[Marxism] Repentant Trot crawls to the Democrats

Mark Lause MLause at cinci.rr.com
Thu May 20 22:09:30 MDT 2004


I don't usually crosslist, but this one from portside is enough to gag a
moose.  This particular doofus asserts that not voting for Kerry (who he
acknowledges to be "pro-war, pro-corporate") among the "dangerous
notions" of the Left. 

This would-be apologist for mass death claims to have been around the
SWP, Solidarity, etc., but I don't recall this guy.  Maybe someone else
on the list does.  Or maybe his "Trotskyist" and "socialist" credentials
are as flawed as his political reasoning. 

Solidarity!
Mark L.

-----Original Message-----
From: portside-bounces at lists.portside.org
[mailto:portside-bounces at lists.portside.org] On Behalf Of
moderator at portside.org
Sent: Thursday, May 20, 2004 11:29 PM
To: portside at lists.portside.org
Subject: My Trek to Lesser-Evil Electoral Politics

My Trek to Lesser-Evil Electoral Politics

by Howard Ryan
submitted to portside by the author

When I became a socialist in the mid-1970s, my electoral
perspective was shaped by the Trotskyist milieu of the
Socialist Workers Party. The SWP rejected any support
for the Democratic Party and viewed elections primarily
as opportunities to lay bare the 'shell game' of the
twin capitalist parties. I remember when the party's
organ, The Militant, carried a big debate between Peter
Camejo and Michael Harrington during the 1976
presidential race, Harrington arguing for a Carter vote
and Camejo offering himself as the SWP protest
candidate. I found Camejo the more persuasive of the
two, as well more entertaining, with his now-very-
familiar joke about lesser-evilism--if they want us to
vote for Mussolini, they'll run Hitler against him.

I remained a principled opponent of lesser-evilism when
I joined the Los Angeles branch of Solidarity in 1990.
Rather than run its own candidates as did the SWP,
Solidarity emphasized support for progressive third
parties such as the U.S. Labor Party, the California
Peace & Freedom Party, and the Greens. In 1992, I worked
on Ron Daniels' 'Campaign for Tomorrow' presidential
candidacy, which ran on the Peace & Freedom ticket in
California. I had rarely been involved in electoral
work, believing (as I still do) in the primacy of non-
electoral organizing. However, I responded to the appeal
of other comrades involved in the campaign, who saw an
opportunity to help build Peace & Freedom. The
California Daniels campaign was a desultory effort by
what had become a tiny left party, the only highlight
being a lively nominating convention where Daniels beat
out cultist Lenore Fulani to win the Peace & Freedom
nomination. After the November election, I had no
interest in continuing work with Peace & Freedom, which
I saw as going nowhere, and I questioned the time I had
devoted.

I had never heard a revolutionary socialist speak in
favor of voting Democrat until the Solidarity branch
meeting following the 1992 election. A respected comrade
and teachers' union activist admitted at the meeting
that he had voted for Clinton. His action, a violation
of one of Solidarity's founding principles, led to
permanent animosities in the branch and flamed tensions
in the organization nationally. After my lackluster
experience in the Daniels campaign, I was of mixed mind
on the electoral question and was ready to hear a meaty
theoretical debate. But the follow-up exchanges in the
branch and in the organization's national discussion
bulletin lacked theoretical depth. I remained aligned
with the third-partyists, though doubts had been raised.
Notably: if a third party has no broad movement support
and no viability in the foreseeable future--as I had
witnessed in Peace & Freedom--what does socialist
participation really achieve?

My subsequent experience with a labor-community
coalition fighting Los Angeles County budget cuts only
raised further electoral questions in my mind. In 1994,
with clinic doors closing and the enormous L.A. County-
USC Medical Center on the chopping block due to funding
shortfall, Republican governor Pete Wilson bluntly told
the county, 'It's not the state's problem.' The county
employees' union, SEIU, then turned to the Clinton
administration, which ponied up a $364-million bailout.
I understood that Democrats and Republicans alike had
helped create the conditions underlying the county
budget crisis. Nonetheless, the contrasting attitudes of
Clinton and Wilson, that one had been subject to union
pressure while the other was immune, pressed home to me
the impact of party difference.

Over the next five years, I worked as a staff organizer
for a union representing professional and technical
employees in the University of California system. There
I saw, time and again, state Democrats, and in some
cases federal Democrats, help the university unions--in
pressuring the university to settle contracts, in
obtaining union recognition for 9,000 graduate student
employees, in fighting hospital privatization, in
stopping the university's widespread use of permanent
'casual' workers. After Democrat Gray Davis's election
to governor in 1998, I saw my union's resources and
organizing capacity vastly increase as a result of a
bill signed by Davis that allowed the university unions
to collect 'fair share' fees from non-members. The new
law, transforming California higher education from open
shop to agency shop, never would have passed under a
Republican governor.

There were other important differences between Davis and
his Republican predecessors. For example, Proposition
187, the 1994 ballot measure passed by California voters
that would have denied welfare, school, and non-
emergency public health services to undocumented
immigrants, had been blocked in the courts pending a
decision on its constitutionality. Both Pete Wilson and
his attorney general Dan Lungren (Lungren lost to Davis
in the 1998 gubernatorial race) supported Prop 187 and
aggressively pursued its defense in the courts; Davis,
however, opposed the measure and dropped the state's
court appeal seven months into his governorship.

It was in the 1998 election that I finally changed my
electoral philosophy, voting for Davis rather than the
Solidarity-endorsed Green candidate, Dan Hamburg. In
January 2000, I announced my new political stance within
Solidarity by writing a discussion bulletin article
critiquing the organization's electoral principle. My
paper included a first-year assessment on how labor had
fared under California's Democratic-controlled
government. In a comparison of voting records on 19
labor-related bills, I found that Democratic legislators
had individually voted pro-labor 98 percent of the time,
while Republicans had voted against labor 96 percent of
the time (see www.howardryan.net/dems.htm). My paper
challenged the prevailing electoral wisdom of
revolutionary socialists, reasoning that:

  * Our first and foremost question with respect to an
    election must be, Which position best meets the
    needs of the progressive movements?

  * Under current U.S. conditions, a lesser-evil
    stance generally better serves the movements than
    does supporting a marginal protest candidate
    (relying here on my California empirical evidence as
    cited above).

  * Third-party projects should be launched when the
    movements are strong, not when they are weak as they
    are today.

My paper incited a debate in the discussion bulletin, at
branch meetings, at a national convention. Over the
course of this exchange, it became clearer to me that
the organization's rigid third-partyism was in
fundamental conflict with the socialism-from-below
conception that had attracted me to Solidarity. I
encountered arguments, for example, that the movements
must be willing to make short-term sacrifices--i.e., to
risk victory of greater-evil candidates--in order to
build third parties that can achieve political
independence for the long term. Such logic, pitting
long-term socialist goals against the immediate needs of
the movements, struck me as highly sectarian. Somehow we
revolutionaries were supposed to build the movements and
advance their interests while working against the
immediate political/legislative needs of those
movements.

Eventually, I tired of my theoretical battle inside
Solidarity and resigned my membership after ten years in
the organization. In summer 2002, I published a critique
of the Greens in the socialist journal, New Politics,
where I also developed some theory on the relationship
between movement work and electoral work (see
www.howardryan.net/greenparty.htm).

Whatever readers may think of my version of lesser-evil
politics, I hope that we all will embrace critical
thinking and the merits of reflecting upon our
experiences. I must be honest in my assessment that wide
parts of the American far left have lost the art of
critical thought and been hamstrung by an electoral
ideology. As a case in point, let's return to the
intensely relevant debate over whether Nader held any
blame for the Bush victory in 2000. Consider these
facts:

  * Bush took Florida, and hence the election, by 537
    votes.

  * Nader drew 97,000 Florida votes.

  * According to an AP national poll, Nader drew about
    twice as heavily from the likely Gore voters than
    likely Bush voters had Nader not been a candidate.

It is more than obvious that Gore would have taken
Florida and the election had Nader not run. Greens and
third-party leftists, however, widely deny Nader's
spoiler role, claiming that other factors were more
important in Gore's loss--e.g., Gore's own incompetent
campaign; Florida's purging of thousands of blacks from
the voter rolls; the Supreme Court's decision to halt
the Florida recount. As legitimate as these other
factors are, what matters most about an election from a
left standpoint is how we influenced it. The left had no
control over how Gore ran his campaign, or how Florida
kept blacks from the polls, or how the Supreme Court
stopped the recount. On the other hand, the Greens did
have control over, and the wider left had influence
upon, the Green decision to run Nader. Most Greens today
are still unwilling to accept responsibility for the
consequences of their political action in 2000, about
which they had been widely warned. It is regrettable
that many good socialists who should know better have
joined the Greens in this grand denial. Worse, they may
commit the same error this year.

The socialist left continues, correctly, to see
elections as an educational opportunity. But what are we
teaching? And do we also see elections as a learning
opportunity for the left? In their portside article,
'The Left and the Elections,' 
<http://lists.portside.org/mailman/htdig/portside/Week-of-Mon-20040510/0
05900.html>
Solidarity members Christopher Phelps, Johanna Brenner,
and Stephanie Luce consider the elections to be a
'teachable moment,' and that is fine. Yet, the last four
years should have been a 'teachable moment' for Phelps
et al. It apparently was not so for these comrades, who
'reject the recent liberal smear campaign to blame Nader
for the failure of Gore.' Socialists who approach
elections as learners as well as educators would study,
much more carefully than Phelps et al. appear to do,
what is at stake for the progressive movements and why
those movements opt for lesser evil.

Sure, we know that Kerry sucks. He's a DLCer, pro-war,
pro-corporate. Does he represent a significant lesser
evil to Bush? I believe he does. I'll offer but one item
of concern as a labor organizer: the prospect of the
National Right to Work Act making it through Congress
under a Bush second term. Bush's express support for a
law that would make the entire country open shop--
undermining union power and weakening all future
organizing efforts--was among the concerns of labor back
in 2000. Although the law has substantial Republican
backing in Congress, it has fortunately not moved
forward under the Bush administration. In fact, Bush has
refrained from launching an all-out attack on labor but
instead struck where convenient, such as weakening
collective bargaining rights for 170,000 federal workers
as part of the Homeland Security Act. Some labor
veterans speculate that Bush could become much more
ambitious against labor--such as on national right-to-
work--in a second term, when he need no longer worry
about reelection. Kerry, by contrast, opposes national
right-to-work and supports measures to strengthen the
right to organize.

Finally, one of the more dangerous notions promulgated
by the third-party left is that, since both major
parties favor global empire and rich over poor, the
elections are ultimately unimportant. The only thing
that matters, they say, is how we organize in the
streets. Wrong. Mass organizing is more important than
elections. But elections are nonetheless very important,
impacting local and world politics--including the
conditions under which we do mass organizing. We who
align with 'socialism from below,' as Hal Draper named
our tradition in the 1960s, have still very far to go in
the development of our theory and practice. I hope that
some development occurs between now and this November's
election. The world may not survive another four Bush
years.

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