Labour parties

Jose G. Perez jgperez at
Sat Sep 21 23:32:10 MDT 2002

Bob Gould has started a multi-part answer to my and other posts on the
question of the labor parties.

So that the discussion may be as fruitful as possible, even before Bob
finishes laying out the main lines of his argument, I'd like to disabuse him
of a couple of misconceptions.

One, that the DSP and I represent a common current, in some sort of
conscious or coordinated way. Actually, I've been very pleasantly and
genuinely surprised to find myself largely in agreement with the DSP on a
number of issues over the past few years. I say surprised, pleasantly and
genuinely. You'll find a clear implication there, namely, that I did not
expect it.

I wasn't aware of the DSP's characterization of the ALP as simply one more
bourgeois party until I read Bob's post. I'm sure I've read over the past
2-3 years, since these Australian cdes. have been more on my "radar screen,"
any number of things generally reflecting that idea, but it did not strike
me then, nor does it strike me now, as an incredibly penetrating insight.
That the fundamental class character of a party is defined by its *actions*,
which class it supports, not which class supports it, is an obvious

However, that does not at all exhaust the *tactical* question, it doesn't
even begin to broach it.

Bob, I think, was trained in the same paleo-Trotskyist "pigeon hole"
tradition of what was and was not a workers party as I was. The underlying
premise of this mode of analysis is something that I must have said a
million times in the 15 years I was in the Trotskyist movement, and which is
radically false: That what elections are about is which class should rule.

Actually, elections are NEVER about that in the societies and countries
we're looking at in connection with this discussion. They don't have
anything to do with it AT ALL.

Under this schematic approach, however, it is "permissible" to call for a
vote for a mass workers party, or for one of the currents which
traditionally and historically have operated within the workers movement,
i.e., Stalinism and social-democracy.

Bob pegs a lot of his argument around "sociological" issues. I actually
*agree* with him on the importance of the "sociology" -- but "sociology" in
motion. Static demographics I don't think it can be made to bear the kind of
freight he wants to load onto them.

If you study American elections closely, you will see that party preference
has a decidedly class character. The exit polls done during each major
election very clearly reveals this, with the Democrats getting the lion's
share of the working-class vote, and Republican support concentrated in
upper-income and petty-bourgeoisified layers. That the Republicans can have
more or less half the vote is explained solely by the fact that even in the
highest turnout elections, only about half of the voting-age population
comes out to vote. Blacks vote Democrat by roughly 10-to-1 margins.
Hispanics, once you factor out the Cubans, are also VERY heavy democrat
voters. People in union households vote Democrat something like two to one.
People in households with incomes below the 50th percentile or so also give
Democrats crushing margins. Moreover, at the rank-and-file activist level,
the biggest source of troops for the Democrats are people in/around the
labor movement and organizations rooted in the oppressed nationalities.

This does not, however, make the Democrats a workers party, on the contrary,
they're probably the most unquestionably bourgeois party of all, its roots
lie in the Democratic Republican Party of the early 1800's. The Democrats
are the *original* bourgeois party in the United States.

More to the point of our current discussion is their political role. The
form an integral, essential part of a bourgeois, two-party-system of
capitalist rule and ideological hegemony.

Bob argues from the theorem of identity: labor party=labor party. He
*assumes* precisely what it being challenged, what he needs to prove, which
is that the labor and social democratic parties today represent the same
thing politically as they did in Lenin's time.

Lenin's phrase about "support like a rope supports a hanging man," wasn't
merely a rhetorical flourish or a pedagogical adaptation to the ultraleft
Communists he was trying to reach. It was a dialectical unity of opposites,
a reflection in Communist tactics of a contradiction that existed in REAL
LIFE, and which he elsewhere captured by describing these parties as
bourgeois workers' parties.

And that contradiction is, in the most fundamental sense in which you CAN
judge a political movement, these had clearly revealed themselves to be
BOURGEOIS movements. Yet these parties had arisen in the past few decades as
the forms through which the working class was groping its way towards class
political independence and class political consciousness. Workers were
voting for them under the illusion, an illusion still being promoted then by
the reformist leaderships, that this was a way to weaken and eventually do
away with bourgeois rule. The "workers" part of the characterization
"borugeois workers parties" wasn't about sociology, it was about political
motion. It wasn't a scalar but a vector.

Since then, however, a considerable period of time has passed. There is no
one politically active today who went through the experience of the rise of
the mass workers' parties as part of a movement by working people to break
from capitalist politics and chart an independent course. The reformist
leaders no longer even pay lip service to workers' rule or the idea of
socialism. Instead, these parties have become integral parts of the
bourgeois political regime in their countries, integrated into (usually)
two-party systems, which have shown themselves to be one of the key
insitutions of stable bourgeois democracies, and play an absolutely
*essential* role in imposing bourgeois ideological hegemony. Thus the debate
in the United States becomes, not whether to invade Iraq, but whether UN
"cover" is useful in that enterprise.

This does not mean that I discount the possibility that motion towards
independent politics by working people might find expression within these
two party systems, and that under those circumstances of motion towards a
break from bourgeois politics, a tactic of critical support might be
justified. But it does rule out the sort of blanket approach of giving
"critical support" across the board. Unlike in Lenin's time, these parties
are, routinely, in charge of administering the capitalist state for
prolonged periods of time. There is no need to try to get these people in
power so they can unmask themselves as just one more set of capitalist
politicians, indeed, people like Blair never tire of underlining their
bourgeois respectability in every sense.

The plain fact is, as distinct from Lenin's time, the ideological hegemony
of the ruling class among working people is qualitatively stronger. People
don't vote for a run-of-the-mill labor party or U.S. Democratic Party
candidate because they have illusions that this will somehow bring about the
kind of fundamental social change they want, even if its precise character
isn't yet too clear in their own minds. In fact, they do not believe
fundamental social change is either possible or desirable.

The typical labor/Democratic Party candidate presents mostly an appeal to
the managerial, professional and middle class layers. Their program is to
ameliorate some of the contradictions of capitalism, sand off some of the
rough edges in order to preserve the status quo.

At bottom, the judgements that need to be made aren't really sociological or
programmatic but political: which forces are in motion and in what
direction. In Lenin's time, it was perfectly rational to say voting for
labor marked a step in breaking away from the bourgeois political
establishment. Today, even if party rules, structure, social composition and
so on were identical to what it was then, it is simply not true that someone
can rationally make the same statement about those votes now, because these
parties have become --they make no bones about it-- an integral part of the
bourgeois political establishment. And as if to re-enforce this idea, in a
lot of ways the kind of role played by labor parties in other countries is
played in the U.S. by the great grand daddy of all American bourgeois


----- Original Message -----
From: "Steve Painter and Rose McCann" <spainter at>
To: <marxism at>
Sent: Saturday, September 21, 2002 7:49 PM
Subject: Labour parties

Bob Gould responds to Jose Perez, Ben Courtice, Phillip Ferguson and
Jurriaan Bendien

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