[Marxism] Forwarded from Alan Maass

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jun 3 11:32:40 MDT 2004


I'm Alan Maass, and I work on Socialist Worker, published by the 
International Socialist Organization. Our recent editorial on Ralph 
Nader's campaign--in which we were critical of Nader's relationship to 
the Reform Party USA and his meeting with John Kerry, and stated that we 
would not endorse his campaign at this time--became a topic of 
discussion on Marxmail, which I've read with interest. Among ISO 
members, too, there is quite a lively debate, and a range of views--from 
those who would like our organization to endorse Nader now, to others 
who think we should close the book on him this election year because of 
his political failings.

I've no doubt that the debate will continue as both the election and 
wider political developments play out--and it will be a positive 
discussion to have. Nader's 2000 showing was the most successful for a 
left-wing presidential candidate in half a century; it gave our 
organization and many other groups and individuals a first opportunity 
to take part in this form of politics, working in common with large 
numbers of people looking for an alternative. The 2004 election takes 
place in very different circumstances, and there are important questions 
to think through. So I wanted to respond to a few points in the initial 
article by José--to clear up possible confusion about our position, and 
to clarify areas where we disagree. Time won't permit commenting on the 
whole debate, but I think José's article raised the key questions.

José takes issue with our analysis of both events--the Reform Party 
endorsement and the Kerry meeting--but I think the thrust of his 
argument is that we misunderstand the character of the Reform Party and 
Nader's relationship to it, whereas we exaggerate the importance of the 
Kerry meeting. I'll say something on each point.

First of all, I think José is more equivocal about the Reform Party USA 
than we are. He refers to Nader's support in 2000 from the American 
Reform Party--but this is a different organization than the Reform Party 
USA. The American Reform Party was a split from Perot's Reform Party, 
with generally more liberal politics that are more in line with Nader's own.

More importantly, I think he confuses apples and oranges. It's one thing 
to talk about Nader's potential for attracting support from individual 
workers who have identified themselves previously as conservative or 
been "suckered in by the demagoguery of the fringe parties." It's 
another to forge a relationship with those fringe parties--in this case, 
an avowedly conservative party whose candidates in the last three 
elections (whichever "wing" is in charge now) were Ross Perot and Pat 
Buchanan.

There is no sign that the Reform Party has shifted significantly from 
the right-wing populism that it promoted in all three elections; it 
continues to have reactionary positions on a range of questions, 
immigration being only the most sensational. Also, the Reform Party is 
in a state of terminal decline. It claims a million members, but that's 
a joke. To talk about Nader getting a hearing among this party's 
"working class base" is pretending something that is nonexistent--if 
that was ever a fair characterization of the Reform Party to begin with.

I'm also not clear what José thinks about Nader using the Reform Party's 
ballot lines. The question we ask ourselves is: Can we encourage our 
readers and supporters to vote for the Reform Party's candidate for 
president if Nader appears only on their line? Nader was never reducible 
to the Green Party in 2000, but I had no problem voting for him to the 
extent that a vote for Nader was some kind of an endorsement of the 
political platform of the Green Party. I certainly couldn't say the same 
thing about voting for Nader as the Reform Party's candidate. Yes, 
ballot laws are unfair, and Nader has to try to figure out how to get on 
despite these obstacles. But that doesn't change the fact that endorsing 
a vote for Nader could mean marking an X next to Reform Party USA.

José may have misunderstood something else about our position. We never 
stated nor implied that we think Nader agreed to keep silent on some 
issues in exchange for the Reform Party endorsement. What we said is 
that Nader needs to repudiate the positions of the Reform Party that he 
disagrees with.

The whole direction of the campaign publicly has been to stress its 
points of agreement with the Reform Party. The CNN interview that José 
cites is evidence of this. Nader's answer concedes ground to the Reform 
Party's reactionary position. After hearing a statement about a 
temporary freeze on all immigration and no assistance for immigrants, 
your first response should not be to say, "We have to control our 
borders." This isn't just "too clever by half," as José puts it. 
Incredibly, I think that Blitzer's reaction was a fair assumption based 
on what Nader said: that Nader must be comfortable "with some of those 
positions."

It's not enough for Nader to say in a single sentence that he is opposed 
to the Reform Party's position on immigration. He should wholly reject 
that position, explain why the Reform Party's stance is a right-wing 
attack on immigrants and an injury to all workers (if the campaign is 
serious, as its spokespeople claim privately, about "educating" 
supporters of the Reform Party) and stress that his solidarity is with 
the victims of this bashing of the most vulnerable, which is commonplace 
in U.S. politics under the two-party duopoly.

Maybe it was an exaggeration for our editorial to say that Nader hasn't 
uttered "a word" of criticism. But I think it is unfair for José to then 
claim that we are uninformed about what Nader has said about the Reform 
Party. The spirit of our point is correct. Nader has uttered a very few 
words stating his opposition to aspects of the Reform Party's platform. 
He has uttered many more words stressing his agreement, even on issues 
where, frankly, it is absurd to act as if similar-sounding positions 
come from the same motives (the Reform Party's support for a balanced 
budget is about slashing social spending, whereas Nader uses the issue 
to talk about runaway defense spending and corporate welfare--these are, 
in substance, totally different positions). José is stretching if he 
thinks that any objective observer would read Nader and his campaign's 
comments as effectively distancing itself from the Reform Party's platform.

On the Kerry visit, José again disagrees with something we didn't 
actually say--that Nader has made an overall right-wing turn.

I was delighted to see Nader make the question of the war more central 
to his campaign as of April, and to take a position in favor of 
withdrawal (even if it does concede unnecessarily on such issues as how 
long a withdrawal would take and the role of the United Nations). Nader 
took Kerry to task and described himself as the only antiwar candidate. 
But he barely raised the issue of the war with Kerry at their 
meeting--according to his own account--and he didn't take this 
opportunity to challenge Kerry for being pro-war and pro-occupation.

In the past few weeks, Nader and his staff may have been conscious of 
turning to the right, or they may have no such intention and consider 
their actions consistent (my own opinion, though others disagree with 
me). In the end, it doesn't matter. The point is that, either way, 
Nader's meeting with Kerry undercuts his more forthright opposition to 
the war.

Only time will tell whether Nader maintains his "schmoozing" attitude 
toward Kerry--as Jack put it in the Marxmail discussion--or if he takes 
a more confrontational approach. But one thing can be said now. In 
assessing this, we shouldn't judge solely from the number of times that 
Nader criticizes the two-party system. That can be done in the abstract, 
while limiting concrete criticism of the Democrats. The real question is 
whether Nader will focus his fire on Bush and pull his punches when it 
comes to Kerry.

  José agrees that the opinion polls show Nader is gaining support not 
because of his appeal to Bush voters, but because he represents an 
alternative to the two parties, and specifically, a left alternative 
that stands with working people and the oppressed against the two-party 
duopoly. Peter Camejo has said that Nader and his right to run in spite 
of the abuse heaped on him by Democratic Party liberals is, by itself, a 
decisive factor in the election. I think that's right. To put it more 
bluntly, there is an extent to which, for most people, Nader will 
represent a left-wing break from the two-party system in Election 2004 
in spite of anything he says and does.

But that shouldn't be the end of the matter for socialists and 
revolutionaries. We have a responsibility to push for a campaign that is 
genuinely left wing.

For one thing, this means challenging an idea which is alarmingly common 
among radicals of different stripes--that the left should not be 
"blinded" to what it shares in common with political forces that 
identify themselves, or are identified by others, as right wing.

I don't think that José means this when he talks about not using "the 
left" as the "axis of the discussion," but I think there is a lack of 
clarity in his arguments. Of course I grant that when Nader talks about 
"fiscal responsibility" and "balancing the budget," he hasn't suddenly 
adopted Reaganomics--he thinks this is a good way to draw attention to 
corporate welfare and to couch his opposition to runaway defense 
spending. But by proposing that Ross Perot and the Reform Party make 
common cause with him in critiquing the Bush administration from the 
standpoint of "fiscal responsibility," he is going beyond the use of a 
rhetorical device. To pretend that Nader's idea of "fiscal 
responsibility" and Perot's have anything substantive in common is to 
sow confusion.

I don't conclude that Nader is a Reaganite because of his talk about 
"fiscal responsibility." But I'm sure José will agree that we likewise 
shouldn't concede an inch toward the conventional definition of "fiscal 
responsibility." I'm not in favor of "balancing the budget." I support a 
massive increase in spending on programs that help the poor and working 
people, no matter how big the federal deficit gets. If I'm asked how I 
would pay for this, I'm happy to give a "fiscally responsible" answer: 
Tax the rich. Abolish corporate welfare. Make the Pentagon find the 
"offsets."

I would certainly stand by the final paragraphs of our editorial--that 
Ralph Nader could be a left-wing political alternative to the two 
mainstream capitalist parties in the November election. Among the 
different positions that exist on this question in the ISO, I think 
there is unanimity on this--that we hope we could judge that the Nader 
campaign represents such an alternative, and could urge a vote for him. 
There's no question that it would be better to go into the election 
being able to offer a positive alternative of casting a vote for Nader, 
then making a negative argument about why not to vote for the two 
mainstream parties.

The question comes down to whether the Nader campaign--through its 
rhetoric and actions--undermines this potential.

This question shouldn't be seen from an "armchair" perspective, 
either--of gathering up Nader's statements on various subjects and 
passing judgment from on high. We should actively try to shape the 
campaign. If we disagree with Nader on important issues, then we should 
make our criticisms known and fight for our ideas within the 
campaign--to the extent that this is possible--and among Nader's 
supporters. After all, we are rightly critical of liberal Democrats who 
excuse away their disagreements with John Kerry with claims about what 
"Kerry really means," or professions of faith that he is really a 
"liberal at heart."

In 2000, Nader represented a lightening rod for all kinds of grievances 
felt by millions of people--at the corruption of the Washington 
political system; the sleazy maneuvering of the two mainstream parties; 
pro-corporate, anti-worker priorities at every level of society; 
globalization and poverty. The campaign would never have represented 
these things without the influence of the left--initially, the global 
justice movement that served as Nader's springboard, but over time, 
activists from different arenas, including labor, antiracism, anti-drug 
war, etc. Personally, Nader was far from consistent on many of these 
issues, but I think the broad left in the U.S. was responsible for the 
tone and spirit of his campaign.

The climate is very different today, and Nader himself is not primarily 
to blame for this. The overwhelming majority of liberals and the left 
are ready to hold their nose and vote Democratic. This has meant that 
the Nader campaign has taken shape in 2004 with far less connection to 
activists, radical organizations and left supporters. I think that this 
more than anything else explains the vacillations and disorientation of 
his campaign.

Our aim ought to be not to excuse the vacillations or accept the 
disorientation, but to try to have an impact. We can't substitute 
ourselves for a thriving global justice movement, or a mass antiwar 
movement with a clear understanding that the Democrats are a party of 
imperialism, but we can at least be clear about the mistakes that Nader 
has made, with the hope of influencing the character of the campaign.

The audience for the case against the two mainstream parties and for an 
alternative is far larger than we expected when the Anybody But Bush 
syndrome first appeared. If Nader's confusions and capitulations 
continue to dominate the campaign, and he comes to represent not a clear 
left-wing alternative, but simply a third party option with a mish-mash 
of contradictory politics, that would be a lost opportunity.

Alan Maass

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