Tellnolies: Electoral Work as Part of Revolutionary Preparation

The following is from a series of comments written by Tellnolies in a number of recent threads.

"I think there is a lot of opportunism in most of the work that leftists do within the Democratic Party and at the same time think the sweeping attacks on any work within the Democratic Party are crude in their understanding of the problems such work seeks to grapple with. I wish the Democratic Party were obsolete. Its not. It commands the uneasy allegiances of the majority of folks we want to win to revolutionary politics. The reasons for this are complex and moralistic finger-wagging doesn’t advance the process."

There seem to be several questions...

1. Should revolutionaries participate in the electoral process at all, or is it all a dead end and therefore to be denounced exclusively from outside of it?

2. Is the purpose of participation by revolutionaries in electoral politics purely propagandistic or should actually winning electoral office be an objective, and if so on the basis of what politics?

3. Given particular objectives (propaganda vs. winning office) what role, if any, is there for work in the Democratic Party.


By Tellnolies

Here I think, is the rub:

Well that is certainly ONE message that we might be sending. And I’d agree that much of the work leftists do within the Democratic Party does in fact send that message (as well as some others) and that is a serious problem.

But it really depends on how we do it.

One could just as easily make the argument that the whole electoral process in the US is a “tool of imperialism and the capitalist class” and that any participation in it at all (including yours) only sends the message that we can vote capitalism out of existence. Presumably you believe that the explicit content of your own campaign effectively countered any such effect. I see no reason that the same couldn’t be true of an explicitly socialist primary challenge against a sitting Democrat.

I would argue further that there are some reasons to think that primary challenges would often be MORE potent opportunities to get our politics out. One of the very real problems with waging third-party efforts in the first-past-the-post electoral system that we have in the U.S. is that as soon as you begin to poll more that one or two percent you become a potential spoiler and this drives rational voters who may very well be closer to your politics than to the politics of the Democratic Party to vote for the Dem anyway, and even to become quite antagonistic towards your efforts as we saw with the Nader campaigns. Now if your only reason for participating in elections is to do some low-level propaganda work, and you are more or less content with the role of perpetual gadfly, this may not be such a big deal, but if you are really interested in trying to win a large section of the Democratic electorate to socialist politics, a pre-condition I believe for any serious shot at revolution in this country, this is actually a very big problem.

Primary challenges offer an opportunity to give people a real choice between capitalist and socialist politics under conditions where the spoiler effect is not operative (because there usually aren’t any other serious progressive challengers whose efforts your campaign might spoil).

Because they tend to attract only a fraction of the voters who participate in the general elections there is considerably more opportunity for a small but dedicated effort to have a big impact (if not actually winning the primary, at least attracting enough votes to cause a serious freakout). A further advantage is that it has the potential to compel all the progressive union officials, non-profit staffers and other leftists already entangled in the Democratic Party but that posture as socialists to put up or shut up.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - carldavidson

    As is well known on this site, I'm in agreement with TNL on most of this.

    I do think, however, there are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be 'working in the Democratic party.'

    In most places, for instance, there really is hardly any mass organization by that name that one joins and then goes to its meetings, and so on. For all my electoral work over the years, I don't think I've ever been to an actual meeting of the Democrats, even when I went to Denver in 2008 as a writer for 'Progressives for Obama,' an independent left-progressive pole linking several like-minded local blogs and groups like Progressive Democrats of America, an independent PAC that's not connected to the Dem structure.

    What it does mean is working with grassroots groups and voters that self-identify as Democrats most of the time. That means almost all Black voters, and most working-class voters, and their community groups, trade unions and so on. In these cases, there actually are groups on the ground, such as union locals, NAACP branches, local civil rights groups and so on.

    What do you do in these local formations? A number of things, such as registering people to vote, asking for votes for one candidate over another (lesser evil) or working for a particular candidate (positive good, say, like Kucinich. Most important, is that you do this around an independent platform of your own, which may overlap with a dew Dem issues, by mostly does not. In 2008, for instance, ours was OutNow, HR 676, EFCA, Green Jobs and Debt relief. All of this brings you into contact with the masses in a broader and more intensified way, especially the more politically active, that is usually the case otherwise. But its certainly not the only way. There are the broader social movements as well. But it does little good simply to ignore or denounce this arena and those who do engage it.

    Why? In our case, so we could build a mass organization, PDA, that did have meetings and members, and could unite a progressive majority, and could network with others, including the Progressive Caucus in Congress, around winning certain of our platform demands, at least in the longer run periods between elections.

    But we also built our socialist group within this context. Socialism itself, however, at least the real thing, was not on PDA's platform. It remains at this point largely a matter of doing revolutionary education among the advanced, or that of uniting the militant minority. Socialism is not a matter of mass action at this point. The closest we came to it was a mass statement calling for, in part, 'Buy Out, Not Bail Out!' when it came to the auto industry in the crisis.

    Locally, we did fairly well on both counts. We tripled the size of our PDA group and doubled the size of our CCDS group.

    I don't think we did much in the way of spreading illusions. From the git-go, we tagged Obama as a 'liberal speaking to the center,' not even a consistent progressive, and a president who would be representing a faction of imperialism, but given the options, it was wise to give him votes anyway. Likewise when it can to discussing the class character of the DLC, Blue Dogs, or the Democratic Party in general. That's why we were building PDA on one side of that class fault line of groups in and around the coalition that makes up the Democratic Party.

    You don't get socialism by elections, certainly not by elections alone. But to prepare the base and the groups that you do need to get to socialism, you certainly have to, in part, proceed THROUGH the electoral arena, certainly in this country and under these conditions.

  • Guest - Tell No Lies

    Nothing I've ever seen from CCDS would support the view that their work in the Democratic Party is part of a strategy to break people away from the Dems as part of a process of preparing for revolution. But of course I'd be delighted to be proven wrong on that.

    That said, I think Carl's post does illustrate something important. And that is that the two major political parties in the US are actually broad and always shifting electoral coalitions, rather than parties in the European sense, as is to be expected in a first-past-the-post system. There is an official party apparatus and it matters, but its not where all or even most of the action occurs. State party conventions endorse candidates and those endorsements generally give them an enormous advantage in a contested primary and therefore any strategy oriented towards primaries would have to think about if and how to deal with the state convention process.

    As always, Carl is at pains to remind us that "Socialism is not a matter of mass action at this point." To which I ask, how do we know except by trying? The past several decades have been bad ones for the left. Consequently, every approach to electoral work (abstention, running independent or third party campaigns, working within the Democratic Party) has little to show. And I think this has contributed significantly to justifying a lot of opportunism on the part of leftists working in the Democratic Party. With the solitary exception of FRSO, (and it would be worth asking why FRSO was the exception here) the participation of ostensibly revolutionary socialist formations in the Jesse Jackson campaigns saw their near universal absorption into the liberal wing of the Democratic Party rather than the winning over of any significant fraction of that wing to more radical politics. I'm sure many groups had brief membership surges off of their Jackson work several years before they collapsed. But clearly the long-term result was not a reinvigorated socialist movement.

    We are living in a different moment now though. The global recession is turning millions of peoples lives upside down and this has produced a revived interest in and sympathy with socialist ideas even if there are the organized forces to take effective advantage of that. There is no reason that the polarization taking place within the Republican Party as a result of the activism of the Tea Party couldn't be mirrored to some extent by explicit socialists running in Democratic primaries. I think we should be very careful about treating the present moment as if it is just an extension of the past several decades.

  • Guest - RW Harvey

    OMG help me! "We tagged Obama as a ‘liberal speaking to the center,’ not even a consistent progressive, and a president who would be representing a faction of imperialism." What did I miss? This is the chief representative of the U.S. ruling class. I am flabbergasted that anyone claiming to be envisioning revolution could possibly come up with this "on-line dating" version of why choosing Obama is the better option. Does anyone actually look back at what they werebelieving and saying prior to the election and compare that with Obama/US Imperialism's track record since Obama took office? If not, please read John Steele's essya on targeted assassinations for starters...

    How to deal with the Democratice Party? First off, most people do not vote -- especially true of off-year elections and on the national level. If that has shifted at all via all the fanfare about Obama then it is actually s setback for the masses of people in the U.S. Second, expose, expose, expose -- not only the Democratic Party but the fact that this is not about personalities, or Partys, but about a symtem... we seem to have forgotten that there is a very real, very slick, and very deadly (literally and ideologically) SYSTEM here. C'mon comrades, have we forgotten? Or is this a serious case of turning to the Democrats and the electoral process because there is no place else to turn? No massive mobilizations to inspire? Danger Will Robinson... danger!

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    First, TNL, CCDS defines itself as a socialist and Marxist group that is 'pluralist,' which means several views can contend, and they especially do on elections. We have people in the Greens and in Peace and Freedom Party (which defines its self as socialist, by the way) who thing those of us working in PDA are wasting our time. You can read our new 'Goals and Principles' at or order a printed copy from

    The good thing about this is that we can compare the practice of differing sets of ideas directly. Our Greens are mainly in the Bay Area, and are often the '2nd Party' to the Dems, and the GOP is out of the picture in many local races. They do fairly well, and the Greens even won mayor of Richmond. She was on a recent tour of the Mondragon coops in Spain with me and 23 others. Running on socialism, as our P&F folks do, rarely gets you above single digits, so we know it's not a matter of mass action today. Even so, you can still build a decent mailing list by door-knocking, even if you can't build a large local group of workers.

    But almost all of us believe that the Dems are going to implode at some time along the class and other fault lines within it. It's not a matter of reforming it or taking it over in any usual sense, but more of positioning to pick up the best pieces of it. The recent race in Askansas with the AFL-CIO running very hard vs Clinton, the DLC and the Blue Dog founder, Blanche Lincoln, is one harbinger. The unions only got about 45%, but they don't intend to give it up.

    When and if the implosion does happen, our plan is for the progressive side of it, which hopefully will be fairly large numbers, to then align or merge with the Greens and others to create something new in a way that supplants the Dems but doesn't aid the right.

    But even a popular front organization like this is not a revolutionary party, even if it speaks for the working class and its allies.

    Building revolutionary organizations is rather different. Rather than trying to unite the progressive majority, you're trying to unite the more advanced fighters, a militant minority, around socialism and how to get it.

    My point is that in today's setting, these two tasks go together, like breathing in and breathing out. If you ignore either of them, you don't grow much, to put things mildly.

    AS to RWH, when we made this characterization of Obama, at the very beginning of our 2008 campaign, he was not yet the chief representative of imperialism, but only one faction of it. But if you look at the resistance to him in the ruling class, you can see that he's hardly consolidated them even today. From what I know about Obama from Chicago, having dealt with him directly from the very begining, he's basically a Keynesian liberal in his own mind. Now his 'team of rivals' includes some 'reform' Wall St neoliberals as well, and liberal Keynesian people like Krugman, Reich and Galbraith are out in the cold. Just because you win the Oval Office, it doesn't mean you can do as you please in running the affairs of the ruling class. We do well to keep in mind who works for whom in those circles. I'd be happier with Obama if he was could just be what he was back in Illinois. I never counted him as a man of the left or even a consistent progressive. After all, in the campaign, we were 'progressives for Obama,' not 'Leftists for a Progressive Obama. We left that illusion to others, and did what we could to combat it in a reasonable way, without carrying the water of the far right.

    In any case, our strength always rests in our degree of organization of the masses at the base, and you rarely win anything at the top that you haven't already won and consolidated below, at the grassroots. To think otherwise is one of the larger reformist illusions in politics.

  • Guest - Tell No Lies

    Carl writes that building a "popular front organization" and building "revolutionary organizations... go together, like breathing in and breathing out. If you ignore either of them, you don’t grow much, to put things mildly."

    Do you, Carl, or anybody, think of CCDS as a "revolutionary organization" or is there some other project you are part of that you would characterize in this manner?

  • Guest - Tell No Lies

    another question, Carl. When you talk of your work in the Democratic Party as building a "popular front organization" what are the class forces you see making up such a "popular front"? Given the history of the term, (and its opposition to the notion of the "united front") I'm sure many assume this choice of terminology is not accidental and that the post-implosion left formation you envision would include what you regard as the "progressive bourgeoisie" or something to that effect, a variation on the hoary old "anti-monopoly coalition." Is this correct?

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    First, is CCDS a revolutionary organization? I do my best to make it so. But it has serious weaknesses, such as the dearth of members under 40. It wants to replace capitalism with socialism, but I see it as transitional to something better, hopefully growing out of left unity projects. It's why I put up with its rather cumbersome name. It certainly has a good number of revolutionaries within it, a solid majority anyway, even if they don't all agree. Bur, again, it's a work in progress to something better. I build it and help to lead it, but I also seek allies in a wider revolutionary project.

    Second, my notion of popular front here is mainly a popular front vs finance capital, dividing the upper classes along productive vs speculative lines, then 'high road' vs 'low road'. But practically speaking, it means our PDA group here, with several hundred members, is almost all working class or retirees from the local mills. We have a handful of local officials, ministers and such, but not nearly enough.

    But we could also use a few high-road productive capitalists. The nearby GAMESA plant making the blades for wind turbines is a good example. The owners worked with the USW to set up three of these in the state, and created nearly 1000 union jobs in the process. GAMESA is owned in Spain, however. But if we could find a few companies that wanted to fight for a green manufacturing energy industrial policy, as opposed to a military-oil industrial policy, we could present a good argument that we could represent their views and things they need far better than the regular Dems, who are tied to the forces opposing them.

  • Guest - Tell No Lies


    The CCDS "Goals and Principles" scrupulously avoids even a single use of either the word "revolution" or the word "revolutionary." (The only mention of "communism" is a passage the refers to the crimes of McCarthyism as conducted "the name of fighting communism.") Instead we find the following passage from the section titled "A Vision of Socialism":

    <blockquote>Socialism will largely be gained by the class-conscious working class and its
    allies winning the battle for democracy in society at large, especially taking
    down the structures and backward laws of class, gender and racial privilege. An
    important first step is campaign finance reform to curb the influence of wealth in
    our electoral system. It will need a true multiparty system, with fusion voting,
    proportional representation and instant runoff. All trends are guaranteed the right
    to speak, organize, petition and stand for election. These are the structural
    measures that can allow the majority of the people, especially the working class
    and its allies, to secure the political leadership of government and instruments of
    the state by democratic means, barring sabotage by reactionary forces.</blockquote>

    Do you think this is a realistic description of the road to socialism in the United States? Do you think this is an orientation that prepares members or sympathizers of CCDS, much less the broader prgressive alliance it seeks to build, for revolution?

    The last clause, "barring sabotage by reactionary forces" is pregnant with ambiguity. First, is it really even correct to speak of "sabotage" when the reactionaries control the state and quite predictably use it to repress the movements to achieve these democratic reforms, much less those of "the working class and its allies, to secure the political leadership of government and instruments of the state."

    And who precisely are these "reactionary forces"? The US ruling class or just its rightist wing? Who do you see standing in the way of this accomplishment of socialism by electoral means?

    And if these reactionary forces do "sabotage" the attainment of socialism in this manner, <b>as every historical experience suggests they will, using every terrible means at their disposal,</b> what then? Here of course, the silence on the need for revolution is deafening.

    I read this and can't help but think that this is a criminal promotion of illusions about the actual character of the state we are up against. It is precisely why I distrust most of the efforts I see to work within the Democratic Party even though I am intellectually convinced of the need to develop a strategy of revolutionary electoral work that involves work within the Democratic Party.

    Finally, you write "Running on socialism, as our P&amp;F folks do, rarely gets you above single digits, so we know it’s not a matter of mass action today." There are two points to be made here. The first is that third-party initiatives, whether socialist or not rarely rise above 2% of the vote because of the spoiler effect. Until people run as socialists in Democratic primaries we really won't know what the immediate potential base of support is. That said, I'll gladly stipulate that such efforts would initially probably get single digit returns as well. But given the size of the electorate, even the fraction that particpates in primaries, such a result would have much more of a mass character than a great many "mass marches" we have all participated in. Just because the mass appeal of socialism is presently modest doesn't mean that it isn't a matter of mass action. Here again what I see is a practice of consciously suppressing any expression of explicitly socialist politics because doing so is a condition of working under liberal leadership. This is justified on the basis of a supposed "realism" about the potential mass appeal of socialism. But this is a self-perpetuating argument. There is no path from the present situation to a significant socialist electorate that does not first pass through a period of (increasing) single digit results.

  • Guest - Tell No Lies


    I think these divisions between productive and speculative, "high road" and "low road," capital are not as real as you imagine. To be sure there are different entities that you can designate as one or the other, but I think David Harvey's view of these not as contending blocs but rather as different moments in the overall circulation of capital is a more accurate picture. Any productive capitalist enterprise of any size depends on financing and to the degree that it generates any profits in excess of what can be profitably reinvested in its own production will join the rest of finance capital in seeking outlets elsewhere, which all things being equal is far more likely to mean in China or in bidding up the value of assets (real estate, art, derivatives etc...) than in building up green industries in the U.S.. To the degree that there are distinct sectors they interpenetrate a lot, through interlocking boards of directors, supply chains, etc... I'm not arguing that individual capitalists can't or won't become class traitors and align with a socialist movement. But I do think the proposition that some significant organized fraction of the capitalist class as such will do so is essentially a rationalization for opportunism, that is to say for talking about socialism only in study groups and private conversations and about revolution only in arguments against its public promotion.

  • Guest - RW Harvey

    Being enamored with "differences" within the ruling class AT THIS TIME, when there is no revolutionary situation on the horizon is to be seduced and inflated by myths of our ability to influence these differences one way or another.

    My point in the admitted diatribes I wrote above is that "democrary" is the IDEOLOGICAL glue that holds the U.S. together and keeps the people enthralled that this system can work and it is worth defending. Once we step into the Briar Pit of electoral politics we reinforce that ideology, no matter how many revolutionary sounding phrases we tack on to our leafets and speeches.

    To reinforce the ideology of bourgeois democracy in any way, shape or form in America is to abandon revolution in this country.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    This certainly gets down to brass tacks, doesn't it?

    First, to TNL, I don't have a crystal ball on how the future will unfold here, and neither do you.

    As to the combination of peaceful and armed means, my general orientation is to work for the best while preparing for the worst, but always putting the onus of armed reaction onto the old ruling class, and our armed preparations as self-defense against them. That's what the phrase about 'sabotage' means, ie, that we are in a period of strategic defensive.

    We also call the system we live under a 'dollarocracy'--a vote for every dollar, as opposed to a popular democracy of one person, one vote. That's a popular way of talking about the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat as 'first winning the battles for democracy,' as asserted in the Communist Manifesto.

    Finally, we say that socialism is a transitional class society, under the leadership of the working class and its path, to a future classless society. That should distinguish us from social democrats.

    As to David Harvey, I have no disagreement with his abstraction of the question to 'differing moments in the overall circulation of capital. That's fine, but it doesn't hold much significance as to how the battle unfolds tactically.

    Right now, the Wall St banks are doing their best to strangle every possible effort for government efforts to grow new businesses and new jobs creating new wealth in the green infrastructure sector, and to do absolutely nothing to employ inner city youth. At the same time their are capitalists who want to do this, but the projects require purchase orders from government, exactly what Wall St and the right are opposing.

    If you raise the demand for jobs, which I hope you would, then you also need to talk about how to create them. That's where you would do well to study on the differences between high road and low road approaches, and fight for the former. Otherwise, you tail the dominate sector of the ruling class pushing the Walmartization of America as the future for working class youth, if they offer one at all.

    As to RWH, I think the main 'ideological glue' keeping the country together is not democracy, but first, people thinking they're 'white,' an undemocratic social construct, and cynicism, where people indirectly admit their powerlessness to themselves, but in a warped way so they are resigned to doing nothing about it, another undemocratic notion. So it's an anti-democratic glue we have to unstick ourselves from.

    The democratic rights the working class has wrested recognition from the bourgeoisie over the centuries, even though within the scope of the bourgeois revolution, belong to us, and serve us better than them. That's why they are constantly under attack, and far from surrendering, our task is to defend and expand them.

    But this is an old battle my trend has had with Avakian, the RU and the RCP all along. It's appeared in many guises, such as school integration, whether to support the ERA, and so on, with the Avakian line generally liquidating the question of democracy from the 'left.'

    So which of our rights to you want cease fighting for? Voting? Assembly? Free speech? Due Process? I'd assert the opposite here: NOT reinforcing the limited and restricted legal gains we have made in the context of the bourgeois-democratic system, NOT to defend them and to expand them, 'in any way, shape or form, is to abandon revolution in this country.'

  • Guest - RW Harvey

    CD, it is not about whether I want these rights, or whether I would cease fighting for them: the ruling class itself expands democracy when it needs to and contracts it when is needs to. Currently, this is a period of contraction because the global economic system is itself contracting. In this context, all defense of these rights must flow out of deepening peoples' understanding of the systemic nature of the crashing economy and machinations for control of people and resources via war.

  • Guest - louisproyect

    If people want to argue for joining the Democratic Party as part of some inside/outside strategy, they should not cite Lenin. He argued in 1920 that as long as workers had illusions in their Social Democratic or Labour leaders, the Communists had to find ways to get a hearing--which meant supporting such parties "like a rope supports a hanging man" as he put it. He added that these illusions were a function of the party's never having exercised power. I have no idea what this has to do with phenomena like Progressives for Obama or 99 percent of the junk found on the CPUSA website. First of all, the Democratic Party is a *bourgeois* party plain and simple. Lenin had a different attitude toward such parties (like the Russian Kadets, for example) than he had toward parties in the workers movement or petty-bourgeois parties such as the SR's. Additionally, the workers have seen the DP in power. Not just since Obama but going back nearly 200 years. Now I don't believe that Carl Davidson makes any pretenses to trying to apply Leninist politics, but the reference made to Lenin on parliamentary politics in the post above is out of whack with what Lenin advocated.

  • Guest - Cultural Animal

    An analogy to the discussion here might be the Democratic party is like crumbs when what the people have a right to is a feast. Some people want to creatively focus on the crumbs, and some want to focus on the potential for a feast. It seems we need both. We can do both. If we accept each others' differing tactics and get out of each others' way, there is more potential for combined forces to make an actual shift.

    Just a thought.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    My point is the classic one--the more democracy and rights people can win, the more clearly they can see that their problem is not the lack of rights, but capitalism.

  • Guest - RW Harvey

    Au contraire... the more rights won under capitalism the more people will conclude the system they labor under does indeed work.

    To anticipate the next criticism: this does not equate advocating the ending or suppression of rights in order to mysteriously "wake the masses up" -- this ultraleftist position is untenable, partly because shifts in consciousness are complex and not linear (more oppression does not necessarily lead to more resistance); and also anyone who advocates more of the nightmare of capital be visited upon the backs of the people is clearly an insane fundamentalist.

    Ideology -- in this case the belief in democracy under U.S. imperialism -- is the mortar holding low levels of consciousness in place. Brick by brick we must undermine and dismantle this edifice.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    We simply disagree. People are being held back by a lack of democratic ideas, organizations and practices, not their prevalence. I cited the undemocratic delusion that millions think they are 'white' as a key one to be deconstructed and that blocks both democracy and socialism. Cynicism is another, ie, admitting that one is powerless but clinging to the delusion that one can't do anything about it. The fact that only 12 percent of the workers have unions is still another. I could go on and on.

    It's periods when democratic rights are fiercely contended, and some gains are made, such as the civil rights movement in the South, that revolutionary consciousness and breakthroughs also become possible.

    Avakian's old dogmas on this matter amounted to a 'left' opportunist deviation from the git-go. Time for a radical rupture with this old idea that can on imprison those that cling to it.

  • Guest - Dave Palmer

    I would contest Louis Proyect's assertion that "the Democratic Party is a *bourgeois* party plain and simple." I think that's a mostly correct assessment, but it's far from plain and simple.

    It's not the case, for example, that the leading capitalists sit down in a smoke-filled room and decide who the Democratic candidates will be.

    That's not even true in Chicago, where the Democratic candidates really <i>are</i> selected in smoke-filled rooms!

    That is, the candidates who are selected in the smoke-filled room don't always win the primary.

    Even in Chicago -- where the Democratic party comes closest to being a truly centralized, monolithic entity in the style of a Stalin-era Communist party -- it is quite possible for someone who does not have the imprimatur of the Democratic machine to win a Democratic primary. (It doesn't happen very often, but it happens. Harold Washington is perhaps the biggest example of this, but not the only one).

    This year, the victories of Scott Lee Cohen in Illinois' Democratic primary for Lieutenant Governor and Alvin Greene in South Carolina's Democratic primary for Senator created havoc for their respective states' Democratic parties. The case of Scott Lee Cohen is particularly interesting, since it happened in a state where, as I've said, there is a hugely powerful and centralized Democratic machine.

    Nor was this the first instance of this in Illinois. In 1986, supporters of Lyndon LaRouche managed to win the primary for Lieutenant Governor <i>and</i> Secretary of State in Illinois, obliging the Democratic candidate for Governor (who refused to run on the same ticket as the LaRouchies) to run on a third-party ticket.

    So the Democratic (and Republican) parties are not monolithic entities. While it is indisputably true that they represent bourgeois interests (and that the funding mechanisms strongly favor this, something I haven't talked about, but which is obvious), it is not <i>inevitably</i> so.

    I think Tell No Lies' suggestion of running openly socialist candidates in Democratic primaries is an interesting idea. I don't know how far it could lead, but it might offer more opportunities for actually contesting power than third-party electoral activities.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    I would be interested in how TNL would present the platform for socialism in the context of a Democratic primary, ie, what you would take door-to-door when asking for people to vote for you.

    As a member of the Greens in Chicago, I once went to a meeting suggesting they tag the city's three major problems, how Greens would solve them, and how they would be financed.

    Something like that I could take door-to-door. Without that, I said, the local Daley precinct captain would mop the floor with you, and just listing the 10 Green principles doesn't count.

    I got no response--although later, to his credit, the Green candidate for governor, Rich Whitney, came up with something close to this on the state level, and he got my vote, and about 12 percent overall.

  • Carl's challenge is a good one. And frankly it applies to those who advocate running candidates outside the Democratic Party and those who are against participation in bourgeois elections in general as well. How do we present our ideas in a mass way that make them accessible?

    I'm not going to just rattle off an answer as if it is obvious. I think its a question that requires serious care and consideration in answering.

    Carl's own suggestion also illustrates some of the difficulties involved. If I were to tag the three major problems in need of addressing I'd probably choose capitalism, imperialism and white supremacy, but I suspect that is not what Carl had in mind. And if that is all you talk about Carl is right that you are unlikely to connect with many people. The challenge, obviously, is how to connect peoples perceptions of what the major problems are to an analysis that shows how they are rooted in the system. The economist solution to this is to run on a platform of "money for jobs, not for war" or more locally for building schools rather than stadiums (or whatever developer boondoggle is at hand) as if the fundamental problems in this society are essentially matters of budgetary priorities. It is a short step from there to basically promising to run the existing system more humanely and efficiently.

    The challenge also illustrates an important difference between races for local and national offices. It is obviously easier to talk about systemic problems if you are running for congress than it is if you are running for school board. This is not to say that there is no point in ever running for school board as part of a revolutionary electoral strategy, but rather that it probably makes more sense to do so if socialists are already running for national offices. (There is obviously a question of capacity involved here as well, as it is easier to run for local offices which generally have the smallest districts. My view is that the solution to this is to run for U.S. House seats but to be very targeted on where in the district you concentrate your efforts.)

    The question is really one of how to properly apply the mass line. The critical thing is not to simply identify peoples immediate felt needs and tell them how you will fix them, but rather to identify the most advanced thinking among the people you are trying to reach and to distill that out and bring it back to those people in an accessible way that will cause them to rally to it. Here it is important to make the distinction between the most active and the most advanced and to have as an objective not simply identifying the most advanced thinking among the already active, but in bringing the advanced but inactive into action.

    While I don't think its wrong to spell out specific policy solutions to specific problems (amnesty and full citizenship rights for all undocumented immigrants for example), I think it is critical that any such prescriptions be very clearly linked to an identification of the capitalist system as the underlying source of these problems and an explanation not just how socialists propose to solve the problem, but also how the Democratic Party as a part of the system is an obstacle to those solutions. As they used to say, the issue is not the issue.

    The most important thing I think is to be explicit that the campaign is part of a project of building the power of oppressed people by building a socialist electorate and to recruit people to that project.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    One example I gave in Chicago at this time as a 'major problem' was that the State Dept of Corrections, every year, dumped 20,000 ex-offenders on the streets with no skills an no resources, so after surviving in various criminal ways, to the detriment of all communities, including their own, some two out of three went back into the prisons, then recycled out again, ad nasueum.

    The reason it wasn't changing was the profits made by the prison industrial system. The warm body of each incarcerated person was worth some $30K a year to various prison providers.

    So I proposed a package of reforms, some immediate, some structural. First that ex-offenders get drivers licenses and a bank account with a small deposit in it, a Medicaid card, library card, and a cell phone with voice mail. I suggested an average unemployment check for six months. All these are minor but crucial to anyone looking for work.

    Next, I proposed fee waivers at local community colleges for any course related to employment. This wouldn't cost much, only add a little to existing class sizes.

    But one major problem for these guys is a place to live. So I suggested buying up vacant buildings in disrepair for them to move into. But it would be supplied with tools and a trainer fro the apprentice programs from the construction trades. The guys would be put to work repairing, renovating and otherwise recycling the building they were living in, but while they were working, they would form a construction workers coop, and when finished, the deed to the building would pass to the coop. The idea was to then flip it, buy another similar building, and do it all over again and again, creating a new neighborhood of low-income housing and a new business owned by them (most people won't hire ex-offenders, no matter what their skills, so options like this are important.

    The state would end up saving money, since it would cost less, financially and socially, than incarceration. Plus a new form of employment with altered power relations would be created for those who needed it most, and they could network their operations with wider components of the solidarity economy as part on a movement to Economic Democracy, a bridge to socialism.

    No one yet has picked up on the package, even though everyone I presented it too loved it, especially the ex=offenders I was working with at the time.

    Anyway, it's these sort of things that I would put in the platform of a left candidate that I could take door-to-door, expose various aspects of capitalism, and point to a different future, even if in just a small and practical way.

  • Guest - Thomas

    To add a question of a secondary but nevertheless deeply important character to the discussion:

    How do we think about electoral work in the context of organizing public sector workers?

    As one of those workers (and in a Right to Work state, no less!), elected officials have a kind of dual role for me: both as "representative government," <i>and very importantly</i> my boss. Shouldn't I/we act to determine who the boss is going to be?

  • Guest - Thomas

    Just a quick addition to my last comment:

    I don't think that we should downplay this important angle on the question. Public sector workers now have the highest union density of any sector, are the fastest growing of any sector, and represent a disproportionate number of women and men of color, especially black women, given that employment barriers are often managed differently in this sector. Moreover we're more likely to be denied the right to collectively bargain, and of course we're more likely to join the scapegoat club when the neoliberal state wants to engage in deep attrition.

    Electoral work in this way can be seen as a kind of abstracted <i>negotiation</i>.

  • Guest - louisproyect

    I would contest Louis Proyect’s assertion that “the Democratic Party is a *bourgeois* party plain and simple.” I think that’s a mostly correct assessment, but it’s far from plain and simple.

    It’s not the case, for example, that the leading capitalists sit down in a smoke-filled room and decide who the Democratic candidates will be.


    Of course not. The primary process allows the "cream" to rise to the top. Like the atrocious Barack Obama. Maybe cream is not the best word. Pus or vomit might be more accurate.

  • Guest - RW Harvey

    David Harvey writes (June 2010): "Lenin’s famous question “what is to be done?” cannot be answered, to be sure, without some sense of who it is might do it where. But a global anti-capitalist movement is unlikely to emerge without some animating vision of what is to be done and why. A double blockage exists: the lack of an alternative vision prevents the formation of an oppositional movement, while the absence of such a movement precludes the articulation of an alternative. How, then, can this blockage be transcended? The relation between the vision of what is to be done and why, and the formation of a political movement across particular places to do it has to be turned into a spiral. Each has to reinforce the other if anything is actually to get done."

    Seems that at this moment what is lacking and what the primary task is, is the creation of a vision that can both expose and uplift. Practical experience abounds, historically (internationally and in the U.S.) and currently. There is no vision whatsoever in electoral politics -- once we cross tht threshold we are dead meat, ground up in the wheels of illusory democracy.

    Why not focus on raising consciousness at the edges of identified faultlines?

    Why not combine centralized state planning with massive democratic debate throughout society?

    Why not bracket out (for even a minute) all references and analogies to Marx/Lenin/Mao/Soviet Union/GPCR/etc. and see what a fresh page looks like when writing our vision of revolution in the U.S.?

    Why not?

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    I think Harvey is not quite right to say 'we' lack a vision.

    Who is 'we'? David Schweickart spells out a decent 'successor system' proposal for this country in his book, 'After Capitalism.' It's a worker-control version of market socialism, taking a lot from the Mondragon experience in Spain, and raising it up to theory. Harvey may not like part or all of it, but that's another matter.

    The weakness of the book is strategy and tactics, but that's what we're working out here.

    We've put the bare bones of Schweickart's views in our CCDS 'Goal and Principles,' and combined it with strategic and tactical proposals.

    My suggestion to him would be to critique it, if he likes, but not to pretend that it doesn't exist. Same goes for everyone here.

  • Guest - RW Harvey

    I see Schweikart's vision and yours clearly are enmeshed. I will continue perusing it, so this will be very impressionistic.

    Economic democracy that is refrom driven sounds more utopian than all of my ideas about the primary task being raising revolutionary consciousness. It feels like Schweikart has no idea of either the repressive apparatus of the ruling class, nor their ability to co-opt. Who among the professional economists must revolutionaries defend their proposed economic programs to, and to what end? Legitimacy? Wasn't it many of these same professional economists who acquiesced and facilitated capital's tendency towards systemic crisis?

    Plus, singling out worker-run enterprises as happy and untouched islands immune from the laws of capital is a bit disengenuous. Sure, they might be able to regulate costs, labor force, working conditions, etc., but they have no control over the vagaries of the market, the ability to get favorable loans (or loans at all), etc. Granted, they may be models of worker democracy after the seizure of power, but as it stands now I do not see how they become reforms that bridge to a world beyond capitalism.

    There is a vision here; my apologies for the sweeping condemnation of this lack. Sadly, the very concept that we can create a "successor" system of a more humane, rational -- but still necessarily exploitative, albeit better run, perhaps -- baffles me (but then again, I admit, political economy has never been easy for me to grok).

    Seems what Schweikart envisions (and what you do as well, Carl) is offering assistance to capital's evolutionary next phase -- most certainly not its revolutionary overthrow.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    I think you need to read the book again, if you have read it at all.

    First, Mondragon solves the problem of credit by having its own worker-owned bank, Caja Laboral, as well as its own schools, medical centers and social insurance.

    Second, Schweickart divides markets into three--he calls for the abolition or severe restriction of markets in labor and in capital. But he allows regulated markets in goods and services.

    He's also very clear on the class character of the state.

    He's admittedly weak on strategy and tactics--but then so are most folks here, which is why we're having this discussion.

    But that wasn't his task. It was to give use a workable vision of a new order, which he has done. Now we have the task of figuring out how to get from here to there.

    If you want to know a little more about Mondragon, read the 'Mondragon Diaries' from my recent visit there at

  • Guest - Dave Palmer

    Louis, I'm not sure how you could read my comment to be arguing that "the primary process allows the 'cream' to rise to the top," especially given the examples I gave.

    The point is certainly not that Alvin Jones, Scott Lee Cohen, the LaRouchies who won the Illinois Democratic primaries in 1986, etc. are the "cream" of anything. Alvin Jones sexually harrasses girls in college libraries, Scott Lee Cohen is a pawnbroker who beat his prostitute girlfriend, and the LaRouchies follow the crazed theories of Lyndon LaRouche. The distaste the Democratic establishment has for these people is not necessarily misplaced.

    The point is simply that they weren't chosen by the Democratic establishment -- and, with the exception of Cohen, they had almost no money and did almost no campaigning. So I see no reason why openly socialist candidates <i>couldn't</i> do the same thing.

  • Guest - spot

    As someone who has voted for democrats before, and is more interested in electoral politics than some, I'd like to see you voting. For some reason, the people who are the most politically educated on the left stay at home.
    Both the Neocons and Tea Partiers have proven what an electorally-involved cadre can accomplish. Beyond that, any of the traditional violent tactics of the left would be branded terrorism immediately and would meet with overwhelming force.
    Pick me apart ;)


  • Guest - Tell No Lies


    You asked to be picked apart which I take to mean that you welcome critical engagement. Thats always good.

    You say "for some reason, the people who are the most politically educated on the left stay at home." Do you have any thoughts on what the reasons for that might be?

    I've voted for Dems and I am here arguing that revolutionaries should run in Democratic primaries, but I'm not at all sure that I will be voting this November or if I will vote for anybody except third party candidates. I wish I wasn't making this decision individually, but was rather involved in implementing a collectively developed strategy for how to realte to elections.

    You say "Both the Neocons and Tea Partiers have proven what an electorally-involved cadre can accomplish." Do you think that revolutionary socialists have the same potential to influence political life as those two movements, both of which enjoyed massive corporate support and articulated views in keeping with the interests of capitalism?

    Finally, on the question of violence, do you think that the capitalist class which controls the existing state apparatus is going to give up that control just because it loses some elections? Do you think there is a path to socialism that doesn't involve a high likliehood of some sort of violent confrontation as a result?

  • Guest - land

    I don't see how anything good or new can come from pursuing electoral politics. I don't think there is any point in being snotty with people who vote or involve themselves in different electoral projects but aren't we pursuing what a communist beginning might look like.
    There is no mention of internationalism in this essay.
    what about the statement "we will condemn ourselves to permanent marginalization" if we don't participate in the electoral arena.
    Not true.
    Why do you think the electoral arena is a place for us to be to forge a communist future? We are trying to forge a new path. What does the electoral arena have to do with digging deeper into the questions we are pursuing?

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    Because it's not just about 'us,' Land.

    It's about the masses of workers and the oppressed, what they think in various ways, and what they are willing to do from stage to stage.

    And internationalism in the electoral arena is placing the demand for 'Out Now!' from the wars on your platform, educating people about it, and using your campaign work to also encourage them into the streets for mass actions as well.

    But if you have a way of getting to socialism by ignoring or bypassing or skipping over this arena, spell it out for us.

  • Guest - land

    Carl - where does it say that we have to be part of electoral politics before we jump into building a revolutionary movement?

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    I could give you a long list of classics, if you really wants to know where it's said. But I'm sure you already know what they are.

    But I'd suggest just going out and talking to people. Get them to 'speak bitterness,' then make an assessment yourself of how to unite a good number around the next steps THEY are willing to take and the tactics THEY are willing to deply. You can argue over some of them, but in the end, it's the masses who make history, and you grow your revolutionary organization in the wider context on how they are willing to struggle and for what.

    Otherwise, you can always get six or seven people to charge the local city council or a factory carrying red flags, but I doubt it will do you much good. Such things happened in China during the period of the 'three left lines', and this one was called the 'Wang Ming line, as I recall. In their case, the problem was that many of them got a bullet in the head before they began to listen to Mao on the 'mass line'.

  • Guest - RW Harvey

    Okay, let's paint an imaginary picture of what this turn to electoral politics will inspire.

    What is the point/goal of third party socialist candidates? Is it about the platform being one of exposing the shortcomings of ths system (e.g., propaganda purposes)? Is it about being actually elected to office? And then? (Sebastopol, CA had a progressive/green mayor and life goes on; maybe we could be parliamentary backbenchers someday, or even a Shadow Cabinet... wow).

    Is elected office the ramparts from which to mount takeovers and accrue more of a power base? How does this come about? Are we to be merely the "red" loudmouths within the caucuses, the party meetings, the conventions (like so many of us were inside the unions); or equally as banal, are we to be the "best fighters" for reforms (i.e., restricting big box stores; protecting wetlands; haggling over the minimum wage, etc., etc.)? Wow, I can't wait for my very own campaign material to download.

    It's already been done and is being done across the land in local and state governments. What the electoral arena needs is not revolutionaries entering it but deepening and heightening the exposure of this illusory democracy and bankrupt imperial system.

    One thing is for certain, if revolutionaries commit to entering the electoral arena we will happily end up putting bullets in our own heads.

    Your turn.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    You can run an election campaign basically in two ways, both of which have their up and down sides.

    First, you can run a revolutionary education campaign, one that unites and tries to grow a militant minority. You aim is to enter debates with the regular candidates, exposing the capitalist character of their platforms, and promoting a socialist alternative. The aim is to recruit to your organization; you're not really concerned about how many votes you win. If you do your work well, you may start a campaign with 500 members, and have 5000 when it ends.

    Second, you can run a popular front campaign, a left-progressive-green front or a nonpartisan coalition of candidates with a common platform, where you try to win a position--city, state or national, by uniting a progressive majority. Here you try to run both on the immediate demands of the workers, plus certain structural reform proposals that will solves critical problems the workers face. In order to actually carry them out, you can't just win alone, but build the strength of what can become a majority.

    You may actually win some major changes, in which case these become strong point in a war of position to launch new and more far-reaching campaigns.

    Your program will be opposed by the representatives of finance capital and their rightwing allies. Your task is to expose their nature, divide and isolate them and defeat them. If you reach a certainly level of strength, a revolutionary crisis will come to a head, In that case you have to be prepared, first, to defend the working class and its allies, disarm you adversaries, breakup their state and replace it with a new one.

    You can also do both at the same time in some situations.

    Obviously, it's more complex than that, but that's a bare outline.

    The main point is that the heightened interest in politics and activism in election periods enables you to expand your reach into the masses by tenfold. It's foolish not to do so, unless you're in the midst of an armed insurrection. In that case, which is when dual power is in the streets, a very different set of strategy and tactics is in order.

    And there's an art to knowing when one period is on the cusp of going over to another, and when it's not. If you misjudge the nature of the period, and use the wrong set of tactics, either too revolutionary or too non-revolutionary, you lose either way.

  • Guest - louisproyect

    Second, you can run a popular front campaign, a left-progressive-green front or a nonpartisan coalition of candidates with a common platform, where you try to win a position–city, state or national, by uniting a progressive majority.


    Well, I think the historical record on popular fronts has been dismal.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    The historical record on trade unions, communist parties, five-year plans and many other things has also been dismal. But we keep on truckin' anyway, looking for better ways to implement previous forms, having learned from mistakes, or try to find new forms altogether.

  • Guest - louisproyect

    I am not sure what you have learned from the most recent popular front initiative, Carl. Progressives for Obama has to be one of the worst ideas since "part of the way with LBJ". Indeed, I don't think these sorts of tactics are susceptible to learning or unlearning. They are a kind of bad habit that is impossible to kick, like cigarettes or crack cocaine.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    It worked out fairly well for us, Louis.

    We tripled the size of our PDA group, mainly making new inroads in working class and minority communities. We also doubled the size of our socialist group. The former, of course, is much larger than the latter, about 20 times so. We stuck to our own platform all along, and positioned ourselves well to help lead the upcoming mass mobilizations in DC, the fight for jobs not war, and our mass ecological campaigns in the area around the Marcellous shale. You can read about it on

    PDA nationally is also doing fairly well. Our two 'Progressive America Rising' websites offer some of the best critiques around of Team Obama on the wars, Israel, Wall St and other matters, and still gain readers.

    How did your approach work out for you?

  • Guest - louisproyect

    <blockquote>It worked out fairly well for us, Louis. </blockquote>

    Is growth the criterion for success? Or is it providing political leadership? Progressives for Obama was based on a lie. Or giving you the benefit of the doubt, naivete.

  • Louis,

    I was not impressed with Progressives for Obama, but I'd like you to spell out what the lie was, so that Carl can respond to a more substantive charge.

    Growth is certainly ONE criteria of success. Presumably, Carl thinks the political basis of the growth of PDA and CCDS was sound (or sound enough) and is consequently interested in whetehr it reached people and appratently it did.

    Carl also posed a question to you as to how your approach worked out. I think this is a fair question and would be interested in your response.

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