Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Different goals

“The Lesser Evil?” is a book published by the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1977. At the time, the SWP was a Trotskyist organization and had fraternal relations with the Fourth International. The book features three debates on what strategy progressive activists should take towards the Democratic Party. The debates were held in 1976, 1965 and 1959, respectively. The SWP opposed all electoral support for candidates running on a Democratic ticket. This included participation in Democratic Party primaries. (This is still the SWP's position, even after ideological changes on other topics.) Their opponents in the various debates argued for some kind of intervention in the Democratic Party.

The main item in the book is the 1976 debate between SWP presidential candidate Peter Camejo and DSOC chairman Michael Harrington. At the time, both SWP and DSOC (the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee) were important forces on the American left. Both had opposed the U.S. war in Vietnam. DSOC subsequently became the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America). The 1976 presidential elections pitted incumbent Republican Gerald Ford against Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. Camejo got 90,986 votes or 0.11% of the total. Harrington's Democratic Socialists voted for Carter. (As a side point, let me note that Camejo later left the SWP. He was independent candidate Ralph Nader's running mate in the 2004 elections. The Nader-Camejo ticket got 465,161 votes or 0.38%.)

The next item is a 1965 debate between Jack Barnes, who later became National Secretary of the SWP, and Stanley Aronowitz, whose strategy was similar to that pursued by many pro-Sanders leftists today, who want to combine running in Democratic primaries if possible with independent political action if necessary. The 1959 debate is between leading SWP cadre George Breitman and Carl Haessler, described as being “closer to the Communist Party”. Haessler supported labor (or was it Big Labor?) in Michigan, including Walter Reuther (who definitely wasn't close to the Communists), and argued that it effectively controlled the Democratic Party at state level.

Despite the debate format (which can be tricky), I think “The Lesser Evil?” does clarify the differences between the SWP (and similar hard left groups) and the broader or softer left, with its orientation towards the Democrats. The question is obviously still highly relevant! But who is right? In a sense, they both are.

The SWP is absolutely correct that the Democratic Party cannot be transformed into a radical workers' party. If it's revolutionary change along Leninist-Trotskyist lines you want, the Democrats are indeed a graveyard. But then, “liberals” don't want such a transformation of the United States to begin with. Harrington's arguments make perfect sense, if you drop the man's socialist pretenses: it's easier for left-liberals to pressure a Democratic administration than a Republican ditto. Radical leftists like Aronowitz or crypto-Communists like Haessler, who may think they are being smart and tactical donning Democratic hats, are simply the fifth wheel under reformist Harrington, who in his turn is the fifth wheel under, say, Eugene McCarthy or Teddy Kennedy. And while it's difficult for somebody like Sanders to capture the Democratic Party and its machine, it doesn't seem intrinsically impossible either. In that sense, Harrington is the “winner” of this debate. The Democratic Party really is the lesser evil…for a liberal!

As Rosa Luxemburg said: Revolution and reform aren't two paths to the same goal, but two paths to very different goals. If the SWP's revolutionary goal is desirable, is another question entirely…

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