By Greg Godels

June 21, 2024

 

I recently found an unpublished essay written in 1979 by a comrade from Western Pennsylvania who argued passionately for the urgent necessity of independent political action. In The Time is Now: A Position Paper on Independent Political Action, Bob Bonner challenged the left to begin the process of building independent political organizations and to convince the people to support them.

Bob is not a starry-eyed academic or a know-it-all armchair socialist, but a keen observer of local politics, its limitations, and its possibilities.

He was then a worker, a founding leader of the Clairton Coalition, a leader in a local independent political party that scored some notable electoral victories, and a founder of the Pittsburgh Coalition for Independent Politics. He grew up in Clairton, Pennsylvania,  breathing the foul air of the country’s largest cokeworks, a virtual company town that knew every corporate injustice that one found in the industrial heartland. It has become fashionable to refer to people like Bob as community organizers; I prefer to see him simply as a peoples’ leader.

There are many parallels today with the world that Bonner wrote about in 1979. Jimmy Carter had run and won in 1976 on the most progressive party program that the Democrats had offered since the New Deal; but by 1978, he had jettisoned the program and turned to policies that presaged the policies of the soon-to-be-president, FBI snitch and B-actor, Ronald Reagan. By the midterm elections of 1978, Carter had reneged on virtually every progressive campaign promise and was saddled with brutal inflation.

Bonner wrote at the time: “America’s two-party system has reached an all-time low in the eyes of the voters… rendering the concepts of majority parties and representative government meaningless and, to some, a laughing stock… 62.1% of American voters, or 90 million people, stayed home last election day, an increase of another one and a half percent from 1974… Millions more can’t be motivated enough to even register [to vote].”

Citing a New York Times-CBS poll, Bonner notes that “fully half of those who participated in the two-party charade felt that the outcome would have no appreciable effect on their lives.”

Bonner goes on to show that despite dire media assessments of a rightward trend, where progressives or independents offered voters a real choice, they were met with enthusiasm, often victory.

The then-left-oriented Congressional Black Caucus picked up three new members in the interim election, and arch-reactionary mayor Frank Rizzo was denied a third term in Philadelphia. “The massive monopoly effort in Missouri to pass an anti-union ‘right to work (for less)’ law through a referendum failed, and in some states liberal to progressive tax initiatives won,” Bonner reminds. Communist Party candidates, running as Communists, received vote totals unprecedented since the 1940s. There was a sense that inroads were possible for independent politics.

With regard to the then-emerging danger of the so-called “new right” of Reagan and his ilk, Bonner had this to say: “The high visibility of the ‘new’ right is made possible by the huge gap that exists between the direction of the two main parties and the urgent pressing needs of the people as a whole. The ruling class has recognized this gap and has smartly and opportunistically shoved reactionary one-issue groups into this vacuum in order to confuse and misdirect the voting public.”

Ironically, today’s corporate Democrats have followed this Republican strategy by placing single issues front and center at the expense of a popular program meant to resonate with all working people.

Bonner believes that “[t]he electorate is searching for meaningful alternatives. That is why they vote for ‘mavericks’; that is why Black people voted for Republicans in the last election…”

Forty-five years later, this obvious point is missed by the elite pundits who denounce working-class “deplorables” turning to unlikely “mavericks” like Donald Trump and Robert Kennedy Jr. They are surprised and alarmed that polls show many Black and Latino/Latina voters — ignored by Democratic Party leaders — leaning toward Trump’s false promises of change.

Today, one-issue groups abound, with foundations doling out financial support, designer NGOs staffing causes, academics offering studies, and consultants mapping strategies. Talk of “intersections” are just that, with more and more divisions denying any basis for common cause, as our common plight grows more desperate.

And when the two parties’ thinkers offer even a hint of prospective benefits in exchange for their votes, it is not a vision, but a reminiscence. The Republicans promise a return to the land of milk and honey before “freedom”-restricting laws on civil rights, the environment, workplace safety, and unions.

The Democrats, on the other hand, offer an idyllic time before the Reagan revolution — the so-called Neoliberal era ushered in with the 1980 election — conveniently forgetting the long, painful, previous decade of stagflation. In essence, we are given two different versions of “Make America Great Again.” Neither promise works for the twenty-first century.

Sounding eerily prescient, Bonner cites the opposition to the unbearable weight of the military budget and the threat of war, actions against the energy monopolies, a militant women’s movement for women’s rights, the fight against police brutality, the miners’ strike, and the struggle for the Dellums National Health Service Act as a basis for bringing together a united, independent movement escaping the political inertia of 1979. “There is absolutely no reason and no excuse for not pulling several of these forces together and entering the political arena…,” Bonner asserts.

Forty-five years later, we have yet to create this needed movement, and the battles of 1979 are yet to be won.

We must recognize that a mere declaration of independence is not enough, as our own US Revolution shows. Achieving independence is an arduous process. In our time, it is a battle against the dependency that comes from taking the money offered from corporations, foundations, non-profits, NGOs, and governments, and from uncritically accepting the influence of think tanks, universities, academic “authorities,” and consultants.

Most importantly, political independence only begins with a concerted effort to fight capture by the two parties. Far too many left initiatives have been absorbed and suffocated by the Democratic Party. In its essence, independence is always independence from some external force that doesn’t share our values and goals.

We must also judge independence by acts and not rhetoric or posture. The fallacy of celebrity, the fetishism of personality, is a sure barrier to independence. Instead, the steps away from wealth and power should be our measuring stick of independent political action. Where independence exists, we must nurture it; where it doesn’t, we should sow it.

In the forthcoming election, how will we express our political independence?