Can socialists use the Democrats?

August 8, 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 Alan Maass.

Heading In or Heading Out?

Alan Maass | I’m sure that Eric Blanc’s contribution is going to prompt more contributions to the Socialist Worker debate on the Democrats and the left, and I’ll leave readers to get to it. But I wanted to focus on a couple points in response, which I hope will add to the discussion.

First, on principles, strategies and tactics: Eric misleadingly turns Todd Chretien’s (highly qualified) speculation about the possibility of “a socialist-inspired rupture from within the Democratic Party” led by “a future DSA (or DSA-like organization)” into a supposed “acknowledgement” that there are no issues of principle at stake for “revolutionaries” in using the Democratic Party ballot line.

For revolutionary socialists in the International Socialist Organization, though, it is a principle to not support Democratic Party candidates — or at least a conclusion that is directly related to the principle of working class independence, and that is not subject to revision to make a proposed strategy viable.

The ISO has had different strategies regarding U.S. politics and elections over our 40-year history, but they flow from a position summarized in our brief “Where We Stand” statement throughout: “We do not support candidates of capitalist parties like the Democrats or the Republicans.”

This sentence wasn’t carved on a tablet and brought down from the mountain. It represents a distillation of our organization’s understanding of the Marxist principle that the working class movement must be politically independent of the ruling class; our analysis that the two main parties in U.S. politics are both capitalist parties; and the whole historical experience of the left and social movements in relation to the Democratic Party.

Having a sentence in the Where We Stand isn’t a substitute for convincing people of it or anything else, and this is far from the limit of what the ISO has to say about the Democrats, as any tired-eyed reader of SW knows.

But it is a position that is foundational to the ISO’s revolutionary socialist politics — so this isn’t just a matter of changing strategy based on different circumstances.

The short term and the long view

Why does this matter? In an article for the ISO’s internal bulletin (which I hope he’ll update for SW!), Danny Katch made the case for why it’s important to have a framework of principles that have stood the test of time, and which our changing strategies and tactics flow from. “To present our line in purely strategic terms deprives us and our audience of the larger context for understanding our position,” he wrote.

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?

I think that “larger context” needs to be more a part of this discussion. A lot of what has been written seems to me to be confined to an analysis of the last two and a half years, starting from January 2016, when Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign turned out to be hugely popular.

As everyone in this debate has agreed, the Sanders campaign generated enormous enthusiasm for socialism that benefited the whole left — though naturally, the biggest beneficiaries have been those whose vision of socialism and socialist organization is closer (not to say identical) to Sanders’.

But if our analysis is limited to this window of time, it’s possible to assume a political direction and clarity of politics about the growth of socialist sentiment and organization that makes the prospects for the “dirty break” scenario promoted by Eric seem rosier than I think they are.

One of the reasons why the larger context is important is because the left has attempted to organize for its agenda and build its influence, organization and power within the Democratic Party before — and the record is overwhelmingly negative.

When I became a socialist in the 1980s, one of the first political questions I had to confront was the experience of the radicals of the Black freedom struggle — which inspired me to become a socialist — who were drawn into the Democratic Party and were transformed, rather than being the transformers.

It’s important to remember that the Black Democrats had their successes, which were celebrated by the left at the time. The number of Black elected officials soared. The Democrats were forced to make room for Black leaders. Jesse Jackson’s presidential primary campaigns won millions of votes for a left-wing program, and his vision of an alternative to Reaganite America was very compelling.

But the Black officeholders became responsible for administering austerity and repression, and the limits of politics and “activism” for them and the radicals who followed them into electoral activity became the confines of the Democratic Party. The left wasn’t strengthened, but the Democrats were.

For another example of this long-term dynamic, I recommend last week’s Socialist Worker feature by Jen Roesch on the Cynthia Nixon campaign in New York, and especially her analysis of the Working Families Party (WFP), whose “inside outside” strategy has led it toward an existential crisis.

Read the article, but my one-sentence condensation of the WFP’s predicament is this: The hopes of building independent political power have remained hostage to the pressure to continue collaboration with the Democratic Party on subordinate terms.

I’m well aware of the many differences among these examples and the current situation of the DSA and its socialist candidates. I know that many participants in this debate have repeated that “the world has changed,” and so it has — but not entirely, in my opinion. It seems contrary to the socialist approach to discount any previous history.

And the lesson of these past examples is very clear: There is a built-in dynamic for the left operating inside the Democratic Party — of being drawn in, rather than pulling out.

Anyone who wants to “wager on a dirty break” has to be ready to answer the dilemma of the WFP that Jen summarized: “There will never be a time that a break doesn’t come at a considerable short-term cost” — and so the pressure to stay inside gets greater with every success.

Whose socialism?

In describing what he calls the “relatively independent thrust of the new socialist movement” growing inside the Democratic Party, Eric writes that Sanders “called on his supporters to vote for Hillary Clinton, but the DSA chose not to follow his lead.”

That’s debatable. DSA’s National Political Committee released a statement in September 2016 that endorsed a “safe state” approach: DSA should “prioritize...[b]uilding an independent ‘Dump Trump’ movement, primarily in swing states where we have the capacity to make an impact, and; [d]eveloping local multiracial coalitions and campaigns that can build independent socialist organizing capacity and challenge neoliberal, pro-corporate Democrats in November.”

Evidently, around 70 DSA members thought this statement was dubious enough to put their names to another spelling out: “The left is under no obligation to support Hillary Clinton.”

So whether to “follow Sanders’ lead” on Clinton was a disputed question. But let’s look at the more relevant question today of whether Sanders’ goal of transforming the Democratic Party has gained or lost influence.

There can’t be any debate about Sanders’ intentions, which he has expressed clearly: “I think it is not a bad idea to have somebody who says, ‘I understand that. I am an independent...I have had to run against Democrats. But I want you, as independents, to come into the Democratic primaries and transform the Democratic Party.’”

If anything, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s message since her victory has become more stridently pro-Democratic Party than Sanders’. Her speech at the Netroots conference ended with a tribute to the supposed accomplishments of the Democrats:

It’s time to realize that we are the party of King, of Roosevelt, of the ones who went to the moon, who electrified this nation, who accomplished the greatest successes and crown jewels of our society. We created Medicare. We created Social Security...[I]t’s time to own that our party was the one of the Great Society, of the New Deal, of the Civil Rights Act. That’s our party. That’s who we are, and its’ time for us to come home.

Socialists are used to liberal Democrats — that increasingly rare species — swiping credit from the working class and social movements for the most important changes in U.S. society of the past century. But this speech came from the best-known proponent of democratic socialism after Sanders.

And herein lies the problem: Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are undeniably generating enthusiasm for socialism. But it’s a socialism that is defined on particular terms — where using the Democratic Party and attaining political office is the prime vehicle for social change.

Eric writes: “Since Bernie and Ocasio-Cortez’s quest to take back the Democrats from capital won’t succeed, their electoral efforts could very well help lead millions of people to eventually see through bitter experience the need for the formation of an independent party.”

I agree they won’t succeed, but it seems to me unlikely that many people will reach that conclusion — unless they hear a strong and steadfast voice calling for such a party over time. Unless there is an alternative to commit themselves to, people will be pulled further into the Democratic Party, whatever their disappointments.

As a counter to this, Eric quotes Jeremy Gong and Matt Stone among the many new DSA members who see socialism as a revolutionary transformation of society, and who believe the Democrats won’t be a vehicle for socialists. I respect these comrades and their success in using their platform to project a more left-wing view.

There is another test coming, though. Unless a clear alternative to Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez is expressed, their greater influence is bound to pull newly won socialists into their more narrow view of socialism. The need to challenge these ideas starts now.

As for the ISO, because of our historic position on this question, there’s no question about using our voice to advance a revolutionary socialist alternative. To judge from the Socialism 2018 conference, the reach of ISO branches around the country and even the readership of this debate, we have a wider audience than many believe.

In closing, I have to protest Eric’s use of the word “abstention” to describe the ISO’s position of not supporting a Democratic Party candidate. It implies that we are standing on the sidelines.

Say what you want about the ISO, but we are not sideline-standers. Our members stood alongside DSA and many other organizations in confronting the far right last weekend, and that’s only the most recent example of our commitment to organize a united left resistance.

A lot of the contributions to this debate have pointed out the short-term opportunities for socialists in this moment, and they are real and exciting. But Marx and Engels’ advice to socialists 170 years ago was to look beyond the present, too:

[The socialists] fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class, but in the movement of the present they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.

Further Reading

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