Why Elections Matter in the Fight for Socialism

Independent Socialist Group Executive Committee

In the context of the U.S. midterm elections, what is the relevance to the fight for socialism? In an election where over $9 billion has been spent on advertising for the two corporate parties, the Republicans and Democrats, and their candidates, working people have no political party of their own represented in these elections. 

The two options typically on the ballot—the Republican and Democratic parties—are controlled by and run for corporations. Their interests are directly opposed to ours. The billionaire class weathered the COVID-induced recession just fine—for example, according to Oxfam, the ten richest men in the world doubled their wealth during the pandemic while 99% of the world’s population experienced a decrease in wealth. Democrats are running candidates like J. B. Pritzker for governor of Illinois, a member of one of the top ten wealthiest families in America. Meanwhile, Donald Trump and the Republican party pretend to know what it’s like to be an average working person, but in reality those in control of the Republican Party are part of the millionaires and billionaires ruling over politics in the U.S. 

In every election cycle, including this one, the Democratic Party tells us to vote blue with the promise of passing some reforms and preventing an increasingly right-wing Republican Party from making things worse. In the 2022 midterms, the Democratic Party swore to defend the voting and abortion rights currently under attack by the Republican Party. They expect us to believe them now, even after the Obama and Biden administrations have failed to codify Roe v. Wade in law while Democrats fully controlled Congress and the Presidency. Democrats like Joe Manchin sabotaged proposed voting rights protections, and the Democratic Party in North Carolina viciously fought to keep Matthew Hoh, a left Green Party member, off the midterm ballot.

Our task as working-class people and socialists is to fight in the workplaces, communities, and in the political arena to build our own organizations that can organize and represent us. U.S. workers are in desperate need of our own political party. 

Socialists and Elections

The capitalist class frames elections as the only opportunity for working people to politically participate in society. Of course, we have more opportunities than just voting for corporate politicians; for example, organizing in our workplaces and community campaigns for better living conditions, using tools like mass meetings, protests, marches, strikes, and even occupations are crucial ways we can win immediate gains and challenge the rule of the capitalist class. But we cannot ignore or abstain from elections, letting the capitalist politicians dominate elections unchallenged.

Elections and voting are widely understood to be important for most working people. Elections are a recognizable political activity, even in places or times when there are no street protests or mass movements. Working class people have struggled for centuries to expand voting rights, a fight still ongoing today. Socialists need to be involved with electoral politics, campaigning for the immediate demands of the working class by running working class candidates independent of the two corporate parties. At its most basic, elections are an opportunity to discuss politics within our communities in a format people are familiar with. Socialists can organize standouts, rallies, public meetings, and go door to door to discuss progressive and socialist demands. Even in a country with no workers’ party, election campaigns are a public forum and an opportunity to organize people and raise the banner of independent left candidates as a step towards organizing a workers’ party. Election campaigns, even if they don’t win, can be used to successfully bring together different progressive and left organizations and activists to launch future political movements and electoral campaigns.

Socialists and many working class people have no illusions in the nature of U.S. “democracy”. There are countless ways the capitalists and their politicians control the political system. Voter suppression, gerrymandering, the electoral college, the Supreme Court, the Senate, legal maneuvering against third party challenges to the two dominant corporate parties are just some examples. It’s no wonder that a large section of American workers do not vote. But independent, left, working class candidates could help energize and mobilize workers who are currently alienated from business-as-usual capitalist politics.  

Mass movements outside of elections have won key reforms. The Voting Rights Act, the Environmental Protection Act, reproductive rights including legalizing abortion, and many others are results of mass protest movements. Under mass pressure, when the capitalist class fears social unrest will impact their profits, working people can win concessions, improve our lives, and expand our rights. But we need to also use electoral politics, even with its limitations, to connect and unite different progressive and left movements.

Just Borrowing a Ballot Line?

The history of the U.S. left is littered with individual progressive or socialist activists who claimed they were just using the Democratic Party ballot line in electoral campaigns, just “pulling a lever” and momentarily voting Democrat. Corralling votes for the Democratic Party, using the apparatus, influence, and ruling class money of the Democratic Party in electoral campaigns were often justified as a temporary expediency with goals ranging from furthering single issue campaigns, to splitting or taking over the Democratic Party and changing it into some sort of left party.  

By supporting the Democratic Party, large sections of the U.S. left have turned progressive and socialist activists into Democratic Party operatives within social movements and unions, providing a progressive or pseudo-left cover for a capitalist political party, and abandoning socialism and working class politics.  

New political parties with a working class base which could have become mass workers parties were instead folded into the Democratic Party, adding to the political power of big business over the working class and derailing the socialist movement. Some of the many examples include the People’s Party of the late 1800s, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party in the 1930s, the American Labor Party of the late 1930s/early 1940s, the Progressive Party in the 1940s.  

In 1933, Upton Sinclair, a member of the Socialist Party and author of The Jungle, built a movement of socialists and unemployed workers known as End Poverty in California (EPIC). EPIC published its own newspaper and organized local clubs and branches, advocating radical reforms, such as using eminent domain to take over closed factories and reopen them as under the control of workers left unemployed by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

Sinclair cast aside his Socialist Party affiliations and chose to run as a Democrat in 1934, dragging EPIC along with him, including other candidates put forward by the movement. The President, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) refused to endorse Sinclair, and many Democratic Party voters and politicians worked to revive Theodore Roosevelt’s defunct Progressive Party in order to run a centrist candidate against Sinclair and split the vote. Sinclair’s decision to run as a Democrat split the Socialist Party in California, leading to its decline. EPIC quickly lost momentum and was defunct by the end of the decade.

The Communist Party in the U.S. in the 1930s was growing rapidly with tens of thousands of members, becoming the largest left party in the U.S., and there was a strong mood in more militant sections of the labor movement and the growing left in general for a workers party. The Communist Party was in a strong position to play a crucial role in launching a workers party in the U.S. Instead, the Communist Party, following the popular front policy of Stalinism, began supporting FDR and the Democratic Party in 1936, actively channeling socialist activists and voters into the Democratic Party or parties that appeared left but were really supporting fusion with the Democratic Party.

The “New Left” emerging out of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and other mass protest movements of the late 1960s/1970s generated a lot of criticism of the two corporate political parties but small left parties failed to build a base in the labor movement or working class more generally to bring together the forces to start a workers party. Instead, the left groups tended to confine themselves to symbolic electoral campaigns based on one small group or take an ultra-left, abstentionist approach to electoral politics. Many progressive and left groups would veer from a radical-sounding abstentionist position to supporting Democratic Party politicians including Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern despite the Democratic Party’s enthusiastic support for the Vietnam war.  

Many self-proclaimed socialist, Maoist, or communist activists and groups continued their trajectory from the 1960s and 1970s and dissolved themselves in various Democratic Party campaigns in the 1980s, most particularly in Jesse Jackson’s campaigns for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988.  Bernie Sanders, for example, supported Walter Mondale in 1984 and Jackson in 1988.  Sanders saw Jackson’s campaign as a model for his two attempts at capturing the Democratic Party Presidential primaries in 2016 and 2020.  

There have been times when socialists secured a place on the ballot by running in Democratic Party Primary elections. This is the official strategy of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who argue that winning primaries and securing a Democratic Party ballot line contribute to transforming the Democratic Party into some sort of socialist party, fundamentally changing the capitalist character of the Democratic Party or at least making DSA the “left wing of the Democratic Party.”

While some self-proclaimed “Democratic Socialists” have been elected as Democrats in this way, it has failed to be a winning strategy. When progressives and leftists “win” the democratic primaries, they rarely win more than the words “Democratic Party” next to their name. Nothing is won for socialism.  

In the case of candidates like India Walton, who ran for Mayor of Buffalo, NY in 2021, the Democratic Party machinery turned against her, as they did with Upton Sinclair, George McGovern, Bernie Sanders, Nina Turner, and many others who claimed an affinity to socialism. After Walton won the Democratic Party primary, Democratic Party leaders financed a successful write-in campaign for incumbent Democrat Byron Brown, who won the general election with a 20% margin, despite Walton trying to fit in with Democratic Party by watering-down her progressive program and self-identification with socialism, even to the point of voicing support for landlords and business owners in the general election. 

When socialists run as Democrats, they lose the right to call themselves socialists. Instead of building socialism, they become part of the political power of capital. Bernie Sanders, for example, is still considered a “socialist” by some on the left, but he has a long history of endorsing Democratic Party candidates, including most recently, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and he has already said he would support Biden in 2024. In the midterm elections, Sanders went all out, again, for the Democratic Party and its candidates.

The examples above of progressive and socialist activists and political parties capitulating to big business politics by becoming part of the Democratic Party has had disastrous consequences for working people in the U.S., including a criminally low level of social benefits, a weak labor movement, no real political representation for working people, and the useless, chronic wars and proxy wars of U.S. imperialism that often go unchallenged or last for decades because of no mass left in the U.S. mobilizing to stop the wars. Socialists engaging with elections is crucial for building the socialist movement, but only if it’s done independently of the two corporate political parties and is part of building a mass workers party with a socialist program.

What would workers candidates and a workers’ party look like?

Strikes, protests, and mass movements can and should be the basis for socialists to run candidates, and a strong movement can overcome the barriers of running as a third party. In the United States, from 1989 to 1990, the United Mine Workers (UMW) waged a determined militant strike in Pittston, Virginia for better pay, conditions, and benefits. As negotiations stalled, the Democratic governor attempted to break the strike, using state troopers and Virginia’s right-to-work law to help the coal companies use scab labor. The UMW organized a write-in campaign to run against the Democratic Party and elect miner Jackie Stump to the Virginia General Assembly. Stump, who was held in jail for three weeks due to civil disobedience over the course of the strike, won the election against an incumbent Democrat in a landslide. This victory flies in the face of DSA wisdom that a Democratic Party ballot line is needed to win. A strong movement behind a worker’s candidate can win an election without a Democratic Party ballot line.

Many social movements in the past gave birth to independent political parties. Amid the Civil Rights movement, Black leaders, dissatisfied with the two corporate parties that collaborated with segregationists, organized the Freedom Now Party to run candidates advocating political and economic rights for Black people. Malcolm X and several American Trotskyists supported this effort. In 2020, Black Lives Matter activists could have led the movement’s multi-racial support toward running independent campaigns vowing to demilitarize the police, take police departments under community control, end the use of private prisons, and bring unions into fighting racial discrimination in the workplace. Instead, leaders of the BLM non-profit channeled the movement’s support toward voting for Democrats like Biden, who pushes huge increases in funding for the police and prison system.

The capitalist class and the two corporate parties know that a workers party would be a huge threat to the capitalist system. It would give an organized political voice to the working class. It would be a real alternative to the corporate stranglehold on the two-party system. They have done everything possible to prevent us from establishing one, including establishing the current primary system, introduced in the early 1900s, to try and counter the rise of the Socialist Party.

In the immediate absence of a workers party, working people and socialists should organize independent left electoral campaigns. These campaigns can be organized around a platform of clear demands, based on democratic decision-making and accountability for the candidates. Right now, unions, progressive community groups, and left organizations should organize together to put forward working-class activists as independent candidates in the next round of elections. Cooperation and discussion between these organizations and campaigns can help lay the groundwork for a workers’ party which would likely be made up of many different political trends represented by progressives, labor, and the left. A mass membership, dues-based workers party where the rank and file have real decision-making power, and regular local, regional, and national meetings to discuss, debate, and carry out initiatives and campaigns  to clarify the best ideas, tactics, and strategies can win immediate gains for the working class.

Independent working class candidates should organize and campaign for demands including:

  • A $20 Federal minimum wage as a step towards a living wage! Fight for increases to state and local minimum wage laws as well.
  • Union rights for all! Repeal all anti-union laws like Taft-Hartley. Reverse the Janus decision. Reform labor law to make it easier to organize.
  • Rent control and mortgage subsidies for home buyers and home owners.
  • A federal, public works program to create living-wage union jobs  to develop renewable energy, public transit, and  the mass building of public housing.
  • Free and high quality education, healthcare, and public transit for all.
  • Active organizing and opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of oppression!
  • Defend and extend democratic rights. End voter suppression, stop gerrymandering, abolish the Electoral College.
  • Take the largest corporations into public ownership!

Elected workers’ representatives, backed up by the power of mass movements, the labor movement, and a workers’ party, could win real reforms. Independent left candidates and a workers’ party could point the way to what real democracy would look like, even while working in the confines of capitalism. But elected socialists and workers party representatives would also have to move beyond capitalism and fight for a socialist program. All significant gains won by workers will be under constant attack by the capitalist class. A workers’ party could help mobilize working people to seriously challenge corporate power, inequality, and the everyday chaos and violence of the capitalist system, and be a crucial part of the fight for socialism.