The Wheat from the Chaff: Ultra-Left Hysterics and the 2012 US Elections
**For the entirety of this piece, “we” should be taken to mean the authors of Return to the Source, and not the FRSO. In other words, this is not an official statement of the FRSO.**
A little under a week ago, Return to the Source reposted an editorial by the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) about the 2012 US Presidential elections. We felt that the editorial, entitled “The 2012 presidential election: In the midst of economic hard times, hope is in the people’s struggles, change is in the streets,” was an outstanding analysis of the current conditions facing people’s movements in the United States and the need to build revolutionary power outside of the ballot box. In other words, we read the whole editorial.
FRSO’s position is “that no matter how hopeful we are for change to come through electoral politics, this is not the venue for real change.” (1) Both the Democrats and Republicans are imperialist parties of the 1%, and elections are generally political events bought and paid for by corporations and banks, in which the candidate with the most money wins. FRSO’s editorial ends by saying:
During this particular election cycle progressives should emphasize and talk about the problems inherent in the system, while placing demands on politicians from both parties. Our faith and our future are in the people’s struggle, not the ballot box.
Suffice to say, many other left groups and blogs – ranging from the left-refoundationists at the Kasama Project to the Trotskyites at Marxist update – did not share our view. Rather than engaging with the entirety of FRSO’s editorial, these critics and detractors zeroed in on a single sentence near the end of the second-to-last paragraph, which is underlined below:
What to do?
We know that many activists in unions, the African-American, Chicano and other oppressed nationality movements, and sections of anti-war protesters and immigrant rights activists are likely to continue to vote for the lesser of two evils. However, we think the conditions are right in this electoral cycle to emphasize instead the nature of the two party, one ruling class system and talk about why what we have is not democracy and not good enough. We do think it is still important for progressives to go to the polls to oppose concrete attacks on democratic rights, such as Voter ID and anti-gay amendments. In terms of voting in the presidential election, it is better to vote against Romney, especially in swing states. In other states like California, the Republicans are unlikely to win. In these cases, it would be positive to have a strong third party vote total.
Ignoring the vast majority of the FRSO’s editorial, Kasama called their position “insanity,” and somehow cast the editorial as “Freedom Road (Fight Back) urges votes for Obama.” (2) Kasama looks to read deeper into the single sentence, however, and claims that “this sentence is the raison d’etre of the article — to finally, publicly give a green light to those who want to work for Obama.” Although Kasama is patently wrong in their reading of the article, this particular sentence in their italicized preface betrays everything wrong and anti-Marxist with the criticisms of the FRSO’s editorial. We will return to this point later.
To Kasama’s credit, they republished the entirety of the FRSO’s editorial, but judging from the comments section, very few people read beyond Kasama’s preface. Comrade Zero of The Marxist-Leninist has already written a response piece to Kasama’s post entitled “Electoral Politics: Imperialism and the Mass Line,” that delivers a solid rebuttal to some of the criticisms. Return to the Source unites with the points outlined by Comrade Zero’s piece and wants to expand the discussion of the original FRSO editorial.
First, in light of the ultra-left hysterics emerging from the left-refo, Trotskyite, and left-communist camp, we will examine what the FRSO editorial did and did not say.
Second, we will examine the FRSO’s position on the 2012 Presidential elections as espoused in the editorial and argue that it is the most correct position for revolutionary communists to take.
Third, we will examine the real and perceived differences between a President Romney and a President Obama and place the FRSO’s position in the context of the mass movements in the US.
And finally, we will briefly examine conditions for building the people’s movements and the revolutionary communist party beyond the 2012 elections.
What the FRSO editorial did not say:
Left-critics of the FRSO’s editorial have written very little to nothing about the vast majority of the piece. Unquestionably in anticipation of a follow-up to the FRSO’s editorial on the 2008 elections entitled “2008 Presidential Elections: Defeat McCain,” Kasama, the cruise-missile Trotskyite Louis Proyect, the Trotskyites at Marxist update, and a slew of anonymous commentators have accused the FRSO of “[urging] votes for Obama.” They derive this mischaracterization from the aforementioned single sentence near the end of the second-to-last paragraph. They spend no time discussing the main message of the piece: “Hope is in the people’s struggles, Change is in the streets,” which is explicitly stated in the title and the final paragraph. Instead, these critics erect a strawman to attack the argument they want to engage, rather than the one actually put forth.
First and foremost, the FRSO editorial did not endorse Obama. It did not even urge people to vote for Obama, as Kasama would have readers believe. The editorial posited that “it is better to vote against Romney, especially in swing states,” based on the recognition that he represents the objectively more reactionary interests within the ruling class. Voting against Romney, however, takes different forms in different states. In swing states, like Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, voting against Romney assuredly takes the form of voting for President Obama. However, voting against Romney takes a different form in “other states like California, [where] the Republicans are unlikely to win.” Voting against Romney in this case means voting for a third-party candidate, and the editorial recognizes that “[in] these cases, it would be positive to have a strong third party vote total.” For Kasama to title their repost of the FRSO editorial as “Freedom Road (Fight Back) urges votes for Obama” is dishonest and harmful – dishonest for ignoring the nuance explained in the editorial, and harmful as evidenced in the knee-jerk reactions in the comments section, which stand at 33 and climbing.
Second, the FRSO editorial did not urge, suggest, condone, or even mention revolutionaries and progressives working for or promoting President Obama’s re-election. The editorial is, without exception, critical of President Obama and clearly identifies both the Democrats and Republicans as “parties of the 1%.” The editorial does not say a word about revolutionaries and progressives working on election campaigns, and instead emphasizes that “we think the conditions are right in this electoral cycle to emphasize instead the nature of the two party, one ruling class system and talk about why what we have is not democracy and not good enough.” Far from encouraging or directing its members to work for Obama’s re-election, the FRSO puts forward a position that revolutionaries should use the 2012 election as an opportunity to expose the two-party system for what it is: a bourgeois imperialist state ruled by and for a single class. Kasama’s assertion that the purpose of the editorial is “to finally, publicly give a green light to those who want to work for Obama,” is a completely baseless and unprincipled attack on the FRSO.
Rest assured, the FRSO does outline its strategy for organizing during the 2012 election, but it has nothing to do with working on the campaigns to re-elect the President or any other politician. Completely overlooked by the ultra-left critics is the FRSO’s call for “people to build the people’s struggle in the streets” at the March on the Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL, and at the March on Wall Street South at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC. Rather than actively engaging in electoral work – the baseless and false claim of Kasama – the FRSO is actively leading and contributing to these two historic acts of popular resistance to both parties of the 1%. We quote the FRSO editorial at length:
It is in this context that the Democrats and the Republicans, both parties of the 1%, are holding conventions and nominating their candidates for the Nov. 6 elections. We are calling for people to build the people’s struggles and protest in the streets. If you want peace and justice, if you want a job, healthcare, education and equality, then join us at the Republican National Convention on Monday, August 27, in Tampa, Florida. A few days later more will join the March on the Wall Street South during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Elections come and go, parties change places, but the people’s movements – especially the strategic alliance of the working class movement and the national movements of African-American, Chicanos, and other oppressed nationalities, can bring not just reforms, but radical change that no bought and paid for politician can deliver.
The ultra-leftists at Kasama read what they want to read in the FRSO’s editorial, but their claim that the piece “urges votes for Obama” is entirely dishonest. Kasama could put their time to better use by joining with the FRSO and the multitude of other progressive organizations in building for the March on the RNC on August 27 and the March on Wall Street South on September 2.
Third, the FRSO editorial did not “give a free ride” to President Obama or the Democrats, as was claimed by the Trotskyites at Marxist update. In describing the disillusion of the youth and other progressive forces after President Obama’s election in 2008, the editorial refutes the arguments put forward by opportunist liberals and Democratic Party apologists, writing that “While Democratic Party leaders point to the Republican majority blocking Obama initiatives in the House of Representatives, we remember the Democrats had majorities in both the House and the Senate when President Obama took office.” Themselves the target of massive repression by the US federal government, the FRSO details the sharp increase in state repression during President Obama’s tenure. They conclude, “More and more, the government’s use of raids, subpoenas and courts to criminalize political activism and label it as ‘terrorism’ is driving activists away from the Democrats and electoral politics.”
To be certain, the FRSO editorial is not full of the ultra-left phrasemongering that many left groups engage in around elections, and ultimately this is what offends groups like Kasama and the Trotskyites so much. These groups have a completely different understanding of how revolution is built. For them, communists need to distinguish themselves first and foremost in words. In their view, the bolder the polemic, the greater the success. This amounts to idealism, pure and simple, especially when reconciled with the material reality that most leftist publications – Kasama included – are read by a small sliver of the general population on the internet.
The FRSO’s view is different, rooted in the experience of revolutionaries who have successfully built parties and led revolutions around the world. The FRSO believes that the party emerges first and foremost from the mass movement, and without the masses, the party is nothing more than a declaration on paper. This understanding – seemingly self-explanatory and obvious – is the pitfall of most leftist groups in the United States because it requires an honest assessment of the position of the masses as the starting point for building a new communist party. The FRSO took such an inventory in their editorial, as evidenced by the statement, “We know that many activists in unions, the African-American, Chicano and other oppressed nationality movements, and sections of anti-war protesters and immigrant rights activists are likely to continue to vote for the lesser of two evils.”
Let’s be clear: The FRSO editorial did not say to remain silent or to withhold criticisms of the Democrats because “many activists” in the people’s movements plan to vote against Romney by voting for Obama. On the contrary, the editorial’s central call to action is to initiate discussions on the nature of the capitalist dictatorship present in the United States and the lack of real democracy through the ballot box. However, there is no place for ultra-left phrasemongering that holds as little truth as it does credibility with the masses (i.e. asserting that no difference exists between a President Obama and a President Romney).
The Wheat from the Chaff: Why FRSO’s editorial is the correct position on the 2012 US Presidential Elections
That all of the polemics and criticisms of the FRSO’s position on the 2012 elections have hinged on a single sentence reflects how firmly ingrained idealism remains within the bulk of the left in the United States. For all of the strawmen erected by the FRSO’s critics though, none stand taller than the total misunderstanding of the editorial’s purpose.
For Kasama and the other ultra-left critics, the perceived purpose of the FRSO’s editorial is “to finally, publicly give a green light to those who want to work for Obama.” Embedded in this statement is the assumption that this editorial was written for a particular audience, namely FRSO members, progressive activists, and the broader ‘revolutionary left’ in the US.
Can we prove it? Yes, we can. Kasama concludes its attack by asking, almost lamenting, “It is possible that young radicals and revolutionaries will accept and promote such arguments?” Kasama, along with most left groups in the US, generally write to the comparatively small section of revolutionary leftists in the United States. To put it another way, they preach to the choir; proselytize to the already converted. How else can one explain their choice to obsess on a single sentence – a vote against Romney by voting for Obama is preferable in swing states – instead of acknowledging and uniting with the crux of the editorial, which is the call to expose the undemocratic and violent nature of the bourgeois imperialist state and build the people’s movement?
The FRSO’s editorial, however, was not written principally for the already converted. Rather, the editorial was written for careful use and application in the mass movements.
Within the trade union movement, the immigrant rights movement, the black national movement, and to an extent the student movement, the principal opponent of revolution is not ultra-leftists; it is liberals, reformists, bureaucrats, opportunists, and some combination of all four. While some exceptions exist, the reformist leadership of these movements are firmly beholden to the Democratic Party, electoral politics, and in the particular case of the 2012 Presidential elections, President Barack Obama. Revolutionaries within these movements must do battle with these opportunist elements in order to draw out the advanced and build a revolutionary movement in the United States. However, the vast majority of the advanced in these different arenas of the people’s struggle are not revolutionary communists and will vote for President Obama, as acknowledged in the FRSO editorial.
How do revolutionaries combat the rightist and opportunist elements within the mass movement? Is it through hoisting high the banner of revolutionary communism and proselytizing loudly against the Democrats? Or is it through the Marxist-Leninist method of unity, struggle, unity: begin from a point of unity with the advanced elements of these movements, struggle and build the people’s movements, and come to a greater point of unity around revolution?
Kasama and the ultra-left critics of the FRSO’s position should ask themselves this: Would a union worker who plans to vote for President Obama read the FRSO’s editorial and come away believing that the central message was urging voters to re-elect or work for the re-election of the President? Would a first-generation Chican@ DREAMer finish the FRSO’s editorial and come away thinking that their salvation lies in the ballot box? Would or an African-American student protester at a Trayvon Martin rally get to the end of the editorial more convinced in the legitimacy of the electoral system? Would a heavily indebted student put down the editorial believing that the group was calling on her/him to work on the Obama campaign? Or would they come away with the real message of the piece: “hope is in the people’s struggles, change is in the streets”?
To believe that the advanced and intermediate elements of the mass movement would view the FRSO’s editorial as Kasama does – namely, as a call to vote for Obama – is delusional at best and reflects just how insular and incestuous elements of the left in the US have become. Divorced from the actual mass movement, these groups can only read statements like the FRSO’s as conscious revolutionary leftists, which leads them to obsess on a single tree amid an entire forest.
The FRSO’s statement is not an abstract theoretical document written for discussion and debate among the revolutionary left. It is a tool for identifying the most resolute fighters in the people’s struggle and advancing them towards a revolutionary position. It is a document to be shared and discussed in union halls, classrooms, community centers, and other meeting places for the people’s movement. It unites with the best elements of the people’s sentiments and attitudes – the desire to defeat reactionaries and better their conditions; identifying Mitt Romney and Republicans as a party of the 1%; the disappointment of the Obama Presidency; the worsening conditions of the people under capitalism – and challenges them to go a little bit further in rejecting the electoral system as undemocratic and fundamentally imperialist. It unites with the material reality of the 2012 elections – and make no mistake, that the vast majority of activists in the people’s movements will vote for President Obama in 2012 is a reality – but it synthesizes this with another reality: that elections are simply tools of the 1% and that revolutionary change through the ballot box is impossible.
President Obama “still polls in the mid-90s among African-American voters.” (3) After endorsing racist legislation like SB 1070 in Arizona and taking other radical anti-immigrant positions, Romney has all but guaranteed that 2/3rds of the Latino vote will go to Obama. (4) 57% of union workers pledge that they will vote for Obama, and that number is substantially higher among black and brown union workers. (5) Among the white working class in general, Obama polls at approximately 40%, trailing Romney because of white chauvanism instead of proletarian class consciousness. (6) Among other oppressed groups, Obama continues to poll very high, which puts to rest any question that 2012 is the year of mass revolt at the ballot box against both the Republicans and the Democrats.
Therein lies the genius of the FRSO’s editorial: uniting with the best sentiments of the masses and synthesizing it with a ruthless critique of bourgeois elections in the US to produce a revolutionary line: “Our faith and our future are in the people’s struggle, not the ballot box.”
Left Social-Chauvanism and the Differences Between President Romney and President Obama
Read the other statements or examine the other strategies of organizations in the US, and none will coincide with the statement given by the FRSO. The Communist Party USA unabashedly endorses and calls for its members to work for the President and the Democratic Party; a product of its historic tailing of the opportunists in the labor bureaucracy. The Trotskyites in the Socialist Workers Party, along with the reformists in the Socialist Party USA, are running their own candidates for President; nominally to expose the undemocratic nature of the US electoral system. Other Trotskyites, left-communists, and left-refoundationists (like those in the Kasama Project) will merely issue polemics against the Democratic Party and President Obama, with equal parts truth to ultra-left phrasemonering.
What all of these approaches have in common is a misreading of the material reality of our place, as revolutionary communists, in relation to the masses. There is no credible organized challenge to US imperialism within the United States, which makes these approaches equally incredible. According to these approaches, the union member facing massive cuts to her pension, or the first-generation immigrant whose parents face threats of deportation, or the black activist facing a resurgence of naked white supremacist vigilantes, can vote for an nonviable third party candidate and take a moral(!) stand against capitalism, or s/he can not vote.
That won’t happen. Although elections in the US are dominated by the 1%, the masses understand that “this doesn’t mean that there is no impact on objective conditions in the people’s struggles and the condition of people’s everyday lives, depending upon who is in the White House.” If one had to isolate a single reason for why these ultra-left strategies for organizing during elections will fail, it would be social-chauvinism.
While President Obama and the Democrats are unquestionably imperialists, there are significant differences between a President Obama and a President Romney, if not in practice than certainly in popular perception. We quote the FRSO editorial at length:
The Republicans are the greater of two evils. They represent the most reactionary and racist section of the capitalist class – the millionaires and billionaires who rule this country. Romney panders to the anti-women, anti-gay and racist base of the Republican Party on social issues. Mitt Romney wants more military spending, more war, and more U.S. occupations, especially in the Middle East. Romney wants to privatize government services or just cut them altogether, to downsize and put more people out of work like he did at Bain Capital.
For lack of a viable revolutionary alternative to the electoral system, the masses understand the objective reality of an Obama Presidency versus a Romney Presidency. Both candidates represent the capitalist class, as is the case in almost every election at every level of the US government. However, the masses correctly view Romney as the more reactionary of the two choices and will generally vote for President Obama.
The Democratic Party and their opportunist running dogs embedded in the people’s movements overstate the differences between the two candidates, rest assured, but this doesn’t mean that some significant differences do not exist. Does Kasama believe that conditions would genuinely be better for the masses under President Romney? Undoubtedly the Democrats bring no salvation from capitalism, but would Kasama actually argue that Governor Scott Walker defeating Mayor Tom Barrett in 2010 in Wisconsin made no difference to trade unionists? Would Kasama argue that the people of Florida, teachers, and public education are no worse off for electing Governor Rick Scott in 2010 than they would have been with Alex Sink, herself a Bank of America CEO? Ultra-leftists can argue these points – and FRSO’s editorial unites with the general sentiment towards rejecting electoral politics in lieu of revolutionary organizing – but they run counter to the real-life experiences of the masses.
Particularly within the Black Nation, the Republicans’ blatant racist attacks on and the Tea Party’s proto-fascist organizing efforts against President Obama and African-American in general provide a multitude of reasons to vote against a President Romney in 2012. While a significant sector of the Black Nation is discontent with the President’s complete neglect of improving their conditions in four years, they overwhelmingly attribute this to the Republican legislature. Telling the nation to vote for an nonviable third party or, worse, to not vote at all, will not work and amounts to left social-chauvanism. Instead, revolutionary communists ought to unite with the Black Nation’s struggle against the racist right-wing, embodied by the Republican Party, point out the class nature of the US election system, and above all else, continue building the people’s movements in the streets separate from the ballot box.
The question of trade unions is quite similar. With the exception of the Mineworkers, who have taken the objectively more reactionary position and endorsed Mitt Romney, every major trade union has endorsed President Obama for re-election. The Building Trades unions, in particular, see very real material differences between the two candidates on the question of Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). Under the Bush Presidency, PLAs on federally funded construction projects were banned. In February 2009, President Obama reversed the ban on PLAs, which prioritized union labor on many of the construction projects funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the totally insufficient ‘Obama stimulus package’). With Romney pledging to once again ban PLAs, building trade unionists will likely go to the ballot box with this proletarian class interest in mind.
Teachers, education support personnel, and other public-sector union workers, under heavy assault from right-wing governors across the US, will likely go to the ballot box with the multitude of attacks they have suffered in mind. Union members across the country have overwhelmingly expressed that this election, for them, is about keeping the union hall open, and with the plans laid out by the Romney-Ryan budget, they are correct. Many are disaffected with the President, who incidentally signed free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea the day before receiving the AFL-CIO’s endorsement, but they will not vote for a third party. While many members, particularly in right-to-work states, will not vote period, the advanced fighters in the trade unions will vote for President Obama.
Revolutionary communists, in other words the conscious element in the people’s movements, understand that a President Obama and a President Romney will continue the policy of austerity because they both represent the capitalist class. They understand that both will carry out the imperialist agenda of the US, and they understand that there can be no serious change in the people’s condition through the ballot box. Advancing the masses to this point of understanding and raising their class consciousness, however, does not occur through polemics divorced from the sentiments and experiences of the masses. It only occurs through building the people’s struggle and summating the victories and defeats with the masses. The FRSO’s editorial is both a tool to have these conversations with the advanced fighters in the mass movements and a call to build the people’s struggle outside of the US electoral system.
Beyond the 2012 Elections
It is hard for us to believe that the ultra-left hysterics of Kasama, the Trotskyites, and the left-communists emerge from active engagement in the mass movements, particularly in the “swing states” explicitly addressed in the FRSO’s editorial. The revolutionaries plugged into the mass movements in these states overwhelmingly see that even the most advanced fighters will still vote for the President. However, therein lies the importance of the FRSO’s editorial. The position outlined in the editorial is forward-thinking and casts the 2012 Presidential election as the relatively minor event it is in the long march to building a new revolutionary communist party in the United States, and the even longer march towards proletarian revolution.
Accelerationists may argue that the people’s struggle will grow faster because of the emboldened contradictions present under a President Romney. Leaving aside the lack of consideration for the negative material impact on the real lives of the masses, which is left social-chauvanism, this view is incorrect. The FRSO editorial points out that “at] times, people’s movements are more active when there is a sense that achieving reform is possible.” Certainly the defeat at the hands of reactionaries in power fuels the people’s movements – as in the experience of Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida’s fights against their Republican governors – but continued sustained defeats can demoralize activists or lend itself to co-opting by the opportunist elements loyal to the Democratic Party.
On that last point, in particular, the deflation of the anti-war movement after the end of the Bush Presidency demonstrates how closely the movement’s successes were tied to anti-Republican politics. Suddenly with an Obama Presidency, many of the loudest anti-war critics are silent, or at worst apologists, for the continued occupation of Afghanistan and the NATO assault on Libya. Without a doubt, these opportunists will return to the people’s movements under a President Romney and continue to poison the movements with their liberalism.
Kasama calls the FRSO’s editorial “remarkable given that the emergence of Occupy has opened a political space that so stubbornly refused to morph itself into a progressive grassroots movement for the Democrats,” but they once again cannot see the forest beyond the trees. The Occupy movement’s emergence was unthinkable under a Bush Presidency, and the general anti-capitalist orientation of the movement – however short-lived and problematic in its class and racial composition – was fueled by the contradiction between the masses and a Democrat in the White House. Endorsing President Obama is not the answer, and the FRSO editorial did no such thing. However, a second-term Obama Presidency offers the conditions to expand the people’s struggle and increasingly draw a line in the sand between revolutionaries and opportunist Democrats, whose actions and policies can never match their populist rhetoric.
As the masses move past November 6, 2012, the people’s struggle in the United States will enter a new period. Whether President Obama or President Romney wins the election, imperialism will continue to exploit and oppress the working class, the internal oppressed nations, and the oppressed nations around the world. As such, the people’s movements will continue. However, this new period will require revolutionaries and progressives in the mass movements to expose and do ideological battle with the opportunists and liberals in their ranks in order to build a new revolutionary communist party.
Just as the FRSO editorial argues, we must place our faith and future “in the people’s struggle, not the ballot box.” This is the message that revolutionaries across the country must bring to the advanced fighters in the mass movements if we ever hope to build genuine mass political power outside of the wretched two-party system. And for all the distortions by ultra-left critics, this is the fundamental message of the FRSO’s editorial.
(1) Freedom Road Socialist Organization, August 12, 2012, “The 2012 presidential election: In the midst of economic hard times, hope is in the people’s struggles, change is in the streets,” http://bit.ly/R6nHox
(2) Kasama, August 16, 2012, “Freedom Road (Fight Back) urges votes for Obama,” http://bit.ly/N7ipSG
(3) Edward Klein, Fox News, July 10, 2012, “Could the black vote cost Obama the election?,” http://fxn.ws/MYExTk
(4) Andres Oppenheimer, The News Tribune, August 17, 2012, “Romney serving up Hispanic votes to Obama on a silver platter,” http://bit.ly/OmsZrN
(5) Frank Newport, Gallup, June 11, 2012, “Majority of Union Members Back Obama; a Third Back Romney,” http://bit.ly/NxRg0Y
(6) Felecia Sonmez, The Washington Post, May 29, 2012, “Romney, Obama and the white working class vote,” http://wapo.st/KpqSCL