Return to the Countryside

Why socialists should ignore presidential politics.

(melaniedornier / flickr)

In light of the presidential season and the total lack of influence the Left has had in this election cycle, we want to propose a new strategy for socialists who feel the need to be involved in electoral politics. It’s time to face reality: the competing electoral strategies of the socialist left have collapsed. On the part of socialists, neither critical support for Obama nor tailing the third party campaigns of Jill Stein or whoever else will have any impact because we’re so few. We need to retreat to countryside and reorient ourselves toward local politics.

Here’s an anecdote to show that many veteran activists have already adopted this approach.

Several years ago, one of us worked for a seniors’ activist organization in Massachusetts with a dedicated member named Dick. Dick was a Communist of the old school and afellow traveler of the Workers World Party. He believed it was inappropriate for socialists to publically criticize the USSR and exalted Joseph Stalin as the great leader who defeated fascism. He saw President Barack Obama as a capitalist stooge (and rightfully so).

Though many would dismiss Dick as a Cold War dinosaur, we want to hold him up as good example of a local socialist activist who understands mass work. (Though, of course, we might have some disagreements about the nature of “actually existing socialism” and its merits.)

While Dick routinely denounced the Democratic Party, he joined his fellow seniors on lobby days at the State House and helped put on events with local Democratic politicians. He saw no dissonance in his positions on socialism and his local work. In fact, today, neither do we. Dick understood what many on the Left do not: where radicals can leverage power.

Even though Dick knew he couldn’t stop his fellow seniors from supporting Obama, he could however get them to think critically about the President. Building a class consciousness among his generation didn’t mean he recruited them to build a third party, or that even criticized them too sternly for voting for Obama. National politics was a matter for discussion, not an organizing priority. He engaged in comradely conversation with his peers about Obama and capitalism, but knew how to pick his battles.

We believe American socialists should embrace Dick’s “build local, talk national” strategy of politics. His actions serve as a model for socialists to gain more respect in their communities by doing practical political work while still influencing the Gramscian “common sense.”

Insofar as socialists should put energy into electoral efforts, they should focus solely on local races where they can have a concrete and measurable impact on the result. Through local political work we have a better shot at actually influencing outcomes and can also bring our politics to an audience that might normally have been unable or unwilling to hear our thoughts.

We need to look the socialist left squarely in the face. The authors of this essay are members of Democratic Socialists of America and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. Our organizations as well as our friends in the Communist Party essentially put out the same statement every four years: Democrats are a capitalist party, but Republicans are horrifying and organizations of labor, feminists, and people of color have more sway over Democrats than Republicans, so we should hold our nose and critically vote for the donkey.

Meanwhile, our friends in Solidarity, the Socialist Party, and International Socialist Organization make similarly predictable statements: Democrats are a capitalist party, Democrats are just as imperialist as Republicans and they mistreat and mislead progressive constituencies like labor, feminists, and people of color, so we should proclaim, “Out with the Elephant, out with the Ass, build a party of the working class!”

Neither side in this debate is particularly wrong.

Those on the socialist left who warn that the GOP represents a greater threat to democracy, worker rights, and human rights than they have in a century are right. Their party has radicalized to the point where they are actively planning to do away Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Another Republican presidency would indeed be disastrous. That being said, this election isn’t as close as much of the media would have you believe and most of us don’t live in swing states.

Meanwhile, our friends who point out Democrats’ failings are correct. Obama’s drone war is immoral and his healthcare bill is aprivate insurance gravy train. More broadly, Democrats have been shifting wildly to the right for two or three decades now. It’s not atypical for a Democratic elected official to be anti-union and pro-“free trade.” It was a much-loved Democratic president who led the way on NAFTA. The politics of the Democratic Party are unacceptable and only getting worse.

What we’re calling for might be just shy of a ceasefire. The two of us aren’t going to stop agreeing with Noam Chomsky that people in swing states ought to vote for Obama, but we’re certainly not going to spend any of our limited socialist energy on it. We mostly don’t care who you vote for as long as you’re organizing.

That being said we’re not willing to give up on organizing inside the ranks of self-identified Democrats. Our reason for this isn’t just “lesser evilism.” As some folks over at the Kasama Project have discussed:

Whatever other functions they serve, elections are a moment when large numbers of people otherwise unreceptive to discussions of politics are more open to such discussions than usual and we should try to find ways to most effectively take advantage of this dynamic. . . . The prospective mass base and leadership of any future revolutionary movement overlaps significantly with the present popular base and activist elements of the Democratic Party. Accordingly a major task is to break that base and activist strata from the imperialist leadership of that party. . . . The particular structure of the electoral system in the US effectively prevents the development of viable third parties except in potentially revolutionary situations and this greatly reduces the possibilities for such efforts to act effectively to provoke such ruptures from outside the Democratic Party.

We believe that the best way for us to organize Democratic activists is through participating in the campaigns of progressives running for local office — not making meaningless endorsements.

People will more likely join our organizations by seeing our “good work,” not from reading our electoral manifestos. Therefore, socialists should participate openly in local races — to both elect good representatives and recruit new members. People will join DSA and other groups when they are introduced to socialist thought firsthand through our actions.

For reasons of scale, the local level is where we’ll get the best bang for our buck. Federalcandidates such as Bernie Sanders and John Conyers are too few and far between to build a strategy around. Instead, it is the local arena where Democratic activists who are oriented towards the grassroots tend to exist. Furthermore, as our comrades Mike Hirsch and Jason Schulman pointed out, having a relationship with local elected officials is fairly necessary to locally oriented community organizing and public sector collective bargaining both which are things socialists should involve ourselves in.

In doing this, a broader question that socialists need to address is what we kind of political infrastructure we want to bring with us into mass work (electoral or otherwise) so that we’re working for a reinvigorated socialist left. Most of us have rejected the Leninist party at this point, but we don’t know of any compelling counter-model.

We continue to work in our actually existing socialist organizations, hoping that this magazine and other platforms will serve as a launch pad for our generation to create a new and relevant American socialist organization.