Friday, September 1, 2017

Peter Diamondstone's Long Socialist Road

Peter Diamondstone was justly proud that, with only one exception, he had been on Vermont's general election ballot every two years since 1970. At first he was a candidate for Attorney General. Later, he debated James Jeffords and Bernie Sanders, his old Liberty Union ally, in campaigns for Congress. 

We first met shortly after Liberty Union (LU) was founded. He had come to my apartment in Bennington during a 1970 canvas of local activists. There to recruit he generously spent more than an hour explaining why the new party was needed. Although a socialist himself, Peter and others had joined forces with liberal Democrats like Bernard O'Shea, an Enosberg newspaper publisher, and William Meyer, a former Democratic Congressman, to form a "third party" that would fight for economic justice and oppose the War in Vietnam.

Unlike others with strong political convictions, Peter was able to disagree without becoming disagreeable. Without his efforts, there would not have been a Party structure for Bernie Sanders' early runs and things might have gone differently. Born in New York in 1934, he died at home in Brattleboro on Wednesday, August 30, at 82.
Peter Diamondstone in 2004, in Montpelier (GG Photo) 
The last time we talked was during the 2004 election cycle, the occasion an interview for a Vermont Guardian feature story on the six candidates running for Vermont governor. The incumbent was James Douglas, then seeking his first re-election. His challengers included Libertarian Hardy Machia, a software engineer touting free market control of health care; Independent Patricia Hejny, an "angry grandmother" who wanted to legalize hemp; Cris Ericson, an artist heading her own Marijuana ticket; Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, who was running as a Democrat with a focus on health care for all; and Diamondstone.

He was "filling in," Diamondstone said. "I'm a back up candidate." But he wasn't "running" for office and would correct anyone who said so. "When you use arena language, you create an arena atmosphere," he explained. Instead, he looked at the process as "applying for a job." 

Like the Libertarian candidate, he was absolutist in his approach to politics. It was all or nothing. But their programs could barely have been more different. Where Machia wanted less government, Diamondstone favored "socialized health care, run by the state of Vermont," as well as a State Bank.

He readily admitted that his ideas were utopian, ideal solutions that would take time to be accepted. "But at some point a 'Diamondstone' will get elected and the battles will go on," he predicted. 

Did Clavelle's campaign for governor represent a modest step in that direction, I asked. No way, he replied. "If Peter is elected, it's even worse. Nothing will change." In the end, neither man came close to defeating the incumbent.

Diamondstone insisted that "State Socialism can work. But it has to come about without the use of force, by the willingness of the people." By that time he had run 17 statewide campaigns, and still believed that such a transformation was only a matter of time.

In his ideal Vermont there would also be a maximum income that anyone could make. He didn't provide an exact figure, but did advise that "once we set a maximum, people will be damned careful about spending money on war."

Returning to Clavelle, he explained the source of his skepticism -- Clavelle's willingness that year to allow Diamondstone and other candidates to be excluded from most gubernatorial debates. "He doesn't want to hear what I have to say," he said. "And if he won't listen now, he won't listen later." 

He contrasted that with then-U.S. Senator Jeffords, who had insisted on the inclusion of all candidates. "On that important process issue, no one is more honorable," Diamondstone said of Jeffords, who by then had left the Republican Party. As for Clavelle, until recently a member of the Progressive Party, he concluded, "he's a Democrat now. That's why I'm here." 

Greg Guma is the Vermont-based author of Dons of Time, Uneasy Empire, Spirits of Desire, Big Lies, and The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. His latest book is Green Mountain Politics: Restless Spirits, Popular Movements.

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