It’s only January, but it already feels as though 2016 is here. The highest expression of American democracy – let that sink in for a moment – is swinging into gear, with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy all but confirmed and Republican hopefuls lining up, from the expected (Jeb Bush) to the downright bizarre (Ted Cruz; Mitt Romney… again.) Since hardened conservatives are not exactly this paper’s core demographic, let’s move away from the GOP and consider how socialists can use the upcoming elections to extend working-class consciousness and organization.
Revolutionary socialists see elections for governmental office under capitalism as an arena of class struggle. The present state is a capitalist state, with the ruling class having a controlling interest via its money, its commanding role in the economy and its parties. Democracy is stunted and hobbled with a variety of means: large corporate donations, the revolving door between government and big business, the unrepresentative “winner-takes-all” system and fundamentally unrepresentative bodies like the Senate, just to name a few. Still, even under these conditions running for office is worthwhile insofar as it allows communists to expose the fetters on majority rule, spread socialist ideas to a wider audience than is normally possible and cohere the most advanced layers of the working class around a clear program. An additional fringe benefit – which admittedly doesn’t happen often owing to the above-mentioned winner-takes-all system and the current political climate in general – occurs when revolutionaries actually win the office in question. When this happens, socialists can act as a revolutionary opposition to the state and a legislative arm of the workers’ and oppressed peoples’ movement.
Next year’s general election offer socialists two choices: either continue falling into the various pitfalls we have set up for ourselves, or to go beyond them and take the steps that will lead to socialism being put “back on the map” in the way that socialist and communist parties were once a big factor in the country’s political life.
Every election cycle, the Democratic Party apparatus mobilizes a massive scare campaign to push all forces to its left back into its orbit, lest the “greater evil” – the Republicans – gain power. The problem is that the Democrats’ policies are every bit as regressive and anti-worker as their counterparts, and possibly more effective as well (from capital’s point of view) since the Democrats are able to defang potential opposition to their policies in a way the Republicans can only envy. We have written extensively1 about the Democrats’ record in power, but what about the likes of Elizabeth Warren, who many are hoping will mount a primary challenge to the neoliberal Hillary Clinton?
Warren, a former consumer advocate before joining the U.S. Senate in 2012, does talk tough about Wall Street, raising the minimum wage and equal pay for women. But what she actually proposes is only toothless regulation and continued poverty wages. She does not support public, democratic control over the financial system, scrapping student debt or a mass public jobs program to address the climate crisis and end unemployment. The fast food and retail workers on the ground fighting for $15 and a union have already done much more to advance the goal of a living wage than she ever will, and as far as taking on the super-rich goes, she actually voted for the repeal or reducing of the millionaires’ estate tax.2 On foreign policy, Warren lines up in lock-step for imperialism with the rest of her party, seen most clearly with the unconditional support for Israel.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is much the same; the fact that he self-identifies as a “socialist” changes little. Sanders is formally Independent, but it’s basically certain that if he runs for president he will do so as a Democrat. Both, like Dennis Kucinich or Jesse Jackson before them, are a way to corral progressive malcontents back into the Democratic fold, regardless of their subjective intentions. Even if we assume that Bernie Sanders is a socialist class warrior – Karl Marx born again – he would be crushed if he actually took on the Party establishment. The Democratic National Convention, like its GOP counterpart, has a system in place where “super-delegates” – unelected party officials, Congresspeople, Governors and former Presidents – can vote for whatever nominee they choose, with each super-delegate’s vote equal to around 10,000 individual primary / caucus voters.3
It could be argued that the Sanders and Warrens of the world (or even Clintons) are the best we can hope for, with political consciousness being so backward. But social change doesn’t happen by running to the center. Working people’s consciousness and attitudes are conditioned and set within the limits established by “official politics”, and those limits are set by the ruling class through its major media and its two reliable parties. Class-conscious workers can (and have) smashed through all kinds of seemingly intractable barriers by forging serious political challengers armed with a bold vision of the future and a strategy to get there.
Sects and Sensibility
The main working-class political forces operating outside of the Democratic Party are the numerous small socialist organizations, excluding those like the “official” Communist Party and the Democratic Socialists of America who, to their shame, shilled for Barack Obama in ’08/12 and will likely do the same for Clinton next year. Like in all other areas of work, the anti-capitalist left is hampered by its disunity during election cycles.
Several Trotskyist organizations – the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative, Solidarity and the Workers International League – routinely support Green Party candidates, the Greens being the main beneficiary of left-wing protest votes in a country without a mass workers’ party. They usually qualify this support by saying that there is no worthy left party, and that we need a Labor Party to really turn things around. (Although the ISO and more recently Socialist Alternative favor the creation of a broad left party rather than an explicitly trade-union based one.) The Marcyite4 Workers World Party nominally supports left-populist candidates, but in practice mostly bowed to “Obamania.”
Some organizations, to their credit, do try to fill the political vacuum that exists by either running or supporting explicitly socialist candidates. In 2012 the Socialist Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Equality Party and Freedom Socialist Party all ran presidential candidates – with a little over 20,000 votes total between them5. The irony of standing five separate, competing campaigns in the name of working class unity was apparently lost on them.
We don’t need to repeat these mistakes again. As time goes on, pressure will mount inside the trade unions and social movement organizations – fully backed by their pro-capitalist leaderships – to persuade fighting workers and youth to set aside their criticisms, their disappointments, their sense of betrayal, and vote for the Democrats in 2016. Any demands that might embarrass Democratic politicians; demands and methods of struggle that are insufficiently “respectable”, that don’t conform to the logic of capital, will have to be put aside. The socialist argument for class political independence is muted by our sect form of organization. Why should any fast food striker support or join the socialists when we cannot even consistently cooperate on issues of common agreement, and when we metastasize into new sects at the slightest whiff of political difference within our ranks?
Unity is strength, but unity and democracy aren’t mutually exclusive. To that end, the Red Party calls for a united socialist alliance to contest elections for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016. A convention should be held, including all interested individuals and organizations, to democratically decide on a common platform. Debating platform and selecting individual candidates will be a fierce and possibly even painful process, but we will emerge stronger for it. Hopefully, a socialist alliance would come to see itself not as a purely electoral vehicle but a permanent campaign in its own right – a step toward a genuine revolutionary party.
The emphasis on the legislative, rather than executive, side of the election is deliberate. Practically speaking, launching campaigns for some of the 435 Congressional seats contested in November 2016 provides more opportunities for socialist organizations to use and deepen their local roots. It lessens the chance of sects pulling out of the project because their own nominee wasn’t selected, as would be the case for a joint presidential ticket. And in principle, communists are opposed to the presidency’s sweeping executive power. A united Congressional slate puts us in a better position to advance a radical democratic-republican platform in addition to our economic demands, one that includes proportional representation, abolition of the Senate and the presidency, the right to recall elected officials, et cetera.
There are many obstacles to forming this kind of socialist alliance, but we believe that contentious questions can and should be subject to debate and the test of practice. With just a few minimum principles – the centrality of the working class, proletarian internationalism and independence from the capitalist parties – we can create the framework for a basic electoral unity with the potential for something higher. For us, we fight for a communist party worthy of the name.
4. “Marcyism” refers to Sam Marcy, Workers World founder. It’s a peculiar form of official communism, emphasizing support for any bourgeois nationalist regime (like al-Assad’s Syria) on “anti-imperialist” grounds.
5. By comparison, candidates who self-identify as socialists received 800,000 votes in the 2014 midterm elections. 2012 results at http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/ (chart does not include Freedom Socialist Party’s write-in campaign)