Some Supplemental Thoughts on the Left Elect Conference

by Mark A. Lause on May 10, 2015

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki Testifies Before Senate  Committee

A challenge to the left

 The organizers of the Leftelect conference said that it exceeded their expectations in attendance and results. While I am no less excited and pleased, the results–the idea of holding another conference at some point–had been very predictable. I was hardly disappointed by this, because we really had no reason to expect more, but it is important to note that participants in the conference were ready to do more.

I have little to add to the descriptions of the conference by Louis Proyect of The North Star and Dan Labotz of The New Politics, the latter also being one of the conference organizers. However, I did want to underscore a few issues that merit particular thought about this historic gathering.

Bernie Sanders

Towards the close of the first day, supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders circulated an open letter from the newly declared Democratic presidential candidate expressing his solidarity with the goals of the conference and reminding us of his efforts on behalf of independent candidates at Richmond, Madison, and Chicago. While such a development should have surprised nobody, the conference thereafter seemed haunted by the Sanders’ campaign. It could have addressed this by appointing a committee to draft a response. (After getting home, John Halle, Fred Murphy and myself made a very respectable job at doing this in a few emails.) Then, either the conference organizers could have send it or the conference itself could have voted to send it.

However, the conference seemed strangely stunned by how to deal with the Sanders campaign. For the next day and a half, people seemed to be wandering around with grim expressions and using adjectives like “rough,” “difficult,” and “troublesome.” If the Sanders campaign caused that much serious forebodings, we should have set aside time to discuss it, but I’m not sure it’s anything real at all. Rather, it comes out of a real exaggeration of the campaign’s importance on every level.

Brother Labotz writes, “During the next year and a half, the question of how we relate to the Sanders campaign, which has the potential to reach and involve millions of progressives, will be challenging.” That year and a half takes us to the November 2016 election. In fact, we all know that the Sanders campaign will be out of the picture entirely way before that. It could be over a lot quicker than that, if the initial polling is any indication, but, if the economic news becomes worse, Sanders could well produce some surprises. Even so, the Clinton money will smother his campaign before it gets anywhere near the Democratic nomination.

Afterwards, it is possible that Sanders may take his supporters out of the Democratic Party and make an independent bid for the presidency. This would be a real game-changer and, if it happened, it would open immense opportunities for us. However, it’s about as likely an eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano.

And, between the two, the smart money’s on Yellowstone.

More importantly, the conference was not focused on national politics or a presidential endorsement, so the Sanders simply shouldn’t have entered into it. When the open letter was distributed, someone from the chair of the conference asked, as a straw poll, how many participants supported Sanders, and barely a half dozen raised their hands. Yet, the concerns of this tiny portion of the conference dominated it through this ongoing, persistent exaggeration of the Sanders campaign. In the end, people who want to support Sanders are certainly free to do so. If local independent officeholders do so as well, there is nothing the conference could have done to prevent it. So what?

In the end, nobody saw the conference as the regroupment of a vanguard or even some pre-party steps towards a common electoral formation. Nobody even remotely suggested that other components of the conference would sever our political associations with people who supported Sanders. So it makes no sense for any participant in the conference to lose much sleep over as campaign that will run its own course to a generally predictable outcome.

Acknowledging Points of Common Agreement

In the final general session, Matt Hoke proposed that the conference adopt a series of key points around which various local independent campaigns could coalesce. A number of people had been discussing this earlier, as well. The conference participants clearly agreed on a range of very general and obvious common concerns–Black Lives Matter, ending the privatization of public assets, free and fair ballot access, etc. This would essentially codify what’s already been taking place in the independent campaigns that had taken place and would provide some general guidelines for those attempting to spread the movement.

While I saw no clear opposition to doing this, a general agreement prevailed among the conference organizers not to do so. I think this reflects a regrettable brittleness and inflexibility that merits correcting.

To some extent, this reflects the reality that there are various groups involved in organizing and dominating the course of the conference. It is in the nature of the situation that, if we are going to keep everyone involved on board, we can move no more quickly and decisively than the most hesitant and conservative of the participating groups. I am no less eager than anyone to keep all of these groups involved, and salute what they’ve achieved as laudatory, even unprecedented in recent times.

But we are paying a certain price for doing it in the way that we have.

What is important is for us to be up and going. I agree with Brother Proyect’s closing remarks: “Let’s think more in terms of catalysts than nuclei if our goal is making progress toward the next important step in the American Revolution, uniting those opposed to capitalism into a common organization on the basis of a principled and radical program.”

This requires all concerned, particularly the groups to be open to new possibilities and opportunities. This means opening the door not just to the nominal attendance of unaffiliated radicals at these events but of actually welcoming their substantive contribution.

The National Scale of a Political Movement

When I arrived at the conference, I believed that the most it could accomplish would be the establishment of some national organizing committee for a new political party. The presence of people from Syriza and Podemos reflected this aspiration as well.

Even after it became clear that the organizers of the conference explicitly opposed such a course, an unacknowledged anticipation of such a possibility seemed omnipresent in the discussions among the participants. The panel with Jonathan Martin, and John Halle very explicitly discussed the prospect of a new political party of the 99% and offered some original approaches that were worth more serious consideration than they received.

For the present, though, as Linda Thompson Lancz pointed out that there was no need to reinvent the wheel in terms of a national party. The Green Party exists, the numbers and skills that socialists could bring to building the Green Party would have a very positive effect, and their participation is possible, if not always welcomed.

Two former national candidates–Jill Stein (Green presidential 2012) and Rosa Clemente (Green vice presidential 2008)–actively participated in the conference. Stein is also actively engaged in preparing another presidential campaign for 2016. Clemente hinted that she may be doing so as well. Both spoke but neither were particularly showcased and, at times, seemed to fade, partly in deference to several participating groups that had waged their own national political campaigns earlier, particularly the Peace and Freedom Party and the Socialist Party.

Right now, the Greens represent a perfectly viable alternative at the national level. None of this has to do with “party-building.” It doesn’t mandate that you take a specific course in your local elections. It might make more sense to run as independents, progressives, or socialists in those races. But national campaigns are expensive and time-consuming. If you have a group that’s already doing it that you can, in principle, support, why replicate the effort?

I’ve already laid out my views on this in “Do Marxist Principles Permit Us to Be Greens?” []. Nobody’s actually responded to any of it other than to repeat the mantras discredited in the article.

I am on the state committee of the Green Party of Ohio, but anybody who knows my experience with the group knows that I’m not taking this position because I am some kind of booster for the organization. Most of those active seem to have made a virtual religion of their own disorganization that prevails. In November 2014, we got 100,000 votes statewide–that’s back up to the peak won by the Nader campaign in 2000 and offering us a tremendous second chance at that botched opportunity. In response, the local party has decided that it should meet only when necessary and, in lieu of that announced a wild flower walk. “Wear comfortable shoes,” indeed.

Notwithstanding all the mind-numbing unevenness of the Green Party, the Stein campaign of 2012 brought new hope for a national political movement. She has addressed the issues of race, gender and class in a way that recalls the best campaigns I’ve ever had the chance to support. Her speech at the candidates panel recalled some of Peter Camejo’s best. Frankly, I can’t imagine any reason for running a candidate against the Greens in 2016 other than the less than honorable strategy of Eric Cartman to build one’s own clubhouse.

* * *

In closing, for two national campaign cycles, I’ve had Democrats of all sorts, including self-described “socialist” clones jumping up and down shrieking hysterically that any opposition to Obama amounted to support for “the Republican War on Women,” etc. I remember trying to challenge this and all the socialists around scurrying to disassociate themselves from my remarks. This stuff had been central in 2008, was resurrected with a lesser effect in 2012, and we can anticipate that it will matter even less in the dynastic clash of 2016. I am–dare I say it–optimistic about the outlook for independent action in 2016 and I think other people should be as well.

Part of that optimism will be rooted in the fact that this conference took place. Despite the criticisms I’ve raised, we should all acknowledge that we’re moving onto new ground here and there’s a case to make for making sure that every step is onto solid ground. But in considering how to move forward in the future, I would urge upon the continuities committee: “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace.”


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Charles May 10, 2015 at 3:05 pm

For those who might want some stiff historical economic analysis of the Sanders thing,


Sheldon May 14, 2015 at 10:02 pm

“That year and a half takes us to the November 2016 election. In fact, we all know that the Sanders campaign will be out of the picture entirely way before that.”

Wait, now how do we know that? I am mystified how anybody can be a Marxist and not see the potential for change that may be unpredictable. But instead, so many leftist know exactly how things are going to play out before they do.


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