In 1989, N.W.A was the world’s most dangerous group, there were fourteen Democratic U.S. Senators in the states that made up the Confederacy, union density was nearly 18 percent, and the Soviet Union looked like it was on the way to political liberalization. None of this is true today.
1989 was also the year that Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) co-founder Michael Harrington died. DSA, Harrington’s family, and the rest of the world have moved on and changed. Well, that is with the great exception of Joe Allen and the International Socialist Organization (ISO).
Bhaskar Sunkara, former editor of The Activist (blog of the YDS) and founder of Jacobin Magazine, wrote a rather innocuous but thought-provoking piece for In These Times. The piece, “Lean Socialist,” challenged the anti-capitalist left to question some the strategies of our projects, such as our relationships with the liberals to our right. The democratic socialist Sunkara mentioned Harrington in passing in reference to both the man’s stature as the most visible American socialist in his lifetime and his relationships with the liberal-left establishment.
Rather than addressing any of the major critical questions that Sunkara presented, Socialist Worker (the ISO website) via Joe Allen dedicated several articles to criticizing Harrington, DSA, and Sunkara. One of the major critiques had to do with DSA’s position of building the left-wing of the possible and our strategy of supporting progressives and socialists under the Democratic Party line.
As in my open letter to comrade Dan LaBotz, I have contended that these caricatures of DSA are outdated and unhelpful. The vast majority of DSA and the Young Democratic Socialists’ work, even in election season, is not around electing anyone — Democrat or not. Yes, this type of electoral activity was a priority for Harrington and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (one of DSA’s predecessor organizations), but that was in the 1980s!
While Allen points out the obvious hard rightward drift of the Democratic Party, which makes it increasingly problematic as a venue for progressive energy, he doesn’t conduct any honest assessment of the type of third-party politics that the ISO conducts. If the Democratic Party is a dead end, then we should also admit that supporting non-major party candidates has not exactly yielded anything substantial for organized socialists. Even today, there are most likely more DSA members holding office than members of any other socialist collective.
As Committees of Correspondence member Will Emmons and I argued in Jacobin, we need to have a real assessment of the democratic left’s orientation towards electoral politics. Both strategies of building the left-wing of the Democratic Party or independent politics have their limitations and have largely failed. I contend that a new strategy could be to run in areas where there is no strong Republican candidate, as in New York City or Boston.
For example, Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant ran for a seat in the Washington State House, and garnered 20,000 votes against her Democratic challenger and State House Speaker Frank Chopp. Without a GOP candidate, Sawant did not play a divisive role; instead she presented people with a left-wing option against an incumbent and powerful Democrat. In my home state of Massachusetts, there are numerous races with no Republican contestants. If the left focused on those races, they could avoid the “spoiler” label and give many voters an option to vote against stale and machine Democrats.
The Left should be having a serious discussion of whether or not this is a valid strategy. We should not be dwelling on whether or not Michael Harrington was right on Vietnam. Focusing on arcane debates is a clear sign that a movement is in a possibly irrevocable decline. Personally, I prefer to hope that socialists can show outsiders how to grow a relevant and strategic opposition during this jobless recovery. Dwelling on personalities and mischaracterizations might build your cadre organization, but it doesn’t build the mass anti-capitalist movement that we need. I hope the Socialist Worker will consider moving forward, or else we should all pack up.