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Socialists Trip Over Class Line in Electoral Politics
With the election season beginning to gear up, some socialist groups are starting to weigh in on the debate over which candidates should be supported and why it is important to support them.
In this context, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) has posted an article (May 21, 2014) urging support for politically “independent” candidates. In defense of this campaign, they correctly reference Marx’s and Engels’ admonition in the Communist Manifesto that the working-class struggle for emancipation cannot avoid the conquest of political power. It must seize control of the state and use it to defend and promote its own interests, that is, the interests of the vast majority. The ISO points out: “Workers and their organizations must ultimately be involved in the political arena, rather than leaving it solely in the hands of the bosses and the 1 Percent.”
But the question remains: Which parties and candidates are worthy of the support of Marxist revolutionary organizations? The ISO correctly proceeds to eliminate the Democratic Party as qualifying. Despite widespread support from organized labor, the ISO argues, “The Democratic Party is a capitalist party, not a party representing the working class. No matter who votes for it — and, of course, the majority of Democratic voters are workers — the party apparatus itself is set up to reflect, and to some extent, organize the political interests of big business.” The ISO adds that big business far out-spends organized labor in funding the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party is in fact a party that embraces capitalism, but capitalism can only function smoothly if there is a relative amount of labor peace, where workers are often forced to work for modest to low wages so that businesses can succeed in making healthy profits and remain competitive. For this reason, although the Democrats have won many elections and even controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress when Obama was first elected president, working people have seen their standard of living drop for the past four decades.
Unfortunately, the ISO proceeds to argue that candidates like Ralph Nader, who has run on the Green Party ticket, deserve the support of Marxists. And they are not alone in this conviction. Socialist Alternative, Solidarity, and the Peace and Freedom Party also have supported Nader.
The ISO turns to Frederick Engels to justify this conclusion, using an 1886 letter by Engels to make their case. Here is the ISO argument:
“The focus here can't be only on explicitly socialist campaigns. In the 1880s, Frederick Engels encouraged the small socialist groups that existed then to get involved with the campaign of the middle-class reformer Henry George, who ran an independent campaign, backed by the unions, for mayor of New York City, against the Tammany Hall Democrats and the Republicans. To Engels, who wasn't that enamored of George himself, the campaign presented socialists with an opportunity to raise class demands within a wider political arena.”
While the ISO is right in arguing that “the focus here can’t be only on explicitly socialist campaigns,” unfortunately, much of its description of Engels’ position is crucially misleading, and what is omitted is indispensable. Engels did not encourage “the small socialist groups” to “get involved with the campaign of the middle-class reformer Henry George.” Rather, he encouraged the Socialist Labor Party to support the new political party, called the Independent Labor Party of New York, that was created by the convergence of 175 unions in New York City, despite their choice of Henry George as a mayoral candidate. In other words, this was a political party that was created by the unions and consequently consisted overwhelmingly of union members, as well as some socialists. It was not “the campaign of the middle-class reformer Henry George,” even though he was their candidate. (See Philip S. Foner, From the Founding of The A.F. of L. to the Emergence of American Imperialism, pages 119-121).
Significantly, this political party had their own political platform; they were not defined by Henry George’s platform. And their platform included such elements as “the abolition of the system which makes such beneficent inventions as the railroad and telegraph a means for the oppression of the people and the aggrandizement of an aristocracy of wealth and power,” in addition to reforms that would have helped level the playing field between rich and poor as well as “equal pay for equal work without distinction of sex.” (Foner, From the Founding of the A.F. of L. to the Emergence of American Imperialism, page 121).
There are several indispensable elements that form the basis of Engels’ support for this new political formation that are entirely lacking in anything Ralph Nader represented. Engels is addressing a situation in which working people have created their own movement. The 1880s in the U.S. saw an upsurge in strikes so that the creation of this independent political party based on the unions was a direct result of that development. With this as his focus, Engels argued (Engels to Sorge, November 29, 1886): “The masses must have time and opportunity to develop, and they can have the opportunity only when they have a movement of their own — no matter in what form so long as it is their own movement — in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn through their mistakes.” Engels in no way argues that the rationale for supporting this labor party was “to raise class demands within a wider political arena.”
In other words, the political party that Engels is endorsing is entirely under the control of working people. They democratically decided to support Henry George in his campaign for mayor — wrongly in Engels’ opinion since George adopted a political platform that both he and Marx deemed hopelessly muddled. (He called for a tax on land that would serve to undermine large landowners, thinking that this act alone would eliminate poverty, but had nothing to say about big business industrial enterprises in the cities).
In any case, had Henry George won the election, the workers would have quickly experienced first-hand the inadequacy of his program in addressing their needs. They would have been compelled to revoke their support for him in favor of a more representative candidate. But this collective learning experience is only possible on the basis that working people are part of a movement and a political formation that they themselves control.
The ISO article continues: “In the 2000s, socialists supported and worked in Ralph Nader's presidential campaigns, even though we recognized that Nader was not a socialist himself — and that the Green Party that made him its 2000 presidential candidate ranged from socialists like Hawkins to more moderate radicals in other parts of the country. Even so, Nader's 2000 campaign was a principled [emphasis added] challenge to the two-party duopoly — and a popular one, winning 2.7 million votes.”
Unfortunately, there is little in common with the Green Party and what Engels endorsed. Although some unions have supported Nader, the Green Party is not based on the unions, which means that it is not under the democratic control of workers through their own organizations. Unions are the only institution that represent working people as workers. They are created by workers, and they exist to defend the interests of workers. Without this direct link to the unions, parties such as the Green Party do not represent the working class but represent either the petty or big bourgeoisie.
The Green Party’s failure to have based itself on the unions could have been compensated for by an explicitly socialist platform, but the Green Party calls for the reform, not the abolition of capitalism. It wants to reduce the power of the big corporations, not eliminate them as private enterprises altogether. Its membership composition is mixed: many come from the working class but many do not. But more importantly, working people do not belong to the party as workers, but as individuals. Because he was running on the ticket of a capitalist reform party, there was nothing “principled” in Marxist organizations’ support of Nader’s campaign.
When Marx and Engels spoke of working class independent political action, they were thinking in terms of class independence, not simply independence from the Democrats and Republicans. And when the ISO states that, “Nader's 2000 campaign was a principled challenge to the two-party duopoly,” they give the impression that any third party will do without consideration to what side of the class divide these alternative parties or candidates stand on. In other words, they give the impression that quantity is the only significant factor, not quality.
In fact, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky never offered support to a capitalist government. In 1917 in Russia, for example, the Menshevik Provisional Government with Kerensky at the head was in power, a party that was once Marxist but became convinced that capitalism must be supported for that particular period. General Kornilov, a counterrevolutionary, began to organize a coup against this government, which, had it succeeded, would have reversed the revolutionary potential of the situation. But even under these dire conditions, Lenin was firm in his position on the government: “Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.”
In his 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, Marx firmly rejected supporting “progressive” bourgeois or “democratic petty bourgeois” candidates but urged workers to run their own candidates. “The democratic petty bourgeois,” he argued, “far from wanting to transform the whole society in the interests of the revolutionary proletarians, only aspire to a change in social conditions which will make the existing society as tolerable and comfortable for themselves as possible.”
Marx insisted that workers must “work for the creation of an independent organization of the workers’ party;” otherwise they would simply be “swindled:”
“Here the proletariat must take care … that workers’ candidates are nominated everywhere [emphasis added] in opposition to bourgeois-democratic candidates. As far as possible they should be League members and their election should be pursued by all possible means. Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled.”
Not only did Nader’s campaign not rest on an anti-capitalist platform or working-class movement, he did little to nothing to encourage the creation of such a movement. In 1996, as a presidential candidate for the Green Party, he toured college campuses where he received an enthusiastic reception from students. However, when he visited San Francisco State University, for example, he made no effort to meet with campus employee unions, listen to their grievances, and lend support to their struggles. In fact, at that time the faculty was engaged in an all-out battle to remove merit pay from their contracts, because it had been typically awarded on the basis of political patronage or at best arbitrarily. Nader’s support could have given a major boost to the struggle. But his campaign was about him doing things for working people; he was not encouraging working people to do things for themselves. There was no thought given to building a real working-class movement.
However, the ISO has a different assessment of Nader’s campaign. They credit it with helping “to organize a layer of activists, socialists and not, around a concrete challenge to the politics of lesser evilism and a broad left-wing agenda in opposition not only to corporate power, but racism, imperialism and other social ills” and to contributing “to the building of a left, including an ongoing political alternative.” But the article fails to point to any ongoing movement triggered by the Nader campaign, so one is at a loss wondering what movement they have in mind — unless, of course, they are simply referring to the success of their own organization in recruiting from those drawn to Nader’s campaign, but they are not a movement.
With Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders now contemplating a presidential bid, Marxist parties will again confront a principled choice: Should they offer him critical support? Socialist Alternative is already leaning in a supportive direction, although with the strict qualification that he does not run as a Democrat.
But even assuming Sanders runs independently of the Democratic Party, many of the profound inadequacies of the Nader campaign will re-emerge here. Leon Trotsky once remarked that Norman Thomas, leader of the American Socialist Party, called himself a socialist as the result of a misunderstanding. One could say the same about Bernie Sanders. He considers countries such as Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway as models to emulate, even though these are all capitalist countries, albeit with strong social safety nets, where the wealthy enjoy a preponderance of political power. They have little in common with the socialism envisaged by Marx and Engels where the working class itself would rule and where the economy would be publicly owned and democratically run. Moreover, Sanders routinely supports Democrats when they run for office. He, in other words, like Nader before him, is only a reform capitalist candidate. He stands with Nader on the other side of the class line dividing the working class from the capitalist class.
In the final analysis, while Marxist organizations are right to look for openings in electoral politics so that socialist ideas can be disseminated to a broader audience and where victories can imbue the working class with a sense of their potential political power, these campaigns would be far more effective in conjunction with movements of workers fighting directly for their own interests, whether around wages, jobs, home foreclosures, health care, pensions, antiwar, student debt, etc. The goal of Marxists, after all, is not to create a socialist society for the working class but to encourage the working class to create socialism for itself. And the first step in this direction is that workers begin to fight for their most pressing immediate needs.
As Marx said in a letter to Friedrich Bolte of New York, “The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organization of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.” But these campaigns around economic issues can most effectively be pursued by means of a united front where unions, socialists and community groups join forces and fight together in a democratically run coalition.
With the united front, groups with perhaps different political affiliations, or none at all, come together to fight for a limited set of issues where they have agreement. Here the aim is to unite the working class so that it is self-consciously fighting for its own interests. As Engels said, “The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class.” This means, however, that socialists must prioritize building the coalition rather than only using the coalition to recruit to their own groups. United fronts must be clearly distinguished from front groups, which instead are controlled by a single organization that uses the front group to recruit to itself, thereby promoting itself at the expense of other organizations and consequently dividing the working class rather than uniting it.
The decision to struggle in unity for common goals, of course, greatly enhances the strength of the coalition. In response to the threat of war in Iraq a coalition was formed that included unions, socialist organizations, and community groups. It produced some of the biggest demonstrations in recent history. Struggles such as these but particularly around those issues that are most pressing to working people — jobs, $15 minimum wage, taxing the rich instead of making cuts to education and the safety net, health care, defense of Social Security, housing, etc. — have the potential to inspire workers to become politically engaged and hence represent the first step in establishing an ongoing movement. These movements would then represent a solid foundation for the pursuit of independent labor electoral politics, unlike the campaigns of Sanders or Nader, which blur class lines and only provide a wealth of miseducation around the most basic category in Marx’s philosophy of history: class struggle.
We hope that Marxist groups will reconsider supporting the likes of Nader and Sanders and instead consider placing greater emphasis on creating united fronts, particularly around the fight for a $15 minimum wage — which is resonating around the country — as a healthy complement to electoral politics.
About the Authors
Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco [at] workerscompass.org.