The Elecions and the Left

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Robert Brenner, Warren Montag & Charlie Post

IN THE PAST several months, electoral initiatives have captured the imagination of much of the left. In mid­April, a national meeting of the Rainbow Coalition established that organization as a permanent body. Shortly thereafter, leading forces from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) held a conference on “New Directions,” basically aimed to pursue their established strategy of strengthening the left wing of the Democratic Party.

This gathering brought together not only representatives of that layer of trade union officials and liberal politicians toward which DSA has traditionally oriented, but also representatives of the Rainbow Coalition, notably Jesse Jackson himself. Jackson’s appearance as keynote speaker at the “New Directions” conference may foreshadow increasing cooperation between the Rainbow and mainstream DSA elements, many of whom supported Walter Mondale and refused to back Jesse Jackson in the 1984 elections.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, mayor of Burlington, Vermont, has mounted a challenge to the political monopoly of the two capitalist parties by launching his campaign as an open socialist for the governorship of Vermont.

The Left’s Electoral Goals Today

In part, the trend toward involvement with electoral work represents an adoption by leftists of reformist perspectives, as was the case with the New American Movement’s merger with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form DSA. The merger represented a forthright decision by the majority of the NAM to adopt DSOCs strategy of building a left wing within the Democratic Party. (See Stanley Aronowitz, “On Electoral Strategy,” Against the Current, old series, Winter 1982.)

But many left activists still reject the electoral road to reform or to power or to socialism. But in order to respond to today’s difficult political environment, particularly the problems posed by the long-term weakening of the mass movements-especially the labor, Black, and anti-intervention struggles-and the shift to the right of establishment politics, they have experimented with electoral work. They have done so, it seems, with four main goals.

1. Rebuilding the Movements. Candidacies like those of Mel King for mayor of Boston, Harold Washington for mayor of Chicago against the white machine, and Jesse Jackson aroused the enthusiasm of masses of people and significant numbers flooded into their campaigns. Many leftists have entered campaigns such as these to make contact with people who clearly want change, to recruit new forces and unify left efforts, laying the groundwork for a new phase of mass action to come later. This is one of the explicit goals of many left activists in the Rainbow Coalition.

2. To Politicize the Struggle. Especially as they have deepened their involvement in electoral work, many leftists have come to regard electoral struggles as social movements. They see in electoral work a way to carry out explicitly political struggles, for explicitly political goals, something which is rather difficult to do in today’s grassroots movements. Indeed, they hope that the political character of their electoral organizations and campaigns will help to politicize the different mass struggles.

3. To Provide Some Sort of Programmatic Alternative for Reform. Given the sharp shift to the right of both parties, many leftists have felt it is increasingly important to keep before the U.S. public, in a practical way, a serious reform program. Electoral campaigns, like those of Jesse Jackson or Harold Washington, seem one of the few ways this can be done.

4. To Promote Independent Political Action. Especially with the campaign of Bernie Sanders for governor of Vermont, leftists have begun to consider using local independent campaigns to precipitate breaks from the Democratic Party, with the long-term goal of creating more or less permanent preparty organizations outside the Democratic Party. Some who have entered the Rainbow Coalition and the Democratic Party have done so with the goal of pulling people out-indeed, if possible, to break the Rainbow itself from the Democratic Party.

These goals are, in the eyes of many leftists, interrelated. The recently formed National Committee for Independent Political Action (NCIPA) has the strategy of entering the Rainbow Coalition with the objectives of building the mass movements, giving these movements greater unity and a more political character, and on that basis, ultimately catalyzing a break from the Democratic Party. It is NCIPA’s hope that the Rainbow Coalition, or sections of it, eventually can be broken off from the Democratic Party to form one base for a new mass people’s party in the United States. (See “An NCIPA Draft Political Statement.”)

The Rainbow Coalition

Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition is unquestionably the electoral initiative in which the left today has placed its greatest hopes. This organization’s April conference, at which it established itself as a permanent body, was in many respects quite impressive. Those who attended rep­ resented a very wide variety of movements from all over the country-farmers, rank-and-file militants including P-9 strikers, anti-apartheid activists, and feminists. Equally notable were the large number of “big names” in attendance, above all leading Black elected officials including Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry; Congressional Black Caucus members John Conyers (MI) Charlie Hayes and Gus Savage (IL), Harold Ford (TN), Walter Fauntroy (DC), Mickey Leland (TX) and Charles Rangel (NY); California State Assemblywoman Maxine Waters; Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana; and C. Delores Tucker, chair of the Black Caucus of the Democratic National Committee.

Also present were such notables as Tony Amaya, governor of New Mexico; Texas Agriculture Secretary Jim Hightower; and left trade union officials William Winpisinger, leader of the International Association of Machinists; and Kenneth Blaylock, head of the American Federation of Government Employees.

At the conference and in its immediate aftermath, moreover, the Rainbow succeeded in establishing a permanent organizational structure, adopting a program, and setting certain priorities, notably campaigning in the South. The NCIPA Newsletter (Summer 1986) thus called the convention “a positive event in more ways than one” and gave an overall enthusiastic report of its proceedings. NCIPA’s Executive Committee judged the results more than ample reason to call on all elements of the left to deepen their involvement in local Rainbow chapters (“Rainbow Coalition on the Move”).

It is easy to understand why leftists would wish to find ways to relate, in an effective way, to the Rainbow. In 1984 Jesse Jackson unquestionably captured the enthusiasm of the Black masses, who flocked to his speeches and rallies, voter registration drives and primary campaigns. Jackson’s political positions-against U.S. intervention in Central America, against the cuts in social spending, etc.–voiced by far the most left-wing program within what might be termed respectable U.S. politics. Of equal importance, the Rainbow is the arena today where Blacks and whites, and especially Black and white leftists, are working together on an everyday basis to combat the right. Finally, leftists are seeking to use the umbrella of local Rainbow organizations to unite left forces for activist participation in the movements against U.S. intervention in Central America or support for P-9.

Nevertheless, to develop strategy and tactics toward the Rainbow Coalition-and before, in particular, deciding to premise an intervention in the Coalition at the national level on the possibility of using it to strengthen the mass movements, to politicize them, and ultimately to precipitate some sort of break from the Democratic Party–it is important to assess just what the Rainbow Coalition is, the balance of forces within it, its evolution up to now, and its future dynamic.

Black Elected Officials & Rainbow Leadership

No doubt the most significant force within the Rainbow today is Jesse Jackson himself. Jackson’s compelling figure turned the Rainbow into a national power. Jackson has made his strategy very explicit from the start. He intends to use the primary election campaigns to register Black voters and mobilize Black support to build a powerful Black block within the Democratic Party, from which to exert leverage upon the party.

Initially, Jesse Jackson’s entry into the political ring provoked the opposition of much of the (pro-Mondale) Black political establishment, notably key elected officials like Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit and Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta. But once Jackson showed his extraordinary Black popular support in the primaries, a great part of this opposition evaporated. At the recent Rainbow convention, such influential former Jackson opponents as Representative Charles Rangel (NY) and Representative Mickey Leland (TX) made show of their conversion.

The reason is not hard to understand. Jackson spoke directly to the desire of the Black elected officials, and the Black political leadership more generally, to pursue more effectively their own strategy of strengthening their clout inside the Democratic Party.

Following the vicious repression of the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of what remained of the Black movement relinquished the direct-action strategy-hallmark of the civil rights and Black Power struggles-to pursue reform by means of running for office as Democratic Party candidates in the big cities. The Black electoral effort has 1 dominated Black politics in the 1970s and 1980s and has been remarkably successful in its own terms. Black mayors now govern four of the six largest cities in the nation-and a total of twenty cities with populations over 100,000. In 1973, there were only 48 Black mayors across the country; today there are 229.

Black electoral success in the cities has brought certain real gains to the Black community. Greater recruitment of Blacks to big city police departments has reduced police racism somewhat; more generally, Blacks have greater access to offices and public jobs. Nevertheless, the rise of the Black elected officials has coincided with a dual development which has made it exceedingly difficult for them to protect the living standards of the Black masses.

First, the onset of the economic crisis since the early 1970s has increased levels of unemployment and general economic distress for Black workers and their families. Second, the growing federal budget cutbacks have decreased funds to the urban areas, for welfare, health care, and social services just when these are most needed.

Under these conditions, and in the absence of militant mass struggle within the Black community and the society as a whole, the Black elected officials have found themselves obliged in city after city to administer austerity, to oppose the demands of public workers, and to implement programs of “urban redevelopment”–a euphemism for tax breaks and subsidies to the corporations in exchange for gutting working-class and poor neighborhoods, and the “revitalization” of the center cities through attracting big business (often, these days, financial capital) and upper-middle-class consumers.

On the other hand, the electoral success of Blacks as big-city mayors, as well as congressmen, has helped a relatively limited layer of the Black community to consolidate some of the gains which resulted from the struggles of the ‘60s, as well as from the long-term growth of the government sector. Black professionals, small businessmen, public administrators and politicos have benefitted most from the (now-shrinking) “Great Society” poverty and welfare programs, the expansion of supervisory positions in state and local government, and the (limited) affirmative action programs in the universities and the professions. This “Black leadership stratum” has formed the hard core of support for the Black elected officials and for a political strategy of relying primarily on elections and pressure inside the Democratic Party and assigning a secondary and subordinate role (if any at all) to mass action.

In recent years the Black elected officials, and the Black political leadership more generally, have consolidated their organization around the strategy of strengthening the Black (and liberal) bloc within the Democratic Party. This is evident, for example, in the strengthening of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Conference of Black Mayors. Moreover, following Reagan’s election, they organized more formally in what they termed “the Black leadership family.” At its first meeting in 1981, attended by more than 1,000 people, NAACP representative Joseph Madison sounded the dominant political theme:

‘The militancy of the old days is passé, we’ve got to develop technical militance out of those middle-class affiliated Blacks who have received training, acquired good education, and worked themselves into the mainstream of economic life.”

All this has its implications for the Rainbow effort. If Jesse Jackson himself constitutes the ultimate force insuring that the Rainbow will remain almost entirely an electoralist vehicle and one oriented almost totally toward the Democratic Party, the influx of representatives of the Black political establishment into the Rainbow Coalition greatly strengthens that tendency. Those hoping to turn the Rainbow toward building mass movements, let alone away from the Democratic Party, must bargain on confronting both Jackson and significant elements of the powerful national Black leadership within the Coalition.

More than Jesse Jackson’s electoral magnetism won him the support of growing numbers among the Black political leadership. The rightward lurch of the Democrats, their increasing adoption of neo-liberal political perspectives, induces the Black political leadership even more desperately and systematically to attempt to build a counterforce within the Democratic Party. The trade union wing of the Democratic Party is facing an analogous predictiment.

During the mid-to-late 1970s, the AFL-CIO, backed strongly by DSA, pursued even more single-mindedly than in the past its traditional strategy of “realignment,” of building the liberal wing of the party. They devoted all their energies toward electing what they termed a “veto­proof Congress” under the Republican Gerald Ford and, with the Jimmy Carter candidacy, a Democratic congressional majority and the presidency. Despite their electoral success during the Ford-Carter years, not a single AFL-CIO legislative priority passed-not common situs picketing, labor law reform, national health insurance or full employment. Recently things have gotten even worse as the mainstream of the Democratic Party has moved rightward to keep up with Reagan.

A better working arrangement with Black elected officials, in part constructed through the Rainbow Coalition, might help the labor leadership recover some of their leverage. Jackson’s major role at DSA’s “New Directions” meeting and the notable appearance of Winpisinger at the Rainbow conference are certainly signs of a hesitant regroupment, at least among the more left wings of the Black political and trade-union political establishments. How effective this can actually be in a period in which neither group speaks for really organized mass movements of any force, nor in which their constituents are in de facto conflict over the decreasing crumbs of the social-service state, remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, the prospect of increasing participation by trade-union officials within a Rainbow Coalition already heavily weighted toward electoralism by the Jackson leadership and the preponderant position of the Black political officials cannot be viewed with equanimity by those who would hope to orient the Rainbow away from an electoral fixation and away from the Democratic Party. The “left” trade-union officialdom, perhaps even more ferociously than the Black politicos, have made clear they will support “left” programmatic perspectives only while standing hard against any sign of independent militant action from below. Throughout the 1970s, the most liberal wing of the trade-union bureaucracy, led in particular by the UAW, AFSCME and the UMW, pursued their support for the Democratic Party left wing while moving to crush a long series of rank-and-file rebellions in the auto industry, the public sector, the mines and elsewhere.

In this respect IAM president William Winpisinger, a prominent figure at the Rainbow convention, is archetypical. While calling himself a socialist and mouthing support for every kind of progressive social program, Winpisinger has consistently stood for bureaucratic conservatism and sharply against worker militancy and rank-and-file control within the trade-union movement.

Winpisinger condemned the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the dissident movement within the IBT, and openly opposed reformer Ed Sadlowski’s electoral challenge to the bureaucratic leadership of the Steelworkers Union. Far more important, he resolutely opposed bringing out his machinists to support striking air controllers in what has been perhaps the most pivotal labor battle of the Reagan years, the PATCO strike. Recently he refused to allow the machinists to honor the Flight Attendants’ picket line during their impressive, though ultimately losing, strike against TWA. Winpisinger and his allies within the Rainbow will not sit idly while left forces interfere with plans they might have to use the Coalition to strengthen the liberal bloc within the Democratic Party.

The Rainbow Balance of Forces

The present balance of forces within the Rainbow Coalition was clearly manifest at the Rainbow conference. Jesse Jackson and his followers from among the Black elected officials (and a few of their friends among the liberal trade-union bureaucrats) predominated, and so did their priorities.

The very large governing board for the Rainbow was simply handpicked by Jackson and his immediate entourage, although a few representatives from the gathering were added when, in the words of the Guardian, “delegates were taken aback at the level of centralism.” This body must approve each state group seeking to be chartered, and Jackson himself must approve each state chairperson.

Expressing the overwhelmingly electoralist goals of the Rainbow, it was decided that the local organizations of the Coalition were to correspond to states and to electoral congressional districts, although it was also agreed to allow already existing local Rainbow groups organized on different lines to continue to function for the time being. Little of the discussion and debate in the small groups and workshops over policy, strategy, and tactics for the movements reached the convention, which was devoted mostly to organizational questions. The body will meet every two years.

In the words of one of the Coalition’s stronger advocates, “In getting the foundations of [the Rainbow’s] electoral machine in place almost all other aspects of maturing grassroots peoples’ organization have been neglected. Essentially, the Democratic Party’s model of organization had been adopted lock, stock and barrel.” (Line of March’s newspaper, Frontline, 6/9/86)

Prospects for a Rainbow Left Wing

The Rainbow’s dominance by forces wedded to electoralism and to the Democratic Party will make it exceedingly difficult for the left, without the renewal of truly dynamic mass struggles within the Black community, to avoid repeating the demoralizing Rainbow experience of 1984. Leftists within the Rainbow do not now have the strength to form a pole of attraction based on any strategy opposed to that of Jackson and the Rainbow leadership. Nor is it likely that the Rainbow campaigns to come will offer them much of an opening.

In 1984, it will be remembered, the overwhelming focus was on getting millions of unregistered Blacks signed up for the Democratic Party. Jackson hoped to use this newly created electoral base, to leverage the Democratic Party. Jackson and the Black elected officials would deliver a much increased Black vote to the Democrats, if they would, in return, grant the Black bloc a greater role within the party and, more generally, make certain programmatic concessions. There is no reason to think the general strategy will be much different this time.

Certainly once the campaign got going it captured the imagination of the Black masses. The Black community attended the Jackson rallies and speeches in huge numbers. Many flocked into the campaign to support the primary effort. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that those leftists who joined the local Rainbow Coalitions with the intent of building the campaign in order to help build the movements and politicize the struggle were able even to begin to carry out their plans. This was, in part, because of the control exerted from above by the official leadership. But it was also because of the character of electoral struggles–and the requirements of winning them–especially in a period in which there is relatively little mass action or organization in the Black community independent of the electoral struggle.

To win an election campaign basically requires two things: 1) appealing somehow to 50% plus one of the voters; 2) getting potential supporters to the polls. Money and bodies, and little else, are what matter. This is not to deny that mass struggle and the transformations of political consciousness with which they are associated would, in theory, be of help to liberal or left candidates. It is merely to point out that, in the short period of an electoral campaign it is simply not feasible to try to call such movements into existence.

Because of this logic, it will not be easy for leftists who want to see a mutual strengthening between the voting power of the Rainbow campaigns and grass-roots mobilizing for social change. If the Rainbow were an independent movement it could set its own agenda, choose its own races to contest where conditions were most favorable, and shape its own joint work with the trade unions and particularly with Black unionists, student groups, the anti-apartheid movement. It would start smaller, but could forge more durable institutions of counterpower.

Within the Democratic Party, the Rainbow must first of all establish itself as a credible power bloc to be taken seriously. That means toning down its ties with disreputable protest movements, and contesting elections in districts where, to make a showing that will impress the party machine, it must soften its program. Operating within the Democratic Party, a generally hostile environment, encourages the present top-down control over the Rainbow and strongly discourages it from contributing to building a real movement of mass action and participation, which has been so sorely lacking in the Black com­ munity since the end of the civil rights and Black Power days.

Were mass movements of any scope to develop in the Black community, prospects for an independent turn by the Rainbow would be much better. In that case, one could expect many of those reform-minded people who were entering the movement to be doing so, at least in part, with the goal of strengthening their own struggle. They would therefore have not only the desire, but also the leverage, to help the Rainbow left with its project.

Nevertheless, the Black community is not yet very much in motion. There are some currently active, militant Black movements already represented in the Rainbow. The New South Movement in Alabama is one apparently dynamic local movement which is playing a significant part in the Coalition. The anti-apartheid struggle is another.

Still, most of the thousands of Blacks who actively supported Jesse Jackson’s primary election campaign in 1984 and who, barring major explosions, are likely to do so again today have experienced the decay of community struggles. They are likely to enter the campaign with the explicit purpose of supporting Jesse Jackson’s strategy, for he is at least offering an alternative.

They can be expected to want to spend their time in doing what it takes to win -canvassing, working in the office, etc.–and to have little or no sympathy for radicals who want to use it “not only” to win, but to challenge the Rainbow leadership so as to build the movements, strengthen left organization, change consciousness, and ultimately break from the Democratic Party. This, in any case, was the experience of those socialists who entered Mel King’s campaign for the mayoralty of Boston, Harold Washington’s campaign for the mayoralty of Chicago, and Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the presidency in 1984. [For a variety of perspectives on those experiences see Radical America, Vol. 17, No. 6 and Vol. 18, No. 1, double issue, 1983-84; and Against the Current, old series, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall 1984, see Anthony Thigpenn on “Jesse Jackson & the Black Movement.”] There is little reason to expect that the experience of the Rainbow left with similar perspectives will be much different in future campaigns.

A Break from the Democrats?

Jesse Jackson’s 1984 campaign gave voice to a domestic and international program on the far left of mainstream politics in the U.S. today. This, no doubt, had a certain positive educational value and unquestionably gave some hope to many poor and working people in the U.S. that serious reform was not an entirely utopian idea. Nevertheless, by the time he reached the Democratic Party convention, Jesse Jackson and his lieutenants had made certain that they were free to maneuver both programmatically and organizationally within the rightward-turning Democratic Party. This was essential if they were successfully to pursue their strategy of constituting a more powerful Black bloc among the competing, “legitimate” established interests within the party.

At the Democratic Party convention, of course, Jackson failed badly, even in his own terms. To satisfy the Democratic Party liberals, who were themselves accommodating to neoliberalism within the party, he reduced his program practically to nothing. Even so, Jackson was forced to accept humiliating defeat–the convention’s rejection of every one of his significant demands. He was pushed to declare his support for a Mondale candidacy which represented everything the Rainbow Coalition had been organized to oppose.

Some leftists have concluded that another such rebuff will force Jackson, or at least some of his followers, to make a break from the electoralist strategy and the Democrats. But these leftists have not carefully considered the real alternatives facing Jackson and his supporters.

There is nothing to suggest that Jesse Jackson has considered a course of open opposition to the powerful forces of the Democratic Party machine. To do so would require the construction of a different kind of organization than the present Rainbow if the whole thing were not to fall apart. Given the winner-take-all electoral system, people tend to be impatient of independent candidates and generally vote for the (more moderate) Democrat “to be practical.”

The likely consequences, if the Rainbow were to set itself against the Democratic Party, would include difficulty in securing ballot status; a sharp reduction in the number of elections the Rainbow could hope to win if it ran local candidates; a rupture of ties with many if not most of the present elected Black officials; a cut off of an important part of its funding; and giving the press an excuse to drop its coverage of Rainbow efforts.

A purely vote-gathering apparatus would probably not survive such a loss of its base. But an activist social movement could. A movement that both ran candidates and organized people to act on their own behalf. A movement that led protests by the Black unemployed; called demonstrations at city halls against rent gouging; offered solidarity to striking unionists while demanding that unions open their doors to Black members and organize the unorganized-this kind of movement would have a broader base of troops and a broader range of activities from which it could derive power it could bring to bear in selected election campaigns. But it is exactly this kind of movement that will not be tolerated as a current in the Democratic Party.

Jesse Jackson has, of course, made very clear his commitment to remain inside the Democratic Party, despite the possible setbacks. As he stated at the time of the recent Rainbow Convention, “We have too much invested in the Democratic Party. When you have money in the bank you don’t walk away from it.” It is this supposed “money in the bank,” and their commitment to a purely electoral strategy as an alternative to mass action, that has kept the Democratic Party liberals, the trade-union officials and the official Black political leadership inside the Democratic Party since the days of the New Deal.

The same considerations, moreover, and the consequent lack of an alternative have forced them to move rightward, as the center of gravity and of power in the Democratic Party have moved rightward. For they would rather take their chances with the small and perhaps diminishing concessions that they can “leverage” through elections and the party, than risk their positions and the organizations from which they draw their lifeblood in mass organizing, which cannot help but lead to serious confrontations with the employers and the state.

The very same dynamic has forced and will continue to force those “critical supporters” of the AFL-CIO officials and the Democratic Party liberals in the DSA, as well as the critical left backers of the official Black leadership within the Rainbow, to stand by those leaders as they move to the right. The problem is that you cannot have it both ways. If you want to capitalize on the “real power” of the Democratic Party, its various capitalist, bureaucratic, and middle-class leaders, and the credible electoral/legislative efforts they can run, you have to relinquish the goal of building mass movements and socialist consciousness. And vice versa. If the Rainbow left, and the left more generally, are to gain the organizational independence to pursue their goals, they will have to relinquish much of the legitimacy and power of the present Rainbow organization, for unfortunately, at this point that power and legitimacy are not yet our own.

The Sanders Candidacy in Vermont

What then are we to make of the independent socialist candidacy for the governorship of Vermont by Bernie Sanders, which clearly is practical and aiming to win? First, the mere fact that someone is running seriously as a socialist must have a very positive impact on the U.S. political scene, both locally and nationally. Whatever else it does, it brings socialism back into the sphere of legitimate discourse, and opens up all sorts of possibilities for political education. It also raises, in a very concrete way, the possibility of breaking from the two capitalist parties. This idea has long been dismissed as “impractical,” because of the exceptional character of U.S. history and politics.

Sanders has come under fire for breaking from the Democratic Party by the left forces who in recent years j have entered it. These forces understand that to build a legitimate “opposition” inside the party, they must be loyal to it. But loyalty has historically imposed upon Democratic Party members the requirement of working to channel every independent movement into the safe and sure organizational morass of the party’s institutions.

Perhaps the most spectacular historical example concerns those Communist Party members who helped lead the militant and radical UAW at the time of the great CIO workers’ upsurge of the middle 30s, but who were at the same time disciplined to their party’s strategy of building a “center-left” alliance inside the Democratic Party. To maintain that alliance under pressure from John L. Lewis and other liberal forces inside the Democratic Party and the trade-union movement, these fighters were obliged not merely to tone down the militancy of their struggles by giving up sitdowns and wildcat strikes, but also, and most pertinently, to get the UAW to revoke its already-approved position in favor of breaking with Roosevelt and the Democrats!

In a much smaller way, today, forces associated with the official social democratic strategy of building a left wing in the Democratic Party, notably the In These Times editorial collective, have attacked the Sanders campaign as “divisive,” because it opposes and threatens the election of (an increasingly neoliberal) Democratic Party incumbent in Vermont. For the many hundreds of newly active leftists who have embraced a strategy of entering the Democratic Party, through DSA or otherwise, precisely because they have believed this is the most practical way to build the left, the response of official “left” Democratic Party forces to the Sanders campaign offers an object lesson in just how impractical such a strategy can be.

Electoral Action, Mass Struggle & Socialist Organization

It should go without saying that, were Bernie Sanders to win the governorship of Vermont today, he would be exceedingly limited in the reforms he could implement. Under today’s conditions of deepening economic crisis and tightening federal budgets, in the absence of wide ranging mass movements with the force to impose concessions upon business, local officials remain largely subject to the sheer social power of capital. Hostages to the requirement to attract capital, they have little choice but to seek to maintain the conditions for profitable investment, if they are to keep up employment, achieve economic growth, and maintain social welfare.

Any move toward independent political action, and indeed any move toward strengthening the left, will, over time, require the closest connection to dynamic mass struggles. For it is these struggles that will create the conditions for amassing the power to confront capital, and for making left strategies and theories practical alternatives for masses of people. One small example of this practice today is to be found in Wisconsin, where representatives of rank-and-file labor, farm, and women’s struggles have come together in the Labor-Farm Party. As known movement militants they run election campaigns with the explicit purpose of further strengthening and unifying the mass movements, providing an arena for unified left activity and, over the long run, creating the independent political organization which working class and oppressed people will need to achieve their goals.

It is critical to develop mass movements in order to give backbone to electoral political work. Equally important, it is necessary to confront the growing tendency within sections of the left that sees “immediately practical” electoral work as a higher priority than strengthening the mass movements. Such a tendency has recently been a point of controversy in the anti-intervention movement.

At the May, 1985 national convention of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of EI Salvador (CISPES), an important section of the organization argued for ‘broadening CISPES’ program” by becoming a component of the Rainbow Coalition. This perspective was defeated, largely because the CISPES majority recognized that such an orientation would mean the subordination of the Central America movement to a mass of electoral issues. A number of important leaders and cadres of CISPES who supported the minority perspective subsequently left the organization. In the succeeding year, the question of reliance upon relatively decent liberals to stop or slow down U.S. aid to the Salvadoran regime and the Nicaraguan contras has continued to generate tension.

The strategic counterposition of electoral to mass work within the movements is, unfortunately, an indirect expression of deeper political divisions within the left. Thus, especially since the later 1970s, growing numbers of leftists have been turning to reform Democratic electoral perspectives not as tactical adjustment to a difficult period for the mass movements, but as part of a more general shift to the right and, in particular, toward social democratic and explicitly electoralist perspectives.

The drift to the right of much of what was once the New Left is, without doubt, a reflection of the difficulty of sustaining issue-oriented mass movements, and the consequent demoralization of many. But in this situation, it is of particular importance to strengthen the explicitly revolutionary pole within the left. Because people cannot be expected, especially in the current situation, to retain revolutionary perspectives without strong social connection to some sort of revolutionary practice, this means, above all, that the construction of revolutionary organizations, however modest in their pretension to represent broad forces, is today more necessary than ever. It also means that the elementary analysis of reformism and social democracy–their specific social bases and dynamics and the limitations of their systematically electoralist and bureaucratic perspectives–cannot be assumed, but needs to be systematically integrated into the activity of revolutionary socialists in the movements.

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *