File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/marxism-international.9710, message 206

Date: Sat, 11 Oct 1997 12:17:21 -0400
Subject: M-I: Variations on the Popular Front: reply to Jim Farmelant

Put in a nutshell, the Popular Front without an orientation toward FDR
would have been based on a Labor Party rather than the Democratic Party,
the party of the bosses. William Z. Foster had a better class instinct than
Browder on this particular question. He thought that the Farmer-Labor Party
might qualify as the base for a Popular Front. Even though this party had
developed more of a middle-class base since its formation earlier in the
century, it was still possible to transform the class composition by
aggressively recruiting workers.

Another possibility would have been to form a Labor Party from scratch.
Even though Roosevelt had wide-spread popularity in the ranks of labor,
there was also a strong desire to create a class-based party, especially
after FDR had come out with his "plague on both your houses" comments after
the cops had murdered strikers during the "Little Steel" strike.

The desire for a break from the Democratic Party was especially strong in
New York, where Communists actually took the initiative to form the
American Labor Party. The ALP was formed in 1936 by leaders of the needle
trades union, reports Roger Keeran in his article "The Communist Influence
on American Labor" contained in "New Studies in U.S. Communism", edited by
my friend and ex-SWP member Frank Rosengarten. Keeran states:

"It had the backing of unions representing 400,00 members, and in the years
1936 to 1946 it carried between 5 percent and 50 percent of every election
district in New York City. The ALP was the base for the most consistently
pro-labor candidate elected to national office, Congressman Vito
Marcantonio. State chairman of the ALP until 1953, Marcantonio represented
East Harlem in Congress between 1938 and 1950. The ALP and Marcantonio
relied on the energetic campaign efforts of Communists and the unions under
their leadership. Gerald Meyer points out 'that through its control of the
neighborhood clubs and via the affiliation of the Communist-led unions, the
party rapidly became a major force within the ALP. By 1948 [party leader]
Dennis privately noted that virtually every ALP club leader throughout the
city was a party member.'"

It is a bit difficult to say what would have been the equivalent in the
1960s radicalization, a period of labor quiescence. The most promising
formation was the Peace and Freedom Party, which ran Dr. Spock for
President in 1968 and received enough votes to win permanent ballot status
in California, no small achievement. 

The Peace and Freedom Party failed largely because it was ignored by some
groups on the left or picked apart by parasitic sectarians who did choose
to work in it. The Communist Party could not come to terms with the new
leftish leadership of the Peace and Freedom Party and initiated their own
Freedom and Peace Party [!] which ran Dick Gregory, if my aging memory
serves me correctly on this one. The Freedom and Peace party soft-pedaled
the notion of building an alternative to the Democratic Party and mostly
spoke about the need to stop Nixon.

The Socialist Workers Party characterized the Peace and Freedom Party as
"petty bourgeois" (this is like the pot calling the kettle black) and
ignored it, while running their own rather dynamic campaign on behalf of
Fred Halstead in 1968. Halstead was a 6'5", 350 pound garment cutter who
was leading the party's antiwar work. He was a gifted speaker who was able
to translate Trotskyist mumbo-jumbo into terms understandable by the
average American. There are no people like this left in the zombie cult
known as the SWP.

Smaller groups bored away at the Peace and Freedom Party and drove serious
activists out of the organization. Could you imagine a meeting convened to
discuss where to pass out campaign flyers and running into a jargon drunk
like Hugh Rodwell, who wanted to put the Shanghai massacre of 1927 on the
agenda? And then never lifted a finger to actually pass out leaflets like
the rest of the group? Yecchh.

The only thing that has held similar promise in recent years are the
electoral bids of Jesse Jackson. If Jackson decided to bolt from the
Democratic Party and turn the Rainbow Coalition into a political party,
then we might be talking about something real. Expecting Jackson to leave
the Democrats is a little bit like asking a Trotskyite to stop calling
people "Mensheviks" that they disagree with politically. Don't hold your
breath. Opportunism and sectarianism are powerful drugs.

Leaving aside the electoral aspect, the main requirement in building
something like the Popular Front is being able to communicate to the
American people in the language of their everyday lives, as Browder
stressed. In recent years, the Sandinista revolution has provided rich
lessons in how to do this. They spoke to the masses in terms of
"Sandinismo", which drew upon the culture and traditions of revolt in their
own history. We should think much more about how to do this ourselves.
Instead of using symbols of other people's revolutions, like hammers and
sickles, we should think creatively about what are the most resonant themes
for the American people. One of the interesting things about the militia
movement, as murky or reactionary as its politics are, is the degree to
which it does this. The whole idea of a militia is a throwback to the early
days of the American revolution.

The best formulations I have heard on the subject are contained in Roger
Burbach and Orlando Nunez's "Fire in the Americas". Burbach is head of the
Center for the Studies of the Americas in Berkeley and has spent a lot of
time in Latin American and Nicaragua in particular. Nunez was the director
of the Center for the Study of Agrarian Reform in Sandinista Nicaragua.
Burbach has sort of gotten derailed ideologically recently and taken up a
"postmodernist socialism", which is tied to an undialectical understanding
of the Zapatistas, but "Fire in the America" remains a valuable resource.
Here is a sample passage:

"What are the weak links in the chain of bourgeois rule? Where can
breakthroughs be made? One weakness is that the bourgeoisie, and the
capitalist system it controls, are driven to produce an ever increasing
materialistic and atomized society. Truly humane values--love, solidarity,
etc.--are devalued by capitalism. At present the New Right is trying to
overcome this contradiction by emphasizing traditional values like the
family and patriotism, but the left can respond more effectively by showing
how social and moral disintegration are rooted in late capitalism.

"The central contradiction of contemporary capitalism however is that it is
increasingly undemocratic. Economic and political power are concentrated
and centralized; the average citizen plays no role in running the giant
corporations. In the political sphere, it is only centralized
organizations, like business associations and trade lobbies, that play
major roles in the selection of our political leaders. And of course it is
control of the media by these organizations and the bourgeoisie that
determines what political options and messages are presented to voters.
Moreover, Watergate and Contragate show the darker sides of 'imperial'
presidencies and a general contempt for constitutional procedures.

"It is the 'death of democracy' that the left can use as a political banner
in the United States to challenge the hold of the bourgeoisie. In this
struggle, the left can reclaim the US past, including historical milestones
like the Declaration of Independence. It can appeal to the country's
progressive political tradition which includes anti-war movements as well
as political leaders like Tom Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Eugene Debs, Robert
La Follette, and Martin Luther King Jr."

Louis Proyect

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