[Marxism] Reply to Jeff Cohen

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat May 8 10:56:47 MDT 2004

As most people know, a lot of the wind has gone out of the sails of the
ABB movement, such as it was. As Kerry keeps shifting to the right, it is
harder and harder to make the case that his election will reverse the
nation's headlong drive to the right. Voices still supporting Kerry tend
to have an apologetic quality. How can it be otherwise when there are so
many reports such as in today's NY Times:

"He has dropped the red-meat riff on "Benedict Arnold C.E.O.'s." He is
talking up tax cuts for corporations, playing up his deficit-cutting
credentials and taking on teachers over pay-for-performance.

"And on Friday, John Kerry came to the centrist Democratic Leadership
Council here sounding little like the outraged, populist scourge of
special interests and big business who fended off challenges from his left
in the Democratic primaries."

This does not mean that attacks on Nader have ceased. Perhaps it would be
more accurate to describe the movement as "anybody but Nader" today rather
than "anybody but Bush". The latest example of this is an article that
appears on the Commondreams.org website by Jeff Cohen, founder of FAIR,
the media watchdog.

Commondreams.org aspires to present "breaking news and views for the
progressive community" and can be grouped politically with alternet.org,
another well-funded website that has pounded Nader in recent months.
Alternet.org is run by Don Hazen, a kind of soft left entrepreneur, while
commondreams.org is run by Craig Brown, who has served as an aide for 2
U.S. Senators and a former Congressman from Maine named Tom Andrews who
now is the National Director of "Win Without War". You can get a sense of
the weakness of class politics in the USA when you consider that while
Nader called Andrews "the most courageous member of Congress", the outfit
he now runs supported tightened sanctions against Iraq in the past, which
it saw as a more effective tool of control than outright war.

Although most of Cohen's arguments are rather shop-worn, it would be
useful to review them one more time. I also want to conclude with an
analysis about bourgeois elections that has been gestating in my mind for
some time now.

Starting with an almost ritual declaration that he is "ideologically
aligned with Ralph Nader, not John Kerry", Jeff proceeds to push for a
Kerry vote because "The Bush/Rumsfeld/Ashcroft regime is far more
dangerous than the regimes of Nixon/Kissinger/Mitchell or
Reagan/Weinberger/Meese". Of course, what he fails to acknowledge is that
far more gains were made for the left under Nixon than under Clinton,
whose legacy the dreary Kerry stands on.

Jeff assures the progressive community that he will not let his guard down
if and when Kerry becomes president. "If the Iraq war drags on under the
Kerry administration, I'll be in the frontlines of peace protests." Of
course, the notion of backing a candidate like Nader who refuses to "stay
the course"  simply does not occur to him. Oddly enough, the contest
between Bush and Kerry evokes the 1968 race in which a war-making
incumbent was challenged by Richard Nixon, who had a "secret plan" to end
the war. Compared to Kerry, Nixon was an exemplar of principled politics.

Drawing upon American history, Jeff reminds us that "Franklin Roosevelt
was elected president in 1932 on a wishy-washy platform no bolder than the
Kerry platform. But powerful social movements, especially militant unions,
propelled the New Deal agenda and pushed FDR to being the most progressive
president of the last century." I am not sure what this analogy is meant
to illustrate. Support for FDR led to the undoing of the radical movement.
While FDR was certainly "progressive" in comparison to Herbert Hoover, he
did little to stop fascism until US imperial interests were threatened.
More to the point, the credit given to the Democrats since the New Deal
has been the main obstacle to creating electoral formations to their left.
Jeff essentially joins a long and sorry list of CP'ers and Social
Democrats who will always find an excuse for voting for the lesser evil.
With the Republicans showing every sign of continuing to push their agenda
to the right, any Democrat will always seem less evil.

This leads me to my own take on the role of bourgeois elections,
especially for the office of President. There is a tendency on the part of
non-Marxist radicals like Jeff Cohen to see them as driving history rather
than being driven by historical forces. This is a product of tendencies in
bourgeois ideology to amplify the role of the individual in history.
Rather than understanding the DLC and the Republican right as expressions
of the same dialectic, the Nation Magazine, commondreams, alternet and
others tend to see them as opposed to each other. When Goldman-Sachs
lavishes money on both Kerry and Bush, the class lessons are not drawn.

But the biggest illusion is to assume that the grassroots left has the
same kinds of opportunities as our enemies on the right when "our guy"
gets elected. People like Nathan Newman and others have described our
roles as similar to the Christian zealots who function as the shock troops
of the right. Once somebody like Bush gets elected, they use the influence
gained from work on the precinct level to pressure the man in the White
House to deliver the goods on stem-cell research, etc. So we should do the
same sort of thing within the Democratic Party. However, the progressive
community has no such analogous relationship. When Clinton became
president, he failed to stand up for Johnetta Cole who was being
considered for the post of Education Secretary. Her chief sins, as
reported by FAIR itself, were a "'reported affiliation with a
pro-Palestinian group' and her presence on the board of a group that
sponsors volunteer work in Cuba."

That being said, bourgeois elections can certainly help to deepen a turn
already adopted by the ruling class in its closed chambers. They are
ready-made for pushing attacks on working people and the mass movement.
When the US ruling class decided that the Soviet Union had to be isolated,
or even crushed, after WWII, the election campaigns of both Harry Truman
and Dwight Eisenhower helped to popularize a general sense of paranoia
about the red menace. 30 years later, when a consensus had been arrived at
about the need to dump the legacy of the New Deal, both Carter and Reagan
sounded the alarm about "big government".

By contrast, working people and their allies can only move forward through
mass action. Although it is useful to run candidates to educate the
population about the need, for example, to fight the Cold War or illusions
about neo-liberalism, it is folly to expect peace and economic justice to
come about through winning elections. As the crisis of American capitalism
deepens, it will become necessary to break through such illusions rather
than strengthen them as Jeff Cohen does.

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