Independent inside the democrats

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].”

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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 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.

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 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 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.