The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 77/No. 31      August 26, 2013

Deepening the working-class character
of the Socialist Workers Party
From Des Moines to Caracas, implementing the proletarian
political course of the July 18-20 Active Workers Conference
(feature article)


From campaigning for socialist candidates in Des Moines, Iowa, to participating in an international gathering in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution in Caracas, Venezuela, socialist workers coming out of the July 18-20 Active Workers Educational Conference in Oberlin, Ohio, have begun advancing the proletarian party-building perspectives presented and discussed there.

Over the Aug. 10-11 weekend supporters of Socialist Workers Party candidates joined together in Des Moines to campaign door to door in workers’ neighborhoods, getting the Militant around and collecting 425 signatures on nominating petitions — over the number required to put three independent working-class candidates for city council on the ballot. Campaigners sold 13 subscriptions to the Militant and five books. (See article on front page.)

“We discussed a whole range of politics with workers,” Dennis Richter, who drove down from Chicago to help out, told the Militant. “We discussed why the SWP is running, why working people need a perspective of fighting to take political power. Although most weren’t ready to buy the paper, a big majority signed to help put a working-class candidate on the ballot.”

“This is what we mean when we say we test the party’s course by taking our politics onto workers’ doorsteps,” said Margaret Trowe, one of the SWP’s city council candidates and organizer of the campaign effort in Des Moines.

At the heart of the Ohio conference, sponsored by the SWP, was a discussion on progress over the last year in doing that. Socialist workers have been testing and adjusting how they explain the party’s political course in discussions with working people on their doorsteps — and seeking to join with them in common political activity and solidarity with workers struggles.

The response to these efforts — including three successful subscription drives that have expanded the reach of the Militant and books on revolutionary working-class politics — was reflected at the gathering in the 14 workers who were participating in an international socialist conference for the first time.

Along this course, we’re deepening the working-class character of the party, said SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes in his talk to more than 300 conference participants. We’re opening up the party to more workers.

The party’s propaganda work door to door in workers’ neighborhoods, Barnes said, is part and parcel of the turn to the industrial working class and unions the SWP has been carrying out since the mid-1970s.

The party’s perspectives, Barnes said, are built on the openness we’re finding among workers to an explanation of how capitalism is responsible for today’s world crisis of production and trade. Above all, he said, the party’s activity registers the response we’re getting to a revolutionary working-class course to combat the capitalist rulers’ grinding assault on working people, our unions, and political rights, as well as their military and “intelligence” operations to protect their profits and class interests.

As we take the Militant, books and election campaigns to working-class communities, Barnes said, we present demands that promote class solidarity, confidence and combativity. Demands such as the need to fight for a big raise in the minimum wage and a massive public works program to provide jobs for millions out of work.

We introduce workers to the worldwide campaign to win freedom for the Cuban Five, five Cuban revolutionaries framed up and imprisoned in the United States for working to defend the revolution from paramilitary attacks organized from U.S. soil. Workers in the U.S. see the connection between this frame-up and experiences of millions here chewed up by plea bargains, draconian mandatory sentences, stop-and-frisk, and other indignities meted out to working people by the so-called criminal justice system.

The aim of the conference was to better prepare workers participating to carry out this course, grounded in a weekly rhythm of propaganda activity in workers’ neighborhoods. Among the concrete tasks projected were the party’s 2013 election campaigns, and a number of reporting trips, conferences and other events from Venezuela to Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The successful campaigning and ballot drive in Des Moines came on the heels of efforts organized by supporters of the SWP campaign in New York City to gain a ballot spot for three citywide candidates: Dan Fein for mayor, John Studer for comptroller and Deborah Liatos for public advocate.

In New York, however, organizers of the effort didn’t carry it out along the course decided by the party of taking all its campaigns to workers house by house, apartment by apartment (as socialist workers in New York had, in fact, been doing prior to the ballot drive). Instead they petitioned on street corners, as they’d done in years past, moving rapidly from person to person to maximize the number of signatures.

As a result, campaign supporters in New York sold just a handful of Militant subscriptions and only one book and made fewer contacts than campaigners did in Des Moines. Drawing lessons from this setback to the party’s course, however, the campaign in the Midwest points a way forward — not administering an effort starting from signature rates and numbers, but leading a political campaign taking advantage of broad interest among workers in a working-class alternative to capitalist politics.

Omaha: pushing back class enemy

Just before the Active Workers Conference began, there was a political break-in at the home of Jacob Perasso — SWP candidate for city council in Omaha, Neb., earlier this year and a leader of efforts to establish a party branch there. Perasso discovered that others, like himself, who have been active in the fight against police brutality and union struggles in Omaha have had their tires slashed or faced other attacks.

At the conference Perasso announced steps already underway to repel this attack, increase the party’s activity and build an SWP branch in Omaha.

Over the next few weeks, defenders of political rights in Omaha got the word out about the attack. A number of Black rights fighters, unionists, and others joined the fight to assert the right of workers to engage in struggles and political activity free of harassment. By early August the assault had been effectively pushed back.

“I went to Omaha this winter to help put Jacob on the ballot, I got to know him a little bit,” Kevin Cole told the Militant. Cole, a postal worker and member of the American Postal Workers Union from Anaheim, Calif., was attending his first socialist conference. “I think the decision to amp up the party’s work there in response to the break-in, to run more campaigns and step up door-to-door sales of the paper is exactly the right way to react.”

Mario Ottoniel, a 34-year-old construction worker, is one of two workers from New York who decided to move to Omaha as part of the response. “I’m looking forward to learning and being able to better explain about the party, so I can help people understand and I can better help the party,” Ottoniel told a gathering in New York to send off the two socialists.

Talking politics the world over

Among several international trips organized in the weeks following the active workers conference, a number of party members, young socialists, and supporters of the communist movement from the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom left straight from Ohio to join some 500 other participants in the Continental Conference in Solidarity with Cuba, held in Caracas July 24-27.

They took part in discussions there aimed at strengthening international efforts to free the Cuban Five, as well as debates on how workers and farmers can successfully combat U.S. imperialist domination of Latin America and exploitation by landlords and capitalists in their own countries.

In pointing to the example of the Cuban Revolution, the socialist workers found interest among delegates in books and pamphlets recounting how workers and farmers in Cuba, under the leadership of Fidel Castro and others, mobilized a revolutionary struggle to take power, establish their own government, and defend it for more than five decades against Washington’s unrelenting attacks. And how working people in Cuba have used that power to overturn capitalist social relations and in the process transform themselves as more class-conscious, selfless, and internationalist human beings.

No letup in assault on workers

The active workers conference drew members of the SWP and sister Communist Leagues from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, supporters of these communist organizations, and workers the party has been collaborating with in weekly propaganda work and political and union activity.

In addition to the main conference presentations by Barnes and by National Committee member Mary-Alice Waters, there were five classes related to political themes in these talks. Barnes and Waters, along with Steve Clark and Norton Sandler, who presented two of the classes, gave summary remarks the final day. The gathering concluded Saturday evening with a panel, “What We’ve Accomplished and Where We Go from Here” — which painted a picture of what participants would be doing over the weeks and months to come. The panel ended with a fund appeal that raised more than $21,000 to help the party carry out its work.

While the capitalist ruling class and its government say there’s an economic recovery, Barnes said in his opening talk, there’s no relief for workers from high unemployment in the U.S. and elsewhere in the capitalist world. Many bosses are replacing fulltime with part-time and temporary workers.

The opening day of the conference, Detroit’s capitalist rulers filed for bankruptcy, aiming to gut the unions, health care and retirement pensions of city employees and further squeeze workers there. The aim, Barnes said, is that while working people bleed, the capitalist bondholders are guaranteed payment on their interest and principal.

The capitalists have no “right” way out of their crisis, no fiscal or monetary policy that will increase profit rates or lay the basis to expand plant, equipment, and employment. Cranking out trillions of newly “printed” dollars, the Federal Reserve has driven down short-term interest rates to zero, as workers and layers of the middle class who rely on income from savings or annuities are pushed to the wall.

Despite this massive “stimulus,” there’s been no increase in employment. The rulers and their government are doing nothing to fund public works programs to create jobs, “shovel ready” or otherwise. And due to the class-collaborationist course of the union officialdom, the rulers feel no pressure from workers’ actions to do so.

Across Europe, too, capitalism remains mired in contraction. In Greece, Cyprus, Spain and beyond, millions are out of work. The “bright spot” the capitalists have kept pointing to — continued growth of production and trade in China — is dimming, Barnes said.

Meanwhile, the propertied rulers see a future they fear in world developments today, from class battles in Bangladesh — where garment workers, the big majority women, are at the forefront of rising workers struggles — to Egypt, Turkey and beyond.

Barnes pointed to the stakes for working people in mobilizing against the recent Supreme Court ruling gutting a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Those rights were conquered in mighty proletarian battles for Black rights in the 1950s and ’60s. They stood on the shoulders of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, fought for in blood during the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction.

He also discussed the danger to the working class posed by vigilante attacks, such as the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Even accepting Zimmerman’s version, it’s clear this armed “neighborhood watchman” consciously took the law into his own hands — like vigilantes throughout history targeting labor militants, communists, Blacks, immigrants, and others. And it’s no mystery, Barnes said, that Martin decided to defend himself, as millions of 17-year-old boys on the way to manhood would have done.

Defense of the Cuban Five

In her presentation, Mary-Alice Waters pointed to the political example set by the Cuban Five — Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González.

“These five fighters are exemplary products of the Cuban Revolution,” she said. The worldwide campaign to win their freedom is strengthened by explaining who they are — and what their proletarian political consciousness, integrity, and courage says about the Cuban Revolution itself.

Moreover, Waters said, the experiences and conduct of the Five in U.S. prisons for 15 years strike a chord with tens of millions of workers who themselves — or their brothers, sisters, fathers, or friends — have been caught up in the capitalist criminal “justice” system.

This underlines the importance of socialist workers talking about the fight for freedom of the Five with workers on doorsteps around the country, most of whom haven’t yet heard about this frame-up. In the process, we point to the Five as examples of the kind of disciplined revolutionaries needed to build a workers party in the United States.

At the same time, Waters said, socialist workers look for opportunities to join with others in public activity to advance this defense campaign. She pointed to openings to organize broadly sponsored showings of the political cartoons of Gerardo Hernández, as well as the new exhibit of watercolors by Antonio Guerrero, “I will die the way I lived.” These 15 paintings — one for each of their 15 years in prison — depict aspects of prison life common not only to the Five but to tens of millions of workers in the U.S. and the world over.

There is no better tool in this effort than the Pathfinder book The Cuban Five: Who They Are, Why They Were Framed, Why They Should Be Freed, first published in 2011 and now in its third edition in English, second in Spanish, and released this spring in French.

Helping produce the latest editions of this book to meet the party’s political needs has been a high point over the past year of efforts by supporters of the communist movement organized in the Print Project, said Gale Shangold, a leader of the project, in remarks to the closing conference panel. As with other titles, this involved proofreading, formatting, and other work, as well as organizing the printing, warehousing, sales work, and shipping to bookstores and libraries.

Shangold also reported progress in expanding the Supporters Monthly Appeal, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to help finance party work. The day after the conference, Print Project members met to discuss how to step up the many aspects of their volunteer efforts.

In Waters’ report and summary, as well as the Saturday evening panel, conference participants also heard about work by party members and young socialists, together with other groups here and abroad, to build the World Festival of Youth and Students to be held in December in Ecuador. Organizing participation in that large international gathering provides another opportunity to exchange views on how to advance concrete action against imperialist exploitation and oppression, and to strengthen the campaign to free the Cuban Five.

Francois Vincent, a student at the University of Montreal and worker in a city park, told the Militant that the presentation by Waters and two related conference classes “were a big help for me in preparing to do more to defend the Cuban Five and to argue with friends who aren’t convinced that the road of the Cuban Revolution is the road for all of us.”

Workers are the union

During the conference summaries, Steve Clark described a debate over a statement he made in a class presentation that the unions today aren’t weak; they’re hamstrung by decades of class collaboration by the labor officialdom. There are millions of workers in the unions. The officials’ lament that the unions are “weak,” Clark said, is a rationalization for their refusal to organize workers into the labor movement and use union power — instead of subordinating workers and our unions to the bosses, their government, and the capitalist Democratic and Republican parties.

Don’t think of the union as a “thing,” Barnes said in his summary remarks. The union is an activity, a movement. We are the union — that’s what communist workers need to remind ourselves and other workers. And when workers take hold of this powerful instrument to fight back against attacks by the bosses and their government, that lays the basis for further steps to organize a revolutionary social and political movement to advance the fight for workers power.

No one knows when or where there will be such a sustained rise in workers’ resistance to the bosses’ relentless blows against jobs, wages and working conditions, or in the fight against racism, for the rights of women, against imperialist wars or in defense of workers’ political space to organize and act in our class interests.

But beginning to build the kind of revolutionary working-class organization our class needs before the bigger battles come is decisive, Barnes said.

All the party’s experiences over the last year, he said, confirm that the course we are on — timely participation with others in political activity and labor struggles in the interests of the working class, anchored in weekly propaganda door to door in working-class neighborhoods — is the road to deepening the struggle for a proletarian party today.
Related articles:
Greetings to conference from Cuban Five
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