With the imminent demise of the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic Party nomination, discussion has turned to what should come next. Some, including Seattle Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, have agitated for creating a generic “party of the left.” But what does that mean? As we shall see, it’s a troublingly vague slogan whose beauty, if it exists at all, is solely in the eye of the beholder.
But first, we must step back and survey the lay of the land. Those inspired by Sanders’ campaign and those disillusioned with the two major parties come in various favors:
1) In the first category, there are those who see the status quo—characterized by unequal distribution of wealth, endless war, rampant racism, unemployment, mass incarceration and diminishing expectations—as fundamentally unjust, while having no coherent analysis whence comes the injustice. These are liberals, progressives, or populists: concerned, well-meaning individuals who decry society’s illness with no clear idea of its fundamental cause.
2) At the next level are those who have come to suspect that the drive for corporate profits conflicts with the exigencies of humanity as a whole. As a result, this stratum accepts that in order to solve society’s fundamental problems, capitalism might have to go. However, those in this group are fuzzy about what it means to supplant capitalism or how such a change might come about. They favor amending the current system, hoping that gradually, bit-by-bit, it can be converted into something fundamentally different. The historical name for this outlook is social democracy.
We should note that the minimal requirements of this grouping already exceed the program and perspective of many of the popular opposition voices of today—including Bernie Sanders, Ralph Nader, the Green Party, Bill McKibben of 350.org, and others—each of which accepts the continued existence of capitalism and so consigns themselves solidly to the populist category above.
3) In the final category are those who hold that eliminating capitalism means nationalizing the banks and critical industry under workers control; dismantling Wall Street and the Pentagon; building new institutions of workers democracy to replace the current corporate-occupied government; and creating workplace, regional, and national committees of working people to democratically plan and run the economy. This perspective calls for replacing the current political and economic system from top to bottom with a new system, democratically run by working people, which prioritizes human needs over profits. Those who advocate this approach are called revolutionary socialists.
Once again, we can see that the philosophical underpinning of this category (revolutionary socialism) exceeds the program and outlook of some well-known activists—Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, and Cornel West among them—thus positioning these activists squarely in the social democratic camp.
Beyond horseshoes and hand grenades
When the goal is to save humanity from extinction, half-measures won’t cut it; close is not good enough. The liberal and social democratic approaches fall short; the revolutionary socialist approach is what is needed to save the world. Of course, one can object to this assertion, but then you have the responsibility to demonstrate why tweaking the current system has gotten us precisely nowhere in the last 250 years.
One might ask, as propagandists for the ruling rich always do, “Why can’t you point to a single example where revolutionary socialism has created the utopia you advocate?” It’s a loaded question, but one requiring a response nonetheless.
First, there is the simple logical rejoinder: if non-existence of an ideal result were grounds for declaring that an approach is a failure, then the pro-capitalist, liberal, and social democratic strategies would all be condemned on those very grounds—doubly so, in fact, since each of these has been implemented or attempted countless times in recent history, unlike revolutionary socialism.
Then we must answer the disingenuous element inherent in the question as it is posed by defenders of capitalism—a disingenuousness that even some critics of capitalism fail to appreciate as they blithely repeat the challenge. First, every attempt at a revolutionary socialist advance the world-over has been ruthlessly attacked by the very forces who cynically assert that such an advance is not possible or practical. Second, the unfortunate truth is that no socialist revolution has yet occurred in any advanced capitalist country. Therefore, to judge the efficacy of revolutionary socialism by its success or failure in small or isolated countries, under siege by the forces of global capital, is akin to judging the seaworthiness of a ship that’s forced to navigate in a puddle.
If we accept that a full-blown political, social, and economic revolution is what’s needed to fix the world, then certain conclusions are inescapable:
For working people to take over the management and running of the government and the economy, they have to be organized.
Working people have to be on board with the plan and clear on the goal. They have to be willing and able to fight for political and economic power in their own name.
Working people have to be crystal clear as to who’s on which side, and who their friends are and who their enemies are. Current government institutions, police, and spy agencies are not benign vessels that can be bent to the will of whomever gets the most votes. They are the creations of, by, and for the 1%, designed to maintain their minority rule. Those institutions need to be replaced by genuine democratic structures, responsible to and controlled by the majority.
In this context, what does it mean to break free of the Democratic and Republican parties? What does it mean to build an independent party of the “left”?
Breaking free in the very narrow sense of forming a separate party is not enough. Clearly, another party of the 1% would be not be a step forward. Neither would it be sufficient to build a new populist party of those simply disillusioned with the two major parties. To truly break free means to build a party of, by, and for the working class.
But what does that mean? How do you ensure that a new party doesn’t just spout lofty rhetoric but is actually an exclusive instrument of the working class—that it gets its power, authority and marching orders only from that class? You base it on the fighting organizations of that class—labor unions, committees of the unemployed, organizations and communities of the most oppressed sectors of the working class: African American, Latino and Native American. A convenient name for such an organization is a labor party.
Yes, current labor unions are for the most part small, bureaucratic and even corrupt. But that just means we have more work to do. Building a labor party goes hand in hand with organizing. Every workplace and industry that doesn’t currently have a union should fight to organize one. Every existing union that’s hobbled—whose leadership is too cozy with the bosses, that’s saddled with an undemocratic structure, or whose leaders are unwilling to break with the two capitalist parties and fight politically and economically for the needs of the union and the working class as a whole—needs to be overhauled and retaken by the ranks.
This is what really breaking from the two major parties would look like. This is what would really set us on the road to transforming society.
So now it should be clear what’s wrong with calling for a generic “new party of the left” or “new party of the 99%.” It’s too vague. It’s a Rorschach test. Anyone envisioning such a party sees whatever they want to see. Such populist conglomerations are not anchored organically to any class and so cannot be counted on to lead the kind of changes that are needed.
Those who argue for this inkblot concept are caught in a tangle of logical contradictions. For example, is the Green Party that “new party of the 99%”? If so, then why call for the creation of a new party at all? If not, why not? What is the Green Party missing, exactly? Advocates of the “new party of the left” don’t know or don’t say. However, if instead we use the framework outlined above, there is no confusion. We have no trouble recognizing the Green Party and all similar class-agnostic formations as fitting comfortably within the populist category.
Not surprisingly, a lack of precision on what it means to break with the Democratic and Republican parties leads to other problematic positions.
We see Sawant argue that Sanders should run as an “independent” once his bid to win the nomination of a major capitalist party comes up short. But more than that, he is urged to consider not running in states where the race between the two capitalist parties is close. The rationale—the same one the Green Party used in 2004 at great cost to its reputation—is that the “independent” candidate should not be seen to be a “spoiler.” The message here is painfully schizophrenic: break with the parties of the 1%, but—just kidding—if the race is close, make sure the least-worst of the capitalist politicians wins at all costs!
(If Sander’s won the Democratic nomination, would Sawant’s Socialist Alternative party urge everyone to vote Democrat in November? If so, we are witness to a sad reversal, where a fighting socialist organization embraces the notion that change can indeed come through the Democratic Party. If not, how confusing for those whom Socialist Alternative has mobilized to go all out for Sanders in the primaries.)
In defense of language
Sanders says he is campaigning for a “political revolution.” Sawant and other genuine socialists have embraced this call and taken it up as their own. This is indeed strange since the expression has historically been used to describe a change at the top that is distinct from a fundamental change of the whole. The expression “political revolution” was popularized by Leon Trotsky in his fight against Stalinism in the Soviet Union. In that context, it was a call to replace the murderous, bureaucratic regime at the head of the Soviet state with a form of workers democracy, while retaining the socialized economy and property relations that had been won in the Russian revolution. The idea was to replace the rot at the top without reverting to capitalism.
Sanders clearly uses the term in a similar way. His political revolution is all about rearranging things at the top without challenging the underlying economic system. Again, a lack of clarity on what independent political action really means, and an over-eagerness to build a vague “new party of the left,” has led some to embrace Sanders’ half-baked slogan instead of critiquing its fatal limitations.
Language matters. It can be used to enlighten or to deceive. If someone is in the habit of substituting the word salad for the word chicken wherever it’s used, and they tell you that they eat nothing but salad every day, that doesn’t make them a vegetarian; it makes them a disingenuous manipulator of language. Sanders calls himself a socialist and pretends to be for some kind of revolution. Ignoring his abuse of language adds to the lack of clarity and makes it harder to explain to people what breaking with the parties of the 1% actually means.
Is building a labor party practical? Absolutely. Organized labor, diminished and battered though it may be, has significant financial and human resources. For the last several elections cycles, tens of millions of dollars and thousands of labor foot soldiers were placed at the disposal of the major capitalist parties. Those resources, shifted from the parties of the 1% to labor’s own campaigns, would give the new-formed party instant viability. Meanwhile, such a shift in resources would deal a body blow to the Democrats and Republicans.
But there’s something more behind the idea of a labor party that really boosts its viability. Working people produce everything. All of society’s wealth, though distributed unequally, has its origin in the labor of ordinary people. This gives us tremendous power. If the 1% took a day off, nobody would notice. But when all working people take the day off, it’s called a general strike, and the entire country grinds to a halt.
What’s needed is not some new party in the abstract, but a new tool that can be used by working people to fight for political power as a class, with the ultimate aim of replacing the rule of the capitalist minority with the democratic rule of the working-class majority. Along the way, in our zeal to build the movement we know is needed to set the world right, we should remember: success is not measured by how many people you have marching behind your banner, but by the number of people marching behind your banner in the right direction.