Breaking Clean or Dirty?

Owen Hill | In the last year, a new strategy for electoral engagement known as the “dirty break” strategy has been put forward in the pages of Jacobin. It has much in common with the traditional revolutionary socialist view of electoral politics and the Democratic Party, but makes some important departures.

Both views begin from the assumption that the left can never take over — or “realign,” in left jargon — the Democratic Party, and that a new mass socialist party controlled by the working class is therefore necessary.

Where the two views diverge is on the question of the ballot line. The traditional view — or the “clean break” strategy as it has come to be known — argues that socialists should only participate in campaigns on the ballot line of independent third parties.

The “dirty break” takes a different approach. Fundamental to the dirty break strategy is an analysis of the intense barriers to independent politics in the U.S. — not just the “spoiler effect” of a left third-party candidate “taking votes” from a Democrat, but even more so, the intense bureaucratic obstacles to even get on the ballot.

The dirty break argues that the temporary use of the ballot line of the Democratic Party can, under specific conditions, be a way to build up the strength of socialist organization before launching a new party.

This strategy is, in many ways, compelling. But I will argue that revolutionary organizations should remain committed to a clean break strategy, with an orientation on continuing to deepen lines of solidarity and cooperation with those implementing a dirty break strategy.

To begin with, though, I think it’s worth emphasizing what our approach shouldn’t be.

First, the debate between dirty and clean break is not a debate on the grounds of principle. Both strategies, as I understand them, share the principle of independent organization of the working class.

The conditions for using capitalist party ballot lines outlined by the dirty break strategy rest on candidates being recruited, funded and disciplined by independent committees of socialists operating outside the apparatus of mainstream political parties.

“The Ballot and the Break” that, to his own surprise, the dirty break was successful historically in the case of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (Paul D’Amato has challenged this interpretation in Socialist Worker).

Moreover, we are operating in new historical conditions, in which none of us have seen independent workers’ parties marching toward the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The keys to transforming our current situation can’t be known ahead of time — they have to be worked out in practice.

I believe the discussion will be easier to have if a rejection of these arguments is made explicit at the onset. Having done so, what then should our assessment of the dirty and clean break strategies be?

First, we should acknowledge another commonality between the dirty break and clean break strategies: Both make a concession in practice to the control of the two-party system over the electoral process.

In the dirty break, the concession is obvious: candidates do, in fact, run on the ballot line of one of capital’s parties. This carries baggage. Often, candidates need their supporters to register in the appropriate party in order to participate in party primaries or caucuses. And every positive policy that successful candidates win will, by default, be attributed to the not-so-small “(D)” next to their name.

These realities could end up strengthening the Democratic Party — they will, at the very least, appear to strengthen the Democratic Party initially.

But the clean break also makes a concession to capitalist realities, if perhaps a less obvious one: Followers of the clean break strategy are only very rarely able to participate in the electoral opportunities that they would prefer to take advantage of.

If nothing else, the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shows the radical benefits for the popularization of socialist politics that these opportunities can yield. Being forced to give up these opportunities by not using the Democratic ballot line is a major disadvantage for the clean break strategy.

Indeed, if this was not the case, then the capitalist class would not have structured their political system to be as inhospitable to the left as possible. They have done so precisely to deprive our side of a crucial weapon.

If this was the extent of the discussion, I feel that the dirty break would probably be the correct strategy for revolutionary socialists to support. However, there are deeper issues.

There are dangers behind the dangers I laid out above. Because the initial phase of a dirty break will appear to strengthen the Democratic Party, it will be difficult to accurately measure our forces. Is the Democratic Party merely appearing to become stronger or is it actually becoming stronger? Are people recruited to working in Democratic primaries clear that they’ll be leaving shortly? Are your candidates prepared to accept the discipline of your organization when the time comes to break?

Moving from a theoretical break in the future to an actual break today will involve real costs. We will become “spoilers” in new races, and some previously elected officials would lose their seats, perhaps temporarily, perhaps for the long term. Are socialists and officeholders who represent them prepared to pay that cost?

The point of these questions isn’t to cast aspersions on comrades’ dedication to implementing a break, but to point out that the outcome will be indeterminate and difficult to measure ahead of time. It’s Schrodinger’s break.

There are tests which can be implemented to clarify the issue ahead of an actual break.

At the most basic level, dirty-break candidates should insist on not endorsing their opponents if they lose. They should make this explicit in their campaign: No establishment politicians deserve our endorsement or our vote. Ideally, candidates should also run as independents in the general election in the event that they lose in the primary.

But even with the implementation of these kinds of tests, a muddying of positions and politics can still take place.

In particular, a certain kind of “realignment realism” could develop. As the success of the “dirty” and the cost of the “break” rise in tandem, it’s possible that many people may revert to the traditional idea that the left can take over the Democratic Party.

Elements of these dangers confront all socialists looking to use elections in their efforts to win workers to overthrowing capitalism, regardless of whether they implement a dirty or clean break strategy.

But the disadvantage of the dirty break is precisely that the tactic makes it more difficult to prepare and gauge the strength of your forces prior to the crisis in which they’re put to the test. You may walk in believing you’re prepared to break and find out that you’re much weaker than you thought. What if only a third or a quarter of the forces you expected to be ready to break are actually prepared to carry it out? What happens then?

In addition to these concerns, there is a final consideration which leads me to believe that organizations already devoted to a clean break strategy, like the International Socialist Organization, should remain firm on this question.

That consideration is summed up by the following questions: Is there a benefit for the socialist movement as a whole if these groups remain committed to a clean break strategy? Is the price for missing the opportunities of the dirty break higher than the price of having no organizations that remain committed to the clean break strategy?

In my opinion, it is clearly to the benefit of the whole movement if a section of organized socialists remain committed to the strategy of the clean break, provided they view the dirty break section not as rivals to be proven wrong, but as fellow travelers attempting a strategy which we hope will succeed.

What are these benefits? First, clean break organizations can continue to argue most sharply around the question of realignment. These arguments can help to cut against “realignment realism,” as well as to train new participants in the socialist movement about the history of the Democratic Party and why it cannot be taken over.

Second, by continuing to build clean break organizations, those pursuing the dirty break will have ready-made allies when it comes time to break. This applies both to the continued runs of dirty break candidates after losing a primary challenge and, most critically, to the formation for a new socialist party.

This will help ensure that when the break happens, forces aren’t just lost, but also added on, which could soften the initial blow of marginalization following a break.

Finally, the costs of not carrying out the dirty break do not seem so high to me, especially when the clearly larger portion of our movement is attempting this strategy.

From protests to campaigns to public meetings and study groups, there are more opportunities for socialist engagement with a broad audience then ever before. Organizing this work won’t be as high profile as electoral work, but it’s crucial work, which makes a real contribution to our movement. And it can be done without fear of muddying our forces on the question of the break.

Revolutionaries have been in small organizations for a very long time. I do not think it’s so terrible if we stay small a bit longer. So long as we continue to nurture the reciprocal alliance of all those working towards a new socialist party in the years ahead, then we can afford some patience.

A new, mass independent socialist party is a development I’ve long and eagerly awaited. All those working towards it have my respect, comradeship and sincerest hope for lasting success.