Talking to people day in and day out who are dealing with the social fallout of capitalism in the United States, it is easy to see the potential socialist right beneath the surface. The tenant who is being forced out of their home for no reason besides their landlord’s desire for bigger margins. The workers who haven’t been paid in weeks. The youth chased off street corners by police called in by anxious business owners.
But getting a person from understanding that our society is cruel and exploitative — which comes naturally — to being ready to fight for a complete break with, and overturning of, the system is not as easy. People are complicated; they’re situated within an entire web of complex relationships — their church, their families, businesses, social and political organizations. While they might see something as unfair, they may be more willing to want to “fix” it than to completely eliminate it. In other words, even when many of us understand we are being cheated, we also can be suspicious of the unknown — and what it may take to get through the wilderness to the other side.
Socialism, unlike the more general progressivism and liberalism next to which it is assumed to sit on the political spectrum, deals in contradictions, deals with the opposition between things. Socialists (and particularly Marxists) see capital and labor as opposed to each other by definition. Capital exists because of the exploitation and hyperexploitation of labor. It only exists because of the exploitation of work and workers. That hyperexploitation in particular is possible because of the white supremacy and patriarchy baked into how capital operates. There isn’t a “misunderstanding” between capital and the institutions and organizations it operates on the one hand and labor and our organizations on the other. Capital comes into being based on social systems that allow the fruits of labor to be captured by a small group. Capital grows based on laws, rules, and social norms that keep labor beholden to, and dependent on, capital. The working class is alienated from “their labor” — we’re alienated from most of our waking life — because what we spend our time doing is owned by someone else. Capital and labor may sometimes come to terms of peace that blunt the edges. But they are fundamentally opposed to each other. The benefit of one means the harm of the other.
For that reason, many socialists have concluded, through theory and experience, that the working class need political vehicles that are wholly independent of capital and its interests. The idea is that you cannot mingle the interests of capital and the interests of labor in a single political organization, since their interests are ultimately fully opposed to each other. In a society organized by capital to protect capital — with laws, social norms, and institutions designed to privilege capital — the working class will always be at a disadvantage in these situations, and will be overcome by capital’s incumbent advantage.
Among U.S. socialists, this has often come down to three ideological positions: the clean break, the dirty break, and realignment. The clean break is the simple idea that when participating in elections, socialists should never run as part of the Democratic Party, because the Democratic Party represents a network of organizations, institutions and individuals, that abide or even invite the participation of bourgeois and petty bourgeois interests. Socialists need to create, and run, under an independent banner. The dirty break is the idea that socialists need to aim towards an independent party, and to do so it is necessary to, in the interim, use the Democratic Party ballot line and even some structures to reach the working class at their current political home and develop cadre with the necessary skills and connections to form that independent party. The realignment view holds that the Democratic Party is fundamentally not a real “party,” and therefore strong enough socialist organizations can overtake it and transform it into a truly working class vehicle.
But all of this is an easy premise to agree on in the abstract. Of course we don’t want to hang out with “capitalists”; of course we want to build independent organization. Who, among organized socialists, would disagree that fundamentally the working class needs independent political organization, especially independent electoral vehicles?
All of this stays a contentious issue because it’s actually quite a difficult idea to put into practice. What do you mean by “independence”? When are we “mingling” the interests of capital and the interests of the working class? And when do we know when is the right time to break?
Day to day, month to month, election cycle to election cycle, socialists in good faith try to build up independent organizations — organizations that rely only on their membership’s resources, whether cash or work, and those of other ideologically aligned working class organizations, like democratic unions. To be effective, these organizations need to raise money, yes, but they also need to do things like analyze and draft policy and laws, understand and make connections to bureaucracies that run the state, develop the skills to run campaigns, to litigate in court, appear in administrative hearings, work the media. Do all the things necessary to reach people, be effectual when in power, and defend against both attack and cooptation by the capitalist state and its institutions.
Doing these things can require maintaining practical connections with organizations and institutions committed to working within or alongside the Democratic Party and the network of individuals, non-profit organizations (NGOs), and legislative formations (like caucuses) that can raise money, open doors, and provide people and expertise. They invite us to participate in negotiations over government budgets or legislation; they offer deals to stay out of or endorse in strategic electoral campaigns; they legitimize us in the halls of power, whether government or commerce or labor. Very importantly, this political complex of campaigns, NGOs, and consultancies offer jobs — they are where people need to go to both feed and house themselves and spend time learning the skills and doing the work that is necessary to keep a political program running. And all of that is very reasonable.
It is like we are all gathered around this well, and by forcing our way to the front we can pull up enough water to replenish our movement, to irrigate our communities. But those of us who support a dirty break with capital’s political complex understand that so long as we draw from this well, we can never truly wage war against capital. So long as we rely on their water, dehydration looms.
So we argue that we have to have the courage, the unity, and the strategy to strike out on our own, to find our own well. To slake our thirst ourselves. It isn’t and will not be easy. It is intimidating: it is hard to turn our back on what we know can work and head out into the unknown, to take that risk. And of course, that fear is what capital relies on. We don’t know what is waiting for us out there in the wilderness. We fear the lean times. We fear that we won’t be invited to the tables where important decisions are made; we fear being targeted by more powerful forces come election time; we fear losing the movement jobs by which many define themselves and through which we learn the skills and make the connections we need.
The fear isn’t irrational, but it can’t immobilize us. We can’t let it, because if we don’t pioneer for our own resources untethered to capital’s political complex, of which the Democratic Party and the constellations of NGOs around it are a part, we will only get so far in building a fighting movement able to secure working class power.
It’s important to understand that “realignment” politics won’t always be evident. They are subtle; they don’t announce themselves. It’s not that it’s conspiratorial (it’s not!), it’s that the U.S. party system makes those kinds of politics natural. They’re the well-grooved path your wheels lock into. When socialists in an organization need to decide whether it’s strategically necessary to endorse — and so raise money and campaign for — a non-socialist, Democratic Party-aligned politician, that is the realignment tendency asserting itself. That doesn’t even mean they should not do it, but the accumulation of these kinds of decisions, over time, pull individuals and organizations into a network of feedback that makes independence increasingly difficult and then impossible.
To get to a true break, we need to act at a large scale and with clarity of vision and unity of purpose. We have to be patient and strategic about when to break and where — which means we have to have open debate and strategic honesty. We have to pool our resources at a high level. We have to openly state and understand that our goal is a party, an independent workers party, made up of organized socialists in singular organization. It has to be bound together by a thread of socialists situated in workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods, making socialists and comrades of people, and who move together to bind democratic unions and socialist community organizations together.
Let’s step away from the abstract to the practical. What does all this mean in practice? At the most basic level, it means consciously drawing contrasts between the socialist program and that of liberals and progressives when we know their approach means failing to challenge the power of capital. Tactical concessions are okay: a vote for a bill here, an endorsement there. But we fail our membership, our movement, and the broader working class when we are not honest about the nature of these tactical concessions; when we pretend what we settled for is what we wanted, we lose a chance to do real political education. Rather than clarifying things, we intentionally mislead. Maybe this version of police oversight reform is the best we could hope for; but treating it as objectively good merely encourages people to ignore very real problems.
On an organizational level, it means, first, political decision-making at a large scale, coupled with instrumental political education meant to sharpen a particular political analysis; and, second, organizational practice that consolidates resources at high levels. We need big-group decisions to run big-group operations with pooled resources, because our opponents are big, not small; because the more splintered we are in numerous organizations with numerous layers of leadership, the more prone we are to being split and absorbed, unable to resist the gravity of capital and the Democratic Party’s resources.
With a commitment to true independence, we can break free of capital’s well and build our own base camp, from which generations of socialists to come can better fight the forces of exploitation and oppression that are happy to ladle us enough to stay alive, but never enough to grow strong.