Building something to break toward

November 19, 2018

Lider Restrepo weighs in on the debate about socialist strategy after the elections.

THIS WAS originally a response to Lance Selfa’s response (“The politics socialists need to project”) to Todd Chretien’s article (“What’s next for socialists after the elections?”).

Todd has taken the time to write a direct response (“Proving our politics in practical work”) which lays out much of what I was going to share myself, though much more lucidly. I thought I’d submit my thoughts, anyway, in the interest of being ever the stubborn socialist who, after causing an uncomfortable furor at the family dinner table, shouts, “And you know what else?” just as the last bit of tension was leaving the dining room.

I agree with Lance that projecting our politics by saying “we oppose endorsing or voting for Democrats and Republicans, and we oppose socialists running as Democrats” should not have to foreclose debate or collaboration with whom we have certain political differences, especially with those pursuing an electoral strategy that places them inside the Democratic Party.

But it also should not be all we have to say about the specific questions regarding socialists who are currently inside the party. The reality is that socialists running as Democrats is a strategy that is happening now and will continue.

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I think Todd’s article engages with this fact and seeks to tease out spaces to influence an independent turn, including focusing on building our movements outside of elections and — of particular interest to me — building an independent socialist party.

Lance describes worrisome gestures by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar that give me the sense that they have a willingness to work with — at least — other progressives inside the Democratic Party. I agree it should give us some pause because this is categorically not building an independent alternative and suggests a leaning toward reforming the party.

But this is the thrust of Bhaskar Sunkara’s proposal for a congressional socialist caucus — that elected socialists:

agree to a broad set of principles, associate themselves with a network of activist organizations and labor unions, and only take money from working-class organizations and individual small donors. Within individual legislatures they maintain a degree of coherence — free votes on many items, but bloc voting on key programmatic issues like opposing wars or budget cuts.

Overall, it’s an idea which seeks to institute some accountability and consolidate the socialist current emerging in Congress.

On one hand, Bhaskar’s proposal is the kind that could delay a firm and final break with the Democrats. On the other, it would be a place for those elected socialists to look to an institutional voice independent of the party’s neoliberal leadership. It provides a political outpost for elected socialists, independent or otherwise, to organize themselves until such time as a socialist party can be formed.

THERE ARE two things which are playing out right now in this discussion. The first is the broad radicalization we’re observing around electoral politics and openings for socialists. The second is the strategies we come up with for consolidating that radicalization.

The way I think that occurs is through making steps toward building our own party. Without a viable independent electoral (and movement) vehicle, we ensure the imminence of a reliance on Democrats for a majority of working-class people — even many of those who don’t or can’t vote.

People need an organizational home and will always see the Democrats as such a home if we do not build something that can rival it, which I think is the ambition that drives Todd’s perspective. A break is impossible without something to break toward.

Vital to this discussion is what kind of allies we consider democratic socialists to be in this current period. Are they just movement allies? Can we imagine other substantive political formations that can respond to wherever this political moment is heading?

The terrain has shifted. There are fissures emerging in the Democratic Party, but it is still the party of the ruling class. The same old questions about them will produce the same old answers if we don’t make steps toward a break.

How we do that lies in seeing allies in the broad socialist movement. There seems to me a vital opportunity to build a socialist party in the near future. It must be a formation that includes revolutionaries, democratic socialists and other radicals.

Today, we’re in a period of radicalization, in which the old lessons certainly apply, but the conditions are very different. In that, the questions of social democracy or democratic socialism in the U.S. present the possibility of a new kind of radicalization.

We deal with political realities and organize on those questions. It would be ideal to build a revolutionary party if masses of people were drawing such radical conclusions, but they are flocking to broad socialist ideas and are only now becoming reacquainted with radical working-class self-activity.

This should be regarded as a great start. Lance says of demands like “Medicare for All, free college or student loan forgiveness,” about which democratic socialists are writing:

These are all great demands, but they also are, as Ocasio-Cortez has pointed out, the same as (or akin to) liberal Democratic Party platform planks that date from around the Second World War. That they are considered “radical” or “socialist” today is a testament to just how far to the right the Democratic Party has moved since the 1970s.

The fact that Democrats have largely abandoned the progressive platform of their New Deal/Great Society days means they’ve ceded territory on pro-working-class ideas that socialists should take on. As Mike Davis says in an interview in Jacobin:

[O]nce the New Deal was abandoned as the serious program of the Democratic Party, those demands for economic citizenship became far more radical demands. And they required far more radically minded constituencies to push for them than they had in the era when all of this seemed more compatible with the existing model of American capitalism and the social contract it had agreed to.

It’s a ripe opportunity for radicals to take the lead in the struggle for reforms, and revolutionaries have a responsibility to respond.

I SHARE the concern that the more folks pursue an electoral strategy inside the Democratic Party, the less they’ll pursue one outside — and the harder it makes it for us to build a party for the working class.

But I’m of a mind that it does matter what kind of ideas we can project in the electoral realm.

Of course, there are many kinds of movements that exist outside elections — the migrant justice movement is one that is necessarily non-electoral. By its nature, the movement repudiates the common-sense notion that the capitalist state should possess the authority to control borders, determine citizenship and make decisions about the free movement of people.

The bulk of our organizing will take the form of caravan solidarity, dismantling the pillars that support ICE, sanctuaries and what we can build in our communities and workplaces. And certainly, the vast numbers of migrants who endure elections they have no say in need something to organize around, and on their own bases as political agents.

Yet so long as the capitalist state exists, we must extract concessions from it. There are some very important tactical angles that include advocating legislation that can dismantle ICE, supporting candidates that campaign on pro-migrant platforms and certainly applying pressure when they renege on those platforms. These openings don’t always exist, and we’ll have to draw people to our movement from elsewhere.

Sure, elections tend to be very conservatizing, but it seems to me the bigger problem is that socialists still have yet to be able to effectively consolidate the radicalization that comes every so often and which eventually expresses itself — if gracelessly — through elections.

Our problem isn’t that those we deem “social democrats” sell out at some predetermined eventuality when the radical slogans and posturing have served their purpose. The problem, simply put, is that folks like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Rashida Tlaib don’t have a party of their own. And neither do we.

Conditions and prospects are always changing. When they do, we adjust our strategies to respond to those new conditions. But the conditions now appear to me an opening for taking the lead on reforms and radical ideas that millions of people are ready for.

Starting the surely difficult project of building a socialist party will consolidate this current radicalization, provide an alternative for working class people to break toward, and away from the Democrats for good.

Further Reading

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