Zimbabwe election: International calls for restraint

The UN and former colonial power the UK call for calm amid a post-election government crackdown.

Independent inside the Democrats?

stunning upset in a congressional primary election against one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. House has inspired discussion and debate about how this campaign fits into the project of advancing the socialist left. SocialistWorker.org is hosting a dialogue in our Readers’ Views column. This installment has a contribution from Nate Moore and from Craig McQuade.

Independence from the Democrats Is the Way to Go

Nate Moore | Open democratic socialist candidates running for office and challenging establishment candidates in the Democratic Party is different from earlier challenges like those of Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and Dennis Kucinich in the early 2000s.

There is the sense that they are doing real damage to the Democratic Party, undermining its monopoly as the only political force to the left of the Republicans. But the question remains: How much damage can these candidates really do if they do not, at the same time, advocate an organizational and political break from the Democratic Party?

In his contribution, Dorian B. poses the following question: “How can we as socialists organize to make sure that the new socialist movement — growing today through and in connection with candidates running in the Democratic Party — evolves to form a new party controlled by workers instead of capitalists? What strategies and tactics can we use to help make sure that happens?”

Readers debate the Democrats

Dorian offers the following answer: that “we continue to make the argument about the need for independence…but we don’t withhold our support from socialists running as Democrats, because we recognize that they are playing a major role in building socialist organization today (which can potentially help foster conditions for a new party in the future).”

This answer, I believe, is driven by the feeling that somehow revolutionary socialists are missing out on something. We should consider supporting socialist candidates even if they are in the Democratic Party, or we will remain a small organization and become hopeless sectarians.

This feeling is understandable in the current political climate. However, in my opinion, Dorian also overestimates the power that democratic socialist candidates wield. We need to sift through what the real contribution these candidates has been in the current radicalization toward socialism, and at the same time understand what their contribution has not been. I will stick to the example of the Bernie Sanders campaign, as that is the example with which I am most familiar.

How far can the left go in the Democratic Party?

Further contributions include:

Dorian B., Jason Farbman and Zach Zill
What can we do with the Democrats?

Alan Maass, Jen Roesch and Paul Le Blanc
Socialists, AOC and the Democratic Party

Aaron Amaral, Samuel Farber, Charlie Post and Shane James
A “socialist movement” in the Democratic Party?

Fainan Lakha
Getting concrete about AOC and the Democrats

Lucy Herschel
The old guideposts matter on new terrain

Owen Hill
What kind of break from the Democrats?

Kyle Brown
Elections and the socialist tradition

Hadas Thier
Independence and the Democratic Party

Todd Chretien
Revolutionaries, elections and the Democrats

Chris Beck
Who will win the Democratic tug of war?

Nate Moore and Craig McQuade
Independent inside the Democrats?

What was the contribution of Bernie Sanders campaign? Sanders popularized the politics of reformist socialism to millions of people in this country. He has provided young people who are radicalizing with a vocabulary of what a democratic socialist vision is and what it wants. We have not seen this in a long time.

What has Sanders’ contribution not been? First of all, he is not the source of the radicalization happening in society. Rather, the origin is a society that produced endless war, Occupy, the Arab Spring, the economic crisis, the health care crisis, student debt, etc.

Dorian acknowledges this when he writes: “[N]one of [the recent success of democratic socialist candidates] would have been possible without the longer-term political radicalization which has pushed millions toward alternative forms of politics and protest.” He continues, “But it is equally true that there would be no socialist organization on a higher scale emerging in the U.S. today had that candidate not run in that party [emphasis in original].”

True. But it is also true that this “socialist organization on a higher scale” is happening despite Sanders, and to his left.

How so? This gets to a second consideration of what Sanders’ contribution has not been. His campaign did not have an organizational perspective that matched his oppositional political stance toward the Democratic Party establishment.

What kind of organizational perspective would that be? A break from the Democratic Party, the party that squashes a democratic socialist vision. After having started a political fire under the feet of the Democratic Party establishment, he simultaneously held over that movement a wet blanket — by supporting Hillary Clinton.

If Sanders had challenged Clinton as an independent following his primary loss, we would have some sort of organizational formation of tens of thousands (if not more) of socialists nationwide won to a perspective that we need to organize independently of the Democratic Party if we want to win our socialist demands.

Instead, what we have is the majority of the democratic socialist movement still hitched to the illusion that we can take over the Democratic Party. Sanders followed the radicalization happening in society from behind (while giving it a kick in the rear), but he didn’t lead it.

“Realignment” and the “dirty break”

This leads to the interesting question of the possibility of socialists implementing a “dirty break” within the Democratic Party — a strategy that suggests socialists enter the party, use it to spread the socialist message and break off from the party with a greater number of forces in order to build an independent party.

This is to be distinguished from the “realignment” strategy which envisions entering the Democratic Party to take it over.

Owen Hill frames the discussion about the “dirty break” this way: “First, the debate between dirty and clean break [that is, only running on independent ballot lines] 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…[and] we should avoid…thinking we can know a priori whether the dirty break will or will not be successful.”

Does the “dirty break” share the principle of independent organization of the working class? Theoretically, maybe. But practically, this is doubtful. Can we not “know a priori whether the dirty break will or will not be successful?” Owen says we can’t in this passage, but later in his article raises concerns that indicate we can.

The “dirty break” and “realignment” strategies share a common starting point; both take the position that socialists should propagandize for their views from a Democratic Party label and platform, because one can reach more people. The premise here is that this is how political influence is gained and consolidated.

But this creates a problem with the “dirty break” strategy: the deadline for the break will always be delayed because one will always be tempted to sacrifice the break in order to win more propagandizing opportunities. The danger is that the “dirty break” becomes, in practice, a move to win influence in Democratic Party, because that is where “the action is” to influence more people.

The starting point is precisely one that will not make one disposed to ever break with the Democrats. This is particularly true in the current political environment when only a few thousand people are having this conversation.

Owen accounts for what he deems a potential weakness with the dirty-break approach when he poses the following hypotheticals: “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. Are socialists and officeholders who represent them prepared to pay that cost?”

Owen also anticipates where the “dirty break” and “realignment” strategies meet when he writes: “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.”

I agree, and would only add that this is not simply a possibility, but is actually built into the “dirty break” strategy, and is the starting point it shares with the “realignment” strategy.

What kind of step forward?

Sanders and other democratic socialist candidates have given millions of people inspiration, a vocabulary of socialism and a vision of what we need to be fighting for. This is extraordinary, but we shouldn’t feel that if revolutionary socialists are not doing what Sanders and others are doing in the electoral arena, that means we are somehow failing in these interesting political times.

We all understand that most people won’t come to socialist conclusions through conversations with revolutionaries in this political period. Rather, their coming to revolutionary socialism by first passing through Sanders and others is a natural trajectory. We should recognize and embrace that.

Hadas Thier states that there is a contradiction in our approach, but I think this is a misunderstanding.

Hadas says: “Endorsing a candidate who we know cannot, through their election, change the Democratic Party, let alone the system, may be a contradictory position. But so, too, is to argue that we think the election of a candidate represents a step forward for our side, but not one which we will support.”

Let’s look closely at the phrase “step forward.” When we talk about a democratic socialist winning as a “step forward,” we are saying this strictly in the terms that it is reflective of a mood in society that we want to organize with, not that the achievement of office by a democratic socialist itself is a “step forward.”

The eyes of a revolutionary socialist should remain primarily focused on what is happening at the base of society. Everything else (electoral campaigns and political office) is secondary to that primary consideration.

As others in this debate (here and here) have argued, we don’t have to join a campaign in support of a Democrat to make an argument that we need to break from the Democrats. In fact, it is contradictory to do so.

Of course, there is a real concern that we will be passive, criticize campaigns from the outside and offer nothing concrete to push the movements inspired by democratic socialist campaigns forward.

If this is indeed what is happening, then we need to re-evaluate our tactical approach on how to remain both very active in the movement WHILE advocating independence from both corporate parties and their campaigns. Others who have contributed to this debate provide some great concrete examples of how this can be done.

Owen Hill, I believe, rightly concludes that the “clean break” is what we should continue to advocate in the ISO. Paradoxically, the “dirty break” strategy successfully contributing to the building of a third and independent socialist party actually requires a strong commitment to independence from the Democratic Party, something that does not exist on the left today.

This begs the question: When the position of independence from the Democrats on the left becomes strong, why don’t we continue doing just that? The “dirty break” is put forward as a way to go from a position of weakness to strength. All indications show that, by design, it will do the opposite.

This is precisely the time that we need to remain independent — so that when millions of people radicalizing see the Democratic Party apparatus attack these new socialist candidates or they are forced to accommodate, we are seen as having called out the Democratic Party itself as part of the problem, and not just the “establishment” Democrats.

This is how we will win people to the politics of revolutionary socialism, our most important task.

It Doesn’t Help to Blur the Lines

Craig McQuade | The history of the U.S. left is filled with examples of how to build left-wing organizations. Unfortunately, the history of the U.S. left is also filled with examples of how to demobilize and defang these organizations.

While the International Socialist Organization has an organizational history that dates back only four decades, and those decades were periods of extremely one-sided class warfare during the neoliberal era, the foundations of our organization were built on the history and lessons of past struggles and experiences.

I’m glad that Socialist Worker has opened its pages so that we can have a full discussion of what these lessons mean for us in our current political environment.

It isn’t particularly shocking to say that there has been a political shift in the recent past. Wherever we date the beginning of this shift, I think it is clear that popular politics have changed dramatically, and also that the 2016 primary season and the election of Trump marked a change in the norms of political discussion.

However, I strongly hesitate at the idea that the Trump era has ushered in a new political terrain in which we need to throw out the old playbook of principles. Indeed, the principle of political independence from both parties of capital seems all the more important now that the temptations of realignment or a “dirty break” present themselves.

The Democratic Party presents a dead end for political independence, regardless of the level of organization that one brings to their strategy. While the left may be embroiled in a debate about the strategy of running inside the Democratic Party, what the public sees is progressive candidates running as Democrats.

This has always been a central pillar of the Democrats strategy of co-optation — it’s why the Democrats have always been tolerant of the party’s left wing. So long as the left wing has a (D) next to the names on the ballot, the party establishment is happy because that (D) builds the Democrats more than any other organization.

Of course, it isn’t enough to say that the way to grow the left isn’t through the Democrats — we have to present a way forward must be presented in its place.

While Todd Chretien’s contribution correctly states that the Communist Party grew during the period of the Popular Front, it is worth noting that this wasn’t across the board. Indeed, the Alabama Communist Party, and the Communist Party in the South in general, bled membership during the period of the Popular Front.

The party had made major inroads in Alabama and the region in the early 1930s because it demonstrated through its activities that it had a radical commitment to racial equality, which put it directly at odds with the liberal establishment in the South at the time. Not only did it talk the talk, but it demonstrated through its commitment to court cases like the Scottsboro Boys and its organization of the Sharecroppers’ Union that it was willing to risk popularity to do what was right.

In the period of the Popular Front, however, the party hemorrhaged membership because it became associated with an exploitative Works Progress Administration. The party instead was flooded with racists and sexists, and people saw no distinguishing reasons to join the CP when its politics appeared from the outside identical to the CIO and liberal organizations.

It was because people moving left could not distinguish between the party and the liberals around the party that liberal organizations grew while the southern CP shrank — despite the hard work and continued commitment of many CP leaders to radical causes in the South.

At a time when people are moving left, we need to be building an organization that offers people something different. We need to build an organization that can demonstrate independently that it has the knowledge and ability to lead in struggle.

It is easy to be politically independent of the Democratic Party when the party is a monolithic block pushing neoliberalism at every turn. It is far more difficult, but far more important, to stand independent of the Democratic Party when the left wing of the party seems to be doing well.

Because we are an organization that looks to history to help us make sense of and understand the present, we know where the left arm of the Democrats will lead the people who look to it for leadership.

It is our task to build an alternative outside the Democrats so that when that eventual disappointment comes, there is an alternative to frustration and disillusionment. That is not always an easy task, and it can sometimes feel like a very lonely task, but it is only through this independence that we can build an alternative path forward.

Who will win the Democratic tug of war?

Let them eat data

Don Lash reviews a new book about how states are using supposedly scientific algorithms to continue punitive and racist policies toward the poor.

VIRGINIA EUBANKS has written an important new book, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor, that describes the development of technology to update regulatory systems long used under capitalism to punish poor people under the guise of helping them.

Summarizing the scope of her findings and the comprehensive nature of the surveillance and control, Eubanks writes:

Across the country, poor and working class people are targeted by new tools of digital poverty management and face life-threatening consequences as a result.

Automated eligibility systems discourage them from claiming public resources that they need to survive and thrive. Complex integrated databases collect personal information, with few safeguards for privacy or data security, while offering almost nothing in return. Predictive models and algorithms tag them as risky investments and problematic parents. Vast complexes of social service, law enforcement, and neighborhood surveillance make their every move visible and offer up their behavior for government, commercial, and public scrutiny.

The Department of Human Services in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, uses an automated system to rank households
The Department of Human Services in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, uses an automated system to rank households

Eubanks calls the aggregate of these new systems of collecting and mining data and using it to automate decision-making a new “digital poorhouse,” constructed with databases, algorithms and risk models. To illustrate the national problem, Eubanks selected three examples.

In 2006, Indiana committed more than $1 billion to a 10-year contract for a consortium of for-profit companies to fully automate the application process for TANF, food stamps and other food programs, and Medicaid.

In Los Angeles, a “coordinated entry system” to match homeless people to housing was launched in 2013, built around an assessment tool using information collected from homeless people to generate a “vulnerability index” score, which in turn is intended to match housing to the un-housed.

Although respondents to the survey weren’t necessarily aware of this, the survey results could be shared with law enforcement without consent or a warrant.

Also in 2013, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh, began a project with academic consultants from New Zealand and California to develop a “predictive analytics” model to assess the risk that parents who are the subject of calls to the state’s child maltreatment hotline will neglect or abuse their children.

These three case studies allow Eubanks to look in some level of detail at how different systems are constructed, populated and used, and how they can be abused or simply malfunction. They provide some basis to ask questions about other systems that are operating or being developed elsewhere.

Review: Books

Virginia Eubanks, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor. St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 272 pages, $26.99.

Equally important, focusing on these three cases gives Eubanks the opportunity to visit individuals and families affected by each of the systems, and to allow them to describe their experiences.

She also talks to those tasked with using the high-tech tools, many of whom are experienced people subordinated to some degree by a digital automation process they don’t fully understand. These human stories are compelling, and help to evaluate the unique challenges of resistance to automated decision-making in welfare and human services.

WHAT EACH of the three examples has in common is that, while they were all touted as minimizing subjective and arbitrary decision-making, and therefore reducing the effect of human bias, none can actually do so. Instead, each bakes biases into an algorithm, risk model or automated response system.

For example, peeling back the assumptions built into the Allegheny algorithm shows how it perpetuates systemic racism in child welfare and, as Eubanks says, automates inequality.

In Allegheny County, the system was intended to predict child maltreatment by comparing new cases to old cases. Since there is no database consisting of cases in which child maltreatment has been proven, “proxies” had to be selected. Those chosen were repeat calls to the hotline or removal into foster care.

In other words, any parent who is subject to a call is compared to a database of cases in which more than one call has been made to the hotline, or in which local authorities removed a child. Matches are made according to 131 variables looking for similarities to the cases in which there is no way of knowing if maltreatment actually occurred.

The variables included receipt of welfare, whether the parent herself was ever in foster care, whether there has been involvement with juvenile or criminal justice systems, and many other experiences that correlate more to race and class than to ability to parent.

Since poor Black parents are scrutinized more closely by “mandated reporters” to the hotline and the child welfare authorities who investigate the calls, the proxies result in a comparison population that necessarily over-represents Black families. What Eubanks calls “poverty profiling” measures is used to come up with a risk score that really amounts to the traditional systemic bias dressed up as objective math.

EUBANKS EMPHASIZES the continuity in motivation and ideology that connects high-tech data systems with 19th century “poorhouses,” which imprisoned the poor and deprived them of all dignity and autonomy as a condition of assistance barely sufficient to keep residents alive — and for some, given the high mortality rates within the poorhouses, completely insufficient.

Prior to the development of industrial capitalism, which involved rural displacement, urbanization and employment for wages on a much larger scale than had been seen previously, the problem of providing relief for people who were impoverished, homeless, sick or with some kind of impairment was largely a local concern for people known to one another.

Assistance might be at the level of a village or parish, or it might be provided by a landlord, whose privilege of exploiting agricultural workers was accompanied by the paternalistic expectation that he would care for them. There was inequity and condescension in these relief efforts, no doubt, but there were also ongoing relationships between individuals in the same community.

Once these relationships were disrupted and replaced with the arms-length sale of wage labor and a more urbanized working class, poor relief had to be institutionalized on a larger, more impersonal scale.

Means had to be found to control, regulate and stigmatize the poor — both to maintain the pressure on the working class to accept wage labor on the employers’ terms, and to establish an ideological narrative that held those in poverty as responsible for their circumstances.

The development of institutions and mechanisms to police the poor was undertaken by government bodies and private charities, often acting with quasi-governmental authority.

Periodic struggles of poor and working class people to break free of punitive regulation and create a counter-narrative about inequality and systemic racism have at times been successful, but a backlash has inevitably followed to prioritize punitive policies and stigmatize the poor.

THE POORHOUSES were supplemented and eventually replaced by “scientific charity” and “casework,” which used intrusive investigation based on moralistic, often racist assumptions about the poor and working class, as a means to stigmatize recipients and separate the “deserving” from the “non-deserving” poor.

Organized resistance to the most oppressive aspects of relief administration achieved uneven gains during the Great Depression of the 1930s, although the system retained its distinctions between those deserving of help and those who weren’t.

Gains were also achieved during the welfare rights movement of the 1960s, but a racist backlash quickly emerged, most famously represented by Ronald Reagan’s invocation of Black “welfare queens” as he campaigned for the White House in 1976 and 1980.

Computer technology became a favored response as part of the backlash. As Eubanks notes:

When poor and working people in the United States become a politically viable force, relief institutions and their technologies of control shift to better facilitate cultural denial and to rationalize a brutal return to normalcy. Relief institutions are machines for undermining the collective power of poor and working class people, and for producing indifference in everyone else.

While reading the book, I was reminded of another: 2012’s Killing the Poormaster by Holly Metz, which recounts the story of an unemployed stonemason who was accused of stabbing to death the official in charge of welfare benefits in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1938.

The radical lawyer Samuel Leibowitz staged a political defense, exposing the cruelty, bullying and bigotry of the deceased, and indicting the entire system of poor relief in the process.

The impersonal nature of decision-making using high-tech tools presents new challenges in organizing and publicizing. Not only can you not stab an algorithm, you can’t personify it, and you can’t stage a sit-in against a cloud storage facility.

Eubanks acknowledges these challenges and the effect of isolation of those subjected to decision-making using high-tech tools, but she ultimately strikes an optimistic note. She emphasizes — and demonstrates — the power of individual stories to overcome indifference.

She also maintains a belief that solidarity is possible because the larger public, both working class and middle class, can comprehend that digital technology developed to control and police the poorest among us can and will be deployed against everyone outside the economic elite.

Berkeley’s emergency powers to profile

Ann Coleman and Brian King report from Berkeley on new rules adopted ahead of a far right rally — and why the community turned out to express their opposition.

WITH THE far right planning to return to Berkeley’s streets on August 5 — and with anti-racists organizing to counter their message of hate and violence — the City Council voted overwhelmingly on July 31 to give the Berkeley City Manager emergency powers over “unpermitted street events.”

The justification for these powers is to keep people safe from the threat of violence, which white supremacist groups instigated during their mobilizations in Berkeley last year.

But we know from experience that authorities will use the emergency rules to profile anti-fascist counterdemonstrators as “threats” to safety — and to curb the rights of antiracists to confront the Nazis’ violence.

It was clear from Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s stance at the meeting that passage of the emergency powers had been decided in advance.

The Bay Area Rally Against Hate turned out thousands
The August 2017 Bay Area Rally Against Hate turned out thousands

Arreguín stated that the Council would vote for the regulations because “Berkeley is fundamentally against hate.” But the reality that these powers are also aimed against counterdemonstrators became clear when Arreguín tried to drive a wedge among anti-racists by commending the “peaceful protest at the Civic Center Park last year.”

Arreguín said that Berkeley police “will be given a very narrow set of tools.” But he then made a fairly clear allusion to Antifa activists, who have attempted to physically confront the far right in the past, by saying “some people showed up to the peaceful protest clearly not trying to be peaceful.”

The City Council vote was 8 to 1, but it didn’t take place without strong opposition from the community. A total of 14 community members addressed the meeting, and all but one opposed the emergency measures.

Some speakers criticized city officials and police for making a false equivalency between fascists and anti-fascists. One speaker was arrested at the protest march against the fascists in August of last year for carrying picket signs.

Opponents of the regulations say that they are designed to divide the community when the priority is to have “Berkeley United Against Hate,” as last year’s slogan put it.

Berkeley’s police chief denied accusations of collaboration between police and the far right, before saying: “I recognize First Amendment speech can and should be loud, it should not be tamped down. But we should ensure safety.” This “neutral” stance can only emboldened the bigots.

WHEN THE far right planned a rally in Berkeley last August, both the city administration and the University of California implemented similar measures that were used against counterdemonstrators.

What you can do

Anti-racists are mobilizing against the far right this weekend and next. We urge our readers to join these counterprotests if you can — and visit protest websites for information about arriving and leaving safely.

Portland | August 4
Stop the Hate Rally, from 10:30-11:30 a.m. in front of Portland City Hall, 1221 SW 4th Ave. Sponsored by Portland’s Pop Mob Coalition, and endorsed by several activist groups and labor unions.

Berkeley | August 5
Stop the Hate Rally, at 2 p.m. at Ohlone Park and Sacramento Street, across from the North Berkeley BART station. Sponsored by a variety of organizations. Check the Facebook page for updates.

Washington, D.C. | August 12
Rally Against Hate: #DefendDC, at 12 noon at Freedom Plaza, corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Sponsored by the Shut It Down D.C. Coalition, with participation from numerous organizations.

By the morning of the counterprotest, the original gathering site, the West Crescent Greenway, had been sealed off with concrete barricades, and police set up a single checkpoint to enter through. The cops prepared to search protesters and confiscate banned items, including backpacks, liquids except water in sealed, clear bottles, sticks, signs bigger than 30-inches-by-30-inches, face masks and more.

Organizers recognized that this would present a safety hazard for several thousand attendees — and slow the gathering of counterdemonstrators to a crawl as they attempted to get through the checkpoint.

So organizers decided to spill out into the street, and a truck bed was pulled up to serve as a mobile soundstage. Garbage trucks blocked oncoming cars — an obvious fear after the murder of a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia, two weeks before when a Nazi drove his car into anti-racist marchers — and the police were powerless to intervene.

City Council members made it plain that the organizers’ initiative was the reason for expanding emergency powers to include “unpermitted street events.”

This wasn’t the first time that “safety” became an excuse in Berkeley for profiling left-wing activists. Earlier that spring, when university officials locked down the campus in response to protests over a canceled speech of a conservative writer, the list of banned materials was even longer, and the only person arrested was a Latino graduate student, Jorge-David Mancillas.

The City Council’s effective curbing of protest rights is even more hypocritical given its 5-to-4 vote the week before to allow Berkeley police and firefighters to continue participation in Urban Shield, a weapons expo and SWAT team exercise involving law enforcement from around the world. The struggle by community groups to keep Urban Shield out of the Bay Area has been an ongoing struggle since it began in 2007.

COMMUNITY MEMBERS and organizations from around the Bay Area still plan to confront the far right with a gathering at Ohlone Park in Berkeley. The time of the counterdemonstration had been set for 2 p.m., but with the reactionaries moving their start time to earlier in the day, organizers say people should check the event page on Facebook for any updates.

The right’s mobilization in Berkeley is one among several this weekend and next, where the fascists who were pushed back last year after their Charlottesville violence hope to reassert their strength. The Proud Boys are organizing another rally in Portland, Oregon, on Saturday, and they and other groups say they will come to Berkeley the next day.

In the Bay Area, outrage at the right has heightened after the horrible murder of Nia Wilson in Oakland last week. The need to organize the largest possible opposition to challenge racism couldn’t be more urgent.

As the coalition SAFEBay, one of the organizers of the counterdemonstration, said in a statement:

We think that it is time to get together, celebrate our differences, show our solidarity and speak out against the hateful currents in American society. In that spirit, we are meeting at Ohlone Park to reject white supremacy, speak to each other about the world we want, and reclaim our city, our campus and our democratic rights. Join us, bring signs, bring friends!

The larger our numbers on August 5, the safer our communities and streets will be.

Untangling the left’s Nixon debates

Jen Roesch writes from New York City on Cynthia Nixon’s outsider primary challenge against Gov. Andrew Cuomo — and the questions it raises for socialist organizations.

CYNTHIA NIXON’S Democratic Party primary campaign against despised New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is generating enthusiasm and intense discussion on the left. After weeks of debate, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in New York endorsed her campaign last weekend.

The primary election will take place on September 13. Cuomo is far ahead in opinion polls, but a long-shot upset can’t be ruled out. Nixon is giving progressives and leftists inside the Democrats a positive alternative to Cuomo, a committed servant of corporate and establishment interests and a ruthless opponent of any genuine left challenge.

If Cuomo does win, this raises the question of whether Nixon would run against him in the November election as an independent, using the ballot line of the Working Families Party (WFP) — which is nominally independent and dedicated to progressive politics, but has typically backed Democratic candidates in general elections, including Cuomo’s two previous campaigns for governor.

from Green Party veteran Howie Hawkins, who won 4.9 percent of the vote against Cuomo four years ago, and whose running mate this time is Jia Lee, a teacher activist and member of DSA herself.

The Nixon campaign and the left’s response to it brings a new dimension to the discussions about socialists and electoral strategy following the surprise win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a congressional primary against powerful Democrat Joe Crowley.

Nixon is trying to position herself as part of the wave of insurgent left campaigns like Ocasio-Cortez’s. But Nixon and the WFP are firmly rooted in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, not DSA.

What does all this mean for the debate about elections, the Democratic Party and the left? This article will follow some of the different strands of the discussion.

What Does Cynthia Nixon’s Campaign Represent?

The Nixon campaign is benefiting from the enthusiasm and national media attention generated by Ocasio-Cortez’s victory.

Hours before a campaign forum held by New York City DSA in July, Nixon said that she sees herself as a democratic socialist. Her request for DSA’s endorsement prompted an extensive debate in DSA chapters across the city — one covered by the mainstream media.

While half the chapters voted against, an online poll of members showed stronger support for an endorsement, and the group’s citywide leadership body has now voted to officially endorse Nixon and her running mate Jumaane Williams.

Nixon says she identifies with democratic socialist ideas if that means believing basic needs like housing, health care and education should be a right, rather than a privilege. But her organizational ties are to the Democratic Party’s liberal wing.

As a letter opposing endorsement signed by more than 100 DSA members pointed out: “She has filled her campaign with personnel associated with Mayor Bill de Blasio, including her campaign manager, who helped write the mayor’s “affordable” housing plan  —  a Trojan horse for gentrification and mass displacement of poor, predominantly Black families.”

Nixon’s running mate, Jumaane Williams, has a long history as a progressive City Council member, particularly on issues of racial justice. But he is no outsider when it comes to Democratic Party politics as usual. Under pressure, he has agreed to refuse corporate campaign contributions in this election cycle, but he has long accepted donations from the real estate industry and police unions before this.

Moreover, Williams has a history of trying to appease conservatives on social questions like abortion, gay marriage and freedom of speech for BDS activists.

None of this changes the fact that the Nixon-Williams campaign represents a progressive challenge within the Democratic Party against a governor who has pursued an austerity agenda and worked with Republicans to secure the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

The campaign is a breath of fresh air for New Yorkers disgusted by attacks on public education, a deteriorating subway system and years of political corruption.

But their histories do show how Nixon and Williams are different from the DSA candidates whose campaigns are generating a new sense of energy on the left — and, more to the point, how that energy could be diverted, through someone like Nixon, into existing channels within the Democratic Party if socialists don’t put forward a different path.

A Predicament of Its Own Making

A lot of the left’s attention to the Nixon campaign has focused on the DSA endorsement, and understandably so.

But Nixon’s campaign is more deeply tied to the Working Families Party and its long-standing strategy of running progressive Democrats on its ballot line. As many new socialists inspired by the Sanders campaign explore the possibility of building a left-wing alternative within the Democratic Party, the experience of the WFP is worth assessing.

When the WFP broke ranks with Cuomo this year to support Nixon, Cuomo made it clear that he would retaliate against any of the unions or community organizations backing the WFP who went with Nixon. They might as well “lose my number,” Cuomo said.

It was a successful threat. On the eve of the party’s endorsement vote, the two unions that remained in the WFP pulled out in protest. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew chided the party: “When asked to behave responsibly, they react like children throwing a tantrum in the classroom.”

The loss of the unions that contributed the bulk of the WFP’s funding is a blow. But it’s clear that the discontent within the party’s ranks, especially among the community organizations that make up its activist base, had reached a breaking point.

Nevertheless, the party faces a looming crisis if Nixon loses to Cuomo — one that arises out of the contradictions at the heart of the WFP’s “inside-outside” strategy.

The WFP was founded in 1998 and was a successor to the short-lived New Party. The New Party had developed the idea of “fusion voting,” in which it would endorse major party candidates on its own ballot line, while also laying the ground for independent campaigns. It hoped to establish itself as a vehicle that could exert pressure on the Democrats to shift left, while building its own base of power.

In New York state, a party has to get 50,000 votes for its candidate for governor to maintain its ballot line in the next election. The WFP earned ballot status by getting 50,000 votes for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Vallone in 1998.

After that, the party fused community and union organizing with an impressive electoral canvassing operation that made it a real contender in local politics — as long as it didn’t challenge the Democratic Party itself.

Ultimately, the party’s successes tied it ever more closely to the inside part of the “inside-outside” strategy — by increasing the perceived cost of going against a known winner in the Democratic Party.

When Cuomo decided to run for governor in 2010, he put forward a neoliberal program of cutting wages for state workers, enacting pension “reform” and capping property taxes. The WFP, needing the 50,000 votes for its ballot line, endorsed him anyway.

Howie Hawkins, a socialist and Teamster UPS driver, ran as an independent on the Green Party ballot line and came in third. He only got 60,000 votes, but he proved that you don’t need to make a deal with Cuomo in order to keep a ballot line for a party outside the Democrats.

Nonetheless, the WFP pursued the same strategy four years later.

In 2014, Zephyr Teachout ran a primary challenge against Cuomo that won more than a third of the vote. For the general election, Cuomo played hardball and threatened to destroy the WFP by not running on its ballot line and depriving it of 50,000 votes. Liberal Mayor de Blasio intervened to engineer a deal in which Cuomo agreed to run simultaneously on the WFP line — and made a number of progressive promises to help the party save face.

Ted Fertik described the stakes at the time in an article for Jacobin:

Union leaders, considering the near-certainty of Cuomo’s re-election, his famous vindictiveness and his powerful influence over many of their members’ contracts, are convinced that there was never a worse time to deploy the “outside” weapon of the inside-outside strategy. The party’s future may well hang in the balance.

This was a moment of truth for the WFP. When push came to shove, its successes made it more, not less, vulnerable to the intense pressure, not just from Cuomo, but the array of forces that ultimately had tied their coattails to the success of the Democratic Party itself.

The Toll of the Road Not Taken

This illustrates in stark terms the reality at the heart of any strategy that tries to build up the left’s forces inside the Democratic Party: There will never be a time that a break doesn’t come at a considerable short-term cost.

But there was an alternative, as there is today. As I wrote for Socialist Worker in 2014:

WFP leaders could have taken the bold step of endorsing Howie Hawkins, and added the WFP’s institutional clout to a real challenge to Cuomo. In the process, they would have opened up possibilities for a genuinely independent political alternative in New York. But this would have meant abandoning the non-negotiable core mission of their party — that to which every other struggle and principle must bow: To be a loyal opposition attempting to pressure the Democratic Party to the left.

There was widespread support for this alternative among WFP supporters and rank-and-file union activists who were loathe to get behind Cuomo. Some 40 percent of delegates at the WFP convention voted against his endorsement, and plenty of supporters defected to Hawkins in the general election.

Hawkins and his running mate Brian Jones were able to consolidate some of this discontent. They won endorsements from six teachers’ union locals and several progressive Democratic clubs. With 184,000 votes, Hawkins tripled his total from 2010, receiving the most votes of any third-party candidate in decades.

Meanwhile, WFP leaders, along with supporters such as the Nation magazine, were forced to make the tortured argument that voting for everything people hated, but on the WFP ballot line, was the best way to advance a progressive agenda.

The Nation invoked DSA founder Michael Harrington in its editorial endorsement: “Yes, this is practical politics. But it is a practical politics of the left — what author and democratic socialist Michael Harrington used to refer to as ‘the left wing of the possible.’”

The WFP held onto its line, but just barely. As several unions began the stream of defections from the party, the activist base grew increasingly angry — especially when Cuomo failed to deliver on the promises he made as part of de Blasio’s deal.

This set the stage for the situation today. The WFP found itself in an untenable position: Endorse Cuomo for a third time and lose all credibility in a climate in which Bernie Sanders had shown the popularity of a Democratic primary challenge — or risk its funding and institutional clout, not to mention the wrath of a powerful governor, to back Nixon.

That the WFP chose the latter speaks to the desire for change among the party’s base. But unfortunately, it doesn’t signal a fundamental shift away from the inside-outside strategy.

The WFP already had a backup plan in place to move Nixon off the WFP line for governor if she loses the Democratic primary. The party’s political director, Bill Lipton, has stated multiple times that the WFP will not be a “spoiler” — by siphoning off votes from the Democrat that could lead to a Republican victory.

And while the WFP is supporting Nixon at the top of the ticket, it has endorsed a host of Democrats further down the ballot, some of whom could barely be considered progressive. Ironically, and much to the party’s chagrin, Joe Crowley remains the WFP candidate for the House seat where he lost the Democratic primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In endorsing Crowley over Ocasio-Cortez, the WFP was making the same calculated decision it has routinely: to back the candidate they thought would be the winner over the one that agreed with their progressive politics, in order to maintain influence and not alienate the Democratic machine.

The WFP is caught in a predicament that Howie Hawkins described well in an op-ed article: “I feel for rank-and-file WFP progressives. It’s an abusive relationship. They got double-crossed by Cuomo in 2014 when they endorsed him. This year, they got strong-armed by Cuomo when they didn’t.”

The future of the WFP hangs even more in the balance then it did in 2014. But the stakes for socialists trying to develop an electoral strategy are also high.

By endorsing Nixon’s campaign — which squarely accepts the limitations of the WFP’s method by renouncing an independent “spoiler” campaign — the DSA is endorsing a compromised strategy, and at exactly the moment that a real independent alternative could attract people.

DSA and the Endorsement Debate

THE NIXON endorsement debate within DSA has also shed light on the arguments that those committed to the Democratic Party at all costs will use against a left that hopes to use the Democrats’ ballot line for its own ends.

In an op-ed article for DSA’s website, Charles Lechner offered up “ten theses” on Nixon and socialism that downright bait his own organization. He writes:

The fact that so many of our active members are young and white, and so many leaders are young white men, creates the impression that we might be brash, arrogant, untrustworthy, temporary and not worth investing time in. It’s on us to correct such perceptions with our actions (such as endorsing Nixon/Williams), not with statements about our ideology/strategy (which make us look weird).

Lechner, a founder of People for Sanders, seems to lack any awareness that these were the same spurious arguments used by Democratic Party operatives against Bernie Sanders’ campaign two years ago. Equally ironic, they follow the reasoning of union leaders who have cut ties with the WFP and are supporting Cuomo.

These are arguments that the Democratic Party machine has always used to shame and isolate those who challenge it. The left should have no part of them.

Lechner’s argument is the stick, but the carrot offered in defense of endorsing Nixon has been the promise that this can be a means for the left to win meaningful victories. A statement signed by more than 90 DSA members in support of a Nixon endorsement argues:

It is not hyperbole to say that both of our citywide priorities [universal rent control and a single-payer health care system] live or die based on the Nixon/Williams bid for statewide office. No other candidates with a realistic ability to win this year have demonstrated anything close to the passionate support of our two priorities that Nixon/Williams have. The basic needs of millions of our fellow New Yorkers are on the line.

Leaving aside the fact that a Nixon victory is unlikely, the idea that our side will “live or die” based on who wins the governor’s office betrays a very narrow vision of socialism.

While there is ample reason to believe that Nixon would be more committed to left-wing causes than Cuomo, she would still face the institutional clout of Corporate America, which maintains a grip on both parties in power.

This transactional, electoral-based understanding of power is what drives left and working-class dependence on the Democratic Party beyond DSA. By the same logic, health care unions are backing Cuomo, despite eight years of attacks, because he has promised a safe-staffing bill that would benefit their members.

The DSA members who argued against an endorsement are right to insist: “We do not share this theory of power. We believe that our fight for socialism lives or dies by the working class fighting for themselves, not by who sits in the governor’s mansion.”

An Independent Socialist Campaign

The irony here is that there is a genuinely independent socialist alternative on offer in New York this year: the campaign of Howie Hawkins and Jia Lee.

Hawkins is a recently retired Teamster driver for UPS who has dedicated his life to building independent politics and working-class organization. He is actively involved in fights against fracking, for climate justice, against mass incarceration and much more.

Lee is a New York City teacher who was a leader in the fight against high-stakes testing — a campaign that forced Cuomo to put a moratorium on an evaluation system that linked teacher scores to student scores.

Both are socialists, and Lee is a member of the DSA. Whereas Nixon’s responses to the DSA candidate questionnaire gave vague lip service to democratic socialist values, Hawkins and Lee offered a bold vision. Hawkins wrote:

To me, socialism means the movement for self-emancipation by working class and oppressed people. Socialism means democracy. Rosa Luxemburg: “There is no democracy without socialism, and no socialism without democracy.”

Hawkins goes on to insist that socialism entails social ownership of the means of production, independent political action by the exploited and oppressed, uprooting racism and all other forms of oppression, and international solidarity by the working class and oppressed across borders.

It’s an inspiring vision that could connect with tens of thousands of people eager to learn more about socialism.

Socialists who are supporting Nixon contend that a third-party challenge like Hawkins-Lee is symbolic. If the definition of symbolic is that it has no real chance of winning, then this is inarguable. Then again, a Nixon victory is a long shot, too.

But if the goal is to deepen the influence of socialist ideas, present a genuine working-class alternative and lay the basis for political independence, then this campaign could represent an important step forward for our side.

More attention is being paid to what socialists have to say than has been true for decades. If ever there was a time for socialists to speak confidently for what they believe in, it is now. And if ever there was a campaign representing a vision that speaks to the desire for a socialist alternative at the ballot box, it is Hawkins-Lee.

Socialists have a choice. We can use the platform we’ve been given to further advance the idea that working class people ourselves have the power to fight for a different future, and build a political alternative at the ballot box reflecting that. Or we can tie our fortunes to candidates of a party that is willing to use us when it seems convenient, but will turn on us the moment we become a real threat.

Nixon has promised to give Cuomo a run for his money this year, but she has shown no commitment to seeing that fight through beyond that. By contrast, we know that Hawkins and Lee will be on the ballot in November — and will be with us in the struggles to come.

We have the opportunity to start now in laying the basis for a real alternative for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who won’t want to choose on Election Day between a Republican and a Democrat they despise.

By Contributor on August 2, 2018

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