In Defense of Campaigns

Electoral & legislative campaigns are indispensable to building working-class organizations where people live and work.

In “Stuck in a Loop,” NYC-DSA members Jack L and Isaac KD published a case against what they characterize as the dominant “campaign” form of organizing in our chapter. Their critique touches on NYC-DSA’s organizational structure and the political assumptions that underlie our campaigns, and displays a theoretical ambivalence about whether socialists should even have a leadership role in the struggle for working-class reforms. Their perspective is an attempt to draw a sharp differentiation between our efforts in the electoral and legislative arenas and the project of organizing a mass working-class base. They make the argument that DSA is focusing on the former to the exclusion of the latter. While they raise important organizational questions for NYC-DSA, the political argument falls flat. In the contemporary US, building a mass working-class base requires connecting electoral campaigns and the fight for transformative reforms with deeper organizing in communities and workplaces. Trying to separate these approaches could ultimately doom them all to failure.

Taking the theoretical point first, Jack and Isaac posit that socialists organizing for legislative reforms are ultimately acting against our own agenda by “legitimizing the bourgeois state.” Their arguments (and the alternatives they offer) are largely taken from an orthodox Marxist revolutionary strategy in which campaigning for reforms is a means to propagandize and organize the working class in advance of an imminent social revolution. Advocates and practitioners of this strategy more than a century ago in imperial Germany and elsewhere were not engaged in wishful thinking. They had a clear theory, rooted in their own conditions, for how to make a successful revolution. The capitalist system was producing a massive industrial proletariat, those workers were primed to develop revolutionary consciousness through the collective experience of exploitation in massive industrial workplaces, and socialists believed that they could organize and ultimately lead the class to take state power thanks to the workers’ overwhelming numbers and control of the machinery of industrial production. The “bourgeois state” – and we should be clear that the actual states early Marxists confronted generally didn’t have the universal franchise or rule by elected legislators – would never accommodate itself to democratic rule by a working-class majority and ultimately would have to be overthrown and replaced by a true democracy. In this context, campaigning for popular reforms that the state could never meet was a mechanism to reveal its illegitimacy and build revolutionary consciousness.

The conditions that produced this strategy more than a century ago don’t exist in the US in 2022. There is much to say about how the composition of the working class has changed – rather than a relatively coherent majority of industrial workers, we are trying to organize a highly differentiated class comprised of public and private sector workers, industrial and service workers, with great diversity in income and educational attainment, and many tens of millions of workers with some degree of contradictory class position. But the bigger obstacle to an orthodox revolutionary strategy today is that the capitalist state itself has proven far more flexible and resilient than anticipated a century ago. Capitalism in the US and around the world has produced profound misery, but capitalist states have also accommodated themselves to and initiated substantial interventions in the market economy on behalf of workers, most notably the legalization of unions and the development of the modern welfare state. Jack and Isaac view the gains US workers made in the 1930s (and presumably the gains of working-class parties in Europe) as a warning sign of a reformist dead-end, but whether you see those gains as the hard-fought victories of working class politics (as I do) or an effort by far-sighted capitalists and state actors to preserve stability, it’s inarguable that they delivered material gains for many working-class people and shaped the organization and consciousness of working people where they were passed. The fact that working-class political and social action can produce reforms that benefit workers has to be incorporated into any contemporary socialist strategy. Socialists will guarantee our own marginalization and separation from any mass working class movement if we aren’t deadly serious about making gains that improve people’s lives. If socialists can’t deliver for workers, we will lose support to political leaders of a different character.

Even in the contemporary US, with its sclerotic constitution, inept elites, ongoing crises in both major parties, and profound failure to confront economic, social and climate catastrophes, the state is not vulnerable to an orthodox revolutionary strategy. The capacity for repression far exceeds that of any government a century ago and the near-universal franchise grants legitimacy to elected leaders in the eyes of the people that can’t just be wished away. While the US seems incapable of passing even modest reforms right now, in the face of a genuine revolutionary crisis the capitalist class has substantial options in terms of both reform and repression. And unfortunately, political and economic crises don’t just produce socialist or revolutionary consciousness, they also lead to apathy, hopelessness and disorganization. To the extent that there is a political project eroding the legitimacy of democratic governance gaining traction in the US, it is in the Republican base, which is increasingly animated by a the protofascist Qanon fantasy of a military dictatorship executing leftists, widespread conspiracies of stolen elections, and a heavily armed fringe increasingly organized into a militia movement. The anti-democratic and minoritarian aspects of our democracy give this movement a built-in advantage, and a real shot at using state power to crush worker organizing and the Left in the coming years. In this context, democratic socialists must champion the protection of existing democratic rights, while fighting for reforms that bring a greater measure of popular control over the political system.

For the Left, there is no shortcut. De-legitimizing the rule of capitalists and the capitalist system itself will require marshaling a popular majority in support of a democratic, socialist alternative, and in the US today any movement capable of marshaling that majority will have to do so in part through the electoral arena. Sustained, mass support for the socialist project will only be possible if we can deliver real and meaningful improvements in working people’s lives. Our political challenge is to develop the politics and program that both has something to offer a working-class majority right now and contains a path to the revolutionary transformation and democratization of state and society that we envision. Our practical challenge is to create an organization deeply rooted in workplaces and working class communities, that can take that program from a set of demands to a reality.

There were probably a dozen Marxist organizations in the United States in 2015 that used the same rationale presented in “Stuck in a Loop” for sitting out the Sanders campaign. Doing so was an organizational mistake, as many of them dissolved, split, or were forced to renovate their political analysis. But more importantly, it was a political and strategic error that missed something meaningful happening with the working class, and consequently left its adherents on the sidelines while working people were in motion in support of Sanders’s transformational agenda. DSA continues to develop a far more radical horizon for our politics than what Bernie ran on in his presidential campaigns, but we also need to continue to think seriously about why he was able to inspire millions of working-class people and put so many of them into motion. It’s in the interplay between working-class demands, political campaigns, and mass movements in workplaces, housing, schools, communities and the streets where working people are going to find the confidence to challenge capitalism and develop the organization and strategies necessary to do so. If socialist action is stymied by theoretical objection to reform, or electoral politics, or the Democratic Party ballot line, it will be a recipe for self-marginalization and a rejection of everything DSA did right since 2015.

What Types of Reform?

Isaac and Jack make a valuable contribution to the political conversation within DSA by putting a focus on the possibilities and limitations of reforms, and by considering not just their immediate outcomes but how they contribute to our broader political struggle. Unfortunately, they do so by caricaturing the position of DSA members who are working to organize around the immediate needs of working people by claiming that those organizers are naively presuming all reforms “necessarily lead to class organization.” If this were the case, our members might support addressing some of the deep crises facing the US working class through policies like “school choice,” carbon trading, additional training and equipment for police officers or schemes that promote and subsidize homeownership. These are all examples of neoliberal reforms that purport to address issues our members care about, but are tied to a neoliberal project that uses policy to promote an ideology of individualism, consumption and ownership, and to diminish solidarity and organization. DSA members have regularly and rightfully rejected neoliberal reforms because we widely recognize that the program we fight for and policy gains we make need to build solidarity and address the profound disorganization of working people in the US.

Thankfully, the core priorities that have recurred in DSA’s local and national campaigns – the PRO Act, a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, social housing and rent control policies, defunding police forces, opposing US military interventions and economic sanctions – represent a policy program that speaks to many the immediate demands of working-class people and social movements while helping to build the long-term prospects of the socialist project. Of course, the PRO Act and Medicare for All don’t represent a full transition to socialism and defunding police departments isn’t the same as reaching an abolitionist horizon, but those in DSA organizing for these demands understand that well. In order to achieve profound changes in our society we need a program right now that speaks to working people’s immediate needs, that we can organize a majority of working people around, and that can increase working class confidence and change the balance of forces in our favor. This practical program deserves to be further theorized, debated, and refined through the experience of our organizing work, but it shouldn’t be disparaged as a product of knee-jerk reformism when it represents a major political step forward for the US left. We also need to demonstrate to workers that the socialist movement is an avenue for winning these things, not just talking about them, which means socialists must take seriously where and when we can win victories, however small or large, under the current political and economic conditions.

Building a Mass Base

The organizational critique at the heart of Jack and Isaac’s article is that too many resources are going to electoral and legislative campaigns, and that NYC-DSA is suppressing a “diversity of tactics” that would include mutual aid, tenant organizing, labor organizing and participation in mass protests in favor of a single-minded focus on winning reforms. This is not a fair analysis of our chapter’s politics. We recently committed $8,000 to supporting members going to Labor Notes (larger than the annual budget of a priority campaign), many mutual aid projects have existed and been promoted within NYC-DSA’s decentralized working group structure, and our chapter has recommitted to rank-and-file labor organizing every year since 2017. But the biggest problem with this analysis is that attempting to artificially separate electoral and legislative campaigns from longer term base-building work will undermine both projects – our way forward is to unify them.

My own interest in socialist electoral politics developed after Kshama Sawant’s 2013 city council victory in Seattle. At the time I had a few years of experience as a community and labor organizer, but after Sawant’s election led to Seattle passing a $15 minimum wage I was impressed by the impact that a single socialist elected official could have. My commitment to organizing working-class people where they live and work wasn’t diminished by coming to see the opportunities in electoral politics, but it became clear to me that a local campaign had much to offer as an organizing project – a clear timeline, a goal, a metric for success and failure, and a structure that was scaleable, replicable, and that almost any number of people at any level of organizing experience could participate in. After some work on a local socialist campaign in 2014, I joined DSA in 2016 and along with another comrade proposed the formation of the Brooklyn Electoral Working group. NYC-DSA’s campaigns today are a product of the work of thousands of people, and continue to grow stronger as more members become skilled organizers through participation in them. It might seem that they are sucking up a lot of resources, but in fact they are an important part of our organization because they are so effective at marshaling resources – raising money, recruiting volunteers, generating press coverage, advancing working-class demands, and so much more. Those are not resources that would magically go to another project if not for the campaigns. Without strong campaigns, our longer term project of organizing a mass working-class base would still be enormously challenging, but would also have to happen in a less supportive political context.

My personal experience with base-building organizing confirms the importance of that political and legislative context. The New York State rent laws came up for renewal in 2015, when I was living in a rent-stabilized apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. My roommate and I, as well as many of the long-term tenants in the building, were all living under the same “preferential rent” loophole that made us vulnerable to substantial rent increases from our landlord. I set about organizing my building, and helped restart a long defunct tenant association. After only a few months of organizing several of my neighbors made the trip up to Albany for a major tenant protest and one long-term resident participated in civil disobedience and got arrested. In 2015 the tenant movement failed to close the preferential rent loophole, but in 2019, in a different political climate shaped by progressive and socialist election victories, it finally succeeded.

My biggest lesson from this experience is that electoral and legislative campaigns can have an overwhelmingly positive relationship to starting, reviving and politicizing working-class organizations where people live and work. The original tenant association in that building didn’t have left or even progressive politics – it was organized around getting drug dealers out of the building in the 1990s. But the existence of a major campaign around tenants rights, the shared concerns of the residents, the history of working-class organization in the building, the presence of a socialist organizer in the building and eventually a shift in the electoral results in the state all mattered to reviving and politicizing a working class organization in our building. Socialists should campaign for reforms that will matter to people in the legislative arena and do the work outside of that arena to connect working-class people and organizations to those campaigns. Building a mass, democratic organization that is rooted in an organized working-class base is the project DSA members have signed up for and endorsed again most recently at our 2021 convention, and continuing to build effective campaigns is a crucial part of advancing that project.