The Primary Route

The Primary Route By Tom Gallagher
How the 99% Take on the Military Industrial Complex

Review by Peter Olney

Democratic socialist, longtime political activist and past Massachusetts state legislator, Tom Gallagher, has written a clear and concise book about American politics. It is self-published and he calls it a “pamphlet” in the tradition of George Orwell: “It is written because there is something that one wants to say now, and because one believes that there is no other way of getting a hearing.” The Primary Route is both prescient about the Sanders candidacy and predictive of some of the benefits of that campaign and the reaction of the political establishment.

As a member in the 1970s of one of the groups that Gallagher characterizes as “the various revolutionary parties structured for operating in a czarist dictatorship,” I found Gallagher’s arguments resonating with my own perspective on the need for a viable American political strategy. We have all grown up a little, but fortunately maintained our desire for global change.

This is an easy read, 187 pages with great photos and tons of wry humor. The subtitle of Chapter 1 is “To be or not to be? The American Left’s Hamlet complex.” The first sentence clearly states the thesis of the pamphlet: “This book is all about a simple argument that a group of people that I’m rather generically calling the American left absolutely has to figure out how to work its way into presidential politics if it is to be taken seriously.” I couldn’t agree more, and Gallagher lays out the primary route, the Democratic primary as a way for the Left to be active in the most spotlighted arena of American politics.

Gallagher argues that the “primary route” is an additive rather than a subtractive process: participation in the primary adds to the power of the Left and does not subtract its power electorally as a third party effort potentially does in helping to elect a candidate further from the interests of the supporters of the third party. In making his argument he details the history of third parties back to the 1800s and tells us the story of the origins of the modern primary system, ironically in the year 1912, when the Socialist Eugene Debs got over 6 percent of the vote. He even mentions the forgotten entrant in the 1992 primaries, the Mayor of Irvine California, Larry Agran. I remember Larry because I negotiated two labor agreements for the public employees of Irvine in the 1980s and because Larry was dramatically arrested for showing up at the Democratic primary debate that had excluded him.

There is a fascinating chapter that compares our electoral system to other countries in the world where third parties have been more viable, notably Germany. Here is the history of the Greens die Grünen and the Left party, Der Linke. I asked the author for permission to use unpublished chapters with my friends and comrades in the left to encourage them to engage in the Democratic primaries so that there would be a challenge to the corporate candidate, Hillary Clinton. Gallagher said wait for the book as he was seeking a publisher. No publisher ever picked up the book and by the time the book emerged, Bernie Sanders had announced.

Gallagher’s advice presages phenomena we are witnessing now because of the “Feel the Bern” candidacy. After the October 13 debate, we were told by the NYT and other media outlets of the status quo that Hillary won the debate even though polls and focus groups resoundingly supported Bernie.

The question about Bernie and any primary route challenges is what is left behind? How do we build on the excitement and momentum and grow it and sustain it? Here is Gallagher on “Beyond”: “Eventually we could imagine or at least hope, that if presidential candidates of the left were ever to become a routine and expected thing, the ad hoc, self-selecting aspect of the current nominating process might come to be seen as insufficiently democratic.”

Gallagher does not preclude action on the local state and regional level, he just suggests and the Sanders campaign confirms the importance of entering the big tent and putting socialist ideas on the front burner.

The Primary Route is a pamphlet that Antonio Gramsci would have been proud of—a simple articulate and humorous discourse that challenges status quo and “common sense” (usually ultra left) thinking on the American left.


Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California.