Voting for Socialism: A debate

sewer socialism

The campaigns of Kshama Sawant and Ty Moore have generated a lot of debate around the role of elections in overcoming capitalism. Both candidates came from Socialist Alternative, a party with roots in the broader social democratic and trotskyist traditions that moved to electoral activity relatively recently. Sawant won her election to Seattle’s city council, and Moore lost by a hair.

A changing social and political landscape is shifting the boundaries of electoral action and the relationships of radicals both to candidates and their own activity. Narrowing in on one aspect of the debate, today we will look at the contributions of three short pieces coming from Minneapolis, where Ty Moore ran his unsuccessful campaign. The authors were responding to the discussion and activity locally as people active in struggles opposed to State power all together, including efforts to capture and reform the existing capitalist State. Though we lack the space, we strongly encourage going through a fourth piece by the Black Orchid Collective in Seattle that explores similar themes in response to their own situation with the candidacy of Sawant. Also the commentary to the pieces that follow and Black Orchid contain replies both from the authors and other people active in the relevant cities, and is worth reading. The articles are listed in chronological order as they reply to one and another.

There are a few themes to focus in on. The authors debate whether or not it matters to oppose attempts to move towards socialism through elections. Within this there is a deeper debate about how close and how likely attempts to make reforms are to impede more radical alternatives. Given that a presidential election season is approaching rapidly, and militant reformism is increasingly becoming a mobile social force, these questions are likely to face us again.

Power to the People, Not Politicians! A Critique of Socialist Electoralism
by First of May Anarchist Alliance – Minnesota Collective
November 2013

I.

All across the Central, Corcoran, Phillips, and Powderhorn neighborhoods of Minneapolis you can see the red & white “Ty Moore for City Council” yard signs, symbolic of the impressive effort the campaign is mounting. The Campaign literature emphasizes social justice, in particular the ongoing movement to defend homeowners from foreclosure and eviction. The Green Party (Minneapolis’ 2nd party) and, significantly, the SEIU union leadership have endorsed Ty’s campaign – signaling an apparent challenge to Democratic-Farmer-Labor rule in Minneapolis. What could be wrong with all of this?

Plenty, actually. Electoral campaigns, including this one, have as their aim to get “our guy” into a place of power – the government – and to “educate” the public on issues of importance. But what kind of power is this? And what are people being taught?

II.

The government is not a democratic institution. It is bureaucracy in the shape of a pyramid with more power and fewer people the higher you climb. “The State”, as anarchists call the government – including City Hall – is a system imposed over the people and land in which self-determination is “taken from the people and confided to certain individuals, and these, whether by usurpation or delegation, are invested with the right to make laws over and for all, and to constrain the public to respect them, making use of the collective force of the community to this end.” (Malatesta, an old-school Italian anarchist)

The State overlaps with and is usually subordinate to the economic hierarchy of the super-rich, their corporations and banks – what the Occupy movement called “the 1%” and what anarchists refer to as “the ruling class”. Together, the ruling class and the State control the system of exploitation, oppression, and alienation – and the resultant wars, low pay, police brutality, sexual harassment, gentrification, environmental destruction, boredom and depression – that dominate our lives.

Prioritizing a campaign for City Council can be seen as akin to saying that workers should focus their energies around getting the right person to be their CEO or on the board of directors.

III.

Historically there have been two ways people have organized to confront this system:

Reform or Revolution.

Reform is the idea that the system can be successfully modified and improved through legal means and especially through participation in its official channels like lobbying and elections. Reformists argue that this is the realistic and peaceful approach to change.

The problem is that the system, while very adept at incorporating and co-opting reform efforts, has been incredibly resistant to any fundamental structural change from within. It is built to administer class division, racism, sexism and homophobia – not to end it. Those that accept the logic of helping run the system are rewarded. Many more reformists have been changed by working within the system than vice versa.

The biggest reforms under capitalism have actually been the product of struggle from outside the system, not from friendly politicians within. From the union sit-down strikes, Black Liberation movement, and anti-war resistance, to ACT-UP, and the May 1st immigrant strikes – militant mass movements of people using direct action outside the system have forced governments of the left and right to concede to popular demands.

Revolutionaries want to help take these independent movements from just defending past gains or making limited demands on to the offensive by challenging all of the authoritarian social relationships and the system that administers and defends them. This will require a social revolution that expropriates the rich, dissolves the State apparatus, overthrows structural and cultural patriarchy (sexism) and white supremacy (racism) and builds decentralized, directly democratic, ecological self-governance from below. Campaigns for City Council are a detour from our tasks.

IV.

But isn’t Ty’s campaign at least raising issues? Won’t his campaign teach people about Socialism?

First, movements across the city were already raising the issues of low-paid service work, the foreclosure crisis, and immigrant rights. We don’t need a politician to legitimate those movements. More troubling is the inference that this campaign is taking these demands to a higher level. It will not be City Council resolutions that prevent foreclosures or raise minimum wages, but a mobilized community willing to physically block sheriff’s evictions, and organized workers willing to strike.

Second, Ty Moore’s campaign isn’t saying much about Socialism (however understood). The campaign does not mention capitalism, socialism, workers control, or revolution. This is an important choice. Ty Moore is campaigning for reforms of capitalism not its abolition.

But campaigns teach by more than what is in their written programs. Even if the campaign was more explicitly radical, functionally it is teaching people that social change comes about through electing better politicians. The campaign has all the features of a mainstream election effort – adoration of a single personality, exaggeration of his “leadership”, meaningless pledges to “get results for you”. This is an elitist approach that reinforces the passivity of people by making someone else the “leader” who gets things done, instead of arguing for all of us to take control over our own lives. The activists and community members who have dived into the Ty Moore campaign are not prioritizing organizing one-on-ones to plan direct actions at work, at school, or in their neighborhoods, or discussing and debating how to replace the racist police with community militias or how narrow gender-roles stifle our humanity or how to build rank & file power against the union bureaucracy. They are rallying around “our guy” and training people to fundraise and to get out the vote. This is the main lesson that participants in the campaign are gaining: How to participate in this unjust system.

V.

Socialist Alternative has organized an impressive united front around its candidate. The campaign describes it as a breakthrough: “A big-tent coalition is emerging as an alternative anti-corporate base of political power in Minneapolis, uniting union leaders with socialists, Greens with disillusioned Democrats, block club leaders with urban farmers, immigrant rights advocates with LGBTQ organizers, and Somali business owners with Occupy Homes”.

What we notice is that at the core of this coalition are organizations influenced and funded by SEIU leadership, and sharing their top-down, staff driven, reformism with a militant veneer. It seems that SEIU leadership recognizes in Ty’s campaign a similar approach and made the calculation that a break with the DFL here would help solidify the hegemony of this kind of politics over community, labor and social activists in Minneapolis. It is not just that reformism is inadequate for fighting capitalism and the State, but that in order to maintain its place within the system the reformists have to be able to police the radicals and grassroots. Nationally SEIU has played hardball with its internal dissidents (such as placing militant locals under trusteeship) and Occupy Homes pushed out its solid anarchist activists. A major leader of Socialist Alternative’s sister organization in Britain threatened to “name names” of the hundreds of militants who fought the police during the Poll-Tax riot against Margaret Thatcher’s policies. We should not automatically assume that a Socialist on the city council would be an ally of radical social movements.

VI.

The Ty Moore campaign has succeeded in making a splash, and whether he wins or loses, by challenging the DFL, the campaign may have opened up some space for alternative politics in Minneapolis. These potential positives are undermined by the nature of the project: a radical reformist campaign to enter the government. All of our experience tells us it will lose its radicalism and will gain no significant reforms.

While we certainly also oppose Ty’s main opponent Alondra Cano (the DFL candidate supported by the City establishment as well as some activists), and are not trying to sabotage Socialist Alternative’s efforts, we cannot support any politician including Ty Moore’s campaign.

We are enthusiastic about the growing possibilities for radical change and the increasingly complex web of organizations and people out there struggling and experimenting with different approaches – but it is crucial that movements also find ways of reflecting and evaluating our experiences and history.  We understand that some friends and allies will look at the situation differently. Discussion and debate is good for the movement. We see this is a contribution toward that ongoing conversation, and look forward to fighting alongside each other wherever possible.

We will continue to put our efforts into building radical autonomous movements of workers, students, prisoners, and the poor. Our goal is revolution not just reforms. Our strength is in the neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools – not the voting booth.

For a socialism without politicians

Power to the People, Not Politicians!

Socialism in Minneapolis: thinking about elections

John O’Reiley

Having just survived an election season in Minneapolis’s 9th Ward, the various arguments about Socialist Alternative’s candidate for City Council are fresh in my mind. Here I’m going to weave (or more accurately, stick together) together two separate pieces of thinking about what this stuff represents. The first is more an analysis of what’s going on in Minneapolis right now on the left, posing some questions to think about going forward. The second, more wandering bit is about why I think electoralism in America is a false problem radicals to worry about.

The “MK Dialectics” of Ty Moore for City Council

I’ve spent the past few months sitting on the sidelines of the emergent campaign for Ty Moore, a candidate from the Trotskyist political party Socialist Alternative (SA), for City Council of Minneapolis. Socialist Alternative, which has a reasonable base of mostly students and a minority of worker militants, has a good track record of participating in various social struggles in the Twin Cities, moving from their work in the youth anti-war movement of the early 2000s to a variety of causes including school closures, GLBT activism, and most recently, a serious orientation towards working inside Occupy Homes Minnesota (OHMN). I’ve always had good relationships with members of SA and they have supported the IWW in various struggles we have been involved with and we have in turn attempted to turn out to their events. While there are obvious political differences between the two groups, SA has, up to this point, not emphasized electoral politics as part of their practice, outside of “getting out the vote” for Greens or Nader-types come election time. Socialist Alterative is also notable locally for being a party that identifies with the Trotskyist tradition formally, but downplays their revolutionary socialist politics in their publicity, unlike other Trotskyist groups. Since their Seattle section ran an unsuccessful but exciting campaign for a candidate for Washington State Senate, turning out 14,000 votes, SA has around the country started to look more towards electoral possibilities, and this has culminated locally with Moore’s candidate for City Council.

We have a comrade who goes by the name MK. He’s a smart and savvy organizer, and at some point identified a way of analyzing situations that have since been colloquially and partially-jokingly termed “MK dialectics.” MK dialectics consider the political situation by noting that there are often three layers of reality, each a level deeper than the last. Or, to put it differently, each level of analysis sees a more obscure reality hidden behind it, and uncovers it by interrogating the relevant information about the level that is currently visible. It’s also just an amusing way of simplifying political analysis into a pithy refrain. In MK dialectics we ask the questions “what’s going on?” then “what’s really going on?” and then finish with “what’s really, really going on?”

Having tried to keep in touch with what’s happening locally with the Moore campaign, and in discussion with some comrades, I’d like to offer what I think is a way of looking at what’s happened with this campaign, using the framing of MK’s dialectics to understand the situation.

What’s going on: Socialist Alternative ran a campaign for City Council, pushing demands like $15 an hour minimum wage and an end to foreclosures as educational demands that it hopes will inspire people to both vote for Moore and come around the politics of SA.

What’s really going on: A group of “militant reformist” organizations, led by Occupy Homes, came together to support Moore’s campaign. SA has played an important role within Occupy Homes and in supporting these other organizations and there are strong links between SA and the militant reformists.

What’s really, really going on: The left-wing of the NGO-labor-community organization scene in Minneapolis, having struggled with the DFL establishment in the past few years, are attempting to consolidate their organizing successes and political power in a figure in City Hall, using SA as a front group with broad and vague enough politics to fulfill this desire.

I think this analysis effectively flips the appearance of what’s going on its head and I’m fairly confident that I’m correct in what I’m saying here. I don’t say it to be a jerk or to put people down, but I think it’s important to analyze what’s going on in my city, even if I know and have worked with many of the people involved. I think the entire Moore campaign is actually the result of the success of organizations, most clearly Occupy Homes, but also SEIU and the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), which is SEIU and (I believe) non-profit-funded, and the post-ACORN organization Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) becoming a New Left, primarily centered around staff organizers within these and allied organizations. SA serves as a useful vehicle for the campaign because they’re excited about running electoral campaigns, excited about what it could do for their party, and have a public face that can accommodate both reformist and revolutionary supporters. But it’s also important to analyze the material forces that represent the biggest backers and most powerful players in this situation. What’s really, really happening is this campaign is the manifestation on a formal political level of the work that the left wing of the non-profit/labor complex has been able to accomplish with Occupy and beyond it.

I do think it’s important to be cogent about what’s happening below the surface because of what it means going forward. I attended part of a post-election wrap-up of the campaign where multiple shot-callers pushed people towards working together on social movement projects and the short term, and returning to run candidates in the long term. In what ways would a representative of the “militant reformists” in the Twin Cities sitting on the Minneapolis City Council mean for the way that struggles, both reformist and revolutionary, move forward? What are the limits that taking political power (even if that power is only one seat and a seat replacing a liberal Democrat) puts these organizations vis-à-vis the repressive apparatus of the state and what openings does it create? Will the organizations which constitute this base push for radical demands or will they be content with merely calling for them for educational purposes? How will radicals who see themselves as outside the electoral arena relate to a formally-constituted Left which finds itself for the first time with political representation by both moderates (SEIU-backed candidates all around the state) and radicals and how will these two different forces relate internally? These are questions for us to return to going forward, assuming this current wave of electoralism continues.

Electoralism: A False Dilemma

Just a few days before the City Council election in Minneapolis, a group of comrades from the 1st of May Anarchist Organization put out a statement condemning electoralism and attempting to identify the weaknesses of an approach to politics that includes running candidates for office. A good statement, it sums up the general anarchist approach to the electoral issue. The one place where it is weak is when it tries to show the specific political problems raised in SA’s campaign:

“First, movements across the city were already raising the issues of low-paid service work, the foreclosure crisis, and immigrant rights… It will not be City Council resolutions that prevent foreclosures or raise minimum wages, but a mobilized community willing to physically block sheriff’s evictions, and organized workers willing to strike.”

Later M1 says:

“What we notice is that at the core of this coalition are organizations influenced and funded by SEIU leadership, and sharing their top-down, staff driven, reformism with a militant veneer. It seems that SEIU leadership recognizes in Ty’s campaign a similar approach and made the calculation that a break with the DFL here would help solidify the hegemony of this kind of politics over community, labor and social activists in Minneapolis.”

As my analysis above lays out, the people identified in the first paragraph are the same people maligned in the second. It’s not that there are malicious reformists attempting to subvert radical movements from above through electioneering, it’s that most of the movements in the city in the current moment are reformist movements interested in electioneering and the veneer of militancy that they wear brings radicals to believe they’re something that they’re not. The specifics of the polemic aside, the critique is shared all around the far left by comrades who see electoral campaigns as distractions from the real work, what M1 calls the “main lesson” of the SA campaign being “[h]ow to participate in this unjust system.”

I think though that this traditional anarchist and ultraleft position on elections has the bad fortune of being simultaneously right and wrong. That is to say, the position is correct analytically but incorrect strategically. Yes, running elections is a distraction from radical organizing amongst the working class and teaches people that politicians can save them from their problems. That’s true. The first part of the critique has maybe more to it, but arguing that the idea of left electoralism will teach people to be dependent on left politicians serves no purpose.

In a country where we have never had an electoral socialist movement which came anywhere near the reigns of the state, and in which the rules of electioneering have been set by two major capitalist parties for its entire existence, the “threat” that electoralism poses is a false one. There’s simply no way, under the current system of gerrymandering, machine politics, and campaign finance rules, for socialists to constitute a serious threat to the capitalist political parties on a wide scale. Ward 9 in Minneapolis is probably the most left ward in the city and certainly the one with the highest density of left activists and organizers per capita. The whole country, indeed the whole city, is not Ward 9. And even there, the campaign lost.

We’re living in a fantastically interesting moment of capitalist political power in this country, where the Republican Party, besieged by demographic changes, is rewriting laws in states and in Washington to make sure that they hold their grip on power after they have become truly unrepresentative of the people they claim to govern. The Democratic Party, ascendent demographically if not politically, has its opponent on the ropes but cannot figure out how to land the knockout blow. In this moment, with the capitalist political parties figuring out how to continue their game in a situation that is rapidly changing, there is definitely going to be a left flank that opens on the Democrats side and which allows for people, some socialists and others “progressives” to exist and even to win elections. Indeed SA’s campaign in Seattle is achieving a lot of press because of their success in a city-wide race.

But this attention remains, on the long term, insignificant. The realignment of the capitalist political class and its current internal crises, will not lead to a reconfiguring of how electoral politics works at a fundamental level because these dynamics are centuries-old juridical frameworks of U.S. politics. The only thing that could possibly open up electoralism as a viable, widely-spread avenue for the far left in the U.S. would be a revolution of some mixed-class type. 300 years of capitalist legal control with no widespread electoral opposition have solidified a system under which left electoralism cannot win. The only thing that has terrified the capitalist class and their lackies in government in this country’s history has been mass, widespread uprisings of working people, and before them, slaves. Left electoralism has never challenged U.S. capitalism in a meaningful way even when millions of people self-consciously saw themselves as anti-capitalist radicals, why would it suddenly do so now, over a hundred years since socialism’s highest electoral turn out of 6% for Eugene Debs in 1912’s presidential election? (And one hundred years through which the two major parties have used even more sophisticated maneuvers to disenfranchise working people.)

Urging people to fear and oppose the specter of an electoral turn of the left in this country is simply not worth one’s time. Furthermore, it invites reformist forces to marginalize and dismiss anti-electoral radicals as out of touch with reality. Of course, it is those self-same reformist forces who delude themselves by thinking that despite the international failure of the Second International, Eurocommunism, and more recently Bolivarianism (in its varied forms) to bring about anything resembling a cooperative commonwealth of labor, they will somehow do things differently. The far left should heed the lessons of the Socialist Party, forerunners of SA and various political party’s sojourns into electoralism. The party never again regained the strength it had after it forced the IWW and other syndicalist and direct actionist forces out of the party and lost much of its electoral strength as a result. The lesson for radicals should be clear: the choice between electoralist utopianism and actionist puritanism is a false one and obscures more than it clarifies. In a moment where some of the most militant forces are the most conservative and bureaucratic on the left, the idea that who our allies and opponents are can be seen clearly through which field of action they mythologize most is difficult to maintain. The question should be what tactics, strategies, and organizational methods move our class closer to a communist future and how can we work towards those ends? It’s not that electoralism is wrong, though it is, it’s that its unimportant.

Occupy City Council! Minneapolis and sewer socialism

Juan Conatz

This was originally written in October 2013, but then I decided not to publish it or even adequately finish it because I thought the immediacy I felt when I wrote it was overblown. Also, putting something out like this before the election would have just made me look like a jerk, which I probably do a good enough job with any way. Since then, two other articles have been written about this topic. The first, by First of May Anarchist Alliance, is, frankly, the common anarchist response to elections, which maybe is worth repeating, but was something I tried to avoid writing. The second, by John O’Reilly, take a different angle of who the players are here, which I mostly agree with.

Minneapolis can be a strange city. Sometimes called the “Portland of the Midwest”, white counterculture types, fourth generation Scandinavians and large recent immigrant populations live simultaneously (yet mostly separately) in the same neighborhoods on the Southern part of the city. Remembrances and tributes to the iconic and often violent 1934 Teamsters strike can be found incorporated into the public transit stations where the battles once raged, as well as the now yuppiefied Warehouse District where the strikers once labored. Sitting on your porch, you can witness the parents of Baby Boomers attending the still existing Norwegian Lutheran church they probably attended as children, while Somali kids run around yards, playing games. Turn your head and you might see a pack of fixed gear riding hipsters pass a house full of Ecuadorians sitting on their porch, taking in the same scenery as you.

This is all against the unique backdrop of the state of Minnesota as a whole, a solid “blue state”, where the Democrats retain the name of the more left party they merged with, and where elements of the New Deal and The Great Societystill exist in a way they do not anymore elsewhere, if they ever did.

It is in this context that the very real possibility of a self-identified socialist being elected to city council almost happened. Ty Moore, a paid staff organizer for Socialist Alternative, ran for the Ward 9 city council seat for Minneapolis. His campaign had raised nearly the same amount of money as Alondra Cano, the DFL-endorsed candidate, while gaining the endorsement of of the SEIU State Council. In the end, although he ended up losing, it was a competitive race.

SEIU

SEIU usually campaigns for and is one of the biggest single fundraising sources for President Obama and the Democratic Party. In fact SEIU has raised more money for Obama than Obama’s own Super PAC. This is the first time I’m aware of that any body of them have endorsed a candidate to the left of the Democrats. I don’t want to exaggerate this though, Alondra Cano ended up getting the endorsement of all the other ‘political player’ unions (AFL-CIO Regional Federation, AFSCME, etc)

While no organization is monolithic, every organization has broad ideological agreements that can be generalized off of. With SEIU, it could be said that the prevailing way to see themselves is as a progressive force that pushes the Democrats to the left while supporting them regardless as the ‘lesser of two evils’. It could be that this endorsement of Moore means that at least portions of the union have become disillusioned with the ‘returns’ on their ‘investments’ in Obama and the Democrats, and are now willing to experiment with other candidates on a more local level. While not widespread, this strategy could also come into play with their Fight for Fifteen fast-food campaign, which, when you slice the fat off it, is largely a public pressure campaign to pass minimum wage legislation at the local and state level.

Occupy Homes

Related to SEIU, as there is a fair amount of social and political crossover with SEIU Local 26, is Occupy Homes. Ty Moore’s candidacy represents the Occupy movement’s path to local level electoralism in Minneapolis. In other regions, Occupy has either disintegrated or splintered off into many dozens of other smaller projects. But here, besides a technically still existing but tiny grouping still calling itself Occupy Minneapolis, there is Occupy Homes.

Occupy Homes started out as a side project of the then larger Occupy Minneapolis, but quickly outgrew the main (however loose) organizational body. As the purpose, viability and appeal of public square occupations became lessened, organizers with a thirst for concrete projects drifted to Occupy Homes. When the movement nationwide dwindled, a series of relatively high profile and confrontational foreclosure defense campaigns propelled OH to the center of attention, either inspiring or confirming the decision of other cities to engage in the same work.

Between these high profile foreclosure defense campaigns and the start of Ty Moore’s campaign, differences of opinion emerged within OH. This was not simply a conflict between organizers who wanted to ‘get serious’ and some of the more incoherent, activisty parts of Occupy. Rather, it was a familiar disagreement once the mass appeal of a movement starts to wane. On one hand, you have institutionalization in the form of paid staff and seeking non-profit status, and the other view is seeking some way to not accept the limitations of the state while remaining volunteer led and as participatory as possible. OH is not the first project that has faced this issue and will not be the last.

Socialist Alternative

Unlike many other socialist organizations, SA is worth taking seriously. While their politics of strategic electoralism may leave something to be desired for this Wobbly, they avoid some of the pitfalls of their contemporaries. Unlike, say, the Stalinists of Freedom Road Socialist Organization-Fight Back!, SA is generally easier to deal with on a personal and political level. In Madison, they were one of the few loud pro-general strike groups, and they backed that up with organizing strike factions in the few unions they were in. They have also done fast-food organizing, as opposed to being nearly entirely campus-based, as other socialists groups often are. In Minneapolis, they have supported IWW campaigns publicly, as well as usually showed up to back up our pickets. I think when it comes down to it, I think they’re more interested in managing capitalism rather than abolishing it, but compliment that ‘they aren’t as crazy as their contemporaries’ means something.

SA, or at least parts of it, seem to believe they’ve found a niche. In the limited American political system in which the viability of only two major parties seems almost built-in, there exists a large gulf in between the furthest left of the Democratic Party, and the beginnings of the various socialist organizations. This space has usually been attempted to be formally filled in by the Green Party, now too fractured and in many ways still discredited from the Nader candidacy of 2000. But what usually occupies this space is whatever social movement that exists (anti-globalization, anti-war, Occupy, etc.).

The contradiction that supposed anti-capitalists have in formally filling with electoral politics this space is that while it is a wide terrain, being left of the Democratic Party is still about occupying a space that’s about how to manage capitalism. It’s about ‘fixing’ supposed holes in the current economic system, not transcending the system itself. Also, this terrain isn’t only about socialism. The pressure of meeting this middle ground is to compromise on issues, to say nothing about the problematic concept of legislating socialism in the first place.

In some ways, SA is contradictory with this. On one hand, their explicit promotion of independent social movements reveal a faith in the ability of working people to establish the seeds of a new world, or at least be a coercive threat to politicians who are too reactionary. But the establishment of election campaigns, and the subsequent close alliance with elements or at least remembrances and representations of these independent social movements reveals that SA believe working people cannot achieve even minor reforms without ‘the right person’ in office.

Socialist parties often run candidates,not because they seriously believe they can win, but because its a time many people are talking about and thinking politics. These candidates exist mostly as protest campaigns that attempt to use this elevated platform to bring up issues that they feel may be neglected or ignored by the major parties. The fact that many of these socialist groups run candidates who are technically not even eligible for the office they are running for show this is the case.

There are many things to be said about this strategy. From a communist or Wobbly point of view, we generally don’t see the electoral process as something that makes revolutionaries or is even a tool revolutionaries can use. Another criticism is that the time, energy and money it takes to even run a hopeless protest campaign draws away from other work to be done.

But what if instead of merely a protest campaign, there is an actual chance of winning, such as Ty Moore’s case? This situation, at least in our contemporary times, is rare. This isn’t the early 20th Century, where even places like Davenport, Iowa had self-identified socialists in local government.

The radical left often has a poor understanding of capitalism and the state. Both get described as consisting of evil people with bad intentions or well meaning people without a backbone. This neglects the role capitalism and the state have as systems that shape our lives. Saying you want to push $15 minimum wage is fine, but whether it is possible is another thing. That goes for a lot of rhetorical demands.

Of course, many socialists would agree and counter that making these impossible demands will expose the limitations of capitalism, therefore resulting in a desire for transcending capitalism. In practice, though, rather than exposing capitalism, it make whoever’s advocating them, at best, look like an extreme version of what Democrats are already for, or naive and detached from reality. A strategy based on someone advocating what they believe to be impossible tends to reflect on the one saying it, rather than facilitating the political transformation of another individual.

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3 thoughts on “Voting for Socialism: A debate

  1. Nate

    Great discussion here. I’m copying below some responses to John’s piece. The first is a reply from K who is an M1 member. I find his reply convincing. Below that is some more back and forth discussion from facebook. Also, I want to echo that the Black Orchid piece is a good read. Maybe Recomp could re-run it?

    *

    K:
    Thanks for this, John. I think that it is good for comrades to grapple with these developments (SA’s electoral success) and for conversation and debate to continue. I support the First of May statement from early November that is quoted (and criticized) here.
    As for the particulars of your piece – while I disagreed with several of the ancillary arguments (and some of the tone), I want to concentrate on the central argument as I understand it (in a strictly personal capacity).

    “Thinking about elections” asserts:

    – Electoralism is “a False Dilemma”
    – ” arguing that the idea of left electoralism will teach people to be dependent on left politicians serves no purpose.”
    – the anarchist position is “incorrect strategically”
    – “Urging people to fear and oppose . . . an electoral turn . . . is simply not worth one’s time. Furthermore, it invites reformist forces to marginalize and dismiss anti-electoral radicals as out of touch with reality.”
    – The lesson for radicals should be clear: the choice between electoralist utopianism and actionist puritanism is a false one and obscures more than it clarifies.”
    – “the idea that . . . allies and opponents . . . can be seen clearly through which field of action they mythologize most is difficult to maintain.”

    The thrust of all this seems clear enough, even with the head scratching punchline: “It’s not that electoralism is wrong, though it is, it’s that its unimportant.”

    Unimportant enough to craft a couple thousand word blog post on!

    This argument is full of contradictions and reversals but mainly it is saying don’t criticize Left electoralism, that to do so is purist and will be used to marginalize us, instead we should continue to discuss how to relate to these electoral projects assuming they will continue (while striking an unimpressed pose).

    To the extent that this is a coherent argument, it is that anarchists, wobblies, direct actionists should stand aside and say nothing (even if we are correct) about this strategy.

    This is very bad advice, I’m afraid. Lets leave aside the “traditional anarchist and ultraleft position” around elections, and concentrate on our actual lived experience over the last few years.

    First there was the Obama electoral phenomonon which managed to corral millions of oppressed people into “hope” and “change we can believe in” through a new face on the U.S Empire. This included many folks who are likely to be the base for any possible revolutionary movement in the U.S. Is it really possible that revolutionary militants could simultaneously also have hope in change coming from/thru the regime?

    Second was the really illustrative example of Wisconsin, where the momentum of events, the apparent lack of an “official” solution, and the efforts of a small group of revolutionary activists and trade-union militants put the call/concept of a General Strike on the agenda for the first time in decades. Eventually this was swamped and diverted into the Recall Walker campaign. What is so important about this example is that the IWW mainly responded to the Recall in the way that you advocate – by doing nothing. We sort of hoped the question of recall vs general strike could be finessed – that they weren’t necessarily opposed.

    But in fact it was the Recall that the Business Unions and Democrats used to rally working people back into avenues that they controlled and that were within the framework (if out of the ordinary) of capitalist “democracy”. In retrospect what was needed was an opposite attitude of the one you advocate. We needed to sharply counterpose the General Strike to the Recall effort, and in doing so point out the ways in which each represented the kind of society being fought over. This wasn’t all that was needed in order to pull off a General Strike – far from it. But to even keep the General Strike concept alive as living proposal for agit-prop – we needed to take on the Recall – not treat it as unimportant.

    Finally, lets look at the way that Occupy Homes and the Ty Moore campaign treated a police raid on one of the key defended homes on the morning of the election. Frantic texts, emails, and facebook posts went out from organizers and campaigners that this raid represented an attack on . . . the TY MOORE CAMPAIGN! Electoralism obscured reality, so that a foreclosed home in a working-class community – supposedly the center-piece of Ty’s campaign, became secondary to that campaign itself. In fact, the far more likely scenario is that police timed the raid in order to take advantage of the diversion of time and energy towards the get-out-the-vote efforts.

    My Closing argument:
    – Electoralism presents a real problem that we cannot wish away.
    – Opposing Electoral strategies is not being “purist”, but practical. – In order to defend anti-sytem strategies of direct action and direct democracy it will be necessary to take on other strategies being presented by the authoritarians and reformists.
    – While our arguments will be criticized as unrealistic (as will our anti-capitalism), they are necessary to defend and clarify our decision to prioritize organizing along revolutionary, direct action and directly democratic lines.

    Solidarity,

    K

    *

    Adam: Overall great piece and this part seems very on point from what I can gather living outside of Minneapolis: “What’s really, really happening is this campaign is the manifestation on a formal political level of the work that the left wing of the non-profit/labor complex has been able to accomplish with Occupy and beyond it.” But the second part I don’t quite follow. You state that while a critique of electoralism is politically accurate it is strategically less so (I think that’s how you framed it) because electoralism has no chance of becoming a major threat to capitalism. But what I feel is left out of that is strategically all efforts towards elections and candidates is a choice to forego some other form of struggle. For every dollar raised and spent, for every flyer passed out, for every door knocked on, there is some form of struggle that is not receiving that or there is a conversation on organizing that is not happening. There is also the effect that the appearance of success in this strategy pulling social movements further in the direction of spending more energy and focus on a strategy that ultimately bears little fruit. And this is why I feel the criticism of these efforts is worthwhile. I also feel like there’s ways of putting that forward that aren’t self marginalizing, which is a valid concern that I was reading between the lines here.

    Leif: So I’m not involved enough in MN or WI to feel like this is a really weighty or well-considered comment, but I think that what Adam is talking about can be seen really, really well in the WI occupation->recall campaign and what happened to radical energy there. And, to be fair to the argument, it does seem to me like Madison radicals didn’t do a great job of avoiding/derailing the recall push, although even if there had been good framing we probably would have lost because of the political climate in Madison. There’s also a large chance I’m off base here and someone else with more experience in WI can chime in and tell me I’m wrong.

    John: Adam, I’m not convinced that we can effect the behaviors of institutional actors who are are interested in electoralism by critiquing them, and i think the content of our disagreement with those groups tends to not actually be electoralism. obviously we do disagree about electoralism, but i think that that’s a surface level disagreement, because our real disagreements are likely to be far more important. i guess that’s part of what i’m arguing here: debating about electoralism isn’t really that important because what’s happening underneath the debate is actually the more important piece. does that make any sense?
    Leif, i agree with you on the WI recall thing, but I think that’s not the same as what we generally deal with. With most elections, the choices are Vote or Don’t Vote. It’s in that “debate” that i think it’s not really that worth engaging in, because the stakes are so low for us and the debate distracts us from what’s really going on, which is: is political work based in a communist perspective or isn’t it?
    I think the WI situation was materially different, because the choice was Go Home and Vote in a few months vs Strike Right Now. obviously opposing electoralism when we have a concrete alternative to that specific electoral drive is something I support. But in general, when it’s just a regular election, we can’t pretend that we have something more important for people to be doing on election day (the general “go organize in your jobs and in your community!” doesn’t count, I’m talking about specific things, like the General Strike movement in WI). when we have a situation like WI, I think its imperative for revolutionaries to argue against electoral inaction. I don’t think that every old city council or mayoral election is the same thing.
    Interesting post-script to this conversation, two leaders of the “militant reformist” groups that I identify in this piece as being the real actors behind Ty’s campaign are joining the liberal Mayor-elect’s “transition team.” very interesting.

    Adam: It makes sense as far as a logic argument, yes, but I wouldn’t agree with that. I don’t think we should avoid critiques of electoralism anymore than the IWW should remove the criticism of conservative unions in the preamble (side note: I actually think we should update that critique). And should we use that as a stepping stone to deeper disagreements then all the better. I would agree that the goal is not to change the institutional players and that we can’t change them (“reformists gonna reform” is what I say) but the goal is to reach the base and have those points be on the table.
    I know we won’t be able to reach a lot of folks or they will not want to hear it, but ultimately those strategies will prove themselves faulty in the long run. But people can see that and simply get disillusioned when they see no other options or realize that the criticism is right because they have heard it at some point.

    Adam: One thing I take away from your comments with Leif is not wasting time arguing against local elections etc. I see that as a really different debate, which is how much time to spend on doing what. Generally I would agree with that point on local elections that have little consequence. But for instance presidential elections are much more at stake. Generally what I’ve seen is that every election cycle the Dems suck nearly all union and social movement energy into their efforts. Entire orgs plan around the fact that they drop all efforts to organize to focus full time on voter mobilization and that’s pretty destructive.
    Overall though I think to push for the idea that we should ‘abstain’ on this question (if that’s what you’re saying) cedes ground to reformism as those players will always be making their arguments and organizing people to support their position. But will we be making ours?

    Nate: I think part of what may be going on in the present is that official/formal politics at the national level are sort of gummed up, and in response in part we’re seeing a push at the state and local levels. This is both on the right and the left – anti-immigrant laws, for instance, and on the left, stuff like single payer healthcare passing in Vermont, and the push around Fight For 15. I think that may make smaller level elections and anti-electoralism more important politically.

    Adam: I think electoralism already is a problem now. Sure, none of our core people will do an about face and suddenly decide electoral politics is the way to go to make the change we want to, but it does have an effect on new militants and rank and file folks we organize with. Like I said people have limited time and when they spend some or a lot on electoral efforts because they think they will lead to something then that’s time and energy not spent doing better work (like the IWW for instance).
    Also, just like with Obama it counts and gives you credibility when you make those criticisms up front rather waiting for things to fail and say “well I didn’t really say much in the beginning, but I thought this would happen.” It also doesn’t address the profoundly demoralizing effect that sets in when people realize that stuff doesn’t work and get disillusioned versus when they say “this is not working but I’m thinking that maybe those folks making the argument around this some time ago were right.” That scenario leads to a very different and much more productive response.

    John: yeah i could be naive on this stuff, it’s been known to happen before. but i just think that we need to find something more compelling to present as an actual alternative, and i don’t mean the same old anarchist truisms “instead of voting, go organize your community/job/whatever!” that kind of hackneyed response to a really pressing question quite rightly elicits boredom from new militants. if we’re going to argue against electoralism, we need to find reasons to argue against it strategically (which is part of what i’m trying to think through with this piece) as well as morally/politically. because the staleness of the political critique is not engaging people. i saw this happen in Minneapolis, where people who i always knew as anarchists and communists, good smart people, threw themselves into the Ty campaign.
    i think i could be convinced that we can argue persuasively about electoralism, but right now i’m not convinced by anything that’s out there. (except that obviously i am convinced, i just mean that it’s not very effective propaganda). in lieu of that, or until somebody smarter than me comes up with an effective way of framing the question, i think we need to develop strategic arguments against electoralism because the wave of it coming down the pipe is really distracting people and good militants, when faced with an abstract political/moral argument about voting, will rightly continue to dismiss it and chose to work on electoral stuff because it seems much more relevant to their political life.

    Adam: I can’t stress enough this point here that I think you framed better than I tried to above: “we need to develop strategic arguments against electoralism because the wave of it coming down the pipe is really distracting people and good militants” And I’d also agree that we need to figure out a better way to press our argument and I’m open to what might that ‘better way’ would look like. But what I was attempting to push strongly against in your piece (and I wish I had the time to pull a quote, so maybe my memory is off and this is not what you said) is that it that the main thesis I read as being argued was “Let’s not argue against electoralism because its a waste of time” and I feel that cedes major ground to a problematic trend.

    John: but i think arguing against electoralism is a waste of time, at least with the rhetorical tools we have now. i think that may not be what i wrote in that piece, i feel like talking with yall has advanced my thinking a bit here. but i guess what i’m trying to get at is that what we have to argue against electoralism with isn’t working, and its probably not worth arguing against it, but thinking about who is pushing it, what we really have in common with them, and thinking of other ways to bring people around to our thinking. maybe putting it another way: what makes us communists and other people reformists is not ONLY that they believe in elections, and that seems important to me.

    Adam: I think there’s a distinct difference between saying a) Electoralism is a problem but arguing against it is a waste of time in general and b) Electoralism is a problem but I don’t think we using the best tools/making the best arguments to make our points well at the moment. I read your article as moving the first point and I think that’s a problem, perhaps even dangerous, exactly because “the wave of it coming down the pipe is really distracting people and good militants”
    But the second perspective basically says we need to work on this but that we need to find better ways to do it and I’d like to move you closer to that point. I’d also draw the analogy with the IWW in that I don’t feel that we have all the right tools/tactics to make our vision work and we may not always have the best arguments rhetorically to show that we’re right, but we still need to go through the trial and error and do the hard thinking and plus those things will different depending on the context/political moment. Obviously none of us has all the answers, but that’s the work we need to roll up our sleeves around.

    Ryan: I appreciate the analysis here, John, and I found the background info to the Ty Moore campaign and forces on the ground to be really interesting. I’ve enjoyed the discussion here, too. I’m in agreement with Adam and others who have said that there is a real danger in how movement energy and numbers are redirected toward electoral approaches, and something that we need to be on the lookout for, and thinking about ways of addressing. I also think Nate raised a really good point about this potentially arising more on the local level. We even saw a bit of that here, with a progressive slate for council that some people got really excited about and the NGO-union activists going full tilt for.
    I definitely hear John, though, on the issue of our existing approaches falling flat. Something that bugged me about the last national election cycle last year was the constant refrain of “ONLY MASS MOVEMENTS CAN DO ____” instead of electing politicians. Accurate as it might be, it doesn’t really do anything but drag out another tired lefty slogan. And where are the mass movements addressing what people are looking to have addressed through electoral strategies? They’re almost non-existent, or in the few exceptions led by the NGO-big-union-type forces John identified really well in Minneapolis. I guess what I’m looking for is a little more subtley and understanding to address why people go the route they do. And an honest acknowledgement that groundwork needs laid to build mass movement to offer those real alternatives — which I think also means we need a lot of those folks doing that groundwork instead of getting sucked up into electioneering.
    At the same time, having been a part of enough “anti-electoral” events and campaigns from the anarchist/rad left perspective has given me little desire to engage in that sort of project either. It seems every four years at Caucus time (nearly 1 year ahead of the actual election), whatever marginal left presence is here somehow gets scooped into a protest or event of some sort to that end. And of course it is a huge waste of time, I don’t see how they have any resonance beyond the marginal progressive to far left camp.
    I certainly don’t claim to have answers here. I liked M1’s statement overall, but statements are good only for those who read them. At risk of being totally obvious, probably at the end of the day we need to have on-the-ground work that shows people a real alternative that gets results as much if not more as articulated arguments, or to actually “BUILD MASS MOVEMENTS.”

    Nate: I’m getting a lot out of this conversation. I’m sorta thinking out loud here, I hope this makes sense. I think “don’t vote” is different from “don’t sink your energy into an election campaign.” I don’t see the point of the first, even though I’m not much of a voter myself (not as much for political principle reasons as apathy and cynicism about it). I think the second is important in a sense, though I agree with John that we’re not going to change the minds of the people committed to that approach. I think we might change the minds of undecided people though, so it is worth making those arguments. I also think that maybe part of the approach should be to recognize people’s good intentions and the predictions they make, and show how those intentions won’t be served by the electoral campaign – if it wins or if it loses, and what the process does politically. I’m thinking kind of like our response to people who are like “hey I have a great idea, let’s file for an NLRB election at work, we’ve already got 30% of employees on board!” In that case, we can walk people through the possible scenarios and make some plausible predictions. Maybe something similar with this election stuff? (Though that would require more knowledge of electoral socialism in history, which I don’t have.)

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