On the U.S. & Canadian Elections

The following is a slightly edited version of a presentation by Tom Riley for the IBT at a forum held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario on 8 October. The event, sponsored by the Brock Socialist Club, was called to discuss Canada’s 14 October general election and the upcoming American presidential election.

As everyone is very aware, the current elections in Canada and the U.S. take place with the global capitalist economy teetering on the brink of a collapse unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. We already have massive job losses going into this downturn, with unemployment and homelessness rising in both the United States and Canada. I saw a recent estimate that two million people in the U.S. will lose their homes in the next year as a result of defaulting on mortgages. At the same time, as other speakers on the panel have pointed out, the American ruling class is engaged in brutal colonial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The attitude of Stephen Harper in Canada and John McCain in the U.S. to the unfolding economic disaster has been, at least until recently, to advise people: “don’t worry, be happy,” everything is going to turn out okay because the magic of the market is going to ensure that things get allocated where they are supposed to be, just like they teach you in economics class. Harper, whose background is as an economist, could see trouble on the horizon and wanted to get reelected before the bottom really fell out. So, it is widely speculated, that is why we are having the election next week. It seems that his timing was a bit off.

The effects of the current massive economic nightmare, which we are only beginning to see, are the logical and necessary result of an irrational dog-eat-dog social system that has historically been characterized by wild swings—booms followed by busts—and enormous social disparities between a tiny sliver at the top of the global economic pyramid and a vast sea of billions of desperately poor people at the bottom, with an intermediate layer in the imperialist countries that normally enjoys certain privileges like participating in elections, getting enough food to eat and perhaps being able to buy a house.

The Liberals and Conservatives in Canada, like the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., propose to address the crisis by pumping trillions of dollars into a bail-out for the financial speculators who created the mess in the first place. Marxists oppose the idea of bailing out these parasites, whose greed may well have jeopardized the very survival of hundreds of millions of people, many of whom are already barely eking out an existence on a dollar or two a day. The only real solution to the problem is to go to the root and expropriate the entire capitalist financial sector. This can only be accomplished through a convulsive social struggle—a social revolution—which rips power out of the hands of the capitalists, smashes their coercive state apparatus and institutes a new, rationally planned, social system in which those who labor rule. Unfortunately, the essential precondition for a successful revolution has yet to be forged—that is, a revolutionary combat party with demonstrated political capacity and serious roots within at least a section of the working class and among the oppressed, which, in a period of upheaval and crisis, could be leveraged into a significant social force. So instead we have some set-piece elections, and a lot of social turbulence on the horizon, which could break to the left but very likely will also find some rather ugly right-wing expressions.

Dan [a previous speaker] quoted the famous anarchist observation about capitalist elections—that, “if they could change anything they would be illegal.” And there is a good deal of truth in that of course. In the U.S. and in Canada, people have historically been offered a choice between two nearly identical big business parties—there it’s the Democrats and Republicans, here it’s the Liberals and Conservatives. They are not quite identical, but their differences tend to involve questions of presentation rather than content. The “nasty cop” right-wing Conservatives/Republicans talk about the social benefits of “tough love” and how administering harsh medicine will be good in the long run. But you don’t have to vote for them—you can choose instead the “nice cop” Liberals and Democrats, who pretend to be concerned about you and to “feel your pain” and then go on to implement essentially the same measures. Anybody who has watched the political system operate for very long is familiar with how that works.

Obama’s Candidacy—No Lesser Evil

I want to start with a couple of observations about the American election. The first thing is that it is absolutely unprecedented that a black man is in a position to make a serious run for president. This does not signify that the United States has ceased to be a profoundly racist society. The significance of Obama’s candidacy is that after the unmitigated disaster of the Bush administration (perhaps most graphically symbolized by the photos from the Abu Ghraib torture center run by the U.S. Army and the CIA) American imperialism is in desperate need of a face lift.

Obama, being black, is in a position to provide that. He’s promising “change,” but his election will make very little difference to life in America for most people—except that there will be a black face in the highest place. He was probably the most telegenic of the Democratic candidates in the primaries, but he also had the most rightist policies. He campaigned as an anti-war candidate, which made him very popular, and yet he has pledged to leave some 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely and reinforce the American-led occupation of Afghanistan with another 10,000 soldiers. But his eloquence and the fact that he is relatively youthful, and of course black, created a lot of enthusiasm on campuses and in black neighborhoods. His appeal translates well internationally as was evident when 200,000 people turned out to cheer for him in Berlin this summer. Somebody said that the only way that George W. Bush would get a crowd like that would be by appearing as the defendant in a war crimes trial.

For an index of how much “change” Obama is likely to bring you only have to look at some of the key players in his team of advisers. One of these is Zbigniew Brzezinski, godfather of the anti-Soviet Afghan Islamic holy warriors of the 1980s who have since morphed into Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Another member of Team Obama is Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, who presided over the U.S.-orchestrated blockade of Iraq during the 1990s which cut off medical supplies and other vital necessities for Iraqi civilians and is estimated to have been responsible for over a million “excess fatalities” among Iraqi civilians. (This was prior to the invasion in 2003 and the subsequent occupation, which have killed hundreds of thousands more.) When asked about this enormous crime, Albright replied: “We think the price was worth it.” So this is the “kinder, gentler” Democratic Party.

So we say that between Obama and McCain, there is no lesser evil—both are the enemies of working people and the oppressed in the United States and around the world.

Canada’s Bourgeois Parties: Conservative, Liberal & Green

Here in Canada we have Stephen Harper’s Conservatives who, as everyone is aware, have continued to chip away at working people’s living standards while slashing corporate taxes and have also proposed to sink some $15 billion into upgrading Canada’s military in preparation for future adventures alongside the U.S. Harper recognizes that despite years of propaganda and plenty of publicity for the grotesque parades along the “highway of heroes” between Toronto and Trenton, Canada’s role in the occupation of Afghanistan remains pretty unpopular. That’s why, a few days into the election, after years of huffing and puffing about “staying the course” and not “cutting and running,” he suddenly announced that he intends to pull out most of Canada’s combat troops by 2011. At the rate the Taliban is gaining ground, however, it seems NATO troops may get pushed out before then. We certainly hope so.

As socialists, we advocate the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of Canadian, American, British and all other participants in the imperialist coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq. We consider any military blows struck against them by the Taliban or any other indigenous forces present in those areas to be legitimate anti-imperialist acts: Drive Out the Imperialists!

The Liberals, like the Democrats in the U.S., posture as friends of “little people,” but as most people probably remember, it was Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, not Harper’s Conservative one, that gutted federal funding for healthcare, education, unemployment and other social benefits. And while the Liberals criticize the Tories for being too close to the U.S. militarists, it was Chrétien who signed up to participate in the occupation of Afghanistan. The Liberals also led the charge on democratic rights at home under the guise of “security” and “anti-terrorism.” It was the Liberals, not the Conservatives, who were in charge in 2002 when Maher Arar was kidnapped and secretly shipped off to Syria to be tortured.

Stéphane Dion tried to build the Liberal campaign around a failed “Green Shift” gambit that was advertised as a way to save the environment but was widely perceived as a regressive tax that would hit everyone who needs to heat their homes or drive to work. The Liberals, who have held power for most of the past 15 years, are seen as being too much a part of the problem to be able to cash in on the widespread anxiety about a looming ecological catastrophe, which is, of course, the unintended by-product of the global capitalist pursuit of profit at all costs.

The Greens, who have a lot more popular credibility on the question, have been able to expand their base enough to make it into the nationally televised leaders’ debates for the first time. Yet the important thing to recognize about the Greens is that, like the Liberals and Conservatives, they are in favor of maintaining the capitalist economic system which is at the root of the problem that they claim to be uniquely qualified to address.

The Greens, in seeking to present themselves as “responsible” leaders and a potential alternative for the ruling class, have supported the occupation of Afghanistan, at least until next year. Their main criticism of the occupation is not that NATO powers had no right to invade in the first place, but that the tactics for carrying it out could be improved. This is not just some isolated aberration by the right-wing, pro-business Canadian Greens. The Green movement originated in West Germany in the 1970s as a wing of the pacifist/anti-nuclear movement. In 1983 the Greens elected their first member of the West German parliament. By 1999 their leader, Joschka Fischer, held the post of German foreign minister. In that capacity he was an enthusiastic booster of NATO’s “humanitarian” terror-bombing of Serbia. So, if you look closely at the Greens, and look at their record, both in Canada and internationally, what you find is that for all the “alternative” posturing, at bottom they are just one more capitalist party.

New Democratic Party: A Bourgeois Workers’ Party

One of the biggest differences between politics in Canada and the U.S. is that up here we have a sizable “bourgeois workers’ party,”the NDP, which has historically been based on the mass organizations of the working class, the trade unions. As the political representative of the pro-imperialist trade union bureaucracy, the NDP occasionally spouts some “anti-corporate” rhetoric, but its political objectives have never gone beyond a desire to smooth out a few of capitalism’s rougher edges.

If we look, for example, at what the NDP is saying about Afghanistan we can see that formally it is calling for an end to Canada’s “combat mission,” but at the same time the press releases from “Strong Leader” Jack Layton call for a “political, not a military, approach” to gaining the upper hand on the Taliban. They call for handing the administration of the occupation from NATO to the United Nations. Underlying their policy proposals is the idea that it is fine for “advanced,” “democratic” (Marxists would say “imperialist”) countries like Canada to invade and control weaker states, as long as they provide a suitably “humanitarian” cover for their actions. This doctrine, sometimes described in academic jargon as RTP (“Responsibility To Protect”), is nothing more than a rationalization for imperialist intervention abroad.

At home, as the other speakers observed, the record of the NDP governments elected in four different provinces is consistent in defending the interests of the capitalists against the working class. In 1975 in British Columbia, Dave Barrett’s NDP government broke a very important strike of 50,000 forestry workers. When the NDP came to power in Ontario in 1990 they were promising to tax the corporations, to look after ordinary people and improve social programs. But instead, they did a U-turn shortly after taking office and eventually introduced the infamous “Social Contract,” which ripped up union contracts and rolled back public-sector wages. After that, the NDP went on to attack the poor with a campaign against “welfare cheats.” This set the stage for [the right-wing Conservative government of] Mike Harris, on the grounds that if you think those sorts of measures are necessary, you might as well get the guy who can really do it properly.

The NDP’s class-collaborationism in this election and in previous ones is perhaps most clearly expressed in its appetite to participate in a coalition government with the Liberals. In doing this it effectively renounces in advance any pretence that it is going to represent the independent interests of working people and the poor against those of the bosses. This is what signing up (or attempting to sign up) as a co-participant in a joint government with the leading capitalist party signifies.

This is all well known on the left. Yet despite this history, amazingly enough, various supposedly Marxist groups, most of which also claim to be Trotskyist—like the International Socialists, Socialist Action and Fightback—continue to advocate voting for the NDP. They justify this peculiar position on two grounds. Firstly, there is the NDP’s connection to the labor bureaucracy, which makes them kind of working-class. Secondly, to cover all the criticisms that can be made of the NDP’s actual politics—what it plans to do, what it has done in the past and what everybody knows will happen if the NDP gets into office—they say, well, we’re “demanding” that these pro-imperialist lackeys “adopt a socialist program” and carry out socialist measures. Of course that is never going to happen. When supposed revolutionaries put forward such “demands,” the only effect is to provide the NDP with left cover.

We completely reject this approach. We say there is no reason to vote for the NDP in this election and there hasn’t been in recent elections. We did however call for a vote in 1995 for Peter Kormos [a local NDP member of the provincial parliament] and three other NDP MPPs because they came out against the “Social Contract.” That represented a serious political break from the treachery of the NDP leadership over an issue of great importance to working people. On that occasion we said that Kormos et al deserved critical support. So it is not a matter of principle, we do not say that we would never advocate a vote for any NDP candidate. But in this election, with the NDP running on a record of betrayal and promising more of the same, it makes no sense for class-conscious workers to vote for them.

CP & CPC (ML): Bourgeois-Patriotic Stalinism

In this election we also have two varieties of Stalinism running slates. There are candidates of the former Moscow-loyalists of the Communist Party of Canada (CP) as well as those of the ex-Maoist Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) [CPC (ML)], one of whom was supposed to be on the platform tonight with us, but cancelled in order to attend an all-candidates meeting instead. Much of the focus of the CP’s program is, as usual, on protecting the “sovereignty” of the Canadian imperialist state. CPC (ML), which fields candidates under the banner of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada (MLPC), has a program that is a bit harder to characterize, because it is full of statements like the following:

“Canadians have expressed their wish for modern arrangements on many occasions, as they did clearly during the Spicer Commission hearings. They have repeatedly said that they need to take measures and begin working towards affirming their sovereignty and creating the required renewed institutions.”

I had some difficulty understanding what this was supposed to mean at first, but as I read a little further it started to become clear that the idea is to somehow upgrade Canadian capitalism into some sort of improved, anti-colonial bourgeois democracy. Only after this first step is achieved, according to CPC (ML), will the issue of socialism make it onto the agenda. Here is how they explain it:

“A new, modern, truly democratic society in which people are sovereign is the urgent requirement for Canadians to free themselves of the legacy of the country's 19th century colonial foundation. “The creation of such a society is the immediate aim of the MLPC, consistent with its long-term aim of creating a socialist society.”

The problem with this is that Canada is already a fully-developed imperialist country—there is no colonial legacy holding back Canadian capitalism. There is no domination of Canada by some foreign colonial power. “Our” ruling class wields its state apparatus as an instrument for the oppression and exploitation of working people in Canada and abroad. It is the willing junior partner of American imperialism. It is not a victim of American imperialism. The Communist Party’s bourgeois patriotism and CPC (ML)’s muddled anti-colonial gibberish signify, in our view, that the candidates of these Stalinist reformist organizations are not worthy of serious consideration by people looking for a way to cast a socialist vote.

Spoil Your Ballot!

Vladimir Lenin, who was the central leader, with Leon Trotsky, of the Russian revolution, observed in his book State and Revolution that capitalist elections give people a chance “To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament….” That was true in 1917 when Lenin wrote it and it remains true today.

The function of bourgeois elections is essentially to mask the fact that under capitalism a tiny handful of privileged social parasites, who own and control the means of production, transport and communication, effectively dictate the conditions of life for everyone else, particularly for working people, who must sell their labor power in order to survive.

There is only one historical alternative to the misery and irrationality of capitalism—and that is socialism, i.e., an economic system in which production is determined by human need, rather than private profit. The road to the socialist future lies through the construction of a mass, revolutionary workers’ party committed to the wholesale expropriation of the capitalist class. Such a party can be built only on the basis of an uncompromising struggle for the complete political independence of the working class from the bosses and their agents. As the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) put it over a century ago: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” Unfortunately in this election, there is no party running that upholds that fundamental principle, which is why we of the International Bolshevik Tendency believe that the only electoral option for working people this time is to spoil your ballot.

Posted: 14 October 2008