Whether it’s Trump and Pence throwing the label around as an insult, or politicians identifying themselves as socialists on the campaign trail, the “S” word has never been so popular. But not all socialists are the same. And their contrasts are critical, because different types of socialists work for goals that are poles apart.
Historically, there have been two main categories — reformist and revolutionary. Those who want to reform capitalism, and those that seek to overturn it. Their goals and strategies are quite opposite.
Social democrats. Reformist socialists are traditionally described as social democrats. They seek to reign in and regulate the tiny capitalist ruling class, and thereby avoid revolt by the far larger working class. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez take this approach and call themselves “democratic socialists.” The Democratic Socialists of America, a multi-tendency coalition of socialists and left democrats, also have this perspective. In countries other than the U.S., social democrats often form their own political parties and hold seats in Parliament.
The social democrat strategy is primarily electoral — vote in enough progressive politicians to pass legislation that creates healthcare and jobs for some, but leaves capitalism intact. In the U.S., their primary tactic is to enter into or function within the capitalist Democratic Party and push it to the left.
Revolutionary socialists. My organization, the Freedom Socialist Party, has been in the revolutionary camp since its founding in 1966. Our goal is to help the U.S. working class overthrow and replace capitalism, not tame it. Our job is to help the entire working class take full economic and political control. This is based on the understanding that the main division in our society is based on class, where the über rich have minority rule over the working-class majority. We believe that as long as we allow capitalism to continue, pervasive racism, sexism and poverty will increase, and our planet will stay on the road to environmental destruction.
Our strategy is to help build a revolutionary movement by fighting steadily on behalf of the most oppressed — in the streets, picket lines, and courtrooms, and by building solidarity among all social justice movements. Our party optimistically believes that these movements can grow into a revolutionary force capable of finishing the unfinished tasks of the first American Revolution and Civil War, to bring full economic and social freedom to the U.S., and ultimately, the world.
Our day-to-day tactics are many. These include supporting union struggles and strikes, building united fronts to defend against racist and sexist policies, and bringing together progressive movements against fascist assaults and endless wars abroad. All of these help the U.S. working class learn how to fight back.
FSP also runs candidates to expose the corrupt electoral system and popularize a socialist vision of the future. Our candidates Stephen Durham and Christina López ran a write-in campaign for president and vice president in 2012, and Navy veteran and unionist Steve Hoffman campaigned for U.S. Senate from Washington State in 2018. Both platforms included nationalizing the banks, dismantling the military machine, canceling all student debt and more. FSP campaigns called for shutting down ICE and a green jobs program long before they became mainstream ideas. This shows the influence that bold socialist platforms can have.
Why not run as a Democrat? Every victory for workers in the USA was won by a social movement, not the Democratic Party. From the 8-hour day to civil and abortion rights, every important reform came through the struggle of grassroots activists in mass movements. And that is exactly what Democratic Party leaders will never support. They want masses of people to campaign and elect them — and then immediately disband and go home.
If the Democrats wanted to actually stop Trump, they could easily organize huge demonstrations and mass civil disobedience. They could have stopped immigrant family separations by calling for mass protest encampments to surround detention centers. They could have called for a gigantic walkout against Brett Kavanaugh and halted his rise to the Supreme Court. But they didn’t. Why? Because they don’t want a strong movement that could turn around and challenge them and their pro-capitalist policies.
The Democratic Party has presided over the expansion of mass incarceration, stagnant wages, systemic sexism, homelessness, student loan debt and war. To pull our social justice movements — the vital force for actual change — into the Democratic Party reinforces dependence on capitalist politicians rather than independence, and is the very opposite of what socialists should be doing.
The point of a revolutionary party. The working class in the United States is fed up with Congress and with the general decay of our society. Forty-five percent of adults didn’t even vote in the 2016 presidential election. Today, reformist socialists like Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders see which way the wind is blowing and figure they can do better by identifying as socialists. But they are not leading the masses; they’re trying to catch up with them!
And just as social democrats use the Democratic ticket to win office, the Democrats use them to look more progressive than they actually are. In reality the Democratic Party is on life support. Socialists should help pull the plug, not infuse it with new life!
For their part, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have already cut deals with the Democrats against their supporters’ best interests. Sanders let the Democratic Party sabotage his 2016 primary run, and rather than exposing the corrupt process, went on to endorse the pro-war-and-Wall Street Hilary Clinton. Both support the U.S. -orchestrated right-wing coup attempt in Venezuela.
And as outspoken and inspirational as Ocasio-Cortez is, she’s already towed the Democratic Party line by endorsing Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, who infamously and arrogantly admitted, “We’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is.”
In this instance, Pelosi speaks the truth. We will never establish socialism through the Democratic Party or through elections in a capitalist system. The one percent has a firm grip on our government. The only way to break that grip is by organizing and training our class, which is the most powerful class in history. It is also creative, brave, diverse and, most importantly, looking for new ideas and leadership. However, in order for that new leadership to be successful, it must be through a genuinely radical party.
Clara Fraser, co-founder of the Freedom Socialist Party, a revolutionary feminist and integrationist party from its beginning, wrote these wise words:
“When a revolt takes place without a party or ahead of a party or behind the back of a party, the movement will not endure: huge errors of strategy and tactics will be made, key lessons will not be drawn, and frontline insurrectionists will not grow into leaders for all seasons.
“Only the revolutionary party can ensure that the activists and agitators become political professionals geared and educated for the long haul. Only the party can help the militant strike or sit-in or electoral upheaval take the next leaps forward and aim for state power. Only the party can extend isolated insurgencies into constant, concerted mobilizations for the total revamping of society.”
There’s no time to wait. Capitalism is destroying our planet and our most basic human rights. Socialists can either spend their precious time and energy fighting to elect Democrats, or they can unite to build a party with the power and ideas to win the world we want — and so desperately need.
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