What should independence mean today?

August 14, 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 Nate Moore.

The Vision of an Independent Sanders

Nate Moore | In his article “Wagering on a dirty break,” Eric Blanc makes the case for revolutionaries to consider qualified support for socialists who run on the Democratic Party ballot line. Eric writes:

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.

This argument appears compelling: when one compares the strategy of running on the Democratic Party ballot line and that of complete independence from the Democratic Party, the former has done more to help consolidate and organize the new socialist left than the latter. Why not continue the strategy that Sanders pioneered?

Everyone who has participated in this debate recognizes that the radicalization in society predates Sanders’ presidential run in the Democratic Party. But this is important to reiterate because it is the starting point to understand an underappreciated question in this debate: What would an independent Sanders campaign have been like?

Todd Chretien argues that the conditions for Sanders to run as an independent were ripe: “If Nader, an idiosyncratic figure who was vilified by the Democrats, could win nearly 3 million votes, couldn’t Bernie do as well or better, even while running as an independent? Couldn’t DSA candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jovanka Beckles and Julia Salazar make sustained inroads at the local level running as independents? Of course they could. But here’s the kicker: They probably couldn’t win in the short term.”

This is an important observation: they are running to win an election. Revolutionaries have a different strategy: to use the election to consolidate socialist organization at a grassroots level. So if winning isn't the goal, what are the short and long term benefits of running as an independent?

Had Sanders chosen to break from the Democrats and wage an independent campaign, we would have a movement of tens of thousands, independent of the Democratic Party.

An independent Sanders run would have gone through the fire of having to contend with the liberal “spoiler” argument — that he was taking votes from Hillary Clinton to the benefit of Trump. Tens of thousands of newly radicalized socialists would have been hardened through this experience and ready to make arguments for why we need independence from the other party of capital.

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

Alex Macmillan
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?

Instead, Sanders’ run in the Democratic Party shielded these newly radicalized socialists from having to make this argument. Now we have democratic socialist candidates running in the Democratic Party and pushing the radicalization to the point of crashing up against the walls of that party, but they are not strong enough to break through. Is this a strategy we want to pursue?

Eric observes: “[T]he 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.”

But as revolutionaries we don’t want to simply heighten the contradiction between working-class voters and the Democratic Party leadership. We want to heighten the contradictions between the working class and the Democratic Party as a whole.

I don’t think Eric would disagree with this formulation. He wants to see breaks from the Democrats happen, and is seeking the best path to do that. However, he formulates an eclectic strategy that is problematic from a revolutionary and independent perspective.

Two strategies?

The inherent weaknesses of the “dirty break” strategy have been noted elsewhere in this debate. Because a dirty break from the Democrats is not an immediate proposition, the real question is: What do we do now?

Eric writes: “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.”

The above proposition involves implementing two very different strategies simultaneously. Since the strategies of complete independence from the Democratic Party and supporting socialist candidates in the Democratic Party to build toward an eventual dirty break have fundamentally different starting points on how socialist organization and influence is consolidated, in practice, they will interact not as complementary strategies but as substitutes.

How so? Those supporting a candidate on a Democratic Party line can avoid the spoiler argument. In contrast, those working on independent campaigns cannot. They may even have to make the argument for running against a socialist candidate on the Democratic Party ballot.

We cannot avoid combating the “spoiler” argument. We have to take it head on, and not view the limitations that this argument imposes on third parties as a “problem” with an independence strategy, to use the word Joe Evica does in a recent contribution — but a central propaganda point for any socialist third party campaign on how undemocratic our country is.

Jen Roesch has written an excellent article about how this has played out recently in the New York governor’s election, where the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is supporting Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic primary race when it could be backing the Howie Hawkins campaign from the outset.

Of course, if Nixon wins the primary, the appeal of a “socialist” candidate in the Democratic Party is greater than having to make the difficult defense of the Hawkins campaign — that he is not a “spoiling” the election of a “socialist” candidate. If the Nixon campaign is so tempting for the socialist left, it is easy to see what will happen when candidates are even further to the left than her.

Also, while an independent socialist campaign naturally challenges the Democratic Party and identifies it as part of the problem, can we really imagine a campaign where a socialist running on a Democratic Party ballot line says we need to break from the Democratic Party to build a new workers’ or socialist party every day of the campaign (and, if elected, in office)?

An independent campaign doesn’t have to bend over backward to make this argument. A run on a Democratic ballot line does — if the genuine goal is to not duck the argument.

Because the strategies of independence and supporting socialists on the Democratic Party ballot line are completely different, and even antagonistic, one will be favored over the other.

Unfortunately, the tendency will be to support socialist candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line because that is the easier strategy and deemed — wrongly, I believe — more effective because one can reach more people and supposedly consolidate more influence.

What are the costs of the ballot line?

Eric observes, “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.” I agree with Eric that this is “completely possible,” but the question is: Is this effective?

Even from a propaganda viewpoint, this is doubtful. Craig McQuade and Steve Leigh have convincingly argued that running on the Democratic Party ballot line will strengthen that party. Most will see socialists running as Democrats as socialist support for Democrats.

Of course, the following objection could be raised: Why will our critical support of Democrats necessarily be understood by others as support for the Democratic Party? Why can’t we simply clarify our positions and dissociate ourselves from the Democratic Party when we disagree?

The reality is the capitalist press will broadcast to millions that “socialists are running in the Democratic Party,” which will mean that socialists endorse/support/are Democrats in the eyes of many more people than socialists can talk to. We can certainly clarify our position, but who will be listening? Only those who read our press — thousands of people, not millions.

Following the 1905 revolution, Lenin confronted the following question: Should revolutionaries establish agreements with the liberal capitalist Cadet Party in the elections to the Second Duma? (The Duma was a toothless parliament set up by the monarchy following the revolution).

The Mensheviks, the more moderate wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), supported and established such agreements. However, Lenin, a member of the Bolsheviks, argued against:

[The Cadets] own a press 10 times larger than that of the Social-Democrats [revolutionaries] and the Socialist Revolutionaries [another radical party] put together...The whole Cadet press quotes only those parts of the Menshevik resolutions which refer to [agreements between the Cadets and Mensheviks]; it omits ‘the impotence of the Duma,’ ‘the organization of the forces of the revolution in the Duma’ and other things. The Cadets not only omit these things, they openly rail against them...What does this mean? It means that, whether we like it or not, and in spite of the wishes of the better sort of Mensheviks, political life absorbs their Cadet deeds and rejects their revolutionary phrases.

We can expect the same treatment from our capitalist press — only the effect in the U.S. today is magnified relative to Russia at the turn of the 20th century: Instead of a press that is 10 times stronger, we have a press that is at least a hundred times stronger. The act of a socialist running on the Democratic ballot line will be broadcast, and our revolutionary and independent position will be muffled.

We can’t combat the capitalist media with a nuanced argument — better to remain clear, consistent and independent. After all, the audience we can win to independence right now is in the thousands, not the millions.

Eric makes an interesting observation that helps him to conclude that “wagering on the dirty break” is the way to go. He writes 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.” Accordingly, supporting socialist candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line can help us break out of our isolation, he believes.

What is interesting about Eric’s observation here is that these two things (socialist movement isolation/marginalization and the pulls of the Democratic Party) are presented as two parallel developments in our history. In reality, they are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing phenomena.

The revolutionary socialist left has historically been marginalized and isolated precisely because of the success of the Democratic Party in weaning the broader left and revolutionary left away from independence and struggle against that party. McCarthyism, Stalinism and the failure of Social Democracy to catch on in the U.S. all contributed to this isolation, but the roots of them are all closely associated with the Democratic Party.

Conclusion

We all want our organization to grow in these promising times when socialism is now a mainstream word. Winning the left wing of DSA over to an independence position would be a tremendous boon for our movement. That this necessitates joining campaigns of socialists on the Democratic Party ballot line, though, remains unconvincing.

The left wing of DSA and others will proceed down the bumpy path of trying to use the Democratic Party to build something bigger and independent down the road, no matter what we say here in this debate.

The historical experience of revolutionaries in the U.S. proves that we don’t have to accompany these newly radicalized socialists down this path. It does, however, require that we remain engaged, ready and “on call” when the path proves to be a bruising one — and equipped with a GPS when the ballot line path is removed or diverts them to the well-paved — and dead-end — road of the Democratic Party.

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