Is Socialist electoralism doomed to fail?

by Ty Hudson on January 5, 2014

Nate Hawthorne’s recent article “Socialist electoralism and the capitalist state” is thought provoking, well written, and lays out the relevant questions in a clear and compelling way. 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.

Human nature and socialist power

Hawthorne’s argument in favor of the first assertion rests primarily on an appeal to our common experience of seeing people change upon gaining a little bit of power or wealth:

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.

This argument feels persuasive, and this sort of common sense about human nature certainly provides important cautionary food for thought for any leftist individual or organization seeking to build power of any kind. 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. Likewise, it is obvious that an elected socialist would likely face similar pressures.

But what if Hawthorne’s lucky leftist immediately transferred control of the factory to a democratically governed workers’ collective? This is obviously 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 capitalists? Hawthorne makes an important distinction between the state acting against capitalist class interests on the one hand, and, on the other hand, acting merely against the interests of particular capitalists in the course of managing capitalism in order to ensure its survival. But surely an elected socialist and his or her allies could be conscious of this distinction.

What might this sort of action look like in the case of a socialist city councilperson? That depends a lot on the political context, but perhaps he or she could introduce ordinances and consistently vote for ordinances 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. Conversely, he or she could vote against ordinances that do the opposite. On the federal level, it isn’t difficult to imagine what might be accomplished if Barack Obama were really the socialist that the right wing laughably makes him out to be: drastically curtailed militarism, larger and stronger and more emboldened unions, real action to curb climate change, and so forth. These imagined opportunities may not amount to much, especially if our hypothetical leftist is politically isolated; a single vote on the Seattle city council is fairly meaningless, and even the President of the United States has limited power when pitted against a hostile Congress, Supreme Court, and bureaucracy. But with a critical mass of elected socialists, the picture looks very different: the socialist movement in Venezuela is an inspiring, though obviously unfinished, example. In any case, whatever one thinks of Chavismo, our question at the moment is not concerning the potential efficacy of an elected socialist, but rather whether or not he or she 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 in general. 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/hour 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; in Lee’s case, 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), but rather the choices they made about how to achieve it. I don’t believe that Hawthorne is arguing that Sawant has already 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 over rising inequality, opportunism of the best kind (for example, the incumbent she targeted was recently the only vote against very popular Seattle’s paid-sick-days ordinance), and probably a fair amount of luck — not by cozying up 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 ever were 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 WWI-era Germany had been different and elected SPD parliamentarians, led by Rosa Luxemburg instead of Karl Kautsky, had kept Germany out of the war and created an effective alliance with the Bolsheviks? But ultimately, while I think history can provide important inspirational and 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.

The significance of reforms under capitalism                       

If we believe that an elected socialist can avoid being changed as a person, and we believe that elected socialists have the potential to be effective in enacting significant reforms, we are still left with the question of whether or not those reforms are desirable from a revolutionary perspective. Hawthorne’s position is that the result of such reforms “will be only a different capitalism.” I think his key sentence in support of this perspective 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 article, is whether or not electing leftists to office is the optimal 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, under current conditions, the best use of leftists’ time and energy is as organizers in the movement, outside of political office. In part because of this perspective, I have been in favor of certain temporary and contingent alliances with non-socialist “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 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. Can socialist and socialist-influenced governments survive, and if so, can they succeed in going beyond reforms and actually building socialism? Salvador Allende, the Spanish Republic and the short-lived revolution in Barcelona, the first Mitterrand government in France, the ANC/SACP/COSATU alliance in South Africa, 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. More relevant, perhaps, than even these important historical examples, is the process currently underway in Venezuela. The Bolivarian revolution has clearly not fully replaced capitalism with socialism in Venezuela — not even close. But there are encouraging signs that it is gradually headed in that direction. (We could also debate whether or not capitalism can or should be fully replaced by socialism in a single country, but that debate is beyond the scope of this article.) In their article “The Strategy of Attrition,” Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien posit a fairly detailed electoral strategy that looks a lot like what is currently going on in Venezuela.

Finally, another interesting question is whether or not socialists 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.e., by contesting Democratic primaries. Several months ago I commented extensively on this question in response to an article by John Halle. My opinion — that the Democratic Party is more a terrain of struggle than a truly unified organization, and that socialists can and should contest this terrain by participating in Democratic primaries — is not particularly popular among radical socialists, even those who believe in electoralism. But I think we have to engage with this question if we are to fully engage with the question of an electoral strategy for socialism. If socialists can (or cannot) attain political power within the capitalist state without being fatally compromised, what does that mean about whether they can (or cannot) attain political power within the Democratic Party without being fatally compromised? I won’t rehash all of these arguments here, but I do believe we should connect the debate about the Democratic Party with the debate about socialist electoralism in general, while recognizing that they are closely related but distinct questions.

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, detailed arguments against the possibility of a successful socialist electoral strategy. Given the election of Kshama Sawant and the much larger-scale victories of the socialist movement in Venezuela, probably the most advanced and relevant socialist movement in the world today, this may be the most important strategy discussion for socialists to be having today. I believe if we are serious about socialism we need to engage with it fully and with open minds.

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