Elections - Lesser of Two Evils or an Alternative?
By Earl Silbar
Elections are tricky, both for the message sent by running, and if your candidate/party gets elected.
When independents run, does that carry the message that elections can solve our important problems, from growing poverty, privatization, power of huge concentration of wealth/power, endless wars, etc?
If you run as an 'independent', does that mean your campaign is also independent of the 1% super-rich capitalists? Or, does it mean you think/work within their parameters, but don't run on the usual party line?
If candidates run promising to fight for reforms, as in Seattle, then you're involved in the tricky business of finding allies, making deals, and explaining to your supporters. It's very easy to get lost in this. The tensions are many; for one, do you make tradeoffs to get support and weaken your goal? Do you make alliances with union leaders for short-term gains, but cover up how they actually limit and sabotage the fight? The Seattle situation is filled with this and more, and there are important lessons here for us all, including how to actually organize around working class issues, not just hold rallies and marches.
The other left model is to run in order to explain what steps you/your organization stands for and explain what it will take to get there. That makes it more purely propaganda and you/your org. says, in effect: elect me/us and we'll expose what's going on, champion the struggles, like Ferguson, masses undertake, and explain how the power is outside the elections. DEbs' Socialist Party campaigns had strong elements of this. (At the same time, they were unclear about how the working class could achieve socialism- reform via elections/strikes or revolution. (see William Pelz's book on Debs for good info.)
The Russian Bolsheviks, for example, did run for (and win seats in) the Duma between 1907-14. (see Bolsheviks in the Duma for info). They ran as 'tribunes of the people' to generate support for people's struggles, oppose all oppression, and expose machinations of exploiters. This was secondary and they did it only under conditions of the 1905 revolution's defeat and widespread demoralization.
That approach requires a revolutionary party with established roots in the working class from its independent, non-electoral work. Otherwise, in my opinion, it's pretty much impossible to avoid the reform deals needed and being sucked into it with all its limits. (Popular saying: "If we could change it with elections, they'd make them illegal")
American experience shows that mass movements, frequently deemed illegal, and always outside elected bodies win reforms, not insider deals. The illegal mass strikes and sitdowns of the 1930s forced FDR's New Deal reforms on a frightened ruling class and their politicians, not vice versa. Same for civil rights' mass pickets, boycotts, shootouts vs Klan, and mass demonstrations rooted in organizing back in the '50s. Ditto anti-Vietnam movements both civilian and active military (see "Sir! No Sir! for a good picture of that, although it wipes out the anti-imperialist consciousness of the activists)
It's common to call for/work for a labor party for reforms like single payer, free higher education, and taxing the rich. That's where the Brits won National Health back in the 40s, etc. In fact, there was a Labor Party startup in the US back in the mid-90s. I was a delegate for AFSCME 3506 and actively participated Despite support from many union locals and some citywide union bodies, the larger unions paid for staff and completely strangled local initiatives. But, that's a whole different discussion.
As for Occupy as an alternative, that focus on "the 1%" did spark widespread sympathy as even some cops and active duty soldiers came forward against the elites who run both the police and military. After all, the banks triggered the "great recession" in '08 and got $2.7 Trillion in free money while 15 million were laid off and millions lost our homes. Occupy hit an important chord. But it also didn't overcome it's limitations like meetings that were easily blocked by a small minority. There's a great book by Mark Bray, an early Occupy activist called "Translating Anarchy." Occupy did resonate deeply and shifted focus to the 1%, which is not class conscious, but does/did point to class power in populist terms.