Socialist Alternative's electoral strategy

Putting popularity over principle in a numbers game

L-R: Kshama Sawant, Seattle City Council member; Boston council candidate Seamus Whelan (2013); Minneapolis council candidates Ginger Jentzen (2017) and Ty Moore (2013). PHOTOS: Socialist Alternative
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In the recent past, the U.S. group Socialist Alternative (SAlt) has thrown itself wholeheartedly into electioneering, both with its own candidates and its active support for Bernie Sanders.

SAlt describes itself as a Trotskyist, revolutionary organization. But the decidedly non-revolutionary capitalist election arena is a tricky place for radicals. So how has Socialist Alternative done, and where does this electoral emphasis come from?

Putting SAlt first — at a cost. When SAlt’s Kshama Sawant was elected to the Seattle City Council in 2013, the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) was optimistic. Sawant’s clearly socialist campaign won despite the Democratic Party machine that controls city and Washington state politics. FSP and Radical Women, the party’s sister organization, backed Sawant with donations, speaking invitations, attendance at campaign events, and more.

However, FSP’s enthusiasm was tempered with caution. Even before Sanders ran, Socialist Alternative repeatedly supported candidates whose indictment of capitalism was weak at best and nonexistent at worst, like Greens and Ralph Nader — and did this instead of backing revolutionary socialist candidates. For FSP, the main reason to run candidates and take part in an electoral system rigged for the rich is to talk about the profit system as the basis for exploitation and oppression — and why and how working people can replace it.

Seattle FSP wrote Sawant a letter after her victory. In it, the branch offered to put at her disposal the knowledge gained from decades of FSP members’ experience as workers and union activists at City Light, Seattle’s public utility. Despite Sawant becoming chair of the committee that oversees the utility, this overture was rebuffed, as were subsequent attempts at collaboration. Clearly, Sawant was going to accept input only from her close circle of SAlt advisers.

Another rude awakening was her backtracking in the $15 Now campaign that helped propel her into office. Initially, Socialist Alternative took a very strong stand, explicitly rejecting the possibility of any deal-making that would leave groups of workers out or involve long delays in implementation. After her election, however, Sawant announced she would accept years-long phase-ins. The final legislation leaves many workers waiting for $15 an hour until 2021 — in a city where it takes $23.56 an hour, on average, to rent a two-bedroom apartment even now.

In calling out Sawant on these issues, Seattle FSP correctly characterized SAlt’s problems as opportunism and sectarianism.

Sawant has supported righteous causes as a councilmember and helped shake up City Hall. FSP gave critical support to her re-election in 2015. But her record has been mixed. For example, she opposes regressive taxes, but has voted for measures that heap more property and sales taxes on working-class people. She wants to expand renters’ rights, but isn’t opposing the city’s high-density development plan that will have a devastating effect on existing low-cost units.

Meanwhile, Socialist Alternative has also run candidates at the local level in Minneapolis and Boston, so far unsuccessfully. On a parallel track, it is heavily promoting the national idea of “building a new mass party that serves the interests of working people and the poor” (from SAlt’s 2016 “U.S. perspectives” document). This party “is more likely to initially have a more populist multi-class character rather than having a clearly pronounced working class character,” SAlt acknowledges. It would not be a vehicle to “artificially ‘unite the left’” but would be a means for SAlt to “position ourselves as the key force on the socialist left.”

The problem is that SAlt fancies this is the main reason for engaging in electoral politics and that all roads leading to becoming the “key force” are equally legitimate. Thus their work on Sanders’ campaign. But their electoral maneuvering and vote-seeking erodes whatever revolutionary content still exists in their program and practice, to the point that they often side with liberals in opposing united fronts to directly confront 21st-century fascists.

Numerous instances of this opportunism can be cited from Seattle and Portland, Ore., to Melbourne, Australia. There, the SAlt equivalent, called the Socialist Party (SP), spurned collaboration with other leftists to mobilize against the ultra-right — preferring, in one case, to urge people to come to an SP forum rather than protest a fascist rally.

Opportunist roots. Socialist Alternative traces back to the Militant Tendency, founded in 1964. The main base of the Trotskyist Militant was in Britain, where it had an “entrist” orientation to the British Labour Party.

The Militant strategy was to attempt to take over the Labour Party from within, with the goal of creating socialism electorally and legislatively. This proved a dismal failure.

For one thing, instead of Militant influencing the Labour Party in a socialist direction, the Labour Party intensified Militant’s reformism. Then, in 1982, the Labour Party “proscribed” Militant from membership, and a wave of expulsions followed. By this time supporters of the tendency had formed the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI).

In 1986, in search of new pastures, CWI set out to politically colonize the United States. Members who had moved across the pond formed Labor Militant and became involved in the mid-1990s effort to form a U.S. labor party. The organization changed its name to Socialist Alternative in the late 1990s.

The electoral opportunism that led SAlt to throw itself behind Bernie Sanders — and Ralph Nader in four previous presidential contests — is part of CWI’s DNA.

Role of electoral work. In both the U.S. and Australia, FSP is no stranger to electoral politics. In Seattle, energetic campaigns by FSP candidates over the years have attracted serious community interest and significant labor support, helping to pave the way for Sawant’s victory.

But in this sphere, it’s essential that class lines are drawn clearly and that the goal is much deeper than just winning votes and elections. For revolutionaries, the aim is to expose the system mercilessly and maximize the opportunity to build a broad, democratic movement geared to workers taking power, with the issues and leadership of the most undervalued and mistreated workers front and center. That is what FSP and union leader Steve Hoffman is prepared to do in his race for U.S. Senate from Washington state. (See story here.)

We hope that SAlt will support Hoffman’s campaign. Any socialist organization in the U.S. which thinks it can go it alone against the treacherous forces being unleashed at this time is clearly delusional. The survival of the working class is at stake as the Bannon and Koch brother types plot to destroy every civil and labor right won during the 20th century. Now is not the time for sectarian pipe dreams.

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