Socialist Party Q&A: National Co-Chair Billy Wharton

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The following is an interview with Socialist Party USA National Co-Chair, Billy Wharton. We discuss the past, present and future of the movement to get a better understanding of the Socialist Party.

Could you give a summary of the history of the Socialist Party, as you understand it?

Billy: In one sense, the history of the Socialist Party USA (SP-USA) is quite old. You can track our origins back to the formation of the old Socialist Party of America (SPA) in 1901. The SPA was the party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas and was seriously engaged in the class struggles of the 20th Century, including the labor radicalism of the 1930s, the anti-war movements, and the struggle for Civil Rights. In addition, SPA members served as elected representatives in State and Local governments all across America – with the national Presidential campaign ticket of Eugene Debs and Emil Seidel receiving 897,000 votes.

Our current organization dates itself directly back to the collapse of the old SPA in 1972. The new Socialist Party USA was formed by members of the Debs Caucus in the old SPA. The basis of creating the SP-USA was the belief in electoral action independent of the Democratic Party, a firm opposition to US imperialism abroad and strong commitment to democracy both internally and in the society at large. Leaders of the founding of the SP-USA include longtime anti-war activist David McReynolds, the former SPA Mayor of Milwaukee Frank Zeidler and Los Angeles based Socialist activist Maggie Phair.

What is the current state of the Socialist Party in the United States?

Billy: The SP-USA has an organized presence in 20 states throughout the country. The organization has grown since the economic crisis in 2008, as organizing has spread beyond its East Coast base into the South and West. Particularly strong party activism in California has led to the creation of multiple local organizations and has greatly increased the SP-USA’s bi-coastal presence. We are seeing more engagement by members in grassroots organizing projects and more candidates presenting themselves as Socialists engaged in elections.

Has anyone affiliated with the Socialist Party been elected into office? If so, how did they get elected?

Billy: We recently had two members of the SP-USA elected to local office. In Detroit, a member was elected to a local District Council and in Florida to a local Water Board. In both cases, these Socialists had waged multiple campaigns for elected office and had gained the expertise of presenting themselves as electoral candidate. There are nearly a dozen other members who have recently or are currently preparing themselves to put Socialism on the ballot.

It is, however, important to remember that running as a Socialist is about more than just vote totals. The elections offer two important opportunities. First, they are a time when many people pay closer attention to politics. As a result, Socialists have a unique opportunity to present their politics – ideas like full employment, democratic control over workplaces, socialized healthcare, and the end of the military industrial complex. Simultaneously, running locally as a Socialist allows our candidates to use socialist principles of solidarity, compassion and justice to analyze the local social and economic problems created by capitalism. This is a healthy process for any socialist candidate to go through.

Outside of political campaigns how else have Socialists made an impact in society?

Billy: The great bulk of our political activity is not focused on electoral action. Most of our members are engaged in grassroots campaigning. This continues a proud tradition developed in the Socialist Party of America of socialists participating directly in campaigns that aim to transform people’s everyday lives. Eugene Debs was a leader in the Railway Worker’s Union, A. Philip Randolph in the Sleeping Car Porters Union and the Civil Rights movement and David McReynolds in the movement against the Vietnam War. In each case, these activists put a human face on socialism while also advancing political struggle.

Today, a new generation of socialists in the SP-USA continues this tradition. We have been very active in anti-war groups throughout the country. SP-USA members in Memphis are working with the new Memphis Bus Riders Union. In New York City we are engaged in the struggle to win a Living Wage for low-wage workers. And we have been very active locally with coalitions supporting single-payer healthcare.

From my perspective the Socialist Party had great success in the early 1900s up until 1950s. Given some of the obvious factors, why does it seem the Socialist Party as a political party has had less visibility?

Billy: We disagree. Socialists have been and are currently engaged in a variety of political struggles. Today we can see an important socialist role in things like the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Although OWS is not explicitly a socialist movement, the critique it raises about the 1% fits well with a socialist program. We are, therefore, quite active inside of this movement – pushing it on, protecting against co-option by the Democratic Party and presenting our socialist ideas.

Plus, since the economic crisis of 2008 and the election of Obama, socialists have gained a large amount of national attention. This has included previously unprecedented access to the mainstream media. So, I think that more and more people are noticing socialism. The trick is try to build our movement in a healthy way by supporting the on-the-ground organizing already underway and by making the party a positive contributor to the success of those movements.

Is the Socialist Party more noticeable from state to state?

Billy: I mentioned earlier that we have had some positive bi-coastal successes in recent years. We have also been able, especially since 2008, to open up political work in other parts of the country. Particularly important is our local group in Memphis which is hosting our upcoming National Organizing Conference. Salt Lake City is another area where our brave members are bringing socialist organizing back to the state. Finally, in Indianapolis, SP-USA organizers are fighting to gain ballot access in upcoming state elections. This is certainly an exciting time for us all over the country.

What are some of the perceptions you hear about regarding the Socialist Party?

Billy: One important one is associating democratic socialism with the former Soviet Union. This is a particularly frustrating one for SP-USA members since the old SPA was engaged in protesting against Washington and Moscow during the Cold War. Ours was and is a socialism that is dedicated to extending democratic rights so that regular people can access them. We like to say that socialism is radical democracy and, as such, we oppose any form of undemocratic socialism or “ends justify the means” politics.

The second really basic misunderstanding is about competition and innovation. Socialists believe in competition. We just do not believe in capitalist style competition where a small group like the 1% is allowed to monopolize 35% of the wealth in society. Instead, we want people to compete about who can come up with the best idea or the greatest innovation or the latest cure for a disease. This is positive competition that will benefit the society and should bring positive attention to the individual person or persons who develop it. Capitalism actually prevents this kind of competition since every action has to have a profit motive connected to it. So, I think that socialism will mean a more competitive society because people will have more time and more resources to pursue things that are beneficial to society as a whole.

Any final thoughts?

Billy: I thank you for this opportunity to get some ideas out. I would encourage people that are reading this to take a serious look at democratic socialism as a political, economic and social alternative to capitalism. One great way to do this is to check out our Statement of Principles at: http://socialistparty-usa.org/principles.html And to visit our Socialist WebZine: www.socialistzine.org Keep up the struggle! Vote Socialist in 2012!