Democrats: the danger of co-option

Submitted by AWL on 13 October, 2020 - 3:23 Author: Daniel Randall

• See here for other articles debating the US election, Trump, etc.

Thomas Carolan (“A socialist vote for Biden”, Solidarity 566, 7 October 2020) is right that a “tradition” should not be allowed to become “superstition”. He is also right that “making an absolute principle of never working in or voting for a bourgeois party” would be mechanical and dogmatic.

Standing aside from the Sanders movements in 2016 and 2020 because he was running in the primary of a “bourgeois party” would have been hopelessly sectarian; refusing to campaign or vote for him if he had won still more so. But Carolan goes way beyond that basic point to conclude that socialists should be “supporting or involved in the Biden campaign”, as if “the Biden campaign” is a terrain as permeable to the kind of intervention Sanders was able to make into the Democratic primaries in 2016 and 2020.

“Socialists can work openly and independently around the Democrats, can’t they?”, Carolan asks — note how “in” and “around” are used interchangeably throughout the article, as if Carolan knows that the kind of direct intervention in the Democratic party he appears to be advocating isn’t perhaps as viable as he claims. But can they? The Sanders movement proves that a left-social-democratic bid for the Presidential primary can have a big impact and mobilise large numbers. It does not at all follow from this that even the politics Sanders represents can have a similar impact “in” or “around” the Biden campaign itself, which is entirely under the control of the Democratic machine and conditioned by the kind of politics Biden represents, which Carolan doesn’t even mention, as if the political perspectives and record of the actual candidate — in a presidential election, no less — shouldn’t bother us.

The truism that “a lot of the working-class and trade-union forces that will a create a future independent workers’ party [in the USA] are in and around the Democrats” is used to justify a view that, despite accepting that the Democrats is a straightforward “bourgeois party” rather than a “bourgeois workers party”, it should be a, or even the, primary terrain of political action for socialists in the US, in the way that Workers’ Liberty sees the Labour Party in the UK. Carolan gives no sense of what this intervention might look like. He must surely know that the Democrats has no real equivalent of the Labour Party structures, including its direct link with affiliated unions, that make ongoing and systematic intervention by socialists and labour movement activists possible. Work “in” the Democrats means, essentially, running in Democratic primaries.

That may make sense in certain instances. It will undoubtedly be one of a range of strategic approaches that the socialist left in the US will use on the way to establishing an independent working-class party. But doing this work on a basis that doesn’t lay it open to simply fizzling out, or to whatever progress it makes being coopted by the Democratic machine, requires explicitly maintaining that long-term horizon of breaking from, rather than “reclaiming” or transforming, the Democrats. And the possibility of doing that work in certain instances does not imply wider possibilities for a more sustained intervention into the Democratic party as such.

Unfortunately neither Sanders nor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the two examples Carolan gives as evidence for his position that an “intervene in the Democrats” strategy is justified, have anything like this perspective. Even Sanders, who formally retains his status as an independent senator, sees his project in terms of transforming or “reclaiming”, the Democratic party.

The Sanders movement has had little formal life, beyond the NGO-type organising of “Our Revolution”, between elections; AOC has made no attempt to build anything that could meaningfully be described as an ongoing movement. Unless socialists with a clear analysis of the nature of the Democrats can win at least large minorities of the people enthused by figures like Sanders and AOC to the perspective that the left and the labour movement needs independent organisation, the potential opportunities will be lost.

Carolan raises a comparison with attitudes to Stalinist Communist Party during the Cold War. These, too, were parties that people from our tradition saw not as working-class parties but class parties of an enemy class — the Stalinist ruling class of the Soviet Union and its satellites. But they were also mass parties of workers who “wanted to be socialists”, as Carolan puts it, so wouldn’t “shunning all cooperation” with CP members have been wrong? Yes, of course, but there’s yet more slippage and rhetorical sleight-of-hand here. Who is proposing to “shun all cooperation” with Democrat-voting workers? But seeking “cooperation” with CP-supporting or Democrat-supporting workers doesn’t require voting for their presidential candidates. Presumably Carolan would not have advocated a “socialist vote” for Earl Browder or Gus Hall.

Carolan says that socialists should support the Biden campaign whilst “advocating distinct socialist ideas”. But one of the essential “distinct socialist ideas” the US left needs to advocate is that the working class needs its own party, and that a lesser-evilist strategy of voting for Biden is hopelessly limited. If his view is that we should say to workers, “vote Biden this time, but on 4 November we must return to the task of building an independent movement that breaks from the Democrats”, he needs to explain how this tallies with his wider view that socialists should have an ongoing orientation to intervention in the Democrats. In reality Carolan’s arguments are a recipe for locking the socialist left into permanent lesser-evilism that tails, rather than attempting to challenge, workers’ acceptance that government by the least-bad of the two bosses’ parties is the best they can or should hope for.

The Green Party, in and of itself, will not be an instrument for the creation of an independent workers’ party in the US. And Howie Hawkins’ campaign may well be unable to realise the already limited opportunities for an independent socialist intervention in the 2020 election. Those facts do not justify Carolan’s support for an orientation to the Democrats.

It is also undeniable that most left-minded people and labour movement activists will see a vote for Biden, however critical of him they are, as the only available means of removing Trump. In a direct and immediate sense, they’re right. Socialists should be sympathetic to their instincts. But we have a political perspective beyond simply removing Trump from office. We want to defeat his movement, and change the social conditions that generated it. That requires winning the argument for independent political action and organisation, on the basis of socialist politics. Winning that argument requires making it, and the US left will be hopelessly constrained in its ability to make it if it has allowed its horizons to shrink down to lesser-evilism.

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