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The Politics of AOC

Socialists must call for an independent investigation into right-wing violence and threats against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, while also recognizing her role in providing a liberal cover for imperialist policies.

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On Wednesday, January 6, a group of violent white supremacists invaded the U.S. Capitol and set out to destroy anything in their path. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) was in her office in the Cannon House Office Building as these violent outbursts began, and has been clear about her whereabouts from the beginning. There, she was not safe from threats: she reviewed the terrifying encounter that she had with a Capitol police officer, who she initially believed was a rioter because he did not state his position and was looking at her “with a tremendous amount of anger and hostility.” The officer, who was wearing a black beanie, banged on her door, while angrily shouting, “where is she?” He then instructed her to run to another building. AOC, scared for her life, grabbed her things and took off. 

AOC detailed the frightening experience on her Instagram Live, where she proceeded to reveal that she is a sexual assault survivor, and that the trauma she faced on January 6 compounded the trauma that she has dealt with as a survivor of sexual violence. 

As socialists, we must publicly and unequivocally condemn the horrific right-wing violence directed toward AOC and The Squad. Furthermore, we must call for an independent investigation into this violence. A call for investigation is not a capitulation to the Democratic Party or to bourgeois politics in general. The police and the state itself cannot be trusted to investigate themselves. This investigation must be democratically led by independent attorneys, antifascist organizations, and working class groups. They must have access to what the state knows in order to ensure a thorough account of these threats. 

Socialists can — and do — make use of the courts to further political struggle, and fighting against reaction is no exception. We know that AOC, Kshama Sawant, and others are targets of fascist violence online and offline on a daily basis, hatred which only seems to be increasing.

Socialists are, as Lenin described in What is to Be Done?, “tribunes of the people.” We do not sit idly by as reaction spreads, even within the contours of bourgeois democracy. To abstain from this issue, or to call AOC “hysterical,” is not only misogynistic, but a capitulation to reaction.

If socialists could call out the anti-Semitism of the French army during the Drefyus Affair, or white supremacy directed at the Obama administration, it is perfectly logical and consistent to do the same in this instance. However, this does not mean that 19th century Marxists should have supported the French Army as a progressive institution of the Third Republic, nor does this mean that Obama stops being an imperialist war criminal. In not calling out these cases of racism, we would be capitulating to a liberal politics that always relies on the ruling class to police injustice. It is up to socialists, and not bourgeois liberals — who are tied down structurally to capitalism — to defend what is right. The case of AOC is no different, and we cannot rely on the Democrats to squash these threats, which not only affect her, but workers as a whole.

American democracy is, in the final analysis, a facade that drapes over what is in fact a capitalist dictatorship. But as Rosa Luxemburg wrote, socialists can use the limited opportunities such a facade creates to build power:

If democracy has become superfluous or annoying to the bourgeoisie, it is on the contrary necessary and indispensable to the working class. It is necessary to the working class because it creates the political forms (autonomous administration, electoral rights, etc.) which will serve the proletariat as fulcrums in its task of transforming bourgeois society.

We can use a call for an investigation into fascist violence as an opportunity to amplify our voice, hold fascists accountable, and expose the complicity of law enforcement and the state itself.

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A call for an investigation has nothing to do with supporting anti-terror legislation, calls for more police-funding, or for treating repressive apparatuses (e.g., the FBI) as allies. An investigation is like any other demand socialists make on the state, such as universal health care, or education for all. Fighting for reforms is not the same as reformism, since our main goal is revolution. The first political premise of socialists is the revolutionary independence of the working class. 

Thus, none of these demands mean supporting or joining the Democratic Party, which is ultimately a big business party fully complicit in producing the conditions for fascist reaction. Eight years of austerity, war, and state repression from the Obama administration led to the emergence of Trump. As Marx said against liberal hypocrisy: “The liberal outcry that follows an age of reaction is all the louder the greater the cowardice displayed by liberals in putting up with the reaction for years on end without protest.” To be fair, AOC has protested some of the most reactionary aspects of Trumpism, but has largely ignored the Democratic Party’s role in creating this Frankenstein monster.

AOC’s Record

AOC is many things to many different people. For the Right, she is a radical communist hellbent on destroying Western Civilization. For many liberals and some leftists, she is a decent, hardworking tribune of the working class. But neither of these appearances gets to the core of who she is.

To understand what she supports and what her function is in American politics today, we need to examine her record closely rather than rely on a handful of tweets, statements, and media appearances.

AOC first rose to national prominence in 2018 when she defeated Joe Crowley, a longtime Democratic Party congressman. Later that year she was elected to congress, and reelected in 2020. This major political upset led many on the Left to see AOC — a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — as heralding a new wave of socialist politicians in Congress.

From the standpoint of Karl Marx, AOC is not a genuine socialist. According to her, it is possible to be both a socialist and a capitalist. When asked about her definition of socialism, AOC said that: “[T]he definition of democratic socialism to me, again, is the fact that in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no American should be too poor to live.” What she proposes is a welfare state along the lines of the New Deal, Great Society, or Scandinavia, but this is not socialism. 

When it comes to the meaning of socialism, the Irish Marxist James Connolly argued that it is the rule of the working class and the end of capitalist rule, not a bunch of government programs or mere state ownership over key industries: 

Therefore, we repeat, state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism — if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials — but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.

It should be noted that AOC not only fails to call for workers’ rule, but doesn’t even advocate the nationalization of major industries.

Some, such as DSA member Eric Blanc, have viewed AOC as a harbinger of a socialist “dirty break” with the Democratic Party. This strategy envisions electing socialists as Democrats in order to build the Left’s strength. Those espousing this view believe that these socialists will eventually break from the Democrats and create an independent party. However, that is not how AOC views herself. Rather, AOC is very upfront that she is a Democrat and wants to bring the party back to its New Deal roots:

Far from seeking a break with the Democrats, AOC perpetuates the illusion that change comes from electing a better class of Democrats. This illusion keeps people trapped in the confines of a big business party that has no real interest in saving people from poverty, war, and reaction.

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AOC’s reputation as an “anti-establishment” figure has not stopped her from working closely with and supporting leading Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In 2018, AOC gained media attention for a protest outside Pelosi’s office in support of a Green New Deal, but simultaneously promised to support Pelosi for Speaker of the House: “Should Leader Pelosi become the next speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen… This is about unity. This is about solidarity.” 

One of AOC’s very first votes in congress was for Pelosi as House Speaker, viewing her as the most progressive candidate: “So long as Leader Pelosi remains the most progressive candidate for Speaker, she can count on my support.” In 2021, she again voted for Pelosi as House Speaker without hesitation. In fact, far from viewing Pelosi as an adversary, AOC has affectionately referred to her as a “mama bear.”

Despite AOC’s antiwar reputation, her record shows the contrary. In a 2018 interview with the Intercept, she said she was opposed to “endless wars,” but praised Obama’s surge in Afghanistan, saying: “I think what he was trying to do was deal with this mess of going into Afghanistan in the first place. In a sense, there are some tough spots that you’re in where when you have boots on the ground, and you have those soldiers that are there, pulling out immediately sometimes isn’t the most stabilizing course of action.” She also tweeted support for more “responsible intervention” in Afghanistan, such as using intelligence agencies and the state department, believing that “Congress decided to invade a nation without a concrete end plan.” She never explicitly condemned the invasion of Afghanistan in the first place.  

In October 2019, she opposed the withdrawal of American troops in Syria, saying such an action lays “the ground for immense violence and suffering.” In fact, in another tweet, she argued that Republicans are “weak on national security.” She also has kind words for dead war criminals like John McCain, calling him an “unparalleled example of human decency and American service.”

When it comes to critics of the American Empire who have exposed its crimes such as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden, AOC’s position is inconsistent at best. In regards to Assange, AOC has stated that she agrees with the Obama Administration’s decision not to prosecute him under the Espionage Act for whistleblowing. However, she does not favor pardoning him, saying there are “considerations and concerns around Assange, to just be completely frank.” What exactly are those “concerns”? She has never specified. AOC opposed Chelsea Manning’s solitary confinement and said she was being “tortured for whistleblowing, [and that] she should be released on bail.” This is not the same as saying that Manning was unjustly targeted by the state. When it comes to pardoning Snowden, AOC gave the non-committal answer that it “should be considered.” In none of these cases has she come out clearly and unambiguously in favor of pardoning those who have exposed imperialist crimes.

Her voting record also showcases support for the American military. In 2019, AOC voted in favor of the Bipartisan Budget Act, which allocated billions to the Department of Defense. Despite criticizing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) passed in 2020, AOC still voted in favor of it. The CARES Act included $17 billion for defense contractors along with billions more in giveaways, tax breaks, and loans to capitalists and real estate investors.

AOC’s record also shows other instances of support for American imperialism. In 2019, she voted in favor of the United States remaining a part of NATO. That same year, when the country supported a coup d’etat against the Venezuelan government, AOC initially expressed concern about the involvement of longtime war criminal Elliot Abrams. But she quickly changed her position to one supporting the pro-coup Democratic Party leadership: “I defer to caucus leadership on how we navigate this.” Furthermore, she framed the issue along the lines of the U.S. State Department: “This is really kind of an issue of authoritarianism vs. democracy.” Lastly, in December 2020, AOC voted in favor of $33 million for “democracy promotion” in Venezuela. “Democracy promotion” is code for U.S. interference. 

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One of AOC’s 2018 campaign slogans was the demand to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and she expressed her opposition to the Trump Administration keeping immigrant children in concentration camps. However, she has voted to fund both ICE and Trump’s border wall. At the end of 2020, AOC voted for HR 133, which allocates $1.3 billion for the border wall and $8 billion to fund ICE. Indeed, one of her very first votes in 2019 was in favor of funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE. While some may say that AOC did not vote to directly fund ICE, but just the DHS, they would do well to explain the progressive function of that department.

AOC has a reputation as supporting Palestinians and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. She does in fact make symbolic gestures of opposing the Israeli state, such as refusing to attend a memorial for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last fall. Yet her positions are mostly in line with the liberal Zionism of the mainstream Democratic Party. She has expressed her support for the two-state solution which is premised on the continued existence of an Apartheid state: “I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these.” She also voted in favor of $500 million to fund the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in December 2020.

AOC’s supporters may say that her vote for the IDF and Venezuelan “democracy promotion” funding can be excused because she was voting for a stimulus bill that contained many diverse types of legislation such as unemployment insurance. In other words, when AOC votes for the stimulus or CARES Act that includes both unemployment insurance and funding for American imperialism, she is actually only supporting the former and not the latter.

The strength of socialists is in our internationalism and defending this principle is crucial to growing the workers’ movement. Sacrificing this basic principle for unemployment insurance to gain a fleeting advantage is the very definition of opportunism. By viewing anti-imperialism as something negotiable, AOC shows that opposition to the U.S. Empire takes second place to domestic reforms. 

What these excuses amount to are rationalizations of AOC’s material support for imperialism. The excuse is that it is okay to fund imperialism so long as minimal social reforms are achieved now. Therefore, AOC is only being “practical” by focusing on getting these reforms. As Connolly reminded us, this “practical” opportunism is “the cry of humdrum mediocrity, afraid to face the stern necessity for uncompromising action. That saying [“be practical”] has done more yeoman service in the cause of oppression than all its avowed supporters.”

When it comes to voting for budgets containing a mishmash of different programs and military funding, Luxemburg states the socialist position clearly here:

Now if one says that we should offer an exchange – our consent to militaristic and tariff legislation in return for political concessions or social reforms – then one is sacrificing the basic principles of the class struggle for momentary advantage, and one’s actions are based on opportunism. Opportunism, incidentally, is a political game which can be lost in two ways: not only basic principles but also practical success may be forfeited. The assumption that one can achieve the greatest number of successes by making concessions rests on a complete error. Here, as in all great matters, the most cunning persons are not the most intelligent. Bismarck once told a bourgeois opposition party: ‘You will deprive yourselves of any practical influences if you always and as a matter of course say no.’…We who oppose the entire present order see things quite differently. In our no, in our intransigent attitude, lies our whole strength. It is this attitude that earns us the fear and respect of the enemy and the trust and support of the people.

A Clean Break

During the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary, AOC was a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders. While she spoke in favor of his “political revolution,” she was silent on his long support for U.S. imperialism. Once he lost the election, AOC campaigned for longtime racist, sexist, and imperialist Joe Biden, who is now leader of the American Empire.

AOC once said that “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” This remark was trumpeted by Jacobin as an example that AOC was a working-class fighter opposed to Wall Street’s candidate. In fact, AOC does belong in the same party as Joe Biden because she is not in favor of the political independence of the working class or the revolutionary transformation of society. By her record, AOC’s politics are compatible with Joe Biden’s, since she shares the fundamental positions that define the Democratic Party, albeit with a “socialist” veneer. AOC enables America’s oldest capitalist party to maintain its facade as the “party of the people” by channeling discontent back into the liberal mainstream. Marxists haven’t called the Democrats the graveyard of social movements for nothing.

Socialists must unequivocally condemn the right-wing threats and violence directed toward AOC at the Capitol. But we must also condemn her imperialism and opportunism in the strongest terms. If there is any hope for defeating reaction and overcoming capitalism, then we must fight for a clean — i.e., complete — break from the Democratic Party. The power of the working class comes from its own independent organizations, revolutionary program, and class consciousness. 

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Doug Enaa Greene

Doug is an independent communist historian from the Boston area. He has written biographies of the communist insurgent Louis Auguste Blanqui and DSA founder Michael Harrington. His forthcoming book, The Dialectics of Saturn, examines Marxist debates about Stalinism.

Sam Miller

Sam lives and teaches in New York City.

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