Liberalism, Ultraleftism, or Mass Action

The left has a choice: do we believe elites, small groups of activists, or millions of working people have the power to build a better world?



One of our goals for The Call is to reprint some of the best writing on socialist strategy.

That’s not because we’re dogmatists who prefer to take our cues from dusty old books. Too much writing today about socialism falls into the trap of reciting catechisms about strategy drawn from conditions far removed from our own.

We don’t take any writer as gospel. But we believe that as socialists and Marxists we are carrying on a proud tradition. In the course of almost two centuries of struggle, organizers and writers have been able to capture certain enduring truths about politics. And in other cases, the way they approached a question offers us a way to see similar problems we face in a new light. It is writing like this — writing that gives us the tools to better address the problems we face — that we want to highlight for a new generation of socialists.

We thought it would be fitting to start with a speech given by the socialist activist Peter Camejo in June of 1970 that has been a major reference point for our own political development. Camejo’s “Liberalism, Ultra-leftism, or Mass Action” speaks directly to contending assumptions about what it takes for movements to win.

Camejo argued that there are three approaches to strategy on the left. Liberalism and ultra-leftism are two strategies that seem to be polar opposites but ironically are founded on nearly identical assumptions about what it takes to change the world. And then there’s Camejo’s preferred course: mass action.

Liberals maintain a fundamental belief that the system works, and refuse to reckon with the class structure of capitalist societies. Rather than organize the working class to force elites to make concessions and eventually to get rid of them entirely, liberal activists focus on supporting and winning the ear of “good” members of the elite.

On the flip side are ultra-leftists. Ultra-leftists share with liberals a lack of confidence in the working class as a force for change. In their organizing strategies, ultra-leftists view themselves — small groups of leftist cadre — as the agents of change. While they may talk about mobilizing the working class, their actions move in the opposite direction. They embrace strategies that can never mobilize millions of people — usually strategies that use violence or extreme rhetoric. The goal of these actions is not to bring millions into struggle, it’s to shock the powerful. As Camejo perceptively notes, these strategies often assume that the ruling class has a moral conscience that must be awakened through dramatic actions: “[The ultra-leftist] says this ruling class is apparently so thickheaded that what we’ve got to do is really let loose a temper tantrum to get its attention.”

Standing apart from these two positions is mass action. This is where we, and Camejo, believe the possibility for real change lies. We believe that winning will require persuading millions of people of the need for socialism. We start doing this by organizing around demands that speak to the daily needs of working people. In the current moment, these include ending mass incarceration and police brutality and winning Medicare for All, childcare, free higher education, rent control, and affordable housing.

Camejo takes this perspective and analyses the antiwar movement in the 1960s and 70s.

Camejo begins his analysis by asking “why isn’t Nixon sending more troops into Cambodia” in an attempt to win the war militarily? He answered that the balance of class forces made such an escalation impossible. The potential threat of strikes — the power of the working class withdrawing its labor — outweighed the benefit of sending more troops. In other words, even if the working class wasn’t ready to strike against the war at the moment Camejo spoke, increasing working class militancy constrained the set of actions the elite could plausibly take without a severe public backlash.

We can ask similar questions today. Why, as the labor movement is being systematically dismantled, were teachers all across the country able to demand concessions from Republican-dominated state legislatures? Why are some people running for office who previously would have called themselves progressives now making it a point to call themselves democratic socialists?

Camejo argued in 1970, and we agree it is the case now, that “the masses of people in this country have become a force that enters into the balance on a world scale. There is a change taking place in the consciousness of the people of the United States, and this change is altering the relationship of forces.” While we should not overstate the rising class consciousness over the last six years, we should also not underestimate its potential.

The interests of the working class and the interests of the capitalist class are always in fundamental conflict. In capitalist societies, capitalists always have more power. But the relative balance of power fluctuates, and we will not achieve a socialist society unless we first achieve a more favorable balance of class forces within capitalist society. It is from this understanding of the relationship of forces in a given moment that socialists should determine our strategy.

As Camejo writes, “We do believe you can win the workers, so therefore we don’t just raise our hands in games, we raise our hands for what really can be done, for what can begin to move masses of people.” It is in the struggles to win these reforms that the working people can begin to realize their power and develop the analysis and organization necessary to not only win reforms, but eventually to make a break with capitalism itself.

— Kristin Lee

Liberalism, Ultra-leftism, or Mass Action (1970)

The purpose of this meeting is to have a discussion about the present political conjuncture in this country following the May events, how we have to relate to what is happening, and what we have to do to build the antiwar movement and the revolutionary movement.

The main questions I want to deal with are some of the arguments being raised within the radical movement against the orientation projected by the Socialist Workers Party and the Young Socialist Alliance. I want to try to deal with these arguments in a theoretical way. That is, deal with what is basically behind the differences that now exist in the radical movement and what they represent in terms of the problems before the left in the United States.

I want to start by talking about Cambodia. If you read the newspapers of the last few days you will notice that there’s a very interesting thing happening in Cambodia. The papers say that the guerrillas are winning ground. Now, you have to be very careful whenever the American papers say that the communists are winning, because sometimes that is done simply to justify sending more troops or more arms.

But when the papers start saying it every day, over and over again, and then they start telling you what areas the communists have conquered, after a while you begin to suspect that it’s true. And I’m really getting very suspicious that the people in Cambodia are starting to win.

But, there’s more to it than just that. There’s something else happening. The United States is not sending in any troops to stop their advance. Well, you may say, “obviously, we all know about that.” Nixon says the US isn’t sending any more troops. The troops are supposed to be withdrawn from Cambodia by the end of June.

But Nixon is pulling them out just when the United States is losing in Cambodia!

Now, that’s very unusual. We have to stop and think: what’s stopping the United States from sending hundreds of thousands of troops into Cambodia right now, to take over the capital and secure all those little towns and cities and roads and everything else they claim they’re losing? They certainly don’t want to lose Cambodia. Nixon has the airplanes, he has the ships. What’s stopping him? Russian troops? Chinese troops? Who’s in the way?

If you can’t answer that question, you can’t understand either what is happening in this country or what has to be done. Because if you want to deal with politics, you have to understand that there’s some real force stopping the war-makers. It’s not just some psychological quirk of Nixon. And it’s not because of some resolution that’s being debated by the Senate. The power of a class, like the American ruling class, is not determined by some kind of legal paper.

It’s determined by a relationship of certain forces. In other words, there’s a certain power that is stopping them from going full steam ahead with the war. What is that power?

Many of the so-called radicals, or people who call themselves radicals, can’t answer this question. Some of them used to say that the reason the United States is not doing more in Vietnam, and is actually starting to withdraw some troops, is because the US has lost the war. Remember that explanation? These radicals used to keep announcing that the NLF had won. I’ve always asked them to notify the NLF about this, since the NLF undoubtedly isn’t aware of it. You don’t say you’ve won a war when there are still 500,000 enemy troops occupying all your major cities.

The fact is, the United States has not lost the war militarily. The United States could put millions more soldiers into Vietnam from a military standpoint.

The US had an army of 15 million in the Second World War, with a population then of some 140 million. With the present population of 220 million, the US could put an army of 22 million to 24 million in the field now if it wanted to mobilize on the scale it did for World War II. Which means it could put 10 million into Vietnam.

And it would be economically possible too, if the government was willing to pay the price, in terms of the standard of living of the American people, that it paid in the Second World War.

That is, there is nothing militarily stopping them from escalating. The national liberation forces of Indochina couldn’t physically stop them from landing two, three, or five million soldiers.

It’s true that one thing the US has to consider in deciding whether or not to send more troops is how China and the USSR would respond to such an escalation. That is a real consideration, because China and the Soviet Union represent real powers.

Up until now, however, all the Chinese have done when the US staged major escalations is issue their 1829th “final warning,” saying that they take it very seriously and that the US will have to be responsible for the consequences. The Russians have also put out their “warnings”, different only in their wording.

So the restraint on the US government is not mainly due to a direct or immediate fear of China and Russia. That’s one consideration based on real power, but it is not the decisive consideration at this moment because the US has already had a higher number of troops in Vietnam than they have right now. And they’ve bombed further and more intensively than they are right now.

What’s Stopping Them From Moving Right Now into Cambodia?

Another explanation advanced by some is that the ruling class is reforming itself, changing its mind about how imperialist to be. But that’s not what is happening at all. The American ruling class — from McGovern and Kennedy right on down to Nixon — would love to have a free hand, a situation where it would be acceptable to send however many soldiers would be necessary to take control of Cambodia and “secure” Vietnam. The warmakers haven’t had any change of heart.

The real explanation is that the masses of people in this country have become a force that enters into the balance on a world scale. There is a change taking place in the consciousness of the people of the United States, and this change is altering the relationship of forces. An understanding of this fact is crucial for deciding our strategy and tactics. You can’t work out tactics for how to affect the course of the war unless you understand what is affecting it at this very moment.

Failure to understand this leads to all types of dreams, schemes and fantasies which I’m going to discuss.

But first let’s consider why this is true. Why is it that the antiwar consciousness of the masses of people can be such a powerful force affecting what the government can do? The reason is very simply this: contrary to what many people in the radical movement say, the masses of people have different interests than the ruling class and they have independent power.

The ruling class can, of course, influence the working class — through the leadership of the trade unions for instance. But the potential power of the working class, that independent power which was concretely reflected in the postal workers strike and the GE strike, is a power which is so strong that the ruling class has to seriously reckon with it in figuring out its strategy.

The working class in this country, if it so chose, could physically end the war in Vietnam. That’s a pretty fantastic power. Students cannot end it by themselves. Soldiers could conceivably end it, but you can’t consider the GIs in isolation from the rest of society.

There’s a general shift taking place in which masses of workers are becoming more and more sympathetic to appeals to stop the war.

Now people say, “What do you mean? There’s no sign of that. How many workers have gone on strike against the war? How many workers have thrown their bodies in the way of tanks? How many workers have burnt their draft cards, or even joined a demonstration?”

Such arguments are used to “prove” that mass antiwar sentiment obviously can’t be the power restraining the war-makers. But if you look at it this way you’re forgetting how this society functions.

You see, if you walk into a store that’s selling refrigerators, there’s nobody in that store to stop you from wheeling out a refrigerator. How many guards do they have at the door? Probably zero. They have some salesman who walks up to you. It wouldn’t take much to get him out of the way. You could wheel out four or five of them.

Now, the reason you don’t go wheeling refrigerators out of stores every day of the week is because there’s a certain power ensuring that that refrigerator stays inside the store unless they get money for it.

There are things like the police, the courts, and jails behind it. But this power isn’t apparent when you look at the refrigerator and at the little salesman saying, “You’d better not take that.”

In a similar way, when a union bureaucrat gets up at a rally and says, “You’d better stop the war,” it isn’t some helpless little guy on the street talking. There’s a lot of power behind that plea.

If you don’t understand the relationships which exist in this society, because they’re not apparent at first sight, you can make some tragic errors.

The working class and the oppressed nationalities are mass social layers, and they can only realize their potential power when they organize as a massive social force. The ruling class can deal with any one individual or any small group; it’s only masses that can stand in their way. So the potential power of the working class to stop the war is a big threat.

Now, the people who run this country are not stupid. They are not going to continue blindly along a course when they know there are dangers ahead. No one has to go up to Nixon or Kennedy and say, “If the mood that exists among students were to spread to the workers, and instead of a general student strike there was a general strike of the working class, well, then you would lose more than Vietnam and Cambodia.”

No one has to tell them that. They know that. And that’s why they don’t just keep pushing ahead, saying to hell with the students and workers, send in another million soldiers and invade Cambodia. Send troops into Cuba, send them into Indonesia and into China. Drop the bomb on China.

They know better than to just keep pushing ahead. What they have to do is get rid of that danger, the danger that actions will bring a response from the masses who actually have power to stop them. They’re not so stupid as to just go blindly forward. Because where there’s real power, and real stakes, people don’t play games.

You see, you can take 200 or 300, or even a few thousand people and fight in the streets, throwing rocks at windows, and putting on a big show. You can play revolution, not make revolution. But when you’re talking about 15 million workers who control basic industry in this country, you don’t play games. Because they don’t run around throwing things at windows. They do things like stop production, period.

The postmen, for instance — all they had to do to tie up the economy was to go home. That’s all. Just go home. That’s power.

A question that’s very important in this relationship of forces I’ve been speaking of is who has got the majority, Nixon or the antiwar movement. The polls are going wild trying to establish this or that, and there are demonstrations and claims and counterclaims back and forth.

But what the liberals and the ultra-lefts don’t understand is that what the majority thinks can be decisive. Such things as where the troops can be sent and whether bullets can be fired or not, can be determined by what the mass of the people think. Because their ability to resist, and the potential, the danger of their resistance, is dependent on what they think.

The May Events

Now in May we witnessed the general student strike. We should look carefully at what the government’s policy, the ruling class’s policy, was toward this upsurge because it’s instructive.

The answer to the antiwar upswing in the fall was Nixon’s claim to have a “silent majority” behind him. That was the gist of the propaganda campaign by the ruling class to try to minimize the impact of the demonstrations on October 15 and November 15.

Then came the general student strike of May, and the massive increase in conscious hostility towards the war in Vietnam, and the invasion of Cambodia.

This strike swept the United States like an ocean wave. It was clear that this time the student-based protest reflected the thinking of millions and millions of Americans, including huge sections of the working class. This time when the students came out, they all came out. When virtually 98 per cent of the student body is striking in many schools and three-quarters of them are showing up for the mass strike meetings, you know that the movement reflects moods prevalent in the entire population. They are being expressed visually by the student layer.

What was the response of the ruling class to this upsurge? The number one point which they understood perfectly was that decisive power does not lie within the student movement, but that the student movement is a direct danger because it can act as a catalyst, spreading ideas and setting other forces into motion.

If you were to look at the students in isolation, you would say they don’t have any real power. But put the students into the actual network of society — the interrelationship with their parents, the interrelationship with society as a whole, the interrelationship between each university and other universities and schools and the community around it — and the ruling class can see an immediate threat.

The goal of the ruling class was to prevent this strike — this infection, as they saw it — from spreading beyond the campus throughout the population as a whole.

They saw the student strike taking place, and they didn’t want it to spread because they saw that the student strike was starting to weaken the fibers of this class society, and that if workers got involved in this movement and it began to spread, this whole society might be torn apart. So they were consciously trying to save their system, which they think is the most wonderful thing of all creation.

What did they say in the newspapers? “It’s terrible. America is divided. We have to come back together.” And then they started saying, “It’s too bad that our children are this way.” You see, it’s just the kiddies. It’s the generation gap. On television they say to the workers, “You’re older, and this strike isn’t for you. It’s just our kids, and we’ve got to try to understand them.”

Or, “It’s a white strike. It has nothing to do with Black people. And it certainly has nothing to do with unions or workers!” That’s the general campaign they put on.

This campaign was expressed, for instance, by Roy Wilkins, who made his famous statement about how the student strike has nothing to do with Black people. And also in the way the papers played up the May 20 pro-war demonstration in New York organized by the trade union bureaucrats and the bosses.

The May 20 Demonstration

I want to say a few things about that demonstration. There are very few demonstrations that take place in the United States where people are paid to show up. Well, these demonstrators were paid to come out. They got a day’s pay only if they turned up. So this was a demonstration financed by the bosses and organized by the trade union bureaucracy for the purpose of trying to pose the working class against the antiwar forces. They wanted to make a dichotomy between the two because they understood the danger.

Of course, they had to pick a section of the working class from the aristocracy of labor, among the most highly paid and conservative. But I will make a prediction here that the trade union bureaucrats and the ruling class will live to regret the day they called that demonstration. Because those construction workers and other workers in New York City realized something important in the course of that demonstration. That is, they saw their own power.

Now, it’s a basic rule that you shouldn’t show people their own power when you’re trying to rule them. But the ruling class was so desperate that they had to do this.

The reason I say they’re going to regret that demonstration is that as this inflation continues and real wages start dropping for construction workers some are bound to get up in a union meeting and say, “Hey, remember what we did a year ago? We all went out on that big demonstration and threatened everybody in the world. Why don’t we do that again demanding better pay? Why don’t we go down and beat the hell out of the mayor?”

If you’re a ruling class, it’s a very dangerous thing to play with masses in motion.

In fact, we saw the response to this pro-war demonstration the very next day, when trade unions organized their first antiwar demonstration. What was new in May was not pro-war attitudes among the trade unions but a split in the union movement with unions breaking from Meany and declaring against the war. It’s very dangerous for the ruling class to encourage any kind of mass mobilizations of workers, because when they see how they can exert their power through demonstrations they will begin demonstrating in their own interests.

The general policy of the ruling class is to divide the movement, divide the students from the workers and the Blacks, and conquer it that way. Keep it divided. Keep it from spreading until the spontaneous upsurge and the student strike eventually cool off.

The “Responsive” Image

Now, while the ruling class was trying to prevent the movement from spreading, they launched a gigantic campaign to convince the students that the government was listening to them, that the government was responsive.

This was a very important aspect. They told the students over and over again, “We are listening, we’re listening, we hear you, we hear you.” More and more of the politicians announced that they were against the war. Nixon said he’d get the troops out by the end of June. He even got up at 5am on May 9 to speak to the students, remember?

Meanwhile they were campaigning to tell all the young people, “Get back into the system! This system works! Look, we’re listening.” They launched a gigantic campaign to co-opt this movement, saying, “Come back into the fold. Thank you so much for striking. Thank you, but now we’re past that stage. We’re past demonstrating and striking. We’re now at the stage for knocking at doors and getting votes for me, and I’ve just discovered that I’m against the war. We’re all Americans; We’re going to pull our country back together. Our system is very responsive; it will correct itself.” That was the position they took.

Now, keeping this whole framework of the relationship of forces in mind, let’s look at the various orientations that are being presented to us for what to do next. There are basically three of them. One is what I call liberalism. Another one is ultra-leftism. The third one is what I call independent mass action.

Orientation Number One

First the liberal approach. Liberals reject the concept that there is a relationship of forces between classes. They can’t understand it. If you walk up to a liberal and say, “Right now the working class is protecting your civil liberties,” he would break out laughing. He’d roll over on the floor, saying, “What are you talking about? Meany’s for the war; the unions never do anything!” They don’t understand the fact that the American working class believes in its civil liberties. If the ruling class tried suddenly to take all civil liberties away, the American people could physically stop them.

So then you ask the liberal who is protecting his civil liberties? He will say, “Well, it’s because our system allows it. Our system works to a certain degree.” Since they have confidence that the system basically works, the only problem is to find members of the ruling class who are responsive and will help protect civil liberties, and get them in power. They continuously look for a more liberal wing within the ruling class to support.

They don’t at all see that the way to change society or affect the course of events is to go to the masses. On the contrary, they accept the general bourgeois ideology of deep cynicism toward the masses. The average person in the street according to them is stupid. He can be easily manipulated. “Look, the average person in the street believes the politicians are corrupt, yet he votes for them every year. Isn’t that true? Haw, haw, haw,” he says.

And all the liberal “intellectuals” read the New York Times, and they say, “Look at what the masses read, the Daily News! How can you possibly expect anybody who reads that paper to be an effective force for social change?”

So the liberals don’t look to the masses. They look directly to the ruling class and try to affect the course of events by relating to any differences within the ruling class.

This ideology of liberalism, finding a politician who’s responsive, represents the ideology of the overwhelming majority of the student movement. Most students on the campus are suspicious because of the war in Vietnam and because of the radicalization that’s affected them. Nevertheless, they’re still willing to give the politicians — the McGoverns, the McCarthys and the Kennedys — another chance.

Orientation Number Two

There’s another point of view, and that is ultra-leftism. This represents a small section of the student movement, but a much larger proportion of those who call themselves radicals or socialists.

Now basically an ultra-left is a liberal that has gone through an evolution. What happens is this. They start out as liberals, and suddenly the war in Vietnam comes along. Now, what does a liberal believe? He believes that the ruling class is basically responsive to his needs. So he demonstrates.

You know, in the beginning when the antiwar movement first started there were very few ultra-leftists. Most of the ultra-leftist leaders of today were people who were organizing legal, peaceful demonstrations back around 1965.

But after they called a few demonstrations against the war, they noticed something was wrong. The ruling class was not being responsive. Not only that, they understood for the first time that the US was literally massacring the Vietnamese people. This frightened them. It was as if you all of a sudden found out that your father was really the Boston Strangler. That’s what it was like for these people. They were liberals, who believed that Johnson was better than Goldwater, who had worked and voted for him only to find out that he was the Boston Strangler.

Now, since they had no confidence in the masses as an independent force that could stop the ruling class, since they had no confidence that the stupid worker was actually a force protecting their civil liberties, they said, “Wait a minute. If the government is being run by wild maniacs and butchers, what is stopping them from killing me tomorrow?”

Then you started hearing them all talk about imminent fascism. The underground papers discovered that there were concentration camp sites in this country, and that some of them were being cleaned up and gotten ready. They would say to each other, “See you next year in the concentration camps.” This was a very common attitude, because they couldn’t see any force around that was protecting their civil liberties.

Then what they began to develop was the thesis that civil liberties, elections, courts, all bourgeois democratic forms, are a gigantic put-on, a fantastic manipulation. That it is all a ruling class trick. So, these people concluded that the elections and civil liberties are unreal, and the people who run the country could call them off tomorrow. Elections and civil liberties, they said, “have nothing to do with reality”.

Then came the instant fascism theory. We are about to have fascism any moment now. But this is a very confusing theory. Somehow the rallies and demonstrations continue year after year. They don’t put us in the concentration camps.

This theory is actually a mixture of deep cynicism, thinking that the ruling class is all-powerful, but it always is combined with a last hope that maybe they aren’t completely bad. Maybe there is still someone who will listen.

Sometimes a liberal becomes frustrated not getting the ear of the ruling class, and he concludes that he’ has been using the wrong tactics. So he adopts a lot of radical rhetoric. He says this ruling class is apparently so thickheaded that what we’ve got to do is really let loose a temper tantrum to get its attention. The politicians won’t listen to peaceful things, but if we go out and break windows then Kennedy will say, “Oh, I guess there is a problem in this society. I didn’t realize it when they were just demonstrating peacefully. I thought everything was OK because they were in the system, but now they’re going outside the system, they’re breaking windows, so we’ve got to hold back.”

These liberal-ultraleftists think that’s what moves the ruling class. Actually they come close to a correct theory when they say that if people start leaving the system the ruling class will respond. But they don’t believe that the masses can be won. They think it is enough for them to leave the system themselves, small groups of people carrying out direct confrontations.

For example, let me quote a thing from the New York Times that illustrates how this type of idea develops. A girl from Kent, after the killings there, was asked what she thought could be done about Cambodia and what she thought about the use of violence. This was a person who is just radicalizing, a liberal, just beginning to oppose the war.

She says, “I’m really dead set against violence. That’s also a copout. But it’s the only way to get the government’s attention. What you’re doing is drawing their attention to you, by using the same methods they use. I’m really against that. It’s horrible that the only way you can get people to listen is to have four kids killed. There was really no blow-up over Cambodia until four kids were killed. You can have all the peace marches that were peaceful and quiet, and everyone would pat you on the back and say ‘good little kids’, but nobody would do anything.”

Now, what’s in her mind? She doesn’t see any independent, mass force that’s standing in the way of the ruling class. She’s looking at the ruling class and asking, “Are we affecting them or not? Are they being responsive?” And if not, maybe the way to get them to pay attention is to go out and break some windows and use violence. It’s a very natural conclusion when you don’t understand that there’s a class struggle, a class relationship of forces.

Having given up on the masses, the ultra-left super-revolutionaries are really trying to influence the ruling class. A classical example of this unity between the liberal and the ultra-left approach was the Chicago demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Party convention. The leaders of the demonstration came from the National Mobilization Committee. They were revolutionary. Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Dave Dellinger and Rennie Davis were on hand, and their rhetoric was as radical as you can get.

But while the “militant” demonstrations were in process, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis were apparently closeted with McCarthy’s supporters working out an agreement to help McCarthy.

According to an article in the Jan. 22, 1970 Washington Post, “[Sam] Brown [Vietnam Moratorium Coordinator] said [Tom] Hayden suggested … that if McCarthy appeared to have a good chance by Monday or Tuesday — and if that chance might be hampered by public activity [demonstrations] — then we could meet to decide whether to go ahead with the public activity.” Hayden has never denied this account.

Another example of this type of ultra-leftism was a full-page ad which appeared in the New York Times on June 7. It was placed by the New Mobe and signed by guess who? Rennie Davis, Dave Dellinger, et al. This ad announces in big letters at the top of the page: “It’s 11:59.” 11:59 to what? It’s 11:59 to 1984. Fascism is due in one minute.

This is another thing that these ultraleft-upside-down-liberals have: the panic button. Since they don’t see any countervailing force, they think at any moment the whole country could just go BANG! At any moment the ruling class can make a move to the right, and they don’t see any way to stop it, so they throw in the towel, they just panic. The ad says: “If you’re reading this — don’t kid yourself any longer. Big Brother is making his list. And you’re on it. Can we stop 1984? It’s 11:59 p.m. now. The clock is ticking loudly. What in hell are we going to do about it?”

Well, what solution do these ultra-lefts have? What do they project should be done to stop imminent fascism? In this ad they have a five-point program.

Number one, sit in at your congressman’s office. With just one minute until 1984! Really effective! I guess their reasoning is that if you’re in your congressman’s office when 1984 arrives at least maybe they’ll be a little more lenient with you!

The second point is you should sit in at your draft board and turn in your draft card.

Number three is a standard paragraph that you find in all the leaflets put out by ultra-leftists, which simply says “Do something quick.” “Organize antiwar actions where you work, each week. Interrupt the work day for peace. Wear black armbands. Wear peace buttons. Hold a discussion or teach-in. Have a work stoppage, a campus strike!” Anything! Just do something, everybody! For Christ’s sake!

Point four, they announce a demonstration is going to be held on June 19 by the Black Panther Party.

And in point five they tell you about a conference in Milwaukee, but they assure you it won’t be thousands of people; just several hundred community activists will meet to plan future actions. I suppose this future action will take place under fascism, unless they think two sit-ins, a conference and a rally will stop fascism.

Anyway, that’s their program of action and their analysis of what to do, because they believe the invasion of Cambodia isn’t a tactical move, limited by a relationship of forces, but a deliberate and final plan. A final solution has begun.

Now, you can see very clearly that there’s nothing very different about this; it’s just classical stuff like Martin Luther King did: have a sit-in or some sort of civil disobedience confrontation to try to affect the moral conscience of the ruling class.

We’re not opposed to sit-ins per se; many of us in the SWP and YSA have participated in sit-ins, such as during the early stages of the civil rights movement. We’re not opposed to any specific tactic. But we look at the whole political context, the relationship of forces, what is possible, what potential exists for mass action, and we decide on that basis what tactics we should use at the moment.

Orientation Number Three

Let me go on to the third choice: independent mass action. What I mean here is a general strategy of trying to build movements which reach out and bring masses into motion on issues where they are willing to struggle against policies of the ruling class, and through their involvement in action, deepen their understanding of those issues. This is the fundamental strategy we’re after.

We’re not interested in moving 20 or 200 or several hundred community organizers to engage in some sort of civil disobedience, window trashing, or whatever. We say that is a dead end, because it doesn’t relate to the power that can stop the war — the masses. You can’t ask the 15 million trade unionists to sit in at a congressman’s office. There just isn’t enough room. Of course, the ultra-lefts know that 15 million workers aren’t going to do that, so that call is clearly not aimed at involving workers.

This is the key thing to understand about the ultra-leftists. The actions they propose are not aimed at the American people; they’re aimed at those who have already radicalized. They know beforehand that masses of people won’t respond to the tactics they propose.

They have not only given up on the masses but really have contempt for them. Because on top of all this do you know what else the ultra-lefts propose? They call for a general strike! They get up and say, “General Strike.” Only they don’t have the slightest hope whatsoever that it will come off.

Every last one of them who raises his hand to vote for a general strike knows it’s not going to happen. So what the hell do they raise their hands for? Because it’s part of the game. They play games, they play revolution, because they have no hope. Just during the month of May the New Mobe called not one but two general strikes. One for GIs and one for workers.

That is the big difference between the perspective of the ultra-lefts and our perspective, because we do want a general strike. We do want a real strike. We do believe you can win the workers, so therefore we don’t just raise our hands in games, we raise our hands for what really can be done, for what can begin to move masses of people.

The independent mass action concept does not just mean demonstrations against the war. It’s a general strategy with many aspects to it.

One aspect is to build a mass independent Black political party. It also means, for instance, organizing to mobilize masses of women against the institutions, social norms and practices that are used to oppress them. It’s a strategy that calls for doing things like building the Chicano Raza Unida Party, which is growing in the Southwest.

This is the concept of getting people into motion, into action. Not talking down to them, but organizing actions which are able to give expression to the mass opposition to the policies of the ruling class, at the level of understanding that people have reached about what’s happening in this society. It’s the concept of bringing masses into motion, but at all times keeping the movement independent of the ruling class.

Now, what is the best way we can implement this orientation at this point? We follow a general organizational type strategy which is simply this. You get the issues around which people are moving against the government and create a unified movement around them, in order to maximize the numbers that will come into motion.

This is the same strategy which is used by a union when it carries out a strike. When a union calls a strike, it calls it on certain demands. Higher pay, better working conditions, whatever the demands happen to be for that struggle. If a majority of the workers agree, they take a vote, and then everybody strikes together, and they put a very heavy emphasis on keeping it together.

The workers don’t say, “Why don’t we also take a stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict? Or on housing, or on the last bill passed in Congress?” — as a prerequisite to participate in the strike.

You’ve got to deal with people where they’re at. When a woman comes along and says, “I’m against the abortion laws. I want to see them abolished,” and she wants to join a demonstration for free abortions on demand, but she still has illusions about the war in Vietnam, still supports Nixon, what is our attitude? Do we say, “You’re an imperialist pig! Don’t you know what’s happening in Vietnam? You can’t go on this demonstration. Keep away from us. We understand these things — we’re the elite. We don’t want to taint ourselves by letting someone who’s for the war in Vietnam join this demonstration”.

The Way People Radicalize

Our concept is to unite people in action around the issues on which they’re moving. Not because we’re single-issue fetishists. Our aim, in fact, is to move people around broader and broader issues, but we’ve got to deal with reality, not with abstractions.

We advocate many things, but we try to put into practice those things the masses are prepared for. We advocate general strikes, but we don’t call them, because we’re not fools. We know there cannot be a general strike, on any issue right now, given the present level of consciousness. And you won’t get to the point where there can be general strikes unless you put people in motion, precisely because when they start to move on any one issue, whether women’s liberation, the war or racial oppression, people begin to question the whole society, and to see the interrelationship between the different issues. In fact, it is the way people radicalize.

People don’t suddenly understand everything at once. Think about your own political development. There’s always one issue or another, depending on the objective conditions, which tends to wake a person up. As we’ve said over and over again, at the present stage the most effective weapon to stop the ruling class from moving to the right is to get masses of people in motion. The most effective way to do this, at this stage especially, is mass, peaceful, legal demonstrations in the streets.

Now, if we want to build a movement against the Vietnam war, it cannot, by definition, be multi-issue. That’s like saying we want a single-issue movement that’s multi-issue. The “multi-issue” antiwar movement is the trick which is the key to how the liberals and the ultra-leftists can get together organizationally, politically, socially, etc, get married, and live happily ever after.

The trick is to make the issues non-issues. Make them so nebulous that they have nothing to do with concrete realities. Instead of demonstrating to bring the troops home from Vietnam now, which is very concrete, they call for “Stop imperialism.” Nothing like an abstraction. Even Nixon can say, “I’m against imperialism too — that’s what Britain and France and Holland did in the 18th and 19th centuries.” But Nixon can’t say, “Bring all the troops home now.”

Or they say we should raise the demand “End racism.” Isn’t Nixon willing to say “End racism”? Don’t Black Democratic politicians say “End racism”? So they make a real multi-issue program: end racism, end repression, end imperialism, end male chauvinism.

What we want is to call for concrete demands and mobilize people to win them. Demands like Get Out of Vietnam, or Black Control of the Black Schools, or concrete campaigns around specific cases of repression. But that’s not what the liberal-ultralefts do. What they call a multi-issue program is a list of abstract reforms.

Slogans like end racism and end male chauvinism are not only abstract in their political meaning, they are also abstract because the antiwar movement cannot organize the struggle to win them. The antiwar movement cannot replace or substitute for an independent Black liberation movement, or an independent women’s liberation movement, for instance. Black people and women — not the antiwar movement — must decide which concrete demands will best further their struggle and how best to organize around them.

Many students may agree with the slogan End Racism, but how many of them understand the right of Black people to self-determination, the need for an independent Black political party, and the demand for Black control of the Black community? PL-SDS, for instance, screams “smash racism” — I mean screams — while they oppose Black nationalism, an independent Black party, Black studies programs, Black control of the Black community, open admissions, etc.

The fact that many radicals do not understand Black nationalism is evident in the expectation that if the antiwar movement adopts the slogan End Racism, then Blacks will immediately begin to join the movement. Blacks are going to be drawn to Black organizations, building a Black leadership and formulating a program for their liberation struggle.

If you have a program of a lot of reforms and abstractions, it means that you can go right back to the liberal wing of the ruling class, because that is just what their program is also. You can go right back to Senator Kennedy, who can get up, as he did in his speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination for Massachusetts senator, and come out against racism, repression, poverty and many other things.

This is precisely the orientation of the Communist Party. Get the antiwar movement to approve an abstract program which will be just like the programs of the “peace” politicians. Then there will be no problem in getting the antiwar movement to support those good Democrats.

If you look back to 1966 and 1968, you’ll notice that every election year the antiwar coalitions split. Multi-issue groups were formed that ended up supporting the Democrats, and the demonstrations got smaller.

Now we’re going through the same process once again, but within a different context. The great difference is that the depth of the antiwar movement is qualitatively greater than it was in ’66 or ’68. Deep mass antiwar sentiment exists, and it offers the possibility, even during an election period, of building mass independent actions against the war, and therefore actually holding back the war effort.

What’s happening right now is that the involvement of people in mass actions is radicalizing them on other issues as well. The antiwar movement, for example, has helped lay the basis for the tremendous growth of the women’s liberation movement and it has created a greater responsiveness to certain aspects of the Black struggle. The Black struggle itself helped to inspire the antiwar movement.

A good example of this process was during the May strike movement. Many students who helped build the antiwar universities became really aware for the first time of the repression against the Black Panthers and raised concrete demands to free the jailed Panthers.

At the University of California at Berkeley during the strike, a mass meeting of 12,000 voted to set up a childcare center on campus and to institute a women’s studies program. Many campuses adopted and attempted to institute concrete demands raised by the Black students. All types of radicalization took place within the context of the strikes.

Just think of a strike situation. When there is a strike for higher wages where a big struggle takes place, masses come into motion and people begin to question all types of things. What’s the response among the workers, after a single-issue strike, to someone who says, “Look, none of the Democrats and Republicans supported our strike. Yet we voted for them last year.”

Obviously in the context of struggle many possibilities for radicalization open up, and who is going to the masses with a concrete program of action around all these issues? The YSA and SWP. Who’s pushing an independent mass Black political party? Who’s helping build a Chicano party? Who’s building the women’s liberation movement? What other organization is working in all these fields with the aim of mobilizing masses in struggle against the ruling class?

Our Socialist Workers Party election campaigns are going to be very much a part of this whole radicalization and especially of the antiwar movement. The alternatives we create through our socialist election campaigns are going to be a part of the antiwar movement, a part of the whole context in which the antiwar struggle is taking place.

So we have to launch an offensive. The Socialist Workers Party candidates are going to get a bigger hearing than ever before, because there are now tens of thousands of young people who are looking for antiwar candidates. Many of them, it’s true, will support “peace” candidates from the Democratic or Republican Party, but with a certain fear and suspicion. Many young people will start out supporting a Democratic Party candidate, and when their candidate makes one slip and takes a bad position they’ll quit the campaign and be ready to turn to socialist candidates.

In our election campaigns we’ve got to emphasize that it’s not the individual candidate that is decisive but his or her party and which social layer the party serves. That is the real question: which social layer, which class, rules? And the Socialist Workers Party campaigns will be saying clearly, “Don’t vote for the parties of war! We in the SWP, our program — not the Democrats’ — represents the interests of the masses of people.”

Our campaigns speak for the full program necessary to mobilize people in struggle to do away with war, poverty, racial oppression and the oppression of women. They point the way to the goal of our struggle: socialism.

But at the same time we will unite on any issue around which people are willing to struggle against the ruling class, no matter what their level of understanding of this society. This is the way to move masses in this country, to build a revolutionary party, and not only play, but make, a revolution.

Reprinted from

Kristin Lee is an editor for The Call and an activist in NYC-DSA. Peter Camejo was an activist in the Socialist Workers Party and then the Green Party.