"The big problem with democracy Is that it depends on people like us." -- Humorist Garrison Keillor "Prairie Home Companion" (6/28/03)

Do Not Ignore Elections

Our Collective Study Group pooled our research and held on-line meetings on the topic of election tactics. We published our findings and bibliographies as we went along:






Three Viewpoints

We noted that no other aspect of political struggle confuses so many, raises such high tempers, and divides activists as much as the argument over electoral policies. There seem to be three identifiable viewpoints to examine:

1. Never participate in American elections because they are run by the capitalists for the capitalists

2. Participate in elections only to the extent of campaigning for "our own" candidates or those identifiable as anti-capitalist.

3. Participate in elections fully because the working class and our progressive allies always have an immediate stake in election outcomes.

Lessons from Abroad

It is not decisive, but neither is it useless, to look at examples of electoral tactics in other countries and other time periods.

The "winner take all" elections in the United States are qualitatively different from the parliamentary elections of other countries. Elsewhere, multiple political parties may gain proportional representation in legislative bodies based on their percentage of votes gained. The dominant party often has to form a governing coalition with some of the less successful parties. In many cases, unions and other working-class organizations directly support particular political parties.

In the U.S., every candidate either wins or loses. The two-party system is deeply ingrained. It is extremely difficult for even a third party to succeed. Workers are usually left with two choices, both capitalist.

In the weaker countries, elections seem to form a distinct part of imperialist ambitions. Even after invading a given country by force and overthrowing whatever government they had, the United States nearly always insists on what they call "free and democratic" elections. If those "free and democratic" elections result in the a government that is friendly to imperialist aims, then they are sanctioned by the occupying forces. In cases where a government, no matter how "freely and democratically" elected, is not friendly to imperialism, the United States disregards the elections. They often support dictatorships. In other words, the overriding concern of imperialism is its imperialistic aims, not the immediate tactic of creating "free and democratic" elections.

The fact that imperialism clearly uses elections as a tactic in foreign countries, and the fact that U.S. elections are dominated by capitalists leads some to conclude that abstention is the only possible course for revolutionaries. Other abstentionists make exceptions, but only for a narrow list of certain candidates.

Lessons from History

Our Collective Study Group took note of several important elections in U.S. history. The formation of the Republican Party from the shell of the Whigs in 1859 resulted in the election of Abraham Lincoln and completed the division of the United States into the Southern and Northern economic realms. It took a fantastic civil war to continue the forward progress of the nation. Karl Marx himself supported Lincoln and the Northern cause. If anything, the industrialized Republicans fit our concept of "capitalist" even more than the agrarian Democrats of that day. Should the Communists have abstained?

In 1931 in Germany, the combined votes of the Socialists and the Communists would have been 54%, which would have given them a majority and theoretically have blocked Hitler's rise to power. Was such a coalition a real possibility, and did the Communists err in not taking advantage of it? Our research indicates that both the Socialists and Communists may have made errors leading up to Hitler's ascension, but that an electoral coalition in 1931 was not a real option for the Communists. See our Klara Henkel's definitive study.

In 1915, some notable progressives decided to support Democrat Woodrow Wilson over the Socialist candidate because "he kept us out of war." Not long after the election, Wilson joined in the great imperialist war in Europe. It is also notable that the same election marked the turning point of the civil rights movement in America, which had, until then, always supported the Republican Party that won the Civil War. But the great W.E.B. Dubois and others argued for switching to the Democrats based on more recent developments. As the war began, the Socialist Party was dealt legal blows from which it never recovered. In hindsight, which of the progressives was correct, those who supported Democrat Wilson or those who supported Socialist Debs?

In 1947, Communists threw themselves into the third-party campaign of Henry Wallace on the theory that he would have continued the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Most of the rest of the labor movement supported Democrat Harry Truman because a split vote might have resulted in victory for the anti-labor Republican Thomas Dewey. After Truman's narrow victory, he vetoed the anti-labor Taft Hartley law but was overriden by a Republican Congress. Major leaders of the labor movement found it much easier to isolate and expel Communists because of their "betrayal" of labor's electoral effort. If the Communists had stayed within the rest of the labor movement, the anti-communist witch-hunt might have been less successful. Is it possible that the Communists of 1947 did not have a good understanding of the economic post-war period and therefore erred, or did they do as well as possible within a situation that was going to be equally disastrous either way?

In 2012, a new wave of anti-capitalist understanding pointed some activists toward the idea that revolution in the United States is imminent and that elections are only a distraction. Others, including virtually all participants in the Collective Study Group, concluded that elections are a vital arena of class struggle that cannot be ignored by anyone devoted to the success of the working class and its allies.

Ideological Considerations

In our research and deliberations, we examined the arguments of the abstentionists, but found them easily dismissed as idealistic instead of materialistic. Abstentionists used words like "should" and "ought to" instead of scientific reasoning based on real options. Often, they make false dichotomies (divisions) between electoral work and other forms of struggle. They seem to think that successful revolutions results from the actions of small groups of devoted radicals rather than from the movement of the great working class. In the real world, we took note of the 2010-2012 efforts to suppress voting rights. If elections don't matter, then why are reactionary capitalists trying to stop us from voting?

Elections are part of political reality, and they have results either favorable or unfavorable to the working class and the progressive movement. Communists, as the Manifesto tells us, "have no interests outside those of the working class."

Elsewhere in the school, "idealism" and "materialism" are explained as key to understanding. The nature of states, political parties, and capitalist democracy are expounded on. Everywhere we look in reality, we realize that we must stand with the working class, including in our electoral struggles.


If you have not already done the module on the emancipation of women, you might try it next.



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