Break with All the Bosses’ Parties and Politicians!
No Win for Working People
Surprise, surprise: Democratic (Party) “socialist” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed the ultra-establishment "corporate Democrat" Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
So the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, while the Republicans held onto the Senate. A “blue wave”? Hardly. And it’s no gain for poor and working people. The capitalist party that has presided over most of U.S. imperialism’s wars for the last century, the party that under Barack Obama shoveled out $16 trillion dollars (that’s $16,000,000,000,000) to bail out banks and corporations following the 2008 Wall Street crash while millions were being evicted from their homes, managed to update its image by putting more “diverse new faces in (some) high places.” This is a “victory”? That’s what the liberals and various “moderate” left groups are proclaiming. Not in our book.
Meanwhile, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi has called for bipartisanship and finding “common ground” with the Republican Party of reactionary bigot Donald Trump. Big surprise! With the capitalist government divided between the Republican-controlled White House and a split Congress, the likely outcome is more Washington deadlock … and frustration all around. Democrats won’t be able to get anything passed, while Republican right-wingers may be stymied in their plans. It could all come to a head with a government shutdown right before Xmas. Trump says he wants it, he’ll own it, anything to get his border wall. In this perilous period, it is key to unchain the power of the workers and oppressed from the bosses’ Democratic Party.
Otherwise, it’ll be more of the same old, same old, in which we’re always getting screwed.
The lead-up to the midterms dramatically highlighted dangers posed by the deep-going rot of American capitalism and its two-party political system, of which Trump is a virulent product. As he aimed a torrent of hate-mongering racism and threats against the Central American “migrant caravan” and ordered troops to the border, murderous attacks and provocations by racists, anti-Semites and fascist groups occurred from Pittsburgh and New York to Louisville, Kentucky and Portland, Oregon. (See “Mobilize Workers Power to Stop Fascist Terror!” The Internationalist No. 53, September-October 2018.)
Trump ranted that birthright citizenship, which was established as a result of the Civil War, “has to end.” Days after the election, he attempted to end asylum rights by decree. Democrats focused on health care as a way not to challenge Trump on immigration. As for the “progressive” and “democratic socialist” candidates of the party of deporter-in-chief Barack Obama, they shelved previous calls to “abolish” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (by which they meant replacing I.C.E. with something akin to the old Immigration and Naturalization Service) while pledging to uphold “secure borders.”
Right after the vote, Democrat-aligned groups organized mass marches throughout the country, reminiscent of the Democrats’ “Women’s March” of pink “pussy hats” the day after Trump’s inauguration. This time it was to protest Trump’s firing of U.S. top cop and walking Confederate monument Jeff Sessions – one of the most vicious anti-immigrant politicians in U.S. history – and in defense of former FBI Director Robert Mueller, head of the “Russiagate” investigation. Meanwhile, Michelle Obama was on NBC’s “Today” show gushing about her friendship with George W. Bush, the invader of Afghanistan and Iraq, whom she described as “beautiful” and “kind.” It all underlines, as Internationalist placards at immigrant rights and anti-racist protests have proclaimed: “You Can’t Fight Trump with Democrats!”
Liberal Illusions vs. Real Struggle Against Oppression
So what happened to the fabled “blue (i.e., Democratic) wave”? Pointing to the historical tendency for the sitting president’s party to lose ground in midterm elections, commentators noted the Democrats’ recapture of the House was pretty much par for the course. Moreover, when the Democrats did win both houses of Congress under a Republican president in 2006, they voted to keep funding “George W. Bush’s war” on Iraq, which continued after Obama won the presidency two years later.
In The Nation (3 December), John Nichols, a bellwether of left-liberal Democratic loyalism, hailed the election results as “a monumental shift in the political dynamic at a crucial moment in our history,” for having “ushered into Congress a new generation of intersectional activists.” Name-checking Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, Rashida Tlaib from Michigan (members of the Democratic Socialists of America), as well as Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, Nichols’ message was that an infusion of “diverse” Democrats marks a brave new era – when what’s needed is a struggle against the entire ruling class of racist American capitalism.
The illusion that more diversity in the staid chambers of government augurs real social change is being avidly promoted by the bulk of the “left” – and not only by those who openly advocate voting Democratic. One example: the day after the election, the Left Voice web site (part of the Left Media Project, affiliated with the “Trotskyist Fraction”) published “Five Takeaways from the Midterm Elections,” subtitled “The great protagonist: women of color.” Another piece began by enthusing over the “historic win by women and people of color,” and later reiterated that “the election of women and minorities is cause for celebration....”
To be clear, Marxists oppose every form of discrimination, including against members of oppressed sectors who join the ruling elite. But when leftists “celebrate” the election of Democratic Party politicians, whatever their race or gender, they are helping pull the wool over the eyes of the oppressed. These are capitalist politicians, who do not and cannot “represent” those whose exploitation and oppression are the bedrock of this society. The mission of these “progressive” Democrats is to co-opt, contain, control and defuse any real fight for liberation.
“Hope and Change” Rerun
History has shown this time and again. Decades before the current Congressional “generation of intersectional activists,” the white racist capitalist ruling class responded to the 1960s wave of black rebellion by putting some “black faces in high places.” Black Democratic mayors took office in major cities from Cleveland (1967) to Newark (1970), Los Angeles and Atlanta (1973), Detroit (1974) and Washington, D.C. (1979). Far from uprooting systemic inequality and oppression, their job was to keep the lid on, including by force. Philadelphia black Democratic mayor Wilson Goode carried out the infamous racist massacre of 11 black members of the MOVE commune (five of them children) in 1985. In 1990, the center of capitalist finance itself, New York City, got a black mayor, David Dinkins. Referring to “sacrifices” that Wall Street was demanding from the city’s workers and poor, Dinkins – a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) – said, “They’ll take it from me.”
Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was established back in 1971 (DSA member Ron Dellums of California was a founding member); the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in 1976; the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues in 1977. The CBC reached 48 members before the latest election, almost half of them women. Its longest-serving member is Georgia Rep. John Lewis, the former civil rights militant who tried to challenge the Kennedy White House in his censored speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Eased into the Democratic mainstream, Lewis is a symbol of co-optation into the bourgeois establishment.
All this helped pave the way for the eventual election of Barack Obama in 2008, also hailed by opportunist leftists at the time. Despite promises of “Hope and Change,” inequality continued to skyrocket as social/economic devastation and imperialist wars continued, while deportations reached a record high and racist police terror raged on. With the aid of Bernie Sanders, followed by Ocasio-Cortez, the DSA and almost all of the left, the Democrats have been trying to recoup, and rerun new versions of “Hope and Change” ever since. So they work overtime to prevent workers, youth and the oppressed from drawing radical conclusions and breaking once and for all from the Democratic Party.
Another legacy of the Obama presidency is the close relation with the repressive apparatus cultivated by his secretary of state and would-be successor, Hillary Clinton. This helped set the stage for the Democrats’ brazen efforts to present the FBI, CIA and military as “defenders of democracy” against Trump. These go together with their depiction of Trump as a pawn of Putin’s Kremlin. But for working-class and oppressed people, their enemy is here “at home”: the capitalist ruling class of Washington and Wall Street. As the leading party in most of U.S. imperialism’s wars, the Democrats say the opposite, accusing the Republicans of going soft on “enemies abroad,” reviving Cold War imagery against now-capitalist Russia as well as the bureaucratically deformed workers states of China and North Korea.
The whole Russiagate gambit goes together with the number of Democratic candidates boasting of their careers in the CIA and the U.S. military. Several were just elected to the House, including a former CIA agent in Iraq who then went to the National Security Council (NSC); another who spent eight years in the CIA; a former top adviser to U.S. forces in Afghanistan who became director for Iraq in Obama’s NSC; the former Russia policy adviser for the Atlantic fleet, etc. Underlining her pledge to find common ground with Trump, Nancy Pelosi pointed to her long experience in the House Intelligence Committee, where “left to our own devices, we could always find our way in a bipartisan manner” (New York Times Magazine, 19 November).
Much Ado About Pelosi
A whole sideshow in the bourgeois electoral circus was devoted to the supposedly burning question of whether Nancy Pelosi would be Speaker of the House. Though demonized by right-wing Republicans, Pelosi wound up being endorsed for the spot by Trump himself. From the standpoint of working-class politics, it’s beside the point: whoever gets chosen for the post will speak for ruling-class interests. For many long-time Democratic hacks, Pelosi embodies party loyalty, the savvy arts of Congressional “sausage-making” (that is, the deals needed to “get things done”) and fund-raising prowess. In contrast, enthusiasts of Sanders-style Democratic renewal have long seen Pelosi as the “Democratic establishment” personified. A number of more conservative Democrats have also sought to mount a challenge to her leadership.
What is more interesting about this affair is the light it sheds on the purportedly brash, intrepid new “progressive” and Democratic “socialist” cohort incessantly hyped by the media and the self-styled left. Over and over, they claimed to be running in opposition to establishment Democrats. In the famously viral campaign video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez she pointedly stressed, “It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same.” A “Democratic insurgency” against the old guard was said to be underway, with “AOC” as its standard-bearer. Various supposedly Marxist groups excitedly promoted the new wave of Democrats.
Yet again, they were helping the bosses’ Democratic Party rope in the unwary. Soon enough, AOC embraced the pinnacle of the Democratic establishment in her own state, endorsing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, as she called for “rallying behind all Democratic nominees, including the governor, to make sure that he wins in November” (Newsday, 16 September). So would she or wouldn’t she do the same for Pelosi? High drama ensued as the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) held a press conference on November 12 and no one raised their hand when a journalist asked who would commit to opposing Pelosi.
Building the AOC Brand
The next day, Ocasio-Cortez appeared at a “protest” at Pelosi’s office, channeling FDR with calls for a “Green New Deal.” As for the House Democratic leader, AOC said they were there to let Pelosi know that “we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen.” Pelosi said she was “deeply inspired by the young activists,” to which AOC responded “Thank you @Nancy Pelosi.” Shortly after, CPC leaders announced their support for Pelosi, in exchange for her pledge to help get “progressives” more spots on “key exclusive committees – including Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Appropriations, Financial Services and Intelligence.” On November 21, AOC formally announced that Pelosi “can count on my support” for the Speaker of the House position.
Aided by non-stop news coverage, Ocasio-Cortez continues to assiduously build her brand. While Fox News and other reactionaries try to caricature her as a clueless ingenue, AOC is smart, astute and hard-working – for the capitalist Democratic Party. Since her arrival in Washington, her use of Instagram to stay connected with her base has featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker and the Washington Post (16 November), which called it “revolutionary.” In this ongoing video selfie show she revs up excitement for the inside workings of government, sprinkling in millennial-themed references and vignettes on everything from Harry Potter to making mac and cheese.
It’s all part of the job, as was her reaction to the death of John McCain in August. Since entrée to U.S. imperialism’s Congressional club required joining the bipartisan paeans of praise, she went on Twitter to proclaim the Republican war criminal and all-purpose bigot “an unparalleled example of human decency and American service.” Ocasio-Cortez is forthright about the fact that her goal is to revitalize the Democratic Party so it can more effectively administer the capitalist system. Meanwhile various opportunist left currents are pretending it’s somehow all about socialism. It’s not.
Working-Class Independence vs. Class Collaboration
Political independence of the working class is the keystone of Marxist politics. We Trotskyists fight for labor and the oppressed to break from the Democrats and all capitalist parties and politicians, and to forge a class-struggle workers party to fight for socialist revolution. This requires telling the truth to the masses, and opposing the full range of opportunist outfits that, because they tail bourgeois politics, do the opposite.
The day after the midterms, the tone was set for such groupings by the DSA’s National Political Committee, whose statement began: “Yesterday democratic socialists fought and won inspiring election campaigns across the country, representing the rebirth of the American socialist movement after generations in retreat.” Short on honesty, but not on chutzpah, it went on to claim these campaigns in and for the oldest bourgeois party in the world – the Democrats – are “a working-class movement for social justice.” It did accurately note: “We are building a pipeline from local positions all the way to national politics.” The appended list of DSA-endorsed elected officials includes a Library Trustee in Ypsilanti, a judge, assorted members of local rent boards, “advisory neighborhood commissions” and Democratic state committees (though no municipal dog-catchers seem to have made the cut). It is all in line with the title of our pamphlet, DSA: Fronting for the Democrats (February 2018).
Staking out niches a bit more to the left on the social-democratic spectrum are Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and its sibling rivals of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). These groups are old hands at tailing the Democrats, celebrating the advances of whichever of their candidates generates the most illusions at the moment, and combining this with helpful “socialist” helpful advice and “constructively” mild criticism. The DSA’s exponential growth has made them desperate to stay relevant.
In the lead-in to the midterms, a long SAlt piece on “The Coming ‘Blue Wave’ and Growing Radicalization” (Socialist Alternative, 5 October) was chock full of enthusiasm and suggestions for the “progressive challengers to the establishment.” It bragged that “Socialist Alternative called for votes by registered Democrats for Ocasio-Cortez and [Julia] Salazar and we were active in their campaigns.” (Salazar is a DSA member who won the Democratic primary and subsequently the election for a seat in the New York State Senate.) It called on “Ocasio-Cortez and DSA in particular” to “play a key role” in “turning the programs of left progressives and socialist candidates into real fighting campaigns.” SAlt leaders have pitched their ever more blatant adaptation to Democrats as one clever “tactic” after another. SAlt is a vivid case of how, in opportunist politics, “the mask becomes the face.”
After the elections, SAlt’s “socialist Seattle city council member,” Kshama Sawant, wrote an open letter (9 November) to Ocasio-Cortez, Salazar and Rashida Tlaib, to congratulate her “sisters,” together with “other newly elected socialists,” stating: “Your elections represent a significant step forward for the U.S. working class” and a defeat for “the establishment.” Sawant did admonish: “Alexandria, it is deeply unfortunate that you have endorsed Andrew Cuomo – a thoroughly rotten representative of the establishment,” adding that “you should not repeat this error in supporting Nancy Pelosi” (no luck there, Kshama). Addressing all three DSAers, she wrote that “we do not agree with your decisions to run as Democrats.” No matter – “despite these differences ... we can and should work together to build a sustained movement.... But today let us celebrate your elections and prepare to make use of them in the tumultuous struggles ahead.”
Much the same recipe was served up by the ISO’s Alan Maass in “Six Socialist Takeaways from Election 2018” (Socialist Worker, 7 November). “Coulda been, shoulda been,” he began. “The 2018 midterm elections should have been a ringing repudiation of Donald Trump and the Republican Party. And if not for the dismal state of U.S. ‘democracy’ and the two-party system, it would have been.” Still: “The success of socialist candidates [sic] this year has been a big theme in mainstream news coverage. Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in June inspired people around the country....” And “like Bernie Sanders before them,” Maass wrote, AOC and fellow DSAer Tlaib are “helping to inject socialism into mainstream politics after an absence for many generations.”
At this point the recipe called for that dollop of advice and admonition, as he outlined an “important discussion about the new DSA officeholders.” Despite the “great pressure to adapt to the conservatizing routines of Congress,” Maass wrote, “there will be important new opportunities to use their position in Congress to project the demands of social movements and struggles, along with the politics of socialism…. Everyone on the left needs to be part of discussing what can be done to take advantage of the opportunity.” So the ISO, like SAlt, helps the DSA market the idea that these Democratic Party politicians represent “the politics of socialism.” And seeking its slice of the action, it urges the entire left to join in class collaboration with these bourgeois politicians.
Those who prefer tailism and class-collaborationist appeals with more erudite Marxist and ostensibly “Trotskyist” airs can turn to the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) of Alan Woods and the late Ted Grant. It laments that “Bernie Sanders – with his mass base of supporters, contributors, and voters – could have built a mass working-class socialist party.” Still, today “DSA is not a mass party, but ... is in a unique position to use its rising profile to put forward bold socialist policies and the need for a break with the Democrats...” (Socialist Revolution, 7 November). There follows a long set of suggestions for the DSA on how to do this, not to repeat the “mistake” of running as Democrats, and so on.
The same tack was taken last summer by Left Voice (28 July) when it oh-so-helpfully suggested to the DSA’s Julia Salazar that she “run as a socialist, putting the hundreds of DSA members who are canvassing into dialogue with those who are disillusioned with the two-party system.” Pointing to SAlt’s Kshama Sawant as “an important example that independent politics [!] are possible,” LV asked the DSA not to endorse any Democrats – a bit like asking the pope to quit giving mass. What’s striking about these near-identical appeals from the various “socialist” and left opportunists is that they all see themselves as playing in the same ballpark as the DSA Democrats. They are, and the name of the game is class collaboration.
As we noted in our article “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the Rescue of the Democratic Party” (The Internationalist No. 53, September-October 2018), events have thoroughly refuted the claims, by leftists tailing the DSA, that the group’s influx of new members was radicalizing it “in a process that would push it away from and eventually out of” the Democratic Party. We wrote, “The scientific Marxist term for this is: bullshit.” In reality, “the DSA and its new members are moving further into the Democratic Party. And this, in turn, helps push the fake-left groups cheering them on further to the right, as they seek ever deeper unity with the mainstream social democrats.”
“Mainstreaming socialism” means burying social struggles in the Democratic Party graveyard. The fight to break the bipartisan capitalist stranglehold on U.S. politics will not be advanced by shifty maneuvers and excuses for tailing the Democrats. It requires the opposite: a sharp break with all the bosses’ parties and a clear fight for political independence from the bourgeoisie, to undertake the task of building a revolutionary workers party. As we face this period of heightened dangers and challenges, helping tie working people and the oppressed to the class enemy is not a “mistake” but a crime. To defend their most basic rights and needs, class struggle is the urgent order of the day. ■