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Telling the Truth About the Election
by Asad Haider
September 25, 2004

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“To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a...revolutionary act”

-- Antonio Gramsci, L'Ordine Nouvo, 1919

I've really got to stop reading the left press. I can't even remember the last time I read an article on the election that came close to operating at a reasonable level of honesty and intelligence, much less articulating any serious strategic analysis. The polarization into a "more-radical-than-thou" camp and a "more-sensible-than-thou" camp is one of the most unfortunate things to happen to the left since the fall of Barcelona. Last year, we were able to unite into the strongest anti-war movement in human history; what the hell happened?

The Anti-Kerry Camp

I have a lot of respect for Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo; I think the attacks on them as egomaniacs and fanatics are simply rude, and the attempts to keep them off the ballot are disgusting and undemocratic. At the same time, I am extremely skeptical about the usefulness of their campaign. Many of their supporters are what might be described as infantile Leninists, and the fact that they are running independently makes it clear that their ticket won't help anything.

At the same time it is clear that some people are voting Nader/Camejo in an honorable attempt to remain committed to their principles. However, questions of principle cannot be divorced from questions of strategy. We know Ralph Nader will not win, and I think we can agree that John Kerry will not kill as many people as Bush. In principle, that is really good enough reason to hope he gets into office, but it goes further. If we don't have to try to prevent unilateral aggressive wars, we can bring our attention to the military-industrial complex and US imperialism throughout the world. If we don't have to fight the criminalization of abortion, we can fight for reasonable sex education, welfare for women doing the hard job of raising children, and the rights of all women to have control over their ! bodies and their lives. If we don't have to halt attacks on affirmative action, we can work against the long-standing system of economic apartheid and the cultural marginalization of people of color. The list goes on. KERRY WILL NOT DO IT FOR US; in fact, we will be fighting against him, but with him we will have more space to go to the root of the issues that matter.

The Kerry Camp

The problem is, I'm not sure that those leftists urging us to support Kerry are paying enough attention to that, and I find Michael Moore's recent article to be symptomatic of this political myopia. Let me say up front that I admire Michael Moore. He has brilliantly brought a left perspective to a mass audience and in that sense he is a model for activists. But Moore's rather meek request that Kerry return to his hippie roots, placed next to his demand that we not criticize him, is a very dangerous move. The only way that Kerry can be pushed to the left now is if we show him that Americans are angry and want real change--not by stating openly, as many progressives have done, that we’ll vote for him as long as his name isn't George W. Bush. Knowing that Michael Mo! ore and the rest of the progressive community will vote for him anyway, he is free to ignore us and pander to the corporate interests that fund him.

There is a great danger in simply dissolving our differences with John Kerry, because life will go on after November. Will activism? I hope so, but the current rhetoric makes me afraid that once Kerry has won, people will simply celebrate and return to comfortable complacence. Teresa Heinz Kerry came to speak at Penn State University and about 3,000 people came to watch or stand outside in support of the Democratic Party and the ideology of celebrity. But the Human Rights Film Series, a grassroots effort by and for Penn State’s activist community, is lucky to get 100 people to come to its screenings, even after heavy advertising with limited resources. Where are the other 2,900 progressives! ?

A Common Problem

What makes this bickering particularly ironic and depressing is that both sides fall into the same trap of assigning elections much more importance than they are due. Yes, Bush stole the election last time, and yes, corporations have too much power over politics; these are both important issues. But the fundamental problem with our electoral system is that it reduces political decision-making to choosing bureaucrats to make decisions for us; and in the end, elections function as an ideological tool to delude us into thinking that we have any control over the political process. The low level of voter participation shows that most people haven't been fooled--therefore reforms like instant run-off voting, proportional representation, public financing and localization of decision-making would all be good ways to start moving towards a more participatory society. We should fight for them, and! we should try to support the Green's safe state strategy as a reasonable way to start building a third party.

Otherwise, let's just take the elections at their face-value. It's impossible to make any real or important changes with an election, whether it is John Kerry or Ralph Nader or Peter Kropotkin on the ballot; that's not what elections are for. (At least not here--in Latin America the left has been much better at using elections to advance revolutionary activism. The Bolivaran circles of Venezuela, the autonomist movements of Argentina, and the Landless Worker's Movement of Brazil, although they are operating in very different economies, should serve as inspiration for American activists.) The only reasonable approach for radicals to take is to hold our noses and try to prevent the kind of damage another Bush term will do, and focus our energy on what really matters: building a grassroots movement in the United States by moving politics out of the polls and onto the streets. As both Naomi Klein and Ted Glick have pointed out, another Bush term would make movement-building extremely difficult.

But we must be utterly clear about this: we cannot think of getting rid of Bush, much less building a movement, unless we tell the truth about the Democrats and articulate our goals with intellectual rigor. Chomsky points out that ignoring the differences between Bush and Kerry will make people think that activists don't care about how ordinary people are affected by an election. In the abstract, he is correct, but there is one problem. To a population whipped up in fear by a media that pushes issues of concrete importance out of political discourse and deluges its viewers with misinformation, it is not clear Bush's fanatical policies will be more harmful than Kerry's.

Left Failures

This is due to two failures of the left. The first is that we have allowed the issue of capitalism to drop out of public discourse. We have not adequately addressed economic issues in terms of class, we have not brought attention to the unjust structure of the workplace, and we have not demonstrated a way to overcome capitalism. Michael Albert's revolutionary proposal for "participatory economics," which is getting overwhelming attention among the European left, is perhaps the first attempt to render democratic socialism into something comprehensible and concrete, something that can actually be put into practice, something that can actually be proposed to people who want to know how we can build an economy that isn't based on exploitation and class hierarchy. AND THE AMERICAN LEFT ISN’T PAYING ANY ATTENTION! Economic issues are perhaps the area in which the American people are furthest to the left. Business Week polls show that 95% of the population thinks business has too much power. Two-thirds of American adults think that Marx's dictum "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" is in the Constitution. If we had anything close to a decent left in this country, we would have had a revolution already! But we don't even have a labor movement. A cursory examination of history will teach us that a vibrant labor movement is the driving force of radical politics.

But even this is not enough—which brings us to the second failure. Wilhelm Reich wrote, in an attempt to understand how the fascists took power in Germany, “While we presented the masses with superb historical analyses and economic treatises on the contradictions of imperialism, Hitler stirred the deepest roots of their emotional being.” While we spend all our time meticulously dissecting in exactly which speech Bush lied about what, the right has been able to convince the American working class that they have its interests at heart by appealing to issues that affect people in their everyday lives: family, religion, culture, etc. It is their personal lives that people value the most, but the left has failed to remember the old feminist slogan that “the personal is political”; it has ignored the rich theory preceding and following the New Left that sought to extend revolution to culture and everyday life. Even the populist Michael Moore argues in his recent book that teenagers shouldn't have sex, thereby guaranteeing that no teenager who reads that book will ever listen to him again. A radical movement is about developing public spaces to foster human interaction based on solidarity and diversity; as Henri Lefebvre put it, revolution is about turning "everyday life into a work of art." But it seems the left can only speak about elections with any passion.

The left has been unable to appeal to a pissed-of working class because it has failed to address capitalism and demonstrate that "another world is possible."

Telling the Truth and Winning the Struggle

So let us, as revolutionaries, follow the dictum above, and be truthful to ourselves and the American people. Buying into the corporate media's empty debates and ignoring the issues that we should pay attention to on the left makes us seem like hypocrites. People know that politicians are corrupt bastards; that's why they don't vote! If we try to paint John Kerry as some kind of beautiful hero, people will not trust us. But if we can effectively argue that getting Bush out of office is part of a wider program of what Andre Gorz called "non-reformist reforms" directed towards radical change, we will demonstrate that we are committed to the issues that matter to the majority of the population. Why is there so much resistance to being honest about this? Does Michael Moore think the American people are too stupid to understand that we can vote for Kerry and still struggle! against the corruption that he represents? Do we care at all about building critical consciousness and creating a broader base for radical politics?

If being leftists means spending all our time bitching at each other about an election we shouldn't bother thinking twice about, leave me out. But if it means struggling to build a new society, a society that realizes the promises of freedom and justice, we've got a lot of important work to do. As Gramsci said, "It is necessary with bold spirit and in good conscience to save civilization... Are we not ready?"

Asad Haider is a student and activist in State College, PA. He can be reached at