This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International, by Robert Bechert.
The attempt by bosses of Amazon and other companies to effectively buy control of Seattle city council was defeated by a city-wide reaction against their takeover attempt. Despite the big business dominated Seattle Chamber of Commerce spending over $4.1 million in the election, $1.5 million of which came from Amazon, they were unable to change the council to prevent any radical challenges to their interests. In particular, they failed in their aim of defeating the left wing councillor, Kshama Sawant. Kshama’s victory was a welcome defeat for Jeff Bezos, the Amazon boss and richest man in the world, and his fellow plutocrats.
The amount companies spent on this city election, nearly five times their previous spending high, showed the hostility of the Amazon and other big business bosses to attempts by some Seattle city council members to implement reforms that would even slightly impinge on their vast profits. They feared that this would become an example to be followed in other cities and states.
But the scale of this spending, equaling over $5 per head of Seattle’s 756,000 population, provoked both a polarisation and an angry reaction. In particular, there was widespread hostility after Amazon’s mid-October $1 million donation to the Chamber of Commerce. It was seen as an attempt to ‘buy’ the election and thereby the council, in the same way that Amazon has bought into at least 128 companies in the last 20 years. It became a whip of reaction which provoked a backlash. The result was that all but one of the candidates Amazon and co. backed was defeated in the 5th November election.
A central target of Amazon’s campaign was Kshama Sawant. She was first elected as a socialist to the council in 2013, in a city-wide vote, and then re-elected in 2015, as the councillor for Seattle’s District 3. The city’s polarisation was shown in District 3 by a jump both in the number of both registered voters and those who voted.
Despite Seattle’s current economic boom there are deep economic and social problems facing the city’s population, particularly the rapidly increasing cost of housing. The contrast between this and the huge profits Seattle-based big companies like Amazon are making played a part in the defeat of their attempt to get a tame, pro-big business council.
Previously, in 2018, the Amazon and other bosses successfully got the Democrat-controlled Seattle council to rapidly reverse its unanimous decision to impose a modest annual “head tax” on businesses with revenues of over $20 million, a year, in order to build affordable housing units and expand services for the homeless. But a few weeks of an Amazon and Starbucks led campaign resulted in the council voting to repeal this tax, with only Kshama Sawant and one other councillor voting against.
Amazon’s electoral intervention, coming after the 2018 experience, changed the election dynamics. It became both a nationally reported issue and a factor in Seattle’s election. As a columnist on Seattle’s main newspaper wrote a couple of weeks before the vote: “Now (the election) could well be a referendum on Amazon and corporate power”. The result was that, despite, the money it spent, big business failed to meet its political targets in Seattle.
However, the Seattle council, like in most US cities, remains dominated by the Democrats. They have always been, in essence, a pro-capitalist and pro-big business party, something illustrated by their rapid capitulation last year on the Amazon issue.
When Kshama Sawant was first elected in 2013 her success achieved national, and international, attention. This was because it was the first time in many years an openly declared socialist had defeated a capitalist politician in any major US city. The symbolism of this election victory taking place in Seattle, the home of Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks, is not lost on many people.
After her 2013 victory, Kshama, and the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), explained that her campaign had been based upon “not taking any money from big business and running independently from the Democrats, not seeking the endorsements of the Democratic Party establishment … What’s striking is that an open socialist won the seat, that the campaign did not take any money from big business and did not rely on the Democratic Party apparatus to win. We need the left to draw on these lessons and realise that there is an opening to build movements and to build a viable anti-capitalist, anti-corporate working people’s alternative to the two big business parties.” (“Victory for socialist in Seattle!”, https://www.socialistworld.net/2013/11/19/us-victory-for-socialist-in-seattle)
Following on from her first victory, Kshama urged Bernie Sanders, for instance, at a New York public meeting that they both spoke at, to follow her example and run independently in 2016 for the presidency. Sanders obviously saw the potential that Kshama’s election represented. He decided to try to stand in the 2016 presidential election but not, as Kshama did, as a socialist running independently from the Democrats. Instead, Sanders chose to run on a radical, but not socialist, platform for the Democratic nomination and ended up endorsing Hilary Clinton. This was not just a lost opportunity to take a mighty step towards building a party of the US working class and oppressed. It also threw away the possibility of limiting Trump’s populist appeal to some sections of the working class and thereby preventing his election.
Need for a new workers’ party
However, unfortunately, in the recent period the emphasis that Kshama and her organisation placed on continuing to take steps towards the building of an independent workers’ political party, and emphasising that she was a socialist, has lessened. An inconsistency developed, with these issues not being generally raised. This change became one of the issues in the recent debate amongst CWI comrades internationally that led to a division in our ranks, earlier this year. Despite our political differences and separation with Kshama, the re-founded CWI supported her re-election. Following requests from Kshama’s organisation, Socialist Alternative, we did not do anything during this election that could have been publicly interpreted as harming her campaign.
Naturally, Kshama’s victory is being celebrated on the US left as a success; her defeat would have been trumpeted as a setback both for socialists and left organisations outside the Democratic Party.
However, unfortunately, this time Kshama’s victory will not be seen so clearly as a step forward for building an independent workers’ political organisation and building support for socialist policies because of the shift which has been taking place within Kshama’s political organisation, Socialist Alternative.
In this election, Kshama’s campaign put great emphasis on what it described as building “maximum unity against big business”. Obviously, socialists stand for workers’ unity in the class struggle. While this election was a limited form of class struggle, building electoral support was obviously important. The fact that some local Democratic Party organisations supported Kshama’s re-election was to be welcomed. But accepting such support needed to be accompanied by arguments aimed at convincing those Democratic supporters who were open to left ideas that the Democratic Party – a body which nationally is neither democratic nor a real political party – is not an organisation which can be transformed into one that fights for working people.
There was a blurring of lines between Kshama and ‘progressive’ members of the Democratic Party. Anyone looking at Kshama’s website will see the emphasis given to endorsements by Democratic Party politicians and organisations over those from trade unions, activists and even her own organisation, Socialist Alternative (https://www.kshamasawant.org/endorsements). Anyone looking at that page would get the impression that Kshama was a candidate on the fringes of the Democratic Party, somehow linked with both ‘progressive’ and more mainstream Democrats.
This was not simply on Kshama’s website. Her campaign downplayed that she was a socialist and a member of Socialist Alternative. Kshama was lavish in her praise of the Democratic representatives who supported her, saying she was “proud to receive the endorsement” of two Seattle council members who, last year, voted to repeal the city’s “Amazon tax”.
This adaption towards accepting Democratic Party support and downplaying the struggle to build an independent workers’ party is not any form of “united front”. For Marxists, a “united front” is between workers’ organisations. But even when jointly campaigning with other forces in an election, it is necessary to maintain one of the principles of the united front, namely, each component retaining and explaining its independent political position while co-operating on concrete goals.
Yet this idea is steadily being lost by Socialist Alternative. While recent longer texts by Socialist Alternative have repeated the arguments for a new party and mentioned socialism, these have been downplayed in their more widely distributed material. During the Seattle election, Socialist Alternative issued a poster just saying, “Seattle needs a Green New Deal” with no indication showing that socialists argue that a sustainable “Green New Deal” is impossible under capitalism. Socialists should argue instead that carrying out a real ‘Green Deal’ is only possible on the basis of a socialist programme, around the idea of a “Socialist Green New Deal”.
Similarly, the emphasis given to Kshama’s call to “expand tiny house villages to help address homelessness”, while not calling for the taking over of empty properties, was a retreat from class demands that actually would have provided better housing than tiny emergency cabins.
Linking today’s struggles with a socialist programme
For socialists to hide or downplay their ideas is an opportunist step. It leads towards abandoning linking today’s struggles with the need to build support for a socialist programme, and a movement which can implement them, which is a basic idea that Marx and Engels put at the end of the ‘Communist Manifesto’.
This tendency of Socialist Alternative towards simply calling for a “movement”, and not directly challenging the Democratic Party, as such, has been developing for some time, and has accelerated this year.
When Sanders launched his 2020 campaign, Kshama Sawant correctly wrote in March, “I think Bernie should run as an independent socialist, as I have, and use his campaign to launch a new mass party for working people, instead of running inside a corporate party whose leadership is determined to stop him at all costs. Bernie unfortunately has made his decision and is running in the Democratic primary, but it is not acceptable that our political movement becomes imprisoned in this process.” (“Let’s Use Bernie’s 2020 Campaign to Launch a Mass Working Class Fightback”, https://www.socialistalternative.org/2019/02/20/lets-use-bernies-2020-campaign-to-launch-a-mass-working-class-fightback).
In this article, Kshama went on to write that “prior to launching his first campaign four years ago, Sanders said he was considering running either as an independent or as a Democrat and that he wanted to hear what people thought.
“This time he has bypassed that discussion and is making a fundamental mistake. While it is certainly true that Bernie will gain an enormous platform in the Democratic primary, declaring now that he was running as an independent and using his campaign to lay the basis for a new party would create a massive earthquake in American politics.”
However this article, while ending with a call to organise, did not draw rounded-out conclusions from these points. It did not concretely say how to avoid being “imprisoned” in the Democratic primary race or how to link this activity with the need to campaign for an independent workers’ party. Instead it simply said, “Let’s begin building independent grassroots campaigns in our communities and workplaces, introduce resolutions in our unions to support Bernie’s campaign, and launch student groups on our campuses. Let’s use this historic moment to launch an all-out working-class fightback.”
This is not the only example. In a post-election tweet, Kshama said “we work to build genuine grassroots progressive unity”, instead of something along the lines of, “we work to build united struggle and support for building a working people’s party”.
There are some similarities between the situation in the US today and that in Britain in the late nineteenth century when politics was dominated by two capitalist parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, and the majority of trade unions followed the Liberals. But Kshama and Socialist Alternative are moving away from what Friedrich Engels, co-founder with Karl Marx of scientific socialism, then described as key: “in our tactics one thing is thoroughly established for all modern countries and times: to bring the workers to the point of forming their own party, independent and opposed to all bourgeois parties.”
In a long July article – “Sanders, Warren, and the Fight for Socialist Change” by the editor of Socialist Alternative’s paper – there was only one mention of a new party. This simply said, “It will require rebuilding fighting unions and forging a new political party based on the interests of working people”. The article also made no reference to the need to break from the Democrats. (https://www.socialistalternative.org/2019/07/09/sanders-warren-and-the-fight-for-socialist-change).
Similarly in response to a message by Bernie Sanders welcoming Kshama’s re-election, her official @VoteSawant account merely tweeted: “Thanks @BernieSanders! We must build a movement for Bernie, to overcome the billionaire class & win a political revolution! Join @SocialistAlt, & let’s organize for a world that puts humanity over profits for the corporate elite in a fight for socialism”. While tweets are limited, Kshama’s reply did not mention either the Democrats or the need for a political and social revolution.
Kshama’s re-election is an important defeat for the bosses of Amazon and co. and can lead to genuine reforms being made in Seattle. But there are severe limits as to what a single councillor can do. The longer term significance of this election success will only be seen in to what extent it contributes to an increase in the number of independent working class and socialist candidates running in US elections, the steps made towards the creation of an independent workers’ party and how support for a clear socialist programme is built in the US.
Unfortunately, the answer to the question of what Kshama’s re-election will mean for the building of an independent workers’ based socialist movement in the US is open. Socialist Alternative’s increasing downplaying of both consistent socialist arguments and campaigning for the vital steps needed to build a socialist alternative in the US, opens the way towards a political adaptation to those forces that are unwilling to break from the Democrats. This is a road which has led to lost opportunities for socialist policies in the US many times, in the past.