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Independent of the political status quo
“We support genuine left-wing candidates and political action that promotes independence from the corporate-dominated two-party system in the U.S.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”
After the 1848 revolutions, Marx and Engels wrote that it was necessary for the working class to promote its own political candidates.
“Even when there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected,” they wrote, “the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection, they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the Democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the Democratic Party, and making it possible for the reactionaries to win.”
The basis of their argument was that the working class cannot emancipate itself—cannot free itself from the tyranny of capitalism—without organizing a political party of its own.
No party for workers in the U.S.
The ruling class has its own political parties (Democrats and Republicans); the working class has none. So long as the working class depends on electing unaccountable capitalist politicians (the one who is least offensive to workers’ interests), so long will it vote against its own interests and for those of an alien class.
Without its own political party, its own leaders and its own political representatives, the working class must always remain subordinated to the two main bourgeois parties.
The tradition known as syndicalism has always argued that the working class does not need its own political party or its own candidates; all it needs is its economic might—its power to organize into industrial unions and to strike.
In the heyday of syndicalism in the earlier part of the 20th century, this was a healthy reaction to the opportunism of the reformist, parliamentary socialists, whose electoral successes led them to an accommodation with the capitalist system—that is, to the adoption of the belief that socialism could be achieved through the peaceful, gradual accumulation of votes and seats.
The reformists had forgotten, to quote Engels, that, “Universal suffrage is thus the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the modern state, but that is enough. On the day when the thermometer of universal suffrage shows boiling-point among the workers, they as well as the capitalists will know where they stand.”
It would therefore be a mistake to conclude from the betrayals of the reformists that engagement in the electoral process is a waste of time. The syndicalists’ reaction was a healthy one, but one-sided.
Parliamentary forms of struggle—elections and election campaigns, electoral blocs, etc.—are an effective means to reach with socialist propaganda a much larger audience than would otherwise be possible with socialist propaganda. And as elected representatives of local and state institutions, socialists can use the political rostrum to expose the system, as well as amplify and give support to struggles happening outside the walls of congress of local assemblies.
Elections are the lowest form of struggle, whereas strikes, mass demonstrations and mass uprisings are the highest. But one cannot dispel mass illusions in the bourgeois election process—or, more particularly, the bankruptcy of the two-party system—without participating in the electoral arena.
How to avoid accommodating to the system
But how should socialists approach the question of elections to state institutions so as to not fall into the trap of accommodating to the existing order?
“In order to be effective, social democracy must take all the positions she can in the present state and invade everywhere,” the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote. “However, the prerequisite for this is that these positions make it possible to wage the class struggle from them, the struggle against the bourgeoisie and its state.”
For revolutionary Marxists, therefore, efforts to secure electoral success and combat capitalism through electoral means must be subordinated to other forms of struggle. The thesis on elections written for the Communist International in 1920 elaborated this point:
“The activity in parliament consists primarily of revolutionary agitation from the parliamentary rostrum, unmasking opponents and ideological unification of the masses, who, particularly in areas that lag behind, are still prejudiced by democratic illusions and look to the parliamentary rostrum. This work must be completely subordinate to the goals and tasks of the mass struggle outside parliament.”
Election campaigns allow the workers’ party to reach wider layers of people whom they otherwise could not reach with socialist propaganda. Socialist elected officials can use their position in Congress or parliament to disseminate anti-capitalist propaganda; expose the corruption and class allegiances of the mainstream parties; assist in the organization of struggles outside Congress or the legislature; and expose the limits of capitalist democracy.
Historically in the U.S., the two-party system has had such a strong chokehold that no labor party based in the unions or mass social-democratic party has ever developed. When sentiment in the working class for a labor party was at its height—in the 1930s—the largest leftwing, working-class organization, the Communist Party, consciously steered the movement away from this.
In the U.S., both the economic and political organization of the working class and oppressed today is weak. The pull of lesser-evilism remains strong, and we remain in a situation in which third-party alternatives, let alone working-class alternatives, are small to nonexistent. While there will from time to time be opportunities for socialists to engage in electoral work, until there is a larger, more unified left coupled with a stronger labor movement, these opportunities will be isolated.
One of the key tasks of socialists today, therefore, is to wean radicalizing elements away from misplaced hope in the Democratic Party, the party that has traditionally absorbed and muzzled radical sentiment that might lead toward an independent working-class political party.
Today, socialist organization in the U.S. is still far too small to take on the tremendous effort and expenditure necessary to run candidates on a systematic basis.
However, there are moments when radical or working-class third-party alternatives have, if only for a time, been on offer. In those cases, socialists should call for at least a protest, class vote against the two major bourgeois parties, in the hope of cracking the two-party system and creating an opening for independent, working-class politics.
When conditions are ripe for building a genuine left alternative to the Democrats—like, for example, Ralph Nader’s Green Party run in 2000 that organized around an anti-corporate, if not anti-capitalist, agenda—socialists should actively campaign and promote that alternative, if only as a means to begin the process of building a broader left that is independent of the Democratic Party.
In his advice to socialists in the U.S. in the early 1890s, Engels emphasized the importance of them supporting and participating in any movement of the working class that, whatever its limitations, would help it to develop its own independent political party.
In 1886, the Central Labor Union in New York formed the Independent Labor Party of New York and Vicinity in order to participate in New York City’s mayoral race. The new party chose single-tax advocate Henry George as its candidate.
George himself was not from the labor movement. Indeed, he was a middle-class populist. He had recently written a popular book, Progress and Poverty, which attacked poverty and inequality. In it, he advocated a single tax on landed property as a panacea to solve most of society’s ills. In a hotly contested race in which the local ruling class pulled out all the stops to prevent a labor-party victory, George came in second in a three-way race with 31 percent of the vote.
Engels was positive about the election in spite of its shortcomings, writing:
“In a country that has newly entered the movement, the first really crucial step is the formation by the workers of an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is distinguishable as a labor party. And this step has been taken far sooner than we might have expected, and that’s the main thing.
“That the first program of this party should still be muddle-headed and extremely inadequate, that it should have picked Henry George for its figurehead, are unavoidable, if merely transitory, evils. The masses must have time and opportunity to evolve; and they will not get that opportunity unless they have a movement of their own—no matter what its form, providing it is their own movement—in which they are impelled onwards by their own mistakes and learn by bitter experience.”