Labor Advocate Online

Slow Down Ralph, Slow Down!

Following Nader Makes One Dizzy—
Time For a Fresh Assessment

by Bill Onasch

"Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves."—Eugene V Debs, 1905

We all need some heroes. Gene Debs is one of mine. He was a popular figure in his day. A leader of railroad workers Debs experienced his first time in the joint courtesy of a Democrat "friend of labor," President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland used the army to break the Pullman strike. Having some time for reflection while sitting in the Woodstock prison Debs reexamined his ties to the Democrats. Shortly thereafter he became a founding leader of the Socialist Party.

Debs ran for President five times. He was selected for these campaigns because he not only had what today would be called "charisma;" he also was able to use his great oratorical skills to demystify the workings of capitalism, a great pedagogue as well as a master agitator.

For Debs politics was not a contest of personalities or duels of slogans and jingles. He saw politics clearly for what it is—one component of the struggle between classes. He used his election campaigns to advance the interests of working people in this struggle.

Though Debs was not a religious man evangelists later imitated some of his campaign successes. Before Billy Graham holds a revival anywhere advance men go in to talk to the local clergy. They explain how they can steer new converts into the local congregations. Instead of jealous hostility the revival usually gets warm support from the locals.

When Debs came to a town there was almost always a big crowd. Those in attendance would get emotionally pumped up by this exciting experience. That’s good but Debs made sure there was more. Everywhere the attempt was made to link up unorganized workers with local unions. People were asked to join the Socialist Party to advance the message they had heard from Debs—and thousands did. And the Socialists never forgot to pass the hat for money because there were no corporate sponsors.

Debs ran his last campaign from a prison cell in the Atlanta Penitentiary. He had been sent there by the administration of another Democrat "friend of labor," Woodrow Wilson. Debs’ "crime" was a speech opposing the First World War.

When Debs was finally released by the Republican Warren Harding, he was in poor health. The party to which he had devoted everything was decimated by government repression and ideological splits. The Debs era was over and nothing quite like it has developed since.

Campaign Train—the Red Special

But the Debs legacy lives on. There are still some of us who share his assessment of politics as class struggle. Some of us, like Debs, don’t think the fundamental changes needed in our society will be accomplished solely through the electoral arena. It’s impossible for us to compete with the ruling class for campaign funds—not to mention their domination of mass media, schools, and churches. We can ill-afford to neglect the bitter lessons of their interventions in Chile and Nicaragua, to cite just a couple of examples out of many, that prove our rulers don’t always respect the outcome of elections.

The working class needs to mobilize around our strengths instead. We are not only the big majority of society—we also do all the work. Like the line from the song Solidarity Forever declares, "Without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn!" Our numbers could support huge public meetings and demonstrations in our communities—in and out of election cycles. Only when we have prevailed in the workplace and the streets can we think seriously about asserting ourselves through elections, legislation, constitutional amendments, etc.

In recent years those of us in this Debs tradition have seen two political developments that appeared to have some promise.

One is the Labor Party, which I will return to later.

The other is the Green Party. The Greens have been largely built by issue activists that correctly concluded their cause would get nowhere in the Democrats. Independent and energetic they deserve admiration. I encounter them in all the mass movements where they generally function with distinction.

When Ralph Nader agreed to run a serious campaign as the Green Party standard bearer some of us were hopeful. Nader has very good credentials as an advocate for consumer and citizen rights. He is an impressive speaker. And he had close ties to some in the labor movement.

One of his connections was Tony Mazzocchi, principal founder of the Labor Party. They had closely collaborated on many projects over the years. Mazzocchi was invited to speak about the Labor Party at the Green Party convention and that body actually voted to incorporate the Labor Party core program into the Green platform. Shortly thereafter two unions I regard highly—the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE) and the California Nurses Association (CNA)—endorsed the Nader campaign. Some prominent artists and intellectuals also got on board.

This seemed to me to be the most promising opportunity in decades to have an election campaign truly independent of the bosses parties, that could educate large numbers of workers and students, and recruit many of them for ongoing battles. I decided to support the Nader campaign and helped organize a Labor for Nader committee in Kansas City.

But our hopes were only partially fulfilled. Nader made some good speeches to tens of thousands at enthusiastic rallies across the country. He got more votes than anybody expected. But that was about it.

The pumped up crowds at the rallies weren’t steered into the mass movements or even the Green Party. The campaign was little more than an extended speaking tour for Nader with some big name entertainers on hand to warm up the crowd. After election day all the hubbub came to a halt.

The abrupt end of the campaign was especially unfortunate considering the country was plunged into the greatest constitutional crisis since the Hayes-Tilden affair. For days the nation didn’t know who should be the winner or would be the winner. Bitter liberals denounced Nader, and those of us who supported Nader, as being responsible for Bush’s election. During this whole period we heard naught a word from our candidate.

Over the past three years Nader has mostly gone back to the work he usually does—and does quite well. But over the past few months he’s taken to commenting on electoral politics again. First he shared speaking platforms and praise with Dennis Kucinich, a liberal Cleveland congressman who is making a long-shot bid for the Democrat nomination for President. More recently Nader has even given kudos to Democrat front runner Howard Dean.

What gives here? A central theme of the Nader 2000 campaign was the need to break from the two establishment parties. Nader stood up well to the pressure during the campaign and the abuse and ostracism afterwards. Is he now recanting that position, considering joining liberals seeking to "take back" a mythical Democrat Party that never existed in the real world? Does he want us to do the same? How are we to know?

On Christmas Eve, we open our morning papers to find Nader will definitely not seek the nomination of the Green Party this time. But, we are to hold tight until some time in January when he will disclose to us whether or not he plans to run for President as an independent!

This is beginning to border on the bizarre. I don’t know of any major changes in the program of the Green Party since 2000. If Nader has developed any big differences he hasn’t yet divulged them. What possible reason could there be for dissing the party that worked so hard for him four years ago?

Clearly Nader is a one man show who is prepared to shift positions wildly without feeling any responsibility to any supporters. That’s a political/character trait we were unaware of last time around. Knowing it today precludes us from supporting Nader on any ticket.

The Greens will now face some real challenges. They lack a class perspective and deal with issues somewhat abstractly. Encouraged by some minor wins here and there, they have also become preoccupied with a time-tested—and failed—strategy of local based electoral politics. There is a danger that as they become more successful in winning elections they may follow their European counterparts into the political Establishment. We shall see. Whether they pick their lawyer, a former socialist turned progressive stock broker, a former singer-song writer, or someone else for their presidential candidate we can’t think of any good reason to support them over any other protest ticket.

That brings me back to the other promising development, the Labor Party. While certainly not explicitly socialist, the Labor Party clearly embraces much of the Debs tradition. In fact the educational arm of the party is called the Debs-[Mother] Jones-[Frederick] Douglass Institute.

The Labor Party has never fielded any candidates for office and will not be in the 2004 election. The party will be focusing on issue campaigns around health care and worker rights. Following the Debs tradition the Labor Party views workplace and community struggles around issues to be more important than electoral politics. Such battles, along with a foundation of union support and mass membership base in the communities, are a prerequisite for successful election campaigns.

The Labor Party is still in a fledgling stage—support from unions representing about two million workers and a few thousand individual members. But it is armed with a good program, a sound strategy, and a dedicated competent leadership. This doesn’t guarantee success but—unlike any of the other alternatives out there—it has a shot at success.

I think we have to face it: the 2004 election is going to be a grim, lose-lose event for the working class. But out of the fights around important issues we can build for a better future.


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