Hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) on April 26, 2017.
• Travis Donoho, Co-chair of the Knox area Democratic Socialists of America
• Barbara Bridges, Chair of the Green Party (US) of Knoxville
• Jason Dawsey, Lecturer of History at the University of Tennessee
Moderated by Matt Cavagrotti
Electoral politics are a longstanding problem for the U.S. left. In recent decades, a number of parties have formed as an alternative to the Democratic Party: the Labor Party, the Green Party, and now, the Justice Party. However, these parties risk becoming little more than networks of activists or pressure groups on the Democratic Party, and it still remains unclear whether a serious electoral challenge to the Democratic Party is possible.
Many progressives blame the “first-past-the-post” structure of U.S. elections, contra labour-friendly parliamentary systems; yet others insist that this procedural focus is misplaced. Leninists charge some quarters of the Left with misunderstanding the proper relationship of the party to the state; but for many, it remains unclear how State and Revolution bears upon the present. Most activists grant the desirability of a viable party to the left of the Democrats, but why exactly such a party is desirable-- to win reforms? to spread emancipatory consciousness?-- is contested as well.
These are old questions for the American left-- as old as Henry George, Daniel De Leon, and the 1930s American Labor Party, perhaps the high point of independent electoral politics in the U.S. This panel will investigate several contemporary approaches to electoral politics to draw out the theories that motivate Leftist third parties; it will also ask how the historical achievements and failures of third parties bear upon the present.
1. How does the present election represent an opportunity for the development of a third party?In what ways have Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson each helped develop a window of opportunity for a third party?
2. In what ways might these figures be responsible for miseducating, depoliticizing, or simply misdirecting potential allies?
3. What conditions would a Clinton or Trump administration produce for the left? How would each represent a challenge to the Left?
4. How might a third party avoid simply becoming either an instrument for pressuring the Democratic Party to the Left or a mere recruiting tool for activist and sectarian organizations? In other words: what are the practical and theoretical obstacles to the development of the Left beyond the default form of activity that have characterized it since the mid-20th century?
5. While we take for granted that a third party would have to distinguish itself from the two major parties, how could a third party attempt to draw from voters from both the Democrats and the Republicans?
6. The rise of progressivism and socialism in the late 19th/early 20th century defined every attempt at the development of a third party in the 20th century. How are progressive and socialist politics distinct and/or related? What role would each play in the development of a mass third party for the 21st century?
Every year at the Platypus International Convention, speakers from various perspectives are asked to bring their experience of the Left’s recent history to bear on today’s political possibilities and challenges as part of the “Differing Perspectives on the Left” workshop series.
A panel event held at the School for Visual Arts on February 25th, 2014.
From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little -- the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again.
At the same time, the elections in US and recently in Germany, by comparison, to be a non-event, despite potentially having far-reaching consequences for teeming issues word-wide. Today, the people -- the demos -- seem resigned to their political powerlessness, even as they rage against the corruption of politics. Hence, while contemporary demands for democracy to politicize the demos, they are also indicative of social and political regression that asks urgently for recognition and reflection. Demands for democracy “from below” end up being expressed “from above”: The 99%, in its already obscure and unorganized character, didn’t express itself as such in the various recent elections, but was split in various tendencies, many of them very reactionary.
Democracy retains an enigmatic character, since it always slips any fixed form and content, since people under the dynamic of capital keep demanding at times “more” democracy and “real” democracy. But democracy can be like Janus: it often expresses both the progressive social and emancipatory demands, but also their defeat, their hijacking by an elected “Bonaparte”.
What is the history informing the demands for greater democracy today, and how does the Left adequately promote -- or not -- the cause of popular empowerment? What are the potential futures for "democratic" revolution, especially as understood by the Left?
1. What would you consider as “real” democracy, as this has been a primary demand of recent spontaneous forms of discontent (e.g. Arab Spring, Occupy, anti-austerity protests, student strikes)?
2. What is the relationship between democracy and the working class today? Do you consider historical struggles for democracy by workers as the medium by which they got “assimilated” to the system, or the only path to emancipation that they couldn’t avoid trying to take?
3. Do you consider it as necessary to eschew established forms of mass politics in favor of new forms in order to build a democratic movement? Or are current mass form of politics adequate for a democratic society?
4. Why has democracy emerged as the primary demand of spontaneous forms of discontent? Do you also consider it necessary, or adequate, to deal with the pathologies of our era?
5. Engels wrote that “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is”. Do you agree? Can this conception be compatible with the struggle for democracy?
6. How is democracy related with the issue of possibly overcoming capital?
7. Is there a difference between the ancient and the modern notion of democracy and, if so, what is the source of that difference? Does “real” democracy share more with the direct democracy of ancient polis?
8. Is democracy oppressive, or can it be such? How you judge Lenin’s formulation that: “…democracy is also a state and that, consequently, democracy will also disappear when the state disappears.”
A panel event held on November 5th, 2013, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
It is generally assumed that Marxists and other Leftists have the political responsibility to support reforms for the improvement of the welfare of workers. Yet, leading figures from the Marxist tradition-- such as Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky-- also understood that such reforms would broaden the crisis of capitalism and potentially intensify contradictions that could adversely impact the immediate conditions of the workers. For instance, full employment, while being a natural demand from the standpoint of all workers' interests, also threatens the conditions of capitalist production [which rely on a surplus of available labor], thereby potentially jeopardizing the system of employment altogether. In light of such apparent paradoxes, this panel seeks to investigate the politics of work from Leftist perspectives. It will attempt to provoke reflection on and discussion of the ambiguities and dilemmas of the politics of work by including speakers from divergent perspectives, some of whom seek after the immediate abolition of labor and others of whom seek to increase the availability of employment opportunities. It is hoped that this conversation will deepen the understanding of contemporary problems faced by the Left in its struggles to construct a politics adequate to the self-emancipation of the working class.
Democratic Socialists of America/Chicago Political Economy Group
Justice Party/Network for Revolutionary Change
Professor of labor history, University of Illinois at Chicago