The ballot line question in the absence of a mass socialist movement

Luke Pretz

Posted April 27, 2021

Georgia voters wait in line, October 12, 2020. (Michael Holahan / Augusta Chronicle)

Recent discussions of independent electoral politics have suffered from two inter-related problems. The first is an ambiguity as to what class independence means, an issue that quickly leads to abstract line drawing and polemics about whether using the Democratic Party ballot line makes you a representative of capital by default. The other is a framing that frequently focuses exclusively on electoral politics as such abstracting away from other types of movement work and sites of class struggle. As a result, the conversation often fails to go deeper than surface level. To overcome these limitations, we must lay out what we mean when we talk about class independence and discuss the relationship of electoral politics to the socialist movement as a whole. This essay hopes to add nuance and redirect the conversation about socialist electoral politics by laying out an understanding of class independence, reframing electoral politics as a tactical choice rather than a strategic one, and relating the tactical choices socialists face to the broader working-class movement.

It’s helpful to break the argument for independent political action into two cases, a “weak” case and a “strong” case. The “weak” case is political action taken by some segment of the working class, however large or small, with the goal of advancing exclusively working class demands and creating openings for broader class struggle. The “strong” case is political action taken by the working class as a class, i.e., as a mass organization, with mass support, organized exclusively along class lines, with the goal of advancing class demands and expanding the terrain of class struggle. The difference between the two cases is that the strong case represents a mature or nearly mature moment of class struggle while the weak case represents a moment of possibility that might develop into the strong case. What unites them is a conscious attempt by members of the working class to organize themselves along class lines in the hopes of advancing their class interests, most important among them the abolition of class society itself.

The strong case is only possible when the working class has a high degree of organization. It seems to be generally the case that both within the US and globally we are far from the strong case. So, when we talk about independent political action in the current period we are talking about the weak case. As a consequence, we should evaluate different positions as they relate to two criteria: the degree to which the action being taken is under the leadership of the working class and the degree to which the action contributes to the construction of a mass movement of working-class people. Put differently, we should evaluate our choices as tactics, specific actions taken to fulfil a strategy, rather than as strategies, overarching approaches to achieving a goal.

When we take up questions like the use of Democratic Party ballot lines and the construction of an independent working class electoral party, we often treat them as strategic questions. This results in choices being presented as totalizing movement wide either/or choices rather than specific moments of class struggle. Moreover, presenting these questions as strategic questions frequently abstracts the question of electoral politics from the larger picture of class struggle when they should be seen as a part of the whole that is class struggle. Put in more dialectical language, by framing electoral choices that the left makes as strategies we mistake the part for the whole and in doing so we confuse electoral politics as the totalizing site of class struggle rather than one moment of class struggle among many.

Framing independent electoral action as a tactical choice raises an important question: what is the Marxist revolutionary strategy? The Marxist revolutionary strategy can be summed up as the construction of a mass working class movement that, through any means necessary, refuses capitalism and, in doing so, begins the work of building a democratic and classless society. This definition of revolutionary strategy could be contrasted to that of Louis Blanquiwho argued for the construction of a small cadre of conspirators that seizes the state and delivers socialism to the working class from the commanding heights of the state. Tactics then are the actions taken to realize a given strategy. Selling newspapers at factory gates, the “French Turn,” running a candidate for city council, going on strike, or running for president on the Democratic Party ballot line are all tactical choices.

With the difference between strategy and tactics in mind we can better evaluate the two tactical choices we started with: use of the Democratic Party ballot line and building an independent working-class electoral party. As Marxists the key criteria for evaluating those choices is whether they contribute to building a mass movement of working people in a substantive and sustainable way.

The question of the DP ballot line is quite tricky. On one hand, there seems to be an opportunity for class independence. In the US there are very few restrictions on who can run on what ballot line. This means that an explicitly socialist candidate running a campaign with funding and support exclusively external to the existing DP apparatus and under the leadership of workers would qualify as independent in my view. The only thing attaching the candidate and their campaign to the DP is the name on the ballot line. Further, their tie to the DP name is incredibly weak. Nothing prevents a successful candidate from criticizing the party whose ballot line they are using or declaring themselves an affiliate of a different party after a successful campaign e.g., Green Party, Socialist Party, Peace and Freedom Party, etc.

There are some clear advantages to this strategy in the near term. Ballot access is an incredibly difficult and frequently expensive thing to achieve in the US. Gaining ballot access is something that a state house or senate candidate could not feasibly accomplish unless there was a concurrent state-wide campaign with the resources to gain access. There is also the effect of brand recognition. Average left and progressive voters and potential supporters when confronted with a choice between a candidate from a party largely unknown to them, like the Green Party, and a candidate from a party they identify with progressive politics, like the DP, are more likely to pick the DP candidate.

There are complications to the opportunistic use of the DP ballot line that might create obstacles to arriving at the strong case of class independence. While the candidate is independent, their use of the ballot line may be read as an endorsement of the DP and risk their unintentionally becoming a sheepdog. The choice of opportunistically using the DP ballot line also means that resources are not directly being used to build the alternative wholly independent electoral infrastructure potentially contributing to a delay in the construction of a wholly independent electoral party.

Building an independent party approach is the other side of the same electoral coin. In doing so you are building important electoral infrastructure and knowledge, but this structure gets wiped away with regularity. You retain independence and do not direct people into a dead-end political party, but your candidates remain in obscurity due to a political and media landscape that excludes those outside of the two-party system. You are principled, but what are principles when they do not result in elected candidates or tangibly contribute to realizing the immediate goals of class struggle like wage increases, single payer healthcare, and substantially eliminating the presence of policing and the harm it causes.

This is not to say that independent electoral work cannot or does not contribute to the building of a mass socialist movement in the US. The attempts to build a principled working class electoral party are important moments of political education for people who recognize the two-party system for what it is. It provides a training ground for learning how to run campaigns and uncovers some aspects of who and what we are up against. They provide a platform for socialists to engage with people on their own terms. I can say as someone who was very active in reviving the Missouri Green Party (which lost ballot access this last round of elections) that there was a steady development in the politics of its participants from squishy eco-liberalism towards eco-socialist politics. In addition, electorally- minded Green Party members were put in contact with working class people engaged in extra-electoral work thereby creating potential linkages between social movements and a potential class independent mass electoral party.

I think there is a clear case to be made for using the Democratic Party ballot line tactically. Sanders demonstrated its potential. He ran a very public oppositional campaign that did two very important things. First, his campaign made the choice to activate working class people as the primary vehicle for building his campaign. This is in stark contrast to Clinton’s campaign in 2016 or Biden’s in 2020 which relied on the development of a media apparatus to campaign from above. Second, Sanders’ campaign ran on demands that were popular and directly benefited the working class, and in doing so revived demands that were claimed to be political liabilities by Democrats. The effect of his campaign was tremendous, it opened up space in the popular discourse for socialism and due to some historical coincidences led to the emergence of DSA as a vehicle for the socialist movement.

We also have to acknowledge the failure of the Sanders campaign and the politicians that came after him, like AOC, to channel the momentum they built up into a new independent working-class electoral vehicle external to the DP. Instead, Sanders capitulated and played ball with the democratic party over the last five years. Likewise, AOC and the squad appear to be drifting towards incorporation rather than opposition. No one should be surprised by this, though, I do think Sanders et al had, possibly still have, an opportunity to make the break or, at the very least, retain a strictly oppositional position towards the Democratic Party as it exists.

Claiming some sort of “capture” by the Democratic Party or large donors is a explanation for this development. As noted above, there is nothing keeping anyone tied to the Democratic Party other than a person’s choice not to leave. I think the big reasonthat both Sanders and The Squad remain inside is that they see themselves as a counterweight to conservative Democrats within the party; if they leave or refuse to cooperate, they will be left out of the inside baseball, entirely helpless to slow the lurch rightward. That is something AOC makes clear in her Democratic Left interview. Their most important reason is an estimation that aside from the few already elected politicians with name recognition there would not be sufficient popular support to make the split and survive.

While there has been a revival of socialist and social democratic politics over the last 6 years or so, the socialist/social democratic movement in the US is still in its infancy. The subjective conditions are far from being at a point where an independent working-class electoral party could be constructed and sustained at a national level. Union political leadership remains an extension of the Democratic Party electoral apparatus. The DSA is quite small and has a membership largely clustered in a few states and metro areas. There is no functioning socialist electoral party that exists in every state or even a few states. Some may argue the Greens are a socialist electoral party, but it seems to be more potential than actuality as the party remains split along eco-liberal, eco-socialist, and (to lesser degree) eco-conservative lines. Finally, debates and discussions about electoral strategy have failed to converge on a sustainable strategy. The debate is largely characterized by the same few polemics making their appearances, lines being drawn, and adherents retreating into their respective corners.

The question that looms large is how can socialists build the conditions that allow for an independent working-class electoral party? Further fixating on electoral politics in the absence of other sites of class struggle walls off other angles of approach to socialist electoral success. We must take seriously the question of how socialists can build up the subjective forces required for independent electoral politics. This means critically evaluating our work in the labor movement and how socialist rank-and-file activists can push the official labor unions to break from the Democratic Party. It means seeing sites of open class struggle, like tenant organizing or climate justice organizing, as potential jumping off points for electoral work and places where class independence can be built up and reinforced. It means connecting the disparate local struggles in meaningful ways to determine an overarching strategic outlook. Finally, it means that organizations that believe they are leaders of the current socialist upsurge, like DSA, must reckon with the fact that the last six years of growth have largely been rudderless without a clear strategic and tactical outlook.

There is no quick and easy answer to what socialists should do, but I think there is a strategic principle we can use to help illuminate a path forward. We have to go out in the world and participate in the new and emergent mass movements with humility and intent. The goal is not to seize ideological control over an organization or impose a political will. Rather the goal should be to focus on aiding in the construction of a healthy and dynamic working-class movement based in organizations that are class independent. Without such organizations, there would be no active mass base for an independent working-class electoral party. Moreover, non-electoral class struggle organizations are important for the development of political leaders who would fill the role of politician and the development of a coherent political analysis of the current situation.

Educational work is a significant part of building healthy and sustainable class struggle organizations. Part of this is facilitating conversations that result in a clear organization-wide strategic and tactical outlook, a dire need in the current moment. Another aspect is inoculation against the allure of class compromise in a manner that goes beyond sloganeering about the Democratic Party graveyard of social movements and focuses on what class independence means and why it is important. This sort of work is not about bringing the correct analysis to the working class– most people already know what is wrong with capitalist society;it is about participating in class struggle with workers and in the process contributing to the building up of a collective analysis of what is to be done.

Until the hard work of building a mass independent working-class movement is done i.e., as we approach the strong case of class independence, the question of what ballot line socialists should run on is largely irrelevant. Without a mass base there is no social infrastructure to make independent electoral politics sustainable beyond a handful of races inside or outside of the Democratic Party. Without a well-developed network of workers and class struggle organizations there is no force, from a working-class perspective, capable to discipline and hold accountable working class electoral campaigns. Most importantly, without an active and organized working class, an independent electoral party would be deprived of the most important source of knowledge and insight– the lessons learned through the process of class struggle.

This is not to say that socialists should abandon electoral politics all together, nor reject independent electoral politics, both of which can play an important role in developing a mass movement for socialism. Rather, socialists should not get hung up on whether or hot to use the Democratic Party ballot line for this arguments is largely inconsequential until there is a mass socialist movement that could support an independent working-class electoral party.