Socialist electoralism: from spectating to participation


We’ve all been cheering on Sawant for some time, and now Jorge Mujica has arisen as an “alderman” candidate in Chicago – “alderman” being a position that combines Chicago city council with administration of one of Chicago’s wards, so it’s basically a position at least equal to Sawant’s.

Most of us, though, are just spectators in the socialist electoral phenomenon.  We cheer it on but have no clue how to actually support it, spread it, or partake in it.

We need models of how to do it in an organizational sense, and details on how to run a campaign in a technical sense.  Finally we need to brace ourselves for the giant mess it will be when we involve all different sorts of people, because when we really get this thing going, it will be like opening the floodgates.



Chicago Socialist Campaign combined individual initiative with opening things up to the chaotic participation of the world.

One disadvantage was that they had to deal with every psycho in the wilderness of the Left, whose bizarre and sometimes hostile interjections continually threatened to derail the campaign.

However the CSC had two great successes, as far as I can tell from being an outside observer.  The first was that they simply existed.  Certain individuals had the audacity to launch the thing.  They could have doubted themselves, they could have waited for some other savior figure to do it (and waited forever), but instead they went ahead and did the damned thing.

The second success is that they’ve attracted the support of large amounts of people who are not part of any group.  Frankly attracting the support of established socialists groups for an intertendency campaign is difficult for reasons detailed elsewhere.  Hopefully in the future that will shift, and I think it will.  There are also, already, exceptions to that generalization.

In this split-second, though, the independents and other “randos” are a pretty critical force in propelling socialist electoralism forward, and providing bodies to get the work done.  And how were they attracted?  By the structure of the campaign itself.

Chicago Socialist Campaign could have been a top-down creation established by a council of representatives from the established socialist groups, where they kicked off the meetings by putting themselves at the front of the room, giving a speech from their perspective, and muscling things into a perhaps more-efficient method of operation from the start.

This method may have saved some hassles, and indeed might have drawn more support from the established groups.  However, it would not have given the absolute newbie socialists a feeling that this was their learning process, their movement that they owned.  The price of CSC’s open, participatory nature was a lot of messiness.  But given that the established socialist groups are bizarrely not eager to start socialist campaigns, and often need to be dragged into it, orienting toward the independents was probably the only way it was even possible.  CSC has now gotten to the point of picking a candidate, so it has at least partially succeeded in shifting from idea to reality.



Every time there is some event discussing socialist electoral strategy, the speakers focus on general principles: the campaign must be based in the issues of the community, it must be a representative of movements rather than a movement unto itself (I disagree – a campaign is a movement), and we must always stress the distracting, confusing point that ultimately electoralism is futile and we need revolution.

Nobody ever fucking talks about how to do it.

We need meetings/lectures/workshops focused entirely on this topic and this topic alone, without the self-promotional focus on principles which inevitably ends up taking over the entire conversation.  We need people to know how to doorknock, how to run the finances, legal issues, how to organize teams of doorknockers, how to “cut turf” or divide up the areas the teams will work on, how to work with a database of contacts, how to phone bank, how to estimate the necessary amount of votes to win (or just get a certain target percentage), how much work will be needed to win those votes in numeric terms (amount of doorknocks, amount of volunteer hours), how to create and distribute campaign materials such as flyers, yard signs, buttons, and pamphlets, and how to (legally) fundraise to pay for all that crap, and also maybe throw some cash to the poor bastards who go door-to-door.

This information exists but we need to learn it, write it down, distribute it, and teach it.

Furthermore, we need a routine conference call for all enthusiasts (and practitioners!) of socialist electoralism in the USA, detailed in the last section, to serve as a continual hub of centralized-yet-distributed information sharing.  This will create the continuing, national conversation that allows people to get a continual sense of where things are going nationally, and what can be learned from each example.



Elsewhere I’ve written on the critical role of individual initiative in expanding the still-infant phenomenon of socialist electoralism.  Indeed this is the time for upstarts!  Sometimes running a “movement father” or “party mother” for office can help because that person already has a profile, and I’m not against it, but let’s consider the flipside.  Do we really want to run candidates who have already accumulated their own political capital?  Actually, shouldn’t we be pushing no-name candidates who we simply know as reliable socialists, who owe their entire political existence to the socialist campaign, thereby forcing them to be democratically accountable to what we want?  Then again, people who have sunk roots into a community may be more electable.  Consider both sides.

But we do need young people run for office.  Run some people who actually have a shot at starting in low, local positions and working their way up into national high office, where they can act as a real disruption to capitalist policy and ideology.  To be blunt, people of advanced age simply don’t have enough lifespan left to be anything more than a brief, temporary figure in politics.  If we are fighting the war of position, we need young blood.

Ultimately, I’m not against running elders who have roots sunk into communities or groups.   I’m just afraid we are biased toward it, and it may threaten to act as a chilling effect upon the initiative of the enraged Millennial youth.  Perhaps it’s time to put the Occupy generation into public office.



Myself and others have tried to perform our advocacy of socialist electoralism in a very organized, careful, tightly-controlled fashion.  But we’ve built up a support base – which we also owe to the Sawant campaign, and the spirit of the times in general.  So it’s time to transition from tightly-controlled projects to welcoming the participation of the many socialist-electoral enthusiasts of the world.  It’s time to (1) widely encourage people to run for office as socialists, and (2) place campaigns and enthusiasts in touch with each other, through a routine conference call discussing socialist electoralism.

On the conference calls it will be crazy, even if we use a digital moderating/muting system (which we will).  There will be some people who are obnoxious, counterproductive, insane, who insistently advocate naïve, perhaps well-intentioned, impractical proposals that will never work, or are just otherwise really hard to work with.  But that’s life.  We didn’t get into this so that we could sit in our nice little sanctuary of purity.  We got into this so we could carry radical ideas into a mixed audience, who needs to hear them.

If we are following Socialist Alternative’s original vision of a hundred Sawants – or preferably, a thousand Sawants – by encouraging people to run for office, then we need to understand that it’s going to be utter chaos.  Some people will run and have no idea what they’re doing.  Others will run with somewhat bizarre platforms that maybe we don’t entirely like, or want to be associated with.  Still others may run in small-town, suburban conditions which we don’t know much about.  Some will run with the support of various socialist groups, others will have to build their support entirely on their own.  Every attempt is both an opportunity and a danger – if people have a tough time and we leave them in the dark, they’ll just burn out and wander away more cynical than they started.  But in trying, people learn.

So not only are we at the historical stage where we should be encouraging everyone and their brother to make electoral attempts, but we should also be connecting with them, and connecting them with others.  This way people are sharing information about how to do it successfully.   They are helping stabilize each other’s emotional swings (“this is awesome!,” “this is pointless!”) into a steady consciousness that they are part of a larger movement that is trying to make things work, and learning through trial by error…

…lots of error.  But if those errors are part of a larger movement, and a collective learning process, they are not discouraging.  They are the building blocks to getting where we eventually want to go – a mass party that can wreak serious havoc on capitalist business as usual.


One thought on “Socialist electoralism: from spectating to participation

  1. You seem to have observed that established groups discourage participation by presenting ideology and program as a fait accompli, thereby suffocating the creativity of prospective participants, and causing them to look elsewhere (or nowhere) for political engagement. You suggest that instead an appeal to unaffiliated activists (or perhaps in some cases an appeal to affiliated activists *as individuals*) would be a more open and involving approach.

    This raises the question of exactly what it is about established groups that prevents them from tapping the creativity of these unaffiliated persons, and also the related question of how to prevent the *new* organization that one is building up from scratch from developing these same centrist traits that result in principles (and their more established exponents) overriding creative initiative.

    These questions are not answered explicitly in your post, although perhaps you intend the proposed focus on the nuts and bolts of electoral organizing to be part of addressing those issues.

    Certainly a focus on such tasks could help to prevent endless wrangling on ideological points. But most of these implementation tasks could pertain to a non-socialist campaign as well as to a socialist one, and so, while they could certainly be involving, I don’t see that they would be sufficiently *defining*, in and of themselves.

    I would ask: what is it that distinguishes, at the most fundamental level, a socialist campaign from other campaigns? Without getting specific about five year plans or paths to revolution or whatever, what is the minimum set of ideological points that must be expressed (not necessarily agreed to explicitly, but just *expressed* in terms of the real effects of the campaign) in order for you to feel that this campaign is taking its community in a positive direction? For example, would it be sufficient if the campaign simply seems to lead away from the present model of hierarchical dominance and toward a more genuine expression of community interest?

    Some general thoughts: Any campaign that hopes to yield more bottom-up control by people over the decisions that affect their communities will have to find creative potentials that exist within *those* people and *that* community, and then catalyze and encourage and support *their* development. There must be an aspect to the campaign that promises to *release* those untapped creative possibilities that the community has *itself*.

    So, I think that you are on the right track with a focus on implementation, but *what* is being implemented should be more than the door-knocking, etc. of the campaign as such. It should be a platform of changes that unleases the suppressed and repressed power of the community in which the campaign is occurring. If there are huge contradictions present that are suffocating that community’s potential, the platform of the campaign should identify the specific effets of those contradictions, and propose actionable changes that address them and release the community from their thrall. The campaign has to *see* the community and *see* the people *in* it and recognize *their* possibilities, and then *catalyze* those possibilities.

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