�'Who Can We Shoot?' Democratic Elitism, Marxism and American Progressivism ::: International Endowment for Democracy
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'Who Can We Shoot?'
Democratic Elitism, Marxism and American Progressivism

By John F. Manley, Department of Political Science, Stanford University
1999

This essay originally appeared in the International Review of Sociology¡ªRevue Internationale de Sociologie, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1999 (pp. 183¡ª195)

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck tells the story of a tenant farmer and a tractor operator who is about to level the farmer's home. The farmer wants to know whom to shoot. The driver says he is just following orders; if the farmer shoots him another man will be sent to bump the home down. 'You're not killing the right guy.' 'Who gave you orders?' The bank: 'Clear those people out or it's your job.' But there is no sense shooting the bank's directors because they got their orders from the East: make the land show profit or else. Where does it stop, the farmer asks. 'I don't aim to starve to death before I kill the man that's starving me.' 'Maybe it isn't men at all,' the operator says, 'maybe it's the "property" that's doing it.'

To answer the farmer's question requires a theory of power. Had Steinbeck's farmer asked certain pluralists, he would have been told there is no one to shoot because no one in particular is in charge. Confronted by this, the farmer might turn the gun on himself, but that would be premature for there are theories that claim to know the locus of power.

Elitism says all societies, democratic or not, are run by elites. Marxism says elitism is too simple, and pluralism too complex. The farmer's problem is capitalism; the "property" is doing it. Random acts of violence, however satisfying, are pointless. What must change are the social relations that ensnare the farmer in a system not of his making. The farmer, acting alone, has little power; joined by others, change occurs.

Marxism, pluralism, and elitism all purport to explain the world in which Steinbeck's farmer and we live. Marxism and pluralism have a long antagonistic relationship, but the steam has long been gone from old pluralist elitist debates. Elitism also suffers by association with Plato, Mosca, Pareto, and Michels. Mosca put the anti democratic case best in 1896 when he said that in all societies, from the dawn of civilization down to the most advanced, two classes of people appear, 'a class that rules and a class that is ruled' (Mosca, 1939, p. 50). Mosca targeted Marxist social democratic movements, but he was equally dismissive of liberal democracy. Elitism was not only tainted, its message was bleak. Mosca made some acute observations (the ruling class, he says, easily subverts liberal democracy by conducting elections to the music of 'clinking dollars'), but in the end elite theory was a better defense of elitism than explanation of how societies work (Mosca, 1939, pp. 58, 154-155).

'Democratic elite' theory sounds like a contradiction. Democracy after all depends on empowering ordinary people. As presented by Eva Etzioni Halevy, however, democratic elite theory claims to be a progressive theory compatible with equality and the needs of the weak. Her version of elite theory does not divide society into the few with power, and the many without; does not necessarily identify with the interests of leading elites; and, compared with Marxism and pluralism, promises a superior explanation of power in liberal democracies. The theory's central proposition, its 'meta principle,' is the importance for democracy of autonomous elites, autonomous from each other, and from (and within) the state. What makes multiple elites democratic is separation among them. This was the great insight, she claims, of Weber, Schumpeter, Aron, and the partially rehabilitated Mosca who, for all his doubts about democracy, saw the importance of separate, competing elites. Democratic elitism shares much in common with pluralism; the key difference involves the role of autonomous elites in protecting democracy from overly powerful governmental elites. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe before the 1989 revolutions anchor the argument (Etzioni Haley, 1993, pp. 2 9, 53 66).

Defenders of classical democracy will not accept Etzioni Halevy's limited role for ordinary people, and wide elite autonomy, as democratic. Nor will anyone familiar with American labor history or authoritarian capitalist regimes in Korea, Taiwan, Chile, Mexico, Singapore, Malaysia, or Thailand (to name a few) accept the often claimed ties between capitalism and democracy. But our main concern here is with Marx and democratic elite theory. How good an account do these theories give of liberal democracy in the USA?

I

So many crazy ideas passed as 'Marxism' in Marx's day that he once denied being a Marxist. The same melange exists today, necessitating a word about the type of Marxism under discussion.

For Marx, the problem was capitalism; specifically, the objective social relations of capitalist production; the dialectical, conflictual and exploitative nature of these relations; the historic elimination of class and all other forms of exploitation; and capitalism's supersession by democratic socialism. Classical Marxism is sometimes dismissed as 'essentialist' for privileging (like Marx) class and class conflict under capitalism over other important influences (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.). But if, as Marx argued, how people produce the necessities and niceties of life is vital to understanding all social relationships, his work has much to offer compared with other theories. And if other factors are privileged, capitalism recedes from view.

Ellen Meiksins Wood sums up the classical Marxist approach concisely:

There was in this account an organic unity of historical processes and political objectives, not in the sense that socialism was viewed as the ineluctable end of predictable historical evolution, but rather in the sense that the objectives of socialism were seen as real historical possibilities, growing out of existing social forces, interests, and struggles. If the social relations of production and class struggle were the basic principles of historical movement to date, socialism was now on the historical agenda because there existed, for the first time in history, not only the forces of production to make human emancipation possible, but more particularly a class which contained the real possibility of a classless society: a class without property or exploitative powers of its own to protect, which could not fully serve its own class interests without abolishing class altogether.... (Wood, 1986, p. 90)

Marx, of course, never denied the existence of elites or gradations of power within classes. He was aware of 'fractions' within classes; painfully so in the case of the working class. He was also well aware of the middle class, once reproaching Ricardo for failing to emphasize 'the constantly growing number of the middle classes, those who stand between the workman on the one hand and the capitalist and landlord on the other.'2 That Marx saw masses of formerly independent producers thrown into the proletariat, and capital centralizing in relatively fewer hands, does not mean he was blind to the complexity of classes; he just accurately saw the trend.

Toward the end of Volume 3 of Capital, Marx unveils the key to the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure of capitalism, as well as the state. It was the relationship of owners of the means of production to direct producers in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of direct producers. He was quick to add that the same economic base could give rise to infinite variations depending on the natural environment, racial relations, historical influences, and the like (Marx, 1967, pp. 791 792). But underlying social structural relations, not the actions of elites, were Marx's primary concerns.

Democratic elite theory faults Marx's emphasis on class because classes are allegedly too large and amorphous to act; their boundaries unclear; revolutionary class struggle is a myth (classes as such cannot act); and the real historical actors are elites and sub elites. Elites may represent the interest of those at the bottom of society as well as those at the top, but it is elites who count (Etzioni Halevy, 1993, pp. 3549). 'Bringing elites and sub elites back into class theory, not as supporting actors for classes but as star actors in their own right, positioning them at centre stage, not instead of but in conjunction with classes, and exploring the relationships between the two, is thus a legitimate and a much needed endeavor,' Etzioni Halevy writes (1993, pp. 49 50).

(Democratic elite theory is somewhat torn on Marx. Etzioni Halevy believes Weber's mainstream theory of classes is more capacious and truer to historical reality than Marx's, but both Marx and Weber call attention to how inequalities divide people into classes; some Weberians even admit the importance of class action and conflict (Etzioni Halevy, 1993, p. 19; see Wright (1997, pp. 29 37)). Etzioni Halevy's 'democratic elitism' is quite different from theorists like Domhoff, who sees elites as generally antithetical to democracy, and who endorses a 'class dominance' model shorn of Marx's historical materialism, labor theory of value, stress on class conflict, and claims about the future of socialism (Domhoff, 1996, p. 6).

II

Many observers of America deny the existence or discount the importance of class. Seymour Martin Lipset says class in America 'has been a theoretical construct,' which means it does not really exist (Upset, 1996. p. 23). Alan Ryan cites the absence of a Labour party, non revolutionary trade unions, and workers who want 'more of capitalism's golden eggs but not at the expense of the goose that laid them' to explain the relative absence of class conflict in American history (Ryan, 1997, p. 27). If Werner Sombart and others are right, there should be little more than a chemical trace of class conflict in American history.3

Why, then, do so many people who made American history carry on about class and class conflict? Take, for example, the progressive era, the time when large corporations emerged and large parts of the USA changed from a society of independent producers, the glory of precapitalist, republican America, to a society in which most people worked for others. Discussions of class and class conflict were commonplace in these years. The same is true of other periods in American history, but let us look a little more closely at progressivism. Theodore Roosevelt, Ralph Easley, the Industrial Workers of the World IWW), and Woodrow Wilson have a lot to say about class conflict in America.

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was so concerned by the dangers of class conflict that he sent messages to Congress on the subject. His very first message, in fact, warned: 'Above all, we need to remember that any kind of class animosity in the political world is, if possible, even more wicked, even more destructive to national welfare, than sectional, race, or religious animosity' (Griffith, 1971, p. 190). In 1905, he said, 'The greatest and most dangerous rock in the course of any republic is the rock of class hatred' (p.271). In 'The Spirit of Class Antagonism' delivered in Little Rock, Arkansas, he warned, 'Distrust more than any other man in this Republic the man who would try to teach Americans to substitute loyalty to any class for loyalty to the whole American people' (p. 316). His 1906 opening message to Congress, 'Preachers of Discontent and Class Hatred,' railed against demagogues left and right, with special scorn for preachers of class hatred against the rich. He would take care of the malefactors of great wealth, he promised. During the 1912 Bull Moose campaign he was shot, but before going to the hospital he showed the audience where the bullet went in, saying, 'Friends, every good citizen ought to do everything in his or her power to prevent the coming of the day when we shall see in this country two recognized creeds fighting one another, when we shall see the creed of the "Havenots" arraigned against the creed of the "Haves"' (pp. 752 753).

Theodore Roosevelt was the admiring son of a rich (merchant capital) Republican who, appalled by the malodorous Grant Administration, joined the Republican Reform Club, setting a reformist example for the future President. As a member of the New York State Assembly, Roosevelt pushed local government reform opposed by Democratic and Republican machine politicians, but, despite the thousands of strikes that occurred in New York's rapidly industrializing society¡ªand despite such upheavals as the 1877 national railroad strike¡ªhe admits in his Autobiography he was slow to support social and labor legislation (Roosevelt, 1913, pp. 86 87). Indeed, he repeated the mantra that because of the opportunities for upward mobility there were no classes in the USA in the European sense; he opposed the 8 hour day and minimum wage legislation as 'communistic' (Hurwitz, 1943, pp. 277 279).

Roosevelt was exposed to labor radicalism directly in 1886 when he ran against Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty, labor's candidate for Mayor of New York City. When in that same year someone threw a bomb killing a policeman at Chicago's Haymarket Square, Roosevelt wrote to his sister that his ranch hands in the Bad Lands, who worked for no more than the Chicago strikers, would take pleasure in emptying their rifles on the mob.4 When Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, after an exhaustive review of the court records, pardoned three Haymarket anarchists who had escaped hanging, Roosevelt refused even to meet Altgeld, saying he might be required to meet the man, sword to sword, on the field of battle: 'I speak with the greatest soberness when I say that ... the sentiment now animating a large proportion of our people can only be suppressed, as the Commune in Paris was suppressed. by taking ten or a dozen of their leaders out, standing ... them against a wall, and shooting them dead. I believe it will come to that' (quoted in Pringle (1931, p. 164)).

By the time an anarchist's bullet killed William McKinley, however, Vice President Roosevelt had changed. In 1890, when Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives appeared, Roosevelt wrote to the journalist who later acted as the politician's guide to New York City's Lower East Side (not far from Roosevelt's East 20th Street residence). A few years later, Roosevelt wrote in The Forum that poverty constituted a 'standing menace, not only to our property, but to our existence' (quoted in Hurwitz (1943, pp.278 279)). Roosevelt appointed himself the Paul Revere of class conflict in the USA.

As President, he offered the state as the authoritative arena and arbiter of class conflict; this, even more than his celebrated view of the presidency as a 'Bully Pulpit,' was his special contribution to the presidency. Roosevelt liked to point out that when the Constitution was written there were no giant corporations of the sort that dominated the economy in 1900. Corporate capitalism would, he believed, self destruct if left to 'wooden headed' (Morison, 1951, p. 360) capitalists. A detailed look at Roosevelt's policies as President is unnecessary here. The relevant point is that his actions were motivated by the belief that from ancient republics to the present, republics failed when wealthy oligarchies exploited the poor or mobs plundered the rich, which insight he applied to the USA. The federal government, controlled by Republicans, affirmed its right to supervise and control capital's use of wealth, including that of great corporations. In crises, Roosevelt found labor leaders like the United Mine Workers John Mitchell more reasonable than capitalists who saw God given property rights at risk.5

Roosevelt never faced a situation in which all capital confronted all labor in a violent struggle to the death. Etzioni Halevy concludes from the absence of such struggles that classes as entities cannot act. People of different classes may clash, but how, she asks, can such conflict be called class struggle 'when most of the people belonging to the relevant classes may not be involved, may not be aware of its taking place, or may even be opposed to it?' (Etzioni Halevy, 1993, pp. 37 38). Elites and sub elites may act in ways that have implications for classes, but classes as such are too large and disunited to be considered historical actors (pp. 35 36).

Yet, if class and class struggle are banished from the analysis, how can we make sense of Roosevelt and such contemporaries as Louis Brandeis? 'There will come a revolt of the people against the capitalists,' Brandeis warned, 'unless the aspirations of the people are given some adequate legal expression ... .' (Mason, 1946, p. 103). To Brandeis, capitalism and democracy were not incompatible, but the excesses of capitalism had to be curbed. 'The next generation must witness a continuing and ever increasing contest between those who have and those who have not�. The people are beginning to doubt whether in the long run democracy and [industrial] absolutism can co exist in the same community; beginning to doubt whether there is justification for the great inequalities in the distribution of wealth, for the rapid creation of fortunes, more mysterious than the deeds of Aladdin's lamp' (pp. 104 106). Ordinary people, he fretted, have begun to think and to act; soon they would realize the power of voting. To reformers like Brandeis, capitalism had to be domesticated, just as a 'brake on democracy' had to be applied, lest the system break apart.

In these years, critics poured out exposes of the system's evils. Henry Demarest Lloyd's 1894 classic Wealth Against Commonwealth posed the basic contradiction: 'Nature is rich; but everywhere man, the heir of nature, is poor.' Why? Capitalists combined in trusts held back production to inflate profits (Lloyd, 1894, p. 1). In 1903, John Graham Brooks's The Social Unrest predicted reform would fail, and the USA would turn to socialism (Brooks, 1903, pp. 43 44). W. J. Ghent's Mass and Class argued for the existence of classes in America despite the fact that some individuals rise (Ghent, 1906, p. 53). Robert Hunter's Poverty, the result of 10 years of research and social work with Jane Addams, documented what Riis had shown Roosevelt. Muckrakers¡ªUpton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, David Graham Phillips, Matthew Josephson, Hutchins Hapgood, Lincoln Steffens, Frank Norris, Gustavus Myers¡ªjoined by novelists Edward Bellamy and Jack London, examined endless capitalist blight on the American dream (see Fuller (1950)).

Of all the books, Herbert Croly's The Promise of American Life stated progressivism best. Writing with Roosevelt uppermost in mind, and heavily influenced by him, Croly argued that a generation ago a man's poverty could reasonably be considered his own fault. Now, with huge corporations, mergers, and trusts, the 'discontented poor are beginning to charge their poverty to an unjust political and economic organization, and reforming agitators do not hesitate to support them in this contention' (Croly, 1965, p. 20). The problem was the 'prodigious concentration of wealth, and the power exercised by wealth, in the hands of a few men' (p. 23). The solution: under nationally minded statesmen government must make itself responsible for a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth (p. 23). Bankrolled by Willard Straight of J. P. Morgan, and his wife Dorothy Whitney Straight, of the Whitneys, Croly became the first Editor of the New Republic, and made that journal into one of the leading progressive voices in the country.

To people like Croly, Roosevelt, Brandeis, and the Straights reform was revolution's antidote. The push for revolution was clear to them: workers, organized and unorganized, were not at all happy under the new capitalist regime. Combined with capitalists prepared to wage war on combustible wage earners, this was a dangerous mix. These progressives were acutely aware of the reality of class conflict in America.

Ralph Easley and The National Civic Federation (NCF)

'I can hire one half the working class to kill the other half,' Jay Gould said in 1886 (quoted in Boyer and Morais (1988, p.65)). Enough of that old time capitalist religion was left in 1900 to be a problem.

Some capitalists saw the necessity of compromise. Even if class conflict did not result in socialism or communism, continuous disruption hurt profits. Such men were willing to sign a new concordat with 'responsible' workers. In practice, this meant workers without whom there could be no production, especially skilled workers represented by unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). More violent resistance was acceptable toward more easily replaced workers, especially radicals in the IWW. Virtually everyone at the time, on the left and right, saw the struggle for what it was: class struggle, the outcome of which was of decisive importance to the country's future.

This was not just a nasty squabble among elites over how to handle a divided working class's uprising. Herbert Croly, James Weinstein writes, "understood that progressive democracy was designed to serve as a counterpoise to the threat of working class revolution." So did Ralph M. Easley, father of the NCF.

Easley broke American capitalists into rational, broad minded men concerned with preserving the system as well as short term profits, and those like Henry Clay Frick who would 'smash every union in the country if they could.' His enemies, he said, were socialists among the workers and 'anarchists among the capitalists.' The NCF's backers included Mark Hanna (the Republican leader who engineered McKinley's triumph over Bryan in 1896), August Belmont, Elihu Root, Samuel Instill, William Howard Taft, Grover Cleveland, Charles Schwab, Louis Brandeis, George W. Perkins, Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Gompers, and the United Mine Workers' John Mitchell. J. P. Morgan kept in touch. These men had one thing in common: they feared class conflict would get out of hand, and they wanted a deal. They were, Weinstein writes, 'fully class conscious' (1968, p. 10).

Other capitalists were unwilling to grant union recognition, which meant unions were impotent to win benefits for workers. David M. Parry of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Citizens Industrial Association (CIA) told the 1904 CIA convention that the 'labor question is a conflict between two antagonistic and opposing systems of political economics ... the American system of government [and] a mixture of socialism and despotism' (Green, 1956, p. 105). The NAM CIA open shop campaign, anti union propaganda, legislative lobbying and opposition to the NCF were solidly grounded in a philosophy of class conflict. In Easley's view, opposition to unions was war against the 'only organization that would bring capital and labor into harmony' (quoted in Green (1956, p. 109). To C. W. Post, who succeeded Parry as head of the CIA, the open shop campaign won public support for capital, and stopped unionism in its tracks. As class war in America heated up, disaffected union members forced John Mitchell to resign from the NCF; socialists in other unions forced other labor 'elites' to follow suit.

The IWW

One reason Theodore Roosevelt and others were so concerned with class conflict is that sensational examples of violent clashes between fractions of capital and labor were almost daily occurrences. Following the 1914 'Ludlow massacre,' in which two women and 11 children cowering in a pit under a tent in Ludlow, Colorado, were roasted to death in fires set by state militia protecting mines owned by the Rockefeller family, the US Commission on Industrial Relations chaired by a leading progressive, Frank P. Walsh, held sensational hearings in which John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and others were publicly reproached. The Walsh Commission called numerous strikes in the past 25 years 'revolutions against industrial oppression, and not mere strikes for the improvement of working conditions,' in particular, the railway strikes of the late 1880s; the 1892 Homestead strike; the bituminous coal strike of 1897; the anthracite strikes of 1900 and 1903; the McKees Rocks strike in 1909; the 1910 Bethlehem steel strike; the textile strikes at Lawrence, Massachusetts, Paterson, New Jersey and Little Falls, New York; several mining strikes in Idaho and Colorado; garment worker strikes in New York, and others (Manly, 1915, p. 89). A book based on the Walsh Commission hearings dubbed the period the 'age of industrial violence' (Adams, 1966).

The IWW received more than their share of the credit for the violence¡ªcapital deserved far more¡ªbut many Wobblies were candid about meeting force with force. They learned about class conflict not from reading Marx but from blacklists, yellow dog contracts, labor spies, Pinkerton agents, private armies, state and federal troops, agents provocateurs, lockouts, goons, company closings, injunctions, criminal syndicalist laws, red scares, scabs, media attacks, and machine guns. 'I've never read Marx's Capital,' William D. 'Big Bill' Haywood, the IWW leader, said, 'but I have the mark of capital all over me' (quoted in Lukas (1997, p. 233)). Speaking of the 1912 Lawrence strike, the charismatic orator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn said, 'We talked Marxism as we understood it¡ªthe class struggle, the exploitation of labor, the use of the state and armed forces of government against the workers ... . We did not need to go far for the lessons' (Flynn, 1955, p. 135).

In January 1905, 21 men and one woman (Mother Jones) met secretly in Chicago. The delegates' manifesto would have pleased Marx: 'Class divisions grow ever more fixed and class antagonisms more sharp.' Workers, now more than ever, were 'wage slaves.' Six months later, 203 delegates gathered in Chicago in what Haywood termed the 'Continental Congress of the Working Class.' The IWW's basic premise was stark: 'The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.' To overthrow capitalism the IWW sought to organize all workers into a union big enough to call a general strike. Haywood later made no secret that his intention was 'to overthrow the capitalist system by forcible means if necessary' (Moore, 1973, p. 145).

These were fighting words. The founding convention did not say how much violence would be necessary, but capitalists reasonably feared a fair amount. In December of that year, the former Governor of Idaho, Frank Steunenberg, opened the gate to his house and had his legs blown up. Steunenberg had earned labor's hatred in 1899 when he called on President McKinley for federal troops after armed workers shut down non union mines, commandeered a train, loaded it with four thousand pounds of dynamite, and blew up the Bunker Hill mine. Such events fueled the efforts of Easley and others to promote peaceful settlements of disputes between the fractions of labor and capital.8 Haywood and others were tried for Steunenberg's murder, but acquitted. Emotion ran so high in these years, however, that even the gentle Eugene Debs threatened that if Haywood were convicted 'a million revolutionists' would meet those responsible 'with guns' (quoted in Lukas (1997, p. 278)).

In 1917, the federal government estimated the IWW membership at 200,000, but its membership probably ranged between 60,000 and 100,000 (Boyer and Morals, 1988, p. 172). Wobblies suffered a blow in 1911 when a Conservative faction in its base union, the Western Federation of Miners, fired Haywood and, in 1911, rejoined the AFL. But the IWW gave collective voice to workers who wanted to do away with capitalism, and who were not afraid to take on capital. In places like McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania; Lawrence, Massachusetts; Paterson, New Jersey, and many more, the IWW although small in numbers, advanced the class struggle enough to worry many people, including the up and coming political scientist, Woodrow Wilson.

Woodrow Wilson: Class Theorist

Two years into his presidency, Woodrow Wilson wrote to his Secretary of the Treasury (and son in law) William Gibbs McAdoo that, a few years earlier, those with power were almost universally looked upon with distrust, and, in turn, they distrusted and feared the people. 'There was ominous antagonism between classes,' he wrote. 'Capital and labor were in sharp conflict without prospect of accommodation between them. Interests sharply clashed which should have cooperated' (Cronon, 1965, p. 245). Sounding almost Marxist, Wilson explained the agitation which shook the foundation of American political life: 'Nothing is done in this country as it was done twenty years ago.... We have changed our economic condition, absolutely, from top to bottom; and, with our economic society, the organization of our life' (Topple, 1970, p. 11). Wilson singled out the 'money trusts,' and how monopoly capital had impacted labor and individual opportunities. These developments, in his view, laid bare 'sharp class contrasts and divisions,' not those of Europe, but 'sharp distinctions of power and opportunity quite as significant' (Diamond, 1943, p. 69).

Wilson thought in terms of 'capital' and 'labor,' not elites and sub elites. He was aware, of course, that neither capital nor labor in America were perfectly united, homogeneous classes. But instead of 'elites,' Wilson's understanding was infused with class. 'The truth is,' he said on another occasion, 'we are all caught in a great economic system which is heartless' (quoted in Diamond (1943, p. 95). Saving capitalism would not be easy.

Corporate leaders like George W. Perkins of the House of Morgan claimed and probably believed they acted for the enduring interest of the many (Lustig, 1982, p. 114). European elites had no monopoly on noblesse oblige. But Perkins also admitted his political activity was motivated by the 'crisis in this country on the question of the relation between capital and labor and business and state' (quoted in Weinstein (1968, pp. 152 153). Harvard historian Albert Bushnell Hart predicted in a letter to the New York Times that without reform there would someday be a socialist President of the USA. The way to avoid that, he said, was to 'take over the reasonable part of the Socialist programme' (Weinstein, 1968, p. 170).

This is what Roosevelt's Progressive party, funded by men like Perkins, did. Its 1912 platform read like a precis of European social democracy: prohibition of child labor; the 8 hour day for women and the young; safety and health standards; social insurance for sickness, old age, and unemployment; a minimum wage for women; corporate regulation; and graduated taxes on inherited wealth. Roosevelt did not go as far toward reform as Senator Robert LaFollette wished, and fell far short of socialism, but there was some truth to Roosevelt's claim that Taft and Wilson represented the country's 'allied reactionaries' compared with his forward looking candidacy (Griffith, 1971, p. 761). On the crucial issue of corporate regulation, Roosevelt accepted the inevitability of monopoly capital, proposing government regulation of abuses of power. To humanize capitalism, Wilson proposed to regulate and promote competition, not meekly accept monopoly; to free the national government from the 'little coterie' of finance capitalists who controlled it; and free up the so called free enterprise system by eliminating special tariff subsidies. He ran for re election in 1916 claiming he had enacted virtually the entire progressive program.

Shortly after his first election, Wilson published an article in the Fortnightly Review in which he rejected the elitism of Alexander Hamilton (and by extension Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Croly) which, Wilson claimed, held that the only people qualified to rule 'were the men who had the biggest financial stake in the commercial and industrial enterprises of the country' (Baker and Dodd, 1926, p. 7). 'The masters of the government of the United States,' he declared flatly, 'are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States.' The evidence, he claimed, is written on every page of the records of Congress, all through the history of conferences at the White House, and in the policies adopted by government. Ordinary people might be listened to politely, but the men who counted were those with the biggest stakes. He did not use the term, but, implicitly, he offered the American people a new deal (Baker and Dodd, 1926, pp. 7 14).

Wilson, of course, was not anti capitalist. He said he would be ashamed of himself if he excited a class feeling of any kind (Baker and Dodd, 1926, p. 11). But the country's wealth was undeniably concentrated, he wrote, and the government needed to be freed from the 'chains' forged by the 'men who control the finances' (p. 18). There is no need here to get into the specific policies (Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Reserve Act, the Underwood Tariff, and Federal Trade Commission) of Wilson's 'New Freedom.' Most capitalists found they could live with the programs which sections of capital in fact actively helped shape. The important point is how Wilson saw the world.

In 1916, he told the AFL that he had tried to rid the country of class division and class consciousness (Baker and Dodd, 1926, p. 400). He returned to this theme in the last article he ever published, 'The Road Away from Revolution.' Discontented classes everywhere directed their attacks against capitalism, he warned, and for good reason. Capital all too often regarded men as mere instruments of profit. By affirming the right of government 'to see that no other organization is as strong as itself... that no body or group of men, no matter what their private interest is, may come into competition with the authority of society... ,' Wilson sought to make capitalism and reformist democracy compatible (pp. 307 308).

Reform was, however, only half of Wilson's response to social unrest; repression was the other half. Talk of noxious capitalist wars was one thing before America entered the Great War; after April 1917, war hysteria equated dissent and treason. Wilson's Postmaster General removed socialist publications from the mails. The Masses, The Appeal to Reason (circulation 500,000), the International Socialist Review and dozens of other publications were banned. Before 1917, the federal government left the Wobblies largely to the states and vigilantes. Now, Wobbly strength strategically placed among farm workers, copper miners, and lumberjacks threatened war production quotas. Wilson wrote to his Attorney General that the Wobblies were 'worthy of being suppressed,' a task Justice undertook with vengeance (quoted in Dubofsky (1969, p. 427).

Labor Department officials believed that the Wobblies' appeal depended on working conditions and the willingness of capitalism to bargain. The department thus promoted higher wages and recognition of the AFL as the best way to defeat the IWW. To many capitalists, however, the AFL was almost as bad as the IWW. Owners who refused to talk with any union imperiled war production more than the IWW (the union had long put bread and butter issues ahead of revolution), but government was not in the habit of rounding up capitalists. On 5 September 1917, the justice Department and local police decapitated the IWW by raiding its offices and arresting its leaders. A Chicago grand jury indicted 166 alleged IWW members on charges of undermining the war effort. Similar mass indictments were brought in Fresno, Sacramento, Wichita, and Omaha. By December, Dubofsky notes, every first line IWW leader was behind bars, and restricted from communicating with members outside (p. 422). On April Fool's Day 1918, 113 Wobblies, each charged with over 100 crimes, appeared before judge Kenesaw M. Landis. Four months later, the jury took less than an hour to find all defendants guilty on all counts. Similar trials elsewhere had the same result.

The main evidence cited against the Wobblies was membership of the IWW, and the radical sentiments expressed in Wobbly writings. In effect, the Wobblies were tried and jailed for their opinions, which action, however dubious constitutionally, effectively neutralized the organization. Haywood, facing 20 years in prison, jumped bond to the Soviet Union. The revolution was hard to promote from courtrooms and prisons. (Ironically, the crackdown¡ªa precursor to A. Mitchell Palmer's raids in 1919 1920¡ªdid not solve the government's production problems. Discontented workers facing recalcitrant owners was not a recipe for maximum production.)

Conclusion

Etzioni Halevy's theory of elites and sub elites is offered in conjunction with class¡ªahead of, but not completely instead of, class (Etzioni Halevy, 1993, p. 49). To classical Marxists, however, it is no small thing to privilege elites over classes. Ordinary people often do overcome their divisions and unite behind common class demands. Even if class boundaries are difficult to define, and even if perfect unity is elusive, mass action has been sufficiently powerful in America to scare some elites into policy changes thought necessary to save capitalism. The welfare state and 'welfare capitalism' testify to the power of system threatening movements, not the beneficence of otherwise secure capitalists.

Class analysis puts capitalism center stage, critically so, in a way elitism does not. Extracting unpaid surplus labor was not Marx's only objection to capitalism. American history, no less than Europe's, shows what happens when the chief nexus between humans becomes what Marx and Engels in the Manifesto call 'callous cash payment': the need for a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the globe, paving the way for more extensive and destructive crises; the halo is stripped from every occupation hitherto honored, because now the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, and the man of science are capital's paid wage laborers; family relations are contaminated by money relations; the epidemic of over production, an absurdity in earlier times, returns society to barbarism; work loses all charm as workers become appendages of machines; fractions of the middle class fight to save themselves from extinction; 'social scum' provide capital with unsavory but sometimes necessary muscle; private property is done away with for nine tenths of the population; women become instruments of production or articles of commerce; workers of all nations are forced into hostile relations with capital, which, Marx and Engels hoped, would produce capitalism's grave diggers (Marx and Engels, 1973).

Capitalism, for classical Marxists, has problems no elite can fix. Even if the working class were totally dormant, with no political parties or unions expressing its interest, the exploitation and conflictual relationship between capital and labor would still exist. 'Would it change,' Wood asks, 'the fact that, on the whole, it is better not to be exploited than to be exploited? Would it change the relative advantages and disadvantages derived from the relationship by the two parties? Would it negate the power and domination exercised by one over the other? Would it alter the fact that on this 'economic' relationship of power and domination rests a whole structure of social and political power?" (Wood, 1986, p. 95).

Democratic elite theory is partly informed by communist governments where a dominant party elite used the state to oppress competing elites, and lesser lights. In the USA, political and economic elites have hardly been averse to oppressing radicals, but at a critical juncture significant fractions of capital, labor, and government, fearing all out class conflict, turned to the state as a balance wheel or moderator of class struggle. The fraction of capital most autonomous from the state was the one that took the hardest and most dangerous line toward labor. To save capitalism, government had to encroach on the autonomy of some capitalists; backed by more enlightened capitalists, government did. It is not true, as Alan Ryan and many others have said, that revolution has never been on the American agenda (Ryan, 1997, p.27). Capitalism has encountered massive resistance in America; its survival has depended not on the absence of serious conflict but on successful management of it.

It is true that classes rarely act in perfect unison, just as it is true that the working class has not yet overthrown capitalism. But the history of America reveals class conflicts far exceeding the boundaries of normal group politics. Systemic threats have been so recognized by all sides. As for the failure of the working class to perform its ultimate historic mission, this objection to Marxism treats the only struggle that counts as the last one (Wood, 1986, p. 10). While waiting for Armageddon, workers and capitalists carry on a now active, now passive struggle, reflecting the underlying class conflict in endless, variable struggle. Classical Marxism, regardless of the ups and downs of the class struggle, remains a fertile source of critical questions and critical analyses.

What does democratic elitism have to say to Steinbeck's farmer? The farmer knows a 'big shot' somewhere made a decision that took his home. Perhaps there is an autonomous elite that will intercede to save the farm, but millions of farmers have organized movements within the system and formed organizations led by knowledgeable elites, only to lose their farms anyway. Nowhere under capitalism is there a power strong enough to stop enforcement of the laws of property, absent threatening resistance by those the law suppresses. Under capitalism, government has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure capital's survival. Workers fired for union organizing, therefore, or downsizcd, or unemployed when global capitalists get labor cheaper elsewhere are unlikely to find autonomous elites powerful enough to stop or ameliorate such things unless extraordinary resistance is mounted. Democratic elitism does not credit how capitalism loads the dice in favor of some at the expense of others.

To Steinbeck's farmer, classical Marxists say hold your fire, but join with others in the struggle so when capitalism falters, as it regularly does, a good shove may hasten its long awaited collapse. There is no power under capitalism that can or will do much for the weak, unless capitalism itself is endangered.



Notes
  1. On Marxism and pluralism see the exchange between the author and Professors Dahl and Lindblom (Manley, 1983, pp. 368 388). In the late 1970s, Domhoff deconstructed Dahl's New Haven study, but recognized the dead end, finding inspiration in more Marxist type studies Domhoff, 1978, 1986, pp. 53 75). Frank Parkin uses Steinbeck's story to illuminate Weber's idea that class conflict varies with the 'transparency' with which those below perceive those above. See Parkin (1971, pp. 162 163). The exchange in The Grapes of Wrath occurs at the end of chapter five.

  2. From Theories of Surplus Value, as quoted in McLellan (1973, p. 336).

  3. See Sombart (1976). In a terrific exaggeration, Sombart in 1906 portrayed American workers as contented, well paid bourgeois, prompting his famous comment: 'All Socialist utopias came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie' (p. 106).

  4. See Hurwitz (1943, p. 111). Seven policemen died later, probably from bullets fired by fellowofficers (Roediger and Rosemont, 1986, p. 17).

  5. See Roosevelt (1925, pp.85 86). John M. Cooper writes: '[Roosevelt's] greatest failure as president lay in his attempt to get the people to avoid class politics and rise above material concerns' ,Cooper, 1983, p. 115'.

  6. See Weinstein ,1968, p. xi). Weinstein is quoting Sidney Kaplan.

  7. See Weinstein (1968), p. 11). The NCF offered conciliation and mediation services for industrial disputes, encouraged 'welfare capitalism,' and backed state regulation, a la Theodore Roosevelt.

  8. For the IWW see Dubofsky (1969), Haywood (1929) and Thompson and Murfin (1976).

  
 
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