundamental change has been taking place in our society over the past five decades;” the American majority now favors “democracy oriented to an unaffordable egalitarian sharing of production rather than equal opportunity” (In These Times. January 28, 1981).

Translated, this means that capitalism can’t afford to have everyone live well. Instead of such “egalitarian democracy,” Kaufman prefers “equal opportunity” – a few live well while most of us satisfy ourselves with the unfulfillable “opportunity” to do so.

The task of the urban machines was to arrange this “disaggregation” under the banner of “equal opportunity.” Chicago’s machine had an additional New Deal twist: it fattened itself off the federal deficit spending policies that allowed it to grease its operations and prevent rubbing components from overheating. Today, with reduced government revenues and giant deficits constantly in need of refinancing, the machine is wearing out. Chicago’s heavy load of blue-collar job patronage and huge contracts for favored companies who hire the right workers is being undercut by the economy. The obvious point of friction is the ethnic and racial divisions. In the February primary, Byrne took the North Side ethnic wards, Daley the South Side and Washington the blacks.

For Chicago’s machine has rested upon the black population as well. The blacks had their own machine, subordinated to the white, mostly Irish-led operation. The solidity of the blacks and the ability of black politicians to deliver a solid vote contributed to the strength of the white machine. Reciprocally, the white-run hierarchy enforced unity and loyalty on the blacks.

Parallel to the white, the Chicago black machine had ties to the tiny black bourgeoisie as well as with the old-line ministers and storekeepers. The original version under congressman William Dawson had a deservedly Uncle Tom image; Dawson even endeared himself to various Dixiecrats in Washington. But in return for subservience Dawson got his little quid pro quo in patronage and favors.

The black machine was weakened by the civil rights movement and the black power rebellions, when blacks found the strength to fight oppression and not just coexist with it, but it was not destroyed. But more recently it has begun to fracture, like its white counterpart. Especially since the black city population, unlike the white, has been growing: there are more needs and less cash for favors to be doled out. The depth of the economic depression facing blacks has raised the demand for machine aid tremendously.

Middle-Class Revolt

In Chicago, the machine stymied the civil rights movement but could not itself meet the needs of the expanding black professional layer. The new elements want – like their white counterparts – “clean” government free of not only hustlers and unsavory types but also of inelegant politicians and storekeepers. Their education reflects modern bureaucratic and corporate needs. Their idealism stresses social welfare solutions for the masses’ needs, the bureaucratic version of the old machine favors and patronage. Their belief in their own altruism is unmarred by the fact that they desperately want professional positions in government commensurate with their status. And the machine has been unable to deliver.

The new professional middle-class elements provided the most solid core of Washington’s support in the primary. Obviously the majority of blacks who voted for Washington were workers, given the small number of even relatively affluent blacks. But as David Moberg pointed out in In These Times (March 2), “Especially strong support in the traditionally more independent and slightly better-off neighborhoods of the black south side also compensated for less impressive results in the typically machine-dominated poor wards of the black west side.” (Social-democrat Moberg tried later to downplay the implications of this with the contradictory claim that “Not surprisingly, Washington did best among low-income people.”) Nevertheless, as Washington’s status as a serious candidate grew he picked up more elements of the old black machine. He had always had the support o! the few small “entrepreneurs” who welcomed his popularity and recognized his ability to handle the pork barrel. The “united front” had an old familiar flavor.

Harold Washington was an old machine product who, with his mentor, former congressman Ralph Metcalfe, had had to oppose machine mayor Daley after some particularly vile racist acts in the early 1970’s. But until then he had loyally served Daley in the Illinois legislature. Now he quite loyally reflects middle class ambitions and has promised to junk the patronage system. But he has also sent signals to both white and black machine leaders that he is still willing to deal: “In a sense, I am a product of the machine. I’ve dealt with it for years. It is proper in its place” (Chicago Sun-Times, February 23).

Immediately after his electoral triumph over Epton, Washington renewed his pledge to eliminate patronage (which the courts had just ordered ended anyway). But at the same time he was careful to publicly embrace his machine enemies of just the day before, including ward boss Roman Pucinski, a leader of the Democratic rush to Epton after the primary. There will be no “business as usual,” Washington promised – but business there will be.

Middle-class “issue-oriented” reform movements have taken power from crumbling machines in many cities. Typically they find it necessary to build alliances with elements of the old machine in order to stabilize their rule. They make their own deals as well: instead of filling the government apparatus through appointments at every level from top to bottom in the old Daley manner, they appoint only the top layers, and that is enough to control the new bureaucracies. Their original verve for democratic “good government” disintegrates, to be replaced by their elitism which makes the reformers even less responsive to working-class pressures than the machine. The road from crusader to Koch has been traveled before.

Under the impact of the capitalist crisis the machine has come apart. As a Daley aide put it, “There’s a lot more fragmentation now. No one has the megabutton any more.” Even without Washington and the courts vowing to end patronage, bourgeois reality has already pulled the rug out from under it. The old forms of bourgeois rule are crumbling, but the new middle-class power brokers are seeking new forms to lock in the restless black workers.

While reform regimes, black and white, have won elsewhere, they have rarely done so riding a volatile mass movement as in Chicago. This gives the new administration a far more fragile character than normal. An embryonic “popular front” – to give it its real name – has arisen in black Chicago to play the role the machine can no longer perform: to detour the potentially radical mass movement and tie the revived socially conscious workers to decaying capitalism.

The Racist Campaign

The steamroller that put Washington in as the Democratic candidate picked up speed as the main issue became race. Democratic Party chairman Ed Vrdolyak, a Byrne backer, told precinct workers: “It’s a racial thing. Don’t kid yourself. I’m calling on you to save your city, save your precinct and keep your friends in office.” After Washington’s primary victory, Byrne endorsed him but then stabbed him in the back with a brief cry at a write-in campaign of her own, obviously largely motivated by the race of the victor. And the Republican candidate, given an unexpected lease on life because of the color of his skin, raised the blatant campaign slogan “Epcon, Before It’s Too Late.” The Police Department served as the center for virulent race-baiting of Washington. Democratic wardheelers went over to Epcon by the bucketload and drummed up fear of a black menace among their constituents. During the electoral campaign these elements organized several viciously racist incidents. There were, however, no mass race riots like those that confronted M.L. King years ago.

The isolation of the blacks reinforced the tendency to stick together and gave Washington considerable support out of solidarity of the oppressed. For blacks are more than just another “community” of ethnics. Vital to the economy, they nevertheless have always been a pariah caste viciously discriminated against and held at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder by strong racial barriers. There have always been lower wage scales and higher unemployment for black workers amounting to significant super-exploitation. (The small but politically important black upper strata have never been able to avoid identification with the black masses nor to escape the barrier of prejudice; they too earn less than their white counterparts and have far greater difficulty obtaining suitable employment.) The division of whites into strongly encapsulated ethnic groups allowed imperialism to nurse an aristocracy of labor into existence as a barrier to class consciousness. However, whites as a whole, including all the white ethnic groups, were allowed to join in the aristocratic ethos – because they could feel themselves rewarded as long as black labor remained qualitatively more victimized.

The attempt to rebuild white solidarity linking the ethnic subdivisions in Chicago after the Byrne-Daley fiasco can only be carried out by wielding the black “threat” as the binding force. If the impact of the crisis has hit blacks, harder, white workers (especially in the industrial Midwest) are also seeing their world fall apart. Economic distress has combined with other social factors to undermine all aspects of their existence, including “their” machine.

Ethnicity was always reinforced by living in common neighborhoods; in Chicago the ethnic communities lasted longer than elsewhere, with less of a post-war white move to the suburbs. They rely on traditional moral and religious standards and strong family ties. But the Catholic church, the ethnic social cement, has been evolving. As well, there are new migrations that replace old; youth gain wider horizons and rebel; old cultural and family ties break down. The crisis sped up all these conditions, as unemployment shook up the family structure even forcing workers to move in search of jobs, vital city services collapsed and crime became rampant. With the growing black urban population desperately expanding its ghettoes, many of the problems white people face could be conveniently blamed on blacks and channeled into racism.

Moreover, the machine’s grip on its mass is weakening, given the social breakdowns and the politicians’, inability to act as go-betweens with government for dwindling services. On top of this, Washington personifies a real threat: if more blacks and social reformers get city jobs, then there is far less for the machine’s remnants. Under these conditions, if the Byrne-Daley split were to continue with an even deeper struggle among the white ethnic groups, then all would be lost for the machine. It had no other card to play but racism. There has always been racism in Chicago politics, at least partly in consequence of the machine’s interest in maintaining segregation. However, racism was only one impulse among many in the white working class; it was deliberately whipped up when necessary. Thus it is no accident that the racism expressed by white workers during the campaign still carried a significant troubled undertone: people told reporters they were voting white even though they knew something was wrong about that. The attempt by the media and the national Democrats to present the machine politicians as merely responding to irrational mass racism was a direct inversion of the truth.

The Pro-Democrat Strategy

Only through the binding forces of racism could the Chicago machine hold itself together. But it is not just the machine: maintaining the Democratic Party in any form requires it. The Democratic Party is the chosen vehicle for the task of absorbing class consciousness, chewing it up and destroying it. Machine structure or no, it wields racism to this purpose: witness the slimy mayor Edward Koch of New York, who relies more on high-level public relations than precinct work for his racial slurs.

The only difference between Chicago and the rest of the nation is that here the necessary weapon was used more openly and threatened to get out of control. That is why multitudes of national Democrats who had backed others in the primary rushed to Chicago to force white precinct leaders, aldermen and even congressmen into line behind the candidate. Presidential hopefuls, Southern politicians and even Koch stuck in their contributions. The Kennedy family used its business connections to strangle Byrne’s write-in campaign.

Why? Because a Washington defeat could have provoked a black voter withdrawal from the Democrats nationally; at minimum it would have produced a black presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries in 1984. It might also have set white racist forces in motion in the Democratic Party across the nation. And that would have meant the end of the Democrats’ power, based as it is on burying political polarization by compromising and avoiding “delicate” questions.

The Democratic Party is an assemblage of various groups – ethnic, sectoral and social. The famed New Deal “coalition” was put together very much like the Chicago machine; the same sectors were represented. But the Democrats barely survived the Depression, when workers rose to the heights of industrial unionism and economic class consciousness but stopped short of independent class political action. World War II and the post-war prosperity kept the Party going. Now the return of the crisis has undermined its already fading “coalition” as well as the surviving machines. Under such circumstances blacks are inevitably singled out to be the fall guys, the group officially designated to get nothing. But they form one of the largest groups; their withdrawal would end the Democrats’ “natural” political majority. It could also lead to the collapse of electoralism as a diversion for the masses, at least the black masses – and thereby to social explosions. Hence the concern of Mondale, Kennedy et al. Their future was at stake.

The Democrats term their molecularization of class politics “coalitionism” – the knitting together of discrete interest groups and ethnic groups with separate consciousnesses. Coalitions arrived at through deals among the leader-brokers are fragile at times of social movement. Each of the allied sectors is bisected by class lines when there is a mass following. The petty-bourgeois class outlook of the leadership is fundamentally at variance with that of the mass base, even if there are points of agreement. When the practical struggle breaks out into open movements, the difference between the brokers and the broke is revealed.

Liberals Betray Alliance

In Chicago there were two coalitions that held. One was between the black middle strata and their white counterparts on the Lakefront. The second was the alliance of the black masses behind the black middle class. But even the first of these working coalition was weak: only 39 percent of the liberals, according to polls, were on Washington’s side in the blatantly racist election campaign – a testimony to the puerile nature of liberalism and the fragility of an alliance built on the good will of the affluent. With the machine crumbling, many liberals turned to it, swallowing their previous contempt; the rich have a great stake in stability and therefore in keeping business, the banks and the politicians reasonably happy.

Harold Washington’s “new Democratic coalition” with the liberals is aimed also at winning sections of the white working class, over time. And the way to try to do this is through its present leaders, like Pucinski. The trade union leaders, for what they are worth in terms of a base that will follow them, are mostly already collaborating. For the AFL-CIO bureaucracy nationally is now an important voice within the Democratic Party, charged with responsibility for heading off any resistance on the industrial front. It has been successful so far, through its electoralism and coalitionist strategy with liberal interest groups (see our “Labor after Solidarity Day” in Socialist Voice No. 15). Registration has recently been rising nationally among the poorly paid and the jobless, white and black. Some of this is due to incessant AFL-CIO propaganda; all of it is due to the bureaucrats’ success in blocking off more volatile forms of struggle.

To gain white support and achieve social peace now that it is in office, the black middle-class leadership is offering to preserve white neighborhoods. Al Raby, Washington’s campaign manager, said, “We’re very interested in community stability” (In These Times, March. 30). This means not only physical preservation but ethnic stability as well. It means preventing “white flight” to the suburbs, which would ensure capital and job losses. It therefore means collusion with the white liberals who don’t have a mass base and with the machine bosses who do, as part of a national alliance among power brokers.

Washington’s “Stabilization”

But like all capitalist pacts in this society of each against all, this one is doomed to fail. For stability cannot be restored. The masses, white as well as black, sense this and are justly frightened. The attempt to promote an interracial compromise based on the status quo is epitomized by the black middle class’s totally giving up on the forced busing program for school integration that it had championed in the past (with less enthusiasm from working-class blacks whose children were on the front lines of battle). The ethnic sense of community is dissipating, pulverized under the hammer blows of the crisis. Blacks must seek new housing. All need scarce jobs. The interracialist solution is possible only through a class struggle against capitalism, not through compromise within it.

Stabilizing the white neighborhoods along their present lines is a strategy bound up with “struggle” through electoralism and the revival of the Democratic Party. Action to defend people’s interests, when not confined to voting, becomes at best lobbying, rent strikes, pressure tactics and petitions – anything but the industrial action that brings to bear the power of the working class.

Neighborhoods (hardly “communities”) do not have the inherent organization that factories and industries do for workers. Neighborhood consciousness stresses a multiplicity of enemies: not only muggers and addicts, but landlords, merchants, ethnic intermarriage, the kids hanging out, the blacks moving in, the next precinct getting some favor from city hall, the next district getting a favor from Washington, the next state with lower business taxes, etc. As usual, the pulverization of working-class consciousness must single out the blacks as victims – the easiest group to scapegoat and unite the rest against. This is the real program of those who advocate “progress” through the Democratic Party.

The Working-Class Alternative

In contrast to neighborhood organization, struggle centered on the industrial front teaches in short order who the real enemy is: the capitalists and their political and ideological agents. The potential for united, national and even international struggle lies in the fact that the primary relationship workers share in society is to the means of production.

That is why revolutionaries counterpose industrial action to “community” struggles as a central strategy. Of course, these days local strikes led by defeatist union bureaucrats frequently lead to losses. The real potential in strike action is to open up a fight for a general strike which can unite workers of all stripes against the oppressive system. A general strike inevitably poses the question of who shall rule in society, the bosses with their crisis-ridden capitalism or the workers with their capacity to control, centralize and revitalize industry. In the whirlpool of powerful strike action, workers will learn their strength as a class rather than their disunity as competitors and passive voters. This is the milieu for the revolutionary party to develop in as a real alternative.

In contrast, “community stability” and electoralist discipline over the masses have the potential for disaster. The reformists, liberals and middle-class “socialists” who advocate returning to the status quo of yesteryear feed the fires of class division. When they claim the banner of the left and of anti-racism, they leave only one radical alternative to white workers who are facing what looks like a free fall into disaster: a racist and, in the future, fascist course. Harold Washington’s program of higher taxes and austerity, a replay of what drove Jimmy Caner out of office, won’t fool black or white workers for very long.

The liberal middle class on the Lakefront can afford to be more “tolerant” (to use Moberg’s expression, which he means as a compliment) because their competition with blacks is not as intense. Their moralistic sneering at white workers, their desire to “educate” them that racism is nasty, overlooks one fact that workers understand far better than they: under this system competition for jobs is real and it will indeed be a question of white versus black as long as capitalism remains. It is no surprise that workers have often followed the petty-bourgeois machine leaders rather than the intelligentsia: in this perverted society the former understand reality better. “We want ours” is an accurate response in the land of “opportunity.”

The revival of social movement among blacks in Chicago is a very positive sign. The present uneasy coalition at the top between the black and white liberals and shifting sections of the machine will be only a temporary brake upon mass consciousness if the movement takes off. In the 1930’s there was a genuine, mass class-wide industrial movement. Then the Democratic Party was only the means for distributing sops to the masses, not the weapon for winning them. If the movement accelerates today, the system will be under pressure to dole out more than its leaders wish, although its resources are more limited than even in the 1930’s. The capacity of the embryonic movement to achieve partial aims and then, its appetite whetted, much larger goals, is aided by its leadership’s fragility – but its greatest barrier is the racist division of the class inherent in the Democratic Party set-up.

The black working class is strategic to the economy of both Chicago and the nation. It has the opportunity, when its proletarian consciousness and leadership develops, to lead the entire working class by providing a concrete alternative in action. Militant strikes undertaken despite the AFL-CIO bureaucracy in the early 1970’s showed that white workers even in the South would follow the lead of blacks in struggle for their mutual benefit. Revolutionary propaganda for general strike action among black workers is crucial in Chicago and the nation today.

Whatever happens, the “stability” fought for by the coalition leaders of today will fail. If ethnic solidarity and therefore racist solidarity wins out among whites, reaction is inevitable. The political polarization among white workers in Chicago is real; at the moment its direction is bad, but it can be reversed. The black masses, whose motion is the most significant fact, will undoubtedly break with their present leadership. This does not mean that they will cease to understand the need for racial solidarity as a defense against attack; it means that they will understand that unity can only be achieved without the misleadership of strata too attached to the system. But as the “left,” black and white, maintains its present reformism, the pressure on black workers will be towards a narrow ethnic type of self-identification at the expense of class consciousness. Their modest hopes dashed once again, they will be forced to turn to the dead-end of separatism and nationalism as an answer to the dead-ends of integrationism and electoralism. The tragedy will be that the bankruptcy of liberalism and reformism will leave the masses nothing but reactionary alternatives if the revolutionary, proletarian pathway has not been laid.

April 25, 1983

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