By STEVE XAVIER
The results of the primary election result in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which includes parts of the Bronx and Queens, stunned the Democratic Party machine. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former Bernie Sanders campaign worker and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), defeated 10-term Congressman Joe Crowley. Crowley, who out-spent Oscasio-Cortez by 18-1, had seemed poised to challenge Nancy Pelosi for leadership of Congressional Democrats.
Ocasio-Cortez ran a grassroots campaign that was endorsed by liberal organizations and individuals like MoveOn, Justice Democrats, gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, and the DSA. The Ocasio-Cortez campaign relied heavily on the volunteer efforts of DSA members.
The fact that Ocasio-Cortez spent merely about $128,000 in her campaign and refused to take corporate money demonstrates that grassroots campaigns can win. However, if trapped in the confines of a bourgeois party, like the Democratic Party, any campaign will be limited in its effectiveness.
During the campaign, Ocasio-Cortez called for ICE abolition, Medicare for all, and a federal jobs guarantee. Ocasio-Cortez also criticized Israeli actions in Gaza during the Great Return March. She made a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to see conditions facing refugees trying to seek asylum in the United States. Crowley, under pressure from Ocasio-Cortez, called ICE a “fascist” organization, but stopped short of calling for abolition of the agency.
Rightists responded to the victory of Ocasio-Cortez with crude red-baiting. The reactionary Washington Times called her victory an “affront” to the Founding Fathers and a “slap in the face to America.” To drive their point home, the editors also called Ocasio-Cortez “by socialist nature an enemy of the American way of life.” Fox News talking head Sean Hannity declared that the “Democratic Party is falling apart!” He called Ocasio-Cortez’s political views “scary.”
Party tops circle the wagons
What does this electoral victory mean? First, it points to fissures in the ranks of the Democratic Party, although that has been denied by long-time party leaders. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi insisted that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory did not mean that the Democratic Party is moving to the left or that it faces widespread challenges by younger or somewhat more progressive candidates. She assured the public that socialism is not “ascendant” in the other party of Wall Street. Last year, during an appearance on CNN, Pelosi made it clear that the Democrats are a capitalist party.
Indeed, the party has demonstrated repeatedly that it is the party of neoliberal austerity, support for imperialist adventures overseas, and defense of the status quo. In the face of union busting and the erosion of civil rights and women’s reproductive rights, the Democrats offer at best a sympathetic nod.
Time and again, the Democrats have demonstrated which side they are on, despite their claims to be the party of “regular folks” and the “middle class.” During the 2016 primary contest, the party hierarchy pulled out all its stops to sidetrack the campaign of the social democratic Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Sanders supporters comprise many of the disaffected Democrats who joined the ranks of the reformist DSA in the wake of Trump’s election.
Similarly, DSA reported a spike in new members after Ocasio-Cortez’s victory and the Janus decision, with more than 1100 people signing up on-line on the day after the election. The win caused a huge rise in interest in socialist ideas, as the news media reported the upset of a sitting Congress member by a “democratic socialist.” Merriam-Webster reported a 1500% increase in searches for the definition of democratic socialism.
But there remains a fundamental disagreement about how to define socialism. For many “democratic socialists,” socialism is a slightly more radical sounding of New Deal liberalism. Their socialism, they believe, can be achieved through work inside the Democratic Party to reform the existing system.
Marxists disagree with this watered-down vision of socialism. We see socialism as the democratic ownership and control of the economy and society by the working class and its allies.
Elections are a useful tool for socialists to address a broader audience, but real socialism cannot be won by electoral means—if for no other reason than the fact that the capitalist class manages the elections through restrictive ballot laws, controls the major media, and lavishes funds on their chosen candidates. Moreover, the capitalists have no intention of relinquishing power to the will of the majority; they have never failed to use either fraud or brute force when necessary to maintain their rule.
Socialism can only be achieved through the organization of the working class and oppressed into a massive revolutionary movement that is independent of the capitalist parties.
“Reform” the Democrats?
Socialist participation in the Democratic Party is an error that can only reinforce illusions in bourgeois solutions to the problems facing working people. Time and again, the Democrats have demonstrated that they are “the graveyard of social movements” by either co-opting the leaderships of movements or, failing that, smashing them with repression.
Ocasio-Cortez, although she is a fierce critic of the current Democratic Party, believes that the party can be changed. In a recent interview with Glenn Greenwald, Ocasio-Cortez conceded that the Democrats are “not doing a very good job” fighting Trump, and “if the main priority is fighting this administration, then we need to address the systemic problems which kind of resulted in his rise in the first place. … As long as the Democratic Party continues to work with special interests, lobbyist groups, and corporations to really perpetuate economic marginalization of Americans, as well as social and racial marginalization, then we’re not going to get anywhere.”
She concluded, “There’s no way we can get through this without changing the Democratic Party.”
However, socialist and progressive activists tried to reform the Democrats for decades. The DSA was founded on the notion that the Democratic Party could be realigned—but this vision was proven to be a mirage. Although activists tried again and again to reform the party, the party moved to the right.
The fundamental truth that all socialists have to grasp is that the Democratic Party serves the interests of the rich. As an institution, it is resistant to change and will do what is necessary to preserve its status as a party of Wall Street.
The Democratic Party’s role in smothering working-class militancy can be seen in the alliance of the trade-union bureaucracy with the party. For example, during the Wisconsin labor upsurge a few years ago in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s union busting, labor tops and the Democrats diverted the movement into a campaign to recall Walker, sapping all of the energy out of a growing mass mobilization. In contrast, the recent teacher strikes were victorious because of their defiance of union bureaucrats and politicians who posed as allies.
The Occupy Movement of 2011 revealed how the Democratic Party oscillates between the carrot and the stick in its relations with social movements. On the one hand, Democratic Party operatives tried to make inroads into the occupations, at times even dominating the stage at protest rallies, in order to divert the participants into supporting electoral campaigns. On the other hand, the movement was physically broken up by cops called in by Democratic mayors.
Participation in the Democratic Party, rather than in an independent campaign, will mean pressure on even the most principled candidate to moderate their positions in the interests of “electability.” This process may have already begun with Ocasio-Cortez’s backing away from her earlier more radical-sounding rhetoric on immigration. Appearing on National Public Radio, Ocasio-Cortez, when pressed on the Trump accusation that the Democrats want “open borders,” expressed her support for border security.
We understand that many DSA members want to fight this system, and we will be in the streets side by side with them in the fight for workers’ rights and to defend immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, and oppressed nationalities from reactionary attacks. But at the same time, we argue that the political independence of working-class and oppressed people is crucial to winning their struggles and in building for a socialist future. The road forward cannot be through the swamp of Democratic Party politics. We need a clean break with ruling-class parties. Now, more than in any recent period, the opportunity to build a new mass working-class party is before us.
Democratic socialist candidate in St. Louis accepts police union endorsement
In St. Louis, a Democratic Party candidate for State Representative, Cydney John Johnson, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), accepted the endorsement of the St. Louis Police Officers Association (POA). In a Twitter post, Johnson said the endorsement “humbled” him. Johnson is a former co-chair of the St. Louis DSA local. Johnson abruptly quit the DSA, when the local threatened to pull their endorsement of his candidacy because of the cop union endorsement.
The POA made headlines just a few years ago for supporting the killer of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Mo. It was also in the news for the assault on a Black woman protester by the union head, and for demanding that members of the Rams football team be punished for protesting in solidarity with Ferguson. In 2014 it was reported that the cop union in St. Louis maintained segregated locals for cops—one for whites and the other for Black officers.
Rather than accepting the endorsement of a cop union, a socialist candidate should vehemently decline it and use the opportunity to explain in clear terms the destructive role of the criminal injustice system in Black communities. It’s a reflection of the all-inclusive character of the DSA that there is no organizational control of campaigns of candidates who are members. The dangers of opportunism in these situations is very real.
This incident brings to mind the incident last year when police union organizer Danny Fetonte was elected to the DSA National Political Committee. Fetonte’s election to the group’s governing body sparked outrage in the ranks of the DSA. Many DSA members had protested against police brutality and witnessed the defense of violent killer cops by these organizations.
Fetonte’s defense of the cop unions as being part of the social justice movement displayed both deception and lack of understanding about the role of the cops, courts, and prisons in society.
Socialists reject the notion that cops are part of the working class. Police unions play a disruptive and reactionary role in the labor movement. Police, the courts, district attorneys, and the prison system are all part of the repressive machinery of the capitalist state. Their major role is to violently suppress the labor movement and organizations of oppressed people when they fight for their rights.
Like the rest of the capitalist state machinery, these repressive organizations have to be abolished through the actions of the working class and oppressed. Socialists must fight for the oppressed without compromise. Accepting endorsements from cops isn’t acceptable.
Photo: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from Facebook, via Mother Jones.