The Los Angeles headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party is a storefront next to a taqueria on Western Avenue. The concrete patch behind it is ringed by concertina wire. On Saturday afternoon, a man unloaded Air Jordans onto the hood of his Buick Regal around the corner and hawked them to passers-by.
Inside the office, Norton Sandler — the party's mayoral candidate — sat at a card table, flanked by two of his supporters. His wife, Barbara, busied herself in the back. The bare room was lined with racks of books from the party's publishing arm, Pathfinder Press, whose roots go back to 1930. A photograph of Lenin hung on the wall.
Sandler's campaign has barely registered with the body politic. He's reported no monetary contributions, sent out no mailers and hasn't been included in the major candidates' forums. But that's OK: His goal is not to tally up votes, but to plant the seeds of revolution.
"It's important to have labor and the working-class point of view in the election, because we're in the midst of a crisis," he said. "We present a road forward ultimately for working people."
Sandler, 67, is graying, bespectacled and affable, bearing some resemblance to the Wizard of Oz. The tie and jacket he's chosen to wear is not his normal work attire. After a middle-class upbringing in Denver, Sandler spent 40 years as a steelworker, punch press operator and boilermaker. Most recently, he has been assembling power boards for a small Los Angeles company.
His campaign is largely built around door-to-door canvassing in South Los Angeles, Boyle Heights and other working-class neighborhoods. Sandler and his supporters are calling for a massive, government-funded jobs program to build hospitals, day care centers and clinics in the city.
The message, he says, has been well-received.
"Man, do they want to talk about the capitalist crisis," he said. "As the struggle heats up, you'll find more and more people talking in class terms. "
Sandler — who uses rhetoric like the "repressive apparatus" (police, prison guards, ICE, Homeland Security) and "dictatorship of capital" — politely declined to let me accompany him walking precincts, saying it might "intimidate" voters, many of whom are hurting amid the nation's anemic economic recovery.
All you have to do is look outside party headquarters and see the sign spinners, bottle collectors and other people at the bottom of the economic heap.
"Every bus bench is a home in L.A. to somebody," Sandler said.
Leftists have been declaring capitalism on the ropes since I was in college in the 1970s. Instead, the Eastern Bloc has collapsed, and revolution appears as far off as ever.
Sandler said the crisis will come to a head when "the bosses" are forced to start hiring again and workers can organize on the job. Then, they will seize power from the ruling class and establish a workers and farmers government.
When that might be, he can't say. At his age, he knows it won't necessarily be in his lifetime, but he is unfazed.
"I have no problem being motivated," he said. "When the big struggles break out, and they will, you've got to have party leadership."
Sandler became radicalized decades ago, during the civil rights and antiwar movements. He joined the Socialist Workers Party after deciding it was the best hope of getting the U.S. out of Vietnam. He has been involved in strikes and union battles in Virginia, Minnesota and Seattle.
After long stints in San Francisco and New York, he moved to Los Angeles three years ago for job and party opportunities. He's fallen in love with his latest home.
"It's a gigantic, working-class city with all the contradictions this stage of history brought us," he said.
This campaign is his first foray into electoral politics in Los Angeles. (He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Baltimore in 1980.)
The Socialist Workers Party grew out of a schism in the worldwide communist movement over Stalin's break with Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, whom he ordered assassinated.
But the party also has a long history of factionalism.
While a student at UC Berkeley, I witnessed the divisions firsthand. Party members directed much of their vitriol at other leftists who pushed a different political line.
But, Sandler said, accusing the party of factionalism is "how the wealthy try to marginalize the voice of revolutionary socialism."
He came in for a political spanking himself last year by the party newspaper — the Militant. Sandler had drafted an article about an L.A. teachers rally protesting layoffs and cuts in school funding. Editor Steve Clark not only refused to run the story, but also printed a stinging rebuttal of Sandler's positions, suggesting they perpetuated a "bourgeois fable."
Sandler said he found the critique "very useful."
The party doesn't give out membership numbers, Sandler said. But membership numbers, like vote counts, are beside the point.
The revolution, he said, will erupt when we least expect it. Until then, he will soldier on, beneath the media radar, trying to change the course of history.
"They never heard of Lenin in 1916," he said. "He was a person from nowhere."