Election 2020 and the Fight for a Socialist Future

Editorial for Issue 13 of Socialist Revolution: There has never been greater potential for building the forces of revolutionary Marxism, for running independent socialist candidates, and for building a new mass socialist party.

Once upon a time, American politics was boring. With few exceptions, the monotonous ping-pong between the Democrats and Republicans seemed as predictable as a pendulum. The 2016 election changed that forever. Both major capitalist parties were shellacked by right and left populism, which emerged to fill the gaping hole left by the lack of a mass working-class party. In the course of that historic year, Bernie Sanders put socialism squarely on the political agenda in a way never before seen in the country of capitalism par excellence.

Since Trump’s election, the polarization has only intensified as workers try in different ways to break out of capitalism’s systemic impasse—even if they don’t yet see it in those terms. In the 2018 midterms, a handful of candidates ran for Congress as self-declared socialists, and three of them won: Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib. With millions gravitating towards socialist ideas, the ruling class is as incredulous as it is arrogant. An “Anti-Socialism caucus” has been formed in the House of Representatives and Trump felt compelled to assert that America will “never be a socialist country.” Ironically, with this declaration, the most despised president in recent history has become one of the most effective popularizers of the very ideas he seeks to mock and denigrate.

Donald Trump 2019 State of the Union AddressWith his declaration that America will “never be a socialist country,” Trump has become one of the most effective popularizers of the very ideas he seeks to mock and denigrate. / Image: The White House on Flickr (Public Domain)

Ten years after the Great Recession, so-called traditional voters are being squeezed out because these are not traditional times. As Lenin explained, “politics is a concentrated expression of economics.” The economic basis for the relative stability of the postwar years has been badly wobbled, and with it, the politics that flow from it. In the past, most candidates in both parties played it safe and tried to appeal to the tried-and-true “center.” Now, all the major presidential candidates—including the incumbent—claim to stand for transformational change. But the question is: what kind of transformation is needed? A quantitative transformation within capitalist limits or a qualitative one that bursts beyond them?

In 2020, not only the White House will be up for grabs, but all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 34 Senate seats, and thousands of other positions at the state, county, and municipal level. With Sanders’s announcement that he will again vie for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, the race for the White House is well and truly on. So, too, is the fight over what it means to be a socialist.

Following in Bernie’s and AOC’s footsteps, we can predict that many other self-identified socialists will run for office as the pressure for urgent change continues to mount. But is it possible to use the Democratic Party as a vehicle for fundamental social and economic change? What would a “socialist wave” look like? How would socialists use their position in Congress to bring about real and lasting change? Is it possible to transform society through electoral politics alone?

Bernie SandersWith Sanders’s announcement that he will again vie for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, the race for the White House is well and truly on. So, too, is the fight over what it means to be a socialist. / Image: Gage Skidmore on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Every election cycle, it seems as if an incurable case of amnesia afflicts the American left. Despite the Democrats’ countless betrayals, swarms of committed activists are drawn like moths to a flame to the “evil of two lessers.” Without a mass working-class political alternative, and with no lead in that direction given by the labor leaders, they fall time and again for the Democrats’ bait-and-switch shell game. However, we should be clear that, as a party of, by, and for corporate America, the Democrats’ only interest in socialism is to cynically keep socialist voters in their “big tent” come election time—to contain them and blunt their edge.

It needn’t always be this way. Socialists running for office as independents can help lay the foundation for a new mass party that will sweep away the rotten two-party system. Even in races where they currently stand no chance of winning, they could plant important seeds that will bear fruit in the changing conditions of the future. And when they are elected, they could use their position as a fulcrum to upend politics-as-usual and chart a path for the future.

Instead of “caucusing” with Democrats—i.e., horse-trading with the representatives of the enemy class and watering down your principles—the role of socialist congresspeople should be to blow the big tent apart. Using their newfound public visibility, they could drive a clear wedge between the interests of the working majority and those of the superrich. They would use every opening to put forward a working-class agenda that would get an enthusiastic echo from the millions of Americans who work hard but still struggle to make ends meet, or who are condemned to the humiliation and enforced idleness of un- or underemployment. They would propose bold legislation, not with a view towards getting it passed at this stage, but to expose the rottenness and hypocrisy of the system.

As an example, they could use their time on the House or Senate floor to point out that the real power over who has a job or home, and who is unemployed or homeless, rests with the big corporations, starting with the banks. They could follow up with a resolution calling for guaranteed employment, a $25 minimum wage, a 20-hour work week, and the expropriation of the Fortune 500 under democratic workers’ control. Given the present balance of political forces, this would be certain to fail. So would a proposal to enact universal healthcare by nationalizing the HMOs, big pharmaceutical companies, and hospital networks. So too would legislation that would gut the military budget and instead use the money to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure. But you’d better believe that millions of people would take notice. Instead of mounting endless investigations into Russian meddling and presidential malfeasance, Congress could be used as a platform to highlight issues that matter to the working class. Socialist Representatives and Senators could thereby raise people’s horizons as to what will be possible once we go beyond capitalism—and what is not possible within it.

Or, take the question of climate change. This is a touchstone issue for the young generation, a life-and-death challenge for billions around the globe. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a “Green New Deal,” while marking an important step forward in some respects, will be a shadow of its original self once it winds its way through the various committees that will strip it of anything meaningful. Diane Feinstein—a stalwart of the Democratic Party establishment—has outright rejected transformative action and a sense of urgency when it comes to action to reverse climate change. Instead, she proposes a “responsible resolution”—i.e., legislation approved by well-heeled corporate lobbyists. This is a graphic illustration of the brick wall of the Democratic Party. Even if it were passed in full, the Green New Deal would still not be sufficient to curtail global climate change or fundamentally change society, as it would leave the profit motive and all the ills that flow from it in place.

Instead of arguing for a return to FDR-style Keynesian reformism, socialists in Congress should plant the flag of a new party that fights not only for a “new deal,” but for a new system that is fully in harmony with the environment. To win quality jobs, education, healthcare, and housing for all while protecting the environment for future generations, the profit motive must be abolished. This is no time for half measures. The only way to a “green future”—or any future worth living—is to jettison capitalism altogether. This should be a central theme for all genuine socialists working in Congress. As for those who propose making the rich pay their “fair share” of taxes, socialists should argue that this is too little, too late. The capitalists have grossly mismanaged the planet and have no business running it any longer.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Green New DealFollowing Bernie’s and AOC’s footsteps, we can predict that many other self-identified socialists will run for office as the pressure for urgent change continues to mounts. / Image: Senate Democrats on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Socialists in Congress should see themselves as workers’ representatives on a workers’ wage, donating the rest of their salaries back to the movement, and providing a focal point for the dissolution of the two main capitalist parties. No longer able to dupe working people into voting against their interests, the Democrats and Republicans would have to fight over third place, or else fuse, since their fundamental interests are essentially the same. And once a mass workers’ party is formed, all candidates running under its banner would be strictly accountable, recallable, and committed to defending a program determined democratically by the party membership.

The current crop of labor and congressional leaders represent the past, and it is only a matter of time before new forces come to the fore. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, who ended Trump’s shutdown by threatening a general strike—and getting a positive response from the rank and file—is an example of the kind of “natural leaders” of the working class who are being forged in the trenches of the daily fight against the bosses.

Socialists in Congress would use their position to call for the repeal of Taft-Hartley and other anti-labor legislation and would build support for and encourage the strikes, general strikes, and other mass struggles of the workers and the oppressed that are on the horizon. Just one principled stand or successful strike can change everything.

While intensifying the pressure on the labor leaders to break their demonic pact with the Democrats, they would use their position to mobilize the workers to fight in their own interests, making it clear that electoral change alone is not enough. A lead can and must be given from above, but the working millions must ultimately take things into their own hands, not only at the polls through a party of their own, but at the workplace and in the streets.

Above all, socialist congresspeople would highlight the fact that no reform is guaranteed or safe under capitalism, while persistently making the case for a socialist revolution. Because ultimately, although socialists recognize the need to make use of every opening to put forward our ideas—including participating in bourgeois elections and legislatures—we know that the ruling class will not sit idly by while their system is legislated out of existence.

Chicago Teachers StrikeThe working millions must ultimately take things into their own hands, not only at the polls through a party of their own, but at the workplace and in the streets. / Image: John W. Iwanski on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In addition to the forces of state repression, there are structural measures built into the system to contain mass upsurges of the working class. The so-called checks and balances exist, above all, to prevent “the mob” from taking over. If revolutionary socialists somehow swept the presidency, House of Representatives, and the one-third of Senate seats up for election in 2020, not a single law could be passed against the two-thirds Senatorial veto. Never mind the power of the unelected Supreme Court to declare any law “unconstitutional,” i.e., anything that violates the sacred right to private property of the means of production. This exposes the undemocratic nature of bourgeois democracy, or rather, confirms that it is a democracy only for the rich.

This is why a movement to change society cannot limit itself to electoral politics, which must be seen as merely one weapon in the working class’s arsenal for broader social struggle, a means to an end, not the end in itself.

It is natural that those first entering politics look to the “traditional” politicians and institutions, that they seek solutions within, not outside the system. However, the task of socialists is to tear down the artificial limitations imposed by the defenders of capitalism and its institutions—not to foment illusions in them. What is “practical” or “possible” within capitalism is not enough to save us from the catastrophe capitalism has in store for us economically, socially, and environmentally.

And yet, socialist publications like Jacobin and political organizations like Socialist Alternative have doubled down on this by supporting Sanders as a Democrat. By doing so, they are taking responsibility for his actions if he does happen to win the presidency—actions that may ameliorate the misery of capitalist wage slavery to some degree, but which will ultimately leave capitalist exploitation intact.

As for DSA, it stands at a critical crossroads. It can choose to blaze a trail for class-independent politics—or play the role of “Pied Piper” back into the Democrats. If DSA committed to only endorsing socialist candidates independent of the Democrats and explained the need for a new mass socialist party, it could accelerate the process of class consciousness already percolating throughout American society. If it chooses the path of trying to “push the Democrats to the left,” it may make some short-term gains, but in the long term, its wings will be clipped as it degenerates into apologism for the failure of reformism. There are no shortcuts in socialist politics. It is better to stand on principle against the tide than to adapt your politics to whichever way the water is flowing. Sooner or later, the tide always turns in the opposite direction, and the greatest turmoil and confusion arises during that transition—precisely the moment when socialists need to stand firm, confident in their ideas and confident in the working class.

Over the next 20 months, American politics will be more polarized than at any other time in living memory—and this could be exacerbated manifold if the next economic crisis hits sooner rather than later. However, “anyone but Trump” is not a political or economic program. What is needed is not the lowest common denominator or pandering populism, but politics that clearly delineate the class divide running through society.

Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden “Anyone but Trump” is not a political or economic program—what is needed is politics that clearly delineate the class divide running through society. / Image: Lance Cpl. Cristian Ricardo (Public Domain)

Part of the mad logic behind the Trump sideshow is to cause so much confusion and distress that, when things go back to “normal”—i.e., when the liberals are back in power—people will be so relieved that they won’t notice that the political parameters have been ratcheted even further to the right. Many workers who cast a protest vote for Trump now have buyer’s remorse and would be open to voting for someone on the other side of the political spectrum. Many of them would happily vote for someone like Sanders—but never as a Democrat. The way forward is to win working-class Americans on the basis of working-class issues—issues that have an objectively “left” content no matter what label they are given.

Millions of Americans have already graduated from the “school of the Democrats”—but many others are still enrolled. Without crossing the principled line that separates class independence from class subordination and collaboration, the comrades of the IMT will patiently but energetically engage with all those who are questioning the status quo and looking for serious ideas and organization.

There has never been greater potential for building the forces of revolutionary Marxism, for running independent socialist candidates, and for building a new mass socialist party. And yet, the labor leaders and the “left” have never tacked more cravenly to the right. Instead of funneling energy into the Democratic Party dead end, which will only lead to demoralization with the alleged failure of “socialism,” socialists and organized labor should put their all into getting a brand-new venture with vast untapped potential off the ground.

The Economist recently dedicated its cover to “millennial socialism.” True to form, this mouthpiece of the ruling class downplayed its potential, blurred its class content, and did its utmost to co-opt it and keep it within safe channels. But the fact that they felt the need to tackle this question head-on is proof positive that the serious bourgeois see the socialist resurgence as a potentially existential threat. They are right to be concerned, not only about millennials’ growing interest in socialism, but about so-called “Generation Z.” The youngest cohort of coming-of-age Americans, who make up 25% of the population, are even less burdened by the past and devoid of loyalty to existing parties or institutions.

Student WalkoutThe ruling class is right to be concerned about growing interest in socialism among the youth. / Image: R. Taylor/VOA (Public Domain)

Anyone who has seen the video of the schoolchildren confronting Diane Feinstein over climate change should be filled with confidence in the future. The youth will leapfrog ahead of the “practical socialists” of today, who cower in fear of the capitalists and have not a shred of confidence in the transformative power of the working class. The new generation has no interest in wallowing in the insipid waters of reformism. They will unceremoniously toss the existing parties and institutions aside once they find them lacking, and will be wide open to the ideas of revolutionary socialism.

Leon Trotsky once said that the reformists have a short memory. The role of Marxists, on the other hand, is to preserve the historical memory of the working class, to keep alive and generalize the theoretical and practical lessons of past victories and defeats. When conditions change, those painstakingly preserved ideas will find fertile ground and flourish. We are on the cusp of such a transformation today.

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