Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 30, 2016

Socialists and the electoral arena: in response to Sophia Burns

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,two-party system — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm

halstead boutelle

The first two paragraphs of Sophia Burns’s article struck a chord with me, especially the reference to mass demonstrations as a way of raising political consciousness and as an alternative to the dreary election cycles we endure every four years when the bourgeoisie gets to pick its next White House puppet. We may have the right to vote but not the right to decide policy. We pull the lever and they pull the strings. I learned that in 1965 with my first and last vote for a Democrat who had assured voters that “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

Within two years I had joined the Socialist Workers Party and threw myself into building mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, a major focus of the group. What I did not expect was the near collapse of the movement in 1968 when the other groups and individuals associated with the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam essentially pulled out of street actions and put all their energy into electing Eugene McCarthy or Robert F. Kennedy. I became convinced that the antiwar movement was dead and doubted party leaders who said that activities would pick up after the elections when the war was certain to continue. As it turned out, they were right—one of the last times in fact. After the antiwar movement did come to an end because of the final victory of the Vietnamese themselves, the party went into a crisis of perspectives that finally led to its virtual extinction.

As it happens, the SWP ran its own campaign in 1968, with Fred Halstead and Paul Boutelle as presidential and vice presidential candidates. Like many other people who were expelled or resigned out of disagreements with the party’s misconceived “turn to industry”, Boutelle continued to be politically active as Kwame Somburu who received a dedication by Colin Jenkins in a July 13, 2016 North Star article as a scientific socialist, William F. Buckley-slayer, thorn in the side of “mental midgets,” lifelong advocate of “herstory,” mentor, and friend.

The Buckley reference was to an appearance that Halstead and Boutelle made on Firing Line that year in which they mopped the floor with the conservative bully. This appearance and every other one made by the two had narrowly defined purposes: to recruit members and to defend socialism to an audience that was usually beyond our reach. The electoral strategy was the same as every other “Leninist” group, including the Communist Party before it effectively became a wing of the Democratic Party during the New Deal.

read full article on North Star


  1. Thank you Louis!

    For too long the *western* left has posed a couple of false dichotomies: revolution v. reform; parliamentarianism v. the street.

    As a result, the left has split between two factions: one for the street and revolution, and the other for elections and reforms. Neither approach has got us any closer to a fundamental transformation of how human societies should be organized on a more equitable basis. As a species, we are getting increasingly more barbaric towards our own kind, and exponentially more destructive of our physical/environmental conditions of living. Anybody who believes in science and rational thinking can conclude that the left’s split over this matter of “revolution or reform; parliament or the street” has failed and it’s time to reconsider our fundamental premises. It’s time to think, ‘reform AND revolution’; ‘the parliament AND the street’.

    Analogy: For years, physicists were split on the true nature of light. They had set themselves up a false dichotomy: particle v. wave. This caused a split in the field of physics leading to two factions: those who believed light is a particle (photon) against those who believed light is a wave.

    For years, these two contending factions set up experiments to prove they were right. Those who believed light is a particle set up experiments that would register particle-type behavior. And they got positive results for the particle qualities of light. On the other side, those who believed light is a wave set up experiments that looked for wave qualities, and sure enough they would get positive results.

    In the end, it turned out that light was BOTH a wave and a particle.

    Of course physics is far less complex compared to fundamental social transformations that we as a species need to bring about, but let’s hope that the left sees the light.

    Comment by Reza — August 31, 2016 @ 1:42 am

  2. Here’s another angle:

    Why is it that the ‘revolution and the street’ faction of the U.S. left feels the necessity to intervene in the political discourse surrounding elections, which they consider to be the realm of ‘reform and parliamentarianism’, and therefore not their thing? Is it rational to intervene (which is a form of participation) in the electoral social discourse to only recommend not participating in the process?

    It’s like any of us participating in a conversation about an activity which we have no interest in. Like, any participation on my part in a conversation about the sport of golf. The only thing I could say is, “Sorry, I am not interested in the sport, so I don’t know much about it beyond the basic rules of the game.” And that’s it. I would most certainly not spend time, energy and heartbeats to seek out golf blogs or websites to troll them about how useless and destructive their sport is. That would be insane.

    For someone who is political, election cycles should be treated as if they’re ‘the best of times’. The ‘revolution and the street’ faction is by its very nature (it is a political animal after all) feels compelled to intervene in the discussion. They cannot escape the gravity for a reason. But, what they bring to the conversation is basically the equivalent of my trolling the golfers sites and blogs.

    The obvious political fact that is ignored is that, every four years it becomes OK to discuss politics at the dinner table! In offices, in households, on buses and trains and at bus stops, it is OK to talk politics with total strangers and family members alike. It is the topic that dominates the news. What political person can NOT participate in this discussion?

    Yet, the ‘revolution and the street’ left shows up every four years to tell millions of people NOT to talk political choices? Is that rational?

    Comment by Reza — September 1, 2016 @ 12:36 am

  3. The problem is that participation in the US electoral process legitimizes the predictable outcomes. So, if Ralph Nader gets 3% or Jill Stein gets 4%, it is cited as proof that there is overwhelming support for the winner and very little for 3rd and 4th party candidates. The candidates and their issues are quickly forgotten.

    Furthermore, the US is not a parliamentary system. During the time in which Lenin lived, lesser parties could get seats in European parliaments with fairly small vote totals, and draw public attention to their agenda there. They could also expose the failings of the major parties. Of course, that’s not possible here.

    Perhaps, a 3rd or 4th party effort centered around exposing the failings of they system, its illegitimacy, with a focus upon the excluded, without any sail trimming for the objectives of electoral competition, might have long term influence. But I don’t see anyone wanting to conduct that sort of campaign.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 1, 2016 @ 6:04 pm

  4. Richard, the idea is not necessarily to win. It is to create an organizational framework that can coordinate radical actions like Occupy or BLM. Right now we have nothing and the GP at least provides an opportunity unlike the Sanders campaign or anything that has come out of it including the misnamed “Our Revolution”.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 1, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

  5. I am not hostile to that, I’m not puritanical on the subject, because I respect people who sincerely try to change things in a positive way, even if I’m not enthusiastic about the method. Who knows? They might be right.

    But the challenge is to find people who understand the long term organizational objective and stick with it. People like Jackson and Sanders were unable to avoid the seductiveness of middle class acceptance as reflected by volunteer support, contributions, crowds at rallies, media attention and, ultimately, votes.

    I’m afraid that Jill Stein is vulnerable to this as well, especially when she does things like publicly support the #NoFlyNoBuy House Democratic sit-in. Haven’t followed him closely, but the libertarians may be closer to pursuing your objective with Gary Johnson. Maybe, my problem is that I mistakenly view Stein’s lack of an edge in confronting the system as an unwillingness to follow it through.

    As an aside, watched “The Assassin” over the weekend. The best film I’ve seen in the last 5 years at least. I appreciate Hou Hsaio-hsien in the same way that you do Kirarostami, and they are actually similar in their themes and narrative style. As with most of Hou’s films, there is a narrative and a social commentary, but it is embedded within his usual elliptical presentation. The protagonist, Nie Yianning, is both inside and outside the society in which she lives, much like Eastwood’s “The Man With No Name” in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, and their actions and experiences are a commentary upon that society.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 1, 2016 @ 6:52 pm

  6. Exactly. The point is not winning. It’s to see if you can persuade even a tiny minority to get their vote, and hopefully get past the 5%, so that you can get back some of the taxes you and your social base have paid, and use that federal matching fund to take another step in the right direction.

    Before going further, though, I must say the following is not directed at Richard.

    This is directed at the mentality that epitomizes the ‘revolution and the street’ faction, the mentality that does not understand (so ignores) the organic connections between movements for particular reforms and the larger revolutionary tasks of the socialists.

    The mentality of ‘all or nothing’ is specifically that of the ‘revolution and the street’ faction. But, you can’t go from not playing the piano at all to playing a complicated Chopin etude in one step. That’s just as true with playing the piano as it is with the ABC of politics.

    In a country where you don’t end up in jail, tortured and disappeared, as a socialist, if around elections times — when everybody is talking politics and thinking about political choices — if in such ripe conditions for the absorption of your ideas, you cannot convince 5% of the population to vote for the ideas and platforms you are putting forward, how realistic is it to assume that, in case of a revolution brewing without any input from you, you can just jump in and lead that revolution?

    Why would anybody listen to you at such a revolutionary period, when all people can remember of you is how you pooh-poohed all their efforts, at every step of the way leading up to the revolutionary period?

    Comment by Reza — September 1, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

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