Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Debate: LaBotz vs. DSA on the Question of the Democrats

See here. LaBotz hits the nail on the head by making the following points:
The chief political difference between you and me and between the DSA and some others on the left with whom I identify (Solidarity, ISO, and the Socialist Party) is the nature of the Democratic Party. This is a question both of one’s theory as well as of one’s attitude toward the Democratic Party. It is a theoretical question, but also a question of whether or not one takes an active role in creating an independent alternative to the Democratic Party as part of the process of building an independent party of working people.

I and other like me believe that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party. We argue that capitalists provide much of the financing, leadership, program, and a significant portion of the higher level cadres of the Democratic Party. I have not found in the DSA position papers any serious analysis of the Democratic Party and its role in American politics, nothing comparable, for example, to ISO member Lance Selfa’s The Democratic Party: A Critical Analysis and nothing comparable to the papers on the Democrats and elections found on the Solidarity website.

Since we believe that the Democratic Party belongs to another class, we believe that it is impossible for the working class to wage a fight to control the Democratic Party or to use it successfully for its own class objectives. More important, we believe that working class, labor union, and social movement participation in the Democratic Party inhibits the political self-development of working people and the movements, making it impossible for them to figure out who their leaders are and what their program should be. We therefore reject participation in the Democratic Party and refuse to work in its campaigns.

Duhalde tries to deflect some of the criticism of his group by emphasizing that there is diversity of views within the DSA on whether to support the Democrats in certain contexts. But even if we grant that, the more general political (or, if you like, "theoretical") problems that LaBotz points out remain. The DSA does not (at least, not that I've noticed--feel free to point out a counter-example) offer trenchant analyses of the basic function of the Democratic Party in US capitalism. In being so closely tethered to the Democrats the DSA fails to create sufficient space for working people to debate genuine alternatives, and thereby retards the political self-development and confidence of the 99%.


Anonymous said...

Pink Scare: Never saw anything by a DSAer that situates the Democratic Party in the context of class struggle? Three pieces I've written [and I'm Michael Hirsch-I don't use Google mail or your other options] are on the New Politics site: http://newpol.org/node/322 deals directly with the issue; two others, http://newpol.org/node/516 and http://www.newpol.org/node/571touch on it as well. Agree or disagree, but DSA doesn't see the party as anything but a neoliberal prop. The issue isn't whether the Democratic Party is a "capitalist" party (it is!) or a mousetrap for the unwary (what politics isn't?) or something to be "captured" (who cares if it's captured or superceded? Both sound great to me). The issue is what an active left electoral politics looks like in corporate America today and what the social movements, including labor, can do to effect an electoral face. Today, the possibilities of turning the Democratic Party left are few to none,, but the advocacy of third parties is also a nonstarter--for restrictive legal and other reasons-and one that doesn't transcend the propagandistic. I want a workers party, too. That will come from struggle, from taking the fight to the neoliberals, and not (certainly not just)from cataloguing horror stories about awful Democrats, which to me is what Lance Selfa mainly accomplishes in his book. We can have the same discussion about the Labour Party, which is pretty awful and whose leader's scabbing on the Nov. strike action was contemptible, but it begs the question of where do class-conscious militants work, if they work electorally at all. To me, LaBotz (whom I've known warmly for years and consider an outstanding class fighter)is focusing on the party as an institution rather than on party activists as an area for work. This is a long discussion, and not--right or wrong-- nearly so simple as you say. Dan didn't score a slam dunk, or do more than attempt a handsome lay-up; I wish you'd acknowledged that.

Anonymous said...

And one older one. http://newpol.org/node/199

-Mike Hirsch

David S. Duhalde said...

I would encourage people to read my letter because Pink Scare misses my most important argument. The major flaw with Dan's first article was its picture of DSA. I presented clear facts that DSA is not highly focused on moving the Democratic Party to the left as it once was. We support progressive candidates occasionally, but dozens of our locals do next to nothing around electoral politics. I had issue with Dan's out of date view, not if Democrats are capitalist or not. I also feel it is rather hyperbolic to state that any socialist group today could "retard" working class political self development. Socialists would have to much greater influence than they do now for that to happen. Those complaints aside, thanks for posting the exchange.

t said...

@Mike Hirsch: First of all, thank you for your thoughtful comments, and thanks for reading the blog. I'm eager to take a look at your pieces in New Politics. I agree with much of what you say. But, pending those pieces you linked me to, I still stand by my claim that I haven't seen any DSA literature that criticizes the basic function of the Democrats in US capitalism. The Democrats today are a key part of the stability of US capitalism precisely because they are able to credibly pose as a party of reform. Moreover, as a key part of the two-party system, they are able to position themselves as a lesser-evil even when they fail to appear as a credible reformist element. They've always played this role. They are the graveyard of progressive social movements. As such, the Left should be fiercely independent of them and their co-opting, movement-deflating tendencies. As I say, I haven't yet seen DSA making this argument.

You say that the main issue is what an active left electoral politics would look like today. I disagree. I think the electoral system in the US is itself a non-starter by and large. The lion's share of our energies as leftists should be spent strengthening social movements--particularly labor--capable of acting independently of the Democrats. I have no principled objection to electoral interventions. But I think the experience of the Left in the US shows rather clearly that the Democrats are a dead-end. The movements that have been most successful in pushing electoral politics Left were independent of the two major parties (and usually, in fact, opposed to both of them as well). As I say, I'm not taking an abstract anti-electoralist position. If a viable third party came along that could do serious damage to the two-party straitjacket I would support it. But given that there is not such option, and given that the Democrats do far more harm to the left than good, I think the only responsible thing to do is to build the movements and argue for independence from the Democrats. I have a couple of recent posts on this blog re: occupy, the 2012 elections, and the role of the left. I'd love to get your feedback if possible!

t said...

@David S Duhalde: Thanks for your comments. I take your point that LaBotz's first article may not have taken seriously the fact that many younger members of the DSA are less friendly to the Democrats than the old guard. I thought LaBotz did a reasonable job of back-tracking on those points in this reply to your letter. But, as I say in comments above, I still don't think that the DSA does as good of a job as Solidarity and the ISO in clarifying the role of the Democrats in US capitalism. I don't see the same clear political stand in favor of independence from the Democratic Party. I don't see anything like Lance Selfa's "The Democrats: A Critical History" coming from the DSA.

I think you're right that the socialist left doesn't have the kind of influence it once had within the labor movement. But I don't think its hyperbole to say that problematic views re: the role of the Democrats can hold back the class. This happens all the time: think of the way in which the union bureaucrats always corral everyone back to the Democrats around election time--regardless of what the prospects are for actually exacting concessions from them. To the extent that Left groups help consolidate this problem, they are holding back--I would even say "retarding the political self-development of"--the working class.

Unions only enjoy the institutionalized, cozy-with-the-dems status they do because of militant, extra-electoral struggle. The union bureaucrats, most of whom are attached at the hip to Democrats, can't even hold the line; all they can do is find creative ways to slow the decline of the labor movement. To even maintain the status quo in this era it is obvious that serious extra-electoral pressure is needed. Once the capacity for independent, militant struggle evaporates, so does the bargaining power of labor to extract concessions from the Democrats and their ruling class backers. If we encourage the illusion that some Democrats are on the side of the working-class, we obscure the fact that class struggle is the main engine of social change. A strongly electoral focus in the US tends to cause Left movements to wither on the vine. And even strategic focuses on certain electoral intervention have to be seen as nothing but strategic. The left simply cannot take the electoral system in the US at face value and expect that it can deliver genuine radical social transformation from below. It's not set up to do that; on the contrary, it's set up to foreclose such a possibility. I think the revolutionary examples of Tunisia and Egypt provide us with a far more plausible and inspiring picture of social change.

David S. Duhalde said...

@ Pink Scare: Here where the confusion was about "retarding." Your last sentence read that DSA alone enervates working-class self-activity, when you meant that supporting Democrats as an action does (not just DSA I assume, but anyone). I thought you meant just DSA, so I felt your point was a bit exaggerated. Now that I see what you meant, I still disagree, but it makes more sense. - David Duhalde

Michael Hirsch said...

1-A concession to your comradely reply: You're right when you say "I haven't seen any DSA literature that criticizes the basic function of the Democrats in US capitalism." And you should, though I think the party, like trade unions, has more than one basic function. Because in another context--trade unionism--the left historically has looked at both functions. Gramsci for one was a major supporter of the Workers Council uprisings in Turin in 1919. He believed those democratic councils were acting in a specific historical contexts to transcend unions if not outrightly replace them. He even referred to unions as "nothing more than a form of capitalist society, not a potential successor to that society." They were not, and could not be, in your words, "fiercely independent." Yet in the same breath he saw trade unions as indispensible for maintaining and improving workers' conditions under capitalism. Did he contradict himself. I don't think so. Both statements are true. The Democratic Party situation is analogous. The party has been at best an inconsistent vehicle for nonradical reform since 1932. It is also more firmly controlled by capital and its paid agents than even the most lap-cat-like union. The working class character of the party is also far more muted than is that of the worst labor organization. But yes, you are right in this sense: the Democrats do need the same sort of exhaustive, multilayered and fine-grined analysis as the unions have received from we lefties over a century at least. You and I may disagree on the conclusions of that analysis, but I think we agree it hasn't yet been given the level of critical attention it deserves, and by neither side of this divide.

2- A correction: You took a remark of mine out of context. Let me put the context back. I wrote, "The issue isn't whether the Democratic Party is a "capitalist" party (it is!) or a mousetrap for the unwary (what politics isn't?) or something to be "captured" (who cares if it's captured or superceded? Both sound great to me). The issue is what an active left electoral politics looks like in corporate America today and what the social movements, including labor, can do to effect an electoral face." You mistook that to mean that the main issue in my mind for the left is what an active left electoral politics would look like today." You then righty disagreed. So do I! I don't think the main issue for the left is electoral action; it's movement building that is is key, and I emphasized that in the two longer pieces I cited. It's also what DSA has said in numerous political statements. The problem for the US left is that we collectively do not have a political and electoral face because the movements and arent yet strong enough to generate one that complements and is an extension of their fights. In some ways we radicals reproduce the traditional capitalist division between economics and politics. We want the unions and the social movements to be class-struggle institutions, but we have no political face to complement that aim because we're not yet strong enough. Writing off, as you do in your reply, any electoral activity, even of the most modest sort (i.e.,working with the handful of decent-enough local electeds where they exist, lobbying and threatening the rest, keeping a door open to members of the Congressional Progressive Cause, and supporting the odd insurgent candidate in or out of the DP) is writing off one arena of activity that should never written off in principle, though in practice it provides slim pickings today. I hate the professional political class, too, but studiously ignoring any sort of electoral involvement anywhere is to me overkill.
'Nuff said.