Socialists and elections 2013: Vote Socialist!
Note: this is a long- delayed comment on socialists and elections. It’s been a long summer with too much overtime and too few minutes to sit and write. Full disclosure; I’ve only ever voted for a couple of Democrats and have regretted it each time. I supported Nader in 2000 as a tactical decision because I saw it as the expression of a growing anti-globalization movement. I could not bring myself to support Nader in subsequent campaigns because I felt that he had compromised himself politically through unprincipled alliances with rightists. The Nader campaign in 2000 brought me into close proximity to the Greens in my area (NJ) and the experience reinforced for me the necessity of a party with a clear class basis.
Socialist Alternative is running candidates in 3 municipal elections – in Seattle, Minneapolis and Boston. (The election in Boston has already been held, with the SALT candidate, Seamus Whelan, getting less than 2% of the vote) Candidates Ty Moore in Minneapolis and Kshama Sawant in Seattle are running energetic campaigns and have gathered some union and community support, which is a positive development for advocates of independent political action. If I lived in either of these towns, I would support and vote for them.
The success of both the Sawant and Moore campaigns reflects, I think, the beginnings of a shift towards an independent socialist politics. This is reflected in recent polls where socialism is more popular than capitalism amongst some age groups. Of course, reality and the left have yet to catch up with each other.
Socialist Alternative seems to have backed away from their traditional call for a mass workers party, which is something that should be put front and center. Instead, Socialist Alternative offers a blend of “broad” socialist and liberal-populist demands.
This is a problem faced by the Sawant campaign, where Democrats have moved left in order to cut across her appeal to working class voters. Certainly, any thinking voter knows the Democrats sudden discovery of progressive positions is a lie. It seems to me that a more fully articulated program, based on both immediate and transitional demands, would be educational for working class voters. A program based on transitional demands would also serve to make it more difficult for Democrats to co-opt the Socialist Alternative program.
“Kshama Sawant, the first socialist to make the finals of a Seattle election in 22 years, probably won’t win election herself. But what’s most notable about Seattle politics this year is that nearly her entire agenda has, over the course of the campaign, been embraced by both candidates for mayor to lead the Northwest’s largest city…” Funny how everything’s gone left Seattle Times
What is lacking is the linking of the immediate and democratic demands to transitional demands — which build and reinforce a revolutionary consciousness. For instance, the demand for a $15/hr minimum wage should be linked to a demand for a national public works jobs program to create millions of jobs at union wages and benefits, as well as a demand for a national health program. A socialist campaign should talk about ending the imperialist wars overseas and using the money to rebuild cities here.
The lack of a transitional approach has allowed the Democrats the ability to move left tactically and cut across Sawant’s program. This is what the Democrats do; they co-opt the programs of social movements and rising left campaigns. Failing that, they do what they did with occupy and turn to repression.
I have no objection to united left electoral blocs, as long as we understand the limitations of electoralism. Socialism can’t and won’t be elected to office. It can only come through relentless class struggle. That said, elections can be used to raise ideas and educate working people and the oppressed about the predatory nature of capitalism. An educational campaign aimed at spreading revolutionary ideas is not in itself a sectarian venture.
The Freedom Socialist Party has made a critical endorsement of the Sawant campaign and Socialist Action has issued a similar endorsement of Ty Moore’s campaign. Critical endorsements can help to clarify what differences exist between organizations and further constructive dialog between different political currents.
The International Socialist Organization has also endorsed the Sawant campaign saying, “If she can win, Sawant will have four years to make her City Council office a center for activist organizing to promote the interests of labor and social justice. If she doesn’t, the Sawant campaign will have nevertheless contributed to the project of mobilizing the frustration and anger with the political status quo in the U.S. today.”
advancing the struggle
The success of these campaigns in raising socialist ideas is an excellent development, but running in elections has dangers of creating illusions in electoralism. As revolutionary socialists, we don’t think socialism can be won by way of elections. Instead it must be won through the mass struggles from below of workers and oppressed peoples.
The measure of success of a left campaign is not merely the number of votes the candidate gets but whether the campaign advances the struggles of working people and educates about socialist politics. By these standards, the Socialist Alternative campaigns are a success. The next steps are building mass movements of workers and oppressed people — as well as a party that fights both in the streets as well as at the ballot box. This will require real discussion and joint action by the existing left as well as new social and political forces.