Response to Donna Cartwright

Kit Wainer

Posted February 25, 2020

President Ulysses S. Grant. The elections of 1864, 1866 and 1868 are often credited with Radical Reconstruction. But how were the Civil War, the elections, and Radical Reconstruction really related? (Photo: Matthew Brady)

Thank you for your comments on the article Mel Bienenfeld and I wrote for New Politics. In our original article we critiqued what Eric Blanc has termed the “democratic road” to socialism. Mel and I argued that the constitutional framework of the US state poses particular obstacles to any attempt to implement a transition to socialism through electoral means. Specifically, we cite the separation of powers and the system of federalism as mechanisms by which capitalists and pro-capitalist politicians would be able to retain control of key levers of power even if a radical political party won control of the federal government.

We emphasize that for Blanc’s scenario to be at all realistic one would have to envision a left party winning multiple wave elections at both the national and state levels. Absent a string of successive victories, no political party can wield enough power to pass and implement dramatic social change. Furthermore, — and I believe Blanc agrees with us here – such electoral victories would have to be backed by mass mobilizations such as strikes, sit-ins, and protests in order to intimidate conservative and recalcitrant officials.

You are correct that we are skeptical of that scenario. As we point out, we believe that even an elected socialist leadership would have to contend with wholesale obstructionism from various branches and departments of government, not to mention violent repression and suspensions of even capitalist democracy.

You point out that there are at least two examples of “pro-reform” forces winning successive wave elections and carrying out reforms. You cite the Reconstruction period and the New Deal. I don’t believe, that either of these examples undermine our argument, however. In fact, while the New Deal raises interesting questions, the Reconstruction example supports our thesis.

You mention that from 1864 to 1868 the Republicans won commanding Congressional majorities in three successive elections and carried out reform measures now known as “Radical Reconstruction.” You neglect to mention, however, that this took place in the context of the civil war and its aftermath. The 1864 Congressional elections transpired more than three years after the southern states had seceded from the Union, and the Lincoln administration enacted revolutionary measures to militarily destroy the rebellion. It seems harder to imagine a clearer example than this of what Vivek Chibber termed a “rupture.” In 1864 the southern states were still not part of the Union. Consequently, southern Democrats could not vote or send representatives to Congress. The elections took place only in areas where Republicans were already dominant, sixteen months after the battle of Gettysburg, as the Union forces were clearly winning and Lincoln’s agenda was vindicated. In 1866, the ex-Confederate states had still not been readmitted to the Union. Consequently, southern Democrats were disenfranchised and the former Confederate states had no representation in the House. In 1868 most of the southern states were readmitted. (Virginia and Texas would not be readmitted until 1870.) But they were still under federal military occupation which temporarily enforced Reconstruction measures such as Black male suffrage. That is why Republicans were able to dominate House elections that year. In short, the pre-condition for this succession of wave elections which brought to power a pro-reform party, was a social revolution characterized by a ruptural break from the older state and military suppression of counter-revolution. All of that was led by a political party which had campaigned in 1860 on a promise to ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scot, thus violating U.S. Constitutional norms.

I believe you are on stronger ground with your reference to the New Deal. I am not convinced, however, that it indicates that the electoral system outlined in the U.S. Constitution, can be harnessed and used to implement a transition to socialism. First, the New Deal reforms were far less radical than those advocated by proponents of a “democratic road” to socialism. While they may have impinged upon the logic of profitability and free market economics, they did not challenge capitalist property relations. FDR may have been red-baited from the right, but he did not seize private property from capitalists, nor did he have any interest in doing so. In fact, in 1932, he had little interest in radical reform at all. The mass mobilizations of the CIO and unemployed councils pushed the Democratic Party in a more reformist direction. And FDR had to contend with the more recalcitrant southern Democrats and earned their support only after agreeing to exclude agricultural and domestic workers from the protections offered by the Second New Deal.

I believe your example of successive Democratic electoral victories during the New Deal period is indicative of a larger trend in partisan politics of the twentieth century, one which Mel and I did not address in our article. In the twenty-first century we have become accustomed to close elections and shifts in the partisan balance of forces in both the legislative and executive branches. In the twentieth century, however, long-term patterns of one political party enjoying demographic and structural advantages was more the norm. From the 1930s through the late twentieth century the Democrats were able to hold together a coalition of southern segregationists, northern urban political machines, African-American voters, and unionized workers to maintain a substantial electoral advantage. From 1933 to 1995 Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for all but four years. Even after the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965, as the south trended red in presidential elections, Democrats were slow to lose their grip on southern House seats. At the presidential level the shift in partisan advantage was sharper but illustrates the same point. From 1933 to 1969 the Democrats controlled the White House for 28 out of 36 years. From 1969 to 1993 a Republican occupied the oval office for 20 out of 24 years. This shift was partially the result of the migration of southern whites toward the Republican Party, at least in presidential elections.

The Democratic leadership, and many journalists, believe the Party is on the verge of obtaining another long-term structural advantage. The decline of white voters as a share of the electorate gives Democratic leaders the hope that they can soon emerge as the principal party of capital in the United States. In that context it is easy to see why the Republicans have prioritized voter suppression and gerrymandering. They don’t have a clear alternative given the relative decline of their base. Whether these Democratic dreams come true is still uncertain. And it is hardly the most important question for us.

Mel and I did not argue that a political party could not maintain a long-term structural advantage in the United States. Instead, we argued that the U.S. Constitutional framework would render an electoral transition to socialism – even one backed by mass mobilizations – nearly, if not completely, impossible. We detailed the Constitutional mechanisms that would be readily available to anti-socialist forces to thwart any such transition. Furthermore, we expressed skepticism that a party seeking to use the existing state to challenge capitalist property relations would be able to sustain sufficient electoral success to carry out its agenda through parliamentary means. The waves of pro-capitalist repression and resistance, including violent intimidation and electoral disenfranchisement, all carried out in the name of preserving the Constitution, would be too difficult to overcome.

Your New Deal example doesn’t challenge that. The Democrats of the 1930s did not have to repress counter-revolution because they were not leading a revolution. The Radical Republicans of the 1860s were able to transform society because they had launched a civil war, repressed counter-revolution, and begun to militarily reconstruct society in the aftermath.

January 15, 2020

Problems with an Electoral Road to Socialism in the United States Introduction

Problems with an Electoral Road to Socialism in the United States by Kit Wainer and Mel Bienenfeld

Problems with an Electoral Road to Socialism in the United States by Donna Cartwright

Is There an Electoral Road to Social Democracy? by Peter Solenberger