Socialist electoralism and the capitalist state

by Nate Hawthorne on December 31, 2013

This post raises some questions posed by the election of Kshama Sawant to Seattle City Council and related developments, questions for people who are pro- and who are anti- this kind of electoral effort.


Some of my friends and comrades have written about the election of Kshama Sawant to Seattle City Council and related developments, here and here. I wrote this because I want to think some more about this election and many leftists’ response to it. It seems to me there are two basic reactions by people on the left. Some people see important possibilities in efforts to elect candidates like Sawant — I’ll call these people electoral optimists, and some people don’t see such possibilities — I’ll call these people electoral pessimists. I have the pessimistic response. The normal functions of the capitalist state will only ever result in creating or maintaining some version of capitalism. As such, I think electoral optimists are mistaken in their belief that they can still use the state for worthwhile radical political purposes in a non-revolutionary time.

That said, I think we should discuss this across different positions on the left. One of the unfortunate aspects of the left is that it’s hard to have conversations about these issues across different political perspectives. A lot of people on the left tend to limit who they talk with about these issues, talking about this stuff mostly with people they agree with. In some cases, comrades are in organizations that deliberately restrict who and how their members discuss ideas like this, which is very unfortunate. (This is one of many problems with democratic centralism.) It’s also hard to discuss these issues because of the short term stakes: the need to win an election can crowd out any discussion of the issues involved. I know some of my friends who have expressed skeptical views have had people get frustrated with them for expressing the skepticism, because it can detract from the effort to win these elections. That’s very unfortunate, and we should discuss this stuff anyway.

For the electoral optimists, above all, I want to ask you: comrades, what are your goals? Where do you think all of this is going? And what do you think will accomplish aside from your goals? After all, as Marx put it, people make history but not in the manner of our own choosing: most human efforts produce effects beyond those we want and intend. How will you deal with those additional effects? What’s your plan? I don’t know the answer to these questions, and I would like to. I also am very interested in hearing what ideas and writings inform your thinking on these matters. We come from different experiences of political traditions and organizations, so some references that may be obvious to you are not obvious to me. So, if I want to understand your outlook, are there things I should read?

For my fellow electoral pessimists, I think we have some work to do as well, to better articulate the reasons for our pessimism and our arguments as to why others should share our pessimism. I should add, I’m a state pessimist generally. I’m suspicious of the idea that the state can be used for any emancipatory political purposes. At the same time, I’m not sure I know how to articulate this in a way that will convince people who are optimistic about the state. I also think that there are important differences in the particulars — being optimistic about elections in the capitalist state in non-revolutionary times is different from being optimistic about, say, seizing state power in revolution, or being optimistic about the possibilities for a good society to exist after a revolution while still having a state. These are related issues, but different ones, and I would most like to discuss the issue of electoralism. I think too often some of us rely on criticisms of other scenarios in order to criticize elections, as if a criticism of the direct seizure of state power automatically does all the work of a criticism of electoral participation. (I should also add, I may mostly be reflecting the gaps in my own reading and thinking here and unfairly attributing those failures to others. If so — someone school me!)

Anyway, for my fellow electoral and state pessimists, I would like to know, how do you argue for your pessimism? What do you recommend people read on this? My own views on this are primarily informed by various Marxists who are skeptical about the state (I particularly like the short discussion of the capitalist state in Michael Heinrich’s recently translated book) and by parts of volume 1 of Marx’s Capital. I’m interested in other comrades’ go-to ideas on how to understand the state. I also think we should gather up as many of the current and historical arguments we can find that argue in favor of radicals pursuing elections in the capitalist state as a tactic, in order to evaluate and respond to those arguments. (I touch on these themes in some other blog posts, like “Workers, the state, and struggle“, and “Navigating negotiations“.)

In the rest of this post, I lay out two general theoretical points about the capitalist state and the state in general. I argue first that people who try to make use of the state will find that they end up becoming different people as a result of their efforts. I then talk about what I think is the general role of the state in capitalist society.

As far as I can tell, the comrades I’ve called electoral optimists believe it is possible to make some kind of politically worthwhile use of the capitalist state at a time like today, when there’s not a revolution happening. That’s what I want to talk about, which means I’m not going to talk about the relationship between states and ongoing revolutions, ideas about revolutionary states, or ideas about states after the revolution. Those are important ideas that are worth discussing but they’re not my topic here.

The State as Tool and as Activity

When politicians and state institutions use phrases like “we, the people” and “the public” and so on, those phrases are supposed to make it sound like the state represents everyone’s interests and is basically neutral. People on the left are relatively good at seeing through those kinds of claims about the neutrality of the state. As Engels put it, the state is “the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class.” Leftists tend to agree with Engels’s basic assessment, but tend to disagree on some important details.

A key area of disagreement among leftists is about using the state to accomplish political goals. The idea of using the state implies that the state is a tool people can use. It’s a thing which can be picked up and put down, or a place which can be occupied. That understanding makes sense. At the same time, there is another important understanding of the state: the state is an activity, many activities, actually. That is, the state is a social practice, a social relationship. This phrasing sounds awkward, but in a way, the state is something people do: people do the state, people act the state, the state is a collection of processes that people do.

The idea that the state is a thing that can be used is sometimes called the instrumentalist idea of the state, the idea that the state is just a tool to make use of. From that perspective, the state is used by the capitalist class to accomplish its goals. In his recently translated introduction to Marx’s Capital, Marxist economist Michael Heinrich writes that it is definitely true that parts of the capitalist class sometimes succeed in using the state for their purposes. “The question,” Heinrich asks,” is whether or not this gets at “the fundamental characteristics of the modern bourgeois state.” Heinrich answers no. The idea of the state as an instrument focuses only on “the particular application of the state” but neglects the state as a kind of social relationship and social practice.

A narrow focus on what Heinrich calls the application of the state instead of thinking of the state as a social practice leads some leftists to neglect at least two important aspects of the state that I want to highlight here. First, it neglects the effects of doing state activity on the people who do that activity. Second, it neglects the relationship between state activities and the maintenance of capitalism.

Making Use of the State Makes You A Different Person

Doing state activity shapes the person doing that activity. Who we are is partly the result of what we do. For example, workers bodies are shaped by the work we perform, and our emotions and ideas are shaped by the experiences of taking orders and in some cases giving orders to others. (We are also shaped by our experiences of race, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of social life.) Capitalists are similarly shaped by being capitalists: their experiences and activities shape their consciousness and their way of being in the world shape who they are as people.

Imagine that a sincere radical won the lottery, then used that money to buy a factory. Would that person’s ideas and outlook change as a result of their new social position and their new experiences? It seems very likely. At the least, they would face pressures to be a different person and would face difficult decisions about what kind of person they want to be. If they prioritized their financial interests as a factory owner, they would become a different person. The same thing happens at a smaller level: workers who get promoted to positions at work where they are supervisors and managers begin to become different people as a result of their new experiences of giving orders and facing resistance to their orders. (Or, again, they at least face pressures to become different people, and hard choices about what kind of person they want to be, being pulled between their priorities and interests as a boss and their other values and commitments. This is part of why leftist bosses in union drives tend to act basically like any other boss. The realization that they are acting basically like any other boss, and so are not living up to the person they want to be, tends to be unpleasant for them and is a realization they often try to hide from.) The same thing happens to workers who become small business owners and/or landlords.

What do we expect will happen when leftists become part of the state? I think we can expect the same sort of results, and I think the historical record supports this. When leftists become state personnel, they eventually become different people. Or at least, when leftists become state personnel they face pressures and have to make decisions about what kind of person to be, and it is very difficult to not become at least a somewhat different person as a result. These dynamics are more intense the more decision-making power someone has within the state. I can imagine a response which says “Yes, when we become part of the state, we take these risks, because being a radical means taking risks and making unpleasant choices.” That’s fair. But I wonder, what is the plan, comrades, for those of you who seek to be part of the state or who seek to help another comrade become part of the state? How will you deal with these transformations or pressures to transform who you and your comrade are as a person? The idea that we can become part of the state without becoming different people strikes me as utopian, just as utopian as saying we can become capitalists or landlords or police without becoming different people. People who seek to use the state to accomplish radical goals will very likely find that they become different people as a result. Making use of the state eventually makes you a different person.

Capitalists and the State, Production and Reproduction

The idea of using the state to accomplish leftist political goals tends to involve some understanding that the current state favors some groups over others. Leftists efforts to use the state involve forcing the state to change how much it favors different groups. As Michael Heinrich puts it, “the instrumentalist conception of the state usually leads to the demand for an alternative use of the state: the claim of common welfare should finally be taken seriously and the interests of other class more strongly taken into consideration.” The idea that the capitalist state can be used for radical political purposes outside of revolutionary times seems to involve this kind of understanding of the state: under the right circumstances, the state can be used for other purposes than just serving capitalists’ interests.

Above all, the role of the state in capitalist society is to keep society capitalist. As Engels put it, the state is the “ideal personification” of the capitalist class. As Michael Heinrich puts it, this means the state serves the general interest in capitalist society, which means a specifically capitalist version of the general interest, or the general interest of the capitalist class. That does not mean all capitalists get what they want. That doesn’t necessarily even mean that any capitalists get what they want. The capitalist class’ most basic interest is that it continue to exist as a class, which is to say, the capitalist class’s most basic interest as a class is that our society remain capitalist. That continued existence of capitalism explains why the state sometimes acts in opposition to the desires or interests of particular groups of capitalists.

Capitalists tend to focus on their own short-term interests. They are not automatically class conscious, nor are they automatically loyal to their class. Just as some workers will sometimes betray each other and their class by serving as scabs and police informants or by otherwise harming other working class people, similarly sometimes individual capitalists will harm other capitalists and the capitalist class as a whole. Indeed, capitalists have to compete with each other as part of their class position, and this competition pushes against capitalist class consciousness and class loyalty. This also means that individual capitalists or groups of don’t necessarily seek to preserve capitalism as a whole. The current threats to our planet’s environment illustrate this: if climate change gets too intense, we face some terrifying potential futures. This is in part the result of the petrochemical industries. Those capitalists profit greatly through actions that threaten other capitalists and perhaps the continued existence of the capitalist class as a whole.

The possibility of ecological devastation is an example of some capitalists threatening the conditions that make capitalism possible. One of the most basic conditions for capitalism to exist is the existence of the working class. Capitalists pay workers to produce goods and services which belong to the capitalists. Capitalists sell those goods and services. Workers get a portion of the value of what they produce. Workers’ portion is smaller than what we contributed. That difference is what Marx called surplus value. Surplus value is key to capitalism, and our labor is what produces surplus value. No workers, no surplus value, and so no capitalism. Each capitalist enterprise is largely focused on the continued production of surplus value at their enterprise and is less focused on maintaing the overall conditions for the existence of capitalism. This is where the state comes in. The state’s role is reproductive. The state helps maintain and reproduce capitalism. The state helps make sure that capitalist production can continue. The state’s role is to prevent capitalist production from undermining the reproduction of capitalist society. The state is in part an institution for introducing some measure of planning into capitalist society.

If left unchecked, individual capitalists and groups of capitalists tend to threaten the reproduction of capitalism. And so, the reproduction of capitalism requires some control over capitalist production. This is part of the state’s role, to govern capitalist production in the interest of the capitalist class as a whole and in the interest of society continuing to be capitalist society. This is part of why we have laws like social security, workers compensation, food stamps, limits on work hours, occupational safety and health regulations, and so on. As Heinrich puts it, these laws “limit capital’s possibilities (…) but secure them in the long term.” That is, these kinds of laws restrict individual capitalists and groups of capitalists, in order to preserve the existence of capitalism. Individual capitalists and groups of capitalists tend to see these kinds of laws as a limit on them and a cost for them, and they often oppose these kinds of laws. This is part of why it often takes social struggles to create these kinds of laws which improve aspects of workers’ lives under capitalism. This does not mean such improvements are necessarily steps toward ending capitalism. In chapter 10 of Capital, Marx describes the English Factory Acts as greatly improving the lives of the English working class by reducing work hours. English capitalists greatly opposed these laws, and they lost. And these laws improving workers’ lives pushed English capitalism into an even more profitable form. Marx describes these laws as helping cause a shift from capital accumulation based on what he called absolute surplus value, meaning extension of work time, to accumulation based on what he called relative surplus value, the intensification of labor productivity. That is, what may seem to individual capitalists like a limitation can eventually result in higher profits for capitalists over all, and not just a limitation imposed for the sake of capitalism’s long-term health.

I think this is one possible role that radical involved in efforts like the Sawant election could end up playing. Radicals don’t care about capitalists and their interests. This indifference to capitalists means that radicals are willing to push through limits on current capitalists. Which is to say, radicals in political office are willing to rise above the particular and current interests of individual capitalists and groups of capitalists and to act in line with a larger general interest. In my view, though, this larger interest is always and only going to be a version of the capitalist general interest, at least when exercised through legitimate political offices in the capitalist state. Mamos from Black Orchid Collective refers to “capitalism’s shock absorbers,” which refers to the institutions that govern society in the interests of capitalism. Mamos argues that what made the Sawant election possible is the thinning out of those shock absorbers. I agree with that. I also think, though, that the Sawant election and similar efforts could result in a renewal of existing shock absorbers or the creation of new ones. This is not because of the individual intentions or sincerity or political outlook of the people involved, it’s just what results from the state.

To put the point abstractly: the capitalist state is a set of institutions that organizes the capitalist class and the working class as interest groups within capitalism, that regulates the specific forms of social relations in capitalist society, and that maintains society as capitalist society. The capitalist state is only ever going to produce some version of capitalist society. Individual state personnel having radical ideas will not change that. If anything, state personnel with radical ideas might ultimately improve capitalism, because those radical ideas will help state personnel disregard any particular capitalists’ interests, but the result will be only a different capitalism.

Nate Hawthorne is a writer, IWW member living in the U.S. Midwest, and member of the editorial team at Recomposition

(Originally posted at

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason S. December 31, 2013 at 7:16 pm

“Do you realise now what a splendid weapon you in France have had in
your hands for forty years in universal suffrage; if only people had
known how to use it! It’s slower and more boring than the cal to
revolution, but it’s ten times more sure, and what is even better, it
indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed
revolution has to be made; it’s ten to one that universal suffrage,
intelligently used by the workers, will drive the rulers to overthrow
legality, that is, to put us in the most favourable position to make the
revolution.” (Engels to Lafargue,12 November 1892)

Let’s not reinvent the wheel.


Ty Hudson December 31, 2013 at 8:49 pm

This quote is very apt and provokes a very important line of discussion.


Soon, Comrades December 31, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Engels was right, as proven by the 160 year history of universal suffrage in France. This pseudo-leftist article is just too impatient.


Ty Hudson December 31, 2013 at 8:54 pm

This comment is confusing. The long history of universal suffrage in France obviously is not the best argument in favor of Engels’s theory as expressed to Lafargue in 1892. So “Soon, Comrades” must be being facetious. But is the charge of pseudo-leftism facetious also? I don’t think the slur “pseudo-leftist,” facetious or not, is productive in this debate, and nor is sarcasm.


Aaron Aarons January 1, 2014 at 8:09 pm

In fact, there have been many times and places where victories by workers and the left in bourgeois elections did “drive the rulers to overthrow legality”, e.g., Chile 1973, Spain 1936, and many places in Africa and Asia, as well as in the U.S. South, where it was Black workers and their allies who had electoral victories overturned or pre-empted by terror. The only case I can think of offhand where a workers’ revolution ensued was Spain, where that revolution was aborted partly by the decision of much of the working-class leadership to re-impose on the workers the bourgeois legality that the workers, in response to the similar move of their enemies, had just overthrown.

The main weakness of Engels’ argument is that it ignores how training the workers and oppressed to respect bourgeois norms and procedures greatly weakens their ability to make a revolution against those norms and procedures.


Ty Hudson January 1, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Good historical point. However, it could be argued that the activities you refer to as “training the workers and oppressed to respect bourgeois norms and procedures” also prepare the workers to be agitated and mobilized upon the extralegal suspension of those norms and procedures (i.e. a military coup). History proves that such agitation and mobilization does not inevitably lead to successful execution or defense of a revolution, but we also might ask ourselves, what choice do we have? The fact is, people are thoroughly trained to to respect bourgeois norms and procedures whether or not the left participates in such “training.” This is an unavoidable feature and strength of bourgeois democracy. Successful exploitation by the left of these procedures (elections) essentially uses this strength against capital and could therefore be seen as a sort of political jiu-jitsu. Of course, it is a jiu-jitsu move that doesn’t always (or ever?) result in us winning the fight.


Jason S. January 2, 2014 at 5:22 am

In regards to Chile 1973: Socialist Party members and sympathizers in the armed forces should have organized
rank-and-file opposition to the officers. But this should have been
done long before the SP, CP etc. formed a government. Starting it
afterwards is too late — you need to win over the vast majority of the ranks long before you can start talking about any “road to socialism.”

As early as 1895 Engels noted how conditions in Europe had “become far more unfavourable for civilian fighters and far more favourable for the military.” Conditions for insurrection today are even worse, frustrating the old vision of splitting the armed forces and/or arming workers. The average worker does not know how to use Abrams tanks, armored personnel carriers, or fighter-jets or bombers. The achievement of socialism now requires a truly critical mass; as Engels said, “Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in on it.” Again, the transition to socialism requires the winning over of the majority of
rank-and-file soldiers — not merely splitting them — in order to ensure that they will disobey orders given by right-wing putschists against the socialist supra-majority. Hence, socialists must take seriously recruitment and education within the armed forces, and even among the police(!), as our movement re-grows. (We therefore ought to be committed to universal public service and — as Engels was — to universal military service.)

Basic point: given modern weaponry, there is no civil war road to
socialism. At best it would mean “the common ruin of the contending classes.”


Ty Hudson January 2, 2014 at 7:20 am

The point about modern weaponry is obviously important, but the conclusion that “there is no civil war road to socialism” goes a little too far. I agree that the electoral road (or some combination of electoralism and syndicalism) is more likely to be successful than the insurrectionist road, but any real achievement by genuine socialists of significant power via elections is almost certain to be followed by some level of military counterattack by the right wing. Certainly this means that we will need to organize the military rank-and-file better than was done in 1930’s Spain and (especially) 1970’s Chile, but this only means we have to prepare to win a civil war, not that we can realistically hope to avoid one.


Jason S. January 2, 2014 at 7:33 am

My point was that our movement has to be popular enough — in particular, popular enough with the rank-and-file of the armed forces, which is why we should argue that they should have trade union rights — that a military counterattack by rightists becomes effectively impossible. I’m hardly calling for purist electoralism, which should have been made clear by my critique of Allende’s strategy in Chile.

I don’t understand why anyone would think that a civil war in the United States could possibly be won by our side. The U.S. capitalist state has nuclear weapons. We don’t. We never will.

How many socialists in the U.S. — or Western Europe or some other stable bourgeois democracy — even own a gun, or know how to shoot it properly? Damned few, I bet. Which is why I find so much talk of The Ultimate Revolutionary Showdown by far-leftists to be pure macho posturing.


Ty Hudson January 2, 2014 at 8:20 am

I mostly agree with you, especially your key point about how crucial it is that socialism be broadly popular. I would only modify your first sentence to read “our movement has to be popular enough — in particular, popular with the rank-and-file of the armed forces … — that a *successful* military counterattack by rightists becomes effectively impossible.” It’s hard to imagine our movement ever being popular enough to win over 100% of the military rank-and-file in the face of the coercive power of the military command structure. The right wing will inevitably be left with some portion of the armed forces (not to mention right-wing civilians with assault rifles). Whether our side could win a civil war depends largely on the balance of forces at the outset of that civil war, and also on our opposition’s capacity (based on whether or not they have the right personnel) and willingness (based on psychological factors related in part to the popularity of socialism and their perceived likelihood of winning the war) to use whatever weapons (e.g. nuclear weapons) they might retain.

I suppose it’s possible that some future Franco or Pinochet could decide to give up before even getting started, if it’s clear enough from the beginning that they have no chance of success. I would strongly prefer such a scenario, I just find it unlikely. And I fear that your perspective, while correctly focusing us on the importance of building a resilient super-majority of support for socialism, would make us unwilling to prepare for the possibility of violent confrontation.


Jason S. January 2, 2014 at 8:45 am

Ty — my perspective is quite simple. Given how hypermilitarized many modern capitalist states are — the U.S. in particular, with its weapons of genuinely mass destruction — I simply don’t think that our side will be able to win a civil war. Perhaps some small rebellion could be put down with ease. But the old idea of splitting the armed forces more-or-less in half is outdated. Like I said, their side has nukes.

All I am doing is trying to articulate a way to achieve the dismantling of the capitalist state and the creation of a workers’ state which takes into account this rather substantial problem.


Ty Hudson January 2, 2014 at 9:01 am

I agree with your view of the problem, and I share your (rather lofty) goal of “articulat[ing] a way to achieve the dismantling of the capitalist state and the creation of a workers’ state which takes into account this rather substantial problem.” I just think you’re creating a false dichotomy between “splitting the armed forces more-or-less in half” (obviously not a viable strategy in today’s world) and no civil war at all (or perhaps a “small rebellion”). There are a lot of possibilities in between those two points, and we should be prepared for as many of them as possible.

I think we mostly agree and are basically splitting hairs at this point.


Aaron Aarons January 2, 2014 at 4:16 pm

We need to stop thinking about armed conflict in terms of armies confronting each other. Rather, just as the ruling classes rely more on targeted killing than on conventional warfare, and hardly at all on the threat of using nuclear weapons, our side (including not only workers but oppressed ethnicities and nationalities) needs to be able to deter capitalist and imperialist violence with the credible threat of the targeted killing of important and powerful members or the ruling class.

And we really need to think of the fight against capitalism, in the short and medium term, as being primarily the fight against the U.S. and allied imperialist ruling classes. This can mean limited, tactical cooperation with powerful and oppressive elites in other, non-U.S.-allied countries (e.g., Russia, China), as well as other foreign capitalist elites (e.g., Brazil). This should never become political support for such elites against their own workers and oppressed, but rather more like the kind of help they got from the disclosures of Edward Snowden (a non-leftist dissident, to be sure) and, possibly, real espionage, in exchange for various kinds of material support.

Needless to say, nobody actually doing the things I suggest will announce the fact, unless they can do so without making themselves identifiable or locatable.


Ty Hudson December 31, 2013 at 8:48 pm

This post is thoughtful and well written, and it lays out the relevant questions in a clear and compelling way. I agree that the questions are important and the discussion is urgent.

However, I don’t think Hawthorne answers those questions except by mere assertion, the assertions being: (1) if you are a leftist, being part of the state inevitably changes you as a person, and (2) any changes effected by leftists in state positions will only ever reinforce capitalism, even if they improve the condition of the working class in the short term.

On the first assertion. It is easy to see how a leftist who miraculously becomes a factory owner would face enormous pressures to change as a person. Or, in the real world, how a worker who becomes a supervisor, a small business owner, or a small landlord changes as a person. But what if our lucky leftist immediately transferred control of the factory to a democratically governed workers’ collective? This may seem like a utopian fantasy (and the long-term revolutionary potential of such collectives, which would have to compete with regular capitalist enterprises, is debatable), but the point here is to imagine the analogous scenario in terms of leftists in state positions: what if the leftist is sincere enough, strong-willed enough, clear-headed enough, and backed up by enough organizational infrastructure outside the state, to stay true to his or her revolutionary cause? Could this hypothetical leftist (or real leftist — say Kshama Sawant) not consistently vote and otherwise act against the class interests of the capitalist class (and not merely against the interests of individual capitalists)? Say, by introducing bills and/or consistently voting for bills that limit the power of the police, make or keep key resources and property in public rather than private hands, improve conditions for workers, encourage the growth of worker power by facilitating unionization, or any number of other things the state might do that would serve the interests of various social movements and socialist causes (or by voting against bills that do the opposite)? These votes may not accomplish anything — if our elected leftist is always the only vote on his or her side of every issue, for example. But that’s not the question here — the question at the moment is whether or not the elected leftist inevitably changes as a person.

History is obviously full of people who once identified as leftists (sincerely or not) getting elected and becoming willing tools of individual capitalists, groups of capitalists, and/or the capitalist class generally. Close to home (I live in California), two current mayors and one recent mayor — Ed Lee of San Francisco, Jean Quan of Oakland, and Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles — were radical activists in their youth, in the labor movement and Asian-American and Chicano/Latino civil rights movements. Now, to various degrees and in various ways, they are capitalist tools. Lee’s recent proposal to raise the San Francisco minimum wage to $15/hr is a good example of the tendency of state officials to introduce reforms that disadvantage certain capitalists, with the clear intention of helping to preserve capitalism — the anger of working-class Bay Area residents toward their ascendant tech-industry overlords is starting to get out of hand. (Well, maybe “clear intention” is an overstatement — perhaps Lee thinks this is his chance to do a good deed, or perhaps he’s just trying to save his own political career — we can’t get inside his head.)

But regardless, I don’t think these examples answer our question. A strong case could be made that these particular individuals (and many, many others) became capitalist tools before they were elected to any office — that their personal ambition gradually or suddenly (or always) outweighed their leftist principles and they (correctly) saw “selling out” as the most likely route to elected office. If that’s the case, then it wasn’t their achievement of elected office, per se, that changed them as people (although it might have taken the changes to new levels). I don’t believe that Hawthorne is arguing that Sawant has made the kinds of compromises that Lee, Quan, Villaraigosa and countless other “progressives” with electoral ambitions have made. She achieved her election through strong socialist and working-class organization, an authentically pro-working-class platform, general public discontent with rising inequality, targeting the right incumbent (the only vote against Seattle’s paid-sick-days ordinance, for example), and probably a fair amount of luck — not by making deals with capitalists in exchange for campaign contributions.

It might (or might not) be interesting to debate whether or not Sawant or various current and historical elected officials are or were ever genuine leftists, and whether or not they can or did stay that way while in office. We could also debate hypothetical scenarios — what if Eugene Debs had been elected; what if the balance of power in pre-WWI Germany had been different and elected SPD parliamentarians, led by Rosa Luxembourg instead of Karl Kautsky, had kept Germany out of the war and provided effective support to the Bolsheviks? But ultimately, while I think history can provide important cautionary tales, I don’t think it answers the question of whether or not leftists are inevitably changed as people when they are elected to positions in the capitalist state.

An argument could be made, I suppose, that becoming a state decision maker, a public steward with a fiduciary responsibility to the state, inevitably transforms a person into a tool of the capitalist state, whether he or she likes it or not. But I’m not sure what that argument is, and I’d like to hear Hawthorne or someone else make the argument in concrete terms.

On to the second assertion. I think Hawthorne’s key sentence on this issue is “this [the fact that reforms under capitalism often require considerable working class struggle] does not mean such improvements [that improve workers’ lives under capitalism] are necessarily steps toward ending capitalism.” The word “necessarily” is doing a lot of work here — or perhaps avoiding a lot of work. I think we can all agree that reforms don’t *always* move the anti-capitalist movement forward, but how many of us would argue that they never do? I am inclined to believe that winning reforms through organized struggle strengthens our organizations in important ways and that such strengthening opens up possibilities for bigger fights and ultimately increases the likelihood that we will eventually, somehow, be able to defeat capitalism. Indeed, my whole life’s work is based on this belief, and it’s hard for me to imagine how leftists sustain their commitment to the movement without it. (I’m not saying it’s impossible — I’d love to hear about the beliefs and experiences of those who disagree with me on this.)

Another question, not directly addressed by Hawthorne’s post, is whether or not electing leftists to office is the most effective way of using our organizational resources to achieve the sort of victories that help us build our movement. Although I’m excited about Sawant’s victory, in general I have been inclined to believe that the best use of leftists’ time and energy is as organizers in the movement, outside of political office. This means I have been in favor of certain temporary and contingent alliances with non-leftist “progressive” politicians in the interest of winning certain movement-building victories, although certainly not all such victories require such alliances. (Some of these “progressives” are even decent, honest people with good intentions, but that’s a different story.) It remains to be seen what Sawant will be able to do with her position, and her success or lack thereof may inform my opinion on this question in the future.

A different, but closely related, question is what could happen if genuine leftists were able to attain enough elected positions in a given state to be able to exercise significant power over the mechanisms of the state. Salvador Allende, Hugo Chavez, the Spanish Republic and the short-lived revolution in Barcelona, the first Mitterrand government in France, the ANC/SACP/COSATU alliance, the Sukarno regime and alliance with the PKI in Indonesia in the 60’s, etc., provide various interesting lessons that should inform our thinking about this question. But, again, I don’t think history provides definitive answers about the possibilities in the present and the future.

Finally, another interesting question is whether or not leftists in the U.S. could achieve this sort of electoral power — and accomplish something worthwhile with it — by working partially inside the Democratic Party. I commented extensively on this question in response to a previous post by John Halle.

I don’t pretend to have definitive answers to the questions that Hawthorne raises or the related ones that I’ve raised. (Nor do I pretend not to have opinions or biases.) In the interest of constructive, comradely debate, I would like to hear Hawthorne or someone else make concrete arguments in favor of his two main assertions and on the other related questions I’ve raised here.

Solidarity forever and Happy New Year!


Michael Whitehead January 2, 2014 at 3:13 am

I was very excited and encouraged by the election of Kshama Sawant to the city council of a major American city. That does not make me an electoral optimist or state optimist. One can be an electoral and state skeptic (I like that term better) and still advocate participating in elections and hope work for seizing state power while knowing from history and common sense that state and electoral power is tightly controlled by the ruling capitalist class and the parameters for action in the elected position will be tightly circumscribed by other barriers and rules that the system has set up to guarantee its continuity. This is all the more true in an incredibly corrupt post Citizens United political system like the USA. But it seems to be we have to fight on all fronts, knowing full well that minor successes like Sawant’s victory are of great symbolic importance, but are likely to have little substantial effect in themselves. An electoral victory indeed can be a path of least resistance rupture of a pressure point that often leads to dashed hopes, disillusion, and even later cynicism. I think we should not refrain from electoral-ism because of this danger, or think that seizing state power would not be a good thing. Both have the possibility of being a good thing ONLY as openings to further struggle and revolutionary action and eventual success will depend on the organizational depth and ability to maintain momentum after such apparent victories, which have a tendency to dissipate revolutionary fervor.


John Richmond January 2, 2014 at 9:45 pm

What is the “alternative” to electoral democracy?
It seems obvious to say that there is only one true, transparent and fair manner in which to ultimately change a system and test this change with the popularity and support of an ideological position and that is at the ballot box. Any other method may or may not enjoy the support of the working class- but obviously any political leadership in a Revolution will claim popular support while opponents – in absence of elections – will forever claim “dictatorship!”
And with good reason. To not vote and not participate in democratic elections is almost always the position of people who have not actually conquered power in a democratic manner (as is the case for the left today in Western liberal-democracies, where the left is badly divided and without a unified, comprehensive and easy-to-understand plan for replacing capitalism) or, more seriously, it is the position of rulers who are in all likelihood not genuinely popular and do not wish to test their popularity with the citizens they claim to represent (North Korea anyone?)
Sudden and dramatic Revolutions like the Russian or Spanish are exciting and emotionally satisfying in a sense, but – more often – real lasting and hegemonic change occurs slowly and at the grassroots within a structure or socialized power (as in Venezuela). To activists who stay clear of party politics and elections, slow and pariticipatory change is often (but not always) unappealing because it involves dealing with and respecting real, ordinary human beings many of whom, even in socialist societies, do not share our enthusiasim for radical politics.
One big problem the right-wing have had in Venezuela is that they have spent 14 years telling anyone who will listen that Venezuela is turning into a Communist Dictatorship. The never ending elections in Venezuela are proof positive to many people in Venezuela – some of whom even vote for the opposition – that is simply not true.


Fred Welfare January 6, 2014 at 6:06 am

It is disconcerting to work with a paper which requires defining all aspects of the situation so that ambiguities are eliminated. In this paper, the definition of capitalism, of capitalist state, of capitalist entrepreneur, and of capitalist society are presumed and therefore rendered mystical. Capitalism is a system of production for individual profit by the so-called capitalist entrepreneur, or owner. The problem with capitalism is corruption because if capitalism was not corrupt, we would love it. Capitalism has the unfortunate effect on the society of causing all relations, not just relations of production at and from the workplace, but relations of reproduction, and of all interactions between all members of society, to take on an antagonistic character, a competitive taint, a manipulative demand, and a corrupting influence. This situation results in the capitalist society whose institutions of family and relationships takes on these immoral attributes. The capitalist state, that is, the state that cooperates and defends the capitalists – the entrepreneurs who have set up the rules of game, the prices/costs/wages – may take up the problem of corruption and regulate it. If the capitalist state effectively regulated the relations of production and reproduction, no one would dislike capitalism because it would be regulated, that is, the state would not only regulate itself, it would regulate all social relations. There would be order which would be understood by all as capable of addressing problems so that terrorism/sabotage/seizure, etc. would not be felt as necessary. One serious problem with regulating capitalism is that regulations themselves may cause an increase in the corruption of capitalism. The English Factory Acts increased corruption by intensifying the extraction of surplus labor. Today, we can look at certain tax laws, police procedures, grievance procedures at work, safety conditions, trade agreements in the WTO, etc. as related to corruption in one or another, particularly at how financial arrangements affect each individual’s economic place and are then justified by ideological statements and political organization. Or. we can perceive the ubiquity of homophobia and compulsive heterosexuality/marriage which is not simply perpetuated by the state but omitted as a problem. The role of democracy is supposed to act as a check on corruption but democracy is only as effective as the integrity of the statesmen who are elected or appointed. Few statesmen have the integrity to not only withstand the ‘dyeing’ effect of office but to lead the other statesmen to effectively control capitalism. Notice that I am placing the issue squarely on the key character attribute of integrity. Historically, the process has been to elect individuals to office who produce economic prosperity and quality of life either by regulating or deregulating capitalism. When capitalism is perceived by the majority as too corrupt, individuals from the appropriate political orientation are elected to correct the problems. Today, we want candidates who can see the large picture in historical and political terms and make the appropriate corrections. These are however extremely difficult legal, social, and financial problems which requires very astute advisors. What has happened since the Enlightenment is the differentiation of capitalism: free trade vs socialists, libertarians vs. anarchists, republicans vs communists, nativists vs. multiculturalists. This differentiation trend erupts into world wars, civil wars, and genocides and into smaller scale social conflicts: racial oppositions, sexism, and the effects of class differences. Differentiation seems to occur naturally under the capitalist ideology. The differentiation occurs at microlevels in all interpersonal interactions in our society as class struggle or social antagonisms (not simply violations of the criminal code). The differentiation occurs between all firms in the competition over market share. This trend indicates that the most serious problem today is integration. Capitalism in Latin America is not capitalism in Africa and the mode of production in China is not the same as in South Korea or the US. All of the differences between individuals, identities, group affiliations, networks, kin structures, parties, committees, levels of government, roles, corporations, banks, etc indicates a problem of fragmentation. Fragmentation should resolve under structural constraints, namely, laws and policies, but is instead the object of corrupt actions. The last serious theoretical analysis of this problem claimed that social interactions could be regulated through the media of interchange: money/power/influence and even love (as in male-female relationships!) and coordinated through values which would inform the implementation of norms, or laws and legal procedures. Now these media have become lopsided and values do not have the bite that they used to, so our theoretical practice has devolved to policy formations and implementation which either misses the mark and is perceived as corrupt or has effects which are alienating. There are several other theoretical practices which address this problem: of leadership integrity and of social integration. But, we should first decide whether we are going to search for an acceptable theoretical practice to regulate capitalism or jettison this effort in the hope that the overthrow of capitalism will improve our quality of life and our prosperity. Personally, I am searching for a theoretical practical that addresses the transformation of capitalist social relations.


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