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A Democratic Socialist Party - When? How? Later? Now?

25-Mar-2020Whitney Kahn

"Bernie Sanders" by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

With the Sanders campaign on the ropes, there are many articles going around about what we should do next. Two important contributions to this debate have been Dustin Guastella’s “Where Do We Go After Last Night’s Defeat?” in Jacobin, and Kshama Sawant’s “#DemExit: Time to Launch a New Party Of, By, and For Working People” on SocialistAlternative.org.

Both authors agree we need a party by, of, and for working people. But how will it come about without falling on its face? There are so many aggravating pitfalls in the US political system, it can seem impossible. So where does that leave the political revolution? The strategies proposed by Guastella and Sawant in their articles raise questions that many of us on the socialist left are all grappling with.

Stay or Go?

Dustin Guastella argues we should stay the course of using the Democratic ballot line:

...in order to succeed, the post-Bernie organizations need to combine their efforts and unite around select congressional and state legislative races to start to build a real bloc of lawmakers. This is doable, but it requires rejecting the fantasy that now is the time we all throw ourselves into third-party work or militant protest activity.

In contrast, Kshama Sawant announced plans to hold a conference this summer and launch a new party next year:

Now we need our movement to go to Milwaukee for a mass protest and conference to begin discussing next steps for the political revolution and preparing for the launch of a new party, of, by and for working people. This conference, along with simultaneous regional conferences, would have the historic task of organizing for a mass national convention next year with delegates from around the country to found a new party.

Leaving the Democratic Party behind and launching a new party is an exciting prospect for many radicalized Bernie supporters who are fed up with the corporate elite in the Democratic Party running the show. But how do we resist bowing to the power of the corporate elite who control the Democratic Party, while avoiding a failed third party attempt?

“Not me”… but who is “us”?

Sawant makes a point I completely agree with: the working class needs to get organized in order to fight for the change we need, and that includes the need for our own political party. But the question remains: how would it avoid the pitfall of isolating a small minority of radical activists?

Sawant is not addressing the problem of how to bring significant forces like the labor left or the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA, the most significant political force on the left of the Sanders movement) into such an attempt at launching a new party. Her article has no reference to other forces being involved. It presents her own candidacies for city council in Seattle as a model of running independently from the Democratic Party. She proclaims the need for a new party, but doesn’t put forward a strategy to address the most important question: how to win a substantial base of support for such a project.

I worry that if she and her supporters go through with this plan, their attempt to launch a new party next year would not deliver on the promise of a viable party and that it would end up being an example used to convince people that a left-wing party is impossible in this country.

Guastella, on the other hand, cautions that the left needs to have a sense of proportion: “Bernie Sanders has won around 5 million votes in the primary thus far — no mean feat, but only a fraction of those voters would ever consider ‘leaving’ the Democratic Party and voting for a third party.”

He’s right about that, at least for now. A new working-class or democratic socialist party would not start with majority support, and paper membership would be much less than either of the two corporate parties. But that would be a bar that no working-class party in history has ever started from.

At the same time, Guastella presents this in a one-sided fashion, not seeing how quickly support for a new party can grow under the right conditions (for instance, the rapid rise of the Repulican Party in the run up to the Civil War). While the immediate prospects for a new party are limited, Guastella seems to not see the larger picture of enormous potential opening up. According to Gallup polls, 57% of Americans say a third party is needed, and it’s no surprise why.

Both political parties have presided over five decades of growing inequality, especially since the Great Recession. Socialism is increasingly no longer a four-letter word to millions of people in the US, and working people are increasingly supporting anti-establishment candidates like Bernie and, unfortunately, Trump, when no left-wing alternative is available. The space and potential support exists for a new party in this country to win majority support, but it needs to be organized.

What would a working-class party look like anyway?

A new party, and what it means to be a member, would need to look significantly different than either the Democratic or Republican Parties. Those parties receive their power from billionaire backers, corporate lobbyists, a network of patronage, the support from the mass media, and polarizing the working class and middle class with a couple provocative social issues.

A party based on the power of the working class would need to be fundamentally different. It should be a democratic, membership organization, which finances itself from the dues of its members and contributions from working people (not billionaires). It would be an organization that brings together its members in political discussion and debate to allow working people to develop their own ideas and understanding of society, independent of the ruling ideas of the capitalist class. It should be an organization of activism and struggle. One that systematically builds a base of members who are active in their workplaces and communities, uniting activists from unions and social movements in a common organization that actively participates in and leads struggles of working people in social movements and in elections.

When is the right time to break with the Democratic Party?

The biggest issue I have with Guastella’s analysis is that he leaves out a plan for how we go from the temporary tactic of using the Democratic Party ballot line to the eventual need for a new party, despite admitting that the Democratic Party is “not our party.”

With Bernie's campaigns and other insurgent democratic socialist candidates, we have been, in essence, building an embryonic democratic socialist party. The Democratic Party now has essentially two parties in one. One representing the interests of the working class, and the other representing the interests of the billionaire class. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) said, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.”

The way so many Democratic politicians endorsed Biden and resuscitated his campaign showed how determined the Democratic establishment is to protect the corporate elite. The more successful we are, the more the corporate establishment of the Democratic Party will fight to shut us down. We will only be able to overcome this by being far more organized and building a much deeper base of support than we currently have. There is a pressing need to transform the huge support for Bernie’s program into a more organized force.

A vital next step is for the activists who powered Bernie’s campaign to come together in a common democratic membership organization that can continue fighting beyond this one campaign—an organization that democratically and collectively discusses its policies and strategies, and takes collective action to achieve its program. Call it what you will, but this is in essence a “political party” as socialists have always understood the term.

A New Party Would Need Flexible Tactics

Forming a new party does not mean acting in an impatient fashion. It should be very flexible in its tactics, while being clear in advocating for its politics.

Guastella writes,

“The Democratic ballot line affords us legitimacy and access to a mass base, and we cannot afford to abandon the tactic of using it.”

The formation of a new party does not mean ruling out socialist candidates running tactically on the Democratic Party ballot line at times. While I have political disagreements with the Working Families Party, it certainly shows that forming a party does not automatically mean never running candidates within the Democratic Party primaries.

DSA is also an organization independent of the Democratic Party, and it has developed a policy of supporting left-wing candidates running on the Democratic Party ballot line, while also supporting socialist and left-wing candidates who are running independent of the Democratic ballot line.

It would be a mistake for AOC, for instance, to abandon the Democratic primaries and concede the Democratic ballot line to her right-wing Democratic opponents in the 2020 general election. AOC’s seat in Congress is an extremely valuable outpost for the left and should be defended. However, given New York state’s “fusion” voting laws, why couldn’t DSA (or in the future a Democratic Socialist Party) draft AOC to also run for Congress on a Democratic Socialist ballot line (in addition to the Democratic ballot line)? DSA could run its own independent campaign to re-elect AOC which advocates for people to vote for AOC on the Democratic Socialist ballot line and seeks to recruit left-wing people to DSA.

This would not damage AOC’s electoral prospects, as anyone not yet convinced about socialism or voting for a Socialist Party could still vote for AOC on the Democratic ballot line. Yet it would help push things forward, building support for a Democratic Socialist Party, testing our support, and it could be linked to a clear political drive to accumulate the strength to break out—at the most opportune moment—from association with the pro-capitalist Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party is Toxic

In many situations, it’s viable to run independent of the Democratic party ballot line. Guastella correctly points out “the toxicity of the Democratic Party ‘brand’” to millions in this country.

The “lesser evil” argument does not apply in most local and congressional races which are dominated by only one party. In Vermont, Bernie Sanders showed it is possible to get elected to local government and Congress as an independent challenging the Democratic Party. Kshama Sawant has also proven this in Seattle where she won re-election twice.

DSA (or a new Democratic Socialist Party) should judge on a case-by-case basis whether to run on a socialist, independent, or at times a Democratic ballot line, but in all these circumstances take steps to strengthen and grow DSA, and to link up with other working-class and progressive forces to form an independent political apparatus in whatever ways possible. The more this can be the collective decision of the base of Sanders and DSA activists, rather than simply the actions of individual candidates, the stronger we will be.

This is also an essential basis to be able to hold elected officials accountable after successful campaigns. We've lost too many "left" candidates once they were in office. We need to take every step possible toward forming our own democratic organizations to have the tools and power to hold our elected representatives accountable to working-class communities.

More Than Elections

Guastella urges Sanders supporters to “reject the fantasy that now is the time we all throw ourselves into third-party work or militant protest activity. Let’s not make the same mistake that the New Left made.”

He’s right that there is a danger that, out of frustration, the left wing of Sanders supporters isolate themselves with radical actions that don’t resonate with the rest of the millions of people who were attracted to Bernie’s platform. Instead, the left wing should act in a way that can give a lead to Bernie’s supporters. But giving a lead also means trying to push things forward and raise the consciousness of the Sanders’ mass base.

In writing off “militant protest activity” and focusing singularly on issue-campaigning and legislative races, Guastella’s approach also seems to imply that elections are the only way real change happens. We can’t afford to forget that it was Occupy, the fight for $15, the Ferguson uprising, Standing Rock, the educator strike wave, student climate actions and other “militant protest activity” that sparked millions of conversations which helped create the political climate for Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 campaigns to be so impactful.

Guastella briefly suggests that we shouldn’t make the same mistakes of the New Left of the 1960s-70s. Unfortunately, he doesn’t elaborate, but I believe the New Left made two fundamental mistakes: key sections of activists isolated themselves into radical groups not focused on winning the wider working class, and they didn’t pair their social movements with building a broad left-wing political party as an alternative to the Democratic Party.

Bread and Butter (and we fight for roses, too)

Guastella also encourages a re-thinking of the platform these candidates should run on, saying, “We need to shed the more fringe parts of our platform, and we need to focus heavily, almost singularly, on the bread and butter.”

We should absolutely have a focus on parts of our platform that would benefit the working class as a whole and lean away from the type of identity-posturing that more and more became the substance of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. We should also not be dismissive of workers who are still brainwashed against their fellow workers. As Malcolm X said, “Don't be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn't do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn't know what you know today.” It's the job of socialists to help workers understand that fighting for the liberation of all is the only way any of us can win our own liberation from capitalism.

But what does Guastella even mean by “fringe”? Most demands that might be traditionally and erroneously seen as outside economic issues, like fighting racism, sexism, and heterosexism, are both immensely popular and intertwined with the “bread and butter” issues. Even with the aspects that aren’t, it’s short-sighted to bend to prejudice and drop demands just because they don’t have majority support yet, or because the demands don’t fit neatly into the package of workers fighting against their bosses.

History shows time and again that working people, when involved in collective action for change, have the capacity to rapidly throw away their prejudice in favor of solidarity. A democratic socialist platform should lead down this road. This has been a big part of Sanders’ appeal—his steadfast advocacy of left-wing politics even when it wasn't popular, such as his support for LGBTQ rights before it was mainstream or his embrace of the socialist label.

We Need to Build Institutional Strength

Even if the Sanders campaign is defeated in the primary, no one can deny the impressive results. Guastella makes important points when he says the huge popular support for left demands “is running well ahead of the institutional strength of the populist or democratic socialist left,” and he says the left's main task is to build our institutional support. In fact, this reinforces the argument for working to form a Democratic Socialist Party, as long as we are clear by what we mean by a “party.”

A party means not limiting ourselves to the confines of one-off election campaigns organized on a top-down basis around a candidate. It also means an on-going, sustained organizing project that can step-by-step build up its support through its engagement and leadership in struggles in different spheres (electoral, workplace, social movements, ideological debates, etc.)

Guastella is correct that there are real limits to what can be achieved by the left if we do not close the gap between the widespread, but loose and passive, support for many of our demands, and its limited active support in ongoing institutions. But instead of drawing the conclusion that we urgently need a new party, he mechanically argues for a focus on immediate “bread and butter” issues, saying “in the short term, this means that the best practical activity we can do is to resume Medicare for All campaigning with gusto.”

Of course, a campaign for Medicare for All can be used to build our organizations and institutions, such as DSA. But is it the best way to address the questions raised in the minds of Sanders activists who are trying to think through the lessons of Sanders' likely defeat in the Democratic primary? Hundreds of thousands are furious after seeing the naked pro-corporate role of the Democratic Party establishment and mass media.

Far better would be for DSA to launch a campaign to appeal to them to join DSA to continue the political revolution, and work with DSA to lay the basis for an alternative to the corporate-dominated Democratic Party—a Democratic Socialist Party.

Even more impactful would be if Bernie Sanders and AOC, who have far more authority than DSA, were to give a lead by convening a conference of their supporters to form a new mass, democratic, membership organization to continue fighting. Such an appeal would be able to bring together hundreds of thousands of Sanders supporters. It would represent a big step forward in closing the gap between passive support for left-wing demands and the construction of an active, ongoing organization. By bringing together Sanders' base into an organized force, we would be in a much better position to wage a mass campaign for Medicare for All as Guastella correctly highlights as the most salient issue to Sanders’ base.

DSA Leadership Should Take Action

At the 2019 DSA national convention, there was an attempt to strike down the following language from a resolution:

“In the longer term, our goal is to form an independent working-class party, but for now this does not rule out DSA-endorsed candidates running tactically on the Democratic Party ballot line.”

This was debated, and the language was upheld. This is a solid basis for DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) to take action.

It is time for the DSA NPC to host serious internal discussions about the need for a new party, what a democratic socialist party would look like, and what steps DSA should take to bring it about. We should invite everyone on the socialist left, including Sanders and his campaign surrogates, AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, left unions, and other socialist groups to join us in this discussion. Together we should aim to build agreement on concrete steps we can take now on the road to political independence for the working class.

If you agree, I encourage you to sign this petition calling on the NPC to take steps in this direction, including helping organize regional conferences and a national conference next year to bring together forces to discuss forming a Democratic Socialist Party.

A political revolution against the billionaire class has never been needed more than now, with the coronavirus, endless wars, rising support for the far right, and climate change threatening life as we know it. We can’t afford to throw away any tools we have to spread socialist ideas, and we also can’t afford to underestimate our enemies and the lengths the billionaire class will go to hold onto power. Let's go forward toward a Democratic Socialist Party and make "Not me. Us" a reality like this country has never seen before.