Let’s Reinvigorate the Dirty Break

A de facto, grudging partnership with non-working class forces in the Democratic Party is ultimately a dead end.

Now is the time for DSA as an organization to make an open commitment to, and take practical steps towards a national effort to build an independent working class party over time, to articulate and implement a real-world strategy for the “dirty break” from the Democratic Party. That is, towards building the machinery of an independent working class party with an eye towards, in the not too distant future, operating and running an independent party of and for the working class.

The concrete and objective conditions faced by the working class and working class organizations are the most important element of our analysis and strategic planning. But they are not the only element of that analysis. We need to develop and maintain a political imagination capable of guiding and inspiring. Without imagination, close study of current conditions can keep us fighting small fights, treading old ground, and reacting to crises as they arise, without a big picture and grand strategy that informs each of our decisions. We need a vision that can inspire one another as well as the working class in general to build big and make sure we are always making progress to our ultimate goal: a political organization of and for the working class, independent of the interest of capital and our ruling class enemies.

In 2019, our national convention passed Resolution 31, on “Class Struggle Elections,” which committed the organization to “building political organization independent of the Democratic Party and their capitalist donors,” with an immediate goal of creating “a ‘candidate pipeline’ program for qualified DSA members and potential class-struggle candidates,” and stating that “in the longer term, our goal is to form an independent working-class party,” while recognizing that in the short term, use of Democratic Party ballot-lines could be a tactical preference. The events of the two and half years since have only proved out the wisdom of adopting that resolution. The working class cannot prevail if its interests are blended with capital in a single party, even if that party is as amorphous as the Democratic Party.

Many Lessons Dearly Bought

What have events shown, on the electoral terrain?

First, of course, there was the heartbreaking collapse of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, torpedoed just on the verge of a potential run of victories when the Democratic Party establishment coalesced around Joe Biden, reportedly at the behest of party titans like former president Barack Obama. Sanders’ strong showing in the Nevada caucuses and his persistently strong support from Latine voters in particular and young voters in general, pushed the party’s informal leadership, unbound by any formal mechanism, to intervene and undercut his campaign. When the other candidates all started to drop out to ensure a one-on-one race against Biden, who to that point had performed poorly, Sanders was doomed.

With the collapse of that campaign, the Democratic Party was able to swallow up years of dedicated organizing work and millions of dollars in donations. Some can read this as an indictment of devoting resources to electoral campaigns in general, but at a minimum, we can conclude that building a sophisticated and well-resourced political operation meant to compete within the framework of a Democratic primary puts that work in an extra vulnerable position, subject to the quirks and unique dynamics of internal Democratic Party politics. The Sanders campaign was designed to survive the early elections and run throughout the primary process and collect delegates consistently among a fragmented field throughout the spring and summer, to emerge with the most delegates at the national convention. When the party machinery intervened so heavily early on, that strategy collapsed and the political project of building working class electoral power through the election process went with it.

More recently, there was India Walton’s mayoral campaign in Buffalo, New York. In Buffalo, after Walton won the primary, the party establishment ran the incumbent on a write-in ballot line and poured immense resources into defeating Walton. Whatever strategic mistakes her campaign may have made, they were trivial compared to the resources and establishment unity she faced. The Democratic Party’s establishment was willing to juice interest and turnout from among the wealthier and whiter parts of the city, as well as more conservative social elements, to overwhelm Walton’s campaign.

And most fresh in our memory will be the grotesque masquerade of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema) using the delicate partisan balance in the Senate first to sever the social spending in the federal “Build Back Better” program, which includes universal pre-K and expanded childcare subsidies, green energy subsidies, expansion of Medicaid spending and other badly needed benefits for the working class, from the infrastructure bill, to weaken its chances of passage and potentially kill it altogether. Yes, if Sen. Manchin had simply jumped over to the Republican Party the Democrats would not be in the Senate majority at all, but it is his position within the party that gives him this destructive leverage.

These are just three memorable points in a long continuum of betrayals, disasters, and failures stretching back generations. The allure of short-term victories through the Democratic Party is strong, and we have a chance in a time of resurgent working class self-activity and interest in socialist politics to break the cycle and build something new.

The Democratic Party is a graveyard for working class movements and organizations not because it isn’t made up of the right people, but because constitutionally it blends the interests of capitalists and their petit bourgeois allies together with those of the working class, a blend that will always favor the already-powerful. It drags organizations into the internal logic of Democratic Party electoral and legislative success, blending personnel, structures and funding. An independent party offers some resilience against tactical legislative and electoral choices–supporting a candidate to keep the right wing out of power, voting for a compromise budget, etc–eventually overwhelming movement objectives. The electorate may not be ready for an independent “third party” tomorrow, but if we do not openly discuss and strategize on how we will get to that independent party, we never will, and we will be flunking our duty to ourselves and future generations.

What is the Democratic Party?

Those who object to preparing for a break with the Democratic Party and building an independent party will point out that the Democratic Party is not a European-style political party, like the UK’s Labour Party, which has a party manifesto for each election, has members who vote on the party’s platform, and identifiable set of institutions that compose it. The implication of this is that since it is less closed, it is easier to transform through primary elections. What’s more, they’ll point out, because the US does not have a parliamentary system that can accommodate small third parties, an independent party is simply a quick path to marginalization, a form of political self-immolation based on little more than a theoretical objection to “mingling” with our class enemies. The Democratic Party, they’ll point out, is really composed of whoever votes for it, mostly in open primaries, and therefore it can be taken over (or “realigned”) by winning primaries, taking over party positions (as DSA members recently did in Nevada) and through that process, pressuring ruling class interests to abandon the party machinery in the face of an oncoming working-class army.

This analysis of what the Democratic Party is, is in my view basically correct, but the conclusion that this makes it susceptible to takeover or realignment is wrong. The fact that the Democratic Party is so amorphous and composed of a nearly uncountable number of institutions, groups, nonprofits, consultants and powerful individuals is exactly what makes it essentially impossible to “realign,” the way socialist and progressive members of U.K. Labour did in the run-up to Jeremy Corbyn’s nearly successful 2017 campaign.

Instead, the party is a network of individuals, organizations, friendly unions, campaign committees, consultancies, and nonprofits, that provide the money, personnel, public relations, and revolving-door jobs that keep the machinery moving. This type of network is not something that is amenable to “realignment” or takeover.

Formally, a state Democratic Party is in essence a committee, composed of delegates or ex officio members from lower levels, often counties or congressional districts. In Nevada, the party is governed by the Central Committee, composed of delegates apportioned by population at the county level. In practice, a state Democratic Party is a whole constellation of campaign committees, powerful unions, influential advocacy groups (from trial lawyers associations to environmental groups), and individual elected officials.

When local DSA chapters were on the precipice of taking over the leadership of the state party in Nevada, the party transferred nearly half a million dollars out of the state party to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a different campaign apparatus operated from Washington D.C. and run by senators and their campaign staff, and the party’s staff all quit in unison. Any given state will have not only the state party, but county parties, legislative caucus committees (for example, a campaign committee dedicated to electing Democrats to the state legislature) and other affiliated committees. Even beyond that, sub-caucuses within the state legislative caucuses have their own fundraising committee apparatuses–such as legislative Black and Latino caucuses, progressive caucuses, rural caucuses, etc. Many of these are not directly or even indirectly elected, but run by incumbent office holders. These bodies can step in to function as the party’s machinery, hiring personnel, raising and transferring money, communicating with the public and press, and influencing important institutions like unions on how to commit resources.

Added to this are the personal campaign committees of powerful incumbents, particularly state house and senate majority leaders and speakers, governors, senators, congresspeople, and other statewide elected officials. These figures can impose discipline because by virtue of their powerful positions they can raise funds well in excess of what they need for reelection, and then dole out money to vulnerable incumbents, those embattled by primaries, or to curry favor on key votes.

And for elected officials to get support from these bodies, they have to exhibit some baseline party discipline. In Cook County, Illinois (which includes Chicago), for example, have to commit to raising $40,000 in return for being “slated” (receiving endorsement and support) by the powerful county party. In most of the country, elected officials would be expected to at a minimum endorse primary winners, vote for legislative caucus leadership, and be at least something of a “team player” on important votes–all acts that create an organization pressure on electeds outside of the socialist organization from which they came.

It is maybe conceivable that by winning enough primaries, in a short enough amount of time, organized socialists could seize control of this labyrinth of entities and thereby exercise discipline over who runs for office, the platforms of these candidates, and their moment to moment votes. But in practical reality, we would win these offices in bursts, small numbers at a time, all the while feeling the pressure to conform to party discipline, and all while this network of committees–and the consultants and individuals with fundraising power or personal relationships–deftly port money around to keep insurgent socialists from taking over the key machinery of the party and even undercutting and attacking them as needed.

Building separate machinery to counter these various institutional elements–committees and PACs to mirror and counter the existing machinery Democrats use to maintain control of the party–is one potential solution, but is the type of solution that practically sets us on a path of warring over control of a brand name.

Insurgent socialists realigning this kind of behemoth is like trying to put a cloud in a picture frame. It sets us a frustrating and likely impossible task, trying to make progress on a hamster’s wheel. True, we cannot hope to just form a third party and expect a working class that still identifies with the Democratic Party as a brand to join en masse. But similarly we cannot hope to send a cadre of organized socialists into the poisonous mist and expect them to emerge clean on the other side.

Neither Self-Marginalization Nor Cooptation

The realignment formula is basically this:

{Base We’ve Built} + {Casual Loyalty to Ballot Line} = Open Socialists in Office, Socialist Electorate

In other words, the Democratic party’s lack of ideological content means if we simply build an electoral base around our class-struggle candidates and then run them on the Democratic Party ballot line (or for Democratic Party internal positions), the brand loyalty will bring voters to our candidates, and our socialist elected officials can lead from the pulpit to help forge a socialist electorate. This is wrong in my view because Democrats’ lack of a meaningful substantive ideology is as much a problem as an opportunity: as an amorphous electoral vehicle and resilient brand, permeating and eventually seizing it away from the ruling class or ruling class elements is not feasible. The ruling class acting through the innumerable party structures which they use to influence elections and strangle legislative progress can nimbly either marginalize us or purge us. Or, best yet for them, slowly co-opt us as just another “progressive” wing of the Democrats, absorbing our energy and money even while they demoralize us.

But if we cannot simply conjure an effective third party from the ether nor hope to realign the stubbornly mercurial Democratic Party, what can we do? The answer is that we have to collectively commit to the project of the dirty break, experiment with independent politics, and determine what the structural and mechanical elements are that we need to build a winning independent working class party.

This starts with political education of the membership on the theory and practice of the dirty break. We need to build an understanding as to why the working class cannot achieve socialism through a political vehicle that blends working-class interests with capitalist interests. We need to educate members in the history of electoralism and its pitfalls both locally and nationally, as well as international examples. From there, electoral bodies within DSA chapters need to build dirty break strategizing into practical work: candidate pipelines, democratically determined and binding platforms, pledges from candidates that subject them to organizational discipline, training on campaign work, building of campaign tools and donor networks, developing relationships with key progressive organizations and unions capable of providing substantial resources, and, where feasible, running on independent ballot lines.

Big and politically important states like California, Illinois, and Texas have predominantly non-partisan local elections, as do big cities in states like Colorado and Florida. These non-partisan elections mean that candidates do not run on a party line, but rather the top two vote-getters in a first round run against each other in a second round. In these elections there is no formal party identification, which creates the possibility of (for lack of a better term) brand-building for an independent party that can, in these same places, try to run on separate ballot lines for higher offices, such as state legislative offices.

Perhaps starting in places like these, more clear and direct strategizing on party building can serve both as needed laboratories and form the base for advocating for the break in DSA in general. When we start to win these types of elections, when there exist actual independent parties composed not only of DSA chapters but allied union locals and community organizations, our members’ and the public’s imagination can begin to break out of the Republican/Democratic duopoly. What will seem impossible will slowly–and then maybe, quite rapidly–seem possible.

Maybe this seems like wishful thinking. As someone who lived through the politics of the 1990s and early 2000s, let me say that a nearly 100,000 strong socialist organization with chapters in all fifty states seemed like wishful thinking, too.

In “nonpartisan” cities, DSA chapters can for practical purposes either act as a party or perhaps more realistically anchor a party structure through candidate selection and platform-setting processes alongside other membership organizations like progressive unions and other (member-run) organizations. For example, a DSA chapter can pull together progressive union locals or just rank-and-file groups within unions and other member-run groups and, together, through a convention-like process, draft a basic platform and slate candidates. This can be done with the open and explicit purpose that this is a party for offices of one type (local) and the party surrogate for offices of another type (state and federal) until such time as either conditions, or law, (or both) make a formal third party for all offices more feasible. In any case, this approach would require our members to think about their electoral work in the stark terms Detroit DSA member Jane Slaughter describes in her article on the dirty break: “how do we run our elections here with an eye towards having our own party?”

I have argued that we as an organization tend to over-focus on municipal races, because state legislative races offer much better terrain and influential offices. I still think this is true, particularly if we want to reform the electoral system itself, which happens at the state level. Nevertheless, I think that a Party-Here-Surrogate-There approach could be an ideal experimental approach to testing the potential for a third party. Engaging in some off-year non-partisan races to build the practical (and openly independent) machinery of a party and then operating that machinery to develop a home-grown and disciplined socialist caucus in state government.

Candidate selection, campaign operation, and platform writing being organizational processes is really the key function we’re concerned with: this is how we make our party a workers’ party. The working class needs to have a hands-on, primary relationship with how our political formations do elections. They should not be mediated by layers of professionals or bureaucracies. These functions can be tested and built up in less-important local races. The elected officials who come into office through those processes will, theoretically at least, be reliant on organization, not the independent bases they build through their own campaigns and coalitions. This creates a more direct organizational influence on things like redistricting, balloting laws, etc., necessary to make a third party more effective. We would not need that significant of a legislative caucus at the state level to threaten to withdraw votes from the Democrats’ legislative leadership and to hopefully win the incremental electoral reforms needed to give ourselves breathing space–for example, changing ballot access laws–and end the closed primary system that requires people to register for a party.

Presidential Paradox

In his short book The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx writing about the French constitution argued that the people tended to have a “metaphysical” relationship with their legislature, but a “personal” relationship with the president. What he meant was that because a body like a parliament (or Congress) is an accumulation of interests, ideas, identities, philosophies, etc., and its work mediated by the president, who enforces the laws it creates, people have only a sort of abstract or removed relationship to it. The president, however, is elected by all the people, engaged in open competition on a single question (who should be president), and all of the different issues, philosophies, interests, identities, etc., get subsumed into that national conversation and debate on a singular choice. You can hate the person or love the person, but your relationship to them is “personal” or direct; your view of them, more clear.

The result over time as we’ve seen it in the United States is that presidential politics have polarized voters, eliminating independents, and begun to spill over and “standardize” elections at lower levels. By way of example, in the Trump era, it was “Trumpian” themes–about news media, education, immigration, crime, whatever topic he had made part of the national debate–that came to be at issue in state-level and even local races where the two parties vied with one another. In only a few short years, the Trumpian style (if not fully the substance) came to dominate and shape Republican Party politics. In this way, presidential politics seem to have an increasingly singular ability to shape Americans’ understanding of political engagement.

This raises the question of socialists’ need to meaningfully engage in presidential politics, for example as with the Bernie Sanders campaign. If socialists are busy building their own separate party, how can they hope to meaningfully shape presidential campaigns?

In other words, if presidential politics are so determinative of the ideological content of parties and given that the voting public is so strictly partisan, isn’t engaging effectively in presidential politics actually the best path to realignment of the parties and a direct path to building a working class party?

First, it is important not to draw overly simple conclusions or to over determine the impact of presidential politics. While Trump’s presidency was very polarizing in one sense (i.e., people siding with one party over the other, the dissipation of independents), there is also still a significant amount of intraparty division. In the Republican Party, there are still strong divides between Republicans on questions like business power and economic populism and foreign policy. Where there is agreement is where the supposed “conforming” effect of Trump shows itself  particularly concerning questions of race, gender, and social justice. This makes intuitive sense: the “Trumpism” we see at the various levels of politics are these specific areas, on things like the teaching of critical race theory, or the issue of sanctuary cities.

Yes, “Do you support President Trump” may have ended up a litmus test for Republicans, and to a lesser degree, “did you support President Obama” may be something of a litmus test for Democrats–for now. But that does not mean ideological conformity has actually resulted. There is still significant ideological diversity within the parties.

Second, and related, the degree of partisan polarization spilling downward from presidential politics contains a contradiction we see plainly above: that the two-party option welds together ideologically disparate factions, based in part at least on the different objective conditions of the people themselves. As much as this represents a challenge for an independent working class party, it also represents an opportunity to exploit those divisions dialectically and thereby weaken those parties. This is unlikely to happen immediately at the national level; but the work to build up from lower levels exists by dint of the very fact that contradictory tensions exist within the parties but at present, no meaningful third option exists. Our focus can and should be the steady and hard work of building up that viable third option so that, over time, the necessity of polarization–picking one of two sides–ceases to be an compelled conclusion of US political logic.

Finally, the steady work of building an independent working-class party does not preclude exploiting the “conforming” effect of presidential politics, to the extent it exists. A disciplined and independently constituted workers’ party can exploit the open nature of national presidential politics to intervene in presidential primaries strategically and arguably more effectively. An independent workers’ party, with cadres all over the country and with direct, organic connection to the working class, can either run a candidate or choose a consensus candidate and have a significant impact.

The objection here can be twofold. First, that partisan identification is so strong that voters will automatically reject the interloper coming from the workers’ party. But again, the intraparty divisions suggest that this won’t necessarily be the case. Yes, the “but they’re not a Democrat!” objection will be lobbed, but given that this entire phenomenon is marked out by Trump’s candidacy, and Trump himself was barely a Republican and demonstrably an outsider, it may just as much be an advantage to be an outsider unburdened by the dissatisfaction many who call themselves Democrats feel towards the party. Identifying strongly as a Democrat, after all, can be just as much about identifying strongly as being anti-Republican (and vice versa). It does not imply accepting dictates from the party’s establishment wings.

The second objection can come from two different directions: from “hard breakers” that engaging with national Democrat presidential politics trivializes the independent party project and is just another avenue towards cooptation, and from “realigners” that it is not practical to expect to operate outside of the Democratic Party but then, every three or four years, be able to impact the presidential primaries. These resolve as in fact a single objection: that to properly engage in presidential politics, any party organization needs to be consistently engaged with the Democratic Party, cultivating key relationships for endorsements and from funders, recruiting effective personnel particularly those with media connections, and building institutional knowledge of local and regional conditions that impact primaries. For the hard breakers, this is a recipe for cooptation. For realigners, this is evidence that an independent party is ineffective.

This is a serious objection that cannot be dismissed lightly. Nevertheless, it is not unresolvable. Until such time as the parties fully close their primaries, an independent party can over time build the capacity to specifically overcome or adapt to these needs without needlessly enmeshing itself with Democratic Party politics. This is particularly so given the fact that the independent party will not come into being all at once, but in pieces, at different rates of progress in different parts of the country and among different segments of the working class. Funding, personnel, and practical knowledge of on the ground conditions can just as easily come from the machinery of an independent party, or indeed from a party surrogate. Support from locally popular Democrats is feasible when the independent party is in its hybrid, surrogate-here-party-there stages. And where there are deficiencies, the potential outsized effect of ideologically committed, well-trained cadre of organizers cannot itself be dismissed.


The working class will never be able to act, in Marx’s words, “for itself” politically so long as its political success is blended with capital in a single party or set of party institutions. As Slaughter points out at length throughout her article cited above, this “grudging partnership” thinking is ultimately a dead end. Right now we may have a window to use current events to communicate this effectively to our comrades, and take practical steps locally to weave that education into day-to-day work, and ground the dirty break more strongly throughout our organization’s actual electoral strategy.

It starts with a spoken commitment and an imagination that sees an independent working class party, run by workers in its fine detail. A process of setting local fires that grow and join until they burn down the two-party system that restrains the working class from first seeing itself and then acting as an independent political force.