An inevitable graveyard of social movements?

June 23, 2015

SOCIALISTWORKER.ORG HAS rightly taken the position that Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign ultimately works, like previous left primary challenges, to prevent a political alternative independent of the capitalist class. Todd Chretien has correctly argued, further, that Philip Locker and Socialist Alternative are wrong to believe that the Sanders campaign's left co-optation logic can be reversed from within.

But an unanswered question remains: Could a Democratic Party electoral campaign ever incubate the forces that could break with the Party and substantially contribute to working-class political independence?

Lance Selfa's book The Democrats: A Critical History shows the Democrats' role as a cross-class formation that brings the working class on board under ruling-class leadership. At every stage of mass rebellion--the Jeffersonian, populist, New Deal and Great Society periods--the Party domesticated struggle from below and headed off (sometimes just barely) its tendency toward new mass parties free from capitalist control.

Image from

This necessary service to capitalist maintenance and stability works to historical perfection precisely because it does not rely fundamentally on formal party rules and structures. Certainly the Democratic National Committee’s and Convention's procedures rig the game to some degree, but this is far from absolute. Rather, it is the lack of formal structure, the apparently anachronistic and decentralized domination of party affairs by cliques of powerful "notables" (like the Clintons), legislative caucus leaderships, consultants, operatives and wealthy donors that effectively insulates control of the party from its mass working-class base.

Sophisticated and highly evolved traditions of co-optation come to bear, then, within this rigged, but not pre-deciding framework. Gambits to co-opt won't work against the most savvy grassroots movements and leaders unless there is plausible risk on both sides. It wasn't formally or logically impossible for the Rainbow Coalition, Dennis Kucinich's supporters or the 1890s Peoples' Party movement to fight inside the party and split away stronger then they entered. But if any members of these entrist forces harbored such hopes, then they underestimated the overwhelming informal structural obstacles, including their own leaders' intentions.

Readers’ Views welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

FOR THIS reason, the International Socialist Organization builds working-class struggle, including but not limited to electoral work, independent and outside of the party. Working for independence on the inside, with forces less powerful than the easily underestimated material and ideological resources of the ruling class, is a practical guarantee of failure. Todd Chretien, Ashley Smith and others have correctly shown that the Sanders campaign is in no position to mount a challenge that builds independence from inside the party, even if it wanted to. The same is true for Socialist Alternative inside the Sanders campaign.

But given the necessary element of openness to the rigging of the Democratic Party, it cannot be ruled out that sufficiently muscular forces could express themselves through or inside of a campaign by a party candidate leading toward a meaningful independent working-class break some day. This would require bases of strength different from those that the ruling class uses to maintain its overwhelming advantages--money, media and the many sided ideological pressures of life under capitalism.

By relying on the social weight of the working class, a mass movement with the size, politics and confidence to press an agenda for working-class demands and empowerment past all obstacles might possibly seek an electoral outlet, from a position of strength, but without having fully shed illusions in party candidates under all circumstances. Socialists would need to be part of such a hypothetical movement and fighting for class independence to acquire a mass political form through splitting to found a new party.

Some have argued that this possibility was real each and every time a new party leftist has gained momentum. They have been wrong every time, for a very long time. But we must base our (always difficult) counter-argument each time on concrete analysis of the total relation of forces, not on any fictional historical absolute.

So at the most precise level of argument, we should point to the unbroken history of Democratic co-optation and destruction of the workers' drive to political independence not as "proof" that this will always happen, but rather as a formidable historical demonstration of the way a host of formal and informal structures operate through the Party to keep the capitalists "in the saddle" and the workers "under the saddle."
Avery Wear, Lemon Grove, California

Further Reading

From the archives