Breaking out of Democrats: Organizing for a revolutionary reallignment

 

Breaking out of Democrats: Organizing for a revolutionary reallignment

Posted by kasama on September 11, 2012

“I am convinced however that there isn’t an end run around the electoral system. We can’t just organize those who are alienated from it and expect to obtain the gravity to pull sufficient forces out of its orbit…. 

“Sooner or later, revolutionaries must intervene in the electoral process in ways that actually have a prospect for breaking significant fractions of the Democratic Party away from its imperialist leadership and that this will necessarily involve some sort of work ‘within’ the Democratic Party…  in a way that actually advances the building of a revolutionary movement.”.

“I have argued for the need to eventually build an explicitly revolutionary anti-capitalist ‘party within the party’ to this end. The question as I see it is not whether or not it is permissible to undertake such work, but rather what the necessary conditions are for it to be successful, in particular in terms of the prior development of explicitly revolutionary organization.”

“The presumption here is that the contradictions within the Democratic Party are deep and structural and likely to deepen. If they don’t, the likely outcomes of any such intervention are alternately self-marginalization or getting sucked into the Dem apparatus (or some combination). “

The following appeared as a series of comments by TNL on an nearby thread on the Democratic Party convention — it focused on the overruling of delegates by the convention chair, to ram through a re-insertion of God and Jerusalem into the party platform. We may also gather other comments into posts as we go along.

by Tell No Lies

I have to say that while I agree with the general conclusion — that we shouldn’t be supporting Obama — I am also frustrated by the dogmatism and moralism of the attacks on progressives who have come to a different conclusion.

While there are plenty of people who are willfully blind to the unwavering imperialist orientation of Obama and the leadership of the Democratic Party the real argument we are having here is with people who do understand this but who make the political calculation to campaign for the Dems anyway. These people are not stupid. While some can be accused of being bought off, many can not and in both cases we still need to understand and answer their arguments.

 There are lesser evils

Lesser-evil arguments are not inherently bankrupt. Everybody, including revolutionaries, makes lesser-evil calculations all the time. Mao’s united front with the GMD during the anti-Japanese waris an obvious example for those who need such historical references.

And the Dems are, in my view at least, very clearly a lesser evil.

They are less racist, less sexist, less homophobic, and somewhat less cavalier about throwing the poor (at least the US poor who might potentially threaten social peace) to the wolves. And these differences do not just characterize the rank and file. These differences are real matters of the democratic rights of the people and when revolutionaries pretend they are trivial it is, in my view, a species of economism.

But the question for revolutionaries can not be reduced to weighing the Dems imperialism against their more or less progressive views on various question.

It is rather a matter of tactics, of what approach to the elections advances the work of

  1. building revolutionary organization and
  2. building the broader alliances with not-yet-revolutionary forces without which revolution is impossible.

Denouncing Obama for raining drones down on Pakistan, while important as part of mass exposure, doesn’t actually resolve the tactical question of what our stance should be in the elections. When we confuse these questions we train people in a dogmatic and moralistic approach to politics that will not serve our revolutionary politics in the long run.

There is a certain dialectical tension between what has sometimes somewhat schematically been called revolutionary work (of building explicit revolutionary organization) and mass work (of building broader alliances). In the absence of mass work, revolutionary organization tends to stagnate and become sectarian. In the absence of revolutionary organization mass work tends to be recuperated by the system. Both are necessary, but the resources of revolutionaries being limited, there are inevitably trade-offs in any choice of tactics.

In my view our approach to elections in general and to work amongst the Dems should be governed the following considerations:

  1. Whatever other functions they serve, elections are a moment when large numbers of people otherwise unreceptive to discussions of politics are more open to such discussions than usual and we should try to find ways to most effectively take advantage of this dynamic.
  2. At the same time elections tend to suck all the air out of radical mass extra-electoral work.
  3. The prospective mass base and leadership of any future revolutionary movement overlaps significantly with the present popular base and activist elements of the Democratic Party. Accordingly a major task is to break that base and activist strata from the imperialist leadership of that party.
  4. The particular structure of the electoral system in the US effectively prevents the development of viable third parties except in potentially revolutionary situations and this greatly reduces the possibilities for such efforts to act effectively to provoke such ruptures from outside the Democratic Party.
  5. The prospects for such ruptures, therefore, will depend to some degree on whether, how much, and ON WHAT POLITICAL BASIS, revolutionaries develop relations with the the most advanced forces among the base and activist strata of the Democratic Party.

Mike rightly raises the following: (after the delegates were so crudely overruled to insert two reactionary amendments to the platform):

“Why (after decades of “left” involvement in the Democratic Party) was there no caucus to act? No spokespeople to command the media? Why didn’t anyone step forward to denounce this and demand a retraction?

“And the absence of any internal structural opposition to this imperialist party leadership suggest a great deal about the chances of building ‘independent structures” within the framework of this party.”

The problem is that the question could just as easily be posed to those who have insisted on staying outside the Democratic Party.

Here is this significant moment of fracture in the Democratic Party and we weren’t in any better position to seize on it to win people away from the Dems to more revolutionary politics. For the most part I’ll bet that we don’t even know who these people standing up against Zionism and compulsory religiosity are. If we wanted to find out, who would we even ask? I’m not too proud to say that I’d start by asking Carl Davidson and Bill Fletcher. Whatever else I might think about their politics, I’ll bet they know.

Breaking out

My view is this: Sooner or later, revolutionaries must intervene in the electoral process in ways that actually have a prospect for breaking significant fractions of the Democratic Party away from its imperialist leadership and that this will necessarily involve some sort of work “within” the Democratic Party.

I have argued elsewhere for the need to eventually build an explicitly revolutionary anti-capitalist “party within the party” to this end. The question as I see it is not whether or not it is permissible to undertake such work, but rather what the necessary conditions are for it to be successful, in particular in terms of the prior development of explicitly revolutionary organization.

Mike is correct in noting that the record to date of left participation in the Democratic Party has produced rather dismal results.

I would argue, however, that for the most part this work has not really ever been undertaken in a revolutionary manner. That rather the decision to do work in the Democratic Party has almost always been part of a larger retreat from explicitly revolutionary politics.

In some cases some folks have, for undoubtedly complex reasons, tried to maintain a verbal commitment to revolutionary politics in private or in certain circles while in public practice upholding an approach that was indistinguishable from left social democracy. It is important to be clear about the non-revolutionary character of this approach, not only or even mainly for the purpose of “exposing” its practitioners, but because it sabotages the necessary development of an actually revolutionary approach to elections.

It will be argued, of course, that this correlation is hardly accidental, that the decision to do work inside the Democratic Party and the abandonment of a commitment to revolutionary politics are inherently of a piece. But I don’t think this is necessarily true.

I don’t think a real attempt to go into the Democratic Party on a revolutionary basis with the intention of breaking the progressive base away from the imperialist leadership has been undertaken. It has rather always been on the basis of the necessity of blocking with this or that wing of the ruling class. The devil, of course, is in the details and I am not so naive as to think such an undertaking would not confront many of the same dangers or might not simply be crushed as quickly as it could start. What I do know is that the presently available options are not acceptable.

Devil in the details

I am not arguing here for supporting Obama or any other current Dem candidate running for office. (Though I think Chokwe Lumumba’s campaign in Jackson, Mississippi bears closer inspection and there are possibly others I don’t know of.) I think there are moments when it does make sense to vote for bourgeois candidates (I argued for supporting Obama in 2008 and do not regret doing so), but I think they are rare and, in any event, not what I am talking about here.

I am interested in figuring out how to intervene in the electoral process in a way that actually advances the building of a revolutionary movement.

I don’t believe that revs can actually capture the Democratic Party as such and I believe that illusions to that effect would have to be actively combated in the course of any intervention of this sort. The purpose and open orientation of such an intervention should be to break the progressive base of the party away from its imperialist leadership.

I think here of the fracturing of the Whigs over the question of slavery that laid the basis for the birth of the Republican Party prior to the Civil War. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party experience is also useful here.

I don’t oppose working to build third parties as such.

I would expect any mass radical left party to likely involve a fusion of one or more such formations with a left breakaway or fraction of the Dems. But I do think that the particular features of the US electoral system present special obstacles to third parties that prevent them from developing sufficient gravity to pull the Dems apart on their own.

Assumptions, necessities and dangers

The presumption here is that the contradictions within the Democratic Party are deep and structural and likely to deepen.

If they don’t the likely outcomes of any such intervention are alternately self-marginalization or getting sucked into the Dem apparatus (or some combination). These are real dangers even if the assessment of possibilities is correct and they underline the importance of preparations and approaching the question methodically and not impulsively.

I am convinced however that there isn’t an end run around the electoral system. We can’t just organize those who are alienated from it and expect to obtain the gravity to pull sufficient forces out of its orbit. This approach underestimates the real power of elections to legitimize the system.

It is true that there is mass disaffection with electoral politics. The problem is that the disaffected are also very atomized.

Part of what makes the electoral process so effective in stabilizing this system is that it succeeds in involving precisely the most engaged members of oppressed communities, not without exception of course, but generally. This is not to say that there isn’t important work to be done among the already disaffected, but rather to understand that the people with the more robust networks, organizational skills, and leadership capacities among the oppressed tend to already be plugged into something (a church, union, neighborhood organization, etc…) that ties them in one way or another to the Democratic Party.

I believe the process of building a revolutionary organization necessarily precedes to some extent any engagement with the electoral process. That is to say that we can’t undertake such a strategy without having some things already in place that we don’t yet have. But I think the idea that we can just build up a revolutionary organization outside the electoral process and await the arrival of a crisis that will produce a rupture with the Dems misapprehends how effectively the electoral system legitimizes bourgeois rule.

If we don’t go through it we can’t hope to push it to its breaking point.

Dig in.

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