United States

A New Political Party: “Blueprint” or Perspectives?

A bit of a discussion is under way (again) about an alternative to the Democrats. Seth Ackerman has written an article “A Blueprint for a New Party”, for example. His “blueprint” is to focus on the unions – which really means on the union leadership in this case, and to work through the Democratic Party. John Leslie of Phillyworkersvoice has written a reply, talking about “the party we need”.

We should start by considering the method.

Perspectives
It’s not a matter of what “we need” or want. Nor is it possible to draw up a blueprint, especially not in this country in this period. Rather, it’s a matter of  how things are likely to develop – not in detail, nor in certainties, but the general process. It is also not a matter of a party of “the left”, but a class question. Writing over 100 years ago, Frederick Engels commented: “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organization of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party.”

Working Class Mass Political Party
All political parties are based on one class or another. The Republicans and

Frederick Engels, co-thinker with Karl Marx. He also wrote on an early attempt to build a workers party in the US: "That the first programme of this party is still confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement--no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement--in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves."

Frederick Engels, co-thinker with Karl Marx. He also wrote on an early attempt to build a workers party in the US: “That the first programme of this party is still confused and highly deficient, that it has set up the banner of Henry George, these are inevitable evils but also only transitory ones. The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement–no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement–in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves.”

the Democrats (as well as the Libertarians) are based on the owners of capital, the capitalist class. There has never been a case in history of a capitalist party being transformed into a working class party, and the Democrats will not be so transformed. The question is how, under what conditions and through what sort of process, will the US working class organize into its own party. Again, not what we want, but what is the most likely general process.

Unions
Both Ackerman and Leslie focus a lot on the role of the unions. That makes sense, since even in their greatly weakened state, they remain the only mass organizations of the working class. But what they don’t deal with is the present situation within the unions. The entire union leadership is dedicated to the proposition that for the unions to survive, the members must assure their employers that they, the employers, will be able to compete with the non-union employers, that they will make steady and sufficient profits. (See this article, for a clearer view.) This has direct, concrete consequences. It means granting concessions after concessions and refusing to fight for the members in the daily struggles in the work place. And the result for the members? Demoralization and alienation from the union.

Tony Mazzocchi, founder of the Labor Party of the 1990s. This writer was intimately involved in that movement. He helped organize the original meeting of AFSCME Local 444 on the issue, and Mazzocchi himself said that it was the success of that meeting that got him to go on to found "Labor Party Advocates", later the Labor "Party". Unfortunately, Mazzocchi was unwilling to really lead a campaign against the conservative position of his fellow union leaders. This included not only their reliance on the Democrats, but also their refusal to really organize a struggle against concessions.

Tony Mazzocchi, founder of the Labor Party of the 1990s.
This writer was intimately involved in that movement. He helped organize the original meeting of AFSCME Local 444 at which Mazzocchi spoke on the issue, and Mazzocchi himself said that it was the success of that meeting that got him to go on to found “Labor Party Advocates”, later the Labor “Party”. Unfortunately, Mazzocchi was unwilling to really lead a campaign against the conservative position of his fellow union leaders. This included not only their reliance on the Democrats, but also their refusal to really organize a struggle against concessions.

No campaign for the unions to build a wider movement and a political party can succeed without the participation of a mass of the members. But this means that no such campaign can succeed unless it is directly linked to a campaign to transform the unions, to make them the fighting organizations that so many workers struggled and sacrificed for in the first place.

And there’s the rub. Such a struggle has to involve organizing opposition caucuses within the unions. But that is often a bitter and lonely struggle, and given the repression and demoralizing role of the leadership as well as the alienation most members feel from their union, it’s been nearly impossible for such oppositions to make a real breakthrough. (It has happened occasionally, such as in the 1999 Bay Area carpenters wildcat strike. But these have been the exception, not the rule.)

This situation cannot last forever. It won’t last forever. But how is it likely to change?

Broader Social Movements
Broader social movements give a hint. During the “general strike” of Occupy Oakland, a few union members came down looking for a way to link up that movement with their dissatisfaction with their own union leadership. It was similar in the first week of the protests in Ferguson, where some union members got involved. So, the question is how can a broader social movement develop and what are its possible links to the rise of a mass workers’ party?

It seems almost certain that January 20 will mark the start of a new stage in the movement, with more than just the “usual suspects” involved in widespread and persistent struggles against the attacks of the Trump administration. There will be strong efforts to channel this movement into the waiting clutches of the liberal establishment and the Democratic Party, but this will not entirely succeed. Most likely, most of the organizing will start out at the local level, but as a movement develops, it’s hard to see how there won’t be a tendency to come together at the national level – to coordinate as well as draw some conclusions at that level. Wouldn’t this tend to become some sort of national coalition or national organization of some sort?

At the same time, isn’t it likely that wider layers of working class people will tend to get involved, meaning that the working class will tend to stamp its imprint on this movement? And as this movement develops, then and maybe only then will we see a tendency for rank and file union members to organize and rise up to make their unions into the fighting organizations that they were meant to be in the first place.

Anybody who thinks that the process will be smooth and step-by-step will be caught by surprise. Inherent in the situation are huge shocks - events equivalent to a tidal wave or an earthquake. These might include some mass racist or terrorist attack, an environmental disaster, a nuclear meltdown or similar event, and war or revolution, etc. They will tend to destabilize US capitalist society, including weakening the grip of the union leadership over its members.

Anybody who thinks that the process will be smooth and step-by-step will be caught by surprise. Inherent in the situation are huge shocks – events equivalent to a tidal wave or an earthquake. These might include some mass racist or terrorist attack, an environmental disaster, a nuclear meltdown or similar event, and war or revolution, etc. They will tend to destabilize US capitalist society, including weakening the grip of the union leadership over its members.

If that is so, then what will tend to develop is a body, a coalition, whose role is to guide and coordinate – and draw conclusions from – a movement that is increasingly based on the working class. And what is that but the beginnings of a mass workers party?

Put another way, there is a tendency to think of the development of a workers party in the US as being through running candidates for office. But given all the traditions of the struggle in the US – a struggle that has always tended to focus first on the mobilizations in the streets, communities and work places – why should we think that a workers’ party will develop first through elections?

Elections
Of course, the issue of elections will be a litmus test. Some – including those close to the nonprofits, the union leadership and other Democratic Party supporters – will argue against this movement/organization-in-the-making running its own candidates. (Ironically, the anarchists will join  forces with these liberals.) Some of them will argue for abstaining from elections, while others will argue for supporting the next Bernie Sanders. But abstention will not be an option; the alternatives will be either supporting the Democrats or running our own candidates. That will be a harsh test for this movement in the making. Maybe it will start with running candidates at the local level, where the movement will have a better chance to actually make an impact. But run its own candidates, this movement must do.

Categories: United States

1 reply »

  1. We can do better than to go like lambs to the slaughter.

    John has proposed that we attempt to create a “mass workers’ party” by running candidates for office. I oppose this idea. We need to consider, realistically, where John’s proposal is bound to lead.

    =============================
    1. Training to be subservient
    =============================

    The bourgeois election system exists, among other reasons, to train activists to be subservient to the will of capital–and to beg for support and endorsements from other people and institutions which are subservient to the will of capital. That is the opposite of what we need.

    The election system has been engineered to absorb and liquidate the energy of activists–who want an independent movement that represents the interests of the workers and oppressed. In order to get elected, activists will find that they need to kiss the butt of the trade union bureaucrats, and a section of so-called “progressive” media institutions and opinion leaders.

    Activists will also find that, in order to get endorsements and support, they must make unprincipled backroom deals and (more than this) buy into (and promote) a set of beliefs that are imposed on the working class by the ruling one percent. One of these beliefs is that we live in a “democracy”, and can overcome all the problems of capitalism by means of incremental reforms that are acceptable to the ruling one percent. Activists will be trained, in this process, to avoid antagonising our ruling class by doing too much to raise the consciousness and fighting spirit of the working class.

    =============================
    2. The food chain
    =============================

    We can consider a recent example of where this servile mentality leads.

    The group called Socialist Alternative told its followers to look to Bernie Sanders for leadership. Bernie Sanders told his followers to look to Hillary Clinton for leadership. And, after the election, Hillary told her followers to “give Trump a chance”.

    In this chain of fools, each link in the chain channels the attention and trust of their followers to the link above them. At the bottom of this chain is a group that claims to be “socialist”. At the top is Wall Street.

    This is “lesser evil politics”. This is what John is advocating with his proposal. John says that we must choose between (1) supporting the Democratic Party and (2) running in elections outside the Democratic Party. But what happens if refuse to choose between these two evils? Will god strike us dead? We can do better than to think like slaves. Our actions can reflect the interests of our class.

    We can reject the servile “lesser evil” mentality; we can choose the path of independent class politics. Bernie shit on the idea of independent class politics when he told his followers to look to Hillary for leadership. And Socialist Alternative shit on the idea of independent class politics when it did the same for Bernie.

    As we work to create something which is independent, we need to do something simple: we need to keep a reasonable distance from this chain of fools. This chain of fools is really a food chain; it exists to suck the life out of us, pure and simple.

    We can reject the path to the slaughterhouse. This slaughterhouse has been built to demoralize the best of us, and to recruit and train the worst of us–into being cogs in the machine that we started out fighting.

    =====================================================
    3. Work to create something that is more than a fraud
    =====================================================

    I am in favor of another path: the path to an independent movement. Like John, I would also like to see the development of a mass workers’ party. But I want this party to be real. I want this party to be independent, rather than tied with a thousand strings to the institutions, and the will, of our class enemy.

    The kind of “mass workers’ party” that John wants us to focus on would be a workers’ party in name only. It might have workers at the base who believed it was a workers’ party–but it would be controlled, at the top, by careerists and sleazy trade union bureaucrats. John knows this. He has admitted it in other conversations, but he is silent about this now. Maybe John is concerned that it would dampen the enthusiasm of activists for this path if they knew where it leads. This means, however, that John’s method of argument keeps us in the dark.

    It is better to open our eyes.

    John argues that “it is not a matter of what we want or need” but of “how things are likely to develop”. Yes, many will march into the slaughterhouse. But does this mean we need to cheer them on?

    ==============================================
    4. The workers’s movement needs to deepen its
    understanding of the most important principles
    ==============================================

    I will add one more thing. The clash of principles here (roughly described as related to giving up independence and consciousness in exchange for the promise of numbers, and the help of powerful supporters) have been a constant issue in the workers’ movement for more than a hundred years, so this is not about either John or me. I do respect John’s experience, dedication and the sacrifices he has made over the years. John is respected in the movement, and for good reason. But this clash of principles will not go away, so it is better if we make use of these kinds of disagreements to better understand what is at stake. I hope that John and the readers of his blog conclude that the principles I have raised here are deserving of further principled discussion.

    If John (or any readers) have any questions for me, I will check back here from time to time (and I will also post this on facebook).

    Respectfully,
    Ben Seattle
    (on facebook as Ben Stevens)

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