An exchange over Electoral Politics from Solidarity’s Pre-Convention Discussion

Steve Downs and Peter Solenberger

April 27, 2021

“The bosses have two parties. We need one of our own.” Still true 25 years later.

Following is an exchange between Steve Downs and Peter Solenberger from the discussion leading up to the Solidarity National Convention this summer. The exchange takes up issues important to all revolutionary socialists in the U.S. today. It also illustrates how a political exchange can explore issues in depth and remain open and comradely, despite differences.

Steve Downs, March 7, 2021

“I think the discussion we — and others on the left — have been having about electoral strategy can be looked at as trying to figure out what we should do now and in the foreseeable future to improve the odds that a future upsurge (even if less generalized than the one Peter describes) will lead to a mass movement for an independent working-class party.“

In his recent piece, The Crisis After Trump: Biden Peter Solenbersger concludes with a section called, “Escaping the Lesser-Evil Trap.” In it, he writes:

In a future generalized upsurge, where unions, unorganized workers, Black, Latinx and other people of color, immigrants, women, LGTBQIA+ people, antiwar activists, environmental activists and others were in the streets, on picket lines and occupying buildings, Democratic Party resistance to their demands could lead to a mass movement for an independent working-class party. And that party could attract workers now aligned with the Democrats and with the Republicans.

IMO, this paragraph brings to the fore two critical points for the discussion about electoral politics we’ve been having.

Peter begins the paragraph with a statement of faith, i.e., at some point in the future, there will be a generalized upsurge, where…

He then writes that, when that upsurge runs into DP resistance to their demands, this could lead to a mass movement for an independent working-class party. Such a party could attract workers who now vote for DP and GOP. (My emphasis.) By the same token, resistance by the DP could lead to a mass movement to take over the DP. Or, it could lead to a pre-revolutionary situation.

So, what are the two critical points?

First, is the generalized upsurge that Peter describes a necessary pre-condition for the creation of an independent working-class party? (I don’t share Peter’s faith that there will be such a future generalized upsurge, so I hope not.)

Second, and more important, I think the discussion we — and others on the left — have been having about electoral strategy can be looked at as trying to figure out what we should do now and in the foreseeable future to improve the odds that a future upsurge (even if less generalized than the one Peter describes) will lead to a mass movement for an independent working-class party.

Most likely, Peter will elaborate on what he meant. I hope others will comment on these two points, as well. Do we have to premise our commitment to realizing an independent working-class party on a belief in the kind of generalized upsurge Peter describes?

And, assuming we are all committed to realizing such a party, and assuming we all believe that building mass movements and their organizations are the most important things we can do to influence politics (both of which I assume), how does the course of action around elections that you think Soli should follow improve the chances of a future upsurge leading to an independent working class party?

Coincidentally, Eric Blanc’s recent Jacobin piece on the UK Labor Party and lessons for US socialists (The Birth of the Labour Party Has Many Lessons for Socialists Today) speaks to this.

It’s a strong argument for the dirty break approach to the DP. In effect, Blanc answers, from his perspective, what should we do to improve the odds that a future upsurge (or upsurges) that could lead to an independent working-class party will actually do so?

Peter Solenberger, March 15, 2021

“I’ll answer your question as you pose it, but first I want to take up Eric Blanc’s Jacobin article ‘The Birth of the Labour Party Has Many Lessons for Socialists Today,’ to which you refer.

Dear Steve,

Thanks for continuing this exchange. Solidarity needs more political discussion at this level.

A generalized upsurge

To start with your first question:

First, is the generalized upsurge that Peter describes a necessary pre-condition for the creation of an independent working-class party? (I don’t share Peter’s faith that there will be such a future generalized upsurge, so I hope not.)

I was writing about about a generalization of the 2020 Black Lives Matter upsurge in the near future, not a revolution in the more distant future, although I’ll say something about that too. Here’s the paragraph you quote, in the context of the paragraph that precedes it.

To end this article on a positive note, the 2020 Black Lives Matter upsurge shows a possible way forward. Millions of people protested against police violence in cities with Democratic mayors and were assaulted by police on orders from those mayors. The protesters demanded shifting resources from police repression to social services — “defund the police” — and an end to mass incarceration and institutional racism. The Democratic Party at best gives lip service to these measures and will not reign in the police.

In a future generalized upsurge, where unions, unorganized workers, Black, Latinx and other people of color, immigrants, women, LGTBQIA+ people, antiwar activists, environmental activists and others were in the streets, on picket lines and occupying buildings, Democratic Party resistance to their demands could lead to a mass movement for an independent working-class party. And that party could attract workers now aligned with the Democrats and with the Republicans.

By “generalized upsurge” in this context I mean a coming together of the struggles we’ve actually seen in recent years. From 2005, off the top of my head: Katrina solidarity; the 2006 immigrant rights marches and strikes; the Dreamers campaign and 2012 occupation of Obama campaign offices; Obama’s 2008 and 2012 elections; Wisconsin 2011; Occupy; #MeToo; Black Lives Matter 2014 ; Chicago, West Virginia and other teachers’ strikes from 2012 to 2019; the 2016 and 2020 Bernie Sanders campaigns; the 2017 Women’s March; climate marches; Black Lives Matter 2020; and the 2020-21 mobilizations against Trump. Much could be added to this list.

In the 1960s and 1970s you and I saw and participated in a generalized upsurge of the kind I have in mind. The official unions peaked, the rank-and-file movement grew, wildcat strikes broke out. The Civil Rights movement became mass and won victories. The Black Power movement and urban rebellions continued the fight. The antiwar movement, the women’s movement, the lesbian/gay movement, the environmental movement, and others emerged. Millions of young people and workers regarded themselves as anticapitalist, even revolutionary.

The struggle was generalized enough to have led to a mass workers’ party, in my view, but it was too politically confused to do so. The liberals kept pulling the movements back to the Democratic Party, and the radicals either failed to see a way forward or were too few to counter the liberals.

If the next fifteen years are like the last fifteen, with episodic struggles which rise and fall but don’t become generalized, a mass working-class party seems to me highly unlikely. Politically, the struggles would dissipate or be drawn back into the Democratic Party. Hence the importance of their generalization.

A revolutionary upsurge in the US is another matter. That’s more an article of faith. I think there’s plenty of evidence that world capitalism, with US imperialism in the lead, is marching toward barbarism. Growing inequality, xenophobia, racism, patriarchy, environmental collapse, pandemics, inter-imperialist rivalry, nuclear arms proliferation, conventional wars, genocide.

I’m confident that the working-class will resist, even in the US. I’m not sure that this resistance will rise to the level of revolution here, although it surely will elsewhere. I’m even less sure that revolution in the US will succeed. Rejecting dystopia, however, I tend to be optimistic. But that’s another discussion.

The experience of the British Labour Party

Moving to your second question:

And, assuming we are all committed to realizing such a party, and assuming we all believe that building mass movements and their organizations are the most important things we can do to influence politics (both of which I assume), how does the course of action around elections that you think Soli should follow improve the chances of a future upsurge leading to an independent working class party?

I’ll answer your question as you pose it, but first I want to take up Eric Blanc’s Jacobin article The Birth of the Labour Party Has Many Lessons for Socialists Today, to which you refer. I’ve thought about the analogy of the British Labour Party for years, and I’d noted the article.

Blanc’s article contains useful information and makes many good points. Solidarity members and other revolutionary socialists should read it. But it distorts the history to motivate his strategic orientation of participating in the Democratic Party now and a dirty break sometime in the future.

Blanc gives several reasons for the delay in Labour’s break with the Liberals:

Labour’s process of separating from liberalism, however, lasted all the way up until 1918, by which time most other European countries had long since witnessed the formation of mass socialist parties. One reason for this delay was the heterogeneity of Britain’s working class, whose distinct ethnic, regional, and skill layers became disillusioned with Liberals and organized at different tempos. Another factor was the Liberal Party’s political flexibility. Seeking to head socialism off at the pass, the party gave itself a new lease on life in the first years of the new century under the stewardship of radical “New Liberals” like David Lloyd George, who championed welfare policies such as national pensions and insurance.

But most consequential of all was the relatively democratic nature of Britain’s political regime compared with low-inclusion countries like Germany. A relatively early and widespread conquest of popular male suffrage made it both possible and necessary for the Libs to rely on working-class voters, and to attempt to incorporate their representatives.

At the same time, Britain’s use of “first past the post” voting, in which whichever candidate received the most votes won all the representative seats, rather than proportional representation, generated strong pressures to work within the Liberal Party so as to avoid “spoiling” the anti-Tory vote. In contrast, the German state’s semi-authoritarianism undercut the political space for liberalism, alienated workers, and pushed the country’s socialist movement to affirm a strict opposition to all other parties and the imperial state.

All true, but underlying these was a more fundamental reason: British imperialism. Britain was the apex imperial predator of the time, which gave it the resources to grant reforms and to maneuver. British workers gained from and identified with the empire. As Engels wrote of an 1858 Lib-Lab attempt by Chartist leader Ernest Jones:

The business with Jones is very nasty. He has held a meeting here and spoken entirely along the lines of the new alliance. After this affair one is really almost driven to believe that the English proletarian movement in its old traditional Chartist form must perish completely before it can develop in a new, viable form. And yet one cannot foresee what this new form will look like. It seems to me moreover that Jones’ new move, together with the former more or less successful attempts at such an alliance, are indeed connected with the fact that the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable…

Letter from Engels to Marx, October 7. 1858
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/letters/selected-correspondence.pdf

Blanc describes the formation of the British Labour Party, but he says little about the result. The continental socialist parties not only developed earlier, they were much more radical. The British Labour Party was timid and deferential to capital, empire and crown from birth. Most of the continental socialist parties capitulated to their own imperialism at the start of World War I, but the British party was born subordinate. Given its origin, there’s little wonder that it chose Tony Blair over Tony Benn and Keir Starmer over Jeremy Corbyn.

The Labour Party’s congenital weakness doesn’t preclude work there when the ranks push against the parliamentary leaders, but it’s a reminder that the struggle for a workers’ party is about its program, strategy and tactics, as well as about its name.

Blanc describes the formation of the Labour Party as “A Slow Separation From Liberalism.” This isn’t accurate. The process was closer to no separation from Liberalism until 1900 and then a quick break.

In the nineteenth century the Conservatives represented the landed gentry, many of whom farmed for profit or leased land to those who did, while the Liberals represented the industrial capitalists. The Liberals favored expanding the franchise to employed male workers to get their support against the landowners. This was the basis of the Lib-Lab current in the Liberal Party.

Blanc writes:

the Labour Representation League (LRL) was founded in 1869 to fight for working-class legislation and to elect workers to Parliament, with or without the Liberal Party’s endorsement.

This exaggerates the LRL’s independence. The LRL demanded very little in the way of working-class legislation and got less. It quickly abandoned the idea of running workers who weren’t Liberals and got few elected even as Liberals. In 1886 the Trade Union Congress (TUC) dissolved it in favor of the Labour Electoral Association (LEA). The LEA continued the policy of running Lib-Lab candidates, but the tide had turned against the policy.

The socialists in the trade unions left the LEA and accumulated forces to found the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893. No longer relevant, the LEA dissolved two years later.

As its name suggests, the ILP advocated an independent working-class party. Blanc credit the ILP without acknowledging that it was a beak from Lib-Lab:

Credit for founding the Labour Party largely goes to those socialists — organized into the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893 — who organized within the working class as it actually was, not as they wished it to be. One of their central contributions was to help forge the militant “new unionism” that rocked Britain from the 1880s onward by uniting skilled and unskilled workers in trade unions and militant industrial actions. Activists of the soon-to-be-formed ILP played prominent leadership roles in most of these battles, including the historic 1889 Great Dock Strike — a struggle which, as one strike leader later noted, “marked the beginning of that close alliance in thought and purpose between the Trade Union Movement and the Socialist Movement which produced in due time the Labour Party.”

Socialists also pursued the less glamorous but no less important work of transforming unions from the bottom up — efforts that were essential for aiding organized labor in confronting employers and, eventually, the government. With a rise in strikes and union organizing up through 1918 came repeated efforts by ruling-class politicians — via both the Liberal and Conservative parties — to curb the movement by limiting labor rights, most notably through the infamous 1901 Taff Vale decision that held unions financially liable for damages incurred during strikes. Anti-labor counteroffensives, in turn, pushed union activists to combine industrial struggle with stronger labor representation in Parliament.

The ILP did poorly in the 1895 elections but continued to campaign for an independent labor party. Blanc describes the turning point:

The ILP’s political efforts — combined with an increased interest among various unions in independent political action during the late 1890s — finally bore fruit in late February 1900, when 129 socialists and union delegates, representing a third of organized labor’s members, came together in London to jointly discuss the sponsorship of working-class parliamentary candidates.

Roundly rejecting the SDF’s proposal to found “a party organisation separate from the capitalist parties, based on a recognition of the class war [and socialism],” the body instead adopted Hardie’s counterproposal to establish

a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour, and be equally ready to associate themselves with any party in opposing measures having an opposite tendency.

Blanc understates the significance of this step in order to preserve his narrative of a slow break. The establishment of the LRC was effectively the establishment of a new political party, with or without the Labour Party name. The LRC chose and ran candidates, and those who got elected caucused separately, decided their own policies, and made tactical alliances with other parties on particular issues.

The LRC ran fifteen candidates in the 1900 parliamentary election, its first time out, and won two seats. It won 29 seats in the 1906 parliamentary election. The improvement was partly the result of heightened struggle by workers and growth of the unions, and partly the result of a secret agreement between the LRC and the Liberals.

The two parties knew that if they competed, the Conservatives would win. They secretly agreed that the Liberals would not run candidates in 31 of the 50 constituencies where LRC candidates were running. Of the 29 seats the LRC won in 1906, 24 were in constituencies where the Liberals stood down, and 5 were where the LRC and the Liberals competed. The Liberals won the election, but the balance of forces had shifted to Labour.

The LRC renamed itself the Labour Party and continued to grow through the tumultuous years of unionization, labor strife, women’s suffrage, World War I, the Russian Revolution, and colonial rebellion. In 1918 the Labour Party adopted Clause IV, committing it to work toward “”the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” In the 1922 parliamentary elections Labour surpassed the Liberals. It has remained the opposition or governing party ever since.

Blanc acknowledges the role of the ILP, but he dumps on the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first socialist party.

Doctrinairism mired the SDF in marginality until its dissolution in 1911. Hyndman privately expressed his “disgust” with what he saw as workers’ lack of class consciousness, and he publicly lambasted the pragmatic socialists who helped found the Labour Party.

The SDF and Hyndman had many deficiencies, as Engels, Eleanor Marx and other revolutionary socialists noted. But the history of British politics to the left of the Labour Party is much richer than Blanc’s sectarian dismissal allows. It didn’t end in 1911, but continues today.

Lessons for the US

The lesson of the British Labour Party experience for the US could be summarized in this way.

1. Lib-Lab dabbling in the Democratic Party could go on for decades without leading to a break. Lib-Lab has been the policy of DSA and its predecessors since the New Deal. The influx of young members since 2016 opens the possibility of an actual break with the Dems, but DSA’s default is still to run or support DP candidates with few exceptions.

2. The development that led to the formation of the BLP was the “new unionism” of the last years of the nineteenth century, similar to the militant rank-and-file industrial unionism here in the 1930s. This led to a confrontation between the unions and the Liberal Party, which represented the industrial capitalists.

3. We can’t yet know the union component of a future confrontation between the working class and the Democrats, but drawing on the British and US experience it seems likely to be over the right to strike. Workers could defeat even the biggest private and public employers, but only by class-wide action defying laws against strikes by public workers, secondary strikes and political strikes. Class-wide action would bring them into conflict with the Dems.

4. Economic, social and political developments since the 1930s, let alone the 1890s, mean that the confrontation will be intersectional far more than during earlier periods of working-class upsurge, although those were more than just trade-union struggles. The episodic mobilizations in the US over the past fifteen years show the possibilities.

5. Since there isn’t yet a sufficiently powerful upsurge to force a sharp confrontation with the Dems, a mass working-class party isn’t yet possible. No maneuvering in the Democratic Party can change that.

6. As conditions continue to deteriorate, workers and the oppressed will resist. This should lead to a sharp confrontation with the Dems and the possibility of a mass working-class party.

To return to your question: “how does the course of action around elections that you think Soli should follow improve the chances of a future upsurge leading to an independent working class party?”

Helping to advance the consciousness, democratic self-organization, and mobilization of workers and the oppressed would improve the chances of success, obviously. Blanc would agree with that. Our difference is over running candidates as Democrats and supporting Democrats, with all that entails. And behind that the place of elections in socialist politics.

The Democratic Party is not just a ballot line. It’s a political party with with rules, a leadership, funding and an apparatus. Sanders and AOC can run as Democrats only because they promise to support the party and its candidates and not to support those who run against it. They vote upwards of 95% with their party. They propose very little legislation of their own. They don’t challenge their party’s fundamental commitment to capitalism and imperialism.

The left Democrats are who they are. Like Biden and Harris, they’ll do what they do. I prefer Biden and Harris to Trump. I prefer Sanders and AOC to Biden and Harris. Our problem is what we’re going to do, not what they do.

In line with Solidarity’s founding statement and many other documents of the socialist movement, I think revolutionary socialists are politically clearer and more credible if we don’t support Democratic Party candidates, if we say of Sanders, AOC and others, “Given their program and base, we’d support them running against Democrats, but not as Democrats.”

This view of the Dems is linked to a traditional Marxist understanding of elections in capitalist democracy. They’re not about power, not in the way many DSAers and most left Democrats think. Socialists in public office may express the power of the workers and the oppressed. They may help the working class see its strength and visualize its goals. But at this point elections and office-holding are mainly symbolic, a political statement.

The compromises candidates have to make to run and be elected as Democrats undercut the message revolutionary socialists are trying to promote. “I wanna do right but not right now,” Gillian Welch sings in “Miss Ohio.” A good song, but not the message we want to convey.

I think we’ll have to go through a few more years of Democratic left futility before revolutionary socialists return to the political clarity of Solidarity’s founding. The upside is that we may take tens of thousands of workers and youth with us.

Again, thanks for continuing the discussion.

Steve Downs, March 20, 2021

“It seems your position is that the course of action you think Soli should follow (no support for candidates running as Democrats, support GP candidate for president) doesn’t improve the chances of a future upsurge leading to an independent working class party. At least not under current political conditions.”

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your reply.

Concerning the question I asked about whether a generalized upsurge (and you explained what you mean by that) is a necessary pre-condition for the creation of an independent working-class party, your answer seems to be ‘yes’.

As for my question, “how does the course of action around elections that you think Soli should follow improve the chances of a future upsurge leading to an independent working class party?”, on first reading, I thought you didn’t answer it. But, after re-reading your remarks, I think you did. It seems your position is that the course of action you think Soli should follow (no support for candidates running as Democrats, support GP candidate for president) doesn’t improve the chances of a future upsurge leading to an independent working class party. At least not under current political conditions. If I read you correctly, your opposition to supporting Dems is unrelated to any expectation that this will improve the chances of an independent working-class party emerging out of a future upsurge. Rather, you take this position because it makes a political statement, one that is consistent with “a traditional Marxist understanding of elections in capitalist democracy”.

Related to this: it will be interesting to see what effect the slow spread of Rank Choice Voting has on DSA’s electoral strategy — especially the thinking of the “dirty break” advocates. RCV is being used in NYC for the first time this year. DSA is running candidates in DP primaries for city council. Will they run for other seats or those same seats (if they lose in the primary) as socialists now that they don’t have to be concerned about the spoiler effect? Alaska approved a particularly interesting RCV variant last Nov. There will be a single, open, non-party primary and the top four vote getters will then be listed on the ballot during the general election. Both the primary and the general election will employ RCV. I don’t know anything about DSA in Alaska, but this seems like a pretty good situation for running red/green candidates under their own banners.

Peter Solenberger, March 29, 2021

“In my view, revolutionary socialists, including Solidarity members, should be urging [run independently now] in those cases. This may help hasten DSA’s move to political independence, which, if it happens, may hasten the move of the working class to political independence.”

Dear Steve,

I’d like to take up the thread of our exchange again, hoping that others will join in as part of Solidarity’s preconvention discussion.

Yes, I think that a generalized upsurge at least on the scale of the 1930s and 1940s or the 1960s and 1970s would be necessary for the creation of an independent working-class party in the US.

In the period of working-class retreat since the 1980s we’ve seen five New Deal revivals that posed the question of an independent working-class party: Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns, the 1996 formation of the Labor Party, and Bernie Sanders 2016 and 2020 campaigns. None escaped its Democratic Party orbit.

This was partly a limitation of the leaders, who pledged fealty to the Democratic Party. But it was also a limitation of the struggles. Unions and social movements were not clashing with the Dems enough for the ranks to see independence as essential. Leaders had an influence on this too, of course, but the problem was more than just the leadership.

Having answered your question, I’ll ask you: 1) Do you think an independent working-class party could come into being with the current level of struggle? 2) Do you think the level of struggle could rise to that of the 1930s and 1940s or the 1960s and 1970s in the near- to mid-term?

I want to take another pass at your second question, “How does the course of action around elections that you think Soli should follow improve the chances of a future upsurge leading to an independent working class party?” In answer I wrote:

Helping to advance the consciousness, democratic self-organization, and mobilization of workers and the oppressed would improve the chances of success, obviously…

The compromises candidates have to make to run and be elected as Democrats undercut the message revolutionary socialists are trying to promote. ‘I wanna do right but not right now,’ Gillian Welch sings in ‘Miss Ohio.’ A good song, but not the message we want to convey.

You interpret my response as:

If I read you correctly, your opposition to supporting Dems is unrelated to any expectation that this will improve the chances of an independent working-class party emerging out of a future upsurge. Rather, you take this position because it makes a political statement, one that is consistent with “a traditional Marxist understanding of elections in capitalist democracy”.

Perhaps my song reference was too indirect. In the US today, Solidarity and other revolutionary socialists have limited influence, reduced, temporarily, by the re-emergence of a New Deal wing of the Democratic Party around Bernie Sanders and the harder right turn of the Republican Party.

But we can participate in struggles, and we can educate. The combination will allow us to contribute over time to the political development of the working class, including the creation of an independent working-class party.

We are, I think, more effective, if our words and actions are consistent. Hence the reference to “I wanna do right but not right now.”

Trade-union work, which you and I have been involved in, in different ways, poses analogous questions, despite the fundamental difference between a workers’ union and a capitalist party.

Revolutionary socialists favor militant, democratic unionism. But we have to contend with union bureaucrats who sell out struggles, sabotage strikes, disregard members, and repress dissidents to further their interests and their self-interested sense of what’s possible. To the extent that we support such bureaucrats, we undercut our message about militant, democratic unionism.

How can we construct a united front with bureaucrats to advance the struggle and at the same time get across our critical message? A complicated question, as you know from TWU Local 100.

The situation is somewhat simpler with regard to leftists running as Democrats, in my view. Revolutionary socialists can educate best by saying, “If you run as a Democrat, you will be forced to act in ways that undermine the struggles of workers and the oppressed. If you ran as an independent against the Democrats, we’d support you, as a Democrat, no.”

An interview with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the current DSA Democratic Left shows where affiliation to the Democratic Party has taken even AOC.

Some on the Left have looked at Biden’s record and his differences with the Bernie wing of the party, and they conclude that no progress is going to come out of the Biden administration. What’s your view?

Well, I think it’s a really privileged critique. We’re gonna have to focus on solidarity with one another, developing our senses for good faith critique and bad faith critique. Because bad faith critique can destroy everything that we have built so swiftly. And we know this because it has in the past, and it’s taken us so many decades to get to this point. We do not have the time or the luxury to entertain bad faith actors in our movement. But also we have to value our solidarity with one another. For anyone who brings that up, we really have to ask ourselves, what is the message that you are sending to your Black and brown and undocumented members of your community, to your friends, when you say nothing has changed? Perhaps not enough has changed. And this is not a semantic argument. Just the other night, we in collective struggle were able to stop the deportations of critical members of our community. And that would not have happened in a Trump administration.

https://democraticleft.dsausa.org/issues/spring-2021/talking-socialism-catching-up-with-aoc/

This is a red-baiting attack on those who point out the fundamental deficiencies of the Biden administration. You can’t “Fight Biden,” if you can’t name what to fight.

It’s great that “Just the other night, we in collective struggle were able to stop the deportations of critical members of our community. And that would not have happened in a Trump administration.” But I remember all too well the many failed attempts to stop deportations during the Obama administration, when deportations soared 50% above the rate during the Bush administration.

Immigration lawyers said then that stopping deportations had become “almost impossible.” That’s better than completely impossible, but not enough to attack those who pointed out that deportations were worse under Obama than under Bush.

We should know very soon whether the Democratic Party will break the Senate filibuster to make substantial changes or continue with gridlock as usual. The party-line $1.9 trillion rescue package was impressive, but it was only half the bipartisan rescue passed last year during the Trump administration. If the rescue turns out to have been the high point of the Biden administration, as I think likely, what will the left Democrats do?

Your reference to ranked-choice voting in NYC and Alaska is intriguing. I expect DSA to be divided over what to do. The logic of the “dirty break” position is “I wanna do right but not right now.” I think that will lead most DSA candidates to go along with obeying Democratic Party rules and accepting defeat, rather than running as independents. But other DSA members will contest this timidity and say, “If not now, when?”

In my view, revolutionary socialists, including Solidarity members, should be urging “now” in those cases. This may help hasten DSA’s move to political independence, which, if it happens, may hasten the move of the working class to political independence.

We’ll see.

Steve Downs, March 31, 2021

“I don’t think that we discredit ourselves if we say, ‘vote for Biden to defeat Trump’ while criticizing the DP and then, at some point, urging support for independent candidates.”

Hi Peter,

I appreciate your response. I think this respectful back and forth has made it possible for some of the nuances of our respective positions to emerge. I, for one, have a clearer sense of both your and my positions as a result.

To answer your questions:

1. Do you think an independent working-class party could come into being with the current level of struggle? No

2. Do you think the level of struggle could rise to that of the 1930s and 1940s or the 1960s and 1970s in the near- to mid-term? In the near term, no. As for the mid-term, it depends on what you mean by that. But, as comrades in NY know, I’m usually somewhere between ‘the glass is half-empty’ and ‘glass?, what glass?’

(I think you agree that the level of struggle will not rise evenly across the country. In fact, the US is so large, and organization/consciousness so uneven, that it’s likely that the possibility of independent political organization will emerge at different times in different places. IMO, at the national level it will likely involve some sort of coming together of local efforts such as Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and Progressive Dane, independent socialist candidacies, a split from the DP, some WFP state chapters, some militant unions, BLM organizations, the GP — in the context of higher levels of struggle.)

In response to my question, “How does the course of action around elections that you think Soli should follow improve the chances of a future upsurge leading to an independent working class party?” You wrote (in two recent posts), “Helping to advance the consciousness, democratic self-organization, and mobilization of workers and the oppressed would improve the chances of success, obviously…”

I agree. But this reply is so general (in all of our political work, we hope to advance the consciousness, etc., etc.) that it doesn’t really answer what it is about the strategy you advocate around elections that will help lead to an independent working class party.

I would argue that it doesn’t answer the question because it can’t. The position you have argued for (and that I agreed with until recently), that I summarized in my last post as, “no support for candidates running as Democrats, support GP candidate for president” lacks a theory, or a discernible path, showing how this will meaningfully contribute to an independent working class party.

You write, “I think revolutionary socialists are politically clearer and more credible if we don’t support Democratic Party candidates”. Elsewhere, I’ve written that I don’t find this argument persuasive. I don’t think that we discredit ourselves if we say, “vote for Biden to defeat Trump” while criticizing the DP and then, at some point, urging support for independent candidates. Neither one of us has much actual data to base our position on. Do you have any surveys, polls or even anecdotes in support of your position?

Peter, as per usual, I’ll leave you with a question. You are more knowledgeable than I about the electoral efforts of the left internationally. In your opinion, in which countries has the left had the most success in building an independent working-class party while following the approach that you advocate (no support for candidates of capitalist parties, support for independent candidates)? 

Peter Solenberger, April 1, 2021

“Marxists, including Eleanor Marx, contributed to the victory by rejecting Lib-Lab. To them the Liberals were not just a ballot line, but a political party representing capitalist interests. Lib-Lab was not a clever tactic, but a mistaken strategy that led away from working-class political independence. Their advocacy was an essential part of the process which led the workers’ movement to break with the Liberals and establish the Labour Party.”

Dear Steve,

I much appreciate our exchange. It has clarified my thinking too.

I’m more “the glass is half-full” type. Beyond that, I think we pretty much agree on answers to my two questions.

On whether revolutionary socialists have more credibility if they refuse to support candidates running as Democrats, we’ll have to agree to disagree. Many revolutionary socialists have come to your conclusion around Bernie Sanders, AOC and even Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump. I think events will bring us back together again, but we’ll see.

You ask, “in which countries has the left had the most success in building an independent working-class party while following the approach that you advocate (no support for candidates of capitalist parties, support for independent candidates)?”

As you know, most working classes established mass workers’ parties under conditions quite different from those of the US today. Wars, revolutions, partisan struggles, labor upsurges, anti-colonial struggles, and so on. Since then they’ve had to contend with the problem of bourgeois workers’ parties, as the revolutionary tradition has called them, workers’ parties that administer or seek to administer a capitalist state.

The closest analogies to the US situation I can think of are the formation of the labor parties in Britain, Canada and Australia. I discussed the case of the British Labour Party in my comments on Eric Blanc’s Jacobin article. I’ll try to mine that analogy a bit more.

Lib-Lab sentiment to run labor candidates on the Liberal ballot line was strong in Britain in the late nineteenth century, as Blanc notes. But, as I wrote, I don’t agree with his characterization of the break of Labour from the Liberals as a “dirty break,” the result of “a slow separation from Liberalism.”

The British labor movement, growing in size and combativity during the 1890s, broke sharply with the Liberals when it formed the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900. The LRC ran Labour candidates on a Labour platform and formed a Labour caucus in parliament.

In 1903 the LRC made a secret deal with the Liberals to divvy up constituencies. In the 1906 elections the Liberals stood down in 31 of the 50 constituencies where Labour ran. Labour won in 24 constituencies where the Liberals stood down and in 5 where they did not.

Based on these results, the LRC changed its name to the Labour Party. The party grew and moved left with the labor movement, surpassing the Liberals in 1922. Since then the problem has been how to relate to a bourgeois workers’ party.

The 1903 agreement between the LRC and the Liberals benefited the LRC in that it accelerated Labour’s entry into parliament. It benefited the Liberals in that it allowed them to win the 1906 election.

The agreement was not an agreement for mutual support, although undoubtedly many Liberals voted Labour in constituencies where the Liberals had stood down, and many Labour supporters voted Liberal in constituencies where the LRC didn’t run. The secret agreement preserved the public political independence of both sides.

The US today lacks the “new unionism” industrial upsurge which powered the rise of Labour in the 1890s and early 1900s. In the absence of such an upsurge, neither the Greens nor DSA nor anyone else has the leverage to force the Dems to accept divvying up seats. But I could see that in the future.

As a thought experiment, let’s suppose that the US experiences another generalized upsurge like the 1930s and 1940s or the 1960s and 1970s. Emboldened and made less sectarian by the upsurge, the labor left that initiated the 1996 Labor Party, DSA, the Greens, and movement organizations join together to form a Working-Class Representation Committee (WCRC) to support struggles and contest elections.

The WCRC declares its intention to run candidates in its own name and on its own program and to have its representatives caucus separately. At the same time it proposes to the Dems, openly, that the two parties divvy up districts. There would be no pretense that they agree politically, only an open acknowledgement that they prefer an arrangement that gets them both into office, rather than a fight in which they both lose to the Republicans.

The Dems, sensing that the tide is against them, debate whether to reach this technical agreement with the WCRC or become junior partners of the Republicans. They decide on the former, which allows them to win the next election but also clears the way for the WCRC to displace them.

I could see revolutionary socialists supporting such an arrangement. Not running as Democrats, not an electoral bloc with them, but a technical agreement like that between the LRC and the Liberals, except public.

The Bolsheviks contemplated such technical agreements, for example, during the 1912 Duma elections. See

V.I. Lenin
The Sixth (Prague) All-Russia Conference of the RSDLP
Elections to the Fourth Duma
https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1912/6thconf/efd.htm#v17pp74-468

Conditions in the Russian Empire in 1912 were too different from those in the US today for me to propose that as an analogy. The citation is just to indicate that one can be an orthodox Marxist, as I see myself, and accept the tactical flexibility of such technical agreements, although not the mixing of banners of running as a Democrat or an electoral coalition with Democrats.

Returning to your question, i see the formation of the British Labour Party as due to the labor movement’s moving away from Lib-Lab to political independence. This was not a clever plan implemented over decades by Lib-Lab leaders, but rather a short, sharp struggle in which the proponents of independence, expressing the combativity of the ranks, defeated Lib-Lab.

Marxists, including Eleanor Marx, contributed to the victory by rejecting Lib-Lab. To them the Liberals were not just a ballot line, but a political party representing capitalist interests. Lib-Lab was not a clever tactic, but a mistaken strategy that led away from working-class political independence. Their advocacy was an essential part of the process which led the workers’ movement to break with the Liberals and establish the Labour Party.

Steve Downs, April 1, 2021

“I just want to quickly state the obvious: the UK, Canada and Australia all have parliamentary systems where the chief executive is not voted on by the electorate at large. Instead, she or he is chosen by majority vote of the sitting legislators.”

Hi Peter,

I just want to quickly state the obvious: the UK, Canada and Australia all have parliamentary systems where the chief executive is not voted on by the electorate at large. Instead, she or he is chosen by majority vote of the sitting legislators. The whole question that ties parts of the US left in knots every few years — whether to support the lesser evil or risk the greater evil becoming president — is not posed in the same way in those countries as it is here. It may not be posed at all until after the election when, if no party receives a majority of seats in parliament, the labor party has to decide whether to support the lesser evil liberal party with its votes (or rely on the liberal party’s votes, if labor is the larger).

The kind of non-compete agreement that you raise in your thought experiment doesn’t address this. Even if the DP and an incipient US labor party agreed not to compete for specific congressional seats, the left – even with an independent working-class party – would still have to decide whether to support the lesser-evil DP presidential candidate or risk the greater-evil GOP candidate winning.

Peter Solenberger, April 2, 2021

“If the working class is ever to become independent, at some point the working-class forces will have to say to the Democrats what Labour said the Liberals in the early 1900s, ‘Our representation matters more than your election. We will take you down, if necessary. But we’re open to negotiating a transition in which you win the general election and we emerge electorally more quickly than we otherwise would.’”

Dear Steve,

The specifics of the US electoral system would affect the specifics of the agreement to divvy up positions, but the general approach would still apply.

Two premises of my thought experiment were that 1) the level of class struggle was high enough so that important unions and organizations of the oppressed could no longer accept the boundaries of the two-party system, and 2) the Working-Class Representation Committee (WCRC, or whatever name it adopted) was strong enough to force the Dems to negotiate, but not yet strong enough to compete with them everywhere. Like the situation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1903.

Pursuing the thought experiment, the negotiations could potentially include all offices and not necessarily just for one election. At the federal level, if the electoral system was as it is today, the negotiations could include presidential, Senate and House elections.

In a presidential election year the most important election would be that one. If the balance of forces were as I premised, the WCRC might say to the Dems, “We don’t yet have the support to win the presidency, but we have enough to prevent you from winning it. We would prefer, and we propose, an agreement in which we stand down for the presidency and in these Senate races and these House races, and you stand down in these Senate races and these House races.”

If the working class is ever to become independent, at some point the working-class forces will have to say to the Democrats what Labour said the Liberals in the early 1900s, “Our representation matters more than your election. We will take you down, if necessary. But we’re open to negotiating a transition in which you win the general election and we emerge electorally more quickly than we otherwise would.”

Of course, the further goal of the WCRC would be to displace the Dems, and the goal of the Dems would be to prevent this.

Having reached the stand-down agreement with the Dems, the WCRC could take essentially the same position toward the DP presidential candidate as DSA took toward Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. “They aren’t our candidates. We don’t endorse them. This is our estimation of the differences between them and their opponents…”

Steve Downs, April 2, 2021

“Even if the DP was willing to make such a non-compete agreement, it would not be able to enforce it.”

Hi Peter,

Even if the DP was willing to make such a non-compete agreement, it would not be able to enforce it.

Unlike parliamentary systems, where the party chooses who will stand in elections in its name, the DP does not have the ability to decide who will run in its name. For congressional, Senate, and state legislative races, that decision is usually made through primaries. And the primaries are run by state governments, not the party. Anyone who meets age, residency and petitioning requirements can run. The DP cannot prevent them. In fact, I’m sure the GOP would make sure someone petitioned to run on the DP line in every district where it was possible the DP might stand down in favor of the WCRC.

Peter Solenberger, April 2, 2021

“The formation of a mass workers’ party in the US may or may not go through a step of negotiations like the 1903 deal between the Labour Representation Committee and the Liberals. My point was that Lib-Lab type support for Democrats isn’t necessary.”

Dear Steve,

I think we’ve reached the limit of what this thought experiment can achieve, since we’re talking about a future balance of forces which doesn’t yet exist. The main problem is to amass the forces to build an alternative to the Democrats, not whether the Democrats could hold up their end of an agreement to divvy up positions.

The formation of a mass workers’ party in the US may or may not go through a step of negotiations like the 1903 deal between the Labour Representation Committee and the Liberals. My point was that Lib-Lab type support for Democrats isn’t necessary.

Whether the Democrats can control their candidates is mainly relevant to the debate over whether the Democrats are “just a ballot line.” I think the Dems do have the ability to decide who will run in their name. Here’s the Wikipedia description of how they did this in the 2006 Senate campaign in Vermont.

Sanders entered the race for the U.S. Senate on April 21, 2005, after Senator Jim Jeffords announced that he would not seek a fourth term. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, endorsed Sanders, a critical move as it meant that no Democrat running against him could expect to receive financial help from the party. He was also endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic National Committee chairman and former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Dean said in May 2005 that he considered Sanders an ally who “votes with the Democrats 98% of the time.” Then-Senator Barack Obama also campaigned for him in Vermont in March 2006. Sanders entered into an agreement with the Democratic Party, much as he had as a congressman, to be listed in their primary but to decline the nomination should he win, which he did.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernie_Sanders#Elections_2

I’ll write more about DP discipline in the context of the ballot-line discussion.

Comments
  • James H. Williams says:

    I am more interested in the New Democratic Party in Canada than the Brits. What is the history? Were any of the aforementioned criteria present?

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