Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

An alternative to two-party system?
Citizens Party founding draws 500


First Published: The Call, Vol. 9, No. 16, April 21, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Cleveland, Ohio–Nearly 500 political activists gathered in this city over the weekend of April 11-13 and founded the Citizens Party as a new third party “people’s alternative” to the two parties of monopoly capital.

Barry Commoner, the widely-known scientist and anti-nuke activist, and La Donna Harris, Native American activist and wife of former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, were proposed as the party’s respective presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

In its initial platform discussions, the Citizens Party took a clear stand opposing corporate power’s stranglehold over the lives of the American people. Speeches and workshops hit out at the lack of representation and political power for working people in the U.S. society today and targetted the special oppression of women and minorities. A general orientation against war and the aggression of the superpowers also prevailed.


The three-day gathering ended, however, in a crisis situation. Immediately after the convention adjourned, the newly elected co-chairperson Of the party, Denise Carty-Bennia, resigned her post and “walked out” along with most members of the Party’s Black Caucus. Carty-Bennia is a Black lawyer from Boston, active in the Black and women’s movements.

The immediate cause of the Party’s Black protest was the convention’s failure to elect Lucius Walker, a Black leader of the Inter-religious Foundation for Community Organization and the Anti-Klan Network, to the Executive Committee. Walker placed 18th out of 17 designated seats in the vote for the body.

Party members who had not yet left the convention quickly convened a “special session.” After two hours of debate on the question of racism and minority representation, the group passed a resolution urging that a “unity” solution be found by the newly-elected Executive Committee.

Beyond the immediate issue, the Black protest served to underscore a far deeper series of obstacles and problems for the Citizens Party. Delegates and members attending the convention, for instance, reflected a widely diverse sampling of a variety of progressive movements of the 1970s–anti-nuke and environmental activists, young anti-draft fighters, representatives from the Black liberation and Native American movements, insurgent trade unionists, feminist activists, and various radical movement and left figures of the ’60s.


The balance of forces, however leaned towards representatives of the mass social movements that have sprung up around the issues of energy and nuclear safety Blacks, working class activists and the unemployed were clearly concerned over whether their interests could be best pushed forward through the Citizens Party.

Whether the Citizens Party can resolve its internal problems and the obstacle of its narrow base remains to be seen. But if it can this formation could be the fore runner of a major independent break-away trend from the two main political parties. It may be possible for such a party to pose a progressive alternative in this year’s presidential race.

“The major corporations are ruining this country,” declared Commoner in his nomination acceptance speech. “And the basic reason is the drive for maximum profits.

“Our Party’s aim,” he continued, “is to break the grip of the major corporations on the government and return the power to the people. Since the monopolies have proven themselves incapable of solving the crisis they have created, our message is, Move over–we’ll do it.”

La Donna Harris, in her speech, stressed what has become a crucial issue for the new party: “As a Comanche woman fighter, I’m proud to be a part of this party. The traditions of my people have always held to the unity of the oppressed. That is why I want to show that we care about the problems of Chicanos, the Blacks, women, the elderly and the poor.”

Commoner elaborated his views at several points on the reforms he would like to see put into effect by the pressure of the Citizens Party.

“If GM wants to shut down a plant and run away in search of slightly higher profits,” he explained at a press conference, “then I say the workers should be allowed to take over that plant and let it be owned and controlled by their union.

“Moreover,” he continued, “their union should get federal funds to modernize and re-start production for the real needs of the people. They would then be able to really compete with their corporate rivals and drive them out of business, to give them a dose of really free enterprise. And, if this Congress and the parties of corporate power won’t do it, then I say elect us to power as a majority party. We’ll do it.

“We see our party,” he summed up, “as the one that will turn democratic rights into democratic reality. The first American revolution fought for the principle of equality. We intend to make it real for the first time. In this way, we think we are beginning a second American revolution.”


Commoner’s approach of radical democratic reform was reflected in the various platform planks provisionally approved by the convention. The women’s caucus, for example, produced a plank on practically every issue and demand for equality raised by the women’s movement. The stress was on several current issues concern to the feminist movement: reproductive rights, domestic violence against women, and the portrayal of women in the media.

A plank on minority nationalities also generally stood for affirmative-action programs and equality. While it was drafted by a third world caucus and approved unanimously, it was also controversial.

“It doesn’t take the interests of the Black workers as its starting point,” Jim Haughton of the Harlem Fight Back told The Call. ”And there has been hardly any emphasis on fighting the Klan here It needs some politics, working class politics.”

The trade union plank was also adopted unanimously. It said the Citizens Party must be a “partisan of workers in struggle against “management.” It supported the main demands of the reform movement in the unions.

A sharp debate, however, took place in the foreign-policy work shop. Afghanistan was the issue starting it off, with one side wanting only to criticize the U.S. for trying to start a “cold war.” Mario Savio of the northern California delegation, submitted an amendment. It targetted both the U.S. and USSR for “expanding their spheres of influence,” and said that the parties must oppose the “hegemonism of either super-power.” The Afghan invasion was condemned while Carter was also opposed for using the issue to increase the war danger.

Savio’s position won by a large majority. Other items in the plank generally supported drastic military cutbacks, mutual disarmament and self-determination for third world countries and peoples, including Puerto Rico and Palestine.

“Our basic thrust,” said one participant, giving the majority sentiment, ̶-;is to establish the Citizens Party as a party of peace and independence to stand against the twin parties of war and intervention.”

Can the Citizens Party have an impact in 1980?

“Third parties in the past didn’t have much chance,” said former Senator Fred Harris to The Call. “But now, given the economic situation, I think 5% of the vote is possible and that will give us permanent ballot status and federal funding. From there we can do more in 1982, 1984 and so on.”

This optimistic forecast held by most party leaders faces some serious obstacles.

Two sympathetic observers, typical of many potential Citizens Party voters, summed them up:

“This party has got to be more grass roots,” said an unemployed white woman worker from Akron, who had just heard of the group in the press. “It’s too white and middle class. But I hope it works.”


“It is too small, with too many loose ends,” said an unemployed Black woman from Bridgeport. “This year I am still going to see what the Democrats can do for us. But I’m definitely going to watch the Citizens Party.”

The Citizens Party founding convention revealed many of the potential strengths and weaknesses in what must be seen overall as a bold endeavor. At a time when a large section of the voting population rejects a presidential race between Reagan and Carter, and when the independent forces in the labor and minority movements are showing some signs of growth, the Citizens Party could forecast a significant trend in the period ahead.