The first question is what attitude should Marxists adopt to the Democrats? In reality, it is the same question as what attitude should Marxists adopt towards Labour in the UK, the SPD in Germany and so on. The answer is to “stick with the workers”.
“As the experiences of the Russian Revolution teach us – remember this in England and America! – the most important thing of all is to stay in the midst of the masses of workers. You will often go wrong with them, but never leave the mass organisations of the working class, however reactionary they may be at any given moment” (emphasis added).
(Zinoviev’s closing speech at the 15th Session of the Second Congress of the Comintern)
Close to the end of his life, Engels, writing to US socialists, Made this same point, and he related that he and Marx had joined the German Democrats, an openly bourgeois party, because it was the means of gaining the ear of the workers.
“When we returned to Germany, in spring 1848, we joined the Democratic Party as the only possible means of getting the ear of the working class; we were the most advanced wing of that party, but still a wing of it. When Marx founded the International, he drew up the General Rules in such a way that all working-class socialists of that period could join it -- Proudhonists, Pierre Lerouxists and even the more advanced section of the English Trades Unions; and it was only through this latitude that the International became what it was, the means of gradually dissolving and absorbing all these minor sects, with the exception of the Anarchists, whose sudden appearance in various countries was but the effect of the violent bourgeois reaction after the Commune and could therefore safely be left by us to die out of itself, as it did. Had we from 1864, to 1873 insisted on working together only with those who openly adopted our platform where should we be to-day? I think that all our practice has shown that it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organisation, and I am afraid that if the German Americans choose a different line they will commit a great mistake.”
London, January 27, 1887
Engels made the same point to Eleanor Marx, to ignore the various British sects such as the SDF and the ILP, and to go directly to where the workers were in the trades unions and in the Liberal Clubs.
But, of course, that did not mean fetishising those organisations. The Marxists activity within them must always be geared to developing the working-class, and thereby to developing the praxis of these organisations, so as better to reflect the needs and interests of the workers. At certain points, this very process, must involve the fracturing of these organisations. Where this happens naturally, with the British workers decisively moving beyond the limits of the Liberal Party, it would be lunacy to oppose this movement, as, for example, the Fabians did, and thereby to fetishise existing structures.
But, it is also lunacy to believe, as some do today, that groups of a few hundred, or a few thousand – usually petit-bourgeois – members of revolutionary sects, can substitute for the real movement of the working-class, and simply proclaim the establishment of a new Workers Party, even if that party is intended to be only a replica of some old workers party.
More difficult is the condition that Lenin and Trotsky found themselves in in 1914-20, when the old mass workers parties were dividing, and the possibility of developing new revolutionary mass workers' parties existed at a time when global socialist revolution appeared to be unfolding. As it turned out, that division of the working class movement, was catastrophic, and created the weakness we have today, but it would have been near impossible to have seen that at the time.
It would be much better to have a workers' party in the US that was more like the social-democratic parties in Europe, but we have to deal with the reality we have. In reality, the US Democrats are not greatly different to European social-democratic parties, which if anything are moving closer to their US counterpart, and that is because they are all built upon that same bourgeois, social-democratic ideology of a compromise between the interests of big industrial capital and the working-class.
The former is based on the more progressive forms of capital – in fact, it is based upon what Marx calls, in Capital III, one of the transitional forms of property between capitalism and socialism.
“The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.”
It is based on a socialised form of capital, represented by the joint stock company, and its modern form, the corporation and public limited company. As Engels describes in his Critique of the Erfurt Programme, these forms of capital have not only gone beyond private capitalist production, but they have also gone beyond that “planlessness”, that characterised the early forms of capital.
“What is capitalist private production? Production by separate entrepreneurs, which is increasingly becoming an exception. Capitalist production by joint-stock companies is no longer private production but production on behalf of many associated people. And when we pass on from joint-stock companies to trusts, which dominate and monopolise whole branches of industry, this puts an end not only to private production but also to planlessness.””
As Marx describes in Capital III, this form of capital necessarily comes into conflict with the less mature forms, as it “expropriates the expropriators”, i.e. the small and medium capitalists.
"The capital, which in itself rests on a social mode of production and presupposes a social concentration of means of production and labour-power, is here directly endowed with the form of social capital (capital of directly associated individuals) as distinct from private capital, and its undertakings assume the form of social undertakings as distinct from private undertakings. It is the abolition of capital as private property within the framework of capitalist production itself.
There is antagonism against the old form in the stock companies, in which social means of production appear as private property;...
Success and failure both lead here to a centralisation of capital, and thus to expropriation on the most enormous scale. Expropriation extends here from the direct producers to the smaller and the medium-sized capitalists themselves. It is the point of departure for the capitalist mode of production; its accomplishment is the goal of this production. In the last instance, it aims at the expropriation of the means of production from all individuals. With the development of social production the means of production cease to be means of private production and products of private production, and can thereafter be only means of production in the hands of associated producers, i.e., the latter's social property, much as they are their social products."
This is at root, the material basis of the class antagonism reflected in the division between conservative and social-democratic parties.