Neither desiring change nor protesting for it is enough to bring it about. Building awareness, consensus, and mass demonstrations? None of that’s easy, but by and large, the US Left has done it before and knows how to do it. We know what techniques can work. That’s what most of us are doing now, with incrementally growing success – Black Lives Matter, the Fight for 15, and the rehabilitation of the word “socialism” (for instance) are all already effecting shifts in popular consciousness. That’s important and grueling work, to be sure, but we know it’s not enough. There has to be some mechanism to actually implement what we want. As socialists, anarchists, and communists, we’re after deeper change than Campaign Zero-style modifications within the system. For us, the problem of the qualitative shift from desire to power is even sharper than for moderate reformers.
For much of the Left, the way out involves running candidates for government office. For some, the agenda is to win elections and then legislate revolution; for others, electoral campaigns are a tactic to expose people to radical ideas they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Indeed, even groups that reject in principle the notion of winning power by winning office often field candidates routinely. They might not think of it as the strategy, but it certainly gets a supporting role.
That’s a mistake. We shouldn’t run for office. Fielding candidates kills the Left.
Matter, not words
Concepts weigh a great deal less than we often give them credit for. An organization doesn’t consist of the words its participants say or the thoughts and wishes in their heads. Its actual, real-life existence consists of the effects it has on the world and of the internal/external dynamics that determine that. What matters, in other words, is matter. If your time is mostly spent being exhorted in internal meetings and distributing pamphlets on the sidewalk, it doesn’t really matter whether the words are praising Trotsky or Jehovah. The semantic content of the beliefs in your head takes second place to the concrete existence you have in the world.
Running in elections creates a very particular dynamic within an organization. In practice, it’s beside the point whether the campaign flyers say “Feel the Bern,” “It’s In Our Hands,” or “Long Live the Revolution.” If you do the same activities within the same system, it will impact you in a fully predictable and historically-attested way.
After all, “revolution” refers to deep changes to fundamental social structures. Matter doesn’t change for the sake of intentions. It changes for matter. Radical ideas impact that only inasmuch as they might prompt us to structure our projects one way as opposed to another. It’s intuitive to think that “integrating political education” – that is, saying many pro-revolution words – can change the way an activity operates. It can’t. Impact and effect come from how something works in practice, not what words are in its supporters’ mouths.
(Incidentally, there’s a common anarchist argument against voting that errs for the same reason – “when we vote, we legitimize the system.” The system doesn’t need you to legitimize it. The ruling class doesn’t care if you curse it every morning and tell everyone you meet that it’s illegitimate. It controls the economic and coercive mechanisms of social power – that’s what makes them the ruling class. It might prefer, all else being equal, for you to like the status quo. That doesn’t mean it needs it. Its economic and coercive hegemony are constituted through the basic structures of capitalism. It’s not about anyone’s consent. Not voting doesn’t change that any more than voting does. Making a show on social media of not voting doesn’t prove you’re radical. That’s just a performance of personal purity. It’s theatrical, not revolutionary. Lefty subcultures love that, sure, but that’s part of why they so often end up insular and cruel. Instead, the case against electoralism ought to rest on the inherent limitations of the strategy and its deleterious effect on groups that practice it.)
What’s the matter with seeking office?
In material terms, what is an electoral campaign?
Election cycles occur in a standardized rhythm that the Left has no role in setting. When the season comes around, an organized group has two options: either they’ll run a candidate or they won’t. If they pick the first choice, they must then engage in an equally-externally-determined set of activities. Ballot access is not given to everyone who asks; so, our group’s aspiring candidate generally must either start gathering signatures or align with a group that did that already. (Generally, if you don’t want to be an entryist in the Democratic Party, that means either the Green Party or a regional party like Working Families or the Vermont Progressives.) If you go that route, then you have to engage in a selection process, either through a primary or asking an official party body to endorse you. In either case, the terms are, again, largely dictated externally, by law. Of course, in very large parts of the country, neither the Greens nor any regional groupings have ballot access.
So, after spending time, energy, and activist-hours engaged in the state-dictated ballot access process, let’s assume you get your spot. (Bear in mind, again, that’s itself a long shot.) Now, you and your group go promote your run. Usually, you’ll devote a lot of what resources you have to the campaign. Then, election day comes. You’ll see your percentage. Most likely, you’ve lost. Occasionally, you might actually win. Either way, your next step is to publicize your percentage to shore up your collective credibility. More significantly, your organization has now spent several months organizing itself in a way that meets the demands of running an electoral campaign, because that’s what you were doing.
By the next election cycle, your group has created the kind of internal dynamics that make it suitable to run electoral campaigns. After all, conducting a campaign necessarily caused you to be the kind of group that carries out that function.
So, more likely than not, your group will run a candidate again. History bears this out; even groups that choose to stop running their own candidates find it extremely difficult to break out of the electoral approach.
The logistical process of running for office causes a group to become, materially, a group that does the things involved in running people for office. That gives it both a functional stake and an internal impetus to continue focusing on elections. Even when it also does other things, that objective incentive will push it to combine those with its electoral work.
In short, being electoral can’t help but lead to being electoralist. It doesn’t matter if you say you’re running to win, or to educate, or to make a performative point about the uselessness of the system. On the ground, the actions are identical. Same behaviors, same conditions – predictable outcome. Do you want scientific socialism? Here’s an empirically-established causal relationship. Think of it as laboratory data. The early German Greens went into elections with the express intention that both campaigns and successful candidates would remain subordinate to extra-parliamentary Green activism. They even took concrete steps, like imposing strict term limits on the members (which they later rescinded). They failed. It would have been impossible not to. Running candidates is inherently an all-or-nothing proposition.
Winning is what counts?
Now, thus far, this isn’t necessarily damning. Plenty of radicals don’t object to an electoralist orientation. After all, the thought goes, what’s wrong with focusing on elections if the whole point is to win them, get a majority, and implement our goals? What’s wrong with playing if you play to win?
Let’s say the candidate from earlier wins, and that over the next few cycles, their socialist party takes more and more seats.
The logistics of the electoral process itself already drove them to make elections a priority. Now that their share of offices is growing, there’s a new set of pressures. Elections punish parties that don’t engage in policy-making – even when they lack overall control. If you don’t deliver to your voters, they won’t reelect you. (Even politicians elected on dismantle-the-government platforms do, in fact, protect their seats by bringing government spending to their voters, for instance.) But, no electoral party emerges fully-formed like Athena from Zeus’s head and wins everything right away. You can’t get the resources and campaign infrastructure in place for large-scale wins without building slow, bottom-up. (And besides, in the US, the dynamic is aggravated further by the government’s diffuse structure.)
But your competitors won’t be friendly to the replacement of the ruling class with economic democracy. If they supported that, they wouldn’t be your competitors. So, you’ll moderate your platform for the sake of pulling compromises a little bit to the left. After all, if you don’t, your constituents will punish you at the polls. Left-wing words don’t overcome material interests for voters any more than they do for political parties. So, you’ll slip right, just like Podemos or the Eurocommunists. Like the Communist Party of India (Marxist), you’ll make alliances with neoliberals.
Matter is what matters, and your ideas won’t protect you.
But, let’s say you do win the power to govern, not just amend another party’s bills. Syriza did, and while they didn’t attempt socialist revolution, they certainly did try for a policy program that directly opposed what the ruling class wanted. So did Salvador Allende and the Venezuelan chavistas. Arguably, so did Evo Morales and François Mitterrand.
But in government, Syriza, Morales, and Mitterrand went full-on neoliberal. Allende died and Chávez, despite some profoundly exciting experiments and massive improvements in both standards of living and participatory democracy, never really attempted to end capitalism as such. So what happened?
Winning the game doesn’t change the rules
Fundamentally, the government isn’t neutral. It administers capitalism; it doesn’t stand outside it. If you decide to put yourself inside that, then why would it be a surprise that Lucy won’t let you kick the football?
How does that work? Well, once you’re in charge of an elected government, you have two choices. Either you will attempt to replace capitalism or you won’t. Of course, you’ll be facing enormous pressure of all types from the most powerful people in the world (they’re the ruling class because they do, in fact, rule). If you capitulate to secure their cooperation, like Morales and Maduro and Correa, then your revolutionary strategy has failed. Maybe you’ll push through some reforms, and maybe they’ll be quite large and create huge positive differences. But that’s not enough. As long as the ruling class rules, any relief will only last as long as it takes them to figure out how to get rid of it. When the interests of classes are diametrically opposed and inherently incompatible, the one that’s in charge will always be able to win in the end. That’s what being in charge means.
But let’s say you don’t “campaign left and govern right.” What if you hold firm? One of two things will happen. The ruling class might revoke the electoral system entirely. Maybe they’ll replace you in a coup, like happened to Allende. Maybe they’ll just falsify the election results, as likely happened when the Russian Communist Party lost to Yeltsin in 1996.
On the other hand, maybe they won’t actually throw out your success at the polls. Maybe you’ll take office, like Syriza and the Mitterrand coalition, and actually get to govern. In capitalist countries, the government lacks the logistical structure to effectively deny the ruling class its decision-making power over the economy. After all, its entire job is to facilitate the business class’s power. That’s the large bulk of its day-to-day activities (the proverbial nine-tenths of the law). If the ruling class decides to wreck your economy, you can’t really stop them. They don’t want to sacrifice profits like that, but they will do it if they feel a sharp enough threat. Mitterrand depended on the Communist Party’s support. He had the support of large and militant unions and an electorate that had voted him in on the promise of a “radical break” with capitalism and a “French road to socialism.” And, indeed, at first he governed left. But, after a couple of years, the reforms and nationalizations proved too much for the ruling class to tolerate. They wanted him to go neoliberal – and enormous capital flight, leading to the politically motivated and deliberate wrecking of the French economy, ensued. Either Mitterrand would cave or he’d be voted out because few people had the financial security to weather the consequences the ruling class was imposing. Material interests weigh more than either leftist beliefs or the desire not to be blackmailed. So Mitterrand went neoliberal, dismantling the things he’d previously worked for. More recently, Syriza did something comparable, picking austerity over deliberate, politically-motivated economic devastation.
So elections are always worthless?
Running candidates does not deserve our faith as a viable strategy to create socialism. However, engaging with the electoral process can be useful under extremely limited and specific circumstances.
There’s a category difference between referenda and fielding candidates. Unlike the standard election cycle, which is, after all, cyclical (and thus without a particular temporal limit), referenda are time-bound and finite. Choosing to advocate for a specific reform by campaigning to pass a referendum only lasts till the initiative is either passed or defeated – it goes to the polls, and that’s it. Redoing failed initiatives over and over is rare. Typically, the organization formed to push it disbands after election day.
Reforms as such aren’t enough, but they aren’t worthless either. Obviously, very few people can afford to wait until “after the revolution” to make rent and feed their kids. There’s wisdom in the Black Panther slogan “Survival Pending Revolution.” Unlike campaigns for office, referenda provide one tactic for survival without precluding revolutionariness.
There is, of course, always the risk of referendum work shaping an organization’s internal processes the way running candidates does. However, there’s safety in the inherent limitations on time and compromisability (once an initiative has been filed, the language in the filing is what will appear on the ballot – contrast this to a bill introduced in a legislature, which is always put through an extensive process of revision and amendment).
And, of course, there’s always the only standard that really counts: the “laboratory test.” Organizations that are not electoralist can be observed occasionally supporting referenda without their activities becoming subordinate to that past the particular time window. It’s not particularly dangerous and accomplishes much good for the Left to work on projects like the Fight for 15 or Washington State’s 2001 initiative recognizing the right of home care workers to unionize (Initiative 775, fittingly enough now the namesake of the state’s home care union).
However, referenda are one tactic among many. They aren’t enough. They aren’t a strategy.
The other way ahead
So, what should we do? Simply critiquing electoralism won’t actually answer the question posed at the start. How do we make the qualitative shift from protest to power?
The element of truth embedded in the electoral approach involves the relationship between formal institutions and day-to-day social functioning. Organized institutions direct all social activity, be it economic, political, recreational, or whatever else. Currently, the two most prominent sets of institutions – the ones which hold hegemony over the others – are the largest capitalist corporations and the governments. Since the latter (unlike the former) has elections and an official ideology of popular sovereignty, the electoral temptation make sense. And, indeed, if it weren’t structurally impossible to use the electoral state to replace capitalism, that would obviously be the best strategy.
But since that’s not a viable option, what should we do instead? For some, the answer involves building consensus around the notion of an eventual armed revolt, which, after a civil war, would impose either a new government or a stateless social order. For the anarchist proponents of this idea, the before-the-revolution tactics typically include propaganda, mass protest, and periodic street fights with cops. For their Leninist counterparts, the approach tends to involve using reform-oriented front groups to recruit people to a tight-knit, highly-ideological organization. (In practice, there’s little difference between the conduct, and hence the material reality, of Trotskyists, orthodox Marxist-Leninists, and Maoists. Slightly different slogans and the same internal structure lead to nearly identical behavior – and behavior always trumps words.)
However, street fighting, office-seeking, ideological propagandizing, and party-building are all fundamentally unable to solve the protest/power dilemma. They perpetuate the organizations that engage in them as parts of a political subculture, and they occasionally lead to reforms within the system. But putting off crossing the protest/power gap until a future insurrection doesn’t end up accomplishing a whole lot. The interim activities “before the revolution” constitute the actual existence of the groups in real life – and stating an intention to eventually start a civil war doesn’t automatically mean you’re on track to do so. Luckily, the basic nature of the problem itself offers a solution.
The ruling class exists because the institutions that run social life constitute it as a class and as a ruling class (and preempt or suppress anything that might change that). Replacing capitalism will require that social life be run through institutions that create socialism instead of capitalism. So, let’s build a network of new, independent institutions. These need to be focused on satisfying people’s needs – both in terms of providing material goods and mutual aid and in terms of protecting their constituent communities from harm and oppression. These need to be run according to participatory democracy, by and for their beneficiaries and participants – and only by them. No nonprofit, government agency, political party, or ideological group should be able to take charge. Instead, they should be accountable to their constituent communities, solely and completely. The best way to get the kind of institutions we want is to make them.
Eventually, a network of such institutions can grow, bringing more and more aspects of life for more and more people under participatory-democratic, communal control. Because such institutions are controlled only by their participants and beneficiaries, their internal dynamics push them to facilitate collective self-determination, socially, economically, and politically. Those same material social dynamics also cause them to resist being co-opted – after all, if they’re run by their constituents and no one else, then the community has all the power and thus a direct incentive not to relinquish it to charities or governments or self-proclaimed vanguards. Eventually, these can create a parallel social structure – a base of dual power. That’s what will enable us to finally supplant capitalism. Once we no longer rely on capitalism and its state to get our needs met, we’ll finally be able to abolish them.
Right now, we’re a couple of years into what looks to be the biggest upsurge for the Left since the 60s and 70s. Activist energy is high and mass politicization is growing fast. All of us who are part of that have a duty to address the protest/power gap. We need to divert a certain degree of political activity into building a network of participatory-democratic dual power institutions. Electoralism, insurrectionism, and traditional vanguardism won’t cut it.
So don’t run for office. Don’t “build the Party,” either. Create independent institutions of dual power. That’s how we’ll win.