Radical Politics Means Party-Building and Party-Building Means Winning Elections

by John Halle on July 23, 2013

First published by the Progressive Review.

While many of us will shy away from the conversation, a lot of us would probably acknowledge that there needs to be discussion on the effectiveness of the strategies associated with anti-corporate politics. In a recent essay, Naomi Klein came close to broaching the subject in alluding to the limitations of single issue, protest based activism, the best known form of which she calls “meeting stalking.” The ultimate result of protest politics, she suggests, is a one step forward, two step backward pas de deux where a victory on one front — shutting down a World Trade Organization meeting, closing a sweatshop, preventing the opening of a toxic waste incinerator, or preventing the extinction of a species is inevitably accompanied by losses on a whole range of issues where the corporate agenda moves forwarded unimpeded by public pressure and with the active collusion of elected officials.

The protest model marks a sharp break with a long tradition of political engagement.

Radical politics has generally taken as its explicit objective not influencing actors within government but replacing them with those who would take control of state power for the purpose of implementing a comprehensive populist, egalitarian agenda. That means, to be blunt, building a party, and competing and winning in elections.

So my intention in running as a Green for the New Haven Board of Aldermen was to contribute a brick in the wall for the development of this kind of politics. The way you insert your brick is by winning and then serving in office.

It might come as surprise that the first part of this — winning — was easy but in fact it was. I won twice, both times by landslides. Furthermore, I am far from an ideal candidate, so my victory should not be seen as any indication of my strength as a candidate but rather of the weakness of the Democratic opposition.

This raises a more general point which needs to be better understood and that is that the grassroots base of the Democratic Party is in an advanced state of decay. This is attributable, in part, to the Democrats being, as my constituent Adoph Reed trenchantly remarked in a recent forum, “useless.” But it is also attributable to two structural factors. The first is that the old model of locally-based politics beautifully rendered in William Kennedy’s novel Roscoe, one presided over by ward heelers, precinct captains and which involved active participation on the community level has been replaced by a top-down, media-driven politics that primarily involves obtaining large contributions and using these to purchase air time. The second is that neoliberal cuts in the size of government have seriously reduced the financial means by which machines purchase loyalty. For everyone who was cut into the action through a patronage position, there is now someone who has been laid off from the typing pool, cut from his or her position as a school janitor or food service worker. The combinations of all these factors make local Democratic organizations extremely vulnerable to insurgent candidacies like mine. The 2004 Matt Gonzalez campaign in San Francisco may have woken the national party up to this but it may be too late.

That being said, machine politics in its dotage continues its old ways of doing business in places like New Haven. Primary among these is the selection of “approved” candidates by ward committees on the basis of loyalty to the machine. This is, of course, a guarantee of political mediocrity and here my own campaign provides a relevant case study. My opponent was fairly typical of what the machine can be expected to offer up: a part owner of a local bar and a site developer for Walgreens Drugs, his motivation for seeking local office was transparently to achieve “access” which he would use to advance his own business interests and those of his friends and family members. “Access,” i.e. having a seat on the board would put him in a position to intercede with the city traffic commission to remove residential parking zones and bus stops on the streets adjacent to his bar, freeing up additional parking for the bar patrons. He could lobby the zoning board to allow for variances for the expansion of his bar and for special exceptions to local noise ordinances. A seat on the board would also allow him to pursue favorable consideration for a Walgreen’s strip mall development, something which, in fact, was already in the works before the city planning board, although I didn’t know this.

More or less the same story can be told for most members of the board. Most receive indirect financial compensation for their service, sometimes through the private sector, as would have been the case had my opponent won. More often, the compensation comes in the form of patronage jobs for themselves or family members in one or another city department, or in some cases through salaried positions in non-profit service organizations that receive funding through community development block grants administered through the city. Add into this a small but influential cadre of Yale technocrats-in-training who are using their positions in local government as a stepping stone to positions in the national ranks of the Democratic Party and you have a snapshot of how one big city machine operates and sustains itself.

These quid pro quo arrangements are usually not technically illegal but they are pretty obviously corrupt and it doesn’t take a highly sophisticated voter to recognize this: all that’s required to make these into a winning political issue on a ward level is access to a Xerox machine. That, as well as a decent organization that the Green Party has built up here since economist Richard Wolff first ran as a Green mayoral candidate in 1988 (on the platform “Tax Yale, Not Us”) was enough to get me in.

The upshot is that I won not in spite of the fact that I was a Green running against an entrenched machine, I won because I was a Green running against an entrenched Democratic machine. And it wasn’t only me; following my first win in July of 2001, in the general election in November we elected a second Green in a predominantly African-American ward. A third missed winning by 15 votes. A fourth and fifth garnered 42% and 25%, respectively.

All this was sufficient to create a panic in the Democratic ranks who are, unlike most political activists and political observers, acutely aware of the tenuousness of their hold on power.

The Democrats’ response to our success should have been predictable: rather than triangulating to the right as they have become accustomed to, they were forced to triangulate to the left. This trajectory was charted by the New Haven Advocate‘s Paul Bass:

Two years ago, a left-wing Yale music professor made history in New Haven. He won an election as a third-party candidate, the first such victory in generations. He and his party, the Greens, called for publicly funded elections, bike lanes, cleaner air, support for Yale unions — all positions on which Democratic City Hall was either opposed or silent. The Yale prof rode his bike on his new rounds as a city alderman. He was dubbed “Alderman Bike.” The city’s Democratic mayor, John DeStefano, drove around town in his taxpayer-paid Lincoln Navigator SUV.

Fast-forward to fall 2003. Democrat DeStefano has proposed the state’s first municipal public financing (“clean elections”) law. He led a successful fight to block the restarting of the English Station power plant–and broadened it to take on other polluters. He joined forces with Yale’s unions and took on Yale. After Alderman Bike complained, the city hired a cop to chase illegal dumpers full-time and arrest them. City Hall has retrieved and dusted off an old bikeable-city plan; the first of many promised bike lanes has appeared, in Alderman Bike’s neighborhood. And the mayor, running for re-election, aired a commercial showing him riding his bike to work and lampooning mayors who drive luxury gas-guzzlers instead.

While the focus is local, Bass’s observations can be generalized to other cities and to other levels of government. The basic lesson is that the prospect of politics escaping from elite control and the fear that it induces among elites is what forces substantive, as opposed to merely superficial, political concessions from the actors in the two corporate parties who serve elite interests.

The historical precedents for this view are well known. Bismarck’s acceptance of national health insurance is generally understood to be a concession in the face of the revolutions of 1848. The success of West German labor unions in the Cold War period is understood to have resulted from the silent presence of a third negotiator at the table — the Eastern Bloc. The threat posed by organized leftist politics, both domestic and foreign, is what created the climate for the passage of New Deal legislation. The ideological threat posed by the artistic and cultural achievements of the Soviet Union is what led to the network of subsidies for musicians, artists and writers, documented in Francis Stonor Saunder’s Cultural Cold War.

Conversely, the waning of serious, organized oppositional politics is certain to result in the dismantling of the gains which have been achieved in period of progressive ferment – in increasing concentration of wealth, assaults on civil and human rights, inferior working conditions. It should not come as news to anyone that we are suffering through one of these periods now. While this is partly due to the increased organizational effectiveness of the right, it is also a consequence of the failure of the generation which is usually given credit for their political engagement, and this returns me to the discussion I alluded to at the outset.

The drugs and sex of the of the 1960s were undoubtedly, I would imagine, a lot of fun, and some of the music, while overrated, is actually pretty good. On a more serious note, the New Left’s critique of the patriarchical authoritarianism of the Old Left was more than a little overdue. At the same time, much of what passed for “liberation” in the 1960s needs now to be seen as a hollowing out of the organized core of oppositional politics — one which had, to be fair, already been devastated by the McCarthy era. It was this oppositional vacuum that allowed for the Democratic Leadership Council takeover of the Democratic Party and the subsequent imposition of neoliberal austerity presided over by Republican and Democratic administrations.

The single-issue protest model that we are saddled with should be seen as the legacy of counter-cultural politics, one which, in its most extreme, adolescent form takes for granted that that elites (read adults) should take responsibility for the provision of goods and services, public safety, and the distribution of wealth and privilege. Our role is relegated to spectators standing on the outside protesting capital’s worst excesses and dreaming up visionary schemes for an unachievable future utopia.

In getting my hands dirty in New Haven politics, I wanted to issue a challenge, not, as is generally assumed, to the Democratic Party, but to other progressives, by showing that effective radical politics is necessarily oriented not towards protesting state power but towards participation within it. This means competing for office and serving at whatever level possible. I certainly didn’t expect that my example would, in isolation, make much of a difference outside of New Haven. I recognize that the chances of a broader reorientation of left priorities materializing is slim in the immediate or even mid-term future. While there have been a few encouraging signs in the years since, the most notable being the Gonzalez campaign in San Francisco, it does not appear that my serving functioned as a brick in the wall, as I had hoped. It was this recognition which led me not to run for re-election in November.

The response to the 2004 presidential campaign is consistent with skepticism along these lines. The climate of hysteria among leftists at the Bush administration is understandable. But it is also dangerous and demobilizing in that it reinforces precisely those tendencies that we need to combat in the anti-corporate movement. Building an alternative politics outside of the control of the two corporate parties requires a sustained commitment. And while the corporate parties would like nothing better, it cannot be abandoned every time the greater evil assumes office. A pragmatic and effective left recognizes that it needs to keep its eye on two objectives – rolling back the worst excesses of the right while building a foundation for a long-term insurgency. That it is failing to do so is consistent with a left still mired in a prolonged adolescence.

Having said all that, I have no regrets about having served. I would recommend it to anyone.

{ 57 comments… read them below or add one }

Pham Binh July 23, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Protest politics (as opposed to power politics) has become a pathology on the American left to such an extent that even self-described Marxists often inveigh against the evils of left forces taking power within the capitalist state as if there were any other way to defend against neoliberal austerity state policy much less reverse it. Oddly, Marx and Engels themselves argued in favor of workers’ parties not just running in elections but winning them as a means of bringing the class struggle into the capitalist state’s institutions.


Aaron Aarons July 26, 2013 at 2:05 pm

As usual, Pham Binh is so locked into false dichotomies that he can’t think outside the boxes he creates.

(1) What he calls “protest politics” can often be a form of real power politics when it goes beyond symbolic protest to direct action, ranging from strikes to blockades to sabotage, to interfere with the operations of the state and capital and thus, even when revolution is not on the agenda, achieving various gains ranging from winning material concessions to making it impossible for the ruling class to successfully prosecute its wars.

(2) What he calls “left forces taking power within the capitalist state” generally means left forces becoming the public face of the capitalist state in order, whether they are conscious of it or not, to restrain and liquidate the kinds of struggle I refer to in (1) above. The actions of the African National Congress in South Africa since around 1990 are an almost pure example of this kind of rôle.


Pham Binh July 26, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Strikes and direct action are usually more militant forms of protest politics. They are limited in what they can accomplish and need to be combined with power politics — elections, legislating, policy-making, and governing — in order to be fully effective. If you want to “interfere with the operations of the state and capital,” there is no better way to do that than by putting revolutionaries and militants into the institutions of the state and capital. Think of it as the Tea Party in reverse; hold up a vote on the nation’s debt ceiling until the Republicans and Democrats cave on the Hyde Amendment, for example.

It is the separation of the two types of politics — power from protest and protest from power — that has rendered the left in the U.S. impotent. The Green Party’s almost exclusively electoral orientation and the grassroots/NGO left’s almost exclusive focus on street protests cripples them both.


Aaron Aarons July 27, 2013 at 12:06 am

Putting a false statement in boldface doesn’t make it true. How about some historical examples?


Aaron Aarons July 30, 2013 at 3:56 am

The Tea Party is backed by hundreds of millions of dollars of direct and indirect support because it serves the interests of the rich. What, exactly, would a left equivalent of that be?

And if it were indeed true that “It is the separation of the two types of politics — power from protest and protest from power — that has rendered the left in the U.S. impotent”, why is it that no substantial section of the left has realized that and overcome it? There’s no central command, at least since the decline of Soviet dominance on the left in the 60’s and 70’s, that could make all leftists follow a bad strategy if a better one were available.

But Binh’s assertion that a particular strategic choice “has rendered the left in the U.S. impotent” is a less universal, but equally idealist, variant of the Trotskyist claim that “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” Of course, such assertions can escape the charge of philosophical idealism if those making the assertions give a materialist explanation of the causes of the bad choices or lack of adequate leadership, but they don’t do that.

I would argue, and have argued, that what “has rendered the left in the U.S. impotent” is the imperialist nature and settler-colonial, white-supremacist foundation of the U.S., and the consequent privileged position of most of the U.S. population in the global class structure. But, for now, I won’t go into this further.


Luke Elliott July 23, 2013 at 7:46 pm

John –

If you’re listening in, I’d love to hear your take on Unite Here’s electoral work in the past few years.

Great piece!


Jon Flanders July 24, 2013 at 3:15 pm

John takes the discussion where it needs to go.Effective electoral opposition to ruling class policies is indeed the missing link on the left in the USA. The problem of the party building campaigns like John’s up to now, and I suppose I would include the Progressive Party in Vermont, as well as the Green efforts, has been the lack of labor support. So someone like John gets elected, here, someone else there, without any long term “party building” effect.

We had someone in my neck of the woods, literally my city council district, run first as a Green, got very close to winning, then decided to run as a Dem “to win.” and lost again by an even closer margin. In both cases he was seen as the best candidate to back by my labor council, but not seen by the electorate as a “candidate of the working class.”

Being so seen, in my view, will be essential for a real takeoff for a radical third party. Chicago, where the mass struggle of teachers and the community around the schools carries on, seems to me the most likely scenario for such a class based development. The ingredients are there, ie a mass movement in defense of worker and black community interests around education, a Democratic party establishment in direct opposition to this movement, and a potential pool of articulate candidates exemplified by Karen Lewis. Of course we can’t create such situations out of thin air. I only hope someone in Chicago is thinking along these lines. It will only take one example for party building movement to take off everywhere. Remember how Occupy took off?


John Halle July 24, 2013 at 6:38 pm

In response to both Jon and Luke’s comments, I should say that if there had been a labor party when I ran in 2001, I would have run with it rather than the Greens. (Incidentally, Adolph Reed was my in my ward at the time!). But there wasn’t so I didn’t. But having said that, I think one of the lessons from the failed history of the USLP (which Mark Dudzik wrote about in a very useful post-mortem a few months ago) is that given the current structure of the current labor unions, their leadership and their institutional ties to the Democrats, we will not be able to rely on them to launch a broad based, left labor party of the sort which I think all of us are envisioning. In particular, and this is responsive to Luke’s question, my experience with the labor unions in New Haven generally and UNITE-HERE in particular was that their narrow focus on obtaining favorable contracts for their members often meant that they would be either uncommitted or actively hostile to much of what would be on the required agenda items of any reasonable left/labor formation. So, to take one example, one of the issues in New Haven was the reconstruction of the Quinnipiac River bridge on I 95. It was understood by pretty much everyone that the bridge’s widening would be an environmental and developmental nightmare. A consortium of groups met for several years to develop a plan for maintaining a 6 lane bridge along with major enhancements to the mass transit infrastructure rather than go for the 10 lane monstrosity which was eventually built. I was recruited to attempt to lobby local labor leaders to get their support for the plan. When I proposed it to them-they literally laughed in my face. This was a local manifestation of what happens innational politics e.g. Trumka supporting the Keystone Pipeline, Sweeney supporting the MX missile, and I could go on for several paragraphs with analogous examples of where the institutional constraints on unions conflicted with broadly progressive governance. The bottom line, it seems to me, is that while we need a labor party, it needs to be one which operates entirely of the existing unions-at least in the initial phases. That doesn’t mean that it should seek labor’s endorsement-but that is shouldn’t require that the unions sign off on their candidates; in fact, the unions will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into to doing what they need to do to survive. Eventually, they will come around, and they very much did in my case having helped me enormously in my second election. But it will require a lot of independent activism before this occurs.
Finally, a propos of nothing-and everything-Karen Lewis for Mayor!


Luke Elliott July 24, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Rare are the instances these days when trade unions do something that isn’t in the immediate interests of their current membership. Though I feel like UH is one of the IU’s where there are some exceptions to this. In addition, the politics of many of their leaders at the IU and in New Haven are actually pretty left – though most of the time they trade politics for pragmatism. In any case, I guess I was wondering your take on UH’s ‘take over’ of the New Haven council – if I have my facts straight, a super majority of alderman are now UH folks. What has come of it? Is it a good thing?

As far as a third party that skips over organized labor. I just don’t know. As weak as labor is these days, it is stronger by 10 or 20 times than any other working class movement/set of organizations in the country. I have a hard time imagining long term success that isn’t integral with organized labor. Of course maybe, as you say, they’ll be dragged along. Or maybe their leadership needs to be challenged from the inside out before anything will really move.

Thanks again for the piece


John Halle July 25, 2013 at 9:47 am

Luke, The stories about the New Haven unions “taking over local government” seemed strange to me-they always had a huge amount of influence (exercised through their independent, activist arm the Connecticut Center for a New Economy) on all of the key candidacies, many of them (including the Board President when I served being union members) and could pretty easily knock off anyone who crossed them. And they did. So it wasn’t clear to me that what’s happening now is all that different.

As I suggest above the union’s influence is largely, but by no means universally positive. It meant, for example, that local government officials were expected to get out the vote for Joseph Lieberman (and most did). It also meant the following: when I stopped by New Haven a couple of years ago, that the CCNE arranged a meeting between me and their candidate for my old post seeking my informal endorsement. One of the things the unions were promoting that week was a screening of the disgraceful pro-charter, ed reform film Waiting for Superman and the candidate (herself a teacher) having been briefed, (remember the unions were at the time official pro-ed reform) delivered the usual talking points to me, defending the unions’ signing off charters which would eventually materialize. (I argued with her, to no avail.)

The second thing, in line with the discussion above, one of the reasons why the unions running their own candidates didn’t raise many eyebrows was because they were running as Democrats. Had they run on a Labor Party line, as a first step within an explicit party building strategy, it would have been a big story, and would have deserved to have been. The bottom line is that they didn’t have the guts to do so, even with the successful example of the Greens just a few years before. As I say, they will need to be dragged kicking and screaming by an activist movement (both within and outside of the unions) into the future.


Luke Elliott July 25, 2013 at 10:20 am

Thanks for those reflections!


Pham Binh July 29, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Since we don’t have a labor and/or third party at this time and won’t have one for a while, perhaps political action by unions via things like ballot initiatives (such as the Oregon right-to-work thing) can be part of the solution to the problem of the 1% enjoying a two-party monopoly over the party system: http://seattletimes.com/html/businesstechnology/2021466045_minimumwagejobsxml.html


Pham Binh July 29, 2013 at 4:06 pm

What do you think of Chokwe Lumumba who ran as a “Fanny Lou Hamer Democrat” and won the mayorship in Jackson, Mississippi after defeating the pro-business candidate in the Democratic Party primary? Does it make sense from your point of view to do as Lumumba did in situations where there is no Green Party or third-party infrastructure to tap into or where for whatever reason it’s not viable to run as an independent?


Aaron Aarons July 30, 2013 at 2:06 am

I just spent nearly an hour reading info about him and by him. The only things that made him look like something more than a mildly reformist bourgeois politician were things written by his right-wing enemies, the kind of people who call O-bomber a “socialist”. And that was mainly about things he said years ago.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, it made sense for him to run as a “Democrat”, since his politics appear to be consistent with those of that party. If anybody has information about anything he’s said recently, especially about how he will use his (limited) power, that would make him seem like some kind of left opponent of the ruling class, please post it!


David Berger (RED DAVE) July 30, 2013 at 8:42 am

Lumumba has already demonstrated himself to be as useless as we should expect a Democrat to be. People here were foaming at the mouth and expecting that he would stop foreclosures in Jackson, etc. Ain’t happened. Ain’t gonna happen.

As a good test case, take a look at him vis-a-vis the Trayvon Martin verdict. He has said exactly nothing. An organization he is affiliated with, the Malcolm X Movement (I’m going from memory here) made a statement. But not Lumumba. There was a demo about the verdict in Jackson. Lumumba was not there.


Pham Binh July 31, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Lumumba may not be doing it, but others are trying to use eminent domain to fight foreclosures: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/30/business/in-a-shift-eminent-domain-saves-homes.html?pagewanted=all

I know it’s terrible and a dirty rotten compromise with capitalism because it’s not Soviet power state-smashing, but I suspect you might support this type of thing.


David Berger (RED DAVE) July 31, 2013 at 3:06 pm

DAVID BERGER: Lumumba has already demonstrated himself to be as useless as we should expect a Democrat to be. People here were foaming at the mouth and expecting that he would stop foreclosures in Jackson, etc. Ain’t happened. Ain’t gonna happen.

As a good test case, take a look at him vis-a-vis the Trayvon Martin verdict. He has said exactly nothing. An organization he is affiliated with, the Malcolm X Movement (I’m going from memory here) made a statement. But not Lumumba. There was a demo about the verdict in Jackson. Lumumba was not there.

PHAM BINH: Lumumba may not be doing it

DAVID BERGER: STOP! My point was about Lumumba. He has been touted in various places as the best thing since sliced bread. But the fact is that he is doing nothing to justify his reputation.

PHAM BINH: but others are trying to use eminent domain to fight foreclosures: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/30/business/in-a-shift-eminent-domain-saves-homes.html?pagewanted=all

DAVID BERGER: Note that this is bullshit. It is not an attempt to stop foreclosures. It is an attempt to use municipal money to buy foreclosed properties and sell them back to their owners. What it is is an attempt to manipulate the market, much like the cockamamie scheme done earlier this year by the Strike Debt group of Occupy Wall Street that attempted to buy some debt at a discount and forgive the debt holders.

Any attempt to work this way, instead of trying to stop foreclosures outright, using the power of the community, will get caught up in the courts quickly.

PHAM BINH: I know it’s terrible and a dirty rotten compromise with capitalism because it’s not Soviet power state-smashing, but I suspect you might support this type of thing.

DAVID BERGER: Any socialist should support an attempt to end foreclosures, but this ain’t that. It’s a gimmick.

And please note that nothing has been said about Lumumba’s complete inaction. And, as usual, his complete inactivity on the issue of Trayvon Martin has not been addressed.


Pham Binh July 31, 2013 at 3:51 pm

“It is not an attempt to stop foreclosures. It is an attempt to use municipal money to buy foreclosed properties and sell them back to their owners. What it is is an attempt to manipulate the market, much like the cockamamie scheme done earlier this year by the Strike Debt group of Occupy Wall Street that attempted to buy some debt at a discount and forgive the debt holders.”

I don’t think you read the article closely.

FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES: “If Richmond’s purchase offer is declined, the city intends to use eminent domain to condemn and buy the loans.”

Why you oppose helping struggling homeowners is beyond me.

FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES: “Opponents, including the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the American Bankers Association, the National Association of Realtors and some big investors have mounted a concerted opposition campaign on multiple levels, including flying lobbyists to California city halls and pressuring Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration to use their control of the mortgage industry to ban the practice.”

I should email the Times and tell them to add “David Berger (RED DAVE)” to this prestigious list of opponents of this measure. :)


Karl Grant July 31, 2013 at 5:12 pm

Isn’t all class struggle an attempt to ‘manipulate the market’? In fact I’ve seen that exact language used to denounce living wage initiatives by the tea party right.

I don’t see why Berger is inclined to pose this strategy in opposition to ‘using the power of the community’, why must they be mutually exclusive?

It would seem to me that the possibility of having your mortgage reset to post-crash value is an achievable, tangible demand around which anticapitalists could reach a lot of folks, and certainly it provides a toehold to agitate for stronger action like a moratorium on foreclosures and occupations.


Chris Lowe July 31, 2013 at 5:34 pm

I don’t agree with David Berger’s blanket dismissal, and using eminent domain may not be mutually exclusive with “using the power of the community” in principle, but the particular version that has drawn the attention emerges out of a local section of the real estate industry and is promoted by interests who hope to profit from it.

Binh is right to draw attention to the interesting feature of conflict among capitalists over this proposal, which is worth analyzing. But it also is proposed by a fraction of capital in its current most concrete form.

The aim of the policy as proposed is *not* mainly to keep people in their homes. It is mainly to clear the “blight” created by the broken foreclosure and eviction process, prevent related decline of values in nearby properties, and facilitate the “normal” functioning of the housing market, including “normal” foreclosures.

But it does raise the question of whether a different kind of use of eminent domain might be used at an earlier stage of the process for more genuinely community based ends.


Karl Grant July 31, 2013 at 5:59 pm

It’s a good corrective to foreground the local capital interests that are interested in profiting from this, but to me this reinforces my view of the astute strategic approach being undertaken here – taking advantage of divisions within the opposition.

Additionally its noteworthy to register the motivations and messaging strategy behind the approach in terms of selling the idea that its an issue for the whole community through connecting poverty and blight. For me that’s just a strategic communications policy. But even if its sincere it still seems to soften the ground for other forms of activism, demonstrates the potential of municipal politik, and makes a real difference in lots of working class folks lives.

David Berger August 1, 2013 at 11:57 am

What I am against is people sowing illusions that this has anything to do with a socialist program. If you want to support a pathetic, liberal bromide, that’s your business, but it has nothing to do with building a party, unless you mean the Democrats.

And you have stll not addressed the point that Lumumba has, prior to people’s fantasies, addressed the issue of foreclusures; and (b) he has said nothing about Trayvon Martin.


Aaron Aarons July 25, 2013 at 7:41 pm

The drugs and sex of the of the 1960s were undoubtedly, I would imagine, a lot of fun, and some of the music, while overrated, is actually pretty good. On a more serious note, the New Left’s critique of the patriarchical [sic!] authoritarianism of the Old Left was more than a little overdue. At the same time, much of what passed for “liberation” in the 1960s needs now to be seen as a hollowing out of the organized core of oppositional politics — one which had, to be fair, already been devastated by the McCarthy era.

So we’re supposed to evaluate the 1960’s (including the early 1970’s) on the basis of the drugs, sex and music, but totally ignore the militant anti-war, Black, Native American, Puerto Rican and Chicano movements, not to mention the militant women’s and gay movements that developed in the later part of that period!

How can one have an intelligent discussion of the relative merits of protest and, more importantly, direct action movements vs. electorally-focused movements without even acknowledging the existence of the former.


Chris Lowe July 30, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Speaking of false dichotomies, inverting such a dichotomy does not make it any truer.

Over the course of this discussion, it seems to me that Binh has acknowledged an important role for protest and direct action politics within movement politics, while holding up at least two forms of electoral politics: candidate elections such as John Halle describes, and, in places where relevant, ballot measure electoral politics.

Dismissal as by Aaron of all such politics as “the left forces becoming the public face of the capitalist state in order … to liquidate [protest and direct action] politics” is far more dichotomous, since it posits an inherent conflict between the two modes of politics. Binh merely argues about circumstances, that in the present moment reliance on protest politics to the exclusion of other forms has become “pathological” for the left. It is clear from both this discussion and things he’s said elsewhere that he does not oppose protest politics or militant direct action as such or see them as in inherent conflict.

To my way of thinking, a more effective left politics will have a movement-building side and a make-demands-on-the-state side.

Protest and direct action politics, on the account given by Aaron, tend to be reactive and defensive. They may have power, particularly in direct action, to obstruct and prevent destructive initiatives led by capitalist forces. That can be important work and can contribute to movement building, consciousness raising and so forth. Organizing to such ends can build up alternative movement culture and intellectual activity and community. Space for that not directly shaped by engagement with the current power structure can be important.

However, as Raymond Williams observed in _Problems of Materialism and Culture_ about 30 years ago, such “alternative resistance” is limited in its direct challenge to existing power. Williams proposed that alternative resistance co-exists with “oppositional resistance,” which directly confronts existing power, enabling it to change the structures in varying degrees, but at a cost of being influenced by them reciprocally in the struggle. That might take the form of anti-statist direct action activists becoming overly focused on confronting the police forces that hurt them. It might take the form of state-oriented electoral politics leading to co-optation and undue acceptance of hegemonic limits on the definitions and terms of politics.

To my way of thinking, these are kinds of issues to be identified as potential pitfalls and struggled with, not moments to invoke rhetorical flourishes that foreclose whole realms of strategy and tactics.

Also to my way of thinking, as I said, making demands on the state is at the heart of politics in the strict sense. To some extent that can be done with “street heat,” protest and direct action. But because they limit the kinds of engagement involved, such ways of making demands, by themselves, are more likely to be able to force a response than to shape or direct it. Having state power (including local and state-level) in the hands exclusively of forces most hostile to popular and working class demands enhances that limit, and points to a need for other kinds of engagement with the state, including electoral engagements.

Yet particularly in the context of exceedingly weak left power, the potential for co-optation is high. So any left movement that decides to make deeper engagements than protest needs to create structures of accountability. This is one of the key issues in the choice among small independent party politics of the sort John Halle advocates, working with or as left Democrats, and doing issue campaign organizing and mobilizing that engages the state in other ways including ballot measure electoralism. Independent parties provide heightened accountability, but face structural obstacles in the electoral system to victory, at least above the municipal level, and may involve restricting the accountability to a base too narrowly defined by ideological niceties. Operating within the DP poses huge challenges of hegemonic constriction, conflict of interest in accountability, and risks of sell-out.

To my way of thinking, finding ways of handling these kinds of problems will be more likely if we multiply our tactics, rather than than pre-emptively ruling them out. *All* given approaches are subject to true criticisms. *None* of them has produced even arguably radical change at least sine the 1970s, nor prevented the degradation of power and organization on the left, and thus all of them are equally, and equally truly, susceptible to charges of failure. Moments of real popular political progress have pretty much always involved mass organizing and mobilizing, ferment and new relationship building, and direct engagement with the state and elected officials including electing sympathetic officials.

(The accountability issue also arises with protest and direct action politics — small direct action formations that only have internal accountability and are ambivalent, skeptical or even hostile to broader popular movements that they see as insufficiently political, insufficiently militant, or insufficiently anti-capitalist, and thus to which they feel no accountability, can be self-limiting if not actually destructive.)


Chris Lowe July 30, 2013 at 4:08 pm

On reflection, I guess one could argue for substantial progress in LGBTQ rights. How that came about seems to me to involve all three elements of demands on the state, with related internal contradictions, and both movement-building and demand-on-the-state types of politics.


John Halle July 30, 2013 at 8:45 pm

“*All* given approaches are subject to true criticisms. *None* of them has produced even arguably radical change at least sine the 1970s, nor prevented the degradation of power and organization on the left, and thus all of them are equally, and equally truly, susceptible to charges of failure.”

Words to live by, thanks. And in general, I appreciate the position you outline here. In particular, the combination of an activist independent protest movement along with a few reliable office holders can make for a powerful combination. And it did for me-a lot of what I did in office was taking advantage of the platform and the perks which officeholders are granted to support people in the streets. A lot to say on this that I don’t here and which I probably should-if anyone wants to hear it. Also, I should mention that this is ten years old, and I might slightly tinker with balance between protest and participation in power that I strike here-particularly since being involved in Occupy.


Pham Binh July 30, 2013 at 9:57 pm

A submission along those lines would really be great and advance the discussion. There has been a lot of discussion on this thread and on Tim Horras’ piece about these issues. It would also be relevant to issues raised by Socialist Alternative’s city council campaigns in Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis where their candidates are saying things along the lines of “if we win, we won’t do deals with politicians, we’ll build grassroots movements and protests” as if that kind of sloganeering was either a strategy for governance or a means of strengthening opposition movements.


Gregory A. Butler July 30, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Winning Elections = PATRONAGE

Getting jobs for your working class supporters, getting government contracts for your business community supporters, getting corporate welfare subsidies for your Fortune 500 supporters, that’s how you “win elections” in America.

If this guy is serious about “winning elections” I hope he can handle doing all that


Ryan July 30, 2013 at 8:19 pm

We could also, oh I dunno, organize radical unions that fight Capital directly and wrestles concessions from the State via mass workplace actions. I agree action without organization is extremely limited, but third partyism has been far more of a failure than the organization of radical and independent unions. Granted, I’m not saying there aren’t criticisms or pitfalls or difficulties in that, but it seems like a more class based approach (organizing direct organizations of struggle) rather than building an electoral party. Such a party, in order to be successful, will take such massive effort to be effective (yet still be indirect and relatively passive, such is the act of voting) why not just put those resources into building exclusively proletarian organizations. Let the petty bourgeois class traitors and guilty bourgeois progressives build their third party as they always will, and let the class act directly in its own interests.


Pham Binh July 30, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Why should we leave politics and parties to the bosses and corporations?

Radical union organizing is all but impossible without legal rights. The IWW has been at it for quite a while.


David Berger (RED DAVE) July 31, 2013 at 10:15 am

PHAM BINH: Why should we leave politics and parties to the bosses and corporations?

DAVID BERGER: Becuase, in the way that “politics” is commonly conceived, as working within the bourgeois state to “make it go” or “reform it,” it is either a trap for the Left or an act of collaboration with the enemy.

HAM BINH: Radical union organizing is all but impossible without legal rights. The IWW has been at it for quite a while

DAVID BERGER: This is true but, (a) the rights already existed, albeit in a very distorted form; (b) the working class is developing new ways of organizing, i.e. labor centers, etc.

It is not necessary to enter the cesspool of the Democratic Party, as many are urging, to engage in revolutionary socialist activity.


Pham Binh July 31, 2013 at 10:20 am

1. Infiltrating enemy institutions is not collaboration. It’s always good to have a fifth columnist working inside their forts.

2. The legal rights that unions enjoy — restricted as hell to begin with — are being taken away because we don’t have our own party. Ever hear of a place called Wisconsin?

As for new ways of organizing, yes, and the bosses and their parties that control the state are wising up to it: http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/15378/big_business_aims_to_crush_worker_centers/


Jon Hoch July 31, 2013 at 10:33 am

However inherently corrupting folks think participating in the political process is, we can’t be afraid to get our hands dirty. Is anyone really going to say it wouldn’t have made a difference in late 2011 if NYC had a Mayor Ydanis Rodriguez or something?


Pham Binh July 31, 2013 at 11:10 am

I would prefer Shamar Thomas as OWS mayor on the Green ticket: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmEHcOc0Sys

But yeah. Having this guy on the city council is far better than another Peter Vallone who is a big supporter of stop-and-frisk. I haven’t been following the mayoral race closely, but it looks like Christine Quinn has the DP nomination in the bag so I don’t think there’s much the left can say/do on the mayoral race and the GOP candidate is the former head of the MTA, one of the city’s most-hated agencies.


Jon Hoch July 31, 2013 at 11:19 am

Isn’t putting forward “novelty/symbolic” candidates who might not have any leadership qualities or even interest in running kind of like admitting your campaign has no chance of winning right off the bat? What happened to power politics being better than protest politics?! :P


Pham Binh July 31, 2013 at 11:27 am

Uh, I never claimed Thomas was a credible or a viable candidate. I don’t know him personally nor do I know whether his paperwork is in order to get on the ballot.

My point here is to force existing left organizations to think a little more creatively and boldly about who we could run and why. I do think Thomas, as an OWSer and a Black veteran, is infinitely better than the last guy the Green Party nominated, Reverend Billy: http://www.greenpartywatch.org/2009/11/03/reverend-billy-glad-i-ran/ Thomas would make a competitive stop-and-frisk candidate and connect with the Black community a hell of a lot more than Christine Quinn will ever be able to.

I’m not for running people without a serious plan or trolling the electoral system. That is a waste of resources we don’t have.


Pham Binh July 31, 2013 at 11:30 am

Another example: why the hell didn’t the U.S. Socialist Workers Party run Malcolm X either as their presidential candidate or maybe try to get him on the ballot as a candidate for mayor or city council? If you’re going to use candidates as a means of making propaganda, at least pick people who are razor sharp and connect with a young, radicalizing audience.


Jon Hoch July 31, 2013 at 11:49 am

Sorry, I wasn’t trying to pick a fight. I just didn’t think appearing in a viral video from 2011 justified a mayoral candidacy. And some of the candidates lefty groups have run seem like absolute jokers, not to say Thomas is. Take Brian Moore, who supported Pat Buchanan in the 2000 election, and has run under the Green, Democratic, Republican, and Socialist ticket: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Moore_(politician)

I mean, I’m sure he’s a great guy as a person. But it seems pretty clear he’s ideologically all over the map.


Pham Binh July 31, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Really the challenge in 2011-2012 was how to translate Occupy into electoral terms, or, to put it another way, to Occupy the ballot box or match political action with direct action. The example and the arguments are dated since we are now in 2013 and Occupy has been more or less dead since 2012 or so, but I think the point stands. I can’t think of any figure on the NYC left/social movements who would make a good mayoral candidate of the Green Party.

Chris Lowe July 31, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Even imagining a different kind of internal SWP political process, in 1964 the relationship had not developed far yet, and by 1968 Malcolm X was dead.

But perhaps most relevant to this discussion, I don’t think Malcolm X would have seen running for president as useful. He was focused on the internal self-organization of Black communities and community based struggles. He didn’t engage in electoralism at any level as far as I know.

I’d suggest that a more useful way to use counterfactuals about Malcolm X would be to ask if we can imagine a kind of left electoralism that would have been relevant to the kind of struggles he was organizing and promoting.

http://links.org.au/node/46 (from an SWP memoir)
http://www.themilitant.com/2002/6635/663550.html (reprint 1965 interview)


Pham Binh July 31, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Fair point.

Malcolm X didn’t engage in electoralism but he did speak about strategic voting and the power that the Black vote had provided it was used in a coordinated way. He also attended sessions of the New York state legislature and watched lawmaking in action, so he was keenly aware of the need for power politics of some type.

Pham Binh August 8, 2013 at 10:30 am
John Halle August 8, 2013 at 11:07 am

Small observation on this: Zytkow needs to get 3,000 signatures to run. That seems like a lot and numbers like these are sometimes pointed to as “exclusionary” ballot access requirements by third party naysayers. In fact, it’s nothing of the kind since it’s easy to surmount: have three supporters set up tables at local supermarkets. 500 sigs in a day at least is no problem. Plus, it’s good publicity for the campaign. (I’ve done it myself, and you should too.)


Pham Binh August 8, 2013 at 11:44 am

This guy is already known and popular, so it won’t be a problem for him, but a lot of people in third-party politics are neither, hence their griping.

John Halle August 8, 2013 at 12:17 pm

You don’t have to be particularly popular or have a reputation to acquire enough signatures-you just can’t be a complete sociopath, which excludes a small but not insignificant fraction of our comrades on the “far” left, alas.

Luke Elliott August 8, 2013 at 12:22 pm

I just gotta say: if you can’t get 3k signatures, you have no hope of winning the election. (And if you’re not trying to win – which I think is silly but whatever – then gathering the signatures is part of the same process as running to lose – just getting your name and ideas out there, making a point, whatever.)

Tim Horras August 8, 2013 at 1:25 pm

I agree with John and Luke both. If you can’t get 3,000 signatures, you’re not playing to win. If you’re not playing to win, go home and work on your game. From my experience, barriers to ballot access are an excuse for not going out and organizing. As if the capitalists were going to make this easy!

John Halle July 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales would beg to differ.


occupy the crisis July 31, 2013 at 8:37 am

It is not really clear to me how the focus on “party building” lines up with this text. The author simply says he ran as a Green candidate, but says nothing about the Green Party itself and how it was strengthened or developed through this experience?
Secondly, the author contrasts single-issue protests to political office holding. Good, but Halle’s record is a (rather short) list of single achievements (ie. bike lanes, etc.). How did his post enable him — or the Green Party, or the left more broadly — to go beyond single issues? He doesn’t discuss this.
My point is not that political office therefore can’t help the building of a left organization (or party), or that it can’t help us move from a single-issue focus to a broader perspective. Just that the author doesn’t connect these, and doesn’t make a convincing argument.


John Halle July 31, 2013 at 12:23 pm

This criticism is well taken, though to lay out what I believe I accomplished in a mere one and a half terms would require a more extensive discussion, one which I have undertaken elsewhere at least in part. The main point I wanted to make here was that winning is much easier than many of the left would imagine-and is indicative of a deep dysfunctionality in the DP ranks-one which can and should be exploited. The broader point-i.e. that it’s worth doing-needs to be fleshed out, I agree, though the last chapter of Davin’s Radicals in Power on Bernie Sanders makes a pretty compelling case for what I’m arguing here.


Chris Lowe July 31, 2013 at 1:46 pm

John, I appreciate your general point, but think probably this varies a lot with locality. Here in Portland, Oregon, where there is not the kind of “machine” history you describe, where patronage tends to be softer and to run through “public-private” and non-profit contracting and revolving door careers (and perhaps therefore less oriented to working class people or less able to engage them), where local elections are “non-partisan” and Democrats tend to run on an eroding legacy of “progressivism,” and the RP is nearly moribund, the Pacific Green Party has not done all that well in local elections. It is true that DP “progressivism” is increasingly sclerotic, but I’m not sure the local *party* as such is dysfunctional in the way you say. Could be wrong.


John Halle July 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Chris, Certainly you’re right that there are big differences depending on the locality. But as the Republicans continue their trajectory toward rump party status, the spoiler factor will be increasingly irrelevant. As this progresses, the reactionary nature of the national DP will become increasingly an issue for progressive voters. While I don’t know about Portland, certainly the Kshama Sawant campaign is an indication of the possibilities not so far from you. Incidentally, in a piece I wrote about her campaign a while back, her running as an unapologetic socialist is, I think, appropriate. The Greens, by not explicitly endorsing socialist politics will more and more find themselves behind the times.


Chris Lowe July 31, 2013 at 5:25 pm

The political economy of Washington differs dramatically from Oregon’s (we have no major military industry), and likewise Seattle’s from Portland’s (always more an entrepot than a center of production, much smaller in new tech sectors despite Intel), despite climatic affinities, timber decline, and Sleater-Kinney’s dual roots. However, I should look into that more, especially if Seattle has non-partisan elections too. I’ll look for your piece.


David Berger August 1, 2013 at 12:01 pm

PHAM BINH: Really the challenge in 2011-2012 was how to translate Occupy into electoral terms

DAVID BERGER: Really? Having spent a lot of time there, before the eviction, and a lot of time in OWS after it, one issue that was never brought up was electoral action.

PHAM BINH: or, to put it another way, to Occupy the ballot box or match political action with direct action.

DAVID BERGER: I know this political action/direct action is your kick right now, but it’s irrelevant to what OWS has ever stood for.

PHAM BINH: The example and the arguments are dated since we are now in 2013 and Occupy has been more or less dead since 2012 or so

DAVID BERGER: You’ve been touting that falsehood since you dropped out of OWS about 15 months ago.

PHAM BINH: but I think the point stands. I can’t think of any figure on the NYC left/social movements who would make a good mayoral candidate of the Green Party.

DAVID BERGER: Then why not give up the election for a bad deal and engage in some labor actions for a change?


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