What’s the path to working-class power?
How do we bring socialism closer? Do elections help? What else does? Danny Katch, author of Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People, proposes some answers.
THE SURPRISING victories and near-victories of left-wing candidates like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have shattered the myth that Americans have a unique national allergy to socialism — and contributed to the growing conviction among millions of people that we need a radical left to take on Donald Trump and his far-right government.
The excitement surrounding socialist candidates makes it all the more important for us to be clear about what elections under capitalism can and can’t accomplish toward our ultimate project of winning a society liberated from the forces of profit and empire.
Everyone in the “land of the free” is said to have the ability to make a difference by “working on the inside,” and even as an officeholder themselves. Chances are that if you’ve ever given a half-decent speech at a rally, someone afterward told you that you really ought to consider running for office.
Marxists have traditionally offered different advice — above all, keep organizing those rallies — because we believe capitalism so limits democracy in order to maintain the wealth and power of the 1 Percent that our most effective way to challenge them is through our collective power in strikes and protests.
This isn’t an abstract theory. The most important changes in this country’s history — from ending slavery to expanding voting rights to establishing unions to winning marriage equality, to name a few — were powered entirely or primarily outside the electoral arena.
None of this is to say that socialists should steer clear of all elections — Marxists since Marx have been involved in running candidates as a way to popularize their ideas to a broader audience.
But it does mean that we should understand — and publicly explain — that our conception of the uses and limitations of formal democracy is very different from the dominant ideology of electoralism.
ELECTORALISM IS an ideology in that every day, our most powerful institutions reinforce an idea that goes against so much of our actual experiences — that trillion-dollar behemoths like Amazon or the military-industrial complex are genuinely beholden to the boxes you and I check every few years in our local school gymnasiums.
The ideology is so powerful that during the massive strikes and protests of undocumented immigrant workers in 2006, it was able to win people to the demobilizing slogan “Today we march. Tomorrow we vote!” — despite the obvious fact that most of the marchers were ineligible to vote.
Like most ideologies, electoralism is rammed down our throats most blatantly by the cable news infotainment industry, which gives breathless round-the-clock coverage of every last election, but doesn’t assign a single reporter to cover the labor movement.
It doesn’t take away from the importance of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over a powerful New York Democrat to detect ideology at work in the fact that it has received more national media coverage than all of this spring’s teachers strikes put together.
In other words, a rank-and-file rebellion of well over 100,000 educators — which spanned a half-dozen states, directly impacted millions of students, and in some cases wrested major policy changes from Republican-held statehouses — generated less buzz from the media than a midterm congressional primary election won with less than 16,000 votes.
The disproportionate attention paid to political leaders running in elections is actually an important reason why socialists shouldn’t neglect the electoral arena. But we should take part with a keen awareness that there are reasons why one form of political activity is encouraged so much more than the other.
ACROSS THE world, we are experiencing a process of asymmetrical polarization.
As the old centrist parties fail to address the growing crises of inequality, mass migration and climate change, working- and middle-class people are moving toward more radical politics — which the corporate press dismisses as “populism” — on both the left and right.
But in country after country, official “democracy” is only making room on the reactionary side of the ledger.
In the U.S., Democratic Party leaders stood united against Bernie Sanders’ proposals to revive New Deal liberalism, while Republicans mostly tolerated an erratic racist whose fascist-friendly advisers promised to tear down the global capitalist order.
Globally, the picture is similar. Far-right governments have taken power in Hungary and Poland, but the European Union (EU) and European Central Bank (ECB) reserved their wrath for the people of Greece for daring to elect the left-wing SYRIZA government that committed the sin of promising to fight the country’s crushing debt.
This is a story as old as capitalism. The Nazi Party itself was able to use the structures of liberal democracy to enact its program of racial genocide. But, with the partial exception of social democracies in post-Second World War Europe that were allowed to carry out reform programs as long as they stayed loyal to the U.S. empire, socialists who win elections have generally faced the choice of being overthrown or, like SYRIZA, betraying their supporters and abandoning plans to challenge those who hold real power.
Those betrayals have not only meant a failure to produce reforms, much less socialism. In countries like Italy, where socialists in 2006 joined a center-left government that went on to impose drastic austerity policies, the entire left has been discredited, enabling conservatives and semi-fascists to win mass support among the working population.
IN THIS fundamentally rigged system, socialists need to fight for as much democracy is possible while also understanding that capitalism ultimately runs not on votes, but on class power — and that our side’s power rests in our ability to organize ourselves to shut the system down with strikes and protests, and ultimately to run it ourselves without bosses or profit.
We should also recognize and take advantage of every opportunity presented to us in the electoral arena, without having illusions about how far those openings can be taken without a simultaneous increase in our side’s ability to assert its social power.
It’s a great development, for example, that Sanders has helped to popularize and rally support for a single-payer health care system.
But the job of socialists in the coming years will be to translate that sentiment into a movement of striking health care workers, national mobilizations and local actions. We know we won’t simply vote the massive health insurance industry out of existence.
Far from being cynical about our prospects for winning, socialists emphasize the possibilities of what ordinary people can accomplish — in stark contrast to the deadening “lowest common denominator” logic that nothing can be accomplished until the mythical swing voter is convinced.
It’s become fashionable this month for many in the mainstream media to dismiss the “Abolish ICE” demand popularized both by grassroots struggle and a growing number of political leaders like Ocasio-Cortez because it was “only” supported by 25 percent of voters in a recent poll.
On the contrary, a quarter of the population — and a plurality of Democrats — is a promising potential base of support for building a proudly pro-immigrant pole to compete against hard-right xenophobia and the failed compromises of “comprehensive immigration reform.”
SOME ACTIVISTS argue that there’s no need to counterpose protests and elections, and it is true that each can sometimes complement the other in contributing to a struggle or movement.
But which do socialists place their primary stress on? You either think that capitalist democracy can ultimately work on behalf of the working-class majority, or you don’t — and you choose your strategies accordingly.
The explosive growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is a terrific development for the U.S. left, bringing tens of thousands of people into a socialist organization for the first time in generations.
While a majority of DSA members are newly radicalizing socialists with a range of views, the overall politics of the group is social democratic, with an outlook towards electoral work that Julia Salazar, who is running a very left-wing campaign in the Democratic primary for state senate in New York, explained in a Jacobin interview:
What it means to be a democratic socialist legislator is to push for changes that will have positive material effects in people’s lives, but which also bring us closer to a truly socialist economic system.
This is not how revolutionary socialists believe we will get closer to socialism. And it’s important for revolutionaries to argue our different understanding — particularly because so many new socialists inside and outside DSA may never have heard it.
The new socialist generation hasn’t yet arrived at any firm conclusions. Many simultaneously believe that revolution might be necessary and that The Dig podcast’s Daniel Denvir is right to say that Bernie Sanders “reminded the radical left that the point is to win power and to govern — and that, after years on the margins, we could do so.”
This association of power with governing, and relevance with winning elections, almost inevitably leads socialists to remain in the very Democratic Party they are radicalizing against, because there are no other short-term prospects for gaining “power” through winning office.
Leftists who have supported candidates inside the Democratic Party like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez argue that these campaigns are a unique opportunity for socialists to reach an audience of millions.
There is an important element of truth in this point: the emergence of a self-described socialist wing inside mainstream politics is a powerful challenge to veteran leftists who have grown accustomed, against their will, to old conditions to reconsider their practices.
But at the same time, we have to recognize that there is obviously more about socialism that needs popularizing than Bernie’s platform of Medicare for All and tuition-free college — and not just because it falls far short in areas like empire and migration.
Even more importantly, for revolutionaries, the heart of socialism lies not in a set of demands but in the mass working-class struggles that it will take to win these worthy demands.
One of the main tasks for socialists in the coming years is to figure out how to translate the vast desire for left-wing politics — shown by the success of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, among other signs — into labor struggles, social movements and socialist organizations that can make some of their campaign slogans into a reality.
Electoral campaigns will surely be part of this strategy, but our criteria for that work can’t be based on the illusion of taking power, but building working-class independence from the corporate two-party system.
That approach isn’t sitting on the sidelines. It’s getting more people into the long game.