July 21, 2009

A Retort on the Left and Elections

Recently there has been a ratcheting up of rhetoric that borders more and more on sectarian polemic concerning elections and the left's role, tasks and perspective with regards to them. For the sake of clarity I'd like to propose a series of questions that seem at the heart of the disputes and address each of them. What follows are individual views and should not be confused as representing the line of any particular organization. Anyways, let's get real:

Are elections under capitalism an important area of political work for radical leftists?

Are there conditions when it is permissible, or even wise for radical leftists to engage in politics with flexible tactics - including working within the big-bad Dems?

When Democrats sell us out, and they will, how do we as leftists discuss the implications with advanced and intermediate fighters in our mass movements (what we refer to as the "struggle for summation")?

And given the level of involvement of mass organizations and social movements with electoral politics and the US two party political system, does the left in this country have the ability to shift the focus away from engagement with the Democrats? In the present period, should we even try?

Isolation or Engagement

In the spirit of unity-struggle-unity I want to offer two criticisms of an approach taken by some on the Left with which I disagree. These are not personal criticisms but political differences. Some on the left are so isolated that they lack the ability to see and understand the importance of elections. All attention is focused on are ancient texts, public events where bearded dudes living under self-imposed exile at some villa in France talk about some grand new synthesis - but these folks are not my audience.

A corollary of the former is that the left is so insular that some elements appear not to see the potential of involving those mobilized by the elections in the peoples' struggle. Again these folks are not my audience.

But for much of the left, our practice refutes both points. We see the importance of electoral politics and struggles for reform. We raise pressing issues and conduct organizing among the masses of folks while paying attention to the electoral cycle. We see the importance of many of the folks that elections mobilize and the roles that these folks can and do play in the peoples' struggles.

The main points of difference I will focus on rotates around the issue of flexibility: namely do we engage in elections only through third party, or even anti-capitalist formations and candidates, or do we adopt broader strategies which may include (in addition to working in third party and anti-capitalist electoral formations) work within the Democratic Party (most often characterized as an "inside/outside" strategy)?

Opportunities and Threats: Tennessee

Many of these concerns hit home for me because of the political situation here in Tennessee. The General Assembly in the state teeters on the verge of a qualitative shift. Presently a right-center coalition of Democrats and Republicans holds a razor thin edge in the House, the Senate is firmly under the control of some of the most conservative elements of the Republican Party and Phil Bredensen the lame duck Governor (a Democrat) has done as much, perhaps more to devastate social spending on healthcare for the poor, higher education, state mental health services and special education than any executive in recent memory.

In the political maneuver of this young century the DP leadership convinced a sole Republican to cross party lines, and vote in alliance with the 49 Democrats for himself as a candidate for Speaker against his caucus's nominee and the other 49 Republican votes. This allowed for split committee member and chair appointments.

During the 2009 legislative session a galvanized right wing majority pushed for a proposed constitutional amendment limiting abortion rights, a constitution amendment abolishing the prospect of taxation based on income (which Tennessee does not have presently with the limited exception of some income derived from capital gains), statute preventing any municipality from passing a living wage ordinance, the most reactionary anti-immigrant legislation, continued legislative gay bashing, etc. Through much hard work on the part of social movements across the state these efforts were stymied in the state House but only because Democrats were able to kill the measures in committee.

Democrats, as Bredesen and many other local examples prove, are not our friends. But some of these Republicans are certainly our enemies. Here the only forces that can be targeted by social movement to prevent some really heinous shit from happening are Democrats. No single Green Party candidate appears to be contesting any state House race in Tennessee. In fact in the Knoxville area where I live we haven't even had one run a campaign.

Meanwhile a growing militant, radical right wing movement is a major cause for concern. Already, the far right violence of the Dr. Tiller murder, the Von Brunn incident at the Holocaust Museum, the PA cops who died in the shoot-out with a lone white supremacist hit home in real ways. Nearly one year ago Jim Adkisson walked into Sunday morning services at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, drew a shotgun and began shooting into the congregation as children preformed in a production of Annie. We'd later learn of the fascist's numerous connections to far-right politics. The tea-party movement, the Ron Paul signs, the massive increase in the sale of firearms to white men, and legislative action to expand where these weapons can be publicly carried are real, growing threats.

For these reasons, what happens in the 2010 election cycle, how the small number of mass, base-building organizations in Tennessee are able to propagate our issues during these campaigns, and in very real ways the outcomes of a small number of "in-play" races will determine much of the legal and political landscape for radical left politics over the coming years. Perhaps most importantly, whoever wins next year gets to redistrict - a main target of which will be Tennessee's three Black Belt counties including the city of Memphis. We have some very real shit to loose.

Under these circumstances I feel that it is a main task for radical leftists in Tennessee during the current period to unite the advanced mass and intermediate organizations (those forces directly engaged in base and movement building that participate and lead the segments of various social movements in the state) to win over the intermediate and isolate the backwards - specifically when possible in key House races in 2010. We should use the heightened focus on "politics" that the election cycle brings to highlight issues raised by our movements; we should use street heat and other tactics to force our issues onto the agendas of progressive and even moderate candidates for political office. We should consider forming mass electoral organizations that can unite our forces in concrete ways. And we must be willing to do this work with the broadest flexibility possible. And in order to complete many of these tasks, we are going to have to work to get Democrats elected.

This is a major difference I have with many folks in groups like Solidarity, ISO, the Socialist Party and others (especially those coming out of Trotskyist and Anarchist traditions).

Ultra-"leftism" - A quick path to Isolation

Earlier I dealt with the issue of engagement or isolation around the questions of elections. I stand by my assessment that most socialist forces see the importance of the elections cycle, the gains to be made in raises our issues, and the lengths to which our opponents will go to paint us as so out of touch that no one should ever pay attention to us. I think that the way in which we talk about flexible tactics in elections have another consequence in the struggle for ideas and summation - namely when the Dems fuck us over. Given the relative class origin of most conscious socialists in this country, even those of us who have worked to root ourselves in working class communities, I do not see "I told you so!" posturing as helpful within mass work in the slightest. This is especially true given the history of anti-communism fanned by the ruling class, perhaps acutely in the South.

Instead this attitude is perceived as cocky, arrogant and disconnected form the lived experience of so many. But what's more - it doesn't have to be! When the Dems do sell us out, and they will, we need to be able to call it what it is. But all too frequently groups that refuse to participate in elections except in third party formations that most people encouraged by Democratic party types look at as silly or contemptible don't even take advantage of the situation. They respond to the realities of hegemony and political power with pompous remarks that are more focused on spotlighting their own political stance than on helping actually fuse theory with the lived experiences of advanced and intermediate fighters in struggles for reforms.

Sometimes this is argued by appealing to the need, and serious lack, of radical organization in the US -"Isn't it about time we had a real party of the working class!?"

Certainly the lack of a clearly embodied vehicle for our class's political independence is important. In fact with regards to the key questions facing the socialist movement, I would argue it is dominant in the current period - but we need more than mechanistic application of this analysis as it extends to our work in the mass movements. Recognition of our need for a party does not help us in our work to pass EFCA as "the card check bill" this summer. Just the same, endorsing Cynthia McKinney or Nader for president in 2008 when they had no chance of polling even sufficient numbers to increase their own, let alone the left's, level of appeal beyond the point it currently reaches did little to advance the work of bringing our party onto the scene. No such party exists, but neither would its existence guarantee us victory on the question of EFCA.

With regards to work in the labor movement at the present juncture I would argue the primary task is building and supporting political work that focuses its attention at class exploitation and wins all that can be won while hurting the enemy (which the compromise EFCA of firmer employer penalties, binding arbitration for a first contract, and shorter election timeframes in fact does). If we do this work well there will be new layers of fighters deeply committed to and politicized by local fight backs, who are already at what Lenin called "trade union consciousness" who we should be able to win over to "working class consciousness" more broadly defined and hopefully the fight for socialism itself.

This "left" posturing, where one's actions appear to be left but are actually far from it, appears to be revolutionary, but the net effect undermines our objectives. In the end flexible engagement, rather than a practice of purity, allow us access to many of the fighters in social movements at moments when they are most open to revolutionary ideas. I would argue that these moments often coincide with power fucking us over, and given the reliance of many social movements on work within the Democratic Party, power here often times is ceremonially wielded by Democrats. Folks reach these places not through arguments and interventionist tactics (which are among the weakest of teachers) but from actual struggle and practice - the "be all, end all" of instructors!

Our Tasks, Our Movements

On the final question, I feel that it is not possible for the left to push the scattered, weak, at points nascent and at points declining social movements away from a focus on electoral politics that is largely directed at the political system in this country and its two parties. And yet these are movements that many of us have devoted the better part of our lives to building, movements that are winning some real victories in the lives of millions of people, movements that continue to inspire new waves of fighters to view our goal as that other world we get to glimpse when we roll up those pant-legs and wade into struggle.

This is surely a complicated question, one that I would argue turns a lot more around our internal capacity (and by internal I'm sticking with "left" broadly defined, but folks can reapply the question to individual collectives, organizations, or trends if you like) than around the conditions in which we operate.

But I feel that on the one hand the opportunities, especially given our relative strengths and weaknesses, number too great and the threats pose simply too great of a danger to opt for purity and rely on a misapplication of analysis concerning the need for a revolutionary party. That said, I'm arguing for flexibility and I do believe that there will be many instances where it is worse than simply a waste of our time and limited political resources to make electoral work, especially inside the Democratic party a key part of our work.

I think that this flexibility accomplishes many, at points contradictory, things at once - but it has to be rooted in analysis of certain specific conditions. I also think that often times we gain the most when our electoral work is based in a specific municipality, state, or region, especially when we are doing this work from within independent mass organizations (like a specific union, neighborhood group, or student organization) or with local intermediate movement building formations (like worker centers, Jobs with Justice, or the many movement building strategy centers that are being built across the country).

So, for the comrades that disagree - please respond. Give examples, I want to know what work to build power in the current period that refuses any potential engagement which may include support for Democrats looks like in the labor movement around the EFCA fight, or in the queer liberation movement around Prop 8 and gay marriage, in the immigrant rights movement around opposition to a new bracero program, etc. with details that elevate the analysis above mere sloganeering. I want to know the social forces you think constitute the cohesive element, and the line and method of practice we're going to employ. Please engage in real discussion, and give an argument greater than "they'll sell us out." I guess this is the whole point trying to be made here: we know what they're going to do, so my my question is what can we stand to gain or lose by playing their game in limited, calculated ways right now to position ourselves for tomorrow.

I'm serious, if you think that we can make gains by sitting out or running a third party presidential candidates at the explicit exclusion of engaging within the two party framework in specific ways at specific times in specific places - by all means put out a strategy that shows how we get there from here, explain the tactics we are going to use, itemize some bench-marks, get real about capacity, roles and the shit that is not going to get done because we're going to convince the labor movement, or the movement for queer liberation, or the immigrants rights movement to give up work with the Democrats. Convince me of a plan that can win and I'll give my life to it, and that ain't just words! But right now your line smacks of a kind of purity that lets us criticize from a safe enough distance so as to keep our hands from getting dirty, all the while denying us the ability to build struggle with folks we are going to have to have in our corner (and who aren't there at all right now), and that's amateurishness.

In the meantime, while I wait for that strategy to be shared like promethean fire, I'll be building the base, meeting folks where they are at and fighting for a seat at the table I know that for at least the next couple of years many of the best and brightest fighters I get to work with want to sit at. And in Tennessee over the next two years that is going to mean working with, and at certain points even for Democrats. To me this seems a good bit more productive than "I told you so" quips 6 months after the inauguration.


Anonymous said...

Isolated from reality and history, this strategy at first sounds reasonable, for all the reasons listed in the article. The problem is, that over the more than one hundred years that this strategy has been carried out by disillusioned leftie after disillusioned leftie, it has yet to produce any positive results. All of our victories come not through working in the Democratic Party but in organizing outside it.

The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. Look at the recently deceased antiwar movement for you another example. Every attempt to organize within the Democratic Party has led to utter failure, with those doing the organizing abandoning their revolutionary beliefs and supporting the bourgeoisie. Some few continue to think of themselves as revolutionaries, but haven’t done anything to oppose the government in decades.

Nelson H. said...

Chegitz, I'm far from a "disillusioned leftie," I'm a fully committed one, so the ad hominem is a bit much. The point of the article is clearly nothing to do with turning towards or away from revolutionary politics - it is about left strategy on particular questions, namely how we relate to electoral politics.

As for the oft-repeated left phrasing about a "graveyard of social movements" I call bullshit.

For the sake of a conversation I'll set aside your other logical fallacies and misrepresentations of my argument.

To bring the conversation back down from the over generalization of movements, let's focus on Mississippi and the Black liberation movement.

The amazing organizing of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and SNCC activists throughout the summer of 1964 clearly shows what left forces who are organizing to win reforms and raise consciousness can gain by employing an inside/outside strategy in the electoral arena. From the base building in the state's Black Belt counties, to the use of direct action mobilization to disrupt the Democratic Party's convention in Atlantic City the left's ability to use the electoral cycle as a forum to raise our issues is undeniable. What's more it helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement and permanently altered the politics of many of the organizers, participants and even folks not directly involved who watched the MFDP delegates be denied seating credentials in decidedly left ways.

Again what is being advocated is not a rooting of ourselves inside the Democratic Party, but that we have a lot to gain by employing flexible tactics that win victories by using the doors the electoral cycle open in smart ways.

The second example I'll through out there is the ongoing organizing of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in the Jackson area and their use of city elections, including participation in the Democratic Party, to win real victories in people's lives and to push forward the struggle for Black liberation. I think the most recent Campaign update post (again linked above) shows the power of inside/outside strategies as the organizer quickly work to turn the victory working within the Democratic Party into something far most sustainable by consolidating organization around the gains that have been won, organization that includes new electoral forces outside of the Democratic Party.

It would be helpful if you can provide some more specifics about what you mean by "All of our victories come not through working in the Democratic Party but in organizing outside it." Please explain what specifically was won for the people, how specifically the campaign hurt the enemy and who specifically was won over to socialism (obviously I'm not asking for lists of names...)

Again, this piece is making an argument for flexible, largely locally determined tactics so if any additional comments could actually try to engage with the argument being made instead of tired attempts at caricature (or even successful caricature for that matter).