If drafted, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve- words attributed to William Tecumseh Sherman at the prospect of being nominated for American president in the late 19th century.
Well, the old soldier Billy Sherman has it right, if for different reasons from those of today 's revolutionaries. We want no part in administering the bourgeois state today and therefore, disrespectfully decline to run for its executive offices. However, to show that we are not anti-parliamentary abstentionists like many of our anarchist brethren we, in our role as 'tribunes of the people', will graciously accept any elected legislative posts that come our way-of course running on our program of a workers party fighting for a workers government.
Wait a minute, Markin, haven’t you gone out of your way in previous commentaries to argue that revolutionaries should run for executive office, while also taking the historic revolutionary socialist position of refusing to actually accept the office if elected? Umm......, well yes, and here the writer will have to eat humble pie and accept that the old historic position is indeed wrong and not just wrong on a tactical basis but on principal.
Let’s go into a little background here. As I have developed a socialist worldview I have attempted to ground that position with a sense of history. Part of that history included studying the lives of various revolutionary socialists here and elsewhere. One of the first that I came across was Eugene V. Debs, one of the key early leaders in the American socialist movement. Debs not only ran for president as a socialist in the historic four-way presidential fight of 1912 (you know, the one where Teddy Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose) but also in 1920 from the Atlanta Penitentiary where he was spending a little time, at government expense, for opposition to American entry into the slaughter of World War I. That fighting stance exemplified for me an ideal way for socialists to get their propaganda out to a hostile world that might be a little less so when confronted during traditional election periods.
That position was fortified further for me by a look at the latter campaigns of the American Communist Party from the time that they placed William Z. Foster and Ben Gitlow on their presidential ticket in the 1920's. To speak nothing of later campaigns by Earl Browder in 1940 and Gus Hall more recently for that same party, as well. Moreover, when I first began sniffing around the Trotskyist movement in the early 1970’s I distinctly remember, as an act of defiance in breaking with the Democratic Party (I had after all, when all the dust was settled, supported Hubert Humphrey in 1968), voting for the Socialist Workers Party candidate in 1972 (and here memory fails for I am not sure whether it was Doug or Linda Jenness who was running for president that year but I believe that it was Linda- someone can correct me on that, please) Moreover, in the harsh reality of American politics since then and the harsher realities of socialist propaganda politics the question of the pitfalls of running for executive office seemed a little exotic, to say the least. In short, nothing really seemed to require that I seriously work through the issue.
Then, a few years ago, entered the International Communist League (ICL) and presumably others to upset the historic applecart. Apparently within that organization some qualms developed over the historic position mentioned above(a position that they themselves utilized back in the 1980’s running a candidate for Mayor of New York City). Researches by the ICL back to the early days of the Communist International concerning various nebulous formulations of the workers government slogan and some unfinished business concerning electoral platforms opened up this can of worms. When I first read of this dispute I dismissed it out of hand as a 'tempest in a teapot' rather than as a serious issue that needed a full airing today among small left-wing propaganda groups and labor militants trying to avoid the pitfalls of opportunism.
Now there are many ways to obtain political enlightenment in the world. One of the most important for me about the nature of the state came from being part one of that state’s armed bodies of men- a member of the American armed forces during the Vietnam War. On the present question my awakening was not nearly so dramatic but as I mentioned in a recent blog entitled "The ‘Woes’ of The British Labor Party" (see May 2008 archives) the defeat of “Red” Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London brought the issues home. The idea that a soft pink leftist, much less a hard Bolshevik would want to administer the bourgeois state for Her Majesty showed me graphically the absurdity of the old historic position. And Livingstone did not even bother with the formality of refusal but accepted that political responsibility, gladly, to boot. Reinforced by a little quick research on my part into the German Social Democratic and French and Italian Communist executive running of municipalities and states and things began to fall into place.
Sometimes old habits die hard though. I still have to think through how critical support to other leftist formations who do run for executive office with some supportable positions would work in connection with this new standard. My question: Are we just maintaining theoretical ‘purity’ by not personally sullying our hands administering the bourgeois state but are more than happy to let others, whom we give critical support to, do that dirty work? In any case I am ‘born again’ on the principal of executive office refusal now and have swore off that childhood dream of becoming president of the American imperial juggernaut- but, hey, how about being a commissar?