The debate on socialists’ relationship to the Democratic Party is not new. Generations of socialists have tried to take over the party, resulting in the situation we have now. However, with Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, unilaterally presiding over an unprecedented crisis, this crucial question of strategy has gained renewed importance.
We commend the Collective Power Network caucus in DSA for clarifying their position on this question in their article Breaking Bad: How Obsession with an Independent Workers’ Party Hurts the Socialist Electoral Project by Brad Chester, and for helping to provoke discussion on an increasingly important, and timely, debate.
However, we have strong disagreements with the politics put forward in the article. Adopting CPN’s ideas would be a huge step back for socialists just as the movement is gaining momentum. CPN combines extreme pessimism about political independence with an unrealistic perspective of reforming capitalism. The article begins with the claim that “the socialist electoral project is the most successful it has been in nearly a century because socialists are contesting for power using the Democratic ballot line.”
What proceeds from this bold statement is a line of argument entirely limited to ballot line access and the objective of winning elections in a first-past-the-post system. It is only within these narrow confines that CPN is able to advance the argument against “promises” of an independent workers’ party. They present the Democratic ballot line as a politically neutral institution ripe for the taking, which fails to take into account the real character of the Democratic Party as a sturdy political organization of the ruling class.
The rise of socialist ideas, in elections and in the streets, is rooted in the crisis of capitalism itself. The climate crisis is causing hurricanes, wildfires, and most recently, a deep freeze in Texas that killed dozens of people due to the failure of its privatized energy grid. COVID-19 has killed half a million in the United States while billionaires have gotten over $1 trillion richer.
There is all time high support for demands like a $15/hr minimum wage, Medicare for All, and a Green New Deal. Though the CPN article barely mentions these issues, we believe they are intertwined with the question of breaking with the Democratic Party, and building an independent working class party.
The Center Doesn’t Hold: Two-Party System in Crisis
We don’t agree that independent politics are not popular. According to Gallup, 62% of U.S. adults now say we need a new major political party, more than ever recorded in the history of polling. This mood is a response to the decline of living standards over decades of neoliberalism, and the loss of legitimacy of establishment parties in the U.S. and globally.
This polarization will only escalate under Joe Biden as he oversees a historic crisis he can’t resolve. Without a left alternative, the right can take the initiative, as we saw on January 6. There is now a real possibility of a new far-right party.
While some have argued a far-right split from the Republicans would give the left a tactical advantage within the Democratic Party, they are dangerously mistaken. Failing to draw a clear political distinction while the right takes all the initiative has real consequences as we’ve seen in Europe, where the ascendancy of right-populist movements and parties has stemmed directly from establishment failure and the left’s failure to offer a viable alternative.
While on the one hand, left figures like Sanders and Corbyn, as well as recent new left parties like Syriza and Podemos show the broad enthusiasm among workers and young people when a left alternative is on the table, their respective capitulations show the grave dangers of the politics of reformism in this stage of capitalist crisis. The consequences of promising reforms that can’t be delivered without a serious escalation of class struggle, while being unwilling to lead that escalation, are setbacks, chaos, and openings for advances by the far right.
Working class solidarity and a bold pro-worker platform offer a far stronger challenge to right-populism than what the Democrats can muster with “Russiagate.” Demands like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal proved enormously popular in the last election cycle. Candidates, many endorsed by DSA, and many who ran as Democrats, were overwhelmingly successful in running on these types of platforms. However, Brad emphasizes these candidates’ party preference, rather than their working class platform, concluding “the Democratic ballot line is a tool, and a powerful one, that socialists must use in our fight on all fronts for socialism, justice, and working class liberation.”
The majority of these electoral wins, with a key exception being Kshama Sawant who won as an independent socialist, happened under Trump. We should be prepared for the possibility that under a Biden presidency and a Democrat-dominated House and Senate, association with the Democratic Party will become a political liability in the eyes of an important section of the working class. This will be especially true if progressives in Congress, who hold the numerical balance of power, refuse to force issues onto the agenda.
Furthermore, the historic Justice For George Floyd uprising, which receives not a single mention in Brad’s article despite being a crucial factor in this debate, was repressed and betrayed by Democratic Party mayors and City Councils. The global youth climate strike movement was mocked by leading Democrats. Biden has already dropped the $15/hr minimum wage, immediately broken his promise of $2,000 stimulus checks, has offered no student loan forgiveness, and is still drone bombing Syria and locking up immigrant children in rebranded “migrant overflow facilities.” While among a broad section of the working class there remains a real Biden “honeymoon,” the extent to which establishment Democrats have disappointed even their limited campaign promises will find expression in the next election cycle. Associating ourselves with this party cuts us off from what will become increasingly large swaths of angry, disillusioned working class people we could otherwise win over to our ideas.
Democratic misleadership has real, material consequences in peoples’ lives and in their consciousness. People who deeply mistrust the Democrats are not merely a handful of “ultralefts” who we can dismiss from our movement. This attitude, which unfortunately is the undertone of CPN’s position, will spell failure for the left.
Does Running Independent Confine Us to the Sidelines?
Brad correctly points out several obstacles to establishing a viable workers’ ballot line. “Partner organizations” like labor unions will need to be won over. Inactive voters, as well as sections of the Democratic voter base will need to be activated. We will need to be ready to mobilize to defend our democratic rights against suppression and co-optation. These are all serious challenges that should be discussed.
However, pointing out obstacles to doing something is not an argument against doing it. This is especially the case when these obstacles will need to be overcome to build a socialist movement strong enough to win big demands!
Kshama Sawant’s 2019 re-election campaign raised $575,000, more than any city council campaign in Seattle’s history, in grassroots donations with a median donation of $20 and completely independent of ActBlue. We compiled our own voter data to knock on over 225,000 doors and make 200,000 phone calls, without VAN. We registered 1,019 people to vote, drew in over 250 new volunteers, and won the endorsements of twenty unions. Rank-and-file Democratic Party members of the 43rd Legislative District, defying immense pressure and going against “party loyalty,” voted by 70% to become the first LD in Seattle to endorse an independent socialist. This shows that many self-identified Democrats are prepared to support independent fighters, when presented with a viable alternative.
We can’t qualitatively strengthen our movement by basing our strategy on carefully avoiding all obstacles; we need to smash them. Kshama’s political independence has not only helped us win three elections despite millions in corporate cash, but more importantly, it has been instrumental in building the foundation for winning major, precedent-setting victories, like a $15/hr minimum wage and the Amazon Tax, both of which represented major transfers of wealth from the billionaires to working people. Kshama’s office uses grassroots public forums like the People’s Budget Conferences and Tax Amazon Action Conferences to discuss, debate, and decide on priorities and tactics collectively with the broader movement in Seattle. This has offered a model of working class democracy that hardly exists elsewhere, especially within the Democratic Party, and points toward a much-needed alternative to backdoor negotiations and working within the system.
While Brad insists that the Democratic ballot line can be “organized for and won,” Kshama proves that political independence can be organized for and won, and that the struggle this entails builds opportunities for even bigger material gains. What Brad writes off as an unnecessary “herculean feat,” we see as crucial organizing to raise class consciousness and build the fighting capacity of the working class.
Brad argues that candidates who run independent and win “would be alienated symbols, struggling to build power for the working class, serve their constituents, or further the cause of socialism.” This is a truly absurd claim if you look at the highest profile independent socialist elected official in the country.
It is true that Kshama Sawant’s socialist politics have alienated her from the entire political establishment. As we write this, we are fighting against a right wing, undemocratic, billionaire-backed recall campaign. Kshama is alienated because she is backed by and directly accountable to a Marxist organization, because she has a consistent loyalty to the working class in Seattle in opposition to big business, and because she relies exclusively on a movement-building strategy to force demands. These are the exact same reasons why she is successful in building power for the working class and serving her constituents.
Who is Kshama alienated from? Jeff Bezos, who put in $1 million to attempt to buy an Amazon-friendly City Council? The Seattle Police Officers Guild, who despise her for calling out racist murders, actively participating in BLM protests, and continuing to fight for defunding the police by 50%? The handful of union leaders who turned against her for lending support to rank-and-file Teamsters opposing the disastrous 2018 UPS contract? In order to build power for the working class, serve your constituents, and further the cause of socialism, you need to alienate yourself from the establishment.
They Need Us, We Don’t Need Them
CPN insists the question of building a mass party is separate from the electoral strategy. We think, as we argued last June, that “the left needs to break with thinking electoral campaigns, social movements, and workplace struggles are disconnected.”
The logic of “Breaking Bad” is backwards. We should not build a party around an electoral tactic, we need to build an electoral tactic based on a new workers’ party. A party whose primary purpose is just to win first-past-the-post elections would do nothing to bring us closer to socialism.
All of history shows that legislating our way to socialism will not be possible. If there is disagreement about this within DSA, it is crucial to discuss and debate this out. In our view, socialism can only be achieved through class struggle and a revolutionary movement. Of course, elections are one tool socialists absolutely should use on the road to building such a movement.
The party socialists need to build can not be reduced to a ballot line. It must be, first and foremost, a party of class struggle. The electoral tactic can only be meaningful if it is combined with demonstrations, community campaigns, and workplace action. We need a mass organization that can be a fighting organ of the working class, that struggles unabashedly for racial justice, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, housing, healthcare, and quality public education for all. A mass party with genuine democratic structures should seek to draw together elements of the left and the workers movement into a common forum for open debate on strategy, and impose real accountability from below on movement leaders both inside and outside elected office.
To do so effectively, such a party would need to have a democratically adopted, unapologetically pro-working class program. Issues like the looming climate catastrophe pose immediate questions about socialist’s priorities, like public ownership of fossil fuel corporations and an immediate transition to renewable energy. A new party must rely on the power of mass protests, community campaigns, and workplace actions to take on the billionaires, corporations and the Democratic Party.
How Much Does the Ballot Line Matter?
Running on the Democratic Party ballot line is one of many choices that indicate a candidate’s willingness to adopt a movement-building strategy, and a boldness to go head-to-head with the establishment. Socialist Alternative has endorsed, knocked doors, and organized phone banks for left-wing candidates running as Democrats, many of them DSA members. However, we always warn candidates and activists that when the time comes to take up movement tactics and fight for bold demands in office, reluctance to enter conflict with “their own party” will be the biggest obstacle standing in the way.
The “party surrogate” model envisions a “caucus” of elected socialists with a common program and strategy, held accountable by meaningful democratic structures. We would like to see this rapidly implemented as it would be an enormous step in the right direction! However, this kind of formation should adopt clear aims to immediately build the foundations for a worker’s party. Otherwise, it will be a failed attempt at glossing over the contradiction between the aims of workers and the fundamental pro-capitalist character of the Democratic Party, a contradiction that will only continue to sharpen.
An outline of the party surrogate model already exists with The Squad, whose primary obstacle to winning their program is the rest of the Democratic Party. Brad constructs an “either/or” situation, where socialists can either create our own separate ballot line and do nothing else, which no serious activists, and certainly not Socialist Alternative, are arguing for, or use a party surrogate model to keep candidates accountable to an organization while they “contest for power with the Democrats.” In reality, neither is currently happening.
Brad asks, If the only purpose of a party is to have a ballot line, why not use the ballot line that’s there? Well, firstly, we obviously disagree that a party is nothing but a ballot line. But beyond that, this logic is an attempt to find shortcuts to win seats in elected office, with a built-in guarantee that the gains from these seats will be extremely limited. Detached neutrality and “agnosticism” is far from harmless when it is used to justify inaction.
If a candidate makes a concession with the ballot line in order to get into office, it’s more likely that when confronted by corporate interests and the party establishment, that candidate will make concessions on programmatic issues in order to stay in office. If the candidate decides to stand up and fight the immense pressure of elected offices under capitalism, they will no longer be able to rely on “their party”, and will need to draw power from the working class itself. Why not do this from the outset?
Who Should Elected Socialists Be Accountable To?
It’s shortsighed to only concern ourselves with getting “our people” in the door, because what happens when you’re through the door? The approach of socialists when in office is an important part of this discussion that CPN completely neglects. They argue that running under the Democratic ballot line can help us win elections. Can it help us build the mass movements necessary to win Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and more?
A key test was the #ForceTheVote campaign which has become a point of controversy on the left and within DSA. Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, probably for the first time, found herself facing significant pressure from below to organize the Squad to withhold their votes confirming Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, in exchange for a floor vote on Medicare for All legislation. AOC pushed back against this demand and premised her approach on mistaken trust in Biden and the Democrats to pass a federal $15/hr minimum wage. This strategy failed miserably. Just yesterday, eight Senate Democrats cast decisive and callous votes against Bernie Sanders’ amendment to include $15/hr minimum wage in the COVID relief bill. There is still leverage the Squad in particular can apply in the coming days to demand the reintroduction of $15, namely a refusal to vote for any aid package that doesn’t include $15, but it remains to be seen whether they have the political courage to do this.
If AOC and the Squad do not take this stand, it will be another unmissable example of how the “inside/outside” strategy creates damaging confusion over who is on our side and who is not – something that bold, combative tactics from the outset could help to clarify.
We cannot afford to develop a condescending attitude toward outraged sections of the working class, in which we use parliamentary expertise and ruling class-influenced “political science” to oppose healthy impulses to fight back. Frustration and impatience within the working class should not surprise us or pose a threat, but drive us to push for more. We should be welcoming the growing mood to fight, using that momentum to point the way forward by making concrete calls to escalate class struggle.
The Democrats and the State: “Contested Terrain”?
Brad and CPN are admirably upbeat about the possibility that the Democratic establishment and the weapons manufacturers, fossil fuel executives, and Big Pharma CEO’s they represent will allow socialists to sneak up behind them and implement a democratically planned economy before they catch wind of it.
In CPN’s analysis of why Bernie lost, Brad seems to draw the pessimistic conclusion that Biden won fair and square, and therefore the movement is not popular enough in people’s consciousness to take steps toward independence. Essentially this blames working class people for Bernie’s defeat. We draw completely different conclusions.
CPN assigns a fixed character to consciousness and “the mindset of the average voter.” Bernie went from being virtually unknown, to drawing crowds of tens of thousands, to becoming the most popular politician in the U.S. – all in the span of a year. Out of the 13 million people who voted for him in the 2016 primaries, a large section without a doubt planned to vote for Clinton until they were presented with an alternative. We can make huge leaps in winning over and mobilizing working people simply by offering a fighting lead.
Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment used every tool in their arsenal to block Bernie because of the threat his enormously popular platform posed to the interests of capitalism. Obama fought harder against Bernie than he did against Trump’s disastrous four years in office. They kicked off the 2020 primary with a failed attempt to rig the Iowa Caucus outright, and refined their strategy from there. The desperate display we saw less than a year ago should decisively put to rest CPN’s delusion in the Democrats having no avenues to block socialists from their ballot line, and it warrants serious reevaluation of the strategy of “realignment” as well.
Brad acknowledges the marginalization aimed at left candidates “long after election day,” and this is an equally important factor. AOC told the New York Times that the hostility toward progressive politics within the Democratic Party has been so severe, she considered quitting politics. Her experience mirrors that of many working class activists, who quit politics altogether when confronted with the toxic, corrupt culture of the Democratic Party. It’s a powerful argument for why we need a new one.
Brad uses former Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke, as his most prominent example of the impotence of the party establishment to control who runs on their ballot line. This is an enormously mistaken reference point for this question. White supremacists and the far right pose far less of a threat to capitalism than a socialist with a movement behind them. In fact at certain points throughout history, capitalism has used the far right and fascism against the left so as to restore “order” and capitalist stability. This should be elementary for socialists.
When socialists say “The Democratic Party is a capitalist party,” which can sound like a tired truism, we need to be clear in our meaning. This is not a statement on the Democratic Party’s branding, but its fundamental, essential, political character and its relationship to capital, both historically and today. In the U.S., the capitalist class has crafted two political tools, the Democratic and Republican parties, both of which it can reliably wield to continue exploiting the majority of society and destroying the planet for profit, under the guise of democracy.
It is concerning when socialists, in the same article in which they cite Marx and Lenin, make the claim that “the ballot line exists not within the apparatus of the Democratic Party itself, but on the contested terrain of the state.” Not one feature of the capitalist state is “contested terrain” that socialists can wield for our aims. This is Marxism 101. The decks are stacked against us, from the ballot access laws, to the courts, to the “special bodies of armed men” of the police and the National Guard. If we are serious about fighting capitalist exploitation, we need to soberly accept this fact.
How Can We Win Socialism?
In closing, Brad envisions an indeterminate point in the future in which socialists will “already be delivering all the material results for the working class that we can through electoral organizing and a parliamentary strategy.”
Running in elections through an independent workers party would provide a key opportunity to spread socialist ideas and build the active ranks of socialist organizers. Most importantly, we can use elected office to expose the limits of reforms within capitalism and advocate for a socialist transformation of society – something inconceivable for a candidate running in the Democratic Party. We believe socialism cannot be won through winning seats and passing laws from on high, but through working class struggle on all fronts. Ultimately, we are fighting for a socialist society with working class ownership of the means of production and a democratically planned economy worldwide. We are eager to pursue this goal alongside our comrades in DSA! Triumphing over this rotten system will take nothing short of a revolution led by the working class, which is the only force in society capable of triumphing over capitalism and building a socialist world. In our view, revolutionary socialism bridges today’s world and a world that genuinely meets the needs of working people. The objective crisis of capitalism, and its material conditions, obligate socialists to take up this task with the utmost urgency. Independent political organization in social movements, in workplace struggles, and in elections is an indispensable tool for advancing progress; it is a central goal that socialists, and our class, can’t afford to surrender.