Workers Vanguard No. 1139
7 September 2018
DSA and Ocasio-Cortez: No Kind of Socialists
Democrats, Republicans: Class Enemies of Workers and Oppressed
We Need a Revolutionary Workers Party!
With her surprise victory over incumbent Joseph Crowley in the June Democratic Congressional primary, the Bronx’s 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), became an overnight media sensation. She has since been a regular feature of late-night talk shows and the liberal press, which view her and her cothinkers as a shot in the arm of the so-called resistance to Trump. The aim of Ocasio-Cortez and other DSA-backed candidates is to refurbish the Democrats’ image so as to better rope disaffected youth and workers back into the party, which, no less than the Republicans, represents the capitalist system of exploitation, racial oppression and imperialist war.
Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory is the centerpiece thus far of the various “progressive” challenges to the Democratic Party leadership following Trump’s election. Pennsylvania DSA members Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato won their primaries for seats in the state assembly, while Julia Salazar is challenging a 16-year incumbent for the New York State Senate. Also in New York, Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo is fending off a challenge from Sex and the City star and recently self-identified “democratic socialist” Cynthia Nixon.
The bulk of the Democratic leadership has responded to these challengers with barely concealed contempt, with House leader Nancy Pelosi admonishing people to not get “carried away” by Ocasio-Cortez’s victory: “They made a choice in one district.” For their part, Trump’s friends on Fox News have labeled Ocasio-Cortez “a communist” and “downright scary.” In a Fox News interview, Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis launched into a racist diatribe against Andrew Gillum, the black Democratic candidate supported by Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, warning voters not to “monkey this up” by electing Gillum.
Ocasio-Cortez, Nixon, et al. represent disgruntled elements in the Democratic Party who believe that victories in the midterm and the 2020 presidential elections require more than invented “Russiagate” scandals and the generic sales pitch of being less openly racist, anti-union and reactionary than Trump. The label “democratic socialist” has increasingly come to define liberal Democrats who still rally behind the party, but don’t fancy its establishment leadership.
The DSA-allied candidates have as much to do with socialism as biology courses at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University have to do with evolution. It is an indication of the extreme rightward shift in the Democratic Party and society more broadly that a group like the DSA, which has always been committed to the Democratic Party and to upholding imperialism, can be seen as socialist. A London Economist (1 September) article, “Shivering the Chains,” aptly remarked: “Perhaps the surest sign that American socialists are not revolutionaries is their willingness to work within the two-party system.” As with Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, the recent ascendance of these “democratic socialists” only serves to reinforce illusions in Democratic lesser-evilism and is an obstacle to the necessary struggle to forge a revolutionary workers party.
Making clear her allegiance to U.S. imperialism, Ocasio-Cortez eulogized the recently deceased Republican Senator John McCain, tweeting that his legacy represented “an unparalleled example of human decency and American service.” While causing uproar among her supporters, her gushing over a war criminal whose “service” included the slaughter of numerous Vietnamese, who declared, “I hate the gooks,” and who was fond of singing “bomb Iran” is not an aberration but consistent with her bourgeois program. On her campaign website, Ocasio-Cortez complains that U.S. intervention in the Near East and North Africa “damages America’s legitimacy as a force for good.” She calls to “repair our image”—i.e., to make U.S. imperialism more effective. Here, she is merely echoing her mentor, Sanders, who also called McCain an “American hero” and has a long history of supporting U.S. imperialism’s wars of conquest (see “Bernie Sanders: Imperialist Running Dog,” WV No. 1083, 12 February 2016).
Latching on to the demands of youth and workers who crave some relief from capitalist misery and austerity, Ocasio-Cortez calls for Medicare for all, a federal jobs guarantee, tuition-free public colleges and trade school education and abolition of private prisons. Her demand to “abolish ICE” amounts to resurrecting a version of its predecessor, the INS. She was clear that “abolish ICE” does not mean “abolish deportation.”
The reforms proposed by Ocasio-Cortez and her cothinkers are little more than hot air. We support reforms that benefit the working class and oppressed. But they are not won by electing “progressive” bourgeois politicians nor are they gained by appealing to some (imaginary) benevolent ruling class. Any significant gains—from unionization to black and women’s rights—have been wrested through hard-fought class and social struggle against the exploiters, their political parties and their state. What remains of these gains today continues to be ravaged in the bosses’ one-sided class war enabled by the pro-capitalist union bureaucracy, including DSA labor misleaders, which has long abandoned the class-struggle means through which the unions were built and channels labor discontent into voting for Democrats. Facing little struggle, the bourgeoisie sees no reason to enact a series of beneficial reforms.
Socialism: What It Is
and How to Fight for It
Recent victories by DSA-supported politicians have spawned numerous articles about what socialism is, mostly to express relief that what Ocasio-Cortez and her cohorts represent has nothing to do with the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks were genuine socialists who fought for and achieved a revolutionary transformation of society. As Karl Marx put it in his 1850 “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League,” the purpose of socialists “cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.”
Marxism is based on the understanding that society is fundamentally divided between classes: the working class, whose labor produces the wealth of society, and the tiny class of capitalist exploiters who own the means of production and finance. The reformists promote the lie that capitalism can be made to operate in the interest of the working and oppressed masses. The capitalists are represented by their parties—in the U.S., that means the Democrats, the Republicans and small-time parties like the Greens. The capitalist state and its machinery of repression, like the police, exist to preserve bourgeois rule.
Democracy under capitalism is a facade used by the bourgeoisie to obscure its class dictatorship. As Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin wrote in 1918: “Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor.” We do not give political support to any capitalist politician or party; to do so would subordinate the interests of working people and the oppressed to the class enemy.
We champion the fight for union jobs at good wages; for quality, fully government-funded health care for all; for free, quality education for all at all levels; for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. Our purpose is to link such demands to building a multiracial revolutionary workers party committed to a socialist future through workers revolution. International working-class rule will lay the basis for rationally planned economies based on production for need, not profit, and for qualitative development of the productive forces, opening the road to the elimination of scarcity and to the creation of an egalitarian society.
Break with the Democrats!
Ocasio-Cortez’s socialist veneer is so thin as to be see-through. As she herself explained, her views are rooted in Democratic Party history, drawing on the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). “It’s time to own that our party was the one of the Great Society, of the New Deal, of the Civil Rights Act. That’s our party. That’s who we are.” This sentiment was echoed by prominent DSA spokesman and Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara who published an article in the Guardian (1 September) titled, “What’s Your Solution to Fighting Sexism and Racism? Mine Is: Unions.” In it, he yearns for the Democratic Party to go back to “its promises of shared prosperity and equality” under FDR, which he argues laid the basis for the growth of the unions.
FDR was forced to grant New Deal concessions because of the tumultuous class battles of the early 1930s, with key strikes led by reds (see Spartacist pamphlet Then and Now). His aim was to put a lid on class struggle, stabilize U.S. capitalism in the face of the Great Depression and lull workers into believing that the government would act on their behalf. Legislation like the 1935 Wagner Act was meant to bring mass union organizing drives under the machinery of government control. Sunkara paints FDR’s New Deal as “anti-racism.” In fact, it was a pact between Northern liberals and the racist Dixiecrats, who imposed lynch-mob terror on the black masses in the South.
Likewise, LBJ’s “Great Society” reforms came as a result of the massive struggles of the civil rights movement. With plebeian uprisings erupting in places like Harlem and Watts, the Johnson administration enacted legislation, such as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, which have since been whittled away, in order to co-opt civil rights leaders and quell the upheavals. While legal segregation was done away with, the socioeconomic conditions for the majority of black people today are comparable to those prior to the civil rights movement. During the civil rights movement, Michael Harrington, an anti-communist who would go on to found the DSA, worked overtime to keep protest within the confines of the Democratic Party. He was a member of the LBJ administration’s bogus “War on Poverty” task force while the government escalated the dirty, losing war in Vietnam and crushed black militants through FBI COINTELPRO operations.
In his Guardian article mentioned above, Sunkara notes: “Unlike other countries, the United States didn’t have its own labor party.” The U.S. is indeed the only advanced capitalist country that has never had a mass workers party that represents even a deformed expression of working-class political independence. The fundamental reason for that is black oppression, which is the bedrock of American capitalism. The capitalist masters have used racism to pit workers against one another in order to divide and rule their wage slaves. At the same time, the shell game through which the Democratic Party is promoted as the “friend” of blacks and labor has been essential to preserving racist American capitalism.
As for the DSA, it has more than a little responsibility for the sorry state of the labor movement today. The DSA was involved in one of labor’s biggest defeats during the 1981 PATCO air traffic controllers strike. When President Reagan fired the workforce of 12,000, we called on the unions to shut down the airports, which there was sentiment among the workers to do. But William “Wimpy” Winpisinger, a DSA leader and the president of the IAM machinists union, which included airline mechanics, refused to call for solidarity labor action, selling out the strikers.
The unions need a new leadership, one based on class struggle not class collaboration. Such a task requires a political fight against the labor bureaucracy and the likes of the DSA, who act as the agents of the bosses inside the union movement. The struggle to revitalize the unions must be integrally linked to forging a workers party that acts as the tribune of the people. Such a party will fight to mobilize the social power of the multiracial working class in defense of all victims of capitalist oppression as part of the struggle for proletarian revolution, which will lay the basis for the liberation of black people and all the oppressed.
Beware Pro-Democratic Party Hustlers
Since its founding, the DSA has been an extension of the Democrats’ voting machine. It has loyally supported every Democratic Commander-in-Chief, including Bill Clinton, who escalated the racist “war on drugs” and gutted welfare, and Barack Obama, who bailed out Wall Street at the expense of working people, reveled in assassination by drone and deported an unprecedented number of immigrants.
Over the past two years, the DSA has grown substantially, now boasting more than 50,000 members. This has sparked an internal debate on whether to “realign” (take over) the Democratic Party, exit their host or leave things as they are. Looming behind this controversy is the fact that the DSA’s membership growth is due to Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez garnering attention precisely because they were running on Democratic Party tickets.
While the DSA has long been openly riding the Democratic bus, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Socialist Alternative (SAlt) serve as its spare tires. Having spent months doing donkey work for Sanders in 2016, SAlt now boasts of having “worked with the Ocasio-Cortez campaign” (socialistalternative.org, 2 July). After explicitly calling for a vote to Julia Salazar, SAlt incredulously encourages “Salazar to more clearly warn her supporters that the Democratic Party, as a whole, is a barrier to socialist change” (socialistalternative.org, 21 August). This as they assiduously reinforce that same “barrier.”
No less effusive, but a little more cagey, the ISO has carried out its own debate on its website on whether to openly endorse “progressive” Democrats (“dirty break”) or maintain a fig leaf of “independence” (“clean break”). A piece on socialistworker.org (6 August) by one Eric Blanc enthuses that socialists “can, under certain conditions, effectively use the Democratic Party ballot line,” which he argues “isn’t a question of principle.”
In response, ISO honcho Alan Maass laid down the party line—sort of: “It is a principle to not support Democratic Party candidates—or at least a conclusion that is directly related to the principle of working class independence” (socialistworker.org, 8 August). Given that the ISO celebrated the Ocasio-Cortez victory as “a testament to the appeal of a left political alternative,” Blanc and others are simply taking such excitement to its logical conclusion. Why buy the pompoms if you can’t join the cheerleading squad? Underlining that the “clean break” vs. “dirty break” debate is not based on any principle, the ISO is once again supporting the New York gubernatorial campaign of Howie Hawkins on the capitalist Green Party ticket in a safely Democratic blue state.
For New October Revolutions!
Militant youth and workers who want a society free of oppression and exploitation should look to the example of the 1917 Russian Revolution led by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, which expropriated the capitalist class and landlords and established a workers state. Anti-communist to their core, the “democratic socialists” are motivated by hostility to the Russian Revolution. As we elaborated in “DSA: Democratic Party ‘Socialists’” (WV No. 1113, 2 June 2017), the newfound popularity of groups like the DSA comes in the context of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union and East European deformed workers states, a momentous defeat for working people and the oppressed worldwide. Pummeled by the bourgeoisie’s “death of communism” propaganda for nearly three decades, left-leaning activists largely perceive Marxism to have been a failed experiment.
DSA founder Michael Harrington earned his stripes leading radicalized youth away from Marxism during his time in the Socialist Party, which acted as loyal servants of the U.S. government during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Later, as the U.S. waged war to crush Vietnam’s insurgent workers and peasants, Harrington echoed the counterrevolutionary drive of the imperialists, stating, “I am anti-communist on principle—because I am pro-freedom.”
The line between social democracy and communism is drawn in blood: In January 1919, amid the struggle to extend the Russian Revolution to Germany, revolutionary leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were assassinated by reactionary military forces at the behest of the Social Democratic government. Today, the DSA, ISO and other progeny of those who drowned Luxemburg’s revolutionary struggle in blood like to cite her as an authority. But she could have been writing about them when she noted in her 1900 work Reform or Revolution that those who push “legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modification of the old society.”