By Luke Elliott-Negri
There’s an old joke that goes, “Marxists have predicted six of the last three economic crises.”
The impulse to try to see into the future is strong on the left, and it creates all kinds of problems: unnecessary ideological divides, strategic missteps and foreclosures, extremely long blog posts. Our task, thankfully, is not to see into the future, to imagine building the power we need on some other terrain. Rather, our task is to build the power we need in the here and now, under actually existing conditions, to win tangible fights in such a way that we have the capacity to win bigger fights in future rounds.
Socialist Majority, in my view, is the DSA caucus that most closely embodies this analysis, and it makes us different from other caucuses, practically and interpersonally.
In reading the Spring Caucus’ “Tasks for 2019,” I was struck by one line in particular. After making clear to their readers that they believe DSA and the Left should be ballot line agnostic in the near term, they argue that “in the medium term, political independence means laying the foundations for a mass working-class political party, independent of the Democrats and their ballot line.”
But if we resist the tempting impulse to imagine that we can know the future, there is devastatingly simple response to the question of whether the Left will one day have a mass party that isn’t called “Democrat”: maybe.
I am personally thankful that the social world is not a mechanistic place where A follows inevitably from B. If it were, well, we could see the future (and things would be pretty boring as a result). The social world is not a mechanistic place precisely because people respond to each other’s ideas and actions and those responses cannot be known in advance.
As just one example of the unpredictable nature of political interaction among powerful actors, in 2004, the New York Working Families Party had an idea: recruit someone to primary a sitting District Attorney and make the campaign about upending the racist Rockefeller drug laws. Party leaders didn’t think they’d win, but they figured they might be able to change the conversation.
After deciding that Albany was the town to focus on, they managed to recruit a young attorney named David Soares, whose boss happened to be the sitting DA. In an effort at inoculation, Soares told his boss of his intention to run. He was fired.
Even though the WFP thought they wouldn’t win, they knew that they could win, so they fought like hell. The results were shocking to everyone: Soares bested the incumbent by more than 20 points. Immediately following the victory, Democrats sued the Working Families Party for intervening illegally in their primaries. State law seemed clear: “No contributions of money…. shall be expended in aid of the designation or nomination of any person to be voted for at a primary election.” But the final ruling was in favor of the WFP, and opened the door for them to more fully operate in Democratic primaries going forward. The Rockefeller Drug laws were partly dismantled immediately after the Soares win, and then more fully in 2009 when Democrats briefly had control of the State Senate.
The point of this anecdote is how little is predictable, even on a very small scale. A race that didn’t seem winnable, was in fact winnable. A lawsuit meant to harm the WFP backfired on Democrats. The social and political world, it turns out, is an unpredictable place.
There are even more factors and players in the much broader and more complicated question of what will become of the US two party system and the Democratic Party. Perhaps if the Spring Caucus was explicit that electoral reform — like instant runoff voting — is a likely precursor to the grand party they envision, their medium term argument would seem more grounded. But it is hard to transform popular energy around a particular social crisis into procedural change. And yet, what but social crisis would help create an opening to upend the two party system?
There is a deeper point here, however: we don’t know what will happen if we more successfully use the Democratic ballot line. If Bernie wins the 2020 nomination, large segments of the owning class are likely to retreat fully to the Republican Party. Opportunities to control the one or more of the Democratic Party organizations (the 50 state parties, the various arms of the national party etc.) — a project of which I’m skeptical — may suddenly become more viable. Or not, depending on the never-fully-predictable decisions of other powerful actors.
In my view, the power of Socialist Majority is in clearing away magical thinking to set grounded, winnable goals, and to attain those goals in ways that develop new leaders and a bigger, better organization. A side effect of the humility entailed in this approach is to engage more genuinely with the ideas, initiatives and experiments of other DSA members, rather than telling them that we know better because we can see the future.
If we keep to this core philosophy, if we support members in running serious and diverse organizing projects, we might just get DSA from 50,000 members to 500,000. And then, we might be in a better position to say with clarity the kind of parties and organizations that the oppressed and exploited need in this country.