Eugene Puryear is a captivating orator, able to disentangle complex political ideologies and do so with a fiery ease. At 30 years-old, he is the vice presidential candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), running alongside another powerful activist, Gloria La Riva.
Both candidates have a lengthy record in social mobilization—in anti-war campaigns, union struggles, and the movements for immigrant rights and Black Lives. La Riva has been a union president and an activist for immigrant rights and in solidarity with Latin America since the 1970s. Puryear has been active in resistance against police terror in communities and mass incarceration for over 15 years. He is the author of the book, “Shackled & Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America.”
Puryear tells Shadowproof that their campaign is a way to bring both the experiences and the demands of these movements into the electoral arena, while constructing principled alliances around “a real people’s platform.” If you’re looking for the answer to the dystopian hellscape that is American politics, they are it.
“I don’t believe any space should be sanitized from the truth,” Puryear recently stated in a speech on the socialist alternative to corporate politics for the Nyumburu Black Male Initiative program at the University of Maryland.
The socialist alternative being offered by the PSL campaign aims to underline what socialism is, and why it is the solution to issues of food insecurity, lack of healthcare, racist policing, housing, climate change, unaffordable education, and other points of concern.
Puryear explains that they’re seeking “to build a more organized and stronger movement, which means making contact with and bringing together the millions of people who are interested in these ideas. It’s not enough to want a different sort of society, or have great ideas—we need a well-organized movement to fight for change.”
Third party candidates have always faced the ire of voters, forced to take on blame for running “spoiler campaigns,” but Puryear argued that spoiler mythology is wrong even on technical terms, stating “numerous academic studies have revealed ‘third parties’ typically draw more from people who would not have voted rather than people planning to vote for mainstream candidates.” Their campaign also rejects what he calls “spoiler scaremongering,” as it is “based on the highly anti-democratic assumption that the only important social forces and voices are the (s)elected politicians of the major parties.”
“If the major parties are so corrupt and tied to the top .01% that they lose voters, they are the only ones to blame,” Puryear declares.
Despite the tremendous hurdles facing third party candidate, Puryear tells Shadowproof that there are benefits to running.
“For us, the biggest benefit of running is the campaigning itself. Imagine a general election in which the choice were just between Hillary Clinton, who actually has quite a right-wing record, and Donald Trump, a racist ultra-right candidate. That is a sham choice—and completely out of tune with the spirit of the people,” according to Puryear. “Our campaign is an opportunity to tell people that they don’t have to accept that, that we can continue to promote socialist politics and strengthen the movements against what King described as ‘three evils’: poverty, war and militarism.
“Even though we’re running in the election, a big part of our message is actually that elections are not an instrument for the type of change needed to really meet the scale of our problems. The mass social movements which have brought progressive changes to this country were never birthed from, or beholden to a single electoral cycle, important as they may have been at times. Progressive change, is, as a rule, the result of broad social movements powered by an uncompromising core,” Puryear states.
When it comes to Bernie Sanders, Puryear is not under any impression that a Sanders presidency would genuinely mean a Socialist presidency. While many of the policies he advocates are admirable, “they would not by themselves transform who holds power in society.” Puryear contends that under Sanders, “we would still have capitalism—dominated by financial and corporate elites—while life would be more tolerable and livable for the vast majority.” Tolerability should not be the goal.
“We do not want to make life simply tolerable for the working class, but truly worth living,” Puryear contends. “Socialism’s central principle is to use the resources of society, human and material, to meet the needs of the broad population, and the democratically established goals.” Sanders’ mantra of “breaking up the banks” is also not enough, and to this, the PSL campaign says that these banks should be seized and put under the people’s control “given that they have accrued centuries of wealth that was commonly produced, and they are central to all economic decision-making.”
From his defense of the occupation of Afghanistan, military escalation in Syria, the drone wars and “kill-list,” and the backing of the state of Israel, Sanders’ foreign policy is also an issue of contention as it exists, as Puryear says, “in the orbit of imperialism.” “Genuine socialism has to be internationalist—and we call for closing the Pentagon’s far-flung military bases, bringing the troops home, and respecting self-determination of all historically oppressed nations throughout the world,” Puryear said. “None of this would really be possible just by electing a socialist president under the given system. So the question isn’t so much if a socialist can get elected, but whether we can have a revolutionary transformation of society—and we think, especially given the general trends towards vast inequality and climate disaster—that this is both possible and urgent.”
Puryear does, however, recognize that the energy surrounding Bernie Sanders’ campaign is different than the one around Obama’s 2008 run, and he argues that the reason for this has more to do with Sanders’ policies than his persona.
“It is more substantive than symbolic; a reflection especially of young people’s increasing rejection of capitalism and gravitation towards radical and socialistic ideas,” Puryear says. “For years, we’ve seen these polls that show young people [are] trending left. A recent GOP pollster called young people ‘horrifyingly’ left. But with Occupy Wall Street and now the Sanders campaign, we’re seeing that mood politically manifested in a mass way.”
“While excitement about an individual candidate is not negative in and of itself, if it defines one’s political commitment, it could lead to demoralization and passivity if he loses. It could also lead to real political confusion among his supporters if Sanders were to win and then move to the right in the general election campaign, or be elected and then continue many of the same policies of his predecessors. That’s the danger of fixing a movement around a politician.”
Puryear adds that most Sanders supporters their campaign has interacted with seem hopeful about and interested in a genuine “political revolution” that would exist beyond Sanders, as opposed to being entirely attached to him.
When asked if Hillary Clinton, who is likely to seize the Democratic nomination and presidency, is a threat to working class peoples, communities of color, and those abroad, all of which often intersect, Puryear responded she is a “very serious threat.”
“The ultimate proof of this is the fact she has gotten support from a huge range of very prominent neoconservatives, whose whole philosophy is based on the aggressive projection of U.S. military power, even if it risks a third world war.”
“She has been a central supporter of the wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria—in fact a manager of the last two. She is deeply ingratiated with the Pentagon high command,” Puryear adds. “The arrogant U.S. attempt to assert complete geopolitical control of the broader ‘Middle East’ is a bedrock of her worldview. That this resulted in literally millions of deaths, the destruction of whole nations, a massive flow of refugees, as well as a worldwide hate movement against Muslims, is of no concern to her.”
“In addition, Hillary is more hawkish and interventionist, as you say, with respect to Latin America—where she has supported coups—and also the very provocative moves against both Russia and China and various regime change efforts… These conflicts could easily flare up into wider conflagrations. We can’t forget that she’s a proud follower of Henry Kissinger.”
The best response to (another) Clinton presidency is to “turn the multiplicity of surging movements and broadly left-leaning views of many younger people into a durable independent movement.” Puryear says that such a movement would be able to participate in elections and hold elected officials accountable for their crimes, but “ultimately the movement has to be aimed at taking power away from those who allow exploitation and oppression to exist.”
Puryear acknowledges, “The energy of the Sanders campaign, in part, has to do with the fact that it’s not just fighting back. It’s fighting for something, and we have to continue that aspect by building into our movements the positive vision and program of what we want the world to look like.”
This brings us to what Puryear and the PSL campaign want for the left in the United States, and what this left—some of which has been recharged by Bernie Sanders—can do to build socialism:
“Build stronger socialist organizations. That’s the fundamental thing. The Capitalist-Imperialist system we live under, as these elections have illustrated, is transparently controlled by a very small percentage of the population. They exist in a social world that is a revolving door between government, the military, corporate America, and elite educational institutions and think tanks. They are tightly and centrally organized and they have used all sorts of sabotage and repression to obstruct movements from below.”
Puryear asserts, “The reality is that they control the political system and mass communications. They create the ‘policy consensus’ on all the main issues that govern the vast majority’s lives. They determine which countries will be targeted next, how many people will be sent to kill and die. They decide which neighborhoods are developed, and for whom, and which ones will be allowed to deteriorate. They decide what factories stay open, which ones move, and which infrastructure projects receive financing. They shape the curriculum in the schools, the food we eat, the consumer goods we buy and what fills the airwaves.”
“This is really a form of class dictatorship, but with the appearance of choice in the electoral system. So we can’t expect to fundamentally resolve any of these issues and change that power through a corrupt, anti-democratic election system,” Puryear further argues. “We need to be as well organized as they are—with our own movement infrastructure, our own policies and strategic planning, our own media, our own united fronts, our own education, our own division of labor and healthy internal processes.
“The fact that the vast majority of people are exploited and oppressed shows there is the need for systemic change, but that will be a protracted and complex process, fueled by the sacrifice and dedication of people who want to change the world. That’s the perspective of our organization, the Party for Socialism and Liberation.”