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What Is Marxism

Jim Lafferty’s response:

Eric Gordon’s critique of our call for an increased measure of “united action” during our presentations on the, “What is Marxism? Is Marxism Still Relevant?” panel at the recent Left Coast Forum, (see,“Focus on Race and Class at L.A.’s Left Coast Forum,” August 28th) demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what we clearly said. For example, I did not, as Gordon claims, call for unity among “a few small isolated political groups on the left”, that would then be “imposed on the masses.” Nor did I say anything that should have caused him to come to such a conclusion.

What we did advocate was an increased measure of functional unity between the socialist parties and groupings in America today. I specifically suggested that such parties and groups form a “network.” I said all socialist groups joining the network would give up none of their own autonomy. They would simply hold an annual conference at which those socialist groups who decided to join this “network”, would agree on one or two major campaigns that they could work on in harmony over the coming year. For example, single payer health care. And that at the conference they could adopt a year-long calendar of united actions, including protests, teach-ins, ballot measures, etc., that members of the network would carry out on behalf of the agreed to campaign. In short, they would not seek to “impose” this agreed upon campaign on any other group. Rather, they would support, in a more united way, other groups already engaged in the fight for single-payer.

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The idea behind this suggestion is obvious. Working alone, no one party of socialists will be as strong a force for single payer health care (or for any other radical reform) as will a broader, more united, mix of all socialist parties and groups who are fighting for single payer. No one group, be it socialist, or merely progressive, can hope to beat the capitalist oligarchy now running America. But, our history of struggle proves that in unity there is strength. Indeed, such unity is more essential today that ever.

What seems to have led brother Gordon astray as to what I proposed when suggesting this socialist network of functional unity, a “united front”, if you will, may be his continuing belief that we can bring about the kind of nation, and world, that we seek via the election of “lesser evil” capitalists. And that the capitalist Democratic Party can be “taken over and reformed” by the entrance into it of some very well-intentioned left, or “democratic socialist” members.

Now, the effort to infiltrate and turn the capitalist Democratic Party into a democratic socialist Democratic Party is older than I am. It has been tried, and it has failed, more times than I can recall. To think it is going to succeed today, when the capitalist Democratic Party is more fully under the control of Corporate America than ever, is nonsense. And, in the face of the many times such efforts have already been tried and failed, the idea of trying to do it again, reminds me of Einstein’s observation that the scientist who keeps employing the same method to solve his problem that he’s already seen fail over and over again to do so, is not a very bright scientist.

But, perhaps more to the point, however one feels about the chances of “taking over the Democratic Party”, or the value of “lesser evils” politics, at a time when planet earth has moved far beyond the tipping point of climate change, and when the proliferation of nuclear weapons has moved the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ “doomsday clock” to 2-minutes to midnight, the value of a more united movement, even if only a more united movement of socialists, is surely a goal worth considering.

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Lastly, it is interesting to note that during the Q & A session that followed the panelists’ presentations, a great many of those who spoke did understand what I (and Val Carlson) were suggesting, and spoke glowingly of our ideas about how to increase unity among the various socialist parties and groups in America today. And so did Ed Rampell, the wonderful creator of the panel and its fine moderator.

Val Carlson’s response

Ed Rampell, the panel moderator, put together a diverse panel of Left viewpoints and asked us to be respectful and express our disagreements without being rude. The panel members did that successfully.

However, after the panel, Eric Gordon wrote an article on the Left Coast forum, for the People’s World (which the L.A. Progressive republished) in which he seriously misinterpreted one of my points at the Forum, and was rudely dismissive of Jim Lafferty’s call for greater left unity in action, which, frankly, almost everyone in today’s social justice movements criticizes the left for lacking.

Eric said that I “dismissed all capitalist parties, including the Green Party, as universally not worthy of trust.” My point was not personal and had nothing to do with “trust”, but rather that we cannot get to socialism by continuing to support electoral candidates who are members of capitalist parties. My reference was the statement in the Communist Manifesto that: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” This is what Republicans, Democrats, and even social democrats do when they hold office in capitalist countries. My position as a Trotskyist is different from that of people in the Communist Party who vote for and encourage others to vote for liberal Democrats and other capitalist candidates, because they believe that the socialist revolution is far off, and that in the meantime, we should support capitalism’s progressive wing.

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Despite this difference, I believe that we can, and should, all work together to fight the ultra-right and fascist forces that are a growing menace in today’s world. That didn’t happen in the 1930’s, and millions of lives were lost in battlefields as a result.

Gordon misstated Jim Lafferty’s call for left unity as “small isolated political groups on the left imposing a line for the masses to follow” that discounts emerging movements that have their own momentum and lift up their own leaders. Lafferty neither said nor suggested any such thing. Gordon argues that people on the left should “become involved in popular struggles, and the unity will follow.” My perspective, (and Jim Lafferty’s) based on Lenin’s What Is to Be Done, is that professional revolutionaries and revolutionary parties have an important place in labor and social justice movements. Their role is not to dictate to the masses but to provide the education and analysis that help today’s movements avoid the mistakes of the past, and, of course, support the mass movements. And that is why Jim Lafferty proposed that socialist parties and groups form a loose network in order to engage in more frequent, and targeted, united actions. And I agree.

Jim Lafferty and Val Carlson

Jim Lafferty is the Executive Director Emeritus of the National Lawyers Guild in L.A.; the host of The Lawyers Guild Show on KPFK; for the past 50+years a national leader in various antiwar and social justice movements; honored by the National Lawyers Guild, the ACLU, Death Penalty Focus, KIWA, the Stop L.A. Spying Coalition; the Church in Ocean Park; and is an elected fellow of the University of Southern California’s Institute for the Humanities.

Val Carlson is a retired attorney who has spent her career fighting for affirmative action, civil rights, civil liberties, and workers’ rights. She led legal teams that protected the First Amendment associational privacy privilege in electoral politics and that won race, sex, and political ideology discrimination cases. She is a socialist feminist, a Marxist scholar and is a member of the National Committee of the Freedom Socialist Party. Along with Jim Lafferty she founded the Marxism and the Law Caucus in the National Lawyers Guild.