Members of DSA participate in the May Day parade in Minneapolis, May 2018. Photo by Nic Neufeld / Shutterstock
Can electoral politics shift us from capitalism to socialism? Since the late 1800s, many socialists have viewed the politics of parties and elections as a way to change the course history, forming a core component of their strategy.
By the mid-20th century, “democratic socialism” had been coined as a kind of political brand to refer to the socialists oriented to electoral politics as a strategy for social change. This was partly based on their defense of the systems of “representative democracy” in western Europe and North America combined with critiques of the “communist camp” states of the mid-20th century such as the Soviet Union. This defense of “representative democracy” is tied in with the basic strategy of working to gain political power through elections.
In the USA, the democratic socialist brand gained a huge boost in 2016 when Bernie Sanders called himself a democratic socialist during his presidential campaign. He attacked economic inequality that the Occupy movement had foregrounded a few years earlier and his reform proposals reflected the precarious conditions faced by young people. Many young people were inspired to join the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which now has over 40,000 members.
A particularly influential group within the DSA is the Bread and Roses caucus, which includes members on the editorial masthead or staff of Jacobin. Bread and Roses proposes a strategy they call “the democratic road to socialism.” Their strategy combines unionizing workplaces and “the politics of mobilization” with an electoral strategy based on the eventual creation of a mass socialist party.
Bread and Roses counter-pose their strategy to “ultra-left tactics that substitute adventures organized by a small cadre of activists for a mass, organized working-class movement. And we oppose politics defined by radical posturing that appeals only to the already convinced.”
In “Our Road to Power,” Vivek Chibber points to the lack of a real presence in the workplaces of people with socialist or radical politics. And this is indeed a long-standing weakness of radical politics in the USA. But for Chibber, the main focus is building a social base for a socialist party. For the transition to socialism, the Bread and Roses strategy relies on the role of the electoral socialist party pushing through structural change after winning state power through elections.
The aim of combining electoral politics with a socialist goal has also led to a revival of interest in non-Leninist forms of Marxist theory. A number of the writers and activists around Jacobin Magazine and the Bread and Roses caucus have thus revived an interest in the ideas of Karl Kautsky.
Kautsky was the pre-eminent Marxist theorist of the pre-World War I electoral socialist parties. Kautsky’s strategy was for the “gradual accumulation of forces” through the growing votes of the German Social-democratic party and the growing membership of the centralized German trade union federation. “Class struggle,” for Kautsky, was conducted primarily through electoral politics. He tended to see actual strikes and mass struggle as secondary to “the main battle.”
In explaining “why Kautsky was right,” Eric Blanc explains Kautsky believed that a fundamental “ruptural break” with the capitalist regime would be necessary but differs from the Leninists in “how to get there.” Kautsky believed that a revolution could be triggered by achieving a parliamentary majority. This majority would “occupy government power” and use this as a platform for transforming the state, eliminating the old military corps and the autocratic executive power. Kautsky’s ideal was the supremacy of the British House of Commons.
In its more radical form, democratic socialists propose that a party committed to socialism could use the state to enact reforms that would break the old capitalist scheme. This would mean, according to Neal Meyer, “nationalizing the financial sector so that major investment decisions are made by democratically elected governments and removing hostile elements from the military and police. It will mean introducing democratic planning and social ownership over corporations (though the correct mix of state-led planning and market socialism, a mix of publicly owned firms, small privately owned businesses, and worker cooperatives is a matter of some debate in our movement).”
Here we see one of the traditional problems with electoral socialism: a tendency to think of socialism in terms of nationalization — state takeover and management of banks and other industries and “state-led planning.” After all, politicians are seeking government office. Thus their program focuses on what they propose to do through the state once elected.
But the liberal state is not “neutral ground” for the working class. Class oppression is inherent to the structure of the state. This is shown by the subordination of public sector workers to the managerialist bureaucracies of the state.
Officials against direct action
For libertarian socialists with a syndicalist orientation, building “a mass, organized working class movement” is also central. We can agree with the Bread and Roses Caucus on that point. However, our strategy is fundamentally different than the electoral socialists. The syndicalist strategy is based on the development of movements built on non-reformist forms of action and organization. But what is the difference between “reformist” and “non-reformist” methods?
A “reform” is any partial change in society that is within the power of movements to fight for. There are different ways to fight for “reforms,” different ways to organize and different forms of action. Each will have effects on the development of working class power to make change. A reformist approach relies upon paid “professionals of representation” to win gains “for us” — the layer of paid officers and staff in bureaucratic “service agency” unions, the paid staff and executives of non-profits that advocate for us, the politicians whom we vote into office.
The method of action is indirect because it does not rely on the direct participation and action of working class people themselves. The activists may do door-to-door canvassing to get working class people to vote for candidates, but this does not bring these people into organizations they can control and use as vehicles of direct activity of struggle by working people themselves.
The electoral socialist parties tend to be controlled by the paid layers at top, such as the politicians who are focused on retaining office and holding on to votes. This means they have a lifestyle that will lead them to oppose the development of direct action such as strikes and occupations when these reach a level of social conflict that may threaten their institutional position.
The relationship between the bureaucratic layers in politics and unions tends to be mutually reinforcing. When the focus is on electoral campaigns, electoral socialists tend to look to the paid apparatus that controls unions and has financing and staff to support candidates. Electoral socialists — and Democratic party politicians — have always depended heavily on support from unions.
Unions are large organizations and they can provide votes and funding. Since electorally oriented socialists and left wing Democrats look to pull in working class votes, getting the support of the union officials is very important for them. But support depends on their relationship to the paid officials who run the unions. When these officials have conflicts with the rank and file, often electoral socialists support the positions of the paid officials of unions. In other words, they will tend to accept bureaucratic trade union methods and structures.
As with the professional politicians, the way of life of the full-time union officials is based on their institutional role. They are not subject to harsh discipline from supervisors or stressful conditions on the job. Yes, they are elected, but this does not necessarily mean they are controlled by the members in any meaningful way. They tend to favor negotiations staying in their own hands so that they can negotiate deals that the employers can be persuaded to sign onto without risky levels of mass struggle. Strikes are a lot of work and they do not lead to pay raises. Like the professional politicians, union officials will tend to oppose direct action getting to the point of threatening severe risks to the union that is the basis of their prestige and way of life.
In bureaucratized unions, there are often conflicts between the paid officials and the members, and a struggle for social change from below depends on building up forms of unionism that are controlled by workers who have the capacity for mass struggle. The entrenched union bureaucracy gets in the way of this. They will shut down struggles that develop into major battles — as the officials of ILWU did in the Longview grain terminal struggle in 2011-2012. There have been many similar struggles as far back as World War II.
Organizing the unorganized
United Teachers of Los Angeles on strike to “bargain for the common good,” in December 2018. Photo by John Doukas / Shutterstock
Union membership has declined from 35 percent of workers in 1953 to 6.4 percent today. To a large extent this happened due to the way the bureaucratized unions are constrained from fighting and have abandoned the strike as a method of struggle. This year there has been an unusually large number of strikes, but still far below the levels of 1960s-70s. The failure of the UAW in the GM strike in fall 2019 was due to the undemocratic bureaucratic domination in the UAW and their ideology of “partnership” with GM. If they believe they must keep the companies profitable, the leaders do not press hard on the companies address their issues for fear this would reduce profitability and lead to more strident conflict with the management.
The approach to seeking changes or improvements to our situation by voting for politicians to enact a reform, or through “mobilizations” crafted and controlled by staff-driven non-profits, or relying on the paid officials of trade unions to negotiate with employers, or building alliances by schmoozing with politicians and other bureaucrats in unions and non-profits does not encourage participation in decision-making or control of organizations by working people. These methods do not build self-reliance and confidence in our own capacity. Rank-and-file workers are not learning about democratic organizing or public speaking or other skills learned through direct participation in building a membership organization and direct collective struggle.
The upshot is that a reformist strategy tends to build up these layers of political and union bureaucracy apart from the working class. And these layers tend to become a roadblock to the development of wider mass action and direct solidarity that can lead to major class confrontations. Thus, a reformist strategy will tend to keep the working class captive to the capitalist regime.
We can say that an approach to action and organization for change is non-reformist to the extent that it encourages a reliance on direct struggle (such as strikes and occupations), creates rank-and-file controlled mass organizations, and builds self-confidence, self-reliance, organizing skills, more active participation, and wider solidarity within the working class. Non-reformist forms of organization are self-managed by the members — rooted in direct participation and forms of accountable representation (such as elected shop delegates who still work the job). Non-reformist forms of action are disruptive forms of collective action based on direct participation — such as strikes, occupations, militant mass marches.
When workers build a union they control, and create their own shop organization, such as an elected shop delegates council, they have the means to carry on a struggle over the conditions at work. If they strike to shut down the operation, they gain real power by shutting off the flow of profits. In this way the worker-controlled union is a real form of counter-power on the job.
Syndicalism is a strategy that is based on non-reformist forms of action and organization. The idea is to build self-managed forms of mass organization, such as worker-controlled unions and other grassroots mass organizations. By “organizing the unorganized,” syndicalists help to build a movement that working people can use to fight the employers, landlords and powers-that-be. It is a form of power that builds up the capacity of working people to organize and run their own movement; it encourages the self-reliance, confidence and links of solidarity needed for advancing the struggle against the capitalist system.
To the degree that working class people do not see themselves as having the power to directly change the society, they are likely to see the ambitious agenda for radical change offered by socialists as “pie in the sky” or “nice ideas but unrealistic.” On the other hand, growing levels of direct struggle and a stronger development of solidarity in practice builds more of a sense of potential power.
When working people participate directly in building unions, or in carrying out a rent strike with other people in their building, or in reaching out to others in the community to build solidarity, this directly engages people in the action. This helps people learn how to organize and builds more of a sense that conditions can change. To the extent that the working class builds power through mass participation and disruptive challenge to the system, this encourages people to develop aspirations for deeper changes in society. In this situation, mass organizations of struggle form a setting that allows those militants who have a radical agenda for social change to connect with the grievances and concerns of other working people.
As this process develops and the crisis in the system escalates, the possibility for a fundamental break becomes possible as the working class develops the organizational strength, confidence, participation and aspirations needed for a fundamental challenge to the dominating classes. This consciousness can develop rapidly in periods when large numbers are brought into mass struggle and solidarity is built through widening connections that working people create among the various groups in resistance to the system. The working class needs to develop its own class-wide agenda and “gather its forces” from the various areas and sectors of struggle to form a united bloc with both the power and agenda for change.
This is the process of class formation — the more or less protracted process through which the working class overcomes fatalism and internal divisions (as on lines of race or gender) and builds the confidence, organizational capacity and the aspiration for social change. Through this process, the working class forms itself into a force that can effectively challenge the dominating classes for control of society.
The potential for this process of mass struggle to develop into a fundamental challenge to the system depends on the way this dynamic of mass struggle interacts with the political and economic crises of the capitalist regime. We cannot predict exactly how a basic rupture with the capitalist regime will develop.
For syndicalists, a key part of a revolutionary process is the takeover of the collective control of the industries by workers, and a process of breaking down the old top-down bureaucratic state and building new self-managed institutions, such as neighborhood and workplace assemblies, and councils or congresses of delegates. The democratic promise of the revolution is rooted in the self-managed character of the mass organizations that are driving the process.
Even when this kind of fundamental challenge to the system is “off the agenda,” we need to encourage forms of organization and struggle that leave open the potential for mass extension that can break the framework of the capitalist regime. To do this, we need to avoid building up institutional barriers.
Of course many activists are likely to continue to consider electoral politics as part of their strategy. Although much of the working class does not vote, many people do think about candidates running for office, not only because of the media frenzy around elections but also because who is elected can make a difference in some cases.
Even if “democratic socialists,” Marxists and other radicals continue to look to electoral politics as part of their strategy for change, many of them also favor a focus on building grassroots organizations and direct struggle — building more democratic unions, pushing strikes to gain working class power, and building other forms of grassroots social movement protest.
For many activists in DSA, this may be their main focus. To the extent the focus is on building democratic mass organizations, building participation and support for militant struggles, syndicalists and other socialists may be able to work together in a kind of “united front from below” in the organizing situation.
In “Our Road to Power,” Chibber concedes there mass movements did pose a revolutionary challenge to the system in the early 20th century. But, as he sees it, a revolutionary strategy is permanently off the agenda. Today the state has “infinitely greater popular legitimacy” than a century ago. The state’s “coercive power, its power of surveillance and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability” far greater than in the revolutionary era in the first decades of the 20th century.
For Chibber, this means that “left strategy has to revolve around building a movement to pressure the state, gain power within [the state]…and erode the structural power of capital.” To do this, “democratic socialists” propose to use the labor movement (and “mobilizational politics”) as a social base for participation in electoral politics.
The history of the electoral socialist parties in the 20th century does not provide much reason to hope this strategy will work. By the mid-1980s the various electoral socialist parties in Europe had abandoned any idea of a transition to socialism. They had become parties focused on “managing” capitalism — and quite willing to adapt to the elite demands for a politics of austerity, privatizations and cuts.
Given the vast ecological crisis that capitalism faces, the financial crash in 2008, the events of the Arab Spring and the emergence of radical populist movements, it’s not clear that the state has the kind of stability or popular legitimacy that Chibber claims. In the USA, elections rarely attract much more than half the eligible population to vote. And studies show that the non-voters are poorer than the voting population.
This makes elections a poor venue for working class struggle because our numbers cannot be marshaled there. Left candidates will depend on votes of middle class elements who may not favor a radical working class agenda.
A plausible path to self-managed socialism is going to lead through a revolutionary crisis. If the working class does develop high levels of direct struggle and solidarity through the growth of non-reformist methods of action and organization, this builds organizational strength, wider solidarity among sectors of the oppressed, and greater aspiration for change as people develop a growing sense of their own power.
In such a period, the working class needs to develop its own class-wide agenda and “gather its forces” from the various areas and sectors of struggle to form a united bloc or front with both the power and agenda for change. In this way, the working class becomes a revolutionary factor in its own right.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/magazine/electoral-road-to-socialism/