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The Truth is Always Concrete
by David McReynolds
October 30, 2004

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There is nothing here (beyond the second paragraph) that I wouldn't have written three months ago. It is written at the last moment, without time to properly organize my ideas. In that sense, these are notes, not entirely coherent. I meant to do it much earlier, tried to find the time and could not. This post is guaranteed to have something in it to irritate everyone, including some of you who have been very supportive of my Senate campaign. Yet I feel that if I didn't get this out before the election I'd have copped out. And while I haven't earned the right to have anyone take what I say as the truth -- no one has, each of us has to make our arguments and not expect them to be taken on faith -- I have earned the right to discuss third party politics, the nature of the two-party system, and the process of social change. Probably as much right as anyone else in this business.

The one paragraph that I wouldn't have thought to write two months ago is an expression of sympathy for ALL those campaigning for President. I don't know how Bush and Kerry sustain the pace. But at least they have the hope of gaining power. No such hope can motivate David Cobb, Ralph Nader, Walt Brown, etc., and yet I know they are also running all out, keeping terrible schedules. Someone mentioned, at a meeting last night, that when Ralph Nader was asked, “how is your social life” he replied, “how is your civic life?” A clever response, but not one that I can accept -- everyone, including Nader, has some human right to a social life. The grinding pace of these campaigns is almost inhuman.

Now on to the issues. My mentor, the late A. J. Muste, used to say “the truth is always concrete.” I don't know whether the phrase was his own, or borrowed from Marx, Trotsky, or Gandhi. But it made sense and has stuck with me. When people ask me “who will you vote for President?” my answer is, “Which state do you live in?” Because of the electoral college I can safely vote for Ralph Nader here in New York State (though if David Cobb were on the ballot, I would have voted for him), knowing that Kerry will safely take New York State. If I lived in New Jersey, another safe state, I would certainly vote for Walt Brown, since I am a member of the Socialist Party and he is our candidate. But if I were in Ohio -- or any swing state -– I would vote for Kerry. How can a simple question have three different answers? And how in the world could I even consider voting for Nader “when the fate of the world hinges on defeating Bush?” (One close friend sent me an email saying he wouldn't even consider voting for me in the NY Senate race, so deep was his hostility to Nader). Others will ask how I could consider Kerry “when he is not opposed to the war in Iraq?”

This is an unusually bitter race. It has given rise to more vitriol on various list serves than I have generally seen. Sophistry has risen to new levels, if it is possible for sophistry to rise at all.

Let's look at some of the errors in thinking which I feel have sprung up. (I think if I hear one more time the nonsense about “Voting for a Lesser Evil Is Still Voting For Evil” I shall scream -- how can we miss the fact that a lesser evil, while it may indeed still be evil, is lesser! True enough, if a fat person weighing 250 pounds loses 25 pounds they will still be fat -- but to lose 25 pounds is surely better than keeping it!).

First, “there is no difference between the two major parties” (a position Peter Camejo has argued with vigor, and which is shared by many in the Socialist Party). This position is nonsense. There are major differences between the two major parties and, more important, vast differences within them. In terms of basic political science neither major party is a “party” of agreed principles. Both major parties are collections of regional interests, and usually the greatest differences are between regions, not within the parties themselves.

One example was the old New Deal that FDR put together. This brought together a racist group of Southern Democrats with the big city bosses of the North, backed by the emerging trade union movement. That coalition ruled the country until 1952. Despite the clear racism of the Southern Democrats, the Democratic Party was the party of Northern liberals, and of most of those in the black community. In Northern states the Republican Party was often very close to the Democrats on Civil Rights issues. In Southern states the Republican Party, as it gradually made inroads on the old solid Democratic South, didn't do so by challenging the racism of Southern Democrats, but by echoing it.

The AFL-CIO found its home in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has been the arena of the Civil Rights movement, the Women's movement, the Peace movement, and the Gay/Lesbian movement. We can deplore this, but it won't change the facts. Within the African American community there has been sharp tension over the fact that the Democrats take the black vote for granted -- yet every effort to form some kind of ongoing “black political party” has failed. This is also painfully true of the labor movement, where the efforts to form a Labor Party have not taken hold. And despite the fact that the Democratic Party has historically been the “war party” -- up until Reagan -- the broad liberal peace movement has functioned in and around liberal members of Congress -- some of whom have been exceptionally good and decent people -- as some Republicans have also been. (It is, I note in passing, an irony, and not a happy one, that the Republicans have become the “war party.” Historically, if the ruling class wanted to have a war it need to have in power that party most likely to have the allegiance of working people. It is ominous that, to a great extent, the Republicans now have the allegiance of a large segment of the lower income groups, and have been able to mobilize large parts of the public behind war policies from Reagan through to the present).

The efforts by Socialists or Greens to insist there are no differences between the two parties, or that it doesn't make any difference whether Kerry or Bush wins the election, defies common sense. (Which is one reason the left has so little impact in the country as a whole -- people perceive their own immediate interests better than we do. One reason many on the left are irritated by Michael Moore is because he has spoken the truth on this, reminding us that we don't really speak for or understand working class Americans).

If you earn more than $50,000 a year, are white, and are a male, then it doesn't really make any difference to you who wins. It is a matter of aesthetics.

But if you are a woman, if you earn less than $30,000 a year, if you are of color, then it makes a very great deal of difference. I spent time yesterday with an intelligent, committed member of the Greens (who has been extremely helpful and supportive in my Senate campaign) who insisted that it didn't make any difference in terms of choosing the next member of the Supreme Court whether Bush or Kerry won the election. This is self-deception on a disturbing scale. (Even allowing for the fact that some of the Republican choices for the Supreme Court proved excellent -- Earl Warren comes to mind -- and some of the Democratic choices have been dismal, do people really think that Bush can be trusted with credible nominations? Granted also that nominations have to pass the Senate, and this puts some curbs on either Bush or Kerry, I remain bemused at the thought it “makes no difference” who is President in terms of the Supreme Court. I suspect that, as with other things, once the election is over we can take a clearer view of this).

On issues of the minimum wage, affirmative action, rights of gays and lesbians, of a range of judicial appointments for lower courts, of which tax cuts go to whom -- on all these issues there is a difference. It certainly makes a difference in one of the more chilling aspects of this campaign -- which is the degree to which the forces around Bush are pressing for a kind of “Talibanization” of American political life, the destruction of the historic separation of church and state. And I say this not as someone indifferent to “values”, which matter greatly to me, but as someone who is frightened by the kind of “false Christianity” of those around Bush, who are pushing for a kind of State religion in which the highest authority will not, in fact, be our values, but the religious charlatans close to Bush.

If, however, one expects socialism, nonviolence, or revolution of any kind from the two major parties, then no, it won't come from there, and on most of the basic issues the two major parties reflect the position of most of the voting public. I wish that it had been possible for the Democrats to have seen in Kerry a real anti-war candidate -- but had that been Kerry's position we would have had a replay of the noble effort of George McGovern in 1972. I could add that there are a number of serious economic issues of what to do about global trade, social security, etc., which neither party really faced during the election and to which I'm sure there are no easy answers.

There are limits on what is possible at any point in history. It was Marx who reminded us that while we make our own history (an extremely important point in Marxist thought), we do not make it as we might wish, but within the circumstances of the time and place within which we find ourselves. Let's take a couple of examples.

In the first freedom rides, the “Journey of Reconciliation” organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1947, which resulted in time on the chain gang for Bayard Rustin and others, it was agreed that only black and white men would take part, that for women to take part would raise another set of issues so explosive that it would deeply complicate the situation. This tactic was also followed by the Freedom Summer folks in the 1960s, who were cautious about having white women and black men take part in some of the actions. The South was profoundly dangerous. One can understand why, in 1947 and in the 1960s, these compromises were made. Yet these were clearly compromises. They were “lesser evils,” even if they were acts of courage which defy our understanding.

One thing which we as radicals need to confront and come to terms with is that there are no “pure actions.” Not even for saints, and certainly not for us. All of life is a compromise between the possible and the ideal. The job of the radical is surely to press hard to make the ideal possible. My critique of the late Michael Harrington was that his argument that he sought to be the “left wing of the possible” narrowed the scope of radical change. (And certainly it did in his case, since it meant that the timidity of his position led Harrington to “critically support” the Vietnam War as late as 1971) But bitter as I was about that old argument, I did understand it. Bitter as I was about the support the Communists gave to the Soviet Union, I did understand that in their view the Soviet Union was, at that time and place, the “best we could get” and had to be defended. My anger was perhaps more about the denial of what the actual situation in the Soviet Union was -- I always felt close to Bertolt Brecht's poem “To Posterity”, in which he comes to terms with the contradictions:

Ah, what an age it is

When to speak of trees is almost a crime

For it is a kind of silence about injustice!

And he who walks calmly across the street,

Is he not out of reach of his friends

In trouble

. . . . .


When you speak of our weaknesses,

Also of the dark time

That brought them forth,

For we went, changing our country more often than our shoes,

In the class war, despairing

When there was only injustice and no resistance.

For we knew only too well:

Even the hatred of squalor

Makes the brow grow stern,

Even anger against injustice

Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we

Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness

Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass

That man can help his fellow man,

Do not judge us

Too harshly

I think of Kenneth Patchen, the poet whose works the late Alvin Ailey introduced me to, and his lines from the poem “What is the beautiful”:

"A narrow line,

Walking on the beautiful ground.

A ledge of fire"

That is what we are always walking -- that “ledge of fire” where there is hope of changing the future, and not simply protesting the present. And that “ledge of fire” is always indeed narrow, hard to locate, and sometimes that ledge of fire is shown to us by those with more courage, who take greater chances, and help make a radical politics more possible. There is a dialectic between the prophet and the radical politician.

If we say the two major parties are identical, it is true that both of them represent the ruling class, even if they represent (as they do) somewhat different sectors of that class. It is true that both major parties (along with the vast majority of the nation) buy into the insanity of “safety through military power.” Or into the concept that a petroleum economy can continue indefinitely. Or that the human race can really ignore the impact it has on the environment. In these areas the two parties truly are identical, and they are identical because they are working on the shared common assumptions of the broader public. Thus it is not some “trick” that the two major parties “are the same” on these issues, for on these issues they speak from common shared (and very dangerous) assumptions.

This nation believes in “free enterprise.” Not just the ruling class, but the bulk of workers. I read posts on the various left lists that talk as if the working class was about to revolt. The “Million Worker March” not only did not mobilize a million workers, it didn't mobilize a hundred thousand. That doesn't mean it was wrong to attempt the march -- it does mean that a serious radical would examine why the march failed.

So yes, dreadful as it is to argue for a vote for Kerry in a swing state, it is because Bush represents a danger great enough that the interests not only of the more rational sectors of the ruling class, but of a wide range of the rest of us, require his defeat. The general “left” public grasped this from the beginning. Only the more elite sectors of the left, those inclined to self-delusion, don't see this. The support of Kerry is the support of a politician who has a good record, dating from his days as a Vietnam Veteran, to his work on opposing Reagan and the Contras, and even to his work with Senator McCain in finally resolving the issue of the “Missing in Action” which the far right was using to chill any possible reconciliation with Vietnam.

It is not a radical record -- radicals are not nominated by the Democratic Party.

In fact, by the time anyone gets the nomination of either party they have been bought and sold so many times over by various special interests that their freedom of movement is extremely limited. Only if, as with Bush, they are “lucky” enough to have events break in their direction (in Bush's case, the shock of 9.11) can the nation be pushed in directions it would not otherwise have taken.

I've watched the fights on the list serves between those who support Nader and those who support Cobb and I find the bitterness deeply destructive. I may have comments to make about Nader and Cobb, in a more general sense, but I'll save those for after the campaign, since in New York State I'm the candidate of the Greens and want to respect that. But both Nader and Cobb deserve respect, even as we disagree with them. But neither of these men deserves the kind of litany of attacks hurled against them. Yes, Nader has made compromises (such as his acceptance of support in New York State from Lenora Fulani), but yes it is also true that Nader and Cobb both have a right to run. And it is a very good thing, in my view, that in safe states we can roll up significant votes that are truly against the Iraq War.

The actual political reality, the “concrete truth” of which Muste spoke, rests not within the political parties, which have never led us anywhere, but in the broad social movements. Yet those movements, once in motion, are reflected within the framework of the major parties, in part because the major parties -- the system itself -- seeks to co-opt and contain any serious movement for change, and in part because the major parties are made up of human beings who are themselves affected by and part of the very social movements which push them.

Look at the great movements of the 20th century -- the trade union movement, the Vietnam peace movement, the women's movement, the gay/lesbian movement -- and you will realize that not one of these movements originated in the Democratic Party (let alone in the Republican party!!). Yet each of these movements sought political expression at some point in the Democratic Party -- not in the Republican Party. To argue the two parties are “identical” is simply to show one has not read history or absorbed its lessons.

When in comes to serious political change in the US, I am at a loss to know how it can be achieved. I do not want to discourage the Greens -– at this point the only viable possible mass party -- but I know that politics truly is local. If the Greens became a stronger national party, I know in advance that the Greens in California (In San Francisco, thanks to Peter Camejo among others, they have demonstrated real clout) will be different from the Greens in New York, or Illinois, or Mississippi. I fear that the old pattern would be played out, that if the Greens gained a real mass following, then either the Democrats or Republicans would adopt their message, or enough of it to “defuse” the danger of a real alternative party. In my view I think the hope is less through running national campaigns than through running serious local campaigns where victory is possible.

This opens an entirely different discussion of how minor parties should or could operate within a two party system. We know from Vermont that a socialist can be elected to Congress. We know from New Paltz, New York, where Jason West was elected Mayor, and proceeded to help usher in a wave of gay and lesbian marriages, that Greens can make a real difference. We know from the example of the Congressional Black Caucus that it is possible to organize a serious “alternative politics” grouping within the Democratic Party. But we also know, from what we have seen, that the reality of politics makes “true radicalism” pretty much impossible. Bernie Sanders is good -- but he has had to make his own accommodation with other forces not only in Congress but in Vermont.

It is important for some kind of political or social movement almost independent of political parties to act as a conscious raising force, to raise the issues that no one in office dares to raise. We have done that in New York State in the Senate race -- and with more time and more money we could have done much better. But I know that to some in the Socialist Party it was not enough, because I didn't raise the issue of socialism and workers control at every meeting, and that to some in the Greens it was a failure because I did not spell out in sufficient detail the problems of global warning. The left as a whole -- and the Greens are part of the left, whether they wish it or not -- are our own worst enemies. We do not support the positive moves that are made, but are critical because they are not “correct enough.”

The experiment in “alternative politics” needs to continue -- to argue that it is not a mortal sin to vote for John Kerry in swing states is not at all the same as assuming that we should all therefore enter the Democratic Party, or that the Socialist Party and the Greens shouldn't run candidates.

Nor that local experiments -- such as the Working Families Party in New York State -- are a mistake because of their links to the Democrats. (I would say that the Senate race here does not bode well for the WFP being a serious force - despite its own position of opposing the Iraq War, the issue of this period, the WFP endorsed Chuck Schumer for Senate).

Finally, since this goes out just three days before the election, I'll make my own guess that Kerry will win, based on the new registrations, the youth vote, and the slow shift of the polls in the last month “narrowing” the race. Usually when this occurs, the undecided voters “break in favor” of the challenger. We will, I think, know early on election night if New Hampshire goes to Kerry, which will mean Bush is in trouble. If Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania break to Kerry then I think Kerry will have won. I’m inclined to think that the anger of the last weeks of the campaign may backfire on Bush, that while Bush has certainly “fired up his base,” it may have turned off the undecided.

My guesses on this kind of thing tend to reflect my hopes, but at least I've put my guess on the record (and if you haven't yet, let your friends know they can cast a clear “no” to the Iraq War in New York State, suggest they visit:

David McReynolds is a long-time democratic socialist activist, writer and scholar. He is currently running as the Green Party candidate for the US Senate in New York ( Special thanks to Doug Ireland at Direland for providing DV with this essay.