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Independent political action

Among all of the major capitalist countries in the world, the U.S. is unique in never having experienced the development of a mass social democratic or labor party, like the French Socialists or British Labour Party. While most of these reform socialist parties are today shadows of their former selves, for years, they provided a mainstream alternative for working people to vote for “their” party at election time. In the U.S., on the other hand, voters typically face the uninspiring choice between two parties supported and financed by big business.

Those who decide to vote for the Democratic candidate usually explain their decision by saying that they are picking the “lesser of two evils.” Neither party represents what they really want, but the Democrats at least promise to do less harm than the Republicans do.

The differences that separate the Democrats and Republicans are minor in comparison to the fundamental commitments to neoliberal capitalism and empire that unite them. If there weren’t differences between the two parties, such as on questions like abortion rights, there would be no justification for a two-party system. But for Corporate America, which generally supports the Republicans more fervently than the Democrats, the two-party system plays an essential role. If one party falls out of favor with the voters, there’s always the other one—with predictable policies—waiting in the wings.

In the 1930s, the radical social commentator Ferdinand Lundberg described the U.S. system this way: “The United States can be looked upon as having, in effect, a single party: the Property Party. This party can be looked upon as having two subdivisions: The Republican Party, hostile to accommodating adjustments (hence dubbed ‘Conservative’) and the Democratic Party, of recent decades favoring such adjustments (hence dubbed ‘Liberal’).”

Eugene Debs ran for president in 1920 while imprisoned for speaking out against WWI.
It’s not that socialism has never held mass support in the U.S. There’s nothing about the U.S. or its people that make them “immune” to socialism. In the early 1900s, the Socialist Party’s Eugene V. Debs won millions of votes when he ran for president. But the Democrats have served a particular role in the two-party system. It is the party that encourages the loyalty of oppressed and exploited groups in U.S. society—Blacks, union members, women, immigrants—only to contain and blunt their aspirations for a more fundamental reordering of capitalist priorities.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels argued that socialists should strive in every country to assert the independence of the working class from the capitalist class. They meant not only fighting for independent trade unions rather than company unions, but also fighting for independent political organizations and a class policy independent from big business and its political representatives, like the Democrats and Republicans.

For socialists in the U.S. today, this presents a challenge. Without a large Socialist Party like Debs’ or a mass labor party to support, socialists today must look for multiple ways to assert independence from the bosses’ politics.

One way is to support and promote referenda or initiatives—such as those boosting the minimum wage or supporting abortion rights—that allow working people to express themselves on issues important to our class. Another way is to support third-party political alternatives to the left of the Democrats, on both the national and local levels. For instance, against intense pressure on activists to support the Democrats as a “lesser evil,” the ISO supported and actively campaigned for the independent presidential campaigns of Ralph Nader during the 2000s.

Millions of people can be mobilized against Corporate America’s plans to further immiserate working people, as 2011’s “Occupy” movement showed. We face the challenge of building organizations to fight effectively for working people’s demands. But we also face the challenge of building a mass-based political alternative to the Democrats. Without that, we will continue to find ourselves facing the same Hobson’s choice between “terrible” (the GOP) and “not as bad” (the Democrats). A socialist organization to connect today’s fights—for higher wages, for health care, against racism, sexism, and homophobia—is key to the fight for a future socialist society. The ISO aims to be that kind of organization, and we hope you will join us to help build that socialist alternative.

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