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

by Louis Proyect on May 8, 2015

Gayle

Two-time Mayor of Richmond who was a member of the 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.

While I was not privy to the planning meetings leading up to the conference, I feel fairly confident that the following groups were committed to its success and helped provide the organizational muscle to make it happen.

  1. Solidarity

Veterans of the Trotskyist and state capitalist left who had come to see the need for a broad and united left that could transcend the “Russian questions” formed solidarity in 1986. Robert Caldwell, a trade unionist and American Indian activist, was an initiator of the conference according to the conference program. (I had a chance to chat with Robert briefly about shared scholarly interests in Comanche history and look forward to continued exchanges.) The only other thing I would mention about Solidarity is how welcome it was to see them playing such a role. My main criticism of Solidarity in the past was its somewhat narrow focus on trade union organizing, not that there is anything wrong with an orientation to the labor movement. I felt that a more open political presence by Solidarity in its own name would be helpful and their role in making this conference possible was a sign of growth.

  1. Radical wing of the Green Party

The presence of Jill Stein, Howie Hawkins, Bruce Dixon and Linda Thompson attested to the commitment the Green left has to developing a broad and unified left. As should be obvious, the Greens have been divided over how to orient to the Democratic Party. While leaving open the possibility that the “Demogreen” orientation of David Cobb et al remains an encumbrance on the party, the relative autonomy of state chapters makes it possible for the left to push for a radical agenda as should be obvious by Howie Hawkins campaign for New York state governor last year and Bruce Dixon’s work with the Georgia Greens. I had a chance to speak to Bruce for a few minutes on Saturday and was extremely impressed by his grasp of the strategic dimensions of his work with the party and the high stakes facing the left in the electoral arena, especially with Bernie Sanders’s campaign being seen as a socialist challenge to the status quo.

  1. Socialist Alternative

Of all the groups coming out of the “Leninist” tradition, SAlt is the most committed to a Syriza or Podemos type formation in the U.S. In a very real sense, Kshama Sawant’s election was a product of that kind of thinking even though it was mounted in the name of her party rather than an alliance of left groups. Sawant was elected because she and her supporters figured out that the people of Seattle would rally around a campaign that stressed fighting for the demands of the “99 percent” rather than the talking points of the far left on questions of no immediate relevance to the citizens of Seattle.

Last year she came under attack from the ISO’s Todd Chretien for her call for a hundred independent election campaigns, something he called “overblown”. Although I think that Todd is one of the ISO’s more far-sighted leaders on the need for left unity (see below), I thought his criticisms were mistaken as I pointed out at the time in a CounterPunch article. Perhaps the most hopeful sign of changes in the air was Todd’s friendly interaction with SAlt’s Ty Moore at a Saturday panel discussion, not to speak of ISO’s willingness to take part in such a conference.

  1. ISO

The ISO has definitely seen the need for independent political action over the years, especially when Peter Camejo ran as a Green candidate for governor in California in 2006 alongside Todd Chretien who was running against Diane Feinstein. Chretien developed a close personal relationship with Camejo that almost certainly reflected an affinity with his approach that we of course are trying to sustain through the North Star.

It should also be noted that the ISO networks with socialists working inside SYRIZA, a departure from the sectarian outlook of the British SWP that orients to Antarsya and continues to raise the “Leninist” banner as if nothing has changed on the left since 1917. The ISO, it must be added, also holds to “old school” beliefs on the need for a “vanguard” even though it pays lip service to the idea of coalescing with other groups on the left moving forward.

In my view, their participation in this conference is far more important than anything they have written since action generally speaks louder than words in such matters. This is not to say that they won’t backtrack or put their own interests ahead of those of the entire left in the future, but one must remain hopeful that powerful forces operating internationally on behalf of a renewed and more unified revolutionary movement will act on these comrades as well.

Turning to the conference itself, I can only say that the presentations and discussion were some of the most advanced that I have had the pleasure to follow in many a year. This was a function to a large extent of the experience of many of the participants who have been in the trenches of the revolutionary movement for decades. Nothing was more indicative of this than the talks given by Mark Lause and Gloria Mattera at the opening session on Saturday morning about “Independent campaigns and third parties in historical context.” (I expect that video recordings of this and other sessions will be online at some point.)

Mark’s comparison between the Progressive Party and the Socialist Party kicked the conference off on the best possible note since it made the point that despite the SP’s open call for socialism, the Progressive Party’s demands were equal to the SP’s if not superior on some. In my own research on the Progressive Party, I came to the conclusion that the Comintern’s opposition to the Progressives was a mistake and that both the La Follette campaign in 1924 and Henry Wallace’s in 1948 were worthy of support. I strongly urge you to pay close attention to Mark’s talk when it is online since it really helps you to understand the value of such campaigns that have historically been dismissed by the revolutionary left.

Gloria Mattera is co-chair of the NY State Green Party and is active with the Brooklyn chapter. Her talk was a real revelation since it detailed how she decided to become a Green, namely out of frustration with her former party’s failure (SAlt) to see the value of an independent electoral formation on the left. Perhaps it can be said that SAlt has come around to this way of thinking but perhaps not so much on the need for building the Green Party. This, in fact, is a key question facing the left. Does the Green Party help or hinder efforts to build a powerful anticapitalist party in the USA? After the Demogreen debacle of 2004, I was pessimistic about its prospects but now after Howie Hawkins’s campaign, I am beginning to think that a Green resurgence is the key next step to building the kind of movement we so desperately need. As is the case with Mark’s talk, Gloria’s is must viewing when it is online.

The next panel discussion was just as important in terms of left strategy and tactics. Organized around the topic of “Recent campaigns and electoral models”, it allowed Ty Moore of Socialist Alternative, Gayle McLaughlin of the Richmond, California Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Hanson of the Vermont Progressive Party, and Howie Hawkins to exchange information and ideas.

For me, the biggest revelation was what was going on in Richmond, where radicals have won elections for Mayor and City Council for a number of years now. This is a largely Latino and working class city in the Bay Area that has suffered the effects of having a Chevron refinery in its midst that benefits nobody except its managers and stockholders. As tuned in as I am to developments on the left, I had no idea that these comrades have been making such strides. Gayle is a member of the Green Party who has been elected Mayor twice. Upon a search for her on Wikipedia, I was stunned to discover that she and I share an identical background:

During the 1980s, McLaughlin was an activist with the Central American solidarity movement and a steering committee member of CISPES (Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). She also played an active role in the North Star Network, a national networking effort to unite progressives, and in coalition-building efforts with Rainbow/PUSH.

Jeremy Hanson and Howie Hawkins came down on different sides on the Bernie Sanders question. Jeremy believed that Sanders has always exploited openings in the ballot code in order to promote a radical agenda even as he is supposedly doing as a DP candidate for President. Howie was adamant that we cannot make alliances with the Democratic Party since it only fosters illusions that the party is redeemable. One observation he made has stuck with me, namely that David Koch was a major donor to the Andrew Cuomo campaign for governor of NY at the very time the Working Families Party was urging a vote for him on their line. Something was obviously very wrong with this self-defeating maneuver even though so many on the left might still buy into it.

After lunch, when I had an opportunity to speak with my old friend Ernie Tate who came down from Toronto with his partner Jess McKenzie to observe the conference, I attended a roundtable discussion on the experiences and legacy of the 60s and 70s that was as richly rewarding as the previous two sessions.

Guy Miller, an ex-SWPer, spoke about the campaigns we ran in the 60s and 70s that were strictly by-the-number “propaganda” campaigns to help recruit people to the party. Even though they were narrow in scope, they did have a certain impact on broader sections of the population given the kind of publicity they generated. For example, when Fred Halstead and Paul Boutelle were guests on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, millions of people heard radicals for the first time in their life. I would give the old bastard credit for inviting Fred and Paul to speak, something that the “liberal” NPR and PBS are incapable of nowadays. (Watch it here: https://vimeo.com/18611069).

Now as I am writing this article, I realize that another take on SWP campaigns would occasionally percolate to the surface. In 1972, when I was a member of the Boston branch, there was a big debate on how we were organizing the campaigns for local office in Boston and Cambridge with some members being assailed for having “electoralist” illusions, which meant muting some of the histrionics associated with the Trotskyist movement and focusing on the real concerns of the city—in other words running a Kshama Sawant type campaign.

Then there was the fight in the NY branch in 1980 when Peter Camejo proposed a united left mayoral campaign against Ed Koch who was running for reelection with backing from the Democratic and Republican parties. Peter proposed that we meet with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and other left groups to forge a common program and unite around a candidate, and not run the standard SWP propaganda campaign. He thought the party would welcome this since it would be seen as being inspired by the Sandinista revolution that the Militant newspaper was hailing. Instead Peter was reviled as an opportunist and watering down the revolutionary program. So baffled by this sectarian response was he that he took a leave of absence and went to Venezuela to try to figure out what had gone wrong with the party he had been a member of for over two decades. It was this loss of confidence in the SWP and his search for an alternative that led to the North Star that Gayle McLaughlin and I hooked up with and whose mission we hope to keep alive on this website.

Let me begin to conclude with some words on Bruce Dixon’s talk and my impression of the role he is playing on the American left. Bruce spoke about the Black Panther Party, a group he belonged to as a young man and that he described as belonging to a certain time and place. In response to questions about whether a new Panther party can come into existence, he replies that the conditions that created it no longer exist. Specifically, when the draft ended, the student radicalization went into a steep decline and thus robbed the BPP of one of its main bases of support. He said that this was much more destructive than police repression, which actually had the contradictory effect of building sympathy and support for the Panthers.

Later on I ran into Bruce in the hallway and spoke to him for about 15 minutes. I was left with the impression that he and his comrades at the Black Agenda Report are a genuine vanguard of the Black struggle, a group that has stood fast in opposition to the Democratic Party and resisted the temptation to become part of the NGO world or elected officials like Barack Obama.

While relatively small in number, their example and their clarity serve as a beacon in a period of deepening Black militancy and possibilities of united revolutionary action across ethnic, gender and ideological lines.

Finally, let me say a word about the problematic “vanguard” question. The Leninist left has become accustomed to saying that it is only the “nucleus” of a vanguard and not the actual vanguard itself, which will only emerge after forces coalesce through unfolding struggles. What this boils down to is an excuse for sectarian behavior since it postpones the task of left unity to the distant future rather than the present day.

If “nucleus” is drawn from the language of physics, I would suggest a term drawn from chemistry that better describes the task of today rather than the misty future, namely catalyst. A catalyst is an agent that can effect a chemical change once all the different elements are present. Isn’t this what is needed now? A catalytic action would include, for example, the decision to hold exactly such a conference as was held in Chicago that begins the process of breaking down the barriers that separate left groups and makes united action possible. 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.

(In addition, I recommend a look at Dan La Botz’s article in New Politics and Chelsey Sprengeler’s Facebook report that is particularly noteworthy as a contribution from a young activist.)

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Manuel Barrera May 8, 2015 at 12:51 pm

So, BAR’s hideous and backward view of the Syrian struggle is of no consequence to you? I agree with catalyst analogy and I am glad of the success of the conference. But is a success only in a very narrow context. I know you, as many of us, have lived so long with the scourge of sectarianism preventing unity on the left. Getting together the most “advanced” of the “usual suspects” on the left is promising–for them. I wonder just what it will take to create the catalyst you speak of without forthrightly debating the treachery being promulgated internationally while appearing to “unite” in the U.S. These are not questions that long distant like the Russian revolution. They are of direct relevance to every local, state, and national campaign any revolutionary worthy of the name needs to address.

Frankly, Louis, you act as if you are afraid to rock the boat. It is unbecoming, but, more to the point, it is unconscionable. You are correct, actions do speak louder than words. I am not like the Catrons of the world who think you need organize a rally or leaflet on the corner to enage in action. That it does not seem that you or the rest of the editorial board engaged in anything worthy of true participation in this conference and this “report” reminds me more of those cheerleading reports I used to read in the Militant as we were waning about “small but spirited” actions.

I am not disappointed in the conference. I am disappointed in NSN’s contribution.

Reply

Green Party Member May 9, 2015 at 11:28 am

“As should be obvious, the Greens have been divided over how to orient to the Democratic Party. While leaving open the possibility that the “Demogreen” orientation of David Cobb et al remains an encumbrance on the party”

Why should it be “obvious”? Can a single Green Party member at the conference be quoted as equivocating on whether to vote Dem in 2016? Jill Stein can not. Howie Hawkins can not. Bruce Dixon can not. Who was urging orientation toward the Democratic Party?

I find it difficult to put much stock in an analysis of the Green Party that clearly hasn’t looked past 2004. It has now been over a decade. After receiving the party’s nomination, David Cobb never served in any leadership position in the party. Based on this analysis, a reader who had never heard of the Green Party might literally believe that the party hasn’t run a candidate – for President or otherwise – since 2004. No analysis of how the party pulled McKinney out of the Democratic Party in 2008, how the party resisted the lore of celebrity Roseanne Barr in 2012 to unite around a long-time Green…nothing. There are no Cobb operatives skulking the ranks. In the future, please give the last two election cycles a look.

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Michael Cavlan May 9, 2015 at 11:34 pm

Another Green Party member with another perspective.

First- yes there are Greens who push for closer cooperation with the Dems. In Minnesota it is elected officials like Annie Young and Cam Gordon that do so. It happens with others on the National Green party. Second, yes there are Cobb type operatives still working on the national scene. Including Jill Steins former campaign manager Ben Manski.

How the national Greens sabotaged Cynthia McKinneys (my hero) campaign is something that I will never forgive them for. Not all the Greens but the Demo-Green elements.

lastly- running a very weak campaign and pushing ONLY small local elections is what some Green party “leaders” want. that is simply another version of safe states. IMHO

We are working in Minnesota to have some of these issues dealt with

Michael Cavlan
Minnesota Green Party
US Senate Candidate 2006

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Liane Gale May 10, 2015 at 7:10 pm

As for the question: “Does the Green Party help or hinder efforts to build a powerful anticapitalist party in the USA?” In its current platform, the Green Party does not seek an end to capitalism, but only supports a nicer version of it. Only by removing the capitalist system altogether can the humane world we all desire be realized. I am not sure whether we can expect the Green Party to explicitly condemn capitalism any time soon, considering that the decision process at the national level seem to take a long time, and because of the presence of conservative members, that would regard this step as too radical. At the very least, the economic platform of the Green Party needs to be re-visited, as it is currently just a mishmash of nice ideas.

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Scott McLarty May 13, 2015 at 7:49 pm

“As should be obvious, the Greens have been divided over how to orient to the Democratic Party. While leaving open the possibility that the ‘Demogreen’ orientation of David Cobb et al remains an encumbrance on the party….”

Who are these Greens with a Demogreen orientation in 2015?

In 2004, many Greens supported David Cobb not because of his alleged “safe states” campaign but because a Green presidential campaign helps build a permanent party, while an independent campaign leaves no legacy beyond Election Day, except for the percentage of votes received. The 2004 and 2008 independent Nader campaigns, like John Anderson’s 1980 campaign, left nothing in their wake.

In 2005, the GP’s National Committee passed a resolution declaring the party’s intention (1) always to run a Green nominee for president; and (2) to reject the safe-states campaign strategy.

There are a few individual Greens who support Bernie, maybe even some who’ll vote for Hillary, but the party as a whole is committed to running a Green presidential nominee in 2016, along with candidates for state and local offices at all levels. Howie Hawkins has wide support within the party. I don’t know what the “radical wing” of the GP is because I don’t see a counter wing. The fact that there is a range of opinion among GP members is inevitable in any national party, but I haven’t seen any evidence of organized factions.

This should be good news for anyone who wants to see a permanent independent party to compete with the corporate-money parties, who wants that party to nominate a presidential candidate who’ll run an aggressive campaign, and who has no illusions about the Sanders campaign and its eventual surrender to the Clinton juggernaut.

(Full disclosure: I work as media coordinator for the Green Party of the US)

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Howard Switzer May 14, 2015 at 2:53 pm

“I had no idea that these comrades have been making such strides. Gayle is a member of the Green Party who has been elected Mayor twice.” Isn’t that typical, right, “had no idea” and yet much to criticize about Greens based on little if any evidence. As a Green I see the left/right representing two failed economic theories. My hope is that people begin to realize the ruse, drop the leftist jargon and move forward with the party that would end capitalism by implementing GP’s monetary reform plank which would take the power to issue money away from the private capitalists and put it in its proper role in public government. Another thing I’m sure the author “had no idea” about.

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Michael Cavlan May 18, 2015 at 3:25 pm

Scott McLarty

Really?Seriously? In fact i was a David Cobb supporter I at the 2005 Green Convention in Wisconsin as a Minnesota Delegate. later I became one of the Minnesota Delegates for the National Green Party. My own and others experience on this was, lets just say not so good. Myself and other delegates were in fact booted out and not even allowed to speak or represent ourselves or our states.

I am back in the Green party BUT the GP has some very, very serious issues on a structural level that need to be dealt with.

And yes there ARE Demo-Greens and safe staters who are still active in the GP “leadership.” I can name them if you like.

Starting with some right here in Minnesota.

On the top[ic I am absolutely delighted that this discussion above and the conference is taking place and went so well.

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Michael Cavlan May 18, 2015 at 3:34 pm

Oh and for the record- some of those people are gathered around the Jill Stein campaign. It was one of the major reasons I did not support or bonded trust the Jill Stein campaign and worked on the Rocky Anderson campaign.

The fact that the GP remains in deep denial about this and the structural issues has shown that they are not an issue for some. Which means that they will not be changed. That was the lesson of the Greens For Ralph Nader in 2008. I was a rabid Cynthia McKinney supporter who seen these fine people as ALLIES instead of the enemy. This means I ended up on the target list and ended up being “disappeared” as a national Delegate. Just like my friend and ally- former GP Co-Chair Liz Arnone from New Jersey.

The issues brought up- the deep STRUCTURAL issues that was exposed remain unanswered or even addressed. Nice talk about how “we are all in this together” do not cut it.

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