The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 62 (Winter 2001).
Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign started with a bang but ended with less than a whimper.
The bang came with Nader’s announcement that he would extend the massive November 1999 protest in Seattle into an electoral campaign to challenge both the Republican and Democratic Parties and the big corporations they serve. He denounced the political system run by big business and condemned an economic boom that filled corporate pockets while leaving workers behind. And he seemed absolutely uncompromising in his hostility to the Democrats, refusing to withdraw even if it cost Al Gore the presidency.
Nader’s claim to be the “scourge of corporate America” was echoed by a host of prominent liberals, celebrities and even self-proclaimed socialists. They promoted Nader as a courageous opponent of the powers-that-be and a defender of “grass-roots democracy.” And all this seemed to be confirmed by the Gore campaign, which viciously attacked Nader as a “spoiler.”
When the November election standoff threw the country into a political frenzy and exposed its fraudulent democracy, the scene appeared set for Nader to seize the moment and stand up for justice. But when tens of thousands of Black Floridians saw their right to vote stolen, Nader refused to speak out. Whereas Gore dodged the issue of racist disenfranchisement, Nader didn’t even see its importance. When outraged voters marched in the streets in protest, Nader joked about tossing a coin to choose the president. The “consumer watchdog” who had railed for decades against corporate criminality turned out to be a complacent lapdog for a monumentally criminal political system.
Radicals who supported Nader because they believed his campaign could advance the fight against corporate power should be outraged at this betrayal. We hope it prompts them to think again about Nader in particular and the strategy of supporting middle-class reformers in general.
Seriously confronting the capitalist corporations requires a challenge to the capitalist system as a whole. Marxism teaches us, and many radicals learned from the battles in Seattle and elsewhere, that this challenge can only come from the working class and its struggles.
Marxist revolutionaries can use elections to encourage working-class struggle and promote socialist consciousness among workers. The only campaign that can further these aims is one based on working-class independence from the capitalist ruling class. But middle-class populist candidates like Ralph Nader, however radical or “independent” (and we will show that Nader was not very), only reinforce workers’ disbelief in their own class’s ability to fight and to produce its own leaders; they bolster vain hopes that a savior will come and solve workers’ problems. That is why it is a basic Marxist principle that revolutionaries can only endorse independent working class electoral campaigns.
Nader chose the Green Party as the most politically convenient mechanism for his program. The Green Party is not a workers’ party, it is not a mass organization or an instrument of struggle. It is a middle-class, overwhelmingly white, electoral machine. While Nader enjoys working-class support in some areas (and caught the ear of labor bureaucrats in the UAW and Teamsters earlier in the year), most of his electoral support was not surprisingly based among middle-class liberals.
Some socialists in Nader’s camp argued that despite problems, he was building a movement that had to be supported. The International Socialists (ISO), for example, argued that the campaign could lead to working-class independence:
Nader isn’t a socialist, but his demands for national health care, trade union rights and social policy are far to the left of the mainstream parties. His campaign provides a focus for labor and anti-globalization activists to break with the Democrats. This could open the way to the development of an independent working-class political party. (Socialist Worker, July 21.)
The Socialist Alternative group, whose central strategy is to build a mass reformist labor party in the U.S. as a supposed step toward a revolutionary workers’ party, worried about Nader’s selection of the Green Party as his vehicle:
The danger is posed that the Greens may consolidate to their program and party an important layer of voters (including many workers and youth) and the newly emerging movement that began in Seattle. This will hold back for many years the struggle to build a mass working-class party based on the trade unions. (Justice, Sept.-Oct.)
But still they backed Nader, saying that they are “campaigning for the creation of a new, broad workers party to emerge from Nader’s campaign.” It’ll never happen.
The problem was not just Nader’s non-socialism or the middle-class Greens. We will show in this article that Nader’s program, despite its numerous reforms, was poisonous for the working class.
All political understanding begins with a recognition of the fundamental class division in society: the working class versus the ruling capitalist class. Nader’s political perspective is that of his base of support, the middle-class layers caught in the middle of the class struggle and seeking to bridge the class divide. Thus Nader sought to unite America’s classes with appeals to nationalism. He cited small business, not the working class, as the key to his economic perspective. His campaign did not even represent a break from the Democratic Party – as we will show, Nader’s aim with his campaign was to either push the Democratic Party to the left to a more liberal program, or to begin to challenge the Democrats not with a working-class party but with a new liberal party. Moreover, his campaign was not a continuation of the activism sparked by the success of Seattle – for example, he played no role in the protests against the Republican and Democratic Party conventions. His campaign was a diversion of potential mass struggle into the bourgeois electoral arena.
As the crisis of capitalism develops and working-class struggles intensify, future populist politicians will emerge claiming to be even more hostile to corporations and even more militant champions of democracy than Nader, only to similarly act to divert workers from a real struggle against the system. While Nader is openly pro-capitalist and even wants to save “American corporate capitalism from itself” (as his web site asserted), future populists will denounce capitalism and hail socialism. In this they will be aided by self-proclaimed socialists eager to jump on the bandwagon. That’s why it is important to expose not only the true nature of the Nader campaign but also the role of socialists who joined his campaign and vouched for its political worth.
According to Nader, the Democratic Party is “no longer the party of working families” since it is led by the Democratic Leadership Council of Clinton and Gore. Instead it has politically merged with the Republicans to become what he calls the “Republocrats.” Gone is the party whose “core principles” Nader repeatedly expresses his longing for, the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Nader has based his whole career on winning mild reforms through his access to Congressional Democrats. Now he complains that access has dried up.
The Democratic Party was never a party of the workers; it has always been a party of capitalism. The “old” Democratic Party was not just the party of New Deal reforms but also of Southern racism and imperialist wars. Even its “reforms” were capitalistic: under Roosevelt in the 1930’s, the Democratic Party saved capitalism in the face of growing working-class struggles by locking the trade union bureaucracy into the bourgeois legal system and misdirecting the volatile class struggle into electoral politics. Nor was Roosevelt above using federal troops to break strikes, imprisoning socialists under the Smith Act and sending thousands of Japanese-Americans to concentration camps during World War II. Truman in the 1940’s won the world war by dropping the atomic bomb on Japanese civilians, started the imperialist war in Korea and initiated the persecution of left unionists and intellectuals that culminated in McCarthyism.
When the “new Democrats” Clinton and Gore starve Iraq, bomb Serbia, end welfare, tighten immigration controls and enforce the death penalty, they have not had to borrow from the Republicans. The Democratic Party has a full record of war, racism, imperialism and austerity of its own.
Nevertheless, Nader thinks he can prevent further Democratic crimes by reviving Democratic Party liberalism from the outside. The Green Party placed great pressure on its local affiliates not to run candidates where they could cost Democrats an election, and denounced some local Greens for doing just that. Nader went so far as to call press conferences to personally endorse a number of Democrats in Senate races. Following this lead, a web-site was constructed by Nader supporters to facilitate a trade-off of votes between Gore and Nader supporters, whereby Nader voters would vote for Gore in contested states and Gore supporters would back Nader in “safe” Democratic areas.
As the race between Gore and Bush tightened, Nader was faced with the choice of either ending his campaign or threatening to take enough votes away from Gore to enable Bush to win. He continued, and thereby seemed to confirm his image as an intransigent opponent of the Democrats. But he explained that he supported the Democrats’ liberal wing and that his campaign aimed to get them elected. The Green campaign would mobilize and register many new voters, he argued, and once they had voted for him for president they would overwhelmingly vote for Democrats in local races and thus help the Democrats to win control of the Senate.
In particular, Nader celebrated the possibility of his campaign potentially helping to elect Democratic Party leader Dick Gephardt as Speaker of the House. According to the Washington Post (August 17):
Nader himself believes he may be more help than hindrance to the Democrats. If he can reach a fraction of the tens of millions of people who either don’t vote or back independent candidates, he would send a signal to the Democrats without handing Bush the White House. He also reckons the groundswell of support for the Greens may help the Democrats win back the House. People who did not turn out at the last election may vote for Nader as president, at the same time picking a Democratic candidate for House or Senate races. “Anyone who says I may cost Gore the election has to concede that I may put Gephardt back as speaker. That’s a nice prospect for the Democrats,” he says.
In another interview Nader claimed to have met with Gephardt and received his tacit approval:
It was clear from my meeting with Gephardt a few weeks ago that he is not displeased with this candidacy. [He’s looking at] a few close Congressional District races. A few thousand votes here and there, and he’s the speaker. That’s pretty important ... . (LA Weekly, June 30/July 6.)
That his campaign was only the latest effort to breathe life into the dead body of Democratic Party liberalism was best summarized by Nader in a contentious interview with Jesse Jackson. Nader declared: “Jesse, we are simply attempting to do from the outside what you failed to accomplish inside [the Democratic Party].”
Revolutionary socialists are dedicated to proletarian internationalism, the cause of uniting the world’s workers and oppressed peoples across national divisions against their national ruling classes. We fight nationalism as a reactionary ideology that ties the masses to their oppressors, suggesting they have more in common with the rulers of their respective countries than with their fellow workers across borders. Above all, in the heart of the bloodiest empire in history, we take every opportunity to defend peoples under assault from American imperialism.
For Nader, in contrast, it is nationalism that drives his opposition to “corporate globalization” and free trade agreements. So-called “globalization” and its associated deals are chiefly characterized by the extension of exploitation of the semi-colonial world by the imperialist powers, most prominently the U.S. The American capitalists are then able to intensify their exploitation of American workers by using the threat of competition from foreign or immigrant workers to lower wages and working conditions at home.
The solution to the capitalists’ globalization attacks is a united struggle of workers internationally against imperialism. But pro-capitalist union bureaucrats anxious to avoid the class struggle push another strategy: protectionism. They prefer to unite with American bosses who fear losing out in international competition in a campaign for trade restrictions and the protection of American industry and American jobs. Thus steel bosses and the steelworkers union came together in a campaign against the importation of steel from China; and the Teamsters joined with local trucking companies in protesting Mexican truckers’ transporting goods into the U.S. Auto companies and the United Auto Workers union have long engaged in Japan-bashing and anti-Asian campaigns.
Ralph Nader has joined this protectionist crew and added his own nationalist twist. His main reason for opposing the NAFTA treaty and international trade bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) is his concern for U.S. interests. Polite statements of concern for super-exploited workers in foreign lands aside, when Nader opposed NAFTA and GATT, he complained that these agreements compromised American sovereignty by subjecting the country to unelected foreign courts, and that the agreements would lead to the export of “American jobs” to foreign countries. In reality, it is American capitalism that dominates the world economy and demands cheap labor at home and abroad. The U.S. is hardly subject to foreigners: it subjects workers and even capitalists in the world’s poor countries to its dictates.
In June, President Clinton violated the NAFTA trade deal by banning the entry of Mexican trucks into the U.S. A boon to U.S. truck company owners, Clinton’s policy was an attack on Mexican workers, resulting in many layoffs. Nader celebrated the policy, saying it was the only way to protect American drivers from the threat of overloaded Mexican trucks driven by unqualified, poorly paid Mexican drivers. Nader would never dream of the alternative of supporting Mexican truck drivers’ efforts to build strong unions and win better safety and working conditions. Nor could he imagine that American truck drivers are also forced to overload their trucks and work long hours that make them a danger on the roads.
Nader’s America-first nationalism led him to strike a non-aggression pact with the openly racist, Hitler-admiring and homophobic Pat Buchanan – who split to the right from the Republicans to run his own campaign in the Reform Party. Nader and Buchanan indeed had a good deal in common: they agreed on opposing NAFTA for protectionist reasons, keeping China out of WTO, banning Mexican truckers – and even supporting the partisan effort to impeach Clinton.
This unholy union was shown in a number of joint appearances. For example, Nader joined Buchanan in an internet chat sponsored by magazine in November 1999, where he was asked, “Mr. Nader, do you support Mr. Buchanan’s presidential campaign?” Rather than express outrage at the suggestion that he would endorse such a reactionary, Nader allowed for the possibility: “Since I am going to decide whether to run early next year, I can’t support any one at this point.”
When asked whether his cooperation with Buchanan on trade issues was simply a practical bloc with someone who was really his enemy on major issues, Nader sharply condemned the suggestion. He declared: “Nonsense. We’ve discussed this for five years. We’ve held press conferences. And it’s a cooperation of convictions that we must defend and improve our democracy so that we can agree to disagree freely.”
In response to a questioner who asked about his criticism of corporations. Buchanan said:
Let me say that my criticism of American corporations is that so many of them are ceasing to be American in their outlook, in their interest and in their concern. They’re turning their backs on their country, and their workers.
And Nader embellished Buchanan’s claim:
About two years ago, I sent letters to some of the largest American corporations. I asked since they were born in the U.S., since they made their profits off the labors of American workers, since when they get in trouble they go to Washington for corporate bailouts by U.S. taxpayers, and when they get in trouble overseas they call the U.S. Marines, I suggested that these companies pledge allegiance to the American flag.
Nader and Buchanan wrap themselves in the American flag in order to tie U.S. workers to U.S. bosses. They are contemptuous of workers abroad and fear the possibility of working-class alliances across borders. Whether he likes it or not, the “anti-corporate” Nader promotes U.S. imperialism and with it the dominant U.S. corporations around the world.
Nader’s flag-waving was not just verbal. At his “super-rallies” around the country, a huge American flag was on the stage backing him up – symbolic of the imperialism he defends.
Nader’s pro-imperialist nationalism is also clear in his immigration policy. At first glance his statements on the subject sound progressive. For example, he called for granting all immigrants full citizenship rights and de-criminalizing the border between Mexico and the U.S. He says that the U.S. should stop supporting dictatorships that drive workers to emigrate in a desperate search for jobs and freedom.
But on closer inspection, Nader’s policy is just a touchy-feely liberal version of America-first anti-immigrant nationalism. Immigrant workers would be allowed entry only for “a short period of time,” high-tech workers would be barred, with immigrants being allowed in only to perform work “that Americans don’t want to do.” (Speech in Oakland, Oct. 10.) Nader recognizes that this would necessitate a huge strengthening of U.S. borders. Contrary to his claims of favoring de-criminalization, Nader’s policy could only result in the super-criminalization of the borders – how else to keep “too many” immigrants out and to make sure those who get in will be doing the jobs “Americans” don’t want?
Nader’s insular nationalism also shows up in his refusal to comment on almost any issue of “foreign policy.” He avoided taking a stand against U.S. imperialist attacks that took place during his campaign, like the bombing of Serbia or Clinton’s sending a billion dollars in aid to the Colombian military to boost its struggle against left-wing guerrillas.
The one exception to this silence was the violent struggle between Israel and the Palestinian people. Nader spoke supportively of the Palestinians’ right to their own state and sympathized with the Palestinians facing Israel’s overwhelming superiority in arms. He also called for suspending U.S. aid to Israel.
But his actual position amounted to neutrality between oppressor and oppressed. He defended Israel’s need for security and called on Israel to use “non-lethal force” – presumably to keep suppressing the Palestinians. (Speech in New York, Oct. 7.) The Palestinian state he supports is the subdivided Bantustan that Israel would agree to, since he supports the fake “peace process” designed to quell Palestinian unrest with minimal promises. Above all he welcomes the U.S.’s role as a power broker: the U.S. has the military and economic clout to “be a much more constructive leader,” he said.
In the same vein, the Green Party declares its support for “international multilateral peacekeeping to stop aggression and genocide.” Of course, the very imperialist forces who would do the “multilateral peacekeeping” with the Greens’ approval are the biggest perpetrators of “aggression and genocide.” That Nader and the Green’s nationalism and support for “multilateral” imperialist military interventions means what it says can be seen in the example of the German Green Party. There they have joined the Social-Democratic government, and their leader Joschka Fischer was the foreign minister who oversaw Germany’s part in the NATO bombing of Serbia.
Throughout his public life, Nader has stood aloof from struggles against racism, sexism and the oppression of gay people. In his presidential campaigns Nader has come under increasing pressure to take a stand on these issues.
During his 1996 campaign he obstinately refused to do so, at times saying that such issues are unimportant, distractions and divisive. At other times he expressed pure contempt for people’s oppression, as when he derided struggles for women’s and gay rights as “gonadal politics.”
This campaign saw Nader dodging struggles against racism. At major speeches in Chicago and New York he left the subject unmentioned until it was raised by questioners in the audience. He has formal positions in favor of affirmative action and against police brutality and the death penalty – in the abstract. But he says nothing against the threatened execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, framed as a “cop-killer” in Pennsylvania; nor did he oppose George W. Bush’s execution of Shaka Sankofa in Texas during the campaign. His running mate, Winona LaDuke, does demand clemency for political prisoner Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement organizer who has been in federal prison for over 20 years.
At one press conference, Nader was asked by a Green Party member about the Sankofa, Abu-Jamal and Peltier cases. He refused to make any statement of support, explaining that there are many abuses of justice, and “There just isn’t enough time to keep focusing in an important way on each one.” Nader has the time to study the personal stories of white people who die in car crashes because of poor seat belts, but not the time to study and speak out when Black people are strapped down to be executed by the state! Liar! No wonder Nader’s candidacy was largely ignored by Black and Latino voters.
Similarly, Nader has a formal position in favor of abortion rights for women. But when asked about the possibility of a Bush victory leading to a reconfigured Supreme Court that would overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, he dismissed the idea that abortion rights would ever be attacked, and complacently replied that if the Supreme Court did overturn abortion rights it would be no problem, since the issue would then be left to the states. Many state politicians, however, are eager to restrict or eliminate abortions; that was why abortion rights were fought for and won nationally a quarter-century ago.
What Nader overlooks is that social reforms and democratic rights are won by mass struggles. Abortion rights will be lost and the death penalty will not be stopped without mass actions – and that is exactly the point that should be made by a candidate claiming to run on “the spirit of Seattle.”
In fact, throughout Nader’s career he has pursued a legalist strategy of reforms, combining court cases with lobbying liberal politicians. He made his name in the 1960’s with the book Unsafe at Any Speed that exposed dangerous design flaws in cars. Whatever the book’s virtues, consider the timing. These were the years when tens of thousands of Black people were marching in the streets for civil rights and an end to Jim Crow segregation, facing police dogs, water cannon and gunfire – when hundreds of thousands were protesting the U.S.’s murderous war against Vietnam. And Ralph Nader wrote a book about unsafe cars! Throughout his career Nader has ignored every major social struggle – from Vietnam and Black Power, through U.S. imperialism in Central America and the Middle East, to the defense of abortion rights.
Nader contends that fights over Blacks’ and women’s rights can be “divisive.” These are central issues of U.S. politics, and any leader who doesn’t stand openly for them is appealing to reaction. Indeed, in his acceptance of the Green Party nomination in June, Nader openly courted conservative voters. An interviewer quoted him: “I always framed things as an appeal to traditional values. ... I was always careful to appeal to conservatives.” With that strategy, is it any wonder that he downplays the concerns of Blacks and women?
Given all this, how could groups that regard themselves as revolutionary and socialist endorse a U.S.-nationalist, pro-capitalist liberal whose methods of struggle are lawsuits and electoralism, not mass action?
The ISO followed a two-pronged strategy. In public, they covered up Nader’s political warts, while in the relative privacy of their theoretical magazine they concocted Marxistical justifications for crossing the class line.
The public face of the ISO’s campaign – its leaflets, speeches, placards and the like – gave the Green Party candidate a hero’s welcome. Take their brochure “Why You Should Support Ralph Nader for President.” In addition to trotting out a list of Nader’s progressive stances like curbing corporate excess and defending the environment, the brochure mildly criticized his “mistake” in not being more outspoken on racism. But it did not mention Nader’s pro-capitalism or nationalism, and certainly didn’t trouble the reader with the ISO’s own belief in socialism.
In their newspaper readers were told a bit more: that Nader’s campaign could be used to build an ongoing movement against a range of injustices and even socialism. But Socialist Worker’s references to socialist ideas were not counterposed to Nader’s capitalist politics; they were presented as the best way to continue Nader’s campaign – since Nader’s own vision of social change was declared to be “limited.”
The truly determined would find a “Marxist” critique of Nader’s views and an explanation of how supporting Nader could further the cause of socialism in an article by Joel Geier in the ISO’s theoretical magazine, International Socialist Review (August-September). Geier attempts to link the ISO’s support for Nader with the Marxist tradition by inserting a quote from a letter by Frederick Engels to Friedrich Sorge, which condemned sectarian tendencies among U.S. socialists who were standing aside from the development of a workers’ party.
Engels argued forcefully for active participation by socialists in the United Labor Party of New York, founded by the city’s Central Labor Union, which was running the middle-class reformer Henry George for mayor in 1886. The CLU, New York’s “parliament of labor,” comprised two hundred unions representing tens of thousands of workers.
The most relevant portion of the Engels quote reads:
In a country that has newly entered the movement, the first really crucial step is the formation by the workers of an independent political party. That the first program of this party should be muddle-headed and extremely inadequate, and that it should have picked Henry George for its figurehead, are unavoidable if transitory evils. The masses must have the time and the opportunity to evolve; and they will not get that opportunity until they have a movement of their own – no matter what its form, providing it is their own movement – in which they are impelled onwards by their own mistakes and learn by bitter experience. (November 29, 1886.)
Geier makes the leap of comparing the situation confronting Engels in 1886 with the 2000 election:
The new radicalization is the best hope for the revolutionary left in a generation. It would be self-destructive to find barriers or obstacles to support or involvement with this emerging movement. Yet it is easy to seize on some of the many real limitations of Nader, the Greens, or the current level of this new left as the excuse to stand aside. ... The Nader campaign is but one transitory episode in the new radicalization.
The primary “limitation” of the Nader/Green campaign for Marxists, however, is that it was in no way what Engels called the crucial step: “the formation by the workers of an independent political party.” Even Geier admits that “Though Nader addresses workers’ concerns, he is not building or advocating a class party, nor is his appeal to workers that they should be a self-active class.” That alone invalidates the Engels comparison.
While Engels’ hostile attitude toward Henry George and his petty-bourgeois views was clear, the ISO acclaims Nader and downplays his “limitations.” Moreover, Engels was writing at the dawn of the imperialist epoch, while today U.S. imperialism straddles the world. To cheerlead for a candidate who echoed the rotten American chauvinism of the pro-imperialist labor bureaucracy makes a travesty of Marxism.
While Engels regarded George’s leadership as an “evil” that would prove “transitory” when the workers inevitably clashed with their petty-bourgeois leaders, Geier echoes the label “transitory” only to misrepresent where Nader’s campaign was heading. He says of it:
Most significantly, it has opened up working-class politics. A few million workers and students have been won to the idea of a vote against corporate capitalism. It is raising the question of an independent working-class party.
Geier says that even though Nader was not for working-class independence, his electoral campaign points in that direction. But he gives no evidence for this claim. In fact, the last time Joel Geier was involved in middle-class radical electoralism, the Peace and Freedom Party of 1968, that effort was transitory only to Gene McCarthy’s run for the Democratic nomination, where the bulk of Peace and Freedom advocates ended up. Nader too has set the stage for himself or other liberals to lead yet another movement into the Democratic deathtrap.
Hostility toward petty-bourgeois leaders of workers’ movements was also the trademark of Lenin and Trotsky, even when they advocated the tactic of critical support for non-revolutionary working-class parties. Lenin famously advocated support for a British Labour Party leader “the same way as the rope supports a hanged man” – to expose his betrayals to the workers and “accelerate [his] political death.” Geier ignores this, as well as the history of non-working-class third parties in U.S. history.
The ISO itself is building not an independent working-class struggle but a base on middle-class college campuses. Sympathy in that milieu compelled them to support Nader. But as even Geier characterizes this new radicalization:
Like all previous radicalizations it begins with contradictory, even confused, consciousness. No new left emerges by immaculate conception with full-blown revolutionary socialist consciousness. The origin always is a peculiar mixture of liberal and conservative beliefs with radical ideas. The liberal-conservative ideas are baggage from the past. The radical ideas are incomplete, a jumble that arises from struggles that begin without worked-out political programs. They are the future of the movement, an alternative that is in the process of formation. These different strands of consciousness cohabit in uneasy tension in the new radical mood.
Geier’s method of analysis here is not Marxist and is downright dangerous. He describes progressive and reactionary ideas in the Seattle protests as if they were simply all mixed up in the mind of the average protester rather than promoted by distinct political and class forces. Mixed and contradictory consciousness exists, but there is also a clear struggle between forces representing progressive and reactionary sides of the struggle.
The Seattle events were important, but in reality there is no reason to think they mark the development of a new mass anti-capitalist movement, a new left, or anything of the sort. Seattle was big because of the coincidence of various class interests. The desire of a genuinely developing new radical layer among a significant minority of college students to protest against the most extreme forms of capitalist power and greed coincided with the desire of union bureaucrats and other professional reformist liberals to march for nationalist protectionism. The fact that the labor bureaucrats have run away from Seattle and that subsequent protests in the U.S. were far smaller is indicative of the problem. Radical youth tried to repeat the experience in Washington in April and against the Republican and Democratic conventions over the summer, but these actions were relatively small and dispirited.
To the extent that the conflict within the movement reflects a division between a new radicalism and an old conservatism, Nader and the Greens are part of the “baggage from the past,” the more conservative section of the movement which try to conservatize and derail it further. Supporting Nader’s candidacy only contributes to that process.
The absence of a challenge to the Democratic Party from the left allowed the ISO previously to sit out U.S. elections, refusing to vote for the Democratic Party and instead propagating socialism and building “the movement” of the day. Backing a liberal candidate like Nader is a significant step for the ISO, comparable to a recovering alcoholic breaking down and having “just one drink” – it will inevitably lead to a binge of opportunist tailing of middle-class reformists.
The most illuminating comparison to the Nader campaign is that of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace in 1948. The end of World War II had seen a massive upsurge of labor struggles and a desire to defend and extend gains won during the New Deal. With the support of many workers, and the backing of the then-prominent Communist Party, Wallace, who had been Vice President under Roosevelt, broke from the Democrats and challenged the emerging bipartisan Cold War policy. But the Progressive Party was a bourgeois party aimed at re-creating the New Deal coalition of labor and the bourgeoisie.
Even though Wallace’s campaign enjoyed far more working-class support and association with class struggle than Nader’s, revolutionaries at the time opposed it as a detour from the class struggle and a barrier to the development of independent class politics. Working-class support for Wallace and class collaborationist moods within the intelligentsia and labor aristocracy revealed themselves even among the Trotskyists in the U.S., the Socialist Workers Party. James Cannon, leader of the SWP, outlined clear reasons for not supporting this bourgeois candidacy. In words that today seem almost directed against socialists supporting Nader, Cannon explained:
It has been argued that “we must go through the experience with the workers.” That is a very good formula, provided you do not make it universal. We go with the workers only through those experience which have a class nature. We go with them through the experiences of strikes, even though we may think a given strike untimely. We may even go with the workers through the experience of putting a reformist labor party in office, provided it is a real labor party and subject to certain pressures of the workers, in order that they may learn from their experience that reformism is not the correct program for the working class.
But we do not go through the experience of class collaboration with the workers. ...
The party must be educated and re-educated on the meaning of class politics, which excludes any support of any bourgeois candidate, and requires even the most critical attitude toward a labor party when we are supporting it. (“Summary Speech on Election Policy,” SWP Internal Bulletin, February 1948.)