BY DOUG JENNESS
ST. PAUL, Minnesota - Two weeks ago the Militant ran an excerpt from a soon-to-be-published book, Capitalism's World Disorder: Working-Class Politics in the 21st Century, by Jack Barnes. The selection, headlined "Radicalism, Bonapartism, and the Perot Vote," was part of a talk Barnes gave four days after the 1992 presidential elections, where Ross Perot scored 19 percent of the vote, the highest by a "third party" since Theodore Roosevelt won 28 percent in 1912.
Barnes, referring to the rise of the Bonapartist Perot phenomenon, stated: "This kind of movement, this kind of demagogy is going to be a permanent and growing aspect of the intersection of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politics in the period we have entered. It is an inevitable product of the world capitalist order heading toward intensified trade wars, economic breakdowns, banking and currency crises, accelerated war drives, and their inevitable accompaniment - class battles."
Six years later, with Jesse Ventura's election as governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket, Perot's party, we can see how well this assessment stands up to today's reality.
Moreover, the Ventura campaign should not be viewed as a development restricted to the North Star state, and consequently less significant than the Perot race. It's true that Perot ran a national campaign, but Ventura was elected chief executive officer in one of the country's 50 states. The import of this is still ringing from coast to coast.
Most significant result of elections
Barnes stated in the talk six years ago, "The vote for Perot is the important outcome of the 1992 elections, and it is a warning the workers movement ignores at its own peril." Likewise in 1998, Ventura's victory was the most significant development, and underestimating it or not describing it accurately will be at the peril of the working-class vanguard - we will be politically disarmed to act.
Given this record, leaders of the communist movement shouldn't have been surprised by Ventura's victory - as was the case with the entire working-class movement in Minnesota and beyond. We should have anticipated and explained to the broader working-class vanguard what was about to take place and the danger it poses for the workers movement.
The problem was refusal to use the communist movement's political conquests from the past and apply them, as tools, to politics today. But in a world where capitalism's instability deepens and the openings for class-conscious workers to carry out mass work in the labor movement in a qualitative new way multiply, attention to theory and to educating in the basics of Marxism is more, not less, necessary.
In the 1992 talk, Barnes explained even why bourgeois opinion pollsters were so wrong on the vote for Perot. He pointed out that "a substantial number of people who intended to vote for Perot did not tell the truth when they were selected at random to be surveyed. Why? Because these people considered the pollsters - like reporters, news photographers, and most `professional politicians' - to be part of the conspiracy." Perot pushed the idea that there was a conspiracy to stop his ascent. And every time Perot cried "Conspiracy!" he increased his vote.
A similar thing happened with the polls predicting Hubert Humphrey III, the Democratic candidate for governor of Minnesota, would win the election. Ventura hammered away at the press's "unfair treatment" of his campaign at the expense of his Democratic and Republican opponents. Not a single newspaper in the state endorsed his campaign.
Promise to act differently
A related phenomenon is reflected in the victory of the antiunion Aircraft Mechanics Association Fraternal (AMFA) in breaking off mechanics and cleaners from the International Association of Machinists (IAM) at Northwest Airlines (see article on front page). The backers of Ventura and AMFA have something in common.
It's not what Ventura or AMFA promise to do that's the key. It's the fact that they promise to act differently and their opponents promise to continue as is.
Thinking workers need to get used to anticipating that radical demagogues will win support from many small businessmen, farmers, and other middle-class layers, as well as sectors of the working class. These social layers are attracted to a figure who comes along and seems to offer something radically different from those politicians whom growing numbers consider incurably corrupt, ineffective, and self-serving. In the Minnesota race, the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor offered more of the same. Ventura said he was "different," he presented himself as a champion of the "people."
Like Perot, Ventura is a Bonapartist -that's the best description of this breed of radical demagogue. Ventura presents himself as a representative of a heterogeneous layer of the population, one who stands above classes and partisan politics. The breadth of his appeal was shown by the stands he took. They ranged from supporting keeping abortion legal and decriminalizing prostitution and drugs, to approval of recent cuts in workmen's compensation, to reveling in the sex scandals surrounding the Clinton administration.
Ventura: a Bonapartist, not a rightist
It's not accurate to label Ventura as a rightist, unlike ultrarightist politician Patrick Buchanan, who has run twice in the presidential elections. Buchanan has campaigned to recruit cadre for a potential fascist movement, not win the broadest range of votes possible. Unlike Ventura's positions on social policies, Buchanan espouses rightist positions across the board - from banning abortion to gay-bashing and closing the border to immigrant workers from Mexico. Buchanan admires former dictator of Spain Francisco Franco; Joseph McCarthy, the U.S. Senator who helped lead the witch-hunt in the 1950s; and Gen. Douglas MacArthur who led the U.S. army during the Korean War. Ventura did not put forward rightist positions on a number of issues. But the rise of Bonapartist figures like Ventura greases the skids for adaptation to the development of an openly fascist movement in the future.
Like all Bonapartists, Ventura portrayed himself as a "strong man." Using his background as a former Navy SEAL, a professional wrestler, and a radio "shock jock" talk show host, he tried to create the impression that he could cut through legislative logjams and cope with corrupt partisan politicians.
As with Perot, Ventura's radicalism taps into resentments and suspicions of the rulers and their government representatives. This is a radicalism that pits human beings against each other and thrives on conspiracy theories to explain the mounting crises produced by capitalism. Radical capitalist politicians like Ventura will continue to garner support from a layer of workers until the working class begins to develop a class-struggle leadership out of the labor battles that are deepening.
The challenge for class-struggle fighters to explain clearly the danger of Bonapartist demagogy is compounded by the adaptation of some labor officials and their hangers-on to Ventura. According to the report in last week's Militant on the Labor Party convention held in Pittsburgh November 13-15, a number of speakers hailed Ventura's election because it has supposedly opened up doors for other parties running against the Democrats and Republicans. On the eve of the convention, a Twin Cities activist in the Labor Party, Greg Gibbs, posted a letter on the Internet stating, "The dull dead horse of `responsible' Minnesota politics has been turned upside down. This can only be good for the 3rd Party movement. Ventura's victory is the best thing that could have happened, as it opens the door for us."
There are many examples of the attraction to Ventura by liberals and middle-class radicals. One, cited in Insight News, a weekly oriented to the Black community in Minneapolis, is Leola Seals, president of the Minneapolis NAACP chapter. "Go for it Ventura!" Seals stated. "It's time for a change and we're moving toward a more progressive society." The paper said of Seals, "She believes that young people, who registered to vote in droves just to cast a ballot for Jesse, are ready to see a change."
Gibbs, Seals, and others are lured by the siren song of Ventura's radicalism. But it is precisely here that the danger lies. In the name of "radicalism" workers are pitted against each other and sucked into capitalist politics. To even give one toe to this will only help pave the way to being attracted to or disarmed in the face of the social demagogy of a fascist movement. It's similar to how activists can be attracted to protests against sweatshops in other countries, disregarding that their main political content supports trade restrictions on other countries. The result is to adapt to bourgeois nationalism, undermining the international solidarity the working class needs in the face of the bosses' attacks.
It's not Ventura's campaign that opened elbowroom for more "minor parties" to get a hearing in the recent elections. Rather, it's the accelerating capitalist crises and inability of the Democratic and Republican politicians to provide answers. This is what is opening up more space for the working class to organize and fight for its interests, including in the political arena.
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