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"To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a...revolutionary act"
Antonio Gramsci, L’Ordine Nouvo, 1919
The left needs to come to its senses about the 2004 election. Some thoughtful analysis has appeared on ZNet and elsewhere, but it seems that too much commentary is coming to reflect the regrettable polarization into a “more-radical-than-thou” camp and a “more-sensible-than-thou” camp, one of the most unfortunate setbacks for the left since the fall of Barcelona. It’s a real shame, because there is a great need for serious strategic analysis today, and the often dogmatic and sectarian quibbling over Kerry is a real obstacle to creating the kind of unified left that is so necessary in the United States. Last year, we were able to unite into the strongest anti-war movement in human history; what the hell happened?
I have a lot of respect for Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo; I think the attacks on them as egomaniacs and fanatics are simply rude, and the attempts to keep them off the ballot are disgusting and undemocratic. At the same time, I am extremely skeptical about the usefulness of their campaign. It is telling that many Marxist-Leninist organizations support Nader/Camejo, combining Lenin’s authoritarian vanguardism with what he himself described as the “infantile disorder” of ignoring concrete questions of political power. The fact that Nader/Camejo are running independently instead of focusing on building a grassroots third party makes it clear that their ticket reproduces what could perhaps be termed “infantile Leninism.”
It is clear that some people are voting Nader/Camejo in an honorable attempt to remain committed to their principles; however, questions of principle cannot be divorced from questions of strategy. We know Ralph Nader will not win, and I think we can agree that John Kerry will not kill as many people as Bush. In principle, that is good enough reason to hope he gets into office, but it goes further. If we don’t have to try to prevent unilateral aggressive wars, we can bring our attention to the military-industrial complex and US imperialism throughout the world. If we don’t have to fight the criminalization of abortion, we can fight for reasonable sex education, welfare for women doing the hard job of raising children, and the rights of all women to have control over their bodies and their lives. If we don’t have to halt attacks on affirmative action, we can work against the long-standing system of economic apartheid and the cultural suppression of people of color. The list goes on.
Many progressives understand this, and urge us to support Kerry, but I find that they often run into another problem. Michael Moore’s recent article is a good example. Moore gives an effective critique of the media and left pessimism, and points out the importance of getting Bush out of office--but nowhere does he mention the importance of building a movement beyond the election.
Let me say up front that I admire Michael Moore. He has brilliantly brought a left perspective to a mass audience and in that sense he is a model for activists. But his rather meek request that Kerry return to his hippie roots, placed next to his demand that we not criticize him, is a very dangerous move. The reason that electing Kerry will have a long-term benefit for the American progressive movement is that he will open up more space for creating meaningful social change. But this will only happen if we show him that Americans are angry and are willing to fight AGAINST him--not by stating openly, as many progressives have done, that we’ll vote for him as long as his name isn’t George W. Bush. Knowing that Michael Moore and the rest of the progressive community will vote for him anyway, he is free to ignore us and pander to the corporate interests that fund him.
There is a great danger in simply dissolving our differences with John Kerry, because life will go on after November. Will activism? I hope so, but the current rhetoric makes me afraid that once Kerry has won, people will simply celebrate and return to comfortable complacence. Teresa Heinz Kerry came to speak at Penn State University and about 3,000 people came to watch or stand outside in support of the Democratic Party and the ideology of celebrity. But the Human Rights Film Series, a grassroots effort by and for Penn State’s activist community, is lucky to get 100 people to come to its screenings, even after heavy advertising with limited resources. Where are the other 2,900 progressives? Moore and other progressives understand that we should take the advantages of a Kerry presidency for granted; but without focusing on building an anti-capitalist movement beyond the election, we will sell ourselves far too short.
The fundamental problem here is that both sides fall into the same trap of assigning elections much more importance than they are due. Yes, Bush stole the election last time, and yes, corporations have too much power over politics; these are both important issues. But the real problem with our electoral system is that it reduces political decision-making to choosing bureaucrats to make decisions for us; and in the end, elections function as an ideological tool to delude us into thinking that we have any control over the political process. The low level of voter participation shows that most people haven’t been fooled.
So until we can create a genuinely participatory democracy--which building a third party and effecting electoral reforms would be minor steps towards--let’s just take the elections at their face value. It’s impossible to make any real or important changes with an election, whether it is John Kerry or Ralph Nader or Peter Kropotkin on the ballot; that’s not what elections are for. The only reasonable approach for radicals to take is to hold our noses and try to prevent the kind of damage another Bush term will do, and focus our energy on what really matters: building a grassroots movement in the United States by moving politics out of the polls and onto the streets.
As both Naomi Klein and Ted Glick have pointed out, another Bush term would make movement-building extremely difficult. But we must be utterly clear about this: we cannot think of getting rid of Bush, much less building a movement, unless we tell the truth about the Democrats and articulate our goals with intellectual rigor. Chomsky points out that ignoring the differences between Bush and Kerry will make people think that activists don’t care about how ordinary people are affected by an election. This is a crucial point, but there is one further complication. To a population whipped up in fear by a media that pushes issues of concrete importance out of political discourse and deluges its viewers with misinformation, it is not clear Bush’s fanatical policies will be more harmful than Kerry’s.
This is due to two failures of the left. The first is that we have allowed the issue of capitalism to drop out of public discourse. We have not adequately addressed economic issues in terms of class, we have not brought attention to the unjust structure of the workplace, and we have not demonstrated a way to overcome capitalism. Michael Albert’s revolutionary proposal for participatory economics, which is getting overwhelming attention among the European left, is perhaps the first attempt to render democratic socialism into something comprehensible and concrete, something that can actually be put into practice, something that can actually be proposed to people who want to know how we can build an economy that isn’t based on exploitation and class hierarchy. AND THE AMERICAN LEFT ISN’T PAYING ANY ATTENTION! Economic issues are perhaps the area in which the American people are furthest to the left. Business Week polls show that 95% of the population thinks business has too much power. Two-thirds of American adults think that Marx’s dictum “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” is in the Constitution. If we had anything close to a decent left in this country, we would have had a revolution already! But we don’t even have a labor movement. A cursory examination of history will teach us that a vibrant labor movement is the most basic element of radical politics.
But even this is not enough--which brings us to the second failure. Wilhelm Reich wrote, in an attempt to understand how the fascists took power in Germany, “While we presented the masses with superb historical analyses and economic treatises on the contradictions of imperialism, Hitler stirred the deepest roots of their emotional being.” And while we spend all our time meticulously dissecting in exactly which speech Bush lied about what, the American right (today’s fascist movement) has been able to convince the American working class that they have its interests at heart by appealing to issues that affect people in their everyday lives: family, religion, culture, security, etc. It is their personal lives that people value the most, but the left has failed to remember the old feminist slogan that “the personal is political”; it has ignored the rich theory preceding and following the New Left that sought to extend revolution to culture and everyday life. Even the populist Michael Moore argues in his recent book that teenagers shouldn’t have sex, thereby guaranteeing that no teenager who reads that book will ever listen to him again. A radical movement is about developing public spaces to foster human interaction based on solidarity and diversity; as Henri Lefebvre put it, revolution is about turning “everyday life into a work of art.” But it seems the left can only speak about elections with any passion.
The left has been unable to appeal to a pissed-off working class because it has failed to address capitalism and demonstrate that “another world is possible.”
So let us, as revolutionaries, follow the dictum above, and be truthful to ourselves and the American people. Buying into the corporate media’s empty debates and ignoring the issues that we should pay attention to on the left makes us seem like hypocrites. People know that politicians are corrupt bastards; that’s why they don’t vote! If we try to paint John Kerry as some kind of beautiful hero, people will not trust us. But if we can effectively argue that getting Bush out of office is part of a wider program of what Andre Gorz called “non-reformist reforms” directed towards radical change, we will demonstrate that we are committed to the issues that matter to the majority of the population. Why is there so much resistance to being honest about this? Surely Michael Moore does not think the American people are too stupid to understand that we can vote for Kerry and still struggle against the corrupt system that he represents. Surely we are all committed to building critical consciousness and creating a broader base for radical politics.
If being leftists means spending all our time sniping each other about an election we shouldn’t bother thinking twice about, leave me out. But if it means struggling to build a new society, a society that realizes the promises of freedom and justice, we’ve got a lot of important work to do. As Gramsci said, “It is necessary with bold spirit and in good conscience to save civilization… Are we not ready?”