Lessons of the California Recall

The California recall vote in early October was a stellar example of why bourgeois democracy is a sham and a fraud. In the U.S.'s most populous state, it exposed as clearly as ever the central role of big-money funding in an election that was as democratic as elections ever get in American capitalism. It demonstrated mass disillusionment in the Democratic Party, whose supposedly pro-worker and pro-immigrant politicians were overwhelmingly rejected by the same voters who sent a racist ballot proposition down to a decisive defeat. Finally, it laid bare the unprincipled electoral tactics employed by much of the far left.

The campaign to recall Democratic governor Gray Davis was brought about by a signature campaign financed mainly by Republican reactionaries, hoping to gain control of California for Bush's party and thereby cement Republican domination of national politics. It won enough signatures to come to a vote largely because of Davis's well-deserved unpopularity for anti-working-class budget-slashing. (See Proletarian Revolution No. 68 for an analysis of the budget crisis.) It ended in the replacement of Davis by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, a celebrity candidate who proved himself completely unable to express any political idea.

The bourgeois media made much of the California "circus," claiming that public referendums and recalls make a joke of democracy. In fact the right to recall and to vote on public policy is, generally speaking, a democratic gain. Of course, under capitalism, democratic gains are always flawed. The predominant influence of capitalist candidates, the bourgeois media and corporate funding are only the surface means by which the ruling class controls them.

In contrast, the first workers' state, the Paris Commune of 1870-71, made a principle of the workers' right to recall their elected representatives at any time. The Russian workers' and soldiers' soviets (councils) in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions did the same. The champions of bourgeois rule would love to eliminate this concession to popular influence on government, even when they can manipulate it for their own purposes.

Compared to such examples of workers' democracy, the California recall was a burlesque. The capitalists only tolerated it because it was a safety valve for burgeoning discontent which, at this moment, could only produce a dead-end populist voting response. Nevertheless, the idea made them nervous.

The Bourgeois Campaigns

The Republican hypocrites, who had excoriated Clinton for his consensual sexual exploitation, now defended "Arnold" for his non-consensual sexual molestation of women. Welcome to "family values, U.S.A." In the campaign, Schwarzenegger gloried in his Hollywood tough-guy image; he presented himself as an outsider to the political establishment, someone "who would cut the crap" and get things done for "The People." Under the cover of populism, he nevertheless led the race for financial support, evidently because of deals he had made to further enrich the energy corporations that had looted California in the past and mean to do so again.

Davis took the rap for California's budget disaster, which he was deeply involved with but hardly the only guilty party. He was also widely hated for his viciousness and sleazy fund-raising. The obviously rotten conduct of the governor and the Democrats during the rip-off budget scandal meant that the popular outcry would most likely benefit a Republican populist con artist as opposed to a Democratic con artist. Cruz Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, and the leading Democratic candidate for governor, could hardly even put on a show of progressivism. He ran weakly because of fund-raising violations and a conservative political program that could not inspire even his nominal Latino electoral base.

Peter Camejo, the candidate of the third bourgeois party, the Greens, ran a "practical" campaign, offering helpful reformist solutions to California's problems. Billing himself as a financial expert, he called for "fiscal responsibility" and a "balanced budget" and even complained about the breakdown of the rule of law. He underplayed criticism of the Iraq war, even when he got national coverage in the televised debate of five major candidates. Although he had once been the presidential candidate of the pseudo-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), he made a purely middle-class, timidly populist, appeal. As voting day approached and Schwarzenegger loomed in the lead, he made clear that he'd rather see Bustamante win -- thereby exploding the Green's claim to be a genuine alternative to the run-of-the-mill bourgeois politics of corruption and austerity.

Under the unique provisions of California's recall law, it was relatively easy to get on the ballot: the fees and number of signatures required were unusually low. Thus there were over 130 candidates running, among them a few representatives of the moderate and far left: C.T. Weber of the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP), Joel Britton of the SWP, and John C. Burton of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP).

Also on the California ballot in October was Proposition 54, the so-called Racial Privacy Act, which would ban the state from "classifying" or collecting information on a person's race, ethnicity or national origin for the purposes of public education, public contracting, public employment and other government operations. It would therefore prevent gathering data for establishing racist practices, specifically for defending affirmative action, or for medical purposes. This blatantly racist maneuver was pushed by the far right for just those reasons. It was handily defeated.

Working-Class Tactics

The election first required a vote on whether to recall Governor Davis. If a majority voted Yes, then the votes for the numerous candidates -- over 130 of them -- would count, and the candidate with a simple plurality would be the winner.

The first obligation of every working-class organization was to oppose Proposition 54. The second was to oppose all the bourgeois candidates, but the tactics of doing the latter were subject to considerable dispute. Some said that since the signature campaign had been a reactionary drive, the recall vote was too, and therefore deserved a No vote. Others argued that it was a matter of working-class principle to vote for removing any bourgeois official, thereby requiring a Yes vote. In reality, either vote meant effectively endorsing a bourgeois candidate -- Davis if you voted No on the recall, Bustamante or Schwarzenegger if you voted Yes -- and therefore we advocated not voting.

Among the replacement candidates, many leftists called for a vote for Camejo, claiming that he represented a break from the main capitalist parties and therefore a step forward; some even claimed that the Greens are the basis for building a working-class party. These wild illusions were exposed by Camejo's backhanded support for Bustamante as well as Ralph Nader's run for the presidency in 2000, aimed at saving "American corporate capitalism from itself." (See our pamphlet, The Nader Hoax.)

Some on the left supported Weber or Britton in the name of working-class independence. Burton was ignored except on the World Socialist Web Site of his own virtual-reality party, but he nevertheless won several thousand votes, probably because his name is almost identical to that of a leading Democratic politician in the California Senate. The far-left candidates, despite some socialistic rhetoric, all put forward left-reformist politics. In the absence of any wave of working-class illusions in them or mass struggle for them to mislead, we saw no need to use the Bolshevik weapon of critical support to politically expose them.

However, given the relative ease of getting on the ballot, if the League for the Revolutionary Party had a base in California we would have strongly considered running our own revolutionary campaign. Our emphasis would have been on the fundamental difference between class-collaborationist populism, which can just as easily go to the right as to the left, and the absolute necessity for working-class independence. We are struck by the inability of several politically demoralized pseudo-socialist groups in California to seize the opportunity when they had enough supporters present to propagandize for their programs at a time of such heightened political attention.

Among the centrist left in California, confusion and delusion reigned. The Workers World Party abstained on the recall vote and supported the PFP candidate, who opposed the recall. The International Socialist Organization came down on two out of a possible three sides on the recall; it abstained, after leading members had publicly called for a No vote. The ISO also urged a vote for Camejo -- no surprise, since they had crossed the class line to vote Green in 2000 and have been commuting across it ever since. The SWP ran Britton -- and they shockingly called for abstaining on Proposition 54, on the spurious grounds that it calls for reliance on the government to fight racism. (This, from an outfit which once called on federal troops to "protect" Blacks!)

Spartacists Trip Over "Crude Class Line"

The booby prize for the most absurd position goes to the Spartacist League. They originally chose to abstain on the recall in order to oppose all bourgeois candidates. Then they decided to call for a Yes on the recall and give "critical support" to Britton. "The SWP's election platform, which presents, in however crude a way, a working-class line, allows us to make concrete and clear-cut our opposition to Davis while at the same time expressing our opposition to the Republicans' attempted electoral coup." (Workers Vanguard, Sept. 26.)

The SL apparently thinks it's illogical to vote for a candidate without voting for the recall that makes the replacement election valid. But in a propaganda campaign the main thing is to make the revolutionary view crystal clear. That means stressing working-class independence, which is violated by voting for the recall that in reality opens the door only for a bourgeois winner. Moreover, once the SWP announced its abstention on Proposition 54, its "crude" line lost its last purported shred of working-class content.

The Spartacists' vacillations reveal the anti-Leninist character of their "critical support." For them, it depends upon their degree of political endorsement to reformism. But the Bolshevik tactic never depended on any political agreement whatsoever with the candidates' nominal program, only on the momentum of the class struggle. For example, Lenin used it to expose the imperialist and counterrevolutionary program of the reformist British Labour Party. The SL has denounced us for critically supporting union candidates, when we openly warned fighting workers that these reformists would betray their mistaken trust. Thereby the SL abstained from the actual fight to expose those misleaders by putting them to the test of office -- Lenin's method. But now they politically support a reformist who leads no fight at all and abstains on a crucial class question of opposition to a filthy racist attack.

They've done it before. In Britain in 2001 they gave "critical support" to Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, likewise for its supposed "crude" class line. When they found that the SLP had a cop on their slate, they hastily and shamefacedly withdrew support for him, but maintained their endorsement for his supporters who shared the same reformist (pro-cop) program as the cop himself. (See Spartacists Cross Their "Crude Class Line" in PR 63.) As we wrote at the time, "Critical support is a weapon designed to expose reformist misleaders and deflate workers' illusions in them. It is not an award for setting up a crude and easily crossable class line."

Return to LRP homepage | Write to the LRP