The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 70 (Spring 2004).
The following dialogue did and did not take place. Yet the questions posed here are fought out between radical-liberal-populist “socialists” and authentic Leninists every day. The left leaders in the “Anybody but Bush” camp are selling out the growing number of activists and workers who want a real end to the deepening attack on the masses, here and abroad.
Q. George W. Bush’s is a qualitatively worse administration than any other in memory; he is a near-fascist. Look at the Patriot Act and the chauvinist attacks on Muslims and dissenters that rip up the Constitution. How can you not support a Democrat to get rid of this reactionary?
A. Bush is a particularly rotten, reactionary and racist capitalist, but the Democrats are no alternative. The current bunch supported Bush’s repressive legislation and even initiated its predecessors under Clinton. Bush’s Patriot Act is criminal and chauvinist -- but still not quite as bad as the crime of Franklin Roosevelt, the liberal Democratic demigod, in throwing thousands of Japanese-Americans into concentration camps. Liberal presidents as well as reactionaries engage in criminal acts against oppressed and exploited people. It is part of the job description.
When you demagogically claim that violating democratic norms makes Bush a near-fascist you are deluding people: real American fascism would mean far worse subjugation of Blacks, Latinos, Jews, Muslims and immigrants -- plus the crushing of the unions and the termination of all rights to free speech. You are trying to panic people into voting for the Democrats. And you are covering for the run-of-the-mill capitalist politicians, war criminals and autocrats all.
Q. So you admit that Bush is a rotten reactionary! I still ask you, how can you not support a Democrat against Bush?
A. Where do you get that “admit” garbage? We have said all along that the President of the United States is a filthy imperialist, the greatest terrorist on the planet today! Osama bin Laden is a piker compared to this mass killer. But we also remember when you (or your mommy and daddy) told us that we had to support the Democrat Lyndon Johnson to stop Barry Goldwater, the Republican reactionary (and “fascist”) who would plunge the U.S. deeper into the Vietnam War. Who plunged imperialism deeper, the liberal or the reactionary?
Q. That was yesterday. What about the war on Iraq today, in violation of international law? What about Bush giving the Israelis free rein to imprison and murder Palestinians?
A. What about all the Democrats who supported the war? How many, even now, even pretend that they would end the imperialist occupation of Iraq? Not one. As for international “law,” it is whatever the White House says it is. Clinton set the precedent for Bush in his war on Serbia a few years ago. And on Israel, the Democrats’ “peace process” and Bush’s “road map” differ on only secondary questions. Both cover for the misery and massacres inflicted on the Palestinians.
Capitalist politicians have differences over particular wars. The ultra-reactionary chauvinist Patrick Buchanan was a far more adamant opponent of both Iraq wars than any liberal Democrat. Whatever their disagreements on this or that war, they all defend American imperialism, which must spread its tentacles throughout the world if it is to survive. They have no choice.
Yes, Bush has overseen a dangerous turn in American politics. But the LRP has hammered away at the fact that the turn represents a widespread bourgeois understanding about U.S. imperialism’s need to maintain its grip over an unstable world. Some sectors of the ruling class still don’t get it, but look again at the bipartisan support for his war. Disagreement was mostly over cosmetic questions, not the blood-soaked invasion and occupation. The Democrats are a lesser evil only rhetorically. No Democratic president is going to stop the profit-gouging drive against working people abroad or at home.
Q. Bush’s “war on terrorism” is killing innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq today! We have to end this now. After that, we can move on to deal with underlying issues.
A. That’s what you types said during Vietnam and every other war. But the Democrats are part of the problem and not even a temporary solution. As our lead article shows, Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee, is demanding a bigger and longer-term U.S. military presence in Iraq. By backing a “lesser evil” rather than fighting for a real alternative, all you are doing is enabling the next imperialist war, and all the wars after that. And ensuring that someone like you will then say, OK, but let’s vote for the Democrat now to end this war, and then tomorrow ... .
By the way, look at how many innocent Yugoslavs and Somalis Clinton murdered -- not to speak of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed by starvation and disease in the eight years of Clinton’s sanctions. And which party’s imperialist president was it that actually used nuclear “weapons of mass destruction”? And against civilians!
Q. You can’t seriously mean that the Democrats are the same as the Republicans. Look at Bush’s reactionary judges, his tax cuts for the rich, his handouts to the corporations.
A. I don’t say they’re the same; just that the Democrats are no answer to the Republicans. Both parties are inextricably tied to the capitalist system and must defend it at home and abroad. (And both have long records of handouts to the corporations.) Normally, they defend the system in different ways. At home, the Republicans are the “hard cops,” the Democrats softer. The liberals’ job is to pretend they are on the side of beleaguered workers, racially oppressed people, unemployed and the overburdened middle class. When the masses rise up, the Democrats make some concessions. These are meant to contain and detour workers, not at all to meet their increasingly desperate needs.
Today, when capitalism is caught in a fundamental crisis throughout the world, the system cannot easily give sops. Given the evidence of Clinton, any Democratic administration is going to roll back past gains just like the Republicans, with only verbal sops. They are just as big liars as the Republicans ...
Q. Oh, don’t start with the Clinton-Lewinsky “no-sex” bit.
A. That’s not my point. Clinton’s attacks on the working class were disguised; remember his milk-the-poor workfare, styled as “welfare reform”? It not only attacked working-class people directly; it also paved the way for Bush’s “tax reform” designed to enrich the rich. And “tort reform” to protect the insurance profiteers and the medical establishment from malpractice suits. Clinton launched a whole series of lightly disguised assaults on gains won by workers and Black people. They paved the way for the capitalist looting orgy now going on.
Q. OK, but there are sincere liberal spokesmen too.
A. They’re worse in a way, because they can better sell the take-away programs which have soaked the workers and the unemployed over the last three decades and opened the way for Bush. Given the acts of their “friends,” workers became more and more frustrated, disarmed and cynical -- seeing no way to fight back. Our point is that the Democrats softened up the masses for the even more devastating attack which is now coming. Supporting Democrats to stop Republicans isn’t using fire to stop a fire; it is fueling a growing conflagration.
Q. Look, whatever you say, the Democrats are preferable to the Republicans -- it’s just obvious. That is why workers, Blacks, Latinos, pro-environment and anti-war people support the Democrats. We who want to mobilize the people and get them to fight back against the current attacks must relate to the Democratic Party.
We progressives are not blind followers of the Democratic politicians. We want to use the elections to stimulate a populist upheaval; that is the way to stop Bush’s attacks. We know it takes mass mobilizations to stop the corporate assault. The old-line Democratic apparatus hated Dean for example, because he put together an opposition full of non-elite types in order to take over and toss them aside. The Democratic Party is the party of the social movements. You can’t deny it!
A. No? I just want to make one little change in your claim. Rather than calling it the “party” of the social movements, substitute the word “graveyard.”
Look at Kerry and the drop-out also-rans, the populist-come-latelies after Dean’s campaign caught fire. Do you take Edwards’ law court-trained “sincerity” seriously? Do you believe that they will honestly carry out their populist pap if they win? You know it’s a pack of lies. And saddling the next mass struggle with populist ideology means trying to strangle it in advance. For all their rhetoric, even the “left” candidates, Kucinich and Sharpton, and the “movement” man, Dean, never once used their platforms to mobilize the mass actions or movements you claim to want. What they want is good citizens passively voting to achieve “progressive” goals. Their function is to demobilize potential mass upsurges, not encourage them. And your function is to cover for them.
The gains made by workers and oppressed people under capitalism come from mass, class-based struggles that threaten to transcend the system. That forces the capitalist politicians to try to buy them off. The trade union bureaucrats, like the Black, Latino and immigrant leaders, are tied to the Democrats. When the movements are explosive, the leaders and the “left” Democrats sound fierce. Their populist rhetoric blames evil corporations but not the capitalist class system, and sets up an appeal for the Democrats. Remember how Jesse Jackson led an angry Black struggle back into the Democratic Party in the 1980’s?
As soon as the movement is demobilized, the leaders play the “special interest” game. Each sector competes within the Democratic Party for a larger share of whatever scraps of patronage and sops are still left: Blacks vs. Latinos, whites against both, U.S.-born workers against immigrants, and on and on. Instead of uniting in the struggle for solid gains for all, the leaders fight each other for tidbits and whip up rivalries among the followers. The once promising struggles are then dead; all that remains is populist rhetoric on the tombstones.
Q. OK, I agree that social gains are won by mass struggles. I’m an activist myself. But how does that conflict with also voting for the Democrats to get rid of Bush? I can favor both.
A. If you’re at all serious about the need to elect Democrats, it certainly does conflict. If you really mean “Anybody but Bush,” you have to push for the most moderate, “electable,” Democrat. And before you know it you’ll be calculating how to win over swing voters; then you’ll worry that mass protests and strikes had better wait until after the election. That’s how the Black leaders and union bureaucrats figure -- stay calm, make sure “our” side wins in November. If you want the Democrats to win at all costs, then you had damned well do all you can to keep mass struggle out of the picture.
The Democratic Party is a death-trap for the struggles of the exploited and oppressed. You reformists are judas goats, helping to lead the working class to the slaughterhouse. You have nearly obliterated the fundamental principle of socialism, that the independent working class must re-create its own revolutionary party and put an end to class collaboration.
A genuine working-class party, a revolutionary party, would tell the truth about the system and fight for mass struggles. It would seek to take leadership of these struggles from the middle-class populists who inevitably sell out workers and oppressed people. Anyone who rightly hates Bush for stomping on working people should be equally sick of the Democrats. Join us in the struggle to demand that the unions lead a general strike to stop the capitalist attacks on jobs, wages, health care and the masses at home and abroad.