The Means And Ends: Electoral Politics in the East Bay DSA
The East Bay DSA (EB DSA) should endorse both Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) candidates, Gail McLaughlin for Lt. Governor of California and Jovanka Beckles for California State Assembly and dedicate significant resources to their campaigns. An endorsement, accompanied by strong organizational support, represents an opportunity for members to expand the fight for anti-capitalist reforms while connecting with the working class beyond a narrow section of Oakland and Berkeley. Coalition work with progressive, working class organizations is essential for growing the DSA and a mass working class movement.
Socialists believe that capitalism can’t be fixed, and that we need a qualitatively different kind of system that prioritizes freedom, democracy and human need rather than profit and power for the few. A major question for socialists is how to organize and make inroads with sections of the working class who still believe capitalism can be reformed into a just system. One strategy is for socialists to get involved in the fight for immediate reforms that benefit the working class. Fighting for reforms can improve the lives of workers in the here and now while also increasing the organizational strength of the working class as a whole in preparation for future struggles. Currently, organized socialists are a small minority within the working class hence this fight can only be accomplished by working alongside others who may not yet share the goal of fundamentally transforming society.
While today socialists may be in the minority, that doesn’t mean they should just blend into reformist movements. Socialists need to be at the leading edge of the working class movement providing a distinct analysis that will help navigate the hurdles and roadblocks that lie ahead. At this stage of its development as a “big-tent” socialist organization, the DSA cannot afford to close itself off from working class movements. Socialists have the obligation to broaden out the post-Sanders, anti-corporate trend in US politics into a working-class coalition. We have to work together with broader movements that may not be socialist but remain committed to reforms. If we stay isolated from them, we will slide into sectarian irrelevance.
Within the EB DSA, there are two main currents that have argued against endorsing the RPA candidates. One current argues that socialists should refrain from engaging in electoral politics and reformist struggles more broadly. They argue for direct action and organizing around the creation of autonomous working class groups. A second current is not opposed to socialists engaging in electoral politics per se but argues against getting involved in the specific case of the RPA. This current argues that the DSA should be focused on running its own openly socialist candidates. Importantly for this group, the fact that Jovanka Beckles is running as a Democrat precludes any possibility for endorsement or support.
The remainder of this piece will address these arguments at a theoretical level with emphasis on their practical implications, situating them within the current political climate of growing disillusionment with both traditional political parties and the rapid growth of the DSA over the past year. Importantly, this analysis will proceed under the premise that the fundamental near and intermediate term goal of the DSA is the creation and consolidation of a mass working class movement. In both cases above, the groups arguing against endorsement counterpose their criteria of programmatic points against the real movement of workers in class struggle. Hence their respective positions against endorsing the RPA candidates are not consistent with the goal of building a mass working class movement. A closer examination of the historical foundations of each position shows they are in fact antithetical to mass politics.
Before proceeding to a closer exploration of the issues at hand, please note that despite the sometimes polemical tone, the goal here is not to attack, belittle, or bully the comrades that hold these positions. Rather it is an attempt to engage with their ideas, demonstrate their practical implications, and seek clarifications where possible. While there has been a good faith attempt to research their traditions, the author of this piece is not an expert on their tendencies and welcomes corrections to any factual inaccuracies.
Part 1 The Ultra-Left Elision
Some socialists may refuse to engage with any reformist formations under the belief that reforms just stabilize the system and move us away from the eventual collapse of capitalism. This is generally the position of ultra-left tendencies who reject electoral and trade union struggles under the belief these terrains inhibit the autonomy of workers necessary for revolution. Instead the ultra-left views direction action, mass strikes and occupations, and the creation of workers’ councils as the only true means of class struggle. Critically, this tendency first emerged at a time when socialist revolutionaries in the industrialized West were struggling against the reformism of the major parties of Social-Democracy and the increasingly bureaucratic dictates of the Comintern. The initial theories and program developed by the ultra-left were a response to these historical challenges. The theories of the ultra-left were further developed in the second half of the last century by the French group Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Italian Autonomist movement among others. The central tenet of these ultra-left groups is that the working class can force changes to the organization of the capitalist system independent of the state, trade unions, or political parties.
To what extent are ultra-left theories applicable to the current world, one without large social democratic parties and actually existing socialism, and where much of the collective agency of the working class has been destroyed by 30 years of neoliberal onslaught? For the ultra-left in EB DSA this question is meaningless as they exclude electoral politics from the realm of class struggle altogether. The same can be said for trade unions. So what terrains of struggle remain and where do they lead? To a closed feedback loop of disruption and accretion that is unconditioned by the material world around them. To an ideology that holds that the last 18 months are meaningless since workers aren’t self-organizing outside of political parties or taking to the streets. To a refusal to meet the movement where it’s at under a fixed preconception of what constitutes an appropriate form of struggle. The DSA must reject this ideology while still heeding the warnings of the ultra-left regarding the dangers of electoralism and reformism.
To be clear, socialists should reject reformism, the mistaken belief that the transition to socialism will be brought about by the gradual, painless application of a series of reforms. Yet historically, the fight for reforms have been a central strategy for advancing class struggle. The relation of reforms and the ultimate goal of social revolution was elucidated in the opening paragraph of Reform or Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg. “Can we contrapose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.” Also on the question of electoral struggles, she does not mechanically divide them from class struggle. Rather dialectically, “legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive.”
In Reform and Revolution, Andre Gorz expanded on the concept of reforms, highlighting the central role of “non-reformist reforms” in advancing class struggle. These are structural reforms which reject capitalist needs, criteria, and rationales; the implementation of which fundamentally alter the balance of class power. This should not be misinterpreted as an endorsement of a gradual, peaceful, parliamentary road to socialism. As Gorz points out, “What can and must be gradual and cumulative in a socialist strategy is the preparatory phase, the gradual application of a coherent program of reforms, which sets in motion a process leading to a revolutionary crises.” While a socialist strategy of gradual reforms should not be conceived as the simple conquest of a parliamentary majority, it presupposes power both inside and outside of legislative bodies necessary to win these reforms. The struggle to advance these reforms will require a working class, if not socialist, party engaged in electoral politics. However being able to demonstrate power outside of government is equally critical, “winning reforms assumes that workers will take over powers or assert force strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serves to weaken capitalism.”
What form can this force take outside of the electoral arena and how might it be constituted materially in the working class? The working class has it in their power to “block the flow of capital” through the use of strikes or occupations. These are powerful weapons which directly link the political and economic struggles of the working class. However, neither mass strikes nor mass occupations can be the centerpiece of a socialist strategy for the simple fact they cannot just be conjured into existence by an act of will, nor are they the result of coordinated planning. In The Mass Strike, Rosa Luxemburg states “the mass strike does not represent an artificial product of premeditated tactics on the part of the social democrats, but a natural historical phenomenon on the basis of the present revolution…(it) results from social conditions with historical inevitability.” In short, what she presents is a materialist understanding of the mass strike in the process of social revolution.
Rosa Luxemburg also emphasized that the importance of spontaneity in revolutionary practice. “In general, the tactical policy of the Social Democracy is not something that may be invented. It is the product of a series of great creative acts of the often spontaneous class struggle seeking its way forward…The unconscious comes before the conscious. The logic of the historic process comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historic process.” In hindsight, her struggle against the reformism of the Second International led to an overestimation of the factor of spontaneity and an underestimation of the factor of organization, for emphasis on spontaneity as the first step in all revolutions. From the stage of mass strike in the struggle of the working class she generalized too widely to embrace the struggle as a whole. History is full of spontaneous uprisings that receded when victory was within reach. The characterization of the Paris uprisings of 1968 by Andre Gorz is instructive. “The masses by surprise succeeded in rushing into the breach opened by the students; imitating the student’s example….Power at that moment seemed suddenly in their grasp. If a political force both able and determined to take power had existed, if such a force had spurred on the working class to create its own organs of control and local power, the working class would doubtless have followed.”
In the above scenario sketched by Gorz there are three actors: the working class as a whole, a political force (presumably a working-class party), and organs of working class control and local power (workers’ councils). It is here we see the importance of workers’ councils within the context of the revolutionary process. They act as a critical mediator between the working class and the revolutionary party in what is known as dual power. As the late Italian communist Lucio Magri writes, “The party inevitably becomes an authoritarian and bureaucratic apparatus if it coexists with a disorganized mass. Its strategy will necessarily oscillate between parliamentarism and putschism. The only way to overcome this schema is not merely or mainly to ‘change the party’ (democratization of internal life, right of tendencies, mass recruitment), but to introduce a new element altogether: workers councils. Between the party and the masses there must be a third term, which mediates the relationship between them: autonomous and unitary political institutions of the working-class.”
Historically, ultra-left tendencies have emphasized workers’ councils as the single organizational form which can be used by the working class throughout all phases of the revolutionary struggle. In this model, the organizational form which the working class uses to fight against capitalism is prefigurative of the organization which is used for the construction and administration of a new society. Over the past century, revolutionary workers’ councils have appeared in many moments of intense social conflict. In point of fact, the emergence of workers’ councils appears to be contingent on the breakdown of the existing political, social or economic order. Therefore, much like the mass strike, workers’ councils have formed as a result of the material conditions in society. Historically, workers’ councils are harbingers of a revolutionary crises.
To sum up, ultra-left tendencies eschew electoral and trade union politics as sites of struggle since they believe these are inherently reformist and reduce the autonomy and spontaneity of workers. The preoccupation with working-class autonomy and spontaneity can lead to two dangers: first, the denial of the need for any political organization distinct from the majority of the working class; and second, the fetishization of any organizational form created spontaneously and autonomously by the working class. In combination, these dangers amount to what has become known as “councillism”, i.e. an empty, formalistic emphasis on workers’ councils which completely neglects their socialist content.
In place of electoral and trade union struggle, ultra-left tendencies focus on agitating for mass strikes and building workers’ councils. History shows these are not artificial, premeditated tactics, but occur in the course of class struggle as a result of the material conditions in society. So in addition to prioritizing form over content, the ultra-left conflates means and ends. In its historical opposition to the reformism of Social-Democracy the ultra-left appears to be its polar opposite. However what they both share is a profound fatalism, for one current of the ultra-left, workers’ councils just need to wait for the imminent collapse of capitalism which is always just around the corner, whereas for social-democracy capitalism will just mechanically evolve into socialism. The other path of the ultra-left leads to a reckless adventurism, divorced from class consciousness, in a vain attempt to spark the collapse of the system. This cannot be the way forward.
Part 2 The Static Sect
If socialists accept the necessity of adopting a strategy of coalition building with reformist organizations, they must inevitably address the issue of tactics. Tactics are the key to understanding another argument that is currently being advanced: socialists should engage in electoral politics but in this specific instance the EB DSA chapter should not endorse the RPA candidates nor lend them material support. Unfortunately, recent online posts around this topic have had the effect of obscuring rather than clarifying the salient points of this argument for the EB DSA membership. A brief sketch of the two prominent types of socialist coalitions will demonstrate that the terms of the coalition are the essential criteria by which the coalition must be evaluated.
Historically, there have been two main tactics socialists have used in coalition building, a “United Front” and a “Popular Front”. The key difference between the two is the terms of the relationship under which socialists engage with reformists organizations. Here are a few representative questions that are helpful in clarifying the terms of the coalition:
- It draws together the working class — socialist and non-socialist — in common struggle.
- It represents a set of demands acceptable to both socialists and sections of the working class who are not yet socialist.
- The forces involved remain independent forces. Socialists are able to pursue goals independent of the coalition, and articulate their wider political vision.
- It is also a site of struggle — within the coalition reformist and socialist currents can debate about strategy and tactics.
- The ideas and methods of struggle put forward by socialists may allow them to win some of the reformist workers involved in the coalition to socialist politics.
Under a “Popular Front”, socialists accept junior-partner status and dissolve themselves in ongoing reformist movements. This approach emphasizes the importance of bringing socialists in direct contact with the masses of working people who they want to organize. But it is opportunistic in that it incorrectly supposes that the only way to be relevant and grow is by tacking toward the political center. A hypothetical illustration of what a “Popular Front” might look like in practice may clarify this concept. “Progressive” Democrat Kamala Harris is up for re-election to the Senate. She makes Medicare for All a center-piece of her campaign. The EB DSA is approached about canvassing for her. EB DSA members are told they can talk all they want about Medicare For All but they shouldn’t discuss socialism. The EB DSA opportunistically agrees under the mistaken belief it will help them win Medicare for All.
Alternatively under a “United Front”, socialists work alongside reformists to win immediate demands, but in a way that doesn’t force them into a passive, second-class position that cedes all leadership. In practice, the United Front attempts to link those on the left who are willing to organize in good faith. It encourages socialists to seek out and build partnerships with wide layers of reformist organizations and unions. It is an alliance where socialists do not have to hide their ideological differences by tacking to the center. Optimally, there is a commitment from all parties to joint action in the pursuit of concrete demands.
So if the EB DSA were to endorse the RPA candidates and provide material assistance to their campaign would this be a “Popular Front” or a “United Front”? On the basis of the above description this would be an example of a “United Front”. The EB DSA would be entering a coalition with the RPA, a progressive, anti-capitalist organization who represents working class interests. The EB DSA would be working with reformist members of the working class, towards a common goal such as Medicare For All, all while openly espousing their socialist values. For what it’s worth the RPA has asked the EB DSA to provide a socialist perspective on various issues and help shape their platform. There’s also a good chance that a significant number of progressive workers might be won over to socialism.
Yet some comrades would have the EB DSA sit this one out, withholding an endorsement because Jovanka Beckles has committed their cardinal sin of running on the Democratic Party ballot line. Does the fact that she’s accepting no donations from corporations or the Democratic Party itself change the dynamics? Not for these members, “She’s a member of one of the two parties of capital!” Using this same criteria tens of thousands of would-be socialists should have withheld their support for Bernie Sanders because he ran in the Democratic primaries, the massive growth of the DSA would never of happened, and this piece would never have been written. Instead of engaging with workers in our own community, some comrades have implied our time would be better spent phone banking for DSA comrade Jabari Brisport in Brooklyn who’s running on the Green party ticket. What about DSA comrade Tristan Rader who’s running as a Democrat in Ohio? For these comrades the answer is crystal clear.
There needs to be an acceptance that the terms of coalitions will not always conform to rigid categories of what it “acceptable” or not. As British socialist Duncan Hallas noted, “There are enormous practical difficulties in applying this approach [the United Front] in any actual appropriate situation. Each such situation is different; each has, inevitably, unique factors. There is no substitute for the ‘knowledge, experience and…political flair’ of which Lenin wrote, in solving complex political problems. The simple reiteration of the formulae will not suffice.” Make no mistake, what is being advanced here in withholding an endorsement on the basis of Jovanka running as a Democratic is a tired old formula. A formula that will keep the DSA doctrinally pure but with members sitting on sidelines, out of touch with the working class.
The United Front is most associated with Leon Trotsky, a brilliant strategist who could never be considered dogmatic. “The working masses sense the need for unity in action, for unity in resisting the onslaught of capitalism or unity in taking the offensive against it. Any party which mechanically counterposes itself to this need of the working class for unity in action will unfailingly be condemned in the minds of the workers.” The Trotskyist groups in the US did the Left a great service keeping Marxism alive during the lean years. Hopefully they will continue to play an important and constructive role in the years ahead. But the DSA shouldn’t be striving to imitate the Trotskyist groups who emphasize their programmatic points above all else. That is exactly why there has never been, nor ever will be, a Trotskyist group writ large. The shibboleths that keep these groups pure are the same ones that keep them small.
***Edit: The three paragraphs above will be controversial for many on the Left. Choosing not to endorse or support Democratic candidates is a principled position and one many socialists agree on. For context, the reason for discussing the Trotskyist groups is that prominent EB DSA members advancing this line of argument are are still active in their respective Trotskyist groups. The argument here is that this is the wrong position for the DSA at this time. It would be difficult for the DSA to take this position when there are currently comrades around the country running on the Democratic Party ballot line. There’d be an immediate breakdown in solidarity. While not without its own issues, the Seth Ackerman piece in Jacobin lays out a strategy for using the Democratic ballot line in certain instances. ***
In summary, the DSA should be trying to build a mass, working-class movement. Mass movements are messy and full of contradictions. We should embrace contradiction as the progressive force of history. There needs to be experimentation, victories, defeats, and lessons learned. Through practice our members will refine old theories and develop new ones. This will not occur by turning inward and focusing on “party building”. Party building will happen by engaging in working class struggles in elections, trade unions, and yes, direct action and neighborhood groups. Nothing should be off the table. Rosa Luxemburg has featured prominently in this article so it’s only fitting to end with her, “Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”