What Happened to the “Dirty Break”?
The Evolution of a Socialist Electoral Strategy
September 17, 2021
Since the fall of 2019, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist formation in the US since the 1940s, has devoted the vast majority of its membership energy and financial resources to contesting elections as Democrats. Despite being caught back footed by one of the largest social explosions in US history, the Black Lives Matter uprising of spring-summer 2020, DSA has effectively doubled-down on Democratic primary battles. This deepening commitment to Democratic Party electoral politics is reflected in changes in DSA’s formal program—at its 2021 convention a motion to reassert the 2019 commitment to the eventual formation of an independent workers party in the US was defeated 435 in favor and 569 opposed.1This vote was part of a general right-ward drift in DSA since Biden’s election. See Haley Pessin and Andrew Sernatinger, “DSA Sliding Right Under Biden” Tempest (September 8, 2012) https://www.tempestmag.org/2021/09/dsa-sliding-right-under-biden/. A central feature of the shift in DSA’s debates from “how to building an independent party…to whether to break from the Democratic Party at all,”2Andy Sernatinger and Emma Wilde Botta “Strange Alchemy: The Party Surrogate and Socialist Politics in DSA” Tempest (June 5, 2021) https://www.tempestmag.org/2021/06/strange-alchemy/. is the evolution of approximately 45% of the Bread & Roses caucus and its main theoretician Eric Blanc.
Blanc, the author of the dirty break strategy where socialists contest Democratic primaries in order to accumulate the forces for a break with this capitalist party, has publicly distanced himself and his caucus from their public commitment to the need for an eventual split from the Democrats.3Eric Blanc, “We Should Focus on Scaling Up Working-Class Power, Not Debating the Dirty Break” The Call (August 6, 2021) https://socialistcall.com/2021/08/06/dsa-dirty-break-electoral-strategy/. The political and/or character defects of individuals cannot explain this clear drift from earlier political commitments. It is the result of both the conjunctural political tensions their theory attempted to address, and, most importantly, the unrealistic historical and theoretical assumptions of the strategy.
Blanc’s 2017 essay, “The Ballot and the Break,”4Jacobin (December 4, 2017) https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/12/democratic-party-minnesota-farmer-labor-floyd-olson. presented the dirty break as an alternative to the failures of both a clean break of the labor and social movements from the Democrats and the realignment strategy of transforming the Democrats into a social-democratic party. For Blanc, the clean break failed to grapple with the specificities of the US election system (single-member constituencies, first past the post elections, etc.), condemning most third party experiments to, at best, political irrelevancy, or at worst, the status of spoilers who allow the election of reactionaries. In this former view, while a clean break went too far, the realignment strategy could not alter the political character of Democratic Party. Instead, it transformed the realigners from advocates of social-democratic reforms into apologists for the right-ward moving Democratic establishment.5“Despite more recent analyses mirroring some of Blanc’s developments, see for instance the earlier Paul Heideman, “It’s Their Party” Jacobin (February 4, 2016) https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/democratic-party-realignment-civil-rights-mcgovern-meany-rustin-sanders; and Kim Moody, “From Realignment to Reinforcement” Jacobin (January 26, 2017) https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/01/democratic-party-campaign-fundraising-wasserman-schultz.
The most successful labor party in US history—the Minneapolis Farmer-Labor Party (FLP)—was not the result of a clean break from the capitalist parties led by dissident trade unionists, farmer radicals, and socialists, but of a dirty break prepared within the Democratic and Republican Parties. According to Blanc, the farmer-led Non-Partisan League (NPL) and the labor-led Working People’s Non-Partisan League’s (WPNPL) contestation of Republican and Democratic Party primaries between 1918 and 1921 created the conditions for the establishment of the FLP three years later. NPL and WPNPL members ran in primaries as advocates of radical social reform, and refused to support or campaign for mainstream candidates. Instead, they ran independent candidates when they lost their primary challenges. When the Republican state legislature banned primary candidates from running for the same office on another party’s ballot line in 1921, the WPNPL and a minority of the NPL ran as independents and elected a US Senator and one member of Congress in 1922-23. In 1924, they launched the FLP.
With almost all of the DSA-supported Democratic candidates and electeds rejecting any suggestion of breaking organizationally with the corporate Democrats, many advocates of the dirty break had to admit that their practice was indistinguishable from the failed realignment strategy, at least in the short and medium term. By 2021, Blanc found another historical example—the birth of the British Labour Party (BLP)—to extend the timeline of the break.6The Birth of the Labour Party Has Many Lessons for Socialists Today” Jacobin (February 15, 2021) https://www.jacobinmag.com/2021/02/labour-party-uk-lessons-socialists. Blanc argued that the experience of labor officials and pragmatic socialists working in the Liberal Party, the party of British industrial capital, demonstrated how the left could build an electoral base among working people in preparation for an independent workers party. The Labour Representation League (LRL) of the 1870s, the “Lib-Labs” (labor leaders who ran as Liberals) of the 1880s and 1890s, and the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) of the early 1900s were the precursors of the surrogate party. Resisting both cooptation and sectarian marginalization, British workers traversed the road to political independence through the Liberals to the BLP in 1906. US workers, argues Blanc, could follow this model and reproduce the trail they blazed, this time through the Democratic Party.7Blanc also praised the BLP’s continued electoral alliance with the Liberals prior to 1918-1920, as a means of winning workers who had remained loyal to the Liberals. Applied today, this surrogate party would be a membership organization financed by membership dues, which would select candidates to run in capitalist party primaries and hold them accountable to the party’s program.8Seth Ackerman, “A Blueprint for a New Party” Jacobin (November 8, 2016) (http://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/bernie-sanders-democratic-labor-party-ackerman) and Jared Abbott and Dustin Guastella, “A Socialist Party in Our Time?” Catalyst 3, 2 (Summer 2019).
Having extended the timeline for the dirty-break from the three to six years in Minnesota to the six to seven decades in Britain, it was a small step for Blanc and others to abandon any timeline at all, and to drop their open advocacy of the need for a break with the Democrats. In his contribution to the Bread & Roses caucus debate on DSA’s support for an independent workers’ party, Blanc argued that DSA should not be deterred from what he believes should be their main task: building surrogate parties through local DSA chapters. Further, propaganda for an independent party would leave DSA open to attacks by the Democratic establishment, isolate socialists, and undermine the campaigns of Sanders and others in heightening the contradictions between the corporate Democrats and their working-class voter base. Blanc even held out “the possibility for leftists to capture the national Democratic Party summit through hostile takeover via class struggle primary challenges that win both the presidency and the leadership of Congress.”9Blanc, “We Should Focus”.
How do we explain this shift from the need to break with the Democrats to the dirty work of a long march through the Democratic Party institutions? Andy Sernatinger and Emma Wilde Botta locate the dirty break strategy in the political conjuncture that produced the explosive growth of DSA after 2016.10“Strange Alchemy.” Sernatinger and Wilde Botta as well as Moody effectively dismantle claims that the voting base of the Democrats remains, after forty years of neo-liberal dominance, overwhelmingly working class, rather than increasingly upper middle class. On the one hand, the Obama administration’s track record, as well as the Democratic leadership’s open hostility to the first Sanders campaign, profoundly alienated tens of thousands of young people from the Democratic Party. On the other, the vast majority of these young people correctly feared the Republican right and lacked the experience of both mass social struggles that won substantial gains from capital and the state and the whittling away of their energy and gains, often by the Democratic Party. Put simply, most of the new radicals attracted to DSA saw no actual or potential contradiction between disruptive social movements and electoral campaigns for progressive candidates.11For a discussion of the different dynamics of class struggle and electoral politics, see David McNally and Charles Post, “Beyond Electoralism: Mass Action and the Remaking of the Working Class” Spectre 2, 1 (Spring 2021).
For Sernatinger and Wilde Botta, the dirty break provided “a political theory that could address the concerns with the Democrats and create a bridge that would lead to supporting Sanders and other candidates when they would run in the Democratic Party.” Especially when it was synthesized with the notion of a surrogate party, the dirty break offered reassurances to those who rejected the dead end of realignment politics while acknowledging the immediate obstacles to political independence by proposing “a way of running candidates in the Democratic Party, but not of the Democratic Party.” As most active DSA members began to devote more time and energy to Democratic electoral activism, especially after 2018, and DSA cadre were integrated into the campaign apparatuses of left Democrats. It is understandable then that the ranks of DSA came to ask “if what we’re doing is good, why do we need to break?” This was especially the case because all the DSA -endorsed and -supported candidates rejected any talk of a break with the Democrats, and their campaigns were effectively independent from and unaccountable to DSA.
Sernatinger and Joe Evica also wrote a provocative essay challenging Blanc and other advocates of the dirty break. If DSA was serious about preparing the dirty-break building the surrogate party, it needed to do three things that none of its advocates had attempted.12Joe Evica and Andrew Sernatinger, “Taking the Dirty Break Seriously: Socialists, Elections, and the Democratic Party” Tempest (September 10, 2020) https://www.tempestmag.org/2020/09/taking-the-dirty-break-seriously/. I made a similar argument in “Debating ‘The Case for Bernie 2020’” Socialist Worker (October 16, 2018) https://socialistworker.org/2018/10/16/debating-the-case-for-bernie-2020 First, they had to be publicly critical of the Democratic Party—eschewing claims to be “real Democrats” seeking to reform the party, refusing positions in Democratic Party campaigns and structures, and refusing to support mainstream Democrats in primaries or general elections. Second, they needed to build independent organization, not merely endorse individual campaigns, so that candidates and electeds could be held accountable. Doing so would promote political independence in unions and other working-class organizations. Finally, they had to “actually try to break,” by running independent campaigns on a local level when feasible to demonstrate “what is possible outside the Democratic Party.”
The clear failure to take any of these steps, even half-heartedly, reflects the unrealistic historical and theoretical assumptions that rendered the entire theory utopian. Kim Moody has demonstrated that Blanc’s original historical accounts of the origins of both the Minnesota FLP and BLP are profoundly flawed. Blanc under-estimated both the role of strike waves and social explosions in creating mass shifts in political consciousness, and the existence of a coherent and organized clean break political pole in the labor and social movements in the creation of independent working class parties.13Kim Moody, “’Dirty Break’ for Independent Political Action or a Way to Stay Stuck in the Mud?” New Politics (June 9, 2020) https://newpol.org/dirty-break-for-independent-political-action-or-a-way-to-stay-stuck-in-the-mud/ and “What Can We Learn from the Birth of the British Labour Party” Tempest (Forthcoming 2021). On occasion, Blanc mentions working class self-activity, but often as an afterthought, giving analytic primacy to the tactical sagacity of pragmatic socialists and radicals capable of navigating between the Scylla of adaptation to capitalist politics and the Charybdis of sectarian purity. Nor does he ever grapple with the very different and often counter-posed logics of mass actions and electoral politics whose sole goal is winning office. Because successful election campaigns require only the mobilization of 50% plus one of the voters, disruptive social struggles potentially alienate uncommitted voters, making winning elections more difficult.
The Logic of Electoralism
The distinctive logic of electoral activity makes the entire surrogate party model extremely unrealistic.14I am indebted to Kim Moody for the material in the following paragraphs. The periodic nature of elections and the specific dynamics of fund raising and “get out the vote” do not lend themselves to a permanent democratic membership organization.15Heather Gautney Crashing the Party: From The Bernie Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement (London: Verso Books, 2018), pp. 132-134 explicitly recognizes this. The closest was Minnesota’s NPL—the WPNPL had the institutional backing of the unions. What is most likely is that the party surrogate will end up like other political action committees, non-profits, and non-governmental organizations — from Our Revolution to the Sunrise Movement to the AARP — relying on big funders, a large inactive membership, and controlled by professional lobbyists and election strategists. At best, such groups remained mired in legal restrictions, fundraising pressures, and are pushed toward symbolic and pressure politics. Put simply these are not conducive to — and the surrogate party would not be a democratic organization.
What would attract working-class people to a membership organization whose main, if not sole, activity was contesting Democratic primaries?16I am indebted to personal correspondence with Kim Moody for these insights. Today, at best 20% of registered Democrats, disproportionately middle class like the rest of the electorate, bother to vote in the primaries. Class-based membership organizations require a glue — a goal achievable only through democratic, collective organization. Workers organize unions to contest the power of bosses over wages, hours and working conditions. Tenants’ associations organize to stop rent increases, evictions, and demand that landlords maintain living spaces. Working-class political parties — even reformist parties like the British Labor Party prior to the 1990s — not only contested elections but built solidarity with strikes, mobilized for demonstrations, organized public housing tenants, and demanded improved sanitation, health care, and other key conditions of social reproduction. Primary campaigns, which occur no more than once a year for limited amounts of time, have one aim and one aim only: to bring out 50% + one voter for their candidate. This activity encourages top-down campaigns run by professionals directing volunteers or, increasingly since the 1980s, paid campaign workers. A party surrogate whose glue is winning primaries is unlikely to recruit no less maintain an active working-class membership. For this reason, the very idea of class struggle primaries is itself ill-conceived and politically dangerous for the left.
The structure of the Democratic Party and how it shapes the political consciousness and activity of candidates, elected officials, and electoral activists also poses enormous obstacles to both the dirty break theory and its commitment to the idea of a party surrogate. Some in DSA claim that the Democratic Party has no institutional existence, at least since the decline of the northern urban machines and southern courthouse cliques in the 1970s, and is merely a ballot line capable of being contested by any political and social force. In reality, the Democrats are an excellent example of what Jo Freeman labelled the “tyranny of structurelessness.”17https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm. Since the 1980s, the Democratic Party has become what some have called a “complex.”18Sernatinger and Wilde Botta, “Strange Alchemy” use this term, building on the analysis detailed by Moody in “From Realignment to Reinforcement” and in On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), Chapters Seven to Nine. In the absence of a formal membership organizations, a variety of unelected and unaccountable fundraising committees—the Democratic National Committee, the Senate and House Campaign Committee, and various state Democratic Committees—constitute the core of the party. Around them is a cadre of professional fundraisers, campaign consultants, media wonks, IT professionals and other experts in electioneering. According to Moody:
The party has become a well-funded, professionalized, multitiered hierarchy capable of intervening in elections at just about every level. Its committees select many candidates, provide funding, furnish endorsements, offer media relations, and supply computer and digital campaign and get-out-the-vote services. In Congress and most state legislatures, its leaders impose a high level of party discipline, such that for the last two decades 90 percent of floor votes in both houses have been along strict party lines.19Moody, “From Realignment to Reinforcement”.
The effective centralization of power in the Democratic Party not only guarantees the continued reproduction of its capitalist character—it is incapable of being realigned into a social-democratic party despite the presence of labor officials and the official leaders of the oppressed as junior partners—but effectively undermines any attempt to gather forces within the party for some future break toward political independence. Nor does the structure of the Democratic Party produce an audience for political independence among potential primary candidates, elected officials, and party activists—including those who identify with DSA. This can be seen most clearly among Democratic candidates. While much has been made about the crowdsourcing that gathered tens of thousands of small donations to fund insurgent primary campaigns of Sanders and AOC, the fact is that big money doled out by the Party complex almost always guarantees the victory of incumbents. It is the effective, but nearly invisible, centralization that allows the Party apparatus to engage in backroom coordination of dirty tricks of the sort that scuttled the first Sanders campaign. Since 1945, incumbents have won 98-99% of all contested primaries, and have then gone on to win over 90% of general elections.20All the data in the following paragraphs is from Moody, “From Realignment to Reinforcement”. Primary challengers invariably support the triumphant incumbent at the risk of destroying any chance of nomination in the future. In the rare instances in which insurgents win the primary, they are under tremendous pressure not to rock the boat by supporting other insurgents. AOCs subsequent endorsements of the neoliberals (and notorious sexual predators) Andrew Cuomo for New York State Governor and Joe Biden for President is the norm for victorious insurgents. In sum, the Democratic Party’s structure practically guarantees that primary challengers will never consider, let alone actually run, an independent campaign if defeated.
Nor is there much of an audience for dirty break politics among those who win office as Democrats. Once in office, the elected is unlikely to support insurgent primary candidates for fear of alienating the party establishment that is capable of funding a successful primary challenge. Not surprisingly, only 10 of 232 Democratic members of the House and Senate, a mere 4.3%, endorsed Sanders in 2016, while only 3% of Democratic State legislators and an even smaller proportion of local office holders backed him. In 2020, even fewer Democratic officeholders supported the Vermont social democrat.
Left-wing electeds are also forced to conform to the party’s rightward moving mainstream. Democratic Party discipline is not the result of formal decisions by transparent leadership bodies, but it is nonetheless still extremely real. The mere possibility of losing the financial support of the shadowy Democratic Party committees is sufficient to keep most elected in line—resulting in a number of party-line votes in the House and Senate rising from 58% and 51% respectively in the early 1970s, to over 90% in the 21st century. It is therefore not surprising that Sanders and the Squad are pragmatically adapting to the Biden legislative program. All talk of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal has disappeared, as Sanders and other left Democrats promote Biden’s grossly inadequate infrastructure bill.21Branko Marcetic, “Bernie Sanders Is Making His Pitch to Swing Voters” Jacobin (September 1, 2021) https://jacobinmag.com/2021/09/bernie-sanders-reconciliation-bill-senate-working-people. Again, DSA electeds, once in office, are unlikely to support any break from the Democrats today or in the foreseeable future.
The invisible discipline exercised over elected officials in the Democratic Party also raises doubts about the effectivity of a surrogate party in holding DSA electeds accountable. The Democratic caucuses in Congress, state legislatures, and even city councils determine committee assignments, whose legislation gets debated, and how members vote on key pieces of legislation. AOC has already experienced these realities—marginal committee appointments, her Green New Deal proposals buried in Democratic dominated committees who vote “no action taken.” Increasingly, despite attention-grabbing symbolic actions, AOC is falling in line behind the Biden administration’s budget priorities and rearmed imperial policy. Faced with two, highly unequal sets of class-based organizational demands — that of worker activists in the surrogate party and those of capital through various Democratic campaign committees — which is the elected most likely to follow? In such a contest, we have good evidence to believe that the surrogate party is bound to lose at least 90% of the time.
Finally, the audience for a dirty break with the Democrats is extremely limited among the rank and file of the Democratic Party: its campaign activists. Most Democratic Party activists, including many DSA members and others campaigning for Sanders, AOC and other “socialist” candidates, believe that elections are the way to win reforms and transform society. Their goal is simple: win office and influence those who hold elected office. Unlike strikes, demonstrations, and other coordinated actions that require risk taking, building broad solidarity and directly challenging capital and the state, winning elections requires only getting 50% plus one voter to the polls. Anything that gets in the way of this goal — in particular, splitting the vote with even the threat of an independent campaign — must be avoided like the plague. The pressures of lesser-evilism are especially great when the prospect of the election or reelection of an open reactionary — like Trump — or whoever adopts his mantle in the future is a reality.
As they find themselves increasingly enmeshed in Democratic Party electoral activism, socialists either implicitly or, in the case of the Socialist Majority Caucus and the former Collective Power Network in DSA, explicitly embrace this electoralist worldview. Like the left-wing Democratic Party activists with whom they interact in primary campaigns, they come to believe that the road to winning reforms, building left-wing politics and, for DSA members, eventually transcending capitalism, is primarily electoral. As Sernatinger and Wilde Botta make clear, for these comrades, “the success and strength of our movement is measured by electoral wins. Reforms that benefit the working class are seen as a product of electoral organizing rather than class forces.”22“Strange Alchemy”.
The right-ward shift of the DSA mainstream at the 2021 Convention was a clear affirmation, in practice, of the utopian character of the dirty break strategy and theory. Despite rhetorical reaffirmations of support for defunding the police and an ill-defined orientation to rank and file labor struggles, DSA has clearly prioritized electoral work in the Democratic Party. Unable to bridge the gap between the promises of the dirty break and party surrogate strategies and the realities of the Democratic Party, DSA has returned, not in words but deeds, to the old and bankrupt realignment strategy of Michael Harrington. Put another way, the rightward drift of DSA and almost all of its leading caucuses is a clear practical repudiation of the futile attempts to find a third way between realignment and the hard work of preparing for a clean break with the Democrats.
To be clear, an independent workers’ party in the US cannot be willed into existence by socialists. Nor is there a road map to class political independence. But a realistic look at the history of the emergence of socialist and labor parties in the US and around the world provides some guideposts. First, these parties tend to emerge in periods of mass, disruptive, and often illegal social struggles. It is the experience of social power exercised outside of elections — in mass struggles winning concessions from capital and the state — that produces a mass audience for independent politics. The emergence of a significant minority of working people willing to waste their vote on an independent party that will be unlikely to win elections in the short run is crucial to counteracting the pressures of lesser evilism. Not surprisingly, it was periods of mass upheavals — Britain between 1910 and 1920, and the US between 1918 and 1921 and again between 1934 and 1936 — that saw agitation for, and in Britain, the creation of an independent workers’ party.23Eric Leif Davin and Staughton Lynd, “Picket Line and Ballot Box: The Forgotten Legacy of the Local Labor Party Movement, 1932-1935” Radical History Review 22 (1980), pp. 43-63. Eric Leif Davin, “The Very Last Hurrah? The Defeat of the Labor Party Idea, 1934-36” in Staughton Lynd (ed.), “We Are All Leaders”: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s” (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996, pp. 117-172. Clearly, the formation of such a party is not automatic; it requires the cohesion of a core of militants, educated and rooted in mass struggles, who educate and agitate for a clean break with the capitalist parties. Today, this militant minority will be built primarily through long-term organizing in workplaces and communities. However, it can also demonstrate what independent politics might look like through local independent campaigns in single-party cities, where Democratic hegemony mitigates against claims of being spoilers. Although such election campaigns will mostly end in defeat, they can demonstrate in practice the possibility of independent working-class politics.