Getting concrete about AOC and the Democrats

July 12, 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 fourth installment has a contribution from Fainan Lakha.

What kind of candidate? What kind of organization?

Fainan Lakha | I want to begin by saying how excited I am by the wellspring of debate that has emerged around the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and which continued through our Socialism 2018 conference in Chicago. It’s a testament to the dynamism of the growing far left in the U.S. today that we are having a rich debate around strategy among a wide layer of Marxists belonging to various socialist groups.

Like many of the comrades who have been inspired by Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, I don’t think it proves that participation in Democratic Party is a necessary next step for the International Socialist Organization.

I do, however, think it sheds light on why such participation might be taken seriously, and also about conditions that might prove more favorable than those of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. Perhaps the most significant thing about this debate is that it is taking place at a time when questions of longer-term strategy are coming more sharply into focus.

A number of comrades have argued persuasively that there are ways that revolutionary socialists can relate to Ocasio-Cortez without directly campaigning for her. Aaron Amaral, Samuel Farber and Charlie Post propose organizing “town meetings” where she could “speak on key issues for the emerging socialist movement,” and Jen Roesch, among many others, has spoken in favor of building the movement to Abolish ICE by organizing similar meetings at which she could speak.

They also lay out what the priorities are for revolutionary socialists: not only putting forward socialist politics on a wide platform, but also deepening socialist organization and movement power.

In relation to the candidate herself, these proposals suggest a way to create a greater means of accountability, something that is sorely lacking due to the way Democratic Party campaigns tend to be structured. They also suggest a longer-term perspective that foregrounds the strength of social movements as a key lever for the building of an independent U.S. socialist party.

To my mind, these proposals are correct for a candidate like Ocasio-Cortez, and this is largely because she is not thoroughly embedded in a political organization. While social movement forces certainly helped propel her to victory, her primary focus seems to have been on advocating progressive positions, rather than on using her platform as a “bully pulpit” (as Jacobin writer Meagan Day has put it) to build an independent socialist movement.

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?

This has its manifestation in Ocasio-Cortez’s political positions. For example, her support for the demand to “Abolish ICE” has proven to be somewhat qualified. Perhaps we would not have perceived this rightward shift so quickly had she been more thoroughly surrounded by socialists, and was herself more unwaveringly committed to the project of building a socialist movement, inside and outside elections.

At the same time, it is important to recognize the impact of social movements on her positions. For example, Ocasio-Cortez has explicitly distanced herself from those who seek a return to Immigration and Naturalization Services.

Of course, the good thing about proposals for active engagement is that they will allow us to see how things play out: If we are able to build movements with her, will it strengthen her political resolve? Will this cause her to move further to left? What will happen if a major social crisis, like a recession, breaks out?

From these questions, we might be able to even better take stock of what has changed in our current conjuncture. Her case will help us to answer the question about whether subjective factors can change the short- to medium-term character of the activity of a socialist working inside the Democratic Party. But given her realignment perspective — one which is cautious even about setting out explicit antagonism against the party establishment — there are clear limits to what she’ll be able to do.

So while Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign seems flawed along similar lines to many progressive challengers, the Julia Salazar campaign for New York State Senate seems a bit more hopeful. Salazar has been a member of the DSA for two years and a co-organizer of the Socialist Feminist working group. As such, she is rooted in a socialist organization that “has played a critical role in this campaign from its inception,” as she said in an interview at Jacobin.

Politically, Salazar is significantly to the left of Ocasio-Cortez. Her Jacobin interview stands out for its clarity and strength.

Salazar states in no equivocal terms that she is fiercely critical of the Democratic Party, that she supports the running of independent candidates, and, even further, that she believes in the need for an independent, socialist party in the future. Above all, her politics are clearly rooted in a commitment to the politics of building working-class power, with socialism as its end goal.

One can situate her, then, on the left wing of the DSA, and as a part of a rising tide of young socialists who have broken from the organization’s traditional strategy of realignment. Broadly speaking, this is a layer of people with whom we have an opportunity to collaborate closely, given the common goals and perspectives we share.

And the stakes of this collaboration are not small: The current moment is one in which the very meaning of socialism is on the table.

If there’s anything our recent experience should tell us, it is that consciousness develops at many paces all at once, and it’s clear that the consciousness of a not-insignificant number of people has moved by leaps and bounds in the last two years. Without a doubt the Sanders campaign has a been a spur for this development, but it is also through political work and discussion, often since joining the DSA, that many have found themselves further radicalized in its wake.

One can imagine, then, the campaign of a candidate, explicitly critical of the Democratic Party and rooted in an organization capable of reflecting on its experience, as a far more hospitable place for the ideas of revolutionary socialists. It might be possible, for example, to go door-knocking and have conversations not only on the policies of specific candidates, but also on the broader questions that ISO comrades often take up during paper sales.

Meanwhile, a campaign space organized by socialists could offer a democratic space for more general discussion of questions pertaining to the campaign, including the development of accountability mechanisms. Some comrades have suggested that this could come out of a critical evaluation of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner’s work.

But, of course, this exploration must be considered within a longer-term perspective. It is my view that there is something deeply persuasive about a discussion of the “dirty break” from the Democratic Party. This is quite simply because it is a genuine attempt to map out a direction for the U.S. left — one that fits in with the general tendencies we’ve experienced in the last few years.

If we aren’t persuaded by this account, I think it behooves us to ask more seriously: What do we think is the most plausible trajectory for the founding of an independent socialist party in the U.S., and how do we propose to get there?

The political terrain is changing in the United States. It is time to think about leaps.

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