By Hart Eagleburger and Jack Rusk
We are reposting here a series of articles originally published in Left Voice on the problems with working within the Democratic Party and the need for a truly independent party for the working class.
I. The Opportunity of the Present Moment (December 19, 2016)
The surprise Republican triumph in the 2016 presidential election was very far from a socialist victory, but presents dangers that are at least more widely recognized than the more insidious campaigns of deportations and war that follow from wins by the Democrats. The yawning gap between a socialist vision and bourgeois electoral aspirations necessitates an immediate and total break with Republicans and, especially, Democrats.
Those that believe the Democrats can be dragged to a working class position are proven wrong not only by the entire history of the party, but by the recent statement of Democrat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who commented that the election results won’t prompt the Democrats to change course. The promotion of “Senator from Wall Street” Chuck Schumer to Senate Minority Leader should give pause to those who expect the Democrats to change their stripes.
Trump’s ability to win with such a small share of the potential U.S. electorate represents a profound rejection of the strategy and platform of the Democrats, and the fact that over 70 percent of eligible voters refused to vote for the only experienced politician in the race constitutes a dramatic protest against the neoliberal economic order as well.
While Trump’s ascension to power is, no doubt, an immediate victory for the right, it was not the favored strategy of capitalists prior to the election, and his opponents outside the capitalist class now have the chance to prove why that was the case. The discrediting of mainstream forces opposing Trump reveals a void of leadership that is ready for a political force with a compelling perspective to fill. Thus the radical left is confronted with its most fruitful opportunity for winning over large segments of the public in recent memory.
The political opening is auspicious for a number of reasons. First, the legendary repulsiveness of Trump’s behavior is shocking to anyone with any semblance of moral principle, and this includes a significant portion of those who voted for him. Second, any attempted implementation of his more extreme social policies would catalyze significant opposition. Third, despite his promises to “drain the swamp” by charting some alternate political course, Trump is filling his administration, in the main, with a cast of swamp-dwellers who are familiar faces in the business, political and military worlds. Trump’s bluster notwithstanding, it is evident that he is not controlling the establishment, but that the establishment is controlling him. Such discrediting associations are already being questioned by his populist following.
Fourth, a looming economic downturn, or even continued stagnation, will shatter any notion that Trump can deliver renewed economic prosperity to large sections of the U.S. In sum, Trump’s administration is set up for failure. His supporters will soon be seeking answers elsewhere.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there are already significant populations that can be immediately won over to a more progressive platform without having to pry them away from Trump. The enormous popularity of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign displayed the enthusiastic ranks ready and willing to break with the neoliberal agenda. Bernie’s support among youth, even segments that were wrongly thought to be comprising Hillary’s impregnable “firewall,” was particularly striking.
The response to a spate of despicable post-election intimidation and harassment directed against racial and religious minorities also demarcates a set of people searching for political solutions. The targeted groups and their concerned allies are mobilizing against any further repression, whether it be by the state or cowardly right-wing vigilantes. All of these layers would likely be receptive to a progressive political appeal.
On the other hand, the Democratic Party has singularly embarrassed itself as an institution for directing public opinion, and was quite rightly abandoned and disparaged by millions. The fact that even greater numbers of potential voters rejected both parties is a very good thing, and the debacle of the Democrats will only solidify workers’ implicit understanding that no capitalist government can reflect their interests. It would be a great mistake to try to convince them otherwise.
The passionate anger of the public with the economic and social system that the Trump and Sanders campaigns tapped has not dissipated. How to focus these resentments into a left-wing force is the burning issue for radicals today. In such circumstances, the question of left political organization rightly comes to the fore. Who will seize this political moment?
The latest issue of Jacobin Magazine features an article by Seth Ackerman containing what he calls a “blueprint” for a new party he hopes will rise to the challenge. While the piece has its merits, ultimately the party and strategy he proposes contribute very little to advancing a progressive, to say nothing of a socialist, vision.
Ackerman’s piece has a promising enough opening. It would be valuable, as he states, “to advance new electoral strategies for an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class,” since the predominant liberal-left strategy of attempting to win victories through the Democratic Party has yielded little fruit over the past decades. (We add, of course, that the activities of “an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class” should certainly not be limited to elections!) But unfortunately, Ackerman ends up endorsing that same left-Democrat strategy, albeit in a circuitous fashion.
Ackerman’s analysis draws on the history of the Labor Party, a party whose mistake, he argues, was to pursue a separate ballot line. However, the Labor Party, not wanting to be a “spoiler” and take votes away from a Democratic candidate and thus increase the likelihood of a Republican victory, only actually ran a candidate on its own ballot line once in a “last-ditch effort near the end of its active life” in South Carolina. But the inability, or unwillingness, of the Labor Party to actually contest elections led many to question the rationale for the social-democratic party’s existence. This “nagging question,” along with the decline of the labor movement generally, sealed the Labor Party’s demise.
It is in his analysis of third-party electoral politics in the U.S. that Ackerman actually has something valuable to say. This discussion, which takes up the bulk of his article, buries the argument that small third parties have any chance at electoral success in the U.S. under present conditions. The barriers that a third party faces in the “uniquely repressive” U.S. electoral system are legion: Democrats and Republicans appear automatically on ballots, whereas third parties “have to overcome a maze of cumbersome legal requirements”; seeking ballot status mandates third parties cede control of internal party matters to hostile state legislatures; after obtaining ballot access third parties need to fend off harassment, legal and otherwise, from mainstream party partisans; etc. (In passing, we note that other critics of Ackerman disagree that these are formidable obstacles to running a third-party candidate.) Ackerman concludes, “We need to realize that our [electoral] situation is more like that facing opposition parties in soft-authoritarian systems, like those of Russia or Singapore.”
Ackerman then launches into a critique of the “prevailing model of progressive political action for decades” of working within the Democratic Party:
[E]lecting individual progressives does little to change the broad dynamics of American politics or American capitalism. In fact, it can create a kind of placebo effect: sustaining the illusion of forward motion while obscuring the fact that neither party is structurally built to reflect working-class interests.
This correct and common-sense (for leftists) observation gives the reader the expectation that Ackerman will be proposing a break with the Democratic Party—reinforced when he rightly criticizes the NGOs (e.g. MoveOn, Our Revolution, etc.) and parties like Working Families Party that effectively march to the tune of the Democratic Party. But, regrettably, this is not the course that Ackerman takes. Instead, with an ironic titular nod to Lenin, Ackerman lays out the meat of his proposal in the last section of his piece, “A Party of a New Type”:
The following is a proposal for such a model: a national political organization that would have chapters at the state and local levels, a binding program, a leadership accountable to its members, and electoral candidates nominated at all levels throughout the country.
As a nationwide organization, it would have a national educational apparatus, recognized leaders and spokespeople at the national level, and its candidates and other activities would come under a single, nationally recognized label. And, of course, all candidates would be required to adhere to the national platform.
But it would avoid the ballot-line trap. Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line.
The ballot line would thus be regarded as a secondary issue. The organization would base its legal right to exist not on the repressive ballot laws, but on the fundamental rights of freedom of association.
Ackerman follows this underwhelming proposal with suggestions for financial-legal wizardry for sustaining such an organization. Finally, he concludes his piece by saying, “A significant part of the labor movement would have to be at [the proposed organization’s] core.”
What are we to make of Ackerman’s blueprint? The contradictions of the proposal with the rest of the article are striking. In the same paragraph, Ackerman talks of avoiding the ballot-line “trap,” but then offers it as a plausible option. The minor-party primary route is suggested, but Ackerman convincingly demonstrated the impotence of third parties earlier. The organization is purportedly going to be carried by the labor movement, but Ackerman correctly pointed out the labor movement has been in secular decline. This organization, at first glance, sounds like an attempt to revive the Labor Party, which would be doomed for the same reasons, according to Ackerman, that the Labor Party failed: inability to decide whether to run on a ballot or not, facing the nigh-insurmountable constraints that the U.S. electoral system imposes on third parties, and the erosion of the organization’s labor movement base.
What, then, is left of Ackerman’s proposal after this dead-end course is ruled out? He admits the possibility of the organization running candidates in major-party primaries. Barring some unforeseen mainstream political realignment, this can only refer to one party: the Democratic Party. Thus we are back at a strategy Ackerman earlier bemoaned. But one wonders what the benefit of Ackerman’s proposed organization would be in implementing this strategy. The organization could not enforce meaningful discipline, since expelling a candidate would not prevent him or her from running on the Democratic ticket. Funding for primaries would make an additional stop at the organization’s bank account, but nevertheless end up in the pockets of Democrats. “Progressive” Democrats face significant pressure to distance themselves from anything like a socialist agenda, but would face no threat of losing the organization’s voters as Ackerman argues, “We’re better off with such politicians in office than without them.” In sum, Ackerman’s pitch to progressives can be condensed as follows: continue voting for and working with Democrats, but add a comforting attempt at deliberative process.
Really, if one wants the Democrats to win, and insists that any political organization ought to make room for Democrats to win elections by remaining on the same ballot line, then it follows that things will be better if the Democratic Party does not collapse as an organization. Many would support the Democratic voting bloc as essentially a necessary evil for protection against Republican excesses and active disenfranchisement. Since a defensive vote for the Democrats can be rationalized as an ethical imperative (i.e. saying it takes privilege to not vote), there is every likelihood that supporting victories for Democrats in critical situations will logically unwind into the ‘progressive Democrat’ position of trying to give the party a chance to win any election possible, including by supporting candidates from the party’s right. With the Democratic establishment as unpopular as it is, enthusiastic leftists are often the only way for it to reconstitute itself, just as has been the pattern since the early days of the Popular Front and community organizing.
If the local branch of the Democrats in a midwestern town is moribund, then left activists could get some sway in local and state politics by reviving the branch, but that would also strengthen the party at all levels. In all likelihood, these kinds of left candidacies would make it very easy for voters to avoid having to make a hard choice to give up on the Democrats, and to continue to identify with them in state and national races. The Democratic Party, as it happens, has habitually used this approach not only to drum up support for unpopular higher level candidates, but to draw idealistic activists into the dead end of Democratic internal politics.
But perhaps most importantly, keeping the Democratic Party alive means preserving the chance for it to succeed as a national political force, and that has always meant keeping the Democrats’ policies viable in the eyes of capitalists. These kinds of compromises happened more than once before, and so long as it matters whether the purported good side of capitalist politics stays alive, it proves necessary to give the better capitalists the means to actually govern. So in fighting the defensive battle against the greater evil, supporters of the Democrats will be politically engaged in promoting the success of their side, and therefore committed to preserving capitalists’ capacity to rule.
It seems Ackerman has not given up on the dream of transforming the Democratic Party into a social-democratic party. Since this vision fundamentally depends on rebuilding the labor movement, one wonders why Ackerman evaded that issue, and left it to the last sentence of his piece to mention that it would be a requirement. It is the sine qua non of social-democracy; all tasks reduce to it.
Why does Ackerman utilize a roundabout argument which denounces Democratic party politics-as-usual before implicitly endorsing it? It is because, on the one hand, he recognizes that the current U.S. electoral system leads to terrible outcomes for workers and the world at large. But on the other hand, all alternative electoral options seem to be closed off. The cruel logic of the two-party system, of “spoilers” and “lesser of two evils,” leaves him no choice but to put on a brave face and cast what will surely be a defeat as bold innovation.
On careful analysis, there is no way to avoid the conclusion that what Ackerman calls a new party is actually a proposal to run largely as a caucus in Democratic primaries. He is forthright in saying that he prefers Democrats to win under many circumstances, but even if this were not said, the strategy unfortunately leads to working for the political success of the Democratic Party. In this, the new Jacobin proposal shares much with attempts at left politics over the past half century, and there is a critical need to go in a different direction now.
Lines of Demarcation
If we do need a new party, or a new organization, that represents the working class, there has to be a clear line which specifies the limits of members’ permissible participation with a bourgeois party such as the Democrats. Traditionally, the socialist answer to this problem has been a simple one: absolutely no collaboration with bourgeois parties. Deviating from this mandate, as in the Popular Front era, merely subsumed working class organizations under the control of bourgeois forces where they were, predictably, deradicalized. Working for the election of a bourgeois candidate is a tried and true way to sap the energy of the left, delay more meaningful struggles, and ultimately demoralize those who had been inspired to join in the political fight. A solution like Ackerman’s will remain highly persuasive until a better alternative is offered and challenges are made to Democratic Party affiliation. This alternative is in fact that of the historical socialist parties, which Ackerman fails to characterize accurately.
Ackerman implies that his proposal reconstructs the approach of parties that have been democratic and socialist, but he makes a major revision which he does not identify. In fact, the socialists of history placed the first and greatest emphasis on the class that their party would represent. If socialists are correct that society is divided by exploitation and oppression into classes with opposed interests, then a party can only effectively represent the interests of either the capitalist class or the working class. Members of the middle class have a chance to make common cause with one class or another, but they must choose. The Democratic party represents such a coalition between capitalists and parts of the upper middle class, but in elections it blackmails workers into supporting it for fear of something worse.
Socialists around the turn of the last century tended to believe that the difference in interests between workers and capitalists was nothing less than a war fought between the destruction of the lives of the working population on one side, and the liberation of the world on the other. This was as true during World War I as it is today. For the working class to have actual influence in politics, it would need its own party. To argue with capitalists within a common party, for example by contesting primaries, would deprive the workers of their real chance to see at least one organization in society represent their interests. Therefore, the independence of the working class was an issue to be taken care of first, without which party democracy would be meaningless.
It may seem extravagant to say that the workers of this country will support a party exclusively for themselves and the shared interests of the international working class, but that was exactly the politics of the workers’ parties that Ackerman admires, and it is already confirmed in the negative by mass rejection of the capitalist parties. That said, Ackerman is right to emphasize that a party should be organized democratically, in permanent contact with its members and accountable to them, and with a public and binding platform.
Socialists of the past regarded an independent working class party as indispensable, and for good reason. Ackerman contends that we should vote for candidates who are inspiring, and that this creates hope and momentum. Bernie Sanders comes to mind as such a figure. But for socialists, it is not particular candidates who are on the ballot, but the working class as a collective political actor. When workers vote for the socialist party, they are not asserting that they support and have hope in some set of leaders, rather they are voting to register that the working class should have power, and that a certain number of workers have made that their objective. Indeed, the socialist candidates could sometimes be less inspiring members of the party, depending on the circumstance. In a way it is better if we see voting simply as a way to test our strength and show to the working class as a whole that there is a majority of the population who have the interest and capacity for revolution and socialism. This is because voting is not an effective, nor particularly socialist, way to exercise power in a capitalist country.
The capitalist state is a power over and above the population, which represents the power the working class does not have, which is instead wielded by their oppressors. The electoral and political processes, through most of history, have been very good at suppressing the development of the power and interests of the masses. This is why we turn to social movements, but the state is also effective in granting concessions so that the social movement will die, and these concessions can be taken away again.
Nevertheless, the working class in particular has control over the labor needed to keep society going, and in times of crisis has the opportunity to attack and defeat the existing power structure. When people vote, they typically hope that the candidate will use the power of the state in a better way. Unfortunately, this is almost always proven wrong, either because of deception or failure. Voting for Trump, or Clinton, or Sanders, or Stein, exercises only a tiny amount of power, but it does express an intention to test out whether the candidate will use the power of the state somewhat more favorably. In this sense, it is an alienation of one’s political intentions and consciousness, that ratifies another person holding power that we do not hold.
Generally speaking, putatively socialist parties in office have helped the working class much less than they promised. Also, this usually results in disappointed hopes, an electoral reversal, and eventually a new government that sweeps away most of what the socialists enacted. It is even worse when the candidate is not a socialist. The only compensation is that voting for the workers’ party can express confidence in the power of the working class, in addition to any candidates or parliaments. In fact, socialists historically said that they knew they would not be able to rule a capitalist state in the interests of the workers. And they admitted that since socialists could not control capitalism through parliament, it would be a lie to say otherwise, and a betrayal of the voters’ hopes. Again, these are radical ideas, but regrettably they are true. Socialism is a philosophy that says human beings have more power if they are free, treated with dignity, and provided full information.
In honesty, the best we can say is this: an election is important not as a blow against capitalists directly, but as a sign to the rest of the workers of our strength and readiness. Getting an official elected will usually not produce much material good, but it can have a very great effect in allowing us to defend our views, attack the capitalists in argument, disrupt the legislative process and to argue publicly for organizing the working class in the most effective ways available, outside the electoral process. All of these things are important, and make participation in elections worthwhile. But when people conclude that elections and candidates cannot help them, they are more correct than most leftists, and we can only justify our participation in politics if we offer some kind of improvement over abstention. A socialist election campaign would be an improvement, while a socialist running within a party that most people already reject would be a setback.
III. Viewing Bernie Through Rose-Colored Glasses
We need not only rely on analysis to reject Ackerman’s strategy, or wait for some future test of its feasibility before dismissing it, since the Bernie Sanders campaign provides sufficient evidence for how it would play out in practice. We submit that Ackerman’s basic orientation is echoed in a recent statement released by left-wing members within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a big-tent social-democratic political organization in the United States:
We reject the realignment strategy that has guided much of the left’s electoral orientation for decades. We do not, however, call for an immediate and total break from voting for or supporting any Democratic candidate. We all fervently supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, and recognize that he probably would have been a footnote to the campaign if he tried to run as an independent. Voting for Democratic candidates in specific state and local races can be justified in many circumstances.
But if we want to move beyond the cycle of mobilization and retreat that dominates left electoral activity in the US, we have no choice but to build our own political formations and do what all parties do – run candidates for office, particularly in states and localities where competition between Democrats and Republicans is low. Considering the many institutional barriers to effective independent politics, they will also have to launch fights to change ballot access laws and other measures aimed at maintaining the two-party duopoly.
The DSA members’ stance is not far afield from DSA’s official position on elections: “[W]e will continue to support progressives who have a real chance at winning elections, which usually means left-wing Democrats.” The major difference between the two similar approaches seems to be the call to “build our own political formations.” That is, political formations of the kind Ackerman advocates that are independent of the Democratic Party.
But the DSA members’ statement is riven with the same contradictions as Ackerman’s strategy. After defiantly rejecting the Democratic Party politics-as-usual, they declare in the next sentence it might not be so bad after all. They explicitly state voting for Democrats in “specific state and local races” might be permissible, but also mention they all “fervently supported” the Bernie Sanders campaign, notably in neither a state nor local race. It seems that as voters increasingly reject the Democratic establishment, the declared urgency of working within the Party becomes all the more imperative!
The DSA members’ statement is perhaps mistaken in another way — it was precisely Bernie’s refusal to chart an independent political strategy that thwarted any chances he might have had of winning the presidency. Sanders lost to Clinton in the Democratic primary, and at that point endorsed Clinton in the general election as he had previously agreed. Had he taken an alternate course and run as an independent after participating in the Democratic primary, given he had mobilized considerable national support and resources for his platform, he could have overcome the existing obstacles to third party campaign in all but, perhaps, a handful of states. Is it so difficult to believe that Sanders, the most popular politician in the U.S., would have beat out Trump and “Crooked Hillary,” the two least popular presidential candidates in history, in a contest among the general electorate? Because Bernie is more dedicated to keeping his promises to the Democratic Party than he is to attaining meaningful power, we will never know how this counterfactual would have unfolded.
Despite pretenses to the contrary, Sanders is firmly embedded inside the Democratic Party machine and his relationship to the Democrats explains why his campaign seemingly failed to ever consider such an audacious move. It is an object lesson in how association with the Democratic Party necessarily narrows one’s political horizons and circumscribes one’s strategic acumen.
True to form, Sanders squandered the opportunity to channel his support into a force for working class politics by enthusiastically accepting the offer to be in charge of rebuilding the Democratic Party. Bernie’s choices vindicate those who accused him of being a “sheepdog” during the election, but his post-election behavior underscores the following lesson: once one is inside the Democratic Party, the sheepdogging never really ends. The “Our Revolution” NGO seems like it will turn out to be yet another Democratic Party-aligned body, and much of its erstwhile leadership defected for precisely this reason.
The fear of being a “spoiler” crippled Bernie’s strategy (or, it would have, if he had the integrity to withhold his promise to support the Democratic Party), as it has so many progressive thrusts in the past (e.g. the Labor Party, as Ackerman shows). Until the spoiler hangup is dispelled, it will be a stick the Democrats will wield to cow anyone who threatens to run to their left, and the loyal opposition will be given no choice but capitulation on each occasion.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this mess of Democrats having a de facto veto over all left electoral efforts — a principled position of being pro-spoiler. Indeed, socialists should aim not simply to spoil the Democrats’ electoral chances, but to destroy the Democrats as a political force and, more pointedly, defeat the bourgeois class that the Democratic Party represents.
But as the past several elections have shown, the Democrats have proven quite capable of defeating themselves. Their uninspiring overtures have left them in a position of historic weakness, controlling no branches of national government and only a handful of state governments. The recognition that the neoliberal ideology the Democrats have championed is profoundly resented by the public is causing even some party stalwarts to lose faith. And the underlying economics of neoliberalism mean workers will only gain at the expense of capitalists — and, what is profoundly significant, much of the country now seems to understand that the Democratic Party will always side with the latter.
At this time, it is imperative that socialists encourage mass defection from the Democratic Party, not embark on a misguided mission to reconstitute it on a more progressive basis. Those fleeing the hollowed-out shell of the Democratic Party have recognized, or at least have a nagging intuition about, the limits of what electoral politics can win for the working class. This is an unquestionably positive development, and perpetuating the mythology that the Democrats operate as any kind of effective obstacle to the right will obscure the essential class fracture that divides society.
Moreover, it is impossible for there to be a Corbyn-like insurgency within the Democratic Party, for reasons that Ackerman makes clear: the Democratic Party is not an organization with a meaningful membership, much less a membership that controls the decisions of the leaders democratically. Those that mark D on an election ballot have no opportunity to determine the program or leadership of the party. Those decisions are made by a network of party donors, think tanks, and bureaucratic officials, none of whom champion workers’ interests in the slightest.
Organizationally, the Democrats are very much a party, and one that consistently promotes capitalist politics. The most effective way for Democrats to maintain control over voters is to continue to accommodate ineffectual ‘progressive’ initiatives and caucuses that disavow the actual means to threaten the central managers, which is abandoning the party. The possibility that the doyens who hold the Democratic Party firmly in their grip would turn its future over to an insurgent left-wing current within the party is unthinkable.
We do not take responsibility that a lesser evil should win elections, and neither should socialists generally. The working class has no obligation to attempt to use the Democratic Party as a defense against the right, and its struggle will be stronger without this impediment. Fearing for the defeat of Democrats only demoralizes the social movements, strikes, and civil disobedience that can actually force the state to reckon with the power of the workers and oppressed. Giving the Democrats support, even through outsider campaigns, has only ever given the capitalists confidence to move further to the right. Withdrawing support from the Democrats is more likely to cause them to adopt reforms in a desperate attempt to regain their influence over the working class. And continuing to oppose the Democrats, with improved organizational tools, will maximize the kind of threat they can understand. The capitalists are responsible for what the Democratic Party does and they can nominate reform candidates whenever they choose who would win large majorities, given the progressive sympathies of the electorate.
If the capitalists cannot preserve the legitimacy of either of their parties in their established forms, that is a punishment that is more than deserved. Socialists can either stand alongside workers who have rejected collaboration with capitalist parties, or else they will find themselves to the right of the masses.
Credit Where It’s Due
Before moving on, we would like to thank Seth Ackerman and Jacobin for initiating, in print, the discussion concerning new forms of independent working class organization. We, obviously, have many deep and profound differences with Ackerman’s approach. However, Ackerman’s article does advocate a distinct strategy that is gaining popularity in some circles, and his article’s publication allowed us the opportunity to polemicize against this position. At a time when the masses are increasingly politicized, a clear, candid and sharp discussion of different approaches to left politics is a necessary and essential condition for tempering a stronger socialist movement.
IV. Elections: A Small Piece of Socialist Strategy (January 13, 2017)
As we proceed further, it is worthwhile to review the ground already covered. In the first chapter in the series, we argued that the Democratic Party’s collapse provides an opening for a left political force to fill. In the second chapter, we criticized Seth Ackerman’s proposal for a new organization as inadequate to take advantage of this opportunity. In the third chapter in the series, we highlighted the Bernie Sanders campaign as an example of how “progressive” challenges within the Democratic Party are bound to fail as a strategy to advance working class interests.
Hopefully at this point the reader is persuaded that abandonment of the Democratic Party must be a fundamental axiom of socialist political strategy. However, until this point we have been talking about elections, which are only one piece — and certainly not the most important piece — of the strategic puzzle.
For socialists to formulate an effective strategic orientation, we argue in this article, it is necessary to grasp what the limits of elections are — that is, the maximum gains that could possibly be won via elections. Moreover, socialists must recognize that real power is gained through extra-electoral means; elections are simply a periodic register of the underlying balance of forces. Building up proletarian power is a difficult and complicated task, and will ultimately require a working class political organization — a party — to unify, coordinate and, at times, direct struggles against the bourgeoisie.
The Limitations of Electoral Strategies
Although a social-democratic party is very far from achieving a majority government in the United States, those that advocate such a route ignore the inherent limits to using electoralism for the purpose of advancing a class agenda. In the (unlikely) event of a radical working-class party sweeping into power via election, there is little to guarantee that the bourgeoisie would be inclined to respect the result. On the contrary, the victory could be the signal for the bourgeoisie to brazenly cast aside the democratic system, since it no longer would be serving its intended purpose as a means of exercising ruling class power. The history of Allende’s government in Chile comes to mind as a paradigmatic example, but precedents go back as far as Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup.
Of course, coups are not the bourgeoisie’s preferred means of thwarting working class advances, if only because they are too unpredictable. An investment strike, where capitalists stop hiring and making investments to undermine reform policies, is a preferred tactic, but most ‘socialist’ governments are all too aware of the costs of antagonizing capitalists and strive to avoid it. So the capitalists rarely have to resort to an active investment strike — but they often use aggressive financial tactics to neutralize left wing governments, for example during the recent experience of Syriza in Greece. Because the working class was not effectively mobilized in Greece and throughout the European Union, the social democrats in power could not resist capitalism internationally, and ended up as managers for the same system they were elected to dismantle.
More systematically, capitalists employ well-honed tactics of supporting political factions from center-left to far right, which counter working-class interests at the ballot box and on the streets. Certainly, one manifestation of these efforts is the Democratic Party. But in times of intensified social struggle, the bourgeoisie can be counted on to muster more illiberal forces into the class struggle. One can look to the pre-World War I German bourgeoisie’s financing of ethno-nationalist organizations in the wake of the SPD’s 1912 electoral surge as a case in point, although one can find plenty of examples in the present day. If the rightist groups called upon to combat the working class have retrograde social views — xenophobia, misogyny, racism, etc. — that is a price that the ruling class is more than willing to pay to maintain power. This threat is unfolding as we speak in the United States and throughout Europe, and creates urgent problems of defense for the oppressed.
None of this is to say that running candidates in elections is itself valueless or misguided. Indeed, we do advocate using elections, as socialists historically have, as part of a larger strategy to advance working class power. We simply counsel a realistic appraisal of the limitations of electoral mechanisms, and of the power of the ruling class. But we also urge an emphasis on extra-electoral strategies, since this is where the power of the working class truly resides.
How is Real Power Built?
Real power, for the working class, comes from organization and disruption — organization of unions and mass organization to bring the class into confrontations with the capitalists, and disruption to force the capitalists to make space for the working class organizations, if only for a time. We’ve seen how an elected anti-capitalist government without an organized working class will be overthrown by the state apparatus, undermined by right wing extremism and, in all events, discredited by its own weakness in the face of the capitalist world economy. A social democratic party that does not recognize the weakness of its position once in government is a danger to the working class, through incompetence if not betrayal.
It can be argued that voters in the US and around the world are as apt to vote against capitalists and against capitalism as at any point in the past 100 years. On the other hand, it can be well argued that the working class is at its weakest point in terms of organizational power, within that century and even longer. How did a willingness to be radical in national politics become so separate from the ability to act radically anywhere except at the ballot box?
On many occasions it has been suggested that bringing together the unions into a broad-based Labor Party is a good way to get an independent working class party, but unfortunately this kind of effort almost always gives control to the more conservative part of the labor bureaucracy. The continuing problem with the Labor Party idea, since the Second World War, is that it is inconceivable that the highly-paid officers of labor unions would be at all supportive of a break with the Democratic establishment, let alone the party. The labor unions’ bureaucratic chieftains have spent decades undermining the self-organization of the working class to maintain cooperation with the Democrats and capitalists; not to expect further sabotage (so long as they remain in office) would be criminally naive. Really, union bureaucrats can be expected to fight against a socialist or labor party quite openly. It would be nice to think that these powerful organizations could come to our side if given the right avenue, but that ignores the political problems that put the labor movement in its present desperate situation. Before the unions will ever support a socialist party, as they should, we will have to overthrow the existing bureaucracy and put in place working members with socialist politics. And this indicates for us a more comprehensive working class strategy than just a new way of contesting elections, but ultimately more powerful.
Winning socialism entails much more than persuading voters to hate capitalism; it requires building up the power of a class that can actually defeat the capitalists. Capitalists never stop attacking workers’ organizations and unions, even when these agree to support capitalist parties, as the labor bureaucrats have done for the Democrats. Capitalist unity is ensured not just by their control of the government and two parties, but by the financial and labor markets.
For workers, on the other hand, unity is the exception. A strike directly harms one capitalist firm, but strikes now routinely fail in isolation. A wave of strikes places many capitalists in jeopardy and gives other workers confidence, and a mass political strike across an entire city or country gives cover for many local strikes to succeed on economic grounds, and reinforce thereby workers’ organization. Capitalists are so strong that often we see very little progress until a sudden breakthrough, but a political vision is needed to take advantage of those opportunities.
(Workers’ unity is additionally difficult because the capitalist state seeks to outlaw any action that would undermine bourgeois power. The clear implication is that any attempt to build socialist organization on a mass scale must not confine itself to legal tactics. This is not a call for a reckless and irresponsible rush into illegality for its own sake, much less a summons to terrorism, a tactic which the socialist movement has always explicitly repudiated. Rather, it is simply a recognition that the most effective socialist tactics — wildcat strikes, solidarity strikes, some forms of speech and assembly — are illegal, and not to consider them strategically would be to confine the movement to impotent advocacy efforts. Really, socialists can expect pushback from the state even for expressly legal activity, since the state is all too aware of the threat they pose.)
Socialists have been fighting capitalists long enough, by now, to learn that the working class makes substantial gains when strong militant organization down to the level of the workplace has been united with political opposition to the capitalists as a class. The two develop together. That is one reason we need a party — it is a big risk to go on strike, or join a demonstration that could lead to arrest, and most people will not do it unless they see that it has a chance of victory. And for that chance of victory to be believable, we need an organization to guard against political concessions as well as personal corruption, to find out what works and to correct itself when tactics fail, and to overcome prejudices and nationalism among the workers, which is to say a socialist party.
The Price of a Compromise Position on Elections
Elections should, we submit, be only a small part of socialist strategy. The main focus of a socialist group should be on extra-electoral matters, of which elections are merely a barometer. Taking the opposite tack is ill-advised because socialist candidates can not meaningfully influence the behavior of a capitalist state through parliament. (In many areas, such as the United States, the prospect of a socialist victory in the legislature is also unlikely at the current moment.) Moreover, participation in the election campaign of candidate from a bourgeois party — as Ackerman and the Democratic Socialists of America sometimes urge — saps valuable resources from a socialist organization and, in the worst case, can lead to an effective lobotomy or even dissolution of the group.
There exist historical precedents that serve as warnings to those who would advocate electoral collaboration with a bourgeois party. Two examples come to mind: the Communist Party USA in the thirties and the New Communist Movement in the eighties. Both entered into a coalition with a certain faction of the Democratic Party — FDR in the former and Jesse Jackson in the latter — and neither recovered the organizational independence nor vitality that they once displayed. In agreeing to a multi-class alliance with the bourgeoisie, these leftist formations found themselves inevitably dominated by the capitalists. There is no reason to believe an attempt at a multi-class grouping today would yield a different result.
Those on the left who, contrary to our position, advocate devoting socialist resources to bourgeois electoral campaigns often contrast the so-called “purity” of positions such as ours to the necessity of a hard-nosed realism of working within the bourgeois apparatus in a time of left weakness. However, the framing of this debate as purity versus realism is miscast. The true terms of debate are survival of independent socialist organizations on the one hand and, on the other, being drawn into a black hole of bureaucratism — most likely, inside the Democratic Party and its affiliates — from which the left will never escape. Only in the former does the left have any chance of growing or, indeed, exercising any discernible influence at all. How can compromise with the working class’ enemies sincerely be called realism? It smells more like surrender.
Thus, the correct position on elections, however small elections might feature in a socialist strategy, is essential. Without organizational independence, including in elections, the left will be suffocated by the capitalists in a smothering embrace. If we belabor this point, it is only because many on the left seem all too eager to repeat the mistakes of the past.
If Marx was right, it will not be a socialist party that defeats capitalism, but the working class of the whole world — the party is simply a vehicle to support that effort. Socialist parties should treat their primary functions as the non-electoral ones, including keeping social movements and unions honest, coordinated and effective. Union organization, socialist education, electoral campaigns, demonstrations, and defense against attacks by the right are all interdependent because the cumulative power of working class organization in all these areas is what makes success possible.
Because we are talking about accumulating power for the working class, we are also talking about breaking down the power of the capitalists to resist the working class. This is why it is insufficient to launch an anti-capitalist movement, or an insurgency within a capitalist party, but we actually need to have working class independence to be successful. And because working class independence is difficult to maintain within capitalist society, it only ever survives when the working class has a socialist party to give structure, and democratic decision-making, to the many areas of struggle.
And so, we absolutely need a new party, and it can be socialist only by being working class first — a party that is not just against capitalist policies or even capitalism as an economic system, but that is for the workers exercising power from the workplaces on up, so that as a class it is actually in a position to defeat the capitalists as a class. Class independence can seem to be a vague principle if it is separated from its content, which is the struggle to weaken the capitalists, all factions included, by strengthening the working class in its ability to act and its consciousness. The past hundred years have taught us an immense amount about the real sources of oppositional power in society — mass movements, struggle in the workplace, extra-electoral strategy, as well as the potential and limits of electoralism and the quest for reforms — hard-won lessons we cannot afford to ignore. Once the working class is mobilized against the capitalists, this effort can then be best organized through a party structure. Indeed, there will likely be multiple party structures competing for the support of the working class, and we would argue that the only credible party would be democratic in its practices and revolutionary in its intent.
And so, we absolutely need a new party, and it can be socialist only by being working class first
But in any case, socialists who reject the Democrats, or can at least see that the working class is advancing through its rejection of the Democrats, share the common imperative of fighting against efforts to rejoin or improve the Democratic Party, and to argue against this strategy to every worker or socialist we encounter politically.
The main work of rebuilding confidence in working class independence will come through organizing class power, in particular by defending against the attacks of the state on immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBTQ, Blacks, Latinos, indigenous and all the oppressed, resisting the police state in the cities and organizing workplaces for unionization and strikes. We will be attacked unexpectedly, and without sufficient preparation, but we will also find our strength growing more rapidly and decisively than we could anticipate. This strength, in the U.S. and internationally, cannot be squandered on bourgeois electoral politics once again. Any time lost now will mean lives lost in more ways than one, so we cannot miss this opportunity to strike the Democratic party at its weak points, before it can regain its footing.
The Immediate Tasks
In the next two years, intense, institutionalized efforts will be directed at two related courses of action. The first, and most obvious, will be an effort to shore up the Democratic Party as a means of resisting Trump and the Republicans, first by opposition in Congress and at the local level, and then by attempting to win the 2018 election for the Democrats. The second, related effort will be an attempt to draw the Democratic Party to the left during this time, by promoting figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison. This second strategy, which Jacobin and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) support, entails also working on the first front, getting the Democrats a win in 2018 or 2020, because the future viability of the Democratic Party will be crucial to using it as a tool for ‘progressives’ against Trump and the Republicans who may follow.
And it seems reasonable to suppose that resistance to Trump will be intense, with the question being, how can this resistance build the foundations of longer term political strength? We cannot expect to found a party and have it taken seriously within two years, even if elections were the optimal point to resist governmental power, which they are not. We have to look at where resistance is likely to emerge first and build upon those successes. Workers on the job have been in a weak position for decades, with or without unions, and historical experience indicates that it is more likely that strikes and organization will develop as a consequence of mass political mobilizations than before. Unfortunately, unions will not be in a position to take the lead until radicalized members take control of the unions, and that depends on political developments.
In contrast to the unions, the greatest successes in mobilization during the past decade have been the struggles of immigrants, centered around May Day protests in the hundreds of thousands, Occupy, Standing Rock, and struggles against police brutality through Black Lives Matter (referring to the movements, rather than particular organizations). With the incoming administration and its open racism, we can expect both a great need for defense and a powerful response. What will it take to succeed? The Women’s March of January 21st demonstrated support in the millions for a potential organized movement to defend women, support which certainly exists in other areas, but successful and sustained organization will require a unification of different struggles, an escape from the conditions set by Democrats, and ultimately the intervention of labor in an organized fashion. The past decade has shown all too clearly how active resistance to the state can plunge into ineffectual nonprofit work, demoralizing campaigns for Democratic Party saviors, and finally passivity. Will this change if the movements work to shore up the ‘progressive’ wing of the Democrats once again?
At a certain point, any social movement finds that it needs a coherent organization to keep going through the ups and downs of outrage. As long as Democrats and their linked nonprofits sink their cash-laden tentacles into society, they will present a way to organize — that builds up the Democratic Party. But in 2016, we saw that the working class, by a huge margin, no longer had enough confidence in the Democrats to vote for them, because the Obama administration showed that only deportation, police brutality, unemployment, poverty and war would result. It is clear now that the Democrats have zero potential to organize a defense, and trying to fix a party that sabotages social movements at every turn will squander activists’ expended effort, if it doesn’t discourage involvement in the first place.
Nothing will succeed which does not weaken our opponents, the capitalists as represented by the Republicans and the Democrats, supported by the police and the state. The immigration struggle, women’s movement and Black Lives Matter have potential to do precisely this. Yet in capitalist society, the bourgeoisie is strong enough to defeat, repress, or buy off any coalition of opponents except the united working class. We will always be on the defensive against capitalists until workers find a way to use their power in the economy and combine it with their political organizations in the streets.
But as much as these struggles need a unifying organization of the working class, the possibility of a socialist party is, at this time, even more dependent on the growth and success of, for instance, Black Lives Matter and the fight against deportations. A socialist party centered around an electoral strategy rather than the most active struggles would be a political joke that would only fool middle class well-wishers. Even worse, that kind of party would lack the militancy of the most radical sectors of society, those who are fighting now.
(An embodiment of this type of failure is the Green Party, a left-capitalist party that, as its recount efforts have shown, is the last defender of the Democratic Party. The Greens didn’t do themselves any favors in the most recent presidential election by nominating a candidate who could not convincingly shake associations with 9/11 trutherism or anti-vaccination sympathies. Obviously, a support for the authority of science should be at the heart of any socialist agenda. We agree with Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed’s assessment (in their reply to Ackerman in Jacobin) that “[t]he long history of the Green Party’s dilettantish dabbling in national electoral campaigns shows that the results of their approach are essentially zero.” But their more fundamental criticism of the Greens, also ringing true, is that “[m]ulti-class parties are by their nature controlled and subservient to the dominant class.” Any illusion, unfortunately held by some socialists, that the Green Party can serve as an effective conduit for socialist interests should be abandoned. Workers have never held this illusion, and it is retrograde to try to introduce it once again.)
Meanwhile, if the working class as a whole failed to defend those most directly oppressed by the state, it would mean a very large loss of confidence and in actual ability to resist, in addition to devastation for the communities already most oppressed and exploited by capitalism. If the white portion of the working class is not active in this defense, it will be all the harder in the future for them to take the necessary steps to achieve solidarity. The weakness of the working class in the US owes in large part to repeated failures to unify against capitalist drives to impose unequal conditions on different parts of the working class, and all will suffer until this is rectified. Because conditions have reached a disastrous state throughout the country and the world, a failure to unify the working class behind those most directly targeted by the state would likely mean long term harm to future resistance.
If the working class as a whole failed to defend those most directly oppressed by the state, it would mean a very large loss of confidence and in actual ability to resist, in addition to devastation for the communities already most oppressed and exploited by capitalism.
That is why the absolute greatest urgency is now in defense, and why a working class party committed to that defense is not simply one desirable part of a broader left project, but an essential objective if we are to make any further progress. Leftist and socialist schemes that do not recognize this reality discredit themselves. But this is also the reason that a party cannot be created quickly, but has to grow as part of struggles in every city in the country. That means the initial steps to a party organization engaged in and led by the struggles of the oppressed, uniting workers throughout the country, must start immediately.
The First Step Towards A Party: A Convention
Even though the most important work for socialists now is to aid movements that do not yet identify themselves as socialist, and even though we cannot form a revolutionary bloc in time to do this work as a party, there remains a need to organize socialists in preparation for a party and against capitalist parties in the near term. This course of action must be taken for two reasons: first, we need to be able to present workers and activists in movements with an identifiable political entity that is opposed to the Democrats as well as minor capitalist parties like the Greens, advocating working class politics on the basis of revolutionary socialism.
And second, we need to be able to show people who would identify as socialist that a working class party is a credible option, so that in working for socialism they do not end up working for the DSA or other backers of capitalist parties. Depending on their situation and unfolding events, socialists will have different responsibilities in terms of social movements, and more work will be needed before we have the ability to collectively determine which tools are most useful, through the framework of a party. But if we do not work toward the goal of a party and in communication with the work being done around the country, we will not be able to assemble the experience to allow workers to finally succeed in independent struggle.
As such, we feel it is time for a broad discussion of how to present working class socialism as an organizational alternative, and then how to build a party on this basis. We would strongly argue that the only way to succeed will be through a party based on revolutionary Marxism, as exemplified by the left wing of the Second International up to 1914 and the healthy parts of the Third International. Programmatic debates and international questions are important, and should be the subject of serious discussion once we have made a clear stand on the fundamental need for a working class party independent of the capitalists.
Discussions to this effect have already begun on a small scale. However, we argue that they should be broadened, with the possibility of a meeting or conference, for all those interested. In addition to our area of immediate familiarity in New York, we have been able to identify organizations or circles including the Philly Socialists, NJ May 1, Silk City Socialists, the Communist League of Tampa, the Red Party, the Communist Labor Party in the Northwest, the Austin Socialist Collective, as well as Left Voice, which ought to be involved in these conversations. Hopefully other cities have their own circles that we will soon learn of, as well as interested individuals and members of different organizations.
We, and many of our readers, also have knowledge and experience with various left groups calling for revolution or Marxist politics, that have been established for more than a decade and have various programmatic differences. If they desire a revolutionary working class party, they should work for that goal among the large numbers of people now interested in socialism generally, and within the social movements. Various members of Socialist Alternative recently departed the group because they did not want to become uncritical promoters of the Sanders campaign, and similarly minded people should now be working for a more extensive, independent and democratic organization. We are not calling for a regroupment of the revolutionary vanguard based on uniformity or compromise on programmatic principles. Rather, the point is to organize the discussion of working class socialism as critically distinct from left approaches which do not advocate an independent party. Then we will be able to go into protests and unions with the agenda of building a working class party for social revolution.