Workers Vanguard No. 895

6 July 2007


Norden for President?

The IG and Executive Office: Sewer Centrism

Ninety years ago, Bolshevik Party leader V.I. Lenin wrote State and Revolution. Forcefully arguing the Marxist understanding of the state, Lenin drew upon his predecessors, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who added the following to their 1872 preface to the German edition, and subsequent editions, of the Communist Manifesto: “One thing especially was proved by the [Paris] Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’.” The work on State and Revolution was “interrupted” by the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which put in practice the smashing of the bourgeois state and its replacement by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Upon its publication, Lenin’s work was denounced by all manner of centrists and reformists as an “anarchist” tract, as opposed to their revisionist versions of “Marxism.” Not coincidentally, revisionists of various stripes launched vitriolic attacks on the establishment of the workers state issuing from the October Revolution. So when a senior comrade of the International Communist League prompted a discussion on our own policy on running for executive office in bourgeois elections, it was Lenin’s fight against these opponents of October to which we turned for guidance.

We had held, consistent with historic practices of the revolutionary Marxist movement, that it was permissible to run for executive office, while at the same time we understood that we would refuse, on principle, to assume such office. Such a position, however, contained a contradiction. The executive authority commands the “special bodies of armed men” that are the core of the state apparatus; the revolutionary shattering of that state entails inevitably reckoning with the executive. Even in the great bourgeois revolutions in England and France, the revolutionists who established a base in the Parliament and the National Assembly had to get rid of the king and set up a new executive organ. What end would be served by a revolutionary campaign for such an office?

The Fifth International Conference of the ICL, held earlier this year, resolved this contradiction and concluded that we would not run for such offices. Rather, our slogan should be in regard to the capitalist state: “Down with executive offices!” In so doing, we saw ourselves fulfilling the work of the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky’s time, correcting a bad compromise made at the Second Comintern Congress in 1920. In fighting against the position put forward by ultraleft Communists of boycotting bourgeois elections on principle, the distinction between running for executive office and for legislative office was lost. We announced this change of line in an article in Le Bolchévik, newspaper of the Ligue Trotskyste de France, that we ran in Workers Vanguard No. 890 (13 April) under the headline “French Election: No Choice for Workers.” The article declares:

“As our recent conference document states: ‘The problem with running for executive offices is that it lends legitimacy to prevailing and reformist conceptions of the state.’ Our entire purpose is to bring to workers the understanding that in any socialist revolution the bourgeois state must be destroyed and replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin taught this, and all history has proven it. To run in elections for executive office thus represents an obstacle to our strategic goal.”

We expected grunts of sneering disagreement over our line change from fake-socialist opponents; the centrist Internationalist Group (IG) did not disappoint. Having stressed the distinction between executive and parliamentary bodies, we were charged by the IG not with “anarchism,” the epithet hurled against Lenin, but, ludicrously, with “parliamentary cretinism.” The crux of the IG’s argument is:

“But for revolutionaries, putting forward candidates for executive posts such as presidents or mayors in no way implies that they intend to occupy these positions within the framework of the bourgeois state. As we always stressed at the time when the ICL, and the international Spartacist tendency which preceded it, stood for the continuity of genuine Trotskyism, we use elections as a platform for revolutionary propaganda. In the unusual case in which a revolutionary candidate had enough influence to be elected, the party would already have begun building workers councils and other organs of a soviet character. And the party would insist that, if elected, its candidates would base themselves on such organs of workers power and not on the institutions of the bourgeois state.”

—“France Turns Hard to the Right,” The Internationalist, May 2007

Thus the IG leaves open, and certainly does not disavow, the possibility that it would accept executive office in certain “unusual” cases. This is not in “continuity” with our earlier position of “run but do not serve.” It is, rather, a rightist resolution of the contradiction inherent in that line, and by no means a new one. In fact, the early French and Bulgarian Communist parties, among others, won elections to local executive offices, and the Bulgarian Communists controlled hundreds of municipal administrations.

In its polemical zeal, the IG trips over the elementary distinction between executive and legislative bodies, writing:

“In reality, ever since Marx, we Marxists have been opposed to the election of presidents by universal suffrage, for this produces a semi-bonapartist executive escaping the control of legislative bodies. We are also opposed to the existence of a second, supposedly higher, legislative chamber as inherently anti-democratic. Should we therefore also refuse to run candidates of the Senate?”

In a word: No. (Except that in France the question does not even arise, as the Senate is elected not by suffrage but by mayors and councillors.) There is a historical distinction between Parliament and the King. We do not aspire to the office of Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism, or of the local sheriff or, like the “sewer Socialists” who ran Milwaukee and other cities a century ago, of the mayor overseeing the police (and the sewers). But it is possible, and sometimes desirable, to run and serve in a revolutionary way in a parliamentary body, a tactic in the Leninist arsenal on the road to the proletariat’s seizure of state power.

Sure, the U.S. Senate, for example, is undemocratic. But only parliamentary cretins would base their participation in elections on the “democratic” credentials of the institutional facades of the capitalist state. Does the IG think the lower chambers of bourgeois parliamentary republics are genuinely “democratic”? The Bolsheviks’ parliamentary fraction functioned as revolutionaries in the Duma of tsarist Russia—a very non-democratic institution. But Lenin never proposed any electoral tactic entailing standing candidates for a “Red Tsar.”

Nor, after the February Revolution in 1917, did Lenin propose—under those “unusual” circumstances—that the Bolsheviks obtain ministerial portfolios in the Kerensky government, which was, to be sure, joined by Mensheviks and other “socialists.” On the contrary, he fought down the line against any conciliation to this class-collaborationist government (“popular front”), let alone participation within it, thus steeling the Bolshevik Party and laying the basis for the October victory.

It is precisely in revolutionary situations that illusions in the capitalist state have the most detrimental impact. For example, in Germany, amid the revolutionary upheaval that swept the country at the end of World War I, the centrist social democrat Karl Kautsky and his co-thinkers claimed to support both the workers councils and the bourgeois provisional government—the Council of People’s Representatives—which they joined in November 1918. At the head of the Independent Socialist Party, a split from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Kautsky & Co. proved to be of great utility to that same SPD and its government.

The SPD of Scheidemann, Ebert and Noske, notorious for the services rendered to its “own” bourgeoisie by criminally supporting the imperialist slaughter of World War I, was widely discredited. So Kautsky & Co.’s authority was instrumental in getting the National Assembly accepted by the working class, after which it was relatively easy to dismantle the workers councils, drowning the revolutionary movement in blood. And when a revolutionary situation erupted in 1923, the German Communist Party derailed that historic opportunity, adapting to the Social Democracy and, in October, even entering the SPD-led regional bourgeois governments in Saxony and Thuringia (see “A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 56, Spring 2001).

The IG, with its fence-straddling talk about assuming bourgeois executive office while at the same time basing itself on organs of workers power, is very much in the Kautsky tradition. It is also oddly silent about one occasion when the Spartacist League did run for executive office. In 1985, we ran Marjorie Stamberg, now an IG supporter, for mayor of New York. It was, given our understanding at the time, not an unprincipled act but rather a campaign carried out in accordance with what we believed to be correct communist practice. In light of our understanding now, running for executive office is out of the question; it is not a tactical question, but one of principle.

The IG’s empty bombast about the probability of a “genuinely revolutionary candidate for whatever post” (emphasis ours) ending up in jail still begs the question. Where will the IG draw the line? If it is permissible to run for president or mayor, then how about sheriff? After all, presidents are the sheriffs of all the sheriffs. If it is possible to accept such posts, what exceptional loophole might allow IG honcho Jan Norden to assume the duties of Commander-in-Chief? Unwittingly, the IG’s “polemic” has made it even more crystal clear how necessary and correct it was for us to stand on Lenin, complete the unfinished business of the Communist International and renounce running for executive office.