The Road Not Taken: an episode in socialist history

Since the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs collapsed in the early 1920s, social democrats/democratic socialists have almost constantly sought some way to be politically effective, while remaining true to their core principles. At the same time as the Socialist collapse in this country, the British Labour Party formed its first government in 1924, and the example of the BLP was an inspiration to socialists here. The Socialist Party formed a part of the LaFollette Progressive coalition in the 1924 Presidential election, and for most of the next four decades thinking about the electoral instrument the Party hoped to create involved some discussion of the LaFollette coalition, the British Labour Party and, later, the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (today the New Democratic Party). Essentially, the electoral instrument they sought was an independent social democratic “national farmer labor party,” with heavy labor union participation and the Socialist Party as an integral left-wing.

While the 1920s and 1930s saw a variety of local and state labor and farmer labor parties, it became clear that the attraction of Franklin Roosevelt was going to prevent any national independent party of the democratic left. By 1948,with most of organized labor working within the Democratic Party,some members of the Socialist Party realized that they needed a new strategic model. It is important to remember that, even in the late 1940s, there were thousands of people who had been members of the Socialist Party at some time in their lives. This was especially true in the labor movement, with the Reuther brothers being, perhaps, the outstanding example. Most of these people regarded their time in the SP with positive feelings, although they would say such membership was politically impractical. As Thomas observed, this group of friends and former members might have been brought closer to the SP if its electoral policies were changed. Had Thomas and the majority of the Party’s leading committee been able to persuade their comrades to make the changes they proposed, it is quite likely that the influence of the Socialist Party would have increased greatly and that we would have a stronger social democratic/democratic socialist movement today.

1948 was the year in which Norman Thomas ran his sixth and last Presidential campaign. After the expected and inevitable defeat, he and some other leading members of the Socialist Party began to ask themselves and others, in the words of the title of an internal document written by Thomas, ” How Can the Socialist Party Best Serve Socialism?”

The quick and emphatic answer was ” Not by running Presidential candidates.” Thomas and some members of the Party’s National Executive Committee pointed out the obvious drawbacks. First, with the ballot access obstacles thrown up by the major parties, the basic act of getting a candidate on the ballot largely exhausted the pitiable human and financial resources of the Socialist Party. But even heroic efforts were often not enough: in 1948, Thomas observed, the SP was on the ballot in only 30 states, which did not include the major states of California and Ohio. Of courses, resources expended in a hopeless Presidential
contest left the Party with little left over. Further, the electoral policies of the Socialist Party isolated it from meaningful participation in the political process and alienated it from potential members, sympathizers and allies. Thomas observed: “… The more dynamic younger people who at heart are Socialists are refusing to join or, with important exceptions, to stay in the Socialist Party. They want to be free to act in the political field with the great mass of liberals and of labor.” The policies were “… alienating us from precisely those men and women and those organizations whom Socialism must win if ever it is to be victorious.”

The policies in question involved more than running Presidential candidates but guided the Party’s entire participation in electoral politics. They included
1. On pain of expulsion, neither a Socialist group nor an individual member could endorse another party or its candidates, and
2. No Socialist could run in the primary election of another party (When Upton Sinclair captured the Democratic nomination for Governor of California in 1934, he was expelled from the SP, although, since he had stopped paying dues, this was a somewhat futile gesture.).

In 1949 Thomas and his allies were not prepared to endorse one of the major “capitalist” parties. Rather, he suggested, Socialists should work in unions, farm organizations and Americans for Democratic Action for “better” candidates and programs. He conceded that this meant participation in primary and general elections; perhaps he was being somewhat disingenuous because, of course, a primary election is a party election and usually requires at least nominal commitment to a party. He also recognized that there was still residual Socialist strength in such localities as Reading, PA and Milwaukee, WI and granted that some local races could be run under a specifically Socialist banner.

Thomas was not prepared to see Socialists refrain from presenting their own programs: ” I should like to see the Party in every sort of campaign circulate the kind of program that Socialists would recommend. Then we should say: ‘This is the kind of platform you liberal and labor folks ought to adopt and behind which you ought to organize. To carry out this kind of program you need the equivalent of the CCF in Canada or the labor parties in the Scandinavian countries and Britain. If we cooperate with you now on something less it is in order the better to persuade you to go further.'”

Given his personal experience and that of the progressive movement with Communist infiltration tactics, Thomas must have understood that he was proposing Socialist caucuses in other organizations. He emphasized that he was not talking about “boring from within” to gain control of these groups:”We should be concerned with the advancing of ideas rather than the capture of power within other organizations.”

In addition to working with and within other organizations, however, Thomas regarded the continued existence of an independent Socialist group as critical:”…It is essential that we should confer together in our own Socialist meetings and conventions, draw up our programs, plan our projects, and stimulate one another to particular Socialist tasks for which our own particular abilities or our particular jobs and opportunities may especially fit us… We need a nation-wide Socialist Party to carry on an over-all program of education in the Socialist philosophy and program.”

The resolution presented at the 1950 convention of the Socialist Party by Thomas and a majority of the National Executive Committee called for several measures to implement the new strategy:
1. Conduct Socialist research on problems of the reorganization of society
2. Develop new Socialist programs for a mass party
3. Increase the quantity and improve the quality of Socialist literature and publications
4. Sponsor a leadership program to increase the effectiveness of SP members as Socialists
and as members of other organizations
5. Initiate action campaigns on issues affecting the American people.
Probably it would have been accurate to say that these proposals would have turned the SP into an American Fabian Society, but it would have been a Fabian Society on steroids!

This potentially historic change in Socialist strategy was decisively defeated by a vote of 70-37 by the convention delegates. The victors formed a new NEC majority, and their winning resolution made clear that the SP would continue on course. If possible, the Party would use its resources to run national campaigns; members were forbidden to campaign for or to endorse candidates of other parties in primary or general elections; no official body of the SP was allowed to support in any way a Republican or Democratic candidate. Even when SP members participated in liberal or labor organizations, they were required to concentrate on educating their non-socialist fellows on the desirability of “independent political action.” If such an organization supported the candidate of a “capitalist” party, SP members could not join their activities, although they were not actually required to leave the group.

Norman Thomas and the NEC majority had shown a way out of isolation for the Socialist Party. The Party’s majority had rejected that road. Ahead would be a decade of political ineffectiveness and isolation and then nearly another decade of faction fighting before the SP, soon to be Social Democrats USA, would finally take Thomas’ advice.

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Warren is New Progressive Leader

Two years into her Senate term, Senator Elizabeth Warren, in the opinion of many observers, has clearly emerged as the progressive leader in Congress. Jessica Meyers, in an article in The Boston Globe said that Warren’s future battles could involve not only Republicans but also moderate Democrats on the side against her. Meyers quoted Isaac Boltansky, a former Warren aide, as saying:” Elizabeth Warren is going to draw the line in the sand, and moderate Democrats are going to have to decide which side they want to be on.” Although Warren has denied any interest in becoming a Presidential candidate, the “draft Warren” movement is likely to enhance her Congressional role.

Probably of most immediate interest to Warren is the defense of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation act, but she has taken on- and defeated- the White House over the nomination of Antonio Weiss to a senior Treasury post and has led the fight against the spending bill because of a clause supposed to have been inserted by Citigroup lobbyists. Warren, however, has gone beyond the bare bones of those particular issues and has drawn conclusions that have to be deeply troubling to the President. The Weiss nomination, she pointed out, was an example of the revolving door between Wall Street and government economic positions. In a fiery speech on the Senate floor, she denounced the Citigroup influence in the last two Democratic administrations and called for breaking up large banks such as Citigroup.

Warren has lately gone beyond specific Congressional controversies and has spoken out on general progressive issues. In the keynote speech last week at the AFL-CIO Raising Wages Summit, she attacked ” trickle down economics” and discussed wages, employment and labor organizing (available at raisingwagessummit.org). She is becoming a focal point for progressive organizing and is using her position in the Senate as a bully pulpit for the issues and policies in which she believes (yes, the White House is supposed to be the bully pulpit but…).

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Is Mitt Our Man for 2016?

” Under President Obama the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse, and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before.” So said Mitt Romney at the meeting of the Republican National Committee in San Diego. With such an accurate diagnosis of our national condition, should SDUSA be thinking of endorsing him for 2016?

Just kidding, of course. We know that, having validated the social democratic view of what’s wrong (sounds as if he has been reading Socialist Currents), Dr. Romney will prescribe the same old snake oil that Republicans and corporate Democrats have been dishing out for thirty years: lower taxes for the rich, low minimum wages for the poor, high unemployment rates, union-busting, trade pacts that destroy jobs, ad nauseum. That patent medicine has created the conditions that Mitt decries, and a higher dose will only make things worse.

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Charlie et Les Juifs

It’s been a week since the Paris shootings and we’ve all had some time to think about what happened. Here are some things that have been bouncing around in my head:

Freedom of the Press is a sacred right in France, but we shouldn’t confuse that with free speech. In France, hate speech is prohibited. Holocaust denial is prohibited. Political candidates are not allowed to make disparaging remarks about other candidates. In fact, Charlie Hebdo has had several run-ins with the law over the years. A free press is a key to preventing totalitarian government, but it should respect that freedom and use it for its intended purpose. Mocking religious and political authority is a fair use of that freedom.

We also have a free press here in the U.S., but our news is “self-censored”. Organizations like the New York Times say they don’t print material when the author’s primary goal is offending others. They say that’s not news. It would be nice to think that such self-censorship is founded on lofty goals, but here in the U.S. we must always remember that reporting news is a business. Newspapers print what is good for business and censor what is bad for business. When they say they don’t want to offend, they mean their advertisers and subscribers. This is why you see Fox News offending just about everyone except their white audience— it’s good business for them. Newspapers and TV outlets tell people what they want to hear. That’s good for business, but not our democracy.

JeSuisCharlieMany people, myself included, jumped on the “Je Suis Charlie” campaign to express fraternity with the staff at Charlie Hebdo. Additionally, many jumped on the “Je Suis Ahmed” campaign to express empathy with Muslims like Ahmed Merabet, the police officer who was murdered outside the Charlie offices. There was still a third campaign “Je Suis Juif” to express empathy for the French Jews after four Jews were murdered in a kosher supermarket on Friday. That last one got very little traction. While people are quick to associate themselves with murdered writers, cartoonists, and assimilated Muslims, not many will associate themselves with Jews. When Jews are murdered there is always an underlying assumption that they somehow deserved it— that they brought this on themselves. Pick your raison du jour, but this has been going on for 2,000 years. Perpetrators always feel their reason is authentic and unique, and thus there’s no reason to believe this ever will stop.

Some people have since rejected the “Je Suis Charlie” mantra, instead saying that they support free press but that Charlie has abused its privilege. Others say that citizens have no right not to be offended. If you don’t like what someone is saying, turn it off, don’t buy it, walk away. I find a certain amount of hypocrisy with Americans who say “je suis Charlie”, and yet are offended by just about everything. My FB and Twitter feeds seem like an endless stream of people and publications saying, “can you believe he said that?!!” Americans may be the most easily offended people on the planet, and so we invented political correctness. Everyday someone feels a need to apologize for something. Yesterday it was congressman who used the names Hitler and Obama in the same tweet. Don’t dare say you hate Brussels sprouts!

I find an interesting paradox with labeling of terrorism in America. If murders are committed by Muslims, they are terrorists. If a white man murders people at a Jewish community center, he committed a hate crime. If a white man detonates a pipe bomb at an NAACP office, he committed a hate crime. And if tea partiers murder cops in Las Vegas… well, we just pretend that never happened. The use of the different language is meant to say that Muslims all work together to terrorize Americans. Whereas, white racists who commit acts of terror are lone wolves who have mental illness of some kind. Was there ever any doubt that the goal of the KKK was to terrorize blacks, Jews, and Catholics? They still exist, and yet, our news organizations will not call them terrorists. Neither will our police and political leaders call them terrorists. At the Bundy Ranch in Nevada, tea partiers aimed automatic weapons at federal agents who were planning to evict them. No one called them terrorists. More self censoring and political correctness so that they don’t offend (whites).

Israeli PM Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu elbowed his way into the Paris march on Sunday. His motives are solely political. There is an upcoming election and it’s not clear how he will fare. So he was quick to associate himself with murdered Jews. Aside from using the massacre for campaign purposes, I was dismayed by his statements to French Jews that Israel is their home and they should leave France. Yes, of course, Jews all over the world know that they can flee to Israel when they are in danger. But the clear implication in his statement is that French Jews aren’t really French. This plays right into the hands of neo-fascist groups like Front National (FN) who claim that Muslims, Jews, and Roma aren’t really French. This Euro-tribalism is ominously spreading throughout Europe. It is even present in relatively progressive states like Sweden, where the Sweden Democrats party has about 14% of the parliament. By encouraging support for the FN, Bibi’s speech makes life more difficult for Jews who stay in France, but that is the least of his concerns.

The shootings in Paris won’t stop Charlie. They are already back in business. But it could further an exodus of Europe’s largest Jewish community. While Zionists call for all Jews to return to Israel, many Jews like life outside the walled city. And they are serving a purpose. Diaspora Jews have been labeled as the “canary in the coal mine”. That old phrase described miners using canaries to detect poisonous gas. The death of the canary signaled imminent danger to the miners. A mass exodus of French Jews could signal danger for all of France.

Weiss Withdraws, Warren Wins

Senator Elizabeth Warren put another scalp on her belt yesterday as it became known that Antonio Weiss, a long-time Lazard executive, had asked the President not to re-submit his name for a high Treasury Department post. Warren, who is being urged by some progressive groups to run for the Presidency, has been leading a fight to curtail the practice of a revolving door between government jobs and Wall Street. Last month she led the fight against a Citigroup-written clause in the spending bill and called attention to the number of former Citigroup executives who have moved in and out of the Obama and earlier administrations. Last summer she was part of the effort to prevent the nomination of Lawrence Summers, a leading corporate Democrat, for Federal Reserve Chairman.

Presidential candidate or not, Warren is playing a critical role in the development of a resurgent progressive wing of the Democratic Party. With her gutsy,”take no prisoners” attitude, she is giving leadership to the activist progressive-social democratic heart of the Party, and she is also setting out a comprehensive economic program for alleviating poverty and rebuilding the middle class, as she did at the AFL-CIO Wages Summit last week. In the months ahead, Warren may give us the answer to the question “Where is Harry Truman
when we need him?”

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