Give Sawant the Benefit of the Doubt


There has been a small buzz around Sawant’s recent photo opportunity and kind words toward Democrat Larry Gossett.  It has apparently caused one upset open letter from a Socialist Alternative member, and also been a recurring theme with a comrade who has raised multiple criticisms of the organization.  (Apparently the Socialist Equality Party also issued a denunciation, but of course issuing denunciations of other socialists is their main activity.)

I am certainly not one to hate on ex-members of socialist groups for being noisily critical!  I understand the necessity, but also the social and emotional cost of taking an entire social network of people who would back you up for almost no reason, and saying things that will turn them against you.  I don’t wish to heap the hate onto anyone.  It’s just that I disagree on this issue.  So this is a disagreement among comrades.

These criticisms are different, and should be treated accordingly.  Some are internal criticisms, some are external criticisms but still sympathetic, and some are sectarian crap.

There are a number ways of responding to Sawant’s recent actions.  The first two I utterly reject:

  • Condemn Sawant and reject her as utterly worthless, a sellout, a Democrat apologist, etc.
  • Pretend that this isn’t happening, or is not worth analyzing or talking about. (This may be the approach of some Socialist Alternative members, though hopefully not all of them.)

While I ask for nuance from the purists, I also ask for consciousness from the practitioners.  If you are going to make a tactical alliance with a Democrat, there had better be a reason.  We don’t have to be hush-hush about the real reasons.  We don’t have to be embarrassed and avoid talking about it, either, if we really believe in what we are doing.  We can have a mature, open conversation about it, both internally and publicly.  This way, ordinary participants can make their own call about whether it makes sense to continue allowing this kind of thing, and it can be a democratic process.


Seattle vs. Chicago?

Note that I find the Seattle situation, revolving around Socialist Alternative, to be completely distinct from the Chicago situation, revolving more around the Caucus of Radical Educators (CORE) faction of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, and its various connected socialist groupings.  In Seattle, the hardcore socialist Sawant has an alliance with a specific Democrat.  In Chicago, radicals and socialists began by supporting Karen Lewis for Chicago Mayor, a union president who emerged from CORE.  This was awesome; we had a true labor candidate!  Then they continued supporting her even when she began making some pretty awful noises indicating a rightward drift.  After health issues intervened, Lewis dropped out and the CTU shifted its support to an alternative candidate, Chuy Garcia, a Democratic politician.

In Seattle, we are supporting a city councilor who is a radical socialist, and who has been fighting like hell on many issues the whole time she’s been in office, but who now has a possibly problematic alliance with a Democrat.  In Chicago, we went from supporting a strong union-based candidate, to supporting a lukewarm-but-still-labor candidate, to many among on the far Left collapsing into support for a Democrat!

These are very different debates.

Some people have begun to say, in the Chicago context, that perhaps in local politics, the Democratic Party is more complex, less monolithic, involving dissidents whom radicals can support.  To briefly address the argument, many people are looking to support Chuy Garcia for supposedly being an anti-austerity, anti-cuts candidate.  But we have seen Democrats claim this role before, again and again, only to implement austerity upon being elected.  Often their political record will indicate that there is no reason to be surprised, either.

Furthermore, have we really sunk that low?  The whole point of the Left’s increasing intervention into electoral politics is NOT simply to oppose austerity!  The point is to imagine beyond austerity (and imagine beyond anti-austerity!), to gain a huge dose of visibility for our direct message of radical politics itself!  (This, in fact, is the only actual way we will even beat austerity, let alone beat capitalism.)  If not to project a radical message, the goal was also to move unions towards serving their own good interests in the electoral arena, mainly by standing their own candidates, or otherwise breaking from the Democrats.  We must not forget these critical goals.

To get back to Sawant –

If you are going to make a tactical alliance with Democrats, OK – let’s talk about it.

There is probably a strong emotional resistance to even discussing the subject, because among most of the far Left, it sounds so awful and traitorous, and you will probably take a lot of flak.  But many people (like me) are more forgiving, and they deserve an honest conversation.

  • Is it to get a specific law passed? Is this to hopefully have an ally who will support the proposal for rent control, or keep you in office so you can fight for it?
  • What are we giving in return? Is this an acceptable price to pay?  Are we getting more than we are giving?
  • Let’s be real – are we lying to our tactical ally? (If so, good!)  Are we essentially (if tactfully) using them?  If so, can’t we admit this and talk about this, among socialists and activists?

Speaking for myself, having one single photo op with a local Democrat is worth it, if it allows the passage of a bill which actually helps the working class, which then can massively increase the credibility of the socialist who is pressing for the measure to succeed in the first place.

Did Sawant go overboard?  Possibly.  She should probably not have described (Mr. X) as an anti-Establishment Democrat: we must insist that this is a contradiction in terms, there is no such thing, even if that’s what a Democrat wants to be.  She should probably not be endorsing a guy who is behind building a jail, unless there is a damned good reason.

So there are other possible ways of responding:

  • Thinking Sawant made a mistake, but realizing that this can be reversed, it’s mostly forgivable, and she is still worth supporting for publicizing socialism and getting real results done — so perhaps make a criticism, but a comradely one rather than a denunciation that withdraws all support (critical support)
  • Thinking this is the beginning down a bad slippery slope of Left politicians sliding toward the center, but that this can and should be counter-acted through mass pressure
  • My opinion: Sawant was not making a remotely sincere statement during their photo op, she did it to buy the guy’s vote, and it will go toward an important good cause – and it doesn’t really matter, but being clear about it matters a lot

If we are doing some tactical vote-trading, why the insistence on being clear about it (especially when such clarity, sufficiently publicized, could potentially sabotage the arrangement)?  Because it can definitely lead from a tactic to a constant reliance, which would be more in the vein of option #2 above.  A little tactical vote-trading is one thing, but if you do it too much, you dilute your politics down to nothing, or you end up getting used and played by Frank Underwood types and you don’t even get the results you hoped you were trading for.  This is the problem that has hounded Bernie Sanders his entire career.  He has no other legislative support, so he ends up basically voting with the Democrats (though he is not honestly too radical anyway).


It is fine to make a pact with the devil as long as you end up the winner.  It is fine to make tactical compromises as long as they remain tactical, and do not come to define your entire politics.  It is also fine to make mistakes!  Let’s dispose of this purist disposability, where we completely throw out support for anyone who makes a wrong turn.

But if we sign our soul away, let’s make sure we do it with both eyes open, knowing why we are doing it, and knowing the risks involved.  If it goes bad, let’s make sure we have some kind of popular, democratic counterweight to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated and do not become a trend.  Let’s make sure to sell our soul for a very high price, and also rob it back.  Let’s make sure this is not some secret internal decision, but something that we can speak very frankly about among socialist comrades and movement allies.

Fight dirty against capital, come clean with ourselves.  Actively support Sawant, but be guarded about it.

One thought on “Give Sawant the Benefit of the Doubt

  1. Pingback: Is Kshama Sawant Caving to the Democrats, or Are Democrats Caving to Kshama Sawant? | Revolutionary Democratic Socialism

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