An Answer to the Letter to the Left
By Carole Seligman
A letter to peace and social justice activists entitled Bush Can Be Stopped: A Letter to the Left is circulating. The letter is an appeal to leftists to join in the effort to defeat Bushs re-election campaign in 2004. Signed by 43 well known government critics including Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Henry Foner, Manning Marable, and Pete Seeger, it is sure to attract attention from the activists to whom it is addressed. Unfortunately, it represents a major backward step for important sections of the peace and social justice movements represented by the signers.
The letter begins with a fallacy: For the sake of peace, democracy, social justice and racial equality, George W. Bush must be defeated in 2004. The fallacy is that the election of a Democrat would automatically benefit the movements for peace, democracy, social justice and racial equality.
The letter contains many accurate charges against the Bush administration. These include: demolish[ing] whatever minimal stability has been achieved in treaties and agreements over the last half century to reduce the threat of nuclear war, openly seeking world domination through military force and preemptive war, targeting Iran, North Korea, and Latin America for possible military strikes, the arrogant and reckless quest for a new US empire, and frightening fundamentalist religious zeal.
On the domestic front, the letter charges the Bush administration with conducting a war on the poor while lining the pockets of its corporate supporters; driving up the federal debt to create an excuse for wiping out social programs; fomenting growing recession and unemployment; sabotaging affirmative action, labors interests, womens rights; undermining education, health care, and the environment; using its fraudulent war on terrorism to savage the rights of immigrants and foreign nationals; fanning racism; conducting arrests without warrants; declaring detainees enemy combatants without the right to counsel and access to families; expanded spying on the public; and preparing an even more repressive Patriot Act II while packing the courts with compliant right-wing ideologues.
Reactionary policies are bi-partisan
All these charges against the administration are true. But, these repressive and reactionary policies are not simply the product of the right-wing Bush administration. These are bi-partisan policies. The Democratic Party, including the liberals, is complicit in every one of them, from voting to fund the military at unprecedented levels, to voting for war powers for Bush, approving Patriot Act I, and conducting war and nuclear weapons development before Bush ever came to power. Even those Congressional Democratsnow posing as good guyswho may have opposed one or another pieces of legislation that established these policies are chin-deep in the whole system of reactionary international and domestic policies that are the defining signposts of the capitalist system today.
The legislation these Democrats have voted for or supported include: financial and military support for Israel, cutbacks in U.S. funding for K-12 education, the failure to provide health care services for all, the devastation of the environment, the gigantic military apparatus, including new generations of nuclear weapons, and military bases ringing the world. At the very least, all the Democratic Party office-holders, without exception, have regularly supported candidates (such as Clinton, Gore, Leiberman, Gebhardt, or Pelosi) who have authored or voted for these disastrous policies.
The Letter to the Left says, Traditional debates on the left about the value of electoral politics and the lesser evil pale in light of the need to defeat Bush and his congressional accomplices. But the traditional debate on the left has not been about the value of electoral politics. Most of the left, with the possible exception of the anarchists and some Maoists, participate in electoral politics to one degree or another. Some leftist parties run their own independent candidates. Some participate in the Green party, some in Peace and Freedom Party, and many in the Democratic Party. The debate historically on the left has been between revolutionaries and reformists. The main debate has been over the Democratic Party itself.
Revolutionaries of the left have held the position that progressive change can come only from the independent mobilization of the working class and its allies, not through alliances with the capitalist class who run both the Democratic and Republican Parties. Revolutionaries oppose support for the Democratic Party on principle.
Many of the signers of the Letter to the Left are people who have historically supported Democrats against reactionary Republican candidates for President. In 1964 many of them supported Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater because Goldwater was thought by them to be more of a war-monger. Hey, hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today? was the common chant in the Vietnam antiwar movement as Johnson kept escalating the butchery of the Vietnamese people. But the leftist Johnson supporters never learned the lesson. And prominent leftists have supported every Democratic Party presidential candidate since before LBJs campaign, despite the fact that Democratic Presidents have overseen as much, if not more, killing than Republican Presidents.
Reforms won through independent mobilization
To the extent that any reforms have been won by working people in this capitalist country, it has been through independent mobilization, not electoral campaigns. Examples are: ending slavery (that actually took a revolution!), the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, the organization of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, womens suffrage, ending the Vietnam War. All of these important advances for the majority took place outside the electoral arena. The success of all of them depended on mass mobilizations independent of the powers that controlled the government and all institutions of society.
The role of election campaigns that took place during the struggle against the Vietnam War, for example, was to demobilize the movement. Because leaders, like many of the current signers of this Letter to the Left, promoted the same kind of policy (of defeating the arch-reactionary Republican at all costs), they put the election of a Democrat ahead of the mass antiwar street mobilizations to Bring the Troops Home Now! Those mobilizations were the most important strategy for the antiwar movement. They allowed the movement eventually to grow into a mass movement that represented the majority of the American people.
Framing the debate
The Letter to the Left makes this claim: The essential choice between elementary decency and unprecedented reaction need not be between political parties, but between a powerful movement for peace and justice on one side and Bush and his right-wing zealots on the other. But this statement misframes the issue. The divide is not between decency and unprecedented reaction. The divide is between social classes: the working people (the overwhelming majority) on one side, versus the ruling rich (a tiny minority) on the other. The interests of these social classes are antagonistic. There is no common ground. Making matters worse, the working people have no political party and no representation in government. The ruling rich control both major political parties and have inroads or control over other political parties (such as the Green Party which stands for reforming capitalism, not ending it). To grasp this reality is essential to understand that it is not just the Bush administration that the peace and social justice forces are arrayed against, but the capitalist system itself. This is the starting point for understanding how fundamental change (such as nuclear disarmament) can be accomplished.
The Letter to the Left doesnt understand this reality. The Letter calls on people on the left to speak out, advocate, demonstrate, and act, as they have been doing, but to do these things all seeking to positively influence the electoral process, rather than to do these things independently to win the positive changes we all seek.
The Letter calls for voter registration and pressing candidates at all levels on the critical issues. It calls for fund raising for groups such as Progressive Voter 04, the Peoples Convention, MoveOn, US Labor against War, and campaigns organized by United for Peace and Justice, Win without War, labors Partnership for Americas Families, and others. Some of these groups have participated in the antiwar movement but some are Democratic Party electoral campaign groups in and of themselves.
The Letter calls for focusing the energies of activists upon the dozen critical battleground states and upon key Senate and House races and actively supporting the Presidential candidate of their choiceeven one who may not fully reflect their convictions, but who differs from the destructive policies of the present administration and is responsive to the demands of a growing grassroots movement for progressive change.
With politics like thiscalling for support to even one who does not share their views but who could possibly defeat Bushwe can be assured that whoever becomes president in 2004, Bush or a Democrat, the same imperialist policies will be implemented with full force.
The liberal Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me,) expressed politics like these when he urged General Wesley Clark, U.S. commander of the NATO war against Yugoslavia, to run for President this September. And because Michael Moore has a lot of respect amongst his readers and movie goers, people may actually give a hearing to his advocacy of General Clark as a candidate who could beat President Bush by out-macho-posturing him as a military commander! This is a very low level for an antiwar spokesman to sink! But this is exactly the kind of politics advocated in the Letter to the Left.
California recall election is a preview of 2004
The California recall provides a preview of the 2004 national presidential elections. While Republicans paid to place the recall of Governor Gray Davis on the California ballot, many of the states working peopleboth employed and unemployedare angry about their conditions and the role of the California government in making their lives worse. So many people are angry about the rising cost of living and rising unemployment and job insecurity that they may be willing to vote Davis out of office. That is a good sign. The recall election has allowed an open ballot where, for the first time in many years, socialists have an equal place on the ballot with capitalist candidates. Of course socialist candidates are excluded from media coverage and so the election is ruled by the capitalist class almost as much as a regular election.
Supporters of this magazine urge a Yes vote on the recall and a critical protest vote for either Joel Britton of the Socialist Workers Party or C.T. Weber of the Peace and Freedom Party. Both candidates openly advocate socialist solutions for problems faced by Californias working people. Both campaign against the U.S. war and the ways that the California government helps the huge war industries in California and hurts working people. Both oppose the Democrat and Republican parties as instruments of the rich.
The Green party candidate, Peter Camejo, is getting quite a lot of coverage in this campaign, but its not because of his considerable talents as a radical orator. Camejo, like Ralph Nader in the 2000 election for president, is soft on the Democrats. Specifically, he has down pedaled opposition to Cruz Bustamante, the Democratic Party frontrunner, even complimenting him as better than Davis despite his ties to Californias vast agribusiness industry and his support for the death penalty. The capitalist class is served by reform candidates like Camejo, who give credence to the idea that reform can be achieved within the framework of capitalist politics. This is exactly what will happen in the 2004 election. The Letter to the Left and the California recall campaign indicate the ways that reformists will try to channel the energy of the independent peace and social justice movements into the safe channels of capitalist political parties and candidacies.
Activists and supporters of the peace and social justice movements must guard the independence of these movements fiercely. The corporate masters of American imperialism want us all to stop demonstrating and start campaigning for one of them. Lets vow instead to keep demonstrating and building the movement against war independent and in the streets, no matter who is president.
At a time that hopefully is not so far in the future, a working class political party of, by, and for workers, will challenge in elections. That will be an electoral campaign worthy of support. In the meantime, build the movement and oppose all capitalist candidates and parties!