In September of 2013 Socialist Alternative was mere months away from a radical breakthrough in city politics. However, the gains that were to be made were not without their own contradictions. Below I republish the criticism I wrote then, of Socialist Alternative’s General Election Campaign Plan for the Sawant city council run. In this document one can see that even one year prior to the Ferguson uprising, and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protest movement, race is still central. This was brought up exactly as part of the greater point on the social basis on which the election would base itself on. Unfortunately, the issues I raised below represented a minority opinion, primarily that of my own. The election campaign of Kshama continued it’s partial reliance on wealthier older White liberals, over seeking to develop a base in more specifically working class areas. To this day the actions of Socialist Alternative further this methodology, where we now see developing ties to various “progressive” Democrats (see prior posts on this blog).
Proposals on Political Clarity and Orientation for the Vote Sawant Campaign
1. Agitation and Propaganda
Agitation and propaganda are the hammer and sickle of Socialist activity, the two tools of the trade. Propaganda is the presentation of ideas, such as the exploitative nature of Capitalism, the universality and conditions of oppression in class society, and a generalized vision of an anti-Capitalist future. Agitation is the participation of socialists in the struggle of the working class, the putting forward of next steps, and sharpening the edge of movements through understanding of contradictions and intervention into them. In a generalized sense, propaganda is passive activity, whereas agitation is active. For most of the American Left’s history, and indisputably since the 1980’s, our work was relegated to nearly pure propaganda campaigns, with Socialists and other radicals existing on the margins of influence with the throwing askew of mass consciousness in the late 20th Century. However that era has passed, the Arab Spring and Occupy have opened the gates for on the ground agitation work to be done. This was the power of the $15/hr minimum wage demand, and exactly the power of clear and direct agitational activity. The low-wage workers campaign, led by the bureaucratic SEIU, had pinned as it’s leading demand appeals to the law around wage theft. However, by understanding the composition and internal struggle of that movement, we have succeeded in positioning the Sawant campaign as a player in that movement by pushing $15/hr harder than the “leadership,” thereby sharpening that movement’s fighting edge.
The draft Election Campaign Plan presented by the Seattle Executive Committee makes many good general points, with the first two sections covering a critique of the currently existing Socialist groups of antiquity, reminding members that the Sawant campaign has been an immense success already and is of great importance, and a reiteration that support for the campaign of course does not indicate clear affinity for communist revolution, but is of a confused (yet still positive) nature. Section two concludes with the last trend of sober assessing with the recognition that support thus far has been passive, rather than active. The task then given for us, is to “is to struggle to convert as much of this into an active support in the form of supporters agreeing to give leaflets and talk to people they know, donate, volunteer, and join Socialist Alternative.” This criticism of the most established of Left groups in Seattle (with the exception of ourselves)- the Green Party, ISO, and FSP- completely leaves out the question of why our success was guaranteed. To further praise our campaigning work so far, this difference was again on of agitation. Compare our election run to that of Mary Martin, SWP candidate for mayor. Martin ran as the SWP runs every year (and as the FSP has in the past), with a campaign extolling the wonders of Socialism against the oppression of the Capitalist system. In other words, a propaganda campaign.
Of course, the demand for a $15/hr minimum wage is in the abstract just as “real” as a demand for “Medicare for all” or to “bring the troops home.” However ideas can take on concreteness when they are driven by large social forces. It is the search for these social forces which will breathe on-the-street life into the campaign. That is our task, to not attach ourselves to any wider community is to embellish in the already acknowledged substitutionalism of the campaign’s last electoral run against Frank Chopp. These social forces are already clearly aligned in the case of the Ty Moore campaign in Minneapolis, where their run is in a single district and against the background of a longterm struggle against home foreclosures. The Seattle campaign, unfortunately, runs the risk of being swept up by one social group or another if we are not intentional and clearly directed in our activity. This direction is brought up by the SEC draft document, but hardly with the clarity necessary given the immense possibilities and responsibilities of this campaign. The document in a previous iteration did correctly state that “Kshama’s votes are most likely to come from self-identified progressives, the working class, people of color, women, students and youth, immigrants, and people on fixed incomes. Many of these constituencies have a poor record of voter turnout in off-year primaries, meaning that the campaign needs both to make a specific effort to increase voter registration and turnout in these demographics,” concluding under section 15 that the campaign “should concentrate in South Seattle and working-class neighborhoods in the general election” for door-knocking activities. However, while forward-thinking statements on there own, they were only a few lines within a much larger document which on the whole puts forward very little in terms of a clear approach to the next two months. Shockingly, all of this language was later stripped. A balanced approach should not be confused for the blank check that is being asked of the membership with this document in it’s presented state. Clarifying these questions serves to raise the theoretical and practical level of the rank-and-file, furthering the courage and ability to make independent revolutionary activity of each member.
The Seattle Executive Committee’s draft General Election Campaign Plan seemingly puts each question of geographical orientation, targets, goals, messaging, possibilities of winning, historical context etc., in it’s own distinct category, analyzed separately and supposedly even-handedly from the others. However, what is needed is clarity on the implications of each of these questions to the others. Instead, the document wavers in many sections in it’s politics. An excellent supportive piece published on www.WAliberals.org opened with the following lines “The strong showing of some 35% by Kshama Sawant in her race against Richard Conlin for Seattle City Council impressed many. Yet even fans such as the Stranger have failed to understand the actual nature of the political earthquake, resorting to exercises in vote counting that border on numerology.” This is to say that, instead of taking into full view the qualitative openings and possibilities of the campaign, “even fans” are confining themselves to a shallow quantitative analysis. Unfortunately this “numerology” seems to have also affected the writing of the Campaign Plan. Sections 3 through 5 are practically entirely quantitative; and- with a broad headline of “Seattle Politics Since 1997”- Section 4 is embarrassingly quantitative when this “history” only includes Capitalist election results! These sections are unnecessarily crude. Of course running the numbers is an important task in taking stock of results and prospects, however the numbers used in this document are superficial. Is there a breaking down of numbers by district, economic background, or social class? None whatsoever. Aside from the oft-cited recognition that primaries favor conservative voters in Sections 1 and 5, and a broadly applied reminder of the non-Socialist level of consciousness being counter-weights, the results are accepted as-is. What is needed from a General Election Campaign Plan, is an in depth, and self critical, analysis of our social support. Flowing from a lack of a critical mind, the Seattle Executive Committee dropped the references to the South End, in favor of geographical, social, and race-neutral language. This is dangerous.
2. Understanding Our Tasks, Understanding The Divide
Swedish comrade K.H. recently posted in the Vote Sawant Admin Facebook organizing group, in response to a discussion on language in relation to liberals, that “winning isn’t about being a better liberal than the liberals, although there’s an element of that, but about clearly presenting a socialist and anti-capitalist alternative. We have to be smart about it but we can’t not do it. A new workers’ party in the U.S isn’t just a party left of the Democrats it’s a fundamentally different party. We might not beat out Conlin in november. We certainly should strive to do so but I think the campaign’s goals are more long-term than that, whatever vote we get we have to use that support for the long-term. This is the win we are working towards. Now I don’t expect any of this to be news, comrades, but we have to be clear about it in our electoral work as well. Not that I don’t think you are but I am just making a longer point re dissing liberals. You don’t have to be a socialist to support the campaign but in the long-term we have to aim to win those who support us to socialism and mass struggle. This is why a socialist election campaign is different to other election campaigns. It’s about so much more than Position 2 in Seattle City Council.”
What I counter-pose to what was described in the the first half of this document, is a bold program of forming organizing roots, community ties, and grassroots legitimacy among those social groups most in favor of independent working-class activity, and ultimately, favorable towards Socialist ideas. In concrete terms this means the region struck from the draft Campaign Plan- South Seattle. This means door-knocking almost exclusively in the neighborhoods to the East and South of Capital Hill, the Central District, Beacon Hill, the Ranier Valley, and when possible, the Southern extent of West Seattle. Even when lackluster language was put forward vaguely in this direction, it carried with it the baggage of a certain fearfulness. This fear of the SEC, was that by orientating our activity solidly in the direction of the working-class of South Seattle, that we would lose this race. South Seattle are not the likely voters of Seattle, nor, as the SEC would tell us, was the primary election- and this is a good thing. The primary, as was pointed out, “has a more conservative electorate with only a 30% voter turnout,” yet the SEC only predicts a likely turnout of 54% for our race in the General Election, based on numerology from previous years. I would guess that these are not the most progressive 24% of voters being added, yet this is not dealt with. Hardly over half of registered voters actually vote, in the context of business-as-usual bourgeois candidate races, and these are silently accepted as our Socialist candidate constraints. We can break from the most bourgeois of expectations, such as those of The Seattle Time, by simply having radical populist rhetoric, which sets us apart from other candidates- forcing a layer of voters to sit up and pay attention, and to vote for our candidate. However, this still yet is not to fully take advantage of the situation, or understand our historical role. Again, this campaign must punctuate the difference between propaganda and agitation. Agitation requires activity of social forces. Starting from the analysis that likely registered are among the most conservative of voters, logically we must turn towards unlikely voters, as those who are most disillusioned and/or disenfranchised by the system, as our base. Unlikely voters can respond to agitation- in fact this was seen in the self-activation rhetoric of “Yes We Can” by the Obama elections runs. The South End voted overwhelmingly in favor of Obama, in both 2010 and 2012, however that pseudo-left vote didn’t translate directly to a generalized high Green Party vote. Other factors, such as race, of course played a large part (although that factor isn’t alien to our campaign), however the real lesson to be had here is the latent power of the South Seattle working-class in swaying elections. This has already been felt by establishment politicians in recent years. Current Mayor, and North-End resident, Mike McGinn had downplayed the South End just as much as his North-End residing opponent Mallahan in his initial run. However, after Hidmo organizers reached out to McGinn and hosted an event there for him to speak, did he then give much more importance to the region. It was off of this gained support did McGinn’s victory come.
Another matter, is one of the character of our organization. Nearly all-white (not to mention nearly all-male), with little organic roots to the working-class or their organizations. This election campaign offers us unparalleled (in the history of the Seattle branch) opportunities to reverse these realities. It is our duty to seize the time.