How We Should Engage in the US Elections

6 09 2012

Elections in America are always contentious to the radical left. The vast majority of revolutionaries don’t view bourgeois elections as a legitimate avenue of struggle, so how we organize during them determines a lot. The views range from direct participation and campaigning in elections, like the International Socialist Organization did in 2000, 2004, and 2006 with the Green Party, to the Party for Socialism and Liberation running non-viable candidates, to the common “More Left Than Thou” boycott. But as Marxist-Leninists, we must examine our current material conditions scientifically to evaluate an appropriate strategy for engaging the masses in this election.


First, voting is not important. Change will not come from the ballot box no matter how hard we try. As we’ve seen over the past decade of attacks on the working class – from Republicans and Democrats alike – change can only come from the streets. Fantasies about having a viable third party like the Green Party or the Working Families Party have proven unattainable as the ruling class regularly unites people behind their two parties.

That said, we have to ask ourselves two questions:

1) Is there a material difference between Obama and Romney? And, 2) How should we engage the working class and oppressed nationalities during this election to help build a new revolutionary party.

Romney represents a far-right regressive agenda and Obama a center-right one. Objectively, it is true that a Romney presidency would be more harmful to working people and people of color, but Obama shouldn’t be seen as anything more than a watered-down version of this same regressive agenda.

The Rightist Error

To take this conclusion to its logical end would bring us to the “faux united front.”. The ideal that Marxist must have “unity against the ultra right” is laughable considering the current weakness of the left in America and the similarity between the two parties of the ruling class. This strategy identifies the sentiment of the masses – that Romney is worse than Obama – but it divorces itself from Marxism-Leninism by pushing a reformist and backwards agenda.

The beliefe that temporally uniting with the center-right Democratic Party in a so-called “united front against the ultra-right” starts from an ideologically bankrupt position and ends in willful bourgeois collaborationism. This is a gross misunderstanding of the united front, mass-line, and scientific socialism. It is also the line that the Communist Party USA has held for many years.

If we  are to engage the working class and oppressed nationalities during this election cycle we must not give false hope in the Democratic Party or to the bourgeois electoral process.

The Ultra-Leftist Error

But as scientific socialists, we also must not engage in ultra-leftism and risk leaving the masses behind us. As Mao said “from the masses to the masses,” we must engage the masses where they presently are; not where we wish them to be.

The fervor of the 2008 presidential election has diminished some. Currently, about 20% of people are not paying attention and college students are not expected turn out in the same numbers. But this should only be seen as a sign of disillusionment towards the process and not as a marker for revolutionary progress.

It might be useful to highlight the large scale disillusionment of  bourgeois elections on a small scale as it can radicalize some segments with advanced consciousness, but it does nothing for the masses who will begrudgingly vote for Obama and view any attacks on him as either support for Romney or just off-beat rantings. An ultra-leftist error here will lead to alienation among the masses.

Despite this seemingly widespread disillusionment the electoral process still matters to the vast majority of Americans. Even among these disgruntled citizens, revolution is not seen as a viable alternative.

Advancing the Mass Struggle

By engaging the working class and oppressed nationalities where they are, we must push a line that states that we have no choice in this election. The choices have been made for us, and we only get to select which version of anti-worker, anti-student, anti-immigrant, pro-war, etc. we want. On most issues, Obama is either the same as or marginally better than Romney, but the only way forward with our pro-worker, pro-student, pro-immigrant, anti-war, etc. agenda is to take to the streets via activism. The only changes that have been made for the benefit of working people and people of color have come through mass movements outside the electoral process.

This line allows the opportunity to engage the masses where they are, identify those people advanced enough to be radicalized to a revolutionary position, and advance the disgruntled and disillusioned intermediate towards activism for further radicalization.

There is no time for ultra-leftist or rightist errors. This crisis of capitalism will continue, and if we do not organize to build a revolutionary party of the masses, who will?

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6 responses

6 09 2012
JMP

I strongly disagree with your line that it is “more left than thou” to engage in a boycott process. As a supporter of an organization [in Canada] that has a strategic boycott line, and by seeing how this line has partially been used to build itself into the largest militant proletarian communist party in the country, concrete facts speak to the necessity of a boycott line.

First of all, the majority of people do not vote and do not have faith in the process: the statistics of registered voters speaks to this, and this represents a massive boycott already in existence––in this context, then, it is not about proposing a boycott but recognizing *as a mass line* that the masses already have a disorganized boycott and the point, here, is about making it visible *and* using this strategy to build a revolutionary movement.

When you go out amongst the masses in the poorest neighbourhoods, as we did during the boycott process, it was clear that the majority of them did not vote and had no interest in voting because they hated all of the parties. In this context the boycott strategy allowed us to talk to people very easily about communism––in fact they would talk with us––and the PCR front group in Toronto, due to this line, grew by 500% within three months. And that growth all comprised people who were new to the left and who are now politicized and have a revolutionary line.

Dismissing this position as “ultra-leftist” is highly erroneous and lacks any real investigation of what successful boycott movements are designed to. Abstaining from voting may indeed be ultra-leftist, but an organized boycott movement, if it is part of building a revolutionary strategy (as the PCP did in Peru in the years leading up to its PW), is different. We need to break from parliamentary ideology and the fact that all of us seem to believe that voting changes the system or can have these supposed “material benefits” that are so marginal as to be laughable: knee-jerk reaction to boycott positions usually speak more to how electoralism has become common sense, a holy rite, and we need to break from this way of seeing things. Moreover, elections are brought in often to neutralize potential uprisings… In any case if the left spent more time organizing rather than submerging itself in elections processes and imagining they mean what they say they will mean, things would be different.

Finally, a revolutionary party that has a boycott line has this line because they are building a movement with the belief of making revolution, and not just running candidates or being involved in protracted legal struggle, and so the reason of the boycott, and the participation in a boycott called by a specific party, is to try to start creating a counter-hegemony where people align themselves ideologically with the forces calling the boycott rather than the state. This, too, is part of a strategy of PPW, or that period that comes before strategic defensive––the accumulation of revolutionary forces––just as it also is part of the seeds of declaring dual power.

I wrote about the boycott at the time, during our country’s federal elections, and if you’re interested in the actual political line of these movements, you should check out:

http://moufawad-paul.blogspot.ca/2011/03/vote-with-your-feet-boycotting-federal.html

7 09 2012
More Left Than Thou

I agree with revolutionary boycotts like those in the Philippines but I do not think our material circumstances warrant this. I believe that the a revolutionary boycott now would be ultra-leftism as it would alienate ourselves from the masses, but you seem to have had different results. I organize in labor unions (the organized intermediate) and have no success in the boycott tactic. I also organize in the South East with Oppressed Nationalities which offers a unique set of contradictions as Obama is black and there is a long legacy of voter suppression of People of Color.

Which party grew by 500%. Was it the RCPC? Because that’s amazing and makes me rethink my line. Using language like boycott is usually only useful in advancing a few to revolutionary politics but not the masses in general. Did those new members become cadre? Where they easily consolidated? I’m curious because most people who don’t vote in US elections are apathetic and/or apolitical.

7 09 2012
JMP

The growth I was describing was in a mass organization that was initiated, in anglo-Canada, by the PCR-RCP. The party itself has also grown through this process, though I can’t be sure of the numbers since I only know the numbers of this connected mass org. of which I am a member. And yes the people who joined were easily consolidated, even excited.

What we discovered is that “apathy” is not useful as a definition of political will. When we spoke to people on the streets their apathy was only about electoral politics; they were not apathetic about their political situation. And the former apathy had do with a general disenchantment of capitalism that needs to be tapped, and that can sometimes be tapped. When there is apathy we must ask why it exists, and what the object of this apathy is; there is no such thing as an apathy beyond classes, a Platonic apathy. We quickly learned that people who were apathetic about voting were not apathetic about politics as a whole: the same people who would never show up at a voting booth because they had become apathetic to the process, approached us on the streets with the excitement. And on one radio show that we were lucky enough to be invited to––a show that had a large proletarian community listening population––every caller was excited by what we were proposing. In any case, my larger point, is that we cannot simply dismiss apathy as some sort of over-determining state; rather, it requires social investigation.

7 09 2012
More Left Than Thou

You bring up even more valid points about the boycott being a useful tool. This line I wrote came from an examination of the masses using mass line in my areas of work (Unions and Oppressed Nationalities) in my area (South Eastern US) but that doesn’t mean that it is as application everywhere. A boycott from the street level might be useful but that’s not where I organize so I can’t speak to it too much.

I agree with you that apathy =/= apolitical. Most of my experiences with these people come from privileged college students who are most likely not representative of the vast majority of non voters.

11 09 2012
Anonymous

engaging the masses where they are does not necessarily mean participating in electoral politics, which gives the masses the impression that electoral politics can make a different and, in turns, leaves them where they are.

12 09 2012
More Left Than Thou

If the masses are already engaging in electoral politics what do you do? Not mention Obama until December? What do you say to someone that brings it up? I’m not suggesting that anyone campaign for him but just how to apply the mass line here.

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