What could socialists do in Congress?

by Matt Hoke on March 4, 2015

emerge article

Walkout protest by Congressional staffers protesting Eric Garner’s murder, 12/11/2014. The state protesting itself.

Often the question is asked, why run for local offices, since they are so powerless over the critical big picture of the USA?Often, running for local office is a step toward higher offices.

Is a socialist majority in Congress something we should seek as a long-term goal?  Would the system let it get that far?  What if it did?  Even a minority could bring radical ideas into the mainstream as concrete possibilities, but a majority or plurality could implement some of them.

Immediate reforms & propaganda

First the obvious: we can legitimize socialism and build socialist organization.  By “legitimize” I mean make people aware, accustomed, and favorable to socialism and socialists, not seeking respectability by selling out, watering down, or following the rules.  We will legitimize ourselves by not playing by the rules.  The second obvious thing we can do is pass reforms, both for their own sake,and also to build a mass participatory support base for socialism.  These two issues are already widely practiced and discussed, and have been embodied in practice already by Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative; they don’t require further discussion here.

Move toward socialism by legislation

A welfare state is not socialism – but socialism would have a welfare state, or at least a welfare system.  Getting people used to government fulfilling this role helps prepare them to support and live in socialism.  Creating mechanisms to serve the people’s needs, even if they are bureaucratic mechanisms instead of popular mechanisms at first, is a step toward socialism.  These bureaucratic agencies can later be placed under popular control by socialist leaders (or seized by the people without state permission).

Furthermore, socialists in Congress could progressively nationalize sections of the economy – healthcare or energy, to create a national 0% fossil fuel power system.  They could even place public sector institutions under democratic management by their workforce & worker-elected managers, or otherwise turn various property into communes by state fiat.  At what point nationalization shifts from being the public sector within capitalism to becoming the embryo of socialism within the shell of capitalism is subject to a wider debate.  The point is to push the process as far as possible, so that the final transition is less of a shock and more the completion of a process, and people are by then already accustomed and favorable to certain changes.

While reforms may win favorability for socialist ideas and parties, to actually push on to socialism would require something vastly beyond them.  An entirely new dimension must be introduced, where the socialists in government use their state positions to summon and mobilize forces outside the state.

Initiate popular structures

Elected officials are not only legislators.  They are also cultural leaders.  Presidentially, this is called “the bully pulpit.”  Half the importance of getting socialists elected is not simply so they can pass laws, but so they can use their cultural position.  However, this cultural position is not simply limited to spreading ideas.  It can also be used to call for actions by the people.

Since any transition to socialism requires action by popular, non-state forces, elected socialists can play a critical role in helping get those popular forces organized.  It can be as simple as calling for supporters to join a certain group or campaign.

At a more advanced level, the state can initiate popular structures as it has in Venezuela, by establishing communes or by calling for local circles of political action.

Of course, popular forces do not need the encouragement of elected officials to organize themselves.  You could have a 100% pure bottom-up approach if you wanted.  However, if you want to take active political involvement from a tiny isolated activist scene to a national mass conflagration, having politicians call for it is definitely a way to assist, reinforce, and accelerate the process.

Piss off the Right so much they start a civil war

If we actually do the things we believe in, even simple reforms or just a minority Congressional presence, various state and non-state actors may simply flip shit and try to kill us, even if we are fairly elected.  Our opponents would be right-wingers claiming to stand for “liberty” against our growing socialist “tyranny” – but since we would be elected and doing good things in office, that would ring hollow with most people.  If we stood up for ourselves and asserted our democratic mandate, we would win the war of public opinion, which would help win us the war of bullets.   The answer here is simple: shoot back, and make sure we win.  Whether we use state forces to help defend us is an open debate.

Provoke and resist “legal” repression

A less dramatic instance of this same phenomenon would be if we started gaining momentum, and the system (Democrats included) began using unfair bureaucratic methods to lock us out.  They might instead compete against us viciously during election time, in which case we must simply campaign well.  But sometimes they will use laws and technicalities to stonewall us.

Whenever we encounter such obstacles, all we can do is mobilize mass pressure to denounce, question, challenge, and reverse it.  (We could also have movement-friendly lawyers utilize legal technicalities, but this requires resources and ultimately law reflects the balance of forces.)  Sometimes pressure works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Depending on how blatant the “legal” stonewalling is, it could lead to a critical situation where the Left must either give up and go home, or call for a new government which respects the people’s wishes.  This call would have democratic legitimacy.  It could also start a civil war, but we would look like the good guys.

Mass pressure from popular, non-state forces is always the key to a successful electoral strategy.  There is a mutual strengthening between electoral and popular organizing – the politicians can formalize mob’s demands into legal proposals, sharpening the issues.  When the politicians are facing repression within the system, the masses can turn out and provide support.

During any Red Scare attempts to drive us out culturally, we would stand our ground, embrace the label Socialist openly, affirm valid accusations and deny false ones, and beat the reactionaries back into their holes by invoking public sympathy for our good policies and democratic ideas.

Winning defensive fights could roll into an offensive…

Call for a final mass mobilization & popular transition

A sufficiently committed socialist(s) could both lead the state, and lead the movement to challenge and replace the state, using their position in the government to call for a decisive mass action by the people & popular structures, replacing one system with another.  This would utilize and call upon some of the popular structures which elected socialists might have helped initiate previously, or it might have to initiate some of them from scratch at that moment.

Imagine if President Obama wasn’t a neoliberal imperialist (hard I know).  Imagine him calling upon the country’s workers to occupy their workplaces and set up democracies to manage them.  Or imagine if he called for the writing of a new Constitution, or declared his support for a system of Internet-based direct democracy to replace the legislature.  Socialists assume that the pressure on Left politicians against this would be too strong, they would chicken out or sell out, and it cannot be done.  I think many socialists are too principled to cave.

If governing figures supported this call to action, a crisis of state would ensue.  Some state and non-state forces would oppose the action, triggering a civil war or a lower-intensity civil unrest, involving crowds, protests, and street fighting.  But we would win.  A democratically-elected force, replacing a deeply unpopular system with one radically more democratic, would be perceived as heroes by most, as traitors by an isolated few.  The masses would probably take to the streets to implement the call.  If they didn’t, we could be executed or imprisoned for treason.  Hence it is wise to build up to the call to action with previous reforms, mobilizations, and organizational growth, ensuring that when the legislators jump, the people catch them.

Such a call to action does not need to come from elected officials.  In the case of a Left popular insurgency called by non-state forces, the role of elected socialists would be to allow and assist the uprising, using public statements, and calling upon state forces to side with the rebellion, or at least not repress it, and condemning any state forces violently defending the old power.

Ruin our reputation

The first thing we could do is fail.  We could be incompetent at campaigning.  We could fail from the start by allowing sectarian divisions to weaken us.  These would keep us from even getting into office.

We must also face socialism’s long, sad history of self-sabotage, even in power.  We could go the way of many European “socialist” parties, and support the neoliberal destruction of the public sector, out of some nonsense stage-ist theory that we need more capitalism before we’re ready for socialism.

We could fail to fight for strong reforms by continually compromising with the insane demands of the Right parties, and then compromising with our compromise.  Instead, we should propose equally insane Left demands.  This way, if we do end up compromising, at least it’s from a position of strength.  Another failure would be failing to pass strong reforms when we have the power to do so.

Ultimately, though, we need to move beyond simple reform.  Only demanding changes to capitalism is what killed European Social Democracy, since staying within the bounds of capitalism ultimately requires you to support capitalism in practice through austerity and neoliberalism.  We need to be a truly socialist party, a party that intends to be a participant in the transformation of society from capitalist to socialist, in a full systematic change.  We must use our office to talk about that, and also to begin formulating a strategy for how that will happen beyond our Congressional team simply passing laws.

Any strategy to achieve socialism requires a mass-mobilization of popular forces, taking part in a systematic transformation by establishing their own institutions.  If socialists in office fail to talk about, encourage, or help organize such institutions, then the socialist party will once again be trapped within the logic of capitalism, become a reformist party, and ultimately degrade into a neoliberal party.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl Davidson March 4, 2015 at 8:16 pm

You lost me after the part about provoking a civil war, Matt. We wouldn’t have to provoke it; it would come soon enough. The question is whether we would have a capacity for armed self-defense, utilizing not only our own self-defense forces, but also groups we would have organized in the existing military and police to divide and break them up. And your conclusion? Well, it just sounds cynical, like we should ignore what went before. Cynicism is an ideological tool of our adversaries. Best to set it aside.


Matt Hoke July 12, 2015 at 4:39 pm

Hey Carl,

Didn’t see this comment until now!

What you described is pretty much what I was talking about.

“If we actually do the things we believe in, even simple reforms or just a minority Congressional presence, various state and non-state actors may simply flip shit and try to kill us, even if we are fairly elected.”


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: