Leftist ideals can and should permeate not through the mouths of elected officials that are easily bullied by bourgeois machinery, but through empowering the discourse itself through revolutionary art and culture.
While we cannot create an objective science of art, we can discuss how art can be a vehicle for ideology; it is therefore subject to its own scientific critique. French Marxist Philosopher, Louis Althusser once argued, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.” If we are to define art as an artist’s representation of an idea (their subject) then we can follow that we are the subject of an ideology, which the bourgeois has spread through art and propaganda. For centuries, the elite have interpellated their subjects with their own ideology. From ideology that justifies the continued imprisonment of Palestinians, to memes that legitimize atrocities towards “illegal” immigrants, the elite materialize ideology - through the power they wield - to maintain authority. In fact, bourgeois philosophy and art itself continues to live through denying the status of any alternative:
The real question is not whether Marx, Engels and Lenin are or are not real philosophers, whether their philosophical statements are formally irreproachable, whether they do or do not make foolish statements about Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’, whether their materialism is or is not pre-critical, etc. For all these questions are and always have been posed inside a certain practice of philosophy. The real question bears precisely on this traditional practice which Lenin brings back into question by proposing a quite different practice of philosophy.
This different practice contains something like a promise or outline of an objective knowledge of philosophy’s mode of being. A knowledge of philosophy as a Holzweg der Holzwege. But the last thing philosophers and philosophy can bear, the intolerable, is perhaps precisely the idea of this knowledge. What philosophy cannot bear is the idea of a theory (i.e. of an objective knowledge) of philosophy capable of changing its traditional practice. Such a theory may be fatal for philosophy, since it lives by its denegation (emphasis mine).
In other words, the denial of status of Marxist thought is crucial for the survival of the ruling class. Elite capitalists sees their own world view as universal. Things that are accepted as universal - such as the Earth being a sphere - are beyond partisan reproach and ultimately, beyond scientific analysis. Unlike the dimensions of the Earth, ideology isn’t objective. Because of this, any attempt to meaningfully critique a bourgeois ideology is met with ridicule and sometimes, violence.
How often have we seen films such as Mission Impossible: Fall Out, that glorify the exploits of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)? What about documentaries such as Ken Burns’ Civil War that attempts to rehabilitate Robert E. Lee’s reputation from someone who had virulent views toward black people to a kindly, conflicted war hero? If you dug really deep into my own Tumblr archives, you could see that even I admired Lee thanks to what I saw in the Ken Burns documentary at the highly impressionable age of 18.
It’s clear that the bourgeois has been able to permeate its ideology through art and culture. However, if art is a vehicle for ideology, and if we are subject to the ideology embedded in the art we consume, the bourgeois are only in control of that vehicle for the moment. But, if socialists can engage in their own promulgation of truly revolutionary art, then there lies hope to truly shift the “Overton Window” into a more favorable direction.
We’ve already seen success with this through the smashing success of self-avowed communist, Boots Riley’s groundbreaking work, Sorry to Bother You. It is absolutely crucial that political movements have their own signifiers. And, as Briahna Gray stated so succinctly for The Intercept, “The connection between art and a political movement is what makes Sorry to Bother You feel revolutionary.”
Riley, in an interview for Vulture, discussed how his entire movie “deals with performance.” This is painfully evident in a pivotal scene where a white audience yells at the protagonist, Cassius Green (played by the remarkable Lakeith Stanfield) to “Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!” as the CEO of the richest company in the world glares at him.
What Riley is trying to highlight with this scene is that in America, we are subtly coerced through philosophy, through ideology, and through art to perform for the benefit of those in power.
Sorry to Bother You – with its critical and commercial success – gives people an opportunity (just look at the people Boots Riley is retweeting), to perform anti-capitalism. Through a medium such as blockbuster art, Boots Riley has equipped people with a framework to discuss the everyday societal ills reinforced by capitalism such as isolation from our loved ones thanks to professional stress, the tension between solidarity with our colleagues and striving for our own individual success, and the fact that maybe we can, in fact, strive for fair wages for all.
Sorry to Bother You, hopefully, is but a small yet deliberate ripple. As socialists, and as good comrades, we must do our best to champion - whether it be through RTs on Twitter or through Patreon support - art from our peers that is beyond culturally significant, but revolutionary.
Mass Movements aren’t built through personalities but they are built through symbols. Revolution is not built by milquetoast platitudes such as “all men are brothers!” but through forceful memes. Here’s one you might be familiar with, “Workers of the world, unite!”
Julian Hayter’s invaluable book, The Dream is Lost, provides the first monograph-length study (excluding several capable works which cover a much longer time period, including Rights for a Season) of the annexation crisis and the events surrounding it since Rutledge M Dennis and John V Moeser’s Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City in 1982. The Dream is Lost, however, also includes additional background that a slim volume like Politics of Annexation did not flesh out, and benefits from decades of hindsight in a way that Moeser and Dennis, writing so soon after the events described, could not.
Hayter insists that Richmond skipped the “protest” phase of the Civil Rights Movement (a notion that would surely surprise quite a few Virginia Union University (VUU) students and East End Neighborhood Association members!) and went straight to (electoral) politics. The Richmond Crusade for Voters, a middle class group, led the charge to the polls. When the Crusade was formed in 1956, the main impediment to Black suffrage was an onerous poll tax. The Crusade fought back by raising funds to pay the poll tax for indigent Richmonders and by going through Black communities on election day with speakers and megaphones exhorting residents to vote and excoriating those who did not. Numbers of registered voters skyrocketed and participation in city elections grew.
But, notes Hayter, “[t]he Crusade may have championed democracy, but it was not organized democratically…its decision-making process was almost entirely in the hands of its middle-class members.” Crusade brass determined for whom members would vote, and the organization’s committee in charge of selecting candidates would release their list of endorsements on the Sunday prior to the election (!), leaving little time for working class members to organize an opposition to the leadership’s slate.
Crusade priorities had initially centered on having Black voters cast their ballots as a bloc for progressive white candidates (be they Democrat or Republican), but, after a strong performance in the 1960 councilmanic election, the Crusade aimed for a more ambitious goal — winning a black majority council (BMC) in the capital of Jim Crow Virginia. In 1964, the Crusade saw its first Black candidate, B.A. “Sonny” Cephas, elected to City Hall along with several white candidates the Crusade had endorsed. After the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s poll tax, the Crusade earned even greater successes, including the election of Henry Marsh, an outspoken civil rights champion, to City Council, along with two other African-Americans. Henry Carwile, a white progressive, joined his Crusade comrades.
Political defeats tailed closely behind electoral triumphs. Much of the Black middle and working classes were disgusted when a police review board proposal (already a compromise — the board would consist of zero members elected by the public, five selected by the City Council, and four police officers appointed by the city) was voted down 7–2, with Crusaders Cephas and Mundle siding with the white conservatives against Marsh and Carwile. Richmond Forward, the faction of the white right, rammed through legislation to run a new expressway through Randolph and Oregon Hill, sending residents to overcrowded public housing in East End and Southside. Route 64 had similarly destroyed the Navy Hill neighborhood without creating enough public housing to equal or exceed homes destroyed years earlier. It seemed as though too little had changed with Crusaders unable to counter the schemes of the white conservative Council majority.
Sensing the urgency of the Crusade’s plan to achieve a BMC, RF sought to annex portions of Henrico County containing tens of thousands of white voters. After five years (1961–1966) of tussling with Henrico residents, courts, and the Virginia General Assembly, the plan fell through. Richmond Forward’s successor, the Team of Progress, turned its gaze South to Chesterfield.
This plan to dilute the Black vote didn’t go unnoticed. Curtis Holt, a disabled former construction worker who founded a tenant association in Creighton Court, opposed the plan absolutely; the middle class leadership of the Crusade backed annexation, but demanded a switch from at-large Council elections to a ward-based system with enough majority-Black districts to ensure proportional representation. After a tumultuous legal battle that left Holt and some of his poor supporters at odds with the well-to-do Crusade leaders, Richmond annexed some 40,000 white residents of Chesterfield in 1970 (prior to this, the area West of Forest Hill Ave. was not part of the city). Responding to Holt’s charges of voter dilution, the Supreme Court issued an injunction preventing the city from holding new councilmanic elections until it had adopted a ward system. This wasn’t accomplished until 1977, meaning that the 1970 City Council was in power for the better part of a decade without standing for reelection!
In the next election, Crusade candidates swept five out of nine wards. At last, they had won a Black Majority Council. The new Council selected Marsh as the mayor and included newcomer Willie Dell, a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) professor whose indefatigable anti-poverty activism, razor-sharp intelligence, and straight-talking brand of charisma endeared her to many of East End’s poor. The wind seemed to be at the Crusade’s back. It was not to be.
“The politics of Richmond are now controlled by Afro-Americans, [but its] economics [are] still controlled by white Americans”, lamented Maynard Jackson, Mayor of Atlanta (1974-1982, 1990-1994), who sailed to power on a wave of civil rights movement support, only to enact punishing neoliberal measures once in office. The campaign of obstruction and sabotage in Richmond was unrelenting — the press printed screed after screed against Marsh, white residents and white businesses left for the counties, leaving Marsh and his Crusaders with scant funds to rebuild and maintain homes and schools decaying from years of white neglect. Marsh felt he had little choice but to desperately pursue boondoggles to keep capital in Richmond — projects like shopping centers, the Project One disaster that gave Richmond an underutilized convention center on Broad and two overpriced hotels on either side, as well as the crumbling Coliseum, and Kanawha Plaza, the business center just West of Shockoe Slip on Cary with the hideous maritime statue.
White sabotage worked. Marsh failed to deliver an improved standard of living for the
working class, and many well-to-do Black voters were eager to elect a candidate who was able to work more comfortably with the city’s white business establishment to prevent further capital flight. In 1982 the white power structure threw money at Roy West, a Black conservative, running for Willie Dell’s seat. Overspent and awash in invective from the white press, Dell’s working class base in East End was demoralized, but her district also stretched into more prosperous Highland Park, whose middle-class Black voters were anxious to dump Dell’s combative, left-leaning platform in favor of West’s promises to closely work with the white elite. West won, was elected mayor, and proceeded to privilege the desires of the wealthy above the needs of the working poor. The forces of reaction had triumphed.
WHAT HAYTER LEAVES OUT:
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s concept of a “long Civil Rights Movement” has become one of the most influential lenses through which to view twentieth century Black history. Hall contended that many of the roots of the “classical” Civil Rights Movement lay not in events immediately preceding the Brown decision, but can be traced back even further — specifically to the upsurge in Black activism and labor militancy in the 1930s. As Glenda Gilmore, among others, have argued, this means acknowledging the Communist Party USA as an influential institution in the rise of Civil Rights. It wouldn’t take much stretching to fit Richmond into the long Civil Rights narrative. The city was the home to a Communist-influenced union involved in major struggles to weaken the color line in industry and improve wages and conditions for black workers, and Richmond hosted the first headquarters of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a Civil Rights organization that would later inspire groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, Hayter misses an opportunity to provide a “long Civil Rights” history of Richmond by instead focusing almost exclusively on voting rights and electoralism. This undertaking necessarily involves writing out or minimizing crucial political context at the grassroots level. Where, for instance, does Hayter mention the East End Neighborhood Association, the working class Black group whose uncompromising boycott campaign desegregated more than a few stores? Why is the reference to the Creighton Court Civic Association only in passing as a minor biographical detail of Curtis Holt? By analyzing only electoral politics Hayter neglects the myriad of extra-parliamentary ways the Black freedom struggle that provided the context of the Crusade’s work operated, and that may have provided a different, more effective road to lasting change and real power.
We on the left sometimes exhibit a similar lack of perspicacity when we regard working and oppressed peoples’ power as primarily stemming from their status as voters. In so doing, we fail to acknowledge the full humanity and the full capacity of people to remake their world with an array of different tactics and strategies, many of which have a higher batting average than municipal elections.
Holt, Marsh, and other sincere advocates of progressive policies found themselves in a paradoxical situation — at the beginning of their journey, Richmond had a sizeable tax base, but Black residents had no electoral representation; later, Black residents won a majority on the City Council only to see funds (and therefore their ability to substantively support housing, education, and anti-poverty initiatives) massively depleted. Their voters realized this fact and became demoralized and demobilized, and their opponents seized on these failures in order to drive a wedge among Black voters, winning some of the middle class and small business owners to their agenda of neoliberal “reforms.” From Roy West to Wilder, Kaine, Jones, and Stoney, Richmond has seemed to have no alternative.
A socialist perspective can provide us with the tools to see why the representation-vs.-money zero sum game is such a dead end, and the strategy we need to create real and lasting change and break out of this trap. We sometimes refer to elected officials as “people in power” or even refer to winning office as “taking power.” The example of Richmond in the 1960s through 1980s shows this to be sorely mistaken. Elected office represents a position, but the ability to shape the city, sabotage the Black Majority Council with no real resistance, and the ability to make money on the backs of working class Richmonders remained in the hands of the landlords, real estate interests, employers, VCU administration, and businesses. These interests — the capitalist class — still held power, and still will hold power even if we were to get a socialist majority in the next City Council election.
The only way leftwing officeholders can legislate change and keep it is if the power of the capitalist class is already weakened by the building of a working class counterpower outside of the state. The capitalist class in Richmond has amassed tremendous wealth, but they have a huge Achilles Heel — they depend almost totally on workers to generate their profits and to pay them rent, and they need placid social conditions to reap their ill-gotten gains in peace.
Before seeking electoral office, we need to help build a base — a militant, committed, organized, and ever-expanding section of Richmond workers who are able to push for higher wages, better conditions, and an end to harassment and discrimination; neighbors united to push back rent hikes, successfully demand landlords perform needed repairs, and crush our city’s well-oiled gentrification and eviction machines; students, parents, teachers, and staff ready to strike against Jason Kamras[a] and his puppetmaser Thomas Farrell[b] and their plans to bring DC style privatization schemes to Richmond, and against Michael Rao’s[c] quest to colonize more of the city under the banner of VCU; Women, non-binary, and trans people, people of color, and immigrants and their allies prepared to weaken institutionalized white supremacy, patriarchy, and other structures of oppression. Even then, capital will defend itself and use capital flight. For this reason, we should never see electoral contests as an end in themselves, even after we have won a base. Rather, winning elected office should be seen a temporary, supporting tactic in a broader strategy for the total overthrow of capitalism.
While our current context is unique in some respects, we have better lodestars to guide us than the electoral work of groups like the Crusade. In 1937, tobacco stemmers (many of whom were Black women) began to rise up against low wages, hazardous conditions, and a rigidly-enforced color line in the industry. Communists like Frances Grandison, Chris Alston, and James E. Jackson met with workers in Rev. Queen’s church on Leigh Street and helped the workers expand their strike wave to other plants. The next several years would see the founding of the Tobacco Stemmers Labor Union (TSLU), a radical, Communist-influenced organization that successfully organized for raised wages and won the 8-hour day in the dark, Satanic tobacco plants of Southside. Just as importantly, they pushed back against the color line in tobacco — for years, white business owners had misclassified challenging work as “unskilled” to justify paying Black workers less than their white counterparts. TSLU managed to reclassify Black workers in some plants as skilled or semi-skilled, narrowing the wage gap against white workers. While automation in tobacco, divide-and-conquer tactics by Richmond’s captains of industry, and co-optation by less radical, more Jim Crow unions would eventually frustrate TSLU and the Richmond Communists, their achievements for the working class were tangible and undeniable. With more foresight, a better analysis of changing industrial conditions, and more stubbornness towards co-optation by the AFL and the Democratic Party, the Communist assault on capitalism and Jim Crow could have lasted longer and reaped even greater gains.
Our movement shouldn’t be dogmatic. Electoral work can play a supporting role to organizing, but must be at most a distant second. We need to make major strides in basebuilding long before we can engage effectively and intelligently in the electoral arena, or else we will find ourselves in the same position as Willie Dell and Henry Marsh — forced to choose between minor legislative victories as the city crumbles, or openly enacting the will of the capitalists. Richmond is far from alone in having progressive politicians reduced to administering harmful neoliberal policies — Communists in France and labor parties in Australia, the UK, and elsewhere have formed governments which have genuflected to capital and cut needed social welfare policies for workers and the poor. Even groups that claim to balance basebuilding outside of elections with running for office too often privilege the latter over the former, as Kali Akuno’s recent criticisms of Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s Democratic mayorship in Jackson, Mississippi make clear.
Hayter’s work ends on a depressing note — for the Richmond left in the 20th century, the decades-long quest for a Black Majority Council was achieved, only for them to realize too late that real power lies elsewhere, and the road to change must take a radically different route. The sun has set on this electoral path to “power,” but armed with our knowledge of the past we can bring a new dawn in Richmond by organizing for power from the ground up.
Moeser, John V., and Rutledge M. Dennis. Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City. Schenkman Books, 1982.
Randolph, Lewis A. and Gayle T. Tate. Rights for a Season: the Politics of Race, Class, and Gender in Richmond, Virginia. University of Tennessee Press, 2003
Julian, Hayter M. The Dream Is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia. University Press of Kentucky, 2017
Love, Richard. “In Defiance of Custom and Tradition: Black Tobacco Workers and Labor Unions in Richmond, Virginia 1937–1941.” Labor History 35, no. 1 (1994)
In this article I attempted to summarize a recent work of scholarship on Richmond and use it to analyze the prospects for electoral work at this current moment. Given these limited aims I left many questions unanswered or even unexamined, including: the relationship between Black conservatives and Richmond’s Civil Rights Movement and the city’s Black population more generally; the role of parties in electoral politics; and how we might concretely begin a radical, basebuilding strategy in Richmond today. I also chose to be brief in explaining the demise of the Communist Party in Richmond, which was concomitant with its fall from influence nationally. Needless to say, there is plenty of room for future research and analysis for Richmond organizers.
I also pushed some of the broader questions of socialist theory to the background, namely: how does the capitalist state function, and how should socialists engage it? My own view is that the state is a machine for the domination of one class by other classes (in our society, it is an instrument of capitalist rule over workers and oppressed people). Merely purchasing a grip on electoral organs of the state, in my opinion, does not greatly change the overall function of the state and does not provide as many opportunities for building working class power or improving material conditions for masses of people as some assume.
So how can socialists use elections? I’m still studying that problem, but my perspective is that we should not have illusions about assuming office and administering capitalism, but rather disrupting its function and undermining its legitimacy. Campaigns like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s Freedom Vote provide one topic for future study, as does the experience of the Russian Bolsheviks in the reactionary tsarist parliament, the Duma.
Though I have tabled those important subjects for inquiry, I hope I have shown that even to social democrats who view use of the electoral organs of the capitalist state as being the end point of the movement that we still have a lot of groundwork to do before we can even begin to think of achieving that goal.
[a] Jason Kamras is the new superintendent of Richmond Public Schools. He was a former Teach for America kid who became a leading quisling of DC school czar Michelle Rhee, attacking teachers and privatizing schools. He is the highest-paid superintendent in RPS history.)
[b] Thomas Farrell is the CEO of Dominion Energy, which is headquartered in Downtown Richmond. Farrell, who has no children in RPS and no background in education policy, served in the committee to select the new superintendent of the school system. Farrell made his fellow committee members sign a confidentiality agreement not to divulge details of the superintendent search to the public or even to the school board.)
[c] Michael Rao is the president of Virginia Commonwealth University. With compensation topping $900,000, Rao was the highest-paid public employee in Virginia in 2016. While administrative pay is high, VCU’s adjunct faculty and hourly staff make poverty wages, and while VCU continues to raise tuition, its endowment of more than a billion dollars is one of the 100 largest in the world. Rao has aggressively pursued real estate projects that have contributed to the destruction and gentrification of several Richmond neighborhoods, including Jackson Ward, once the heart of the Black community north of the James River.
Last week DSA’s National Political Committee announced their endorsement of four candidates in the upcoming elections. Among the endorsees was Geneviéve Jones-Wright, who ran for district attorney of San Diego county. The email DSA sent on its listserv announcing the endorsements likens Jones-Wright to Larry Krasner, a progressive DA in Philadelphia who’s received praise for refusing to seek cash bail. The email states that Jones-Wright plans to end cash bail. However, on her website Jones-Wright merely claims the bail system needs to be reformed and doesn’t specify what that entails. Despite her loss in the June 5th elections, Jones-Wright declared her intentions to continue her work in the progressive criminal justice movement. Geneviéve Jones-Wright’s endorsement has sparked debate among DSA members over the question of whether or not it’s appropriate for our organization to endorse DA’s at all. People in support of the endorsement believe Jones-Wright had the potential to be a progressive force in San Diego’s criminal justice system. People opposed to endorsement believe progressive DAs won’t further our goals of building a socialist movement or advancing prison abolition. There are two general kinds of arguments deployed in this debate, goal-oriented arguments and action-oriented arguments. Goal-oriented arguments compare the potential goods a progressive DA could achieve to potential goods of other candidates, then they evaluate which future appears preferable. Action-oriented arguments treat endorsement as a commitment of the endorsing organization to take on an electoral project and evaluates whether other projects are a better use of their organizational capacity. In this essay, I argue that goal-oriented arguments are insufficient to answer the endorsement question, but action-oriented arguments are. I also lay out the tools needed to make an action-oriented argument. Then, I present an alternative approach to prison abolition work DSA chapters can take up. These alternatives are based on the work of our comrades in Boston DSA’s Prison Abolition Working Group. I interviewed several members of Boston DSA (BDSA) and use their experiences to reflect on possible courses of action for DSA chapters. Goal-oriented Arguments, or vacuous arguments from material conditions
Goal-oriented arguments have the following general form: a DA candidate pledges to be a progressive force in the criminal justice system, which could lead to decreased repression of oppressed and exploited people. If this candidate is elected, it would be better than if another candidate is elected. Therefore, we should endorse this candidate. There’s also a version of this argument that concludes the candidate shouldn’t be endorsed because it would be worse if they’re elected instead of another candidate. For goal-oriented arguments, the inference relates material conditions expected on a candidate’s election to whether or not that candidate should be endorsed. These arguments only consider expectations of what the candidate will do in office. Because these expectations can only be fulfilled by the candidate actually getting into office, people who make this kind of argument have to assume the candidate’s campaign will be successful. After all, the whole point of the endorsement is to help the candidate win. They also have to assume on these arguments that the candidate will actually keep their campaign promises and that they’ll be accountable either to their constituents or to DSA in general. Because of their assumptions, when we debate using goal-oriented arguments we leave out some important practical questions such as is it feasible for the candidate to win? How can we ensure the candidate will keep their promises and remain accountable? How should we prioritize our organizational capacity? Endorsement is always a practical question. Particular DSA chapters or national DSA have to ask themselves this question for particular candidates in particular elections. Since goal-oriented arguments fail to consider the above questions, the debates that employ them are one-sided. What they determine, at best, is whether or not a candidate is better to vote for than their opponents. Goal-oriented arguments fail to determine whether or not a chapter should endorse a DA candidate. They don’t tell us what actions we should take. They only compare forecasted effects of one person’s role in the criminal justice system as opposed to another. Our analyses must start with the totality of material conditions. As Marx said in The German Ideology,
“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.”
When we only consider the expected outcomes of elections, we’re talking about those conditions in a vacuum. We start with abstractions rather than the reality of a social whole, complete with relationships, constant change, and competing class interests. Instead, we need an argument that starts with politics as it is. Action-oriented arguments do just that. Action-oriented Arguments, or dialectical arguments from material conditions
The question of the DA debate is whether or not endorsement as a particular tactic is worthwhile for DSA national or a chapter to use. Action-oriented arguments, in contrast with goal-oriented arguments, are actually substantial to this debate. An action-oriented argument considers what actions are best for an organization, instead of just evaluating the goals of proposed campaigns. Here, DSA chapters and national are conceptualized as having a capacity in terms of hours available for members to do political work, kinds of political work members have the skills to do, and available resources in terms of money, space, and communication networks. All organizations are situated in relation to communities, political bodies, and other existing organizations, all of which have particular class interests. They exist and act in a particular political time and place. The sum of capacity, relationships, and political conditions, comprise an organization’s place in the totality of material conditions. Bringing in material conditions as an ever-changing whole allows us to consider the wide-ranging effects and expected reaction to proposed projects. Action-oriented arguments relate the totality of material conditions to potential strategies, and then evaluate courses of action. Because action-oriented arguments consider everything involved in an organizational decision concerning strategy, they’re sufficient to answer the endorsement question. Now, let’s analyze endorsement through an action-oriented lens. Electoral action
When we endorse a DA what exactly are we doing? It usually refers to any of three actions: issuing a public statement in support of the endorsed candidate, volunteering to canvass or phonebanking for them. The goal of electoral action is to get the endorsed candidate into office. Statements of support are short, easy to disseminate propaganda pieces. A small group within the endorsing organization writes them, maybe a draft is presented to the general membership for comment, then an outreach committee sends out the statement on social media or prints physical copies to hand to people. Statements of support usually don’t require much time, have a lenient deadline, and can be done by most chapter members. Sometimes a candidate’s campaign team will reach out to an organization for support. Otherwise, members decide to endorse by popular vote or a committee’s direct action. It’s hard to assess how impactful an endorsement is. While it’s generally safe to assume any chapter member who votes will vote for the endorsed candidate, we don’t have the data on whether or not the chapter’s endorsement influenced other voters. If an endorsement is just a statement of support, then the idea is to assemble a voting block of mostly DSA members, plus whoever we can reach by flyering and social media. Most DSA chapters don’t have a large enough membership or reach to form an election-swaying voting block, so the statement on its own will probably be ineffective. DSA voters are already likely to vote for the most progressive candidates, so it’s hard to identify any impact a statement of support will have on the election at all. We’re not influencing politics. We’re easy votes for progressives. Canvassing and phonebanking are similar kinds of electoral action. Canvassing is when a group of people break into pairs, go door to door in the neighborhood, and ask potential voters how they plan to vote, soft-selling their candidate if needed. Phonebanking uses the same idea, but interactions occur over the phone instead of face to face. When endorsement entails this kind of work, chapter members commit their availability for specific times and days to go out and canvass or phonebank. Often this is done through already existing democratic party organizations, but a chapter can organize their own canvases and phonebanks. Because these electoral tactics directly reach out to voters, they’re more effective in influencing the election than statements of support. Their influence correlates with time spent and area covered. If we’re serious about getting a DA candidate elected, then canvassing and phonebanking will be our go-to tactics. Canvassing in particular gives members experience in going into a community and talking directly to people about politics, a widely useful skill. However, the issue of accountability still remains. Even if our electoral work is successful, how do we ensure the DA will keep their promises? What happens if the candidate we worked so hard to get into office asks oppressed and exploited people for cash bail? It’s possible that we can threaten to withhold our electoral labor. However, as long as progressive DAs run as democrats, they’ll have access to an organization with a greater capacity than any DSA chapter or national. Democrats, liberal capitalists, and non-profits can always outspend and overpower us. In the last instance, we probably can’t guarantee endorsed DAs will deliver without popular pressure against them. Unless our work in an election builds popular participation, we’re not laying the foundation to actually deliver after a successful election. Canvassing without accountability is free labor for democrats. Even if the DA can be held accountable, their progressive potential is fairly limited. Tim Horras illustrates this point in the related and much cited case of Larry Krasner. “Even if a prosecutor doesn’t ask for bail for a particular defendant, magistrate judges could still make the decision to order it.” Effectively, the ball remains in the judge’s court. This points to a larger problem in the Krasner “model”: while District Attorneys can exercise prosecutorial discretion — which is to say, while they can determine whether or not to press charges, what sort of charges to bring up, recommend sentences and offer plea bargains — they are neither legislators nor judges. They don’t write laws, issue rulings, or set legal precedents. So while DAs have significant leeway in setting priorities, any policies they enact are less durable than reforms won through legislation or judicial decisions; it only takes a new person occupying the office of executive to roll back such reforms-by-fiat.”
It would be a shame if our comrades worked hard to get a progressive DA in office only to be outmaneuvered in the next election. What kind of power do we win if it can be taken back on a whim? We need to fight for more than transient reforms. Thankfully, we can learn from our comrades in Boston about how we might start to do that. Lessons from Boston DSA’s Prison Abolition Working Group
Boston DSA’s Prison Abolition Working Group (PrAb WG) formed about a year and a half ago when a local activist already working on prison abolition talked to BDSA about the relationship between abolitionism and socialist organizing. They’ve engaged in a variety of campaigns, including writing to incarcerated sex workers and educating themselves with abolitionist theory. Jesse W. describes the group as “a fairly politically coherent working group, with many members who consistently come every month to our meetings, all of whom are deeply committed to naming the goal of abolishing police and prisons, educating ourselves about the historical and social context of the prison and policing system and about what prison abolition might mean in both a theoretical and practical manner, and building coalitions in order to discern how BDSA can build trust and solidarity with long standing activists and most effectively organize around prison abolition.”
The coalitions PrAb WG has built extend to existing activist organizations, but also within Boston DSA itself. Alongside BDSA’s Internationalism Working Group, PrAb WG proposed their chapter endorse a campaign for the city of Cambridge to divest from Hewlett-Packard in an effort to support the BDS movement against Israel. The chapter passed a two-tiered endorsement. They signed as paper endorsers for the campaign and committed to send members to work on it. Their work included phonebanking and attending campaign meetings. Unfortunately, the campaign didn’t succeed in getting Cambridge to divest from HP. Zoey MM. reflects on the loss with hope for future struggles: “The resolution for Cambridge to divest from HP was supposed to go to a hearing on 4/23. However, in the lead-up to the hearing, right-wing pro-Israel groups conducted a long, malicious campaign against the resolution, sending propaganda materials to local residents, and also pressuring city council members against both hearing the resolution and voting for it. Three of the city councilors who were originally supportive of the resolution (including one who had been DSA endorsed) became opposed to it, effectively guaranteeing that the resolution would not pass the council. The hearing was postponed, and the original proposal was watered down to encompass divesting from all companies committing human rights violations, with no mention of Israel, Palestine or HP. These developments represented a loss for the campaign, and also exposed some of the weaknesses in our local’s electoral work: namely rushing to endorse candidates when we have no established accountability mechanisms in place that would ensure they adhere to organizational demands and positions.
On the more positive side, Boston DSA was able to build connections, solidarity and trust with the Massachusetts Against Hewlett-Packard campaign, thanks in no part to our endorsed politicians and in all part to our dedicated members who put in hours of work and commitment to the campaign. We have hopefully built a foundation from which we can work together on other BDS projects, as well as continue to promote education about the interconnections between American and Israeli imperialism and carceral control.”
Currently PrAb WG is working on two campaigns, Massachusetts Ballots Over Bars and Court Watch. Ballots Over Bars is a program run by the Emancipation Initiative where people outside of prison donate their votes to incarcerated people. Since BDSA on paper has about 1000 members, this campaign offers an easy way to participate in chapter activities to members who aren’t as directly or consistently involved as the members of PrAb WG, utilizing BDSA’s latent capacity. Court Watch is a program led by a variety of organizations including ACLU Massachusetts and Massachusetts Bail Fund. The program sends volunteers to take notes on the actions of judges and prosecutors in court. The goal is to identify the realities of courtroom procedures, its racial disparities and over-prosecution, so judges and DA’s can be held accountable. Eliza, who’s on BDSA’s steering committee and a member of DSA’s Refoundation Caucus, shares her experience as a court watcher: “Court Watch is honestly extremely draining. Watching the prosecutors, public defenders, and judges joke to each other while defendants are left completely confused about the process is horrible. Judges in MA are banned from requiring cash bail amounts that defendants cannot afford, yet I’ve seen judges repeatedly require houseless people to pay $5000 just to return to their lives while they await trial for doing things like stealing a snack from a convenience store.”
I asked the BDSA members I interviewed what wins or failures they think came from the prison abolition campaigns. Jess L. responded, “For me, this comes back to political education and coalition building. To effectively do abolitionist organizing you have to have a firm grasp of both theory and the local material conditions. A project that works in one location will not necessarily work in another. While there are fantastic abolitionist projects going on all over the place and it’s important to learn from the work that comrades do around the globe, it’s essential that we stop to analyze the material conditions under which we’re trying to organize. In that sense, coalition building has been an essential part of the work that PrAb has done over the past year. Our coalition partners have been doing radical abolitionist work for much longer than our working group has existed, and have been thinking about these problems for much longer than we have.
As socialists and prison abolitionists, our job is to combine this knowledge and use it to drive discussions and plans for what DSA’s contribution to prison abolition can be. We can’t effectively organize without an understanding of local material conditions and a dialectical process that engages how our actions will be shaped by the conditions and how the conditions should shape our actions. Without taking the time to do this analysis, we will inevitably replicate the neoliberal and capitalist conditions under which we currently live.”
What can we take away from the work and reflection of our comrades in BDSA? Coalition building can connect a DSA chapter to existing campaigns. These campaigns can serve as entry points for a chapter to engage in a protracted struggle for prison abolition. We organize where we live, so we need to learn the particular needs and opportunities our local material conditions present. Any endorsed representative is susceptible to right-wing lobbying, but even in defeat we should remain tenacious in the fight for socialism and prison abolition. There are options outside of electoral politics that can bring your chapter closer to the oppressed and exploited people we’re fighting to liberate. This last lesson is especially important, because without organizing with oppressed and exploited people our movements won’t be liberatory. Conclusion
My goal with this essay is not to categorically answer the endorsement question. Instead, my aim is to provide the theoretical tools needed for any organization to begin to answer it for themselves. Hopefully, we’ll rethink how best to utilize endorsement as a tactic. In cases like that of Geneviéve Jones-Wright, endorsement appears as DSA asking mostly its own members to support mildly progressive candidates. Socialists should engage in ruthless criticism of all that exists. We shouldn’t be afraid to not endorse the most progressive candidate in the race, and instead should point out exactly where these candidates’ platforms fail. At the same time, if your chapter thinks entering an election as socialists will allow you to raise consciousness, increase capacity, and start other fights, then you should think about electoral work with the goal of advancing class struggle in mind. Revolutionaries can’t merely beg for reforms which, without a mass socialist movement, are essentially temporary. Endorsement is one tactic among many we need to consider in the fight for socialism, but to have tunnel-vision about progressive candidates will lead us to a losing strategy. We have a world to win, not an election.
Recently, a letter was submitted to the Steering Committee expressing concerns around the dynamics of online voting in the chapter, and whether it should be permissible for members to vote on endorsements outside the framework of a live (streamed or in-person) General Meeting. The letter made several points against online voting, and by extension all remote voting, as creating a inherently capitalistic, inferior framework. Beyond responding to points made in the document, I fundamentally disagree with the idea that allowing an online vote is an inferior framework when it is simply inherently a more democratic framework. The purpose of this essay is not necessarily to provide a point-by-point refutation of arguments outlined in the letter, but to advocate that online/absentee voting is an inherently superior framework than only voting on the floor, and one we should work to adopt in our chapter.
I believe that any framework which prioritizes the ease of voting is a superior framework.
I believe that any framework which allows for secret balloting is a superior framework.
I believe that the rank-and-file, and by extension the working-class, does not need to be grounded in socialist theory to know what is correct practice for a mass movement.
Voting procedures in our organization cannot be seen as in isolation and independent of the history and context of voting outside our organization. Voting procedures can either create a democratic, diverse, and open organization, or an anti-democratic, narrow, hierarchical one. And every step between a voter and a vote is a barrier we should strive to demolish.
Only allowing those who attend a General Meeting to vote is a barrier. We should work to demolish it.
Town Meetings: The Problems With Live Frameworks
Have you ever been to a town meeting?
Town Meetings are an annual event in rural New England towns where municipal officers are elected and budgets are approved. They typically happen in springtime. Citizens from all over gather to debate and vote, usually using Robert’s Rules, and in a few scant hours the vast majority of the town’s business is sorted out.
Many towns do not use Town Meetings anymore. There’s a simple reason for that – they are undemocratic and uphold a narrow range of (usually moneyed) interests. “In more modern times, New England Town Meetings have suffered a drop in attendance attributable to the increase in town size… While their purpose continues to be the granting of an open, impartial forum for public opinion, John Gastil notes that meetings are less ‘open’ than they used to be; composed primarily of stakeholders and invited guests.”
My own town meeting had maybe two or three hundred participants, representing a town of over 9,000 citizens. Around 3% of our entire town crammed into an auditorium to decide the business of everyone who lives there. Town Meetings occur in the evening, on a Tuesday, right after a 9–5 work day, and my city had limited public transit.
This meant our Town Meetings were almost exclusively white middle-class landowners, most of them childless, often seniors. They decided the school budget. They decided who ran the town. And they ran the town for middle-class, childless landowners, and not for people who couldn’t make it to town meetings because they had work, children, or lack of access to transit. Even if every member of my town could have made it to such a meeting, there wouldn’t be a venue to accommodate them all or a way to fairly distribute debate time.
Town Meetings have largely been abandoned as a forum for voting for this and other reasons. We should follow their lead and seek to minimize and supplement the use of “on the floor” votes whenever possible. Town Meetings, are — to be sure — representative of people who care about the town. If you care about the town, you are unusually incentivized to go to a huge meeting once a year on a Tuesday night. But they’re also representative of people who have access to time and money. That is not working-class people, it is not people with children, and it is not people with accessibility concerns of any kind.
It’s about Accessibility — Everyone’s Accessibility
A DSA General Meeting is essentially a Town Meeting, held more often and at, perhaps, a slightly better time. Once a month, members gather in DSA to do the business of DSA. Like a Town Meeting, we have the excitement and vitality of live debate.
But there are very real barriers to General Meeting attendance. It incentivizes people who have at least two hours–often more–to burn, usually on a weekend. General Meetings typically occur at times that are accessible for DSA’s largest contingent, which is young (usually white) college students and professionals. Weekends and occasional weekday nights are viable for those who work a typical 9–5 job or have daily classes. Many do not — and typically working or lower class occupations fall into this category. Over one in 10 US jobs are retail jobs, and these by nature require workers to be on the job when other people aren’t. Their shifts are unpredictable, their time-off is unpaid, and their hours are cut if they decline shifts at peak hours. Some subsistence work such as call centers require workers to be in the office on the second shift from around 4pm to midnight, so if your GMs are on a weekday night, you’ve cut off another portion of attendees.
General Meetings, especially on weekends, are set up to be ideal for those who do not have to worry about the reproductive labor of caring for children. Many DSA chapters, including my own Boston DSA, have made strides in providing child watch — a huge step up from early meetings when parents had no options. But a General Meeting still asks a parent to make time to vote in-person, time they may want to spend with their child — especially if they are separated, working more than forty hours, or have plans for social events with or for their children.
Even if you don’t have a retail job, a second shift occupation, or limited time with your family, most other activist work occurs during these hours. Our annual bylaw amendment vote occurred during “The March for Our Lives.” If members wanted to participate in our bylaw process, they were asked to pass on one of the largest, most youth oriented, and vital mass protests in the last forty years. The ask of DSA Membership was “You can either participate in an absolutely historic activist event — whether you’re there to join in or give more critical support — or you can exercise your right to give input on the way in which we run your chapter.” To ask members to prioritize bylaw amendments over such a landmark event gives lie to the idea that attendance at a meeting is the best way to build socialism. If we purport to be an organization dedicated to overturning the oppressive structures of capitalism, we must allow members a say in our day-to-day administrative work without forcing them to sacrifice the political work of building socialism.
A Praxis of Privilege
Even beyond all of these individual reasons why in-person only votes are inaccessibile, it is the highest principle of democracy and accessibility that voting be as absolutely accessible as possible, for any person and by any avenue, for any reason. This is a principle that goes beyond what any one person’s accessibility needs might be and echoes a higher principle of what we mean when we talk about accessible voting. When we talk about accessible voting, we are not just talking about those who work, those who have children, or those who have other commitments. We are talking about the fundamental belief that voting is something we should strive to make as easy for anyone to accomplish as it is to read a ballot. When we look at the measures we support in voting, historically, the more voting expands, the more it represents working-class interests.
This core principle of voting is violated in the Town Meeting example, where the intent may not be to limit participation to privileged actors but the effect is to do so. Even with the limited set of accessibility examples above, it’s clear that those accessibility barriers move far beyond just those above but to everyone in the chapter. If the argument is that this does not matter, that it is more important to empower the voice of the minority who may better know or understand the contours of the debate, we have to ask ourselves how such barriers in the past have been used under similar rhetoric to nefarious ends. Indeed, one low point of the socialist movement was when the American Federation of Labor in the late 1800s argued for literacy tests for the ostensible reasons of ensuring an educated and informed electorate, when such reasoning actually had to do with the AFL’s desire to shut working class immigrants out of voting and prioritize english-speaking union members. Voter ID laws and barriers to and automatic voter registration use similar rhetoric that those who really want to or really deserve to vote will take the pains it requires to vote or won’t be impacted. Time and time again in history we see that calls — be they motivated by pure reasons or not — to limit voting to educated actors have the effect of suppressing working-class voters. (source)(source)(source)(source)
Even if we try to make the argument that the effect of mass participation without educational barriers leads to uninformed and anti-socialist choices — unrooted in the important understanding of socialist theory — the vast majority of actual outcomes of mass voting outside the dynamic of in-person or limited voting show that even “uninformed” working-class voters understand the interests of a mass, pro-worker movement. Australia’s implementation of compulsory voting increased turnout by 24%, but more importantly, it significantly increased the share of Labor party seats in the AU, who had a pro-union and socialist platform (source) (source). While I prefer incentivized voting because of the potential regressive implications of a punitive compulsory voting system, the function of having “uninformed” voters vote was to encourage more people to engage with the process and ultimately make choices that reflect the interests of a mass working-class base.
A Socialist Aristocracy
Much of this is uncontroversial within the base of DSA — I am sure that it is most likely uncontroversial with those who have raised concerns with online voting. But these comrades would argue that these are national questions, working within the framework of a liberal system, under liberal rules, and we should not reflect them. We are trying to create an organization that works beyond such capitalistic structures and engages people collectively in a mass movement where there is a robust, vital exchange of live ideas.
We do not exist outside of a capitalist framework. Even if you believe a live debate is the ideal socialist framework, we must construct the best democracy we can right now, in this moment, in the context of an oppressive, capitalist framework, and everything we have learned in that framework tells us that more votes and ease of voting means more working-class power. Rosa Luxemburg said, “Socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy… Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses.” We cannot wait for some theoretically liberal framework to be overthrown before we open the doors of DSA to the rank-and-file who cannot come to a meeting. We cannot create some collective decision-making process in our organization ungrounded in the material circumstances of workers that are occurring right now. We must aggressively increase participation to the people in whatever avenue we can, and we cannot create a walled garden of what we want such a system to look like in which only those able to be contained inside are given a voice and are able to tend to the tenets of socialism. We must open our doors to the masses outside, and we must allow them to grasp the promise of a socialist future and participate in our organizing in whatever way they can.
Some may feel that online votes and secret ballots are a hopelessly liberal framework; that we cannot create a socialist organization with a vote that is not live and social, and such a vote has no democratic vitality. I categorically reject such thinking. A mass movement consists of mass input ,and just like socialism encourages us to organize the many for the common good, we organize individual voices collectively for a mass movement where everyone is given the opportunity to express their say — and we then join their voices together to determine the collective road for socialism.
Secret votes have important features that go beyond simply allowing mass input. Systems which uphold that a live vote is a democratic ideal have not wrestled with deeply problematic social dynamics that live votes foster. A movement’s votes should be honest votes of conscience grounded in the ability of members or caucuses to inspire a mass movement and convince rank-and-filers of theory and strategy. But in-person voting actively undermines votes of conscience. One of the most famous experiments of psychology, the Asch experiment, showed how, when presented with verifiably and objectively false information, people will often go with the answer of the group due to the fear of social retribution. This experiment spoke to deep human fears about rejection and censure for heterodox ideas. We cannot base socialism on a system which may be built on a consensus extracted through fear rather than unfettered votes of conscience. And we cannot echo, even unintentionally, a punitive, capitalistic framework of “justice” to enforce the behavior of rank-and-file. Whatever the noble goals of a consensus decision making process, the impact of such systems is inherently to enshrine dynamics of shame, power, and control. There is nothing inherently anti-consensus about online “paper” ballots, which allow rank-and-file to vote their conscience and then use that vote to arrive at a collective decision, rather than arriving at a false consensus based on potentially dishonest votes made from fear.
Those who want to use live votes to create a dynamic where we are echoing a theoretical dynamic of socialism — one where members are exposed to a certain socialist praxis — may arguably echo a different attitude than liberal frameworks. Instead, they are echoing an aristocratic framework — an even older, more regressive political framework — that sees certain groups as having a superior ability to engage in decision-making through the basis of their education. Such frameworks have been used to oppress working-class people for thousands of years by enshrining a meritocratic ideal that certain people are just better than others because they have the correct amount of information about the business of running a government. It is an ideal that liberal frameworks have used to enshrine this regressive meritocratic idea that only the highly educated ought to have the right to decide the business of government. It is a framework reflected everywhere from the Roman Senate to modern calls that neoliberal Democrats are more “experienced” or educated and therefore inherently deserving of power. (source), (source, pp30), (source), (source).
We do not “know better” than people without socialist theory, and we do not need a framework that requires people to engage membership with socialist praxis in order to vote. From the Diggers to the Paris Commune, working-class people have understood perfectly well what is wrong with society without the banner of Marxist theory to guide them.
We’re all Paper Members
Those who argue against online voting imply that there is some difference between a paper member and a “live” member — between those who “only” pay their dues and engage in our work in a more piecemeal fashion rather than attending General Meetings. These “paper members” may engage in DSA through reading online and engaging in socialist theory through articles or Slack, going to individual workshops or canvasses, going only to Working Group meetings, or attending General Meetings infrequently. But even the act of signing on to become a dues-paying member is a commitment to the project of socialism. That is a commitment that every member of DSA shares, and all of them have differing and yet similar ideas of how to fulfill the promise of socialism. And it is something — perhaps even the only thing — that all of us share. The moment before we walk into the doors of a GM we are all paper members, and the moment after we walk out we are all paper members, engaging in socialism when we can, where we can, how we can. To make a discrete difference between a member because they have walked into a room is not the work of socialism. It is the work of elitism, and there is no room for elitism in the socialist project.
Katherine I., EWG Co-Chair (liaison to the Membership)
Co-Signed Robbie H., EWG Co-Chair (liaison to the Membership)