Labor Advocate Online

From Protest to Politics?
A Threadbare, Flawed Perspective Or a Working Class Alternative?
by Bill Onasch 

From protest to politics is not only the short title of an article currently circulating in peace movement circles.1 It also reflects a distorted view of politics long successfully manipulated by the bosses. In essence this outlook holds that protests are all well and good but will never succeed in changing policies. To do that we must get into “politics.” 

What they mean by politics is of course electoral politics. Since no progressive forces are currently in shape to get elected to any office much higher than dog-catcher the practical consequences are to mobilize antiwar activists for the Democrat caucuses and primaries, to work for good “peace candidates.” When those persons of peace are inevitably defeated we will then be implored to stop Bush at all cost—by supporting whatever lesser evil is offered by the so-called “opposition party.” 

Excuse me, but I have seen this movie many times before. The first presidential election I was eligible to vote in was 1964. I was told by my friends in the peace movement that I had to support Lyndon Johnson because the warmonger Goldwater must be stopped at all costs. Of course shortly after the election LBJ took America into a decade-long war in Vietnam. 

Protest was not kind to President Johnson however and he avoided humiliation only by passing up running again in 1968. Peace activists worked hard for Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy for the Democrat nomination. But Johnson’s ever loyal Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey became the Democrat standard bearer. The protest to politics crowd urged us to stop Nixon at all cost by supporting the war machine’s number two man. Similar farces played out in 1972 and just about every election since.

Of course there are many historical examples prior to my personal recollections of mass protests turning to electoral politics only to be ultimately buried in special plots within that political graveyard known as the Democrat Party. That was the fate of the Populists, the Non-Partisan League, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, and numerous others. 

An essential flaw in From P to P is accepting the Establishment's deformed definition of politics equaling elections. Hello!protest is politics. Strikes can be politics. War is politics.

Elections are only one component of politics—and hardly the most important one. It is the one outlet the ruling class wants to restrict us to—because they can dominate the terms of debate as well as the choice of candidates. 

Our power is based on the fact that we do the work of society. Nothing productive gets done without the working class. But that power means little in elections limited to two parties dominated by bosses who also control the mass media.

Protests have contributed to important social and political changes. 

Women would never have won the right to vote without the long persevering suffragist movement.

African Americans would not have won the right to vote in the south, would not have eliminated institutionalized segregation, with out the civil rights movement.

And the antiwar movement was a vital component in the forces that finally led to U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

Of course mass protest movements such as these—and the most recent antiwar movement prior to the invasion of Iraq—can develop only under certain conditions. We cannot expect to continue big demonstrations today after a war. 

Protests are usually a reaction to a particular threat or injustice. They are not a useful format for initiating changes. Their value is considerable, but limited.

Strikes often take on a political character. There are many examples in American history of clashes between strikers and government bodies taking the side of the bosses. Judges issue injunctions to limit the effectiveness of strikes. Cops harass pickets and escort scabs through picket lines. If they run into trouble the National Guard, with tanks and gas, is prepared to back them up. At times there have been local general strikes where strikers would essentially take brief control of cities, pushing aside both law enforcement and elected officials.

As this is written massive strikes, in protest against government plans to push back retirement eligibility, are paralyzing France. The workers do not accept the decrees of an elected government. This is pretty high level politics.

Yes, even though peaceful mass protests remain valuable under the right conditions I agree we need to do more than just that. Yes, we should try to connect the war/occupation to other issues here at home. 

But if we ignore our historical experience of trying to pursue working class interests within a bosses political party we will be forced to relive defeats and betrayal yet once more. 

We need a political party that explicitly represents the interests of the working class majority in opposition to the ruling rich and all of their stooges. 

We need a political party that organizes on all levels of politics including in the workplace, on the campus, and in the streets—and not just during the election cycle but 24X7. 

We need a political party that has a realistic program for dealing with the most crucial issues facing the working class majority such as war, health care, Social Security, jobs, education, environment, and democratic rights.

We need a political party rooted in our unions while also building a mass base among workers in our communities. 

As a matter of fact we have the start of such a party—the Labor Party. It’s not yet a mass force. It won’t be a player in next year’s presidential election. But there is no other political alternative worth looking at. If we don’t build this alternative the future will be bleak indeed. 

I will continue to be active in protests and my union. But don’t ask me to work for “peace candidates.” I’ll be devoting whatever time, energy and money I have left to building the Labor Party.

1 Moving From Protest to Politics: Dumping Bush's Regime in 2004, by Carl Davidson and Marilyn Katz
See also an interesting reply, Call for a Paradigm Shift on (and to) the Left - Responding to Davidson and Katz on the 2004 Elections by Steve Bloom
Charles Walker also deals with these issues in Will Labor’s Antiwar Movement Survive the 2004 Elections?

02/17/09