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.

  • Carl Davidson

    The main reason for entering electoral or even government terrain and waging struggle there is not so much to ‘show’ the power of our organizations, but rather an earlier step: to build them in the first place, or to take the miniscule ones we have now, and through these struggles, grow and develop them.

    Does anyone doubt, for example, that SA in Seattle, is now likely several times larger than it was before this race? Or that it has vastly expanded its reach nationwide. Or thet it will continue to do so precisely because Sawant’s council seat provides her with a wider platform to speak as a ‘tribune of the people,’ at least as she has done in the current Boeing strike?

    It’s true there is a danger of being transformed in a bad way by such victories. I think it was Lenin (at least repeated by Mao) who referred to parliaments as ‘yellow dyeing vats’, ie, your delegates went in red and came out yellow. Yet the Bolsheviks made good use of their platform in the Duma, and while Debs never won, his campaigns, and many more at lower levels who did win, helping the growth of the Socialist Party considerably.

    Any socialist elected to office has two tasks. One is to be the voice of a prophetic and militant minority, from their seat, doing the work of radical agitation and education. The other is to help assemble and lead a progressive majority, a coalition necessarily with those to his or her right, to define and pass legislation meeting the immediate demands of the workers and their allies, or at least blocking against the measures of the most reactionary elements in those bodies. Bernie Sanders is an example of one who does both. He rarely wins everything, but his voice is one the left would do well to make better use of.

    Finally, one can be corrupted or co-opted in many ways, not just by electoral or trade union posts. People can be corrupted or co-opted via well-funded NGO groups that have little to do with unions or elections. They can also be corrupted by dire poverty and the lack of resources, as we saw in a number of former revolutionaries (Huey Newton comes to mind) corrupted by the ‘underground economy.’ There is no vaccine or guarantee against this in any area, save for the training, solidarity, supervision and discipline one can find in revolutionary organization. Class warfare sees its casualties, but that is no reason not to wage it. It is a reason, however, to be less amateurish and more professional in the process.

    • mad poet

      “[A[n earlier step”….
      Precisely. We cannot assume that one voice crying out for fairness in a system as large and al-pervasive as international capitalism can effect any more change than in a tiny segment of a world so permeated by capitalist values that it is near insignificant. But as a step on a path…as one of many interlocking strategies which views the goal as a long-term one (and,,given how long it took modern capitalism to arise, to presume its demise in a short amount of time is naive to say the least) then it is reasonable. But planning and consolidation of forces is absolutely necessary and, unfortunately we see far too little of both on the part of the major left groupings in the US.Endless theoretizing and debates about the relevance of this or that dead theorist are other obstacles to on the ground work as well.

  • Alan L. Maki

    Socialists and Communists can, and more often than not, often do, “keep true” once elected to public office.

    This has been proven time, and time, again. Examples are the socialist Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, the most successful third party ever here in the United States. Even as Socialists and Communists were fighting tooth and nail at the national level, here in Minnesota they had the good common sense to figure out that if they worked together they could accomplish a great deal.

    In more recent years there was the tremendous success of the Howard Pawley led socialist New Democratic Party majority government in Manitoba, Canada.

    Fortunately, former New Democratic Party Premier Howard Pawley has written an excellent, honest, thought-provoking and informative book about his life in politics, “Keep True,” which should be required reading for anyone involved in electoral politics. We have a great deal to learn about politics and the class struggle from our northern neighbors. We also have a great deal to learn from our own history which includes the incredible history of the socialist Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.

    If for no other reason, both the Pawley led NDP and the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party should be studied for the honest government that was delivered to the people of Manitoba and Minnesota. In addition to delivering honest and ethical governance with maximum citizen participation in the decision-making, both of these governments delivered huge reforms improving the lives of working people— not to mention striking major blows against racist discrimination.

    Many, many working class and progressive/left activists who become engaged in electoral struggles do remain true.

    That there are also some who betray our struggles is just life— no reason for us not to engage in electoral struggles as we fight in the streets, in our schools, our communities and places of employment for peace, social and economic justice.

    We have seen and experienced first hand the betrayal of those on the left supporting Wall Street’s imperialist warmonger— Barack Obama. This has sown deep divisions in the progressive, left and working class movements which is proving to be a real challenge to overcome; but, this is the problem of our times, not whether or not we should be engaged in electoral struggles.

    • mad poet

      Out of that Farmer-Labor Party came many good ideas and people, yes, but it also cemented into place the notion that Red is bad and must conform itself to specific American ways. Humphrey was a clear example of how red-baiting can be employed by ostensible allies to destroy any real moves towards a socialist future.

    • Aaron Aarons

      I maintain that the main task of leftists in an imperialist country
      like the U.S. or Canada is to weaken and undermine that country’s
      ability to extract wealth from the labor and resources of the weaker
      nations. Has the NDP or the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party made the fight against Canadian or U.S. imperialism (and not just against those governments’
      more controversial wars) a key part of its program? I doubt it.

      How can one expect to receive majority support from the citizens of those imperialist countries in cutting off a major source of the wealth that they are fighting to obtain a better share of? If you want to win elections in these countries, you pretend that the problem is the one or ten percent and that the goal is to redistribute part or all of the wealth of that one or ten percent to the rest of the population of the same country. In other words, from a global point of view, you become part of the problem.

  • Nate Hawthorne

    Thanks for the thoughtful response Ty, I’m flattered, and I’m pleased that my blog post is helping spark some conversation. I don’t much time at the moment so I’m going to only respond briefly here to the first part. I don’t mean to say that all politicians are inevitably transformed by their activities, but I do meant to say that they’re *almost* inevitably transformed. I think it’s a matter of very high probability. Jean-Paul Sartre said “existence precedes essence,” or as Martin Glaberman put it, “action precedes consciousness.” Over time, what people do – the decisions they make and experiences they have – shapes who they are. Of course this plays out in very different ways over time depending on circumstances and the individual character of the individuals involved. My main point here, though, and I don’t know if I was clear on this in the original blog post, is that people pursuing electoral political strategies should be aware of this possibility and plan for it as a consideration. I certainly didn’t mean to question the moral character of Sawant or
    anyone else and I apologize if it sounded that way. I meant to say more
    that leftists who rely strictly on the individual moral character of the people involved in their efforts are going to see worse outcomes than if there are plans made to be prepared for the possible transformations people undergo under the pressures they will face. Thus far I’ve not heard any such plan around the recent electoral efforts, if there is one. Maybe that’s the kind of thing that’s not shared with non-members, I don’t know. If there’s not such a plan, well, I think these efforts will be worse as a result.

    IOU a response on the rest. Thanks again.

    comradely,
    Nate

    • Ty Hudson

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Nate. The point you make here about the *tendency* of lefty elected officials to be transformed (usually for the worse) by their positions is obviously true and relevant. I’m not sure I addressed that point sufficiently in my piece, since I focused on the idea that they’re literally *always* transformed, which may have been a misreading of your original article. You and I might disagree about exactly how high the probability is (something neither of us has data on, I’m sure), but the conclusions you state in this comment — “that people pursuing electoral political strategies should be aware of this possibility and plan for it” and “that leftists who rely strictly on the individual moral character of the people involved in their efforts are going to see worse outcomes than if their are plans made to be prepared for the possible transformations people undergo under the pressures they will face” — are propositions that I agree with completely.

      We might also disagree, however, on the extent to which these points argue against an electoral strategy. In my opinion, they just mean that any electoral strategy needs to be part of a larger comprehensive organizing strategy, that there’s no point in focusing on single elections in a vacuum, that our election campaigns should be organization-driven rather than candidate-driven, and that whenever possible we should put forward our own candidates who are committed to our larger strategy, rather than jumping on board with leftist or leftist-sympathizing candidates who happen to pop up.

      I really don’t know to what extent Sawant’s campaign was consistent with those principles. There do seem to be some encouraging signs in terms of the way she and her supporters are pushing forward with the $15 minimum wage campaign. My impression — which is based on a few articles I’ve read, not detailed or first-hand knowledge — is that they are using the momentum created by her victory to continue organizing their base of support, and that they view her election as part of a broader strategy (somewhat broader, at least), rather than as some kind of socialist novelty act or vanity project.

      By the way, I didn’t think you were accusing Sawant of anything. I thought I said as much in my piece, but I apologize if the tone sounded accusatory.

      When you have time, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about the other main point we seem to have a disagreement about — the old debate about the relationship between reform and revolution. (Would winning a $15 minimum wage in Seattle be a good thing?) Something tells me we’re not going to settle that debate once and for all in this discussion, but we might as well have at it. Maybe others will jump in as well?

      In solidarity,

      Ty

      • Nate Hawthorne

        hi again Ty,

        Sorry for the long delay. Family stuff has been taking up a lot of my spare time lately. Thanks again for your comments, in this article and in the discussion. On your comment here – I agree, the point I made about pressures to change due to the experience of being a politician, that’s not a strong argument against radical political use of elections. It’s a problem that people will face if they try to use elections for radical political purposes.

        On the rest of your article, you ask “whether or not (…) reforms are desirable from a revolutionary perspective.” I think this is important. I want to add, I definitely recognized that reforms matter at a human level. I can’t remember if I mentioned this or not, apologies if I’m repeating myself. I’ve got young children and I’m the sole income in my household and food stamps are an important part of our income. We’re currently insured but staying insured is a challenge and a worry that literally keeps me up at night sometimes. I would love it if we got national health insurance in the US, and higher wages would be huge too. So I get that all of this is real and has huge consequences for people individually. The political and theoretical question, though, to my mind is how meeting those needs relates to our aims as radicals, our aims to end capitalism and create a new, better society. You asked at the end of your comment: “Would winning a $15 minimum wage in Seattle be a good thing?” Absolutely. And as both a compassionate person and a broke person, I’m for good things and people having more money. But would it move us closer to the end of capitalism? I think the answer there can only be “it depends.”

        I agree with how you put it here: “reforms don’t always move the anti-capitalist movement forward” and also that it would be a mistake to “argue that they never do.” So then, what kinds of reforms move anticapitalism forward? I’m not convinced that the answer is a matter of what the reform is, so much as a matter of how the struggle for the reform is carried out. You said that “winning reforms through organized struggle strengthens our organizations in important ways and that such strengthening opens up possibilities for bigger fights.” I think that’s certainly plausible. I think it’s just true that this happens sometimes. I think it’s also not true that all successful winning of reforms builds toward something bigger. (There’s a Luxemburg quote I can’t quite remember, something along the lines of ‘the workers struggle proceeds from defeat to defeat until the final victory.’) I think the issue is what kinds of routes to victory build what kinds of things. As I’ve said I’m skeptical about what electoral wins can build toward, and would like to hear more about what the theory is behind the socialist use of elections.

        In my opinion, we want struggles that do a few things – increase the active participation of more people in struggle, spread ideas about how deep of a social transformation is desirable (roughly a continuum from ‘elect different candidates’ to ‘restructure the government’ to ‘end capitalism’), increase the kinds of activities people are willing to carry out (vote, show up at a rally, strike, etc), and expand people’s moral horizon/sense of solidarity (from specific subset of the class whether defined by trade/craft, industry, geography, etc) toward a more universal idea of justice for everyone (approaching something like ‘to each according to need’ and ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’) — I’m thinking here of a remark, I’m not sure by who, maybe E.P. Thompson, that the struggle for socialism must also be a struggle to create a new socialist humanity along the way (to put it another way, revolutionary social transformation must also be cultural transformation/collective moral transformation). I’m sure there are other things I’m leaving out. I don’t think there’s a magic formula for any of this stuff, and we should try to be really honest with ourselves about how often our efforts fall short on these. I don’t think any outcome necessarily does any of this kind of work unless there’s deliberate effort to do so. Without that effort, I think mostly what happens is that already existing minorities within the class do most of the activity and the transformations among the rest of the class are more limited. To try and put it more briefly, I think these kinds of political and moral results of struggles are as much or more the result of the process of struggle – how the struggle is carried out – more than they’re a result of the outcome of the struggle.

        I agree with you that “the best use of leftists’ time and energy is as organizers in the movement, outside of political office.”Also, you ask “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.” As you note, there are questions about if and when this is possible, but setting that aside, for the sake of argument for a moment let’s say this is possible. In that case, one part of the idea here is that there’s a critical mass of socialist politicians required before socialist politicians can do much. In that case, how big do you think that critical mass has to be? And what happens to and what comes of socialists in office prior to that critical mass?

        Finally, on the ‘the only result of reforms is a different capitalism’ thing – I take your point that this could be more fleshed out on my part, both theoretically and historically. (Part of what I tried to say in my blog post was that I think state skeptics should have better arguments than I think at lot us do, so it’s fair to note the shortcomings in my arguments.) For now – it seems to me that there have been a great many significant reforms in the history of U.S. capitalism. Among them: extension of the vote to women, reduction of child labor, various welfare provisions and regulation of employment, and the creation of the national labor relations act, to name a few. A lot of people’s lives are better off as a result. I wouldn’t want to switch places with a working class person in the US in any era before those reforms. And yet, did those reforms bring us closer to the end of capitalism? If so, how?

        comradely,
        Nate

  • Ty Hudson

    I haven’t had a chance yet to read the Wilpert article you mention, but my first thought is that seems like an odd position for someone from Venezuela Analysis to take.

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