I owe a great deal of gratitude to Peter Roman. He saved my professional life—and more. In 1969, I stumbled upon Peter, who, with his wife, Gail had moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn (what at that time was a lower-rent district), on the same block that my wife and I had earlier moved to. We quickly discovered that we were involved, up to our necks, with “the movement.” In addition to the civil rights and anti-war movements, Peter and I shared, deeply, a belief in the centrality of the labor movement as the prime means of achieving social justice. At that time, I was working in what was then called, Newark College of Engineering; Peter who was working as a reporter for The National Guardian (later named The Guardian), had been assigned to cover the Newark Teachers Union’s second, and equally militant, strike. In a supportive role, I had been involved with this complex struggle. I offered to introduce Peter to the officers and the on-the-ground leaders of this prolonged strike. Ultimately, Peter wrote important articles and the teachers won the strike. The cost was great. Over two-hundred teachers and one supporter, were sentenced to prison for terms ranging from ten days to more than one year for defying a court writ forbidding the strike. That jail term and my “encouragement” of a month-long student strike in response to the murder of four nonviolent peace protesters in Kent State University in Ohio cost me my job.
In the summer of 1972. I was preparing to return to my previous position as a caseworker, in the NYC Dept. of Social Services, in the South Bronx, when I received a call from Peter informing me that a position had opened in the Social Sciences Dept. which he chaired, in the recently founded Hostos Community College (CUNY), in the South Bronx.
Peter Roman had begun teaching at Hostos in September 1971, the second year Hostos began giving classes. At Hostos, Peter was like a fish in water. He was uniquely suitable for the job. He had attended Princeton, where he concentrated in Latin American Studies. Previously, while on a one-year stay in Chile he had learned Spanish fluently, and he became a socialist. At that time, Hostos was a bilingual college, a school where students who knew little or no English could begin their studies in Spanish while learning English. Hostos was as close to being a bilingual college as any other institution of higher learning in the United States. Peter’s fluency in Spanish and his knowledge of Latin American history enabled him to teach courses relevant to Hostos’ students, in Spanish. Prior to becoming the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) Chapter Chair, Peter played a major role in saving the lives of Chilean refugees by working with the Hostos administration to arrange commitments of employment, which enabled them to obtain visas. Outside of Hostos, he helped obtain work permits for at least one Brazilian refugee. Peter also played the key role in obtaining an appointment at Hostos for Dr. Herbert Aptheker, the renowned historian of African-American history and the literary executor of his close colleague, W. E. B. Du Bois, who because of his political views and activities had been barred from Academia. Peter consistently supported the campaigns of the five-year-long movement (1973 to 1978) to Save Hostos, which was threatened with closure during New York City’s financial crisis. He wrote letters on behalf of this struggle to public officials and twice had letters published in The New York Times. He lobbied, and of course he could always be seen in the ranks of the luchadores (those who struggle). Peter helped to bring Hostos’ cause to wider audiences necessary for the magnificent victory of saving Hostos Community College. He is one of the giants responsible for what was for that period the most successful mass movement in New York City.
From the Fall 1978 to 1984, Peter served two terms as the PSC Chair. From that position, he negotiated an agreement with then-President Flora Edwards to limit enrollment to twenty students in all developmental courses, and won battles to save the jobs of individuals who had been treated unfairly by the administration.
Subsequently, Peter played a leading role on academic committees, groups advocating for our college, the union, and left organizations such as the Hostos Solidarity Coalition that brought together the fight against Apartheid, support for Nicaragua, and the struggle for social justice here in America.
Over time, Peter’s major energies shifted to lecturing and publishing about Cuba. In so doing, he became a recognized scholar/spokesperson for Cuba’s democratic features found in their workers communal and occupational experiences that were unavailable to their counterparts in “democratic” countries. For many years, he maintained an especially close relationship, both as a contributor and a member of its board, with the journal, Socialism and Democracy.
If Peter had written his own obituary, he would have put all that has been noted above after talking about his family: his wife Gail, his daughter Hannah and son Karl.
Peter Roman, Professor Emeritus in the Behavioral and Social Sciences Department, longtime S&D editorial board member, and a well-known scholar on Cuban politics, died on July 20, 2020, at the age of 79. Prof. Roman taught at Hostos for nearly fifty years, from 1971 to 2019, when he eventually retired. Uncompromising, unconventional, and fiery, he was an outstanding political scientist and educator who inspired and mentored countless numbers of students with his powerful teaching and his activism.
Peter was born on March 16, 1941 in Los Angeles, and as a boy there (a fact that will surprise many) he had a brief run in Hollywood, starring in the film You Gotta Stay Happy (1948), the family TV series The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse (1953), and Tales of the Texas Rangers (1955). Peter later attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1961. He then studied at Princeton University, earning MA and Ph.D. degrees in Political Science.
Peter began his academic career at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where he taught from 1967 to 1969. After working briefly as a journalist for The National Guardian in New York he joined Hostos Community College in 1971. One of the first faculty hired in the Behavioral and Social Sciences Department, Peter quickly distinguished himself as a captivating teacher, active unionist, and crusader for academic freedom and faculty rights. In 1976, when New York State planned to close Hostos, he was active in the Save Hostos Committee, fighting successfully along with students and other faculty to keep the college’s mission alive.
During the late seventies, Peter served as chairperson of the Behavioral-Social Sciences Department and chapter chairperson of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the faculty union at CUNY. He then became the coordinator of the Social Sciences Unit, a position he held until 2018, a year prior to his retiring. Among other notable contributions to the college, he spearheaded the “Social Sciences Speakers Series,” bringing to the campus eminent scholars such as Eric Foner, David Nasaw, David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, among many others.
A recipient of numerous scholarly awards (including six PSC CUNY Research awards and four CUNY-Caribbean Exchange Program Grants), Prof. Roman published People’s Power: Cuba’s Experience with Representative Government in 1999. The book made a strong impact on Cuban studies and comparative government. Offering a candid discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Castro’s socialist democracy, Peter compelled readers to look at Cuba in a different way. “This well-researched and -written book,” wrote Political Affairs, “will come as a revelation to many readers. People’s Power, based on years of fieldwork and first-hand experience of Cuban elections and the workings of representative bodies, demonstrates that there is a functioning popular democratic political culture as the basis of the Cuban government.” A testament to its influence on the field, the book was reprinted in 2003 by Rowman & Littlefield.
Following the book’s publication, Peter was promoted to Full Professor and in 2000 served as a professor of political science at the Graduate School of the City University of New York (CUNY Graduate Center). In addition to People’s Power, he coedited several special journal issues on Cuba and published numerous articles and reviews in political science periodicals, including “Electing Cuba’s National Assembly Deputies,” for the European Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies (2007); “The Lawmaking Process in Cuba,” for Socialism and Democracy (2005) and “The National Assembly and Political Representation,” in Cuban Socialism in a New Century (University Press of Florida, 2004). His latest, unpublished, research focused on Cuba’s new constitutional and electoral laws.
In addition to his CUNY affiliation, Peter Roman was an associate member of the Columbia University Latin American Seminar and had served on the editorial board of the journal Socialism and Democracy since 1985. Between 1979 and 1988, he was an editorial associate at the Institute for Theoretical History and was also a frequent guest on the Canadian radio program “The Cuban Hour” and on public radio programs in New York City and Colorado.
A popular and well-respected instructor, Prof. Roman regularly taught American government at Hostos and developed a new course on the Comparative Political Systems of Latin America, for which he regularly invited diplomats and scholars of Latin America as guests to the class. Among the most impressive events that he helped organize was the campus visit, on May 9, 2013, of Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez, then the Cuban Ambassador to the United Nations, who spoke to students, faculty, and staff in a packed A-Atrium about Cuba’s history, the U.S. embargo, and the island’s future.
Peter believed it is important that students learn and understand the historical significance and relevance of world events that are often not readily available and worked relentlessly to facilitate an open dialogue and learning both inside and outside the classroom.
Peter Roman is survived by his wife of over fifty years and two children.
When I was invited to speak on behalf of Mumia, one of the first things that came to mind was how long he’s been in prison. How many years of his life had been stolen away from him, his community and his loved ones. He’s been incarcerated for 38 years. Mumia has been in prison longer than I’ve been alive.
When I first spoke with Mumia on the phone, I did very little talking. I just listened. Hearing him speak was a reminder of why we must continue to fight. Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner issued a statement, noting that prolonged solitary confinement, the precise type often used in the United States amounts to psychological torture – Mumia Abu Jamal has spent roughly 30 out of his 38 years in solitary confinement.
In his book, Live From Death Row, Mumia wrote that prison is “a second-by-second assault on the soul, a day-to-day degradation of the self, an oppressive steel and brick umbrella that transforms seconds into hours and hours into days.” He has had to endure this second-by-second assault on his soul for 38 years.
He had no record before he was arrested and framed for the death of a Philadelphia police officer. Since 1981, Mumia has maintained his innocence. His story has not changed. When Mumia was shot, [he was] brutalized, arrested, and chained to a hospital bed. The first police officer assigned to him wrote in a report that “the Negro male made no comment,” as cited in Philly mag. Yet 64 days into the investigation, another officer testified that Mumia had confessed to the killing. Mumia’s story has not changed, but we’re talking about the same Philadelphia police department whose behavior shocks the conscience. According to a 1979 DOJ report, [these] behaviors [include] shooting nonviolent suspects, abusing handcuffed prisoners, and tampering with evidence…
“It can’t happen here.” That is the complacent mantra that societies with long-standing “democratic” institutions cannot possibly succumb to authoritarian dictatorship. Sinclair Lewis used the phrase as the title for his 1935 novel about the rise of a fascist dictatorship in the United States. Even as the aspiring dictator rises in prominence, and mobilizes a paramilitary army to deliver him to power, many of the novel’s characters ignore those who try to raise the alarm, refusing to believe that such a dictatorship could ever take power in their country. The relevance of the novel to our own times is not lost on those who have read it.
Today, there is ample cause for alarm. The current president of the United States and Republican Party candidate in the upcoming election, Donald Trump, has repeatedly threatened—in word and in deed—to retain office by authoritarian means. The Trump administration has made unfounded predictions of widespread electoral fraud, claimed that mail-in ballots would especially be characterized by fraud, attempted to interfere with postal delivery, suggested that mail-in ballots be thrown out altogether, refused to commit to the “peaceful transfer of power,” incited supporters (far-right armed groups among them) to engage in voter intimidation, and more.
Fortunately, all this has not just been dismissed as empty bluster, nor met with the complacent mantra that “it can’t happen here.” Activists in various movements have initiated discussions about how to respond to a coup attempt, including large-scale street protests. Some unions have recognized the threat and begun discussions about possible responses as well, including calls for a nationwide general strike, should it be necessary.
The size and strength of U.S. unions, as we all know, are not what they once were. The labor movement, however, still has significant resources that could strengthen an anti-coup movement: a total membership of nearly 15 million people, existing organizational structures at local, state, and national levels, the ability to disrupt “business as usual” through workplace action, and recent experiences of worker militancy and large-scale collective action.
Step 1: Take the Threat Seriously
It is very hard to estimate the probability of an attempted coup. Politics is not a roulette table, where the exact probabilities of all outcomes can be known ahead of time. Failing to prepare for all significant possibilities, however, would be something like playing Russian roulette—with the very real danger of a hole in the head. The administration has exhibited a consistent pattern of envelope-pushing. Its rhetoric has to be understood as laying the groundwork politically for a potential coup—gauging the degree of outrage at the flouting of electoral norms, delegitimating election results in order to justify a coup, and inciting followers (including those who would support a coup by violence or intimidation). Far-right groups have clearly taken the rhetoric seriously, including a plot (thwarted) for a violent coup at the state level. The administration has not, moreover, limited itself to words. It has made concrete plans, for example, to throw out electoral results in entire states (substituting electors appointed by Republican legislatures).
All this should be more than enough to take the scenario of a coup out of the realm of highly improbable events that do not make sense to plan for, and move it to the realm of events for which we have to prepare. Whatever contingency plans we develop might prove unnecessary (and hopefully will) in the short run. It is possible, for example, that the actual election results will be sufficiently tilted that—even if Trump and his followers were still game for a coup attempt—the actions required to “steal the election” would be so large and brazen that other key actors would be unwilling to go forward. It would be extremely misguided, however, for us to do nothing now—to keep our fingers crossed and hope that everything turns out alright.
The authoritarian threat is not likely to just disappear, regardless of the political outcomes over the next few months. At the very least, the workers’ movement can sound the alarm that the threat is serious, proclaim loudly our devotion to democracy as a core value, and pledge concrete actions to oppose authoritarianism at any turn. If a coup attempt does not end up materializing right now, the organizing that we do can prepare us for any threats that are around the corner. Moreover, it can help mobilize the labor movement for the democratization of a U.S. political system that is highly undemocratic in many ways.
Step 2: Don’t Count on “Someone Else”
It makes no sense to assume that someone or something will, in the absence of mass resistance, prevent a coup attempt or even a successful coup. Trump and other members of the administration do not have any democratic or constitutional scruples. Rather, they delight in the idea of Trump as dictator and in flouting mainstream political norms (including the rule of law, sanctity of elections, etc.). There is very little evidence of willingness by Republican legislators or party officials to oppose Trump. Even his refusals to respect election outcomes or to condemn white supremacism have led only to tepid “distancing” statements on their part. There is no indication that Trump would lose support from his base—who have proved steadfast in their support for him through his many outrages—if he attempted to carry out a coup.
We can expect Democratic politicians to condemn a coup attempt, but they are likely to vary in the kinds of action they call for. Some may call for mass resistance, others only for legal challenges. In the event of an attempted coup, counting on action by the courts would be very misguided. Judges are political actors, like everyone else. In such a high-stakes situation, we cannot afford to bet that they would act as we would wish, nor that coup plotters would abide by their decisions. We should reject out of hand any calls to hold off on mass resistance and instead count on the judicial process (to “wait for the courts to do their work”).
Step 3: Mobilize the Forces We Have
Back in 2004, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.” There is a useful lesson in this quotation for all sorts of conflict situations. The U.S. labor movement has both real strengths and very serious limitations. The limitations are not reason to stay out of the fray. The timing of conflicts is not up to us. We have to intervene with whatever strength we have at the moment. What we can add to an anti-coup movement right now, based on our current forces, can make a meaningful difference. Moreover, it is only by mobilizing—certainly not by standing on the sidelines—that we can draw in more people and build our strength.
Labor unions are still among the largest membership organizations in the United States. As we all know, union membership is down to barely 10% of the U.S. labor force. However, that still translates into a membership of nearly 15 million. Five U.S. unions have more than a million members each. Labor union organizational structures connect workers in hundreds of thousands of workplaces, through their locals, to broader organizations at the metropolitan, state, and national levels. If even a fraction of union members mobilized, they would represent a large contingent in mass protests. A strong labor movement presence in an anti-coup movement, moreover, could draw in non-union workers who are, of course, much more numerous. Indeed, unions and other labor movement organizations should call on all workers to join in anti-authoritarian protest actions.
The frequency of strikes in the United States dropped off dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, and remains at a very low level to the present. This means that the vast majority of U.S. workers has never participated in a strike. For the first time in decades, however, we can point to a wave of recent large-scale strikes and resulting victories. In 2018 and 2019, there were statewide strikes by teachers and other public education workers in eight different states, and additional ones in several major cities. In many, workers fought for and won not only economic gains like pay raises but also broader demands like class size reductions or rollback of austerity budgets. The 485,000 workers taking part in major work stoppages in 2018 was the highest number in over 30 years. (Lest we exaggerate the magnitude of the change, this was still less than one third the average for 1947-1979, when the U.S. labor force was much smaller.) Political strikes, in which workers press demands beyond their own conditions of labor, are not nearly as familiar in the United States as in other countries. It is one of the encouraging signs, however, that calls for a nationwide general strike are already circulating within the labor movement.
Strikes are by no means the only methods of struggle, but they are among the most important that the labor movement can deploy. They require a high degree of commitment, since the costs and risks to participants are significant, so signal to those in power that the protestors are really serious. They can inflict significant costs on those in power. Political strikes may work as a bank-shot form of pressure—employers who bear the direct costs (in lost production and profits) may pressure politicians to appease the protestors. Widespread strikes can contribute to making the society “ungovernable”— creating unsustainable conditions that ruling elites can only bring to an end by conceding to the protestors’ demands.
Step 4: Transform Our Own Organizations
Enough about the strengths that the labor movement can bring to bear in this struggle. Nothing is ever gained, in a conflict situation, by living in denial about one’s own weaknesses. The impediments to effective labor mobilization today (whether participation in street protests, protest strikes, or some other kind of action) are serious. Building the strength of the labor movement will require not just an increase in its membership, but also the qualitative transformation of our organizations.
The total union membership of nearly 15 million does not mean that anywhere near that number would actually mobilize for anti-coup actions. There are measurable differences in attitudes between union members and other comparable workers. Political scientists Paul Frymer and Jacob Grumbach find, in a recent study, that union membership is associated with a reduction of white workers’ “racial resentment” by about 5% on the scale they developed. Exit poll data show that union members were less likely to vote for Trump in 2016 than non-union workers of the same demographic groups. However, the figures also showed an alarming shift of union-member voting toward Trump in 2016 compared to their support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. This suggests that large numbers of union members were at least not bothered by Trump’s relentless racist and nativist rhetoric, while some were surely attracted by it.
Unions are generally low-involvement organizations. Labor activists have long recognized and bemoaned the member passivity that predominates in most unions. The prevalent “business unionism” or “service” model puts most decision-making responsibility in the hands of leaders and paid staff. Members are passive recipients of union services like collective bargaining and grievance resolution, paid for by their union dues. That sounds more like paying premiums to an insurance company than being part of a membership organization and social change movement.
The weaknesses of the labor movement certainly extend to its national leadership. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has followed a zig-zag course when it comes to Trump. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, he denounced Trump as a racist, misogynist, and immigrant-hater. After Trump assumed the presidency, however, Trumka praised elements of Trump’s nationalist economic agenda—including on immigration. Trumka endorsed the canard that immigration drives down wages and proclaimed the AFL-CIO’s willingness to “partner with [Trump] to rewrite the immigration rules of the country.” Trumka even joined the Trump administration’s American Manufacturing Council in early 2017, only quitting after Trump’s infamous “very fine people, on both sides” statement about Charlottesville in August 2017 (after a white supremacist murdered a counter-protestor and severely injured several others). In the years since, the AFL-CIO has issued statements denouncing various Trump administration moves (including racist and nativist positions). But it is impossible to trust the political judgment or principles of a labor leadership that vacillates in this way.
The AFL-CIO recently issued a statement criticizing the Trump administration’s coup-posturing and declaring the labor movement’s commitment to democratic political norms, though without pledging any concrete action. The national leadership had planned a meeting with the heads of several major unions to discuss plans for labor action in response to various election scenarios, including if Trump were to “dispute a loss.” On the eve of the scheduled date, however, they canceled the meeting. Again, this hardly inspires confidence that the labor movement leadership is up to the task at hand. This is a time for urgent action, not for dithering.
In this, as in virtually everything, the revival of workers’ movement strength requires a dramatic transformation from within, including much higher levels of worker mobilization and new leadership. The best hope for this will be through the emergence of dissident and insurgent currents —committed to a fighting strategy and a broad social change agenda founded on principles of democracy, equality, and solidarity. Today, we are already seeing insurgencies transform some unions into democratic and fighting organizations. This would have to happen on a much larger scale, however, to transform and revitalize the labor movement as a whole.
Step 5: Transition From Defense to Offense
In the current moment, we are facing an attack on formal democratic norms. This is not a remote threat, to which we can be sure there will be time to respond later. The conditions for labor organization are already very difficult in the United States, largely due to the imbalance of political power between workers and employers. These conditions would only get worse (possibly much worse) under an authoritarian government. Scapegoating attacks on people of color, immigrants, women, and others would only intensify. This calls for a fierce defensive response.
The authoritarian threat clearly comes from the current administration and its supporters, but opposing it should not be framed in partisan terms. The point is not to do whatever will bring about a preferred partisan outcome, but to oppose attempts to seize or maintain political office by throwing out election results, by voter disenfranchisement, by intimidation, and the like. We should condemn such actions regardless of the scale or whether they tip the political outcome. People who are disenfranchised are gravely wronged no matter the outcome.
Our position should not be framed in a way that equates current U.S. constitutional and legal structures with “democracy.” The current U.S. political system is undemocratic in many ways, to a very great extent by design. The U.S. electoral system makes some people’s votes count for vastly more than others. California’s population is larger than the 21 lowest-population states combined. California has two senators; these 21 states get a total of 42. California has more than 700,000 people per electoral vote; Wyoming, less than 200,000. Millions of people are legally disenfranchised. The United States is home to over 20 million people who are not citizens, and who are barred from voting in any federal or state election and virtually any local election. Laws disenfranchising people with past felony convictions strip over 6 million of the right to vote, over 2 million of them African Americans. Political power is concentrated in the hands of the economic elite. Political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have found that, across a wide range of issues, the opinions of average-income people have “little or no independent influence” on policy outcomes. “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests,” in contrast, have “substantial independent impacts.” None of this should be taken as a call for cynicism, nor an argument that there is nothing worth defending. The successful defense of the elements of formal democracy that actually do exist, however, could be a springboard to fight for urgently needed democratizing reforms.
Far too often, the U.S. labor movement has treated the interests of our organizations and members as the limits of our responsibility. At their best, however, workers’ movements in this country and elsewhere have acted not only as defenders of these particular interests, but also as champions of democracy and equality in general. We should demand no less of ourselves today.
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Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Sept. 3, 2014 (cambridge.org).
Beating Trump in 2020 is going to take a massive organizing effort. This is not an ordinary election. According to reporter Greg Palast, Republicans are trying to steal the election. They are implementing a slew of voter suppression strategies. That is, they are trying to prevent people likely to vote for Biden, people of color and young people, from voting. In addition, they are working to make sure Democratic votes are undercounted. For example, in a recent court ruling, a federal judge stated Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was engaging in “an intentional effort on the part of the current Administration to disrupt and challenge the legitimacy of upcoming local, state, and federal elections.” In the swing states, the Republicans only need to suppress a small percentage of votes to win the election.
Below are the steps progressive activists need to take to beat Trump and the Republicans.
Some disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters are reluctant to support Biden because he is a Corporate Democrat. But, this election is not about Biden. The primary goal is to end the Trump presidency. Progressives are fighting to set the political agenda for the next four years. Do we want to fight a defensive battle against an authoritarian White supremacist or push Biden for an antiracist justice system, a Green New Deal, and Medicare for All? We can at least expect a Biden presidency to respect science and better manage the pandemic and its economic consequences. This will save hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of lives and jobs, not just in the U.S. but globally.
3. Everyone Must Verify That They Are Registered to Vote.
Between 2016 and 2018, 17 million people were purged from the voter rolls. The excuse Republicans give for the voter purges is that they are eliminating people who have moved out of voting districts in order to prevent people from voting twice. However, the allegation of double voting is a fraud. Double voting is extremely rare. In addition, the purges have been wildly inaccurate. Not surprisingly, people of color and young people have been removed at disproportionately greater rates. Civic organizations, churches, and families must organize voters to check their voter registrations. Organizers can check voter registrations through websites such as People’s Power Grab.
4. Educate People About “New Jim Crow” Voting Rules
Activist groups need to educate voters about the rules. It is easy to get frustrated by the rigged system. But to win, progressive voters need to know the rules, play the game, and insist on voting. We must persevere to win.
5. Make Sure Vote-By-Mail Ballots Are Counted
Due to COVID-19, many people are going to vote by mail in the 2020 election. The Republicans are going to have an army of volunteers ready to challenge the mail-in ballots. Voting by mail is a multistep process. If a voter makes one mistake, their vote can be tossed out or “spoiled.” Common mistakes include: not using a black or blue pen or lead pencil to complete form, putting a checkmark instead of filling in a bubble, not signing your name the same way it is listed on the voter registration, not including a witness signature, not putting the ballot in an inter envelope (the secrecy envelope) before putting it in the outer envelope, not putting a stamp on the envelope, and not mailing the ballot in time for it to be counted. This is a link to a video on “How to Properly Fill Out an Absentee Ballot in Louisiana.” I counted 18 steps in the directions. First-time mail-in voters are more likely to make mistakes. To make things even more difficult, the process for requesting and completing a mail-in ballot is different in each state. In addition, there is already evidence that Black voters’ mail-in ballots are rejected more often than White voters’. Moreover, given the Republican effort to sabotage the post office, voters should consider dropping their mail-in ballots off at designated ballot drop boxes. Civic groups, churches, families must educate each other on how to complete the mail-in ballots correctly. Voting cannot be a private affair. We all need to educate each other.
6. Vote Early
Whether by mail or in person, the progressive working class needs to vote early. Request your mail-in ballot now. It is likely, in areas with a high number of Democratic voters, Republicans will try a variety of voter suppression tactics including limiting voting locations, voter intimidation, and stricter enforcement of voter exclusion laws such as voter ID laws. Voting early will allow Democrats to make sure their votes count. If there is an attempt to suppress votes, voting early gives activists time to organize to stop the suppression and defend every vote.
If you vote in person, it is good practice to print a sample ballot from your state’s website, complete it, and bring it with you when you go vote.
7. Be Prepared to Fight for the Right to Vote: Bring Valid ID to Vote.
Some voters may get to the polling place and have difficulty voting. They may have been purged from the voter list. A Republican operative may “challenge” their right to vote.
Voters must be ready to fight for their right to vote. Voters voting in person must bring valid ID and proof of residency to the polling place in some states to vote. Know what counts as a valid ID in your state. Insist on voting. If your vote is challenged, demand that a poll judge review your case immediately. Only accept a provisional ballot if you have no other alternative. Provisional ballots are sometimes not counted. But, completing a provisional ballot is better than not voting! If you are given a provisional ballot, follow up to make sure your vote is counted. If you have any problem voting, contact Election Protection at 1-866-OUR-VOTE. Reporter Greg Palast and Robert Kennedy Jr. have written a free comic book entitled “Steal Back Your Vote” detailing how people can protect their right to vote.
Like all citizens, homeless people and people in transition have a right to vote. However, they face additional barriers to voting. The National Coalition for the Homeless has organized the “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote” campaign “to promote voting access for low income and homeless persons.” They have published a “Homeless and Low Income Voter Rights Manual” which organizers can download on their website.
8. Become a Poll Worker or a Nonpartisan Election Protection Volunteer
Traditionally, people who run voting sites tend to be older. However, with COVID-19 many of the older polling place workers are choosing not to volunteer this year. A lack of poll workers could suppress the vote of people of color. Basketball star LeBron James and a collective of other professional athletes and entertainers have formed “More Than a Vote” to fight voter suppression. They are calling on people to sign up to be poll workers. People can sign up to be a poll worker through the More Than a Vote website.
Citizens also need to volunteer to monitor polling places, monitor social media disinformation, and observe the vote count. People can volunteer to be nonpartisan election protection volunteers at https://protectthevote.net/.
9. Get Involved in Registering People to Vote and Campaigning
There are many ways to get involved. Some nonpartisan groups are focused on voter registration and getting out the vote. These include the Poor People’s Campaign and Black Voters Matter. All voter registration done by nonprofit groups must be nonpartisan. That is, the nonprofit group cannot advocate for a particular party or candidate.
Progressives need to protest voter suppression in the run-up to the election. We need to alert people to this threat to democracy. Mass protests communicate that we are going to defend our democracy together and motivates people to vote.
Also, the progressive majority needs to be ready to revolt in the aftermath of the election. We must stop Trump from stealing the election. We cannot allow another judicial coup like 2000 in which the Supreme Court prevented a full count of the votes in Florida and ordained Bush the President. Famed activist scholars Francis Fox Piven and Deepak Bhargava argue we need to be prepared to engage in sustained nonviolent protests making the country ungovernable. We must defend our democracy.
Louis Proyect expresses surprise at several of the signatures, including mine, that are affixed to the “Dump Trump, then Battle Biden” open letter.
Speaking just for myself, I share his surprise, and I also share his disgust at the figure of Joe Biden. I surprised myself, because the position of advocating a lesser-evil vote – not for myself in Massachusetts, but for those in “battleground” states – is one that I would not ordinarily take. But this is not an ordinary moment, and the allowance for this kind of exception finds strong precedents, including in the strategic thinking of Marx.
Discussing the January 1849 elections to the Prussian Constituent Assembly, Marx distinguished between the movement’s electoral tactics and its longer-range organizing: “Where it is a struggle against the existing government [the Prussian monarchy], we ally ourselves even with our enemies.… Now, after the election, we again affirm our old relentless standpoint not only against the government but also against the official opposition.”
The “existing government” in 1849 Prussia corresponds to the prospective regime that can be anticipated in the event of Trump’s continuation in power. The choice, in other words, is not just between two sets of policies or personalities; it’s between two different regimes.
The Trump-led coup d’état is already in process, with his sabotage of the Postal Service, his equivocation about accepting the electoral outcome (implying that the election will not be “fair” if all votes are counted), and his portrayal of the Democrats as embodying a scenario of disorder and the specter of socialism.
At this point, no one knows what the outcome will be, but the consummation of the coup could take various forms, including Republican state legislatures declaring DP majorities in their respective states null & void, and then installing an alternate slate of Electors, and/or seeing an inconclusive Electoral College outcome thrown into the House of Representatives, where, under the 12th Amendment to the US Constitution, each state, regardless of its population-size, would have only a single vote (which would give the Republicans a majority).
The surest defense against such scenarios is an overwhelming Electoral College victory for the Democrats.
We live in a period of emergency. I don’t need to underline here what a second Trump term would bring (“off the charts,” in the words of the Open Letter). I have no illusions about Biden; that’s why we say that he will have to be resisted from the get-go. I also realize that the fascist forces embodied by Trump will not disappear. But the space for continuing our work – of not only resisting the policies of capital, but also building toward a socialist alternative – will be significantly less constricted if Trump can be pushed out of the way.
Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 18 Feb. 1849 (Marx’s emphasis); see full discussion in Chapter 8 of my book Socialist Practice: Histories and Theories (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020); original version in Socialism and Democracy. vol. 24, no. 3 (2010).
What is the legacy of the Sanders insurgency? What is the state of left organization? Are we closer to a proto-workers party?
JWL: The Sanders campaign accomplished two historical achievements that progressive activists can build on going forward. First, the campaign united millions of mostly working-class Americans behind a progressive universalist political vision. Second, the campaign organized these working people to implement a concrete political strategy to compete for power with the capitalist ruling class. By raising several hundred million dollars from small-dollar donations and organizing millions of working people, the campaign created the organizational capacity of working people to possibly elect a government that actually governs in their interest. The two-party political system in which the moneyed elite dominate both parties has a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic which limits the realm of political possibility in the U.S. The Sanders campaign developed an independent working-class organization within this two-party system that appeared to be building a viable strategy to break the capitalist lock on political power. This surge in working-class organizational capacity frightened both the Democratic Party elites and the corporate media as seen by the hysterical reaction following Sanders’ win in Nevada.
The goal of socialists is to create the institutional capacity of the “99%” to act in unison for a politics based in universal solidarity. That is traditionally done in a political party but the two-party system in the U.S. has successfully prevented a mass working-class party from organizing in the U.S. Moreover, capitalism institutionalizes many forms of oppression to divide and conquer the majority. As a result of this dynamic of being locked out of party politics and the multiplicity of capitalist oppressions, the Left in the U.S. is traditionally fragmented, organized into relatively small issue-oriented pressure groups that occasionally work together in coalitions. In five years, the Sanders movement changed the realm of possibility in the U.S. moving towards creating a politics based in universal solidarity. Universalist policies such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and cradle-to-grave free education are now endorsed by strong majorities in the Democratic Party.
The Sanders campaign fell short of the Democratic Party nomination because many people concluded that Bernie Sanders was not “electable.” In essence, this group decided that the movement behind Bernie was not powerful enough to break with the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and still beat Donald Trump. To project that type of power, the movement needs to make the organizing and fundraising that occurred in the Sanders campaign permanent. That is, we need a national proto party which can work inside and outside the Democratic Party on both the street and in party politics in order to build the unified working-class super-majority with the capacity to take power. Moreover, the movement needs to develop an institutional democratic process and commitment to work through the real differences within our movement. The success of the Sanders campaign and the quick growth of organizations such as Democratic Socialists of America and Our Revolution suggests this strategy is viable.
2. One of the remarkable achievements of the Sanders campaign was the building–at least for the primary campaign purposes–of a truly diverse, rainbow-like, working-class coalition that included the black left, community-based Latinx organizations, several union leaders, etc. Many groups traditionally identified with “identity politics” came on board. For moments, it seemed prefigurative of a diverse, multiracial, working-class party. Of course, there is a long road to be traveled here but what would need to happen to bring these forces together beyond a primary campaign? What kind of dialogue is needed among these groups to develop a minimum program and even a shared narrative?
JWL: Capitalism has organized the entire global political economy around the short-term profits of very few elites. These profits are based upon the exploitation, dispossession, and exclusion of a vast majority of humanity. How does the small minority of ultrarich maintain its power? They have monopolized control of the capacity to organize mass organizations for governance and violence (states) and production (corporations). In addition, through a laundry list of strategies, they divide and conquer the majority. For example, there is a long history of imperialist powers recruiting the poor of one region into armies to go conquer the poor in another region and in the context of war many of the soldiers adopt the perspective of the oppressor.
There is also a long history of ordinary people organizing diverse coalitions to win liberating demands. U.S. history is full of examples of different movements (e.g., labor, civil rights, gay rights, antiwar, etc.) working together and inspiring each other to expand the realm of freedom and democracy. The link between these movements was often socialist or anarchist groups.
The Sanders campaign demonstrates that working people can come together around a platform based on universalist values that address both generalized (e.g., global warming, nuclear war, labor exploitation) and specific (environmental racism in a specific locality) manifestations of capitalist oppression. The campaign had a clear narrative of us versus the capitalist oligarchs. Over ten million people donated money, organized, and voted for the purpose of electing Sanders. Can the next step be taken to turn a political campaign into a permanent organizing effort? I do not know but that needs to be our goal. A functioning mass proto-party which can organize inside and outside the Democratic Party, grounded in grassroots activist organizations would go a long way towards inspiring worker solidarity and confidence. Organizations such as Our Revolution and Democratic Socialist of America are making efforts to that end, but their membership make up a small percentage of the progressive working class.
There are real differences on the Left regarding vision, strategy, and tactics. The movement needs an institutional home to create a democratic forum to work through these differences. Moreover, a lot of work needs to be done to create a democratic theory and practice to doing democracy to scale. Movement democracy in which a lot of little groups periodically cooperate does not create the unity necessary to inspire working-class collective confidence to take action to displace the capitalists from power. On the other hand, the Left also has a tradition of organizing large scale bureaucratic institutions that devolve into totalitarianism. The working class needs an institutional home in which it can consciously work to create a mass inclusive democratic process and act in solidarity. The proto-party needs to consciously create an inclusive process in which the most disenfranchised take leading roles in decision-making. The Sanders campaign suggest such an institution is possible.
3. As we consider the trajectory of the campaign, especially the confused conversation about alleged “moderates” and/or “centrists,” what will a future left formation have to do to bring in the upper strata of the working class? I am thinking especially about suburban white women, the more progressive of whom seem to have been decisive, with African American middle class-led organizations, in turning the tide against Sanders and for Biden.
JWL: A functional mass proto-party could potentially change the distribution of power in the U.S. which would change people’s assessment of what is possible. If working people can run many viable electoral campaigns without the support of capitalists, working people will be less fearful of alienating the corporate elite of the Democratic Party. For example, if we elected ten or twenty more outspoken young progressive women of color in the Congress like the Squad, Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal will seem more possible. If a proto-party could back up a strike against a large corporation like Walmart with an effective boycott, it will change working people’s sense of their own power. In addition, a national institutionalized democratic forum in the context of the proto-party could facilitate cross-class multiracial dialogs about issues hopeful developing a consensus not only about demands but strategy and tactics.
4. The easy question: What is the road forward? (I am looking for some granularity here, particularly about organizing and political formations – to surface the premise – the road forward for leftists who wish to build on the achievements of the Sanders campaign and also defeat Trump).
JWL: The immediate task is to defeat Trump. This is an imperative task. As is plainly evident in the Coronavirus pandemic, Trump and the Republican Party are an existential threat to democracy and humanity. In addition, the actions of the Trump administration have greatly increased the likelihood of both run-away global warming and nuclear war.
I think it would be a catastrophic mistake for progressives to sit out the presidential race because we do not like the Corporate Democrat, Biden. The election of Biden would create openings for pressure politics to be successful in the coming years. If the Sanders campaign activist network stays functional working to elect Biden by raising money and organizing independently but in coordination with the Biden campaign, progressives could build power through the campaign. The independent campaign could explicitly endorse Biden as a tactic to open the opportunity for a pressure campaign for the Sanders platform during and after the election. By staying active and organized, progressives also put pressure on the Biden campaign to heed their concerns. In the context of the coronavirus, this strategy is contingent on the Biden campaign endorsing policies that will concretely address the needs of working people. If the Biden campaign proposes an austerity neoliberal budget in a time of economic depression, the Democrats cannot win.
The exuberance generated by ousting Trump and the pent-up anger from the Trumps’ coronavirus pandemic and economic depression catastrophe could generate a wave of organizing. A functional organizing institution such as the Sanders campaign could potentially serve as a democratic forum to guide that organizing and be a prefiguration for a working-class proto-party. Implemented with integrity, such a strategy would also inspire confidence of the working class. It would demonstrate the capacity to implement a multi-stepped strategy to contest for power. A Biden win powered by progressive organizing will open opportunities for going on the offensive to build working-class power.
There is no revolution without crisis. But crisis does not necessarily lead to revolution.
Over the last months, diverse movements, rallying under the banner #BlackLivesMatter, outraged by repression and exhausted by forced isolation, have stood up to militarized cops in every U.S. state, knowing that doing so risks horrific outcomes—losing an eye to a rubber bullet or gas canister, contracting the coronavirus, even death. And yet these protests have spread globally, with massive demonstrations in dozens of cities over five continents.
This is a time for guarded optimism and bold mobilization. Caught in the moment of rebellion but constrained by a deadly pandemic as well as by the limits of present Left political capacities, we ask, How should socialists respond to these re-emerging social movements? In what spirit should we engage the unfolding debates and contests on the streets and in the voting booths?
Four strategic considerations stand out: (1) the need for coordinated mass organization; (2) new opportunities for synthesis around race and class; (3) the exposed weakness of capitalist state institutions and ideology; and (4) the fundamentally international character of the crisis.
(1) The unprecedented street rebellions against both the symbolic and coercive instruments of power outstrip the organizational capacity of movements historically active on these issues. What forms can unite this movement?
While many of these mobilizations have united around the Movement for Black Lives, the absence of any overarching national organization to connect and coordinate let alone encompass the rebellion is disturbing but by no means surprising. Within the USA, anti-capitalist and anti-racist organizations with the vision and the vigor to lead in this way—from the CPUSA of the 1930s to the Black Panther Party of the 1960s—have been relentlessly attacked by the U.S. ruling class. The sweeping character of the present uprising suggests the possibility for new leaps, but these gains must be organized, the lessons clarified and generalized. For the situation is multifaceted, and enemy forces are at work to undermine and co-opt the movement. Privately-owned, for-profit national media have amplified and framed the rebellion for their own purposes, while (neo)liberal politicians and corporations fasten upon a tightly circumscribed “anti-racism” to shore up their images and market shares.
(2) This “state of emergency” has exposed underlying social cleavages, creating an opportunity to connect longstanding grievances about racism and police violence to class realities through the lens of the mishandled COVID pandemic—which as of this writing has led to the preventable deaths of over 150,000 people in the USA, disproportionately poor, working-class, Black, and Brown.
Questions of racial inequity are increasingly understood as class questions as the concrete circumstances of age, geography, occupation, comorbidities, and healthcare access further worsen the longstanding vulnerability of indigenous, Black, and Latinx communities. This recognition has yielded principled and material grounds forchallenging the co-ruling parties of capital and white supremacy. In short, it is becoming clearer than ever that “race” inflects class position, conditioning access to the things people need to live: healthcare, food, shelter, clean water and air—none of them safe from capitalist predation.
Socialists need to support and construct initiatives that reach across ethnicities and race lines within the broad working classes—including relatively privileged layers among the professions and the so-called “middle class.” Such initiatives and network-building can support the street rebellion without ignoring the crucial electoral contests ahead. Expanded voter registration and turnout, especially among working-class, indigenous, Latinx, and Black neighborhoods, can exert popular pressure on the political process, opening terrain more favorable to the Left.
While neither ignoring nor fixating on the elections, working-class and cross-racial Left formations should deepen their ties to organized groups across the country, listen to and learn from the “essential workers” on the front lines, and fortify the extant trade union movement—particularly in public institutions, where unions often remain a significant force.
No less crucial is building the solidarity economy with its alternative institutions that directly satisfy a wide range of needs, starting with housing and food and extending to reproductive health, art, and culture. Across the globe, such initiatives are reinventing democracy and building the capacity of ordinary people for local self-organization. A socialist net must be woven and wielded to bring the ruling class down from their perch of power while shielding the working classes and oppressed from the brunt of the pandemic.
(3) We need to strategically navigate the multi-layered response of the state and of capital, exposing their spectacular repressive power and their austerity-driven refusal to address the population’s needs. At the same time, it would be a mistake either to conflate such brutality with state power itself or to underestimate the capitalist state’s capacity to respond creatively to some dimensions of the crisis. The ruling class remains able to co-opt and absorb popular energies, partly through symbolic concessions (e.g., retiring offensive public monuments) and partly through economic benefits and even structural reforms that may be necessary if U.S. capital is to survive a new era of disillusion and inter-imperialist competition.
(4) We should recognize that the pandemic arose, predictably, from ecological/economic global crises inherent to transnational capitalism whose long-time damages will exceed COVID-19 and killer cops combined. Both COVID and rising state repression transcend national frontiers, reminding us that socialism is a project not just to capture or resist one’s own nation-state but to liberate all of humanity at a moment when our very survival is in question. The same system of inequality that prioritizes border control and repression over public health and education weaponizes human rights and corrodes our planetary home itself, erecting walls to hold back populations even as the floodwaters continue to rise. And, as global public health experts have been warning for years, COVID-19 may be the harbinger of worse pandemics to come.
Taken together, these four vital considerations—the need for mass organization; the deep links between race and class; the need for a strategy to link struggles on many fronts; and the imperative of internationalism—point us toward an open, inclusive, and global convergence of oppressed communities, the broad working class, and the Left, one that is attentive to struggles to build alternatives both within and outside the existing state, to the ballot box as well as to the street.
Socialism and Democracy’s mission aligns with and seeks to contribute to such a strategic convergence—a renewed socialist movement, united across its diversity. Facing such enormous challenges, Socialism and Democracy considers it more important than ever to engage in theoretical work that “brings together the worlds of scholarship and activism, theory and practice, to generate informed analyses of the many different approaches to bringing about fundamental change.”Insofar as the meaning of modern life for many people remains deeply bound up with ethnicity and racism, socialists must listen to and learn from the Movement for Black Lives and all other uprisings among the oppressed. But insofar as the structure and direction of modern society remain determined above all by the relentlessly exploitative and ecocidal force of capitalism—with its twin imperatives of ever-higher rates of profit and ruling-class social control—the tradition of Marxism, including the “isms” of socialism and communism, remains indispensable.
The full text of Steve Martinot’s 2013 S&D article, “Probing the Epidemic of Police Murders,” has now been posted for free access on our publisher’s website as part of its current promotion of books and articles relevant to the Black Lives Matter protests. Martinot gives a full historical/theoretical interpretation of a phenomenon that, despite its relatively recent explosion into universal public awareness, has been plaguing US society from the beginning.
Readers may also wish to look up Steve’s recent article, “Defunding the Police,” published by the Berkeley Daily Planet earlier this month.
The Marxist sociologist, William DiFazio, died March 10, 2020, at the age of 72 from complications related to diabetes. I met Bill in 1975 when we were both students at the CUNY Graduate Center. We remained friends for the next 45 years.
He hosted a popular radio show called City Watch on WBAI from 2000-2016, where he interviewed community activists as well as radical intellectuals. There is a Wikipedia page for Bill, “William DeFazio.”
Bill contributed to a number of journals, including Social Text and Situations, where he served on the editorial board. At the time of his death, he was writing a book to be called, Conversations in Diners: Ordinary People and The Crisis in Capitalism.
Bill DiFazio was a popular teacher at St. Johns in Queens, New York. He served as Chair of the Sociology Department at St. Johns for six years. He also volunteered at a food program run by St. Johns in Brooklyn for several years, where he did the fieldwork for, Ordinary Poverty. Bill’s method of doing sociological research was called, “theoretical ethnography,” which differs from the standard type of ethnography done by most sociologists in the stress Bill placed on theoretical analysis. Both Longshoremen and Ordinary Poverty are clearly examples of theoretical ethnography.
When Bill was a student at the CUNY Graduate Center, he studied with George Fischer, Mike Brown, Bill Kornblum, and Stanley Aronowitz. He participated in study groups that met in Mike Brown’s office for several years: beginning with Capital and then moving on to contemporary political economy. We went to parties at Bill’s apartment in Williamsburg. The justification for the parties was to celebrate someone’s Dissertation Defense, birthday, or life itself! Bill joined DSA before it was the popular thing to do. In the 1960s, he joined SDS, went to demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and gave his support to the Civil Rights movement – joining CORE and SNCC’s voting rights projects in the South. Bill was what Sartre called, an engaged intellectual.
Bill DiFazio is survived by his wife, Susan Heller, a Brooklyn artist, and his daughter, Liegia DiFazio, an attorney in Atlanta.