A Dirty Break orients us toward building a workers’ party that can carry out the crucial task of class formation.
Building a mass workers’ party, independent of capital and deeply rooted in working-class communities, remains one of the most important tasks facing the socialist movement.
There are varying views within DSA on the best path forward in these party-building efforts. While there are many camps in this debate, from those seeking to realign the Democratic Party via engaging in official party structures, to those seeking to break from the party immediately, the two predominant views that seem to have garnered the most support among the cadre layer in DSA are the Dirty Break and the Indefinite Party Surrogate (IPS) — I’m using this term because the strategy calls for building a “Party Surrogate” without its own ballot line as a goal in itself as opposed to building a Party Surrogate as a purposeful step toward another goal like realigning or breaking from the Dems.
The Dirty Break Strategy and the Indefinite Party Surrogate (IPS) share many characteristics and mainly differ in long-term orientation. They both argue that, in the immediate term, we should contest Democratic primaries, and also non-partisan and third party races where feasible, all the while building up our own independent forces and party organizations.
But the Dirty Break argues that we should carry out these processes with an orientation toward creating the proper conditions for a split within the Democratic Party, either via us being thrown out or leaving. The end goal here is to have a party and ballot line separate from corporate forces.
The IPS, on the other hand, as Brad C. recently argued in The Organizer, claims that a split is one of many potential outcomes, others including a scenario in which our Party Surrogate co-exists indefinitely with the Democratic Party establishment on their ballot line. IPS advocates argue that socialists should be agnostic between these and any other imaginable outcomes. To them, focusing on a separate ballot line is a distraction since a ‘break’ scenario and an ‘indefinite co-existence’ are equally desirable.
But, contrary to the claims made by supporters of the IPS, a workers’ party competing on a separate ballot line from the forces of capital is actually a goal worth fighting for explicitly. This is because an independent working-class party would confront the forces of capital (both its liberal and conservative wings) head-on. In doing so, it would help build a class-conscious working class which recognizes that it has different needs and therefore requires a different strategy than liberal capitalists and middle-class politics. Building this consciousness is part of the process we call “class formation” — and a party independent from capitalists is an essential tool in advancing that process.
Problems for Class Formation
In our current electoral races in the Democratic Party, our campaign materials often say “Democrat for…” or some iteration of that phrase. The first question often heard while canvassing is “are they a Democrat?” the implication being if you answer ‘no’ the person would refuse to support them. Our candidates promoting themselves as Democrats probably does increase their vote count, which on its own is a good thing.
But it can also get in the way of class formation, which we should consider a co-equal goal in our electoral work along with winning the race. Class formation is the process by which workers, who might hold many different and complex identities, begin to view “working-class” as their primary social position through which they relate to others in struggle. Class formation should be a central goal of socialist organizing because, unless the working class is united across the country, self-conscious of its interests and its power, and organizing massive struggles against the capitalist class, we will not win a transition to democratic socialism. Only in this way can socialism be achieved as an act of self-emancipation by the working class — millions acting in concert to bring about social transformation on the basis of their shared class position.
Inherent in a strategy focused on class formation is a politics of conflict, bringing workers together to engage in class war against capital. While our current primary battles within the Democratic Party can be conflictual, the extent to which the conflict trickles down to our potential working-class base is somewhat limited by sharing a ballot line because we ultimately share a “brand” with our class enemies. Most working-class voters and non-voters probably do not primarily identify our candidates as distinct from the Democratic Party, even in districts where we consistently win, and instead probably view them simply as more progressive or anti-corporate Democrats.
Our current strategy — running socialist candidates within the Democratic Party and signaling their affiliation with the party to potential voters — has been incredibly successful in spreading socialist ideas and propelling socialist candidates into office. But that association might make it hard for those not already politically engaged to distinguish us from the Democratic establishment. This is okay in the short term where our main goals have been to project socialist politics into the mainstream, build socialist organization, establish our infrastructure, and elect candidates with working-class agendas. But we also need to think about how to deepen and expand on this work.
Our electoral work has made some advances in class formation, most notably Senator Bernie Sanders’s two presidential runs, which clearly increased the number of workers engaging in self-directed struggle. This was because presidential campaigns have a far greater audience than the low-turnout primaries we have been successful in at the local level. Also, while Sanders ran in the Democratic primary, he is viewed as a uniquely independent political figure and somewhat distinct from the Democratic Party due to his decades-long career as an Independent in office.
But, despite these advances, attempts at class formation are limited by the absence of a separate ballot line that forces workers to choose on Election Day between voting Democrat, Republican, or Socialist. While a ballot line does not make a party, and most of our party-building efforts won’t have to do with ballot lines, any serious electorally-minded political party needs to have one because it forces all voters (not just Democratic primary voters) to make this very simple and important choice.
Importantly, a focus on class formation does not eschew the need to organize against identity-based forms of oppression. In fact, creating a coherent working class political actor necessitates addressing the various oppressions that different workers face — such as racism and sexism — in order to coalesce them into a single political project. Historically, workers’ parties have been the primary organizations that have carried out the process of class formation, and unions have also played a central role.
Class formation and the Dirty Break
If our only goal in electoral work is to win office, then it would make sense to continue signaling affiliation with the Democratic Party given that it increases vote count amongst progressive working-class voters. But continuing this strategy indefinitely would blunt the impact of our electoral efforts on organizing our voter base to view themselves more and more politically independent from the Democrats, which in turn undermines the ability of a class-conscious working-class movement to fight against both the liberal and conservative wings of capital.
On the other hand, if we view socialist electoral efforts as an opportunity to organize workers — those who participate in Democratic primaries but also the millions more who don’t — into political struggle and view a separate ballot line from the forces of capital as a strategic long-term goal, we should take an approach that emphasizes greater class independence. This might take many forms, such as foregrounding socialist identification in campaign materials (i.e. “democratic socialist for…” instead of “democrat for…”) or agitating that workers deserve their own party. Other tactics that increase class independence, shared to varying degrees and in different flavors by both a Dirty Break orientation and the IPS, are building our own electoral and fundraising apparatuses and subordinating individual campaigns to those bodies, developing candidate pipeline programs, increasing coordination between DSA and our electeds and their work in the state, and intentionally experimenting with non-partisan races.
Using our electoral campaigns to emphasize greater class independence has close overlaps with our rank-and-file labor work since DSA rank-and-file activists could get their unions to endorse and campaign for socialist candidates. This too is conflictual because many union leaderships, against whom our rank-and-file activists would be organizing, have close relationships with the Democratic Party. Building labor’s political independence from the bottom up by forcing a stark choice between corporate Democrats and socialists is a necessary part of a party-building project.
Conventional wisdom says that things like not identifying with the Democrats or agitating for a workers’ party might hurt our immediate-term electoral chances. This might be true, but it also might not — conventional wisdom also says that running as an open socialist hurts our electoral chances. In chapters that haven’t run a single race, they should focus far more on building their own electoral apparatuses and training electoral cadres than thinking about ballot lines.
But, in chapters like New York or Chicago, where we have built really strong electoral bodies, we should experiment with messaging, materials, and forms of organizing that emphasize class independence from the Democratic Party. Expanding and deepening our current electoral work doesn’t mean taking a sectarian approach. Instead, it means a commitment to experimentation and flexibility — a willingness to try new things. If we want to win socialism, we need a mass workers’ party that both wins elections and carries out class formation. A Dirty Break orients us toward that goal.
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