Can the Democratic Party be used by socialists to effect social change? The debate over what kind of party workers and oppressed people need continues. John Leslie replies to Seth Ackerman’s article, A Blueprint for a New Party, in Jacobin magazine.
A Discussion of Blueprints and the Party We Need
Seth Ackerman’s A Blueprint for a New Party (Jacobin 23) is a good contribution to a necessary discussion among serious socialist activists. Ackerman identifies a new situation following the Sanders campaign, that “the Sanders campaign has revived hope that a serious electoral politics to the left of the Democratic Party might be possible.” This hold true despite Sanders limitations and the election of Trump. The potential exists for a reinvigorated socialist movement. However, such a movement is doomed to fail if it is trapped in the confines of the Democratic Party. For those of us who hold to a vision of a party independent of the Democrats, it is important not to simply rely on the same old arguments. We have to explain to our comrades and friends, who are not yet convinced of the need for a break with the Democrats, without relying on boilerplate arguments. It’s time for the US left to move beyond marginalization and isolation.
“…politics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions, that is where serious politics begin.” Lenin
I agree with Ackerman’s call for “an independent left party rooted in the working class.” Ackerman’s description of the structure and functioning of such a party seems like a good starting place:
“In a genuinely democratic party, the organization’s membership, program, and leadership are bound together tightly by a powerful, mutually reinforcing connection. The party’s members are its sovereign power; they come together through a sense of shared interest or principle. Through deliberation, the members establish a program to advance those interests. The party educates the public around the program, and it serves, in effect, as the lodestar by which the party is guided. Finally, the members choose a party leadership — including electoral candidates — who are accountable to the membership and bound by the program… the Democratic Party has none of…” these characteristics.
While we may agree on the need for a new party, the question of the composition of this party, and how we get there, remains.
My Labor Party experience
I was a member of the 1990’s attempt to build a Labor Party. It seems to me that the Labor Party’s failure to contest elections was an error. Given the unwillingness of union bureaucrats to break with the Democrats, Labor Party Advocates should have remained a mass membership organization with two purposes — 1. To propagandize for the idea of a Labor Party and a break with the Democrats and 2. To provide a labor-left pole of struggle for national health care, immigrant rights, Jobs, education, and other issues.
The main reason for the formation of a working class party is based exactly on the weakness of organized labor in its current form. The labor movement in its current state is at an impasse. In this sense, our situation is very much like the one faced by working people in Britain which led to the founding of the Labour Party.
“What were the reasons for this change? (The founding of the Labour Party) It was due to the complete decline of English capitalism…due to the abolishing of England’s monopoly control of the world market…The bourgeoisie lost its ability to give the leading strata of the proletariat a privileged position. The trade unions lost the possibility to improve the situation of the workers and they were pushed onto the road of political action because political action is the generalization of economic action. Political action generalizes the needs of the workers and addresses them not to the parts of the bourgeoisie but to the bourgeoisie as a whole organized in the state.” Trotsky on the Labor Party Question in the US
Our fight must be political as well as on the shop floor. We have to put forward the vision of a working class movement that fights for all working people and the oppressed. This is only possible if the labor movement speaks in its own independent voice. We can’t get there by continuing to support the “soft” party of neo-liberalism.
Any alternative party we build must necessarily be rooted in the unions and organizations of the oppressed. Yes, the unions (the main defensive organizations of the working class) are in a weakened state after 30 years of a one-sided class war. Some of this is self-inflicted, because of a failure to mobilize the rank and file against the employers’ offensive, concessions, and a leadership that has consistently subordinated the interests of the rank-and-file to the Democrats. Building a movement for an independent working class political instrument has to be combined with a struggle to rebuild the unions as democratic fighting institutions.
The lessons of Wisconsin
Faced with a union-busting law stripping public employees of bargaining rights by the Scott Walker regime in Wisconsin, the unions fought back in an inspiring mass movement. Solidarity between unions, alongside support from farmers and other sectors of society, showed the potential for mass mobilization in the US to fight back against the bosses. Unfortunately, this movement was diverted into the Democratic Party, with the unions supporting a half-baked recall effort that failed to oust Walker or regain any of the ground that had been lost.
Could a workers’ party win?
I don’t think that the ballot access obstacles Ackerman describes, while daunting, are insurmountable. The unions, even in their weakened state, have more than 14 million members. This is not to mention the millions of people (46% in 2016) who stayed home on Election Day, who could respond to a political alternative. I have personally seen the union get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort in a national election. If these energy and resources were wielded in our own name, the result would be phenomenal. The Democrats are dependent on union money and boots on the ground to win elections. Ackerman points to the lack of a real national Democratic Party membership and the patchwork nature of the Party as the reason why running candidates in DP primaries could be successful. I think this is based on a misunderstanding of the functioning and role of the Democrats.
The Labor Party is, in part, a solution to the chicken-and-egg problem of building an independent political party. Since unions already have staff and infrastructure across the country, a genuine Labor Party effort could quickly win city council and county offices, and challenge for state offices and Congressional districts, without going through years of building up a duplicate structure. This relationship between party and unions would also enable unions starved of funds by “right-to-work” laws and denial of agency fees to rebuild their capacities as fighting organizations.
Not a new idea
The idea of a Labor or Workers Party in the US is not a new one. From the Workingmen’s Parties of the early 19th century, the Farmer-Labor Parties of the early 20th and the call for a Labor Party during the Great Depression, there have been attempts form a new party.
Early attempts to form a workingmen’s party were hampered by an inability to deal with the special oppression of African-Americans and women, the hostility of bourgeois society, and the fact that various Utopian socialist and middle class reformers joined these parties.
In the period immediately following the First World War, an attempt to form a Labor Party was short circuited by left sectarianism, liberal attempts to co-opt the movement, government repression of the unions, and the reluctance of more conservative union leaders to join. The energy of a potential Labor Party was diverted into the 1924 campaign of “Progressive” Senator Robert LaFollette.
The call for a Labor Party gained new ground as workers fought back during the Depression of the 1930’s, as the Congress of Industrial Organizations organized basic industry and unemployed councils fought for relief for the victims of the crisis. Unfortunately, this movement was done in by the popular front policies of the Communist Party and labor leaders’ accommodation to Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Good cop, bad cop
Ackerman’s strategy, based on running candidates in the Democratic primaries, is a recipe for continued dependence on the Democrats and continued powerlessness. Can any of us think for a minute that the Democrats won’t smash any attempt to “primary” socialists in their party? Just look at the active sabotage of the Sanders campaign by the DNC in the most recent primary contest.
Many Sandernistas assert that the Senator from Vermont would have beat Trump in the general election. It seems to me that history shows the opposite.
DNC officials did everything in their power to undermine Sanders’ challenge to the establishment’s prefered candidate, Hillary Clinton. Clinton, while adopting some of Sanders’ rhetoric on income inequality and trade, was clearly the candidate of Wall Street, a fact made plain by the leak of her speeches to big business money men. This was not accidental; the DNC holds the Democrats accountable to their capitalist masters. They would rather lose an election and silence the party’s rank and file than lose control of the Democratic Party machinery.
In 1972, the liberal-left antiwar candidate, George McGovern mounted a challenge to the Democratic Party establishment and the Party hierarchy responded by abandoning their own candidate. Democratic money and resources were either withheld or diverted to Nixon. McGovern’s defeat was staggering.
In another instance, Democratic Socialists of America member Zoltan Ferency’s very moderate campaign for Michigan Governor in 1982 was sabotaged by the UAW bureaucracy and the Democratic Party. Solidarity House in Detroit decided that Ferency, an open democratic socialist, was too radical and sank his bid.
The Democratic approach to the electorate can be compared to the “good cop-bad cop” scenario that police use in interrogations. One cop threatens and intimidates you, while the other offers you coffee and assures you that they want to “help” you. All the while, they are working together to break you. The lesser-evil game played by the Democrats, and their supporters on the left, is very much the same.
The Democrats serve as a prop to continued capitalist domination. US party politics is a combination of coercion and co-optation. There is no mechanism for accountability for the so-called base of the party. The levers of power in the Democratic Party are held by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) which consists of party officers, elected officials, union tops, fixers, and hustlers. The prime directive of the DNC is to raise money for the party. Corporate money is the lifeblood of the party and understanding this is the key to understanding who really calls the tune in the Party.
Cutting the umbilical cord
The US socialist, Eugene V. Debs, said
“This struggle is political as well as economic and will, because it must, be fought out accordingly, and this can only be done when labor has a political party as well as an economic union of its own to express its interests, declare its aims, and develop its power to fight its battles and achieve its victory.”
The party we need is not a “progressive” or populist party. We need a party that stands up for all of the victims of this system– a workers’ party based on the organizations of workers and the oppressed. A party that fights in the street — and not just the ballot box. Many doubt that a Labor Party can be built because of the rotten role all too often played by trade union bureaucrats. Many leftists point to other social movements and forces as the possible base of a “Progressive” or left party. This ignores the social power that working people potentially wield in society.
In the current political situation, a new party should include not just the unions, but also the organizations of the specially oppressed. By affiliating the organizations of African-Americans, Latinx, Women, LGBTQ and immigrant rights movements, to name a few, a new party would unite the resistance to this murderous system.
Imagine a political movement based on rejuvenated unions, the Black Freedom movement, women’s rights organizations, environmentalists, and immigrant rights fighters. Such a movement-party would have the strength to turn our defensive struggles into a fight to reshape society according to a more democratic and egalitarian vision.