What do Socialists do?
[Presentation to the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) Convention Workshop on Building the Progressive Majority and the 2010 Elections, July 25, 2009]
What do Socialist do? This is a relatively simple question, and one whose answer can be ascertained from the practice of socialists around the world.
While conditions differ from country to country, one common element is that socialists contend with the bourgeoisie in every place and in every way possible to win the hearts and minds of the working class, and for power.
An important field of struggle in bourgeois democracies is the electoral arena. Except on rare occasions where the process is so corrupt that socialists call for a boycott of the election, we find the Left, Socialist or Communists (call us what you will) campaigning for the rights of the working class and for the replacement of capitalism, a system based on greed and exploitation, with a humane reordering of social and economic activity in which human needs, respect and equality are the guiding principles.
Many people dismiss running candidates because these candidates cannot win. This is true, today. Tomorrow, they may be able to win if they lay the groundwork today.
The important distinction is between running and winning. Those of us who challenge the bourgeois parties are not stupid. We know we can't win.
But we know that by running we gain access to the notice of thousands, even millions. In the U.S., elections are accepted as a place for political discussion. When we approach people as a candidate for some office, we are treated with respect. Many people will listen to ideas that they would otherwise block out.
Often we can even debate the bourgeois candidates and incumbents directly. [Click here to view the author's participation in a debate held on October 22, 2006.]
It would be difficult to campaign for election without making new contacts, new recruits and increasing the working class' understanding of political realities and socialist ideas.
An example of the impact that election campaigns can have is the California Peace and Freedom Party, an explicitly socialist organization which has more than 55,000 registered members and receives the votes of hundreds of thousands of Californians. Other socialist groups have memberships in the hundreds or at most, a few thousand members.
In 1999, I met Helmut Scholz in Berlin and interviewed him for an article that was published in Dialog and Inititative. At the time, the Party of Democratic Socialism was confined to eastern Germany. Yet, they understood the importance of running candidates, whether they won or not. Since then, they have merged with the Labor and Social Justice Electoral Alternative. The new party, Die Linke is a force throughout Germany, in the federal Bundestag and the European Union. This would not have been possible if they had not doggedly pursued an electoral strategy.
In fact, socialists in nearly all bougeois-democratic countries, except one, routinely engage in electoral campaigns.
In the U.S. many socialists take a different track from the rest of the world movement. I'd like to congratulate those who worked hard for the Democrats last year. Now we have a Democratic President, a large majority in the House and 60 Democrats in the Senate. We must be on the road to Socialist! Well, not exactly. The Democrats are proving once again that they are really a capitalist and imperialist party bent on controlling the world for Wall Street. Some of you will have to decide if you are really a Democrat or a Socialist.
Why is it important that U.S. socialists built the Left through electoral campaigns? I think the lack of single-payer health care, the continued occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the difficulty in getting card check union representation (Employee Free Choice) and the disgraceful sell-out of the Democrats in the California Legislature who have gone along with cutting aid to the poor instead of raising taxes on the rich, should answer these questions.
A Left-Center unity, or Progressive Majority, without a strong and independent left is like a car that is missing a wheel. Where is our clout? Where is our ability to act indepedently without a mass constituency? Again, we must confront the bourgeois in every arena of struggle, including mass electoral activity. That is where our mass constituency will come from.
I'd like to close with the words of Karl Marx on independent workers' parties:
"...Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers' candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body." — Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Address Of The Central Committee To The Communist League, March 1850, (Report on Revolutions of 1848-9)