Ralph Nader Campaign 2000
Nader part one:
This is the first in a series of 4 posts on the Nader campaign. In it I will take a close look at the career and political philosophy of Ralph Nader, drawing from David Sanford's "Me and Ralph" published in 1976, various websites, and newspaper articles on Lexis-Nexis. The goal is to try to get past the hagiography and achieve a more focused picture of who he is and what he stands for.
Sanford was an editor at the New Republic in the 1960s before it was purchased by Democratic Party centrist and Zionist Martin Peretz, who steered it to the right. At the time the magazine still had some liberal credentials and employed people like leftists James Ridgeway and Andrew Kopkind, who departed after the Peretz accession.
At one time Sanford and Nader were close personally and politically. The magazine was functioning basically as a pipeline for Nader's research. Sanford and Ridgeway, also a friend of Nader, were his two closest allies. Eventually Sanford and Nader had a falling out, but there is little evidence that it had anything to do with profound political differences. Sanford, like Nader, has remained a political liberal. This makes his book useful, since it is not filled with the kind of prejudice found in a study penned by rightist Ralph Toledando of the National Review. With the exception of Sanford and Toledando, all other books on Nader that I am aware of are exercises in hagiography.
One of the key questions that Sanford addresses is whether Nader was dealing in Ford stock at about the time his book on General Motors was being published. The notion of hairshirt Ralph Nader playing the market--indeed taking advantage of what amounts to 'insider' information--is rather damning. When Ridgeway and Sanford confronted Nader with this allegation in 1972, he became livid.
Sanford tracked down Nader's stockbroker (yes, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus) and raised the question of the Ford stock. From him he learned that it was Nader's mom who owned the stock, not Ralph. So when Nader categorically denied that he owned Ford stock, he was not answering with the kind of candor that one expects from a saint.
Another part of the Nader hagiography is his humble life-style. During the 1960s, it was widely reported that he subsisted on $5,000 a year and lived in a $85 per month furnished room. In 1972 somebody reported to Sanford that Nader actually lived in a $100,000 house in a fancy neighborhood in Washington. Of course, nobody could really object to somebody living in an expensive house but concealing that fact in order to promote a monastic image is another story altogether.
Investigation revealed that the house belonged to his unemployed brother, who seemed ill-equipped to make the mortgage payments on such an abode. When Sanford interviewed Stanley Hurwitz, who lived on the block, the reply was unequivocal: "Ralph Nader lives there, it's his home. I see him coming and going at odd hours nearly every day. I have never seen anyone behaving so strangely around his own home."
In a very real sense, Nader's vision of a transformed America involves attorneys operating as "public citizens". This litigious vanguard will lead the unwashed masses into a better future. So it might be necessary to cultivate ties with this most precious social base. This might explain Nader's rather curious decision to remain neutral on the question of "no-fault" insurance, a measure that would decrease the revenue stream of many an attorney.
When it was reported that the Naderite Center for Auto Safety received $10,000 from the American Trial Lawyers Association just before an important no-fault legislation was voted on (and defeated) in the Senate, many people judged that this amounted to a bribe. In exchange for silence, the Nader machine got a hefty payoff.
Nader's defense involved disavowing any connection with the Center for Auto Safety. It should be pointed out that Nader eschews any kind of formal attachment to many of the organizations he has spawned over the past 35 years or so. For example, Public Citizen, which is routinely described as Naderite in the press, does not include Nader on the board of directors, but it is also reported that Nader maintains an office in their building. Since there is virtually no point of disagreement between Nader and Public Citizen, his independence seems moot at best.
Investigations revealed that ties between Nader and the Center for Auto Safety were real and visible to the inquiring eye. Not only had Nader founded the group, he had hired its director Lowell Dodge. Furthermore, the center was largely funded by the Consumers Union, upon whose board Nader sat. All in all, the interlocking connections between Nader and these various nonprofits operating in his orbit evoke the kind of overlapping that takes place in the corporate world, all calculated to deflect questions of accountability.
This pattern of "plausible deniability" also extended into the Public Research Interest Group (PIRG), a campus group that Nader launched. The PIRG was largely designed as a cash cow for the Naderite empire. The idea was that after pro-Nader students would get 50 percent of the student body to vote for affiliation with PIRG, a mandatory check-off system would deduct a small amount from student fees. Anybody who didn't believe in the Naderite mission would be eligible for a refund, but it was calculated that most students wouldn't bother. This strategy is similar to that employed by book or record clubs that require you to send in a card indicating that you do NOT want the current selection, rather than a positive indication of a choice.
When Penn State trustees turned down this scheme, Nader went on the warpath, describing it as "tyranny 1776 style" and calling the school a "citadel of fascism." A critic of Nader's plan wrote a piece in the July 7, 1975 Chronicle for Higher Education explaining the real stakes, which seemed to be more about the all-important bottom line rather than democracy. A check-off system would bring in $270,000 per year at Penn State, while a voluntary program would net about $30,000. As criticisms of this sort began to mount, Nader felt some pressure to create an escape valve. So, as in the case of the auto safety group mentioned above, Nader claimed that he had no real connections to PIRG. In an op-ed piece, he wrote "PIRGs are independent, student funded and student run...They are not to be confused with their supporters."
Even if Nader's claim to keeping a monastic existence rests on shaky grounds, it is certainly the case that his employees have no choice except to live simply--considering that his wages are among the lowest in the nonprofit world. This makes it almost impossible to raise a family while being a Nader employee, a fact that combined with 80 hour weeks, leads to a high divorce rate. This kind of slave-ship regimen was challenged by the editors of Multinational Monitor, a Naderite publication. Not only were they tired of being poor, they objected to Nader's interference in the magazine's editorial agenda.
When they attempted to form a union, Nader fired them all. The June 28, 1984 Washington Post reported:
"Three editors fired by consumer advocate Ralph Nader's organization have filed charges of unfair labor practice against him, claiming he fired them primarily for trying to form a union.
"In a bitter dispute at the Nader publication Multinational Monitor, Nader's group has changed the locks on the office door and attempted unsuccessfully to have the chief editor arrested, alleging he took away files on a crucial story.
"Nader, in an interview, said the charges filed against him last month with the National Labor Relations Board are a 'ploy,' and that the reason for the firings was that the editors disobeyed his strict orders by publishing a highly controversial story about alleged bribery by Bechtel Corp. before Nader had a chance to read the final version.
"The Bechtel story, which drew nationwide publicity in April, revealed that federal authorities were investigating whether the giant California-based multinational firm paid bribes to win approval of nuclear power plants in Korea during the time when Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and Secretary of State George P. Shultz were top officials of Bechtel.
"The firings have sparked numerous petitions and letters of protest to Nader from the Monitor's small but loyal liberal readership and have prompted threats of legal action on both sides."
In an interview with Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer, fired editor Tim Shorrock states:
"Nader's campaign against me was incredibly vicious. His top aides spread all kinds of rumors about me in Washington and managed to get me pretty well blacklisted from the public interest crowd (which actually was a good thing). They even tried to convince people I was a communist (!!!) out to subvert Nader's organizations."
Turning now to Nader's political philosophy, we should right off the bat mention that his attacks on the WTO are commendable. Of course, this does not quite distinguish him from other opponents like Pat Buchanan, whose rhetoric on these questions matches Nader's. Perhaps this affinity has led Reform Party leader Jim Mangia to open up discussions with the Nader camp about a possible bid on the Reform ticket. The May 26th NY Times reports:
"Jim Mangia, the Reform Party's national secretary, has been talking to Green Party leaders about Mr. Nader's interest in running as the Reform candidate. Despite Mr. Nader's leftward leanings, his politics are not so different from the Reform platform on issues like campaign finance reform and permanent trading status for China."
In a nutshell, Nader is attempting to connect the dotted lines between the social movements and trade unions of today with the anti-monopoly and populist traditions of the pre-1917 left. This is the left of small shopkeepers, farmers and "citizens" who need to restore the vision of Jeffersonian democracy. In his Concord Principles found at votenader.com, he states:
"Control of our social institutions, our government, and our political system is presently in the hands of a self-serving, powerful few, known as an oligarchy, which too often has excluded citizens from the process.
"Our political system has degenerated into a government of the power brokers, by the power brokers, and for the power brokers, and is far beyond the control or accountability of the citizens. It is an arrogant and distant caricature of Jeffersonian democracy."
I personally am somewhat suspicious of appeals to "Jeffersonian democracy", particularly in light of his treatment of the American Indian.
"...but this letter being unofficial and private, I may with safety give you a more extensive view of our policy respecting the Indians, that you may better comprehend the parts dealt to you in detail through the official channel, and observing the system of which they make a part, conduct yourself in unison with it in cases where you are obliged to act without instruction...When they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off from time to time in exchange for necessaries for their farms and families... As to their fear, we presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them..." (Classified Letter of President Thomas Jefferson to William Henry Harrison, Feb. 27, 1803)
Turning to more recent history, it is also disconcerting to note--based on an exhaustive search of Lexis-Nexis--that prior to his 1996 Presidential bid on the Green ticket, Nader has never spoken out publicly on the cutting edge issues of the day: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, abortion rights, gay rights, affirmative action, etc. One can only suppose that taking a stand on crash-resistant auto bumpers might be less risky.
Sanford actually explores this "tunnel vision" approach to changing society in the final chapter of his "Ralph and Me." After a visit to Ghana, Nader aide James Fellows began to have doubts whether Nader's approach mattered much when people in Africa were suffering famine, epidemics and warfare. Nader reassured him that these problems were insuperable; there's nothing that can be done. On the other hand, Fellows told Sanford that in Nader's view, "[C]ar safety or something like that, there's a marginal improvement that he can make."
In my final post, I will make the case that despite all this the Nader campaign might be a positive development. Prior to that, I will supply some background on the Green Party, the topic of my next post.
Nader part two:
Since the Green Party US, like many other such parties, would probably not exist if it had not been for the example of the German Greens, it would be useful to examine the original.
By the mid 1970s a grassroots environmental movement of enormous scale had taken root in Germany. Called the 'Burgeriniativen', it would include 50,000 groups and 300,000 members at its height. Nuclear energy was the decisive question for this movement, but protests against nuclear weapons rapidly became a Green issue as well.
In the mid-70s, the German government planned to satisfy 15 per cent of the country's total energy requirements and 40 per cent of its electrical power through nuclear power stations over a ten year period. Protestors threw the government on the defensive, especially at a proposed site on the upper Rhine at Whyl in Baden-Wurttemberg. In February of 1975, wine-growers from Alsace and the Kaiserstuhl joined some 8,000 demonstrators who eventually broke through a police barricade.
Two things helped to intensify this movement. One, was the 1979 'accident' at Three Mile Island in the United States, which seemed to confirm the worries depicted cinematically in "The China Syndrome". The other was the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, which set into motion an escalation of the arms race, both in terms of "Star Wars" and the grizzly proposals floated by the White House about the possibility of a "winnable" nuclear war. Nuclear power plants and NATO bases melded into a symbol of capitalist irrationality and violence.
By 1979 activists in the Burgerinitiativen had begun to explore their electoral options since the SPD was not seen as a suitable vehicle for their demands. One of the first to propose a "Green slate" was Petra Kelly, who many regard as a founder of the German Greens. Petra Kelly died at the age of 44 on Oct. 1, 1992 at the hands of her lover and co-founder of the German Greens Party, Gert Bastian--a 69 year old retired Nato General--who then turned the gun on himself. Some speculated that Bastian was a double-agent while others interpreted the tragedy in purely human terms.
Initial electoral successes led Kelly, Rudi Dutschke, Czech immigrant and dissident Milan Horacek, wack job artist Joseph Beuys, Rudolf Bahro and others to begin discussions about launching a new party. Dutschke was a prominent figure in the German student movement of the 1960s, which was organized as the SDS. The German SDS, unlike the Americans, was Marxist.
Dutschke had been shot by a rightwing gunman in 1968 and died of long-standing complications in 1979, before he had a chance to see the success of the movement he helped to launch. Prior to the initial discussions about the feasibility of a Green Party, Dutschke and Horacek had been working closely together in order to start a nondogmatic socialist party. In the late 1970s, there was a generalized phenomenon of Marxists beginning to try to break free of sectarianism after a decade of abortive attempts to "win over" the working class in one adventure after another.
In January of 1980, this group submitted the first party program. It was characterized by Horst Mewes, a scholar of the Green movement, as containing "an array of concrete proposals for environmental policy, framed in what was ultimately a 'utopian' design for a pacifist, environmentally compatible welfare state, with totally emancipated, self-governing green republics existing autonomously in a pacified world of international mutual assistance and political harmony."
Suffice it to say that the rejection of sectarianism so close to the heart of figures like Dutschke and Horacek had mutated into a rejection of socialism altogether when pen finally hit paper.
The philosophical underpinnings for much of this initial Green Party program can be traced to the influence of Rudolf Bahro. Bahro, an East German dissident, had broken with Marxism in a most interesting way. He accepted "post-scarcity" on terms almost identical to that of the Frankfurt School, but claimed that figures like Herbert Marcuse had no influence on him. His main goal was to achieve a cultural revolution in advanced capitalist countries against consumerism, in a manner evocative of Abby Hoffman or even some New Age gurus.
After the Greens dumped the idealism that characterized the 1980 founding program and turned toward "realism", Bahro stormed off and began to drift to the right. In 1985 he stated, "The Greens are almost worse than useless. They have become so much a part of the system that capitalism would have had to invent them if they weren't here already." He became a "deep ecologist" and raised the possibility that some aspects of the Nazi "blood and soil" ideology had merit. He died of cancer at the age of 62 on December 10, 1997.
>From the very beginning the German Greens divided into two camps: the "realos" who advocated in 'realistic' terms that the party operate in a conventional electoral manner; and the "fundis" who backed Green 'fundamentalism' in terms laid down by Kelly and Bahro.
Led by 'realos' like Joshka Fischer, the various branches of the Greens had begun to explore running coalition slates with the SPD. This led to bitter faction fights that culminated in the isolation and defeat of the 'fundis'. While there are various interpretations as to why this took place, I think it makes sense to see it in terms of being generated by the failure of the 'fundamentalist' program to sustain an electoral institution. Despite the radicalism of the 1985 program, it never considered any other strategy than gradualism. If the goal was to provide an left alternative for German voters, rather than overthrowing the system which used electoral politics as a means of stabilization, then the 'realos' might make the most sense. At least they demonstrated an ability to wheel and deal in the dirty world of German electoral politics.
In 1989, the 'realos' consolidated their grip on the party. They entered a governing coalition with the Social Democrats in Frankfurt and speculations about a similar coalition on a national level became widespread. This eventually came to pass as "realo" Joshka Fischer became a junior partner in the coalition government whose war of aggression against Yugoslavia. This marked a turning point, after which the shreds of idealism in the formerly pacifist party were dispensed with completely.
Just around the time that the German Greens had become transformed into a conventional left-of-center political party, the American Greens made their debut. Although a book-length history of the American Greens has not been written, NY Green leader and Marxism list deep lurker Howie Hawkins has written about them occasionally in Z. For those of you interested in learning more about the Greens, I recommend that you check out his articles at: www.zmag.org.
The most important thing to keep in mind about the American Greens is that unlike the German party they were born in a period of retreat for the radical movement. Rather than arising from a powerful mass movement like the Burgeriniativen, the American Greens represented the efforts of scattered activists to get something off the ground in very difficult objective circumstances. Also, rather than attempting to form a national organization at the outset, there were instead initiatives on a municipal or statewide level. For example, a Maine Green Party was launched in 1984. By 1992, affiliates had gained 13 seats in local elections around the country and total representation stood at 58 seats in 14 states.
Amy Balanter, executive director of Green Party USA, told the Associated Press in November, 1992 that the Greens want to win "a substantial number of seats" in state and local elections before running a national race. "Most people say they don't want to run a symbolic campaign. If we run someone, we want to win," she said.
This could be described clearly as the American variant of the 'realo' position although there were no powerful social democratic parties to make a coalition with. To their credit, the Greens have never looked to the Democrats as an American stand-in for the German SPD.
In a May, 1995 Z Magazine article ("Can the Greens Unite for 1996?"), Hawkins discusses key organizational and political problems. Although there had been successes on a local level, a national party could not seem to come together. The largest national organization-Green Parties USA (GP-USA)-had suffered a loss of over half of its membership in the preceding two years. Resentment toward leaders of the national organization was widespread in the local chapters, as one might expect from a group that had such a fetish over local struggles and autonomy. An anarchist predisposition had marked the American Green movement from the beginning.
To defend itself against the machinations at the top, a Left Green Network was established. Hawkins writes:
"In response to this immobilization and persistent red-baiting between left and right Greens, a Left Green Network (LGN) was formed to educate and advocate its program within the Greens, not as a rival organization. It hoped to stimulate more coordinated activism in the Greens, reserving the right to act independently of the Greens if they remained immobilized, as happened in 1990 with the Wall Street Action to shut down the New York Stock Exchange to counter the corporate takeover of the 20th Anniversary Earth Day. By openly declaring its leftism, the Left Green Network hoped to switch discussion from red-baiting labeling to the substance of the left's proposals for the Greens: decisions by simple majority with the right of minorities to publicly dissent (which the Left Greens called democratic decentralism), an organizational structure with power grounded in the locals that send mandated delegates to national conventions (confederal grassroots democracy), an organization that combined electoral and extra-electoral action (a movement party), and an anti-capitalist economic program of decentralized social and cooperative ownership and participatory worker/community control (a cooperative commonwealth)."
Although Hawkins does not mention it, this program seems inspired by the German 'fundis'. Unlike Germany, their cousins were able to make some headway. At a 1990 national gathering, much of the LGN program was adopted. The rightist faction in the Greens counter-attacked, setting up something called Green Politics Network (GPN). Soon after its formation, the GPN called on the emerging state parties to form an Association of State Green Parties, independent of the GP-USA. The organizations have separate finances and officers and websites.
The GPN-initiated a Third Party `96 conference that, according to Hawkins, had many Greens and other independent political activists concerned. Its co-sponsorship by sections of the Patriot Party raised "the question of what the politics of this so-called 'radical middle' of deficit hawks has to do with a Green/progressive politics of economic justice." The Patriot Party was a forerunner to the Reform Party that was launched by Lowell Weicker and Ross Perot. At some point the machinery was taken over by the shadowy New Alliance Party cult that operates now in the Reform Party.
Nader part three:
American Marxists have always been ambivalent about electoral formations arising to the left of the Democrats and Republicans. On one hand they would view such third parties as a necessary alternative to the two-party system; on the other, they inevitably regard them as rivals. Even when Lenin urged support for reformist electoral parties, he couched this in terms of the way a rope supports a hanging man. Needless to say, this outlook would almost condemn Marxists to irrelevancy when a genuine electoral initiative like the Nader campaign emerges. Unless revolutionaries are committed in their heart and soul to grass roots movements, electoral or non-electoral, such begrudging tokens of support are bound to lead to missteps.
The Nader campaign was not the first such opportunity in the 20th century. In the early years of the Comintern, the Communists faced similar phenomena in the form of the Farmer-Labor Party and Robert La Follette's third party bid in 1924. Since the Comintern influence was almost always negative, it is no surprise that mistakes were repeatedly made under the "guidance" of the Kremlin leaders. At the Comintern's Fifth Congress in 1924, Zinoviev admitted, "We know England so little, almost as little as America." Despite this, advice was given freely to the American party which was in no position to judge it critically. William Z. Foster, one of the American leaders, was typical. He wrote in his autobiography: "I am convinced that the Communist International, even though they were five thousand miles away from here, or even six thousand, understood the American situation far better than we did. They were able to teach us with regard to the American situation."
In the economic collapse that followed WWI, militant trade unionists began to form labor party chapters in industrial cities. A machinists strike in Bridgeport led to formation of the labor party in 5 Connecticut towns in 1918. John Fitzpatrick and Edward Nockels of the Chicago Federation of Labor called for a national labor party in that year. Such grass-roots radicalism would normally be embraced by Marxists, but unfortunately a deeply sectarian tendency was at work in the early Communist movement.
Although the Farmer-Labor Party movement was loosely socialist in orientation, it retained a populist character as well. This could be expected in the context of a worsening situation in the farmland since the turn of the century. The party received a major boost from the railway unions in 1922, after a half-million workers went on strike against wage cuts. They took the lead in calling for a Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA) in February, 1922, shortly before the walkout. The SP, the Farmer-Labor Party and the largest farmers organizations in the country came to the conference and declared their intention to elect candidates based on the principles of "genuine democracy". In the case of the Farmer-Labor delegates, this meant nationalization of basic industry and worker participation in their management.
The CP was not invited, but even if they had been invited, it is doubtful that they would have accepted. In 1919 the CP described the labor party movement as a "minor phase of proletarian unrest" which the trade unions had fomented in order to "conserve what they had secured as a privileged caste." It concluded bombastically, "There can be no compromise either with Laborism or reactionary Socialism."
In 1921 Lenin and the Comintern had come to the conclusion that the chances for success in an immediate bid for power had begun to subside, as the European capitalist states had begun to regain some social and economic stability. In such a changed situation, a united front between Communists and Socialists would be advisable. This opened up the possibility for American Communists to work with the new Labor Party movement, especially since Farmer-Labor leader Parley Christensen had visited Moscow and given Lenin a glowing report on party prospects.
Unfortunately, the gap between a united front in theory and the united front in practice was colossal. The Communists saw themselves as the true vanguard, so any alliance with reformists would have to based on the tacit understanding that the ultimate goal was political defeat of their socialist allies. Such Machiavellian understandings were obviously inimical to the building of a genuine leadership that could be embraced by the entire working class. The reason for this is obvious. The differentiations in the working class, based on income and skill, will tend to be reflected in their political institutions. They can not be abolished by imprimatur. The notion of a pure Bolshevik party made up only of the most oppressed and exploited workers unified around a ideologically coherent program is the stuff of sectarian daydreams and bears little resemblance in fact to the Russian reality.
When the American Communists finally made a turn toward the Farmer-Labor Party, it retained ideological baggage and sectarian habits from the preceding three years. These harmful tendencies were aggravated by the intervention of John Pepper (nee Joseph Pogany), whose ultraleftist authority was analogous to that enjoyed by Bela Kun in the German Communist movement in the same period. Unlike Kun, Pepper did not have the imprimatur of the Comintern even though he implied that he had. He relied on his ability to spout Marxist jargon to impress the raw American leaders. Foster describes the impression Pepper made on him: "It is true that I was somewhat inexperienced in communist tactics, but Pepper...allowed everyone to assume that he was representing the Comintern in America...those of us who [did] not enjoy an international reputation were disposed to accept as correct communist tactics everything to which Pepper said YES and AMEN."
The Chicago Communists, including Arne Swabeck, were on the front lines of the orientation to the newly emerging Farmer-Labor movement, since the Chicago labor movement was providing many of the troops and much of the leadership. Arne Swabeck might be known to some of you as one of the "talking heads" who functioned as a Greek Chorus in Warren Beatty's "Reds". At my very first Socialist Workers branch meeting in 1967, I voted with the rest of the branch to expel Arne who had become converted to Maoism in his late 80s after a life-long career in the Trotskyist movement.
John Fitzpatrick, Edward Nockels and Jay G. Brown, three Chicago Farmer-Labor leaders, had decided to call a convention for July 1923. Three Communists--Swabeck, Earl Browder and Charles Krumbein--formed a committee to work with the Fitzpatrick group.
Fitzpatrick was typical of the previous generation of labor leaders of the old school. A blacksmith by trade, Irish in origin, he had opposed American involvement in WWI, had spoken out in favor of the Bolshevik revolution and defied steel company and AFL bureaucrats in militant strike actions. But he was not good enough for the Communists, who regarded him with suspicion. How could it be otherwise when John Pepper was writing articles for the party paper stuffed with nonsense like this: "In face of danger, we must not forget that a Communist Party is always an army corps surrounded by dangers on all sides--a Communist should not abandon his party, even if he thinks the Party is in the wrong. Every militant Communist should write on his shield: 'My Party, right or wrong, my Party!'"
The Chicago Farmer-Labor party leaders were willing to work with the Communists, who had some influence in the labor movement as well as enjoying the backing of the world's first workers state. All that they asked was for a little discretion since red-baiting was widespread in this period of the Palmer Raids. Farmer-Labor leader Anton Johanssen advised Browder, "If you keep your heads, go slow, don't rock the boat, then the Chicago Federation will stand fast. But if you begin to throw your weight around too much, the game will be up."
That's not too much to ask, is it?
Fitzpatrick was stuck in the middle between some fearful Farmer-Labor Party leaders, who reflected anticommunist prejudices, and the NY Communist leaders under Pepper's influence who regarded him as the enemy. Tensions between the camps was exacerbated by the Communists who entertained the possibility of taking over the new formation and turning it into a proper revolutionary instrument under their farsighted leadership. [Insert typographical symbol for sarcasm here.]
The tensions came to a head over the timing for a national conference, with Fitzpatrick opting for a later date and the Communists favoring a date as early as possible. The differences over scheduling reflected deeper concerns about the relationship of political forces. The Communists felt that an earlier date would enhance their ability to control events, while Fitzpatrick hoped that a delay would enable him to rally other leftwing forces outside the CP's milieu.
>From his offices in NYC Pepper pushed for an earlier date and was successful. It was able to garner more votes than Fitzgerald on leadership bodies. Once the decision was made at the Political Committee level, the Chicago leaders closed ranks in a display of "democratic centralism" even though they felt that it was a mistake. When the national Farmer-Labor Party gathering was held on July 3, 1923, nearly 80 years ago this week, the CP ran roughshod over the opposition. Using their superior organizational skills and discipline, all major votes went the CP way. During the antiwar movement, the Trotskyists used to function the same way. We called ourselves without the slightest hint of self-awareness the "big Red machine." No wonder independents hated us.
On the third day of the conference, John Fitzpatrick could not contain his dismay:
"I know Brother [William Z.] Foster and the others who are identified and connected with him, and if they think they can attract the attention of the rank and file of the working men and women of America to their organization, I say to them and to this organization, that is a helpless course, and they cannot do it.
"Then what have they done? They have killed the Farmer-Labor Party, and they have killed the possibility of uniting the forces of independent labor action in America; and they have broken the spirit of this whole thing so that we will not be able to rally the forces for the next twenty years!"
The CP had succeeded in capturing itself. After the conference ended, all of the independents left the Farmer-Labor Party and it functioned as a typical front group of the kind that vanguard formations--whether Stalinist, Maoist or Trotskyist--have succeeded in building over the years. A true mass movement will have contradictions and tensions based on class differentiation that will never remain bottled up in such front groups. The purpose of a genuine vanguard party, needless to say, is to help act as a midwife to such formations because they are the only vehicle that can express the complexity and hopes of a modern industrial nation numbering nearly 300 million.
The Communists had another opportunity before long in the form of the Robert La Follette third party campaign of 1924. They would screw this one up as well, and for the same sorts of reasons. Senator Robert La Follette was a Republican in the Progressivist tradition. For obvious reasons, the Nader campaign hearkens back to the 1924 effort. Nader, like La Follette, is running against corporate abuse but really lacks a systematic understanding of the cause of such abuse or how to end it. The anti-monopoly tradition is deeply engrained in the American consciousness and it is very likely that all mass movements in opposition to the two-party system will retain elements of this kind of thinking. Of course, one can always fantasize about an October 1917, keeping in mind that such fantasies miss the deeply populist cast of the Russian Revolution itself.
At first the Communists looked favorably on the La Follette initiative, couching it in sectarian phraseology: "The creation of a Third Party is a revolutionary fact," John Pepper explained, "but it is a counter-revolutionary act to help such a Third Party to swallow a class Farmer-Labor party." Translated from jargon into English, this was Pepper's way of saying that the Communists favored La Follette's bid but only as a means to an end: their own victory at the head of the legions of the working class. La Follette was seen as a Kerensky-like figure, who would be supported against a Czarist two-party system in an interim step toward American Bolshevik victory.
Despite the 1921 "united front" turn of the Comintern, a decision was made to instruct the Americans to break completely with La Follette. Not even critical support of the kind that Pepper put forward was allowed. It proposed that the CP run its own candidates or those of the rump Farmer-Labor party it now owned and controlled, lock, stock and barrel. Eight days after the CP opened up its guns on La Follette, he responded in kind and denounced Communism as "the mortal enemies of the progressive movement and democratic ideals."
Looking back in retrospect, there is powerful evidence suggesting that the La Follette campaign had more in common with the working-class based Farmer-Labor Party that John Fitzpatrick had initiated than the kind of middle-class third party campaign a Republic Senator would be expected to mount.
La Follette first began to explore the possibility of running as an independent during the 1920 campaign, when a platform he submitted to Wisconsin delegates was reviled as "Bolshevik." It included repeal of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, restoration of civil liberties, and abolition of the draft. On economic policy, it promised nationalization of the railroads, a key populist demand, and of natural resources and agricultural processing facilities. It also urged government sponsorship of farmer and worker organizations to achieve "collective bargaining" to control the products of their work. (They don't make Republicans the way they used to.)
In 1921 radical farmer and labor organizations launched a common lobbying front in the People's Legislative Service and La Follette became its most prominent leader. The PLS received most of its funds from the railway unions. La Follette was convinced that taxation was the best way to remedy social inequality and his PLS speeches hammered away at this theme, in somewhat of the same manner that Nader's stump speeches focus single-mindedly on corporate greed.
La Follette threw his hat in the ring in 1924 and attracted support from the same constellation of forces that had rallied to the railway union initiated CPPA (Conference for Progressive Political Action). They strongly identified with the British Labor Party and hoped that the La Follette campaign could lead in the same direction. At the July 4, 1924 CPPA convention, the labor and farmers organizations were joined by significant representation from the rising civil rights movement, especially the NAACP.
Soon afterwards, the Socialists formally endorsed the La Follette bid at their own convention on July 7. Intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Theodore Dreiser, Franz Boas, Thorstein Veblen, Margaret Sanger all endorsed La Follette. Unions supplied most of the organizational muscle for the campaign. Besides the rail unions, various Central Trades Councils threw themselves into the work. Charles Kutz, a machinists union official, became director of the La Follette campaign in Pennsylvania. NAACP support for La Follette was based on his opposition to "discrimination between races" and disavowal of the Ku Klux Klan that had been making inroads in the Democratic Party recently. His stance prompted the Grand Wizard of the KKK to declare La Follette as "the arch enemy of the nation."
La Follette won 16.5 percent of the vote in 1924, as compared to 28.8 for the Democrat candidate John W. Davis and 54 percent for Coolidge. La Follette was old and sickly by the time the campaign began and its rigors took its toll. He died of a heart attack on June 18, 1925, four days after his seventieth birthday.
The La Follette campaign was the last significant third party effort in the United States until the 1948 Henry Wallace Progressive Party campaign. It is difficult to say whether it would have evolved into a fighting labor party, especially in light of the sectarian hostility of the CP. When Eugene V. Debs came out in support of La Follette, William Z. Foster blasted him for his "complete capitulation". Debs fired back that he made his political decisions without having to rely on a "Vatican in Moscow." The stung Foster replied, "We make no apology for accepting the guidance of the Third International. On the contrary, we glory in it."
Perhaps a glimmer of reality would eventually creep into the Comintern's thinking. The significant labor and black support for La Follette could not be ignored. In 1925, after taking a second look at the La Follette campaign, it decided that the 16.5 percent vote was "an important victory" for the American left, an implied rebuke to earlier sectarian attitudes.
Obviously it is best to start off with fresh slate, without any sectarian attitudes, when confronted by phenomena such as the Farmer-Labor Party or the La Follette campaign. It is within that spirit that my final post on the Nader campaign will be presented in the next week or so. In it I want to closely examine the social and economic forces that have given birth to the most extraordinary electoral project of the left since the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948.
Sources: Theodore Draper, "American Communism and Soviet Russia" David Thelen, "Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit"
Nader part four:
Characterized by catastrophism from its birth, American ultraleftism has been ill-equipped to understand and relate to leftwing third party initiatives. If capitalism is on its last legs, wouldn't an electoral effort amount to a diversion at best, or betrayal at worst? In reality, American capitalism has enormous resilience--based as it is on a vulturistic hold over the Third World. It has the capacity to work its way through one crisis after another. Given this reality, Marxist politics must involve detours and flanking tactics. This is something that any self-respecting ultraleft finds impossible, their main slogan being "March, march--full speed ahead!" Of course, it never bothers them if no army is following them. In some cases, some of the extreme purists feel compromised if they do have a following, even of just a couple dozen. What were they doing wrong?
Furthermore much of this kind of ultraleftism is idealist in nature. Each sect has a magic formula that will wake up the masses from its slumber. All that is needed is the right wording on a leaflet to be passed out on the right occasion and BINGO. Not surprisingly, their attitude toward third party candidates is also idealist in nature. Instead of paying attention to union interest in the Nader campaign as a sign of motion in the ranks, they dwell on Nader's speeches as if speeches change history. In reality revolutions only partially involve conscious action; more significant are the powerful mass mobilizations operating on the basis of newly awakened, nearly subliminal thoughts and feelings. This is what the bourgeoisie calls the mob and it is what revolutionaries call free humanity.
The purpose of this concluding article on the Nader campaign is to call attention to the underlying class struggle dynamics of some third party campaigns, including Nader's itself. With a two party system in the United States that conspires to bottle up challenges to particularly hated capitalist policies, it is almost inevitable that electoral responses will develop to confront these policies. In every instance the bourgeoisie goes on the offensive against such campaigns, even when the candidate himself has a history in the two-party system. They are not afraid of the candidate, but the example of an electoral formation operating out of their control.
The first such initiative in the 20th century, which I reported on in my last post, was the Farmer-Labor Party and LaFollette campaigns of the 1919-1924, that overlapped to a considerable degree. It expressed the resistance of American workers to attacks on their political and economic rights, which had taken the form of the Palmer Raids and other extra-governmental rightist attacks. It also expressed the determination of the black community to beat back racist pogroms and the growth and influence of the KKK. LaFollette sought out the support of the organized left, the trade unions and the NAACP. Unfortunately the Communist wing of the left was hostile to LaFollette's campaign and probably shared some responsibility for its failure to remain viable after 1924. Its defeat undoubtedly played a role in the political retreat of the late 1920s, a period not unlike our own. With the absence of a political alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, nothing in the political arena stood in the way of a ruling class economic transformation that in its way was as sweeping as the "downsizing" of the 1970s and 80s. Mike Davis writes in "Prisoner of the American Dream":
"It would be difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of American labor's defeat in the 1919-1924 period. For almost a decade, the corporations were virtually free from the challenge of militant unionism. In the interlude of the 'American Plan' employers accelerated the attack on worker control within the labor process, the new mass-production technologies advancing side by side with new forms of corporate management and work supervision. The totality of this transformation of the labor process -- first 'Taylorism', then 'Fordism' -- conferred vastly expanded powers of domination through its systematic decomposition of skills and serialization of the workforce."
During the 1930s there were opportunities for a third party based on the trade union movement, but because of the hegemony of the Communist Party, they were squandered. FDR's New Deal attracted the blind support of the CP, even as the party ran its own ineffective propaganda campaigns for president.
Ironically it was the turn of the US ruling class against the New Deal consensus that precipitated a third party initiative in 1948, the Progressive Party campaign of Henry Wallace. In many ways Wallace symbolized the most progressive aspects of the New Deal. As Secretary of Agriculture, he and colleague Harold Ickes played the role of liberal conscience in the FDR cabinet. He took the principles of the New Deal at face value and decided to launch the Progressive Party in the face of what he considered their betrayal at the hands of Harry Truman.
The Wallace campaign has served as a whipping boy for dogmatic Marxist electoral theorizing, much of which I took seriously when I was in the Trotskyist movement. It was supposed to prove what a dead end middle class electoral politics was, in contrast to the insurmountable power and logic of a Labor Party. Unfortunately, the Labor Party existed only in the realm of propaganda while the Wallace campaign, with all its flaws, existed in the realm of reality.
While most people are aware of Wallace's resistance to the Cold War and to some of the more egregious anti-union policies of the Democrats and Republicans, it is important to stress the degree to which his campaign embraced the nascent civil rights movement.
Early in the campaign Wallace went on a tour of the south. True to his party's principles, he announced in advance that he would neither address segregated audiences nor stay in segregated hotels. This was virtually an unprecedented measure to be taken at the time by a major politician. Wallace paid for it dearly. In a generally hostile study of Henry Wallace, the authors begrudgingly pay their respects to the courage and militancy of the candidate:
"The southern tour had begun peacefully enough in Virginia, despite the existence in that state of a law banning racially mixed public assemblies. In Norfolk, Suffolk, and Richmond, Wallace spoke to unsegregated and largely receptive audiences. But when the party went on into supposedly more liberal North Carolina, where there was no law against unsegregated meetings, the violence started. A near riot preceded his first address, and a supporter, James D. Harris of Charlotte, was stabbed twice in the arm and six times in the back. The next day there was no bloodshed, but Wallace was subjected to a barrage of eggs and fruit, and the crowd of about five hundred got so completely out of control that he had to abandon his speech. At Hickory, North Carolina, the barrage of eggs and tomatoes and the shouting were so furious that Wallace was prevented from speaking, but he tried to deliver a parting thrust over the public address system: 'As Jesus Christ told his disciples, when you enter a town that will not hear you willingly, then shake the dust of that town from your feet and go elsewhere.' If they closed their minds against his message, he would, like Jesus Christ, abandon them to their iniquity." (Henry A. Wallace: His Search for a New World Order, Graham White and John Maze)
Wallace was trounced badly as a result of Truman's demagogic appeal to some bread-and-butter issues supported by the trade union bureaucracy, which was also working overtime to purge CP'ers out of the trade unions. Furthermore, since the CP had done nothing to defend trade union prerogatives during WWII, even to the extent of supporting speedup, many rank and filers considered them to be enemies of the labor movement. On top of this, the 1948 CP coup in Czechoslovakia against the social democratic government of Edward Benes alienated many liberals and even some leftists. Despite efforts by Wallace to keep Stalin at arm's length, the rightwing in the United States was able to exploit resentment over the situation in Czechoslovakia and paint Wallace as a "Communist dupe".
When the votes were counted, Wallace only received 2.37 percent of the total. This disaster set the tone for a general offensive against the left in the US, focusing particularly on the CP. In no time at all, the witch-hunt was unleashed, mobs attacked the Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, and the Korean War broke out. There is very little doubt that the Wallace campaign and the forces gathered around it were the sole force capable at that time of putting a roadblock in the way of this quasi-fascist movement. If the labor movement had not been put on the defensive, if the civil rights movement had been able to move ahead under the general framework of Progressive Party campaigns, perhaps the dismal 1950s would have not been inevitable. This is not socialist revolution, but it is the real class struggle nonetheless. Seeing the relationship between the two processes requires some dialectical insight.
Twenty years later another radical third party emerged and for some of the same reasons as Wallace's. The Peace and Freedom Party [PFP] was launched by radicals in the Draperite International Socialism current in 1968 because the two parties seemed united in supporting the war in Vietnam and racist attacks on the black community in the name of "law and order." Unlike 1948, the trade unions were not in motion and therefore very few workers joined the PFP. This meant that it lacked even a modicum of social stability. The choice for Presidential candidate, Eldridge Cleaver, was symptomatic of the sort of feverish mood that existed in the predominantly young and middle-class party. On top of this, the party became a battleground for competing "vanguard" organizations each of which was fighting for hegemony. Meetings often turned into the kind of screaming matches that marked SDS meetings during the same period.
Meanwhile the CPUSA decided to launch its own third party bid, with the highly original name of Freedom and Peace Party--Dick Gregory was the candidate. We Trotskyists, who ran our own candidate, sneered at the shenanigans of the "petty bourgeois" third parties, but our rallies were dwarfed by the PFP's. The world of real politics is often very messy and chaotic, something that the control freaks of the Trotskyist movement could not relate to. This messiness was characteristic of the 1960s in general. If any good was to come out of it, there had to be a Marxist movement that accepted the youthful energy and spontaneity on its own terms and tried to steer it in a class struggle direction. I would suggest that the Seattle protests give a good indication that all genuine mass movements have a dynamic of their own and it is best to engage with them rather than create some mini-movement run from above on a tight leash.
In going through my library, I discovered an interesting piece of trivia about the PFP that I had completely forgotten. Cleaver disappeared from the United States during the campaign in order to avoid arrest, but Douglas Dowd, his vice-presidential candidate, remained in the country. There could be no more of an odd couple than these two. Dowd is one of the great left scholars in the United States. A veteran of WWII around the same age and outlook as Howard Zinn, he has taught economics at Cornell University for decades. In his marvelous memoir "Blues for America," Dowd recounts a campaign rally for him and Cleaver:
"Cleaver had many passions; the one ranking highest when I knew him was his determination never again to let 'them' get him back in prison. Before the November election, he skipped the country, believing-probably correctly- that he was going to be tried and convicted on some charge or another. But before his departure we had shared a platform or two-a memorable experience.
"There was an evening at Syracuse University, for example, when the large university crowd was encircled by at least twenty of Cleaver's men-standing in the outer aisles, all noticeably armed.
"As the least important speaker of the evening, I gave my speech first to the fitful and uneasy audience-not caring much about my speech, and certainly not expecting what they were soon to hear from Eldridge. On the brink of leaving secretly for Algiers, he was both angry and tense. My years in the army had accustomed me to the F-word; but I had never heard so many of them in a rat-a-tat-tat such as Cleaver's that evening. Because I sat on the stage, I could observe the faces of the audience: whether faculty or students, they seemed to be in a state of semi-shock. To paraphrase Saddam Hussein, it was the motherfucker of all political speeches.
"Cleaver went underground and overseas; shortly thereafter, bureaucratic wheels moving as slowly-and as absurdly-as they are wont to do, I received a note from the N.Y. Secretary of State informing me that my presidential running mate was disqualified because he was too young (!).
"Cleaver returned to the country after many years in Algeria. It is widely believed (also by me) that Cleaver came back to the States in a deal with feds: he would stay out of prison if he would also stay out of politics, electoral, street, or otherwise. In any case he became a professed fundamentalist Christianity and a dispenser of capitalist ideology for a few years, even for while selling men's leather pants with an outstanding codpiece as a selling point."
Turning now to the Nader campaign, we have to start off by addressing the question of what kind of contradictions would explain the emergence of a third party challenge to the Democrats and Republicans. Since we are at peace, and since the economy is reportedly booming, why Nader and why now?
Turning to the newly published "America's Forgotten Majority", Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers write that "from 1973 to 1998, in an economy that almost doubled in real terms, the wage of the typical worker in production and nonsupervisory jobs (80 percent of the workforce) actually declined by 6 percent, from $13.61 to $12.77 an hour."
This has been the reality for blue-collar workers and it has been going on for decades now. It is truly remarkable that no electoral response on the left has appeared prior to the Nader campaign.
Despite the chauvinist character of labor union opposition to China's entry into the WTO, there is another process taking place that has much more importance for Marxists. When powerful American trade unions flirt with the candidacy of a man who has never had a kind word for American corporations, we are dealing with something new.
The problem for Marxists, however, is that Nader stops short of naming the system that is causing the problems working people face on so many different levels. We would much prefer it if instead of talking about "globalization" and "greedy corporations" that he would state unambiguously that it is the capitalist system that we are dealing with. But then we would not be dealing with a candidate who had mass appeal. What troubles many Marxists, if you stop and think about it, is not so much the weakness of his message but the backwardness of the American political landscape. If we were in Brazil, then we would have somebody like Lula talking about the rottenness of the capitalist system nonstop. That being said, both Nader and Lula respectively represent candidacies of a movement that stops short of the revolutionary transformation that is necessary once and for all.
While it is by no means in the cards, it is not to be ruled out that a Nader campaign will attract significant working class support. In such an event, it is vitally important for Marxists to be represented in all of the various campaign bodies around the country that organize rallies and other events. Since American Marxism is so generally hostile to the Nader campaign, it is to be expected that members of the Green Party's left wing, like Marxism list subscriber Howie Hawkins, will play that role. In his postings to the list and in his various articles that have appeared in Z Magazine and New Politics, I have grown to respect his principles and strategic insight. We and the Greens need more like him.
So how will I vote? I personally plan to vote for David McReynolds, who is the Socialist Party candidate. I am for Nader and I am for McReynolds. But there is only one David McReynolds. He carries on the great Debsian tradition that American Marxism unfortunately divorced itself from in the sectarian detours of the early 1920s. It is our ultimate goal to reunite these traditions and meld them with other social movements, like the environmental, gay and women's movement. In combination with a newly energized trade union movement, we will then confront as a united mass movement our enemies in the Democratic and Republican Parties, who threaten the planet and everybody who lives on it.