Bourgeois Parties: Unsafe At Any Speed

Tailgating Nader

The following statement was distributed during the 2000 American election campaign.

Since Bill Clinton’s arrival in the White House eight years ago, the gap between rich and poor has widened enormously, welfare has been gutted, ten million more Americans lack health care coverage, the prison population has almost doubled and executions have tripled. Blacks and Hispanics have suffered disproportionately from the bi-partisan war against the poor and dispossessed. Overseas, the U.S., playing its role as the world’s self-appointed cop, has engaged in a series of military adventures. Roughly a million Iraqis (mostly children) have died due to a U.S.-imposed embargo, and Yugoslavia is still reeling from NATO’s murderous assault last year.

The twin parties of big capital have always agreed on essentials. Their policies are traditionally distinguished more by presentation than substance. But today even that distinction is blurred as Democrats tout their racist “crime-fighting” credentials, while George W. Bush postures as a “compassionate conservative.” Colin Powell, the “hero” of the 1991 Gulf War massacre, took the stage at July’s Republican national convention in Philadelphia to plug affirmative action and lament the racial bias of American justice. While making the wealthy white delegates visibly uncomfortable, his performance was intended to give the Grand Old Party a veneer of “diversity” thereby loosening the Democrats’ grip on black votes.

Outside the convention the Philly police ignored the “kinder, gentler” rhetoric and aggressively attacked demonstrators. Their preemptive strikes against street theater puppeteers, environmentalists and miscellaneous other protesters resulted in 381 arrests (mostly of white middle-class youth). The courts did their bit by setting extortionate bails to ensure that those arrested did not reappear on the streets. John Sellers, a leader of the eco-radical Ruckus Society, had his bail set at one million dollars!

The Los Angeles cops were equally belligerent at the Democratic national convention in August. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal suit charging that in an attack on a 16 August concert by Rage Against the Machine, the LAPD “tried to turn the lights out on the cameras that were recording their actions.” Ramona Ripston, ACLU Executive Director for Southern California, concluded that in attacking members of the media, the LAPD’s:

“ultimate aim was to dislodge the eyes and ears of the public, to control our understanding of the events that unfolded Monday night, and to shut down the truth-telling role that media, at their best, can play.”
—ACLU press release, 16 August

The Democrats’ rightward shift was underlined by Al Gore’s choice of Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. The Bush campaign gloated:

“From Social Security reform to missile defense, tort reform to parental notification [regarding abortion], and from school choice to affirmative action, Al Gore has chosen a man whose positions are more similar to Governor Bush’s than to his own.”
—quoted in The Nation, 21 August

In 1968, Eugene McCarthy ran for the Democratic nomination as an anti-Vietnam War “dove,” in a successful attempt to pull young protesters off the streets. George McGovern’s 1972 campaign as a “peace” candidate had a similar effect. But today youth disenchanted with the status quo perceive the Democrats and Republicans as “a single party with two right wings,” as Gore Vidal aptly observed.

Enter the Greens

The Democrats’ indifference to their left-liberal fringe has presented the Green Party with an opportunity to gain a wider hearing for its eco-radical critique of corporate rule. The Greens originated in Germany in the mid-1970’s as a wing of the anti-nuclear movement. By 1983 the first Greens won seats in the West German parliament. Today they help administer the German imperialist state in a coalition with the social democrats. Joschka Fischer, the Greens’ leader, serves as Germany’s foreign minister.

As the Greens in Germany edged closer to power during the 1990s, the “realos” in the party’s majority faction gradually distanced themselves from their radical-pacifist origins. The minority “fundis” retained a verbal attachment to the original opposition to NATO and the German military, but it was widely noted that:

“On controversial foreign policy issues—namely German involvement in future NATO missions—the ‘fundis’ have been unusually silent....Many top Greens are confident that the rank and file will not wreck the party’s credibility now that it is finally in power.”
Christian Science Monitor, 9 October 1998

Six months later, delegates at an important Green conference in Bielefeld endorsed Fischer’s enthusiastic support for NATO’s terror-bombing of Yugoslavia:

“’I am very relieved,’ said Antje Radcke, co-spokeswoman for the Green national leadership, who had earlier reminded the delegates that the party could exert greater influence on Germany’s Kosovo policies inside the government than in opposition. They shouldn’t ‘play Russian roulette’ with the coalition, she said.”
—"A Green Light for NATO," Time, 24 May 1999

While supporting imperialist piracy abroad, the Greens in power have abandoned their previous posture as defenders of immigrant rights and taken responsibility for their government’s continuing attacks on social services and working-class living standards.

‘An Opportunist, A Liberal Hack & A Scab’

When Ralph Nader ran as the Greens’ presidential candidate in 1996, he gained 700,000 votes and put the Green Party on the ballot across the country, while spending less than $5,000 (Mother Jones, July/August). This year Nader aims to get at least five percent of the popular vote in order to qualify the Greens for federal matching funds in 2004.

Ralph Nader’s career as America’s premier consumer advocate began in 1965 when he published Unsafe at Any Speed, a groundbreaking exposé of the U.S. auto industry. In 1980 Tom Robbins tickled funny bones in the same left-liberal milieu where the Greens now troll for votes with Still Life With Woodpecker, a satirical novel about the romance between a deposed princess living in exile in Seattle and Bernard Mickey Wrangle, aka “Woodpecker,” a Weatherman caricature. The two meet in Hawaii at a “Care Fest” where Ralph Nader is to appear as keynote speaker. Nader’s liberal reformism, which makes him an erotic object for the princess, so disgusts “Woodpecker” that he decides to bomb the Care Fest to strike a blow against the whimpering liberalism he blames for the demise of the New Left.

During this year’s campaign, Nader has turned up at a few picket lines and marched in Detroit’s Labor Day parade in an attempt to enhance his pro-union credentials. But in 1984, when employees of his Multinational Monitor magazine attempted to unionize, Nader fired them, sued them, changed the locks on the doors and sold the magazine (see: Washington Post, 28 June 1984). Tim Shorrock, one of the fired employees, concluded bitterly:

“Ralph Nader may look like a democrat, smell like a populist, and sound like a socialist—but deep down he’s a frightened, petit bourgeois moralizer without a political compass, more concerned with his image than the movement he claims to lead: in short, an opportunist, a liberal hack. And a scab.”
Left Business Observer, October 1996

Nader’s Campaign: Wake-Up Call for Democrats

In June, as Nader’s support climbed toward ten percent on the West Coast and he appeared poised to siphon off a critical number of Democratic votes in Michigan and other swing states, his campaign suddenly became a hot topic. On 30 June the New York Times, which had previously ignored the Greens, chastised Nader for “cluttering” the field and “engaging in a self-indulgent exercise that will distract voters from the clear-cut choice represented by major party candidates.”

No one likes clutter, but capitalist “democracy,” the cheapest and most flexible means for the tiny monied elite to exercise control, only works properly if it is seen to be representative. The two-party system has served America’s rulers well over the years, but today with the Democrats and Republicans virtually indistinguishable for most voters, the space exists for the emergence of small third and fourth capitalist parties (the Greens on the left, and Reform on the right).

The Greens’ anti-corporate rhetoric no more threatens the U.S. ruling class than Nader’s exposure of the American auto industry did 35 years ago. Indeed, Nader has made it clear that he hopes his campaign helps rejuvenate the Democrats, as David Lowery pointed out in a response to the New York Times’ criticisms:

“So how will you feel if you wake up Nov. 8 to find Gore lost to Bush by 3 percentage points and you took 7 percent, TV pundit Chris Matthews sputtered at Nader recently? Great, he answered, because that will probably mean the Democrats regained the House of Representatives, probably gained seats in the Senate, Dick Gephardt will become Speaker of the House and the Democrats will have gotten a needed wake-up call and can start acting like Democrats again.

“That’s not the mutterings of a spoiler cluttering the political playing field, as the Times editorial framed Nader’s bid.”
—Austin-American Statesman, 9 July [posted on the Association of State Green Parties web page, 10 July]

In an interview published in the American Prospect on 19 June, also circulated by the Greens, Nader asserted that, “if we can build a Green Party that goes over 5 percent, the Democratic Party won’t be the same again...” Looking past the current election he suggested:

“I think we’ll be a strong lever on the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party already has lost about half the country from the get-go. And if they start losing another quarter of the country, such as California—because the Greens are going to take 10-15 percent away—that’s really the end of the Democratic Party.

“The Democratic Party cannot sustain itself at a really shrunken level, or it will just implode. Some people talk about a rapprochement, where the progressive third party melds into the Democratic Party and influences it to become a more progressive party....I’m not looking that far ahead. But I suspect that the Democratic Party can’t internally reform itself...”

CP vs. ISO on Nader

Nader’s attempt to reform the Democrats from the outside is regarded as irresponsible ultra-leftism by the geriatric remnants of American Stalinism. Rick Nagin, former chair of the Ohio state Communist Party, recently complained:

“How can Nader and the Greens claim to be anti-corporate if their goal is to throw the election to Bush and Cheney, who represent the most dangerous, aggressive, anti-labor, racist, warlike, anti-democratic sections of big business? How can any progressive person seek the defeat of the Democratic candidate...?”
Cleveland Free Times, 29 August

The CP’s prescription for challenging “corporate power” by voting for one of the twin parties of big capital, is only quantitatively more absurd than the suggestion by self-proclaimed Trotskyists that voting for the Green Party, a petty-bourgeois (i.e., capitalist) party, somehow advances the struggle for working-class political independence.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO), one of the left groups most active in Nader’s campaign, had initially refused to support Nader because he is not part of the workers’ movement. But as he gained support in the radical-liberal campus milieu the ISO inhabits, their objections melted away and they scrambled for a spot on the bandwagon.

Unlike the self-proclaimed revolutionaries who support him, Nader doesn’t pretend to be something he is not. Joel Geier, a prominent ISO leader, sums up Nader’s celebrated “Concord Principles” as a:

“call for a return to a nineteenth-century past of good government based on small businesses and the small-town democracy of a New England town meeting. Nader seeks to replace the impersonal globalism of the present, where people have no control over the institutions and decisions that affect their lives with (an idealized) localism of the past. These ideas appeal to middle-class interests represented among the Greens and newly radicalized students.”
International Socialist Review, August-September

Geier observes further: “Nineteenth century small-scale capitalism was a limited democracy whose characteristics were racism, nativism, sexism, restricted suffrage, mass poverty and illiteracy.” Fair enough, but why would Marxists want to vote for a candidate with such a program?

During the campaign, Nader has refused to take up the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther who sits on death row as a result of a politically-motivated frame-up. Nader’s record of indifference on this, as on other issues of racism, sexism and other forms of special oppression, and his tendency to see those who raise them as “divisive,” is mildly embarrassing for his leftist apologists, but it flows logically from his fundamental loyalty to American capitalism. The ISO seeks to alibi Nader by blaming his followers for not putting enough pressure on him:

“Nader will be as outspoken on race as this new movement demands of him. It is this new radicalization that has to fight to overcome the racism which infects everything in this country.”

The ISO perhaps imagines that by joining Nader’s presidential campaign they may nudge the Greens incrementally to the left. In fact the decision to vote for a capitalist party (albeit a small, fringe one) represents a significant step to the right for the ISO. Their political grandparent, Max Shachtman’s Workers Party/Independent Socialist League which in the mid-1940s began flirting with the idea of giving electoral support to bourgeois third party movements, ended up by liquidating into the Democratic Party by the 1960s.

The ISO’s British co-thinkers in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP/B) are enthusiastic about the turn to Nader. “US workers can now vote for a radical alternative in the coming presidential election” proclaims SWP/B leader Chris Harman, who also sees in Nader’s populist reformism “an opportunity for the hundreds of thousands of people influenced by the new radicalism shown at Seattle, Washington and elsewhere to find a common language with the workers...” (Socialist Review, September).

The ISO and SWP/B leadership “find a common language” with the masses through wholesale adaptation to whatever illusions are currently popular. To confuse the gullible, the ISO leadership continues to denounce “lesser evilism” and to remind their members that: “Working-class political independence from capitalist parties has been a socialist principle for more than a century,” (International Socialist Review, August-September). But these inveterate tailists would never let mere “principle” get in the way of pursuing something popular. They consider it insane sectarianism to counterpose revolutionary Marxism to Nader’s brand of bourgeois populism and seek to bridge the contradiction with double-talk:

“Nader does not call himself a socialist, and is part of that rather confused tradition of American radicalism which sees big business and corrupt politicians as the problem rather than the whole system. But he has embraced the spirit of Seattle...”
—Harman, op cit

Nader, Buchanan & the ‘Spirit of Seattle’

The problem is that the “spirit of Seattle” was itself far from revolutionary. The denunciations of corporate greed from the protest organizers did not transcend the framework of bourgeois reformism and were, in many cases, laced with poisonous protectionism and the pro-imperialist jingoism of the labor aristocracy. Nader’s comments in a live internet chat sponsored by Time magazine on 28 November 1999, the eve of the Seattle demonstrations, exemplify this. Nader was joined for the session by Pat Buchanan, America’s most prominent right-wing demagogue, who also happens to oppose the World Trade Organization. One participant asked:

“Have Messrs. Nader and Buchanan discussed WTO-related issues in depth together? Or is it strictly a marriage of convenience—’the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ sort of thing?”

Nader passed up this opportunity to distance himself from his reactionary partner:

Ralph Nader: Nonsense. We’ve discussed this for five years. We’ve held press conferences. And it’s a cooperation of convictions that we must defend and improve our democracy so that we can agree to disagree freely.

Pat Buchanan: Ralph and I have been in this battle for almost six years since the great NAFTA fight. And we stand together firmly on one principle, that whatever the decisions about the economic destiny of Americans are, they will be made by the American people and not the trans-national corporations in collusion with this embryonic institution of world government.”

As the discussion went on, it became clear that Nader shared Buchanan’s concern about the undercutting of American sovereignty by a shadowy cabal of international “globalizers.” This led one participant to inquire: “Mr. Nader, Do you support Mr. Buchanan’s presidential campaign?” Most liberals, confronted with such a question, would have no trouble ruling out any possibility of voting for a racist, right-wing, anti-abortion homophobe like Buchanan. But Ralph ducked the question and evasively replied: “Since I am going to decide whether to run early next year, I can’t support any one at this point.”

American patriotism is the common denominator between Nader and Buchanan. This is blindingly clear in their response to a participant who asked if there are any good corporations:

Pat Buchanan: Let me say that my criticism of American corporations is that so many of them are ceasing to be American in their outlook, in their interest and in their concern. They’re turning their backs on their country, and their workers....

Ralph Nader: About two years ago, I sent letters to some of the largest American corporations. I asked since they were born in the US, since they made their profits off the labors of American workers, since when they get in trouble they go to Washington for corporate bailouts by US taxpayers, and when they get in trouble overseas they call the US Marines, I suggested that these companies pledge allegiance to the American flag....Only one company said it was a good idea: Federated Department Stores, I guess because they can’t relocate overseas. All the rest who replied, about half of them, said no. I guess that illustrates what Pat was saying.”

All very chummy—"Ralph" illustrating “Pat’s” point. When another questioner asked for “suggestions on how a new ‘patriotic’ and ‘responsible’ form of capitalism can replace this new worship of the almighty dollar above national pride, national interests and patriotism,” Ralph responded:

“One way is to really stop the discrimination against small business in favor of big business in national economic policy. Because small businesses are not going to threaten to move overseas if they don’t get their way.”

Reformism Ad Absurdum

The ISO are not the only supposed Marxists endorsing Nader. Socialist Alternative, U.S. section of Peter Taafe’s crumbling Committee for a Workers International (CWI) brags that it was “the first Marxist organization in the US to understand the phenomenon of the Nader campaign as part of the mass movement that is forming in this country,” and proudly asserts:

“While stressing its agreement with the Nader Campaign, Socialist Alternative has criticized the middle class Green Party’s policies—and its support in some regions for Democratic Party candidates—as well as placing demands on the Nader campaign to advance towards the construction of a working class party. This policy was actually initiated in 1996, when Socialist Alternative also called for a vote for Nader.”
Justice, September

This is reformism ad absurdum. If it makes sense to “demand” that Nader, a bourgeois populist, construct a workers’ party, why not also “demand” that the Greens (or, for that matter, the Democrats) embrace socialism?

Nader is also supported by “Solidarity,” an organization that shares the ISO’s Shachtmanite ancestry. Like the ISO and Socialist Alternative, Solidarity advises workers to vote for Nader to get something he’s not offering:

“Ralph Nader’s campaign on the Green Party ticket represents the potential for a big step forward toward a new politics, independent of the capitalist class whose interests reign supreme in this country. Nader is not and makes no claim to be a socialist; but the Greens’ vision of an ecological and democratic world ultimately entails an assault on the institutions of capitalism and the forging of a working-class alternative.”
—"For Independent Politics 2000"

Contrary to Solidarity and the other fake-Marxists pimping for Nader, the Greens’ campaign is not a step toward independent working-class politics. It is a product of the narrowing of the bourgeois political spectrum and, if successful, will serve to contain growing popular opposition to capital’s global offensive within the framework of tinkering with the mechanisms of capitalist rule.

In early September, Dana Milbank, a Washington Post reporter, attended a fund-raiser for Nader held in a mansion high in the hills over Santa Barbara where guests paid up to $1000 for the privilege of meeting the “scourge of corporate America”:

“‘I’m not a revolutionary, I’m a business guy,’ says the host, Russell Palmer, a recording equipment executive who calls himself a Republican. ‘I don’t want to tear things down, and I don’t believe he does either. He’s a legitimate guy.’”
Washington Post, 5 September

Russell Palmer understands something that Nader’s ostensibly revolutionary supporters apparently do not. Unlike the Greens, who want to humanize capitalism, revolutionaries seek to expropriate the exploiters and replace the anarchy of the market with a rationally planned, collectivized economy where production is determined by human need rather than private profit. American workers desperately need to break with the Democrats and create their own party—but to serve the interests of the oppressed, rather than their oppressors, it must begin with the understanding that the interests of capital and labor are diametrically opposed.

The history of the socialist movement is full of examples where isolation and impatience have led to opportunism. The eagerness of the ISO et al to paint Nader’s reformist protectionism as a step toward “a working class alternative” to capitalist rule illustrates the distance that separates these reformists from the Marxist tradition they pay lip service to.

Those fake socialists who want to hitch a ride with Nader and the Greens today will inevitably find some new short cut tomorrow. But they will never be capable of leading the workers and oppressed in serious revolutionary struggle. A genuinely socialist party rooted in the working class can only be forged by militants who are capable of “swimming against the stream” and telling the truth. And the truth is that pulling the lever for Nader 2000 will only help prop up, not knock down, the racist system that gives us “government of the Exxons, by the General Motors, and for the DuPonts.”

1917 no.23: February 2001