Keeping the goal in mind today

June 24, 2014

ALEX SCHMAUS was right to take issue in his June 3 Readers' View ("What campaigns do we need now?") with Bo Elder's insistence in a previous Readers' View ("Socialists should run as socialsits") that all left-wing electoral efforts must run under the banner of socialism if they are to have any value at all. We agree with Alex that "left electoral campaigns have to be judged concretely by how they contribute to building a broader, more unified left and ongoing independent political organization."

We do think it's worth being even more concrete about what we mean by a "more unified left" and an "independent political organization." These terms are essentially euphemisms for what socialists are really trying to build, which is a working-class political party. We agree with Alex that independent electoral initiatives should be judged on the basis of whether they move us toward that goal.

And to be clear, electoral campaigns can move us toward the goal of a new political party in a number of different ways. Kshama Sawant's victory in Seattle showed how a political campaign could support the economic struggles of low-wage workers, and inspired activists from across the left with the message that--in certain places, at least--the political establishment can be challenged from below. In New York, Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones are using the electoral platform to highlight the struggles of teachers against the testing and privatization mania destroying public education.

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WHAT WE appreciated most of all about the Socialist Worker editorial Bo Elder responded to ("Declaring independence from the 1 Percent") was precisely the way in which it connected the dots between the various left-wing electoral campaigns and placed them in the context of a larger political perspective. We believe that, in general, socialists should refrain from characterizing individual campaigns as "propaganda campaigns" or "opportunities for a protest vote" and seek to explain them as part of a larger, long-term effort to build an enduring political party.

The emphasis should be on the long term, of course. The emergence of an independent working-class political party seems distant at the moment, and it's simply not the case that Kshama Sawant's success can be easily replicated in a hundred other cities. In some cities, certainly, but not everywhere. Indeed, we don't think that the main task for socialists should be to run ourselves ragged by trying to organize a Sawant-style campaign in every city.

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Rather, we think our tasks in relation to electoral work are twofold:

1. To use elections as an opportunity to agitate around the question of building an independent working-class political party. We need to be clearer that this is one of the central goals of socialists in the United States.

This is not the same thing as advocating that activists drop what they're doing and throw themselves into electoral campaigns. It is also not the same thing as expecting thousands of people to suddenly heed the call and join us in building a new party in the short term. Rather, we think socialists should be using agitation around the question of a new political party as a way of attracting the small (but growing) groups of radicalized trade unionists, social movement activists, students and others to existing socialist organizations. It is a way of saying, "This is what we aim to do--we're too small right now, and it would make a real difference if you joined us."

2. We also think socialists should initiate a conversation across the left about what it would take to build such a party. The recent International Socialist Review (ISR) article on the rise of Québec Solidaire is a good example of this, as is the continued interest in the emergence of SYRIZA in Greece.

For our part, we find it fairly unlikely that relatively small groups of socialists, running fairly isolated electoral campaigns will, by themselves, grow into a new party--although they can certainly lay some of the groundwork. The same might be said for the efforts of any one of the small revolutionary socialist groups currently operating in the U.S.

We also doubt that the Green Party is likely to be the vehicle for a lasting working-class break with the Democratic Party, although we are certain that Green activists and campaigns can be an absolutely vital part of the process. More likely, we believe, is that the mass organizations of the working class--trade unions in particular--will play a central role in building a new political party. This is another reason that socialists involved in the labor movement should be arguing about the need for a new party with the best militants in their unions.

Again, it's not that we expect such efforts to quickly produce a break with the Democrats among a large number of important unions. Instead, we should aim to convince important union activists of the need to have a strategy for moving forward labor's struggle in the political arena--and that includes trying to win trade support inside our trade union locals for genuine working class campaigns whenever they arise.
James Illingworth and Jason Netek, Chicago

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