SP National Convention- Personal Reflections
Personal Reflections on the 2013 Socialist Party Convention
Mid-west At Large Delegate to the Convention
This year at the SP’s 2013 National Convention, I represented Midwest At Large members, due to my situation in Southern Illinois, far away from the Chicago group. Actually, as in the previous 2 conventions I attended, I represented a different region than I currently live in, having moved just a couple months before the convention- I moved to Pennsylvania in late July, where I am even more isolated from Socialists than I was in Illinois. We don’t even have a State or Local Party organization in this State anymore… But starting my trip in Pennsylvania made the trip to NYC a LOT easier than it would have otherwise been, so I was happy to be able to attend.
I missed the Friday session. I didn’t get in soon enough. But I made it to the Saturday sessions.
My observations are partially influenced by my experience at previous conventions. As a Socialist, thinking about past conventions are a double edged sword. On the one hand, we on the Left have a talent for honest self-evaluation which groups to our right do not possess in great measure. But on the other hand, we also like to dwell on the past and recount past glories as if they are harbingers of our inevitable future victory. So I will try to engage in the first, and resist the tendency to do the latter as I write a prologue to this reflection.In the past, the conventions I attended were either riddled with very serious factional disagreements or were faced with challenges which appeared both very serious and also somewhat insurmountable.
In 2001, at Boulder there were disagreements over grand strategy in the face of the recent terror attacks which happened a month and a half prior. Plus there were long standing disagreements between different tendencies in the Party which were not resolved by the Convention. In 2003, in Chicago there were very fierce debates over whether or not to run a Presidential campaign, followed by very bitter fights over nominations for our Party’s Presidential candidate. The factional fighting did not abate, and eventually led to Chicago’s dues boycott, a matter which was only resolved in 2008 with the reorganization of the Local there. In 2007, at St. Louis, the apparent good feelings surrounding the nomination process and good faith on the floor of the Convention masked a very deep chasm over the relationship between the National Party and the Locals. Further, the incessant ideological warfare on the message boards (which were precursors of modern social media) remained entirely unresolved, and actually grew worse right before the Convention. Following the 2007 convention, the Party was also challenged by the rise of a populist Presidential candidate in the Center, which I personally openly opposed.
All things combined, a very toxic attitude among some activists in the Party and an attractive, but obviously non-socialist alternative in 2008 led me out of the Party into the world of political inactivity- I resigned from the National Committee over the apparent rejection of any efforts by Wisconsin to work with the Socialist Party, and ended my 8 year organizing and activism career exhausted and frustrated. Supporting Obama was merely a sign of that resignation: My resignation from the Party was more an admission of my failure to do anything meaningful for and with the Party, whether it was helping organizationally in Southern Illinois and with Wisconsin, or ideologically in fighting the good fight for a more humanist, and I think, more pragmatic viewpoint about socialism which didn’t rest on the old conceptualization of the Socialist Party as a “Worker’s Party,” but which considered socialism on ethical terms instead, one which looks to the unique circumstances of the US in the 21st Century instead of leaning heavily on past rhetoric and conceptualization of the struggle ALL humans face when dealing with the machine of Capitalism.
All of that is Prologue. In 2011, having gotten precisely what I expected from Obama, I began paying dues to the Party once more. In the meanwhile, I suppose some of the positions that I found objectionable won the day: Language about the Workers taking the lead in the struggle against Capitalism was inserted into the Statement of Principles, a statement I would have fiercely opposed had I still been in the Party at that time. Upon my return, I decided to keep out of the the sort of involvement in internal politics which I had participated and in some ways instigated during the early period.
By this year, 2013, I was ready to go back to the Convention. Now I tell this story because it provides a context for the comparably brief observations I provide below. Many people who were at this year’s convention have little idea that in the last 12 years, there have been seven conventions, and as a person who attended four of them, I will say first and foremost that this Convention was a different sort of Convention entirely. Historically, the conventions have been a LOT more contentious.But I suspect there are very structural reasons for this difference, both in the past and currently.
I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that there has been a generational shift in the Party. I don’t mean that the Old Schoolers are not still with the Party. I am sure many of them are. But the activists of the Convention were primarily young. The Leaders of this Party going forward are not part of the same group as the leaders of the Party, at least through 2007. I notice this in bright relief. Greg Pason remains, reliably for the future, the Secretary of the Party, but the National leadership of the Party is remarkably young and active, and did not rise to power as the result of a factional struggle and bloc voting.
The primary benefit to the Party is that many of the folks in the National leadership who were elected at this Convention do not remember many of the debates from the old Days. You can’t put together the governing body of the Party from people who have a decade old disagreement with other people that they are supposed to be working with. But there were way more people at this convention who do not remember or take part in those old disagreements than there were those who do. And for my Part (I am a part of the second group) I didn’t do anything to bring those disagreements up, at all. My sense was that, over the previous six years since I last attended a convention, the Party has either resolved those issues or has forgotten about them and moved on.
For example: the question of Democratic Centralism was the most fiercely debated issue on Saturday. But I think that there was far more agreement, especially from those seated, that the issue was moot- that we are not a vanguardist Party. In the Past, people would have taken up FAR more of the Convention dealing with something like that, and the Convention would have been way more split on that issue.
But there was also a different attitude among the delegates toward one another than I have seen in the past. During the last decade, the floor of the Convention was a field of ideological combat, with groups forming cliques and holding secretive caucus meetings outside the convention to organize and whip votes for a position or a candidate. I would say the 2007 Convention was almost completely dominated by blocs of voters for various things. There was nothing like this here. We saw delegates willing to hash out issues on the floor of the Convention, sometimes very passionately. But, to me it seems that by 2013, people realized that the people who should sit in leadership positions should be those who are willing to do work for the Party, not those which will defend a particular ideological viewpoint.
The best example of a seeming new attitude in the Party is the willingness to experiment with a modified consensus form of voting during the first Saturday Session. As a person who is quite familiar with modified consensus (through Quakerism, which I adopted a year before leaving the Party in early 2008) I know it takes a lot of work, a lot of practice, and most importantly a lot of patience and respect to make it work out. The fact that the Convention was even willing to try it out demonstrates that this body was already to the point where nobody was concerned that anyone else was planning to use the rules to manipulate things to their advantage. In other words, members of the Body actually trusted one another, to the point where they were willing to suspend normal protections against a determined or dilatory minority to actually engage in something which is more considerate and democratic, to actually practice what they say they believe in. This was such a positive development, especially compared to the fights over the rules and credentials which marked previous conventions.
On Saturday, the Convention passed resolutions to increase accountability and formalize the functions of the National Committee. They also discussed, in great depth the Statement of Agreement, and adopted a Master plan of action for the next two years. Elections, which I expected to be very contentious, were anything but. We had a discussion about whether we, as a National Convention had the right to grant waivers for membership requirements found in the document, and in the end, democratically decided to limit the authority of the Convention to deal with things not explicitly covered by the Constitution. At the end, voting was extremely easy to accomplish, unlike in past years, and then the delegates left and drank beer together. We were done with Saturday’s second session 40 minutes early (if you remember the old days, THAT more than anything else I have written should conclusively demonstrate to you that this convention was quite different than past affairs.)
In all, I was so impressed at how well the Party functioned last weekend. We seem to have fully embraced our role as a functional minor Party which is still completely capable of ideologically differentiating ourselves both from the Major Parties as well as other Minor Parties. Comrades in this convention demonstrated a willingness to work together to deal with problems that are very important to the future function of this Party. We developed institutional rules to help us look to the health and potential of rebuilding the Party. We are growing in places where we have long been absent, and expanding in places where there has been a core of activism for the last decade or more. Membership in some parts of the country has evaporated, I suspect for a lot of the same reasons as I cited when I left. But then again, I can conclusively note a generational difference, as the Socialist Magazine moves, for example, to an all online format, the SP develops a presence on New and Social Media, and we transition from an era where old factional fights dominate the discourse in the Party to one which is focused on rebuilding and a more practical sort of activism.
At the end of the day on Saturday, I left with the feeling that I may not have won all the struggles I was a part of before I left, but at least one of my own personal battles was not in vain: the focus and the attitude of this Party has shifted from the positions held by the older, foundational generation who were themselves the activists 40 years ago and those like myself who were active during the transitional period conclusively to those endorsed by a new generation of young Socialist activists. The older groups were focused on faction and ideology, because they were still struggling to define the identity of the Socialist Party, but the younger sort, it appears are more interested in practical concerns like rebuilding and rebranding the Party and holding our leadership accountable. In many ways, former YPSL’s have taken over the Party (For example, our current Female Co-Chair was very active in YPSL at the beginning of this century.) And as a partisan of the old political struggles, I say it is about time- I spent years, as a much more impatient person advocating for a shift along these lines. If only I’d have known that all I had to do is just wait.
Going forward, I hope the young people in our Party continue to shift the focus of the Party from differentiation to activism. Hopefully, the seemingly interminable debate about Socialist Identity are in the past, replaced by a more realistic and pragmatic discussion about how we can go about working to improve the lives not only those around us but ourselves as well. To do so, we have to be both honest and respectful, but if this group is any indication of the future, that doesn’t seem like such a difficult task. Working together, respecting one another, and holding ourselves accountable for our own success and failures will all be hallmarks of our Party going forward. I think this Party is on excellent footing to successfully begin that forward movement, and while a Party of 800+ members will not end capitalism today, we are in a good place to make our contribution to that larger effort without obliterating ourselves in the process.