Lost Opportunities: the ISO, the Sawant Campaign, and the 2012 Elections

by Ty Moore and Philip Locker (Socialist Alternative) on January 7, 2013

Originally posted at Socialist Alternative.

We are republishing below a letter from the International Socialist Organization (ISO) to Socialist Alternative (SA) regarding our request, and their refusal, to endorse our candidate, Kshama Sawant, who was challenging the most powerful legislator in Washington state, Democratic Speaker of the House Frank Chopp. Running as a Socialist Alternative candidate, Kshama Sawant received 29% and over 20,000 votes in her Seattle district.

This historic result demonstrated the significant vacuum to the left of the Democrats for working-class forces and the left. With Obama’s re-election and major struggles of workers and young people on the agenda, this space will grow substantially in the coming period. In Seattle and nationally, Socialist Alternative is approaching groups and individuals on the left to discuss the pressing need to work together to run independent left and working-class candidates in the 2013 elections and beyond to help prepare the way for a broad political party of workers and young people.

Starting in July 2012, we approached leading Seattle ISO members on a number of occasions asking for their endorsement of the Sawant campaign and inviting discussion. After these requests were ignored, we sent two emails in October to the Seattle and national ISO asking if they would support the Sawant campaign. Their reply, printed below, outlines their reasons for not doing so.

These issues have also been publicly debated on The North Star blog, where ISO supporters repeat the arguments made in their letter to us. We believe the issues raised in this debate are politically important if the potential for socialists to rapidly grow in the new situation opening up in the U.S. is to be realized. Discussion and debate on the left, if done in an honest and constructive manner, can help clarify important political issues regarding analysis, strategy, and tactics to most effectively build the workers’ movement. In this light, we decided to more fully explain our views in response to the points raised by the ISO.

 


 

The Political Situation Facing the Left in 2012

In our view, the U.S. left largely missed a major opportunity to intervene in the 2012 elections. Five years into an economic crisis, with millions disillusioned in Obama and the Democrats, in the wake of Occupy and the global revolt of 2011, we argued throughout 2012 for the left to seize the moment and begin seriously building a political opposition to the two corporate parties.

Our decision to run a vigorous campaign in Seattle for the Washington State House in 2012 was based on a concrete analysis of the situation in 2012. We understood that due to the presidential elections and the level of consciousness in the U.S. it was overwhelmingly likely that mass struggles would be limited in 2012 and that the main arena would, unfortunately, be in the electoral field. We also believed there was an opening for left-wing challenges to the Democrats to give voice to the Occupy mood in 2012.

We ran as an attempt to test our perspectives in practice and, if proven right, provide an example of what is possible for socialists and wider working-class forces in this new period. We also believed running would be an effective way to popularize socialist and working-class politics and build the socialist movement.

At the same time, we recognized that the majority of progressive workers and ordinary people would in the end vote for Obama and the Democrats. But unlike in 2008, this election would not be dominated by excitement and illusions in Obama – though these still exist for some – and would instead be characterized by a fear of the Republicans and a desire to keep them out.

While adopting a friendly approach to working people who supported Democrats as a “lesser evil,” the left had an obligation to explain the big business character of Obama and the Democratic Party. Our task was to popularize the need to break from the Democrats and build independent working-class politics. At the same time, among an important minority of workers and youth already opposed to both parties, there was a real opportunity to mobilize and politically sharpen this mood.

By standing independent working-class candidates in the elections, we argued the left would be able to intervene in the widespread debates and discussions dominating U.S. politics in 2012, popularize class politics, and strengthen left-wing forces for the social struggles to come after the election.

But nothing is automatic in politics. The objective potential for left and working-class challenges to the Democrats won’t be realized unless serious forces take the initiative and run credible campaigns in elections as a key component part of building mass movements from below. If the working class and the left fail to step into this vacuum, it will allow right-wing populists like the Tea Party, libertarians like Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, and racist anti-immigrant forces to tap into the anger at the establishment and mobilize some of it behind their pro-capitalist and anti-worker agenda.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the labor movement and other social movements continued their bankrupt policy of supporting the Democrats in 2012, as did most of the official progressive left. Yet the radical left also failed to provide a serious lead. With some exceptions, most of the left stood aside and did not present a concrete political alternative to supporting the Democrats, or ran marginal and ineffective campaigns for president.

Differing Electoral Strategies

Over the summer, we appealed for endorsements for Sawant from numerous left organizations in Seattle, prominent individuals, unions, and community groups. The result was an impressive list of endorsements, including from CWA Local 37083 (and ATU Local 587 in the primary election), Seattle’s second most influential newspaper (The Stranger), Jill Stein, Cindy Sheehan, Matt Gonzalez (the former Green Party president of the San Francisco city council who almost was elected mayor of San Francisco as a Green in 2003), many prominent Washington state labor and left-wing activists, as well as the Freedom Socialist Party.

However, when we approached leading Seattle ISO members about the potential for the Sawant campaign to strike a blow against the Democrats and help open up the space for broader left-wing political challenges in Seattle and asked for their support, they were not willing to seriously discuss it. In October, we wrote emails to the Seattle and National ISO again asking if they would support the Sawant campaign and work with us to stimulate a debate on the need to break with the Democrats in Seattle’s labor movement.

Writing for the ISO’s National Steering Committee on November 1, Shaun Harkin’s letter explained the ISO’s main political objection to endorsing the Sawant campaign:

“This year, typically, there are many small socialist organizations who are running election candidates that we are aware of: SA, PSL, SWP, SEP, FSP, SP etc. All of whom are requesting support on the basis that they represent the alternative to the two-corporate parties. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases these campaigns are geared towards straightforward party-building, have an exceptional weak social base and have little connection to the creation of a genuine broader left alternative based on collaboration.”

In the November general election, Sawant won a historic 29% with over 20,000 votes. This is the highest vote we are aware of for a socialist candidate in a significant race in the U.S. since at least the collapse of Stalinism.

The other socialist election campaigns the ISO mentions along with Sawant were without exception running for president in 2012 and clearly were not credible efforts. The contrast between the two is illustrated by the fact that in a single district of 100,000 voters more people cast ballots for Sawant than the total national vote of all these socialist presidential campaigns put together.

The potential for the Sawant campaign to make an electoral breakthrough was not in doubt when we wrote the ISO before the November election. We had already received prominent endorsements – including Seattle unions – and in the August primary won over 9% of the vote against Democrat Jamie Pederson in position 1 and over 11% of the vote in position 2 as a write-in candidate against Democratic Speaker of the House Frank Chopp.

Even after the far more substantial election results in November, which were a historic development for the left and socialists across the country, we have seen no articles on the ISO’s website commenting on the Sawant campaign, in contrast to the coverage it has received in the Huffington PostTruth OutBlack Agenda Report, the Seattle Times, and a number of left journals and blogs.

The divergence of results between our campaign in Seattle and the myriad of socialist presidential campaigns reflects a divergence of political ideas and methods. While running limited socialist campaigns for educational purposes can play a role under certain conditions, in general we believe it is counter-productive for multiple small socialist groups, with no proven capacity to appeal to wider layers of the working class, to run competing election campaigns for the same office.

Instead, we have urged unity behind the strongest left electoral challenge as a means of striking the biggest possible blow against the two capitalist parties and preparing the ground for building a broad new workers’ party. For this reason, we supported Ralph Nader’s presidential campaigns in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008, and Jill Stein’s campaign this year.

We disagree with those on the left who refuse to support any party or candidate unless they identify as socialist or anti-capitalist. Our support, on an independent basis, for Nader and Jill Stein in no way prevented us from boldly raising the need for socialism. But socialists need to recognize that, alongside building mass struggles in our communities and workplaces, the central strategic task for the U.S. working class at this stage is to create a mass political vehicle of its own capable of challenging big business.

Such a development, as Marx and Engels argued, would represent an historic advance for the working class in terms of bringing together fighting workers and youth in a common organization that would provide an arena for common struggle, discussion, and debate and greatly strengthen the consciousness and organization of the working class. This would provide unprecedented opportunities for socialist ideas to take root in significant sections of the U.S. working class.

Of course, a mass workers’ party will not be born overnight but will emerge out of the experience of the class struggle, as movements bump up against the political limits of workplace and street protests on the one hand and single-issue lobbying efforts on the other. In fits and starts, often through local initiatives in the first instances, political challenges to the two-party system will become a growing feature of U.S. politics in the coming years.

In most cases, especially where such political challenges emerge from community and workplace struggles, they will not at first adopt a socialist or even an anti-capitalist program and can have quite limited politics. Yet where workers and community struggles move to politically challenge the Democratic and Republican parties, where they are moving to the left, socialists should intervene by offering them support while building a distinct socialist wing within these movements and explaining the need to go further and challenge capitalism.

Flowing from this perspective, we never presented our campaign or organization as “THE alternative to the two corporate parties” as the ISO’s letter implies. Similarly, our goals were never narrowly “geared towards straightforward party-building.”

From the beginning, we explained we were running to provide an example of what was necessary and possible for the left in the 2012 election. We aimed to use our campaign to inspire confidence in others and open up the space for an urgent discussion on running more independent candidates as a step towards more powerful political challenges to the 1% and capitalism. We presented our campaign as an example of how the Occupy movement and activists could channel mass anger at Wall Street in 2012 as the election debates became the centerpiece of political discussion in society (see our “Imagine 200 Occupy Candidates” video and article).

We also used the campaign to popularize socialist ideas to a much wider audience than is normally possible, including in the mass media. In public debates, Frank Chopp was forced to answer our arguments for public ownership and workers democratic control of Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon, other big corporations, and the banks, as well as defend the Democrats record of brutal austerity and tax breaks for the super-rich.

Of course, any self-respecting political trend will take advantage of opportunities to build their organization as a means for fighting for their ideas, and we are not ashamed of our successes building our organization through this campaign. In our view, building a strong socialist movement is vital as a tool to assist wider movements that will emerge to develop the necessary program and strategy to win.

But this in no way stood in opposition to campaigning for and helping to build broader movements of working people and oppressed groups. Guided by this perspective, “party-building” is not, as is often alleged, synonymous with “sectarianism.” While we openly appealed to our supporters to join Socialist Alternative, we consistently raised the need for a broader mass workers party. As a step in this direction, we have also used the success of our campaign to argue for building a broad slate of independent left-wing candidates against the Democrats’ one-party rule in Seattle in the mayoral and city council races in 2013.

The ISO’s Election Analysis

It appears to us that the dismissive attitude of the ISO to the Sawant campaign flowed from their very different analysis and perspectives for the 2012 election, as well as a sectarian hostility to collaborating with SA. The material on socialistworker.org had a one-sided, negative emphasis on the situation facing independent left challenges in 2012 – including Jill Stein’s presidential campaign – dismissing them all as “shoestring efforts” with little support.

While the country was feverishly debating the election, a leading member of the ISO, Lance Selfa, echoed the anti-political, ultra-left mood of many Occupy activists, writing on socialistworker.org:

“When it comes to candidates, though, I think voting is a secondary consideration this year. If you want to register a protest against the two-party duopoly on Election Day, you could vote for Stein or Barr or a socialist candidate. But these are all shoestring efforts that don’t have much behind them. They don’t have the ‘movement’ backing that the recent campaigns of Ralph Nader have, especially his 2000 Green Party candidacy … Nothing similar exists today. So we need to spend our time building on the lessons of the upsurge of struggle of the last two years.”  (Emphasis added.)

There is no doubt that the options available to vote for on the left were quite weak in 2012. But to say, “If you want to register a protest … you could vote for Stein or Barr or a socialist candidate” is to evade the issues. The election was for a large part of 2012 the dominant issue for most politically conscious workers and youth. Socialists have an obligation to take a stand, a position, and argue for what we believe is necessary even if the conditions are not the most favorable.

Given the massive pressure on left activists to support Obama and the Democrats, such a vague position amounts to avoiding taking a clear stand against this destructive pressure. It is not enough to simply expose the corporate character of the Democrats. A clear alternative must be explained. In an election that working people are following, it is far preferable to concretize one’s opposition to the Democrats by promoting an electoral alternative, who workers should vote for.

As far as we are aware, the ISO did not work to change this unfavorable situation by supporting or helping to build more viable, stronger left-wing challenges. Even on the level of general propaganda, it is very hard to find in the ISO’s material in 2012 discussion on the need and immediate possibilities to build a left, working-class political challenge to the two corporate parties.

Much of the ISO’s material emphasizes the need to build struggles, counterpoising this to the “secondary consideration” of elections. Socialist Alternative opposes an “electoralist” approach. For us, the decisive question is what will serve the interests of the class struggle and advance the consciousness and organization of the working class, whether that is through “extra-parliamentary” means or by running in capitalist elections.

For example, in Wisconsin in 2011 we argued against the strategy of the labor leaders – and unfortunately most of the left who trailed behind them – to channel the mass struggle against Scott Walker’s union-busting into electoral channels and the Democratic Party via a recall campaign. Our position was that in February-March 2011 the massive movement in the streets had the potential to rapidly defeat Walker by taking decisive measures, starting with a one-day public sector general strike as many workers were calling for already.

Yet it is one-sided to simply emphasize struggles without providing a clear strategy for how social movements can build a political expression – especially at a time when the situation is dominated by discussion on political elections as it was for much of 2012! We consistently point to the need for mass movements in the workplaces and communities as the key to social change, but link that with the necessity of uniting social movements into a broader political challenge to corporate rule and capitalism.

In the ISO’s letter to us, they wrote: “In fact, SA’s website offers up an analysis of the 2012 that critiques other alternative candidates such as Jill Stein of the Green Party for not having enough of a base in social movements and the working class.”

You would never guess from what the ISO wrote here that Socialist Alternative, in fact, endorsed Jill Stein and offered her campaign support across the country, including organizing a large joint election rally with the Green Party in Seattle. We did not hide our political differences with the Green Party and Stein, and we openly acknowledged the weaknesses of Stein’s campaign, including her lack of name recognition and the Green Party’s inadequate resources, which meant the campaign would not be able to take full advantage of the opening that existed.

However, while it did not have the strength of Nader’s campaigns, it was the best option available to register a left-wing protest vote in the context of the 2012 presidential race, given the failure of a stronger left or working-class candidate to step forward. Despite these weaknesses, we think Stein ran a commendable campaign that helped raise debate in 2012 about breaking from the Democrats and building a left political alternative.

The Chicago Teachers Union

The experience of the Chicago teachers provides another example of what could be possible. Undoubtedly, the socialists and the ISO in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) played an important role in the success of this very important strike. In light of the role of the Democratic Party, nationally and in Chicago, in leading the attack on teachers’ unions, the strike drove a wedge between thousands of the best union activists in Chicago and the empty politics of “lesser-evilism.”

But given the leading position of the ISO within the CTU, it is unfortunate they did not mount a real public campaign – conducted in a friendly, explanatory manner – on the need for CTU to initiate slates of independent labor/community candidates to challenge the Democratic Party machine in Chicago in upcoming city, state, and even federal races. Nowhere was this idea even raised in the extensive commentary on the strike carried in socialistworker.org.

An electoral campaign by the CTU, independent of the Democrats and running on a left-wing, pro-education, pro-union platform, would represent a major step forward. We understand that many members of the CTU may support the Democrats and not, at this stage, agree to run independent working-class candidates. But events will continue to weaken these illusions and strengthen the openings for independent political action. Socialists need to take a lead and argue for what is necessary by making the case today and prepare the way for future developments.

The Experience of the Labor Party in the 1990s

Shaun Harkin also wrote:

“The ISO is interested in genuine collaboration amongst left and progressive organizations and forces. As case in point here are several examples on the electoral front your organization would be familiar with: we were active supporters of the effort to build and launch the Labor Party in the US in the 1990s; we actively supported and campaigned for Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo in their campaigns in 2000 and 2004; we were part of a broad coalition of left organizations supporting Dan La Botz as Ohio’s Socialist Party candidate for US Senate in 2010; we spearheaded the organization of a broad Socialist Contingent at the 2009 AFL-CIO sponsored rally in Washington, DC in which Socialist Alternative participated.”

We are aware of these examples, with the exception of the statement that the ISO was “active supporters of the effort to build and launch the Labor Party in the US in the 1990s.” Our organization played a very active, often leading role in the Labor Party throughout the 1990s. We were not aware of the ISO playing a role of supporting or building the Labor Party or its launch. In fact, in discussions with ISO members at the time, we were told a number of positions, ranging from the ISO wanting to build a revolutionary party and not wanting to help build a competing reformist party, to the ISO saying they were still discussing the issue and had not yet arrived at a position.

Procedural Questions

The ISO letter to us, and especially the comments on The North Star website, focused a lot of attention on our allegedly mistaken methods of contacting them to ask for an endorsement. Their letter to us states:

“An email sent two weeks before an election to the national leadership of the ISO, and not even directly, is not a serious effort at collaboration. You and SA’s elected leadership, as a national organization and part of an international tendency, would and should know this quite well. It’s not even a gesture in such a direction.”

The reality is that starting in July we verbally approached leading Seattle ISO members on a number of occasions asking for an endorsement and inviting discussion. Only after these requests were ignored did we send two emails to the ISO, the first on October 15, three weeks prior to the election. Both emails were sent to the local and national ISO email addresses. So we do not see what is “not direct” about these methods of contacting the ISO.

The aim of this article is to help clarify important political issues facing serious socialists and activists who are looking for a strategy to fight back. The crisis of capitalism is preparing unprecedented social upheavals, and in this context we share the desire of many politically active workers and youth for more effective and united action on the left.

This is why we have initiated a dialogue in Seattle and elsewhere about running broad left slates of candidates in 2013 and beyond to prepare the ground for bigger developments down the road. Genuine unity and collaboration requires an understanding on where agreement exists, as well as clarity, open discussion, and debate about disagreements. We hope members of the ISO and other serious activists will view this article in that spirit.

 


 

Below we republish a Nov. 1 letter from Shaun Harkin, writing for the ISO’s Steering Committee, explaining their reasons for not endorsing the Sawant campaign.

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Shaun Harkin
Date: Nov 1, 2012 11:47 AM
Subject: Response to Endorsement Request for Sawant Election Campaign
To: Patrick Ayers
Cc: <[email protected]>
Dear Patrick (SA National CCed)

This is to acknowledge receipt of your correspondence dated October 15th (and now a follow-up letter we have just received dated October 29th).

ISO members, as you know, won’t be voting for Democratic Party candidates in any election and are encouraged to vote for genuine ant-corporate third party alternatives.

This year, typically, there are many small socialist organizations who are running election candidates that we are aware of: SA, PSL, SWP, SEP, FSP, SP etc. All of whom are requesting support on the basis that they represent the alternative to the two-corporate parties. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases these campaigns are geared towards straightforward party-building, have an exceptional weak social base and have little connection to the creation of a genuine broader left alternative based on collaboration.

In fact, SA’s website offers up an analysis of the 2012 that critiques other alternative candidates such as Jill Stein of the Green Party for not having enough of a base in social movements and the working class. This makes one wonder as to SA’s conception of itself and the sounding board it draws upon for insight.

The ISO is interested in genuine collaboration amongst left and progressive organizations and forces. As case in point here are several examples on the electoral front your organization would be familiar with: we were active supporters of the effort to build and launch the Labor Party in the US in the 1990s; we actively supported and campaigned for Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo in their campaigns in 2000 and 2004; we were part of a broad coalition of left organizations supporting Dan La Botz as Ohio’s Socialist Party candidate for US Senate in 2010; we spearheaded the organization of a broad Socialist Contingent at the 2009 AFL-CIO sponsored rally in Washington, DC in which Socialist Alternative participated.

An email sent two weeks before an election to the national leadership of the ISO, and not even directly, is not a serious effort at collaboration. You and SA’s elected leadership, as a national organization and part of an international tendency, would and should know this quite well. It’s not even a gesture in such a direction. In fact, we know of no occasions when SA members, national or otherwise, have contacted the ISO’s national leadership to discuss collaboration in any electoral or social struggle effort. This kind of nonconstructive behaviour serves to reinforce rather than overcome sectarianism which is of benefit to no one.

Signed.
Shaun Harkin
For ISO Steering Committee

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