Socialist Alternative: Successes and Turds

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“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  — Yogi Berra

If you want people to actually listen to your criticisms, it’s useful to use a “praise sandwich.”  Mix the bad in between some good up front and some good in back.  I broke from that formula and placed all the sugar up front and all the shit at the bottom.  But actually this formula is quite convenient for me.  I’ve come to believe that the proper dialectical answer to any yes-or-no question is almost always “both.”  After being a marxist for long enough you start to talk like Yoda.  So if someone asked me “Is Socialist Alternative doing the right thing, or the wrong thing?”, I would say the only thing that a man with two cocks could say when his tailor asked whether to hem his trousers to the left or to the right:

Yes.

 

SAWANT: SUCCESS

As Andrew Sernatinger stated, the Sawant campaign was exactly what the socialist movement needed in the post-Occupy environment.  “Given that the movement was in a low ebb and that the oppositional class consciousness brought out by Occupy could have been lost, it seems to me that for the moment it was in Sawant’s election was the best thing to foster social struggles in Seattle and the US.”

Myself and others have written so much elsewhere about the significance of the Sawant campaign that I will not write much about it here.  Point is:

  1. She ran as a socialist
  2. She ran local, winnable campaigns
  3. She ran serious campaigns
  4. She demanded $15 min. wage as part of her platform
  5. She is clearly principled, able to stand up to tremendous bureaucratic pressure in the $15 fight in Seattle, and unafraid to advocate brazen socialist measures in public
  6. She won; power is its own argument

Socialist Alternative has already gotten plenty of praise for this, but here’s a little more.  Good job.  And good job to Sawant, too, who is a real human being and not just a strategic abstraction.  Thank you!

 

15NOW: SUCCESS

For years after the recession I was livid, and this anger returned to me after Occupy Wall Street fizzled.  Why?  Because we were blowing a perfectly-good economic crisis on continually cycling through our spectrum of non-class demands.

Now of course all demands are class demands at some level.  But not directly.

What was more frustrating was watching organizations place a weird emphasis on one single issue, then another, then another, in succession: race, feminism, the environment.  While there was sometimes a small external impetus of relevancy, actually most of the time it seemed like the Left was cycling through these issues through some kind of random internal gyration.

Don’t even get me started — yes, obviously these issues are important, all of them.  But there has been a bizarre neglect by socialist groups of involvement of directly class issues, for a long time.  In the weird lull from 1968 to 2008 this may have been acceptable, but not anymore.

And this was all (1) in the midst of the greatest recession since the 1930s, and (2) after the rise-and-fall of the largest wave of protest in the USA since the 1960s, Occupy Wall Street, a protest which focused specifically on class and made it the center of American political conversation, (3) as unemployment, suffering, homelessness, and a fall in wages continued to plague the American working class, and (4) as polling data consistently placed jobs and economics as the issues of highest concern to the public.

This situation should have been so easy and obvious for the Left to capitalize on from a class perspective.  It was like store-bought macaroni and cheese.  You boil the water, you put it in the pot…

Of course the situation was more complicated than that.  Unions in the USA are in a position of horrible weakness and degeneration.  The Left’s traditional idea of class struggle is through unions, and in a continually shifting workplace structure, it’s really hard to know how to do that.

Then the fast food protests began, and I knew some kindred souls were thinking the same thing.  They actually broke into something economic, something directly related to people’s own standard of living!

But of course trying to create work stoppages in huge networks of fast food chains with low numbers of highly-replaceable workers is not really doable.  So at some point someone in the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, launched “Fight for $15.”  This was a genius way to involve the tons of people who would really love to participate in a class-oriented struggle, but who are in positions of weakness which prevent them from fighting directly on the job (ie almost everyone).

However, Fight for $15 is essentially an SEIU front.  This guarantees that it will not be a democratic organization, and that it could suddenly just fold up and pull its demands if the wrong labor bureaucrat cuts the wrong deal with the wrong politician.

This is where 15Now comes in.  Socialist Alternative launched it specifically so it could keep working on the $15 wage demand without getting into legal battles over names and labels with the SEIU.  The fact that a network independent of the SEIU exists ensures that the struggle will continue.

Given the class anger everywhere, but the weakness in the workplace, a political struggle for a wage increase is one of the best ways to channel that anger and energy into something which can get real results.  It is free from the standard Left-activist cycle of reincarnation through various non-class issues – it cuts directly to the red meat, enabling people of all kinds to participate in a struggle of direct, immediate benefit to themselves.

It is working-class self-interest incarnate.  Congratulations to Socialist Alternative for helping set it up.

 

15NOW: CONCERNS

15Now appears to be just an extension of Socialist Alternative.  In some places the launch meetings of 15Now were openly Socialist Alternative meetings.  All those people who changed their profile pictures to the 15Now logo on Facebook?  Yeah, they were pretty transparently all members of Socialist Alternative.  I was recently at an event in New York where a Socialist Alternative member announced a 15Now event, and made sure to clarify that 15Now is not Socialist Alternative.

Hate to say it, but if you need to make that clarification, there’s already a serious problem.

(Actually this guy’s comments were an almost self-parodic example of how to be a party hack.  He also tried to get people to buy a pamphlet and then immediately confessed he hadn’t read it yet – how can you promote something you haven’t read yet unless you’re committing an act of utter blind loyalty?  This is, tragically, how many people in socialist groups behave.)

Furthermore, there was just something fishy about how 15Now’s launch was essentially a wave of fundraising, before on-the-ground activity around the country even began.  Fortunately a wave of in-person local cells of 15Now have developed, making this less creepy, but there was a time when 15Now was pretty much just a name and a request for donations to a faceless organization, which was obviously a front for Socialist Alternative.

It is not clear what 15Now will do with the money.  The fact that this goes hand-in-hand with the Sawant campaign apparently spending into the red and owing a large amount of money is highly suspect.  Even if that wasn’t the case, who is to say that 15Now donations wouldn’t just get funneled into Socialist Alternative hiring a pile of new staffers for building itself?  I’m skeptical that rank-and-file SAlt members are allowed to see the organization’s budget – transparency in accounting being a whole ‘nother frigging problem in Left groups!

I don’t really know what to do about this fundraising thing.  It’s just creepy and unclear.  I suppose ultimately it’s something I’m willing to ignore in order to help fight for a $15 minimum wage (but not without pointing it out unapologetically).

So back to the issue of Socialist Alternative dominating 15Now.  Is this an irreconcilable problem?  No, in fact I suspect Socialist Alternative is already becoming aware of the mistake they made, and trying to reverse it.  We will see how far they go in correcting it.  Like PSL’s relationship to ANSWER, once you launch a group as a front group rather than a coalition, it can be extremely difficult to let go of the position you’ve entrenched yourself in.

But it’s not just Socialist Alternative.  I suspect that their early domination of 15Now may have created a cycle of suspicion, where even if they are opening the gates to other groups, those other groups might now be distrustful and standoffish.  Everyone has a part to play in behaving themselves.  The other groups need to get involved, and Socialist Alternative needs to make sure it is truly making space for them in actions not words.

How would it do that?  It would need to open up the elected leadership of 15Now broadly, and actively encourage people who are not members of Socialist Alternative to take leadership positions.

However it’s not enough to bring in just the random people who join the campaign.  In order to ensure that the other socialist groups will feel represented enough for them to sink resources into the thing, you would have to invite some of them in on the decision-making as well.  Perhaps a 50/50 arrangement, between representatives of sponsoring groups, and elected officials from the mass membership.  (This may also be a workable answer to the question of an electoral front.)

All in all, it would result in a situation where Socialist Alternative is in the minority on the leadership, which would only be a fair proportion given that it is one of many groups and seeks to include all sorts of unaligned activists.

Finally there is the issue of Fight for $15, which is actually still an organization, a front group for SEIU.  Again, it’s good that Socialist Alternative established something independent of the SEIU.  The key is simply to encourage those two wings of the $15-wage movement to work together as much as possible – a proposal you could raise if Socialist Alternative hands over control of the organization from its own representatives to the movement activists.

 

SAWANT: CONCERNS

After Sawant’s victory, Socialist Alternative said in a few different articles that it advocates something like a wave of hundreds of “Occupy” candidates, or broad-left candidates, or even socialist candidates, or whatever.

That’s an awesome proposal.  I would love to see such a wave.  I am not sure, however, how much it would actually accomplish if these candidates were not in some kind of mutually-encouraging, information-sharing communication with each other.  I’m also not sure how much it would really matter if it just ended up being fuel for the Green Party, which is full of people I respect but in my opinion will ultimately never go anywhere.

However I personally have not seen Socialist Alternative working to create the kind of electoral action network which would make a wave of candidates meaningful.  If people ran in isolation, it wouldn’t feel like a movement.  It needs to feel like a movement.

Instead, the pattern which has been observed by me and many others is that Socialist Alternative is using the Sawant victory for two reasons: (1) to promote Socialist Alternative, and (2) to promote 15Now (which, as mentioned earlier, has a problematic history as starting as a tightly-controlled front group for Socialist Alternative).

Basically the Sawant victory is more or less being used as political capital in order to feed into the Left’s perennial game of King of the Hill, jockeying over which socialist group will be the biggest socialist group – all the while the drive toward a collective political front is neglected.  This pattern is further reinforced by the fact that there is a real willingness to talk in generalities about how awesome the Sawant campaign was, but not much willingness to pass on the knowledge gained about how to run an electoral campaign, which would actually allow the challenge to run a hundred candidates to take form.  Instead people in Socialist Alternative only want to talk about the “broad political lessons” which are frankly so abundant on the Left that we are all sick of hearing them, and need to get into the nuts-and-bolts so we can actually do this thing.

I even hear many people come out and openly say, “Why can’t people just suck it up and acknowledge Socialist Alternative as the socialist group?”

This simply cannot work.  Note I did not say it is undesirable – I said it cannot work.  Why?

Because Socialist Alternative has specific politics which it is sharply committed to.  Like most socialist groups in the USA, it has more implied political positions than a single individual could even memorize.  It is simply too much for the millions of radicalizing Americans to take in.  And this acts as a tremendous barrier to growth which none of the groups operating on this model want to acknowledge.  They are all aware of it to an extent, but they keep choking on the reality of it, hoping they can circumvent it somehow.  They can’t – it’s their core defining feature.

Besides, it’s not self-promotion which expands a group.  It’s the awesome work they do!  The recent Socialist Alternative article bragging about their growth is the exact opposite of the victory which earned that growth.  The Sawant victory was a victory for socialists everywhere and got global media attention.  It wasn’t because Sawant was a member of Socialist Alternative, but because she was a socialist with a strong campaign.  (Yes, you can have those things without joining Socialist Alternative.)  Socialist group growth is like Taoism or Buddhism – you can’t desire the thing you are chasing, you have to focus on other things, and labor without lust for result.  If you want your socialist group to grow, you can’t be self-promotional about it.  You have to prove through actions that your group deserves to grow.  Socialist Alternative has been doing some of that – so it should continue doing that, not collapsing back into the self-promotion, which all socialist groups have been burning themselves out by doing continually to no avail.

Could Socialist Alternative be a faction within a larger party?  Absolutely, that would be great!  But that larger party is going to have to be much more pluralistic than Socialist Alternative itself, because when we are talking at the scale of millions of people – and that is the scale of a mass party – you just can’t expect people to move in unison or have all the same opinions about every issue under the sun.  Such an arrangement can be absurdly, uncomfortably enforced at the current micro-scale of Left groups in the US.  At any sizeable scale, its unmanageable reality would make itself immediately clear.

We need to assert loudly, and everywhere, that it is better to have a mass party which is Left and confused, and be a voice of reason within it, than it is to have a Left group that is tiny but has all perfect positions.  (“Why not both?,” people say, while only practicing the tiny group part, putting in no concrete work to explicitly lay the framework for a larger party.)  39% of the US likes socialism.  We are at the point where this is possible.

 

CONCLUSION: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS NOW, NOT LATER

People may accuse me of being a sectarian killjoy for writing this, and likely level that criticism against anyone posting or sharing this piece.  After all, there is a reason that Socialist Alternative has been in our headlines: it’s been succeeding!

However we cannot afford to wait, or censor ourselves.  Socialist Alternative has accomplished some truly special things, but is now on the verge of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  The fact is, Socialist Alternative’s successes were a strong deviation from business as usual on the US Socialist Left – its typical routines of self-promotion and cycling through non-class issues.  But now Socialist Alternative is attempting to capitalize on those successes through methods that are almost opposite of the ones that made them successful!  Instead of doing good work which is inspiring to the entire Left, they are caving back into self-promotion and domination of front groups.  And it will make their success short-lived.

In fact that may be somewhat inevitable, given that I’m not sure anyone will actually listen to me, or to people saying similar things.  So here’s another warning: when Socialist Alternative’s expansion slows, the rest of the Left needs to be mature about it.  Instead of lifting our noses and saying “told ya so,” we need to continue affirming what Socialist Alternative did right, and integrate it into our own practice.  (Most of the Left has still not done this!)

However I know that if Socialist Alternative’s current moment of success just turns into another example of collapsed waves – another smashed Occupy littering the side of the highway to systemic change – it will only reinforce a cycle of defeatism and sectarian cynicism.  So I am going to try my best to do a few things at once:

First: persuade Socialist Alternative to open up 15Now to cross-tendency cooperation in the real, substantial way outlined above.

Second: convince other groups to try getting involved in 15Now.

Third: convince both Socialist Alternative and other groups that the Sawant victory can represent something more than competitive self-promotion, or even more than a call to broad left electoralism where socialism gets buried under the broadness – it can represent the first spark in the rise of a socialist electoral front which effectively challenges the two-party system in the USA, and which makes socialism a concrete option in the minds of 315 million people.

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