Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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: third parties,Left Forum — 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.

November 4, 2014

The Working Families Party in historical context

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,third parties — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

Screen shot 2014-11-04 at 11.20.04 AM

This looks like the ballot I just used an hour ago to vote for all the Green Party candidates. It is a bit confusing when you look at it since the other “third parties” are basically offering you a chance to vote for the Democrats (Working Family and Independence parties) or the Republicans (Conservative). This really gets into the whole question of political independence in the USA and what constitutes a third party, especially for radicals like us.

For the longest time I have been arguing for a third party to the left of the Democrats even when the candidate is not particularly radical. For example, I regard Bob La Follette’s presidential campaign as a Progressive Party candidate in 1924 as an important challenge to the two-party system even though La Follette was a life-long Republican. Same thing with Henry Wallace who also ran under the Progressive Party banner in 1948 even though he was a New Deal Democrat. In fact Wallace’s campaign was mostly about trying to salvage New Deal values as Truman was pushing the party to the right. As an analogy, if Bernie Sanders—a Democrat for all practical purposes despite his “socialist” pretensions—decided to run as an independent in 2015, I would urge a vote for him. So tight is the grip of the two party system on the American body politic that any breach could ultimately serve as a hole in the dike that the Dutch boy tried to plug. Our purpose as radicals is to make the hole even bigger. A third party headed up by the likes of Bernie Sanders would not lead to socialism but it would certainly create a space for the left to get a wider hearing just as is the case with a formation like Syriza in Greece.

So where does the Working Families Party fit into all this?

It is best to think of them in terms of the American Labor Party that was founded in 1936 in order to make a vote for FDR palatable to leftist workers who were instinctively suspicious of the Democratic Party. Socialist Party bureaucrats in the trade unions, especially the needle trades, founded it. Despite the animosity of the CP toward the SP, they saw the value of the ALP so much so that by the 1950s it was regarded as a CP front. Vito Marcantonio, who was widely regarded as a CP fellow traveler, was elected as a Congressman from East Harlem on the ALP ticket, for example. If the ALP had simply served the needs of the CP along these lines, it would have served a useful purpose but like the WFP that followed in its footsteps, it was mainly a vehicle for corralling votes for the DP.

Charles Post’s article in Against the Current magazine titled “The Popular Front: Rethinking CPUSA History” references one by Kenneth Waltzer in the Spring 1980 Radical History Review that is unfortunately behind a paywall. Titled “The Party and the Polling Place: American Communism and an American Labor Party in the 1930s”, it is a good introduction to the dodgy electoral politics of a nominally communist group trying to shore up the Democrats.

Indeed despite the pro-FDR politics of the SP, they also had sincere goals in launching an American counterpart to the British Labour Party. Keep in mind that the SP ran high-profile campaigns for Norman Thomas in the 1930s even though it was mostly part and parcel of an effort to “stop the reactionary Republicans”. For the CP, this was just a bit too radical as Waltzer points out:

Socialists criticized the ALP for failing to become an independent , federated, democratic labor party; they did not oppose La Guardia in 1937, but ran Norman Thomas for governor and held apart from membership until late 1938. Social Democrats, who enrolled in 1936, carped continually about the slow progress toward a labor party and the absence of internal party democracy. The Communists, however, made an objective of unity itself and composed a cheering section within the ALP. They neither pressed for special political results nor demanded progress toward in- dependence. ‘The building of the American Labor Party is a central task,’’ Israel Amter, the New York State Party chairman, instructed in late 1936. Party members and sympathizers enrolled in large numbers in the ALP clubs (or joined with the affiliated unions) and moderated their advocacy of independent politics and socialism.

The Communists enthusiastically supported La Guardia, whom they had opposed four years earlier; they backed Lehman and much of the Democratic slate in 1938. They gave uncritical allegiance to the slate of state officers selected by ALP leaders in the first ALP primary in 1938, and they criticized Socialists and Social Democrats who complained about ALP deals with the major parties.

Since the CP no longer has the muscle it once had, it was largely up to other people to get the WFP off the ground if it was to serve the purpose of providing a left flank for the DP.

The origins of the WFP can be traced to the New Party, another nominally “third party” created in the ALP template. Sometimes referred to as a “fusion” party, such formations are intended to provide a second, third or more spot on the ballot for the Republicans or Democrats. Daniel Cantor, a staffer on Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, and Joel Rogers, a U. of Wisconsin law professor and a Nation Magazine editor, launched the party in 1992. Like many on the left, I had hoped that Jackson might form a Rainbow Party but he was too wedded to DP careerism to take such a risk. I suspect that Cantor was relieved when Jackson decided to stay within the fold. As far as Rogers is concerned, you know what Shakespeare said about killing all the Nation Magazine editors, right?

The base for the New Party was largely made up of ACORN chapters, the anti-poverty group that ran into trouble a while back after getting punked by ultrarightist James O’Keeffe.

Despite collaboration with the Greens in the 1990s, the New Party’s main ambition was to get progressive Democrats elected, at least those with such a reputation. The party endorsed Barack Obama in his campaign for Senator from Illinois in 1996, for example.

After the New Party ran out of gas, Cantor and Rogers decided to try a fusion-oriented party once again, this time as the Working Families Party.

Surprising as it may seem, Rogers has made sure to keep a conversation going with Marxists despite his obvious class collaborationist orientation. In the March-April 1995 New Left Review, he has a piece titled “How Divided Progressives Might Unite”, a title that might betray his true agenda in light of what Alexander Cockburn wrote about “pwogwessives”.

Mostly written as a complaint about liberalism’s failure and the Democratic Party’s march to the right, Rogers was demonstrating to NLR readers that he was “one of us”. After thousands of unobjectionable words about the need for empowering the poor, fighting for a cleaner environment etc., he finally gets down to brass tacks in a section on the need for the New Party, which is essentially the same case that Cantor and Rogers have made for the WFP:

The New Party is/does all these things. On the last, most vexing, issue, its general solution is only to run its own candidates for office on its ballot line where they have a serious chance of winning. Where they don’t, it generally does nothing, or informally endorses the better of the major candidates, or, where the law permits, formally endorses the major party candidate (the candidate willing, of course) on its own ballot line. At this early stage in the party’s development, thus taking the wasted-vote problem seriously drives our independent efforts down to the local level. We are not running people for President or senator—at least not yet!—but for city councils, county boards, water commissioner, school boards, the occasional state assembly seat. Only after having established ourselves at this local level will we try to move up the electoral greasy pole.

In other words, voting for a Democrat is a tactical question. Despite the appearance of this article in a hoary Marxist journal (that’s hoary as in old, not as in lifting up one’s skirts for a dollar), it breaks with the most fundamental question facing Marxists—the need for class independence.

Although Marx wrote these words more than a century ago, they hold up well:

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body. if the forces of democracy take decisive, terroristic action against the reaction from the very beginning, the reactionary influence in the election will already have been destroyed.

Karl Marx, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League London, March 1850

 

October 26, 2014

Making history with Howie Hawkins

Filed under: third parties — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm

October 23, 2014

Gubernatorial Debate: Howie Hawkins won it

Filed under: third parties — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

October 3, 2014

The speech that Bernie Sanders should make, but won’t

Filed under: third parties — louisproyect @ 1:03 pm
Reviving the Progressive Party

The Speech Bernie Sanders Should Give But Won’t

by LOUIS PROYECT

Fellow Americans,

I want to take this opportunity to announce my candidacy for president of the United States and to explain why I have reached this decision.

Let me start by giving you some background on my political career. Unlike other members of the Senate, I have always run as an independent and as a socialist, a term that I am more than willing to defend in debates with other candidates in the race for president. In 2009 one out of five Americans stated a preference for socialism over capitalism. Given the opportunity to speak to the millions of people who have been victims of unemployment, foreclosure, polluted air and water, and a host of other problems caused by corporate greed, I am sure that we can begin to move toward majority support for a system that puts human need above private profit.

In the 1970s I ran as a candidate of the Liberty Union Party in Vermont for the US Senate and for Governor in four different races. While most of you probably haven’t heard of the party, the issues that led to its formation should be familiar. It was against the war in Vietnam and the despoliation of the environment, positions that reflected majority opinion in the United States at the time. I hope to remain true to my roots by stressing the need for peace, Green values, and social justice in my campaign for president.

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