In a country where elections generally offer only a choice between the capitalist Republican and Democratic parties, the election of the Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council in November was a small but important advance for workers and oppressed people. Running on a program that denounced the gross economic inequality in the U.S. and centered on the demand for a $15 minimum wage, rent control and a tax on millionaires, she won over 90,000 votes and proved that an openly socialist and independent working-class-based campaign can gain mass support.
Sawant gained the endorsement of several local unions and community organizations, running against a blatantly pro-capitalist Democratic incumbent. In Minneapolis, her comrade Ty Moore ran a similar openly socialist campaign for a city council post and also did well, losing only narrowly. Sawant’s victory is already being looked to by many on the socialist left in the U.S. as a model for further electoral campaigns. It has even had an impact internationally, since in much of the world it is inconceivable that socialism could be at all popular in the dominant imperialist power.
Sawant now has a golden opportunity to become what Lenin called a “tribune of the people,” a voice for the victims of exploitation and oppression and an advocate of militant resistance against the mounting capitalist attacks. Indeed, shortly after her election Sawant seemed to be taking on this role: she gave a rousing speech to a rally of Boeing workers organized by the local chapter of their union, the International Association of Machinists (IAM). The workers had rejected a contract offer that demanded major givebacks, and the company had responded with threats to close their factory. Sawant denounced the company’s threats as “economic terrorism.” If Boeing decides to leave Seattle, she said,
“The only response we can have if Boeing executives do not agree to keep the plant here is for the machinists to say the machines are here, the workers are here, we will do the job, and we don’t need the executives. The executives don’t do the work, the machinists do. The workers should take over the factories, and shut down Boeing’s profit-making machine.”
Her call for radical action won her enthusiastic applause from the Boeing workers. Her speech was widely publicized, and the picture of a crowd of largely white and comparatively well-paid workers cheering a far-out proposal by an immigrant woman of color and a self-proclaimed socialist was a refreshing and dramatic change from politics-as-usual.
Nevertheless, Sawant’s “socialism” is severely limited, even though her organization, Socialist Alternative (SA), styles itself as not only socialist but also Trotskyist. SA is affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) centered on the former Militant Tendency, now the Socialist Party, in Britain. The CWI has a long history of promoting a reformist, electoral road to socialism which has left the working class unprepared for the treachery of the trade union bureaucracy and the violent repression of the capitalist state. In the spirit of the CWI’s opportunist tradition, her campaign rested entirely on demands for reforms of the capitalist system and did not at all point to the need to overthrow that system and the state that defends it. We will argue that this non-Trotskyist approach, which the CWI elsewhere has carried to the point of outright betrayal of working-class interests, mars Sawant’s electoral achievement and raises doubts about her future role in office.
First, some background. It is no accident that Seattle is a city that has seen a left electoral success. Historically it was the site of some of the most dramatic examples of industrial class struggle in this country, starting with the IWW in the nearby lumber camps and the general strike of 1919. Today it is an important port and a center of airplane production, and has the material base for a centralized, organized and powerful work force despite cuts and setbacks.
Seattle has a strong high-tech sector centered on Microsoft and Amazon. There are many educated workers, some at this point downwardly mobile. There is also a service industry of poorly paid workers drawn largely from the ranks of immigrants. As well, for many years the city has been a magnet for disaffected, largely white middle-class youth who still maintain their sense of rebelliousness. It is no accident that Seattle was the site of the “grunge” music scene of the early 90’s – as well as of the “battle of Seattle” in 1999, the mass protests against the World Trade Organization, and of an important component of the Occupy movement. Demographically Seattle is 70 percent white and 14 percent Asian-American, with Blacks and Latinos constituting small minorities of under 10 percent each.
There are big differences in outlook and interests between fast-food and other service workers, on the one hand, and downsized high-tech employees looking to move back up, on the other; still, these diverse forces form a social and electoral base inclined toward the left wing of American politics. The local ruling class is internationally oriented and lords over ultra-modern forms of production. It projects a progressive image on social issues: it is ecologically concerned and charitable towards education. Republicans are a distinct minority, and the Democratic Party has long been dominant in local politics.
Capitalists are still capitalists, though, and the local variety has been heartily engaged in the decades-long attacks on workers and the poor. Bill Gates and other capitalists have no problem with cutting wages to boost profits. The fight over the Boeing contract demonstrates that the capitalists will attack workers not simply to defend their profits – Boeing was making billions with years of orders ahead – but also that they are quick to take advantage of the overall economic doldrums workers face. And the Democratic Party is of course still a ruling-class party; its local establishment has gone along with the attacks. While the Democratic state government has given unprecedented tax breaks to Boeing, the local administration has been squarely behind the schemes of the real estate interests.
Clearly there has been a deep well of discontent among various strata of the populace, not only in attitude but also in active resistance – as the Boeing workers, longshore workers and Seattle’s relatively radical Occupy movement have all demonstrated. This discontent is being increasingly aimed at the local political structure. With the Republicans out of the picture, the door has been opening to alternatives to the left of the Democrats.
Not all the factors are local, particularly with the issue that would prove so important for the Sawant campaign: the wages of low-paid workers. As the miserable Federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour continues to lose value with continuing increases in the cost of living, there is a growing feeling of desperation across the country. Even if people are not facing this level themselves, many are close enough to it to fear the negative impact it has on their wages, while others are understandably sympathetic to the plight of a growing core of poverty-wage workers. A CBS News poll in November found that 69 percent of respondents supported raising the minimum wage, while only 25% opposed it. (The poll, however, limited the options to $9.00 and $10.10 an hour.) Even the majority of Republicans favored an increase, which indicates a potentially divisive issue among working-class white supporters of the Tea Party and its wealthy backers. In fact, the nearby municipality of SeaTac, the locale of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, approved a minimum wage hike to $15 in November, although a judge has ruled that it cannot apply to airport workers.
Nationally, there has been a marked shift in attitudes towards the political and economic system, particularly among young people. Year after year of “free-market” cutbacks has left not only a bleaker landscape for jobs and advancement for young people, but along with it an altered appraisal of the system itself. Pew surveys from 2010 to 2012 discovered that only 50 percent of Americans had a positive view of capitalism, and 40 percent were negative. At the same time, over 30 percent of respondents had a positive view of socialism, with the number much higher among Blacks, Latinos, youth under thirty and people with family incomes under $30,000. This is an important marker, even though it is not at all clear what respondents mean by “socialism.”
At the same time, the right wing has become increasingly shrill and influential in its campaign for “free enterprise” and its opposition to the public sector, aside from the repressive apparatus of the police and military. Their ideological offensive is but one component of the general ruling-class offensive aimed at reducing the social wage and making the workforce more exploitable through attacks on government jobs.
In short, social contradictions are sharpening. But this has not yet led to a surge in industrial struggles, nor to open rebellions by poor and oppressed people. A cynicism born of experience about the leadership of the workers and the oppressed, and the raw fear of losing jobs and other means of survival in a declining economy, have kept struggle tamped down. The recent defeat of the Boeing workers (see below) is the latest indication. Workers do not yet have a sense of their real power as the major producing class.
Sawant and Socialist Alternative launched her candidacy in the context of this local and national ferment. Sawant comes from a privileged class and caste background in India, but she was repelled by the rampant social injustices in her country; that was extended by her experiences on these shores. She joined Socialist Alternative ten years ago, and her political talents are apparent. In 2012 she ran for the state legislature, doing surprisingly well by getting over 20,000 votes, 29 percent, in a write-in campaign against the Democratic Speaker of the House.
Sawant has an admirable talent for articulating her politics and a personable touch, and the experience and publicity of her previous campaign left her well positioned for this electoral go-around. It did not hurt that the Democrat she was running against, Richard Conlin, was considered the most conservative member of the City Council and was notorious for backing local real estate interests – even though he had started out affiliated to the Green Party.
Her campaign’s key reform demands were popular with a good portion of the voting populace, especially youth and people of color, based chiefly on the $15 minimum wage slogan. Critically, Sawant received endorsements from a number of unions, including AFSCME Local 1488, CWA Local 37083, IBEW Local 46, AFT Local 1789 and the Greater Seattle American Postal Workers Union. While this meant gaining the approval of labor officials, there was also considerable sympathy in the rank and file.
Despite being heavily outspent by an established capitalist politician able to call on the support of many deep pockets, Sawant was able to take on Conlin using a core of hundreds of supporters; They did the leg work of building campaign rallies, talking to people in the streets and in their homes and plastering Seattle with “Vote Sawant” posters. She eked out her victory by winning majorities in districts outside the well-heeled Conlin strongholds; she ran up big margins in Seattle’s historically Black community, in areas with concentrations of Asian-Americans and in the University of Washington neighborhood. Many workers undoubtedly looked to her as an alternative to the failures of the union leaders who claim to speak for them.
Sawant’s supporters enthusiastically reprinted a columnist’s report that “nearly [Sawant’s] entire agenda has, over the course of the campaign, been embraced by both [Democratic Party] candidates for mayor.” In their excitement to boast of Sawant’s influence, they seemed not to be concerned that this showed that her campaign’s agenda was not terribly radical. Along the same lines, a recent article by Peter Taaffe, the leader of SA’s international organization, the CWI, enthuses:
“The election of a socialist to the Seattle council for the first time in 100 years represents a real leap forward in the possibility for political struggles not just in the US, but worldwide. Socialist Alternative took the initiative in this case, but similar radical political movements were expressed elsewhere: in New York with the election of Bill de Blasio, and his invocation of a ‘tale of two cities’, with 73% of the vote, and the election of 24 independent Labor candidates in Lorain County, Ohio.”
This is absurd. Sawant’s election was important but it was not a major advance for the worldwide political struggle. And the comparison of Sawant’s campaign to de Blasio’s is an undeserved slander, but it is nevertheless indicative of the CWI’s politics in its blurring of the class line between a working-class campaign and one in the Democratic Party.
Further, de Blasio’s election was an expression of discontent, not of radicalism. The New York mayor is a career Democratic Party politician, whereas Sawant’s campaign (despite the problems we spell out below) represented a step away from the capitalist parties. Nor was de Blasio’s campaign based on a radical movement, unlike Sawant’s; his signature theme was to reform the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” practice, and there is a movement against this racist policy – but this movement had to denounce him when he announced that his new police chief would be William Bratton, the initiator of stop-and-frisk. (See the LRP statement “Progressive” de Blasio Dashes Hopes)
The truth in Taaffe’s comparison is that de Blasio and Sawant victories reflected mass discontent with the gross and growing inequality in the U.S. But the effort to blur the class difference between them, coming from the center of the CWI, is an indication that a radical activist like Sawant could easily come under pressure from her own party not to do anything to damage the support she has received from Democrats and trade union officials.
Indeed, Sawant won support from some Democratic Party activists who hoped she would help liberal council members to be more aggressive in passing “progressive” legislation. An article in an alternative Seattle newspaper of left-liberal inclinations spells out some of their thinking:
“Absent an actual socialist like Sawant to anchor the left, it is progressives ... who are ridiculed as extremists. ... Sawant’s election would ... [create] room for traditional progressives ... to operate more effectively. No, we wouldn’t want a council filled with Sawants. But we wouldn’t want a council filled with Richard Conlins, either – which is pretty much what we have now.”
The last thing Sawant’s liberal and labor backers want to do is support a real socialist challenge to the capitalist system. They see electoral support for her as a way both to vent their anger at the Democratic-controlled political establishment, and to pressure that establishment to be more receptive to their pleading for sops and a less confrontational image. The labor bureaucrats in particular have relied on electoral support for the Democrats as an alternative to mass struggle for years; some are now willing to go outside the box a little – in order to preserve that same strategy. In the case of Sawant, they were able to trust her not to bring up incendiary talk about revolution and not to criticize her labor backers too much if at all.
We do not blame Sawant for the motivations of her non-socialist supporters. Our organization has run candidates in union elections, for example, and we know that many of those voting for us were not voting for socialism or revolution; rather they knew we could be trusted to keep the membership informed, respected our reputation as militants and sought a way to give the middle finger to the union bureaucrats. Likewise, we have undertaken practical agreements to coordinate struggles in the interest of the working class with people who have their own, often different, purposes. The problem with Sawant’s campaign is that it was conducted in a way that encouraged and adapted to such motivations.
The problems can partly be seen in the campaign’s major demands. There is nothing wrong with using an election to advance reforms or even to emphasize those demands. But Sawant’s call for a civilian review board of the Seattle police raises dangerous illusions that the police can be anything but an arm of capital and a racist oppressing force. This demand jibes both with standard liberal attitudes toward the police and with the CWI’s notorious and anti-Marxist position that the cops are part of the working class and legitimately belong to the trade union movement.
In contrast, the $15 minimum wage demand that was the centerpiece of Sawant’s campaign has much going for it. It addresses directly the needs of the poorest workers, who also tend to be immigrants and workers of color. It also appeals to the interests of better-paid workers who see how the low and deteriorating wages of their poorer brothers and sisters are used as a wedge to lower their own standard of living. At a time when workers’ anger is matched by their fear of action, the push for increasing the minimum wage provides a unifying foundation for additional demands on the government.
But there is a lot or pressure to compromise on the issue. At first sight it looks like Sawant has taken a firm position against any reduction or delay. Here for example is a report of a mid-January rally:
“Her message: No compromise. ‘They’ve already started talking about phasing it (the $15 wage) in over many, many years,’ Sawant told the crowd, which numbered 450 people at the start of the rally. ‘Nooooo!!!!!!’ came a chorus of responses. ‘We don’t want any phasing in,’ declared Sawant.”
A month later she added: “I’m throwing down the gauntlet” against politicians and businesses who say they support a minimum wage increase but want loopholes and exemptions. Similarly, in her “socialist state of the union” response to President Obama’s speech on January 28, she correctly pointed out that his $10.10 minimum wage proposal “is not a ticket out of poverty for working families.”
On the other hand, during the campaign she answered an interviewer’s question about whether she would compromise and settle for a $12 minimum wage: “I would consider any improvement in people’s standard of living a victory,” said Sawant ... But “starting out from a weak position, that’s not good strategy,” she explains. “Any chess player will tell you that.”
And a later interviewer commented that
“Sawant isn’t ruling out compromise, like phasing in the $15 an hour minimum wage or exempting small businesses. But she also says this kind of talk is premature. ‘Compromise is really a question to be asked at the end of the road, not at the beginning of the road. Right now we should be building our forces, and that’s why it’s important for people to join our grassroots effort,’ she said.”
The first interviewer described Sawant’s chess-playing attitude as “the sort of savvy realpolitik Seattle could use more of.” Yes, a liberal might feel that way, but not someone trying to transform the system. It is relevant that Socialist Alternative has worked closely with officials of the service employees union SEIU, which has acquired a reputation for concessionary compromises; and SEIU is the major force behind the nation-wide campaign for raising the minimum wage. That will be another source of pressure to accept a lesser deal.
The $15 slogan could be the platform for a broad-based struggle that demonstrates that capitalism is less and less able to provide for the interests of those who make it run; it should not be the basis for bartering with capitalist politicians. Yes, $12 (or even the $10.10 an hour that Obama proposed) would make a difference to a minimum-wage worker. But such a wage is still terribly inadequate and will be erased one way or another if the broader struggle, and wider working-class consciousness of the limitations of capitalism, are not the foremost priorities.
Sawant mostly rejects the idea of phasing in or compromising her signature campaign demand and speaks of mass mobilization for it. Still, at times she has equivocated. Our point is not that socialists should rule out all compromise as a matter of principle. But if compromise is only to be discussed “at the end of the road,” then it is unwise to say at the beginning of the road that you’re open to it later. To make a firm position clear, Sawant ought to criticize by name those now supposedly on her side, the labor officials and Democratic politicians, who will soon be pressuring her to wrap up deals. Open criticism is necessary to bolster popular sentiment and prepare mass action for the full demand.
Sawant began “playing chess” before she even took office, when the newly elected mayor, Ed Murray, appointed her to an advisory committee of 23 people (including business executives, labor leaders and politicians) charged with developing recommendations for increasing the minimum wage; it is to report back to the mayor early this year. The co-chairs of the committee are an SEIU leader and a businessman whose company was prominent in the campaign against the $15 wage proposal. Even though the mayor has endorsed the $15 demand, this maneuver is evidently aimed at negotiating a compromise or a delay in getting the popular proposal adopted by the City Council. Sawant was asked by reporters “if she might be co-opted by sitting on a committee alongside a representative of the Chamber of Commerce”; she responded,
“I think that should always be a concern. But if we’re serious about fighting for the interests of workers, ... that means engaging with people who don’t agree with me.”
Sawant’s approach is hardly class warfare on the City Council. She wants the advisory committee to make a recommendation by April, so that if its decision is not the desired one a ballot initiative can be launched in time to get on the November ballot. Even if we assume that this is a good chess move, in her statement on joining this committee she said: “If the deadline for the Advisory Committee remains the end of the June, I will still join the Committee and work hard to achieve whatever is possible by April.”
Announcing in advance that she will stay on as a left face for the committee, even if it stalls while the ballot initiative suffers, doesn’t sound like postponing compromise to “the end of the road.” It is easier to see it as a preparation for a series of retreats. But more to the point, why didn’t Sawant start by denouncing the very formation of Murray’s advisory committee? What recommendation does she think is necessary other than adopting a $15 minimum wage? Panels like these are designed and expected to produce compromises, not clear-cut pro-working-class decisions. If Sawant had begun by calling out the committee for what it is, she could then serve on it and use her membership to prove to the public that it is what she says.
So what is Sawant’s strategy for getting the $15 wage adopted? Is it to sound like a reasonable politician playing realpolitik who wants to get things done, even if it comes to less than she wants? Or is she serving on the advisory committee in order to fight for the $15 by exposing the machinations of the mayor and other politicians and union leaders? One might want to give her the benefit of the doubt – except that she’s in the CWI, about whose record there is a great deal to doubt. (See below.)
A further indication that Socialist Alternative was playing electoral games was shown by the nature of her labor endorsement. She was endorsed by specific union locals. But her camp also crowed that she got majority support on the King County Labor Council. For example, Socialist Alternative newspaper trumpeted that:
“Sawant won endorsements from six union locals, and a majority of the King County Labor Council voted in favor of endorsing Sawant (narrowly missing the super-majority necessary for an endorsement).”
But this was not exactly true: it omits an important qualification. The labor council had previously voted to endorse Sawant’s opponent, Conlin, and it endorsed other Democrats as well. But as her campaign gained momentum, her supporters on the council moved to reconsider the endorsement of Conlin – not in favor of endorsing Sawant but to change to a dual endorsement of both Conlin and Sawant. While some articles by SA reported this point correctly, the more prominent omission of this detail fooled many supporters. Most of the other socialist organizations that supported her campaign reported as good coin that Sawant was favored over Conlin by a majority of the Seattle labor council, as did the Counterpunch website.
It is not only that Sawant’s campaign deceitfully embellished what was clearly a setback for Conlin and a gain for her side. Also significant is the fact that Sawant’s labor supporters, at the very moment of endorsing her, were unwilling to break with the Democrats. A principled reaction by SA would have been to criticize the bureaucrats’ underlying loyalty to the Democrats, even if the dual endorsement was a sign of a partial but opportunistic shift in political orientation. Such a criticism could have angered her labor allies. But if a socialist wants to educate the working class as to what needs to be done and who its friends and enemies are, painting an honest picture of the forces involved in the election, some undiplomatic frankness is needed.
So far we have dealt with what Sawant has been saying before and after her election. But we don’t know what she had to say during the ongoing contract struggle at Boeing after her rousing and well-publicized speech on November 18.
For in the six weeks after the workers voted down the company’s proposed contract changes, Boeing escalated its economic terrorism and threatened to move production to non-union areas of the country and eliminate the jobs of IAM members if they didn’t swallow the concessions demanded. Boeing was backed in its extortion campaign by the Democratic Party leaders in Washington State, the mainstream media and the top officials of the Machinists union. In early January, a re-vote was taken and the giveaway contract won by a narrow margin, 51 to 49 percent. This was a major defeat for the labor movement, not just locally but nationally.
As far as we can tell from the published record, Sawant has not addressed the debate in the Machinists union. From afar we cannot say what exactly could or should have been done. The vote came in the middle of a contract that forbids workers from striking, but there is no sign that Sawant suggested job actions of any kind or proclaimed that she would support actions the workers might decide to take. Certainly the Boeing workers would have liked to hear a plan of action for fighting the company’s pressure and some concrete promise of solidarity from other unions and working-class organizations. Judging from the Socialist Alternative web site, Sawant did not propose any plan for the beleaguered workers’ struggle; she did not ask the trade union leaders, especially those who supported her election, to speak out against the obscene contract deal, much less to mobilize their members in defense of the Boeing workers. She did not even urge workers to vote the contract down on the second vote, nor did she explain that the re-vote itself was an undemocratic maneuver by the bureaucratic union officials. Silence on such an issue is not what is to be expected from a socialist spokesperson.
And in her inaugural speech on January 6, shortly after the disastrous second vote by the Boeing workers, Sawant did not mention the struggle at all. That is not because she felt obliged to confine herself to issues facing the Seattle City Council; she did speak about national questions like poverty and Congressional inaction. She asserted, “My colleagues and I in Socialist Alternative will stand shoulder to shoulder with all those who want to fight for a better world.” But she did not take the opportunity to use her new platform to deal with this major event in the class struggle on her doorstep.
The absence of any discussion of the Boeing struggle by Socialist Alternative is striking. Why would Sawant and SA not want to say anything about this dispute and vote? The most likely explanation is that they do not want to comment adversely on any labor leader, even a total sellout, lest they be regarded as untrustworthy by the labor bureaucracy in general. The Boeing workers who cheered her victory and her radical proposals in November have every right to wonder where she was in December and January.
This brings us back to the main point: Sawant and SA did not run a revolutionary campaign. Such a campaign is necessary if a socialist leader is to tell the truth to the working class. We list a series of interrelated errors of omission and commission that add up to a pattern of downsizing any revolutionary implications to her victory.
1) Sawant and Socialist Alternative do not speak about the need for revolution to bring about socialism. They talk about “fighting for a better world,” “fundamental social change” and “alternatives” to capitalism. But nothing they say suggests that the decisive change she wants requires doing away with the capitalist state through working-class revolution. Sawant’s more radical supporters may think of these formulations as euphemisms for revolution, while her liberal Democratic backers can agree with what sounds like far-reaching but conceivable reforms. In fact the latter interpretation is closer to the truth of what Socialist Alternative and its parent CWI stand for. The CWI leader Peter Taaffe put it this way:
“We have shown that the struggle to establish a socialist Britain can be carried through in Parliament backed up by the colossal power of the labour movement outside. This, however, will only be possible on one condition: that the trade unions and Labour Party are won to a clear Marxist programme, and the full power of the movement is used to effect the rapid and complete socialist transformation of society.”
But as Marx observed, because the working class is kept weak and divided by everyday life under capitalism, it needs the empowering experience of a revolutionary uprising to “shake off the muck of ages and fit itself for rule.”
Meanwhile, the capitalists enjoy many lines of defense that prevent such a reformist perspective from ever being successful. Privileged bureaucracies exert a stifling control over the mass organizations of workers and oppressed people, almost always denying revolutionaries the possibility of winning leadership of the political parties and unions, and forcing them to create new mass organizations, above all a revolutionary political party dedicated to putting an end to capitalism. And the capitalists’ state power of police and military remains the final threat of violent counterrevolution that can only be smashed by revolutionary means.
2) Following from their reformist perspective, Sawant and SA do not call for a revolutionary working-class party. They are not hiding their real views; as the quotation above shows, the CWI thinks reformist parties are good enough if they somehow adopt a Marxist program.
In the U.S., Sawant & Co speak in deliberately vague terms about a party opposed to the two major capitalist parties. Sometimes they call for a mass party of workers (like British Labour), sometimes a mass party of the left which is not necessarily working-class based. Socialist Alternative was active in promoting Labor Party Advocates in the 1990’s, an outfit that in theory aimed to create a union-based political alternative to the Democratic Party. But the L.A.’s real aim was to put pressure on the Democrats, not replace them, and so it refused to compete with the Democrats for any office or to challenge the pro-Democratic union bureaucrats; it soon collapsed as an inglorious flop.
Socialist Alternative has also supported Ralph Nader and the Green Party, both of which offered alternative capitalist politics to those of the Democrats and Republicans. Nader’s Green campaigns in 2000 and 2004 were openly aimed at pressuring the Democrats to return to their supposedly progressive roots. Even worse in class terms than Labor Party Advocates, the Green Party does not at all represent a shift to working-class independence from the capitalist parties but rather a more liberal or left-wing bourgeois party. Other Green advocates in the socialist milieu sometimes say their support is a tactic toward building a future revolutionary party, but SA does not even make this excuse for crossing the class line.
3) Sawant and SA do not consistently put forward the working class as the central force for social change. To be sure, she does consider herself a representative of the working class; workers are an important element in her electoral support, and the trade union endorsements in particular a boost to her fortunes. But she does not make clear that workers, by their position in production, are not only the most powerful social force in the struggle against capitalism; they are also pushed towards collective, revolutionary communist consciousness by their social experience. That is why the working class is the key to ending capitalism and creating socialism. As noted above, Sawant’s foregrounding of legislative strategy shows that her primary objective is the reform itself, not the process of workers gaining confidence and consciousness that is critical for building a revolutionary class leadership.
Instead of stressing the key role of the working class, Sawant and SA blur it by echoing the Occupy movement’s rallying cry of the “99 percent” against the ruling class “1 percent.” We explained the problem with this formula in our analysis of Occupy Wall Street:
“‘We are the 99%’ is understandably popular, since it expresses the reality that the great majority are getting robbed by the super-rich who run society. Even more positively, it implies that there is power in numbers – if we all got together, we would overpower the super-rich parasites and exploiters. Nevertheless, there are major problems with the slogan. First, it implies a false unity of interests among the majority of the population. The ‘1%’ may be a numerically convenient shorthand for the top layer of the capitalist ruling class in this country, but this layer has the hardened loyalty of significant sections of the remaining 99%. While the working class makes up something like two-thirds of the population, there are tens of millions who have material interests in the maintenance of the system and its inequalities. These include petty (and not-so-petty) capitalists, wealthy professionals, preachers, journalists, managers, paid agents of the state like politicians and cops, all sorts of politically reactionary scum, and even the best-positioned elements in the working class itself.”
In different words, championing the “99 percent” as opposed to the working class and oppressed people raises a populist, not a proletarian, consciousness.
Along the same lines, the CWI shares the view of other “orthodox Trotskyists” that the former Stalinist states in Eastern Europe, China etc. were workers’ states, even though they had no workers’ revolutions and the working class never held state power there. The CWI goes even beyond that and has also said that for certain periods the dictators in Syria, Burma and Ethiopia ruled over “workers’ states” simply because they nationalized much of their countries’ industry. Such theories have nothing to do with Marx, whose unmistakable view was that socialist revolutions – the creation of workers’ states – could only be made by the working class itself and not by bourgeois or petty-bourgeois saviors from above.
4) Sawant and SA falsify the reality of the capitalist state, because the CWI harbors a populist and liberal understanding of the nature of that state. As a consequence they downplay the need to prepare for the violence of the state when it is defending capitalist interests. Even though her speech on seizing the Boeing plants was radically provocative and the workers’ positive response to it was inspiring, it also showed a serious lack of appreciation for the ruling class’ ability to call out the police and other armed forces in response to actions against capitalist property. She talked as if taking over the plant and running it would just be a matter of the workers deciding to do so, not mentioning that it would entail, among other things, a confrontation with the police and the bosses’ hired thugs. The workers who occupied industrial plants in the 1930’s and were confronted by violent counter-attacks knew better.
This omission is characteristic of the CWI, which often claims that socialism can be achieved peacefully. In Britain, for decades the Militant Tendency buried itself in the Labour Party with a diluted program that advocated a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism. Taaffe again:
“We have proclaimed hundreds if not thousands of times that we believe that, armed with a clear programme and perspective, the labour movement in Britain could effect a peaceful socialist transformation.”
Their idea was that the British Parliament would legislate the nationalization of the 200 top corporations and banks. The U.S. is bigger, so here Socialist Alternative extends that to the top 500. Its “What We Stand For” program in its newspaper explains:
“Take into public ownership the top 500 corporations and banks that dominate the U.S. economy and run them under the democratic management of elected representatives of the workers and the broader public. Compensation to be paid on the basis of proven need to small investors, not millionaires. A democratic socialist plan for the economy based on the interests of the overwhelming majority of people and the environment. For a socialist United States and a socialist world.”
They rarely warn their readers that the capitalist class will not surrender power peacefully, which should be basic to the understanding of anyone familiar with the work of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.
5) Sawant and SA do not challenge or expose the trade union bureaucracy and other mass leaders. In the class struggle, the police and the rest of the state apparatus are the ruling class’s last resort, not their first. After all, workers are not seizing factories in the U.S. today. But when people do take over plants or government headquarters, as when thousands of workers and students occupied the Wisconsin state capitol in 2011, it was the union officialdom, not the cops, who corralled the rebellion into the Democratic Party’s recall and electoral campaigns. A few years further back, when millions of immigrant workers took to the streets to demand their rights, the leaders detoured the campaign into pro-Democratic electoralism. That is, the immediate obstacles to working-class struggle are these leaders, the union bureaucrats above all.
But in its Seattle campaign, even when union leaders were guilty of gross betrayals, Socialist Alternative was silent. As noted above, in the recent Boeing contract battle, they did not criticize the pro-company line of IAM International President Thomas Buffenbarger. Nor in the West Coast Longshore union struggles did they take on the two-faced role of ILWU head Robert McEllrath – at least as far as can be learned from articles on the SA and CWI website. SA cultivates the friendship of local union leaders, and obeys the bureaucratic rule of not speaking ill of other labor officials. That may get one far in a union or electoral career, but it is not the method of genuine socialists – above all, of Trotskyists who follow Trotsky’s motto of “saying what is” to the working class.
6) Sawant and SA do not explain the undemocratic nature of bourgeois elections and government institutions. These, from city councils to Congress, normally only allow well-financed representatives of capital to serve. Occasionally the ruling class is compelled to allow a genuine dissident to hold office. But if Sawant is to take her seat as a genuine Marxist, she would make clear that the electoral process, along with the City Council and the mayor’s advisory committee that she belongs to, are capitalist institutions aimed at disemboweling the masses – and that she works in them mainly to expose them and use her platform as a tactical weapon for promoting class struggle.
In sum, Sawant has not seized the opportunity to be a tribune of all the exploited and oppressed, to promote the broader goals and vision that a proudly self-proclaimed socialist ought to stand for. To do that, to see the necessity for doing that, would require that Sawant and SA act as revolutionaries, dedicated not just to socialistic reforms but to telling the full truth to the working class: that the Democratic Party represents the class enemy, that elections (even victorious ones) are far less important than mass actions, that the labor union bureaucrats are for the most part agents of the capitalist class within the workers’ organizations, that the capitalist state as well as the capitalist economy needs to be destroyed and replaced with working-class rule through revolution. Sawant and SA do not do this.
We have cited the CWI’s view that socialism can be brought to Britain by way of the Labour Party. Since Sawant won a municipal office, consider also what they boast of as their major municipal achievement: in the mid-1980’s members of the British Militant Tendency inside the Labour Party won leadership of the City Council in Liverpool. Liverpool is a major port and declining industrial city with high rates of unemployment; Militant’s campaign slogans included “No Cuts in Jobs or Services.” But under pressure from the Conservative national government of Margaret Thatcher and with no support from the national Labour leadership, the Militant council members, needing to balance the municipal budget, violated their pledge. They announced the dismissal of 30,000 council employees – a disastrous maneuver that was opposed even by other Militant members in the city’s trade unions and that almost led to a citywide strike against the council. This was the result of the leaders’ desire to hold onto their elected positions rather than risk them in an all-out fight against the austerity-minded Conservative and Labour chiefs in London.
Other striking examples of the CWI’s rejection of genuine Marxism and Leninism show up in its international work. Its affiliates have joined or electorally supported major bourgeois parties in oppressed countries – the Pakistan People’s Party, the People’s Alliance in Sri Lanka, the PRD in Mexico and the African National Congress in South Africa. The CWI also has difficulty taking sides against the interests of British imperialism. The Militant Tendency refused to call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland, part of Britain’s oldest colony. Likewise, when Britain and Argentina went to war over the Malvinas islands in 1982, Militant declined to stand against the imperialist side.
Because of the CWI’s long record of capitulating to capitalist pressures, we regard it as what Marxists call centrist. Centrists can make vestigial references to Marx, Lenin and Trotsky and are capable of radical talk, but their overall practice is devoted to reforming rather than overthrowing capitalism.
Given the CWI’s tradition, the fact that Sawant openly declares her socialism does not guarantee that she will steer clear of capitalism’s pitfalls, or that she will convey the fundamental lessons of the class struggle to her base. The socialist label that Sawant proudly wears and has been such a source of excitement could lose its radical luster if she takes on the character of a house social democrat. In this case she will still be despised by the right wing but will lose the faith of those looking for a real alternative to capitalist politics. The CWI has long played this role in Britain and other countries; now SA will get a chance to try its own hand at the parliamentary game.
If Socialist Alternative actually had control of a city council as the CWI did in Liverpool, we might expect similar “practical” political compromises. But as a minority of one, Sawant is freer to act as an occasional firebrand, as she did in November at the Boeing workers’ rally. Still, as with any socialist in a capitalist political office, there will be pressures for her to deliver concrete gains to her supporters, cut deals and build alliances that may yield partial gains. And Socialist Alternative carries less theoretical baggage than even other centrists that might hold it back from becoming a social-democratic ornament on the bourgeois Democratic tree. Even if Sawant takes further radical verbal stances, these would in the end serve as exceptions if not covers for such a sad role.
A radical electoral campaign that wins mass support calls for an active and honest response from revolutionaries. We think that revolutionaries should have applied the tactic of critical support to Sawant’s campaign. It is a variant of the united front tactic, whereby communists seek the broadest possible unity with other workers and allies over practical aims while preserving their own freedom to criticize the leaders.
Critical support means that revolutionaries back the election of reformist or left-talking candidates whom workers expect will advance their struggles. The aim is both to solidarize with the mass struggles and to put their leaders to the test of office. Towards the latter end, we point out in advance the limitations of the candidates’ political views and past record; we also urge their supporters to place demands on the leaders to carry out their own promised program. We hope thereby to gain a wider audience for revolutionary politics, to explain the need for socialism and revolution to really solve the crises the working class faces, and to expose the hesitations, vacillations and outright betrayals of the workers’ misleaders.
In the case of Sawant’s campaign, she clearly had a mass base, founded on her own activities, the issues she focused on and a broader atmosphere of active struggle as well as a more passive anger against injustice and inequality. We solidarize with the concerns and struggles of her supporters, so we hope revolutionaries would both work to get her elected and keep raising demands on her to carry out her promised program.
The demands placed on reformist or centrist leaders should reflect their position and capabilities. We do not demand that Sawant become a revolutionary; she does not say she is one, and she is not in a position to carry out revolutionary policies that the masses are not pressing for. But we are for calling on her to fight for the things she does stand for.
Sawant and her organization now face a practical test of how to use both her office and, more importantly, the platform it provides, to advance the struggle. Their non-revolutionary approach weakens her ability to do so, since they are not concerned about raising working-class consciousness about the nature of capitalism, the social forces battling within it and the state that defends it.
Sawant’s actions and speeches will have an impact well beyond Seattle. As she said in her inauguration talk, “The election of a socialist to the council of a major city in the heartland of global capitalism has made waves around the world. We know because we have received messages of support from Europe, Latin America, Africa and from Asia. Those struggling for change have told us they have been inspired by our victory.” All the more reason to demand that she will act as a genuine socialist champion of the working class and oppressed.
But the record so far is not encouraging. In her City Council work itself, we have already seen indications that she anticipates possibly compromising over the bold reforms she stands for, and more generally we see her and SA playing games with their supporters and the Democratic liberals. Outside of the council, the Boeing battle and the IAM contract vote demonstrate her party’s unwillingness to frontally oppose trade union officials, even when they are actively engaged in betraying their workers’ interests. This is an instance where we believe that Sawant’s voters and other supporters should have called on her to encourage a contract rejection by Boeing workers and propose ways for them to move the struggle forward.
Most of the socialist organizations in the U.S. that commented on Sawant’s election called for voting for her, but few used the critical support tactic. The International Socialist Organization, the Freedom Socialist Party, Solidarity and Socialist Action all enthused uncritically over the campaign, and some mentioned that they had differences with Socialist Alternative. But none warned that its politics and tradition were signs that Sawant would not be the working-class champion her new position makes possible.
One left group that did adopt the critical support tactic is Workers Power – likely because their affiliate in Britain is well acquainted with the CWI’s treacherous history. Another, the Workers International League, which like Socialist Alternative traces its roots to the British Militant Tendency, supported Sawant with the criticisms that her campaign was “watering down demands in the interest of short-term gains” and that “such a platform contributes to a muddled understanding of what socialism really is.” This sure sounds like sour grapes towards a political competitor, coming from a tendency that uncritically hailed the bourgeois nationalist Hugo Chávez for leading Venezuela to socialism, and which shares SA’s historical addiction to the parliamentary path.
On the other side, some left organizations have denounced Sawant’s campaign. The Internationalist Group (IG) criticized the CWI’s record and Sawant’s reformist platform – but also, in the cynical tradition of the Spartacist League that the IG descends from, felt compelled to distort facts in order to pad their case. In citing Sawant’s speech to Boeing workers, the IG said of her reported call on workers to seize the plants: “Not so. What she actually called for is for ‘Boeing to be under democratic public ownership by workers, by the community.’ That is something quite different from workers control.”
So? Every account of her speech says she called for a factory take-over by the workers. For all its correct and incorrect criticisms, the IG did not try to find a way to relate to the thousands of working-class people attracted by Sawant’s campaign by giving critical support. And offering an obvious misrepresentation of what she said in a heavily publicized speech is no way to convince her supporters that her campaign had serious shortcomings.
The World Socialist Web Site has an even worse record of dealing dishonestly with other organizations on the left. The WSWS holds that unions are nothing but anti-working-class agents of capitalism; in this case it cited as evidence that the leaders of the International Association of Machinists supported the deal that Boeing demanded – without even noting that the Boeing local was opposed. So they wrote that “Sawant participated in a rally called by the IAM, declaring her solidarity with the union” – as if this meant she was siding with the International against the workers! The WSWS’s transparent lie is worthy of the bourgeois gutter press and undermines the credibility of accurate criticisms from the left.
Sawant’s victory, despite her reformist campaign and her centrist organization was a step forward for the working class responding to the decades-long capitalist carnage. Such a success can help in building a revolutionary leadership, even if the immediate beneficiary is a political organization that disdains working for revolution.
Going forward, Sawant and Socialist Alternative could take the high road. This means that she becomes a true people’s champion, saying what is necessary, not allowing parliamentary games to get in the way of delivering a scalding message about capitalism’s decadence and the need for socialism. Given the nature of the CWI and its particular penchant for legislative and electoral maneuvers, we don’t expect this to happen.
A more likely scenario would be that if the struggle grows, the Sawant camp could be driven to tack leftward and carry out in some ways the militant promise of their victory. Such a turn could cost Sawant a good amount of her liberal backing and lead to a short stay at the City Council. On the other hand, a strong left turn could have a galvanizing effect, both locally and beyond, and create real possibilities for a higher level of class struggle. If she ends up being a “one-shot wonder,” as one of her supporters warned, better to be remembered as a thorn in the side of the political establishment and a beacon for building a new world.
However, Sawant and Socialist Alternative have already missed opportunities afforded by their victory to stand out as consistent champions of working-class struggles. If this direction continues, it could sour the enthusiasm of her working-class supporters and reduce the name of “socialism” to a program of mild reforms. We hope this does not happen. As Trotsky noted in the 1920’s, Stalin’s betrayal of the Chinese revolution would not fundamentally benefit genuine Bolsheviks, even if Stalinism had been thereby exposed; the demoralization wrought by that revolution’s defeat would overwhelm whatever enlightenment the most advanced workers gained. Likewise, a betrayal by Sawant would set back the cause of socialism generally.
One immediate result of Sawant’s election has been to spur talk of further socialist campaigns. Socialist Alternative has called for others to follow its example:
“We have popularized socialist ideas, further exposed the Democrats as beholden to big business, helped build local movements from below, and demonstrated the huge potential for independent politics in local races. We hope this victory inspires others to run independent left challenges all across the country in 2014 and 2015, as an important step toward the formation of a new, genuine political alternative for the millions, not the millionaires.”
There has already been the formation of a Chicago Socialist Campaign to plan for upcoming mayoral and aldermanic elections against the Democratic machine of Rahm Emanuel. There is talk of campaigns in New York as well. But some of the “progressives” involved want to run in Democratic primaries, hoping to push the party to the left. Others oppose this Democratic route but are not firm about keeping their campaigns separate from the milder but still-capitalist Green Party. As we have seen, SA is not clear that its proposed “political alternative” must be a working-class-based party.
Until now, most far-left electoral campaigns in recent memory have been propagandistic in intent, taking advantage of the opportunity elections offer to get a wider audience for socialist ideas but not expecting to run competitive races. The Socialist Alternative successes in 2013 may change this tradition, and that may mean that other left groups will drop their revolutionary rhetoric and shift rightward in order to adapt to SA’s method. However, the main task for communists in the U.S. today remains winning a nucleus of revolutionary-minded workers and youth to the program of socialist revolution and the construction of a revolutionary party. It would be a disaster to bypass this crucial layer in order to corral mass support on the basis of a moderately “socialist” political program that does not lead to doing away with capitalism and its state.
1. See ‘The Workers Should Take Over the Factory!’: Newly-Elected Socialist Has Some Radical Ideas for Seattle; and Socialist Seattle Councilmember Says Boeing Workers Should Take Over Factory - Hit & Run Blog: Reason.com.
2. See Battle over Seattle on this site.
3. “On Register’s Other Side, Little Money to Spend,” New York Times, November 29, 2013.
4. Pew Research Center, Little Change in Public’s Response to ‘Capitalism,’ ‘Socialism’
5. Socialist Alternative, Nov.-Dec. 2013; see also Help When It Counts the Most - Only One Week Left!, votesawant.org
6. Peter Taaffe, Review: Lenin’s Revolutionary Legacy.
7. The Case for Kshama Sawant, by Goldy; The Stranger, September 25
8. See for example various postings on our Revolutionary Transit Worker web page
9. For an in-depth analysis, see the LRP pamphlet by Evelyn Kaye, Fight Police Terror! No Support to Capitalism’s Racist Anti-Worker Police!.
10. The CWI’s group in Britain is known for this position on the police. See e.g. Marxism vs. “Militant’ Reformism” – The CWI’s Kautskyan Caricature of Trotskyism, International Bolshevik Tendency, 18 May 2008
11. See $15 minimum wage rally: “No phasing in” — Sawant, January 12, 2014. Also Kshama Sawant ‘throwing down the gauntlet’ over minimum wage on February 15.
12. “The Case for Kshama Sawant,” cited above.
13. Seattle’s newest councilwoman vows minimum wage rises to $15, by Maria Guerrero, KIRO-TV, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014
14. A Rare Elected Voice for Socialism Pledges to Be Heard in Seattle, New York Times, Dec. 28, 2013
15. Statement from Kshama Sawant on Mayor-Elect Murray’s Minimum Wage Advisory Committee, December 19, 2013
16. See Election Victories for Socialist Alternative – Huge Opportunities for Working-Class Politics Must be Seized, November 6, 2013. The same claim was made in Sawant’s campaign literature; e.g., Majority of King County Labor Council Votes to Endorse Sawant
17. A socialist on the Seattle City Council?; Vote Kshama Sawant and Ty Moore for City Council!; Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative unseats Seattle Democrat; Socialist elected to Seattle city council; A Socialist in City Council; The Improbable Victory of Kshama Sawant
18. A web search on the Socialist Alternative site for the words “Boeing” and “Sawant” occurring in the same article turns up nothing after the November reports of her post-election speech.
19. Militant International Review No. 22, p28; cited in Militant’s peaceful parliamentary road by Stephen Foster and Mark Hoskisson, Permanent Revolution No. 8, Spring 1989.
20. See our article “Democratic Party Advocates Found ‘Labor Party’,” in Proletarian Revolution No. 52.
21. See the devastating analyses of Nader in our articles “Ralph Nader’s Corporate Campaign,” in Proletarian Revolution No. 61 (2000); and “Nader: Saving Capitalist America from Itself,” in Proletarian Revolution No. 62 (2001). Also available is our pamphlet “The Nader Hoax: How the ‘Socialist’ Left Promotes a Liberal Who’s Pro-War, Pro-Capitalist, Nationalist, Couldn’t Care Less About Black People, and Is Happy to Have Immigrants Around As Long As They’re Only Cleaning Toilets.”
22. Occupy Wall Street: A Marxist Assessment.
23. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote that “The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class.” That is, the revolution that creates workers’ states (in which the proletariat is the ruling class) is made by the working class.
24. Quoted in Militant’s peaceful parliamentary road by Stephen Foster and Mark Hoskisson; Permanent Revolution No. 8, Spring 1989. Similar statements about a “peaceful socialist transformation” are all over the CWI’s website.
25. See ABOUT SA, www.socialistalternative.org.
26. For our take on the Wisconsin events, see Stop the War on the Working Class! Battle Line Drawn in Wisconsin (March 8, 2011); After Wisconsin, Attacks on Unions Mount (Proletarian Revolution, Spring 2011); Wisconsin: A Tale of Betrayal (April 1, 2011)
27. On McEllrath, see for example ILWU Local 21 Victory in Sight – Longview Port Workers Set Example for All Labor. As to Socialist Alternative’s coverage, their website has been changed so previously available postings no longer appear. There were, however, two references to McEllrath’s role in the longshore conflicts still on the CWI website – both of them sympathetic to his role. See The trade unions and the occupy movement and Longshore workers dump grain, shut down ports.
28. Summarized from the account in the book The March of Militant by Michael Crick (1986) and contemporary British left sources.
29. Election 2013 and the Changing Mood in America, Socialist Appeal, November 18
30. The ISO had scorned Sawant’s 2012 campaign as a “shoestring effort” (The left and the vote in 2012). But it made an opportunist 180-degree flip in 2013: A socialist on the Seattle City Council?. The others: Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative unseats Seattle Democrat (FSP); Socialist elected to Seattle city council (Socialist Action); A Socialist in City Council, (Solidarity)
31. Vote Kshama Sawant and Ty Moore for City Council!
32. Election 2013 and the Changing Mood in the USA
33. “Socialist” Elected in Seattle on Platform of Liberal/Populist Reforms
34. Socialist Alternative candidate wins in Seattle City Council election
35. How a Socialist Candidate Won an Election in Seattle Socialist Alternative, Nov.-Dec. 2013