I am writing to congratulate you, and other newly elected socialists, on your elections and to outline the lessons of our experience in Seattle since my first election to the city council in 2013. To those who campaigned for you I also offer my congratulations, including to members of Democratic Socialists of America, who along with my own organization, Socialist Alternative, helped bring your fight to hundreds of thousands of working people.
Your elections represent a significant step forward for the U.S. working class.
Yet while the election of self-declared socialist candidates in the belly of the capitalist beast is a victory in itself, it is also just the beginning. We face a decisive struggle to defeat the sexist, racist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-worker agenda of the right and the deeply reactionary Trump regime. Trump is licking his wounds from the midterms but he is far from vanquished. His campaign was a relentless torrent of hate against immigrants and the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party is increasingly taking on aspects of a far right movement. This is a major threat to working people as a whole and to the most oppressed sections especially.
As you yourselves have said, to win real gains through elected office, you must use your platforms to help build fighting movements for the things you campaigned on: like Medicare for All, tuition-free college, abolishing ICE, and rent control. You will, of course, face enormous pressures to instead adapt to the establishment. You will be told to set aside your bold demands, and instead focus on “winnable” things acceptable to big business.
A few days after taking office, after campaigning on a $15 minimum wage, two establishment Democratic councilmembers came to inform me: “you may have rabble roused your way in here, but we call the shots in city hall, and will not let you win a new minimum wage or anything else unless it’s on our terms.”
How did Socialist Alternative and I respond? That same month, we launched the 15 Now grassroots movement, which has since gone national. We held mass organizing meetings, rallies, and marches. Less than six months later, we won and Seattle became the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage. The establishment was furious, and business leaders later went on record saying they wouldn’t have agreed if not for 15 Now and its threat of a ballot initiative. It should be noted that not one Democratic councilmember endorsed 15 Now or actively campaigned for $15 an hour, though ultimately, under the pressure of our movement, the ordinance passed unanimously.
But we didn’t win everything we fought for in the legislation. That is because what can be won through elected office is primarily based on the strength of movements on the streets and in workplaces. We voted for the ordinance, but fought against every corporate loophole until the final hour.
Our mass campaigns have been a source of enormous frustration for the establishment. After we won a series of victories on renters’ rights, a retiring lobbyist named Jamie Durkan (brother of new Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan) reported that every dollar spent by the real estate lobby on Seattle City Hall was wasted. He explained that councilmembers “say all the right things in their offices, then they get out on the podium and it all goes south.” He attributed this to “Sawant’s army” of grassroots supporters: “Even some of the most sane and rational councilmembers drift left because they are afraid of Sawant.”
This is how working people win change. Not by negotiation behind the scenes, but by building movements strong enough to make corporate politicians fear for their political careers. You must reject the idea that it’s time for you to set your activism aside and “become a politician.”
Part of the job of elected socialist representatives within a capitalist government is to expose the bankrupt system and its political servants. Your responsibility is not to politician “colleagues” but to the working class and social movements. This means calling out corporate politicians when they sell out, and not creating illusions in them.
Alexandria, it is deeply unfortunate that you have endorsed Andrew Cuomo – a thoroughly rotten representative of the establishment. You should not repeat this error in supporting Nancy Pelosi or any other corporate politician for House Speaker.
I also want to share a few things with the emerging socialist movement behind your electoral successes: We should always remember that most gains are won by the mass struggle of working people, not elected office, and that is where we must root our power. Our struggle cannot base itself on a few elected representatives, and our own responsibility must be to the working class, not to any individual politicians, even those we judge well meaning.
Finally, we must recognize that while we agree on many things there is a fundamental difference between Marxism and social democratic politics. Socialist Alternative and I are fighting for a socialist world and recognize capitalism cannot be made to work for the working class. Social democrats hope to create a humane capitalism – a futile mission and fundamental error.
We also believe we need a new party for working people, independent of corporate money and the ruling class and we do not agree with your decisions to run as Democrats.
But despite these differences we believe we can and should work together to build a sustained movement with democratic structures to win the working class demands on which you campaigned. This common struggle will educate us all.
But today let us celebrate your victories and prepare to make use of them in the tumultuous struggles ahead.