Socialists, Democrats and the dirty break

August 6, 2018

Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset in a congressional primary election against one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. House has inspired discussion and debate about how this campaign fits into the project of advancing the socialist left. is hosting a dialogue in our Readers’ Views column. This installment has a contribution from Eric Blanc.

Wagering on a Dirty Break

Eric Blanc | In the spirit of comradely discussion that has animated this fruitful debate, I’d like to reply to the questions raised in Todd Chretien’s recent contribution (“Revolutionaries, elections and the Democrats”).

Despite its many insights, Todd’s piece does not prove that the problems of using the Democratic Party ballot line are so decisive that they should prevent revolutionaries from supporting candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and Julia Salazar — even though, as Todd acknowledges, they are “contributing positively to the growth of our common struggle.”

Not a principle

In regards to the potential of a “dirty break” strategy — which okays the use of the Democratic Party ballot line to build up forces toward the creation of an independent workers’ party — Todd writes that he doesn’t discount the potential for such a socialist-induced rupture from within the Democratic Party to happen.

Left: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; right: Democratic leaders in Congress, with Rep. Joe Crowley (at left)

However, in his view, the conditions for the successful deployment of this tactic don’t exist today since this would require stronger working-class struggle and trade unions, as well as “a tightly organized core of thousands of revolutionaries inside a future DSA (or DSA-like organization) consciously committed to such a strategy; and...a significant number of revolutionary socialists who have built up a previously independent base with a strong organization.”

This acknowledgement that revolutionaries can, under certain conditions, effectively use the Democratic Party ballot line constitutes a very significant advance for our collective discussion. From the moment we acknowledge that using the ballot line isn’t a question of principle, but rather of one of tactics and strategy, we can have a productive discussion about if and when it would make sense to adopt this approach.

Furthermore, I agree with Todd that forces don’t currently exist to use the dirty break tactic to immediately found a new mass workers’ party. Given the still relatively low level of struggle and working-class organization, we’re at best years away from such a development.

But the very same organizational weaknesses that Todd points to mean that a clean break tactic also cannot immediately create a viable national independent workers’ party.

So the question for Marxists at present is: If we agree that using the Democratic Party ballot line is not a question of principle, then can this tactic be used by us today to build up class consciousness, labor militancy and the independent forces of the left (including its revolutionary wing)?

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers and contributors are debating the lessons of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in New York. SW’s coverage of the election began with this article:

Alan Maass and Elizabeth Schulte
How far can the left go in the Democratic Party?

Further contributions include:

Dorian B., Jason Farbman and Zach Zill
What can we do with the Democrats?

Alan Maass, Jen Roesch and Paul Le Blanc
Socialists, AOC and the Democratic Party

Aaron Amaral, Samuel Farber, Charlie Post and Shane James
A “socialist movement” in the Democratic Party?

Fainan Lakha
Getting concrete about AOC and the Democrats

Lucy Herschel
The old guideposts matter on new terrain

Owen Hill
What kind of break from the Democrats?

Kyle Brown
Elections and the socialist tradition

Hadas Thier
Independence and the Democratic Party

Todd Chretien
Revolutionaries, elections and the Democrats

Chris Beck
Who will win the Democratic tug of war?

Nate Moore and Craig McQuade
Independent inside the Democrats?

Eric Blanc
Socialists, Democrats and the dirty break

Robert Wilson
Seeing all the opportunities in elections

Alan Maass
Can socialists use the Democrats?

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field
On spoilers and dirty breaks

Paul Le Blanc and Steve Leigh
What do socialists take into account?

Joe Evica
What kind of break are we looking for?

Nate Moore
What should independence mean today?

Eric Blanc
On history and the dirty break

Nate Moore
Precedents for flexibility?

Though I’m open to being convinced otherwise, it seems to me that both historical and recent experience shows that the benefits of a dirty break approach for the labor movement, socialists and revolutionaries outweigh the costs.

Todd makes a compelling case that upholding our current opposition to using the Democratic Party ballot line would allow the ISO to play a “unique” role on the U.S. left.

But differentiating ourselves from left DSAers on this question is not a sufficient basis for adopting a political strategy. The case for a dirty break approach needs to be judged on its own terms — i.e., whether it’s the most viable perspective in the profoundly anti-democratic U.S. electoral context for building the socialist movement and advancing the working class toward a rupture with the Democratic Party.

Class independence

The main argument raised by advocates of a clean break is that trying to use its ballot line is a mistake for socialists because you end up being used by the Democratic Party rather than vice versa. Thus any short-term gains in term of visibility and influence will be outweighed by the immediate and/or long-term tendencies of such campaigns to subordinate our class to a capitalist party.

Along these lines, Todd’s article paints a picture in which candidates like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are becoming absorbed into the Democratic Party, and in turn are leading their followers, notably the DSA (including its left), in the same direction.

Of course, there is a very real danger of this happening, but it’s not inevitable. The situation remains more contradictory and fluid.

Todd minimizes these contradictions when, for example, he writes: “Sanders remains far and away the most influential voice among DSA’s broad membership, and his forthright insistence that socialists must ‘take back’ the Democratic Party holds sway among most.”

While Bernie’s influence within the DSA is clearly very significant, this formulation on its own is one-sided and obscures the relatively independent thrust of the new socialist movement.

For instance, after he lost the primary, Bernie called on his supporters to vote for Hillary Clinton, but the DSA chose not to follow his lead. This important act showed in practice that supporting one candidate on the Democratic Party ballot line did not automatically lead organized socialists to support the dead-end of “lesser evilism” — despite Bernie’s official endorsement of Clinton.

And while the average paper DSA member might be a “Berniecrat,” a large percent of its local and national cadre (maybe even a majority) are openly opposed to the realignment strategy of “taking back” the Democratic Party. To quote a recent piece co-written by Jeremy Gong, a member of the DSA’s National Political Committee:

The Democratic Party, based as it is in the interests of capital and capitalism, will not be transformed into an independent workers’ party — let alone a vehicle of working-class revolution...This [recent] interest in building an alternative politics will, in many cases, emerge within the confines of Democratic Party, as it has with Ocasio-Cortez. But, properly organized, these political movements can and will challenge the two-party corporate stranglehold on U.S. electoral politics.

If we look only at the individual stances of Bernie or Ocasio-Cortez, it could be easy to conclude that the general trajectory of these recent socialist campaigns is absorption into the Democratic Party. But if we look at the totality of these processes, it becomes obvious that there are crucial countervailing tendencies at work.

Since Bernie and Ocasio-Cortez’s quest to take back the Democrats from capital won’t succeed, their electoral efforts could very well help lead millions of people to eventually see through bitter experience the need for the formation of an independent party. It’s far from clear that revolutionaries will be better placed to deepen the positive processes of these campaigns, and combat their problematic limitations, by abstaining from them.

Though Todd acknowledges that the primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “spurred interest in socialist ideas,” he questions whether it constitutes a win for independent working-class politics.

Todd and others are completely right to criticize Ocasio-Cortez’s real political limitations — and it’s entirely conceivable (perhaps even likely) that she will continue to get pulled to the center by the structures and pressures of the Democratic Party, not to mention the capitalist state.

But in terms of advancing working-class independence, I’m not convinced that Ocasio-Cortez’s problematic stance on the Democratic Party and her personal trajectory outweighs the enormous impact that her campaign, like Bernie’s before it, has had on advancing class politics, spreading socialist ideas and building independent left organization.

The question of the ballot line and the related pressures of the Democratic Party structure is important. I agree with Todd that running as a Democrat does put very real pressures upon candidates (and their organized supporters) to bend to ruling-class interests.

But the ballot line is not necessarily the determining criteria for whether revolutionary socialists should support a candidate. Class independence isn’t just a question of relating to the Democratic Party. It’s also everything else: popularizing class politics, building independent socialist organizations, and rebuilding a militant labor movement.

Todd points to the writings of Seth Ackerman to criticize a “strategy that prioritizes winning races,” which Todd claims is a conception of “socialism that is heavily inflected with electoralism.”

But this elides the fact that the main argument of left DSAers for running winnable socialist campaigns is not that they can leverage their positions within the state to push through progressive legislation. As Jeremy Gong and Matt Stone write, “Even with more socialists in office, the nature of the capitalist state drastically limits what is possible without massive upheavals of working-class militancy from below.”

Their argument is simply that since running potentially winnable candidacies gains much more public support, these types of campaigns are particularly successful at disseminating socialist ideas and helping build up independent left and labor organizing.

I’d add that the longstanding problem of the U.S. socialist movement’s isolation and marginalization is certainly no less of a problem than electoralism and the pulls of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, Marxists all too often only emphasize the dangers of the latter.

Symbolic electoral campaigns that don’t have a credible chance of winning are sometimes the best we can do, but they haven’t done much in recent memory to help build up the independent organization or confidence of our class.

The contrast with the recent socialist campaigns is striking: Bernie’s campaign helped massively build up independent socialist organization, and it played a critical role in inspiring the first strike wave in 40 years.

I would argue that the question of rebuilding a militant labor movement and a strong left are the most important priorities at this moment, because without these, you’re not going to be able to get to a point where a real break, dirty or otherwise, is going to happen from the Democrats on a mass scale.

And while independent socialist candidacies might be less likely to succumb to outside pressures, without a strong left and a militant labor movement, it will continue to be a challenge to hold any of our elected candidates accountable, whether they run as independents or on the Democratic Party ballot. Even independently elected socialists today will be subjected to intense pressures to bend in the face of the capitalist state and the economic weight of capital.

Crucially, supporting candidacies like Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie or Julia Salazar does not mean that revolutionary socialists have to take responsibility for, or agree with, all of their stances. If candidates support a bad policy, we should criticize this stance.

Experience has shown that it’s completely possible for revolutionaries to support insurgent candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line while simultaneously openly rejecting realignment, denouncing the Democratic Party and calling for the eventual formation of a mass workers’ party.

We’ll be in a minority at first, but that’s often the case for us in mass political struggles — and we know how to swim against the tide. Though it’s certainly possible to put forward our arguments in other social movements and within independent socialist campaigns, it seems unlikely that revolutionaries will be able to most effectively grow our forces — and fight against the co-optation of the nascent socialist resurgence — if we abstain from key electoral battles where millions of people are currently radicalizing.

Supporting the dirty break strategy, furthermore, in no way prevents socialists today from implementing the urgent task of running and supporting winnable independent socialist (or labor) candidacies on a local level.

Socialists today can and should take bold local initiatives to demonstrate the viability of independent candidacies beyond the Democratic Party line. But there’s no need to counterpose building these campaigns and supporting candidates like Bernie, AOC, or Julia Salazar — in fact, a viable dirty break strategy requires seeking every opportunity possible to build up completely independent electoral campaigns and formations.

Taken as a whole, both types of campaigns could fulfill the criteria that we should use when judging whether or not to support an electoral campaign: 1) Does it advance the working class? and; 2) Does it advance socialism?

By pointing to the example of the Communist Party’s Popular Front strategy in the 1930s, Todd is right to note that these two criteria don’t always go hand in hand. It’s sometimes possible to build your socialist organization by supporting campaigns that hurt or block the broader working-class movement.

But an analogy between the current campaigns and the Popular Front is overdrawn. The tragic subordination of the militant workers’ movement to the Democratic Party in the 1930s did not come about because socialists mistakenly attempted to use the Democratic Party ballot line.

Rather the CIO trade union bureaucracy was directly tied to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, and it consciously fought to channel the mass movement into supporting President Roosevelt and the Democrats. The Communist Party became an appendage of this dynamic not because of a dirty break approach, but because Moscow imposed an openly class-collaborationist Popular Front strategy on the U.S. party from 1936 onwards.

But today’s insurgent candidacies are decidedly not backed by a wing of the capitalist class, the Democratic Party establishment nor its proxies in the labor bureaucracy. In this sense, the general trajectory of the recent candidacies is more similar to the various ballot line campaigns that culminated in the formation of the most successful labor party in U.S. history, Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party.

Though some people today may be more excited about the project of “taking back” the Democrats then prior to Bernie’s run, the main impact of the socialist insurgencies has so far been to heighten the contradictions between the working-class voters of the Democratic Party and its corporate leadership.

Rather than dampen strikes and undercut anti-racism (as was the case with the Communist Party’s Popular Frontism in the 1930s), these recent campaigns have helped spark a massive strike wave and have served to transform “Abolish ICE” into a mainstream demand.

Of course, under pressure from above, this insurgent dynamic could very well change in the future — at which point revolutionaries would have to re-evaluate our relationship to such campaigns. Marxist strategy should be sufficiently flexible to support positive candidacies for our class today without obliging ourselves to support negative candidacies tomorrow.

To sum up: Using the Democratic Party ballot line certainly presents dangers for socialists. The key question, however, is: Are these stronger than the dangers and pressures of abstaining from these campaigns?

Unfortunately, there are no ready-made formulas to answer this. The art of revolutionary politics consists of wagering on the most effective path forward given our analysis of history and the current conjuncture. In my view, the recent and past experience of our class is sufficient to wager on a dirty break.

Further Reading

From the archives