Independent inside the Democrats?

August 2, 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. is hosting a dialogue in our Readers’ Views column. This installment has a contribution from Nate Moore and from Craig McQuade.

Independence from the Democrats Is the Way to Go

Nate Moore | Open democratic socialist candidates running for office and challenging establishment candidates in the Democratic Party is different from earlier challenges like those of Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and Dennis Kucinich in the early 2000s.

There is the sense that they are doing real damage to the Democratic Party, undermining its monopoly as the only political force to the left of the Republicans. But the question remains: How much damage can these candidates really do if they do not, at the same time, advocate an organizational and political break from the Democratic Party?

In his contribution, Dorian B. poses the following question: “How can we as socialists organize to make sure that the new socialist movement — growing today through and in connection with candidates running in the Democratic Party — evolves to form a new party controlled by workers instead of capitalists? What strategies and tactics can we use to help make sure that happens?”

Dorian offers the following answer: that “we continue to make the argument about the need for independence...but we don’t withhold our support from socialists running as Democrats, because we recognize that they are playing a major role in building socialist organization today (which can potentially help foster conditions for a new party in the future).”

This answer, I believe, is driven by the feeling that somehow revolutionary socialists are missing out on something. We should consider supporting socialist candidates even if they are in the Democratic Party, or we will remain a small organization and become hopeless sectarians.

This feeling is understandable in the current political climate. However, in my opinion, Dorian also overestimates the power that democratic socialist candidates wield. We need to sift through what the real contribution these candidates has been in the current radicalization toward socialism, and at the same time understand what their contribution has not been. I will stick to the example of the Bernie Sanders campaign, as that is the example with which I am most familiar.

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

Robert Wilson
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?

What was the contribution of Bernie Sanders campaign? Sanders popularized the politics of reformist socialism to millions of people in this country. He has provided young people who are radicalizing with a vocabulary of what a democratic socialist vision is and what it wants. We have not seen this in a long time.

What has Sanders’ contribution not been? First of all, he is not the source of the radicalization happening in society. Rather, the origin is a society that produced endless war, Occupy, the Arab Spring, the economic crisis, the health care crisis, student debt, etc.

Dorian acknowledges this when he writes: “[N]one of [the recent success of democratic socialist candidates] would have been possible without the longer-term political radicalization which has pushed millions toward alternative forms of politics and protest.” He continues, “But it is equally true that there would be no socialist organization on a higher scale emerging in the U.S. today had that candidate not run in that party [emphasis in original].”

True. But it is also true that this “socialist organization on a higher scale” is happening despite Sanders, and to his left.

How so? This gets to a second consideration of what Sanders’ contribution has not been. His campaign did not have an organizational perspective that matched his oppositional political stance toward the Democratic Party establishment.

What kind of organizational perspective would that be? A break from the Democratic Party, the party that squashes a democratic socialist vision. After having started a political fire under the feet of the Democratic Party establishment, he simultaneously held over that movement a wet blanket — by supporting Hillary Clinton.

If Sanders had challenged Clinton as an independent following his primary loss, we would have some sort of organizational formation of tens of thousands (if not more) of socialists nationwide won to a perspective that we need to organize independently of the Democratic Party if we want to win our socialist demands.

Instead, what we have is the majority of the democratic socialist movement still hitched to the illusion that we can take over the Democratic Party. Sanders followed the radicalization happening in society from behind (while giving it a kick in the rear), but he didn’t lead it.

“Realignment” and the “dirty break”

This leads to the interesting question of the possibility of socialists implementing a “dirty break” within the Democratic Party — a strategy that suggests socialists enter the party, use it to spread the socialist message and break off from the party with a greater number of forces in order to build an independent party.

This is to be distinguished from the “realignment” strategy which envisions entering the Democratic Party to take it over.

Owen Hill frames the discussion about the “dirty break” this way: “First, the debate between dirty and clean break [that is, only running on independent ballot lines] is not a debate on the grounds of principle. Both strategies, as I understand them, share the principle of independent organization of the working class...[and] we should avoid...thinking we can know a priori whether the dirty break will or will not be successful.”

Does the “dirty break” share the principle of independent organization of the working class? Theoretically, maybe. But practically, this is doubtful. Can we not “know a priori whether the dirty break will or will not be successful?” Owen says we can’t in this passage, but later in his article raises concerns that indicate we can.

The “dirty break” and “realignment” strategies share a common starting point; both take the position that socialists should propagandize for their views from a Democratic Party label and platform, because one can reach more people. The premise here is that this is how political influence is gained and consolidated.

But this creates a problem with the “dirty break” strategy: the deadline for the break will always be delayed because one will always be tempted to sacrifice the break in order to win more propagandizing opportunities. The danger is that the “dirty break” becomes, in practice, a move to win influence in Democratic Party, because that is where “the action is” to influence more people.

The starting point is precisely one that will not make one disposed to ever break with the Democrats. This is particularly true in the current political environment when only a few thousand people are having this conversation.

Owen accounts for what he deems a potential weakness with the dirty-break approach when he poses the following hypotheticals: “Are your candidates prepared to accept the discipline of your organization when the time comes to break? Moving from a theoretical break in the future to an actual break today will involve real costs. We will become ‘spoilers’ in new races. Are socialists and officeholders who represent them prepared to pay that cost?”

Owen also anticipates where the “dirty break” and “realignment” strategies meet when he writes: “a certain kind of ‘realignment realism’ could develop. As the success of the ‘dirty’ and the cost of the ‘break’ rise in tandem, it’s possible that many people may revert to the traditional idea that the left can take over the Democratic Party.”

I agree, and would only add that this is not simply a possibility, but is actually built into the “dirty break” strategy, and is the starting point it shares with the “realignment” strategy.

What kind of step forward?

Sanders and other democratic socialist candidates have given millions of people inspiration, a vocabulary of socialism and a vision of what we need to be fighting for. This is extraordinary, but we shouldn’t feel that if revolutionary socialists are not doing what Sanders and others are doing in the electoral arena, that means we are somehow failing in these interesting political times.

We all understand that most people won’t come to socialist conclusions through conversations with revolutionaries in this political period. Rather, their coming to revolutionary socialism by first passing through Sanders and others is a natural trajectory. We should recognize and embrace that.

Hadas Thier states that there is a contradiction in our approach, but I think this is a misunderstanding.

Hadas says: “Endorsing a candidate who we know cannot, through their election, change the Democratic Party, let alone the system, may be a contradictory position. But so, too, is to argue that we think the election of a candidate represents a step forward for our side, but not one which we will support.”

Let’s look closely at the phrase “step forward.” When we talk about a democratic socialist winning as a “step forward,” we are saying this strictly in the terms that it is reflective of a mood in society that we want to organize with, not that the achievement of office by a democratic socialist itself is a “step forward.”

The eyes of a revolutionary socialist should remain primarily focused on what is happening at the base of society. Everything else (electoral campaigns and political office) is secondary to that primary consideration.

As others in this debate (here and here) have argued, we don’t have to join a campaign in support of a Democrat to make an argument that we need to break from the Democrats. In fact, it is contradictory to do so.

Of course, there is a real concern that we will be passive, criticize campaigns from the outside and offer nothing concrete to push the movements inspired by democratic socialist campaigns forward.

If this is indeed what is happening, then we need to re-evaluate our tactical approach on how to remain both very active in the movement WHILE advocating independence from both corporate parties and their campaigns. Others who have contributed to this debate provide some great concrete examples of how this can be done.

Owen Hill, I believe, rightly concludes that the “clean break” is what we should continue to advocate in the ISO. Paradoxically, the “dirty break” strategy successfully contributing to the building of a third and independent socialist party actually requires a strong commitment to independence from the Democratic Party, something that does not exist on the left today.

This begs the question: When the position of independence from the Democrats on the left becomes strong, why don't we continue doing just that? The “dirty break” is put forward as a way to go from a position of weakness to strength. All indications show that, by design, it will do the opposite.

This is precisely the time that we need to remain independent — so that when millions of people radicalizing see the Democratic Party apparatus attack these new socialist candidates or they are forced to accommodate, we are seen as having called out the Democratic Party itself as part of the problem, and not just the “establishment” Democrats.

This is how we will win people to the politics of revolutionary socialism, our most important task.

It Doesn’t Help to Blur the Lines

Craig McQuade | The history of the U.S. left is filled with examples of how to build left-wing organizations. Unfortunately, the history of the U.S. left is also filled with examples of how to demobilize and defang these organizations.

While the International Socialist Organization has an organizational history that dates back only four decades, and those decades were periods of extremely one-sided class warfare during the neoliberal era, the foundations of our organization were built on the history and lessons of past struggles and experiences.

I’m glad that Socialist Worker has opened its pages so that we can have a full discussion of what these lessons mean for us in our current political environment.

It isn’t particularly shocking to say that there has been a political shift in the recent past. Wherever we date the beginning of this shift, I think it is clear that popular politics have changed dramatically, and also that the 2016 primary season and the election of Trump marked a change in the norms of political discussion.

However, I strongly hesitate at the idea that the Trump era has ushered in a new political terrain in which we need to throw out the old playbook of principles. Indeed, the principle of political independence from both parties of capital seems all the more important now that the temptations of realignment or a “dirty break” present themselves.

The Democratic Party presents a dead end for political independence, regardless of the level of organization that one brings to their strategy. While the left may be embroiled in a debate about the strategy of running inside the Democratic Party, what the public sees is progressive candidates running as Democrats.

This has always been a central pillar of the Democrats strategy of co-optation — it’s why the Democrats have always been tolerant of the party’s left wing. So long as the left wing has a (D) next to the names on the ballot, the party establishment is happy because that (D) builds the Democrats more than any other organization.

Of course, it isn’t enough to say that the way to grow the left isn’t through the Democrats — we have to present a way forward must be presented in its place.

While Todd Chretien’s contribution correctly states that the Communist Party grew during the period of the Popular Front, it is worth noting that this wasn’t across the board. Indeed, the Alabama Communist Party, and the Communist Party in the South in general, bled membership during the period of the Popular Front.

The party had made major inroads in Alabama and the region in the early 1930s because it demonstrated through its activities that it had a radical commitment to racial equality, which put it directly at odds with the liberal establishment in the South at the time. Not only did it talk the talk, but it demonstrated through its commitment to court cases like the Scottsboro Boys and its organization of the Sharecroppers’ Union that it was willing to risk popularity to do what was right.

In the period of the Popular Front, however, the party hemorrhaged membership because it became associated with an exploitative Works Progress Administration. The party instead was flooded with racists and sexists, and people saw no distinguishing reasons to join the CP when its politics appeared from the outside identical to the CIO and liberal organizations.

It was because people moving left could not distinguish between the party and the liberals around the party that liberal organizations grew while the southern CP shrank — despite the hard work and continued commitment of many CP leaders to radical causes in the South.

At a time when people are moving left, we need to be building an organization that offers people something different. We need to build an organization that can demonstrate independently that it has the knowledge and ability to lead in struggle.

It is easy to be politically independent of the Democratic Party when the party is a monolithic block pushing neoliberalism at every turn. It is far more difficult, but far more important, to stand independent of the Democratic Party when the left wing of the party seems to be doing well.

Because we are an organization that looks to history to help us make sense of and understand the present, we know where the left arm of the Democrats will lead the people who look to it for leadership.

It is our task to build an alternative outside the Democrats so that when that eventual disappointment comes, there is an alternative to frustration and disillusionment. That is not always an easy task, and it can sometimes feel like a very lonely task, but it is only through this independence that we can build an alternative path forward.

Further Reading

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