World Socialist Web Site and Socialist Equality Party hold conference on “The 2004 US Election: the Case for a Socialist Alternative”

Today we are publishing a summary account of the conference held by the World Socialist Web Site and the Socialist Equality Party over the weekend in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In coming days, the WSWS will provide extensive coverage of the conference, including the opening report given by David North, chairman of the WSWS International Editorial Board and national secretary of the SEP in the US, and the remarks of SEP presidential and vice presidential candidates Bill Van Auken and Jim Lawrence.

On March 13-14, the World Socialist Web Site and the Socialist Equality Party held a highly successful conference entitled“The 2004 US Election: the Case for a Socialist Alternative.” The event, held on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, was attended by 135 delegates, including students, workers, professional people and retirees from across the United States. Delegates traveled from California, the Pacific Northwest, the South, the East Coast and a number of midwestern states to participate in the conference. Also in attendance were delegations from Australia, Germany, Britain and Canada.

A substantial number of those at the conference had attended the WSWS-SEP conference on “Socialism and the Struggle Against Imperialism and War” held in Ann Arbor in March of 2003, and had since begun contributing to the work of the web site.

Underscoring the international character of the election campaign, Peter Schwarz from the German Partei für Soziale Gleichheit [Socialist Equality Party], Julie Hyland from the SEP of Britain, and Richard Phillips from the SEP of Australia gave greetings to the conference.

The political basis for the discussion at the conference was the SEP election statement published by the WSWS on January 27 (See “Socialist Equality Party announces US presidential campaign”). In the call for the conference, the WSWS said its purpose would be to initiate a thoroughgoing discussion on the political issues that the 2004 election poses before working people in the US and internationally, focusing on the economic and socio-political roots of the eruption of American imperialism, the failure of liberal reformism in the US, and the need to build an independent socialist alternative to the bourgeois two-party system.

The conference succeeded in conducting such a discussion, with many of the delegates speaking on such critical questions as the US-engineered coup in Haiti, the social crisis facing working people, the assault on democratic rights, and the need to fight for an internationalist program, in opposition to all forms of nationalism and economic protectionism.

The conference unanimously endorsed the SEP election statement as the political basis of the party’s campaign. It rejected the position of various liberal and “left” organizations that are lining up behind the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, and opposing any independent campaign on the grounds that the overriding issue is defeating President Bush.

In his opening report to the conference, David North dealt directly with this issue, saying, “Based on all the lessons of the history of the American working class, the Socialist Equality Party completely rejects the claim that the most burning task in 2004, to which all other concerns and considerations must be subordinated, is the defeat of President Bush.

“No, the most pressing and urgent task is to fight for the political independence of the working class on the basis of a socialist and internationalist program.”

Regarding the attempts of the US media and political establishment to portray the systematic lying that accompanied the Iraq war as an “intelligence failure”, North said: “No, the war was not the product of a ‘failure of intelligence,’—not even that of the intellectually handicapped president. Rather, the war was the product, in a political sense, of a historic failure, to the point of breakdown, of the institutions of American democracy.”

He went on to review the process by which the ruling elite intervened in the Democratic primaries to derail the campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who had criticized the Iraq war, and ensure the nomination of Senator John Kerry, who had voted in favor of the congressional resolution that authorized Bush to intervene militarily in Iraq. Dean, himself a thoroughly conventional big business politician, was unacceptable to the ruling elite because his nomination might have interjected a discussion of the war into the presidential campaign, something which both the Democratic and Republican establishments were determined to prevent.

North insisted that the interests of the working class could not find expression through the Kerry campaign or the Democrats: “In the elaboration of a principled position in this election campaign—that is one that upholds the interests of the working class—it is necessary to proceed from an historical evaluation of the bourgeois two-party system, and in particular, the class character of the Democratic Party.”

The Democratic Party, North continued, “has been the principle instrument employed by the American bourgeoisie for more than a century to block the development of an independent working class party, preserve the hegemony of the bourgeois two-party system, and maintain the capitalist class’ monopoly of political power.”

Following the opening report, delegates participated in a detailed discussion of the SEP election statement, covering a wide range of topics, including public ownership of industry, the socialist attitude to affirmative action and other forms of racial preferences, the defense of democratic rights, and the fight for the international unity of the working class.

SEP presidential candidate Bill Van Auken opened the second day of the conference. He stressed the need for the American working class to base itself on a program that united its struggles with those of workers and oppressed people around the world. “We are striving,” he said, “through this intervention to forge, together with our comrades in Socialist Equality parties in Europe, South Asia, Australia and Canada, a genuinely worldwide movement against imperialism, based upon the independent political mobilization of the working class.”

The recent US-backed overthrow of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in Haiti marked, he said, another manifestation of the global eruption of US imperialism.

“Washington arrogates to itself the right to depose whomever it sees fit, occupy territory and install puppet regimes. Nothing could more clearly expose the farcical character of the Bush administration’s claims that its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are part of some global crusade for democracy,” he continued.

Van Auken explained that the Democratic Party did not represent an alternative for those seeking to fight imperialism. He reviewed the history of US intervention in the Persian Gulf from the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter, which asserted US imperialism’s right to unrestricted access to Persian Gulf oil and began the buildup of a rapid deployment force, to that of Democrat Bill Clinton, which maintained crushing sanctions against Iraq that led to the death of one million people through lack of food, medicine and essential supplies.

He cited a document of the Democratic Leadership Council that serves as a principal basis of Kerry’s foreign policy platform. The document uncritically endorses Bush’s so-called “war on terror” and embraces his doctrine of preemptive war. Its criticisms of Bush’s foreign policy, Van Auken explained, are of a purely tactical, and not principled, character, and, in many cases, suggest an even more ferociously militaristic policy than that of the current administration.

He concluded, “The issues posed by the US elections are world issues and require a world solution. The election campaign waged by the SEP must become the means for the most conscious sections of the working class internationally to intervene in the political situation here, at the very heart of world imperialism, as part of a worldwide offensive against war and for the socialist reorganization of society.”

Jim Lawrence, the SEP candidate for vice president, stressed the need for a political struggle against the profit system to defend jobs and living conditions. Lawrence worked for three decades in Dayton, Ohio auto plants, and is a member of the United Auto Workers union (UAW).

He said, “The working class must develop a political strategy to defend its jobs and living standards. Such a strategy, however, must be based on an understanding of the objective economic changes of the last quarter of a century, and include a critical appraisal of the record and policies of all those who have claimed to speak in the interests of working people.”

Lawrence reviewed the dismal record of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, which, basing itself on policies of anti-communism and economic nationalism, has failed to stop a single plant shutdown or defend a single job.

“The UAW and other unions promoted the most poisonous national chauvinism and racism, aimed at convincing American workers that their enemy was not big business, but Japanese and European workers, who were supposedly ‘stealing’ American jobs.

“What has the promotion of economic nationalism produced? When I first joined the UAW, the union had 2.25 million workers in basic industry. Today it has 638,000 members.”

He continued, “The source of job destruction is not trade per se, or even globalization. It is an economic system that subordinates human needs to the accumulation of personal wealth. A system that allows 587 people to control $1.9 trillion, while one half the world’s population subsists on less than two dollars a day, is historically doomed.”

WSWS editorial board member Patrick Martin gave a report on the practical work of the election campaign. He emphasized the undemocratic character of US election laws.

“When it comes to ballot access for third parties,” he said, “the United States, contrary to the professions of its ruling elite, is far from a paragon of democracy. Nowhere in the developed world, with the possible exception of Australia, are so many obstacles placed in the path of those who wish to challenge the monopoly of the established political parties.”

He noted that for SEP candidates Bill Van Auken and Jim Lawrence to get on the ballot in all 50 states, more than 750,000 signatures would have to be collected. He pointed out that besides collecting signatures, SEP supporters would have to register electors in each state and meet numerous other technical requirements.

He stressed that despite these difficulties, the SEP would fight for ballot status in as many states as possible, and would make a particular effort to run candidates in congressional races.

Following the discussion, delegates responded generously to an appeal for financial contributions to support the work of the WSWS. Many of those in attendance also applied to join the SEP and a number volunteered to stand as party candidates in congressional races.