Workers Vanguard No. 1042
21 March 2014
Socialism That Democrats Can Support
Reformists Salivate Over Sawants Seattle Election
Since self-described socialist Kshama Sawant won a seat on Seattle’s City Council last November, her electoral success has been widely promoted as a model for the left. Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative (SAlt) who narrowly defeated Democratic Party incumbent Richard Conlin, ran on a platform of liberal reform—for a $15 hour minimum wage, rent control, ending “corporate welfare” and for a tax on millionaires to fund public transportation, education and “living-wage” union jobs. While applauding other “alternative” candidacies, SAlt crows that Sawant’s win paves “a path for independent politics.” And the International Socialist Organization (ISO) chimed in approvingly: “Given the scale of the crisis that working people face, there is a serious need for some optimism that our side can fight back not just on the picket lines and in the streets, but even at the ballot box” (socialistworker.org, 16 December 2013).
SAlt says it is campaigning to build an “independent, alternative party of workers and young people to fight for the interests of the millions, not the millionaires.” For its supporters, Sawant’s campaign is a challenge to the status quo simply because it falls outside the classic two-party framework. But for authentic socialists, independence is a class question: the working class and the oppressed masses must be politically organized in opposition to the class dictatorship of the capitalists—bourgeois “democracy” is one form of that capitalist dictatorship. The workers, who form the only class in society with the objective interest and social power to overthrow capitalism, must be won to understand that their interests are counterposed to those of the exploiting class.
The history of the United States is replete with bourgeois “third” parties promising to make capitalism work for the little guy—which effectively served to channel discontent back into the Democratic Party. The “independence” of Sawant & Co. is merely another exercise in pressuring the Democratic Party from the “outside” as practiced by the capitalist Green Party and others. In fact, SAlt consistently supported Ralph Nader between 1996 and 2008, first as the Greens’ candidate and even when he ran “independent” campaigns supported by the likes of Ross Perot’s right-wing Reform Party.
Opportunists pretend that their reformist program is some kind of step forward in the direction of revolutionary change. They claim that “we” all want the same things and merely disagree about how to get there. More than a century ago Rosa Luxemburg explained the question of reform or revolution in her classic work of that name. Luxemburg polemicized against leading German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein who gave theoretical expression to the renunciation of revolutionary Marxism in favor of “evolutionary socialism,” premised on gradual reform of bourgeois society. Bernstein pronounced that for him the “movement” was everything, and the final goal of socialism was nothing. Luxemburg’s words have lost none of their sting today:
“People who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modification of the old society.”
The reformist left advances the lie that one can pressure the capitalist state machinery to operate in the interests of the workers and oppressed. The only way to achieve real emancipation for the working and oppressed masses is through the expropriation of the capitalists as a class and the establishment of a workers government.
Giving the Democrats a Facelift
Revolutionary Marxists can use the electoral arena as a tactic to propagandize for socialist politics. Unlike executive offices in the capitalist state such as mayor or president, whose purpose is to administer and enforce capitalist rule, standing for election to legislative offices can provide a vehicle for communists to put forward a revolutionary program. When running candidates or offering critical support to other formations, the aim is to dispel illusions among workers, minorities, immigrants and radicalized youth that any lasting improvement of their condition can be achieved under the capitalist profit system. As a revolutionary organization we could not give any support no matter how critical to Sawant, whose campaign obscured the most elementary class line with its populist rhetoric. In his book on communist principles and tactics, “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder (1920), Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin explained: “It is entirely a matter of knowing how to apply these tactics in order to raise—not lower—the general level of proletarian class-consciousness, revolutionary spirit, and ability to fight and win.”
The “lesser evil” Democratic Party is a capitalist party acting on behalf of the profiteers, bailing out the banks, gouging the poor and spying on the population. For decades, the reformists’ “fight the right” rhetoric has served to hoodwink working people and radical youth into believing that such actions are simply excesses, thereby further chaining them to the same party through the ballot box. The reformist left presents Sawant’s victory as part of a continuum of “progressive” candidates—which tellingly includes Democratic politicians like New York’s new mayor Bill de Blasio, who won votes by promising to end racist stop-and-frisk and claiming sympathy for the “99 percent.”
Enjoying endorsements from several local Democrats and union officials, Sawant’s campaign Web site did not oppose President Obama; it never even mentioned the wars the U.S. is waging overseas much less solidarized with the victims of U.S. imperialism. On the crucial question of racial oppression, so central to the workings of capitalism in this country, Sawant limited her platform to calling for a school curriculum promoting “anti-racism” (along with anti-sexism and gay equality) and calling for a “movement” against police brutality and racial profiling. Sawant calls for an elected civilian review board which is supposed to rein in the police, though experience has shown repeatedly that such bodies are impotent except as a means for letting off a little steam after particularly egregious cases of police violence. As a columnist from the Seattle Times (26 October 2013) rightly noted, Sawant’s slogans were “pretty much indistinguishable” from those of Seattle Democrats, who cater to the city’s liberal petty-bourgeois milieu.
Notably, in both Seattle and Minneapolis (where SAlt’s candidate Ty Moore came close to winning on his platform of “People over Profit”) no Republican was on the City Council ballot. SAlt boasted about this tactic, which allowed them to run against Democratic candidates with no danger of letting any Republicans get elected. Soon after her election Sawant was appointed by Democratic mayor Ed Murray to an advisory committee made up of union officials and business executives in order to adjust the minimum wage.
Sawant described her campaign as a way to “reinvigorate” the populist Occupy movement, and Socialist Action raves that Sawant’s candidacy was the Occupy spirit “now finding expression at the ballot box” (socialistaction.org, 13 February). Not only SAlt but most of the rest of the reformist left enthused over Occupy, whose central conception was that America should reclaim democratic control of the economy from the greedy bankers and corporations by making the existing government represent the “will of the people.” As the 2012 elections approached, Occupy disintegrated as many of its activists predictably occupied...the Democratic Party.
Echoing SAlt’s vision for a crop of new “independent left-wing candidates,” the Freedom Socialist Party intoned: “The time is ripe for anti-capitalist electoral alliances” (socialism.com, December 2013). Meanwhile, Socialist Organizer urged “the labor movement and community organizations to join together to launch independent slates at the local level” (socialistorganizer.org, 6 February). Such coalitions are the way reformist organizations intend to capitalize on what SAlt terms its “historic victory” for socialism.
One example is in heavily unionized, industrial Lorain County, Ohio, where two dozen city councilors organized as the Independent Labor Party—a creation of the county’s Central Labor Council—won the election. The campaign emerged out of disaffection with local Democrats who had carried out a series of attacks on organized labor. Labor Notes (4 December 2013) approvingly quoted one Machinist who admonished: “Running independent wasn’t our first choice, but hopefully this can help bring the Democratic leaders to their senses.”
Meanwhile, in early January, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) created an “Independent Political Organization” with the purpose of supporting “progressive” candidates in the upcoming Illinois elections. According to the ISO, whose supporters are in the CTU leadership, the goal of such a formation is to unite unions with nonprofit, liberal and community organizations to defend public education against recent attacks led by Chicago’s Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel. The same teachers union—which has long worked with Democratic Party-allied organizations—just endorsed a Democrat for state representative in the 26th District of Illinois.
Socialism: What It Is
and What It Is Not
Liberal and ostensibly radical commentators have been abuzz with optimism that there is a fresh opening to socialist ideas. They cite a recent poll that a majority of young people aged 18-29 view socialism in a favorable light. Drowning in student debt, pessimistic about employment and deprived of affordable health care, many young people associate “socialism” with government reforms providing some degree of relief—like free medical care or subsidized higher education.
Sawant promoted a social-democratic model of socialism consistent with such beliefs, a type of “capitalism light” modeled after the European welfare states. She commented in a Salon.com interview (18 November 2013) that a country like Finland has “elements of socialism” due to its funding of public education and strong teachers’ unions. On the contrary, socialism is a system where the bourgeoisie, the owners of industry and of finance capital, has been thrown out of power and the workers have become the new ruling class. The working people control the economy and the state, which is an institution enforcing class domination—presently the domination of the capitalist class, under socialism that of the proletariat. Socialist revolution lays the basis for rationally planned economies based on production for need, not profit, and for qualitative development of the productive forces, opening the road to the elimination of scarcity and to the creation of an egalitarian society.
Of course, the idea of “socialized medicine” such as exists in countries like Canada is appealing in comparison to being bled by the American health care giants and drug companies. But one need only look at the Scandinavian countries, traditionally governed by social democrats, that are, alas, still run for the purpose of class exploitation for private profit. No less than here the working people suffer in the grip of capitalist economic contraction: unemployment, bosses relentlessly trying to drive down wages and push the worst-paid workers deeper into poverty, anti-immigrant racism and growth of fascistic parties, etc.
At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, the “sewer socialists” sought to give socialism a “respectable” veneer through local electoral campaigns. Represented notoriously by Victor Berger’s Milwaukee section within the right wing of the Socialist Party (SP), these ministers and professionals elected to office promoted a program of municipal reform—everything from aid to schools and playgrounds to equitable taxation to better sewer systems and the suppression of vice. Nearly indistinguishable from those in the bourgeois Progressive movement, their platforms were about cleaning up capitalism and ushering in an “honest” government.
Of course a century ago, American capitalism was a rising power; at that time it was in the overall best interests of the system for the bourgeoisie to invest more resources in the infrastructure of cities as well as in education and public health measures necessary for a productive working class—and they had the wherewithal to do so.
James P. Cannon was part of the SP’s left wing that fought against the trend of “sewer socialism.” (He later went on to identify with the Russian October Revolution of 1917 and helped to found the American Communist movement and in 1928 the American Trotskyist movement.) In a 1956 article on SP leader Eugene Debs, Cannon motivated the need for a revolutionary party, writing:
“The Socialist Party of Debs’ time has to be judged, not for its failure to lead a revolution, but for its failure to work with that end in view.... Socialism signifies and requires the revolutionary transformation of society; anything less than that is mere bourgeois reform. A socialist party deserves the name only to the extent that it acts as the conscious agency in preparing the workers for the necessary social revolution.”
— Printed in The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962)
In an entirely counterposed spirit, the “independent” campaigns of SAlt and Sawant enthusiasts aim not to mobilize the working class in a struggle for socialism, but to influence politicians to push for reforms that in no way threaten capitalism. Under capitalism, even when reforms are won the bosses always look to take them back at the earliest opportunity. The way decent wages for auto workers, longshoremen, truck drivers and others were won in this country was through bitter strike struggles. Not all strikes were won, but when they were, such victories were not based on the false partnership between labor and capital but on mobilizing the workers in hard class struggle involving the use of militant (often “illegal”) tactics such as mass picketing, plant occupations and sympathy strikes. Racial and ethnic divisions were consciously combated and overcome in the course of common class struggle.
The main obstacle preventing independent class mobilizations in the U.S. has been illusions in the Democrats, pushed centrally by the sellout union leadership. SAlt marches behind the conservative labor tops who throw union money into Democratic politicians’ coffers while lobbying for a “fairer” tax system and a higher minimum wage. While we would be in favor of any law or measure to raise the pathetic minimum wage, hard labor struggles are what can actually force wage increases from employers—which might actually “tax the rich” a little!
Reformists in the Service of Bourgeois “Democracy”
SAlt’s program is in accord with its British parent organization, now named the Socialist Party, the leading group within the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), that spent over four decades of its existence buried deep within the British Labour Party. From 1983 to 1987, its forebears in the Militant tendency held executive power on the Liverpool City Council. In a September article on SAlt’s Web site, Tom Crean boasts how they played the leading role in the establishment of a “socialist majority” on the city council. Crean does not mention how, when the central government of Margaret Thatcher’s Tories cut funding to former industrial centers plagued by unemployment, the Liverpool council dealt with its “budget” problems by handing out 31,000 layoff notices. (And this as the miners strike of 1984-85 was raging in the coal mines of England and Wales—the biggest class battle since the British general strike of 1926.) Such a move was naturally met with outrage by the municipal unions, and the CWI lived to regret this “tactical error” (their words).
The British Labour Party defined itself against the Russian Revolution, adopting its famous “Clause IV” in 1918 as a conscious effort to undercut the appeal of Bolshevism to advanced workers. Clause IV says that the aim of the party is to increasingly nationalize the economy, presenting public ownership in a capitalist economy as the way to incrementally achieve “socialism.” Today the British reformist left revolves around defense of the politics of “old” Labourism against the “New Labour” Party, which has spent over a decade jettisoning its historic organizational ties to the unions. For Socialist Alternative and its British cothinkers, capitalist nationalizations and defense of “welfare state” measures against neoliberal austerity are pretty much the maximum program.
The spectacle of “socialists” seeking to administer capitalism on behalf of the bourgeois rulers has a long and sordid history. Today with consciousness at a low ebb, it is all the more important to point to the real road to the emancipation of all the oppressed. With the October Revolution of 1917, the proletariat under Bolshevik leadership overthrew capitalism, providing a model for workers and the oppressed seeking emancipation all over the world. It is the task of revolutionary Marxists to keep alive the lessons of this conquest of proletarian state power while exposing the parliamentary illusions pushed by those claiming to be socialists.
The article “Reformists Salivate Over Sawant’s Seattle Election” (WV No. 1042, 21 March) incorrectly characterized socialism as a system in which “workers have become the new ruling class” and “control the economy and the state.” That in fact describes the dictatorship of the proletariat, a transition period between the revolutionary seizure of power by the workers and the establishment of socialism. Under socialism (the first phase of communism), classes will have ceased to exist and the state will be in the process of withering away. (From WV No. 1043, 4 April 2014.)