Independence and the Democratic Party
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 installment has a contribution from Hadas Thier.
New Conditions Give Rise to New Opportunities
Hadas Thier | Thank you to Socialist Worker, the Socialism 2018 conference, Jacobin and other outlets which have helped to facilitate a very important debate about the relationship between socialists, elections and the Democratic Party. It’s critical that we learn from each other in order to deepen our theoretical and practical understanding.
Frankly, the stakes are high on both ends of the debate. On the one hand, we face the dangers of taking any action that could potentially undermine the political independence of a developing working class movement; on the other hand, the cost of missing opportunities that we have not had in decades could leave us a small organization, isolated from a growing left.
I believe we are in a new political moment that challenges us to think freshly about how we operate on many fronts, including the electoral one. When a socialist candidate garners millions of votes; when powerful party leaders are unseated; when the likes of CNN has to report on “a mass, multiracial, working-class movement” whose aim is “totally transforming the system”; we have a new political terrain on which to contend.
I will attempt to raise three questions here: 1) What is the historical context out of which we’ve come? 2) Do our old arguments regarding the Democratic Party still apply in the present? and 3) What is a matter of principle and what is a matter of strategy and tactics?
The last two years have witnessed a level of political volatility and whiplash unseen in decades. This has led to a growth, internationally, of both the far right and the socialist left.
In the U.S., we’ve seen the teachers’ strike wave alongside the reactionary Janus ruling against public-sector labor, and successful electoral campaigns of open socialists alongside Trump’s unhinged right-wing ascendancy to the White House.
Politics is more polarized than ever, and both political parties have in some significant ways lost their grips over their bases. We live in scary times, but we also have more opportunities than we have during the lifetime of this organization to build the revolutionary left, engage in activity and relate to class struggle. Millions of people are looking for an alternative to the rotten status quo.
But the political terrain that we have inherited is one of a historically weak left and decades of low levels of class struggle. In the ISO, we have long bemoaned the gap between left-moving consciousness and concrete organization and action on the ground. Powerful struggles have flared over the years, but have still remained episodic. Movement ups and downs have largely not translated into enough organization and connectivity between struggles to make a qualitative breakthrough.
One key element in all of this is the confidence of our side. The wider the gap between what people believe and how they see their ideas reflected in society (whether that be in struggles or in formal politics), the more confidence is undermined.
At the same time, third-party challenges to the status quo have remained relegated to symbolic runs and, certainly since Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign, outside of a few exceptional pockets, have not gained traction.
This isn’t the fault of the hard-working, principled candidates who have run for office, but a result of the objective barriers to third-party runs, set up by the two parties themselves and their corporate backers. The calculation of our comrades in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) that the ground is not yet ready for a third party is, I believe, correct.
For both of these reasons — the need to build up the confidence of our side and the inability of third party runs to do so — I think we need to reassess our past arguments. One after another, they will leave us ill-equipped to address the current situation:
First, we have rightly argued against the politics of lesser evilism: the idea that we must vote for Democrats, no matter how rightward their politics have turned, so that we don’t get the “greater evil” of the Republicans. We’ve been absolutely correct to say that this approach lets the Democrats get away with (literally) murder and has a narrowing effect on political consciousness.
As the great socialist Eugene Debs put it: “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it.”
But we have to be clear that the new generations of radicals, activists and young people who are voting for Bernie Sanders, and much more so Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are very much voting for what they want! Sanders, Orcasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar and others, even where their politics are unsatisfactory, are not a lesser evil.
Relatedly, we’ve always argued that elections have a narrowing, depoliticizing effect, lowering people’s expectations of what’s possible. I think we have to recognize now that in some cases, this is true — and in some cases, the opposite is true!
There is no other way to understand Bernie’s primary successes other than having raised people’s confidence and expectations. Striking teachers told us exactly this at the Socialism conference. And where I organize, at Brooklyn College, literally every student that has come around the ISO this past year was politicized and activated by Bernie’s campaign.
Lastly, we’ve said that the Democrats are the “graveyard of social movements,” both because electoral campaigns take people away from activism, and because the party actively co-opts movements. We are absolutely right that this is what the Democratic Party intends to do. But that does not mean that they can always succeed, or that every person who runs on their line has that intention.
The DSA, by running candidates and simultaneously building its own organization on the ground shows that the opposite can be true. It is providing an organizational vehicle for newly politicized people. In the words of DSA National Director Maria Svart, it is “organizing people and building concrete power with a politically aware grassroots base that understands who the enemy is and is willing to hold politicians accountable.”
What then can we say of the principles at stake, and what room do we have in terms of plotting out a strategic position?
I think Owen Hill and Paul LeBlanc’s excellent contributions have already framed this discussion well. Rather than a blanket refusal to ever support a candidate who runs on the Democratic Party line, the key principle at stake is maintaining the independent organization of the working class.
Running open socialists who are funded by and accountable to socialist organization is allowing the DSA, as LeBlanc puts it, to bring “socialist ideas and perspectives into the political mainstream, giving focus to the radicalization that is deepening in our country. One senses their goal is not to coexist within the Democratic Party — it is socialism.”
Here’s my stab at a list of the principles we need to adhere to:
1. The Democrats are a capitalist party, in ideology, in material backing and in their actions historically.
2. The working class needs independent political organization, ideas and eventually our own party.
3. We must distinguish, as we always have, the difference between the Democratic Party, which is rotten to the core, and its electoral base.
4. Revolution (along with reforms that effectively build our side) must be the result of the self-activity of the working class. Ultimately, as Marx argued, we will not be able to simply “lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for [our] own purposes”
Given this framework, I think we should assess each electoral opportunity on the basis of the opportunities it affords us to reach a broader audience, deepen the confidence of our side and strengthen the fighting capacity of the working class and the ability of our movement to exert accountability on the candidates running.
Writing in the 19th century, Engels advised U.S. socialists to build an independent political party through the campaign of the “muddle-headed and extremely inadequate” candidate of Henry George, because he saw an opportunity there:
The masses must have time and opportunity to evolve; and they will not get that opportunity unless they have a movement of their own — no matter what its form, providing it is their own movement — in which they are impelled onwards by their own mistakes and learn by bitter experience.
Engels was likely correct at the time to see a possibility to build an independent party in the still early years of the American political system. I believe that particular path is not in the cards at this point. But his overall approach of looking for opportunities for the working class to build its own movement and to learn from its own experiences is a good guide for us today.
The current period is full of contradictions, and no position protects us from them. 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.
Rather than seeking to shield our members or collaborators from contradictions, we should work alongside them, and attempt to explain and to learn along the way.