Socialists for Office: Falling Short

Gabriel Pierre talks about the socialist left's local & state election campaigns

The ballot box: a field of struggle

Since her election to the Seattle city council late last year, Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant has picked up a certain fame extending beyond the usual suspects of left-wing activists. She’s been profiled by some of the big business press, usually in a sensationalist fashion – ‘Holy crap, there’s a socialist in the city government!’ Given that, and the momentum it has generated for Socialist Alternative’s 15 Now! front, it’s easy to see why the spattering of socialist candidates for the 2014-15 local and statewide elections are hoping to replicate Sawant’s success.


Why Run?

Some revolutionary socialists are skeptical of mounting electoral campaigns at all, for fear of succumbing to the siren song of the state machine – the perks of office and being in the “belly of the beast” sending erstwhile radicals to crash on the rocky shores of opportunism. This is a reasonable concern; without a principled Marxist program (more on this below) and strict accountability to the socialist party and the working class in general, individual anti-capitalists can and do succumb to the logic of capital.

Others are concerned that by running for election, they inadvertently legitimize the electoral process as it stands under capitalism – where, of course, “democracy” is democratic in the real sense only for the capitalist class, whose money and commanding role over the economy gives them the best democracy money can buy.

The latter argument has no merit whatsoever. Not only does fielding revolutionary candidates for public office present our ideas to a wider audience than is usually possible, it can also expose the contradictions and limitations inherent to capitalist democracy. Saturn Concentric described this in Electoral Reform as a Movement?:1

“Leftists often think it’s not sexy enough to focus on, but electoral reform is something we have to actually take up. In order to legitimize a socialist revolution, we are going to need a socialist electoral movement first… These sorts of legal reforms — are they disconnected from people’s immediate economistic passions?  I don’t think so. I think people in the USA care about democracy.  Now of course, the classic rule applies, that if you offer people wimpy reforms they don’t give a damn but if you advocate sweeping systemic change they are more likely to turn out…

…We are drawing an even sharper line between the professionals who run the system and the people who feel constantly locked on the outside.  We are proving that the professional bureaucrats cannot even run their rigged system properly, let alone un-rig it.”

Effective electoral intervention requires not only strong positions on economic issues; there needs to be far-reaching democratic content and a strategic perspective that goes beyond election day. Unfortunately, it’s in these two areas that the current crop of socialist candidacies tend to fall far short of what is necessary to permanently put socialism back on the map in U.S. politics.



John Beacham, the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s candidate for the Chicago Board of Aldermen (49th ward), is emblematic of everything wrong with the socialist Left’s fixation on economism and sectarianism. Beacham’s platform focuses almost entirely on trade-unionist demands such as a $15 minimum wage and progressive taxation. Not objectionable in and of themselves, but the paucity of democratic content is a serious weakness. Don’t revolutionary socialists envision a profoundly democratized public and civic life, in addition to economic emancipation? Even a minimum program geared toward municipal government can point the way in this direction through planks calling for recall of elected officials, popular participation in writing legislation, representative pay limited to the average worker’s wage et cetera.  Eugene Puryear’s platform, the PSL candidate for D.C. Council At-Large, is only marginally better.

As usual, the PSL conceives of socialism not as the radical extension of democracy to all spheres of life but as trade-unionism plus a strong welfare state – hardly surprising, considering their apologist role for bureaucratic dictatorship, from the former Soviet Union to today’s Stalinist China. Curiously, Beacham’s campaign has not – to the best of my knowledge – endorsed or even publicly recognized Jorge Mujica’s candidacy for 25th Ward Alderman. Mujica’s bid for office is the fruit of the Chicago Socialist Campaign, a local group that has drawn together current and former sect members alongside previously unaffiliated radicals. Mujica’s platform goes much further than the PSL in the direction of democracy, calling for not only an end to deportations but a democratically elected school board, an elected civilian police review board empowered to discipline and dismiss officers, support for “bottom-up strategies to address safety concerns”2 and more.



Combined with his robust economic demands, this is a strong start; there is no good reason why the PSL shouldn’t seek the Chicago Socialist Campaign’s endorsement so the two candidates could run under a joint banner and platform. Of course, the same could be said about all of this year’s socialist campaigns for office: Socialist Alternative’s Jess Spear for the Washington State legislature, Matt Andrews of the Liberty Union Party for Congress, Mimi Soltysik (Socialist Party of California), and Cindy Sheehan (Peace and Freedom Party) for California governor.

Despite the motto “unity is strength” being part of the ABC of the workers’ movement, the biggest weakness these campaigns have in common is their disunity. With largely compatible platforms and identical aims (to build support for socialist politics and provide an alternative to voting for capitalist parties), each remains isolated from the rest. Scarcity of financial and human resources is made worse by the lack of coordination. The working class at large sees not a united anti-capitalist alternative ready to organize a long-term movement against the injustices of the system, but rather a scattered array of competing sects.

What we desperately need, rather than sectarian isolation or masquerading ourselves as Greens3, is a common socialist electoral front as a first step toward a united revolutionary party, one that is based on a Marxist program and enshrines genuine democratic centralism as its principles of operation. That is how socialists can tap into the swelling disapproval of capitalism and disenfranchisement with the political establishment that have arisen since the Great Recession began.




  1. Full post at
  2. Jorge Mujica for Chicago Board of Aldermen, platform:
  3. Two socialists, Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones, are the Green Party’s candidates this year for Governor and Lt. Governor of New York. A vote against the Democrats / GOP is not necessarily a vote to advance the interests of working people and the oppressed. This is very clear when it comes to the Libertarian (or worse, Constitution) parties, which no socialists advocate campaigning for – but many of us have rose colored glasses when it comes to the Greens. For more on why the Greens are not a working class party or vehicle to build working class politics, see “Socialists Trip Over Class Line in Electoral Politics”:

(Originally published in The Red Vine.)


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