Socialists for City Council: A Comparison

by Gabriel Pierre

As I write these lines, the news is coming in that Kshama Sawant, candidate of the U.S. left-wing organization Socialist Alternative, has placed second in the primary election for a contested seat on the Seattle city council with almost 28,000 votes – 33%, trouncing a Democratic Party-backed challenger’s meager 17% and bested only by incumbent councilor Richard Conlin at 49%. Since neither Conlin nor Sawant won a majority they will face off once more in what is undoubtedly a very unique, not to mention politically significant, second round. What does Socialist Alternative’s campaign mean for the workers of Seattle? What can it tell us about the state of the working class movement in the U.S. as a whole?

    Sawant’s current campaign isn’t Socialist Alternative’s first foray into the murky waters of the Big Business-approved ‘democratic process.’ Her first time as an openly self-described socialist was during last year’s general election, where S.A. selected her to run for the Washington State Legislature. To give credit where credit is due, anyone openly labeling herself a socialist – such a maligned and hated word in the capitalist class’s official institutions, second only to communist – and still emerging with nearly 29,000 votes is incredibly impressive. Indeed, Sawant received more votes in her district than all of the 2012 socialist presidential candidates combined. She repeated this feat today, and it’s certainly a positive development that such a number of people chose to vote for the ‘red’ candidate, even if some ballots were only protest votes against the institutional politicians. There are similar S.A. candidates in Boston and Minneapolis. Spirits are high. One can almost reach out and touch the sense of mainstream relevance, freshly reborn.Unfortunately, a closer look into the history of the workers’ movement reveals that S.A.’s results are shaping up to be more shallow and ephemeral than the initial euphoria would suggest.


America’s First Communist MayorKarl Emil Nygard, a second-generation immigrant born to Swedish parents who’d emigrated from Finland, was elected America’s first communist mayor in 1932 as part of the Workers’ Ticket. The Workers’ Ticket was a united front between the Communist Party (of which Nygard was a leading local member), the socialists, and independent militant workers. Electing a Communist mayor in the small, somewhat rural and politically conservative town of Crosby, Minnesota certainly didn’t happen through a fluke – it was the result of years of dedicated education, agitation and organizing work.The local CP branch organized a Young Pioneer group for working-class children, hosted film screenings and picnics, and supported (sometimes lead) strikes and demonstrations. They worked with devotion to make their press a household name in the area, distributing workers’ publications in both English and Finnish. They even lead the workers to seize control of the local citizens’ tax inspectorate after it had been turned into a hotbed of corruption and cover-ups for the local establishment. It is in this context that one should see Karl Nygard’s status as perennial Communist candidate. Running for office time and again, failing to win the seat but succeeding in the goal of promoting class-consciousness and the CP’s main areas of work, it eventually came to pass that – as a side effect of the ‘main event’ – Nygard actually won the seat he was standing for.

The Communists acquired a toehold in enemy territory, so to speak. The Crosby, MN Communists weren’t the first working-class formation to win some measure of presence in, as Karl Marx would say, the executive committee that manages the affairs of the ruling class. Before them there’d been local government victories for Socialist Labor Party candidates who found themselves unable to do much for their constituents because of their positions as town aldermen. There was also Victor Berger, who was elected to the United States Congress but found the environment inhospitable to anything but proposals for modest social reform. When he took a principled, internationalist position in opposing the inter-imperialist World War I, the capitalist politicians threw him out of Congress and refused him re-entry even after he’d won the seat again. Clearly, the capitalist state was and is from top to bottom filled with undemocratic structures, backdoor deals, and official corruption. Doors tend to open not for an elected official’s key, but for a high enough price. Karl Nygard had his work cut out for him.

Economism or a Marxist Program?

Kshama Sawant’s election platform is rife with economic demands – for a citywide minimum wage of $15 an hour, for a millionaire’s tax to fund direct job creation, corporate welfare abolition, et cetera. Aside from some overly vague formulations (how to unionize Amazon / Starbucks? O.K., so we need rent control – what about it?) these demands are quite supportable as part of a revolutionary socialist minimum program. The problems begin when you look into the campaign’s democratic demands… or rather, fail to do so because there aren’t any.

In order for the working-class majority to become society’s new ruling class and transform it on free, democratic, socialist lines we must have the widest possible democracy, not just in the socialist future but in the here-and-now. The capitalist state doesn’t simply accept a majority vote against exploitation, and considering we communists aim to replacethe capitalist state apparatus with a working people’s republic, it makes sense for us to promote the widest possible freedoms under the present system as well in order to weaken the ruling class’s state machinery.

Socialist Alternative apparently thinks this means calling for a civilian review board to oversee the police, as though the front-line of capitalist property relations and notoriously racist, oppressive institution can be held in check by a glorified neighborhood watch association. The fact that even liberal politicians have already done this, without the desired results, speaks for itself.

Socialist Alternative’s almost myopic fixation on economic demands is a symptom of what Marxists call economism: the belief that “pure”, bread-and-butter economic struggles will grow into profound, system-shaking political struggles if they are lead by the right people. S.A. shares this with its sister organizations in the Committee for a Workers International, run mainly by the arch-economist Socialist Party of England and Wales.

The unfortunate reality is that economic, trade unionist struggles do not tend to spontaneously develop mass socialist consciousness, no matter how militant or how many single-issue campaigns are tied in with them. In order to advance genuine class consciousness and win lasting gains – let alone bring the socialist transformation of society ever-closer – it is necessary to combine agitation for economic and civil rights reforms with a rounded Marxist program encompassing revolutionary-democratic demands and a strategy for power based on building a working class party-movement. By contrasting Karl Nygard and the Communist Party of Minnesota to Kshama Sawant and S.A. we can see the limitations of the latter and the tremendous potential of the former.

Municipal Communists in Power

Like Sawant, Nygard vowed on the campaign trail that he would use his mayoral post as a tribune of the people, an instrument of the extra-electoral mass movement as well as a tool to build it. He couldn’t have won without the workers’ organizations that were his base, and his several unsuccessful runs helped to popularize those same organizations to wider audiences than was typical outside of election season. The Communists knew that the Mayor’s powers were limited and that the ruling class would throw yet more obstacles in his way; being the ‘party’ side of ‘party-movement’, they mobilized the latter to fulfill their election platform.

Nygard’s first act as Mayor was to appeal to the account holders of the local bank to demand the owner return the deposits they’d been swindled out of. Exposing the local petty capitalist’s con and calling on the people succeeded: before long, the workers of Crosby saw $23,000 in savings returned safely to their pockets. Following this, the Communists used Nygard’s public position to call for the creation of an Unemployed Council. The UCs were being initiated by Communists all across the country to demand jobs or unemployment relief, organizing meals for the hungry and even blocking and reversing evictions through direct action.*

Next, Mayor Nygard called for the creation of a Workers Advisory Council made up of every workers’ organization in town that wished to join. He vowed that no legislation would be passed in Crosby that didn’t first get the approval of the Workers Advisory Council. Meeting frequently with this council, Nygard would receive instructions from the recallable, mandated delegates and would also initiate policy on their behalf. Intimately connected with the people, the CP had created a de facto form of dual power by weakening the local state apparatus and elevating the working class to a higher, more democratic position. Of course, this arrangement made it easier to win economic demands. Relief stipends, free public utilities and job creation were among the purely local gains, and the CP also used its position in Crosby to lend weight to statewide, national and international causes.

What kind of party do we need? 

S.A.’s ambition for their Seattle campaign, flanked by similar runs in Minneapolis and Boston, to spur the creation of a third party is actually quire realistic. If they reached a certain critical mass and were followed by a spattering of independent (or Green) left-wing populist candidates it’s entirely plausible that some of them would win. After all, skillfully delivered left-populism sounds sweet to the ears when they’ve grown accustomed to the dull drone of austerity. They could coalesce into a broad Left party numbering in the low to mid thousands. Officially S.A. still promotes a British-style Labor Party in America based on a section of the trade union leadership deciding (or being pushed into) breaking with the Democrats, but in practice the hybrid description of a broad left party based on the non-Democratic but non-socialist Left, socialists, workers and social movements.

This kind of halfway house though, if it crystallized without the involvement of a sufficiently influential revolutionary tendency, would be an obstacle rather than a stepping stone to a mass socialist movement and a revolution. An American Left Party would be shackled by lowest-common-denominator reformism, controlled by petty-bourgeois (middle class) elements to the detriment of worker members, and would probably shatter a few years after its birth when the Democratic Party realizes it can temporarily co-opt certain left-sounding demands and suck the air right out of the new party. Without basing a new party explicitly on the working class movement, the door is left wide open for the Green Party’s considerable resources and apparatus to hijack even a well intentioned left-reformist project in no time.

Like the old CPUSA at its height, we need to build the institutions of a revolutionary workers’ party-movement if we are to evolve from small revolutionary fragments, to a small but united communist party, to a mass communist party. The Stalin-ordered U-turns between hysterical sectarianism and shameless opportunism that lead to the CP’s fall need not be repeated as long as our movement’s democracy is as close to the democracy of the socialist future as conditions will allow.

As for Socialist Alternative, by all means vote for their candidates if you live in Seattle, Minneapolis or Boston. Volunteer your time, if you can. But keep your eyes open for a chance to engage with the worker-activists at the base of their branches. After all, our brothers and sisters deserve exposure to a different road to socialism than the one chock-full of activism while lasting achievements are all too rare. Without a common revolutionary strategy that includes a perspective of revolutionary unity, socialism’s rebirth as a mass force will continue to elude us.

* To her credit, Kshama Sawant is an activist with a Seattle anti-foreclosure coalition and was even briefly arrested during a demonstration to prevent a local eviction. Ty Moore, another S.A. municipal candidate in Minneapolis, is active in Occupy Homes MN. The main difference between them and the old CP is that the CP had explicit goals with a worked-out solution of the way to achieve them, rather than over-reliance on the catchall phrase “building a mass movement” in the abstract.

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