In 1831, Nat Turner led a slave revolt that shook up the entire slave owning South. His revolt was just one of many. It was followed 28 years later by John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, intended to spark another revolt of slaves. The constant threat of revolt of the slaves was a major factor in US politics during the entire period leading up to the confrontation and eventual overthrow of the slave owning class through the Civil War.
Meanwhile, during part of this period (the 1840s), the “Jayhawkers” in Kansas carried on a vicious border war with pro-slavery settlers and raiders in that state-to-be. The Jayhawkers ultimately became the base for a new political party – the Republican Party – whose rise to power led to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
Fast forward to the revolt of the US working class in later years. From the Ludlow Massacre (of striking Colorado miners and their families in 1914) to the sit-down strikes of 1937, nothing changed for workers without mass uprising, confrontation and defiance of the bosses and their representatives.
Engels and Workers’ Party
In 1886, Frederick Engels wrote that “the first great step of importance” for the US working class was “the constitution of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers party…” He thought that step was about to be accomplished in the US at that time. Obviously, he was mistaken; that step has yet to happen, but it is still the main task of the day.
Elections and movement from below
Especially in the US, where class relations are so much played out in the streets, such a party will not simply gather workers up every two years to put a scrap of paper in a ballot box or put a voting mark on a computer screen. Elections can’t be and won’t be ignored (no matter what some idealists would like), but a real working class political party will link the collective struggle in the streets, work places and in the unions with voting. Election campaigns will not be a substitute for mass confrontation and defiance; it will help clarify the program and aims of the struggle and in so doing help lead it forward. (It can also be used to help consolidate gains, but that is a secondary purpose.) In other words, a true mass workers party will combine and help coordinate the struggle in the streets, communities and work places with electoral politics, rather than try to replace one with another.
Clearly, we are not anywhere near the stage where such a party is being built. But we do have to see things through those lenses – what helps lead in that direction, in the direction of workers forming their own, independent organization/party to lead the movement forward vs. what helps confuse or obscure that path? What is a diversion?
Bernie Sanders and Liberal Democrats
The campaign of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for the presidency is an example of such a diversion. According to reports, Sanders has gotten thousands to sign up and to donate to his campaign. Although the rhetoric is different, Obama accomplished something similar in 2008. He built a strong campaign infrastructure, with many people who genuinely saw his candidacy as a means of fighting racism as well as of changing US politics. Some at that time claimed that this infrastructure could later be used to carry the movement forward, but the Democratic Party machine had control of it from start to finish and they never allowed that to happen.
More recently, we saw the liberal wing of the Democrats – MoveOn.org – lead a campaign to try to convince US Senator Elizabeth Warren to challenge for the Democratic nomination. Just as with the Obama machine, MoveOn is controlled from the top to be sure that everything was channeled into and through the Democratic Party. They may help lead a Bernie Sanders campaign, but whether they do or not, his machine will play the same role, since Sanders himself has never been involved in or helped build any movement from below. (We may be sympathetic towards some of those caught up in the Sanders campaign, but we cannot mince words about what role it plays.)
Sanders is not unique; from the local level to the regional and state level, there will be all sorts of candidates who will claim to challenge the system. But for all of them, just as for Sanders, the question to ask is: How do they propose to change things? Do they claim, or even imply, that electing them can bring about the change? Is their candidacy a step towards building working class independence from Corporate America and its two parties?
What are the criteria to decide if they should be supported? Here are some thoughts:
- Does the candidate have a clear record of helping build the movement from below – the mass confrontation and defiance – and does he or she make clear that they will use their office to help further that movement?
- Does the candidate clearly separate her or himself from the Democrats and make clear that their campaign is a step towards workers building their own political party in the sense we describe above?
- Does the candidate make clear that workers and young people must not have to pay for the economic problems of capitalism itself, that they oppose all cuts in wages, social services, etc.?
- Does the candidate make clear that they do not see the private “free” market – private investment for private profit – as the be all and end all, as the only way that people’s needs can be met? Does he or she make clear that public investment, based on taxing the rich and the major corporations, is the real avenue to solving the lack of housing, infrastructure, education facilities, etc, and does he or she oppose all privatization of public services?
If the answer is not “yes” to all of these, then the candidate and their campaign will not help build the movement of workers, the specially oppressed and the youth.
Especially at the local level, there may be candidates who are fairly new to electoral politics who may be very appealing but don’t meet these qualifications. Some of them might be genuine, they might have the best of intentions and really want to make a change in the system and believe they can. There will be a strong impulse to support these candidates, and maybe some of them might move in the direction of actually trying to help build a workers’ movement and build an opposition to the Republicrats. But before those of us who are committed to building that movement support them, we should be sure that such local candidates are open to this and that they make an open commitment in that direction. Because otherwise, if they get elected, the system will overtake them, no matter what their intentions.
The entire history of the United States shows that.