In this first issue of our “Throwbacks” feature, we revisit excerpts from an editorial by the Maoist organization Line of March examining the conjuncture of the 1984 elections. Like Liberation Road, Line of March emerged out of the New Communist Movement and attempted to correct for “left-wing errors” that overestimated the immanence of revolutionary rupture. Here, they argue for the necessity both of tactically voting for corporate Democrats and of building infrastructure independent of them in order to advance the long-term development of the working class. Not coincidentally, a similar inside/outside approach defines our analysis and our politics today.
1. What Makes This Election Different?
On the surface, the 1984 presidential election looks like a carbon copy of countless others which have preceded it. Once again, two bourgeois politicians, each aspiring to be chief executive of the U.S. imperialist system, are appealing to the masses of the people for their votes. And once again the country is being subjected to those rituals of populism and patriotism which are the standard ideological fare of the “democratic” electoral process and through which the U.S. ruling class renews its political legitimacy every four years.
And yet there is a widespread sense that something very much out of the ordinary is taking place in this year’s electoral contest. The election and the events surrounding it have aroused passions—on all sides—suggesting that, for once, there is more at stake than is usually the case the imperial guard is either reaffirmed or changed. Two factors, in particular, stand out.
One is Ronald Reagan. The President’s four years in office have been both injury and insult to the working class, to minorities, to women—and to the vast majority of the world’s peoples. Injury because Reagan’s policies have pushed the world closer to the nuclear brink, methodically paved the way for another Vietnam in Central America, mercilessly punished minorities while promoting “white rights” (meaning white supremacy) as official government policy, weakened the trade union movement, reversed the momentum of the movement for equal rights for women and undermined the living standards of major sections of the working class. Insult because Reagan is the bourgeoisie’s contemptuous message to the masses that the U.S. ruling class believes it can get away with anything without fear of retaliation.
The prospect of Reagan, on the basis of his first-term record, receiving a popular mandate to exercise enormous powers of the U.S. presidency in similar fashion for another four years cannot help but be anxiety-provoking—especially since we can rightfully assume that a second term would make the first look like a dress rehearsal. Just the possibility of ousting Reagan from office in 1984 would make this year’s election noteworthy.
The other factor making this year’s electoral contention extraordinary is Jesse Jackson—or, to be more precise, the movement which Jackson’s unprecedented candidacy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination has brought into being.
Not only has the Jackson campaign brought a program of consistently progressive politics into the bourgeois electoral arena, it has activated a mass social base—principally in the Black community—for their support. Under Jackson’s leadership, the Rainbow Coalition has challenged both the assumptions and the policies of those twin pillars of bourgeois rule in the U.S.—imperialist policy abroad and racism at home.
These are the factors—the particular nature of the Reagan presidency and the historic emergence of progressive politics supported by a substantial electoral base in the Black community—which have made the 1984 election an event which we believe cannot be approached simply with formulas and slogans of other periods.
WORKING CLASS STAKE
In our view, the working class has a crucial stake not just in using the 1984 election as a vehicle for having its class interests placed before the masses, but in the actual outcome of the balloting. As a result, left and progressive forces cannot afford the moralistic indulgence of abstentionism or the sectarian indulgence of independent “protest” candidacies—no matter how justified and righteous our anger at the craven alternative to Reagan that the Democratic Party has provided in the person of Walter Mondale.
Certainly the political training of the working class requires the most ruthless exposure of the myths associated with the bourgeois electoral process—especially the fantasy that power can be transferred from the bourgeoisie to the working class through such means. At the same time, the working class must be trained to approach each political event in its particularity—figuring out concretely how both its immediate as well as its long term class interests are best served.
In the 1984 elections, those interests, we believe, are concentrated in two goals.
One is ousting Ronald Reagan from the White House, a goal which requires of the left that it undertake to explain to the masses why it is in their political interest to vote for the Democratic Party’s candidates, Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro.
The other is building the Rainbow Coalition, a goal which requires of the Left that it work within and help push forward the Jesse Jackson led insurgency within the Democratic Party.
It is no minor matter for the future of U.S. working-class politics for the communists to advocate the election of one bourgeois candidate over another in a presidential election—rather than urging support for candidates of the left, or a “protest” vote or a boycott of the electoral process. It is likewise a major responsibility to advocate building and strengthening a particular political faction within one of the two bourgeois political parties—as opposed to “exposing” such an effort as a negative concession to capitalist rule and pressing for the immediate development of a mass independent working class political vehicle.
It is important, therefore, that this conclusion not be based on intuition or pragmatism. We cannot rest our case simply on exposing Reagan’s perfidy or touting Jackson’s virtues. We must explain, in the case of Reagan, why another bourgeois politician—no less devoted to the interests of U.S. imperialism—is under present circumstances, a preferable alternative. We must also explain, in the case of Jackson, why an effort nominally aimed at making the Democratic Party “truly” representative of the masses—a goal whose attainment is, to say the least, highly problematic—represents at this stage the most advanced motion toward independent and progressive working class politics in the U.S.
In doing so, we take issue with others on the left who are advocating strategies based on abstaining from this year’s elections or fielding alternative left presidential candidates. In our view, such strategies represent uncalled-for and sectarian retreats from the main flashpoints of the class struggle as it has actually unfolded in the realm of politics in 1984.
2. 1984—The Real Questions are War and Fascism
One of the main reasons why the 1984 election is not an “ordinary” election is that Ronald Reagan is not an “ordinary” president. He defines the political stakes in this election in a way and to a degree that few other bourgeois politicians—event incumbent presidents—have ever done.
The decision by the U.S. ruling class to put the reins of the state apparatus in the hands of this particular right-wing demagogue in 1980 was a calculated risk. Their purpose was to see whether a political figure representing the neo-fascists right could forge a popular consensus in support of renewed U.S. military aggression abroad, a massive bid to regain nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, and a program of racism, repression and austerity at home—policies deemed essential to the defense and resuscitation of the imperialist system.
Certainly Reagan has more than lived up to these expectations. Military activity has been the defining characteristic of his administration’s foreign policy—in Lebanon, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada, Libya’s coastal waters and the Persian Gulf. Deployment of new intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe represents a major bid to regain first-strike capacity over the Soviet Union, Both ideologically and militarily, the country is inexorably being placed on a war footing.
At the same time, Reagan’s supply-side economics, cuts in social spending and attacks on unions are, in essence, a program designed to strengthen the hand of capital and weaken the working class. The goal is to facilitate a renegotiation of all the conditions of labor in the U.S. on terms more favorable to a bourgeoisie suffering a diminution of its profitability. […]
But there has been more to the Reagan game plan than patriotic hype, evangelical religion and hysterical anticommunist propaganda. A central component of the Reagan program has been to racialize its attacks on the working class so that Blacks and other minorities would bear the brunt of the assault while the better-off, predominantly white sectors of the working class remained relatively cushioned from its worst aspects. Exploiting the existing racial division in the working class and further exacerbating it was viewed as the key to winning a substantial portion of the workers to support the Reagan program. It is a strategy which, it must be admitted, has enjoyed considerable success.[…]
IV. The Independent Role of the Left
Needless to say, no one on the left supports Reagan’s re-election; indeed, most (if not all) left forces acknowledge that the President’s defeat would be a good thing. It is also true that much of the left has been able to recognize the progressive thrust of the Jesse Jackson candidacy and the Rainbow Coalition.
But such views, by themselves, have only a glancing relation to politics, the point of which is not to monitor the class struggle but to interact with it. The perspective we have advanced here—which is captured in the slogan: “Build the Rainbow Coalition, Dump Reagan!”—is advanced in order to provide a strategic orientation that would define and guide the practical political work of conscious forces of the left in the 1984 election.
Not everyone on the left agrees with this perspective. Some don’t think that the differences between the Republicans and Democrats this year are significant enough to justify support to one bourgeois candidate over another. For the most part these are the same forces who fail to see anything progressive in the Jackson candidacy. (In classic Trotskyist fashion, the Socialist Workers Party dismissed the Jackson campaign as “No step forward in [the] fight for Black equality” and calls the effort an “obstacle” and a “diversion” to independent working class politics. Not surprisingly, they are running their own candidates for president and vice president.)
Of greater concern to us, however, are those who do think that Reagan’s ouster would be a signal victory for the working class and who likewise recognize the progressive character of the Rainbow Coalition—but whose practical strategy contradicts such a perspective.
Troubling on this score is an abstentionist tendency which seems to have developed a measure of currency among some Jackson supporters so angered and frustrated by the treatment accorded Jackson and the Rainbow forces at the Democratic National Convention and since, that they are now contemplating a boycott of the November election.
We believe that this is a subjectivist error which, in the name of justifiable anger, gives in to despair and surrenders politics. Certainly the arrogant contempt displayed by the leadership of the Democratic Party for the political representative overwhelmingly chosen by the Black community to speak on its behalf is racist to the core. Even worse is the attempt to transfer the mandate won by Jesse Jackson to the white-picked Black leaders Jackson defeated.
This is all the more reason not to leave the battleground of the Democratic Party uncontested and do the work of these racists and opportunists for them. The insults and attacks are themselves the tacit acknowledgment that the Jackson campaign has struck a deep responsive chord among the masses—one which they rightly fear.
Permitting these forces the political privilege of posing as the only opponents to Ronald Reagan is to grant them a practical victory they were not able to achieve in the course of the primaries or the Democratic National Convention. Not abstentionism, but the independent effort of the Rainbow Coalition to mobilize the masses—especially the Black community—is the struggle against Reagan through voter registration and, yes, by casting their ballots for Mondale and Ferraro, is a far more effective way of translating the class and anti-racist hatred which many activists rightfully feel into a meaningful and effective political force.[…]
The objective of the left in the 1984 election campaign which we have advanced—ousting Reagan and building the Rainbow Coalition—are clearly not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, very much intertwined, for the ouster of Reagan will not be accomplished without the mass mobilization of the most oppressed sectors of the U.S. working class which only the outlook of the Rainbow Coalition can bring about; nor will the Rainbow Coalition be built without taking responsibility for defeating that representative of the U.S. ruling class who has become its most concentrated expression of the drive towards war and the motion towards fascism.
But no matter what happens in the November election, the struggle against fascism—the cutting edge of which is the struggle against war and racism—will go on. Even if Reagan is re-elected, the movement to oust him which is not being built—especially the Rainbow Coalition which represents the working class component of the anti-Reagan front—can materially affect the degree to which the President would be able to pursue his program and the pace at which he tries to implement it. That movement will also act as a powerful check on a Mondale presidency, which, inevitably, would be pulled toward policies of war and repression in defense of the imperialist system. For the forces of peace, national liberation and socialism throughout the world those are not minor concerns.
But beyond such practical urgencies rests an even more fundamental question. Precisely because the central questions of class politics—the bourgeoisie’s motion towards war and fascism, the spontaneous straining of the working class for its own voice and political expression—have been brought to the fore this year, the 1984 election has the potential to become one of those historical turning points which mark the maturation of the class struggle. How the left respond to this possibility—both analytically and practically—will likely be a turning point in the development and maturation of a proletarian vanguard in that struggle.