By Karl L
Some conversations feel as though they have been going for such a long time, and with such persistence, that their participants forget why they started talking in the first place. Surely many people will empathize with the feeling of looking at the time, then looking back at the state of conversation, and wondering why it is that they didn’t leave and go to bed many hours ago. The conversation within the American left about forming an independent political party is just such an example of purgatory-on-Earth. My starting point for writing about this matter is to re-examine the question of a socialist political party by observing what parties actually do in political movements. In taking this approach, my intention is to refocus the discussion of electoral strategy so as to reveal the many strategic questions that lay beneath the question of a political party. I want to make reference, early on, to the recently published thoughts of Andy Sernatginer and Emma Wilde Botta. While their approach makes closer, and more critical, reference to the contemporary debates of socialist electoral strategy, I think we both aim to revitalize a stale discussion.
Why is the electoral question so important to DSA?
So, for those who may be walking into this conversation at a late hour – and wondering why it is that people are so fiercely debating a topic of an entirely speculative nature – I would like to step back for a moment and review why people in the Democratic Socialists of America are talking about political parties. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is a political organization comprised of around 92,000 people, some of whom are active in loosely-affiliated local chapters, fewer still play a part in the political life of the national organization, and many more of whom are minimally active in the political activities of the organization in any form. DSA was founded in 1982, out of a merger of other groups, but you could be forgiven for not even remotely caring about the first 34 years of its history. DSA rose to national prominence – if it can be seriously called that – around the 2016 presidential primary election when it endorsed the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who himself adopted the identity of democratic socialist. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that, at that moment, the American left was as sour on electoral politics – channeling political action and effort into elections – as at any point in the history of the political left in this country. So, DSA – which was relatively unimportant within the pantheon of American leftism at that moment – voted to endorse Sanders’s campaign in a move that was viewed as representative of the faux-socialism that DSA was always purported to have represented. This is to say that, many people who considered themselves to be socialists, communists, anarchists, Marxists, or anything left of the Democratic Party, tended to view DSA as a lightweight form of socialism – not the genuine article.
DSA’s move, probably accidentally, paid off for the organization. In the years since then, much of the American left has consolidated into DSA while a new generation of leftists joined the organization following the notoriety brought by Sanders’s two presidential runs. All the while, electoral politics has played an ambiguous, but seemingly vital, role in the growth and future of the organization. Notable successes, like the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have attracted people to the organization while also drawing the ire of leftists who are skeptical of elections, politicians, and their campaigns. Although Bernie Sanders is not our president, there are a handful of visible and influential politicians – over what they have influence, is of course, a more complicated question – who have been endorsed by DSA and consider themselves to be democratic socialists. Somehow, someway, electoral campaigns played a crucial factor in the groundswell of DSA membership.
For many people who are unfamiliar with DSA, or even for some who are members, it is surprising to learn that DSA is not a political party. In my own experience, many people – even politically active people – are unaware that DSA is not already a political party. Every candidate thus far who is a “DSA candidate” has been endorsed by the organization, but is not running for office on a DSA ballot line. That endorsement has, in some cases, been supported with contributions of money and labor, indeed many such candidates are dues-paying members of the organization. However, these candidates have run on the Democratic Party ballot line and – with the exception of Sanders, who is an independent – serve as members of the Democratic Party in their respective offices. This fact is important, particularly for those who are skeptical of electoral politics, because the Democratic Party is understood to be a party of capital.
Many, more knowledgeable, writers have made this point before me, so I won’t try and make this point again in full. However, for the sake of continuity in this article, here is the short version. At the present and throughout the history of the Democratic Party, it has served the interest of capital – the private owners of the means of production in American society – and not of the vast majority of people, workers or otherwise, who reside in this country. Although the Republican Party plays the part of aggressively eroding worker rights, enacting overtly racist policies, and demolishing democracy, the Democratic Party’s role is to reliably consolidate those “gains” for capital – the Reagan-Clinton and Bush-Obama historical phenomena are illustrative of this. Indeed, Democratic Party skeptics posit that the party’s commitment to serving capital is so deeply ingrained and profound, that it necessarily cannot be reformed or co-opted to serve any other interest. If you’re new to the idea that the Democratic Party isn’t your friend, and are understandably skeptical of the critique and notice yourself moving to apologize for, rationalize, or otherwise defend the actions of the Democratic Party, then I ask that you take notice of and suspend those reactions for a moment. The point that the Democratic-skeptics are making is not that the Democratic Party has never done anything worthwhile or of political value, but that the motivating interests of the party are not those of you or me (assuming you, reader, are not a wealthy venture capitalist). Suspend your adherence to the party for a moment and re-read the histories of the last 20 years. Perhaps you will still identify with the politics of the Democrats, but maybe you will find some room for nuance between totalizing judgements of “good” and “bad” and instead ask, what motivates this party, who leads it, where do they put their money?
I will disclose that my own opinion is sympathetic to those who believe that the Democratic Party cannot be reformed, or hijacked, for working class interests. Perhaps it is a matter of my temperament more than dispassionate political analysis, but I can’t help but think that trying to take over a political party is not unlike trying to take over someone else’s birthday party (even if I could do it, why would I want to? none of the people at the party are my friends anyway). I think it is important to be familiar with the existence of this debate, over the nature of the Democratic Party and its relation to the working class, but I’m not writing to contribute to that debate. Having some conception of the political actuality of the Democratic Party is important because it determines the terrain that DSA must navigate in an urgent matter of political wayfinding.
The question of “what do we do next?” is the more profound question that motivates the debate about a party. This is the question that has been on the minds of DSA members, and socialists more generally, since 2016. Whether or not you are drawn to electoral politics, the question of a party is essentially an existential question for DSA and the American left at this moment. Thought of in a different way, we are all asking ourselves the meaning of the phenomenon of the Sanders campaign energizing DSA and, by extension, the American left. How should we make sense of this development and can we take it further? Does it mean that we should keep doing that same thing (endorsing campaigns that run on the Democratic Party ballot line), or do something different, but similar (form our own party so we can run socialist candidates on an independent ballot line), or something altogether different (forget about electoral politics entirely)? We all noticed that running an electoral campaign on a Democratic party ballot line was the most galvanizing phenomenon in the last 50 years of socialist politics in America, but we don’t know if it is a phenomenon that can be re-created with the same method in the future.
Because the debate about parties evokes a more fundamental debate about what socialists should do next in order to continue building power, it is easy to mix up the question of a party with many other questions that face our movement. Questions about totalizing theories of social change – such as whether or not electoralism is futile and should be discarded for revolutionary, quasi-Leninist practice – are asked in response to specific questions about how socialists should engage with elections. At the outset, I want to suggest that my inquiry is focused on the goal of using electoral politics to build a stronger socialist movement, not as a way in which socialists can entirely transcend capitalism. While elections are undoubtedly important, they are not the only way to exercise political power. Further, I believe that the socialist left can engage in electoral politics without neglecting other types of political engagement. Simultaneously holding a diversity of strategies for political engagement is important, as I don’t think that socialists actually know a lot, empirically speaking, about how to win a socialist future. However we do know that an awful lot of Americans equate politics with elections and therefore it isn’t a stretch to imagine that contesting elections will help us to capture the political attention of more Americans than we could if we ignored elections. While I doubt that winning elections alone will lead to the realization of a socialist utopia in my lifetime, I also think we are capable of strategies that include elections while not coming at the expense of other forms of political organizing.
So, the question of a party is really a matter of several questions: Should democratic socialists spend effort on electoral politics? If we should spend effort on electoral politics, should we create our own political party to do so? If so, how do we get from here (no party) to there (a party)? There are many more questions involved, but these are at the core of the matter. These questions are not only a matter of intellectual debate, both amongst rank-and-file members as well as notable socialist commentators, but they are central to several, somewhat opposing, resolutions going before the delegates to the national convention of DSA later this summer. DSA will have to start making decisions about the party strategy in the near future.
The nature of the question
I have spent the last three years as an active member of the Madison, Wisconsin chapter of DSA, focusing much of my time on that chapter’s electoral political efforts. So, I have considered these questions at great length, although admittedly, I have often considered them with my upper intestines, rather than with the frontal lobes of my brain. Our chapter has actively pursued answers to these questions as we have endorsed and campaigned on behalf of candidates, our time rarely spent reading the history and analysis of socialist political parties, and instead spent in attempts to get people to vote for socialists for school board, city council, and county board. This perspective greatly biases my own view on the matter, and my bias should not be taken as a disavowal of the value of historical analysis of the matter. It’s just different.
In considering the questions of a socialist political party, I have been increasingly drawn to a more basic question; what is a political party? Of course, there is a legal definition of a political party. The Federal Election Commission cites federal law when stating that a “’political party’ is a committee or organization whose nominated or selected candidates for federal office appear on the ballot as the party’s candidates.”
Ok, simple enough. Yet, both from the failed experiments of leftists of yore, and from the observational faculties of any political observer, a party is much more than this. My contention is that parties themselves are not intrinsically powerful political tools. One only needs to observe the discrepancies between many state-level Democratic and Republican parties to understand this point. Instead, I view political parties as organs for the exercise of power on behalf of a political body, situated with legal, economic, and social structures that inhibit or facilitate that functioning. Further, if we examine actually existing political parties, we find that parties are themselves comprised of many functions not captured in the legal definition. Finally, to cut to my point, I believe that if DSA prioritizes the formation of the legal entity of a party – and the accompanying surface-level activities of a party – before forming the body that supports such an organ, we will fall to the same fate as the many other left-leaning attempts to form a “working class” political party over the last century.
Studying the political body is just as complex as any other physiological study. The political body that supports the organ – the movement that supports the political party – could be subject to endless analysis. Indeed, considering the physical and social environment in which that body exists, a necessary task, adds to the complexity. As such, I am going to try and distinguish between the characteristics of a politically strong socialist movement – which I consider to be vital to the success of a socialist political party – and the characteristics of that party itself. At times, the distinctions may be arbitrary, given the abstract and conceptual nature of the conversation. My point here is to outline what DSA needs to be able to do, what functions do we need to be able to provide to our movement, in order to create a party. My conclusion is that the formation of the legal entity should be the last thing we do in creating a party. Admittedly this is a speculative conclusion, however I think that before we call ourselves a party, we should be able to act like one (if we even want to do so).
The functions of a party
Parties, at least as they currently exist in the United States, enact several discernable functions. Some things that we attribute to parties are not actually a function of the party, but instead are characteristics of the legal, economic, and social environment in which parties exist. Guaranteed ballot access, for example, or financial contributions from industry interests are not functions of a party. Ballot access is guaranteed to the two major parties, and denied to “third parties” primarily by state law. If DSA were to form a party, it would no more guarantee ballot access than if we were to do nothing at all. Other characteristics, while indeed functions of a party, are less salient, such as holding party conventions. If environmental factors are disentangled from the party, what does the party itself do? I will consider that parties function by providing: political identity, political analysis and vision, internal strategic discipline, knowledge of political institutions, mobilization of power, and cultivation of leadership.
To begin with a controversial assertion, political parties are a source of political identity. This applies both to voters and members of the party, as well as to politicians who are a part of the party. This is somewhat controversial from an empirical standpoint, as Americans were once more agnostic in their voting habits. Of course, going back far enough, this makes some sense. Prior to the enfranchisement of women and Black people – who are only nominally enfranchised now – the electorate was comprised of white men, whose interests have always been well-served by both major parties. However, it is only in the last few decades that voters are reliably either Democratic or Republican. Even accounting for the change in enfranchisement, I assert that parties are an important identity-forming function in politics, American or otherwise. This is the function that structures the commonplace conversation of “are you a Democrat or a Republican?” It is a function that extends from the voting booth – when people vote for candidates of whom they have no real familiarity, other than the accompanying label of either “Democratic” or “Republican,” – and more pervasively into other areas of life, such as the voices to whom they listen about political matters, the types of friends they may or may not keep, or even whether they consider themselves to be represented by political institutions at all. In short, the function of identity is quite powerful, it creates heuristics for interpreting political events, conditions for forming relationships, implicit theories of political action, and motivation for political engagement. Of course, the identity forming function is important for candidates as well as voters, who often appeal to aspects of the party to succinctly convey the orientation of their campaign. I draw attention to this function first as I believe it is both a crucially important function and also one that is central to the debate about a party. The extent to which DSA can develop this particular function – a collective political identity – without the legal entity of a political party is as important of a question as it is a contested one.
That a party can help people to form a political identity depends very much less on ballot access and a great deal more on the political analysis, or vision of our collective future, conveyed by a party. Parties do this in any number of ways, from platform documents, to pundits and commentators, to official statements issued in response to contemporary events. At its worst, this function of a political party plays to the fears, biases, and insecurities of its voters for cynical ends. Democrats’ justifications for continued subsidies of extractive industries and the prison industrial complex rely on convoluted market analyses, which in the end make use of the insecurities of middle-class White people to obstruct change. While Democrats and Republicans tend to use this function of a party towards retrograde purposes, it is nonetheless an essential aspect of a party. When something happens, people look to the figureheads of political parties for political analysis of the situation. In this respect, DSA has failed miserably, often remaining silent for months during major political events. This is an aspect of a party that DSA could bring to life right now, with or without the legal entity of a political party.
Internal discipline is often the part of party politics that people fantasize about, the minutiae of intracaucus politics and passing legislation. This is the aspect of party functioning that you get to do when you actually have a legal party and you got people elected to office. In short, socialists don’t really need to worry about the traditional sense of this function for a little while. We need to get into office first. While this aspect of the party, the function of the party that gets its representatives to act together, is important in its traditional sense, it has a broader function that is more relevant to DSA at this moment. I rephrase this as “strategic discipline” rather than just legislative discipline, because DSA is not only a force for electoral politics, but is a coalescence of socialist movements. Thus, we move in many directions, at different speeds, at once. While this is generally not a bad thing, often even a good thing, we sometimes need to make difficult decisions about strategy and political direction, and then move together in that same direction. DSA has not really committed to this type of strategy work, but it would behoove us to do so. Although Democrats seem to abhor this work, Republicans have been doing it for decades – with well-documented and intentional strategies to maintain minority rule in state houses and congress, coinciding with a strategy for rule in the courts – at the expense of the working class. While we should engage in this work cautiously and intentionally, we need to start building an organization that can act harmoniously so that we can exercise whatever political power we are able to win.
Knowledge of political institutions is a function of parties that frequently remains hidden from the public awareness. This function of the party covers such mundane, but crucial, things like making sure that new representatives know how to draft and introduce legislation, what meetings to pay attention to and which ones to skip, in short, how to get things done in office. Of course, such knowledge is required to even get to office, and can be seen in the legions of political consultants, operatives, and staffers who run campaigns. It is also evident in relationships between those leaving office and those entering office, when advice and knowledge is passed down from one person to the next. This is the aspect of the party from which socialists – but more often any person of marginalized identity – are excluded by the prevailing parties. If we get one socialist onto a city council, how do we make sure that the next person we get into office has access to the lessons learned by the first? While the political operative profession is probably one which we would prefer to be obsolesced in our socialist future, how we hold and transfer knowledge between generations is a salient function of any political party, socialist ones included. Crucially, this is also how we retain knowledge of how to plan and run electoral campaigns independent of the candidate campaign organizations themselves.
Mobilization of power is a sufficiently broad term to cover a multitude of political activities, so it will be helpful to illustrate by example. As with the other characteristics I am describing, there are narrower and broader definitions of this term, all of which hold validity. In a narrow sense, parties can mobilize the power held by representatives in office and to an extent, the people who voted for those representatives. In a broader sense, parties are at the center of political relationships for a particular class and can help to marshal people and money, by way of adjacent political organizations, think tanks, law firms, and others into action. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) is a particularly pernicious example of this point. WILL is a law firm, and to some extent a policy think tank, that was an outgrowth of the Scott Walker administration. They function as a litigation organ for the Wisconsin Republican Party, taking current Governor Evers’s administration to task for mask mandates as well as harassing school administrators who try to protect spaces for Black parents. Although WILL is not a part of the Wisconsin Republican Party, it is very clearly intertwined with it, as staff have moved from political appointments to jobs in the firm. The political agenda of the Wisconsin Republican Party relies on groups like WILL to be able to take action and deploy resources in ways that the party itself is not allowed. Being able to mobilize such resources, and ultimately power, is a party function that is most certainly necessary for an effective party, and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s neglect of this function is an obvious failure of their political strategy. While there are many permutations of this party function, it includes more familiar tasks such as fundraising and the mobilization of people power that are crucial for a politically effective party.
Cultivation of leaders is a crucial function of a party, indeed it is likely one of the most essential of those that I have named. Cultivation of leaders is obviously important within the American system of politics, which requires individuals, rather than parties to campaign for votes. While finding and supporting leaders to become political candidates, strategists, and the many other leading functions of a party is important, it is not the most salient for our movement. We need movement leaders who can sustain this work, we need leaders who are sensitive enough to listen, strong enough to withstand political battles, accountable to the communities they serve, and secure in themselves to not be overwhelmed with defensiveness when they are criticized by the movement which they lead. Cultivating such leaders is no small task. Creating narcissistic charisma machines is easy enough, the social movements of the 1960’s were adequate enough for that, and the modern Republican party seems to churn them out by the dozen. We, as socialists, are looking for something different, and growing and supporting transformative leaders is as essential for our movement as it is for a political party.
Leadership is, in the American context, very much related to the identity-forming function of the party. Currently, this is most evident in the American preference for charismatic leaders and as such, I consider this to be an important way in which parties either perpetuate or challenge white supremacy, heteronormativity, ableism, and patriarchy. Of course, these forces all relate to the racial capitalist system in which we live, but I call out these four dynamics in particular because Republican and Democratic leaders, for centuries (but most acutely in recent decades), have played a particularly Oedipal role in the public imagination. This is to say that political leadership by able-bodied white cisgender men (and anyone aspiring to the same ideal) is a crucial aspect of American political deference. For examples of this, look no further than the wave of “Cuomosexualism” in 2020 contra the all-too-obviously maternal fantasies embodied by Trump. Challenging this Oedipal fantasy is crucial to building a multi-racial, queer, anti-ableist, and feminist (and ultimately socialist) movement. While my examination of this unconscious fantasy may seem abstract in context of political leadership of a party, it is painfully real for anyone other than White cis men in politics. In order to build a party for the socialist movement, we must support leaders whose whole selves radically break from the norms of political leadership. Consider that the Democratic Party, to the extent that it is the party of “diversity” has only been able to produce riffs on the theme of “white able-bodied man,” with its women, queer, and POC leaders required to adopt the grandiosity, nauseating over-confidence, hyper-defensive egos, and pathologically simple-minded rhetoric of White men. The personality of Pete Buttigieg – a shining example of this point – seems to have been manufactured in a lab (called Harvard and McKinsey). Socialist leaders will look, sound, and think differently than this, indeed our leaders will have worked crappy jobs, been educated in public schools, used drugs (and inhaled), suffered nervous breakdowns, and all variety of mundane experiences that would normally disqualify someone from a position in the Democratic or Republican parties. We need a party that supports their growth as leaders, and has their backs when mainstream parties inevitably seek to destroy them for being actual humans.
As I noted earlier, parties themselves are not inherently powerful, but this is not to say at all that they are empty vessels. We cannot simply replace the leadership or key positions of the Democratic Party and expect the rest of the party machinery to fall into our hands. There is no substitute for building our own organization. This is why I am so deeply skeptical of attempts to “take over” the specific organizations that comprise the totality of the Democratic Party. Winning seats on state parties sounds exciting, but the Democrats have neglected these organizations for decades. In my own state of Wisconsin, taking over the state Democratic Party would be akin to stealing someone else’s car, only to find that it was leaking gas everywhere and at greater risk of self-immolation than getting me where I want to go. Of course, this is not the case in all states, but that should no more encourage us to pursue this strategy. What we need more than a state party organization – more than the social media accounts, voter data, or even the money which they hold – is to create these essential party functions in an organization that serves a socialist movement. These functions are not precisely located in any one organizational entity, but instead in a great assemblage of people. I believe that we would be best served by cultivating the people who are drawn to the socialist movement, rather than by trying to win the allegiance of those who are actively trying to subvert it.
I sympathize with the demands of socialists for “accountable” politicians, however this fantasy of control over politicians is both toxic and unrealistic. Because the call for “accountability” is a central demand in many of the convention resolutions related to electoral politics, I think it is worthwhile to examine this notion.
Notably, I have not included “accountability” as one of the functions of a party. Accountability is a quality that should result from building party functions that are sufficiently democratic and therefore responsive to the socialist movement. If we build the functions of a party in a manner befitting democratic socialists, rather than as neoliberal capitalists, we will build accountability into the party. However, a party doesn’t necessarily function with accountability and certainly this is the case with the currently existing parties.
More saliently, accountability – as it is conceived of in several convention resolutions and most frequently in discourse about electoral candidates – can’t be demanded without power. In this sense accountability is extracted by force, or the threat of force. Candidates are supposed to obey certain rules and a prescribed political ideology lest DSA rescind an endorsement, or campaign against the candidate. Requiring that politicians behave in a certain way is not only an unrealistic fantasy – DSA has very little political capital with which to extract such accountability – but also a toxic one. This extractive conception of accountability, in which DSA holds the correct political ideology and threatens to reject any candidate who strays afield, is a reproduction of the very commodification of relationships that socialists hope to transcend. It assumes that DSA is the arbiter of what is right and wrong in political behavior and does not trust an individual politician’s judgement or actions. Even less helpfully, this approach treats political candidates as empty vessels for the exchange of political capital. While we may have some justification in so cynically treating Democratic and Republican leaders, we are – I hope – trying to elevate different types of leaders.
To this end, there is a different notion of accountability, one in which it is co-created in the relationship between an individual and a group of which they are a part. Here it is helpful to begin reconceptualizing accountability with an abolitionist imagination. This is necessarily a more complicated approach to accountability, as it accepts that DSA does not have all of the answers and that we can exercise greater power by working and sharing with political partners, rather than demanding that they only do as we say. In this sense, accountability exists because we create mutual relationships in the context of a party with democratic mechanisms and clear expectations for elected officials.
The question of electoral politics in general, and a party in particular, is taken up by several resolutions that will come before the DSA national convention this August. If you, perhaps correctly, suspected me of being a long-winded writer from the outset of this article and wisely decided to skip to the conclusion, please allow me summarize the argument I have put forward so far. I have suggested that electoral politics has played a crucial, yet poorly understood, element in the resurgence of the American left, particularly in the form of DSA. While endorsing Democratic Party candidates has gotten us as far as we have, it is not clear that it will take us any further without a profound re-alignment of strategy. I suggest that we do need to build an independent socialist political party, however that the work of building a party starts with building an organization that can effectively mobilize power, formulate political identity, institutionalize knowledge, cultivate leadership, adhere to strategy, and offer political vision. While undoubtedly many of these functions can and should be put into place simultaneously with the formation of the legal entity of a political party, many must come before forming such a party.
With this in mind, I find several of the electoral resolutions proposed in advance of this summer’s DSA national convention to be insufficient to meet our needs. I consider the electoral resolutions to be resolutions 6 through 11 and I will first review those of which I am most critical. In particular, my opinion is that resolutions 6, 7, 9, 10, and 11 all fall short of providing a strategic vision or actionable direction for the organization.
Resolutions 6 and 7 are nearly identical, both rely on what amounts to a campaign pledge for candidates endorsed by DSA. While resolution 6 calls for the formation of a DSA caucus in any legislative body to which an endorsed candidate is elected, neither of these resolutions put forward a suggestion for how to build an organization capable of wielding political power. Resolution 10, in a similar vein, demands that DSA “urges all DSA candidates to clearly and consistently promote a socialist message about the Democratic Party.” Again, in absence of a powerful and organized socialist electorate, these resolutions engage in a form of magical thinking by asking political candidates to commit themselves to obscure political demands that will draw retribution from the Democratic establishment while doing nothing to engage masses of people in socialist politics. These resolutions put their faith in asking politicians to promise to listen to DSA while offering nothing in return, a suggestion that is both naive and arrogant.
Resolution 9 demands that DSA find ten of the “most promising 2022 races around the country” and run candidates in those elections independent of the Democratic Party ballot line. On face, such a goal may not be unproductive for building a socialist political party. After all, we have to start somewhere, and ten is about as good of a number as any. However, this resolution, like resolutions 6 and 7, fails to prioritize building a political organization and instead focuses on candidates. The most damning problem with this resolution is the absence of a definition of “promising 2022 races.” Are these races in which socialists can win? If so, why is winning these races important? Are these races in which the campaign work may help to distinguish socialists from liberal democrats? Indeed, we are left to wonder if these are races for federal office or something else entirely. “Promising,” in absence of an electoral strategy, is a word vacant of meaning.
Resolution 11, the “Campaign for a Democratic Socialist Party” is clear in defining the absence of a left party, and the need for it, but almost entirely silent on the specific tasks that are actually required to build a party. So far as the resolution is concerned, we should “collaborate with unions” and print “educational materials” with no illustration of a strategic plan to develop the organizational structure or power required for building a party. In this resolution, party building is an abstract task, something that has no identifiable input or output. One can imagine DSA activists talking to their union friends to try and convince them to join their independent political party, but without the crucial definition of what those union workers should actually do once they join the party. Resolution 11 is a half-formed resolution. I am deeply sympathetic to its call for hiring staff and restructuring DSA so as to build a party. I consider this resolution to be productively focused on building an organization, instead of making demands of candidates. However, this resolution only goes so far as to make the call for a party and it neglects the crucial, and controversial, details of how to accomplish the task.
Resolution 8, “Toward a Mass Party in the United States” is the most serious of the resolutions on offer, in the sense that it outlines more than just the problems of electoralism, but puts forward a set of actionable tasks embedded within a strategy for building a more powerful socialist movement. Several aspects of this resolution distinguish it from the other electoral resolutions.
First, resolution 8 makes clear that it considers an independent socialist party to be its ultimate goal, but takes the stand that, at this moment, DSA must be willing to continue contesting elections on the Democratic Party ballot line. If you haven’t already read Emma Wilde Botta and Andy Sernatinger’s piece on the variety of socialist party strategies, you will likely find it beneficial to review their writing before considering this resolution. Before expressing my own opinion on this suggestion – campaigning the Democratic Party ballot line – I will draw attention to several other aspects of this resolution. Crucially, the authors suggest that DSA should focus on state-level elections as a way of building the capacity and knowledge necessary for contesting federal elections. The resolution goes on to outline the role of the local chapters and national organization in this work, calling for local chapters to develop their organizations so as to be able to support this campaign work with the support of the National Electoral Committee. Further, the authors ask the members to hire two full-time staff to help build the organizational capacity necessary for this proposal.
So, this resolution has already made proposals that provide clarity – if not controversy. In contrast to resolution 9, with its focus on “promising” elections, resolution 8 clearly enjoins DSA to focus on state-level partisan election campaigns that are driven by the local chapters, rather than the national organization. The authors go further than this and outline the types of elections and candidates that they find to be crucial in helping DSA build towards a socialist party. In summary, resolution 8 calls for DSA to work to elect “Black socialists and other socialists of color,” candidates whose election will help to “win reforms that materially advance the interests of the working class,” engage in “class-struggle elections that polarize the working-class majority against the ruling-class elite,” and “electing socialists who will act as organizers in office.” Taken individually, one might consider these four points to be in contradiction with one another. For example, it is easy to imagine – or recall from events of the past – candidates who sacrificed the role of “organizer-in-office” so as to try and win material reforms, to the detriment of both. However, taken as a unity, I consider these points to be cohesive and useful in charting a path forward for DSA. First, the authors locate the source of power – and therefore social change – with a strong socialist mass movement, rather than sufficiently accountable or ideologically-correct candidates. In calling for class struggle elections, candidates who are Black and persons of color, as well as being organizers-in-office, this resolution imagines DSA engaging in electoral work not just for the sake of winning elections – or, because elections exist to be contested – rather, that elections can be useful in coalescing a multi-racial socialist movement and an organization so channel its power. Further, the combination of “organizer-in-office” and winning material reforms must be taken together, not as mutually exclusive demands. This resolution clearly identifies reform as being won by energized socialist movements who have the assistance of elected officials who will speak to and help to inform those movements. To be even clearer, imagine the organizer-in-office not as someone who is sufficiently savvy as to convince their colleagues to vote for a socialist reform, but rather as a person with access to crucial political information to be shared with movements and who can make connections between various social movements that find confluence in the candidate’s campaign and office.
At the foundation of this resolution is the much-debated strategy of continuing to “work within” the Democratic Party, or at least use their ballot line. Although I find Wilde and Sernantinger’s arguments about this matter compelling, including their imaginative consideration of the Republican ballot line, I consider the Democratic ballot line to be too useful of a tool to ignore. While our strategy should not entirely hinge on converting Democrats into socialists, I think it is well-past time to settle this strategic question. While agreeing that “working within” the party is ultimately futile, I would rather settle this question in favor of allowing ourselves this useful tool for the short-term while we focus our efforts on building the foundations for a socialist political party. If this strikes the reader as an intellectual avoidance, that is because it is. Some questions aren’t worth answering.
Why we need an answer to this question
Why be so pedantic about political parties? Undoubtedly, this is a character trait of mine, so season your own meal as you like. However, the United States has been host to several failed left-leaning parties. DSA, should it aim to start a party, wouldn’t be the first to try to short-circuit two-party rule. Indeed, many of those attempts were made in more favorable conditions, prior to the Republican death-grip on voting rights and representative districting. After thinking about this matter for some time, my argument is that the idea of a party is misleading. Parties, far from being empty vessels, are funny-shaped organs that do many different things at once. The proposals to “party or no party” frequently miss the point of the party in the first place. And so, instead of asking whether or how DSA should produce the functions of a party, we are stuck debating strategic abstractions that are of little guidance to the organization. To be more clear, just because we form a party doesn’t mean that we will suddenly be able to contest congressional and senate campaigns with loads of money and experience, or knowledgeable and wise leaders, or ancillary organs to mobilize power, or even the ability to run worthwhile campaigns. Even more to the point, a party won’t necessarily help us build class consciousness with the potential to be wielded in elections. However, we can build almost all of those things without a “party” per se and we need to think more clearly about what we want and need at this moment.
I’m pedantic about this issue because, while there have been some favorable moments in the past – such as stronger labor movements – the next few years are a decisive moment in American politics. More people than ever are socialists, more people than ever – in fact most Americans – support single payer healthcare, tuition-free education, and abortion rights. Most Americans want what DSA is fighting for, yet they only can vote for virulently racist Republicans or covertly racist Democrats. What’s more, we are rapidly approaching an ecological disaster, abetted by both major parties. We need to be able to seize the potential of this political moment, and the imperative to do so is stronger than it ever has been.
So, this is the time to get electoral strategy right, and forming a party without understanding the deeper work and structure of a party will necessarily lead to failure. Candidates running campaigns for office, with adherence to a prescribed political platform is the veritable tip of the iceberg of a party. Indeed, without first building the foundational functions of a party, the campaigns themselves will either fail, not happen, or fail to coalesce into larger struggles.
Although I have pointed out that many of the electoral resolutions proposed at convention are not credible proposals for an electoral strategy, none of the prominent strategic debates within DSA neglect the need to build the foundations of a party before building a party. The party functions of leadership cultivation, knowledge transfer, mobilization of power, political vision, and strategic discipline are rarely contested on their own merits. Quite obviously, DSA can – and to some limited extent, has – build these functions without the legal entity of a party. Further, these functions necessarily require resources, experience, and time for which there is likely no shortcut.
Much of the debate about a party revolves around the function of identity formation, or whether a party is required in order for DSA to adequately distinguish itself and its politics from neoliberalism. It is in the question of political identity that we find debates about long-term strategy as well as fears about the absence of accountability. Will the hard work of socialists go to waste if our candidate is subsumed into a Democratic Party machine once elected into office, will our efforts be co-opted for neoliberalism rather than contribute to the emergence of a formidable socialist movement? These abstract questions are enacted in the details of campaigns, such as whether a candidate talks about socialism, or if the campaign imposes limits on mobilizing so that people only so far as voting for the candidate, or if campaign volunteers are enjoined to develop relationships that will draw people into a socialist movement. The multitude of tactical questions that underlie the formation of an American socialist political identity cannot be ignored, nor can they be quickly resolved by the formation of a party.
DSA must orient its electoral political work around the goal of building such an identity, but just as with the other functions of a party, a political identity cannot be brought into existence by fiat. There is no way to hasten this work other than to collectively endeavor towards it. A party does not guarantee us a future in which local chapters of DSA have the experience, skill, or knowledge to run political campaigns that raise class consciousness and draw people into socialist political activity. Whether or not we create a party, we must commit ourselves to creating and sharing such skill, knowledge, and experience. The question of a party is an important one, but not nearly so important as the profusion of questions that undergird it. While I am clearly writing from within the limits of a very particular experiential perspective, I hope to have illustrated that DSA’s electoral strategy must reach beyond the question of a party and to provide a vision for how socialists can address the need for the functions of a party without retreating to fetishistic thinking about the promise of an independent political party.