Coalitions, Elections, and Kshama Sawant: An Open Letter to Socialist Worker

by Andrew Ray Gorman on January 19, 2013

I am glad that the Socialist Worker site has finally responded to the the issue regarding Kshama Sawant’s candidacy in the state of Washington. Your Web site continues to serve as an useful resource for socialist activists. However, I have some criticisms regarding both the article itself, and the fact that this is the first article to even mention her campaign.

Her campaign reached out to the Seattle International Socialist Organization (ISO) as early as July, which is normal considering those who wish to do coalition work should not have to contact the heads of the national organization. When The North Star reprinted the Socialist Alternative article, a self-proclaimed member of the ISO frequently made the criticism that if Socialist Alternative was genuinely interested in forming a coalition, they should have contacted the national party first.

For anyone who actually does coalition work in local communities, they could tell you that this is far from the truth. This is a fundamental concept of rank-and-file work, which aims to make existing organizations more democratic. It concerns me if this view is indeed a prevailing one among the ISO, and so I would like clarification on this. Many comrades of mine are members of your organization, and if I were to form a coalition I would go to them, not over their heads to the national organization. In this way you treat comrades with more dignity then you would otherwise.

Back to the Sawant campaign, your article neglected to mention that contact began as early as July, and instead said that “SA does admit that it first attempted to contact the ISO as a national organization about supporting its candidate with an e-mail sent in mid-October.” While not necessarily a lie, it skirts the underlying truth that coalition efforts with the local were made early on.

Regarding the article itself, I find that it has an overall negative tone. It doesn’t come across as constructive comradely criticism, but rather it engages in the very “point-scoring” that you accused Socialist Alternative of. You accuse them of dogma for engaging in electoral action, which to me is just plain silly. Tactical differences are just that; there is no need to make unjustified accusations.

Looking toward the future, I would like to see more coalition efforts between socialists. Both the ISO and Socialist Alternative have earned my respect in various ways. Now I would like to see coalition efforts towards building a common political party. Find some common points of agreement, work together to build a democratic socialist political party of some sort, and invite other socialists in this country to assist in this effort. The old divisions have become irrelevant, and increasingly it seems like labor struggle is making a comeback.

We either utilize this energize and renewed interest now, or risk losing it.

2013 should be the year of socialists organizing locally, running at least a campaign or two through many cities. We should maintain contact lists, and use these towards the building of such a coalition. 20,000 votes for Sawant in Seattle, 25,000 for Dan La Botz in Ohio, and socialist Pat Noble’s election in New Jersey are all positives towards the future. We shouldn’t delude ourselves as to the limitations of electoral action, but neither should we constantly refuse to engage in it. And for those who are uncomfortable with electoral action, they should be much more involved in democratic union action. Despite tactical disagreements, we can help build a stronger socialist movement for tomorrow.


Andrew is affiliated with Revolutionary Unity, and has had experience being a member of both the Socialist and Green Parties.

  • Gumby

    Have you sent this to socialistworker.org? They may or may not publish it but it’s worth a shot. I really like the tone of this article being more comradely and your willingness to hold them to account for something that is dishonest about when they were contacted. I really hope that left groups can work together and get over the sectarian competition.

  • RedPleb

    Seeing as I’m being specifically mentioned, I might as well respond here. Alright this section:
    “For anyone who actually does coalition work in local communities, they could tell you that this is far from the truth. This is a fundamental concept of rank-and-file work, which aims to make existing organizations more democratic. It concerns me if this view is indeed a prevailing one among the ISO, and so I would like clarification on this. Many comrades of mine are members of your organization, and if I were to form a coalition I would go to them, not over their heads to the national organization. In this way you treat comrades with more dignity then you would otherwise.”

    You are comparing apples and oranges. The ISO has a pretty loose structure on most things, I ‘d hate to go into too much detail though. But something like forming a coalition around a local activist campaign like an anti-war demo, or occupy, or a rally against the Keystone pipeline, or a solidarity campaign for striking workers, or a thousand of other types of movement stuff, local members and local branches would of course have total initiative on that stuff. You want to join in a coalition with other groups to support a picket line, go for it, who would ever have an issue around that. All of that is perfectly in-tune with the ISO’s normal politics and practices so there is no need at all for the national organization to approve of it. How many times has there been on flyers for rallies and events “co-sponsored by International Socialist Organization -Austin” or what have you.

    What the SA were asking for was entirely different, and I really don’t understand why you can’t see that. The ISO does not have an electoral focus, and we’re quite open about that, the SA does. We don’t think elections are a worthwhile use of our time yet, and we still don’t. That’s a huge difference that the SA seems unwilling to understand. For a local branch to take it upon itself to get involved in a local election, an action that is hugely out of synch with what the rest of the Organization wants and is about, requires some national oversight cause the name of the whole organization is being used counter to its actual politics. The SA knew we do not care for elections too much and they put zero effort into convincing us or trying to get us on board. An electoral coalition is an entirely different animal from every other type of local coalition, so don’t compare the two.

    Again, the approaching done in July was a casual “hey would you guys want to endorse this campaign” done verbally on the fly. That is perfectly normal and acceptable for something like “hey would folk want to co-sponsor this panel on student movements, or this political documentary screening, or march in this protest against police brutality, or this campaign for trans inclusive facilities.” That happens every day and is fine. But to do something like on something as serious as endorsing another groups political campaign when you have a group that does not care for elections and electioneering is something entirely opposed to what they are about at the moment, is just silly.

    • Ben Campbell

      On tumblr, RedPleb claims: “We don’t care that much at all about elections, the Socialist Alternative does. That’s the issue.”

      If that is the actual issue then the ISO should be clear about the fact that it is a tactical disagreement, rather than blaming things on the SA’s poor communication, etc. The ISO should also consider informing senior members like Todd Chretien (2006 California Senate candidate), Lance Selfa (who wrote a book calling for an electoral alternative to the Democratic Party), and Paul D’Amato (who in ‘The Meaning of Marxism’ writes “Marx and Engels had much to teach on the value of the left and progressives running their own candidates… We must have a politically independent movement of our own—a lesson we still need to learn in the United States today.”)

      But that is not the issue here, and RebPleb is simply confusing things by misrepresenting his organization’s stance with respect to elections. It is simply not true that the SA cares more for elections than the ISO – SA has only been involved in a couple of elections ever.

      • RedPleb

        The cases where we have gotten our hands dirty with electioneering (and those cases we’ve never stopped hearing about, we’re still being attacked for Nader and that was 13 years, so excuse us for being a little apprehensive) were when they’re was a mass movement that seemed to be behind it, the Green Party in 2000, that Ohio senate race thing. In such cases it sometimes seem worth our time. That may seem cold but so be it. We don’t care that much about elections, but if it looks mildly worthwhile, then ok. But putting any energy into someone else’s election campaign has to compete against putting energy into a 1001 other important areas of work, and most of the time it loses. The only campaign we even gave passive support for was the Ohio thing in 2010, non really in 2004 or 2006 (I believe Todd Chretien joined after his California race, but I could be wrong), and non at all in 2012. Socialist Alternative wasn’t special, we didn’t endorse anyone in 2012. We said people should vote against the two-party system, but left it up to them. Heck, I didn’t vote (but that was more due to Sandy then anything else). Sure we call for a politically independent working class party in the US, but the raw materials for one does not yet exist. We can’t hope to do that by just combining all the existing left sects, at best estimate that would probably be no better then 3000 people. So we focus on other things.

        • Jess Spear

          “Sure we call for a politically independent working class party in the US, but the raw materials for one does not yet exist. We can’t hope to do that by just combining all the existing left sects, at best estimate that would probably be no better then 3000 people. So we focus on other things.”

          Are you suggesting that SA’s campaign, which got the attention of mainstream media (Seattle Times, NPR-KUOW, The Stranger, Huffington Post, Truthout, Black Agenda Report, not to mention a few other smaller local newspapers and podcasts), organized debates with our democratic opponent, door-knocked and spoke to thousands of people about the need to break with the corporate duopoly and to fight for socialism, won a lawsuit against the WA Secretary of State to name SOCIALIST Alternative on the ballot, and received over 20,000 votes (29%!) is *not* a step forward (however small) in developing the mood for an independent party for workers? How can you acknowledge those results and still say that elections are not worth the time?

          It’s not about how or when SA approached the ISO. The issue is whether the ISO sees the opening on the left created by this capitalist crisis and the inability of either party to seriously address the needs of the 99%, decides to put forth the resources to help it open wider, and uses the platform available to candidates running for office (or leaders of a strike action) to argue for breaking with the Democrats and for socialism.

          The Democratic Party is a huge obstacle to struggle (e.g., how many activists end up voting Democratic?). It is the task of socialists to expose the Democrats as the big business party that they are and argue the need for a worker’s party. This election campaign gave us, and everyone who endorsed it, the opportunity to do just that.

          We don’t have to wait for the raw material to appear. We can help create it using different tactics. In 2012 when the vast majority of people were thinking about and debating politics because of the elections, running or supporting independent candidates allows us to enter that debate and help workers draw the necessary conclusions about the Democrats and the need for struggle.

    • http://revunity.org Matthew Andrews

      On the casual nature of the appeal for an endorsement, RedPleb may have a good point. A serious appeal for coalition work ought to be a spelled out proposal, not an off-hand request for a rubber stamp. I would like to hear more details about the efforts at communication in July.

      But RedPleb’s caricaturization of the ISO’s position on electoral action does not sound accurate at all. The ISO and Socialist Alternative actually have very similar positions. Both work within the Green Party to promote a left-liberal platform and recruit new members. I remember hearing ISO members in 1999 tell me that supporting candidates leads to opportunism. Only a couple months later they were the most avid supporters of Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign! SA (formerly Labor Militant) also moved into the Green Party once it was clear that attempts to form a Labor Party had failed. SA in Boston ran their own candidate for City Council (a non-partisan race) but their primary electoral efforts have been toward promoting Green Party candidates Jill Stein and Grace Ross for Governor over several election cycles. The ISO ran Todd Chretien in the California Green Party primary for US Senate in 2006. So both the ISO and SA not only participate in bourgeois elections, but operate as adjuncts to bourgeois political parties! Sounds like a perfect marriage to me.

      Lastly, why would you expect the SA chapter in Seattle to understand the internal politics and organizational structure of the ISO? If the ISO branch gets a request that needs approval from their central committee to act upon, shouldn’t that communication happen internally? Did the ISO in Seattle say as much to their local counterparts in Seattle? These bureaucratic excuses may indicate organizational weakness, but politically they are a distraction.

      Perhaps SA’s request for support was weak, perhaps it was just a formality, or a way to score political points. Or perhaps they were just distracted with other priorities. But Andrew Gorman’s central point that these groups ought to find common ground for working together and talking about building a democratic socialist party that can run socialist candidates is spot on. Socialists should not be hiding behind the veil of a petit-bourgeois ballot line like the Greens. If the minor successes Andrew refers to can be accomplished by these groups separately, those successes could be exponentially multiplied by unification.

  • Ben Campbell

    RedPleb, I appreciate your comments around here, but I think that you should speak less authoritatively about the direction of the ISO as an organization, when at least a couple senior ISO members do not appear to agree with you. Todd Chretien did not join the ISO post-2006 – as far as I know he has been a member for over twenty years.

    Here is Peter Camejo talking about his run as Nader’s VP candidate in his memoir The North Star (this is 2004, not 2000):

    “We set up a campaign office in Oakland where my schedule would be coordinated and hired three full-time people, Forrest Hill, Rachel Odes, and Todd Chretien. Rachel Odes was a Berkeley student whom I had gotten to know from antiwar struggles on campus. She had worked for me in my office and transferred over to work on the campaign. Rachel was also a member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Todd Chretien had led Nader’s campus campaign work in California in 2000 and was the central organizer of the ISO in California. I had first learned of the ISO when Todd approached me during the final phase of the 2003 recall campaign. I had assumed the ISO was just another sectarian group, but Todd was calm and supportive. I was very impressed with the base they had built on campuses and the commitment level of their student activists. Even though the ISO and I had some differences of opinion we shared many fundamental areas of agreement and quickly started working together. The other socialist group supporting Nader was Solidarity. Their members in the Bay Area all supported Nader, but some in Los Angeles favored voting for Kerry. We worked with Solidarity in many cities, especially in Oakland and Detroit. I began to get extensive media coverage, doing radio interviews just about every day and newspaper and TV interviews as well. I spoke at campaign meetings starting in California and later extending across the nation. Forrest Hill traveled with me on these national speaking tours. On the East Coast ISO supporters played a major role in organizing many of the meetings and the Greens also helped build them.”

    I am somewhat curious about your claim that the ISO is shy of electoral politics because they were “attacked for Nader”. Attacked by who? Democrats??

    • RedPleb

      There are a couple dozen socialist/communist sects in the United States, and no matter what we do we are always attacked by one or another of them. The Nader situation being top of their list, specifically a lot of the Trotskyist sects. We endorse someone, we’re attacked by a sect, we don’t endorse someone, we’re attacked by another sect. No matter what we do we can’t win in everyone’s books, so we ignore them. I mean the fact that so much energy is being put into this issue – a local election we didn’t endorse, thats all it is – all these articles, blog posts, pulling up esoteric research and evidence, trying to catch people in their words, hunting people down on tumblr? I just can’t relate to it, I don’t get it, its not a priority.

      • Ben Campbell

        RedPleb, I did not “hunt you down on tumblr”. Believe it or not, I follow you on twitter because I appreciate your commentary. I was also simply citing some books by Haymarket that I happen to have right here beside me, as I appreciate a great deal of what the ISO does and what Haymarket publishes.

        I regret that you or anyone else thinks the ISO is being unfairly attacked, and would like to reiterate that despite Pham Binh’s disagreements with his former organization, the purpose of The North Star is not about attacking the ISO. It is merely to provide a space for those on the left to engage in much needed discussion. We publish the SA pieces not as an endorsement or taking their side, but merely to allow discussion and debate to occur in the comment section. We appreciate your contributions to these discussions, and if you (or any other ISO members) would like us to (re)-publish articles for discussion, we encourage you to submit.

  • http://www.independentworkers.us Marlon Pierre-Antoine

    Excellent letter. This is the kind of attitude we need on the U.S. Left if we’re going to be able to rebuild, and surpass, the mass forces that American Socialism used to claim.

  • Brandy Baker

    “I mean the fact that so much energy is being put into this issue – a local election we didn’t endorse, thats all it is – all these articles, blog posts, pulling up esoteric research and evidence, trying to catch people in their words, hunting people down on tumblr? I just can’t relate to it, I don’t get it, its not a priority.”

    The whole dialogue, which seems to be obvious to most commenting, serves to give us all an opportunity to look at the questions of whether or not socialist, who are notorious for working in tiny groups and dismissing the efforts of other groups, are working with one another, if they should, how they should and in what capacity? SA did the movement a great service by writing their article, and they have conducted themselves in a comradely manner, and have risen above the (continuous) pettiness of the ISO.

    It is a conversation that is needed in light of the continuous expansions of neo-liberalism and the ISO does not have sole say in what can and should be discussed in the movement. Attempts to browbeat, deride, and filibuster may work at ISO meetings and forums, but this is the internet, the peoples’ forums, and they will not work here.

    • RedPleb

      “pettiness of the ISO” “attempts to browbeat, deride, and filibuster may work at ISO meetings and forums”
      So do you want to collaborate or not, if that’s how you feel?

      All joking aside there is something there. I am partial to the idea of maybe some electoral alliances in the future – not all groups endorsing one group but an actual coalition alliance – but when we start talking about that idea this is the sort of reality that emerges. The idea then starts looking more and more like just another daydream then anything else.

  • Brandy Baker

    So you will decide whether or not to do coalition work based on how people feel about your organization? Based on how popular you are? If you are not “liked” or approved of enough, if your group is not held in high esteem, you will not participate?

    That speaks volumes.

    [edited for clarity — admin]

    • RedPleb

      If you actually read my comment you would see I was asking you the question. I made no claim that our willingness to form coalitions is in anyways altered by others opinions of us. I was questioning your intentions. The amount of spite you have for the ISO seems at odds to the whole thrust of all these posts and comments, the ideal of grand socialist coalitions.

      My opinion is that such SYRIZA style unity is a nice idea (and as before, I’m making clear there is Massive difference between coalitions on certain activist issues and initiatives [in the old school terminology, united front], and broader electoral coalitions [popular front]), but the reality on display is that it would likely not succeed because 1) the amount of bad blood out there, even among those who claim to be all about coalitions, 2) the massive differences in perspective and politics in the different groups will lead to all sorts of disagreements over strategy and ways forward, and 3) it really wouldn’t do much in the best of cases because if you add all of the alphabet soup of socialist/communist groups together you still have a only a handful of a few thousand people.

  • Brandy Baker

    No organization that operates publicly is immune to criticism, the ISO is no different. Political criticism is not, “spite”, I have said nothing spiteful, I just indicated that the ISO cannot shut down criticism on an open forum like they do on their own turf, and you are the one who indicated that criticisms of the ISO would hamper coalition efforts, which also speaks volumes.

    Political maturity is required to even get to the point of participating in coalitions, let alone having the maturity to separate your dismay about the lack of popularity of your organization from the willingness to do coalition work with others who do not agree with you.

    Nevertheless, there are more important things to do than talk about the ISO, which was not even the main topic of my initial post, but has been made the topic by you.

    So focus less on who likes your group and focus more on what your group can do to work with others. Good day.

    • RedPleb

      Wow, someone has got an axe to grind.

  • http://www.luzietti.com chegitz guevara

    The current spat is not caused by SAlt attacking the ISO, but the article the ISO posted attacking SAlt.

    While SAlt never formally requested an endorsement from the Seattle ISO, they did engage in standard group practice, of informally contacting comrades they knew, and floating the idea, attempting to get some feedback to see whether or not they should proceed with a formal request. The ISO never got back to them.

    It seems that the Seattle branch of the ISO has great difficulty in analyzing the situation in their region, and understanding what radical work the masses are in a mood to support and engage in. They did not take part in organizing around the port, and they missed out on Sawant’s campaign. Issues of sectarianism aside, that they were completely out of the picture for two of the three major events in Seattle in the last year and a half or so doesn’t speak well of their ability to figure out what the hell is going on in their own area, let alone the world (presumably they were part of Seattle Occupy, though I don’t know).

    The current discussion isn’t about bashing the ISO. It’s about Alan Mass’ snotty response, published in SW. This discussion wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for that.

    • http://revunity.org Matthew Andrews

      Chegitz, can you link to the SW article? I don’t think I’ve seen it. I saw SA’s response first. What is SAlt? Is the “lt” to distinguish the more orthodox Socialist Action from the “light” Trotskyist Socialist Alternative?

  • David Berger

    From Andrew Ray Gorman: Looking toward the future, I would like to see more coalition efforts between socialists.

    David Berger: Coalitions about what and where? Are you talking about electoral coalitions, movement work, labor work? These are very different things.

    From Andrew Ray Gorman: Both the ISO and Socialist Alternative have earned my respect in various ways. Now I would like to see coalition efforts towards building a common political party.

    David Berger: What kind of political party? A traditional left group, like the ISO itself. A broad, social democratic party? We need specifics.

    From Andrew Ray Gorman: Find some common points of agreement, work together to build a democratic socialist political party of some sort, and invite other socialists in this country to assist in this effort.

    David Berger: This is a formula for building a social democratic party.

    From Andrew Ray Gorman: The old divisions have become irrelevant, and increasingly it seems like labor struggle is making a comeback.

    David Berger: Labor is, indeed, “making a comeback,” which is a strange way of saying that the tempo of class struggle is increasing. As to the “old divisions,” I think you’ll find that they are far from irrelevant. If you compare, for example, SA’s work in the Sawant Campaign and the ISO’s working in the Chicago Teachers Union, I think you’ll find many differences that are extremely real.

    From Andrew Ray Gorman: We either utilize this energize and renewed interest now, or risk losing it.

    David Berger: I agree, but how to “utilize this energize[d] and renewed interest,” which is a strange way of talking about class struggle, is an entire political discussion that can’t be scanted with a few fast phrases.

    From Andrew Ray Gorman: 2013 should be the year of socialists organizing locally, running at least a campaign or two through many cities.

    David Berger: It’s important to note that you place as a priority running political campaigns. I suspect that the ISO would consider the tasks of 2013 to be somewhat different.

    From Andrew Ray Gorman: We should maintain contact lists, and use these towards the building of such a coalition. 20,000 votes for Sawant in Seattle, 25,000 for Dan La Botz in Ohio, and socialist Pat Noble’s election in New Jersey are all positives towards the future.

    David Berger: All these are technical tasks around electoral politics.

    From Andrew Ray Gorman: We shouldn’t delude ourselves as to the limitations of electoral action, but neither should we constantly refuse to engage in it.

    David Berger: No one is “constantly” refusing to engage in it. The question is, though, is a concerted electoral effort the correct strategy at this time?

    From Andrew Ray Gorman: And for those who are uncomfortable with electoral action, they should be much more involved in democratic union action.

    David Berger: Are you saying that the ISO and, say, Solidarity and Socialist Action are not involved enough?

    From Andrew Ray Gorman: Despite tactical disagreements, we can help build a stronger socialist movement for tomorrow.

    David Berger: We are not dealing with “tactical disagreements.” We are dealing with, at the very least, a major strategic disagreement.

  • http://laughingfish.blogspot.com Christian

    SW really needs a comments section!

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