The historical period and a socialist party

(originally a Reader’s Views letter to socialistworker.org)

A November 2012 Gallup poll, now a year behind, stated that 39% of Americans have a positive view of the word socialism.  Now many people in socialist groups with more complex, refined, specific ideas about socialism scoff at that.  Those people don’t really know what socialism is.  This scoffing is the wrong attitude – these are people who don’t know what socialism is, but would probably be very happy to learn from us.  And there’s about 120 million of them, suggesting that we may be strategizing on the entirely wrong numeric scale.

However, when these ordinary people encounter our socialist groups, they don’t seem to be joining up as readily as we would hope.  I think this is because people’s conception of socialism is precisely vague at this stage.  The socialist groups demand specificity.  Even the ones which don’t, like Solidarity or SPUSA, are haunted by the fact that we all look ridiculous because there are just too many socialist groups, shouting over each other to sell our competing papers at demonstrations.  Credible unification would have to happen across groups, not by one group declaring itself the big multi-tendency umbrella and expecting everyone to join.

I know there are reasons why these group divisions exist, some more reasonable than others.  I don’t want to work with Spartacists, and not really the RCP either.  But I do want to work with SAlt, Solidarity, Kasama, SPUSA, Freedom Socialist, and possibly others, and I want to give everyone else an honest try.

But even if these divisions are real, the fact is we need a transitional space.  Those 120 million budding socialists are going to drift alone, unorganized.  On our current course we will continue to squabble over who gets to recruit the tiny numbers who go to issue demonstrations, rather than collectively engaging with the radicalizing third of the population.  For whatever reason, issue politics don’t seem to be getting the same results as the clear class-focused challenge for systemic change of Occupy.  This is why I think we need a socialist party, as a transitional space between the radicalizing tens of millions and the specific Leninist tendencies.

I agree with Bhaskar Sunkara’s formulation that ultimately, it makes sense in terms of avoiding redundancy and achieving efficiency to form one united socialist party, with the current (healthy) groups acting as political centers or factions within in it.  (If that is even what he is saying and I am not just putting words in his mouth.)

However, I know that most organized socialists are not ready to even really consider this step.  So instead we could implement a less extreme model of working unity: joint campaigns of socialists running for political office, synthesized with movement work such as Fight for $15 or whatever else is relevant in that locality.

*****

We need a socialist party, not a Green Party, not a Labor Party, not an Anticapitalist Alliance (which would have to be shared with anarchists and would simply recapitulate the shortcomings of Occupy over again).  Why?  First, because we are socialists.  There is going to be a competition over what the Third Party Left becomes, and what kind of third party actually emerges.  In reality that competition has already begun now.  Why not contend for the set of politics that we actually want instead of continually hiding behind other formations?

As far as a Labor Party, in most of America people are actually more favorable to class consciousness and socialism than they are to unions.  That sounds crazy but after decades of unions being spoiled by passivity, bureaucracy, and surrender, actually it makes a lot of sense.  Chicago may be an exception here – labor is actually looked upon positively, but a socialist campaign makes sense even there because it’s one thing for labor to break from the Democrats and go in its own direction.  It’s another thing entirely for that labor formation to gain a clear Left political alignment – we have seen what “Labour” means in the UK.  The latter option is definitely preferable, and when a professional self-organized Chicago Socialist Campaign already exists, a socialist alignment should obviously be advocated by people who call themselves socialists.  If we can’t do it now with such favorable conditions, it’s questionable if we ever will.

The Green Party has a fundamental problem with branding.  By its name everyone thinks it is an environmentalist party only, not realizing its anti-corporate stances.  When dealing with millions of people, that kind of branding matters.  It always astounds me, that after Occupy Wall Street, people still forget to have a class focus or a clear class branding.  We already know that targeting Wall Street and emphasizing the 99% was a successful approach for engaging millions of people.  Class anger was the key.  However the rhetoric of the Greens sounds typically less like class anger and typically more like liberal moralism.  It’s not the equation for engaging with most Americans beyond a very tiny activist milieu.  But the word “socialism” is already making headway, not simply because it is based on class anger (which is huge), but also because people know it is systemic, and they know that is what is needed – not a new form of liberalism in the guide of the Greens, but some kind of systemic change.

A “Sawant-ist” campaign based on a three-layer approach of engaging with class anger, using the word “socialism,” but not being too pushy about their group’s specific definition of socialism while explaining it to anyone who asked, clearly worked.  In fact, such a campaign model even leaves open space for different socialist groups to collaborate on it, and have mature conversations with newcomers about each groups’ similarities and differences.

 *****

So what is the practical next step?  It’s to run socialists for low-level offices.  We should prepare for 2016, but the best way to do that is to run in 2014.  As in, this November.

I think a lot of the anxiety around running candidates comes from mere unfamiliarity with the electoral process.  We are afraid of all the technicalities.  But we must approach that the way we should approach everything else – by putting one foot in front of the other, doing our research, and becoming familiar.  As for myself I asked for some help with campaign science from Green Party activists I met at Left Forum, who were happy to provide it.  I talked to Philly Socialists, a local group who is investigating electoral possibilities.  I followed some of the conversations on North Star, I’ve done some of my own reading.  Finally I actually infiltrated a local Democratic campaign just for the sake of seeing what it was all like in practice.  I now feel confident that I know enough to run an electoral campaign.  A year ago, that was not true at all, but I was determined to learn.  I was not born with that information or confidence, but I learned it, and you can too.

Would we win in 2014?  I don’t expect we would.  But they key is to run a serious campaign, not necessarily to win.  Yes, there is a good reason for people scoffing at unserious socialist campaigns.  But you can have a serious campaign which still gets only 15-30% of the vote, unlike those joke campaigns which get 0-4% of it.

What does running a non-winning, but serious, campaign accomplish?

  1. All the doorknocking, mailing, and phonebankng you do can be rolled into other movements, such as Fight for $15 or whatever you like.  You meet a huge amount of people.
  2. The people you meet this time can help you build a database of supporters, possible campaign volunteers, and voters for the next election cycle.  You can also filter out the houses full of diehard Republicans so next time, you don’t waste campaign time and resources knocking on their door.  In this way, each time you seriously campaign strengthens your position for the next round.
  3. Electoral campaigning trains its participants in the skills of an electoral campaign – a skillset and knowledge base which most organized socialists sorely lack.  The Socialist Left is always haunted by a vicious cycle – we don’t campaign this time, because we aren’t prepared.  But we don’t campaign the next time, because we skipped out last time and still don’t feel prepared.  We are going to have to start running candidates before we can win, as a means to building up skills and supporter databases for the future.

*****

This leads us to some very concrete decisions which are currently before us in the present.  There are openings for socialists to run in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, and probably more places I’m not aware of, but those are the ones I have been keeping tabs on.  Unlike the Sawant campaign (no offense to them), these present-and-future campaigns are probably going to have to be more inter-tendency.  Or, they just ought to be regardless.  But there is a great deal of uncertainty.  Who will call these campaigns?  Will the ISO decide to go for it?  Will it wait until others have made up their mind to go ahead with it, and then jump in and support them?  Shouldn’t there be a process of collaborative building?  How will the decision be made in the ISO?  Will a survey be sent around to every member, giving them a vote on this issue?  Will it be an issue at the Convention?  Will it be a leadership decision made unilaterally?  And what if the ISO or its leadership doesn’t take any clear stance?  Who outside the ISO is going to spearhead it?  SAlt?  Will they do it, or will they fail to learn the lessons of their own success and fail to get on the good foot?  If they did start running people, how would the ISO respond to that?  Will individual candidates step forward unilaterally, and ask for organizational support?  How would the ISO respond to that?  What if Jacobin Magazine or its staff call for something?  How would the ISO respond to that?  What if successful, energetic gatherings like Chicago Socialist Campaign start popping up everywhere?  How would the ISO respond to that?

Many different people in the ISO have different opinions about these topics.  Personally I think that’s a good thing, I think that’s a chance to practice democracy and have a true exploration of the issues, undirected by any preconceived notions.

But we need to go from discussion to implementation real quick, which is a critique I have of what the speakers offered at the January 16th event at the Brecht Forum in Brooklyn, “Socialism at the Ballot Box.”  A lot of talking about relevant concerns, but zero concrete proposals of what to actually do.  There was no real suggestion of what to actually do, coming out of that meeting, and that’s pretty reflective of the Socialist Left’s confusion and uncertainty across the board.  It’s time for socialists in the ISO and elsewhere to start coming up with answers to the questions posed, and gearing up to act seriously on those decisions.  Let’s stop being confused, because the answers are right in front of us.  November 2014 is in nine months.  That is enough time to get a serious, if non-winning, campaign going.  But we should really start by March and build pressure over summer, if we are indeed serious.

As for me, I believe that this is our time, conditions are right, and we can seize this era if we only reach out and take it.  Fortune favors the bold.

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4 thoughts on “The historical period and a socialist party

  1. I don’t know what planet you are on, but the Socialist Party has always run candidates from its origin in 1900 to the present day, excepting for a 20 year hiatus between 1956 and 1976 when the party virtually collapsed and was reborn. At its peak the SP had over 1000 office holders including several mayors, nearly a third of the Oklahoma legislature and two Congressional Reps.

    Excepting for its frequent sojourns into the Democratic Party, the same is true of the Communist Party and several other left sects including the Workers World Party, the Socialist Workers Party and several others. Neither has the ISO avoided electoral activity. It has been significantly active in the Green Party, for example, especially during the Nader campaigns.

    It is true that many unaffiliated socialists have little electoral experience, but that is a reflection of the fact that they have little organizational experience. Of course Sawant has run a spot on campaign, but the problem is not one so much of lack of experience. Rather, besides not sharing Sawant’s Debsian vision or her skills or talents, the fact is that many unaffiliated socialists, or for that matter many affiliated socialists have little experience in organizing anything, even a local meeting, much less an electoral campaign.

    It seems to me that the labor victory in Lorain County is infinitely more significant than the Sawant victory because it is a living example of the class struggling towards its self-liberation whereas I suspect that most efforts to replicate the Sawant campaign will end up a nothing but substitutionist folly.

    • I don’t know what planet YOU are on where you think that is a good way to initiate a conversation? What was your point, that everyone should just join the SP?

      No one will want to join any of the small tendencies til they get together. We all have a glass ceiling imposed on us by the fact that our fragmentation makes no one take us seriously.

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