The current wave of electoral campaigns associating themselves with socialism to one degree or another is an indication of the dramatic shift that has taken place in the consciousness of the US working class. This was never predicted by bourgeois political analysts and just a few years ago would have seemed impossible.
The bourgeois media follows every twist and turn of these “socialist” campaigns in an attempt to measure the strength of the “insurgency” and speculate on the future trajectory of the Democratic Party, which is in open crisis. Every victory is used to argue that the progressive insurgency is just beginning, while every defeat is seized upon to announce, once again, the death of socialism. This horse race is primarily of interest to the strategists of the Democratic Party—the primary political representative of the US capitalist class. The question socialists should ask themselves is whether or not these campaigns bring us closer to our goal of achieving a socialist society—an aspiration now shared by millions of Americans, as confirmed by poll after poll.
In the immediate wake of the upset victory of DSA’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, many considered this to be an open-and-shut case: her victory put a democratic socialist in the national headlines, a thousand new members flocked to the DSA that week alone, and other incumbents would surely be put on notice that DSA’s influence is growing. The “pragmatic tactic” of using the Democrats as a vehicle to advance socialist politics, known as the “inside-outside” strategy, appeared to be vindicated.
The "real" Democrats
Fast forward one month and the question was no longer so clear cut. Eager to follow in the footsteps of Ocasio-Cortez, New York candidate for governor Cynthia Nixon sought the endorsement of NYC DSA. Despite her attempt to present herself as the progressive alternative to Andrew Cuomo in the upcoming Democratic Party primary, it was clear that the ranks were not convinced. A few minutes before addressing a city-wide DSA meeting to formally request the endorsement, she announced on Twitter that “If being a democratic socialist means you believe in the fundamental right to health care, housing, education, justice then call me a democratic socialist.” But a couple of weeks later in an interview with Vice News she would not confirm her new affiliation:
Interviewer: So are you a democratic socialist?
Nixon: Well, so, it’s a . . . it’s a label that I’ve never pinned on myself before. But the more I learn about the democratic socialists, their values are absolutely my values.
Interviewer: But you’re not wearing the label yet? Officially?
Nixon: Well, I . . . really, I mean I wanna be clear that when I . . . I don’t line up 100% with every single policy, but all of the major ones I absolutely do.
Nixon’s policies can be summed up as follows: “Real Democrats” would expand funding to public programs like education, funded by asking the superrich to pay their fair share of taxes. According to Nixon, Cuomo, the “Democrat who governs like a Republican,” has bamboozled the voters and broken away from these “traditional values” of the Democrats.
This brand of campaign rhetoric, however, is par for the course for any standard metropolitan Democrat. From the Clinton and Obama presidencies, to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, and even Cuomo himself when he ran for governor in 2010, the slogans of “resisting special interests” and howling against “big money in politics” have time and again served as the banner of the Democratic Party candidates during election campaigns. In their endorsement of Cuomo in his first run for governor, The New York Times even highlighted the then-State Attorney General Cuomo’s willingness to prosecute fellow Democrats who engaged in Wall Street fraud. Since his election, however, we see that the power of capitalists remains unmoved and even strengthened. Even if there were reforms carried out, they would be an extremely compromised version of what was promised, and primarily funded by taxes not on the rich but on the working class. Contrary to Nixon’s assertion, Cuomo has been governing precisely like a Democrat.
But it’s not just Nixon’s lukewarm reformist platform that has many DSA members asking how far the bar can be lowered for what it means to be a “socialist” before the term is stripped of all meaning. More socialists are drawing the inescapable conclusion that the Democratic Party is no place for our fight, and that running a campaign on their ballot line may not be so “strategic” after all. After a debate in all six of the New York City DSA locals, three voted against endorsing Nixon, including the Queens and Bronx/Upper Manhattan branches, which were ground zero for the Ocasio-Cortez campaign. In the end, the New York City DSA leadership voted to support Nixon, making the endorsement official. But the divergent views among the rank and file are increasingly evident.
No accountability for DSA candidates
One point raised during the debates over endorsement was how there is no way for DSA to hold its endorsed candidates accountable. After all, if a fiery working-class candidate like Ocasio-Cortez can be so swiftly tamed by the Democratic Party apparatus into becoming a loyal member of the machine, this doesn’t bode well for other attempts at “insurgency” behind enemy lines on the Democratic ticket.
Since Ocasio-Cortez’s win, she has garnered national attention and praise from the media, but also quickly dampened her anti-imperialist stance on the question of Palestine and removed mention of her affiliation with Democratic Socialists of America from her Twitter account, although DSA worked hard to campaign for her on the ground. The same rightward shift could be seen in the trajectory of Bernie Sanders after his 2016 capitulation, when he joined DNC chair Tom Perez on a unity tour to bring the party together.
This is the result of trying to use a capitalist party to realise the aspirations of the working class. The Democrats are one leg of the two-party system which, as Marx put it, serves as the committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. In New York and most other large metropolitan concentrations in the country, they are the primary party of the ruling class. With some two centuries of experience, they excel at capturing, attenuating, and ultimately controlling mass movements that erupt outside of it. This channeling is happening before our eyes as Ocasio-Cortez is showered with praise by the party and the liberal media.
Many are rightly asking themselves: If Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, who both began their careers by calling themselves democratic socialists, have slipped down this slope, how can we expect Cynthia Nixon or other Democrats seeking endorsements from socialists to be consistent fighters for the working class?
The Democrats: no vessel for socialism!
It is true that not all candidates who seek the Democratic Party ballot line have illusions that the party can be changed. Julia Salazar, candidate for New York State Senate in the upcoming September elections, admitted in a Jacobin interview that the Democratic Party is an unlikely “vessel for the democratic socialist revolution, so it would be silly and shortsighted for democratic socialists to put a lot of effort and resources into [an attempt to transform the Democratic Party].”
But when asked how she responds to those—like Socialist Revolution magazine—who argue that socialists should not run in the Democratic Party at all, she replied:
They should tell that to the over 150,000 people in my district, who are living in fear every day of being displaced from their homes, and who are registered Democrats in a state with closed primaries. It’s unquestionably strategic here in New York—though not everywhere, I should add—to run as a Democrat if you want to seize power as a leftist. To mobilise people around socialist politics you have to engage Democratic voters, and you can’t do that in any meaningful way without running on the Democratic Party line in my district.
This line of argument would make sense if Salazar’s potential electoral victory—which she refers to as a “seizure of power” (her very own, of course!)—meant she’d have a free hand to solve the urgent housing problems of the 150,000 people who are threatened with displacement in her district. But that is not the case. Electing an individual socialist senator—or even hundreds of state legislators and city council members, as the Socialist Party of America did a century ago—is a far cry from having a mass socialist party in power, guided by a clear program, determined democratically by the membership, with all candidates accountable to the party membership, based on the collective power of the working class, and moving onto the offensive against the capitalist class.
Necessity of a mass party
Taking a serious approach to the growing class struggle in the US means, first of all, recognizing the urgency of forming a mass socialist working-class party. Among many other campaigns, such a party would fight for an end to the capitalist housing market, and with it the housing crisis and gentrification faced by millions. 11 million people in the US spend over half their income in rent, and would readily welcome a socialist plan for housing that began by fixing rent at no more than 10% of wages.
It is to the credit of Julia Salazar that, unlike Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, she recognises that the Democratic Party will never deliver this kind of solution, and is unreformable. But the conclusion is not to move forward on the Democratic ballot line with piecemeal reforms, which are guaranteed to be blocked in the long run by a hostile party of the enemy class. Rather, we should recognise the discontent in society, and see how far consciousness has come since the 2008 crisis. Millions of Americans are sick of both major parties, and would enthusiastically throw themselves into a serious initiative to launch a working-class party. It will not be built overnight, and its founding will require forces greater than DSA’s present numbers, but socialists today can play a key role in raising the need for a mass political vehicle for our class.
But what would such a party look like? Unlike the largely NYC-based Working Families Party, which is completely run by union bureaucrats and Democratic Party functionaries, a genuine working-class party would quickly sink roots in millions of workplaces and neighborhoods by fighting for bread and butter issues while linking those struggles to the ultimate need for a socialist revolution. Since its founding in the 1990s, the WFP has consistently served as a fusion ballot line that ends up channeling votes for Democratic Party candidates (and sometimes Republicans!) making it a pawn in the cynical dog-eat-dog machinations of Democrats against each other. Whenever it “stands up to the establishment,” for example, with its preemptive endorsement of Nixon, it is only to timidly “protest” the powers that be, while assuring everyone that they are committed to not “stealing votes” from Democrats.
In the general election, the Green Party of New York is also running candidates against both major bourgeois parties. Their nominee for Governor, Howie Hawkins, is presenting himself as a socialist, while their candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Jia Lee, is a member of the DSA. Although we can sympathise with the Greens for facing a constant media blackout and accusations of being spoilers for the Democratic Party, the Green Party is not a socialist party of the working class and lacks the basis in society to serve as a vehicle for the class struggle. It is an organization with ballot status in many parts of the country that is adhered to by people holding a hodgepodge of liberal environmentalist or reformist ideas. In this election, some will understandably cast a vote for Hawkins as a protest against the Democrats, but we believe that Hawkins should have run under the socialist banner to clearly present these ideas as for the workers and by the workers. Staying with the Green Party ultimately limits the movement on the electoral plane.
A workers' party: not an electoral machine
Rather than just being a machine that activates every election season, a mass working-class party will have an active political life in which members regularly get together to discuss politics and organise together to carry the party’s policies forward. Such a party will not be a third party, but a first party that involves and politicises the working-class majority of society. Socialists must constantly but patiently emphasise the urgency for such a break in our daily activity.
Once a lead is given and the colossal pent-up energy is unleashed, such a party will rapidly gain momentum. Will a revolutionary socialist program win the next election for New York governor? Probably not, but once the Democrats retake the Congress and eventually the White House, their failure to deliver fully on any major progressive reform will again lead many to seek a way beyond the impasse of the two-party system. If the Marxists are sufficiently organised when the fractured dam of the two-party system begins to burst, our call for the revolutionary path forward can gain a significant echo.