Yesterday someone emailed me with this query:
I hope you don’t mind me writing to ask you your opinion of this:
For myself, I didn’t see anything wrong with it; I’m aware that Bernie Sanders is not actually a socialist, but I think it’s important for there to be some kind of left opposition in electoral politics, even if (at the moment) it comes from social democrats. And if Socialist Alternative wants to lend him critical support, so much the better, because it opens up further left perspectives.
At least, that’s how my thinking went. I was roundly criticized by some comrades, and now I’m not sure what I think. Is Bernie Sanders the kind of compromise/opportunism that is detrimental to a working-class movement?
Since others might have the same sort of questions, I will be replying publicly.
Although I doubt there is much of a chance that Bernie Sanders would ever run as an Independent, I agree with the article in Socialist Alternative newspaper urging him to do so. The comrades make their case this way:
Bernie Sanders has stated that he wants a dialogue with progressive activists before deciding on whether to run for president and on whether he should stand as an independent or within the framework of the Democratic Party. As a first step, we would urge Bernie to organize a genuinely representative national conference of progressive, community, and labor organizations to discuss the way forward in late 2014 or early 2015. This conference could become the focus to galvanize all those who want to build a new authentic working-class politics in America. Such momentum would, we hope, persuade Bernie Sanders to take the historic step of running as an independent left candidate for the presidency in 2016.
My view is that the shortcomings of a Bernie Sanders or a Ralph Nader are more than compensated for by their willingness to challenge the Democrats and Republicans that retain a vice-like grip on American electoral politics. When you make the “program” of a candidate the litmus test, there will no doubt be grounds for finding fault with someone like Nader whose vision of a future society boils down to a kind of Capraesque Jeffersonian democracy. Sanders at least speaks of socialism but it is in reality a Scandinavian welfare state that he has in mind. But at least it has the possibility of getting the average person to get past the austerity logic of the two major capitalist parties.
There’s a tendency for some on the left to dismiss third party campaigns if the candidate has a background as a more or less conventional elected official. When I joined the SWP in 1967, I learned that the party treated Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party presidential bid as a diversion. They derided it as “middle class” and pointed out that Wallace was a member of FDR’s cabinet. How could the left support a candidate that was a member of a government that had dropped A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? You get some of the same objections to Sanders who backed NATO intervention in Yugoslavia. Despite the many articles I wrote opposing that intervention, I’d have no problem backing Sanders.
Your query reminded me that I had a blog post I meant to write that touches on some of the same issues. Eric Blanc wrote an article titled “Defying the democrats: Marxists and the lost labor party of 1923” that appears on John Riddell’s website. It is a fascinating study of how an earlier generation of socialists dealt with the same issues. I agree with much of what Blanc writes but have a different assessment of the La Follette campaign of 1924 that anticipates both the Henry Wallace and Ralph Nader campaigns, and one that might be run by Bernie Sanders if the stars align properly.
The first paragraph of Eric’s article shows that he has made the same kinds of connections:
Discussions on how to break working people from the hold of the Democratic Party have acquired a new immediacy as a result of the recent electoral victories of independent working-class candidates in Seattle, Washington, and Lorraine, Ohio, as well as the campaign for Chicago union leader Karen Lewis to run as an independent for mayor. Those interested in promoting independent politics today may benefit from studying the rich experience of the labor party movement of the early 1920s.
Despite the readiness of a labor leader by the name of Frank Fitzgerald to form a Labor Party, American Communists initially rejected such a proposal because it did not go far enough. They reflected the ultraleftism that Lenin polemicized against in his 1920 article. After being convinced by Lenin that a more patient approach was necessary, the CP endorsed and participated in a 1923 conference organized by Fitzgerald.
Unfortunately a rival faction in the Communist movement known as the Workers Party led by John Pepper that was incurably ultraleft. It engineered a split that amounted to what we in the SWP used to call “capturing yourself”. The Workers Party pushed through a resolution forming a Farmer-Labor Party but its use of organizational muscle alienated labor unions and SP’ers who walked out.
The energy behind Fitzgerald’s initial proposal eventually fed into the La Follette campaign. It is clear that Eric agrees with much of the left that it was not worth supporting, even if it initially received the blessing of the Comintern and the CP itself. Eric writes:
In reaction to the adventures of Pepper, and under pressure from the new Comintern leadership headed by Grigory Zinoviev, the Communists dropped their labor party orientation and gave their support to La Follette. Cannon recalled: “The cold fact is that the party … became, for period in 1924, the advocate of a ´third party´ of capitalism, and offered to support, under certain conditions, the presidential candidacy of the petty-bourgeois candidate La Follette .… The bewildered party disgraced itself in this affair.”
Trotsky sharply criticized the U.S. party and the Comintern leadership, arguing that they were bending to La Follette and cross-class politics: “For a young and weak Communist Party, lacking in revolutionary temper, to play the role of solicitor and gatherer of ‘progressive voters’ for the Republican Senator Lafollette is to head toward the political dissolution of the party in the petty-bourgeoisie.… The inspirers of this monstrous opportunism … are thoroughly imbued with skepticism concerning the American proletariat.”
Pepper was the leader of the Workers Party while Cannon was a leader of the rival Communist faction that agreed with Lenin that Fitzgerald’s Labor Party was worth supporting. However, he would not go along with supporting Senator La Follette, who was a long-time member of the Republican Party and even more objectionable than Henry Wallace, who was at least a liberal Democrat.
Eric Blanc has been strongly influenced against the La Follette campaign by a member of the Socialist Organizer group named Stan Phipps who wrote an article titled “The Labor Party Question in the U.S., 1828-1930: An Historical Perspective.” (www.socialistorganizer.org/labor-party-history-chapter-7/). It is basically a reaffirmation of Cannon’s critique. But Phipps goes the extra mile and dismisses Frank Fitzgerald’s efforts as well, basically dusting off the Worker Party’s sterile ultraleftism:
As a result of the cross-class make up of the invited delegates, the “call” for the Conference explicitly stated that the CPPA was not an attempt to form a new political party. Rather, the stated purpose was to bring together the “progressive elements in the industrial and political life of our nation” in order “to discuss and adopt a fundamental economic platform” (MacKay: 61). The CPPA’s so-called “Address to the American People” adopted at the end of the session, therefore, consisted of little more than a series of vague generalizations and platitudes. In addition to a rather routine indictment of “the invisible government of plutocracy and privilege,” the “Address” rather mildly stated the criticisms of existing conditions and proposed a “plan of action” that allowed each organization to do precisely what it would have done had the conference not met.
A word or two about Socialist Organizer might help put this into perspective. It is the American satellite of a self-styled Fourth International that was founded by the late Pierre Lambert. It can be described as ortho-Trotskyist and a group much given to labeling parties and movements as “petty bourgeois” if you gather my drift.
In an effort to understand what the La Follette campaign amounted to, I read James P. Cannon but also some scholarly material that focused more on the history than on well-worn Marxist categories. I found David Thelen’s “Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit” most useful. Here is something I wrote in 2000 based on my reading of Thelen. I hope you find it useful:
At first the Communists looked favorably on the La Follette initiative, couching it in sectarian phraseology: “The creation of a Third Party is a revolutionary fact,” John Pepper explained, “but it is a counter-revolutionary act to help such a Third Party to swallow a class Farmer-Labor party.” Translated from jargon into English, this was Pepper’s way of saying that the Communists favored La Follette’s bid but only as a means to an end: their own victory at the head of the legions of the working class. La Follette was seen as a Kerensky-like figure, who would be supported against a Czarist two-party system in an interim step toward American Bolshevik victory.
Despite the 1921 “united front” turn of the Comintern, a decision was made to instruct the Americans to break completely with La Follette. Not even critical support of the kind that Pepper put forward was allowed. It proposed that the CP run its own candidates or those of the rump Farmer-Labor party it now owned and controlled, lock, stock and barrel. Eight days after the CP opened up its guns on La Follette, he responded in kind and denounced Communism as “the mortal enemies of the progressive movement and democratic ideals.”
Looking back in retrospect, there is powerful evidence suggesting that the La Follette campaign had more in common with the working-class based Farmer-Labor Party that John Fitzpatrick had initiated than the kind of middle-class third party campaign a Republic Senator would be expected to mount.
La Follette first began to explore the possibility of running as an independent during the 1920 campaign, when a platform he submitted to Wisconsin delegates was reviled as “Bolshevik.” It included repeal of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, restoration of civil liberties, and abolition of the draft. On economic policy, it promised nationalization of the railroads, a key populist demand, and of natural resources and agricultural processing facilities. It also urged government sponsorship of farmer and worker organizations to achieve “collective bargaining” to control the products of their work. (They don’t make Republicans the way they used to.)
In 1921 radical farmer and labor organizations launched a common lobbying front in the People’s Legislative Service (PLS) and La Follette became its most prominent leader. The PLS received most of its funds from the railway unions. La Follette was convinced that taxation was the best way to remedy social inequality and his PLS speeches hammered away at this theme, in somewhat of the same manner that Nader’s stump speeches focus single-mindedly on corporate greed.
La Follette threw his hat in the ring in 1924 and attracted support from the same constellation of forces that had rallied to the railway union initiated CPPA (Conference for Progressive Political Action). They strongly identified with the British Labor Party and hoped that the La Follette campaign could lead in the same direction. At the July 4, 1924 CPPA convention, the labor and farmers organizations were joined by significant representation from the rising civil rights movement, especially the NAACP.
Soon afterwards, the Socialists formally endorsed the La Follette bid at their own convention on July 7. Intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Theodore Dreiser, Franz Boas, Thorstein Veblen, Margaret Sanger all endorsed La Follette. Unions supplied most of the organizational muscle for the campaign. Besides the rail unions, various Central Trades Councils threw themselves into the work. Charles Kutz, a machinists union official, became director of the La Follette campaign in Pennsylvania. NAACP support for La Follette was based on his opposition to “discrimination between races” and disavowal of the Ku Klux Klan that had been making inroads in the Democratic Party recently. His stance prompted the Grand Wizard of the KKK to declare La Follette as “the arch enemy of the nation.”
La Follette won 16.5 percent of the vote in 1924, as compared to 28.8 for the Democrat candidate John W. Davis and 54 percent for Coolidge. La Follette was old and sickly by the time the campaign began and its rigors took its toll. He died of a heart attack on June 18, 1925, four days after his seventieth birthday.
The La Follette campaign was the last significant third party effort in the United States until the 1948 Henry Wallace Progressive Party campaign. It is difficult to say whether it would have evolved into a fighting labor party, especially in light of the sectarian hostility of the CP. When Eugene V. Debs came out in support of La Follette, William Z. Foster blasted him for his “complete capitulation”. Debs fired back that he made his political decisions without having to rely on a “Vatican in Moscow.” The stung Foster replied, “We make no apology for accepting the guidance of the Third International. On the contrary, we glory in it.”
Perhaps a glimmer of reality would eventually creep into the Comintern’s thinking. The significant labor and black support for La Follette could not be ignored. In 1925, after taking a second look at the La Follette campaign, it decided that the 16.5 percent vote was “an important victory” for the American left, an implied rebuke to earlier sectarian attitudes.