The Problem Is Electoralism

Against the Current, No. 15, July/August 1988

Wayne Price

THE PROBLEM WITH Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition is not simply their participation in the Democratic Party. It is the orientation to electoralism as such. Jackson believes that the main way to advance the movement is to run in elections, get elected to office and do the best job he can to manage this government. All of which is very unlikely to work. This country is not run by elections.

The movement around the Jackson candidacy is exciting to see: a Black-led movement, calling for alliances with other oppressed groups and causes, raising programs to the left of the Reagan/Democratic Party consensus. As such, it is one part (certainly not the only one) of the upsurge in popular struggle. That it begins with reformist leadership is only to be expected.

The limitations are also well known to readers of Against the Current. Despite attempts to build an organization, the campaign remains a star vehicle, in the style of U.S. electoral campaigns. Jackson’s program is mildly liberal, completely inadequate to the crisis this society is facing. Jackson, a strong supporter of capitalism, believes that more Black-owned businesses will significantly help Black people.

His history of personal opportunism is well known (especially in Chicago). He has let slip moderately anti-Semitic statements, which have had the effect among others of hurting the cause of Palestinian liberation. His actual goal is to make himself a power broker, respected by the establishment. He sincerely believes, no doubt, that this will further the interests of Black people and other working people.

The electoral strategy is elitist through and through. A movement is organized whose aim is to put one person into office. He or she will then “represent” us, will be political for us, and will be our savior. Jackson is a liberal elitist, he chooses to build an electoral movement-as op­ posed to community or workplace organizing or focusing on direct action.

Because he is a liberal elitist, he chooses to work within the Democratic Party. This is not a tactical maneuver for him, any more than it is for the establishment Black politicians who now endorse him. Deliberately or not, he works to channel Black unrest into the dead-end of the Democratic Party. He works to persuade all those discontented with the society to trust the political representatives of the capitalist class.

The rest of the Democrats are turning rightward, something which antagonizes many poor and working people and liberals in general. Jackson says to these folks: Do not be disillusioned with the Democratic Party; there is still reason to stick with these politicians of the rich.

From the viewpoint of revolutionary libertarian socialism as understood by the Revolutionary Socialist League, we can respect those who support Jackson. There is certainly no value in “denouncing” those militants with whom we have differences in strategy. We should honestly and openly discuss our disagreements while looking for ways to participate with them in the broader movement.

There is no need, however, to join the Jackson campaign. There is no lack of non-electoral issues to participate in: campaigns around police brutality, racist violence, public discrimination, the appearance of neo-Nazis or the Klan, investments in apartheid, etc., etc. As I write, in the New York City region, there are the Brawley rape case, the aftermath of the Howard Beach attacks, incidents of police brutality, and so on.

None of the actions around these issues has involved electoral activity. The “Days of Rage,” organized by Black militants, involved aggressive demonstrations and direct actions such as shutting down parts of the subways.

It has been our experience that people respond positively to an anti-electoral argument: “We should not trust any of the politicians or parties. We would do better to rely on joint strikes, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and other signs of real power. We should build a coalition which would be able to strike and act together.” Working people may not agree with us, but they respect our views as not being so unreasonable.

In fact, few gains for an oppressed group were ever won primarily through electoral activity. The relative gains of the civil rights/Black liberation struggles of the late ’50s and ’60s were won through “civil disobedience” (that is, law breaking) as well as violent urban rebellions.

The union drives of the ’30s were won with militant strikes, including sit-ins, which have almost disappeared today. The fight against the Vietnamese war included mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, and violent campus rebellions, as well as a virtual mutiny in the U.S. armed forces in the field-and, of course, by the armed struggle of the Vietnamese themselves.

Another lesson of past struggles is that the movement will start off fairly moderate and reformist, but over time large sections will tend to radicalize. This was true of the Black movement which went from nonviolence to the Black Panthers, as it was true of the ’60s youth/antiwar movement. Thousands of young people came to see themselves as revolutionaries. Those left organizations that had simply adapted to the early reformist consciousness were eventually left behind and distrusted.

Unfortunately, most of those revolutionaries identified with the statism of the Cuban or Chinese Stalinists. This time, instead, there are already many militants who regard themselves as anarchists or some sort of anti-authoritarians. The Revolutionary Socialist League believes these radicals are correct on the key issue of opposition to left-wing statism (of the Stalinist or social-democratic variety). We seek to cohere an anti-authoritarian wing of the developing movement. This cannot be done with an electoralist orientation

In any case, the truth must be told. There is no point in being a revolutionary socialist only to tell flattering falsehoods to working people. Those who really believe in Jackson should support him; for us it would be cynical hypocrisy.

Many leftists are living in a dream world. Anne Braden writes: “We are talking about winning. We are aiming for a first ballot nomination in Atlanta in July — and this is indeed possible” (The Guardian, Feb. 10, 1988). She obviously has illusions about the capitalist system, particularly in the racist Democratic Party.

She goes on to criticize those who believe that “power corrupts.” Well, abstract “power” may not corrupt, but it is corrupting to run to win in U.S. elections (as opposed to using elections as a platform to educate people). The consciousness of most U.S. citizens is deeply affected by patriotic chauvinism, racism, sexism, and illusions about the system. To try to capture enough votes to win an election sets distinct limits, in this period at least, on how far outside the current consensus Jackson can go. And Jackson’s support for U.S. capitalism and nationalism shows that he really has no intention of going all that far.

It is further corrupting to go through the election mechanisms of the Democratic Party, the state-run primaries and the media. They function in such a way as to prevent real issues from being discussed. Most corrupting of all for an idealist politician is to be elected! Jackson sincerely wants to run this government, to manage the bureaucratic-military imperialist state machine for the good of all. It cannot be done. From the time of the founding fathers until today, this state has been consciously designed to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful. To try sincerely to run the state means to end up serving its purposes and not your own.

It was corrupting for Bernie Sanders to run to win in Vermont. In order to win he had to promise raises for the cops. To run the capitalist city government, he pushed the pro-business Lakeshore development project. Finally he ended up embracing the Democratic Party, as he had said he never would; endorsing Walter Mondale in 1984, Jackson now, and seeking the endorsement of the Rainbow Coalition.

Another example of the corruption of “winning power” was the election of the French Socialists, led by Francois Mitterrand. He attempted to carry out a liberal/social-democratic program, which was to the left of Jackson’s. However, French capitalism was in recession and could not “afford” it. The French capitalists took their money out of the country and refused to invest in France.

Since Mitterrand was, after all, committed to running a capitalist system, he was forced to back off; his party switched to a program of retrenchment, similar to that of Reagan and Thatcher. At the next election, the French returned the genuine conservatives. Similar lessons can be learned from the election “victories” of the Spanish Socialists or of Andreas Papandreou’s social democrats in Greece.

The worst example is Chile: Salvador Allende’s Socialist-Communist coalition government proposed the mildest of reforms. But they were too much for the Chilean (and U.S.) capitalists, who set off the military coup, which bleeds Chile to this day. To repeat, capitalist democracies are not run by elections.

And what of the far-left socialists, the revolutionaries, in these countries? In every case, most of the far left was caught up in the mass movement, cheering for the popular candidates, and did not tell the truth about the limits of electoralism.

For this reason, we do not call on the Rainbow Coalition to split from the Democrats and form an independent party. We call on it to build a movement, independent of illusions in the capitalist “democratic” state. However, if an independent party were formed-a Black party, “Rainbow party,” Labor party, Green party-we would not necessarily oppose it; we might even participate in it. That depends on circumstances. Nor do we rule out the idea of revolutionaries running in elections, using them as one platform (among others) to raise a revolutionary program. These are tactical questions

But we completely oppose the strategy of electoralism: the idea that liberation can be achieved by running in elections, getting elected, and managing the existing state. Even if we participated in an independent party, we would openly oppose the illusions of its leadership that by winning elections it could save the world. Like the “fundi” (fundamentalist) wing of the West German Greens, we would oppose all alliances with capitalist parties and insist on tying the organization to mass demonstrations and militant actions.

The electoralist strategy is a deadly error. At best it sets us up for a “victory” on the model of France or Chile; more likely for a defeat and call to support the likes of Michael Dukakis. “He is better than Bush,” we will be told and “If you supported Jackson, you can’t pick up your marbles and quit when your candidate loses this round, can you?”

In any event, the job of libertarian socialists is not to pretend that working people are closer to “power” when they could not be further away. Our job is to participate in popular struggles while remaining in opposition to all capitalist politicians and their programs. It is to gather together those who oppose all statist solutions and are prepared to rely on popular mobilizations rather than on a bourgeois hero of the moment.

July-August 1988, ATC 16

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *