Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 3, 2019

What can the left learn from Vito Marcantonio’s career in Congress?

Filed under: electoral strategy,Jacobin,third parties — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Last August, I wrote a piece for CounterPunch titled “Young Marxist Intellectuals and the Democratic Party” that called attention to how impressive scholarship is being used to sustain a reformist agenda:

The “democratic socialist” movement spawned by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign has led to an interesting development. Highly educated and self-described socialists in the academy have written erudite articles making the Marxist case for voting Democratic. Even if they are wrong, I am impressed with the scholarly prowess deployed on behalf of obvious casuistry.

The latest example just showed up in a December 20, 2018 Jacobin article titled “New York’s Last Socialist Congressperson” that is a eulogy to Vito Marcantonio, a Congressman from East Harlem’s district from 1935 to 1951, who author Benjamin Serby, a doctoral student at prestigious Columbia University, quite rightly compares to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Unquestionably, these politicians push the envelope of leftist politics and make the prospect of using the Democratic Party for social change plausible. As such, they extend the life of the longest-functioning capitalist party in the world and thus forestall the possibility of a radical party to the left confronting the bourgeoisie at the ballot box and in the streets.

Are Marcantonio and Ocasio-Cortez part of some conspiracy to co-opt the left? I don’t think so. Basically, they are operating in the framework of pragmatism, the guiding philosophy of American liberalism that has been around since the days of John Dewey and that was turbocharged by the Communist Party in the 1930s. If Marcantonio and his friends in the CPUSA and the labor bureaucracy were not so intent on backing FDR and strangling attempts to build a Labor Party in the cradle, who knows what might have happened?

To derail third party efforts, it is most effective to have people operating within its ranks as a Trojan Horse. Nominally, acting on behalf of a radical alternative to the Democratic Party, they conspire to prevent it. The most recent example was the Demogreen leaders of the Green Party, including Medea Benjamin, pushing for the nomination of an obscure figure named David Cobb in 2004 rather than Ralph Nader. They were traumatized by the election of George W. Bush in 2000 that many of their liberal co-thinkers blamed on Ralph Nader and wouldn’t allow that to happen again. David Cobb can be accused of many things but draining votes is not one of them.

Like most Columbia students, an institution that sets a high bar for scholarship, Serby has done quite a bit of research to prepare this article. We learn that Marcantonio was arrested in 1936 for his role in leading a demonstration of fifteen thousand unemployed workers against cuts to the Works Progress Administration. Impressive research there.

Based on Serby’s account, you can say that Marcantonio’s entire career was stellar. Obviously, if you are going to maintain the illusion that the Democratic Party can be an instrument of social change, especially when many workers were revolutionary-minded, you have to demonstrate your class struggle credibility on a consistent basis. That was not only true of Marcantonio. It was also true of the Communist Party that could be found in the forefront of civil rights struggles, organizing drives for the CIO and rally the people against fascism (except of course during  the Nonaggression Pact.)

The vanguard role of the CP was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it helped to win significant reforms, especially the right to have a trade union but on the other, it propped up a capitalist party that would use its authority on the left to launch an imperialist war, sabotage the Little Steel Strike, throw Japanese-Americans into concentration camps, and keep a lid on the civil rights movement.

Like Eric Blanc, Benjamin Serby sees electoral politics on a pragmatic/tactical basis rather than a Marxist/class basis. In December 2017, Blanc defended the “dirty break” on Jacobin, an article defending the idea that socialists can exploit the Democratic or Republican party primaries to spread revolutionary ideas and even win office.

Serby sees Marcantonio’s career as validating this theory, without mentioning Blanc’s name. It is clear that the two brilliant doctoral students have the same agenda ideologically. I don’t want to sound cynical but having a Ph.D. and being capable of talking out of both sides of your mouth is not to be minimized from a career-development standpoint. I mean, after all, who wouldn’t prefer to write for a prestigious JSTOR journal or the Nation rather than some obscure WordPress blog?

Serby writes:

Marc’s Republican affiliation cost him his congressional seat in 1936, as the Democratic Party swept national elections. It proved to be a temporary setback. Two years later, he exploited a New York election law that permitted candidates to “cross-file” on multiple ballot lines, and ran in the Republican, Democratic, and American Labor Party (ALP) primaries.

After winning the GOP and ALP races, he trounced his Democratic opponent in the general election, 18,802 to 12,375. By delivering almost nine thousand of those votes, the ALP, a labor-backed party founded by socialist New Dealers, established itself as a force capable of tipping important elections. Within two years, Marc was the leader of its Manhattan branch and its sole representative in Congress.

By 1942, Marcantonio was winning all three party primaries handily, leading critics to charge that he was “a one-man political machine with an all-party organization.” In fact, he had no “machine” that dispensed patronage or political favors. Instead, his campaign relied on the voluntary commitment of a coalition of liberals, socialists, and communists — and on the support of organized labor.

American Labor Party? What’s wrong with that? If Marcantonio ended up as its legislator in Congress, doesn’t that mean he broke from the Democratic Party? How can any party with Labor in its name and backed by “organized labor” not be the kind of thing we need today? Unless you are an unrepentant Marxist dinosaur like me.

Let’s take a closer look at the American Labor Party to understand its role in the electoral system.

The American Labor Party (ALP) was spawned by Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL) in 1936, a group that also came into existence in that year in order to ensure FDR’s re-election. It was the brainchild of John L. Lewis, the head of the CIO and the United Mine Workers union. He was assisted by Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union and  George L. Berry of the printer’s union.

Arguably, Hillman was the real political strategist for the ALP based on his years of exposure to Marxist in-fighting. He was a member of an underground Marxist study circle in Lithuania when he was 16 years old and then moved on to join the Bund, the Jewish socialist group. After moving to the USA, he became a trade union activist and like many of his generation became an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet Union in the early 20s that drew him to the CP. When Hillman decided to support Robert La Follette’s presidential campaign in1924, he earned the wrath of the CP that saw La Follette as a capitalist politician and nothing more. (I argue that his campaign was worth supporting here).

Any sympathy for the idea of a radical party was long-gone by the time that Hillman became a powerful bureaucrat in the 1930s. But doesn’t that sound antithetical to the formation of a Labor Party? Maybe not. Like Medea Benjamin, Hillman was clever enough to undermine the formation of a third party while paying lip-service to it.

In an invaluable article for the September-October 2002 International Socialist Review, Sharon Smith describes the complicated pirouette that Hillman executed, one that would have landed Nijinsky on his ass.

In 1936, support for a farmer-labor party was massive in the USA. Not only did 21 percent of those polled by Gallup back such a formation, existing farmer-labor parties were winning elections in both Wisconsin and Minnesota. Smith writes: “Inside the labor movement, this sentiment was even stronger, with locals from the auto, electrical, and garment workers’ unions voting in favor of a labor party. At both the AFL and various CIO conventions in 1935, resolutions in support of forming a labor party were put forward, which garnered considerable support.”

Worried that Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party campaign would “rob” votes from FDR in the same way that Medea Benjamin worried that Nader’s might rob them from John Kerry in 2004, Hillman went on the offensive. By putting FDR’s name on the American Labor Party, many workers might be conned into believing that they were voting in their own class interests. You get the same thing today with the Working Families Party in New York that despite its name routinely puts Democratic Party candidates on its ballot line, including our vicious anti-union governor Andrew Cuomo last year.

In the Winter 1979-1980 Radical History Review, there’s an article titled “Picket Line & Ballot Box: The Forgotten Legacy of the Labor Party Movement, 1932-1936”. Co-authored by Eric Leif Davin and Staughton Lynd, it gives you a compelling insight into the machinations that helped destroy the possibility of a labor party challenge to FDR. (Contact me for a copy since it is behind a paywall.)

Using the ground-level case study of labor party activism in Berlin, New Hampshire, the authors show how Hillman subverted its spread elsewhere. Berlin was basically a company town ruled by Brown Paper. To fight back against wage cuts and layoffs in 1932, the workers started the Coos County Workers club with 150 members. Within a year, the figure rose to 1500. As it happens, many of these workers were French Canadians originally and had the fighting spirit of the Yellow Vests.

In 1934, the Workers Club entered politics by forming a Labor Party made up of workers rather than bureaucrats. It swept into municipal office, winning office for all but one of its candidates. Among its first acts was to raise teacher’s pay by 50 percent. That’s what workers power can do. It also helped dairy farmers organize into a co-op to help them get better prices for their milk.

In trying to become part of a broader movement, they reached out to the Socialist Party. Norman Thomas came to town to speak at a rally that was the culmination of a massive parade. From the podium, Thomas said that their efforts were a “model for us all”. Instead of affiliating with the Socialists, the workers formed a state-wide farmer-labor party like the ones in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Announcing “its immediate goal” of increasing taxes on higher incomes and opposing a sales tax in New Hampshire, they began planning for the state elections in 1936. The Mayor of Berlin, Arthur Bergeron, was a forceful advocate of working class demands and a firm believer in independent political action.

The authors describe how Labor’s Non-Partisan League undermined their efforts:

In New Hampshire, a statewide convention of labor party forces was held in Concord on July 26. Among the participants was David Randlett, president of the Concord Central Labor Union and first vice president of the state AF of L. Beforehand, Randlett wrote Arthur Bergeron, “I have always been interested in a Labor Party, but I haven’t as yet seen the time when the opportunity was right.” At the convention he repeated this sentiment but agreed to serve on the Platform Committee. Then, a short time later, he resigned from the Farmer-Labor Party and went to work for the Non-Partisan League. In the course of the ensuing campaign, he spoke out strongly in opposition to the Farmer-Labor effort.

Bergeron, on the other hand, remained true to the cause, and in September was chosen by the Farmer-Labor Party to be its candidate for governor, In accepting his nomination, Bergeron declared, “The major parties are bankrupt for ideas, leaders and platforms. We shouldn’t put too much faith or hope in President Roosevelt. Due to circumstances in the country and state, the time is ripe for a third party movement.” Not that he expected instant success. “There’s no use insulting our intelligence in thinking that I’ll be the next Governor of New Hampshire,” he went on, “but we will poll more than three percent of the total vote for Governor and make ourselves a duly constituted party.” And he vowed to make “relief, relief from the high cost of living on the one hand and relief from unemployment on the other” a major issue in his campaign.

Even the modest goal of attracting three percent of the state’s electorate proved beyond reach. Norman Thomas returned to Berlin to endorse Bergeron’s candidacy, but organized labor offered no support. The annual convention of the New Hampshire AF of L in September defeated a resolution to endorse the Farmer-Labor Party on the grounds “that it was not time as yet.” National leaders of the CIO, as we have seen, gave priority to the President’s reelection, not local insurgency efforts.

In the end, Bergeron garnered less than two thousand votes statewide, approximately one percent of the ballots cast for governor. Berlin, his stronghold, gave him seven-tenths of his total. But even there, said the Reporter, “Not a single Farmer-Labor candidate survived the Democratic avalanche . . . to gain election to even a minor ward office.”

For nearly another decade the Farmer-Labor Party would dominate Berlin municipal politics. Bergeron was reelected mayor in 1937 and Aime Tondreau won as a Labor candidate for the same office from 1939 to 1943. (Legassie [a labor militant] lost in 1938.) But the hope of generating an effective statewide, much less national, movement for an independent workers’ party was crushed in Berlin, as elsewhere, by the Roosevelt landslide of 1936.

December 5, 2017

Can socialism be advanced by running in Democratic Party primaries? A reply to Eric Blanc

Filed under: third parties,workers — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

battle_strike_1934

Open battle between striking teamsters armed with pipes and the police in the streets of Minneapolis, June 1934.

Yesterday Eric Blanc stepped outside of his “April Theses was not a break from Old Bolshevism” comfort zone and wrote an article for Jacobin titled “The Ballot and the Break”. The title of the article evoked Malcolm X’s 1964 double-barrel blast at the two-party system titled “The Ballot or the Bullet” but that speech was in marked contrast to Blanc’s argument that socialists can run in Democratic Party primaries to their own advantage, something he calls a “dirty break”. By contrast, Malcolm X and many Marxist dinosaurs like me call for a “clean break” from the two-party system.

The article is a stroll through the history of the Nonpartisan League (NPL) in Minnesota that used to run candidates in both the Democratic and Republican Party primaries and eventually became the Farmer-Labor Party, which shunned such practices until it fused with the dreadful Hubert Humphrey’s Democratic Party in 1944. Blanc makes the case for such a pragmatic approach here:

The organization spread like a prairie fire, first in North Dakota, then across the Midwest, and even into Canada. Individuals joined by paying dues, which went towards financing farmer political candidates. And on an electoral level, the NPL took a novel approach: instead of building a new third party or allying with a “progressive” wing within the existing parties, the organization ran its own independent candidates within Democratic and Republican primaries. Since Republicans were dominant in Minnesota, the main battles took place within that party’s primaries, which were open to all voters.

Arguing that both parties were equally in the pay of big business, the NPL insisted on political and organizational independence from the leaderships of each. Nonpartisan League candidates pledged to uphold the group’s platform and were financially as well as organizationally dependent on the NPL during and after elections. Perhaps most importantly, when an NPL candidate lost the primary election, the organization nevertheless refused to support the party’s nominee in the general election.

Although the DSA is not mentioned once in the article, this excursion into American history from a century ago might be understood as giving its blessing to the group running candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line. Blanc’s article takes exception to both the old guard DSA’ers who identify politically with Michael Harrington and to sectarians like me who oppose voting for the Democrats on principle. I gather that he is leaning toward the sophisticated “inside-outside” orientation of the Jacobin wing of the DSA. I should add that during the euphoria of the Sanders campaign, Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara spoke much more as a Harrington disciple in making the case that the Democratic Party could be transformed into a winning party if it moved left and “embraced a platform that speaks to the real needs, fears, and aspirations of working people.” Good luck with that.

For Blanc and Sunkara, work inside the Democratic Party is a tactical question rather than one of principle. Blanc’s research into the NPL’s history is obviously designed to reinforce the notion that such a tactic can be useful since it led to the formation of the Farmer-Labor Party that “captured the highest levels of state office in the 1930s, both enabling the passage of important socioeconomic reforms and helping to consolidate a powerful independent workers’ movement”. He does confess that relations between the party and militant workers were rocky–to say the least–during the Trotskyist-led 1934 Teamster rebellion.

I should mention that this not the first time I have run into people steeped in Leninist orthodoxy who advocate such an opportunist electoral approach. Seven years ago when the Kasama Project was still around, I made the case that Lenin was opposed to voting for bourgeois candidates as a matter of principle. Mike Ely, who founded Kasama, remonstrated with me: “Actually there were situations in the Duma elections where the Bolsheviks would support Cadets against the Black Hundreds.” So if Lenin gave his benediction to this, why shouldn’t we back candidates like Jesse Jackson or Bernie Sanders? Or for that matter, run DSA’ers on the DP ticket? You can read my reply to Ely here if you are interested. It shows that I can dig as deep into the bowels of Bolshevik history as well as any other Marxo-Talmudic scholar, or even deeper.

Turning back to Blanc’s findings, there is one important thing that has to be stressed over and over. When NPL’ers ran as Republicans, this was not the party of Donald Trump–to say the least. In the days of Theodore Roosevelt, both parties had rebellious elements that had goals that sounded as if they were lifted from Green Party campaign literature. As the name implies, the Nonpartisan League sought to advance a program that spoke in the name of farmers, many of whom were Republicans angry about their plight. In many ways, they were the counterpart of Tom Watson’s Populists.

Arthur Townley, the founder of the NPL, wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to vote for one of his candidates:

Inasmuch as the lack of respect for farmer rights could be laid to neither the Republican party nor the Democratic party exclusively, we hit upon the idea of using a no-party or nonpartisan organization. It was to be an organization which both Democrats and Republicans who believed in certain principles could join without having to go all the way from one party to the other. To make the route of farmer union for political action easier we called the organization a League rather than a party.

To repeat, unlike today’s Republican Party, the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt was suffused through the ranks of the GOP so much so that the most radical presidential campaign of the 20th century outside of  Henry Wallace’s was mounted by Robert La Follette who was the Republican governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906.

La Follette was the standard-bearer of the Progressive Party in 1924. The Socialist Party formally endorsed him at their own convention on July 7. Intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Theodore Dreiser, Franz Boas, Thorstein Veblen, Margaret Sanger all endorsed him as well. 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.”

There is little question that the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota and La Follette’s campaign were giant steps forward for the left but were both eclipsed by FDR’s presidency that relied on the CP for both ideological justification and organizational muscle. No matter how many times Bernie Sanders or Bhaskar Sunkara use the word socialism, there is no doubt that their goal is to resurrect the New Deal. One only wonders what investment Eric Blanc has in all this.

Returning to the history of the NPL, it has to be emphasized that the tactic of running in bourgeois party primaries was short-lived. The NPL was formed in 1915 and was forced to abandon the tactic in 1921 when the Republican Party banned such “entryism”. That year, NPL’ers were forced to make a choice. Would they dissolve into the Republican Party or would they form a third party?

The farmer dominated NPL decided to team up with the Democrats in 1922 but the Working People’s Nonpartisan League (WPNPL) that was inspired by it but took the road of class independence. The WPNPL had been formed by Minnesota’s Socialist Party in 1919, dissolving itself afterward. With a larger working-class composition and ideology inherited from the founders, the party had much more of a class struggle orientation even if it “eschewed talk of violent revolution and dropped explicit Marxist rhetoric”, as Blanc puts it.

In 1922, the WPNPL gave birth to the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party just as the SP had given birth to it. From the start, it was very successful. It elected Governors, Senators, and House Representatives as well as many municipal officials. It is easy to understand why it would fuse with the Democratic Party in 1944 since there was very little difference between the two programmatically. The main difference was over its institutional base, which like the British Labour Party, rested in the trade unions.

For revolutionaries, the attitude toward such a party must be grounded in dialectics. It is doubtful that any Labor Party that will emerge in the USA will come perfectly formed like Athena out of Zeus’s forehead. If you keep in mind that Lenin recommended that Communists support British Labour like a rope supports a hanged man, what are the justifications for forming one in the 1920s or today for that matter?

Although the Farmer-Labor Party rested on a trade union base, the elected officials tended to be middle-class professionals backed by trade union bureaucrats who sought to rule on behalf of all classes in Minnesota rather than working stiffs.

The small-town lawyer Thomas Latimer became the Farmer-Labor mayor of Minneapolis in 1935. He was once the Socialist Party candidate for governor, an indication that it was a party that welcomed middle-class progressives. Whether Latimer was much of a progressive when he became mayor is open to question. When the workers at Flour City Iron Works went on strike, he marched with the chief of police to escort scabs into the plant. Later that day, the cops tear-gassed and shot pickets, killing two bystanders. Some years later, Latimer was invited to join the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky led by John Dewey, a mistake in my view.

He was cut from the same cloth as Floyd Olson, who Warren Creel, formerly the Secretary of the Educational Bureau of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association, described as “a capable, courageous and spectacular politician” in the Fourth International magazine in 1946 as part of an autopsy on Farmer-Labor. Olson, a lawyer who had run as a Democrat in the past, accepted the nomination of the Farmer-Labor Party in 1930 with the proviso that he be allowed to establish “Olson All-Party Committees” that would be free to include Republicans and Democrats, who naturally would be lured by the prospect of landing a state job through patronage.

Olson and his supporters vowed to run a campaign that would “slur over contradictions and differences” and “unite people of different views and tendencies, and subordinate clarification of their differences to succeed.” Hope and Change, 1930 style, in other words.

On July 17, 1934, the coal yard bosses refused to abide by the agreement they worked out with Local 574 a few weeks earlier. This meant that the strike was on again. Three days later, “Bloody Sunday” took place. Over a hundred cops fired on a mass gathering of workers that left two pickets, John Belor and Henry Ness, dead as well as wounding over 65 others, many of whom were shot in the back. The Minneapolis Labor Review reported a crowd of 100,000 people in attendance at Henry Ness’s funeral.

Olson then ordered 4,000 National Guard troops to enforce martial law in Minneapolis. He also banned picketing, which allowed scab-driven trucks that were issued military permits to begin moving again. On the night of July 31, the National Guard surrounded and then raided Teamster headquarters, arresting many strike leaders. The next day, after 40,000 strikers and their supporters marched on the stockade where they were being held, the leaders were released and union headquarters were returned to the workers. It was workers power that finally led to a victory in Minneapolis, not the “progressivism” of the state’s governor or the mayor.

Despite all this, Leon Trotsky recommended to SWP leaders that they support the Farmer-Labor Party or any other Labor Party that came into existence in a discussion that took place in 1938. Listening patiently to their criticisms of such formations, Trotsky replied:

Now we must not reckon by our prognosis of yesterday but by the situation of today. American capitalism is very strong but its contradictions are stronger than capitalism itself. The speed of decline came at American speed and this created a new situation for the new trade unions, the CIO even more than the AFL. In this situation it is worse for the CIO than the AFL because the AFL is more capable of resistance due to its aristocratic base. We must change our program because the objective situation is totally different from our former prognosis.

What does this signify? That we are sure the working class, the trade unions, will adhere to the slogan of the labor party? No, we are not sure that the workers will adhere to the slogan of the labor party. When we begin the fight we cannot be sure of being victorious. We can only say that our slogan corresponds to the objective situation and the best elements will understand and the most backward elements who don’t understand will be compromised.

In Minneapolis we cannot say to the trade unions you should adhere to the Socialist Workers Party. It would be a joke even in Minneapolis. Why? Because the decline of capitalism develops ten – a hundred times faster than the speed of our party. It is a new discrepancy. The necessity of a political party for the workers is given by the objective conditions, but our party is too small, with too little authority in order to organize the workers into its own ranks. That is why we must say to the workers, the masses, you must have a party. But we cannot say immediately to these masses, you must join our party.

It is our fate today that at the very best, we don’t even have a reformist workers party to join. One was stillborn in 1996, for reasons put forward by its leader Mark Dudzic in an interview with Derek Seidman in Jacobin from 2015 that concludes:

In many ways it would appear that this is the perfect time for a labor party movement to revive. We are years into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, working-class wages have stagnated for over a generation, inequality is at unprecedented extremes, and both major political parties are wedded to neoliberal and austerity politics. Working people are desperate for real solutions.

Yet there is not a single national union that would commit the resources and organizing focus to a labor party movement in the way that several unions did in the mid-1990s. The failure of the labor party movement is bound up with the crisis and decline of the organized labor movement. The labor party model remains the only plausible way to launch and sustain an effort for independent working-class politics. While the challenges are even greater today than they were twenty years ago, the need is also greater.

There are no shortcuts. The movement to build a labor party is inextricably linked to the project of transforming and revitalizing the entire US labor movement. It is inconceivable to envision almost any progressive initiative succeeding without the support and participation of a vigorous and engaged labor movement.

Today, such a movement’s very survival is at stake. As we work to rebuild it, we have an opportunity to correct the policies and strategies that contributed to its failure and to work to assure that a focus on independent working-class politics is part of its core identity.

I would agree with this and even more for the call for a revolutionary party that avoids the sectarian mistakes made by Leon Trotsky’s followers. The time to start work on this is yesterday.

August 22, 2017

Reply to a disgruntled 27-year old

Filed under: socialism,third parties — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

Kshama Sawant: going to Washington DC to explore possibility of a new People’s Party

Customarily when I receive a private message such as the one below, I answer it publicly without identifying the sender since it might likely be a question that other readers of this blog have been wrestling with:

Hi there,

I’m a disgruntled 27 year old who’s been reading your blog recently, because I’ve become interested in left wing analysis of, well everything. I admittedly don’t consider myself a Marxist, but I also don’t consider myself an anarchist or a liberal or a centrist or anything like that, so I don’t know where I fit. Maybe anti capitalist? But I don’t have a replacement on hand so it seems kind of a useless term. Reading through your blog, I have read you have had decades of experience with activism going back to the 1960s. So what I’m asking simply is, what is my generation, this generation, supposed to do? I understand you or anyone else probably doesn’t have an answer, or not much of one, but I’m hoping you might have some insights on how this generation can deal with the massive issues now and coming. I’m sorry if this is a stupid question, and feel free to ignore it.

J.

Hi, J

To start with, there are good reasons why identifying as an anti-capitalist rather than a socialist might make sense. In 2009, the French Trotskyist group known as the Revolutionary Communist League dissolved itself into a new group called the New Anticapitalist Party because it was trying to get away from the “Russian questions” that had gotten much of the socialist left bogged down in doctrinal hairsplitting. After all, why argue over when the USSR became a “degenerated workers state” or “state capitalist” when the real problem facing Americans was how to secure health care or affordable housing.

There are other new left formations in Europe that have taken the same tack as the NPA with even greater success, such as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. While Syriza has been disavowed by most of the left for having caved into the demands of German banks and other lending institutions, there was a need for the Greek left to come together in a broad left formation that did not impose an ideological straightjacket on its members. Whatever your take on Soviet history or its various leaders, the pressing question for Greeks was how to get from under the crushing debt cycle. That Syriza failed this test is more a judgement on its Eurocommunist leadership than on its origins as a broad-based anti-capitalist party.

There is nothing quite like this in the USA today. I held out hopes ever since Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign that the Green Party would move in this direction but am dismayed by the party’s failure to develop into a nation-wide membership party. About six months ago, I paid $25 to become a Green Party member but nothing has come out of that. I wasn’t expecting to get a phone call or anything but if there was a national office for the party, it might be consolidating members in New York so that they could come together and discuss what can be done to challenge the status quo. With a transportation crisis in New York City, a well-organized Green Party chapter consisting of hundreds of members could play an important role in mobilizing support for investment in subway infrastructure.

As you probably are aware, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have experienced explosive growth in the past year with reports that it now has a membership in excess of 25,000—many of whom are your age and probably of a similar background. I had questions on whether this was only a paper membership but their participation in the protest against the far-right “Freedom of Speech” rally in Boston suggests a departure from past norms. Currently the main problem with the DSA is its failure to break decisively with the Democratic Party. Ever since the cooptation of Tom Watson’s Populist Party, the Democrats have managed to prevent a leftist third party from emerging. In my view, the need for such a party eclipses any considerations of ideological purity. Last year I took a lot of heat from people I had been close to around Syrian solidarity issues because of my support for Jill Stein, who had ambivalent positions on Syria—and sometimes even worse. It was more important that a third party emerge rather than making international questions a litmus test. However, the main obstacle to the Green Party becoming that party is not difference over this or that question but the general inability of the top tier of leadership to understand the need to take party-building seriously. I have no idea what Jill Stein did with the millions raised to investigate voting irregularities in the presidential vote but surely some of it could have been funneled into creating a national office with a competent staff.

On the third party front, Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative has now issued a call for such a party:

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant will be in Washington, D.C., early next month to discuss the possible launch of a new party.

Its name may sound familiar to Seattle: The People’s Party.

However, while Sawant was an early supporter of the newly founded Seattle Peoples Party and its mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver, the two groups with similar names have no formal relationship with each other, though they are feeding off the same populist fervor. And just as the Seattle Peoples Party upended local political dynamics during the mayoral primary, the national party has simliar ambitions.

“I think Nikkita Oliver’s campaign is a symptom and actually an example of what’s happening politically in this country,” says Dr. Bill Kildall, Washington State coordinator. “The two party system no longer represents our working people and [her] campaign obviously was directed at gaining support from working people.”

A town hall will be hosted in Washington D.C. on Sept. 9 to discuss the formation of the new People’s Party. It will be livestreamed across the country to similar gatherings. The event in D.C. will be headlined by Sawant, Dr. Cornel West, and Nick Brana, founder of Draft Bernie for a People’s Party (that organization was what gave rise to the national party’s name).

“What we will be doing,” Kildall says, “is establishing what I would call chapters in each place where the sister townhalls are going to be held. There will be follow up meetings where we will actually form these chapters of the People’s Party and elect officers and make by-laws.”

I am not sure that Socialist Alternative has the clout to pull this off but on paper it sounds great. Perhaps if the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and the DSA put their shoulders to the wheel, it might work. Icitizen, admittedly not a neutral body, took a poll in June that had some eye-popping results. In their online survey of 1,176 adults, nearly sixty percent are likely to consider voting for a third-party candidate for president in 2020 and over half believe that if a third party gained Congressional seats, legislation would improve.

As Leon Trotsky might have put it, conditions are rotten-ripe for a new left party.

This brings us to the question of what is to be done by your generation. When I was your age, the largest groups on the left were either Trotskyist like the one I belonged to or Maoist. Both types of party were sectarian mistakes. I have written dozens of articles since 1992 or so explaining why Trotskyism had a self-imposed glass ceiling by demanding that members be committed to a program much more narrow than any mass party would consider. The same thing was true of the Maoists as Max Elbaum pointed out in his “Revolution in the Air”. That epoch has come to an end. The only people starting new “Leninist” parties today are young and inexperienced and their efforts are mostly Internet-based. After all, to start a new “Revolutionary Communist Party-Marxist Leninist” in the USA, a WordPress account suffices.

I have no problem recommending membership in the ISO or Socialist Alternative even though they claim to be “Leninist”. They are so far from the rigid and cultish norms of the Trotskyist and Maoist groups of the 1960s and 70s that you certainly won’t come out of as damaged goods like me when I left the SWP in 1978. As long as you are not afraid to speak your mind, these groups could provide a useful education and the avenues to productive work in the mass movement.

If it weren’t for its temporizing with the Democratic Party, the DSA would be hands down winners. I have a feeling that their potential for growth is practically unlimited since it allows total political and intellectual freedom for its membership, which as it happens was the same kind of freedom that existed in Rosa Luxemburg’s party in Germany or Lenin’s in Russia.

If you are reluctant to join any party at this point, I’d recommend looking into a Jacobin reading group. Many of the people who get together to discuss radical literature have the same kind of background as you and can be a useful resource in hooking you up with activism in the city where you live.

Finally, I’d stay away from the two big temptations today, Democratic Party politics and black bloc/antifa adventurism. In a PJ Wodehouse short story, the manservant Jeeves told his master Bertie Wooster: “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.” I feel the same way about the Democrats and ultraleftism.

July 29, 2016

The demonization of Jill Stein

Filed under: Green Party,third parties,two-party system — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

After it became clear that the Sanders Political Revolution was history, the pro-Clinton propagandists redirected their fire at Jill Stein. The contrast between Sanders and Stein could hardly be greater but that made little difference to those who not only favored the two-party system but the hegemonic role of ruling class politicians like the Bushes, the Clintons and Barack Obama within it. Even though Sanders never had any intention of making a breach with corporatist Democrats, he was considered a trouble-maker for pointing out the obvious, namely that the system was rigged in favor of Wall Street.

As a standard-bearer of the anti-Sanders propaganda offensive, it was to be expected that the Washington Post would turn its attention to Stein once the relatively toothless Senator from Vermont was out of the way. On July 26th an article titled “As Green Party’s Stein woos Sanders backers, some see unhappy flashbacks to 2000” appeared. Like the last time a relatively successful Green Party campaign for President made an impact on American society, the Democrats worry that Stein might steal votes from Clinton just like Nader supposedly stole votes from Gore:

“I’m sure she’s a great person, but I can’t see how the effort can lead to anything but helping Trump,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), who had been one of Sanders’s most high-profile supporters but is now urging the party to unify behind Clinton. “Trump is such a clear and present danger to the republic that we’ve got to get behind the candidate who gives us the best chance of defeating Trump.”

To make sure that people got the message, an op-ed piece titled “A vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Donald Trump, and that’s the point” appeared the very next day making the same point. Tom Toles, the Post’s cartoonist, warns: “This is one where there doesn’t need to be any confusion. Voting for Jill Stein (in a competitive state) is voting for Donald Trump to be president. There isn’t any room to quarrel on this.” The repetition of basically the same article in the Post and others referenced below remind me of Adolf Hitler’s observation: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”

The same basic article appeared on the Huffington Post: “Think Really, Really Hard Before Voting For A Third Party Candidate. Really Not content with just one such article, Huffington ran another a day later: “The Progressive Case Against The Green Party’s Jill Stein”.

At one point Salon.com was relatively fair-minded about Stein’s campaign in keeping with its liberal pretensions but since the demise of Sanders’s Political Revolution, the gloves have come off. Amanda Marcotte, a typical “progressive” hack of the sort that Salon hires, crapped on both the disaffected Sanderistas and Jill Stein in an article titled “Hanging with “The Bernouts” and Jill Stein: The Bernie-or-bust crowd is loud at the DNC — but they’re powerless”:

Like the Cleveland rally, this one was composed mostly of white men who really, really hate Hillary Clinton and aren’t afraid to make wild accusations about the first woman to be a major party nominee for president. Or to carry signs that they probably did not realize communicate subconscious phallic fears of Clinton’s ascension to power.

“White men” and “phallic fears”? Very transparent use of racial and sexual demagogy, isn’t it.  Maybe the problem is that people don’t want to vote for a candidate who represents everything the left hates.

A day later Salon reporter Sean Illing conducted a hostile interview with Stein that included questions in the “When did you stop beating your wife” vein:

In 2000, people implored Ralph Nader to run only in “safe states.” (non-swing states). He refused to do so and we know what happened. The idea was to allow progressives to vote their conscience in greater numbers and send a message to the Democratic Party without empowering the GOP. Voters know the Green Party or the Libertarian Party candidates aren’t going to win. These are protest votes, and more people would cast them if they were confident they weren’t doing Donald Trump or George W. Bush a solid. This matters a great deal to people who detest the two-party system but care deeply about core liberal principles or the balance of the Supreme Court. Why won’t you do what many now wish Nader did?

Slate Magazine, which is much more in tune with Hillary Clinton’s political agenda than Salon, chimed in with “Jill Stein’s Ideas Are Terrible. She Is Not the Savior the Left Is Looking For”. The author is Jordan Weissman who also complained about Sanders’s attack on free trade. Since he believes that “The fact is, most of the world has seen its standard of living improve quite a bit in the era of free trade,” naturally he would have no use for Jill Stein.

One of the more vitriolic attacks on Jill Stein came from a character named Dan Savage who writes for an alternative newspaper in Seattle called The Stranger and produces radio show podcasts at http://www.savagelovecast.com/. In May, after someone called in to express support for Jill Stein, Savage went postal:

Disaster will come. And the people who’ll suffer are not going to be the pasty white Green Party supporters — pasty white Jill Stein and her pasty white supporters. The people who’ll suffer are going to be people of color. People of minority faiths. Queer people. Women.

Don’t do it. Don’t throw your vote away on Jill Stein/vote for, bankshot-style, Donald Trump.

Since Savage is gay, the demagogy about “pasty white” Jill Stein and suffering gay people was to be expected. It is also worth mentioning that he was a big-time backer of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, saying “Because we’re not just at war with al Qaeda, stupid. We’re at war with a large and growing Islamo-fascist movement that draws its troops and funds from all over the Islamic world. Islamo-fascism is a regional problem, not just an al Qaeda problem or an Afghanistan problem.” So naturally he might be motivated to support Hillary Clinton who voted for the war like him and also like him ultimately admitted that it was a “mistake” to back the war in 2002. You can bet your last dollar that if the war in Iraq had gone smoothly, neither Savage or Clinton would have decided it was a mistake.

This brings me to the matter of Jill Stein’s problematic position on Syria that shares most of the left’s tendency to see it terms of a potential repeat of 2002 as if the USA ever had any intention of “regime change”. In 2013, a year after her last campaign for president, Stein assembled a Shadow Cabinet that included David Swanson as “Secretary of Peace”. In brief, Swanson’s views on Syria are identical to those of most on the left. He has written nothing about the uprising and focuses exclusively on alleged American plans to remove Bashar al-Assad going back to 2006.

He has written: “In 2012, Russia proposed a peace-process that would have included President Bashar al-Assad stepping down, but the U.S. brushed the idea aside without any serious consideration, suffering under the delusion that Assad would be violently overthrown very soon, and preferring a violent solution as more likely to remove the Russian influence and military — and perhaps also due to the general U.S. preference for violence driven by its weapons industry corruption.” In fact no such proposal was ever made as I pointed out in a September 2015 article.

Furthermore, her statements on Syria have not been so much in the Swanson apologetics mode but more in the vein of wishful thinking:

The US and Russia should support diplomacy leading toward a peace settlement in Syria. A peace settlement should include provisions for civil society in Syria that has been working for democracy. The US and Russia should work cooperatively to help resettle refugees feeling the war and the drought.

There is about as much chance of this happening as Hillary Clinton breaking up Wall Street banks.

While I consider Syria to be a kind of litmus test for the left, I tend to apply it a little less forcibly when it comes to someone whose speeches are almost totally about Wall Street criminality, fracking, immigrant rights, single-payer health insurance, and police killings.

Unlike Swanson, I doubt that Stein has ever paid much attention to Syria, something backed up by a search of Nexis. From 01/01/2012 to 07/29/2016 there were 132 articles that turned up in a search on “Jill Stein” and “Green Party” but when you add Syria to the search, nothing comes up.

In fact, the candidacy of Jill Stein and Ralph Nader’s should be understood less as a smorgasbord  of positions than about the possibility of opening up a space on the left that can facilitate coordination and common struggle around burning questions facing American working people. When I attended a sold-out Madison Square Garden rally for Ralph Nader in 2000, I was less interested in what he had to say than I was at the sight of nearly 18,000 warm body in the seats. I said to myself that if only ten percent of these people could become serious activists in a nationally coordinated organization that could fight for clean air and water, jobs for all, civil rights, etc., Nader’s bid would be worth it even if much of what he said was beside the point. If I remember correctly, he went on for ten minutes about how bad Coca-Cola was for youngsters. While I don’t think that he was wrong to attack a drink that apocryphally has been used to clean car batteries, it might have been a better use of those ten minutes to explain why Al Gore was a fake on the question of climate change. I doubt that Nader had any ability to expound upon Marxist economics given his preference for Jeffersonian small businesses, but it would have also been great to hear something about the capitalist system’s contradictions.

After Nader was blamed for Gore losing the election, the Green Party became demonized by the same sorts of people who are demonizing Jill Stein today. In 2004 the pressure exerted by people like Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin resulted in the nomination of David Cobb, an obscure figure who the “Demogreens” felt would pose no threat to John Kerry. It turns out it was Kerry’s terrible campaign, just like Gore’s in 2000, that led to his defeat.

Jill Stein has the courage of her convictions. In an interview with Paste Magazine, she was emphatic: “The lesser evil thing is false. It’s not going to fix this problem. We’ve been using that strategy since Bush-Nader-Gore and where has it gotten us? The politics of fear has delivered everything we were afraid of. All the reasons you were told you had to vote for the lesser evil is exactly what we’ve gotten: expanding wars, the meltdown of our climate, the prison-industrial complex, more student debt, police violence, the off-shoring of our jobs, Wall Street.”

It is her stiff-necked determination to push forward that will help to build the Green Party. There is an enormous potential for the growth of the left that hasn’t been seen since I was in my 20s. On February 5, 2016 the Washington Post reported that in a poll on socialism versus capitalism, respondents younger than 30 rated socialism more favorably than capitalism (43 percent vs. 32 percent, respectively). Now, of course, these are likely people who understand socialism in terms of Sweden rather than Cuba but if you have the ear of someone who simply has little use for capitalism, you at least are dealing with someone who can be reached politically.

Furthermore, a WSJ/NBC poll revealed that there was a big opening for Third-Party candidates due to the unpopularity of Clinton and Trump. Reporting on the poll, the Washington Post noted:

Those whose views on the race haven’t hardened seem open to choosing Mr. Johnson or Ms. Stein. These “persuadable” voters comprised nearly three in 10 of those surveyed.

Of them, 28% leaned toward Mr. Trump and 25% toward Mrs. Clinton. Some 21% favored Mr. Johnson and 12% went for Ms. Stein.

To me those are jaw-dropping figures. Imagine that, Stein’s favorability was only half that of Hillary Clinton even though the media has been hostile to the Greens as indicated at the start of this article. Actually, that’s probably one of the reasons people are leaning in her direction.

February 10, 2016

Tensions between Upton Sinclair and the Socialist Party

Filed under: electoral strategy,third parties,two-party system — louisproyect @ 12:05 am

Norman Thomas

This is from Greg Mitchell’s “Change of the Century”. It will remind you of debates now taking place about the Sanders’s campaign today. It is clear that Mitchell’s sympathies are with Sinclair. I should add that the SP grew rapidly in the 1930s, largely because Thomas was very involved with labor struggles such as in Flint, Michigan and because many workers were turned off to the CPUSA. I am not sure if the EPIC campaign helped to torpedo the SP but I am damned sure that James P. Cannon’s entryist tactic surely did.

* * * * *

Norman Thomas, arriving in Milwaukee for a meeting of the Socialist party’s executive committee, knew that disaster for his party in California could no longer be averted. Upton Sinclair, the party’s most famous deserter, had rolled up an astounding vote, and he had done it with the aid of vital California Socialists like J. Stitt Wilson (the mayor of Berkeley), young schoolmaster Jerry Voorhis, and ACLU activist John Packard. Membership in the California party, which tripled between 1931 and 1933, had been reduced by half since that fateful day last September when Upton Sinclair changed his party registration from Socialist to Democrat. Thomas, the party’s candidate for president in 1932, tried to stop the hemorrhaging, denouncing Sinclair’s switch in no uncertain terms, but with absolutely no success. Had Sinclair lost on August 28, Thomas might have been exonerated: See, he would have said, a Socialist can sell out and still not win a major-party nomination. Instead, it was his dear friend and colleague Upton Sinclair who earned vindication.

Like nearly everyone on the Left, Norman Thomas considered Sinclair an early influence, and he loved Uppie as a friend. The feeling was mutual. Practically from the moment he declared his candidacy, Sinclair cultivated Thomas’s support. Yet Thomas let him down. His opposition was based purely on means, not ends. Thomas remained convinced that Sinclair was “still a Socialist at heart and in intention” but was doomed to failure. A separate EPIC economic system within capitalist California could not work; even if California went entirely socialist, “in blissful disregard of other states,” it would fall apart. The reason? The economy of the country was too intradependent. Socialism had to reign everywhere or nowhere. Despite these reservations, Thomas informed Sinclair, he would have welcomed the EPIC experiment “if you still held aloft the banner of Socialism.” Instead, he wrote, Upton had chosen to wound the Socialist cause:

Words are symbols. You alone, or you with the help of a certain number of California voters, cannot make the word Democratic a symbol for Socialism. That word with its capital D is a symbol for the party which bitterly discriminates not only against Negroes but white workers in the South, for the party of Tammany Hall in New York, and Hague in New Jersey. There are not words enough in the dictionary for you to explain to the great masses of common folk who have looked to your books for leadership the different sense in which you are Democrat. Still less will you be able to explain your defection to the multitudes in Europe who have hailed you as prophet and spokesman of their hopes.

In a letter to a comrade, Thomas insisted that it was “infantile” for Sinclair to feel he could “conquer poverty in two years. . . . You can’t beat capitalism by colonizing the unemployed.” When other candidates in California publicized these views, Sinclair protested that it was Thomas who was setting back socialism. This thought weighed heavily on Norman Thomas. He assured Sinclair that he felt “nothing but goodwill and friendship” for him. He even wrote, quite movingly: “Above all, let me tell you how very keenly I feel your loss.”

Nothing much had changed since then—except that Sinclair had swept the Democratic primary, and hundreds more Socialists had left the party to join EPIC. Thomas had been hearing it loudly and often all week. Letters arrived from across the country. Now what do you think? a party member from Ardsley, New York, wondered. A man in Salt Lake City pointed out that Sinclair had proved that a socialist can win as a Democrat. A woman in Los Angeles begged Thomas not to say another bad thing about Upton. “He is our emancipator,” she wrote. Others pointed out that Sinclair, running for governor of California on the Socialist party line in 1926 and 1930, had amassed only around fifty thousand votes each time.

Thomas, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in New York this fall, admitted that there was something appealing about Sinclair’s triumph. “There are good and bad elements in his victory,” he told reporters upon arriving in Milwaukee today. “He is not a socialist and is not supported by the Socialist party. But it is encouraging that a state cursed by reaction and industrial feudalism should nominate for governor a man like Sinclair.”

Still, Thomas wouldn’t, or couldn’t, admit that the Socialist party’s opposition to EPIC was wrong or should be modified. Jerry Voorhis, now an EPIC candidate for the California state assembly, had petitioned for a change of heart months ago. “My conviction is that the Socialist Party as such will never gain power in America,” Voorhis told Thomas. “I feel that we are in a great crisis right now and that only the most bold and unfettered action can possibly save us. We never know when we may be passing up the great opportunity. And the Sinclair movement is the nearest thing to a mass movement toward socialism that I have heard in America.”

Most of the SP members sympathetic to Sinclair had already left the party. Those who remained were staunch in their opposition, and they controlled the party mechanism. The SP’s state leadership had issued its strongest attack on EPIC yet, asserting that Adolf Hitler “promises to achieve by dictatorship what Mr. Sinclair promises to achieve peacefully.”

Still, Thomas was unsure of what to do next. But as the executive committee convened in Milwaukee, it was apparent that self-discipline would prevail. Party leaders declared that Sinclair was not a Socialist and that he had neither the open nor the tacit support of the party. The SP would stand by its nominee in California, Milen Dempster, a Unitarian minister.

Out in Stockton, California, Milen Dempster wasn’t so all wanted all this support. Just last year, Sinclair had let Dempster, visiting Pasadena on Socialist business, sleep in his bed while Upton and his wife were out of town. Now Dempster was thinking of writing Norman Thomas, a man he idolized, asking for permission to quit the race and throw his support to Upton Sinclair.

 

June 6, 2015

For an independent left party: videos from Left Forum 2015

Filed under: Left Forum,third parties — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

The two videos below were made at last weekend’s Left Forum in New York and both reflect the mission of the North Star website, namely to help create a radical party in the United States along the lines of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, among others.

The first that was held on Saturday was organized by the Green Party and chaired by Howie Hawkins. It was very much in the spirit of the Chicago Left Elect conference held early in May since it featured speakers from the ISO, Socialist Alternative and the Greens. The Socialist Alternative speaker was notable by drawing a sharp distinction with Bernie Sanders even as the group is exploring ways to exploit the eventual disappointment that his leftist supporters will experience when he is defeated in the primary.

On Sunday the North Star had a workshop that was chaired by a member of the Philly Socialists and that featured a talk by another member. This group is among those that are playing an important role in the class struggle using strategy and tactics flowing from local conditions rather than ideologically superimposed according to some antiquated schema. Jim Brash and Louis Proyect of the North Star editorial team also spoke.

Notable for this workshop was the extremely thoughtful contributions during the Q&A, including from audience members who departed from the usual sectarian recipes and tried earnestly to engage with the topic. The consensus was that this was a very productive experience for all involved.

June 1, 2015

Contribute to Kshama Sawant reelection campaign

Filed under: third parties — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Screen shot 2015-06-01 at 2.03.16 PM

Last night I attended a fundraising rally for Kshama Sawant at All Souls Unitarian Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that was probably a bit smaller than expected because of warnings about flash flooding that got sent out to cell phones in an unprecedented manner. Just before I left for the 6pm event, my wife was shocked to see the message on her cell phone warning her not to go outside. We have never seen anything like that before. While I am not into conspiracy theories, I could not help but wonder if Governor Cuomo was behind this.

I only mention Cuomo because Howie Hawkins, who was one of the featured speakers, ran against Cuomo in the last election and got enough votes to move the Greens to fourth position on the ballot from sixth. Like Sawant, Hawkins knows what it is like to be screwed over by the Democrats or in his case, an “independent” party like the Working Families Party that sent organizers up to Syracuse to get people to vote for them, ie. for the Democrats, rather than the Greens. As one WFP organizer told him, we’d rather see a Tea Party Republican get elected than you. Hawkins was there to solidarize himself with Sawant who is facing a well-funded challenge by the Democrats to remove her from Seattle’s City Council. I recommend Ben Norton’s analysis of why the president of Seattle’s Urban League chapter is running against Sawant:

The Urban League, a purportedly nonpartisan civil rights organization that today serves primarily as an extension of the Democratic Party, is wasting its working-class members’ hard-earned money in order to go after the only leftist and only woman of color on the Seattle City Council. It is literally expending its energy in an attempt to defeat leftism, instead of investing its resources on taking on the white supremacist proto-fascist wolves in neocon sheep clothing who increasingly dominate US politics.

Pamela Banks, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, announced in March 2015 that she will strive to unseat City Council member Kshama Sawant, the only socialist City Council member in the US, and the only women of color on the Seattle City Council.

As Hawkins pointed out, the effect of having Sawant unseated is to drive home the message that there is no alternative to the Democrats. The Democrats in Seattle have stabbed the Greens in the back as well. A Democrat funded by Bill Gates replaced a Green Party member of the School Board who was a strong supporter of the teachers union. Once in office, the Dem backed Charter School funding and all the rest.

Chris Hedges spoke as well. I get a kick out of hearing him since I remember him well from his days at the NY Times when he tried to straddle the fence between accurate reporting about Central America and his editor’s marching orders to reflect State Department policy. Once he got out of the journalism racket, he has become about as radical as you can get. Just check out his latest piece on Truthdig: “Karl Marx was Right” (http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/karl_marx_was_right_20150531).

Speaking of Marx, Hedges’s transformation from Pulitzer Prize winning star reporter into Jeremiad-spouting hater of the capitalist system reminds me of these lines from the Communist Manifesto:

Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.

Sawant gave a speech that described in some detail the usefulness of having a socialist in government. She talked about how she was using her office to rally people against Seattle’s onerous rental costs, something that is making it difficult if not impossible to live in the city—including for the middle-class. She is now campaigning for rent control, hoping to get legislation passed that would do for renters what the $15 per hour did for low-paid workers. In her talk she mentioned a town hall meeting on rent control that she had called. Here’s local coverage on the town meeting: http://www.kirotv.com/news/news/resisting-rising-rents-seattles-movement-demanding/nk22t/

I contributed $50 to Sawant’s reelection campaign and urge you to contribute as well: https://votesawant.nationbuilder.com/donate

May 20, 2015

Call for Papers: Toward a Mass Party, Bernie Sanders

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,third parties — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

sanders

How will we achieve a mass socialist party, or mass left party, in the USA?  If we have a special opportunity to do so in this specific era, how will we manifest those possibilities?

Electoralism is a particular theme here at North Star.  However, we are happy to entertain alternative routes to a mass party, especially in response to this call.  But instead of just rejecting or critiquing the electoral path, we would prefer pieces that outline your path, your model, articulated in detail!

This is also an opportunity to discuss the 2016 elections broadly — how should we interact with the recent Electoral Action Conference’s network?  Could we get some report-backs on that?  Should we contend the 2016 elections?  Local, Congressional, Presidential, both/any?  Jill Stein?  Vermin Supreme?  What kind of politics?  Let it rip.

And that guy Bernie Sanders.  He talks about class war, he’s running for President.  He has a huge following, he openly identifies as socialist, he is all but a veritable Ron Paul of socialism, and then he has to kick us in the groin by running as a Democrat.  Not that this is a surprise, but as the meme goes, It’s Happening.

Support/oppose?  Join the campaign?  Condemn it?  Engage the conversation without giving support?  Why/why not?

Send submissions to: submissions.northstar@gmail.com

May 8, 2015

A report on The Future of Left/Independent Electoral Action in the United States conference

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,third parties — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm

Gayle

Two time Mayor of Richmond and member of he North Star Network in the early 80s

For those of us involved with the North Star project, last weekend’s conference on “The Future of Left/Independent Electoral Action in the United States” could only be seen as an important step forward for left unity. With 200 people in attendance, it was a harbinger of future developments moving us closer to the birth of a new anti-capitalist party that can finally express the yearnings of protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the fight for a $15 minimum wage for social change.

Half of the editorial board of North Star was in attendance at the conference, including me (I was not able to attend the Sunday sessions unfortunately). In addition Mark Lause gave a tremendous talk comparing the Progressive Party of Robert La Follette to Debs’s Socialist Party and Matt Hoke handled the online streaming of the event.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=12264

March 5, 2015

Comments on the Alex Callinicos-Stathis Kouvelakis debate

Filed under: Greece,third parties — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

Probably the most notable aspect of this debate was the fact that it happened at all. This is obviously a sign that the left has accepted the SWP back into proper society even though its leaders have never retreated, not even one inch, on the question of their handling of an accusation of rape by one of its young female members against a central and older male leader. One supposes that stonewalling is a much more effective tactic in tightly knit Leninist groups than it is in large-scale bourgeois parties.

It should be added that Alex Callinicos viewed the wide scale opposition to the SWP leadership over this matter as not really being about the rape but opposition to Leninism from dissidents who favored a Syriza type party. So in a real sense, things have come full circle. With the Syriza leadership forming an electoral pact with ANEL, someone like Callinicos must feel vindicated. What is the rape of one woman compared to the rape of a nation? Of course he would not be so crass as to actually say something like this but you can bet that he thinks it.

Callinicos was the first to speak. He identified three different lines in the current political arena of the Greek left. The first was supposedly the bastard offspring of Gramsci and Poulantzas, a strategy that combined parliamentary intervention with social struggles—obviously one that was embraced by Syriza’s leftwing.

For those of you unfamiliar with Nicos Poulantzas, suffice it to say that he was very much identified with left Eurocommunism. Syriza emerged from a split in the Communist Party of Greece that was taking place everywhere under the impact of Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika. In the USA, such a split resulted in the formation of the Committees of Correspondence, a group led by one-time SDS notable Carl Davidson that orients to the Democratic Party. In contrast to the CofC, Syriza opposed PASOK, the Greek version of the Democratic Party.

The next would be that of Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis who confessed to wanting to save capitalism from itself in a Guardian article titled “How I became an erratic Marxist”. (http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/feb/18/yanis-varoufakis-how-i-became-an-erratic-marxist). The Finance Minister would not even pass muster as a Poulantzan. For Callinicos, the policies of the Syriza government amount to rank Keynesianism and as such have to be rejected by the revolutionary left as giving false hopes—even worse than the Left Platform in Syriza that at least rejects half-measures that leave Greece in the clutches of the German bankers, the ECB and the IMF.

Against the left reformism of Stathis Kouvelakis and the more mainstream reformism of Tsipras and his finance minister, there is reason to keep hope alive in Greece since there is a group that keeps the escutcheon of revolutionary socialism unsullied. I speak of course of Antarsya, a group that coalesces Callinicos’s co-thinkers in Greece with other far-left groups and individuals.

Unlike the more rabid elements of the far left like the WSWS.org or the Spartacist League that urged Greeks to vote for the KKE, Callinicos deems Syriza’s election as “inspiring”. The problem, of course, is that it is doomed to fail as a socialist electoral project because the “deep state” defies dismantling from within the state itself. In other words, the cops, the army and the intelligence agencies have to be “smashed” by the armed detachments of workers councils that arise in the course of struggle, just as occurred in Russia in 1917. The most urgent task in Greece is to create “dual power” that will eventually reach the critical mass necessary to transform Greece.

The curious thing about such formulations is that they generally fall short of positing socialism as the final goal since there is something pretty counter-intuitive about a weak and peripheral economy like Greece’s serving as a platform for the age-old communist dream. Instead Callinicos proposed measures that would defeat the austerity regime, including the nationalization of the banks, capital controls and abandoning the Euro. Since these are measures advocated by the Left Platform to one degree or another, there is some question as to why Antarsya felt it necessary to stay outside of Syriza. One must assume that its members must have decided long ago that they would prefer to work outside of an organization that the SWP regarded as hopelessly compromised whether in a Poulantzan or Keynesian version.

If nationalizing the banks, dual power, workers militias, etc. correspond to the objective class interests of the long-suffering Greek people, one wonders why they have such difficulty understanding that. In the recently held elections, Antarsya received 39,411 votes, which is 0.64 percent of the total vote. Three years ago they got 75,248, which was 1.19 percent. So as the crisis deepens in Greece and the need for revolutionary action grows, their vote fell by half.

It probably does not matter to Antarsya that they are so marginal to Greek politics. They are “making the record”, something that the far left has honed to a razor’s edge. About fifteen years ago, when I was good friends with Scott McLemee, I spent a weekend at his place in Washington, DC where we visited the Smithsonian where his wife worked. We went into the research shelves where he picked up a copy of Robert Alexander’s book on Latin American Trotskyism. He clucked his tongue and mused how tragic it was that so many groups had such short lives, implying that repression did them in. I had a somewhat different take although there was no point in taking it up with him. I viewed the evanescence of such groups as rooted in their very character. When you define yourself as critics of reformism or opportunism, there is not much possibility for growth since the masses have little use for small groups that do not produce results. As Peter Camejo once told me, the Trotskyist movement has never been charged with betrayal since no party with this brand name ever found itself in a position of actually governing, as does Syriza.

Turning from the ridiculous to the nearly sublime, Stathis Kouvelakis made points that Alex Callinicos was hardly capable of understanding since they address the key question of our age, namely how the left should organize itself. For Callinicos that question has already been answered: like the SWP.

He acknowledged that Syriza might fail but even if it did the fact that was voted into office sets a precedent for Europe, namely that the people will consciously choose radical solutions. It provides an incentive for similar parties taking shape in Europe, especially Podemos in Spain.

It was interesting to me to hear Kouvelakis make the case for Syriza’s organizational norms that he described as an advance over those that prevailed through most of the 20th century in the name of Leninism. It is the fact that Syriza has members with many different backgrounds that gives it its strength since the communication between clashing views often leads to resolution on a higher level. When you have homogenous organizations like the SWP, there is a natural tendency to follow the leaders. In my own Leninist experience in the American SWP, it was the very homogeneity that allowed the party to implode. In our case it was an insane “turn” to the working class. In the case of the British SWP, it was a refusal to confront sexual violence in its ranks that has led to its downfall.

In addition to watching the debate on Youtube above, I recommend a look at Todd Chretien’s article (http://socialistworker.org/2015/02/26/kind-of-a-different-state) in the ISO newspaper. As many of you know, the ISO was formerly a satellite of the British SWP but broke with them over Callinicos’s accusation that they had lost the revolutionary thread over the “lessons of Seattle” (shades of Robert Alexander.)

The ISO has ties to a group in Greece that works inside Syriza and that has developed very sound analyses as part of the Left Platform. Like the ISO, they are obviously thinking through the whole question of “Leninism” but are probably still committed to the idea that “democratic centralism” and all that is the way to go.

Unfortunately Chretien’s article is a collection of orthodoxies that like all orthodoxies is true for all times and all places, and as such is useless. He remonstrates with Leo Panitch over his statement that Syriza demonstrates the need for “taking power” in a “new kind of state”. Referring to everybody’s (at least in the Marxist genus and species) anti-Christ Karl Kautsky, Chretien lectures us on the need for “smashing the state”:

WHAT DOES this owe to Kautsky? In State and Revolution, Lenin reviews a controversy between Kautsky and the Dutch revolutionary Anton Pannekoek, starting with these words from Pannekoek:

The struggle of the proletariat is not merely a struggle against the bourgeoisie for state power, but a struggle against state power…The content of this [the proletarian] revolution is the destruction and dissolution of the instruments of power of the state with the aid of the instruments of power of the proletariat.

While Lenin’s article is certainly engaged with the realities faced by the Russian people in 1917, it cannot be applied to Greece in a schematic fashion especially in light of these realities:

  1. 70 percent of the Greek people favor remaining in the Eurozone. What’s more, Syriza’s popularity has increased in the past month at the very time it was supposedly “betraying” the people who voted for them. They obviously were not paying attention to articles in the ISO newspaper calling attention to Syriza’s “retreat”.
  2. The party with the largest industrial working class base is the KKE but it is incapable of serving as a incubator for the “dual power” that would lead to what Pannekoek called the “destruction” of the state.
  3. The rejection of the “classical” Leninist strategy of smashing the state rests to some extent on the peculiarities of Greek society that has a preponderance of petty-bourgeois layers that likely seek something less than socialist revolution. Stathis Kouvelakis referred to these class realities in his Nov.-Dec. 2011 NLR article titled “The Greek Cauldron” (http://newleftreview.org/II/72/stathis-kouvelakis-the-greek-cauldron):

The social compact on which Greek governments had rested in the immediate post-war decades excluded the working class and peasantry, instead relying on the support of the petty bourgeoisie—family-run businesses, independent professionals and, as of the 1960s, small proprietors in the nascent tourist sector. This layer was the privileged client base of the conservative parties that ruled the country in the 1950s and 60s, and was offered advantages unavailable to the mass of the population; these included exemption from taxes, access to public-sector jobs—doled out by the main right-wing parties—and a certain level of social mobility through education.

This is not to say that the petty bourgeoisie cannot be won to a revolutionary program but given its natural tendency to seek individualistic solutions and the KKE’s roots in the industrial working class, such a program has to be articulated on the basis of social reality and not through ritual incantations of “State and Revolution”.

I should say that not all is lost with Todd Chretien. He refers favorably to ex-SWP’er David Renton who has been a beacon of Marxist insight and common sense when it comes to Syriza.

Even more importantly, the ISO is helping to build a conference on Future of Left/ Independent Politics Electoral Action Conference to be held May 2-3, 2015 in Chicago (http://www.independentpoliticalreport.com/2015/02/future-of-left-independent-politics-electoral-action-conference-to-be-held-may-2-3-2015-in-chicago/). It describes its aims and objectives as follows:

  1. To promote independent political action
  2. To build cooperation among disparate movements, candidates, left/progressive parties
  3. To develop and adopt a means for continued networking, conversation and cooperation after the conference

In other words, the conference is moving in the direction mapped out by Syriza. However the Greek comrades fare when it comes to the sharp struggle facing them, they have at least bequeathed a strategy for building the left that no doubt is in the back of the minds of the people behind this conference.

As it turns out, the conference was first proposed by Solidarity in the summer of 2014. Now 29 years old, the organization was far ahead of its time in understanding the need for something in the USA that anticipated Syriza as their founding statement (http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/foundingstatement) makes clear:

The belief that our particular group constituted in some sense the “vanguard party,” or its core, in a situation where in reality the group had only limited influence at the base and even less actual leadership position among any group of workers, created distortions of various kinds in our politics. Such a situation inevitably generated certain tendencies, which were often justified in terms of “Leninist” or “democratic centralist” norms but which more often were a serious misapplication and incorrect reading of the actual historic practice of the Bolshevik party in Lenin’s lifetime.

Now after 29 years, it looks like the rest of the left is catching up with Solidarity. Let’s try to make it out to Chicago for this conference and help create the momentum that will lead to an American counterpart of Syriza and Podemos.

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