What do socialists take into account?

August 10, 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. SocialistWorker.org is hosting a dialogue in our Readers’ Views column. This installment has a contribution from Paul Le Blanc and Steve Leigh.

Political Independence and Critical Support

Paul Le Blanc | The valuable discussion of members and friends of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) on impressive efforts of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) within the Democratic Party stirs recurrent elements in my thinking. I think of those as “truths,” which may be worth restating here. Then I want to share thoughts on what we should do, concluding with one derived from Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder.

For the past 50 years, I have been convinced that the key to building a socialist movement in our country is not electoral. First, we must build mass movements through non-electoral social struggles that defend the interests of workers and the oppressed, with socialists effectively helping to achieve change for the better (commonly called reforms). Second, as part of that, we must carry on effective popular socialist education.

This, combined with the oppression and crises of capitalism, can build mass socialist consciousness. But I agree with what Marx and Engels told us in the Communist Manifesto, that the working class majority ultimately must “win the battle of democracy,” taking political power to initiate a transition to socialism. This means socialist electoral campaigns (and victories) can be an essential part of the chemistry.

Yet U.S. workers and socialists have never consolidated our own effective electoral party. Nor is the Democratic Party something we can “take back.” It wasn’t somehow taken away from us by the rich elites — it has always been one of the two big parties controlled by those elites. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Democrats veered leftward with pro-working class programs and rhetoric in the face of mass labor insurgencies. Franklin D. Roosevelt explained this was done not to move toward socialism but to save capitalism.

As the 1960s flowed into the 1970s, many of us absolutely rejected both major parties, controlled by the exploiters of the working class — Democrats no less than Republicans. That is the position of the ISO as well. There need be neither a “clean break” nor a “dirty break” — we are already outside the Democratic Party.

Participants in this discussion agree the growth of DSA reflects a deepening radicalization within the population of the U.S., yet is also fueled by effective electoral work within the Democratic Party. That appears to be the essence of the strategic perspective of many DSAers.

At a recent Pittsburgh rally, Bernie Sanders, with local DSA electoral winners Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, explained that the recent electoral successes are “only part of what must be done.” The “other part,” each explained, is to wrack up more such electoral successes and take over the Democratic Party, and help it take power. (Lee and Innamorato each stressed, without definition, that they were “democratic socialists,” but I was quite surprised that neither they nor Sanders made reference to building non-electoral social struggles.)

Historical, economic, sociological and other data indicate it is unlikely that the Democratic Party can become a socialist party. It makes little sense for the ISO to consider going into DSA: they represent two different strategic orientations. Nor do I think comrades leaving the ISO to go into DSA are likely to find revolutionary happiness.

It is certainly the case that DSA is politically quite diverse. I think DSA and its diversity are likely to continue to grow for a time. But its project of turning the Democratic Party into a force for socialism may lead to terrible compromises for some and profound frustrations for others. It might fragment, with hard feelings bristling.

But what may happen soon is not what is happening now. The ISO should find ways to work with DSA members, to learn from them and share our own ideas with them. Even while disagreeing, we can certainly all learn from how things play out with their electoral strategy. At the same time, not all DSAers are committed to electoral campaigns alone. We must work together in non-electoral social movements and also in socialist educational efforts.

To repeat a thought advanced earlier in this discussion, we could cooperate with DSAers and other socialists to discuss and help craft an overarching program — involving a set of practical policy proposals — to be implemented in order to transform the United States, similar to the Freedom Budget for All Americans put forward in 1966 by A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr. and others.

Of course, not going into the Democratic Party precludes the ISO from working on DSA primary campaigns. Yet if victorious DSA candidates are running in the general elections, Leninists might consider giving them “critical support” — voting for them as socialists, not as Democrats.

We Shouldn’t Reinforce the Democratic Party’s Power

Steve Leigh | Thanks to Socialist Worker for providing space for a debate on if and how socialists can use the Democratic ballot line.

So far, everyone in the debate has agreed that the Democratic Party is a thoroughly capitalist party. It is funded and controlled at the top by the rich. It has and continues to further the interests of the 1 Percent. It cannot be taken over and turned into a tool of liberation.

The difference is over whether it is desirable or even possible to use the Democratic Party ballot line to further the goal of building a party independent of and to the left of the Democrats.

To answer this question, we need to go back to ideas that Marxists agree on: The top 1 Percent dominates the government for its own interests. All major progressive reforms in U.S. history have been won by mass movements against the system.

When the rich and their political agents feel threatened enough, they sometimes grant reforms that are in the interests of workers and the poor. They are willing to sacrifice some of their economic interests temporarily in order to stabilize their political control and the political system as a whole.

The lesson of this is that we need to promote disruption of the system with strikes, demonstrations, occupations, etc. The more pointed against the system they are and the larger they are, the better.

This is why Karl Marx called for workers to organize independently of the capitalists. The interests of the capitalists and workers are directly opposite. The more profit the bosses make, the less workers get in wages. This applies politically as well. Tax cuts for the rich mean smaller social programs for workers and the poor, etc.

What is sometimes forgotten is that Marx didn’t just call for independent politics by workers. He called for fundamental political opposition of workers to capitalists and their parties and politics.

The basis of his politics was class struggle. Workers should not just politely present their ideas alongside capitalist candidates, but call out and denounce capitalist politicians for their support of elite interests. Ultimately, workers’ revolution and therefore socialism was based on class struggle, not just formal independence.

Independent oppositional political parties can help to build working class movements and make them more effective. By contrast, the Democratic Party has served capitalist interests by being “the graveyard of social movements.” The message of the Democrats has been “ vote for us and we’ll take care your issues.”

The goal in the long run should be to build not just a formally independent party, but one that actually fights for the interests of workers against the interests of the top 1 Percent.

Part of this project is to denounce and oppose the political machinations of the ruling class by both the Republicans and the Democrats. The road to an independent party that actually opposes the interests of the capitalists cannot run through accommodation to either of the two big business parties.

It is understandable that some socialists want to take a short cut. Given the undemocratic nature of the U.S. political system, it is far easier to gain traction in an election as a Democrat than as an independent. It may even be easier to promote socialist ideas in the short term running as a Democrat than as an independent.

However, there is an insoluble contradiction in this approach. Whether comrades ultimately want a “ dirty break” or not, running as a Democrat means giving political support to the Democratic Party.

Running on the Democratic ballot line exerts enormous pressure on the candidate for party loyalty, for support of other Democrats who support the corporate agenda. This suppresses what should be a main goal of any left campaign — denouncing the politics of the capitalists and their whole agenda.

Even if a candidate somehow resists this pressure and runs a Democratic campaign while fully denouncing the Democratic Party, the very fact of their running as a Democrat reinforces the Democratic brand. Most voters will not see the nuances of the “dirty break” strategy. What they will see is that they are being called on to support a Democratic Party candidate.

The material reality of running as a Democrat is more important than the ideas in the head of the candidate. The net effect of running as a Democrat is to strengthen the Democratic Party and weaken the drive for real oppositional independence from capitalist politics.

Throughout history, the Democratic Party has used left wing-sounding campaigns to strengthen itself, from “realignment” in the 1960s to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s to Dennis Kucinich’s campaigns more recently, to Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016.

The purpose of the leaders of these campaigns has been to broaden the base of the party, to reinforce it, to bring in left-wing voters and to undercut the movement for independent politics. The premise of these campaigns is that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Democrats, though the party may need a little tweaking.

Advocates of the “dirty break” will play a similar role whether they want to or not. They will bring in more left-wing voters and win them to the idea that the Democratic Party can be reformed in one way or another. Advocates of the dirty break should not assume that voters will have the same motivation they do, or that voting for them moves voters closer to their understanding of politics.

Whether socialists who run as Democrats want to or not, they are giving the impression that in spite of criticisms, voters should support a party that: supports U.S. imperialism and wars around the world; opposes full rights for immigrants; has imposed and continues to impose austerity on workers and the poor; supports a prison system that disproportionately victimizes Blacks and other people of color; supports the interests of health care insurance companies over patients; defends an energy system based on fossil fuels and global warming; and the list could go on!

One main argument for the dirty break is that it helps build support for socialist ideas and organization. Of course, Bernie’s campaign raised the profile of socialism. Marxists should use this new opening toward socialism to explain their view of socialism.

However, there is also a negative effect to socialists running as Democrats. It confuses people about what socialism really is. Socialism will come through class struggle and ultimately revolution. It will not come through the ballot box. It will certainly not come through modification of a capitalist political party.

Marxists should seek to clarify the meaning of socialism, not further confusion as to what it is and what it will take to bring it about.

The opening for socialist ideas should be seized by Marxists with both hands. We should engage in common struggle with socialists who have a different understanding of socialism than we do. We should build coalitions with anyone who wants Medicare for All, immigrant rights, climate justice, Black liberation, etc.

In the course of participating in common struggle, we should clearly explain our vision of socialism and how to achieve it. To do that, we don’t need to agree with the strategy of running candidates in the Democratic Party. This was shown in 2015-16, when ISO members worked alongside Bernie supporters on issues while explaining why we didn’t support Sanders.

In fact, the condition of using the current opening to socialist ideas to actually advance the cause of socialism is to be absolutely clear that socialism will not come by the ballot box, but through class struggle. We will certainly not build a class struggle socialist movement by seeming to support one of the two main parties of the capitalist class.

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