Cynthia Nixon, a Hollywood actress, a millionaire, and candidate for the governor of New York, has come out as a socialist–but only recently. Just a few minutes before she appealed to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) for an endorsement, she proclaimed: “I’m a democratic socialist.” Less than two weeks later, she tried to walk that comment back (around 5:44 on the video).
This is a perfect symbol of the polarized times we live in: a wealthy liberal like Nixon is using the term “socialism” to get votes from young radicals. Just a few years ago, “socialism” was a dirty word that Democratic Party politicians avoided like the plague. Now sectors of the Democratic Party like Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi have to explain that the Democrats are and always will be a capitalist party.
Members of the Democratic Socialists of America in New York City (DSA-NYC) are currently voting on whether to endorse Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic Party primary against two-term incumbent Andrew Cuomo. Nixon’s running mate is the NYC city council member Jumaane Williams, who is trying to run as a left-winger in the primaries despite a long trajectory of pro-capitalist policies. In fact, up until a week ago, he accepted corporate money, including thousands for large real estate companies. This appears a clear contradiction with a platform that promises to fight against the interests of real estate that make huge profits through high rent, speculation, and gentrification. The NY Post claims that these donations may break campaign finance laws. As a result of pressure, Williams has now pledged to give the money back. Furthermore, he has accepted money from the police and says that he is “personally” against same-sex marriage and abortion.
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The reasons not to support Nixon are overwhelming. She is a part of the state’s wealthy elite, nearly indistinguishable from DeBlasio as a candidate. She wants nothing more than minuscule reforms within the framework of capitalism. She wants to abolish ICE but keep the INS. She wants rent regulation while Jummane Williams accepts massive donations from real estate companies. Her campaign manager wrote DeBlasio’s “affordable housing plan,” which opened the way to mass gentrification. Although she says she is a socialist, she has not even paid the 60 dollars for a year-long membership to the DSA, of whom she wants an endorsement.
Leaders of DSA’s North Brooklyn branch has made a call to “Vote No!”, which currently has over 100 signatures from DSA members in NYC. However, this will certainly be a contentious vote. While a straw poll of members showed overwhelming support for a “yes” on Nixon, branch votes are split evenly, with South Brooklyn, Central Brooklyn, and Lower Manhattan calling for a Nixon vote, and North Brooklyn, Bronx/Upper Manhattan, and Queens calling for a no. A decision is expected this Sunday at a leadership meeting, as POLITICO is reporting.
The huge attention that the DSA is getting in the media is another symbol of our times. The bourgeois media is following the debates going on within a socialist group! This was unimaginable just a few years ago.
This political moment can be characterized by an immense anti-establishment feeling among the masses. This anger is currently expressing itself through support for ultra-right politicians on the one hand and progressive politicians on the other. Some sectors have begun to understand that capitalism is the cause of our problems and are now open to socialist ideas. With masses of people moving left, this is a unique moment for socialists. The role of socialists cannot be to herd socialist-curious people back into the two-party system. The role of socialists is to create a real alternative that provides profound solutions to low wages, massive debt, high rents, police violence, and deportations: a revolutionary socialist organization.
Who is the DSA?
The DSA comes from the social democratic tradition. Until last year, the DSA was a member of the Socialist International together with governments from around the world, including the current president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, who just lost an election for his hated policies of privatization; the current president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, who is responsible for the murder of hundreds of protestors; and Liviu Dragnea, the wildly corrupt leader of Romania.
Without a doubt, the DSA today looks and feels very different than the followers of founder Michael Harrington, who until recently remained in the Socialist International. This new DSA is the product of the 2008 capitalist crisis, which meant a future of debt and poverty for Millennials; they know capitalism has nothing to offer them. To this new generation, the failure of Stalinist bureaucracies is far less pressing than the bills. And so, for tens of thousands of people, socialism is the solution. This new generation of socialists who have joined the DSA in the last year need to ask themselves if they want to remain part of the social democratic tradition. If the answer is no, that the DSA is to the left of social democracy, then this needs to be expressed in actions as well as words. It means rejecting the notion that endorsing liberal politicians is a step towards socialism.
Leaders of the North Brooklyn Branch echo this sentiment, making good arguments about why not to support Nixon and Williams. We agree with the fundamental argument: even small improvements in the lives of working people, such as rent controls and universal health care, will only be won by mass struggles of our class, as we saw in the recent teacher rebellion. As the statement reads: “We believe that our fight for socialism lives or dies by the working class fighting for themselves, not by who sits in the governor’s mansion.” We are in favor of reforms, but we know that they can only be won by fighting in the streets and in our workplaces. This is especially true in this moment of capitalist crisis, when the wealthy are searching for any way to increase their profits and squeeze the working class more. It is of no help to elect liberal politicians, even liberal “socialists” like Cynthia Nixon. But the problem goes beyond Nixon and Williams.
The problem with the Democrats… all of them
We are currently watching in real time how, since her explosive primary victory, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has been capitulating under the pressure of the Democratic Party machine: from claiming Israel’s “right to exist,” explaining that by “Abolish ICE” she does not mean open borders, and refusing to come out against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. These aren’t just personal failings of AOC but rather the pressure of the Democratic Party machine.
These pressures are intensified by the fact that there is no mechanism of accountability of the country’s most well-known DSA member to many other members who spent countless hours campaigning for her. And when AOC makes it to Congress, which is very likely, can we guarantee she won’t vote for the military budget? Or aid to Israel? And if she does, she will do it as a DSA member and a DSA-endorsed candidate.
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What about Julia Salazar? She is a member of the DSA with more left politics than AOC and certainly Cynthia Nixon. In fact, in a Jacobin interview, she differentiates between progressives and democratic socialists saying that she supports not only universal rent control, but the abolition of private property. In spite of this, she too is running on the Democratic Party line. Instead of denouncing the Democratic Party, Salazar is looking for allies within it — already pledging support for Cynthia Nixon.
Why couldn’t someone like Julia Salazar run as a socialist, putting the hundreds of DSA members who are canvassing into dialogue with those who are disillusioned with the two-party system? Why can’t the anti-establishment feeling be put in the service of joining a movement against the parties that have sold out the working class and oppressed them again and again? She may not win the election, but the DSA will have spread socialist ideas and about working class independence from capitalists. And besides, it’s not unheard of for an independent socialist to win an election; before the Sanders phenomena and the DSA growth, Kshama Sawant won a city council seat in 2013. While we are critical of her and her party, but she is an important example that independent politics are possible — even with much smaller forces than the DSA currently has and under much less favorable political conditions.
What Nixon, AOC, and Salazar have in common is that they are all playing a part in a plan, carefully crafted by the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party to resolve the crisis of the Democrats, who were so badly humiliated by the Trump election, by bringing young, progressive candidates into the Party.
Cynthia Nixon and even Tom Perez have said it openly: “Democratic Socialism will save the Democratic Party.” While 71% of millenials want a third party, progressive “anti-establishment” candidates play the role of bringing people back to the Democrats. AOC even says it in her Jacobin interview: “Honestly, that was the hardest canvassing of the entire campaign, a year ago. That was the most slammed doors I got, the most people yelling at me. I picked up the phone, and people would be cussing me out. And I said, ‘Listen, I get it. I get why you don’t want to be a Democrat.’”
As socialists, we don’t want to save the Democratic Party. As Left Voice authors Jimena Vergara and Tre Kwon argue: “Economic hardship and social contradictions inherent in bourgeois democracy are causing cracks in the ruling parties. When it appears the Democratic Party is going up in flames, revolutionaries and socialists should give their all to make the fire burn hotter.” We don’t want to administer the capitalist system. This means wealth remains in the hands of a tiny minority of capitalists, who hold all political power. According to the vision of reformist “socialists”, working people are supposed to be satisfied by bread crumbs like more affordable health care, education, or rent.
Organize against the State. Organize for Revolution
Revolutionary socialists, in contrast, think that the capitalists need to be expropriated. We working people create all of society’s wealth – why should it be controlled by anyone else? Taking control of the means of productions requires building up a political party of workers, independent of all wings of the capitalists, with a revolutionary program.
We don’t quite agree with the statement from the North Brooklyn DSA branch, who refer to the capitalist state as “a site of conflict between three primary actors: ‘the capitalist class, the managers of the state apparatus, and the working class'” based on theories from Fred Block, Nicos Poulantzas etc. We think the definition offered by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto is correct: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” It is an instrument of class rule in the hands of the capitalists to oppress and exploit the workers.
Theories that consider the state apparatus a field of struggle for the working class inevitably lead to reformism: socialists attempt to carry out this struggle inside the state by joining bourgeois governments. Rosa Luxemburg explained why this strategy can only lead to disaster: “The character of a bourgeois government isn’t determined by the personal character of its members, but by its organic function in bourgeois society. The government of the modern state is essentially an organization of class domination, the regular functioning of which is one of the conditions of existence of the class state. With the entry of a socialist into the government, and class domination continuing to exist, the bourgeois government doesn’t transform itself into a socialist government, but a socialist transforms himself into a bourgeois minister.”
We don’t need to go back to the time of Marx or Luxemburg to find examples of this. Reformist “socialists” like SYRIZA in Greece won an overwhelming victory in the elections in 2015 after dozens of general strikes against austerity. When the Greek people overwhelmingly voted against the austerity plan presented by the Troika, Syriza ignored them and went on to implement some of Greece’s worst austerity measures.
This is why revolutionary socialists do not fight within the state – we fight against the state, to destroy it and replace it with a workers’ state that is run by working people.
We think DSA members should fight for a revolutionary perspective – the only realistic way to break the power of capital and build up a socialist society. We should vote against the endorsement of Nixon, but also refuse to support AOC and any other Democratic politicians. The Green Party, with its explicitly pro-capitalist program, is no alternative either. We need a party that fuses the fighting power of the working class, as seen in the teacher rebellions, with the revolutionary program of Marxism.
A revolutionary party can participate in elections, too. The revolutionary left in Argentina, organized in the Workers’ Left Front (FIT), regularly participates in elections and gets more than a million votes. But revolutionary electoral work isn’t about getting seats and certainly not about endorsing wealthy candidates – it’s about spreading socialist ideas and organizing workers in the struggle against capital. It’s about highlighting that the parties of capital are the enemies of the working class and oppressed and that only by organizing against the Republicans, the Democrats, the bigots, and the bosses can we achieve reforms and yes, revolution.