Books: A round-table discussion on socialist electoral strategy

March 2019 Ocasio (Scott Eisen:Getty)
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a member of Democratic Socialists of America, speaks at an Oct. 1, 2018, rally in Boston against nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. (Scott Eisen / Getty Images)


The Haymarket/Jacobin/Verso jointly edited collection of articles titled “Socialist Strategy and Electoral Politics: A Report” is timely and interesting but ultimately does not put forward what its title promises. Almost the entire history of the electoral practices of independent socialists, the working class, and oppressed nationalities in the United States is missing from the book. More than any other piece of analysis, this burning absence shapes the content of the essays in this collection. What the reader is left with are partial ideas on how the socialist left ought to orient towards the electoral arena.

A common theme of the book is that the left must support Democratic Party candidates since it is not strong enough to run candidates on its own ballot lines right now, although doing so should be a goal in the future.

The three exceptions which call for an immediate break with the Democratic Party are Kim Moody’s article “From Realignment to Reinforcement,” Socialist Alternative City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant’s “The Case for Strong Independent Campaigns to Build the Left,” and Todd Chretien’s “A Million Votes for Peace: Notes on Independent Politics.”

Taken together, these three articles make the argument that the Democratic Party is not an empty ballot line but rather a hierarchical, tightly controlled organization; that the Green Party is fatally oriented toward the electoral process, insufficiently anti-capitalist, and internally undemocratic; and that the best way forward to build workers’ power in the electoral arena is for socialists to run independent candidates.

The only really concrete suggestion in this category is Sawant’s argument that the “DSA is well-positioned to run at least five to ten strong [independent] campaigns … throughout the country this year aiming not just at winning votes but also to popularize socialist ideas and build movements. This could be a step toward running strong independent socialist candidates in most major cities next year and in 2020.”

The qualitative changes that would occur if the DSA adopted this perspective and cut all ties with the Democratic Party can not be underestimated. The whole organization, or at least its most active members, would be forced to think about how to formulate their own demands to build class consciousness and not depend on the minimum demands of Democratic Party politicians. They would also have to begin to struggle with keeping their candidates in line with this program and have a real internal discussion about whether the job of socialist politicians is to administer the capitalist state.

Unfortunately, despite providing an example that proves independent socialist candidates can win elections, Sawant and Socialist Alternative have fallen into the trap of attempting to administer the bourgeois state. Underlying Sawant’s support for police unions and chiefs, coalitions with “progressive” Democrats, and ultimately Socialist Alternative’s recent support for Bernie Sanders is the organization’s apparent loss of confidence in the working class to organize their own fights.

This adaptation to capitalist politics by Socialist Alternative and other left groups undoubtedly reflects an impressionist response to the decades-long ebb of militant activity by U.S. workers, which has been worsened by the lack of class-struggle leadership in the labor movement. Left political activists are also surrounded by arguments like the ones in this book—i.e., that the important goal of electing socialists is to pass legislation rather than organizing and educating workers.

DSAers for Sanders

Against this, DSA members and regular authors for Jacobin magazine Meaghan Day, Seth Ackerman, and Ben Beckett all argue that the important thing is to support Democrats right now while making sure that they call themselves socialist and use “class-struggle” rhetoric. The strongest article in this category is Day’s, who makes all of the right arguments for why socialists use the electoral arena but fails to take the essential next step of definitively calling for the working class to form its own party.

What she is right about is that participating in electoral politics allows revolutionaries to talk to thousands of workers about their program, gives us the chance to measure how popular our program is, and shows that we are serious politically by participating in the “normal” political arena. What she is wrong about is that these things remain true when campaigning for Bernie Sanders.

When socialists campaign for Sanders or any Democrat, they are supporting that candidate’s program, political past, and inter-class alliances. Socialists supporting capitalist politicians say to working people that they are not capable of really accomplishing anything on their own initiatives in the political arena.

Electoral strategy is not just an abstract question; as Eric Blanc points out in the book, the political arm of the 2018 teachers’ strikes was destroyed by running militant teachers as Democrats and not as the bud of an independent labor party. (In other articles, unfortunately, Blanc fails to advocate adhering to a clear working-class line in politics. In 2017, he argued in Jacobin for a “dirty break” with the Democrats, in which working-class and socialist candidates would use the Democratic Party ballot designation along the way to building a labor party.)

Bernie betrays

In general, all of the articles agree that Sanders and his newly elected democratic socialist cohorts are not ideal candidates. Instead, they are said to represent the best of what is considered to be possible. There is a consistent narrative running through most of the articles that the supposed “neoliberal wing” of the Democratic Party is being contested by “insurgent” campaigns by Sanders, AOC, and others.

Behind this argument is the recognition of the Democrats as administrators of austerity, war, and racism. On the other hand, the solution to this problem is supposedly realized by different formulations of the classic “inside-outside” strategy. This strategy, based on the idea that the left should support the “least bad” bourgeois candidates while building a movement outside of electoral politics that will “keep their feet to the fire” has persistently failed for the last 150 years.

In the case of Sanders, Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Julia Salazar, and the rest of the democratic socialist candidates, these authors see an alternative to “business as usual” Democrat elites. At the same time, they surely have read Kim Moody’s article in the book, which describes the necessary discipline these candidates undergo from those very same apparatchiks.

All of these perspectives, while giving rhetorical support to workers’ self-agency, leave open the door for positive developments in the workers’ movement to come from outside of that movement and outside of our class. Looking for a possible driver of the historical agency of the working class to come from capitalist politicians leads to a wholly imagined history for Sanders. Whereas he has consistently voted with the Democrats on everything from budgets to immigration policy, to his “socialist” supporters he takes on the figure of an oppositional current and embodiment of the actual demands of the working class.

His cultivated image as an “insurgent class-struggle” candidate surely was part of the reason that led to his appointment as Outreach Chair of the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee.

Need for a labor party

The year 2018 was the strongest showing of worker militancy since the 1980s. To say that the best way to maintain momentum is to offer support for Democrats with “class-struggle” rhetoric is to miss an important political moment. As the teachers’ and hotel workers’ strikes showed, a broader vision of class struggle is developing within a section of the U.S. working class. An important way to facilitate the growth of this class consciousness is to educate about the need for a workers’ party based in the trade unions.

No one in the collection, including Sawant, who ultimately advocates what sounds like a multi-class populist third party, puts forward the formation of a labor party as one of the burning questions of the day. Even Barry Eidlin’s “The Phantom Limb” leaves the matter in the abstract, saying it is necessary but without mentioning how. What is clear from Eidlin’s essay is that the presence of a party based in the trade unions, with all of the bureaucratic and reformist implications, is a step of infinite importance for winning any demands for the working class.

The big historical pieces in the book give important information and context on the development of U.S. capitalism, its white supremacy, and its two-party stranglehold. What they miss is the long history and experience of independent parties of workers and oppressed peoples.

With all of the talk about getting a socialist message in front of large amounts of people, there is no discussion of the hundreds of campaigns the Socialist Workers Party ran, including the first Black and Latino candidates for president (Clifton Deberry and Peter Camejo respectively), with the latter receiving over 90,000 votes in 1976. There was also the Raza Unida Party, a militant Chicano party that refused to support Democrats and won hundreds of thousands of votes and even some elections on its own ballot line in the 1970s.

More recently, Socialist Action has made a contribution to independent left electoral politics by running its own candidates for president, Senate, and Congress. The most recent of these campaigns, Fred Linck for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, succeeded in putting our program in front of tens of thousands of people. We collected close to 11,000 signatures for ballot status and were ultimately illegally knocked off the ballot by mostly Democratic Party state election officials.

The question of what a winning strategy looks like is on the mind of virtually all socialist activists. Although “Socialist Strategy and Electoral Politics: A Report” offers a decent spectrum of answers to the question, none are totally satisfying. The book works best as a whole, giving a view of current debates within the movement. The content of these debates also reveals the current limits of discussion—namely, a lack of urgency to form either a labor party or a unified socialist electoral organization with a revolutionary program.

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