Why Can’t We Be Friends?

BY:Erwin Marquit| September 21, 2001

Political Affairs Magazine – September/October, 2001

The growing power of monopoly capital over all sectors of life in the United States is moving increasing numbers of people, especially young people, into mass protest movements such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) protest demonstrations in Seattle in December 1999.

Demonstrations of this kind are bringing together a broad coalition of forces. The Seattle protests were supported not only by the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and other left organizations, but also organizations that would characterize themselves as progressive rather than left-oriented. This would include most environmental and farm groups, as well as the majority of trade unions.

Some organizations have a generally unified ideological orientation, like the CPUSA, for example. However, the ideological orientation of most organizations participating in the coalitions of which we are a part is usually not clear-cut, but may encompass a somewhat limited range, for example, the Green Party, or a broad range as in the case of labor unions. These ideological differences, however, did not prevent tens of thousands of people from converging to stop the WTO meeting dead in its tracks with a cohesive protest that was heard round the world.

On the other hand, less than two years later the ideological differences among those who joined together in Seattle prevented the formation of a coalition that was unified enough to prevent the right wing from capturing the three branches of the federal government.

It is therefore important to understand the nature of these ideological differences so that progressive forces can be brought together for maximum effectiveness.

The CPUSA sees as its historic task the transformation of the U.S. socioeconomic system from one in which private owners of capital appropriate most of what is created by workers to a socioeconomic system in which the people who do the labor own and control the means of production and what is produced by them. Such a transformation cannot occur until the people are convinced a) that such a system is not only necessary, but viable, and b) that the people have the power to bring about this revolutionary transformation. This does not imply that we must wait until the majority of the population is turned into convinced Marxist-Leninists, but that the people must be convinced that they have the power to change the basic conditions of their existence. Nothing is more convincing – and empowering – than successes in concrete struggles, which today require the common efforts of many groups. We therefore see ourselves as part of a coalition of forces that will eventually be strong enough to bring about a socialist transformation in our country.

As part of the strategy for developing a socialist consciousness and strengthening the conviction that corporate power can be overcome, the CPUSA joins all major struggles for strengthening the position of the working class and other oppressed sectors of the population within the framework of the existing capitalist system. Its primary purpose for participating in the building of people’s coalitions is not for the purpose of recruiting members into the CPUSA, but to help win victories in these struggles and thereby demonstrate the gains that can be won by people united in struggle.

This view is not always shared by left forces involved in the formation of independent political parties or movements. They often see their participation in political struggles as a key to recruiting people into their organizations. The New Party affiliate in Minneapolis, for example, initiated a campaign to strengthen the city’s living-wage ordinance. But while doing so, it rejected the call for the formation of a coalition effort on the grounds that since it was already in the leadership, it did not need coalition partners. The campaign failed.

Similarly, the Labor Party branch in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, following the lead of the national Labor Party, launched a campaign for a national health plan. Again no attempt was made to involve other organizations in the campaign, since its primary purpose was to build the Labor Party. This particular effort made little impact on the health-care debate, and it also failed as a recruiting tool.

In the last presidential election, the Green Party had an electoral program that was generally more progressive than that of the Democratic Party. But let us recall Marx’s words, ‘Theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.’ A third-party people’s movement cannot become a material force capable of curtailing corporate power without a mass base in the labor movement. This mass base must include people of color and other victims of oppression. In spite of their best intentions, the Greens are handicapped by lack of this base. In post-election Minnesota, for example, the Green Party has failed to build a progressive material base of support through day-to-day involvement in struggles in alliance with the labor movement and people of color. Instead it focuses primarily on running its own candidates in the coming local elections. When it comes to labor solidarity or antiracist activities in our area, a few Green Party leaders participate, but they have not been able to mobilize any significant turnout of Green supporters.

Interunion class solidarity is often necessary for the winning of strike struggles. Local central labor councils, as well as national labor bodies, are important vehicles for mobilizing such support and often readily respond to calls for solidarity. Building union solidarity and coalitions to support labor struggles is a fundamental aspect of the new spirit that the Sweeney leadership has brought to the AFL-CIO and is a central focus of coalitions such as Jobs with Justice. Recognition of the role that such interunion solidarity can play in individual strike struggles, however, does not always come forth spontaneously from inside the striking local or from its affiliated units to the degree that is necessary for victory. This vital recognition must often be awakened and nurtured in consultation with the striking local by trade unionists with a broader class perspective. This is particularly important when the striking union has weak or no ties with the central labor union bodies. Communists and other ideologically advanced class-conscious trade unionists can help broaden solidarity actions when they are needed. Some experiences in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota may serve as examples.

The Minneapolis AFL-CIO Central Labor Council supported the June 2001 strike of the unaffiliated Minnesota Nurses Association at two hospitals. Some unions, such as the Fire Fighters Association and the UAW, brought their members out to the hospitals to display their solidarity. In addition, a crucial role in winning the strike was played by Marxist-oriented trade unionists and community activists with an ideologically advanced class consciousness who responded to the urgency of mobilizing people to cover all entrances to the hospitals (one hospital had fourteen) during those hours when many nurses with children had to leave the picket line to go home. A union official told us that if an entrance remained uncovered, the union would lose the right to picket it again. The entrances were covered and the strike won. Shortly after the strike, the nurses’ union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

It took the formation of an interunion/community solidarity committee to win the strike by 420 Teamsters Union members last year at the Pepsi Cola Bottling Group in a Twin Cities suburb. During the strike, partial delivery of Pepsi products was provided by a more distant Pepsi bottling plant. The labor/community solidarity committee, with Communists and other progressives playing an active initiating role, targeted the local supermarkets with ‘Boycott Pepsi’ picketing and was able to exert sufficient pressure on the supermarket managers to get them to force Pepsi to settle.

Of course, one does not have to be a Marxist to recognize the importance of class solidarity, but every Marxist has the responsibility of heightening such recognition. The CPUSA, therefore, places particular emphasis on helping to build coalitions in support of labor struggles and thereby contributing with others to strengthening class consciousness among activists, union members and the working class as a whole.

Not all left forces outside the labor movement have an adequate understanding of the importance of the formation of labor solidarity coalitions, including labor-community coalitions. These coalitions are a vital component of progressive political and economic struggles. Too many left forces reflect an impatience with, or indifference to, the labor movement, and proceed without any serious attempt to bring labor into their struggles. Similar attitudes prevail toward organizations of people of color, even when issues of racism are involved. Communists have a particular responsibility in working to overcome these problems.

Because of the historic weakness of the socialist tradition in the United States, few non-Marxist labor activists or left progressives identify themselves ideologically as social democrats, but nevertheless this is what they effectively are. The fundamental ideological difference between social democrats and Marxists is that social democrats do not consistently recognize the class character of the state. On the one hand, social democrats recognize the capitalist domination of the state apparatus when the Republican Party is in control. On the other hand, when a liberal Democratic Party administration is in charge, many non-Marxist progressives often ignore the oppressive class character of the state and behave as if it is a neutral institution. As a result, they often do not see the necessity of linking single-issue coalitions into an independent political movement that will be capable of overcoming the dominance of corporate power in the state.

This is why Communists must join with other class-conscious left forces in exposing the class nature of the state in the course of their coalition activity. We must develop independent political activity outside of the Democratic Party. At the same time, we should work with those who feel they can contribute to this effort from within the Democratic Party, constituting a left force within it. Marxist and non-Marxist activists can work past ideological differences toward effective coalitions with increasingly long-range goals.

Political Affairs Magazine – September/October, 2001



    Erwin Marquit, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Minnesota, continues to teach a course on Marxist studies. Erwin writes on theory and practice of socialism and on dialectical materialist philosophy of science. He is the associate editor of Marxist Educational Press.

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