First Published: Progressive Labor Vol. 5, No. 5, October-November 1966
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Participating in this year’s elections in a number of cities around the country are anti-Vietnam war and left candidates and organizations. Much of this new electoral work has grown out of a healthy search by a frustrated new left movement for “levers of power.” While anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements have grown larger and more militant, the U.S. government has cynically stepped up its aggression in Southeast Asia and similarly placed many black ghettoes in this country under martial law.
These activists, beginning to realize demonstrations aren’t enough, have turned to political action. Both political content and organizational forms vary greatly. But most of these candidacies are not static “protest” campaigns, as are run periodically for high offices by the Socialist Workers and Socialist Labor parties. For years they offered the only “left” candidates on the ballot.
Most of these candidates have picked out a realistically sized area, put the number of votes they can get second, and are trying to build militant neighborhood organizations, using the campaign as an organizing and educating tool aimed directly at that goal.
The ground was first broken in the last couple of years in New York by Bill Epton, who ran for City Councilman from Harlem on the Progressive Labor Party ticket. Last year he ran again for State Senator and Jose Fuentes ran as an independent for State Assemblyman from New York’s Lower East Side.
Let us understand the basic contradiction in carrying out electoral work at this time in a bourgeois democracy. On the one hand it can be an important tactic in building community organizations around working class demands of housing, schools, jobs, police, consumer protection and anti-imperialism.
Excitement and interest generated by an election draws new workers into organization and finds more political debate among the people and in the mass media. It offers the chance to expose the phonyness of both the corporate liberals and the conservatives. In this way we can win new people, and neutralize others. And if elected we can use that position for as long as we can keep it, as SNCC is saying in Alabama, to expose and disrupt the corrupt, diseased legislative system that exists.
On the other hand the very reason why capitalism prefers an elected legislative system making the laws to an outright fascist state is that the former gives people the illusion that they are the ones who really rule the country. An elaborate system is set up to prove the neutrality of the system: two supposedly different parties; differences within the parties (i.e. the “doves” and the “hawks” within the Democratic Party); etc. So whatever your position may be, they tell us, there is room for it within the system.
As to these “differences” it suffices to remember that while the conservative Goldwater called for the bombing of north Vietnam, the liberal Johnson did it. The “doves” and the “hawks” might differ as to tactics in Asia, but they both want U.S. imperialist control to remain there. And Sen. Morse’s position on Vietnam is far from anti-capitalist, as he heads the list of anti-labor Senators; this is not to mention his role in the airlines mechanics strike.
So the very thing (electoral struggle) that sometimes can be an effective organizing and educating tactic, is a hoax set up to entrap us. We will not be able to simply elect-in the revolutionary changes people need. We must understand this contradiction clearly and concretely if we are not to make the right-wing error and be lost within the electoral apparatus, as the Communist Party and the Socialist Party have been. And also so as not to make the “left” error and “boycott the Duma” at this stage or sectarianly remove ourselves from all but the “purest” electoral action.
Bob Scheer’s Congressional campaign in Berkeley-Oakland, California had both its strengths and weaknesses. Scheer running in the Democratic primary against the liberal Congressman Jeffrey Cohelan, was clearly against the war in Vietnam. He also ran on working class issues, tying them into the war. He exposed and attacked the Oakland power structure and one of its leaders, ex-Senator and Oakland Tribune publisher Bill Knowland. Scheer had been involved in left student politics in the Bay Area for years and his campaign grew out of that movement.
Scheer’s campaign was vigorous and went into the working class communities, where Scheer won a majority of the vote, losing to Cohelan, in a close vote (53%-47%) in the middle class areas.
Running within the Democratic Party, Scheer carried out an intensive “register Democrat” campaign, which, whatever he said, only fostered people’s illusions about the possibility of basic change within the very heart of the system. Also, as the campaign progressed and the possibility of victory began to be seen, some of the radicalism of the campaign began to wane and decisions began to be made that most of the campaign workers didn’t know about.
Taking these into balance, and especially because the campaign was in the Democratic Party, many of Berkeley’s most radical and capable organizers either boycotted it from the beginning or left in the middle: PL was among them. This left too much influence in the campaign to old-left moderate and revisionist forces who do not want to see a radical movement built in Oakland and Berkeley.
The Scheer organization, if it is to continue, can either remain within the Democratic Party and become a loyal reform movement or it can break away and build an independent power base for the people in the East Bay. Radicals and revolutionaries must participate in that struggle and fight to build an independent organization.
Ted Weiss’ reform Democratic Congressional campaign in Manhattan is a different matter. Weiss, a left-liberal City Councilman, was out to become a left-liberal Congressman. He was not interested in building a radical movement in Manhattan. He did not come from the movement. He called for a unilateral cease fire (but fire if fired upon) and negotiations by the U.S. in Vietnam. It was far from an anti-imperialist position. Unlike Scheer, he didn’t even say that his running as a Reform Democrat was just a tactic and that he wanted to eventually build an independent movement. Weiss based his campaign in the middle class areas, avoiding intensive work in the large working class areas in his district.
The Weiss campaign represents that which builds little in the way of a permanent democratic people’s organization and just fosters illusions. Fortunately few activists got involved in it, notwithstanding the attempts of the Communist Party U.S.A. to sidetrack the movement into that campaign.
In the same district that Weiss ran in, a new organization, combining electoral and community work, has been formed–Committee for Independent Political Action (CIPA). Jim Weinstein, an editor of Studies on the Left, is CIPA’s candidate for Congress in November. He will run even if it means running against Weiss, whom CIPA characterizes as a “corporate liberal.” CIPA is serious about building a long term radical base in the community.
CIPA calls for socialism, though they haven’t said whether or not they think it can be attained through the electoral process or how it can be attained. This leads us to question what they mean by “socialism.” There are only two types: revolutionary socialism and social democracy. And when you don’t clarify what you mean by it, it usually turns out to be social democracy and reformism. CIPA is going to have to clarify this to the people who live in their district. Sometimes it’s better not to call for “socialism” in an election unless you are prepared to state what you mean by it (i.e. if you mean state power in the hands of the dictatorship of the proletariat).
But also CIPA hasn’t yet broken with old ways of thinking about working within the Democratic Party. They talk of possibly running in the primaries at a later date. On balance, CIPA is a militant young organization, which is anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist.
Bobby Kennedy is vigorously pursuing the tactic that the home for all Americans opposed to U.S. aggression in Vietnam is inside the system, and not in anti-imperialist organizations. Kennedy, only a couple of years ago, as Attorney General and leader of the Cuban invasion and Vietnam buildup, was considered the arch-phone-tapping-enemy of the movement and of labor. Now he is the revisionists’ and the liberals’ “great hope.” Adlai (“we had nothing to do with the invasion of Cuba”) Stevenson over Eisenhower. John (“alliance against progress’’) Kennedy over Nixon. Lyndon (“we won’t bomb”) Johnson over Goldwater. Now: Robert (“clean government”) Kennedy over Johnson, etc. The movement, we thought, would throw this idea out the window in two seconds. But:
Other members of the group suggested earlier that Senator Kennedy’s interests were ’parallel’ to their own. (New York Times 6/13)
Another promoter, Arthur L. Waskow....remarked yesterday that he had ’a suspicion’ that Senator Kennedy would react favorably to the new group. (New York Times 6/10)
Jerome Grossman....also a promotor of the new conference, affirmed by telephone it ’could enter the mainstream’ of American politics sharing the outlook of Senators Kennedy and J.W. Fulbright of Arkansas on many issues. (New York Times 6/10)
These quotations are from Paul Hofmann’s New York Times articles about the formation of the National Conference for New Politics. We expected the professional liberals and their revisionist allies to be tooting Kennedy’s horn, but included in the list of sponsors were such militant organizations as SNCC, SDS and NY CIPA. This type of independent “new political” is as old as the old-buy-off ($500,000 was stated in this case–cheap) and only independent of any sort of revolutionary perspective and dependent on turning the movement into a new form of loyal servant and apologist for imperialism.
Another type of “independent” movement that has appeared is exemplified by the Aptheker campaign in Brooklyn. While not in the Democratic Party, it in no way exposes or disaffiliates itself from the two party system. This fits in with the CPUSA’s (of which Aptheker is a leader) working “in and around” the Democratic Party. Aptheker is running against a real independent, Hal Levin, against whom he is carrying out a red-baiting and personal attack and refusing to speak at joint unity rallies, etc. This is because he finds himself with a weaker position. Aptheker calls for “an end to war in Vietnam” (as does Johnson), while Levin says “withdraw now.” The Levin campaign calls for a new third party and has already united with Queens independent Congressional candidate Leslie Silberman, and wants to build a permanent democratic people’s organization in the neighborhood– Aptheker is silent; and so on.
A misunderstanding of the nature of the state under advanced capitalism can lead to serious strategic and tactical errors. The belief that the U„ S. ruling class will allow itself to be elected out of power and representatives of the people be elected in, could lead to a one-sided approach of putting electoral work first.
We feel however, that there are many other important firsts. For instance, in the South others are first putting forward the need for armed defense, for land distribution and for jobs. In the unions the first is to organize around the economic demands of the workers, to get rid of the phony union leaders, to unite students and workers around class and political demands, to fight white chauvinism, etc, In the communities the people must learn to protect themselves from terror, to fight against slumlords, to begin the process of controlling their own lives. (March-April PL magazine, P. 28)
The ruling class is not going to give up state power voluntarily. Some say, “How can you tell at this early stage?” We say, look around you! In Vietnam, rather than give up power, the ruling class is willing to isolate itself from the rest of the world, risk growing domestic opposition, and try to kill all the people of that country who in any way resist. And in the United States, they will jail union leaders, pass anti-labor legislation to stop strikes. And in the black ghettoes they will call in the National Guard and tell them “shoot to kill.” The U.S. workers–black and white – are demanding and fighting for better conditions in a period of worsening objective conditions. The ruling class’ answer is: bribe and throw up phony leaders–if that doesn’t work, use terror.
The way to build a revolutionary movement is to involve masses of people in direct struggles for the satisfaction of their needs and to bring to them revolutionary ideology. This has to be done in all the struggles mentioned above. It is a slow and hard process. But it is the only way. To rely only or mainly on electoral work is to work only along the lines set up by the government. Many workers and poor people shun the whole electoral system, realizing that it is a hoax. Many workers can be reached with a radical program over a period of time in struggles on the job, who would be hostile to a radical election campaign that first reaches them in their neighborhood. Sometimes the reverse. But by putting electoral activity as the first form of struggle you limit the number of people you can reach and the power you can win–i.e. you become reformist and sectarian.
It is not difficult to see the base of power in this country. There are two. One is now in power–it is the large corporations and financial institutions. The other is the working class. If we want to really “fundamentally change the system” the only way is through revolutionary socialism by the working class with allies mainly among farmers, students, intellectuals. The only way the working class will get power is by taking it. No one has all the answers. The answers lie in finding the Marxist-Leninist road for the U.S. At this stage independent electoral politics can play an important role.
Wendy Nakashima is running for State Assembly on New York’s Upper West Side on the PLP ticket. She has support from the community, where she and the West Side PL club have organized for several years. Her campaign is an integral part of strengthening the community organizations and doing educational work among the people whom the club works with every day of the year.
The Black Panther Party in Alabama uses politics to organize. If they get elected they say they will use their positions to rip the system apart and expose its inner-corruptions even further. But they will not have taken power and will be open for an all out attack by all sections (local, state and federal) of the ruling class. Some will shoot them, others try to starve them out, still others try to buy them off. SNCC may know this. They must be prepared for an attack. They can afford no illusions. Neither can we.