Socialist Alternative’s call for a new party is a dangerous halfway measure


Socialist Alternative’s call for a new party is a dangerous halfway measure

John Leslie

Seattle City Councilor Kshama Sawant’s recent article, It’s Not About Bernie: Why We Can’t Let Our Revolution Die in Philadelphia, raises some serious concerns about the direction of Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and their intervention in the Sanders campaign.

In the article, Sawant argues that Sanders should not endorse Clinton following her nomination for President and that, instead, he should help found a new political party—a party of the 99%. This sort of independent course of action is something that Sanders himself has repeatedly rejected.

For the past months, SAlt has been pursuing a strategy of “supporting but not endorsing” Sanders. On the ground, this has meant SAlt members fundraising, organizing rallies and meetings, and taking roles in campaign organizations like Labor for Bernie. SAlt has apparently discovered that is the DP an arena of struggle rather than the graveyard of social movements.

While revolutionary Marxists take a principled stand against participation in bourgeois parties, SAlt has tried to explain away this breach of principle by claiming, in spite of the facts, that Sanders somehow remains an “independent.” They see the struggle as a fight between between the Democratic Party “establishment” and the “progressive” and working class base of the party.

The truth is that Sanders, despite the label of independent, has caucused and voted with the Democrats while in the House and Senate. The fact that Sanders has gone as far as he has in the primary fight is surely a surprise to the leadership of the Democrats and their Wall Street sponsors. They didn’t count on the extent of working class anger and disaffection with the “mainstream” of the party and its role in the austerity and the erosion of working class living standards. Sanders was supposed to play the role of loyal opposition – just liberal enough to help bring young voters and workers back into the arms of the Democrats. The approach taken by SAlt of “supporting but not endorsing” in reality serves to reinforce illusions that the Democrats can be reformed.

Doesn’t the Sanders campaign get credit for helping raise popular awareness of socialism?

Thousands of people have become interested in socialist ideas during this campaign. However, the definition of “socialism” among this layer of folks is blurred almost beyond recognition. Sanders’ Democratic Socialism resembles New Deal reforms under Roosevelt, or Social Security, or breaking up the big banks. This makes the task of explaining what socialism more difficult– because so much ideological debris must be cleared out of the way to get to a clear and more correct definition. Socialists don’t think socialism is the New Deal or snow plows – socialism is the democratic ownership and control of the means of production by the working class itself. This means building a democratic state based on the direct rule of workers and oppressed people.

What about the reforms Sanders advocates for — like Single Payer or the minimum wage? Shouldn’t revolutionaries fight for reforms?

Of course, revolutionaries fight for reforms. However, we see this fight not as an end in itself but as part of a larger struggle to advance the struggles of working people with an eye towards building real working class power.

“Revolutionary Marxists, starting with Marx, have never been opposed to the struggle for reforms; on the contrary, for revolutionaries to oppose such struggles or refuse to join and try to lead them would be to doom themselves to permanent isolation and futility. Except in revolutionary situations (and not always then) most of the exploited and oppressed masses do not see the necessity or possibility of winning anything but reforms (no matter how radical or numerous the reforms they want may be).

“The essence of Marxist strategy, of any revolutionary strategy in our time, is to combine the struggle for reforms with the struggle for revolution. This is the only way in which to build a revolutionary party capable of providing reliable leadership to the masses and of enabling them in revolutionary situations to make the transition, in consciousness and in action, from the struggle for reforms to the struggle for power and revolution.” IS IT WRONG FOR REVOLUTIONARIES TO FIGHT FOR REFORMS?

The evolution of the CWI tradition

The Militant Tendency, the organization that is the forerunner of the current Committee for a Workers International (CWI), was engaged in a long term entry into the British Labour Party. While it is a correct tactic, at times, for revolutionaries to do entry work in mass reformist parties, they should do so with caution and with the understanding that long-term entry can have a corrosive effect of revolutionary cadres.

As James P Cannon said, “prolonged immersion in reformist work and over-adaptation to a centrist environment, the fiber of the revolutionary cadre may become corroded and its perspectives dimmed and even lost. Total immersion in such a milieu has many liabilities and dangers.” JP Cannon, The Revolutionary Party

Long term entry led Militant to several deviations from revolutionary Marxism.

Their time in Labour led Militant to embrace the idea that there is a parliamentary or electoral road to socialism – that a Labour government could be elected and move towards socialism with the passage of an “enabling act” and the nationalization of the largest corporations. This notion has more in common with the politics of pre-1914 Social Democracy than with the actual ideas of revolutionary Marxism. Marx himself said “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” Lenin, in State and Revolution, reinforced this principle saying “the working class must break up, smash, the ‘ready-made state machinery’, and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.”

Militant’s misunderstanding of the Marxist theory of the state has also led their tradition to label cops and prison guards as “workers in uniform.”

Trotsky rejected this outright. “The fact that the police was originally recruited in large numbers from among social-democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.”

The notion of cops being “workers in uniform” should come as a shock to any worker who has come up against cops on a picket line or the victims of racist police. Cop unions in the US have certainly exposed themselves to be defenders of a violent and racist social order.

Militant also adapted to British imperialism in during the Malvinas war waged by Thatcher against Argentina.

“The labour movement should be mobilised to force a general election to open the way for the return of a Labour government to implement socialist policies at home and abroad. Victory of a socialist government in Britain would immediately transform the situation in relation to the Falklands. The junta would no longer be able to claim to be fighting British imperialism … A Labour government could not just abandon the Falklanders and let Galtieri get on with it. But it would continue the war on socialist lines” (Militant International Review No22, June 1982). (Bold my emphasis. So much for the Leninist policy of revolutionary defeatism.)

The proper definition of the politics of this trend is centrism. Centrism is a politics that swings back and forth between reformism and revolution. The “centrist…reckons himself a “realist” merely because he sets out to swim without any ideological baggage whatever, and is tossed by every vagrant current. He is unable to understand that principles are not dead ballast but a lifeline for a revolutionary swimmer. The sectarian, on the other hand, generally does not want to go swimming at all, in order not to wet his principles. He sits on the shore and reads lectures on morality to the flood of the class struggle. But sometimes a desperate sectarian leaps headlong into the water, seizes hold of the centrist and helps him drown.”  Trotsky, Sectarianism, Centrism, and the Fourth International

The answer offered to any political criticism of SAlt’s turn to Sanders is that the critic is a “purist” who doesn’t understand Marxist strategy. Worse, we are sectarians who are cutting ourselves off from the masses who support Bernie.

Of course, revolutionaries want to reach the large numbers of people who support Sanders. However, we are obligated to do so without making concessions to reformist ideas and without creating illusions in the Democratic Party.

Is the Sanders campaign a step towards a new “party of the 99%?”

The call for a “party of the 99%” is, according to SAlt supporters, an attempt to popularize the idea of a working class party, but the formulation itself blurs the distinctions between classes. It sets up a distinction between the so-called “billionaire class” and the rest of us. This ignores the existence of intermediate classes between the ruling class and the working class. A “party of the 99% is by definition a populist formation and not a workers’ party.

 Is the Sanders campaign a road to a new party or to continued subordination to the Democrats?

While correctly calling out the Democrats as the enemy of the working class and oppressed, Sawant and Socialist Alternative make concessions to lesser evilism by calling for a “safe states” strategy for this new party.

“If Bernie’s only concern is that running independently could open the door to a President Trump, then why could he not at least campaign in the 40+ states where it’s generally clear the Democratic or Republican candidate will win? Even in this way, while not putting his name on the ballot in the 5-10 closely contested “swing states,” he could still run an historic campaign if linked to building a new party. It could lay the foundation for an ongoing mass political movement to run hundreds of left candidates for all levels of government, independent of corporate cash. He wouldn’t need to win this election to effect a sustained leftward shift in US politics.”

The Green Party’s David Cobb tried this “safe states” strategy in 2004 with disastrous results for the Greens. The truth about safe states is that it’s a backhanded way of supporting the Democratic nominee while appearing to favor political independence. This is a halfway measure that leaves working people disarmed politically – the equivalent of taking a knife to a gunfight.

Workers and oppressed people need a party of their own. This party has to be based on a clean break with the Democrats without concessions to the lesser evil. Such a party would fight for the interests of the oppressed and exploited at the ballot box and in the streets. Ultimately, real social transformation will not come by way of a parliamentary road but through the independent mobilization and organization of the masses.

This movement will undoubtedly include many people who support Sanders now. The task of socialists is to win these people to an independent class orientation without reinforcing illusions in reformism or the Democrats. The next step for the movement should be the convening of independent local and regional organizations with the goal of building a national organization to fight austerity and fight for the interests of the working class. Such organizations could both run independent campaigns for office and build mass action coalitions.


  1. I don’t agree that (British) Militant’s long term entry into the Labour Party explains S. Alt’s. support for the Democrats. I was a founding member of the predecessor to S. Alt. – Labor Militant. We never supported any Democrats. We did call on Jesse Jackson to lead a movement for a mass workers’ party back in the ’80s, and it was the (British dominated) international that corrected us on that, explaining that it is a mistake to call on a capitalist politician to lead the workers’ movement.

    I think that is the main point today. And that general principle can be seen in action. I understand that S. Alt. members on the E. Coast were told to go to the Verizon picket lines with the petition calling on Sanders to run independently. What that means concretely is to try to get workers not to rely on their own strength and their own organizations, but to instead rely on this Democratic politician.

  2. Any one paying attention should have noticed that Sanders has been calling on his supporters to unify behind the eventual nominee in order to defeat the Republicans in November 2016. The majority of his base is likely to do just that. Socialist Alternative urged support for Sanders based on the possibility that he might renege on his pledge to support the presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, and run as an independent. That is a very unlikely scenario. There is a better chance that he’ll win the nomination.

    Now SAlt is urging Sanders to run as an independent if he loses the nomination, but to not get on the ballot in toss up states, and there could be more than a dozen of them. Shades of David Cobb. Sanders is running on a platform that clashes with the neoliberal agenda of the leadership of both major bourgeois parties, which resonated more with the masses than most people had expected, including Sanders and the Democratic Party establishment. Much of the Republican establishment is lining up behind Hillary in time for Republicans to change their registration in California so they can vote for Hillary. If she loses big in California, she could lose the nomination. And that would just not do.

    SAlt’s greatest sin is that they buried themselves in the Sanders campaign, and in the Democratic Party, and they have no exit strategy. It was too tempting as an arena to recruit Sanders supporters, and they predictably adapted to this milieu. Sawant’s re-election campaign looked like one based on an inside-outside strategy vis the DT. They have friends who are in the orbit of the Democratic Party, including some in the leadership of trade unions at various levels. They are leading some organizing efforts, such as around 15 NOW, which some Democratic Party politicians are endorsing,, and that is not a bad thing. But SAlt is tethering itself to the Democratic Party in the electoral arena and has no Plan B other than supporting Bernie as an independent candidate. They are not talking about backing Jill Stein or of any other electoral effort independent of Sanders and the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is like a marriage of irreconcilable partners, one which is hot-wired to the bourgeoisie and which will fight Sanders’ reform agenda at every turn. There will be no Party unity except on their terms, whether Sanders wins or loses the nomination. Sanders and a majority of his supporters are committed to a strategy of class collaboration, of a permanent alliance of workers and their bosses. And SAlt is adapting to that.

    • Doug Mann makes a good point about S. Alt. adapting to the milieu in which they are swimming. And it is not only with Sanders; in Seattle, Kshama Sawant has supported a number of local Democratic politicians, as well as being a mouthpiece for the union bureaucracy. One detail where I think he is mistaken. Doug writes: “They are leading some organizing efforts, such as around 15 NOW, which some Democratic Party politicians are endorsing…” In fact, they seem to have dropped 15 NOW in favor of “Fight for 15”. This is not just a matter of semantics. One of the few 15 NOW chapters that was independent of S. Alt. was the one in Tacoma. There, they took the slogan seriously and got a measure on last November’s ballot calling for an immediate raise of the minimum wage to $15/hour. Predictably, the majority of the union leadership did not support it, especially the leaders of those unions which had workers working for below $15/hour (home health care workers, grocery clerks, etc.) One of those leaders explained that they “prefer to work with the business community.” Equally predictably, Sawant and S. Alt. did not support it because of that and they made sure that 15 Now nationally instituted a complete news blackout. That was a real testing ground. Ever since then, they have dropped any real struggle for 15 now, in favor of what the union leaders – meaning the liberal wing of the Democrats – will accept.

      As far as the difference: In 1996 I was involved in a campaign for a $10/hour minimum wage. That was a lot back then. Not so much anymore. Similarly, a $15/hour minimum wage in 2021 (which is what is being pushed here in California) is a cruel hoax. “Justice (and wage raises) delayed is justice denied.”

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