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For a fighting approach, not factionalism

An interview with Kshama Sawant

The most prominent independent elected socialist in the U.S., Kshama Sawant, recently announced, along with other members Socialist Alternative, that they would be joining the Democratic Socialists of America. At a time when the independent, democratic, and socialist political horizons of DSA are themselves at stake in the run-up to the summer 2021 convention, and in the aftermath of the failed Sanders presidential run, and in the glow of the liberal honeymoon for the Biden administration, this decision to join DSA has been both welcomed and criticised. This dynamic forms the important backdrop to this interview.

Emma Wilde Botta: Let’s start by talking about your experience in Seattle. Your first run was close to a decade ago and under different political conditions. Could you refresh us on the arc of your electoral history, starting from the Washington legislature run in 2012 to where we are today?

Kshama Sawant: Yes. Socialist Alternative was integrally involved in the Occupy struggle in multiple cities, including Seattle. Coming out of the Occupy movement, it was 2012 and it was Obama’s reelection year. All the people whose anger against economic injustice, against how the recession’s costs were being borne by working people—remember the slogan “banks got bailed out, we got sold out”—were being told: “okay, now hunker down and vote for Obama.”

It was clear to us that working people were looking for a different kind of politics. And that’s when we ran in 2012 against the then speaker of the house, Democrat Frank Chopp, arguably the most powerful Democrat in Washington state. And we won nearly 30 percent of the vote that year.

Kshama Sawant buttons

It was the highest vote that any of his opponents had ever gotten at that time. Based on the momentum from that campaign, we ran in 2013 for city council against a 16 year Democratic Party incumbent, Richard Conlin. And in that campaign, we raised the banner of $15 an hour as a minimum wage for Seattle’s workers, taxing the rich and big business, and for rent control.

When we launched that campaign, we didn’t have the perspective that we were going to win. What we did know, and what we’ve been proven right in, is that there was an opening for socialist and genuine working-class politics. And we wanted to put that to a test. We have used our office for these seven and a half years to show an example of what a fighting, working class representative, and a socialist, should be in an elected office under capitalism.

Since 2013 we won two re-elections, in 2015 and in 2019. We won those elections despite the fact that big business went all out to try and defeat us. We had the Chamber of Commerce, Amazon, and Jeff Bezos, very nakedly, trying to do a corporate takeover of City Hall, spending unprecedented amounts of money, including a million dollar money bomb that Amazon dropped in the last weeks of the election.

But it wasn’t just big business. We had two Latina, progressive, Democratic city council members who ran as candidates against us in the primary in 2019. They went around in the media saying “you know, we agree with all of Sawant’s policies, but she doesn’t know how to work with us. Doesn’t know how to build relationships.” We were able to overcome all of that and working class people were able to prevail. One lesson that should be learned from our experience is that if, as a working class and a socialist elected representative, if your re-election is a cakewalk, then you’re failing working people. The ruling class clearly don’t see you as a threat. That’s kind of a rule of thumb.

Andy Sernatinger: A few months back Socialist Alternative put out an open letter saying that some members would be joining Democratic Socialists of America, and that you were also joining. Can you explain why Socialist Alternative decided to go this route and join DSA?

KS: Yes. We’ve seen DSA grow in unprecedented numbers in the last few years. We’ve seen growth on a different scale in organizations like Socialist Alternative, and this re-emergence of the socialist movement in the U.S., as seen by the growth of these organizations is of historical importance.

It’s important because it shows the openness that the U.S. working class has to ideas, and the search for ideas that will help people find their way to a different kind of society. Millions of young people, now an entire generation, are recognizing that the system of capitalism is deeply dysfunctional. We’re seeing capitalism in the midst of its worst crisis in nearly a century. And it’s a compounded crisis, as we’ve seen the economic collapse, the pandemic, and the climate catastrophe. All of this means that not only is there an openness, but also there is a challenge.

We’re facing a challenge because we need a real way forward, which means that we need ideas to be discussed and debated openly and honestly. In the view of Socialist Alternative, we need a mass working class party, and a strong and militant labor movement.

We need to win struggles on a much bigger scale, like the ones we won in Seattle, but that won’t be enough in the fight against the billionaire class. We’ve seen that it’s important to advance Marxist ideas. It is what we will need in order to actually have a victory over capitalism itself, the system of exploitation and oppression. We believe that it is crucial that we have an open discussion of these ideas and it’s in that spirit that some have joined DSA while also remaining members of Socialist Alternative. I’ve done the same recently.

EWB: You mentioned that Socialist Alternative has been a strong advocate for political independence and the need for a workers’ party. Can you elaborate on why that’s important for socialists today? There are significant tendencies in DSA that are arguing for running candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line for an indefinite period. How do you see your position interacting with some of those ideas?

Tax Amazon logo

KS: That’s actually an excellent example of the kind of debate that we need to have in a much more involved way inside DSA. We need this debate, frankly, among the rank and file in the labor movement as well.

It’s understandable that for a lot of activists on the Left, the idea of building a new party is something that they agree with in the abstract. They understand that the Democratic Party is not on their side.

The history of supporting the Democratic Party by the Left and by labor is littered with betrayals and failures because the Democratic Party, regardless of its differences with Republicans, is not on our side. It’s a representative of U.S. capitalism. It’s never going to agree with the need for working class liberation, let alone the liberation of the most oppressed people.

People will agree with this in the abstract, but when they’re confronted with the tasks that the Left has in order to lay groundwork for a new party for working people, it seems too daunting. [They are] going to talk about breaking from the Democrats in the abstract, but then make what I would consider technocratic or electoral-realist arguments.

“Well, you know, we agree that we need a new party, but we need the tactic of running on the Democratic Party ballot line.” I think we have to say that that is not a technical argument. It is a political argument. If you’re arguing to run on the Democratic Party ballot line, you are not participating in the concrete task right now of breaking from the Democratic Party. We have to be clear about that and argue on that basis.

Step number one is to not get bogged down in technocratic debate about what it means to run on the Democratic Party ballot line. It means running in the Democratic Party and that is not the way forward.

Since [our election victory in 2013] you’ve seen the emergence of Bernie Sanders and the potential to unite mass numbers of the U.S. working class on that message. We know that that potential exists. Since then we’ve seen many, self-described socialist, DSA members elected.

As a member of Socialist Alternative, and as someone who’s been in office as a Marxist for seven and a half years, I see all this as extremely positive. While we have a long way to go, it reflects] a massive shift from the past.

We are in a new period. In the belly of the capitalist beast, the U.S. working class is ready for a real change. But at the same time, it’s not about numerical increase In people who are elected as socialists, it’s a question of what we do when we use our office.

In that context, it’s two concrete things. One is directly related to your question of whether we should break from the Democratic Party or use our elected office to lay the groundwork for new party. But it’s not only that, it’s connected to the question of what is a fighting approach.

To give an example, the Squad Congress members, they are members of the Democratic Party. Some of them have been elected as DSA candidates. We consider this a positive thing, but the question of whether we should break from the Democratic Party is also connected to a fundamental question of strategy. How far are our elected representatives—whether you identify as a Democrat or not—going to go to present a challenge to ruling class politics, to big business politics?

Even if the Squad are Democrats, why couldn’t they have carried out a fighting strategy that we would have needed—I know this was an explosive debate on the Left—should the Squad use key moments to push around Medicare for All, or $15 an hour? It’s pointless to say they shouldn’t have done that because we wouldn’t have won Medicare for All. That’s not the point. We don’t believe that winning Medicare for All is easy.

The whole point is it’s not going to be easy, which is why we need to polarize the debate. We need to put pressure on Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, who are the ones calling the shots. When the “force the vote” debate was happening, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded by saying, well, this is not winnable. Let’s focus on winnable things like $15 an hour. Then there was another opportunity during the stimulus vote. The Squad should have used a fighting tactic to withhold their vote because they hold the numerical balance of power even now, and they held it then a few weeks ago. Refuse to vote for the stimulus until $15 an hour is included back into the stimulus bill. And we’ll go beyond that. It’s not just about creating drama on the floors of Congress. Combine that tactic by turning outward and calling for mass rallies in Arizona, West Virginia, Georgia, key states. This can be done, but more importantly, this needs to be done.

So, it’s a question of breaking from the Democrats, but it’s also a question of a fighting strategy. Can you carry that fighting strategy out? If elected officials are not willing to carry out [this fight] inside the Democratic Party, then it suddenly brings up the concrete question of the need for a new party.

That’s what we have demonstrated in Seattle. In Seattle there are eight Democrats and one socialist. A number of our struggles—whether it’s $15 an hour or Amazon tax—have begun with one reliable vote, mine as a Marxist. But at the end of the day, we have forced unanimous votes on most of these issues, by using our office as a base for organizing and bringing that pressure to bear. So it’s not just an intellectual question about do you break from the Democrats or not? It’s a concrete question, how can we win victories?

AS: There’s a lot to pick apart in there, which is really rich. One thing is about the strategy and having a concept of what the purpose of the office is and how change actually happens. We don’t fundamentally win change by accumulating individual politicians who can then cast some ballots. It’s a combination of electoral and extra-electoral tactics that get at the root of these things.

One thing you were talking about was that for a lot of people this idea of independence is an abstraction and they don’t have a concrete sense of it. I was wondering if you might share some of what has it meant, concretely, to run independent of the Democratic Party. Especially where you’ve been successful and created something that’s allowed you to win multiple times.

KS: Yes. I’ll talk about specifically how we did it in Seattle. It’s a template for how we could do it in other races and other cities, and also nationally as we begin the project of building a new party for the working class.

And one component of that was understanding the rule book that is handed to us from the Democrats, which is don’t rock the boat, run as mild of a campaign as possible.

Keep your ideas about actually fighting for the working class under wraps, because apparently for some strange reason, the working class that you’re fighting for is going to turn against you. That is complete nonsense. We threw the rule book out the window and instead we openly ran a socialist campaign and we demonstrated during our campaign what it would be like for us to be in office.

I take home only the average worker’s wage. I pledged during the campaign that I would be donating the rest of my six-figure salary after taxes into social justice movements. We did this not as some point of charity or personal purity. It’s presenting an idea of what it means to be an accountable working class representative. And it is a question of whether or not you are willing to root yourself genuinely in the working class that is so much worse off than most elected officials. Look at the salaries in Congress. It’s no coincidence that so many of them are millionaires. It’s a question of showing politically where you stand and not budging from that. Is it going to be important to use your social media platform to advocate for crucial reforms? Yes. Is it going to be important to speak about it relentlessly in the halls of government? Yes. Is it going to be important to vote in the right way? Yes. All of that is necessary, but that is not going to get the job done. Irish socialist James Connolly said that the job of a socialist in elected office is to be a disturber of the political peace.

That captures the essential difference between what we believe our working class representatives should be and what we have in the Democratic Party. There are people who’ve been elected as independent, but it’s a question of what they do with their office.

Again, this goes back to Emma’s earlier question. It’s not about the name. Yes, it is important, because we do need a new party, but even if elected officials call themselves independent, what is it that they’re doing in office? That’s the crucial question.

What it has looked like to be an independent working class representative is to be clear—the other elected officials, they are not where you go for your friendship, respect, and collegiality.

All these rules of decorum, they are handed down to us precisely to be hostile to the working class agenda. We need elected representatives who understand where their validation comes from, the people that they are fighting for.

If you understand that, you understand that your role is not only to vote the right way, to use your social media platform, but also to expose the Democrats when they betray ordinary people’s interests.

Take Seattle’s example, when we were first elected in 2013, the city council was all Democrats. Seattle has never been a Republican stronghold. That’s why it’s a good model to see what is needed. But most of the Democrats at that time were unabashedly funded by big business, they were unabashedly against $15 an hour. They even said my election was like having a mountain lion in a grocery store.

Since then the Democratic establishment has adapted itself to the fact that socialist politics have transformed the city. There has been an exodus of the overtly pro-corporate council members. Now you have a city council dominated by self-described “progressive Democrats.” Working people understandably may have illusions in these Democrats because they don’t look like Joe Manchin or Chuck Schumer. They go to labor picket lines. They talk about taxing big business. They talked about defunding the police. They shed tears during Black Lives Matter press conferences last year, but at every single one of those Democrats reneged on defunding the police.

They had to be dragged, kicking and screaming to vote yes on the Amazon tax. And so our job then as independent electoral office becomes exposing the chasm between their rhetoric and their real intentions. It’s not just about them as people, it’s about exposing the fact that the Democratic Party is a party of capitalism. That is where the main question lies in the debate on the Left. The difference between us and the Squad, for example, is not only that I am not a member of the Democratic Party. Obviously, yes. This is one difference and that’s the crucial thing, but it’s also because they are not willing to use their position in the way we have.

You are in the face of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. You don’t even consider voting for Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the house, you instead call mass action conferences. This is how we won $15 an hour, and the Amazon tax, by turning outward and organizing thousands of people into into mass action conferences. That is what scares the business lobbyists and their political representatives.

EWB: Some people say there are too many barriers to running independently. Others are sympathetic but unsure what it looks like to do independent electoral politics in practical terms. You’ve run an independent socialist campaign in a major U.S. city. Will you describe the actual process of building an independent campaign? What were the nuts and bolts? How would someone begin?

KS: The starting point of running our election campaigns was not my desire to run for office, but instead Socialist Alternative’s analysis that there is an opening for working-class politics. Decisions on the campaign platform, strategy, tactics, and who the candidate should be—all of this was a product of discussion, debate, and vote by Socialist Alternative members.

This approach will be important nuts and bolts of successful independent campaigns. Coupled with this political strength has to come organizational commitment to run an all-out ground campaign to ensure the strongest possible vote. But at all times, the strength of the organizational work flows from the political clarity.

To give an example, the success of our 2013 campaign came from our understanding that the $15 minimum wage, taxing the rich, and rent control would galvanize Seattle’s working people. It was also because of our insistence on unapologetic and fighting politics, despite the opposition not only from the establishment Democrats but also many labor and community leaders, who prefer a cautious approach that does not mobilize the rank and file into action but focuses on personal relationships of the top labor officials and the Democratic Party. In fact, many labor leaders opposed us calling for a $15 minimum wage, but we persevered and won over the majority of the rank and file union members. Then we used that independent, fighting strategy after we took office to win the $15 minimum wage.

EWB: I want to go back to DSA for a moment because there has been some pushback to Socialist Alternative joining. In These Times published a letter written by some longtime DSA members, likewise some DSA caucuses have been critical. What do you make of this sort of response?

KS: First, a response to that article, and then I want to talk about the debate on the caucuses that you mentioned, Emma. Socialist Alternative has not been coy about what we want to do.

We are open about the fact that we want to provoke the kind of debate that we think needs to happen on the socialist Left. We want to advocate for Marxism and we are not secretive about it, and we are not apologetic about it either.

We want a politicized debate that is comradely and friendly, and we believe genuinely that that is needed. We also believe that we’re not creating the room for that debate, it’s already there. The rank and file of DSA and the rank and file of the working class overall is grappling with these questions.

To give a concrete example, the Black Lives Matter protests work. 26 million people and multiracial solidarity against racism put the fear in the ruling class. Nothing scares the ruling class like that kind of solidarity in the working class.

However, the victories that have been won by the movement are not commensurate with the strength of the street protests. Hundreds of thousands of young people are soberly engaging in this. Maybe they have nobody to discuss with, but that’s the whole point. We need a discussion on this is—why is it that the victories that were won by the movement are not are a reflection of the power of the street protest? And that brings up the question of leadership of movements and the fight for ideas. We take the fight for ideas seriously.

The fighting strategy is not just important in relation to political office, it’s going to come up for the rank and file of labor unions, for social movements like BLM. Holding leaders to high standards of accountability is not an optional position or a purity test. It is a life or death imperative. Everywhere we go, we will be confronted with careerism, reformism, parliamentary calculus, all of this will be a dead end. Fighting for ideas that are not in line with the ruling class is going to be crucial. We are going to encounter gatekeepers everywhere.

The issue of the influence of the ruling class cannot be ignored. That’s why debate on which ideas are going to lead to success for the working class is crucial. Regardless of what anybody’s position is right now on the Left, on any given issue, I think we have to agree that we need a serious debate. It’s in that spirit that we have joined DSA. We are still going to be Socialist Alternative. We are not going to dissolve our organization. We’re not hiding that we are members of Socialist Alternative. We engage in DSA debates as Socialist Alternative.

As far as the caucuses are concerned, I’m really glad you brought that up because that is a concrete example of why we believe that Marxist ideas need to be discussed inside DSA. In Seattle DSA, there is a crucial example. Some leaders of one of the caucuses in the Seattle DSA recently argued against the inclusion of a call for democratic public ownership of big energy corporations. I was personally not a member of DSA at that point.

As a Marxist and as somebody who is fighting for the working class against climate change, I was extremely disappointed to hear of the vote to not include this key point. The local chapter needs to revisit that point because the call for democratic public ownership of big corporations is central to any question of breaking from fossil fuels. We cannot control what we don’t own. Having a debate on that question is crucial.

AS: I imagine that some of the hostility towards Socialist Alternative being part of DSA has to do with skepticism about an organized group coming in from the outside. There’s fear of what that might mean. I don’t know how much of a problem that is if you have a sufficiently democratic culture. But I think that a large portion of the hostility has to do with the specific set of politics that you’re arguing for. It’s not a matter of people joining DSA in a concerted fashion, but rather that you are talking about entering and forcing the debate on independence and on those kinds of, revolutionary, democratic issues.

Defend Kshama Sawant poster

KS: I think you’re absolutely right. That’s the real objection. I think you accurately characterize it. It’s about the kind of politics we argue for. The ideas that have the most merit, or the ideas that have been proven to be successful—when I say ideas, I mean both the vision we need to have, for example, can you have a solution to the climate crisis without democratic public ownership of energy companies— and the other thing that I mean is also the tactics and strategy to win. And that’s where, you know, should we be tied to the Democrat or should we have a new party for working class?

DSA is not unique in terms of where we need to have debate about these ideas. We’re going to need this inside the labor movement. For example, what kind of strategy and what kind of politics we will need inside the labor movement? Should we be building a militant, rank and file-based, democratically organized labor movement? Or should we have a continuation of what we’ve had for the most part, which is business unionism? Is that going to be the way forward for workers? That’s a real question, right? We need a democratically organized debate inside labor. In that sense, my point is that DSA is not unique.

If we claim to be serious about bringing about social change, whether we have a position that’s different or the same as Socialist Alternative, that’s a secondary point. The point is, do you agree that we need to have an honest debate about this? If you do, then, as you said, Andy, in a democratic organization, you wouldn’t be worried about how many members are coming. You will open up that debate for those questions. And we need to win people over on the basis of ideas. That’s why we’re not shy of debating because we know that these ideas are powerful for the simple reason that they work. And that’s the vision we need for the future. Socialist Alternative will be pushing for that debate everywhere we go.

EWB: Thank you, Kshama, is there anything you want to share with us that you’re up to.

KS: In addition to winning prominent victories, like $15 an hour and the Amazon tax, we have also shown how to organize ordinary people for much lesser known victories that bring about a material shift in their lives, but also demonstrate to them how they can get organized.

One is a crucial example of this, how renters can get organized. It’s important, especially now as we head into what is likely to be a tsunami of evictions. It’s going to be a crucial battleground for socialists to engage in. And just this past Monday, we won an important victory. Again, starting with one yes vote we now have a unanimous vote on all tenants facing eviction having the right to a lawyer. Just having a lawyer can mean a make or break for you as a tenant. That’s one of the many renters’ rights victories that we have won. We have won every single one of them by helping to organize renters.

It’s an important example because it’s not straightforward. Renters don’t have a workplace. They’re atomized and that’s what corporate landlords take advantage of, that isolation. Building movements for renter’s rights involves combating that isolation and that atomization, and it’s not straightforward. We will need much more of this. If we are to win the demand to cancel COVID-19 debt, it’s going to need an almighty mass movement.

The other thing I’ll add is that just yesterday, the Washington state supreme court delivered its ruling that the right-wing, billionaire-backed, recall against our office can go forward. This is one of the worst attacks on the U.S. left in decades. Everybody on the U.S. left, whether you consider yourself socialist or progressive, we have a collective stake in being united to defeat this recall. I would urge everybody to go to because we need your support.

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Andy Sernatinger & Emma Wilde Botta View All

Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist and member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint and Jacobin. Emma Wilde Botta is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Tempest Collective.