More than a ballot line

The Democratic Party, class struggle,
and the socialist left today

In 2016, Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination caused an earthquake across the spectrum of US politics. Even the far left that viewed Sanders’s “democratic socialism” and his specific policy prescriptions as much too moderate divided on how to relate to his campaign. Many joined and worked for it, while others choose to orient on his followers without directly entering the Democratic Party terrain on which Sanders sought to win.

His defeat by Hillary Clinton, in part as a result of the Democratic Party establishment repeatedly pressing its thumb on the scale in her favor, did not settle the question for the left. Much the reverse: following the election of Trump, many Sanders supporters assumed that “Bernie could have won” and drew the lesson that more, rather than less, involvement in the Democratic Party was called for. For them, engaging in Democratic politics is frequently reduced to the question of whether or not the party’s electoral ballot line may be used as a platform to express socialist ideas. In their view, the left’s relationship to the Democrats becomes merely a tactical or organizational issue.

In contrast, this article argues that the left’s relationship to the Democratic Party is an overarching political question whose answer not only decides the line of march for socialists in the United States, but has roots in the fundamental, historical division among socialists between social democracy and revolutionary Marxism. While other US socialists, among them most notably Kim Moody1 and Howie Hawkins2, have updated the classic arguments against socialist participation in the Democratic Party, I will focus my critique against the more limited case for use of its ballot line.

It is important to note at the outset that what I call the “ballot-line perspective” is held by various kinds of people on the left. It has been used by activists firmly committed to a social-democratic strategy inside the Democrats. Others hope to exploit the supposed contradictions between the “progressive Democrats” and the party establishment to cohere a political current to the party’s left. And perhaps the majority attracted to this perspective are new to the debate about the Democrats and are, for now, willing to entertain the use of Democratic races as a “bullhorn” for a progressive agenda.

The article proceeds as follows: in the first section, I summarize the arguments for the ballot-line tactic. I expose their mistaken assumptions about the structure of the Democratic Party and conduct a practical argument against participation in its internal life. Trying to run for office as a Democrat and to win rests on a further assumption which needs to be examined and scrutinized. This is what I aim to do in the second section through my discussion of the concept of “building power,” which substitutes the management of the capitalist state for the project of organizing where workers have real power—in the workplace. This substitution flows from a mistaken understanding of the capitalist state as a neutral institution that has a long history in social-democratic thought.

The history of American social democracy is taken up in the third section. There, I examine the three major eras during which the left has attempted to use the Democrats as an expression of popular interests: first, the Popular Front of 1935 through World War II, marked by increasing cooperation between the Communist Party (CP) and the Democrats; second, the realignment strategy formulated by leading ex-revolutionary intellectuals in the 1960s; and third, the attempts by contemporary socialists, most commonly expressed in a tactical argument for using a Democratic ballot line.

In the conclusion, I critically examine the ballot-line socialists’ exaggerated assessment of our forces and of what is possible electorally in the current period. It is the contention of this article, finally, that whatever the eventualaims of ballot-line proponents are, that given this mistaken assessment and the inherent self-limiting nature of ballot-box socialism, the immediate result of these arguments will lead socialists back into the Democratic Party, which will attempt to co-opt and neutralize them as it has done so successfully in the past.

Can you build a social democratic party in a capitalist one?

Socialists in the United States have traditionally argued against participation in the Democratic Party on the grounds that it is a capitalist party. As proponents of various ballot-line arguments dispute this, it’s important to establish what this means at the outset. The Democratic Party is not only ideologically committed to the capitalist system—as Nancy Pelosi put it, “We’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is”3—it is part of the permanently functioning apparatus of American capitalism.

Its main sources of funding are from the capitalist class and its leading personnel are themselves part of not just the political but the economic elite—witness the constantly revolving door between holding office as a Democrat and sitting on corporate boards that the Clintons and many other reputable figures have traveled through. As Moody writes, the Democratic Party is a “professionalized, well-funded, and elite-run multi-tiered conglomerate with a permanent bureaucracy at its core.”4

Various ballot-line socialists have disputed this characterization of the party as capitalist. Jason Schulman made the earliest version of arguments which attempted to divide the Democratic Party machine and its operators from the line on which its candidates run, penning two articles in New Politics in the midst of the Sanders run for the nomination.5 Based on this case, he urged the left to join the Vermont senator’s effort.

Schulman’s argument flows from the peculiarities of the US political system and the strange nature of its parties. As opposed to the membership parties that exist, for instance, in most European countries, American ones such as the Democrats are not “voluntary associations that can control their own memberships or who runs on their ballots.”6 Rather, in the United States, political parties are merely “state-run ballot lines whose ‘membership’ consists of registered voters rather than dues-payers.”7 Because the Democrats are “a series of shifting coalitions in 50 state organizations and some 3,000 US counties”8 they are vulnerable to permeation and challenge from insurgent candidates.

As the Democratic leadership cannot control who runs on its ballot line, Schulman concludes that socialist candidates may run in their primaries, win, and become elected officials as Democrats. While he grants “most Democrats represent the ruling class,” some, among whom he names figures such as Sanders, Keith Ellison, John Conyers and Barbara Lee, represent the working class.9 Thus, the traditional argument that the Democrats are essentially a capitalist party is considered fundamentally mistaken. Despite the party’s funds coming originally from capitalists, “left-liberals and radicals running as Democrats aren’t required to take any money” from the fundraising operations, which he agrees are “pure shills for corporate America.”10

The question remains, Why should socialists use what is freely admitted as being a deeply compromised political vehicle normally subservient to ruling-class interests? At this point, Schulman and other proponents of a ballot-line perspective introduce another peculiar aspect of the US political system to argue that this is the only option for socialists seeking to present their message to the general public. Seth Ackerman sketches out the possible form of a future “serious electoral politics to the left of the Democratic Party.”11 His “blueprint” represents a comprehensive case for the ballot-line tactic as part of a strategy of social-democratic party building.

Ackerman argues that because of the “unique—and uniquely repressive—system governing political parties and the mechanics of elections” in the United States, it is a difficult, if not impossible, task to maintain an independent line on the ballot.12 Moreover, since left-wing campaigns run outside the Democratic framework may play the role of a spoiler tipping an election to the Republicans, he recommends the ballot-line tactic as a solution to these problems. A social-democraticparty could be built, he therefore contends, by running candidates inside the Democratic Party using its ballot lines. Ackerman, however, agrees with socialists critical of the Democratic orientation that using their ballot line should not be a permanent and universally applied tactic. Rather, to borrow the phrasing of Eric Blanc, he advocates a “dirty break” that would “use the Democratic . . . ballot line to implode the two-party system.”13

Having seen the political logic that this ballot-line perspective rests on, we can now assess its validity. As I noted, Ackerman accepts the logic of the “spoiler problem”—that independent left-wing campaigns by their very existence run the risk of flipping the election to candidates utterly hostile to the basic agenda of organized labor and other progressive social movements. The ballot-line arguments thus fall hostage to the same lesser-evil logic that have traditionally paralyzed attempts to build a political project independent of the Democrats. If you concede this, how can you prevent the slide down the slippery slope of voting for the lesser evil?

The supposed contradiction between the corporate-bought Democratic hierarchy and left-liberal Democratic officeholders assumed by Schulman and Ackerman is also more apparent than real. Liberal Democrats such as Sanders, Ellison, Conyers, and Lee are in fact a crucial part of how the Democrats maintain popular legitimacy despite their fundamentally anti-popular nature. As Lance Selfa writes,

A Jackson or a Sharpton may at times lead an oppositional movement or may dissent from the mainstream Democrats. Likewise, people like Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich may propose programs and use rhetoric that push the leftmost boundaries of “acceptable” opinion. But every time a figure like a Jackson or a Lee uses his or her credibility as an advocate for liberal causes to promote a Democratic candidate, it helps convey to their bases that there are important differences between the two parties—or at least differences enough to allow the Democrats to present themselves as a lesser evil to the Republicans.14

There is no better example of this dynamic than Bernie Sanders, who, though formally an independent, is for all intents and purposes a member of the Democratic Party in Vermont, caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, and has consistently supported a strategy of “boring from within” the Democratic Party.16 Sanders has campaigned not only for other socialists or progressives inside the party, but also for thoroughly right-wing candidates in order to defeat the Republicans and help the Democratic Party as a whole to succeed.16 Ackerman and other proponents of the ballot-line tactic, despite their desire for an independent left political vehicle at some point in the future, have been uncritical of Sanders’s work on behalf of the Democratic establishment.

In effect, this tactic meant in the long term to help build an independent party, functions as left-wing cover for Sanders’s own considerably more conservative strategy of transforming the Democratic Party from within. The refusal of ballot-line socialists to criticize Sanders as he campaigned for Hillary Clinton and excoriated attempts to build an alternative to mainstream Democrats is at odds with their favorable disposition towards a left-wing electoral politics beyond the Democratic Party at some undefined point in the future. By building progressive Democratic campaigns in the here and now, they do not contribute to an eventual break, but rather sustain the left’s subordination inside a capitalist party.

What of Schulman’s contention that radicals and leftists running as Democrats may sidestep corporate funding? Of course, no formal requirement exists for every Democratic candidate to accept money from the DNC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or the state parties. But the DNC and its affiliates are the party’s main sources of funding. In turn, the latter draws their own funding from PACs, while keeping some for their own operation.

Some writers proposing the ballot-line tactic have argued that crowdfunding developed by the Sanders campaign in 2016 offers an alternative to the dependence on corporate money that typically characterizes Democratic campaigns. But as Kim Moody notes, crowdfunding is not only the rebel Democrat’s path to campaign funding, it is now part of any Democrat’s path to conventional fundraising. The same ActBlue digital platform for bundling contributions that the Sanders campaign put on the map was used by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chief architect of Sanders’s primary defeat, in her successful race for Congress against Sanders-backed progressive candidate Tim Canova.

Crowdfunding has simply upped the ante of what is needed to win office at every level in a monetary arms race where capitalist interests have the natural advantage and are more than willing to escalate.17 Therefore, we can see how the Democratic ballot line, rather than being an empty vessel to be filled with socialist content, represents, as Moody rightly argues, “the entry point into the maze of dead ends, false starts, and compromised hopes that is the Democratic Party.”18

Building class power or managing capitalism through its state?

There are deep roots of this mistaken ballot-line tactic in social democracy’s theoretical and strategic commitment to an electoral road to socialism. Ackerman calls for socialists to focus on local and state races using the Democratic primary or not, as the opportunity may arise. Sam Lewis, Luke Elliott-Negri and Amelia Dornbush, on the other hand, regard using the Democratic ballot line at these levels as “the difference between building working-class power and a doomed campaign that must justify its existence in terms of its educational potential.”19 The long-term strategy behind fielding candidates for office therefore lies in creating an electoral majority in favor of social democracy.

Lewis, Elliott-Negri and Dornbush put the case with exceptional clarity:

Get 50 percent plus one. All serious politics, electoral or otherwise, are fundamentally majoritarian affairs. . . . If the left generally and DSA specifically are interested in really vying for power, we need a majority—a majority in each battle we fight, but also a majority of the whole society. We are dead set on this goal—winning majorities to socialist politics—and have no interest in letting baggage, however big, get in the way. If we can build a socialist majority without the Democratic ballot line, great. With the Democratic ballot line, great too. Hell, we’ll use the Republican ballot line if we can get ahold of it.20

It is thus becoming increasingly common currency on the US left that electing socialists is essential to “building working-class power.”21 As this article was being written, the victories of two Pittsburgh DSA candidates who unseated sitting state legislators in the Democratic primaries are being celebrated as successful examples of the ballot-line tactic.22

The first thing to say before proceeding is that the success of progressive Democrats in the run-up to midterm elections, including those backed by DSA or given Sanders’s imprimatur by Our Revolution, has so far been the exception rather than the rule. Of thirty-one candidates backed by the latter, only seven survived the primaries by early June.23 In California, considered crucial to Democratic attempts to retake Congress in November, progressive candidates dramatically underperformed, leaving establishment candidates to dominate each of the races for US Senate, the House, and governor’s mansion.24 In the vast majority of cases, it is the party machinery which maintains the overwhelming advantage—one that increases the higher the office being contested.

Furthermore, the extent to which these races put socialists in office is open to question. The case of Pittsburgh is worth deeper examination. Though identifying as DSA members and backed by that organization, little of what either Sara Innamorato or Summer Lee have said concerning policy puts them much to the left of the Democratic mainstream. Lee is a former staffer for the Clinton campaign and has devoted most of her time to local Democratic campaigns like the one she is currently running, while Innamorato has tread the well-established line between NGO activism and entrepreneurial empowerment activity oriented towards minorities and women.25 Both Lee and Innamorato are committed to a permeationist strategy within the Democrats. Even as leftists, their success seems to strengthen the argument not for opportunistic use of the party ballot line to build a social democratic party but ipso facto for broader and more extensive entanglement in the Democratic Party. As Ackerman admits, electing individual progressives can play the role of a placebo effect, “sustaining the illusion of forward motion while obscuring the fact that neither party is structurally built to reflect working-class interests.”26

Even should a potential socialist insurgent candidate overcome every one of these obstacles, they would face the challenges of office as an outsider. Schulman dismisses this concern, writing that since “there is very little [the Democratic leadership] can do beyond removing dissidents from Congressional committees,”27 socialists elected on the Democrats’ ballot can exercise the same independence enjoyed by conservative Democrats. But, as Moody rightly contends, for any US elected official, “being removed from a committee, prevented from ever being a committee chair, or assigned to one irrelevant to her concerns or constituents is equivalent to political suicide since virtually all meaningful legislative work is done in committees.”28

Thus, however leftwing in their beliefs, socialist elected officials who aim to make the capitalist state work better for the working class and oppressed majority, we can infer, would place some priority on enacting these reforms—which requires the cooperation of their fellow legislators, fellow Democrats to be precise. The consequences of being locked out of the legislative process are real and should receive serious consideration by radicals seeking to “build power” via this route.

Chicago Democratic alderman and DSA member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa could remark on the consequences of being found unacceptable by the party hierarchy. After being tapped as candidate for lieutenant governor of Illinois in August 2017, Rosa’s candidacy was abruptly nixed by Daniel Biss, his potential running mate, when it was discovered that he had voiced support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.29 With this went any ability he might have had to advance a socialist agenda at this higher level.

One variant of the ballot-line perspective is more circumspect about the prospects of “building power” using Democratic officeholders. Adam Hilton grants that “even if left power could be achieved in the Democratic Party . . . it will not in and of itself serve the purposes of strengthening the class capacities of everyday working people.” Hilton instead advocates the left beginning to build a working-class party surrogate outside the electoral process, which can then use major political parties (read: Democrats) as a “site of class struggle in the US.”30 Though couched in more sophisticated terms, Hilton’s actual proposals are nothing more than a warmed-over variant of the same “inside-outside strategy” that DSA and its precursors have pursued for decades.

The central problem with the inside-outside strategy has been that the “inside” part of the strategy focusing on the Democrats is constantly prioritized over the “outside” part that focuses on building class power independent of the electoral arena. This is not an outcome of any fundamental dishonesty, but a reflection of the real correlation of forces on the ground. Selfa writes:

Each election year the leading unions spend millions to get out the vote for the Democratic candidate. Those millions could be spent, for example, organizing Walmart workers into unions—which would have far greater impact on advancing organized labor’s agenda. So, this strategy of working for the Democrats diverts resources away from the real fights that need to be waged outside the party.31

The proponents of a ballot-line perspective, much like their inside-outside forbears, often deliberately blur the distinctions between movement-building and electoral efforts inside the Democratic Party. Hilton and many others consistently refer to a “Sanders movement” when there is no movement, but rather an electoral campaign started and ended within a capitalist party.32 It is dangerous to blur these lines. Fundamentally it rests on an unrealistic notion of where the actual power of the working class and progressive social movements lies under capitalism. That is to say, reforms are won primarily not in policy or legislation but through massive social struggles and disruption that necessarily go beyond the pre-given boundaries of capitalist legality or the customs of bourgeois electoral politics.

There is, of course, no reason to counterpose electoral campaigns generally from movement-building. The question is rather what kind of campaign can serve the ends of building independent working-class power? Going back to its founders Marx and Engels, thinkers in the revolutionary socialist tradition have argued that a basic prerequisite is the political independence of all such efforts by the working class from ruling-class interests.33 If there was already a working-class party in the United States, whether revolutionary or reformist, its electoral campaigns could promote the goals of this broader movement. But building an independent party is precisely what ballot-line socialists reject as unrealistic at present.

Because running as a Democratic candidate entails deprioritizing building powerful, disruptive social movements of the working class and the oppressed, it is contradictory to the task of building real power. Some proponents of the ballot-line perspective might point to the Roosevelt and Kennedy/ Johnson administrations, in which liberal policies served to consolidate the goals of pre-existing social movements. They would miss a crucial point in that these changes had to be imposed on Democratic (and sometimes Republican) administrations from the outside. These social movements did not originally set out with the goal of transforming the Democratic Party from the inside, but with the goal of directly organizing people into unions, against racism, and in pursuit of various reforms.34

Diminishing returns: a capsule history of US social democracy

The ballot-line perspective thus leads not only into the Democratic Party cul-de-sac but also compromises the project of building class power for social reform, let alone revolution. This is not some individual failure on their part, but the result of the peculiar challenge social democrats face in this country; they must confront the strict limitation of the political mainstream to two equally capitalist parties, one of which has, by posing as a defender of the interests of the working class and oppressed groups, repeatedly thwarted any prospect of their independent organization. Since the collapse of the Socialist Party, the story of attempts to build an American social democracy has been one of repeated interventions into Democratic politics, which have become more cautious with each new iteration.

This is not a conscious process of betrayal but rather characteristic of a fundamental self-limiting tendency of reformism. Robert Brenner has analyzed reformist socialism as both a mistaken perspective and a phenomenon with real, but contradictory, social origins. According to Brenner, what constitutes reformism as a viewpoint opposed to that of revolutionary socialism is two beliefs: first, that the economic crises of capitalism are not an inherent feature of the system in itself, but the contingent results of certain policies which can be suppressed through successful state intervention; and, second, that the capitalist state, rather than being an institution whose policy is circumscribed by the limits of maintaining a good climate for capitalist investment, is an autonomous or neutral agency, capable of serving the interests of any class.35

The reformist consciousness of ordinary workers striving for better conditions is not the the same as the reformist ideology of the permanent bureaucracies staffing institutions supported by working-class and oppressed people such as trade unions, social-democratic parties and liberal movement organizations:

What distinguishes these forces is that, while they are dependent for their very existence on organizations built out of the working class, they are not themselves part of the working class. Above all, they are off the shop floor. They find their material base, their livelihood, in the trade union or party organization itself. It’s not just that they get their salaries from the trade union or political party. . . [but] that the trade union or party defines their whole way of life—what they do, whom they meet—as well as their career trajectory.36

Social-democratic parties are, therefore, raised up to the point they can contend for state power and implement their reformist programs by the willingness of the working class and oppressed to strike, disrupt, and violate the bounds of capitalist legality. But in this process, they foster a social layer remote from shop-floor or street concerns and closer in their viewpoint to the ruling-class politicians with whom their job is to negotiate improvements within the system.

This gives birth to a self-limiting tendency within social democracy. Reformists, in order to present an acceptable face to capital, ruling class politicians, and the wider electorate, restrain broader forms of mobilization and class struggle, which are the actual basis for winning reforms themselves and replacing capitalism with socialism. In the peculiar conditions of the United States, social

democracy has gone through three major iterations: Popular Front, realignment, and the ballot line. Each one represents a retreat further and further from their avowed goal of using the Democratic Party for social transformation.

The Popular Front37

In a perspectives article endorsing use of the ballot-line tactic written before DSA’s national convention in the summer of 2017, Joseph Schwartz and Bhaskar Sunkara single out the Communist Party’s practice during the Popular Front period as a positive model for US socialists today. Although they regret the Communists’ embrace of the Soviet Union, they praise them for forging the left wing of the CIO and supporting the New Deal, which they believe was a necessary step for activists trying to build “their struggles for democracy within US political culture while trying to build a truly multiracial working-class movement.” The Popular Front, they conclude, is worthy of emulation as “the last time socialism had any mass presence in the United States.” 38 But the actual history is somewhat less savory and inspiring. Much of the CP’s success in organizing the working class and oppressed had come before the Popular Front, during the brief period of experimentation following the abandonment of the disastrous ultra-sectarian Third Period line, when American Communists returned to the united front methods they had practiced before the transformation of the Comintern into an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. In that period, CP organizers scored tremendous victories at the head of working-class militancy in the San Francisco general strike and the auto factory sit-downs which built the CIO as a mass industrial union movement, as well as rightly famous work against white supremacy, including the nationwide campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys.

The imposition of the Popular Front line on the Communist Party following the Seventh Congress of the Comintern represented a retreat from these militant methods which ended up costing it and the working-class movement dearly. In the interests of securing the broadest possible base for a cross-class antifascist alliance, Communists abandoned independent propaganda for revolution and ceased all criticism of the labor officialdom and liberal middle-class organizations they allied with. The CP’s uncritical embrace of the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal policies substituted a vision of socialism that sought a permanent rupture with capitalism with one that saw socialism coming about through the peaceful collaboration of all classes in the effort to defeat fascism.

This new orientation corresponded with a transformation in the class composition of the party. The CP’s factory cells were dissolved, which freed Communists who had become union officials from accountability to their rank-and-file comrades. Membership in the CP became less a mark of the working-class militant and more a step towards a career in the union officialdom. As Charlie Post writes:

Popular Frontism transformed the CP from the main current promoting self-organization, militant action and political independence among workers, African Americans and other oppressed groups into the emerging CIO bureaucracy’s “point men” in their drive to “tame” worker and popular militancy and to cement their partnership with the Roosevelt administration.39

In the South, a parallel change was wrought in the composition and political role of the CP. It turned from an independent organization of Black industrial and agricultural workers into a group led by and pursuing the politics of white liberals, Black professionals, and a handful of union officials. While the CP grew to a height of over 100,000 members during the war, an increasingly high percentage of this membership was middle-class and professional, while its cadre in the industrial working class wilted.

What Schwartz and Sunkara call “the last period of mass socialist influence in the US” failed on its own terms.40 Key to this failure was the CIO leadership’s scuttling, backed to the hilt by Communists, of the attempt to form an independent labor party.41 Since then, the US labor movement has functioned as a political auxiliary of a ruling-class party rather than pursuing its own agenda. This is not only the source of the relative impotence of American labor as compared to other countries’ trade-union movements, but also of the essential weakness of the US welfare state, which was from the beginning limited in nature and vulnerable to rollback.42

Whatever the intentions of Communists and some of their solid tradeunion and antiracist movement work in this period, over time the Popular Front strategy served to undermine class struggle by tying the union movement to the Democratic Party. The variety of socialism that became a mass force for a brief moment in this period had abandoned its essential goals and its orientation on the struggles of the working class and oppressed. That isolated the CP, making it vulnerable to being purged from the labor movement by McCarthyism.


Whereas the Popular Front strategy had maintained a conception of socialism, albeit a Stalinist one, the realignment strategy pursued most prominently by Max Shachtman and Bayard Rustin was of a piece with the more limited horizons of social democracy following World War II, when the Socialist International parties began to abandon the goal of a socialist society and openly repudiated Marxism. Shachtman, Rustin and their associates hoped to transform the Democrats from the party of liberal capitalism into something resembling European-style social democracy.

In this way, they believed, the road could be paved to a US under social democratic hegemony with a robust welfare state. The exit of Southern Dixiecrats from the party following the Civil Rights Act seemed for a brief moment to herald the moment they had long hoped for. Realignment in this sense happened. The Dixiecrats decamped to the GOP. But as Moody writes, what followed it did not proceed according to Rustin’s and Shachtman’s plans:

Not too long after the economic crises of 1974–1975, and after the early 1980s hit and the old Keynesian basis of liberalism was discredited, the Third Way triangulators and neoliberal marketeers gained hegemony. The party shot-up on addictive corporate and rich people’s money, distanced itself from organized labor, relied increasingly on purchased forms of voter turnout and campaigning, and reorganized its national, state, and legislative committees to be even more remote from voters.44

Like the Popular Front before it, Rustin’s call to move “from protest to politics”45 entailed a retreat from militant head-on confrontation with racism to a centrist liberal politics circumscribed by the limited interests of the union bureaucracy and the Black middle-class leadership of civil rights organizations. In the process, both Shachtman and Rustin were transformed from reformers of the Democratic Party into accomplices of its leadership in crushing any insurgent radicalism, and both ended up supporting the Vietnam War to the bitter end. Significantly, the realignment strategy failed during a period when trade unions, Black liberation, and other social movements were at a peak of their social power.

The ballot line

Coming after the vision of a class-collaborative socialist transition envisioned by Communists during the height of the Popular Front and the less ambitious, but still politically transformative, strategy of social-democratic realignment, tactical advocacy of the Democratic ballot line appears as the most pitiful and compromised version of a social-democratic perspective the US left has yet produced.

As we have seen, ballot-line socialists tend to believe that independent campaigns are hopeless propaganda exercises at best, and at worst spoilers for the GOP. In uncritically tailing left-wing Democrats such as Bernie Sanders, leftists do not promote “democratic socialism” but the redefinition of socialism to mild adjustments of the terms of capitalist exploitation and oppression, ultimately dependent for its implementation on a completely hostile political party establishment.

Ackerman, Schulman, and other proponents of the ballot-line tactic are open about their desire to revitalize social democracy. Yet they have taken a further step backwards, renouncing the aim of transforming the Democratic Party entirely in favor of using the Democrats’ own ballot line to disrupt the party machinery and eventually cohere a current to its left.

Democratic Party electoralism or class struggle?

But their participation in the Democratic Party will founder on the same contradictions that doomed their Popular Front and realignment predecessors. As Brenner wrote of the ex-Maoist activists oriented on Jesse Jackson’s first campaign for president in 1984,

To the extent they wish to create a viable social democracy, they will have to maintain their political and organizational independence from, and indeed systematically to oppose, those who represent actually-existing social democracy. To the extent, on the other hand, they end up, as they have until now, merging themselves with the official forces of reformism, they will be disabled from carrying out what is clearly the cardinal (if enormously imposing) task facing those who wish to implement any left perspective: to rebuild the fighting capacity, organization, and left political consciousness of the working class and oppressed people.46

Comparing the negligible strength of the working class and social movements in the contemporary United States to our strength during the Roosevelt and Johnson eras, consistent proponents of an American social democracy will risk travelling an even more abbreviated road to co-optation than their political forebears.

The stakes of this new social democratic ballot-line tactic could not be higher. We are amidst a deep radicalization on the left with a whole new generation open to socialism that confronts the establishment’s parties, a Trumpite right inside the GOP, and a newly emboldened far right. This new left sentiment has been expressed from Occupy to #Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the wave of teachers strikes.

The question of the relationship between the emerging left, labor and social movements, and the Democratic Party will be posed more and more sharply. Several weeks before writing this article, I traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, to participate in the massive demonstration called outside the state capitol building by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), the professional association of public school teachers, who, as with other state employees in North Carolina, are denied the right to unionize and collectively bargain.

Thousands of teachers took personal leave on May 16 to march in Raleigh, demanding the same things of the North Carolina statehouse already struggled for and won by teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona.47

This was, however, prevented from turning into a more direct confrontation by leading NCAE activists of a socialist background, who maintained their commitment to the administration of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and to electing Democratic majorities in the state legislature that they believe will enact the reforms teachers want.

As one teacher argued after May 16,

The most common argument I hear about why we can’t strike is that “we don’t have a union.” But this gets the order backward. Fighting for better schools will build our union. Striking will make our union. . . . Unions that remain inactive while the conditions in our buildings break down will not win people — not just in North Carolina, but around the country. Having our main strategy be getting out the vote for a Democratic Party that repeatedly betrays us will not build the union.48

The contrast could not be sharper between this redirection of the struggle into electing North Carolina’s Democratic Party and the much more successful mass strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. This contrast corresponds to the different perspectives of revolutionary socialists and re-formists over where social power lies, how reforms are won, as well as how we will win socialism. This difference will become more and more crucial in the coming political period.

However much individual reformists support mass struggle, they see it in the end as a complement to the fundamental goal of winning electoral control over the capitalist state and using it to implement reforms and eventually socialism from above. The revolutionary socialist perspective this article has put forward is precisely the opposite: the social power for winning reforms and socialism is rooted in class struggle from below that will entail smashing the capitalist state and replacing it, in Marx’s phrase, with the democratic rule of the associated producers.

For revolutionaries, electoral campaigns and elected officials serve as means to preserve their political independence of the working class from the capitalist class, trumpet the demands of class and social struggles, and help generalize them into a broader fight eventually for not just political but social revolution.49 The talents and energies of the new generation of socialists should be dedicated to building the class struggle, social movements and the socialist political organizations to advance them, including at the ballot box, but much more significantly in workplaces and communities.

The choice for radicals is more sharply posed than it has been in some time: either work from within the Democrats, the end result of which is co-optation, demobilization, and negation of the relevance of socialist goals; or build the movements outside the electoral sphere that provide the basis for achieving reforms and, in turn, for overcoming capitalism as a system. The ballot-line perspective fudges this central dilemma. Like the Popular Front and realignment perspectives before it, its appeal lies in the idea that we can change the relationship of forces, win reforms, and build radicalism in the immediate term through the tactic of running and campaigning for socialists within the Democratic Party.50

In other words, it is yet another shortcut past the difficulties of building a real fighting socialist left committed to leading struggle from below. We cannot afford to take shortcuts. Against the catalogue of horrors that constitute the Trump administration, increasing inter-imperial tensions, and the ongoing climate catastrophe, socialists must set their sights much higher than the social-democratic perspectives which have previously dominated our movements.

  1. Kim Moody, “The Two Souls of Democratic Socialism,” New Politics XVI-4 (Winter 2018), and his more detailed treatment in On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017), 107–170.
  2. Howie Hawkins, “The Case for an Independent Left Party,” International Socialist Review 107 (Winter 2017–18),
  3. CNN, “Pelosi: Democrats are Capitalists,” February 1, 2017, videos/politics/2017/02/01/nancy-pelosi-town-hall-capitalism-sot.cnn.
  4. Moody, On New Terrain, 130.
  5. Jason Schulman, “The Sanders Campaign and the Democratic ‘Party,’” New Politics, May 27, 2015, party and Schulman, “Bernie Sanders and the Dilemma of the Democratic ‘Party,’” New Politics XV-4 (Winter 2016), dilemma-democratic-party.
  6. Schulman, “Bernie Sanders and the Dilemma.”
  7. Schulman, “The Sanders Campaign.”
  8. Schulman, “Bernie Sanders and the Dilemma.”
  9. Schulman, “The Sanders Campaign.”
  10. Schulman, “Bernie Sanders and the Dilemma.”
  11. Seth Ackerman, “A Blueprint for a New Party,” Jacobin, November 8, 2016, https://
  12. Ackerman, “A Blueprint for a New Party.”
  13. Eric Blanc, “The Ballot and the Break,” Jacobin, December 4, 2017, https://www. Blanc’s article provides historical content for the contemporary arguments of ballot-line socialists based on a case study of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) during the 1920s. The scope of this article does not allow taking up the FLP in detail; however, readers may refer to Paul D’Amato, “What Lessons to Take from Farmer-Labor Parties?,” Socialist Worker, March 20, 2018, https://socialistworker. org/2018/03/20/what-lessons-to-take-from-farmer-labor-parties. He provides an extended examination of the FLP at odds with Blanc’s account.
  14. Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 35.
  15. See Chris Hedges, “Et Tu, Bernie?” TruthDig, June 17, 2018, for a detailed examination of Sanders’s deepening collaboration with the Democratic establishment from summer 2016 onwards: 
  16. Scott Detrow, “Bernie Sanders Defends Campaigning for Anti-Abortion Rights Democrat,” National Public Radio, April 20, 2017,
  17. Moody, On New Terrain, 139–40.
  18. Kim Moody, “Reply to Dornbush, Elliott-Negri, Lewis, and Hirsch,” New Politics XVI4,
  19. Sam Lewis, Luke Elliott-Negri, and Amelia Dornbush, “Fighting for the Soul of Socialism,” New Politics XVI-4,
  20. Lewis, et al., “Fighting for the Soul of Socialism,” emphasis in the original.
  21. This term has been in use by the DSA for at least two years. See Maria Svart, “Building Working-Class Power,” Democratic Socialists of America, June 17, 2016, http://www.
  22. Clint Hendler, “Two Socialists in Pennsylvania Just Won Victories Democrats Can’t Ignore,” Mother Jones, May 14, 2018, politics/2018/05/two-millennial-socialists-take-down-a-pittsburgh-politicaldynasty-1-results/.
  23. Aki Soga, “Analysis: How Did Bernie Sanders Democrats Do in the Primaries?” Burlington Free Press, June 6, 2018, story/news/2018/06/06/analysis-how-did-bernie-sanders-democrats-doprimaries/676864002/.
  24. Nate Silver, “Sometimes the Parties Do Decide, After All,” FiveThirtyEight, June 6, 2018, See also the detailed analysis by Alexander Burns et al, “Despite Liberal Energy, Democrats Mostly Choose Mainstream Candidates in California House Primaries,” New York Times, June 7, 2018, us/politics/california-house-primary-candidates.html.
  25. For more on Lee and Innamorato before their respective victories see Chris Potter, “The Socialists vs. the Costas: Upstart Hard-Left Candidates Challenge Iconic OldSchool Pittsburgh Political Family,” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 8, 2017, pennsylvania-house-democratic-socialists-challenge-sara-innamorato-summer-lee/ stories/201712080134.
  26. Ackerman, “A Blueprint for a New Party.”
  27. Schulman, “Bernie Sanders and the Dilemma.”
  28. Moody, On New Terrain, 137.
  29. Rosa, rather than standing firm on his commitment to BDS, qualified that he only supported the campaign on the federal level and did not support it at the state level— in other words, that it would not be a legislative priority if he were elected lieutenant governor. See the interview “Carlos Rosa’s Political Capital,” Jacobin, September 29, 2017, party.
  30. Adam Hilton, “Organized for Democracy? Left Challenges Inside the Democratic Party,” in Leo Panitch and Greg Albo, eds., The Socialist Register 2018: Rethinking Democracy, 121 and 125.
  31. Selfa, The Democrats, 218.
  32. Hilton, “Organized for Democracy?,” 119–121.
  33. Soma Marik, Revolutionary Democracy: Emancipation in Classical Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2018), 83–87.
  34. Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History, 217–218.
  35. Robert Brenner, “The Problem of Reformism,” Against the Current 43, http://www.
  36. Brenner, “The Problem of Reformism.”
  37. Rather than burdening them with repetitive footnotes, in this historical overview readers are referred to several main sources of the account. See Charlie Post, “The Popular Front: Rethinking CPUSA History,” Against the Current 63 ( July 1996),; and Charlie Post, “The New Deal and Popular Front: Models for Contemporary Socialists?,” International Socialist Review 108 (Spring 2018),
  38. Bhaskar Sunkara and Joseph Schwartz, “What Should Socialists Do?” Jacobin, August 1, 2017, There is absolutely nothing new in their uncritical appraisal of the Popular Front, which can be found decades ago in the writings of Michael Harrington and historians including Maurice Isserman, against which Post’s first article referenced above, published over twenty years ago, still serves as an effective counter.
  39. Post, “The Popular Front: Rethinking CPUSA History.”
  40. Charlie Post, “The Popular Front Didn’t Work,” Jacobin, October 17, 2017, https://
  41. Mike Davis, “The Barren Marriage of American Labor and the Democratic Party,” in Prisoners of the American Dream (New York: Verso, 1999), 61–64.
  42. “The Dynamics of Retreat: An Interview with Robert Brenner,” Jacobin, March 3, 2016, democratic-reformism-new-deal-fdr.
  43. The main sources for this account of the realignment strategy are Paul Heideman, “It’s Their Party,” Jacobin, February 4, 2016, democratic-party-realignment-civil-rights-mcgovern-meany-rustin-sanders, and Kim Moody, “From Realignment to Reinforcement,” Jacobin, January 26, 2017, wasserman-schultz.
  44. Moody, “From Realignment to Reinforcement.”
  45. Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” Commentary, July 1, 1965, protest-to-politics-the-future-of-the-civil-rights-movement/.
  46. Robert Brenner, “The Paradox of Social Democracy: The American Case,” Part one, Verso Blog, February 24, 2016, paradox-of-social-democracy-the-american-case-part-one.
  47. Lindsay Caesar, Jacob Cook, and Joel Sronce, “Sparks of a Teacher’s Rebellion in North Carolina,” Socialist Worker, May 23, 2018, http://socialistworker. org/2018/05/23/sparks-of-a-teacher-rebellion-in-north-carolina.
  48. Matt Casella, “How Will We Build Tar Heel Teacher Power?” Socialist Worker, June 7, 2018, power.
  49. Paul D’Amato, “Marxists and Elections,” International Socialist Review 13 (August 2000),
  50. Post, “The New Deal and Popular Front: Models for Socialists?”

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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