A wave of socialists are being elected to office across the U.S. These electoral victories show the huge openings for building the socialist movement in the coming period. But they also pose new challenges for how to translate wins at the ballot box to wins for more fundamental change. Below PATRICK AYERS outlines how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could use her position to fight for working people and lays out some key lessons from the success of Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant on the Seattle City Council.
How Ocasio-Cortez Could Provide a Bold Lead
The victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earlier this year launched the 27 year-old and self-described democratic socialist into the public imagination. Immediately, the issues and ideas that animated her campaign became topics for debate. She was invited onto the Colbert Show, Sunday morning political talks shows while The View and Fox News shows all discussed socialism and her platform. Her election put the Democrats on the spot about growing support for socialism. Nancy Pelosi reminded us once again that she supports capitalism while Elizabeth Warren assured us she is not a socialist and wants to save capitalism from itself. In effect, the victory of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign exposed growing divisions between those who defend the status quo and a new generation moving in the direction of socialist change.
However, there was another side of this picture. A layer of left-wing people on social media expressed frustration when Ocasio-Cortez was seemingly bowled over by PBS reporter Margaret Hoover and backed off her previous support for Palestinians. Later, she praised John McCain as an American hero to the disappointment of members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) who helped elect her. Some on the left were struck by the clear difference between Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks on John McCain and those of Socialist Alternative City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. Most recently, Ocasio-Cortez told Jake Tapper on CNN that the importance of electing Democrats this November included supporting Governor Andrew Cuomo, a reviled establishment Democrat who has worked to block progressive legislation.
For some, these incidents could be chalked up to early mistakes of an inexperienced newcomer and don’t mean much about her actual political trajectory. But they also serve as reminders of the enormous pressures on Ocasio-Cortez and all elected representatives under capitalism. Given her profile as one of the most prominent elected socialists in the U.S. and her connection to the DSA, she is likely to face a lot of scrutiny in the coming period. What she does and says will serve as a basis for widespread discussion about the role of socialists. What stands out to the vast majority of workers and youth is the fact that her politics are far to the left of the Democratic Party leadership. But for an important layer of people drawing more radical conclusions, Ocasio-Cortez’s limitations will provoke debates about how to most effectively fight for socialist transformation. But what could Ocasio-Cortez do to play the strongest role possible for building a left challenge in the period ahead?
Build a Movement to Fight Trump
In many ways, the real test for Ocasio-Cortez will come when she enters Congress next year, which is likely to happen after the so-called Blue Wave this November. Whether the Democrats take the House or not, the issue that will dominate will be Donald Trump and resisting his right wing offensive. Ocasio-Cortez will have an important role to play as the person perceived as the most left-wing member of the House. What she does can make the difference for whether an effective resistance is built.
While many people in U.S. will vote for the Democrats this fall to try and deny Republican control, there is also growing anger and disappointment at the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party for propping up Hillary Clinton’s establishment-oriented campaign against Bernie Sanders; failing to consistently fight Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment; selling out DACA recipients; failing to effectively fight tax reform and many other failures in resisting the Trump administration.
Many people are likely to look to Ocasio-Cortez to hold the Democratic Party leadership accountable and to provide an alternative lead. Given some of her recent statements, it’s unclear if Ocasio-Cortez will fully seize the opportunity to wage a challenge. She could take more of a back seat initially to “gain experience” and try to avoid rocking the boat.
At the same time, Ocasio-Cortez is a different quality of politicians from what we are normally used to. She was elected without corporate cash and with the support of DSA. She is more sensitive to pressure from the left and working people than a typical Democrat (who overwhelmingly tend to be loyal servants of the establishment). However, there will also be enormous pressures on Ocasio-Cortez from the other side, and particularly from the corporate leadership of the party she has chosen to join.
Ocasio-Cortez is likely to vacillate to some degree between conflicting pressures. The stronger the pressure from movements of working people, the more likely she will be pushed to boldly represent the interests of working people. There are no guarantees. In the absence of movements it’s more likely she could moderate her positions to appease establishment forces, as she did on Palestine.
An Action Plan
Ocasio-Cortez was elected because millions of people are fed up with corporate politics and want new leaders who fight for working people. To strengthen this fight, the left and DSA, who she joined during her campaign, should call on Ocasio-Cortez to firmly reject the timid approach of the Democratic Party leadership to the Trump administration. She should not support Nancy Pelosi or any establishment Democrat for House Speaker or minority leader. Ocasio-Cortez should only vote for a leadership that is prepared to break with big business and fight for pro-working class demands.
That means being willing to mobilize the anger of working people to help block Trump’s reactionary agenda – exactly what the Democratic Party leadership has failed to do. She should also demand the Democrats immediately start impeachment proceedings if they retake the House. She should take the lead on demanding that the Democrats actively campaign to build support for passing Medicare-For-All, a federal $15 minimum wage, and other pro-worker legislation.
Of course it’s unlikely that Ocasio-Cortez will be able to convince the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party to abandon their loyalties to big business. In fact, if she does boldly stand against the corporate leadership, she will likely face ferocious resistance. This should not deter her from doing what is needed, or deter us from calling on her to take bold action. Instead, it can clarify that what can be won inside the halls of power depends on the strength of movements outside the halls of power.
Ocasio-Cortez, above all, should not base her strategy in Congress on trying to build rotten alliances based on horse-trading and backroom deals with establishment politicians. This kind of approach should also figure into any potential new caucus she launches with other progressive members of the House like Ro Khanna, Rashida Tlaib, or Pramila Jayapal. They should take a principled stand and base themselves on building a movement of working people, and they should seek to work with Bernie Sanders in the Senate on this basis as well.
Ocasio-Cortez should see the key task as turning the passive support she has garnered for her stances on Medicare-For-All, abolishing ICE, free tuition, and other progressives positions into active and organized movements. We know big business is constantly using every tool they have to squeeze the politicians at our expense. The strength of working people lays in our ability to pose an alternative to the current system through our numbers and our social power. Ocasio-Cortez is in a position to help imbue working people with a stronger sense of that, which means first and foremost clearly warning people at every stage that we cannot rely on the establishment politicians or the political system, and we need to get organized and fight. This especially means relentlessly exposing the subservience of the Democratic Party itself to big business.
She also should put out the call for mass action. If Trump and the Republicans are defeated in the midterms, undoubtedly this will raise the confidence of working people to step up the resistance to the right wing and the billionaire class in 2019. Ocasio-Cortez should encourage people not to wait for the Democratic Party leadership or for elections in 2020. We need an immediate plan to move into struggle. She should help call for a series of mass demonstrations in 2019 and provide decisive leadership to help build them. This could start with a radical women’s march on January 20, 2019 as part of a systematic plan to escalate mass action throughout the year.
Accountability and a Democratic Movement
Politics doesn’t just only happen every two or four years at election time. It’s an everyday thing and the best way to hold politicians accountable – with no guarantee of success — is to build the widest, most class conscious, organized and active movement of working people possible.
Toward this end, Ocasio-Cortez should help develop the basis for building a mass movement with democratic structures to give ownership and leadership to the grassroots. This is also the best way to ensure that Ocasio-Cortez herself is representing the interests of the movement. Rather than relying on consultants or “colleagues” in the Democratic establishment, Ocasio-Cortez should make decisions in close collaboration with a democratically organized movement. This would ensure that her statements, actions and how she votes are all done in the interest of strengthening the movement. She should take only the average wage of a working class person to guard against becoming divorced from the everyday life of working people. The rest of her salary should be donated to the movement.
The scaffolding for a mass grassroots resistance could be provided by the new activist layer that has emerged in recent years: 50,000 members of DSA, tens of thousands of members of Our Revolution, Indivisible, and also thousands of union, #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, immigrants rights activists and others. Steps toward a kind of united and democratic mass movement could be made by calling for regional conferences with the aim of bringing these forces together, along with broader layers of the public, to discuss how to organize a more powerful resistance. This could include organizing discussions on how to rebuild the power of working people in the workplace, which is critical to taking on the economic power of the billionaire class.
To help the movement sink roots, organizing committees or action groups could be launched in every possible community, workplace, and campus to help build the movement in a broader and more coordinated way. A mass organization like this would be a powerful tool in the fight against Trump, but also it would be indispensable in a fight for a positive program of working class demands at every level of government and in workplaces and industries where workers are in desperate need of strong unions and solidarity. Such a massive organization could run many more socialist and left candidates in the years ahead, and would lay the basis for building a completely new mass party of working people, something that will be needed to take on the power of the billionaire class. We would urge Ocasio-Cortez to break with the Democrats now to begin laying the basis for a new party.
We would also raise the need for Ocasio-Cortez, or any socialist, to use their position to help develop a clear program that goes beyond reforms and poses a clear alternative to the dysfunctional capitalist system. This is an important part of building the socialist movement because again and again she will be pressured to moderate her positions by defenders of capitalism. If she does, this can lower the confidence of working people to fight for even modest reforms. By outlining a bold vision for socialist transformation she can help politically prepare a new generation for what will be needed: taking the biggest 500 corporations into democratic public ownership and rebuilding society on the basis of democratically planned economy that puts human need before corporate greed
Ocasio-Cortez will undoubtedly play a positive and important role by providing a contrast to spineless corporate Democrats, but it’s highly unlikely that Ocasio-Cortez would take the approach proposed above. We outline it here to raise the sights of our readers and explain a Marxist vision for the kind of movement needed along with what role an elected socialist could play.
Ocasio-Cortez unfortunately does not have a clear program for building a radical working-class movement along the lines above. Ocasio-Cortez talks positively about building movements, which is a departure from the corporate Democrats, but she tends to see them as an auxiliary to her primary, and limited, strategy of transforming the Democratic Party – a highly unlikely prospect – and electing more progressives to reform capitalism, which won’t be enough to achieve real change. It can’t be ruled out she could be pushed further to the left under the impact of events, but that is unclear at this stage. Nevertheless Ocasio-Cortez will be seen as an important left leader going forward, and the positive impact of her victory which raised the banner of socialism should not be diminished. It is a sign, among many, of why we are enormously optimistic about the potential to develop a mass, independent left force in the next period in American society that decisively challenges the ruling elite.
Lessons of Socialists on the Seattle City Council
In 2013, Kshama Sawant was elected to the Seattle City Council without corporate cash, as an unapologetic member of Socialist Alternative and independent of the Democrats. Within six months of her election, Seattle became the first major city in the U.S. to pass a $15 an hour minimum wage, and it is no exaggeration to say that socialists were decisive in making it happen.
We won by building a movement. Our campaign helped bring the Fight for 15 launched by fast food workers and unions into the 2013 election debate and to people’s doorsteps. When we won, we didn’t let our foot off the gas for second. We immediately used the momentum of the victory to launch 15 Now as an organization that anybody could join. When the establishment tried to co-opt Sawant into their process – where most of it occurs behind closed doors – by setting up a committee of labor and business leaders to discuss a minimum wage proposal, we gave them a hard deadline: come up with an acceptable proposal in six months or we will go to the ballot with our own binding referendum.
While the committee issued studies and debated pathways to a higher minimum wage, 15 Now and Socialist Alternative built the framework for a mass campaign. We launched action groups and held a democratically organized convention to develop our proposals for a ballot initiative. The credible threat of our movement brought enormous pressure on the establishment to concede in lighting speed.
What we accomplished is all the more impressive when you keep in mind that before we won, not a single city council member would support $15 an hour minimum wage. We had just a single vote of nine, yet six months later the the council unanimously voted to pass legislation outlining a pathway to $15 an hour.
Since then, Sawant’s office has continued to act as an organizing center for struggles and working class campaigns in Seattle fighting and winning important gains for tenants, indigenous people, LGBTQ people, and more. Most importantly, we have helped build a vibrant left in Seattle. With so many socialists being elected around the U.S. here are some keys to our approach:
1) Take a clear side – you can’t represent two masters.
Politicians often try to present themselves as able to represent both working people and big business. In other words, they take money and favors from business, and votes from working people. We always lose out in this scenario. As a member of Socialist Alternative, Sawant not only expresses her commitment to working people by refusing corporate campaign donations and campaigning for policies in the interest of workers. But, in office she also takes only the average wage of the workers she represents. She donates a large part of her $120,000 salary back to the movement.
2) Speak the truth to working people.
Under capitalism, politics is about conflicting class interests and forces. Sawant takes every opportunity to expose the real interests behind the actions of city council members and the establishment. When Seattle proposed building a new $160 million police precinct, Sawant went on television to expose the reality that the existing police precinct was certainly not collapsing – and that $160 million would be better spent on affordable housing! Sawant has been crystal clear about the role of the Democratic Party as a party of big business and the need for a new party.
3) Base yourself on the movement – not negotiations behind closed doors.
Some progressives think the way you win change is by simply electing enough progressive politicians. But capitalism is a flexible system and big business has many tools to reign in politicians. When a majority of Seattle city council members passed a small tax on Amazon and then betrayed the movement and repealed it a month later, leaked text messages showed that behind closed doors enormous pressure was being applied to left Democrats who caved. Sawant and Socialist Alternative took a principled stand for working people, voted against the repeal and helped expose the Democrats’ betrayal. We explain: “what can be won inside city hall depends on the strengths of movements outside city hall” as opposed to your ability to negotiate with billionaire bullies like Jeff Bezos.
4) Help turn passive support into organized struggle.
Sawant has helped turn City Hall into a place where people come to demand change from politicians and get organized to fight against the effects of capitalism. In a struggle to stop a 400 percent rent increase for Seattle Housing Authority residents, Sawant encouraged and helped them to organize their neighbors to build a serious struggle. The residents quickly got organized and started fighting back – and they won!
5) You can’t do it on your own – you need an organization.
Sawant didn’t run for office to build a career. She got involved to help build a Marxist organization, Socialist Alternative, that was committed to the fight for a better world. In truth, we asked her to run for office to help us in that fight. We have her back and, as a member of our organization, she is accountable to our organization and our politics. Together we work to develop a Marxist program to address the problems created by capitalism and to build a strong socialist movement that can help working people fight back in communities, workplaces, and campuses everywhere. As Kshama says, “You don’t have to be a Marxist to fight for a better world. But it certainly helps.” Join us!