Nader builds third force
Green-blue challenge to big two
This year's presidential elections in the United States have, for the first time in decades, seen a serious challenge to the two main capitalist parties from the left of the bourgeois political spectrum. Ralph Nader, sponsored by the Green Party, has won the backing of three trade unions and a number of local union bodies. The California Nurses Association, with 31,000 members, endorsed Nader in June, followed by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) in August, a 35,000-strong national union with a long history of leftist influence in the American labour movement. In addition, Nader has been endorsed by the union of non-profit workers in Los Angeles, and by local 1108 of AFSCME, the municipal workers union which itself has something of a militant tradition going back to the 1960s.
As Nader's own campaign website explains, his campaign has been acquiring something of a momentum across the American labour movement: "Nader's history of support for labor rights and his strong pro-labor platform have earned the enthusiastic support of growing numbers of rank-and-file union members, who are organizing 'Labor for Nader' groups in major metropolitan areas around the country. One of the strongest 'Labor for Nader' chapters is in Detroit, Michigan, where Nader plans to appear on Labor Day, September 4" (votenader.com).
In the context of a certain tentative revival in the American labour movement in the last several years, particularly during the second Clinton term with the death of arch rightwing AFL-CIO (American TUC) leader Lane Kirkland and his replacement by the sometimes left-talking John Sweeney, Nader's campaign has significance. The ascendancy of Sweeney led to the formation of a stillborn 'Labor Party' a few years ago, which was shipwrecked because of its refusal to define itself independently by standing against the Democrats.
Nader's green-blue campaign can be seen as related to that revival. And indeed, for many both in the United States and internationally, his campaign is seen as a political expression of the 'anti-capitalist' movements that have erupted over the last two years, symbolised by the successful disruption of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle by masses of labour unionists and radicalised youth protesters in October 1999.
Indeed, some of the early successes of the Nader campaign, and the mood in the American labour movement behind Nader, seem to have sufficiently rattled the Democratic Party establishment to make them realise that they had become vulnerable to a populist challenge from the left. The result being that Democratic presidential candidate and incumbent vice-president Al Gore has shifted his campaign rhetoric markedly in the direction of the same left-populist rhetoric - about healthcare for instance.
As noted by the US International Socialist Organization (ISO), the apparently reconciled co-thinkers of the British SWP, Gore stated in his speech accepting the Democrats' nomination for president that: "So often, powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seem stacked against you, even as you do what's right for you and your family"; "It's just wrong for seniors [pensioners] to have to choose between food and medicine while the big drug companies run up record profits"; "It's just wrong to have life-and-death medical decisions made by bean counters at HMOs [healthcare corporations] who don't have a license to practice medicine and don't have a right to play god" (www.internationalsocialist.org).
Given the well-remembered failure of Clinton's promise in 1992 to introduce some sort of half-decent healthcare system in the US, the only advanced capitalist country without any nominally socialised medicine system, such rhetoric is an implicit criticism of the Clinton administration and a reflection of the Democrats' fear of Nader. This Nader-induced burst of liberal-populist rhetoric from Gore also seems, ironically, to have led to a significant boost to Gore's chances of winning the presidency - previously, he had been languishing a poor second in the polls behind the so-called 'compassionate conservative' (in reality death penalty fanatic) and scion of the Butcher of Baghdad, George Bush junior.
It appears that Nader has intersected something of a national mood in the US, and Gore may well be the beneficiary of that. Which, of course, is one very good reason for carefully addressing the real political role of Nader when assessing what attitude socialists should take towards his campaign.
What concretely does Nader stand for? A distinct hint can be gained from his statement about the two major capitalist parties he is opposing. Nader himself stated: "The two parties are converging more and more into a huge, vested-interest money pot and are turning their backs on very important needs of the people. So we're appealing to conservatives, liberals, all the people who feel they're losing control in this country over everything that matters to them, their government, big business, environment, the workplace, the marketplace, even their own children being seduced by corporate hucksters and entertainers" (Burlington Free Press June 1, cited on votenader.com).
The ISO, in a major article in its journal, summarises Nader's political programme and outlook thus: "Nader's solution to overcome 'democracy' run by and for monopoly capital is summarised in his 'concord' principles. The concord principles call for a return to a 19th 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 not control over the institutions and decisions that affect their lives, with (an idealised) localism of the past. These ideas appeal to middle class interests represented among the Greens and newly radicalised students" (International Socialist Review August-September, p150).
On a number of questions, Nader is markedly to the left of the American mainstream for the entire World War II period. Notably, he calls for the repeal of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, the anti-union law passed in the early McCarthy period in order to cripple the unions and lay the basis for the witch hunt of communists and other leftist elements in the labour movement. He is well known as an activist for the rights of consumers, and for denouncing 'corporate welfare', the widespread practice of large corporations lobbying Congress and the presidency for favourable treatment, tax breaks, further anti-worker measures, etc, that particularly became notorious during the Reagan administration in the 1980s.
He also is a notable opponent of the death penalty, and has denounced in particular the grossly racist application of this barbaric institution in American life - the disproportionate number of blacks that end up being sentenced to death relative to their proportion in the population. His left/liberal credentials are further underlined by his choice of Winona LaDuke, a native American woman, as his vice-presidential running mate, both in the current election and his previous campaign in 1996. While such a choice does not necessarily say anything about his political programme, it can only reinforce the impression of Nader as an opponent of the worst abuses and crimes of the American establishment.
In the United States, where the politics of the workers' movement has been dominated for the whole of its existence, excluding a few exceptional years, by the openly capitalist Democratic and Republican parties, there have historically been a number of false dawns in terms of working class politics. It has not been unknown for maverick capitalist politicians to attempt to build a political career on the backs of the working class, not on the basis of any conversion to independent working class politics, but rather in an attempt to create a (usually short-lived) bourgeois 'third party', whose purpose is to exert pressure on the main bourgeois parties from the outside thereby using the masses as a lever in a crusade to make the mainstream politicians 'see sense'.
Indeed, a major question that caused deep divisions and political problems during the early years of the Communist Party of the USA was the 1924 presidential candidacy of the maverick Republican politician, Robert M LaFollette, who was the founder of a political vehicle that called itself a Federated Farmer-Labor Party. In the much more radical climate of the 1920s, LaFollette was compelled to appeal to the masses to engage in talk about a party of labour, while in reality acting to demobilise workers from building such an independent alternative.
Likewise, in 1948, at the tail end of the massive post-war strike wave, Henry Wallace stood for president on the ticket of the Progressive Party, a third capitalist party that wanted to continue the politics of Roosevelt's 'New Deal' in the context of the developing right turn in American politics. Out of step with McCarthyism, Wallace advocated the continuation of America's wartime alliance with the Kremlin. Wallace's campaign gained the support of the Communist Party, and even a wing of the American Trotskyists led by Sam Marcy. Yet again, far from being a break with capitalist politics in the direction of even a reformist workers' party, Wallace was just trying (vainly) to pressure the capitalist parties for a change of policy.
The same was true of the stillborn Labor Party that was formed in the US about four years ago - this party was so 'committed' to a break with the capitalist parties that it studiously resolved not to stand any candidates in elections against them! It was, again, simply a means for union bureaucrats still fundamentally loyal to the Democratic Party to put pressure on that party to take them more seriously. Rather than a step towards class independence, such formations usually have the express purpose of preventing such a political development from taking place.
The American ISO sums up Nader's politics as follows: "Though Nader addresses workers' concerns, he is not building or advocating a class party, nor is his appeal to workers that they should be a self-active class." Yet the comrades immediately qualify this by stating that, "It would be thoroughly conservative to reject it out of hand because this movement is still a halfway house, not yet an independent working class party. It would mean that the left should not engage in independent working class action against the Democrats until the unions and their officials are ready to break with independent capitalist politics. It would make the radical left hostage to what the conservative labor bureaucracy is prepared to do." The implication of this is quite clear: the ISO wants to be seen as both the 'best builders' of Nader's campaign and at the same time his most critical supporters.
Marxists are not sectarians. We recognise that there has been a significant shift away from the domination of extreme reaction in the American labour movement. The eclipse of the extreme Reaganite warmongering scum of the 'AFL-CIA' tops by the 'anti-corporate' rhetoric of John Sweeney is significant, not because the American labour bureaucracy has in any real sense changed, but because it is being forced to take notice of growing bitterness in the US working class at the steady decline of its conditions over the last two and a half decades or so. Communists must find a way to be with the base of the Nader movement, which is a related development, to be with the workers who see it as in some way a move in the direction of some sort of struggle for a better life, while at the same time acting as socialists should, as the historical memory of the working class and its most conscious political advocates.
In that respect, socialists cannot support the Nader election campaign, precisely because of the lessons of history - that those who expect the formation of any sort of working class party from such dissident capitalist politicians will be demoralised and quite likely driven away from radical politics by such a bitter experience. We need to develop revolutionary tactics to address a phenomenon that, in the US context, signifies great opportunities for the left, as well as great dangerl