It’s what American Marxist-Leninists and Trotskyist-Leninists have aspired to become ever since McCarthyism obliterated the Communist Party and its influence over the working class and the union movement. The Socialist Workers Party, the International Socialists, the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Progressive Labor Party, and the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) of the 1960-1970s all emerged convinced that they and they alone were America’s Bolsheviks, the nucleus of a future vanguard party, destined to triumph over their (Menshevik) competitors.
All of them were wrong.
Not one of them developed a mass following among working people. Not one of them exerted any influence over the direction or policies of the union movement. And it’s not like they didn’t try. Tens of thousands of red activists dedicated countless man-hours over decades recruiting, training, and drilling new adherents who in turn did the same. Some of these groups persist to this day and are no closer to becoming vanguards now compared to when they started because their modus operandi never changed.
But wait, what’s a vanguard? And how does it develop?
An organization becomes a vanguard by always pushing the envelope, always striving to expand the scope of the politics of the possible; in so doing, it attracts a mass following, exerting influence over thousands or tens of thousands of people at a minimum; it becomes the universally recognized leader of a mass-based struggle or political trend; it spawns imitators as it wins followers.
Asking what a vanguard is is like asking what a leader is – someone with followers.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was a vanguard organization in the civil rights struggle. The Chinese Communist Party was the vanguard of the 1949 revolution. The Spanish CNT during the civil war against Franco’s fascists was a vanguard organization (yes, anarchists can be vanguards despite their hard-wired opposition to vanguard-ism). Occupy briefly played a vanguard role when progressives, liberals, labor, and the far left followed its lead politically, organizationally, and ideologically even though Occupy was hardly organized and even less coherent theoretically.
How do you attract such a following? How do you lead in such a way that people follow without cajoling, guilt-tripping, brow-beating, or otherwise coercing them?
There is no magic bullet but giving people what they want/need is a good start. The Black Panthers policed the police and handed out free breakfasts and clothes in their community while looking bad ass. Chinese Communists fought a war to expel murderous Japanese fascists while lowering rents and enacting land reform to uplift the peasant majority in areas they controlled. Hugo Chavez and his United Socialist Party won elections and directed state oil revenues away from the pockets of the 1% and towards the needs of the 99% while raising the banner of Bolivarianism.
The examples are disparate but in each case radicals responded concretely in the here and now to the deeply felt needs, aspirations, and wants of the masses in a way that resonated not just materially but emotionally, even ‘spiritually.’ Councilwoman Kshama Sawant and her Seattle Socialist Alternative comrades are skillfully doing just that and, as a result, are playing a vanguard role locally (on the labor left) and nationally (on the socialist left). Anyone who doubts this needs to ask themselves:
- When was the last time AFL-CIO union locals endorsed a flaming red running for office?
- When was the last time an American socialist organization sat at the table as an equal player across from the likes of unions, labor-left nonprofits, and NGOs in a reform fight?
- When was the last time the policy of a socialist organization had a concrete impact on the class struggle in the U.S.?
The Seattle-based Black Orchid Collective predicted that Sawant in office would serve as a “shock absorber” for capitalism, as a safety valve to demobilize and de-fang struggles against the system. Nate Hawthorne writing for The North Star made similar predictions based on the truism that the existing capitalist state machine is incompatible with the liberation of working people from the yoke of capital. Councilwoman Sawant’s doubters, skeptics, and naysayers have been proven wrong and wrong again every day since she took the oath of office. She and Socialist Alternative have functioned as shock promoters, using her electoral campaign and resulting victory to tirelessly fight to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. They are becoming rooted in the American political landscape and the working class at the local level by launching neighborhood-based campaign groups and routinely mobilizing dozens and hundreds of supporters (all sporting Chavista-style red shirts). Many of these supporters are non-unionized, low-income workers, the very people the declining unions have struggled (largely unsuccessfully) to incorporate and the traditionally campus-based socialist left has ignored while espousing allegedly ‘rank and file’ union strategies. Like the late Hugo Chávez, Sawant is using elected office within the capitalist state to mobilize the un-mobilized and organize the unorganized.
For bourgeois politicians, opportunists, and reformists, the campaign ends on election day; for revolutionaries, election day is just the beginning. For them, the masses have exhausted their purpose once the polls close; for us, the masses have only just begun to be drawn into self-activity, into fighting for their own interests in a battle of democracy that extends well beyond election night. They stand for a temporary campaign, once every two or four years, a few months at a time; we stand for a permanent campaign, all day, every day, 24/7, 365 days a year, every year, until we reach the final goal – full communism. When Socialist Alternative’s Anh Tran said, “This campaign was an activist campaign and it will continue to be so after Kshama takes office,” she wasn’t kidding.
This mantra of the permanent campaign, of “unwearying, unceasing agitation” is not a new left reformist strategy but the old revolutionary strategy, the one pioneered by social democracy and plagiarized by the Communist International.
Just as this model inspired Lenin to build a Social Democratic Party of a German type in Tsarist Russian conditions so too has Sawant’s permanent campaign inspired radical electoral efforts across America. Whether these efforts succeed depends not on how perfectly they copy the original but on how well they adapt the model to locally-specific conditions (assuming that local conditions are even favorable for such an attempt).
The Sawant Effect
In Oakland, civil rights attorney Dan Siegel joins 12 other candidates striving to oust Occupy Oakland nemesis mayor Jean Quan. Although not a socialist, Siegal clearly took a page from the Sawant script in embracing the local equivalent of Seattle’s fight for $15 – a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $12.25. Unlike Sawant, the central theme of his campaign is safety – safety from crime, safety from economic insecurity, safety from police brutality, safety from decrepit schools, safety from domestic violence. It’s an attempt to co-opt a traditionally right-wing issue and message in conditions where impoverished residents have long been plagued by violent crime on the one hand and a brutal and corrupt police force on the other, leaving them with no real solutions to either problem (firing all the cops is neither real nor a solution).
Siegal has a shot at winning despite the overabundance of competition and the fact that he is losing the money race to at least four candidates by upwards of $100,000. Why? Because the city uses a non-partisan ranked choice voting system (also known as instant run-off voting). In 2010, Jean Quan lost the money race to Don Perata but beat him in votes thanks to the process of elimination mechanism that gives voters second and third choices; she won by being the second choice of the majority instead of the first choice of the minority. The only certainty in Oakland’s mayoral race is that it will be full of surprises.
In Chicago, a coalition explicitly created by the Sawant effect involves members of the groups Socialist Outpost, Solidarity, Socialist Alternative, the Socialist Party and the International Socialist Organization who have (finally) united in the Chicago Socialist Campaign to explore the feasibility of running a socialist for city alderman. They need an underwhelming 473 valid signatures by August 26, 2014 to get someone’s name on the ballot, but first they need to select a candidate who – unlike Sawant – must reside in a specific neighborhood ward.
Whether and who to run are the two most important decisions any prospective socialist campaign will make and getting those decisions right means taking into account the following three rules regarding electoral work.
1. Candidates Are the Key
In the American political system, elections are more contests between individuals and the forces that they can mobilize and bring to bear than they are contests between competing parties, platforms, and visions as in a European-style parliamentary system. An attractive candidate is essential; without one, don’t bother running.
Socialist Bernie Sanders not only survived but prospered within the enemy’s political system because his negatives among voters are low – they have watched his performance in office and on the campaign trail for decades in nearly a dozen races and they know he is not a standard-issue bourgeois politician. He won his historically Republican Senate seat with 71% of the vote; significant numbers of gun-toting Republicans vote for him because they respect him and connect with him on a class basis.
Lesson: when people respect you, they are more likely to vote for you even if they disagree with you programatically on important issues.
While low negatives are important, ‘likeability’ is critical.
Sawant became locally known as an Occupy veteran and got a sympathetic hearing from voters as a working immigrant, woman of color, part-time professor/full-time activist struggling (like everyone else) to make ends meet in the brave new world of neoliberalism. At the risk of sounding chauvinist, what could be more American than that? And in a city noted for its liberal multicultural values and storied history of protest and radicalism, what could be more Seattle than that? She cut with rather than against the cultural and aesthetic sensibilities of the local post-Occupy electorate. That she avoided obscurantist gibberish about the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and armed revolution didn’t hurt either.
2. Unseating Incumbents: Hard, Not Impossible
Incumbents almost always have the upper hand: money, power, resources, connections, networks, the ability to introduce new legislation or initiate new measures to steal the thunder of a challenger; Congress’ approval rating hovers around 35% but its incumbency rate is over 90% for a reason. Therefore, defeating an incumbent is primarily an exercise in assembling coalitions of the disgruntled – people/forces ignored, left behind, betrayed, or otherwise screwed over by the incumbent.
The Sawant campaign saw groups forming such as “Democrats for Sawant” and “small businesses for Sawant” and only a fool who confuses principles with tactics would reject such support. It’s not hard to see why these sectors became disgruntled. Her opponent Richard Conlin was the only member of the city council to vote against paid sick leave, a dick move no matter which way you slice it. Actions like that drive up an incumbent’s negatives and serve to increase, broaden, and infuriate the ranks of the disgruntled.
3. All Politics Is Local, Especially Local Politics
Foreign policy issues like U.S. drone strikes, occupations, and support for Israel simply have no place in local or even state races. Campaign on issues/themes you will actually have the power to do something about should you win.
A good local socialist campaign is not just about the ‘macro’ condemnations of capitalism but has to be grounded in ‘micro’ issues like potholes, zoning ordinances and every day, quality of life issues – the kind of stuff the radical left uses to score points against the system but generally refuses to do anything about.
$15 an hour gained force in Seattle despite the fact that the city has one of the highest minimum wages in the country ($9.32) because it also one of the most expensive places to live. Rents are 61% above the national average, so when liberal forces push for a slow phase-in of $15 an hour and Sawant and the 15Now campaign respond, “the rent can’t wait!,” that resonates. This is in addition to the fact that $15 an hour has become the rallying cry of striking low wage and fast food workers all over the country and therefore is an example of a demand “that actually [has] spontaneously arisen out of the labor movement itself” as Marx put it. “The mass line” Mao called it.
The Second Coming of Debs?
Given that socialists occupy less than 1% of the over 5,000 elected local offices in America and an even smaller proportion of offices at the state and federal levels and given that organized socialist currents today are numerically smaller in absolute terms than they were in the 1890s, picking and choosing our electoral fights carefully to strategically preserve our nearly non-existent resources is a good rule of thumb until those givens change.
If you run, run to win.
But for every rule there is an exception, and not for the first time in his long career, Bernie Sanders may be that exception. He is seriously considering a presidential run in 2016 and says he is ready to do it.
If Sanders runs, he will simultaneously claim the mantle of both Victor Berger and Eugene Debs. Berger (who converted Debs to socialism) was the king of the Socialist Party‘s “sewer socialists,” the rightist opportunist wing of the party that opposed Debs and the party’s revolutionary left. While Debs talked revolution, Berger talked reform; while Debs rallied working people to oust the government, Berger worked in the government for good governance; while Debs hailed the creation of the Russian soviet republic, Berger created publicly-owned utilities; Debs ran unsuccessfully for president while Berger stuck to winning local and federal offices.
The ability of one man to represent both of socialism’s historic wings is a reflection of the fact that the socialist movement in this country has all but disappeared as a meaningful political force. It is such a dysfunctional and inward-looking marginal fringe that it has no wings, left or right. But when the land of the free, home of the slave votes for a Black guy nearly named Osama to be president – twice – by a margin of millions and Trotskyists start winning city council races, the sorry state of the movement reflects neither the direction of the country nor the potential for the revival of American socialism as a mass trend.
If Sanders undertakes an “educational” campaign in 2016, he won’t be planting little red seeds in barren soil but watering the fragile, radical sprouts created by the Wisconsin uprising, Occupy, the fast food strikes, the local independent political action by unions, and the ongoing Dream Act activism that, taken together, constitute the material basis and demographic sustenance of what could become (with a lot of hard work) a socialist movement worthy of respect by working people and worthy of enmity by the 1%.
If Sanders runs, it would be the first time in a century that a socialist would be engaging mainstream America in comradely dialogue. Unlike Debs, Sanders will not be shouting at the top of his lungs from the back of the Red Special train car to large outdoor audiences but using microphones and speaking from the halls of the imperial Senate, from C-Span, from the platform of the 24-hour news networks to carry his message into people’s living rooms and iPads. (That Sanders even has access to these venues vindicates Lenin’s dictum that participation in bourgeois parliaments is obligatory for revolutionaries.) Thus, Sanders already has enormous advantages over both Jill Stein (who had to get arrested outside the presidential debates just to get a tiny bit of national publicity) and Ralph Nader (who was forcibly excluded from the debates and held large local super rallies instead).
If Sanders runs, he would undoubtedly rack up higher numbers than the Green Party’s Jill Stein did in 2012. Conceivably, he could come within striking distance of the 5% of the national electorate that Nader failed to win at his peak in 2000, a threshold that would trigger millions of dollars in federal matching funds for a 2020 race. In a national electorate of 130 million, that means nearly 7 million votes, more than twice what Nader got in 2000 in absolute terms.
And it is precisely this potential for success that worries Sanders. He does not want to be Nader 2.0. The 2000 campaign’s aftermath ended with Bush Jr.’s illegitimate and disastrous presidency and nearly killed the fragile Green Party, a double whammy for progressive forces. It took no less than three presidential election cycles for the party to regain ballot status in 44 out of 50 states. The fact that Sanders is talking about the spoiler problem is a strong signal that he does not intended to round up the left vote for the rightist nominee as Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition did twice in the 1980s.
However, Sanders is in a much better position than Nader was on the spoiler problem for many reasons:
1) He is head and shoulders above Nader as a candidate both in content and form. Nader’s tired petty-bourgeois consumer-centered reformist sermons were earnest but occasionally suffused with moralism and dismissive arrogance (nevermind his huge racial and gender blindspots). Sanders’ brand of Marxism-pragmatism is much sharper politically and his accessible style helped him overcome the handicap of a thick Brooklyn accent and non-Vermont roots to defeat almost every Vermonter who ran against him. He is acutely aware of and sensitive to the spoiler problem while Nader flippantly and boorishly dismissed such concerns saying, “you can’t spoil a spoiled system.” In other words, Sanders actually listens to the masses and takes their sentiments into account.
2) Sanders is not hidebound by the shortcomings of Green Party machinery.
3) The Republican Party is forever at war with itself. It has no nationally viable candidates since Chris Christie tripped over his own dick and landed on Bridgegate. More importantly, the party is dying demographically. They haven’t won the popular vote in a presidential election since 1988 with the exception of 2004 when Bush cheated his way to incumbency, so really they are 1 for 6 in the past six presidential cycles. In terms of the Electoral College, their peak was Bush’s 2004 run at 286 votes; in 2000, Bush “won” with a heavily disputed 271 count, a mere two votes away from defeat. Unless the Republicans manage to tack ‘left’ or deport/disenfranchise large numbers of non-Tea Party voters in swing states, the days of Republican presidents are basically over.
4) Sanders handily wins the Democratic Party nominations for Vermont’s House and Senate seats although he always declines to run on their ballot line and goes independent instead. Clearly he has a base within the party to mount a vigorous – but ultimately doomed – primary challenge to their presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton. Such a path (advocated by J.B. on The North Star) would have the same political reach as the Obama-Hillary fight in 2008 but stimulate far more substantive debate than the hopey-changey non-threatening Black guy ever could, to say nothing of spreading socialist awareness among literally millions of people. Potentially this could mean six months of a Main Street-Wall Street Sanders-Clinton slugfest starting with the Iowa caucuses and culminating in a Sanders-led walk out from the convention floor. Along the way, team Sanders could use Obama-style social networking to permanently organize legions of socialist Democrats and put them in touch with the forces of the further left that traditionally stay far away from the Democratic Party.
5) Even if Sanders conducted a purely safe state campaign focusing only on deep blue and red states like California or Texas, he could theoretically win millions of votes. Obama won California with 7.8 million votes against Romney’s 4.8 million; if Sanders got 2.5 million of those votes, he would be almost half-way to 5% and still not sway the Electoral College outcome. In Texas, all of Obama’s 3.3 million votes could have gone to a third party and it would not have made one whit of difference on the Electoral College map. A Sanders safe state campaign map would be the obverse of the traditional Democratic-Republican strategy: avoid campaigning in the swing states at all costs and campaign like hell everywhere else. Red states of the Deep South would be prime targets of such a real red campaign. The “don’t waste your vote” mantra that typically kills any third-party insurgent’s chances in Sanders’ case could be reversed and used against the two parties since voting Democrat in a state like Texas is the very definition of a wasted vote and the surplus 1 million-2 million Democratic votes in states like New York and California are also wasted since they contribute nothing to the Electoral College outcome. By contrast, every vote for Sanders would concretely contribute to him winning 5% of the national electorate.
If Sanders runs, the Green Party should endorse him immediately so he has ballot access in 44 states (their activists can use his fame to get on the ballot in the remaining six). The myriad of tiny socialist groups that piss in the wind every four years by ritualistically putting up presidential candidates to compete with one another for 0.01% of the electorate should instead endorse Sanders so 1) voters are presented with a united left ticket and 2) every left vote goes towards the strategic goal of winning federal matching funds in 2020.
If Sanders runs, he’ll be following the lead of Sawant and Seattle Socialist Alternative who dared to occupy the vote, blazed a trail for others to follow, and opened the way for the real red revival in this country that Sanders calls a “political revolution.”