The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 81 (Supplement) (Summer 2008)
In the face of spreading economic crisis and the interminable horror of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, millions across the United States and billions across the globe hope the current presidential elections will bring them relief.
The bitter truth is that those hopes will be dashed. Despite their differences, the Republicans’ John McCain and the Democrats’ Barack Obama share a common loyalty to the capitalist system and to the interests of the American imperialist ruling class in particular. They can offer the working-class and poor people of the world only more wars, oppression and exploitation.
The world’s current economic downturn is no ordinary cyclical recession to be suffered through on the way to another boom. For decades, stagnating industrial profit-making at the heart of the capitalist system has been covered by speculative bank loans and stock market investments. This year, hundreds of millions of people face outright famine because of escalating food prices. In the United States alone, several million working-class families – including about one-third of all Black and Latino homeowners – will lose their homes through foreclosures. As well, the upward rush of oil prices has shaken economies of many countries, rich and poor.
Meanwhile, Wall Street and financiers around the world are discovering that their mortgage-based holdings aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. The deepening crisis threatens to spur more conflict internationally, as the world’s major powers look to carve out and defend competing spheres of economic domination. The U.S.’s drive to control oil distribution is behind not only the Iraq war (see for example “Stop U.S. Imperialist War on Iraq!” in Proletarian Revolution No. 65, Fall 2002); it is also the background to U.S. ally Georgia’s reckless and brutal assault on separatist South Ossetia in the Caucasus. Imperialist Russia’s devastating counter-attack and semi-occupation of Georgia exposed how battered U.S. power and prestige have become.
At home, with the guidance and support of whoever wins the presidency, the capitalists will seek to make the working class sacrifice to try to maintain their profits. The strategy of whoever wins the imperial presidency will include wholesale attacks on jobs, wages and social services. And as always, the ruling class will foster divide-and-conquer racism and national chauvinism to ensure that those attacks target Blacks, Latinos and immigrants most of all.
Today’s widespread illusions in electoral solutions will over time give way to the realization on the part of the working class that they can only rely on their own power to defend their living conditions. Mass struggles against imperialism and capitalist exploitation will rise in the neo-colonial “third world.” In protests, strikes and rebellions, the class struggle will also return with a fury to capitalism’s heartland in the imperialist powers. Those mass struggles will put on the agenda the only possible solution to capitalism’s descent toward barbarism: working-class revolutions that seize state power from the capitalists, overturn the system’s drive for profit and set about building a communist world of abundance and freedom for all.
In the U.S. today, only small numbers of workers and youth see through the lies presented by both bourgeois political parties and sense the need for a revolutionary solution. But such politically far-sighted workers and youth have to join together now to lay the foundation for the revolutionary party leadership the working class needs to show it the way to victory. The League for the Revolutionary Party is dedicated to building this leadership through a combination of Marxist study and analysis and intervention in the struggles of our class. Our goal is the re-creation of a revolutionary Fourth International, a world party of socialist revolution, and the construction of a revolutionary party in the U.S. as a section of it.
At first glance there would seem to be great differences between McCain and Obama. The Republican dinosaur McCain seems to represent the worst of the Bush Administration’s past. On foreign policy, he plays up his military history and has made wholesale support of the Iraq War a signature issue. On domestic concerns, McCain has made tax cuts and corporate welfare for the bosses his priority. Obama, on the other hand, has cast himself as the candidate of “change.” He spoke out against the invasion of Iraq as a “dumb war” – although he has voted to fund its continuation ever since being elected to Congress. And he speaks of the plight of working-class and poor people with more apparent concern than his rival.
But Obama and McCain’s agreement on fundamental policies far outweigh their differences:
The only people who may see the change they want from these elections are the U.S. ruling class. Eight years of George W. Bush’s Presidency have seen the global power of the U.S. ruling class greatly weakened. Our lead article in PR 81 spelled out the needs and fears of the ruling class and the “change” they hope for:
The big capitalists and their agents openly express fear that more of the naked imperialism that defined the Bush years will trigger greater struggles of the oppressed abroad, threatening their investments from the Middle East to South America. They hope the next administration will extract the U.S. from its disastrous war in Iraq without surrendering its domination of the region. They want to see America’s image restored by a president who will cover the iron fist of its military power in the velvet glove of a little more diplomacy.
Similarly at home, the rulers worry that the chasm between them and the increasingly desperate working class will spark a return to the protests, strikes and riots that have rocked this country in previous times of war and economic crisis. They hope that a presidency with a “kinder, gentler” image will avoid provoking upheavals – and continue the erosion of working-class incomes and living conditions that feeds their profits. And if workers and youth are convinced that rich and poor alike are part of a movement for “change,” all the better.
For these reasons, much of the American ruling class has been throwing its support behind Obama as representing change they can believe in. But Obama’s election is far from certain. His victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries was certainly evidence of improved racial attitudes among many white Americans. But racism remains widespread, and a sizable minority of white Americans will never vote for a Black candidate. This anti-Black racism is unfortunately echoed even by some sectors of the Latino population, who are victims of racism themselves.
While McCain pretends to be above stoking racial fears, his campaign continues to do just that, covering references to Obama’s race and his father’s Muslim religion with attacks on his supposed lack of patriotism and references to Obama as “ambitious” and “arrogant,” code words for “uppity.”
A more powerful factor threatening Obama’s electoral chances, however, is his reluctance to address the concerns of the majority of voters – the working class and poor. For example, New York Times columnist and Democratic stalwart Paul Krugman complained of the Obama campaign’s “inclination to go for the capillaries rather than the jugular” in attacking the Republicans’ economic policies. (Aug. 17.) Of course, Krugman does not want Obama to appeal to the working class to struggle against its exploitation by the capitalists. Rather, he longs for what he calls the “hard-hitting populism” of Bill Clinton, who in his first presidential campaign asserted that “those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft, and those who cut corners and cut deals have been rewarded.” Such populist rhetoric echoes the rightful sense of injustice felt by workers and poor people, but it aims to renew faith in capitalism by falsely promising to restore the fairness the system supposedly once had.
The reason for Obama’s reluctance to appeal to working class anger is no mystery. Running to be the Chief Executive Officer of the most powerful capitalist ruling class in the world at a time of growing crisis, Obama fears raising the working class’s expectations. A close race could force him to adopt a more populist approach. But just how far he is prepared to go to avoid encouraging working-class resentment of the system as a whole can be seen in his efforts to distance himself from the concerns and struggles of Black people, those who most readily identify with his campaign and who also account for many of the most exploited and oppressed workers.
Few can believe that Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to prominence means that the days of racism are over – far from it. The fact that America may well elect its first Black president is without doubt a sign of improved racial attitudes among broad numbers of whites. In a country built on the idea that Black people were the less-than-human property of whites, and in which racism is still wielded by the ruling class to divide and conquer the working class, it is an extraordinary development. But the gains won by Black people were not gifts generously bestowed by enlightened whites. Blacks have had to fight for their rights – and for their very humanity to be respected – through countless uprisings, from the days of slavery through the civil rights movement to the ghetto rebellions and Black Power movement of the 1960’s.
However, concessions from America’s capitalist ruling class have proved to be double-edged. The rise to local power of Black Democratic politicians, in particular as mayors of major cities beginning in the late 1960’s, was in part an expression of the gains that Blacks won through struggle, made possible because Black people had become politically mobilized as never before. But it was also key to ending those struggles. First, the Black movement was turned away from the power of strikes and protests to the powerlessness of the voting booth; then the pro-capitalist Black elected officials betrayed their working-class constituents. They proved themselves trustworthy tools of the racist capitalist system. Indeed, the ruling class quickly learned to appreciate the role that Black officials could perform in defusing explosive protests movements, calling for calm and insisting on sacrifice in hard times. (For more information, see our pamphlet “The Democratic Party: Graveyard of Black Struggles”)
This experience of Black Democratic politicians is one reason the ruling class can look with little fear to the prospect of a Black president. Another is that the mass struggles of Black people and other people of color, as well as those of the working class in general, have been so successfully quelled: at times of mass struggle the ruling class would have reason to fear that the election of a Black president would raise expectations of justice too high.
Nonetheless, in seeking to become the elected leader of the bloodiest, most rapacious ruling class in history, Barack Obama has been anxious to distance himself from connection with Black people’s struggles and to find opportunities to blame Blacks for their disproportionate suffering of poverty and other social ills. Our article in Proletarian Revolution No. 81 detailed many ways in which Obama denies racism when he can and downplays it when he can’t.
Since then Obama has further distanced himself from Black concerns. The most notable instance came in response to the media-generated frenzy over remarks by his friend and pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The main target was a speech Wright gave soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks, in which he railed against racism in the United States and stated the obvious truth – that U.S. imperialist policies in the Middle East had inspired the terrorist attacks. Obama refused to challenge the racism of the media’s attack on Wright and rejected Wright’s correct denunciations of racism and imperialism. Instead, he denounced him and ultimately cut all ties with Wright and his church.
Then came Obama’s Father’s Day speech in a Chicago church, in which he echoed some of the worst racist stereotypes of Black men in the spirit of Bill Cosby’s speeches of recent years blaming Black people for their problems. (See Cosby’s Campaign Against Black Workers, in PR 74.) Labeling Black fathers as somehow uniquely absent and irresponsible, Obama let the system off the hook. He never demanded that the government take responsibility for providing jobs, living wages and quality education and health care, nor did he offer any specific proposals to address all the ways institutionalized and de facto racism keep Black people down. This speech even angered the senior Black leader Jesse Jackson, who said of Obama (in a whisper picked up by a TV crew’s microphone) that he wanted to “cut his nuts off” because he was “talking down to Blacks.”
Obama’s policy is not simply an election-year tack but a preview of how his administration would address racial oppression. Most Black people will undoubtedly give Obama the benefit of the doubt and vote for him overwhelmingly in November. But it remains the duty of working-class revolutionaries to warn that he cannot be trusted any more than any other bourgeois politician.
Revolutionaries oppose any kind of support to capitalist parties like the Republicans and Democrats, no matter how “progressive” they style themselves. In the current election there are several “third-party” candidates for president, two of whom are on the left, broadly speaking: Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader. Neither of them represent working-class parties in either their program or their constituency.
Nader has run for president three times before, most notably in 2000 when he got almost 3 million votes on the Green Party ticket. As always, Nader’s is a left capitalist campaign. As he said in 2000, his aim is to “save American corporate capitalism from itself.” (See our pamphlet “The Nader Hoax” for details on his anti-immigrant and overall anti-working-class positions.)
His attitude towards the U.S.’s imperialist wars is indicative. In 2004, his “solution” in Iraq was to support the occupation, although he preferred it be handed over to United Nations auspices rather than run solely by the U.S., which just means imperialist rule in disguise. This year he calls for impeaching Bush on grounds including the “criminal war of aggression” in Iraq – but he does not denounce the Afghan war in similar terms. At all times his position has amounted to backhanded support for imperialism.
McKinney, who has the Green Party nomination this year, was the first Black woman elected to represent the state of Georgia in Congress, and served as a Democratic legislator for over a decade. In that time she represented the far left wing of the Democratic Party, promoting minor legislative reforms, most of which were killed by her Democratic colleagues. But she always kept to the prerogatives of U.S. imperialism: she voted to fund the U.S. war against Afghanistan in 2001; and in voting for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq, she emphasized that she agreed with other Democrats in not favoring an immediate withdrawal without plans for it to be “orderly.” While McKinney now says she favors a complete withdrawal of the U.S. from both Iraq and Afghanistan, she does not specify an alternative. But her Green Party clearly favors the authority of the United Nations, an equally imperialist solution.
Thus McKinney has always pursued a strategy of trying to push the Democratic Party to the left. After finally being ousted from Congress by conservative Democrats, her Green campaign has the same hopeless aim, this time from the outside. Thus in an open letter to Barack Obama available on her campaign website, she congratulates Obama on winning the Democratic nomination and politely encourages him to adopt a host of policies he has already declared himself opposed to, from universal healthcare to complete withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. McKinney’s candidacy, like Nader’s, represents an attempt to revive hope in reforming the Democratic Party and the imperialist capitalist system it represents.
Among organizations in the U.S. that call themselves socialist, the Communist Party is habitually the most openly pro-capitalist in its electoral strategy. Before the collapse of Stalinism, it supported the fake-communist bureaucratic capitalist ruling class of the Soviet Union which helped prop up the entire imperialist system. (See our book, The Life and Death of Stalinism.) It attempted to maintain a left image while actually resisting any real challenge to capitalism. Thus the CP insisted on achieving the completion of democracy under capitalism as a necessary stage before working-class independence could be contemplated, much less a working-class struggle for power. This perspective was its excuse for supporting Democratic nominees for over half a century, inevitably arguing that the Republicans were the far greater evil if not outrightly fascist. Today the CP functions as little more than a liberal pressure group on the Democrats.
Some far left parties run their own candidates on openly socialist platforms. One such group is the Party for Socialism and Liberation. The PSL is running a nominally socialist campaign with many left demands, including the “immediate withdrawal of all U.S. and foreign forces from Iraq” (why not Afghanistan?).
But the PSL is Stalinist: its history includes the shameful legacy of supporting Khrushchev’s crushing of the Hungarian working-class revolution in 1956 and the Chinese ruler’s merciless slaughter of worker and student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Today, it hails the “pro-socialist government of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela,” which beneath its socialist rhetoric is in fact an anti-working-class government of a capitalist state. (See our article No to Chávez, Yes to Socialism! in PR 81.) To support the PSL means building a party whose record stands for the smashing of working-class struggle, not socialist revolution.
The largest would-be revolutionary group in the U.S. is the International Socialist Organization. The ISO claims to follow the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky in arguing against the notion of a necessary reform stage, but its practice betrays those claims.
Lenin and Trotsky understood that the class consciousness of workers develops in great leaps in the course of mass struggles, so long as a revolutionary party leadership fights for independent working-class struggle, refuses to support capitalist candidates, mercilessly exposes reformism and draws out the revolutionary lessons of each struggle. The ISO, on the other hand, believes that liberal reformism is a necessary stage for workers on the way to revolutionary consciousness. While it distinguishes itself from the CP by opposing support for the Democrats, it favors leftish third parties even if they support capitalism.
In this spirit, ISO leader Alan Maass declared at the ISO’s recent “Socialism 2008” conference in Chicago that “we unreservedly welcome the comeback of liberalism.” This is not surprising, considering all that the ISO has done to bolster the liberals. One need only recall the headlines in the ISO’s Socialist Worker decrying “Bush’s War” and calling on people to “Fight the Right,” which contributed to the myth that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were the crimes of Republicans alone rather than the two major parties of imperialism.
The ISO’s stagist approach helps it to recruit radical liberals on college campuses by posing as the most militant wing of liberal reformism. But in a fashion typical of opportunists who sacrifice the strategic aims of struggle in pursuit of short-term successes, it ignores the fact that this approach helps left-liberal pro-capitalist leaders into positions of influence that they will use to betray the coming struggles and stop them from challenging the system.
Thus all the talk of “fighting the right” has flowed naturally into illusions in the Democrats as a real alternative to the Republicans, and it helped undermine the ISO’s own preference for liberal third-party campaigns. With the upsurge in support for Obama, the fair-weather sailors of the ISO have shown little enthusiasm for Nader or McKinney. They have so far withheld an open endorsement but are urging people to vote for either of them.
It is a tragedy that in this election the working class is confronted yet again by a choice between two anti-working class imperialist parties and no revolutionary working-class alternative. Elections focus attention on political questions, and we in the League for the Revolutionary Party wish we could participate ourselves. A revolutionary campaign would not promote illusions in reforming the system but would instead expose pro-capitalist policies, support the independent struggles of workers and the oppressed and rally wider numbers to the task of building the revolutionary party leadership that those struggles need.
We warn that a Democratic presidency will oversee further imperialist attacks on the masses of the world and escalating attacks at home. While the LRP opposes any vote for either party of the U.S. ruling class, we do recognize that, given that a capitalist candidate is going to take office, a win by Obama would provide more opportunities to expose illusions in the Democrats than the continuation of a Republican regime. Most people will shed their illusions in Obama or other Democrats only when they are able to confirm, through their own experiences, that what we say is true.
The other articles in this supplement – on the support our politics received at the recent anti-war conference in Cleveland, and on our victorious electoral campaign in the New York City transit workers’ union – are two examples of the work we do. We urge working-class people to learn more about the LRP, to discuss with us the ideas in this article, and to join the fight against capitalism of all stripes and for an end to racism and exploitation through socialist revolution.