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The left and the 1984 elections.

In an interview with James Reston (New york Times, November 1, 1983), Speaker of the house of Representatives Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr. is reported as saying of President Ronald Reagan:

He only works three to three and a half hours a day. He doesn't do his homework. He doesn't read his briefing papers. He lacks the knowledge he should (have) on every sphere, whether it's the domestic or whether it's the international sphere.... He's hurt 70 million people out there. He's hurt so many people.

stop a minute and think what this means. The president of the united States of America, the most powerful man in the world who by the very nature of the office he holds has his finger on the button that could blow up the world, is ignorant, incompetent, and cruel. For people everywhere this is an intolerable situation, and for Americans who love their country and yearn for it to play an honorable role in the world it is a source of frustration and shame.

This, we submit, is enough to define the overriding issue is the 1984 elections. Ronald Reagan must go.

But the question whether or not the Reagan administration continues in office of course goes far beyond the person of the president. What we have is in every respect the most reactionary, right-wing government in the country's history, and in many ways it is doing the things that in other countries and at other times are done by fascist governments. This particularly true in the area of military and foreign policy. But it also applies to redistribution of income from poor to rich; slashing social services; undermining legislative and administrative protections for women, minorities, and the environment; attacking trade unions; and mounting a general offensive against civil liberties. The record is consistent throughout; and all indications are that if Reagan is reelected, present tendencies and trends will continue and likely be intensified. A specific danger is that the next four years would see enough new Reagan appointments to the Supreme Court to ensure a solid reactionary majority until the end of the century.

We are not saying or implying that the Reagan administration is actually fascist. The ruling class in every developed capitalist country is divided into centrist and right-wing factions. In "normal" times, i.e., when capital accumulation is proceeding relatively smoothly, the two find it mutually advantageous to cooperate within a bourgeois democratic framework. In times of crisis, however, the right-wing faction grows relatively stronger and the democratic framework is subjected to increasing strains. Where for historical reasons this framework is weak, it may break down and be replaced by an openly authoritarian regime that can properly be characterized as fascist. But if the bourgeois democratic framework has deep historical roots, as in Britain and the United States, it may be able to accommodate a move to the right resulting in a situation which is the functional equivalent of fascism. The difference, however, is fundamental since where no breach in institutional continuity has taken place, the road back to the normal operation of bourgeois democracy is still open. The 1984 elections present the United States with an opportunity to start this return journey from the Reaganite functional equivalent of fascism to normal bourgeois democracy. (A situation similar in some respects existed in the second Nixon administration, with the major difference that Nixon blundered into his own downfall.)

If from a left perspective all this is obvious, so also is the logical conclusion to which it points: the most effective anti-Reagan vote is a vote for the Democratic candidate whoever it may be. But clearly the left is not going to sit on its collective hands doing nothing from now to November. What is to be done in the meantime?

There is no simple answer to this question, and it is both inevitable and healthy that there should be differences of opinion and important that they shoul be thought out and debated. What follows is an attempt to contribute to such a discussion.

the left in this country has no mass base and hence no significant influence on public opinion. Worse still, its weakness is such that it can be misrepresented and scapegoated by politicians and the media without being able to strike back in any effective way. As long as this situation exists, it makes little sense to talk about left politics in the United States. And by the same token a left priority has to be to change the situation, to get a foothold in public opinion and to work to expand it into a meaningful base of political operations. How can this objective best be promoted?

To begin with, pas experience shows that getting involved in the process of choosing the "best" Democratic candidate to oppose Reagan is a dead end. Whoever has the mandate of the Democratic Party will be first and foremost a representative of American capitalism and imperialism, and as such does not deserve the support of anyone on the left. True, defeating Reagan is important. His policies have already proved disastrous, and their continuation could only bring worse. But it is in the interests of the Democratic Party to defeat him and not our business to tell them how to do it. We will vote for whomever they put up in order to get rid of Reagan, but we only compromise our principles and injure our credibility if we espouse the cause of a particular Democratic candidate.

This is a very important point. The U.S. economy is a shambles, only thinly disguised by a purely cyclical upswing of doubtful strength and uncertain duration. All the elements of a new crisis in both the domestic and the international spheres are present and rapidly maturing. Are we to make fools of ourselves by arguing that a Mondale or a Glenn (or any other Democratic hopeful) is equipped to cope with the storm when it comes? We may believe, or hope, that all of them, including whichever one is chosen to run, are less likely to react in a dangerous and destructive way than Reagan. But isn't it our responsibility to insist tht all of them are prisoners of the very system that creates these crises? And what basis could any of us have for trying to persuade people that one or another of the would perform better than the others in a crunch?

How about the Jesse Jackson candidacy, we shall be asked? Is that to be rated on a par with all the others? No, definitely not. The reason as we see it, however, is that the Jackson candidacy is not like all the others. Whatever Jackson and those supporting him may think, he is not really a possible presidential candidate, and from a left perspective this is precisely the strength of his campaign. He is activing in ways, saying things, raising issues which no one acceptable to the Democratic Party could do. The Democrats cannot exclude him altogether because it would alienate masses of blacks who are essential to the Democratic Party's success. Jackson is of course not a man of the left, but much of what he is doing is objectively far to the left of the accepted norms of the U.S. political establishment, and by following this course--which he is able to do because he has a real constituency behind him--Jackson is stirring things up, breaking molds, making people think new thoughts in a way that the left has never been able to do, but which it must sooner or later succeed in doing if it is ever to break out of its present quarantine.

This is the reason why we can say, again speaking objectively, that Jackson is performing a function of great importance to the left and one we should gratefully reciprocate by giving wholehearted support to his campaign. At the same time we should be aware that a by-product of this campaign, possibly of decisive importance to the outcome of the presidential election itself, can and should be a vast increase in the number of blacks and other minorities registered to vote.

When it comes to congressional, state, and local elections, the problems faced by the left are obviously more numerous and more complicated. Specific situations vary enormously, and it seems to us that only one generally valid guideline applies: never lose sight of the central objective, which is to establish a meaningful left presence on the U.S. political scene. And this in turn implies an obligation to use every opportunity to raise basic issues and to criticize populist/reformist illusions in a constructive way.

This is not a recipe for a futile exercise in revolutionary purism. People in this society are subjected to an infinite variety of abuses and injustices--as workers, consumers, and citizens. These must be struggled against, often in the electoral arena. There are politicians who side with the people's struggles and those who side with the people's enemies. It is not always easy, or even possible, to tell the difference (political discourse is as often meant to deceive as to enlighten), but the principle is clear that the left has the responsibility to identify and support politicians who are on the side of the people. This, put in its somplest terms, is what electroal contests involving left participation is all about. We back candidates who sincerely reject U.S. interventionist policies abroad and the huge military budget at home; who favor social security, low-cost housing, better medical care, safety in the workplace, consumer protection, etc.; and we oppose those on the other side. At the same time we have to warn that there are narrow limits to what can be accomplished so long as we live in a society dominated by production for profit.

We do not disparage or underestimate the importance of struggles within the framework of the present society: if they are neglected, as the Reagan experience so convincingly shows, the result is regression and repression. But we do not harbor the illusions of those who rbelieve that the rampant evils of capitalism can be overcome without abolishing the system that gives rise to them. And we are convinced that an effective left in this country will emerge only when a significant (and growing) segment of the American people is ready to go beyond essentially defensive struggles to challenge the capitalist system itself. For us on the left the struggle must proceed on two levels, and to neglect either is a clear abdication of responsibility.

Though often overlooked in theory and violated in practice, this principle has been a fundamental tenet of the modern socialist movement ever since it was first clearly formulated in the Communist Manifesto. "The communists," Marx and Engels wrote, "fight for the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interest of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement."

The year 1984--despite its pessimistic Orwellian overtones--should offer many openings and opportunities for carrying the struggle forward on both levels. If they are properly understood and vigorously followed up, 1984 could be a real turning point.
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Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Feb 1, 1984
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