Socialist Challenges NYC Democratic Party Machine!

Jabari Brisport, a DSA member and the only socialist running for the New York City Council this November, met with members of Socialist Revolution’s editorial board for an interview on June 28.

Our discussion centered on the prospects for a revolutionary mass movement in the US and the path to the socialist transformation of society. In the interview, Jabari agrees with Socialist Revolution on the need to break from the Democrats and to build a mass socialist party as a political vehicle for working class struggle in the US. He also supports Socialist Revolution’s programmatic call for the nationalization of the Fortune 500 companies, to be administered democratically under workers’ control, as a prerequisite for the building of socialism.

It is significant that the now 30,000-strong DSA is not only supporting Jabari’s campaign on the ground, but has also decided to back it on an independent socialist party line in addition to the Green Party, whose nomination Jabari won in the primaries. (NY allows fusion voting, whereby candidates can receive votes on multiple party lines). Socialist Revolution urges all class-conscious New Yorkers to get out and support Jabari’s campaign, and everyone in district 35 to vote for him on the socialist line.

As Jabari says below, we’re living through a critical moment, and interest in revolutionary ideas is growing exponentially. Beating the entrenched NYC Democrats will be difficult this time around, but if the need for a mass socialist party and revolution are put front and center, Jabari’s campaign can do more than win the support of the growing layer of leftward-moving workers and youth who are looking for a way out of the capitalist impasse—it can serve as an important step towards the building of a mass working-class political party to the left of the Democrats, providing a model for other independent socialist campaigns throughout the country. With DSA’s nationwide network of committed and energetic activists, a clear appeal directed at the ranks of the labor movement, including the the AFL-CIO, SEIU, and other major unions, as well as Bernie’s Our Revolution, the Green Party, Black Lives Matter, and other social movements, support for such a party could quickly gain momentum.

After all, while a victory for Jabari in November would be a blow to the NYC Democratic Party machine and be seen as a victory for socialists across the country, being in a minority of one on the council would be severely limiting. Seeking support from so-called “progressive” Democrats in other districts to cosponsor legislative initiatives is not only a road to nowhere, but would do nothing to increase the working class’s confidence, unity, and consciousness of its collective power and the need for independent struggle. Instead of trying to reform the Democrats, we should be mobilizing independent socialist campaigns like Jabari’s across the country as a step towards building a party of, by, and for the working-class majority. By breaking with the dead-end approach of working “inside and outside” the Democrats, we can raise our sights to the real task of the socialist movement: bringing the working class to political and economic power, not only in New York City, but at all levels across the country.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


SRSocialist Revolution magazine has a very particular audience; for us it’s clear that there is a layer in US society that is looking for revolutionary ideas and that supported Sanders, despite his running as a Democrat, because he was a self-proclaimed socialist talking about revolution. What are the prospects, in your view, for transforming society and achieving socialism? What does that mean to you?

JB – This is a critical moment. We’re starting to hit a crisis point where millions of Americans are on the verge of losing their healthcare, we have an infrastructure that’s crumbling, in New York City the subways are approaching disrepair, on top of that you have increasing inequality and an increasingly militarized police force. The youth are saddled with student loan debt. It feels like this confluence of factors is a perfect storm for revolution. I think that’s why you’ve seen such massive growth in organizations on the left such as DSA and Socialist Revolution. People are flocking in droves, especially the youth, to these organizations because this society is not cutting it. I think we’re approaching some sort of revolutionary breaking point, I’m not sure how it will manifest itself, I don’t know if it will be like the Russian Revolution of 1917 and I’m not sure exactly how it will happen, but I do see a massive growth in people looking to propose an alternative system.

SR – We’ve seen this process more concretely in Europe in the past few years, first with the rise of SYRIZA in Greece, with Podemos in Spain, and with Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, as examples of a point of reference emerging suddenly and becoming a galvanizing force. As with Tsipras in Greece, each of these movements will ultimately find themselves up against the limits of the system. When it comes down to it, they will each face the question: will we break with capitalism, or are we just going to try to make reforms to give capitalism a more human face? Do you see this process coming to the US?

JB – Yeah, I mean the Democratic Party is about to collapse. Their Russia narrative is really failing, and now with four straight Congressional losses in a row, I think 2018 will be miserable for the Democrats. They’ll try to hold onto their tactic of riding the anti-Trump wave without proposing any meaningful reforms. There’s a huge wave of people who were in the Bernie movement who are still trying to reform the Democratic Party from the inside, but I think after 2018 they’ll be looking to leave it. I think that will be a solid chance for this political shift to happen. I think it would make sense for this to happen through the Green Party. It’s the largest party to the left of the Democrats, but who knows how it will happen, it could come from a coalition of parties, or it may come from something completely outside the electoral system itself. But I think the 2018 mid-term elections will be a good bellwether of where millions of young progressives stand.

SR – As a person who calls himself a socialist, what would be your concrete view of a socialist society in the US, however long it might take to achieve?

JB – I want all the means of production to be collectively and democratically owned, that means I want all land and resources to be publicly and democratically controlled. I remind people who freak out about socialism, that this is not the same as putting everything under public control. If you want to have a guitar business and make guitars, go for it! But when it comes to human needs like shelter, health care, food and water, I think all those things should be under public democratic control. Ideally that’s what we would have.

SRSocialist Revolution calls for the nationalization of the Fortune 500. The top 500 corporations, which control around 75% of the economy, would be put under democratic workers’ control, which would mean that workers would elect representatives at every workplace and this would be centralized in order to coordinate the whole economy democratically.

JB – Yes, I’m fully on board with that. I have to look at the nitty gritty of it, but it’s a very solid idea.

SR – If you look at the US Department of Labor and the way they define the labor force, even according to their definition over 90% of the population would be working class, i.e. even by a bourgeois definition. Some workers are better paid and receive benefits, but most are struggling to make ends meet. What’s your take on this?

JB – We’re definitely in a class war. This is one of the most unequal times in the nation’s history and it’s leading to a breaking point. It’s like the Rosa [Luxemburg] quote, we’re faced with the choice of socialism or barbarism. There’s massive potential for a revolution but we’re currently in a backslide with Republicans controlling all levels of government. These are precarious times. Any solution that we approach needs to incorporate class. I hear some things from some friends that identity politics is being pushed to the side, and I’m a queer black male, I understand the intersection between class and how it relates to LGBTQ issues and also to black issues. But I see so many on the center left trying to put class politics to the side, but if we’re going to make a full-scale change we need to unite across various identity lines and along class.

SR – What are the implications of this class analysis for the electoral front?

JB – Both parties are corporate parties! One corporate party is openly racist and the other panders to identity politics while throwing minorities and LGBTQ people and women under the bus economically, while doing performative allyship. Both are responsible for the acceleration of income inequality, and it’s exciting that more people are waking up to it. I agree that the working class needs its own party. We see the rise in automation and all the people that are about to lose jobs because of that. Under socialism automation will be a great thing, but under the system we have now it will just lead to an acceleration of income inequality. We need a party of the working class that can seize power and dismantle capitalism. I’ve seen statistics about the number of jobs that will be eliminated by automation in the next 15 or 20 years, so we have no time to lose. I don’t see the Dems or Republicans ever becoming a party of the working class.

SR – How do you see the prospects for the emergence of a mass working-class political alternative to the two parties of capitalism?

JB – I think the prospects are good! The growth of DSA is exploding. To the left of the capitalist parties, I tend to join and amplify whichever is the largest. To me, the Green Party represents the largest anti-capitalist registered party. And then the DSA is the largest socialist organization. So these are where I put my energy. Others on the left may have their disagreements which is fine, but if I had to place my bet, I think a mass workers party will come out of either of those two places.

SR – Back in 2008 we interviewed the Green Party vice-presidential candidate, Rosa Clemente, and together with the presidential candidate, Cynthia McKinney and their “Power to the People” campaign, both candidates emphasized that it was about organizing a mass movement, whether or not people voted for the Greens. Many people are attracted to the Green Party because of its size, but mainly because they want to see a mass movement to the left. If you were in Philadelphia during the DNC, after Sanders capitulated, it felt like a big shift to Jill Stein, but in reality Philadelphia that week was its own political microclimate. There may have been a lot of green flags in the city that week, where all their forces were out in numbers, but outside of that, it’s not a very big party ultimately.

JB – It’s really not. There’s an argument in DSA about whether we should even engage in electoral politics because it’s very time consuming. I do want to win and I’m happy to have the support of all the volunteers that have come on board, but you also have to ask what would be the net positive result if those volunteers were involved in other efforts like organizing tenants unions in their neighborhoods or building solidarity across working-class movements. DSA is kind of doing both right now, but there is a discussion to be had in terms of where the best bang for your buck is. We all have limited energy. Electoral politics is necessary—we have to have some wins—but insufficient in and of itself. I have some friends who are on the cusp of leaving the Democratic Party but are still giving one last try to reforming it from inside, but they’re also realizing that it’s not so much about having clout on a city council seat, as much as the power of the social movements that they’re plugged into outside of city hall. Again, if a revolution happens there’s a good chance that it may happen outside of the electoral system. It may be that the electoral system is too entrenched in the corporate system to break out of it and it may need to be a totally different thing which America has not seen before.

SR – I think we can all agree that some political activity should be outside of the electoral system and some of our energy should be directed into electoral politics. The question is where in the electoral system should that energy be spent. For the working class to take political power, one requirement will be for the class to identify itself as a class. As Marx explained, the working class must not just constitute a class in itself, it must become conscious of this and become a class for itself. Part of that would be to build its own political party, a working class or labor party, or a party built on the ideas of the working class, with the socialist or communist label. When a party does not put that forward, it doesn’t help the awakening of the class, and the working class doesn’t see it as one of its own potential institutions that represents it. In New York the Green Party is interesting, because if you were to ask the majority of its members in New York, they’re all leftists for the most part. If they would just come out with that label, maybe they should change the name of that party.

JB – That’s actually on the table. The Green Party just last year became anti-capitalist and there’s talk of rebranding as the “Green Socialist Party” or something like that. People in New York are very excited about the so-called “red-green alliance” and my campaign is a bridge between the Green Party and DSA. I know Howie Hawkins who ran in 2014 wants to run on a fusion ticket with a line on the Green Party and also a line on a socialist or socialist-labor ticket, too. (New York lets you do fusion voting so you can run on more than one party line on the ballot). It’s probably what I’ll do, the DSA is interested in making their own line too for this campaign. They can’t call it DSA because they’re not technically a party but they’ll call it something and it will probably have socialist in the name.

SR – The housing issue in New York, as in other cities like London and in the Bay Area in California is one of the big issues: how to fight gentrification. In the case of the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, Jeremy Corbyn called for the nationalization of some of these buildings in London that were being used to speculate. Expropriate them, take them over, convert them into public property, and use that to provide housing. This is basic ABCs for socialists, when you have homeless people and “peopleless” homes. Do you support this policy?

JB – I love that idea. When Jeremy Corbyn said that, I was fully in support of that. It’s ridiculous that we live in a time where we have enough food to end hunger and yet we throw so much of it away, we have more vacant homes than there are [homeless] people, and yet there is a homeless problem. It actually doesn’t make sense. So I’m a big fan of Corbyn and I do support that policy.

SR – Would you argue that there should be more money for public housing from the state and federal government, and would you make that part of your campaign? Obviously the housing problem in New York is not unique to this city. There’s a housing problem around the country, although the level of cost is probably unique to New York and San Francisco, and a few places. But there are a lot of places with a need for quality housing that is affordable. So would you agree that there needs to be a national campaign to get more money for housing everywhere, including New York?

JB – Yes, I would definitely advocate for that; unfortunately I don’t have the power to force them to do that, but ultimately that’s where the money needs to come from. I mean public housing in New York has something like $17–18 billion in capital needs which is strangling our ability to build more public housing. The ones we have are being overridden by mold, and many are crumbling and on the verge of falling down. The city is incapable of meeting all those needs on its own, we’re going to need funding from the state and federal governments, which is what we had when we built it to begin with.

SR – New York City public employees have been consistently attacked since the 70s. Real wages have gone down since the 70s and certainly under Mayor De Blasio, who claims to be a friend of the worker and for equality, on their last contract city employees had increases that were less than inflation. The first 18 months was a big 0% increase, and if you look at the raise they did get, in large part it was paid for out of concessions on their health care. That obviously has to do with the leadership in our public employee unions in New York City which are among the very lowest of quality. Except for the transit strike a while back, there hasn’t been a strike here since the 70s. They’re not interested in mobilizing anybody for anything. What does your campaign propose any measures in relation to city employees?

JB – This is part of what I was hoping to pilot—a transition to a 30-hour work week. I was hoping to use the MTA to target that and look into ways to modernize the signal system. I’ve heard there has been resistance to more modern upgrades because automation could displace workers, but if we could upgrade the system, and also decrease the workload and shift public employees to a 30-hour work week, that may be able to exert pressure on the private sector to shift to a 30-hour work week as well, with no loss in pay.

SR – Earlier you mentioned your friend’s comment that it’s not so much about your clout on City Council, but more about your connection to the movements in streets and your ability to mobilize. Given the discontent in society, in the next few years it’s likely we’ll see an increase in these kinds of socialist and even Marxist campaigns. As these movements escalate, and as we get more people elected, you’re going to be clashing with the capitalists and their political representatives. What plan do you have to use that power on the streets?

JB – What’s great is that DSA has a 2,000-strong membership base in New York. I hope that if I’m elected it will expand even more and I can collaborate with them to build these citywide campaigns. So with some of these sweeping measures like the tax to increase revenue for housing, I can activate the DSA base. I only have so much power within my own district, but DSA members live throughout the city and can exert pressure on their elected officials. Same thing at the state level too, we can exert pressure on state elected officials as well from our base in the city. It’s about tapping into these organizations and we can amplify each other. I can be within the chambers of city hall working on legislation and then in the streets DSA can amplify the campaign and my position as a politician by helping me get other politicians to come on board as sponsors or cosponsors of legislation.

SR – What is the role of the DSA in your campaign right now?

JB – A strong volunteer base. I have my own base of friends and political activists that know me and want to help out with the campaign, 60 or 70 strong. Especially when we do the separate DSA ballot line, we’ll be having lots of volunteers going out. It’s also a major voting base. There are 300–400 DSA members that live within the district itself, which is really big for a base of activists. There are around 115 to 120 thousand registered voters in the district, and around twenty-something thousand will vote. There’s a Republican running in the race, who is still registered as a Democrat. I think she was put up to it. So it should be an interesting race. Then there’s these two Democrats that are running, and this Republican who is actually a Democrat running on the Republican line.

SR – So what made you become a socialist, you mentioned that it was last year?

JB – Honestly, it was seeing the link between capitalism and racism. You know when you have deep thoughts in the shower, and I realized that black people were brought here as capital. And that’s at the root of capitalism—the price tag on things that shouldn’t have a price tag. And it really got the wheels turning. Black people were brought here as property under capitalism, and then when they were freed there was sharecropping. There’s the 13th Amendment which abolishes slave labor unless you’re imprisoned, and that’s essential to capitalism. The red lining, the for-profit policing, for-profit prisons, all these attacks on the black working class coming out of capitalism and then tying itself to extreme lack of wealth and health insurance. It was that intersection of how capitalism has impoverished the black community that made me realize that we need a class analysis and a broad overturning of the system itself.

SR – You know, Malcolm X said you can’t have capitalism without racism. And it’s true because slavery was built into the system and that created institutional racism as a justification, and you wouldn’t have had that scale of chattel slavery except for the growth of industry in Britain and the demand for cotton. You can see historically how the two are locked hand in hand in the United States. It’s impossible to eliminate racism until capitalism is overthrown. The two are engrained.

JB – You can’t end racism without ending capitalism, but also the 180 is true, you can’t undo capitalism without undoing racism at the same time. I’m seeing some of the Black Lives Matter movement go into an anticapitalist direction which is great, because that’s where the Civil Rights Movement was headed before Martin Luther King was assassinated. But there’s a video of me that was very popular on Twitter, and I don’t normally get too caught up in social media and how many Facebook likes and shares I’m getting, but this was liked over 1,500 times on Twitter and it’s a video of me surrounded by members of Black Lives Matter at a protest against the Philando Castille verdict, and saying I’m an open socialist and getting lots of cheers. I’m glad to see the Black Lives Matter movement going in this anticapitalist direction, for example with the Movement for Black Lives platform which is staunchly anticapitalist.

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