Theses on Electoral Tactics

Editorial, August 2015

Contest elections with a principled approach

The Red Party’s call for a socialist alliance, first expressed in the January edition of this paper, has come under scrutiny from some comrades over the last few months. Given this, along with some stirrings in the direction of left electoral cooperation in the United States – namely the recent Independent Electoral Action Conference held in Chicago – this is a particularly opportune time to elaborate on the Red Party’s approach to communist electoral policy and how it relates to the vital need to re-found today’s divided revolutionary left into a democratic and united Communist Party.

1. Elections under capitalism are an arena of struggle which revolutionaries would be ill-advised to ignore. For millions – despite a growing apolitical resignation over the current situation – they are the only time, barring conditions of mass struggle, at which the masses are engaging with political questions. A communist goes to where the masses are, to show them what we stand for. Even in the most reactionary institutions we will find proletarian militants deceived by such reaction. Our duty is to win the vast majority to the fight for radical democracy as the first step in establishing communism. Running candidates for office on a communist platform not only presents our ideas to a wider audience than is typically possible but can also expose the contradictions and limitations of bourgeois democracy. All this being said, we do not fetishize elections as applicable in all circumstances – above all this is a tactic to be utilized as part of the class struggle. But ruling out electoral intervention a priori in the name of “building the movement” (as though they are two mutually exclusive concepts) is an abstentionist viewpoint, a retreat into spontaneity fetishism.

2. We maintain that the goal of a socialist electoral campaign must be not to build the profile of a sect, but to advance the consciousness and self-organization of the working class. There is no strict dichotomy between “running to win” (i.e., running for a seat where there is a realistic prospect of victory – namely, safe Democratic or Republican seats with no opposition from the other major party) and using the race for agitation and propaganda purposes. Where to run is a tactical question, and competitive districts must not be ruled out if communists are to present a rounded challenge to the capitalist system and its parties before our audience. In all cases, communists should vigorously promote a revolutionary-democratic perspective – including but by no means limited to proportional representation, unicameralism, right of recall for elected officials and representatives on an average worker’s wage – as an antidote to this country’s severe restrictions on democracy. Vote-chasing by diluting or concealing the communist program is a form of opportunism that ultimately hinders our cause by miseducating our class and preventing us from accurately estimating the level of support for our ideas in society. This is not to say that the Red Party supports running candidates on a platform of “socialism or bust.” In any given election, a principled minimum program should be drawn up that reflects regional, national or international considerations.

3. There are clear limits on how effective the electoral campaign of a single far-left organization can be. Take, for example, the spectacle of multiple competing socialist candidates for President every general election, or uncoordinated socialist campaigns for state and federal offices that serve primarily to broaden the “market share” of this or that particular sect. While these candidacies deserve critical support and engagement, they are not sufficient to make socialism once again a mass force in society.

4. Given the weak and divided nature of the socialist left today, it’s natural for the question of alliance and coalition to emerge. In the past two years there have been some positive developments in Chicago with the Chicago Socialist Campaign (CSC.) The CSC is a city-based coalition involving the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative and Solidarity to contest municipal elections – Jorge Mujica in last year’s aldermanic election. The campaign drew in a layer of unaffiliated radicals and, despite difficulties in coordinating and mobilizing its supporters (as well as equivocations on its stance toward Democratic Mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia), was able to win 12.5% of the vote – an eminently respectable result from which to advance in the future. A similar initiative has appeared in San Diego, which is running Sandra Galindo in the 2016 municipal election.

5. The Green Party wants to have its cake and eat it too. Left-wing Greens want “socialist” politics (or more precisely, old-school social democratic politics) without being open with them. The party as a whole presents a cynical “we are everything to everyone” point of view – not unlike the Democratic Party. Hiding inside of the Green Party is just that: hiding. That said, we welcome Green Party support of openly socialist and working class candidates like the endorsement offered to Kshama Sawant by the King County Greens. At the present time, electoral non-aggression agreements are a principled way to avoid conflict between forces left of the Democrats without hiding away openly socialist viewpoints.

6. While a communist political organization cannot control candidates and office holders it critically supports who are from other formations (for example, a Congressperson from a hypothetical future Labor Party), we can and must impose collective control over our own public representatives. We do not support an approach where the proletarian party or pre-party formation’s label is available on an individualistic basis, nor do we dismiss out of hand the possibility of the organization’s office-holders gradually detaching themselves from the communist program – adapting to bourgeois ideology and the bourgeois state. A number of measures from our movement’s history are useful in preventing this. First, communist deputies should be paid no more than the average worker’s wage for their constituencies, with the rest of their salaries going to the movement. This is already common practice on the left and so will not be further elaborated here. Second, we advocate a two-tiered party control over the candidate or representative: at the local (committee) level and subject to supervision by the party’s central body.

7. While we call for critical support of socialist candidates independent of the Democratic Party even in spite of programmatic limitations, we maintain that a serious campaign must be waged against economism if the revolutionary left is to present a genuine anti-capitalist challenge and a credible vision of the alternative society we seek. “Economism” is the raising of bread-and-butter demands and policies to the detriment of democratic demands; essentially, ‘pure’ economic agitation as a substitute for high politics.

For representative examples, see Kshama Sawant’s 2013 and 2015 election platforms with their single-minded focus on the minimum wage and rent control, respectively. Or take a look at the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s election materials, in which political democracy is not so much as an afterthought. Of course, certain demands can and should be given priority in given campaigns, but economism as a tendency starts from a false premise – the idea that trade-unionist level struggles will spontaneously tend to grow over into political struggle and socialist consciousness. This places an illusory level of hope in elemental struggle while downplaying the struggle for revolutionary-democratic politics both as a means to advance the working class’s position under capitalism and as the only tenable foundation for workers’ rule in the future. This vitally includes agitation against the sacred cow of American patriotism, the undemocratic U.S. Constitution.

8. A Marxist program is both essential for orienting revolutionary electoral interventions and the foundation on which a new Communist Party will be built. Even a weak or partial program would still be a great advance if it meant further unifying our movement, but our definition of program revolves around the concepts of proletarian internationalism, class-political independence and extreme democracy. Program embodies the general strategic orientation we need to progress from present conditions to socialism, and in doing so doing embodies the possibility of merging spontaneous struggles over various issues into a generalized resistance against capital and the state. This program combines the general concepts and goals of communism (the maximum program) with a section outlining immediate demands and what measures would be needed to place state power in the hands of the proletariat (the minimum program.)

That is the basis on which a communist party would take governmental power – full implementation of the minimum program. The logical conclusion here is that a revolutionary socialist party shouldn’t “form a government” (in parliamentary terms) only to go on to administer capitalism, whether a ‘friendlier’ version or otherwise. In American terms this means socialist candidates shouldn’t accept executive positions – governors, mayors et cetera.

9. Under capitalism, the socialist alliance should be one that sees itself and its candidates / office-holders as a radical oppositionist force. This alliance should itself be a democratic one, with an eye toward existing as a living and participatory membership organization even outside of election cycles. A unifying force both in the immediate term and as part of the longer-term transformation of the socialist left from a patchwork of bureaucratic-centralist sects into a Communist Party worthy of the name: one that acts as the political center around which a regenerated workers’ movement and its organizations, from unions to cooperatives, can cohere.

The 2016 general election is an opportunity for the socialist left to unite on this basis, with a joint slate of Congressional candidates. Since all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election, a socialist alliance could affect a nationally-coordinated impact while also raising the political bankruptcy of the vapid popularity contest that is the presidential election. That being said, a national alliance that campaigns for local and gubernatorial races offers advantages of its own in so far as material hurdles are lower and the various left organizations are better integrated into their local areas.

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