Sanders, socialists, and US politics

Submitted by AWL on 6 April, 2019 - 1:40
capitalism failed

Dan La Botz is a longstanding socialist activist, based in Brooklyn. He is a member of the socialist group Solidarity and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and a co-editor of the independent socialist journal New Politics. He spoke to Daniel Randall about prospects for the socialist left in the USA.

DR: How do you think the socialist left should orient to the Bernie Sanders campaign?

Dan La Botz: In 2016, after years as a proponent of independent political action to the left of the Democrats, I made the decision to work on the Sanders campaign. I had been a lifelong opponent of the Democratic Party, but I thought something was happening that was very important. I did not register as a Democrat, as many did, but rather I maintained my Green Party registration. I went to work on the Sanders’ campaign, in a very ordinary way: I attended local campaign meetings and distributed leaflets on the street in my neighborhood. 

Sanders was calling himself a “democratic socialist”. I don’t think he was a socialist then, and I don’t now. I think he is a New Deal liberal. But I felt this was an important thing, because we’ve seldom had in the United States open discussions about the question of socialism. Secondly, he put forward the most progressive platform since Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s Democratic Party, and many people we very excited by things like “Medicare for All”. I also felt, by the end of the primary campaign, that many of Sanders’ supporters had come to loath the Democratic Party National Committee and hated the politics of Hilary Clinton. I was interested in being amongst those folks. At that moment, the Sanders’ supporters represented a leftward-moving phenomenon, which is why I supported it. People looked up the term “democratic socialist” on Google, they found the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and joined in their tens of thousands. That was aided by many talented DSA organisers who used social media very effectively to recruit. Those who wanted to join found no obstacles in their way. One could go online and join, paying a very modest dues.

So at that time, that was a very significant development. It has created the biggest surge in leftism in this country since the 1960s, and incorporated many people who had participated in and been inspired by the Occupy movement and #BlackLivesMatter, and it later picked up people who were excited by things like the #MeToo movement. It was a thrilling development.

But there are some problems. One is DSA’s historical legacy and orientation towards work in the Democratic Party. The DSA for decades saw campaigns in the Democratic Party as a vehicle for fighting for a socialism not too different from that of Bernie Sanders, albeit perhaps a little more “Scandinavian”. And now DSA support Sanders who says, for example, that he would never be for the nationalisation of any industry. I don’t think the nationalisation of industry is an essential hallmark of socialism, but nationalisation is one form under which working people could collectivise the ownership of industry, combined with many other things that would bring the government into the hands of working people.

So, the DSA had this tradition of work in the Democratic Party. There were many people in the pre-Sanders-campaign DSA who had this approach, and many of the new, younger leaders had come to share the notion that the Democratic Party can be a vehicle. They had a slightly different interpretation, in that they didn’t aspire to take over the Democratic Party, or even imagine they could influence it strongly, but rather their notion was that in running candidates for Democratic nominations, the DSA could build up its own political machine with its own organisers, control of databases, etc. This view has been strengthened as recently, DSA members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have run for Democratic nominations and won impressive victories. The DSA wasn’t the dominant force in her campaign, but it was one of the forces. There have been other similar electoral successes, such as DSA member Julia Salazar, who was elected to the New York State Senate.

DR: From a distance, it seems meaningless to talk about AOC and Salazar as “DSA candidates”, because there doesn’t appear to be any mechanism for rank-and-file DSA members to hold them directly to account or exert any control over their policies or activity.

Dan La Botz: AOC and Salazar are two different cases. AOC won a seat in Congress, displacing, a mainline Democrat, Joe Crowley, who was going to become a dominant figure in the House of Representatives. That made her a very big deal. Sanders then said, take my hand, let’s go to Kansas and campaign for Democrats. So she was immediately swept up into the whole national mainstream of the Democratic Party.

She is a brilliant young woman. She has seized on the environmental issue and has seized on the “Green New Deal” idea and packaged it in a way that made it significant. No, she is not a “DSA candidate”, although she makes some remarkably positive statements against capitalism, for example recently saying it’s “an irredeemable system.” The DSA is unlikely to exert much influence over her.

The case of Julia Salazar is quite different. She is a person who was a local activist in DSA, and something like 2,000 DSA members participated in her campaign. She has been very much in touch with DSA, and the New York DSA branch leadership works closely with her. She tries to be accountable and report to DSA. DSA has some ideas about developing grassroots work in her district, using the experience of her electoral campaign to develop a local organization.

So, AOC and Salazar are different cases in terms of their relationship to the DSA and whether the DSA can have any influence on them. The bigger question is whether either one of them can have any influence on the Democratic Party in national politics.

DR: You wrote, ahead of DSA’s endorsement of Sanders, that you were opposed to the DSA doing that. How would you summarise your alternative strategy for how DSA should intervene on the terrain of national politics?

Dan La Botz: In 2016 it seemed to me that Sanders and his followers were moving to the left; today it seems that they are moving into the Democratic Party, that is moving to the right.

Working out an alternative strategy is not easy. The old strategy of Max Shachtman and Michael Harrington, which was called “realignment”, was intended to create a socialist-inspired labor, black, and anti-war coalition that could take over the Democratic Party. It failed absolutely, for a whole series of reasons, having to do with both strategy and changing conditions. And, if it had been successful, it would have been very problematic. On the other hand, the only thing to have failed worse than “realignment” is the alternative strategy of independent political action on the left! The left has never won more than an infinitesimally small percentage of the vote, and when it did it was blamed for contributing to the election of Republicans.

Thirty years ago, I would’ve said, simply, that we need an independent political party to the left of the Democrats. I still believe we need that, but I’m not so convinced that we can get one simply by announcing it. The Green Party has been around for a long time now, and has made many efforts to establish itself. It was on the ballot in every state, with a national presidential candidate, Jill Stein, who was in many ways an appealing candidate who could talk in ordinary language about important issues. So why couldn’t the Green Party be successful?

Partially, it’s because, as many people have pointed out for decades, that the rules of the game in America make it very hard for left parties to even get on the ballot. Once they’re on the ballot, of course, since it’s a first-past-the-post system, if you run a candidate you’ll be accused of being a spoiler. So the Republicans and Democrats continue to dominate the system and the Green Party and others are pushed to the margins.

The example we have always given from the history of the United States—because as Marxists who try to look at the big historical picture--was the origin of the Republican Party. In the late 1850s, the issue of slavery divided the nation and the rise of anti-slavery movements created a new situation in the North. As a result the Whig party broke up and some former Whigs and a few Democrats joined with the Abolitionist Party, to create a new party, a party determined to limit slavery to the South.The election of Abraham Lincoln on that platform, led to the Ciil War. The Republicans became a revolutionary party, carrying out a capitalist revolution that obliterated slavery in the South.

Today, do I go out and say to working people that, “we need to form a revolutionary party to carry out a revolutionary civil war in America”? Yet still I think we will need a very powerful social movements in order to create some new political party. We will need movements of the oppressed, of black and Latinos, of women and LGBT people, as well as movement against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We ned a convergence of all of these.

And above all we need to build rank-and-file working-class power within labour unions. In West Virginia, we recently saw a successful teachers strike that was driven by a rank-and-file movement. Rank-and-file workers movement from below are the key to building a powerfu labor movement, but one has to watch out for two problems. One, the movement can become syndicalist, that is offering not political alternative. Or, two, the rank-and-file leaders can become linked to the Democratic Party and subordinating workers interests to the party’s.

I think the DSA’s local strategy, of being willing to support radical local candidates, including those running for Democratic nominations, especially those who are willing to identify themselves as socialists, is still viable. We had two cases of this in Brooklyn; one was Jabari Brisport, who ran as a Green, and the other was Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian Lutheran minister, running in a working-class neighbourhood, running for the Democrat ticket. So DSA was able to be involved in these two campaigns, where you could go out and talk about politics and socialism and attempt to build the DSA as an organisation. I still like that strategy.

On the national level, who could not be thrilled to see Bernie at his recent rallies, opening them with union activists talking about the importance of their strikes and black activists talking about anti-racism movements? But, to my mind, the danger is that the DSA will simply flow into the Sanders campaign.

In all probability I think Sanders will not win the nomination, and if that happens, the leftwards energy will in all likelihood continue to flow to the Democratic candidate, who is almost certain to be a progressive, but who will almost inevitably have to govern as a liberal, even as a neoliberal because we do not yet have a level of class struggle and social upheaval that could force government very much to the left.

DR: Is there, then, within DSA, any organised tendency attempting to win people to the kind of perspective you’re articulating? Does such a tendency have a chance of grouping a significant enough number of activists around it to prevent DSA members’ enthusiasm for the Sanders campaign simply being funnelled into mainstream Democratic Party electoralism?

Dan La Botz: By and large, most people in DSA are very excited by the Sanders campaign. They are thrilled by the successes of AOC and other candidates. They feel they have a winning strategy now in terms of running these candidates to grow the group.

I think the dominant tendency at the August convention will be the caucus called “DSA Majority”, which in my view represents more or less the old Shachtman/Harrington strategy. The other main caucus is the “Spring Caucus”, which was formerly called “DSA Momentum”, and before that “the Left Caucus”. They are people largely identified with Jacobin magazine, and are certainly to the left of New Deal liberalism. They do not subscribe to the idea that we can simply realign the Democratic Party, and have what I would call more consistently social-democratic politics. They talk about a rank-and-file strategy in the trade union movement, although it embraces rather more than the rank-and-file and orients somewhat to “progressive” union officials. An orientation to that layer would in the long run not be so different from the orientation of Shachtman/Harrington. 

Those two groups will be the two best organised, largest, and most successful caucuses at the DSA convention. But there are people in DSA who are more radical, perhaps a third of the organisation. Some are people whose radicalism is quite amorphous and diffuse, who talk about “base building” and so on. Some are more syndicalist or anarchist-minded. I lean towards this third, more radical, layer, but it has not yet consolidated into a clear alternative. 

Some of the ideas articulated within this layer are very important, such as their critique of what’s sometimes called “universalism” - that is, an emphasis on an economic programme which will benefit all workers, in a way that can obscure or dismiss the particular struggles faced by black workers, women workers, LGBT workers, and so on. There are critiques of this “one size fits all” social-democratic view are very valuable. Of course it‘s necessary to talk about “the working class”, and reforms that will benefit all workers, but there are many different groups within the working class who cannot be asked to slow down, or wait, or subordinate themselves to some larger picture, and their demands have to be articulated within a larger socialist programme.

DR: There seems to be a clear objective case for an organised, publicly-declared tendency within DSA, at local and national level, that intervenes to argue for the things you’ve mentioned: an orientation to workplaces and rank-and-file organisation in unions; a particular policy in terms of intervention in national politics; and, I would suggest, a third camp policy on international questions, confronting what appears to be a significant element of “two camps”-type anti-imperialist politics within DSA. It seems that New Politics as a journal could provide some of the intellectual and literary infrastructure for such a tendency. Do you think such a tendency is required and, if so, how do you see it developing?

Dan La Botz: I think it would be great if we had an organised tendency within DSA that has the perspectives we’ve been discussing - a rank-and-file labour orientation, an attentive orientation to struggles around race and gender, an international position that rejected “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”,and instead supported the fight against lesser-power imperialism as well as greater-power imperialism. And, of course, a current that also had a much stronger drive towards political independence from the Democratic Party.

There are discussions about this amongst some DSA members. But it’s important to be remember that this is a very young organisation, most of whose activists are between 25-35 years of age, whose previous political experience, if they had any, was in broadly “progressive” politics rather than the organised socialist left. I believe there is a strong desire amongst these people to talk this all out for themselves, and go through this process. That’s an enormous part of this. 

Could I find a few people throughout the US who might co-sign a manifesto? Yes, probably. I and others do participate in the debates advocating Marxist positions. But we shouldn’t get ahead of, or attempt to find shortcuts around, the discussions happening amongst DSA activists, who are trying to find a way to work all this out. They haven’t yet been through the experiences that might convince them to be more critical of the labour union leaderships, of the black political establishment, or of Bernie Sanders. 

I think there’s a very healthy debate and discussion going on inside the organisation, which will become clearer and sharper, but it might take two more years.

DR: What potential do you see in recent school workers’ strikes for the reinvigoration and reactivation of the labour movement?

Dan La Botz: The West Virginia strike was the most exciting thing we’ve seen in the labour movement since the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012. Labor Notes, as well as a few people in DSA and some in other socialist groups like the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), played key roles in helping connect up striking workers and helping them form caucuses in their unions. Some of this work has been taking place at Labor Notes’ “Troublemakers’ Schools”. That’s been great.

We’ve had many school workers’ strikes in several cities now, which is wonderful and will hopefully continue to develop. We don’t see much in the private sector, and that’s by far larger in terms of the number of workers. Trade union representation in the United States is extremely low, about 6.4% in the private sector. We see very few strikes in the private sector; strikes like the Verizon strike in New York a couple of years ago are very rare.

I’ve seen some articles claiming we’re seeing a national strike wave. It’s too early to say that. The last great strike wave was 1970, where you saw hundreds of thousands of workers going out week after week, paralysing the post office, the trucking industry, walkouts in auto plants, and so on. We don’t have that yet. The fact that people are calling the current movement a strike wave shows they haven’t seen a real strike wave. But we may well get one! There are developments in other sectors, some with strong political activity, such as the nurses’ union in California.

We also now have people in DSA looking to get jobs in workplaces and industries where they can be effective rank-and-file militants. DSA has published arguments for doing this on its website. That’s very important. It’s not quite what we used to call “industrialisation”, but it is people making a real commitment. These young people with a socialist outlook entering the unions in order to build rank-and-file movements are a tremendously hopeful sign.

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