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US elections: should socialists support Nader?

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Ralph Nader is registering five per cent support in the US Presidential elections as the candidate for the Green Party. This is a significant level of support for a third party ticket in the USA.

It has been accompanied by grass roots campaigning and rallies of up to 16,000 in states where the ticket has most support.

A number of socialist groups in the USA are now supporting Nader.

The International Socialist Organisation (ISO) and its sister organisation in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), have been among the most enthusiastic advocates of a "vote for Nader".

Both the ISO and the SWP argue that the Nader campaign represents the anti-globalisation movement. As Chris Harman put it in Socialist Review, "he has embraced the spirit of Seattle". International Socialist Review, the magazine of the ISO, believes the campaign is "the electoral expression of the budding social movements ... The politics of Seattle - the uniting of environmentalism with trade unionism into a common front against corporate capital control - is a central part of the Nader campaign." (ISR Aug-Sept 2000)

But the politics and programme of Nader's campaign represent the reformist wing of the anti-globalisation movement, not its left, anti-capitalist wing.

Nader's campaign is certainly radical in the US context, where no mass Labour or social democratic party has ever existed. Nader attacks "corporate greed", denounces the major parties' links with big business, the lack of democracy and access to the media for the majority in American society.

He excoriates the growing contrast between wealth and poverty in the US - he supports raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour "as soon as possible", calls for the repeal of anti-trade union legislation, for a universal "insurance based" health care system and for an end to "corporate tax hand-outs".

But the Nader/Green programme is anti-corporate, not anti-capitalist. In the tradition of radical American populism, it is anti-big business but pro-competition and small business. Nader believes that the corporations can be cut down to size, tamed by the extension of democracy, "deep democracy" as he calls it. But he is no socialist.

Asked on CNN if he was a Marxist, Nader replied:

"No, I believe in democracy. I believe in competition. I think the big corporations are destroying capitalism. Ask a lot of small business around the country how they are pressed and exploited and deprived by the big business predators."

The Greens election manifesto wants an economy based on a mix of "private businesses, democratic co-operatives and publicly owned enterprises". This "constitutes an alternative to both corporate capitalism and state socialism." A third way perhaps?

Chris Harman suggests another reason to support Nader:

"It is winning support from some smaller unions and some friendly words from the bosses of the big unions like the Teamsters."

However Nader's team claim support from only one national union, the small California Nurses Association, with 31,000 members, plus numbers of trade unionists attracted by the campaign's radicalism.

The cowardly US Labor Party, which refuses to stand its own candidates for fear of offending the trade union leaders in the AFL-CIO who support the Democrats, has encouraged its supporters to join the Greens and support Nader.

Figures like James P Hoffa from the Teamsters like to show their "independence" of the major parties by playing with the idea of third parties (Hoffa has also made sympathetic noises to another candidate - the reactionary conservative Pat Buchanan!).

But there are more dangerous reasons why Nader gets support from such figures - his programme chimes in with the "America First" positions of these protectionists.

Nader is forthright in his opposition to Congress allowing China Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR). Why? Because he argues, "it would speed the migration of well paying factory jobs" to China:

"Much of the investment will shift jobs from the United States to China especially in the manufacture of goods like clothing, auto parts, and consumer electronics. PNTR will exacerbate the trend of US factories shutting down, moving to China, and then exporting their goods back to the United States."

The left wing of the anti-globalisation movement fights the multinational corporations through campaigns to raise the employment standards in the "Third world", making links in struggle with these workers - as the US anti-sweatshop campaigns try to do.

Nader's campaign sails closer to the right wing of the movement, whose alternative to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and Globalisation is protectionism and America First.

This reformism is also reflected in the approach to the IMF and World Bank. The anti-capitalist wing of the Seattle movement sees them as instruments of the multinationals, backed to the hilt by the US and the other imperialist powers.

They recognise they have to be dismantled or smashed. The Nader/Green election manifesto in contrast calls for "a more enlightened policy on the part of the international agencies and their financial arms ... the United States should reign in the IMF and World Bank."

But does Nader's programme matter? Even the ISO recognise that Nader's populism is "anti-corporate but not anti-capitalist". Nevertheless, they argue, socialists should not stand aloof from the campaign, should not seize on the "many of the real limitations of Nader and the Greens to stand aside". "After the elections" they argue, "different forms of struggle will replace the Nader campaign and the Greens."

The organised working class does not take its attachments to political parties as light mindedly as the ISO leadership. The fact that it is so difficult to break workers, or their unions, from the Democratic Party in the USA despite its ongoing capitulations to capitalism speaks volumes.

Workers need to see a new party, struggling for their interests, often over a long period, before they abandon an old party. The ISO is saying "break with the Democrats, join the Nader/Green campaign. This is the party that represents your interests, within which you need to struggle to make it more socialist." Many trade unionists will take the ISO (and the SWP) at their word. They will be won to a Third Party that is not socialist.

If the Nader/Green campaign gets five per cent at the elections it will be strengthened through federal funding at the next elections. Where will the ISO be then if it suddenly announces that workers must not support it but rather something more radical, more socialist? Workers will rightly treat such a zig-zagging organisation with contempt.

There was an alternative. The ISO with its hundreds of members across the USA could have challenged the Labor Party to run an independent working class ticket rather than act as recruiting sergeants for the Greens, and won its supporters to such a perspective even if its leaders refused to do so. Instead, with support from the British SWP, it has abandoned the workers' party tactic in favour of hooking up with the Greens and Nader.

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