The U.S. two-party system is a reality. Socialists active in the U.S. have to acknowledge the unique character of the U.S. government and Constitution. We cannot import ready-made foreign organizational models more salutary to parliamentary systems with proportional representation and must instead find ways of organizing consonant with American traditions.
A more democratic political system can only be brought into being as the result of revolutionary changes in which the U.S. Constitution was altered to make government more representative in character and thereby less prone to corruption. There is historical precedence for this (see the 17th Amendment). But as the government is currently in the hands not only of the wealthiest 1% of Americans but the wealthiest 1% of the 1%, we cannot expect that electoral reform will be on the agenda anytime soon. For this reason, electoral reform should be seen as an ends, not a means. The means, if history is any indicator, will be a militant mass movement directly challenging the power and privilege of the most powerful Americans.
Where We’ve Been: Theoretical and Historical Considerations
Objective characteristics of the U.S.’s 18th-century election model have been a major factor in preserving the two-party system but have not prevented the formation and growth of robust new party formations in periods of acute class conflict at both the local and national levels. The rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s, which replaced the then-dominant Whig Party, is the most successful example of a new party formation in U.S. history. Its rise, although in very different conditions, can serve as a model and an inspiration to party-builders today.
Socialists should also look to the robust tradition of regional parties. There are numerous historical cases of third parties that found great success at the local level. Examples would include the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs’s day and more recently the modest successes of Vermont’s Progressive Party.
Many party “brands” often need to be attempted before one finally finds success. For instance, before the Republican Party caught on there was the Free Soil Party, which itself came out of the failure of the Liberty Party. Similarly, the Progressive Party of Vermont was preceded by the Citizen’s Party and the Liberty Union (for more on this story, take a look at Eric Leif Davin’s excellent book Radicals in Power).
The lesson here is that even these apparent “failures” in fact laid the groundwork for a larger mass party came later, when conditions were better suited for masses of people to join. And like the progressives and abolitionists of the time, we too shouldn’t get overly tied down to one or another party vehicle.
Reshuffling the Deck: Is the U.S. Party System Nearing an Inflection Point?
Considering the failures of third parties over the past several decades, have the prospects for third parties become more favorable now as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago? This can only be determined in practice, but there are several important trends worth considering that bear on this question: the rise of generalized dissatisfaction with government, the global financial crisis, the likelihood of further stagnation or deterioration of economic conditions for the U.S. working class, the increasing impact of climate change, among others.
One important trend is the changing demographics of the U.S. electorate. These changes present a number of opportunities that have been unavailable to left political interventions previously both at the local and the national levels. I will only briefly touch on two demographic blocs whose emergence onto the political scene has the potential to upset the two-party status quo.
Firstly, consider the uneven emergence of a Latino voting bloc. While the number of Latino voters rose between 2008 and 2012 by 1.4 million, turnout was lower in 2012 than in 2008. Latino turnout dropped 2% and the number of Latino nonvoters grew by 2.3 million. As Paul Taylor, executive vice president of Pew Research Center put it: “Given what we know about the youth bulge in the population, Millennials and Hispanics will become ever-more important voting blocs in upcoming presidential elections. But in 2012, both groups left a lot of votes on the table.”
How can the left capitalize on the growing power of a Latino voting bloc? This question is well beyond the scope of this short article, but there are many lessons which should be studied more seriously on the left — for instance, the experience of La Raza Unida Party in the 1970s and early 1980s.
As mentioned above, another key emerging demographic is Millennials, a demographic bulge larger numerically than the famous “Baby Boom.” Millennials constitute the core cadre of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab Spring, and the uprisings in Turkey, Brazil, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, too many on the left are dismissive of the revolutionary potential of college-educated youth because they are “privileged” or “middle class.” This is an unscientific and moralistic reading of both the immiseration thesis and revolutionary history. A revolutionary class is no less revolutionary because it does not conform to theoretical precepts; more likely, the theory needs to be adjusted in light of new evidence.
Positive indicators for this demographic — besides a penchant for mass grassroots street protest after a decades-long lull — might include a decline in partisan identification, especially among progressive youth. As Rolling Stonereported:
The turn away from party identification has been a long-term American trend: According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans don’t consider themselves members of a political party, compared to 36 percent in 2002 and 33 percent in 1988. But that trend has been all the more accelerated among young people — and even more so among young progressives.
None of this is to say a transition toward a new mass party of the Left is inevitable. Politics is struggle, and the emergence of a new alternative to the status quo will mean conscious action by individuals, organizations, and masses of people over a protracted period of time. As Bill Fletcher Jr. rightly reminds us:
There are rare moments in US history where there is a reshuffling of the deck that may result in either the transformation of an existing political party or the emergence of another. The emergence of a new mass party is not the result of a founding convention but on the basis of an adjustment and repositioning of political constituencies. This is a matter of mass politics, including but not limited to electoral action.
New possibilities exist today which suggest a mass party of the left can be built within our lifetimes. Now we must begin an urgent conversation on how to seize the time.
However, conversation is only the first step; it must culminate in action, in real-world organizing. If we succeed, the working class in this country will face its enemies — for the first time in many decades — with a great powerhouse of organization: a political party of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Socialists and War: Two Opposing Trends published by Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) is as thin politically as it page-wise. Clocking in at 46 pages, most of the book consists of freely available published material: a reprint from PSL’s newspaper, a Dissident Voiceinterview with Brian Becker who is the national director of PSL’s front group ANSWER Coalition, and a historical document, the Basel Manifesto. The only original work is Becker’s essay, “Socialists and War: Two Opposing Trends,” which claims that socialist debates over imperialist intervention into the Arab Spring are the modern analog to the split within the socialist movement over World War One with myself as Plekhanov and PSL as – who else? – the Bolsheviks. (Whether Becker gets to play Lenin and Mazda Majidi Trotsky or vice versa in their 1914-1917 reenactment is unclear.)
The book is a reminder that seven dollars doesn’t buy much of anything these days.
Majidi’s article, “When Justifying Imperialist Intervention ‘Goes Wrong’” is a Revleft-style response to my essay, “Libya and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong.” Majidi’s strawmen speak for themselves and need not be enumerated here. However, his underlying method is of interest. He begins by asserting that, “All demonstrations and opposition movements [are] not progressive.” Undoubtedly this is true, and Majidi cites the Nazis and the Tea Party as examples. So far, so good. He then adds what he calls “color revolutions” to this list:
“Most color revolutions occurred in the former Soviet Republics, such as Georgia’s Rose Revolution, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution. But there have also been (successful or attempted) color revolutions in other countries, such as Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in 2005 and Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009.”
What is a “color revolution” according to Majidi?
“Color revolutions usually include the formation of coherent and unified pro-imperialist political forces, which draw upon public discontent with economic distress, corruption and political coercion. They involve several operations, including the creation of division and disunity in the military and an intense propaganda campaign. … Elements who participate in such street protests are often a small part of the population and do not represent the sentiments of the majority of the people, much less the interests of the working class. In fact, many participants in the protests may not support the agenda of the right-wing leadership and its imperialist sponsors. Still, the imperialist propaganda campaign utilizes the protests, however large or small, to promote regime change and the ascension of a client state. The imperialists are not fools to do so; this is precisely what such ‘democratic’ movements produce absent an alternative working-class and anti-imperialist opposition.”
This is a description of associated features, not a rigorous definition.
Many of these features were present in the Egyptian revolution. The “coherent and unified pro-imperialist political force” known as the Muslim Brotherhood rode to power drawing “upon public discontent with economic distress, corruption and political coercion.” Their regime enjoys a much larger and firmer popular base than Mubarak’s decrepit dictatorship and in that narrow sense U.S. imperialism was strengthened rather than weakened by the January 25, 2011 revolution.
Does PSL consider the Egyptian case to be a “color revolution”? Of course not. Thus, the only consistency to PSL’s method is its inconsistency. Eclecticism is inevitable because PSL continually substitutes description for definition.
The next step in Majidi’s counter-argument is to ask, “What is the political character of the Syrian and Libyan rebels?” Earlier in the article, he poses questions of fundamental importance for approaching this issue:
“In his entire article, Binh conveniently assumes the very thing that needs to be proven—that the Libyan rebels and the Syrian opposition are revolutionary. This false premise, once accepted, leads to all sorts of false conclusions. What is the political character of the NTC-led rebels in Libya? What qualified them as revolutionaries? How does Binh determine that the Syrian opposition is revolutionary and the government counter-revolutionary? When analyzing an opposition movement anywhere in the world, this is the first question that needs to be asked.”
The first question that needs to be asked in assessing an opposition movement is: what is it a movement in opposition to? What is the class character of the regime it is coming into conflict with and why? Imagine trying to analyze the political character Occupy Wall Street without knowing the first thing about Wall Street! Majidi makes this exact mistake by assessing the Libyan edition of the Arab Spring without first examining the Ghadafi regime in any detail. Doing this would make defending the regime from the protest movement as PSL does impossible because the regime was guilty of the very things Majidi claims define the rebellion as reactionary and right-wing: racism, collaboration with imperialism, and pro-neoliberalism.
Racism: Much like the Polish, Ukranian, and other national minorities of Tsarist Russia, Libya’s Amazigh were forbidden from learning, speaking, or celebrating their language and culture by Ghadafi’s regime. Those that dared risked arrest and persecution.
Becker claims “Gaddafi had a lot of support from black Libyans who considered [his] Africa-centric foreign policy to be positive” (33). Does Becker believe Black Libyans supported Ghadafi when he made a racist deal with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to keep Italy free of Black immigrants, saying, “We should stop this illegal immigration. If we don’t, Europe will become Black, it will be overcome by people with different religions”?
Collaboration with Imperialism:Socialists and War: Two Opposing Trends says not a word about how Ghadafi’s regime tortured people on behalf of the CIA and its British counterpart, MI6. Nor does it mention Ghadafi’s mass expulsion of thousands of Palestinian refugees in 1995 and his call on other Arab states to follow suit.
Neoliberalism: Majidi never discusses the Ghadafi regime’s embrace of neoliberalism, so comrade Becker’s words on page 27 may come as a shock:
“Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Gaddafi’s government saw the handwriting on the wall and sought its own accommodation with the West. It adopted a set of neoliberal policies and invited major western oil companies to do business again, once sanctions had been lifted by Britain and the United States.”
So for PSL, it is acceptable for a racist, tyrannical regime to collaborate with U.S. imperialism and institute neoliberal policies but unacceptable for a revolt against this same regime to have racist, collaborationist, and neoliberal elements or characteristics. What is good for the goose is absolutely impermissible for the gander. When Ghadafi made deals with British Petroleum and other western oil companies, PSL said this was understandable and justified; when the post-Ghadafi government honored those same deals, PSL labeled it a pawn of imperialism.
This is doublethink masquerading as Marxist analysis.
Still, the question remains: was it correct to assume (as I did) that the Libyan edition of the Arab Spring was revolutionary and not reactionary, progressive and not regressive? If so, how do we make sense of PSL’s charges of racism, collaborationism, and neoliberalism on the part of the Libyan opposition?
The answer to the first question goes to the very heart of what the Arab Spring is – a series of bourgeois-democratic revolutions. Unlike socialist revolutions and national liberation movements, democratic revolutions are not necessarily anti-imperialist; the pro-imperialist post-revolutionary governments in Egypt and Tunisia prove this. While the socialist revolution is principally a struggle by and for the proletariat (in conjunction with other classes and oppressed groups to be sure) against the bourgeoisie as a whole, modern democratic revolutions pit oppositional sections of the bourgeoisie against ruling sections of the bourgeoisie. PSL points to the defection of neoliberal figures like Mahmoud Jibril from Ghadafi’s regime to the side of the rebellion as proof that it was reactionary while remaining oblivious to analogous neoliberal figures like Mohammad Morsi and Amr Moussa in the Egyptian revolution and Hamadi Jebali in the Tunisian revolution. PSL does not label these latter revolutions right-wing, reactionary, or “colored.”
Again, PSL’s consistent inconsistency is blindly obvious.
Having exposed PSL’s inability to grasp that bourgeois and neoliberal forces inevitably play a prominent role in modern democratic revolutions, what of their charges that the Libyan opposition was racist against Blacks and collaborated with imperialism? Does this not invalidate the claim that the Libyan opposition was democratic in character?
Historically speaking, democratic revolutions were not anti-racist nor even consistently democratic, the American revolution in which white slaveholders and racists played a dominant role being a prime example. The fact that bourgeois-democratic rights were not accorded to Blacks in 1776 and that America’s post-revolutionary government ruthlessly exterminated the continent’s indigenous peoples does not change the revolution’s democratic character. Libya’s democratic revolution in 2011 is no different in this respect.
Libya’s Black Revolutionary Democrats
The problem for PSL and all those like Richard Seymour who saw Libya’s revolutionary democrats as little more than an anti-Black lynch mob is that they either deliberately ignored or were blissfully unaware of the significant number of Black Libyans fighting Ghadafi’s forces. This would have been impossible if anti-Black racism was the rule rather than the exception among the rebels. Southern rebel brigades made up of the Tuareg and Tebo peoples were almost all Black.
Libya’s rebels had more Black commanding officers than the Union did during the Civil War and they commanded non-Black and mixed race units.
Right: Rebel commander Wanis Abu-Khmada berates a group of rebels in the first days of the revolution for their lack of discipline.
Right: Rebel commander Abdul-Wahab Qayed. After the revolution, he was put in command of Libya’s border protection forces.
Thus, PSL’s depiction of Libyan rebels as Klansmen is counterfactual slander.
As for the charge of collaborating or allying with imperialism, undoubtedly this is true. The problem for PSL is that democratic revolutions – unlike socialist revolutions – are not anti-imperialist by definition, and there is no socialist equivalent of the 10 Commandments that forbids such collaboration on a temporary or limited basis. Majidi concedes this, writing:
“It is possible for one imperialist country, or a grouping of imperialist countries, to temporarily aid independence movements in the oppressed world in order to weaken the hold of their imperialist rivals in a different country.”
By the same token, it is possible for one imperialist country, or a grouping of imperialist countries, to temporarily aid democratic revolutions in rival states just as monarchist France aided America’s democratic revolution against British colonialism. Only a fool would conclude that independence movements and democratic revolutions in the oppressed world are reactionary because they receive temporary or limited aid from a reactionary power.
At the root of PSL’s litany of errors is their utter failure to understand democratic revolutions as Lenin and Marx did. This failure leads them to invent a distinction between the “good” Arab Spring (against pro-U.S. dictatorships) and the “bad” Arab Spring (against anti-U.S. dictatorships) instead of realizing that the Arab Spring is an internationalist struggle against all dictatorships. Every country affected by the Arab Spring saw a fight between bourgeois anti-democratic states on the one hand and bourgeois-democratic mass movements on the other; every one of these struggles and movements had and has progressive, democratic political content compared to the tyrannical governments they struggled to reform or remove.
Supporting one freedom struggle and not another is an exercise in the kind of selective hypocrisy characteristic of liberalism, as is the inability to recognize the difference between revolution and counter-revolution; PSL does both while claiming to be a Marxist organization.
PSL’s attempt to pass off eclecticism as Marxism is even more apparent in its internal documents. Richard Becker’s “A Class Analysis of the Revolutionary Upsurge in the Arab World” is a 6-page chronological summary that is as broad as it is superficial. It reads more like a Wikipedia entry than a thoroughgoing study of Libya’s development since 1969 when a bourgeois nationalist military coup ended the monarchy and inaugurated Ghadafi’s 42-year tyranny from the standpoint of historical materialism. Becker’s 277 words “analyzing” (read: describing) Libya contain no discussion of how Ghadafi imported right-less migrant labor to staff the oil industry, creating an unemployed lumpenproletariat among native Libyans, no discussion of the country’s changing class and state structures, and no recognition of Ghadafi’s impoverishment of the standing army in favor of irregular armies of snitches, spies, and enforcers dressed up as “revolutionary committees.” The national oppression of the Amazigh is invisible to Becker, mirroring Ghadafi’s racist insistence that the Amazigh people and culture simply did not exist.
Having failed to properly examine the context and the regime that gave rise to protests in Libya, Majidi moves on to sketch an alternate history of the revolution that conforms all too perfectly with his description of “color revolutions.” He uses the fact that the Libyan revolt could not beat the regime militarily in spring of 2011 as proof that it was not popular, not progressive, nor a genuine revolution; perhaps he has never heard of the Paris Commune of 1871 that was also unable to triumph militarily, or perhaps he believes the Commune to be the very first “color revolution” (orchestrated by German and British imperialists, no doubt). Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that Libya was the first instance in the Arab Spring where a capitalist state used lethal force against peaceful protests on a mass scale – the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions were fortunately never tested by this kind of wanton bloodshed. Ghadafi was the bloody vanguard of the Arab Spring’s counter-revolution, and his violent escalation prompted the democratic opposition led by the National Transition Council to seek military aid from imperialist powers that previously they rejected as unwanted and unnecessary.
If anyone is to blame for NATO’s intervention in Libya, it is Ghadafi. He chose to shoot unarmed protesters en masse, handing NATO the political capital it needed to step into what began as a peaceful struggle.
Majidi goes on to argue that because the NTC did not have the “support of the entire population,” it was a fake, reactionary, unpopular “color revolution,” as if there has ever been a revolution in world history that was an exercise in unanimity! As evidence of popular support for Ghadafi, he points to a single state-sponsored rally of hundreds of thousands held in Tripoli “in the midst of the massive NATO bombing” (never mind the fact that NATO attacked only a handful of targets in Tripoli’s vicinity that day). What he omits is that Ghadafi was an unelected autocrat with an entire state apparatus (including a secret police) at his disposal to coerce people to show up, and, most damningly, that there has been not one pro-Ghadafi rally in all of Libya in the almost two years since the regime’s demise. If Ghadafi’s support emanated organically from the grassroots and not from the networks of patronage created by his regime’s oil money, this would not be the case.
Regardless of what position one took on the character of the Libyan opposition back in 2011, what is indisputable today in 2013 is that Ghadafi’s repressive bourgeois state machine was smashed and razed to the ground by the self-armed population organized in militias, that there is no secret police to terrorize the masses, that strikes, protests, demonstrations, and sit-ins are now regular occurrences, that freedom of the press and expression exist, that victims of racist oppression like the Amazigh have made advances, that unlike Kosovo NATO has no bases there, and that free and fair elections for a legislature were held to inaugurate a democratic republic. All of this is a great leap forward, a tremendous democratic gain for Libya’s oppressed and exploited that vindicates those who understood the Libyan opposition to be progressive, revolutionary, and democratic in character and serves as an irrefutable rebuke to those like PSL who slandered the opposition as monarchist(!), racist, unpopular, and reactionary.
Even stranger than PSL’s defense of racist, collaborationist tyrannies in Libya and Syria from the Arab Spring’s democratic revolutions is their assertion that today’s imperialism and the tasks it poses for socialists remain almost totally unchanged from Lenin’s time. In the face of wars like Libya and Mali where Iraq-style colonization is not the name of the game, PSL can evidently only repeat 100-year-old formulas about anti-colonial wars and revolutionary defeatism.
Standing with independent bourgeois nationalist governments as they slaughter their own peoples by the tens of thousands because said governments have conflicts of interest with imperialist powers is altogether different from standing with national liberation movements like the Vietnamese NLF who battled the slaughter wrought by French and American occupiers. The first is criminal stupidity, the second is anti-imperialism.
With nearly 12,000 votes (a whopping 27% of the vote), the campaign of Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant in Washington’s 43rd legislative district is a bright beacon of hope on the otherwise bleak horizon of the 2012 election for the American left, although you wouldn’t know it by reading the party-line and left-liberal news outlets. Both focus on praising/blasting the two major parties and take solace in a handful of progressive initiatives that passed in a few states while occasionally mourning the poor performance of third parties nationally.
The first presidential election since Occupy brings with it a few lessons that the left should take to heart concerning the long haul, short-term strategy, and sectarianism/left unity. Every experience, no matter how depressing, traumatic, or distasteful is an opportunity to learn and grow, and 2012 is no exception.
The Long View. The failure of voting for the Great Evil as a strategy to arrest Evil’s victorious march over the past 10 election cycles does not need to be reiterated here. Rest assured, President Obama will show his true colors soon when his tax cuts for the 1% expire again (they stopped being Bush’s tax cuts the moment Obama chose to extend them), giving him the opportunity to attempt a second drone strike on Social Security and/or other “entitlements” under the heady guise of a “Grand Bargain” (“kill list” would be more accurate). I can already hear liberals squirming, moaning, and making excuses for Obama’s Faustian bargain, just as they did when Bill Clinton razed the first rampart of the New Deal to the ground in 1996 when he ended welfare. Some things never change, no matter how long your long view is.
Voters who decided to reject seppukuas a lesser evil to beheading are understandably demoralized at the turnout for Jill Stein, the 2012 Green Party candidate, who came up far short of the 5% needed to secure $20 million in federal matching funds for 2016.
A political machine that consistently gives parties of the 1% 99% of the vote and a party of the 99% 1% of the vote, without producing revolution, is an instrument unmatched anywhere in the world for maintaining the status quo. Until the left finds a way to break up, undermine, and successfully sabotage this machine, 1% rule in the United States will forever remain secure. This setup weathered the storms of the 1930s and the 1960s and emerged from both periods largely unscathed, with 1% rule firmly intact. Now that unions are on the endangered species list, our generation has been left with no institutional legacy or defensive position from which to successfully resist naked market forces and unchecked state power.
What does that have to do with Stein’s showing? She was up against this machine with little to no social/political forces behind her and almost zero name recognition of her own on a national scale. The Green Party’s support doubled compared to 2008 with Nader’s absence from the race, the activist resurgence sparked by Occupy, and Hurricane Sandy’s reminder that climate change is a serious problem, but doubling from 0.12% of the vote to 0.3% is a far cry from the 5.0% necessary to really begin to make a dent in the national political machine. The point here about the long haul is that it was totally unrealistic to expect Stein to do better than she did in the face of all of the above factors given that this was her first time on the national political stage. She was arrested repeatedly during the campaign and did not yield or bend a centimeter in the face of liberal hysteria about “the lesser evil.” In other words, she means business. The Green Party has come a long way from 2004 when David Cobb exploited the party’s undemocratic voting system to block the party’s popular choice (Nader/Camejo) from being nominated, a mistake Cobb himself came to regret.
This time, there was no question of the Greens endorsing Obama and they managed to qualify for some federal matching funds in 2012 and got on the ballot in 43 states. This recovery after their near-death experience in 2004 was the result of a lot of thankless and hard work by Green Party cadres. However, hard work should not blind us to the sobering reality that the left-of-Democrat vote all but disappeared nationally in 2012 without Nader on the ballot. This is an indication of just how divided, weak, and unpopular the post-Nader American left is. A left presidential candidate to reaching the vaunted 5% popular vote threshold in 2016 or 2020 remains almost a pipe dream, given the current constellation of left forces that are badly divided, struggle hard just to survive, and survive to compete with rather than collaborate with one other.
There is no excuse for the Green Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Justice Party, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation to fight over “their” sliver of 1% of the electorate. Their presidential campaigns are money, man-hours, and credibility wasted, and when the left has so little of all three, squandering any of it is criminal. The Green Party is the only rooted national force among these efforts, and the smart thing for non-Green forces to do would be to find ways to collaborate and work with the Green Party, strengthen their efforts, and weld an indivisible united electoral front against the two-party state. At a bare minimum, they should list the Green presidential candidate on their ballot lines in 2016 (barring any 2004-style Cobb-ery); 5% or bust is the name of the game if we’re serious about breaking the Democratic Party over the course of the coming decades.
Eugene Debs’ 1912 run where he garnered 6% of the vote on the Socialist Party ticket was his fourth attempt, something to keep in mind when assessing Stein’s first run. Furthermore, the Debs-era Socialist Party was the result of a few splits and many mergers of several national and dozens of local socialist groups that, by 1912, beat Democrats and Republicans to win local and state offices. Today, there are fewer organized socialists than the 6,000 there were in 1898, and we would do well to study our past if we want our future to look dramatically better than our present.
Short-Term Strategy: Lessons from Seattle. The contrast between Kshama Sawant’s and the Jill Stein’s vote totals could not be more stark, although comparing a district race for statewide office to a national fight for the most powerful political office in the world is a bit more than an apples and oranges comparison.
Nonetheless, Sawant nearly topped the combined national votes of all the socialist candidates in a single district! No segment of the American electorate has ever voted for a clear-cut revolutionary socialist against a powerful Democrat by anything close to 27% of the vote, and certainly not with the endorsement of a union local. Make no mistake: Sawant and Socialist Alternative made history in Seattle.
The race was highly unusual because there was no Republican in the running. This was a straight capitalism-versus-socialism contest, and Sawant’s 27% nearly matches the one-third of Americans who say they have a favorable view of socialism. It is proof positive that the potential for a mass-based socialist movement in America far outstrips the actually existing socialist movement’s capacity to translate that potential into something meaningful by at least several orders of magnitude.
So what are the strategic implications of all this? District and city races are where the action is at, or should be at, while presidential races are (almost) hopeless fights and should be de-prioritized for the time being, given the left’s meager resources and national unpopularity. The best way to get ready to fight for and win 5% of the vote national vote for a left candidate in 2016 and 2020 is to win some local or state races. Concentrating our attack where the enemy is strongest and where we are weakest is stupidity, a recipe for more decades marked b y failure, frustration, and powerlessness. Local races require a lot less money to win, and the danger of billionaires emptying their bank accounts into super PACs to defeat us is far lower than it is when governorships, Senate seats, and the presidency are up for grabs.
If we win office at any level, we will be in a position to begin reversing neoliberalism, using Republican-style obstructionist tactics against Republican attacks, and begin undoing Â the anti-democratic practices of the American electoral system. This is essentially how Hugo Chavez built massive popular support for smashing and grabbing (or “redistributing”) the wealth and power of Venezuela’s 1% to the 99% over the past decade one step at a time. Socialist Alternative’s call for Occupy candidates to run in local races is a big step in the right direction. SYRIZA’s near-win in the Greek elections earlier this year exposed the fact that many on the left internationally are deathly afraid of wielding state power within the framework of capitalism, as if there were some other way to stop 1% politicians from slashing and burning whatever is left of social safety nets and union rights (waiting for soviets to form orÂ dual power to emerge has not stopped neoliberalism anywhere, sorry).
Modern protest politics — showing up at demonstrations with all kinds of clever and just demands — are insufficient for today’s class war; Greece has taken this brand of protest politics to extreme levels, where 16 general strikes have not stopped the austerity juggernaut. Until we recognize that we have to wrest as much political, economic, social, and cultural power from the 1% by any means necessary and act on that recognition, we won’t stand a chance at stopping them.
Sectarianism/Left Unity. The other strategic lesson of the Sawant campaign concerns the problem of sectarianism/left unity. The International Socialist Organization’s (ISO) refusal to endorse and work with/for Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative materially weakened the campaign against the Washington legislature’s Democratic speaker, Frank Chopp. The ISO’s support could have brought much-needed publicity and funds to a dynamic and promising but under-funded campaign since the ISO is the largest revolutionary socialist organization in the country. Here was an exceedingly rare and golden opportunity to unite a fractured local left against the most powerful Democrat in state politics and instead of seizing the opportunity to weaken the Democratic Party, the ISO refused to get on board, preferring silence, inaction, and isolation while Chopp twisted the arms of unions and nonprofits alike to endorse him orÂ stay neutral (as the ISO did). Sectarianism must be exposed to the light of day and combated in the here and now, while the stakes are low. When the stakes are high, we cannot afford the “luxury” of this kind of needless and counterproductive sectarianism. In Greece, the Communist Party’s (KKE) sectarianism towards the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) gave the European Union’s banksters the security of knowing they would face a workers’ movement and a left unwilling to unite, and like Germany in the 1930s, the Communist Party’s unwillingness to unite has opened up the space for a menacing fascist movement, the Golden Dawn. What we really need is an American SYRIZA, not an American KKE in miniature. Creating one and overcoming the other remains our central task. Update 11/10/12: Sawant has 15,896, orÂ 28.21%.
The 2012 presidential race bears no trace of Occupy or the militancy it spawned among Chicago teachers and Wal Mart workers. This is no accident — the U.S. political system is a machine, and this machine smothers militancy. The ugly inner workings of the Democratic part of that machine were briefly exposed when a televised floor vote was held at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) to add God and Jerusalem as apartheid Israel’s capital to the party platform at the behest of President Obama. What followed was a charade, the kind of party-line “democracy” practiced at Communist Party congresses in China, North Korea, and the U.S.S.R.:
One DNC delegate stormed out and joined Occupy. Nothing teaches that the Democratic Party does not belong to Democrats better than painful, bitter experiences like this.
But Occupy’s absence from the presidential conversation is neither simply nor exclusively the result of the rigged political system. It is also partially the result of Occupy’s anarchist ethos, a double-edged sword that has proven very effective for preventing Wisconsin-style derailment by union leaders loyal to the Democratic Party but very ineffective in terms of power politics, that is, using the levers of power — elections and elected office — to get things done.
Like clockwork, every four years liberals (and a few radicals) invent ever-more morally, politically, and strategically bankrupt reasons to vote for the Democratic candidate while most radicals attack one other and their liberal neighbors for capitulating to the two-party state.
Neither side of this contentious divide has an exit strategy from the two-party plantation and so American politics remains stuck on repeat, except that the two evils presented become progressively more evil every four years.
Liberals’ perverse ritual of convincing themselves that seppuku is a lesser evil to beheading every four years has weakened left-of-center forces over the past nine presidential election cycles (since the Democratic Party nominated McGovern in 1972) to such an extent that today’s Democratic Party is to the right of the Nixon administration in policy terms on the environment, health care, and workplace safety.
The radicals who correctly reject sepukku as a survival strategy have generally not put much practical effort into building a meaningful third party that could begin to split the Democratic Party’s voting base (workers, people of color, LGBTs, women) from its funding base (big business), citing the American electoral terrain’s tremendous obstacles. Why bother starting to climb when the cliff face is so steep?
Abstaining from electoral work independent of the Democratic Party’s machinery seems like the smart strategic choice, given the far left’s meager resources and the certainty of unfavorable outcomes for an unknown number of election cycles. The problem is that unless and until we start this difficult and treacherous climb, the high ground (meaning control of the state) will forever remain in enemy hands. The radical left’s “smart” strategic choice in the short run has led to the defeat and destruction of left-of-center forces in the long run.
Think that’s an exaggeration? Look at the unions — or what’s left of them.
The failure to create an alternative political instrument or institution, a party more Democratic than the Democratic Party, is the material foundation underpinning the recurring seppuku-or-beheading suicide ritual we subject ourselves to every four years. Fear trumps correct arguments as a mobilizing force and hope trumps fear, as anyone who lived through the 2008 election knows. Telling people to “break with the Democratic Party” does nothing to break the Democratic Party any more than abstinence education stops anyone from having pre-marital sex or sensitivity training changes how police manhandle people of color.
If anyone has the guts left to arrest the cyclical sepukku of the left, it is occupiers. Most of them were enthusiastic Obama voters in 2008 and were forced to be the change they wanted to see starting in fall of 2011.
There have been efforts to occupy the vote, to translate direct action in the streets into political action at the polls, to occupy the point of corruption.
After the eviction of the Zuccotti Park encampment, George Martinez challenged Wall Street Democrat Nydia M. Velázquez for the newly redrawn 7th Congressional District’s Democratic primary, calling his campaign “Bum Rush the Vote.” He polled 2.7% in a four-way race, reflecting the stiff competition and Occupy Wall Street’s weak mobilizing power in the district. In Washington state’s 43rd Legislative District, Occupy Seattle activist and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant won close to 10% of the vote in primary races against two entrenched Democrats in the state legislature, allowing Sawant to run against one of them in November in the general election, a real red-versus-blue race!
On the national level, four socialist parties are following the time-honored socialist tradition of fielding four competing candidates against one another. Self-proclaimed socialist Roseanne Barr is running on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket that has ballot lines in only two states, Iowa and California. Former Democrat Rocky Anderson’s Justice Party has ballot access in 11 states. The Green Party’s Jill Stein is on the ballot in 38 states and hopes to reach 44 by November, a first for the Green Party since it had 44 in 2000 and a comeback from its low point of 24 in 2004. In a historic first, the Green Party qualified for federal matching funds in the 2012 election cycle.
The plethora of presidential candidates to the left of the two parties in 2012 is an indicator of the left’s recovery, not simply the depressingly familiar tale of a squabbling, frustrating, self-defeating, American left. This becomes easier to see when we we step back and look at the results of the past few presidential cycles.
The above table shows that the only significant or meaningful electoral political expression of left opposition to the two parties in the past three presidential election cycles is the candidacy of liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Nader’s vote peaked in 2000, collapsed in 2004, and recovered in 2008 in terms of absolute numbers by winning almost twice the number of as in 2004, but his sliver of electoral support barely increased with the tremendous turn out of new, young Obama voters that year.
Over the past three presidential cycles, the socialist parties to Nader’s left have gained no traction with any segment of the population and continue to waste their time, money, and extremely limited resources running national campaigns not only against the two enemy parties but against each other. They have gained nothing for themselves nor contributed to the recreation of a broader socialist movement through these ill-advised efforts despite the fact that socialism is more popular than capitalismÂ Â among young people.
The 2012 race will be a crucial test for the Green Party and a smaller test for the new Justice Party since Nader is not in the race. This test will be especially difficult since the close race between Obama and Romney strengthens the appeal of the lesser evil “strategy.” Stein will be lucky to match Nader’s vote in 2000 when the alter-globalization movement was in full swing and icons like Michael Moore and Rage Against the Machine campaigned for him. This is her first national run and she does not yet enjoy a fraction of the name recognition Nader did in 2000 after three decades of activism and lobbying. However, part of building an effective opposition to 1% rule is ensuring that our efforts do not depend so heavily individuals or celebrities like Nader. Stein’s campaign should be seen as a (small) part of that longer-haul process.
As the Republican Party dismantles the New Deal and the Democratic Party produce excuses instead of action to stop them, the task of creating a viable left organization that can use elected office against the 1% is more pressing than ever.
…if a political revolution came tomorrow, could those who believe in social justice and climate change actually govern? Do we have the people to do it? Do we have the ideas, the legislative proposals, the understanding ofÂ how to reorganize our society into a sustainable and socially just one? I suspect, no. When the next crisis comes, and it will come, space will again open up for real policyÂ change. Â The most important thing we can use [the 2012] election for is to prepare for that moment. That means finding ways ofÂ seeing who is on our side and building a group with the will to power and the expertise to make the right demands. We need to generate the inner confidence toÂ blow up the political consensus, against the railings of the men in suits. …
[T]he task starting after the election is to build this network ofÂ organized people with intellectual and political integrity into a group who understands how to move the levers ofÂ power across industry, government, media and politics. We need to put ourselves into the position to be able to run the government.
At the same time, the constituent elements that could and should constitute such a formation are scattered, divided, and isolated from one other. The rent strikers in Sunset Park have no organic link with the occupiers of Oakland’s Biblioteca; the Working Families Party of New York and the state’s Green Party work at cross-purposes with each other; the Vermont Progressive Party occupies the space where the Green Party should be.
Building bridges between initiatives that, in the big scheme of things, are up against the same enemies is no easy task, as the examples of the Greek left and, in very different circumstances, the Free Syrian Army show, but it is unavoidable and indispensable if we are going to start winning instead of continually losing.
About 100 people, mostly students, turned out on September 25 to hear incumbent Democrat Frank Chopp of the Washington House of Representatives’ 43rd legislative district debate challenger Kshama Sawant ofÂ Socialist AlternativeÂ at Seattle University.
Sawant received over 10%Â in aÂ blanket primaryÂ vote against Chopp during the summer, allowing her to run against himÂ in the November election on a separate ticket. Washington’s Republican Secretary of State Sam ReedÂ challengedÂ her ability to declare her party preference (Socialist Alternative) on the November ballot since she did not do so as a write-in candidate during the blanket primary, so she successfully filed a lawsuit against Reed.
Now, voters in Washington’s 43rd legislative district will choose between a Democrat and a socialist to represent them in the state legislature this November.
Chopp focused narrowly on his accomplishments as Speaker of the House without mentioning any failures, setbacks, or significant hurdles. The overall picture he painted could be described as, “yes we can, and we are.”
Sawant, an adjunct professor of economics at Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College, took Speaker Chopp and his House Democratic majority to task for not doing more or what was possible. She pointed to referendums in 2000 (initiatives 722 and 728) to shrink class sizes that passed with overwhelming approval by voters but were never implemented. Sawant placed responsibility for that failure on Chopp and his House Democratic Majority. Chopp replied dryly that the initiative was “not paid for,” as if it was the voters’ job to figure out all the legislative details to make a referendum a reality rather than his job. He claimed that there was “no revenue” to pay for the ballot initiatives, ignoring Sawant’s point that $3.2 billion that could have been used to fund them went insteadÂ to Boeing as a tax break;Â Boeing pocketed the money andÂ laid off hundreds of workers.
In his closing argument, Chopp claimed that he had increased transportation funding, never mind the recent endÂ of the free bus service in the down town Seattle area.
The most interesting part of the evening’s event was the question-and-answer period with the audience. There was no red-baiting or anti-communist diatribes, a stark contrast to the health care town halls of 2009. Instead, audience members asked both candidates for solutions to pressing problems like homelessness, unemployment, poverty, and draconian cuts to social services like education. They were interested in were results, not party loyalty or ideology. Droli Rainey, the 84-year-old woman pepper sprayed in the faceÂ at an Occupy protest in 2011, needled Chopp for “not fulfilling your duty under the state constitution” by not stopping the yearly cuts to education funding and wanted to know when can voters expect could expect something different from the House Democratic majority. The second question came from a teacher who asked Chopp why the state declined federal funding that could have been used to provide health care for the children of immigrants, including the undocumented.
After only two questions from his constituents, Chopp exited the debate, claiming to have a prior engagement. He missed a question about homelessness from an Iraq war veteran and discussion of the cuts to transit by an activist bus riders’ union.
The debate portion of the event can be viewedÂ on YouTubeÂ and the full event after Chopp’s early exit can be viewed here.