The Party: What We Need and How to Get It

By Suren Moodliar (Moderator)

Introduction

Socialism and Democracy convened a roundtable conversation at the 2017 Left Forum, “The Party: Do We Need It? If So, What Does It Look Like? How Do We Get It?”[1] It consisted of seven panelists who generally agreed on the need for a party, with its intimate connection to the broad working class and oppressed people, and with socialism as a goal. Heroically, in the space of just a few minutes, each speaker was able to connect broad challenges that the sought-after party faces with our particular historical circumstances. Their emphases and starting points are diverse but reflect common concerns over the right-wing assault spearheaded by the Trump administration, the inadequacies of the Democratic Party, inspiration from grassroots social movements, and the organizing imperatives and tasks that issue from the underlying structures of capitalism, imperialism and white supremacy. Another theme permeating each presentation is the often-neglected concern that political projects build community and address immediate problems within working-class communities. – S.M.

Do We Need a Party? – Suren Moodliar, Socialism and Democracy

The problem of the party has confronted the Left for well over a century and a half: differences over the need for a party led to an enduring split between socialists of anarchist and Marxist stripes. The problem continues to engage us today – not merely between anarchists and Marxists but also between many, many distinct parts of the Left including within the aforementioned camps. Moreover, there isn’t a single place in which an actual mass party of the Left has survived the onslaught of the last few decades unscathed. This is therefore an interesting moment, in fact more so, given that the Democratic Party’s policies have paved the way for the far Right to enter into government in the United States.

Against this background, our panel engages the three questions that form the title of our workshop: “Do we need a party? What does it look like? And how do we get it?” In the absence of a strong, mass party of the Left, we should nonetheless recognize that our panelists are not starting from zero. They are all engaged in important political practices even without the sought-after party. To restate this point more sharply: what makes this panel so interesting is that we have people who are already working on many of the functions that a political party will have to…. Of course, no single party embraces all of us here. Further, we have different starting points. Not only do we have different perspectives on the political party, but we are also performing diverse kinds of activities of a logistical, organizing, and propagandizing nature, as an introduction to each panelist makes apparent:

Robert Caldwell is with the LeftElect Network, as well as with Solidarity. Robert also contributed to a recent issue of Socialism and Democracy on the Energy Transition.

Matt Nelson leads Presente.org, one of the largest electronic formations reaching some 300,000 people, especially younger people.

Sarika Chandra is a scholar at Wayne State University and has written about the ideology of globalization. In this panel, she considers functions for the party in light of the changing division of labor and diverse skill sets across a fragmented working class.

Kali Akuno led the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund in New Orleans. He is also director of Cooperation Jackson, in Jackson, Mississippi.

Gerald Meyer is an advisory board member of Socialism and Democracy and a leader of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, as well as an analyst and teacher working out of SUNY Hostos.

Johanna Fernández has organized and written about and with Mumia Abu Jamal. She is working on a book on the Young Lords, and is a member of the Socialism and Democracy editorial board.

Victor Wallis, the journal’s Managing Editor, has worked with the journal for 25 years. He is completing a book on the politics and technology of ecosocialism. He has been active on a wide range of issues including Latin America solidarity and prisoners’ rights.

For Hybrid Formations – Robert Caldwell, LeftElect Network

To answer the title question, it’s absolutely, “Yes!” I mean, the Left is fragmented, segmented, and atomized. We’re trapped into sectoral struggles. And a party would do something that could coordinate between those sectoral struggles, offering a kind of bird’s-eye perspective and overall strategy. It could also be, depending on what kind of party it is, an electoral vehicle for outcomes beyond social movements. But I think we have to start off by asking what do we mean by party? In the usual usage in the United States, you’re talking about an electoral party; you’re talking about the bourgeois parties, the Democratic and Republican parties, or maybe some other third, Left parties or electoral blocs whose primary function is to contest elections. In this case, the party exists for electoral reasons.

Of course, the other tradition on the far Left is a party as being something quite different. It’s an instrument of the working class or oppressed peoples. This kind of vehicle isn’t trapped in the electoral cycle. Its organizers work 24/7. It might be something monolithic like the people imagine the Bolshevik Party to have been. Or, it may be something much more diffused and coalitional. I think the key is really deep coordination.

Sometimes these categories aren’t totally counterpoised, and this is a big gray area. For example, in the history of the Socialist Party, specifically in its Debsian period, you have a group that contests elections but is also a vehicle for the movement and for the working class. And I think when people look at parties around the world, this is more or less what they expect to see.

In the latest stage, I think you have many so-called anti-austerity parties that seem to be something like this – with SYRIZA being the main example. But they are actually more focused on narrow electoralism. So I think it is really important to start by differentiating, are we talking about an electoral formation, or an alliance, or are we talking about something else? Once we’re clear about that, I think we should ask, What is the purpose of the party?

For me there are two basic models. One is as broad a vehicle as possible outside the parties of capital. It is like the labor party or the mass social-democratic party that the US never really had. It is a model – a party for the working class and the oppressed aimed at straddling the social movements and demanding necessary reform. This could be a party, in this country, of the hundreds of thousands… maybe the small millions. It’s possible.

Or we could be talking about what in this period would be a much, much smaller revolutionary party on the order of 6 to 10,000 people. For me, the one thing that’s clear is that we can’t continue to engage in what we have been, that is, the sort of issue-based defensive fights, shackled in our old organizational styles.

We also cannot just give lip service to the united front. We could easily all just say that the answer to the problem we’re in right now is the United Front. Then we go around focusing primarily on recruiting to our own organizations, circling the wagons, and doubling down on our known differences. I think this time-period demands much more, and there are many indications that much more is possible.

I think the Bernie Sanders campaign showed, if nothing else, that people are interested in a broad, connective platform, something that they identify as democratic socialism. I believe a party is what the people are yearning for. Party is what’s needed. But, as Pierre Rousset recently suggested in International Viewpoint, there is often a huge gap between what is possible and what is necessary.[2] The main ways that activists understand the world are not necessarily equal to the tasks at hand.

So many younger people are downright hostile to the concept of the party, often resistant to paying into a dues-based organization, let alone self-identifying and immersing themselves in what we might have, historically, called parties.

I think we can look around the world for practical examples, but whatever we do has to be rooted in something that exists right here, right now… rooted in this country, and rooted in actually existing social relations and culture. I think that if we are to build some party it should have a few main things:

– A working-class orientation, although not based on the unions like the Labor Party, but a working-class orientation nonetheless

– It should run for elections

– It should stand up for radical pluralism

– It should have a sense of autonomy. Autonomy is important for the social movements; it should not try to control social movements

– It should be an activist party with membership meaning something. In other words, it should not be just a registration.

– It should be politically active in all facets of society.

– It should have internal democracy, and

– It should have a general orientation toward struggle.

Now, I can say all this and it can go nowhere, right? We might all agree on those things and then what? Although there’s a peek, at least momentarily, into the ideas of socialism and the struggles of the streets, I don’t think that we have the conditions necessary to build the revolutionary party, even a party of 6 to 10,000 hardcore people ready for revolution. In fact, I wonder if a monolithic party is even desirable.

I think our real challenge is whether or not to initiate what might be called hybrid political formations and how we should conduct ourselves inside such formations. Of course, those types of formations are considered dynamic and there’s always a possibility that they lean toward reformism. These kinds of experiments can be short-lived. I think that through internal struggle, it’s possible that such vehicles can give rise to vibrant organizations with radical and revolutionary platforms.

Lots of people yearn for something new; we all know that we need a new vehicle, but at the same time you can’t will it into existence. We need anchors to make the launch of such a party possible. For the most part I think we have to begin to construct these building blocks locally, like in Richmond [CA] and in Jackson [MS].

Culture Shift and Community Building – Matt Nelson, Presente.org

Hi everybody, thank you so much for the invitation. Really honored to be on the panel with such great folks. Free the people! Free them all! Freedom now!

I also want offer my fellow panelists, really freshen up this conversation with impeachments. [He offers the panelists a box of mints labeled “ImpeachMINTS” (laughter)]. Actual mints. We also might have to make [in apparent reference to the Trump administration] indictMINTS, embarrassMINTS, etc. [laughter]

I was asked to talk about parties. I was like, “Great! Great!” You know we’ve got the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, we got house parties. Anybody been to a house party?!

What I really wanted to talk about was a pizza party, because I was founding member of Collette’s Pizza Collective. It’s an actual pizzeria in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the goal was basically to connect the amazing deliciousness of pizza with movement-building and with a vision for alternative economics…

There was someone who used to have monthly pizza parties at our pizzeria. It was the only place he went in Milwaukee. That was Frank Zeidler! Frank Zeidler was the last socialist mayor of Milwaukee, 1948-1960.[3] He started a group called Public Enterprise Committee in 1947 that still meets today. And they met at our pizzeria once a month. Frank would hold court and tell us about, “Oh, you want to know how the park system started, well let me tell you about socialism. You want to know about how we got clean water and how Milwaukee was a healthiest city for many years running.” He would talk about how he built the city through local, socialist government infrastructure. And through organizing… really meeting the people with their needs and what they want. I think that was one of the themes … how can the party actually serve the people. Because it can’t be the other way. Yes, there’s reciprocity, but the party has to follow the movement, not the other way around.

When I think about a vision for a Party, I think of a pizza party with Frank Zeidler and a couple of other people I’ll talk about, because it is really connected to how we build our communities. Frank left office in 1960, and that was a crucial time … and one of the things that the last administration of Socialist Party Milwaukee didn’t achieve and didn’t really address was the massive racial inequality in the city. The story of Milwaukee after 1960 is the politics of race. In 1985, the [right-wing] Bradley Foundation was fully endowed and the city became the Milwaukee that we hear about today.[4]

Two other folks we’ll talk about: one, who also came to the pizzeria often, was Amiri Baraka, who really built – from the Gary Convention (1972) to the Black Radical Congress – this vision rooted in culture, rooted in art. I that’s really important; we must think about the need for culture-shift.

The other person – who I also think is a foundation for these conversations – was Grace Lee Boggs. She invested in young folks; she was an investor in alternative economics. She also invested in a new vision, a revolutionary vision, for a place that was post-capitalist, post-American in Detroit.

I’ll conclude by saying I really think that because we live in movement times, this is about building movements, and build a movement and the party will follow. Build power! Change culture! Stay presente!

Re-Imagining the Proletariat Beyond Capitalism – Sarika Chandra

Moderator’s note: Sarika Chandra addressed the nature of the party and the degree to which it would be anti-capitalist. She also addressed the place of the party in meeting material needs through coordinating between different fractions and strata within broad working class. Chandra’s comments will be further developed as part of another publication.

An Identifiable Moment – Gerald Meyer

Before starting this discussion on the need for a party, we must first identify what is actually happening, what is special or new at this time. I think we are in an identifiable moment, which can be named. I think we have a beginning of an understanding of it, but we don’t and can’t know what the end of it might be. Based on some consensus on the nature of this historical moment, we should be able to arrive at a better understanding of how the Left could most meaningfully serve the interests of working people and their allies.

We also need to know what is the state of the Left, to have some assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. Based on a preliminary sense of these two huge questions, we will be in a much better position to conclude what kind of Left center would be able to carry out these realizable tasks—a full-fledged party, a pre-party entity, a coalition of parties (such as SYRIZA in Greece), or a more informal center, such as a coalition of Left entities.

What has occurred is that an ultra-right movement, which has been in formation since the election of Ronald Reagan, has taken over the Republican Party. That movement now has a vehicle that has shifted the American political center further to the right. This is really what is new. The recent presidential elections gave the Republican Party control of both Houses of Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court. The Republican Party has replicated its political control on the state level, where it has captured nearly two thirds of the state legislatures, governorships, and the state courts.

This movement has long adopted a strategy, incubated in right-wing think tanks, whose major premise is that the purpose of Republicans winning elections is not to hold public offices, but to ensure right-wing Republican hegemony by changing the political landscape. These changes would enable Republicans, who represent a distinct minority of the electorate, to constitute a permanent majority. The Republicans’ specific goals are few: to privatize the public sector, replace national programs with block grants issued to states, decimate trade unions, lower taxes on those in the upper brackets, deregulate the economy, and suppress the vote.

The ultra-right’s reactionary program brazenly intends to undo the social and political gains of the working people stemming from the New Deal (and its vast extension during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration), and those of the Progressive Era.  It endeavors to curtail democratic gains from the Reconstruction Era, by overriding the Fourteenth Amendment, and even to the origins of the United States by breeching the separation of church and state and diminishing many due-process protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The ultra-right has palpably, measurably moved forward in accomplishing these goals.

The right-wing agenda is highly ideological: It has principles and patience. Its parts are synergistically interconnected. Its central concern, the privatization of the public sector, removes two obstacles to the Right’s power: It eliminates the danger of the growth of “socialism”; and by moving economic issues from the political arena to the market, it depoliticizes the natural constituents of the Left, who depend on government-sponsored programs for some measure of security and dignity in their own and their families’ lives. Collaterally, privatization eliminates unions from the sites where they now function on a mass scale, that is, the public sector. The Republicans’ widespread implementation of privatization has already weakened an environment in which the Left, broadly defined, can function effectively. It prevents the Left from reaching larger constituencies through trade unions and other types of organizations, which in themselves could serve as the building blocks of a genuine Left party.

In its totality, the right-wing’s agenda atomizes and isolates. It wants people to live in houses separated from other houses, and travel in private vehicles. It wants workers to relate to their employers as individuals and not as members of a collective-bargaining entity. It represents the fulfillment of the most fundamental assertions of its two most important avatars: Reagan’s “Government is not the solution; it’s the problem”; and Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society.”

Starting with Reagan, the Republican Party, began using tactics that broke the political contract that has held this bourgeois democracy together and allowed it to function in a fairly predictable manner. The Republicans have incessantly used the state apparatus to advance their ultra-right agenda. Examples of this abound. Most recently, the Republican-controlled Senate delayed bringing to the floor of the Senate a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court until after the election had predictably produced a Republican majority. Earlier, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to fill a vacancy on the governing board of the National Labor Relations Board, thereby indefinitely delaying the certification of union victories in collective-bargaining elections. Currently, the US Department of Health is spending its advertising budget to discourage Americans from enrolling in the health plan established under the Affordable Care Act. Of the ten states whose Congressional districts are the most gerrymandered, nine are Republican.

The ultra-right movement has strong political and ideological ties with white supremacist organizations and armed militias, which have become much more numerous and increasingly bold.  At their assemblies, manifestations of overt and virulent anti-Semitism have surfaced.  White-male fighting groups, mobilized to discourage public assemblies of the Left, have demonstrated their willingness to assault—not only verbally but physically—people of color and their supporters.

This movement has found a leader who was trained by the nefarious Roy Cohn in the fine arts of innuendo and intimidation, and socialized in the uber-masculinized netherworld of double-dealing, gambling, and high-end real estate. He articulates and legitimates this movement’s most primal and visceral demands; he has unchained the filthy beast that lurked in the breasts of his supporters. In concert with the base of this movement, its leader spews forth a devil’s brew, whose major elements are nativism and racism. The nativist piece of this concoction is directed against Latinos, but it slides over into aspersions against “cosmopolitans,” a code word for Jews, and those who either are or aspire to multi/bi-culturalism. This ideology’s racist element is directed against people of African origin. In a dialectical process which justifies some degree of optimism for a broad resistance to this movement, there is no way for this dirt to hit its targets without causing collateral damage, and therefore opposition.

In addition to its copious use of social media, the specific political style of this movement has largely depended on mass meetings held in predominantly white locations, at arenas filled almost entirely with white audiences, aroused by chants such as: “Throw them out!”; “Lock her up!”; and “Build the Wall!”

Clearly, the movement the Left has to confront is proto-fascist. Its mass base, which represents approximately 30 percent of the population, is comprised primarily of older white people who live in the South, Border States, the Mountain States, and small towns and rural areas throughout the United States. Members of this hard-right mass are most often affiliated with religions, especially evangelical Christianity. The wealthy—say, the top 10 percent of the population—have at last found a political force with which they can achieve their political and economic goals.

The Left needs an institutional canter to carry out the functions that a movement, which thrives on spontaneity, cannot. These include: 1) construct a minimum program embodying transitional demands that are widely agreed upon but not entirely attainable within the exiting political-economic arrangements; 2) craft an ideological construct which has the potential of overtaking the hegemonic ideology of the ultra-right, on the one hand, and the piecemeal, reactive political program of liberalism; 3) coordinate movements so that political activity does not erratically ebb and flow; and 4) ensure that immediate issues not overtake the often more consequential distant issues.

A party would be the entity best able to build a force powerful enough to stem the proto-fascist tide and move millions forward around a common program. However, Left parties develop out of building blocks. The Communist Party, for example, was founded on the foreign-language federations of the Socialist Party. The American Labor Party, which emerged in New York City in 1936, was founded on trade unions. Left parties can also develop as split-offs from other parties. However, the behavior of the Democratic Party’s Congressional caucuses indicates it has become increasingly unified.  Most significantly, in the 2016 Democratic Party primary elections Bernie Sanders, the somewhat further Left candidate, garnered 40 percent of the vote; in the general election, the Green Party attracted only 1 percent. Clearly, the vast majority of Sanders voters had remained within the Democratic Party.

The Republican Party operates in every state in the United States and most of the counties of each of these states. To combat this menace, the Left would have to have a comparable organization. The Democratic Party does not represent the Left, but it does contain all the forces upon which a Left mass movement depends: African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, the LGBT communities, feminists, progressives. Almost every trade union in the United States maintains a close relationship with the Democratic Party. Surveys of Americans’ identification on the political spectrum reveals that the most Left segment of the population is not “Independents,” but rather self-identified Democrats. Moreover, the Democratic Party has been moving gradually to the Left.

The Left simply does not have the time to recruit workers, one by one, willing to build a Left party. Everything occurs in real time; and in real time, they are taking over. We are not even close to being able to build a Left party. And then there is the reality of an American electoral system designed to discourage the development of third parties. Without significant revisions in the rigged electoral system, there is little likelihood that a Left party could become a contender against the two major parties.

At this moment-in-time, when the menace from the Right intensifies, a committee of Left entities (trade union locals, journals, student clubs, cultural groups, etc.) must issue a call for a conference that would bring together a consortium of progressive entities, perhaps called “The Congress of Democratic Organizations,” that would begin working on the most urgent tasks: the publication of a minimum program and specific recommendations for its implementation. The primary goal of the Congress of Democratic Organizations would be to influence the Democratic Party leftward. At this identifiable moment, this course offers the American Left its best chance of organizing an effective defense, which could begin to move to an offense against the growing proto-fascist danger in the United States.

Assembling Networks of Revolutionaries – Johanna Fernández

I think that they have taken over because we do not have the organizational capacity to engage politically and ideologically in this contest over ideas, and over what the major problems of society are. If you agree that the interconnected forces of capitalism and imperialism are the root causes of social problems, and if you agree our ultimate goal is to seize the forces of production and reorganize these forces to meet the human need to end exploitation, oppression, war, and the threat of environmental destruction, then building a revolutionary party independent of the Democrats and Republicans in the United States is essential. Why?

History’s most vital lesson is this: organized social movements and popular uprisings against stable governments may win reforms. But they don’t lead either to lasting reform, or the wholesale overthrow of the state… by which I mean the governing elite and its armed agents, which are charged with protecting and advancing the interests of the capitalist class.

Even those who seek basic reforms must build organizations capable of accessing the political terrain and developing strategies for meeting their goals. Those who seek the broadest possible gains for working-class people and oppressed people under capitalism, who seek the eventual, not the immediate, overthrow of the state as a long-term goal, must build a political instrument. This instrument must build the political organization and harness social power commensurate with the organization and power of those it seeks to organize.

This is the very sensible premise of Leninist theory – practiced by the fathers of the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution; practiced by the labor organizers who built the unions in the 1930s, and by the leaders of the civil rights, black power, women’s and LGBT movements, by the national liberation movements that swept Africa, Asia and Latin America like a hurricane after World War Two… and by anyone who has ever organized an event like this, a campaign, or even a political meeting. I’m saying this because many of you agree with it, but we have to launch these arguments with people who don’t – people who are, as you suggested, hostile to the very idea of organization and building a party.

The difference in the Leninist conception is that it seeks (1) the hegemony of the working class and the oppressed and (2) to actually advance, on the ground, its interests. In the US this project, the revolutionary party, and even the idea of organization has been undermined by the ideology of individualism and by successive of waves of McCarthyism that have destroyed the Left. It has also been undermined by racism, sexism, and homophobia – in addition to elitism in American society [as a whole] and also on the Left.

But even with the general failures on the Left – its politics, its political culture, and its rigid application of revolutionary politics in different historical moments and in coalitions and social movements –, popular uprisings still take place and are vital, independently of political movements.

Democratic revolutions cannot happen without social movements and uprisings. We know that social movements unleash human creativity. They produce organizational forms that foreshadow the democratic reorganization of society. They shatter the sense that things must be as they are. The Left and the putative revolutionary party have to figure out how to more dynamically interact with and relate to social movements and to people and independent organizations that are not revolutionary. The issue is in part that social movements are made up of diverse political currents which advance different strategies and ideas about how to best advance the interest of those involved and what the end goal should be.

Revolutionary organizations are important, therefore, because historically a broad slew of revolutionary organizations have argued within movements about the way forward. In the 1960s, when people of color declared themselves socialists and engaged directly in communities by developing their organizations, their ideas became really popular. It’s important to maintain the final goal of ultimately socialist revolution.

What kind of party do we need in the US? We need a party led by working people, especially people of color, that opposes racism, sexism and homophobia, and attracts the most forward-looking elements of the working class and the oppressed. That is not negotiable.

In the United States, where racism and nativism, essentially, is what, in part, brought Trump to power, the issue of racism and its historical roots has to be at the forefront of whatever organization emerges.

We must also build a political culture – by winning campaigns in the streets, through political education and use of culture – that highlights the power of struggle on the ground rather than electoralism.

To overcome fragmentation, which is real, I think that in this moment we actually have to assemble networks of activists who are radical, who are already doing work on the ground, and win some of these arguments around capitalism, socialism, war, racism, by building a party independent from the Democratic Party.

Overcoming Organizational Egotism – Victor Wallis

It’s getting harder and harder to add something here! In a way, I find myself agreeing with everything that’s been said so far, wondering what could be added. The biggest point made so far is the idea that you have to not only constitute a creative force, but also create alternative communities. This is important partly just to sustain ourselves in the struggle. It’s based on many historical models.

How are people going to get attracted to our movement? They’re attracted by what they can see of us now – what we can project to the communities, the way we interact, and the way we reach out.

This puts in place, in the present, a way of guiding society that would be indispensable after any future transfer of power. We have to have the alternative in place long before that moment.

This does tie in, also, with the defensive issue of responding to the situation that we’re faced with now, because it’s only by having an alternative that people will be motivated to think that it’s even possible to resist the conservative situation that Gerald Meyer described as affecting us.

What kind of party does this mean we have to have? I would stress above all the idea of a membership organization, which has a full range of activities not just confined to directly political struggles, and which presents an alternative model of how to organize society. This is made difficult now because the dues-paying model was based on working-class membership where members had a regular income, however small it might be. Now, this whole thing is put into question and we have to imagine alternative ways to draw people in… and in such a way that the organization can be effective.

The party has to overcome the culture that’s become so electronic-dependent. It has to emphasize the importance of face-to-face interaction. We also need to develop many, many leaders – multiple leadership. We have to get away from the practice fostered by electoral campaigns and the advertising mentality that focuses on single, individual leaders. Of course, we must participate in elections, but not only in elections, and not even principally in elections.

What are the obstacles that we must overcome? Many have been imposed by the existing order specifically to stunt opposition. One is just the basic geographical fragmentation – the fact that we have to organize in all these separate political units which have different electoral laws and in which different political organizations develop. There is a terrible complexity in all this.

Another obstacle is the spectator culture which discourages people from participating, and a third obstacle, I would say, is all the factors that contribute to aggressive, competitive attitudes in organizations… even among ourselves. There is a problem within the Left of organizations treating each other as rivals. The question is, how can we overcome that in the name of some larger unity?

A part of the division was discussed last night. As was pointed out, we need to recognize the intersectionality of our struggles. In order for that to happen, there has to be an educational effort, to explain the origin of the hostilities that arise based on identities. We overcome it through an analysis that provides a convincing argument to be effect that each of the particular identities will only gain satisfaction to the extent that it’s integrally involved with a larger process. This means we have to overcome organizational egotism.

There are all kinds of needs for collaboration on common projects on the local level. We worked in Boston on bringing together activists from different groups in a socialist unity project; it has its ups and downs, but if any kind of unified political force is to be built, coalitions or alliances at the top are not sufficient. People will have to come together at the base, which, as we all know, is the local level.

In the meantime, we do need coalitions for the defensive things… I would emphasize, for example, the website RootsAction, which takes positions on many issues. Just by taking positions on many issues, it gives people an idea of how everything fits together. It provides an example of an immediate bridge along the way toward this larger project that we’re working on.

Interrogating Alliances – Kali Akuno

I want to push back a little bit on a couple of things I’ve heard, and do so on the basis of our experience in Jackson.[5] The first piece to the question is, do we need a party? Absolutely! No question about it. Should it be based in the working class and oppressed? Absolutely agree; there’s not a compromise on that point.

Where I want to push back, a little bit, is this notion of having to start around alliances. In part because the question is imposed in real time. Let me state why this is, in part, the case. There’s our organizing work in Jackson, where the electoral part in all honesty is what gets the most attention. It’s not the greatest point of emphasis or focus of what we do. To a large extent white supremacy is. The clarity of just presenting a clear option against white supremacy, of giving people a real choice between this or that, and all that it implies, is actually what gives us our greatest amount of strength.

I don’t want people to have great illusions imagining thousands of organizers in Jackson. That’s not actually what’s happening. In response to the clear choice presented by white supremacy—in real time—a lot of people see their own interests, and those whose interests they see represented in government, as being in conflict [and so they make the right choices].

There’s still a great deal of work to actually transform the city and to do a deeper level of education with the population there. That’s not to say that we don’t have a base; I would argue that we do. Is that base actually sufficient to move forward off our program? No, it is not. I want everybody to be clear about that.

The other thing – which is why I’m pushing back on this alliance piece –, I don’t think that we really know how to do alliances well. I think we know better how to a form on a more organic base. Different activists work in local areas from different formations and work with each other. Then there’s your leadership working with each other, to put something new together. Right? I’ve seen that in almost every city that I worked with.

Robert, I think we worked in New Orleans together doing much the same thing, right?[6] We had many a conversation complaining about our formations while working with each other around doing some practical things on the ground, right? I’ve seen that everywhere, and I think there’s something to that that we’ve got to learn and learn fast.

What’s happening in Jackson is that our small organization, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and African People’s Organization, is active. But the real vehicle that pushes everything is a broad formation that is becoming a united front of the progressive forces in town and the People’s Assembly. That’s really where the mass activity and work actually gets done on the electoral front, and the things that we do out of Cooperation Jackson.

So Cooperation Jackson is a product of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, but the vast majority of our members are not in the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. That’s intentional to a large extent. We’re not going to have time to talk about that.

To illustrate what I’m saying, look at the last couple of elections … and talk about the last eight years now. We’ve had some crucial support at some very critical times – people either coming out for mobilizations or helping with resources. Some of the organizations that came out were raising $2,000 or $3,000 or $4,000. Now, when the most you raise for electoral campaigns is $50,000, those thousands of dollars that people are helping raise are important for us.

We’ve had Black Workers for Justice come down and put some time in [for solidarity], Freedom Road, the Communist Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Committees of Correspondence, you name it, folks have come down to spend some major time and energy. There’s a vested, broad, national support for the project. None of that has actually translated into an alliance. I’m saying that in part as a self-criticism. We have a certain level of support and we have these relationships; but we still haven’t even figured out beyond Jackson, how do we actually translate this into something that might lead to a real party? Right?

I think we need to have a deeper dive in a conversation about that with a clear understanding that, at least from a Mississippi perspective, the gig is up. These forces have been in control of Mississippi for quite some time. Trump has only emboldened them to the point where now they feel very comfortable coming into Jackson, graffiti-ing up our place, or targeting different things. Eight months ago [i.e. prior to Trump], they would have never crossed the Pearl River.[7]

There’s a qualitative difference now. I think we all share a certain amount of fear. I don’t think we are all looking at it and assessing it to the same critical degree. I know that for us, what happened in Berkeley was a turning point.[8] I don’t think we’ve given enough collective analysis to that. That was a very deliberate, targeted, over-the-top effort that they were making to say, “We can come anywhere and do anything we want to!”

Let’s be mindful about that in how we build a collective response to them. Not only to be against right-wing provocation, which is the first step. But we also have got to break through and really exploit the crisis. I haven’t really heard us mention this in any great detail as something that we need actually to seize as an opportunity and not just scramble against. The other side is scrambling just as much as we are, and truth be told, the ruling class does not have a clear program right now either. I think we need to be very mindful of that.

Comments and responses from subsequent audience participation are available online at http://sdonline.org, see Left Forum 2017 panel.

Notes

1. The roundtable was announced at https://www.leftforum.org/sessions/party-do-we-need-it-if-so-what-does-it-look-how-do-we-get-it. This edited transcript retains the conversational tone of the live event. Several footnotes have been added to provide background for less well-known references.

2. Pierre Rousset (2017) “Reflections on the ‘party question’ (expanded version) – an overview” in International Viewpoint. May 15.
http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article4979

3. See Frank Zeidler (2005) A Liberal in City Government: My Experiences as Mayor of Milwaukee. Milwaukee Publishers; Samuel Freedman, “Before Bernie Sanders, There Was Frank Zeidler, a Religious Socialist,” New York Times, April 2, 2016.

4. See Kevin Tidmarsh (2014) “Milwaukee: The Most Segregated and Polarized Place in America,” in Governing: The States and Localities. September.
http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-milwaukee-most-segregated-polarized-place.html 

5. See the Cooperation Jackson website http://www.cooperationjackson.org/. Akuno’s remarks here were made after Chokwe Antar Lumumba overwhelmingly won the Democratic Party primary, supported by the Working Families Party and formations associated with Cooperation Jackson.

6. Referring to co-panelist Robert Caldwell and their shared post-Hurricane Katrina experience in New Orleans.

7. The river runs through Jackson, MS, forming its eastern border.

8. On April 15, 2017, right-wing forces organized a “Patriots Day free speech” rally in Berkeley, CA, which has long been seen as a bastion of the left.

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