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The Internationalist
December 2013

Top Local Democrats Back Kshama Sawant

“Socialist” Elected in Seattle on Platform of Liberal/Populist Reforms

Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative candidate elected to Seattle city council. (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP)

In November, voters in Seattle, Washington elected Kshama Sawant, candidate of Socialist Alternative (SAlt), to an at-large seat on the City Council, preferring her to Richard Colin, the incumbent Democrat who had held the post for 16 years. The bulk of the left cheered in unison. Socialist Action (November 20) declared that, despite differences, Sawant’s election was “as an important victory for the entire socialist movement.” The International Socialist Organization (December 11) saw it as a harbinger of “The electoral opening for the left.” And, naturally, Socialist Alternative (November 20) was ecstatic, headlining an article on their website, “Victory for Socialist in Seattle! – ‘Earth-shattering consequences’ in the US and internationally.”

Curiously, though, the capitalist rulers didn’t feel the ground crumbling under their feet. For all the considerable national media attention, the big business press was remarkably nonchalant about the victory for a nominally Marxist, socialist working-class party. The monopoly Seattle Times (26 November) which endorsed her opponent, carried a sympathetic profile of councilor-elect Sawant, quoting her colleagues-to-be, all Democrats, voicing hopeful anticipation of her role on the City Council. “Councilmember Mike O’Brien said adding Sawant to the council means he and other members can be more aggressive passing liberal legislation.” So Sawant’s presence will help pusillanimous Democratic “progressives” screw up their courage!

How does one explain the bourgeois media and politicians’ equanimous reaction? Sawant did not hide her party affiliation in this nominally “non-partisan” race. But Seattle’s “politically potent alternative weekly,” The Stranger, marketed to the younger, hipper audience of middle-class café-dwellers, noted in endorsing her that, “Despite her ‘Socialist Alternative’ label, there isn’t anything particularly radical about the core of Sawant's progressive agenda.” They got that right. Sawant campaigned on a straight liberal/populist program. Her platform was hardly to the left of candidates of the Green Party, a minor capitalist party, which endorsed her, as did the local “Progressive Party,” whose hero is Teddy Roosevelt, the racist butcher of the Philippines.

Sawant’s campaign protested The Stranger’s evaluation, while trumpeting its endorsement: “Sawant’s campaign is radical in that it is a direct challenge to the Democratic Party,” it wrote in an August 2 statement. It would be hard not to be, since there was no Republican candidate. But her most prominent campaign issue, the $15 per hour minimum wage, was endorsed by both major (Democratic) mayoral candidates, the incumbent Mike McGinn, and his victorious challenger, state senator Ed Murray. In fact, Sawant underbid the Greens who have called for a $16.50 minimum wage while arguing – like many “mainstream” economists – that “enacting a liveable wage would boost the [capitalist] economy.”

What about the rest of Sawant’s platform? The other two key planks were “a rent control ordinance to make housing affordable, and a tax on millionaires to fund transit, education, and other public services”( “How a Socialist Candidate Won an Election in Seattle,” Socialist Alternative, 22 November). Rent control is hardly a socialist demand: it was begun by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in World War II, and continued since then in New York, which has tens of thousands of homeless. A number of California cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, Berkeley and others) likewise have rent stabilization regulations. As for a “tax on millionaires,” this is the bread-and-butter of Democratic liberals to give a populist veneer to their capitalist politics.

In fact, the most prominent candidate who campaigned for a “millionaire’s tax” in the November elections was New York City’s mayor-elect, Democrat Bill de Blasio. Sawant’s election has been linked by various liberal commentators to de Blasio’s victory (see “Kshama Sawant’s City Council victory reflects broad trends,” in The Nation, 16 December). The would-be socialists also saw the parallels: the ISO (December 16) wrote that “De Blasio … ran a campaign that successfully painted him as a populist-challenger to the pro-Wall Street agenda of previous administrations.” And SAlt (November 22) headlined, “De Blasio Campaign in New York Creates Huge Expectations – Millions are Looking for a Left Alternative.”

The election of both Sawant and de Blasio has been portrayed as “the Occupy movement goes to the polls.” Of course, the ISO, SAlt et al. argued that de Blasio would turn his back on his campaign themes once in office. But the fact is that the liberal Democrat and the “democratic socialist” campaigned on similar themes. In fact, SAlt’s “how to” article on the election win highlighted the importance of “Democrats for Sawant.” This outfit included the former treasurer of the local Democratic Party who said, “Kshama Sawant’s positions on issues are far closer to King County Democrats than Richard Conlin’s actual record.” Another of the Democratic Party “activists” supporting Sawant was the former chairman of the King County Democrats.

The fact that the “socialist” candidate could garner support of a segment of the Democratic Party officialdom reflects the fact that Socialist Alternative – like Socialist Action, the International Socialist Organization and the other left groups supporting her candidacy – are reformist social democrats who support the capitalist system. They just want to throw in a few reforms to make it a little more “people friendly.” When they talk of socialism they mean a social-democratic “welfare state” on the European post-World War II model, with “public ownership” of various industries and utilities. They have no intention of carrying out a socialist revolution to bring down the capitalist state – their ambition is to administer it.

This is brought to the fore over the issue of the police. In the fine print of Sawant’s election fliers there is a call to “build a mass movement against police brutality and racial profiling,” and to “create an elected civil review board with full powers over the police.” No mention of the position of Socialist Alternative and its international organization, the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), that police, the armed fist of the capitalist state that unions confront on the picket lines, are supposedly fellow workers (see “Her Majesty’s Social Democrats in Bed with the Police,” The Internationalist, Summer 2009). Tell that to the Occupy Wall Street activists who were pepper-sprayed, beaten and their homes searched by the Seattle Police Department.

As for civilian review boards, these exist in various places with no effect whatsoever such as New York City, the “stop and frisk” capital of the U.S., or the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, where a BART cop shot Oscar Grant in cold blood. The idea that the capitalist ruling class would allow its racist enforcers to be subject to genuine “democratic control” by their victims is a deadly illusion. Even where police chiefs are supposedly elected, this guarantees nothing. The infamous immigrant-hunting Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona has been elected five times by popular vote. No civilian review board would stop the SPD from murdering native American woodcarver John Williams or strangling and beating African American Leo Etherly.

Sawant’s platform also calls for the Seattle City Council to “campaign for immediate, unconditional citizenship rights for all undocumented immigrants.” This could be a step forward, but full citizenship rights won’t be enacted by a city ordinance. It will require a tumultuous class struggle led by a workers party that champions the cause of all the oppressed. In contrast, SAlt has for many years acted as cheerleaders for Ralph Nader, a virulent nationalist immigrant-basher who told the American Conservative (21 June 2004) that he opposed legalization. Moreover, SAlt’s co-thinkers in England were in the leadership of a chauvinist strike at an oil refinery where hundreds of workers demanded “British Jobs for British Workers.”

Sawant received a fair amount of labor support, including endorsements from AFT Local 1789 at Seattle Central Community College where she teaches economics; from AFSCME Council 28 of Washington state employees; from IBEW Local 46 electrical workers, and from a number of Seattle-area union officials. Of course, endorsements by labor bureaucrats, who generally support the Democrats, don’t indicate a radical program. But a video of Sawant speaking to a November 18 rally of Machinists at Boeing has been billed as a call for workers to seize the plants. Not so. What she actually called for is for “Boeing to be under democratic public ownership by workers, by the community.” That is something quite different from workers control.

An article on the Sawant campaign’s web site, “Why Socialism,” calls for “taking the top 500 corporations that dominate our economy … into public ownership and placing them under the democratic control of elected representatives of workers, consumers, and the community at large.” It argues, “We already have some essential industries that are publicly owned under capitalism that provide a glimpse of how socialism could work.” Actually, not. Under capitalism, nationalized industries are still subject to the laws of the market, and the dictates of capitalist governments. The National Health Service in Britain was never really socialized medicine, and under both Labour and Conservative administration its services have been slashed.

Socialist Alternative’s equation of “public ownership” of top corporations with socialism is not some local aberration. SAlt’s mentor, Peter Taaffe, leader of the CWI and of the Socialist Party in Britain, wrote in his treatise on The State (1983): “If the next Labour government introduced an Enabling Bill into Parliament to nationalise the 200 monopolies, banks and insurance companies.... A peaceful socialist transformation of society, would be entirely possible.” This directly contradicts the basic Marxist analysis of the capitalist state, no matter what its form and who administers it, as an instrument of the suppression of the working class and all the exploited by capital. For workers to rule, this state must be smashed.

SAlt has its origins in the former Militant tendency in Britain, which for decades was buried inside the social-democratic Labour Party. Faced with the rise of blatantly pro-capitalist “New Labour” leaders like Tony Blair, who argue that “there is no alternative” to “neo-liberal” free-market capitalism, Taaffe’s Socialist Party harks back to the “Old Labour” traditions, including the famous Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution calling for “common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.” Yet this would leave the state intact. And as we noted, like all social democrats, no matter how “militant,” Taaffe and his followers seek to administer the capitalist state. What’s more, when the chance has arisen, they have done so.

Today Sawant’s program calls for “no layoffs or attacks on public sector unions.” Really? An article on “Why We Run Socialist Candidates” by Tom Crean in Socialist Alternative No. 1 (September-October 2013) declares: “In Liverpool, England in the mid-1980s, our sister organization played the leading role in the establishment of a socialist majority on the city council,” and that “The Liverpool socialist council, backed up by mass demonstrations and strikes of the city’s workers, refused to impose cuts as dictated by the Thatcher government….” Actually, as part of a struggle with Thatcher & Co., the “Liverpool socialist council” terminated the contracts of tens of thousands of municipal workers! As Taaffe himself has written:

“The Labour group [in the Liverpool council] decided on the ‘tactic’ of issuing 90-day redundancy notices to the 30,000 strong workforce to gain that period as a breathing space in order to build the campaign.... However, the issuing of ‘redundancy notices’ turned out to be a major tactical error.”

–Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn, Liverpool – A City that Dared to Fight (1988)

This is the utterly reformist tradition that Socialist Alternative follows, even as it tries to cover itself with the revolutionary mantle of Trotskyism. While not so blatant, the program of piecemeal reforms to capitalism is common to the ISO, Socialist Action, Freedom Socialist Party and all groups of the social-democratic spectrum. Since they have largely interchangeable programs, the question arises, why don’t they join together, or at least support each other’s candidates? When SAlt proposed to the ISO that it endorse Sawant’s 2012 campaign for the state legislature, the ISO dismissed it as “shoestring effort.” Yet as it dawned on them that Sawant might win for city council, the ISO switched gears and effusively endorsed her.

But then, opportunism is the name of the game for the reformist pseudo-socialists. The absence of revolutionary substance is precisely what appealed to The Stranger, which usually backs Democrats, in endorsing Sawant. It noted “one of the biggest contrasts between Conlin and Sawant: The politics of the possible. Sawant doesn’t talk revolution like your typical clown-variety socialist...” This bourgeois seal of approval was proudly reproduced on votesawant.org. Certainly Sawant stayed well away from the dreaded “R-word.” Yet in this epoch of decaying capitalism, with social programs and union gains under assault across the board, the “politics of the possible” are a lie. The ruling class will not bestow lasting reforms on the working people and the oppressed, and any advances will be the product of hard class struggle pointing to socialist revolution.

While SAlt, SA, ISO, FSP et al. may make a ritual tip of the hat to Lenin and Trotsky, their practical politics are quite different from those of the Bolshevik leaders. To be sure, Marxist revolutionaries do not reject using the platform of bourgeois elections and parliaments – always making it clear that this is the terrain of the class enemy, that workers and the oppressed cannot peacefully take power through the ballot box – in order to expose the crimes of capitalism, dissipate illusions in bourgeois “democracy” and agitate for socialist revolution. Writing on the Bolsheviks’ election campaign to the tsar’s toothless Duma, Lenin declared: “the substance and mainspring of the Social-Democratic election platform can be expressed in three words: for the revolution!” (“The Election Campaign and the Election Platform,” October 1911).

As Trotskyists, the Internationalist Group calls to break with all the capitalist parties, and to oust the pro-capitalist labor bureaucrats who chain workers to the Democratic Party of U.S. imperialism. We call for building a workers party, not a milk-sop parliamentary labor party as in Britain, but a revolutionary workers party to lead the exploited and oppressed in class struggle. This is very different from the SAlt/SA/ISO/FSP social democrats who, although they may sometimes run their own candidates, look to the formation of a (bourgeois) “third party,” what Sawant called a “mass political alternative to the two-party system.” This is why they all look to the likes of Ralph Nader or the Greens while spouting populist rhetoric.

The election of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant to one of nine positions on the Seattle City Council with 93,000 votes reflects wide discontent with the Democratic Party of Obama and the Clintons, which mimics the Republicans on virtually every issue. But that discontent is reflected as well in liberal/reformist enthusiasm for Democrat de Blasio in New York. Sawant declared that “I think we have shown the strongest skeptics that the socialist label is not a bad one for a grassroots campaign to succeed.” Red-baiting certainly doesn’t have as much political mileage as it used to, but as the reformists look to the ballot box with cookie-cutter social-democratic campaigns, revolutionary communists look to the class struggle.

Electing a “socialist” in a one-party Democratic town like Seattle may liven up the city council, but don’t count on much more. Sawant’s first action as councilwoman-elect has been to announce that she will join the mayor-elect’s “Advisory Committee of business and labor leaders” to discuss the $15/hour minimum wage. The clear purpose of this class-collaborationist committee is to water down and delay any action, since the June deadline for its report would make a ballot initiative on the issue next to impossible. A class-struggle program to fight poverty wages would be to organize low-wage workers into a fighting union that could undertake real strike action. But that won’t be decided in the city council.

The inglorious history of “municipal socialism” is symbolized in the U.S. by the “sewer socialism” of Milwaukee’s racist Socialist mayor, Victor Berger. In France on the other hand, the “red belt” of working-class suburbs surrounding Paris were administered by Communist-led city councils for over half a century, and some still are. While housing projects were built, with the mass unemployment produced by capitalism, these turned into high-rise ghettos besieged by the cops. In Britain’s cities, Labour-led councils were common, but Thatcher hobbled them by sharply restricting their finances. “Think globally, act locally” may be a watchword of liberals, but tinkering with local issues is not a road to revolution. Over a century ago, Lenin wrote:

“The bourgeois intelligentsia of the West, like the English Fabians, elevate municipal socialism to a special ‘trend’ precisely because it dreams of social peace, of class conciliation, and seeks to divert public attention away from the fundamental questions of the economic system as a whole, and of the state structure as a whole, to minor questions of local self-government.”

As capitalism spirals downward, the U.S. is mired in the fifth year of economic depression, with wages continuing to fall and millions of workers unemployed so long that the government has written them out of the workforce. Obama’s “affordable health care” act has ensured mega-profits for insurers, increased premiums for union workers, and is cutting off funds for hospitals that serve the uninsured, notably undocumented immigrants. “Immigration reform” is a dead letter, while Obama has deported almost two million people. Even as Washington’s global clout declines, it keeps raining death from the skies with its drones. Yet far from fighting imperialism, the social democrats all support the Syrian “rebels” who are clamoring for U.S. support.

The struggles for the immediate needs of workers and the oppressed must be linked to the fight to forge a revolutionary workers party. The reformists talk about “change” not revolution, about corporations not capitalism, about the 99% rather than the working class, and SAlt would have us “imagine 200 Occupy candidates running for Congress this year.” Social democrats promote illusions in bourgeois democracy and thereby undercut the struggle for revolution. Authentic communists, in contrast, use the capitalist electoral platform – and every other venue – to prepare our class for decisive battles to sweep away the exploiters and oppressors. As the 1912 election platform of the Russian Bolsheviks proclaimed, they participated in elections “in order to prepare an army of class-conscious fighters for a new Russian revolution.”

As it fights against poverty wages, unaffordable housing and health care, a communist campaign would emphasize that the imperialist war abroad and the war on workers here is one and the same. Only international socialist revolution that smashes the capitalist state and raises the working class to power can overcome the deepening impoverishment of the masses, by instituting a global planned economy, freed from the constraints of private property. As a metastasizing police state spreads its cancer everywhere, repressing the oppressed and spying on everyone, only the working class in power can put and end to wage slavery and rescue human culture from mounting barbarism. ■