Socialist candidates in New York City are getting the biggest echo we’ve seen in many years. It’s time for the socialist movement to build a socialist party.
Since the election of Donald Trump thousands of people have joined the socialist movement in New York City, while the campaigns of Jabari Brisport, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Julia Salazar have provided a glimpse of the new possibilities for socialists in elections.
Given the failure of both capitalism and the political establishment to provide real solutions to the multitude of problems facing working class communities, the potential for the socialist movement to make a big impact in the years ahead is likely to grow. The key question is: what is the best approach to win over broader layers of people to socialist change?
Among those who identify as socialists, there is general agreement on many immediate issues like Medicare for All, stronger rent regulations, fully funding the MTA, and fighting against racist policing, mass incarceration, ICE, and sexism. There is also agreement about the need to challenge the Democratic Party establishment. However, there are important debates about where we see political developments heading, along with what type of program, strategy and organization is needed. Related to all these questions is the issue of what attitude socialists should take toward the Democratic Party as a whole.
We understand why millions of people look to the Democratic Party as the “lesser evil,” especially with Trump in the White House. Yet the Democrats are dominated by big business and have failed to effectively fight Trump. Where they are in power, like New York, they have exacerbated problems facing working class communities. These contradictions are coming into increasing conflict on the basis of increasing inequality, anti-establishment anger, and global capitalist dysfunction.
Debates About the Democrats
Some people argue socialists should aim to transform the Democratic Party into a “people’s party.” If the Democratic Party were to completely reject corporate cash, adopt a principled pro-worker platform, hold its candidates and representatives firmly accountable to the needs of working class communities, and develop a lively internal life with regular membership meetings involving tens of thousands of people, then it would be worth supporting.
But this is unlikely to happen and would require driving out the vast majority of its officials and elected representatives. Ocasio-Cortez’s primary opponent, Rep. Joseph Crowley, is the epitome of what’s wrong with the party’s corrupt corporate leadership which will stop at nothing to maintain control.
Some socialists reject transforming the Democrats but put forward the idea that we should nevertheless use their ballot line. One of the main arguments is the technical difficulty of developing third parties under U.S. election law. Yet the bigger obstacle has been the lack of active social forces capable of building viable campaigns without corporate cash. So now that there are thousands of organized socialists in New York City, the barriers to collecting signatures, raising money, and building vibrant campaigns are not so big.
Another key argument is that many people unconsciously vote for whatever Democrat is on offer. That is true, and if the point is to simply win elections, then unconscious support may be enough. That’s exactly why many career politicians run as Democrats in a depoliticized way and on the limited basis of their name and party identity.
But socialist change requires conscious support for the policies and aims we advocate. In fact, we can’t win much at all against the power of the billionaire class without politicized mass action backing up socialist election campaigns and elected representatives. Right now there is a huge opening to boldly campaign to develop that support.
While it’s not impossible to build conscious support inside the Democratic Party, there are real limits. For example, if socialist candidates accept defeat in the primary process, it means ceding the general election terrain to the Democratic Party establishment when more people are paying attention.
In New York it’s perfectly legal for candidates who lose in primaries to run as independents in the general election. We would urge Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to do this, if needed. With New York’s “fusion” voting system it’s also legal to run on multiple ballot lines. At the very least we should ensure all socialist candidates run on a socialist ballot line. Jabari Brisport got 8,000 votes (29 percent) in his campaign for New York City Council in 2017, and ran on both the Green Party and a separate socialist ballot line. We would encourage Julia Salazar’s campaign for New York State Senate, representing Brooklyn, to do the same.
The Case for A New Socialist Party
We believe there is a strong case to go even further and to at least begin discussing a plan and concrete steps toward launching a new party. This is based on the perspective that we have entered a new era of deep capitalist dysfunction which is preparing the way for historic struggles of working people. Already we see strike waves of teachers, a huge revolt of high school students against the NRA, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the Fight for 15–and this is just the beginning.
The ongoing and deepening global capitalist crisis will tend to push class and social issues to the fore again and again–on jobs, income, housing, healthcare, racism, sexism, and more. The establishment politicians will be pressured to address these issues in the interest of big business, further polarizing politics and pushing working people toward radical ideas. That will pose sharply at some stage the need for developing an independent working class political movement–the clearest expression of which is a distinct party.
Internationally, new formations like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and PSOL in Brazil represent early tremors of the political earthquake to come. On the other hand, Trump’s victory over Clinton is a warning: failure to build a strong, independent left alternative will leave the door open to right wing populists of all stripes.
Launching a local socialist party in New York City–the city with the largest concentration of socialists in the U.S.–could help lead the way and speed up the process of building a working class political movement in New York and across the U.S.
A new socialist party by its very existence would draw a sharp line between socialist politics and all shades of establishment politics. By developing a distinct socialist platform on key issues we could begin to develop a political alternative to the basic program of austerity, racism, repression and exploitation offered by the establishment. New York is practically a one party city, and we could boldly expose the real role of the Democrats–to prop up the rule of Wall Street–and help thousands of people draw the conclusion that we need struggle, solidarity and socialist policies to change society.
As shown by the experience in Seattle of City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative, being outside the Democratic Party does not cut us off from union activists, community leaders and progressive Democrats. In fact the opposite has been true: building a principled, independent force that’s not susceptible to pressures from within the Democratic Party has been central to uniting various progressive forces in Seattle into stronger movements.
In New York City a new socialist party could play a similar role. We could appeal to radical unions, the Working Families Party and the vibrant social movements in New York to break from establishment politics and unite as a broad left front that fights for what working people need, not what the current system can afford.
We believe a new socialist party of 7,000 to 10,000 people in New York City is entirely possible. It could start with Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative and others coming together around issue-based campaigns along with a basic socialist platform, ballot line and plan to run 5-10 independent socialist candidates in local elections in the coming years. This would not just shake up a few races–this would shake up all of New York politics.