By VINNY GROSSMAN
Many militants, young and old, are scratching their heads over Angela Davis’ recent endorsement of Kamala Harris. Davis said that even though she sees difficulties with Harris’ political positions and past record, she is excited that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden picked her as the vice presidential nominee. In fact, Davis told reporters for Reuters, Harris’ candidacy makes the Biden campaign “more palatable.”
Referring to Harris’ role as California’s attorney general, Davis said, “We can’t forget that she did not oppose the death penalty and we can’t forget some of the real problems that are associated with her career as a prosecutor. But … it’s a feminist approach to be able to work with those contradictions. And so, in that context, I can say that I’m very excited.”
Speaking at an online fund-raising event on Aug. 13, Davis said, “I think that, given the fact that Kamala Harris has been pressured in the past—perhaps not in the right direction—maybe she will be amenable to the kind of progressive radical pressure that we can exert in the future.”
Once again we can see the old “lesser evil” game being played in regard to endorsement of candidates from one of this country’s two major capitalist parties. Angela Davis has called on working people and the oppressed to support the Biden-Harris ticket, citing the mere chance that Harris might be responsive to future “progressive” pressure tactics. But is it really very likely that Harris, contrary to her past record, would break with the big capitalist backers of the Democratic Party in order to move in a significantly more “progressive” direction?
Revolutionary socialists, working-class militants, and student activists owe a great debt to the contributions that Angela Davis has made in foregrounding the experience of Black women in slavery, Jim Crow, and under the prison industrial complex. Her work spans six decades and has been tempered by her work with political defense campaigns, organizing against police repression, and helping form a new wing of the anti-carceral movement that is now called “abolitionism.”
At the same time, Davis’ long history as a leader of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) goes a long way in explaining her more recent electoral zigzags. While she broke with the Stalinist CPUSA in 1991 to be a founding member of the Committees of Correspondence (CoC), this did not in any way represent a rejection of opportunist electoral politics.
Two lines, both dishonest
By the early 1970s, Davis had spent time in jail as a political prisoner; in 1972, she was found not guilty on charges of murder and terrorism after a grueling court trial. In the same year, the CPUSA withdrew formal support for Democratic Party presidential candidates, and began to run its own chairman, Gus Hall, for president. In 1980 and 1984, Angela Davis was the CPUSA’s vice presidential candidate, on the ticket with Hall.
Despite petitioning admirably to get on the ballot, the purpose of the CPUSA’s “independent” electoral campaigns were not to propagandize around the immediate need to break with the parties of capital and form a fighting party of labor. Instead, the purpose of the campaigns was to “defeat Reaganism” and “help to pressure all the anti-Reagan candidates to speak to the issue of jobs, peace and equality” (Daily Worker, Jan 19, 1984).
The dishonest rhetoric of the CPUSA’s electoral campaigns was based on appearing separate from the Democratic Party in word but actually supporting them in practice. These sorts of apparently contradictory positions with regards to electoral politics served to give a left-wing legitimacy to class-collaborationist projects and positions.
Instead of calling for absolute opposition to both parties of U.S. imperialism, Angela Davis used her 1984 campaign to argue that “the most immediate priority of all in the peace movement, of all who are threatened by nuclear conflagration, is the defeat of Reagan and his pathologically anti-Communist Administration” (Daily Worker, July 12, 1984).
Defeat “fascism,” vote Democrat
The Communist Party USA has maintained class-collaborationist politics along the lines of Stalin’s Popular Front formulation since the early 1930s. This meant being the most vocal supporters of FDR, the New Deal, and U.S. imperialism entering into World War II (except for the period of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, 1939-41).
The strategy of the Popular Front was first explicitly formulated by Joseph Stalin, the great betrayer of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism, in 1933-1934. The Popular Front was envisioned as a world strategy of “peaceful coexistence” between the USSR, a bureaucratically deformed workers’ state, and the imperialist countries. The general outline of the popular front strategy is that socialists should align in electoral coalitions, and even in governmental cabinets, with a so-called “progressive” or “democratic” wing of the capitalists in order to stamp out the reactionary wing. While the impetus for the Popular Front lay with the Soviet bureaucracy, the general strategy has been taken up by all sorts of groupings in the period since the fall of the USSR in 1991.
As the threat of fascist military domination of the world passed after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the CPUSA needed to reformulate its support for Democrats, making it appear less open and more cautious. In the 1960s, the CPUSA began to nominally support third-party candidates while still maintaining a strictly pro-Democratic Party stance. Important developments, like the all-Black Freedom Now Party, did not receive the support that the CPUSA was doling out to on-again off-again segregationist Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964. Amid the monumental anti-Vietnam War movement, whose strength was in its independence from both parties of capital, the CPUSA took the line that “antiwar” Democrats, a category that really did not exist, should be supported.
Yesterday repeats itself
Many earnest activists were surprised to hear of Davis’s (lukewarm) support for Biden, and her later more enthusiastic endorsement of the Biden/Harris ticket, partially due to a trick of the internet news cycle. In March 2016, Davis said on “Democracy Now!” that she was not endorsing any candidates for the presidential election and that mass movement groups should break to form their own party. However, this was not her final statement on the matter. At the Black Matters conference at the University of Texas in September, Davis went on record in saying, “I have serious problems with the other candidate, but I am not so narcissistic to say I cannot bring myself to vote for [Clinton].”
In earlier years, in fact, Davis absolutely glowed over the election of Obama. As late as 2012, she identified him with the “Black radical tradition” and openly said that she “passionately” supports his presidency. This was after Obama had begun his expansion of the deportation machine, domestic spying, and the drone program, not to mention that he claimed “there is no Black America … only the United States of America.”
Given her entire history, it seems, Davis’ call to “campaign” for the current Democratic Party ticket was almost inevitable. And yet her call is especially disturbing today, in the face of one of the largest mass movements in U.S. history. During a moment in which masses of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and even white workers and youth are in the streets in the millions vocally rejecting the Democratic Party’s program, Davis is calling for them to move back into its fold.
Someone with Davis’ stature and reach could be an essential part of organizing today’s movement while helping to lay the basis for a mass-based organization for militant action that is truly independent of the Democrats.
Illustration by General Strike Graphics