This is especially necessary as many on the left—including many who agree in principle with the need for a mass independent party of the working class—nevertheless evade the question of how such a party should relate to capitalist parties and so-called “progressive allies,” and what socialists should do in the absence of a mass workers’ party.
WFP’s current predicament is a concrete demonstration of what happens when you organize a “workers’ party” that bases itself on unprincipled alliances with the parties of the ruling class. Present in just a handful of states, WFP was founded in 1998 by a number of unions, tightly controlled from above in a bureaucratic manner, with a view to cutting across the parallel development of the Labor Party, launched by Tony Mazzocchi. From the very beginning, in all major races, WFP has preferred endorsing the established candidates of major parties with the empty hope that “votes on the WFP line” will somehow “push their policy leftward.” In other words, their goal is not to eventually establish a workers’ government, but simply to pressure the capitalist parties to grant reforms.
Far from being a genuine party of, by, and for working families, WFP has from the beginning made major concessions to pro-capitalist candidates, whose core interests are against those of the working class. A prominent example is their endorsement of current New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, in 2010, going so far as to pledge to support his austerity package in order to persuade him to accept their endorsement! They attempted the same strategy in 2014; but after tense negotiations in which the rank-and-file activists voiced their displeasure at Cuomo, they endorsed Cuomo in return for a slate of empty promises which he promptly broke. Occasionally, WFP’s strategy has also meant endorsing Republican candidates such as former State Senator Nicholas Spano.
By tailoring their political demands to the tastes of big business politicians, WFP’s effect is to engage voters who are fed up with the capitalist parties by promising change—only to redirect them right back at those same parties, primarily the Democrats. Despite the occasional rhetoric of asserting their independence, they are in a permanent alliance with the Democratic Party, no matter how many times they have reneged on their promises.
In New York State, which has unique electoral laws, this has taken the particular form of fusion balloting. Any party that receives 50,000 votes for their gubernatorial candidate—even if the same individual is also run on a different party line—is eligible to remain on the ballot line for the next election, giving them much wider exposure.
Although WFP’s purpose is to anchor the pro-capitalist Democrats by getting workers to vote for them indirectly, they must also be flexible enough to maintain the support of those very same workers. In times of increased class discontent and upsurge, WFP gets caught in the same contradictory crosswinds as the Democratic Party. Maintaining ballot-line status at all costs while appeasing both the bosses and the workers has, unsurprisingly, put WFP in an insoluble contradiction.
Cuomo’s attacks on the working class have been nonstop and finally crossed the line, becoming too much for WFP’s activist rank and file to stomach. As a result, they forced through an endorsement of Cuomo’s rival Nixon. Now that Nixon lost her primary, this has created a dilemma. As City & State New York explains in detail, the party can either use arcane loopholes in the law to withdraw their endorsement of Nixon and flip back to Cuomo, hoping to keep their ballot line but abandoning their political stance, or continue to back Nixon as an independent but risk “spoiling the vote” for the Democrats. Both options have drawbacks. There is the danger that WFP will not get the necessary 50,000 votes, and will thus lose ballot access, which would be a severe blow to their strategy. For his part, Cuomo is incensed and may refuse to accept a WFP endorsement out of spite. As for Nixon, she is committed to not being a “spoiler,” even if this means capitulating to Cuomo—so much for the “progressive insurgency!”
Some commentators, such as the New York Post, have framed the party’s dilemma in the following terms: “The Working Families Party takes a stand—and may die because of it.” In reality, their Achilles heel is not their adherence to principle, but rather, their attempt to serve two masters and maintain a contradictory policy. WFP’s endorsement of Nixon doesn’t indicate a genuine shift in strategy but is an isolated incident limited to one state. Through their continued unprincipled use of electoral fusion over two decades, they have put themselves in a position where the working class can’t tell the difference between them and the Democrats. By putting all their eggs in the ballot-line basket they have completely cut off any possibility of developing into a mass party independent of the Democrats.
On the surface, electoral fusion seems to be less restrictive than ballot access laws in other states and appears to be a lifeline for “third” parties. However, falling into the fusion trap only further subordinates these small parties to the big ones. At root, it comes down to the question of the capitalist state and its electoral laws. Do we accept the ballot line as something neutral, fair, and unchangeable? Or do we bemoan its unfairness and abstain from politics altogether? Revolutionary socialists must tear off the mask of neutrality and show that, like every other law under capitalism, ballot access is inherently biased to serve the ruling class. At the same time, we must make use of opportunities to run independent working-class campaigns to actively raise the working class’s consciousness and expose the rigged nature of the whole electoral system, as one component of laying the basis for a future mass socialist party.
Instead of compromising on principles to conform to rigged laws, socialists must start from firm principles and then find the human and material resources to put them into effect. Where there’s a will, there’s a way! Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign showed the potential for a mass upsurge to sweep aside the restrictions put in place by these laws. Had he run as an independent and mobilized his base, he could have gotten on the ballot in every state and may well have defeated both Trump and Clinton. Even if he hadn’t won that time around, if he had used that historic opportunity to launch a new party, a serious offensive against capitalism and its parties could have been set in motion—and that is precisely why he bowed to the pressure and ended up backing the status quo after all.
Nature abhors a vacuum and, sooner or later, in some form or another, a new mass working-class party will emerge. By fighting shoulder to shoulder in the daily struggles of the exploited and oppressed, linking these with the broader need for socialism, such a party would quickly gain momentum. It would be confident that even if it fell below the 50,000 vote threshold and lost ballot access for an electoral cycle, this would not be a fatal blow to its visibility among the workers and it could bounce back. But there are no shortcuts to building a mass workers’ party and we cannot blur the lines between the classes in order to “win” a few more elections.
If the WFP had sought to establish itself as an embryonic labor party that put forward demands that could mobilize working-class voters—such as a shorter work week with no loss in pay; generous parental leave at 100% of wages (paid for by the rich); education for all; and free universal healthcare based on nationalizing the medical industry—it would have pointed the way forward against both major parties. Along this path, the WFP would be a growing force, could begin to attract broader union support, and could play an important role in the formation of a truly mass party. At a time when there is so much anger at the status quo, it would almost certainly win more than 50,000 votes. But instead, WFP cast itself as a junior partner to the Democrats—and may be on its way to oblivion as a result.
During the endorsement process for Nixon, Cuomo flexed his muscles by pressuring union bureaucrats beholden to him to withdraw from WFP. This is a graphic example of how the current union leadership is tied to the Democratic machine. Far from being a matter of merely changing one’s voter registration, breaking from the Democrats is a question of basic principle with implications well beyond the ballot box. Such a break goes hand in hand with fighting the entrenched class-collaborationist leadership currently at the helm of our unions and replacing it with class-struggle unionism that recognizes the irreconcilable differences between the boss class and the workers.
The simmering labor upsurge around the US shows that unions are not static but can be transformed from the bottom up. We have seen this with the wildcat teachers’ strikes in a dozen states and the walkouts of non-unionized McDonald’s workers, who are fighting not only for bread-and-butter issues but also taking a stand against sexual harassment in the workplace. To the degree that the unions are shaken up and revitalized, the workers will recognize that the Democrats are no friends of working families, and organized labor’s enormous resources can become the backbone for a “first” party—not a “third.”
Some have argued that we should fight to establish a socialist ballot line in the state of New York so that Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar could run on this line. If both of them broke from the Democrats, this would be a step forward. However, if a socialist ballot line was established and it allowed fusion with the Democrats, this would not be a step forward, but a step backward into the same trap as the WFP.
Because the only beneficiaries of using the Democratic Party ballot line and endorsing Democratic Party candidates—are the Democrats. But in order to build a truly viable working-class party with the power to break the two-party stranglehold, we need mass forces. The fact that none of the existing socialist organizations in the US has the required numbers is no excuse for delaying this task. As the conscious factor in the equation, socialists can and must facilitate the process and “shorten the birth-pangs.” With mass apathy and anger at both major parties at an all-time high, the pent-up pressure is looking for an outlet to manifest itself, and things can change at a moment’s notice. The DSA, in particular, has the numbers and networks to rapidly gain an echo for the idea of an immediate break with the Democrats and to attract support from within organized labor, if only a concerted effort is made to take the lead and make a start.
A future socialist workers’ party will not be immune to outside pressures. At every step it will be libeled, slandered, and bullied to water down its demands and adopt policies that pose no threat to the continued rule of capitalism—including the fusion tactic and endorsing candidates from ruling-class parties. If the ruling class and labor bureaucracy do not succeed with this approach, they may well create other artificial “workers'” parties to compete and split our forces. Only with a steeled cadre that has fully absorbed the lessons of working-class history—including the experience of the WFP—can we fight those pressures and avoid these pitfalls. The IMT is confident that the socialist future is not that far off. But to get there we need to educate and train cadres ahead of time in preparation for the social convulsions that will give rise to a party worthy of the creativity, numbers, and aspirations of the working class.