Socialists and the electoral arena: in response to Sophia Burns

by Louis Proyect on August 30, 2016

halstead boutelle

Fred Halstead and Paul Boutelle versus William F. Buckley in 1968

The first two paragraphs of Sophia Burns’s article struck a chord with me, especially the reference to mass demonstrations as a way of raising political consciousness and as an alternative to the dreary election cycles we endure every four years when the bourgeoisie gets to pick its next White House puppet. We may have the right to vote but not the right to decide policy. We pull the lever and they pull the strings. I learned that in 1965 with my first and last vote for a Democrat who had assured voters that “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

Within two years I had joined the Socialist Workers Party and threw myself into building mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, a major focus of the group. What I did not expect was the near collapse of the movement in 1968 when the other groups and individuals associated with the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam essentially pulled out of street actions and put all their energy into electing Eugene McCarthy or Robert F. Kennedy. I became convinced that the antiwar movement was dead and doubted party leaders who said that activities would pick up after the elections when the war was certain to continue. As it turned out, they were right—one of the last times in fact. After the antiwar movement did come to an end because of the final victory of the Vietnamese themselves, the party went into a crisis of perspectives that finally led to its virtual extinction.

As it happens, the SWP ran its own campaign in 1968, with Fred Halstead and Paul Boutelle as presidential and vice presidential candidates. Like many other people who were expelled or resigned out of disagreements with the party’s misconceived “turn to industry”, Boutelle continued to be politically active as Kwame Somburu who received a dedication by Colin Jenkins in a July 13, 2016 North Star article as a scientific socialist, William F. Buckley-slayer, thorn in the side of “mental midgets,” lifelong advocate of “herstory,” mentor, and friend.

The Buckley reference was to an appearance that Halstead and Boutelle made on Firing Line that year in which they mopped the floor with the conservative bully. This appearance and every other one made by the two had narrowly defined purposes: to recruit members and to defend socialism to an audience that was usually beyond our reach. The electoral strategy was the same as every other “Leninist” group, including the Communist Party before it effectively became a wing of the Democratic Party during the New Deal.

The idea of running to win was utterly discounted by the party. For example, when the SWP was at the height of its influence in 1970 I served on the election campaign committee for our slate running in the Cambridge, Massachusetts municipal elections. I am not exactly sure we had the kind of influence Kshama Sawant had in Seattle but it was not far-fetched to think that we might have elected someone to the school board or even city council. But when the idea of “running to win” was broached in a party meeting, there was widespread opposition. We were running to recruit members and influence thinking but considered the idea of winning a seat almost as a reformist illusion.

As orthodox Leninists, we somehow never thought that much about how the Bolsheviks functioned. For Lenin, the idea of getting elected was part of a general strategy to make a revolution in Czarist Russia. He never thought that getting a majority in the Duma would change society, only that having parliamentary representatives might help to build the party and change minds—a view not that much different than our own.

The irony is that Lenin’s general approach to party-building was influenced by the German social democracy as he openly admitted in “What is to be Done”. However, the German party always considered the idea that it could peacefully change society through elections as entirely feasible, especially since it seemed to receive the implicit blessing of Friedrich Engels in his 1881 article “A Working Man’s Party” that was enthusiastic about seats in parliament being won by socialists in Germany and elsewhere.

Despite Engels’s praise of these gains, the best way to characterize Marx and his attitude toward participating in elections was as means to an end—the overthrow of capitalism and its parliamentary system that kept power in the hands of the wealthy.

Probably the best illustration of this approach was Marx’s enthusiastic support of the Chartist movement that simply fought for the right to vote. In the 1840s, when both the bourgeoisie and the working class took part in revolutions against feudal autocracy, Marx and Engels advocated fighting on the side of the bourgeoisie even though it only sought the creation of parliamentary democracy. In perhaps the most relevant article to the political divisions on the left about voting for Democrats in 2016, they wrote an article titled “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League” in 1850 that sounds as if it were a reply to Noam Chomsky on lesser evil voting:

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory.

Even though Karl Kautsky and other German social democratic leaders had in all likelihood read this article, they probably forgot that winning elections was just a means to an end. In 1912 Kautsky wrote that “The objective of our political struggle remains what it has always been up to now: the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position within the state. Certainly not the destruction of state power.” (quoted in “Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938” by Massimo Salvadori) Despite Lenin’s admiration for Kautsky and his defense of the German social democracy as a model for Czarist Russia, his outlook was much closer to the original vision of Marx and Engels.

He understood that a state as repressive as Russia’s would never allow a peaceful transition to socialism even if such illusions were fairly easy to maintain in Germany where a massive socialist movement not only elected parliamentarians but had powerful trade unions and other working class institutions operating legally for the most part. Like Marx and Engels, Lenin thought that having revolutionaries in a parliament complemented street actions especially since they could fight for legislation that would ensure their legality. As a lawyer, Lenin spent many nights pouring through the Czarist legal codes to find loopholes that would make strikes legal. This was consistent with his attitude toward running Bolshevik candidates for the Duma.

As it happens, the breach between the Second International and the Comintern revolved largely around the two opposed perspectives. The Second International continued to believe that socialism could be achieved through electoral means while the Comintern stressed mass insurrectionary offensives that would smash the bourgeois state and replace it with a proletarian dictatorship of the sort exemplified by the Paris Commune or the Soviets. You can get a sense of how urgent the Comintern saw its role in building a worldwide movement from the third of the 21 Conditions required for Comintern membership: “In almost all the countries of Europe and America, the class struggle is entering the phase of civil war. In these conditions, Communists can place no trust in bourgeois legality.”

As the post-1917 revolutionary upsurge subsided, Lenin took a step back and reconsidered the importance of elections even if he continued to believe in the need for smashing the bourgeois state. In his “Left-Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder”, he made the case for supporting the candidates of the discredited social democratic or Labor parties but only as a tactic to win the masses to the mass insurrectionary perspective:

At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner, not only why the Soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised with the signboard of bourgeois “democracy”), but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man—that the impending establishment of a government of the Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.

As a result of the “Third Period” madness of the Comintern following the death of Lenin and the expulsion of nearly all the Communists from the party he founded, the Communist Party in Germany not only refused to urge a vote for their social democratic adversaries but treated them as if they were as another variety of fascism. The ensuing disastrous rise to power of Adolf Hitler led to a 180-degree reversal that culminated in the Popular Front that not only had Communists allied with capitalist parties but adopting the very perspective Kautsky had outlined in 1912, one of achieving political power through elections.

The only exception to the electoral road occurred in situations where it was prohibited at the outset, namely countries ruled by dictators. This included a wide range of revolutionary struggles from China to Vietnam. In El Salvador, there was a powerful peasant movement in 1932 led by the Communist Party leader Farabundo Marti. In the 1980s, I joined the Committee in Solidarity of El Salvador that was providing material aid and political support for the guerrilla movement named in honor of Marti. Little did I suspect at the time that this same movement would eventually become the government of El Salvador in 2009 but would end up presiding over a capitalist state in traditional social democratic fashion. The same thing was true in Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega who had abandoned the revolutionary program of Carlos Fonseca. It would seem that “smashing the state” was not necessarily a guarantee that socialism would be built in Central America or in Vietnam for that matter, the country that had captured my political imagination fifty years ago. Even when the existing state apparatus is replaced by the armed workers, it is not a simple matter to begin the construction of socialism, especially in desperately underdeveloped countries like Nicaragua or Vietnam.

While this bird’s eye view of Marxist electoral strategy cannot begin to do justice to an extremely complex history marked by contradictions, it might help to make my response to Sophia’s article make some sense even if you disagree with part or all of my points. If one of the purposes of North Star is to help build a left in which we can exchange ideas or debate openly without the democratic centralism that bottles them up in self-anointed vanguard groups, my hope is that this exchange can serve as a model. If it falls short of achieving that goal, my apologies in advance.

Sophia writes:

It’s intuitive to think that “integrating political education” – that is, saying many pro-revolution words – can change the way an activity operates. It can’t. Impact and effect come from how something works in practice, not what words are in its supporters’ mouths.

It all depends. On April 22nd, Counterpunch editor Jeff St. Clair wrote an article about the Sanders campaign where he drew attention to lost opportunities:

What might a real movement have done? If Sanders could turn 30,000 people out for a pep rally in Washington Square Park, why couldn’t he have had a flash mob demonstration mustering half that many fervent supporters to shut down Goldman Sachs for a day? If he could lure 20,000 Hipsters to the Rose Garden in Portland, why couldn’t he turn out 10,000 Sandernistas to bolster the picket lines of striking Verizon workers? If Sanders could draw 15,000 people in Austin, Texas, why couldn’t his movement bring 5,000 people to Huntsville to protest executions at the Texas death house? If Sanders could draw 18,000 people to a rally in Las Vegas, why couldn’t he just as easily have lead them in a protest at nearby Creech Air Force Base, the center of operations for US predator drones?

This is exactly what socialist campaigns should do, combine the words of the candidates with action. One of the best examples of that was when Fred Halstead visited Vietnam in 1968, using his status as a presidential candidate to open doors, even to the point of speaking to GI’s about the need to oppose the war and the need to bring them home immediately. His tour fed into the growing antiwar mood among GI’s in Vietnam that would eventually lead to organized protests both “in country” and on demonstrations in the USA that had contingents of uniformed men and women in the front ranks.

Presidential candidates can exploit the attention they get in the mass media to function as “tribunes of the people”. In 2000, I wrote about third party campaigns in the context of Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy. (His running mate in 2004 would be Peter Camejo, whose North Star Network of the early 1980s inspired the launching of this website. Of course, Camejo got the idea for such a name from Frederick Douglass’s newspaper.) In reviewing various election campaigns, I was surprised to see how bold Henry Wallace’s interventions were.

The southern tour had begun peacefully enough in Virginia, despite the existence in that state of a law banning racially mixed public assemblies. In Norfolk, Suffolk, and Richmond, Wallace spoke to unsegregated and largely receptive audiences. But when the party went on into supposedly more liberal North Carolina, where there was no law against unsegregated meetings, the violence started. A near riot preceded his first address, and a supporter, James D. Harris of Charlotte, was stabbed twice in the arm and six times in the back. The next day there was no bloodshed, but Wallace was subjected to a barrage of eggs and fruit, and the crowd of about five hundred got so completely out of control that he had to abandon his speech. At Hickory, North Carolina, the barrage of eggs and tomatoes and the shouting were so furious that Wallace was prevented from speaking, but he tried to deliver a parting thrust over the public address system: ‘As Jesus Christ told his disciples, when you enter a town that will not hear you willingly, then shake the dust of that town from your feet and go elsewhere.’ If they closed their minds against his message, he would, like Jesus Christ, abandon them to their iniquity.  (Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order, Graham White and John Maze)

Sophia makes a point that is hard to disagree with:

The early German Greens went into elections with the express intention that both campaigns and successful candidates would remain subordinate to extra-parliamentary Green activism. They even took concrete steps, like imposing strict term limits on the members (which they later rescinded). They failed. It would have been impossible not to. Running candidates is inherently an all-or-nothing proposition.

Following up on this, it is hard not to wince at another disappointment emerging out of the electoral arena:

But, let’s say you do win the power to govern, not just amend another party’s bills. Syriza did, and while they didn’t attempt socialist revolution, they certainly did try for a policy program that directly opposed what the ruling class wanted. So did Salvador Allende and the Venezuelan chavistas. Arguably, so did Evo Morales and François Mitterrand.

But in government, Syriza, Morales, and Mitterrand went full-on neoliberal. Allende died and Chávez, despite some profoundly exciting experiments and massive improvements in both standards of living and participatory democracy, never really attempted to end capitalism as such. So what happened?

All of this, plus the about faces in Vietnam, Nicaragua and El Salvador referred to above, certainly might lead to the conclusion that running for office is counter-productive. Yet there is another way of looking at this problematic. Isn’t it the case that, as I pointed out above in the three examples just listed, insurrectionary struggles lead to the same impasse? Is there any government in the 20th century that has symbolized resistance to capitalism and imperialism on a more principled basis than Cuba? Didn’t Fidel Castro become the head of a revolutionary government through armed struggle rather than elections? Despite this, Cuba is being forced to adopt economic measures that are concessions to capitalism and that threaten to turn into a model approximating China, just prior to its total abandonment of socialism.

Perhaps the problem is not as much the poisoned apple of the ballot box but the difficulties building socialism in a world dominated by capitalism. In the 1960s, a revolution might have relied on the material aid of the USSR and China, and even the support of social democracies like Sweden. The truth is that Sweden provided more aid to Nicaragua than the USSR ever did, partly a function of the FSLN being a member party of the Socialist International.

In the final analysis, there is no guarantee of ultimate success. James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, was often wrong especially when he tried to apply the mechanical rules of Leninism handed down at the 1924 Comintern world gathering. But he did say one thing that always made sense to me: the art of politics is knowing what to do next.

My interest in the Green Party has never been about its capability of leading a revolutionary struggle against capitalism. I see it as nothing more than a possible framework for uniting the American left outside of the sect world that can maximize its effectiveness by creating a national organization with the power to coordinate mass actions and other forms of extra-parliamentary struggles. Given the ideological backwardness of many Greens, including the jerk who worked to deny the Socialist Party a ballot line in Illinois, there is some doubt that this project can succeed.

My identification with the Greens has a lot to do with the people I know who work with it, including three of the North Star editorial board members as well as leaders such as Howie Hawkins and Bruce Dixon. In my ideal world, the Greens would become a membership organization with a professional staff serving as the nerve center of a radical party that could raise hell every day of the year and not just during election years.

Finally, there is little likelihood that the Greens would ever lead a revolution against capitalism in the USA. That will require the heavy battalions of the working class that despite its social power tends to be quiescent until social and economic forces make it impossible to continue with the status quo. Every indication is that those conditionings to the point of becoming rotten ripe. Our goal should be to help facilitate the organization of a revolutionary movement that creates true democracy of the sort envisioned in the Paris Commune, one based on the participation of the masses in every aspect of the economy and political life as Marx wrote in “The Civil War in France”:

While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society. Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workmen and managers in his business. And it is well-known that companies, like individuals, in matters of real business generally know how to put the right man in the right place, and, if they for once make a mistake, to redress it promptly. On the other hand, nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune than to supercede universal suffrage by hierarchical investiture.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dayne Goodwin August 30, 2016 at 12:31 pm

Winona LaDuke was Ralph Nader’s running mate in 1980, not Peter Camejo.


Dayne Goodwin August 30, 2016 at 12:32 pm

In 2000, not 1980.


Kurt Hill August 30, 2016 at 4:48 pm

Right on, Louis, well done!


Jordan M August 31, 2016 at 9:15 pm

Great response to Sophia. Direct and nuanced, without being self-assured. The comments made in the article regarding “running to win” highlight the current defeatist thinking of much of the Left, where they do not think they can win on the basis of openly honest radical politics. Hence, “running to win” being attached to opportunism, tailism, reformism etc, etc, — selling out. While it is clear to me that this is too often the case, ( In fact, on the flip side, even Socialists who do choose to take serious elections, themselves too believe they must water down their line out of agreement with the electoral skeptics!) I do not believe that this is the only scenario capable of being played out in the near-term. Increasing openings for radical politics must find an honest echo on the Left, otherwise “progressive” Democrats, rightist Greens, and other co-optionary elements will fill the void.

Some of this I touched on previously in a critique I wrote, while then a local member, of Socialist Alternative’s successful run of Kshama Sawant for Seattle City Council against Richard Conlin — who we would do well to not forget was elected as a Green Party member.


Reza August 31, 2016 at 9:30 pm

Thank you Louis! Great rebuttal.

For too long the *western* left has posed a couple of false dichotomies: revolution v. reform; parliamentarianism v. the street.

As a result, the left has split between two factions: one for the street and revolution, and the other for elections and reforms. Neither approach has got us any closer to a fundamental transformation of how human societies should be organized on a more equitable basis. As a species, we are getting increasingly more barbaric towards our own kind, and exponentially more destructive of our physical/environmental conditions of living. Anybody who believes in science and rational thinking can conclude that the left’s split over this matter of “revolution or reform; parliament or the street” has failed and it’s time to reconsider our fundamental premises. It’s time to think, ‘reform AND revolution’; ‘the parliament AND the street’.

Here’s another angle: Why is it that the ‘revolution and the street’ faction of the U.S. left feels the necessity to intervene in the political discourse surrounding elections, which they consider to be the realm of ‘reform and parliamentarianism’, and therefore irrelevant and not their thing? Is it rational to intervene (which is a form of participation) in the electoral social discourse to only recommend not participating in the process?

For a political person, election cycles should be treated as if they were ‘the best of times’. The ‘revolution and the street’ faction is by its very nature (it is a political animal after all) is compelled to intervene in the discussion. They cannot escape the gravity for a reason.

The obvious political fact is that, every four years it becomes OK to discuss politics at the family dinner table! In offices, in households, on buses and trains and at bus stops, it is OK to talk politics with total strangers, as you would with family members alike. It is the topic that dominates the news. What political person can stop themselves from participating in this discussion?

Yet, the ‘revolution and the street’ left shows up every four years to tell millions of people, in effect, NOT to talk about political choices! Is that rational?


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