Martin Abern Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Martin Abern

The Meaning of the Elections

A Victory for Capitalism; A Defeat for Official Communism

(November 1931)

From The Militant, Vol IV No. 31 (Whole No. 90), 14 November 1931, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On November 3rd, the vast majority of the voting population in the States of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other sections of the country marched to the polls and cast once again a ballot of confidence in, and retention of, the capitalist system. Reaction and conservatism remain in the saddle, though here a democratic, there a republican rider, sits in the saddle.

Prior to the elections, The Militant (10-24-31) said:

“The elections will serve as a barometer of the maturity of the American working class, to what point it has been heightened under the Impact of the disillusioning post – ‘prosperity’ crisis ... The elections will not create the rising temper of the proletariat; they will register it within the narrow confines of the ballot box ... provided ... the workers mobilize their voting strength behind the candidates of the only revolutionary party in the field – the Communist Party.”

The Capitalists Win Again

The votes cast in the elections did indicate some things, but not the desired ones. The votes did demonstrate, by and large, the swing of the voters back to the Democratic Party. With this shift, the electors aimed to demonstrate their resentment, and that of the mass of non-voters, against the outright reactionary, naked bourbon capitalism of the Hoover administration, which offered nothing but a prayer to the mass of people during the two years of economic crisis. But fundamentally, the bourgeoisie, the petit-bourgeois middle class and the voting proletariat, cast another vote for capitalism, but proposed that another court-plaster be pasted on the open cuts.

The American masses voted for the capitalist candidates, because of lack of clarity of a program by any other contending group in the parliamentary field, and, most important, because they are not yet ready for socialism. The objective factors, – mass unemployment, the rule of King Hunger, low wages, etc. – were favorable for an increase in radical and revolutionary expression. Even though the original Hoover boast, and then only a hope, of “a chicken in every pot” found its realization in the soggy handout on the bread-line though unemployment and militarism, the opposite poles of capitalist disorganization and organization, stalked the land, the people voted capitalist.

The Bosses Look Now to the Democrats

The next House of Representatives will apparently have a slight Democratic majority and will thereby be both a plague to Hoover and an excuse for further failures and inadequacies of the Republican administration. The Democrats will demand of the “sovereign” people, in order to put over their “pro-grain”, complete control of the powers of Government. Present indications are for Democratic success in the 1932 elections which will enable them them to divide the spoils of victory and to function in their particular manner as the executive committee of the capitalist class.

The discontentment that exists among the masses continued the course of previous elections and canalized itself in support of the Democratic Party. But as before, apart from individual, sectional and secondary questions, the two main capitalist parties are as like as tweedledum and tweedledee in their support of the powerful financial and industrial interests of Wall Street; both parties reject with equal equanimity any genuine immediate relief on behalf of the jobless, oppose unemployment insurance at the expense of the employers and government; and both parties give unqualified ind enthusiastic support to Hoover’s concern for the bankers’ welfare, a military program, and an attack on the living standards of the working class. Thus the workers who now voted for the Democratic ticket voted to be duped again.

The American Federation of Labor continued its former policy against independent working class political action, and in the main threw its “non-partisan” support to the Democrats.

The Elections in New York

The elections in New York City where unemployment reaches over a million, and where all sections of the labor movement seek political expression, are perhaps good examples to gauge the significance of the elections, particularly in relation to the Communists and the Communist Party.

It is the viewpoint of the Left Opposition that the working class, in taking its first steps politically, will follow simultaneously the roads of the social-democrats and the Communists. The extent to which the workers will be attracted to the program of communism as against the socialists will, apart from the objective factors of economic and social conditions, depend upon the ability of the Communists to present their program in a clear, intelligent and unambiguous manner. There is no reason at all ordinarily, so far as programs are concerned, why a worker should not be able, if he is looking for a revolutionary way out of the capitalist impasse, to make clear his preference for the Communists as against the socialists. But in the New York elections, the mish-mash program of vulgar reformism and revolutionary communism put forward by the Communist Party, made for confusion instead of clarity, and amplified the tasks of the socialists.

The Petit-Bourgeois Appeal of the Socialists

The Socialist Party of Norman Thomas and Morris Hillquit made its programmatic appeal, in the main, to the disaffected petit-bourgeois, the small business man and shopkeeper, the professional man, the liberals, white-collar slaves, etc. While, no doubt, it received the votes of deluded industrial workers, it had no fundamental class approach to the workers. As is known, the acceptance of the theory of the class struggle no longer appears in its preamble. There are those elements in the Socialist Party who, looking farther ahead than their brother reformists, would prefer to have the Socialist Party appeal to and base its support on the labor bureaucracy of the A.F. of L. and the assistance it can give to develop a labor bade.

But the Norman Thomas wing, steeped in the ideology and practices of liberalism, though paying lip-service now and then to the working class, does not concern itself with the capitalist system per se and the need for its abolition. Rather it devotes itself to a denunciation of and demand for a reform of the rottener manifestations of capitalism, with its sores and festers. The S.P. concerns itself with such resultant issues as Tammany corruption, graft, vice, etc. The vote for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for Borough President of Manhattan bitterly disappointing to him, was 48,438 (which was greater than his 1929 poll), represented, not votes for socialism, but for petit-bourgeois reformism. His own comment on the outcome of the elections was typical and true to his own and the socialist party propaganda in the campaign itself. Thomas stated that the election results were a “blow against good government ... a triumph of organized greed ... rampant gangsterism ... there is no hope for clean government”. Nothing is there but the words of disappointed liberalism, of a program that would put silk covering on a moth-eaten, ragged capitalism.

The Communist Party Vote

An interesting feature in this connection is that appeal to the secondary or cancer growths of capitalism, – corruption, gangsterism, etc. had no effect on the voters who overwhelmingly returned Tammany politicians or their blood-brother Republicans to office. Fundamental education on principle questions of socialism, the class struggle, etc. was naturally missing, with the exception here and there of a socialist candidate who spoke for “socialism” in the socialist manner.

And what was the case with the Communist Party and its election campaign. To cite one example, I. Amter, Communist candidate for Borough President of Manhattan, received the miserably, incredibly low vote of 1,789. Add what votes were stolen or uncounted, as the Party claims, and it is still far beyond legitimate expectations. The living issues were there: the economic crisis and unemployment, around which the Communists have centered their agitation for two years. Why the pitiful showing in the elections?

The Communist Objective in Elections

We do not over-emphasize the counting of noses at election time, but its value as a partial barometer of working class development has been indicated. For Communists, election time offers a special opportunity to intensify the continuous, all-the-year-round campaign to reach the workers with the message of communism, to explain the class struggle and the solution. Even actual election to office, unlike with the socialists, is for Communists essentially but a chance to use the parliamentary tribunal for Communist education, to point out why the capitalist machinery of government cannot be used to achieve fundamental gains for the working class, and why a complete class change of government and social system is the only bona-fide solution.

Did the official New York Communists carry out the tasks of Communists during election time? The answer is NO. If it is true that the Communist Party and movement has an influence greater than its organizational expression, it failed indeed to consolidate its strength and influence at the ballot box. Actually, however, misleadership and false policies of the Party in the trade unions and in strikes reflected themselves also at the polls, in the failure of unionists and strikers to vote Communist.

The N.Y. Party Program

The Militant has dealt before with the crying weaknesses of the party program in the New York elections, which found similar manifestations in Philadelphia and other points. There was first and foremost a program of Immediate demands with no less than 75 demands, good and correct ones mixed, like chopped herring or chop-suey, with demands of the most reformistic and petit-bourgeois kind, a mish-mash that left everyone bewildered as to what it all meant. These demands concerned themselves with cheaper milk, ex-service-men’s demands, a limit of $3,000 salary for police captains (! Yes, it is sad, but true), the return of money to mulcted bank depositors, for unemployed relief, against the war danger, defense of the Soviet Union, and, lastly, the 75th demand, for a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government. We are given to declare that no Socialist Party local in American history ever put together such an enormous list of demands without real examination as to meaning or purpose in regard to class content or reality to the situation.

The masses, it is true, again voted overwhelmingly for the capitalist system. But there were some thousands who, thinking a little more clearly, voted for the first time for what they regarded as a “vote for socialism”. They voted either for the Socialist Party or the Socialist Labor Party. Why not for the Communist Party, the official representative of the future society communism?

Because the Communist Party campaign was scarcely distinguishable from a stupid, near-sighted campaign such as one expects from reformists and socialists. Under the conditions of a volume of reformist demands, why should any worker choose particularly the Communist as against the milder-toned Socialist, is just one way a worker could reflect in making his decision.

What Kind of Demands Should be Raised

We are for immediate demands. But they cannot be 75, or 50, or 25 or even 15. They must be a few clearly and definitely selected and centralized demands which fit a given situation. Immediate demands are not permanent; nor are the same ones always emphasized. These selected demands must appeal to and meet the vital needs of the workers at the moment; but, moreover, they must be linked with and be capable of causing agitation against, difficulties for, and exposure of the capitalist class and capitalist government who will and can not carry out or concede to fundamental demands of the working class. Our object in a class sense, in presenting immediate demands in connection with our ultimate program, is WORKING CLASS EDUCATION AND ORGANIZATION for the principles of Communism.

Under the conditions, where king hunger held dominion in New York City with an approximate million unemployed, the issue of IMMEDIATE RELIEF, came first. As natural corollaries to achieve real immediate relief, there followed the demand for unemployment insurance, at the expense of the bosses and government, agitation for a six hour day and five day week, and, from a broader but correct political class angle, the agitation for the widest possible economic collaboration between the capitalist United States and the Soviet Republic through the medium of the extension of large and long-term credits to the Soviet Union. These immediate demands, in election campaigns and NOW, remain the immediate demands and issues for the Communists to present. These demands, alive and comprehensible, if intelligently presented, more than adequately cover the sum total of the actual working class demands set forth in the 75 demands by the Party. But it is even far more important to present clearly in the election campaign that there is no lasting way out for the working class but the Social Revolution.

Win Workers to Communist Principles

The object of the Communists in election times and at all times, is to teach, to develop and to organize Communists. This is simple, but primary. If the Communist Party had really had this object in mind during the campaign, the results, votes or no votes, would have been better from a Communist viewpoint.

Far better to go to the extreme of alleged revolutionists as the Socialists Labor Party, and put forward only the demand for the realization of the Social Revolution, than like the Communist Party to put forward 75 demands which smother the main task of Communist education. The Communists cannot compete with the reformists or capitalists on the matter of amelioration of conditions of the workers; to do so means only to sink into the quagmire in which socialist weeds flourish, or into the quicksands in which the revolutionary outlook is buried.

The Central Committee on the Elections

On the day before the elections, the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Daily Worker, 11-2-31) said, in its appeal to the workers to vote the Communist ticket: “Our party ... is the party of class war ... It organizes the proletariat on the basis of class against class, working class against capitalist class, for the struggle for power.”

What a pity it is that the Communist election campaign was not conducted on the lines of this basic appeal. At least then some workers would have understood the basic distinctions between the Communists and the Socialists, not to mention the capitalist parties. But it is this same Stalinized Central Committee that formulated the election program of 75 immediate demands. The result is that the election campaign witnessed another brand of “socialist competition”. That is, the Communists “competed” with the socialists on the platform and arena of the socialists and the socialists naturally won this “competition” hands down.

The Communist Party forgot the main issues in this campaign. In trying to understand the workers, it fell to the level of outlook of the, in the class sense, undeducated worker. The Party dealt too much with the manifestations of capitalism, and too little indeed with the causes and cures for capitalism.

In brief, capitalism in America held its ground, though getting ready to switch the personnel of its political committee, the government; it made no concessions and holds the fort. The Socialist Party, weak too, nevertheless developed its main ideology of reform and poultices for capitalism, and laid the ground a little better for the period when capitalism will need to seek them out and use them as their cover and protectors.

The Party Pays the Price of Wrong Theory

The working class as a class is still capitalist-minded. It must yet take its first steps as an independent political force. The Communist Party had great opportunities to make forward strides for Communism, but failed almost totally. In a principle manner, there is only one answer to the failure of the official Communist Party. The Communist Party must once again set both feet on solid theoretical ground, it must examine its past and present. If it will look straight, it will find that, wittingly or unwittingly, it has been under the insidious and corrupting effects of Stalinist theory and practices, sinking, even as other Communist Parties, into national reformism and even local provincialism, coupled as yet with a general outlook and comprehension of communism. The elections are but an outstanding example. The Communist Party is paying the heavy toll of being wrong in theory and principles. Party ignorance receives payment in kind from the workers.

If the Communist Party will then examine a little further, they will see the Left Opposition standing by and offering the original Communist program of Lenin. Will the elections help the Party to learn, and to redress and reform itself before it is too late?

Martin Abern Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 12.2.2013