Monday, March 17, 2008

The Interplay of Movements and Electoral Politics (Panel, Left Forum 2008)

Strange how predictable some things are. The Left Forum, probably the biggest leftist conference in the world, yesterday evening concluded a whole weekend of panels and discussions, and it is not mentioned at all, and not only in the mainstream media, but not even in the leftist media, with this exception, a podcast of a panel on the prospects of a more coherent left. This is very ironic, because coherence is one of the many things not only the left is lacking, but also most of the presentations I attended at the Left Forum.

What is going on here? What a missed opportunity, all the more that it coincided with the Fed bailing out Bear Stearns, which some call 'the ultimate financial scam,' probably with more to come. Most leftists would agree that capitalism is in crisis, and yet the biggest anti-capitalist conference in the world gets no coverage!

From my rather limited experience at the Forum, one of the many problems is the often stark discrepancy between panel descriptions and panel performance, which was certainly the case here. This was the description: '
Focusing on particular movements, the perennial dichotomy between doing electoral work or movement work will be examined, as will what can we learn about the impact of electoral politics on political movements, and the impact of political movements on electoral politics.' Sounds promising, doesn't it? That's what I thought, too.

Alas, the promise was not kept, for hardly any of the issues were addressed, much less systematically. Curiously, none of the attendees seem to mind. Is this lack of professionalism a more general problem on and of the left? In any case, this is really too bad, because these are really important questions, and are being addressed by what in our report, Finding Strategy, we termed 'movement-electoral strategies,' which try to articulate these two components. Perhaps most well known is one variant of this type of strategy, the inside-outside strategy, especially as practiced by Progressive Democrats of America.

Dorian Warren, political scientist at Columbia University, said that Frances Fox Piven had asked him to talk about 'Electoral/movement dynamics in the labor movement,' adding that she would have been much better on this topic. He then proceeded to talk primarily about the perennial question of why an influential labor party never emerged in the US, and in very general terms. Potential 'solutions' to this problem include reforming the electoral system to make third parties viable, focusing on the local rather than the national level, and promoting municipal socialism. Unfortunately, as generations of political scientists have conclusively demonstrated for decades, the prospects for creating viable third parties are very close to zero. As Domhoff and many others have suggested, it is strategically much more effective to concentrate on transforming the Democratic Party into a more progressive organization by forming left-liberal alliances.

Howard Hawkins, Teamster, and former candidate of the Green Party in New York, and editor of Independent Politics: The Green Party Strategy Debate (2006), emphasized how important it was to build an autonomous left party. He concluded: 'Basically, we have to build a vast party of the left.' This sentiment seems to be widely shared at the Forum in general.

This is remarkable: After more than a century of failure, many leftists still pursue this chimera. This leads to an important question: How long do strategies have to fail before they are being abandoned in favor of more realistic ones? Apparently, for all too many, a century of failure is not enough. What a terrible waste of precious resources, and what a huge opportunity cost. Just imagine what could have been achieved instead. This is a key strategic insight: Strategy is as much - or perhaps even more - about what what you don't do rather than about what you do. There are still way too many losing strategies being pursued on the left. It is high time to abandon them.

Ron Scott, member of the Detroit Black Panther Party and a TV producer, primarily talked about the importance of building long-term personal relationships in building a movement. The other two panelists did not show up.

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At Mon Mar 24, 11:23:00 AM, Anonymous Michael-David Sasson said...

I came of age to vote in 1988 and since then I've been unable to find a major party nominee for the presidency who has been to the left of Richard Nixon.

A hundred years of failure in trying to build a third party. Maybe.

What successes can those who want to take over the Dems point to?

I think we'd agree that external mass movements can pressure Dems and Repubs to do things the parties don't want to do on their own but please don't credit LBJ for the sacrifices of Fannie Lou Hamer et al.


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