What Do Some Socialists Want?

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

Charles Sarkis

IT IS NOT ONLY Democratic Party bosses that have been left in disarray by the Jackson campaign. There is a large part of the predominantly white left, including the predominantly white socialist left, whose plans have not fared much better than the Super-Tuesday Southern primary that was supposed to insure the Democrats an acceptably conservative nominee.

The “white fright” that the Michigan caucus result brought into the open has been matched by a certain hysteria on the far edges of the Democratic Socialists of America and in the columns of In These Times (see John Judis, “New Page in Left History of Failure,” Jan. 13-19, 1988). Those advocating abstention from the Rainbow and Jackson campaign have also grown quiet.

All this makes that much more imperative Joanna Misnik’s call for “all the left, Rainbow and non-Rainbow… to analyze events fraternally and discuss strategy together in an atmosphere of mutual respect for our common anti-capitalist objectives.” (Misnik, “The Rainbow: Storm Clouds Ahead?” ATC 11, Nov.-Dec. 1987). We of Freedom Road Socialist Organization appreciate ATCs initiative in organizing a part of that debate.

To make any practical difference, such a debate needs to do two things. It has to arrive at a common framework for discussion, so that we don’t talk past each other. And within that framework, it has to get as specific as possible. With the terms set, we can begin to sift the evidence on each side.

This article tries to set some terms for how that discussion can take place, and concentrates on two positions: that of socialists opposed to participation in the Jackson campaign, as represented by Against the Current articles; and that of socialists involved in the campaign and in the Rainbow.

The non-participation position needs to demonstrate three things:

1) Your argument must be specific to the issue. The argument against participation in the Jackson campaign/Rainbow cannot simply be an argument against electoral politics in any form. If that is the argument, then a different discussion must be had. You must instead address yourselves to socialist work with and within the Jackson campaign.

You have not met the test of this point by simply saying that of course you support independent left­ wing candidates such as Bernie Sanders (see Robert Brenner, Warren Montag and Charlie Post, “The Elections and the Left,” Against the Current 4/5, Sept/Oct 1986, 53-59). You must make a specific argument against Rainbow participation that is not at the same time an argument against any electoral participation.

The main strategic argument of Misnik’s piece is a bad example of addressing this point: “… We cannot afford an inside-outside strategy, since there is nothing for ‘us’ to be inside. All efforts to shift the social relation of forces  — from the rise of the CIO to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War victories — have had only one recourse to empowerment: the outside, the transitory social movements that have directly confronted the governing institutions from which historically our class interests have been locked out.”

Notice that this is not an argument against Rainbow participation; it is an argument against any electoral participation — no independent campaign could claim to shift the relation of forces by itself-and in favor of building “transitory social movements … directly confront[ing] governing institutions.”

Other bad examples: “Straight through to the convention, the not-really Democrats will be fighting for space against heavy odds” (Misnik). Long odds are not an argument against anything socialists do.

Or,” … In the short period of an electoral campaign it is simply not feasible to try to call such [mass] movements into existence” (Brenner, Montag and Post). This is an argument against any form of electoral participation in a period in which movements of acceptable mass are deemed not to exist This includes independent electoral campaigns designed to “precipitate breaks from the Democratic Party, with the long-term goal of creating more or less permanent pre-party organizations outside the Democratic Party” (Brenner et al.). Third party movements cannot work in the absence of powerful mass movements to sustain them.

2) The argument must be comparative. It is not enough to say what participation in the Rainbow has not accomplished nor what its disadvantages are. You must demonstrate what more important things, which would have accomplished more and had fewer dis, advantages, did not get done because we have put energies into the Jackson campaign.

The framework for this comparison is a socialist one. But the comparison must be between real policy alternatives, and not simply a repetition of the socialist abstentionist argument in slightly disguised form (that is, since the Jackson/Rainbow campaign in principle has sown illusions among the masses, those socialists who participated in it could have used their time better doing almost anything that was explicitly revolutionary, like explaining the principles of Bolshevism to interested on-lookers).

A start on arguments that would meet this test, although both irrelevant to Jackson (and so would fail point #1): that involvement with the Democratic Party leadership helped wreck the freeze movement in the early 1980s; and that NOW leadership maneuvering in high Democratic circles cost the ERA ratification precious momentum in the 1970s. Since participation in the Jackson campaign must also meet the comparative test, I’ll withhold further comment.

3) You must prove that later defeats necessarily define earlier victories. For example, we view the absence of an AFL-CIO endorsement as an important step in creating a more pluralist union movement, which in tum can more effectively blunt the corporate offensive. We also have seen Jackson give an important boost to the Jay, Maine, paperworkers’ strike against the International Paper Company, just as he has visibly supported most of the cutting edge of labor struggles in the past four years.

Suppose that at the Democratic Convention, Jackson, having been denied the nomination, gets few or no programmatic or rule concessions and still backs the Democratic nominee. That later defeat for populist politics does not by itself prove that the advantages labor struggles got from Jackson and his campaign were illusory, any more than the defeat the Rainbow suffered at the 1984 Convention prevented the 1988 campaign from significantly changing the country’s political climate.

Tests for Rainbow Socialists

We judge participation in the Jackson campaign by the following criteria:

1) A year and a half ago, an article defined winning in the U.S. electoral context as “disorganizing right-wing realignment, and organizing a progressive realignment.” (Sarkis, “For Fire Next Time: Jackson Needs Labor … almost as Much as Labor Needs Jackson,” Forward Motion, Oct-Dec. 1986).

The first test of the Jackson campaign is a broader political one centered on the national picture: Did Jackson’s campaign disorganize right-wing realignment and help organize progressive realignment?

We think there is little question that in the short term Jackson’s campaign significantly blunted the rightward movement of the Democratic Party and gave a new sense of political possibility to the social movements. When Jesse Jackson wins Democratic primaries in states of the former Confederacy or Alaska, when he piles up significant numbers in states from Washington to Maine, we all — abstentionists included — think more like players in U.S. politics.

2) The second test concerns the social movements. Rainbow socialists must show that the Jackson campaign and left-wing participation in it left issue-oriented movements in better or at least no worse shape than before the campaign. Specifically, did Jackson’s candidacy leave important labor battles, the Black movement, antiwar work, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movements, farmers’ struggles, and other major movements stronger or weaker?

One way toward deciding this is to look at whether Jackson relates to his mass constituency as members of these movements, or simmply as
atomized individual followers of his campaign. The evidence here seems overwhelming that Jackson relates to his electoral constituency as members of related movements.

For years now, Jackson has typically come to a state, sought out the leaders of social movements, and marched, protested or demonstrated with them. By demonstrating in the streets, on picket lines or in dusty rural towns, Jackson reinforces the identification of his voters as people who should demonstrate and links electoral campaigning to non-electoral campaigning.

There is very little evidence to say that Jackson disorganizes people’s identification with social movements. What he does is give them a broader political identification as part of a popular, pluralist and activist coalition that is greater than simply the sum of social movements and their lists of demands.

3) The third test is again comparative. If we agree that Jackson’s candidacy disorganized right-wing realignment or strengthened (in ways to be detailed) important social movements, we still must demonstrate that the same or better results would not have occurred had the Rainbow’s left thrown its energies into those movements directly for the relatively brief period of the campaign.

This is probably the most contentious issue because it is such a difficult one to measure. But some attempt at measurement is what the socialist left needs in order to arrive at a new programmatic unity on these issues and, through that unity, at other kinds of unity.

It is no good saying that the independent social movements would have jumped forward by leaps and bounds except that the Rainbow left went into the Jackson campaign. At that level, we can as easily say that the Jackson campaign or the Rainbow would have worked better, would have been more independent in its relations with the corporate Democrats, if Solidarity and other socialist friends had joined us in it. There have to be other tests.

Brenner, Montag and Post rightly point out that an electoral campaign is a brief period. If we ask where social movements were before Jackson’s run-in spring of 1987, to be generous-and then try to extrapolate from that to the fall of 1988, we have one basis for measuring what was lost to Jackson’s campaign.

Jackson has run at a time when almost all social movements have been at a low ebb and in which the pace of political events is slow. He did not run at a time when ruling class hegemony was threatened from below or when there was some perceived need to integrate and domesticate the left.

A key example: despite much impressive material solidarity work with Nicaragua and EI Salvador, the antiwar movement has not succeeded in upping the social and political costs of U.S. aggression in Central America. Jackson is the only candidate who does not accept the ruling-class consensus about the Sandinistas. He demonstrated with the anti-intervention movement in Washington in April 1987, as he did with the gay and lesbian movements last October. A representative of the Salvadoran FMLN was present for the main rally of the October 1987 Rainbow Convention. The antiwar movement has gained from Jackson’s candidacy, not lost.

Ultimately evaluations of Jackson’s campaign turn on more than views about the Democratic Party; they also involve analyses of the sources of ruling-class power and working-class weakness in this country. Some of our differences with Against the Current’s perspective on Jackson stem from very different ideas about these subjects. It’s never too early to get started on that debate. And it’s not too late for socialists to get involved with Rainbow work.

July-August 1988, ATC 15