Organizing for radical change beyond the ballot box

  • April 27, 2016

Movement & Mobilization

History shows that our best hope for radical social change lies not within the sphere of electoral politics, but in building popular power from below.

The Not An Alternative collective recently published a response to my critique of socialist support for the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. Not An Alternative argues that the Democratic Party is a “site of struggle” that can be occupied just like any ordinary public space. They contend that politics is inherently about striking a balance between principles and practice, implying that we should simply ignore Sanders’ more conservative political positions. Most importantly, they claim that we can extend the force of social movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter by “occupying” political institutions like the Democratic Party.

I think that the disagreement voiced by Not An Alternative stems mainly from a misunderstanding of my argument. My critique of participation in the Sanders campaign is not just based on a question of principles. It is based on a question of strategy. I argue that historical experience demonstrates that attempts to increase the power of the left by participating in Democratic Party politics always fail. Moreover, I argue that we should spend our time and energy pursuing strategies that actually build popular power, rather than pinning our hopes on the two-party electoral system.

The Lessons of History

As Lance Selfa has written, there is a long history of American progressive movements attempting to maneuver within the Democratic Party. The call to “occupy the party” has been repeated at least four times in the past half century, and each attempt to do so met with failure. In 1968, thousands of anti-war activists went “clean for Gene,” supporting Eugene McCarthy in the presidential primary due to his stance against the Vietnam War. Despite widespread popular support for progressive Democrats like McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and George McGovern, party bosses selected the pro-war Hubert Humphrey as police attacked protesters in Chicago.

In 1984, Jesse Jackson ran in the Democratic Party presidential primaries, marketing himself as the leader of an emergent “Rainbow Coalition.” Jackson’s campaign earned a significant portion of the primary vote, but Jackson ended up endorsing Walter Mondale without extracting a single concession. When some leftists proposed a break with the DNC and the formation of an alternative third party, Jackson replied that “We have too much invested in the Democratic Party. When you have money in the bank you don’t walk away from it.”

In 1988, Jackson’s campaign moved further into the mainstream, winning a number of key endorsements and support from wealthy donors. Still, Michael Dukakis easily won the party’s nomination with the help of more than 600 “superdelegates” — high-ranking party officials who can vote for whichever candidate they please. Jackson threw his support to the mainstream party ticket in exchange for no real concessions. Again, leftist supporters of a Democratic Party “insurgency” found themselves stranded, having wasted years of effort in a campaign that produced no practical gains.

More recently, the 2004 campaign of Dennis Kucinich attracted the support of the Green Party and other leftists. The Kucinich campaign never attained the mass support of previous campaigns, but his statements provide possibly the best window into the strategic function of left-wing Democratic candidates.

In 2003, Kucinich stated that “The Democratic Party created third parties by running to the middle. What I’m trying to do is to go back to the big tent so that everyone who felt alienated could come back through my candidacy.” Put simply, Kucinich’s function was to draw disaffected progressives and leftists back to a party that had spent the last thirty years governing from the neoliberal right.

None of the campaigns described above produced lasting benefits for the left or for the American working class. Instead, they channeled the talents of veteran organizers and energetic young volunteers into an institutional dead end. At best, these activists achieved nothing. At worst, their spirit and enthusiasm were manipulated for the benefit of a party that has invariably pursued an imperialist, capitalist agenda.

There is one key difference between the Sanders campaign and that of earlier primary challengers: Sanders openly calls himself as a socialist. As I argued earlier, this is a sign of a larger shift in American society. “Socialism” no longer has its Cold War shock effect, and the still vaguely-defined idea of socialism is entering the political mainstream. An important question, however, is how the left is able to define the content of socialism. If socialism simply means implementing social democratic policies like universal healthcare and publicly-funded college tuition, then Jesse Jackson and Dennis Kucinich were both socialist insurgents years before Sanders’ campaign.

The key question, then, is whether this symbolic difference makes it worthwhile for radicals to spend their time campaigning for Sanders. Again, this is not just a question of principles, it is a question of strategy. The Democratic Party is a powerful institution that is designed to elude popular control. It is supported and funded by some of the richest and most powerful people on Earth, who have never allowed an insurgent challenger to make a lasting impression on the party’s internal politics. As a whole, the parliamentary system is designed to alienate political power from those it directly affects and place it in the hands of a few representatives.

Our potential for success in these institutions is structurally limited. Their internal logic and power dynamics are structured to limit popular input as much as possible. Even if self-proclaimed socialists occupy high offices, their capacity to create change would still stem from the fact that less than a thousand individuals are empowered to make policy for a country of three hundred million people. This is the exact opposite of popular power.

To use a crude metaphor, we are not trying to elect a more progressive king. We are trying to abolish the monarchy.

An Alternative Strategy

We have to learn from the left’s historical successes and failures if we want to create radical change. The radical left is at its strongest as a grassroots movement and at its weakest when it tries to bargain with institutional powers. When I say “grassroots movement,” I am not exclusively referring to protest movements or street demonstrations. In my opinion, many leftists could benefit from protesting less and doing more day-to-day work in their communities.

This day-to-day work is what we mean when we say “building power.” As radical leftists, our aim is to increase the power of the people to control their own destinies. Instead of petitioning the powerful to solve our problems and protesting when they inevitably refuse, we work directly to resolve our own issues. This might mean creating farm cooperatives and community gardens to feed ourselves, creating dispute resolution groups that neighbors can go to instead of the police, operating free health clinics, or forming tenants’ unions to fight gentrification and rising rents.

By organizing ourselves, we build our own power to resist capitalism and fight for a better future. Crucially, we keep power in our communities instead of ceding it to party bureaucracies and the state.

These pragmatic “survival programs” are the first building blocks in a much larger struggle. As we fight, we make alliances and coalitions with other campaigns and social groups. We form local bodies — assemblies and councils — where we discuss our problems and identify and pursue solutions.

As these bodies grow and come to deal with a growing range of concerns, they form a counter-power to the established institutions. These councils then form a network, contributing their strength to each other’s struggles while preserving their democratic nature. In using this kind of organization, we are not just building a ladder to elected office. Instead, we create an entirely new form of politics centered on direct popular power.

The movements that have used this strategy have met with tangible successes. All major modern revolutions depended on the organized power of working people. The Parisian sections, Russian soviets, and Spanish communes were all able to radically change their societies because of the immense power of popular political bodies. In our own era, the Zapatista movement and the Kurdish movement have expanded on this strategy, winning de facto control over significant areas.

The seeds of this dual power strategy already exist in the United States. Radical organizations like Cooperation Jackson are working to build solidarity economies and grassroots organizational bodies.

Like the Black Panthers before them, these groups understand that you can only create a revolution when working class people are organized and believe in their capacity to change the world. This is hard work that requires extraordinary patience, and I know that some may find established routes like electoral politics more attractive, but we have to understand that building a revolution requires a real, long-term commitment.

I also understand that those of us on the left have wildly different visions of the future and of social change. The debate about the Sanders campaign encompasses a wide spectrum that includes anarchists and left communists, Leninists, democratic socialists, and social democrats. But even social democrats should understand that they are most likely to win progressive reforms when they are supported by powerful grassroots radical movements. The New Deal was passed in an environment where radical organizations posed a serious threat to the capitalist system. Any present-day reform would require a similar level of grassroots agitation given the immense power of established interests.

There is a reason we are still discussing the Black Panthers’ Rainbow Coalition while relatively few remember Jesse Jackson’s campaign of the same name. The Panthers had a revolutionary program focused on building power from the bottom up. This program posed a genuine threat to the establishment because it sought to give ordinary people the tools to control their political and economic future. We can build on this legacy, but we have to spend our energies wisely and start working now.

The promise of the Occupy movement was in its spirit of radical democracy and its refusal to engage with institutional powers on their own terms. Like any social movement, it subsided when it reached the limits created by its form and practices. In the wake of Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movement, the American left faces a dilemma: Do we retreat to the sphere of electoral politics, or do we move forward from protest to revolutionary organizing? Do we accept the terms of engagement offered by the establishment, or do we push the political limits of the possible?

I believe that we have to be fearless, and that we have to choose the hard but necessary path.

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Ben Reynolds

Ben Reynolds is a writer and activist based in New York. His commentary has appeared in CounterPunch and other forums.

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