Bread and Circuses: The US ‘show’ elections

Most workers in the US vote for one or other of the bosses’ parties. Why when the whole electoral machine is corrupted by bosses’ money and fraudulent practices should we take it seriously? Even if workers are allowed to vote what do we gain? After all an election, as Lenin said, is the right to vote every few years for our oppressors? So what’s the point? There is a point, but only if revolutionaries use the elections as a platform to raise their revolutionary program! Otherwise elections are no more than ‘bread and circuses’.

Bush exploits fear

The fact is that many workers are deluded into believing that the US is the great benefactor of the world, the defender of democracy and human rights. The bosses’ media has scared them into voting for Bush to defend their country from the threat of ‘terrorism’. The ‘alternative’ media that produces critical views of the Bush administration and its economic interests, like Fahrenheit 9-11, Outfoxed and The Corporation, still reach only a minority audience.

Many of these workers are the better paid ‘labour aristocracy’ who have benefited from decades of US domination of the world market. There are also lower paid migrant workers who put their hopes in a strong US to protect their jobs. The US economic crisis is cutting the wages and conditions of well paid as well as poorly paid workers to restore the bosses’ profits. The bosses’ shift the responsibility for the crisis by inciting workers to blame migrants or workers in other countries for stealing their jobs. This economic insecurity is manipulated by the bosses into support for aggressive US policies against other countries such as Iraq. In this way the ‘war in terror’ becomes a test of the patriotism of US workers in support of the US ruling class to dominate the world economy.

We say to these workers that Bush is not defending your interests. Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Bush is making you pay for these wars with your jobs, your wages, your rights and the lives of your children, draft or no draft. The ‘terrorists’ in Iraq or Colombia are largely the poor and oppressed people of those countries invaded and plundered by US imperialism over generations who are now fighting back with whatever means available.

Bush is using the ‘war on terror’ to fight a never-ending terrorist war against the poor workers and peasants of this world to re-colonise their countries to ‘smash and grab’ the oil, gas, and other vital resources. Now he is making war against the poor inside the USA. Voting for Bush will bring more ‘terror’ at home not less. Bush’s ‘homeland security’ will take away all your union and civil rights, including your right to vote for anybody but Republican. Siding with Bush puts you offside with the vast majority of the poor workers and farmers of the world!

Bush lite

But will voting for Kerry make a difference? The democratic party presents itself as a more liberal bosses’ party. Yet it drew on racist southern democratic support for years. Under Clinton the Democrats introduced policies of workfare taking away the welfare rights of millions. It is supported by the main union organisation the AFL-CIO –the same organisation that supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq and of Haiti.

Kerry claims he does not endorse the extreme militarism of the New American Century faction of the US ruling class which calls for the US to invade any country where it has a vital interest. ( But this policy was already the hallmark of US foreign policy in the 19th century and continued in the 20th century under Democrat leaders like Roosevelt and Kennedy. Kerry pretends that the US can continue to rule the world without ‘going it alone’ and splitting with the other major powers. He may not have invaded Iraq knowing that Saddam did not have WMDs or connections to al Queda. But like the last Democrat president, Clinton, he would have bombed Iraq and Kosovo to enforce UN resolutions.

Leftists for Kerry

Many prominent ‘left’ intellectuals are supporting a Kerry vote as the only way to get rid of Bush. Some, like Noam Chomsky, say that this is necessary in the ‘swing’ states were a few hundred votes may make the difference. Yet it seems that it will be the lawyers hired by the Democrats that make the difference, not the followers of Chomsky et al.

The leftists for Kerry use a ‘lesser evil’ argument that says that US imperialism can be more humane and democratic under Kerry. It is a view echoed by prominent ‘Eurocommunists’ like Tony Negri who says that Bush’s leadership is a retreat from a multilateral world Empire back to a unilateral US imperialism. Others, like former right-winger Chalmers Johnson in his book the ‘Sorrows of Empire’, say that the rise of US militarism is because the Pentagon now controls the state.

Return to ‘ultra imperialism’?

All of these ‘lesser evil’ arguments promote the belief that the US can conduct itself without going to war to defend its leading role in the world economy. This is a return to Kautsky’s theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’ at the time of WW 1. Kautsky claimed that the big corporations and big banks no longer had an interest in fighting wars since their assets were now distributed across many countries and would be damaged by war. Today, with the rise of the global economy, the power of finance capital and trans-nationals spanning the world market, these Kautskyites claim that national rivalries are even more anachronistic.

What these apologists for the big corporations overlook is the fact that the current crisis of world capitalism does not allow the US and its imperialist rivals the luxury of collaborating peacefully. They are each driven to compete to win larger shares of trade and control of vital resources at each other’s expense. Whatever the minor policy differences between Bush and Kerry these will quickly disappear. Under the impact of the deepening economic crisis it is impossible for US imperialism to collaborate with its main rivals in the scramble for scarce resources such as oil and gas.

Therefore we say to all those who call for a vote for Kerry to get rid of Bush, that this is promoting the illusion that Kerry will be better for workers than Bush. We say that this election is a ‘show’ election where the victor will be whoever has the biggest budget, the dirtiest tricks, and the power to delude the masses that they can be secure from the threat of ‘terrorism’. Voting for Kerry will only contribute to these illusions and delusions, rather than challenging workers to organise against the interests of an imperialist ruling class that hides behind the ‘bread and circus’ elections. A good example of this is the AFL-CIO sabotage of the recent Million Man March as a ‘diversion’ from the Kerry election campaign.

Million (50,000) Man March

According to Martin Schreader, editor of Appeal to Reason:: “On October 17, the Million Worker March was held in Washington, DC. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the main dockworkers’ union on the west coast, initiated the event, and organised it with the assistance of local unions and leftwing organisations across the country. The march put forward a series of concrete demands ranging from universal healthcare and abolition of restrictive anti-labour laws to democratic control of the media and the economy.

The immediate goal of the MWM, according to organisers, was to “gauge where workers are” - to see how many workers were open to a radical-democratic and socialist platform. The ultimate goal would have been to use the march as the basis for beginning to build a new political party of working people.” (Weekly Worker 549 Thursday October 21 2004).

But this rally was sabotaged by the AFL-CIO now so attached to the Democratic Party that not only did it refuse to allow its member unions to participate in a march against the administration in Washington, but it collaborated with the Homeland Security authorities to have busloads of workers stopped and questioned on the way to the rally. Many buses were turned around and only 50,000 rallied to the march. This open betrayal can only add fuel to the rallying call for independent unions and a mass Workers’ Party.

Nader is a left Democrat

Against the open collaboration of left intellectuals and the labour bureaucrats of the AFL-CIO with the Democrats, several small left reformist parties are putting up their own candidates. Do these parties offer an alternative for the workers’ vote? Nader, the Greens, the Socialist Workers Party, Workers World Party, among others, stand on platforms opposing both Republicans and Democrats.

Nader would replace the US ‘coalition’ troops in Iraq with UN troops. He demands more state spending on education, welfare etc. But his real position is to provoke the Democrats to offer a more left alternative to the Republicans. His agenda is a return to some ideal concept of a democratic, humane, welfarist, but still social-imperialist, USA. That is, his reforms for US workers would be paid out of the super-profits extracted by US imperialism in its colonies and semi-colonies. This is a left bosses’ program not very different from the Labour parties and Social Democrat parties in Europe, where sometimes revolutionaries give critical support to get these parties elected and exposed as anti-worker. Does Nader quality for critical support? No way!

The difference between Nader and social democracy is that Nader has no backing in the organised working class which sees in him a party that represents its interests. Therefore to call for a critical vote for Nader would be to sow illusions in the possibility of the Democrats reforming themselves into a social democratic alternative to the Republicans. For the same reasons that workers should not vote for Kerry, they should not vote for Nader or the Greens who also promote reformist illusions about ‘greening’ and ‘humanising’ capitalism. Nevertheless, this has not stopped many small so-called Trotskyist groups from endorsing Nader-Camejo, e.g. International Socialist Organisation (ex-Cliffite-or SWP (UK) and SWO (NZ); Socialist Alternative (CWI or Socialist Party (UK) Left Party/Solidarity etc.

Socialist alternatives?

A number of socialist groups today see the US under any fraction of the ruling class –left, right or center –as incapable of delivering real democracy. Martin Schreader of the Debs faction in the Socialist Party sees the victory of Bush in 2000 as marking the end of the 2nd Republic (which began with the victory of the northern bourgeoisie against the southern slaveowners in the civil war of the 1860s). Similarly, a leader of the Communist Party of Great Britain says that because the elections are rigged by those with wealth and power, the US needs a ‘third’ democratic revolution. The CPGB would join with Schreader in voting for the Socialist Party (US) candidates.

For all of these groups this proposed democratic revolution will require the mobilisation of the working masses to replace those with wealth and power with a genuinely democratic republic. Their programs are therefore limited to immediate and democratic demands for civil rights, union rights and economic welfare such as jobs, health, education, welfare rights, women’s and migrants rights, repeal of homeland security, opposition to the war on Iraq war etc.

Good as far as they go, but not nearly far enough! All of these demands are raised on the premise that workers can build an electoral majority and return a workers’ party to Congress and the White House to complete the national revolution.

But standing candidates on such reformist programs creates a trap for workers because it reinforces the illusion that a parliamentary majority can make capitalism democratic, when every historical example of such programs have been defeated by reactionary anti-democratic counter-revolutions, from Germany in 1919 to Chile in 1973. As we will see below the Bolsheviks avoided this trap only because they rejected the Menshevik theory that the workers led by progressive bourgeois intellectuals can force capitalism to deliver democratic demands and economic welfare.

Unlike most of the other US left parties which evolved out of Stalinism or social democracy, the Socialist Workers Party (US) is standing candidates on this Menshevik policy as a result of consciously rejecting the Leninist/Trotskyist ideological weapon used to destroy the argument of the Mensheviks in 1917 –the concept of ‘permanent revolution’.

Socialist Workers Party and Cuban ‘socialism’

The SWP candidates take a position very similar to others on the socialist left – calling for workers to complete the bourgeois revolution in the US. But their program is more credible to militant workers because of their past association with Trotsky. The SWP are the party strong influenced by Trotsky when he was in exile in Mexico in the 1930’s. Today, having broken with Trotskyism the SWP has the dubious distinction of holding up the Cuban revolution as a model of how the democratic revolution can be completed in the US.

Castro defeated the colonial power (US) and its landowning agents (Bastista etc) and put revolutionary nationalist intellectuals into power in 1959. This was a democratic national revolution in which the workers and peasants backed a left bourgeois leadership. It went beyond a national revolution only when the counter-revolution of the US and its local agents forced Castro to expropriate capitalist property. The SWP does not recognise that Castro is part of a Stalinist bureaucracy that controls the economy, which has to be removed by a ‘political revolution’ to open the road to socialism.

According to the SWP, the Cuban revolution proves that it is possible for petty bourgeois intellectuals to complete the stage of a national revolution, and then go on to make a socialist revolution. Instead of recognising that Cuba is a bureaucratic workers state where the Castroite leadership must be overthrown, the SWP elevates the Castroites to the role of the vanguard of the Menshevik two-stage transition to socialism.

Translated to the US election today, the SWP presidential candidates, like the other left reformist candidates, call for the first stage of this transition, the ‘democratic dictatorship’ of the workers and farmers i.e. a radical democratic bourgeois republic. The second, socialist, stage will only become possible when further conditions are present, in particular, mass support for the expropriation of capitalist property.

But to suggest that it will be possible for US workers to complete the bourgeois revolution short of socialism is to reject the revolutionary program of Lenin and Trotsky that made the Russian revolution possible. In taking this position the SWP rejects Trotsky’s program of Permanent Revolution and substitutes the Menshevik program of 1917 and of the Cuban revolution.

Permanent Revolution

Revolutionaries cannot call for workers to vote for any of the reformists left candidates because they delude workers into thinking that a mass workers movement can make capitalist democracy work. This was a theory rejected by Lenin in his April Theses of 1917. Until that time he and the rest of the Bolsheviks thought that Russia was not ripe for socialist revolution. Russia needed a bourgeois revolution to prepare the conditions for a socialist revolution. But the Russian bourgeoisie were too weak to overthrow the Tsar. It would be necessary for the workers and the peasantry to join forces to do what the bourgeoisie could not do. This was called the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’.

But it became increasingly obvious that to prevent the return of the Tsarist regime workers and peasants would have to take power from the bourgeoisie who would rather ally with Tsarism and imperialism than allow workers to take power. And once workers took power, what would be the point of limiting their program to the bourgeois constitution in defence of private property. After Lenin returned to Russia, he and Trotsky joined forces to win over the Bolsheviks to their position of ‘permanent’ or ‘uninterrupted’ revolution.

It proved to be the case that only the Bolsheviks could muster the workers, peasants and soldiers to defeat the Tsar, the Russian bourgeoisie and the imperialist forces. In doing this they created a workers state, expropriated capitalist property and defended the revolution from counter-revolution. In Germany, where a Bolshevik party did not exist, the revolution failed to break from the bourgeoisie and was disarmed by the reformists' promise of a ‘democratic’ republic. The new Weimar republic contained the revolutionary upturn of the masses and paved the way for the rise of fascism in Germany to smash the working class.

A Trotskyist program for the US election

Working class history written in blood reveals why revolutionaries do not give political support to any bourgeois parties but must call instead for the independent political organisation of the workers. The only program that revolutionaries can raise in the US elections is a revolutionary program. By definition such a program cannot be realised by completing the democratic revolution. On the contrary, the democratic revolution can only be completed as part of a socialist revolution.

Therefore an electoral program must be a transitional program that includes not only the most basic immediate and democratic demands but also socialist demands such as the formation of independent working class organisations like parties, councils and militias, capable of seizing power and creating a workers’ and small farmers’ state.

For the formation of a mass Workers’ or Labour Party!

For rank and file control of the unions independent of the state!

For a 30 hour working week on a living wage to combat unemployment!

For a program of public works, state-funded health, education and housing, all paid for by taxes on the rich!

For civil rights and citizenship rights for all minorities and migrants!

For the nationalisation of all capitalist property, including the banks, without compensation and under workers control!

A mass workers party based upon independent unions raising such demands will quickly come up against the reactionary state forces and propel workers to form soviets, militias, and national organs of workers power preparatory to the seizure of state power and the creation of a Workers and small farmers State as part of a federation of socialist republics of the Americas!

From Class Struggle 58 October-November 2004

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