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.