It was not supposed to happen. Incumbent New York Congressman Joe Crowley—the head of the Queens County Democratic Party machine, slated to replace Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, should the Democrats retake the majority—was soundly defeated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old activist who identifies as a socialist and is a member of DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America.
Crowley spent more than $3m on this campaign while Ocasio-Cortez spent only 10 percent of that. A few months ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was employed as a bartender. This was her first run for office.
The election took place in the context of growing anger with the Trump administration, Republicans and with mainstream Democratic politicians. 28,000 voters participated in the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional district, which has a population of over 700,000 people, and Ocasio-Cortez won with 58 percent of the vote.
Given that she will be the Democratic nominee for this Congressional seat, Ocasio-Cortez will almost certainly win in November, making her the first DSA Democratic Congressperson since the retirement of both Rep. Ron Dellums (D-California) and Rep. Major Owens (D-NY).
This political upset has made waves in national mainstream media, transforming Ocasio-Cortez overnight into a political superstar. Her unexpected victory has also had an immediate impact on the unfolding debate on the left about electoral strategy and the way forward for socialism.
After all, it would appear that the strategy of ‘capturing’ the Democratic Party line has been vindicated by this campaign, forcing bourgeois political analysts to acknowledge the influence of DSA, and making other Democratic incumbents think twice about the threat to their left. On top of that, DSA grew by over 1,000 new members before the week was over—how could anyone argue against this winning strategy?
Strategic to what end?
Socialist Revolution, the Marxists in the USA, have consistently argued that the single most pressing historic task facing the working class in the US—which constitutes the overwhelming majority of the population—is the establishment of a mass party of our own.
When this victory is finally achieved, the prospects for the class struggle will be fundamentally transformed, enabling the working class to turn the tables on the capitalists, not just to resist their austerity attacks and counter-reforms, but to win sweeping improvements in material living standards.
Bernie Sanders had an opportunity to build a mass socialist party in 2016, and he ended up supporting Hillary Clinton. The labour leaders have stubbornly clung to the Democrats and have refused to take any serious initiative toward the creation of a working-class party. The pressure is building, but no one has yet given a lead in this direction.
Despite the surging interest in socialism over the last few years, and the unprecedented discontent with both major parties, most of the left continues to treat the prospect of an independent mass socialist party as an unrealistic goal, promoted by those who are uninterested in “real victories”—which require that we moderate our political ambitions.
Most of the left treats the prospect of a mass socialist party as an unrealistic goal, resigning themselves to working within the narrow confines of the Democratic Party.
But class politics is about more than using the term ‘working class’ in a political campaign. It means acknowledging that there is an irreconcilable struggle between the working class and the capitalist class—an ongoing war that can only be won through the complete restructuring of society. The working class’s labour, combined with the earth’s resources, creates all the wealth, while the capitalist class, which owns the means of production, exploits the workers and takes the lion’s share.
A basic principle of socialism—the means by which we can actually provide a federal jobs guarantee with higher wages, an end to the brutal deportations and militarisation of the border, quality affordable housing for all, free education and healthcare—is to win this class war by bringing the main sectors of the economy under democratic workers’ control.
This should be the object of our strategic thinking: how can the working class take power? What activities today will enable socialists to lay the basis for this? What medium-term victories will take us closer to this goal?
From this perspective, winning a seat in Congress under the banner of the Democratic Party, even by an honest DSA member with bonafide working-class roots, cannot be automatically characterised as a strategic victory, but rather a strategy for which all communists and socialists, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, should draw a balance sheet.
Running on the Democrat line—who is capturing whom?
In the past, for example in the 1930s, many on the left argued for Popular Front governments: coalitions uniting labour, socialist, and communist parties together with bourgeois parties. But coalitions between socialists and bourgeois parties always end badly for the workers, whether we look at France, Spain or Chile.
Those who argue that socialists should run on the major party line or otherwise ‘caucus’ with the Democrats are in effect arguing for a Popular Front with the Democratic Party, which today constitutes the primary political representative of the capitalist class.
Popular Fronts are like convoys of ships. A convoy goes the speed of the largest, slowest ship, in order to keep the ships close together. When the Democrats almost inevitably regain a majority of Congress and the presidency at some point in the future (as in 2006/2008), the tone will be set by the largest, slowest ship—the most conservative Democrats.
In Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s case, immense pressure will be placed on her to moderate her positions in order for the party to appeal to more conservative voters in its attempt to take back the house—a goal with which she expressed agreement in an NPR interview the day after her election. When asked her opinion about the leadership of the Democratic Party, and specifically about whether she supported Nancy Pelosi, she had no criticism:
“I think it’d be inappropriate to commit to any one individual before we’ve even won back the House in November. Let’s make sure that we do that, and then we can have that conversation.”
Any ‘socialist Democrats’ will be beholden to the Popular Front. When the public is eventually dissatisfied with the government, as they were in 2010, the masses will see the ‘socialist members of Congress’ as part of the Democratic Party and will look to the right or be demoralized altogether. The ‘socialist Democrats’—including DSA and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—will not escape blame. This is a well-worn pattern and a clear and present danger for any socialist.
If our goal is the establishment of a workers’ government, the working class needs its own party, and that party needs a clear programme. This workers’ party would operate like a democratically run union. The programme and the leadership would be chosen by an active membership, to which they would be accountable.
This is something that is precluded when running as a Democrat, which is a party linked organically to the state, with primary elections controlled by big money, unelected bureaucrats and the bourgeois media. Elected working-class candidates must be held accountable by a party of the working class.
Congress is the most dangerous place for a socialist, where pressure, punishment and bribes of all sorts can be used to push ‘socialists’ to ‘go along’ with the bourgeois representatives. History is full of many such examples.
Given the polls showing how much disgust there is with both Democrats and Republicans, DSA could run candidates challenging both parties on a bold socialist programme, explaining that the working class is the only force that can transform society – when it is organized as a class. The resources are not there now to challenge all 435 congressional districts, but this could be done in five or 10 places.
What price was paid to run as a Democrat?
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign was able to appeal to working-class voters by addressing questions of inequality and the dominance of real estate developers and other big business interests in mainstream politics. But while her campaign was to the left of Crowley and the mainstream of the Democratic Party establishment, a revolutionary socialist platform would have allowed her to put forward a much more ambitious path forward for the working class.
For example, during the NPR interview, when pressed about whether her proposal to abolish ICE would result in merely changing the name of the agency, and whether she still supported border enforcement and security, she said:
“Well, I think it’s a different name and a different approach...I do think that we have to have a secure border. We need to make sure that people are, in fact, documented.”
Support for “border security” can only mean a similar policing agency with a different name. But this tells us nothing about protecting the millions of undocumented workers in the US, and those entering the country to escape the conditions imposed on other countries by US imperialism. A consistent socialist response would be to demand the immediate and unconditional legalisation for everyone.
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign website makes no mention of foreign policy and opposition to US imperialism, except on the question of Puerto Rico. She calls for the cancellation of Puerto Rican debt owed to Wall Street and that there should be more aid there, but nowhere does she call for socialist policies, or explain that capitalism is responsible for the horrible conditions that exist there today.
On other issues facing workers, Ocasio-Cortez supports Medicare for All and a federal guaranteed jobs programme at $15-per-hour. All socialists support free, universal healthcare and a guaranteed jobs programme, and we all support raising the minimum wage. But we should raise our sights beyond the $15 wage demand. Can anyone really live on this—especially in NYC? This is only slightly above the inflation-adjusted minimum wage of 1968—not a good standard to go by—and a long way from what could be considered a living wage.
With a revolutionary socialist approach, she could explain that there is more than enough wealth to provide a $25-per-hour minimum wage, and furthermore to secure full employment by reducing the workweek to 20 hours, with 40 hours’ pay. This is what it would look like to wage a class war that is not merely a one-sided onslaught of attacks from the capitalists.
Of course, it would provoke retaliation. To make a serious defence of a federal jobs guarantee, we have to talk about how the working class can take power. There is no way the capitalist class would ever grant a concession on this scale, as long as it is in control of state power. Full employment would greatly strengthen the working class in terms of its bargaining power by tipping the class balance of forces in favour of the proletariat. Furthermore, the hit to the capitalists’ profits that would be necessary to implement such a programme would be far greater than they would ever accept.
Therefore, the perspective of a class struggle must be put forward, one that can be won with decisive leadership and overwhelming numbers. The alternative is to rely on winning Democratic Party support for radical measures—a tactic with a track record of 100 percent failure.
Recently, Democratic Party-controlled Seattle tried to impose a small tax on big companies to help build much-needed housing, since they have a major homelessness problem. Amazon, Google, and other ‘liberal’ companies fought tooth and nail against this tax. The tax was eventually repealed just six weeks after a watered-down version was passed in March. The City Council there has eight Democrats and one socialist, and seven of the eight Democrats voted to repeal. This is the real balance of forces in ‘progressive’ Seattle, even with a lone socialist on the City Council.
How the Democrats will treat a socialist
The ongoing debate about electoral strategy is one that has not been settled but has certainly at least nuanced the questions involved—if not the answers. Most of the thousands of DSA’s rank-and-file members don’t want to be swallowed up by the Democratic machine and are opposed to the ‘establishment’ wing of the party, but are not opposed to ‘strategically using the Democratic Party ballot line’ in order to get candidates elected.
While Ocasio-Cortez’s win appears to have reinforced this idea, it is evident that she herself has much more faith in the Democratic Party than the average DSA member.
The day after her win she tweeted in support of party unity:
“Interpretations of ‘us vs them’ are unproductive in our discourse and, in my opinion, misguided. This is about fierce advocacy for working-class Americans.”
This was in support of a statement by Bernie Sanders that “the issue isn’t about establishment vs insurgents, it’s about who is willing to fight for working Americans.”
Socialists cannot support illusions in capitalism. We have to tell the truth. Ocasio-Cortez might also have illusions in the system and she might truly believe it is reformable. But this means when and if her policies are put to the test, both she and the workers supporting her will be very disappointed.
If Ocasio-Cortez ran on a fully socialist programme, she would be telling the truth to the working class. Had she been doing this, we can be sure she would not have been allowed to run as a Democrat in the first place and that Joe Crowley would not have endorsed her after the primary, singing ‘Born to Run’.
We should note that former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney may not have been a socialist, but she was an outspoken radical and the Democrats made sure they got rid of her from their party. If real socialist politics is our guide, the Democrats will not allow this.
If we elect a socialist congressperson, they should speak the truth and use their platform to mobilise the workers—not simply ‘caucus’ with ‘progressive’ Democrats.
If Ocasio-Cortez operated in Congress as an independent socialist, she could call for the Fortune 500 companies to be placed under workers’ control in order to provide the resources for full employment and a genuine living wage, healthcare, education and housing for all; with rent fixed at no more than 10 percent of income and massive investment in transportation and public infrastructure.
This kind of legislation would today be voted down by both parties of the capitalists, but by raising such demands, a socialist in Congress could make millions of workers think about what a socialist movement could achieve and use this to organise the class and a mass party.
Instead, as a Democrat, Ocasio-Cortez will ultimately be tied to the Democratic Party committees, caucuses, chairpersons, think tanks, and on and on, even if she started her political journey as ‘anti-establishment’.
Another way forward: fight for socialism!
Whether we like it or not, “capitalism with wonderful reforms” is not in our future. DSA has shown it can mobilise grassroots support and armies of door-knocking, phone-banking activists. But how long can it sustain momentum if the campaigns and elected candidates are, in the end, indistinguishable from the liberal Democrats?
The political landscape is shifting fast in the US, and Democratic strategists are hoping to use this momentum to their advantage. But we shouldn’t forget it was the failure of the liberals that led to Trump in the first place.
DSA has the potential to play a role in a much more dramatic political upset—by fighting for a mass socialist party. This is not a far-off goal for ‘someday’ but something that can begin right now, by running other candidates for Congress—as independent socialists and on a genuine socialist programme that challenges the rule of capital.
These candidates may not be elected on the first attempt or as easily, but would lay the basis for a mass working-class socialist party in the not-too-distant future.
Yes, there are easier ways to win elections, if winning an election is the end of the strategy. But for those who can see beyond the current limits of the two-party system and the rule of a handful of billionaires, a mass socialist movement and an independent working-class party with a far more radical outlook is not at all farfetched.