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Conscience and Political Organizing


I think I’ve heard and read the word “conscience” more in the last couple of months than almost any time in my life. This has happened mainly in connection with the position Green Party Presidential candidate David Cobb has been putting forward in battleground states, states where the polls indicate a toss-up between Bush and Kerry on November 2.

In those states Cobb articulates the Green critique of both corporate parties and the urgent need for a people’s alternative to them, but he then acknowledges that in those very-close states that people should “vote their conscience” as far as the Presidential race, while urging them to register Green and be sure to vote for Greens lower down on the ballot.

Some have criticized this position. Some pro-Nader Greens have inaccurately portrayed this as Cobb calling for people to vote for Kerry. Other Greens have said, with some validity, aren’t we always urging voters in all elections, whatever state they’re in, to “vote their conscience?” After all, they imply, we certainly aren’t telling people to ignore what that still small voice tells them to do in the voting booth.

My Webster’s dictionary defines conscience as, “a knowledge or feeling of right and wrong, with a compulsion to do right; moral judgment that prohibits or opposes the violation of a previously recognized ethical principle.” A thesaurus that I use lists these words after “conscience:” censor, compunction, demur, duty, inner voice, principle, qualm, scruple, shame, small voice, superego.

It’s not easy to maintain a clear conscience if one is trying to be politically effective in the United States. We have a 19th-century, winner-take-all electoral system which puts pressure on people to vote for candidates they don’t like so as not to get a candidate they really hate or fear.

We have an economic and social system shot through with oppression and injustice in which corrupt and undemocratic corporate and political leaders are the norm. In order to win even small victories under this system, the temptation is very strong to give in to political expediency, to make less-than-principled compromises, when struggling for some kind of positive change for the people.

Indeed, one of the ways that the existing order maintains itself is through the buying off, the cooptation, of some of those who see this unjust order for what it is and, at first, speak out against it. People are seduced to submerge or repress conscience, critical thought, their principles. This then makes them less willing to even support, much less be active with, groups who struggle against the system, who resist the temptation to be “politically expedient” within the current system in determining policy and practice.

It’s a real problem. But there is a lesson of history that cannot be forgotten. It is a sad fact that progressive political movements which denigrate the importance of conscience, or just ignore it as an operating principle, sooner or later become something very different from what they originally began as.

The difficulties faced by those who have come to power as a result of their commitment to social and economic justice have led not just individuals but organizations down a path of pursuing personal or bureaucratic power, wealth and privileges, or both.

Here is what one of the most famous revolutionaries once said about conscience: “The best elements that we have in our social system-such as, first, the advanced workers, and, second, the really enlightened elements for whom we can vouch that they will not take the word for the deed, and will not utter a single word that goes against their conscience-should not shrink from admitting any difficulty.”

These words were written by V.I. Lenin in one of his last, major articles, “Better Fewer, But Better,” in the early ’20s before a stroke that led to his death in 1924.

Lenin talking about the importance of conscience, “not utter(ing) a single word that goes against” it. Who would have expected it?

So it’s a good thing that this word is out there within at least some progressive political circles in 2004. It is a good thing that there is debate over what is our duty, what is the principled thing to do in this difficult political year. As hard as that debate sometimes is, as conflicted as many of us are as we try to do what is right in the electoral arena, the fact that many of us are struggling to stay true to conscience is positive and hopeful.

Because there is no question but that come November 3rd, no matter who wins the Presidency and control of Congress, we have a continuing, urgent need to deepen and strengthen the movement to liberate our threatened eco-system and peoples from the rule of the corporatists and militarists in both parties who currently dominate us.

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