I spent most of yesterday in a room full of British trade unionists, all of whom would regard themselves as (to varying degrees) on the political left. To a person, every one of them that I spoke to, or overheard, expressed pleasure and relief at the US election result.
In fact, I find it inconceivable that any socialist or, indeed, liberal, wouldn’t feel that way. I do not include deranged anti-Americans of the Pilger/Counterpunch variety.
Of course, a general sense of pleasure and/or relief at the outcome need not, necessarily, be predicated upon having advocated a vote for Obama. And there is, of course, a long-standing leftist (specifically Trotskyist) argument against advocating a vote for the US Democrats, which I’ll come on to in a moment.
But even those of us who have never had any great illusions in Obama, need to recognise what his presidency represents for Afro-Americans and other minorities (notably Hispanics), and just what a blow to their morale and self-confidence a Romney victory would have been. It is also a fact that, rightly or wrongly, the majority of unions in the US backed Obama. All reports suggest, as well, that the mass of ordinary people outside the US, feared that a Romney victory would make the world as a whole a more dangerous place.
Now, of course, the orthodox (and not-so-orthodox) Trotskyist position has always been that the Democrats are simply a bosses’ party (in a way, for instance, that the UK Labour Party, being a “bourgeois workers’ party”, isn’t) and so a vote for them is impermissible. Instead, we should advocate the creation of a US ‘labor party’. The great American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon (of whom I am a considerable, though not uncritical, admirer), wrote extensively on this subject, and his articles repay study. Unfortunately, they are not readily available these days.
James P. Cannon
Here’s an excerpt from a 1954 article entitled “A New Declaration of Independence”. I had better explain that Cannon regarded McCarthyism as “American fascism in incipient form.” Whether or not he was correct about that (and, indeed, whether such an analysis of the Tea Party movement would be appropriate today), is not the central issue here.
Cannon argued that:
“[T]he myopic policy of the liberals and the labor leaders is concentrated on the congessional elections next fall, and the presidential election to follow in 1956. A Democratic victory is counted on to deal a death blow to the McCarthy aberration. ‘McCarthyism is becoming a danger all right, and it begins to look like a fascist movement; but all we need is a general mobilisation at the polls to put the Democrats back in power.’ Such are the arguments we already hear from the Democratic high command, the literary liberals, the labor leaders and — skulking in the rear of the caravan, with their tails between their legs — the Stalinists.
“This would really be laughable if humor were in place where deadly serious matters are concerned. The Roosevelt New Deal, under far more favourable conditions, couldn’t find a way to hold back the economic crisis without a war. A Stevensonian version of the same policy, under worse conditions, could only be expected to fail more miserably. A Democratic victory might arrest the hitherto unobstructed march of McCarthyism while it re-forms its ranks. It might even bring a temporary moderation of the fury of the witch-hunt. But that’s all.
“The fascist movement would probably begin to grow again with the growth of the crisis. It would probably take on an even more militant character, if it is pushed out of the administration and compelled to develop as an unofficial movement. Under conditions of a serious crisis, an unofficial fascist movement would grow all the more stormily, to the extent that the labor movement would support the Democratic administration, and depend on it to restrain the fascists by police measures.
“Such a policy, as the experience of Italy and Germany has already shown, would only paralyze the active resitance of the workers themselves, while giving the fascist gangs a virtually free reign. Moreover, by remaining tied to the Democratic administration, the labor movement would take upon itself a large part of the responsibility for the economic crisis and feed the flames of fascist demagogy around the question.
“That would be something to see: The fascists howling about the crisis, and stirring up the hungry and desperate people with the most extravagent promises, while the labor leaders defend the administration. The official labor leaders are fully capable of such idiocy, as they demonstrated in the last presidential election. But with the best will in the world to help the democratic administration, they couldn’t maintain such a position very long.
“The workers will most probably accept the recommendation of the labor leaders to seek escape from the crisis by replacing Republican rascals by Democratic scoundrels in the next election. But when the latter become officially responsible for the administration, and prove powerless to cope with the crisis, the workers will certainly draw some conclusions from their unfortunate experiences. The deeper the crisis and the more brutal the fascist aggression fed by the crisis, the more insistent will be the demand for a radical change of policy and a more adequate leadership.
From all indications, the workers’ discontent will be concentrated, at first, in the demand for a labor party of their own. This will most probably be realized. It will not yet signify the victory over fascism — not by a long shot — but it will represent the beginning of a counter-movement which will have every chance to end in victory.”
I have to say that I find most of Cannon’s case unconvincing and (ironically for an outspoken anti-Stalinist) verging upon Third Period Stalinism. Just at a factual level, I don’t think it’s accurate to dismiss the New Deal as something that could not have succeeded without a war, or to suggest such a policy in the 1950’s was doomed to “fail miserably”. Certainly, Cannon produces no evidence to back up that claim. His argument against illusions in the Democrats and the dangers of being seen to defend a Democratic administration are fair enough, but do not amount to a coherent case against even voting for the Democratic Party – any more than the danger of sewing illusions in the UK Labour Party and giving uncritical support to a Labour government, are arguments against a Labour vote.
In fact Cannon, it seems to me, fundamentally undermines his own argument by concluding that workers’ discontent with a Democratic administration at that time would result in the demand for a labor party, which “will most probably be realised.” That would seem to be an argument in favour of getting the Democrats elected, not against it.
I have quoted Cannon’s argument at some length so as not to risk the charge of having taken him out of context. And I decided to quote Cannon in the first place because his writings on the US labor movement are generally of a high standard, and because his arguments are still, essentially, the arguments put forward by serious people who oppose a Democrat vote.
(NB: “A New Declaration of Independence” was published in The Militant of April 12 1954, republished in Notebook of an Agitator, pub: Pathfinder Press 1958 & 1973)