In his article “Want to Elect Socialists? Run Them in Democratic Primaries,” Daniel Moraff, a self-described democratic socialist, demonstrates a thoroughly liberal and pedestrian understanding of how social change occurs. There are several errors of history and of reasoning in the article which I hope to illustrate here.
Our problems begin in the first paragraph, where Moraff conflates “winning elections” and “building power.” As a socialist, one would think Moraff would understand that power is in the People, in the mass movements and organization that takes place in communities by and for community members. The People provide the labor and do the dirty work upon which the political class maintains its privilege. If the People get angry and decide in sufficient number not to participate in the system anymore, then the basis of political privilege will teeter and possibly collapse, and those in power would generally rather give up what’s been demanded of them rather than lose their power entirely.
In the second section Moraff references Kim Moody’s article in Jacobin magazine titled, “From Realignment to Reinforcement.” Moraff writes, “One cannot argue with Moody’s contention that those currently in control of the party are rich, powerful and odious. They are also, as Moody points out, firmly determined to repel left challenges within the party. These same interests poured millions into the Hillary Clinton campaign, and pour millions more into incumbency protection every cycle.” Moraff misses however the part where Moody says, “The party structure and establishment has been fortified against its rivals, external and internal.” Moody is correct; the party structure has been fortified against its rivals. Moraff falls into an individualist fallacy when he argues that it is simply about “odious” people, as though we can simply replace the people and the whole system will work. A socialist ought to know better.
If it were merely about corrupt people, then we wouldn’t need to be anti-capitalist at all. All we would need is to make sure “progressives” got into political an corporate offices. Then we could have total, unfettered capitalism, and because those with power aren’t “odious,” we wouldn’t need to worry about exploitation, environmental destruction, war, etc.
Some basic Marxist philosophy can help to clarify the point. In “The German Ideology,” Marx writes, “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means they find in existence and have to reproduce…the nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” In other words, people are born into their circumstances, not the other way around. The structures in which people live and work have greater influence on who they are as individuals than vice versa. So we cannot simply pin the problems of the Democratic Party on the “odiousness” of its leaders. Just as we condemn capitalism as a system, so must we recognize the Democratic party is part of that system which must be condemned.
Moraff asks throughout his article what alternatives there can be to running socialists as democrats. If you assume that winning elections is the same as building power (or the only way to do so) then it’s hard to see an answer. But here are a few examples of progressive change in recent American history that I think illustrate the distinction between being in office and having power.
The first is the signing of the 1965 Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson. President Johnson did not sign that bill into law because he was a benevolent philanthropist and really felt for the struggle of colored folk. Remember, this was the president who escalated the Vietnam War into the hideous conflict it became. Descriptions of him by those who knew him and extant audio recordings show Johnson to be possibly the most arrogant president in American history. Yet he signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Why?
Because one of the main functions of the president is to preserve the nation. And as the demonstrations, boycotts, riots, strikes, and other forms of disobedience and popular organization and resistance began to take their toll on society, the power-that-were recognized the precariousness of the situation. The bottom was coming for the top, and the top had to do something. And, as stated above, those in power would sooner give up a little bit of their power than lose all of it. So in the end Johnson, as a representative of the power-that-were, was compelled to sign that act into law by virtue of the mass popular pressure applied to him.
A second example is Richard Nixon ending the Vietnam War. Anyone who thinks that Nixon was some peace-loving progressive has never opened a history book: Nixon’s name is practically synonymous with the warmongering arch-conservative. Yet he ended the Vietnam War. Why?
Exactly the same reasons as above: the resistance at home, and the resistance of the military in Vietnam which was starting to collapse. Nixon, despite his personal wishes, was compelled to end the war because of the popular pressures placed on his administration and his duty-as defined by the structure of the institution-to preserve the nation.
Those are two recent examples, but that is how social change always happens. If we continue to divert our energies into the black hole that is the Democratic Party, then socialism will never come. You cannot elect socialism: it can only come about through a revolution that will overturn the legal fiction of private property, the protection of which the U.S. government is constitutionally predicated.
The lesson is this: We need not look to the powerful; we need only remember who the powerful truly are.
The Democratic Socialists of America seems to serve two functions: one is to be a kind of transition group for those who are gradually disconnecting from liberal ideology. The other is to act as a net to catch those who might otherwise go to actual radical organizations. There are DSAers who support democrats, and there are radicals in the DSA too. But sooner or later the DSA as an organization is going to have to choose which side it is on: the capitalists, or the revolutionaries.