Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The SEP’s 2008 election campaign

The announcement by the US Socialist Equality Party on Sept 13, 2008 that they were launching a national election campaign for President and Vice-President is yet another indication of the abstentionist torpor that now grips the International Committee.[1]

This campaign is a decidedly half-hearted effort. By waiting until mid-September, the SEP forfeited any chance of getting its candidates on the ballot in any state. Even as a write-in campaign, it seems very much a pro forma exercise.

(In Canada, the party’s abstentionism was even more marked: in the federal election held on Oct. 14, the SEP ran no candidates, held no meetings and did not even bother issuing a programmatic statement.)

A revolutionary Marxist party is not an electoral machine. Whether and how to participate in elections are always tactical considerations. But that being said, an election can often be an important – and rare – opportunity to reach a broad audience. And what an extraordinary situation coincides with this election! The world financial system is disintegrating, threatening to engulf the global economy in a tidal wave of capitalist chaos. Under these conditions, it should be a matter of the utmost urgency for Marxists to get the widest possible hearing for socialist policies in the working class. But no sense of urgency animates the SEP campaign.

It is well known that the American electoral system places enormous obstacles in the way of minor party candidates getting access to the voters. The onerous and needlessly complex requirements for petitions are the chief method by which the near monopoly of political life by the two capitalist parties is maintained.

Nevertheless, the socialist movement in the United States has a long and proud tradition, going back to the days of Daniel De Leon and Eugene V. Debs, of overcoming these obstacles and gaining ballot status. Even in the recent past, the Socialist Equality Party and its predecessor, the Workers League, conducted energetic petition campaigns.

In one notable petition campaign for a Congressional race in Ohio in 2004 the SEP went so far as to file a lawsuit in Federal Court against the unfair rejection of its petitions.[2] In another campaign, a race for a statewide office in Illinois in 2006, the Socialist Equality Party once more had to avail itself of legal remedies in order to get on the ballot in the face of a conspiracy to silence them orchestrated by local Democratic Party operatives.

In that campaign SEP candidate Joe Parnarauskis rightly stressed that gaining ballot status for a third party candidate is a significant victory in the struggle against the erosion of democratic rights. He said:

"[The court]… decision has once again vindicated the position of the SEP, which has met every legal requirement to be placed on the ballot. We hope this will end the long saga of obstructing democratic rights, but at the same time, we fully expect the Democrats will continue their bad-faith efforts against us. We call on voters in the district to demand the right to vote for a candidate of their choice. If they want a candidate that fights for the working class against the two parties of war and big business, they should support my campaign and vote for me in November."[3]

After the Illinois State Board of Elections, under immense legal and political pressure finally relented and allowed the SEP candidate’s name to appear on the ballot, Parnarauskis again issued a statement that underlined the importance of ballot access for the defense of democratic rights:

"This is not only a victory for the Socialist Equality Party, but it is a victory for citizens in the 52nd District and nationwide. It is a repudiation of the undemocratic efforts by the Democratic Party to deny the voters in my district the right to vote for a candidate of their choice."[4]

Thus in 2006 the SEP was prepared to put in a good deal of political work (to say nothing of legal claims and expenses) to get on the ballot in a state race during a mid-term election. In the Presidential election campaign of 2004, the SEP successfully obtained ballot status in five states, namely, New Jersey, Iowa, Washington, Minnesota and Colorado. An article summarizing the achievements of the 2004 election campaign clearly underlined the importance that the SEP attributed to the campaign waged by its supporters to obtain ballot status and exposure in the media:

"The impact of the SEP’s intervention in the elections extended well beyond the number of votes it received. In the course of fighting for ballot access, the party gathered thousands of signatures from individuals opposed to the war and looking for an alternative to the two-party system. This included over 8,000 signatures gathered in the state of Ohio, where Van Auken and Lawrence were ultimately denied ballot access after thousands of registered voters were arbitrarily disqualified from the petitions."

"During the course of the campaign, Carl Cooley and Tom Mackaman were able to debate their Democratic and Republican opponents on several occasions, and explain the SEP’s opposition to the war in Iraq, as well as many aspects of the party’s internationalist and socialist program. Thousands of copies of the SEP election platform were distributed by supporters on college campuses, at work locations and in working class neighborhoods."[5]

Yet when it comes to the far more important 2008 Presidential campaign – which was already destined to be an historic election due to the debacle of US imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whose significance was greatly compounded by the Wall Street financial meltdown – the SEP abstained from any effort to appear on the ballot without so much as a word of explanation.

One might add here that given that the SEP conducts no sustained work in unions or any other venue in which there is a regular dialogue with workers, a petition campaign in 2008 would have been doubly important in that it offered one of the few possibilities for party members to have face to face contact with workers. (The WSWS has posted a couple of video clips of presidential candidate Jerome White talking to workers, including one at the factory gates of American Axle, a Detroit plant that was the sight of a bitter strike earlier this year. But these video clips have the character of a ‘photo op’: they are more about image than substance. Which is consistent with the party’s abstentionism, where all involvement with the working class is reduced to journalism, albeit this time with digital cameras. When it comes to holding meetings in working class neighborhoods or rallying support among workers or working class youth, this ‘campaign’ is non-existent.

An examination of the programmatic content of the campaign reinforces the impression that this is little more than an exercise in going through the motions. The initial statement introducing the SEP’s 2008 election campaign contains just the bare skeleton of a program. It is a threadbare affair of just a few paragraphs. It is true that two weeks later (on Sept. 25) the SEP did publish a more extensive programmatic statement, but it is evident even from the title of this document, The Socialist Equality Party Statement of Principles,[6] that this isn’t intended as an election platform but a broader “statement of principles” connected to the ‘founding’ of the SEP in August. No effort has been made to adapt this statement to the agitational needs of an election campaign, and the campaign itself is making no effort to fight for the demands in this statement or win support for them in the working class. This ‘program’ thus becomes little more than a ritualized affirmation of orthodoxy which is issued and then promptly ignored for the rest of the ‘campaign’.

Perhaps the most telling thing about the SEP election campaign is the schedule of speaking engagements of candidates Jerome White and Bill Van Auken. Of the dozen or so locations listed by the WSWS, almost all of them are on college campuses. There doesn’t seem to be any meetings aimed specifically at a working class audience. Nor does there appear to be much effort to gain publicity for the campaign through radio and television appearances. Indeed, by abstaining from any effort to get on the ballot, the SEP has also forfeited any opportunity to get access to the mass media. TV and radio stations are often legally obliged to provide minor party candidates with some free air time during the election campaign, but this applies only to those candidates with ballot status.

So here we are in the midst of the most profound economic crisis in the history of capitalism since 1929, a remarkable opportunity to educate thousands of workers about the socialist alternative, and all the SEP can come up with is a tepid write-in campaign, engaging no one but a tiny handful of students at various campus-oriented meetings.

The SEP’s record in this crucial election is yet further confirmation of the party’s abstentionism and estrangement from the working class that we analyzed in Marxism Without its Head or its Heart. Doubtless feelings of “party-patriotism” will blind many members and supporters to the significance of this record. And doubtless lots of excuses are being circulated internally to account for this failure. “The comrades were too busy preparing for the SEP’s Founding Congress”, or “investing the resources involved to get on the ballot is not worth the effort.” But all such excuses - like any analysis that fails to examine the theoretical roots of the SEP’s practice over the past dozen years – will completely miss their mark. To those seeking to break through the logjam of abstentionism, we urge a careful consideration of our extensive analysis of the SEP’s theoretical degeneration in our polemic, Marxism Without its Head or its Heart.

Alex Steiner

Oct. 22, 2008

[1] “Reject Obama and McCain! Support the socialist alternative in 2008! Build the Socialist Equality Party!
Statement of the Socialist Equality Party,” September13, 2008.
[2] “Party to challenge early filing deadline: Petition drive completed for SEP Congressional candidate in Ohio”, June 8, 2004
[3] “Judge orders election board to certify Illinois SEP candidate,” September, 20, 2006.
[4] “Parnarauskis to appear on Illinois ballot: Unanimous decision ends lengthy battle for candidate,” Sep. 22, 2006:
[5] “Socialist Equality Party gains significant support in U.S. elections”, by Joseph Kay, November 4, 2004.
[6] The Socialist Equality Party Statement of Principles, September 25, 2008.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I agree completely with Alex's comment on the election campaign. I recently attended a SEP campaign event, and I can say that this not a serious election campaign. I participated in the 2006 SEP campaign which had a much broader reach. We collected around 50,000 signatures nation wide, and we probably spoke individually and circulated material to an even greater number. The fight to get on the ballot in Illinois and elsewhere raised the profile of the party and exposed the undemocratic laws in place used to prevent third party candidates.

Despite the illusions that Obama will bring about change, I feel a socialist campaign would find greater support today than in 2006 given the present economic crisis. The SEP has actually caved in to the illusions in Obama by forfeiting any attempt to gain ballot status. This election campaign should be a wake up call to the membership of the SEP, if the problems of the SEP are not corrected, the party risks becoming irrelevant. The members of the SEP should seriously consider the issues raised in "Marxism Without its Head or its Heart," the only systematic critique of the theory and practice of the International Committee in over two decades.