Bayard Rustin Showed the Promise and Pitfalls of Coalition Politics

At the height of a calamitous war presided over by a Democratic president, the brilliant socialist organizer Bayard Rustin tried to forge a mass coalition to deliver progressive change. His failure to do so in the 1960s tells us much about building one today.

Bayard Rustin speaks from the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Bayard Rustin is having a moment. A brilliant organizer and strategist, Rustin was one of the most important figures of the twentieth-century US left. His influence, while enormous, was largely felt behind the scenes during his lifetime, to the point that his biographer, John D’Emilio, saw fit to title his book Lost Prophet. Today, the prophet is no longer lost. Rustin, a feature biopic produced by the Obamas’ production company, just debuted on Netflix. The film has spurred an outpouring of reflections on Rustin’s life and legacy, which have tended to focus more on his sexuality than his socialism.

The quality of the film and much of the discourse surrounding it is, unfortunately if unsurprisingly, not particularly high. This makes it all the more important to treat Rustin’s career with the seriousness it deserves. It offers a wealth of both positive examples and cautionary tales for a new left grappling with many of the same strategic questions Rustin and his contemporaries dealt with — above all, the question of how best to relate to the Democratic Party and the labor movement.

In the mid-1960s, Rustin advanced a controversial argument for taking the civil rights movement “from protest to politics,” or, put somewhat differently, from disruption to organization. It inspired vehement disagreement from some of Rustin’s closest comrades, including the legendary Quaker pacifist, socialist, and labor activist Staughton Lynd, who attacked Rustin’s argument for Democratic Party coalition politics as an argument for “coalition with the Marines.” Though less well known than Lynd’s passionate riposte, Julius Jacobson’s polemic in the socialist magazine New Politics arguably provides a more useful foil for reconsidering these debates in the present.

In his 1988 book Making History: The American Left and the American Mind, social theorist Richard Flacks reminds us that “virtually all of the debates about strategy that have divided the American left in the twentieth century were rooted in false dichotomies.” The Rustin-Jacobson exchange is no exception. While sixty years have passed, many of the questions they addressed are still being debated today — the promise and limits of coalition politics, the relationship between labor and electoral organizing, the domestic impact of US foreign policy — in much the same terms.

Politics or Politicking?

In early 1965, Rustin published “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement” in the then-liberal magazine Commentary. The civil rights movement was at a turning point. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been won largely on the strength of sit-ins, freedom rides, and other forms of disruptive protest. In Rustin’s view, these direct-action tactics were successful precisely because they were aimed at “institutions which are relatively peripheral both to the American socio-economic order and to the fundamental conditions of life of the Negro people.” Hotels, lunch counters, swimming pools, and other public accommodations are not the economy’s commanding heights, and in these places “Jim Crow does impede the flow of commerce in the broadest sense: it is a nuisance in a society on the move (and on the make).” Maintaining segregation in the face of increasingly disruptive protest simply was not worth the cost to business and political elites, and the “imposing but hollow structure” of Jim Crow was smashed.

Bayard Rustin in 1965. (New York World-Telegram / Wikimedia Commons)

This was an enormous victory, but it plainly did not deliver African Americans from racism and poverty. The work of transforming American society had, in many ways, only begun. The movement, in Rustin’s view, was “evolving from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement — an evolution calling its very name into question. It is now concerned not with merely removing the barrier to full opportunity but with achieving the fact of equality.”

Achieving equality required transforming the basic structures of the socioeconomic order, and this could not be done through protest, no matter how disruptive. It required organization, and through it political power. The point, according to Rustin, was to reshape public policy in the interest of the poor and oppressed, not just protest bad policy after it is already made. Since African Americans comprised a minority of the population, they could not win on their own. They needed allies, and the main allies to court were organized labor and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. These three groups — African Americans, labor, and liberals — could form the basis of a majority coalition capable of harnessing government power to transform the political economy.

Rustin was not the first person to make this sort of argument. The former Trotskyist Max Shachtman and his followers brought a similar perspective into Rustin’s Socialist Party (SP) when they joined it in the late 1950s, and they quickly made this the party’s official position on political strategy. But not all of the Shachtmanites agreed. One of them was Julius Jacobson, who, together with his wife Phyllis Jacobson, broke with Shachtman and founded New Politics in 1961 (it is still going strong today).

Julius Jacobson published a blistering response to Rustin in New Politics in 1966. Titled “Coalitionism: From Protest to Politicking,” it cast coalition politics as “the conservative tendency in the Negro movement,” replete with a “rounded, political dogma with full-time theorists” like Rustin and future Democratic Socialists of America founding chair Michael Harrington. While Jacobson did not deny the need for a black-labor alliance in US politics, he argued that Rustin’s approach to building one could not possibly succeed. As Jacobson put it:

At the core of coalitionism raised to a dogma lies the politics of accommodation: accommodation to the Johnson Administration, to the war in Vietnam, to the trade union bureaucracy. Coalitionism, too, is an elitist philosophy. ‘From Protest to Politics’, says Bayard Rustin. What this turns out to mean is ‘from protest to manipulation’, maneuvering and bargaining among union bureaucrats, government spokesmen and coalitionist architects in a proper, civilized manner.

Coalition politics as Rustin defined it, Jacobson continued, was based on an abstract conception of the labor movement that did not accord with its often grubby realities. Coalitionists may make rhetorical gestures toward “faults” and “inadequacies” in organized labor, but they did not dare to go further. “To reveal the trade union establishment as it actually is,” Jacobson contended, would not only embarrass their patrons but expose the central fallacy of “coalitionism,” namely the corruption, bureaucratism, and racism he saw as endemic to organized labor in the 1960s. Labor suffered from a pronounced “inability to attract the idealistic and socially committed segment of the younger generation,” which increasingly viewed it as just another wing of the establishment committed to supporting the Vietnam War and Cold War militarism generally.

Finally, Jacobson saw the coalitionists’ vision of a realigned Democratic Party shorn of its Dixiecrats and urban machine bosses as a “utopian scheme.” “No such coalition is going to capture the Democratic Party,” because it was controlled lock, stock, and barrel by “a network of hardened political machines which is not going to permit itself to be taken over by Freedom Budget visionaries or permit the Party to be torn apart, with its consequent loss of political power, prestige, patronage, etc.”

Instead of capturing the Democratic Party for a black-labor-liberal coalition, Jacobson concluded, “the Democratic Party has captured the theorists of coalition. And without resistance!” Better to maintain a posture of political independence and intransigent opposition to attract young radicals to socialism and the labor movement, instead of alienating them for the sake of George Meany’s patronage.

Partial Truths

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. Despite the passage of six decades and many changes in political context, the socialist left is still debating the same questions on much the same terms. Revisiting this nearly sixty-year-old exchange validates, in my view, Flacks’s assessment of the leftist penchant for false dichotomies. “Most of the sides in most of these debates,” Flacks concluded, “were expressing valid understandings of partial truths.” The Rustin-Jacobson exchange is no exception: both of them got important things right, both of them got important things wrong. More importantly, the actual practice of today’s revived socialist movement shows that their perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive and could potentially be synthesized in fruitful ways.

Rustin wanted to bring together a coalition of progressive forces in the Democratic Party because he thought it was, as he put it in his 1969 essay “The Ballot Box and the Union Card,” the “sole mass-based political organization in the country that has the potential to become a majority movement for progressive social reform.” Jacobson wanted young radicals to revitalize the labor movement “since so many of them are teachers, professionals and white collar workers.” By joining it instead of scorning it, they could “change the face of the labor movement by struggling from within the AFL-CIO to crack the thick layers of bureaucratic crust and to make a meaningful reality of the slogan for a Negro-Labor alliance.”

At the same time, Jacobson was right to argue that the likes of Rustin were overly accommodative of a sclerotic AFL-CIO leadership, as their evolution into labor lieutenants of US imperialism made all too tragically clear. Organized labor in the late 1960s, particularly the craft and building-trades unions, was often as corrupt and exclusionary and hawkish as Jacobson said it was. But he was far too dogmatic about the Democratic Party, and failed to see how coalition politics might be dynamically combined with the fight to transform the labor movement.

Jacobson insisted that “the coalitionists cannot drive the Dixiecrats out of the Democratic Party.” He was, of course, entirely wrong. The process of pushing the Dixiecrats into the Republican Party began as early as the 1930s, as Eric Schickler demonstrates in his excellent book Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965. Southern Democratic party-states were on their last legs by the mid-1960s, and the New Politics movement of the 1970s — which aimed to turn the party into a disciplined, mass-membership party roughly similar to labor and social democratic parties around the world — shoved Dixiecrats through an exit door that was already wide open.

Jacobson denounced the compromise, brokered in part by Rustin, that prevented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) from being seated as the official delegation from that state to the 1964 Democratic National Convention (DNC) at Atlantic City. This was a bitter pill for the MFDP to swallow, and they understandably rejected it. Nonetheless, their bold challenge to the white supremacist Mississippi Democrats paved the way to ending racial discrimination in the delegate selection process.

Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. (Warren K. Leffler / Wikimedia Commons)

The Mississippi delegation to the 1968 DNC was both racially mixed and loyal to the national party. The 1972 convention, the first held after the implementation of major reforms to party structures and delegate selection, boasted thousands of first-time delegates. They nominated South Dakota senator George McGovern for president, the most progressive and pro-labor candidate the party ever put at the top of its ticket, who was sabotaged at every turn by the die-hard Shachtmanites, now comfortably ensconced in the AFL-CIO’s political apparatus.

Jacobson also insisted that the Democratic Party was a cabal of “hardened political machines” that would not “permit the party to be torn apart.” But in the wake of the disastrous 1968 election — which saw Hubert Humphrey lose to Richard Nixon — the New Politics movement broke the power of machine bosses and opened the party to much greater participation by activists from the civil rights, feminist, LGBTQ, and antiwar movements.

Rustin and his allies, it is true, opposed the New Politics because top AFL-CIO leaders opposed it. But other proponents of coalition politics, namely the current around Michael Harrington — who left the SP to form the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee — parted ways with their former comrades and embraced it. In doing so, they stood not only with the New Left activists who streamed into the party after 1968, but also with the industrial, service, and public sector unions who opposed the Meany-led wing of the AFL-CIO.

Unions and Coalition Politics

The United Auto Workers (UAW) was arguably the most important of these, having bolted the AFL-CIO in 1968 because of Meany’s unwillingness to turn the federation into an effective vehicle for social change. According to political scientist Adam Hilton, UAW president Walter Reuther supported the New Politics because it “presented an opportunity to refashion the labor-liberal alliance and shift the balance of power within the union hierarchy itself” away from the Meany forces and toward labor’s progressive elements. Reuther and his allies, including American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) president Jerry Wurf, opposed the Vietnam war and wanted to open labor and the Democratic Party to the new energies coursing through American society in the late 1960s. Wurf, a socialist who frequently clashed with Meany and cut the union’s links with the Central Intelligence Agency, staked AFSCME to the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

Walter Reuther died in a plane crash in 1970, at just sixty-two years old. He ran a clean union, and the UAW made indispensable contributions to the civil rights movement and the New Left during his tenure at the top. But Reuther’s UAW was also an undemocratic, one-party regime, and after his death it went the way of all such systems. The leaders became disconnected from the members, leading to all manner of venality and corruption. It pursued a seemingly endless course of concessionary bargaining amid the auto industry’s restructuring, resulting in the severe erosion of the standards it won for autoworkers at the height of its power. A federal investigation beginning in 2014 found widespread evidence of embezzlement, favoritism, and collusion with the very companies the union is supposed to fight. Former presidents and high-ranking officials went to prison, and a federal monitor was appointed to make sure that the union carried out court-mandated reforms.

Government intervention boosted the fortunes of UAW reformers, who struggled for years against the rot in the union with limited success. Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a reform caucus that formed in 2019, campaigned for and won the implementation of direct member election of top union leaders in 2021. In the first presidential election held under the new rules, the UAWD-backed candidate Shawn Fain defeated the incumbent president by less than five hundred votes. The margin was small, but the impact was enormous, leading directly to the victorious strike against the Big Three automakers that might, in turn, inspire a wave of new organizing at nonunion auto companies.

Walter Reuther with civil rights and labor leaders at the March on Washington in 1963. (Rowland Scherman / Wikimedia Commons)

The UAW under Fain has deftly combined an independent political posture with its position in the Democratic coalition to advance its goals and interests. While Fain refused to meet with Donald Trump during the strike, the union has also withheld an early endorsement of Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. While there is no chance the UAW will endorse Trump or whomever the GOP nominates in 2024, it is leveraging its position as a political force in crucial Electoral College states to win concessions on electric vehicles and other important union issues. Would Biden have visited the picket line in Michigan, or the Stellantis plant in Illinois that is reopening because of the strike settlement, otherwise? They are making Biden work hard for their endorsement, and the rest of the labor movement could stand to learn from their example.

The rank-and-file movement to transform the UAW is one vector that brought the odd couple of Joe Biden and Shawn Fain together on the picket line last September. The other is the growth of a new left in the Democratic Party inspired by Bernie Sanders’s two campaigns for president. The campaigns highlighted the flexibility and permeability of the Democratic Party, even for democratic socialists who routinely criticize its leadership, and encouraged his followers to continue building the movement through the left wing of the Democratic coalition at the state and local levels. They reflected and strengthened labor’s growing popularity in the Democratic Party base, particularly among younger Democrats.

This popularity has even translated into policy, particularly at the National Labor Relations Board, which has done more to protect and promote union organizing under the Biden administration than it has in many decades. While the UAW strike won substantial popular support across party lines, Democratic voters supported it overwhelmingly, creating pressures and expectations that President Biden had to respond to heading into his reelection campaign.

Though many on socialist left are sharply critical of coalition politics and continue to call for the immediate formation of an independent labor party, the movements to transform the UAW and the Teamsters have both entailed extensive intraunion coalition politics. While regime change has come to both unions, each is led by reformer–old guard coalitions. In the UAW, Fain is a reformer but governs with key support from the old guard; in the Teamsters, Sean O’Brien is from the old guard but governs with key support from the reformers.

The fight to transform these pivotal unions has required a significant degree of tactical flexibility and a commitment to alliance building. They could not have been changed if their respective reform movements were dogmatically committed to “independence” and “opposition” above all else. Rank-and-file union reformers have correctly accepted that the legal-institutional structure of union representation closes off space for the formation of new rival unions, and have made a pragmatic strategic decision to work inside the existing institutions in order to transform them. An extension of this approach from labor organizing to the field of electoral and party politics readily suggests itself.

Vietnam and Gaza

The new US left has largely focused on domestic policy and politics since 2016. This has, in my view, been a boon to its development because of how divisive international politics and foreign policy has historically been on the left. The horrors in Palestine, however, cannot be ignored, and they’ve created serious tensions between progressives in the Democratic party (and most Democratic base voters, according to polls), the Biden administration, and the Democratic officeholders who support its policy. Here is where Rustin’s particular conception of coalition politics, which tended to reduce the coalition to unions and unions to the top AFL-CIO leadership, was both a betrayal of progressive principles and a deep strategic miscalculation.

By 1966, Rustin made the Freedom Budget the focus of his organizing work, and the strategy he conceived to win it reflected his thinking in “From Protest to Politics.” Despite its potential to serve as a unifying program for the broad left, the budget — which proposed massive public investment to guarantee decent housing, healthcare, education, and jobs to all — was effectively dead on arrival. With discontent over Vietnam boiling over at precisely the moment Rustin introduced the budget, “the opportunities for a progressive coalition,” according to Rustin’s biographer John D’Emilio, “were evaporating.” Rustin and his main collaborator, the economist Leon Keyserling, wanted to keep both supporters and opponents of the war together in the Freedom Budget coalition, but as the Johnson administration ramped up its war in Vietnam, ducking the “guns or butter” question became increasingly untenable.

It took him longer than it should have, but Michael Harrington publicly broke with Rustin, Shachtman, and other longtime comrades over their disastrous approach to the war. In his memoir Fragments of the Century, Harrington ruefully concluded that Rustin decided to “subordinate his anti-war convictions to what he became convinced were the imperatives of domestic coalition politics. He was wrong because this position assumed that the social programs could succeed while the war raged, and because it ignored one agony to deal with another.”

President Lyndon Johnson looks at a model of Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War. (Wikimedia Commons)

This decision wasn’t just wrong, it was disastrous. In siding with the Meany-led faction of the AFL-CIO, Rustin and his allies failed to consider the possibility of bringing together the anti-Meany and antiwar forces in the labor movement, the elements of the black freedom movement (including King) who were increasingly outspoken against the war, and the young antiwar activists who would flock to Eugene McCarthy’s and Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 Democratic primary campaigns. These were the main constituencies that later constituted the New Politics coalition, but Rustin and his allies made the fateful decision to take sides against them. It was a terrible decision, and an ironic one, for it dealt a tremendous blow not just to the prospects for progressive coalition politics, but to one of the Shachtmanites’ main goals since the 1950s — transforming the Democrats into a disciplined and programmatic party with a real mass-membership base, which is exactly what the New Politics movement sought to do.

Then as now, the foreign policy of a Democratic administration is driving a wedge into the coalition needed to keep the Republicans out of power and provide the basis for new progressive advances. Most Democratic voters oppose President Biden’s support for Israel’s war on the people of Gaza, and that opposition is strongest among two groups he needs to turn out for him in 2024: young people and Arab American and Muslim voters in key Electoral College states like Michigan. Biden needs the UAW to campaign hard for him there and across the upper Midwest, but the UAW recently became the largest union so far to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

By embracing Benjamin Netanyahu’s war government, Biden has alienated many in these key groups, and it will be very difficult to win them back between now and next November. The protest movement against the Israeli government’s brutal campaign of collective punishment has both moral right and electoral pragmatism on its side. In the case of both Vietnam and Gaza, it is the administration and the Democrats who support its policy who sow division and pave the way for Republican victories, not their critics.

A Dynamic Tension

Jacobson thought that the price of the coalition politics ticket was too high for socialists to pay — “the abandonment,” in his view, “of political independence and socialist opposition.” But any strategic approach to political action entails its own costs and risks, including the one that Jacobson advocated for the socialist left. Jacobson rightly cautioned against the dangers of “coalitionism raised to a dogma.” The same could easily be said of lowering “independence” and “opposition” from principles to shibboleths.

Rustin was entirely correct to argue that coalitions are an inescapable part of doing politics. “The issue,” he insisted, “is which coalition to join and how to make it responsive to your program.” In US politics, the main elements constituting the social base for left-wing politics are and have been organized in the Democratic Party, so for the purposes of electoral action democratic socialists need to be there too. Where Rustin went tragically wrong is in his assumption that joining such a coalition entailed subordination to its leading elements, and the disavowal of public protest that might generate dissension within the coalition.

Jacobson’s biting comments on Rustin’s studied avoidance of public protest against the Vietnam war carry a fresh sting in light of the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza. Coalition politics doesn’t only entail the question of which coalition to join and how to make it responsive to your program. It also raises the question of what the terms of coalition are, and when a coalition needs to be jettisoned or refashioned. Independence and opposition are not ends in themselves, and neither are coalitions.

For his part, Jacobson was right that an effective left-wing coalition politics required a transformation of the labor movement, not simply an alliance with its already existing leadership. Too many labor leaders have been content to serve as managers of union decline, and to back Democrats whose sole virtue is that they are not Republicans. But he was wrong to assume that the fight to transform the unions is incompatible with electoral action through the Democratic Party. Because of this, Jacobson could not anticipate the real changes about to take place in the party, nor the ways that efforts at political party realignment and union realignment might reinforce and propel each other. By simultaneously contesting Democratic Party primaries and participating in movements to transform key unions like the UAW and the Teamsters, today’s new left is showing how this can be done — even if it doesn’t always want to accept in theory what it is doing in practice.

“The union card,” Rustin insisted, “must be combined with the ballot box to form the basic dynamism of the black struggle,” and of democratic struggle generally. He was undoubtedly right about this. But for that union card and that ballot to be effective, the institutional power standing behind them needs to be transformed. The weapon of protest cannot be left behind, for it can be used to advance important political goals — and vice versa.

Reconciling these imperatives is not an easy task, for they can sometimes exist in tension with each other. But the dynamism that can result from practically navigating these tensions offers the only realistic prospect for democratic socialist advance.