By CHARLES WALKER
Once upon a time, virtually all U.S. socialists refused to support non-working-class political candidates, whether members of the two dominant capitalist parties or not. At that time, socialists held that giving even the most critical support to non-working-class candidates, parties, and electoral currents was tantamount to crossing a picket line.
Moreover, socialists believed that candidates of, by, and for the moneyed class would betray their working-class supporters eventually, if not at the first opportunity.
The most outstanding mass leader of the U.S. labor movement to date, socialist Eugene V. Debs, summed up those socialists’ expectations when he said that he’d rather vote for what he wanted and not get it, than vote for what he didn’t want and get it!
At one time workingmen’s parties and tickets were relatively common, and frequently successful at the local and state levels. The most influential of those parties was the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, supported by the per capita payments of Minnesota’s union members.
Now many self-described socialists have broken with the legacy of that past, and regularly support “lesser-evil candidates.” The break with the Debsian past was led in part by the American Communist Party during President Roosevelt’s second term; and, in part, by the leadership of the Socialist Party in the 1940s.
While the Communists’ shift was part of a sharp general change in strategy orchestrated by the Stalinist leadership of the Soviet Union, the Socialist Party’s support for non-working-class candidates became part of a retreat from independent class politics by social democratic parties and unions already underway by their European counterparts on the eve of World War I.
The Labor Party
The socialists who still defend and practice the class-struggle strategy of Debs’s time are a minority within the U.S. radical labor movement-which itself is much less numerous and influential than it once was.
Paradoxically, their tendency grows even smaller, despite the founding of the Labor Party by a small, but substantial segment of the union officialdom-and also despite a significant trend in the U.S. working-class electorate. I mean the many Americans who once went to the polls who now simply refuse to vote, or even to register to vote.
Leftist analysts rightly say that these non-voters aren’t stupid, they simply don’t see how voting is important to them. Not that attempts aren’t made to “explain” to non-voters the importance of their vote: “A single vote could decide a election,” “Many brave boys died to protect your right to vote,” “Half a loaf is better than none.”
Nevertheless, many workers, including ethnic minorities, typically continue to confound union officials, clergy, and politicians by their massive refusal to cast a ballot.
The founding of the Labor Party, under the banner of “the bosses have two parties, workers should have one” might have increased the numbers of socialists and other members of the radical labor movement who resolutely refuse to back non-working-class parties and candidates. But it hasn’t worked that way. Perhaps in part, that’s because many of the leaders and founders of the Labor Party really don’t practice what they seem to preach.
A look at the endorsements by unions and union leaders who back the Labor Party shows that most of them still back candidates of the Democratic Party, a party that they rightly claim is in the hip-pocket (the wallet pocket) of corporations and investors.
So apparently, the pressures upon even the “progressive” sector of the labor bureaucracy to stay bound to the two-party swindle are still greater than the pressures of one political and economic defeat after another endured by the unions’ ranks.
Those defeats and retreats have left the unions smaller and even meeker in the face of speed-up, downsizing, and the clear worsening of the standard of living for millions of working families. And that has come at a time when the boss class is living high on the hog.
Unfortunately, there are socialists and labor activists who look to the labor officialdom-or the “progressive” parts of it-to point out which political path to follow, or rather whose tuxedoed rear end to trail after.
Even more unfortunately, there are union activists and radical socialists who, though sickened by the union bureaucracy’s subservience to the workers’ economic and political masters, themselves encourage awakening workers and idealistic youth to support “independent” candidates and parties merely seeking a reform here or reform there. They illogically see this as a step toward the unyoking of the workers’ movement from the two dominating parties of this nation’s (and the earth’s) chief plunderers.
Currently, Ralph Nader, the Green Party’s presidential candidate, is receiving support from radical socialists who not so long ago (perhaps as recently as Nader’s 1996 campaign) wouldn’t have given Nader a serious look.
Nader belongs to the Labor Party and the Green Party. In fact, these days it’s not unusual to run across “progressives” who belong to those parties and others as well; all the while registered as Democrats.
Reportedly, Nader isn’t a registered voter in any party. But he is not as opposed to the Democratic Party per se as he is to certain Democrats.
Questioned about the chance that his candidacy could help elect Bush in a close contest (taking votes away from Gore), Nader says that he’s more worried about Gore taking votes from him.
And he has told the press, “Since there are very few Green Party candidates running for the House or for the Senate, the millions of votes that we’re going to get … will more likely vote for the Democratic candidates for the House and Senate and in that respect help the Democrats gain control of the Congress” (Reuters, June 14).
To date, Nader hasn’t differentiated himself from the AFL-CIO’s protectionist foreign trade stance, rooted in job-trustism and business unionism. In fact, his supporters should not expect him to expose the AFL-CIO’s protectionist charade:
“You are driving along in Maine or Minnesota or Illinois, looking in the rearview mirror and there’s a big Mexican truck bearing down on you with a driver who doesn’t have to meet the same standards in reality that U.S. drivers have to meet” (Nader quoted by the Chicago Tribune, June 25).
Nor has Nader suggested to the AFL-CIO that the real way to protect jobs lost due to foreign trade or due to strictly domestic causes is to fight for a reduction in the work week without a sacrifice of workers’ standard of living.
Clearly, no union official trades on protectionism and appeals to job-trustism more than Teamsters President James P. Hoffa. Hoffa invited Pat Buchanan to share the rostrum with him at the Teamsters anti-China trade bill rally in Washington, D.C. And then for good measure, he draped a blue and gold Teamsters jacket over Buchanan’s shoulders.
Weeks later, Hoffa invited Nader to speak before the union’s endorsing body, the general executive board. Afterwards Hoffa told the press that “no one in the political arena speaks stronger on the issues important to American working families than Ralph Nader.”
The union didn’t endorse Nader, but Hoffa did attempt to place Buchanan on Nader’s level. Hoffa declared that both Nader and Buchanan deserved to take part in the presidential debates with George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Some observers say that Hoffa and auto workers union president Steven Yokich are just using Nader to get concessions from the Democrats. If so, the reputedly “moralistic” Nader hasn’t objected to their ploy:
“Two major unions, the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters, are using the third-party presidential bid of Ralph Nader, an outspoken critic of administration trade policies, to pressure Vice President Gore to take tougher stands on trade or face the possibility of a divided labor movement on Election Day (Washington Post, June 22).”
“Marxists for Nader”
Unfortunately, some well-meaning labor activists and academics who profess Marxist convictions support the Nader campaign, and implicitly the Green Party.
These “Marxists for Nader” give two main reasons for supporting Nader: One, they agree with Nader’s limited, minimal program; especially his opposition to the corporate domination of this nation. And two, they do not want to be separated from Nader’s supporters and their allies in labor and academic organizations or circles.
I’ve got to tell you that I’m sympathetic to folks not wanting to trash their relations with other activists. But my bigger concern is not how Marxists explain to those activists why some Marxists won’t back Nader but how they explain at a later date why some Marxists did support Nader.
Some Marxists strive to be the “living memory” of the working class. To my way of thinking, nothing short of actual amnesia should be an acceptable excuse for abandoning for even a single instance what seems to me to be the most crucial lesson provided by history to our class so far: The absolute need by mankind for working-class independent political action!