Socialists, Panthers, and Independent Politics in 1960s California

by Wayne Collins on October 6, 2012

Some things posted on Marxmail demand correction. The discussion of the Black Panthers, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Peace and Freedom Party is one of them. So much of what I see written about those events is inaccurate, written by non-participants or academics that is is scarcely a basis of information that leftists can act on with security.

This post has been written in haste and reflects the memories of what happened over 40 years ago with participants many of whom are now dead and parts of its chronology may be wrong, but reviewing it the general sense is correct. My apologies for any inaccuracies.

For all intents and purposes, the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) was a reflection of the anti-war movement. That was its initial impetus. The organizational forerunners of it were Robert Scheer’s Community for New Politics which came out of the Scheer for Congress campaign in 1966 and Michael Hannon’s campaign for congress in Los Angeles in the same year. Hannon was a member of the Socialist Party and a Los Angeles cop as well as an activist in the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). Heading for a CORE picket line one day he didn’t have time to change out of his uniform, appeared at the demonstration in the Los Angeles Police Department’s best dress and was promptly bounced off the force. It was this that first brought him to considerable public attention.

Michael Hannon

Hannon’s group resolved to put an anti-war and civil rights party on the ballot through a re-registration
drive rather than a petition. We would have had to have over 700,000 signatures on a petition to get a new party on the ballot, but just one tenth of that number registered to do the same. The petition campaign would have been death. That was why the Scheer forces supported it.

When Hannon announced that they had already begun their re-registration drive in Los Angeles County and were going to go ahead with it, we had enough force to push the same through in Northern California.

Registering voters into the new party gave us a way to get new voters and youth into the party, people not registered yet or whose fidelity to the Democratic Party was not yet an established pattern. Better yet, it compelled a level of seriousness and dedication to a new party that a petition campaign did not have. Money was an obstacle but we had foot power.

The Vietnam Day Committee had already considered running Marilyn Milligan as an independent candidate for congress against Jeffrey Cohelan in the 1966 elections. Scheer’s decision to run in the Democratic primary against Cohelan prevented that from coming to fruition and precluded an earlier break with the Democratic Party into independent political action for the anti-war movement.

Remember, all this was in an earlier day before the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) established its influence in the anti-war movement that was still in its protean stage. The slogan was, “Get out of Vietnam.” The Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) hadn’t yet begun its campaign to correct it to “Bring the Troops Home Now” to celebrate the movement at the end of World War Two. In fact, at the West Coast anti-war conference, the SWP sent Ashar Harer to lecture the youth about how workers down on the waterfront wouldn’t understand what an anti-war party meant, workers only understood there were two capitalist parties and didn’t want a third one — sheer demagogy and a great example of the sect inhibiting a popular movement they should rather have been active in even if they couldn’t control it.

But they didn’t want another party other than their own to appear as the opposition.

The Communist Party (CP) was worse and was in fact responsible for sabotaging the New Politics convention in Chicago and the West Coast New Politics convention in Los Angeles. No one who lived through and participated in those days can forget it.

The CP was absolutely hell bent to stay in the Democratic Party.

Dorothy Healy led a walk out at the Los Angeles convention and took the registration list with her. (Warned by Anne Draper, once head of the Trotskyist youth before their entry into the Socialist Party in 1936 and a former organizer for the steelworkers union and veteran of all the struggles Healy had been through, to grab the registration list first, we were too late — but you learn from your elders). The hallways were packed with elderly demonstrators carrying signs calling for “Unity” — meaning with the Democratic Party — it was as though the CP had emptied every radical old people’s home in southern California. Cesar Chavez was brought out to endorse the Democratic Party. That was an especially hurtful moment, as Anne Draper and so many of us had worked with Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and then the National Farm Workers Association in car caravans to Delano organizing the central labor council to make donations.

But then the left was weak and the CP wasn’t acting as part of the left. The SWP, of course, played no role in any of these events.

At this point, the forces for independent politics were “going it alone.” In northern California, a major influence was the Independent Socialists (or International Socialists) (IS), who had been a dominant element in campus CORE and substantially influential in the Free Speech Movement. Our efforts were all out for independent political action. It seemed its time had come. There had been a series of contested Democratic Primary elections for the 11th Congressional district against Jeffrey Cohelan before Scheer’s campaign. Otho Green, Howard Jeter, and others from CORE and the civil rights movement had begun the process of running against him years before. Now the split was inevitable in that part of California.

PFP of California had its convention in Richmond, California. James Vann, an African-American from CORE, was elected Northern California chair of the party. Most of the battle raged around the senatorial nomination. Scheer kept speaking to caucuses as though he would be a candidate but never committed. Paul Jacobs, bad record and all, had been campaigning throughout the state for the PFP and for the senatorial nomination. The difference between Scheer and Jacobs was that Jacobs was serious about a third party. Scheer never was. It was bad enough that some nominees for state offices cut out to the Democratic Party during the campaigning, but this was to be expected. The worry was that Scheer could become a major spokesman and do just that himself.

The connection with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) was always problematic. Since the experience in the south in 1964, it was ever more clear that there was a schism between white radicals and black radicals and that the issue was centered around direct action. Parallel to this was the recognition that black people had to have control of their own organizations and independent of white dominance for blacks to develop a confident and powerful movement of their own. This was reinforced when we arranged the Black Power Day Conference at University of California over the heads of the fossilized Students for a Democratic Society leadership. It was an idea that had its origins well before any nonsense from CLR James and can be traced back to the African Blood Brotherhood, the Claude McCay’s address to the Comintern in 1922, etc. There really is nothing new under the sun.

The Black Panther Party seemed to be the germ of such a movement.

The Free Huey Movement was in full swing. It was clear that an alliance of sorts with the Black Panther Party was a possibility. It was out job to bring it to fruition. The first step was supporting the free Huey movement. But remember, this is an ancillary relationship. The PFP was not running the BPP. That was a small, Oakland-based organization initially. It was not possible for the Panthers to put a party on the ballot. No one in the PFP was opposed to the Panthers running their own candidates, however. Louis has to remember, the only vehicle available was the PFP. And remember that a lot of activists from CORE and the civil rights movement were active in the PFP at that point.

When the Oakland police and a bunch of Teamster goons working for boss Jack Goldberger shot up Panther headquarters in Oakland and got a lot of bad publicity, they made an earlier stop on what was then Grove Street and shot up the PFP headquarters. We kept this from the press, it was more important that the Panthers should take get the publicity — at least that was our thinking or of the powers that sere in the PFP at that point. That was probably a mistake, because it was a dramatic example of the fact that in the long run the anti-war movement and black liberation movement had the same enemies. It was one of many mistakes we made. Getting Charlie Gary as Huey’s attorney was a brilliant legal tactic with some bad political result,s as through the Guild and certain of its founders the Panthers were soon handing out copies of Dimitroff on the Popular Front to their members.

But hey, it was the 1960s and everything was in flux. As Lenin said…there is no such thing as a clean revolution.

Huey was en route to being a thug. The Panthers were plebian-based with lumpen overtones, it could not have been any other way at the inception. Black sanitation workers had been on strike in the south, garbage workers in New York City. The Panthers could have been influential in those struggles and the PFP could have joined in it with them; Sy Landy spent hours with David Hilliard trying to convince him of this, of the disastrous adventures that Cleaver was on. It came to naught.

Eldridge Cleaver, Jerry Rubin, Yippies and “Pigasus” for president

A political movement turned into a carnival – and not a carnival of the oppressed. We should have known better about Cleaver. It doesn’t matter how many years you spend in a cell with a brilliant Trotskyist as Cleaver did, if you’re unstable.

And Cleaver was.

That was part of the problem.

Another was the insanity of nominating a presidential candidate who was too young to be on the ballot. This was political madness. But you couldn’t convince the leading comrades of the IS to the contrary. There is something called “Leninist discipline” and we believed in it. But it was hard not to work in the Gregory Caucus against Cleaver knowing what was going to happen.

You learn through mistakes, but as Trotsky said, “no policy can guarantee victory; but some can guarantee defeat.”

Cleaver was the guarantee of defeat.

So the IS turned to “industrialize” their cadre and sent their best into Detroit, Cleveland, auto, steel, the Communication Workers of America and gave up their more local bases in the American Federation of Teachers or AFSCME in locals they had spent such effort to build. They did yeoman work at enormous effort and personal sacrifice, just as Shachtman’s Workers Party did in 1940-1950, just as the SWP would do after its turn from student work in the late seventies. A lot of people got burnt out. Factionalism struck all of them. History, they say, repeats itself — Trotskyists failed to understand that as to them it seems to repeat itself as tragedy rather than farce.

You can learn from history. But you have to know it first.

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