by Julio Huato
Pro Domo Sua
(Swans - May 9, 2005) Over the last couple of years, prompted by the last presidential election, I engaged in several debates on an Internet list of Marxists. A recurrent topic was the attitude of US socialists towards the Democratic Party. I rejected the view -- pervasive among some radicals -- that political cooperation with the Democrats, in elections or other struggles, was ill advised. Gilles d'Aymery kindly asked me to clarify and extend my argument in an article for Swans. I am glad to meet his request.
Gilles suggested that I add a short description of my personal involvement in the socialist struggle. It should be clear that I am no authority on US socialism and can't claim for my views any consideration unwarranted by their factual and logical consistency (if any). I have over ten years of experience as a working-class activist and organizer in Mexico. Most of this time, I assisted urban working families from the shantytowns that surround eastern Mexico City in their fight for decent housing and elementary public services. I helped construction, manufacturing, and service workers fight for unions, higher wages, decent working conditions, and the realization of benefits provided by in the letter of the law. And, for one year and working as a full-time organizer, I also assisted rural workers in their struggle for farm land, schools, clinics, and other public services in the Tierra Caliente of Michoacán.
By circumstances and by choice, I was formed as a Marxist. I take it as an axiom that a society based on the best values evolved by humans, that universalizes the best of civilization, can only be built by those who live off their work, while it will be resisted tooth and claw by those who live off privilege and accumulated wealth. And that the fundamental human needs of workers are incompatible with the gapping inequalities, private ownership, markets, and estranged powers and divisions that constitute the ultimate bases of capitalism.
Since the mid nineties, I've been a New York City resident. To honor tuition debts and earn a living for my family, I worked temporarily as a consultant in the field of statistics and econometrics. For the most part, however, my work in this country has been academic, both as a student and a teacher. In the U.S., my political involvement -- if I may call it political -- has been limited to volunteering in local, church-based organizations that provide legal and humanitarian services to migrant workers, demonstrating against the war on Iraq, and canvassing against Bush in 2004. In spite of my limited experience in US politics, I believe that I have a valid point.
Next, I restate and broaden arguments I've made before. Additionally, in the last segment of the piece, I respond in detail to a number of objections raised against the need to cooperate politically with the Democrats. The unfortunate consequence is that the piece has become a rather long and (I'm afraid) repetitive polemical essay. In spite of it, I hope that young activists will take the time to read it. Even if my answers are not convincing, the questions should be pondered carefully.
The Workers and the Political System
One hundred and forty million people, about five per cent of the world's mass of direct producers, the US workers are in an ideal position to contribute to building socialism in the world. They are the motive force in the most technologically advanced society in history, a society that commands an enormous share of the world's resources, generates one fifth to one fourth of the globe's total product, and spews perhaps an even larger fraction of the globe's total waste. Even if US labor's productive edge were to decay in the next few decades, it would remain, potentially at least, a formidable agent of historical change. It's hard not to think that if the workers were only to develop enough strength to check the imperialist proclivities of US capitalists, which currently spend in war-making the same as the rest of the world together, they would become an enormous progressive factor in world history.
The problem, of course, is that the US workers are not united as a class and do not act as an independent political force. They are split by all sorts of racial, ethnic, national, migratory-status, gender, regional, industrial, occupational, income, cultural, and ideological divisions. For the most part, they are politically subordinated to the ruling class and under its ideological spell. They are thinly unionized. And their rates of unionization have been declining throughout the postwar period. In the last fifteen years, in spite of the boom of the 1990s, the US workers have not been able to stop a three-decade long erosion in their living and working conditions; on the contrary, they've only seen it accelerate in the last four years. No doubt, this erosion has been reinforced by increased foreign trade, international competition, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which gave US capitalism a temporary -- economic, political, and ideological -- boost.
In the Marxist tradition, the primary task of socialists is to help the workers unite and conquer their political independence advancing their broader and longer-run class interests. In the U.S., this is an extraordinary challenge. At first sight, the main obstacle is the winner-takes-all, two-party electoral system, where Republicans and Democrats share and alternate in power, preempting the successful formation of third parties. Traditionally, the Democratic Party, directly or through unions and a host of civic groups that back it up in electoral times, has attracted the sympathy and even loyalty of a number of workers with some sense of their collective economic interest. But, while the social base and ideological outlook of the party reflect somehow this working-class element, in essence the Democrats are a political formation of the capitalists, by the capitalists, and for the capitalists, who firmly control the apparatus via leadership structures, funding, and a mushy "liberal" reformist ideology.
The focus of the Democrats as a party is on the elections. Once in government, their policies are not always easy to tell apart from those of the Republicans. Whenever progressive social policies are at stake, the Democrats tend to tiptoe around the immediate interests of the capitalists or simply cave in to them. Not surprisingly the Democrats have been largely unmotivated to resist the onslaught against the workers' living and working conditions and have adapted to the changing international and domestic political economy by trailing the Republicans in a forceful shift to the right. Only the recent Republicans' aggressive use of power in the pursuit of an extreme rightwing agenda has highlighted the relative, but nonetheless real, contrast in constituency, ideology, and policies between the two parties.
Clearly, the two-party system is an insidious historical trap that thwarts the emergence of working-class challenges to the political status quo, to the extent such challenges take the form of third-party campaigns. Obviously, under proportional representation in Congress and local legislative bodies, third parties would have it easier. But a bit of reflection suggests that the two-party system, to the extent it is an entrenched obstacle to the developing of working-class independent politics, is more effect than cause of the structural division and political submission of the US workers.
Historically, many factors -- of which the two-party system is only the tip of the iceberg -- have contributed to atomizing the working class: slavery and its sequels, territorial thievery and brutality against the native population and foreign peoples, the social psychology of a nation of immigrants, the toxic effects of imperialist privilege, and the failures of socialism. The division and political subordination of the US workers have become second nature in their day-to-day conduct and attitudes. Even an elementary sense of working-class identity is absent in large segments of the class, which prefer to view themselves as members of some mythical "middle class." In few capitalist countries have the ideology of the capitalists and the legal and political "superstructure" of capitalism been more ingrained in the people's consciousness and daily comportment. In this environment, the system has had an easier time crystallizing its winner-takes-all, two-party features as mechanisms to preempt challenges from outside of the political mainstream.
However, in spite of this gloomy and hardened scenario, there can be no doubt that there is a fundamental commonality of interests among those who live off their work, in opposition to those who live off their accumulated wealth. If nowhere else, in the negative, the concrete proof of this statement lies in the obsessive insistence with which the ideological apparatus of US capitalism, the media and the academic establishment, rivet the myths that class and class struggle are irrelevant, that Marxism is dead, and that socialism is economically impossible. Class and class struggle are the elephants in the room of US society.
As it pushes productivity and technological innovation to new heights, US capitalism continues to generate the most extreme manifestations of barbarism, dehumanization, and irrationality in modern history, and against those only the united workers are capable of opposing a serious alternative. The objective basis for the unity and political independence of the working people in the U.S., and in the world at large, is there -- even more so than in the past; the trouble is to find the forms of human agency that can lead the workers to increasing unity, collective self-confidence, and political independence. We should be under no illusion: the task will entail a long, tough process of self-education, unity in the struggle, and accumulation of political strength. Socialists need to gather the patience to accompany the working class in this prolonged and winding path, or doom themselves to irrelevance.
Social Change in the U.S.
Marx used to say that when our minds grasp the inner workings of social life, its apparent solidity evaporates. When experienced, this kind of intellectual epiphany is so powerful that we often forget that a theoretical understanding of exploitation, oppression, and alienation is only the first step in the struggle to abolish them in practice. Social ills are rooted in conditions that we reproduce and reinforce, often in spite of ourselves. Individuals and small groups have a limited ability to change conditions that are systematically reproduced by the behavior of large crowds. To effect serious social change, people need to undertake massive, sustained, and carefully targeted collective actions. And in the last analysis, our ability to transform our social life is constrained by the finite understanding of, and ability to circumvent, the laws of nature and -- to the extent social life is a "process of natural history" -- the laws of society as well. Grasping these laws helps us identify pliable areas of social reality where our collective efforts can be most effective. But, even in the most felicitous case, a prolonged, often invisible grass-roots effort is the premise of any real progress.
When the workers are disunited, unaware of their power as a collective historical agent, the legal and political "superstructure" becomes too hardened a reality to be changed spontaneously. In rich Western capitalist countries, with a long tradition of so-called "liberal democracy," the inertia of the political system is enormous. The system is not only "outside" of the people, in the form of a complex, ramified, and hardened web of legal and political institutions, but also "inside" of them, in the form of civil-society formations and deep-seated collective assumptions and unconscious behaviors. (This hardened "superstructural" reality is what -- in my understanding -- Gramsci tried to capture in his notion of hegemony.) Not surprisingly, frontal assaults on the system are likely to be frustrated. Just like we cannot subvert capitalism by merely refusing employment or not buying Coca Cola, we cannot demolish the winner-takes-all, two-party electoral system by withdrawing from electoral politics or clashing with it frontally.
Ultimately, the precondition to change hardened legal and political structures is to change the minds and the daily conduct of a sufficiently large number of people, painstakingly creating and consolidating a network of alternative institutions that foster alternative values, beliefs, and conducts. It is necessarily a long, iterative process that -- ultimately -- takes place at the micro, individual level, in our interaction with one another, our coworkers, our neighbors, the members of our communities, etc. It is never an idyllic evangelical process conducted in a social vacuum. To work, the ideas, goals, and methods we advance need to connect with the immediate needs, practical possibilities, and current outlook of people. In turn, these needs, possibilities, and outlook depend on the concrete circumstances and pressures of social life.
The conflicts and instability inherent to capitalism may accelerate the mind- and behavior-changing process, but -- unlike what some radicals presume -- there is no guarantee that it will do it in our favor. The history of capitalism is full of cases where sudden social disruptions worsened the workers' condition. Without previous basic organizational work at the grassroots, without a previous process of education that predisposes people to view social and political events in terms of the class struggle, social stress and sudden upheavals tend to push workers to deeper passivity or -- worse -- in reactionary directions.
Furthermore, in the U.S., the ideas of socialism have been, for decades, systematically distorted and discredited. The experiences in the Soviet Union and China, which per se have had undeniably far-reaching political and ideological consequences in the U.S. and the world at large, have been construed as a direct validation of the most virulent forms of anti-communism. The media have been hammering these dogmas in the minds of the people, smuggling them as facts. The small groups of radicals that lurk in the interstices of this country's political life are viewed with suspicion or derision by the mainstream of the working people. And this is often reciprocated by a pathetic sectarian mentality in leftist circles that makes virtue out of necessity.
We need to draw conclusions from these facts. When one stops to reflect seriously about this, with these structural factors in mind and taking into account the enormous weight of the U.S. in today's world, it's hard not to see that the US workers' conquest of unity and political independence will entail gigantic, epoch-making changes in the culture of this society, changes that -- in their sheer civilizational scale -- can only be compared (mutatis mutandis) to, say, the European Enlightenment at the dawn of the modern era or the intellectual ferment of Marxism and socialism in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe. We simply cannot rely on luck or expect miracles. And it is clear that superficial radicalism will not help.
Outline of a Strategy
To get things done, the energy of isolated individuals and small radical political formations needs a sharp, disciplined focus. There is no easy way out of the historical traps laid by the legal and political system, but there is a way out. Socialists will have to walk on a tightrope, balancing an array of immediate and mediate tasks. Since we start from a low point, there'll be a sharp contrast between the strategic goals, on the one hand, and the tactical actions, on the other; a contrast that reflects the gap between the ambitious goals of the socialists and the immediate reality of their meager forces. But it is precisely such sharp discrepancy between strategy and tactics, between propaganda and agitation (to use these terms in their old connotations), that will allow for our tactics to effectively support -- and not sabotage -- our strategy. At this stage, the greatest danger lies in conflating the long-run strategic tasks with the short-run tactical maneuvers. In each particular setting, the strategic and tactical tasks need to be calibrated, not to the beliefs of the few, but to the actual behavior of the bulk of the class.
For the workers to conquer their political independence, they need to grasp their irreducible specificity as a class: the absolutely incompatibility between their legitimate, historically evolved needs and the essential reality and possibilities of capitalism. This is the first strategic premise. It entails the radical, ruthless critique of everything that exists. This is the sense in which Brecht's Galilean dictum applies: "When the truth is too weak to triumph, it must go on the attack." Our long-run focus needs to be on sharpening our critical understanding of social life, improving the quality and quantity of our intellectual output against that of the mainstream, at once involving the working people in the process and complying with the highest norms of scientific scholarship. This is a profoundly partisan effort, based on the ethical, radical categorical imperative that arises from looking at social life from the perspective of those least vested in the status quo, grounded in their concrete working and living conditions.
With the ingredients already present in their daily lives, US workers need to evolve a new humanist and anti-capitalist culture in a social soil that till now has proved to be most infertile to secular humanism and socialism. And for that, just to start, socialists need to help build a vast, robust educational infrastructure, a vibrant web of cadre schools, book clubs, debate societies, discussion groups, study circles, fora, newspapers, magazines, libraries, publishing houses, political formations, etc., tied together with all sorts of virtual and physical links. We need to utilize the resources of modern technology, the various tools of the Internet, etc., and we need to prioritize the youth.
On the organizational side, we need to develop flexible yet strong, permanent ties for the long haul. Given the existing fragmentation of the class, we cannot -- and should not -- impose ideological preconditions on the specific logistical forms that this organizational effort will take. We need to view working class organizing as an evolving ecology, putting a premium on diversity and adaptability. Our emphasis should be on gearing our organizations for the long-run, continuously seeking unity in action and economy of effort.
Political education without organizational ties is diffused energy. Yet we must approach it in the broadest, most nonsectarian way. In the very long run, political education will be the decisive arena of the socialist struggle. Socialists cannot advance without making big investments in the self-education of the working people. Fortunately, there is a rich stock of knowledge and historical experience ready to be disseminated and critically absorbed. But even that won't suffice. We will also need to engage seriously with the contemporary products of mainstream thought, critically appropriate the best in them, and reject their elements of ideological rationalization. With a sense of what's legitimate and appropriate to each situation, this educational work must be combined with a serious organizational effort at the micro, individual level.
These strategic tasks need to be carefully balanced with disciplined tactical moves. Our short-run focus must be on taking part, at whichever level is accessible to us, in the local, topical, and partial struggles against the status quo that are most likely to set in motion broader sectors of the working class and most likely to break the cohesion of the rulers. These are the political fulcrums on which socialists can best leverage their agency. We must understand that struggles of this kind are seldom frontal attacks on the structure of capitalism or the political system. Yet, again, they demonstrate a potential to induce class unity by unleashing the action of broader sectors of the working people. These struggles have little, if anything, to do with "transitional programs" derived from ideological exercises conducted behind the backs of the people and then artificially forced into the movement. Instead, they are "burning issues" that incite people rather spontaneously, erupting constantly as large events unfold, conflicts among the rulers come to a head, or vital governmental decisions are made. We need a serious, nonsectarian approach to participating in these struggles. It is around them -- sensibly and tactfully -- that we must conduct our bottom-up organizing campaigns.
The natural dynamics of every local or topical struggle leads it to confront the legal and political establishment. If we want our participation in local and partial struggles to bear fruit, we need to enter electoral politics and aim to influence its results decisively. The logic of local and topical struggles forces us to be effective in holding government agencies accountable, shaping public decisions, making credible threats to public servants, removing them from office when needed, and replacing them with representatives of the working class when possible. This logic will force us to take over local governments, where we need to show in practice how we help communities solve effectively their concrete problems while maintaining our strategic commitment for socialism.
We need to enter these struggles with sufficient preparation to win them in their terms, to attain their specific goals. At the same time, we enter electoral politics with the premise that our main foci are the self-education of the class and bottom-up organizing for the long run. We foster, not erode, the self-confidence of the class for it to seek direct political power in all its varieties. Power can corrupt, but it is not true that power inevitably corrupts. We view electoral politics as an instrument for the advancement of mass local and partial struggles. And we use our participation in these struggles and in their natural electoral extensions to get more people on our side and enhance people's commitment for the long haul. In the electoral stance of socialists, the most important piece is their attitude towards the Democratic Party, a matter that I will discuss at length in the latter sections of the essay.
A key element of the strategy is a sharp focus on struggles that are most likely to mobilize broader sectors of class: class unity in the struggle is our paramount concern. Therefore, while we state clearly in our propaganda our principled opposition to all forms of oppression and prejudice, and our respect and moral solidarity to those who choose to focus on fighting particular forms of oppression, we avoid picking and getting entangled in tactical battles that are likely to split the workers. Such is the case of the so-called "culture wars" that the mainstream media currently promote: e.g., reproductive rights, gay rights, religion vs. secularism, etc. These are battles deliberately chosen by the most vicious, extreme right-wing sectors of the Republican Party to further divide the workers. Fighting these battles fits their strategy. On the other hand, the battles we pick are more likely to be those that impact the livelihoods of millions of workers regardless of their background: jobs, better wages, better working conditions, peace and security, health care, better public services, etc.
While careful about picking our fights, we must fight the "culture wars" when they are forced on us and we can't avoid them without a larger loss. However, we should fight them defensively, i.e., our goal is to frustrate the enemy's designs, not necessarily to advance our own (unless the conditions change drastically in the middle of the battle). And, as we do this, we shift the arena of the battle to where we are in a better position to win it. Skillfully, tactfully, we "re-frame" these conflicts in terms of the class struggle, of what they mean concretely to the livelihoods of working families.
This is crucial. The crisis of "liberalism" in the U.S., its inability to inspire mass political movements and effective policies even within the confines of bourgeois politics, is not unrelated to the attempt by the Democrats to keep "class warfare" in the closet. The reverse side of this has been the ability of the Republicans to boomerang the alienation and resentment of workers (particularly, white workers) against the Democrats and, ultimately, against the workers' own interest. But if the Republicans have been able to tap it, it proves that the class resentment exists, is real, and is massive. Ultimately, it may backfire on the Republicans. If the "workerism" of the Democratic Party is treacherous, the "workerism" of the Republicans is substantively fake. Therefore, it is much easier to challenge. It is on the economic front where the divorce between reality and the Republican's manipulative game is bigger. That's where our focus should be.
The conflict between Democratic "liberalism" and working class interest is not as clear to a majority of the class as the hypocrisy of the Republicans. That's why "liberalism" is more pervasive and cannot be successfully attacked in our agitation, in our tactical battles. We need to reap the fruits that hang the lowest and gradually work our way up. We ought to look at Democratic "liberalism" as the political religion of a large sector of the US working class. Socialists must deal with "liberalism" as they would with any other kind of religion. We don't confront it directly in their agitation. We ruthlessly refute "liberalism" in our theoretical and propagandistic effort, but the current focus of our agitation is not the "liberalism" of the Democrats, but the right-wing agenda of the Republicans.
The Antiwar Movement
A clear example of a topical struggle of this kind is the movement against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Whatever its political depth and organizational strength, the opposition to the war on Iraq is the most progressive mass movement in recent US history. A large number of people in the U.S. have demonstrated their discontent with a foreign policy that doesn't subject itself to international law and claims a "right" to unilateral aggression. A large number of people believe that such foreign policy is contrary to the best interest of the nation. Although not exclusively, most of the people taking part in the movement live -- or have lived or will live -- off a wage or salary. In itself, it is a struggle that induces -- or, at least, provides an opportunity for -- the unity of larger sectors of the class and for splitting the rulers into conflicting factions.
Yet, the approach of a good portion of the radical left towards the movement has been, and remains, erratic. A great deal of energy is spent second-guessing the course of the movement on the basis of ideological clichés, instead of grasping its inherent logic -- i.e., the logic consistent with the motivation and outlook of its constituency -- and trying to provide it with concrete guidance to accomplish its goals. Only by so doing can the socialists accrue political credit that can help them advance further in their causes. Against the implicit assumptions of some radicals, the inherent goal of the antiwar movement is not to overthrow US capitalism or dismantle the two-party system. Only under a very special and unlikely set of circumstances could the antiwar movement turn into a radical anti-capitalist or anti-two-party assault. Instead, the obvious goal is to change the foreign-policy course of the country as set by the Republicans in power.
If socialists want to lead, they need to prove willing to fight for that goal, and not for other, superimposed, goals. With their actual mass behavior, the movement's constituents set the parameters of the struggle. Since the movement does not aim to subvert the political system or capitalism, then -- implicitly -- it seeks to accomplish its goals through the system and within its framework. Not seeing this evinces a disconnection from political reality. Mass movements are dynamic and their goals shift in midcourse, but there is no evidence that, at any point, the antiwar movement has done or is in the process of doing this. Of course, the political obligation of socialists is to induce shifts towards increasingly radical goals, but that is to be done by actions congruent with the actual political behavior of the mass constituents, not to the ideological prejudices of a tiny radical minority.
In times of acute and generalized political crisis, failing to propose more radical goals when the people are ready for them may prove costly. But there is no evidence that such is the case in the U.S. today. In today's conditions, the cost of rushing the movement forward, when people are not ready to abandon Democratic "liberalism," is heftier in terms of the fractures created in the movement, effectively weakening it.
It is very telling that, as the administration kept its course, the bulk of the movement turned to voting Bush out of the White House. It testifies to the historical weight of the two-party system on the collective consciousness of the people, that as soon as people realized that their protests had failed to stop the invasion and alter the course of the foreign policy, their focus turned decisively towards the next presidential election and that "electability" (i.e., ability to defeat Bush) was a top criterion. As we know, the ambivalence of the Democrats towards the antiwar movement led to Kerry's failure. But this is something that, one way or another, was not under the control of socialists, however "radical" or "liberal" their stance might have been. The immediate responsibility of socialists ends where their power to effect immediate change ends.
Some radical leftists viewed the mass turn towards the presidential election, not as a natural turn given the situation of the class, but as evidence of a plot by the "liberal left" to "sidetrack" the movement towards electoral politics and -- worse -- the Democrats. It was a "defeat." But framing things this way only shows that superficial radicalism wasn't grounded on reality. These are the large facts at play: The working class is structurally divided and that cannot be changed overnight. There is an entrenched, winner-takes-all, two-party system that cannot be dissolved overnight. The Democrats may be treacherous in their dealing with the demands of workers, but the Republicans are blatantly adverse to them. The stakes of the election were large for workers, both domestically and abroad, a belief that has been validated by further events.
Hence, even if the differences between Democrats and Republicans were (are) minor against the backdrop of US capitalism, they proved to be gravely consequential to millions of lives in a very concrete and immediate sense. People were ready to move to get Bush out of the White House and so they did. In principle, defeating Bush was not incompatible with the broader interests of the working class. Socialists had a reason to participate in the electoral campaign and follow the best conceivable route to defeat Bush. However upsetting to many radicals, there was a reasonable case to support Kerry's bid. To say the least, socialists were obliged not to attack or sabotage those who chose such path, namely, the largest sector of the working class in political motion. We know what happened. And the whole episode illustrates the fruitlessness of superficial radicalism in the U.S.
The Strategies of Superficial Radicalism
Broadly speaking, superficial radicals come in two flavors. The ultra-leftist wing advocates abstention. Refusal to participate in the electoral process is, in their view, the best way to confront and defeat the two-party system. They allege that, while undocumented workers and convicts are legally disenfranchised, a large portion of the working class -- especially the young, the poor, and the unemployed -- exercise a deliberate choice not to vote. Their radical strategy trails the passivity of these politically alienated and organizationally dispersed members of the working class. Voting is supposed to reinforce the political system while not voting denies it support and erodes it.
Conceivably, under some circumstances, with the electoral system discredited in the eyes of the people, with an ascending, conscious, independent, organized, and massive workers' movement able to corner the rulers, a well-organized electoral boycott could indeed help the workers advance their interest and build superior forms of democracy. But, in the concrete political conditions of the U.S., the opposite is true. The uncoordinated decisions of individuals to abstain from voting can only reinforce the political system. In these conditions, their gesture is empty. It winds up absorbed by the system, presumed to be acquiescence, validation of the status quo. In these conditions, workers cannot dissolve the electoral system by not voting. They have to go through serious and repeated attempts to reform it if they are ever to evolve the pressing collective need, as well as the political and organizational wherewithal, for higher forms of democracy. The two-party trap is a hardened reality.
The moderate wing believes that socialists must assault the two-party system frontally, by waging or supporting third-party electoral campaigns, even if too small, isolated, and out of step with the bulk of the class to pose any serious challenge to the two-party grip. And even in high-stakes elections with potentially grave implications for the workers' interest. But the attempts that have been made along this line are revealing: by any measure, the electoral, educational, or organizational results have been humbling. And that's to put it mildly. These radicals imply that, because they have come to understand in their minds that the main parties are not the right vehicles for the workers to advance their political interest, the tactical targets of the struggle are to be calibrated to their beliefs, as opposed to the actual behavior of the bulk of the class.
Alas, this is a recipe for dissipating the scant political energy of socialists or, worse -- in volatile times when small causes can have large (usually adverse) effects -- it is flirting with disaster. Getting over the two-party system in the heads of the hundreds is not the same as getting over it in a way that translates into tens of millions developing the will to subvert it. Discarding or subverting the two-party system, and the Democratic Party in particular, is not yet an immediate collective need of the US workers. From their historical experience as they read it, the bulk of the class has not yet drawn this conclusion -- and it does not even appear close to doing so.
Political Independence and Cooperation with the Democrats
A frequent objection to voting, or voting for the Democrats as the "lesser evil" (a formula with terrible connotations among some radicals), is that voting fosters the illusion that workers can meet their needs within the two-party framework, and/or that the Democrats can be an adequate vehicle to advance their class interest. Our participation -- it is argued -- props up the system and reproduces the political submission of the class. But political activity at the fringes of the country's political life is not an antidote to the perils of bourgeois electoral politics. In these times, fringe political activity -- like not voting -- is the surest way to reinforce the system. Socialists cannot help the workers escape the two-party trap by dropping out or forming sects, tiny islands of supposed ideological purity and unpolluted political decency, expecting people to join them on the sheer force of their propaganda. When the social conditions that support the two-party system are persistent, small groups of people cannot exorcise the power of the two main parties by staying on the margins.
Political independence is not the same as organizational or logistical separation. The first step towards political independence of workers invested in a political formation under capitalist control may consist of an attempt to transform such formation, wresting its control off the hands of the rulers to turn it into an effective vehicle of the class struggle. The corrupting influence of bourgeois politics cannot be shut out by political sects, like hippie communes cannot exclude the corrosive influence of capital. Political independence is not alienation from the mainstream of political life, but engagement with it to transform it. Political independence is the ability of workers to act, under diverse circumstances, always engaged in the concrete political conflicts of the time, massively and consistently as a united force in pursuit of their specific class interests. It's an ability evolved in their struggle to change their working and living conditions and the political institutions in which their struggle is embedded. Ideology or separate organizational structures patterned after some codified version of "democratic centralism" are not vaccines against political degeneration, reformism, bureaucratization, or betrayal. Organizational cohesion by itself can help or hinder the workers' actions, but it cannot determine the content of their actions.
Whether punctual political cooperation with a bourgeois party helps or hinders the impetus to the workers' political independence depends on the particular conditions in which the battles are fought. No national working class has ever emerged in history as an independent political force without broad internal unity and cooperation with other classes and social groups. In fact, the condition for the emergence of the working class as an independent political force is precisely that it isolates and splits the rulers. Thinking that a fringe third-party campaign is a sign of political independence is like believing that a nine-year-old child who escapes his parents' home is thus becoming a mature, independent adult, and not just risking another -- perhaps worse -- kind of dependence on the streets. At best, it's a political tantrum.
In the last two decades, the Republican Party has established itself as the reactionary, proto-fascist political vehicle of a mélange of highly parasitic capitalist special interests -- military contractors, media conglomerates, energy companies, industry lobbies, financial firms, prison contractors, medium and small business organizations, and top and mid-range wealthy individuals -- and gained a dominant position in all levels of government. A large portion of its voting power results from exploiting the social prejudices of petty-bourgeois anarcho-libertarians, the nationalism and xenophobia of some sectors of the working class, and the conservative religious beliefs of evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.
It is known that, in the last few years, the workers' economic vulnerability has been worsened by the state of the economy and by the purposeful actions of the Republican administration to service their patrons. The Republicans are aggressively anti-labor. Under Bush, they are leading a belligerent campaign against the workers' economic interests. Aside from the large impact of Bush's foreign policy abroad (e.g., Fallujah, the hostility against Venezuela, etc.), union decline has accelerated. Nowadays, only eight percent of the workers in the private sector are unionized (half of the unionized labor force is government employees). That's the lowest rate in a century. The economic recovery has not meant an upturn in the employment front. Wages have stagnated while annual productivity growth has been reported at four percent. Health care has become more prohibitive for millions of workers. With a few exceptions, the system of basic public education is an unmitigated disaster. Poverty has ravaged more and more working families. Clearly, today, the Republicans represent a graver, more urgent danger to the unity of the class and the prospects of socialism in the world.
It hardly needs to be argued that isolating the extremists in the Republican Party, splitting their forces, and defeating their reactionary agenda are the first order of business in the workers' agenda. And this requires cooperation with Democrats (and others) opposed to the Republican designs, insofar as they effectively oppose them, even if they don't exhibit (as they may not) the intensity and commitment expected of socialists. We must cooperate with the Democrats (and any other political formation for that matter) insofar as they lead or take part in struggles that are in the clear economic and political interest of the class. Cooperation to defeat the Republican agenda of unilateral imperialist aggression, economic mismanagement, and assault on the workers' interest fit the criteria.
Here and now, political cooperation with the Democrats is tactically necessary. What form should this cooperation take? Should the socialists call Democratic workers to abandon their party and start or join a third party? Should the socialists join the Democratic Party and struggle from within? There are no, and there should not be, simple answers to these questions. What we need is a general understanding of the terms of the cooperation. The implicit assumption of this political cooperation is, of course, that socialists remain who they are, that they do not abandon their goals of helping the class to unite, conquer its political independence, take power, and build socialism.
A substantial number of US workers are either registered Democrats (active or inactive and whatever the membership may mean to them), vote for the Democrats more often than not, and/or are members of unions, civic organizations, etc. that tend to vote for the Democrats. Most members and sympathizers of the Democratic Party are people who live off their work. They are invested in the party, because they feel it advances their interest better than the existing alternatives. Socialists are in no position to demand that these workers abandon the Democratic Party as a prerequisite for political cooperation in struggles that are in the broader class interest. Yet, whatever may happen in the future, political cooperation with the Democrats in these struggles is an opportunity for socialists to be known to and develop direct ties with those workers. Neither does this imply that workers or radical activists should join the Democratic Party. What it means is that in particular junctures, socialists must support resolutely the immediate goals of the Democrats. The same goals may mean different things to different classes. In our times, evicting the Republicans from the government may mean one thing to the Democratic leadership and a completely different thing to workers in the party, outside of the party, and in the rest of the world.
We are for the broader unity of the workers as they are. We don't condition unity with workers to their not being Democrats (just as we don't condition it to their not being racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.). The only precondition to cooperate politically with other workers is that they are willing to act, to take part in struggles to advance the common interests, as long as those struggles are not incompatible with the broader unity of the class. And the latter condition is to be determined concretely, since it depends on how the rest of the class is moving. A policy of class unity is not the same as enabling reformism (or racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) in the class. It's simply accepting that reformism (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) are not problems that can be solved once and for all prior to the broader unity of the class. It's simply recognizing that if these problems are to be tackled seriously, a broader cooperation among the workers will be required. Uniting workers is preparing conditions to actually resolve those ills. Sabotaging the unity of workers, because some groups of workers don't pass a party-membership or ideology test, makes it harder to effectively overcome reformism (etc.).
The Democratic Party is an instrument of the capitalists and we should not expect it to act like something else. But, as suggested above, we should not rule out a priori the possibility that the workers inside the Democratic Party, a majority in it, as they become increasingly aware of their class interests, seek to reform it and turn it into a more effective vehicle for them to advance their class interests. It is an abstract possibility, but we don't need to exclude it beforehand. By so doing, we are not "fostering illusions" that the Democratic Party is reformable, because we are in no position to dissolve it ipso facto. What to expect from a political formation under the financial and organic control of the capitalists must be duly spelled out in the socialist propaganda. But, again, we should never confuse propaganda with agitation. Our agitation is an immediate call to tactical action. In the tactical realm, responsibilities are necessarily personalized. The propaganda is aimed to clarifying the nature of a hardened social or political formation and the type of agency required to transform it. In the propaganda, individuals are mainly dealt with as "the personification of social categories, embodiments of particular class interests"; so they cannot be deemed fully responsible for relations over which they exercise little control.
Political formations -- like societies in general -- are not immune to change. When the surrounding social conditions change drastically, political formations either adapt or lose ground. If Democratic workers wage a campaign to reform their party and turn it into a more effective vehicle of their class struggles, and to that extent, we should support them resolutely. It's not up to outsiders to decide what the workers inside of the party should do. To look at this issue, I propose a simple analogy: If a personal computer crashes, what does a reasonable person usually do? Does she dump it and buy a new one from the first seller she encounters? No. A reasonable person troubleshoots and looks for an economical solution. Perhaps he hasn't learned how to use an application properly. Maybe it's the software, the RAM memory, or the hard disk. Only after all options have been exhausted and he persuades himself that a new machine is the solution, he'll let go of the old one. It may take him months, if not years, to decide. If we were to advise him to dump the old computer and buy a new one from us, what will his likely reaction be? It doesn't matter if we have insistently advertised the advantages of our new machine against the type of computer he owns; most likely, he'd think it's risky to buy from strangers. Wouldn't he rather trust somebody who sits with him and patiently helps him troubleshoot or, at least, doesn't get in the way of his troubleshooting? Why should we expect less from workers historically invested in an old political formation like the Democratic Party?
Short-End-of-Stick, Shift-to-the-Right, and Two-Sides-of-the-Coin Objections
Some radicals argue that if socialists make explicit their intention to cooperate with the Democrats, then the Democrats will take them for granted and give them the short end of the stick in any political alliance. "Lesser evilism" redounds in the greater evil -- it is argued. This argument assumes that clever short-distance political maneuvering can offset the structural disadvantages of a divided class. It doesn't and it won't. Ultimately, alliances are trades in power. Even if there is a premium on political cleverness, if the workers start with little power, they will generally end up with little power after any political deal is consummated. The ultimate source of the socialists' power is changing minds for the long run. The political cooperation with the Democrats is only a way to ensure that the effort undertaken changing minds at the micro level is leveraged most effectively. To the extent the Democrats lead or take part in key struggles compatible with the broader unity of the class, we must cooperate with them. And this is a relative situation, i.e., with respect to the Republicans.
It is often argued that the Democrats have shifted to the right, at least since the first Reagan presidency, and that such shift precludes cooperating with them. However, their shift -- like the Republicans' extremism -- is primarily a symptom. The ultimate cause is a set of adverse structural forces that have promoted greater disunity among workers. The Democratic Party is the measles stage in the evolution of the US working class. To attack the disease, we need to work primarily on the ultimate cause and not on the symptom. At the symptomatic level, on the surface of political life, we must pick our battles very carefully so that our impact on the ultimate source of the problem is most effective. Instead of colliding against the fortress of the two-party system, we assail its weakest flank: the Republican reactionary agenda. We isolate the most vicious manifestations of capitalist rule, now dominant in the government, and concentrate our attacks on them. We understand that there is a structural connection between the most vicious forms of capitalist rule and the general class content of capitalist rule, but clarifying this connection is a long-run educational, propagandistic task. It's not an agitational move. Our tactical discourse supports, doesn't undo, our strategy. Strategically, we gradually build our educational infrastructure and let it do its work. At the same time, we aim our tactical discourse, our agitation, not at the two-party system, the Democratic Party, or capitalism -- but at the reactionary policy agenda of the Republicans.
The Democrats have shifted to the right, but right and left are relative positional terms. The Republicans are on the extreme right, predominate in all levels of government, have real power, and are wielding it very aggressively. A common reply to making the distinction between the two parties is that their political roles are interrelated: two sides of the same coin. That is a matter of course. But there's also interdependence between capitalists and workers under capitalism. Capital and wage labor cannot exist without each other: two sides of the same coin. Yet, it doesn't follow from this that socialists should ignore the economic struggle of workers because it doesn't immediately collide with the capital-wage labor relation or, worse, that the workers should fight against one another. Of course, workers need to abolish wage slavery, but that can only be the outcome of a long struggle that starts by the workers standing up against capital within the framework of their mutual interdependence with the capitalists, asserting their particular economic interests against those of their bosses, even though their immediate economic interests don't transcend the capital-wage labor relation.
The interplay between Republicans and Democrats in the US political system (like the interplay between labor and capital under capitalism) has two aspects: it is a unity of opposites, but also a conflict between the poles of the unity, latent or overt. Of course, the US workers need to discard the two main political parties of the capitalist class. But, as a class struggling to conquer its political independence, the workers start by taking a stance within the framework of the two-party system. The political kabuki played by Republicans and Democrats is a unity of opposites, but it is also a conflict in spe. Our role is to sharpen the conflict, to isolate the most vicious side from the rest, concentrate the fire on it, and pursue a strategy that ensures that the progressive pole of the conflict ends up transformed as well. And by this I mean that, at first, the opposition to the Republican Party will be embedded in a "liberal-," reformist-led coalition, but that the dynamics of the process doesn't have to end where the capitalist interests in the Democratic Party want it to end.
If we use the actual behavior of the bulk of the classes as our criterion (as opposed to the ideology of socialists), the conflict immediately at the center of US political life is not one between capitalism and socialism. It cannot be, because the US working class is not developed enough to set itself such task. That may be the dream of socialists, but it is far from being a collective, immediate need felt by the workers. People cannot solve problems when they are unaware, or only vaguely aware, of their existence.
Observation indicates that the conflicts at the center of the country's political life are between, on the one hand, imperialist aggression driven by state power and, on the other hand, "neoliberal globalization" driven by corporations and markets. Or between the reality of a plutocratic, proto-fascist, parasitic model of capitalism and the illusion of a "decent, democratic, liberal" kind of capitalism. In these conflicts, socialist workers must take sides. These -- and not precooked "transitional programs" -- are the real battles we are forced to wage. If we don't take part and claim leadership in these social conflicts, we cannot ever expect to lead US society. The role of socialists is to exacerbate these conflicts between sectors of the ruling class and encourage workers committed to the democratic side to push their struggle all the way through. Workers under the illusion that it is possible for the US society to become a "decent, democratic, liberal" society are not our enemy. If under such motivation they oppose the occupation of Iraq and Bush's assault on their living and working conditions, they are moving in the right direction and we need to cooperate with them resolutely.
Today, the workers are weak and divided and the rulers are strong and united. We want the exact opposite: our class united and the rulers divided, their self-confidence shattered. The "insignificant" differences between the rulers are significant to us. We make them significant. We sharpen the differences between Democrats and Republicans, and between the social base of support of the Democratic Party and its privileged, opportunistic leadership. We draw wedges in the fault lines. The advancement of our class depends on two things: internal class unity and ability to reach out to non-working class forces that move in our direction in particular junctures, in order to isolate and divide the rulers. The workers in the Democratic Party are more inclined to participate in struggles that are in the interest of their class. This has been demonstrated in the opposition to the war on Iraq and the defense of social programs. Due to the party's social composition and current ideological outlook, the members and supporters of the Democratic Party are better disposed to working-class action and unity than, say, the Republicans. And that is another reason why the political cooperation with the Democrats is tactically necessary.
What is the "exit strategy"? When will the policy of political cooperation with the Democrats expire? When the workers have either reformed the party and turned it into something else, an effective instrument of their struggle, or when they have found in mass that it's more economical to discard it altogether and start or join (an)other political formation(s). When the workers discard Democratic "liberalism" in their attitudes and collective behavior. When the Democratic leadership refuses to take part in struggles compatible with the broader unity of the class. Or when it has shifted so much to the right that the bulk of the class sees no difference between their policies and those of the Republicans. When the workers' movement has educated itself and acquired organizational forms that enable it to challenge capitalist rule as a whole. And when those conditions are ripe, we will know.