This post was originally meant as a response to Stan Goff’s call for voting for the Democrats in the midterm elections, but it will focus mainly on Bill Fletcher’s article “Race, the Democratic Party and electoral strategy“–originally a speech given at Columbia University.
Stan cites this article in his blog entry as “giving the elections some historical context” which it does. Unfortunately, it is not quite broad enough and is content to stick within the framework of US politics and particularly the rivalry between the Democrats and the Republicans. I have a different take on this rivalry, but before presenting my views, I want to take a step back and examine the classical Marxist understanding of elections.
During the rise of socialism in the late 1800s, there was absolutely no support for bourgeois parties. There is no need to look for chapter and verse in the Marxist classics to find support for such a proposition–even though it exists. It makes far better sense just to look at what our predecessors did since actions speak louder than words. The record is clear that they built Socialist parties that ran candidates for various offices against capitalist parties. The most outstanding of these was the German Social Democratic party that enjoyed the support of millions of workers and that created a wide range of class-based institutions, from publishing houses to insurance companies.
Indeed, despite the reputation of Lenin’s “What is to be Done” as a cookbook for a new type of party, there is ample evidence within the text for the notion that he sought simply to create a Russian version of such a party:
The work of the West European Social-Democrat is in this respect facilitated by the public meetings and rallies which all are free to attend, and by the fact that in parliament he addresses the representatives of all classes. We have neither a parliament nor freedom of assembly; nevertheless, we are able to arrange meetings of workers who desire to listen to a Social-Democrat. We must also find ways and means of calling meetings of representatives of all social classes that desire to listen to a democrat; for he is no Social-Democrat who forgets in practice that “the Communists support every revolutionary movement”, that we are obliged for that reason to expound and emphasise general democratic tasks before the whole people, without for a moment concealing our socialist convictions. He is no Social-Democrat who forgets in practice his obligation to be ahead of all in raising, accentuating, and solving every general democratic question.
Some Marxists had begun to question the German party since it had begun to slowly adapt itself to bourgeois society and postpone the question of seizing power to the indefinite future. Foremost among them was Rosa Luxemburg:
The danger to universal suffrage will be lessened to the degree that we can make the ruling classes clearly aware that the real power of Social Democracy by no means rests on the influence of its deputies in the Reichstag, but that it lies outside, in the people themselves, ‘in the streets’, and that if the need arise Social Democracy is able and willing to mobilize the people directly for the protection of their political rights. This does not mean that, for example, it is sufficient to keep the general strike, as it were, at the ready, up our sleeves in order to believe ourselves equipped for any political eventuality
Luxemburg’s worries were obviously well-grounded as the evidence of socialist parliamentarians voting for war credits in 1914 demonstrates. Lenin eventually broke with the Second International and launched a new international based on class struggle principles. Whatever their differences, both internationals ran their own candidates and refused to back bourgeois politicians. In the early 1920s, some German social democrat parliamentarians were even ready to make an alliance with the Communists and co-organized the unsuccessful insurrection of 1923 with them. Later on the two parties grew asunder as the Social Democrats began to support bourgeois politicians as a “lesser evil”, while the Communists went on an ultraleft binge to the point of co-sponsoring a referendum with Nazis to unseat a Social Democratic politician.
This led to such a disaster that the Communists reversed themselves completely and adopted the Popular Front strategy at the 1934 Comintern conference. In Europe this took the form of coalition governments between bourgeois parties and the CP and SP, which had perfected class-collaboration in the electoral arena. In other countries, where the CP was too weak to engineer such a coalition was possible, it frequently supported capitalist politicians like FDR or Batista in Cuba. (During the 1930s, Batista was reaching out to the trade unions in a demagogic fashion. As was frequently the case in Latin America, the party allowed itself to be suckered into a losing game.)
Against the Popular Front, Leon Trotsky advocated a United Front which would consist of joint action between the Socialists and the Communists around specific issues of that mattered to working people. Although this had more to do with demonstrations, strikes, etc., there is little doubt that it could have been extended to backing SP candidates even if their program fell short of the Communist program.
Although the idea of Communists backing SP candidates seems relatively uncontroversial, keep in mind that this was not the case in the early 1920s when the Comintern was attracting millions of workers to its banner, many of whom had bitter memories of social democratic support for WWI and its role in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg. In Great Britain where ultraleft Communists refused to vote for the Labour Party, Lenin urged them to get over their prejudices:
At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner, not only why the Soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised with the signboard of bourgeois “democracy”), but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man–that the impending establishment of a government of the Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.
It is important to keep in mind that this tactic applied to social democratic parties, not to bourgeois parties. Furthermore, Lenin did not intend that workers vote for social democrats in perpetuity. Once a party like Labour was in power and had demonstrated its true colors, it would be possible to win workers to a Communist perspective. To repeat, this was simply a tactic, not a permanent strategy.
When the CP launched the Popular Front turn, the revolutionary left was more isolated than ever. The vast majority of working people, who belonged to either SP’s or CP’s, simply assumed that voting for bourgeois politicians or forming coalition governments with them was acceptable if not wise. When workers began to grumble about not being able to vote on a class basis, their leaders were adroit enough to provide various kinds of substitutes for the real thing. Here’s how veteran CP’er Steven Nelson described Earl Browder’s campaign in his memoir:
The fact that the Party [CP] continued to run its own candidates during the early New Deal may give the wrong impression of our attitude toward the Democratic Party. We supported pro-New Deal candidates and ran our own people largely for propaganda purposes… Earl Browder’s campaign that same year  demonstrates how we ran our own candidates but still supported the New Deal. His motto and the whole tone of his campaign was ‘Defeat Landon [the Republican] at All Costs.’ In this way he sought to give critical support to FDR. We wanted to work with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and to achieve a certain amount of legitimacy as a party of the Left
For the past seventy years, this sort of electoral double-dealing has been widely understood by the vast majority of the left as consistent with Lenin’s advice in “Ultraleft Communism, an Infantile Disorder” despite the fact that Lenin never once suggested that workers vote for bourgeois parties. The CP’s adapted Lenin’s advice for use in the swamp of bourgeois electoral politics. In every election since the 1930s, paragraphs were wrenched out of context from Lenin’s essay in order to justify voting for Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter and all the rest.
Now, if there is no basis in classical Marxism for voting for bourgeois parties, what explains the strong magnetic pull upon not only the Communists, but on the radical movement in general? For example, the French Trotskyists decided to vote for the conservative politician Chirac in 2002 on more or less the same basis that the CP backed Roosevelt. Their slogan “Beat Le Pen on the streets and in the ballot box” was just a circumlocution to vote for a capitalist party.
All their classical Marxist erudition came to naught when the pressure was applied to “Stop Le Pen”, Chirac’s neo-fascist opponent. If you truly want to understand why Marxists wilt at times like this, it is necessary to recall the differences between the early 1920s and today. In the early 1920s, Communists had massive support throughout Europe. For example, there were 62 elected Communist delegates to the German parliament in 1924, around the same time that Lenin was warning them not to cut themselves off from the SP. By contrast, the revolutionary left has never had a single elected official in European parliaments, while in the USA votes for its candidates rarely exceed a tenth of one percent. This sense of isolation and weakness tends to swamp class politics, especially during periods when the choice between bourgeois candidates appears extreme. This was the case in 1964 and it is surely the case today.
The emphasis is on being practical rather than “ideologically pure,” a reference to the stubborn tendency of some Trotskyists or unreconstructed 1960s New Leftists to take the words attributed to Eugene V. Debs’s words to heart: “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.”
Turning now to Bill Fletcher’s article, we are presented with a kind of class analysis of the two major parties framed around the Civil War and Reconstruction. As most people know, the Democrats were pro-slavery and the Republicans, and especially their Radical wing, were bent on eradicating slavery. There was an historic compromise in 1876 between the Northern industrial bourgeoisie and the Southern ex-planters that permanently marked the end of the Republican Party as an anti-racist formation. However, when it came to the brunt of the attack on Southern Blacks, it was left to the Dixiecrats to supply the shock troops. Fletcher sums things up this way:
Therefore, while the Democrats of the 19th century were certainly the party of counter-revolution, and later the party of Jim Crow segregation, the Republican Party after 1877 abandoned all pretense of being a party in favor of the objectives of Reconstruction. In fact, their pro-Reconstruction wing–the so-called “Radical Republicans”–collapsed as a political force. Though African Americans were an important constituency of the Republican Party (and specifically, African American men were the voters given that the suffrage was limited to men at the time), the Republicans were quite prepared to permit the counter-revolution in the South to succeed and to witness, with barely a comment, the rise of Jim Crow and the virtual, if not formal, elimination of the franchise for African Americans.
There was a marked change, however, under FDR. The Northern Democrats shifted to the left while the Dixiecrats resisted any change. Turning the clock forward, the growing resentment of the racist wing of the party finally resulted in the wholesale defection to the Republican Party as a consequence of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968. The net result is a new alignment of the two party system that left Blacks with no place to go except the DP. The favor has not been returned, however, with the DLC wing of the party adapting to the racist initiatives of the Republican Party. Against the DLC, you have had counter-forces such as Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition that have attempted to make the party more responsive to Black demands for full equality. Fletcher’s strategy consists of the left putting its shoulder behind all forces within the Democratic Party that have the same dynamic as Jackson’s campaign:
This must be a project that is both urban and Southern. In other words, we need to look to identify areas that are logically sympathetic to the politics suggested here. I will give you an example of two different approaches in what I believe to be a key area: South Carolina. The Labor Party (of which, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member) has just gotten on the ballot in South Carolina. I applaud them for this work, but among progressives in South Carolina this is not the strategy that I would have suggested. Instead, within the Democratic Party in South Carolina there is a base, largely African American, which is seeking an alternative. Why not build the sort of neo-Rainbow/independent organization I am describing here and challenge the current leadership of the South Carolina Democrats?
There is something quite depressing about this unabashed appeal for piecemeal reform since both Fletcher and Goff have reputations as revolutionary socialists. What in the world can Marxists contribute to reforming the Democratic Party that ordinary liberals can’t do without our help? Stan Goff writes:
No one has convinced me that the Revolution is around the corner to nullify the whole fixed electoral system, so it looks for all the world that the only option is to face the fact of this election — as it is — and vote a straight Democratic ticket. Fletcher’s article, referenced above, makes some interesting pints about these parties being blocs, as opposed to coherent political formations.. which supports my own belief that — in this election, and not as some general rule — it is imperative that people turn out, and turn out massively, to dis-elect the Republican Party.
I abstained from the last election because the Democratic Party took the issue of the war off the table; and because I believed the world would be better off after the Bush administration spent a bit more time exposing the true character of today’s mono-imperialism. I still stand by that.
This year, however, I will work a polling site for the Democrats.
How sad to hear Stan Goff speaking in terms of the Revolution not being around the corner. This is the excuse I used to hear throughout the 1960s and early 70s from CP’ers for backing Humphrey or whoever. It really sidesteps the main issue, which is how to move the class struggle forward. Who knows when conditions will ripen to such an extent, as to produce a prerevolutionary situation? Nobody has a crystal ball.
However, as James P. Cannon, the leader of the American Trotskyist movement, once put it, the art of politics is knowing what to do next. The central imperative in American politics since that historical compromise alluded to in Fletcher’s article is to break the stranglehold that the two-party system has on American society. That stranglehold affects everything we do outside of the electoral arena, from protesting the war in Iraq to building the trade union movement.
By now everybody has gotten pretty well-accustomed to UFPJ’s disappearing act during an election year. What if we began to elect Green Party candidates to Congress who used their offices to publicize demonstrations and provide transportation? In NYC, the TWU has backed Spitzer for Governor. His reputation as a “friend of labor” seems to rest on the fact that he supported jailing Roger Toussaint for only a week rather than a month.
Of course, this is based on the assumption that the Green Party’s self-destructive instincts can be curbed. And if they can’t, some other party will come along to challenge the Democrats. For the past 58 years, since the Truman cold war turn in the DP, there have been repeated left challenges to the two-party system from Henry Wallace to Ralph Nader. These challenges are simply expressions of social and economic contradictions arising over the ruling class drive toward war and austerity and the inability of the electoral system to resolve them.
At some point, these contradictions will reach such an unbearable state that millions of ordinary working people will be thrust into the political arena in the same way that they were earlier in history. When that time comes, there will be massive support for independent class action, both in the streets and at the ballot box.
To follow up on my first reply to Stan Goff, that time is a long way off. I objected to his warnings about the fascist threat because it overprojected the tempo of the class struggle. We are in a preparatory period in which the embryo of a revolutionary socialist movement is being built before our very eyes. If the Greens pass away into oblivion, it will not lead to a catastrophe. The main use of such an electoral initiative is that it can inspire broader sections of the population to begin to move away from business as usual.
If revolutionaries have any purpose in countries like the U.S. today, it is to begin to inspire working people to think in class terms. As long as they see their interests as intertwined with a party whose funding comes mostly from real estate developers, Wall Street investment firms, retail megacorporations and white-shoe law firms, it seems unlikely that class consciousness can develop fully.
Our main danger in the U.S. as revolutionaries is not the hobnailed boot of fascism. It is instead succumbing to the massive pressure exercised by the ideological hegemony of the ruling class. With the vast array of media at their disposal and their unlimited billions, they have enormous power to put their critics at the margin. To stand up to their rule requires as much nerve in some ways as standing up to Stormtroopers in the streets of Germany in the 1920s.