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It’s Their Ballot Line: Socialism and Elections

What do “Class Struggle Elections” look like? Can they be carried out inside the Democratic Party? Or do they require independence from all parties of the bourgeoisie?

Coco Smyth

December 14, 2019
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Karl Liebknecht vs. Bernie Sanders (graphic: Nathaniel Flakin)

Part I | Part II

Since the rapid growth of the U.S. socialist movement in 2016, the perennial debate about the Democratic Party has taken on a new character. For over a century, leftists of all stripes have engaged in a tug-of-war about how to relate to the Democratic Party, the “B-Team” of U.S. capital. At its recent convention, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist organization in the U.S., adopted a proposal on “Class Struggle Elections” which attempts to give the group more overt guidelines for endorsing candidates. This article will examine the strategic underpinnings of the DSA’s electoral strategy and reclaim a contrasting vision for revolutionary electoral politics.

The “Class Struggle Elections” proposal adopted at the DSA Convention establishes four requirements for endorsing electoral candidates. They must:

1. Openly identify as socialists.

2. Through their election campaigns, and once in office, see mobilizing and fighting alongside working people as one of their primary responsibilities. They will use their public profile to popularize a class struggle perspective, one that sees the working class as the agents of change and capitalists and capitalist politicians as the main barrier to change.

3. Actively and explicitly oppose racial, national, gender, and other forms of oppression and discrimination and repudiate support from oppressive or bigoted figures.

4. Commit to using their campaigns and elected offices to help build and unite socialist, union, and other worker organization and militancy independent of candidates’ campaigns and of the Democratic Party.

The proposal further stipulates that the DSA will remain agnostic on the question of the Democratic Party ballot-line, while desiring an independent party in the future, developing a national apparatus for handling national electoral endorsements, and creating a fleshed-out orientation to Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.

This resolution enshrines an important shift in the DSA’s electoral strategy; away from its decades-long realignment strategy.

From Realignment to the Ballot-Line

In the last major phase of radical upsurge in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Michael Harrington, a founder and ideological leader of the DSA, developed and popularized the realignment strategy. The realignment strategy called for workers’ organizations and social movements to enter the Democratic Party with the aim of ousting the party’s Southern white supremacist wing and transforming the party into a social democratic labor party along the lines of the German SPD or the Labour Party in the UK. While the most racist elements of the Democratic Party did indeed leave over the course of the decade, Harrington’s strategy of realignment did not succeed in remaking a capitalist party into a workers’ party. By the time the radicalization began to recede in the mid-1970s the left was still without a party of its own. Despite this failure, the DSA adopted the realignment strategy from its birth in 1982. It has only recently, as a consequence of the organization’s rapid and dramatic growth since 2016, been called into question.

The DSA’s newly adopted orientation derives from the “ballot-line” and “dirty break” strategies formulated by writers affiliated with Jacobin Magazine and the Bread & Roses caucus of the DSA, which won considerable influence in the DSA leadership. The key articles outlining and popularizing this orientation include Seth Ackerman’s “Blueprint for a New Party” and Eric Blanc’s writings on what he terms the “dirty break.” 

To summarize these strategies briefly: the ballot-line strategy sees an opening for socialists to run on the Democratic Party “ballot-line.” This opening derives from the irregular structure of U.S. political parties in which the apparatus does not have direct control over who identifies as a member or runs as a candidate of the party. Instead of gradually recruiting more socialists for the Democratic Party, as the old realignment strategy advocated, the ballot-line strategy recognizes that the Democratic Party is a bourgeois party and consequently that the working class needs to organize its own party. The point of the ballot-line strategy is not to “permeate” or take over the Democratic Party, but to use its structures for the purpose of breaking out of the left’s historic isolation and forging a new organization. As Seth Ackerman states, “Rather than yet another suicidal frontal assault, we need to mount the electoral equivalent of guerrilla insurgency.” The dirty break attempts to complement the ballot-line strategy by arguing that electoral work within the Democratic Party can prepare the ground to split that very party and create a mass workers’ party.

The rising popularity of this conception derives both from its apparent common-sense, and from the seemingly radical orientation it espouses in the mid- to long-term. These conceptions are appealing because they recognize a fact that is hard to deny: the campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Julia Salazar, and a number of other self-identified democratic socialists in the Democratic Party have helped to popularize elements of socialist politics. The ability of these politicians to fight the Democratic Party establishment and apply pressure for reforms ostensibly disproves the Left’s argument that the Democratic Party acts as the “graveyard of social movements.” The ballot-line strategy claims it can connect socialists with the groundswell of support for progressive Democratic candidates.

The Leaders and the Led

Unfortunately, the ballot-line and the dirty break strategies appear far more suspect on closer examination. While it seems that socialist ideas are currently thriving thanks to progressive Democratic candidates, fears of co-optation are not an abstraction. While Bernie Sanders has certainly popularized a few reforms all socialists can get behind, such as universal healthcare and free college tuition, as well as the term socialist itself, his limited political vision also serves as a means of ideological containment. While the ballot-liners call for an independent workers’ party, the candidates they support do not. Sanders and other prominent DSA-endorsed politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in fact support ideas much closer to the DSA’s abandoned realignment strategy. As AOC tweeted, “…we aren’t pushing the party left, we are bringing the party home.” Thus, they run into all the problems the ballot-liners themselves identified with trying to transform one of the world’s strongest capitalist parties into an instrument for the working class. Worse still, the candidates are reestablishing legitimacy for a party which has become increasingly discredited since the 2008 financial crisis. Though these progressive Democrats have conflicted with the Democratic Party establishment, these very conflicts can make the party look more appealing to sectors of the working class .

As socialists adapt to the Democratic Party’s “ballot line,” they also adapt to bourgeois ideas. Here consciously, there unconsciously, the Left is adapting to liberalism. This phenomenon is most apparent looking at Jacobin Magazine, the most significant publication of the U.S. left. While the publication’s editorial line always tended towards left social-democratic politics (with the intermittent publication of revolutionary socialist writers), it has transformed itself into a campaign blog for Bernie Sanders. Every day, Jacobin publishes glowing praise of every aspect of Sanders. Rather than even critically supporting the campaign, Jacobin has aimed to paper over all criticisms of it, from both the right and the left. The recent publication of an article portraying Sanders as a committed internationalist was a particularly egregious example, given Sanders’ long record of supporting imperialism. 

In this context, it is worth noting the absence of any explicit mention of imperialism in the DSA’s “Class Struggle Elections” platform–a grave omission for any socialist organization, but all the more so for the largest socialist formation in the U.S., which is after all the mightiest imperialist power in the world today. 

Jacobin has also presented a number of broader theoretical justifications to reconcile their ostensibly democratic socialist views with Sanders’s progressive Democratic politics. In particular, they praise the New Deal, FDR, and resuscitate a version of Karl Kautsky’s “parliamentary road to socialism.” These attempts demonstrate how this segment of the left is consciously social-democratizing its conception of socialism. While the ballot-liners still maintain the desire for an independent party in theory, their practical activity leads away from such a formation. Their natural dynamic is toward apologism for Bernie and other progressive Democrats. Instead of criticizing the conflation of “New Deal liberalism” with socialism, “humanitarian” imperialism with internationalism, etc., they whitewash these candidates. Bill Crane highlights this self-defeating logic:

In effect, this tactic meant in the long term to help build an independent party, functions as left-wing cover for Sanders’s own considerably more conservative strategy of transforming the Democratic Party from within. The refusal of ballot-line socialists to criticize Sanders as he campaigned for Hillary Clinton and excoriated attempts to build an alternative to mainstream Democrats is at odds with their favorable disposition towards a left-wing electoral politics beyond the Democratic Party at some undefined point in the future. By building progressive Democratic campaigns in the here and now, they do not contribute to an eventual break, but rather sustain the left’s subordination inside a capitalist party.

Did Bernie Sanders Create the Socialist Movement?

Finally, the ballot-line perspective heavily overemphasizes the role of electoral politics in generating working-class consciousness. Bernie Sanders did not create the socialist movement; in fact his popularity in the 2016 election testified to much deeper social phenomena at work. In the period since the 2008 financial crash, we have seen the emergence of a plethora of mass social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and NoDAPL, in addition to increasing resistance in the workplace, as seen in the wave of teachers’ strikes. Even the most charismatic and inspiring candidate cannot generate class consciousness or a movement; they can only connect with and channel existing consciousness. The fundamental force which can drive the formation of an independent socialist or communist party in the U.S. is the organized working class itself. In a period where working-class consciousness and militancy is on the rise, social movements take on an explosive character, and the people are rebelling against existing conditions, we do not need to look to a “great man” or “great people” for a path out of the crisis. 

It is our fundamental task as organized socialists to act as a clear force within these movements of workers and oppressed people to generate a revolutionary opposition to the entire system, including the Democratic Party. This force will not be generated in the enemy camp; in fact it could die there. We have to reject the logic underpinning the ballot-line strategy: a kind of American exceptionalism which claims that the special conditions of the U.S. electoral system make it impossible to form an independent workers’ party directly. While Ackerman and co. correctly identify the huge obstacles erected by the U.S. bourgeoisie against democracy (and consequently against the formation of a mass revolutionary party), their conclusion that such a formation can only arise out of a bourgeois party is a dead-end. 

Our Alternative and its Critics

While this new reformist outlook is seeing a sharp growth in popularity, it is time for revolutionary socialists to reclaim an alternative vision of communist electoral politics. 

Both liberals and reformists criticize those on the Left who reject working in the Democratic Party as “purists.” They say: “There’s never going to be a candidate you agree with completely, so you need to choose the lesser evil, reduce harm, or campaign for the candidate best placed to increase class consciousness.”

The thing is: Socialists ought to be purists when it comes to elections. Out of principle socialists shouldn’t support candidates who decry “open borders,” who only criticize the most excessive acts of imperialist aggression, but not the core of imperialism, who waffle on Palestine and justify “humanitarian” interventions. It’s no sin to stand by principles. 

In fact, a key reason that the socialist movement has endured is because of this commitment to principles. Without a deep-felt identification with the needs of the working class around the world, socialists would have never faced arrest, imprisonment, blacklisting, violence, and assassination to espouse views which have never been seen sympathetically by the establishment.

But the logic proceeding from the critique of “purism” does not get at the heart of what a communist approach to electoral work is. The socialist view of the utility of elections has little in common with the bourgeois view of mediating class antagonisms, compromising for the sake of reforms, and collaborating to make incremental steps towards a moderate vision. Communist electoral work is a tactic in our overall strategy, subordinate to the needs of the mass struggle to overthrow capitalism by revolutionary means. 

Since we understand the state as an apparatus of bourgeois class rule—an organ for the enforcement of exploitative and oppressive violence—we must necessarily adopt a different approach toward electoral work than reformists who see the Democratic Party as a potential vehicle rather than an irreconcilable enemy.

Instead, we should look to the long tradition of socialists using bourgeois elections as a platform for revolutionary agitation. Running openly revolutionary candidates can help to popularize our ideas and cohere our forces. It can give us an opportunity to denounce the web of oppression and exploitation this whole society is built upon, as well as the politicians who weave it.

Ultimately, there exists a massive disjuncture between reformist and revolutionary electoral strategy. While reformist electoralism aims to win majorities in the bourgeois parliament and advocate for reforms through methods of conciliation, collaboration, etc., revolutionary electoral work is directed at organizing forces for the class struggle. We recognize that winning a majority in a bourgeois parliament is not the same as winning power. Rather, revolutionaries see the independent mass action as the working class as the motor force of systemic change. Only through strikes, mass demonstrations, and ultimately insurrections can the working class forge a new, genuinely democratic society. 

Consequently, communist electoral work must be subordinated entirely to this independent activity. The role of communist politician is to be the loudest agitator in support of mass struggles. A communist politician works to expose and delegitimize the capitalist parties and the entire system. The communist politician does not “reach across the aisle” to strike deals; the communist politician seizes reforms from the ruling class through the organized power of the workers’ movement.

Through an examination of the theory behind historic communist electoral work, we can derive a number of concrete lessons to orient our strategy today.

Part II will follow tomorrow.

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Coco Smyth

Coco is an organizer with Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists

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