Proving our politics in practical work

November 15, 2018

Todd Chretien responds to a discussion of his article on socialist strategy today.

I WAS very eager to read Lance Selfa’s reply (“The politics socialists need to project”) to my article “What’s next for socialists after the elections?”

Lance’s book The Democrats: A Critical History is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of the Democratic Party as the “graveyard of social movements,” and he is not only a keen observer of U.S. politics, but a lifelong socialist organizer whose opinions I value highly. That might all go without saying, but I believe it is worth saying. The new socialist movement needs thinkers and leaders like Lance.

Having said that, as you can probably guess, I reject Lance’s contention that my article “fails” to offer a useful framework for revolutionary socialists — and, I might add, for democratic socialists of the trend I cite in my article. In fact, I found much of his response an attempt to impart to me positions I do not hold, based on things that I did not write, for purposes which I do not support.

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I do think there is a debate here. Judging from his reply, Lance and I differ (at least to a significant degree) over the nature of the new socialist movement, its potential for development, and, specifically, how revolutionary socialists should relate to radical socialist activists and writers like the ones I quoted in my original article.

I’LL BEGIN by clearing up what Lance suggests are debates, but which are, in fact, agreements between us.

1. Lance suggests that it is “important to highlight my selection of interlocutors” (writers and DSA members Bhaskar Sunkara, Meagan Day and Neal Meyer) as opposed to other figures in DSA and beyond who are forthrightly committed to a strategy to realign or push the Democratic Party to the left.

I’m not sure what the implication is here. Lance and I agree: There are very important currents within DSA that are strictly opposed to building an independent party in any meaningful sense or on any timeline. I just wasn’t talking about them in this article.

2. Unless I am misreading what he wrote, Lance argues that I don’t think the Democratic Party as an institution is a political obstacle to independent politics and socialism. He writes: “It isn’t just the neoliberal ‘leadership’ of the Democratic Party that is the left’s enemy (Todd’s formulation), but the entire institution.”

What I actually wrote was: “Further to Sanders’ left, democratic socialists recognize their political enemies in the leadership of the Democratic Party.” I was referring to these democratic socialists, not representing my own position.

Now there may be comrades in DSA and perhaps elsewhere who are frustrated by what they might ungenerously call my dogmatic, repetitive, old-school denunciation of the Democratic Party as an institution.

I, in fact, explicitly state this in the article Lance is critiquing: “I wrote in a previous SW article that adopting ‘tactical involvement in the Democratic Party and an undue focus on electoral campaigns’ will sooner or later — and I tend to think sooner, long before 2023 — create thorny obstacles to an independent party, as politicians (again, even socialist ones) tend to adapt to their surroundings.”

Again, this is an agreement posed as a debate.

3. Finally, Lance concludes his article that critiques my position by arguing: “Criticizing these actions and statements of DSA figures is neither sectarian nor unfair. It is about stating clearly what revolutionary socialists have to say in the current political moment.”

Once more, is the implication that I have refrained from stating clearly what I think? I will let readers judge my own conclusion:

[I]t’s noticeable that none of the articles quoted above by prominent democratic socialists — again, accounting for the fact that they were focused on elections — mentioned the recent wave of strikes among hotel workers, teachers and others, nor the Central American caravan, the Pittsburgh Tree of Life massacre and outburst of anti-fascist organizing that followed, nor the protests against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

The major point of my article (and many previous ones) was a comradely critique of what I believe to be tendencies — a “lean” toward electoral-ism, the “ballot-line strategy,” a view of the state informed by Kautsky and Poulantzas — in democratic socialist (in its modern, genuinely radical manifestation) politics that will hinder these comrades from getting what they want: socialism.

SO WHAT do I think this debate is about? I believe it’s a very important discussion about whether there is something new taking place today.

Lance is absolutely right to quote to Maurice Isserman’s warning that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Julia Salazar may not “have the time or inclination to devote much more in terms of direct involvement...After all, as elected representatives, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez are accountable to a number of different groups that helped elect them, and first and foremost — and rightly so in a democratic system — to the voters of the districts they represent. And as a matter of practicality, DSA currently needs Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez more than either of them need DSA.”

We should all be wary of this gravitational pull. This was, after all, a main thrust of my original article.

At the same time, I would ask Lance to consider two things. First, Ocasio-Cortez’s participation in a protest about climate justice in the Capitol building outside of soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office — despite the fact that she argued protesters should support aspects of Pelosi’s agenda — points to the potential for democratic and revolutionary socialists to work with figures like Ocasio-Cortez to push for action.

Let’s propose getting Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Salazar to join a delegation to San Diego to meet the Central American migrant caravan — and challenge the softening of the call to abolish ICE that Ocasio-Cortez made prominent in her primary campaign. Let’s invite Tlaib to pickets at Israeli consulates when Gaza comes under the next, inevitable assault.

Let’s challenge the assumption that social movements and unions “need politicians more than politicians need us.” These potentials offer key opportunities to propose and organize united fronts in our time.

Second, despite my critique of democratic socialist comrades such as Day, Sunkara and Meyer, I believe they understand the need for an independent party. Moreover, these comrades, and the thousands who read and agree with them, are far to the left the politicians they support.

The principles, strategies and actions of the new socialist movement, especially its most self-conscious left-wing currents, present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for collaboration, development and common projects between them and revolutionary socialists in the ISO.

Lance knows better than most that organizations and movements that have the capacity to mobilize forces in the world are conditioned by — but cannot be determined by — historical lessons or theory. Politics must be settled by practical work and action.

He is not wrong when he warns: “If our position isn’t stated clearly from the start of a friendly, respectful debate, then how can we refer to that position in subsequent debates, when events should prove our points? How can we win significant numbers of radicalizing people to a revolutionary socialist position if we haven’t clearly stated it?”

But that is only half the story. We must “state clearly” our position, but we cannot wait for “events [to] prove our points.” That has never been our method. Strikes, social movements, occupations and — yes — elections will all play a role.

We all agree with Rosa Luxemburg, as I quoted her in my article: “Where the chains of capital are forged, there they must be broken.” This means learning how to break our chains, and with whom to unite to break them. In so doing, I don’t believe any one current will have all the answers. Something new, with a commitment to working-class self-emancipation, will emerge from the best of the left.

I am willing to be convinced that I am overly optimistic about the new socialist movement, not just its formal positions on paper, but its ethos, its direction, its desire to smash capitalism.

But Lance has not convinced me I am wrong. I hope I convince him to reconsider his starting points. A new generation of revolutionaries needs to be armed with the politics of class independence and socialism from below.

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