Spectre’s Tithi Bhattacharya interviewed Meagan Day, Justin Charles, and Charlie Post about the left, electoral strategy, and class and social movements after the defeat of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. In the first section below, each answers Bhattacharya’s questions, and in the second part, they respond to one another.
Meagan Day is a staff writer at Jacobin and coauthor of Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism.
Justin Charles is an interaction designer, educator, and rank-and-file union member. He organizes with DSA as a member of its National Political Committee, New York City DSA, the Afrosocialist and Socialists of Color caucus, and Emerge caucus.
Charlie Post is an editor at Spectre and a member of the New York City Labor Branch of DSA.
Part I: Answering Questions about the Conjuncture
TITHI BHATTACHARYA: Everyone agrees that we are currently witnessing an intense, if complex, process of radicalization expressed in multiple forms from workplaces strikes, antiracist and feminist uprisings to an unprecedented popularity of socialism. What would you say are the roots of this political radicalization?
MEAGAN DAY: For much of the 20th century, socialism versus capitalism was a live question. So long as organized socialist agitation and socialist governmental experiments were underway throughout the world, capitalists and their political functionaries were pressed to demonstrate the superiority of capitalism. But the end of the Cold War and the successful ascendance of neoliberalism in the developed capitalist West by the early 1980s led to a pervasive feeling that this question was settled. Capitalism no longer had to really argue on its own behalf, least of all in the United States.
For nearly four decades leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, the notion of transformative economic and political change was thus difficult or impossible for ordinary Americans to fathom. The economic crisis was a turning point. The ethos of the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the 21st had been individualistic and meritocratic: work strenuously to establish a foothold, meticulously tend to your affairs, and you might be okay.
Even many working-class people struggling to get by no matter how much effort they put in had internalized this logic. The 2008 financial crisis, and the devastation it wrought across the spectrum of non-elites, exposed deep flaws in the system and shook Americans’ faith in it. It functioned as an emperor-wears-no-clothes moment for the post-Cold War capitalist consensus.
For the next seven years, an appetite for transformation grew in the American populace. This mood was politically inchoate. There was Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter on the Left, but also the Tea Party and the early flashes of a rejuvenated Right. In this period, to illustrate the principle, Jacobin was born but so was Breitbart — and Breitbart was better-funded and way bigger. Luckily, just as the nominally populist or anti-elitist Right was starting to show signs of making electoral inroads, Bernie Sanders decided to run for President and give the Left a corresponding electoral expression.
The first Bernie Sanders presidential campaign acted as a magnet and a magnifier, cohering a diverse coalition and creating an ecumenical left-wing political identity for the first time in a long time, as well as introducing both longtime or would-be radicals to new political ideas, to each other, and to an expanded sense of possibility.
There has been essentially no lull in radical activity since Bernie Sanders first announced he was running for President. Whether organizing for one of the two Sanders campaigns or down-ballot democratic socialist races, building reinvigorated membership organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, striking en masse as the teachers did in 2018 and 2019, or flooding the streets in protest against sexism and racism as we saw in early 2017 and have seen again in the summer of 2020, the momentum on the Left has not let up since the first Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. The roots of this moment’s radicalization, then, are complex, but the effect of the Sanders campaigns can’t be overstated.
CHARLIE POST: The current radicalization is rooted in the capitalist economic crisis of 2008 and the Democratic Obama administration’s response. The 2008 recession marked the end of a long economic boom and exposed the limits of neoliberalism. Since the 1980s, business leaders and their political representatives claimed that “there was no alternative” to a deregulated “market economy.” While the neoliberal boom deepened social inequality, the capitalist class held out the hope that uninterrupted growth would eventually “raise all boats.” The crisis of 2008 shattered the cult of the market and again put the critique of capitalism as a social system on the political agenda.
In the face of the crisis, capitalist state managers scrambled to find a solution that would prevent a global collapse and restore profitability. They abandoned aspects of neoliberal orthodoxy—bailing out capitalists who were deemed “too big to fail”—while intensifying others: social service austerity, wage cuts, and speed-ups for working people. Barack Obama, elected on the promise of “hope and change” embraced the revised orthodoxy—rescuing big banks and industrial corporations, dismantling the remnants of state provided social reproduction, sharpening gender oppression, encouraging new waves of concessions from the shrinking number of unionized workers, and condemning racialized minorities across the world to growing unemployment and precarious employment.
The first responses to the capitalist “recovery” program came from the populist right: the Tea Party, which scapegoated immigrants and other working people of color, women, queer folks, and leftists. However, by 2010-2011, the current working class, anti-racist, and feminist radicalization began. The Wisconsin Uprising of Spring 2011 followed by Occupy encampments across the US that fall, the Chicago Teachers’ Strike of 2012, and the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 created the conditions for Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2016.
Even after the Democratic leadership defeated and integrated the Sanders’ challenge, the radicalization continued with exponential growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in response to Trump’s election in 2016, the airport occupations against the Muslim ban in early 2017, the first International Women’s Strike that spring, the Red State Teachers’ revolt of 2018, waves of strikes in health care, hotels, and the auto industry. The current wave of workplace actions and the sustained uprising against police brutality and structural racism is only the latest manifestation of this radicalization.
JUSTIN CHARLES: This moment is part of a sequence of politically radicalizing events. First was the Iraq war and the movement opposed to it. Then there was the financial crisis of 2008 and the election of Barack Obama, and all the disappointment that would follow. Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives in response to police terror, and Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock. Of course, there was Bernie Sanders’ first campaign for the presidency. Then the election of Trump happened and in rapid succession the Muslim ban, trans bans, the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville, the escalation of ICE raids, various teachers’ uprisings, the migrant exodus northward from Central America, and much more.
Somewhere amidst all of that, the Democratic Socialists of America’s membership skyrocketed. The labor militancy of the teacher’s strikes continued and spread to other sectors. And that’s all just in the United States. Recently we’ve seen general strikes in France and India against attacks on the welfare state and Modi’s fascist regime. We’ve seen Chileans take over their subways to demand free transit and Haitians rising against the immiseration of neoliberal austerity. Returning to the U.S., we’ve also seen Puerto Ricans take to the streets in opposition to bad governance and colonialism.
In 2020, Bernie Sanders had many of us thinking he just might pull it off, only to see the Democratic establishment consolidate swiftly behind Joe Biden as the electorate settled for a questionably safer bet. Then came the pandemic, and its economic impact and woefully inadequate response from the U.S. government. We now find ourselves in another wave of response to racist police terror, with uprisings springing up in cities across the country and the globe with demands to defund and abolish the police followed by an expected crackdown of state violence in response. All of this happens as climate change goes on unabated.
With all that I’ve just mentioned, what’s reinforced over and over is that the world as it is does not work for most of us. More people are becoming aware of this, or if they were aware already, they are now taking action.
Bernie Sanders’ electoral campaigns undoubtedly introduced and gave new meaning to the concept of socialism to millions. This has led a section of the left to argue that electoral campaigns such as Bernie’s can serve as tools to activate or consolidate class struggle. In the current conjuncture what in your mind are the strategic differences between building a mass activist base and a popular electoral base?
MEAGAN DAY: I don’t see a distinction. In fact, the sections of the Left that are pursuing popular electoral politics are precisely the ones that have made the greatest progress toward building a durable mass activist base in the current period.
I’ll pick a case study to illustrate what I consider to be the generative interplay between electoral and non-electoral politics. The NYC DSA chapter, like all DSA chapters after the membership explosion and organizational transformation of 2016, is still finding its footing. In the process it has hit upon something crucial: if we participate in electoral campaigns and are successful, we will have more opportunities, provided by our elected officials, to interface with other social movements in between elections.
In this case, NYC DSA’s Julia Salazar was elected to the New York State Senate in 2018. She was then able to introduce and find co-sponsors for the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, the most sweeping set of pro-tenant reforms in New York decades. On the ground, while there was not an election happening, NYC DSA organized alongside tenants’ rights and housing justice activists to build pressure to back that bill up.
In that process, NYC DSA strengthened bonds with tenants and housing activists, some of whom ended up joining DSA. These include Marcela Mitaynes and Phara Souffrant, who both came into contact with DSA and socialism through the chapter’s housing organizing work, then joined the organization and began identifying as socialists.
This year, Mitaynes and Souffrant ran for state office on the DSA slate as open democratic socialists and won. They are now headed to join Salazar in Albany. So now NYC DSA has stronger roots in the tenants’ rights and housing justice movements, and its dedicated electoral operation has also been able to elevate representatives of those movements into positions of elected leadership, from which they will no doubt provide even more opportunities for this kind of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political cross-pollination.
CHARLIE POST: There is no question that the Sanders’ campaign in 2016 gave electoral expression to the struggles of 2011-2014—and his defeat in 2020 was the result of the limits of those independent movements. Most importantly, Sanders’ campaign gave a name to the inchoate, spontaneous revulsion of millions to the failures of neoliberalism: democratic socialism. However, the Sanders’ campaign did not create this radicalization or a new mass, activist layer.
There are structural differences between building a mass activist base for disruptive social movements and a majoritarian voter base for an electoral campaign whose goal is to win office even for the most radical politician. Election campaigns whose goal is to win differ from mass movements of direct action against capital and the state in their impact on working people’s power, organization, and consciousness.
To win mass struggles, people have to organize risky confrontations with the powers that be; we have to break the law and build solidarity across the multiple schisms in our class (race, gender, citizenship, etc.). As a result, mass movements have the potential of building lasting, democratic organizations; challenging racist and sexist ideas; transforming attitudes about capitalism; exposing the nature of the capitalist state; and winning real victories. The current multiracial working-class uprising against police racism has, in a few short weeks, won victories that seemed impossible (arresting brutal cops, removing racist flags, monuments, and team names) and transformed positions that were marginal—defunding, disarming and abolishing the police—into topics of discussion in the mass media.
Election campaigns that aim to win—the only type that can be run in the Democratic Party—do not involve participants confronting the powers that be or taking risks. Nor do these campaigns, including the Bernie campaigns, provide participants with the skills and knowledge needed to build fighting organizations of working and oppressed people. Because elections are won by mobilizing 50% plus one vote, there is little or no need to confront “divisive” issues like racism, xenophobia or sexism; and plenty of reasons to distance the campaign from the “alienating” militancy of mass confrontational struggles. Finally, years of electing “progressive” politicians have yielded few gains for working people—and lots of disappointments.
Clearly, electoral campaigns can give political expression to mass struggles, but only when they are organized by and accountable to movement activists. This requires political independence from capital—independence from the Democratic Party.
JUSTIN CHARLES: Though I wouldn’t credit the Sanders campaign alone with pushing me from being mostly politically inactive and unorganized four years ago to being in the leadership of a socialist organization, Bernie was huge for me. His campaign showed me that it was possible to raise people’s expectations and spark atrophied political imaginations. But I think that the Sanders campaigns in 2016 and again in 2020, as successful as they were, did not necessarily build a popular electoral base or at least not one big enough to win.
I think the key underlying factor is that not nearly enough of the Democratic primary electorate believed that much of the Sanders platform was politically possible. Bernie lost because most people believe that the world is the way it is, and it can’t meaningfully change. Bernie and many who supported him talked about a movement, but I think it mostly didn’t exist despite his best efforts to reverse engineer it.
Building a mass movement for socialism, that mass activist base, will mean making it possible for more people to engage in struggle, experience solidarity, and to keep fighting for more together. That means successfully channeling what energy remains from Bernie’s campaigns into long-term organizing in elections but often beyond them. It means rebuilding old institutions of working-class power and creating new ones. It means seeing all the ways class struggle manifests and using what organization we have to amplify, sustain, and advance that struggle.
And speaking of strategic questions, Eric Blanc and Seth Ackerman have popularized the concept of a “dirty break” with the Democratic Party where they argue that socialists should use the Democratic Party ballot line to build power till we are either powerful enough to break with the Dems or are “kicked out” of the party for our socialist politics. My question is not so much about the dirty break itself, but the morning after the dirty break. What happens if and when socialists win office under such circumstances? Can they act as our tribunes in Congress?
MEAGAN DAY: The dirty break describes a strategy to run open democratic socialists affiliated with an organization (in this case the DSA) on whatever ballot lines, including the Democratic Party ballot line, makes the most sense in terms of reaching a broad audience and standing a chance at winning, in order to promote class politics from atop as large a platform as possible. The idea is to thus develop new political temperaments, understandings, hostilities, and allegiances in the electorate.
Alongside our non-electoral organizing work, which helps us establish a more permanent presence in the working class (and which is facilitated by our electoral work, as illustrated above), the theory is that this will grease the wheels for the establishment of an independent party that isn’t doomed to irrelevance from the outset.
“After the dirty break” then describes a situation (not close at hand nor easy to achieve) in which we have successfully established our own party, and not a puny protest party either, but one with a mass character capable of getting a large share of the vote. If a socialist wins office after we have established such a party, they can certainly act as our tribune in Congress. In fact, they will find it much easier to do so than in the intervening period, during which we will face serious and legitimate obstacles imposed by the Democratic Party in particular.
As representatives of an independent mass working-class party (or labor party, or socialist party, distinctions which are worthy of debate), our elected officials post-dirty break can not only legislate on behalf of the working class but also hold mass rallies and media events to promote the party’s platform, openly pick fights with the capitalist parties and agitate against opponents through the party and its press, and encourage non-electoral working-class self-activity by amplifying the struggles and resistance of workers in the halls of power. The post-dirty break world is full of promise—the trick is getting there.
CHARLIE POST: I think a whole variety of problems have plagued socialists when we elect candidates on the Democratic Party ballot-line. These same problems would confront us if we try to run independent candidates after attempting to win the Democratic nomination.
Elected officials, even the most radical socialists who run as members of independent parties, are under tremendous pressures to “go along to get along.” In the absence of rising mass struggle and strong organizations that can hold elected officials accountable, the day to day requirements of passing legislation and “servicing constituents” push elected officials to seek allies among other elected officials to “get things done.” The price of such deal making is to abandon radical programs for more moderate and “realistic” ones. These pressures are always intensified in periods, like today, of economic crisis. The pressure to “restart the economy”—restore profitability—has been the shoal of many radical electoral experiments from Mitterrand’s French socialist government in the 1980s to SYRIZA in 2015.
The “dirty break” strategy, with its prolonged period of socialists working within the Democratic Party, will do little to lessen these pressures. While I am doubtful about the claim that a “dirty break” created the Minnesota Farm-Labor Party in the 1920s, the strategy has little chance of success today because the Democrats are even less “permeable” by the labor and social movements than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. The Democrats have become a fund-raising cabal run by unaccountable committees of elected officials who have been extremely successful in defeating or containing left-wing challenges since the 1990s. Put simply, the prospect of a “dirty break” from the Democratic Party, where the left builds its forces in an organization without any semblance of an active membership, is unrealistic.
We can see today, when the “dirty break” is most definitely not on the agenda, that DSA has been unable to hold accountable candidates and members who run and are elected today. If, by some miracle, a DSA endorsed candidate actually breaks with the Democrats, runs as an independent after a primary defeat, and actually wins, how will we be able to ensure that they act as our “tribunes?” The Democratic Party is not an arena through which either democratic self-organization or tumultuous mass struggles—the necessary conditions for ensuring that independent candidates do not capitulate to capitalist realism—can be built.
JUSTIN CHARLES: Hypothetically, let’s say we’ve run on the Democratic ballot line to such success that we’ve forced the Democrats hands such that the establishment feels it needs to change rules and laws so that we can’t use it any longer. Would we not also be in a position where we’ve built the power needed to have done some real damage with that ballot line already? Would we not have gotten enough of us elected to have achieved some significant policy wins?
I think fixating on the ballot line is the wrong thing to be doing. In the electoral sphere in this country, the party system we have makes it so third parties cannot win. If we’re going to play this game, we should play to win. We should continue to run socialists on the Democratic Party ballot line with platforms that lay down a marker for the kind of world we want.
In New York City DSA, we did that with Julia Salazar, and she helped pave the way for historic tenant protection legislation. We just elected four more socialist state legislators in Jabari Brisport, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, and Zohran Mamdani. In Julia’s case, she arrived in Albany alongside several progressives, and I think she gave them space to legislate in a way they couldn’t have otherwise. These recent state legislative primaries yielded even more progressives and another socialist we didn’t endorse.
I think federal races are another matter. Electeds with the skill and savvy of AOC are few and far between, and Congress is exceptionally hostile to the left. I think our movement is currently best situated to get wins at the municipal and state level. There we can pass legislation for working-class gains, to create an environment that better facilitates class struggle by being those tribunes of the people we need and put class politics on display for more people to see.
Where do you think we as a Left ought to focus our energies and resources in the current moment with a pandemic raging and a recession looming? Put differently, if you were speaking to a gathering of high school students who had just organized a mass demonstration in their city against police violence, were already aware of several systemic sources of oppression, where would you ask them to put their time and energy?
MEAGAN DAY: I would ask them to join a socialist organization, specifically DSA — or if these are high school students, YDSA, the organization’s youth wing. As to what the organization should focus on, I believe that changes as circumstances change. It has been incumbent on DSA to organize essential workers throughout the pandemic, participate fully and enthusiastically in the mass protests this summer, just as it will be incumbent on us to stand in solidarity with teachers’ strikes against reopening should they occur in the early fall, and then to join coalition efforts to build popular support for ballot measures to tax the rich and fund social services instead when those are up in the late fall. In particular in the coming months we should be on the lookout for any opportunity for mass action against the dangerous reopening of the economy and the cruel neglect and exploitation of the working-class during the shutdown.
Politics moves fast, and organized socialists need to be flexible enough to keep up with them. There is always the problem of “tailing social movements,” by which people mean the tendency of usually marginal socialist groups to eagerly glom onto whatever’s popular and generally left-wing (with the curious exception of the Bernie Sanders campaigns!) and never attempt to proactively set the agenda. With that in mind, we do have to strategize about how to design, launch, and execute our own campaigns, whether to get a candidate elected or strengthen a worthwhile labor movement initiative or something else. But even then, we need to make those decisions with our finger on the pulse.
I will add more concretely that whenever we find ourselves positioned to design campaigns from scratch instead of simply responding to shifting and urgent circumstances, I think the best places to put our efforts are in electoral politics, with the goal of using them to promote class consciousness and intensify class struggle, and the labor movement, with the goal of fostering organization and militancy among the rank-and-file. We have to undertake these projects in the spirit of durable institution-building. Socialists must not lose sight of the organs that have gotten us the farthest in the past: the party and the union.
CHARLIE POST: The first priority is creating enduring organizations to continue the struggle for defunding, disarming, and dismantling of the police. Capital and its political representatives were caught back-footed by the rebellion. They are attempting to retake the initiative—granting demands that cost little (removing statutes and flags, renaming teams and stadiums) or helping expand the middle class of color as a moderating force on working people, while resisting the radical and redistributive demands for defunding the cops, funding social services, health care, schools, and jobs. We need a new organization, similar to SNCC in the 1960s, that can continue to build a disruptive social movement for the radical politics of police abolition.
The next priority will be organizing against making working people pay for the pandemic and depression. These dual crises have hit racialized people and women, who are over represented among low-wage, unorganized “essential workers” and bear much of the responsibility for privatized social reproduction, hardest. Not only are we faced with being compelled to return to unsafe workplaces, sacrificing our lives for our employers’ profits, but massive evictions and foreclosures and a new plague of homelessness looms. In the 1930s, anti-capitalists organized mass demonstrations, occupations of government offices and direct resistance to evictions and foreclosures, demanding union jobs or unemployment benefits and a permanent moratorium on rent and mortgage payments. We need to do the same today.
We need to bring the uprising into our workplaces. Millions of people have learned that if you fuck things up you win. Nothing scares the capitalist class more than the prospect of a new generation of multiracial agitators reorganizing warehouses, factories, schools, hospitals, and offices across the US.
Finally, we need a new socialist party to organize socialists in the mass movements and to educate for socialism. Such a party can and should begin, today, running independent candidates for local and state offices, especially in “one-party” areas where we can easily avoid accusations of being spoilers. Only campaigns independent of the Democrats have the potential of holding candidates accountable to our socialist organizations so they trumpet the demands of our movement, rather than “go along to get along” in office.
JUSTIN CHARLES: We should be organizing against school re-openings and for people’s bailouts and budgets everywhere. The push for austerity will be relentless, and we should match that intensity in arguing for fully funding the kind of society we want. The calls to defund, disarm, and abolish the police and to invest in our communities must continue.
My favorite thing about these uprisings I’ve seen is how young everybody is. They also seem to understand very clearly that the cops aren’t here to keep them safe and that we need to transform our society fundamentally. So, I want these people in organizations. If I were speaking to a bunch of high school students who’d organized a mass demonstration against police violence, I’d encourage them to do it again and to continue organizing around the issues that directly affect them.
I’d tell them to join organizations focused on those issues where they are and if they don’t exist to build them themselves. I’d do my best to get them to join YDSA and create chapters in their schools. I’d tell them to link up with their parents and teachers in fighting against unsafe school re-openings this fall and for fully funding online learning for them. And I’d tell them they can give me a shout anytime and I’d do what I could to help them.
Part II: Responding and Debating
JUSTIN CHARLES: I think Meagan, Charlie, and I are in broad agreement on the conditions from which this current wave of radicalization arose. On the question of a popular electoral base, a mass activist base, and where they converge and diverge, I failed to make plain that I think despite some differences, we need them both. Building a mass activist base entails engaging more and more people who’ve suffered from the depoliticizing belief in the impossibility of transformative change for the better and bringing them into the struggle to politicize them such that they believe we can build the world we want.
The example Meagan and I cite in my chapter, NYC-DSA, is illustrative of a path toward meaningfully weaving together the electoral and movement realms. Even before we got any wins electorally, you can draw a line from the Bedford-Union Armory redevelopment fight and Jabari Brisport’s city council run to Julia Salazar’s win against a real estate lobby bought incumbent to the historic tenant rights legislation won alongside New York’s housing justice movement to us coming into contact with Marcela Mitaynes and Phara Souffant Forrest to our state legislative sweep in July. We now find ourselves with four more from our ranks in Albany under dire circumstances for thousands of tenants in this city in the wake of the pandemic and the end of eviction protection.
At the municipal level in New York City, we’re now seeing more opportunities for strong feedback loops between radical movement struggles and electoral politics. While we’ve seen Minneapolis and other cities like Los Angeles make cuts to their police budgets in response to a wave of street actions, our City Council has passed an embarrassment of a budget. It doesn’t cut NYPD funding or personnel in any meaningful way, doing sleight of hand instead – moving money from the NYPD to the Department of Education for what will still be police in schools.
Meanwhile, we will see cuts and layoffs across the board to the city’s public sector, to services that have already suffered austerity for decades. The Council does this as we enter the 2021 City Council election cycle and 35 seats open up due to term-limits. Socialist candidates have a golden opportunity to make an argument for the kind of city they want New York to be when we come out of the other side of the pandemic. Divesting from racist police violence and investing in New Yorkers will factor into those arguments heavily and will require working alongside movements.
In response to Charlie’s critique of campaigns on the Democratic ballot line, I’d say NYC-DSA’s candidates in 2020, and Julia Salazar in 2018, directly confronted the most powerful political player in city and state politics: the real estate lobby. We’ve helped make it taboo for other candidates to take real estate money. I agree with the concern about accountability but I think we can minimize those kinds of problems by developing candidates from the ranks of our organization and drawing them to us from movement work we engage in, as we’ve done. As we enter next year’s City Council cycle, the fight against policing and its deeply rooted racism as well as the displacing effects of land use policy will have to be a core part of what we do.
On the “dirty break” question, I think running on a Democratic Party line is what we have to do due to the structural and legal limitations of our electoral system. I agree with every critique you have of the Democratic Party, Charlie. The danger of candidates we run on their line being assimilated into the apparatus is real. That’s why it’s all the more important that we strengthen our organizations and movements and make it so they provide the support and resources that give them their strength.
We need robust grassroots fundraising and volunteer operations. We have to be strong enough that they don’t need to go along to get along. Through internal democracy, engagement of an active membership base, and development of and adherence to a political program, organizations can do this. Would we call it a party? I don’t know, maybe? Maybe not?
If we’re strictly defining a party as an organization that runs candidates on a ballot line, I’m less interested in that at this moment. But if we’re talking about a party in the sense of the kind of fighting, thinking radical organization that grows out of and alongside ongoing and developing struggles to help knit them together to confront the powers that maintain our exploitation and oppression, and uses elections as a tool to help do that, then I’m very interested in that. That type of organization doesn’t necessarily need a ballot line to do its job.
Regarding the question of what we should do next, I agree with Charlie on pretty much everything except the ballot line we run candidates on. We need organizations that can continue to engage in the current struggle against policing and the prison industrial complex as a whole. We may already have that in organizations like Critical Resistance, but I think we’ll see new ones too.
We need to make abolition legible for the people who don’t understand it but honestly want to. We need to make it clear that it’s about the presence of institutions a just society should have as well as the absence of those it shouldn’t. We also need to be prepared to fight the austerity, unsafe reopening of the economy, eviction crisis, and economic fallout from the pandemic we have coming our way and we can look to our forebears in the early 20th century for examples of how we might do that.
In response to Meagan, I agree that we have to walk on the knife’s edge to stay agile and capable of responding to political developments as they arise while also having a long view and always working toward our own goals on our own terms. I also believe we need to continue our engagement in electoral campaigns and the labor movement.
I would only add that between those two places of emphasis exist many manifestations of class struggle. Many struggles and modes of organizing often written off as “fringe” are quite the opposite. They are core components of a working-class and socialist politics: abolition and self-determination, socialist feminism, and freedom from borders are all central matters for class struggle. In recent years they have brought together some of the most diverse currents of people into the streets and posed the question of political power.
MEAGAN DAY: I want to thank my interlocutors for their thoughtful contributions and extend my gratitude to Spectre for inviting me to participate. It seems that among the three of us there are many points of agreement. Meanwhile the points of disagreement are, to my mind, legitimate and pressing questions that deserve sustained attention and careful consideration, which is the purpose of this roundtable. For that reason, with my limited space to reply I’ll focus on the areas of contention.
I think that Justin and Charlie place far too little emphasis on the role of Bernie Sanders in their narratives of contemporary radicalization. I agree with Justin’s contextualization of Sanders’ first campaign within episodes of resistance over the previous twenty years, but I don’t think he gives it the special consideration I believe it deserves. Sanders’ first run marked a significant departure in the political life of the country for three distinct but related reasons.
Firstly, it cohered the intense but politically and organizationally diffuse struggles of previous decades. Secondly, it cohered that base around a minimum program of popular demands and explained to his mass audience why we don’t have those things: the power of billionaires, insurance companies, the military-industrial complex, and Wall Street. Thirdly, his campaign oriented a national-scale movement to make demands on the federal state and represented a plausible means of winning those demands.
Occupy Wall Street and other moments of upheaval certainly injected disruptive working-class politics into mainstream discourse, but the movement advancing them was nevertheless often politically incoherent, short on infrastructure and demands, and more propagandistic than strategic. Sanders’ campaigns intervened in this state of affairs by marking the emergence of a program that spoke directly to the material needs of working-class people across lines of cultural difference and began to facilitate development of new coalitions that reached far beyond the boundaries of the activist and progressive scenes. Furthermore, the presidential contest came with clear win-loss conditions, which made it feel more concrete than the protest movements that preceded it.
In the course of the first Sanders campaign, the prospect of taxing the rich and redistributing their ill-gotten wealth to publicly fund healthcare and higher education became a truly credible proposition to millions of ordinary working-class people across the country. To this point, it makes a big difference that presidential politics are national in scope, and while I agree with Justin that we may not have many opportunities there for the foreseeable future, we should desire them.
In his first answer, Charlie argues that the Democratic Party “defeated and integrated” the first Sanders campaign. This is a dramatic undervaluation of the Sanders intervention. First, the sunset of Sanders’ 2016 campaign inaugurated a significant flow of people into organized socialist politics for the first time, primarily (though not exclusively) marked by the rapid growth of DSA. In the context of a historically disorganized American left, this marked a huge boost of political confidence and organization. It’s no coincidence that the ranks of the organized socialist movement began to swell from its historical low tide in the direct aftermath of a presidential contest which featured a self-described democratic socialist mounting a serious challenge to the political power of the capitalist class within the Democratic Party.
While the first Sanders campaign (like the second) didn’t secure state power, it did stimulate the rebirth of the organized socialist movement. Additionally, by politically motivating and activating key organizers—this by their own admission, as documented in Eric Blanc’s book Red State Revolt, in the pages of Jacobin, and in DSA’s journal Democratic Left—as well as contributing to an overall atmosphere of generative political polarization complete with a strong anti-austerity current, the Sanders campaign contributed significantly to the upsurge in working-class militancy spearheaded by the #RedforEd teachers’ movement in 2018 and 2019, the largest strike wave in the United States in forty years.
I’m more inclined to agree with Justin than with Charlie on the efficacy and potential of electoral politics. When Charlie says that “mass movements have the potential of building lasting, democratic organizations; challenging racist and sexist ideas; transforming attitudes about capitalism; exposing the nature of the capitalist state and winning real victories,” I can’t disagree. But over the past four years I have also seen socialist electoral campaigns do each of those many times over. Anyone who says they haven’t witnessed this, I would charge, has not been paying close enough attention to the six Chicago DSA aldermen, the five DSA candidates who just won a ticket to Albany to join a sixth there, the activities of AOC, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar in Congress, or Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant’s activities on the Seattle City Council, to name a few.
It is plausible to argue that socialist electoral activity could stymie mass extra-parliamentary activity, but a balance sheet of the last four years demonstrates that in our current conjuncture, there is a significant positive feedback loop between campaigns for state power and on-the-ground movements. I gave an example of what this can look like when we do win in my previous submission to this debate. But it’s also true even when we don’t win: for example, in East Bay DSA we ran a state legislative campaign which we lost in late 2018, and then quickly retooled that electoral apparatus to serve as the infrastructural and volunteer basis for an extremely ambitious and creative strike support campaign for the historic Oakland teachers’ strike in early 2019.
In the end, it seems unwise to me to counterpose electoral and non-electoral politics, when instead we could be strategizing the best ways to use elections to enhance extra-parliamentary activity. This is the spirit in which DSA passed at its 2019 national convention a resolution to pursue “class-struggle elections,” with the express intent of using electoral politics to stimulate and strengthen non-electoral activity.
This naturally leads us to the party question, which seems to be the most pronounced disagreement between the three participants in this debate. Forgive me if I characterize too crudely, but to attempt a summary, Charlie doesn’t believe that running socialists with a (D) next to their name is a tactic with anything to offer for the socialist movement and would like to see the practice cease entirely today. Meanwhile, Justin believes that a fixation on the ballot line question is distracting and that we should proceed to run socialists within the Democratic Party and see where that gets us, remaining open to the possibility of realignment as the path of least resistance to a functional pro-worker party.
To respond to Justin first, my position is that it’s critical to explicitly argue for establishing an independent party that exists to advance the interests of the working class. If we operate with that end-goal in mind, it will inform our strategic decisions along the way. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the argument that if we’re strong enough to split without being immediately crushed or forgotten, we’re also probably strong enough to dominate a coalition for a while—but I think we should aim higher than fragile dominance in a coalition that includes the outright enemies of the socialist project.
The ideal organ for socialist electoral struggle is a political party that is explicitly not a cross-class coalition. In other words, it’s best if there aren’t any capitalists still mucking around in the party, and necessarily attempting to recover dominance (which they will be well-positioned to do, since they are after all the dominant class). I’m also not particularly sanguine about the prospects of the capitalist class voluntarily vacating the Democratic Party in response to the threat we pose. I expect them to shrewdly judge the abandonment of one of their two most important political assets (the two major American political parties) to be a foolish chess move. Therefore, I think we are going to eventually want to build a separate party, when the conditions are right, and I believe we should attempt to create those conditions.
However, I do not think those conditions are right at the moment, and in fact I don’t even suspect they’re imminent. This is one half of my disagreement with Charlie’s perspective. In my assessment, we don’t have a constituency for our politics that’s sizable enough or politically coherent enough—despite great advances over the last half-decade in particular—to withstand the inevitable assault if we refuse to run on the Democratic Party ballot line and run only on our own ballot line from this point onward.
We must assiduously lay groundwork, and that will involve electoral politics, ideally on as large a platform as possible, which will often mean running on the Democratic Party ballot line. As seriously as we take the obstacles thrown up by the Democratic Party establishment, we must also take seriously the threat of spending our precious energy in this vital moment building a separate party only to have misjudged its viability, and end up watching it wither on the vine, its architects sidelined and demoralized.
The other half of my disagreement with Charlie’s perspective is that, while I think he’s right about many of the limitations of running and governing as a Democrat, I don’t think those obstacles are any more formidable than the obstacles posed by having no credible electoral presence whatsoever. Something can be both extraordinarily difficult and also the path of least resistance. They will fight us; we will fight back openly and use the opportunity to explain the class nature of the political conflict and cultivate a constituency that can serve as the partial basis for a future independent party.
They will seek to co-opt and neuter our elected representatives; we will seek to build institutions that are large, effective, and organized enough that even our least faithful representatives (and indeed we should strive to find faithful ones!) must take our position into account as they determine their course of action. It’s not going to be easy, but we need to bore through it with eyes wide open.
CHARLIE POST: I first want to thank both my fellow editor at Spectre, Tithi Bhattacharya, for organizing this symposium; and my co-respondents for their contributions. While there are clear disagreements amongst us, I am impressed by the comradely and highly political tone of this discussion. I am also encouraged that none of us have embraced the “lesser-evilism” that calls on the left to campaign for “Shoot ‘em in the leg” Biden, a racist neoliberal Democrat, to defeat Trump. I also appreciate Justin’s placing the current radicalization in an international perspective. Too often in our legitimate desire to root ourselves in the reality of US politics, the new socialist left tends to be a bit provincial.
Megan rejects the distinction between building an activist base for mass struggle and constructing a broad electoral constituency for left and socialist candidates. She claims that “the sections of the Left that are pursuing popular electoral politics are precisely the ones that have made the greatest progress towards building a durable mass activist base in the current period.”
She puts forward New York City (NYC) DSA’s successful combination of Julia Salazar’s election to the New York State (NYC) Assembly in 2018 and the building of an activist alliance with tenants’ organizations as proof. The fruit of the strategy was “the most sweeping set of pro-tenant reforms in New York in decades” in 2019. In addition, DSA was able to recruit key housing activists, two of whom (Marcella Mitaynes and Phara Souffrant) are among the four NYC DSA members who won Democratic primaries for NYS Assembly in 2020, effectively guaranteeing their election in heavily Democratic districts.
As a result, she argues “NYC DSA has stronger roots in the tenants’ rights and housing justice movements, and its dedicated electoral operation has also been able to elevate representatives of those movements into positions of elected leadership, from which they will no doubt provide even more opportunities for this kind of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political cross-pollination.”
A closer examination of the 2019 “Housing Sterility and Tenant Protection Act” reveals a much more complex and contradictory reality. It is true that the 2019 law contains several substantial pro-tenant reforms. These substantial changes will provide greater security to the millions of working-class New Yorkers, in particular immigrants and people of color, who are rent stabilized tenants.
However, as even the most enthusiastic supporters of the 2019 reform recognize, the law does not include a “good cause eviction” provision. Landlords are under no obligation to renew leases even for tenants who regularly paid their rents! The landlords remain free to evict tenants and, in the case of the half of all NYC tenants who are in “market rate” apartments, raise rents for the new tenants.
The absence of even the minimal protection of a “just cause eviction” clause—where tenants can only be evicted for failure to pay rent—leaves New York City and New York State tenants vulnerable in the current period. Even the business press recognizes that the US is facing a potential tsunami of evictions. As mass unemployment continues in the midst of the recession/depression and COVID-19 pandemic and Congress appears ready to end the $600 per week bonus to unemployment compensation, millions of working people—as always under capitalism, disproportionately single women with children and people of color—face the prospect of choosing between buying food and paying rent. Over 25 percent of tenant households currently spend more than half their pretax income on rent and utilities. With even liberal New York ready to end its temporary eviction moratorium, the 2019 reform will do little to prevent a rise in homelessness not seen in the US since the 1930s.
Are the tenants’ rights and housing justice organizations that DSA has built relationships with through the Salazar campaign prepared to effectively organize against mass evictions? The two most important organizations involved in winning the 2019 reforms are the NYC based Metropolitan Council on Housing and the New York State-wide Tenants & Neighbors. Both have a long history of tenant advocacy: organizing the lobbying of elected officials in the city and state governments, providing legal representation to tenants and organizing legally sanctioned rent strikes (when landlords fail to do the most basic maintenance, tenants’ associations are required to deposit the withheld rent in a bank account and pay the back rent when the landlord makes repairs).
Unfortunately, such organizations are ill prepared to do the sort of direct-action, illegal organizing that will be required to stop evictions in the coming period. At the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Communists, Socialists, and other radicals organized the multiracial unemployed to demand cash relief (unemployment benefits), emergency clothing, and against evictions. The unemployed movement did not rely on lobbying elected officials or going to court, but on organizing demonstrations that physically confronted the police to either prevent evictions or put people’s furniture and possessions back in their apartments.
“Just cause eviction” protection was won in Philadelphia in 2018 through a very different approach to organizing. The Philadelphia Tenants’ Union (PTU), a grassroots organization, built street demonstrations, rent strikes, and direct action eviction resistance to pressure the Philadelphia City Council into passing one of the strictest anti-eviction measures in the US—without any involvement in the Democratic Party electoral machine. The PTU’s campaign provides a much more solid basis for the sort of direct-action resistance to evictions that will be on the agenda in the coming period.
There is no way to avoid, in practice, the fundamental differences between building an activist cadre for disruptive social movements, and a majoritarian voter base for an electoral campaign whose goal is to win office even for the most radical politician. Movements require illegal, risk-taking actions; democratic organization; and building solidarity across lines of race and gender. They actually win reforms and build radical consciousness. Election campaigns require winning over 50% of votes at the polls; require little control from participants, tend to avoid divisive or radical demands; and generally, do not win adequate change or build radical consciousness.
Justin recognizes this in his analysis of why Bernie’s 2020 campaign failed to do as well as his 2016 run: “the key underlying factor is that not nearly enough of the Democratic primary electorate believed that much of the Sanders platform could happen, that it was politically possible…Bernie lost because most people believe that the world is the way it is, and it can’t meaningfully change. Bernie and many who supported him talked about a movement, but I think it mostly didn’t it exist despite his best efforts to reverse engineer it.”
Unfortunately, the new socialist left had a negative lesson of these differences over the summer. DSA, as a national organization, faced tremendous difficulties shifting form a near exclusive orientation to electoral politics to an active engagement with the multiracial anti-racist uprising. It took concerted efforts in several cities by POC socialists and non-electorally oriented members to get DSA to initiate actions with #BlackLivesMatter activists against police racism. Today, most of DSA appears to be again orienting to down-ballot election campaigns rather than working with newly radicalized militants to build new, independent anti-racist organizations.
Clearly, socialists have and can use elections to give a political expression to social struggles—if the campaigns are independent of our class enemies and are accountable to our movements. If you believe that change comes through winning elected office and your goal is to win at any cost, then using the “Democratic Party ballot line” makes perfect sense. However, if our goal is to build a political voice for our class and its struggles—the real source of radicalism and power—then, we have to recognize that the Democratic Party is a highly disciplined, capitalist political machine that will constantly crush or diffuse any radical challenge.
Justin is correct that the US electoral and party system weighs heavily against third party challenges. However, these have not and are not insurmountable. In the early 1920s and mid-1930s, labor radicals and local unions built local and state labor (and labor-farm) parties that successfully contested elections—without any period of gestation within either the Democratic or Republican party prior to a “dirty break.” The key to their success then—and today—was vibrant, mass struggles that shifted consciousness among a substantial minority of working people. Their experience of power through strikes, occupations, and mass marches made them willing to “waste their vote” on candidates who did not have an immediate chance of electoral success. Building and sustaining mass struggle must be the priority for the new socialist left today.
Finally, I want to raise what appears to be a dilemma for the contemporary advocates of the “dirty break.” On the one hand, if DSA candidates running as Democrats consistently lose, comrades will argue that it is premature to break because they have failed to accumulate the forces necessary for a new workers’ party. On the other, if DSA candidates continue to win, the pressures to try and reform/realign the Democrats will grow with each electoral success. When, then, does the “dirty break” become possible?