Electoral Politics: on the victory of Kshama Sawant
In all honesty, watching the imperialist ‘yes men’ over at Forbes scream and cry about the legitimacy of a socialist candidate was more than amusing; however, this is not the reason why the electoral victory of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant made its way onto Anti-imperialism.com
Rather Sawant’s victory has reopened the tentative discussion on the role of electoral politics in revolutionary praxis and the peculiar situation of organizing in North America.
The socialist Left in the US seems to be still ‘dizzy with success’ but many have begun questioning the gravity of Sawant’s victory in a more formal manner. What does this mean for the revolutionary anti-capitalist movement in North America as a whole and more importantly is this a “real” victory?
This question must be taken with the utmost objectivity and requires an “all-sided” analysis.
While plenty of political criticism can be made of Sawant, let alone the Socialist Alternative, that is neither the objective of this piece nor immediately relevant to the situation at hand. Needless to say there are many functional distinctions between a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist and the equivalent of a ‘democratic socialist’ which form the foundations of any meaningful criticism; this must at least be kept in mind when reading.
However, we are not interested in a “Maoism vs. Democratic Socialism” piece (at least now). Anyone truly curious in the ideological features which make these two politically incongruent can visit the recommended readings page or perhaps ask a Maoist.
Instead we would like to highlight a few points which necessarily become relevant whenever the issue of electoral politics surfaces. The following is a list of contentions with specific attention to the situation in Seattle and the campaign waged by Kshama Sawant.
1. Is the goal social democracy, or socialism? To the untrained eye these two may seem synonymous but they are most certainly not. The former could crudely be described as “welfare capitalism” (contemporarily) in which ‘progressive’ organizations pressure the capitalist mode to direct more value towards the working class and petty bourgeois usually in the form of wide social programs e.g. Western Europe. The latter is a transitional period from capitalism to communism characterized by a proletarian conquest of state power and the social ownership of the means of production. Both descriptions are ridiculously simplistic yet even at their crudest levels one can begin to differentiate the two fundamentally. Sawant’s campaign carries all the traits of a standard Social Democratic movement: higher minimum wage, housing control, public school policy, steeper income tax, and a rather explicit focus on the “overtaxed” middle classes as the social base for this change. Yet, Sawant’s campaign page specifically identifies the “socialist transformation of society” as a campaign goal. Granted the phrase is used eclectically and in the abstract; however, one still must ask whether this rhetoric is attributable to genuine political confusion or outright denial of Marxist methodology. In the future perhaps Sawant and/or her campaign could adequately address this question and clarify what they mean in regard to the “socialist transformation of society”.
2. Electoral politics is the breeding ground for capitulation and reformism. Since the early 20th century the Communist movement has had to correct those who believe working within bourgeois politics is the path to socialism. This method especially when understanding the daunting backwardness of the Amerikan electorate becomes increasingly implausible; not including the complicated relationship between and among the ‘politically silent’ majority, oppressed nations, internal colonies, and engendered socio-politics all of which act as objective conditions which shape the construction of subjective forces. Reformism and capitulation are also highly lethal to a young and fragile revolutionary movement; consistently undermining the political forces building for a real socialist revolution. This does not mean, as some would wrongly suggest, that we should embrace a line of adventurism and start our guerrilla war tomorrow. This is not the only alternative to reformist electoral politics. Instead, we advance the universality of Protracted People’s War and the necessity for building Dual Power in the base areas (both of which are subjects for another time but can be studied here and here, respectively). The presence of electoral politics (reformism) can and does seriously damage these revolutionary efforts. A concrete example would be the effect Sawant’s victory will no doubt have on the Africa Town community in Seattle. A living (granted, limited) example of dual power in the United States. Politics like those of Sawant drag attention and vital resources away from counter-acting the bourgeois organs of power and effectively reinforce them.
This does not mean that electoral politics cannot have some role in revolutionary praxis. In some places under certain conditions this method may be the best course of action. Revolutionaries should never arbitrarily limit their weapons in the conquest of political power. However, electoral politics is certainly not universal and in the specific case of North America (especially Seattle) is indeed counter-intuitive to a genuine revolutionary struggle.
3. Who is the revolutionary subject? Nominally the oppressed and exploited, generally the proletariat, however the nuance of which is subjective. This is a question only a concrete investigation into the particular conditions and relationships which compose Seattle (locally) and North America (generally) could answer. Which is precisely the problem and leads to the next question: where is the concrete investigation? Sawant’s team seems to have highlighted the bourgeois individualist condition of the “overtaxed” middle class as at least a strong ally to the nominal working class. The obvious remark here is that all who can be united should be united and without a doubt this is not the problem. Was the petty bourgeois and labor aristocracy brought under the helm of the revolutionary proletariat or was the proletariat simply parceled out and dragged through the mud of inter-bourgeois contradiction? Sadly I fear the latter and the inconclusive identity to this struggle lends no weight to its proletarian character.
4. Where is the Party? The knee jerk response is a half-witted nod towards the Socialist Alternative yet this is clearly fallacious. The Socialist Alternative is a self-described collection of “community activists” which for better or for worse is not a Communist party as described by Lenin et al. The Party is intrinsically necessary and uniquely capable of transforming proletarian struggle into a social revolution and guiding the direction thereof. Without a Party led by the most advanced from the proletariat the “socialist transformation of society” is essentially impossible. There is no need to continue regurgitating orthodoxy from Marxism-Leninism but the contention remains.
5. No to ‘independent working class politics’, yes to a United Front and proletarian internationalism. In the quest for a “democratic socialist society” Sawant has called for her model to exported all across the United States to elect hundreds of other independent and pro-worker candidates. Noble yet misguided, Sawant’s desire illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding in the condition of the working class and its interest in political supremacy. What the working peoples need is a strong United Front of revolutionary organizations, a correct application of the Mass Line, and dual power; further conditioned by international solidarity with the oppressed and exploited peoples of the periphery and semi-periphery. Furthermore, Sawant’s model has no way of adequately addressing the oppressed nations held inside the ‘belly of the beast’ among all internal colonies and the unique position of indigenous struggle. Not to mention that the method of electoral ‘struggle’ usually presumes some form of structural exclusion for those whom we consider likely allies in the Communist movement.
The above five points only sum an analysis which will continue to unfold as the situation progresses.
Although, there is something to gain from the election of Sawant. Particularly how this electoral victory opens up discussion for opposition to the prevailing social order and all facets of capital domination. If anything, the Communist movement can gain from this discursive breathing room and catapult towards a more concrete organization of revolutionary forces towards a revolutionary end. This tactical use however also requires a strategic distance from the moderate (to say the least) politics of Sawant and company. The correctness of such praxis hinges on the ability to both advance and resist; to join the mobilization against capital domination and defeat revisionist and anti-Marxist tendencies in the process.
Effectively, the monopolists have conditioned the electoral process. This should not change the goal by which we mean the point of political power but how we investigate going about the task. Not to deny the contradictions in organizing for Protracted People’s War or the construction of dual power; rather to point how utilizing functions shaped by centuries of imperialism can do little but reinforce the method by which imperialism is justified and materially realized.
A principle for solid mass struggle indicates revolutionary work must begin where the masses will tolerate in any given deposition. This is one of many reasons why we reject the adventurist notion of Focoism. And while such a principle bestows great understanding it must constantly be clarified within the dialectic of universality and application. Electoral politics may be tolerated in the major streams but the existence of a “politically silent” majority which includes many nationally oppressed and exploited groups makes the delineation of revolutionary ends a functional impossibility. Our mass work must be tolerated in the prerequisite and build all subjective forces towards a revolutionary goal being the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.