Each year at the annual Socialism Conference in Chicago, a sort of personal theme seems to develop early on for me. This year, questions around the topic of “the party” bubbled up on the first night. Paul D’Amato spoke about developing “infrastructures of dissent” in a session titled What kind of party do we need?
I posted this comment the next morning on Facebook.
It seems to me that once you say the word “party” people in the United States immediately think “ballot line.” I’m still not clear in my own mind what “party” would mean in real world practice apart from that. Will be looking for some resources on that question while I’m here.
There was an excellent session the next morning called Prelude to Revolution: May of ’68 in France. Sherry Wolf said that the happenings of that May exposed “the limitations of spontaneity and political eclecticism.” The message is that a party of the workers will be needed to lead from radicalization to revolution. I tried to better envision that party. What does it look like? What does it do? Does it participate in elections? If so, how does an organization committed to revolution, not reform, compete within the framework of a system that is reformist (at best) by its very nature? What is the role of the party right here and now? What should be its organizing principles?
I was able to catch up with D’Amato that afternoon and bend his ear for a bit on the topic. As he described the party as he saw it, I asked if it would compete in elections. He didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely!”
He recommended this article on Marxists and Elections from nearly twenty years ago, and I did find a lot of it helpful. Still, there was one question that nagged me. If the electoral activities of the independent party of the working class would be mainly aimed at raising working class demands, challenging and exposing the current government and political economy, and winning over workers to the need for revolution – how is that posed to constituents when seeking office? “We want your vote so we can become part of this system of government, because this system of government is so fundamentally corrupt that it has to be dismantled.” It seemed to me sort of like speaking to a mechanic who wants your business, and the mechanic saying “This car is really irreparable. You need a new car. It can’t be fixed. But you should bring it in to me anyway.”
If the end goal of the party is revolution, and that’s not being hidden, why should a worker who is not yet convinced of the need for revolution support the candidate of such a party? What would that party pledge to do once in office?
Todd Chretien’s Saturday session on the Vanguard Party, Democratic Centralism and Workers’ Revolution was a helpful review of theory and history, and the discussion that followed highlighted the distinction between the more or less orthodox Marxist view (as described in Todd’s talk and Paul’s article linked above) and the view of socialists (including many in DSA) who take a more flexible approach when it comes to the question of how to participate in elections.
I continued to read and ponder after returning home from the conference. Eric Blanc’s article about the Minnesota Farmer Labor Party was intriguing. The history he outlined is being cited by many who oppose (or who are rethinking) the need for a “clean break” from the Democrats. This essay from Joe Allen presented some helpful perspective, as did the entire series at Socialist Worker discussing and debating the relationship of socialists to the Democratic Party in the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in New York.
So I read and thought, and asked friends for their ideas, but really couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer to the Catch-22 outlined above – until it finally came to me during a meeting of local activists from Connect Kankakee as they were planning a rally to end ICE expansion in our county. A lot of the organizing effort was aimed at encouraging turnout for the event. It occurred to me that we don’t simply work for large numbers at events like this because we enjoy the company of a crowd. It’s a demonstration of power, represented in numbers. The size of the gathering is a representation to office holders in our county that our goals are priorities for the community. It’s also a message of comfort and confidence to those who are endangered by ICE, and to those of us who are organizing resistance.
One can look at elections in the same way. They are an opportunity to measure the proportion of strength for socialist ideas, and, as Engels put it, to “gauge of the maturity of the working class.” This seems to me a purpose that even those who have not yet been won to revolutionary consciousness could support. “We want your vote in order to stand up fearlessly to the powers that be, and to bring your voice, loud and clear, to the very halls of government.”
If you’ve read thus far and are now thinking “duhr,” please accept my apology. This seems like an obvious point in the present moment, but it truly did confound me until recently.
We’ll be discussing this issue at some length on the night of August 15th at our monthly Jacobin Reading Group meeting. Come join us!