The 2012 U.S. elections, unfolding amidst permanent war and recession, presented a golden opportunity for socialists to explain their ideas, especially at the national level. While millions of voters still cling to hope in the Democrats, millions more are deeply disillusioned and seeking new answers to old problems that can’t find resolution under capitalism.
But even as radicalism is growing, massive barriers — from billion-dollar price tags to blatant voter suppression — block U.S. socialists from getting on most ballots. The splintering of socialist forces certainly doesn’t help matters.
What kept socialists apart? And what is holding back the movement? In its last issue, this newspaper tackled these questions in a critique of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, one of several socialist parties that ran in the presidential race, as did the Freedom Socialist Party.
This story looks at the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Socialist Alternative (SA), two parties that usually pick Green Party or other capitalist-reform candidates over socialists in the run for the White House.
For united socialist political action. In evaluating their positions, an instructive starting point is the essay “Socialist Electoral Policy” by James P. Cannon, founder of U.S. Trotskyism. Cannon holds up the presidential campaign of Eugene V. Debs as a model of successful socialist intervention in the electoral arena. Debs galvanized socialist forces in 1900 when he ran for president not as a candidate of a single party, but of a united left slate. His VP running mate was a member of a split-off from the Socialist Labor Party, and their campaign drew enthusiastic endorsement from independent socialist papers, such as Appeal to Reason.
Cannon appealed to real socialists, those who, to quote the Communist Manifesto, “disdain to conceal their aims.” He took on phony socialists who pinned their hopes on backing capitalist reformers as a way to build for socialism. He likened these folks to a driver who turns south to reach a northern destination.
“A socialist is not a member of, or supporter of, any capitalist party whatever,” Cannon said. This is “the first test of socialist seriousness and sincerity.”
The Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) follows in this tradition, seeking socialist collaboration whenever possible. When it’s not possible, it moves forward. Only after other socialist parties refused to even discuss joint electoral slates did FSP decide to run for president last year.
Why? Because elections are one of the best ways for socialists to get a public hearing. It is marvelously moralizing to discover while canvassing that there are already a great many socialists out there, and many more potential socialists. Party members and volunteers grow immensely as speakers, creators of on-target transitional demands, graphic artists and all-around political thinkers and organizers. And voters are refreshed by real solutions.
The FSP is acutely aware that capitalist elections are hopelessly rigged, and has even successfully fought some of the obstacles. But the party has no illusions in being able to fix things, and entertains no delusions about the ballot box being the highway toward deep-rooted change.
In practice, the FSP has frequently endorsed candidates of other socialist parties, including the Socialist Party, Workers World, and PSL. In 2012, while running a presidential ticket of Stephen Durham and Christina López, FSP endorsed the SA campaign of Kshama Sawant for Washington State Legislature. SA did not reciprocate this solidarity.
Most FSP endorsements come in the form of critical support, which allows joint work in action and debate over political differences. FSP has also run candidates in several state and local races. In the mid-1990s, the party collaborated with other Leftists in efforts to launch an anti-capitalist labor party.
Blurring class lines. In the debate over 2012, both SA and ISO dismiss all the socialist parties that ran for president as small and ineffective. In place of backing socialists, ISO favors the creation of a “genuine broader left alternative based on collaboration.” SA sees the role of socialists as to “register a left-wing vote in the context of the 2012 presidential race, given the failure of a stronger left or working-class candidate to step forward.”
Translated, this means supporting Greens or some other capitalist reform candidate or party. ISO endorsed Ralph Nader in 2000 and 2004. SA backed Nader four times and supported Green nominee Jill Stein in 2012. In Seattle SA also approached the Justice Party for possible electoral alliance. That party’s stated mission is to “implement policies that strengthen businesses, domestic employment, innovation, and the competitive global position of the United States.”
The problem is this gives socialist cover to a capitalist party. For example, though the Greens may desire a kinder, gentler capitalism, the practical outcome of their dreams can be seen in Europe where they have ruled. Greens prosecute imperialist wars, impose capitalist austerity, and more. In the U.S., Greens who run “to the Left” of Democrats, usually end up in the same place. Why would socialists feed the Green Party’s false hopes that capitalism can be fixed?
Defeatism or motion forward? SA and ISO justify their positions with a self-defeating preoccupation in numbers. Many progressives and the disenfranchised don’t vote at all, and states often refuse to report radical third-party results, so the number of votes is hardly a measure of success. Despite hurdles and sectarianism, FSP candidates Yolanda Alaniz and this author pulled 28,000 and 16,500 respectively, in Seattle City Council races. Imagine what a socialist electoral alliance could accomplish! The assistance that FSP gave to SA’s Sawant campaign, especially in gaining an ear with labor and feminists groups, helped it fly.
ISO and SA are not alone in dismissing serious socialist presidential campaigns in the U.S. The International Workers League, a Trotskyist organization active in Latin America, urged U.S. socialists to stick to the fight against austerity measures, rather than in “a hopeless electoralist campaign ‘to vote socialist’ like some sectors of the Left.”
What this view misses is the opportunity the 2012 elections offered to both educate about socialism and anti-capitalist solutions. Rather than counter-posing mass work to running candidates, elections should be seen as a great arena to publicize socialist ideas.
To paraphrase Cannon, if we socialists don’t speak up for socialism in the electoral arena, who will? And if not now, when?
Linda Averill can be contacted at AvLinda587@gmail.com.
Click here to see the current Freedom Socialist. To subscribe to the FS by postal mail, email, or audio CD, visit here or send $10 for one year or $17 for two to Freedom Socialist, 5018 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle, WA 98118.
(Students $8 for one year, strikers and unemployed $5, overseas airmail $18.)
To see the booklist at Red Letter Press or to find out more about the Freedom Socialist Party, go to www.socialism.com, or reply to this message. We would love to hear from you!