What sort of party for workers and the oppressed?

Oct. 2019 Sanders to nurses (Christopher Dolan:AP)
Bernie Sanders addresses nurses in Pennsylvania in April 2019. (Christopher Dolan / AP)

By JOHN LESLIE

Once again, advocates for independent working-class political action are confronted with the notion that the Democratic Party ought to be a key arena of political activity. Some activists argue that the focus today is the struggle between the Democratic Party “establishment” and what they consider to be the “progressive” and working-class base of the party.

Many of these activists—particularly in the Democratic Socialists of America—urge support for the Bernie Sanders campaign, with the argument that a Sanders primary victory would advance the struggles of the working class and create an opening for socialist politics. A layer of lapsed revolutionaries from Solidarity, Socialist Alternative, and some former members of the now-defunct International Socialist Organization have adapted themselves to this reformist thinking.

Thousands of people became interested in socialist ideas during Sanders’ 2016 campaign as well as during his present effort. While we shouldn’t dismiss this increased interest in socialist ideas, the definition of “socialism” among this layer of people is unclear and ill defined. Senator Sanders’ “democratic socialism” is really a warmed-over version of New Deal liberal capitalist reforms.

Socialism has nothing in common with Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was put forward in order to tame the militant labor movement of the 1930s. Socialism entails the ownership and control of the means of production by the working class itself. This will require building a new democratic state based on the direct rule of workers and oppressed people.

Some respond that socialists who criticize Sanders from the left are “purists” or “sectarians” who are cutting themselves off from the “masses” who support Bernie. Of course, revolutionaries want to reach the large numbers of people who support Sanders. But in reaching them, what kind of political strategy do we offer? How should we address their desire to gain real victories in the struggle for economic and social gains? We need to show that working in the Democratic Party is a trap; it can only stifle the movement for social change.

The Democratic Party is a capitalist party, beholden to the super-wealthy layer that rules this country, and by nature hostile to the interests of working people and the oppressed. Although some Democratic politicians might reach out for support from the labor movement or social activists, while even touting a few “progressive” reforms, the essence of the party cannot be changed.

Do revolutionaries fight for reforms?

Revolutionary socialists see the fight for reforms not as a limited end in itself but as part of a broader drive to advance the struggles of working people with an eye towards building real working-class power. George Breitman, a former leader of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, pointed out:

“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. …

“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.”

“Third party” or class party?

Some left activists call for the formation of a “left” party or for a “party of the 99%.” Neither of these formulations is satisfying because they blur the class line in politics. One of the most urgent tasks faced by the U.S. working class is the conquest of its own class independence—moving from what Marx termed “a class in itself” to a “class for itself.” Calls for “progressive” or “left” third parties are really a call for a populist-type party, not a working-class party.

The Green Party platform, which offers an array of radical sounding reforms, is superior to Sanders’ in many ways. However, the Green platform does not advocate doing away with capitalism but rather proposes to “reduce the economic and political power of large corporations, end corporate personhood and re-design corporations to serve our society, democracy and the environment.” At the same time, it would change “the legal design of corporations so that they generate profits, but not at the expense of the environment, human rights, public health, workers, or the communities in which the corporation operates.”

This sort of thinking is contradictory. Corporate power and the drive for maximum profits are at the center of the capitalist system. The reforms that the Greens propose are impossible because capitalists would never adhere to them. Exploitation of the environment, human rights, public health, workers, or communities is endemic to the capitalist private-profit system.

More equitable tax policy and breaking up the big banks ultimately are not the solutions. The banks and financial institutions will still exert control over the economy and politics. Socialists argue instead for the nationalization of the banks and the economy under democratic workers’ control. Capitalism is the problem, and trying to make it better, or more humane, is fruitless.

Do socialists have to wait before running for office? No, but running for office under the current electoral setup, which penalizes truly independent candidates and makes getting on the ballot almost impossible in many areas, comes with great dangers of co-optation by the Democratic Party machine and the logic of lesser-evilism. Looking at the way socialist Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant has expressed support for “progressive” Democratic “allies” on council, and the way her party, Socialist Alternative, has adapted to the politics of Sanders, illustrates the point.

Independent socialist candidates and labor-community slates for office can be a step towards an independent working-class party. Two members of the Athens (Ohio) Revolutionary Socialists, a former branch of the ISO, are running for office as independent socialists. Ellie Hamrick is running for city council in Athens, and McCray Powell is running for council in nearby Nelsonville. Central to these campaigns are attacking the power of landlords in local politics, highlighting high rents, the need for social programs, the opioid crisis, police funding, and support for working-class organizing.

In an earlier interview with this writer, Hamrick said: “We cannot achieve socialism simply by electing socialists; we have to completely do away with the current system, and change has to come from the bottom up for that to happen. But whether we like it or not, elections are an important part of the political landscape, and people’s ideas can find expression or change through elections. We need an independent workers’ party sooner rather than later, and I think socialists running (and hopefully winning) as independents can help pave the way for that. I hope to use this election to spread revolutionary socialist ideas, amplify the message of struggles, and advance the qualitative and quantitative organization of the left in my community.”

Workers and oppressed people need a party of our own. This party has to be based on a clean break with the Democrats without adaptation to lesser-evilism. 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 through electoral means but through the independent mobilization and organization of the working class and its allies.

 

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