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

The North Star Project
by Louis Proyect
May 8, 2015

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Richmond Progressive Alliance supporters held an anti-Chevron banner outside of the Richmond Memorial Auditorium. (Photo by Martin Totland)

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.


Bruce Dixon, photo by Chelsey Sprengeler

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 LaBotz’s article in New Politics and Chelsey Sprengeler’s Facebook report that is particularly noteworthy as a contribution from a young activist.)