Principled partyist strategy
Four out of five House ‘socialists’ scabbed. Parker McQueeney of the Marxist Unity Group brings to light the deep divisions within the DSA revealed by the recent railworkers disputes
On November 30, the US House of Representatives sent a bill to the Senate which would ultimately impose a ‘tentative agreement’ on railworkers and make a strike illegal. While there were a dozen trade unions that were involved in the negotiation - indicating the confusion and disorganisation of a labour movement divided into crafts rather than united industrially - four unions representing a majority of membership had rejected the contract.
Joe Biden was impatient to avert a strike that, according to the eminent seers at the US Chamber of Commerce and American Farm Bureau, would cost the economy $2 billion daily.1 The grounds for the rejection were that railworkers would be given zero paid sick days. Given that both houses of Congress work significantly less than 200 days a year2 for a generous salary, one can hardly blame railworkers for wanting a few days off for sick leave during a global pandemic.
Fortunately, the liberals of the Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus came in to save the day by forcing House speaker Nancy Pelosi to include an amendment which would grant railworkers seven days of paid sick leave. Or at least that is what they would have you think.
The ‘tentative agreement’ was first passed by the House without the amendment by 290-137 votes. Only eight Democrats voted against the bill, with the Republican ‘no’ votes presumably an inconsequential attempt to stick it to Biden. Of the five self-described ‘democratic socialists’ in Congress, four of which are members of the Democratic Socialists of America, only a single representative stood on the right side of the class line and voted down the contract.
In her statement, the Palestinian-American Congresswoman representing Michigan’s 13th district, Rashida Tlaib, said: “I refuse to impose a contract that was voted down by four of the largest rail unions in the country, which together represent approximately 55% of the unionised rail labour force”.3
These are the most elementary principles of the working class movement and should not require special praise, but, as people who call themselves socialists or as DSA members, the votes of Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), and Ilhan Omar for the bill amount to nothing short of scabbing. The class line is well understood by president Joe Biden, who said:
this overwhelming, bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives makes clear that Democrats and Republicans agree that a rail shutdown would be devastating to our economy and families across the country. The Senate must now act urgently.4
The following vote on the sick days amendment passed narrowly along party lines 221-207. But the question remains, why did the other four members of the ‘Squad’5 (a political designation that reflects the seriousness of their legislative tactics) not follow comrade Tlaib’s lead and vote down the contract without the amendment and then proceed to vote yes on the amendment?
The backroom deals and horse trades that DSA members make in Congress are not knowledge available to the wider membership - or to the organisation’s leadership for that matter. However, it is possible to speculate. Pelosi may have used the carrot/stick method and held votes on the amendment hostage in exchange for left votes on the bill, while promoting the illusion that there was enough political capital for it to pass in the Senate.
This is notable because it is a tactic that the House socialists saw through in November of last year when centrist Democrats separated the social spending bill from Biden’s infrastructure plan. The ‘Squad’ were the only Democrats to vote down the infrastructure bill.6
The amendment was considered through an arcane parliamentary procedure that let the Senate vote on the bill and the amendment separately - perhaps House socialists did not understand the procedure. Representatives of a fresh and underexperienced socialist/workers’ movement not being as well versed as representatives of the bourgeoisie in navigating parliamentary procedures is a forgivable offence, unlike outright scabbing.
Whatever the case, it represents disorganisational chaos and tactical stupidity on the part of House democratic socialists, and a commitment to a bankrupt popular-frontist strategy that turns DSA members (and Ilhan Omar, who has had the good sense not to join the DSA, so she cannot be criticised for straying from its platform7) into merely the most ‘left’ members of the Democrats’ Progressive Caucus wing rather than a real, independent and oppositional political fraction representing the socialist movement.
All this proves that one cannot be both a good Democrat and a good socialist. Had they taken the anti-agreementist road, the sick leave amendment would have had the same result, but they could have organised a press conference to indict and expose the anti-worker dealings of both capitalist parties rather than adapt to the Democrat Big Lie that it was 42 Republican Senators, rather than 79 representatives of the bosses, who imposed the contract.
The reaction within the DSA and on the wider US left has predictably been nothing short of a major scandal. AOC resorted to the defence that they were merely doing what the unions had asked them8 (citing her local Teamsters 202 grocery store workers, whose picket she attended and spoke at, skipping the Biden inauguration in the process)9.
However, this is hardly the first time House democratic socialists have, to put it frankly, fucked up so badly. Readers may recall the Bowman Affair, where Congressman Jamaal Bowman broke with other House socialists to vote funding for the Israeli Iron Dome defence system (AOC changed her vote from ‘no’ to ‘present’ - a method of abstaining - after being berated by Pelosi on the House floor).10 Even Rashida Tlaib, who in the latest incident held on to basic principle, has voted with the rest to send tens of billions in military assistance to fund America’s proxy war with Russia in Ukraine every time Biden has asked. This is a violation every bit as serious as the basic scabbing exhibited last week by the other socialists.
The result is that, within the DSA, there has been a steady increase in awareness across the board for the need of genuine democratic centralism (rather than its military-bureaucratic distortion inherited by ‘Leninist’ sects).11 While we in the Marxist Unity Group12 did not succeed at the August 2021 convention13 in passing our democratic-centralist ‘Tribunes of the people’ resolution,14 the terrain for winning DSA members over to principled Marxist politics has never been more favourable.
MUG has also consistently exposed the liquidationist politics of the slim rightwing majority of the DSA’s national political committee (NPC). This is important, because, from my experience in the last five years in the DSA, NPC candidates, especially the liquidators, do not openly stand for election on their liquidator politics and popular-front strategy. This is particularly true when it comes to debates on labour strategy - the liquidator wing tends to oppose the Kim Moody ‘rank-and-file strategy’, which consistently wins majority support in the DSA, on a pro-labour bureaucrat/business union basis. They are the true heirs to the politics of Michael Harrington, the DSA’s founder.15
This group on the DSA leadership often coincides with a social layer of ‘professional activists’ employed by leftwing NGOs. They are often effective leaders on campaigns, bringing in useful tactics and organisational knowledge to a movement that has spent decades in isolation, and dedicated to volunteering many labour hours to the DSA’s mass work. But their class location as professionals (indirectly) structurally tied to the Democratic Party apparatus generally commits them to the popular-front strategy (I say ‘generally’, because it is a Stalinist error to assume a one-to-one mapping of political beliefs onto class location).
The ‘leftwing’ minority on the NPC is politically eclectic and they are not necessarily consistent partisans for the pro-party viewpoint, but have been forced over the last year to increasingly clarify their views and consolidate against the right. Special praise must be given to NPC member Jenbo, who has consistently worked over the course of her term to expose the bureaucratic machinations of the liquidator wing.
It is not only the officially liquidationist wing of the left that has been offering excuses for the scabbing, however - some centrists have been on the defensive as well. Star labour journalist and former staffer for AOC Jonah Furman of Labor Notes, who champions union reform caucus efforts, published an interview in Jacobin with a member of the Railroad Workers United (RWU), a leftwing, rank-and-file, cross-union caucus, with this tagline:
We spoke with a train engineer about president Biden undemocratically forcing a union contract on railworkers, the failures of rail unions’ leadership during negotiations, and why he thinks progressives in Congress should be “commended” for their role in pushing for seven paid sick days.16
The RWU is somewhat unique as a rank-and-file caucus, not only because it organises members across different unions, but also because it has made statements to the left of other reform caucuses. It was the only caucus that sent greetings to this summer’s Socialist Conference in Chicago, and made a statement in a recent press release criticising both capitalist parties and calling on workers to “explore other options”.17
It is safe to say there is a range of opinions on the ‘Squad’ votes in the RWU, and Furman is deliberately promoting this particular RWU member to make the rounds - not only in Jacobin, but in the popular leftwing podcast Chapo Trap House18 - because of his particular tempering viewpoint.
I do not criticise Ross Grooters for recognising the intention that went behind the vote and not making a big deal out of it. Socialist and trade-union consciousness are qualitatively different things: the latter is primarily concerned with winning the immediate concerns of a given class struggle and therefore leads to political compromises with the class enemy. A socialist is firstly concerned with the additional, higher responsibility of creating a formation of the class for the conquest of political power.
While clarity around the need for genuine democratic centralism is growing, the mass of DSA members not tied to an official liquidator faction has been sceptical of imposing discipline requirements on elected representatives, especially at the federal level. The truth is the relationship between the DSA and the ‘socialist fraction’ in the House is mainly an ambiguous relationship of convenience. The DSA did not play a hegemonic role in the coalitions to get them elected, but their public association results in an exchange of prestige; for the DSA offering it the political legitimacy of having members in Congress, for AOC et al offering the (unique in US politics) association with the historical socialist tradition.
Many in the DSA have argued that imposing principles ‘from above’ would be operating beyond our real strength and capacity, and that DSA Marxists need to prove the ‘tribunist’ model on the ground in municipal and state elections first.19 We in the Marxist Unity Group are certainly committed to proving the model in state and local elections, but the ‘proof is in the pudding’ idea is a fallacy.
The obvious historical example is the German SPD. August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht were elected to the Reichstag at a time when the party - newly merged between Marxist ‘Eisenachers’ and the Lassallean General German Workers’ Association (ADAV), was roughly the same proportion of the population as the DSA is now.
Our backward and anti-democratic constitutional order may very well make the barriers to organising a successful attempt at federal office more difficult than in the Bismarck-era Reich, but Liebknecht and Bebel were so effective in using their platform for agitating for the socialist Weltanschauung that, in part due to their efforts and skill, the SPD grew to an organisation of millions that, while eventually folding to revisionist treachery in the face of World War I, eventually birthed Bolshevism and the success of the Russian Revolution.
In fact, it is precisely Wilhelm Liebknecht that Lenin refers to in the famous What is to be done? quote, where he sets up the dialectical opposition between the ‘trade union secretary’ and the ‘tribune of the people’.
A real organised socialist fraction would in fact benefit from the DSA adopting this policy, in that, while taking a real oppositional stance to the Democratic Party would isolate the fraction from their colleagues, a consistent socialist organisational policy would provide deeper backing from a dues-paying membership of several tens of thousands. It would also necessitate creating channels of direction and advice from the DSA leadership to help the fraction navigate tactics, parliamentary procedure, etc that democratic socialist House members clearly stumble around.
What has been the response of the disunited DSA left? In Chicago, a recent resolution brought forth by the Class Unity caucus for expulsion of the DSA congressional scabs lost by a vote of 14-71. While this may seem to indicate the will to move in a Marxist direction is, on the surface, barely to be found in the DSA, I am sceptical.
Class Unity, especially in Chicago and especially after the split of their more ‘productive’ members in Buffalo into Winter Caucus, are viewed by the vast majority of DSA members not only as ‘cut-and-run’ entryists, but also as workerist-chauvinists, whose main concern is fighting ‘identitarianism’.
While it may be true that a centrist lack of political will for outright expulsion may dominate, it is my view that immediate calls for expulsion are not the smartest tactical or strategic move forward anyway. DSA elected representatives, on all levels, have never been presented with the expectation that they will follow platform discipline, or must resign from the Progressive Caucus and refuse participation in the Democratic Caucus outright, as the Marxist Unity Group proposes.
It is necessary for Marxists to first fight for a majority policy and build a political culture of genuine democratic centralism within the DSA and present representatives with these expectations before deciding to break relations. Immediate expulsions may soothe the justified moral outrage of radicals, but without transforming the organisation top, middle and bottom, it would be a hollow gesture. This is the strategy adopted by Seattle DSA - a chapter with a principled leadership from the Reform and Revolution caucus - with its recent open letter20 to the NPC calling on it to host an organisation-wide town hall where socialist representatives will answer to criticism.
The question of pro-party views against liquidationism is, for the first time since the zombie-like reanimation of Michael Harrington’s organisational corpse in 2017, the main political divide in the DSA. It is the urgent responsibility of Marxists to unite all who can be united around a principled partyist strategy.
It is unclear why Ayanna Pressley, who does not claim to be a socialist, is considered part of the ‘Squad’ - except for the fact she’s a progressive Democrat woman of colour who was elected to Congress at the same time as AOC et al. I leave her out of consideration for obvious reasons.↩︎
‘Origins of democratic centralism’ Weekly Worker November 5 2015: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1081/origins-of-democratic-centralism.↩︎
An explicit appeal to Harrington’s strategy was made in the latest issue of Socialist Forum, the DSA’s online quarterly. While explicitly Harringtonite ideological views are theoretically in a minority in the DSA, in practice they often dominate. See socialistforum.dsausa.org/issues/fall-2022/the-case-for-realignment.↩︎
During the Bowman affair, Chapo Trap House broke its silence on internal DSA issues and defended the DSA international committee’s criticisms of Bowman. The recent RWU interview conducted by Will Menaker did not push the issue of the ‘Squad’ votes.↩︎