Letter from the US: Sharp debate at left convention

Wednesday, July 24, 1996

Letter from the US. By Barry Sheppard

Sharp debate at left convention

By Barry Sheppard

Sharp political differences emerged at the second national convention of the Committees of Correspondence (CoC), held in New York over the July 12-14 weekend. The CoC was formed in 1992 by former members of the Communist Party and individuals from other left tendencies, at a conference of more than 2000 in Berkeley, California. Its first national convention was held two years ago and drew 800 participants.

Some 200 delegates and guests mostly white and older representing about 1300 members nationally, attended this convention.

The main issue in dispute was whether to endorse Democrat Bill Clinton's bid for re-election, and what attitude to take towards new initiatives furthering independent political action.

These initiatives include the formation of the Labor Party, the campaign of Ralph Nader for president, local campaigns of the New Party and broad discussion of the issue in publications such as the Nation.

This report will not attempt to give an overall evaluation of the convention, but will concentrate on this main issue.

Charlene Mitchell is the central political figure in the CoC leadership. In an early draft of the political report to be presented to the convention, she explained that the CoC should support Clinton and the Democrats in order to defeat the right, meaning Republicans.

Opposing views were also published, including one by Peter Camejo, an outgoing member of the CoC National Coordinating Committee (NCC), and a leading figure in the Progressive Alliance of Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay area. The alliance's purpose is to help efforts towards independent political action.

The published version of the political report toned down the explicit endorsement of Clinton, but still contained the same basic line of supporting the Democrats as the "lesser evil".

On the first day of the convention, Mitchell gave the central political report, which developed the same position. She held that the victory of the Republicans in Congressional races in 1994 was the result of the conservative southern Democrats going over to the Republicans, and this was the cause of the move to the right in US politics.

She did add that the Democrats were also moving to the right, but stuck to the position that the main task was to defeat the right, meaning Republicans. She did not explain why the Democrats were moving to the right, when their more conservative Southern members have gone over to the Republicans (presumably leaving the more liberal elements in control of the party).

One supporter of the line of the central leadership put it this way: it's better to vote for those going to the right, but more slowly than the Republicans.

I spoke from the floor challenging this position, explaining that all the capitalist parties throughout the world were "moving to the right", that is, carrying out the ruling class offensive against the wages, social services, working conditions, organisations and rights of the workers and oppressed.

This ruling class attack is rooted in the situation world capitalism has faced for more than two decades, of increasing competition putting a squeeze on profits. As a result, capitalists everywhere are seeking to intensify the exploitation of working people.

We have seen traditional labour and socialist parties, when they were in government, carrying out this capitalist offensive, adopting virtually the same policies as the traditional conservative parties, including the dismantling of many programs these same reformist parties formerly championed and were identified with.

Both the Democrats and Republicans in this country are on the same road.

For example, the greatest gains for affirmative action for blacks and other oppressed people and women were made under Republican Richard Nixon's presidency in the early 1970s. Current Republican candidate Bob Dole was a supporter of affirmative action at that time, but now opposes it and pledges to dismantle it.

Clinton pledges the same thing, but using "kinder" words than the Republicans.

Abdeen Jabara, a leading Arab-American, gave greetings to the convention. His remarks centred on the Clifton "anti-terrorism" law the administration rushed through Congress. The new thought-control act targets anyone who gives aid to foreign groups labelled "terrorist" by the State Department. It also allows legal immigrants to be picked up and deported without due process.

On the other issues, too, the convergence of the two parties is seen across the board.

The rightward shift of the Democrats is producing a reaction, resulting in new interest in independent political action to the left — interest that has not been seen for many years.

For example, while the AFL-CIO top leadership has already endorsed Clifton without raising any demands on him, a section of the union movement formed the Labor Party last month, with a program to fight for workers' interests, including those of the unorganised, women and oppressed nationalities. While not running candidates for public office this year, the new party voted not to endorse a candidate for president.

Ralph Nader is running on the Green ticket against corporate domination of the US and of the two capitalist parties. He attended the Labor Party convention as an at-large delegate, and urges working people to build citizen movements to fight for change.

These developments should be the focus of CoC activities, not supporting Clifton.

James Vann and Arthur Kinoy, members of the National Committee for Independent Political Action and of the CoC NCC, also spoke forcefully against supporting Clinton and the Democrats, as did others.

Those who supported the central leadership's position were in the majority, however. They seemed especially negative about the Nader campaign, fearing that a large vote for him would hurt Clinton's prospects.

The discussion continued the next day. In a workshop on independent political action, Mike Stein, a delegate from New York, made the point that the CoC is lagging behind the new independent political action initiatives.

That afternoon, a panel of four speakers went on the offensive in defence of Clinton. The first two of these, well-known African-American author Manning Marable and Al Fishman, spoke of the positive good that would come from a Clinton victory, not just the lesser evil. Fishman was especially clear, demagogically declaring he was "tired" of hearing arguments against supporting Clinton and the Democrats, and attacked any notion of supporting independent candidates in this election.

Judy Atkins reported on the Labor Party development in a favourable way, but ended up also endorsing Clinton. Sushawn Robb, while favouring independent political action, also said that in the 1996 elections there was no choice but to vote for Clinton and the Democrats.

The fact that there was no-one on the panel who supported the opposing view caused an uproar. This heavy-handed attempt by the central leadership to steamroller the convention to adopt their line on the elections was resented even by many of their supporters.

Malik Miah, a member of the NCC, was the first to take the floor to denounce the blatant exclusion of CoC leaders who oppose the "lesser evil" line of the leadership. He blasted the notion that a Clinton victory would stop the rightward shift in capitalist politics. "Political change", he explained, "takes place when working people mobilise and fight back as we did in the mass civil rights movement. Mass activism forces the capitalist politicians to listen and react. This is how progressive change is won."

He said the CoC should have the following stance in the 1996 elections: 1) no support to Clinton or Dole, urging voters to vote "none of the above" by casting blank ballots; 2) where possible, actively supporting the Ralph Nader Green Party campaign; 3) joining and building the Labor Party.

I explained that the attempt to steamroller the convention into endorsing Clinton was a manoeuvre to split the CoC, to drive out those with a different perspective on the 1996 elections. James Vann, Mike Stein and others spoke forcefully against endorsing Clinton. But what shook the central leadership was not the positions of those who were against endorsing Clinton — I'm convinced they would be happier without us — but their own supporters who got up to voice their opposition to splitting the CoC over this question, and who wanted to keep the CoC truly pluralistic and multi-tendency.

The central leadership beat a hasty retreat, saying that they never had any intention to vote at the convention to endorse Clinton.

The next day, a spokesperson for the central leadership apologised to the convention for not having the opposing viewpoint represented on the panel, and claimed that this was merely an oversight caused by the last minute rush of organising the convention.

A motion from the Hayward, California, chapter was passed to the effect that the CoC not endorse anyone for president, and that CoC members would campaign for the candidates of their choice.

Another motion passed was to set up a task force of those who support independent political action, which would report to the next CoC convention.