Party, unions and programme
Kent Kiser and Awi Blanc of the Red Labor Caucus take issue with Parker McQueeney and call for the DSA to make an immediate ‘clean break’ with the Democratic Party
The last two years have seen the resurfacing of old but important debates within the Democratic Socialists of America around the ‘party question’. Unfortunately, they are usually couched in abstract and vague terms, or limited to pros-and-cons arguments. In order for the DSA to pursue an effective electoral strategy, we must take into account the concrete situation we are in today, with special attention to the relationship between the party question and that elephant in the DSA room: the labour question.
The question of whether, how and when to move towards building an independent workers’ party has divided the organisation into three camps:
- First, those who hold on to DSA founder Michael Harrington’s original ‘realignment’ vision,1 which is to blow on the sails of the Democratic Party, hoping for a leftward drift.
- Second, a growing minority of cautious Marxists who see the need for the DSA to break from the Democratic Party, but not quite yet. The three caucuses - Bread and Roses, Marxist Unity Group, and Reform and Revolution - offer different variants of this ‘dirty break’ strategy,2 which hinges on building electoral support through socialist candidates of the Democratic Party. With some guidance from the DSA, such electeds are expected to form a socialist fraction that uses the Democratic Party ballot line to get elected and push for reforms, while somehow distancing itself from the party’s thoroughly capitalist establishment. This fraction will break from the Democrats when its own electoral base is sufficiently strong to hold its own as the basis of a truly independent socialist labour party.3
- Third, an even smaller minority of Marxists, such as the Red Labor caucus, hold that the DSA must make an immediate (‘clean’) break from the Democratic Party, and focus on laying the groundwork for a new workers’ party through programmatic regroupment today.
The recent experience that motivates the ‘dirty break’ strategy is that Democratic Party candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez helped “rescue the left from decades of marginalisation”.4 There is a truth to this. Bernie and the Squad have put socialism on the map, attracting scores of young activists to socialist ideas. Their campaigning for basic reforms, such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, have popularised demands that socialists have long advocated (even if the former are diluted versions of the latter). In addition, as a result of DSA support for popular Democratic Party candidates, there is a spillover of young activists from these electoral campaigns into the DSA.
Clinging to the ‘dirty break’ strategy means that most chapters are not engaged in building independent socialist electoral apparatuses. Instead, they ride on the coat tails of Democratic Party politicians who are not part of the labour movement. Such politicians, although they often fight for progressive legislation, are more accountable to their colleagues in the party than to the working class they supposedly represent. ‘Dirty break’ advocates in the DSA have therefore been forced to contend with the anti-worker legislative moves of these DSA-backed candidates, such as the recent strike-breaking by the Squad.5
Parker McQueeney of the Marxist Unity Group recently tried to address this problem in his Weekly Worker article.6 Laying the grounds for the desired socialist labour party, he acknowledges, must involve breaking from the Democratic Party. However, like Bread and Roses, and Reform and Revolution, McQueeney and the MUG are not ready to cut the umbilical cord just yet. To break from the Democratic Party would “isolate the fraction from their colleagues” and relinquish the DSA’s “ambiguous relationship of convenience” with the Democratic Party.
Expelling electeds from the DSA when they attack the working class, he goes on, “may soothe the justified moral outrage of radicals”, but does not transform the organisation and is thus “a hollow gesture”. Instead, McQueeney’s solution is to build up a “democratic centralist culture” in the DSA - a tactic he leans towards is for the DSA to hold “an organisation-wide town hall where socialist representatives will answer to criticism”, such as proposed by DSA leaders in Seattle. McQueeney concludes with these words:
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.
With great respect for my comrade, I must say he has fallen short of explaining the existing divisions in the DSA and their implications for the socialist movement. These questions are usually approached within the DSA from the mainstream perspective of the ruling class. That is, they focus on the effect of this or that ballot line on electoral success, the visibility of democratic socialist members of Congress, the recruitment to the DSA, and other benefits of Democratic Party patronage. These are important factors and should not be discounted. But what is the effect of the DSA’s basking in the Democratic Party light on its most active organisers’ ability to make headway in organised labour as socialists?
For socialists, elections are not just about obtaining votes or a seat at the legislative table. We see the fight for reforms as a stepping stone towards the abolition of capitalism. The content and scope of the reforms we win is important, of course, But what makes the crucial difference between reforms for reform’s sake and reforms as a step towards socialism is how they are won.
This applies both in the labour movement and the political arena. For us, union organising is not just about getting socialists into leadership positions. Socialists intervene in unions in order to empower workers to push collectively against exploitation. Decent union leaders may help win better contracts once in a while by mobilising the membership. But unions in which socialists have successfully intervened are transformed into democratic, mass-participation organisations, led by the members themselves, whose leaders carry out the collective will of an organised majority.
By the same token, politicians may carry out reforms, and they may even be significant (the New Deal was the most celebrated package of reforms in this country). But socialists pursue reforms that are fought for by the working class itself, and not merely by voting for benevolent politicians. However, the working class does not normally legislate reforms by referendum. Nor can it force reforms on an oppositional bourgeois government by mass action every single time. There must be a role for the legislative action of representatives of the working class, or ‘socialist parliamentarians’.
So what does it mean for workers to fight for reforms from below? In the context of electoral politics, as in organised labour, it is not always clear which reforms are ‘from above’ and which are ‘from below’. Witness the never-ending debate about the New Deal.7 On the one hand, mass working class action goaded the Roosevelt administration towards ambitious reform. On the other hand, once-militant unions and parties (the Communist Party in particular) subordinated themselves to the Democrats, whose explicit aim was to save capitalism, with disastrous results that slowly unfolded in the following decades.
Clearly, socialist elected representatives in legislative bodies must be accountable to the working class. Hence, discussion of the ‘dirty break’ and its discontents often revolve around the question of how to keep electeds accountable to the DSA, and how to “scale up” this electoral strategy, so as to bring larger sections of the working class into supporting the programmes championed by these politicians.8 All this sidesteps the question of where candidates come from in the first place, and what their relation is to the labour movement - in particular the socialist current within it: that is, the rank-and-file-led militant sections in organised labour that socialists must organise.
For example, Eugene Debs was a celebrated labour leader who campaigned for president on the Socialist Party ticket. In discussing socialist electoral strategy, Debs is too easily placed on a par with someone like Bernie Sanders today. They are both socialists, aren’t they? Critics of this analogy are quick to point out that Debs did not run as a Democrat, or that Bernie Sanders does not oppose Zionism (and other political weaknesses). These differences are more of a symptom than the core issue: Debs led the Pullman Strike of 1894 and was one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World, whereas Bernie Sanders (his many good opinions notwithstanding) is a long-time professional politician and an outsider to the labour movement.
So how are we to cultivate or find such candidates for our electoral work? To answer with a recently defrosted notion: the ‘rank-and-file strategy’.9 Unfortunately, this strategy is usually very vaguely defined: does it simply mean DSA members hasten to picket lines and offer logistical support to unions in our area? Does it mean getting union jobs? Helping workplaces unionise? Of course, all the above are good tactics to pursue for any DSA chapter that is positioned to do so. But a critical and sadly neglected component of the rank-and-file strategy is the fight to upend the stifling bureaucracies that prevent unions from becoming the kind of class-struggle organisations where socialist politics can be learned through action. And, as long as the DSA is tied to the Democratic Party, its implementation of the rank-and-file strategy will remain a watered-down version that amounts to tailing the existing union bureaucracy - or at best offering a slightly improved, whitewashed variant of it.
Only a truly democratic and bottom-up labour movement (the goal of the rank-and-file strategy) can generate the kinds of leaders that socialists should run for office. If we are serious about breaking from the capitalist parties, now or in the foreseeable future, we have to be serious about building a workplace-based and member-led organisation that we can break to.
Foxes in henhouse
In a nutshell, those who play in the Dems’ playground also play nicely with the labour bureaucracy. McQueeney skirts the heart of the matter when he observes that realignment DSAers tend to oppose socialist intervention in unions, operating instead on a “pro-labour bureaucrat/business union basis”. On the other hand, McQueeney naively states that the rank-and-file strategy “consistently wins majority support in the DSA”.
What does this support look like in practice, however? The organisation currently includes labour bureaucrats who fight against bottom-up organising in their locals. As is well known, these labour officials are tied to the Democratic Party, and both are fiercely dedicated to class-collaboration and labour peace. McQueeney correctly points out that the DSA includes “a social layer of ‘professional activists’”, even in leadership positions, who are “tied to the Democratic Party apparatus”. But what is rarely openly acknowledged is the overlap between this “social layer” of activists from the DSA’s middle class majority and the progressive wing of the labour bureaucracy.
The term, ‘union bureaucracy’, is not a vague deprecation for leaders we disagree with: it has a concrete and precise meaning. A union is bureaucratic when it is controlled by a narrow clique of class-collaborationist officers, who prioritise their dues-based privileges extracted from a membership that has very little influence on or knowledge about their union. ‘Bureaucratic’ is counterposed to ‘democratic’ - in the strong (socialist) sense of the word. Union officers are usually elected by the membership, but this should not fool us into believing that the union is ‘democratic’ - no more than our capitalist electoral system is ‘democratic’ simply because we are honoured to choose between two capitalist parties every few years.
Socialists take democracy much more seriously than that. For us, democracy means active and conscious rule by the working class majority. In a union, this means that the majority of members are actively involved in union decision-making and collective action against the boss, and elected leaders execute the will of this continually involved membership. An easy litmus test for the existence of an entrenched bureaucracy (though by no means the root of the matter) is low voter turnout. Bureaucratised unions typically see less than half of their members submit a ballot in union elections.
The short-term outcome of union bureaucracy is bad contracts, strikes that are few and far between, and a membership that has low expectations from ‘the union’, which they see as a remote entity that one pays dues to as if it were an insurance company. In the longer term, union bureaucracies contribute to alienation and apathy in the workers’ movement: that is, to conditions that are antithetical to organising a socialist movement. Since the party question cannot be separated from the labour question, a break from the Democratic Party requires a break from the union bureaucracy, and vice versa. Both of these interconnected struggles are growing pains that the DSA must endure if it is to strike roots in organised labour and become a genuine working class organisation.
The East Bay and Boise chapters of the DSA offer recent examples of the concrete problems the national organisation has been forced to contend with as a result of its barren polyamory with the Democratic Party and the labour bureaucracy.10 Both chapters have committed members, who are organising rank-and-file caucuses in their unions, as well as seasoned labour bureaucrats, who oppose any attempt at bottom-up organising in their locals. East Bay DSA has members organising in two education unions, the Oakland Education Association (OEA) and the much larger United Auto Workers (UAW). Both unions have received significant support from East Bay DSA11 - especially during their strikes in 2019 and 2022 respectively.
However, behind this positive solidarity work is a division within the chapter that remains implicit in most DSA publications and discussions. For example, in the 2022 six-week UAW strike, East Bay DSA members in that union built organising campaigns for steadfast insistence on critical demands and the rejection of weak, tentative agreements.12 At the same time, DSA members who are tied to the UAW bureaucracy worked to frustrate these organising efforts, and succeeded in doing so for the most part. A similar dynamic exists in the intersection between East Bay DSA and the OEA. DSA members who work tirelessly in both these locals to transform them into democratic, member-led unions, are forced to carry out in their unions an uninterrupted - now hidden, now open - fight against … other DSA members in their chapter.
It is no accident that the DSA members who support the labour bureaucracy are often ‘dirty breakers’. The ironic result is that the rank-and-file strategy - which Bread and Roses (the most prominent caucus advocating for a ‘dirty break’) fought hard to pass in the 2019 DSA national convention13 - is implemented in a way that is more similar to the union strategy of the realignment activists. Barry Eidlin aptly describes the latter:
Proponents of the rank-and-file strategy differed from some: most notably leaders in organisational precursors of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who sought to strengthen the labour-left link by seeking alliances with more progressive elements of the union bureaucracy rather than building workplace organisation or rank-and-file leadership.14
Today these progressive elements are inspired by union reformers such as Jane McAlevey, whose model is designed to invigorate unions by way of guidance from professional staffers. The entanglement with both Democratic Party politicians and labour bureaucrats not only hinders the work of rank-and-file organisers, but ultimately repels them from the DSA’s Janus-face. East Bay DSA has lost quite a few strong organisers since 2019 due to the frustrations of having to wrangle with pro-bureaucracy elements within their organisation.
The Boise DSA also faced opposition from a local labour bureaucracy - but with a different outcome, due to Red Labor’s majority in the chapter. In the last year, DSA members in Boise took on union positions within the AFL-CIO union confederation for the first time in this chapter. One of Boise DSA’s first big political fights involving the trade unions revolved around a Central Trades and Labor Council (CLC), headed by a Democratic Party precinct leader. The CLC considered accepting Boise DSA as a voting member and labour-friendly organisation. However, when DSA members distributed a union paper written by rank-and-file union members, the union officers attempted to destroy it and prevent its publication. This only increased its support among the union members, and ignited a stormy confrontation with the bureaucracy. AFL-CIO leaders summoned lawyers to threaten members who were associated with the ‘Reds’. Their tactic backfired, and DSA support only increased in the locals, as the bureaucracy’s hostility to democracy and members’ initiative had been clearly exposed.
During these union fights, Boise DSA labour organisers discovered that among the union and CLC leaders (and Idaho Democratic Party leaders) who tried to purge DSA members from their union there were DSA members and donors. We realised that routine meeting reports could not even be shared with all DSA contact lists because of the danger of retaliation from hostile union leaders who could have access to these minutes. Simply put, to carry out the rank-and-file strategy we had to dodge hostile opposition from Democratic labour bureaucrats in the DSA. The result of excluding the bureaucrats from the rank-and-file organising was greater support and involvement from workers in Idaho unions, who could now speak freely at meetings without fear of retaliation. The whole situation is bizarre, of course, since the DSA is a socialist organisation where chapter committees and meetings should be open to all members.
The feared ‘Reds’ in Boise are DSA socialists. We seek to democratise existing workplace organising structures, and in particular unions, as well as to create new ones, where they do not yet exist. The history of our movement shows that there is no way to create a genuine workers’ party (and ultimately a workers’ government) without socialists organising in the labour movement. Transforming the unions into democratic, member-led organisations, however, is diametrically opposed to the interests of the labour bureaucracy, who have shown their willingness to use the dirtiest tactics to prevent socialist influence in ‘their’ house: intimidation, illegal rulings, slander campaigns, blatant violation of democratic processes, purges - and even the direct appeal to management to stomp out DSA activity in the workplace.
Boise DSA members rely on wide and increasing rank-and-file support, however, which is how we survived these attacks. Not only have the bureaucrats failed to push us out in existing unions: we have won local union elections as delegates and officers at the CLC and the state AFL-CIO convention.
Boise DSA voted to cease support for Democratic Party candidates in 2020, and to organise for a new socialist labour party. This meant the chapter no longer campaigned for the labour bureaucrats we were forced to struggle against.
The chapter has learned from experience that one cannot separate the party question from the union fight for workers’ democracy. Our members have reported time and again that union activists came to support us (and members became activists in the first place) due to our union reform efforts and our programme for an independent working class party. This is simply because workers in the bureaucratised unions can plainly see that their own union bosses operate hand-in-glove with the Democratic Party (some are even Democratic electeds), and that both are enemies of working people. Anything but a clean break from the Dems is correctly seen by workers as a swindle and a sham. Behind the ‘dirty break’ is a simple logic: ‘The Democratic Party is a capitalist party, but we must support it.’ Socialists should never lie to workers, who can see right through these obfuscations. The “ambiguous relationship of convenience” McQueeney aptly describes is convenient indeed - but not ambiguous to the working class.
To be clear, socialists need not shy away from union officer positions. To lay the groundwork for a workers’ party, the DSA must make real inroads into the unions, and that includes their leadership. But socialists should not make their way into the leadership by cosying up to incumbent bureaucrats. Instead, we must invest our resources in a genuine rank-and-file strategy, which means the DSA creates and supports bottom-up organising initiatives (usually rank-and-file caucuses) in the unions. The rank-and-file strategy means much more than showing up at a picket line or raising funds for ‘the union’. It means entering into a fight against a powerful buffer that protects the capitalist class by promoting class collaboration.
Confronting ‘progressive’ class-collaborationists in the labour movement is understandably uncomfortable within the DSA’s big-tent culture. Thus, the question remains under the surface, especially when discussing the ‘rank-and-file strategy’. For example, the DSA ‘rank-and-file strategy’ website15 scarcely mentions the labour bureaucracy as an enemy in this context. The concept does appear once, however, in the introductory pamphlet, which correctly states:
The cold war purges of left-leaning union leaders and the shift of union leaders toward business unionism resulted in a staid bureaucracy unwilling to combat concessions, and a demobilised rank and file that too often lacks the organisation to fight its own battles. One goal of the rank-and-file strategy is to reform unions into sites of class struggle: democratic, member-led movements with the confidence and cohesion to fight and win real power.16
What is not mentioned is the role that the left played (with the Democratic Party) in making organised labour vulnerable to the “cold war purges”. Ironically, the rank-and-file strategy is loosely based on the pamphlet of that name by Kim Moody, which briefly recounts precisely that cautionary history.17 Although the playing field is different today, the experience of recent years has shown that one thing has not changed: a socialist organisation cannot bring organised labour into the socialist movement if it is saturated by the conjoined cooptation apparatuses of the labour bureaucracy and Democratic Party. There are no convenient short cuts to independent working class politics. From the shopfloor to the electoral area, socialism can only be fought for by the workers themselves.
We raise the question of the clean break on the convention floor not simply to pass it, which is unlikely, but to use the convention platform to help unite the pro-party forces in the DSA who see the break from the Democrats as necessary - not merely as a “hollow gesture”, but as part and parcel of a socialist labour strategy.18 We hope to encourage a regroupment of the left along these lines of ‘revolutionary parliamentarism’. The disillusionment with both the Democratic Party and the ‘progressive’ labour bureaucracies is becoming more widespread - not only within the DSA, but in other organisations that have given our resolution support, such as the Socialist Party of America, sections of the Peace and Freedom Party, sections of the Communist Party, sections of the Socialist Party USA, and the Green Party.
The struggle for a workers’ party is a struggle for class independence and programmatic unity. We agree with the Marxist Unity Group, for example, that “the ‘break’ with the Democratic Party is a continuous process that must begin in earnest right now”. But we argue from bitter experience that this continuous process must start with an opening salvo: a fight to break from both the Democratic Party and its long tentacles in the labour movement. For the working class to enter the electoral arena in its own name, its leaders must emerge from workplace struggles - not from among labour bureaucrats, who are already tied to the party we are trying to break from.
We agree with MUG that:
While we use the federal government as a bully pulpit, our candidates could also use their public profiles to support state and municipal organising efforts. Federal, state and local struggles - strikes, electoral campaigns and mass demonstrations - will all be fused together in one grand movement that demands nothing less than a working class, socialist revolution.19
However, we have been forced to give this grand vision a more concrete footing.
We urge DSA readers to consider supporting our clean-break resolution. Some advocates of the ‘dirty break’, such as Eric Blanc (who coined the term) and the Marxist Unity Group, are interested in reanimating the ideas of Karl Kautsky,20 so we will end by quoting from the old man:
Whoever looks upon the Socialist Party as a means for the freeing of the proletariat must decisively oppose any and all forms of participation by that party in the ruling corruption. If there is anything that will rob us of the confidence of all honourable elements in the masses, and that will gain us the contempt of all those sections of the proletariat that are capable of and willing to fight, and that will bar the road to our progress, it is participation of the socialists in any coalition or ‘bloc’ policy.
The only elements that would be served by such a policy would be those to whom our party is nothing more than a ladder by which they can personally climb - the strivers and the self-seekers. The less of such elements we attract to us and the more we can drive away, the better for our battle.21
‘Principled partyist strategy’ Weekly Worker December 8 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1422/principled-partyist-strategy.↩︎
See ‘The clean break’: docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSe87QSUInotQ6zcV_J96B0h6C_FgsNduKOE6nPa3qS_NLExoQ/viewform↩︎
K Kautsky The road to power (1909): www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1909/power/index.htm.↩︎