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The U.S. left at a strategic impasse

The case for reorientation on struggle and political independence

Ashley Smith and Charlie Post argue for a new orientation for the U.S. Left.

The new socialist movement has reached an impasse. The dominant strategy of our movement’s most important organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—electing candidates inside the Democratic Party—has failed to advance DSA’s main demands like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and Abolish ICE.

Instead, DSA’s most prominent elected representatives and allies, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Squad to Bernie Sanders, have rallied behind President Biden’s very different agenda of Imperialist Keynesianism. The result is a drastically reduced infrastructure bill, Senator Joe Manchin’s scuttling of Build Back Better, which had already been shorn of its most important social and climate reforms, and a record budget for the Pentagon’s war machine.

With the Left in tow behind Biden and his program in tatters, the Democrats now oversee a society in full-blown crisis, ravaged by Omicron, record levels of inflation, and horrific climate disasters. Predictably, the Republicans, despite their low approval ratings, have seized the opportunity, making significant gains in the November 2021 elections and setting themselves up to win the midterms and next presidential election.

DSA’s leadership appears ready to double down on its failed electoral strategy, wasting its time, money, and energy to back the Democratic Party as the lesser evil in a desperate effort to block the Republicans from taking back governmental power. The result will be DSA’s return to form as a social-democratic lobbying operation within a capitalist party.

To avoid this, DSA will need to sharply reorient the socialist movement toward building class and social struggle, reconstructing infrastructures of resistance, and running independent campaigns based on our own platform against both the Democrats and Trumpite Republicans. That is the only way to advance our program of radical reforms on the road to political and social revolution.

Biden’s Program of Keynesian Imperialism

The dead-end of DSA’s electoralist strategy was dramatically illustrated by the dismal conclusion of the efforts by Sanders and the Squad to influence Biden’s program by serving as its most loyal champions against opponents in the Democratic Party. That positioned them as relatively uncritical supporters of the administration’s project of Imperialist Keynesianism.

Biden and the establishment seek to accomplish several interrelated goals—rebuild the decayed infrastructure of U.S. capitalism, reverse the relative decline of U.S. imperialism against China and other states, restore the political establishment’s hegemony over the U.S. electorate, and inoculate voters from being attracted to both the Right and Left.

The Democratic Party hoped to coopt and neutralize the wave of class and social struggle from below that began with Occupy, ran through the Red State Teachers’ Revolt, and culminated in the largest uprising in U.S. history, the rebellion for Black Lives in 2020. They also wanted to address the concerns of the radicalized middle classes about the relative decline of the U.S. empire, which Trump rode to victory in 2016 and whipped into a frenzy in the January 6 “beer gut putsch.”

Biden achieved two key goals. First, Democrats passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. While including minor subsidies for workers, the bill was designed to reopen the economy, stimulate consumer demand, and get profits rolling again. Second, he systematically incorporated socialists and progressive politicians, as well liberal NGOs, with weekly consultations, transforming them into his advocates instead of critics, demobilizing independent struggle for more radical demands.

As Alexander Sammon put it in The American Prospect, “Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, has killed progressives with kindness.” He brought “progressives into the fold and preempted their criticisms, offering access instead of influence. In many cases where progressive won the battle of personnel, they’re losing the war of legislation.”

As team players in the intra–Democratic Party haggling, Sanders and the Squad went along with compromises that delivered little money for progressive reform but huge sums for U.S. imperialism. They accepted Biden’s decision to separate his program into two bills, one for traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges and the other, “Build Back Better,” for social infrastructure.

Little Keynesianism, Lots of Imperialism

Biden collaborated with Manchin, Senator Krysten Sinema, and a handful of Republicans to pass and sign the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, but it came at an enormous cost for socialists and progressives. The original proposal of $2.75 trillion was slashed to $1.2 trillion over ten years, and the most aggressive initiatives to combat climate change were eliminated.

Some progressives and socialists in the House tried to stop the infrastructure legislation from passing separately, rightly fearing that separating the two bills would squander their leverage to force the Manchin and Sinema to vote for Build Back Better. But they managed to get only six to vote against the measures as the rest of the Progressive Caucus fell in line, revealing the minimal power of the left inside the Democratic Party.

Then to secure passage of Build Back Better, Biden slashed Sanders’ original proposal of $6 trillion to $3.5 trillion, and cut out the billionaires tax to please Nancy Pelosi. In a final desperate concession to “Manchinema,” he pared it down even further to a measly $1.75 over 10 years and yet again with the bill’s most radical elements ripped out.

But even that modest version, which would not have brought the US welfare state up to the level of neoliberalized Europe, was too much for Manchin to stomach. He went on Fox News to announce his opposition, effectively killing the bill in its current form and with it the Biden administration’s whole project of liberal reform.

Biden could salvage Build Back Better in some drastically reduced form or pass parts of it in separate bills, but “Manchinema” will still hold an effective veto over any legislation in the Senate. Any such small reforms in the context of today’s crises will seem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

While Biden failed to deliver for workers and the oppressed, he succeeded in feeding the war machine by signing a massive $770 billion defense bill—$24 billion more than he asked for and 5 percent more than Trump’s previous budget. It increases military spending across the board, includes new funding to confront China, bolsters support for Ukraine against Russia, and shells out billions for new high-tech aircrafts, ships, and other advanced weapons systems.

All the expectations and predictions, including from Bernie Sanders, that Biden would be the most progressive president in modern history and a new FDR now seem laughable. That is especially true when you consider that Biden has upheld the worst of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, from the closure of the border with Title 42 to Remain in Mexico, which have produced record levels of mass deportation.

The Democrats’ Disaster in November

With socialists, unions, and movement organizations largely integrated into the Biden administration, Republicans have remained the only opposition and managed to resurrect themselves from the ashes of January 6 in the November elections, in which they ran successfully against Biden’s long list of failures.

Biden oversaw the final, embarrassing defeat of U.S. imperialism in Afghanistan with his shambolic, sudden withdrawal of its occupying forces, squandering his claim to competence in foreign policy. He failed to control the pandemic, both because of Republican obstruction of mandatory vaccination and masking and his own determination to reopen the economy for business as usual, no matter what the cost in health and life.

Perhaps most importantly, the economy, which he had promised to return to growth, is mired in a weak recovery and plagued by inflation. The spike in inflation is hammering workers’ wallets and fueling alarm among capitalist and bourgeois economists over the potential return of stagflation that paralyzed the U.S. economy in the 1970s.

With this wretched record, the Democrats got trounced at the polls in November. The Republicans offered reactionary solutions to real problems in people’s lives, mobilizing their predominantly petit-bourgeois base in the suburbs and small towns to defeat Democrats in key races.

Their program? A combination of white supremacist attacks on Critical Race Theory, anti-immigrant hysteria, anti-choice sexism, anti-trans bigotry, homicidal anti-vax idiocy cloaked as protection of individual liberty, and dubious claims of superior competence in running U.S. capitalism.

Recognizing their shellacking in November, the Democratic Party establishment went into panic mode. Rightly, they see this as writing on the wall for the 2022 midterms. They have rallied to demand a sharp turn to the right, attacking Biden for being too liberal and in the thrall of the “woke mob.”

One time progressive hero Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison complained, “allowing this moniker, ‘defund the police,’ to ever get out there was not a good thing.’” Abigail Spanberger, a centrist Democrat from Virginia, railed, “Nobody elected him to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced a massive law and order crackdown on crime, promising to be “less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.” The Democrat’s right turn is, of course, a recipe for further electoral defeat and spells nothing but disaster for workers and the oppressed.

The Trumpites Plot to Retake DC’s Iron Throne

The Trumpite Republicans stand to reap the benefits of Biden’s failures and the Left’s weakness. Barring events, and that is an important qualification given the volatility of our world today, they are set to make significant gains in the midterms.

As ABC News pollster Gary Langer noted, “As things stand, if the midterm elections were today, 51 percent of registered voters say they’d support the Republican candidate in their congressional district, 41 percent say the Democrat. That’s the biggest lead for Republicans in the 110 ABC/Post polls that have asked this question since November 1981.”

Already corporations are plowing cash into GOP’s coffers in the hope of disciplining the party’s most deranged impulses and getting them to implement rational capitalist policies. If the Republicans win back either the House or the Senate or both, the space for the Democrats to pass even minor liberal measures will be blocked by Republican obstructionism, returning the U.S. to political paralysis for the two years in the run-up to the 2024 presidential elections.

Photo by Gilbert Mercier

With few progressive victories to trumpet for the remainder of Biden’s first term, the Democrats will have little to run on in 2024 save the claim that they remain the last barrier against Trumpite Armageddon. Even worse, the Democrats will have no convincing standard-bearer.

This leaves the door open for Trump in 2024 unless he’s either jailed or dead. Of course, the Republicans have a deep bench of pretenders to Washington D.C.’s Iron Throne who are perfecting Trumpism shorn of its progenitor’s most erratic and self-destructive attributes, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis and New Jersey’s Chris Christie.

The Republicans have a good chance to win, not because they offer any solutions or enjoy a high approval rating, which has actually declined since November to 40 percent, just below the Democrat’s equally low but marginally better rating of 43 percent. Instead, they have the advantage based on being out of power, gerrymandering districts, rigging elections through voter suppression, building a solid electoral army based in the radicalized petty bourgeoisie, and taking advantage of how the Democrat’s failures and betrayals will cut into their electoral base’s turnout.

The clear and present danger is that the Left will cajole its ranks to vote for the Democratic Party, which they do not like and has openly spurned them. If the Left makes that mistake yet again, we will have squandered the chance offered by the wave of struggles and newfound popularity of socialism to present a genuine, independent alternative to both of capital’s wretched parties.

Into the Deep Muddy of the Democratic Party

Rather than chart a course for the new socialist movement to provide such an alternative, DSA’s main caucuses and publications have led it deeper into the deep muddy of the Democratic Party. DSA’s Bread and Roses and Jacobin spearheaded the charge.

Arguing that third-party campaigns were a dead-end, Eric Blanc put forward a “dirty break” strategy. He and others argued for socialists to campaign and win elected office as Democrats and, after accumulating a sufficient number of officeholders, split to set up a new socialist party.

They promised DSA’s candidates could use these campaigns as “class struggle elections” to cohere the working class from above on a reform program of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and free tuition, among other positions. All of this was premised on an underestimation of the power of the capitalist establishment that tightly controls the Democratic Party, as well as its capacity, proven time and time again, to either block radicals from winning office or coopt them if they succeed with all sorts of carrots and sticks.

This electoralist strategy led to a series of mistaken assessments, perspectives, and predictions. For example, after Sanders’ brief, illusory lead in the Democratic primaries and before the establishment rallied around Biden, Jacobin ran a series of articles projecting the Vermont senator’s victory.

This overestimation of the space inside the Democratic Party continued even after Biden’s runaway victory with another series of articles claiming Sanders had won the ideological battle in the party.

Such proclamations set up the Left to tail Sanders into endorsing and campaigning for Biden not just as a lesser evil but as a positive good. Sanders, remember, was already selling Biden as potentially the most progressive president since FDR.

Many “dirty breakers,” including Blanc himself, argued for DSA members to vote for Biden, violating the spirit if not the letter of DSA convention’s “Bernie or Bust” resolution, which stipulated that DSA would not back any other Democrat in the presidential election in the event of Sanders’ defeat. Elected DSA members like AOC went even further, joining the Democratic Platform Committee under the expectation that they, not Biden and the establishment, would lay down its planks and determine the administration’s policies.

In the process, they shelved their much more expansive program to rally behind Biden’s Imperialist Keynesianism. Where now, except in DSA’s fundraising emails, is the talk of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free tuition, Abolish ICE, and other key demands for meaningful change?

The cost to DSA and indeed the whole Left has been high. Not surprisingly, talk of the “dirty break” strategy has gone out the window, with Blanc distancing himself from his own strategy. If not in word, DSA has in practice returned to its old and failed strategy of realignment trying to use labor and social movements to take over the Democratic Party and turn it into a socialist one.

No Local Electoralist Solutions

In reality, dressed up either as a “dirty break” or realignment, DSA’s electoral effort to win office and influence policy at a national level has hit a dead end. The Democrats have defeated most of DSA’s high-profile campaigns for major national, state, and city offices and both parties have blocked Biden’s mild program of liberal reforms.

But rather than break with this failed strategy, DSA’s has doubled down on down-ballot elections with the expectation that it will be easier to win office and build power locally.

The sad truth is that it is actually more difficult to achieve those goals at the bottom of the capitalist state’s hierarchical structure. This was displayed dramatically in Buffalo’s mayoral election. After DSA member India Walton defeated four-term incumbent Byron Brown to secure the Democratic Party nomination, the Democratic and Republican establishments united behind Brown’s write-in campaign, ensuring his easy victory with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Even in cases where such candidates win, they face structural obstacles to reform. City governments have less fiscal autonomy and ability to tax capital to finance social programs than state and federal governments. Through the threat of investment strikes, capital has greater leverage over elected officials at the local level.

This is a reality familiar to everyone in cities dominated by Democrats, even those with large delegations of progressive and in some cases socialist elected officials. Without the pressure of independent, militant movements, such politicians often get boxed in to vote for the establishment and its budgets in return for this or that small progressive measure.

Jamaal Bowman, 2015 TED Talk. Photo by John Foshay.

Red Alert: The Bowman Affair

Rather than advancing the Left, DSA’s electoralist strategy has pulled its elected members, leadership, and heretofore dominant caucuses to the right. This fact was made abundantly by the slide into collaboration with the Biden administration and most disastrously by “The Bowman Affair.”

Representative Jamaal Bowman violated the spirit and letter of DSA’s resolution in support of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel. He voted for $3 billion in military aid to Israel, voted for another $1 billion in funding Israel’s new air defense system, Iron Dome, went on a junket to Israel with the liberal Zionist organization J Street in violation of BDS, and had a photo-op with the country’s far-right prime minister Naftali Bennett in front of a portrait of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl.

Despite the DSA’s BDS and Palestine Working Group call for Bowman’s expulsion, which gathered support from dozens of chapters, the national leadership, the National Political Committee (NPC), bent over backwards to protect Bowman. So did Jacobin, running Hadas Thier’s case for giving Bowman a pass and refusing to print brian bean’s response in support of expulsion.

Behind the scenes, liberal as well as some Palestinian NGOs, which share a common electoralist strategy with the dominant currents within DSA, backed Bowman to the hilt. No doubt, members of the Squad and other Democrats also pressured the NPC into protecting Bowman.

In the end, instead of holding Bowman accountable to its platform, DSA’s leadership adapted to him and his support for Zionist colonialism and arming the occupation of Palestinian land. Thus, instead of advancing socialism or even just influencing the Democratic Party, DSA has adapted to its pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist politics.

The saving grace in this bonfire of principles has been the widespread rebellion among chapters against the NPC’s decision. The key for these dissenters will be to draw the conclusion that you cannot advance the struggle for Palestine or any other working-class program through the Democratic Party

The Siren Song of Lesser Evilism

Those in DSA who demanded Bowman’s censure or expulsion must organize to resist demands to support the Democratic Party in the midterms. Bernie Sanders, the Squad, DSA’s leadership, and its dominant caucuses will agitate for the new socialist movement to donate, campaign, and vote for the Democrats as a lesser evil to fend off the Trumpites.

The logic of lesser evilism has always led the socialist left to suspend our fight against the Democrats, downplay our criticism of their policies, and repackage our support for them as somehow advancing the struggle—and will do so again.

If and when the Democrats win, they take office with a weakened, disorganized, and co-opted left—leaving the far right as the only consistent opposition.

The history of the 1930s and 1960s proves that in Malcolm X’s words, “if you put the [Democrats] first, they put you last.” During the Depression, the Communist Party helped subordinate the militant workers’ struggle to the Democrats, preventing the formation of a labor party and opening the road to the employers’ offensive and Republican reaction after World War II.

Malcolm X on the cover of Now! magazine. Photo by Laurence Henry, 1964.

Again, in the 1960s, much of the Black liberation and anti-war movements and the New Left supported numerous Democratic lesser evils only to see the Democrats turn on them, abandon the vestiges of the New Deal, consolidate neoliberalism, and embrace racist scapegoating, paving the way for the Republican Right. The lesser evil strategy always enables, rather than hinders, the growth of the right.

Over the last year, we have witnessed a repeat of this scenario. DSA and most of the Left surrendered its political principles and independence to support Biden, helped demobilize our struggles, lobbied from inside his party for progressive reform, watched as those were left by the wayside, and demoralized our forces in the process.

The result: the Trumpite GOP, which should have been completely marginalized after January 6, is now poised to return to power as the sole opposition.

Deprioritizing Class and Social Struggle

The most catastrophic result of all this electoralism has been DSA’s deprioritization of class and social struggle. From Occupy to Black Lives Matter, struggle has been the root of today’s socialist radicalization. Without those movements, Sanders would have remained a little-known senator from Vermont and AOC would never have won.

As a national organization, DSA played little to no role in the Black Lives Matter uprising, the largest Black-led multiracial uprising in U.S. history, and one that directly challenges the racism that has been the Achilles heel of the working-class movement in this country.

Photo by Montecruz Foto

We saw the same pattern during the “Striketober” wave of job actions. While individual chapters and working groups no doubt mobilized, the national organization did not lead people to prioritize struggles where workers have the greatest power—the workplace.

DSA abstained from the Women’s March and has done little to mobilize protest against the looming threat to abortion rights from the Supreme Court and in dozens of states. It has not called for organized actions against the unending attacks from Biden against migrants and refugees. This list could go on and on.

In sum, DSA has not positioned itself as an organization dedicated to building class and social struggle from below and has instead prioritized elections inside a capitalist party and an undemocratic system in the vain hope of reform from above.

For a New Strategy: Struggle and Independence

This electoralist strategy has failed. If DSA continues on this path, the organization risks alienating the best militants of the new radicalization, demoralizing and hemorrhaging its own members, especially younger members and members of color, and retreating further and further from struggle to become an ineffective lobbying operation within the Democratic Party.

It is time for a new strategy. DSA and the Left as a whole must prioritize joining, building, and organizing class and social struggle. That is how workers and the oppressed have scored major victories throughout US history.

It was the mass strikes of the 1930s that unionized industry and forced the ruling class to grant social reforms. It was the Black freedom struggle, the anti-war movement, women’s liberation movement, and strikes that won social change in the 1960s and early 1970s. These were the birthplace of the militant minorities and the left that led mass movements.

We must reorient our forces on today’s emergent struggles in workplaces and communities, building ties with on-the-ground organizers in preparation for new waves of struggle. Electoral campaigns must be used to facilitate, not substitute, for our main work—organizing at work, building rank and file networks inside unions to push for more militant strategies and tactics, helping to forge new organizations to lead social movements.

None of this is utopian. Trying to use or transform the Democratic Party, however, is.

Imagine if DSA had thrown itself into BLM and helped galvanize organizations fighting to win defunding of the police in cities across the country.

Imagine if DSA had made support for the recent wave of strikes its main national priority, organizing solidarity groups and building networks of rank and file militants to fight for the best settlements possible.

Imagine if DSA had called for climate strikes across the country against the farcical COP26 summit, demanding the radical reforms necessary to stop the environmental disasters that engulf our planet.

Imagine if DSA drew a line in the sand against Biden’s vicious attacks on migrants, calling for protests to defend their rights and demand an end to the racist border regime.

Imagine if DSA called for protests against the looming Supreme Court decision against abortion rights.

Imagine if DSA took up the defense of Critical Race Theory by collaborating with other groups in anti-racist protests.

And imagine if DSA led campaigns against the criminalization of BDS and for an end to all military aid to Israel.

DSA has working groups on all these issues. Imagine all of them provided the resources and attention now funneled into fruitless elections. Imagine what we could do with 90,000 activists in the workplaces and communities of this country. These initiatives could be the leading edge of the radicalization and galvanize a new generation of working-class militants.

Through such struggles, independent electoral campaigns can and should be launched with candidates under the discipline of, and fully accountable to, the political, class, and movement organizations that back them. In the process, we can forge a new socialist party that can challenge the bosses and their parties.

Nothing less than the future of the left is at stake. Now is the time for a new course, a sharp shift to struggle and political independence as the means to build a socialist party to lead the fight for reform and revolution.

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Ashley Smith and Charlie Post View All

Charlie Post teaches sociology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College-CUNY, is active in the faculty union at the City University of New York, and is a member of the NYC Labor Branch of Democratic Socialists of America.

Ashley Smith is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Spectre, Truthout, Jacobin, New Politics, and many other online and print publications.