What campaigns do we need now?

June 3, 2014

I WAS happy to see Bo Elder's letter "Socialists should run as socialists." It was a welcome contribution to what is becoming a rich debate about the possibilities for left politics in the 2014 elections and beyond. However, I did not find his argument to be convincing.

Bo criticizes the decisions of socialists Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones to run for governor and lieutenant governor in New York state on the Green Party ticket. He writes, "There is no reason for socialists to run as Greens."

Bo also questions the decision of the ISO to endorse and support the independent mayoral campaign of Dan Siegel in Oakland, Calif. He asks why Bay Area ISO members have not instead initiated a "socialist campaign for any of the three Oakland City Council or five San Francisco Board of Supervisors seats up for election this November?"

Bo presents the election of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council last fall as the only model of effective socialist electoral practice today. He writes, "Shouldn't the ISO be learning from Socialist Alternative's success?...Let's follow comrade Sawant in wearing the badge of socialist with honor."

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Sawant's success in Seattle did provide confirmation of the viability of the socialist political project, but I think we should pause before adopting that model in every situation without alteration.

Sawant benefited from very favorable circumstances last November. She ran in a citywide race--meaning supporters from around the city could rally behind her campaign--against a Democrat who was discredited in the eyes of a left-leaning electorate. Does Bo know which of the three open Oakland districts would offer remotely similar advantages for a socialist candidate?

Alternatively, Dan Siegel--who is a socialist, formerly active in Students for a Democratic Society, the New American Movement and the Communist Workers Party--is running a campaign that can help strengthen the Oakland left. Siegel is well known as an activist in Oakland, as a lawyer for the family of police-violence victim Alan Blueford, and because of the stand he took against Democratic Mayor Jean Quan's repression of Occupy Oakland.

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Furthermore, Siegel's campaign was an already established initiative before the Oakland ISO endorsed. Under the current circumstances, organizing a separate campaign when the Siegel candidacy for mayor is already prominent would divide the limited resources of the left, including the ISO.

That's not to say a socialist campaign for Oakland City Council might not be a great initiative in other circumstances, by itself or in combination with an independent challenge in the mayor's race. But left electoral campaigns have to be judged concretely by how they contribute to building a broader, more unified left and ongoing independent political organization.

Third party and independent campaigns, even if they are not on a socialist ticket, have a role to play in that project. One of the specific features of the political scene in the U.S. is its near-total domination by two parties of capital, Democrats and Republicans. Any break to the left from these parties by significant layers of the electorate is a development socialists should help facilitate.

Howie Hawkins is a proud socialist, but his most prominent political activity for many years now has been as a leader of the New York Green Party. He and other Greens have done the hard work of establishing a third party ballot line in state elections, including the upcoming governor's race--an election millions of people will participate in.

If Hawkins were to abandon all that and run on a socialist ticket, his campaign would be a much more marginal effort and would reach far fewer people.

However, nobody should have any fears that either Hawkins or Brian Jones, the Green Party candidate for lieutenant governor, will keep quiet about their socialist politics--they are at the heart of their campaign. As Jones said when announcing his intention to seek the Green's candidacy:

For my entire adult life, I have been a socialist. I dream of fundamentally restructuring our society, and I don't plan on giving up that dream or apologizing for it. The ideals of socialism are what guide my actions. To me, that means economic democracy and economic freedom as the foundation of real political democracy and political freedom.

Sounds like he wears "the badge of socialism with honor" to me.

And socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant seems to agree--she recently implored New Yorkers to "completely throw yourselves into" the Hawkins-Jones campaign.
Alex Schmaus, Oakland, Calif.

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