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Looking Back, Looking Forward Resolving the Left Impasse Over Elections

Defining a social justice agenda primarily in reaction to Clinton (oppose her, back her), or Trump (fight him, ignore him), allows the dominant two-party system to set the tone, reduces independent politics to slogans without substance. Failure to look at the whole political environment rather than any one aspect of it, has led to lost opportunities in the past.



The policy of “the lesser evil” strengthens the feeling of power of the reactionary forces and is supposed to create the greatest of all evils: the passivity of the masses. They are to be persuaded not to make any use of their full power outside of Parliament. Thus the significance of Parliament for the class struggle of the proletariat is also diminished. If Parliament today, within limits, can be used for the workers’ struggle, it is only because it has the support of the powerful masses outside of its walls.

The most important immediate task is the formation of a United Front of all workers in order to turn back fascism. … Before this compelling historical necessity, all inhibiting and dividing political, trade union, religious and ideological opinions must take a back seat.”  Fascism Must be Defeated; Opening Address to the German Parliament, August 1932, Clara Zetkin, Communist Party of Germany (KPD).


Organizing success requires establishing a framework that enables individuals to express their distinct voices in combination with others in an expanding circle of mutual support. The goal – to form a union, stop police violence, prevent off-shore drilling, cut military spending – brings people together around a particular goal even though personal motives, immediate concerns, long-term aims will vary greatly. The success or failure in any given campaign resides in how close it gets toward its principle objective, and, crucially, whether people remain engaged after an initial effort meets with success or failure. Win or lose, the next step almost inevitably entails reaching out to those who stayed on the sidelines, advocated a different approach or stood in opposition in order to build strength for whatever follows.

Few activists would dispute the above – except when it comes to elections. Then the tendency is for activists to see those charting a course different than their own as opponents or roadblocks rather than as individuals or communities whose outlook and participation is needed for success, however measured. It is a blindness well in evidence this campaign season.

Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton is viewed by some as a long overdue acknowledgement that he lost the primary battle and as the needed last step to unify the Democratic Party and progressive opinion in order to defeat Donald Trump come November. From this perspective, those who refuse to go along are opening the door to the most dangerous right-wing demagogue we have faced in our time. The hateful speeches that characterized the Republican Convention only amplified that view. From another perspective, Sanders’ endorsement is a betrayal of his program, and of the voters who supported him. Such critics charge that he succumbed to a pragmatic opportunism which will reinforce corporate neo-liberalism. Clinton’s pick of Tim Kaine as her running mate, underlines her Wall Street agenda and give credence to those who argue that she is not a progressive alternative to Trump.

From either point-of-view, the need to create a “united front” across ideological lines, while rejecting politics of the “lesser evil,” remains not only unmet but barely acknowledged. Curiously, one salient fact is often ignored: Sander’s success in reaching millions, putting inequality at the center of politics, bringing the term socialism back into public discussion and generating widespread enthusiasm for a “political revolution” grew from working within the Democratic Party without being beholden to it. This inside/outside organizing helped establish a genuine unity (that is unity between those with clashing perspectives), without sacrificing principles.

It is a lesson lost when the valid point that there needs to be the widest possible unity of working people in order to confront and defeat Trump is joined to the argument that Clinton has now adopted the social justice policy positions she refused to previously advocate. An example of this thinking can be seen in an article by Sanders supporter Gene Grabiner:

Hillary cannot run a center-right campaign. If she does, she will lose. And she knows that. And if she wins the election, she cannot govern as a center-right president. That’s because she’ll need to govern on a program which is substantially Bernie’s, and which responds to the needs of the masses of the people and the movement that Bernie’s candidacy has built. That being the case, Bernie will campaign for her. And she will have to deliver.” (To All My “Bernie or Bust” Friends: Worse Is Not Better)

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Certainly there is nothing progressive about her projected foreign policy. Moreover, Clinton’s insistence that she would achieve the domestic aims outlined in her acceptance speech by reaching across the aisle to Republicans calls into question any guarantee of a progressive campaign or Administration. Sanders made a different argument – legislative progress on a progressive agenda is only possible through mass pressure. By contrast, Clinton undervalues the groundswell of activism by Sanders supporters and replaces it with a passive politics dictated by professionals. Beyond speculation as to how she might govern lies the reality that people were inspired by Sanders as an alternative to Clinton, so it is making a huge leap to expect them to see her now as the embodiment of their hopes.

Others argue that Trump can’t win or that it is a matter of indifference whether he or Clinton is in office next year. Behind this lies the disempowering notion that a candidate’s relationship to corporate power and elite opinion matter far more than popular opinion. An example can be found in an article by Steve Bloom (and signed by a number of other activists) who writes:

A victory, with our support at the ballot box, for someone who espouses a less-blatantly racist imperial agenda still strengthens the hand of the imperial rulers of this country, and of the state which upholds their interests. This electoral tactic/strategy has been tried often. It has not once led to a leftward shift in the establishment political discourse as its proponents consistently insist that it will, not even when the candidate they call on us to vote for wins and takes office. Indeed, any such “victory” tends to simply compound the problem by making the calls by the rabid right even more strident. Note, as a clear example, the emergence of Trump after eight years of an Obama Administration.” (After Bernie – Electoral Strategy for the Left in 2016)

Of course, those eight years also saw the emergence of Occupy and Black Lives Matter –and Sanders garnering the support of millions. More important, this line of reasoning ignores the impact on whole communities – now as well as in the potential future – of his open racism, xenophobia and misogyny. Trump’s candidacy relies on mobilizing white voters to the exclusion of all who look, think or act differently; Clinton’s campaign relies on mobilizing a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of women and men of different sexual identities, different backgrounds. Trump’s proposals on domestic and foreign policy, while within the standard right-wing frame, add a call to “defend” (white) workers against workers in other countries, against the interests of black and Latino communities in the US; whereas the Democratic Party platform, for all its limitations, puts forward a defense of existing social programs as providing security for all. These are distinctions that should matter to proponents of social justice, of socialism.

Moreover, Trump demonstrates open contempt for civil liberties with his advocacy of torture, of violence against opponents. Beyond the “liberal”/ “conservative” business as usual divide in US politics, Trump’s campaign needs to be confronted as a threat to democratic rights in and of themselves. To treat such rhetoric in a cavalier fashion reflects the liberal illusion that our rights – however limited they may be – can never be truly imperiled. And it treats concerns that might be raised by voices within communities targeted as a matter of secondary importance, an outlook unlikely to build a movement reflective of the working class in its full diversity.

Yet such criticism should not be taken as a dismissal of the legitimate anger behind the argument – to say that Trump needs to be defeated is not sufficient reason to ignore Hillary Clinton’s militarist assertion of US power abroad, her ties to Wall Street, her support for the death penalty, or her consistent opposition to universal New Deal type social programs in favor of means-tested plans that deepen inequality. Moreover, and a key difference between her and Sanders, is that Clinton rejects independent initiatives or critical opinions. Support from unions and other social justice organizations is welcome only so long as they stay “on message,” as though elections were sales campaigns. This has nothing to do with democratic participation or democratic accountability. Of course Trump is more dismissive of democratic norms, mobilizing people on the basis of fear, hatred, and his “infallibility.”

Defining a social justice agenda primarily in reaction to Clinton (oppose her, back her), or Trump (fight him, ignore him), allows the dominant two-party system to set the tone, reduces independent politics to slogans without substance. Failure to look at the whole political environment rather than any one aspect of it, has led to lost opportunities in the past.

 Germany 1933

Oft-repeated as a warning sign of what to avoid was the inability of Social Democrats and Communists to unite to stem the Nazi march to power. The value of such unity is so obvious that it might behoove us to look deeper into the matter as to why it didn’t happen. Calls for joint action were made at the time by some leading Communists and some left-wing and simply open-eyed Social Democrats. So too independent left parties and publications in Germany called for unity as soon as the fascist danger became manifest. But such calls failed to gain traction as a political force because they were unconnected to existing popular currents.

Whereas, though flawed — and ultimately fatal — both the KPD and the SPD pursued reasonably coherent strategies that made sense to their supporters (reflected in the consistency of their respective areas of pre-1933 strength in the immediate aftermath of World War II). Communists focused on building a broad base of support through organizing mass public rallies and demonstrations, by establishing workplace and community organizations. The denunciation of Social Democrats as social fascists was a particularly short-sighted, self-destructive aspect of this, but the KPD’s tactics in the early 30s was consistent with their tactics in the early 20s when they sought agreement with the SPD and all other worker/Marxist parties in the country. During most of the Weimar years, no matter what the “political line,” German Communists acted on the belief that the working-class could be brought together across lines of division by maintaining the maximum degree of flexibility in action, flexibility unencumbered by limitations inevitable if parliamentary compromise was given equal weight.

Campaigns against rearmament, to end the nobility’s remaining privileges, for abortion rights, to prevent evictions or prepare militant strike action were practical applications of a strategy designed to mobilize around reforms of immediate consequence to working people. In practice, this entailed recognition of the need for compromise, for effective action in parliament. What they failed to recognize is that even success in particular struggles would not lead people in their majority to abandon those institutions and political parties of which they were a part. KPD calls for unity became hollow because the legitimacy of other perspectives and thus of other loyalties was denied. Over-estimation of the strength of mass action in a vacuum left them unable to effectively resist loss of the institutional space within which organizing took place – left them unable to see that those who worked strictly within the limits of constitutional order had a logic that needed to be acknowledged if a genuinely radical alternative was to prevail.

The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) charted an opposite course. They believed that defending the Weimar Republic was necessary to protect or extend practical reforms enacted at its founding – improving public education, constructing working-class housing, providing unemployment relief, establishing union rights. But fearing the fragility of the parliamentary system, they rejected calls for popular mobilizations on behalf of their programs as they came under attack by big business interests, conservative and middle-class parties and “popular” fascist forces. The box they were already in narrowed once the depression hit. Bowing to the logic of the system they defended, the SPD pursued a politics of trying to limit rather than resist cuts. Even this was undermined for defense of social reforms without social upheaval led to their casting a blind eye at the danger (and fiscal cost) of renewed militarism. Thus the SPD became complicit in the process that undermined them as evidenced by their support of Hindenburg (who was to make Hitler Chancellor) in 1933.

Ultimately, the decision to compromise with existing power under threat of the destruction of Weimar made them intractable opponents not only of Communists but of all others on the left seen as furthering instability at a time when stability had become a goal in and of itself. But support for the then existing Constitution and the rights enshrined in it would have only been possible by uniting with those engaged in extra-parliamentary struggles. Joint action would not have made the profound differences with such groups vanish, but joint action to defend rights under threat could have allowed the parliamentary system and civil liberties survive. Privileging the existing order over all else meant condoning reactionary German nationalism, condemning other workers’ parties, it meant isolation. For the SPD a united front became undesirable, the only supporters wanted were those with shared politics.

The failure on each part did not lie so much in the pursuit of distinct strategies. Instead their mutual failure lay in the inability to include within their particular strategies the perspectives of each other. An understanding of the interdependence of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics could have created the basis for recognizing that the frequent contradiction between the two did not make their proponents enemies of each other. The retreat into a politics of either-or not only meant an inability to unite, it also meant an inability to break into the broad support the Nazis were able to gain within sections of the working-class and amongst broader sections of the middle-class – for the insularity of Communists and Socialists (even with their millions of supporters) left each without strength to make meaningful an alternative to those outside their circles of influence. Unity means not allowing real differences prevent solidarity and it means building outwards from whatever points of convergence do exist.

United States 1968

Divergence instead of convergence was found everywhere in 1968. One of the many dilemmas those opposed to the Vietnam War faced early that year: support Robert Kennedy or Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy had a base in the labor movement and the black community that McCarthy did not have – a clear reason to prefer him. But McCarthy was running largely outside the apparatus of the Democratic Party, opening up space for independent politics in a way Kennedy wasn’t.

In New York City, for example, a reform Democratic Party movement was challenging the entrenched machine over local issues ranging from low-income housing to school integration, but with an added dimension because reform/establishment lines also reflected division over the Vietnam War. Contra-wise, Kennedy’s past ties with that machine meant that he received their support. Most reformers therefore backed McCarthy, connecting the dots between local political corruption and the corruption of national politics.

But that was a logic that did not hold everywhere – one of the many counter-examples that can be cited was Kennedy’s clear and unequivocal support for the United Farmworkers, still in the midst of a national grape boycott. Farmworkers and their supporters saw Kennedy’s campaign as providing an opportunity to build progressive coalition politics in California, an opportunity McCarthy’s campaign did not afford as he stood largely aloof from movements of dispossessed communities (a history that gives context to Dolores Huerta’s support for Clinton this year).

So the decision to back an “uncorrupted” outsider or a liberal who could be “effective” wound up being defined more by local than national needs – choices that became absolute and thus exclusive. A decision to support Gene McCarthy would have been more meaningful if joined to a determined critique of the limitations of his program, of his base of support. So too, a decision to support Kennedy would have had more value if joined to an effort to unhitch his campaign from the Democratic Party regulars who sought to dampen independent initiatives. But there was no popular basis anywhere for such a scenario. Supporters of the two were not interchangeable and there was never any synergy between their campaigns – and only a very uneven connection to protest and resistance movements unconnected to the primaries.

The cost of organizing against each other became evident when the general election provided a different set of choices. Kennedy was assassinated and McCarthy’s single note anti-war campaign became ever more marginal. Their supporters splintered in a thousand different directions, some mainstream, others radical, many back into a non-political life. Police violence at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, the culmination of a season of growing reaction (which had already taken Martin Luther King Jr.’s life), added to the confusion over which way to turn.

A fearful Democratic leadership choose Hubert Humphrey as the candidate against Republican Richard Nixon. To support Humphrey meant accepting Lyndon Johnson’s anointed successor – a Johnson who looked much different at the time then today because of the Vietnam War, because of his attempt to control the civil rights movement. Humphrey’s anti-Communist liberalism, a liberalism that feared and decried grassroots mobilization, had the support of a labor movement under arch-reactionary leadership and a narrow crust of civil rights leaders unwilling to oppose the war. They formed a coalition that sought to stifle reform possibilities within the Democratic Party that opposed all manifestations of radical dissent.

Humphrey was the last expression of a liberal “consensus” that had completely fallen apart. He was unable to match the malevolence of Nixon who set into motion the break with post-war Keynesianism, laid the groundwork for weakening hard-won civil liberties/civil rights gains and helped create the legal and ideological framework for what would become, decades later, our system of mass incarceration. The roots of the Republican Party transformation into the party of Reagan was as much a consequence of Nixon’s six years in office as it was of Goldwater’s failed 1964 campaign. The drift to the right was also apparent in George Wallace’s independent bid for President. Running on a pro-war, segregationist, “law and order” platform he won 13% of the vote – anticipating in its own way the appeal of Trump.

Left independent candidates ran presidential campaigns as well: Peace and Freedom’s Eldridge Cleaver, Freedom and Peace’s Dick Gregory, the Communist Party’s Charlene Mitchell, the Socialist Workers Party’s Fred Halstead. Though each was associated with the surge of radical protest at the time, none came close to being an expression of that protest. Yet electoral insignificance notwithstanding, protest and liberation movements, in their challenge to the imperial system, to racism, to capitalist exploitation and alienation were able to advance the cause of reform and set in motion a process of social (and personal) transformations upon which subsequent movements – including those of today – stem. The radical left, however, failed to establish an institutional framework able to survive setbacks or changed social and economic conditions.

For the left and liberals alike, a failed opportunity that has come at a steep price.

A Return to Today

Choices on display in 1968 have been replicated ever since. Some work in the Democratic Party as an alternative to Republican misrule, others aim to reform the Democratic Party. Those who judge such reform impossible strive to build a progressive Third Party, or, instead, stay focused on workplace, community or issue-based organizing.

Yet, unlike 1968, those differences have been largely artificial, rarely spilling over into social movements. Even the Gore/Nader divide, for all the intensity of the argument between supporters on either side, did not lead to splits, internal upheaval or leadership challenges within social justice organizations. That reflects the arid quality of election time debates as they become repetitive. Such arguments trap people in time and inhibit the ability of progressive working-class politics to take the initiative away from neo-liberalism in its liberal or right-wing guise; contributes to our inability to go beyond resistance to social injustice toward social transformation. Politics are only effective and radical if they address society’s complexities and changes.

In today’s moment this means confronting and defeating Donald Trump; all sophistries aside, that can only happen by electing Hillary Clinton as president. Trump normalizes overt racism, and if nothing else, that is sufficient reason for taking seriously the choices for November. But support for Clinton should be combined with opposition to any part of her program that reinforces corporate economics, military interventionism, undemocratic policies and practices – opposition to TPP, support for Palestinian rights, a ban on fracking, solidarity with Honduras, should not be put on hold.

Saying this doesn’t make an enemy of those concerned that criticism of Clinton will help Trump, nor does it make an enemy of those who back Jill Stein. That logic, however, goes both ways. Supporters of Stein who aim their fire at Clinton supporters undermine any project for building a sustainable social justice movement, Clinton supporters who condemn all who don’t embrace her undermine their objective of unifying to defeat Trump.

We will find a path to organize against the neo-fascist danger posed by Trump without surrendering to Clinton’s neo-liberalism when we link election activity to ongoing activity within and through existing popular movements and social justice organizations. Doing so can also allow us to speak to some Trump supporters without making any concession to his racism, with according any legitimacy to his politics. Choices we make depend on circumstances not of our own making; independence flows from what we do with those choices — build solidarity rather than proclaim it, speak to popular intelligence rather than in slogans, connect our work toward improving life in the present to a strategy for a future that is free because equal, democratic because inclusive, secure because just.

 And Tomorrow

A strategy to realize that vision, to contest for power, to sustain the “political revolution” long-term requires a national organizational form – a framework that combines seemingly opposed currents of activism, give unified scope to multiple voices, link multiple levels of engagement. Too often work in election campaigns dissipate almost as soon as concluded, win or lose – unlike in other kinds of organizing for reasons noted above. This time may be different, especially if Sanders’ planned initiative to maintain the network of supporters of the “political revolution,” can maintain a balance between independence and connections beyond itself. A small step in that direction was taken at the People’s Summit in Chicago this past June. Beyond that central to whatever takes place next must be an ongoing connection to the organizations that supported Sanders – the National Nurses Union, Communications Workers of America, Working Families Party, USAction, Democracy for America, MoveOn.Org, Progressive Democrats of America, Democratic Socialists of America and scores of other organizations, local and national, large and small.

Turning to the more recent past, we have an example of what such a formation could look like in the Rainbow Coalition, built around Jesse Jackson’s 1984/88 presidential runs which anticipated Sanders’ inside/outside strategy. The political self-conception of the Rainbow was defined by Jack O’Dell, a leading Jackson (and previously, King) advisor:

The Rainbow Coalition represents the Peace and Justice movements for social change entering the electoral arena, as an independent force.

The Rainbow Coalition is a mass political movement, committed to an expansion of the definition and practice of democracy in our country including the realization of economic justice. As such it has to be bold enough to perceive itself as the historic replacement for the existing two-party system: one prepared to act as a “dual authority” carrying out political education, developing the public’s insights into the systemic character of many of the nation’s problems, and consequently proposing solutions to these problems that are germane.

The Rainbow should be guided by the strategic objective or goal of effecting a basic political realignment favorable to the ascendancy of the progressive trend and its political program.” (The Rainbow Coalition Organizational Principles, 1985).

Though not fully realized it achieved an enormous amount on the basis O’Dell articulated – reform within organized labor, gains for the women’s movement, expanding support for peace and global solidarity, new linkages for environmental organizations, connections to farming communities. Such impacts were beyond any reverberations flowing from Nader’s campaign, beyond the impact made by mainstream Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Yet the Rainbow didn’t survive, in large part because the changes which it helped further were still at too early a stage of development, thus individual leadership choices loomed too large in its growth and decline. The process of internal change within social justice movements and links between them have, however, become more rooted in subsequent years. Meanwhile, layers of inequality are more marked, more rigid, in the 21st century than in preceding decades, leading a new generation to understand that change to be meaningful must be systemic. And waves of activism since Obama’s election have demanded positive changes, a contrast to the Reagan era when such activism was on the defensive. Thus there is a stronger base within society as a whole to carry forward Sanders’ politics, as compared to what Jackson supporters faced during the 1980s.

But the Rainbow had strengths that Sanders lacked – it was truly multi-racial and multi-ethnic in its leadership, electoral support, activist base. This was not a matter of program – in many ways the Rainbow’s was similar to Sanders, centered on universal programs to advance economic justice and democratic rights. Rather it has to do with the fact that African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Mid-Eastern, Native communities were full participants in setting the Rainbow’s agenda and defining the movement.

Rootedness within a multi-racial coalition is key to posing solidarity against divisiveness, links social justice to the peace movement. Practically and ideologically opposition to racism and war are jointly intrinsic to any possible advance in working-class rights and power; not only as politics but also as vision. Jackson, in his opposition to the first Gulf War modeled what such a challenge can look like. Sanders never went as far as the Rainbow in incorporating cuts in military spending, in support for peace and global social justice into his program – it is a step any next step will need to take.

 Sanders did widen his agenda during the course of his campaign, and spokespersons Adding issues, or including spokespersons like Cornell West or Ben Jealous or Native American tribal leader Deborah Parker, as Sanders did, while important, was not sufficient. Organizations and individuals rooted in those communities most excluded and most exploited need to be at the table at the outset of any next step — North Carolina’s Moral Monday Movement and similar initiatives that channel the kind of coalition the Rainbow had created. Rev. William Barber’s speech at the Democratic Convention was the expression of that vision and politics – if joined to Elizabeth Warren’s and Sanders Convention speeches, if joined to the politics and perspectives of Progressive Caucus co-chairs Rep. Keith Ellison and Rep. Raul Grijalva, we can see a movement with the strength to be independent, the base to be effective.

 Prologue as Prelude

The need unmet in Germany on the eve of fascism lay in acknowledging distinct political logics amongst those working to protect democratic rights, to secure social and economic justice, challenge capitalism as a system. Zetkin’s call for a united front of workers that rejected the politics of the lesser evil reflected the long history of the German socialist left with which her life was identified; failure to attain it then speaks to the extraordinary difficulty in organizing that combines working people divided amongst themselves to act proactively and independently.

We have our own experiences with division as seen in 1968 and the unmet need of bringing together disparate communities of protest and resistance. But each such example attests to the continuing search to build such a movement, the Rainbow giving a brief glimpse of what a working-class movement in its full diversity and inner-differences could look like.

Lessons and legacies from these and other turning points, other moments of possibility lost, should help inform us as we seek today to build upon the momentum of the Sanders campaign. Sanders campaign resonated because individuals could envision changing their life through changing society, found engagement and self-expression through collective action, through a politics of solidarity that challenged corporate power.

But to build upon that means facing the limitations in those gains, acting within our existing context while changing it to create expanded possibilities. The complexity in each aspect of what we face as well as of the whole should inform our actions around the elections and beyond. If we do so, we can seize this moment to build social justice politics that are broad and transformative; if we don’t take the initiative, reaction surely will. The choice, individually and collectively, remains with each of us.


Kurt Stand was active in the labor movement for over 20 years including as the elected North American Regional Secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers until 1997.  That year he was arrested and served 15 years in prison on charges of having committed espionage for the GDR, charges he unsuccessfully contested at trial and upon appeal.  Currently he works at a bookstore, is a member of the Washington Metro DSA, is active in Progressive organizations in his community of Cheverly, Maryland, serves as a Portside Labor Moderator and is the facilitator of a Metro DC Labor/Reentry jobs project.