Portland Debates How to Build a Party

Bernie rally in Phoenix, Arizona | Photo by Gage Skidmore

Should socialists form a new political party? Portland DSA recently hosted a political education event that offered three possible answers.

The Question of a Socialist Party” was a virtual panel featuring a representative from each of the chapter’s three officially recognized ideological caucuses: Bread & Roses, Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC), and Red Caucus. Our goal as the event planning committee, an ad hoc committee of the Political Education Working Group, was to bring a hotly debated topic away from the hostility of online discourse and into a space of serious and enjoyable face-to-face political education where different perspectives could be directly compared.

We began planning a month in advance, first asking caucuses to appoint a speaker to represent them. We selected a moderator who would be perceived as relatively impartial: a respected chapter member not affiliated with any caucus. With his help, we devised the moderator’s questions and sent them to panelists ahead of time. In fact, there was so much enthusiasm for this event that caucuses had already been meeting to develop their positions on the topic.

The event opened with brief statements from the three panelists, after which our moderator asked: 1) Who would be in your party or non-party coalition, and how would you earn their participation?, 2) How would you avoid the pitfalls of either unsuccessful third parties or the absence of a party?, and 3) What should the party or non-party formations do and advocate for?

This laid the foundation for more specific questions from the audience via the Zoom webinar Q&A box. We also encouraged the audience to engage in comradely (and closely moderated) discussion using the chat box.

The Positions

The Red Caucus representative advocated forming a local Socialist Party ballot line for Oregon state legislature and some municipal and county elections, which could then later join with other local socialist parties to form a national party. The idea would be to use the party to propagandize and gradually win supporters. The LSC representative said they are “neutral” on the position of party formation in favor of other endeavors, such as mutual aid and neighborhood associations. Bread & Roses advocated a “dirty break” with the Democratic Party: using the Democratic ballot line to run insurgent candidates who are independent of the Democratic Party structure now (or to run as independents when appropriate), with the aim of building toward a new party in the future.

We knew that the major objections to a dirty break would have to do with past failures of associating with the Democratic Party and the question of a timeline. The arguments we heard during the debate were:

  1. In practice, there is no difference between realignment (transforming the DP) and a dirty break.
  2. Socialists in the Democratic Party always succumb to their toxic influence because Dems co-opt everything and demand loyalty.
  3. Socialists that run in the Democratic Party funnel resources and voters into the Dems, not DSA.
  4. Associating with the Dems muddies any sort of antagonistic stance; the message is confusing.
  5. Socialists that run in the Democratic Party will discourage some potential supporters because they hate the Dems.
  6. DSA is an activist organization, not a suitable party surrogate.
  7. Dirty break lacks a coherent timeline and benchmarks for determining when we should form a party.

As our caucus reflected on the debate, many of us agreed that we should especially take seriously #7 (“If not now, when?”) and attempt to address it more comprehensively in the future. Our feeling is that the sentiment “new party now” has the comfort of certainty without actually grappling with the issues we raised, such as abysmal union density and the two-party duopoly. Is there an objective measure we can point to for when it will be time to found a new party? Thirty percent union density like Canada had when the New Democratic Party was formed? Twenty socialists in Congress? 1 million DSA members?

Another point of disagreement was the role of unions. Encouragingly, all the panelists said they support the Rank-and-File Strategy, but Red Caucus and LSC were more bearish on the prospect of involving large unions with conservative leadership in party formation, arguing that, like the Dems, they cannot be reformed.

Over 100 people attended the panel, and dozens of others watched it livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube, making it the most successful virtual event our chapter has ever had. Many chapter members, including all of the panelists and the planning committee, said that they learned a lot and looked forward to repeating the format on another topic. Our local Bread & Roses caucus members agreed that we now have a better understanding of how to best represent our positions to other socialists as well as the points of disagreement and unity with our comrades.