The US Left and the Ballot Box

by Luke Elliott on April 19, 2013

Originally posted at ZNet — In March 2011, the Vermont legislature created a five-member state board to design its new Green Mountain Care. While the rest of the country waits with trepidation to see how the Affordable Care Act plays out, Vermont is moving full steam ahead to enact a state-wide, single payer system – the first of it’s kind in the US. By 2017 Vermonters will exclusively access a ‘Medicare for all’ publicly funded insurance system, unhinging access to health care from any particular criteria beyond being human. This is a truly significant victory for poor and working class people.

But how did this come to be? Through the early 1960s, Vermont was a thoroughly Republican state, electing only conservative governors and presumably resistant to terrifying ideas like “socialized medicine”. Fifty years later, the conditions in the state are quite different – most notable are the emerging single payer system, and of course Bernie Sanders, the only self-identified socialist elected at the national level in the US. According to a review of Eric Davin’s new book Radicals in Power, New Left activists decided to do what they could to shift the political terrain of the state through electoral politics, at first forming the Citizens Party and Liberty Union, and finally the Vermont Progressive Party. If the latest developments are any indication, they have been quite successful: The consciousness and conditions of Vermont are vastly more progressive than they were before the 1960s.

Most of the US left is filled with defeatism about what is electorally possible. This has resulted in a frustrating vacillation between ignoring elections altogether and waging ‘symbolic’ campaigns that have virtually no hope of success – and often a reactionary effect. The Vermont example offers a significant, if limited alternate vision of what a thoughtful, strategic US left is capable of, electorally speaking. Though the conditions of the state are specific and unique, the fact remains that a group of organizers analyzed the political terrain, made a strong series of political moves over the decades, and radically enhanced conditions for and with half a million people.

Three quarters of a century ago in a very different context, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci invited the left to reconsider some fundamental assumptions about social change through his effort to make sense of the left’s failures and the corresponding rise of fascism in Europe. Imprisoned by Mussolini after years of Communist agitation and organizing, Gramsci enhanced and introduced a number of important theoretical tools across 3,000 notebook pages scribbled in secret. Half a century after Gramsci’s death, writing in the midst of a Thatcherism that still grips Britain today (Thatcher’s recent passing notwithstanding) Stuart Hall offered this useful summary of Gramsci’s thinking: “[He]… came face to face with the revolutionary character of history itself. When a conjuncture unrolls, there is no ‘going back’. History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment. You have to attend, ‘violently’, with all the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ at your command, to the ‘discipline of the conjuncture’.”

The US left has a long history of ignoring such fundamental advice, to the extent that there was someone present to provide it; after all Gramsci was only translated into English in the 1970s for Hall and others to grapple with. In the decades preceding Gramsci’s arrival on the scene, the US left was gripped by revolutionary expectations fomented in very different political, economic and social contexts than the one they faced. And indeed much of this confusion between persistent theoretical expectations and actual, conjunctural realities continues to haunt today’s efforts to build real power for poor and working class people of all colors, genders and sexual orientations. The United States in 2013 is a unique place, and the left must develop theories, strategies and practices to match it – not by a return to Gramsci per se, but by heeding his advice and clinging tenaciously to the conditions we face, here and now, in order to develop fresh theoretical and strategic analysis.

With the lessons of the Vermont Progressive Party in mind, as well as the theoretical contributions of Gramsci and Hall, the comparative historical analysis of Gary Marks and Seymour Martin Lipset in It Didn’t Happen Here and my own limited experience with US electoral work, the following are nine signposts for left electoral engagement in the contemporary US. They are not principles for all time but ideas for the present, and they should be pulled apart and enhanced by any left organizations that are tackling electoral politics meaningfully.

1. Elections are secondary. They are but one way social need and desire can be expressed at the political level. Electoral work should always be subordinated to and connected with:

  1. The day-to-day work of mass-based progressive organizations (community, labor, issue and identity-based formations etc.).
  2. The broader theoretical and strategic analysis of what is necessary to empower directly those who suffer under capitalism, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression.
  3. The ontologically open moment from which new organizational forms and left projects emerge, and from which newly identified oppressions can be articulated into an ever-broadening historic bloc.

With this as a foundation, the idea is to win electoral power. Hence:

2. Pick winnable fights. To start, focus on:

  1. Cities, especially progressive cities
  2. Small, progressive state legislatures
  3. Within those two (cities, states), engage in districts that are ideologically and organizationally composed in such a way that a left-wing candidate could feasibly win

3. Reciprocal empowerment. This analysis follows from point one. A significant portion of the resources and human power of elected leftists should go toward support for the ‘on the ground’ work of the organizations and people to whom they are accountable. See Hilary Wainwright’s excellent article for some details on how Syriza has done this meaningfully in contemporary Greece.

The following three points fall broadly into the inside/outside strategy suggested by Bill Fletcher Jr. and others for how the left should relate to the Democratic Party:

4. Coordinate strategically with Democrats. When running in general elections will empower the right wing, run a left-wing candidate in the Democratic primary.

  1. If the left candidate loses, ally with and push the Democrat
  2. If the left candidate wins move forward, but maintain a left-wing ‘brand’ even as a contending Democrat

5. Forget the presidency. Between the US plurality system, the Electoral College, and the ideological porousness of the Democratic Party, running for president is a waste of resources.

  1. Ally with the more progressive candidate
  2. Re-evaluate if the terrain changes (e.g. extreme crisis, one major party implodes etc.)

6. Controlling the Democratic Party. Given the resources, historical traction and ideological porousness of the Democratic Party, it will likely be around for years to come. The left-wing candidates who are elected within the party should look for opportunities to control local and state structures. Carl Davidson’s recent article explores potential allies within the Democratic Party at the national level.

7. Active recruitment. As per the first point on this list, any electorally engaged formation should be constituted by mass-based organizations doing progressive and radical organizing and campaign work. Beyond this:

  1. Debate and attempt to bring in any potential organizational ally who does good work, but has an ideological bias against electoral politics or works with the Democratic Party exclusively
  2. Also following from the first point, ‘proper’ political parties should initiate organizing projects independent from electoral fights. Elections should be an integral but secondary aspect of those new initiatives.
  3. Use the Internet: Everything from the truly grassroots use of social media during the Arab Spring to the national power that MoveOn has consolidated in the past decade points toward the need to develop a savvy and snazzy recruiting presence online.

8. Hegemony. In framing, messaging and branding, settle for nothing less than a radical re-orientation of the underlying memes, binaries and narratives that drive the American psyche, including especially individualism.

Although a significant portion of the party’s ideological/marketing work must be pragmatic (i.e. it must leverage current beliefs and patterns to get candidates elected), the fundamental intent must be to transform people’s sense of the desirable and possible in order to create a new and more progressive ideological terrain for future struggles.

9. Internal Culture. Pay attention to the feel of the organization. It should be fun, relaxed, joyfully angry, open-minded, attentive to race, gender and class dynamics and supportive of intellectual and theoretical reflection, among probably many other characteristics.

It is not enough to have the right ‘line’; the organization has to be authentically fun and open-minded in order to bring in a diversity of people to participate actively.

The first of these nine points is certainly foundational. While the US left has vacillated between ignoring electoral politics and ‘symbolic’ campaigns, there are countless others who have slipped away from the left as they engage ever-more deeply in electoral work. And this brings up a much more fundamental issue: where are the formations that can use, alter and enhance these nine signposts? Where are the organizations that can engage electoral politics without being overwhelmed by the privileges and bureaucracy of state power? Where are the parties with the power to hold individual elected officials – even those with the best of radical intentions – accountable to the organizations and constituencies that elected them?

These nine points do not just put the cart before the horse. To extend the metaphor, they are a cart without a horse. Or more accurately, there are a lot of foals, but it is unclear if they will become full-grown. Though Occupy has faded, its presence is still felt by many in the local work it has both enhanced and initiated. There is the Vermont Progressive Party, and the compelling though constrained efforts of the Working Families Party. In a recent, fascinating case, the union UNITE HERE essentially took over the New Haven City Council. And of course the US social movement left is waging and winning many inspiring victories outside of the electoral arena. But at the end of the US left’s long day, we are still looking for a horse or two that can pull our cart down the road toward a vast and deep transformation of our economy and society.

For now, these nine points may be useful for small formations engaging in local politics, and perhaps someone from the Green Party will read them with an open mind. But there is a deeper question for the US left than how to engage electoral politics. More importantly: how do we sew together the many left, progressive and potentially progressive organizations, individuals and constituencies to build a hegemonic bloc that can contend for power economically, culturally and politically at the local and national levels? A provisional answer to this question, and the organizing work such an answer implies are the real foundation for any meaningful, scaled left-wing work, electoral and otherwise.

{ 58 comments… read them below or add one }

RedPleb April 19, 2013 at 2:05 pm

As someone who was involved in the Healthcare is a Human Right campaign that got singlepayer health care for Vermont, I’d say its a really big stretch to put all the credit on ballot box and the Progressive Party. It was the movement, organizde by thousands of Vermonters and the especially the folks of the Vermont Workers Center that won us Green Mountain Care, not the legislature in Montpelier. They helped in the sense that they weren’t a hindrance, but it was the mass movement that got that passed.


Luke Elliott April 19, 2013 at 2:47 pm

I agree completely! I probably should have made the piece a bit longer. My point was to say that the decisions made my organizers 30/40 years ago laid the groundwork for this campaign, which was undoubtedly driven by movement organizations. Part of why there was political opportunity for the movement orgs to capitalize on was because of the unique legislative context – which isn’t at all to say that single payer would have happened without the movement.

In any case, the story was meant as more of the narrative to introduce these ‘signposts’ as left formations experiment with electoral work in the US.


RedPleb April 22, 2013 at 11:50 am

That’s fair. It was more a factual critique of that example. There is also the fact that the Vermont Progressive Party has been in kind of a tail-spin for the last few years, at least since 2010, losing votes and seats in the state legislature. That is not demean or be dismissive towards their efforts, but just to say that even in an idiosyncratic, left-leaning, small state like Vermont, building a left 3rd party is incredibly difficult


Pham Binh April 19, 2013 at 7:42 pm

You’re making a false juxtaposition between mass action in the streets and political action in legislatures. Both, organically linked together, are necessary to win.

And no, mass movements do not pass laws, legislators do. The left needs it own legislators if we’re ever going to overcome Wisconsin-style derailment by Democratic Party legislators.


Deran April 19, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Let’s be honest here; the author is essentially saying the only way forward is be a lap dog to the Democrats. “Such comments about strategic alliances, the allegedly porous ideological nature of the DP, etc, that is the same thing Democrats have been demanding fromt he the Left for decades. Since the 1930s. Such an ana;ysis seems completely ahistorical to me. Look at the McGovern campaign, McCarthy, Jackson, on and on, wave after wave of good people putting time and effort to support a “progressive” Democrat, and what ends up happening? The progressives get coopted and subsumed by the party apparatus.

A decade ago the Vermont Porgressive Party was an actual independent political party seeking to create change and to move society forward. Now the VPP is more and more like the Working Families Party – a scam where by, again, good people put in time and effort that ends up going toward propping up the Democrats and giving the Democrats legitimacy by “Left” participation.

As far as the rest of the essay. It does make sense for Left electoral efforts to focus on districts etc where they could make a significant and coherent mark on things. This makes some sense, but then you end up with the Kshama Sawant campaign for Seattle City Council bringing out the same old Trot laundry list program, and instead of working to build a “SYRIZA-type” broad front of socialists, she is running around the US seeking to build the Trot group she is a member of.

If this is only going to come down to doing what the Democrats want you to do (don’t run against them, vote for them) maintain a pretense of socialism, why not simply become an Obama-voter and join the sad sacks of the Progressive Democrats of America?

I can see the Vermont Progressive Party being an important part of a “US SYRIZA” type org, but the VPP is not a radical organization any longer.


Luke Elliott April 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Deran –

My intention is not to be a lap dog to the Dems. Rather my think involves, to the extent possible, avoiding *reactionary* impacts, while at the same time building an independent, non-sectarian, radical formation in the US. Riding that line is the trick for the left in this country. As you and I both seem to know, it typically falls too far to one side (Dems) or the other (ineffectual sectarians). Also, no claims that VPP is radical – rather it’s efforts laid the groundwork for the most progressive healthcare system in the country. That was my point, nothing more, nothing less.

“It does make sense for Left electoral efforts to focus on districts etc where they could make a significant and coherent mark on things.”

Cheers to that – let’s go for it!


Luke Elliott April 19, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Just checked out your website – you seem a fan of strategic thinking and conjunctural analysis. What, exactly, is the point of contesting Dems in races that we know we can’t win – especially in situations where that contestation will likely empower the far right? Shouldn’t we “pick fights we can win”? Isn’t that what you actually said in your response? “Focus on districts where they could make a significant and coherent mark on things”?

I’m left a little unclear on where, precisely, we disagree.


Pham Binh April 19, 2013 at 7:53 pm

I’m all for picking and choosing our fights and couldn’t agree more than contesting the presidency is a waste of time given the balance of forces in this country. However, there’s no victory without defeat and no success without failure, whether we’re talking about Bloombergbille and Occupy Wall Street or the first and second editions of the Sawant campaign in Seattle. What I’m saying is that there are cases (like Sawant vs. Frank Chopp) where it does make sense to fight even though we are probably not going to win 50%+1 votes. Debs lost every campaign he ever ran, but he helped build the Socialist Party into a mass party in the process and helped elect mayors and put people in local and state legislatures and even Congress all of which made socialism a force to be reckoned with in American politics. I’m sure you’d agree that Debs was right to do this even though he had a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming Commander-in-Chief, yes?


Luke Elliott April 19, 2013 at 8:24 pm

I hear you, and honestly I’m not sure what I think of all of Debs’ efforts. I’d have to look through what happened each election, what the effect was each time around. Also, I don’t think we should exaggerate how ‘mass’ the SP ever got, even at it’s peak.

We’re bound to lose sometimes. It’s inevitable. But I really do feel better about not starting fights we can’t win. It’s rarely pretty.

Finally, to be quite frank, I’m a relatively new convert to thinking that the left should be dealing with elections like this. In many ways this article was me working through this thought process :)


Pham Binh April 20, 2013 at 1:01 pm

I too am a new convert to using electoral mechanisms to win office for use against the 1%. When I seriously studied the history and methods Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP starting in summer of 2011, I found that it had nothing in common with the “Leninist” pyramid schemes that play an outsized role on the far left and junked that model accordingly. This rejection led me to re-examine the classic social-democratic model, the fusion of the worker and socialist movements, in which electoral battles and using elected office played an important role in securing legal rights, legitimacy, organizational cohesion, and reforms for the working class.

I raise Debs because I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel to create a mass-based socialist movement in this country. It has been done before. Yes, conditions are radically different than the turn of the 20th century, but there is no reason why solutions that worked back then couldn’t work now when confronting the same problems of sectarianism, sect-ism, and what used to be called impossiblism (opposing reform campaigns in favor of social revolution). These problems have arisen in different contexts, but there are only a few ways of productively solving them, and there is much to be learned from the old Socialist Party. I recommend Ira Kipnis’ American Socialist Movement.

Of course the Socialist Party had its flaws and weaknesses. The state committees were pretty powerful and regularly routed the party’s left and ultra-left (which tended to be more proletarian). Did it achieve the kind of mass following enjoyed by many of its counterparts in Europe? No, but they operated parliamentary systems with proportional representation, so it’s not possible to do a straight one-to-one comparison with any kind of fairness.

For me, the bottom line is this: without the old S.P., no C.P., without the C.P., no C.I.O, without the C.I.O., no “American dream” for tens of millions of workers over a couple generations. That is the enduring value and contribution of the S.P. despite its many flaws. Even though I’m half Proyect’s age, I try to take this longer view of things, thinking in terms of decades and eras rather than years. By contrast, when I was a junior in high school selling the ISO newspaper, I thought every paper sale was critical and urgent because it counted in some small way towards the coming proletarian overturn. Chalk that up to the inevitable inexperience and impatience of youth.

The long game or view is critical because we aren’t going to start off beating Ds and Rs, especially since we operate in a winner-take-all system that tends to all but guarantee incumbency. SYRIZA contested and lost local races when it began in 2004, and there’s no reason to think our attempts will be any different, barring Bernie Sander-type exceptions and luck.

I think the thrust of your arguments is absolutely right. Too often the far left undertakes initiatives for reasons of vanity or habit without any sense of short or long-term strategy or priorities. My nit-picky beef with the formulation of don’t fight where we can’t win is that it is too restrictive or closed and cannot account for cases (exceptions) where fighting and losing today can prepare the way for fighting and winning tomorrow.

All of this points to why this site has a comments section. It’s important not just for new ideas and independent radicals to have a platform but also for authors of articles to wade into and work through the concerns, objections, and counter-arguments of others so that future formulations are better, sharper, and more accurate. Lively engagement beats the party-line echo chamber any day of the week, and I’m glad The North Star is facilitating these works-in-progress strategic discussions. :)


Arthur April 20, 2013 at 1:37 pm

link broken


Pham Binh April 20, 2013 at 5:36 pm



PatrickSMcNally April 20, 2013 at 2:08 pm

We may add that without the “American Century” there would have been no “American Dream” for tens of millions of workers over several generations. The problem is that with the USA in decline today there is no longer the possibility open for reforms of the type which the CPUSA once helped to win.


Pham Binh April 20, 2013 at 5:38 pm

In 1970, CEOs made 50x what workers earned; today, that figure is 500x. And you want me to believe they can’t afford to give us raises? Please.


PatrickSMcNally April 21, 2013 at 2:23 pm

That does not contradict the general point. When he was being nominated as Secretary of Defense by Eisenhower it was Charles Erwin Wilson who said that “for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” That was the time when capitalism was prospering enough that managers could adopt such a view in their own minds of advancing the corporate interest by advancing the public interest, and vice versa. Even if things in real practice did not always work out that way, these were the premises which allowed management to moderate its own salaries for the greater good.

Since the decline in the rate of profit became apparent 4 decades ago there had been a marked shift in the type of mentality which capitalism cultivates among management. It’s much harder to maintain long-term profits today without acknowledging to oneself that one intends to strip the workers bare. As a consequence the types of managers who are raised today are those who demand much higher salaries for themselves personally, because they do not have so many illusions that they are somehow advancing a public interest by keeping their corporation afloat.

In theory, sure, you could demand that managers go back to the pay-scale of the 1950s when Wilson was up for Defense Secretary. There may even be specific contexts where this could be useful as a form of transitioanl demand. But no socialist should fool themselves that that has been the main source of the problem in capitalism for the last 4 decades. Nor should anyone imagine that it will really be possible to turn things back to the way they once were.


Pham Binh April 21, 2013 at 5:07 pm

If you believe the system can’t afford reforms, you’ve conceded the key rationale for austerity. Congrats, I guess.


PatrickSMcNally April 21, 2013 at 6:20 pm

Not at all. The key rationale for austerity is that allegedly capitalism is the best system possible and therefore when it appears to be under stress then the best thing for all of us is to allow it the maximum latitude so that it can bounce back and make us all live happily ever after again. If someone really accepts that premise then of course there is no reason why they should wonder about socialism as a future possibility. Socialism only arises as a prospect when capitalism has largely exhausted its potential. Marx understood that, even if others don’t.

Luke Elliott April 21, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Patrick –

“Socialism only arises as a prospect when capitalism has largely exhausted its potential.”

I fear this is a formula for waiting on history. Unfortunately, poor and working class people are struggling to survive and they don’t have the luxury of waiting for capitalism to exhaust its potential. They have to organize, now. When crisis arises, it is the strength of their organizing and organizational capacities and the state of their consciousness that will determine how far down the path to socialism we make it – not history or structure. Gramsci writes that every moment of destruction is ALREADY a moment of reconstruction (paraphrasing a bit there). These days I prefer strategists to philosophers, which is one of the reasons I kind of (gasp) prefer Gramsci to Marx.

PatrickSMcNally April 21, 2013 at 8:04 pm

It’s not an issue of waiting on organizing per se. One can have strikes which demand a better wage or whatever else. But from a socialist perspective it is important to be clear on whether or not one analyzes this as an era of bourgeois reform. The quarter-century after WWII definitely was such an era, and that fact determined how political activism worked out. This era is very different. It is just a terrible form of deception for anyone claiming to be a socialist to obscure from the public audience that capitalism is done with the age of economic reform. Sure, one can still see reforms such as welcoming gays into the military. For all we know Condoleezza Rice may declare herself a lesbian in 2016 and run for the Republican nomination. Reforms are happening everywhere on non-economic issues. There’s no reason for a socialist to want to oppose the legalization of gay marriage or any other such reform. But henceforth capitalist reforms are going to be confined to such matters outside of the real economy. That is an absolute starting point for any socialist talk.

Luke Elliott April 21, 2013 at 8:19 pm

“Henceforth capitalist reforms are going to be confined to such matters outside of the real economy.”

Trying not to sound snarky here. But you sound like you’re trying to sound like a prophet. Making “henceforth” statements about what constellations of agents (hegemonic blocs) will and won’t do which things is just silliness.

Luke Elliott April 20, 2013 at 2:46 pm

I like your point re: losing. I think it’s fair, and makes sense. It’s a balancing act, and the next version of these ‘signposts’ should definitely include more room for the cases you mention. Honestly, it’s a relief to interact with someone who is open-minded, thoughtful, strategic and willing to trace thought lineage!

Just added the Kipnis book to ‘the list’. It’s funny. I follow every link in your formulation save the first one (SP -> CP). I don’t know that history. I presume it’s in the book your recommend, but can you share the cliff notes version here?


Pham Binh April 20, 2013 at 5:44 pm

So long as it’s not the Tony Cliff notes version…

The S.P. right expelled the left in 1919 or thereabouts. The forces that would become the C.P. began as two different formations both of which came out of the S.P. The first was based on the S.P.’s foreign language federations — basically immigrant socialists — who had their own largely autonomous groups, newspapers, dues, and internal life, almost parties within a party. The Finnish and the Russians were the two major ones who bolted the S.P. and declared for the Comintern. The second was a more Americanized wing led by John/Jack Reed. They split with one another because Reed and his faction wanted to fight the right’s expulsions (which were irregular and illegal) and in doing so win over larger numbers of members symapthetic to the Russian revolution since an inner-party fight would shake up and draw the attention of the entire S.P. The foreign language federations essentially, “you expelled us? Good! You’re a social-patriotic reformist party anyway and we want nothing to do with you!”

So Reed led his splinter to fight with the S.P. leaders at the S.P. convention and lost — having the foreign language federations in this fight would have helped. The foreign language folks formed the Communist Party of America and Reed and co. formed the Communist Labor Party. The Comintern forced the two to merge in 1921. Debs at this time was in jail for his 1918 Canton, OH speech and played no role in these fights, although he later ridiculed the C.P. for taking its orders from the Communist Vatican in Moscow.

Add the Palmer raids to the above mess and it’s nothing short of a miracle that the C.P. even survived to play the tremendous role that it did in the 1930s.

The above is not in Kipnis’ book which only goes to 1912. James Cannon talks about all this in his First 10 Years of American Communism, but you can skip that book and see this story in the movie Reds. And there’s always Wikipedia:


Luke Elliott April 20, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Super helpful. Thanks!!!


aa April 20, 2013 at 10:08 pm

I agree completely with the positions outlined by Pham Binh and Luke Elliott. To me, the article makes the implicit point that in order for the hegemony of the power bloc to be meaningfully challenged, the Left has to be able to wage various campaigns over a long duree. In addition to strategic (for example: medium to long-term engagement with the Democrats, labor unions) and tactical (best ways to structure and wage specific actions – strikes, protests, prevent house foreclosures, etc.) thinking, it seems to me that we must also begin to think more about the level of political struggle that is between the tactics of a strike, and the strategy of long-term party/organization building (without abandoning these two levels of politics). This middle layer is the terrain of waging political campaigns – longer than strikes/protests – but more near term than the achievement of actual counter-hegemonic success.

Often, we wage a strike action or a protest, then we move on to the next tactical event (anarchists take this to the highest level, where their tactical considerations also define their strategic horizon – though I don’t mean this to demean such anarchists. They are anti-capitalists, thus part of a historic bloc).

What about developing the staying power to wage a series of such actions, without interruption (a strike of teachers in Chicago, for example, immediately provokes a merger of efforts with anti-foreclosure activists in Minneapolis, while dock workers in California connect their impending protest, with the actions of CUNY students against tuition increases). I am not only talking about explicit statements of solidarity (which we do all the time), but of different organizations having the ability and desire to position their respective struggles in such a way that complicates the power bloc’s ability to define these struggles as separate and isolate them.

The point about effective web presence is one example of such “operational” thinking. I’m borrowing “operational” from military theory, which defines it as the domain of struggle between tactics and strategy; the level of campaigns. I’ve been re-reading Gramsci recently, and his usage of military concepts was not by accident. I think any successful left movement in the past was fully organized and effective on this intermediary level, of being able to wage campaigns (to have the organizational, theoretical, and other necessary tools to sustain itself over a significant chunk of time, enough time and campaigning to begin interrupting the regular functioning of hegemony). This was true of the Bolshevik (and Menshevik, and SR) faction, for example, despite a decade of State persecution, temporary defeats (Pham Binh’s point about victories being impossible to achieve without recovering from defeats…) did not prevent the faction’s ability to interrupt hegemony at crucial points.

It’s an initial ramble provoked by the post and the comments, but I’m thankful for the ideas it is generating. Let’s keep going.


Luke Elliott April 21, 2013 at 3:02 am

I like the way you’re thinking. Who’s behind this comment?


aa April 21, 2013 at 11:11 am

Hi, my name’s Arto, I’m a grad student in NYC. I’ve recently started reading the blog, and find it very interesting!


Luke Elliott April 21, 2013 at 11:37 am

Arto – I’m new to the blog too, and to the city (about to be a grad student at CUNY in the fall). Hit me up if you want to meet up sometime: [email protected]


Pham Binh April 19, 2013 at 7:45 pm

VPP is nothing like the Working Families Party. It wins races, has its own politicians, and its endorsements matter.


David Berger April 19, 2013 at 5:39 pm

LUKE ELLIONT: 4. Coordinate strategically with Democrats. When running in general elections will empower the right wing, run a left-wing candidate in the Democratic primary.

If the left candidate loses, ally with and push the Democrat
If the left candidate wins move forward, but maintain a left-wing ‘brand’ even as a contending Democrat

Ally with the more progressive candidate

Re-evaluate if the terrain changes (e.g. extreme crisis, one major party implodes etc.)

6. Controlling the Democratic Party. Given the resources, historical traction and ideological porousness of the Democratic Party, it will likely be around for years to come. The left-wing candidates who are elected within the party should look for opportunities to control local and state structures. Carl Davidson’s recent article explores potential allies within the Democratic Party at the national level.

DAVID BERGER: I guess we’re going to have to fight the fight that many of us were involved in in the early Sixties. Back then, the slogan was “Party Realignment,” and the notion was that the DP was actually a kind of labor party and, therefore, a legitimate arena for the Left to work in. Those who embraced that strategy, that I was engaged against, got some nice, cushy jobs with various unions and/or drifted to the right.

RedPleb’s response above exposes the shallowness and political dishonesty of the strategy being advocated.


Luke Elliott April 19, 2013 at 8:15 pm

David –

Come on: shallow? dishonest? Who do you work for? Like anyone else with half a heart, I’m trying to think through how to build a left in this country. Let’s have a conversation about strategy and not resort to this kind of dismissive language. I mean, do what you want, but seriously……

If you read the article, I don’t think the DP is a labor party or a left party or any such thing. I think they are a force to be reckoned with. Period. My goal is building a real, radical left organization in this country. The Dems are an obstacle, not an ally in this process. But there are still situations in which taking them on directly is harmful to poor and working class people.


David Berger April 20, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Luke, this has been done before. The Democratic party has been “entered” again and again. it has never, like the proverbial leopard, changed its spots. Why would you think otherwise? What in the world makes you think that any significant victory can be won within the Democratic Party. You have no example outside of the boutique state of Vermont, which has 50% more population than Staten Island.

As has been pointed out by Deran, the VPP, like the Working Families Party, is an appendix to the Democrats. And as to your point about Vermont healthcare, what you are assuming is that it is still possible to win significant victories under capitalism. This is also, basically, Pham Binh’s position.

I guess you and those of your persuasion are going to have to waste 5-10 years moldering in the DP before the lesson that has been know by the Left since time out of mind is learned. Yes, the Democratic Party is a political cemetery for the Left.


Luke Elliott April 20, 2013 at 5:40 pm

1. The ‘inside’ tactic is *secondary* to building a mass-based, non-sectarian movement/organization/set of organizations.

2. It *is* possible to win significant victories under capitalism. They may not be revolutionary, but they MATTER to real living human beings who struggle to survive.

3. What is your *plan*? Because in my experience folks who say that we can’t ‘win significant victories under capitalism’ are ultra-leftists who are waiting for a crisis to wash away the need to organize. So, please do tell, what is your plan?


David Berger April 21, 2013 at 8:36 am

LUKE ELLIOT: 1. The ‘inside’ tactic is *secondary* to building a mass-based, non-sectarian movement/organization/set of organizations.

DAVID BERGER: I understand that. However, in the process you are (a) sowing illusions about Democrats as possible allies and (b) you are going to waste an enormous amount of time and energy and cause a lot of disillusionment.

LUKE ELLIOT: 2. It *is* possible to win significant victories under capitalism. They may not be revolutionary, but they MATTER to real living human beings who struggle to survive.

DAVID BERGER: Could you give an example of such “significant victories” in the USA in the past twenty years or so? And, please, do not mention Obamacare. I don’t feel like throwing up this morning.

LUKE ELLIOT: 3. What is your *plan*? Because in my experience folks who say that we can’t ‘win significant victories under capitalism’ are ultra-leftists who are waiting for a crisis to wash away the need to organize. So, please do tell, what is your plan?

DAVID BERGER: I wonder what your “experience” is that you believe that significant victories can still be one under capitalism? And I wonder what groups you are talking about that you characterize as “ultra-left”?

In any event, I believe that socialists should be working both with unorganized workers on organizing drives inside the labor movement on contract struggles and rank-and-file organizing. Inside campaigns such as antiwar groups, anti-fracking, etc., attempts should be made to orient these groups towards the working class. Within the Occupy, for example, groups that I orient towards, such as the ISO and Solidarity, have worked within groups such as the Labor Outreach Committee to engage in joint campaigns such as the upcoming May Day events in New York.

That doesn’t leave a whole lot of space for electoral campaigns. In my experience with them, they absorb a tremendous amount of resources for very little political gain, by which I mean very little growth for the Left as a whole.


Luke Elliott April 21, 2013 at 2:27 pm

re: re: 1. The devil is in the details. Rather than make broad, absolute statements, lets take it city by city, state by state. Analyze the terrain and see what’s possible. (Although, as I’m often saying, the “us” in “lets” doesn’t really exist in this country -which is the deeper problem at hand.)

re: re: 2. There are many significant victories in the past 20 years in the US. Obviously we’re on the defensive in the big picture. But every time workers sign a CBA or a corporate campaign forces a company to cough up cash, that is a tangible victory for poor and working class folks. In fact, the single payer VT system is another one of these victories. For you to demean them in any way, simply because they are not “revolutionary” is wrong. People are living, here and now, and when they organize to make their lives better and win, that is significant, vital, foundational.

re: re: 3. No need to put the word experience in quotes: My first job as an adult, I tried to organize a union, and we lost an NLRB election by one vote. The next time around, we had card check, and overwhelmingly voted the union in. At that job, my boss physically assaulted a woman in my department, and the company was not going to fire him. We created a petition, contacted women’s rights organizations and walked off the job, forcing the company to hire a team of lawyers and ultimately can the guy. Every real, tangible win is significant and it changes the consciousness of those who fight. Not to glorify these small battles. But just to say that my analysis is grounded in real workplace experience, as well as training in analyzing the terrain and finding a path to victory. As the years go on, I want to do this at a much larger scale. Hence the need to build a non-sectarian left. And to be totally honest, there isn’t a properly left formation in the US right now that I’m very impressed with. There’s more ultra-leftists than leftists in that whole scene. If that weren’t the case, we’d be in a very different spot right now.

I agree re: participation in organizing campaigns, but would add that as much as folks need to be oriented toward the ‘working class’, the working class needs to be oriented toward other forms of oppression that are not strictly reducible to exploitation under capitalism. In my view, racism and patriarchy precede capitalism by hundreds (really thousands) of years.

If we get ourselves organized in a group (or an open-minded, strategic network of groups), we’d have time for elections and a whole bunch of other projects. Remember – there’s way more of us than there are of them. That’s our biggest advantage.


Luke Elliott April 21, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Oh and I forgot to mention re: re: 2. If you get the least bit comparative (i.e. among decades in the US or among countries in the ‘west’), it’s pretty clear that the strength of poor and working class organization has a very meaningful impact on the material conditions of the time and place. The fact that income inequality has been on the rise for 30 years in the US is actually testament to the fact that it is possible to make significant gains under capitalism – and of course take significant hits.


Pham Binh April 19, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Did VPP follow point 4?


Louis Proyect April 19, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Controlling the Democratic Party. Given the resources, historical traction and ideological porousness of the Democratic Party, it will likely be around for years to come. The left-wing candidates who are elected within the party should look for opportunities to control local and state structures. Carl Davidson’s recent article explores potential allies within the Democratic Party at the national level.

I wonder if people really know what it means to work in the Democratic Party. My old friend Marty Davis, who was in Avakian’s RU in the 1970s, was a member of the Uppsr West Side Democratic Party Club–arguably the most liberal in the city. He described it as a stultifying swamp that made him want to bang his head against the wall when he got home from a meeting. He eventually became a Green Party activist. Speaking for myself, I used to stop by and chat with the Young Democrats at the Columbia University quad from time to time when I was still working there. To a person, they were unprincipled careerists with nothing else on their mind except becoming the next George Stephanopolous. Working in the DP was not about challenging corporate malfeasance but about making valuable connections that could serve you well after graduating. I think for most people who post here or comment here, who agree with Davidson to one extent or another, should go out and work in a DP club for a few months. It would do more to turn you into a fire-breathing revolutionary socialist than any arguments that David Berger can make.


Luke Elliott April 19, 2013 at 8:12 pm

I actually agree Louis. Folks should go out and do it. (But not as individuals. As groups with a strategic purpose.) If it’s hopeless, then we can get a report back on that…. I’ve had some interactions with some UWS Dems in the last few months, and my sense is that, with a serious left formation at our backs, they could be organized. (I might be wrong!)


Richard Estes April 19, 2013 at 7:44 pm

One of the problems with this strategy that goes unmentioned is that fact that more and more Americans, especially younger ones, are alienated with partisan politics, identifying as independents and decline to state. This has been going on for decades. Hence, trying to motivate them to participate in a political framework that they have already abandoned is a challenging task, possibly an impossible one.

If one is going to induce them to reengage with party politics, it requires an independent party affiliation that asserts its autonomy, and even that is a difficult prospect.


Pham Binh April 19, 2013 at 8:00 pm

An American Chavez would help. He came to power without having built a powerful mass party first, and as a result of his actions in government, every Venezuelan election since 1999 has seen successively higher voter turnout as become became excited and energized (for and against) Chavismo. I heard Maduro barely won but the turnout was ~80% or so, an unheard of figure for modern bourgeois democracies.


Richard Estes April 21, 2013 at 11:31 pm

It is true that there was no mass party, but there was mass movements, far beyond what we currently have in the US, and they were aligned with Chavez, as early as the failed 1992 coup. They had been emerging even before the 1989 caracazzo, and they grew in strength after the violence of 1989. In central Venezuela, La Causa R was a leftist political party that grew out of the shards of failed guerrilla activity in the 1970s. If I remember correctly, La Causa R ran a candidate for president in advance of the Chavez effort, or, at least, a candidate for governor. Chavez built upon a strong, pre-existing base, he didn’t create it. Of course, he took it to places that were amazing, but the base was there before he ran for president. Cicariello-Maher will soon have a book out about this, “We Created Chavez”, as noted in relation to his article here. It may already be out already.


Aaron Aarons April 23, 2013 at 2:00 pm

We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution by George Ciccariello-Maher. Click here for an excerpt.


Derik Schneider April 19, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Thanks for the blog idea. I’ve been arguing that Progressive/Socialists or Social-Democrats the New-Left in America. Should be taking a Federalist approach to passing their Progressive policies into law. Instead running to the Federal Government every time they want something done.


Joaquin Bustelo April 22, 2013 at 2:05 am

I don’t think I’m prepared to comment broadly on the “strategic” matters, but rather from a position of a long-term “ideological” (make that “hyper-ideological”) 40+ year veteran socialist/communist/trot/fidelista who for more than a decade has been closely involved with the immigrant rights movement in Atlanta (but for most of that time in the background) and in the last year and a half or so has been (through no merit of his own) thrust into a very public role and into becoming a prominent voice within the secondary leadership of the local movement as a “sidekick” to the two central leaders of the movement on a daily radio show that is a central vehicle for the movement organizing itself.

In last fall’s presidential election, I took the (minority) position that while I completely understood and might very seriously consider voting for Obama in a state like, say, Ohio, in reality, in Georgia, voting for Obama was purely symbolic. The Republicans were certain to take this state, and if Obama came anywhere close to winning in Georgia, that would mean that the Republican electoral catastrophe was so vast Obama certainly wouldn’t need my vote.

I argued that, instead of my vote, Obama much more “needed” (from a Latino community perspective) my reproach, even condemnation, as expressed by writing in Rocky Anderson for President. Why Rocky Anderson? Because he had the clearest position on the immigration issue, calling not just for the legalization of the undocumented but denouncing that the current immigration laws were about making it easy to super-exploit (mostly Latino) undocumented immigrants, not “securing the borders” nor any of that bullshit.

The main host of this radio show, who is not just one of the two central leaders of the immigrant rights movement here, but also regarded as the patriarch of the community by many immigrants who came to Georgia as adults in the last two decades, as he was the Mexican consul-general and main proponent of the self-organization of the community for much of that time, took a different position. He said we all should vote for Obama … not because of anything he had done in relation to our community, indeed in spite of most of what he had done, but simply as a handy club to PUNISH the Republicans –in the person of their presidential candidate– for what THEY had done to the community, of course at the federal level but especially at the state one. He said by his (albeit very belated) program to free

I believe Don Teo (as former consul Teodoro Maus is known in the community) has been proven to have been right, and I have been proven to have been wrong.

It was not my individual nuanced message –more propaganda, more preaching– but rather the raw, collective savaging of the Republicans by the community that had an effect. The national presidential exit polls said those in the Latino community who voted did so 70%+ for Obama. But the reality is the anti-Republican Latino tsunami was much greater, because the Latino community and Latino voters are younger and more inner-city urban than any other major demographic so the exit poll overstates the suburban, older, more middle-class Latino vote.

A very professional poll designed to correct for this showed Obama’s actual Latino vote at 75%, and Romney’s slipping into the teens. But even this I believe understates the Republican catastrophe, because the younger you get, the more anti-Republican the Latino vote, and for the next decade and a half or so, each year’s cohort of U.S.-born Latinos is larger than the previous one.

And those kids are either the children, godchildren, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, siblings or
cousins of the previously or currently undocumented


Aaron Aarons April 23, 2013 at 1:37 am

So 75% of Latinos who participated in the electoral charade voted for somebody whose administration, among numerous other crimes, greatly increased the rate of deportation and jailing of undocumented migrants. Whoopee!


Luke Elliott April 23, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Enough with the “Whoopees”. I honestly don’t think they have a role in earnest debate.


Andrew Gorman April 23, 2013 at 12:04 am

What should those of us do who have to get near 100,000 signatures just to have ballot access? If I want to run, I can only do local elections. And that is increasingly hard with our current legislature making certain local races partisan through state legislation.


Luke Elliott April 23, 2013 at 8:51 am

Good question Andrew! Sounds like you’re either going to need to find some friends and knock on 100,000 doors (if you can pull that off, you’ve got a good chance of winning!), or pick another project.

With a lot of stuff, the devil is in the details. So, look at what’s around you, what’s possible and aim for something – elected office may not be it.

Or could start with a city counsel (or the town equivalent) seat?


Aaron Aarons April 23, 2013 at 2:11 am

Where, exactly, does the struggle against U.S. imperialism and solidarity with its victims fit in here? Or is that so much less important than making small (or, hypothetically, large) improvements in the material conditions of U.S. workers?

Of course, one of the consequences of trying to win elections in an imperialist country is that you subordinate the needs of the more oppressed masses in other parts of the world to the needs and desires of major sections of the population of the imperialist country itself. As a fellow named Peter Friedlander, who was a close comrade of mine back in the 1960’s, said at the time, a labor party in an imperialist country can only be an imperialist party. (He, unfortunately, by 1990 was trying to unite black and white workers in Detroit against — not the capitalists, but — the Japanese!)


Luke Elliott April 23, 2013 at 8:49 am

Imperialism is a tough nut to crack. My hope is that a non-sectarian, mass-based left-wing organization (which runs elections as only one tactic within a much broader strategy) would encourage the expansion of the empathy and political consciousness of all its participants: rank and file, staffers, leadership etc. If (and this is a big IF) we’re ever in a place with any real power, hopefully the consciousness and empathy of folks will be in a place where they will genuinely, democratically want to pull back the imperial beast.

You have an alternative plan?


Aaron Aarons April 23, 2013 at 3:14 pm

My “plan” is to continue working to strengthen the subversive forces inside the U.S. and other imperialist countries to make it harder for the imperialists to mobilize their populations for war or other intervention. This also involves encouraging subversive direct action of various kinds, with, of course, a strong attempt to steer such action away from things that are likely to harm innocent people.

And I don’t care, except tactically, if a majority of the imperialist-country population “democratically want to pull back the imperial beast” or not. I don’t think that even an overwhelming majority of, e.g., the United Snakes population is qualified to make a “democratic” decision that affects the lives of people who can’t vote in U.S. elections.


Luke Elliott April 23, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Aaron –

I don’t think you should put plans in quotes – they’re too important for that :)

I’m not sure what kind of ‘subversive direct actions’ you’re talking about, but when you’re talking about a war machine as large as this one, I can’t imagine they matter too much absent a radical mass based political formation that is using them as one tactic among many.

There are so many things I don’t care about ‘except tactically’! In fact I only care about *politics* tactically (I’d actually use the word ‘strategically’) given the world that we live in. In a different universe I’d just be relaxing with my friends :)


PatrickSMcNally April 23, 2013 at 9:30 am

You’re the one mixing the objective and subjective. Subjective needs are what the Spartacists are all about. We just need to build the Bolshevik-Leninist revolutionary proletarian vanguard (more adjectives can be attached when desired) party and then it will become clear that it was only the lack of leadership which kept a revolution from occurring in all these last 7 decades. That view raises subjectivity to the prime role. Objectively, there no doubt were some things that could and should have been done better by the Left in the 1950s, ’60s & ’70s. But that was not main reason why revolution failed to occur, contrary to what the Spartacists would wish to believe.


Pham Binh April 21, 2013 at 8:07 pm

PSM’s contention leads logically to the conclusion that socialist transformation was simply not possible prior to the four decades of decline the system is supposedly stuck in, meaning the WW2-1973 era. I’ve argued at length against this catastrophism masquerading as deep political economy elsewhere on this site .


PatrickSMcNally April 22, 2013 at 7:49 am

Socialism was not possible in 1945-73, that is correct. That doesn’t mean that there was nothing to be done. The Civil Rights Movement worked to break apart Jim Crow, and no socialist can object to that. It’s scary to try to imagine what things would have looked like if the crash of 2007-8 had occurred in 1947-8 when Jim Crow was in force and the Ku Klux Klan was a major power all across the Old South. We might have seen a proletarian revolution led by James Patrick Cannon or someone similar. But it’s just as likely that we would have seen a March on Washington by the Brown Shirts. Using those decades of capitalist prosperity to get rid of Jim Crow was an essential task and not a waste of time. But actual proletarian revolution, the overthrow of capitalism by the working class, was never on the agenda in those years. Trying to claim that it was only forces us back to a position like the Spartacist League has where everything is the result of treacherous class betrayal by a leadership of Stalinists, Kautskyites and what have you.


Pham Binh April 22, 2013 at 11:31 am

You’re mixing up the objective possibility of realizing socialism with its subjective requirements.


Aaron Aarons April 23, 2013 at 2:32 am

The lack of the “subjective requirements”, whatever those might be, for “realizing socialism”, whatever that might precisely mean, is itself an objective fact that needs to be understood. OTOH, for the purpose of training oneself and others to meet such “subjective requirements” when the need arises in the future, one has to analyze the choices supposed revolutionaries made in the past, and the consequences of those choices, as if different choices could have been made.


aa April 23, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Why do you say, “supposed revolutionaries in the past”…, as in they were not actual revolutionaries, but frauds? Just curious on the use of the word “supposed.”


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