History Proves We Can’t Count on the Democratic Party for a Green New Deal

In 1966, the civil rights movement, in ways similar to the climate justice movement today, was at an impasse, confronting vast societal disparities of wealth and power. “A Freedom Budget for all Americans,” issued by leaders of the civil rights movement, called on the federal government to implement programs that would eliminate poverty in 10 years through jobs, education, housing and health care programs.

Today, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has proposed a Green New Deal, with similarly broad universal social and environmental justice ambitions — and the stakes for the U.S. and global working class and the planet are dire.

To discuss the historical lessons from the 1966 Freedom Budget and prospects for a Green New Deal, Truthout spoke with historian and labor activist Paul Le Blanc, co-author (along with Michael Yates) of A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Paul Fleckenstein: What was the Freedom Budget for All Americans?

Paul Le Blanc: It was put forward in 1966-1967 to abolish poverty and unemployment in the United States within a 10-year period. It projected job-creation, with decent incomes for all workers, decent health care for all, full educational opportunity for all, decent housing for everyone, enhancement of mass transit systems, with attention to society’s infrastructural and environmental needs.

Poverty and unemployment rates were twice as high among Black Americans as among white Americans. Life expectancy tended to be significantly shorter, infant mortality rates higher, housing worse, educational opportunities lower and so on. (The same is true today.) This is called “institutional racism,” distinguished from personal forms of racism.

Many white workers were economically insecure. Competition for jobs, housing, education, and so on could deepen racial antagonisms. Some believed civil rights gains for Black people meant a deteriorating situation for them, making them more susceptible to racist appeals.

The Freedom Budget was designed to end all that. Economic disparity between Black and white people would be ended not by taking jobs and income away from white people. Instead, jobs and decent incomes would be provided for all; poverty would end for everyone; each and every person would receive good health care, full educational opportunities, adequate housing — all as a matter of right.

Building on the already existing momentum of the rising civil rights coalition, it demanded a better life for all. A powerful interracial movement of the working-class majority, with a deepening solidarity, would replace racial antagonism.

Where did the plan come from? Who developed it?

It came from civil rights and labor activists who organized the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, drawing 250,000 to Washington, D.C., where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. The key organizers were an impressive group of people around the Socialist Party of America, including A. Philip Randolph (president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and his protégé Bayard Rustin. Rustin drew together an amazing team of younger socialist cadres, Black and white, active in the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The march’s focus was the South’s racist Jim Crow system — the racial segregation and denial of voting rights. This was challenged by the modern civil rights movement. Picket lines, demonstrations, rallies, boycotts, sit-ins, mass arrests, and patient, grassroots organizing mobilized many thousands of Black people, as well as growing numbers of white supporters, in the cause of racial equality.

The 1963 march rallied support for the civil rights cause and pressured the federal government. It was supported by other left-wing organizations and individuals, not just the Socialist Party. This included Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the more moderate National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Urban League, some trade unions, liberal groups, and religious denominations and organizations. Vibrant elements of this broad coalition included students and youth.

Randolph and Rustin believed racism had deep economic roots. Its economic impact on the majority of people not only was devastating for African Americans and other people of color, but also undermined the quality of life of white workers as well. They linked the struggle for racial justice with the struggle for economic justice. The 1963 action was called a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Others also played key roles in advancing the Freedom Budget. One was Leon H. Keyserling, who developed economic policy in the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman administrations. Michael Harrington — whose exposé of poverty, The Other America, had been a best seller — was involved, along with economists from the AFL-CIO. The best-known advocate was Martin Luther King Jr.

Endorsed by hundreds prominent of civil rights activists, trade unionists, academics, religious figures and others, it projected a dramatic power shift and reordering of priorities that would have changed the course of our history.

What happened with the campaign for the Freedom Budget?

Bayard Rustin and the young socialists around him had envisioned advancing the Freedom Budget through mass actions, marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, militant education and consciousness raising — a moral crusade. It would have support from the coalition forces around the March on Washington, plus new layers of the working class drawn to the Freedom Budget’s central goal of economic justice.

But a contradiction of the civil rights movement came into play. A powerful liberal current in the Democratic Party, despite inconsistencies, facilitated civil rights victories. Pressuring that powerful current to “do the right thing,” the radical activists of the civil rights movement developed a dependency on it. A SNCC leader called it a kind of dance. With the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson presidencies, this became central to the movement’s orientation.

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has historically been dominated by the corporate liberals. For pragmatic reasons, it supported the civil rights agenda for racial justice — passing and implementing various civil rights acts and voting rights acts to dismantle the Jim Crow system. It also made gestures around economic justice, with a “War on Poverty,” part of President Johnson’s so-called “Great Society.” This generated an adaption to these allies. Rustin — a key strategist and central figure in the organization of effective mass protests — called for shift “from protest to politics” (meaning electoral politics).

This was the beginning of the end. It was deemed necessary to hold back on mass mobilizations and militant protests, and also, in deference to what were seen as increasingly important allies, to make compromises — including compromises with the Southern segregationist wing of the Democratic Party. These allies, including various liberal senators and congressmen, plus key lobbyists and others tied to the labor bureaucracy of the AFL-CIO — treated the Freedom Budget with sympathy, but then deemed the adoption of this radical-tilted package as “impractical.” Yet Randolph rejected their piecemeal approach, explaining the struggle could not “be won by segments,” but only through “a unified and consistent program.”

The Democratic Party of Kennedy and Johnson was also advancing a foreign policy that could be described as a sort of “imperialism with a human face.” It dramatically escalated U.S. military involvement in Vietnam into a horrific and bloody conflict, with the usual rhetoric about freedom and democracy. The war drained resources away from the domestic reform programs that the Freedom Budget sought to expand, and it split the forces that had pushed forward the civil rights victories. Many dynamic activists, who had rallied to Bayard Rustin in 1963, broke with him when he prioritized supporting the Democratic Party over opposing the Vietnam War.

The forces needed to push forward the Freedom Budget no longer existed. The Democratic Party dug in its heels, resisting it or ignoring it. Various liberals — the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, the NAACP and others giving lip service to [the Freedom Budget] — were unprepared to fight for it. Many youthful activists and cadres of the left were alienated from it — seeing it as a diversion away from mobilizing against an immoral war.

The Freedom Budget became a program whose potential mass appeal could not be realized, and after an initial flurry, it faded away. In a way, the compromises made to ensure the Freedom Budget’s relevance ended up making it impossible.

Is this “from-protest-to-politics” emphasis on electoral strategies, as you said, still a dominant influence in movements?

We live in a different moment of history, but generalizations can be made. For something so radical as the Freedom Budget or the Green New Deal, it will take a much fiercer fight than Freedom Budget strategists were prepared to wage.

Regarding the Democratic Party, the matter is complicated in more than one way. The Freedom Budget was developed by socialists who hoped the existing Democratic Party (purged of its segregationist wing) would become its champion. They made major compromises to achieve that — and when they were betrayed, they had nowhere to go.

The Green New Deal is being pushed forward by open socialists inside the Democratic Party, and they have choices. One way to go is to rely on the Democratic Party as a champion of the Green New Deal — and the lesson of the Freedom Budget’s failure is that this is a pathway to defeat and irrelevance. Instead, the Green New Deal can become a litmus test for determining who are truly allies, and at the same time, a means for challenging those forces in the Democratic Party aligned with corporate liberalism.

If the Democratic Party remains in the clutches of the corporate elite, the only way the Green New Deal can be won will involve elected socialists, and the masses of people mobilized around the Green New Deal, to break from the Democratic Party. Creation of a mass party fighting for the needs of the majority of the people — our massive and diverse working class — would be a real political revolution in our country.

No movement for fundamental social change can afford to restrict the struggle to electoral channels. Contrasting “protest” to “politics” is a mistake.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted no positive change in society comes without the thunder, lightning and powerful winds of mass protests. Genuinely revolutionary politics cannot be restricted to voting, it must involve much more: organizing in workplaces and communities, petitions and picket lines, sometimes civil disobedience, mass marches and what revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg described as “mass strikes.”

Such non-electoral politics can integrate electoral activity into a dynamic overflowing the boundaries of traditional “bourgeois politics.” This raises the consciousness and morale of more and more people by involving them in active struggle, as part of a coordinated strategy. Then something like the Freedom Budget or the Green New Deal can advance a genuine political revolution that flows in the direction of social revolution.

What about the military and U.S. empire? Like the Freedom Budget, the proposed Green New Deal is silent on this.

Exactly. There was a conscious decision to avoid foreign policy matters in the Freedom Budget, in order to prevent any narrowing of support. Actually, leaving such things out of the Freedom Budget can be defended as a tactic — but the realities cannot be avoided by the socialists advancing such a program. Luxemburg insisted that imperialism and militarism must be central in our analysis and strategy, because they are absolutely central to the nature and functioning of modern capitalism.

The explosion of the Vietnam War into American life and politics posed one of the greatest challenges to the Freedom Budget. I believe there would have been a possibility to do with the Freedom Budget what Martin Luther King Jr. tried to do after he came out against the war. If Rustin and Randolph and others had joined in building opposition to the Vietnam War, they could have put the Freedom Budget forward in that context — building consciousness that there had to be and could be a practical, radical alternative to a corporate-capitalist system that puts profits before people in both foreign policy and domestic reality.

Political parties committed to maintaining capitalism — whether they are liberal or conservative, and particularly in a country like the United States — are necessarily committed to maintaining a military establishment and an imperialist foreign policy (today we call it globalization).

It is possible to cooperate in short-term alliances with such parties. Some socialists are now engaged in an innovative experiment, making use of the Democratic Party by running and getting elected — as open socialists — on its ballot lines, in order to spread the socialist message and challenge the powers that be. But experience from the past highlights the dangers — for example, the erosion of the effectiveness of such a wonderful socialist organizer as Bayard Rustin. In struggles of the working class and the oppressed, we cannot afford to lose sight of the need for political independence.

The Freedom Budget proposal operated within capitalist framework. With perpetual economic expansion running into the limits of a finite planet, how does this affect how socialists should understand the Green New Deal?

Left critiques have identified limitations in both. The Freedom Budget openly accepted the capitalist framework: rising living conditions of the majority of people would generate a prosperity beneficial to our capitalist economy. The Green New Deal has a similar limitation. (So do trade unions and many social movements struggling for reforms in the here and now.)

As left-wing critics point out, capitalism is animated by powerful dynamics that go in the opposite direction, riding roughshod over the goals of the social movements, the trade unions, the Freedom Budget and the Green New Deal. Achieving those goals, the critics point out, requires overturning this oppressive economic dictatorship of capitalism, replacing it with the economic democracy of socialism.

What some critics miss is the point that Luxemburg makes at the very beginning of Reform or Revolution — the fundamental connection, for the socialist movement, between social reforms and revolution: “the struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”

Both the Freedom Budget and Green New Deal would require powerful social movements and social struggles fighting for them, plus a growing mass consciousness about their feasibility and necessity. Implementation would reflect a power shift in society toward the working-class majority and those committed to racial justice, environmental justice and economic justice.

Resistance will come from powerful business interests, driven by the dynamics of capital accumulation, in pursuit of profit. Capitalist resistance would collide with the increasingly conscious, powerful, well-organized working-class majority. Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky discussed such dynamics in The Transitional Program. That opens the possibility of a revolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism.