Kshama Sawant and the Socialist Politics of the Possible

by John Halle on August 12, 2013

Socialist Kshama Sawant has gotten over the first hurdle in her race for Seattle City Council and it was a high one: to secure a spot in the November run-off election, she needed to finish at least second and ensure that the victor’s total was below 50%.

She did both by receiving 35% of the total and her incumbent opponent coming in at 47%. Doing that required substantial numbers – her final count is nearly 43,000 votes — and opens the possibility of a real, if outside, chance at assuming office in 2014.

That Sawant, a self-identified and unapologetic socialist, could achieve this should not have come as a complete surprise. Recent polls have indicated a widespread sympathy to socialism, a sign that the many years of indoctrination equating “free markets and free people,” capitalism and democracy, and of there being “no alternative” to neoliberal austerity are finally losing their power to convince.

Sawant’s candidacy is the first to give a concrete indication that these attitudes are beginning to find expression in terms of real political power.

Pushing on an Open Door (Again)

As I observed in a piece on her previous campaign for state legislature, by running from the left in a left-leaning district, Sawant was “pushing on an open door” for electoral offices ripe for the picking.  While Sawant has again shown just that,  this doesn’t mean that these offices will be easily obtained.  The influence of money in politics remains enormous and, in the case of federal office, still likely an insurmountable obstacle for non-corporate candidates.

What Sawant has demonstrated is that for local and possibly statewide office, grassroots networks of support can compensate for the inability to purchase major media “buys” in television, radio, and major newspapers.  Foremost among these is social media which the Sawant campaign, by all accounts, is very savvy in its use of.  There is no doubt that many of her supporters learned about her campaign via Facebook, Twitter or Tumbler, all which Sawant blanketed with information, providing voters unmediated access to her platform.

In fact, it might be the case that what money can purchase — slick television spots, glossy flyers, and full page spreads in newspapers — has less and less value.  Just as a pre-packaged tomato of “perfect” size and color is by now a predictor of bland taste and mealy texture, so does an airbrushed, perfectly coiffed candidate pleading with unctuous sincerity for “your support” scream “corporate sellout.” Sawant provides hope that this brand of candidate and the whole pay-to-play system it supports could go the way of the Hostess Twinkie with the right pushes.

Sawant is about as far from a Twinkie as can be imagined. In her publicity shots, she comes across as distinctly unstylishIn her public appearances, she is appropriately prickly in her no-bullshit response to questions from the media while her endorsement in the alternative paper the Stranger described her voice as “as loud as an air horn”.   But rather than count against her, these qualities are like dirt scuffs on a head of organic lettuce, the purple of an heirloom tomato, or a slightly misshapen peach –irregularities that are positive signs of authenticity. Sawant is not another product bought by big money and sold to the public to do big money’s bidding.  She should be increasingly typical of candidates challenging the long-standing domination of the political system by corporate and financial elites.

All of this explains why the five-to-one ratio in campaign contributions didn’t allow Sawant’s opponent to walk away with a majority.  Money can’t buy most of the things that matter in life and it shouldn’t be able to buy our political sympathies.

Sawant wasn’t afraid of the firehose of money pointed at her and neither should we be.

Sawant in Power

It is possible that Sawant will ride the wave of disgust to victory in November.

But her ultimate success and that of other insurgent candidates will require that she go beyond a negative critique and show that she is able to develop a positive program that directly benefits her constituents.  Her website indicates that she is fully aware of this, her call for a $15 local minimum wage makes an an excellent starting point. However, municipal wage ordinances (one of which I worked on in my brief stint as a Green Party Alderman) are often difficult to implement so that they cover more than a small fraction of workers.  (Generally, they can only apply to municipal contractors and subcontractors.) Other aspects of Sawant’s platform, e.g. a millionaires tax, are likely to run into difficulties as states often impose strict limits on revenue options available to localities.  That doesn’t mean she shouldn’t propose these, but rather that her supporters need to be fully aware of the political impediments to her achieving even the beginnings of her full program.

sawantposterWhat will help Sawant and other alternative candidates is an awareness of what can be achieved on a municipal level.  One of those leading the way is Richmond, California Green Party Mayor Gayle McLaughlin who has recently come to prominence for her use of eminent domain to acquire foreclosed properties, a move that Wall Street responded to with fury, landing the story on the front page of the New York Times.  This should be seen by Sawant and other progressive in local politics as a first step in a municipal program aimed at developing local economies, one which would include encouragement of worker self-directed enterprises along the lines discussed by Gar Alperowitz and Richard Wolff.

Another McLaughlin achievement involved requiring the Richmond police to ensure that protestors engaging in civil disobedience would be treatedly leniently in their arrests and released immediately following their citations.  If Sawant takes office, she should work to secure the same result in Seattle, being ready to exert her authority over the uniform services who often resist local officials whom they see as “meddling” in police business.  She should also be prepared to subpoena documents and hold hearings on possible collaboration of federal and local law enforcement agencies taking place behind the backs of local officials as was surely the case in the nationally coordinated crackdown on Occupy protestors in the fall of 2011.  Given that another upsurge in Occupy-style activism seems inevitable, a reliable ally of the movement in local government armed with legal oversight authority could be a important check on the power of the state to repress and undermine protest.

Socialism’s Comeback

As mentioned above, Sawant’s success was achieved not in spite but because of her open embrace of socialism.  By a converse logic, those candidates who fail to openly embrace socialism in deed and in name will be reasonably viewed with some suspicion by the left.   That includes those parties, most notably the Greens who, due to their historical roots in European third-wayism, have shunned an open allegiance to a socialist platform.  The Greens should consider revisiting their key values along these lines and keep an eye open to the possibility of a merger should Sawant’s Socialist Alternative party develop a critical mass.  If they fail to do so, they will be increasingly seen as out of touch and as an obstacle to rather than as a vehicle for the change that is necessary.

Even more so, the same can be said about those groups holding out hope for “reforming” a Democratic Party into a vehicle for addressing the increasingly grotesque gap in income, wealth and political access, the erosion of constitutional rights, and the looming environmental catastrophe.  The Democrats are by now notorious not just for neglect of their activist base, but as the prime promoter of the catastrophic regime of neoliberal austerity. Given the party’s objectively reactionary policies on the military, civil rights, economic and environmental justice — now confirmed by two terms of the Obama administration — it stands to reason that progressive advances within the Democratic Party are now being seen in a darker light.  While minor shifts in policy do matter to particular constituencies, they also need to be seen in relation to the long run where they function as propping up a rotting partisan infrastructure setting a low upper limit on what can be achieved.

One such short-run victory occurred recently in New Haven in which the city’s main labor unions elected a slate of candidates to office, assuming control of the Board of Alderman.  This was discussed with some enthusiasm in establishment labor and progressive Democrat circles.   But outside of these it made barely a ripple, viewed as yet more of the same politics practiced by the unions for as long as can be remembered.   Had the labor unions run on a Labor Party line, one which would be seen as a potential partner in a grand coalition with Greens and a burgeoning socialist party, this would have been something else entirely — a declaration of independence of labor from the bipartisan duopoly that has presided over labor’s descent into almost complete political irrelevance. As it was, the New Haven unions showed themselves unable to break with the long-established dysfunctional investment in the Democratic Party brand.

There is, however, something to be said for securing Democratic victories so long as these are understood within a broader strategic context that takes as necessary and inevitable the eventual wholesale defeat of Democratic candidates.  Specifically, it should be recognized that Sawant’s campaign is taking place in a city in which Democratic Party domination has been a given for several generations.  In Seattle, as in numerous others cities, the Republicans have been consigned to near insignificance, with their descent into rump party status increasingly assured as extremist elements intensify their grip. The Republican collapse is a double-edge sword for the Democrats. Just as it removes their main competition from the field, it also shines a light on the reality of what the Democrats represent, and many will not like what they see.  With the disappearance of the Republicans, the Democrats will face direct competition from candidates like Sawant running against their long-standing role as what Corey Robin called “the new party of austerity” and many voters will find it easy to make the right choice.

But for this dynamic to play out, Democrat machine dominance must come first. For this reason, third-party activists — even those having difficulty hiding their understandable contempt for some Democrats — should work to make this a reality,  holding their noses with the longer strategic perspective in view.

At the initial stages, where we still remain, progress will be slow.
The Sawant campaign is one small sign that the wheels are finally beginning to turn in the right direction.
  • http://ouleft.org Carl Davidson

    You might find a good number of PDA folks in agreement. Fighting the Dems ‘from the inside,’ they are rather well educated on its limitations. They saw fit to post my piece, the conclusion of which, is similar to your’s here. http://www.pdamerica.org/news/item/1493-strategic-thinking-on-the-us-six-party-system

  • Bryan

    The other Socialist Alternative campaigns, especially Ty Moore’s in Minneapolis, are going to make a big impact later this year.

  • Ty Hudson

    Sawant’s success is exciting for two related but not identical reasons: (1) she is running openly and explicitly as a socialist and (2) she is running against possibly the most pro-corporate member of Seattle’s city council, the only councilmember to vote against the city’s recent paid sick days ordinance. Let’s not get too excited, however: one socialist city councilmember in one city would be a tiny, tiny dent in the capitalist domination of U.S. politics, and as Halle points out, it will be impossible for Sawant to govern as a socialist.

    In order to make this sort of progress possible on a large scale, we need to concentrate on building the potential socialist base. Local electoral and legislative campaigns like the fight for paid sick days and living wages are one way to do this. Even more important, I would argue, are non-electoral activities like building unions and other mass organizations.

    As we expand our capacity to influence elections, let’s not write off the example of the New Haven unions. In many situations, it will be difficult if not impossible to win without working inside the Democratic Party. I know this will be a controversial position on this site, but let’s think strategically about the nature of the Democratic Party. It is not a static or monolithic organization. Its leaders and operatives come and go. That it (like our entire political system) is controlled by capital is merely a symptom of the fact that we are living under capitalism, and our organizations are weak. (Carl Davidson’s article provides a helpful way of thinking about this.)

    Think of the Democratic Party not as an organization but as a brand and a ballot line. The brand and ballot line are extremely valuable strategic assets. Because of the primary system, there is nothing but a lack of organization and a lot of corporate money preventing us from taking over those assets. Regardless of whether we seek power inside or outside of the Democratic Party, we will have to build enough organization to overcome the influence of corporate money over elections. Because a huge part of our potential base identifies with the Democratic brand (if for no other reason than they see it as their main defense against the Republicans), and because of barriers to ballot access, I would rather contest a general election (for Congress, for President, or for any office with partisan elections) with those assets than without them. That doesn’t mean we don’t identify publicly as socialists, it means we make the Democratic Party socialist by means of primary elections.

    I’m not saying it will necessarily happen this way. Perhaps in the course of this fight the Democratic Party will collapse and its brand will lose credibility with the masses, like PASOK in Greece. Then there will be an opening for a new party, like SYRIZA in Greece or like the Republican Party before the Civil War.

    I’m also not saying that we can smoothly and without conflict win socialism through elections alone. Any struggle for socialism will involve strikes, occupations, street battles, and other actions that disrupt the functioning of capitalism and directly contest the private property rights of capitalists. Should genuine socialists win control of Congress and the presidency through elections (calling themselves Democrats or not), civil war would likely ensue, just as it did when abolitionists won control of the government in 1860, when Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in 1917, and when the Popular Front was elected to lead the Spanish Republic in 1936.

    (Actually, civil war would only ensue if a significant section of the armed forces sided with the socialist government; otherwise it would just be a coup, a la Chile in 1973. The democratic legitimacy of the election would hopefully be decisive in convincing sections of the armed forces not to support a coup, although that wasn’t the case in Chile. But I digress.)

    All of this is a long way off. We have a lot of building to do in the meantime. What I’m saying is that while we build our base, as we continue to struggle, we should not let our justifiable disgust with the Democrats prevent us from contesting the real existing political terrain in this country. I’m saying that in order to build a mass movement for socialism, socialists will have work inside the Democratic Party as well as outside it.

    • John Halle

      Ty,
      On the unions in New Haven, bear in mind that given that New Haven, like Seattle, has been totally controlled by the Democrats (usually 29 of 30 seats of the BOA, I think) for generations, there is no spoiler factor which would prevent a labor backed candidate from running on a Labor Party line. Furthermore, the Greens a few years back showed that it was possible to win easily doing so by taking advantage of the negatives which attach to the Democrat brand-quite deservedly, I’m sure you would agree, now more than ever. So why didn’t they do it? The same reason that, a couple of years back they supported charter schools-which would be the wedge which Ed reformers were using to undermine the Teachers Union. Namely, they are risk averse at best, cowardly at worst, desperate to maintain credibility within the system, which is to say within the Democratic Party top echelon (donors and leadership) who would look very unfavorably at such an assertion of union independence. As I suggest, the unions failure to run independent Labor Party campaigns, which they could have easily won, were a strategic miscalculation-not the first and, unfortunately almost certainly not the last in this category.

  • http://youtu.be/eGOA2WedIQo Deran

    I think what comrade Halle says bat Kshama Sawant pushing open a door is very, making it acceptable to use the term “socialism” by a candidate that the mainstream media is forced to acknowledge as a real and viable candidate. And not just the word socialism, but the notion that capitalism can be questioned in its entirety, not just as a matter of tweaking it a bit to make it less barbaric. That socialist proposals and policy ideas are now much more in the public discourse is a major accomplishment. Here in Seattle, neoliberal Democrats who are lapdogs of the big corporations at the same time as being pro-civil rights for the LG community, immigrants, women etc are the one party state. And to have these norms turned on their head in public by someone the media is forced to deal with and who articulates socialist views and proposals is a victory all its own. Whether Sawant is elected in November or not.

    I think comrade Halle is completely off-base when he suggests there can be anything useful abt voting for, let alone campaigning for or donating to, a Democrat. No matter how grand the Democrats words or proposals. By voting for, contributing to a Democrat you are completely defeating the point of building a socialist party. Everytime you support a a Democrat, again, no matter their rosy glow “progressivism”, you give legitimacy to the Democrats as the true authentic home of the Left in the US. When you as a socialist support a Democrat then you are making the argument for them that there is no need for an independent political party of the Left, the Democrats can be that party. Which it can not.

    Rather than waste time, resources and votes on progressive Democrats, build a socialist party that gets people elected, or very nearly, and the Leftists who are not frauds and who are actually socialists will not feel compelled to run as a Democrat.

    I think a good example of this is in Vermont. The once independent VT Progressive Party now explicitly runs their candaites seeking the Democratic line as well *VT is one of the few states with “fusion” a candidate can be on the ballot for more than one political party). Once you stop being independent and are lured into cahoots with the Democrats much of the reason for voting for your party vanishes – again, if the Progs are also Democrats, why not just be Democrats? or you end up like the Working Families Party and are just a front for disenchanted Dems to vote Dem but be able to pretend they are independent. Notice the Progressive Party in VT is no longer gaining new electoral victories, and are not adding seats to their state leg caucus. Their momentum as independents seems to me to be fading.

    And if they do not run a candidate for Governor I think that will be the end of them as independents. If you look at the last time they ran Pollina for Governor, he came in second, the Dems refused to drop out, and the Dems were the spoilers and the Republican won. The Democrats will never be honest brokers when dealing with the independent Left. They will try to crush or coopt it – look at the Democratic Socialists of America (not to mention the ultra-lame Progressive Democrats of America) an an example of cooptation.

    Again, I can not see how you do not end up legitimizing the Democrats if you work for or within them. It has never worked in the past, I can see no way it works anyother way in the present?

    Isn’t the point to build an independent socialist party? Rather than to end up as promoters of a Lesser Evil?

    Isn’t the point of comrade Sawant’s campaign to build socialist politics? As far as I can tell it is.

    • Karl Grant

      Anecdotally, it’s interesting that support for the Sawant Campaign brings together folks such as John Halle and Deran with very different conceptions about the way forward in political terms by neutralizing the issue of ‘the Democrats’ – it’s simply not posed in such stark terms on a municipal level.

      Though I’m curious – care to unpack your views on McGinn for Mayor or O’Brien for City Council?

      • http://youtu.be/eGOA2WedIQo Deran

        The Sawant campaign has put the difference between socialists and Democrats in stark light. Sawant is running openly against the Duopoly, there is no blurring of the lines in her campaign. I did not vote for McGinn, he is a classic Seattle Democrat. Totes around a few kumayah catch phrases that mean nothing and on the other hand openly oppose any sort of restrictions on the land speculators and developers. McGinn has been a real booseter for the city selling off the municipall;y owned public housing to developers with the abstract promise that some of the profits from such a sale will be used to build more “affordable” housing (somewhere the 2% don’t want to live; say, the toxic waste dumps of south Seattle) And I wrote the late poet Steven jesse bernstein in for the seat O’Brien holds. O’Brien has some nominally progressive views (more bike paths, sick leave and such), but he does not oppose the speculators and developers that have essentially done a soft ethnic cleansing of Seattle as well as created a solid financial wall between those who can afford to live in Seattle and everyone else. Again, O’B rien is also a classic Seattle Democrat. Recycling, bike paths, pro-civil rights, but strictly a reactionary in economic terms.

        • Karl Grant

          I agree that McGinn and O’Brien could be more aggressive with developers, but for me it seems that we should challenge them on these issues while leveraging shared perspectives on certain issues with a view towards the class struggle as a whole.

          McGinn just disallowed a Whole Foods being built in West Seattle where it would have been the only non-union grocery store in the area. This is because of the company’s reactionary economic record (and pressure from workers and their organizations). This is also very important to UFCW’s organizing strategy -preventing the expansion of low wage retailers such as Whole Foods and Walmart into urban cores is one of their last strong leverage hooks, and a mayor receptive to the demands of low wage worker organizations at any level is better than a mayor who isn’t.

          On O’Brien my view is much the same. I agree that we could focus in on his failings or take a view of the struggle as a whole – there is no more radical candidate running for his position and losing someone on the council who could be an ally around issues like ‘bike paths, sick leave and such’ seems like a step back from retaining someone who socialists could work with on certain issues. In just the last 3 months O’Brien has concretely helped build the struggle by escorting striking Fast Food workers back to the job and warning their employers against retaliation as well pushing the UW Board of Regents to divest of Energy stocks in conjunction with a student campaign. See links at bottom.

          I think both of these candidates have stronger ties to their roots as prominent Sierra Club activists than to the ‘Democratic Party’ which exists within their life in municipal politics in only a nominal sense anyway. Abstaining from supporting these candidates by writing in dead poets just hands these seats over to outright reactionaries and neither advances the struggle nor facilitates ‘breaking the Democratic Party’ in any meaningful sense.

          http://www.seattlepi.com/news/slideshow/Students-ask-UW-to-divest-from-fossil-fuels-64540.php

          http://seattletimes.com/html/politics/2021488309_politicswholefoodsxml.html

          http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/supersize-my-salary-now/Content?oid=16951942

          • http://youtu.be/5vxQCMbstG0 Deran

            No, writing in dead poets is the only reasoned response to these sorts of corporate hacks. And doing so did not effect O’Brien getting 70+% of the vote against a well financed reactionary. You’ll note the percent of write ins this primary election was higher than usual, no one but the Democrats are out promoting most of these hacks.

            McGinn, Murray, Tweedledee, Tweedledum. I’m not saying McGinn doesn’t make nominal gestures to placate those to his Left, he has especially since his reelection looked doubtful. The rest of the time he has been a classic Seattle Democrat. Talk a big liberal big, do nothing and don’t interfere with the developers.

            • Karl Grant

              What in your view should be the tasks Sawant prioritizes if she wins?

              To me there is a risk of her reproducing the ‘talk big, do nothing’ dynamic you describe as a socialist in office. Like McGinn or O’Brien her actual legislative power will be very limited beyond propagandizing.

              • http://ouleft.org Carl Davidson

                She would do well to get on the budget committee and become the top expert on every aspect of it. Most city council reps in most cities are ignorant about it save for the piece that concerns them, but that’s were all the dirty deals are done, and where she would find endless ammunition for exposures, and counter-ideas to do the right thing by the city’s population.

  • http://youtu.be/eGOA2WedIQo Deran

    I can of course see working in alliance with progressivist Democrats on issues like rent control and coal trains/ports. And as far as alienating the few unions (what 5% of privately employeed people are in unions at this point? Thanks in no small part to the actions of the Democrats – free trade and such). Isn’t it more useful to build a socialist party that gets people elected so that the miniscule unions will look elsewhere for a political home?

  • Ty Hudson

    John, clearly you have an axe to grind with the New Haven unions. Running an entire slate against an entrenched Democratic machine supported by the mayor hardly seems like evidence of cowardice. Perhaps there are other strategic reasons to use the name “Democrat” in doing so, such as (as I already suggested) the appeal of the Democratic brand to much of our potential base, and the lack of appeal of brands like “Labor.” If I remember correctly, the Green Party had two out of 30 aldermen at one point, hardly a majority.

    Deran, on what are you basing your assertion that DSA and PDA are “lame” and have been “coopted”? Other than your gut-level disgust with any organization that has any association with any Democrat?

    My point is that I think too many socialists and other leftists let our very understandable emotional disgust with most Democrats stand in the way of thinking strategically about the potential value of contesting Democratic primaries (I won’t say “working inside the Democratic Party” because there really is no organization to work inside of, as Carl Davidson points out) in order to capture the valuable Democratic brand and ballot line. This doesn’t preclude identifying openly as socialist. Nor does it require taking direction from any establishment figure in the Democratic Party. Neither of you has really engaged with that question.

    • http://youtu.be/eGOA2WedIQo Deran

      Let’s look at history. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns are good examples. The Rainbow Coalition was full of socialists, Jackson was seen as either a vehicle to take over the DP (like the McGovern campaign and the “New Politics” took over the party in ’72 – the failure of New Politics is another good example of the Democrats crushing when they couldn’t coopt), or, once the DP blocked Jackson from the nomination, he would run as an independent progressive and viola, a new Left party would be born. Neither of these things happened and countless hours and resources were siphoned off from the independent Left into a Democratic Party campaign that ended up coopting many and alienating many from politics. I was involved both times as a volunteer.

      PDA and such are lame for being taken in by the 2008 Obama grift, and marked for eternity as lame for supporting him again in 2012. Not just quietly voting for him because it was Obama or Romney, but openly supporting Obama in 2012. Comrade Davidson’s “Progressives for Obama” is an excellent example as well. Where are the PDA and Progressives for Obama now as the revelations abt his continuance, and expansion, of the post-09/11 security state? And what of Obama’s support for Wall Street, where were the “progressives” in the DP as this was happening? And how do they excuse these things when they openly supported him in 2012?

      These are a few of my favorite examples of why PDA and DSA, and Committees of Correspondence and such, are lame to the bone.

      And it would seem to me that if a broad-based socialist party is built that can show some positive results in elections, the people who wish for something better, but settle for the Democrats, will have an actual option that is not some tiny Leninist sectlette. And isn’t this a more useful project right now then making frther excuses for the neoliberal Democrats?

      As far as the Greens, I think they are currently honest players, and this is a recent development (look at 2004 and 2008) But it seems likely to me that theirre time has passed. I think the Left Greens/ecosocialists can be a vital party of any new multitendency socialist party.

      • Ty Hudson

        Nothing in what I wrote even remotely suggests that we should be apologists for Obama or make “excuses for the neoliberal Democrats.”

        The left’s electoral failures in 1972, 1984, and 1988 only prove that we weren’t strong enough at the time to pull it off; they don’t prove the strategy is wrong. Trying to contest elections outside of the Democratic Party certainly hasn’t gotten the left any closer to power than those attempts did. If you think the Jackson campaign was a waste of socialists’ time, well in hindsight you might be correct — it may have been premature to try to take over the Democratic Party at a national level. But the same could be said of the Nader campaigns (which I supported by the way) and countless smaller socialist campaigns. And I think the danger of being coopted is overblown. You volunteered for Jackson and apparently it didn’t cause you to sell out.

        Back in the present, it’s absurd to blame PDA, DSA, or CCDS for the evils of the Obama administration. I happen to think it’s a waste of time at this point for the left to work on national elections, where we clearly don’t have the power to come close to victory, either inside or outside of the Democratic Party. (We’re even weaker now than we were in ’72, ’84, and ’88.) But you can’t honestly think a Romney administration wouldn’t have been even worse. Left organizations that supported Obama in 2012 but continue to build independently for the future were not being coopted, they were recognizing our current situation and living to fight another day.

  • John Halle

    Ty, The whole reason why we are having this conversation is that a candidate running as Socialist, by name, not under the Democratic label, has acquired over 43,000 votes in a municipal election in a major city. This was a shock to the political establishment including the Democrats and the major newspapers who assumed that Sawant was “too far left for Seattle” and that she would be unable to compete with the Democratic “brand” who you claim “appeal(s) . . . to much of our potential base.” It appears that both of these assumptions are wrong-1) Sawant politics were not too far left but were in line with what many quite possibly a majority, support and 2) the Democratic brand is now like that of Arthur Anderson, taken as a proxy for the mealy mouthed ne0-liberalism of the Obama administration. The hope that such a party can be transformed into a vehicle for a radical transformation of the political economy is by this point nothing more than a bad joke-as is the proposition that left forces could “capture” its “ballot line” in any significant respect. As has been shown repeatedly, generation after generation, those thinking they capture it either will be or already are captured by the elite sectors which control its institutional base. It’s not for nothing that the Democrats are regarded by so many on the left as the graveyard of progressive politics. Sawant offers a way out of this graveyard. For this reason, it’s not surprising that you are largely dismissive of her campaign. Fortunately, most here will not be.

    Finally, with respect to New Haven politics, I obviously didn’t claim that the Green captured a majority, rather that they easily obtained two seats, came within 5 votes of a third, and 100 votes of a fourth in their first attempt at obtaining office. The New Haven unions could have attempted to build on this precedent but chose not to-and no doubt the assumption of the value of the Democratic brand figured in their thinking. They were wrong and so are you.

    • Karl Grant

      The first thing I register about the participation of UNITE and the other unions in New Haven’s elections is that organizations representing low wage workers put forward their members as candidates in order to try to create a favorable climate for working people. That’s a step forward from the moribund political approaches of most union locals. Could they have gone further and built their campaign around launching a new community/labor party or running as independents or running as greens or socialists? Quite possibly. But when the voice advocating an independent working class political alternative is so small and politically unorganized – why blame labor for failing to take the first steps?

      I think it’s true that the Democrats are not a ‘vehicle for a radical transformation of the political economy’. But at the same time progressive non-socialist candidates will come towards left municipal politics from different directions, potentially even initially as Democrats. I think Ty’s point about not ruling out the steps forward taken in New Haven stands and it relates to a larger need not to rule out the strategic role left Democrats can play, especially if it’s out of our own frustration for failing to build a viable alternative.

  • Ty Hudson

    John, in no way was I dismissive of Sawant’s campaign; I said I thought it was exciting. Insinuating that I am rooting for the death of progressive politics is no substitute for honest debate.

    What I did say about Sawant’s campaign is that, exciting as it is, it represents a miniscule assault on the power of capital over our political system. As such, we need to be thinking seriously about how to mount such assaults on a much larger scale. My original post was an attempt to do just that, and you still haven’t dealt with that question. 43,000 votes are nice, but how are we going to get millions? To conclude from Sawant’s campaign that all we need is a proliferation of openly socialist candidates, who will be swept to victory by the latent radicalism of the populace, is pure fantasy.

    What we need, in fact, is more organization. A lot more. And what the New Haven unions proved is that, with enough organization, it is in fact possible to capture the Democratic ballot line, a possibility that you dismiss as a joke. The New Haven experience also shows that said ballot line can be useful — because for better or for worse, I think you are mistaken about the Democrats’ brand. It is obviously tarnished beyond repair for most of the people reading and commenting on this website, but it’s a huge leap to assume that the same holds true for working class as a whole. There’s a reason that cities like New Haven have been dominated by lame Democrats for decades — urban working class voters identify overwhelmingly as Democrats whether we like it or not. Despite the objective reality of Clinton and Obama administrations, not to mention the Vietnam War, they see Democrats as the party civil rights, social security, medicare, etc., and as the only viable defense against the Republicans.

    Let me be clear that I’m not advocating that socialists or unions subordinate themselves to whomever controls the Democratic Party at the time. The history of the CIO after WWII provides a cautionary tale. Such subordination, however, is not an inevitable result of contesting or winning Democratic primaries. Opportunism is a choice, and it can happen in explicitly socialist parties too — see Europe. In the case of the CIO, the result of opportunism was a failure to keep organizing — both by the accommodationist leadership of the AFL-CIO under George Meany, and by the socialists who were expelled from it, who devolved into sectarianism. Now that the post-WWII “social contract” between capital and labor has long since been called off, we socialists need to keep building our own organization independently, first and foremost. As we do so, there are good reasons to consider fighting the capitalists for control of the Democratic Party.

    • http://youtu.be/5vxQCMbstG0 Deran

      “Capturing” democratic ballot lines is a fools pipe dream. If we are talking abt building a multitendency socialist party these sorts of things are irrelevant to any accept liberals and Lesser Evilists.

      I believe this blog was started last year because people see an opening for a new socialist party, not to promote either the efficacy of socialists working within the political Duopoly nor a particular Leninist sectlette.

      • Ty Hudson

        If capturing the Democratic ballot line is a pipe dream, than so is building a third party that can compete with the duopoly. To succeed on a large scale, both would require infinitely more organization than we currently have. On a smaller scale, the New Haven unions have proven that capturing the Democratic ballot line is quite possible with enough organization.

        You can declare my suggestions “irrelevant” or a “pipe dream” all you want, but that’s not an argument, it’s just name calling.

        And please don’t call me a “fool” or a “liberal.” That’s just mean.

  • John Halle

    Ty, You say that you are not dismissive of the Sawant campaign, but then in the very next sentences, go on to do just that: i.e. dismiss it 1) by observing that it “only” received 43,000 votes (how it would obtain “millions” you say are necessary in a municipal election is unexplained) 2) by challenging the basis of the campaign on the need for an independent socialist party. You explicitly reject 2) taking it as necessary that socialist candidates, rather than develop their own independent partisan infrastructure, need to “capture the Democratic Party line” if they are to advance. I’ve argued ad nauseam that 2) is wrong and I’m not going to re-engage with those arguments here. Suffice to say that while I think it, and the PDA/Davidson variant of it, is wrong, I don’t think it is trivially wrong-reasonable people can differ on it (though I think it is significantly less tenable now than it was just a few years ago).

    What I ask from those like yourself taking this position is 1) don’t posture as supportive of those who, like Sawant, are advancing independent socialist partisan organizing when you very clearly are not. And 2), while you might not agree that it is a viable strategy in the long run, please do not stand in the way of those who are attempting, now with some success to build this infrastructure. Whether or not you see your intervention here as productive, I don’t think those of us who disagree with you on 2) will regard it as such.

    That said, you are well within your rights to issue the same criticisms of us should you feel we are becoming obstacles to the strategy you are pursuing. Let us know if and when this occurs and I, for one, will take this criticism seriously.

  • http://ouleft.org Carl Davidson

    From what I can see, Sawant is running on a platform of immediate and transitional demands that can be easily shared with advocates of a popular front vs finance capital, such as PDA and others. They are strategically aligned, even though, in some places, they may tactically differ. That’s what I support Sawant as well as PDA candidates elsewhere as components of a common effort, whether it’s acknowledged or not.

    She is not calling for ‘all power to the workers councils’ and ‘disperse the capitalist government’ in this campaign, which is wise. Someday it will come to that, but part of strategic thinking is knowing how to count and assess the relation of forces. In any case, I hope she wins. Then the far more interesting problems will be before her, and us.

    • http://youtu.be/5vxQCMbstG0 Deran

      No, Kshama Sawant is not calling for councils, but she is openly a socialist and she is openly denouncing the Democratic/Republican establishment and she is not abt making excuses for the Democrats, like the PDA and such. Let’s be factual. Your arguments, comrade, would seem better suited for Daily Kos or some other Democratic Party outlet, not for building a multitendency socialist party.

  • Ty Hudson

    John, I hope Sawant wins. She obviously won’t need millions of votes to do so. But if we want to do more than win isolated municipal elections here and there, we will need to be able to win millions of votes for socialist candidates in the future. To point that out is not to dismiss Sawant’s campaign for what it is, but merely to recognize what it isn’t — the revolution, or anything close to it. You seem unwilling to engage with that reality.

    Please note that, not only am I not “standing in the way” of Sawant, her supporters, or others who would emulate them, I’m not even arguing against pursuing her approach when it can work. I’m merely arguing against limiting ourselves to that approach. In the interest of thinking seriously about our long-term prospects, I’m positing an alternative and potentially complementary approach, with which you have refused to engage because you apparently find it insulting, distasteful, or perhaps threatening.

    • John Halle

      1) There is not even the vaguest suggestion in what I wrote that Sawant’s campaign constitutes “the revolution, or anything close to it.”
      2) There is nothing “insulting, distasteful, or perhaps threatening” about attempting to “take over the Democratic Party line.” It is simply wrong, strategically, tactically and organizationally-as I said three times.

      • Ty Hudson

        You can say it three times or a hundred, John, but you still haven’t explained why. You may not think of Sawant’s campaign as “the revolution,” but you seem to think it’s enough. Otherwise you would engage seriously with what it might take to build socialism on a national level.

        • Ty Hudson

          It’s unfortunate that you refuse to engage in this discussion and would rather not even hear it. It doesn’t bode well for the prospect of having a “non-sectarian forum,” let alone the prospect of building a serious socialist force in this country.

          I have said repeatedly that our priority should be building independent socialist and workers’ organizations. The dispute is over electoral strategy, not the goal of a socialist movement. It’s intellectually dishonest of you to claim that I am “hostile” to independent socialist politics, and intellectually cowardly to say my perspective shouldn’t even be heard in this forum.

  • http://youtu.be/5vxQCMbstG0 Deran

    I can accept comrade Davidson’s notion of supporting PDA Democrats and independent socialists like comrade Sawant, but that is irrelevant to what this blog was promoting; an independent multitendency socialist party in the USA. I’m sure there are many many spaces on the internet where Democrats can get together and mull over things related to the Democratic Party. But those things are entirely irrelevant to building an independent multitendency socialist party. Entirely irrelevant.

    • Ty Hudson

      Deran, at this point it seems to me you’re just trying to get Carl Davidson and me to shut up. You claim to be against Leninist sects, but shooing us away and banishing us to DailyKos won’t help you build anything better.

      • http://youtu.be/eGOA2WedIQo Deran

        As has been pointed out slsewhere in this thread, and is clearly stated in the About section for this blog. This is a blog focused on building an independent socialist party, not entryism into the Democratic Party, nor expenditure of limited time and resources in a way that does not intellectually and materially work toward an independent socailist party. I really can’t make it any clearer. I think you and comrade Davidson should stay and participate if you want to participate in creating an independent socialist political party in the United States. Promoting working within the Democrats does not in my mind fall in to the tated discussion goal, as I understand it. Wouldn’t it more useful for you as a sympathizer of the Democratic Party to be on a discussion where you can promote breaking with the Democrats instead of attempting to distract from the goal of the discussion here? If you are really interested in that goal, and you have leverage with Democrats who might have socialism in their hearts but can’t find any other outlet but the Democratic Party?

        • Ty Hudson

          From the About section of this blog: “A renewed radical left is urgently needed. The North Star aims to facilitate this process. We are not a vanguard or the nucleus of the revolution. Rather, our only party line is that we have no party line — except for a firm belief that a culture of open debate is required for building a left with real political muscle. The North Star is a forum for discussion, debate, and ‘the ruthless criticism of everything existing.’”

          I think my contribution to this thread is precisely in that spirit. If you would prefer a forum in which people who already agree with one another on basically everything can talk amongst themselves, that’s your choice. But it won’t help build a robust socialist movement.

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  • http://ouleft.org Carl Davidson

    For what they were and are, ‘Progressives for Obama’ and Progressive Democrats of America, two somewhat different things, a web-centered propaganda project and an independent political PAC with hundred of local mass organizations, far from being ‘lame’ (whatever that means), actually did and, in the case of PDA, are still doing rather well. We all have the same task, organizing mainly among workers and communities of the oppressed the challenge the leadership of both parties, crush at least one of them in the near term, and bring something new into being.

    So unless you are making rather stupid tactical choices to start off your electoral efforts by taking down Barbara Lee, John Lewis and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, those forces and their base communities should be your friends, not your adversaries. And determining friends from adversaries is the very first step of political strategy. If you make that determination unwisely, it will cost you a great deal.

  • http://ouleft.org Carl Davidson

    A multi-tendency socialist party with any traction among the masses will allow for the tactical choices of supporting certain Democrats within its ranks. Unless you simply are looking for a cluster of far left groupings stuck on the margins, you will build such a political instrument by making an opening to forces to your right, where the numbers of the best potential cadres are, especially among workers and communities of the oppressed.

    The key is seeing the question of voting for certain Democrats as matters of tactics, not principle. None of us think we are going to ‘take over’ the Democratic party; that’s not the point, save, perhaps, for a shrinking handful among the social-dems.

    In CCDS, we manage to live with it, with members active in PDA, the Greens, the SPUSA, Peace and Freedom, and so on. Many voted for Obama on a ‘lesser evil’ basis, but some did not. And we manage to get along, mainly by keeping our focus on larger questions than mere ‘politics as self-expression’ alone. We have no ‘correct line’ and reject even the terminology. We have a number of ‘working hypotheses’ instead, and we’re willing to try them out, sum up the experience and see what works out best. It’s an approach worth considering here.

  • http://ouleft.org Carl Davidson

    If I though capitalism and the Democrats could solve our problems, I’d limit my postings to the likes of DailyKOS.

    But I don’t. I’m a socialist, and I want to see the current two parties implode and replaced. Our argument, as I see it, is what strategy and set of tactics will most likely and most effectively, help bring this into being. In other words, I think we need more than larger bullhorns for our own self-expression.

    I see a stronger Congressional Progressive Caucus as intensifying the contradictions within the Democratic party, which is why I like PDA, besides the fact that it actually organizes workers at the base, and allows them to control those organizations. But Savant is also using, de facto, the program of a popular front vs finance capital capable of uniting a progressive majority, to also arouse a large militant minority open to learning about socialism and preparing for the future within the present. Gail McLaughlin and the Green Party are currently waged in a fierce struggle with the banks in Richmond, CA, which shows what kind of near-term future we face in municipal politics.

    I don’t mind arguments and polemics. I do them all the time. But I do like them to be over real matters, rather than silly straw men and tilting at windmills.

  • http://youtu.be/5vxQCMbstG0 Deran

    Alright, let’s suppose a group of people have a limited amount of time and resources they want/can devote to electoral political action, and this set of people think of themselves as socialists, many Marxist. And we can agree that socialism has as a central tenet a fundamental change in the economic system. Let’s assume that there is a political establishment in the United States agrees about certain core aspects of economic policy (be honest at this point and acknowledge that the Democratic Party is no longer the political party of the New Deal/Great Society coalition, it is economically the party of Clinton and Bush), but elements of the political establishment diverge on social liberty and civil rights. The people who think of themselves as socialist can expend their limited time and resources campaigning or supporting in some way a Democratic Party candaite because they are left of Center on social issues and hold to progressivist, reform oriented economic policies, or they can start cultivating and building local organizations that get open socialists — and socialism, in the public discourse – which socialism is in a way that hasn’t happened in the US since the 1960s — where does energy expended come closer to advancing socialism? Expending a persons limited amount of time and resources on the PDA and such is a waste of energy because it is either a stop gap against the Right, or it is just outright giving legitimacy to a political party that is in now way shape or form interested even in progressivism, let alone socialism.

    socialist) and socialism being different from progressivism in that progressivism makes a point of not being anti-capitalist)

    • http://ouleft.org Carl Davidson

      Here’s one important difference, Deran. When CCDS works with the Socialist Party in Pittsburgh, it works mainly with a group of 20 or so student radicals and younger ‘precariat’ workers. When in works with PDA in Beaver county’s mill towns to the North, it works almost entirely with blue collar and service workers, and retirees of the same demographic, but with an inner circle of 200 workers and and outer circle of 400. In the latter case, we have organized study groups of 10 to 15 around socialist and Marxist ideas, with some success.

      I think we have to work in both of these realities, but to see why, you have to look beyond a few ossified old ideas of what the Democratic party really is at its base, ie, it’s not much of a ‘party’ at all, but ‘contested terrain.’ Not at the top, too be sure, but that’s the ‘fault line’ we aim to deepen.

    • Ty Hudson

      Deran, it’s not hard to choose between the two options you propose in this scenario. But I have not been arguing that we should spend our time and resources campaigning for run-of-the-mill Democrats. Rather, I have been arguing we should be building independent socialist and workers’ organizations that, when strategically appropriate, contest Democratic primaries in an effort to bring socialist politics into the mainstream, highlight the struggle between capital and labor, and eventually take power. I hope you can acknowledge that those are very different things, even if you don’t agree with either of them.

      By the way, I agree with you that the Democratic Party is no longer the party of the New Deal and Great Society (although the Congressional Progressive Caucus might be the remnants of that party). That’s pretty obvious. My point was that their brand still benefits from its association with those programs, and that that matters.

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