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Eric Blanc vs. Kshama Sawant: On Democracy, Autocracy, and Socialism

At a recent online debate, two prominent U.S. socialists hashed out the question of reform vs. revolution. Eric Blanc repeated dried-out reformist ideas. Kshama Sawant offered revolutionary criticism — but with some important limitations.

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Painting of Vladimir Lenin addressing the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets in Petrograd, November 8 [October 26, Old Style], 1917.

On July 27, Kshama Sawant and Eric Blanc sat down for a debate on the relevance of the Russian Revolution today. Sawant, a Trotskyist on Seattle’s city council, and Blanc, a former Trotskyist who has become something of a thought leader for modern social democracy, were hashing out the old debate about reform or revolution. Sawant is a member of Socialist Alternative and is well known as one of the few independent socialists in the United States to win an election. Blanc, in contrast, believes that socialists should be part of the Democratic Party. This was no mere historical debate: Blanc might well be the primary theoretician of the country’s largest socialist organization, the DSA.

The online event was to promote Blanc’s book Revolutionary Social Democracy, which has just appeared in paperback. In it, he attempts to give a historical justification for his strategy of a parliamentary road to socialism. He puts a specific emphasis on the Finnish Revolution of 1918–19, in which the working class took power despite their social democratic leadership. Even though social democratic policies led to a bloody counterrevolution, Blanc sees this as a model to follow.

This article is not meant to summarize the debate. Suffice it to say that Sawant and Bryan Koulouris of Socialist Alternative provided clear historical evidence that the parliamentary road to socialism is an illusion. Many authors have corrected Blanc’s distortions of the Finnish Revolution, demonstrating that a reformist strategy led to a catastrophe. Socialist Alternative also highlighted the examples of Chile under Allende and Greece under Syriza to show that socialism can never be won via elections. They correctly argued that unions and socialists need to break with the Democratic Party and build a working-class, socialist party.

There is no doubt that Blanc has done extensive research, but his conclusions are wrong. He resorts to anti-communist tropes, such as that Leninism is undemocratic and dogmatic, and that Leninists apply the same recipe for every situation in every country. At the same time, Socialist Alternative found themselves in quite a contradiction, since they have long supported Bernie Sanders and registered people to vote in the Democratic Party, while here they tried to argue the opposite position.

Blanc’s central claim is that there are limits to using the Russian Revolution as an example because organizing in an autocracy, like czarist Russia, is different from organizing in a bourgeois democracy. And Blanc is right about that. But it’s not like this is some kind of theoretical breakthrough.

Blanc, using a simple model of “autocracy” vs. “democracy,” ignores a century of Marxist discussions about revolutionary strategy in “the East” and “the West.” The conclusions he draws are the opposite of what most Marxists have observed. Blanc assumes that a ruling class like the U.S. bourgeoisie, highly skilled at controlling civil society, would simply allow the workers to take power via elections. In reality, of course, a bourgeois “democracy” offers much stronger tools for controlling the working class. Socialist Alternative, however, did not seem to consider these different conditions at all. Let’s dig into the arguments.

Democracy Is the Best Possible Shell for Capitalism

Blanc is correct that most workers tend to hope that they can improve their situation via elections. But he fails to answer the question: Is such hope justified? Can capitalism be overcome at the ballot box?

Blanc even claims that parliamentary democracy is not a tool of the bourgeoisie. Instead, he sees the U.S. Congress as a neutral arena where different classes can slug it out. Rosa Luxemburg refutes this argument better than we ever could:

What parliamentarism expresses here is capitalist society, that is to say, a society in which capitalist interests predominate. In this society, the representative institutions, democratic in form, are in content the instruments of the interests of the ruling class. This manifests itself in a tangible fashion in the fact that as soon as democracy shows the tendency to negate its class character and become transformed into an instrument of the real interests of the population, the democratic forms are sacrificed by the bourgeoisie, and by its State representatives.

In other words, democracy in the capitalist state is just a shell for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Workers can pick which representative of the capitalist class “represents” them — but there is no way to vote the bourgeoisie as a class out of office.

In the rare cases that a left-wing candidate wins an election, the bourgeoisie has plenty of options to maintain their control. From threats and corruption, like with Syriza in Greece, to military coups, such as in Chile under Allende.

In the United States, there are countless mechanisms to keep elections within the narrowest scope. It’s why there are so many voting restrictions and anti-democratic institutions, from the Electoral College to the Senate to the Supreme Court. In his new book Breaking the Impasse, Kim Moody lays out all these anti-democratic instruments in great detail, such as the exorbitant resources required to take place in elections. Even by the standards of capitalist democracy, the U.S. is extraordinarily undemocratic, and increasingly so. Both the Democrats and Republicans uphold these undemocratic mechanisms.

Listening to Blanc, you would assume that capitalist democracy in the United States was functioning perfectly. Has he really forgotten about all the undemocratic tricks used to block his favorite candidate, Bernie Sanders? These manipulations by the media and the Democratic Party establishment were used to stop a candidate advocating nothing more than New Deal liberalism. What would the capitalist regime do to stop a real socialist?

Blanc also seems not to have noticed that capitalist democracies are in crisis. In the United States, over half of Republicans don’t believe that Biden won the last elections. There is an unprecedented lack of trust in supposedly “democratic” institutions. That, of course, does not mean that the majority of people are ready to set off on the path of socialist revolution. But more people than ever are questioning the limits of bourgeois democracy. This is an absurd time for socialists to claim that parliaments are the best way to transform society, as Blanc did throughout the debate.

Yet it is also true that working-class people continue to have illusions in bourgeois democracy, and that creates a particular set of challenges for socialists. We must defend the right to vote — but we must also push for a massive expansion of democracy, in two ways: On the one hand, we should raise radical democratic demands that expose the limits of bourgeois democracy. This includes basic (nonsocialist) demands like abolishing the Senate or making politicians recallable.

On the other hand, we should fight for democratic self-organization by the working class. This means that socialists should promote self-organization in unions, workplaces, and social movements. These are the seeds of real workers’ democracy. Historically, this has taken the form of the soviets in the Russian Revolution or the workers’ councils in the German Revolution. These are the beginnings of the institutions of dual power that are necessary to overthrow the capitalist system.

For different reasons, neither Blanc nor Socialist Alternative advocate these policies.

Radical Democratic Demands

While our goal is to overcome bourgeois democracy, we fight to defend and expand democratic rights. As Trotsky explained,

We are thus firm partisans of a Workers’ and Peasants’ State, which will take the power from the exploiters. To win the majority of our working-class allies to this program is our primary aim. Meanwhile, as long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie.

In France’s bourgeois democracy in 1934, Trotsky therefore called for the abolition of the Senate and the presidency and the creation of “a single assembly,” which

must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years, by universal suffrage at eighteen years of age, with no discrimination of sex or nationality. Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker.

While Blanc argued that socialists should fight for a majority within bourgeois parliament, at no point did he say that socialists should challenge the undemocratic mechanisms of the capitalist state. He says that socialists need to support the Democratic Party because undemocratic laws make it very difficult for “third parties” in the United States. But why should socialist strategy be based on accepting such laws?

Blanc argues that there are considerable differences between Russia in 1917 and the United States today. Well, obviously. But Blanc seems to believe that Lenin, Trotsky, and other communists failed to notice this. But in 1934, Leon Trotsky wrote about France:

The example of the October Revolution, of Soviet Russia, helps us. However, in France we can do better than our Russian brothers and avoid some of their mistakes. France’s economic level is higher, and we intend to act in conformity with the actual conditions of our country.

The Communist International debated extensively on the particularities of fighting for revolution in “the West,” where bourgeois democracy is much stronger than in “the East.” In these debates, the terms “West” and “East” did not refer to geography but to more and less developed capitalist societies.

In the last hundred years, bourgeois democracies have expanded, and “consensus-making” institutions have grown enormously. This includes the union bureaucracies that control the workers’ movement and the NGO bureaucracies that have a similar role in social movements — powerful apparatuses whose job is to contain protests and rein in radical demands. The communist Antonio Gramsci referred to this as the “integral state.” This means that the state is not just the “armed men” that Engels described. The bourgeois state in “the West” stretches its tentacles into the institutions of civil society in order to manufacture consent. The strategic implications of this are enormous. The integral state has vast resources to contain and channel class struggle. This is why socialists today must consistently struggle against every form of bureaucracy.

Self-Organization and Soviet Democracy

Blanc’s definition of democracy is limited to parliamentary democracy. In the debate with Sawant, Blanc made the absurd claim that parliamentary democracy is more democratic than the institutions of workers’ democracy, such as soviets. He attempted to paint Lenin and Trotsky as undemocratic because they argued that socialists can and should take power without first winning a majority in bourgeois elections. Blanc thus perpetuates liberal myths that equate socialism with authoritarianism. In truth, socialists fight for the most expansive democracy that has ever existed.

Workers’ democracy means that workers and oppressed people govern themselves, in both a political and economic sense. As C. L. R. James put it, paraphrasing Lenin, “Every cook can govern.” Our goal is a society in which the vast majority of people run their workplaces, their neighborhoods, and society as a whole, without a privileged bureaucracy or professional politicians.

This is not an idea invented by Lenin or Trotsky. Karl Marx, in writing about the Paris Commune, drew attention to the limits of parliamentary democracy and the advantages of the workers’ government: “Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes.” The Paris Commune, it goes without saying, was not installed by winning elections to a bourgeois parliament. Blanc’s positions reject not just Lenin and Trotsky’s legacy, but that of Marx and Engels as well. (There have been some unserious attempts to claim that the Paris Commune was more democratic than Soviet Russia, but Trotsky explained in detail that both workers’ governments came to power with very similar mandates.)

Part of our role as revolutionary socialists is to develop the self-organization of the working class in the here and now. That means fighting for democratic unions in which workers’ assemblies decide about actions like strikes. It means that the struggle for abortion rights cannot be led by NGOs tied to the Democratic Party — instead we need to form rank-and-file committees in workplaces.

Recently, Chilean Starbucks workers attended the Labor Notes conference and spoke about their fight for union democracy. The president of the Starbucks union, a member of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR), talked about how every Starbucks has delegates that are sent to the union assembly. Decisions are discussed and voted by these delegate assemblies, and the leadership is accountable to them. This kind of rank-and-file democracy is essential for building a combative labor movement, but it also contains the seeds of workers’ democracy.

A Working-Class Socialist Party for 2022

Blanc claims to be following the ideas of Karl Kautsky, who tried to chart a path between reform and revolution in the Social Democratic Party of Germany before 1914. Kautsky’s own life showed that this parliamentary road to socialism is a dead end. This has been confirmed by countless other defeats since then.

But Blanc’s politics are actually far to the right of Kautsky’s, since he argues that a parliamentary road to socialism can be accomplished within a capitalist, imperialist party. At least Kautsky or the Finnish social democrats had their own party! Blanc argues that running progressive candidates within the Democratic Party is the route to building an independent workers’ party some time in the distant future. In reality, however, the progressive Democrats supported by the DSA have no intention of breaking with their party — not only that, but they don’t actually support socialist policies. While socialists say “not one cent” for militarism, “progressive” Democrats like Sanders and AOC consistently vote to fund U.S. imperialism’s war machine. We don’t have to wait until a world war to see a chauvinist capitulation, as the SPD did in 1914 — we already know what side these “socialists” are on.

While the theory that Blanc espoused in the debate was entirely in line with his political practice, the same cannot be said for Socialist Alternative. The comrades argued powerfully against the parliamentary road to socialism. Sawant and Koulouris asserted that we need to build a revolutionary working-class party and prepare to overthrow the capitalist state. They explained that the DSA is giving left cover to progressive Democrats who in turn back the Biden administration. We couldn’t agree more.

But we couldn’t help but see contradictions between their statements at the event and Socialist Alternative’s politics recently. By endorsing and campaigning for Sanders in 2016 and again in 2020, weren’t the comrades also supporting the illusion that the Democratic Party, or at least part of it, could be a vehicle for socialism? While Sawant argued for unions to break with the Democratic Party, Socialist Alternative was registering people for that very party only a few years ago.

Socialist Alternative might answer that they were calling on Bernie to break with the Democrats. But we all knew that Bernie would not break with the party he has been part of for decades. Instead, he did what he always said he would: mobilize his supporters to vote for Clinton and Biden. And even if Bernie did form his own party, his social democratic politics would still be far from the working-class party that Socialist Alternative says we need. Sanders’s foreign policy is nothing but imperialist, and his domestic agenda is nothing but New Deal liberalism. In the Biden era, he is nothing but a Biden Democrat.

Supporting a hypothetical party with Sanders at the helm would just be sowing illusions in yet another reformist project doomed to failure. As Robert Belano wrote in Left Voice, “The point is not simply that we need a party independent of the two mainstream parties, but that we need a party independent of the entire capitalist class.” He continued,

Instead of modeling our party after the failed European reformist projects, let us look to the revolutionary experience of the Bolsheviks — an independent working class party that seized power, ended Russia’s involvement in the imperialist war, wrested control of industry from the capitalists, and began to build a new society based not on oppression and exploitation but on mutual aid and solidarity.

What the Bolsheviks had was a revolutionary program, developed through ideological debates and experiences in class struggle. The Bolsheviks overthrew capitalism — something no reformist party has ever done. This kind of revolutionary program is essential for socialists today as the foundation of a political party.

In that sense, the Russian Revolution does indeed provide key lessons for socialists today. But, Lenin, Trotsky, and other leaders of the Russian Revolution never claimed that revolution in other countries would follow the exact same model. On the contrary, the Communist International debated the question of how the struggle for socialism in “the West” would differ from the struggle in Russia. Blanc seems to believe that the struggle in the United States will be infinitely easier: socialists can rely on the institutions created by the ruling class, carefully following all the rules and avoiding an actual revolution.

In truth, however, revolutionary struggle in “the West” has always been more difficult. Russia’s czar had to rely on the police to defend his power. U.S. capitalists, in contrast, have a militarized police force, as well as countless bureaucracies to control the workers and the oppressed. Under czarism, socialists were imprisoned — under modern capitalism, socialist leaders are corrupted, as shown by just about every candidate Blanc has ever supported. In the U.S. the “integral state” wraps itself in the language of social justice only to keep working-class people confined to the regime’s limits. During the Black Lives Matter uprising, we saw how the Democratic Party and associated NGO bureaucracies led the movement back into institutional channels.

While they made some good points, the comrades of Socialist Alternative did not draw all the necessary conclusions. While they argued, in the abstract, for political independence from bourgeois parties, they seem to underestimate the need for the working class to fight for independence of all the institutions of the capitalists’ “integral state.”

Socialists today need a radical anti-bureaucratic program that fights for self-organization and independence from reformist politicians, union bureaucrats, and NGO professionals who serve the interests of capital. The comrades of Socialist Alternative, with their permanent hope that socialists can benefit from riding the coattails of Sanders, Syriza, Podemos, etc., have only drawn very partial lessons from the last century of class struggle.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.

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