The politics socialists need to project

November 14, 2018

Lance Selfa comments on an SW article about socialist strategy after the elections.

TODD CHRETIEN is correct to raise questions about what socialists should do after the 2018 midterm elections (“What’s next for socialists after the elections?”).

However, I think the answers he offers — and his analysis on the way to those answers — fails to provide a clear orientation to revolutionary socialists today. This is important in the wake of the largest swing to the Democrats in the House of Representatives since the midterm immediately following Richard Nixon’s resignation.

The main analytical focus of Todd’s piece is commentary on three articles (here, here and here) reflecting the views of leading members of currents in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) that advocate building an independent socialist party at some future point, meanwhile proposing that socialists today run on the Democratic ballot line.

It’s important to highlight Todd’s selection of interlocutors, because socialists have different views on our way forward. Another current, including elected members of the leadership of DSA and other socialist organizations, eschews building an independent party for “working within an anti-Trump front capable of accomplishing that task [i.e., driving the GOP from power] and, with few exceptions, engaging with the Democratic Party and voting for Democrats to defeat right-wing candidates.”

Image from

Other organizations, like the ISO, reject an orientation on the Democratic Party in favor of an independent left-wing alternative.

Todd quotes Bhaskar Sunkara writing that “the electoral sphere seems to be the most promising place for advancing left politics, at least in the short term.” However, it should be noted that those associated with Socialist Call — one of whose main strategic aims is promoting a 2020 Bernie Sanders presidential run in the Democratic Party — support candidates (like Sanders and U.S. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), who have made very clear that they have no intention of breaking with the Democratic Party to form an independent socialist party.

What kind of left politics are these writers discussing? For the most part, they define left politics around pro-working class demands like Medicare for All, free college or student loan forgiveness.

These are all great demands, but they also are, as Ocasio-Cortez has pointed out, the same as (or akin to) liberal Democratic Party platform planks that date from around the Second World War. That they are considered “radical” or “socialist” today is a testament to just how far to the right the Democratic Party has moved since the 1970s.

I RAISE this because all of the writers discussed consider electoral campaigns in the Democratic Party crucial to developing working-class consciousness — which brings me to Todd’s consideration of Meagan Day’s argument that left-of-center candidates who lose elections can still “win” if they “dedicated their campaigns to articulating and popularizing progressive and democratic-socialist ideas on a mass scale.”

Day’s observation is sound enough, but it should be seen in the totality of the article she wrote. The setup to Day’s point is this: “When the Left runs as the Right and it loses, as [Democratic Indiana U.S. Senator Joe] Donnelly did, that’s a double loss.”

In fact, Day dedicates about half of her article to analyzing Donnelly’s right-wing, and ultimately losing, campaign. Except in mainstream commentary that places the Democratic Party — which would be considered a center-right party in most other capitalist countries — on the mainstream “left,” I don’t think anyone would consider Donnelly to be a representative of the Left.

This is a not a semantic difference. Day’s analysis implies that if Donnelly had campaigned on a social democratic platform, he might have won. Election results didn’t necessarily bear out that hypothesis, as most candidates endorsed by organizations like DSA, Our Revolution and Justice Democrats lost.

This is not necessarily a judgment on the content of the politics involved as it is about the character of the institution that these socialists want to influence.

In fact, the Democrats’ campaign arms and their corporate millions made sure that, in the majority of elections they targeted, the anointed candidates were business-friendly moderates — albeit diverse in terms of gender, race, ethnicity and gender identity — with veterans and Obama administration operatives preferred.

More liberal challengers either lost in Democratic primaries or as nominees in deep “red” districts the Democrats didn’t expect to win. It isn’t just the neoliberal “leadership” of the Democratic Party that is the left’s enemy (Todd’s formulation), but the entire institution.

Todd and the authors he quotes cite the amount of corporate money that went to Democratic candidates, the minimal pro-business policies they stood for and the like. These are indications of just how solid an institution the Democratic Party is. The idea that, with the right program or candidates, the Democratic Party can be a vehicle for left-wing politics misses the crux of the revolutionary socialist case.

The Democratic Party isn’t just a “ballot line,” but a capitalist party (as current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said). Therefore, it cannot act as a chrysalis for a socialist party. It’s just the opposite: its history confirms its ability to incorporate successive generations of radicals into its ranks. (On this, I’d point SW readers to Warren Mar’s honest assessment of one such example.)

The “socialism from below” politics that SW has stood for since its founding has been very clear on this question. That’s why we oppose endorsing or voting for Democrats and Republicans, and why we oppose socialists running as Democrats.

There’s nothing wrong with saying that straight out, rather than soft-pedaling the question with phrases like “there will be plenty of opportunities to test the successes and pitfalls of this strategy in practice.”

The audience for socialist politics today is wide, and it goes far beyond one particular current in a social democratic political formation. If our position isn’t stated clearly from the start of a friendly, respectful debate, then how can we refer to that position in subsequent debates, when events should prove our points? How can we win significant numbers of radicalizing people to a revolutionary socialist position if we haven’t clearly stated it?

THIS BRINGS me to Sunkara’s proposal for socialist caucuses in Congress and state legislatures.

Todd doesn’t comment directly on the utility of Sunkara’s proposal, which, in any event, is something of a hypothetical. But we can, and should, say something about what expectations we should have for self-identified socialists in these positions.

Neal Meyer writes that DSA members like Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib will be “guinea pigs,” testing whether they act as “fighters who use their office to organize and promote class politics.”

This may be true of 2019, but as DSA founding member and historian Maurice Isserman recently pointed out, we actually have a pretty good idea of how DSA members in Congress will act because DSA members Reps. Ron Dellums and Major Owens had long congressional careers:

And now that they are in Congress, both Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez will almost certainly develop broadened political bases largely independent of DSA. Organized labor and liberal advocacy groups will be in their camp now. The Congresswomen may, out of conviction or good will, continue to pay DSA dues, and show up for rallies, fundraisers or other socialist gatherings, as Dellums and Owens did.

But it’s unlikely they’ll have the time or inclination to devote much more in terms of direct involvement...After all, as elected representatives, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez are accountable to a number of different groups that helped elect them, and first and foremost — and rightly so in a democratic system — to the voters of the districts they represent. And as a matter of practicality, DSA currently needs Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez more than either of them need DSA.

TODD DOESN’T comment on what expectations socialists should have for elected representatives like Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib. Instead, he shifts the discussion to the importance of class and social struggle.

While this is certainly crucial, it makes it seem as if the main difference between revolutionary socialists and social democrats is the relative weight each gives to electoral vs. extra-parliamentary politics. This is certainly not what one of the most prominent elected socialists, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, conveys in her recent letter to Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and New York state senator-elect Julia Salazar:

[W]e must recognize that while we agree on many things there is a fundamental difference between Marxism and social democratic politics. Socialist Alternative and I are fighting for a socialist world and recognize capitalism cannot be made to work for the working class. Social democrats hope to create a humane capitalism — a futile mission and fundamental error.

Given that so much of the broad left has invested hopes in the small number of democratic socialist elected officials, this seems like a crucial point that Todd’s article could have made. Sawant also wrote:

Part of the job of elected socialist representatives within a capitalist government is to expose the bankrupt system and its political servants. Your responsibility is not to politician “colleagues” but to the working class and social movements. This means calling out corporate politicians when they sell out, and not creating illusions in them.

Alexandria, it is deeply unfortunate that you have endorsed Andrew Cuomo — a thoroughly rotten representative of the establishment. You should not repeat this error in supporting Nancy Pelosi or any other corporate politician for House Speaker.

Time will tell whether Ocasio-Cortez takes Sawant’s advice. But the fact that she spent weeks before November campaigning for non-socialist Democrats doesn’t inspire much confidence that she will.

FOR DSA elected officials to act like “class warriors dropped behind enemy lines,” Meyer argues (like Sawant), that they can’t “fall for the trap of trying to ‘build trust with their [capitalist-supported] colleagues.’”

Yet DSA member Julia Salazar noted in a recent interview with The Real News that she lent resources from her staff and supporters to help elect non-socialist progressives to “[demonstrate] goodwill and an intention to work together despite some ideological differences, and demonstrate to people that what we really value this is solidarity and are determined to actually work together.”

In the same interview, Salazar cited this lesson for the Democrats following the midterms: “I think that the Democratic Party is going to have to make decisions about whether to continue in many ways, at least the establishment of the party, to capitulate to the center, or whether they are going to be more receptive to the actual base of the party, the majority of registered Democrats and Democratic voters who I think share a more progressive agenda and worldview, who want to support more progressive candidates.

“I really want to see another candidate, whether it’s Bernie Sanders or someone like Bernie Sanders, running as the Democratic nominee in 2020 for president.”

In my mind, this sounds like a plea for an improved, more progressive Democratic Party, rather than a case for the strategic use of the Democratic ballot line to promote independent socialist politics.

If socialists become invested in proposing programs and candidates to make the Democratic Party more progressive or more responsive to its “base,” their stated goal of building an independent socialist alternative to the Democrats becomes a paper pledge that they never really put into practice.

Criticizing these actions and statements of DSA figures is neither sectarian nor unfair. It is about stating clearly what revolutionary socialists have to say in the current political moment.

Debates such as these should not and must not preclude collaboration between the ISO, DSA and other socialists on the key issues of the day — fighting the far right and racism, defending immigrants, building the unions, fighting for women’s liberation, to mention a few. These fights around the key issues will take place “on the ground” within activist networks of solidarity. They will not, by and large, take place around elections.

Further Reading

From the archives