On the Party Question: The Ballot Line, Third-Partyism, and a Fighting DSA

DSA Emerge is a Marxist and communist caucus in NYC-DSA, and contains members with a variety of views. Through internal discussion and education, we have achieved consensus on a series of points related to the question of building working class power through the organizational form of a political party.

1.

Emerge is pro-organization: we believe in creating a party-like organization based in the working class. This party-like organization would be an organization of organizers which stitches together different fronts of working-class struggle into a cohesive political unity. It would be a headquarters for the class struggle, developing new militants and carrying over lessons from one struggle to the next, and advancing the working class and socialist movements in the political sphere. Such an organization will take a historically specific form; it might look like the 20th century party form or some sort of modern variation, like a federation of existing organizations. Rather than being a board-driven non-profit funded by foundations, our party-like organization would be member-led-and-funded, governed by a democracy of its rank and file membership. It would be a multi-tendency organization of socialists united around common goals and permitting the self-organization of members. And such an organization should have central bodies at the national, regional/state, and local level that are empowered to make and execute decisions, while also further developing and empowering bodies at the lowest levels to do the same thing.

DSA is itself in many ways beginning to function as a party-like organization. In our New York City chapter, our organizers have tied together different fronts of class struggle, from rent strikes to school reopenings to our Defund NYPD campaign. Our electoral work has put our own members in office, and these candidates and campaigns have taken part in mutual aid and street action. Other DSA chapters have helped organize tenant unions, trade unions, and teachers strikes. While we have had our fair share of failures and setbacks, these successes suggest that DSA might be different from our desired party-like organization in degree, but not in kind.

To make DSA more like the organization we hope it can be, we should greatly deepen and expand both our organizing work and our democratic structures. We should seek to root our organization in the various sectors of the working class, becoming active in workplaces, neighborhoods, and social movements. We will have to reach beyond the class fragments where we currently hold influence, which will mean reimagining the way we approach our organizing. Whereas now our members are either struggling to discover how to get plugged in or burning themselves out on constant activist campaigning, we will instead need to build our organization into a fixture of everyday working class life itself. Hyperlocal cell-like structures can be experimented with in workplaces, neighborhoods, and other places where larger structures, like citywide chapters, struggle to reach. Our democratic structures will need to facilitate this expansion by becoming more robust and accessible to members who don’t have dozens of hours a week to spend on DSA. We should build out our scaffolding, giving our rank and file grassroots power at the most local level while overcoming the divide between our national organization and local chapters with an expansion of our national leadership bodies and the construction of new structures at the regional or statewide level. In summary, the coming years should mainly consist of an attempt to root our organization in all spheres of working class life. If we discover that we require a different organizational tool in the course of that work, we can adjust our strategy in the future; but we believe that DSA is currently the best organization in which to pursue these tasks.

2.

We take the need for a party-like organization that acts as a headquarters in the class struggle as **a separate question from that of third-partyism. ** The Democratic Party is unquestionably a major obstacle to class struggle in the US. As recently as this year, we have seen how the Democrats use their institutional strength to demobilize and dismember genuine revolt, while blocking electoral challengers like Bernie Sanders with all of their might. Attempts to realign or rectify the Democrats into a true party for progressives and labor, such as the McGovern-Fraser reforms, have consistently failed. Given this history, the impulse to build a new, major electoral party to replace the Democrats makes sense.

But the question of building a fighting political organization of the working class is different from that of building a viable electoral vehicle in the US, and conflating the two creates a couple of difficulties. The first is to think that building an independent ballot line, as the Green Party has done, will translate into building class independence. Maintaining an independent ballot line can take a lot of effort and become an end-in-itself that subsumes the work of building class organization. This is because of specificities in this country that make the two-party system deeply entrenched and difficult to overcome, such as restricted ballot access and first-past-the-post, single member districts. Third parties like the Green Party have succeeded at building the infrastructure to consistently maintain their own ballot line, but have rarely succeeded in winning significant institutional power, and have never succeeded in becoming a meaningful political organization outside the electoral sphere. Their efforts towards an independent ballot line have failed to construct the class basis for their own power. The Democrats have the benefit of being intertwined with ruling-class institutions like corporations and donor-driven nonprofits; we have not yet successfully built the infrastructure to support an electoral party of our own.

A second problem is to think that replacing the Democrats with a major socialist or labor party would resolve all of the problems with the Democrats. This argument might say that the Democrat’s main problem is their domination by capitalists, which can be resolved by building a party without capitalists; or that they lack a real membership or the ability to bind elected officials to their platform, which can be rectified with a mass democratic, disciplined party. These are two deep problems with the Democrats, but they disguise a third: the limits and pressures that capital places on all parties in a liberal democracy. Why have labor parties, socialist parties, and even Communist parties in other countries governed in much the same way that the Democrats have, when they have been in office or in governing coalitions? For instance, the Labour Party in the U.K., the Socialist Party in France, and the Communist Party of Italy were all mass membership parties with strong roots in the working class far different from the Democrats, and yet all carried out neoliberal austerity and fell prey to the pressures of global capital. Since political parties in the U.S. operate in many ways as arms of the state, there is little reason to believe that a major working class political party in the US that replaced the Democrats would be suddenly free from the constraints that plagued its predecessor.

3.

The 20th century provides cautionary tales about the limits of left electoral projects. Socialist and Communist parties have across the world been very successful at taking or wielding state power through winning majorities or by embedding themselves in the parliamentary process, but all have been variously restrained or compromised. Once in power, many have administered austerity and acted as conservative forces that have demobilized the working class and contradicted the aims of social movements. These are not reasons to disengage completely from electoral politics or from taking state office; the former is still the primary way that many (though not all) working class people engage with politics, and the Sanders campaign demonstrates the level of mobilization and agitation a challenge against the Democratic establishment can achieve. Individual socialists who achieve elected office can be powerful tribunes for the people by advancing movement aims in the legislature, as was the case during the victorious struggle over new rent laws in New York state. And yet our movement history demonstrates that organizing an independent working class and working in today’s governments require different organizational tools at a critical remove from one another. Recent examples from the Pink Tide in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Brazil might serve as models of movements composed of socialist political parties in the electoral sphere with a special relationship to extra-parliamentary movements. Parties in power may receive the support of extra-parliamentary movements, while also having complex and contradictory records once in power. There is always a need for independent working class political power to hold government officeholders to account. And when socialists in government are inevitably attacked by capital and counter-revolution, there will always be a need for a strong and well organized independent working class to fight back and defend what gains have been won.

Our fraught precedents suggest that our desired political instrument is one that will be based in the working class, not in government or as a government-in-waiting. When engaging with elections or holding state office, we should pursue separate kinds of instruments, judged on a purely strategic and utilitarian basis. In other words, our conception of a party-like organization is not based on the question of an independent ballot line. An independent ballot line will not conjure independent working class organization; the latter may produce the former in the course of struggle. In the meantime we might attempt the party-surrogate model for engaging with elections: building a mass membership, democratic organization that sets its own platform and accountability processes but tactically engages with the Democratic ballot line. At the same time, should a viable mass movement for an independent party or a dirty break with the Democrats develop, we would support it, as the collapse of the Democrats would likely open fertile ground for class struggle. Presently, we support NYC-DSA’s slate of socialist candidates who have run in Democratic primaries for state legislature, and regardless of ballot line, we support running class struggle candidates who are vocal about being socialists, especially if they are DSA members.

Ultimately, while socialists in state office might advance reforms or shift the balance of forces, social change will rely on our ability to successfully organize pressure from outside the government through an independent political organization at a remove from state officeholders. It is ultimately the strength of the organized working class that will win any reforms and push beyond them. To paraphrase Salar Mohandesi, our desired party-like organization will thus not be a tool for governing, but for facilitating the self-government of the working class.