by the Executive Committee
Independent Socialist Group
On January 19th, 2023, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant announced she will not seek reelection in 2024. She was one of the few socialists elected as an independent in the United States. Sawant’s initial inspiring electoral victory, inconsistent approach to political independence in office, and now resignation without another electoral campaign provides important lessons about the struggle to build an independent workers’ party.
The 2014 City Council Election
Kshama Sawant first won the Position Two seat on Seattle’s City Council in 2013, in a campaign organized by Socialist Alternative (SA) which played a key role in the movement for a $15 per hour minimum wage across Seattle. She became the first socialist elected in nearly a century and won two more elections for Seattle’s Third District in 2015 and 2019.
In the wake of the 2007-08 economic crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement, Socialist Alternative called for the movement to run 100 independent candidates across the country. Campaigns running workers’ candidates on a worker’s wage, independent of the corporate Democratic and Republican parties, would have pointed the way forward for the many people furious with the corporate politicians and greedy capitalists who were to blame for working people’s suffering.
In addition to the first $15/hour minimum wage in the U.S., Sawant and supporters in SA’s periphery won several victories in office. These included expanding rights for renters, taxing Seattle-based mega-corporations like Amazon and Starbucks, and preventing the Seattle Police Department from building a militarized police station in Seattle’s North Precinct.
Activists who would go on to found the Independent Socialist Group consistently campaigned for Kshama Sawant as members of the Worcester and Boston branches of Socialist Alternative. Many of us spent hours phone banking and fundraising for Sawant and other Socialist Alternative candidates at home. A number of us visited Seattle to help doorknock for the campaign across Seattle’s Third District.
While we celebrated Socialist Alternative’s victories in Seattle, over the years Kshama Sawant’s city council campaigns began to reveal deeper political issues and differences within SA around independent political action and how socialists should organize electoral campaigns.These political differences prompted internal debate and eventually the Worcester branch and supporters across New England departed Socialist Alternative in 2019 because of SA’s support for the Democratic Party (DP). Many who left SA against the turn towards the Democratic Party founded the Independent Socialist Group.
Collaborating With the Democrats is No Road to Victory
In 2015, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders ran in the Democratic Party presidential primary, raising several progressive demands and paying occasional lip service to socialist ideas and historical figures. His rhetoric addressed on a national scale the frustration many working-class people felt about “business as usual” politics, fueling support for organizations like Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Although Sanders’ rhetoric seemed to provide an alternative to the corporate politics of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, he played by the rules of the Democratic National Committee. Sanders fundraised and, after losing the primary, he campaigned for Democratic Party candidates, corporate and “progressive” alike. Despite this, many socialists in the United States were persuaded once again to believe a mass workers’ or socialist party could be built by supporting the campaigns of Sanders and other “progressive” Democrats. This tactic ignored the history of the Democratic Party co-opting and burying mass movements. Sanders had a long history of collaborating closely with the Democratic Party and supporting and fundraising for numerous Democratic Party candidates. Though Socialist Alternative took longer to embrace this strategy of working within the Democratic Party than some organizations like DSA, their original tentative support in 2015 gradually increased to wholeheartedly endorsing Democratic Party politicians.
Socialist Alternative’s move toward supporting the Democratic Party began in Seattle amid the 2015 City Council election, when they called for workers to vote for five “progressive” Democratic candidates and made a weak demand for the candidates to break from the Democratic Party. By endorsing and fundraising for Democratic candidates who didn’t break from the Democratic Party (and clearly had no intention to), SA took a contradictory position, providing no reason for those candidates to run independently. Instead, SA incentivized them to stay in the Democratic Party, as those candidates could count on donations and support from both corporate and “independent” allies, including Sawant and SA.
A year later, SA endorsed Sanders for President, followed by many other DP candidates including members of the squad like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Just recently, Ocasio-Cortez voted to deny railroad workers the right to strike.
Although Sanders did not vote in favor of the anti-worker railroad contract forced on the railroad workers by Biden and the Democratic Party, he helped enable passage of the contract in the House by separating sick leave legislation from the contract bill. The sick leave bill had no hope of passing the Senate, but gave progressive cover to Democrats in the House Representatives who forced through the anti-worker contract. The exclusive focus on sick time also helped bury all of the other serious issues with the contract including attacks on jobs, benefits, and safety.
By the time Socialist Alternative ran Ginger Jentzen as an independent socialist candidate in Minneapolis in 2017, endorsing Democrats became a natural component of city council campaigns. Jentzen’s campaign leaflets included Democratic mayoral candidate Ray Dehn’s campaign flier on the reverse side. In Seattle, Socialist Alternative actively participated in local Democratic Party caucuses to secure endorsements for Sawant and continued to support “progressive” Democrats like Tammy Morales, who in 2022 voted to end Hazard pay for Seattle workers, and missed a critical vote to extend the eviction moratorium in Seattle.
The mistaken approach of SA consistently tailing the Democratic Party continued, and the opportunism inherent in supporting the Democratic Party served to increase the likelihood that no independent socialist campaigns would emerge in Seattle as long as Sawant and SA directed political energy into propping up allegedly progressive Democratic Party candidates. Socialist Alternative only convinced a single Democratic candidate they endorsed to break from the Democratic Party. This candidate, Joshua Collins, bungled his announcement to run as an independent and came in 12th place in the Washington State District 10 congressional primaries in 2020.
For over a century, collaborating with the Democratic Party has been a failed strategy for building working class political power. Previous articles in Socialism Today covered many historical examples of the left and the labor movement mistakenly allying with the Democratic Party.
Recently, entire chapters of DSA have questioned the approach of running as or endorsing members of the Democratic Party. Las Vegas DSA (LVDSA) members and supporters won elections to take leadership of the Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP) in 2021. But in the aftermath of this victory, the previous NSDP leadership drained the Party’s bank accounts, made existing staffers quit en masse, and set up a parallel organization to represent the Democratic National Committee in Nevada.
Many of LVDSA’s endorsed candidates moved to the right over the two years that followed, pushing corporate rhetoric and policies to win the favor, money, and resources of the corporate Democrats while in office. This led LVDSA’s membership to refuse to endorse anyone in the 2023 NSDP leadership elections and announce that “the Democratic Party is a dead end” in February.
In 2019, many future members of the Independent Socialist Group (ISG) grew disillusioned by Socialist Alternative’s failed approach to building a workers party. Supporting Democratic Party candidates while at the same time claiming to be against the Democratic Party made no sense to many activists and working people becoming interested in socialism. Furthermore, this orientation to the Democratic Party affected Sawant’s voting record. She voted to confirm police chief Carmen Best in 2018, sowing illusions in how a “more diverse” police force would be kinder to workers—a premise disproven by the brutal treatment of BLM protestors in Seattle. We supported Sawant’s reelection but departed SA and founded the Independent Socialist Group shortly thereafter.
“Workers Fight Back” – but Will it Result in a New Party?
In 2020, corporate forces in Seattle spearheaded a right-wing recall campaign targeting Sawant, pouring over a million dollars into the effort and conspiring to hold the election in the off-season to drive down voter turnout. Socialist Alternative rallied the support of 20 unions and 1,000 volunteers to campaign against the recall, narrowly defeating it. ISG called on Socialist Alternative to use the momentum from this victory in 2021 to run more independent candidates and break with the Democratic Party.
Rather than taking capitalists and their politicians head on after the recall campaign, Seattle-based progressive newspaper The Stranger reported that Kshama Sawant essentially abandoned the demand for rent control in 2022, failing to bring it up again in the city council.
Unfortunately, it seems the mistaken lesson Socialist Alternative took from their electoral experiences over the last eight years is that they should not contest an election that they might lose. They represent this as a shift to focus on union work, with “Workers Fight Back” announced at the same time that Sawant announced her intentions to step down at the end of her term. “Workers Fight Back” claims to be a coalition to support workers on the picket line. Whether it develops further or becomes essentially a front group like SA’s previous “Movement 4 Bernie” remains to be seen.
SA abandoned the opportunity to use a re-election campaign by Sawant or support for an independent left campaign in Seattle to raise socialist ideas and further organize. For socialists, electoral campaigns are another platform to organize from and can make important gains for building a mass socialist movement even if the election (or re-election) campaign is ultimately lost.
Workers Fight Back makes five vague demands, the last of which is “No More Sellouts—We Need a New Party.” Withdrawing from Seattle’s city council without a fight is not a way to build a new party. In further detailing what the new party would look like, Workers Strike Back raises the example of Sawant as a city councilor, but such an example has become less relevant since SA began supporting the Democratic Party.
Where Kshama Sawant once fought for the right to identify as a socialist on Washington election ballots, “Workers Strike Back” refuses to use the “S” word, calling simply for a “different kind of society.” Unfortunately, this change in SA’s electoral approach is a retreat from boldly putting forward socialist ideas, abandoning the methods Leon Trotsky laid out in the Transitional Program, a key part of the political methods SA was founded upon in the 1980s.
The Fight to Build a Workers Party Continues
Building a mass movement for socialism in the streets and a workers’ party to contest elections on the ballot are not separate tasks—they are inextricably linked. In the 1990s, the Labor Party effort which rallied union members and left organizations failed to run candidates in the two presidential election cycles it existed in. The union leaders who controlled the Labor Party effort refused to break with the Democratic Party. They had one foot in the Labor Party effort but another in supporting the Democratic Party.
They argued that the movement for a labor party must first reach “critical mass” before running candidates. This strategy failed. Most of the unions supporting the Labor Party effort abandoned it amid the elections in 2000, a key moment when the mood for an alternative to the Democratic Party was growing after the anti-worker Clinton regime. Activists and supporters interested in a new party either moved on to the Green Party or abandoned politics entirely. Workers’ candidates need the backing of a working-class movement to succeed, but few people see a point in joining a party that does not run candidates or otherwise challenge the corporate parties.
With hundreds of members across the country and a sitting city councilor, Socialist Alternative could be in a position to play an important role in a left, independent movement in the streets and at the ballot box. Unfortunately, they abandoned the independent, socialist methods that allowed them to win a seat on Seattle’s city council in the first place. Their retreat from working class politics was a factor in delaying the foundational organizing involved in building a workers party and a mass working class political movement in the US.
See articles Why Elections Matter in the Fight for Socialism (November/December 2022) and Midterm Elections Show We Need a Workers Party (October 2022) in Socialism Today or on our website.
Image Credit: Seattle City Council via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0