Written by Workers’ Voice/La Voz
The DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) has rapidly grown in membership as a result of the deep political crisis in the United States. Working class sectors and youth are increasingly looking for an alternative outside of the Democratic and Republican Party establishments after 40 years of neoliberal policies. Social democracy, the movement advocating the achievement of socialism through progressive reforms of the capitalist system, has been a marginal political current in the United States, where political life has been dominated since the Civil War by a bipartisan system of two very pro-capitalist parties. Today, as the effects of the last economic crisis continue to ripple, this status quo seems to be changing, and new space is opening up to formulate different political alternatives to capitalism, a system that exploits working people and threatens to destroy life on earth.
Today two growing political currents are putting forward a socialist perspective: social democracy and revolutionary socialism/Marxism. The growth of the DSA was triggered both by the rise of Trump and the success of the Sanders bid for the Democratic Party nomination in 2016. It recruited most of its members by proposing to organize through continuing the electoral “struggle” that Sanders and “Our Revolution” initiated, on more clear socialist grounds. Revolutionary Marxist organizations in the U.S., on the other hand, have historically strived to recruit more out of the organic struggles of working people directly – which does not mean they do not participate in elections, nor that they don’t seek to give an independent electoral expression to major political struggles of the working class. The two currents thus have different centers of gravity. In 1982, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), led by Michael Harrington in a split from the Socialist Party of America nine years earlier, merged with the New Left-inspired New American Movement to form the DSA. The latter organization was limited to no more than 6,000 members since its foundation, but it exploded after the 2016 election and today claims about 55,000 members. It is undeniable that a new generation of young workers wants change, because it wants to survive, and it is reconnecting with latent forces of resistance in the class. In such a context it might be useful to revisit the difference between the Marxist conception of socialism and the social democratic one, and to see how their political strategies might overlap or differ.
Goals and Dangers of the “Inside-Outside” Strategy
In 2016, Jacobin executive editor Seth Ackerman published an important programmatic piece, “A Blueprint for a New Party”, which has become since then the guiding document of the majority of the DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC), and presents itself as the “new” strategy to reinvigorate social democracy in the United States.
The document heavily focuses on the construction of the party around electoral issues, and updates what is now known among the DSA membership and periphery as the “inside-outside” strategy. What this strategy basically proposes is working inside and outside the Democratic Party at the same time in order to build the base of a future working class party. It also proposes the same strategy to win socialism: to work inside the bourgeois democratic institutions (Congress, state legislatures,, city councils etc), and outside through supporting struggles, cooperative projects, and community based initiatives.
DSA’s new, young, NPC leadership wants to position itself as the rational and pragmatic middle ground between two factions: the older established leadership, which focused DSA solely on working within and winning influence inside the DP (as DSA founder Harrington put it, “the left wing of the possible” in the Democratic Party, a position still influential in the organization) and what it considers “extremist” or “ultra-Left” tendencies – some of which argue for the need to build a third party now (advocating for the Green Party project or similar alternatives).
The “Inside-Outside” strategy aspires to be a productive synthesis of these two options, for it proposes to continue to work in the DP in the short term, in order to build the base of a yet to be realized, third party of the working class. Marxists have historically refused to work inside the DP, not out of a dogmatic dislike of this party, but because the very class nature and political structure of that party makes it impossible for it to become a tool for the working class. They have focused all of their efforts to build a distinct alternative outside, by linking themseleves to the daily struggles of working people (labor, immigrant rights, civil rights, women’s rights, etc.), and when possible – articulate a viable party formation to run for elections.
Thus, in regard to that very goal, on the need to build an independent working class party to present real solutions to U.S. workers and oppressed communities, there is agreement between the new DSA NPC’s self-described Marxists and revolutionary Marxists (see insert). However, we do have opposed strategies to do so (i.e. the “hows”) and the end goal of such a party (i.e. the “what fors”). Let’s start with the “hows”.
Although the new, younger leadership of the DSA has moved left of their predecessors on the question of the DP (and on other questions, such as on leaving the neoliberal Socialist International and on endorsing the Palestinian BDS movement), they still argue that there are currently no conditions for a “clean break” from the Dems. We strongly disagree. After the past year of unprecedented teachers and hotel and service workers mass strikes, there is a significant base in the class that is beginning to act independently of the labor leaderships that are tied to the Democratic Party. Many sectors in the labor movement, as well as in Black Lives Matter, and immigrant rights movements, are desperate for a viable alternative to the DP. Another issue with this strategy is the political cost of working within the DP.
The Political Cost of Working Inside the Democratic Party
We believe that one cannot build a working class, rank-and-file led party with an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist platform within the Democratic Party. To try to do so is to necessarily have to adapt to the established methods of political work of that party, which will make building the kind of movement and party that we need for emancipation of the working class and oppressed ultimately impossible.
The “inside-outside” strategy is not a new experiment (see in this issue the article by Brenner). Working within an established pro-corporate and top-down organization, with organic ties to the economic, financial, and political establishment comes at a political cost, that of diluting one’s socialist program and adopting their methods. Indeed, we believe that the DSA will be confronted with what has already happened many times in the U.S. and abroad: that under the guise of building an alternative to the Democratic Party, the DSA will in fact, consciously or not, rebuild the lost working class base of a pro-capitalist party.
We’ve already seen that since 2016, there have been some clear indications that the DSA’s program and project are diverting the working class movement away from a future break with the DP. Many DSA leaders have been looking to intervene in the sterile, crystallized “factions” of the DP, such as in the “fight” between “corporate Democrats” and “Progressive Democrats.” Ocasio-Cortez campaigned in June 2018 using the slogan, “Abolish ICE”, and when her proposal raised uproar, she clarified: “Abolishing ICE does not mean get rid of our immigration policy, but what it does mean is to get rid of the draconian enforcement”. Now, since being elected, AOC has voted for Pelosi as the Majority Leader of the House on November 2018 and on January of this year she voted for the budget proposed by the Democratic majority that included full funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE.
The fact that the concrete policy of DSA-supported candidates shifts to the right when they are elected shows that the internal ideological “struggle” inside the DP has no room for a genuine socialist project. The problem is that the very premisses of the debate already accept the core of capitalist politics: the “right” of corporations to profit over people’s work and treat natural resources as commodity, and the legitimacy of the state institutions (police, military, courts, prisons) whose core function is to “protect and serve” the 1%.
How Can Socialists Build a Base and Advance Towards Socialism?
We would like to take on the real problem that the DSA is addressing and propose an alternative methodology and program to address it. One of the major questions the DSA is trying to address with its electoral strategy is: how can socialists, who are today a small minority, “move consciousness to the Left” and build a social base for a transformation to socialism? This is where social democracy and Marxism/revolutionary socialism part ways, for we have different understandings of what socialist consciousness is.
Many of today’s DSA key leaders understand the content of socialism to be a set of reforms, achievable through the progressive transformation of capitalism: Medicare for all, free college for all, a living wage, etc. These are reforms that do not alter the foundations of capitalism, and focus narrowly on redistribution of wealth instead of building a new economy centered around people’s needs and not profits. As a result, almost all of the reforms that the working class/oppressed have won through hard struggle have been washed away by counter-reforms in times of crisis. It was revealing when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated on a CBS interview on January 7th that her vision of socialism had nothing to do with the Soviet Union or Cuba. “What we have in mind and what my policies most closely re-resemble are what we see in the UK, in Norway, in Finland, in Sweden.” It’s not a stretch to say that the DSA mainstream believes that building a socialist base and advancing the socialist project is synonymous with a strategy to “push” consciousness to the Left through electoral campaigns, which show these reforms can be accomplished.
This was clear in the 2018 US midterm election, where DSA supported and actively campaigned for a number of “progressive” candidates on the Democratic Party ticket, candidates who had only a partial agreement with DSA’s programmatic demands and whose main “socialist” characteristic was that they did not accept corporate money. The DSA wants to prove it can win within the system, to prove that it is possible to infuse, little by little, “progressive” politics into these candidates and thus, into state legislatures and Congress. Speaking about this “step by step” DSA strategy, Seth Ackerman stated: “Every article about Ocasio-Cortez mentioned that she’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, that she’s a democratic socialist. That is a major step towards the goal of having an alternative political vision beamed into the consciousness of a larger electorate in a way that is very difficult to do when you don’t have candidates with a chance of winning running under that kind of banner. What we haven’t seen yet is a membership organization with an organic relationship with these candidates, and a consistent ideological and programmatic coherence.”
In other words, by spreading socialist ideas, AOC’s electoral victory and the fact that she has more than 2 million Twitter followers is helping build the base for a future party. It is important in our view to differentiate between the popularization of elements of the socialist program and building socialist consciousness. For Marxists, the key defining feature of socialist consciousness is not just one of content or program (e.g. Medicare for all vs Affordable Care Act), but one of method and process of organizing: socialism and socialist consciousness can only be built through struggle. In other words, the “how,” the strategy or path to get to socialism matters, because we are talking about a different substance or content: the self-activity and self-emancipation of the working class by its own means in the hard work of establishing a society free of exploitation and oppression. We contrast this Marxist strategy to a social democratic or “progressive” strategy, which perpetuates an entrenched reliance by working people on “professional” middle class politicians and staff union organizers – whether self-described “socialists” or not – whom working class people merely anoint with the task of fighting on behalf of the working class, with socialism postponed to a distant future.
For Marxists, the base for socialism is built through class struggle, starting with small and partial fights, and unifying them to larger movements geared at mass action, as the teachers in West Virginia and Arizona did. This experience of struggle is itself a source of education and it builds confidence. It gives a concrete meaning to the idea that working people have in their own hands the key to their liberation, that when they fight they can win, and that they need to build their own class power to change the system.
Socialist consciousness is built mainly through a combination of struggle and education. It can only emerge out of the practical experience of the power, creativity, and intelligence of working people when they organize and act united and independently, be it a strike, a school or land occupation, or a walkout against the war. Class independence is in no way secondary in this process. The only way a tiny minority of exploiters can maintain its power is by seeking legitimation from millions of working people through elections and a facade of democracy. Socialist consciousness, that is the confidence that another system opposed to capitalism is possible, one that brings real workers democracy starting at the economic level (the shopfloor and the household) and all the way up. In order to build the embryo of that democratic self-determination of our people we need to break with the illusions and dependency on the institutions of bourgeois governance, which include all the spaces of representative democracy (city councils, state legislatures, and Congress) along with the established parties. Class independence is not something simply proclaimed and printed on a flyer. It means creating real experience of struggle and governance of our class by our class, with democracy, accountability and independence. It means to stop having illusions in the next politicians who claim they will solve things for you, and instead relying only on ourselves and our own organizing capacity to change things. This is true even, or rather especially, when we elect socialists to office, as we discuss below.
We all believe and want for socialist ideas and our program to become popular, to become understood, embraced and defended by tens of thousands or even millions. The difference between Marxists and social democrats is how we think this process comes to be. The DSA believes socialism is popularized through elections. This is why its leadership is pushing local chapters in that direction, and has since 2016 heavily shifted most of its organizing and intervention forces towards elections. They did so for the second half of 2018 to focus on campaigning for the midterms, and now they are pushing hard for the imminent “Bernie 2020” campaign. Their intervention in real struggles is secondary, and is aimed at building an electoral base. But an electoral base for a social democratic candidate is not the same as a working class base for an independent party and the fight for socialism. Not only are they divergent, pulling people into different kinds of organizing work, but they will soon come into contradiction with each other.
The DSA strategy to build for socialism has a double pitfall: it misses the central element (struggle) and it injects an anti-socialist element (an uncritical embrace of the electoral system, its power of cooptation, its forced retrofitting of the socialist program into a pro-capitalist state) into their work. We argue instead that socialist ideas can only make sense to working people when they are engaged in collective struggle to win and implement them. A small group of core organizers can build and lead a life-changing struggle, train more organizers, and put forward socialist ideas that can reach thousands. It is through these struggles that a deeper understanding of the failures of capitalism resonate with people, and thus that our Marxist program appears to offer more than a band-aid or another electoral empty promise, for it proposes durable solutions to recurrent problems through structural social transformations.
ENGELS on The Need to Build A Workers Party in the US
“In a country that has newly entered the movement, the first really crucial step is the formation by the workers of an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is distinguishable as a labor party. And this step has been taken far sooner than we might have expected, and that’s the main thing. That the first program of this party should still be muddle-headed and extremely inadequate, that it should have picked Henry George for its figurehead, are unavoidable if merely transitory evils. The masses must have time and opportunity to evolve; and they will not get that opportunity unless they have a movement of their own–no matter what its form, providing it is their own movement–in which they are impelled onwards by their own mistakes and learn by bitter experience….
I think all our practice has shown that it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organization.”
Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, Collected Works, Vol. 47, Engels, 1883—1886 (New York: Progress Publishers, 1995), p. 532
Marx on Revolutionaries and Elections
“Even when there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is indefinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”
Marx, Address to the Central Committee of to the Communist League, 1847.
The “Ballot Line” and the Class Struggle Line
The goal of DSA’s electoral strategy, as outlined in the Ackerman thesis, is to build up the DSA electoral brand with a “nationally recognized label” and a common platform, while avoiding “the ballot-line trap.” The main “innovation” here over previous versions of US social democracy, as exemplified by Harrington and Sanders for example, is to openly adopt ballot-line flexibility. It matters little for DSA leaders like Ackerman, Sunkara, and others on which ticket the candidate runs, so long as that candidate generally agrees with their platform, uses the DSA brand, and has a chance to win. Whereas previously DSA was confined to working only within the DP, now they are open to getting on other ballot lines. What isn’t on the cards, generally speaking, is building an independent platform now (though Ackerman does concede that in certain circumstances this is a “theoretical” possibility). Therefore: “Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major-or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line. The ballot line would thus be regarded as a secondary issue.”
Marxists in the revolutionary socialist tradition, have a very different approach to elections. It starts from the understanding that parliamentary elections are one of the most disempowering forms of political participation for working class people. Elections, as they are set up in this country, with the bipartisan system, the de-facto banning of third parties, and tight control by capital, are a political race to the bottom for the working class and socialists. We fully agree with the critique DSA comrades put forward of the current electoral rules and their assertion that they are “unique – and uniquely repressive”, with “some US electoral procedures unknown outside of dictatorships”. This of course cannot and should not mean that we do not participate in elections. But we should apply deeper strategic and political lessons from the collective experience of our class and of the historic socialist movement about the real nature of bourgeois democracy. In our opinion, the DSA, in practice, applies in a formal, superficial way their own critique of the bipartisan system without drawing the necessary conclusions: the need to organize a clean break with the DP and call a national convention to build an alternative. This means convening all progressive local unions, community activists and organizations, socialist groups and many independents to start building a new political force out of the combination of the different struggles, a political alternative in the hands of working people that will expand their power to fight nationally and will have an electoral expression.
Thus when workers’ or community organizations with a Marxist outlook run and get elected to public office, they do so with a radically different perspective than social democratic candidates. DSA’s social democratic candidates get elected to conduct routine parliamentary work within the congressional system. They proceed with the same old dealing and back room negotiations with capitalist parties. The fact that Ocasio-Cortez recently endorsed neoliberal DP Congresswoman Pelosi to be the Majority House speaker is a case in point. The only difference is that in these trade-offs they try to push for some elements of their program that only very seldom get enacted into legislation, let alone form the basis for exposing the true class nature of the bipartisan system.
Revolutionary Marxists, on the other hand, intervene in these arenas to unconditionally support workers struggles, and make public all the behind the scenes deals between elected officials and corporate power that make it impossible to implement any real reform that will benefit all workers. Regardless of getting elected, we know that our political proposals are not won through electoral campaigns but through united struggle. This is the only way that our demands (be it free education, Medicare for all, abolishing ICE, or a living wage for all), which are embedded in reality, can be constantly reassessed and implemented from below and according to our needs. For us the most important part of being in office is the collective struggle of the class on the outside that allows us to expose the true nature of capitalist administration. For social democracy, the candidate alone has to be be skilled enough to know how to “negotiate” with big money and entrenched powers. This means entering a de-radicalizing dialectic, where demands and reforms are inevitably scaled back to what is feasible within the budget, the law of private property, and the social status quo. “The left wing of the possible” as DSA founder Harrington put it.
The “How” of Socialism Matters to its Core
How we get to socialism, our methods of struggle, and our strategy all matter to the kind of socialism we are able to get. Our differences with the DSA are not merely ideological, this is not about being a “purist” in socialist doctrine. Quite the opposite, it is about having a truly winning strategy that will make a long lasting and impactful change instead of repeating more of the same, which invites material defeats and political demoralization. One simple way to explain our differences with the DSA is that we clearly recognize, as Robert Brenner put it in a recent article we republish in this issue, that “the social forces at the heart of reformism and their organizations are committed to political methods (as well as theories to justify them) that end up preventing them from securing their own reform goals.”
In our view class struggle is the only way to win reforms, and independent political action of working people and oppressed communities is the only road to end capitalism. Continuing to do politics as usual, with a slightly more lefty rhetoric, will only help to strengthen the Democratic Party, a party that has stood in the path for radical change in this country for the last century and a half.
The “Measure” of Socialism: Polls and Strikes
For a new generation of workers who see their future compromised by the failure of capitalism “Socialism” is not a dirty word anymore. A poll of last August asserted that only 44% of Americans have a favorable view of capitalism, compared to 52% in 2012. Furthermore, 42% of Democratic Party voters, 8% of GOP voters and 29% of independents would with be “comfortable” or “enthusiastic” with an openly socialist candidate.
Polls however are, like elections, a superficial assessment of what workers think. We need to differentiate a renewed interest in socialism as an alternative, with a real consciousness and determination to fight for it. In our opinion, equally important are the struggles of workers, like strikes and mass demonstrations.
Until 2018, the level of strike action in this country was at an historical low, but the teachers strikes of the past year, as well as the increased service workers strikes are turning things around. Mass demonstrations, like the January 2017 Women’s March, reached historical proportions, but unfortunately the 2018 Women’s March was made into a “march to the polls” instead of taking a step forward radicalizing the struggle. The opening to organize for socialism and increase our struggles is there, but it will not happen “spontaneously”. We need to get prepared and organize for it, and for that task a political party is necessary!
 For more on this history see: https://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1945/history/index.html
 Ackerman, “A Party of a New Type”, July 2018, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/07/electoral-rules-third-party-ballot-line-ocasio-cortez-dsa
 Robert Brenner, “The Problem of Reformism”