Democracy and America



In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville a French aristocrat, published a report on his journey in the United States titled Democracy in America. The following year the supporters of Andrew Jackson held the first convention of a political party that they had stitched together from Southern slaveholders, middle state urban political cliques, and champions of de-centralized state banking, rapid westward expansion and "Indian removal" -- and called it the Democratic Party.

That party still exists and in fact has held a national convention every four year since 1836, making it the oldest ongoing political party in the world.

While this history may seem obscure to some, let me begin to connect some of the dots. While De Tocqueville was suspicious of American roughness and no friend of slavery (he was a supporter of abolitionism and laissez-faire capitalism in the Kingdom of France), his portrayal was generally positive, even flattering to the American Republic, which he saw as a kind of benign alternative to the French revolution which had driven his titled family into exile for a generation. And American political scientists and historians have long flattered Tocqueville, taking his work out of context in order to portray it as a profound observation on American civilization.

However De Tocqueville was no friend of working class democracy During the revolution of 1848, he supported the ruthless suppression of the Parisian working class by General Cavignac, and the "party of order" ( for a different view of the revolution and the socialists of many kinds who led the workers of Paris, see Karl Marx, "The Civil Wars in France"). Although he opposed the dictatorship of Napoleon III, I have no doubt that he would have actively supported the terroristic repression of the Paris Commune of 1871, just as he actively supported the terroristic repression of the revolution of 1848.

The "democracy" he was wished to see in Europe and saw in the United States as a model was essentially what Jefferson and Jackson wanted, minus slavery, which he, unlike they, did not support --- a Republic of laws and "balanced" political structures where the Jacobin revolutions of the past and the socialist revolutions of the present and future would be prevented from developing.

A Different "Brand" of Democracy

But this view of democracy did not win out in Europe or for that matter most of the rest of the world over most the last one hundred and fifty years.

Democracy was a dirty word to ruling groups everywhere outside of the U.S. in 1848 when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto which called upon Communists not only to raise the economic question in all of the political struggles of the working class but to commit themselves to the working class struggles for democracy which they defined as the struggle to gain political rights/power to fight and end capitalism. While Europe was rife with revolutions, the U.S. was completing its conquest of what was Northern Mexico in the name of "Manifest Destiny" in the Mexican-American war.

Throughout Europe and later Asia, Marx and Engels view of democracy became dominant as democracy was inexorably linked to socialism. The first mass party of socialism in the world for example was the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and many Marxist socialist parties used the word democratic in their names.

After the Soviet socialist revolution and the schism globally between right and left socialists, left socialists in most places called themselves Communists and their right socialist rivals "social democrats," although both social democrats and communists, the latter more energetically and creatively than the former, defined the mass struggles of working class as "democratic struggles."

After world war two, a number of European and Asian countries which established Communist led governments and sought to develop socialism defined themselves as "peoples democracies" often putting the name democracy into the their governments, i.e., the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The Communist Party, USA in the tradition of the global Communist movement going back to the Communist Manifesto, continues to analyze and support peoples movements like the Occupy Wall Street movement today as "democratic struggles" to advance the interests of working people over their exploiters and oppressors.

Democracy, as understood by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as partisans of socialism and working class power was clearly the leading definition of democracy through the world, as against the definition of democracy, that is a associated with de Tocqueville, which sought to prevent revolutions of or in the name of the masses without returning to the old royalist tyranny or, later, the new dictatorship of Louis Napoleon. In the 21st century. In the cold war period, though, the U.S. became in first nation to use "democracy" as an anti-Communist, anti-socialist slogan, to merge democracy with capitalist definitions of "liberty" and spread this definition to its allies through the world.

American Exceptionalism?

What was different in the U.S. Here, democracy first of all meant universal white male suffrage, which meant that politicians beginning with Andrew Jackson began to appeal to the "Common Man." The fact that the U.S. was the first country to achieve universal suffrage and that a socialist movement did not play a major role in this achievement would assist ruling groups in defining peoples movements as "enemies of democracy."

But a closer look will help us see that America, was not really so different. For early supporters of workers' rights, the democracy meant using the power to vote to establish "free schools" (public education) land redistribution ("vote yourself a farm" was an antebellum political slogan) and the enactment of laws against imprisonment for debt, economic and social reforms. These definitions were very much in the tradition that Marx and Engels portrayed in the Communist Manifesto.

But in most of the emerging political power structure from Andrew Jackson’s administration, particularly, the electorate would be deflected away from  democratic movements in the worst sense by what the late George Frederickson, a distinguished historian of antebellum America, called Herrenvolk (master race) democracy. There was little that one could find positive in this whites-only democracy, which promised to solve all of its problems by territorial expansion at the expense of "inferior peoples", Indians and Mexicans, who were obstacles to the "manifest destiny" of the American Republic.  Manifest Destiny meant "the noble mission" to expand to the Pacific, establish ports for the trade of both Europe and Asia, defeat the powerful European states commercially, and establish, to use Jefferson's earlier term, an "empire for liberty."

For Marxists today and many abolitionists then , it was a grand design to maintain the existing class system of slaveholders, large merchant capitalists, and large landowners even with universal white male suffrage---to trick the "common man" into fearing slaves and immigrants those who would “take away from him “ wealth he never had, in order to support politicians who flattered him while at the same time opposing the schools, roads, currency and debt laws, or other reforms that offered the workign class a chance to rise in society.  This "brand" of Democracy was about individuals gaining wealth in a capitalist society where mobility was equated with classlessness. In its antebellum expression, this was the  pre-industrial America of "farmers and mechanics" defined as the producing masses by the upper classes in order  to keep the slaves, and urban and rural poor, at bay through a manifest destiny based on territorial expansion.

In its post WWII expression, this brand of democracy defined overwhelming majority of working people as an amorphous "middle class" whose ownership on the installment plan of personal property, houses and automobiles, had moved them up and out of the working class. Politicians and media representing the corporations and the wealthy used and continue to use this "brand" of democracy to keep working people at bay through, first through a new "manifest destiny" which merged the slogans of "democracy" and "free markets" to establish a global empire in the name of anti-Communism.

The Two "Brands "of Democracy

Both admirers and critics of U.S. politics have assumed that the de Tocqueville-Jackson, and contemporary Wall Street Journal, definitions of democracy have been the only ones in the U.S. But, as we have shown, both "brands" have existed here, in dialectical conflict with one another. Let us take a more detailed look at U.S. history to explore this point. Although Andrew Jackson remained enormously popular long after his death (some wished that he was somehow return from the grave as a strongman in 1860 and prevent civil war), the democracy associated with his era, an "exclusionary democracy" rooted in individualism, national chauvinism, and an economic expansion that covered up deepening economic inequality, failed completely to prevent both the civil war and the restructuring of U.S. society and government which followed it. The party he had played such a central role in creating, the Democratic party, became a regionally based minority party in the aftermath of the civil war as abolitionists, land reformers, educational reformers, and others involved in the antebellum movements for the "other democracy” joined manufacturers and others in a new political party committed to building an industrial capitalist society without slavery, the Republican party. But the victory of the Union over the Confederacy did not bring did not produce a decisive victory for that "other brand of democracy."

The new anti-slavery Republican party under Abraham Lincoln ended slavery and enacted currency, credit, and land legislation to advance industrial capitalism. But its leaders, true to their most important class base, within a generation abandoned the struggle to democratize the former slave states and turned the Republicans into a force to serve and protect the new industrial corporations and new national banking system, portraying the workers movement in ways similar the way Republicans had portrayed the slaveholders and Confederates during the civil war, as enemies of freedom, rebels and traitors to the union.

A new two--party consensus rooted in an a recycled "exclusionary democracy" took shape; first, a cruel racist tyranny over the former slaves of the former confederacy was condoned by the federal courts and tacitly excepted by the federal government; second, legislation protecting labor and regulating business, when such legislation was enacted, was routinely declared unconstitutional by the courts. At the the same time, a postbellum federal judiciary stacked with corporate lawyers upheld anti-labor legislation, the suppression of strikes, and also "racial" segregation based on the doctrine of "separate but equal" through the former slave states and some areas of the North.

Socialists after the formation of the Socialist Party of America (SPA) began to call for a democracy based on workers' rights and power, using the term "economic democracy" which the anti-monopoly progressive reformer, Robert Lafollette, Sr., Governor and later Senator from Wisconsin, also used widely in the early 20th century.  The philosopher John Dewey, whose work became the basis for progressive education in the U.S. in effect sought to focus this view of democracy in an important work of the 1920s The New Individualism, which saw modern collectivist and egalitarian public policy as the necessary foundation for modern life, given the development of modern industry. One could see this economic and social democracy as a continuation of the antebellum abolitionists, education, credit and land reformers. Or one could see it as an American equivalent of the democracy advocated by socialist and communist parties in the late 19th and twentieth centuries. In a sense it was both.

The great depression gave us for the first time a U.S. president and national government that both preached it as a necessary adjustment to modern life and also the basis for the creation of a better society.  What the New Deal government sought to do, I would contend, was to create a new synthesis of these two "brands" of democracy, one in which the order and harmony associated with de Tocqueville would merge with the demands for economic security and social justice which most of the world identified with Marxist thought and socialist movements.

These attempts at a new synthesis were seen in the writings of prominent New Dealers, i.e., Henry Wallace, New Frontiers, Rexford Guy Tug well, The Battle for Democracy, and Thurman Arnold, Folklore of Capitalism and most importantly in practice in the social welfare and regulatory legislation protecting labor and restraining predatory capitalism.  Franklin Roosevelt, in his definition of U.S. WWII aims as the four freedoms "freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear", in effect brought together these two brands of democracy. In his second bill of rights address, which the press called the "economic bill of rights", Roosevelt as part of his 1944 reelection campaign calling for employment, education, and housing to be seen as essential rights, not privileges in a modern democratic society .

In effect there were political freedoms and rights that had to be balanced by economic and social freedoms and rights in order to maintain order and harmony. The system of checks and balances whose purpose was to prevent political tyranny through the concentration of political power had to be merged with a system of economic checks and balances in order to prevent the concentration of economic power in the hands of large corporations and banks. Given the needs of an advanced industrial economy, regulation of industry and finance and, more importantly, strengthening labor so that it could effectively resist capitalist assaults on workers and counterbalance capitalist power in alliance with government, were necessities if democracy was to develop in the postwar world.

The New "Manifest Destiny"

Whereas the New Deal government in its attempt to develop a synthesis for democracy looked to what many political scientists called a "positive state" approach to government, that is government's responsibility to intervene in the economy to defend the general welfare as against government functioning as "passive policeman" in classic capitalist theory, the huge expansion of the U.S. economy during WWII and the relative downfall of its major capitalist competitors, combined with the rapid advance of revolutionary anti-capitalist forces through the world to stalemate this democratic synthesis.

The expansion enabled large capital to mobilize a national and global counteroffensive against peoples movements, block the labor and social legislation planned by the New Deal government for the postwar period, in effect establish the cold war and use it to expand U.S. capital through the world and rally the beleaguered major capitalist countries into the NAT0 alliance.

Instead of being revered while many of their principles were betrayed, as postwar abolitionists were by the Republican leadership after the civil war, Communists and other advocates of militant labor, anti-racism, all peoples democratic movements and an inclusive definition of democracy, faced purges and general political persecution by the Democratic party under Harry Truman and his successors.

These cold war Democrats joined with their political enemies in the Republican party to forge a new two party consensus around fighting the cold war (which meant making the wartime military-industrial complex permanent) and an economic policy centered on the military industrial complex as the main public policy to prevent depression in the U.S. and foster quantitative economic growth.

This new manifest destiny saw American investments and military bases established rapdly through the world; a large U.S. army maintained by a peacetime draft until 1972; U.S direct involvement in major wars in Korea and Vietnam in the name of this consensus (defending "democracy" and freedom from "totalitarian" Communism); and numerous indirect interventions in Latin America, Africa, the Near East and Asia.

Leading groups within the trade union movement and the liberal wing of the Democratic party accepted this new Manifest destiny while they continued to support without any success pro labor and social legislation in the U.S. in the postwar era, looking searching for a new Franklin Roosevelt who would lead them to forgetting while without realizing that the anti-Communist consensus globally struck at the mass movements at home that had made the New Deal government and Franklin Roosevelt's leadership a reality during the depression and WWII.

Where We Are Today and How We Got There

History did not end with the cold war consensus as writers like Daniel Bell suggested in works like The End of Ideology at the end of the 1950s. The civil rights movement as a people's democratic movement advanced in a sense both brands of democracy, using mass demonstrations and non-violent (technically illegal) civil disobedience along with the aid at strategically important moments of the federal judiciary---a judiciary which had been "liberalized" both in its personnel and in its legal theory by New Deal policy and appointments.

Democratic movements for women's rights, gay rights, environmental protection, and peace, all influenced by the methods of the civil rights movement proliferated and won significant victories in the 1960s and 1970s against the machine of repression which J. Edgar Hoover's FBI had initially fashioned in the early cold war era.

But these movements have been on the defensive since the mid 1970s, and have seen many of their gains undermined. The end of U.S. economic expansion in the 1970s after thirty years of cold war military spending led to a crisis which was "resolved" in the 1980s through a major class victory by finance capital and the most reactionary sectors of the capitalist class generally and a defeat for all peoples democratic movements and the labor movement especially. In essence a sort of political vacuum was created in which the far Right, with huge amounts of wealth and media influence, used both to gain both political momentum and political advantage. Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1980 gave the Right a level of state power that it had not had since the 1920s in the U.S.

Since the beginnings of the Reagan presidency, the percentage of workers in trade unions has dropped by more than half-among private sector workers the percentage is the lowest it has been since before the Communist and left led labor upsurge of the 1930s. Income inequality has grown very dramatically as real wages have stagnated and declined while the cost of housing, health care, transportation, and utilities has risen sharply.  Both consumer debt and government debt has risen exponentially---both representing in effect extra profits to finance capital through consumer interest payments and government interest payments, which restrict government expenditures for socially useful projects.

Monopoly capital over the last three decades has lived in a sort of capitalist utopia of its own making--- of deregulation and detaxation with insurance and government bailouts for banks and corporations. It is well known that the hedge fund swindler Bernard Madoff, for example, was convicted of stealing over sixty billion dollars of investor funds in the greatest ponzi scheme in history. To put where we are today in perspective, we should understand that Madoff's stolen sixty billion was nearly 20 billion greater than the total national debt in 1939, the last pre World War II year.

The reactionary domestic offensives of the last three decades, following on the heels of more than three decades of cold war, have taken their toll on "Democracy in America."

de Tocqueville and Marx Go Back to Future

If de Tocqueville returned to the U.S. and watched the Republican presidential debates, he would probably think that he was watching a group of actors taking a farce that had failed in Paris to the provinces. When he heard president Obama denounced as a socialist, a term that was relatively new in his time but which he could understand more from the revolution of 1848 than any Republican, he would probably look around for the agitators calling upon the workers to rise up and overthrow the aristocracy, or for the more moderate elements, like Louis Blanc, establishing "national workshops" (government supported cooperatives) for the unemployed. The nearest thing he would find would be the Occupy Wall Street movement, which would make him uncomfortable. Politicians like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann also make him uncomfortable, probably bringing back memories of Marie Antoinette. He would probably tell the Republicans that what was needed was some middle ground between them and the occupy Wall Street movement, and more education and training for politicians. The more they sought to revive their Ancien Regime, the more likely they were to either lose everything or bring down society around them.

Marx would see things more clearly. He would look through the political farce to the class forces in operation. He would say as he did in 1848 that the working class, however confused and misled by capitalist ideology is fighting for its own interests as it resists the attempts by reactionary forces to destroy trade unions, eliminate social services, and blame the poor, undocumented workers, and people of color(the usual suspects of reaction) for the economic crisis. He would see as he did in 1848 that the first task of Communists, was to advance the workers struggles for democracy and to point to the economic factors that underlay each democratic struggle. He would see in the occupy Wall Street movement not something to use for a political party or an administration but to educate and advance as a democratic movement.

First he would understand that classes, not individuals or political parties or mass organizations are the decisive force in history. The occupy Wall Street movement has raised the agitational democratic slogan, "we are the 99 percent against the one percent."  But how can that democratic slogan be transformed into heightened working class consciousness. First, we must make it clear that democracy means in its most elemental political sense a government which serves the interests of the majority who live by working for wages and salaries.  Such interests are not served by government "bailouts" of banks and corporations without clear responsibilities by banks and corporations to invest capital in order to promote full employment and real wage growth.

What can a democratic government do?

Actually, a great deal, and it can do it rapidly.  First it can repeal the Reagan and post Reagan era legislation deregulating banking, the stock market, transportation and energy. While one can say with some justification that this is calling the fire department after the house has already burned, comprehensive and updated regulation (which would also regulate hedge funds, derivatives, and other new finance capitalist instruments of accumulation) is not only protection against repeating the disasters of the past, which was evident when the deregulation inspired Savings and Loan disaster of the 1980s was repeated as the much more devastating crisis of 2008.

Along with comprehensive re-regulation, a democratic government can enact a new Federal Reserve law placing the federal reserve system under direct public control and compelling finance capital to invest in both private and public job and income creation project.

This can be done without nationalizing the banking system, which Communists and socialists would see as a long range goal. Nationalization of the banking system or at least parts of it has been advanced in capitalist countries by socialist, labor and left governments, e.g., the British Labor Party's post WWII nationalization of the bank of England. But such policies have left the existing banking system intact, failed to effect major changes in the interest of the working class and have been repealed by subsequent governments.

It would appear that the public ownership of credit can only be achieved as an integral part of a full fledged socialist transformation. In any case, there is no American Labor Party today campaigning on a platform to establish a "socialist America" today as there was a British Labor Party in 1945 campaigning for a "socialist Britain" nor is there any on the horizon, in either America or Britain. A democratic government would also act to revive progressive taxation in the U.S. restoring pre Reagan era income and corporation tax schedules, eliminating the loopholes which exist within those schedules and connecting these policies with both the federal absorption of state debts and reduction of regressive property taxes.

Here such a government could adapt policies used in Western Europe and other advanced industrial countries where public education and other local public services are not funded primarily by local personal property taxes.

Such a tax policy, like the establishment of a national health service, not only be great advances for democracy in America but they would also undermine the influence of right wing Republicans over public opinion.

Just as a genuine national health service or Medicare for all national health system would be seen by most citizens as a vast improvement in terms of their out of pocket expenses and access to quality care, which happened in all countries which adopted public national health care (reality trumping the propaganda of "rationed bureaucratic socialized medicine" which was used by business and conservative groups in Britain 65 years ago and in many other countries), so most Americans would realize that a democratic system of taxation, with sharply reduced property and other regressive local and state taxes and sharply increased income and corporation taxes, including taxation of profits and stock market transactions, would both lower their overall tax burden and provide them with improved services in education, police and fire, housing and health care for their taxes, instead of the present long-term federal policy which emphasizes military spending and other subsidies to capital and the lowest rate of effective taxation on upper income groups in the developed world, which means increases spending on the debt itself, while passing the buck to state and local governments.

Finally, it can make political democracy much more of a reality by strictly policing political campaigns to restrict the flow of money into those campaigns, providing equal air time to political candidates of all parties, establishing voter registration criteria which will make universal registration possible, and exploring the use of proportional representation as a way give voters more serious political choices.

The Role of Communists in the "Battle for Democracy"

Communists can and must play a central role in this contemporary "battle for democracy." If history is any judge, people's democratic movements won their greatest victories in the 1930s and 1940s when the CPUSA was able to creatively use its general theory of organization and understanding of the strategic and tactical differences between immediate struggles and long-term goals to advance the industrial labor movement and all democratic movements of the people under the general rubrics of the people's front and united front and the center left and New Deal coalition.

Both political anti-Communism and the absence of a CPUSA large and influential enough to play that role in the 1960s and 1970s were a factor in the fragmentation and defeats in political and economic terms of the people's democratic movements of that period.

Democracy is never something that is fixed, unchangeable. The more working people are engaged in peoples democratic struggles, the more they understand the necessity of establishing a democracy of political, economic and social content, not merely a democracy of political forms. The less working people are engaged in peoples democratic struggles, the more likely they are to lose even those political forms and be left of a series of empty slogans. Communists have been at the forefront of both democratic struggles and the interpretation of the meaning of democracy since the Communist Manifesto, longer than virtually anyone else. Since the mid 19th century the struggles for and future of democracy has been inexorably intertwined with the struggles for and the future of socialism.

Today that has never been more true globally and in the U.S. And Communists have a central role to play in organizing, educating and coordinating these struggles to both advance an activist understanding of democracy among the working class and a credible socialist program which the large sections of working class will understand and support in their own class interests.



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  • Today, it is so very true that the Communists have a central role to play- organizing, educating, and coordinating-this surrounding the 2012 national elections, in particular.
    This centrality not as individuals, as we continue our routine "Party" work, but as planned and deliberated work, from the party collectives, from leadership on national and state levels, down to club leadership, as a dynamic.
    This dynamic, both recognizing and responding to it in a creative way, which allows us to not only teach organizing, but LEARN organizing, LEARN educating and LEARN coordinating, passing this dialectic on to the workers and their organizations.
    In this way, the working people and their organizations will understand who the Communists are, and what central role we play-why historically rulers have sought viciously to repress and persecute the Communists-the John Reed, the Henry Winston, the Gus Hall, the Elizabeth Flynn, the Ben Davis, the Karl Marx, and the V.I. Lenin-a why we and they must fight even harder to stop such repression.
    For example, in Ohio and Wisconsin, many local Communists have become organizers in massive political efforts which make it clear that monopoly, with its political representatives like Kasich and Walker are barriers to democracy and needed worker control of public and "private" (which the workers increase from their labor, both quantitatively and qualitatively)resources, to both save and improve life quality and life itself-and this fight for control occurring in large, public, democratic contexts. Before, after, and during the 2012 election process mass struggle and participation has to be encouraged and spurred by the Communists.
    Practicing many of the patterns mastered by the Occupiers, we will be successful.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 12/14/2011 12:09pm (9 years ago)

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