The question of electoralism is not about participation in electoral politics. Revolutionary socialists across history have campaigned within the electoral arena. But they have typically insisted that mass struggle outside the electoral sphere—in workplaces, communities, and in the streets—is dramatically more significant than the relatively passive act of turning out to the ballot box. They have thus given priority to insurgent mass action, rather than elections.
Electoralism, on the other hand, is the tendency to subordinate all forms of political struggle to electoral operations. And with this comes a slide away from fundamental principles of just the sort DSA is witnessing at this moment.
Electoralism elevates electing officials over mass mobilization from below. It prioritizes integration into the capitalist state rather than overturning it. And as electoralists myopically emphasize the centrality of elected officials, they do everything they can to defend those officials’ inevitable compromises with the powers that be. The result is an unending series of adaptations to capitalism, each one defended as an important tactical move to preserve the electoral advances of the movement. We have seen this in the progressive abandonment of Medicare for All in favor of an Obamacare “public option,” and of the Green New Deal in favor of Biden’s “Build Back Better” scheme. The unwillingness to openly condemn Bowman grows from the same logic.
But “advances” that come at the cost of sacrificing socialist principles are illusory. They weaken the socialist content of the movement’s politics and practice. Equally disabling, by prioritizing electoral politics, a movement fails to train activists in the skills of organizing radical mass action. It generates door-to-door canvassers rather than organizers and leaders in community and workplace insurgency.
Inevitably, electoralists compromise on internationalism. This is because mainstream politics revolve around nationalism and commitment to one’s nation-state. To go against that grain—to be uncompromisingly hostile to your own state’s imperial agenda—is not always immediately popular. So it was at first for opponents of the US war in Vietnam, or for US campaigners against apartheid in South Africa. But those people stood on principle and built mass movements that helped to change our world.
This is why DSA confronts a moment of truth. To compromise on Jamaal Bowman’s betrayal of Palestine and global justice will harden a trajectory away from any politics that could be meaningfully described as socialist.
We say this without any sense of celebration. We are not in the business of applauding the misfortunes of others on the left. Indeed, we stand in solidarity with those sections of DSA that have called for Bowman’s removal from their ranks. We wish them success in their defense of fundamental socialist principles.
But we also call on them to challenge the logic of electoralism that has brought DSA to this point. This is a vital time in the US and beyond to keep the flag of radical socialism flying high. And that can only be done by way of unflagging commitment to justice for Palestine and to all struggles for liberation across the globe.
For more on alternatives to electoralism, see this article from Spectre 3, which we’ve decided to make freely available for all readers.